Translation Tuesday: Two Short Nonfiction Pieces by Roberto Merino

Waiting may be the most thoroughly human activity there is.

Described by Argentina’s Clarín newspaper as Chilean literature’s “best-kept secret,” Roberto Merino recently wrote evocatively about a childhood submerged in television for our Summer 2016 issue. Today we bring you two short nonfictions, about seasonal change, from the same pen.

Just Wait

I am waiting for something to change. While I wait, the days, weeks and seasons pass. Conversations from nearby buildings drift through my open window on summer evenings, snatches of song, appalled laughter. Hammers ring out in the afternoons. I get up very early each morning and before I know it I am taking taxis, making phone calls, setting my various affairs in motion.

The change I am waiting for will come from outside, and its causes will be revealed to me when whatever it is actually transpires. I am told that there can hardly be such a thing as chance, and that whatever happens to us is a consequence of our own doings: the law of karma, or of action and reaction. Gurdjieff says very much this: that what is happening to me now is the corollary of what I did yesterday, so today’s blunders will be sure to come back and weigh me down tomorrow or the day after.

The talking point of the month just beginning is Santiago’s apocalyptic appearance in the smoke from the forest fires. One day, the city where nothing ever happens was rendered inchoate by an off-white smudge spreading over its buildings. Someone climbed up a mountainside and took a picture of the cityscape by night, flanked by fires reflecting down on it from the thick smoke above. The talk is of monoculture, forestry, slash and burn, criminal negligence, water sources. These strange stimuli meld in dreams with images familiar from Argentinean television: the heat wave, the barricades, the power cuts and the rivers packed with a type of piranha called pirambebas.

I am quite ready to be affected by events like these, eager to understand. Then time passes and I open my eyes and there I am again, waiting, stretched on my bed or resting my elbow on a café table overlooking a winding street and a city square with its canopy of trees. Opposite me is a strikingly pretty girl with dark eyes who tells me winningly: “I try to be the same person all day long.” We talk about holidays we will never take, the lives cats lead in apartments, gravel yards set with bushes, problems at work, fatigue, the concept of resistance in psychology. I ask if she doesn’t think there is a conduit connecting each summer to every other, and she smiles at me fixedly as though I were crazy.

Waiting may be the most thoroughly human activity there is. Waiting man should take his place alongside homo faber and homo ludens. Because we believe existence answers to a higher purpose, we think its secret, its real reason, will be disclosed to us one day. But this is actually a cosmological and theological cold case. The evidence is partly dispersed, partly mislaid—but that is another story.


Grey Days

The first cold, dull days of the year always produce a general adjustment in mood. Steeped for months and months in heat and dryness and luminosity, we are somewhat disconcerted to open our eyes on changed circumstances and a different landscape. Things outside are strangely distinct, and a grey drizzle reminds us of something we cannot quite place, something experienced or imagined, something remote, from childhood. It is connected to swings and slides in empty parks, lights going on in the early evening, solitary streets where trees meet overhead.

The wintry atmosphere takes us back into private worlds, which is why it is intolerable for some. “A good day for keeping snug at home,” was a television presenter’s comment on the weather forecast. “Keeping snug at home” expresses a far profounder experience than the triviality of the phrase would suggest. It is the yearning to be safe from a hostile world, away from the cold, the rain, the leaks, the dark. To be nestled in a family with its warmth and softness of affection, its night-time conversations drowsily overheard at the threshold of sleep. Perhaps if our parents did not provide us with this favourable setting in childhood, winter could only be experienced in one way: as abandonment.

There was a time in my life when I fantasized about having a job that would employ me only in the warm half of the year. I would have at least five months off, lasting throughout the autumn and winter. It was a compelling, neurotic fantasy. This leisure time would allow me to take precautions and adopt the right emotional stance for the short, cold days. I saw myself driving for hours along roads made golden by swirls of leaves, long afternoons of contemplation behind misted panes, and no less protracted spells of revelation induced by fireside dozes. My private world would be made up of these tonalities: the ochre and black of old wood, the rust colour of the fire, and the blue-grey of the sky against the windows.

There is an age when we give ourselves over to fixed ideas like these. I think it is the stage in life when we discover and cultivate sadness. When I was young, I certainly had no wish to be coaxed out of my sadness, for it was my way of giving perspective to a world I was used to seeing as one-dimensional. This has nothing to do with depression, an uninhabitable, emotionally evicted state. There is something genuinely revelatory about youthful sadness, whose background music might be the adagio from Bach’s Sonata in D minor.

Translated from the Spanish by Neil Davidson

Read Roberto Merino’s childhood memoir, “Television: The Thousand and One Nights” from our Summer 2016 issue here. 

Illustration credit: Monika Grubizna, from our October 2014 issue

Roberto Merino rarely strays outside the Chilean capital, Santiago, where he was born and has always lived. A writer who calls the writing process “horrendous” and is happier playing the guitar in Ya Se Fueron, a rock band of which he is a founding member, he is nevertheless a regular columnist with two newspapers, El Mercurio and Las Últimas Noticias. He has published two books of poetry and ten of collected columns and essays, the latest being Lihn: Ensayos biográficos (Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2016), a collection of essays about the Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. Described by Argentina’s Clarín newspaper as Chilean literature’s “best-kept secret,” Merino has quietly influenced a whole generation of Chilean writers and has more recently begun to be known farther afield in the Spanish-speaking world. This is the first time his work has appeared in English.

Neil Davidson arrived in Chile from Britain speaking a mixture of Italian and French, in pursuit of his future wife. He has since mastered Spanish sufficiently to become a regular columnist with various newspapers, currently Las Últimas Noticias. A collection of his writings was brought out by Los Libros Que Leo in 2010 under the title The Chilean Way: Crónicas 2000-2010, and he is the author of El ceño radiante: Vida y poesía de Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2015), which mixes biography with translations of Hopkins’s poetry and other writings.


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