Talk to me about your family history, said the bastards | Roberto Bolaño

A passage from “The Part About The Crimes” from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño in translation by Natasha Wimmer


Talk to me about your family history, said the bastards. Explain your family tree, the assholes said. Self-sucking pieces of shit. Lalo Cura didn’t get angry. Faggot sons of bitches. Tell me about your coat of arms. That’s enough now. The kid’s going to blow. Stay calm. Respect the uniform. Don’t show you’re scared or back down, don’t let them think they’re getting to you. Some nights, in the dim light of the tenement, when he was done with the books on criminology (don’t lose it now, man), dizzy from all the fingerprints, blood and semen stains, principles of toxicology, investigations of thefts, breaking and entering, footprints, how to make sketches and take photographs of the crime scene, half asleep, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, he heard or remembered voices talking to him about the first Exposito, the family tree dating back to 1865, the nameless orphan, fifteen years old, raped by a Belgian soldier in a one-room adobe house outside Villaviciosa. The next day the soldier got his throat cut and nine months later a girl was born, called Maria Exposito. The orphan, the first one, said the voice, or several voices taking turns, died in childbirth and the girl grew up in the same house where she was conceived, which became the property of some peasants who took her in and treated her like another member of the family. In 1881, when Maria Exposito was fifteen, on the feast day of San Dimas, a drunk from another town carried her off on his horse, singing at the top of his lungs: Que chingaderas son estas I Dimas le dijo a Gestas. On the slope of a hill that looked like a dinosaur or a Gila monster he raped her several times and disappeared. In 1882, Maria Exposito gave birth to a child who was baptized Maria Exposito Exposito, said the voice, and the girl was the wonder of the peasants of Villaviciosa. From early on she showed herself to be clever and spirited, and although she never learned to read or write she was known as a wise woman, learned in the ways of herbs and medicinal salves. In 1898, after she had been away for seven days, Maria Exposito appeared one morning in the Villaviciosa plaza, a bare space in the center of town, with a broken arm and bruises all over her body. She would never explain what had happened to her, nor did the old women who tended to her insist that she tell. Nine months later a girl was born and given the name Maria Exposito, and her mother, who never married or had more children or lived with any man, initiated her into the secret art of healing. But the young Maria Exposito resembled her mother only in her good nature, a quality shared by all the Maria Expositos of Villaviciosa. Some were quiet and others liked to talk, but common to them all was their good nature and the fortitude to endure periods of violence or extreme poverty. But young Maria Exposito’s childhood and adolescence were more carefree than her mother’s and grandmother’s had been. In 1914, at sixteen, her thoughts and actions were still those of a girl whose only tasks were to accompany her mother once a month in search of rare herbs and to wash the clothes, not at the public washhouse, which was too far away, but behind the house, in an old wooden trough. That was the year Colonel Sabino Duque (who in 1915 would be shot to death for cowardice) came to town looking for brave men—and the men of Villaviciosa were famous for being braver than anyone—to fight for the Revolution. Several boys from the town joined up. One of them, whom until then Maria Exposito had thought of only as an occasional playmate, the same age as she and seemingly as naive, decided to declare his love the night before he marched to war. For the purpose, he chose a grain shed that no one used anymore (the people of Villaviciosa had grown poorer and poorer), and when his declaration only made the girl laugh he proceeded to rape her on the spot, desperately and clumsily. In the morning, before he left, he promised he would come back and marry her, but seven months later he died in a skirmish with the federal troops and he and his horse were swept away by the Rio Sangre de Cristo. So he never returned to Villaviciosa, like so many other boys who had gone away to war or found work as guns for hire, boys who were never heard of again or who cropped up here and there in stories that might or might not have been true. In any case, nine months later Maria Exposito Exposito was born, and young Maria Exposito, now a mother herself, set to work selling potions and the eggs from her own henhouse in the neighboring towns and she didn’t do badly. In 1917, there was an unusual development in the Exposito family: Maria, after one of her trips, got pregnant again and this time she had a boy. He was named Rafael. His eyes were green like those of his distant Belgian great-grandfather and there was something strange about his gaze, the same strangeness that outsiders noted in the townspeople of Villaviciosa: they had the opaque, intense stare of killers. The few times she was asked who the father was, Maria Exposito, who had gradually adopted her mother’s witchlike language and manner, although all she did was sell the potions, fumbling among the little rheumatism bottles and the varicose vein flasks, answered that his father was the devil and Rafael his spitting image. In 1934, after a Homeric bender, the bullfighter Celestino Arraya and his comrades from the club Los Charros de la Muerte came to Villaviciosa in the early morning hours and took rooms at a tavern that no longer exists and that in those days offered beds for travelers. They shouted for roast goat, which they were served by three village girls. One of those girls was Maria Exposito. By twelve the next day they were gone, and three months later Maria Exposito confessed to her mother that she was going to have a baby. Who’s the father? asked her brother. The women were silent and the boy set out to retrace his sister’s steps on his own. a week later Rafael Exposito borrowed a rifle and went walking to Santa Teresa. He had never been in such a big place, and the paved streets, the Teatro Carlota, the movie theaters, the city hall, and the whores who back then walked the streets of Colonia Mexico, near the border and the American town of El Adobe, surprised him greatly. He decided to stay in the city for three days and learn his way around before he did what he had come to do. The first day he spent searching for Celestino Arraya’s haunts and a place to sleep for free. He discovered that in certain neighborhoods night was the same as day and he told himself he simply wouldn’t sleep. On the second day, as he was walking up and down the street in Colonia Mexico, a short, shapely Yucatecan girl, with jet-black hair down to her waist, took pity on him and brought him home with her. In a room in a boardinghouse she made him rice soup and then they made love until night. For Rafael Exposito it was the first time. When they parted the whore ordered him to wait for her in the room, or, if he went out, in the cafe on the corner or on the stairs. The boy said he was in love with her and the whore went off happily. On the third day they went to Teatro Carlota to hear the ballads of Pajarito de la Cruz, the Dominican trovador who was touring Mexico, and Jose Ramirez’s rancheras, but what the boy liked best were the chorus girls and the magic numbers by a Chinese conjurer from Michoacan. At sunset on the fourth day, well fed and calm in mind and heart, Rafael Exposito said goodbye to the whore, retrieved the rifle from where he had hidden it, and headed resolutely for the bar Los Primos Hermanos, where he found Celestino Arraya. Seconds after he shot him he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had killed him and he felt avenged and happy. He didn’t shut his eyes when the bullfighter’s friends emptied their revolvers into him. He was buried in the public grave in Santa Teresa. In 1935 another Maria Exposito was born. She was shy and sweet, and so tall that even the tallest men in town looked short next to her. From the time she was ten she spent her days helping her mother and grandmother to sell her great-grandmother’s remedies, and going along with her great-grandmother at dawn to gather herbs. Sometimes the peasants of Villaviciosa saw her silhouette against the horizon, climbing up and down hills, and it struck them as extraordinary that such a tall, long-legged girl could exist. She was the first of her lineage, said the voice, or the voices, who learned to read and write. At eighteen she was raped by a peddler, and in 1953 a girl was born who was called Maria Exposito. By then there were five generations of Maria Expositos living outside Villaviciosa, and the little house had grown, with rooms added on and a big kitchen with a gas stove and a wood fire where the eldest prepared her brews and medicaments. At night, when it was time for dinner, the five always sat down together, the girl, her lanky mother, Rafael’s melancholy sister, the childlike one, and the witch, and often they talked about saints and illnesses that they never caught, about the weather and men, which they considered equally troublesome, and they thanked heaven, though not too enthusiastically, said the voice, that they were only women. In 1976, the young Maria Exposito met two students from Mexico City in the desert who said they were lost but appeared to be fleeing something and who, after a dizzying week, she never saw again. The students lived in their car and one of them seemed to be sick. They looked as if they were high on something and they talked a lot and didn’t eat anything, although she brought them tortillas and beans that she snuck from home. They talked, for example, about a new revolution, an invisible revolution that was already brewing but wouldn’t hit the streets for at least fifty years. Or five hundred. Or five thousand. The students had been to Villaviciosa but what they wanted was to find the highway to Ures or Hermosillo. Each night they made love to her, in the car or on the warm desert sand, until one morning she came to meet them and they were gone. Three months later, when her great-grandmother asked her about the father of the child she was expecting, the young Maria Exposito had a strange vision: she saw herself small and strong, she saw herself fucking two men in the middle of a salt lake, she saw a tunnel full of potted plants and flowers. Against the wishes of the family, who wanted to baptize the boy Rafael, Maria Exposito called him Olegario, the patron saint of hunters and a Catalan monk in the twelfth century, bishop of Barcelona and archbishop of Tarragona, and she also decided that the first half of her son’s last name wouldn’t be Exposito, which was a name for orphans, as the students from Mexico City had explained to her one of the nights she spent with them, said the voice, but Cura, and that was how she entered it in the register at the parish of San Cipriano, twenty miles from Villaviciosa, Olegario Cura Exposito, despite the questioning to which she was subjected by the priest and his incredulity about the identity of the alleged father. Her great-grandmother said it was pure arrogance to put the name Cura before Exposito, which was the name she’d always had, and a little while later she died, when Lalo was two and walking naked in the yard, contemplating the yellow or white houses of Villaviciosa, always shut tight. And when Lalo was four, the other old woman, the childish one, died, and when he turned fifteen, Rafael Exposito’s sister died, said the voice or the voices. And when Pedro Negrete came to get him to put him to work for Don Pedro Rengifo, only the lanky Exposito and Lalo Cura’s mother were still alive.

Living in this desert, thought Lalo Cura as the car, with Epifanio at the wheel, left the field behind, is like living at sea. The border between Sonora and Arizona is a chain of haunted or enchanted islands. The cities and towns are boats. The desert is an endless sea. This is a good place for fish, especially deep-sea fish, not men

1 thought on “Talk to me about your family history, said the bastards | Roberto Bolaño”

  1. I have read this Novel 3 times and still find so much new with every reading. When I am reading his fiction I feel as if I am not able to comprehend the entire pattern of his thinking. It is a lot like the feeling I get when I read Pynchon. The ideas seem accessible and dense at the same time.

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