“J’ai peur de te revoir et je le souhaite si tant. Dans ma chambre je garde un drapeau dont je rêve de te l’envoyer pour que tu puisses le montrer sur ton balcon tel un signe de victoire sur la nostalgie—signe de soif de nous-mêmes—car ma patrie, ma terre, mes mots c’est toi, ta voix, tes bras, tes paroles.”
Susana, I just finished shoveling the snow that was blocking the entrance to my house and now my back hurts. It’s snowing and on the radio the forecast calls for twenty more centimeters of snow. It’s cold out and I don’t want to leave the house, but I feel like I should go to the library to read—or suffer—the latest news from Bolivia brought by the handful of newspapers in Spanish that manage to reach Montreal.
This morning as I started working on a story I was writing for you, I realized I had lost almost thirty pages by mistake—as a pretentious deus ex machina would have it. They must have decided to vanish purely out of shyness and shame, imagining your gaze upon the nakedness of their distant words. If I hadn’t lost them, I probably wouldn’t be writing this convoluted letter and thinking about you. It was the kind of mistake in which a distracted, mighty finger can erase an entire city from the map, or the memory of stories yet unwritten. Susana, it’s so sad to lose words like this, especially when you’re a week away from turning thirty and for the occasion you have gathered all your hopes of being able to write something that will finally convince you that tracing an immigrant tongue on a piece of paper is somehow worth the trouble. Writing is so artificial, so unnecessary, compared to the practicalities of life, and yet it is so vital because one way or another, writing, this exercise of serpents, manages to merge the sum of our days into the river of words and memories. I think that’s how we’re born into this story, a story that marks the course of our lives with a branding iron, as if Death were letting us roll the dice for a moment, just to show us how some people roll a lucky seven while others end up crucified, with their lips sewn up and their memory burning in silence. I will start over. Little by little I will rewrite the story so that you won’t forget me, so I can help you remember who you were, that long-gone afternoon in Glorieta de Obrajes when we knew nothing of all this distance.
Eating Italian-inspired noodles made by Guatemalan cooks at a restaurant on Boulevard St-Denis, Marcelle Meyer told you with no dramatic gestures or signs of frustration, rather with an air of impassive calm, that she wanted to stop seeing you, that she had grown tired of you. You listened to her, feigning calm, and secretly regretted the absence of wine on your table, even a cheap one, to wash down that damn mouthful of potatoes that all of a sudden got stuck in your throat as if even your digestive tract was emotionally stunned by such a stabbing phrase: “I don’t want to see you again, Alfredo. We shouldn’t be together. I’m leaving you.” Her voice glided with ease as it pushed the blade of separation between two ribs.
The next day, knowing perfectly well that it was utopian and like a bad joke no one would understand, you decided to start your absurd Quechuistic project on the metro. To break the norm, risk a possible arrest and even a not-so-unlikely prison sentence. Maybe even a few blows, as Peruvian in verse as they are heavy upon the ribs. That’s how you started your day. “Monsieur, vous dérangez affreusement!” A thick moustache under a cap, the uniformed metro police. Severe blue. Everything imagined. The string of metro cars stops at Jean-Talon station. The sliding doors open, fed by the powerful pulse of electricity that runs from the rivers of the cold north of Québec down into the underground belly of this island. Passengers on a permanent journey—from the Ogowe Basin, the Coronilla de Cochabamba, the ruins of Pompeii, the knives of Toledo and the bazaars of Marrakesh—board the cars of the endless metallic intestine of the Montreal metro. They go in and out, they cross paths and take in each other’s eyes, coats, diurnal and nocturnal hairdos, mouths, trousers, Turkish and Mozarabic tongues, shared air, sweat, and lotions. Shoes, sandals, winter boots. Over the bustle and noise, someone is singing the way one sings at the age of twenty.
You board the train and instinctively seek contact with the other passengers’ pupils. Iris to nerve, circular birds that take flight when they sense your gaze, dissolve into the absence of other faces and lose themselves in the epistemological depths of ads for creams, cigarettes, tickets for the baseball season, trips to lands of beaches and beach balls and palm trees, sun-block, and last-vintage wines from Arabized France. In the subways of the world, people don’t make eye contact. Desires without a price tag are threatening.
Your voice attracts the attention of other metro riders. If not because of its timbre, at least because of the language you speak in: “Chunquituy palomitay... kolila!” Even if they don’t understand the language, at the very least they can tell you’re calling out for someone at the top of your lungs. Someone who will never answer. From one metro car to the next, opening forbidden latches, crossing doors in a clamorous trip through de Castelneau, du Parc, Outremont stations. “Chunquituy palomitay... kolila!” Montréal est la première ville nord-américaine avec la plus grande population trilingue. The olive-skinned ears of Tamils who escaped from Jaffna’s ambush and shrapnel seek familiar phonemes beneath your disguised words. A Hindu thinks he hears verses in ancient Sanskrit as he drifts in a drowsy dream toward the west end of the city after washing dishes, pots, and floors at the Bombay Palace—the palace of succulent tandoori chicken and curry sauce—with soap and scrubber in his raw hands from one in the afternoon until five in the morning at the restaurant on Sainte-Catherine Street. “Chunku”: n. Voice that expresses love and tenderness. You leaf through the dictionary, trying to unearth a tongue denied to you by your elders’ shame and last name; they, who were so comfortable speaking it to each other in the cornfields when they didn’t want to be understood by others. The Castilian Queshwa—quechua, quichua, kechua—of the forgotten Jesús Lara. The term “kolila” is not in this book. Maybe it’s written with a “khu” or “ku.” Nothing. The metro keeps moving. It arrives at the next station. Its doors open and close in a matter of seconds. Mechanical jaws, wooden brakes, intercourse of metal and rubber. It starts again and leaves Université de Montréal station. You walk through another forbidden door amidst the rattling speed of the pneumatic ride, always searching for someone to listen, someone who will understand your stubborn muttering, someone who will know how to tie with earnest fingers the umbilical laces of your migrant Andino shoes. The passengers’ eyes feign indifference as they steal glances at you. Their pupils conceal their own curiosity, or perhaps restrained reproach, disdain, perhaps racism. Est-ce que vous êtes cuzqueño, monsieur? You laugh. No, no, can’t you see I’m a dog, madame? But even mongrels have a home country, don’t they? Nooo, señora! Je suis boliviano. Boliviano... boliviano... ah!... un otro italiano! ...ladiladaladalada... Her answer awakens in his ears the notes of an old song by the great Alfredo Domínguez when he sang at the Radio Méndez concert hall, the notes of his guitar wafting like fragrance through the speakers of the scratchy radio. The Tupizan musician had run away from home to join the circus at the age of twelve. His job was to take care of a monkey during his journey with a caravan of animals, frugal men, and hunger across the remote regions of the border between Bolivia and Argentina, regions transformed into landscapes of solitude, love and nostalgia by the exquisite strings of his guitar. Exhausted, he got off at Côte-des-Neiges station. No one had answered his plea. No one had detained him. No one had asked for explanations or accused him of breaking the rules and regulations of the public transportation service of the Montreal metropolitan area. As he walked toward the exit, he saw someone digging through the garbage, searching for cans of Coca-Cola or Canada Dry. An impoverished man recycling himself as a recycler. This Alfredo, Alfredo Cutipa, stood for an instant on the platform leading to the exit escalators, thinking he would do better staying in that sunless underground, a 20th-century mine shaft, and realized it would be useless to expect anyone to understand the analogy, whether they spoke Quechua or not, a language to which he had no access either, despite the blood that ran through the subterranean tunnels beneath his skin. During the ride he had imagined the possibility of running into a paisana of his. If only to hear once again the sibilant speech, the accent, the serpentine form of the Andean word. To be Bolivian. To have a wound that never heals. To hell with bolivia. Yes, like that, in lowercase, minuscule letters for a minuscule country in the South, the most dramatic region in the world, the most... what? He couldn’t find the right adjective for the immensity he wished to convey. Perplexed by his linguistic limitations, Alfredo sat down on a stone bench next to people waiting for the metro. All of a sudden, he remembered the trailer of a movie. A woman closes the door as she steps out of a small apartment building. With a snug-fitting skirt and a confident gait, she walks to a café on Place Contrescarpe on Rue Mouffetard. Her body and her steps merge into the crowd that makes its way down the boulevard toward the old cobblestone street. Colors are bright because it’s around eleven on a sunny June morning, perhaps on the boulevard near Musée de Cluny. The camera rises above the pedestrians and streets in a wide-angle shot à la “Nuit américaine” and then stops in front of the bar in a café packed with urbanites drinking and digesting hurried croissants dipped in steamy café au lait. She orders a croque-monsieur and café au lait s’il-vous-plait. Looking into the mirror on the wall behind the bar, she notices she is being followed by the eyes and broad pectorals of the hero of the movie, a resolute-looking man who asks the garçon for another coffee, then turns toward her and whispers a proposition in her ear: to spend an hour together in a nearby hotel. She looks toward the audience in the theater, her eyes wide and amazed, as if asking for advice. Someone sitting beside me nearly chokes, her saliva suddenly thick and sliding down behind her Eve’s apple. The camera lifts us in the air for an instant and then draws us in for a close-up. The hotel receptionist’s hand offers an irresistible key toward the viewer. Room 678 at the Gordon Hotel is ready for you. Every shot pregnant with uncertainty. Will she accept his carnal proposition? The screen slowly fades to black after flashing a dramatic slanted phrase at the audience: “Prochainement dans cette salle de cinéma.” He opened his eyes after the dull moment of darkness, realizing all of a sudden that he was still in Côte-des-Neiges metro station, sitting on the polished black bench next to the platform. He was sitting next to a woman who was making a discreet effort to read the title of the little book he held in his hand: Hugh McLennan’s “The Watch That Ends the Night,” a novel about a Canadian physician responsible for the first blood transplant in the history of modern medicine right in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. At the speed of a Spanish Republican bullet, Alfredo Cutipa’s eyes caught her glancing at the title of his book. After an awkward moment of silence, she asked him point blank: “Monsieur, est-ce que vous avez vu le film?” He answered in Spanish: “No, but I’m trying to read this island by reading this book.”
At night, Marcelle Meyer’s face again, tired of the usual Tuesday night movie date. After hundreds of movies, she is on the big screen of your dreams, dressed as a karate black-belt, waving her arms in a series of lethal moves as she explains in Cantonese that she doesn’t want to see you anymore. And, to show you how final her intentions are, she lets out a high-pitched scream, and with a brutal, well-aimed chop she swiftly splits open the skull of Sigmund Freud, who just sits there in his fantastic green armchair and doesn’t even have time to say “¡ay!”
Laval. Lait partiellement écrémé. Vie partiellement écrémée. Vie partiellement peuplée. Sitting again at “La Brioche Dorée,” a small café packed with students and immigrants in the babelic barrio of Côte-des-Neiges—the golden marraquetita?—a quiet café with waiters whose hair is not slicked back. A small tip in exchange for this brief moment of calm, this smell of tobacco, of chess players, of distance. Between the pages of your notebook, the fading steps and image of that beggar-magician covered in shiny black grease, drinking booze out of a can, leaning against a wall on Calle Jenaro Sanjinés, muttering the chapters of a story that will never end because it hasn’t yet been written.
January 1980. How did that worn copy of “Vade mecum of the Bolivian Soldier” define Bolivia? Is Bolivia the sum of its mountains? Is it the celestial air we breathe? The flag and the national coat of arms? Is it the mother, the sister, the cousin, and the niece we beat and rape when the radios announce the coup d’état, the new military operations, the tanks and troops taking over the city sheltered in the darkness of the curfew and the sinister legitimacy of the state of siege, so impunicratically Bolivian?
Lieutenant (mestizo): “Private Mamani!”
Private Mamani (Aymara): “Yessir, Lootenentsir!”
L: “Private, what is your country?”
M: “My countree’s my motherland, Lootenentsir!”
L: “Very well! Private Condori! What is your country?”
Condori: “Mamani’s mother, Lootenentsir!”
L: “These dumb laris, indiansonsofbitches! To sentry duty! Hup!”
Where did you leave that little expedition diary from 1980? In what pocket did you hide your terror, little Bolivian soldier?
Seven in the evening. Month of May. Montreal fills your lungs and you don’t know whether you should read, or write, or read while writing. Better write while reading instead. Every sign, every curve on the road, every twist and circumstance becomes a step for your eyes to climb to the imagination of the past.
I wish the cheesemonger was only a cheese maker and not a butcher too!—someone cried out the slogan from the depths of your memory, a voice in a small town of quiet streets. The swollen river was rushing again through the lobes of your brain, that shocking, murky river of memories disguised in a pamphlet. “No... not again... please!” Memory: the wise queen of anarchy and intuition. Only she knows when she is leaving and when she is coming back. After all, San Javier cheeses are not that bad.
“Colonel... what measures will your government take to fight against the voices of the opposition?”, asked the complacent featherduster from “El Diario” to the new Caudillo of a tiny little country with no access to the Pacific Ocean, drowned in a sea of military men. “Well,” answered the mouse-in-boots, trying to speak in the solemn tone of an illustrious statesman who graduated from the Escuela de Altos Estudios Militares de Bolivia, “as my minister of de interior Mario Adett Zamora is about to esplain, we’re gonna sweep out all dose evil Volibians who’ve tried to debase the name of our nayshon and swapped de estandar of our sanctificent motherland for de red rag of internashonalist cospirassy.” The pint-sized big shot loved the sound of his own voice twenty years later as he caressed the visor of the old colonel cap that still crowned his neodemocratic bald head, an invisible cap only he could see when he looked in the mirror and considered his campaign strategy for the upcoming national elections, another war against the internal enemy. American advisors assured him that thanks to his ex-dictator skills he would definitely win. Those arduous days of his first democratic experiments of the late 1970s were long gone. A fairly difficult task to carry out from abroad, and completely futile: the masquerade would be crushed by the simple, ironclad affections of a handful of miners’ and workers’ wives who decided to stop eating one day in the month of Christmas until their men were freed from the prisons and barracks around the country. Their example spread like wild fire, and days later thousands of people poured into temples and churches in a heroic, exemplary renunciation of their mundane appetites, which until then had had the delight of savouring delicious portions of fricasé, jolke, anticucho, thimpu, costillar, boguitas, chairo con cuerito, pataska, chicken chanka, fake rabbit, ají mixto, plato paceño, ají de papalisa with chalona, charquecán, roast goose, majao, silpanchos, rangaranga, asado borracho, chorizos chuquisaqueños, tuntas with cheese, and other delicacies from all over the vast territory of Bolivian gastronomy. And so there started a hunger strike that would eventually put an end to seven years of terror. Entrenched in Plaza Murillo’s Palacio Quemado, the mouse with epaulettes had no choice but to free the political prisoners, allow exiles to return, and hear the protests of people who were already dead, as well as to promise the Bolivian people a load of crap about holding national elections.
So it was that Banzer’s godson, a certain Juan Pereda Asbún, an ungrateful high-ranking air force officer, decided to stage a revolt against his godfather, he who had worked so hard filling ballot boxes with thousands upon thousands of fake votes in favour of Juanito and his puny Frente Nacional Popular. After getting drunk, that wretched godson of his tried to seize the election results and the presidential throne, all in vain. The little monkeys had failed. The fraud was so great that even two years later, in the early 1980s, the soldiers of the Air Force Installation Security and Defense Unit—a battalion formed by eight companies of eighty one soldiers each, plus several supernumeraries, confined at the El Alto Air Base near the city of La Paz—were still wiping their rearguard with the Air Force colononel’s face, the forgotten paladin whose smiling face appeared on the green ballots of the Frente Nacional Popular.
“In Bolivia, do you say colonel or colononel?”, Anne and Jose asked Alfredo while he read these improvised passages to them in a tiny apartment on Fairmount Avenue, half a block from Café Kilo on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal. They could smell the bagels that were baked 24/7 in the bakery next door. Marcelle Meyer had explained to him that the sesame-covered doughnut-shaped rolls were of Jewish origin but now—a sign of our times, when marks of identity are becoming increasingly ambiguous—they were made by young olive-skinned Sri Lankan men. They rolled the little balls of dough, one under each hand working in unison. They boiled them, dipped them in a honey-and-water solution, and coated them with sesame seeds to finally bake them for the glory and good name of the city of Montreal. He remembered this, and more, faster than a rooster can crow—though no rooster actually crowed because in Montreal there are no roosters, except the colorful plastic ones outside Portuguese restaurants. Returning to his hosts’ question, Alfredo Cutipa calmly explained to them the equine logic of the uniformed in a country teeming with barracks, where it was only a matter of time before any rearguard soldier, prodded by a rifle butt, managed to climb to the top of the military hierarchy, and earned ipso facto the opportunity to take the “reins” of the nation or at least some juicy post in Customs or Narcotics. Bolivians, are they just eight, ten, fifteen, or twenty million hopelessly forgetful lambs?
What a rude question, he thought after rereading his improvisations, feeling once again like he was walking down the lanes of Cala Cala, near Avenida América, his eyes searching for the century-old bark of the Great Chillijchi, father of all trees; looking for frog tracks beneath the shadow of the mighty molle trees of a faraway childhood by the Rocha River; looking for the refined elegance of a frog he could hide in his pocket and take with him to learn the gymnastics of the English language in a tiny summer school. The small amphibians never survived the linguistic experience.
Two days later, the river of words has dried up and memory sleeps the short dream of present reality. One of many possible realities. In the meantime, Marcelle Meyer, his girlfriend, had disappeared, swallowed up by the bustle of a public accounting firm, her face sprinkled with numbers and digits that wriggled like tadpoles all over her computer screen.
Drinking a bowl of café au lait at Café “Le Damier” on Saint-Denis and Bélanger, he thought that he, Alfredo Cutipa, would never get anywhere if he kept wandering around carrying the weight of his personal history on his back, as if he were some aparapita carrying a grand piano, chewing his acullico of coca and llipta, drenched in sweat, climbing up the steep Calle Pisagua in La Paz. Where were these fictions taking him?
If you don’t believe me, ask Ponciano Villca. He wouldn’t let me lie. Ask him how many high-ranking soldiers, from the second echelon, came that night in February of 1980 to break our souls with all the rage accumulated over 300 days and nights of ser-vicious military service. They came in through the broken windows facing the barracks at the main point of entry to the military base on Avenida 16 de julio in the city of El Alto. I’m not talking about the avenue of the same name in the center of La Paz—a gaudy, pompous, frivolous circuit used as catwalk by a sector of the population that tries to hide their indian nails, their indian names, their collective mestizo memory ashamed of the blood in their veins. I mean this one here, this wide Avenida 16 de julio in El Alto, this one teeming with indians, stinking of the frantic sweat and concrete of bricklayers and the mouldy tobacco of construction workers who will drink agua de sultana until they die, this avenue that smells of the paja brava and coca of the aymaras who have just arrived in the city, future bricklayers, future construction workers, future aparapitas, future drunkards and market caseritas, future flags for the Inter-American Development Bank and its desperate attempt to show how modern the small-business cholitas are as they fight slowly but surely against hunger selling their ají de fideo for one peso, fake rabbit with rice and llajua, fresh rack of puppy-lamb with a side of steaming chorrellana and boiled potatoes, while their children wander from corner to corner shining shoes, selling candles, marraquetas, screws, calculators madeinchina, and fly paper.
“Alfredo, are you still serving up that same old commie speech from the seventies?”, asks the Scribe, who keeps track of every single one of my words, jotting them down in his notebook with great care. “How much longer, ché!”
The Scribe licks the tip of the pencil he is using to write these lines. An avid follower of the ritual of writing, he thinks any text can end up becoming the next Holy Bible. He looks at me, waiting for the next word, the next sentence. Even though he doesn’t agree with me and loathes these words, he knows that the story must keep moving, twisting around like an earthworm in the vast humus of Bolivian collective identity. Impossible to fix, preserve or restrain. I’ll keep telling my story about that night. Without turning on the lights in the giant troop barracks, the high-ranking soldiers entered, their faces covered, and ordered us to jump out of our narrow four-tier bunk beds. They wrenched us out of sleep and ordered us to form a line in the dark more crooked than an achachi dancer’s staff because of our fear. Later on we learned there were only four of them, all from a tiny village in the Altiplano near the lake, but at the time, the accumulated rage of those beaten natives would have been enough to fill Lake Titicaca with blood.
“¡Ya, ferme carajo! ... ¡Fermeydichu mono y mierdas!”, they ordered us, keeping their voices lowered, feeling powerful, violent and methodical.
Thuds, fists pounding ribs and faces, someone’s breath bursting into a whimper or groan after a blow to the stomach. A shadow bends over and falls to the floor of El Alto’s military garrison. Someone starts crying, quietly. Alfredo breathes nervously, hearing everything, his sweaty hands shaking like two fish out of water as the air in his ears swells at the crack of a nearby slap. Everything happens in darkness, almost in silence, with no faces or names, with no one to call on and not one hand to stop the fury of a night as dark as a black whale swollen with bile.
“Stop... please stop... please!”, someone cries out before collapsing to the ground, rolling and folding under the kicks and blows.
We couldn’t break formation. I don’t know if it was our incipient military discipline or fear that had us nailed to the floor. As I tried to figure out what time it was, fervently wishing for the first light of sunrise, I felt my mouth explode and, before I could become aware of the pain, hot blood running down my chin. I fell back, shocked by the silent attack, ears ringing, lips throbbing, unable to make sense of what was happening in that space where shadows moved and foul breath whispered bitter orders all around me.
“You’re making that up! That’s cheap literature, ché, like those little pamphlets written by the resistance where the heroic militant smiles like Superman while someone rips his nails out or slices him open and hangs his guts out to dry. You’re pulling my leg, ché! This Alfredo is really something else... You’ll never change!”
“No, no, Scribe!... I swear it’s true! Ask Ponciano Villca, he remembers, he was there. He wouldn’t let me lie.”
The Scribe shook his head in resignation and kept writing as Alfredo dictated, since that was his job.
They were sitting around a table at “La bruja,” a dive bar in a dusty narrow street at the bottom of the Ceja de El Alto, in the city of La Paz. The bar had several small patios with chairs and covered tables crowned with giant pitchers of chicha. Alfredo and his buddies, now civilians who had completed their military service, saw a group of former soldiers from who-knows-which battalion walk up to a nearby table. They had a guitar and a fat pitcher of chicha. For some reason, maybe the way they walked, Alfredo surmised they had been infantry soldiers. They’d had enough to drink to shed their Andean timidity with regard to emotions, and now showed a mix of cheerful despair and the sadness of carnies without a carnival. It was as if they were drinking their first chicha after a year of compulsory military service “in the heart of the Armed Farces, as established by the Political Constipation of the State,” said Alfredo Cutipa with improvised solemnity watching them approach. He even felt as if he and his army mates had been in the same military unit, the same regiment, the same army, with the men sitting beside them. The newcomers plucked a song by Domínguez out of the air and their voices and eyes plunged off-key into that cadence of guitar strings concocted by the Tupizan into a song that no one in the world except soldiers could truly understand:
Who knows what affections
spin around in his mind
our Private Juan Cutipa,
as he’s cleaning his guns,
our Private Juan Cutipa.
such seriousness on his face.
When it all comes to light
that he’s been sneaking out
when it all comes to light.
His lieutenant punishes
and slaps him on the face,
but deep inside he is laughing
doesn’t feel any pain.
Deep inside, no one can
really scold or humble Juan.
All of this is so true
that it sounds like a lie,
all of this is so true.
Between lovings and beatings
the day to leave has come,
and this strong dark man
can now finally wear
can now finally wear
his civilian clothes again
his civilian clothes again.
The guitars and voices—some deep, some high-pitched—of teenagers branded by violence with the white-hot iron of coups d’état and the silent, anguished gestures of the corpses from 1979 and 1980 gradually grew quiet and sank with their hearts into the lyrics of the song that came to life in their hands, in their voices, eyes, and souls. Surprised, the boys felt the tears that welled up in their throats now rising to their eyes like frightened, shiny fish, softening the leathery skin on cheeks that had faced the fire and ice of the Bolivian altiplano. Some of them started to cry, trying to hide their tears, ashamed by what they saw as a clear sign of diminished virility, their heads bowed, quiet tears falling on their worn veterans’ boots.
“Here, here,” said the Scribe, reaching out towards him, “it’s alright... calm down man, it’s over...”
Alfredo stretched out his hand and grabbed the wrinkled handkerchief offered by the Scribe, still recognizing himself in those ex-soldiers.
“You still remember these things, Alfredo?”
“Yes, I remember, Scribe. That’s why you’re here, to help me gouge the eyes out of my eyes, to find out if I can forget all this by writing it down.”
 This note was found in an envelope returned by Canada Post ten years later to the Scribe’s address in Montreal. A stained Manila envelope with worn edges. Reason for non-delivery, written in boldface: “Le Kurdistan n’existe pas comme pays.” [Kurdistan is not a country.] The envelope, addressed to a woman named Bolivia, contains BIBA VOLIBIA!—twelve pseudo-poetic attempts, by Alfredo Cutipa, including “Brief Question in November Regarding a Dead Man,” “July 17, 1994,” “Salt of the South,” “La Paz,” “An Approximation to Nostalgia,” and “To the Happy Few That Ruled Bolivia.”
Alejandro Saravia, a Bolivian-Canadian writer based in Montreal, Quebec, is part of a vibrant community of Hispanic-Canadian writers. His novel, Rojo, amarillo y verde "Red, Yellow, and Green" was published in Spanish in Canada, exemplifying the growing significance of the language in a country whose official tongues are French and English. Touching on the predominant themes found in Latino-Canadian literature—identity, integration, transculturation, hybridity, exile, and political violence in Latin America—Saravia’s work stands out because it is not limited by style, genre, subject matter, or language. He writes in Spanish, English, and French.
“Montreal is the foremost North American city with the largest trilingual population,” says an unnamed speaker in French in the opening pages. This is one of many voices in a novel whose rich complexity mirrors that of the city of Montreal, where Bolivian Alfredo Cutipa lives and writes. Searching for solace from the terror of his experiences as a soldier during the Bolivian coup d’état of 1980, Alfredo explores and challenges cultural, national and linguistic identity. In an attempt to liberate himself from the torture of memory (“the wise queen of anarchy and intuition”), he dictates his stories to an incredulous scribe. In an ironic twist of fate, Alfredo falls in love with a Kurdish woman whose name—as chance would have it—is Bolivia. She is from Kurdistan, an imagined nation whose flag happens to have the same colors as the Bolivian flag. Heartbreaking and uplifting, full of humor and irony, and innovative all throughout, Rojo stretches the limits of genre and language as it speaks of love, life and suffering as remembered, and/or imagined by the protagonist.
I met Alejandro Saravia at a reading at Concordia University, in Montreal, in 2007. As a reader, translator, and fellow writer, I found resonance in the snapshot his novel provides of Montreal’s cultural and linguistic hybridity and the impenetrability of a Latin American country which could easily have been my own home country, Venezuela: a nation, like Bolivia, enriched and haunted by the heritage and consequences of Spanish colonization, the oppression and silencing of indigenous languages and cultures, and political turmoil and repression in the 1970s and 1980s.
Saravia’s 226-page novel presents numerous translation challenges: a folk song, twelve poems (in an endnote), cultural references, regionalisms, epistolary fragments, chronicles, various registers, purposely corrupted words in scathing accounts of Bolivian politicians, and text in Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Quechua. I faced difficult decisions such as whether to translate French text in the original, accessible to Canadian readers but not necessarily to those in other English-speaking countries (I didn’t); and whether to mark English text where it stood out in the original (I didn’t). I did, however, preserve some instances of Spanish in my translation, one of many conscious efforts to maintain the novel’s multilingual flavour and underscore its conception in a city apt to celebrate diversity instead of ignore it.
Alejandro Saravia was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and since 1986 has lived in Quebec, where he works as a journalist. His publications include the novel Rojo, amarillo y verde (2003) and six books of poems: Ejercicio de serpientes (2004), La brújula desencadenada (1996), Oilixes helizados (1998), Habitante del décimo territorio (2000), Lettres de Nootka (2008), Jaguar con corazón en la mano (2010). His work appears in Canadian journals and newspapers such as Quiebre, Tinta y Sombra, Mapalé, and Alter Vox. He earned awards and mentions in poetry and short story contests and is part of Montreal’s Hispanic-Canadian collective The Apostles Review.
María José Giménez is a Venezuelan-Canadian translator and rough-weather poet with a rock climbing problem. She has studied French, Spanish, and Translation, and she was a Banff International Literary Translation Centre resident in 2010. Her original work and literary translations appear in journals and anthologies and include poetry, short fiction, essays, screenplays, and a memoir.