In the south of Chile, early September means late winter, and the weather is cold and damp. This comes as a shock to the system, if your body still thinks it’s summer. Driving from the airport into Valdivia, the fields and surrounding woods are draped in mist, and the melancholy that I described on the Sunday evening streets of Buenos Aires returns in pastoral mode, following a single day’s break in Santiago, where I deliver a talk at the Diego Portales University on Roberto Bolaño, at the Catedra Roberto Bolaño. Coals to Newcastle.
The drop in temperature – not that Santiago was warm – is accompanied by an appreciable increase in humidity. Chileans with any knowledge of Wales sometimes joke that I must like Valdivia because the weather reminds me of home. But last time I was here it was January, and considerably warmer than the average Welsh summer.
We walk through the early morning mist, past the fish stalls being set up along the riverside, to the Pedro de Valdivia bridge, named after the conquistador of that name (1497-1553) who was first governor of Chile. Valdivia met with resistance from the Mapuche Indians when attempting to conquer the south and, his army defeated, was captured. Stories about how he met his death vary, but one contemporary account suggests that offers of a ransom – and the return of all occupied lands – was rejected by the Mapuche, who cut off Valdivia’s arms, roasted them, and ate them in front of him before dispatching him.
A pair of sea lions lounge on a floating jetty; as we pass the male rises awkwardly on his forepaws and roars at a passing heron.
From the bridge the river appears to dissolve into a wall of mist, beyond which I imagine a world, entirely hidden from view, in which strange and terrible things might happen. It is a vision from The Heart of Darkness, or Juan José Saer’s great novel El Entenado (which means a foster child, but has been translated into English as The Witness) – which, while taking place on the other side of this continent, up the River Plate, is, like Conrad’s, a novel of European paranoia and dissolution: the reader is warned in both books that the view ahead presents possibilities that are as terrible as anything that can be imagined in a wide river shrouded in white mist.
At the University Austral, a long day of presentations, literary discourse and performance, much of it concerning our anthology The Other Tiger. In the evening, the poets Jorge Aulicino, Marina Serrano, Carlos López Beltrán, Jaime Pinos, Jorge Fondebrider, Pedro Serrano, Verónica Zondek and Damsi Figueroa read poems and students from the university read my English versions from The Other Tiger with great intelligence and fine dramatic emphasis.
After dinner as guests of the University Rector, Óscar Galindo, we return through a freezing downpour to the hotel. I go to sleep with the sound of the rain pattering on the glass dormer window above my head, a strangely comforting sound: percussive entry to a dream of rivers.
More translation – literary and the other, everyday kind – and more thoughts on being a foreigner: “Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics” writes Alastair Reid. “The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might be a place – and a self – instantly recognisable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live. From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.”
He wonders whether Valaparaíso might be that place into which he could “sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh”. He suspects it might be. And yet.
The foreigner walks for an hour in the vicinity of the bus station looking for a comfortable place to sit and scribble: something like a café, or a clean well-lighted place that might offer up a drink and a sandwich, one of those sandwiches that contain a variety of colourful food: a completo or an italiano.
He does not much care for his current state of mind. He has returned to Valparaíso, after a brief visit to the capital. In Santiago the temperature was 35 degrees centigrade; here it has dropped to around 19, and is overcast. He came dressed for the sun, and looks ridiculous. To make matters worse, he has a suitcase, albeit a small one, which he does not wish to lug around. He wonders if he should check into a hotel, but it is a weekend in high summer, and the two he has called are full (and expensive). He has killed the first hour in pointless perambulation, so leaves his case at the left luggage office of the bus station and tries again to orient himself, calmly. He sets off towards a covered market, often useful places for one in search of food, but the stalls are shutting up and the little shacks selling food also, and the place has the forlorn aspect of closing time, and the street outside smells of fish, urine and rotting fruit.
He continues further out of his way before finding a more promising street and following it. Something about the open-fronted shops selling herbs and fruit and meat reminds him of Greece, specifically the smell of Chania market. He tries to identify precisely what the smell is, and fails to name it, the ingredient tantalisingly out of memory’s reach. It is a smell that combines thyme, coffee and something else, something that will not be recalled. He begins to feel nostalgia for people and places he will never recover, but that too fades. Eventually he spots a likely café and crosses the road. He takes a table half way down the room. When he orders, the waitress turns her head to one side, as some people do when confronted by a foreigner, as though the presumption of their foreignness will necessarily involve not understanding them. When she realises that there are no imminent communication issues, she smiles. Despite his command of the language, he is still a foreigner, and perhaps she feels a degree of pity, or something approximating it to it. He has seen the other waitress carrying a plate with the kind of sandwich he requires: meat, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise. He requests the same. It doesn’t take long to clock the fact that not only is he the only non-Chilean in the place; he seems also to be the only person not personally known to the staff. The sandwich arrives. It is pretty much what it sets out to be, and settles threateningly in his stomach.
The following night, by which time he has shed the tourist garb of shorts and brightly coloured shirt and put on a disguise of tracksuit trousers, black tee shirt and cardigan, he goes downtown with his friend, Enrique, who remarks afterwards that to any onlooker they might just have appeared to be father and son, taking a turn out to the bar together. His foreigner identity has briefly been supplanted – to the outside world, at least – by another. He wonders how much longer it would take for his identity to be usurped forever. He thinks, probably, never. But he suspects there is always another, his other, or his other’s other, in waiting, biding its time.
But that thing about the place into which he could sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh? That has receded again; that, he fears, will always be an illusion.
“Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present.” With this thought in mind I come to the end of re-reading Alastair Reid’s essay, and start on the next one, called ‘Other People’s Houses.’ Despite the fact that to the outside world, my foreigner-status remains intact, with friends in Chile, my confused identity is – peculiarly – tolerated with extreme goodwill.
It is with particular interest that I read the opening of ‘Other People’s Houses’, the next essay in Reid’s excellent collection. It is worth citing the first paragraph is full:
“Having been, for many years, an itinerant, living in an alarming number of countries and places, I am no stranger to other people’s houses. I am aware of a certain disreputable cast to this admission; I can almost feel my wizened little ancestors shaking their heads and wringing their hands, for in Scotland, people tend to go from the stark stone house where they first see the light to another such fortress, where they sink roots and prepare dutifully for death, their possessions encrusted around them like barnacles. Anyone who did not seem to be following the stone script was looked on as somewhat raffish, rather like the tinkers and traveling people who sometimes passed through the village where I grew up. I would watch them leave, on foot, over the horizon, pulling their worldly belongings behind them in a handcart; and one of my earliest fantasies was to run away with them, for I felt oppressed by permanence and rootedness, and my childhood eyes strayed always to the horizon, which promised other ways of being, a life less stony and predictable.”
Alastair Reid, then, prepared himself for his life as a foreigner, by aspiring to the strange life of the transients who passed through his village. This rings a bell for me, also.
Sometimes a person’s foreignness is something that can be put on or removed, like a second skin. Sometimes, too, the façade of foreignness can be a convenience. Take as a hypothetical example my friend, K. He has resided in Chile for thirty years, enjoys citizenship, and takes a keen interest in the culture and politics of his adopted country, but as a true foreigner he would not be so facile as to believe that his identity has somehow been re-calibrated as Chilean. Negotiating the fragmentary landscape of foreignness, only an idiot would claim a national identity on such spurious grounds.
For a certain class of foreigner, foreignness is something that can be deployed strategically. One can even turn it into a kind of game, or make oneself the butt of jokes on account of one’s own foreignness. One can intentionally mislead, intentionally mispronounce, intentionally misunderstand. But these are beginners’ tricks, at the amateur end of Being a Foreigner. People like K. are adepts, and have decades of practice, sidestepping their interlocutor by playing the foreigner card to their own advantage. It doesn’t always work of course, especially with policemen and parking attendants, but it is a strategy to which I have at times reverted myself.
So, my stay in Valdivia is coming to an end: pleasant days of working on translation of Chilean poets; a weekend spent walking in the coastal reserve at Chaihuín, and yesterday a long hike through the spectacular Huerquehue park to the north, where we climbed, sweating, through temperate rainforest until we reached the zone of the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle trees) – which only grow above 1,000 metres – amid bursts of outlandish birdsong from the chucao and the huet-huet (or hued hued).
I will miss this place, but, as a foreigner, I will not dwell on the insubstantiality of belonging here, even if, as places go, there are few I would rather stay. I will haul my big blue suitcase – laden with books of poetry that I need for the journey but would rather carry in my head – and move on to the next place.
On Sunday we visit Los Colmillos de Chaihuín, which contain, among other trees, canelo, alerce (larch) and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local ecology, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and apparently self-regenerates once it has been chopped down. It can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat deer-like creature with a cute face.
The big larch in the photo is 3,500 years old. They calculate this by the girth and of the tree, which is three and half metres in diameter (and 45 metres tall). The oldest recorded alerce was four and a half thousand years old, according to our guide, although Wikipedia establishes the age as 3,622 years. This is some achievement when we consider that the Minoan civilization was still intact when the tree was young. The forests hereabout were once filled with these trees, but the wood is good for making boats and houses, and when the Spanish came they cut a whole lot down to furnish their navy. Now the trees are protected by law, but they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.
Walking through the forest I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, I am told, as caca de duende. Of course there is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English, as translators of Lorca have discovered over the years: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf shit sounds the most evocative, so I’ll go along with that.
Many and varied are the approaches to translation, and numerous its unsought consequences. There are those who become obsessed by the process even at the cost of progressing to the end of a piece of work. It doesn’t matter: before very long, everything becomes an act of translation.
So, after four days, we translate ourselves to the coastal park, the Reserva Costera Valdiviana, for the weekend. The land is given over to the Mapuche people and building is prohibited within the park zone. There are eight of us on the trip, and the plan is to rent cabins for the weekend. We arrive on Friday evening where we are greeted by our hosts, Teodora and Julio, who prepare pulmay, a dish cooked in layers of pork, chicken, sausage, chorizo, potatoes, and topped off with a thick layer of a shellfish called cholgas and choritos. This is a very good start.
In the morning we drive to Chaihuín, then south towards Laguna Colún along an unmade forest road for an hour, having to stop several times to move logs across the track, where the mud has piled thick. When the road runs out we walk through the forest, curving down towards a broad expanse of high dunes, overlooking the sea. There is practically no one here. Miles of unspoiled, empty beach. But what I hadn’t counted on were the cows, grazing, it would seem, on the beach, except that there is no grass, only sand. They come there for the algae, of which there are two main kinds hereabouts, cochayuyo (the large octopus kind) and lugo. The cows look pretty relaxed on the beach, even though they don’t seem to be making much effort to find the seaweed, of which there is plenty along the shore.
The only inconvenience is the flying insect known as the tábano negro, and colloquially as coliguacho. You must not wear dark clothes: if you do they will hunt you down and harass you for the whole journey. If you wear white, they will ignore you altogether. Almost every beautiful place seems to harbour some resident bug whose only purpose is to persecute and sting people. I have foolishly brought a navy blue fleece, but I take it off soon enough, and my pale t-shirt holds no interest for them.
We turn inland in the direction of an inland lagoon named Colún, where the plan is to swim, although, in the event, it is far too cold and windy. So our self-appointed guide tells us we have to cross more dunes – a frustrating and exhausting venture in which you slide down two metres for every one you climb, then – after a traipse along the summit of the dunes – towards green pastures; in fact, towards a grotto, somewhat alarmingly called the cave of the vulvas. The cave turns out to be more or less what it says on the label: a dark cavern filled with fissures carved into the rock and some aboriginal art. A battered lectern outside surprisingly provides information in both Spanish and English translation, but omits to inform who originally made the drawings and carvings inside the cave, or why. The place has not yet been properly researched or carbon dated. One of my companions says it was used as an initiation chamber by the indigenous people of these parts in pre-Hispanic times, but I no longer know what to believe. Climbing the dunes and sliding down the other side only to enter the cave of vulvas has made me dizzy. And there is still a long walk back, past the still motionless cows.
At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse
by Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011)
At the bottom of all this sleeps
a white horse, an old horse
long in the ear, lacking in
by the situation, the pulse
running through him is speed: the children
mount him as if here were a ghost, mock him, and he sleeps
sleeping as he stands there in the rain, hears
everything while I sketch out these eleven
lines. He has the look of a thing crazed,
he knows that he is king.
Al fondo de esto duerme un caballo
Al fondo de todo esto duerme un caballo
blanco, un viejo caballo
largo de oído, estrecho de
por la situación, el pulso
de la velocidad es la madre que lo habita: lo montan
los niños como a un fantasma, lo escarnecen, y él duerme
durmiendo parado ahí en la lluvia, lo
oye todo mientras pinto estas once
líneas. Facha de loco, sabe
que es el rey.
From El alumbrado.
I first came across the name Valparaíso via Neruda’s poem dedicated to Don Asterio Alarcón, the clockmaker of that city, many years ago. Neruda’s house is a fabulous creation, built on five stories, most of the rooms having large windows that look out over the bay. Not to be missed, whatever you think of the poet (or bis personal life).
Valparaíso was the most important port on the Pacific seaboard of the Americas until the creation of the Panama canal. It lies on several hill, or cerros, cluttered with houses of every shape, many of them built from adobe covered with tin sheeting salvaged from ships, and painted in bright colours. I had the good fortune to be shown around town by the young poet Enrique Winter, and walking is the only way to see Valparaíso as it is a labyrinth of alleys and stairways – and also boasts a series of antique lift or elevators, some of them actually working.
Valaparaíso is still a working port, and the main base of the Chilean navy. In the early evening we visited a place where old sailors come to die, called Liberty. We had not been there long when a French TV film crew came in and wanted to film two gentlemen (depicted below) sing a couple of songs. They wanted us to move tables. ‘Why’, asked Enrique, ‘don’t we look Chilean enough for you?’ The French TV producer very kindly offered to pay our bill, so we acceded to his request and moved to another table. When the music ended there was a lot of hooting and rowdy behaviour from the local clientele, which included a 1970s football star from the town’s once glorious team (football was introduced to the city by British sailors).
After dinner, returning to Enrique’s house, I acquired an escort of four black dogs, of varying sizes. All I needed was a cape and I could have stepped straight out of an Iron Maiden song.
Valparaíso is a slice of paradise, however obvious the statement. Even the French TV crew could be forgiven. Later yesterday evening, back in Santiago, we were invited to a party in a swish part of town and I ended up having a long chat with the film director Miguel Littín, subject of the Gabriel García Márquez book Clandestine in Chile. His opinion was different. ‘French TV film crews’, he confided, ‘they are the worst.’
The principal purpose of this trip – to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile – is to attend the launches in those two cities of The Vagabond’s Breakfast in Spanish. This is being undertaken by Argentine publishers Bajo la luna, and the Chilean outfit LOM.
The book covers show a certain consistency of theme, which, at least in part, reflects the content of the book, although the Argentinian cover, while attention-grabbing, perhaps gives a misleading impression of irreversible dipsomania. Strangely, our first full day in Buenos Aires, we walked into a café, coincidentally called Poesía (poetry) to be met by a wall with a very similar façade.
So, on Monday I was picked up by LOM’s publicity person, Patricia, and taken to the University of Santiago to give a lecture – or so I thought – on Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas and David Jones. Having prepared this lecture, and given a version of it for the British Council in Buenos Aires (in English) I was not too worried about giving the same talk in Spanish. However, as often happens, there was a degree of confusion on the part of the university as to what exactly I was going to talk about, and when I arrived at the lecture hall I was confronted by a poster featuring a photo of myself wearing a straw hat, under the heading ‘Cómo un escritor se transforma en traductor’ – ‘How a writer turns into a translator’; an act of metamorphosis that I had never consciously given any thought to (but perhaps easier to tackle than ‘How a writer turns into a gardener’), which the hat might suggest, and since I was accompanied by my translator, the excellent Jorge Fondebrider, I thought: what the hell, why not. We’ll do it as a conversation, suggested Jorge. You’ll cope, he added, encouragingly.
In the hall, having successfully managed a sound check, the students and their lecturers filed in, rather a lot of them. They were extremely kind and attentive (only two of them actually fell asleep), while I wittered on about things that I hoped made sense, and which no one directly contradicted, all the while being prompted and prodded into acts of self-revelation by the industrious Señor Fondebrider. Questions followed, of a most informed kind – the students were studying for degrees in either translation or English, and when it was over, I walked out into the warm sunshine with the sense that another challenge had been overcome, another milestone passed.
After lunch, I took a walk in the nearby park – situated on a steep hill, named Santa Lucia – directly opposite my hotel. It was here that Pedro de Valdivia, the conquistador and founder of Santiago, first pitched camp. Today, however, it is filled with courting couples, dotted like coupling worms across the hillside, all of them kissing as though it were the national sport. For obvious I couldn’t take any photos: it would have been hard to justify as an act of research, but I have never witnessed such dedicated kissing; a wholesome, almost spiritual act of collective union; something like a Korean mass wedding, all entwined on the grass of the hill where Pedro de Valdivia once made camp with his 500 battle-weary conquistadores.
The things we leave behind, or set apart, are usually left behind or set apart because they serve a purpose different from the one we have currently in mind. A walk around Santiago’s La Vega and Central markets yesterday morning, followed by a stroll in the Yungay district confirmed this notion. An illuminating and educational way of passing the morning before the arduous business of attending the city’s annual book fair.
- Fish heads are left behind because people often feel as though they are not intrinsic to the preparation and cooking of said fish, since, unless they are very small fish, the heads are unlikely to be eaten. However this does not take into consideration the aesthetic qualities of presentation. If you are going to bake a large fish and place it on a serving dish in the middle of a table, you want it with its head attached, surely? Many people, nevertheless, leave their fish heads with the fishmonger, who will display them in a basin or bucket.
- Pigs have been known to lose their heads. Or, put another way, the heads get left behind in the general process of butchery. The three unfortunate specimens in this photograph, snouts pressed up against the glass of their cold grave, are sad examples of human carnivorousness. But if the situation were reversed, and pigs were left in charge, would humans fare any better? If the HBO series Deadwood is any guide, decidedly not.
3. Someone seems to have left a backpack filled with dead chickens on the pavement. This questionable practice is apparently an acceptable way to dispose of one’s unwanted chickens in Santiago.
- Bicycles are left outside the barber’s or the restaurant as they would be an encumbrance inside. There would be no space. However, they are far more likely to be stolen if left outside. Therefore their owners attach the bicycle to a fixed object by the use of a chain or similar locking device.
- A cardboard box, once used for the packaging of roses, is left out in the flower market, and provides a handy resting place for a couple of market dogs. Dogs, it should be noted, are everywhere in Santiago de Chile. They are often quite large specimens, such as the black one here, and roam the streets with a marked sense of propriety. People appear to be generally indulgent of them, and consequently the dogs are a constant presence: a Santiago street scene is not complete without a canine in view.
5a. Sometimes a clever street dog overcomes the lack of manual dexterity that affects species without an opposable thumb, and learns to paint. Below is a self portrait by ‘Blue Dog’, in the barrio of Yungay.
- Back in the fish market, I discover the most bizarre species of seafood I have yet encountered: picorocos. They are pictured below, their little claws gesturing feebly in the blind air. They live inside their tunnel-like log homes (not logs, but crumbly rocks), and they wait. They wait, their little claws gesturing blindly in the empty air. And they wait . . .
- Finally, Laszlo and Koqoshka, who got left behind when the circus moved on, and are wanted for charlatanry. One wonders what particular crimes this offence entails, but Laszlo’s moustache certainly gives the impression that he might not be a chap to whom one would entrust the family silver. Koqoshka, as I have just now been reminded, bears a distinct resemblance to W.N. Herbert’s Murder Bear. But did he really get left behind? And. as this is a ‘Wanted’ poster, would any sane booty-hunter really wish to find Koqoshka and his ‘keeper’?
At the kind invitation of the Mexican Embassy in Chile we attend a Halloween celebration in the municipal cemetery of Santiago. Having arrived in the Chilean capital only a couple of hours earlier, it is as if I have been suddenly and unexpectedly returned to Mexico. There are speeches by ambassadors, civil dignitaries and other big cheeses, and displays of cultural artefacts relating to the Day of the Dead, the usual paraphernalia of skulls and trinkets and macabre dolls, some of them edible. Gradually the dead appear among us, filtering through the crowd: a young married couple, a family group, and a very elegant group of dancers from Guadalajara. After music and dances, we are led on a candlelit tour of the cemetery, which holds the earthly remains of the most illustrious figures in Chilean history, including Salvador Allende, whose leftist government was crushed by the military of General Pinochet in the coup of 1973, and who died in circumstances which still remain unclear – and so will remain until the end of time. Time which, as the Mexicans know so well, passes too rapidly for us, until we too join the great silent hordes of the deceased, who once a year mingle with us, are permitted to sit at table and witness earthly pleasures, to sing and dance and drink tequila, and to envy the living; while we look on with a mix of terror and fascination at these spectral figures, so elegant in their finery, yet so devoid of substance, knowing that we will one day be them; that in a certain sense, we already are.