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Laguna

This is my translation of a short story titled “Laguna,” by Chilean author Manuel Rojas. He was an interesting guy, and not a lot of his work is available in English. On the face of it, this is a straight-forward little tale, but I’m fascinated by how it sneaks up on you and stays with you. There’s an awful lot going on between the lines. I’ve included a few little translation notes where I think they are needed. Also, you might want to read about the Transandine Railway before or after reading the story. Here’s the original Spanish, and suggestions for improving this initial attempt at translation are very much welcome.

Nothing I remember from that time in my life stands out so vividly, with so much detail, as the man I met while I traveled about the world learning myself to become a man.

It was many years ago. At the end of February I had returned from the countryside, where I was working the grape harvest. I was living in Mendoza. Since I worked to support myself, and I had no job, I went looking for one. I joined up with a Chilean who had come back with me and we went around to construction sites, offering ourselves as laborers.  But everywhere we went, were turned down. Finally, someone told us of an Englishman who was looking to hire people to take to Las Cuevas, where some tunnels were being built. We went. My companion was hired immediately. I was a boy then, 17 years old, tall, scrawny and weak-looking, something the Englishman did not much like. He looked me up and down and asked:

“Do you work hard?”

“Yes,” I answered, “I’m Chilean.”

“Chilean? You’re hired.”

Especially among working people, Chileans are known to be hard, uncomplaining workers, and I used that nationality at times like these. Anyway, my constant contact with Chileans and my descendence from that nationality meant I had their tone of voice and mannerisms.

So it was that one morning, packed like animals in a cargo train car, we left Mendoza headed for the mountains. In all we were about 30 men – if I could consider myself one, as it was still something of an aspiration.

There were a number of Andalusians, all blabbermouths; a few Austrians, who were very quiet; two Venetians, with beautiful blue eyes and blond beards; and a couple of Argentines and a number of Chileans.

That last group included Laguna. He was a thin man, with slightly bowed legs, his body a little bent, a limp beard that aspired to blondness but settled on a modest chestnut. His face immediately reminded one of a rodent: the mouse.

I offered him cigarettes, which warmed him to me. He asked how old I was, and when I told him he shook his head and breathed:

“Seventeen? Such a long life.”

And he used his thumb and forefinger to measure the short and insignificant length of what he called my life.

He wore cloth sandals and his thick white socks rose to cover the bottom edge of his trousers. A light-colored cap and suit – very thin – completed an outfit that, as one will note, could never have been mistaken for stylish. At lunchtime, I shared my small meal with him, which only endeared me to him more. More talkative thanks to the food, he told me a bit about his life, a strange and marvelous life full of set-backs and small misfortunes that took place without interruption.  As I talked with him, I noticed Laguna had an odd habit: His legs were never still. He moved them constantly. He played with his feet, moving a piece of wood or paper around on the floor; he tapped out the passage of time with his heels; he brought his legs together, he moved them apart, he crossed or uncrossed them, moving so constantly it made you dizzy. I figured this was one of his habits as a wanderer, which was maybe a bit presumptive, but I needed to categorize this feature of my new friend. His face was just as constantly in motion as his legs. His wrinkles jumped about giddily, and sometimes I couldn’t pin down a single one. His little eyes set all these facial movements in motion with a rapid blinking that I found disconcerting.

“Where are you from, Laguna?”

(Why did he call himself Laguna? Was it a nickname or a name? I never knew.)

He answered me:

“I’m Chilean; from Santiago. Pure Araucania.”2

He seemed to be proud of his nationality, and he clearly added that last comment to indicate that he was a Chilean of pure Araucanian blood.

We got to know each other well on the train. The others didn’t interest me much. Laguna was an inexhaustible source of funny anecdotes and sayings. My youth felt attracted to this 35-year-old man, this inexhaustible talker whose life was like a loud and heroic song that dazzled my adolescence. His favorite topic was his bad luck:

“I’m an unlucky bastard,3 brother. You could die of old age, your sideburns could grow long enough to braid and you would never meet anyone as unfortunate as I am.”

Instead of saddening me, his painful life cheered me up. He told stories of his bad luck with such a barrage of faces and interjections that I was howling with laughter. He paused for a moment and turned serious, then told me:

“You shouldn’t laugh at the misfortune of others; that’s no good.”

And then he kept going. At the parts he considered tragic or moving, he would close his eyes, and his ears – long and translucent – seemed to move back toward the nape of his neck.

“And then, when they shouted: Careful! Out of the way! I stepped to one side, the post fell, and a rock flew up and cracked me in the head.”

His wrinkles would return to their normal places, his eyes open, the ears would go back to their preferred position, and he would look at me to see what kind of impression his story had made.

“Ha ha ha! Oh Laguna!”

And the whole work crew laughed along with me.

*** *** ***

On the evening of that same day we arrived at Las Cuevas. I knew the mountain range on having crossed it twice as a child, but I don’t remember anything from that except for a very soft little mule, a mule driver who took care of me, a cart pulled between two walls of snow, and my mother; and her I remember clearest of all. So the sight was a new one for me. My soul was gripped by an immense feeling of smallness as I got down from the train and gazed out on that immense amphitheater of mountains. The sky seemed further away than ever. There wasn’t a single tree. Everywhere I looked, the aridity was absolute. Rocks thrusting up, ridges red and blue, patches of snow, solitude, silence. The train lost itself like a worm down in between the rocky masses, so ridiculously small. And we men seemed more rooted to the ground than we had been in any other place.

As no one awaited us with hotel rooms at the ready, we had to immediately begin putting up the tents that would shelter us. To five Chileans, Laguna among us, they gave one tent. We set it up, cursing and swearing. There was a strong wind that lashed the fabric and swelled it out like a sail. When we had it almost set up, the wind blew it down. Laguna grabbed his hat, threw it on the ground, stomped on it a bit, and then grabbing his head between both hands and raising his face to the sky shouted:

“Good Lord God!”

This seemed to be his favorite exclamation.

With the tent finally habitable, we divided up the piece of ground covered with fist-sized rocks that we would use as our soft bed. We spread our bed clothes out on the ground. Laguna watched us. Someone asked:

“What’s Laguna going to sleep on?”

Laguna looked at him, and then lowered his head in shame. There was nothing to indicate the presence of a change of clothes or bed clothes in his luggage, which he carried wrapped in a handkerchief.

When we lay down, Laguna stayed standing for a moment, with the face of a man who was indecisive; he talked and smoked. Then he made his decision, and without any preparation at all he stretched out on the bare ground at my side. I wanted to offer him my bed, but I didn’t for fear of embarrassing him. It grew dark. With eyes staring into the darkness, laying on my back on my bed, I talked with him for a bit. In the intermittent light of his cigarette, I could see his aquiline nose and limp mustache. Then I fell deeply asleep. I awoke several hours later and listened to the sounds of the night as I collected my thoughts. Outside, the wind, so cold, seemed to howl like an animal provoked. The murmur of the river and its shifting stones added to the constant scream of the wind. The tent snapped violently. In the midst of that wild symphony, I caught a human noise. I thought someone, perhaps lost, was wandering around outside the tent, and I sat up in bed and listened carefully. But it wasn’t coming from outside. It was right next to me. Laguna, asleep and surely frozen from the cold, lay moaning and with his teeth chattering.

“Laguna.”

No answer.

“Laguna.”

Silence.

“Laguna.”

“Ah!”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m cold, little brother.”

“Lay down over here.”

“No, but thank you.”

“Come on, man.”

He got up and started to undress. Then I heard a sob, and Laguna spoke:

“I’m such an unlucky bastard.”

Then, he found the bed and curled up like a dog under the covers, shivering.

“Little brother.”

“What?”

“Thanks.”

I didn’t answer. Laguna breathed, moved a little bit, tensed, probably made one of his habitual gestures, and finally fell asleep. I listened to his breathing for a moment, interrupted at intervals by sighs, and then I fell asleep.

Work started the next day. We were constructing tunnels to protect the train line from blizzards and small avalanches. The work was harsh, but since the cold was too they canceled each other out, happily for us and to the satisfaction of the Englishman.

After 10 days out there, our faces had changed completely. The cold burned the skin, chapped it; faces cracked, eyelashes fell out scorched from the cold, and the fact that no one washed their faces except on Sundays added to this destructive and transformative process. The water was so freezing cold that no one dared. It was only on days off that water was heated and we bathed, some of us meticulously, others superficially. Our old and dirty clothes, dark ponchos and lengthening beards also sharpened the change, making us appear to the gaze of any erudite traveler like the direct descendants of a family of troglodytes.

*** *** ***

It wasn’t until fifteen days after our arrival that Laguna suffered his first misfortune, if that’s what you could call what I’m about to describe. He already thought it strange; he told me:

“Don’t you think it’s weird that nothing has happened to me?”

And he wrinkled his nose.

It was a Thursday. It had snowed the day before, and the cold was intense. We were working on a handcar and Laguna was the “flag.” His job was to go a cuadra1 ahead of us with a red flag to warn that the train was approaching.

We were coming with a load of wood. When we got to the place where we were to unload, we saw Laguna sitting under a rocky outcrop, all wrapped up in his poncho. He was whistling monotonously:

“- Whi…, whi…, whiiii…”

We poked some fun at him and started to unload. During breaks in our work, Laguna informed us of his presence with the whi whi of his whistling. The wind that was blowing cut the flesh. At one point, Laguna stopped whistling. We didn’t pay it any mind, and when we finished, one of us shouted:

“OK, Laguna, let’s go!”

But Laguna didn’t answer.

“Maybe he fell asleep? Let’s mess with him.”

One of the workmen went quietly up to him. When he was right in front, he lifted up the poncho like he was going to hit him. Then he bent down, stared at Laguna, then raising his arms shouted:

“Guys, get over here!”

We ran. When we got there, Laguna, with his head rolled over on one shoulder, was smiling sweetly, as if he were dreaming. He was freezing to death. We pulled him violently to his feet, and while one of us held him, we rained down a shower of punches, pinches, slaps, I think even kicks. After a time, he opened his eyes and looked at us with astonishment. We scrubbed his face with snow and kept hitting him. Suddenly he shouted:

“Enough! Enough!”

And he took off running. Like a horse that has been tied up for a long time, Laguna jumped, kicked, rolled on the ground, threw wild punches, twisted in a thousand ways, and finally, changing exercises, he sang, accompanying it with furious stamping:

Sighing I called you

And you did not come;

Since you see I have no job

You pretend you don’t hear or understand me.

… until he fell to the ground, panting like an animal.

*** *** ***

Meanwhile, the work was moving along quickly. In some places, the rail line was already covered by the tunnels. We dug holes in the ground, inserted enormous posts, joined them with wooden supports and covered it all in zinc sheeting. Since the terrain was rocky, often large rock formations blocked the holes and we had to break them up with dynamite. Every day, during lunch or supper, powerful detonations ripped through the silence of the mountain range. The booming resounded off the nearest peaks, which gave off an echo that in turn crashed into other peaks until the booming became a deep and lengthy thunder.

As a result of the aforementioned accident, Laguna’s movement increased extraordinarily. Fear of freezing again put him in a state of constant physical activity. He would jump, run, dance and tap his feet.

Poor Laguna! He really was unlucky. One day a post fell; everyone ran, Laguna more than anyone else; but because he was running and looking backward, he tripped on a railroad tie and the edge of another one almost broke his leg. On another day he was arrested for no reason and the whole day they had him making a path through the snow, between police headquarters and the station, out in the harsh cold. It seems this was something the policemen did every time their path got covered in snow.

Later, things began to happen and bad luck pressed down on his rodent head.

We were working on the handcar and on our way back from Las Cuevas with a load of eighty zinc sheets that weighed 11 kilograms each. Since the track between the station and the camp was on a steep decline, we loosed the breaks and the handcar rolled quickly downhill. With the momentum it gained from the heavy cargo and the slope of the tracks, the vehicle took off. It got going so fast that by a little past the river bridge, the posts and rocks were passing so quickly that there did not appear to be any space between them. When we tried to brake, the handcar didn’t respond, and so we rushed past the encampment at a tragic pace. I was on the front brake and Laguna was on the back one. All the other workers were running behind us, shouting:

“Jump! Jump!”

One of us shouted:

“We have to jump!”

He wrapped his head in his poncho and jumped. He turned in the air and then seemed to sink into the ground. Another one of the workers fell on his side and lay motionless. The third landed on his feet after describing a circle that would have drawn the admiration of any geometrician. I tossed my poncho and then threw myself backwards into the void. I landed on my face. When I picked my head up, the handcart was a cuadra away. Laguna was standing on the brake; his dark poncho flapped in the wind like a flag of death. The mouth of a tunnel seemed to swallow the man and the vehicle, which after a moment reappeared on the other side. We all followed at a run. Suddenly, the brake slipped, Laguna wavered, and for a second his hands clutched at the void. Then he fell, face-first. Thirty meters later, at a sharp curve in the rail line, the handcar jumped the rails and the zinc sheets plunged into the posts. When we got there, Laguna was lying alongside the tracks. He had fallen on the rack and the blow had knocked out almost all his teeth. He had then bounced and landed in a gutter, whose edge injured his head in two places. His face was covered in blood and his breathing was labored. The next day, they took him to the hospital.

*** *** ***

A few days later, before finishing work on the tunnel, I went down to Mendoza. There was talk of the workers wintering in a station located between Las Cuevas and Puente del Inca, and I needed to buy winter clothes. When I tried to go back, the Company denied me passage because I did not have authorization from the boss or the foreman. Since my clothes were still there, I decided to return on foot. I joined up with two Chilean anarchists who were returning home and we started the journey, leaving Mendoza on an evening in April. After three days of traveling, we reached the camp and I saw Laguna, who was back from the hospital. He was visibly changed. His face was smaller, his mouth was sunken due to the lack of teeth, and his entire form seemed bent under an invisible weight. He called me to his side and said, almost in tears:

“Brother, let’s go to Chile. I feel like if I stay here, I’m going to die.”

I thought about it and made a decision. I told him yes. He was so happy he embraced me. We waited until nightfall to leave. It was dangerous during the daytime because it had snowed, and the path between the police headquarters and the station was snowed over. The workmen gave us beef, cheese, dried horse meat and coffee. We asked some mule drivers arriving from Chile if the weather was good on the mountain range and they told us that the wind that was blowing was not strong and that the snowfall was light.

At nine o’clock, after effusive farewells, the four of us departed: Laguna, the two anarchists, and I.

It had snowed a lot and the path was covered. We oriented ourselves according to the station lights. We crossed a small bridge and started to look for the wide path. Two cuadras later we were lost, but finally, after wandering around for some time, we found a good route and began to climb. After a thousand meters, it started to snow heavily. The night was extremely dark. We walked for a stretch and rested. The weight of our clothing, which we carried on our backs, tired us out a bit. We did not talk. Laguna went in front, with his head down and whistling slowly. From time to time, with a sweet tinge of sadness, he would sing:

I have two hearts

for loving you;

one for in life

and the other in death

Suddenly he stopped and said:

“Listen.”

We listened. A deep and sustained noise reached us. Soon the noise became a clamor that was almost human. It sounded like an enormous throat, a hoarse voice, shouting from the summit.

Laguna said:

“It’s the wind.”

It was. It came crazy, furious, thundering. In an instant, the clamor rose to a roar, and then the roar multiplied into an infinity of pitches. It pounded on the rocks, jumped from ravine to gully, lashed against a peak and rebounded off another. It sounded like an army of lions roaring down toward the plains. It was horrible and beautiful.

Because we were going down a hill, we did not feel the wind on our bodies, but when the path turned, the wind stopped us like a powerful hand. It made one feel like shouting and crying. The blood surged from the impact of that exhilarating and invisible spectacle. The wind rose wildly up from the Chilean side, reached the summit, and then rushed powerfully down to the Argentine plains.

We stopped to hold a talk. We talked in low voices, as if fearing that the wind would hear us. Going back was dangerous. It would make us vulnerable to the wind taking us from behind and throwing us downhill, like loaded pack mules. We decide to go on. And we pushed on our way. After a few steps, we stopped, suffocated. The wind was so strong that it kept us from exhaling the air we breathed in. Laguna shouted:

“Cover your mouths with a scarf!”

We followed his advice and we could breath. We walked sideways to offer the wind a smaller target. At 3,800 meters, we stopped, uncertain. A small avalanche had covered the path, and instead of the path’s straight line, all we could see was an oblique white streak that dropped dizzily down into the ravine. The snow had hardened and was slippery as soap.

“This is as far as we go.”

How to get past? We hadn’t brought even a lousy shovel to work with. One of the anarchists, named Luis, said:

“We have to go on.”

He took out a long knife and threw himself on that white streak, at whose end death opened in the enormous mouth of the ravine.

Bent under the wind, we watched him work his way past. Digging in the knife, he grabbed onto it while he took a step, then clinging to the snow, he took out the knife and stuck it in, took another step, and little by little he drew away from us. Suddenly, he slipped, sliding a meter. We shouted. The man lay motionless for a second, then started to climb, dragging himself until he was able to grasp the knife that had remained stuck in place. It took him 20 minutes to cross the 80 meters of the avalanche.

I went next. Never have I felt as close to death as I did at that moment. With teeth clenched, driving my feet into the snow with all my strength, looking for the shadows of the holes opened by the anarchist’s knife, I crossed that narrow way. To fall was to roll a thousand or two thousand meters and end up a corpse. When I got to the trail, I was disoriented for a moment, and then I ran for the Christ the Redeemer hut. Luis was there. Using matches, we set fire to some paper and warmed our numbed hands.

“And the others?”

“They’re coming.”

We waited a long time, but they did not appear.

“Did they get lost? Let’s go find them.”

We went outside and started shouting.

“If they went on ahead, it’s useless to shout. The wind throws our shouts back at us.”

We searched around nearby and soon we heard a voice calling from far away. We looked for the person who was shouting and found the other anarchist, arms wrapped around a post marking the border between Chile and Argentina. We straightened him up and shook him a bit until he recovered.

“And Laguna?”

“I don’t know; when I got to this side of the avalanche, he started across.”

“He probably went on ahead.”

“No; no he didn’t. He must be lost.”

An enormous feeling of anguish rose from my heart to my throat and I ran like a crazy person, shouting:

“Laguna! Little brother!”

But the wind sarcastically returned my cries to me.

*** *** ***

The next day, as we descended, we looked everywhere for signs of Laguna. But the snow had likely covered his tracks, because neither on the trail, nor in the ravines, nor anywhere did we see a footprint or a body breaking up the harmonious smoothness of that immense sheet, under which Laguna was surely taking his final rest.

Poor unlucky bastard!

____________________________________

1. A cuadra is length of measurement equal to about 100 meters, give or take.

2. Araucanians are the indigenous peoples originally from south central Chile. More here.

3. The term he uses here is roto fatal. Roto is a heavily charged piece of slang from Chile that literally means “broken” but indicates any number of things depending on who is talking, including proletariat, cheat, extremely poor, or just “dude.” I went with what I think would be a colloquial equivalent in English, but there’s not doubt that in Rojas’ writings, the term roto is extremely significant.

3 Comments

  1. Douglas Williamson wrote:

    Hey Petey Joe,

    Not bad at all. I get the feeling the English might have been better if you had split some things into more sentences, rather than keep the long Spanish originals intact. I often find that Breaking things into more sentences in English makes the English seem more natural. Otherwise, I enjoyed the story and am impressed with your abilities.

    Hope all’s well. Abrazo desde Costa Rica.

    Doug

    Monday, August 20, 2012 at 11:54 | Permalink
  2. pjk wrote:

    Thanks Doug!

    Really?? If anything, I thought the sentences in this story were sometimes short to the point of choppy, but I’ve probably just been reading too much in Spanish lately…

    Monday, August 20, 2012 at 13:45 | Permalink
  3. Ignacio Álvarez wrote:

    Para mi gusto el estilo de Manuel Rojas siempre es de oraciones largas, largas también para el oído del hispanohablante.
    Me suena bien, cada vez mejor, el “poor unlucky bastard”.
    Sobre la expresión “pura Araucanía” hay mucho paño que cortar. No creo que quiera decir “soy araucano puro”, porque Santiago no es zona mauche. Más bien algo del tipo “estoy hecho de pura araucanía”, y allí araucanía sería algo como “la sustancia de la que están hechos los araucanos”.
    Es verdad: se trata de un matiz muy estrecho
    Saludos!
    Ignacio

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 21:38 | Permalink

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