On his return, he described his trip. He told how he had contemplated human life from on high. He said we are a sea of tiny flames.
“The world,” he revealed, “is a heap of people, a sea of tiny flames.”
Each person shines with his or her own light. No
two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames
of every color. Some people’s flames are so still they don’t
even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the
air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but
others blaze with life so fiercely that you can’t look at them
without blinking, and if you approach you shine in fire.
The Spanish War had ended only a few years back, and the Cross and the Sword reigned over the ruins of the republic. One of the defeated, an anarchist worker fresh out of jail, was looking for a job. He scoured heaven and earth in vain. There was no work for a Red. Everyone looked daggers at him, shrugged their shoulders, and turned their backs. No one would give him a chance, no one listened to him. Wine was the only friend he had left. At night, before the empty dishes, he bore in silence the reproaches of his saintly wife, a woman who never missed Mass, while his son, a small boy, recited the catechism to him.
Some time later, Josep Verdura, the son of this accursed worker, told me the story. He told it to me in Barcelona, when I arrived there in exile. He had been a desperate child who wanted to save his father from eternal damnation, and the ever atheistic and stubborn fellow wouldn’t listen to reason.
“But Papá,” Josep said to him, weeping. “If God doesn’t exist, who made the world?”
said the worker, lowering his head as if to impart a secret. “Dummy.
We made the world, we bricklayers.”
Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
They went south.
The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
And when he finally managed to speak, trembling, stuttering, he asked his father:
me to see!”
On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela’s ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:
“The grape,” he whispered, “is made of wine.”
Marcela Pérez-Silva told me this,
and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the
words that tell who we are.
Marcela was visiting the snowy North. One night in Oslo, she met a woman who sang and told stories. Between songs, this woman would spin yarns, glancing at slips of paper like someone telling fortunes from crib notes.
This woman from Oslo had on an enormous dress
dotted all over with pockets. She would pull slips of paper out of her
pockets one by one, each with its story to tell, stories tried and true
of people who wished to come back to life through witchcraft. And so
she raised the dead and the forgotten, and from the depths of her dress
sprang the odysseys and loves of the human animal, for whom speech is
This man, or woman, is pregnant with many people.
People are coming out of his pores. With these clay figures, the Hopi
Indians of New Mexico depict the storyteller: the one who relates the
collective memory, who fairly blossoms with little people.
In the house
of words was a table of colors. They offered themselves in great fountains
and each poet took the color he needed: lemon yellow or sun yellow,
ocean blue or smoke blue, crimson red, blood red, wine red…
As the years passed, Lucia traveled far.
In search of phantoms she walked over the rocks in the Antioquia River, and in search of people she walked the streets of the violent cities.
Lucia walked a long way, and in the course of her travels was always accompanied by echoes of the echoes of those distant voices she had heard with her eyes when she was small.
never read that book again. She would no longer recognize it. It has
grown so much inside her that now it is something else: now it is hers.
It had been half a century since the death of César Vallejo, and there were celebrations. In Spain, Julio Vélez organized lectures, seminars, memorial publications, and an exhibition offering images of the poet, his land, his time, and his people.
But then Julio Vélez met José Manuel Castañón, and all homage seemed insignificant.
Jose Manuel Castañón had been a captain in the Spanish War. Fighting for Franco, he had lost a hand and won various medals.
One night, shortly after the war, the captain accidentally came upon a banned book. He took a look, he read one line, he read another, and he could no longer tear himself away. Captain Castañón, hero of the victorious army, sat up all night, captivated, reading and rereading César Vallejo, poet of the defeated. The next morning he resigned from the army and refused to take a single peseta more from the Franco government.
put him in jail, and he went into exile.
The Shuar Indians, also known as Jíbaros,
would cut off the heads of their vanquished enemies. They would cut
off and shrink their heads until they fitted into the palm of the hand,
to prevent the defeated warriors from coming back to life. But a vanquished
enemy is not vanquished altogether until his mouth has been sealed shut.
They sew his lips together with thread that never rots.
Their hands were tied or handcuffed, yet their fingers danced, flew, drew words. The prisoners were hooded, but, leaning back, they could see a bit, just a bit, down below. Although it was forbidden to speak, they spoke with their hands. Pinio Ungerfeld taught me the finger alphabet, which he had learned in prison without a teacher:
“Some of us had bad handwriting,” he told me. “Others were masters of calligraphy.”
The Uruguayan dictatorship wanted everyone to stand alone, everyone to be no one: in prisons and barracks, and throughout the country, communication was a crime.
Some prisoners spent more than ten years buried in solitary cells the size of coffins, hearing nothing but clanging bars or footsteps in the corridors. Fernández Huidobro and Mauricio Rosencof, thus condemned, survived because they could talk to each other by tapping on the wall. In that way they told of dreams and memories, fallings in and out of love; they discussed, embraced, fought; they shared beliefs and beauties, doubts and guilts, and those questions that have no answer.
When it is
genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human
voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or
the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something
to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven
“Portinari isn’t here,” said Portinari. He poked his nose out for an instant, slammed the door, and disappeared.
This was in the thirties, the years of communist witchúhunts in Brazil, and Portinari had exiled himself in Montevideo.
Iván Kmaid was not of those years nor of that place, but long afterward he appeared through the holes in the curtain of time and told me what he had seen: Candido Portinari painted from morning to evening, and at night as well.
“Portinari isn’t here,” he would say.
At that time, communist intellectuals in Uruguay were going to take a position on social realism and wanted their prestigious comrade’s opinion.
“We know you’re not there,” they said to him, and implored: “But won’t you give us a moment? Just a moment?”
And they posed the question.
“I don’t know,” said Portinari.
“All I know is this: art is art, or it’s shit.”
The language of art
There, somebody gave him an old camera. Chinoúlope had never held a camera in his hands, but they told him it was easy:
“You just look through here and press there.”
So he took to the streets. He hadn’t been walking long when he heard shots. He went into a barbershop, raised the camera, looked through here and pressed there.
In the barbershop they had shot down the gangster Albert Anastasia while he was getting a shave, and that was the first photo of Chinolope’s professional life.
He was paid
a fortune. The photo was a coup. Chinolope had managed to photograph
death. Death was there: not in the dead man, nor in the killer. Death
was in the face of the barber looking on.
Julio Ama, who fought and photographed the war, wandered through the streets. He had a rifle in his hand and a camera, also loaded and ready to shoot, around his neck. He went through the dusty streets in search of the twin brothers. The twins were the only survivors of a village exterminated by the army. They were sixteen years old. They liked to fight alongside Julio, and between engagements he would teach them to read and take photographs. In the tumult of the battle, Julio had lost the twins and now could not find them among either the living or the dead.
He walked across the park. At the corner by the church, he entered a lane. And there, finally, he found them. One of them was sitting on the ground, his back against a wall. The other lay across his knees, bathed in blood. At their feet, in the form of a cross, were their two rifles.
Julio approached—perhaps said something. The living twin neither spoke nor moved. He was there and he wasn’t there. His unblinking eyes stared without seeing, lost somewhere, nowhere, and that tearless face was the whole of war, the whole of pain.
Julio left his rifle on the ground and gripped the camera. He advanced the film, calculated the light and distance in a flash, and focused. The brothers were centered in his viewfinder, motionless, perfectly profiled against the wall newly peppered with bullet holes.
Julio was about to take the picture of his
life, but his finger refused. Julio tried, tried again, and his finger
refused. Then he lowered the camera without releasing the shutter, and
retreated in silence.
The function of art / 2
The chief took his time, then said:
“That scratches. It scratches hard and it scratches well.”
And then he added:
it scratches where there isn’t any itch.”
“Within a month, you will receive a distinction.”
I laughed. I laughed for the infinite goodness of this stranger who was giving me flowers and auguries of success. And I laughed at the word “distinction,” which has something comical about it, and because I flashed back to an old neighborhood friend who was very crude but always on the mark, and who used to say, passing sentence as he raised his finger:
“Sooner or later, every writer gets hamburgerized.” *
So I laughed, and the soothsayer laughed at my laughter.
One month later
to the day, I received a telegram in Montevideo. In Chile, the telegram
said, I had been awarded a distinction. It was the José Carrasco
“We are keeping an eye on certain gentlemen.”
At the foot of a wall on the edge of Santiago, they put fourteen bullets into his head. It was early morning, and nobody was to be seen. His body lay there on the ground until midday.
The neighbors never washed the blood away. The place became a sanctuary for the poor, always covered with candles and flowers, and José Carrasco became a miracle worker. On the wall pitted by the shots, one can read thanks for favors received.
At the beginning of 1988, I traveled to Chile. It had been fifteen years since I was last there. I was received at the airport by Juan Pablo Cárdenas, editor of the magazine.
Condemned for offenses against the government,
Cárdenas slept in prison. He entered the prison every night at
exactly ten o’clock, and left with the sun.
Santiago de Chile, like other Latin-American cities, has a glowing face. For less than a dollar a day, legions of workers polish the mask.
In the high-class districts people live as they do in Miami. They do live in Miami: life is Miamified—plastic clothing, plastic food, plastic people, and videos and computers are synonymous with happiness.
But there are ever fewer of these Chileans, and ever more of the other Chileans, the sub-Chileans. The economy curses them, the police chase them, and the culture denies their existence.
Some become beggars. Flouting the prohibitions, they manage to appear beneath red traffic lights or in any doorway. There are beggars of all sizes and colors, whole and crippled, sincere and simulated, some in total desperation and on the edge of madness, others displaying twisted faces and trembling hands that they have rehearsed well: admirable professionals, veritable artists of fine begging.
At the height of the military dictatorship, the best of the Chilean beggars was one who moved his prey to pity saying:
I was in Isla Negra, in the house that was, that is, Pablo Neruda’s.
No one was allowed to go in. A wooden fence surrounded the house. On it people had written their messages to the poet. Not an inch of wood was left bare. They all spoke to him as if he were alive. With pencils or the points of nails, each had found a way to thank him.
I also found a way, without words. And I entered without entering. We were silently chatting about wines, the poet and I, talking quietly of oceans and of loves, and of an infallible concoction against baldness. We shared some shrimp pil-pil and a prodigious crab pie and other marvels that make the soul and the belly—which, as he well knows, are just two different names for the same thing—rejoice.
our glasses of fine wine time and again, and a salty wind whipped our
faces. It was all a ceremony of malediction against the dictatorship,
that black spear sticking in his side, that sonofabitch pain, and it
was also a ceremony in celebration of life, beautiful and ephemeral
as altars of flowers and passing loves.
Someone looked through a high window and
saw an inexplicable eagle with gleaming eyes, its claws extended for
attack. The eagle could not have been there, could not have entered—there
Helena dreamed about the keepers of the fire. The
poorest old women had stored it away in suburban kitchens and had only
to blow very gently on their palms to rekindle the flame.
Suddenly the word got around. I was surrounded by a throng of little boys demanding at the top of their lungs that I draw animals on their little hands cracked by the dirt and cold, their skin of burnt leather: one wanted a condor and one a snake, others preferred little parrots and owls, and some asked for a ghost or a dragon.
Then, in the middle of this racket, a little waif who barely cleared a yard off the ground showed me a watch drawn in black ink on his wrist.
“An uncle of mine who lives in Lima sent it to me,” he said.
“And does it keep good time?” I asked him.
“It’s a bit slow,” he admitted.
—Translated by Cedric Belfrage