"The Most Chilean Man" is a story from Alejandro Zambra's new story collection, <i>My Documents</i> (McSweeney's), which comes out February 10.
"The Most Chilean Man" is a story from Alejandro Zambra's story collection My Documents (McSweeney's), which comes out tomorrow. Buy it and read it on the train. See what happens. Something must happen. Zambra is one of our favorite writers. He wrote "Thank You," which we published in our November 2013 issue, and has written two novels, Bonsai and Ways of Going Home (FSG). What distinguishes Alejandro from his contemporaries is the sweetness and intimacy of his writing, and his confidence in letting himself be as he is. As you read his work, there's never the impression that he is second-guessing himself, thinking, So-and-so would do it this way, or Such-and-such editor would say that. He exhibits this remarkable confidence on the page, one that allows him to be himself and to speak, a special kind of generosity. It feels like knowing and talking to a sweetheart—it never feels like he's an author who pretends, or tries to teach, or falls into egotistical traps.
In mid-2011 she received a grant from the Chilean government and set off for Leuven to start a doctoral program. He was teaching at a private high school in Santiago, but he wanted to go with her and live some version of "forever;" after talking it over, though, at the end of a sad night when they had very bad sex, they decided it was better to separate.
During the first months, it was hard to tell if Elisa really missed him, even though she sent him all kinds of signals that he thought he interpreted correctly: he was sure that those long emails and the erratic and flirtatious messages on his Facebook wall and, above all, those unforgettable afternoon-nights (afternoons for him, nights for her) of virtual sex via Skype could only be interpreted one way. The natural thing would have been to go on like that for a while and then gradually cool off, forget each other, and maybe, in the best of cases, run into each other again after some time, maybe many years later, their bodies bearing the weight of other failures, this time ready to give it their all. But an executive at Banco Santander, at the Pedro Aguirre Cerda branch, offered Rodrigo a checking account and credit card, and suddenly he found himself passing from one screen to another, checking boxes that said "yes" and "I agree," entering the codes B4, C9, and F8, and that was how he found himself, at the start of January, without telling anyone—without telling her—on his way to Belgium.
There was no connecting thread, no constant in his thoughts during the nearly twenty-four hours he spent traveling. On the flight to Paris, he was struck by the amount of turbulence, but since he hadn't flown much—or never any significant distance, at least—he was, in a way, grateful for the feeling of adventure. He never really felt afraid, and he even imagined himself saying—sounding so sophisticated—that the flight "had been a little rough." He had a couple of books in his backpack, but it was the first time he'd flown on a plane with so many entertainment options, and he spent hours deciding which movies or TV series he wanted to see, and in the end, he didn't watch anything in its entirety; but he did play, with a degree of skill that surprised him, several rounds of some sort of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" video game.
While he was walking through Charles de Gaulle to take the train, he had the fairly conventional thought that no, he did not want to be a millionaire, he'd never wanted to be a millionaire.
And that trivial thought led him, who knows how, to a scorned and maligned word, which nevertheless now glittered, or at least shone a little, or was less dark than usual, or was dark and serious and big but didn't embarrass him: maturity. He went on with these thoughts on the train ride from Brussels to Leuven. Inexplicably, using up almost all of the credit on his card to buy a plane ticket to Belgium to visit Elisa struck him as a sign of maturity.
...she was sure of one thing: she didn't want to spend the coming days with Rodrigo, not those days or any others, none.
And what happened in Leuven? The worst. Although sometimes the worst is the best thing that can happen. It must be said that Elisa could have been nicer, a little less cruel. But if she had been nicer, he might not have understood. She didn't want to leave that possibility open. He called her from the station, and Elisa thought it was a joke, but she started walking toward him anyway, talking to him on the phone all the while. Then, she turned a corner and saw him, a hundred steps away, but she didn't tell him she was there and he went right on talking, sitting on his suitcase, half-numb and anxious, looking at the ground and then at the sky with a mixture of confidence and innocence that was repulsive to Elisa—she couldn't put her feelings, her thoughts, in order, but she was sure of one thing: she didn't want to spend the coming days with Rodrigo, not those days or any others, none. And maybe she was still a little in love, and she cared about him, and liked to talk to him, but for him to show up out of nowhere, like in some bad movie, ready to embrace and be embraced, ready to become the star, the hero who crossed the world for love: that was, for Elisa, much more of an affront and a humiliation than a cause for happiness.
As she took long strides back to her house, she felt the constant vibration of her cell phone in her pocket, but she only answered half-an-hour later, already in bed, duly protected: "I'm not going to pick you up," she told him. "I don't want to see you. I have a boyfriend (lie). I live with him. I don't ever want to see you ever again." There were another nine calls, and all nine times she answered and said more or less the same thing, and in the end she told him, to add a little realism to the thing, that her boyfriend was German.
Of course there are other reasons for her reaction, there's another story that runs parallel to this one, one that explains why Elisa didn't ever want to see Rodrigo again: a story that talks about the need for a real change, the need to leave behind her small Chilean world of Catholic school, her desire to seek out other paths—a story that explains why, in the end, it was logical and also healthy to break up with Rodrigo definitively, maybe not like that, maybe it wasn't fair of her to leave him sitting there, eager and numb, but she had to break it off with him. In any case, for now, she is stretched out on her bed, listening to some album that falls somewhere on the broad spectrum of alternative music (the latest from Beach House, for example). She feels calm.
Rodrigo tests out a quick and mindless walk around the city. He sees twenty or thirty women who all look more beautiful than Elisa; he wonders why Hans—he decides the German's name is Hans—chose Elisa, who isn't so voluptuous or so dark-skinned, and then he remembers how good she is in bed, and he feels rotten. He goes on walking, but now he sees nothing but a beautiful city full of beautiful people. He thinks what a whore Elisa is, and other things typical of a scorned man. He walks aimlessly, but Leuven is too small a city to walk around aimlessly in, and after a little while, he is back at the station. He stops in front of Fonske: it's practically the only thing Elisa had told him about the city: that there is a fountain with the statue of a boy (or a student or a man) who is looking at the formula for happiness in a book and pouring water (or beer) over his head. The fountain strikes him as strange, even aggressive or grotesque, and he tries to avoid engaging with the irony of a "formula for happiness." He goes on looking at the fountain—which for some reason that day is dry, turned off—while he smokes a cigarette, the first since he 's been off the train, the first on European soil, a pilgrim Belmont cigarette from Chile. And although during all this time he has felt an intense cold, only now does he feel the urgency of the freezing wind on his face and body, as if the cold was really trying to work its way into his bones. He opens his suitcase, finds a pair of loose-fitting pants and puts them on over the ones he is wearing, along with another shirt, an extra pair of socks, and a knit cap (he doesn't have gloves). For a moment, carried along by rage and a sense of drama, he thinks that he is going to die of cold, literally. And that this is ironic, because Elisa had always been the cold-blooded one, the most cold-blooded girlfriend he 'd ever had, the most cold-blooded woman he 'd ever met: even during the summer, at night, she used to wear jackets and shawls and sleep with a hot water bottle.
Sitting near the station, in front of a small waffle shop, he remembers the joke about the most cold-blooded man in the world, the only joke his father ever used to tell. He remembers his father beside the bonfire, on the wide open beach at Pelluhue, many years ago: he was a distant and taciturn man, but when he told that joke, he became another person, every sentence coming out of his mouth as though spurred by some mysterious mechanism, and upon seeing him like that—wisely setting up his audience, preparing for the imminent peals of laughter—one might think that he was a funny and clever man, maybe a specialist in telling these types of long jokes, which can be told so many different ways, because the important thing isn't the punch line but, rather, the flair of the teller, his feeling for detail, his ability to fill the air with digressions without losing the audience 's interest. The joke started in Punta Arenas, with a baby crying from cold and his parents desperately wrapping him up in blankets of wool from Chiloe. Then, surrendering to the obvious, they decide they must find a better climate for the baby, and they start to climb up the map of Chile in search of the sun. They go from Concepción to Talca, to Curicó, to San Fernando, always heading north, passing through Santiago and, after a lot of adventures, heading up to La Serena and Antofagasta, until finally they reach Arica, the so-called city of eternal spring, but it's no use: the boy, who by now is a teenager, still feels cold. Once he 's an adult, the coldest man in the world travels through Latin America in search of a more favorable climate, but he never—not in Iquitos or Guayaquil or Maracaibo or Mexicali or Rio de Janeiro—stops feeling a profound and lacerating cold.
He feels it in Arizona, in California, and he arrives and departs from Cairo and Tunis wrapped in blankets, shivering, convulsing, complaining interminably, but in a nice way, because, in spite of how bad a time he had of it, the coldest man in the world always remained polite, cordial, and perhaps because of this, when the much-feared ending finally came—when the coldest man in the world, who was Chilean, finally died of cold—no one doubted that he would go directly, without any major trouble, to Heaven.
Cairo, Arizona, Tunis, California, thinks Rodrigo, almost smiling: Leuven. It's been months since he's seen his father— they've grown apart after some stupid argument. He thinks that, in a situation like this one, his father would want him to be brave. No, he doesn't really know what his father would think about a situation like the one he is in. His father would never have a credit card, much less travel irresponsibly thousands of miles to be given a kick in the stomach. What would my father do in this situation? Rodrigo wonders again, naively. He doesn't know. Maybe he should go back right away to Chile; or maybe he should stay in Belgium for good, make a life here? He decides, for the moment, to go back to Brussels.
People travel from Leuven to Brussels, or from Brussels to Antwerp, or from Antwerp to Ghent, but they are such short journeys that it's almost excessive to consider them travel in the proper sense of the word. And even so, to Rodrigo, the half hour to Brussels seems like an eternity. He thinks about Elisa and Hans walking around that city, such a university town, so European and correct. Again he remembers Elisa's body: he recalls her convalescing after she had her appendix out, receiving him with a sweet, pained smile. And he remembers her some time later, one Sunday morning, completely naked, massaging rose hip oil into the scar. And maybe that same night, playing with the warm semen around that scar, drawing something like letters with his index finger, hot and laughing.
He gets off the train, walks a few blocks, but he doesn't look at the city, he goes on thinking about Elisa, about Hans, about Leuven, and something like forty minutes go by before he realizes he has forgotten his suitcase on the train, he's left it in a corner next to the other passengers' luggage, and he's gotten off carrying only his backpack. He says to himself, out loud, energetically: ahuevonado, you stupid asshole.
He buys some French fries near the station, and he stops on a corner to eat. When he stands up again he feels dizzy, or something like dizziness. He was planning on buying cigarettes and then walking for a while, but he has to stop because of this feeling, which just seems like a nuisance at first, an impression of vertigo that he has never felt before, but which immediately starts to grow, as if freeing itself from something, and soon he feels that he is going to fall, but he manages, with a lot of effort, to maintain the minimum stability necessary to move forward. The backpack weighs next to nothing, but he slings it over one shoulder and takes five steps, to test himself. The dizziness continues and he has to stop completely and support himself against the window of a shoe store. He moves forward slowly, propping himself up against one shop window after another, like Spiderman's cowardly apprentice, while he looks out of the corner of his eye at the interiors of the stores, overflowing with different kinds of chocolates, beers, and lamps, some of them selling strange gifts: drumsticks that are also chopsticks, a mug in the shape of a camera lens, an endless array of figurines.
It's hard to know if it's day or night: 5:15 p.m. and the lights of apartments and cars are already on.
An hour later he has only made it seven blocks, but fortunately, at a kiosk, he finds a blue umbrella that costs him ten Euros. At first he still feels unstable when he walks, but the umbrella gives him confidence, and after a few steps, he feels like he's gotten used to the wobbling. Only then does he look at or focus on the city; only then does he try to understand it, start to understand it. He thinks it's all a dream, that he's near Plaza de Armas, near the Cathedral, in the Peruvian neighborhood, in Santiago de Chile. No, he doesn't think that: he thinks that he thinks he's in Plaza de Armas. He thinks that he thinks it's all a dream.
The stores are starting to close. It's hard to know if it's day or night: 5:15 p.m. and the lights of apartments and cars are already on. He starts to walk away from downtown, but instinctively he goes into a laundromat and decides to spend some time there—he doesn't really decide this, actually, but this is where he ends up, along with two guys who are reading while they wait for their clothes. It isn't exactly warm there, but at least it isn't cold. It's absurd—he knows that he's short on money, that he's going to need every coin—but still he decides he is going to wash one of the pairs of pants, the second shirt, and the extra pair of socks. It takes him a while to figure out how the washing machines work—they're old and look sort of dangerous—but he figures it out and throws in the clothes and this small victory gives him a stupid and absolute feeling of satisfaction. He sits there looking at the tumbling clothes, entranced or paralyzed, focused like someone watching the end of a championship game on TV, and maybe for him this is even more interesting than the end of a championship game, because while he 's watching the tumbling clothes pushed up against the glass, soaked in soapy water, he thinks, as if discovering something important, how these clothes are his, how they belong to him, how he has worn those pants a hundred times, those socks too, and how once upon a time that shirt, a little faded now, was his best, the one he picked out on special occasions; he remembers his own body washing that shirt with pride, and it's a strange vision, vain, awkward. It's perhaps his kitsch idea of purification.
Then he goes into a pizzeria called Bella Vita, which looks cheap. He's attended to by Bülent, a very friendly and cheerful Turk who speaks some French and a little Flemish but no English, so they have to communicate exclusively through gestures and a reciprocal murmur that perhaps only serves to demonstrate that neither of them is mute. He eats a Napolitano pizza that tastes out of this world to him, and then he sits there, drinking a coffee. He doesn't know what to do, he doesn't want to go on wandering, but he can't make up his mind to look for a cheap hotel or a hostel. He tries to ask Bülent if the the place has wifi, but it is truly difficult to mime the idea of wifi, and at this point, he is already so helpless that he doesn't think of the simplest option, which would have been to say "wifi" and pronounce it in all possible ways until Bülent understood. Luckily Piet arrives just then; he's a very tall guy who wears glasses with thick, red rims and has an unspecifiable number of piercings in his right eyebrow. Piet knows English and a little Spanish—he has even been to Chile, for a month, years ago. Rodrigo finally has someone to talk to.
A couple of hours later they are in the living room of Piet's beautiful apartment, across from the pizzeria. While his host makes coffee, Rodrigo watches from the window as Bülent, with the help of the waitress and another man, closes the place up for the night. Rodrigo feels something like the pulse or the pain or the aura of daily life. He turns on his laptop and connects to the Internet; there are no messages from Elisa, but he wasn't really expecting any. He tries to find a friend from high school who, as he remembers, has lived in Brussels for several years. He finds him easily on Facebook, and the friend responds right away, but says that he 's in Chile now, taking care of his sick mother, and although he plans to come back to university, for now he's going to stay in Santiago, he doesn't know for how long. Ten minutes later he gets another message in which the friend recommends that he not be afraid to drink peket ("It's a good buzz, but a bad hangover"), that he avoid the grilled endive ("no to the grilled endive, yes to the boulettes de viande and to the moules et frites"), that he try the hot dogs with warm sauerkraut and mustard, that he buy chocolates at Galler, near the Grand Place, that he go to the Tropismes bookstore, and that he shouldn't miss the Music or the Magritte Museums—to Rodrigo, all of these details seem remote, almost impossible, because this isn't a vacation, it never was. He feels desperate. He doesn't have much credit left on his card, and he only has a hundred euros left in his wallet.
He tries to ask Bülent if the the place has wifi, but it is truly difficult to mime the idea of wifi.
That's when Bart arrives, Piet's editor who lives in Utrecht. Only then does Rodrigo find out that Piet is a writer, that he has published several books of short stories and a novel. He likes that Piet showed this kind of discretion, that he was so reserved. He thinks that if he were a writer, he wouldn't go around proclaiming it to all the world either.
Bart is even taller than Piet, he's a giant of almost two meters. Along with a friend, who is also named Bart, he runs a small press that publishes emerging writers, almost all of them fiction writers, almost all of them Dutch, but there are a few Belgians, also. The other Bart, oddly, lives in Colombia (because he fell in love with a woman from Popayán, Rodrigo learns), but he handles everything online from there: his job is to manage distribution—to a series of small bookstores, none of them commercial—and organize small events and conferences where he sells the books himself.
Bart is friendly and he tells his story in pretty fluent English, though he is also helped by his emphatic gestures and a certain talent for mimicry when words fail him. It's almost ten; they walk for a few blocks. Rodrigo feels better, he leans on the umbrella-cane, but it's more of a precaution than a necessity. They reach La Vesa, a somewhat gloomy bar that has poetry readings on Thursdays, but today isn't Thursday, it's Tuesday, and the patrons are scarce, which is better, thinks Rodrigo, who enjoys this feeling of intimacy, of routine camaraderie, this sensible chatting with new friends, and the comments—short but laden with slight ironies—that come every once in a while from Laura, an Italian waitress who isn't beautiful at first sight, but who becomes beautiful as the minutes pass, and not from the effect of the alcohol, but because you have to look at her really closely to discover her beauty. His friends are drinking Orval and Rodrigo orders wine by the glass; Piet asks him if he dislikes beer, and he replies that he likes it, but he's still too cold and he prefers the warmth of wine. They start talking about Belgian beer, which is the best in the world. Piet tells him it's not so cold out, that there have been many worse winters. Then Rodrigo wants to tell them the joke about the coldest man in the world, but he doesn't know how to say friolento, cold-blooded, in English, so he says "I am" and makes the gesture of shivering, and Bart tells him "you're chilly", and it all gets tangled up because Rodrigo thinks they're talking about Chile, about whether he 's from Chile, which supposedly they already knew, until, after several misunderstandings that they celebrate thunderously, they understand that the joke is about the chilliest man on earth, and Rodrigo adds that the most cold-blooded man on earth is definitely Chilean, he 's the chilliest man on earth, and he laughs heartily, for the first time he laughs on Belgian soil the way he would laugh on Chilean soil.
Rodrigo starts the joke uncertainly, because as he strings the story together, he thinks that maybe in Belgium and Holland they have the same joke, that maybe there are as many versions of the joke as there are countries in the world. His listeners react well, however, giving themselves over to the story: they enjoy the enumeration of the cities, whose names sound so strange to them ("Arica sounds like Osaka," says Bart), and when the chilliest man in the world, who was Chilean, dies of cold under the burning sun of Bangkok, his friends let out an anxious giggle and grab their heads in a mournful gesture.
The chilliest man in the world had been a good son, a good father, a good Christian, so Saint Peter accepts him into Heaven without delay, but the problems start immediately: incredibly, even though in heaven hot and cold don't exist—at least not in the way we understand them down here—and even though all the rooms in that formidable hotel that is Heaven automatically adjust to the needs of their guests, the Chilean still feels cold, and in his friendly but also effusive manner he goes on complaining, until the blessed patience that reigns in Heaven runs out, everyone gets fed up, and they all agree that the chilliest man in the world should go find a truly beneficial climate. It is God himself who decides to send him to Hell, where it's unthinkable that he could go on feeling cold. But in spite of the unquenchable fires, of the frightful burning waters, of the colossal hot water bottles and the human heat, which in such an overcrowded place is intense, the chilliest man in the world still feels cold, and the case becomes so famous that it reaches Satan's ears, who sees it as a fun challenge and decides to take matters into his own hands.
One morning, Satan himself leads the Chilean to nothing less than the hottest place imaginable: the center of the sun. It's so hot there that Satan has to put on a special suit or else he'll get burned. Once inside the center of the sun, they come to a small two-by-two meter cubicle, and Satan opens the door. The Chilean enters and he stays there, hopeful and deeply grateful. Weeks pass, months, years, until one day, moved by curiosity, the Devil decides to pay the Chilean a visit. He puts on his special suit again—even reinforces it with two additional layers, because he thinks he may have singed himself on the previous trip—and he heads off to the sun. He has scarcely opened the door to the cubicle when he hears the Chilean shout from inside: "Please close the door, it's chilly in here!"
"Please close the door, it's chilly in here!" says Rodrigo, and his performance is a success.
"I think that you are the chilliest man in the world," Bart tells him, "and I want the chilliest man in the world to try the best beer in the world." Piet proposes they go to a bar where they sell hundreds of beers, but in the end they decide to go somewhere closer, where they clandestinely sell Westvleteren, the so-called best beer in the world, and on the way Rodrigo leans on the umbrella, but he doesn't know if it's necessary, he feels like he doesn't need it anymore and could throw it away, but he goes on using it anyway while he listens to the story of the Trappist monks who make the beer and sell it in modest quantities, a story he finds amazing; he hopes he likes the beer a lot and he does, although they only buy one for the three of them, because the bottle costs ten euros.
Later, in the living room, they go on drinking for a while, they half-listen to each other, they laugh.
They go back to the apartment at two in the morning with their arms around each other, so Rodrigo doesn't have to use the umbrella: they look drunker than they are. Later, in the living room, they go on drinking for a while, they half-listen to each other, they laugh. "You can stay, but only for tonight," says Piet, and Rodrigo thanks him. They drag in a mattress while Bart stretches out on an old chaise lounge and covers himself with a blanket. Rodrigo thinks about what he will do if Bart tries something in the middle of the night. He considers whether he will reject him or not, but he falls asleep, and Bart does too.
He wakes up early; he 's alone in the living room. He 's a little hungover, and the coffee he finds in the kitchen does him good. He looks at the street, he looks at the buildings, the silent facade of the pizzeria. He wants to say goodbye to Piet, and he cracks open the door to his room: he sees him sleeping next to Bart in a half-embrace. He leaves them a note of thanks and goes down the four flights of stairs. He has absolutely no plan, but he's encouraged by the idea of walking without a cane, and once in the street he tries it, like in a happy ending. But he can't do it, and he falls. It's a nasty fall, a hard fall, his double pants rip, his knee bleeds. He stays on the corner, thinking, paralyzed by pain, and it starts to rain, as if he were a character in a cartoon with a cloud hanging above him—but this rain is for everyone, not just him.
It's a cold and copious rain and he should look for a place to take shelter. He has very little money left, but he has no choice but to buy another umbrella. This is the moment to think of Elisa and curse her, but he doesn't do it. Now he has two umbrellas, the blue one for balance and the black one for the rain; he says it out loud, with the same calm tone in which he would say his name, first and last, his birthplace. Now I have two umbrellas, blue for balance and black for rain, he repeats, as he starts to walk, with no other purpose than that, simply: to walk.