Chile’s book of the month: Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile

In the third edition of our series on what to read before, after or during your trip to Chile, we take a look at a one of Chile’s most influential modern writers.

Most great writers are placed among groups or movements, such as “Latin American Magical Realism”, or “19th century European Romanticism”. But Chilean author Roberto Bolaño has garnered such acclaim since his untimely passing in 2003 at the age of 50 that critic Robert Birnbaum claims Bolaño “single-handedly sparked his own boom.”

There’s no doubting that Bolaño is one of the hottest tickets in world literature at the moment, and there are prizes to show for it: the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1999 for perhaps his most famous work, Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) – previously won by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa and  Gabriel García Márquez – as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2666, considered by some to be his magnum opus.

But Bolaño lived much of his life in Spain and Mexico, and many of the novels he wrote after switching from poetry to fiction in the last decade of his life are not set in Chile. So what options are there for those wanting to delve into Bolaño’s Chile?

Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) is a novella published in Santiago in 1999, and the first of Bolaño’s works to be translated to English, although its short format makes it an ideal candidate for English speakers wanting to try to read the Chilean author in his native language.

Contained almost entirely within one paragraph, Nocturno de Chile is the deathbed ramblings of Opus Dei clergyman Father Urrutia. Over a single evening Urrutia feverishly recounts his life story, detailing his entry into the Chilean literary world as a successful critic and not-so-successful poet, his recruitment by the Opus Dei (which involved a clandestine visit to Europe to learn how his brethren in the Old Continent protected their churches from pigeon droppings by the use of falconry), and his complicity in the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The book is a scathing critique of the Chilean literary elite and an insight into a dark period of the country’s history, but at the same time it offers a glimpse into the unique, hallucinatory world of a modern literary great, Chile’s Roberto Bolaño.

You can download some of Bolaño’s short stories for free at Chile’s digital library, Memoria Chilena.

For more on our Chilean Book of the Month series, check out our review of Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los Espíritus (The House of Spirits) and the Chilean childrens’ literary classic, Papelucho.

To tell us what you think should be November’s Book of the Month, head to our Facebook page.