He was sixteen—or maybe he was eighteen—years-old when he started stealing paperback books in Mexico City. Books by Max Beerbohm, Samuel Pepys, Amado Nervo, and others were purloined by this bookworm. It’s hard to tell which of these writers had a lasting effect on the teenager who would become one of Latin America’s literary giants.
Among the novels stolen and eagerly devoured by Roberto Bolaño was The Fall by Albert Camus, and from there:
…everything that has to do with it I remember as if frozen in a ghostly light, the still light of evening, although I read it, devoured it, by the light of those exceptional Mexico City mornings that shine—or shone—with a red and green radiance ringed by noise, on a bench in the Alameda, with no money and the whole day ahead of me, in fact my whole life ahead of me. After Camus, everything changed. (source
Everything changed after Camus? Including how he chose his themes and how he wrote about his subjects? I thought of this incident as I read Bolaño’s superb By Night in Chile—a book some (like James Wood) claim to be his greatest work—and considered how Camus’ philosophy on absurdity and struggle could be read as underpinnings for the story. For in By Night in Chile, Bolaño demands we revolt against the absurd existence, especially as manifested in immoral political institutions. And damn those who fail to join their countrymen in the struggle.
By Night in Chile, the first of Bolaño’s stories to be published in English, is the deathbed confession of poet, priest, and literary critic Father Urrutia. Propped up on one elbow, Urrutia recalls the life of a respected, but not central, figure of Chilean intellectual life, a priest and man of letters who did little to stand up to the despotism of Augusto Pinochet. The audience—the priest to this priest—is treated to an ambling narrative that includes a journey across Europe to visit priests engaged in falconry, a stint teaching Marxism to Augusto Pinochet and his lieutenants, and a warm friendship with a critic with the literary name of Farewell. (There is very little discussion of Urrutia’s priestly duties in the Opus Dei sect.) Pablo Neruda makes an appearance here and there; the first time he appears Urrutia finds the poet-god staring at the moon, “murmuring words I could not understand, but whose essential nature spoke to me deeply from the very first moment.” Several other literary figures are mentioned, but the theme remains firmly fixed on Urrutia’s atonement before he slips into the darkest of nights.1
Absurd Living Under Pinochet
A primary concern of Camus was that of the absurd life. He understood that we as sentient beings experience a life made up of several contradictions, such as the continuous search for meaning in life where there is none, as well as attempts to rationalize and understand an unknowable universe.
The philosophical conundrum at the heart of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus is that we live for the hope of tomorrow, but tomorrow brings us closer to death. The essential question, then, is why not just avoid the absurdity of this repetitive existence and get to the point? That is, why not just commit suicide?
For Camus, suicide is no answer. Instead, he suggests we find meaning and happiness in our Sisyphean tasks. Though we may be rolling a rock up a hill day after day, there is meaning to be found in that labor.
What does this have to do with By Night in Chile? For Camus, the way out of our absurd existence is to live a life of dignity. This is where Father Urrutia failed. Chile, as critic Scott Esposito notes, is the story of a guilt-ridden priest bemoaning his part in Pinochet’s regime and realizing he has not only failed his generation, but “has also failed the generation of writers that follows him.”2
Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, came to power in a coup backed by the United States. In the 17 years under his iron fist, tens of thousands of Chileans were tortured, imprisoned, and murdered. Opponents to his regime were hunted down internationally and assassinated. After his tenure Pinochet, who amassed tens of millions of dollars for personal gain, was charged in international courts for abusing human rights. He died in 2006 without facing any of the hundreds of criminal charges levied against him.
The Long Leash on Intellectuals
It was the Chilean journalist Jacob Timerman who wrote about the effect of the "long leash" on intellectuals who failed to make a concerted stance against Pinochet and his despotic governance. “Long leashes are leashes, nonetheless, especially since they rarely need to be yanked,” wrote Richard Eder in the New York Times.
It can be more destructive to the human spirit when restraints are so largely internalized. Chilean writers have depicted as an illness a condition of numbing, if not quite smiling, acquiescence. None has done it in so dark and glittering a fashion as Roberto Bolaño.
In Chile, we see exactly the quiet acquiescence which so bothers Bolaño. Urrutia rolled his rock to the top of the hill and instead of continuing with the anti-authoritarian struggle in which his countrymen were engaged, decides to sit comfortably on his high perch. Early on Urrutia is visited by two men who very easily convince the man of god to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so the despot can better know his enemies.
What do you understand? asked Mr. Raef, with a frank and friendly smile. That you require me to be absolutely discreet, I said. More than that, said Mr. Raef, much more, we require ultra-absolute discretion, extraordinarily absolute discretion and secrecy. I was itching to correct him but restrained myself, because I wanted to know what they were proposing. Do you know anything about Marxism? asked Mr. Etah, after wiping his lips with a napkin.
. . . Who are my pupils? I asked. General Pinochet, said Mr. Etah. My breath caught in my throat. And the others? General Leigh, Admiral Merino and General Mendoza, of course, who else? said Mr. Raef, lowering his voice. I’ll have to prepare myself, I said, this is not something to be taken lightly.
No, not lightly at all. The principal military coup leaders were Gustavo Leigh (who headed the air force), José Toribio Merino (who led the navy and later succeeded Pinochet), and César Mendoza (who led the Carabineros, the national police). Without so much as a second thought Urrutia accepts the offer, abandoning his Sisyphean task, the beautiful struggle. At the top of the hill in a comfortable seat with the despotic ruling elites, he does not have to fight. Who cares about the people? Comfort comes first! And so there he sits while rocks tumble down around him, crushing those he willfully ignores.
Urrutia fails to live a life of significance, and he knows this. Hence his night-long, deathbed confession, which also serves as an apology for the generations he has failed. But Urrutia was not alone in failing to live up to the struggle. His fellow intellectuals also rested when they should have been pushing rocks. “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks,” wrote Camus. “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.” In other words, it is rich with opportunity for meaning. And yet time and again under Pinochet, Chile’s intellectual vanguard chose empty paths.
In Chile, Maria Canales, married to an American (Jimmy), hosts parties for Chile’s intellectual and cultural elite. In her home is a dark secret, to which every guest has stumbled on at least once and said nothing. They return, instead, to the soiree again and again, feigning ignorance, remaining mute.
. . . he opened doors and even started whistling, and finally he came to the very last room at the end of the basement’s narrowest corridor, lit by a single, feeble light bulb, and he opened the door and saw the main tied to the metal bed, blindfolded, and he knew the man was alive because he could hear him breathing, although he wasn’t in good shape, for in spite of the dim light he saw the wounds, the raw patches, like eczema, but it wasn’t eczema, the battered parts of his anatomy, the swollen parts, as if more than one bone had been broken, but he was breathing, he certainly didn’t look like he was about to die, and then the theorist of avant-garde theater shut the door delicately, without making a noise, and started to make his way back to the sitting room, carefully switching off as he went each of the lights he had previously switched on. And months later, or maybe years later, another regular guest at those gatherings told me the same story. And then I heard it from another and another and another. And then democracy returned, the moment came for national reconciliation.3
Damn them for their moral cowardice.
Rather than capitulate to the absurd existence, Camus demands revolt. The main concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is to find a way of living life in a way that makes it worth living, despite life being meaningless. That means revolting against the meaningless or, in the case of life under Pinochet, the morally vacuous. Camus ends The Myth of Sisyphus: “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Revolt is a Sisyphean task, but it is a task worth pursuing over and over again. For how else could we find meaning—even happiness—in absurd political conditions?
- 1. This description of the novel is borrowed from my review of this book for Three Percent.
- 2. These strands may also appear in some of Bolaño's other novels. In critic Scott Esposito’s overview of four of his books, it is clear political themes dominate Bolaño’s narrative concerns. Esposito does not draw a line between Camus and Bolaño; these are my thoughts.
- 3. According to Richard Eder writing in the NYT: “In historical fact, furthermore, there was just such a couple. Mariana Callejas was the host of a salon, and torture took place in the basement. Last year her indictment was upheld in the precoup assassination of an anti-coup general, Carlos Prats. Michael Townley, her husband, had been convicted long before of the killing in Washington of Orlando Letelier, an opposition leader, and his assistant Ronni Moffit."