Translated by Will Vanderhyden
from Issue 21
In particular I remember a trip I took with my wife and daughter to Algarrobo a few years back. It was January and it was hot. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, left our things in the house, and ran to the beach. The girls went right in the water. But I laid face down on my towel and fell asleep. I was exhausted. I’d spent the last forty-eight hours in front of my computer trying to write an article for the cultural supplement of some newspaper. I had to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose birth or death, I don’t remember, some important anniversary, was being celebrated. My wife had recently read a frightening story by Hawthorne called “Ethan Brand, A Chapter From an Abortive Romance.” She said I should claim that the puritan writer was one of the forefathers of contemporary fiction’s current obsession, citing the phrase that ends the story: “the relics of Ethan Brand were crumbled into fragments.”
Clearly she was teasing me, but it didn’t seem like a bad starting point for the article. After some investigating, I discovered that the story was part of a collection titled The Snow Image. The name of the book fascinated me. But I struggled to find a way to mourn the fact that Hawthorne’s memorable phrase had become commonplace in the realm of technology. After a few drafts, I gave up: I couldn’t put into words why it seemed tragic that something marvelous like the snow image was now used to describe defective TV screens. I went out to the street to get some air. I was standing on a corner, waiting for a light to change, and I saw my wife down the next block, at a distance. Her back was to me. For a second, I saw someone embracing her and her face lifting to meet the other face in a kiss. Then I focused my eyes and realized she was standing in front of a clothing store window. It was only her reflection in the glass. When we met, she asked me how the hyperbole was coming and kissed me on the cheek. That same afternoon we left for the beach.
I dreamed I woke up and walked to the shore with my daughter. She took my hand and asked me to go with her to the rocks to look for seashells. The dream was very realistic; I felt the sharpness of the rocks hurting the soles of my feet. We came upon a pool containing a viscous starfish. She asked me to pick it up because the dark algae in the seawater frightened her. I remember the tide had begun to come in, and my wife was building high walls of sand around our things so they wouldn’t get wet, or worse, get pulled out by the undertow. My daughter started crying because she couldn’t see her mother from the rocks. Then at last I managed to detach the starfish from the surface to which it was stuck and it began to snow.
I woke up surprised by the cold. The sky was overcast and a summer wind was starting to blow. My daughter was playing nearby with a bucket, trowels, and wet sand. She saw me shiver, open my eyes, and then stand up.
–Papá, why do we dream? she asked me.
–I don’t know. It must be for the same reason that a towel has to dry out when it gets wet.
Just then my wife was coming back from the rocks. She wanted all of us to go swimming together. I said okay. Then all of a sudden, as we were walking, I was struck by the memory of a novel I’d once tried to write in collaboration with some old friends. I sat down on the sand to consider the nature of the memory. My wife misunderstood, she made a clicking sound with her tongue, and walked off toward the waves, muttering something under her breath. For a while she’d been lamenting that we no longer communicated well. I tried to understand, I loved her more than ever, without harshness or holes, like the sound of the sea at night, I told her later, lying in our room, in the house in Algarrobo, but she pretended to be asleep. Then it was I who complained, silently, with sorrow. I was invaded by pain that was either abyssal or infantile depending on what you wanted to compare it to. It doesn’t matter, it invaded me, and I tried to think of something besides senselessness, death, loneliness, while carefully contemplating the wood joinery on the wall facing our double bed. That night I asked myself why, when the temperature changes, wood creaks but doesn’t crack. The memory also came to me of the pile of stories the seven of us spread out across the beds that summer at lago Ranco. I tried to recall the plot that tied those stories together, but couldn’t. Just the faces. Of the seven. The laughter, the arguments, how serious we were, how intelligent. At one point I’d gotten up to use the bathroom. I didn’t want to turn on the lights because the moon was full and the night was lovely. I peered into the living room and I saw a shape on the sofa, it was moving. It was moaning. They were moaning. I never found out who it was. I recalled another afternoon when we played cards for ten hours because it was raining so hard that we couldn’t go outside. We were shut in. And no more memories. Snowy images. Just the present, the whisper of the sea, and the breathing of my wife at my side, her eyes still closed. I kissed her on the cheek. She’d known them too. But not all of them and that helped me breathe easy. She’d been friends with the girl who’d invited me to the lake that summer.
My wife opened her right eye. She asked me why the sad face. I didn’t answer.
–I love you so much, I said after a while.
–You know, she murmured half asleep, sometimes I like to think about the friendship that Hawthorne had with Melville. I think about the two of us. I don’t know who’d be who. Sometimes I’m Melville, sometimes you’re Melville. But sometimes I get confused and have to remind myself about Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir so I can calm down.
I wanted to cry then, thinking about how young we’d been.
–Youth is never aware of its youth, she said sarcastically.
She liked to kiss my eyes. I was also sad because of how my daughter had reacted, looking at the drawings I’d made for her in the damp sand. She asked me to explain why I’d tried to give our towels to a vagrant, who hadn’t even wanted them.
–Is it a papá and a mamá and a girl at the beach? she’d asked me.
–No. I don’t know.
For the first time my daughter looked at me gravely.
–The papá is crazy. He does things no one understands.
I sat down in the sand, trying to remember. My wife gave me a resentful look, then ran off to go swimming. Later, that night, before embracing her and telling her to hush and come close, she told me that at the beach she’d started to feel like Virginia Woolf. Clearly she was trying to provoke me, so I told her that she’d looked more like Alfonsina Storni. She stood up abruptly, threw a shoe at me, and went to sleep with our daughter. But after a while she came back. While she was gone, I retrieved my notebook and retraced the drawing I’d made in the sand. When my wife came back to bed, I showed her the drawing and asked her what she thought it was.
–Easy, she whispered, it’s the two of us when we were young, imagining whom we’d marry.
Carlos Labbé, the Chilean author of three novels Libro de Plumas (2004), Navidad y Matanza (2007), and Locuela (2009), as well as a collection of short stories, Caracteres Blancos (2010). He has co-written two screenplays, published a hypertext novel, Pentagonal: incluidos tú y yo (2001), and recorded several albums of pop music. In 2010 he was included in Granta magazine’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists. The English translation of his second novel Navidad y Matanza will be published by Open Letter Books in the spring of 2014.
Will Vanderhyden is a translator of Spanish and Latin American fiction. He recently graduated from the MALTS (Masters of Arts in Literary Translation) Program at the University of Rochester. His translation of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad y Matanza was published by Open Letter Books earlier this year.
Original text: Carlos Labbé. Caracteres blancos. Madrid: Editorial Periférica, 2011.