Roberto Bolaño delivered this speech in 2000 at a symposium organized by the Austrian Society for Literature in Vienna. It was translated by Natasha Wimmer and appears in Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches (1998-2003), forthcoming from New Directions.
I’ve been invited to talk about exile. The invitation I received was in English, and I don’t speak English. There was a time when I did or thought I did, or at least there was a time, in my adolescence, when I thought I could read English almost as well, or as poorly, as Spanish. Sadly, that time has passed. I can’t read English. By what I could gather from the letter, I think I was supposed to talk about exile. Literature and exile. But it’s very possible that I’m completely mistaken, which, thinking about it, would actually be an advantage, since I don’t believe in exile, especially not when the word sits next to the word "literature."
It’s a pleasure for me, I should say right away, to be with you here in the celebrated city of Vienna. For me Vienna is strongly associated with literature and with the lives of some people very near to me who understood exile in the way I sometimes understand it myself, which is to say, as life or as an attitude toward life. In 1978, or maybe 1979, the Mexican poet Mario Santiago spent a few days here on his way back to Israel. As he told it, one day the police arrested him and then he was expelled. In the deportation order, he was instructed not to return to Austria before 1984, a date that struck Mario as significant and funny and that today strikes me the same way. George Orwell isn’t just one of the great writers of the twentieth century; he’s also first and foremost a good man, and a brave one. So to Mario, back in the now distant year of 1978 or 1979, it seemed funny to be expelled from Austria like that, to be punished by being forbidden to set foot on Austrian soil for six years, until the date of the novel had arrived, a date that for many was the symbol of ignominy and darkness and the moral collapse of humankind. And here, leaving aside the significance of the date and the hidden messages that fate—or chance, that even fiercer beast—had sent the Mexican poet and through him sent me, we can discuss or return to the possible topic of exile or banishment: the Austrian Ministry of the Interior or the Austrian police or the Austrian security service issues a deportation order and consigns my friend Mario Santiago to limbo, to a "no man’s land," which frankly sounds better in Spanish than in English, because in Spanish tierra de nadie means precisely that, barren land, dead land, land where nothing lives, while in English the suggestion is that there are simply no men there, though there are other creatures, animals or insects, which makes it much nicer, I don’t mean very nice, but infinitely nicer than in the Spanish sense, although probably my understanding of both terms is affected by my increasing ignorance of English and also by my increasing ignorance of Spanish (the term tierra de nadie isn’t in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, which is no surprise; either that or I missed it).
But the point is that my Mexican friend was expelled and set down in no man’s land. I imagine the scene like this: some Austrian clerk stamps Mario’s passport with an indelible seal signifying that he can’t set foot on Austrian soil until Orwell’s fateful date and then they put him on a train and ship him off, with a free ticket paid for by the Austrian state, into a temporal exile or a certain banishment of five years, at the end of which my friend, if he so desired, could request a visa and once again tread the lovely streets of Vienna. If Mario Santiago had been a devotee of the music festivals of Salzburg, he would surely have left Austria with tears in his eyes. But Mario never made it to Salzburg. He got on the train and didn’t get off until Paris, and, after living in Paris for a few months, he got on a plane to Mexico, and when the fateful or happy—depending on how you look at it—year of 1984 arrived, Mario was still living in Mexico and writing poems in Mexico that nobody wanted to publish and that may rank among the best of late-twentieth-century Mexican poetry, and he had accidents, and he traveled, and he fell in love, and he had children, and he lived a good life or a bad life, a life in any case far from the center of Mexican power, and in 1998 he was hit by a car under murky circumstances, a car that drove away while Mario lay dying alone on a street at night in one of the outlying neighborhoods of Mexico City, a city that at some point in its history was a kind of heaven and today is a kind of hell, but not just any hell—the special hell of the Marx brothers, the hell of Guy Debord, the hell of Sam Peckinpah—in other words the most singular kind of hell, and that’s where Mario died, the way poets die, unconscious and with no identification on him, which meant that when an ambulance came for his broken body no one knew who he was and the body lay in the morgue for several days, with no family to claim it, in a final stage of development or revelation, a kind of negative epiphany, I mean, like the photographic negative of an epiphany, which is also the story of our lives in Latin America. And among the many things that were left unresolved, one of them was the return to Vienna, the return to Austria, this Austria that for me, it goes without saying, isn’t the Austria of Haider but the Austria of the youth who oppose Haider and who take to the streets in protest, the Austria of Mario Santiago, Mexican poet expelled from Austria in 1978 and forbidden to return to Austria until 1984, that is to say banished from Austria to the no man’s land of the wide world, and who, anyway, could care less about Austria and Mexico and the United States and the happily defunct Soviet Union and Chile and China, among other reasons because he didn’t believe in countries and the only borders he respected were the borders of dreams, the misty borders of love and indifference, the borders of courage and fear, the golden borders of ethics.