From the eponymous novella in the collection Cowboy Graves, which will be published this month by Penguin Press. The text of this story was discovered in a file named VAKEROS.doc on Bolaño’s hard drive and is estimated to have been written between 1995 and 1998. Translated from the Spanish.
My mother read mail-order romance novels sent from Santiago and she read paranormal magazines. My father read only westerns. I read Nicanor Parra and I thought that gave me an advantage. It gave me no advantage at all, of course. Which was more or less what Mónica Vargas told me a few days before I left Chile.
Back then, toward the end of 1968, it wasn’t easy to leave one Latin American country and enter another. Even today it’s hard, but back then it was worse. You had to fill out a big stack of papers before the trip, forms that couldn’t be processed in the small provincial capital where we lived. So we sold everything we had, which wasn’t much—some furniture, more or less—and two weeks before the date of our trip (our first attempt to leave the country) we moved to Santiago, where we stayed with one of my mother’s friends, Rebeca Vargas, a high school teacher and southern transplant. She lived with Mónica, her younger sister, who was studying at the conservatory.
Mónica was very thin, with long, straight hair and big breasts, and she played the flute. The first night we spent there, we stayed up late talking, and when everyone had gone to bed and we were about to go to bed too (she in her sister’s room and I on the sofa), we went out onto the balcony, maybe to look at the streetlights and the neon signs of Santiago, or to gaze at the mountains by the light of the moon, which looked like a reflector dangling in the abyss. Before that, in the living room or the kitchen, I remember helping her make another round of tea and bread with avocados and jam (as if that night my mother and all of us who had stayed up late listening to her talk had worked up an appetite: not for lunch or dinner, but for afternoon tea, which is the appetite of tales and legends), and when she asked me what I wanted to study in Mexico, I said medicine, but I really wanted to be a poet. That’s great, she said, setting out the tea, the milk, the yogurt (it was the first time I’d had yogurt that way, in a container), with a Hilton firmly pinched between her lips or her long fingers with bitten nails. What have you read? The question came as such a surprise that suddenly I had no idea what to say, at a time in my life when I had answers for everything. Nicanor Parra, I said. Ah, Nicanor, said Mónica, as if she knew him and they were dear friends. Poems and Antipoems, Editorial Nascimento, 1954, I said. He’s the only one worth reading, said Mónica, and that was it until we went out onto the balcony. She was holding a cigarette, her last of the night, and I was debating whether to ask her for one, afraid and embarrassed that she would say no because I wasn’t old enough to smoke, though now I know that she wouldn’t have. She was sitting in a wooden folding chair and I was standing, almost with my back to her, staring at the dark city, wishing I never had to leave. Then Mónica said that she was going to loan me a book to read before we left. What book? I asked. Rilke, she said. Letters to a Young Poet. I remember that we looked at each other, or it seemed to me that we did—Mónica actually had her eyes fixed on the hazy mass of Santiago—and I remember that I felt as offended, as humiliated, as if she had refused me a cigarette. I realized that the Letters were her way of advising me not to write poetry; I realized that the Young Poet never wrote anything worthwhile, that at best he’d been killed in some duel or war; I realized that Mónica might talk like Nicanor was her friend but she had no idea how to read him; I realized that Mónica knew that aside from Nicanor Parra (Mr. Parra), I hadn’t read much in my life. I realized all of this in a second, and I felt like crouching on the balcony and saying: You’re so right, but you couldn’t be more wrong—not a very Chilean thing to say, though very Mexican. Instead I looked at her and asked for a cigarette. Silently, as if her thoughts were far from that balcony hanging innocently over Santiago, she handed me the pack and then gave me a light. We smoked for a while in silence. She finished hers (she smoked them down to the filter) and I smoked my whole cigarette. Then we shut the door to the balcony and I sat on the sofa waiting for her to leave so I could go to bed. Mónica vanished for a second and then came back with the Rilke. If you’re not too tired, start it to- night, she said. Then she said good night and I kissed her on the mouth. She didn’t seem surprised, but she gave me a look of reproach before disappearing down the hallway. Actually, the hallway was small and the apartment was small, much smaller than the house we had just left, but unfamiliar places always seem bigger.
The next night, when Mónica got back from her classes at the conservatory, I told her I thought the author of Letters to a Young Poet was a prude. That’s all? she said, her expression as serious as it had been the night before. That’s all, I said. That night, Mónica didn’t hang around after dinner to smoke a last cigarette with me.