Juan Pablo Roncone is a precise, careful writer. Thus far he has only published a single story collection entitled Hermano ciervo (Brother Deer), from which ‘The Death of a Kangaroo’ is taken. A story about three young friends – two of whom are a couple – who go on summer vacation together to the south of Chile, as ‘The Death of a Kangaroo’ unfolds it builds from a quiet beginning to a crescendo of emotional and physical tension and harm. Like all good stories, the signs are all there right from the start but they’re subtle and go almost unnoticed. Right away we note that there’s something strange between the three of them. They’ve already spent a week together and while they’re putting their things in the truck in which they’re about to embark on the second half of their trip, certain actions and glances give rise to speculation: what’s really going on? Meanwhile it is reported on the news that an airplane transporting zoo animals has crashed in the forests of the south, close to where they’re planning on going, and the only survivor was a kangaroo. Thus the different plot elements align for the tragi-comic climax told in the concise, pointed style of the author, which establishes just the right tone. This story could be described as a kind of concise, Chilean road movie. ‘The Death of a Kangaroo’ is just a taste of the enormous potential of contemporary literature in Chile and an excellent example of Roncone’s measured prose.
1. Claudio puts the rolled up tent and the sleeping bags in the rear of my truck. It’s a beautiful day: the sun and a gentle sea breeze augur a pleasant journey. Amparo, my girlfriend, gets into the cabin and turns on the radio. Did you bring the tapes? she asks Claudio but he doesn’t hear her, he’s busy rearranging the backpacks. It’s Sunday, our second week of vacation outside of Santiago and there’s hardly anyone in the town plaza. Amparo takes out her tin of marijuana and starts to roll a joint. I put my hand on the hood and watch her out of the corner of my eye as her hands move like a squirrel’s paws. All set, says Claudio, and he smiles at me before getting into the truck.
2. It was all over the news. A plane from Argentina delivering kangaroos to the Buin Zoo crashed in a forest in the south of Chile, where we’re headed. The manager of the Argentine company transporting the animals said that five kangaroos had died but one had survived.
3. Amparo is sleeping with Claudio. I found out about a week ago, at the start of the holiday. I know but I’m pretending that I don’t.
4. We’re on the road, all three of us squished up in a row because my truck only has a driver’s cabin. Claudio and Amparo are both skinny, freckled redheads. Amparo is in the middle. She’s high, laughing at anything. We listen to a tape from the eighties. It’s duck season and Claudio has brought all his hunting equipment in a bag. Does duck taste nice? Amparo asks. I’ve never tried it, says Claudio. So what do you do after murdering them? It’s not murder, Claudio says, hunting is a sport. A barbarous sport, she says. As barbarous as killing a bull or cockfighting.
5. Claudio is my oldest friend, we were at school together. He was always a better person than I am: more generous, more friendly, always worrying about other people. Countless times Claudio’s cautious nature and level head have prevented me from doing something reckless, at school and at university. He’s also more handsome than me and gets better grades. His only defect, maybe, is a clear tendency to copy everything I do, from intellectual interests to the way I dress. Years ago, I had a girlfriend at school who said that Claudio was like my bodyguard: always behind me, silently watching and thinking. The biggest difference between us is his shyness. He’s twenty-two and always said that he was a virgin. He is terribly shy with women while I’m always childishly trying to have sex. Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to catch him fooling around with Amparo. Claudio, always sweet and attentive, was doing my girlfriend one night in the cabin bathroom. They thought that I had passed out drunk. The image is terrible: Amparo sitting on Claudio and Claudio sitting on the bowl, trying not to make any noise. As soon as I opened the door, I saw two panting bodies and all I could think to do was go back to bed. I had cheated on Amparo a few times and never minded when she cheated on me. In fact, the first time I was with Amparo she hadn’t yet broken up with her then boyfriend. My problem, of course, is with Claudio. The betrayal of him coming out of the bathroom, silent and sweaty, feeling his way in the darkness of the cabin, walking back to his bed as though nothing had happened.
6. Let’s stop here, Amparo says. We get out at a mini-mart to buy some beers. It’s hot. We’re wearing t-shirts and jeans and Amparo is wearing a dress. My father’s truck looks small and dirty next to the entrance of the mini-mart, a decrepit old jalopy. Amparo is an expert at stealing from provincial and roadside supermarkets. The trick is to walk casually, she says. The man at the till says hello. Amparo walks slowly. Claudio and I go for the beer. As we come out of the mini-mart, Amparo’s voluminous handbag contains chocolates, bread sticks, two tins of peaches and a large candy bar. Amparo always steals such stupid things.
7. It was her idea to go on vacation. Maybe she was planning on screwing around with my friend right from the start. Although she’s not a beauty, she is fiendishly attractive. It’s like everything she does, her slightest movement, has a sexual dimension. I once told her that and she laughed. I’ve never known a woman her age to be so experienced in bed. I have no dignity when it comes to that stuff, she says, half-joking. Amparo studies sociology at a private university. Her family is well-off and her parents are paying for a little apartment in Apoquindo, close to the Military School, so she can learn to be independent. She says that she’s left-wing and belongs to a group of anarchist students. I once saw her making a small homemade bomb. We were in her flat, naked, watching the afternoon go by through the window. We’d spent all weekend screwing and were so sleepy that we could barely think straight. The air in the bedroom was thick and I remember that just then, as I saw her working on the makeshift bomb, a little bomb that would be thrown at some protest by workers or students, I felt happy.
8. Can you imagine if we find the kangaroo? Amparo says. If it’s alive we might find it in one of the forests, she says pointing her little nose at the trees packed close together by the side of the road. It must be dead by now, says Claudio. This isn’t their habitat. What do you know about kangaroos? Nothing, Claudio answers. I don’t know, but I think it’ll be dead. Dead, dead, dead, she says. No-one survives on their own, says Claudio. But you’ve been on your own your whole life, I say. And you’re full of life, says Amparo.
9. Claudio was born in Spain and came to Chile – to my school and neighborhood – when he was around nine. I fondly remember the first time I saw him come into the classroom. The fine red hair, just the same as it is now and the slight nervous stutter. We soon became friends. The school bus came by to pick us up at the entrance to the condominium and then after school we’d spend the afternoon playing on the PlayStation or soccer with other kids our age. Our parents ended up becoming friends too. We went on vacation together and, for better or worse, Claudio listened to everything I said: what hairstyle he should have, the best Rocky films, how to play sick to get off school… When we were teenagers, we spent endless afternoons watching porn films and talking about women. Sometimes it annoyed me that Claudio always did everything I did, but later I understood that he didn’t realize what he was doing. For him it was just a way of surviving in a new country. When I was eighteen, only four years ago, I decided to study civil engineering at the Universidad Católica and Claudio signed up along with me: the same course at the same university.
10. The road is gray, a much lighter gray than a few kilometers ago. I decide to park for a while, at a rest stop. It’s two-thirty in the afternoon and we’re hungry.
11. When we were still in school, Claudio was suspended for two weeks for protecting me. I broke a chapel window – just for the sake of it – and as soon as Claudio heard that the guilty party would be punished severely, he didn’t hesitate to take the blame and say that he was the one who threw the stone.
12. That night, when I found them in the cabin bathroom, Claudio lay down in his bed and went to sleep. Amparo, however, waited a while, maybe half an hour, locked in the bathroom. The image of Amparo with my friend gave me an erection. Before she came back to bed, I masturbated thinking about what I’d just seen. After I came I felt a strange, confusing sensation.
13. Amparo finishes her potato chips and starts to pick at Claudio’s bread sticks. I barely eat anything, but I open my fourth can of beer of the day. All these chips and snacks by the side of the road have started to bore me a little. It’s the descent, says Amparo. It always makes me hungry. We’re in the Novena Region, I tell her. Amparo ignores me and Claudio says that we’ll be getting to the town soon. Just a few hours, he says and goes back to his bread sticks. The beer is warm, Amparo says. I don’t care, I tell her. Beer is beer.
14. After that night, I kept asking myself if it was the first time they’d cheated on me.
15. Back in the truck and on the road, Claudio said that it had been a long time since he saw such a round sun and clear sky. It’s like we were traveling north, he says. South but north, Amparo says.
16. One night, two days after the incident in the bathroom, I thought about bringing the farce to an end, abandoning the journey south and beating the shit out of Claudio. I thought about it seriously, I was even going to grab the shotgun to give him a good scare. But then I thought better of it.
17. I’m not a flirt, Amparo said once in her apartment.
18. I accelerate, there are barely any cars and on either side of the road the trees look static and unreal, sweltering in the roasting sun. I drink beer and every now and again look at Amparo’s legs. She’s cute in that little pink dress.
19. Yes you are, I told her. You’re a big flirt. No, she said and put her bare feet on the television. A flirt is a girl who flirts. I don’t. I don’t make an effort to be like this. This is just the way I am.
20. The beer is making me feel a little sick. This always happens. Beer and I don’t get on well when I drink too much. But it doesn’t matter. The road goes south, but it seems as though it’s going north. There it is all laid out in front of us and I’m the idiot driving, the idiot who doesn’t do anything when he finds his girlfriend with his best friend. I take another drink.
21. The thing is, I’ve spent all week jacking off, thinking about the scene in the bathroom.
22. I didn’t ask Claudio to take the blame for the stone in the chapel. He did it himself, solicitous as always. Your bodyguard saved you from getting suspended, said the girl who was my girlfriend at the time.
23. Suddenly, something – very big – steps into the road and I hit it head on. A dull thud in the middle of the road. Something is knocked backward and bounces along for a few feet. The entire truck shudders and I brake sharply. What the hell was that? Amparo exclaims, trembling between us in fright. The windscreen is cracked and it feels as though the sun is shining more brightly. I look into the rear-view mirror: a bundle of something is trembling but I don’t know if it’s a human being. We need to get out, I say. No, Amparo says. Let’s go. I open the door and Claudio follows me. The bundle is coffee colored and seems to be moving. We walk fearfully toward it. Amparo decides to get out and comes up behind us. There aren’t any other cars at this hour. Only when we’re a couple of feet away do I realize that the bundle is a dying kangaroo. It’s shuddering and a puddle of blood has formed around it. I approach cautiously: it’s just a kangaroo, but I’ve never seen one before and I’m afraid of it. Thank God it’s not a human being, Amparo sighs in relief. The kangaroo’s head is askew, like its neck has been broken. It’s struggling to breathe and it’s spitting blood bubbles. It came out of the forest, I say, I didn’t see it. The animal moves its tail, an enormous, dirty, bare tail. It’s lost most of its fur. Let’s move it back into the forest, says Amparo. We need to kill it, I say. It’s messed up, we can’t leave it like this. Amparo looks into the forest. Go get your shotgun, I say to Claudio and he obeys with his head bowed. The kangaroo’s eyes look like the eyes of a madman: bulging and bloodshot. Claudio is back. I can’t watch an animal suffering like this, I say. I pick up the shotgun and take a couple of paces back. I point it at the kangaroo’s head and pull the trigger. The animal’s squeals come to an end and a flock of birds, scared by the gunshot, shake the trees as they fly up into the sky. Idiot! says Amparo, or shouts more like. You’re an idiot! What are we going to do now? The kangaroo’s body and the beer have made me lethargic. Why did you kill it? Amparo asks. We could have taken it into town. Her voice makes me angry. Bitch, I think. Bitch. Claudio looks at the kangaroo sadly. The animal’s dark blood has started to leak from its head. Lying bitch. I have the shotgun in my hand and the traitors are standing next to the animal’s body. Maybe the time has come to bring this farce to an end. I raise the shotgun and point it at Claudio, who’s six feet away. What are you doing now?! Amparo shouts in horror and backs away a little. I point it at Claudio’s face and, although I know that I’m not going to shoot him, I want to prolong the tension for a moment. Claudio stares back at me. I’m sorry, he says, after a while. Forgive us. Amparo takes hold of her skirt nervously, staring at me like I’m crazy. I point the barrel down and shoot at Claudio’s left foot. He’s not far away, I can’t miss. A hole opens up in his white sneaker and a thread of blood trickles out. Claudio falls to the ground, twisting in pain, next to the kangaroo and the birds disturb the trees once more. Crazy! Amparo shouts. You’re crazy! I walk to the truck. Forgive me, says Claudio, holding his foot. I get Amparo’s bag and backpack and throw them onto the road. I go back to the scene, grab the kangaroo and drag it into the back of the truck. The animal’s skin is rough, not soft, as I’d imagined. It’s hard for me to get it up into the back but I eventually manage it. Amparo picks up her backpack and sleeping bag. Then I repeat the act, this time dragging Claudio with me. His blood is much lighter than the kangaroo’s. I put him in the back too and place his wounded body next to the animal. Forgive me, he says. Don’t worry about it, I say and I cover him in a blanket. The sun is still shining and the road that feels as though it’s heading north is still there, stretched out before us. I get back onto the road and see the blurry figure of Amparo in the rear-view mirror. I think that it’s still early, that soon, very soon, my friend and I will be at the hospital.