Excerpted from Bad Light by Carlos Castán (tr. Mike McDevitt), forthcoming from Hispabooks on July 12, 2016
That was around the time of the spectacular accident in the Chilean mine. Thirty-three workers trapped almost half a mile beneath the earth. In real time, heart in mouth, the world followed the tragic events that, for seventy days, TV news bulletins the length and breadth of the planet led with. As did the press, and the radio. It was practically the only talking point. First, a tunnel was opened up through which the rescue teams could introduce the medicines and provisions from the outside world that were deemed most urgent. Direct, fluid communication was then established with those trapped below, their fear probed, their hopes of making it out alive broadcast, their attempts to say farewell in the darkest hours, their messages of love, their ham-handed poetry, filled with a candor that was chilling in its simplicity—pure naïf horror. People wondered what it might feel like to be trapped beneath a hillside, with tons of earth above and all that uncertainty as to whether one might ever again see the sunlight and all that it normally bathes. Little by little we learned of each individual case, the names and circumstances of the miners imprisoned down there below, hell almost within touching distance. The images on TV revealed the desperation of the relatives who followed operations as closely as they were allowed, night and day pressed up against the wire fence that marked the security perimeter. Both inside and outside the collapsed underground passageway, the slogan the whole world clung to was “get back home.” Like the wounded soldiers in Vietnam field hospitals who, in their fevered state, dreamt of streetlights on a Saturday night, the smell of hamburgers, and of music, and of sex. Getting back home.
I felt sure that those thirty-odd men must include at least one who, after the obligatory homecoming in front of the cameras and the official celebrations, having shaken off the hordes of dignitaries and special correspondents, the well-wishers, the throng of microphones thrust before him, would return home alone to find everything precisely as he had left it, a glass of water filled with specks of dust on the bedside table, in the exact same spot he had placed it, no doubt a dirty dish with the remains of a meal from over two months before on the kitchen table, now infested with mold and ants. Everything precisely as it had been when he left for work that morning, the blinds lowered to the same height, the half-open doors, the unmade bed, a towel on the bathroom floor. I couldn’t help but identify with that miner who, on his return, no sooner having set foot in the door, would be engulfed by the silence of his own home, a couple of dingy rooms in, say, the city of Copiapó. I wondered what would have gone through his mind those two long months buried down there below, while the others spoke of getting back home, of almost Christmassy scenes, and of the collective desire to make up for lost time if they ever made it out alive, of what truly matters: the fair, ponies, Sunday picnics in the country with the whole family, a hearty barbecue, everyone helping to wash the car in the stream; no more pisco ever again, no more anything ever again, just tucking the children in to sleep, taking them for a Sunday stroll to El Pretil or Schneider Park, thanking God for each new morning, each breath of fresh air, and the light, above all the light, enjoying whatever scarcity, whatever abundance. He would dream, perhaps, that some former girlfriend had heard news of his confinement, or some old friend from his school days he cannot now recall, but who knows, or some former drinking buddy, waiting for him up there on the surface of oxygen and stars to crack open a bottle in celebration. He would lie to his fellow inmates, telling them that someone was waiting for him, that whether he lived or died was not entirely inconsequential, that someone somewhere cared about the fate that awaited his bone-dry, malnourished hide all flecked with dirt and copper dust. I thought of him at night, of that Chilean brother. He appeared to me in dreams more than once, and we waxed shyly philosophical in short phrases and lengthy silences, much as certain wise men do when the day is done, by the fireside, and all the cattle have been rounded up in their pens. Life goes on as long as someone is waiting for you, the rest is just survival, he would say, though survival plain and simple is not without its charm and its thrills. Although I knew it was a copper rather than a coal mine, he would always appear with his face blackened, like a guerilla readying an ambush in the darkness of the jungle. I also always pictured him with filthy hands and black fingernails. I’m not sure he was right, my Chilean brother, about the waiting and the survival, but I grew somewhat fond of that coal-stained shadow who smoked while gazing at the floor and swigging bitter mate in my dreams.
Contrary to what tended to happen to me, the affliction I experienced at that time was a sorrow that emerged almost wordlessly, a naked ache that couldn’t find the right expression, something akin to an animal-like tearing, with all its bafflement and its momentous howl, like a dog waking up from the anesthesia under which its kidney has been clumsily extracted. In my mind, only objects, pure and simple, as if their sheen of connotation or memory had been wiped clean, the boredom of passersby on the other side of the window. It’s a liquid ache that drenches language, that deluges all thought like a dirty wave, dissolving concepts, soaking my knot of cables and rotting my connections. There can be no relief until words can once more breathe as before and again make their presence felt, until sounds and ink marks recover something of their meaning. It’s getting late. I don’t want to think about her. Somewhere, right now, her hands are moving, her facial muscles, her little feet. Somewhere real, I mean, out there, as well as in these ailing heartbeats where they’re never absent. As for the rest, a lobotomy as the supreme goal, the television, the cell phone switched off, and the doors locked in a rage, slammed shut, the bolt slid all the way in. Locking the door from the inside like never before in my life. If anything’s ailing me, it’s my brain. I beg the memories to leave me be, in vain I call on the howls from the basement to fall silent once and for all. To no avail. I imagine that it might be possible to caress a living brain, to massage it gently, aside, I mean, from the way music or whispers sometimes do, metaphorically speaking, and I picture a hand with painted nails lightly touching my brain as I sit here, eyes closed, motionless, like when a stranger shaves you with a straight razor. The hand anoints me with oils, aromas, and ointments, daubing everything with fresh pomades, running its fingertips over my exhausted, wounded brain, very slowly, its folds, its darkest nooks and crannies, one by one, the blood vessels, taking care so as not to burst them and leave everything more blood-soaked than it already is.
Days, too, of pills to summon sleep if nothing else will work when the time comes to assuage that stubborn sorrow that festers within. No oriental poetry, or vanilla-scented candles, or listening to the music from before this whole disaster was unleashed, when everything was as it should be and the anxiety amounted to nothing more than what was basically feigned vulnerability, a way of being in the world, chosen freely, that had to do with the aesthetics of pessimism, the echoes of a half-understood Schopenhauer resounding in the background, like a cello hidden in the shadows, and that gorgeous, dark universe, brimful of poisons and solitary passersby, Brassaï’s whores, the solitary drinkers of Picasso or Degas, fiery liquor, rain falling in back alleys, a blues sending a sudden shiver down the spine on the iciest of nights. Until, little by little, I dozed off, while I caressed my arms and shoulders, whispering Cavafy’s “Body, Remember” to myself, that ravishing prayer of world-weary lovers, of those who sleep alone, now too late, come a certain age, but always accompanied by the memory of a bygone age crammed full of battles of love on long-gone nights, on hundreds of fitted sheets of all sizes and colors that bore in the form of a circle the traces of our most devoted sweat, and in the graffiti-filled restrooms of seedy dives and in cars parked beneath the trees, and in haylofts broken into with a kick to the door, atop piles of hay, and once or twice under silvery canopies, the ice bucket within reach and candles lit until dawn. Puzzling remnants of a memory that sometimes returns, albeit unbidden, powerful and stubborn, in the darkness of poorly ventilated bedrooms that now smell only of a very different sort of sweat and of cough syrups and viruses and an evening gown stored inside a trunk.
Either way, the dejection into which that breakup had plunged me was due not so much to my perception of the present, which, truth be told, concerned me little at that point, but rather to the image it offered up of my own past, of every faltering step up to that point, in one fell swoop stripping them bare of any hope of meaning. There is a fairly universal, recurring childhood nightmare in which the child calls out to those dearest to him, his mother, his father, who nevertheless act as if they hadn’t seen him, talking to one other, going about their business, walking straight past him. This was quite similar, the feeling of shouting “it’s me, don’t you recognize me? I’m him, the same as ever, can’t you see me?” but having the eyes you’re seeking pierce straight through you without a second glance, like an unseeing sword, and your words sound just like those of a madman who dreamt the whole thing up, who made up a life no one can recall, one that rings false to the whole world, although your wrinkles are proof that, much to your regret, time has indeed passed. The dreadful part was not the sudden discovery that what I had for so long held to be the most important piece in the jigsaw of my life story had been plucked from my grasp, just like that, overnight, with such wounding ease, but rather the dawning realization that when something or someone truly ruins your life, it does so for good; we tend to think of our lost years in terms of the time left behind, but what is truly awful are the lost years that lie ahead. All that is to come will arrive more pallid and watered down, if not stillborn. I could now clearly see the enormous fragility of everything that had until recently appeared indestructible to my eyes. It was not being alone that pained me but rather the certainty that, one way or another, I now always would be, for I would be unable to see any woman who might at some point wish to approach me, no matter how naked, no matter how transparent her gaze, as anything other than the indifferent, absent-minded stranger she would sooner or later no doubt become, a stranger affecting to pretend that nothing really matters, that I never meant a thing, walking on different sidewalks in this city of mine, going in and out, at different times, of shops and bars I frequent, walking straight past my front door without even noticing, someone for whom I will one day have died without having died, much as I am now dead, without a funeral, without a homeland, barely a thing to call my own, in an asymmetrical parting of ways in which the burden of mourning lies only with the one who leaves—all of the tears are inside the casket, none are shed outside the coffin, out there springtime growls like a panther in heat and the time that remains calls to mind a party just about to begin.
And it’s hard to die sometimes, especially when beyond that dark frontier, on the other side of the barbed wire laid out in the shadows, in place of respite what lies in wait are once again the days and the weariness, the work, the air aching inside the chest. To leave and to remain, that’s the unbearable thing, to remain but to have left. As Celan put it in “Memory of France”: “We were dead and we could breathe.” Dead behind the gaze, which has not yet dimmed, behind eyes that continue to survey the stage, even when it now appears as barren as a snow-bound plain, a labyrinth in the form of an esplanade, or a ghost town with its dried-up water pipes, its abandoned train stations, the clumps of grass growing between the tracks, temples filled with cobwebs as if in a post-nuclear age, air of unwanted extra time, a handful of pages added slapdash to a worn-out tale. Dead, we sometimes run into others, perhaps also unsteady on their feet, groping their way in the dark, in a daze, as they roam their own invisible passageways in the midst of the fog, but we don’t even see them, we can’t see them, for this strange death, like the old Aristotelian god, is thought thinking itself, nothing but a feverish, obsessive loop.
Even so, there is something comforting in the idea of giving in to death, of relaxing one’s muscles at last after long days of titanic struggle and simply giving up the fight. Taking to bed to die is a splendid thing. Before you know it, the mind has sketched in the details of a hotel room, a receiver resting precariously atop a telephone on the bedside table, the scent of Chanel Nº5 on naked flesh. A crueler than cruel world on the other side of the window pane, a beautiful wound, a fragility that at long last gives in and succumbs to whatever may come, a gentle being that can take it no longer. In the adjacent bathroom, on the other side of a half-open door with white frames and golden doorknobs, stands a foam-filled tub, some of the candles on its rim still burning. When that mound of foam has finally gone completely cold, death will have arrived. In the meantime, only the pillow smelling of glycerin soap or the softener sold wholesale to the hotel chain. The watch still on the strap, the thin gold chain still slung around the neck, the breathing getting steadily deeper, dreams already flying over childhood streets, the escape attempts back then, a dilapidated grammar school in the neighborhood of Tetuán, the margarine and chorizo sandwiches made with yesterday’s bread, the waste ground where on Saturday mornings I would transform into striker José Eulogio Gárate, the thirst, the fruit trees in summer, the waterholes, the brambles, the scent of fig trees, their sap as thick as an ogre’s semen, the thorns of blackberry and rose bushes, knees stained with the red of Mercurochrome, the stones hurled in my direction, the homesick nights on Boy Scout camping trips (my city without me, far off, lit up in the middle of a plain, beyond those barren slopes, the interminable ranks of thickets and black hills under the moonlight), the sailor knots, the days that take their time, the bitter almonds. And also all that came in its wake: the insults, the vertigo and the nausea, the night as the realm of barking and eyes opened wide in the dark, behind every rock, hanging from the branches, watching from everywhere; the old, inevitable longing for every escape down endless highways or without moving from the spot, taking flight in the mind, throttling foes, smashing chains and locks in a rage, escaping from the fever, the aching bones, the shame; and the yearning, too, horribly insane, for all manner of poisons, hideouts, and underworlds, Bataille there, his verses borrowed one more time, one last time, tu es l’horreur de la nuit, je t’aime comme on râle, I love you as one might breathe one’s last. You are the immensity of the fear. To see reflected in the monster’s fangs the mouth you loved in times gone by, and in its claws the fingers of water that once sliced open your heart like a sweet blade. And Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi. And the vague sensation, in the watered-down images of delirium, that that which is dreadful is losing its bite while beauty sprouts claws and it is all much of a muchness and nothing truly matters any more.
That idea of slipping between the sheets, fresh from showering with the most expensive body wash, one last time, is not without its charm. One can snuggle up to it, that idea, hugging it as a child might embrace his rag doll in bed or an insomniac might clamp a sleeping pill beneath his tongue, with that same desperation and tenderness, and sensing the gentleness with which, from within, slowly, death washes over you. To erase, much like Borges’s suicide, every thing and the sum of all things: “Not a single star will be left in the night. The night will not be left.” To slowly forget it all, the blows, the slights, the most recent and the oldest scars, pink, hypertrophied. To sense the scent of Ruben Dario’s funeral wreaths drawing ever closer, the cold wax, the black velvet, and also Juan Ramón Jimenez’s birds, those that are going to stay, singing, beyond the window. And in the last instant to forgive God, to love the ruins for want of anything else, the waste left behind, the shards, the future like a treasure map burning in the bath, and to contemplate, with the indulgence that only weariness can give, with a gaze as tender as possible, the consummation of so much disaster.
Yet it is not unheard of in such circumstances to weigh up the possibility of replacing that sterile agony with something that packs a greater punch. Something weighty, something grand, sublime if possible. It’s only human and is a common occurrence; it’s not unusual for the trick question to emerge unbidden: If the hardest part has already been established—the refusal to carry on with life as we knew it—if we have already said farewell to it all and that goodbye was heartfelt, then why not make the most of that extremely rare, formidable freedom, that impossible detachment that lies out of reach by any other means, to do that which, out of fear, was left undone? The worst failure, death itself, is already a given. In fact, it was half an hour away just moments ago, with all the bottles of pills laid out on the bedside table, as if on display. In such thoughts lie the true and invincible strength of the kamikaze, the courage of the hero who lays down his life, and the fearless energy of he who understands that the new dawn now means nothing to him, that its dirty light is no longer any concern of his, that time now is a vast foreign land, and who takes up residence in borrowed time that leaves him well placed, should he so wish, to bellow with laughter at it all, even that which he most feared, to be without being, to open the floodgates and drain himself of caution and shame in a hemorrhage that takes with it plans and resentments, long-held dreams, dread and pride. Many doors open from here on in, a whole world of possibilities that nevertheless have in common the power of that bitter, untamed freedom, the triumphant detachment of a spirit newly freed from instinct who has just lifted the veil that concealed a heady world. There are less pitiful ways to toy with self-destruction that lying on a bed, valium coming out of your ears: Leaving Las Vegas-style, for example, spending every last dime on the most expensive drinks, surrounded by whores and neon lights; or jotting down in a notebook, like in My Life Without Me, a list of the things that were left undone, little whims and flights of fancy, such as watching the dawn break in such and such a place or contemplating the sunset on the opposite side of the world, breakfasting on champagne and oysters, say, diving in the Caribbean, or running barefoot through the snow under a full moon, whatever. All of which is to suppose that there is any point in doing that which cannot be repeated or remembered, much less told. Pure performance for no one’s eyes, like a poem written on a lost rock in a language mankind has long forgotten.
And then there is the option of being someone else, or at least pretending to be, of emigrating with the shirt on your back to anywhere on the far side of the ocean, to Mexico City, say, where fear roams the streets in green, panic-stricken taxis, at any time and heading who knows where, and everything is wild and speaks the truth. To touch down there one day, to put myself up again in the Hotel Milán, paying for a couple of nights at most to gather strength before setting out to beg on the streets until my heart bursts, collecting cardboard boxes, descending into the depths of hell, filling sheets of paper much like Jean Genet and good old Jean-Paul Clêbert, who, in his tiny, cramped handwriting, on any wrapper at all, even on crumpled cigarettes packs, scribbled down the exploits of the drifter’s life, its wretched poetry, all that naïf drivel about life beneath a star-studded canopy, but also the rush of refusing to contemplate anything other than life as it is lived in the moment, the heart beating now, the dinner and the roll in the hay that very night, the just stolen wine washing down the throat like a blessing, the company at once dangerous and endearing of those who barely question themselves underneath the world’s sewers. Changing continents is about as close as I can imagine coming to her never having been born.
I could perhaps make my way to Zipaquirá, just as I’ve sometimes thought. In that Colombian city, on my return from Vilha de Leiva, in the taxi taking us back to Bogota one Sunday evening, I saw myself. And with such clarity that I had no time to react or ask our driver to pull over a moment to the curb. In the shantytowns of Zipaquirá, in a sort of makeshift roadside bar made from materials like tarpaulin, plywood, and tin, where liquor and bottles of beer were served on the edge of the highway, I spotted myself, utterly weather beaten, unsteady on my feet, clutching a drink in one hand. It was me. And for a moment I saw myself twice over—from my car seat, I saw that outcast with unkempt hair, drinking what might have been mescal by the side of the road, and, from that very same curb and with equal astonishment, I saw my reflection seated inside a taxi bound for the capital, its trunk laden with the bags of longaniza we had just bought in Zutamarchán. I’ve seen myself on other occasions, albeit more hazily and in static images—a snapshot of a group of prisoners in the barracks of Auschwitz taken by the allied soldiers, the camp newly liberated, among the figures in a painting by Ramón Casas—in which, with the passing of time, the likeness has slowly faded. I have never, however, stopped toying with the idea of going back to look for myself in that lost city in the region of Cundinamarca. No one will ever fully convince me that the drunkard in Zipaquirá, who was struck, just as I was, half-dead with astonishment on seeing me drive past, was not me.
But for the most part, such thoughts amount to little more than an excuse, almost always compelling, to tumble from your bed and crawl over to the phone, praying that it’s not too late to have your stomach pumped. The ambulances, the lights, the world hurtling back into view, tearing the black cobwebs to shreds. A niggling doubt will suffice, though we know full well that such globe-trotting plans to embark on part two of our lives, now free from meaning and our former concerns, are little more than a long line of unspent bullets, booby traps, phantasmagorias, pipe dreams that are the product of a mind that refuses to resign itself to mingling with the earth just yet. Out of self-interest and an instinct for survival, the unconscious tends to keep its lips sealed as tight as a whore’s even when it’s as clear as day how such adventures will end, the vengeance-seeking self-sacrifice that strikes us as laughable, if not worse, the following morning, the list in a notebook that will never even be bought, the flights never taken, the planes that take to the air without us on board, just as thousands do every day at every latitude and in every possible direction, a white trail in their wake, slicing across the sky at all hours of the day and bearing our empty seat, touching down beneath rain showers that will never drench us on the outskirts of cities filled with alleyways down which we will never lose our way and women with whom we will never exchange so much as a glance, let alone fluids or promises.
Greatness, true luxury, lies in that somewhat aristocratic disdain, not in the worst sense of the word, of always doing things by halves—the tumbler of brandy left partly undrunk on the terrace of a bar, the coins not fully gathered up from the dish on which the waiter has brought the change from your order, the last bits of sauce not mopped up, whole evenings of drowsiness and complacency, wasted without guilt for there is more than enough life to go around, because there’s plenty of time yet. This is the attitude that stands in contrast to that of the miserable wretch driven by the most visceral and tight-fisted need to see poetry in the idea of draining every last drop of what life has to offer. And so he throws nothing away, and saves for a rainy day, stingily hoarding the leftovers to be polished off later, much as a dog that has had its fill might bury bones next to a tree so as not to let a single ounce of food go to waste, and he dunks every last churro in his order of hot chocolate, no matter that he’s full to bursting, whether or not he has any room left in his belly. It’s a thousand times better to always leave a little something on the plate, to thumb your nose elegantly at part of the banquet, to dine, say, with a ravishing lady and gracefully allow her to escape with her life. And, in that same haughty vein, to abandon life at the midway point, to up and leave, just like that, as one might leave untouched what remains of an ice-cream cone now melted or a saucer bearing loose change.
Yet the mind is wont to erase such ideas at a stroke, much as it silences other questions that do perhaps matter when talk turns to escape: If you shatter all the crockery against the wall, how will you then blow off steam in future? If you sever all ties, what bonds will you then shrug off? If you abandon all point of reference, from where or from what can you now retreat? And the clincher, the central refrain of a woebegone song of destitution and abandonment that refuses to fade out altogether in your head: To what end your footsteps through the world, the new cities, the seas you cross, the paths you take, the horizons, the storms through which you pass and which pass through you, the fruits you grasp, your glory or your downfall, your wretched self lost in the desert of what lies ahead, if the eyes that once looked on your life are now closed?
Carlos Castán in a Spanish writer born in Barcelona in 1960. Bad Light is his debut novel. Michael McDevitt was a runner-up on the inaugural Harvill Secker/Granta Young Translators’ Prize. He has translated work by Elvira Navarro, Agustín Fernández Mallo and Luisge Martín, among others. His translations have been published by Two Lines Press, The White Review, Hispabooks, and OpenRoad/Group Planeta. He lives in Madrid.
Excerpt courtesy of Hispabooks
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