A Roberto Bolaño piece of some four and a half pages collected in The Return begins, “Once, after a conversation with a friend about the mercurial nature of art, Amalfitano told a story he’d heard in Barcelona.” This was written in 1997, six years before Bolaño died in 2003. Like a number of Bolaño’s characters, Amalfitano appears in more than one of the Chilean writer’s fictions; readers of 2666, his last major novel, published in English in 2009, will know him as the melancholy professor of literature in Santa Teresa (based on Ciudad Juarez) in northern Mexico, where, in a Duchampian gesture that is hard to interpret, he hangs a geometry book on the washing line in his backyard.
The story he heard in Barcelona concerns a little Sevillean known as the rookie (el sorche), who winds up fighting for the Germans against the Russians in World War II. Having received a minor wound the rookie is hospitalized, but on his discharge gets sent, by administrative error, to the barracks of an SS battalion, where he is set to work as a cleaner. In due course the Russians overrun the barracks, and the rookie, who speaks no Russian and only four words of German, is tortured for information. The Russians strap him into an SS interrogation chair and apply pincers to his tongue:
The pain made his eyes water, and he said, or rather shouted, the word coño, cunt. The pincers in his mouth distorted the expletive which came out, in his howling voice, as Kunst.
The Russian who knew German looked at him in puzzlement. The Andalusian was yelling Kunst, Kunst and crying with pain. In German, the word Kunst means art, and that was what the bilingual soldier was hearing, and he said, This son of a bitch must be an artist or something. The guys who were torturing the Andalusian removed the pincers along with a little piece of tongue and waited, momentarily hypnotized by the revelation. The word art. Art, which soothes the savage beast. And so, like soothed beasts, the Russians took a breather and waited for some kind of signal while the rookie bled from the mouth and swallowed his blood liberally mixed with saliva, and choked. The word coño transformed into the word Kunst, had saved his life. When he came out of the rectangular building, it was dusk, but the light stabbed at his eyes like midday sun.
Since the pronouncements of such writers as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin (“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”), making links between art and violence has become as routine and clichéd as a parlor game. There is nothing routine or clichéd, however, or at all theoretical, in Bolaño’s treatment of what has become a truism. The narrator of By Night in Chile, a Catholic priest on his deathbed who was once summoned to teach …