Hagar Peeters – Malva
Poem translation by Judith Wilkinson
Prose translation by David Colmer
God help us that father of mine was always first
into the breach where injustice was concerned.
He was a fellow traveller, co-mover
on the waves of history, he chronicled them
with a steady hand, bulletlessly staunch
he braved misty cities in remote places,
parted with more than the shirt off his back,
but less than the skirt that my mother pulled up
to give birth to me.
God damn it that father of mine of whom I was so proud
that I wanted to follow him,
a fellow babe in arms;
even on his knee I travelled upsy-daisy
on a camel through the desert with the caravan
far away from her who years later still lay
moaning in the aftermath in her bedroom
where no wink of sleep no chink of daylight was allowed
no fresh air, no foreign country
and no father’s face to make her wilt even more
than on the day I spilt out of her.
But my father, ay ay compañero, was in Chile,
Nicaragua, on a steamer across the ocean
in the slammer in Bolivia with beard, knife and hat
busy finding the world too small for himself
while all on her own she raised a whole new life.
My footprints melt in snow.
They take on the shape of some unintended animal
before suddenly vanishing halfway.
My name is Malva Marina Trinidad del Carmen Reyes, to my friends here Malvie, Malva to everyone else. In my own defence I can add that I, of course, did not choose the name. That was my father. You know him well, the great poet. Just as he gave his poems and collections titles, he gave me a name. But it never crossed his lips in public. My eternal life began after my death in Gouda in 1943. Only a handful of people at my funeral. Very different from my father’s, thirty years later in Santiago de Chile.
Socrates could have picked up a few pointers from my father, the way he passed away in the Santa Maria Hospital in Santiago after being sedated to control the hysteria that overcame him after hearing about such a disgraceful injustice that he, who had always remained composed and friendly and kept a cool head in the most bloodcurdling of circumstances, burst into tirades and shrieks of despair, raging like a man possessed until the doctor arrived in his white coat to calm him down with an injection, and the sweet sleep he slipped into turned into a long chute, a slide that kept going, and my father felt the delight of a descent in the pit of his stomach, although he was actually ascending to the regions of the hereafter, where I won’t meet him for a long time yet, but where he must definitely be, because the hereafter is vast and he was as dead as a doornail, as the doctors unanimously concluded the next day based on the absence of a pulse and the unmistakable facts that his eyes remained closed and not the slightest bit of him was moving; there wasn’t a wisp of breath passing through his limbs, which remained stock-still as if a solar eclipse and the dead of winter had suddenly descended upon him together.
I prolonged that sentence deliberately to give my father time to leave this world at his ease and enter death.
The bereavement was for his widow, Matilde Urrutia. She bowed to his body, kissed his hands, felt on the floor for the fountain pen that had slid out of his fingers, and finally found it down on her knees with her arms stretched in under the bed, whereupon she grumbled to the nurse for a broom to pull the thing closer, stuck it behind her right ear under a casually dangling lock of hair – roguish, incorrigible Patoja – and resolved to use it later to complete his memoirs before expanding them with her own memories of their life together.
Halfway through his extended journey to the realm of the dead, I decided to accompany my stiff-stern father. I took the hand he had written with almost his entire life and together we drifted over the roofs of a smouldering Santiago. The presidential palace, the park, the stadium, the slums with their workers and the Mapocho River were all far below us. My father didn’t just see his friends being tortured, but also the funeral procession taking him to his stone resting place, flowing through the streets like a living, human branch of the Mapocho, while in the river itself, countless dead bodies were drifting downstream.
From that direction very far away we heard militant slogans, the Internationale, the yells of the communist youth and, half lost on the wind but still discernible: “¡Camarada Pablo Neruda! ¡Presente! ¡Ahora y siempre!”
And everywhere we saw shades rising from the buildings and the stadium and from the fields and harbour to join us in the empty sky.
I am not actually convinced my father noticed me by his side, even though I was holding his hand the whole time. He kept staring down intently as if trying to commit to memory every act of the human tragedy being staged below. Now and forever. The wind, a condition of his delirium, seemed to have a stronger hold on him than on me; he rose more quickly. I simply let him go, watching until he had disappeared out of sight.
Nowhere could I see Federico, Salvador, Miguel or Víctor. Not one member of the exuberant, always increasing, never diminishing coterie that had gradually spanned continents, yes, finally encompassing the entire world, surrounding him always and everywhere, not one of my father’s most dedicated readers had put in a posthumous appearance to accompany him on his transition to the hereafter. I kept asking myself why I, of all the dead who had known him, had been chosen to see him off.
Now I realise it was so I could tell you about it.
I was still finding it hard to get over the irrepressible number of people emerging from every nook and cranny of Santiago de Chile on 25 September 1973 to join my father’s funeral procession when I suddenly saw your own father in the depths below. You might not believe me, Hagar, but it’s true. There he was, that tall Dutchman, in the middle of the burgeoning mass of the living, which had begun as a couple of hundred people but finally came to thousands. Why else do you think I picked you out as the one to hear my story? He was on his guard. He had opened his notebook, his pen was jotting down events and impressions, but at the same time he was keeping his eyes peeled to make sure he wouldn’t be plucked out of the crowd by the watching carabineros.
His notes from that day have been preserved, in that pathetic homemade code he used so he could worm his way out of things if he was arrested after all, like that time in Bolivia. Under the dictator Ovando he had languished for three weeks in the prisons of La Paz and Oruro because of his alleged contacts with the guerrilleros. From my heavenly heights I bent over the hieroglyphs your father was entrusting to the page down there in Chile and immediately discovered I could read them effortlessly.
Once his words had sunk in, I let your father go too and floated on alone, following the funeral procession like a condor trailing a herd of rabbits. Again I saw Matilde, la Patoja, waddling along: courageous, determined and on the point of succumbing to the overwhelming grief that was seeping into her soul one drop at a time, like the eternal southern rain that dripped through the holes in the tin roof of her parents’ ramshackle house in Chillán.
La Patoja, “duck legs” in Chilean slang, was my father’s affectionate nickname for the last of his three wives, who he also called “curly” and “muddlehead”, though she was anything but stupid! The “muddle” in “muddlehead” referred exclusively to her hair and not to her head itself, like it would have with me. As hair exists in a state of flux, apart from the head proper, the muddle hers invariably got into was not a shortcoming, but something he found endearing. After waking in the morning (I was a ghostly presence in a niche, a voyeur to their happiness), he would ask her, “Lazy Patoja, how long before you’re going to wake up?” and those copper strands were like straw and twigs for him to build their love nest. He was so engrossed in stroking that woman’s locks, winding them round his finger, caressing them and draping them in strange shapes, that a medieval monk watching might have been moved to write the words, “All the birds have started their nests, except you and me. What are we waiting for?” Waiting had proved fruitless though, because my father and Matilde never had children together. I am the only descendant he ever produced.
My father’s intense love for la Patoja was due, of course, to the colour of her hair, as copper is one of the national products of Chile and my father was besotted with Chile. He had a love-hate relationship with that noble metal because it was in the hands of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, a company that channelled every cent it earned back into its own, American, pockets. As a result the unfortunate Chileans didn’t become a single copper richer, but stayed as poor as the soil of the northern desert that yielded all that wealth. A new government had set to nationalising the thoroughly Chilean products that had been snapped up by enormous foreign companies, but that had led to the coup. With the support of the United States, which feared a second Cuba, the multinationals had helped the cruel general take power and the junta had then forced the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende to take his own life, which caused the death of my father either directly or indirectly – I’ll leave that open for now. In any case, my father’s love-hate relationship with the metal did not detract from his unsullied love for Matilde.
His first wife – my mother – was an extraordinary foreigner, a Dutchwoman from Batavia; his second, venturesome Delia, was already less exotic for him as she hailed from Argentina; and finally he had charmed this last partner, who had the advantage of sharing his familiarity with the cold and the poverty and the endless rain of Chile’s rural south.
She must have pleased him with that coppery scent and glow of hers because he had kept her on his hook until Death supplanted her with his own black nail. And now she feared that the death my father’s sleep had glided into so seamlessly had not been a natural one. No, there hadn’t been the smallest splatter of blood, not a drop had been spilt! This Death had been so perfect, so neat; he hadn’t left any dirty smudges and he had made sure his fingers were as clean as a whistle afterwards so that there was no evidence anywhere of malice. The sedative a white-coated doctor had injected into my father’s veins could very well have been poison, which was why it was not as far-fetched as you might at first think to compare the death of my father to that of the philosopher Socrates, who was handed a cup of hemlock for stirring up seditious thoughts in the young with his brazen but all too convincing ideas. Perhaps my father too had now been murdered for encouraging sedition in the young, and adults too.
Even if it wasn’t real poison, as those who would exhume and investigate his body in an another era hoped to establish, it could still have been the venom of the times and the events of the day that so unexpectedly felled my father, the prostate-cancer-afflicted poetic giant.
This happened under the junta of General Augusto Pinochet, who inflicted a reign of terror on Chile in the nineteen seventies and eighties, transforming one section of the population into murderers and the other into martyrs with the ease with which a coppersmith or god forges statues of different shapes in the furnace of battle.
La Patoja, now miserable and alone in the world, my father’s widow, inexhaustible protector of his dreams and stature, shall reveal herself as the guardian angel of his legacy. She will pass the fruits of his pen on for posterity. Erstwhile intellectual friends will be even happier to leave this task to her because of their sudden desire under the new regime to distance themselves from the communist Neruda, while I – the true fruit of his loins, the flesh and blood, but meanwhile transformed into a shade – look on sorrowfully as she begins her reign over his pages, marking them with her red nail varnish and her cloying perfumes; concealing and maligning her predecessors and successors in my father’s passions, glossing over the affairs that emerged as having taken place behind her back and building the great love between her and my father up to astral heights.
Even higher than the domain the dead reach, that’s how high she elevates the love between her and my father. As a spirit I know that, and as a daughter who was denied paternal love I write it. Omniscient, too, I shall of course add that Matilde Urrutia will competently fulfil her duties as the clandestine courier of my father’s memoires, although I am not mentioned in them at all. You must forgive me my two sides; it remains confusing trying to reconcile being forgotten and dead with a role as an omniscient survivor.
I am writing all this down, by the way, with my father’s pen. Later I will explain how that came about.