Rodrigo Hasbun [Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists]
As we mentioned an eternity ago, we’ve been highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. Today is the final post in this series, the entirety of which can be found by clicking here.
Our final entry is by Emily Davis and features Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbun—one of my favorites from the issue—whose “The Place of Losses” was translated by Carolina de Robertis.
Born in 1981 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Rodrigo Hasbún is currently working on a doctorate in Ithaca, New York. His writing was featured in last year’s Latin American issue of Zoetrope: All-Story, and his stories have appeared in various anthologies. His first book of short stories, Cinco, was published in 2006, and his second collection, Los días más felices, will come out in 2011 (Duomo Ediciones). Hasbún has also written a novel, El lugar del cuerpo (2009), and he was awarded the Latin Union Prize for the Most Original Spanish American Short Fiction.
“The Place of Losses,” translated by Carolina de Robertis, is a new story that appears in the Granta issue. The narrator of this piece is himself a writer, and in the text we get to glimpse some of the fragments he has scribbled into his notebook. It is in those portions, perhaps, that Hasbún’s writing really shines, evoking the most photographic images, sometimes chilling, sometimes violent, sometimes simply joyful, always sensorially eloquent and almost palpable . . . What I’m trying to say is that this is beautiful and inviting writing all around. Below is the opening to the story, followed by a special interview with the author. Enjoy.
Take your shit with you, all your memories, I wanted to say before she stood up, but then, when I started to stammer it, when I finally got up the courage to say it, it was too late, she had turned around, she was already walking out of the cafe, out of my life, to the street, into someone else’s life. Take your name with you, bitch, thief, woman, I wanted to say, to wound her, to return some of the pain she was causing me. Take everything with you and please don’t come back (because Valeria always comes back after leaving). And please don’t come back this time, Valeria, I wanted to say to her, that’s what I ask above all, that you leave forever and take your memories and your scent. And, if it’s easier for you, think that you’re leaving because I want you to leave, like in the bolero song, like in so many other lives (but I only want you to leave after you’ve left). Take yourself with you, the ghost you summon. Take your body. And don’t come back, I wanted to say, this time don’t even think of coming back. Please, if you’ve really stopped loving me, don’t come back.
But one week later, we were there again, at the only table by the window. It had to seem as though we’d run into each other by chance and it had to seem as though I hadn’t found anything out or that I’d already put away the hurt. So I took the photos out of my backpack without saying anything, without reproach, and I left them on the table, next to the coffees that had just been served and were still steaming. Valeria looked at them for a good while.
She didn’t understand because she hadn’t gone to the last session of the workshop, to which, in spite of everything, I’d only gone to find her. One of them took place in a train carriage. An old man appeared looking slightly lost, possibly he’d got on the wrong train or perhaps he’d forgotten where to disembark. Perhaps he was still stuck in some war, escaping fire and bullets. In the other photo, still alive, or not, covered entirely by a white sheet, a man appeared in a hospital bed.
They were strange photos. One couldn’t really tell whether they were assembled, staged, or whether they’d come directly from reality. From the reality in which I told Valeria that she should choose one and write a story from it for the next session. Did you pick them? It was at random, you know how Madeiros is. Which one do you like best? The one with the train, I said. Well, she said, in that case I’ll take the other one. Why didn’t you come the other day? Because I didn’t feel like dealing with all that foolishness.
Her tone and cruelty hurt me, and at the same time I liked them. Bitch, I wanted to say to her as I remembered what had happened the week before and sought her gaze and sipped my coffee. Thief, I wanted to say, woman. And I put the cup back on the table and reached my hand out to take hers. Madeiros’s exercises are less and less interesting to me, she said, far away from everything I might be feeling. I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, I’ve stopped seeing them as necessary. The old man knows what he’s doing, I said, trying to defend him, although in truth I’d lately thought the same thing. Also, writers should invent themselves on their own, added Valeria, who for months had been the most enthusiastic participant in the workshop. My hand was still over hers but they were dead hands, hands that no longer belonged to us. Will you stop going? I asked, afraid. She answered by making a face I didn’t understand and then we were silent again.
It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon like any other, and I realized in that moment that I would write my story about those hours. We, the characters, would talk about the photos while we slowly destroyed ourselves, while we grew into our betrayal, our oscillations and sex and coffee, our useless words. And the most certain thing is that Madeiros would detest it. He’d be bothered by its self-referential nature, the absence of a clear plot, the absence of local colour, the sentimentality or what hovered too close to it. This damn exercise was supposed to do the exact opposite! he’d surely shout a few days later, with that voice destroyed by cigarettes, to make you tell me about what you saw in the photos, to take you out of yourselves! And he’d get too worked up to speak and spit in a corner before finishing off his beer.
Are you all right? asked Valeria, bringing me back to us, to the tiny cafe.
Yes, fine, I replied. She was there. As were the long calm hours in which we’d have a good screw, the hours in which I’d forgive her again.
I smiled and she smiled and we separated our hands and downed the rest of our coffee.
Then we paid the bill and left.
each time you think of me pinch your hand. each time you think of me, valeria said, jump three times or start dancing. it’ll be fun to imagine you that way.
a night on the piss with madeiros. i accompanied him. when we got to his house, he lay down in the front doorway, saying he wanted to sleep there. i told him he’d get sick. he said he needed to know how vagrants felt, with no place to return to.
idea. an artist turns on a camera, puts it on a tripod, opens the window, squeezes eyes shut and jumps. the apartment is on the fourth floor, the fall only manages to break a few ribs. months later, another attempt. this time the camera is positioned on the ground, to record the moment in which the body hits cement. the damage is worse but the artist doesn’t die. the artist sells the tapes to an important museum and becomes relatively well known in the city.
she asked me to suck her toes and also wanted me to spit in her face. she had seen it in a movie the night before.
these notebooks are my place, here i learn, here i lose. (what i mean to say is that to know how things work you must destroy them first . . .)
her tongue, when she smiles. and her breath. and her hands and ankles. her broken tooth. the small scars on her knees.
what we need: lemons in our mouths, to lie in the sun. a precipice or a war. to kill fifteen ants and feel no guilt, to tear the wings from six flies and smile. to throw our garbage away on the neighbours’ patio.
what we need: a fight in the middle of the night that keeps us from sleeping, to look out of the window and find violence or the simulation of violence beyond the glass. a tremor. subtler revenges. to say yes or no or more or less to the same things, to be ridiculous in a similar way. for her to be good and never leave. love or the simulation of love.
to be together forever. never to let go of each other’s hands. that’s what i said. she said: every time you think of me, start clapping. seven times in a row. hard.
Lies would have been sweeter, not to have known, to have known less. Lies, perhaps, could have saved us. We could have cancelled them out after a while, become used to them, believed in them only later to plunge them into that silence of days and months and life. To be capable of smiling every once in a while without remorse or guilt. Without this shit. But it’s also because of the dog and because of Dad, the world isn’t just her any more. With lies the world might have continued being only her. With lies we might have been able to invent a less sad story, she’d still be here and the dog would never have gotten sick, although one thing is not related to the other in any way, and we wouldn’t be killing the dog and Dad wouldn’t have to hide his need to cry from us. The dog can’t move any more, he watches the world for maybe the last time. These are the decisive minutes that all of us will have to face one day. Dad can’t bear the sight any more, he lets Juan go, undoes the embrace and joins in, he throws himself to the floor, strokes the dog, kisses his snout, his ears. Mario says something to him but it’s no use, he doesn’t even respond. He approaches and tries to pick him up. He can’t, the old man pushes him away, insisting on saying goodbye in this manner. As if searching for instructions, confused, he looks at us (the only one who seems to have kept some remnant of childhood is Mario, with his still-vigorous body, ready and willing, cheeks closely shaved). Neither Juan nor I say anything. Meanwhile, the animal’s breathing slows down. I’m sorry, Dad murmurs, I’m sorry, little one, but he refuses to cry. A quiet afternoon, three brothers together after long separation, the father of the three lying next to a dog that may already be dead. Juan looks at me. I suddenly realize that behind the bags under his eyes, his unkempt beard, behind his silence . . . I want to talk to you, he says.
I’m getting a divorce, I’m considering a divorce, I think I want a divorce. We’re in the car, the dog in a bag on the back seat. I stay silent, again, thinking that he hasn’t chosen the best moment to announce this. Why? I ask. The relationship isn’t working any more, we don’t love each other much any more. His hesitation, the awkward oscillations of his voice, and the almost imperceptible quiver of his chin, which hasn’t been visible in years, make me suspect that he isn’t telling me everything, that he’s hiding his true motives. I think of those streets, of that city, of the cafes she could be entering. I recall the way she smokes. You two, who loved each other so much, I say. Yes, us. It starts to get dark, I accelerate. Do you know the place well? Yes, we’re close. Juan won’t ask about her because he doesn’t know anything, because I never told him much, he thinks she was just one more in my life, toward the end of the list. I look at the bag on the back seat through the rear-view mirror, it seems to be moving. I turn on to a dirt road and slow the car. Is there something you’re not telling me? I want to be able to hear him think, to hear the thoughts of everyone around me. It would be terrible, almost as terrible as reading the emails your girlfriend’s lover writes to her, but I still wanted to. I still want to. The lies, having made me forget, would have . . . Nothing, says Juan, the relationship is worn out and neither of us is prepared to force the issue. The same old story, he says, don’t look for anything sophisticated in it. I stop the car and turn the engine off, there’s very little light left. We go out, take the shovels, and start to dig.
Nobody says anything at dinner. Alone, irrevocably alone, and even more so when we remember or imagine or dream, or when we love from afar, without saying so. Juan will not mention his imminent divorce. Mario has already exhausted all his resources and is also slightly drunk. Dad was never much of a talker.
i don’t like that ending. (i never know where to stop. that is to say: i’m not a good writer . . .) i don’t like a narrator who is so hard to see. i’m going to rewrite the whole story. tomorrow or later on today, directly on the machine.
but i read it to her anyway. she said she was proud of me. then she yawned. and smiled. and said: bet you don’t know how to do this. and she made herself cross-eyed for several seconds. i missed her already even though she was half a metre away. i told her i wanted to read her new stories. she said: i ate them all. i seasoned them with olive oil and ate them.
Emily Davis: What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Rodrigo Hasbún: In my adolescence I was a guitarist in a grunge band. In the beginning we did only covers of songs we liked, but little by little we started leaving them behind and we began to write our own songs. So the first things I ever wrote were songs, sometimes with my friends, sometimes on my own. At that time I was sure that I was going to dedicate my life to music. But a few years later, when it was going pretty well for us, it was time for some of us to go off to school and a short time later we couldn’t handle the rhythm of our double lives and the band broke up. Surely we didn’t have what it took. I was seventeen and from one day to the next, without realizing it, maybe to protect myself from everything I felt I was losing, I started reading more and more seriously and also keeping a sort of diary and, in that diary, I wrote my first stories. As had happened before with our first songs, they were unintentional versions of what I was reading.
ED: Who are some writers who have influenced you?
RH: Sort of continuing with what I was saying earlier, I feel that my true formation as a writer came through music. The possibility of a more sensory experience, that exalts or moves you with the rhythm and atmospheres it creates, is something that music offers in such a natural way and I’ve tried to keep it present when I write. Later I was drawn to writers and filmmakers who were tremendous in that sense. I am thinking of Onetti and Saer, of Bolaño, Coetzee and Tóibin, Cheever. And also Cassavetes and Godard, Béla Tarr, the Dardenne brothers, Wong Kar-Wai. I admire every one of them unconditionally. But that, unfortunately, does not mean that they have influenced my writing or that I have learned enough from them.
ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the Granta list?
RH: I really like what several of the writers are doing, but if I had to choose just one, I would say Alejandro Zambra, whom, significantly, Alberto Olmos and Patricio Pron also mentioned when you asked them this same question. There is in him and in his books an honesty that is very easy to lose over the years—the urgency of a poet, a young poet to whom nothing matters except poetry—as well as a very generous and pleasant sensibility belonging to extraordinary writing.
ED: What are you working on now?
RH: Until just recently I was working with Martín Boulocq, one of my closest friends (he was the drummer in the band), on the latest short film that we co-wrote together. It’s called Los viejos and it will premiere next year, a long time after the project began. And now I am revising and correcting the stories for my next book, Los días más felices, which will also come out next year.
ED: Do you do some other artistic activity besides writing?
RH: Without meaning to, I’ve already answered this question somewhat. I am always flirting with film and I want to continue doing things in that field. And someday I would love to be in a band again, not to play live or to record, but just to get together once or twice a week and, for a few hours, travel together back to adolescence.
ED: And as a new resident of western New York myself, I have to ask, how do you like all that snow in Ithaca?
RH: Personally I love it. Particularly if it’s on the other side of the window, while I sit in some café with a bottomless cup of coffee.
Boom. The “22 Days of Awesome” are now officially over.
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