Roberto Bolaño’s Guide to Complicity


A few years ago, getting lectured by an online dictionary blog post about being complicit with evil would have been incredibly bizarre. But we live in bizarre times. As its choice for 2017 Word of the Year, chose “complicit.” Here is an excerpt from said blog post (which is well worth a read in its entirety) announcing the choice:
As we do the hard work of processing what this all means, we must examine our own behavior and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Could I have spoken out in the past…and didn’t? Did I go along with something because it was the path of least resistance?
Complicity is in the air. Just this month, a Donald Trump campaign ad said that, because of their refusal to fund a wall on the Mexican border, “Democrats…will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” And last year began with the international Women’s March and ended with #MeToo (and its smaller male cousin, #IWill). It was a year that made people look themselves in the eye and ask how they can do better. One could say that as much as 2017 was the year of “complicit,” it was the year of “publicly refusing to be complicit.”

This is the context in which I decided to re-read Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Bolaño’s novella is a psychological portrait of complicity, and the ways in which we rationalize our complicity. The story is framed as the deathbed confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest, poet, and literary critic who lived through the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Father Urrutia Lacroix’s account is best read as an apology—not in the popular sense of saying sorry, but in the older sense of “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing.” (Thank you, “One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences,” he says. And yet, he is defiant: “My silences are immaculate.” His prosecutor, such as it is, is a shadowy, surreal figure referred to only as “the wizened youth.”

The rest of the book turns out to be a catalogue of Urrutia’s silences when they most matter. In the first section of the book, before Pinochet’s coup, Urrutia glides into the upper reaches of Chile’s literary elite on the wings of his mentor, the aristocratic, lecherous critic Farewell. Urrutia starts writing book reviews under the pseudonym Father H. Ibacache, a name that he plans on using to advance his career as a poet by reviewing “Father Urrutia Lacroix’s” poetry in glowing terms. After being sent on a junket arranged by two mysterious businessmen, Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah—“Fear” and “Hate” backwards—to study church preservation in Europe (as it turns out, every priest he meets is using trained falcons to kill the pigeons shitting on their churches), Urrutia returns to Chile to find his country in an uproar. “My country was not in a healthy state. This is no time to dream, I said to myself, I must act on my principles. This is no time to go chasing rainbows, I said, I must be a patriot.”

His chosen course of action is to start reading all of ancient Greek literature, starting with Homer. “Let God’s will be done, I said. I’m going to reread the Greeks.” What follows is Bolaño’s breathless, surreal history of Salvador Allende’s ill-fated socialist presidency. As the copper mines are nationalized, as the protests grow, and as the tanks begin to roll, Urrutia stays in his room, reading his Greeks. And then, Urrutia says, “came the coup d’état, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last.”

After Pinochet is installed in power, and Chile’s elites have taken a victory lap (“They’re going to give me back my estate” Farewell whispers to Urrutia Lacroix at Pablo Neruda’s funeral), Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah approach Father Urrutia with a new, secret assignment: Teaching Pinochet and his inner circle about Marxism. When Urrutia hesitates to accept, the visit gets less pleasant. “Don’t get coy with us, said Mr. Etah, this is an offer no one can refuse. An offer no one would want to refuse, said Mr. Raef in a conciliatory tone.” After the first lesson, Urrutia agonizes over the question of necessity. “Did I do what I had to do? Did I do what I ought to have done?…Is it always possible for a man to know what is good and what is bad?” Later, when Urrutia asks Farewell if he did the right thing by accepting the job, Farewell asks him outright: “Was it a necessary or an unnecessary course of action?” “Necessary, necessary, necessary,” he responds.

The twin pillars of Urrutia’s apology are a denial of any agency in his actions, and a minimizing of the damage wrought by Pinochet’s regime. At times, he blames individual figures like Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah, “since they were the ones who got me into that business in the first place.” Mostly, however, he blames history. “An individual is no match for history,” he says. Father Urrutia’s view of history is a classically Greek one, history as a never-ending cycle of retribution that leads ultimately to some temporary state of balance. “Sooner or later everyone would get their share of power again. The right, the center and the left, one big happy family.” And he dismisses years of brutality and oppression under Pinochet as, “A couple of ethical problems…Just a little bout of fever! Just three acts of madness! Just an unusually prolonged psychotic episode!” This is how Urrutia keeps his own complicity at arm’s length: If no one individual or their actions can stem the tides of history, how can he be to blame for anything that has happened? He even uses that age-old tool, obfuscation: “Sometimes, at night, I would sit on a chair in the dark and ask myself what difference there was between fascist and rebel. Just a pair of words. Two words, that’s all. And sometimes either one will do!”

It is evident that Urrutia does not believe his own argument that individual decisions don’t matter (or knows his audience does not) because of the lengths he goes to in downplaying his part in the novella’s finale. Urrutia explains how Chilean writers and intellectuals began to congregate at a series of literary soirees in an elegant home, hosted by an aspiring Chilean novelist named Maria Canales and her husband, an American businessman. “We were bored. We read and we got bored…Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers needed to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company.” A pleasant setting which, he explains, was hard to come by in the days of curfews and military patrols under Pinochet, patrols which never seem to come to Canales’s house. One night, a drunk party guest poking around in the basement finds a room with a naked man blindfolded and strapped to an electrified torture device known as “la parilla” (the grill). The guest—“a theorist of avant-garde theater”—closes the door and goes back upstairs to rejoin the guests.

Urrutia, with his detailed recollections of these parties and his conversations with Canales, says he hardly went to the house:
I didn’t go every week. I put in an appearance chez Maria Canales once a month. Or even less often. But there were writers who went every week. Or more! They all deny it now. They even claim I was the true habitue, present every week without fail. Or twice, three times a week! But…we can rule that out straightaway. My visits were rare. Infrequent, at worst.
He also questions why no one spoke up after finding out about the torture chamber in the basement, even as he justifies his own silence. “I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out, but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late. Why go stirring up things that have gradually settled down over the years?”

Urrutia is as unreliable a narrator as they come. Even if he were not a liar and a dissembler, with his literary double-dipping, even if he did not have an agenda of clearing his name (“Oh my poor memory. My poor reputation,” he laments at one point), his recollections are those of a feverish, dying man: fragmentary, contradictory, and hallucinatory. There is no reason to believe him, then, when he says he did not know about the torture chamber until it was too late to do anything. His image of the man strapped to the table is so vivid, in fact, it even calls into question whether it was he who discovered the hidden room, or if there was more than one discoverer. If he was willing to give lessons in Marxist theory to Pinochet knowing his lessons would be used to quash dissent (“I know how far I am prepared to go myself, I assure you. But I also want to know how far they are prepared to go,” Pinochet himself tells him), the idea of his drinking cognac and reciting poetry upstairs from an actual torture chamber is hardly a stretch. Urrutia gives himself away when he says, “with time, vigilance tends to relax, because all horrors are dulled by routine.”

Nor is Urrutia a sympathetic character. Pitiable, yes—he is a closeted gay man, cowardly, lonely, wracked with guilt and disease—but not sympathetic. He touts his pure Basque and French bloodline and turns up his nose at ordinary Chileans, from the farmers he encounters on Farewell’s estate (“The women were ugly and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly and his stillness was incoherent…God have mercy on me and on them.”) to the “office drones” in a coffee shop in Santiago (“Pigs suffer too.”). He is unable to look outside of his own sufferings, his intellectual misfortunes, even as a tyrannical military regime tightens its grip on power. And he refuses to accept even a shred of responsibility for his actions, to the point of absurdity. Of his membership in Opus Dei, the secret Catholic order that reportedly had several members in Pinochet’s cabinets, he says, “I was probably the most liberal member…in the whole Republic.”

By Night in Chile is (predictably) a distinctly Chilean novel, with distinctly Chilean resonances. And yet, I found myself increasingly, uncomfortably seeing myself in Father Urrutia and his passivity. After all, my response to confronting my potential complicity in any number of American and world horrors was to re-read Bolaño. Is that really so different from Urrutia’s decision to re-read Thucydides as the Chilean army descended on the presidential palace? I am currently in Europe—Oxford, specifically—reading for a master’s degree in classical literature, literally reading the very same Greeks he mentions. Meanwhile, this month the White House announced the deportation of over 200,000 Salvadoran residents of the United States of America and the president denounced whole regions of the earth as “shitholes.” How do I justify that? We cannot allow ourselves to stop caring about culture just because we’re anxious about the future of society (when will we not be anxious about that?) or allow authoritarianism to monopolize art, but don’t those of us privileged enough and educated enough to make our voices heard owe some debt to the world beyond debating film aesthetics and narrative devices in Victorian novels?

There is a fine line between using culture as a tool to better society, and clinging to one’s cultured, elite status as a tool of oppression, and By Night in Chile shows how easily that line is crossed. All one has to do is say nothing, drink the wine, “smile beatifically.” And if you see something that makes you uneasy, just go back upstairs to the party, and continue saying nothing.

I don’t have any definitive answers. Maybe the truth is what Father Urrutia tells “the wizened youth,” the shadowy, prosecutorial figure who torments him at various points throughout the book, and to whom Urrutia addresses some of his most pointed defenses. That is, perhaps the existence of a literary elite depends on some degree of despotism. “That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him.” And, indeed, this is the rationalization that seems as if it might finally grant Father Urrutia some relief from his pangs of conscience: his defenselessness against history. “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.”

Only, it is not so simple. “The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips, mouthing an inaudible no.” As the novella reaches its conclusion, Father Urrutia at last begins to understand something the reader might have suspected all along:
And little by little the truth begins to rise like a dead body…I can see its shadow rising. Its flickering shadow…And then, in the half-light of my sickness, I see his fierce, his gentle face, and I ask myself: Am I that wizened youth? Is that the true, the supreme terror, to discover that I am the wizened youth whose cries no one can hear? And that the poor wizened youth is me?
Anyone who devotes a considerable amount of their life to literature must learn to make peace with these two sides of themselves: the passive intellectual, swept along by history, and the wizened youth, mouthing an inaudible no in the shadows.