It is ten years since Roberto Bolaño’s death and in Valparaíso we have no running water. In the bookshop on the street sloping into Plaza Aníbal Pinto the printed signs in the windows read: ‘Welcome, daughters and sons of Bolaño.’ They have his primary coloured novels on display beneath the moustache of a tipped-up bracket.
But there is no water for a welcome. The rupture of a matriz in Cerro Ramaditas has destroyed houses, swept people to injury, and left a trail of mud and chaos in its apocalyptic wake. Hundreds of litres of the city’s water rushing to join the ocean in wave upon wave. This diluvial torrent, the kind which usually only the rains can bring, has washed a cascade of Valparaíso’s generally static rubbish clots downhill toward the banks and business offices. Por eso, for this, they have shut the water off.
So the anniversary of Bolaño’s death falls now within a kind of crazy hot bliss, extenuated by thirst. Bolaño himself might have enjoyed the bitter poetics of it. The chance to torture his protagonists, to prolong their discomfort: the critics chasing their dead writer. This hot Valparaíso, enjoying its stagnant second summer: the toilet bowls stinking of urine; the frustrated, choked, gurgling of taps; the water trucks circling neighbourhoods with industrial tankers of mysterious liquid; and our hands sticky with a soap we can’t wash away. This Valparaíso greets Latin America’s finest, most astute academics: the rich smell of sweat and sex palpable on dirty streets.
The daughters and sons of Bolaño are arriving for ‘The Distant Star’ of a Literary Congress. The posters for the event, pasted over calls for solidarity and protests – La Lucha esta en la Calle – advertise a cartoon Bolaño smoking a cigarette of surreal swirls, his head tipped towards us with an arch kind of nonchalance.
As if affected by the drought-stagnation of the past few fetid days, Michael’s own clock has slipped backward an hour, so that he arrives at what he believes is the first mesa of the congress only to wonder at this impossible Chilean punctuality, at the whole premature shift of the day. Could they have begun early?
Michael is an interlocutor, a tourist wandered in off the streets. A traveller desperate to diversify his cultural experience, desperate for a story the others won’t be able to tell. Driven here under the influence of that insatiable curiosity which comes with being youthful, an adventurer, Michael sent an email in broken Spanish asking if he could ‘come along’ and they let him.
Michael hopes one day to be an academic, but hope offers little in the way of credentials. It is nothing he could write on a pin badge or have printed on a sticker for collection at registration, for example. He has read Bolaño only for pleasure, with the voracity of an admiring literary fan. Always in translation. Now that he sidles up to the registration desk to claim his name without explanation – he can’t think of the Spanish to explain it – he begins to wonder if the whole ‘adventure’ might have been a mistake.
In the lecture theatre Michael masks his conspicuousness with the scribbling of a steady stream of wild words. Nobody must know that he is sitting with this struggle to grasp even the most basic of connections between thoughts: their relation to figures and characters, to concepts and debates, their implication; all entirely out of reach. He’s always been an excellent bluffer, but it is more difficult to pull off in another language. He hurries his florid notes into seeming significance. When the mesa finishes he follows the crowds towards a new room.
In this room, ‘Infrarealism and Poetry’, Michael snatches at clasps of words flung towards him. Sometimes translating them: mobile universe, to read Bolaño is to learn to die, anti-establishment, structure chaotic like reality, the notion of the poet as hero. Sometimes leaving them to rest in Spanish on his ear-bud, unclasped: la poesía como la violencia, el manifesto infrarealista, amor, sufrimiento, locura, una poesía prosaica. But always, whatever the final language, a floating phraseology: disembodied, loose, almost meaningless.
Perhaps these are the rationalists in Bolaño’s ‘pejorative literal sense,’ Michael thinks to himself. The rationalists who believe that literary criticism is the only place where revolution is still possible; the fight isn’t in the street, the fight is here. Bolaño’s poetry is described with its own vocabulary of violence, of reactionary sensationalism. ‘This appendix to the autodidact’ Michael notes, finally clutching at a momentary sweep of pride.
To listen in another language is to battle always an instinct which spuriously convinces you that if you were to lean forward slightly, as if to hear better, understanding would come too. Michael strains forwards without revelation and notices instead the notes of the man sitting in front of him: a kind of automatic writing, that of a poet divining some other meaning, some new creation, from the lecture being recited in alta voz. The notes read: ‘Come poetry, come to us, but the words come and don’t touch me. That ocean which is literature. And where, where are the Chileans? Lying in that apathetic and ridiculous mouth.’
Even this, or maybe especially this, Michael fails to understand. The notes too expansive and too obscure, too ambitious perhaps, for him to be able to access the flow. Michael leaves his own transcribed fragments to an even greater incomprehensibility.
When the mesa finishes he goes downstairs to get some coffee from the shallow white ceramic conference cups and eat some of the expensive biscuits. They melt buttery with a sweet filling of dulce de leche in his bitter mouth: the taste of intimidation lingers on.
Michael wonders where they have found the water to fill the cups of so many lecturers and professors. But this is a different Chile to the one he has been living in, he supposes. As he walks out into the gardens of the former prison-turned-cultural centre, the Ex-cárcel, he watches the academics milling about in the sunshine, jealously. They are complimenting each other on their papers and veiling insults too under the guise of references to their own research. Their own work is, quite frankly, more revolutionary.
They ask which conferences the others will be attending next? Who has paid for the hotels? Are the flights included? Will there be some grand dinner to attend? And then they grunt with envious acknowledgment.
Michael buys a conference poster instead, consoling himself with a souvenir. He hangs about under the shadow of the big black building for a while, tossing up whether he should stay for the rest of the mesas or give up and head to work early.
Once he’s resolved to leave, he comes back into the bright sunlight, walks past the cliques of lecturers and professors and the sprinklers turning slow circles on the grass, towards the edge of the prison yard and the curl of the port. Here, beyond the mint green spire of the Lutheran church and the pastel cluster of houses on Cerro Concepción, the sea stretches forth cloaked in a cloud which hesitates to touch the hot city. Michael wonders, as he looks out at that view, if he has not unwittingly, just encountered the critics of Bolaño’s 2666: ‘the young conferencegoers, those eager and insatiable cannibals, their thirtysomething faces bloated with success, their expressions shifting from boredom to madness, their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you, though obviously no one understood.’
Later in the afternoon, Michael arrives at the hotel to begin his shift. His boss, José, is sitting in reception with a new arrival, a Swedish exchange student with white blonde hair. José has hot artichokes for each of them. He’s smiling because the water is back – the toilets are flushing, the taps are running, the showers are raining down on guests again and best of all, there is water for cooking and eating artichokes. They sit at the reception desk and peel away the leaves to dip the artichokes in oil, lemon juice and salt, and suck at their fleshy tips. The perfect furling of leaves kept closest to the heart: delicious.
Until now, Michael has never known how to eat their green, petalled mystery, their florid articulation of vegetable matter. He has only ever eaten their hearts, preserved in oily jars: never even imagined what they might look like. José tells them how he boiled the artichokes to soften their tight bodies and Michael doesn’t mention his Literary Congress, that now distant star.
While the critics have sat in their conference halls: chairing, presenting, questioning, thinking the world into its revolutionary state, their closing remarks giving the revolution form; the water companies have worked to restore water to thirty thousand houses. In Valparaíso we have running water again. With this water, Michael has discovered artichokes for the first time: and the mesas this morning, all those disjointed notes – seem to have slipped into the paused time of his now-righted clock.
FRANCESCA BROOKS has had short and flash fiction published with Firewords Quarterly, Cabbages & Kings, The A3 Review, Brain of Forgetting, and With Regard To. She also writes non-fiction for publications such as Garageland and The Learned Pig, and edits a literary journal for Arts & Humanities researchers, The Still Point. Although currently a postgraduate student, in a previous life Francesca worked with art galleries, rare book dealers, frozen food companies and even a circus.
Follow her on Twitter @frangipancesca
or read her blog: thepilgrimages.wordpress.com