The late left-wing, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile has a longer rejoinder to the memes about what a fascist is. Father Urrutia is on his deathbed and for the most part recounts a life of thwarted literary ambitions, religious devotion, and rubbing shoulders with the powerful, and I don’t know if I would have called Urrutia villainous if I didn’t know about the second half of the story. His support for the Pinochet regime just sort of creeps up as Chile lurches toward dictatorship. And it is hard to get around the conclusion that he has participated in something both banal and monstrous: teaching Pinochet and his underlings about Marxism and rubbing shoulders with death squads while looking back on it all with disbelief and a sense that he has simply slipped on the banana peel of circumstance.
Bolaño manages the trick of condensing an entire life into a slim and funny volume that feels eerily and beautifully at odds with thousands of books that seem designed to be turned into screenplays. Summarizing life is hard, and the author successfully performs the dance of showing us a man who is both highly intelligent and despicably deluded in a way that only a book can manage, months in a sentence, years in a page shifting between the concrete and lyrical abstraction. Certain episodes shine through the flow of decades: Urrutia’s research tour to Europe to see how churches there control their pigeon populations with birds of prey, his relationship with a mentor with a largely unstated and creepily predatory component, and then there is the recurrence throughout the story of an apparition referred to only as “the wizened youth” in passages that are so elegant they seem as though they have to be genuine, though maybe I can face the fact that that’s simply another way of saying I couldn’t have written it.