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December 2009 Issue [Readings]

Praise to the Highways


From Antwerp, which will be published for the first time in English next year by New Directions. Bolaño’s “Luz Mendiluce Thompson” appeared in the March 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

cleaning utensils

All praise to the highways and to these moments. Umbrellas abandoned by bums in shopping plazas with white supermarkets rising at the far ends. It’s summer and the policemen are drinking at the back of a bar. Next to the jukebox a girl listens to the latest hits. Around the same time, someone is walking, far from here, away from here, with no plans to come back. A naked boy sitting outside his tent in the woods? The girl stumbled into the bathroom and began to vomit. When you think about it, we’re not allotted much time here on earth to make lives for ourselves: I mean, to scrape something together, get married, wait for death. Her eyes in the mirror like letters fanned out in a dark room; the huddled breathing shape burrowed into bed with her. The men talk about dead small-time crooks, the price of houses on the coast, extra paychecks. One day I’ll die of cancer. Cleaning utensils begin to levitate in her head. She says: I could go on and on. The kid came into the
room and grabbed her by the shoulders. The two of them wept like characters from different movies projected on the same screen. Red scene of bodies turning on the gas. The bony beautiful hand turned the knob. Choose just one of these phrases: “I escaped torture” . . . “An unknown hotel” . . . “No more roads” . . .

the bum

I remember one night at the Mérida train station. My girlfriend was asleep in her sleeping bag and I was keeping watch with a knife in the pocket of my jacket. I didn’t feel like reading. Anyway. . . . Phrases appeared. I mean, I never closed my eyes or made an effort to think, the phrases just appeared, literally, like glowing ads in the middle of the empty waiting room. Across the room, on the floor, slept a bum, and next to me slept my girlfriend, and I was the only one awake in the whole silent, repulsive Mérida train station. My girlfriend breathed calmly in her red sleeping bag and that calmed me. The bum sometimes snored, sometimes talked in his sleep, he hadn’t shaved for days and he was using his jacket as a pillow. His left hand shielded his chest. The phrases appeared like news on an electronic ticker. White letters, not very bright, in the middle of the waiting room. The bum’s shoes stood next to his head. The toe of one of his socks was full of holes. Sometimes my girlfriend shifted. The door to the street was yellow and in some places the paint had a bleak look. I mean, only slightly, but at the same time absolutely bleak. I wondered whether the bum was dangerous. Phrases. I clutched the knife, still in my pocket, and waited for the next phrase. In the distance I heard the whistle of a train and the ticking of the station clock. I’m saved, I thought. We were on our way to Portugal and this happened some time ago. My girlfriend breathed. The bum offered me cognac from a bottle he had in his bag. We talked for a few minutes and then we were quiet until morning.

la pava roadside bar of castelldefels (everyone’s eaten more than one dish or one dish costing more than 200 pesetas, except for me!)

Dear Lisa, Once I talked to you on the phone for more than an hour without realizing that you had hung up. I was at a public phone on Calle Bucareli, at the Reloj Chino corner. Now I’m in a bar on the Catalan coast, my throat hurts, and I’m close to broke. The Italian girl said she was going back to Milan to work, even if it made her sick. I don’t know whether she was quoting Pavese or she really didn’t feel like going back. I think I’ll go to the campground nurse for some antibiotics. The scene breaks up geometrically. We see a deserted beach at eight o’clock, tall orange clouds; in the distance a group of five people walk away from the observer in Indian file. The wind lifts a curtain of sand and covers them.


There’s a secret sickness called Lisa. Like all sicknesses it’s miserable and it comes on at night. In the weave of a mysterious language whose words signify without exception that the foreigner “isn’t well.” And somehow I would like her to know that the foreigner is “having a hard time,” “in strange lands,” “without much chance of writing epic poetry,” “without much chance of anything.” The sickness takes me to strange and frozen bathrooms where the plumbing works according to an unexpected mechanism. Bathrooms, dreams, long hair flying out the window to the sea. The sickness is a wake. (The author appears shirtless, in black glasses, posing with a dog and a backpack in the summer somewhere.) “The summer somewhere,” sentences lacking in tranquillity, though the image they refract is motionless, like a coffin in the lens of a still camera. The writer is a dirty man, with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his short hair wet with sweat, hauling barrels of garbage. He’s also a waiter who watches himself filming as he walks along a deserted beach, on his way back to the hotel . . . “The wind whips grains of sand” . . . “Without much chance” . . . The sickness is to sit at the base of the lighthouse staring into nothing. The lighthouse is black, the sea is black, the writer’s jacket is also black.

working-class neighborhoods

The nameless girl wanders the working-class neighborhoods of Barcelona. A girl born in France, to Spanish parents? The beach stretches in a straight line to the next town. She opened the window. It was overcast but hot. She went back into the bathroom. She looked curiously at the buildings along the street. All of this is paranoia, she thought. She’s eighteen but she doesn’t exist, she was born in an industrial city of France and her name is Rosario or María Dolores, but she can’t exist because I’m still here. The guard is asleep? She looked at her watch. Returning to the window, she lit a cigarette. Through the curtains the boys dozed amid the shadows on the street. Intermittent forms, the sound of barely audible voices. She stared at the moon that hung over the building across the street. From the street came the words “ship,” “Olympia,” “restaurant.” The girl sat on the terrace of a “restaurant” and asked for a glass of white wine. Over her head was the green awning, and, above that, the summer. Like the moon peeping over the building and her gazing at it, thinking about the motorcyclists and the name of the month: July. Born in France to Spanish parents, blond hair, very far away from the restaurant and the words with which they try to distract her. “I woke up because you were lost in the shadows of the bedroom” . . . “A powerful explosion” . . . “I was deaf for the rest of the day” . . . She dreamed of empty cars in lots as black as coal. There are no more towns or working-class neighborhoods for this actor. Eighteen years old, so far away. She goes back into the bathroom. Girl kaput.

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