Words, wrongly directed, can cause you more harm than any enemy or one who wants you dead.
Who am I? I wondered, finding myself illuminated by sunlight, drooling on my desk, wearing the same clothes as the previous night: the narrator of this story, a nameless character, without history, without body, and without any way of stringing words together to recount the facts that disrupted my search for the sacred book. The thing is, the sacred book reveals itself to me if I don’t find it. The thing is, the book doesn’t end. I’d lost track of the hours, of the distances traveled with my eyes, the shifts between day and night had become as imperceptible as the moment one page turned to another, to the next, to the invisible, to what was beyond when symbols on the screen — blocks of information, enticing portals, images — jumped unexpectedly to the center of my vision, becoming a stain. Then the depth of the blank page, unblemished silence, without menus or lateral lines. Not a single arrow, tranquility floating in emptiness. I sat up; the only memory I had was the invocation that opened these pages.
The book cannot be read, the street woman who washes cars had ranted that very afternoon. Coming back from the library I parked along the curb in front of my apartment like always, on Cano y Aponte, a little ways down from Jose Miguel Infante. Whenever I told someone about her — striking up a banal conversation to break an uncomfortable silence — I couldn’t help but describe her straw-like hair, the wrinkles in her unevenly tanned face, the loose clothing barely concealing the layers of filth covering her skin, how every afternoon she’d run up to me to accept the hundred peso coin that I handed her without ever listening to the senseless phrases she grunted at me. But today I opened the car door and she was standing there dumbfounded, staring at my heavy annotated volume of the Dhammapada, the only thing I was carrying. That is my father’s book, she stated in a low voice, before, unexpectedly, unleashing several shrieks, prompting me to quicken my pace to the building’s entrance. That is my father’s book, and words can cause you more harm than any enemy: the woman’s scream kept resounding in my ears like never before, as if the Spirit itself were speaking to me. Writing is useless, it’s useless to turn on the computer, useless to sit down in an armchair in the library with some requiem playing on the sound system, useless to close my eyes between our sheets, waiting for the weariness to leave me. I look down at the street from this window, even now the woman is down there, waving a yellow rag at a car that is pulling away, ignoring her. I can’t sit down to write comments in the book just yet, because its short sentences are being swept away by the story of a woman who in her childhood considered these passageways the garden of her mansion, because her father — nearly fifty years ago — owned an extensive property occupying almost an entire block from Joel Rodriguez to Roman Diaz, from Carvajal to Cano y Aponte. One day, this magnate decided he was sick of everything, so his holdings were divided equally between his three children and he shut himself away in the third floor of the enormous house, from where he looked out day and night, to see how, as he grew old, his progeny squandered his goodwill. Nobody knows what happened next, if the father is dead or if he still stares down at the street through the grime, the mice, and his room’s broken windows. And none of his children would be able to shed any light on his fate, even if there was someone patient enough to listen to them: they’re limited to taking the coins they’re given when they hold out their menacing, trembling hands to people getting into cars; they’re filthy, dressed in whatever old clothes they can find. There’s nothing in their heads but the impulse to silently return to that abandoned house: from up here, that’s how I see them.
Be vigilant of your words, build a fortress the way someone recites in their mind what to say to their loved ones.
I’m not alone the way I would’ve wanted in the story, it’s just easier to move forward that way, I say to myself when again I wake up drooling on my desk, my hair disheveled, my body stinking: I don’t live on Calle Cano y Aponte — I’m just appropriating the actual home of some friends, the anecdotes they tell about the homeless people in their neighborhood, something to talk about when we get together — I just want the facts to disrupt my search for the sacred book. The thing is, the sacred book reveals itself to me if I stop writing. The thing is, the book doesn’t end. And so this morning all I could think of was the invocation, transcribed above, written in my mind as if in fire. After several days of work, I decided to leave my post by the window, I went out of the apartment, walked down Joel Rodriquez to the spot where the fat, bald older brother of the homeless woman sat — motionless — in a rotten wooden chair, accepting coins from drivers while rambling off a string of imagined stories that no one has ever attempted to listen to in their entirety. I put my annotated copy of the Dhammapada in front of his eyes and asked him if he knew who the author was; he looked up from the pavement, nothing changed in his lifeless expression, but the volume of his voice increased, his litany continuing undeterred: around the middle of this century — he said — the Internet cafes, computer stores, hardware tech services, systems analytics offices, database companies, outlets selling processors, hard drives, and other digital storage technologies, like cyber-conference rooms, scanner services, arcades for video game competitions and other related social activities we don’t even know about yet, these activities will have increased to such an extent that the physical space of our cities will collapse from the overload of electrical activity. Nations the world over will appeal to areas of low population density, far from urban centers, asking to be allowed to concentrate their administrative and informational bases there. But the prosperity of these bases will lead to the accelerated growth of communities of digitalized public employees, with corresponding commercial centers, streets, hospitals, and schools. What might seem like a solution to this problem will come just a few years later with an even greater crisis related to the over-electrification of shrinking spaces, and Chile — or what we now call Chile — a fortunate nation to begin with because it contains valleys, deserts, coasts, plains, islands, mountains, and ice floes, will suffer its own holocaust when — a result of our indolence — an electrical storm in the Andes Mountains unleashes a series of short circuits, setting fire to power plants in the metropolises of Los Angeles, Villarrica, and Puerto Natales, leading to the inundation of twenty suburban platforms located in the national oceanic territory, to the freezing of Antarctic villages, and, of course, to mass hysteria in the rest of the population — rebellions will come first, then lootings, and mass suicides of residents of the new saltpeter towns of Norte Grande. Prior to this catastrophe, millions of families, communities, and entire cities will have escaped there, to the desert, where — blinded by a solar light they’d never experienced without personal ozone filters — they will scatter in every direction. Some will populate the devastated continents, but the majority will be nothing but bones in sand, prisoners, lost, swallowed up by the pampa. Scavenger birds will make short work of them: in the days of the book they are numerous, he continued as he lowered his voice to begin his prophecy again from the beginning. As I crossed the street heading to my apartment — I should’ve written this down already: I am falling down from fatigue, struggling against weary muscles, trying to sustain my position in the chair, eyelids closing of their own accord — I heard from a distance the words the fat man repeated, faraway words, dissolving into the story of a solitary character, the protagonist of a sacred book whose prologue — whose gateway, I should say — is being written in the screams, in the lies of the future, and in the silence of the three siblings who –– so they can eat –– beg for coins on the same street that during their childhood formed part of an immense garden whose ancient trees bore fruit throughout the whole year; fruit that, their father told them, they could only eat when they were tall enough to reach the branches.
The vigilant do not die; the negligent are as if already dead.
Again and again I read that sentence that came to me in my dreamless sleep on top of this desk, on the keyboard, the only voice the buzzing computer. This sentence was the one thing pushing me forward. Otherwise it wouldn’t be me, but someone else — not knowing who I was, as if I were someone’s character, a distillation, a voice made interesting because it has no body — writing about the facts that disrupted my search for the sacred book. I barely even remember how, very early in the morning, the screen revealed to me a completely blank page immediately after I wrote, in the margins of the Dhammapada, how, in a world overflowing with cheap images trying to tempt us, our faith — not religion, not religiosity — allows us to exist without seeing, without hearing, without touching, and that’s how we survive: as if someone were reading to us without ever stopping.
I’d spent my days searching for information about the father of the homeless people, I suspected the identity of this magnate and that of the book’s protagonist were one and the same. And yet the screen carried me too far away; the breaking point was a page that included some posthumous fragments of the Russian Bakhtin, who while alive spent his time arguing, investigating, and writing about the motionless, hermetic heart that will allow literature to endure even when no one knows how to read, without ever daring to say that indeed: “a world without names, where only nicknames and pseudonyms of every sort exist. The names of things are nicknames too. Meaning moving not from the thing to the word, but from the word to the thing: the word engendering the thing. Vacillation and origin. Praise and reprobation. One becomes the other when the line between the unnamable and the quotidian is erased.” As I read this fragment my days of vigilance seemed unimaginable. Waking up this morning I found my head pressed against several letters on the keyboard, in such a way that for hours I’d been composing a homogenous sentence, infinite, repetitive like an incomprehensible litany on whose surface — when I read it — I recovered the message revealed to me in that dreamless sleep, not just its literal words but also a comment that someone — I, me, the author with a name and surname who ages while writing this story — had noted down next to a fragment of the Dhammapada:
— Knowing your body to be as fragile as the pages of a book, build with words so that you don’t say a fortress.
I got up as best I could from my desk chair, not even bothering to wash my face or change the clothes I’d been wearing for weeks. I could care less about the stench wafting from the wrinkles in my clothes as I walked down the building’s stairs, along the sidewalk, across the concrete of Calle Carvajal, where the third sibling — the woman was the youngest, the fat man the firstborn, so this one had to be the middle child, I assumed, transposing my own biography onto the narrator, who had no story and yet was on his way to losing one — was traversing the block in complete silence, moving toward the hands that reached out from inside a car that had pulled over to offer him some coins, gaunt, small, expressionless eyes, and seemingly deaf to the useless honks of drivers attempting to hurry his tranquil pace. His lack of reaction when, with the annotated Dhammapada in my hands, I sat down on the curb to watch him, made me hold out some hope; when night fell the man retrieved a can of coins hidden under a tree and walked with unusual slowness toward the corner of Roman Diaz: he was waiting for me. I went up to him and began talking about myself, about him, about us, about my notes, about the empty screen that appeared when I typed his father’s name in the search engine, about coincidence, randomness, the precision of his sister’s screams, his brother’s disjointed stories, and his own silence converging in a sacred book that, without a doubt, was hidden away in some room in the place where they still lived.
I asked him to let me come in and search for the book, to allow me to be the first to read the pages of his disappeared father. The silent brother looked at me for the first time and, extracting a key from between his rags, opened the rusted lock to the mansion and let me inside. We entered what once had been a lavish front garden, now the provenance of weeds, leftover construction materials, insects, dry earth, and trash bags in a clear state of decomposition; there was something kind in his expression when he opened the door, even when, unexpectedly, he went back to the mansion’s front door and shut it abruptly, turning the lock several times from inside. I stood there, not knowing what to do in that unfamiliar place; I was tired, my eyelids heavy. I considered lying down and going to sleep right there, the rubble and critters would ensure that I never woke again; then something caught my eye and prevented this, and the rapid succession of ceaseless contradictory thoughts intended to keep me from arriving anywhere ceased: my neck twisted, my face lifted, looking up at the crown of the only surviving tree in the garden, and I saw countless small houses hanging from its branches; small houses carefully constructed of wood, grass, and wire, out of whose holes peered the dark eyes of fledglings, and around which circled flocks of birds of every possible color, alighting among the leaves, singing a polyphony that not even nightfall could quiet. From behind that tree’s wide trunk an old man dressed in white appeared and came toward me, he spoke, placing his hand on my head:
— Knowing your body to be as fragile as the pages of a book, build with words so that you don’t say a fortress.
Now, from this high place, the sun’s light and heat compel me to speak, write, commune with you. I know you but don’t know who you are. You know me, yet we’ve never met. My words mingle with yours as you read this, and you see what I see, hear what I hear: vigilance is the path to immortality; negligence the path to death.
Carlos Labbé was born in Chile and is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. This year, Open Letter published the English translation of his novel Navidad & Matanza, to be followed in 2015 by Loquela (both translated by Will Vanderhyden). He works in translation and publishing, and writes literary essays, screenplays, and reviews. In addition, he is a musician and has released four albums.
Will Vanderhyden is a translator of Spanish and Latin American fiction, his translation of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza came out from Open Letter Books in the Spring of 2014.