Bolaño’s novella is a vicious 130-page attack on the hypocrisy and pretension of literary society in 1970s and 1980s Chile. The book is narrated as a deathbed self-confession by a Chilean priest and literary critic, Father Urrutia, who affirms at the start that his “silences are immaculate”, before embarking on a tale of moral compromise that spans several decades of Chile’s tumultuous recent history. This is a period that is particularly sensitive to the author, who is said to have returned to Chile in 1973, a month before Pinochet seized power, whereupon he was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and held for eight days before being rescued by two prison guards he happened to know. The satirical guns of By Night in Chile are, however, trained on that part of Chilean society that neglected its duty to observe, report and criticise the escalating political situation, and instead decided to indulge in what Bolaño portrays as a sort of febrile decadence that was brutally exposed after the fall of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
The novella takes the form of a single paragraph, written as a stream-of-consciousness monologue describing various episodes of Father Urrutia’s life as a man of the cloth and member of Chile’s literary establishment. These episodes build an incremental culpability, beginning with sexual indiscretion and culminating in various forms of collusion with the Pinochet government; Urrutia is for the most part strategically placed at the fringes of the horror of what he is a witness to, allowing him to disingenuously plead that his hands are still clean as he nears his death. This purported innocence is challenged by the shadowy figure of the ‘wizened youth’, who is accused by Urrutia of having spread “slanderous rumours … to sully my name.” In actual fact, this mythical antagonist plays a passive role, and is used by the confessor as an imaginary interlocutor, presumably so that he can avoid having to make a real confession to a living priest. This adds to the surrealism that runs through the novella, due in part to the format of the writing and in part to the sense of near-death delirium that Urrutia creates at the outset (although the reader wonders whether perhaps this is just more special pleading).
In shamelessly taking on Chile’s literary establishment, and several characters in the novel are clearly based on real people, Bolaño puts himself in an awkward position as a novelist. Indeed, part of the moral outrage at the heart of the novella stems from a sense that literature can often be held in excessive esteem. This is brilliantly conveyed in an episode of the book describing several meetings in Paris during the Nazi occupation between Ernst Jünger and the Chilean writer Salvador Reyes. Here, Bolaño creates an overwhelming sense of literary aloofness by having the two writers perpetually discuss each other’s novels in the company of a starving painter, while Paris burns in the background. This sort of aggressive imagery infuses the entire novella, and by using it so liberally the author manages to circumvent the obvious accusation that he is just another aloof writer, and in doing so reclaims his own sense of what it means to be a novelist, that is, someone who never turns his back on reality.