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A CHAPTER DEALING WITH THE
DISCOVERY OF DEATH
AT AN EARLY AGE
I should not be here to tell this story.
It's that simple: there is a day in my past, a day many years ago in Santiago de Chile, when I should have died and did not.
That's where I always thought this story would start, at that moment when history turned me, against my will, into the man who could someday sit down and write these words, who now writes them. I always thought this story was meant to start on that morning when the Armed Forces of my country rise against our President, Salvador Allende, on the 11th of September of 1973, to be exact, and the death I have been fearing since I was a child enters my life and, instead of taking it, leaves me to survive: I am left here on this side of reality to remember what ends forever that day in me and in the world, still wondering why I was spared.
And yet I cannot bring myself to begin there, that day I should have died.
There is one last night of reprieve, that is when I really need this story to start: the night of September 10, the night before the coup. By tomorrow at this time Allende will be dead and I will be in hiding, by tomorrow I will have had to accept a future in which I am alive and far too many others will have been killed in my place. But not yet. Tonight I can tell myself, against the overwhelming evidence screaming at me from inside and outside, that there will be no military takeover, that Chile is different from other Latin American countries, all the comforting myths about our democracy and stability and reasonableness.
Perhaps I am right. Perhaps I should not be poisoning my last moments of peace. From the next room, my six-year-old son, Rodrigo, is calling. Angelica has already tucked him in. Now he clamors for his bedtime story. Perhaps I am right to crush the sudden sick thought that snakes up from my stomach. This is the last time I will ever see him, the last story I will ever tell him, la ultima vez. Perhaps I am right to turn a final blind eye to reality.
It is not the first time I will try to cheat death, pretend it does not exist.
As far back as I can remember, there it was. I see myself then, awake in my bed for hours thinking about death, my eyes wide open in the dark of our apartment in New York, a child lost and found in the first exile of his life, terrified, trying to convince death to let him go. If I had known that many years later death would indeed let me go and that what I did or did not do, thought or did not think, would have no effect on whether or not I survived ... But back then in 1947 I didn't even know that it is dying we should fear and not death. Oh yes, there were monsters out there, under the bed, inside the soft light breathing from the hall, dripping in the bathroom, always scrambling away as I turned my head, just out of sight, behind me, ready to pounce, and yet, even so, that's not what really threatened me, the monsters. I was five years old, perhaps less, and I absurdly assumed that the pain they would inflict on my body when I died would somehow be swift, somehow be merciful. No, what I could not bear was the aftermath of death itself, its loneliness, that I would have to be alone forever and ever.
"But will you be there?" I asked my mother, clinging to her, trying to blackmail her into never leaving. "Will you be close by, when I'm dead?" And she would answer something that was only partly a lie: Yes, she would be there. And afterwards, when the lights had been dimmed and she was gone and I thought about my death and the very thinking dragged me deeper into the pit of its terror, death was precisely the moment when I would not be there to think it, when I would be abandoned by myself, by the one person I could always count on never to turn off the light and walk away down the hall to another bedroom. That's what I will do to you, death said, you'll be so alone that not even you will be able to accompany yourself, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it. just as I was spiraling myself into madness, my mother's words would swim back to me; she had promised to be there in the midst of that nothingness, and if she was there others might also find a way, and that's how I could commence the slow ascent back to the surface of sanity, conjecture death as a vast empty space filled with horizontal bodies in coffins, none of them able to touch each other but secure in the knowledge that the other silent bodies were there, millions of us, each with our own stories, our own beginnings, our own endings, a brotherhood of the dead defeating my isolation, the first time I conceived humanity as something wondrous and healing, a hint that if it could not escape death, a community might at least provide consolation against its outrage. And because my parents had told me that God did not exist, I prayed to that humanity every childhood night, asking it to allow me to awaken every hundred years to take a quick look around: the afterlife as a screen watched by a silent eye, eternity as one movie every century, the dead as intermittent voyeurs of the living.
That is how I managed to soften myself into sleep in the United States in those days before I found out that another language can keep us company as if it were a twin. Later, as an adult--in fact, now--I discovered a more ingenious way of draining the slime that thoughts of my mortality secrete into my mind. Now if I can't fall asleep at night, I'll banish the saw-buzz of language, say, English, that's keeping me awake, and switch to my other language, Spanish, and lazily watch it erase the residues of dread from me as if I were a blackboard.
But that was later, that is now. My first insomnia struck at a child who had condemned himself to being monolingual in English, who had repudiated the Spanish he had been born into, that boy I used to be who could not conjure up another tongue to save his soul. All I could do to swindle death at that very early age in the City of New York was to make up stories in the night, colonize the emptiness with multiplications of myself, hoping somebody out there would hear me, accompany me, keep me alive after I had died.
What that child could not conceive, of course, is that his adult self would, in fact, survive his own death several times over, that a quarter of a century into the future this day in September of 1973 was awaiting me--and that the language in which I would try to make sense of the series of connected miracles that spared me would be Spanish and not English. By then, by the time I was an adult of thirty-one, I had renounced and denounced the language of my childhood America as imperial and Northern and alien to me, I had fiercely and publicly reverted to my original native Spanish and proclaimed that I would speak it forever, live forever in Chile. Forever. A word that I naively cast to the winds at the time, a word that this wanderer in love with the transitory that I now have become knows he should be wary of. I hadn't learned yet that when other, more powerful people control the currents of your life, very few things are forever.
It is that sort of lesson I will have to learn as of tomorrow, when death catches up with me and makes me face the fact that my imagination can no longer protect me or my country.
I am now going to postpone that moment for one last time, crossing to Rodrigo's room to offer myself and him a final delusion of our immortality. But before I console my son with a story, just as I consoled myself as a child long ago, I will make a call. That call. If I had understood then its true significance, how it was warning me of what was about to befall me, befall all of us. But I would not have heeded it, did not know what to look for.
It is a call to La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, where I have been working for the last two months as a cultural and media advisor to Fernando Flores, Allende's Chief of Staff. Today, so many years later, as I write this, it seems obvious that to accept a minor post of dubious utility in a foundering government was an act of folly. But that is not what I felt then. Then I saw it as my duty.
As a child I had imagined a fictional community as the best answer to death and loneliness--and it was that persistent hunger for a real community that had now led me here, to this revolution, to this place in history. Needing to prove my loyalty to a country I had chosen and a cause I had adopted as my own and that could only materialize if everybody who believed in it, myself included, was ready to give up their life. And I had therefore purposefully, recklessly, joyfully sought out the most dangerous spot in the whole country to spend the last days of the Chilean revolution--the spot I am neurotically calling right now, even now on my night off duty, to find out if my services are required. They are not. Claudio Gimeno, a friend since my freshman year in college, answers. He's in a good mood, I can conjure up the shy grin of his buckteeth, his wide black eyes, his sallow, angular face.
In the years to come, he will be there, in a vision. Each time I imagine my death, I will invariably picture myself in a chair, hands tied behind my back. I am blindfolded--and yet, in that picture, I am also, impossibly, watching myself, and a man in uniform approaches and he has something, a stick, a pair of electrodes, a long needle, something blurred and piercing in his right hand. In that vision which still assaults me unexpectedly at any time, anywhere, the body about to be hurt beyond repair is the body of Claudio Gimeno. He is naked in that chair. That is his body, but it is my face he wears. My face, because I had been assigned that turno, that stint, I was the one who should have been at La Moneda standing guard the night of September 10, I was the one who should have received the news that the Navy has just disembarked in Valparaiso, it should have been my hand that puts the receiver down and then with a heavy heart dialed the President and informed him that the coup has begun. It is Claudio who will receive that information in the next hours, merely because last week I had wondered, rather offhandedly, "Oye, Claudio, hey, would you mind coming to La Moneda next Monday, yes, September 10, it's the night I've been assigned, and I'll take your shift on Sunday, September 9, what do you say?" And without giving it a second thought, Claudio had agreed.
So now I am here at home and he is at La Moneda and we are talking on the phone. No premonition of how chance is playing with us startles our conversation. On the contrary. Claudio tells me that things are looking up, there may be a way out of the crisis that is fracturing the country and has paralyzed it, a democratic and sovereign way of avoiding what seems an imminent civil war. Allende will announce tomorrow that he will submit his differences with the opposition to a plebiscite and will resign if the people reject his proposals. I'm as relieved as Claudio. Neither of us recognizes this peaceful resolution of the political impasse for what it is: a mirage, an outcome that Allende's enemies, moving in for the kill, will never allow.
We are, nevertheless, in a position to understand that, in a sense, the military takeover has already happened.
Just one week ago, Claudio and I, along with another aide, had been ushered into a musty secluded room in the Presidential Palace by Fernando Flores. The Minister wanted us to listen to an old Mapuche Indian woman who had come to Santiago from the south of the country to denounce her husband's torture and death. She was one of hundreds of thousands of peasants who had, for the first time in their lives, been made owners of their land by Allende's government. A group of Air Force officers had raided the family's communal farm in search of weapons and, when none was found, proceeded to tie the woman's husband to the blades of a helicopter. While the old man went slowly round and round for hours, the men in uniform had smoked cigarettes, taunted him, sardonically suggesting that he ask his President for help now, as the old man died they had forced him to call on his fucking pagan gods for help now, sus putos dioses paganos.
She had come to denounce this situation to the President. But the President could do nothing. We could do nothing. It was as if power had already been transferred to the military.
The old woman had looked at me, straight in the eye. "A lo largo de mi vida, "she had said to me. "In my life, white people have done many things to us, but never before something like this. They kept on telling my man that now they're going to take away our land." She paused. Then added: "They made me watch what they were doing."
I had looked away. I could not bear what she was seeing, the future she was able to anticipate because the past had already taught her what to expect. I had wanted so ardently to become a chileno, to belong; and what that meant, ultimately, was that what they had done to her and people like her for centuries they could now do to me. Maybe, in a flash, I had seen myself in her, I had imagined my body reduced to the defenselessness of that old woman, a foreigner in her own land; maybe, but I could not stand her visionary dress rehearsal of the violence that is about to invade the country, so that when Claudio, a week later, tells me everything is going to be all right, I am ready to believe in a miracle.
Not that we've got that much time to talk tonight. Claudio has work to do and I have a vociferous son demanding a story. When we say goodbye, nothing whispers that this is the last time we will ever speak to each other.
I hang up.
And go to comfort Rodrigo in the next room, off to tell my son that death does not exist, that I will be there with him, we can both delude solitude side by side one last time.
I do not inform him, of course, that real monsters are out there and that what they can enact on your body may be worse than death. That it is dying we should fear, the pain before and not the emptiness afterwards. That exile is staring us in the face, that soon he and I and his mother are going to leave this place where we gave birth to him and not return until many, too many, years have passed. I do not inform him that death and the fear of death inevitably lead to exile.
There will be time, tomorrow and the many days that will follow tomorrow, to discover this together.
For now, I say nothing of this to my son. Not a word.
What else can I do?
I turn out the lights and tell my son a fairy tale.