Searching for Nicanor
Nicanor Parra in 2005. Photograph by José Luis Rodríguez Yaiba
by Leila Guerriero. Translated by Frances Riddle
He’s a man, but he could be something else: a catastrophe, a roar, the wind. He sits in an armchair covered by a blanket. He wears a denim shirt, a beige sweater with several holes, corduroy pants. Behind him, a sliding door separates the living room from a balcony with two chairs. Beyond, a lot covered in plants and shrubs. Then the Pacific Ocean, waves biting at rocks like black hearts.
“Go ahead. Go ahead.”
He’s a man but he could be a dragon, the death rattle of a volcano, the stiffness that precedes an earthquake. He stands. He grips a wool hat and says:
“Go ahead. Go ahead.”
It is not difficult to reach the house on Lincoln Street, in the coastal town of Las Cruces, 200 km from Santiago, Chile, where Nicanor Parra lives. What’s difficult is reaching him.
Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. Born in San Fabián de Alico, 400 km to the south of Santiago, the first of eight children brought into the world by the union of Nicanor Parra, school teacher, and Clara Sandoval, housewife, tailor. Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. He was twenty-five at the start of the Second World War, sixty-six when they killed John Lennon, eighty-seven when the planes hit the towers. Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. Born September 5, 1914. There are those who believe he is no longer among the living.
Las Cruces is a town of two thousand inhabitants sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by a bay which encompasses several towns. The home of Nicanor Parra is located on a cliff facing the sea. The house has two floors, the frames of the doors and windows are painted white. Parked in front is the Volkswagen Beetle which he uses to move around town. In the front yard, where the plants grow wild, a stairway leads to a gate that the punks of Las Cruces have marked with graffiti so that no one touches the house. It reads: “Antipoetry.” In the entry hall there is a table filled with family photos. Written in marker on the wall, in his teacher handwriting, the names and phone numbers of some of his children: Barraco, Colombina.
“Go ahead. Go ahead.”
Nicanor Parra’s hair is a sulfurous white. He has a beard, long sideburns. He has no wrinkles, just lines in a face that seems constructed from things of the earth (rocks, branches). His hands are bronzed, without spots or folds, like two roots polished by water. His eyes, when he furrows his brow, are a force of ruin. When he laughs, and his voice rises to the pitch of a girl enchanted by the things of the world, his eyes open with a look of comic surprise.
“Amen, amen, amen,” he says, making the sign of the cross with a bottle of wine. On a low table lies volume two of his Complete Works published five years after the first volume by Galaxia Gutenberg, edited by Niall Binns and the Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría. There is also a copy of a local Las Cruces magazine, on the cover is a photo of Nicanor and his sister Violeta, the prestigious Chilean folk singer who committed suicide in 1967 and to whom Nicanor was very close. In addition to the sliding door that opens to the balcony, the living room has an enormous window crowded with empty bottles in which dry branches are arranged, as decoration. On one arm of the sofa, a check in dollars for a very small amount, on the other, today’s copy of the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, opened to a review praising Parra’s work. He sits in a chair facing a low marble table, his back to the sea.
In the late 80s, shortly before moving to this house from Santiago, he stopped giving interviews. He finds most direct questions unimaginably offensive which means conversation with him is subject to an uncertain drift. Topics repeat themselves or show up out of nowhere. Themes are linked in surprising ways: his trip to Indialeads to The Laws of Manu; he ends up at his grandchildren through Shakespeare and geography.
“The people from the south. What do you call the people from the south? Let’s see, let’s see, what do you call the people from the south?” He throws his head back, closes his eyes, repeats the parenthetical mantra: “Let’s see, let’s see… What were the native people of the south of Chile called? Before they were called Onas, Alacalufes, and Yaganes….”
“That’s it.Selk’nam. There’s a line. ‘The land of fire is going out.’ Author: Francisco Coloane. Have you heard of Coloane, do you know who he is?”
A Chilean writer?
“A great line. But he was a pretty unfriendly person, you know. Unbearable. A bad writer too.”
Have you ever been to the Tierra del Fuego?
“I’ve been through there. With a grandson of mine, Cristóbal, Tololo. He’s 18, 19 years old. He’s the author of some phenomenal lines. Once the principal of the school called an urgent meeting with his mom. Why? Because they called attendance and Cristobal didn’t answer. So she said to him, ‘Listen, buddy, why don’t you answer when I call attendance?’ ‘I can’t because my name isn’t Cristobal anymore. My name is Hamlet now.’ But one day he was here and I said to him: ‘Hamlet.’ And nothing. So then I said to him, ‘Hamlet, I’ve been calling you for a while and you don’t answer.’ And he says to me, ‘My name isn’t Hamlet anymore. Now my name is Laertes.’ Since then I’ve given up literature and I just write down things kids say.”
It might sound like a joke but it’s not: Parra writes down things said by his grandchildren; or Rosita Avendaño, who has cooked and cleaned his house for years; or people passing by, and it is all woven into the deceptive simplicity of his poems: “Then they tried to send me to the school / Where the sick kids were / But I couldn’t stand them / Because I am not some sick girl, It’s hard for me to say words / But I’m not some sick girl” he wrote in “Rosita Avendaño,” first published in the special edition that the Chilean magazine The Clinic dedicated to him in 2004.
“I like Tololo’s lines. I mean underneath, underneath. Nothing from the Super Ego. Not even the Ego. Not even the Super. Not even the… what do you call the one underneath?”
“That’s it. Not even the Id. But listen, you don’t have to go down to the R. There are whole countries that are down in the R. Reptile. Crocodile. Have you been to India? Even the kids look like crocodiles. There are no western eyes there. I was there a week, ten days. I didn’t know about The Laws of Manu. If I had known about The Laws of Manu, I would have stayed because beyond The Laws of Manu there is nothing. The last line of The Laws of Manu is the following: ‘One asks themselves, why? Because there is no greater humiliation than existence.’ There is no greater humiliation than existence.”
He looks towards the ceiling and counts the syllables on his fingers, marking the rhythm with his feet: “Hu-mil-i-a-tion…alexandrine. Listen. The Laws of Manu says: the ages of men are not two or three, but four. First novice. Then gallant. Third, hermit. Hermit. What does that mean? That when the first grandchild is born, man retires from the world. Renouncing the world means, first, renouncing women. No more woman. No more family. No more material items. No more search for fame.”
And the fourth age?
“Ah, the fourth age. Ascetic or shining butterfly. Those who have been through all the stages will be rewarded when they die. And for those who stop along the way, punishment. They will come back to life as a cockroach or a sewer rat. The other, the ascetic, will not come back to life. Because there is no greater humiliation than existence. The best reward is to be erased from the map. And then what do you do after that? You leave India and you come to Las Cruces.”
There are no details, only facts. His childhood was marked by poverty and uprootings. He remembers the lack of money and the fights between his parents. He always wrote – poems – and at 16 or 17 he left for Santiago, alone. With a scholarship from the League of Poor Students he was able to complete his studies at the Internado Barros Arana. The oldest in a family of varied talents – from Violeta and Roberto, respected musicians, to Tony Canarito, a clown who walked the streets earning coins – he housed and assisted his siblings who wanted to move to Santiago. Since he had very high marks in his liberal arts subjects and not in hard sciences, his competitive nature pushed him to study Math and Physics at the University of Chile “to show all those jerks that they didn’t know anything about Math.” In 1938, while working as a professor, he published his first book, Songbook Without a Name. In 1943 he traveled to the United States to study Advanced Mechanics at Brown University; in 1949 he went to England to study Cosmology; from 1951 he taught Math and Physics at the University of Chile, and in 1954, he published the book that would change everything – everything: poetry in Spanish – forever.
He was just over 40 when he began to write poems in a style that was simple but refined. There were no nymphs, princesses, or tritons. In 1954, he published them in a book called Poems and Antipoems. His sophisticated treatment of unadorned language revolutionized Latin American poetry: “Neither very smart nor comically foolish / I was what I was: a mix / of vinegar and oil for eating / A sausage of angel and beast!” The book included a prologue by Neruda, with whom Parra would have a conflicted relationship, partly because his work began to be read as a reaction against traditional poetry. It was received with high acclaim: “Strange digressions, almost in prose, maintained by a forceful rhythm (…) and with a kind of enchantment (…) they are very clear, they seem to be elemental: this makes them all the more mysterious,” said Alone, Chile’s most prestigious critic of the time. A highly prolific period followed with four more volumes of poetry. In 1969 he was awarded the National Literature Prize and published a volume of his complete works. At fifty-five years old he was a strong defender of the Cuban Revolution and a judge for the Casa de las Américas Prize. In 1970 he attended a meeting of writers held by the Library of Congress in Washington. Along with other guests he visited the White House where he was surprised to be invited to tea with the First Lady, Pat Nixon. The cup of tea with Mrs. Nixon in the midst of the Vietnam War was too much for Parra: Casa de las Américas removed him from the judges’ panel as they bombarded him with insults. Parra defended himself in a communication which read: “I appeal to revolutionary justice. I ask for urgent rehabilitation. Long live the anti-imperialist fight of the oppressed people, long live the Cuban Revolution.” When he returned to Chile the president of the writers group called him a “narcissist” and a “sixty-year-old hippie.” His students boycotted his university classes as he sat in the courtyard with a sign that read “I will give explanations.” But he never gave them: he was never asked to. If his political position fell under suspicion, his work was soon to follow: in 1972 he published, under the title Artefacts, a series of postcards with words and images: “Cuba yes, Yankees too,” “The right and the left united will never be defeated,” “Burn bushes, let’s see if God appears,” “White House House of the Americas crazy house.” The kindest critics said that this wasn’t poetry. The least kind, that it was the best propaganda that the Fascists could have hoped for. In 1977, during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, Parra published Sermons and homilies of the Christ of Elqui “I’d bet my head that no one laughs like I do when the Philistines torture them (…) General Ibañez forgive me, human rights are not respected in Chile.” He also published Jokes to confuse the police (Chistes para desorientar a la policía) “It appeared that he appeared / but on the list of the disappeared.” Like other poets who stayed in the country instead of living in exile, he was suspected of not opposing the regime enthusiastically enough.
“At that time staying meant approving of the government,” says Sergio Parra, editor and owner of the Metales Pesados bookstore in Santiago, who has known the poet for years and despite sharing the same last name, is no relation. “That was viewed negatively. But he was never politically correct. Not in the times of Castro, not in the times of Allende, and not afterwards either.”
“What you see first of all is a rejection of authority,” writes Niall Binns in the first edition of Parra’s Complete Works. “In political terms, Parra was always a rebel: against the right during the government of Jorge Alessandri (1958-1964); against Eduardo Frei Montalva’s Christian Democracy (1964-1970); a supporter but also a critic of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende (1970-1972) and one of the most notable opponents – from within Chile – of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1974-1990).”
In 1985, he published Hojas de Parra “Don’t be surprised / if you see me simultaneously / in two different cities / listening to mass in a Kremlin chapel / or eating a hotdog / in a New York airport / in both cases I’m exactly the same / even though I don’t appear to be the same.”
“He is very aware of what he is worth and that also makes him an antipoet. That’s not what is expected of a poet,” says Matías Rivas, poet and director of Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales. He approached Parra about publishing his translation of King Lear, after two decades of editorial silence. “With him you can’t expect to close a deal over lunch. You have to build a relationship of trust. After we published King Lear he went into the university with thousands of young people following him. He returned as a rock star. Publicists follow him around desperately. It’s much cooler for a brand of jeans to have Nicanor Parra than to have the best Chilean model. Because he is cool. But he’s cool for real. It’s not fake. He is a luminary: he’s not a little old man. He is more alive and awake than anyone. That’s why his peers, his age or even younger, are terrified of Artefacts. Nicanor is in the punk scene, or heavy metal, and his peers just barely make it to the jazz scene. ‘New is better than good,’ he says.”
“I think that he undid the rhetoric of poetry and he established other ways of speaking,” says Roberto Merino, Chilean writer and critic. “He shines a light on things that didn’t exist before they were written about, the metaphysics of urban life. I don’t know, putting a soda fountain in a poem. Before that no poet would have ever put a soda fountain in a poem. Poets spoke from the heights of Mt. Sinai but Parra speaks from another place. But this can be deceiving, because I don’t think that it’s popular poetry. The text is put to the service of something very sophisticated. I believe the misconception that he’s a popular poet comes from Artefacts, the poems that function like ingenious slogans. If Parra was just that, nothing more, I would have to change my thinking. But when you read his poems you see that he is a poet who has an enormous sensitivity for words.”
His reluctance to publish is legendary. Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales managed to publish two more of his works After-dinner declarations (2006), a series of award acceptance speeches, and The return of the Christ of Elqui (2007), but his publication process can be corrosive: he takes years to sign a contract, months to arrive at a version of his texts that he is content with, months more to revise proofs. The process of publishing Complete Works was no less torturous.
In November of 1999, Roberto Bolaño and the Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría went to visit him. Echevarría had begun to read his work on the recommendation of Bolaño, who had become a sort of activist for the vindication of Parra’s work: “Let the brave follow Parra,” he wrote in “Eight Seconds of Nicanor Parra,” in 2001. “Only the young are brave, only the young have the purest among pure of spirits. But Parra doesn’t write youth poetry. Parra doesn’t write about purity. He writes about pain and loneliness; about useless and necessary challenges; about words condemned to be dispersed like a tribe is condemned to be dispersed. Parra writes as if the next day he were going to be electrocuted (…) First requirement of a masterpiece: to pass unnoticed. (…) A political note: Parra has managed to survive. It’s not a big deal, but it’s something. Not the Chilean left with its profoundly right-winged convictions, nor the Neo-Nazi Chilean right who suffer from memory-loss have been able to touch him. Not the Neo-Stalinist Latin American left now globalized and until recently accomplice to a silent repression and genocide. Not even the mediocre Latin American professors that swarm the campuses of North American universities, nor the zombies that stroll the village of Santiago. Not even Parra’s followers have been able to touch Parra.”
“He agreed to see us and we went to a restaurant,” says Ignacio Echevarría from Spain. “Already, in Barcelona, Roberto, half joking, had suggested that I do the complete works of Parra. Everybody told me that it was impossible, that it was a project with many failed attempts. I proposed it to him and he started off asking for a lot of money, but he said that he was willing. But then I sent him a contract, he had it six months, I would ask him for it and he would tell me he had lost it, or he objected to something tiny and I had to send him another one. Three years went by until one day, after the death of Bolaño, I travelled to Chile, I visited him and, to my surprise, he told me: ‘You know, Ignacio? I’m going to sign the contract. Roberto would have liked that, don’t you think? Let’s do it for Roberto.’ But as I’ve gone on I’ve felt a growing regret about forcing Parra to do something that he didn’t want to do. He sees antipoetry as something you write on the wall, on a napkin. And I think that the idea of a complete works repulses him. But it’s something else to be won over by what we all have, and Parra has more than anyone, which is vanity, in this case of being published in the same collection with Franz Kafka or Neruda. At the start of the first volume I consulted him on everything, and every question took months, he just added on more problems. Then I just didn’t consult him anymore and I think that he was grateful that it was happening behind his back. He said to me: ‘Look, if I get involved in this, I’ll never do it.’”
In his book No leer (Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2010), Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra recalls a time when he was about to begin a university course on the work of Parra “when the poet himself, with the air of a student who arrives late, knocked on the door.”
“He was always very generous with me. Nicanor found out the day and time of the class and he showed up on his own. He was ninety-five years old. Imagine that. When we worked on King Lear, the sessions consisted of four or five hours of work at a time. Really, Nicanor had already done the translation for a representation of the play that was done in the 90s, but the text had many corrections and we had to get a final version. And he doubts, doubts a lot. And every forty minutes, Nicanor would say “there’s a looong way to go,” and I was shaking because I thought that the book was never going to be finished.”
Your house has a pretty view.
“It’s not ugly. That’s a huaso answer. In general, someone tells you something nice to measure the owner of the house, to see what they’re going to say. And what the owner of the house usually says is ‘Yes, it’s very pretty but the view from the floor above is much better.’ A huaso says ‘It’s not ugly.’ Did I tell you the story of the huiña? A huiña is a wild cat, from the mountains.”
“I’ll show you.” Parra opens the door to the balcony and makes a wide gesture towards the plants of the back yard. “My gardening method is very simple. It consists of not touching anything. Everything fills up with branches, with plants. The English leave everything like this. On the other hand the Spanish come and say ‘We’re going to make a garden here.’ And they take out all the marvels of nature and they make little paths. Look, the huiña showed up right here. She was fierce, hostile, untrusting, she wouldn’t come close. But one day she decided that I was her friend. And she came too close and I was able to touch her. The next day she was there, dead. That wild huiña didn’t like it that I had touched her. It bothered her. She felt…deflowered. She felt deflowered. So we gave her a funeral. She’s buried there.” He points to another patch of land. As if in warning about the dangers of going out into the world. Of getting close. Of trusting.
Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. Translated to English by Williams Carlos Williams, friend of Allen Ginsburg, candidate, several times, for the Nobel Prize, winner, in 1991, of the Juan Rulfo Award. In his acceptance speech he said: “What am I going to do with so much money? / First of all health / In second place / Rebuild the Ivory Tower / which was knocked down by the earthquake / Get up to date with internal debts / And a wheelchair just in case…” Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. Who got off the plane that would have taken him to Madrid to receive the Reina Sofía Prize in 2001. Who responded, to a girlfriend who asked him something trivial, “You don’t ask the Pope what time it is.” Nicanor Parra. Declared dead by President Sebastián Piñera who mentioned him among the great poets that “have left us” on National Book Day in 2010. Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. When in 2010, he won the Cervantes Prize, someone heard him go through the list of past winners who were still alive. “Forty,” he said. And he concluded: “It’s easy.” Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. An inhuman force in a world of humans.
It’s two or three in the afternoon and Nicanor Parra walks to the living room stereo. He puts on a CD of Carlos Gardel, and sings, with ease, tangos full of lunfardo, the slang of Buenos Aires. “Do you know what otario means? My beloved Buenos Aires. Do you remember? I started listening to Gardel a while ago. Now I listen to him all the time.” Later he says: “Let’s go to lunch.”
He puts on a green jacket, a straw hat typical of the Chilean countryside and he grabs a wooden cane that’s purely for looks: he doesn’t use it. In the car, on the way to the restaurant, he looks out the window and says, laughing: “I’ve been I don’t know how many times to Buenos Aires and I always had bad luck. I had good luck only once. I went to a bookstore and I took out a stack of books like this. I asked them how much I owed and they said to me, ‘Nothing. How could we charge Nicanor Parra?’ They asked Borges what he thought of Chilean poetry and he said ‘Chilean poetry? What’s that?’ And they told him that there was a Nobel Prize winner, which was Pablo Neruda. And Borges said: ‘I already said it to Juan Ramón Jimenez, a great bad poet.’ And they asked him about Nicanor Parra. And he said: ‘There can’t be a poet with such a horrible name.’”
The restaurant is a family place. Parra squints briefly at the menu without the need to use the magnifying glass that he carries in his pocket (he doesn’t wear glasses).
“I want a shrimp empanada, that’s it,” he says to the waitress.
“They come two to a portion.”
Parra is silent. “Nothing then.”
Another silence. “You’re right. Two empanadas.”
“Two shrimp and cheese,” the waitress writes down the order.
“No, just shrimp.”
“They’re shrimp and cheese.”
“Okay shrimp. Anything else?”
“Just that. I’m already mad, already.”
When the waitress leaves, Parra says: “She imposes everything doesn’t she?”
The conversation drifts to Chilean writers of other generations, to a visit that the photographer Sara Facio made him in the 50s.
“Ah, Sarita, Sarita. At that time I let myself be photographed. Now, no.”
“In Chillán there was a conversation between two boys. One said something to the other, and the other said, ‘Why not.’ So then he asked him ‘Why not?’ And the other said to him ‘Because, because no.’ But with Sarita there was a connection with Neruda. A magazine put a photo of hers on the cover that said: ‘The Black Island Poet: Nicanor Parra’ and in the background, smaller, ‘On the way to Neruda’s house.’ That was the legend. And Neruda saw that and he said ‘this is an international anti-Neruda maneuver, but I’m going to unload all of my power, which is a lot, on the head of Nicanor Parra.’ And said and done. He unleashed all the power of the International Communist Party. And who told me that rumor? Jorge Tellier. Do you know of Jorge Tellier?” The waitress brings the two empanadas and a beer, but Parra asked for it room temperature and it’s ostensibly cold. “You see. She brings what she wants,” he says, although he doesn’t protest. Braulio Arenas, are you familiar with Arenas? He’s a poet who once said ‘Nicanor, you are the best Mexican poet.’ Mexican! It was the worst insult that someone could give you. But Braulio taught me that every ten lines you have to have a dark one, you have to have one that no one understands, not even you. And that fixes it. And at that time Neruda still hadn’t discovered kitsch.”
It’s 5:30 in the afternoon when he stands up, puts on the jacket and the hat, takes his cane and, before leaving, searches with his eyes for the waitress until he finds her having lunch with her co-workers at a table in the back. With the air of one who says goodbye and good evening, in a very polite tone of voice, Parra raises his arm and says: “Heil Hitler.”
And the occupants of the table, without thinking, respond: “Heil Hitler.”
Then, he walks calmly to the door. On the sidewalk he asks: “Did they answer?”
“See? What matters is the tone you say it in.” Back in the car, on the way to his house, he looks at the landscape, points to a hill. “That place is very interesting. There is a graveyard of automobiles, a wrecking lot. I like to go there.”
“Are you happy with Complete Works?
“I’m surprised. I read those poems and I don’t feel like the author. I never thought I was the author of anything because I have always just fished things that were in the air. That’s what they said: things that were in the air.” The asphalt glides smoothly between pines and the sea, under a soft light. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
Makes you want to stay to live.
“Or rather, to die.” Something in the evening recalls the placid respiration of a sleeping animal. “Look at everything they’ve done and they haven’t been able to resolve that issue.”
“The issue of death. They’ve solved other things. But why don’t they concentrate on that?”
Originally published under the title “El aire del poeta” in “Babelia,” cultural supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País, December 3, 2011. An article based on this interview appeared in The Daily, translated by Sarah Foster.
About the Author:
Born in 1967 in Junin, Argentina, Leila Guerriero began her career as a journalist in 1991, with the magazine Pã¡gina/30. Since then her texts have appeared in La Nacion and Rolling Stone in Argentina; El Pais and Vanity Fair in Spain; El Malpensante and SoHo in Columbia; Gatopardo and El Universal in Mexico; Etiqueta Negra in Peru; Paula and El Mercurio in Chile; Granta in the United Kingdom, Lettre Internationale in Germany and Romania and L’Internazionale in Italy, among others. She has published the books Los suicidas del fin del mundo (The End of the World Suicides), the anthologies Frutos Extraños (Strange Fruit Chronicles) and Plano Americano (American Shot), in addition to the recently released Una historia sencilla (A Simple Story). Her work has been translated to English, Italian, and German.