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A Walk in the Dark Woods ichard Gwyn

The sixth floor of the Holiday Inn at Santiago de Chile’s international airport is an ideal place in which to savour anonymity. From my room I can look down on the runway, the planes neatly docked in their aprons like Dinky toys. The hotel itself, a non-place for world travellers, offers its guests a veneer of self-conscious transience, and a restaurant where we might consume generic world cuisine in a habitat devoid of any specific cultural reference. As though both to confirm and deny this sense of displacement, the hotel lobby displays a full range of multi-coloured ‘Welcome’ signs in around a hundred languages. I am reminded of the words of the erstwhile British Prime Minister, Theresa May, about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere, and wonder if I share with my compatriots in Nowhereland that sad brand of homelessness of which she warned, characterised by frustration, lack of purpose and despair.

Alone in my hotel room, I can see everything going on down below: the passengers queuing at the carpark pay-booth; others dragging their wheelie suitcases across the tarmacadam towards the straggling expanse of Brutalist concrete buildings that house the Departures Hall… and if I were to open the window – which I cannot, presumably to prevent me from hurling myself earthward in horror at my own anomie – I would no doubt be able to smell the fumes of the petroleum-laden day. Like almost everything else, modern travel is a consumerist project. The gringo in the foyer with his Swedish cargo pants and Italian hiking boots, ready to head off into the Andes in emulation of Alexander von Humboldt, who is he trying to kid? What kind of a fiction is he trying to promote?

I have come to Chile to hunt down poems for an anthology of Latin American poetry that I’ve been commissioned to select and translate. I have, for complex reasons, left the Chileans to last. I am glad to escape the northern winter for a few weeks, but am also a little apprehensive, as this will be the last trip I undertake before settling down to the proper work of translation, whose stuttering preamble has now been underway for four years.

I am staying at the Holiday Inn because my flight from Heathrow yesterday arrived too late for me to make a connection to Valdivia, in the south of the country, where I plan to spend the first couple of weeks of the trip with my friends Verónica and Menashe. Verónica is a Chilean poet, who lived in London during much of the Pinochet dictatorship, and later Israel, where she met Menashe, a painter and ceramicist. She is a dear friend, and has offered to help me in the selection of poets from her coun-

try, with which I have been struggling.

Valdivia is a small, bustling city: the architecture and names displayed on shop fronts and, notably, on the hoardings for upcoming elections, have a distinctly Teutonic flavour. Verónica, whose own origins are Polish and German Jewish, comes to meet me at the bus station and we drive out to her house at the edge of town, surrounded by green space and woodlands, an oasis of quiet, and a perfect place to gather my thoughts on the Chilean poetry of the past half century. It is the antipodean summer, and even this far south temperatures climb into the mid-thirties.

After three days I am so immersed in Chilean poetry that I begin to feel dizzy. I keep wondering about Roberto Bolaño’s provocative remarks on the subject: ‘I have a vague suspicion that Chileans see Chilean poetry as a dog, or as dogs in their various incarnations: sometimes as a savage pack of wolves, sometimes as a solitary howl heard between dreams, and sometimes – especially – as a lap dog at the groomers.’ What did he mean? After all, he was a Chilean poet himself, and although he became far better known – and for good reason – as a novelist, always considered himself first and foremost a poet. He spent almost all of his life after the age of fifteen in Mexico and Spain and, on returning to his native country to judge a short story competition, was less than complimentary about his fellow Chilean poets, entering into a recriminatory dispute with Raúl Zurita, which descended into a mud-slinging contest. As I read on, I learn that the enmity between Zurita and Bolaño festered until the latter’s death in 2003, and even beyond, Zurita claiming as late as 2010 that he would have liked to have ‘had it out’ with the ‘hepatic’ Bolaño, an encounter which Zurita, as he himself concedes (he was by now suffering from Parkinson’s disease) would probably have lost, as Bolaño was something of a brawler in his day, and his father was a boxer. I can picture the bleakly comic scene: ‘In the blue corner, the poet with Parkinsons; in the red, the novelist with the knobbly liver.’ The idea of this literary tussle dissolving into a grotesque fistfight between two middle-aged literary invalids is one that seems apposite within the context of Chile’s poetry wars.

Since I have just been reading through Zurita’s collected poetry, in search of something to translate for my anthology, I find myself returning to Bolaño’s writings about Chile, among the essays, reviews and interviews in his book, Entre parentesis, and begin to assemble a clearer idea of his conflicted feelings about his homeland. Bolaño’s casual, cavalier approach in his nonfiction writings can be distracting to the reader, just as he is distracted,

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