The Corridor with No Apparent Exit
Bolaño, Roberto, The Virginia Quarterly Review
IT'S STRANGE RETURNING TO CHILE, THE CORRIDOR COUNTRY, but if you think about it twice or even three times, returning anywhere is strange. Provided, of course, you're actually returning and not dreaming you're returning. I returned after twenty-five years. The streets, actually, looked like they always had. So did the faces of the Chileans. That can lead to the most fatal sort of boredom or to insanity. So this time I kept calm for a change and made up my mind to wait for things to happen while seated in a chair, which is the best place to avoid being surprised by a corridor.
One day I was invited to dinner at the house of a government minister. It was the chance of a lifetime to do an in-depth article about power. Actually, I was invited to dinner at the house of the writer Diamela Eltit, whose fiancé or significant other, anyway the man she lived with, was the minister Jorge Arrate, socialist and spokesman for the Frei government. It was the sort of thing that could make you nervous. Our friend, Lina Meruane, picked us up at eight in the hotel where we were staying, and off we went.
Surprise number one: the neighborhood where Eltit and Arrate live is middle-middle class, not upper class or upper-middle class. A quarter typical of the ones from which the illustrious (and not so illustrious) gladiators of the seventies emerged. second surprise: the house is relatively small and totally lacks the trappings you'd expect at a house occupied by a Chilean minister. Third surprise: upon getting out of the car, I look up and down the street for the camouflaged car of his bodyguards and I can't find it.
Many hours later, when I ask Jorge about his bodyguards, he replies that he doesn't have any. What do you mean you don't have any, I say. Well, no, he says, Diamela doesn't care for bodyguards, and what's more they get in the way. But are you safe, I ask. Jorge Arrate knows what it is to be persecuted and exiled, and he knows you can never be safe. Diamela looks at him. We're at the table, eating a meal Jorge prepared himself. There's no meat. Someone in the house is a vegetarian and presumably has inflicted his or her diet on everybody else. In any event, Jorge's the cook and not a bad one either. To me vegetarian fare feels like a kick in the stomach, but I eat everything that's put in front of me. Diamela watches Jorge, then focuses on my wife, Carolina, then on Lina and the novelist Pablo Azocar, the fifth person at the table, and she doesn't look at me. I suspect I've made a bad impression on her. Or maybe Diamela is overly timid. Fine. At the moment the only thing that really worries me is the prospect of a gang of Nazis bursting into the house to kill the minister and, while they're at it, killing my wife and my son, Lautaro (who's not at the table and sleeps in a bedroom with the television on). And if some bastards from Patria y Libertad come? I hope they don't come, Jorge says so mildly that it makes my hair stand on end.
This is not the country for me, I think.
That morning Jorge went out, all alone, to shop for dinner. It's obvious that he's failed to enrich himself as Frei's minister. It seems to me he was also a minister in the Aylwin government. I don't know for sure. What I do know is he didn't get rich. Nonetheless, while patiently waiting in the checkout line to pay for his lettuce and tomatoes, a handful of teenagers who probably hadn't been born when he was already in exile started taunting him with "yellow, yellow, yellow." On other occasions, of course, the jeer (from teenagers, also from unbearably vulgar matrons) is "red, red." And what did you do when they called you yellow, I asked. Nothing; what do you expect, Jorge says. If you put the two kinds of insults together, I tell him, you get the Spanish flag. Jorge doesn't hear me. He's telling my wife the story of an independent female candidate in the first democratic elections who, because of an overzealous application of the proportionality rule, was given only fifteen seconds of free advertising time on television. …