It is a warm summer day in February, shortly before noon, when I arrive at the gates of Villa Grimaldi with a friend. The place is quiet, no-one to be seen walking the beautiful gardens. We enter the site and get two audio guides to do the tour. The sun is burning, so we rush from shadow to shadow to listen to the explanations of the guide. I don’t really connect to the place until we’re halfway through, instead being fascinated by the incredibly noisy birds populating the scrawny araucaria trees. The place was a restaurant before it was appropriated by the secret police (DINA) shortly after the 1973 coup. It was then used as a secret detention center, where people were tortured and disappeared. While the original main building and detention cells have been destroyed, the trees bear witness to the history of the place. It comes to no surprise, then, that many of them have specific meanings in the context of constructing memory.
Apart from the araucarias, another tree that captures the attention is a bushy bougainvillea right next to the closed former entrance door. Its bright pink flowers remind of the lush garden surrounding the former restaurant. The door, however, has been closed forever, expressing the desire that no political prisoner will ever have to enter through that door again. In general, the plates and sign-boards have been attached close to the ground, to resemble the view blindfolded prisoners had of the place – never actually being able to see the beautiful trees and green spaces, but only the floor through the tiny holes the fabric left.
As we continue walking, we enter a kind of field, about nine squares separated by tiny cobblestones, each with a birch at its center. As the audio guide explains, they symbolize the former prison cells, the birches being the isolated prisoners. Next to them, there’s a giant evergreen ombú, a species native to southern Patagonia. As we learn from the audio, the majestic tree has been used to create examples for the prisoners: some of them were hung there for everyone to see.
Next to the ombú, there is a circular bed of roses, interspersed with orange-red signs. Some of them have names of former female prisoners on them, some of them are left blank to remember those who passed through Villa Grimaldi unaccounted. At the center of the bed, there is a small fountain with a quote of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral at the bottom: “We all would have been queens”.
After around two hours, we have explored almost every corner of the park. During that time, we were the only visitors, and only one or two employees crossed our path. The atmosphere was peaceful, the airy spaces and the plants make this a solemn experience, that allows one to connect to the history of the place, but not in a ravagingly emotional way, but much more quietly, with the option of just taking in the contradictions of the place. As we take the bus back to Santiago’s city center, we pass by a restaurant with the telling name: El Trauma. 80’s.
More information on Villa Grimaldi can be found on the webpage of the Villa Grimaldi – Corporación Parque por la Paz (spanish only).
December 30th, my husband and I are driving down Calle 100, until we have to stop at a traffic light. We’re following the rest of the family in the other car, we’re going to Villavicencio for the holidays. As we stop, a man approaches our car to clean the back windows, and my husbands asks me for some coins to give to him. It is a cloudy day, and the cleaning will not last for long, because we’re heading for a dirt road to see some more of Colombia’s spectacular landscape and avoid the heavy traffic on the fast road connecting both cities. The man finishes, and my husband hands him some 300 COP – about 10 cents. The man is very energetic, smiling all over his face as we hand him the money. He thanks us for the contribution and starts a small conversation about working during the holidays. “You for the taxes, we for the food” he says and we wish each other happy holidays and a happy new year as the traffic lights change from red to green. As we drive down the street, I think about what he just said: We, meaning people like my husband and I, who in his view gain sufficiently to pay taxes, and him and people like him, who can barely make a living from the few cents the “tax-paying” people pay him for his services. I liked him and his friendliness, and felt connected as we wished each other happy holidays, but as I continue to think about our brief encounter, the separation startles me. We in the car, he cleaning the windows outside; we supposedly paying the taxes, he not earning sufficiently to even think about it; he working, we on our way to our holiday getaway; and so on. Possibly the only thing we have in common is that after a few minutes, we will both have forgotten about this encounter at the traffic light. Because others will follow, for both of us.
Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her (2012, faber and faber) is the most impressive book I’ve read this year. (And it’s close to being the most impressive one for the last 12 month, too.) In a way, it could be considered the book-version of an essay I had to write in high school. My English teacher back then once made us write an essay about love, and after throwing a little pubertal tantrum about how this was too much of an invasion of my privacy, I resigned and meticulously enumerated and characterized all the different facets of love I encountered in the relationships to the people close to me. Now while Diaz also centers his story around an ego, Yunior, his love stories are (who would have guessed from that title?!) all failed ones.
Set in a milieu of a Caribbean migrant New York suburb, the language is sprawled with Spanish half-sentences, curse-words, and allusions that I imagine will be difficult to understand for the non-Spanish-speaking reader. However, this makes for an extraordinary vividness and caught me right from the start. The quality of the language stands in stark contrast to the melancholy that spreads through the stories, there’s little hope in love as there is little hope in life, it seems. But it’s not a sad book somehow, more one about the difficult choices people sometimes have to make and on how expectations can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, and how one mistake can follow you around for years.
How did I come across the book?
I’ve been looking for Haitian Authors a few years ago, and discovered Edwidge Danticat’s novel The Farming of Bones [Huge Recommendation!] on the Parsley Massacre at the Haitian-Dominican Border in 1937. So I continued searching for contemporary writer’s with Caribbean background, and Diaz seems to be one of the big fishes. Then I found This is How You Lose Her on offer for less than a dollar, so I had to get it.
When and where did I read it?
Late January, mostly before going to bed, but also on the bus to work. The paragraphs allow for reading in smaller time slots.
I can’t, she said. I can’t make any mistakes. Why is sex with me a mistake, you demanded, but she just shook her head, pulled your hand out of her pants. Paloma was convinced that if she made any mistakes in the next two years, any mistakes at all, she would be stuck in that family of hers forever. That was her nightmare. Imagine if I don’t get anywhere, she said. You’d still have me, you tried to reassure her, but Paloma looked at you like the apocalypse would be preferable. (p.151f)