Dance Card

By Roberto Bolaño


            1. My mother read Neruda to us in Quilpue, in Cauquenes, in Los Angeles. 2. A single book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Losada Books, Buenos Aires, 1961. On the cover a drawing of Neruda and a note that this was the edition commemorating one million copies. In 1961 had one million copies been sold of the Twenty Love Poems, or did it refer to the the totality of Neruda’s published work? I fear it was the former, although both possibilities are disturbing, and now nonexistent. 3. On the book’s second page is written the name of my mother, Maria Victoria Avalos Flores. A perhaps superficial observation, against all evidence, leads me to conclude that it was not she who wrote her name there. But neither is it the handwriting of my father, nor of anyone I know. Whose, then? After carefully looking over this signature blurred by the years I must admit, though with reservations, that it is my mother’s. 4. In 1961, in 1962, my mother was younger than I am now, she wasn’t yet thirty-five and worked in a hospital. She was young and courageous. 5. The Twenty Poems, my Twenty Poems, have traveled a long road. First through various towns in the south of Chile, then through various houses in Mexico City, then through three cities in Spain. 6. The book, of course, was not mine. First it was my mother’s. She gave it to my sister and when my sister left Gerona for Mexico she gave it to me. Among the books which my sister gave me, my favorites were the science fiction books and the complete works, up until then, of Manuel Puig, which I myself had given to her and which I then reread. 7. I no longer liked Neruda. Still less the Twenty Love Poems! 8. In 1968 my family moved to live in Mexico City. Two years later, in 1970, I met Alejandro Jodorovsky, who for me was the incarnation of the prestigious artist. I sought him out at the exit of a theater (he was directing a version of Zarathustra, with Isela Vega), told him that I wanted him to teach me to direct films, and subsequently became a frequent visitor to his house. I think I was not a good student. Jodorovsky asked me how much I spent on tobacco each week. I told him plenty, since I’ve always smoked like a truck driver. Jodorovsky told me to quit smoking and to invest the money in some Zen meditation classes with Ejo Takata, but at the third session I decided that this wasn’t for me. 9. I abandoned Ejo Takata in the middle of the Zen meditation session. When I tried to leave my row the Japanese rushed at me swinging a wooden rod, the same rod with which he struck the students who requested it. That is to say, Ejo offered the rod, the students said yes or no, and if the response was affirmative Ejo would unleash a few blows that deafened the shadowy space suffused with incense. 10. I, on the other hand, was not given the option of refusing the blows. His attack was sudden and thunderous. I was next to a girl, near the door, and Ejo was at the back of the room. I imagined that his eyes were closed and didn’t think he would hear me as I left. But the goddamn Japanese heard me and rushed at me shouting the Zen equivalent of banzai. 11. My father was an amateur boxing champion in the heavyweight category. His undefeated reign spanned the whole south of Chile. I have never liked boxing, but I had trained since I was young; there was always a pair of boxing gloves in my house, in now distant Chile or in Mexico. 12. When Master Ejo Takata rushed shouting at me he probably intended me no harm, still less expected that I would automatically defend myself. The blows of his rod generally served to loosen up the taut nerves of his disciples. But I didn’t have taut nerves, I only wanted to get out of there for good. 13. If you think they’re attacking you, you’ll defend yourself, that’s a natural law, especially at age seventeen, especially in Mexico City. Ejo Takata was Nerudan in his ingenuousness. 14. Jodorovsky said that he had brought Takata into Mexico. For a while Takata searched for drug addicts in the jungle of Oaxaca, most of them North Americans, who had not made it back from hallucinogenic journeys. 15. At any rate, the experience with Takata did not get me to quit smoking. 16. One of the things I liked about Jodorovsky was that he spoke of Chilean intellectuals (generally against them) and included me in their number. This won my trust completely, though needless to say I didn’t have the slightest intention of becoming anything like those intellectuals. 17. One evening, I don’t know why, we began to talk about Chilean poetry. He said that the greatest was Nicanor Parra. Immediately he started to recite one of Nicanor’s poems, then another, then a final poem. Jodorovsky recited well, but the poems didn’t impress me. In those days I was a hypersensitive youth, also eccentric and highly arrogant, and I declared that without doubt the greatest poet of Chile was Pablo Neruda. The rest, I added, were dwarfs. The discussion must have lasted a half hour. Jodorovsky brandished arguments by Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti and Madame Blavatski, then he spoke of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, then of Topor, Arrabal and himself. I remember that he said that Nicanor, on the way to somewhere, had stayed at his house. In that declaration I detected a puerile pride that I have never stopped noticing in most writers.  18. In one of his writings Bataille says that tears are the final form of communication. I began to weep, but not in a normal and formal way, that is, letting my tears fall smoothly over my cheeks, but wildly, with a great burbling, more or less as Alice wept in Wonderland, drowning everything. 19. When I left Jodorowski’s house I knew that I would never again return there and this pained me as much as his words and I went on weeping down the street. I also knew, though in a dimmer way, that I would never again have so kind a mentor, a white-gloved thief, the perfect con man. 20. But what struck me most about my position was the defense, miserable at best and badly argued, though in the end still a defense, that I made for Pablo Neruda, of whom I had read only the Twenty Love Songs (which in those days I found unintentionally funny) and the Book of Twilights, whose poem “Farewell” incarnated the height of the heights of tackiness, but for which I feel an unbreakable loyalty. 21. In 1971 I read Vallejo, Huidobro, Martin Adan, Borges, Oquendo de Amat, Pablo de Rokha, Gilberto Owen, Lopez Velarde, Oliverio Girondo. I even read Nicanor Parra. I even read Pablo Neruda! 22. The Mexican poets of the time who were my friends, and with whom I shared Bohemia and reading, were basically divided between Vallejans and Nerudans. I was a Parran in the void, without the least doubt. 23. But fathers must be killed, the poet is a born orphan. 24. In 1973 I returned to Chile on a long journey by land and by sea, delayed by the caprices of hospitality. I met revolutionaries of a different sort. The whirlwind of fire in which Central America would soon see itself enveloped was already apparent in the eyes of my friends, who spoke of death as one would relate a movie. I arrived in Chile in August 1973. I wanted to participate in the construction of socialism. The first book of poems I bought was Heavy Work, by Parra. The second, Artifacts, also by Parra. 26. I had less than a month to enjoy the construction of socialism. Of course I didn’t know it then. I was Parran in my ingenuousness. 27. I attended an exhibition and saw various Chilean poets, it was terrifying. 28. On the eleventh of September I presented myself as a volunteer at the only operative cell in the neighborhood where I lived. The leader was a Communist worker, plump and perplexed, but ready to fight. His wife seemed more valiant than him. We all piled up in the small, wood-floored dining room. While the cell leader spoke I noticed the books he had on the sideboard. There were not many, mostly cowboy novels like those my father read. 29. The eleventh of September was for me, besides a bloody spectacle, a humorous spectacle. 30. I watched over an empty street. I forgot my countersign. My comrades were fifteen years old or were retired or unemployed. 31. When Neruda died I was already in Mulchen, with my uncles and aunts, with my cousins. In November, while I was traveling from Los Angeles to Concepcion, they stopped me at a highway checkpoint and took me prisoner. I was the only one they took off the bus. I thought that they were going to kill me right there. From the prison cell I heard the conversation that the chief of the reserves, a very young gendarme with the face of a son of a bitch (a son of a bitch turning around inside a sack of meal), was carrying on with the chiefs in Concepcion. He said that he had captured a Mexican terrorist. Then he retracted that and said: a foreign terrorist. He mentioned my accent, my dollars, the brand of my shirt and pants. 32. My great-grandmothers, the Floreses and the Grañas, tried in vain to tame the Araucania (though they could not even tame themselves), but most likely they were Nerudan in their excess; my grandfather Roberto Avalos Marti was a colonel and was sent to various posts in the south until an early and obscure retirement, which makes me think that he was Nerudan in the white and blue; my paternal grandparents arrived from Galacia and Catalonia, ended their lives in the province of Bio-Bio and were Nerudan in the landscape and their laborious slowness. 33. For some days I was imprisoned in Concepcion and then they released me. They did not torture me, as I had feared, they did not even rob me. But neither did they feed me or give me anything to cover myself at night, so that I had to live off the goodwill of the prisoners who shared their food with me. In the mornings I heard how they tortured the others, unable to sleep, without anything to read besides a magazine in English that someone had forgotten there and in which there was nothing interesting besides an article about a house which had once belonged to the poet Dylan Thomas. 34. Two detectives rescued me from my difficulty, ex-classmates of mine in the Men’s High School in Los Angeles, and my friend Fernando Fernandez, who was a year older than me, twenty-one, but whose sang-froid was without doubt comparable to the ideal image of the Englishman which Chileans have vainly and hopelessly tried to possess for themselves. 35. In January of 1974 I left Chile. I have never gone back. 36. Were the Chileans of my generation valiant? Yes, they were valiant. 37. In Mexico they told me the story of a girl in the MIR who was tortured by inserting live rats into her vagina. This girl was able to exile herself and came to Mexico City. She lived there but felt more grief every day, and one day she died of that grief. They told me that. I didn’t know her personally. 38. It’s not an unusual story. We know of Guatemalan peasants subjected to humiliations without name. The incredible thing about this story is its omnipresence. In Paris they told me that a Chilean had once arrived there who had been tortured in the same way. This Chilean was also in the MIR, she was the same age as the Chilean in Mexico and she had died, like the other, of grief. 39. Some time later I learned the story of a Chilean from Estocolmo, a young fighter in the MIR or ex-fighter in the MIR, tortured in November of 1973 by the system of the rats and who had died, to the astonishment of the doctors caring for her, of grief, of morbus melancholicus. 40. Can one die of grief? Yes, one can die of grief, one can die of hunger (though it is painful), one can even die of spleen. 41. This unknown Chilean, put repeatedly through torture and death, was she the same or was it three different Chileans, even if they were fellow believers in the same struggle, with a similar beauty? According to a friend, they were all the same woman who, as in Vallejo’s poem “Mass,” went on multiplying after death without being the less dead for it. (Actually, in Vallejo’s poem the dead man is not multiplied, those who are multiplied are the supplicants, those who don’t want him to die.) 42. There was once a Belgian poet named Sophie Podolsky. She was born in 1953 and committed suicide in 1974. She published only one book, called Le pays où tout est permis (Montfaucon Research Center, 1972, 280 facsimile pages). 43. Germain Nouveau (1852-1920), who was a friend of Rimbaud, spent the last years of his life as a vagabond and a beggar. He came to call himself Humilis (in 1910 he published Les poèmes d’Humilis) and lived in the doorways of churches. 44. Anything is possible. Every poet ought to know this. 45. Once they asked me which were the best young Chilean poets that I liked. Perhaps they didn’t use the word “young” but “current.” I said that I liked Rodrigo Lira, although he could no longer be current (but certainly young, younger than all of us) as he was dead. 46. Dancing pairs for young Chilean poetry: the Nerudans in geometry with the Huidobrans in cruelty, the Mistralans in humor with the Rokhans in humility, the Parrans in bone with the Lihnans in the eye. 47. I admit it: I can’t read Neruda’s book of memoirs without feeling bad, fatal. What a heap of contradictions. What an effort to conceal and embellish that which has its face disfigured. What lack of generosity and what little sense of humor. 48. There was a period, happily now passed from my life, in which I would see Adolf Hitler in the hall of my house. Hitler did nothing more than walk up and down the hall, and when he passed by the open door of my bedroom he did not even look at me. At the beginning I thought he was (what else could he be?) the devil and that my madness was irreversible. 49. After fifteen days Hitler faded away and I thought the next to appear would be Stalin. But Stalin did not appear. 50. It was Neruda who was placed in my hall. Not fifteen days, as with Hitler, but three, a considerably shorter time, a sign that the depression was lifting. 51. But in contrast Neruda made noise (Hitler was silent as a drifting piece of ice), he complained, he muttered incomprehensible words, his hands were extended, his lungs sucked up the air of the hall (of that cold European hall) with delectation, his signs of pain and his beggarly manner changed after the first night to such a degree that the ghost seemed remade by the end, something else, a court poet, dignified and solemn. 52. On the third and last night, passing by my bedroom door, he stopped and looked at me (Hitler had never looked at me) and, this is the most extraordinary thing, he tried to speak, he could not, he gestured his impotence and finally, before disappearing with the first light of day, smiled at me (as if telling me that all communication is impossible but that, nonetheless, the attempt must be made?). 53. Some time ago I learned of three Argentinian brothers who had died trying to start the revolution in different Latin American countries. The two oldest betrayed each other and betrayed the youngest in the process. This last did not betray his brothers, and died, it is said, calling for them, though most likely he died in silence. 54. The sons of the Spanish lion, said Ruben Dario, a born optimist. The sons of Walt Whitman, of José Marti, of Violeta Parra; flayed, forgotten, in mass graves, at the bottom of the sea, their bones mingled in a Trojan fate that terrifies those surviving. 55. I think of them in these days when the veterans of the International Brigades visit Spain, little old men who step out of the buses with raised fists. There were 40,000 of them and now 350 are returning to Spain, or something near. 56. I think of Beltran Morales, I think of Rodrigo Lira, I think of Mario Santiago, I think of Reinaldo Arenas. I think of the poets dead on the rack, dead of AIDS, of overdoses, of all those who believed in the Latin American paradise and who died in the Latin American hell. I think of those works that hardly allow the left to rise from the pit of shame and futility. 57. I think of our useless pointed heads and of the abominable death of Isaac Babel. 58. When I am older I want to be Nerudan in synergy. 59. Questions before bedtime. Why did Neruda not like Kafka? Why did Neruda not like Rilke? Why did Neruda not like De Rokha? 60. Did he like Barbusse? Everything would lead one to believe so. And Sholokhov. And Alberti. And Octavio Paz. Strange companions for a journey through Purgatory. 61. But he also liked Eluard, who wrote love poems. 62. If Neruda had been a cocaine addict, a heroin addict, if a piece of shrapnel had killed him in the siege of Madrid in ’36, if he had been Lorca’s lover and had committed suicide after his death, the story would be another. If Neruda were the unknown that at bottom he truly is! 63. In the basement of what we call “Neruda’s work” does there lurk Ugolino ready to devour his sons? 64. Without any remorse! Innocently! Only because he is hungry and does not wish to die! 65. He did not have children, but the people wanted it. 66. As if to the Cross, must we return to Neruda with bloodied knees, pierced lungs, eyes filled with tears? 67. When our names no longer mean anything his name will continue to shine, will continue to glide above an imaginary literature called Chilean literature. 68. All poets, then, will live in artistic communities called prisons or madhouses. 69. Our imaginary home, our common home.


Translated by Paul Kerschen