Sordel, Sordello, Which Sordello?
Having heard much about the deceased-mega-hyped-Chilean-novelist works, but having yet to read them, I started with his 2000 New Directions published By Night In Chile. Of his oeuvre at the time of this posting eight have been translated into English, and New Directions has plans for at least 6 more titles.
Bolano is known for populating his works with actual (and thinly veiled hypothetical) historical and literary figures. By Night and Chile can lay claim as having Pinochet and Nobel prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as characters (with speaking parts).
It is a first person account, confessional-memoir of one Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, aka Father Urrutia. A now old Jesuit Priest slash poet who we learn on his deathbed is compelled to “clear up a couple of points” of his life. He does so in a single paragraph or stanza, at times dreamlike, almost always lyrical. (he can do this, he’s a poet after all). In Father Urrutia’s account there are six flashbacks, scenes or slices of time in which form the novels’ chronological structure. We are reliant on the lucidity of his memory, as he “tries to penetrate the phantasmagoric folds of time”. What becomes apparent, immediately, is the reader must treat his tale as an implied poem, or literary work, NOT a report of events. Secondly, he is old and his “memory” waivers in its detail and style suiting Bolano’s purpose perfectly, as his narrator is given a long leash to vary the language from the surreal to the limpid, and since thematically we are examining the relationships of literature/literati vs the state and religion in a culture he has masterfully wielded his form to his function.
Besides our narrator, the second most important character is Father Farewell. We are told Farewell is Chile’s most important literary critic, who just by coincidence is ALSO a Jesuit Priest. Farewell acts as a mentor and sounding board for our narrator and a friend of significant Chilean writers (Neruda spends time at his digs). The first section takes place at Farewell’s estate, La Bas, (significantly the name of a novel by the Fin de siècle writer Karl Huysmans). To the background of a haunting tango, there is a bacchanalian scene on the terrace, where the iconic Neruda is spied by the younger narrator chanting to the moon. Farewell drunkenly asks the younger Urrutia if he is familiar with the “role of night” in the Italian Troubadour poets, particularly Sordel de Goit (or) Sordello Da Goito as sometimes known. He chants, Sordel, Sordello, which Sordello? Dante’s Sordello? (he figured in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy) Pound’s Sordello? (referenced in the Cantos) or Sordello’s own planh (funeral lament) on the death of his patron, Blacatz? He could be seen as a either the unprincipled historical figure, or Dante’s Sordello, a moral voice of his country. This “confession” parallels Dante’s Sordello, who was prevented from confessing and reconciliation by sudden death.
This drunken Sordello riff frames a theme of the novel, and prefigures later scenes that explore the role of the literati, the intelligentsia and their place in one’s country. This early epiphany also sets in motion the young priest Urrutia’s quest to become a “storyteller”(poet). But we also see that he is impressionable, and maleable, and readerly sympathies with him are cast in doubt.
This novel is layered with images, allusions and symbols. On second reading, I decided it is as a whole a lot more allegorical than at first glance. Motifs that Urrutia/Bolano works in the text. Birds and more birds, (yes those are pigeons in day glow orange on the novel’s cover page).
Urrutia is early on referred to as a fledgling, Farewell is frequently seen having qualities of the falcon. The voice of the popes are referred to the sound “distant screeching of a flock of birds”. There even an insinuated corrupt “Trinity” Poet/Church (Dogma)/ State, but Urrutia asks, does it matter, as long as you are bored, and turn your back on the ugliness:
Sooner or later, everyone would get their share of power again. The right, the center, the left, one big happy family…sometimes at night, I would sit on a chair in the dark and ask myself what difference there was between fascist and rebel. Just a pair of words. Two words, that’s all. And sometimes, either one will do!
I will resist going further into depth here so as to avoid plot spoilers, but would be happy to discuss my notes in the “Comments”
Following the Don Salvador and Opus Dei sections, our judgement and sympathies for our narrator/hero(?) is further questioned when Urrutia in cloak and dagger fashion is solicited and accepts tutoring the illustrious Pinochet junta in Marxism.There is then the question of betrayal. Urrutia needs the assurance of Farewell to measure whether he was right in helping the junta. If one has no moral alignment, no true loyalties, or rather, if the powers are not clear cut, undefined, can there be such thing as betrayal?
Who or where, are the patriots? Can there be “patriotism”?
Sordel, Sordello, which Sordello? Indeed
You will have to read By Night and Chile and decide for yourself.