Authors: Roberto Bolaño
She invites me in. I don't have many visitors, she says. I walk in and she follows me. Go in, go in, she says, and I proceed down a feebly illuminated corridor to a large sitting room with two windows facing an interior courtyard, their heavy, lilac curtains drawn. In the sitting room there is an armchair, in which I sit down. There are two cups of coffee on a small round table. I notice three butts in an ashtray. The obvious conclusion is that there is a third person in the house. Remedios Varo looks me in the eye and smiles: I'm alone, she declares.
I say how much I admire her, I talk about the French surrealists and the Catalan surrealists, the Spanish Civil War, I don't mention Benjamin Péret because they parted in 1942, and I don't know on what terms, but I talk about Paris and exile, her arrival in Mexico and her friendship with Leonora Carrington, and then I realize that I am telling Remedios Varo the story of her life, I'm behaving like a nervous schoolgirl reciting her lesson for a non-existent board of examiners. And then I go red as a tomato and say, Sorry, I don't know what I say, I say, Do you mind if I smoke? and I look for my pack of Delicados in my satchel, but I can't find it, so I say, Do you have a cigarette? And Remedios Varo, who is standing with her back to a picture, a picture covered with an old skirt (but that old skirt, it occurs to me, must have belonged to a giant), says that she has given up smoking, that her lungs are delicate now, and although she doesn't look like she has bad lungs, or has even seen anything bad in her life, I know that she has seen many bad things, the ascension of the devil, the unstoppable procession of termites climbing the Tree of Life, the conflict between the Enlightenment and the Shadow or the Empire or the Kingdom of Order, which are all proper names for the irrational stain that is bent on turning us into beasts or robots, and which has been fighting against the Enlightenment since the beginning of time (a conjecture of mine, which the official representatives of the Enlightenment would no doubt reject), I know that she has seen things that very few women
they have seen, and now she is seeing her own death, which is set to occur in less than twelve months' time, and I know that there is someone else in her house who smokes and does not want to be discovered by me, which makes me think that whoever it is, it must be someone I know. Then I sigh and look at the reflection of the waning moon in the tiles of the fourth-floor women's bathroom, and, overcoming weariness and fear, I raise my hand, point at the picture behind the giant skirt, and ask her, What is it? Remedios Varo smiles at me, then turns around; she turns her back on me and for a while she examines the picture, but without removing or drawing aside the skirt that shelters it from prying eyes. It's the last one, she says. Or maybe she says, It's the second-to-last one. Her words reverberate off the tiles scored by moonlight, so the
might have been smothered by an echo. And in that phase of radical insomnia I see all of Remedios Varo's pictures passing one after another like tears cried by the moon or my blue eyes. So, honestly, it's hard to notice details or distinguish clearly between
And then Remedios Varo lifts up the giant's skirt to reveal an enormous valley, viewed from the highest mountain, a green and brown valley, and the mere sight of that landscape makes me anxious, because I know, just as I know there is another person in the house, that what the painter is showing me is a prelude, the setting for a scene that will be scorched into my soul, or no, not scorched, since nothing can affect me like that any more, what I sense is more like the approach of an ice man, a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss me on the mouth, on my toothless mouth, and I shall feel those lips of ice on my lips, and I will see those eyes of ice a few inches away from mine, and then I shall faint like Juana de Ibarbourou, and I will murmur, Why me? (a coquetry for which I shall be forgiven) and the man made of ice cubes will blink, and in that blink of an eye, I shall catch the briefest glimpse of a blizzard, as if someone had opened a window and then, on second thought, shut it again suddenly, saying, No, you shall see what you must, Auxilio, but all in good time.
I know that the landscape, the enormous valley, vaguely reminiscent of a Renaissance backgrounds is
But what is it waiting for?
And then Remedios Varo covers the canvas with the skirt and offers me a cup of coffee and we start talking about other things, aspects of daily life, although words from a different kind of context find their way into our conversation, like
And then we talk about someone who recently went on a hunger strike, and I hear myself saying, After a week without food, you don't feel hungry anymore, and Remedios Varo looks at me and says, You poor thing.
Just at that moment the heavy lilac curtain stirs and I leap to my feet and I can't (and won't) think about what the Catalan painter has just said. I go to the window, draw the curtain aside and discover a black kitten. I heave a sigh of relief. I know that behind me Remedios Varo is smiling and wondering who I am. The window gives onto a little courtyard with a garden where five or six other cats are taking a siesta. So many cats! Are they all yours? More or less, says Remedios Varo. I turn to look at her: the kitten is in her arms and she is saying, in Catalan:
There you are, sweetie. Where were you? I've been looking for you for hours.
Would you like to listen to some music?
Is she talking to me or to the kitten? Me, I suppose, because she talks to the kitten in Catalan, although it's clear at a glance, to anyone, that the kitten is Mexican born and bred, from a line of Mexican stray cats going back at least three hundred years, and now that the moon is stealing from one bathroom tile to another with delicate feline steps, I ask myself if there were cats in Mexico before the Spanish came, and I answer in a dispassionate, objective, and even slightly indifferent manner, No, there were no cats; the cats came with the second or third wave of Europeans. And then, speaking like a sleepwalker, because I am thinking about the sleepwalking cats of Mexico, I reply, Yes, and Remedios Varo goes to the record player, an old record player, which is not at all surprising since we are in the incredible year 1962 and everything is old, everything raises a hand to its mouth as I do to stifle a cry of surprise or an untimely confession, and she puts on a record and says, It's the Concertino in A minor by Salvador Bacarisse, and, listening to that Spanish music for the first time, I begin to cry, again, while the moon jumps from one tile to another in slow motion, as if I and not nature were directing this film.
How much time do we spend listening to Bacarisse?
I don't know. All I know is that at some point Remedios Varo lifts the arm of the record player and brings the listening to an end. And then I go to her (I have to admit it, I don't want to leave) and, blushing deeply, I offer to wash the cups we used, to sweep the floor, to dust her furniture, to scour the pots and pans in her kitchen, to go out and do the shopping, to make the bed or run a bath, but Remedios Varo smiles and says, I don't need you to do any of that, Auxilio, but thanks anyway. I'm fine, really. I don't need any help. As she shows me to the front door I think, Liar! How can she not need any help?
And then I see myself in the hallway of her house. She is inside with her hand on the doorhandle. There are so many things I would like to ask her. For a start, if I can visit her again. Now the whole street is awash with sunlight like white wine. That sunlight illuminates her face and tinges it with a brave melancholy. Fine. Everything is fine. It's time for me to go. I don't know whether to shake her hand or kiss her on both cheeks. Latin American women, as far as I know, give just the one kiss. On one cheek. Spanish women give two. And French women three. When I was a girl I used to think that the three kisses stood for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Now I know they don't, but I still like to think they do. So I give her three kisses and she looks at me as if she too, at some point, had shared my theory. A kiss on the left cheek, one on the right, and a final kiss on the left. And Remedios Varo looks at me and her eyes say, Don't worry, Auxilio, you're not going to die, you're not going to go crazy, you're upholding academic independence, you're defending the honor of our American universities, at worst you might become terribly thin, or have visions, or they might even find you, but don't think about that, be strong, read poor old Pedrito Garfias (you could at least have brought something else to read, you silly girl!) and let your mind flow freely through time, from the 18th to the 30th of September 1968, not one day more, that's all you have to do.
And then, as Remedios Varo shuts the door, she darts a last gaze straight into my eyes, and it is implacably clear to me that she is dead.
left Remedios Varo's house like a sleepwalker, but even more lost, because sleepwalkers always find their way back, and I knew that I would never return to that house. I knew that I would wake up shelterless, at night or as the day was breaking, not that it mattered, somewhere in the heart of the city that love or rage had led me to choose.
And now my memories, wandering without rhyme or reason backward and forwards from that helpless month of September 1968 mumble and stutter and tell me that I decided to stay there and wait in that watery sunlight, standing on a corner, listening to all the sounds of Mexico City, down to the sound of architectural shadows pursuing one another like wild animals sprung from a taxidermist's lair.
My senses held me pinned in a purely spatial world, so I couldn't say whether a long or a short span of time elapsed before I saw the door of Remedios Varo's house open and a woman come out, the one who had been hiding in the bedroom or the bathroom or behind the curtains during my visit.
A woman who, although she had long slim legs, was inferior to me in stature, I reckoned as I followed her. Because although the woman was tall, especially by Mexican standards, I was taller still.
Tailing her, I could see only her back and legs. She was slimly built, as I said, with a head of brown, slightly wavy hair falling below her shoulders, hair which, in spite of a certain disarray (which could have been taken for scruffiness, though I wouldn't dare call it that), was not without grace.
Everything about her, in fact her whole person, gave off a kind of grace, though it was hard to tell exactly why, since she was dressed in a sober and unexceptional manner, and there was nothing particularly original about her clothing: a black skirt and a cream-colored cardigan, both very worn, of the kind that can be bought for a few pesos from a market stall. Oddly, however, she was wearing high-heeled shoes, not very high heels, but dressy all the same, shoes that really didn't match the rest of her attire. She was carrying a folder full of papers under her arm.
Instead of waiting at the bus stop, as I'd thought she would, she kept walking toward the center of the city. After a while she went into a café. I stayed outside and watched her through the front window. I saw her approach a table, take something out of the folder and display it: one sheet, then another. They were drawings, or reproductions of drawings. The man and the woman sitting at the table looked at the papers and then shook their heads. She smiled at them and then proceeded to the next table, where the scene was repeated. The result was the same. Undeterred, she went to another table, then another and another, until she had approached them all. She sold one drawing. For just a few coins, which made me think that it was a buyer's market. Then she went to the bar, where she exchanged a few words with a waitress. She spoke and the waitress listened. They probably knew each other. When the waitress turned around to make a coffee, she took the opportunity to engage the men at the bar in conversation and try to make a sale, but this time she spoke without moving from her place and one or maybe two men came over to where she was and glanced idly at her treasures.
She must have been about sixty. And she certainly looked it. Maybe she was older. And this happened ten years after the death of Remedios Varo, that is, in 1973, not 1963.
Then a chill ran down my spine. And the chill said to me: Hey, Auxilio (with an Uruguayan, not a Mexican, accent), the woman you're following, the woman who slipped out of Remedios Varos house, she's the real mother of Mexican poetry, not you; this woman whose footsteps you are following, she's the mother, not you, not you, not you.
I think my head began to ache and I shut my eyes. I think the teeth I no longer had began to ache and I shut my eyes. And when I opened them she was at the bar, absolutely alone, sitting on a stool, drinking coffee with milk and reading a magazine that she probably kept in the folder, along with the reproductions of her beloved son's drawings.
A couple of yards away, the waitress had her elbows on the bar and her gaze fixed dreamily on an indefinite point outside the windows, somewhere over my head. Some of the tables had been vacated. At others, people were getting back to their own business.
Then I realized that the woman I had been following, whether awake or in a dream, was Lilian Serpas, and I remembered her story, or what little I knew of it.
For a time, in the fifties I guess, Lilian had been a reasonably well-known poet and a woman of extraordinary beauty. The origin of her family name is unclear; it sounds Greek (to me, anyway), or Hungarian, maybe, it could even be an old Castilian name. But Lilian was Mexican and she had lived almost all her life in Mexico City. It was said that in the course of her drawn-out youth she had many fiances and admirers. Lilian, however, was not interested in fiances, she wanted lovers, and she had them too.
I would've liked to say to her: Lilian, you don't need so many lovers, they'll use you up and dump you on a street corner, what else can you expect from men? But what did I know, I was just some crazy virgin, and Lilian led her sex life as she pleased, intensely, guided only by her own bodily pleasure and the pleasure of the sonnets she was writing at the time. And, of course, it didn't turn out well for her. Or maybe it did. Who am I to say? She had lovers. I've had hardly any.