An important character in By Night in Chile, aptly named “Farewell,” says in a moment of doubt: “What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows.” This certainly reflects the modern-day concerns of many writers and, in turn, readers—particularly of literature. As entertainment becomes reduced to what can fit in your front pocket, it becomes harder to ask someone to sit alone with a collection of printed paper glued between two flimsy covers and invest the time and energy to enjoy that novel properly.
But I’m here to make what I think is not a particularly bold claim; it should be considered, in fact, rather obvious, even banal: Roberto Bolaño gave meaning to books, he found more than a use for these shadows; he presented us with their transformative power, their prescience. And for that, we should be grateful.
For those that are unfamiliar with the story (sometimes considered the legend, as rumors abound) of Roberto Bolaño, he was a Chilean novelist and poet who passed away far too early in 2003 from liver failure, though he was, by the end, near the top of the list for a transplant. He was fifty years old, and to think of all the stories that were locked up within that man, still to be written down, is a true tragedy.
Though Bolaño has had multiple translators by now, the two most famous, and most significant, are Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews. Reading Bolańo from these two different artists (which I think it’s fair to call them) was what first really alerted me to the influence a translator has on the text.
Natasha Wimmer translates Bolaño’s writing with a colder eye, into prose more clinical yet somehow broader. And while I found 2666 to be one of the most powerful works of literature I’d ever read (Wimmer’s doing), I still enjoy the Chris Andrews’s translations more (By Night in Chile being one example). Andrews takes Bolaño’s style and tightens up every sentence, while also allowing the language to breathe, giving it the necessary space to find its own lyrical voice. He brings out the magic in Bolańo’s fiction in a way every other Spanish-to-English translator should envy.
Regarding By Night in Chile, the storytelling takes place over a single night, told in first-person by Father Urritia. An ailing priest on his deathbed, he expounds in a feverish monologue about falconry (and consequently freeing a single bird), Pablo Neruda, teaching the intricacies of Marxism to military officers, and the mistakes and regrets of his own life. He turns out to be as unreliable as he is flawed, and this makes for an unmistakably compelling read.
In the book, when Bolaño addresses a certain sickly shoemaker’s elaborate plan for a hero-focused, statue-heavy cemetery, he writes: “At first, news of his idea spread like nimble wildfire lit by a mocking god to amuse the public, but then it went the way of all things, subsiding into oblivion. A day came when nobody mentioned his name anymore. A day came when people began to forget his face.”
This could be seen as almost prophetic, perhaps a niggling fear about his own transience (though By Night in Chile was written before Bolaño was forced to confront his inevitable death, such as he had to for 2666). However, with the English-speaking world’s outpouring of support and enthusiasm for his many works, posthumous or otherwise, it doesn’t look as if this Latin American genius’s name will be forgotten anytime soon. Though he died at only fifty, he has, in my opinion, entered the pantheon of beloved international novelists; he has taken a grand leap onto that immortal list, into the bastion of the forever-cherished.