By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano is not so much about Chile and its troubled past, as it is about Chile’s intellectual elite.  While the focus of the stories is on the literary elite of Chile, the message of the book is not just about the intellectual elite of Chile, but intellectual elites in general and their response to the world around them.

            This short book is narrated by Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, an elderly Catholic priest. Sebastian’s life is presented as the rambling thoughts of an old man who cannot sleep. While his thoughts cover the entirety of his life, these thoughts appear in the narrative as they pop into his mind during the night. Stories from his life interweave with each other throughout the book. This book has two paragraphs with the second paragraph consisting of one line on the last page. While this style takes some getting used to, it does give one the sense of his thoughts and who he is as a character.

The Story

Sebastian is from a poor Chilean family, though he is quite proud of his European roots. He describes practices that are Chilean as lowly and common. He enters the seminary at the age of 15, despite the misgivings of his father. His father appears throughout the night as a shadow in Sebastian’s memories.

In the seminary, Sebastian finds his life’s love. However, it is not a woman, or even the ministry but instead poetry. His poetic pursuits lead him to fall within the sphere of influence of an influential literary critic, Farewell, who encourages Sebastian to venture into literary criticism as a career. While he continues to write and teach poetry, it is a critic that Sebastian becomes a notable member of the literary community of Chile.

While he likes literature, Sebastian is most enamored with the literary life-style. First, he enjoys the status and celebrity that he has enjoyed. Secondly, he enjoys the social life which comes with it. He enjoys the late-night literary discussions, with the accompanying meals and cognac, that he is a regular partaker of.

            Sebastian’s desire for the intellectual life style is one that I am sympathetic with. My master’s advisor was a major political theorist with a budget that allowed him to invite well known scholars to Utah. I would sometimes be invited to attend social gatherings at his house following lectures on campus. Good food and great conversation, the type of conversation that you could only have with a group of people who cared about liberal political philosophy the way that only we did. These events were intoxicating. I also vividly recall the feeling of not being invited. As an ackward outsider who got a taste of these gatherings, I could relate to the young Sebastian.

Religion and Politics

            For a story about a priest, religion does not play a huge role in Sebastian’s life as he reflects upon it. The priesthood was more a path to the comfortable life, which would not have been otherwise possible for a poor Chilean boy. While it is unlikely that this was the reason for entering the seminary, his life as a clergyman is very peripheral as he reminisces about his life.

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