Readings — From the April 2012 issue

I Can’t Read

From The Secret of Evil, a collection of writing found on Bolaño’s computer after his death in 2003, out in April from New Directions. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.

This story is about four people. Two children, Lautaro and Pascual, a woman, Andrea, and another child, named Carlos. It’s also about Chile, and, in a way, about Latin America in general.

When my son Lautaro was eight years old, he made friends with Pascual, who was four at the time. A friendship between children of such different ages is unusual, and maybe it was entirely due to the fact that when they met, in November 1998, Lautaro hadn’t seen or played with another child for days on end, because Carolina and I had been trundling him around all over the place, much to his disgruntlement. It was Carolina’s first trip to Chile and my first trip back since leaving in January 1974.

So when Lautaro met Pascual they immediately became friends.

I think it was when we went to have dinner with Pascual’s parents. The second time they met was when Alexandra, Pascual’s mother, took Carolina and Lautaro to a swimming pool. I didn’t go. And the boys might have seen each other again later on. So twice, or three times at the most.

The swimming pool was in the foothills of the Cordillera and, according to Carolina, the water was icy cold and neither she nor Alexandra went in. But Pascual and Lautaro did, and they had a great time.

A strange thing happened (one of the many strange things that will happen in this story and carry it and perhaps turn out to be what it’s really about): when they got to the swimming pool, Lautaro asked Carolina if he could have a pee. She, of course, said yes, and then Lautaro went to the edge of the pool, pulled down his trunks a bit and peed into the water. That night, Carolina said that she’d been embarrassed, not for Lautaro, but because of what Alexandra might have thought. The fact is Lautaro had never done anything like that before. The swimming pool wasn’t really busy, but there were a few people, and my son is not some wild boy who pees wherever he feels like it. It was very strange, Carolina said that night: the enormous Cordillera looming behind the swimming pool as if it were waiting, the laughter and the muted voices of the adults, oblivious to Lautaro’s surprising urination, and Lautaro himself, wearing only his swimming trunks, peeing onto the blue surface of the water. What happened next? I asked. Well, she got up from where she was sunbathing, walked over to our son, and took him to the bathroom. It was like he was under hypnosis, said Carolina. Then he felt ashamed and didn’t want to get into the pool, where Pascual was already splashing around, though after a while he forgot all about it and went in. But Carolina didn’t. Alexandra asked if it was because of the pee, and Carolina said it was because of the cold, which was the truth.

I’d met Alexandra at the airport, a few minutes after stepping off the plane. It was almost a quarter of a century since I’d been in Chile. I’d been invited by Paula magazine, as one of the judges for their short-story competition, and when we got through customs and immigration, Alexandra was there waiting for us, along with some people I didn’t know. When she said her name, Alexandra Edwards, I asked her if she was the daughter of Jorge Edwards, the writer, and she looked at me, frowned slightly, as if considering how to reply, then said no. I’m the daughter of the photographer, she explained a little while later. By that stage I was already one of her admirers. I have to say it’s not hard to admire her, because she’s very pretty. But it wasn’t her physical beauty that impressed me; it was something else, a side of her that I’ve gradually come to know and will probably never know completely, and yet I know it well enough to be sure we’ll always be friends. We’d arrived in the morning, and that afternoon, I remember, I had lunch with the rest of the judges, and I had to make a speech, and Alexandra was there, on the other side of the table, laughing with her eyes, which is something Chilean women often do, or that’s how it seemed to me at the time, a mistaken impression that must have been due to finding myself back in the country after so many years away; women everywhere laugh with their eyes, all the time, and men do too occasionally, and sometimes it’s actually happening, and sometimes we only think it is, that silent laughter, which reminds me of Andrea, who is one of the main characters in this story, Andrea and Lautaro and Pascual and Carlitos, but I still hadn’t met Andrea, or Pascual, and I’d never even heard of Carlitos, although the fortunate day was drawing near, as someone might have said—myself, perhaps, in January 1974.

Anyway, in spite of the age difference, Lautaro and Pascual became friends, and maybe it was there at the swimming pool perched in the foothills of the Cordillera that their friendship was cemented, after the peeing incident. When Carolina told me, I couldn’t believe it: Lautaro urinating, not in the pool, underwater, as almost all kids do, but from the edge, for everyone to see.

That night, however, I fell asleep and dreamed of my son in that landscape, which had once been mine, the landscape of my twentieth year, and I came to understand a part of what he must have felt. If I’d been killed in Chile, at the end of 1973 or the beginning of 1974, he wouldn’t have been born, I thought, and the act of urinating from the edge of the swimming pool—as if he were asleep or had suddenly been overtaken by dream—was a physical way of acknowledging that fact and its shadow: having been born and being in a world that might have existed without him.

In the dream I understood that when Lautaro peed in the pool, he was dreaming too, and I understood that although I would never be able to approach his dream, I would always be there beside him. And when I woke up I remembered that one night, when I was a boy, I got out of bed and urinated abundantly in my sister’s closet. But I was a sleepwalker, and Lautaro, fortunately, is not.

During that trip, which took up almost all of November 1998, I didn’t see Andrea. Well, I did, but without really seeing her.

I met Alexandra and Alexandra’s partner, Marcial, both of whom became friends, and whatever I say about them will be conditioned by the friendship that binds us, so perhaps it’s better that I don’t say too much.

But I didn’t see Andrea. If I think back, all I can remember is a smile, like the smile of the Cheshire cat, in the corridor of Alexandra and Marcial’s apartment, a voice emerging from the shadows, a pair of dark and very deep eyes that were laughing as Alexandra’s eyes had laughed when I made my first speech, just after arriving in Chile, but with a significant difference: Andrea, unlike Alexandra, was an invisible woman. I mean, she was invisible for me; at some point I saw her without really seeing her; I heard her, but I couldn’t tell where her voice was coming from.

One of the things Lautaro did around that time was to invent a method for approaching automatic doors without making them open. So in a way—I don’t know if it was before or after our first trip to Chile (shortly before, I think)—he too began to play at being invisible, and quite successfully too.

The first time I saw him demonstrate this skill was in Blanes, at a bakery in Blanes, before that trip to Chile. I can’t remember which writer said that if God was omnipresent, automatic doors should always be open. And since they’re not, God doesn’t exist. As well as being remarkable in itself, my son’s method put paid to that argument. Lautaro didn’t approach from the sides. Sometimes the sensors are placed in such a way that they don’t register a sidelong approach and the doors remain closed. That’s the easy or tricky way (though there’s really not much of a trick to it), but my son chose the hard way; that is, he confronted the doors head on, refusing to stack the odds in his favor, adopting a direct approach, which the sensors are bound to detect and react to, opening the doors to let you in or out.

The originality of his technique lay in the movements he made as he came toward the automatic doors. He would start off slowly, as if measuring the sensor’s range, tapping his feet intermittently, as if the sensor could pick up vibrations in the ground, and moving his arms like the slowly turning sails of a windmill. Then the door would open, allowing him to gauge the critical distance. He would step back immediately and the door would close again, and then the real approach would begin. Each movement was slowed down as far as possible. His feet, for instance, didn’t leave the ground; he slid them imperceptibly. His arms, held away from his torso, moved very slightly, like insects or auxiliary craft, as if unattached, as if this approach were being made not by a single body but by a shadow and two phantom shadows, two pilot shadows, and even his face was transformed; it seemed to blur but also to be concentrating on invisibility, on stasis and movement, on insubstantiality and paradox.

Once, in a big department store in Barcelona, I tried, in vain, to imitate him; the sensor kept detecting me, the doors opened every time. Lautaro, however, could go right up and touch the glass, reinforced or not, with the tip of his nose, unnoticed by the electronic eye, and this couldn’t be explained, as I thought at first, by his height, because at eight my son was relatively tall, or by his slimness, since he’s quite solidly built, but only by his aptitude, determination, and skill.

Something else I remember vividly from our first trip to Chile, and that enters unexpectedly into this story, is a bird. This bird was not invisible, but when it appeared one afternoon, I’m sure I was the only one to see it.

We were staying in a hotel with a kitchenette in Providencia, on the eighth or the ninth floor, and one afternoon when I had nothing to do I noticed a bird perched on one of the balconies of a neighboring building. For a while the bird sat still and seemed to be surveying the city as I was from the balcony of my apartment, except the bird was looking at the city and I was looking at the bird. I’m myopic, my distance vision is poor, but at some point I reached the conclusion that this strange and solitary bird was a raptor, a falcon or something like that (I’m an ornithological ignoramus, except when it comes to parrots). Very soon after that, the falcon or whatever it was went plummeting down, which dispelled any doubts I might still have had. But then came the really surprising part: the bird began to fly toward my balcony. I was afraid, but I didn’t move. It came to rest on the flat roof of a building right next to ours, and for a while we examined each other. Until I couldn’t bear it any longer and went back inside.

The day this happened was also the day when Lautaro showed Pascual his knack of approaching automatic doors without making them open, and Pascual gave Lautaro an airplane. Lautaro loved the airplane; it had been one of Pascual’s favorite toys, and maybe it was because of that gift that Lautaro showed him how to make like the invisible man, or, in Pascual’s low-tech version, like an Indian.

I saw the boys from a café terrace where I was sitting with Alexandra, Carolina, and Marcial. The others didn’t see. I can’t remember what we were talking about; all I remember is that Pascual and Lautaro approached a clothing store, unsuccessfully at first, because the door kept opening, and a woman with dyed-blond hair, wearing gray trousers and a black jacket, came out and said something to them, something I couldn’t hear, partly because I was listening to what my wife and friends were saying, and partly because the store was a fair way off, on the far side of that covered square, and I remember Lautaro and Pascual running away at first, then I remember them standing, looking up, listening to that slim bottle-blonde, who was probably telling them off, but then, when the woman disappeared back into the store, Lautaro resumed the operation while Pascual observed him from a predetermined spot, and at some point—I wasn’t watching them all the time—my son succeeded in touching the glass of the closed door with his nose, and it was only then, two days before our flight back to Europe, that I knew I’d arrived in Chile and that everything would be all right. It was an apocalyptic thought.

In 1999, the following year, I went back to Chile at the invitation of the Book Fair. Almost all the Chilean writers decided to attack me en patota, as they say in Chile: that is, in a gang. I guess it was their way of congratulating me for winning the Rómulo Gallegos Prize. I counterattacked. A woman of a certain age, who all her life had relied on the alms distributed to artists by a charitable state, called me a toady. Since I’ve never been a cultural attaché or held a sinecure, I was surprised by this accusation. I was also called a patero, which is not the same as a patota. A patero doesn’t necessarily belong to a patota, as you might be forgiven for supposing, although there are always pateros in a patota. A patero is a sycophant, a flatterer, a brownnose, an asslicker. The amazing thing about these accusations is that they were made by left- as well as right-wing Chileans who were busy licking ass nonstop to hang on to their scraps of fame, while everything that I’d accomplished (not that it amounts to much) was down to me and no one else. What was it that they didn’t like about me? Well, someone said it was my teeth. Fair enough; I can’t argue with that.

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