A confession is, by definition, a declaration of guilt. To confess is to disclose one’s sins and open oneself to judgment; a difficult undertaking, sure, but one that (in theory, at least) is ultimately rewarded with forgiveness, a clear conscience, a mind at ease. If so, Father Sebastián Urrutia, the narrator of Roberto Bolaño’s arresting historical novel By Night in Chile, makes a most unusual confessor. “There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up,” he begins his deathbed ramble. It soon becomes clear that the confession into which the half-delirious Chilean priest has launched–snaking through the novel’s 130 pages in a single labyrinthine paragraph–is less an admission of guilt than a guilt-ridden self-defense, alternately defiant and desperate in tone. Father Urrutia’s monologue encircles his sin without ever naming it: complicity in the murderous dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Bolaño, an acclaimed and prolific Chilean author who published nine novels, two short-story collections and five books of poetry before succumbing to liver failure last year at age 50, experienced Pinochet’s repression firsthand. In 1973 Bolaño returned to his native Chile from Mexico, where his family had moved several years earlier, to “help build socialism” under President Salvador Allende. Within a month of his repatriation, a military junta toppled Allende, installed Pinochet as leader and imprisoned thousands of pro-democracy Allendistas, including 20-year-old Bolaño.
Years later, the notoriously wry Bolaño would downplay his experience as a political prisoner, exhibiting what Chris Andrews (who translated By Night in Chile into English) has described as his gift for “corrosive, self-mocking humor.” In a 1999 interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, Bolaño deflected a question about his imprisonment, saying, “Those were monstrously happy days.” To a follow-up question about the role of Chilean writers in Pinochet’s coup–were they resisters or collaborators?–Bolaño’s answer was similarly sardonic, at once evasive and blunt: “I prefer not to give my opinion on that because I’m afraid it would be extremely cruel…and I don’t feel like being cruel this afternoon. Let’s just say that the role Chilean writers played at that moment left much to be desired.”
Which brings us back to Father Urrutia, a man of letters as well as of the cloth. Like most collaborators, Bolaño’s priest is not a particularly political animal. A solipsist and a misanthrope, Father Urrutia doesn’t much care what shape society is in, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his lifelong ambition: to nestle among Chile’s literary elite as a renowned poet and critic. Father Urrutia’s half-hearted attempts at ministry only intensify his superciliousness, to darkly comic effect. “Someone was talking to me about a sick child,” he recalls, “but with such poor diction I couldn’t tell if the child was sick or dead already. What did they need me for?”
To his chagrin, Father Urrutia’s blissful existence among the literary cognoscenti is rudely interrupted by the political upheaval of 1960s-70s Chile. When Allende is elected president, Urrutia distracts himself from the sweeping social change by re-reading the Greek classics–plunging headlong into ancient history to drown out the alarming sound of his fellow Chileans taking to the streets. In the novel’s finest passage, Urrutia’s anxiety gives way to frenzy as he recounts Allende’s dynamic three years in power. Urrutia pendulates between past and present (“I started with Homer…and then a pro-Allende general was killed”), literature and reality (“and I read Tyrtaios of Sparta…and the government nationalized the copper mines”), before breathing a sigh of relief at Pinochet’s coup d’état: “peace at last.” With the restoration of order, he is finally free to pursue his beloved art without the intrusion of politics.
Or so he imagines. Soon Father Urrutia is tapped (by colleagues from Opus Dei, the secretive Catholic organization with historic ties to the Franco dictatorship in Spain) to give lessons on Marxism to Pinochet and the junta. Urrutia will also learn, after the fact, that the Santiago literary salon he frequented during Pinochet’s rule doubled as an interrogation center, where political dissidents were routinely tortured in the basement by the hostess’s husband as the literati hobnobbed overhead.
There is, By Night in Chile conveys powerfully, simply no such thing as neutrality when it comes to regimes like Pinochet’s. When Father Urrutia is reluctant to tutor the junta, he is gently reminded by his Opus Dei recruiters that it is an offer no one can refuse. They own you, is the chilling lesson that Bolaño (whose short novel Estrella Distante, another dark tale of Pinochet-era opportunism, will soon be issued in English) imparts to us: Those who don’t actively resist brutality are bound to serve it. The price of acquiescence, as our tormented narrator knows, is one’s conscience.