Santiago Dreaming

“THE CITY WILL FOLLOW YOU,” says Cavafy’s most famous poem, and it’s difficult not to agree, especially when we’ve spent our whole lives roaming and looking at the same streets. I love Santiago, sometimes I think I couldn’t live anywhere else, but like most people who live here I admit that it’s not a beautiful city, or at least not one whose beauty is evident. This is why it’s difficult for us to show it to people: When friends spend a few days here, we have trouble deciding where to take them.

When visitors say they like Santiago, we immediately ask them, a little befuddled and maybe even a little alarmed: Why? A few days ago, a friend from abroad—a Dutch friend, meaning a traveler par excellencegave me an amusing and sensible answer: I like Santiago because it’s close to Valparaíso. Chile, of course, is full of beautiful places, and it’s a bit absurd to spend two or three days on vacation in such an unappealing city. It’s also not an especially fun city, although on this question everything is so relative. I, at least, have never gotten bored in Santiago, it seems to me there are many places to have a good time, but sometimes I think I could have a good time anywhere.

Santiago is many cities at once. And sometimes it seems sad, meticulously designed so that people don’t encounter one another. When I think about Santiago, I think mostly about the center of the city, where everything mixes together, where people encounter one another whether they want to or not. When I was eleven and I started to travel to school every day (I lived on the outskirts, an hour and a half from the city center), I fell in love with that landscape—dirty, interesting, diverse, dangerous, impersonal, chaotic—a place where everything happened but nobody belonged. I would go to class every day at two in the afternoon, but I would leave my house very early so that I could wander freely around those unfamiliar streets, whose names I knew only because they showed up in the local version of Monopoly.

I can imagine Roberto Merino taking those same walks ten or fifteen years before me: walking avidly but distractedly, inhabiting the city sincerely, without preconceptions, fortuitously lost. I think there would be a consensus in choosing Merino—a journalist by intuition and necessity, an infrequent but excellent poet by vocation—as the best “Santiagologist” of our literature. His columns about his experiences in the city are anthologized partially in Santiago de memoria (1997) and Horas perdidas en las calles de Santiago (2000), and were recently collected in Todo Santiago (2012). They add up to some 150 articles, most of which are rather short—six or seven hundred words at most, which is nevertheless enough space for the author to deploy his inimitable and perhaps untranslatable style: a Borgesian, slightly “English” syntax, sentences full of bookish but not pedantic asides, and a language that is very colloquially Chilean without seeming quaint.

Merino’s articles have recently awakened a growing interest in readers (even though he is still, at fifty, a semisecret writer) precisely because of this style. Among his greatest merits are a mastery of emphasis and a persuasive sobriety that allow him to sneak in some very capricious observations: Somewhere he remarks that Parcheesi boards are stupid, for example, or that there is something mysterious about boxes of french fries from McDonald’s. On the subject of fast food, there is one story in which Merino confesses to regularly stopping outside the windows of Dominó restaurants to watch people eat their hot dogs: “Some do it jovially, with big bites; others do it sadly, with an absent, sleepless gaze.” It must be noted that these unusual and exceptionally delicious hot dogs are among the best things to have been invented in Chile. They may be the only thing visitors ever truly remember about Santiago. And yet, in this story, Merino claims that he’s never tried them. Having lived, as he has, his entire life in Santiago in the neighborhoods that he’s lived in, not having eaten at Dominó is almost completely implausible. Of course, we don’t have to believe him, but this kind of remark does a good job of illustrating his slightly distant, slightly absent perspective.

Todo Santiago is in many ways an inadvertent work, cobbled together from texts written against the clock, minutes before deadline. Almost twenty years ago, when an editor first assigned him to write about the city, Merino followed a fairly conventional pattern of reportage and bibliographic inquiry. But over time, the objects of his attention gradually blurred and grew ever more personal; in his later works, the city is cut down to a more modest field of vision, framed by a subject moving curiously and unhurriedly through a landscape he knows by heart but within which he can always find new shades of meaning. The Santiago that emerges in this writing is recognizable but also private, exceedingly personal and even—as all things are when we look at them closely—a little hermetic. He alludes to sounds, smells, moods, to the way the light falls in certain places, all while addressing the city’s inevitable talking points: the pollution, the periodic demolition of valuable buildings, the crime-related paranoia that causes barred windows and security alarms to pop up everywhere you turn, the inexorable car horns and bottlenecks at rush hour, the multiplication of beggars and street artists and peddlers—and so on.

Merino’s is the city that we know, the city that would follow us if we ever chose to run away from it. It is Santiago, with its permanent architectural eclecticism, its squalid and scrawny river splitting the landscape in two, its stray dogs sleeping at all hours on street corners, and its beautiful moments in autumn or winter when the rain stops and we rediscover the Andes. And with its strange people, like Merino, who watch us from the other side of the glass as we forlornly chew our magnificent hot dogs.

Translated from Spanish by David Noriega.

Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in January.