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F e a t u r e s constantly, in ‘Fragments of a return to the native land’, in which he describes the trip he took to Chile in 1998, the first visit he had made there since January 1974. He is distracted on the flight out, for example, by the very idea, or fact of flying (which he has avoided for the past twenty years) and reflects, between ‘strange and vivid dreams’ on the plane’s engines drilling through the night, ‘the night itself a plane flying inside another plane… a fish eating a fish eating another fish.’

Several pieces of writing emerged from that return trip to Chile, most notably ‘The corridor with no apparent way out’, in which Bolaño tells the story of a married couple’s home at the time of Pinochet’s dictatorship: she is a promising poet, he is a member of the Chilean secret police, and he, the husband, uses the basement of their big house in the suburbs as a torture chamber for political prisoners. In the evenings the wife holds soirées for writers, evenings of readings and wine, which sometimes turn into dinners. ‘One night,’ Bolaño writes, ‘a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. It’s his first time there and he doesn’t know the house. Probably he’s a bit tipsy or maybe he’s already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn’t have gone down and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore. He’s terrified, but he doesn’t say anything.’

The story reads like an allegory of some kind; perhaps, as suggested in the passage cited here, an allegory of Chile. And so it is; but it is also based in fact. The writer’s name was Mariana Callejas, and she worked undercover for DINA, Chile’s secret police. The husband was Michael Townley, an American businessman, who also moonlighted for the secret police. The literary workshops took place in their house in the suburb of Lo Curro, Santiago, that was procured for them by DINA. In the basement of their home, Townley interrogated leftist dissidents prior to them being shipped to detention centres where they were ‘disappeared’. Rarely have literature and political violence been so graphically intertwined, but then literature and political violence was a collocation which obsessed Bolaño throughout his writing career. For him, literature was a dangerous vocation, a matter of life and death: ‘Literature,’ he told Luis García in 2001, ‘has always been close to ignominy, to vileness, to torture.’

After spending a week working with Verónica on my translations, we – Verónica, Menashe, their daughter Tamara and I – translate ourselves to the coastal park, the Reserva Costera Valdiviana, where we have rented a log cabin for the weekend. The land is given over to the Mapuche people and building is prohibited within the area of the reserve. After supper that first night I take a walk under a canopy of stars, the like of which I have never witnessed, in part because I have never before travelled this far south, but also because here, the night sky, untouched by light pollution, is endowed with a unique clarity. I stand for a long while, humbled by the majesty of the heavens, the miracle of the universe, and our place within it, on our blue planet spinning its course around the sun, one among the billions of stars, only a tiny fraction of which are visible to the eye.

The region is famous for its extensive deciduous forests, and the next morning, while Menashe and Tamara go kayaking, Verónica and I visit one of them, at Los Colmillos de Chaihuín. With a guide, Alonso, we drive along an unmade forest road for an hour, having to stop several times to move logs from the track, where the mud has piled thick. When the road runs out we park up and continue on foot. The forest here contains, among other trees, canelo, alerce, and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local eco-system, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties in a patient programme of replanting. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and self-regenerates once it has been chopped down; it can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat, dwarfish deer with a sweet face and dark, fearful eyes.

As we walk through this enchanted forest, I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, Alonso tells us, as caca de duende. There is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf-shit sounds the most evocative translation, and the idea sticks.

We stop to pay homage to an individual tree: this particular alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides, a member of the cypress family) is forty-five metres tall and about 3,500 years old, according to Alonso. Its age is calculated by the girth, which is three and half metres in diameter. I reflect in astonishment that the Minoan civilisation was still flourishing on Crete when this tree was young. The forests hereabouts were once filled with alerces, but their wood was good for building boats and houses, and there are now few remaining. Although protected by law since 1976, they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.

When the Spanish arrived in the land that would one day be called Chile, they began to exploit the rich supply of timber, useful in servicing the navy upon which the maintenance of their empire, and the delivery of its looted gold and silver, depended. It goes without saying that the destructive approach taken towards the indigenous population was extended towards the land they lived on. The earth was held as sacred by native American peoples, and the degrading of the land for material gain was utterly beyond their comprehension. But the colonial attitude towards exploitation of the natural habitat did not finish with the end of colonial rule. The governments of the new republics of Latin America – almost all of them dictatorships – continued in much the same vein as their colonial antecedents.

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