Authors: Roberto Bolaño
It didn't take me long to realize that Elena was very much in love with Paolo. What will you do when he finally goes to Cuba? I asked her one day. I don't know, she said, looking like a lonely little Mexican girl, and in that face I thought I saw a gleam or a pang that I had seen before, and I knew it wasn't a sign of good things to come. Nothing good ever comes of love. What comes of love is always something better. But better can sometimes mean worse, if you're a woman, if you live on this continent, hit upon unhappily by the Spaniards, inopportunely populated by Asians gone astray.
That's what I thought, shut up in the women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the faculty of Philosophy and Literature in September 1968. I thought about those Asians crossing the Bering Strait, I thought about the solitude of America, I thought about how strange it is to emigrate eastward rather than westward. I may be silly and I'm certainly no expert on the matter, but in these troubled times no one will deny that to migrate eastward is like migrating into the depths of the night. That's what I thought, sitting on the floor, with my back against the wall, gazing absently at the spots on the ceiling. Eastward. To where night comes from. But then I thought: It's also where the sun comes from. It all depends on when the pilgrims set out on their march. And then I struck my forehead (or tapped it, because I didn't have much strength after so many days without food) and I saw Elena walking down an empty street in Colonia Roma, I saw Elena walking eastward, toward the depths of the night, on her own, well dressed, limping; I saw her and I called out, Elena! But no sound at all came out of my mouth.
And Elena turned to me and said she didn't know what she was going to do. Maybe go to Italy. Maybe wait until he comes back to Mexico. I don't know, she said to me with a smile, but I knew that she knew very well what she was going to do and that she was already resigned to it. As for the Italian, he was happy to let her love him and show him around Mexico City. I can't remember all the places we went together: la Villa, Coyoacán, Tlatelolco (that time I didn't go, it was just him and Elena), the slopes of Popocatepetl, Teotihuacán, and everywhere we went the Italian was happy and Elena was happy too, and so was I, because I've always enjoyed sightseeing and the company of happy people.
One day, at the Casa del Lago, we even ran into Arturito Belano. I introduced him to Elena and Paolo. I told them he was an eighteen-year-old Chilean poet. I explained that he wrote plays as well as poems. Paolo said, How interesting. Elena didn't say anything because, by this stage, she was only interested in her relationship with Paolo. We went to have coffee at a place called El Principio de Mexico in the Calle de Tokio (it shut down a while back). I don't know why I remember that afternoon. That afternoon of 1971 or 1972. And the strangest thing is that I remember it prospectively, from 1968. From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day. From the women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.
And I remember that Arturito and the Italian talked about theater, Latin American theater, and Elena ordered a cappuccino and was rather quiet, and I started looking at the walls and the floor of El Principio de Mexico, and immediately noticed something odd—I always pick up on things like this—a sort of noise, wind or breath, blowing up through the foundations of the café at irregular intervals. And so the minutes went by, with Arturito and Paolo talking about theater, Elena sitting quietly, and me turning my head from time to time, attentive to the receding sounds of what, by then, was undermining not only the Principio de Mexico but the whole city, as if I were being warned a few years in advance or a few centuries too late about the fate of Latin American theater, the double nature of silence, and the collective catastrophe of which improbable sounds are often harbingers.
Improbable sounds and clouds. And then Paolo stopped talking with Arturito and said that the visa for Cuba had arrived that morning. And that was it. The noises stopped. The pensive silence was broken. We forgot about Latin American theater, even Arturito, who wasn't generally quick to let a subject go, although the theater he preferred was not Latin American at all but that of Beckett and Jean Genet. And we started talking about Cuba and the interview that Paolo was going to have with Fidel Castro, and that was that. We said goodbye on Reforma. Arturo was the first to leave. Then Elena and her Italian went off. Which left me standing there, drinking in the breeze on the avenue as I watched them walk away. Elena's limp was more pronounced than usual. I thought about Elena. I breathed. I trembled. I watched her limp away with the Italian at her side. And suddenly I could see only her. The Italian began to disappear, becoming transparent; all the people walking along Reforma became transparent. All my aching eyes could make out was Elena, with her overcoat and her shoes. And then I thought: Resist, Elena. And then I thought: Catch up with her and give her a hug. But she was going off to live her last nights of love and I couldn't disturb her.
After that I went for a long time without news of Elena. No one knew anything. One of her friends said to me: Missing in action. Another said: Apparently she went to Puebla, to her parents' place. But I knew that Elena was in Mexico City. One day I went looking for her house and got lost again. Another day, at the university, I got hold of her address and took a taxi there, but no one came to the door. I went back to the poets, I went back to being a night owl and forgot about Elena. Sometimes I dreamed of her and saw her limping through the boundless campus of the UNAM. Sometimes I peered out of my window in the women's bathroom on the fourth floor and saw her approaching the faculty building amid a whirl of transparent forms. Sometimes I fell asleep on the tiled floor and heard her steps coming up the stairs, as if she were coming to rescue me, coming to say sorry for having taken so long. And I opened my mouth, half dead or half asleep, and said,
Elena, quite uncharacteristically using that awful Mexican slang word for
Chido, chido, chido. How awful. There's something masochistic about Mexican slang. Or sadomasochistic, sometimes.
hat's the way love is, my friends; I speak as the mother of all the poets. That's the way love is, and slang, and the streets, and sonnets. And the sky at five in morning. But friendship is something different. If you have friends you're never alone.
I was friends with León Felipe and Don Pedro Garfias, but also with the youngest poets, the kids who lived in a lonely world of love and slang.
Arturito Belano was one of them.
I met him, I was his friend, and he was my favorite young poet, although he wasn't Mexican, and the expressions "young poets" and "new generation" were generally used to refer to the young Mexicans who were trying to take over from Pacheco or the conspicuous Greek of Guanajuato or the chubby little guy who was working in the Ministry of the Interior while waiting for the Mexican government to appoint him ambassador or consul somewhere, or the Peasant Poets, those four, or three, or five (I forget) horsemen of the Nerudian apocalypse, but Arturo Belano, in spite of being the youngest of them all, for a time at least, wasn't Mexican and therefore didn't fall into the category of "young poets" or "new generation," terms that designated a formless but living mass intent on pulling the rug out from under their elders or undermining the fertile fields on which they were grazing like statues: Pacheco and the Greek of Guanajuato or Aguascalientes or Irapuato, and the chubby little guy who, with the passage of time, had become a greasy, fat, obsequious man (as poets are prone to do), and the Peasant Poets, who were more and more comfortably ensconced in the administrative and literary bureaucracy (but what am I saying: they were lodged there, bolted down, deeply rooted from the very start). And what the young poets or the new generation were trying to do was to make the ground shift, to topple and in due course destroy those statues, except for Pacheco, the only one who seemed to be a real writer, not a public servant. But deep down they were against Pacheco too. Deep down they couldn't allow themselves to make any exceptions. So when I said to them, But José Emilio is charming, he's so kind, so interesting, and he's a real gentleman too, the young poets of Mexico (including Arturito, although he wasn't really one of them) looked at me as if to say, What's she going on about, this crazy woman, this specter escaped from that infernal women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature. Now most people, faced with that kind of stare, would quail, but not me, I was their mother, after all, and backing down was something I simply didn't do.
Once I told them a story I had heard José Emilio tell: if Rubén Darío hadn't died so young, before reaching the age of fifty, Huidobro would certainly have got to know him, much as Ezra Pound got to know W. B. Yeats. Imagine it: Huidobro working as Dario's secretary. But the young poets were too young to be able to grasp how important the encounter between the old Yeats and the young Pound had been for poetry in English (and, in fact, for poetry all around the world), so they didn't realize how important the hypothetical encounter and the potential friendship between Darío and Huidobro might have been; they had no sense of the range of missed opportunities for poetry in our language. Because Darío, I dare say, would have taught Huidobro a great deal, but Huidobro would also have taught Darío a thing or two. That's how the relationship between master and disciple works: it is not only the disciple who learns. And since we're speculating, I believe, and so did Pacheco (with an innocent enthusiasm that is one of his great qualities), that, of the two, Darío would have learned more; he would have been able to bring Hispanic modernism to a close and begin something new, not the avant-garde as such, but an island, say, between modernism and the avant-garde, what we might now call the non-existent island, an island of words that never were, and could only have come into being (granted that this were even possible) after the imaginary encounter between Darío and Huidobro; and Huidobro himself, after his fruitful encounter with Darío, would have been able to found an even more vigorous avant-garde, what we might name the non-existent avant-garde, which, had it existed, would have transformed us and changed our lives. That's what I said to the young poets of Mexico (and Arturito Belano) when they were bad-mouthing José Emilio, but they didn't listen to me, or only to the anecdotes about the travels of Darío and Huidobro, their illnesses, their hospitals, but also the other kind of health they had, not condemned to fail prematurely, as so many things in Latin America fail.
And then I kept quiet while they went on bad-mouthing the poets of Mexico, the ones they were going to blow out of the water, and I thought about the dead poets, like Darío and Huidobro, and about all the encounters that never occurred. The truth is that our history is full of encounters that never occurred. We didn't have our Pound or our Yeats; we had Huidobro and Darío instead. We had what we had.
And, at the risk of overstretching every imagination but my own, which is supreme in its elasticity, I will say that some nights my friends even seemed, for a second, to be the incarnations of those who had never come into existence: the Latin American poets who died in childhood, at the age of five or ten, or just a few months after they were born. This exercise in vision was difficult, and futile too, or so it seemed, but, by the purplish light of certain nights, I could see through the features of my friends to the little faces of the babies who never grew up. I saw the little angels they bury in shoeboxes in Latin America, or in little wooden coffins painted white. And sometimes I said to myself: These kids are our hope. But other times I thought: Some hope, a bunch of drunk kids—all they can do is run down José Emilio—a band of young drunkards versed in the art of hospitality but not in the art of verse.
And then the young poets of Mexico began to recite poetry in their deep but irreparably juvenile voices, and the lines they recited went blowing in the wind through the streets of Mexico City, and I began to cry, and they said, Auxilio's drunk (the fools, it takes a lot more than that to get me drunk), or, She's crying because what's-his-name left her, and I let them say whatever they liked. Or I argued with them. Or insulted them. Or got up from my chair and left without paying—I never paid, or hardly ever. I was the one who could see into the past and those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity. So I figure I was paying, night after forgotten night, though nobody realized it; I was paying for everyone's round, the kids who would be poets and those who never would.
I left without paying, or so it seemed. I didn't have to pay because I could see the whirlwind of the past that swept like a breath of hot air through the streets of Mexico City, smashing the windows of the buildings. But I could also see the future from my obliterated cave in the fourth-floor women's bathroom, and for that I was paying with my life. So when I left I was paying after all, though nobody knew. I was paying for myself and for the young poets of Mexico and for the anonymous alcoholics of whatever bar we happened to be in that night. Off I went staggering through the streets of Mexico City, pursuing my elusive shadow, alone and tearful, feeling like the last Uruguayan on the planet, which I wasn't, of course, how egotistical, and although I was picking my way through craters illuminated by hundreds of moons, they were not the craters of planet Earth but those of Mexico, a distinction that might appear to be, but is not, quite devoid of sense.
And one night I had the feeling that someone was following me. I don't know where we had been. Maybe in a bar on the outskirts of La Villa, maybe at some dive in Colonia Guerrero. I can't remember. I only know that I kept on walking, making my way through the rubble, without paying much attention to the footsteps that were following in my footsteps, until suddenly the nocturnal sun went out, I stopped crying, came back to reality with a shudder and understood that the person following me, whoever it was, desired my death. Or my life. Or the tears I had shed on that hateful reality, as harsh as our often intractable tongue. And then I stopped and waited, and the steps that were echoing my steps stopped and waited too, and I looked around in the street for someone I knew, or a stranger I could run to, crying for help, who could take my arm and walk me to the nearest subway station or stay with me until I hailed a cab, but I couldn't see anyone. Or maybe I could. I saw something. I shut my eyes, then opened them, and I saw the white tiled walls of the women's bathroom on the fourth floor. Then I shut my eyes again and heard the wind sweeping through the campus around the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature with a diligence worthy of a higher enterprise. And I thought: History is like a horror story. And when I opened my eyes a shadow peeled away from a wall, moved onto the sidewalk about ten yards ahead, and began to come toward me, and I put my hand into my handbag, I mean my satchel from Oaxaca, and felt for my knife, which I always carried with me, as a precaution against urban emergencies, but the burning skin of my fingertips could feel only papers and books and magazines and even clean underwear (washed by hand, without soap, with water and sheer willpower, in one of the sinks of that dreamlike, omnipresent fourth-floor bathroom), but not the knife, ah, my friends, now there's another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it's not there.