another tribute to the great enrique vila-matas: short fiction by roberto bolaño

 

“Enrique Martín”

Roberto Bolaño 

 

for Enrique Vila-Matas 

 

 A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness, and death.

I met Enrique Martin a few months after arriving in Barcelona. He was born in 1953 like me and he was a poet. He wrote in Castilian and Catalan with results that were fundamentally similar, though formally different. His Castilian poetry was well meaning, affected, and quite often clumsy, without the slightest glimmer of originality. His model (in Castilian) was Miguel Hernández, a good poet whom, for some reason, bad poets seem to adore (my explanation, though it’s probably simplistic, is that Hernández writes about pain, impelled by pain, and bad poets generally suffer like laboratory animals, especially during their protracted youth). Enrique’s Catalan poetry, by contrast, was about real things and daily life, and only his friends ever read or heard it (although, to be perfectly frank, the same is probably true of what he wrote in Castilian; the only difference, in terms of audience, was that he published the Castilian poems inmagazines with tiny circulations, seen only, I suspect, by his friends, if at all, while he read the Catalan poems to us in bars or when he came around to visit). Enrique’s Catalan, however, was bad (how he managed to write better poems in a language he hadn’t mastered than in his mother tongue must, I suppose, be numbered among the mysteries of youth). In any case Enrique had a very shaky grasp of the rudiments of Catalan grammar and it has to be said that he wrote badly, whether in Castilian or in Catalan, but I still remember some of his poems with a certain emotion, colored no doubt by nostalgia for my own youth. Enrique wanted to be a poet, and he threw himself into this endeavor with all his energy and willpower. He was tenacious in a blind, uncritical way, like the bad guys in westerns, falling like flies but persevering, determined to take the hero’s bullets, and in the end there was something likable about this tenacity; it gave him an aura, a kind of literary sanctity that only young poets and old whores can appreciate.

At the time I was twenty-five and thought I had done it all. Enrique was the opposite: there were so many things he wanted to do, and, in his own way, he was preparing to take on the world. His first step was to bring out a literary magazine, or fanzine, really, which he financed with his savings (he had been working in some obscure office near the port since he was fifteen). At the last minute, Enrique’s friends (and one of mine among them) decided not to include my poems in the first issue, an incident that, I am ashamed to admit, led to an interruption of our friendship. According to Enrique, it was the fault of another Chilean, an old friend of his, who had opined that two Chileans was one Chilean too many for the first issue of a little magazine devoted to Spanish writing. I was in Portugal at the time, and when I got back, I decided that was it: I would have nothing more to do with the magazine and it would have nothing more to do with me. I refused to listen to Enrique’s explanations, partly because I couldn’t be bothered, partly to assuage my wounded pride, and I washed my hands of the whole business.

 We didn’t see each other for a while. But in the bars of the Gothic Quarter I would sometimes run into mutual acquaintances, and they kept me laconically informed of Enrique’s latest adventures. That’s how I found out that the magazine (prophetically named White Rope, although I’m sure it wasn’t his idea) had folded after the first issue, and that the first performance of a play he had tried to put on at a cultural center in the Nou Barris district had been greeted with boos and jeers, and that he was planning to launch another magazine.

One night he turned up at my apartment. He was carrying a folder full of poems and he wanted me to read them. We went out to dinner at a restaurant in the Calle Costa and over coffee he read me a few of the poems. He awaited my judgment with a mixture of a self-satisfaction and fear. I realized that if I said they were bad, I would never see him again, as well as getting myself into an argument that could easily continue into the small hours. I said I thought they were well written. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic, but carefully avoided the slightest criticism. I even said I thought one of them was very good, in the manner of León Felipe, a nostalgic poem about the landscapes of Extremadura, where Enrique had never lived. I don’t know if he believed me. He knew I was reading Sanguinetti at the time and subscribed (though not exclusively) to the Italians views on modern poetry, so I could hardly be expected to admire his verses about Extremadura. But he pretended to believe me; he pretended to be glad he had read me the poems and then, revealingly, he started talking about the magazine that had perished after the first issue, and that’s when I realized that he didn’t believe me but wasn’t going to say so.

That was it. We talked a while longer, about Sanguinetti and Frank O’Hara (I still like Frank O’Hara but I haven’t read Sanguinetti for ages), about the new magazine he was planning to launch (he didn’t invite me to contribute), and then we said good-bye in the street, near my house. It must have been a year or two before I saw him again.

At the time I was living with a Mexican woman and it looked as if the relationship would be the death of her, and me, and the neighbors, and sometimes even the people who ventured to pay us a visit. Once was enough for our unfortunate visitors, and soon we were hardly seeing anyone. We were poor (although the woman came from a well-to-do family in Mexico City, she absolutely refused all their offers of financial assistance); our battles were Homeric and a dark cloud seemed to be looming over us day and night.

That’s how things were when Enrique Martin reappeared. As he crossed the threshold with a bottle of wine and some French páté, I had the impression he had come as a spectator, to watch the final act of a major crisis in my life (although, in fact, I felt fine, it was my girlfriend who was feeling rotten), but later, when he invited us to dinner at his place, and was so keen to introduce us to his girlfriend, I realized that he hadn’t come to observe but, probably, to be observed, or possibly even because, in a sense, my opinion still mattered to him. I know I didn’t appreciate this at the rime. For a start, I was annoyed by his sudden appearance, and tried to make my greeting sound ironic or cynical, though it probably just sounded apathetic. To be honest, in those days, I wasn’t fit company for anyone. This was common knowledge: people avoided me or fled my presence.

But Enrique wanted to see me, and for some mysterious reason, the Mexican woman liked Enrique and his girlfriend, so we ended up having a series of meals together, five in all.

Naturally, by the time we resumed our friendship— though the term is no doubt excessive—we disagreed about almost everything. My first surprise came when I saw his apartment (when our ways had parted he was still living with his parents and although I later heard that he was sharing a place with three friends, for one reason or another I never went there). Now he had a loft in the Barrio de Gracia, full of books, records, and paintings, a large though perhaps rather dim dwelling that his girlfriend had decorated with eclectic taste, and they had some interesting things: objects picked up on recent trips to Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt, some of which were more than tourist souvenirs or imitations. My second surprise came when he told me that he had stopped writing poetry. He said this after dinner, in the presence of my girlfriend and his, although the confession was in fact directed specifically at me (I was playing with an enormous Arab dagger, with ornamental work on both sides of the blade; it can’t have been very practical to use), and when I looked up he was smiling as if to say, I’ve grown up, I’ve realized you can enjoy art without making a fool of yourself, without keeping up some pathetic pretense of being a writer.

The Mexican woman (who was forthright to a fault) thought it was a shame he had given up; she made him tell the story of the magazine in which my poems hadn’t appeared, and in the end she judged the arguments that Enrique had marshalled in defense of his renunciation to be sound and sensible, but predicted that before too long he would be writing again with renewed vigor. Enrique’s girlfriend agreed with her completely, or almost. Both women seemed to think (although Enrique’s girlfriend, for obvious reasons, held this opinion more strongly than mine) that his decision to concentrate on his job—he’d been promoted, which meant he had to travel to Cartagena and Málaga for reasons I didn’t care to ascertain—and spend his spare time looking after his record collection, his apartment, and his car was far more poetic than wasting his time imitating León Felipe or at best (so to speak) Sanguinetti. I was totally noncommittal when Enrique asked my opinion (as if it might be an irreparable loss for lyric poetry in Spanish or Catalan, for God’s sake). I told him I was sure he had made the right decision. He didn’t believe me.

That night, or at one of the other four dinners, the conversation turned to children. It was inevitable: poetry and children. I remember (and this I remember with absolute clarity) Enrique confessing that he would like to have a child. The experience of childbirth, those were his words. Not to share it with a woman, no, he wanted it for himself: carrying the child for nine months inside him and then giving birth. I remember, as he said this, I felt a chill in my blood. The two women looked at him tenderly, but I had an intimation, and this was what chilled me, of what would happen years later, and not many years, unfortunately. When the feeling faded—it was brief, just a twinge—-Enrique’s declaration struck me as a quip, unworthy of reply. Predictably, the others all wanted to have children, and I, predictably, didn’t, and in the end, of the four who were present at that dinner, I am the only one who has a child. Life is mysterious as well as vulgar.

It was during the last dinner, when my relationship with the Mexican woman was on the point of exploding, that Enrique told us about a magazine that he contributed to. Here we go, I thought. He corrected himself immediately: That we contribute to. The plural puzzled me momentarily, but then the penny dropped: Enrique and his girlfriend. For once (and for the last time) the Mexican woman and I were in agreement: we asked to see the magazine straight away. It turned out to be one of the numerous periodicals sold at newsstands, with stories on subjects ranging from UFOs to ghosts, and taking in apparitions of the Virgin, little-known pre-Columbian civilizations, and paranormal events in general. It was called Questions & Answers, and I think it’s still being published. I asked—we asked—how exactly they contributed. Enrique (his girlfriend said practically nothing during this last dinner) explained: on weekends they went to places where there had been sightings of flying saucers; they interviewed the people who had seen them, examined the surroundings, looked for caves (that night Enrique affirmed that many mountains in Catalonia and the rest of Spain were hollow); they stayed up all night, snug in their sleeping bags, with a camera at the ready, sometimes just the two of them, more often in a group of four, five, or six. It was a nice way to spend the night, out in the open, and when it was over, they wrote a report, part of which was published with photos in Questions & Answers (so what happened to the rest of it?).

 

 

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“madness really is contagious”—more from “the part about amalfitano” in bolaño’s 2666


They returned the next day but were told that the patient was on bedrest. The same thing happened the following days. One day their money ran out, and Imma decided to take to the road again, this time heading south, to Madrid, where she had a brother who had done well for himself under the democracy and whom she planned to ask for a loan. Lola didn’t have the strength to travel and the two women agreed that she should wait at the boardinghouse, as if nothing had happened, and Imma would be back in a week. Alone, Lola killed time writing long letters to Amalfitano in which she described her daily life in San Sebastian and the area around the asylum, which she visited every day. Clinging to the fence, she imagined that she was establishing telepathic contactwith the poet. Most of the time she would find a clearing in the nearby woods and read or pick little flowers and bunches of grasses with which she made bouquets that she dropped through the railings or took back to the boardinghouse. Once one of the drivers who picked her up on the highway asked if she wanted to see the Mondragon cemetery and she said she did. He parked the car outside, under an acacia tree, and tor a while they walked among the graves, most of them with Basque names, until they came to the niche where the driver’s mother was buried. Then he told Lola that he’d like to fuck her right there. Lola laughed and warned him that they would be in plain view of any visitor coming along the cemetery’s main path. The driver thought for a few seconds, then he said: Christ, you’re right. They went looking for a more Private spot and it was all over in less than fifteen minutes. The driver’s last name was Larrazabal, and although he had a first name, he didn’t want to tell her what it was. Just Larrazabal, like my friends call me, he said. Then he told Lola that this wasn’t the first time he’d made love in the cemetery. He’d been there with a sort-of girlfriend before, with a girl he’d met at a club, and with two prostitutes from San Sebastian. As they were leaving, he tried to give her money, but she wouldn’t take it. They talked for a long time in the car. Larrazabal asked her whether she had a relative at the asylum, and Lola told him her story. Larrazabal said he’d never read a poem. He added that he didn’t understand Lola’s obsession with the poet. I don’t understand your fascination with fucking in the cemetery either, said Lola, but I don’t judge you for it. True, Larrazabal admitted, everyone’s got obsessions. Before Lola got out of the car, at the entrance to the asylum, Larrazabal snuck a five-thousand-peseta note into her pocket. Lola noticed but didn’t say anything and then she was left alone under the trees, in front of the iron gate to the madhouse, home to the poet who was supremely ignoring her.

Madness is contagious, thought Amalfitano, sitting on the floor of his front porch as the sky grew suddenly overcast and the moon and the stars disappeared, along with the ghostly lights that are famously visible without binoculars or telescope in northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

After a week Imma still wasn’t back. Lola imagined her tiny, impassively staring, with her face like an educated peasant’s or a high school teacher’s looking out over a vast prehistoric field, a woman near fifty, dressed in black, walking without looking to either side, without looking back, through a valley where it was still possible to distinguish the tracks of the great predators from the tracks of the scurrying herbivores. She imagined her stopped at a crossroads as the trucks with their many tons of cargo passed at full speed, raising dust clouds that didn’t touch her, as if her hesitance and vulnerability constituted a state of grace, a dome that protected her from the inclemencies of fate, nature, and her fellow beings. On the ninth day the owner of the boardinghouse kicked her out. After that she slept at the railroad station, or in an abandoned warehouse where some tramps slept, each keeping to himself, or in the open country, near the border between the asylum and the outside world. One night she hitchhiked to the cemetery and slept in an empty niche. The next morning she felt happy and lucky and she decided to wait there for Imma to come back. She had water to drink and wash her face and brush her teeth, she was near the asylum, it was a peaceful spot. One afternoon, as she was laying a shirt that she had just washed out to dry on a white slab propped against the cemetery wall, she heard voices coming from a mausoleum, and she went to see what was happening. The mausoleum belonged to the Lagasca family, and judging by the state it was in, the last of the Lagascas had long since died or moved far away. Inside the crypt she saw the beam of a flashlight and she asked who was there.

Christ, it’s you, she heard a voice say inside. She thought it might be thieves or workers restoring the mausoleum or grave robbers, then she heard a kind of meow and when she was about to turn away she saw Larrazabal’s sallow face at the barred door of the crypt. Then a woman came out. Larrazabal ordered her to wait for him by his car, and for a while he and Lola talked and strolled arm in arm along the cemetery paths until the sun began to drop behind the worn edges of the niches.

 

Madness really is contagious, and friends are a blessing, especially when you’re on your own. It was in these words, years before, in a letter with no postmark, that Lola had told Amalfitano about her chance encounter with Larrazabal, which ended with him forcing her to accept a loan of ten thousand pesetas and promising to come back the next day, before he got in his car, motioning to the prostitute who was waiting impatiently for him to do the same. That night Lola slept in her niche, although she was tempted to try the open crypt, happy because things were looking up. The next morning, she scrubbed herself all over with a wet rag, brushed her teeth, combed her hair, put on clean clothes, then went out to the highway to hitchhike to Mondragon. In town she bought some goat cheese and bread and had breakfast in the square, hungrily, since she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Then she went into a bar full of construction workers and had coffee. She’d forgotten when Larrazabal had said he’d come to the cemetery, but that didn’t matter, and in the same distant way, Larrazabal and the cemetery and the town and the tremulous early morning landscape didn’t matter to her either. Before she left the bar she went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She walked back to the highway and stood there waiting until a woman stopped and asked where she was going. To the asylum, said Lola. Her reply clearly took the woman aback, but she told her to get in nevertheless. That’s where she was going. Are you visiting someone or are you an inmate? she asked Lola. I’m visiting, answered Lola. The woman’s face was thin and long, her almost nonexistent lips giving her a cold, calculating look, although she had nice cheekbones and she dressed like a professional woman who is no longer single, who has a house, a husband, maybe even a child to care for. My father is there, she confessed. Lola didn’t say anything. When they reached the entrance, Lola got out of the car and the woman went on alone. For a while Lola wandered along the edge of the asylum grounds. She heard the sound of horses and she guessed that somewhere, on the other side of the woods, there must be a riding club or school. At a certain point she spotted the red-tiled roof of a house that wasn’t part of the asylum. She retraced her steps. She returned to the section of fence that gave the best view of the grounds. As the sun rose higher in the sky she saw a tight knot of patients emerge from a slate outbuilding, then they scattered to the benches in the park and lit cigarettes. She thought she saw the poet. He was with two inmates and he was wearing jeans and a very tight white T-shirt. She waved to him, shyly at first, as if her arms I were stiff from the cold, then openly, tracing strange patterns in the still-cold air, trying to give her signals a laserlike urgency, trying to transmit telepathic messages in his direction. Five minutes later, she watched as the poet got up from his bench and one of the lunatics kicked him in the legs. With an effort she resisted the urge to scream. The poet turned around and kicked back. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird. The inmate smoking next to him got up and chased the poet for thirty feet, aiming kicks at his ass and throwing punches at his back. Then he returned calmly to his seat, where the other inmate had revived and was rubbing his chest, neck, and head, which anyone would call excessive, since he had been kicked only in the chest. At that moment Lola stopped signaling. One of the lunatics on the bench began to masturbate. The other one, the one in exaggerated pain, felt in one of his pockets and pulled out a cigarette. The poet approached them. Lola thought she heard his laugh. An ironic laugh, as if he were saying: boys, you can’t take a joke. But maybe the poet wasn’t laughing. Maybe, Lola said in her letter to Amalfitano, it was my madness that was laughing. In any case, whether it was her madness or not, the poet went over to the other two and said something to them. Neither of the lunatics answered. Lola saw them: they were looking down, at the life throbbing at ground level, between the blades of grass and under the loose clumps of dirt. A blind life in which everything had the transparency of water. The poet, however, must have scanned the faces of his companions in misfortune, first one and then the other, looking for a sign that would tell him whether it was safe for him to sit down on the bench again. Which he finally did. He raised his hand in a gesture of truce or surrender and he sat between the other two. He raised his hand the way someone might raise a tattered flag. He moved his fingers, each finger, as if his fingers were a flag in flames, the flag of the un-vanquished. And he sat between them and then he looked at the one who was masturbating and said something into his ear. This time Lola couldn’t hear him but she saw clearly how the poet’s left hand groped its way into the other inmate’s robe. And then she watched the three of them smoke. And she watched the artful spirals issuing from the poet’s mouth and nose.

 

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from roberto bolaño’s 2666

Roberto Bolaño’s massive novel 2666 might be better understood as a series of five novels, each of which chronicles a journey into corruption. Part two, entitled The Part About Amalfitano, takes a character introduced in part one, Professor Amalfitano, a Chilean academic at the University of Santa Teresa who specializes in the obscure German author Benno von Archimboldi (the pen name of Hans Reiter, an elusive figure through out 2666). Amalfitano’s wife, Lola, disappears, and the professorand his daughter Rosa attempt to cope with her absence. The Part About Amalfitano could be called A Book about Madness and Forgetting. There’s something reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry’s never-completed cycle of novels involving Lowry’s fictional novelist-character Sigbjørn Wilderness. The opening of The Part About Amalfitano:  

 
2  THE PART ABOUT AMALFITANO

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

He had a little single-story house, three bedrooms, a full bathroom and a half bathroom, a combined kitchen—living room—dining room with windows that faced west, a small brick porch where there was a wooden bench worn by the wind that came down from the mountains and the sea, the wind from the north, the wind through the gaps, the wind that smelled like smoke and came from the south. He had books he’d kept for more than twenty-five years. Not many. All of them old. He had books he’d bought in the last ten years, books he didn’t mind lending, books that could’ve been lost or stolen for all he cared. He had books that he sometimes received neatly packaged and with unfamiliar return addresses, books he didn’t even open anymore. He had a yard perfect for growing grass and planting flowers, but he didn’t know what flowers would do best there—flowers, as opposed to cacti or succulents. There would be time (so he thought) for gardening. He had a wooden gate that needed a coat of paint. He had a monthly salary.

He had a daughter named Rosa who had always lived with him. Hard to believe, but true.

 

Sometimes, at night, he remembered Rosa’s mother and sometimes he laughed and other times he felt like crying. He thought of her while he was shut in his office with Rosa asleep in her room. The living room was empty and quiet, and the lights were off. Anyone listening carefully on the porch would have heard the whine of a few mosquitoes. But no one was listening. The houses next door were silent and dark.

Rosa was seventeen and she was Spanish. Amalfitano was fifty and Chilean. Rosa had had a passport since she was ten. On some of their trips, remembered Amalfitano, they had found themselves in strange situations, because Rosa went through customs by the gate for EU citizens and Amalfitano went by the gate for non-EU citizens. The first time, Rosa threw a tantrum and started to cry and refused to be separated from her father. Another time, since the lines were moving at different speeds, the EU citizens’ line quickly and the noncitizens’ line more slowly and laboriously, Rosa got lost and it took Amalfitano half an hour to find her. Sometimes the customs officers would see Rosa, so little, and ask whether she was traveling alone or whether someone was waiting for her outside. Rosa would answer that she was traveling with her father, who was South American, and she was supposed to wait for him right there. Once Rosa’s suitcase was searched because they suspected her father of smuggling drugs or arms under cover of his daughter’s innocence and nationality. But Amalfitano had never trafficked in drugs, or for that matter arms.

It was Lola, Rosa’s mother, who always traveled with a weapon, never going anywhere without her stainless-steel spring-loaded switchblade, Amalfitano remembered as he smoked a Mexican cigarette, sitting in his office or standing on the dark porch. Once they were stopped in an airport, before Rosa was born, and Lola was asked what she was doing with the knife. It’s for peeling fruit, she said. Oranges, apples, pears, kiwis, all kinds of fruit. The officer gave her a long look and let her go. A year and a few months after that, Rosa was born. Two years later, Lola left, still carrying the knife.

Lola’s pretext was a plan to visit her favorite poet, who lived in the insane asylum in Mondragon, near San Sebastian. Amalfitano listened to her explanations for a whole night as she packed her bag and promised she’d come home soon to him and Rosa. Lola, especially toward the end, used to claim that she knew the poet, that she’d met him at a party in Barcelona before Amalfitano became a part of her life. At this party, which Lola described as a wild party, a long overdue party that suddenly sprang to life in the middle of the summer heat and a traffic jam of cars with red lights on, she had slept with him and they’d made love all night, although Amalfitano knew it wasn’t true, not just because the poet was gay, but because Lola had first heard of the poet’s existence from him, when he’d given her one of his books. Then Lola took it upon herself to buy everything else the poet had written and to choose friends who thought the poet was a genius, an alien, God’s messenger, friends who had themselves just been released from the Sant Boi asylum or had flipped out after repeated stints in rehab. The truth was, Amalfitano knew that sooner or later she would make her way to San Sebastian, so he chose not to argue but offered her part of his savings, begged her to come back in a few months, and promised to take good care of Rosa. Lola seemed not to hear a thing. When she had finished, she went into the kitchen, made coffee, and sat in silence, waiting for dawn, although Amalfitano tried to come up with subjects of conversation that might interest her or at least help pass the time. At six-thirty the doorbell rang and Lola jumped. They’ve come for me, she said, and since she didn’t move, Amalfitano had to get up and ask over the intercom who it was. He heard a weak voice saying it’s me. Who is it? asked Amalfitano. Let me in, it’s me, said the voice. Who? asked Amalfitano. The voice, while still barely audible, seemed indignant at the interrogation. Me me me me, it said. Amalfitano closed his eyes and buzzed the door open. He heard the sound of the elevator cables and he went back to the kitchen. Lola was still sitting there, sipping the last of her coffee. I think it’s for you, said Amalfitano. Lola gave no sign of having heard him. Are you going to say goodbye to Rosa? asked Amalfitano. Lola looked up and said it was better not to wake her. There were dark circles under her blue eyes. Then the doorbell rang twice and Amalfitano went to open the door. A small woman, no more than five feet tall, gave him a brief glance and murmured an unintelligible greeting, then brushed past him and went straight to the kitchen, as if she knew Lola’s habits better than Amalfitano did. When he returned to the kitchen he noticed the woman’s knapsack, which she had left on the floor by the refrigerator, smaller than Lola’s, almost a miniature. The woman’s name was Inmaculada, but Lola called her Imma. Amalfitano had encountered her a few times in the apartment when he came home from work, and then the woman had told him her name and what she liked to be called. Imma was short for Immaculada, in Catalan, but Lola’s friend wasn’t Catalan and her name wasn’t Immaculada with a double m, either, it was Inmaculada, and Amalfitano, for phonetic reasons, preferred to call her Inma, although each time he did his wife scolded him, until he decided not to call her anything. He watched them from the kitchen door. He felt much calmer than he had expected. Lola and her friend had their eyes fixed on the Formica table, although Amalfitano couldn’t help noticing that both looked up now and then and stared at each other with an intensity unfamiliar to him. Lola asked whether anyone wanted more coffee. She means me, thought Amalfitano. Inmaculada shook her head and said there was no time, they should get moving, since before long there would be no way out of Barcelona. She talks as if Barcelona were a medieval city, thought Amalfitano. Lola and her friend stood up. Amalfitano stepped forward and opened the refrigerator door to get a beer, driven by a sudden thirst. To do so, he had to move Imma’s backpack. It was so light it might’ve held just two shirts and another pair of black pants. It’s like a fetus, was what Amalfitano thought, and he dropped it to one side. Then Lola kissed him on both cheeks and she and her friend were gone.

 

A week later Amalfitano got a letter from Lola, postmarked Pamplona. In the letter she told him that their trip so far had been full of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Mostly pleasant. And although the unpleasant experiences could certainly be called unpleasant, experiences might not be the right word. Nothing unpleasant that happens to us can take us by surprise, said Lola, because Imma has lived through all of this already. For two days, said Lola, we were working at a roadside restaurant in Lerida, for a man who also owned an apple orchard. It was a big orchard and there were already green apples on the trees. In a little while the apple harvest would begin, and the owner had asked them to stay till then. Imma had gone to talk to him while Lola read a book by the Mondragon poet (she had all the books he’d published so far in her backpack), sitting by the Canadian tent where the two of them slept. The tent was pitched in the shade of a poplar, the only poplar she’d seen in the orchard, next to a garage that no one used anymore. A little while later, Imma came back, and she didn’t want to explain the deal the restaurant owner had offered her. The next day they headed back out to the highway to hitchhike, without telling anyone goodbye.  In Zaragoza they stayed with an old friend of Imma’s from university. Lola was very tired and she went to bed early and in her dreams she heard laughter and loud voices and scolding, almost all Imma’s but some her friend’s, too. They talked about the old days, about the struggle against Franco, about the women’s prison in Zaragoza. They talked about a pit, a very deep hole from which oil or coal could be extracted, about an underground jungle, about a commando team of female suicide bombers. Then Lola’s letter took an abrupt turn. I’m not a lesbian, she said, I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I don’t know why I’m treating you like a child by saying it. Homosexuality is a lie, it’s an act of violence committed against us in our adolescence, she said. Imma knows this. She knows it, she knows it, she’s too clearsighted not to, but all she can do is help. Imma is a lesbian, every day hundreds of thousands of cows are sacrificed, every day a herd of herbivores or several herds cross the valley, from north to south, so slowly but so fast it makes me sick, right now, now, now, do you understand, Oscar? No, thought Amalfitano, I don’t, as he held the letter in his two hands like a life raft of reeds and grasses, and with his foot he steadily rocked his daughter in her seat.

Then Lola described again the night when she’d made love with the poet, who lay in majestic and semisecret repose in the Mondragon asylum.  

  

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against magic realism: chilean writer alberto fuguet’s cinematic obsession

Cover Image

“Lost”
 Alberto Fuguet


  

 

In a country full of missing people, disappearing is easy. All the efforts are concentrated on the dead, so those of us who are among the living can fade quickly away. They won’t come looking; they won’t even realize you’re gone. If I’ve seen you before, I don’t remember. You see, everyone down there has bad memories. Either they don’t remember, or they simply don’t want to.

A professor once told me that I was lost. I replied that in order to lose yourself, first you’d have to know where you are.

Then I thought: What if it’s the reverse?

I was erased for fifteen years. I abandoned everything, including myself. There was a quiz I never took. My girlfriend was having a birthday party and I never showed up. I got on a bus bound for Los Vilos. I didn’t have a plan; it just happened. It was what had to happen, and there was no turning back.

At first I felt guilty. Then pursued. Would they be after me? Would they find me? What if I run into someone?

But Ididn’t run into anybody.

They say that the world is a handkerchief. It’s not. People who say that don’t know what the world is like. It’s huge and—above all—strange and foreign. You can roam far and wide and nobody will care.

Now I’m an adult. In some ways. I’ve got hair on my back, and sometimes the zipper doesn’t zip. I’ve been to a lot of places and done things I never thought I’d do. But you survive. You get used to things. Nothing is so bad. Nothing.

I’ve been to a lot of places. Have you been to Tumbes? To the port of Buenaventura?  Or San Pedro Sula? What about Memphis?

Like a puppy, I followed a Kmart checkout girl as far as El Centro, California, a town that smelled of fertilizer. The relationship started off better than it ended. Then I went to work in the casinos in Laughlin, Nevada, that lined the Colorado River. I lived in a house  cross the way in Bullhead City with a woman named Frances and a guy named Frank, but we never saw each other. We left each other notes. Both of them were bad spellers.

Once, in a diner in Tulsa, a woman told me that I reminded her of her son who’d never come home. “Why do you think he left?” she asked. I said I didn’t know, but maybe I did.

Or maybe not.

Without wanting to, I ended up teaching English to Hispanic children in Galveston. The Texas flag looks a lot like Chile’s. One of the girls died in my arms. She fell off the swing set: I’d pushed too hard and she flew out of her seat. It seemed like she flew for two minutes through the hazy Gulf sky. I didn’t want to hurt her, but nevertheless I did. So . . . what?

What can you do?

Have you been to Mérida, on the Yucatán? In the summer there it hits 108 degrees, and they close off the downtown area on Sundays so the people can dance. Sometimes I find a girl and join in.

Last year I decided to Google my own name. Maybe they were searching for me. But even I couldn’t find myself. Just a guy with the same name as me who lives in “Barquisimeto, Venezuela,” and has a dental practice. He has three children and believes in God.

Sometimes I dream about living in Barquisimeto, having three children, and believing in God. Sometimes I even dream that they have found me.

—from Alberto Fuguet’s Shorts, 2005. Translated by Ezra E. Fitz.


Born in Santiago de Chile, Alberto Fuguet spent his early childhood in California. He is one of the most prominent Latin American authors of his generation and one of the leaders of the literary movement known as McOndo, which proclaims the end of magical realism. He has been a film critic and a police reporter. He lives in Santiago.

Continuing the cinematic obsession which informed his novel The Movies of My Life (2003), in Shorts Fuguet offers eight filmic "shorts"—each of which is prefaced by a black-and-white photograph—which range from the two-page story “Lost” (about a suffering existentialist) to a 100-page novella—stories with a movie-like realism and which are shot through with the authentic feeling of cinéma vérité.

 

 

the end of chapter one of alejandro zambra’s bonsai

"The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to understand as definitive. This, then, is a light story that turns heavy. This is the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others, than that immense and contemptible group known as the others."

In keeping with a deep-seated family custom, Julio’s sexual initiation was

negotiated, at ten thousand pesos, with Isidora, with Cousin Isidora, who after

that point was no longer called Isidora, nor was she Julio’s cousin. All the men

in the family had been with Isidora, who was still young, with miraculous hips

and a certain leaning toward romanticism, who agreed to attend to them, although

she was no longer what is referred to as a whore, a whore-whore; now,

and she always strove to make this clear, she worked as a lawyer’s secretary.

 

At the age of fifteen Julio met Cousin Isidora, and he continued to meet

with her during the years that followed, in the context of special gifts, when

he insisted on it enough, or when his father’s brutality abated and, as a result,

came the period of fatherly remorse, immediately followed by the period of

fatherly guilt, whose most fortunate consequence was economic generosity.

It goes without saying that Julio nearly fell in love with Isidora, that he cared

for her, and that she, briefly moved by the young reader who dressed in black,

treated him better than the others she was with, that she spoiled him, that she

educated him, after a fashion.

 

Only after turning twenty did Julio begin to approach women his age as

potential lovers, with limited success but enough to decide to leave Isidora.

To leave her, of course, in the same way one quits smoking or gambling at the

racetrack. It wasn’t easy, but months before that second night with Emilia,

Julio already considered himself safe from the vice.

 

That second night, then, Emilia was in competition with a unique rival,

although Julio never went so far as to compare them, in part because there

was no possible comparison and also because Emilia turned out to become,

officially, the only love of his life and Isidora, an old and agreeable source of

pleasure and suffering, barely. When Julio fell in love with Emilia all the pleasure

and suffering previous to the pleasure and suffering that Emilia brought

him turned into simple imitations of true pleasure and suffering.

 

The first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust. He

didn’t usually lie about reading, but that second night—when they both knew

they were starting something, and that that something, however long it lasted,

was going to be important—that night Julio made his voice resonant and

feigned intimacy, and said that, yes, he had read Proust, at the age of seventeen,

in summer, in Quintero. At that time no one spent their summers

in Quintero anymore, not even Julio’s parents, who had met on the beach

at El Durazno in Quintero, a pretty beach town now invaded by slum dwellers,

where Julio, at seventeen, got his hands on his grandparents’ house and

locked himself up to read In Search of Lost Time. It was a lie, of course; he had

gone to Quintero that summer, and he had read a lot, but he had read Jack

Kerouac, Heinrich Böll, Vladimir Nabokov, Truman Capote and Enrique Lihn,

and not Marcel Proust.

 

That same night Emilia lied to Julio for the first time, and the lie was also

that she had read Marcel Proust. At first she only went so far as to agree: I

also read Proust. But after that there was a long period of silence, which was

not so much an uncomfortable silence as an expectant one, such that Emilia

had to complete the story: It was last year, recently, it took me five months, I

was so busy, you know how it is, with the course load at the university. But I

undertook to read the seven volumes, and the truth is that those were the most

important months of my life as a reader.

 

She used that phrase: my life as a reader; she said that those had been,

without a doubt, the most important months of her life as a reader.

 

In the story of Emilia and Julio, in any case, there are more omissions than

lies, and fewer omissions than truths, truths of the kind that are called absolute

and that tend to be uncomfortable. Over time, of which there was not much

but enough, they confided their least public desires and aspirations to each

other, their disproportionate feelings, their brief and exaggerated lives. Julio

confided to Emilia matters that only Julio’s psychologist should have known

about, and Emilia turned Julio into a kind of retroactive accomplice for each

decision she had taken in the course of her life. That time, for example, when

she decided that she hated her mother, at fourteen: Julio listened attentively

and opined that yes, Emilia, at fourteen, had made a good decision, that there

had been no other possible option, that he would have done the same, and

without doubt, if back then, at fourteen, they had been together, he certainly

would have supported her.

 

The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with

intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to

understand as definitive. This, then, is a light story that turns heavy. This is

the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences

that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into

the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others,

than that immense and contemptible group known as the others.

 

They quickly learned to read the same things, to think similarly, and to

conceal their differences. Very soon they formed a conceited intimacy. During

that time, Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass. They

were, in short, happy. There is no doubt about that.

alejandro zambra’s bonsai: “a simple story that becomes complicated”

 

“In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in reality he was alone some years before the death of her, of Emilia. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature…”

 

Winner of Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel, Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra, is structurally innovative, yet written in a deceptively simple manner. The story of a young man and his girlfriend, Bonsai explores the connections between life, love, and art. The story’s 83 pages belie the sheer force of Zambra’s cool and limpid prose and oblique narration somehow produce an emotionally nuanced account of the birth and death of a love affair.


BONSAI

 

a story by ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA

 

Translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis

 

For Alhelí

 

"Years passed, and the only person who didn’t change was the young woman in

the book."

 

—Yasunari Kawabata

 

"Pain is measured and detailed."

—Gonzalo Milláan

 

I. Mass

 

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

 

The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax U at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges. because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.

 

Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.

 

Shortly before getting involved with Julio, Emilia had decided that from now on she would foliar, as the Spanish do, she would no longer make love with anyone, she would not screw or bone anybody, and much less would she fuck. This is a Chilean problem, Emilia said, then, to Julio, with an ease that only came to her in the darkness, and in a very low voice, of course: This is a problem for Chilean youth, we’re too young to make love, and in Chile if you don’t make love you can only fuck, but it would be disagreeable to fuck you, I’d prefer it if we shagged, si folidramos, as they do in Spain.

 

At that time Emilia had never been to Spain. Years later she would live in Madrid, a city where she’d shag quite a bit, though no longer with Julio, but rather, mainly, with Javier Martinez and with Angel Garcia Atienza and with Julian Alburquerque and even, but only once, and under some pressure, with

Karolina Kopeć, her Polish friend. On this night, this second night, on the other hand, Julio was transformed into the second sexual partner of Emilia’s life, into, as mothers and psychologists say with some hypocrisy, Emilia’s second man, while Emilia in turn became Julio’s first serious relationship. Julio avoided serious relationships, hiding not from women so much as from seriousness, since he knew seriousness was as dangerous as women, or more so. Julio knew he was doomed to seriousness, and he attempted, stubbornly, to change his serious fate, to pass the time waiting stoically for that horrible and inevitable day when seriousness would arrive and settle into his life forever.

 

 

*

 

Emilia’s first boyfriend was dim, but there was authenticity in his dimness. He made many mistakes and almost always knew enough to acknowledge them and make amends, but some mistakes are impossible to make amends for, and the dim one, the first one, made one or two of those unpardonable mistakes. It’s not even worth mentioning them.

 

Both of them were fifteen years old when they started going out, but when Emilia turned sixteen and seventeen the dim one was still fifteen. That’s how it went: Emilia turned eighteen and nineteen and twenty-four, and he was fifteen; twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and he fifteen, still, until her thirtieth, since Emilia did not keep having birthdays after thirty, and not because she at that point decided to conceal her age, but rather because a few days after turning thirty Emilia died, and so she no longer turned older because she began to be dead. 

Emilia’s second boyfriend was too white. With him she discovered mountaineering in the Andes, bicycle rides, jogging, and yogurt. It was, in particular, a time of a lot of yogurt, and this, for Emilia, turned out to be important, because she was emerging from a period of a lot of pisco, of long and complicated nights of pisco with Coca-Cola and pisco with lemon, and also of pisco straight up, dry, no ice. They groped each other a lot but never arrived at coitus, because he was very white and this made her distrustful, despite the fact that she herself was very white, almost completely white, with short hair that was very black, she did have that.

 

 


The third one was, in fact, a sick man. From the start she knew the relationship
was doomed to failure, but even so they lasted a year and a half, and he was her first sexual partner, her first man, when she was eighteen, and he was twenty-two.

 

Between the third and the fourth there were several one-night stands, spurred, as it were, by boredom.

 

The fourth was Julio.

pablo neruda on love, time & memory

 

IF YOU FORGET ME

 

I want you to know

one thing.

 

You know how this is:

if I look

at the crystal moon, at the red branch

of the slow autumn at my window,

if I touch

near the fire

the impalpable ash

or the wrinkled body of the log,

everything carries me to you,

as if everything that exists,

aromas, light, metals,

were little boats that sail

toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

 

Well, now,

if little by little you stop loving me

I shall stop loving you little by little.

 

If suddenly

you forget me

do not look for me,

for I shall already have forgotten you.

 

If you think it long and mad,

the wind of banners

that passes through my life,

and you decide

to leave me at the shore

of the heart where I have roots,

remember

that on that day,

at that hour,

I shall lift my arms

and my roots will set off

to seek another land.

 

But

if each day,

each hour,

you feel that you are destined for me

with implacable sweetness,

if each day a flower

climbs up to your lips to seek me,

ah my love, ah my own,

in me all that fire is repeated,

in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,

my love feeds on your love, beloved,

and as long as you live it will be in your arms

without leaving mine.

 

—from Pablo Neruda, The Captain’s Verses
(
translated by Donald D. Walsh from Neruda’s
Los Versos del Capitán of 1952 and published
by New Directions in 1972
).

Go here to see "If You Forget Me" presented with visuals on
YouTube.