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The City and the Writer: In Cochabamba with Rodrigo Hasbún

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/The Palestinians 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Cochabamba as you feel/see it?

Cochabamba is a mellow city, a city that still retains its small-town spirit, depsite the brewing storm that rumbles away beneath the calm surface. Historically, it’s been an important place of resistance, a place that shifts with absolute ease from torpor to rage. During the War of Independence, to give an emblamatic example, the women of the city barricaded themselves in the San Sebastián hills and, in the absence of their husbands, fought against the royalist army. Two centuries later, the so-called Guerra del agua (Water War in Bolivia) broke out in the streets. I like this combination: a true calmness, but, beneath it, the imminence of things that might change in the blink of an eye.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

First loyalties and betrayals, death, both unexpected or foreseen, love’s discovery: for me, all these things took place in Cochabamba. Your question sets off a thousand memories. I see myself at eighteen, in a car with my granny, crossing the city to take her to the oncologist who was treating her (she was the only one among us who didn’t know that she had it), chitchatting about any old thing to distract her. I see myself at fifteen or sixteen getting drunk for the first time. I see myself as a boy strolling through the city center with Dad late at night, the streets deserted, on our way back from the cinema. I could go on and on: for me, all of these more or less common images break my heart. They express something that no longer exists, or that only exists in my memory, a memory closely linked to a place and to what it meant to me to grow up there.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Cochabamba is surrounded by mountains. It’s easy to forget them after a while, but they offer a quite breathtaking sight if you pay attention to them. The amount of children living on the streets is also breathtaking; children sniffing glue all day just to get by. For those who live in the city, they tend to be more or less invisible.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Very few writers from Cochabamba have been translated into English. Right now I can only think of one, Edmundo Paz Soldán, although I have a feeling the novels in which he makes real reference to the city—let’s say, Río Fugitivo or Días de papel—have only been published in Spanish. In those books he captures a few neighborhoods very well, as well as the racial and class tensions running through them.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Over the last years, small cafes have begun to pop up all over the city center thanks to the initiative of an Italian and a Greek who opened the first ones in the early nineties. I never feel like I’ve truly arrived in the city until I’ve done a round of them—like Cheever’s swimmer, passing from one pool to the other, from one café to the other. Oddly enough, little changes in those places: year after year, every time I visit, I find the same people at the same tables talking about the same things. There was a period in my life when I felt oppressed by such inertness. Now I find it moving.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I’m struggling to think of one. I think we’re yet to claim a Salinger or a Joyce who could establish a secret itinerary, a mythology, in people’s collective imagination. The sister city of La Paz, on the other hand, does have some, created by Jaime Saenz, one of the most notable poets to have come out of the country.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

During my adolesence, my friends and I often went along to Tantakatu, the city’s black market. It’s odd, but this ancestral and on the whole indigenous arena was often our greatest link to what was going on in the world. You could find everything imaginable there. We would go to buy knocked-off cds. I’m talking about the mid-nineties when we still didn’t have access to the Internet and it was impossible for us to keep up with our latest music fads. Quite miraculously, we used to find lost gems in that market at ridiculous prices. Really, I think that you might call Cochabamba a market city. They’re dotted all over the place and are a delight.

Where does passion live here?

I don't think that Cochabamba is an especially passionate place. Depsite the furtive, latent violence under the surface, most of the time it’s as if the city were asleep: it’s a languid, slow place. As a result, you’ll find that people there are food and drink worshipers, devoted to spending hours around a table, and to letting each day meld into the next.

What is the title of one of your works about Cochabamba and what inspired it exactly?

My book Los días más felices contains a series of stories that portray a group of teenage friends who grow older from one page to the next. They’re stories in which I work very closely with what it meant for me to grow up in what felt, back then, like the end of the world. A place where nothing ever seemed to happen and where, notwithstanding, I made discovery after lasting discovery. Even though I know that I’d struggle to go back there to live, and even though I love and hate it in equal parts, my dreams always take place in that city. I only know how to dream of Cochabamba.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cochabamba does an outside exist?”

At this stage of the game, having lived in various cities, to me everything seems superimposed and confused, inside and outside all at once.

Translated by Sophie Hughes


Rodrigo Hasbún was born 1981 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He has published three books of short stories, CincoLos días más felices and Cuatro, a volume of selected stories entitled Nueve, and the novel El lugar del cuerpo. His second novel, Los afectos (Literatura Random House, May 2015), will be published in ten languages, and will be available in English from Pushkin Press in 2016. Hasbún was twice awarded the Bolivian Santa Cruz de la Sierra National Book Award, he was chosen by the Hay Festival as one of the Bogotá 39 (Best Latin American writers under the age of 39) and he was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists.

Sophie Hughes is a literary translator and editor living in Mexico City. Her translations have appeared in AsymptotePEN Atlas, and the White Review, and her reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, and Literary Review. She has worked as an editor for Asymptote and Dazed & Confused online, and in March 2015 she co-guest edited a Words without Borders feature on contemporary Mexican literature. She was awarded the British Centre for Literary Translation prose mentorship for 2015, working with Shaun Whiteside. Her translation of Iván Repila’s novel The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is published by Pushkin Press, and she is currently translating Mexican author, Laia Jufresa (Umami, Oneworld, 2016) and Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún (Los afectos, Pushkin Press, 2016).

Published May 12, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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