“The visits to the chemist’s were constant and lengthy since in 1992 he was diagnosed with a serious liver illness. At the opening speech of the 1999 Fiesta Mayor, Bolaño made a special mention to the chemist’s assistants: To the chemist’s assistants of Oms Pharmacy, who always have a kind word for all.”
––Point 16 Ruta Bolaño
Part Six: The Living and Dead
My last night in Blanes, I finally stumbled across the folkdance performances. I’d been looking for the young dancers’ stage all week, but no one seemed to know where to find it. Even their guardians, who I saw in the bar couldn’t explain how to find the place.
And then suddenly, there it was in a hidden courtyard behind city hall, the very location where I believe Bolaño once opened a festival and thanked the pharmacy clerks, who filled his prescriptions and treated him well.
With intense uncomplicated pleasure, I enjoyed the performances. The Georgian youngsters flitted across the stage in staccato rhythms of precision and grace while their more elderly Turkish cousins seemed immune to such energetic displays. Instead, the Turks demonstrated the pleasures of a simple step repeated often, a step that could accommodate dancers of any age, infirmity, or ability.
Between numbers, I let my eyes wander across the courtyard and up one of the surrounding buildings where I spied a woman wearing a bra and underwear mopping her terrace and smoking a cigarette. In some ways, she appeared as the dancers’ opposite because they crossed the stage in intricately embroidered costumes with jewels sewn across sashes, while in other ways her simple movements mirrored almost exactly what was happening below. The gestures of the stage were like those of the farm––the planting of seed, the cutting of hay––a lot of it looked something like mopping.
Plus, beyond City Hall, the sun was setting, which lit up the square in the kind of golden light that makes landscape paintings seem like dreamscapes. From a certain angle, one could look upon all of it––the precious light, the woman on the terrace, the international gathering of dancers––and believe the world a happy and untroubled place.
Of course, this was weeks before refugees of nearby war and poverty took to the seas in increasingly alarming numbers. Many hoped to find themselves safely landed in Mediterranean towns just like this one.
Knowing what was to come and what had already happened, were some of the performances ridiculous? Sort of.
More than that, they were great. The troupe of Austrian men, in lederhosen, percussively slapping each other’s asses while their director played the accordion; the Armenian girls, in flowing chiffon skirts, lip-syncing romantic tunes in an over-the-top manner owing more to modern televised singing contests than folk dancing traditions of any nation; the young Macedonians lining up in a slow rendering of peasant courtship. All of it mesmerized, including the final performance of the night. A local troupe, who spun over the floor with olive oil bottles and bread loaves held high overhead, created a human pyramid in celebration of the Catalan nation.
Then again, one didn’t have to look too far to see examples of what might give rise to a Bolaño-like dark humor. A sharp-chinned man took the stage and was announced as the program’s international director. He had a villain’s oily hair and stood chest out, holding a clipboard in one hand the other balled into a fist; it looked like he wanted to threaten someone or at least demand higher fees from the parents.
During performances, he stood just off-stage, where half the audience saw him berate the show’s announcer, a woman with a newscaster’s honey-blonde hair and non-committal professional smile.
To me it seemed she was doing an excellent job, climbing the stairs between number in dangerously high heels to compliment even the blandest performers, announce the next group, and urge more applause from the crowd. None of it seemed to please the director.
While various children fluttered and spun on stage, he stood, inches from her face screaming long sentences at her forehead. But she was unflappable. Yes, she looked at him with dagger eyes, but otherwise offered no defense. It was as if she had an inner clock, telling her in exactly how many seconds she would be free of him, the stage dismantled, the chairs stacked, and performers and audience all returning to their homelands.
I couldn’t imagine Bolaño working the dancers into his fiction, but the off-stage humiliation––that seemed about right. However, despite the heavy presence of cynicism in his work, I find an almost intangible sense of human connection––its importance and beauty.
Along the Ruta and in my brief conversations with townspeople, I gathered that Blanes had, indeed, loved Bolaño. The town extended to him a welcome and helped him create a sense of home, one in which he felt comfortable enough to write some of the most powerful literature of our time.
That home didn’t depend on his talent nor literary fame; few, it seemed to me, knew him as a writer. He lived in Blanes and made friends because of a shared appreciation of drinking, and movies, and reading, and gaming, and families, simple things that anyone could enjoy.
The same uncomplicated bonds of kinship that imbue all of Bolaño’s stories (in spite of their depictions of violence, failure, loneliness, and injustice) highlight a belief in friendship’s importance and our common human purpose.
We can detect (a Bolaño verb if there ever was one) that he hadn’t given up on humanity. Everything truly awful about us––the way we ignore each other’s suffering or even go out of our way to cause it––is contained inside an equal possibility that we might just as easily extend mercy. In this way, Bolaño’s shout-out to the pharmacy clerks, who treated him kindly as he faced illness and death, is in alignment with his greatest literary works.
I on the other hand, will only ever know him through his writing, which provides an incomplete, likely false, picture of the man himself. Did I need to travel 6,000 miles to learn this? Apparently I did.
Once again, I know it to be true––the writer is not the person. The person who writes lands on the page part ghost, part channel, part remnant of overactive ego and will. From such fragments the reader begins a collaboration, which results in a living text made anew every time we open the book and read.