By Night in Chile, p.1Roberto Bolaño
Translated by CHRIS ANDREWS
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
for Carolina López and Lautaro Bolaño
“Take off your wig.”
I AM DYING NOW, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace.
But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace.
I am no longer at peace. There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up. So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumors the wizened youth spread in a single stormlit night to sully my name. Or so he intended. One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear. Clear to God above all.
The rest I can forgo. But not God. I don’t know how I got on to this. Sometimes I find myself propped up on one elbow, rambling on and dreaming and trying to make peace with myself. But sometimes I even forget my own name. My name is Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix. I am Chilean. My ancestors on my father’s side came from the Basque country, or Euskadi, as it is now called. On my mother’s side I hail from the gentle land of France, from a village whose name means Man on the Earth or perhaps Standing Man, my French is failing me as the end draws near.
But I still have strength enough to remember and rebut the wizened youth’s affronts, flung in my face one day, when without the slightest provocation and quite out of the blue, he appeared at the door of my house and insulted me. Let me make that clear. My aim is not to stir up conflict, it never has been, my aims are peace and responsibility for one’s actions, for one’s words and
silences. I am a reasonable man. I have always been a reasonable man. At the age of thirteen I heard God’s call and decided to enter a seminary. My father was opposed to the idea. He was not absolutely inflexible, but he was opposed to the idea. I can still remember his shadow slipping from room to room in our house, as if it were the shadow of a weasel or an eel. And I remember, I don’t know how, but the fact is that I do remember my smile in the midst of the darkness, the smile of the child I was. And I remember a hunting scene on a tapestry. And a metal dish on which a meal was depicted with all the appropriate decorations.
My smile and my trembling. And a year later, at the age of fourteen, I entered the seminary, and when I came out again, much later on, 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 call 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. And a little earlier or a little later, that is to say a few days before being ordained a priest or a couple of days after taking holy vows, I met Farewell, the famous Farewell, I don’t remember exactly where, probably at his house, I did go to his house, although maybe I made the pilgrimage to the newspaper’s editorial offices or perhaps I saw him for the first time at his club, one melancholy afternoon, like so many April afternoons in Santiago, although in my soul birds were singing and buds were bursting into flower, as the poet says, and there was Farewell, tall, a meter and eighty centimeters, although he seemed two meters tall to me, wearing a gray suit of fine English cloth, handmade shoes, a silk tie, a white shirt as immaculate as my hopes, gold cuff links, a tiepin bearing insignia I did not wish to interpret but whose meaning by no means escaped me, and Farewell invited me to sit down beside him, very close, or perhaps before that he took me into his library or the library of the club, and while we looked over the spines of the books he began to clear his throat, and while he was clearing his throat he may have been watching me out of the corner of his eye, although I can’t be sure, since I kept my eyes fixed on the books, and then he said something I didn’t understand or something my memory has not retained, and after that we sat down again, he in a Chesterfield, I on a chair, and we talked about the books whose spines we had been looking at and caressing, my young fingers fresh from the seminary, Farewell’s thick fingers already rather crooked, not surprisingly given his age and his height, and we spoke about the books and the authors of the books, and Farewell’s voice was like the voice of a large bird of prey soaring over rivers and mountains and valleys and ravines, never at a loss for the appropriate expression, the
sentence that fitted his thought like a glove, and when with the naïveté of a fledgling, I said that I wanted to be a literary critic, that I wanted to follow in his footsteps, that for me nothing on earth could be more fulfilling than to read, and to present the results of my reading in good prose, when I said that, Farewell smiled and put his hand on my shoulder (a hand that felt as heavy as if it were encased in an iron gauntlet or heavier still) and he met my gaze and said it was not an easy path. In this barbaric country, the critic’s path, he said, is not strewn with roses. In this country of estate owners, he said, literature is an oddity and nobody values knowing how to read. And since, in my timidity, I did not reply, he brought his face closer to mine and asked if something had upset or offended me. Perhaps you have an estate or your father does? No, I said. Well, I do, said Farewell, I have an estate near Chillán, with a little vineyard that produces quite passable wine. And without further ado he invited me to spend the following weekend at his estate, which was named after one of Huysmans’s books, I can’t remember which one now, maybe À
Rebours or Là-bas, perhaps it was even called
L’Oblat, my memory is failing me, I think it was called
Là-bas, and that was the name of the wine as well, and after issuing this invitation Farewell fell silent although his blue eyes remained fixed on mine, and I was silent too and, unable to meet Farewell’s penetrating gaze, I modestly lowered my eyes, like a wounded fledgling, and imagined that estate where the critic’s path was indeed strewn with roses, where knowing how to read was valued, and where taste was more important than practical necessities and obligations, and then I looked up again and my seminarist’s eyes met Farewell’s falcon eyes and I said yes, several times, I said yes I would go, it would be an honor to spend the weekend at the estate of Chile’s greatest literary critic.
And when the appointed day arrived, my soul was a welter of confusion and uncertainty, I didn’t know what clothes to wear, a cassock or layman’s clothes: if I opted for layman’s clothes, I didn’t know which to choose, and if I opted for the cassock, I was worried about making the wrong impression. Nor did I know what books to take for the train journey there and back, perhaps a History of Italy for the outward journey, perhaps Farewell’s Anthology of Chilean Poetry for the return journey. Or maybe the other way round.
And I didn’t know which writers (Farewell always invited writers to his estate) I might meet at Là-bas, perhaps the poet Uribarrena, author of splendid sonnets on religious themes, perhaps Montoya Eyzaguirre, a fine and concise prose stylist, perhaps Baldomero Lizamendi Errázuriz, the celebrated and orotund historian. All three were friends of Farewell. But given the number of
Farewell’s friends and enemies speculation was idle. When the appointed day arrived, my heart was heavy as I felt the train pull out of the station, but
When the train arrived in Chillán, I took a taxi which dropped me in a village called Querquén, in what I suppose was the main square, although it was not much of a square and showed no signs of human presence. I paid the taxi driver, got out with my suitcase, surveyed my surroundings, and just as I was turning to ask the driver something or get back into the taxi and return forthwith to Chillán and then to Santiago, it sped off without warning, as if the somewhat ominous solitude of the place had unleashed atavistic fears in the driver’s mind. For a moment I too was afraid. I must have been a sorry sight standing there
helplessly with my suitcase from the seminary, holding a copy of Farewell’s Anthology in one hand. Some birds flew out from behind a clump of trees. They seemed to be screaming the name of that forsaken village, Querquén, but they also seemed to be enquiring who: quién, quién, quién. I said a hasty prayer and headed for a wooden bench, there to recover a composure more in keeping with what I was, or what at the time I considered myself to be. Our Lady, do not abandon your servant, I murmured, while the black birds, about twenty-five centimeters in length, cried quién, quién, quién, Our Lady of Lourdes, do not abandon your poor priest, I murmured, while other birds, about ten centimeters long, brown in color, or brownish, rather, with white breasts, called out, but not as loudly, quién, quién, quién. Our Lady of Suffering, Our Lady of Insight, Our Lady of Poetry, do not leave your devoted subject at the mercy of the elements, I murmured, while several tiny birds, magenta, black, fuchsia, yellow and blue in color, wailed quién, quién, quién, at which point a cold wind sprang up suddenly, chilling me to the bone. Then, at the end of the dirt road, there appeared a sort of tilbury or cabriolet or carriage pulled by two horses, one cream, one piebald, and, as it drew near, its silhouette looming on the horizon cut a figure I can only
describe as ruinous, as if that equipage were coming to take someone away to Hell. When it was only a few meters from me, the driver, a farmer wearing just a smock and a sleeveless vest in spite of the cold, asked me if I was Mr. Urrutia Lacroix. He mangled not only my second name, but the first as well. I said yes, I was the man he was looking for. Then, without a word, the farmer climbed down, put my suitcase in the back of the carriage and invited me to take a seat beside him. Suspicious, and numbed by the icy wind coming down off the slopes of the Cordillera, I asked him if he was from Mr. Farewell’s estate. No I’m not, said the farmer. You’re not from Là-bas? I asked through chattering teeth. Yes I am, but I don’t know any Mr. Farewell, replied the good soul. Then I understood what should have been obvious from the start. Farewell was the critic’s pseudonym. I tried to remember his real name. I knew that his first family name was González, but I could not remember the second, and for a few moments I was in two minds as to whether I should say I was a guest of Mr. González, plain Mr. González, or keep quiet. I decided to keep quiet. I leaned back against the seat and shut my eyes. The farmer asked if I was feeling ill. I heard his voice, faint as a whisper, snatched away immediately by the wind, and just then I remembered Farewell’s second family name: Lamarca. I am a guest of Mr. González Lamarca, I said, heaving a sigh of relief. He is expecting you, said the farmer. As we left Querquén and its birds behind I felt a sense of triumph. Farewell was waiting for me at Là-bas with a young poet whose name was unfamiliar to me. They were both in the living room, although the expression “living room” is woefully inadequate to describe that combination of library and hunting lodge, lined with shelves full of encyclopedias, dictionaries and souvenirs that Farewell had bought on his journeys through Europe and North Africa, as well as at least a dozen mounted heads, including those of a pair of pumas bagged by Farewell’s father, no less. They were talking about poetry, naturally, and although they broke off their conversation when I arrived, as soon as I had been shown to my room on the second floor, they took it up again. I remember that although I wanted to participate, as indeed they kindly invited me to do, I chose to remain silent. As well as being interested in criticism, I also wrote poetry and my intuition told me that to immerse myself in the lively and effervescent
conversation Farewell was having with the young poet would be like putting to sea in stormy waters. I remember we drank cognac and at one point, while I was looking over the hefty tomes of Farewell’s library, I felt deeply disconsolate.
Every now and then, Farewell burst into excessively sonorous laughter. At each of these guffaws, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He looked like the god Pan, or Bacchus in his den, or some demented Spanish conquistador ensconced in a southern fort. The young bard’s laugh, by contrast, was slender as wire, nervous wire, and always followed Farewell’s guffaw, like a dragonfly following a snake. At some point Farewell announced that he was expecting other guests for dinner that night. I turned my head and pricked up my ears, but our host was giving nothing away. Later I went out for a stroll in the gardens of the estate. I must have lost my way. I felt cold. Beyond the gardens lay the country, wilderness, the shadows of the trees that seemed to be calling me. It was unbearably damp. I came across a cabin or maybe it was a shed with a light shining in one of its windows. I went up to it. I heard a man laughing and a woman protesting. The door of the cabin was ajar. I heard a dog barking. I knocked and went in without waiting for a reply. There were three men sitting around a table, three of Farewell’s farmhands, and, beside a wood stove, two women, one old, the other young, who, as soon as they saw me, came and took my hands in theirs. Their hands were rough. How good of you to come, Father, said the older woman, kneeling before me and pressing my hand to her lips. I was afraid and disgusted, but I let her do it. The men had risen from their seats.
Sit yourself down, son, I mean Father, said one of them. Only then did I realize with a shudder that I was still wearing the cassock I had traveled in. I could have sworn I had changed when I went up to the room Farewell had set aside for me. Yet although I had intended to change, I had not in fact done so, going back down to join Farewell in the hunting lodge dressed as before. And there in the farmers’ shed I realized there would be no time to change before dinner. And I thought Farewell would form a false impression of me. And I thought the young poet he had in tow would also get the wrong idea. And finally I thought of the surprise guests, who were no doubt important people, and I saw myself wearing a cassock covered with dust from the road and soot from the train and pollen from the paths that lead to Là-bas, sitting cowed in a corner, away from the table, eating my dinner and not daring to look up. And then I heard one of the
farmhands inviting me to take a seat. And like a sleepwalker I sat down. And I heard one of the women saying Father, won’t you try some of this or that. And someone was talking to me about a sick child, but with such poor diction I couldn’t tell if the child was sick or dead already. What did they need me for?
If the child was dying, they should have called a doctor. If the child had already been dead for some time, they should have been saying novenas. They should have been tending his grave. Getting rid of some of that couch grass that was growing everywhere. They should have been remembering him in their prayers.
I couldn’t be everywhere at once, for God’s sake. I simply couldn’t. Is he baptized? I heard myself ask. Yes, Father. Good, all’s in order then. Would you like a piece of bread, Father? I’ll try it, I said. They put a chunk of bread in front of me. Hard bread, peasants’ bread, baked in a clay oven. I lifted a slice to my lips. And then I thought I saw the wizened youth stan
But it was just nerves. This was at the end of the fifties and he would only have been five years old, or six maybe, a stranger still to terror, abuse and persecution. Do you like the bread, Father? said one of the farmers. I moistened it with saliva. It’s good, I said, very tasty, very flavorsome, a treat for the palate, veritable ambrosia, pride of our agriculture, hearty staple of our hardworking farm-folk, mmm, nice. And to tell the truth, the bread was not bad at all, and I needed to eat, I needed to put something into my stomach, so I thanked the farmers for their generosity, stood up, made the sign of the cross in the air, said God bless this house, and cleared out. Outside I heard the dog barking again and a rustle of branches, as if an animal hidden in the
undergrowth were watching me make my uncertain way back towards Farewell’s house, which I saw soon enough, lit up like an ocean liner in the southern night. When I arrived, the meal had not yet begun. Taking my courage in both hands, I resolved not to change out of my cassock. I killed some time in the hunting lodge leafing through various early editions. On one wall the shelves were stacked with the finest and most distinguished works of Chilean poetry and narrative, each book inscribed to Farewell by the author with an ingenious, courteous, affectionate or conspiratorial phrase. It occurred to me that my host was, without doubt, the estuary in which all of our land’s literary craft, from dinghies to freighters, from odoriferous fishing boats to extravagant
battleships, had, for brief or extensive periods, taken shelter. It was no accident that his house had appeared to me shortly before in the guise of an ocean liner! But in fact, I reflected, Farewell’s house was a port. Then I heard a faint sound, as if someone were crawling over the terrace. My curiosity piqued, I opened the French doors and went out. The air was even colder than before, and there was no one on the terrace, but in the garden I could make out an oblong-shaped shadow like a coffin, heading towards a sort of pergola, a Greek folly built to Farewell’s orders, next to a strange equestrian statue, about forty centimeters high, made of bronze, and perched on a porphyry pedestal in such a way that it seemed to be eternally emerging from the pergola. The moon stood out clearly against a cloudless sky. My cassock fluttered in the wind.
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