This is one of the most wonderful works of literary fiction that I have ever read. The plot is described thus on the back of the book: "During the course of a single night, Father Sebastian Urratia Lacroix, a Chilean priest who is a ember of Opus Dei, a literary critic and a mediocre poet, relives some of the crucial events of his life. He believes he is dying, and in his feverish delirium various characters, both real and imaginary, appear to him as icy monsters, as if in sequences from a horror film. Among them are the great poet Pablo Neruda, the German novelist Ernt Junger, and General Augusto Pinochet - whom Father Lacroix instructs in Marxist doctrine - as well as various members of the Chilean intelligentsia whose lives, during a period of political turbulence, have touched his own." Not uninteresting, that's for sure.
There is no comparing Bolano's use of language in story telling to anyone else. The language is utterly unique; satirical, lyrical and full of wit. The imagery Bolano uses almost makes the reader part of the story, it feels as if you are seeing and feeling what Lacroix is. Reading the book felt a little bit like being part of a waterfall. The words flowed so rapidly that it was hard to lose control as you were swept along in it's flow. At first, I actually found very challenging to focus on the story. I found that my mind wandered onto other things, in much the same way as the story wandered between the past and the present. As I got used to the language, though, I was able to sink deeper into the story and really appreciate the language.
This is a book about many things; but I would argue that it is largely about literature and the literary establishment. Lacroix is a priest, but he sees himself more as a literary critic and poet. He places little focus on his religious calling in his rememberings, instead recounting his experiences with famous literary critic Farewell, poet Pablo Neruda, author Ernst Junger and his experiences at the home of aspiring author Maria Canales.
Bolano is incredibly critical of the literary establishment in Chile, and Chilean literary tradition, although he is clearly in awe of Pablo Neruda. Bolano's critique is more aimed at the literary establishments complicity in Pinochet's regime. These people see themselves as artists and progressives, but offer no resistance to the violence and conservatism of Pinochet's regime.
Throughout his delirious ramblings, Lacroix talks to a "wizened youth" who if often present in his mind. It never clear exactly who this wizened youth is, but I believe that is a younger version of himself, and his ramblings are really Lacroix attempting to justify his own complicity with the Pinochet regime. The story begins:
"I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. The wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peach. There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up."In my mind, that wizened youth is that little voice at the back of all of our heads, telling us those things that we don't want to hear. Lacroix needs to convince himself, against the whisperings of that voice, that he has nothing to repent for.
Despite his direct participating in Pinochet's regime, by teaching Pinochet and his Generals about the Marxist doctrine, he tries to justify his behaviour by trying to convince the reader (and himself) that he always attempted to hold himself apart from politics. The following quote is a long one, but describes how he experienced Allende's time in government:
"... and then a pro-Allende general was killed, and Chile restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and the national census recorded a total of 8,884,746 Chileans and the first episodes of the Chilean soap opera The Right to be Born were broadcast on television, and I read Tyrtaios of Sparta and Archilochos of Paros and Solon of Athens... and the government nationalised the copper mines and then the nitrate and steel industries and Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize and Diaz Casaneueva won the National Literature Prize and Fidel Castro came on a visit and many people thought he would stay and live in Chile forever... and the first anti-Allende march was organised, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies..., and in Chile there were shortages and inflation and black marketeering and long queues for food... and the Bureau of Women's Affairs was set up and Allende went to Mexico and visited the seat of the United Nations in New York... and I read Thucydides... and there were strikes and the colonel of a tank regiment tried to mount a coup, and a cameraman recorded his own death on film, and then Allende's naval aide-de-camp was assassinated and there were riots, swearing, Chileans blaspheming, painting on walls, and then nearly half a million people marched in support of Allende, and then came the coup d'etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last".He is almost trying too hard to convince us and himself that he is, as he puts it, "on the side of history", that we really see that this a man who knows that he has things to repent.
Ultimately, there are two things about this book that make it a work of art. It is a a literary masterpiece (in my opinion), with an entirely unique style and lyrical use of language. It is also a political critique of the complicity of the literary establishment in the brutal Pinochet regime.
What kind of read is this?
Challenging, but compulsive. It is poignant and the language is so beautiful and unique that you will never read another books like it (unless it is another work by Bolano).
Do I recommend this book?
Without any hesitation, this is a book for true book lovers and people who really appreciate the use that language can be put to.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
Yes. I borrowed it from the library, and know that I will have to buy myself a copy so that I can re-read it again and again.