Monday, November 17, 2008

Bolano's By Night in Chile (2)

Here is father Sebastian Urrutia reminiscing about his past while dying on page 54-56 of By Night in Chile:

“. . . and then I was walking alone through the streets of Santiago, thinking of Alexander III and Urban IV and Boniface VIII, while a fresh breeze caressed my face, trying to wake me up properly, but still I cannot have been properly awake, for deep in my brain I could hear the voices of the popes, like the distant screeching of a flock of birds, a clear sign that part of my mind was still dreaming or obstinately refusing to emerge from the labyrinth of dreams, that parade ground where the wizened youth is hiding, along with the dead poets who were living then, and who now, against the certainty of imminent oblivion, are erecting a miserable crypt in my cranial vault, building it with their names, their silhouettes cut from black cardboard and the debris of their works, and although the wizened youth is not among them, since in those days he was just a kid from the south, the rainy border-lands, the banks of our nation’s mightiest river, the fearsome Bio-Bio, all the same I sometimes confuse him with the swarm of Chilean poets whose works implacable time was demolishing even then, as I walked away from Farewell’s house through the Santiago night, and continues to demolish now, as I prop myself up on one elbow, and will go on demolishing when I am gone, that is, when I shall exist no longer or only as a reputation, and my reputation resembling a sunset, as the reputations of others resemble a whale, a bare hill, a boat, a trail of smoke or a labyrinthine city, my reputation like a sunset will contemplate through half-closed eyelids time’s little twitch and the devastation it wreaks, time that sweeps over the parade ground like a conjectural breeze, drowning writers in its whirlpools like figures in a painting by Delville, the writers whose books I reviewed, the writers whose work I criticized, the moribund of Chile and America whose voices called out my name, Father Ibacache, Father Ibacache, think of us as you walk away from Farewell’s house with a dancer’s sprightly gait, think of us as your steps lead you into the inexorable Santiago night, Father Ibacache, Father Ibacache,, think of our ambitions and our hopes, think of our mute, inglorious lot as men and citizens, compatriots and writers, as you penetrate the phantasmagoric folds of time . . . .”


Surely we must read this as poetry if the translator Chris Andrews has not improved upon the original. The dying priest Sebastian Urrutia is also Ibacache, a pseudonym he adopted for his critical works. He was Sebastian Urrutia when he wrote poetry, but Ibacache when he criticized the poetry of others. He comments at one point that his reputation as Ibacache became greater, perhaps much greater, than his reputation as the poet Sebastian. I’m a little surprised that the poets calling after him in the above poetic sequence call him Father Ibacache. If it was his critic-pseudonym then how would they know he was a priest. He was never Father Ibacache, but in his dying meanderings to be Father Ibacache, watching over the reputations of his flock (or perhaps merely destroying them) is perhaps fitting.

The “Wizened Youth” is someone who haunts his dreams and we have yet to learn who he is or why the priest is afraid of him.

His comments on reputations is provocative. His own reputation as a critic resembles “a sunset” contemplating “through half-closed eyelids times little twitch and the devastation it wreaks, time that sweeps over the parade ground like a conjectural breeze, drowning writers in its whirlpools like figures in a painting by Delville. . . .”

Delville was a Belgian symbolist painter who lived from 1866 to 1953. Here are some examples of his paintings:

Is Father Ibacache here feeling guilt over having devastated the reputations of the poets who called after him to think of their ambitions as he penetrated the phantasmagoric folds of time; which I take to mean that they considered him so far above them (as he considered himself far above them), a critic so far above mere poets, that he was considered almost a god by them. He blames time and not himself for the destruction of their reputations, those long dead poets who now want to build a crypt in his mind.

Earlier he says he regrets nothing; so if he was being accurate, he doesn’t here regret the reputations he ruined, if he along with time helped ruin them. Even earlier on page 2 he describes meeting his mother after he became a priest: “. . . my mother kissed my hand and called me Father or I thought I heard her say Father, and when in my astonishment, I protested, saying Don’t called me Father, mother, I am your son, or maybe I didn’t say Your son but The son, she began to cry or weep and then I thought, or maybe the thought has only occurred to me now, that life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth.”

He doesn’t like Jesus say “why do you call me good, there is none good save the Father.” Instead he says “Don’t call me Father.” “I am the son.” But perhaps his memory was revised later on and he only became “the son” after he became the critic Ibacache.

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