Wednesday, January 30, 2008

DEATHBED DIATRIBE

While on the Metro North going into and out of NYC last Monday, I read the entirety of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (2000), a great inhalation of a book. It streams into the mind as one long continuous text -- 129 pages with no paragraphing -- so much so that I would have liked the ride into Grand Central to be a little longer so I could’ve finished it at one sitting.

It’s not that text couldn’t be broken up into paragraphs, or even into chapters, but the conceit that the entire text is disgorged in reminiscence by Father Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean Jesuit priest on his deathbed, is best served by the sense of continuous present the format creates. One memory leads to another, no situation completely concludes since there is already another thought coming on the heels of what has just been narrated. There are many engaging incidents, narrated with the brio of a set-piece, that stand out from the flow, such as a part at the estate of the literary critic called Farewell, at which Pablo Neruda is a guest, or the tale Don Salvador tells of meeting Ernst Jünger at the studio of a painter wasting away in poverty, or the story of how Father Lacroix was recruited to teach the rudiments of Marxism to the likes of General Pinochet and General Mendoza.

Yet no particular incident is given dramatic or cumulative effect, rather they flow together with something of the stream of plausible but vaguely surreal circumstance that I associate with Garcia Márquez -- the tour of the churches of a series of European countries to encounter each head priest’s prized falcon, trained to kill the pigeons whose shit is causing the churches to deteriorate, is the kind of repetitive pattern of endless variation that delights the likes of Borges or Beckett or Nabokov.

The grip of Bolaño’s first-person narrative keeps the sense of revisiting the past from the view of the present at bay; for the most part, it feels more immediate than retrospect. But in the end it becomes evident how the past seals the doom of the present (the present in which Lacroix is dying in bed). It’s at the end that we get the final visit to Mariá Canales, a would-be writer who had been married to a North American gangster type called Jimmy, and who had created a rather self-serving literary salon in the very house in which brutal tortures for the Chilean secret police were taking place in the basement. The retrospective clarity – and sadness – of this final meeting creates a feeling of reminiscence that the novella had largely avoided. It suddenly seems as though the endless flow of time has come to a halt, that things which have been will be seen for what they are: not simply one person’s experiences, however unlikely or whimsical or malevolent, but a kind of gradual realization of inner necessity.

The narrator, haunted from the start by the image of “the wizened youth,” a figure who seems to be his confessor, tells us, near the end:

“The wizened youth has been quiet for a long time now. He has given up railing against me and writers generally. Is there a solution? That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him. The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips, mouthing an inaudible no. The power of my thought has stopped him. Or maybe it was history. An individual is no match for history. The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.”

This admission is as close as Fr. Lacroix comes to admitting that his role has always been one of lackey, instrument of a history of duplicity, condemned by “the wizened youth” who stands for all the hopes betrayed, the sense – in youth – that things could be otherwise than they are, or were, combined with the inevitable cynicism of age which knows that things could not be otherwise because what we are derives from what has been.

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