By Night in Chile (2000) is one of Roberto Bolaño's last works, but it is the first of his novels to be translated into English (by Chris Andrews in 2003). His novel The Savage Detectives (1998), widely regarded as a masterpiece, has been published in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer in 2007 and I can tell you that it is going into the Stack as soon as Amazon sends me my copy.
When people talk about "Latin American literature" of course the first thing people think of is the "magical realism" of the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Guatemalan Miguel Asturias, etc., but Bolano is closer to the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1969) or the Mexican Carlos Fuentes (Terra Nostra, 1975), a political writer whose canvas is modern intellectual life in the Spanish-speaking world (and a Chilean hybrid of these forms that is worth reading is House of the Spirits (1982) by Allende's niece Isabel Allende). His prose style certainly is exceptional, dreamy and impressionistic but highly literate and allusive, the easy fluency with high culture that the best Spanish artists make to look easy (one thinks of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, the paradigm, or the contemporary Spaniard Javier Marias).
It's hard to imagine a more politically engaged novel than By Night in Chile. The protagonist, a dying priest named Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, relates a deathbed confession of horrific tragedy, but a tragedy that unfolds across his adult life, culminating in his complicity with murder and torture under the Pinochet regime. The blandly sinister agents of Opus Dei who suborn him send him off on a junket to Europe, ostensibly to research methods for preserving cathedrals. His findings are a bit more than just allegorical, as the priests there are using falcons to kill off the pigeons who defile the church. At one point a priest's falcon kills the dove who has been symbolically released at the beginning of a charity race. The priests are a bit chagrined in the face of the angry townspeople, but not too much. They apologize and serenely go on their way.
This episode foreshadows Father Urrutia's attending the legendary funeral of Pablo Neruda, just days after the military takeover of Chile following the death of Allende. There are hostile mutterings and even some shouting as Father Urrutia and his companion, a well-known conservative critic, are spotted in the throng, but the two men barely notice that these demonstrations of anger may be directed at them, and proceed along in their self-absorbed way. After all, they were on personal terms with Neruda, who used to spend weekends with them in the country.
Father Urrutia remembers Neruda as part of his literary life, his other acquaintance with greatness being Ernst Junger, famous for his glorification of war and rejection of democracy, although he also famously declined to participate in the Third Reich. Father Urrutia, who sees himself as a conservative, nonetheless has the intellectual gifts to see the corruption of Chilean society (he is recruited to teach a short course in Marxism to the Junta itself, only vaguely sensing that by assigning a Chilean woman's textbook on the subject he is condemning her to death. "Is she good-looking?" one of the officers asks. "Yes."), if only he could tear himself away from his fixation on high literature and see through his own privileged status as a conservative priest.
With this novel Bolano, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, fulfills the highest function of the novelist: no Chilean writer (no writer) who reads this novel will ever be able to look away from the historical crimes of his own time, his own bourgeoisie.