Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño muses on writing, borders, Latin American literature and the instability of identity in his 1999 acceptance speech for the Gallegos prize.
I’ve always had a problem with Venezuela. An infantile problem, fruit of my disorganized education; a minimal problem; but a problem nonetheless. The center of the problem is of a verbal and geographic nature. It is also probably due to a sort of undiagnosed dyslexia. I don’t mean to say by this that my mother never took me to the doctor; on the contrary, until the age of ten I was an assiduous visitor to doctor’s offices and even hospitals, but from that point on my mother decided I was strong enough to handle anything.
But let us return to the problem. When I was little, I played soccer. My number was 11, the number of Pepe and Zagalo in the World Cup in Sweden, and I was an enthusiastic player but a pretty bad one, though my left leg was my good leg and supposedly lefties never lose steam during a match. In my case, this wasn’t true: I almost always lost steam, though every once in a while, say once every six months, I would play a good match and recover at least a part of the enormous credit lost. At night, as is natural, before going to sleep, I would run circles in my head around my pitiful condition as a soccer player. It was then that I had the first conscious inkling of my dyslexia. I shot with my left leg but wrote with my right hand. That was a fact. I would have liked to write with my left hand, but I did it with my right. And that, right there, was the problem. For instance, when the coach would say, “Pass it to the guy on your right, Bolaño,” I wouldn’t know where to pass the ball. And sometimes, even, playing along the left flank, hearing my coach shout himself hoarse, I would have to stop and think: left—right. Right was the soccer field, left was kicking it out of bounds, out toward the few spectators, children like me, or toward the miserable pastures that surrounded the soccer fields of Quilpue, or Cauquenes, or
the province of Bío-Bío. With time, of course, I learned to have a reference every time I was asked or informed about a street that was on the right or the left, and that reference was not the hand with which I wrote but the foot with which I kicked the ball.
And with Venezuela I had, more or less around the same time—meaning until yesterday—a similar problem. The problem was its capital. For me, the most logical thing was for the capital of Venezuela to be Bogotá. And the capital of Colombia, Caracas. Why? Well, by a verbal logic, or a logic of letters. The v in Venezuela is similar, not to say related, to the b in Bogotá. And the c in Colombia is first cousin to the c in Caracas. This seems insubstantial, and it probably is, but for me it constituted a problem of the first order when, on a certain occasion, in Mexico, during a conference about the urban poets of Colombia, I showed up to talk about the potency of the poets of Caracas, and the people—people just as kind and educated as yourselves—remained silent, waiting for me to move beyond the digression about the poets from Caracas and start talking about the ones from Bogotá, but what I did was keep talking about the ones from Caracas, about their aesthetic of destruction. I even compared them to the Italian Futurists—differences notwithstanding, of course—and to the first Lettrists, the group founded by Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître, the group out of which the germ of Guy Debord’s Situationism would be born, and the people at this point began to conjecture. I think they must have thought that the poets from Bogotá had made a mass migration to Caracas, or that the poets from Caracas had played a defining role in the new group of poets from Bogotá, and when I finished the talk, abruptly, as I liked to finish any talk those days, the people stood up, applauded timidly, and ran off to consult the poster at the entrance. And as I was leaving, accompanied by the Mexican poet Mario Santiago, who always went around with me and who had surely noticed my mistake, though he didn’t say anything, because for Mario mistakes and errors and equivocations are like Baudelaire’s clouds drifting across the sky, that is to say something to look at but never to correct—on our way out, as I was saying, we ran into an old Venezuelan poet (and when I say “old,” I remember the moment and realize that the Venezuelan poet was probably younger than I am now), who told us with tears in his eyes that there must have been some kind of mistake, that he had never heard a single word about these mysterious poets from Caracas.
At this point in the speech, I get the feeling that don Rómulo Gallegos must be turning over in his grave. “But to whom have they given my prize?” he must be thinking. Forgive me, don Rómulo. It’s just that even doña Bárbara, with a b, sounds like Venezuela and Bogotá, and Bolivar, also, sounds like Venezuela and doña Bárbara. Bolivar and Bárbara, what a good couple they would have made, although don Rómulo’s other two great novels, Cantaclaro and Canaima, could perfectly well be Colombian novels, which leads me to thinking that maybe they are, and that beneath my dyslexia there might perhaps be a method, a bastard semiotic method or a graphological or metasyntactic or phonemic or simply poetic method, and that the truth of truths is that Caracas is the capital of Colombia, just like Bogotá is the capital of Venezuela, in the same way that Bolivar, who is Venezuelan, dies in Colombia, which is also Venezuela and Mexico and Chile.
I don’t know if you can see where I’m trying to get here. Pobre Negro, for instance, by don Rómulo, is an eminently Peruvian novel. La Casa Verde, by Vargas Llosa, is a Colombo-Venezuelan novel. Terra Nostra, by Fuentes, is an Argentinean novel, though I warn you not to ask me what I’m basing that affirmation on, because the answer would be prolix and boring. The pataphysical academy teaches (and mysteriously, too) the science of imaginary solutions, which, as you all know, is that which studies the laws that regulate exceptions. And this shock in the order of letters is, in a sense, an imaginary problem that requires an imaginary solution.
But let’s return to don Rómulo before we get into Jarry and note a few strange signs along the way. I have just won the eleventh Rómulo Gallegos Prize. Number 11. I used to play with the number 11 on my shirt. This, to you, will most likely seem a coincidence, but it leaves me trembling. Number 11, who couldn’t tell left from right and thus confused Caracas with Bogotá, has just won (and I use this parenthetical to once again thank the jury for this distinction, in particular Ángeles Mastretta) the eleventh Rómulo Gallegos Prize. What would don Rómulo think of this? The other day, talking on the phone, Pere Gimferrer, who is a great poet and on top of that knows everything and has read everything, told me that there are two commemorative plaques in Barcelona marking houses where don Rómulo used to live. According to Gimferrer (although he wouldn’t put his hand in the fire over the particulars), the great Venezuelan writer started writing Canaima in one of these houses.
The truth is that I believe 99.9 percent of the things Gimferrer says to the letter, so, as Gimferrer was talking (one of the houses with the plaques was not a house but a bench, which posits a series of doubts; for instance, if don Rómulo, during his stay in Barcelona—and I say “stay” and not “exile” because a Latin American is never exiled in Spain—had worked on a bench or if the bench later came to install itself in the novelist’s house)… As I was saying, while the Catalan poet was speaking, I got to thinking about my now-distant (though no less exhausting for it, especially in my memory) ambles through the Eixample district, and I saw myself there again, bouncing around in 1977, 1978, maybe 1982, and suddenly I thought I saw a street at sunset, near Muntaner, and I saw a number, the number 11, and then I walked a little further, and there was the plaque. That’s what I saw, in my mind.
But it’s also probable that during the years that I lived in Barcelona, I passed by that street and saw the plaque, a plaque that possibly says, “Here lived Rómulo Gallegos, novelist and politician, born in Caracas in 1884, died in Caracas in 1969,” and then other things, in smaller letters, like his books, accolades, etc. And it’s possible that I would have thought, without stopping, of another famous Colombian writer, though I could have only thought this without stopping, I insist, because by that point I had read don Rómulo as required reading in school in either Chile or Mexico, I can’t remember which, and I liked Doña Bárbara, though, according to Gimferrer, Canaima is better, and of course I knew that don Rómulo was Venezuelan and not Colombian. Which truly signifies very little, being Colombian or being Venezuelan, and at this point we return, as if bounced back by lightning, to the b in Bolivar, who was not dyslexic and who wouldn’t have much minded a united Latin America, a preference I share with the Liberator, as it’s all the same to me if people say I’m Chilean, even though some Chilean colleagues prefer to see me as Mexican, or if they call me Mexican, though some Mexican colleagues prefer to call me Spanish, or even disappeared in combat. And in fact it’s all the same to me if I’m considered a Spaniard, even if some Spanish colleagues hit the ceiling and start proclaiming I’m from Venezuela, born in Caracas or in Bogotá, which doesn’t bother me much, quite the contrary, in fact.
What’s true is that I am Chilean, and I am also a lot of other things. And having arrived at this point, I must abandon Jarry and Bolivar and try to remember the writer who said that the homeland of a writer is his tongue. I don’t remember his name. Perhaps it was a writer who wrote in Spanish. Perhaps it was a writer who wrote in English or French. A writer’s homeland, he said, is his tongue. It sounds a little demagogic, but I agree with him completely, and I know that sometimes there is no recourse left us but to get a little demagogic, just like sometimes there is no recourse left us but to dance a bolero under the light of streetlamps or a red moon. Although it’s also true that a writer’s homeland is not his tongue, or not only his tongue, but also the people he loves. And sometimes a writer’s homeland is not the people he loves but his memory. And other times a writer’s only homeland is his loyalty, and his courage. In truth, a writer’s homelands can be many, and sometimes the identity of that homeland depends a great deal on whatever he is writing at the moment. The homelands can be many, it occurs to me now, but the passport can only be one, and that passport is evidently the quality of his writing. Which does not mean writing well, because anyone can do that, but writing marvelously well, and not even that, because anyone can write marvelously well, too. What, then, is writing of quality? Well, what it has always been: knowing to stick one’s head into the dark, knowing to jump into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous occupation. To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food. And to accept that fact, though sometimes it may weigh on us more than the flagstone that covers the remains of every dead writer. Literature, as an Andalusian folk song might say, is dangerous.
And now that I have returned, finally, to the number 11, which is the number of those who run along the flanks, and now that I have mentioned danger, I recall that page of the Quijote where the merits of arms and letters are discussed, and I suppose that, in the end, what is being discussed is the difference in the level of danger, which also means the level of virtue, entailed in each occupation. And Cervantes, who was a soldier, has arms win out over letters, has the soldier win out over the honorable occupation of the poet. And if we read these pages well (something that now, as I write this speech, I am not doing, even though from the table at which I sit I can see my two editions of the Quijote), we will sense in them a strong aroma of melancholy, because Cervantes is having his own youth triumph, the ghost of his lost youth, before the reality of his exercise of prose and poetry, which until then had been so adverse. And this comes to my mind because to a great extent everything that I have ever written is a love letter or a letter of farewell to my own generation, those of us who were born in the ’50s and who chose at a given moment to take up arms (though
in this case it would be more correct to say “militancy”) and gave the little that we had, or the greater thing that we had, which was our youth, to a cause that we believed to be the most generous of the world’s causes and that was, in a sense, though in truth it wasn’t.
Needless to say, we fought tooth and nail, but we had corrupt bosses, cowardly leaders, an apparatus of propaganda that was worse than that of a leper colony. We fought for parties that, had they emerged victorious, would have immediately sent us to a forced-labor camp. We fought and poured all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for over fifty years, and some of us knew that: How were we not going to know that if we had read Trotsky or were Trotskyites? But nevertheless we did it, because we were stupid and generous, as young people are, giving everything and asking for nothing in return. And now nothing is left of those young people, those who died in Bolivia, died in Argentina or in Peru, and those who survived went to Chile or Mexico to die, and the ones they didn’t kill there they killed later in Nicaragua, in Colombia, in El Salvador. All of Latin America is sown with the bones of these forgotten youths. And this is what moves Cervantes to choose arms over letters. His companions, too, were dead. Or old and abandoned, in misery and neglect. To choose was to choose youth, to choose the defeated and those who had nothing left. And that is what Cervantes does, he chooses youth. And even in this melancholy weakness, in this crack in his soul, Cervantes is the most lucid, for he knows that writers don’t need anyone to praise their occupation. We praise it ourselves.
Frequently, our way of praising it is to curse the hour in which we decided to become writers, but as a general rule we tend to clap and dance when we’re alone, for this is a solitary occupation, and we recite our own pages to ourselves, and that is our way of praising ourselves, and we don’t need for anyone to tell us what we have to do and much less for a poll to elect ours as the most honorable of occupations. Cervantes, who wasn’t dyslexic but who was left crippled by the exercise of arms, knew perfectly well what he was saying. Literature is a dangerous occupation.
Which takes us directly to Alfred Jarry, who had a gun and liked to shoot, and to the number 11, the leftmost extreme, which looks out of the corner of its eye as it passes like a bullet by the plaque and the house where don Rómulo lived. And I hope that at this point in the speech don Rómulo is not so angry with me, that he won’t appear to Domingo Miliani in dreams asking why they gave me the prize that bears his name, a prize that for me is hugely important—I am the first Chilean to obtain it—a prize that doubles the challenge, as if that were possible, as if the challenge by its very nature, by its own virtues, weren’t already doubled or tripled. A prize, by this reasoning, would seem a gratuitous act, and now that I think about it, since this is all true, a prize does have something of the gratuitous in it. It is a gratuitous act that does not speak to my novel or its merits but to the generosity of a jury. (Until yesterday, I did not know any of its members.) Let this be clear, because like Cervantes’s veterans of Lepanto and like the veterans of the Latin-American Florid Wars, my only wealth is my dignity. I read this and I don’t believe it. Me, talking about dignity. It’s possible that the spirit of don Rómulo won’t appear in dreams to Domingo Miliani but to me.
These words are written now, in Caracas (Venezuela), and one thing is clear: Don Rómulo can’t appear to me in dreams for the simple reason that I can’t sleep. Outside, the crickets are chirping. I calculate, very roughly, that there are some ten or twenty thousand of them. Perhaps don Rómulo’s voice is in one of their songs, confused, joyfully confused, in the Venezuelan night, in the American night, in the night that belongs to all of us, to those who sleep and to those of us who can’t.
I feel like Pinocchio.
Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953, and died in Barcelona in 2003, leaving behind four story collections, three books of poetry, and ten novels and novellas.