Literature and Exile

Literature and Exile

Books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory.


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.

* * *

And now I think I’ve said all I had to say about literature and exile or literature and banishment, but the letter I received, which was long and detailed, emphasized the fact that I should talk for twenty minutes, something for which I’m sure none of you will thank me and that for me could become an ordeal, especially because I’m not sure I read that wretched letter correctly, and also because I’ve always believed that the best speeches are short. Literature and exile, I think, are two sides of the same coin, our fate placed in the hands of chance. "I don’t have to leave my house to see the world," says the Tao Te Ching, yet even when one doesn’t leave one’s house, exile and banishment make their presence felt from the start. Kafka’s oeuvre, the most illuminating and terrible (and also the humblest) of the twentieth century, proves this exhaustively. Of course, a refrain is heard throughout Europe and it’s the refrain of the suffering of exiles, a music composed of complaints and lamentations and a baffling nostalgia. Can one feel nostalgia for the land where one nearly died? Can one feel nostalgia for poverty, intolerance, arrogance, injustice? The refrain, intoned by Latin Americans and also by writers from other impoverished or traumatized regions, insists on nostalgia, on the return to the native land, and to me this has always sounded like a lie. Books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory. The politician can and should feel nostalgia. It’s hard for a politician to thrive abroad. The working man neither can nor should: his hands are his homeland.

So who sings this horrid refrain? The first few times I heard it I thought it was the masochists. If you’re locked up in prison in Thailand and you’re Swiss, it’s natural to want to serve your sentence in a Swiss prison. The reverse—in other words, if you’re a Thai locked up in Switzerland and you still want to serve the rest of your sentence in a Thai prison—isn’t natural, unless that perverse nostalgia is dictated by loneliness. Loneliness is certainly capable of producing desires with no connection to common sense or reality. But I was talking about writers, or in other words, about myself, so I can say that my homeland consists of my son and my books. A modest collection of books that I’ve lost twice, in two drastic and disastrous moves, and that I’ve patiently rebuilt. And at this point, talking about books, I can’t help but recall a poem by Nicanor Parra, a poem that comes in handy in the discussion of literature, especially Chilean literature and exile or banishment. The poem starts with an argument about the four great poets of Chile, a thoroughly Chilean debate that any non-Chileans, in other words 99.99 percent of the literary critics of planet Earth, politely and somewhat wearily ignore. There are those who say that the four great poets of Chile are Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha; others, that they are Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Vicente Huidobro and Gabriela Mistral; basically, the order varies depending on to whom you talk, but there are always four chairs and five poets, when the logical thing would simply be to talk about the five great poets of Chile, instead of the four great poets. Then came the poem by Nicanor Parra, which goes like this:

Chile’s four great poets
are three:
Alonso de Ercilla and Rubén Darío.

As you know, Alonso de Ercilla was a Spanish soldier, noble and dashing, who fought in the colonial wars against the Araucanians and upon his return to his native Castilla wrote La Araucana, which for Chileans is our foundational fiction and for lovers of poetry and history is a wonderful book, full of daring and generosity. Rubén Darío, as you also know, and if you don’t it doesn’t matter—we know so little, even about ourselves—was the creator of Modernism and one of the most important Spanish-language poets of the twentieth century, probably the most important, a poet who was born in Nicaragua in 1867 and died in Nicaragua in 1916, and who arrived in Chile at the end of the nineteenth century, where he made good friends and read good books, but where he was also treated as an Indian or a cabecita negra by a Chilean ruling class that has always boasted of belonging 100 percent to the white race. So when Parra says that the best Chilean poets are Ercilla and Darío, who both spent time in Chile and had formative experiences in Chile (Alonso de Ercilla in the war and Darío in drawing room skirmishes), and who wrote in Chile and about Chile and in the lingua franca of Spanish, he’s telling the truth, and not only does he resolve the by now boring question of the four greats, he also raises new questions, blazes new paths, and meanwhile his poem or artifact, which is what Parra calls these short texts, is a variation on or spoof of the Huidobro poem that goes like this:

The four cardinal points
Are three:
South and North.

* * *

Huidobro’s poem is excellent and I like it very much—it’s aerial verse, like much of Huidobro’s poetry—but I like Parra’s variation/spoof even better. It’s like an explosive device set there to open our eyes and shake the nonsense out of us Chileans, it’s a poem that explores the fourth dimension, as Huidobro intended, but a fourth dimension of the national consciousness, and although at first glance it seems like a joke, and it actually is a joke, at second glance it’s revealed to be a declaration of human rights. It’s a poem that tells the truth, at least to us contrite and hardworking Chileans, in other words that our four great poets are Ercilla and Darío, the first of whom died in his native Castilla in 1594, after a life as an inveterate traveler (he was page to Philip II and traveled through Europe and then fought in Chile under Alderete and in Peru under García Hurtado de Mendoza), and the second of whom died in 1916 (two years after the death of Trakl) in his native Nicaragua after having lived practically his entire life abroad.

And now that I’ve mentioned Trakl, let me digress, because it occurs to me that when Trakl gave up his studies and went to work as a druggist’s apprentice, at the tender but no longer innocent age of 21, he was also choosing exile—and choosing it in a natural way—because going to work for a druggist is a form of exile, just as drug addiction is a form of exile, and incest another, as the Ancient Greeks knew very well. So we’ve got Rubén Darío and we’ve got Alonso de Ercilla, who are the four great Chilean poets, and we’ve got the first thing that Parra’s poem teaches us, which is that we don’t have Darío or Ercilla, that we can’t appropriate them, only read them, which is enough.

The second thing that Parra’s poem teaches us is that nationalism is wretched and collapses under its own weight. If the expression "collapses under its own weight" doesn’t make sense to you, imagine a statue made of shit slowly sinking into the desert: well, that’s what it means for something to collapse under its own weight. And the third thing that Parra’s poem teaches us is that probably our two best poets, Chile’s best poets, were a Spaniard and a Nicaraguan who swung through these southern lands, one as a soldier and a person of great intellectual curiosity, the other as an immigrant, a penniless young man eager to make a name for himself, neither of them with any intention of staying, neither with any intention of becoming a great Chilean poet, simply two people, two travelers. And now I’d say it’s clear what I think about literature and exile, or literature and banishment.

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