It is authors like Alejandro Zambra and Carlos Labbé that let us know the Chilean novel has not been stifled by the overpowering work of the great Roberto Bolaño—to the contrary, it is, in fact, moving forward in innovative and dynamic directions. Zambra, with three novels in English and a developing international reputation, will be well-known to readers of The Quarterly Conversation. Labbé, who has yet to be translated, is lesser-known, though this will change soon. Open Letter Books will be introducing him to the English language with the novels Locuela and Navidad & Matanza, the latter of which will appear in the spring of 2014. Here we offer that book’s introductory chapters.
(Note that this excerpt is taken from various chapters throughout Navidad & Matanza. The chapters in the book follow the following numeral sequence: 1, 2, 7, 10, 14, 20, 26, 27, 32, 34, 39, 45, 49, 52, 53, 56, 58, 59, 60, 65, 71, 75, 80, 82, 83, 89, 95, 99, 100.)
My name is Domingo. Actually, Domingo is my password here in the laboratory. Just by uttering this name—which I chose—I can enter bedrooms and bathrooms, I can make phone calls, obtain food and drink, access the temperature, hygiene, and communication systems, send and receive email, carry out Internet transactions to purchase any supplies we need. Without it, I’d be trapped in my room. If I were to suffer a psycholinguistic disruption, or if the effect of some microorganism rendered me voiceless, I’d just die of starvation. It’s not that my life doesn’t matter to anyone; it has to do with the nature of the project. It’s not even top secret, as we used to joke, rather, to the world, it doesn’t exist. So if for some reason I was to forget my name, I wouldn’t just die of thirst and hunger, I’d die empirically: the possibility of anyone remembering me would die as well. If the project culminates in success, I’ll be able to return to Santiago, get married, have children, maybe make a career as a gastroenterologist. If the project fails, or if I fail, as occurred with Lunes, Miercoles, Jueves, and Viernes—I fear it may be occurring with Sabado—the organization will be sure to eliminate me. You see, my choice of this allegory wasn’t made on a whim. The project really does resemble a board game, with dice and squares and all of that. Because there is only one way to stay alive: make it to the end.
No trace of me will remain. For that reason, I’ve written all of this in code. My password isn’t really Domingo. Also, I’ll probably insert pieces of pure, hard reality into the story I’m going to tell you. Does that sound okay?
Let this be the beginning: we were seven. Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, Viernes, Sabado, and Domingo. We met in 1996, in the Biology Department at Universidad de Chile. We weren’t all taking the same classes, but we got acquainted in a creative writing workshop, which was offered as an elective. In a way, our friendship was based in literature. We were the only students in the department interested in what is beyond science. Juan Carlos Montes—you already know that I won’t be using real names—is my father. Although that wasn’t the only reason he chose us. We were among the best students in the whole School of Sciences. We got the best grades in molecular biology, neuroscience, and genetics. And all of us enjoyed writing stories.
I want to tell you how we imagine the organization’s facilities outside the walls of the six bedrooms, the entertainment room, meeting room, bathrooms, and laboratory where they’ve locked us. Our idea is based on the few things Juan Carlos Montes has told us, and the din we sometimes hear in the night. There’s a bubbling machine at the center of a four-hundred-and-sixty square foot industrial plant, beneath a remote mountain, desert, or glacier in the United States. Thick tubes surround it, running through lead walls that contain the radioactive chemicals. In the center there’s a glass dome where the intangible, glowing substance we call hadón reacts. Everything painted blue and white. Cold bulbs that do not light or flicker. As in our dormitories, a reflective panel covers the surface of the walls, ceilings, and floor. But it’s not a mirror. Everything it reflects forms part of the surveillance record at the Masters Lab. It’s also the medium they use to communicate: sometimes in the morning you might be getting dressed, brushing your teeth, or simply examining your face or your back in the mirror, and your image disappears, like a stone thrown into a pool. The reflection reforms, but now it’s the face of someone else, in some other location, materializing to tell you something.
And so it was this morning. Immediately my reflection transformed into Montes, informing me that we had a very important matter to discuss that afternoon. I speculated that it had to do with the chapters of the novel-game Martes and I had recently written. Montes would ask us to end this diversion. He wouldn’t have been pleased with the story about the girl and the father who swim in the sea while their towels are stolen, because he would have recognized, first the appearances of Edgar Lee Masters and Real (coincidences, he might surmise at first) and then of the hadón and the Vivars, as a rabidly explicit protest on our part against the silencing of Sabado, who’d been locked in her bedroom for more than a month. I feared the worst.
I sat down to wait in one of the meeting room’s translucent chairs. As my eyes followed, on the screen of the table’s central panel, three-dimensional simulations of genetically amnesic mice passively reacting to hadón (before normal mice, also hadonized, devoured them furiously), I entertained myself by planning the disappearance of the journalist, whom I’d succeeded in establishing as the protagonist-narrator confronting the truth of the Vivar case: there was no truth. It was all a farce. Maybe it’d have something to do with some scheme of Boris Real’s to divert suspicion regarding his involvement in the accident at the Vivar’s family pool that took the lives of Juan Carlos Montes’s two children. Maybe it’d simply be related to thoughts Alicia wrote down in the notebook she hid in horror under her bed every time her father tapped softly at her door, coming in tell her the same story he told every night, Alice in the Underworld; the same notebook that the journalist would find in the glove compartment of his car on his way back to Santiago, the handwriting so similar to his own that it made him doubt his sanity.
I was lost in these musings when the sliding door blinked open and shut. Juan Carlos Montes, pale and scowling, stood in front of me. He explained that the project had come to an end. He wanted me to know that his father was a great scientist. A specialist, respected equally in the logic and metaphysics of quantum theory, as well as in behavioral predictions given limited variables. So, while we were developing a chemical meant to inhibit all social impulses in mice, Montes’s father was testing how we—seven human beings subjected to a limited routine, limited spatial and temporal freedom, to emotional relations regulated by light, ambient temperature, and the most awful food and music—would respond to his disintegration hypothesis. So he’d let us play at this idiotic email novel, even though we spoke ill of him, believing access to our inboxes to be personal and private. Everyone’s subjectivity would be more compromised in a literary creation than in the work of synthesizing hadón, and it was to their advantage that the course of our aggravation, fear, hate, and inevitable conflict be recorded in the first person. His father was a man of acute perspicacity, he told me. He’d projected a rule of analogous synchrony, predicting that, in the moment Martes, Sabado, and I finally arrived at a form of hadón a human metabolism could tolerate, our relationship would disintegrate, fatally. As an homage to our work, the video of our sojourn in the laboratory would be used by Montes before the OMS commission as proof that, in reality, human beings do not require ad campaigns or drug therapy to feel hate, they possess an instinctive propensity for it. So, the supposed side effects of hadón could only be presumed, never proven.
Nothing that Juan Carlos Montes said surprised me. I listened to him without confusion or hope, like someone reading a book or watching a movie. He told me that now they were going to shut me in a room with Martes until one of us destroyed the other. Whoever was left alive would be allowed to leave with a bank account containing a considerable sum and no memory of the last ten months. Then I asked about Sabado. Montes took a step back and told me that she was no longer in her bedroom, or in any other area of the laboratory. Although it seemed impossible, she’d managed to escape through the air ducts in the bathroom or the entertainment room. It was likely that no one would ever see her again. She’d spend a few days slithering through the underground sewer system of the industrial complex, looking desperately for a way to the surface. But she wouldn’t find one. Sabado would die of starvation or gangrene in the Underworld, Montes said ironically. I could take no more; I stood up loudly from my chair and jumped on him, spitting. I remember stomping on his head until his face was paler than ever before. My foot looked like a boot of blood.
I went to the entertainment room and sat down at my computer. I checked my email. There was a laconic but affectionate message from Sabado. She’d sent it in the last five minutes from a coffee house in downtown Salt Lake City. She said she was safe. That she knew that today they’d add doses of hadón, experimentally processed for human beings, to our food. She also attached one of the final episodes of the novel-game, which I’ll send to you later.
Martes just came in. He’s sweating and looking at me as if he doesn’t trust, as if he doesn’t trust me, or something around me. I should go. The door just locked from the outside, I fear permanently.
During one of many calm Sunday afternoon conversations in Sabado’s white bedroom, I looked up from the computer screen, where I was reviewing her chapter of the novel-game, and spoke. What I’m going to tell you is a secret: when I was young I loved that song from The Sound of Music, called “My Favorite Things:” Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles, lalala-lala. She smiled. I continued. I’ve always liked inventories, Je me souviens by Perec, or that other essay by Barthes where he lists his tastes. She said to me: that’s true, inventories are beautiful when making them isn’t obligatory. Above all I like lists as a literary form. She looked me in the eyes and added: Now, imagine a man, a theft, the murmur of the sea, the sound of people playing paddleball, the cry of seagulls, the playful flirtation of a man and a woman who are dodging the waves, a man and woman who at the same time sit down in the shade of a dune to look at some photographs. Does it say somewhere that our lives should be uncomfortable? Yes. The world. The rock. The sand. The sun.
Imagine then that the first man stole some towels. That he began running toward the dunes. That he heard the shouts of people behind him, the lifeguard’s whistle. Get the thief, Get the thief. Someone tried to stop him by throwing a paddleball racquet at his legs. The impact of the wood against his shins hurt, but he kept running. Speed. There were many things he wanted to think about as he ran, clutching the new towels in his arms, but all he felt was the sand burning the soles of his feet. Through his mind flashed an evening in a campsite when Boris had taught them that to avoid being burned you had to focus your attention on the foot that cooled for an instant as it lifted up into the air away from the heat. He looked toward the end of the beach, past the dunes, where she’d be waiting for him, tan, half-naked, behind her dark sunglasses, the keys to the Spyder hanging from the tip of her erect ring finger. He yelled to her: Come on Alicia, run. The girl ignored him; she kept looking at the photographs and talking with her friend. And why should she respond? Her name wasn’t Alicia. By the third shout, he was right in front of her, and she realized something odd was going on. She handed the photos to her friend, who sat beside her staring at the sea. She stood up and looked directly into the eyes of the man, who was gasping, covered in sweat. Before he could say anything, three policemen were dragging him toward a squad car. The towels were left behind, abandoned, there, at her feet. Sabado had to stop because it was getting late and I had to leave.
As we walked to the door, she told me how much she liked reading and writing in the novel-game. Everything is good; it’s decaying, it’s the image of a world destined to die and rot, and we’re participating in the construction of that image. For what? For God? The truth, I replied, is that when we planned all of this with Viernes, at no point did we consider the comforts we’d leave behind. Excuse me, but what exactly do you mean by comforts?
Martes let himself fall to the floor. His hands hurt and he was tired of thinking about ways of escaping. Surely Juan Carlos Montes had laughed seeing him running circles around the room and slamming into walls. He only hoped for two things: that Sabado was truly safe in a city somewhere, and that the message she’d sent him was a lie, a joke in bad taste devised by Domingo to frighten him. If Montes locked them together in a room, like the lab mice they were, the hadón would take effect and one of the two would end up killing the other. Which in itself would be useless, for the survivor would quickly be eliminated by Montes. At this point, he saw no way out but through the precarious lines of the novel-game that they began to write when there were still seven of them, like the days of the week.
Do you remember how many times we discussed that Wittgensteinian way of looking at things? And how many times we talked about idealism? That objects don’t exist, dear Sabado, only words, which build and break, build and break. It’s impossible to know what happens to the apple when you bite it. To write with hate. Under the effect of hadón, wanting my words not to bite the open chin, the purple cheek, the white eyes of Martes, but to bite your throat, your neck, your mouth, from a distance. Let me hate you, Sabado, since I can’t touch you, to dispel the death of these four walls. For this I write you.
“But tell me, do you hate me?” Martes asked me, before smashing his head against the wall of mirrors and falling unconscious to the floor. He’s not dead; he sleeps, I believe. I hope.
The only way to save the head is to train it. In the Lacanian sense of the term, Montes would say, because, he claims, the mind is only language.
Or an invention of language.
I too let myself fall to the floor of the entertainment room, my hands locked together, staring at Martes. They’ve locked the door from outside, right? He asked me. He already knew. He’d read it in an email you sent him, he said. We’ll kill each other beyond saving, Domingo. The compound should already be working in our hypothalamuses. Really I don’t hate you, he continued, occasionally I’ve been bothered by your need to control everything, just a little bit. That you seemed indifferent to the disappearances of Viernes, Miercoles, Lunes, and Jueves. But tell me, do you hate me?
No, I replied. I continued to stare at the ceiling, humming a suite by Debussy that my father listened to on Sundays, early in the morning. La la la la. La la la la la. Do you remember “Le mer?” Jueves bought a thermin on the Internet and it arrived on a Saturday. It was the perfect excuse to celebrate. While we put popcorn in his beer, Jueves moved his hands toward and away from the apparatus. The terrifying sound waves oscillated from the deepest to the sharpest. Uuuuuuu, uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu. I don’t know. Jueves spent a couple weeks making sounds with it; he even printed the Debussy score. This must have been during the period when I was writing the story about the Congolese on the beach. You remember. It was a Friday night, we were playing cards. I got up to go to the bathroom and when I came back the chairs of Lunes, Miercoles, Jueves, and Viernes were empty.
“But, tell me, do you hate me?”
I stopped humming the suite when Martes’s shouts grew more powerful than my own. I told him: I’m not going to kill you, I’m sorry. I believe in God, that God gives and takes life, and that if I do it intentionally, I’ll be definitively separated from Him, which is the same as dying. Martes began kicking furniture and throwing papers in the air. Rage all you want, but don’t touch the computer, I howled. I brandished the leg of a chair, ready to give him a real blow in the neck, below the nape to calm him. He sat down and kept screaming that I was a fool, a fool. Only a fool can believe in God while at the same time experimenting with cannibalistic white mice. I closed my eyes. I remembered that when Jueves’s hands moved away from the theremin, that the sounds were deeper. Martes continued. Shit on the angels, on the first, on the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, shit on every single one of the days of creation. That’s what he said. And he added the names of the patriarchs, of the judges, of the prophets, of the kings, of the King. So I stood up and I took the chair leg in my hands. I calculated where I should strike him so there’d be no blood. Right at that moment he stopped talking. He asked me if I hated him. He moved quickly to dodge my blow, his right leg tangled with what was left of the couch and his head smashed against the mirrored wall. He’s unconscious now. Until someone kills him or revives him.
I remember it well. I came back to the entertainment room from the bathroom and there were four empty chairs. I thought they were pulling a prank. For the rest of the afternoon I opened every door, every closet, I looked under every bed. Nothing. Sabado and Martes were too busy to tell me if they’d seen the others leave. On the computer I wrote that Bruno and Boris Real had traversed the beaches of the central coast, so that later I could email that chapter to the others. While I was writing, I felt like I was walking the seaside streets of the novel. I was furious, as I am now. I’ve felt this way for a long time, ever since my mother took my brother to the supermarket and left me at home. Ever since I kissed a girl who I really liked; she moved her lips softly as if mouthing a phrase or a name. I backed away quickly and asked her what she was saying. I’m sorry, she whispered. A few days later I found out she was seeing someone else. There was someone following me when I left the market in Navidad. A little girl on roller-skates. She’s been behind me for a while, I thought; she knows something. I stopped and she stopped. She was beautiful, I remember: she was about to go through puberty. I thought that her name must be Alicia or Violeta—a strong name, tinged with adventure. And that she must’ve seen the others leave the laboratory and run to the beach. The girl must have an important message. Alicia, tell me, where are they? Who? She asked with an expression of distrust. Please, can you get out of the way? I need to get past. And she was gone.
This is the end of the message, my dear. I am going to press send, I’ll run circles around the room until I gather enough courage to smash my head against the mirror. I hope I don’t die.
If I wake up, I hope I’m not alone.
Will Vanderhyden is a translator of Spanish and Latin American fiction and a recent graduate of the MALTS (Masters of Arts in Literary Translation) Program at the University of Rochester. He has translated fiction by Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio, and Elvio Gandolfo. His translation of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza will be published by Open Letter Books in April of 2014. Carlos Labbé is the author of the hypertext novel, Pentagonal: incluidos tú y yo (2001), the novels Libro de plumas (2004), Navidad y Matanza (2007) and Locuela (2009), the collection of short stories Caracteres blancos (2010). He wrote his Master’s degree dissertation on the work or Roberto Bolaño.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes Happy Families, Carlos Fuentes (trans. Edith Grossman). Random House. 352pp, 26.00. Carlos Fuentes’ Happy Families begins with a mystery: A wink. It is the wink of Pastor Pagan. He is the patriarch of “A Family Like Any Other,” a title that the reader soon discovers is Fuentes’ pointer to Tolstoy’s...
- The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas Most visions of the afterlife entail some kind of deliverance from the burdens imposed by memory—after all, what heaven could be more fitting than one where we transcend our Earthly failures? Spanish author Carlos Rojas ingeniously shows us the arch obverse of that in The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Will Vanderhyden