Paz Soldán(Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1967) is a professor of Latin American literature at Cornell University. He is the author of ten novels, including Río Fugitivo (1998), La materia del deseo (2001), Palacio quemado (2006), Los vivos y los muertos (2009) and Norte (2011); he has also written the short story collections Las máscaras de la nada (1990), Desapariciones (1994), Amores imperfectos (1998) and Billie Ruth (2012). He has co-edited the books Se habla español (2000) and Bolaño salvaje (2008), and his most recent book is Iris (Alfaguara, 2014). His work has been translated into ten languages and received numerous prizes, including the Juan Rulfo short story prize (1997) and the Bolivian National Novel Prize (2002). He has also been awarded a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation (2006), and contributes to a number of publications, including the newspapers El País and La Tercera and the magazines Etiqueta Negra (Peru), Qué Pasa (Chile) and Vanity Fair (Spain).
Paz Soldán is one of the most representative authors of the “McOndo” movement in Latin American literature, which emerged in the 1990s as a reaction against the literary school of magical realism dominating the European reception of Latin American literature since 1960. McOndo is characterized by realistic scenes, eschewing exoticism in favor of urban environments, references to popular culture and daily life in 21st century Latin America. Bolivian literature is currently undergoing a kind of renaissance, and Paz Soldán is one of the country’s best known authors. A Spanish publication recently included him on a list of the 25 most important Latin American intellectuals, and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa has said that “among the new Latin American authors, the voice of Edmundo Paz Soldán is one of the most creative.”
Ventana Latina is pleased to present an English translation of the first pages of Iris, printed here with the permission of the author.
— Jessica Sequeira
* * *
Iris [first pages]
A metallic voice on the radio of the jipu informed them of an emergency in the Xlött temple on the outer ring. Song began to make his way there. Xavier raised his eyes and daylight struck him in the face, red as a never-ending sunset. Motionless, flourlike clouds covered the plain. The calming image came to him of Soji sprawled in bed sleeping, rings of phosphorescent color shining on her ankles and neck; he wanted to lose himself in thoughts of her, but couldn’t. He never liked going to the outer ring, which was riddled with followers of Orlewen, the native of Iris whose rousing speeches and impermeability to death had managed to convert what might have been a minor nuisance for SaintRei into an exhausting insurrection.
The soldiers in the backseat spoke in an unknown language. Pakis, decided Xavier, uninterested in the instructor translating his words, and Malays in the jipu behind them. There were increasing numbers of shanz from Asia, or if not there, then from Central America or the little Mexican states. SantRei had a hard time recruiting in other regions.
Song drove through the narrow streets. The fengli blew forcefully; sha hit against the glass windows of the jipu, impeding visibility. Xavier had thought that with time he’d get used to the color of the light, the constant presence of the fengli, the dry climate. It was true that he could live with them, but he felt like an inhabitant of the tropics moved to a polar zone; his bodi reacted differently and he was always sluggish. In the pod they’d had to install floating lamps that soothed the intensity of the light and replicated the color of the Outside.
A wave of cold air ran through his chest; when he coughed it hurt his throat. This had been been happening for some time, every time he had to go out. He had to fight a panic attack when he arrived at one of the doors of the Perimeter and waited his turn. It was as if a flap of cold skin awakened in the opening of his stomach and were drawn out through his thoracic cavity to appear as a tongue between his lips. Tension accumulated in the muscles of his chest. The shanz left everything behind —the security guards, the high walls of reinforced concrete, the rolls of elecrified wire— and entered the streets of a city indifferent to them. There they were exposed to bombs thrown in their paths and natives of Iris who in the name of different gods approached to immolate themselves and their enemies.
Youths with hostile faces spit as the jipus passed. On the walls of the houses banners bearing slogans from Orlewen were unfurled. Xavier smiled when he came across the familiar phrase They promised us jetpacks. If one of the shanz complained about something, he always responded They promised me a jetpack, man. That day new banners called his attention, reading I want to take the Perimeter and Let’s clear out those that clear us out.
He couldn’t relax. In those phrases he discovered the lethal power of Orlewen, the untiring work of the insurrection. He crossed himself; there were certain atavistic practices he hadn’t given up.
Buildings that by some miracle hadn’t been knocked down, mildew stains on the walls, blackish grass in the entrance were signs that natives of Iris still lived there, amidst the ruins. They arrived in search of a place they could make their own, taking control of terraces, hallways, and empty swimming pools. Men and women slept in the hexagonal galleries of the Center of Memory alongside shelves weighed down with dust, in the half-destroyed offices of the Supreme Court, in the balconies and orchestral section of the Hologramón.
You’re quiet, man.
There isn’t much to say.
Song’s moods were volatile. Xavier was sometimes used to treating him like an unknown. He was lower in rank and slept in the barracks. Nearly all his hair had fallen out and he never stopped complaining about it: his black curls attracted girls. Xavier touched the smooth fuzz that remained there like the remains of a shipwreck, as if to say, what do you expect man, at least in this we’re all the same. They shared a passion for strategy games like Yuefui; Song was more aggressive than he was, while he preferred to gain territory little by little, advancing with caution and using involved maneuvers like those of his father when he was a kid. He’d fought in the quadrilateral and was proclaimed national champion of muaytai in Munro, before other things distracted him.
When they cut through a market, the strong smell hit them of trash accumulated in the corners (in the Perimeter nearly everything lacked a smell; an aseptic veneer invaded even the most tucked-away corners). He knew through the instructor that the protectorate of Iris had experienced better days. That the nuclear tests in the middle of the previous century had converted the natives into what they were and the region into a radioactive field where few human beings arriving from the Outside survived more than twenty years. That at the end of the previous century the discovery of X503, a light and resistant mineral with multiple industrial applications, manufactured in Munro on the orders of the protectorate, led to concessions for the exploitation of X503 for SaintRei. That the easy money made desperate immigrants and adventurers of all kinds accept the lifelong contract, along with all that came with it: the impossibility of returning to the Outside, the shortening of life expectancy. That when some variants of X503 were discovered on the Outside, the main cities of Iris decayed. He knew everything he needed to know about Iris thanks to the instructor.
Song decreased his speed upon entering the plaza. Xavier looked at the houses surrounding them. During their first days on patrol, the way they were constructed had called his attention. The second floor of one of them was missing a roof and featured staircases climbing up to nowhere, doors that opened onto emptiness. Economic reasons were what made them do things that way. A house was built at the rate that there were resources: a family could live in a room for a period, until a little saved-up geld allowed them to construct another; later, perhaps in three or five years, they could move up to the second floor.
We need reinforcements.
Not yet, man.
Tres lánsès with exorbitantly large eyes rummaged through the trash in a corner, their aggressive beaks sifting for food amidst the junk. A malnourished dog watched them without finding the energy to follow their example. Xavier felt the imminence of danger: excess calm frightened him more than any racket. Perhaps a swit would calm him. He’d once abused them, and maybe because of that, taking just a few no longer had an effect. He took one to sleep and another to remain alert; one for panic attacks and another for anxiety; when he needed air he put one in his mouth and when his pressure rose, another; to have fun he needed three and when he was melancholy, two; when he wanted to see stars and hear explosions during sex with Soji he looked for swits in the little metal box he wore around his neck. He wanted to forget about Luana and Fer on the Outside, but for that maybe they still hadn’t invented swits. He needed that house on the block with tall willows in front, near the fut12 stadium, to stop appearing before him. There, on Sunday afternoons, the chants of fans could be heard, cries of euphoria when one of the teams scored. In the beginning Luann hadn’t been interested in going, but Xavier had convinced her with the argument that so much noise meant they wouldn’t get anything done if they stayed. Luann had ended up being an even bigger fan than he was, and wouldn’t miss a match for anything. She took him and Fer to the most dangerous stands, where alcohol circulated and fireworks roared, wearing a blue-and-white jersey like that of the River Boys, carrying streamers and whistles in her hand, and hiding a flask of whisky in her bag. Fer, in contrast, watched without watching, asking impatiently how much time was left until it would all be over. A fringe of hair covered his forehead, and disobedient locks curled near his temples. He couldn’t be separated from her charcoal-gray hoodie and wore the hood even in the most aggressive sun. Xavier should have suspected that even then, they’d already lost him.
Song stopped the jipu next to an abandoned rikshò. An old Iris native lay on the stairs that gave onto the main door of the temple. Xavier got out along with Song and made a sign to the shanz to cover his back. The other jipu parked alongside; Xaiver gestured to them not to get out.
I don’t like any of this, man.
Xavier clutched the butt of the riflarpón: fear overwhelmed him. In the exercises with holos everthing was easy or at least manageable; it was another thing to find oneself alone in a plaza, at the door of a temple where foreign gods were prayed to —he didn’t accept the God of his own, but at least it was familiar— knowing he was being watched by the enemy.
A shriek startled him. A lánsè took flight. He was on the verge of shooting.
Song drew near to the Iris native. Xavier observed him from the corner of his eye: dirty clothing in shreds, a beggar like so many that swarmed the streets fighting for food like the dogs and lánsès. How could he have reached that age? Sometimes it was a question of luck; an Iris native could be very healthy while his brothers developed all kinds of illnesses and pains from a young age.
The old man wasn’t wearing anything that clung tightly to his body. That made Xavier lower his guard. False alarm. Some of Orlewen’s tactics seemed senseless but ultimately revealed themselves as part of a systematic plan to make the darkskins live with fear. Terror filtered into dreams and produced saico episodes during the day. It was overwhelming.
Xavier was going to tell Song there was no danger when a blast of fengli hit him. An instant later he heard a thunderous noise. He lost his footing and flew through the air. His back hit something hard and pointed, and he felt horses were trampling over him in a stampede.
His eyelids closed.
When he half-opened them again, he was in the middle of the street.
He wanted to get up but he couldn’t. Pain made him close his eyes again.