Newly translated fiction from the celebrated Chilean novelist.by / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
© Luke Best
When he died in 2003, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño was barely known in the English-speaking world. Since then, he has come to be recognised as one of the finest writers of his generation, winning praise from literary critics including James Wood and Susan Sontag. His most celebrated work is the 900-page postmodern epic 2666, which was described by novelist Jonathan Lethem as “a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form.”
A newly translated book of short stories The Return (published by Picador on 30th August) offers a less daunting but equally rich introduction to Bolaño’s huge body of work. “Another Russian Tale” is taken from this collection.
Once, after a conversation with a friend about the mercurial nature of art, Amal?tano told a story he’d heard in Barcelona. The story was about a sorche, a rookie, in the Spanish Blue Division, which fought in the Second World War, on the Russian Front, with the German Northern Army Group to be precise, in the vicinity of Novgorod.
The rookie was a little guy from Seville, blue-eyed and thin as a rake, and more or less by accident (he was no Dionisio Ridruejo, not even a Tomás Salvador; when he had to give the Roman salute, he did, but he wasn’t really a fascist or a Falangist at heart) he ended up in Russia. And there, for some reason, someone started calling him sorche for short: Over here, sorche, or: Sorche, do this, Sorche, do that, so the word lodged itself in the guy’s head, but in the dark part of his head, and in that capacious and desolate place, with passing time and the daily panicking, it was somehow transformed into chantre, cantor. How this happened I don’t know, let’s just say that some connection dormant since childhood was reactivated, some pleasant memory that had been waiting for its chance to return.
So the Andalusian came to think of himself as being a cantor and having a cantor’s duties, although he had no conscious idea of what the word meant, and couldn’t have said that it referred to the leader of a church or cathedral choir. And yet, and this is the remarkable thing, by thinking of himself as a cantor, he somehow turned himself into one. During the terrible winter of ’41, he took charge of the choir that sang carols while the Russians were hammering the 250th Regiment. He remembered those days as full of noise (muf?ed, constant noises) and an underground, slightly unfocussed joy. They sang, but it was as if the voices were lagging behind or even anticipating the movements of the singers’ lips, throats and eyes, which in their own brief but peculiar journeys often slipped into a kind of silent crevice.
The Andalusian carried out his other duties with courage and resignation, although over time, he did become embittered.
He soon paid his dues in blood. One afternoon he was wounded, more or less accidentally, and spent two weeks in the military hospital in Riga, under the care of robust, smiling German women, nursing for the Reich, who couldn’t believe the colour of his eyes, and some extremely ugly volunteer nurses from Spain, probably sisters or sisters-in-law or distant cousins of José Antonio.
When he was discharged, a confusion occurred that was to have grave consequences for the Andalusian: instead of giving him a ticket to the right destination, they shunted him off to the barracks of an SS battalion two hundred miles from his regiment. There, among Germans, Austrians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, all much taller and stronger than him, he tried to explain the confusion in his rudimentary German, but the SS of?cers brushed him off, and while it was being sorted out, they gave him a broom and made him sweep the barracks, then a bucket and a rag to clean the ?oor of the enormous rectangular wooden building in which they held, interrogated and tortured prisoners of all sorts.
Not entirely resigned to his lot, but performing his new tasks conscientiously, the Andalusian watched the time go by in his new barracks, where he ate much better than before and was not exposed to any new dangers, since the SS battalion had been stationed well behind the lines, to combat what they called “outlaws.” Then, in the dark part of his head, the word sorche became legible again. I’m a sorche, he said, a rookie, and I should accept my fate. Little by little, the word chantre disappeared, although some afternoons, under a limitless sky that ?lled him with nostalgia for Seville, it resonated still, somewhere, lost in the beyond. Once he heard some German soldiers singing, and he remembered the word; another time there was a boy singing behind a thicket, and again he remembered it, more clearly this time, but when he went around to the other side of the bushes, the boy was gone.
One ?ne day, what was bound to happen happened. The barracks of the SS battalion came under attack and were captured, some say by a Russian cavalry regiment, though others claim it was a group of partisans. The ?ghting was brief and the Germans were at a disadvantage from the start. After an hour the Russians found the Andalusian hidden in the rectangular building, wearing the uniform of an SS auxiliary and surrounded by evidence of the atrocities committed there not so long ago. Caught red-handed, so to speak. They attached him to one of the chairs that the SS used for interrogations, with straps on the legs and the armrests, and to every question from the Russians he replied in Spanish that he didn’t understand and was just a dogsbody there. He also tried to say it in German, but he barely knew four words of that language and his interrogators knew none at all. After a quick session of slapping and kicking, they went to get a guy who could speak German and was questioning prisoners in another of the rectangular building’s cells. Before they came back, the Andalusian heard shots, and knew they were killing some of the SS, which put an end to any hopes he might have had of getting out of there unharmed. And yet, when the shooting stopped, he clung to life again with every ?bre of his being. The Russian who knew German asked him what he was doing there, what his job was and his rank. The Andalusian tried to explain, in German, but it was no use. Then the Russians opened his mouth, and with a pair of pincers, which the Germans had used on other body parts, they started pulling and squeezing his tongue. The pain made his eyes water, and he said, or rather shouted, the word coño, cunt. The pincers in his mouth distorted the expletive which came out, in his howling voice, as Kunst.
The Russian who knew German looked at him in puzzlement. The Andalusian was yelling Kunst, Kunst and crying with pain. In German, the word Kunst means art, and that was what the bilingual soldier was hearing, and he said, This son of a bitch must be an artist or something. The guys who were torturing the Andalusian removed the pincers along with a little piece of tongue and waited, momentarily hypnotised by the revelation. The word art. Art, which soothes the savage beast. And so, like soothed beasts, the Russians took a breather and waited for some kind of signal while the rookie bled from the mouth and swallowed his blood liberally mixed with saliva, and choked. The word coño transformed into the word Kunst, had saved his life. When he came out of the rectangular building, it was dusk, but the light stabbed at his eyes like midday sun.
They took him away along with the few remaining prisoners, and before long he was able to tell his story to a Russian who knew some Spanish, and he ended up in a prison camp in Siberia while his accidental partners in iniquity were executed. He was in Siberia until well into the ?fties. In 1957 he settled in Barcelona. Sometimes he’d open his mouth and cheerfully tell his tales of war. Sometimes he’d open his mouth and show whoever wanted a look the place where a chunk was missing from his tongue. You could hardly see it. The Andalusian explained that over the years it had grown back. Amal?tano didn’t know him personally. But when he heard the story, the guy was still living in a janitor’s apartment in Barcelona.
© Roberto Bolaño 1997; Translation © Chris Andrews 2010