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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .