Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Search of the Wizened Youth

By Night in Chile
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Robert Bolaño excites my imagination not just because he writes combustive, mesmerizing prose, not only because he creates worlds so intricate that they manage to be as idealized and fantastic as they are realistic and autobiographical, not simply because his sense of humor is so wild, absurd, acrid and filthy that it feels like a guilty pleasure - no, his gifts go far beyond that, and they might be most tightly focused in this slim novella he wrote just over a decade ago. With By Night in Chile, Bolaño reveals again that for all his bitter satire, incisive political rage and opinionated lunacy, he pursues with vigor that most humane project of trying to understand the Other, to seek out the villain within himself and to reveal the souls of those he might perceive to be villainous.

At barely 130 pages, By Night in Chile is the shortest work I've read by Bolaño, and it makes an impressive case for the possibility of containing the magical boundlessness of longer works of fiction into the constraints of a novella. The story takes the form of the deathbed confession of Friar Urrutia Lacroix, and yet it travels so artfully into other lands and other minds that it never feels confined by the dying protagonist while never once losing any ounce of authenticity that it really is a deathbed confession of someone real who could have lived and breathed in Bolaño's vision of postwar Chile.

While Ernst Jünger makes an extended appearance early in the book along with Pablo Neruda (Neruda's Nobel Prize victory and death are events in the novella) and Bolaño makes casual reference to Baudelaire and a running joke about Sordello, By Night in Chile seems to engage in what some might call literary solipsism less than the other works of Bolaño I have read. For that reason, it might be a good way to start reading Bolaño for the uninitiated. Also, did I mention it's rather short?

In any case, I have become determined to read every word Bolaño has ever written, and to press his books into as many friends' hands as will accept them. I've never felt that way about an author before, save perhaps Jorge Luis Borges, but that is a slightly different case since I'm actually terrified of reading all of Borges' works because then there will be no more Borges left to read. With Bolaño, I can't feel so precious. I must read it all.

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