By Night in Chile opens with Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a celebrated literary critic and poet, on his deathbed confessing to the reader that although once at peace with himself, he no longer is. He is tormented by accusations from a mysterious “wizened youth” and struggles to justify his life. What follows, printed in a single paragraph, is a turbulent montage of images, anecdotes, stories, allegories, laments, and delusions.
Who the wizened youth is and the exact nature of his accusations provide the tension. There are hints of illicit sexuality, beginning with Urrutia’s own father, who is remembered only in shadowy, phallic imagery, yet sex is but one of several diversionary leitmotifs. Urrutia enters the seminary at age thirteen, against his father’s will, and soon after graduation in the late 1950’s decides to become a literary figure. He allies himself to Chile’s preeminent literary critic, who writes under the pen name Farewell. The mentor is indeed an old-fashioned example of the Western literati, effete, independently wealthy, and sterile. Through Farewell, young Father Urrutia socializes with the cultural elite, meeting such luminaries as poet Pablo Neruda and eventually becoming a prominent critic and university professor himself.
However, as he seeks to foster Chilean literature in the patronizingly European mode of his mentor, Urrutia himself is suborned by politics. A conservative, he joins Opus Dei and is recruited by a Mr. Raef (fear) and Mr. Etah (hate) on a secret mission to save the great churches of Europe from deterioration. There follows black comedy, variously hilarious, touching, and outraging, as Father Urrutia travels through Europe and discovers that the greatest danger to the physical church is from the excrement of pigeons and doves, traditional symbols of peace.
Father Urrutia returns to Chile in time to witness the coup by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and the subsequent rule by a military junta. Again, Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah recruit him on a secret mission, this time to lecture the ruling generals on the fundamentals of Marxism, so that they better understand the mentality of their enemies. Another episode of dark comedy ensues as the generals behave like teenagers.
Meanwhile, Father Urrutia has to cease publishing his own poetry because he discovers, to his own horror, that themes of desolation, heresy, and despair irrepressibly emerge. At this point in his recollections, Father Urrutia comes to recognize that like...
(The entire section is 592 words.)