If, like me, your knowledge of Chile is confined to a few names: Pinochet, Allende, Neruda, you will be as lost as I was in understanding a great deal of the context of Roberto Bolano’s novella. In one hundred and thirty pages, in one paragraph, the priest, Father Sebastian Lecroix, in his dying hours, looks back over his life. No longer at peace with his life, he seems to feel obliged to justify himself, to counter ‘the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name.’
And that wizened youth sneaks through this book, always an unwanted vision but always offering another view of events.
Another shadow that appears is that of his father,
…my father’s shadow slipping away down the corridors of the house as if it were a weasel, a ferret or to employ more appropriate simile, an eel in an inadequate container.
His epigraph, taken from G K Chesterton, gives some clue as to what he is up to
Take off your wig.
A kind of unmasking or stripping bare is at work here, an unmasking of all the compromises Father Sebastian has made, of the compromises the literary establishment in Chile has made, of the compromises the Catholic Church has made, of the compromises America has made.
Father Sebastian is a literary critic and also a poet. He recalls his first visit to La-Bas the country estate of his patron, the influential critic Farewell. He allows Farewell’s hand on his hip, but it seems no more.
…it was the super-I driving a refrigerated truck down the middle of a road engulfed in flames, while the id groaned and rambled on…
He tries to justify himself
I wrote articles. I wrote poems. I discovered poets. I praised them…I was probably the most liberal member of the Opus Dei in the whole republic. The wizened youth is watching from a yellow street corner and yelling at me…He is saying I belong to Opus Dei. I have never hidden that I say.
His account of his recruitment to Opus Dei, a secretive internal group within the Catholic Church, and the job he is required to do is highly amusing. He is approached by two functionaries, Mr Reaf and Mr Etah (spell their names backwards) and is asked to travel around Europe to study methods used to free church buildings from the scourge of pigeon shit. Here is one incident
We went in the parish van. The falcon travelled in a box. When we reached our destination, Fr Pietro took the falcon out and flung it up into the sky. I saw it fly and swoop down on a pigeon and I saw the pigeon shudder as it flew.
Later Opus Dei has another job for him to do, educating General Pinochet and his staff in the teachings of Marxism. He is sworn to secrecy about this, but confides in his friend Farewell and in no time, it is all over Santiago. But he discovers no one cares. He justifies it to himself
Sooner or later everyone would get their share of power again. The right, the centre and the left, one big happy family.
This is a remarkable book, and as is my usual practice, I cannot disclose the end.
The language is poetic and obscure. I was struggling at times. When I turned to Other Gert, who recommended this for one of my Great Reads of the Year she said one word ‘Allegory.’
Since reading Bolano’s book I have read more about the history of Chile, the American involvement there, Pablo Neruda (a wonderful poet and an unpleasant man is the impression I’m left with) and am a little clearer about the allegorical aspects of the book. But mainly what I am left with is the impression of a superb poet at the height of his powers.
…On a path winding through the fields I could make out two farmers wearing straw hats, who disappeared into some willows. Beyond the willows stood very tall trees that seemed to be drilling into the majestic, cloudless sky. And further off still rose the great mountains. I said the Lord’s Prayer. I shut my eyes. What more could I have wanted? Well perhaps the murmur of a stream. The pure song of water on stones.
To read an informed review of this book read this review on Biblioklept
For my next Great Read I am off to Japan and Haruki Murakami. I may be gone for some time.