The Cyclops

Alejandro Zambra

Illustration by Hong-An Tran

First one must live, Claudia would say, and it was difficult not to agree: before writing one had to live the stories, the adventures. I wasn't interested, not then, not in telling stories. She was, which is to say she wasn't, not yet; she wanted to live the stories that, years or decades later, in some uncertain and calm future, she would tell. Claudia could not have been more of a Cortazarian, although her first experience with Cortázar was, in reality, a disappointment: after reading Chapter 7 of Hopscotch she realized that her boyfriend used to recite it to her as if it were his own, so she broke up with him and started up with Cortázar, a romance that perhaps still lives. My friend was not called, is not called Claudia: I protect, just in case, her identity, and that of the boyfriend, he was then a graduate assistant and now surely teaches classes about Cortázar or about intertextuality in some North American University.

At the height of 1993 or 1994, Claudia was already, without a doubt, the protagonist of a long novel, beautiful and complex, worthy of Cortázar or of Kerouac or of whoever could follow her quick life. The lives of others, our lives, by contrast, more than fit on one page (double-spaced). At eighteen years old Claudia had already come and gone a few times: from one city to another, from one continent to another, and also, above all else, from pain to happiness and from happiness, again, to pain. She would fill her notebook with what I supposed were stories or sketches of stories or maybe a diary. But the only time that she agreed to read me some fragments I discovered, with amazement, that Claudia wrote poems. She didn't call them poems, in any case, but annotations. The only difference between those annotations and the texts I would write was that, at that time, what I wrote was pure posturing: we would transcribe the same phrases, we would describe the same scenes, but she would forget them or would at least say that she forgot them, while I would revise them and spend hours trying out titles and structures.

You should write stories or a novel, I told Claudia that afternoon of freezing wind and cold beer. You've lived a lot, I added clumsily. No, she responded shortly: you've lived more than I have, and right away she starting to tell my life as if it were being read, in my hand, the past, the present and the future. She exaggerated, like all narrators (and as all poets): a childhood anecdote would become essential, each deed meant irreparable losses or progress. I half recognized myself in the protagonist and in the decisive secondary characters (she was one herself, in that story, a secondary character who, little by little, became more relevant). Immediately, I wanted to write something like that improvised novel of hers: I spoke of trips, of the difficult return to Chile, about the separation of her parents, and I would have gone on but soon Claudia said shut up and went to the bathroom and stayed there for ten or twenty long minutes. She returned, walking slowly, covering up, barely, a fear or embarrassment that I didn't know her. Sorry, she said, I don't know if I would like for someone to write about my life. I would want to tell it myself or maybe not tell it. We threw ourselves down on the grass to exchange apologies as if we were competing at it, now, in a good-manners competition. But we would speak, really, in a private language that neither of us wanted to give up.

It was then that she told me about Chapter 7 in Hopscotch. I knew the assistant and I knew that he had been Claudia's boyfriend, because of which I found the story to be much more amusing, then I imagined him as the Cyclops that Cortázar talked about ("and so we play the Cyclops, we look at one another closer all the time and our eyes get bigger, then as they get closer, they superimpose..."). I held my smile until Claudia began to laugh and told me it wasn't true, and we both laughed because we knew that no, it was true. I don't like Cortázar so much, I changed all of a sudden, out of nowhere. Why? I don't know, I don't like him that much, I repeated, and we laughed again, this time without a reason, already free from the specter of seriousness.

It would be easy, now, to refute or confirm those common places: if you have lived a lot you write novels, if you have lived a little you write poems. But our argument wasn't that exactly, neither was it an argument, at least not one in which one loses and the other wins. We wanted, maybe, a tie, to keep talking until the guard let out the hounds and we had to flee, drunk, jumping the pale blue gate. But we still weren't drunk and the doorman didn't care if we went or stayed there talking all night.

translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Fisherkeller