Monday, June 29, 2009

By Night in Chile - Bolano

For those who believe in the Day of Judgment, the day of death is for making atonements. Even those who have different beliefs seem to feel a compulsion to explain their lives on the deathbed. I remember vaguely (or maybe it is only a romantic imagination) the last few words from the only two people I have seen close to death (not on their last days). Their words were incoherent, their eyes constantly focused on a distant point, which I like to believe were moments running from their lives. There were some regrets there, and a couple of confessions. None of them dramatic, but only to find freedom from some unnecessary weights carried for years.
Contrary to those words, the last words of Bolano’s priest (Urrutia) are very coherent. They are said for a purpose. Like others, he begins to speak to make atonements for his mistakes, but the atonements quickly relegate to justifications. Urrutia is a member of Chilean intelligentsia who has turned a blind eye to the happenings within his state, and given it’s tacit approval to the atrocities of General Pinochet. Through the memoirs of this spineless, opportunist priest, Bolano sketches the complicity and unconcern of this intelligentsia, which stands and holds literary parties above a torture chamber for prisoners, gives personal lessons to Pinochet and his team of barbarians, and remains sullenly silent against the crimes of the government.
In the priest’s feverish deathbed expressions, there often appears his nemesis: ‘the wizened youth’. The Wizened youth is either Urrutia’s moral self, challenging him to rise beyond his selfish interests or it is Bolano himself, criticizing the old literati who sit on their posteriors, while the country goes through turmoil. It is to this youth that Urrutia offers his peace speech – alternating between guilty confessions and defensive arguments for his complicity. In real life, Bolano admitted to being less than impressed with the Chilean or Latin American literature, which he perhaps perceived to be escaping into magic realism while ignoring the realities. This book is believed to be his stark criticism of the literary world, particularly singling out Pablo Neruda.
By making Urrutia a member not just of the literati, but also of Opus Dei, Bolano also indirectly blames the church for lending a strong support to an authoritarian government. The Church support itself is not surprising, considering the history of Opus Dei with Franco’s barbarian regime in Spain. Yet, to draw priests so shamelessly hand in glove with a killer, is a strong statement. In one part of the book, Urrutia travels to different European churches, and runs a long commentary about churches decaying with pigeon droppings and falconry. Such is the concern of the church, and of a literary critic.
It is an excellent work. One completely different from The Savage Detectives, the only other Bolano I have read. Each book stands on completely different pillars, and is still linked to the other with a wonderfully strong narration and interest in real lives. I do not completely subscribe to Bolano’s criticism – literature does serve a purpose, but that purpose is not always to hold the mirror to reality. Sometimes an escape offers a respite to the reader, draws him away into a world where life can exist. Literature expands beneath and beyond the obvious, and a failure to comment on the obvious is not necessarily literature’s failure. On a more practical note, literati too have to fear for their lives. But then, we cannot negate that tragedies don't often become horrific and draw an exclaim until written about. For this, some members of the writing circles need to offer discerning voices, publish rebellious material (even though clandestine), spend sometime in prison and lead some protests. Only then they seem worthy of the adoration shown them.

6 comments:

Sunil said...

It is an interesting book. It tries to, albeit reluctantly, cautiously, to change the field of focus of a latin american ( in general) perspective. That perhaps is remarkable as it is salient.

But it is as confused ( or hesitant , I am not sure ) to offer a solution or even an alternative to the choices made by the mentioned literati. But I also know a latin american mind is not easily analytical , well not as much as , say Indian or chinese. It either strives to subverse ( civil wars, guerrilla violence) or revels with no thought for tomorrow ( bacardi?beach? sex?)
So I disagree with you letting off the literati esp. LAmerican literati, who took part in marches during day and wrote escapist poetry at night.
Why do you think L america hasnt produced a single feasible invention or innovation in last 50 years of post colonialism? ( a bit of Naipaul would answer that).
This in essence is what he is questioning. His angst is against groups like generation of 27s etc. But problem is far more deeper.

Its a salient book but incomplete. And yes, its shortest of his books, and boy he does write till the cows come home.

Jigar said...

I am not acquainted with Bolano’s writings or of the socio-political climate in Spain when the novel was written, but it appears to be an interesting read. I liked your views when you say “Literature expands beneath and beyond the obvious, and a failure to comment on the obvious is not necessarily literature’s failure.”

gyaneshwar said...

The life is too short to regret, the best way is to put a check on your doings and restrain from the wrong. Regrets can't change anything already done.

Arun Meethale Chirakkal said...

Hi,
I forgot to say thanks. Thanks a ton.
Wondering why? For the review
you wrote long back that prompted me
to get a copy of ‘A Bend in the river’ and read it.
Great indeed.

And I have already suggested that to a fellow blogger
after I read a review of ‘Gorillas’ in his blog.

S said...

That was a good introduction -especially when one did not read it..like me :)
"literature does serve a purpose, but that purpose is not always to hold the mirror to reality. Sometimes an escape offers a respite to the reader, draws him away into a world where life can exist. Literature expands beneath and beyond the obvious, and a failure to comment on the obvious is not necessarily literature’s failure."
-very well said.

parrish lantern said...

I think that one of the points bolano was making, was that art itself was culpable,quite capable of whoring itself if needed. i loved this book & the almost hallucegenic prose.