(English translation by Chris Andrews)
The way in which my friendship with Sensini developed was somewhat unusual. At the time I was twenty-something and poorer than a church mouse. I was living on the outskirts of Girona, in a dilapidated house that my sister and brother-in-law had left me when they moved to Mexico, and I had just lost my job as a night watchman in a Barcelona campsite, a job that had exacerbated my tendency not to sleep at night. I had practically no friends and all I did was write and go for long walks. starting at seven in the evening, just after getting up, with a feeling like jet lag: an odd sensation of fragility, of being there and not there, somehow distant from my surroundings. I was living on what I had saved during the summer. and although I spent very little, my savings dwindled as autumn drew on. Perhaps that was what prompted me to enter the Alcoy National Literature Competition, open to writers in Spanish, whatever their nationality or place of residence. There were three categories: for poems, stories, and essays. First I thought about going in for the poetry prize, but I felt it would be demeaning to send what I did best into the ring with the lions (or hyenas). Then I thought about the essay, but when they sent me the conditions, I discovered that it had to be about Alcoy, its environs, its history, its eminent sons, its future prospects, and I couldn’t face it. So I decided to enter for the story prize, sent off three copies of the best one I had (not that I had many), and sat down to wait.
When the winners were announced I was working as a vendor in a handicrafts market where absolutely no one was selling anything hand-crafted. I won fourth prize and 10,000 pesetas, which the Alcoy Council paid with scrupulous promptitude. Shortly afterwards I received the anthology, with the winning story and those of the six finalists, liberally peppered with typographical errors. Naturally my story was better than the winner’s, so I cursed the judges and told myself, Well, what can you expect? But the real surprise was coming across the name Luis Antonio Sensini, the Argentine writer, who had won third prize with a story in which the narrator went away to the countryside where his son had died, or went to the country because his son had died in the city—it was hard to tell—in any case, out there in the countryside, on the bare plains, the narrator’s son went on dying, that much was clear. It was a claustrophobic story, very much in Sensini’s manner, set in a world where vast geographical spaces could suddenly shrink to the dimensions of a coffin, and it was better than the winning story and the one that came second, as well as those that came fourth, fifth, and sixth.
I don’t know what moved me to ask the Alcoy Council for Sensini’s address. I had read one of his novels and some of his stories in Latin American magazines. The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies. He had published other books, of course, in Argentina, and with Spanish publishers who had since gone to the wall, and he belonged to that intermediate generation of Argentine writers, born in the twenties, after Cortazar, Bioy Casares, Sábato, and Mújica Laínez, a generation whose best known representative (to me, back then, at any rate) was Haroldo Conti, who disappeared in one of the special camps set up by Videla and his henchmen during the dictatorship. It was a generation (although perhaps I am using the word too loosely) that hadn’t come to much, but not for want of brilliance or talent: followers of Roberto Arlt, journalists, teachers and translators; in a sense they foreshadowed what was to come, in their own sad and sceptical way, which led them one by one to the abyss.
Read the rest of Roberto Bolaño’s “Sensini” at The Barcelona Review (or in the collection Last Evenings on Earth).