Meeting with Enrique Lihn |Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño
In 1999, after returning from Venezuela, I dreamed that I was being taken to Enrique Lihn’s apartment, in a country that could well have been Chile, in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell, a resemblance that, in some subterranean layer of the real city and the imaginary city, will forever remain. Of course, I knew that Lihn was dead, but when the people I was with offered to take me to meet him I accepted without hesitation. Maybe I thought that they were playing a joke, or that a miracle might be possible. But probably I just wasn’t thinking, or had misunderstood the invitation. In any case, we came to a seven-story building with a façade painted a faded yellow and a bar on the ground floor, a bar of considerable dimensions, with a long counter and several booths, and my friends (although it seems odd to describe them that way; let’s just say the enthusiasts who had offered to take me to meet the poet) led me to a booth, and there was Lihn. At first, I could hardly recognize him, it wasn’t the face I had seen on his books; he’d grown thinner and younger, he’d become handsomer, and his eyes looked much brighter than the black-and-white eyes in the jacket photographs. In fact, Lihn didn’t look like Lihn at all; he looked like a Hollywood actor, a B-list actor, the kind who stars in TV movies or films that are never shown in European cinemas and go straight to video. But at the same time he was Lihn; I was in no doubt about that. The enthusiasts greeted him, calling him Enrique with a fake-sounding familiarity, and asked him questions I couldn’t understand, and then they introduced us, although to tell the truth I didn’t need to be introduced, because for a time, a short time, I had corresponded with him, and his letters had, in a way, kept me going; I’m talking about 1981 or 1982, when I was living like a recluse in a house outside Gerona, with no money and no prospect of ever having any, and literature was a vast minefield occupied by enemies, except for a few classic authors (just a few), and every day I had to walk through that minefield, where any false move could be fatal, with only the poems of Archilochus to guide me. It’s like that for all young writers. There comes a time when you have no support, not even from friends, forget about mentors, and there’s no one to give you a hand; publication, prizes, and grants are reserved for the others, the ones who said “Yes, sir,” over and over, or those who praised the literary mandarins, a never-ending horde distinguished only by their aptitude for discipline and punishment—nothing escapes them and they forgive nothing. Anyway, as I was saying, all young writers feel this way at some point or other in their lives. But at the time I was twenty-eight years old and under no circumstances could I consider myself a young writer. I was adrift. I wasn’t the typical Latin-American writer living in Europe thanks to some government sinecure. I was a nobody and not inclined to beg for mercy or to show it. Then I started corresponding with Enrique Lihn. Naturally, I was the one who initiated the correspondence. I didn’t have to wait long for his reply. A long, crotchety letter, as we might say in Chile: gloomy and irritable. In my reply I told him about my life, my house in the country, on one of the hills outside Gerona, the medieval city in front of it, the countryside or the void behind. I also told him about my dog, Laika, and said that in my opinion Chilean literature, with one or two exceptions, was shit. It was evident from his next letter that we were already friends. What followed was what typically happens when a famous poet befriends an unknown. He read my poems and included some of them in a kind of reading he organized to present the work of the younger generation at a Chilean-North American institute. In his letter he identified a group of hopefuls destined, so he thought, to be the six tigers of Chilean poetry in the year 2000. The six tigers were Bertoni, Maquieira, Gonzalo Muñoz, Martínez, Rodrigo Lira, and myself. I think. Maybe there were seven tigers. But I think there were only six. It would have been hard for the six of us to be anything much in 2000, because by then Rodrigo Lira, the best of the lot, had killed himself, and what was left of him had either been rotting for years in some cemetery or was ash, blowing around the streets and mingling with the filth of Santiago. Cats would have been more appropriate than tigers. Bertoni, as far as I know, is a kind of hippie who lives by the sea collecting shells and seaweed. Maquieira wrote a careful study of Cardenal and Coronel Urtecho’s anthology of North American poetry, published two books, and then settled down to drinking. Gonzalo Muñoz went to Mexico, I heard, where he disappeared, not into ethylic oblivion, like Lowry’s consul, but into the advertising industry. Martínez did a critical analysis of “Duchamp du Signe” and then died. As for Rodrigo Lira, well, I already explained what had become of him. Not so much tigers as cats, however you want to look at it. The kittens of a far-flung province. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I knew Lihn, so no introduction was necessary. Nevertheless, the enthusiasts proceeded to introduce me, and neither I nor Lihn objected. So there we were, in a booth, and voices were saying, This is Roberto Bolaño, and I held out my hand, my arm enveloped by the darkness of the booth, and I grasped Lihn’s hand, a slightly cold hand, which squeezed mine for a few seconds—the hand of a sad person, I thought, a hand and a handshake that corresponded perfectly to the face that was scrutinizing me without showing any sign of recognition. That correspondence was gestural, bodily, and opened onto an opaque eloquence that had nothing to say, or at least not to me. Once that moment was past, the enthusiasts started talking again and the silence receded; they were all asking Lihn for his opinions on the most disparate issues and events, and at that point my disdain for them evaporated, because I realized that they were just as I had once been: young poets with no support, kids who’d been shut out by the new center-left Chilean government and didn’t have any backing or patronage, all they had was Lihn, a Lihn who looked not like the real Enrique Lihn as he appeared in his author photos but like a much handsomer and more prepossessing Lihn, a Lihn who resembled his poems, who had adopted their age, who lived in a building similar to his poems, and who could vanish in the elegant, resolute way that his poems sometimes had of vanishing. When I realized this, I remember, I felt better. I mean I began to make sense of the situation and find it amusing. I had nothing to fear: I was at home, with friends, with a writer I had always admired. It wasn’t a horror movie. Or not an out-and-out horror movie, but a horror movie leavened with large doses of black humor. And just as I thought of black humor Lihn extracted a little bottle of pills from his pocket. I have to take one every three hours, he said. The enthusiasts fell silent once again. A waiter brought a glass of water. The pill was big. That’s what I thought when I saw it fall into the glass of water. But in fact it wasn’t big. It was dense. Lihn began to break it up with a spoon, and I realized that the pill looked like an onion with countless layers. I leaned forward and peered into the glass. For a moment I was quite sure that it was an infinite pill. The curved glass had a magnifying effect, like a lens: inside, the pale-pink pill was disintegrating as if giving birth to a galaxy or the universe. But galaxies are born or die (I forget which) suddenly, and what I could see through the curved side of that glass was unfolding in slow motion, each incomprehensible stage, every retraction and shudder drawn out as I watched. Then, feeling exhausted, I sat back, and my gaze, detached from the medicine, rose to meet Lihn’s, which seemed to be saying, No comment, it’s bad enough having to swallow this concoction every three hours, don’t go looking for symbolic meanings—the water, the onion, the slow march of the stars. The enthusiasts had moved away from our table. Some were at the bar. I couldn’t see the others. But when I looked at Lihn again there was an enthusiast with him, whispering something in his ear before leaving the booth to find his friends, who were scattered around the room. And at that moment I knew that Lihn knew he was dead. My heart’s given up on me, he said. It doesn’t exist anymore. Something’s not right here, I thought. Lihn died of cancer, not a heart attack. An enormous heaviness was coming over me. So I got up and went to stretch my legs, but not in the bar; I went out into the street. The sidewalks were gray and uneven, and the sky looked like a mirror without a tain, the place where everything should have been reflected but where, in the end, nothing was. Nevertheless, a feeling of normality prevailed and pervaded all vision. When I felt I’d had enough fresh air and it was time to get back to the bar, I climbed the steps up to the door (stone steps, single blocks of a stone that had a granitelike consistency and the sheen of a gem) and ran into a guy who was shorter than me and dressed like a fifties gangster, a guy who had something of the caricature about him, the classic affable killer, who got me mixed up with someone he knew and greeted me. I replied to his greeting, although from the start I was sure that I didn’t know him and that he was mistaken, but I behaved as if I knew him, as if I, too, had mixed him up with someone else, so the two of us greeted each other as we attempted ineffectively to climb those shining (yet deeply humble) stone steps. But the hit man’s confusion lasted no more than a few seconds, he soon realized that he was mistaken, and then he looked at me in a different way, as if he were asking himself if I was mistaken, too, or if, on the contrary, I had been having him on from the start, and since he was thick and suspicious (though sharp in his own paradoxical way), he asked me who I was, he asked me with a malicious smile on his lips, and I said, Shit, Jara, it’s me, Bolaño, and it would have been clear to anyone from his smile that he wasn’t Jara, but he played the game, as if suddenly, struck by a lightning bolt (and no, I’m not quoting one of Lihn’s poems, much less one of mine), he fancied the idea of living the life of that unknown Jara for a minute or two, the Jara he would never be, except right there, stalled at the top of those radiant steps, and he asked me about my life, he asked me (thick as a plank) who I was, admitting de facto that he was Jara, but a Jara who had forgotten the very existence of Bolaño, which is perfectly understandable, after all, so I explained to him who I was and, while I was at it, who he was, too, thereby creating a Jara to suit me and him, that is, to suit that moment—an improbable, intelligent, courageous, rich, generous, daring Jara, in love with a beautiful woman and loved by her in return—and then the gangster smiled, more and more deeply convinced that I was having him on but unable to bring the episode to a close, as if he had suddenly fallen for the image I was constructing for him, and encouraged me to go on telling him not just about Jara but also about Jara’s friends and finally the world, a world that seemed too wide even for Jara, a world in which the great Jara was an ant whose death on a shining stair would not have mattered at all to anyone, and then, at last, his friends appeared, two taller hit men wearing light-colored double-breasted suits, who looked at me and at the false Jara as if to ask him who I was, and he had no choice but to say, It’s Bolaño, and the two hit men greeted me. I shook their hands (rings, expensive watches, gold bracelets), and when they invited me to have a drink with them I said, I can’t, I’m with a friend, and pushed past Jara through the door and disappeared inside. Lihn was still in the booth. But now there were no enthusiasts to be seen in his vicinity. The glass was empty. He had taken the medicine and was waiting. Without saying a word, we went up to his apartment. He lived on the seventh floor, and we took the elevator, a very large elevator, into which more than thirty people could have fit. His apartment was rather small, especially for a Chilean writer, and there were no books. To a question from me he replied that he hardly needed to read anymore. But there are always books, he added. You could see the bar from his apartment. As if the floor were made of glass. I spent a while on my knees, watching the people down there, looking for the enthusiasts, or the three gangsters, but I could see only unfamiliar people, eating or drinking, but mostly moving from one table or booth to another, or up and down the bar, all seized by a feverish excitement, as if in a novel from the first half of the twentieth century. After a while, I reached the conclusion that something was wrong. If the floor of Lihn’s apartment was glass and so was the ceiling of the bar, what about all the stories from the second to the sixth? Were they made of glass, too? Then I looked down again and realized that between the first floor and the seventh floor there was nothing but empty space. This discovery distressed me. Jesus, Lihn, where have you brought me, I thought, though soon I was thinking, Jesus, Lihn, where have they brought you? I got to my feet carefully, because I knew that in that place, as opposed to the normal world, objects were more fragile than people, and I went looking for Lihn, who had disappeared, in the various rooms of the apartment, which didn’t seem small anymore, like a European writer’s apartment, but spacious, enormous, like a writer’s apartment in Chile, in the Third World, with cheap domestic help and expensive, delicate objects, an apartment full of shifting shadows and rooms in semi-darkness, in which I found two books, one a classic, like a smooth stone, the other modern, timeless, like shit, and gradually, as I looked for Lihn, I, too, began to grow cold, increasingly manic and cold. I started feeling ill, as if the apartment were turning on an imaginary axis, but then a door opened and I saw a swimming pool, and there was Lihn, swimming, and before I could open my mouth and say something about entropy Lihn said that the bad thing about his medicine, the medicine he was taking to keep him alive, was that in a way it was turning him into a guinea pig for the drug company, words that I had somehow expected to hear, as if the whole thing were a play and I had suddenly remembered my lines and the lines of my fellow-actors, and then Lihn got out of the swimming pool and we went down to the ground floor, and we made our way through the crowded bar, and Lihn said, The tigers are finished, and, It was sweet while it lasted, and, You’re not going to believe this, Bolaño, but in this neighborhood only the dead go out for a walk. And by then we had reached the front of the bar and were standing at a window, looking out at the streets and the façades of the buildings in that peculiar neighborhood where the only people walking around were dead. And we looked and looked, and the façades were clearly the façades of another time, like the sidewalks covered with parked cars that also belonged to another time, a time that was silent yet mobile (Lihn was watching it move), a terrible time that endured for no reason other than sheer inertia.
Previously Published on The New York Times 2008 December 22

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