Oral History — September 27, 2017, 4:43 pm

After Shock

“The night of the earthquake I was by myself; I lived alone. I thought, like so many Chileans, that it was the end of the world. I thought, above all, about how I had no one to protect.”

On September 7, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake occurred off the southern coast of Mexico. It was followed, less than two weeks later, by a 7.1-magnitude quake that struck Mexico City. The two earthquakes and their aftershocks have killed more than 400 people. Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean writer living in Mexico City. A version of this column originally ran in Qué Pasa, a Chilean newsmagazine, on September 22, 2017. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and James Yeh.

My grandmother lost nearly her entire family in the 1939 Chillán earthquake. We grew up hearing the story of her mother’s death: they were in the same room but at opposite corners, and there was no chance for an embrace. My grandmother, who was twenty-one at the time, spent hours choking on dirt before her brother managed to rescue her. She survived by a miracle and went on to become the most delightful person in the world, but whenever she told us this story, it ended in a generous bout of weeping.

My grandmother was with us in Santiago when the March 1985 earthquake hit. I was playing foosball with my cousin Rodrigo—I remember I was winning: my white team was beating his blue team. My grandmother swooped us out of the house and into the yard, where she hugged us fiercely. My mother and my sister came out next, and five or ten anxious seconds later, my father emerged. That night I thought: So this is an earthquake.

Later that year, on September 19, came the big earthquake in Mexico. Glued to the TV, we watched the horrible images of Mexico City’s destruction over and over. I asked my father if we could go and help the victims. He laughed and explained to me that Mexico was far away, many hours by plane. I was embarrassed. I was nine years old and apparently had never seen a map. Maybe it was TV or music that had made me assume Mexico was as close to Chile as Peru or Argentina.

Fast-forward to February 2010. The night of the earthquake I was by myself; I lived alone. I thought, like so many Chileans, that it was the end of the world. I thought, above all, about how I had no one to protect. The next day, I searched through the wreckage of my books to find Jorge Teillie’s poem “A Lone Man in a Lonely House,” and I memorized it. I wanted to laugh at myself—at my self-pity, at my sadness—but I couldn’t summon a smile: “A lone man in a lonely house / Has no wish to light a fire / No wish to sleep or stay awake / A lone man in a sick house.”

Now my house is in Mexico City, and I’m less alone than I’ve ever been. I suppose that these two earthquakes in a row have made me less of a foreigner. On September 7, I had my left ear and right hand on my wife Jazmina’s belly; she was nearly seven months pregnant. And on September 19, I had just written the first paragraph of this column. It was going to be a different column, of course: I can’t even remember what it was about.

Yesterday we went out for a while, sometimes helping, other times hindering. We sent text messages, answered emails, made phone calls; that is, as always, we did what we could and felt that it wasn’t much, that it wasn’t enough. But at least at the end of the day we did manage to find two of our best friends, Frank and Jovi, in a square in Colonia Roma. “My knee is doing much better,” said Frank with steadfast optimism, right after he stashed his crutches in the back seat of the car.

When the first earthquake struck, Frank had just had an operation and couldn’t put weight on his left foot. He went down six flights of stairs with Jovi’s help, in underpants and on crutches, and they spent hours in the courtyard in front of the building before deciding to return to their apartment. The building was full of cracks, though according to the engineers still structurally sound. In the second earthquake the whole building nearly collapsed, and getting down from the sixth floor was almost impossible.

“You’re an expert in earthquakes, all Chileans are,” Frank says to me now. I tell him my specialty is Chilean earthquakes; when it comes to Mexican ones, I’m just a beginner. And we smile, as if it weren’t true.

A few years ago, on the main wall of that apartment they won’t return to now, Frank and Jovi hung a gigantic map, six feet by six feet, of Mexico City. But a gigantic map of Mexico City is nearly indecipherable without a magnifying glass and a whole lot of patience. It’s just started to rain; we’re still waiting for aftershocks and we’re all very sad, but I think I want to live here for a long time, until I memorize that map, until I learn it by heart.

Share
Single Page

More from Alejandro Zambra:

From the August 2018 issue

Literary Customs

From the February 2015 issue

Family Life

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

In response to a major volcanic eruption, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines vowed he would “eat that ashfall. I’m even going to pee on Taal, that goddamned volcano.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today