It’s hard watching the first round, shoulder to shoulder with other sweating fans at wobbling tables that would sacrifice the first inch of your beer if you ever set it down. It’s hard watching your team bite it. I read The Dinner, and it might’ve even had a shot against any one of the other novels in the running. But not against By Night in Chile, one of the bookiest books in Bolaño’s sainted oeuvre. Even with officials like ours—as loathsome, venal, half-blind, and hateful as a Herman Koch antihero—Bolaño couldn’t fall. “The fix is in!” they’d shriek. And they’d be right. Didja hear about Marias? Damn.
So the better book won. And to read the play-by-play on Budapest/Dark Heart of the Night, Cameroon never really had a chance. What did Jeffrey Zuckerman say? It shocked and amazed him? I was pretty impressed, too. But as Brazil is about to learn, you can only get so far in a tournament like this one with cute jibes at the Hungarian language. And when you’re writing for this reader, you’re liable to get carded for any number of extremely subjective sins.
By Night in Chile has the air of a parable about it: an aged poet and critic (and priest) lies on his deathbed recounting a career that peaked during some of the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. You need to hear this plot again like you need a hole in the head—this is the second round after all. But I will emphasize that this isn’t, precisely, a political book or an apolitical book. It’s not a book about body count, even if there are a few bodies. It’s a book about the culture of books and the sometimes ambiguous place in which that culture exists. “And that’s the truth,” Bolaño writes.
We were bored. We read and we got bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and night. You can’t write all day and all night. 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. Apart from the inescapable fact that many of the old crowd had left the country for reasons more personal than political, the main difficulty was the curfew. Where could the artists and intellectuals meet if everywhere was shut after ten at night, for, as everyone knows, night is the most propitious time for getting together and enjoying a little unbuttoned conversation with one’s peers. Artists and writers. Strange times.
1-0, Chile. Like you had to ask. You were there. You saw it.
As the narrative of a ghostwriter, a man who requires the special cadences of life itself to write and, sometimes, to translate, Budapest is awash with sex and metatextual jokes, with winks and nudges. Buarque is a writer’s writer and his sentences range across the pitch—the page!—passing forward and backward, almost offsides as often as they advance. Buarque writes:
The writing flowed spontaneously, at a pace that was not mine, and it was on Teresa’s calf that I write my first words in the local tongue. At first she kind of liked it and was flattered when I told her I was writing a book on her. Later she took it into her head to get jealous, to refuse me her body, saying I only wanted her to write on . . .
1-1. Buarque knows what he’s doing.
But like I said, Bolaño’s prose here is powerful and written from the backfield—in retrospect, I mean. And from that position, it surges forward, sentence running into sentence, pushing, driving, probing. Paragraphs hardly break. Dialogue is a series of colons (sometimes) without columns. Chile is getting somewhere and they’re getting there fast:
And Farewell: Have you been to Italy? And I: Yes. And Farewell: Everything falls apart, time devours everything, beginning with Chileans. And I: Yes. And Farewell: Do you know the stories of other popes? And I: All of them. And Farewell: What about Hadrian II? And I: Pope from 867 to 872, there’s an interesting story about him, when King Lothair II came to Italy, the pope asked him if he had gone back to sleeping with Waladra . . .
Chile scores again. And again.
There’s a parody of soccer you’ll all remember from The Simpsons:
Buarque writes like that, almost, a passing game with unexpected thrusts and he can shuffle his chapters in just such a way that the reader nods along, saying, “Ah, yes, I see what you did there. You’re skipping from location to location almost by chapter”:
And again, that’s the truth: when reading a good novel, the reader can marvel at the elegance of individual sentences, at the slow building of plot, at the construction of character. When reading a great novel, there are no sentences that aren’t a part of the whole, there’s no plot and there’s no character to admire—there’s a book. A great novel is not a house of cards, it’s a pleasure palace made of motherfucking gold. And while we mortals can aspire to the delicate work of writing something clever and wonderful and cunning, we cannot cause golden fucking palaces to spring into being. Not like Bolaño can. Shit, I’m supposed to be making sports metaphors. Who’s good? Buarque is a world-class writer, a Suárez chomping at the shoulders of great players. Bolaño is fucking Pelé-Beckham-Ronaldinho. He’s the Galloping Ghost, His Airness, the Big Kahuna, the Sultan of Swat, and the Great One all rolled up.
What I’m trying to say is Chile over Brazil, 3-1. Buarque’s Budapest is a book to love. I feel as though it has been written for me, but By Night in Chile was written for the ages.
To quote the last line in Bolaño’s book: “And then the storm of shit begins.”
Jeff Waxman recently left Chicago—and 57th Street Books—to work at Other Press. He’s a funny guy.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .