by Roberto Bolaño
In a deathbed monologue that's at turns grounded, dreamlike, confessional, but always gripping, Father Urrutia tells the story of a man who wanted to be a poet but became a priest; a “half-hearted priest,” (as the book jacket tells us) who delights in his role as literary critic and writer but regards his flock of common Chileans with indifference. He uses his connections within the Church to gain a foothold in the literary world and recalls his literary career with fondness. He revels in his meteoric rise to fame and in his associations with Neruda, Farewell, and other members of the Chilean literary elite. This cast of critics, writers, and wealthy patrons transitions seamlessly from the coup that deposes the democratically-elected Allende and into the dictatorship of Pinochet, basking in each other’s company and in their festive discussions of art but ignoring the military’s rise to power. Strangely absent from the literary gatherings and from Urrutia’s rambling story is any discussion of the military’s despotic reign in which thousands of Chilean’s are murdered, tortured, and disappeared. But Urrutia’s stream of consciousness begins to take on an elusive darkness that he can’t explain. He’s tormented by the inquisitions of a phantom-like character he calls the “wizened youth.” As the wizened youth’s accusations build, so does Urrutia’s inner questioning, until the facts of Chile’s history sneak in to rupture his narrative, his life, the lives of Chile’s inteligencia and the country’s psyche, much as the plague finds even the secluded nobility in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Although this book doesn’t contain a single paragraph break, it’s not annoying. Instead, the steady tumult of words makes it hard to put down.