An Introduction to Juan Emar by Pablo Neruda1
I knew Juan Emar intimately and yet I never knew him. He had great friends who he never met. Women who never touched more than his skin. A relative they put up with the way they put up with a long chill. He was a quiet, cunning, singular man. He was a lazy man who worked his entire life. He went from country to country, with neither enthusiasm nor pride nor rebelliousness, exiling himself through his own decrees. Now we will try to give this exile what he never had: the nationality of love.
Our uninhabited country ignored this silent man, taking his silence as a premonition, as a mortal warning. The South American writer of his age was vociferous and solitary. Juan Emar was quiet and eccentric. Now that his contemporaries have ceased to speak and to exist, to vociferate and endure, we must decode him. He will now begin to speak to us and to receive what never mattered to him: the validation and permanence of a hero overlooked by those who were ephemeral. He hid his vanity, if he had any, in the threads of his soul. And for those who search it is a dark world: no one looks into the darkness: we all want to be part of the multitude. Juan Emar was the solitary searcher who lived amongst the multitudes without ever being seen, without ever being loved. He had no home; he was always a transient.
Now that the literary cliques are worshipping Kafka, here we have our own Kafka to take us through underground words, to lead us through labyrinths, to guide us through infinite tunnels of mystery.
I was fortunate enough to have respected him in these republics of disrespect and literary treason. Here we look to writers only to give honors and awards to. It is a beehive without dignity and the best bees go elsewhere for their honey. They do good, they do bad.
My comrade Juan Emar will now get what here we are not stingy with: posthumous respect.
For in his calm delirium this man who was always ahead of his time left us as testimony a living world populated by that unreal which is always part of the permanent.
Isla Negra, August 1970
Today I had surgery on my ear and telephone. Doctor Hualañé, in person, administered the chloroform and scalpel.
This is how the events took place:
For quite some time I have loved Camila, wildly. She loves me one day out of every eight, and during the remaining days she laughs at me, wildly, and there is as much wildness in her laughter as there is in my love.
For the past seventeen days, however, Camila’s laughter has gone beyond all previous wildness to the point where today I returned to my house with a greater desire to die than to live. But before putting an end to my existence, I dialed her telephone number,2 and listened.
A few seconds later, Camila spoke. By the tone of her voice, I thought that this perhaps was the one day out of every eight. But then I experienced a cruel deception. I said:
-I love you, Camila! Camila, I love you! She responded with a quick little laugh, a sharp laugh, which jabbed into me like the sting of a rattlesnake.
-My Camila, have mercy, I shouted three times.
And her laughter only grew louder. Overcome with anger, I tried with an abrupt and decisive gesture to yank the receiver from my ear, and to cut off all communication between us. But just as I began this gesture, I felt a strong pain throughout my ear, as though it were being pulled by thousands of demons. At the same time, her laughter continued to pierce me with a sharpness that bristled my nerves.
-Camila, I beg you, stop laughing.
In vain. Her laughter now echoed interminably.
-Camila, it would be better if you told me you hated me.
Nothing. I tried once more to remove the receiver from my ear. It resisted in such a way that I understood that if I kept trying I would knock over the base to which it was mounted. I tried to pull it away with a gentle touch. Useless. I tried to unscrew it like a bolt. Also useless. And her inexhaustible laughter kept pouring out through the phone, and spreading across my head. What could I do?
There was only one thing to do: reach for the scissors to cut the cord. I didn’t care if the phone was stuck to my ear as long as I didn’t have to hear her cold and scornful laughter.
I gave the cord a snip and split it in two. Salvation!
But no! Her loud and copious laughter kept coming.
I ran through the house. Sweet remedy!
Silence. As soon as I was a few meters from the phone, silence.
What a relief! I would no longer be tortured by that diabolical laughter which evokes all the unhappiness Camila sees in me. No longer would that symbol of my unfortunate love continue to enter in through my auditory nerve. Silence, silence. But soon I began to notice that, in truth, there was too much silence.
Not even a whisper, or a murmur, or a muffled echo, nothing. My feet on the floor board stepped on cotton; when I clapped my hands, not even one wave of sound was released into the air; when I screamed at the top of my lungs, my voice was an underground vault. Complete silence.
Terrified, I picked up a bottle of wine from the Rhine Valley and threw it against my bathroom mirror: the bottle shattered, the wine flew through the air, and the mirror was pulverized. All of this in the silence of a cloudless night over a snowy and deserted mountaintop. The peace of a tomb, an absolute peace. A perfect suppression of any manifestation of all auricular life.
I won’t deny it: I turned pale as this black cloak fell over me, isolating me from the side of existence on which all other human beings live.
Nevertheless, a hope. With cautious steps, I walked toward the room with the telephone. Silence, an ever-present silence.
I arrived. I stopped three meters from the phone, and leaned against the wall. Each minute a drop of blood dripped from the severed phone cord. But not a sound nor a whisper, nothing.
I walked no faster than the minute hand on the clock. Silence.
Silence, yes, throughout the entire interminable first meter.
Until I arrived at the very beginning of the second meter.
Then, from far away, at an extraordinary distance, I heard, faintly but, at the same time, with clarity, a jingling, which, because of its distance, made me think of antipodes; it sounded like crystal shards on ice.
I kept walking. The jingling grew louder. Now it sounded like a voice draining the house, soaking it. One more step: the jingle changes, takes shape, vibrates, bounces off the walls. My destiny is marked: defenseless, subdued, I take the last step. And I am nearly deafened by the wounding sound of Camila’s sarcastic laughter.
No more precaution, no more deliberation. I jump from one side to the other: toward the telephone, away from it; toward the piercing laughter, then toward the absolute silence . . . O the incessant scorn from my one and only love, o the silent abyss between myself and the world.
And the days begin to pass, outside my eardrums.
Monotonous days, exactly the same.
I sleep well, and I wake up at the same time as always, but I feel three times more tired than before, now that one of the three ways of sleeping is no longer available to me: I can sleep on my back, and on one side, but the telephone receiver stuck to my ear prevents me from sleeping on the other.
I get dressed and look at myself for several minutes in front of the remaining pieces of my broken mirror. I test out all the possible methods of taking the phone off my ear: force, subtlety, a knife, a lubricant. No success.
I walk with soft steps through each room of the house and, from time to time, I entertain myself-the only entertainment possible-by verifying and re-verifying-until I am properly sated-that everything becomes silent in my presence.
I then walk to the telephone, always with the naïve and distant hope that silence will have penetrated its domain. No! Camila’s laughter is always there, entrenched in the machine, and suspended several meters in the surrounding air.
I return to my study. I put a record on the phonograph and, as always, I comfortably settle into my armchair. I want, each day, to experiment with the great pleasure-unavailable to others-of knowing that in the entire room there is sound, but that I don’t hear a thing.
I stretch out on my bed. I close my eyes, and meditate, and on each occasion-like clouds of smoke taking shape, or like small shapes swimming in the clouds-I sense that another interpretation of the silent world is beginning to form, an interpretation useless to anyone who can hear. Another face, another meaning, another reason, which only begins to form when the silence is definitive unto eternity.
But then I remember that for me this isn’t the case. For if on one side I do not hear, I hear-and do I hear!-the moment my receiver enters the zone occupied by Camila’s laughter.
Maybe this time there will be silence.
My hope is revived, a double hope: to no longer hear her wretched laughter; and to walk unblemished through my new perceptions of this insinuated world.
I run to the telephone. I extend my neck. And tilt the receiver.
Camila laughs, Camila laughs, jingles and drives ice and nails into my lacerated heart.
And the entire scene repeats itself. The phonograph spins another record.
It’s like this every day, every hour. Either the tomb, or the scorn of Camila.
Slowly the habit possessed me. My entire organism adapted to this new mode of existence. The tomb filled with silent meanings; the laughter infiltrated me with the pleasure of suffering. A sweet and sorrowful happiness came more and more to take the place of my previous activities. Thousands of objects, which hid from my intimate life beneath the ever-echoing sounds of existence, now obediently presented themselves to me like delicate gifts. All the empty space that surrounded me became populated with unsuspected existences. And over this new world, the suffocating pleasure of torment that Camilla inflicted upon me absorbed like pepper in my flesh.
It’s been three days since I told myself that, from this point on, I will be happy until the end of my life. But yesterday, doctor Hualañé appeared at my door.
The good man had been informed-I will not discuss how-of what he-and up until recently, I-considered as my disgrace. I told him there was no disgrace. But he wouldn’t listen to me. He went to the window and opened it wide. With thousands of faces and gestures, he led me to understand that the entire outside world, all that could be seen of the city, the distant mountains, and the sky, was infinitely flowing with living sounds.
The good man tempted me. He has tempted me. I tilt my head to listen.
Today he has come; he has operated on me, and chloroformed me. Afterwards, he reconnected the receiver to the bloody, hanging cord. And today I have reconnected to the sounds of life.
And all of the unsuspected existences, and all of my peaceful meditations have vanished. And all of the pleasure in my pain has disappeared. Now everything echoes frantically. And so to know what to expect in this world, which provokes in me an infernal chaos, I have no choice but to pick up the phone and dial 52061, and wait.
Today I returned from a long trip. A few days after the operation, and at the advice of Doctor Hualañé, I boarded in Valparaiso the S.S. Orangutan of the H.T.T.K.C.
We stopped at the following ports:
Coquimbo. -A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. Coquimbo is known as the land of coconut and cherry trees. Everything here is born, grows, lives, fructifies, and dies in accordance with the cherry and coconut trees. What does not follow this line is immediately picked up by the police and thrown into the sea with a stone tied to its neck, and if does not have a neck, then the stone is tied to its most prominent part. During our stay we had occasion to see two definitive submersions: a) a German scholar who had the nerve to declare in front of the country’s elite that the study of extra-sclerotic orbital pterygoidal worms was more important than the study of any coconut or cherry tree regardless of how many of them there were in Coquimbo; and b) a mattress which had innocently torn a bit of its fabric, and exposed its contents to the eyes of the authorities: cotton stuffing, and not the coconut filament or cherry sawdust found in all the other mattresses of the city.
Aside from those acts which offended our sensibilities as Santiaguinos, the rest of our stay in Coquimbo was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
Wherever we looked and in any way that we looked, our eyes fell on a coconut tree guarded by two cherry trees, and the only variation to this ineffable scene was the rare occasion on which there was one cherry tree guarded by two coconut trees.
In fact our enchantment with Coquimbo became so unbearable that the Captain decided to set sail without any further delay.
Antofagasta. -A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. A city that has left us with inerasable memories. For a city entirely of wool offers great surprises for the traveler. Wool houses, wool streets, wool trees, and wool people. And from time to time, a famished fakir, entangled in wool, comes to the city, and yawns.
So much peace in that woolen sky. The residents of Antofagasta contemplate the sky by raising their woolen pupils. They subtly alter the name of their beloved “An-to-fa-ga-sta”, and fall into ecstasy at the thought of how in the past, everything-because it was not made of wool-deteriorated, and how now-now that everything is made of wool-nothing deteriorates. Then they tune all of the instruments in the region to the key of F, and with those instruments-always in F-they sing, swaying until the sun sets in the west, leaving in its place the taste of astronomical wool.
Iquique.-A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. But how different it is from the previous two cities, almost as though it did not belong in the same country! You see:
Iquique is the cradle, the universal cradle, of all the birds in the world whose song is shrill and hesitant.
Any bird that sings like this, and who did not see the light of day in this land, will not survive: it will surely be eaten by serpents, scorpions, tarantulas, and other bacteria. The birds, in contrast, that were born here-and who later take off in fast flight through the five parts of the globe-make it to old age, make it to a ripe old age, to that old age without feathers, without wings or beaks, though always with their exquisite song, their sharp and stunning song.
The people who live here try to imitate these notes. And with good reason. The sound they release into the air is so enchanting that ten minutes before anchoring, all of the passengers aboard the Orangutan began to chirp like these pretty birds. When the captain heard us, he silenced our deafening whistles with the ship’s siren, and then he gave orders to anchor.
Mollendo.- A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. But this town is completely different.
And moreover everything is soft and cushy, so much so that its residents recline anywhere and everywhere, wherever they happen to feel drowsy: on a branch, on a rock, in a chimney, on the ocean’s waves, absolutely anywhere.
Then they eat. The only things they eat are earthy tasting round rolls. Afterward, they rinse their hands in the sea, and since the water is brown, and since the breadcrumbs are also brown, with each rinse of the hands, Mollejo becomes more and more brown. And with the earthy wind that blows here every night, and with the lazy licks of the waves, Mollendo becomes more and more round.
The captain has told me that within a few years this entire place will be one round, cottony ball the color of café con leche.
Huacho.- A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. It is also an extremely curious port. It is formed by mountains of transparent salt, just like those salty stones that are licked by cows. The sea, when it reflects these mountains, turns a glaucous color.
The people who live here-it goes without saying-are like people everywhere, except that when they cross these mountains they acquire strange forms, like frail little figures.
As the ship came to anchor, it left behind a trail of colorless, featureless spittle. We watched with dying eyes as glaucous as the sea.
Pacasmayo.- A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. But what a difference from the previous towns! What a contrast! What crazy colors! Every imaginable color and many other colors which perhaps I could not see were in the leaves and the fruits of its trees. And each color was bright, vibrant, definitive. A crazed painter’s jumbled palette stretched until the sea. Yes, the thick sea was like oil colors; it moved slowly, and it tinged the hull of the ship with a rainbow that detached itself as we traveled. The sailors would dip a finger in these colors then suck on it happily. And the strangest thing about this curious port was that a parrot could be seen in each tree, in each branch, in each fruit.
All of the parrots screamed at the same time and without even one second of interruption. The noise was so loud that during the twenty hours of our stay we communicated through sign language because we could not hear a word.
As we sailed away, Pacasmayo looked like a giant blaze with fiery tongues of red, yellow, green, and orange, which moved and twisted as a bit of wind swayed the branches of the trees and the feathers of the parrots.
We heard from the blaze the bitter cry of the birds; and later we heard an out of tune murmur that lasted until the sun went down. Pacasmayo disappeared, and the parrots were silent.
Pimentel.- A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. But quite different from the previous town.
A splendid Nile green plain, endless, with thousands, millions of trees, equidistant one to the other. Their trunks stood straight as pins; their leaves were round and almost black. The captain himself told me that these trees produced pepper. Once he said that, we both started to sneeze loudly.
During the three days we were anchored here, we saw nothing: not one dog on the street, nor one fish in the water, nor one bird in the air. Bored, the captain gave orders to lift anchor, and the Orangutan set sail.
Patia.-A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay. Enormous, low hanging green leaves, which tilt toward the earth, forming blue hollows.
The people from Patia recline in the hollows, lazily humming a tune. They eat avocados with oil. They throw the rinds into the bright blue sea, which flows beneath the leaves. A sea that has no horizon, for where the horizon should appear, the leaves mask everything.
Out of curiosity, I picked up a leaf. I too could not see the horizon, but a mountain that hid the horizon appeared, and came closer and closer to me. It was a metallic red, exactly the color of an avocado pit. This cherry red was reflected in short though numerous rays on the bright blue water. The captain told me that the mountain was actually made of metal and that from its base it emitted and scattered liquid into the sea. In response to this, I let go of a leaf and once again the green saturated it. My response was completely useless.
Manta.- A cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay.
While one person keeps guard, the second sleeps, and the third one eats. Afterwards, the one who keeps guard sleeps, the one who sleeps eats, and the one who eats, keeps guard. And this, successively, until infinity.
The one who keeps guard sits atop a pine tree; he salutes the passing ships; he runs to greet those ships that anchor, and he shakes the hands of important officials, passengers, and the crew.
The one who sleeps lies in a red tent. He sleeps deeply, and dreams-always the same dream-unhappily, of the beauty and grandeur of Guayaquil.
The one who eats squats behind a bush. He sticks out his hand and grabs a gannet. He eats it alive, with its beak, its feet, its feathers, every part of it. The bird lets out bloodcurdling cries.
In effect. Not even an hour after we anchored our ears were drilled with the most horrible, the most frightful howl that could come from any living being. We then saw how that scream scared the other birds in the area, especially the other gannets: the sky filled with hundreds of thousands of birds overcome with fear. And among them were the sad and serene brothers of the victim, majestically beating their wings, as bitter tears fell from their eyes.
One of these birds, distracted from its path by the smell, did not fly over the bay, but instead landed on the porthole of my cabin.
The voice of alarm instantaneously traveled from one end of the ship to the other.
-Gannet on board! Gannet on board!
The flag of danger was then raised atop the mizzenmast; from the foremast, the flag of resignation flew in the face of evil. And the siren cried lugubriously, as the two anchors, without having been hoisted by anyone, rose, pitifully to the deck like two drenched old ladies.
The captain grew grave and sullen. His only words were:
-Return . . .
Creaking from its core, the Orangutan screeched off from the anchorage and sailed toward the horizon.
How sad it was to come to the end of our trip! What a disappointment! And to think that we were only miles from our final destination, the port of Buenaventura which, according to public opinion, is a cheerful and picturesque town in the middle of a large and peaceful bay.
But there was nothing to be done. The captain had said “return” and the Orangutan meekly obeyed.
Describing a wide circle in the ocean, we returned without docking at any ports. And today, with great joy, we saw once again atop its hills the cheerful and picturesque town of Valparaiso, whitening the middle of its large and peaceful bay.
I spent the days of our return locked in my cabin, lying on my bunk, without seeing anyone, without eating, or moving a limb. Behind me, and above my head, sat the gannet of Manta, slowly fitting its wings. This was how I dreamed the dreams that came to me at sea, and how I happily filtered those distant memories that struck my mind, and how I colored in yellow and green those projects for next year that began to germinate and flutter to the rhythm of the ocean’s waves.
And in this way, the noble bird accompanied me, day after day, hour after hour, without screaming, or even batting an eyelid, only flitting in silence his soft cotton wings.
And as I set foot on land, I watched the bird fly into the distance, then launch beak-first into the water behind a catfish, who swam slowly behind a sea flea.
And we never saw each other again.
1 Neruda’s text is from the introduction to Juan Emar’s story collection Diez (copyright 1972, Editorial Universitaria, Santiago, Chile). Diez was originally published in 1937.
2 Camila’s telephone number is 52061, or rather: 5+2+0+6+1=14! (Translator’s note: Earlier in Un Año, and throughout the book, the narrator discusses his negative superstition about the number 14.)
From Un Año, originally published 1935. By arrangement with the Fundacion Juan Emar. Copyright the Fundacion Juan Emar. Translation copyright 2006 by Daniel Borzutzky. All rights reserved. This translation is prepared independently of the Fundacion Juan Emar and reflects the translator’s interpretation, rather than an official text.