Around a fire


Sometime over Christmas, a friend dragged me to someone’s cousin’s house somewhere in the middle of nowhere for a fiesta–not a fiesta for anything in particular, but a day of feasting nonetheless. There were about 30 people, and I was the only foreigner. Beer—Cruzcampo, free-flowing—began being handed out at 12 noon, long before lunch was served. By 3:00, there was guitar-playing and singing and dancing, and shouts of ¡Olé! all around. By 5:30, they had made a fire, around which the festivities continued, along with suggestions of “getting to know each other better,” or “putting you and my friend together, wink wink,” all made in good faith, and easy enough to refuse.

At 9:00, one of my friends—Spanish, male, inebriated quite—sat next to me and said, in English, and with greater confidence than I had seen him speak English in the years we’d known each other: “Averill, I hope the time will come when you will get to sit in a place like this with the rest of us and not think of it as a group of Spanish people singing Spanish songs and dancing like Spaniards.” He burped, continued: “I hope you will become so immersed in life in Spain that you will see this for what it is: simply, a group of friends sitting around a fire and having fun.”


Notes from the far side of the world

An earlier version of this article was published in the Manila Bulletin on April 4, 2012.

I write this from a computer I can hardly operate, hoping to make it in time for the Manila deadline. The document is entitled “Sin Titulo 1.” I have been on six flights to five cities in three weeks: it is the first time I have ever traveled alone, and the farthest I have ever been from home. Most importantly, no European romances have yet materialized for me; I don’t understand how they always happen in the movies during trips like this.

Still, there have been many other things I’m understanding better: the Spanish language, myself, my country, the world outside it and the worlds within. More than anything, I know for sure that San Miguel Beer is the best beer in the world.

Traveling has been fun, especially because I’m young: I’m curious enough to want to see things (like my first Picasso or Gaudi or real flamenco), stubborn enough to go find them (with a map, on foot or by bus or metro, and getting lost an obligatory five times), and naïve enough to be endlessly amazed by them when I do.

Barça briefs, anyone?

Barça briefs, anyone?

But what they don’t often tell you is that traveling is also, essentially, a lonely thing. It’s hard to be talkative when there’s no one to talk to, when no one understands (literally–lo siento, no lo entiendo). Sooner or later you will find that there is no one to call, even when you know locals or are traveling with a group, and you will have to learn that it’s okay.

To travel is to go an adventure in solitude. You must be able to sit with yourself for long periods of time without going crazy, and I’ve had only moderate success in this area. I’ve taken to writing more, and drinking more (which, in wine country, is acceptable behavior). Sometimes, I’d wake up in the early morning hours, check my watch, and catch myself singing, “It’s five o’clock in the morning / the conversation got boring…” Other than that, I think I’m okay.

Once, I had to buy moisturizer from the local drugstore to keep my skin from freezing to death. The saleslady and I spent several minutes pointing back and forth from L’Oreal to Olay to Ponds to Nivea. She was trying to give me facial scrub, I was trying to say, “I may have pimples but that’s not what I’m looking for.” Finally she got the hang of the charade, pointed to a moisturizer with an English translation, dia y noche, I answered si, and paid for it. I think it was the longest time I ever spent shopping. The point is that I was able to shop.

Because while cultural and linguistic barriers block you off and cause severe difficulty in some places (purchasing moisturizer, for instance), one of the most pleasant discoveries I’ve made in my adventures is that the desire to communicate can transcend these limits.

During my trip I paid a visit to the Andalucía, the replica of a 17th century Galleon ship, which incidentally visited the Philippines back in 2010. One of the engineers who built the Andalucía and actually sailed to Manila on it (which is enough material for another column altogether) proudly gave me a tour and talked animatedly, incessantly, the whole morning. He fumbled every so often, trying to find the right word in English, and I listened and understood. They were stories–of how it was built, how they first set sail, the inside jokes among the crew, the run-ins with sharks and fires and pirates that aren’t supposed to happen in real life but do. They had been many places, and had plenty of stories to tell, all surprising and amusing, and I wondered how much funnier or more exciting they would be if I could grasp them in their original language.

But perhaps the stories themselves were the language. Perhaps Spanish and English are too small to contain them. Everyone understands stories. In a way, I think, traveling is about finding stories to tell.

Because no good story every started with eating a salad.

Because no good story every started with eating a salad.

While walking across a bridge over a quiet river, my engineer friend asked me to stop and look up into the vast night sky. The streetlights burned bright; I couldn’t see the stars so clearly.

“Light pollution,” he muttered.

I strained to look as he, with sailor’s eyes, began pointing out different constellations, starting with Orion’s Belt. The pinpricks were faint, but they were there. I had never seen them before. We have always had them in our sky back home.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” wrote Tolkien truthfully in The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, we wander in order to make our way home. I’m excited to come back. I’m no balikbayan, but I think I’ll join in the clapping when my plane touches ground in Manila.

It’s simple, you see: San Miguel Beer is the best beer in the world.

I hereby declare victory over 2666.

I’ve been braver in my choice of reading material all through this year–maybe because 2013 is the first time in a long time I’ve been free to do so, having quit my job in February (long ago now, it seems), and enjoying (though occasionally bemoaning) the slower, more deliberate lifestyle I’ve adopted since. I started the year with Dostoevsky, bringing my massive copy of The Brothers Karamazov on a trip to the beach, during which I promptly spilled a good amount of choco-banana milkshake on it. I am proud to report 2666 has sustained no such injuries.


Each of the novel’s five sections touches upon the Santa Teresa killings: hundreds of women and girls who have been kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed, whose bodies turn up in the desert or streets of the fictional city of Santa Teresa, near the American border. The only thing more shocking than the lengthy account of these brutalized bodies is that Bolaño draws these events from real life: Santa Teresa is a thinly veiled representation of Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, where serial killings of women have occurred for over a decade, and to this day no one can say who did it and how. Brief sections–some less than a page, others a few pages long, comprising a third of the entire book–are devoted to each crime, detailing the women’s names, injuries and circumstances, dizzying in its specificity.

All around it are a host of other characters–SS generals, European academics, American cybercafe owners, sports writers, politicians, fortune tellers, book publishers, plagiarists, small-time crooks, upright policemen, tourists and drug dealers–all of whom seem so far removed from these events, and yet whose stories somehow converge in Santa Teresa, though few of them are aware of it.

Roberto Bolaño hands us this book from the grave as if to say, You think this is just fiction? Wrong. This is the world you live in. Reading 2666 feels like reading an attempt at a summation of the world, of human existence–beautiful, frightening, full of wonder and injustice and gaping holes. To achieve this effect of totality, Bolaño draws from the preponderance of books, and books within books, and books within books within books, and all the life contained in them.

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Rarely do real-life stories end in resolutions, though we like to believe they do. Fiction supposedly resolves, and that is one of the main reasons we turn to fiction in the first place. 2666 does not offer that comfort, though it brings us full circle, in its way. It is one such torrential work–imperfect, an exercise in excess, but great in any measure.

P.D. I must say I liked The Savage Detectives much more–it was more personal, greater in its emotional intensity, perhaps precisely because it was a less ambitious work. A critic, borrowing from Dylan Thomas, described it as a story of young men “raging against the dying of the light”–and indeed, I agree it is the best way to describe the book. Also, I suspect the circumstances of my reading both books play a decisive role: I read The Savage Detectives while traveling through the places where the story was set. They were two weeks of living off adrenaline and tequila, which perhaps added to the intensity of my experience both of the place and the novel set in it.

Related post: The night before 2666