"Pegasus Autopsy" is one of four winning poems selected by David Tomas Martinez for the 2020 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen above to Bryan Mendoza read his translation of Julio Pazos Barrera's "Pegasus Autopsy"
It’s a spacious chamber.
A light that refracts the distant woodland.
Over the table lies
the body and the wings
like sails of a shipwreck.
They’ve stitched together the carnage
with no other motive
than something comparable to mercy.
Soon the volunteers will arrive
and they'll take the body,
including the wings
to the landfill.
“Disección del cadáver de Pegaso” © Julio Pazos Barrera. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Bryan Mendoza. All rights reserved.
How does one bring back to life the eroded fragments of authors we know next to nothing about? Gathering six lesser known figures of the Greek lyrical tradition, this anthology puts together translations in which a sense of loss goes hand in hand with the attempt to let these ancient poets sing again.
They still sing to us, the ancient poets do. Despite our ever-increasing distance from those first songs, the music remains; it can still be heard, if one is properly attuned for its reception. Part of the ongoing persistence of the classical tradition has to do with each generation’s need for their own version of that music. For every age that coalesces into a clearly defined aesthetic ideology—whether it’s labeled Romantic, Modernist or Postmodernist—we receive an iteration of the ancients that the historical moment demands. Alexander Pope’s Odyssey belongs to the eighteenth century in the same way that Ezra Pound’s first Canto belongs to the early twentieth. And while it is still too soon to say what our current moment will be called by future historians, we are still, thankfully, producing new versions of the old tales: Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey (W. W. Norton 2017) comes to mind, as does Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid (published posthumously by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2016), and, of course, Anne Carson’s continued process of translating—really rewriting—what feels like the entirety of the Greek classical tradition. The old songs are always being made new.
Stone-Garland, published by Milkweed Editions, is a beautiful and understated addition to the aforementioned works of literary translation. The collection, translations of “six poets from the Greek lyric tradition” by prolific poet and prose writer Dan Beachy-Quick, is described by its translator as a kind of “country graveyard overgrown by wildflowers and long grasses no mower could think to cull back.” Beachy-Quick’s translations lean into the elegiac possibilities of these poems and poets. It is not a coincidence that the introduction to the anthology begins by evoking Orpheus, “the poet who took his lyre and walked down into death.” And is that not what every anthology, in a sense, is? A graveyard of sorts, but one in which the voices of the dead eerily resonate? A site through which we can commune with the dead?
This feels especially true when translating poets whom we know, biographically speaking, very little about, whose lives and literary reputations exist almost entirely due to a few lyrical fragments. The tradition of the elegy as evoked here does not simply mean loss without a sense of restoration; for every translation of an ancient voice is, in some ways, a rebirth of that voice, if only in passing. The possibilities for historical and literary reconstruction are made that much more apparent.
In his lyrical introduction, Beachy-Quick reminds us of the etymological origins of the word anthology, derived from the Greek Anthos, meaning blooms or flowers: “Your hands should smell of the flowers you’re gathering when you read an anthology. The collection of poems is a kind of bouquet loosely bound, a flower-logic, a petal-theory, a blossom-word.” Following the form of the “sepulchral epigrams” of the foundational Palatine Anthology, a collection of poetic fragments from a number of classical poets, Beachy-Quick supplies us with brief yet crystalline glimpses into the lives and works of his six poets—Simonides, Anacreon/Anacreonata, Archilochus, Theognis, Alcman, and Callimachus. We learn about Simonides, for example, that “[h]e considered paintings poems that stay quiet, and poems paintings that speak”; of Anacreon we are told that he did not write hymns to gods “but to boys . . . ‘Because they are my gods.’” And of Alcman there are rumors that he learned to write poetry by “listening to the nightingales sing by the waters of the Eurotas; partridges, he says, taught him his poems,” and that he died, “according to Aristotle, of too much moisture in the body.” These brief and poetic biographies, mostly constructed of rumors and gossip and innuendo passed down through thousands of years, are all we have to go on; but they are enough to give us a sense of who these writers are, or at least who they are to Beachy-Quick.
There is much to admire in these translations, especially when there remains more than a few fragmentary lines and an entire poem comes into existence. Poems such as “Fragment” by Simonides and “Love’s Chore” by Anacreon are works worth discovering and reading carefully. Beachy-Quick has done a commendable job of making these poets sound all his own; or, as he phrases it in his introduction: “I have a mouth so that I can sing another’s song.”
“Field-Song” by Anachreon is a great example of one such profoundly powerful translation. The poem begins as an apostrophe to a “blessed” cicada:
when from the high bent-branch arch of trees
you have drunk your pure little dew,
how like a king, like an arrow-string, you sing.
You are one who is all things,
in the far fields you are as all you see,
great as the woods that bear the nut-bearing trees.
As with many great lyrics, what resonates here is Beachy-Quick’s attention to the tiny, creaturely details of the cicada’s hidden life. Details resonate and grow in significance as they are all brought together within the field of the poem itself. The poem, rather wonderfully and unexpectedly, in Beachy-Quick’s hands, takes on a Keatsian—and yes, elegiac—turn toward the end, clearly evoking the English Romantic’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:
Old age does not wear you away,
wise one, earth-born, song-lover—
with no suffering, without spilling blood,
you are so near, so like, the gods.
Keats’s lines from his “Ode” are:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .
I do not raise the ghost of Keats here to diminish the translation but rather to praise the translator’s ability to weave together these disparate but related traditions and voices. Influence can be a source of anxiety (following Harold Bloom) or a source of ecstasy (Johnathan Lethem’s rewriting of Bloom’s theory); Beachy-Quick, having also authored an insightful study of Keats titled A Brighter World than Bright (University of Iowa Press 2013), revels in the sonic potentialities of all of these voices being brought together in order to give us something entirely new: an Anachreon channeled through the voice of Keats and then through the language of the translator. The knotty and dense threads of literary influence are oftentimes impossible to untie; our voices are really composites of every other voice that we have heard and have considered worth remembering. These poems make such associations clear.
Of all the poets in the collection, it is Theognis, to my ear, who comes most to life on the page. He is a poet of “that unbroachable chasm between what life should be and what it is, a dissonance which speaks humble and true across the centuries, and makes [him] most human.” The poem “Sepulchral Lines by the Author,” here reproduced in its entirety, is paradigmatic of this poet’s ruefulness:
I don’t lust after a royal couch to sleep on
when I’m dead, just that some good thing
may come to me living. A thick carpet
of thorns spread out as bedsheets is fine
for the dead; for that strange guest, the bitterly
hard is as soft as the soft-ploughed field.
What is comfort to the dead when there is still so much to be done for the living? Death is that much more inconceivable for the simple fact that it means a kind of succor and peace impossible to find in life. Again, the elegiac possibilities of the lyric are brought to the foreground. In a number of other fragments, Theognis pines after his lost fortunes and his beloved, Cyrnus. Loss comes in all forms—material, emotional, spiritual . As he writes in another fragment, “sickness’s slow / weight gathers; old age suddenly stands up inside you.” But the songs, if only for a few moments, can fool us into thinking we are young again, alive again. The muses can, as Alcman claims, “fill up [our] heart[s] like— / like wine fills up a cup with desire / for a new song.” We grow old, as do our voices; we die; the best we can hope for is that the songs we sing will be picked up by others, turned into new forms, given new life, and that, for a moment, something of us might live again.
This year, we partnered with the Academy of American Poets to bring you the second edition of the Poems-in-Translation Contest. We received 935 poems from 448 poets from 87 countries translated from 58 languages. The four winning poems will be published in Words Without Borders and the Academy of American Poets’s “Poem-a-Day” throughout September and into October. Published alongside the poems will be the original language texts and recordings of both the original poems and their English language translations. Check back throughout the month for interviews with the winners on the WWB Daily, and don't miss a virtual celebration with readings from the winners on October 7 at 8 p.m. ET.
A Note from Contest Judge David Tomas Martinez
The 2020 Words Without Borders and Academy of American Poetry translation contest was a delight to adjudicate. It was an Hunahpúan effort to choose only four poems from this extraordinarily strong pool of poems. However, four poems particularly resonated with me and ultimately made a decision attainable. My choices are “Birds In Flight, 1965” from Tagalog/Philippines, “Learning Late Letters” from Vietnamese/Vietnam, “Pegasus Autopsy” from Ecuador/Spanish, and “Trial Run” from Chinese/China.
The winning poems and their date of publication are:
Judge's citation: “'Learning Late Letters' blends and disforms sampled lyrics from Vietnamese-French writer Linda Lê and Vietnamese-Vietnamese writer Trần Dần. The juxtaposition of the former gaining recognition while writing outside Vietnam and the latter’s largely posthumously praised writing from within Vietnam, created for me a triangulated experience of diaspora, particularly with the poet’s own voice indecipherably connected to the two already melded voices. What is literature but us writing with our ancestors? And is not history but an adoption of ancestral perceptions? This epistolary poem eruditely juggles historical and literary complexities while also maintaining an exquisitely bedecked language. And like culture, it cyclically tumbles ideas about the frequency of the number 36, about death, about speaking, over and over changing them as we experience each line."
“Pegasus Autopsy” by Julio Pazos Barrera, translated from Ecuadorian Spanish by Bryan Mendoza—September 19, 2020
Judge's citation: “'Pegasus Autopsy' is a clinical precision of a poem. The wonder hum of fluorescent light fixtures can be felt in each sparce line. In this wholly modern poem, myth perishes in the cathedral of modern science, the hospital. The only simile is an anachronistic mode of travel, sailing, where it too, perishes after having suffered a shipwreck. Everywhere here the old falls to the new. This poem is as tragic as it is beautiful, and every word feels purposeful. In the culmination of the poem, after the lifeless body of Pegasus has been inspected, drained of any usefulness to the modern, utilitarian obsessed world, its wings, the physical symbol of its transcendence, are to be aggregated into a landfill, the modern monument to mystery, which is to say it is “including the wings” with our other secrets. Knowledge and beauty are commodified. Accessing and ultimately discarding is the process of this world’s growth to this poem. Show me the lie."
“Trial Run” by Yau Ching, translated from Chinese by Chenxin Jiang—September 26, 2020
Judge's citation: “‘Trial Run’ is a brilliant poem. Despite the “puzzle” of the poem, it can be returned to again and again. In the white space of the poem resides our fears about mortality, playing out the mind’s tireless effort to occlude temporality. It is a shroud of absence. The poem slightly adjusts and comments, culminating with a playfulness that calls back the title, Trial Run, which in itself comments on life. If sleeping really is the practice for eternity, maybe death is the sad championship of the living. We train to die. In this poem, just add death.”
“Birds in Flight, 1964” by Enrique Villasis, translated from Tagalog by Bernard Capinpin—October 3, 2020
Judge's citation: “‘Birds In Flight, 1965’ enters readers in a moment of time that emblemizes a natural phenomenon, that of birds flying together, as metaphor for not exactly transcendence (it’s more disseminated than an epiphanic acme), but as the Post-Modern expression of cohesive simultaneity. Meaning, the speaker experiences via the birds flying separately yet concordantly an immanence and a transcendence, a growth and a regression, a lightness and a density, an innocence and a wisdom. This aspect of the poem is quite Blakean, in its truest sense of camaraderie, as in Yin-Yang, not focusing on differences but on intersectionality, which is so beautifully expressed through the chick nesting in a translucent eggshell or the sole (soul’s) curtsy to the mimosa.”
"Learning Late Letters" is one of four winning poems selected by David Tomas Martinez for the 2020 Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Click above to listen to poet Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên read the English translation of "Learning Late Letters"
The dead don't let us go, I say to my friend Sirius, putting my father's letters in a drawer. It is the plight of Mezentius that I endure, attached to a dead man, hand in hand, mouth in mouth, in a sad embrace. The letters stopped arriving from the country of my childhood. The man who wrote them died a solitary death and was buried at the edge of a stream. But he is there, his skin touches my skin, my breath gives life to his lips. He is there, I say to Sirius, when I speak to you, when I eat, when I sleep, when I take a walk. It seems to me that I am dead, whereas my father, the dead man who refuses to leave me in peace, overflows with life. He possesses me, sucks my blood, gnaws my bones, feeds on my thoughts.1
In the last letter, the dying man taught me a lesson of 36 deadly tricks. He called them the 36 documentations of secret agencies, 36 spells of horror, 36 faces of vanity, 36 tactics of being deadly, 36 stratagems of dying. All night long, I chant his weird song over and over like a crazy heart. Dripping drops of time, the tune flies far from the propaganda of a human life. When Sirius asks why I keep murmuring the lines, I say, It helps me learn my fathertongue, glide into my childhood siesta, melt into my red hot girdle of earth. The letters of the dead burn me, urge me to speak to them, speak them, have them speak me, even in my sleep. Every dream is a chamber where the language drills, like vital winds, hum me anew, blowing me closer to the waters where my father lies. Every night he still sleeptalks his fatal rhythm through my broken tongue.
All translations are by the poem’s assembler.
“Chant Chữ Chết” © Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. All rights reserved.
Click the "English-Vietnamese" link at the top of the page to listen to Nhã Thuyên read Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên's winning poem in the original Vietnamese
The title of this issue is "Who Writes Peru: Asian Peruvian Writers.” A more precise subtitle, however, would have been "Nikkei and Tusán Peruvian Writers,” because “Asian Peruvian” as an organizing principle simply doesn’t make much sense in the home contexts of these seven writers. The term trips off my (North) American tongue because I am used to identifying myself as “Asian American.” In the US, the political movements of the 1960s led to the construction of a pan-Asian identity that has since been incorporated into the foundations of how race is discussed in this country, but the same is not true everywhere.
In Peru—where I recently spent seven months learning about Chinese Peruvian identity and literature—though “chino/a” is often used to refer to anyone with “Asian”-looking facial features, it is also true that the country’s Chinese and Japanese diasporic communities, with their disparate histories (both stretching back to the 1800s), share little sense of common identity. In other words, the totalizing sweep of “chino/a” is that of an external gaze; it does not reflect how all Nikkeis (the term used globally to refer to diasporic Japanese) and Tusan(e)s (the Peruvian Spanish term derived from a Chinese phrase meaning “local-born”) would choose to identify themselves.
Similarly, this issue’s agglomerative “Asian Peruvian” focus was born of an external gaze—in this case, mine. I think of Rodrigo Hasbún (in Sophie Hughes’s translation) on Carlos Yushimito: “As nearsighted writers, we also know that the constant disjuncture between what we can see and what is just beyond our sight has a great influence on our gaze and sensibility. [. . .] To read is, in a way, to share the myopia of the person we are reading.” (Yushimito, another Peruvian writer who could have fit into this issue, appeared in Words Without Borders’ last issue on Peruvian writers.)
In this issue are short stories, poems, a novel excerpt, and a crónica by writers Augusto Higa Oshiro, Doris Moromisato, Julia Wong Kcomt, Julio Villanueva Chang, Siu Kam Wen, Sui-Yun, and Tilsa Otta, in translations by Jacob Steinberg, Julie Hempel, Margaret Wright, Nicolás Medina Mora, and me. Though “Asian Peruvian” is not necessarily the label these writers would have chosen for themselves, this is not to say they don’t share a community. On the contrary—they read and inspire each other. When I met Augusto Higa Oshiro, he noted that his story “Okinawa existe,” from his collection of the same name, came into existence after he read “El tramo final,” the Siu Kam Wen story whose translation is featured in this issue. He also mentioned having just finished reading Julia Wong Kcomt’s latest novel. Wong Kcomt, in turn, dedicated her poem “El gallo rojo” (here, “The Red Rooster”) to José Watanabe, the late Peruvian Nikkei poet who, though he is not in this issue, is an icon of Peruvian letters. Wong Kcomt has also been co-interviewed by Julio Villanueva Chang for Presencia Oriental, a YouTube channel by actor and writer Nilton Maa. And the first time I met Villanueva Chang was when a friend and I happened upon him in a bookstore, as he was on his way to a reading by Tilsa Otta. These writers share a community not because they’re of Asian descent, but because they are writers, and Peruvian, based for the most part in Lima, where they run into each other at book launches and birthday parties.
Their themes, as you will see, are diverse. Some of them have often called upon their Chinese or Japanese roots; others have alighted upon the topic only a few times, if at all, with a delicate touch. Higa Oshiro, for example, didn’t start writing Japanese or Nikkei characters until he spent a period as a factory worker in Japan during Peru’s tumultuous 1990s. When he returned to Peru, he wrote a book about the experience, and Nikkei characters became more visible in his fiction. Some have had their claim to the Spanish language publicly questioned, as Siu Kam Wen did when he published his first novel and the press surmised that “Siu Kam Wen” must be a pen name—could an immigrant who had arrived in Peru in adolescence really write the way Siu does? Others have asked the question of themselves: like Wong Kcomt, who speaks, in an interview, of “a time in my life when I thought I couldn’t even write good Spanish. It felt like an effort. My father didn’t speak the language well, though it’s also true my mother was a grammar fanatic.” Yet others, perhaps, have never confronted such doubts.
One common thread is these writers’ willingness to complicate the idea of “home”—not just in writing, but also with their physical selves. Most of them have lived significant periods outside of Peru: in Germany, Japan, Macau, Mexico, the US. For a few, constant cross-border movement has remained a hallmark of their lives. Siu, for one, never obtained Peruvian citizenship and has lived in Hawaii for the past thirty-five years.
Within this issue, destabilized notions of “home” appear in Higa Oshiro’s “Corazón sencillo”/“Simple Heart,” whose very premise is of foreign provenance—the story was inspired, the author says, by both Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Sennin” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Un cœur simple.” And traces of different “homes” can be seen in the presence of Lima and its sprawling districts in poems by Moromisato and Wong Kcomt. Metropolitan Lima is not the city where either writer grew up, nor the city where their parents grew up, but it is now home—or a home. At the same time, Chambala and Chepén, where the two writers were born, also leave their marks on their bodies of work. In the case of Sui-Yun, when we were discussing “A Eva, mi madre eterna” (“To Eve, My Eternal Mother”), she says she wrote it freshly returned to Peru after a decade in Germany, where “even though I had all the commodities, I was living a life that wasn’t mine, because I’m not German; I’m Chinese in the tropical rainforest.” (Sui-Yun was born and raised in the Amazon city of Iquitos.)
May—the month in which I’m writing this—is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month in the US. Discussions continue over whom the umbrella of “Asian” includes and excludes, implicitly and explicitly, even as the term, which encompasses a majority of the world’s population, begins to groan under the weight of its load. Similarly, I would like to press more on the other half of the term “Asian American.” Who gets to be American is a question that, in many ways, first became legally contentious with the arrival of waves of people from the Philippines, India, Korea, Japan, and China in the US; the answer was shaped by laws like the Page Act of 1875 and cases like United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. During the Second World War, 1,800 Peruvian Nikkeis arrived on US shores. Packed up and shipped here to be incarcerated in internment camps, they came not to enjoy the privileges of American life, but to share in its undeserved burdens. And now, in these vertiginous last few years, much has happened to make me question what it means to be American.
Once, as Julia Wong Kcomt and I sat talking at her dining table, I used the term “las Américas” to refer to North, Central, and South America. I was trying to be sensitive to the fact that in Spanish, “americano/a” does not mean American, from the United States; it means American, of the American continent(s). She grinned and said, “Only you guys say that.” “What,” I said nervously. “Las Américas?” “Yes,” she said. “We just say ‘América.’”
Who gets to be American? Who decides where to draw the line between in and out, whether Nikkei and Tusán belong in one category, how América is split (if at all) and why? Who decides—and for whom, on whose behalf? “Asian American” can only be imperfectly analogized to describe lives experienced in other places. Nevertheless, I’d like to push at the term’s outer bounds, to make space for more continental conversations. Maybe then, “Asian American”—and the understanding, the seeing gaze-to-gaze, at which the use of such terms is aimed—could be imperfect in a fuller, richer way.
With thanks to Fulbright Peru and to the scholars who have written about literary production by Peruvians of Chinese and Japanese descent: Daisy Saravia, Debbie Lee-DiStefano, Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, Ignacio López-Calvo, Joel Anicama, Michelle Har Kim, Rodrigo Campos, and others.
© 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Peruvian author Augusto Higa Oshiro, a selfless man gives himself entirely to his work.
One sunny May afternoon, a little man arrived in the city, and not just the city, but an office on the third floor of the Ministry of Education, in search of an official, a distant relation of his family, who would help him and get him work, was what he’d been told back home. Attired in his best clothes—a white shirt, clean pants, patent leather shoes, and a northerner’s straw hat—he waited in the secretary’s office. The next morning, he appeared in the same office and, in the same tranquil manner, after a long preamble, left his letter of recommendation, and still they didn’t respond. For several months, the little man, stubborn, impassive, arrived with the employees, went up to the third floor, stationed himself in front of the boss’s office, and stood immobile against the wall, the secretary never bothering to receive him.
And even after they told him No infinite times and stopped him from going past the staircase, the little man remained faithful to his obsessive daily passion. He sat on the cold steps, unperturbed, his quiet eyes fixed on the entrance to observe the throngs of noisy clerks, elevator operators, and teachers. Time went by. One lost, languid afternoon, a driver sent him to buy cigarettes so genially that he diligently fulfilled the request. From then on, the canny office boys gave him their own tasks: sweeping, cleaning, delivering messages.
Seeing how hardworking and humble the little man was, his embarrassed eyes incapable of complaint, the head of the Staff Administration division, third floor, ordered that he be received as a porter’s apprentice. The little man promised to fulfill his duties, and to prove it, that day, unasked, he waxed the floor from wall to wall and meticulously shook out the curtains over the big windows. All the same, the fifty employees laughed at the poor man, who was so dense instructions had to be shouted at him three times; they kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t make mistakes, and were unable to give him delicate tasks, since he received only a weekly tip, which ended up in the hands of his protectors, some countrymen of his who had him staying in the attic of a tenement house in Breña, and called him Cousin Berto.
Indeed, Cousin Berto got up at five in the morning, made breakfast for the whole clan (some twenty people), did the wash, swept the patio, cleaned the corral, fed the animals, and bought bread at the market. At the sound of the seven o’clock bells from the adjacent church, he hurried out in the same unchanging maroon sweater, cargo pants, and big crude shoes, and soon got lost in the damp, strange streets. His expression alarmed and his feet naive, he sidestepped cars, wound his way through Breña’s baroque streets, got lost on Alfonso Ugarte beneath the ashen sky, walked in the direction of Plaza San Martín, smiled at the people in doorways, bade farewell to the poster advertisements, and, without even realizing it, found himself in Parque Universitario, next to the Ministry of Education in the middle of Avenida Abancay.
He greeted the doormen, went up to the third floor, opened the little service room, changed his clothes, and began the day shaking out dust, tidying the offices of the director, the middle managers, and the lower-ranked employees, always with a perfect sense for bureaucracy’s hierarchy. During the ten o’clock slump he put himself, eyes apathetic and impersonal, at the orders of the head porter to carry out simpler assignments: taking messages to other floors, bringing materials from Supplies, picking up attendance registers, running errands for the secretaries, preparing coffee for the officials, assisting visitors, standing next to the elevator to monitor the unknown faces.
Such splendid willingness and commitment to the work brought him unexpected fame, and his name, Heriberto Vargas, began to echo across the floors. What meekness! The director of Primary Education wanted him on his staff, since he liked working with sturdy, obedient cholos. Arts Education sent him tantalizing offers, and Storage requested his services for hours at a time, such that on the third floor there was no choice but to hire him as permanent staff after two years of unrelenting misery. Upon learning the news, Berto cried like a child; he shut himself in his service closet, and grateful tears welled from his heart: he felt that the hand of God was rewarding his exertions. Meanwhile, in the corner, the bubbling pot of potatoes on a small stove brought him back to the inalterable reality of his daily sustenance.
With a fixed salary on the lowest rung of the ladder, Heriberto Vargas was able to free himself from his relatives in Breña, but not before ceding two months’ wages as a gesture of gratitude, despite the discriminatory treatment he’d received from the first day. Such that when he left, he felt very sorry, his eyes going damp; he dreamed of green-eared doves, and he couldn’t get used to his new quarters on Jirón Azángaro, that rambling old house with quincha walls, whose roof a distant relative and countryman had outfitted with a number of precarious rooms. In the middle of this Sunday sadness, when the sky was dark and the streets bustled with people, he went into the Orphans’ Church and, losing himself in one corner, wept over his bitter misfortune.
What’s clear is that he didn’t go to the canteens in the neighborhood, or get together with his fellow provincials who lived nearby, or make friends on that block of Azángaro, or have a social life, perhaps because Berto was entering a melancholy period, and his obsession with the office grew sharply. He labored beyond the regular workday, arriving at seven in the morning, working holidays and weekends just to help his friends, that troop of porters, eccentric plumbers, and fussy office boys always gossiping in the bathrooms, criticizing everything, dodging the bosses, and doing a poor job.
Nobody knows why he went to such great lengths, nor why he accepted tasks from other floors, if he wasn’t going to be compensated for them and nobody asked it of him. Perhaps the spirit of service and the secret longing to master other territories and Offices compelled him to redouble his efforts and help his neighbors. Wherever he went, the floors would be left clean, the furniture gleaming, the curtains dusted, the desks perfectly straightened, the filing cabinets tidied, the machines in their places. Always efficient, exacting, insatiable, equipped with limitless patience, he didn’t allow himself a single inactive minute—he even forgot to eat—and when the clock struck eleven at night, he would go home, sweaty, exhausted, and quietly happy.
He hardly ever thought of himself, and the fifty employees on the third floor could not understand his absolute passivity, his ability to deliver without the slightest complaint. Berto absorbed rebukes, insults, acts of vengeance; they would break the toilets on purpose, smear the walls, throw paper everywhere, trip him, and the women would give him their household chores. Accustomed as he was to adversity, his capacity for accepting humiliation increased with every experience: he smiled distantly, his eyes withdrawn, his reactions delayed, body hunched into itself. During Carnavales, for example, there was no lack of colleagues to splash him with paint, and on Christmas and New Year’s, amid the festivities and drunkenness, his friends tried to throw him out the window.
Berto withstood all the jokes with the natural goodness of his heart, just as he withstood the weight of the years, the changes in bosses, directors, and ministers; his face remained pointed, the harsh color of brown sugar, he remained in the same position of humble, ambitionless porter. On some nights, in the calm solitude of the office, standing before an old mechanical calculator, he fulfilled his dearest wish: he fiddled with the keys, the numbers magically appearing on the paper strip, and turned one of the cranks, but when he tried to do sums, the machine let out a colorless sound and didn’t respond, coming to a halt, crouched there motionless, awaiting the knowing hand that understood how to wrench out its secret. The poor man would be sad, contenting himself with listening to the incomprehensible clicks of the billets, accepting that his natural fate was to be the Ministry’s little mule. He said so to his friends the drivers, mechanics, elevator operators, porters, typists.
In twelve years of work, the most important event was when he moved from the boarding house on Azángaro to a little room in an alley near Hospital Archbishop Loayza. Such that he was seen near La Aurora market, Plaza Unión, and Dos de Mayo, looking for cheap joints where he could drink linden water and talk with his fellow provincials, joke around with the conscripts—when he didn’t take the tram to Chorrillos, on rainy Sunday afternoons, and walk around and around, looking at the spread of the sea.
It was October of ’47 or the beginning of ’48 when he went to live in an alley in Malambito. In any case the neighborhood was hostile toward him; things had always been difficult for him, but this time they reached a breaking point, for the zambos and assimilated cholos kicked at his door, stole clothes and sheets, insulted him when they saw him: he was a serrano, and serranos were looked down on for their grimy skin. Berto didn’t want to respond to the affronts; indifferent, his consciousness absented, the half-smile gone missing, he preferred not to think about anything, much less desire anything, he even compelled himself to leave his house early and return late at night, spending the whole day absorbed in work at the office, completing his tasks.
Around that time, two curious encounters took place. Amid the torpor of eleven in the morning, one tranquil day, in that moment when the air wasn’t so much air, and the walls weren’t walls, he discovered the illuminated weight of the crowd in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education. It felt like a dream: he had experienced eleven in the morning infinite times, without ever noticing all of that expectant humanity. Unruly, they occupied the treasuries, scuffling so forcefully to get to the elevator, shouting at the window of the advocates’ office. A feeling of fragility.
On another occasion, one dizzy night, made sluggish by fatigue, he went down to the basement, needled by a mysterious voice that called him by name. He burrowed in among unusable containers, lost rooms, mysterious nooks, and, at the end of a tunnel, was discharged into an enormous storage space: piles of paper formed dark alleys; files, receipts, time sheets were heaped against the walls; the shelves were falling apart. Behind a mound of memos, at a long table, was an ancient bearded clerk with a checked tie and motionless eyes, making his way with tranquil innocence through the classification of hundreds of records.
Sweetly, unhurriedly, he went from one stack of records to another of requests, lighting up at the signatures of officials, the names of appellants, the contents of the documents, the accession numbers, the dates. Without saying a word, the two of them began to tidy; Berto swept, dusted, opened packages, built small paths among the useless leaf-piles of folders, while the bony old man, encased in his glossy suit, murmured about paradise, that kingdom where everyone knew how to read and write, there was no humiliation or shortage of work, and everyone ate twice a day.
Day had broken without Berto's realizing, and he was talking to himself, elated, praying, and almost by instinct he arrived at his service closet, found his sweater, sprawled across the chair, slept for a couple hours, and then, at seven in the morning, became the same Berto as always, the tireless little man of unassuming hands and silent step, incapable of complaint or tears, who, winter or summer, day or night, seemed to be on the third and fifth floors simultaneously, was seen in the most unexpected offices, and, according to some versions, walked through walls with ease and performed the miracle of eating not a single bite of food all day.
If someone came looking for him in the little service room, the first strange thing they noticed was the drawing at the front: Christ on the cross with seagull wings. It was colored with crude aniline ink, the cross surrounded by white clouds, the squinting eyes looking in no direction in particular, and near the floor a chorus of angels appeared to whisper among themselves. On the neighboring walls, from baseboard to ceiling, was a mix of almanacs, geometric designs, and photos of footballers, not a single blank space; centimeter by centimeter, chance and the passage of years had left behind a backdrop with no logic or balance, with no purpose other than dispelling the hours of boredom, hours of anguish, hours far from home.
Around 1951, fed up with being excluded from the alley, perhaps tired of his dream of turning into a bird and flying away, Berto, who was of indeterminate age, sought out the friendship of the children in the neighborhood; he appeared at odd hours to pass out candies, sweets, chocolates, and bonbons. A mob of wily children would follow him so happily, calling him Tío, pulling at his floppy sack, leaving him sobbing. A few months later, the housewives of Malambito stared, astonished, at the power cords; the patio looked better now, with new lightbulbs. On Sundays at five in the morning, Heriberto Vargas swept all the doorways, bought flowers, and cleaned the portrait of the Virgen del Carmen on the far wall.
And so the insults stopped and he won the respect of his neighbors, especially the women, whom he brought little packets of sugar, ounces of butter, and bags of sweet potatoes. He went to the parties he could make, they joked around with him, clapped him on the back, told him their woes; the drunks came up to ask for money, he soothed the unemployed, and when he arrived, exhausted, at his hovel, late at night, his only solace was being near his parrot, a bird whose multicolored chest would fluff out as soon as it saw him arrive.
He’d bought it one Sunday at the Mercado Central, captivated by the green of its feathers and the docility of its gaze, and from that first moment they loved each other and sought each other familiarly, such that Berto would tell it about his life, what had happened that day, his long meetings with the bony little old man in the basement of the Ministry, his fear of being alone, the destitution in the alley, and without realizing the sun was rising, he would fall asleep. As soon as he got up, early—he called the bird Hugo, curiously—he would stroke its neck, fix its unprincipled tail, parcel out its grains of choclo corn, change its water, and leave it in the room. At the office, he regretted being unable to give it his best hours, reproached himself for not being fond enough, and didn’t understand why every time he polished the banister of the stairs, he dreamed in silence of his parrot. He saw it cut out against the sky, wings spread, flying above the roofs, its bright colors shining: it was beautiful to see among the clouds, rising little by little, beak radiant, it completed the landscape as it straightened out its tail feathers and was lost to infinite space.
In moments of great weakness, he willfully put on the parrot’s mannerisms, and in front of his bosses, for example, he would move head-face-neck-body, just as the bird would have. When he felt lonely, unwittingly, in view of the other workers, he would walk around, wavering and balancing ridiculously, and for long hours, his gaze lost in space, nestled in a corner, he observed the concourse full of metal desks and endless typewriters; every year there were more employees, closets, administrative offices with their general managers and middle managers; the women increased in number; the young professionals even talked about politics; retirees lurked on different floors, and teachers from the provinces got lost in the elevators.
So then he closed his eyes, and sinking into atavism, fearful of doing nothing, he cleaned the director general’s carpet, dusted blinds, brought papers to the mimeograph, watched over the movement of the public, leaving the other floors’ irritating tasks for the evening, and, if there was time, went down to the inhospitable basement to converse with the ancient, hard-boned clerk with a livid gaze, who asked to work together for the rest of eternity, no going up to the world above. All the same, he arrived at Malambito sad, and if some tiresome neighbor didn’t stop him, he went into his room to play with his parrot, and, half-asleep, would tell it how he was no longer so quick at his job, there were a lot of people in the Ministry, he didn’t understand why things changed, the tasks multiplied, and he dreamed of flying, walking on air and going far away where no one knew him.
One afternoon, as he was carrying a television to General Storage, he suddenly lost consciousness, started bleeding, and they took him to the Medical Department, then transported him home, and he slept deeply; when he opened his eyes, his neighbors gathered around him, full of encouragements, as he got up, went to the cage, and stroked his crying parrot, which hadn’t eaten for three days.
He lost weight, becoming gaunt, burned with fever, and there were moments when his gaze became lost, he wouldn’t recognize anyone; between laughter and tears, wasted away, he would say he was flying like a parrot, when everyone could see he was lying on his old cot. There was no doubt about it, said the Ministry employees smiling, the cholo is crazy, he talks to himself, he wants to walk on air and breaks his head against the wall. It seemed impossible—a quiet person, unassuming, who’d spent over thirty years in the office, who worked fifteen or sixteen hours a day, sacrificing vacations, dedicated entirely to public service, reliable, honorable—that little man was crazy, he always had been, there was no other way. From floor to floor, elevator to elevator, in Regular Basic Education, the secretaries exclaimed: He’s soft in the head, Berto Vargas, we knew it. He received doctors’ visits, hospital check-ups, they did all the tests and confirmed, astonished, that he had no physical issues, except for mild anemia curable with proper nutrition.
The neighborhood kids of Malambito, we missed him, since Tío Berto no longer came at unexpected times, with his clenched smile, to give us loving candy, chocolate, cookies, or sweets. We would go visit him in his room and find him sitting on the bed with his parrot, looking tiny, skinny, wrinkled, as if the years weighed heavy all of a sudden, and tears always streaming, he would see us off with any old thing: an ancient jacket, a pot, a blanket, a worn suitcase. Nevertheless, thanks to the advice of friends, and the diligence of a distant cousin and a neighbor who made him special foods, he was able to recover after three months: the shine returned to his skin, he walked, if slowly, his temperature was normal, his appetite was good, and he looked to be in good spirits during conversations with the mechanics and elevator operators who came to say hello.
And so he returned once again to the office, but he could no longer be the porter he was before; his body was heavy, his reactions delayed and his movements slower, such that he could only run simple errands, bringing paperwork from one floor to another, assisting visitors at a desk, and collating records. He could no longer help his friends on the night shifts, nor did he go down to the basement to tell the bony old man about his dreams. When he got home as night fell, exhausted, his nerves frayed, he had the feeling that his body was made of glass, and putting his face close to the parrot, he said in a low voice: I’m a fragile mirror, I’m breaking into a million pieces, I can’t stand noise, I’m afraid I’m going to fall and crack like a vase. The bird paid him little mind, loosing a hoarse sound from its intestines, and, indifferent, moved its neck, gaze distant, perhaps it didn’t even realize Señor Berto was there.
After a while, lying in bed, he daydreamed that it was morning and, like always, he cleaned the Virgin’s altar, swept the patio of the alley, washed his face at the communal faucet, and left for work, following his tireless daily rhythm: he went over all the third-floor offices with his broom, he cleaned the filth off the bathrooms, he took care of commissions outside the Ministry, he fixed chairs, desk locks. Intensifying his efforts, he ascended to the upper floors, avidly cleaned the blinds, transferred packages, any flaw, the smallest detail, Berto Vargas could do it all, but he didn’t let anyone near him, they had to talk to him in low voices, he couldn’t abide noise, people brushing against him, curt conversations, since he could crack, break, explode into a million little pieces. The employees laughed, he was utterly crazy, he thought he was made of glass, incredible, you couldn’t look at him, light bothered him, what a fool serrano. One prankster of a driver threw rocks at him, and the poor porter screeched and cried on the floor, banging into the wall, and several people were needed to get control of him.
One Sunday morning, a group of us kids were playing in the patio of the alley when Señor Berto appeared with the parrot on his hand. Encased in an unassuming jacket, blue tie, and patent leather shoes, he looked calm, his skin restored and his eyes filled with peace. He stroked our heads, then his serene hands distributed cookies and candy, he smiled sweetly, waved goodbye with a handkerchief, and we watched as he ascended slowly into the sky, walked on air, and was lost to the distance.
“Corazón sencillo” © Augusto Higa Oshiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
In two poems, Julia Wong Kcomt reflects on what it means to be a Peruvian with Tusán (Chinese) heritage.
The Red Rooster
To Wata, in memoriam
Like garlic bulbs
this whim of blouses
cut so masterfully.
The iron windows.
Paint staining my ovaries.
Sushi is now the language
of the people
and my mighty noodles
wait in a forgotten pot.
Papá told me to detest the Japanese
like everyone says to hate Chileans.
But with so much love,
I find no difference
between the cherry tree, the sakura, the lotus flower, and the olive bush:
In the Atacama, Jesus Christ sifts
through red grape seeds.
Peru dies, Wata,
and all I remember is what you said about my aunt:
“She was hot, your aunt Carmen,
she didn’t look Chinese.”
I smiled unoffended, because in Peru nobody
looks like anything.
There was a chifa restaurant.
You ate wonton soup
with your Chinese friends,
and as we searched for an emblem
to overcome the centimeter and a half of
difference in our eyelids,
a red rooster
loosed a sound louder than nothingness.
Our Peru is dying.
The rooster’s crow will return when the stone flies.
As winter comes to an end
her pauper’s waltz takes pity
on my notes and stave
From Callao, she doesn’t need
buses or expertise
she doesn’t walk, she flies
eats an avocado slice with me
And murmurs to protect myself from women
who write Life
as if in sand
And say I know neither verses
nor flesh pleasures
that I have bad taste in clothes
and can’t write Peru, or Spanish.
“El gallo rojo” and “Santa inevitable” © Julia Wong Kcomt. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
Peruvian writer Julio Villanueva Chang profiles Lima’s oldest life drawing model in this short essay.
Rodolfo Muñoz del Río has spent the better part of his life in the nude. Butt-naked. For the past half-century, students at Lima’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes have gazed upon him not as a human being, but as a configuration of shadows and proportions: a drawing condemned to sit still for seven to twelve hours a day. A sixty-six-year-old drawing whose greatest feat has been a heroic attempt to do nothing: no blinking, no scratching—an effort to become indifferent to flies, to boredom, to the cold. But this spirit of poise and discretion has settled uneasily into the exhibitionism of his flesh. That’s because the living drawing is also an advertisement for himself: a body that brags of its powers of elasticity, a Narcissus angling for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. For Muñoz, life is a pose.
Perhaps the saddest event of his life was the theft of the best among the countless portraits that generations of art students have painted of him over fifty years. It was taken from his tiny room in Quinta Heeren, Barrios Altos, along with his full-body mirror, such that Muñoz can no longer gaze at his whole self. His only consolation is that now he doesn’t have to look at his feet, which he dislikes because they are too large for the slightness of a body sketched vertically. To his great relief, Francis Bacon wrote that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” but the truth is that Muñoz del Río has also ceased to admire the pectorals, thighs, and shanks that back in the fifties won him third place in the Mr. Perú contest. In those days, he was a Hercules who saw himself in every movie.
In his spare time he wears clothes. He begins the morning as a doodle, a preliminary sketch that changes position every five minutes; then, after he stays put for three quarters of an hour, he becomes an anatomical study. The model lies like a just-fallen Adam, a man perpetually striving to get up. Some apprentices begin with his legs, others start with the head, others still with the navel, but all of them end up reproducing the platonic ideal of Muñoz. The Greeks perfected the nude so that men could feel godlike, but our mortal eyes cannot bear to gaze directly at divinity. The students look at Muñoz del Río with the oblique curiosity of passersby staring at a man who’s been hit by a car.
Time has yet to make a dent in the man who might be the world’s most senior model—and the same goes for shame. “Nature is naked the moment one reaches for it,” he says, almost as if reciting. “You pick a flower and it’s already naked.” Why would he go against nature? Clothes have identified human beings as homo sapiens since time immemorial—this is why nakedness is often seen as a sign of poverty or madness. But the nude is also an art form invented by the Greeks in the fifth century BC. For them, nakedness ceased to be shameful or ridiculous and became instead something of a religious cult. Rodolfo Muñoz del Río is the most Grecian of the descendants of the Incas, and yet his mother died under the impression that he was a professor at Bellas Artes.
Like every model, he clothes his truth: until a few years ago, his sisters believed that he taught drawing and painting. And while Muñoz del Río bared his anatomy in three hundred different poses, the guard at the school’s gate was trained to say: “Wait a minute, I’ll go fetch the professor,” thus buying the model brother enough time to dress like he was heading to the North Pole and come out to greet his relatives with open arms. “The only modesty I had left was with my family,” the model, fully dressed, admits today. The deceit lasted until his nephews saw his shameless appearance on the television program Ocurrió así, where he proudly came out as one of the world’s oldest art models. Not a stripper or a pornographer, but a professional in the service of the art-making masses.
Despite all that, Muñoz del Río insists that he isn’t in love with his body: “Those who are in love with it are the ones who draw my body more beautiful than it really is,” he parries with a toothless smile. And it’s true: as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz writes, portraits are nothing but colorful deceit. Faced with the body of a nude model, the artist’s instinct is to improve rather than to imitate. Artists are unbothered by the wrinkles, the flaccid flesh, and the tremulous figures of veteran models. This is especially true of portraits of Muñoz del Rio’s dignified maturity, which after fifty years have come to resemble a reverse Dorian Gray: The older the man grows, the younger he looks on the canvas. “Art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish,” says Aristotle. “The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealized end.” Muñoz del Río, then, is a medium that allows us to know beauty without reserve—Narcissus’s down-and-out cousin.
The model gets ready to shed his modesty with the clothes he’ll leave on a chair. He has just finished an oil portrait session at Bellas Artes, and yet here he begins to undress in public again, as naturally as if he were peeling a fruit. At the Corriente Alterna Art Institute, where he works afternoons, there are no folding screens to hide behind nor bathrobes in which to emerge onstage—nor, for that matter, innocent glances. Every theatrical representation begins from the premise that there’s someone who wants to look at what someone else wants to show. The model gets rid of his shoes first, revealing his oversize feet. The pants fall next, followed by the shirt and the socks. Finally he takes off his underwear and reclines onto the black sheet that covers the platform, becoming an unmoving spectacle.
A student turns on the spotlight. Under it, Rodolfo Muñoz del Río begins to feel like the star of the drawing class. At first the only sound is the movement of charcoal over drawing paper, which turns the model into a sequence of scratches on a blank page. His pose resembles that of a man trying to get up. Nobody cares what’s going through his mind. In such moments he often remembers the chance events that transformed his life into a pose. When he was seven years old in Barrios Altos, he would often accompany his father to buy bread in the morning. On the way to get this childhood breakfast, he would pass the walls of the Santa Clara church, where he would see statues of naked, muscular men. He would say: “Dad, I have to be like that gentleman.” But then his father would disappoint him: “No, you have to study like your siblings.” Arriving home, the son would eat his bread like a statue.
Then, in 1947, a teenage Muñoz del Río saw an ad soliciting the services of a librarian on the door of the Escuela de Bellas Artes. His father had died seven years earlier—it was high time he find a job. Some people had formed a line in the school’s back courtyard, and it was there that the headmaster commanded: “Young lad, get undressed.” The line in question wasn’t for aspiring librarians, but for modeling candidates. That was the day Rodolfo Muñoz del Río, who had been a gymnast in Catholic school, first bared himself in public.
Ever since, the model has never stopped playing somebody else. His first character was a skinny clown; then, marching in a motionless parade, came the wizard Sabú, the historical Cahuide, and the impeccable painter Victor Humareda. He knows well that he isn’t just the oldest model—he’s also the best. His debt to childhood gymnastics is unpayable: younger models simply cannot hold his circus contortionist’s poses. His debt to Bellas Artes, where he studied for three years, saved him from the fate of a mere mannequin: students ask him for advice on their paintings of him. Muñoz del Río claims he isn’t single: he is married to art.
If the man has never dressed up as a woman, it's because nobody asked. “It wouldn’t be hard for me,” he says defiantly. His body can handle anything—and not just on paper. There’s even a sculpture to prove it: in El Ángel cemetery, an angel descended from heaven holds up the model’s bronze body. “They can’t wait to see me dead,” the model said with his half-smile when they asked him to pose for the mausoleum. “But I will never die, because all over the world there are paintings and sculptures of me.” Then someone turns off the spotlight and the drawing class is over. Rodolfo Muñoz del Río gets up from the black sheet with the elegance of one immortal, looks at his watch, and knows that his last pose will be the one death brings him.
Rodolfo Muñoz del Río continues to model at eighty-nine.
“La vida es una pose,” from Mariposas y murciélagos. © 1999 by Julio Villanueva Chang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nicolás Medina Mora. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Peruvian writer Doris Moromisato contemplates love and longing in a seaside neighborhood of Lima.
Here I say again that I don’t love you
while city mist loosens the sky
dampens my geraniums.
Grounded like a gull on the terrace
I recall the sermon at Benares
and agree: suffering
lives in me.
During the festival of San Pedro the fishermen
sling their offerings to the sea
my eyes fill with rowboats
and the sprawl of petals taken by the tide
shows me how small
I lower my forehead, not watching
the water that keeps me from your mouth.
I shut my eyes and sink
the boats that never bring me to you.
Everything is suffering, the great Sakya teaches me
and there is no one to beg
or ask forgiveness
for this love.
Here I say again that I don’t love you
that everything is fleeting
save this suffering.
Migrating gulls on the horizon.
Loose threads of water.
The city’s mist
on my hair.
“Aquí en Chorrillos” © Doris Moromisato. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Margaret Wright. All rights reserved.
A Chinese immigrant to Peru refuses to give up tradition in this short story by Siu Kam Wen.
When Lou1 Chen, loan shark and owner of a fleet of eighteen urban minibuses, managed to amass his first fifteen million, he had a luxurious mansion built in Monterrico and moved there with his Peruvian wife, their two sons, and his elderly mother. The two-story house measured 2,300 square feet and included a spacious front yard and a backyard with a pool. Two imposing German shepherds guarded the house against thieves from the rooftop, given that Monterrico was at that time a recently developed area and thus lacked adequate police surveillance. The household duties were performed by two housekeepers: Arminda, a hefty forty-something chola,2 who had been in charge of the kitchen at the old house, and Julia, the former’s niece, a blossoming young woman. A part-time gardener came every Saturday to cut the grass, trim the bushes, clean the pool, and court the girl, who had caught his eye.
Mercedes, Lou Chen’s wife, a robust mestiza who was talkative and generous at heart (although due to her irritable temperament she tended to make her husband’s life difficult), set about ordering new dresses made in honor of her move to the glittering new mansion. Every weekend, she drove downtown in her Fiat, returning each time with a new hairdo and smelling strongly of shampoo and hairspray. As for Juan Carlos, the firstborn son, always in style when it came to clothing, it did not take long for him to be seen strolling around with a new girlfriend. She was a plump, dark-skinned girl, the daughter of a lawyer who lived just a few yards from the mansion in a smaller and less ostentatious bungalow. The younger son, Francisco José, preferred to continue dating his girlfriend from before, a Nisei.3 He made a habit of borrowing his mother’s Fiat whenever it was available and picking up his girl in Lince, bringing her out to the mansion to swim in the pool on the weekends. Of course Lou Chen would not be left behind in a situation like this. Two weeks after moving to the new house, Lou Chen, who had begun to go gray in the last few years, appeared one morning, to the disbelief of many of his friends, without a single gray hair on his head. The elegant mansion, the luxurious swimming pool, and the certainty of being the envy of his neighbors must have exercised some psychological effect on the profiteer’s state of mind. Otherwise, how would one explain the dying of his hair or the recent attention to his wardrobe? His three-piece suits no longer looked as if they had been fashioned in the fifties; they were now more fitted, with bell-bottom trousers..
In a word, the occupants of the elegant new mansion were in harmony with their surroundings, or strove fervently to be so; the only exception was Ah-po,4 Lou Chen’s mother, who clashed like a dissonant note in the midst of such style and luxury. Apparently, she had not realized that there was a certain moral obligation (not written, but understood) that the owners or occupants of a new house (especially when dealing with a true mansion) would honor its appearance in kind. To not comply with such an obligation was tantamount to the unforgivable sin of blasphemy within the confines of a church; it resulted in desecration.
Ah-po had turned seventy-two the previous August. She was a short, thin elderly woman who wore her gray hair in the traditional way of the Hakka,5 up in a bun. Her dresses were old-fashioned, even when compared to those of other women her age. She preferred trousers to skirts. Her Chinese-style pants were narrow at the bottom and always looked two inches shorter than they should be, revealing part of her white cotton socks. These pants had been fashioned some ten years prior, before arthritis had impeded her use of her old German sewing machine. The old woman refused to wear any clothing she had not sewn herself, and since she had been physically unable to do so for some time, all of her dress clothes looked worn out and faded, though admirably clean. Years before, Lou Chen, somewhat embarrassed by the sad state of her clothing, had ordered the purchase of several dresses in the downtown department stores and given them to her on Mother’s Day, but Ah-po had never worn any of them. This refusal to wear any Western-style clothing caused her son more than a few headaches. He felt ridiculous each time he went out in public with his mother. The elderly woman’s appearance was at odds with the flashy Mustang in which she rode, with her daughter-in-law’s fur coats, and with her son’s recently acquired bourgeois air. It had the deplorable effect of reminding Lou Chen of his humble origins as an upstart and proclaiming said beginnings to the whole world.
A few months after moving to the new house, while the family ate in the spacious dining room illuminated by large picture windows, Ah-po announced to everyone’s surprise that she was going back to live in the “old house.”
Lou Chen raised his head from his plate, finding it hard to believe his ears. “What did you say, Ah-má6?”
“I said I’m going to move back to the old house,” answered the elderly woman.
“But what old house are you talking about?” continued Lou Chen, still perplexed. “Remember that we rented the apartment where we lived before to Lou Choy.”
Ah-po’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren listened to the conversation with curiosity, but did not understand a single word that was said, since the two spoke in Hakka.
“I am not talking about where we lived before,” explained Ah-po. “I want to go live with your brother Ah-Seng.”
“And can you tell me why you want to go live with Ah-Seng?” Lou Chen started to lose his patience. “Isn’t this house better than that big old adobe house where he lives like a rat?”
Lou Chen suddenly felt humiliated. “So,” he said to himself, with a tinge of bitterness, “in the end my brother is still the favorite son. My fortune has done me little good.”
His wife set her fork to the side and wiped her mouth with anapkin. “What’s going on with Ah-po?” she asked, intrigued.
“She wants to go live with Ah-Seng,” Lou Chen replied gruffly in his broken Spanish.
“And why does she want to go live there?” asked Mercedes. Lou Chen shrugged his shoulders in response. “Your brother lives alone and has no domestic help. Who will take care of her?”
“That is precisely what I’m thinking.” said Lou Chen “Try talking some sense into her, if you can.”
Lou Chen’s wife tried to change the old woman’s mind with a few isolated words that the latter somewhat understood. But Ah-po stubbornly stuck to her guns, shaking her head back and forth in response to all the arguments and pleas of her robust and loquacious daughter-in-law.
Mercedes finally surrendered.
“If she insists on going to live with your brother,” she said to her husband, “what can you do but let her leave? I really can’t see what that poor clod Ah-Seng has to offer her that we can’t. We women tend to be capricious when we are pregnant, but I never imagined that this could also happen to us when we reached a certain age.”
Lou Chen’s wife, who deep down was goodhearted, had truly not wanted to be sarcastic; but what else could she have thought of a decision that obviously made little sense?
Ah-seng, Lou Chen’s younger brother, lived in Rímac, in one of those big old adobe houses built some fifty or sixty years ago. The house was spacious, just one story, and with one lone window, which usually remained closed. The interior of the house was dark and humid,and if it were not for the typical skylights of that period, which in each of the rooms provided the only source of light and ventilation, the house would have felt like an enormous and depressing basement. Ah-po and her husband had lived in this house, the family’s first possession, for fifteen years. Upon her husband’s death, Ah-po went to live with her eldest son, who was at that time a humble shopkeeper and lived above his shop (located exactly five blocks away, close to what years later would be the entrance ramp to the Santa Rosa Bridge).
Ah-po’s younger son was a quiet individual who preferred to keep his mouth shut as long as there was no need to open it. He only did so on occasion, in order to smoke, eat, or drink, of course. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he was a gentle and mild-mannered man, at times he did strange things, actions that earned him the nickname Tin-Seng (Crazy Seng). Once, for example, Ah-Seng, who bought his groceries at the Baratillos Market, walked home with a freshly slaughtered chicken dangling from one of his hands and dripping blood the whole way.
Ah-Seng worked in the kitchen of the Tung Po chifa7—before it went out of business, that is—and lived completely alone until Ah-po returned to live with him.
The same afternoon that Ah-po moved out of her older son’s mansion and went to live with her younger son, the old woman ate lunch, took a nap, and then walked five blocks down to the Choys’ store to announce her return.
The Choys rented the small grocery and secondhand store from Lou Chen, who had worked there for a decade before discovering that there was much more money to be made in urban buses and, later, in moneylending. The Choy family included Don Victor Choy, his wife, and three daughters ranging in age from seven to thirteen. They lived crammed together in the living quarters behind the store until Lou Chen had the infamous Monterrico mansion built and vacated the apartment above the store. Don Victor then rented the second floor, and his wife and daughters finally had room to stretch out a bit.
The elderly woman entered the store at the precise moment that Don Victor raised his myopic eyes from the Chinese newspaper he was reading. At two in the afternoon, other shopkeepers less interested in reading set about killing the flies that landed on the sugary mouths of empty soda bottles.
Don Victor was a man of about fifty, with thinning hair. He was short in stature and wore thick metal-rimmed glasses, which gave his chubby face an intellectual air. He greeted Ah-po warmly and invited her to the living quarters in the back of the store.
“What brings you around here, Ah-po?” he asked, smiling, then called his wife to take his place in the store for a while.
“I just moved in with Ah-Seng,” responded Ah-po, not knowing exactly where to start.
Don Victor, who had attended the housewarming party at the mansion and had been dazzled at all that he saw, now looked at the old woman with curiosity.
“Why, Ah-po?" he said, surprised. “Is it possible that you didn’t like the new house?”
“Oh, no,” she answered, surprised. “How could I not like the house? But I haven’t been able to get used to it . . . the house is for youngsters . . . not for an old woman like me.”
“I still think it’s a marvelous place to live,” sighed Don Victor, thinking about how wonderful it would be at that moment to swim and float in the cool water of the pool, instead of sweating in his dustcoat.
In the rear quarters, the shopkeeper’s wife and her three daughters, who were on vacation, gave Ah-po a warm welcome. The three girls studied at the Sam Men, the Chinese school, and spoke fluent Cantonese, not because they were obligated to learn it in class, but rather because Don Victor was adamant that they receive a good Chinese education. He had strictly forbidden them from speaking any language other than Cantonese at home. As a result of such harsh discipline, the girls only spoke Spanish outside their father’s earshot, and of course only among themselves. Ah-po, with whom the girls conversed easily tended to compare them to her grandchildren, lamenting that they were not more alike; neither Juan Carlos nor Francisco José understood a lick of Cantonese or Hakka.
Don Victor responded, trying to be conciliatory, “You can’t expect otherwise from them; after all, their mother is a kuei8 and they resemble her more than their father.”
Ah-po shook her gray head in discouragement and sighed.
“It’s true,” she conceded. “But Ah-Men should have at least put them in the Sam Men, so they would not be completely ruined.”
Ah-Men was Lou Chen’s first name.
Ah-po stayed at Don Victor’s store until after six in the evening, until the bells rang at the San Francisco de Paula church. The bells always rang at that hour and reminded her that she had to go cook dinner for Ah-Seng and herself.
From that day on Ah-po took daily walks (five blocks there and another five back) with her somewhat deformed feet in order to spend the afternoon at Don Victor’s store. She had spent her time this way before moving to the mansion in Monterrico; back then she did not need to take such long walks, she had merely to descend the short stairway that connected the store with the second floor.
She usually stayed in the back of the store while Don Victor or his wife was out tending to customers. She would make herself comfortable on one of the three wooden stools, leaning back against the crates of soda. The shopkeeper’s wife, who was raised in the countryside like Ah-po, generally kept the conversation going. Both women would tell stories of the Japanese Occupation, when the lack of food forced many to resort to cannibalism. The young women, like Don Victor’s wife, who had been about sixteen at that time, would hide in rice fields and forests whenever the “carrotheads” (their name for members of the Japanese Imperial Army) came into the towns looking for food. It was rumored that the Japanese would take more than just pigs and eggs on such excursions. Don Victor would rarely involve himself in such conversations, since he had spent that period working in his older brother’s butcher shop in Pueblo Libre.
When the conversation wound down, or when she simply felt too tired to keep on talking, Ah-po would remain seated on her stool, watching Don Victor and his wife deftly serve their neighborhood customers. At times, when her hands would allow, she would help package the sugar in kilo and half-kilo bags and sporadically tend to minor sales.
Nevertheless, her most pleasant moments of the afternoon were spent with the girls, that is, when the latter were not watching television. The oldest of the girls, Teresa, was capable of maintaining a conversation in fluent Cantonese with any native speaker, and she had a way of pronouncing her words that made the dialect much more pleasant to the ear. She apparently had an innate talent in this respect; no one, not even Don Victor, had taught her to speak Cantonese in such a way.
“If I were not so old and poor,” Ah-po said once, referring to the girl, “I would have liked for her to be my goddaughter; she is so clever.”
Don Victor, who felt quite sorry for the elderly woman, quickly said,
“You are not so old yet, Ah-po, and speaking of money, you are not exactly poor either.” Ah-po shook her head with profound sadness.
“The one who has money is my son, not me,” she answered. “And when Ah-Men dies, everything . . . the house, the money . . . everything will end up in the hands of those two good-for-nothings my grandsons; they don’t know how to do anything but waste money.”
Seated on her stool or in the company of the girls, Ah-po was immensely happy. This awareness of elation was a new discovery for her. It is possible that she had felt happiness hundreds and hundreds of afternoons in the past, before they had moved to the mansion in Monterrico, but back then Ah-po was not conscious of it. Happiness is peculiar that way; we only realize we’ve felt it when it’s all over. Ah-po had needed to spend four months in Monterrico to understand that the mere act of sitting on those hard wooden stools or listening to the singsong voices of Victor’s daughters could bring her so much consolation.
The spring, summer, and fall passed, and one day in July Don Victor told Ah-po that he was going to sell the business and move to El Salvador, where he planned to set up a wholesale shop with one of his brothers-in-law. At that time many Chinese residents were emigrating to the United States, Australia, and Central America, or had returned to Hong Kong and Macau. The rumor was spreading that Peru was about to become a communist state. The Choys’ rash decision (they were about to face an uncertain future in a new and foreign country) was not an isolated case. Nonetheless, Don Victor’s announcement surprised the old woman, because up until that moment, neither the shopkeeper nor his wife had said a single word about their plans.
For a good while Ah-po did not know what to say. She suddenly felt even older than she was. When she was finally able to comment, her voice trembled.
“It’s a sensible decision,” she said. “Everyone is leaving these days. . . . I really don’t know why Ah-Men is not yet considering it, as he has more money than many of those who have already left. . . . When the communists come, they will take away everything. . . . I am happy that you can still get out while there is time.”
And one week later, two sen-haks9 arrived to discuss the details of transferring the business. They were two boastful middle-aged men with forced manners that indicated an extended stay in Hong Kong or Macau, where young recent emigrants from mainland China almost always ended up acquiring undesirable habits. The deal was closed quickly, although the price did not completely satisfy Don Victor. But he was in a hurry to hand over the business, and the new shopkeepers were paying cash. By the end of August the deal was closed, and the sen-haks appeared one morning, dressed in their impeccably starched and pressed white dustcoats, tending to Don Victor’s regular customers. They worked alone, they had no wives or children, and on their nights off they regularly visited the brothels of Callao.
Don Victor and his family had tickets to El Salvador on a Lan Chile flight. Ah-po wished them a heartfelt “good luck” and gave them various lengths of lightweight cloth, but Lou Chen, fearing that she might catch a serious cold, did not permit her to go to the airport to say her goodbyes.
Ah-po, who usually got up very early every morning (a custom she had cultivated since the time she was a peasant girl planting seedlings in the rice fields), began to lie in bed longer before getting up to prepare her breakfast. She always ate breakfast alone, since Ah-Seng worked the night shift and did not get back home until after ten o’clock. A deep depression had grabbed hold of the elderly woman, and every morning she had a harder time facing the silence and loneliness of the big old house. Yet even so, she preferred that old house to the sunny and comfortable mansion in Monterrico. At least in her younger son’s house she had things to keep her occupied. Preparing his meals, washing his clothes, and cleaning the house helped her to pass the time more easily, although such tasks also considerably aggravated her arthritis and required her to take anti-inflammatory medication with increasing frequency. Ah-po never learned more than two or three expressions in Spanish, given that she never had a need for more than that. Her case was different from that of many Chinese women who came here to join their husbands; these women generally became involved in their spouse’s business quite quickly and learned a respectable number of common expressions in order to serve their customers, even if they did mangle those expressions. In contrast, Ah-po’s late husband never owned his own business (he worked first as a cook and later as a linotypist for The Chinatown Voice), and thus she spent nearly twenty years in a Chinatown apartment without speaking to anyone but her compatriots.
As she aged, and especially as she moved out of the neighborhood, Ah-po gradually lost the few friends and acquaintances she had. In the end, she only talked with her two sons and a few families, like the Choys, who had happened to be their renters or neighbors. Ah-po and her grandsons never understood one another; the boys took after Mercedes more than Lou Chen and did not put much effort into understanding their grandmother, busy as they were with mundane tasks and leisure activities.
In early December, Lou Chen, who had come to take her to dinner at the mansion, found his mother extremely weakened, downcast, and aged, and asked her if she didn’t want to move back in with them.
“No, Ah-Men,” the elderly woman responded. “I am perfectly fine with your brother. And I’m not sick, if that is what you’re thinking.”
Lou Chen, who knew his mother well, did not insist.
Although Ah-po did not like the two sen-haks who were now her renters, the old woman preferred to do some of her shopping in their store, since, for obvious reasons, the sen-haks sold her provisions at cost.
One Saturday afternoon, Ah-po set out on her five-block walk, the one she was so accustomed to a few months before. She walked with a certain difficulty. Her purpose was to pick up a few bottles of milk, which in those days had all but disappeared from the market, and which the two sen-haks had promised to hold for her. It was a gray and windy afternoon, although in theory it was late spring. Many of the occupants of the side streets and the run-down apartment buildings along the avenue had brought chairs out of their homes and sat drinking bottle after bottle of beer as they chatted. It was obvious that those were not the only men who had taken to drinking beer that Saturday afternoon. All drinking aficionados did so on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The Volkswagen driver who caused the accident probably also belonged to that brotherhood of happy men, although no one could verify his blood alcohol level, nor did anyone have the opportunity to take note of his license plate number, since the cowardly driver sped away. Ah-po never made it to the other side of the intersection. She felt a horrible blow to her left arm and side and her fragile body was flung almost ten feet toward the middle of the avenue, as if it had been charged by a fighting bull. Sprawled out in the middle of the street, facing the sky, the old woman saw the blurred silhouette of the San Francisco de Paula bell tower. Ah-po understood that she was dying, and although she could not move a single muscle in her body, she mentally extended her arms toward the angels who descended from the heavens, as a sign of welcome and gratitude.
“El tramo final” © Siu Kam Wen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Julie Hempel. All rights reserved.
1. Lou: Cantonese term of endearment used among peers, similar to “brother” or “old man.”↩
2. Chola: In Peru, a mestiza or person of mixed European and indigenous parentage with an emphasis on the latter. For many years, this term carried a strong discriminatory, even racist, tone indicating an uncouth person. In recent years, the term has increasingly become a more positive one, identified with the less weighted term mestizo and national pride.↩
3. Nisei: A child of Japanese parents born abroad.↩
4. Ah-po: Grandmother.↩
5. Hakka: Literally, visitors. An ethnic group originating in northern China, which has since moved south but is not seen to belong in any southern province. The Hakka have been compared to the Roma and maintain their own dialect and customs.↩
6. Ah-má: Mother.↩
7. Chifa: Hispanicization of the Cantonese terms “chi” and “fan,” literally “eat” and “rice,” respectively. Together the term means to share a meal or “break bread” with someone. Common usage of the term indicates simply a Chinese restaurant in Peru.↩
8. Kuei: Literally: ghost. A slang term used by Cantonese speakers to refer to foreigners, particularly white foreigners.↩
9. Sén-hák: A very recent Chinese immigrant.↩
Peruvian writer Sui-Yun meditates on sin and sensual pleasure in four short poems.
To Eve, my eternal mother
To erase my sins
I have licked the tip of evil
I know Eve did the same
our longings ended up sucking
at the shafts of trees extracting
drop by drop the sap of the apple branch
To turn away from evil
I’ve crammed my jars full
of somber recollections
calling to the unknown silks
radiating from my body
To turn away from evil
I’ve added every letter of your body
to my body, tattooing myself whole.
Lima, May 30, 2000
On the roots of certain oaks
my blush grows, apple-flavored
and it’s my dream that lies languid
like an oyster in the chamber.
the sound of dawn
your hands seize the light
of the hills over your knees
covers my veins,
the tender tickle of the cranes
your seed is born
in the chaucos’ arid song
there where the slopes
delight the furrow
of your gaze.
Standing before the mirror
I join my tightrope
to the shine of my tactile
down goes my lightweight olive of a body
oleum sacrum specum miraculum
the soft rook penetrates
ejaculating my dreams
sunk behind mountains
in the moon’s emanations.
© Sui-Yun. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
Cristy, the narrator of Tilsa Otta’s novel The Golden Children of Sexual Alchemy, experiences otherworldly orgasms with her partner: not only do they make her see God, they also give her visions of the future. Her curiosity about this “gift,” its purpose, and how it might properly be deployed prompt her to research the world of erotic spirituality. Here she offers notes from her fieldwork.
Frozen with One Foot in the Air
After leaving Cosmos, I make my way over to the Alchemist of Light Center for Alternative Therapies. I’d like information about courses on Suprasexuality. I hope I don’t run into Daemon.
“Did you come for the Feast of Venus?” Ámbar asks when she sees me.
“It’s Wednesday. Today is the sacred love meeting. It starts at six.”
“Ah, right . . . ”
I’d like to think coming today was a coincidence, not my subconscious—secretly drawn to this activity—deceiving me. Ámbar informs me that the Suprasexuality Workshop starts in August. It’s 5:20. I should go soon, before everyone arrives. I haven’t even finished the thought before a very beautiful girl comes into the apartment. A colorful shawl holds her hair in place, and big, shining hoop earrings dangle from her lobes. Her body is graceful and strong. I think it’s perfect, just like her smile. I’m taken aback even though I don’t like women.
“Hey, beautiful.” She comes up and affectionately hugs Ámbar, then turns to me just as I’m trying to sneak off for the exit. “And you? Are you joining us today?”
I freeze, one foot in the air.
I put my foot back down. She cocks her head to the side the way a puppy does, awaiting an excuse.
“I can’t. I have to work.”
She comes over, planting herself in front of me, then stares intently into my eyes for a very long second while caressing a lock of my hair.
“You’re so pretty! Please stay!” She grabs my hand, tugging on it like an insistent little girl.
“Sorry.” I free my hand with a tug. “I have to get back to work.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ámbar, tell Cristy she needs to stay.”
“Stay, Cristy!” Ámbar exclaims, also childlike.
Do they think this is a game? I don’t understand how they can take an orgiastic session so lightly and insist on my participation, like we know each other. It’s really quite presumptuous, unreal, absurd!
“Do you know Daemon?” this stranger asks in a confessional tone.
“Yeah, we’ve met,” I answer, not disguising my distaste for him.
She leans close and whispers, “He’s not coming today, if that’s why you don’t want to come.”
Wow. It seems like this Daemon is quite unpopular with the ladies. Just as I suspected, he’s one of those players who takes advantage of all the spiritually curious girls.
“I really can’t.”
“He’s not a bad person. He’s just too sexual and struggles to control himself.”
That’s not a valid excuse, I think. A high sex drive doesn’t justify harassing women, but I don’t want to get into an argument. I’d rather just go home. Still, I take my opportunity to gossip a little.
“Is he a seer?”
The girl laughs.
“Why do you say that?”
“I just don’t know how he found out what I was interested in. It felt like he was able to sense my exact worries.”
“Hmm . . . Did you take a slip of paper from the machine?”
“Ahh . . . ” She laughs, clearly enjoying herself. “Daemon is obsessed with that machine. He counts the slips of paper almost every day to check which ones are gone. For sure he just saw that the one you chose was missing, and when you came, he figured out you had taken it.”
I didn’t answer. It appears as though this community has advanced deductive reasoning skills. That’s probably what really happened. Daemon checked the machine the next day and saw that one mini-paper on the pineal gland was missing. OCD: 1, magic: 0.
“What’s your name?”
“Alexa, and I’d really love for you to come to one of our rituals. Please don’t think I’m just trying to sleep with you. We don’t encourage homosexuality anyway. I just feel like you’d really enjoy them.” Her expression after saying this is quite seductive.
Ámbar takes great pleasure in watching our conversation from her desk. With nothing left to add, I leave the building. I’m liking these people less and less; now it turns out they’re kind of homophobic.
Now, as I’m fucking Leo, esoteric ideas of the complementarity of opposites start to sound conservative, dominant, and exclusionary to me. Shiva and Shakti, the lingam and the yoni, the serpent and the lotus. I’m almost embarrassed I ever invoked that argument to bring Leo into my research. If the people from Cosmos heard me talk like this . . . with all the inclusive talk we have in our space. This time, I can’t orgasm because of all the thoughts in my head. Leo seems kind of annoyed, and he’s not wrong to be. He moves over to his side of the bed and falls asleep. I keep thinking about the mechanics of sexual magic: Is it really like an electronic system, powered by polar opposites? As a defender of LGBTQIA+ rights, I can’t wrap my head around the existence of a natural human gift that would exclude some.
3:00 a.m. Undoubtedly this counts as insomnia at this point . . . and it’s ’cause I’m trying to formulate energetic theorems based on other physiochemical principles. After all, I did take four semesters of chemical engineering in college. I feel the task I’ve taken up is quite relevant. At dawn, my mind’s turbulence suddenly clears up, and the sun powerfully illuminates a fascinating hypothesis I hadn’t considered: What if the combination of my sexual energy with the opposite (masculine) sexual energy yields the future as its byproduct? And with the union of my energy with a homologous (feminine) energy—what dimension would I then face? The past? If we adopt a Western binary approach, the polar opposite of the future is time past, but how could we know if the images of the past revealed to me during a homosexual orgasm had indeed really happened? Must I add playing detective with past historical events to my task of researching and understanding my current process? Or could those visions pertain to my own life? Could they be a flashback to my own past lives, my tenderest infancy, my days in my mother’s womb? Or could they be a flashback to her past? But . . . who is she? Who could she be? Should I already know? And what if I find out during sex with Leo? Could I have visions of “the other woman” while making love to Leo? Could Leo unknowingly introduce me to the person I’d cheat on him with? Fit for a telenovela. Though we aren’t so radical with monogamy, ever since our orgasms became supernatural, we’ve been taking better care of our energies. We don’t want something that should’ve stayed in an intimate terrain of utmost safety to happen in the presence of someone unworthy of miracles. I trust she will be worthy. I ought to tell Leo about her, but . . . when did I decide to sleep with a woman? Now that I think about it, it was at that exact moment, in the androgynous present.
Visions I’ve Recorded up to June 24, 2018
(fewer than a fourth of all the visions I’ve had in the five months, thirteen days I’ve been with Leo)
I’ve seen a gray elephant walking down a main road carrying three Hindu youths on its back.
I’ve seen a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy dancing at a Zumba class. The whole wall was made of glass, so you could see her from the street.
I’ve seen a whale explode on a beach in New Zealand; it was covered in blood and guts, surrounded by curious crowds.
I’ve seen the prime minister of Israel step down over a corruption scandal.
I’ve seen a series on the life of Luis Miguel streaming on Netflix.
I’ve seen a newspaper article on a war fought with high-speed boats and, on the facing page, a chewing gum ad offering bicycles and a free flight to an island destination where people travel only by bicycle.
I’ve seen a man who’s going to buy a house visiting it for the first time, pointing out details that will require an investment to an agent, and jotting them down in a notebook.
I’ve seen my aunt María looking at photos from a distant journey, including one showing her with a Venezuelan missionary and a New World monkey in the gardens of Neuschwanstein Castle.
I’ve seen parts of a telenovela where a domestic worker decides to run for president, and during her campaign, she falls in love with her top adviser; their relationship risks ruining the election of the young woman who ultimately does become the president, but, tragically, she can’t marry her adviser as it’s against the law.
I’ve seen an ethereal being whose body wavered between black and metallic blue, then dissolved in a small lagoon on a mountain in the Peruvian Andes.
I’ve seen a huge caravan of very poor immigrants crossing Latin America.
I’ve seen Leo naked and perched atop a leafy tree.
I’ve seen a group of people (it looked like I was there, too) in a dark cave performing a strange ritual with shiny objects and sex toys.
I’ve seen the neighborhood wrapped in missing posters for Rubí, my neighbor Natalia’s puppy.
I’ve seen Daemon dying after being run over and dragged by a car on Angamos Avenue.
I’ve seen the construction of the first evangelical church on Mars executed by mini robots under human supervision.
I’ve seen myself choosing Ferrero Rocher, muesli, and strawberry toppings for a frozen yogurt.
I’ve seen an Italian neighborhood meeting—convened to discuss measures after a burglary in the building—turn into an orgy that ended in fisticuffs when they found the burglar, who was the one who instigated the orgy in the first place.
I’ve seen a pair of black leather pants hanging from the handle of a white door.
Something like a red sea coming down from the sky.
From Lxs niñxs de oro de la alquimia sexual. © 2020 by Tilsa Otta. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jacob Steinberg. All rights reserved.
Tragedies become great business opportunities in this entertaining, if troubling, novel about a travel agency specializing in touristic excursions to disaster zones.
This is the third installment in WWB's new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, in which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem review translated books with a focus on the translation itself. Read more about the series in this interview with Meyer and Kareem, or have a look at the previous installments in the series: Meyer's review of Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, and Kareem's review of Minor Detail by Adania Shibli.
The Korean novelist Yun Ko-Eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, packs intense moral reckoning into a slim literary thriller. It is at once a satire of late-stage capitalism gone berserk, an addition to the emergent eco-horror genre—Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy come to mind—and a straightforwardly frightening suspense story. Its creepiness, in other words, knows no bounds.
The Disaster Tourist opens at Jungle, a travel agency that has made a profitable business of “surveying disaster zones and molding them into travel destinations.” Jungle offers “thirty-three distinct categories [of crisis], including volcano eruptions, earthquakes, war, drought, typhoons, and tsunamis, with 152 available packages.” A thirtyish agency representative named Yona helps research and shape those packages. She’s good at her job—“skilled,” as she puts it, “at quantifying the unquantifiable”—and takes great pride in her work, voyeuristic and exploitative though it may be. From the novel’s first pages, Yun makes clear that Yona has no moral engagement whatsoever with her workplace. She is laser-focused on success, with no energy for personal or ethical considerations. When her supervisor, a creep named Kim, begins groping and harassing her, Yona is alarmed not “because her boss was sexually assaulting her [but because] Kim only targeted has-beens.”
Yona tries her best to ignore Kim’s behavior but finds herself increasingly marginalized at Jungle. To prove her worth, she accepts a dubious assignment: to go in secret on a floundering Jungle tour to a desert island called Mui, then report back on whether the company should still offer it. The trip swiftly and radically changes the novel’s power dynamics—including, crucially, the dynamic between Yona and the reader. At Jungle, Yun positions Yona as an object of simultaneous readerly pity and disgust. She is amoral but also abused; at times, she seems almost to suffer from workplace Stockholm syndrome. But on Mui, Yona is powerful. Mui’s economy relies on tourism, and the Jungle tour is one of its main revenue streams. If Yona decides the trip should be canceled, Mui is in trouble.
Yona understands this but seems not to care. Her only concern is properly reporting on the tour’s disappointments, which, from a readerly perspective, are mainly a product of Yona’s inurement to tragedy. The emotional arc of a disaster trip, per Yona, should go through “the following stages: shock → sympathy and compassion, and maybe discomfort → gratefulness for their own lives → a sense of responsibility and a feeling that they’d learned a lesson.” Her inability to get herself to feel even a flicker of shock or sadness while standing at the site of a historic massacre demonstrates how fully working at Jungle has hardened her. Yona has internalized Jungle’s conviction that human life is a commodity. No wonder, then, that when she gets trapped on Mui, she quickly accedes to participating in a disaster-faking scheme that, while it might benefit both tourism on Mui and Yona’s career, will cost hundreds of Mui’s residents their lives.
Yona’s amorality makes her a tough protagonist to inhabit—or, perhaps, a tough mirror to look in. Her failings are far from unique. Her perspective is unsettling precisely because her choices, while cleverly exaggerated and defamiliarized by The Disaster Tourist’s premise, are so common. Capitalism often asks workers to sacrifice their ethics for their jobs; tourism often exacerbates and profits from economic inequality; and observing tragedy from afar, as in the news, often deadens us to it. Yona has, perhaps, a purely capitalist worldview: she relates to herself and others as commodities. Yun deploys this perspective to perform a certain reductio ad absurdum of the phenomena above, demonstrating the inherent brutality of the free-market world as we know it. The result is distressing—but the mounting signs that the fake-disaster scheme is even more sinister than it seems are more than enough to keep readers moving, engaged both with Yona’s moral fate and with Mui’s survival.
Yun is not alone in grounding political critique in a suspenseful plot. Nor is she unusual—especially in the world of thrillers, literary and otherwise—in using a pared-back, low-detail prose style to keep readers hungry for clues. In Buehler’s translation, The Disaster Tourist has a notably flat affect, which both underscores Yona’s ethical and emotional disconnection and amplifies the reader-hunger phenomenon, effectively turning us into sleuths. The littlest descriptive slowdown or spike in emotion can herald an important plot point. It can also serve as a red herring, a device Yun uses sparingly enough to tantalize readers without losing our trust.
It may be worth pausing here to consider the fact that because I know no Korean, my reaction to The Disaster Tourist’s tone is quite different than it might be if I were looking at a novel translated from a language I speak, read, or have close cultural ties to. Tone, like much else, is both cultural and contextual, and my context is incomplete. Though I consciously endeavor to read contemporary Korean literature and am well-versed in the slice of Korean fiction translated into English, that slice is miniature. I don’t have the sample size to intelligently or ethically compare Yun’s tone to her peers’. Instead, I am receiving her writing in the context of the God-knows-how-many English-language novels I have read, which may seem like a fundamental misinterpretation or hazard but is in fact a precondition of reading translation. Contextual shifting is part of the translator’s job. Among Buehler’s obligations to Yun is to ensure that her novel is tonally effective in English, which means ensuring that an Anglophone reader can pick up on the cues and creepinesses that lurk beneath its surface—or, as happens often here, be temporarily tricked when Yun’s tone is at odds with her plot.
Tension between fact and affect is crucial to The Disaster Tourist’s success. Were the novel written or translated with higher drama, it might easily become absurdist, which would erase the chilling effect Jungle has had on Yona. It would also over-signal the plot. Imagine, for instance, the moment in which Yona realizes she is well and truly stranded on Mui: “It had only been a few hours [since she got lost], but it felt like days had passed. Standing at the end of the alley, Yona looked up at the sky. She couldn’t see the sun, and she felt a little nauseous.” Buehler’s word choice here is consciously simple: Yona looks rather than glares, and she feels a little nauseous rather than experiencing roiling nausea or wanting to puke. The syntax here is equally plain: three two-clause sentences, each broken by a comma. Buehler’s chosen sentence structure produces a dulling effect that leeches drama from the situation, deceptively presenting it as an inconvenience rather than the crisis it becomes.
Hiding and minimizing crisis are key strategies in The Disaster Tourist. Jungle’s business would be impossible were its clients and employees not able to shrink tragedies into points of interest; Yona’s continued employment at Jungle would be unbearable were she not to interpret sexual assault as a warped form of performance review. At the novel’s end, Yun suddenly blows every crisis back up to its proper scale—a correct thriller ending, but one that arrives too quickly and costs The Disaster Tourist some nuance. Still, there is immense resonance in its portrait of capitalism run completely amok. At one point, Yona has a small breakthrough in understanding, occasioned by the belief that “her life was worth more than three hundred dollars.” Would that she understood that Mui’s inhabitants’ lives are, too.
In this short piece, Milton Hatoum writes a letter from the future chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic in Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil.
I was twelve years old in April of the year 2020. At that time, drones did not yet deliver our food, nor was such a varied menu of pastilles on offer, each of which now holds the flavors, spices, and proteins one once found in a plate of food, and which leave us with the impression that we are eating as well as we ever have. Though it might be puzzling to both robots and people today, in the year 2090, many people still cooked at home in that year, peeling potatoes and fruits, slurping up the juices of their delicious mangoes, today reduced to a mere pink pill!
During the long quarantine that began in 2020, our family followed a strict routine. My father was courageous and rigid, but his bravery and sternness found themselves up against fear. At fifty-five years of age, he realized that courage and the awareness of fear are inseparable. At a certain point, he softened, and in his face—a father’s—I noted a meek sadness. He even discovered, to his secret delight, that he could do his job from home, and that many of the sixty-some trips he took each year were, if not useless, dispensable. And finally, my father began to talk to me that year, and this was one of the rare joys of my youth, put on hold.
Our forced solitude revealed sentiments and attitudes we once guarded behind seven locked doors. In her middle age, my mother rediscovered her matriarchal authority, and no one but my nonna dared contradict her. Together, the two women took the reins of the household, and woe to those who did not obey. My father would put on his mask and head out to the street to get crates of food, and he himself did the washing of food packages, fruits, vegetables. Down below, on limpid April mornings, he took fright at his own shadow, which he was certain had become infected.
All of you, fully adapted to the environment of the Seven Lunar Colonies, cannot fathom what it was to use a mask. Its use was required even when we went for a simple stroll. Schoolwork was done by computer, there was no such thing as microchips inside one’s brain, much less these arrogant robots the size an egg, who think they know it all and won’t stop until we do too.
Oh, how I miss the days of real professors! And of eggs! You better believe it, we actually had such things. I used to eat two or three a day; I’d learned to make them poached, to prepare thirteen different kinds of omelets, with vegetables or jerk meat, seasoned with rosemary or a few drops of cachaça.
This time of reclusion, fear, boredom was devastating for those who lost relatives and friends, and terrifying and grueling for medical workers on the front lines. And yet, hordes of barbarians draping themselves in the yellow and green of the flag heckled and abused these heroes. I say heroes: is risking your own life in the attempt to save thousands not a heroic gesture?
But the plague led us to a place of contemplation. We thought about ourselves and of others; we thought about the waste, the greed, the consumption of useless things; we thought about the cruelty, the recent tragedies, and the history of Brazil, also tragic.
As the pandemic dragged on, there were numerous predictions, optimistic and not so much, about our future. Everyone was right. The optimists because, a few years after this catastrophe, the economy of our planet began to grow. My father, an unwavering optimist, was a post-plague Pangloss. But the pessimists were right, too, because the wars never ceased, the surveillance and control wrought by our digital world eroded our liberties, unemployment and poverty grew. In Brazil, the crux of our problems remained unsolved: how is it that the economy grows but inequality persists? There’s an enigma for you, my dear lunar friends.
There were also ideological shifts and a blurring of lines. Many ultraliberals became merely liberal. Some on the left joined up with the social democrats. The unclassifiable figures parading as “centrists" found their swagger in the comfort of the symmetry permitted by their position, moving here to the right, there to the left: opportunistic hyenas, always striving for power. Keynesian economic theories were celebrated and applied across several countries; those of Hayek, ridiculed.
A mere twelve years old, how could I decide where to cast my lot? I woke up filled with optimism, but, as night fell, a melancholy came over me, and I would go speak with my nonna, who taught me Italian. In 1939, when she was still a child, she and her parents had migrated from Italy to Brazil. She was not a cynic, but she would often say that human solidarity always came too late, and the kingdoms of selfishness and indifference would triumph.
“Look at what’s happening to the Amazon and the Indigenous right in the middle of this pandemic,” she would protest. “We have learned nothing from the peoples of the forest! Just look at this third-rate Mussolini of ours, and his children . . . Una famiglia di facinorosi di estrema destra. You know the motto these mobsters live by? Eliminate the elderly, the poor, and the Indigenous!"
She was referring to the president of a republic in shambles. A decade later, this vile creature would become nothing more than a footnote in the history books. The cartoonists referred to him by a keen nickname: Captain Chloroquine. But this nickname and millions of tales of the pandemic were also forgotten. Thankfully for readers, writers once again took up their innermost anxieties, their skeletons, and their obsessions.
Moments of melancholy were not rare. Each time my grandmother read the news of the country of her birth, she would weep silently to herself. My mother, who had a passion for Italian art and literature, would console her: “Italy is eternal, Mamma.”
But I also remember a great many good things. The stars in the sky shone once again; the Moon (the irony will not escape you!) once again became a poetic metaphor; birds burst with frenetic joy during that long-off year in which I feasted on two novels: The End of Eternity and From the Earth to the Moon. I also read children’s tales from Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, and Graciliano Ramos. If someone from the Seven Stations of the Moon cares to read the work of these authors, you can activate the Aleph Library in your microchip.
Every night before bed, my mother would read from the Thousand and One Nights. This repertoire of magic and nightmares fascinated me; as I listened to the final fable, I was already take with Scheherazade, who survived because she knew how to tell stories. I dreamed of the East in the West, and vice-versa. I dreamed of these stories that transcended all borders, narratives that formed an imaginary universe.
In closing, a piece of advice from this old man: don’t bother coming here anytime soon. Continue your research there on the Seven Stations. Make the most of your “Bacchus among the Craters” festivities, where you celebrate the love of the cosmos. Drink your famed Bordeaux Lunaire, and see if you can’t send a few bottles to this old Dionysian. And if you can, use your holographic system to send moonstruck demonstrations of love and solidarity to us poor humans on this little planet of ours, for which a cure seems long in coming.
© 2020 by Milton Hatoum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
Maya Jaggi visited the colonial “White City” of Arequipa, Mario Vargas Llosa’s birthplace, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking to Peruvian writers then, and again under lockdown, WWB’s Critic at Large discovers how literature has reflected deep racial and regional divisions in the country. The armed conflict of 1980–2000 widened those rifts, laying bare inequalities that are resurfacing with the coronavirus. Yet writers, she argues in this long read, have been helping to bridge a gulf of understanding and racial division within Peru.
The Mario Vargas Llosa House Museum in Arequipa is in the high-altitude “White City” in southern Peru, known for its dazzling white stone and penetrating blue light. The Nobel laureate’s ghostly apparition as a speaking hologram welcomes visitors to the two-story house with wooden balconies where he was born on March 28, 1936. Memorabilia chart both his presidential bid and his life in letters—though, as Vargas Llosa once told me with a stiff laugh, his election defeat in 1990 confirmed that “I wasn’t a politician but a writer.”
His birthplace opened as a museum four years after his 2010 Nobel Prize. But like all museums, it has been shuttered during the pandemic. Despite being one of the first countries to lock down, on March 16, Peru has the second-worst coronavirus toll in South America after Brazil (and, as of July, the sixth-highest in the world). Its excess death rate (mortality above the usual average) has been one of the worst anywhere. In a country where seventy percent of workers labor precariously in the informal sector, without social safety nets, Peru's second-largest city, Arequipa, and its capital, Lima, saw an exodus as tens of thousands trekked back to their home villages. Today Arequipa finds itself at the epicenter of Peru's dire health crisis. Yet in normal times, the city’s renown rests on its UNESCO World Heritage Center and Andean-Pacific gastronomy.
The museum guides’ claim that the ground shook at the writer’s birth is not as implausible as it sounds. The White City sits at the foot of three snow-capped volcanoes: El Misti, Chachani, and Picchu Picchu. When the Spanish refounded the Incan city in 1540, along a corridor to the Pacific from silver mines that stretched to Bolivia, the vaulted ceilings of its colonial churches and mansions were to withstand frequent earthquakes. Volcanic ash turned to stone (sillar), rough to the touch, is the ubiquitous raw material for unique mestizo architecture that marries baroque with Inca iconography (sculpted suns, pumas, and corn on church facades), and for the immense seventeenth-century cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, where the would-be president held one of his first campaign rallies.
He spent barely a year in this Andean city, of which he wrote, “I remember nothing.” His mother took him to Bolivia when he was one, and thence to Piura and Lima on the Peruvian coast. His fiction ranges across Peru’s three climate zones: the Pacific coast, the Andean sierra (mountains), and the Amazon jungle. Yet Arequipa’s conservatism, as a colonial city built on social as well as geological fault lines, marked his life and foreshadowed his fiction. And beyond the oeuvre of its most famous writer, these social, cultural, and geographical fissures run deep throughout the literature of Peru.
“Intermarriage and miscegenation were rife, but so too were growing anxieties about racial mixing.”
As Vargas Llosa wrote in his 1993 autobiography, A Fish in the Water (tr. Helen Lane), his parents were wed in this, his maternal grandparents’ house, on Bulevar Parra, south of the historic center. But his father, Ernesto Vargas, walked out before he was born. The shame of Dora Llosa’s abandonment with a “fatherless child,” in a family whose aristocratic airs belied modest means, drove them out of Arequipa. He attributes this marital “disaster” to his father’s crippling sense of social inferiority. An apprentice shoemaker turned radio operator, “his life with my mother was ruined by the sensation, which never left him, that she came from a world of names that meant something—those Arequipa families that boasted of their Spanish forebears, of their good manners, of the purity of the Spanish they spoke.” Ernesto’s bitterness was compounded by the perverse resolve of the writer’s paternal grandfather to “live with an Indian woman who braided her hair and wore wide skirts, in a little village in the central Andes”—which “filled my progenitor with shame.”
Vargas Llosa became a close observer of Peru’s stratified and regionally split society, its seemingly parallel yet intimately colliding worlds. His memoir excoriates the “national disease” afflicting “particoloured Peruvian society” and “poisoning the lives of Peruvians in the form of resentment and social complexes” that are “taken in with one’s mother’s milk.” His father had “white skin [and] light blue eyes,” but had come down in the world to a point where “Peruvians who believe that they are blancos (whites) begin to feel that they are cholos, that is to say, mestizos, half-breeds of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, that is to say poor and despised . . . one is always blanco or cholo in relation to someone else.”
Politics of Rust - Product III (Indian Red) from Sandra Gamarra’s 2018 painting series, Políticas del óxido, inspired by eighteenth-century "casta paintings" that depict the offspring of racial mixing. This one is headed: "Spaniard. Highland Indian. Or Coffeed. Product Mestiso." Red iron oxide on canvas, 130 x 130 cm. (Courtesy of the artist)
This insight propels the furious satire of Vargas Llosa’s first novel, The Time of the Hero (1962; tr. Lysander Kemp)—a founding classic of the so-called Latin American Boom. His father (who reappeared in his mother’s life when he was ten) was so appalled by his son’s writing poetry—and fearful that it signaled homosexuality—that he sent him to the Leoncio Prado military academy in Lima. This was a “window on the real country, Peruvian society in miniature,” Vargas Llosa told me in 2002 for a Guardian profile. “Because of grants you had all social classes and races—white, black, Indians, mestizos, mulattos, from the upper class to the very poor. It was an explosive climate where everybody was prejudiced, with tremendous tension and violence. I suffered because I was spoiled, but it was an extraordinary lesson.” With its brutal bullying and hazing, the cadet school became the novel’s microcosm of Peru under General Manuel Odría's 1948–56 military rule. The coup that brought him to power had opposed the radical Apra party (Popular Revolutionary Alliance of America) that grew from a demand for Indian rights.
“Peru was the capital of the Spanish empire in South America. That was the beginning of the relationship between races,” Santiago Roncagliolo, a leading novelist of the post-“Boom” generation, told me over coffee during the second edition of Hay Arequipa (a literary festival founded in 2017 following Hay Cartagena in Colombia). After Pizarro’s arrival in 1531, Spain ruled swaths of the continent through Lima’s opulent court under the Peruvian viceroyalty of 1542–1821. “One civilization defeated another,” Roncagliolo said. “That’s very strong in the subconscious of Peruvian society.” Yet the cultural conquest was less absolute than elsewhere on the continent: Peru has forty-eight surviving indigenous languages, including Quechua, that of the vast Inca empire—the mother tongue of fourteen percent of Peru's current population of almost thirty-three million.
“There’s a moral meaning in memory—and literature is in charge of making us remember.”
As the country prepares to mark its bicentenary of independence next year, “the colonial system is still alive in Peru,” the Madrid-based artist Sandra Gamarra told me. “The idea of race, of different levels of humanity, is in our culture.” The Spanish made marriage alliances with vanquished Inca nobility—witness an eighteenth-century oil painting in the Jesuit church in Arequipa of the 1572 wedding of a conquistador and an Inca princess (a version of this painting, as I wrote in the New York Times, was feted last year at the Prado in Madrid). Intermarriage and miscegenation were rife, but so too were growing anxieties about racial mixing. Gamarra’s recent series of sepia-like family portraits play on “casta paintings” in vogue in the eighteenth century, depicting mixed-race couples whose offspring are labeled with almost zoological precision. As peninsulares from Iberia vied with American-born criollos, their “impure” progeny were classified by caste: the child of a Spaniard and an Amerindian (mestizo or cholo); Spaniard and mestizo (castizo); mestizo and Amerindian (lobo). As enslaved Africans replaced Amerindian labor ravaged by European diseases such as smallpox and influenza, more terms were deployed for Spaniard and African (mulato) or African and Amerindian (zambo). Yet in this bizarre racial pecking order, education, wealth, and Catholicism might offer a ladder to social mobility. This was the pathological history underlying Ernesto Vargas’s anxieties.
Teresa Ruiz Rosas, a writer and translator from Arequipa whose parents ran a bookstore in the city, told me its reputation as La Ciudad Blanca was not just for its volcanic stone. Migration from the Andean highlands has changed its demography. “Arequipa and Lima are now so mixed. But in my youth, it was called a white city because it was dominated by people of European origin”—those, like the Llosas, who vaunted Spanish ancestors.
Beside the hotel bar where we spoke, Arequipa’s Convent of Santa Catalina—founded in 1575 and the biggest in South America—is as telling a microcosm as Vargas Llosa’s cadet school. Ruiz Rosas remembers the convent’s opening to a curious public in 1970. Inside, the street names and Mudéjar style bow to Moorish Andalusia with fountains, orange trees, and houses painted terra-cotta and brilliant blue. But its past is less picturesque. Wealthy families from surrounding haciendas paid lavish dowries in silver for a daughter to take the vows, a privilege reserved for descendants of Spaniards—though not always relished by the girls as young as twelve who were immured (one runaway set fire to the convent). Wealth oozes from an ex-dormitory filled with Cusco-school oil paintings (the extraordinary mestizo proselytizing art that flourished in the former Inca capital during the viceroyalty). Poor mestizas born out of wedlock joined the convent hierarchy beneath the “pure.” In its heyday, two hundred cloistered nuns—some in luxurious private suites with libraries and musical instruments—were outnumbered by indigenous servant women who ground corn flour, did the laundry, and emptied their chamber pots.
The Santa Catalina walled convent in Arequipa, where only descendants of Spaniards could take the vows. Photo © Maya Jaggi
“Behind Toledo Street” (tr. Psiche Hughes), Ruiz Rosas’s short story set in the convent—which won the 1999 Juan Rulfo Prize—grew from her shock at its claustrophobic penitence cells. A “self-made tourist guide” with “delicate mestizo features” and “flowing blue-black hair” relates how she tricked the Cuban gigolo who left her pregnant by locking him into a cupboard-like cell. She is from a “rugged land” of people “born to work like mules. And rather revengeful.” She knows the porous sillar walls will “guard the smell of his putrefying corpse like a secret.” Ruiz Rosas said, “I wanted the perfect crime without blood. Ever since the conquest, it was normal that indigenous women could be taken and left, no matter what happens to the ‘bastard’ children.” Rather than vengeance, the narrator sees her “obsessive need to punish” as a principled response to a legacy of injustice, exploitation, and denial.
That enduring legacy has divided the country’s fiction. For Roncagliolo, “there are two main streams in Peruvian literature all through the last century.” One, led by José María Arguedas, “documented the problems of Indian people, and thought literature was a social weapon.” The other he sees as led by Vargas Llosa, who “could also write about social justice, but was against social revolutions, and thought the novel was more the crafting of beauty, of a universe.” Writers who belong to the latter stream, developing an individual style, are “usually middle- or upper-class writers from the capital, connected with Europe.” The polished selected stories of Julio Ramón Ribeyro, who lived in Paris and died in 1994, fall into this second stream—though the title of a collection published in New York Review Books Classics as The Word of the Speechless (2019, tr. Katherine Silver) underlines his deep concern, too, for “the marginalized, the forgotten, those . . . without voice.” Roncagliolo (b. 1975), of a new generation, sought his own way to “write both about social justice and also with passion and craft; I don’t want to get trapped in either of those groups.”
Sensing the revolutionary potential of novels, the Inquisition had taken the precaution of prohibiting the entire genre throughout Spanish America (claiming it was bad for Amerindians’ spiritual health), along with all works of the imagination about native peoples. Under the free republic, exotic “Indianist” novels, such as Clorinda Matto de Turner’s Birds Without a Nest (1889; tr. J. G. H., emended by Naomi Lindstrom)— sometimes characterized as a Peruvian Uncle Tom’s Cabin—gave way to social realist Indigenista writers. Some were published in José Carlos Mariátegui’s avant-garde magazine Amauta (Quechua for “wise man”) in Lima in 1926–1930—the subject of an excellent touring exhibition at the Blanton Museum of Art in Texas through August 30.
“Some fiction did more to confirm a gulf of incomprehension than to bridge it.”
Indigenista writer Ciro Alegría, in his panoramic novel Broad and Alien Is the World (1941; tr. Harriet de Onís), wrote as someone who had spent time on his grandfather’s hacienda, and was sympathetic to noble Indian peons brutalized by feudal landowners. But Arguedas’s novels, including Yawar fiesta (1941) and Deep Rivers (1958)—both translated by Frances H. Barraclough—were a revolution in perspective. The son of a provincial judge in the highlands, rejected by his stepmother after his mother died young, Arguedas was cared for by Quechua speakers, and later anthologized Quechua songs as a trained anthropologist. Driven to protest, while remolding Spanish to express the Quechua tongue and cosmogony, “I tried to convert into written language what I was as an individual: a link . . . between the great imprisoned nation and the generous, human section of the oppressors,” he wrote in 1968. For Roncagliolo, “Arguedas is an amazing writer who lived in the sierra, who had a point of view no other writer had.” But the irreconcilability of his two worlds (and a spat with the Argentinian “Boom” author Julio Cortázar) drove him to suicide in 1969.
The chasm between coastal city and sierra widened during the armed conflict that erupted forty years ago, when civilians were caught between brutal guerrilla groups and state counterinsurgency forces waging their own “dirty war.” The Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), led by the Arequipa-born philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán (jailed in 1992, and still in prison aged eighty-five), initially gained a foothold by sending teachers to desperately deprived rural areas. More than seventy thousand people were killed over two decades, driving an exodus from the Andean provinces that bore the brunt of the violence. Ruiz Rosas (who remembers Guzmán frequenting her parents’ bookstore) said the capital seemed oblivious to the unfolding terror until “bombs began to go off in Lima too, and people finally paid attention.”
Andean artist Edilberto Jiménez, pictured in Lima with books of his work. An early chronicler of the "dirty war," he based his art on Quechua testimony he collected of atrocities by both Shining Path guerrillas and state forces: "People in Lima couldn’t believe this happened in Peru." Photo © Maya Jaggi
The first chroniclers of this war were Andean artists. Edilberto Jiménez, a bilingual sociologist and retablista, drew on Quechua testimony he collected of atrocities by both guerrillas and state forces for his drawings and retablos (boxed tableaux of wooden figures, traditionally of Catholic scenes). As he told me in Lima in 2018, although many of his works were “destroyed by the army and police,” those that survived shocked recent audiences in the capital: “People couldn’t believe this happened in Peru.”
Short stories by Andean writers followed from the mid-1980s. But the novelist Karina Pacheco, cofounder of an independent publishing house in Cusco, Ceques Editores, told me media attention was scant because of a centralist focus on Lima writers. Early novels to emerge from the conflict included Julio Ortega’s Ayacucho, Goodbye (1986, tr. Edith Grossman) and La violencia del tiempo (The Violence of Time, 1991) by Miguel Gutiérrez, who died in 2016 and has been hailed as an heir to Arguedas. Yet some fiction did more to confirm a gulf of incomprehension than to bridge it. For Pacheco, Vargas Llosa’s novel Death in the Andes (1993; tr. Edith Grossman) “reflects the vision of part of Peru toward the other Peru.” That whodunit followed the real-life disappearance of eight journalists in the early 1980s, which Vargas Llosa was involved in investigating. In “The Story of a Massacre,” a 1983 essay in Making Waves (1996, tr. John King), he wrote that the “Indians in sandals and colored ponchos that they glimpsed herding flocks of llamas were as exotic” to the Lima journalists as to any tourist. But that essay’s nuances seem lost in the novel’s atmosphere of menace, where pre-Columbian rites symbolize Shining Path’s orgy of blood, and high-Andean culture becomes conflated with primitive barbarism.
“For my generation, it’s very difficult to see who’s good and who’s bad.”
In 2003, when Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that state forces shared the blame for atrocities against civilians over two decades, its explosive report deeply unsettled assumptions about who the civilized were, and who the barbarians. Alonso Cueto’s The Blue Hour (2005; tr. Frank Wynne), which won the Premio Herralde de Novela, is among the novels that reflect this shifting moral ground. A Lima lawyer searches for a woman from Ayacucho whom his late father (an army commander) had imprisoned, but who had escaped at the “blue hour of first light”— and whose son the lawyer believes to be his half-brother. The novel led many Peruvian readers not only deep into the Andes (“all [Limeños] know about this place is that they think the handicrafts are pretty”) but into Lima’s own barriadas (shanty towns). While the lawyer’s wife assumes him to be having an affair with “some chola,” he learns that his father’s lover, whose relatives were all killed by Shining Path, had been held in a “barracks policed by torturers.” In such a “divided world,” the “line between them and us is razor thin.” Only the woman’s love and forgiveness, while redeeming the father, stretch credulity.
“There’s a moral meaning in memory—and literature is in charge of making us remember,” Cueto told me one morning in Arequipa. His narrator’s father is an “ambiguous figure he had thought was rude and ruthless, but who had been kind.” In the son’s “search for the past to redeem his father’s faults, he understands his father, his family, his country, and himself.” Peru, for Cueto, is a “country full of languages and cultures, with cities where people gather from different areas and try to live with each other. Conflict, discrimination, and violence are very frequent. It’s much improved, more integrated, than forty years ago, when Shining Path started—but it’s not an integrated country.”
Lima novelist Alonso Cueto: "Peru is much improved, more integrated, than forty years ago, when Shining Path started—but it’s not an integrated country." Photo © Daniel Mordzinski
More ambiguous and less redemptive than The Blue Hour is Roncagliolo’s Red April (2006; tr. Edith Grossman), which won the Alfaguara Prize and the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. During Holy Week of 2000 in Ayacucho, as burnt corpses turn up with limbs torn off, a Lima prosecutor investigates a suspected serial killer. The child of a mother from Cusco and a white soldier from the capital, he struggles with his own prejudices against the “unfathomable” locals, whose ancient beliefs are held in almost superstitious dread. As one character tells him with dramatic irony: “You don't know these half-breeds . . . They're violent people.” The novel hints at how insidiously the investigator’s own prejudices become part of the problem. For others, it was “them or us.” For him, “We waged a just war . . . But sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy.”
The son of an exiled politician, Roncagliolo’s understanding of Peru’s bitterly riven society stemmed not only from his childhood during the armed conflict (“This was my war; I grew up in it”), but also his work with the Human Rights Commission in the 1990s, when he witnessed the “scars of war.” Peru, he learned, was a “country of people who hated each other. Everyone supported killing the other side”: people from the mountains versus the cities; the poor versus the rich. “There was no middle point, no dialogue, and no contact. After fifteen years of killings and kidnappings, and not being able to leave your city because the highways were dangerous, that makes people racist because they don’t know each other.” Red April was sparked by the Atocha bombing of 2004 in Madrid (where he was living) and the response to terrorism: “I’d seen all these things before, and they were wrong.” Although, like Death in the Andes, his novel uses the crime thriller genre, “it was a different time,” he told me. “In 1993 we were aware of the cruelty of terrorism. But ten years later, there was also consciousness of the cruelty of the state. For my generation, it’s very difficult to see who’s good and who’s bad.”
The Blue Hour and Red April, anointed by international prizes, raised awareness of the Andean holocaust in the rest of the country, according to Pacheco. “A lot of readers in Peru approach political violence through fiction and films to get closer to a broader spectrum of people—and stories affect people more deeply” than nonfiction. To her own novels, which include No olvides nuestros nombres (2008; Do Not Forget Our Names), have been added other women’s voices, such as that of Claudia Salazar Jiménez, whose first novel, Blood of the Dawn (2013; tr. Elizabeth Bryer), traces the impact of sexual violence on three women during the conflict—and won Las Américas Prize for Narrative in 2014. (Like Daniel Alarcón, who writes mainly in English, she lives in the US.)
“The curfews imposed during the pandemic have stirred memories of the war years.”
The past decade has seen an outpouring of testimonial literature from different sides of the conflict. “New voices have arisen that would have been impossible twenty years ago,” Roncagliolo said, “because now you can talk about the past from many points of view.” But the “real change is readers. They’re not just middle-class white people from the city. Everybody’s gone to school.”
Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez’s When Rains Become Floods: A Child Soldier’s Story (2012; tr. Margaret Randall) is the testimony of a Quechua-speaking boy who followed his brother into Shining Path, was then recruited into the army, and escaped the war to become a Franciscan priest and anthropologist. Also in English translation is Renato Cisneros’s novel The Distance Between Us (2015; tr. Fionn Petch), a son’s fictionalized search through family history for his late father, a military leader during the conflict.
José Carlos Agüero’s Los rendidos: Sobre el don de perdonar (The Surrendered: On the Gift of Forgiveness; 2015) are the reflections of a poet and historian whose parents were Senderistas. Marco Avilés, whose family migrated to Lima from the Andean city of Abancay, confronts attitudes that underpinned—and outlived—the years of violence, in books such as De dónde venimos los cholos (Where We Cholos Come From, 2016). As Avilés has written of joining a Lima newspaper: “I’d crossed the border from one country into another. Both were called Peru, but they had nothing to do with one another.”
Cusco novelist Karina Pacheco: "A lot of readers in Peru approach political violence through fiction and films—to get closer to a broader spectrum of people." Photo © Daniel Mordzinski
Literature in (and translated from) indigenous languages may be vital in bridging this gulf. More than seventy-five percent of those who died in the war were mother-tongue speakers of Quechua or other native languages. Pacheco, who doubts “we’ve made a really deep reflection on this as a society,” said the “Spanish language still has all the opportunities in Peru.” The country officially became bilingual in 1975, when Quechua was recognized. But the past decade has seen a marked shift. Hugo Coya, a writer and filmmaker, launched the first indigenous-language programs on national radio and television in 2016, when he was director of Peru’s TV and Radio Institute, beginning with Nuqanchik (Quechua for All of Us). Speakers of Quechua, he told me from Lima, still suffer discrimination and “linguistic shame. Because it’s been synonymous with poverty and backwardness, it may be spoken almost clandestinely inside people’s homes. But it’s not true it’s only in the sierra. Quechua is spoken all over the country.” Of the million inhabitants of San Juan de Lurigancho, Lima’s most populous district, sixty percent are Quechua speakers. Audiences for recent, internationally prizewinning films in Quechua and Aymara “were spectacular. Spanish-speakers have discovered how rich these languages are. It’s important to preserve and revitalize them aggressively.”
Felix Lossio Chávez, a sociologist and academic who was, until May, general director of cultural and creative industries at Peru’s Ministry of Culture (created in 2010), is mindful that “more than twenty percent of Peruvians don’t have Spanish as their main language.” He pointed to a growing interest in bilingual and trilingual books—including children’s literature—which have government support. The National Literature Prize created an indigenous-language category in 2018 to cover a tiny but growing number of books. That year, thirty-eight new publications in those languages were registered at Peru’s national library. Within a year, the figure had risen to sixty-three. Such publishing is now part of a new official reading strategy geared to “biblio-diversity.” But this year's Lima Independent Book Fair, which gives vital support to regional publishers, was canceled owing to the coronavirus.
The curfews imposed during the pandemic have stirred memories of the war years. Roncagliolo had thought Peru a “more civilized place now than it was then, trying to build a state for everybody.” But watching events from lockdown in Barcelona, he felt the virus had accentuated “all Peru’s unsolved problems. I’ve seen really cruel scenes these last days—people saying, ‘let others die, not me’—that reminded me of the bad old times.” For Pacheco, the truth commission and the writing that flowed from it “helped to see that racism, inequality, and exclusion were the main causes of the big tragedies we’ve lived—the emergence of Shining Path and the devastating repression by army forces.” But she puts a failure to stem these inequalities down to “our pandemic racism.”
Lóssio is more optimistic that, while more needs to be done to “level the floor—the access to cultural infrastructure is extremely unequal—we’re more open to reading different points of view.” From lockdown in Lima, he told me: “Through books and films and art, we’re closer to understanding the complexity of what happened in the political violence and reconciling the distance we had.”
As coronavirus amplifies the country’s deep inequalities, and Peru faces its greatest challenge in generations, that understanding will be crucial.
© 2020 by Maya Jaggi. All rights reserved.
Further Reading on WWB:
A woman is nursed back to health by an acquaintance in this excerpt of Libuše Moníková's Verklärte Nacht, forthcoming next year from Karolinum Press.
The man is back, trying to be quiet. I watch him, he squints over at me, and I play dead, pretending to sleep. There’s no more heat, no more seething blood. The slow, monotonous flowing of thin blood through blue veins, for three hundred years.
I hear him rustling shopping bags in the kitchenette, turning on the gas stove, putting water on to boil, cracking eggs into the pan. It hisses, sizzles: bacon—he doesn’t know that I only eat vegetables and fish. Should I lecture him on the diet of a dancer? It smells good.
I open my eyes. He’s standing over me. “I know you’re not sleeping anymore,” he says. “When you’re asleep, you grind your teeth. Nice to have you back.” He touches my temples. “And the fever is gone, too! Now just tell me you’re hungry.”
“She can speak!” He kisses my hand enthusiastically, he had better not make a habit of it. “Shall I bring you the food in bed?”
“No, I’m getting up!” I say testily. I feel sweaty, sticky all over. “How long did I sleep?”
“A long time. Today is the fifth day. You woke up a few times, but you weren’t responsive. You were pretty far gone.” He looks at me.
“What day is today?” I ask.
“I couldn’t say either,” he says. “Being with you is like being on an island, a quarantine island—there’s no contact, no interaction with the rest of the population.”
“And in the end, everyone’s dead. The ship of the dead.”
“Except that our ship has arrived safely in the harbor and they’re letting us come ashore.” He looks young, confident, and in love.
I imagine choreographing the disembarkation from the ship of the dead. The railing as backdrop, a pas de deux in front of the gangway; no, it would have to be two men and a woman. Pas de trois. Verklärte Nacht. And then a step dance on the shaft tunnel. Mister Bojangles.
If there’s a first opera to include a telephone conversation, there can be a first ballet where people dance on a shaft tunnel. An ocean liner, women in airy white suits playing shuffleboard, like Greta Garbo; bathers around the swimming pool, promenading on deck. And suddenly all the deck chairs are tilted, the wine glasses slide off the tables, water squeezes through the portholes; a dance on an inclined plane. And then the rescue at the dock of the Vltava.
The icy cobblestones in front of the landing stage; the lamps from the street; gulls on cords above the dancers; the carriages from Old Town Square with the tipsy drivers in their greasy bowlers; the gypsy band come to greet the survivors; the taxis rushing by without stopping, full of happy Americans who don’t shrink from waving their flag here, in my Prague. Is it even still my Prague? It lacks a fountain, bubbling, even in the summer it’s missing from the square; I need cataclysms for my finale, and a saxophone, like in Ravel; trumpets, Janáček’s trumpets, and kettledrums.
As if my stories didn’t have happy endings.
I get up, throw back the blanket, and freeze: there’s a huge bloodstain on the sheet, dried at the edges, the same thing on my pajama pants. Asperger whistles cheerfully in the kitchen and I feverishly consider whether I have any supplies—cotton wadding, at least. As always, the blood has come unexpectedly and too early, too strong, a loss of blood that can’t be quickly compensated; but still better than the panic the time it didn’t come. While I’m here playing dead, three hundred years or three thousand, hollow inside, my body doesn’t give a damn and continues on as it pleases.
I pull up the sheet, put on a long sweater over my pajamas, and walk to the bathroom clumsily, the skin on my legs taut. I suck in my stomach and tense my muscles, trying not to let any blood drip onto the floor. Asperger leaves the kitchen so that I can undress in the bathroom. This apartment has some serious disadvantages.
I look in the mirror. My eyes are red and my face softened, puffy from lying so long in the heat. A cramp worms through my abdomen, a familiar pain. Isn’t there any more reliable way of assuring oneself of one’s continued existence?
I take a long, laborious shower, enjoying the soapsuds on my skin, the shampoo, the warmth, the water splashing on my hair, my mouth, my closed eyes. The water pressure seems stronger than before. Then a cold rinse; I suppress my usual shriek, rub myself down. The towel is streaked with blood, I put it in a bucket to soak with the pajama pants and look for cotton. There’s a tiny bit, it won’t last a half hour. I dress and look in the hallway; there’s exactly one tampon left in the pack. Asperger is waiting for me and the food is long since cold. “I didn’t know you liked showering that much.” He smiles, disappointed, and takes the plates back into the kitchen, turns on the stove. While the food sizzles in the pan, he rinses the plates again. “Otherwise it won’t look so good,” he says.
In that moment, I like him.
“Would you like a soup first?” he asks. “There’s tomato soup and broccoli soup.” He shows me the cans.
“Maybe tomato soup, later,” I say. I don’t want to disappoint him again.
We eat his fried eggs, I haven’t eaten bacon in years; I praise everything and he says it’s too dry because it had to go back in the pan. He takes away the plates and brings cheese, red wine. He asks if I’d like coffee and cake afterward.
My mouth begins to twitch at the sight of the red wine. “No, thank you, just a piece of cheese, I have to go out in a sec and get something.”
“You can’t think that I’ll let you go out, with your wet hair and your cold! I can get it for you. What do you need?”
“I want to buy it myself,” I say, agitated.
“You’re not leaving the apartment! It’s at least ten degrees below, and you’re just over pneumonia. Not quite over!”
“How do you know? Besides, if you weren’t here, I’d just go.”
“But I am here!”
“And I’d like to know why!”
“So that I can get you what you need, for example! If I’m not allowed to call a doctor. That was already unwise, and risky! I thought . . .”
“Nothing. It looked bad on the third day. I was imagining . . .”
“What were you imagining?”
“Nothing! Anyway, I’m not letting you go out!”
“You were imagining I was dead,” I say. “What would you have done?”
“I don’t know! Stupid question!” He looks at me. “What do you need?”
“I need . . . soap.”
“And cotton wadding.”
“Is that all?”
“Yes, two packs.”
“And you’re making this fuss just for that!” He takes his coat and slams the door behind him.
I take off the sheet and scrub it in the bathroom with the towel and pajama pants. My raw fingers make it difficult, and a bluish pink spot remains on the fabric that I can’t get out either with lemon or salt; I squeeze water through the sheet one more time and lay it over the radiator, I take the mattress and scrub the pad. My fingers get stiff under the cold water, but not as bad as five days ago, when I couldn’t hold the key and Asperger had to unlock the door. I lean the mattress against the heater, which is now working again, and he fixed the shower too. What’s his first name?—Thomas, Tomáš.
I put his three mattresses together under the window and the bedclothes in the wardrobe; that’s the best I can do for domesticity in this small space. I do a few exercises, but the stomach pains keep me from doing much, and I turn on the radio. The water levels of the Bohemian waterways at seven this morning, then the weather forecast—the world exists again.
Asperger opens the door, snowy, and brings in the fresh, cold air. The snow melts on his eyelashes, he shakes off his coat, his hair, and hands me a full shopping bag. “I hope that’s the right one.”
I take out the soap and two packs of cotton wadding. Underneath there’s a big pack of Tampax. I look at him.
“I saw an empty box in the garbage can, regular, is that right?”
“Yes, half would have been enough,” I mumble.
“Well, I don’t know,” he glances at the drying sheet and the mattress. “I thought it couldn’t hurt.”
“What is this?” I take a brown jar out of a smaller bag.
“Magnesium. I went to the pharmacy too. You look so pale and drained of blood, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
“Hm, thanks,” I say, putting everything away. “By the way, it’s not ten degrees outside, only just above freezing!”
“And at the peaks of the Ore Mountains?" he asks.
I have to laugh.
Verklärte Nacht © Libuše Moníková. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Anne Posten. All rights reserved.
After a fatal virus infects its livestock, a panicked nation is herded by political demagogues toward human slaughter and cannibalism in this disturbing Argentinian novel.
Marcos Tejo, the protagonist of Agustina Bazterrica’s taut and thought-provoking second novel, is tormented by horrifying dreams. In one, he watches helplessly as a wolf consumes his son. In another, he stands amid tree limbs strewn with “eyes, hands, human ears, and babies.” Daybreak, alas, brings him no relief. For Marcos, reality is every bit as disturbing as his nightmares.
Tender Is the Flesh was first published in Spanish in 2017, earning its Argentinian author the Premio Clarín, one of the nation’s top literary prizes. As English-language readers are about to learn, it’s a chilling and alarmingly prophetic book. The action takes place in what appears to be the near future, in an unnamed country beset by a viral illness that has incited “mass hysteria.” GGB, as the malady is known, was first detected in animals. Beef, pork, and poultry were swiftly banned and killed “because they’d been infected by a virus that was fatal to humans,” Bazterrica writes. This is not to say that everyone has become a vegetarian. Rather, at the command of government officials who want credit for reducing “overpopulation, poverty, crime,” the nation has turned to cannibalism.
The so-called “Transition,” launched just a few years before the story begins, has reshaped every aspect of life. The countryside is now dotted with industrial farms that raise and slaughter adults and children. High-end butcher shops peddle First Generation Pure (FGP) human flesh that hasn’t “been genetically modified or given injections to accelerate . . . growth.” And every night, families across the land share meals consisting of human thighs, offal, and other cuts of “special meat.” Nations across the globe have reported similar viral outbreaks; each has legalized cannibalism. In those places, Bazterrica writes, “immigrants, the marginalized, the poor” have vanished “in large numbers.”
There’s an uncanny, destabilizing quality to the scenario set forth by Bazterrica; it feels at once preposterous and familiar, and to a degree, this is what makes it so unsettling. Any novel of this sort will have to contend with questions of plausibility, but Bazterrica surmounts these by immediately plunging the reader into a wholly developed alternative reality. Her highly specific opening chapters are full of grim visceral details, chilling images that haunt her main character and take root in the reader’s mind. Her thoroughgoing commitment to her tale’s basic conceit is such that you’re not apt to stop and question whether such a ghastly societal shift could occur. As depicted by Bazterrica, it all feels sickeningly real.
Though Marcos thinks “that the virus was a lie invented by global powers and legitimized by the government and media,” he’s nonetheless a cog in the system, a well-compensated participant in an economy that profits from wholesale murder. His father, Armando, once ran a beef-processing plant, which has been converted to a busy human slaughterhouse. Marcos works there as a manager, “supervising a group of people who, following his orders, slit throats, gut, and cut up women and men as if doing so were completely natural.” He’d like to quit, find respectable work, but Marcos needs the money to pay for Armando’s residency at one of the nation’s few reputable nursing homes.
Bazterrica’s prose, capably translated by Sarah Moses, is lean and swift. Her chapters are often brief, and her paragraphs, like a hardboiled crime novelist's, sometimes include a run of exceptionally short sentences. The book’s opening line is a single word: “Carcass.” Bazterrica’s decision to whittle her text down to its essentials proves extremely effective, a storytelling strategy that only heightens the dread and horror that suffuse this intelligent allegorical portrait of a society in an advanced state of decay.
The book features a series of potent scenes that imagine the ways in which a prolonged public health crisis might remove the veneer of civilization and amplify a populace’s most destructive impulses. In one, Marcos has lunch with his sister and her children. His niece and nephew keep whispering. Why? The answer is deeply unsettling: “We’re trying to guess what Uncle Marquitos tastes like.” In another disquieting scene, Marcos meets with a butcher who’s resigned herself to a very dark fate. As she puts it, “I know that when I die somebody’s going to sell my flesh on the black market, one of my awful distant relatives. That’s why I smoke and drink, so I taste bitter and no one gets any pleasure out of my death.”
Another distressing chapter examines the plight of a man named Ency, one of Marcos’s colleagues. Increasingly troubled by the nature of his job, Ency loses weight and starts missing work. One day, he tries to save some of the people destined for slaughter. Flinging open cage doors, he cries, “You’re not animals. They’re going to kill you. Run.” His plan foiled, Ency soon takes his own life.
Marcos recognizes that he’s a citizen of an ethically and spiritually diseased country. This becomes all the more evident when, in recognition of his efforts at the human-meatpacking plant, a colleague has a young, very much alive “female FGP” delivered to his home. She is a gift, and Marcos is encouraged to treat her as he pleases. Will he do the right thing and shepherd her to freedom? Or will he indulge his darkest impulses, stepping deeper into the moral abyss?
Bazterrica’s novel lends itself to several interpretations. On one level, the novel is a successful indictment of repugnant politicos who employ euphemism and deceit to advance disgraceful policies. How does a regime convince its citizens to eat their neighbors? In Bazterrica’s telling, it all starts with salesmanship—the “Transition” sounds like the name of a corporate rebranding campaign dreamed up by an ad agency. This, of course, is why it works.
Another way to read Bazterrica’s novel is to focus on her vivid depiction of large-scale meat production. Though her unnamed nation is one that has adopted a singularly grotesque diet, the book will remind some readers that whenever we buy factory-farmed beef, pork, and poultry, we’re making a choice with ethical and moral implications.
Finally, and most frighteningly, this is a tale about a group of people—in this case, an entire nation—who’ve acted as willing participants in their own downfall. In an era of rising demagoguery, intense political polarization, and powerful media outlets that repeat lies spouted by government officials, this is an urgent cautionary tale. Tender Is the Flesh makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. But it bears a timely, crucial message.
In this ironic poem by Arlinda Guma, statues of great writers and thinkers find themselves subjected to unpleasant COVID-19 prevention measures.
In Athens the statue of Pericles is being disinfected;
and for good reason,
all those ideas of freedom and democracy
clash with an era where humanity communicates in GIFs.
Nor is the statue of Dante across the sea doing so well;
for a good two hours it lay in a coma,
slapped by a former professor of comparative literature laid off by cutbacks,
now a manual laborer and disinfector of statues.
In Tirana the Unknown Soldier was issued an expired mask;
he has a light dry cough and a mild fever, but emergency rooms
require one’s details before admittance,
and he does not know his details,
being an Unknown Soldier.
The statue of Mother Teresa in front of the university fares better;
exposure to lepers has lent some immunity,
the empty lecture halls are free of the joyful buzz
that might bring infection.
In France, Joan of Arc is to be burned a second time.
“Nothing personal,” the president informs her statue,
“these are just safety measures.
Throughout history long hair has been a carrier of viruses;
so it was in the era we first burned you, and so it is now.”
Voltaire's statue hears the words and shakes his head in resignation,
persuaded that the time has come to relinquish his battle against her;
let Joan of Arc speak freely. (From the crematorium.)
In England Shakespeare’s statue was informed that it must embrace the idea it will “lose loved ones.”
“But is there anyone more beloved than Juliet?” the statue sadly murmurs.
In Germany the statue of Marx is playing chess with the family doctor;
“You are asymptomatic for the time being,” the doctor tells the statue, to distract it, to seize its rook.
And in Spain the statue of Cervantes fares even worse;
for days it was clinically dead and, resuscitated,
set about in a trance to rewrite Don Quixote;
but this time in emojis,
as our era demands.
There is a spectacle of emergency sprouting all over the planet;
dictators have brought out their tanks to the squares
to fight molecular chemistry,
tank versus molecule.
The statue of Pericles looks on, his hands clasping his head,
birds, shrieking, pecking at his gallbladder,
out of which the ideas of freedom and democracy had arisen.
April 5, 2020
© 2020 by Arlinda Guma. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Peter Constantine. All rights reserved.
This feature of Guaraní poetry is the first installment in the Words Without Borders Indigenous Writing Project. The selection criterion for the feature was simple: I sought lyric texts that made me uncertain. Discomfort and incoherence are signs of different ways of poeticizing or narrativizing the world. Peruvian literary critic Antonio Cornejo Polar said of Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s work, characterized by deviations in spelling, that it is “bad writing” that fabricates a fiction of orality, a kind of writing in the air. I privileged not a poem’s eloquence but its potential for attunement, its capacity to transform, to make other ways of ordering and being in the world perceptible.
An unweaving technique must be employed to extricate the colonialist and nationalist modes of silencing that have traditionally woven these Amerindian literatures and languages together. A minor literature homogenizes distinct languages and cultures, and contrasts them against a major literature. Following the Mixe linguist Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, I refute the dichotomy between Spanish and indigenous languages, and posit a multilingual approach to national literature. In this feature I seek a multilingualism stripped of the deceptively homogenizing effect of mestizaje. Still, it is the resilience of these languages that refutes displacement; in material terms, they blur boundaries by evidencing that history can be recorded otherwise.
In resistance there is lament. The Peruvian writer José María Arguedas said of Canto kechwa (Kechwa Song), “they are laments; of an oppressed people one cannot ask predominantly joyful music.” To speak of indigenous literature is to speak of colonization; the genocide turned ethnocide continues through the imposition of a disarticulating identity. Indigenous languages are not in danger of extinction but intentionally subjugated by national aspirations to Westernization. It is in this space of displacement and disarticulation that a nostalgia for the old—in the form of the oral word and pre-Hispanic world—encounters the new.
As aforementioned, a real work of Amerindian literature makes perceptible another way of ordering and being in the world. In terms of order, a cosmology and epistemology that transcends the matrix of coloniality, what Gloria E. Chacón, Assistant Professor of Literature at UC San Diego, terms Mesoamerican cosmolectics. In terms of being, an ontology that transcends the human, what Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro terms Amerindian perspectivism. To honor language is to refuse to exploit its potential to deceive and so coexist with contradiction; producing poetry that is oral and written, communal and authorial, sacred and colloquial—juxtaposed elements that threaten Western conceptions of authorship and literature.
Latin American indigenous literature is inextricable from orality and ancestry. In the last decade of the twentieth century, two movements brought this tradition into the present: Oralitura (Oral-literature) and the Antigua y nueva palabra (Ancient and New Word). The Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf described the first as writing that runs alongside orality, in conversation with the author’s elders. The Mexican anthropologist Miguel León Portilla described the latter as poetry that flows between the shores of the ancient and new word. Chacón adds that there were comprehensive writing systems in the pre-Hispanic world; she describes the lyric flow between the ancient and new word as a “a symbiotic relationship between ‘glyphing’ the cosmos to writing everyday reality.” Contemporary poetry in this tradition is defined by its form, not oral or chirographic, but digital.
The appearance of multilingual collaborative anthology platforms of Amerindian poetry suggest that digital media may be summoning a secondary orality. These platforms include Siwar Mayu, edited by Juan G. Sánchez Martínez, Assistant Professor of Spanish at UNC Asheville, and Hawansuyo, edited by Quechua writer Fredy Amílcar Roncalla. The auditory and visual performance components of oral literature are rendered through multimedia. Thus, this feature includes audio recordings of the authors reciting their poems and artwork by Osvaldo Pitoe. Returning to the concept of writing in the air, digital media makes the form of a text lose its weight, it becomes ephemeral, alterable, it stops belonging to one person. Still, the content is rooted and contained, it alternates between focus on the quotidian—the act of boiling a potato—and the metaphysical—the distance between life and death bridged by another conception of corporeality within time and space.
When a text becomes audible, the transgressions writing inflects on orality become visible. What you hear is a dialogue with the afterlife, a language and literature that is intentionally made “extinct.” Violeta Percia, Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, thinking through the Mapuche concept of Nüxam (a conversation that seeks listening, not articulateness), describes poetic thought as the capacity to reach essential spaces of knowledge and sensitive modes of transmission. Amerindian literature, which is intrinsically bilingual and poetic, allows us to exist between languages, and attunes us to a broader poesis. It brings into being what is said and kept quiet, in your language and another. Dialogue, translation, and lyricism together produce this kind of deep listening.
We begin the Indigenous Writing Project by featuring the work of Paraguayan poets working in Guaraní. Paraguay is a bilingual country: most of the population speaks Spanish and Guaraní, an indigenous language. However, paraphrasing Paraguayan-Spanish linguist Bartomeu Melià, the Guaraní spoken and written by the majority, though subaltern, is in many ways a colonial, Spanish language. He adds that there are seventeen ethnic groups that correspond to five linguistic families. Within the Tupí-Guaraní family there are six dialects: Mbyá, Avá-Guaraní, Pãi Tavyterã, Guarayo, Guaraní-Ñandéva, and Aché-Guayakí. In addition, there is Jopara, a neo-language that merges Spanish and Guaraní.
The linguistic, cosmological, and poetic diversity of the region is evidenced in the featured poems written and recited in Guaraní by Alba Eiragi Duarte, Miguelángel Meza, Susy Delgado, and Alberto Luna. The regional linguistic mestizaje is rendered in an excerpt from a lyric novel written and recited in Portunhol Selvagem—a Spanish, Portuguese, and Jopara hybrid—by Damián Cabrera. Cabrera explains that since the last decade of the twentieth century, Paraguayan, Brazilian, and Argentine writers have dared to make Guaraní a literary language, though it lies at the crossroads between colonial languages.
In Guaraní, word and soul are one word: ñe’ ẽ. If the language is alive, ontologies and epistemologies encrypted in untranslatable aphorisms are recovered. Spoken words, then, defy mortality with their intangibility: what they bring into being was always there, just imperceptible.
© 2020 by Elisa Taber. All rights reserved.
A traveler takes to the road in this dreamlike poem by Miguelángel Meza.
Listen to Miguelángel Meza read "Dawn" in the original Mbyá Guaraní.
By the streaming of the road I go
I enter lift and pass.
Black. I pause, see nothing. Wetness.
Black and streaming the road fragments before me.
Wet I plunge on, all before me flowing.
The road stowing memories huddles dark under a seed-field of stars.
Heavy my forehead. I part thickets of prone branches,
fall, rise again, tread onward.
My road, level now: it bursts, opens,
water boils up from grouped stones, grips me.
I fall free as dawn breaks
Translated from Mbyá Guaraní by Tracy K. Lewis.
“Ko’ê” © Miguelángel Meza. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Tracy K. Lewis. Spanish translation © Miguelángel Meza. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Alba Eiragi Duarte contemplates the ways in which fire both encompasses and transcends the elemental, providing sustenance and companionship.
Listen to Alba Eiragi Duarte read "My Fire" in the original Avá Guaraní.
At light of dawn I rise and make fire,
and dry in nascent fire-gleam the space where dew once pearled.
Joyful, joyful my fire,
burning hot for máte to be made,
I stoke the embers,
prod-stick crackling in the coals.
The yams I brought I place beside the flame,
and manioc I toast
until its skin gleams gold;
my fire nimble skilled
makes food with which I’m filled.
Translated from Avá Guaraní by Tracy K. Lewis.
“Che rata” © Alba Eiragi Duarte. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Tracy K. Lewis. Spanish translation © Alba Eiragi Duarte. All rights reserved.
In this poem by Susy Delgado, an exhausted god lets earth descend into darkness and death.
Our First, Original Father
is suddenly old
tired worn out
he sits he crouches down
he dozes off
eyes closed to
the soul of the earth
and his home
It’s getting late
they’re blowing already
Our First, Original Father
has already lowered his arms
and he no longer
scatters across the rough weather
his aged breath
he no longer bothers with making
a little chair to sit down
in the middle of the primordial night
and in the ancient fog
he no longer braids tight
the gleaming raiment
so that Maino’i1
the dew up
toward the firmament . . .
has been left
while trying out
a sad little dance . . .
Our First, Original Father
No longer believes in himself
like his own children
so that they
extend in their own time
in all the grandeur of the universe
so that they make
a good home
on this little round earth
everything that exists
has to be good . . .
It already died out
the sacred fire
and the fog
dissolved itself into the night
of malignant storms . . .
Our First, Original Father
there is no longer any truth
in what has sprouted
in the depths of his nobility
the flowerings of his thought
and his knowledge
of magical powers.
He’s already abandoned
when it awakened in the soul
of each human being
the word . . .
The most coveted flower
of the divine orchard
has already wilted
and its fragile stem
is skin cracked
Our First, Original Father
no longer scatters his seed
in the middle of the earth
where the sweet breezes
unfurl the palms
destined to live
until the end of time
swirling around their trunks
the bed of the earth.
The good winds
have now died down
and the good seeding
has now dried up
and a dark stillness
goes about sowing death.
Our First, Original Father
No longer creates life down there
the old snake
the red cicada
the master of the waters
the noisy lobster
the red quail
and all kinds
that must blend
in the earth and the sky . . .
The children of the earth
and their song and their dance
have died out
already forgotten . . .
Our First, Original Father
no longer sends
the Masters of the Fire
the murmur of the fire
as they have always done
the arrival of the new era
that they call
so they will open up their ears
and listen to
the murmur of the fire
the emancipated dancer
to the bedecked chosen men
to the bedecked chosen women . . .
The Masters of the Fire no longer
have any work to do
now the murmur of the fire
is only a memory . . .
Our First, Original Father
no longer bestows
on the bed of the earth
for the mortal children
of men and women . . .
Our First, Original Father
is now blind . . .
Our First, Original Father
no longer gazes upon
the future . . .
1 Maino’i: Mbyá Guaraní name of the original hummingbird at Creation. ↩
Translated from Jopará Guaraní by Susan Smith Nash, PhD.
“Ñanderu ikane’õ ” © Susy Delgado. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Susan Smith Nash. Spanish translation © Susy Delgado. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Alberto Luna seeks answers beyond traditional conceptions of good and evil and the images that give them their power, staking out a spiritual path all his own.
Listen to Alberto Luna read "Serpent" in the original Jopará Guaraní.
There is no serpent.
plunge my roots
and outstretch my branches.
I alone am for myself
fruit of intense sweetness,
I alone, facing myself,
make my mouth water
and lick my lips.
I alone, before myself,
beg myself for a blessing
and sanctify myself.
I alone put in their place
the bad and the good,
I alone am my own master.
I don’t need God.
Translated from Jopará Guaraní by Susan Smith Nash, PhD.
“Mbói” © Alberto Luna. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2020 by Susan Smith Nash. Spanish translation © Susy Delgado. All rights reserved.
Xirú by Damián Cabrera is a multilingual lyric novel set in Ciudad del Este—a Paraguayan city in the Triple Frontier shared with Argentina and Brazil. The title refers to the Portuguese word of Guaraní origin used by Brazilians to refer to Paraguayans at the border, which shifts from meaning “friend” to “invader” or “fool.” The novel is written predominantly in Spanish but is interlaced with Portuguese and Guaraní, rendering a cacophony of languages audible but at times only legible for a resident of the region. Throughout the text, the Guaraní permeates the Spanish grammar: the noun is transposed to the end of a sentence, making it intentionally clunky. In the following excerpt the Spanish text has been translated into English, the Portuguese into Spanish, and the Guaraní into Portuguese; the untranslatable Guaraní words remain unaltered but defined in the footnotes.
Listen to Damián Cabrera read "Xirú" in the original Portunhol Selvagem.
“No hay problema,” Silvio got out of the dominant species,1 “todo bien.” Combed his blond hair back with his fingers and sneezed. Each time his foot hit the floor, the dust lifted and settled again on the foot. He and Seu Washington Cavalcante entered the bar, and Silvio shot a look of contempt at his patrón who returned to the truck for the revolver. The dust cloud the truck kicked up remained static in the air; a stagnant storm cloud with a kind of barrier halo, an enclosure Silvio wanted to transpose, because Silvio wanted to escape, race across the sown fields with his long rhea legs until he reached some place where no one could see him, or better yet, where he could spend that night without seeing anyone.
He paused a while at the door, attracted to the besouros’ tapping on the bulb in the hallway; coleopterans seduced by the light: such effort to penetrate the glass limit and reach the flame that would kill them upon touch.
The tables were splattered with beer. The xirú2 were rejoiceful and chatty, until they saw Seu Washington Cavalcante’s face and began to stutter; Silvio’s face, a face tight with modesty, blushing and childlike.
Silvio’s face, though his was the third generation inhabiting that place, was still the face of his colonist grandparents. When he spoke—he was unaware of this—his pink lips would part and the blond musketeer would straighten to address the xirú at the other table, whose heads sank between their shoulders, buried in murmurs. Aside: Silvio saw them and saw his patrón, saw and refused to recognize himself.
Seu Washington’s exclamations were insults disguised as compliments. Miguel wanted to sheath his guitar, but Silvio stopped him with a heavy blow on the table that splashed beer everywhere (César turned blue); the settler ordered them three beers in exchange for some music. The boys agreed and Miguel coaxed some polka chords from his instrument. The immigrant’s gripes followed, and without missing a beat, he fanned his hands to reproach the musician’s blunder.
“Toca una de Sérgio Reis.”
“No conozco ninguna de Sérgio Reis. Pero puedo tocar una de Nando Reis.”
“¿Nando Reis? ¡No! Chitãozinho y Xororó.”
Gabriel stepped on Miguel’s foot with such force that he stood violently spilling a glass of beer on the table. “And on top of it all, you speak to him in Portuguese,” thought Gabriel. César clenched his fists. Miguel sat back down and sang. Miguel sang and everyone listened. César let out an excessive “¡Hurraaa!”
“And on top of it all you speak to him in Portuguese,” Silvio thought and thought about his school teacher who, overwhelmed by the number of Portuguese-speakers asking her to translate, taught in Portuguese in the colony, disserving the Paraguayan students who badly knew Spanish.
High-heeled boots with shiny buckles. Seu Washington’s words crashed uselessly against this competing focal point; a series of whistles spasmodically escaped Silvio, who stifled a cackle; Seu Washington watched him inquisitively and watched the xirú de mierda joke boisterously.
A swelling tide flooded the little bar when Silvio tightened his stomach to contain the hiccups of laughter. But the patrón’s warning suffocated them violently: “Vigila a los sin tierra, Silvio. Me cuentas de cualquier novedad.”
“Todo bien,” unbuttoned shirt revealing a diminutive blond bellybutton, “no hay problema.” Something irritated his leathery hands and jaw when the old man, scratching his jowl, whispered something in his ear about the four boys; a shadow he disdained and wished to expunge.
Silvio wanted to split, to the banana plantations, like a Pombéro,3 so he would not have to listen to such nonsense. While Silvio, without moving, crossed the threshold and walked along the pavement until he plunged into the scrubland, he listened to the boys talk about Seu Washington’s soybean plantations and contemplated a shower of feathers that the ants would not get a chance to clear.
“¡Dale, Silvio, espabílate!” Snap out of it.
1 Phrase used by soybean farmers in Paraguay to refer to their pickup trucks. ↩
2 Untranslatable Portuguese word of Guaraní origin used by Brazilians to refer to Paraguayans in the Triple Frontier. Its polysemic nature is evidenced as the meaning of the name shifts throughout this ambiguous territory from “friend” to “invader” or “fool.” ↩
3 Untranslatable Guaraní word that refers to a mythical dwarf. Those that traverse the forest must leave him offerings of tobacco and honey. If they do not, he physically assaults the men, sexually assaults the women, and claims their children as his own. ↩
“Xirú” © Damián Cabrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Elisa Taber. All rights reserved.
In this essay, Poupeh Missaghi details her experience of isolation on a solitary Persian New Year as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through New York City.
A few days after the new Persian year began on March 20, Dad called from Tehran. He was sobbing. “Your grandfather passed away,” he said. The first thing that struck me was his choice of “your grandfather” over “my father.” He spoke very shortly, unlike most times, when he wants to stay online even when he is distracted by his radio or television.
After the burial of my grandfather next to my grandmother in San Francisco, close family members came together for a virtual Zoom memorial. Under different circumstances, we could have flown in to visit him during his last days in the nursing home in LA and said our goodbyes, and attended the funeral in San Francisco. Now, three of my cousins and my aunt in San Francisco, one cousin in LA, another cousin and my uncle in San Diego, my brother in Orange County, and I in Brooklyn sat at our computers. I FaceTimed Dad, who was unable to download Zoom, and held my phone up so he could also join. My grandfather had lived to be more than a hundred, so we knew this day was coming. We managed to share memories, pictures, and videos, to remember him and ourselves in Tehran and then in the US. Still, it was strange, to say the least, to see our family already scattered by immigration further separated due to pandemic travel and gathering restrictions; each of us in our own household, not able to embrace one another or mourn together. A screenshot I took of that Zoom session, with the rectangular frames next to one another, mine including the smaller FaceTime ones on my phone, with our faces staring into our devices’ cameras, looks eerie and sad, but there is also something familiar about it; it reminds me of the photo collages my grandparents had created of our parents and us, in different stages of our lives, and put in frames all around their house.
Meanwhile, in my apartment in Brooklyn, I was noticing that the sound of ambulance sirens had gradually grown so much that it had now become almost constant, accompanied by sorrowful church bells from time to time. I’m not even in Queens or the Bronx, the two areas hit hardest by the virus, which tells you something about the fucked-up inequality of this city that has so much money and yet is always short on money when it comes to basic human needs. One day I was video chatting with a friend, a Brooklyn resident who had gone upstate for a job interview and, with the lockdown announced, had gotten stuck there, and I was telling her about the nonstop sound of the sirens. She asked me whether they felt particularly traumatic because they dredged up old memories. It took me a moment to realize she was referring to the Iran-Iraq war. Her theory made sense: I was likely to be more sensitive to the sound because I had grown up with constant sirens on the radio announcing missile attacks on Tehran, sending us to hide under the staircase or to leave the city only to soon come back because my grandfather on my mother’s side, who had been a gastroenterologist, had not wanted to leave his patients and had stayed behind.
That night, though, I downplayed the connection; I did not believe the discomfort with the sirens had much to do with the past but rather with the updates about New York and the daily statistics revealing the devastating situation of the city as the epicenter of COVID-19 in the world. Despite the extent of the impact in Iran, and even as someone aware of the failures of the US system in caring for its citizens, I had been unable to imagine the same thing happening right here to such an extent, had imagined a more coordinated, science-led handling of the situation, only to be exposed to a system collapsing even further upon itself and its people.
Several days later, as I lay in bed watching the new German Netflix miniseries Freud, I heard a droning that I at first thought was part of the weirdness of what was going on on TV. The scene changed, but the noise didn’t stop. I paused the video and, looking outside the window, noticed a light suspended in the air, which I realized was a helicopter, static at first but then creeping around, its light flooding a not-too-distant area on the ground.
Only a few minutes into the constant presence of the helicopter sound, I felt a severe spasm in my stomach. This was not particularly worrisome, as my stomach has a habit of responding to distressing situations this way. But that night, the spasms were followed by something else. I began to feel pins and needles in my right arm and hand, which then gradually went numb; a bit later I felt a similar sensation in my left foot. All this was followed by a heavy chest, and finally sobbing; I couldn’t even tell why I was crying.
“That night I saw my father’s face after weeks of audio calls.”
I always remembered my first spasms to have happened during my last year of high school. I was studying intensely for Iran’s national university entrance exams, and the doctors, after running all kinds of tests and not finding any physical reasons, decided the spasms were caused by the stress of the exams. It took years of psychoanalysis for me to realize they also had to do with the loss of my mother’s father, with whom we lived all our lives, in my junior year.
Around the time the latest episode of the spasms happened, I discovered another layer to this pain while writing my first email to my students after the shutdown of our campus. I shared with them what I had learned from having spent part of my elementary school education under war conditions and how that experience could be helpful to us as we figured out our priorities and ways to reorient ourselves in online spaces at this unprecedented time. Writing to them, I realized that the first time my spasms had happened was actually during those years of war. We were in the countryside, and my parents had decided that my brother and I had to go to the local school so as not to be left behind in our studies. On the first day of school there, anxious to set foot inside, I had had my first pains and had thrown up in front of the whole school.
The day I heard the helicopter in Brooklyn, I thought it, like the sirens, was bringing out traumas from that time of war. I remembered Mom telling us how it began. War had broken out while my parents were on a trip abroad. They had left my brother and me with my mother’s father and our nanny. Soon, Iranian airspace was closed down. She and Dad had had to fly into Turkey and continue the rest of the journey on the ground to get back to us in Tehran.
After the helicopter disappeared from my window frame, I searched Twitter to find out if others had tweeted about the sound. Everyone had questions; but a few nights earlier, similar questions had been asked and answered. Videos showed a group of Orthodox Jews in a Brooklyn neighborhood defying the stay-at-home guidelines to take part in the funeral of a rabbi who had passed away. The images of the participants and the sound of the prayers echoing in the street felt dreadful and heavy in my body.
It was only a few days later, talking about the spasms, the numbness, and the sobbing on FaceTime audio with my psychoanalyst in Tehran, that I had another realization. I started with the helicopter in Brooklyn, only to go back to that last year in high school and then to that elementary school year, meandering in the labyrinth of my conscious and unconscious mind, all the time wondering why the helicopter had been a trigger—helicopters had played no role in these previous moments of pain. It took stepping into many interconnected and not-so-interconnected winding memory alleys for me to arrive at the memory of a very loud helicopter sound buried deep within me, and I suddenly mouthed, “The sound you hear is the sound of the carrier of death.” It was as if I was simply repeating what I heard clearly and loudly right then and there, as if someone at a microphone were announcing this in a dramatic, ominous tone at that very moment inside me.
Suddenly a surge of images. A mass of thousands of people, all in black, walking toward a particular spot or already standing close by and waiting. Waiting for the body of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini, to arrive in a helicopter and be displayed in a glass cooler container so people could say their goodbyes before his body was transferred to Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery for burial. That ominous phrase had been mouthed by the TV reporter when the helicopter had appeared. His tone so foreboding, so inconsolable. And then a mass of bodies pulling and pushing. A mass of bodies weeping and howling. A distraught chaos. A collective lamentation. Everything felt so fresh in my body. The death of Khomeini, that official funeral and mourning and the TV broadcasts and how they had impacted our lives even when we were not disciples or supporters, had never before appeared in any of my memories, and I had never considered them events that had any influence on me and my life. But here I was thirty years later, on the other side of the world, noticing how my body had carried them with it all along, only to release them at the time of a collective mourning that didn’t seem to be directly related to them at all.
The morning of March 20, hours before the beginning of the Persian New Year at exactly ten minutes to midnight, I had hesitated for a while before going out to get hyacinths and tulips for the traditional haft-seen spread. That day there were still no official “stay at home” measures in place in New York, but the anxiety of life under coronavirus had started in my household several weeks earlier, before it arrived in Brooklyn. With the news coming out of Iran, I was already beginning to feel the weight of the ongoing disaster in my body. Hospitals lacking resources, beds, ventilators, and masks; nurses and doctors overworked; politicians failing to do their jobs; an economy already in dire condition due to sanctions and incompetent officials not being able to keep up; people confused and desperate.
I did eventually go get the flowers. In the afternoon, however, I realized I didn’t have the necessary fresh apple and garlic either. I knew I was not going back out. I dug a half-dried apple out of the last handful of dried fruit I had brought in my suitcase on my last visit home in the summer. I found one clove of garlic in my vegetable drawer in the fridge. Luckily I had bought everything else I needed several days before. My wheat sprouts, though, had not grown green as expected, so I had no sabzeh either. In previous years, I had always made it to a tiny, gorgeous corner flower shop in the East Village that did carry sabzeh and all the Persian New Year flowers. This year I just plucked a small batch of green grass from the plant pot on the balcony. The haft-seen wouldn’t be perfect, but that was OK; I had still managed to put it together.
The author's haft-seen.
After the arrival of the Persian New Year was officially announced, with the sound of a fake cannonball on the internet, echoing the age-old tradition, I FaceTimed Dad, who at the time had been all by himself in Tehran for some six months. Mom was visiting my brother and his family, and was supposed to go back to Tehran before the Persian New Year. Then the pandemic broke out in Iran, making the country the second after China with the highest numbers of infections. Her flight got canceled.
This was the second time. Her first flight back had been canceled a few months before, right after the Ukrainian passenger flight was shot down by Iranian forces amid the chaos of a possible war with the US. More than a hundred Iranians and dozens of non-Iranians were killed. Airlines stopped their flights to and from Iran, even rerouted their other flights since the airspace was deemed unsafe. From that collective trauma, which was preceded by November protests and killings, to the current one in the making, only a few months had passed, but to most of us it had felt like ages.
That night I saw my father’s face after weeks of audio calls. He had not shaved. His hair had grown, was disheveled. It had been weeks since he had last left the apartment to go for his daily walks or for grocery shopping. After the usual congratulatory chitchat, he broke down into tears, said his father had stopped eating food in the nursing home in LA, said he was not allowed to receive visitors because of the virus. “This is the beginning of the end. He’s all by himself, in this other city, none of his family there with him,” he said. He added something about me making the right choice not to have children. “What’s the use when none of us, his children, can be with him right now?” I watched him as he cleared his tears, touched his cheek, only half of his face visible in the frame because he rarely figures out the camera lens on his iPad correctly.
“Don’t mention any of this to Mom. She sounded happy today when I talked to her,” he reminded me.
I told him not to cry, to go shave, take a shower, that it would do him good.
“Why bother?” he said, then said goodbye and hung up.
“We never thought we would be away for so long that all our office plants would die.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised not only practical questions with regard to our public health, environment, education, and sociopolitical systems, but also concerns about our ability to cope psychologically. Many experts have been warning about the mental health impacts of the disaster. They have discussed how the pandemic has been a trigger for a lot of old suppressed emotions, causing them to rise to the surface. It has also raised many philosophical questions about what it means to be a human being in this world.
Undeterred by the pandemic, all the other human-made miseries in the world continue to take their own toll: the war in Syria, the war in Yemen, global displacement and the conditions under which refugees have been kept, ICE and its detention centers, lack of access to basic resources such as water and food in so many places around the world, natural disasters, and the most recent cases of police violence against Black people and protestors asking for justice and reform here in the US. The list keeps going on. The pandemic and its impacts are not separate from any of that.
Mom has a ticket to go back to Tehran in two weeks, but it is still unclear whether that flight is even happening. Today Dad posted something on his Facebook page about missing his father. The sound of ambulance sirens has begun to diminish in Brooklyn, but the press conferences remind us that the pandemic is far from over. As of mid-July, New York City has lost more than twenty-two thousand people to COVID-19, and this number does not even include those who died at home or before official records began to be kept. In Tehran, the numbers are even less reliable, and the second peak seems to have already arrived.
The evening of March 11, when my colleagues and I at the Baruch Writing Center in Manhattan said goodbye after being informed that the campus was shutting down the following day, we never thought we would be away for so long that all our office plants would die. After I left the building, even though I was too tired, I decided to walk to the international market around the corner from campus to get some of the provisions for the Persian New Year I could not find elsewhere. I bought several types of Persian sweets. I bought samanoo and senjed and somagh. The day after, classes at Pratt Institute, my other campus in Brooklyn, got canceled as well. We academics all migrated inside and online, and life officially changed for us in New York. It now seems paradoxically symbolic to me that the last non-virus related things I did outside in our good old world—a world that was not even that good but felt really human here in New York, where it is naked to the bone and revealing of all its beauty and brutality—were to prepare to celebrate the arrival of spring and the Persian New Year, to usher in a new beginning, to say the prayer of the Persian New Year, حول حالنا الی احسن الحال, and ask a higher power to transform our conditions to better ones. It surely doesn’t feel like that right now. The coronavirus continues to take lives in Iran, the US, and elsewhere, as does systematic injustice and the brutality of those who hoard money and weapons. These past few months have definitely brought us face to face with a lot of our demons. We need to ask the hard questions and do whatever we can to transform the conditions of our humanity, and we need to force the old systems and politicians to change as well, because it seems that they still have no desire to do so themselves.
© 2020 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.
In humorous and reflective brief notes, Laia Jufresa records daily life in quarantine in Edinburgh.
My daughter is a doctor. A dragon doctor. I know this because she tells me every day, all day long, and has been doing so for a month, ever since the nurseries closed. Her conviction wavers only occasionally, when she asks: Mamá, where can I find a real dragon? She says this in Spanish, but puts the words “real dragon” in the English order: adjective, noun. When she speaks, she does so mainly in Spanglish. Since she is three years old and I have absolutely no ambition to be a teacher, my only mission during quarantine is to correct her Spanish. Her father’s mission is to take her out in the sun once a day (“sun,” here in Scotland, is relative. Let’s call it “the fresh air”). And so I correct her: “‘Real dragon’ is English; in Spanish we say dragón real.” “No,” she insists, annoyed, “this is another kind of real dragon, this is a real-real dragon.” “Oh, OK,” I say, and I am content with this.
I promised myself I wouldn’t use the first-person plural to talk to my daughter. It’s a promise I break every single day, generally first thing in the morning. She gets into our bed really early and after just a few minutes I’m already at it: “We don’t kick! We don’t scratch! No, no, we don’t fart in people’s faces, damn it!”
We don’t know if she became a doctor because she thought that this way, we’d let her leave the house. These days, we only listen to the news with headphones on, just in case. As I give her breakfast, I listen with one ear to the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast. I promised myself that this would be my only source of pandemic information, and I devour it early so that, by nine o’clock, I will have moved on from a state of global depression and be ready to carry out my maternal duties or, if it’s my turn on that particular day, to shut myself away in the study to work. This is another promise I break every single day.
In the UK at the time of writing, we are allowed out once a day to exercise. When I go out on my own, I run (this is relative; let’s say that I trot). When I go out with my daughter, I herd her along, trying to keep her two meters away from anyone who approaches. I try to do it nicely (just as, when we hear an ambulance, we chant “neeee-nawww, neeee-nawww,” and do a little dance), but I can’t do it. After just a couple of streets I’m already at it: “No, we don’t go up close to people!”
In Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums, which I used to pass on the bus every day but which now seem incredibly remote because they're not in my neighborhood, I once heard something that changed forever my idea of the past, like when a cousin takes some old negatives to be developed and you realize that, way back in 1950, your grandmother was painting her nails a bright shade of ’80s orange. What I heard was this: Before the invention of anesthetic, hospitals were the noisiest places in the world.
Friends in big cities write to me: “The silence—it’s incredible!” Friends in other big cities say: “The sound of ambulances is unbearable!” Sometimes, friends who live in different areas of the same big city say both of these things to me. Their perception, I suppose, is simply and directly related to how close they live to a hospital. In a silenced city, hospitals and their tentacles become the epicenters of noise once more.
I have noticed that when I go out for a trot, if someone doesn’t respect the two-meter rule and there’s no space for me to step out of the way, I hold my breath. This has absolutely zero scientific basis, but I can’t help it. And I have a hunch that I’m not alone. There must be millions of us around the world all doing it. It’s a new syndrome. Involuntary Apnea Due to Human Proximity.
Never have there been so many of us in the first-person plural. Not because the virus brings us together, of course, or because it is a leveler—quite the opposite. But never have so many of us been living through such a similar situation at the same time in so many places. How’s it going? I write to a Brazilian friend after a decade without any news from her. How are you coping? I write to a friend in India who I haven’t seen for fifteen years. They all reply, they all know what I’m talking about. Never have preambles been so unnecessary.
I emerge from the living room to investigate a sound. It’s my daughter, who is holding an unidentified pink plastic object. I have no idea where it came from—probably the charity shop where I sometimes buy us toys for fifty pence. Then I recognize it: it’s for giving massages. But she is holding it with both hands, sending it zigzagging down the hallway. Away! she orders it. Away from the coronavirus!
Similarly, never have so many of us fitted into our apartment. We are three real people, but many more real-real people. Most of them we’ve known since before the pandemic. Cara, for instance, has been living with us for over a year. At first, her being everywhere made me uncomfortable. I asked the nursery teacher if she thought it was normal for a two-year-old girl to have such concrete imaginary friends. She told me that in twenty years on the job she hadn’t seen anything like it, but that it certainly wasn’t abnormal. I am content with this. But three weeks into quarantine, I start feeling uncomfortable again when invisible versions of real friends start showing up. I contact their parents. We set up a few disastrous video calls with our kids.
One day I’m having breakfast standing up, purely so I can warm my buttocks on the radiator, and suddenly I notice my daughter staring curiously at me over her banana yogurt. What are you doing? she asks. Damn it, she’s caught me talking to myself. I ad lib: I’m talking to Cara’s mom. She is content with this.
As a kid, I was jealous of the children who had imaginary friends, so I pretended I had a few of my own. I now know that what I did was cheating. My daughter’s imaginary friends are real; mine were fictional. They still are. I don’t know how old I was when I started speaking to real-real people all day long. But I do know what time it is, in normal, non-pandemic life, when I go from the news to my novel, from my daughter to my characters. It’s a transition that starts as soon as her father takes her to the nursery. But now: how am I going to make that transition properly with all of us stuck in the same freaking house?
I find it amusing that, in between my greatest horror (at the dead and the sick, at the many crises that are yet to come) and my minor horrors (at growing fat in lockdown, or that we run out of wine or toilet roll), there is an intermediate horror. Not that my family might intrude while I’m writing my novel, but that they might actually intrude into the novel itself. It hasn’t even happened yet and already I’m at it: No, no—we don’t write autofiction, damn it!
I find my daughter sticking band-aids onto the pink object. It’s my dragon, she informs me: it’s got an ouchie. My enthusiasm is genuine: now the real-real dragon is really real! It has grown a body. End of the ontological muddle. Perhaps the best fifty pence I’ve ever spent.
As far as I can understand, the current muddle is epidemiological, but also systemic, epistemic, statistical, geopolitical, and economic. Ethical, at times. Epic, every day. But not ontological. The virus is. And, faced with this clarity, our sense of the following grows hazy: that which should have been, that which isn’t so, and that which will be.
Scotland’s First Minister recently gave a press conference in which she, unlike the government in Westminster, highlighted the importance of transparency. And so, with total transparency and treating us—in her own words—as grown-ups, she told us that the most certain thing is that all bets are off.
In August—perhaps; all bets are off—my daughter will start school. She’ll go to the tuition-free school over the road, which is not an English-language school but a Scots Gaelic one; Gaelic is a Celtic language that, at least in my head, sounds like Tolkien’s Elvish. I only know how to say “Thank you” in Scots Gaelic. But in week four of lockdown I tell myself that’s enough of correcting Spanish, and I start to look for Gaelic lessons. My daughter must feel like she’s at the end of her tether, too, because after finishing a video call with one of her little friends, she yells furiously: I want to see REAL people!
My first great love began in a chatroom. When I say “research,” I’m generally talking about googling something. I feel closer to the friends I write emails to than those who are near me. But it still sends me into a panic imagining that my daughter might start school online. This disdain for the internet makes me feel real, but in a way that is slightly moralizing. My addiction to the internet, meanwhile, also makes me feel real, but in a way that is more precarious, more basic. More human?
I have also noticed, on my walks, that people who are out there chatting to really real people arouse suspicion. Did they arrange to meet up despite the rules against seeing your friends? Because, if they do live together, what could they possibly have to say to each other at this stage of quarantine? It’s an age-old syndrome. Defamation Due to Envy.
What are you playing? my husband asks, sticking his head around the kitchen door. We’re repeating impossible sounds in front of a YouTube video. We’re counting in garlic! my daughter says. Gaelic, I correct her, without the “r.” How do you say “seven”? her father asks. Tap-la, I say, and he is content with this. (But tap-la means thank you, and I have no idea how you spell it.)
It occurs to me that being a writer of fiction requires a constant oscillation between fascination for and repulsation toward really real people.
If my daughter had used this phrase, I would have told her, “No, we don’t say ‘repulsation.’” I wouldn’t be able to say, “It’s a verb, not a noun,” because those are the lyrics of Ricardo Arjona’s hit ballad “Jesus is a verb, not a noun,” and it really sets off my cheesometer. But my daughter doesn’t say “repulsation.” My daughter can’t pronounce her r’s. Or, as my friends (who these days gather around their screens on Zoom as religiously as they used to gather around the bar) never tire of saying: She talks like a gringa.
The scales of her bilingualism tip up or down depending on which grandmother she has Skyped with most recently. If we hear her exclaim: Oh, dear! in English, it means she’s just spoken to my mother-in-law. If, after telling one of her stories, she ends it with, “That’s not true, I was just pulling your leg” in Spanish, it means she has been talking to my mother and so is using the very Mexican “nomás andaba vacilando.” Her sense of identity varies, too. She goes from “I’m such a vaciladora” to “I’m so silly.” It’s impossible to know what she’ll say about herself when she learns Gaelic. It makes me very wistful knowing that I won’t be able to understand her.
I’m not interested in baking pandemic bread. The sudden urge to plant tomatoes leaves me cold. I feel nothing but bemusement at all the people engaged in feverish spring cleaning. But not recording everything in written form at this moment in time does makes me feel guilty. As it always has. When I was pregnant, I felt bad for not describing my own bodily changes. Ever since I gave birth, I have lived with the guilt of not writing down what my daughter says, of not filling up notebooks with my reflections on motherhood. I’m embarrassed that I don’t think anything at all about motherhood (it’s a verb, not a noun). Now, I feel guilty for not keeping a quarantine diary. Or perhaps I just feel wistful because I won’t be able to understand myself.
This is what I know about the spring of 2020, thanks to the daily glimpse we are allowed: At the start of lockdown, there were no flowers. The flowers came out. The flowers are beginning to drop.
My cheesometer is switched off on Thursday nights, at 8:00 PM on the dot. This is the time when, here in the UK, we open our windows and doors—me wrapped in a duvet—and clap and cheer for the National Health Service until we’re hoarse. Not even soccer triggers my sense of Mexican nationalism; not even the Queen’s speech reversed my anti-imperialist streak; and yet, every Thursday without fail, the clap for carers and the NHS breaks me. I want to believe that this emotion isn’t patriotism, but rather something closer to humanism, or universalism. That we’re clapping for all the doctors and nurses in the world. That we’re harnessing the noise, alleviating, for a nanosecond, the hospitals’ burden. But who knows: we’ve already seen how health systems actually make more visible the differences and borders between people. And just to add to my doubts, there are the bagpipes. Out in the street, one of our neighbors, fastidiously attired in tartan kilt, plays hers at full volume (there is no other way to play the bagpipes) for around ten minutes and this, I am sure, helps us keep the applause going for longer, as well as magnifying all the emotion stirred up by the ritual. That’s when I wonder whether Scottish nationalism hasn’t gotten into me by osmosis, or the way a virus gets into you, when your guard’s down. And I also wonder whether we don’t all, in part, come from the place where our children grow up. If we aren’t all, or won’t end up being, partly, from the place where we spent quarantine. This is an identitary muddle. But not—at least for as long as the place we are in is the place where we’re meant to stay put—a logistical one.
When, in the future, my daughter asks me what we did in the days of the coronavirus, I’ll show her this text. It’s a real-real diary, I will say. And she will be content with that.
“Real dragón real” © Laia Jufresa, originally published in the Revista de la Universidad de México. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.
A deceased character writes his memoirs from beyond the grave in this sui generis classic by the Brazilian master, now published in two new editions that take divergent paths to convey its peculiar combination of "the pen of mirth" and "the ink of melancholy."
It is not every season that two new translations of a major work of Western literature appear simultaneously, yet that is precisely what has occurred with the 2020 summer catalog and the publication of fresh English-language versions of the Portuguese-language original of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881), by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908). Machado was the founding president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and, more importantly, is widely considered to be the foremost author of prose fiction in nineteenth-century Latin America, if not of all epochs. Brás Cubas was a pivotal event in his career, as it marked a departure from the conventional narrative of his early Romantic novels toward a sui generis “realism” that not only set him apart in the Brazil of the time but also singled him out amongst most of his contemporaries anywhere in the world. The temporal coincidence and shared literary interest invite comparison of, and provoke curiosity about, the attractive dual offerings, allowing us a new look into this major work.
Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, a young North American scholar-translator now residing in Rio de Janeiro, has launched a highly touted annotated edition for the Penguin Classics series, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whilst the UK duo of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson have released Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas with Liveright. These translations have been preceded, in previous decades, by three other Anglophone renditions. The title of the first translation was—one still wonders why—Epitaph of a Small Winner (1952), by William Grossman (d. 1980), whose brief introduction presented the grand metafiction of Machado de Assis to English-language readers. A 1991 reissue featured a critical assessment by Susan Sontag. A scarcely known second translation was done, as Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas, by E. Percy Ellis for the Brazilian Book Institute (1955), which did not distribute effectively. The third was a prestigious university-press endeavor: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Oxford, 1997) by Gregory Rabassa (d. 2014), the beloved doyen of translation of Latin American letters. This inaugural volume of a series of new translations of the fiction of Machado includes a sharp preface by a resident scholar in the USA and a longer critical afterword by a Brazilian colleague.
As an annotated translation, the present Penguin title compares to its Oxford antecedent in academic aim. The foreword by writer Dave Eggers, heavily excerpted on the New Yorker’s website, is “writerly” and confirms that he, though an admitted latecomer to Machado, quite smartly grasps the master’s essential mix of humor and philosophical melancholy. Translator Thomson-DeVeaux has Ivy League pedigree (a BA from Princeton and a PhD from Brown) and a contagious love for Machado’s novel, the topic of her doctoral dissertation. She began recasting cited passages of Machado in English while translating a critical monograph on the author by a leading Brazilian critic, João Cezar de Castro Rocha (Machado de Assis: Toward a Poetics of Emulation, Michigan State University Press). Her Penguin introduction, notes on the translation and endnotes, and the extensive endnotes themselves are all delightful. She really did her homework and demonstrates a true dedication to her purpose. At Brown she had access to a Machado archive bequeathed by the aforementioned Grossman. Thomson-DeVeaux compares her work passim with her forerunners, sometimes in exquisite detail, so we witness the nitty-gritty of professional literary translation. One significant point that she rightly highlights is that her version maintains the page breaks for all chapters, per the original periodical installments and as in Brazilian first editions. No one else does that. And given the typographical play in the book, it does make a difference. Mise-en-page obtains from start to finish.
The Liveright remake is a four-handed affair in British English. The venerable lead translator, Margaret Jull Costa (b. 1949), has a hundred works of translation behind her, several prizes, and a young mentee, Robin Patterson, devotee of letters. Together they have recently published the collected stories of Machado de Assis, so they were certainly in the groove. There’s not much front or back matter in this newest effort, though the translators’ introduction provides a good idea of what readers have in their hands; it is complemented by a brief author biography and limited footnotes. Therein lies the principal difference from the Penguin counterpart; the Liveright translation, as a non-university-press title, is much less concerned with paratextual extras, which are more or less valuable depending on given consumers’ concerns and preferences.
And how did we come to have dual releases? Both publishers have New York and London offices, but there are separate North American and British/Commonwealth markets to which to appeal. Machado’s reputation has been growing steadily, so acquisition editors in both cities are surely more agreeable than ever. The author is in the public domain, meaning that there are no worries about bidding or estate permission. For whatever reason, the mutual sense that it was time to take advantage is to the benefit of us, we the Anglophone readers of the world.
The original text has 160 chapters, of one to six pages each. An initial “To the reader” note asks whether the book is a novel or not. There commences the extremely metaliterary aspect of the memoirs. Models are invoked—Sterne, Xavier de Maistre, the ingenious Portuguese Romantic Garrett—and a parade of legion allusions begins. In this regard, Thomson-DeVeaux’s notes are quite beneficial. Machado’s chapters are written with “the pen of mirth” and “the ink of melancholy,” and that tricky balance is the principal challenge for the translators, who overall have answered the call admirably. There is one imperfection to flag, however. At the end of chapter one, the narrator refers to his own idea for an anti-melancholy poultice as “útil” (useful), which the UK translators render as “futile,” an unfortunate inversion that could affect interpretation.
The narrator is chatty, wandering, unpredictable. There is more commentary than diegetic action, old-time discursive narration. At the outset, one wonders: when does the story start? It will tell of birth, growth, dalliances, decadence, and death, with a bit of bildungsroman and abundant comedy of manners. Self-referentiality and gamesomeness abound. A “chapter” on Adam and Eve is all ellipses and marks (! ?); another is nothing but lines of periods (......). A key segment is called “The flaw in the book” [Thomson-DeVeaux], or “The problem with this book” [Jull Costa and Patterson] (The original “senão” has also been translated as “defect”).
This story of a man incapable of committing to love, career, or straightforward language has endless postmortem speculations, especially about text-making. One commentator says there are so many that the reader loses count. But not the perspicacious critic. In Machado de Assis and Narrative Theory: Language, Imitation, Art, and Verisimilitude in the Last Six Novels (Bucknell University Press, 2019), Earl E. Fitz dedicates chapter one to Brás Cubas and the beginnings of Machado’s auto-aware “new narrative.” He counts eighteen chapters in which the author-narrator speaks of his original way of writing. This is the ultimate “self-conscious novel” by Machado. The word “author” appears seven times, “writing” eleven, and “reader” forty-eight. Indicative counts.
Three instances of comparative translation will illustrate what may distinguish these two versions, and previous ones as well. Brás Cubas’s quick opening address to readers ends with a piparote. Translators render this gesture as a snap of the fingers, with the single exception of Thomson-DeVeaux. In a note, she cites the closest historical equivalent, “fillip,” but explains that the word is unfamiliar and that “flick” would be best. Indeed, this word better communicates the dismissive attitude in play. This is an example of her capturing of subtlety praised in expert endorsements. The organizational conceit of the novel is that the author/memorialist/narrator is dead, writing from the grave. Thus, in the initial chapter, he must explain his unusual condition. In the original: “eu não sou propriamente um autor defunto, mas um defunto autor.” A literal, etymologically biased, unidiomatic gloss: I am not properly an author [who is] defunct, but a defunct [who is an] author. How to capture this clever capsule in modern English with a nineteenth-century feel? Grossman wrote: “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing.” This rendering communicates the idea but sacrifices any pretense to concision. For his part, Rabassa translated with necessary noun clauses: “I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer.” Certainly a shorter and sweeter option. Thomson-DeVeaux footnotes, with reason, the whole affair and offers: “I am not exactly an author recently deceased but a deceased man recently an author.” “Deceased” as a vocabular selection is closer to “defunto,” while “recently,” though apt, is an add-on. Finally, Jull Costa and Patterson write: “I am not so much a writer who has died, as a dead man who has decided to write.” Their volitional attribution, again, fits perfectly but is the translators’ decision, not strictly a semanteme in the source passage. These comparisons should give readers an idea of the kind of difficulties that all the translators might come up against.
Another quite telling locution is the novel’s last line, often cited to demonstrate Machado’s pessimism. “Não tive filhos, não transmiti a nenhuma criatura o legado de nossa miséria.” Grossman: “I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.” Rabassa: “I had no children, I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature.” Jull Costa and Patterson: “I did not have children, and thus did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” Thomson-DeVeaux: “I had no children; I did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” If the very last word carries most weight, then any pessimistic interpretation would prefer “misery” to be that word, as four of the translators have done. The word “misery,” by the way, appears ten times in the course of the memoirs. Another question here is the relative effect of “transmit” and “bequeath.” The latter is one of the acceptations of the original verb (Machado’s sentence is even so cited in the Aurelião, Brazil’s standard dictionary), and it puts an accent on the idea of a doomed property inheritance, but “transmit” has the advantage of association with the passing on of disease as well, which fits the joco-somber mood.
Far be it from me to end on a down note like that, so let’s celebrate the enormous progress present in the appearance of two finely crafted translations of Machado’s brilliant proto- modernist text. Back in the 1980s, a young professor in the USA specialized in the Brazilian master’s fiction submitted a related article of criticism to an academic journal. They wrote back praising the quality of the study but rejecting the submission because the subject was an “unknown author.” That reaction does not speak very well to the broad comparative knowledge of the editors involved, but is perfectly indicative of the situation at the time. Just imagine sending in a study of a work by Cervantes, Flaubert, James, Kafka, Borges—all of whom have been invoked by leading writers in recent years to try to convey a notion of Machado’s deserved stature—only to have it returned for the judges’ lack of familiarity with the universally recognized author under scrutiny. For Machado, the turning point in international awareness and appreciation was the brilliant 1990 piece by Sontag in the New Yorker, reprinted as a foreword to the Grossman reissue. The current volumes cite all sorts of praise for Machado, who should grow even more with these welcome additions to the bibliography. The Liveright version comprises a trade title, not a university press book, as the Oxford volume was in 1997. Thomson-DeVeaux’s, based on a thesis, is an anomaly, a trade title with all the marks of an edited critical edition. It seems we readers can have the best of both worlds: a British release by a top name in the field of Spanish/Portuguese translation and her accomplished partner, and a North American translation by a newcomer with superb talents who researches and writes as if she were a seasoned veteran. Potential clients and readers should not think in terms of choosing one or the other: they should simply go for both. Double your pleasure. You can never have too much Machado de Assis, in originals or in winning translations.
A gender transition unites a mother and daughter in this poem by Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto.
When I was born my mother
gave me an ancient gift,
the gift of the mystic Tiresias:
to change sex once in my life.
Even from my first wails she understood
that my growth would be
a rebellion to come unstuck from my flesh
a fratricidal fight between spirit
and skin. An annihilation.
So she gave me her clothes,
her shoes, her lipstick;
she said: “Take these, my son,
become what you are
if what you are you can’t have been.”
I became a mystic, another Tiresias.
I practiced the art of clairvoyance,
became a sorceress, a witch, a woman
and I surrendered to the whisper of the body
—succumbed to its feminine seduction.
It was then that my mother
lived on in me, made me
younger daughter of my time,
time in which one can thrive so long
as they wander in circles, blind
—so long as they hide, just like Tiresias,
a mystery they can’t speak.
"Quando nacqui mia madre" © Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Danielle Pieratti. All rights reserved.
In echoes of the Kafka text from which this poem takes its name, a queer man longs to confront his homophobic father for a lifetime of injury in this poem by Berlin-based writer and artist Ricardo Domeneck.
Now that my lord
more closely resembles a hunk
of meat with two eyes
turned toward the dark ceiling
from the gurney where likely
you will not die alone
only because not even able
to swallow your saliva
yourself in the company
of this tube alone
that feeds you
I ask myself
if mother's ban
to my lord the amorous habits
of my mucous membranes
is still in place
and if indeed you would love me
the less you knew about
how much rubbing they'd already had
that did not befit them
biological or religious
-ly and also if
you would want for your boyess
the death you wished
on so many of my kind
when they appeared on screen
on Globo Record
Manchete or SBT
which always constituted
your umbilical connection
and if indeed you would
make come upon them
by the violence
of your raging slurs
typical of a macho man
born in a remote town
in this country of machos
remote and broken
in their false pride
believing that a father
is he who crams
refrigerators full and does
not let the table want for
food to nourish
the same mucous membranes
in which your blood
but not your God
and now in this broken gurney
your brain all veins
like rivulets bent on
outside the lines
if my lord
I still ask myself
if you would welcome
me as meekly
as you accept a kiss
on the forehead from
who is nothing more
than your own image
and likeness inverted
a mirror such
as reflects opposites
of gender and religion
or the cartoon
from my childhood
of a Hall of Justice
where on a screen
you could watch
a world gone wrong
and if the Father and father
one created by the norms
of Biology and Religion
yet later corrected
after flaunting the laws
the Father and the father
impose on us in the science
of being all of us flawed
on this Earth where procreating
is so common
it brings pleasure
not at all and I look at
with these pupils
that maybe never
reflect the Father
but now see the father
also a hunk
with two eyes
for at least I can
say there is
no more time
and even still
for conflicted fear
of possibly shaking
a rudimentary system
holding up this house
holding up this room
holding up this borrowed
I once again
"Carta ao pai" © Ricardo Domeneck. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Hilary Kaplan. All rights reserved.
Mutsuo Takahashi admires the ancient Greeks’ innocence and lack of shame about their bodies in this short poem.
In Olympia, young men do not wear a single thread
In Pythia, in Isthmia, and in Nemea too
In every gymnasium in every small town
They’re as naked as the day they were born
It’s because they were born this way
They’re honest and upright, not the least bit lewd
Like the Greek summer sky,
Pure and fresh, a model of health itself
What made them so obscene were the girders
Supporting the eyes of those who watched
Girders that came from the deserts to the east
Crossing the seas with warm winds
Sent by a narrow-minded god
Jealous of purity and hating health
"裸身礼讃" from Only Yesterday. © Mutsuo Takahashi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.
A man wanders through Tokyo’s gay and lesbian district in this poem by Mutsuo Takahashi.
Not lustful Socrates, nor Plato
Not Xenophon, just a plain pederast
I wandered through the nighttime labyrinth of Ni-Chōme’s1 Athens
Sharing with young men encountered there, not dialogues, not sweet nothings
Not delirious ravings, just plain hot breath—however
The wisdom gathered from those wanderings is far deeper
Than that of ancient Greece, or at least, it is filled
With far more tender shadows, or at least, that
Is my excuse now
1 Translator’s note: With literally hundreds of gay and lesbian bars crammed together in several city blocks, Shinjuku Ni-Chōme has the highest concentration of queer gathering places anyplace in Japan. ↩
"贈物" from Only Yesterday. © Mutsuo Takahashi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.