By Night in Chile is a novella written in form of Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix’s deathbed confession as he portrays his current state which lacks the peace he once felt during his life. Urrutia is an elderly Chilean Catholic priest, literal critic and poet. Stories about his life interconnect with each other throughout the narrative as he critiques the power of religion and art to address political power. The book also lights on man’s notion of good and evil and the necessity of choosing justice as well as the guilt of not doing so. Against the confusion of Chile’s politics, the author unveils and criticizes the South American religion and art for not providing justice to those suffering. Robert Bolano uses birds as metaphors, creating symbolic imagery throughout the text to show how fascism in Chile was cruel and unusual to its people, birds of prey such as falcons are a depiction of those in power and of high socioeconomic status, which prey on their underprivileged counterparts, those of the working class, and your average man: the pigeon.
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Bolano and Berger uses animals to highlight how capitalism has negatively influenced human beings, ruining the natural relationship between animals and man. Animals are now viewed as economic units in the society and as Berger states, they no longer serve their “magical functions”. Today, cows are only kept for their milk and meat. Urrutia also mentions a pigsty, stable and paddocks in Farewell’s estate. Bolano describes, “The falcon stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies…and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like sunsets seen from an aero plane…like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings” (p. 72). Father Urrutia explains the very nature of falconry and argues that falcons are used in the novel by European priests to hunt pigeons and other birds who leave their droppings on churches and monuments. Urrutia compares the innocent birds who are preyed by the falcons. The elites in the church supported the rise of fascism in Latin America just to stay in power. Berger stresses how capitalism's powers have corrupted this relationship to an irreversible extent. He argues, "He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species expect man will the animal's look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look." (Page 57) Berger describes how a wild animal may look at humans in the same way as they look at another animal and without comprehension. Meaning that their view of us did not set us apart, but rather it was our view of them. Berger is correct since human beings have modified the animals’ existence into something even beyond raw material.
Bolano in the novel compares the relationship between Urrutia and Farewell with the relationship between predator and prey or the relationship between a young falcon and the falconer who trains it to hunt. As he highlights the priest’s first encounter with Farewell, Bolano compares Farewell’s voice to “the voice of a large bird of prey soaring over rivers and mountains and valleys and ravines, never at a loss for the appropriate expression” (Bolano, 4). Farewell’s home represents a hunting lodge with a dozen mounted heads bagged by his father. Farewell, a wealthy estate owner accustomed to preying on the common people, represents the intellectuals who support fascist regimes in Latin America, just as the falconer priests in Europe represent the Church’s implicit support of fascism. Farewell and Urrutia represent the rich people in Chile who exploited the peasants and Catholic church leaders who were “committed to the class structures which left most Chileans voiceless and powerless” (Boas, 23). The voiceless and the powerless represent the peasants who Farewell and Urrutia exploit. By using the metaphor of the falconer, Bolano illustrates how church leader in Chile merciless preyed on the powerless. The relationship between Farewell and Urrutia foreshadows the priest’s down fall since after meeting Farewell, he abandons his priestly mission and becomes a predator.
Using birds as a metaphor, Bolano unveils the hypocrisy of European priests and critiques the Catholic church for supporting the rise of fascism in Chile. The relationship between fascism and the church is portrayed through the relationship between the peasants and Urrutia. Bolano describes “They were all ugly. The women were ugly, and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly, and his words were incoherent. The men who were walking away were ugly and their zigzag paths were incoherent. God have mercy on me and on them. Lost souls in the desert. I turned my back on them and walked away” (Bolano 21). Although Urrutia is a priest and his schooling in Christianity taught him to love the poor, he is disgusted and alienated by the peasants on Farewell’s estate. In Bolaño’s opinion, the clergy should have aligned itself with socialists, who were in the favor of the poor but instead he kept side with Pinochet’s murderous regime. Like Urrutia, the Church failed to stand up for the poor, and under Pinochet, all were like “lost souls in the desert”. Similarly, like the bird of prey, Urrutia explores Farewell’s estate through the vineyards and fields. The comparison criticizes the church in Chile where “the Catholic Church was by far the largest owner of land” (Boas, 140). In this case, the largest predator represents the church which is a powerful force in Chile. The peasants cannot fight the church as it takes away their land. Using the metaphor of a large bird of prey and Uruttia’s actions, Bolano illustrates how the church exploits its believers. Today, poor believers have to tithe and offer other contributions to the church and church leaders enrich themselves with the money. Urrutia knew that Nerudsa was not atheist as he claimed to be, and he could use the information to persuade Farewell, but he turned his back on the peasants.
In his novel, Bolano illustrates that the church tormented the poor which was established to support the poor. Bolano talks about European priests who uses falcons to kill pigeons that tainted the church buildings with their droppings. Urrutia’s actions denote the church’s hypocrisy since during the coup, “Catholic leaders from the church decided to work with the Pinochet regime and asked Chileans to cooperate. The Catholic leaders worked with Pinochet even though he killed more than 3,000 Chileans” (Devine, 10). They choose to support a sinner and lead their followers to sin by supporting a murderer to maintain their might and wealth. In the same vein, the priest dismisses Farewell’s estate’s farmhands who sought comfort and aid from the priest. The peasants respect Urruita and treat him like an honored guest. They share their bread with him and ask him to bless a sick child. However, due to their poor diction, the priest could not understand whether the child is dead or was ill. Bolano argues, “Pigs suffer too, I said to myself…. Pigs suffer, it is true, and their pain purifies and ennobles them” (p. 63). Urrutia resented the farmhands and could not associate with them. Bolaño shows the true cruel satire of the arrogance of the priests and the elites. Urrutia is a high-class church elite and thinks that the ordinary common people are only to work for his country and keep the economy moving. He cannot see their humanity but is just able to admit to himself the idea that “Pigs suffer too. Urrutia compares to the church in Chile that abandoned the common people and supported General Pinochet for its own benefit.
Bolano uses the sport of falconry to resemble the cruelty of fascism the church’s and artists’ failure to speak truth to political power. Urrutia supported General Pinochet who organized a coup, imprisoning Chileans who supported Allende. Bolano argues, “If someone doesn’t read or study, he’s not an intellectual, any fool can see that. And what do you think Allende used to read? … Magazines. All he read was magazines. Summaries of books. Articles his followers used to cut out for him. I have it from a reliable source, believe me” (Bolano 98). Pinochet explains to Urrutia about his opinions about the late President Allende, and other politicians who are not really intellectuals. Pinochet represents himself as a falcon and calls his opponents as pigeons. His effort to portray himself as more of an intellectual than his political rivals is laughable. Urrutia’s opposed Allende who pushed for “radical changes to take land from the church and rich and redistribute it to the peasants” (Devine 25). He teaches the military junta and General Pinochet about the Marxist principles, to know about the enemy’s moves. Urrutia’s actions illustrate the inability of the society to positively influence political power. The sport of falconry presents the church and writers as falcons who prey on pigeons or the weak peasants, for their own comfort.
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Bolano criticizes the Catholic church, writers and priests for not fighting for the common people. Urrutia abandons his mission towards justice and focuses on poetry, literary criticism and art. Fascism and the unwillingness of those in power to protect the people resulted in the mistreatment of those of low socioeconomic status. The “peasants” dishearten him, and he only associates with the wealthy such as Farewell. The priest acts as a falconer, preying on common people since like Farewell, he benefits from their hard work. As such, the author gives the reader a satirical commentary on how the South American religion and art failed to provide justice for the people of Chile.
- Berger, John. "Why Look at Animals?" About Looking, Bloomsbury Publishing UK, 2009.
- Bolaño, Roberto. By Night in Chile. New Directions Publishing, 2003.
- Boas, Taylor C. "Pastors for pinochet: Authoritarian stereotypes and voting for evangelicals in Chile." Journal of Experimental Political Science 3.2 (2016): 197-205.
- Devine, Jack. "What Really Happened in Chile: The CIA, the Coup Against Allende, and the Rise of Pinochet." Foreign Aff. 93 (2014): 26.
- Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet file: A declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability. The New Press, 2016.
- Wallenstein, J. “Bolaño’s Currency and Our Own.” Raritan, vol. 34, no. 2, Fall 2014, pp. 130–142. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=99982899&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
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