Portrait of Evil

By Night in Chile BY Roberto Bolano, Chris Andrews. New Directions Publishing Corporation. Paperback, 144 pages. $13.

The cover of By Night in Chile

I’m not sure Roberto Bolaño would have lent himself comfortably to assigning comparative degrees of evil, but if we just want to name a developed portrait of evil from the past twenty years, his narrator in By Night in Chile (2000) would certainly qualify. This character is a conservative priest, a pillar of the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, who is also, under a pseudonym, one of the most famous and influential literary critics of his day. He dines with the great and the near-great, travels through Europe to investigate falconry techniques among the priesthood, and otherwise engages with the world, though sometimes he also holes up in his study reading St. Augustine, Robert Burton, and the more obscure Greeks. Shortly after the 1973 coup, he is approached by two mysterious men (their names spell hate and fear backwards) who ask him to teach a short course in Marxism to some very private clients—namely, Pinochet and a few of his generals. Midway through the ten-week course, Pinochet takes the priest aside and boasts that he himself is really much more of an intellectual and a much better writer than Salvador Allende ever was. During the same post-coup period, the priest-critic also begins attending a private literary salon run by a well-to-do aspiring writer named María Canales, who—because the curfews have pretty much eliminated Chile’s vibrant café life—is able to attract a good number of poets, novelists, and journalists to her house. Yet even as her guests are swilling wine upstairs, her husband, a wholesome-seeming American secretly affiliated with the regime, is torturing political prisoners in the basement.

Bolaño’s weirdest novelistic inventions tend to come off as the flat truth, often because they are the truth. The literary salon in By Night in Chile, for instance, will remind Chileans of the “Townley affair,” since the character María Canales is so clearly modeled on a real-life 1970s saloniste who was married to an American. Such events are an all-too-realistic aspect of Latin America’s history, but it takes a realist of Bolaño’s peculiarly ironic turn of mind to render these stories in a way that makes them neither pornographic nor piously instructive.

Wendy Lesser’s most recent book is Why I Read (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014).