I discovered Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi´s short story collection Nuestro Mundo Muerto/ Our Dead World (gorgeous edition by Mexican publisher Almadia) last November. I had bought the copy at the Guadalajara book fair and read it in San Miguel de Allende: sitting cross-legged among the cacti at the lush botanic gardens above the city. Reading while vultures circled in the skies above me, a hot gust of wind rising from the gorge, nobody in sight as far as the horizon. I stayed for hours, the stories amplified by the piercing sun and lone stillness around me.
I read “I Pray for You” last week in a very different setting (both work): on my bus-ride home from the movies, having just seen Yourself and You, the latest by Korean movie director Hong Sang-soo. Both deal with: Love and Drinking. The story begins with: “They were drunk when he proposed (to get married).”
While reading “I Pray for You”, I had flashes of dark, violent road-movies: Wild at Heart, Perdita Durango, a barren desert landscape, a road stretching out before us, pitch-black night, weird and lonesome characters. We breathe the hot tar of the nightly highway, the endless desert, the smell of empty beer-cans and despair. The end of an affair. A woman walking back home along the side of the road, alone. An end, a beginning. Tension and release. An impending fateful turn. Broken innocence.
The taste of this story is a) very atmospheric and b) highly cinematographic, as are others of her stories. The psychology of her characters is always subtle, you have to be observant as a reader. Colanzi likes to dissect an event that works as a turning-point, a before and after, that reveals our characters personality not always visible at first sight. She is a writer of few words, essential dialogue. She seems to be the opposite of superficial; maybe part documentary-maker, part psychotherapist. Scraping at the surface to get to the bottom of things, like a gold-digger.
Colanzi has an acute sense of observation – of people and spaces & landscapes (which she gives a starring role). The scenes in her stories play out neatly, unstoppably, often with no final judgment, morale, or reason. The narrator steps back, giving precedence to the characters. We become part of the scene, sitting in the back of the car driving down that highway, empty beer-cans at our feet, uncomfortable witness to the break-up that´s about to take place. We walk away from her stories with a fleeting taste, a hint of sensation rooted in our minds – often without closure but never unsatisfied, on the contrary- her stories open up a door.
Colanzi has a unique voice: sensitive and yet not afraid of depicting psychological & physical violence. Smart, thoughtful and powerful. Snippets of life on the other side of the world – cinemas, universities, villages, taxi-rides, the road… all populated by breathing, feeling, complex human beings of all ages. There is a real richness and realness to the fabric she weaves and I look forward to reading more.
Translated by: Frances Riddle
They were drunk when he proposed it. That they go to a church in some little town and ask a priest to marry them on the spot, then return to Guan Zhou and keep drinking like nothing had happened. She thought it was the funniest idea in the world. Wait, she said, almost passed out across her arm. I’ll finish this beer first. The flies buzzed around the empty bottles piled up on the table. They’d missed their classes at university that day. They hadn’t gone in the day before either. They were celebrating. He had just gotten back from a month-long bus trip around the country with Uzi and Sergio, his childhood friends. He told her about what had happened to him: he ran out of money right at the end of the trip and had to sell his belongings—a sleeping-bag, a backpack, a Victorinox knife—to pay for his return ticket. He had no choice but to sleep in the aisle of the bus, shivering with cold, without any kind of jacket. He’d asked a chola if he could cover himself with her underskirts. The woman had refused, offended. She laughed hard at his stories. The jukebox played “I Pray for You”: they’d put enough coins in the machine to ensure that it would play only their favorite songs all afternoon. He rested his hand on her leg, as if by accident. They’d both been unfaithful and somehow knew it, but at that moment it didn’t matter. There’d be time to correct mistakes later. After flipping a coin, they decided to take the La Guardia highway. They’d never driven that road on their own before. They stopped to buy more beers on the way; he paid for them. They fought over control of the radio. Let me drive, he protested, or we’re going to crash. They saw a man standing on the side of the highway and stopped to pick him up. You’re crazy, she said, annoyed. Today it’s you; tomorrow it’s me. The law of the highway. Idiot. I don’t feel like playing good Samaritan. He leaned over to kiss her. When he did, he passed a hand over her head and pulled her hair. She bit him. Where are you going? the man asked through the car window. His clothes were stained with oil, as if he’d been working under a car. To get married, she said, taking a sip from her can of beer. The man stared at them. Get in, he ordered. We’ll give you a ride. The man was a taxi driver. His car had broken down, and he asked them to take him to a gas station. They offered him a can, and he sat in silence for the twenty minutes that followed. Before he got out of the car he tried to pay them, but they wouldn’t let him. Pray for us, she shouted, waving her hand out the window, as the man became a spot in the distance. Moron, he laughed. You don’t even believe in God. So what? They passed several towns. Crosses with plastic crowns bloomed on the sides of the highway. The light became orangey; afternoon was turning into evening. She passed him another beer. They’d never stayed the night together after making love. She always gathered her things quickly and went back to her mother’s house at first light, zigzagging down the road with the dawn breeze in her face, turning up the music on the car radio all the way to keep from succumbing to fatigue and drunkenness. She hadn’t wanted to get used to waking up next to him. The future is not ours, she thought. Son of a bitch, he shouted suddenly, trying to dodge the dog that had just run into the middle of the highway. The tires of the old Ford Fiesta skidded, and her forehead bounced off the window. The car stopped on the highway, like an insect stranded in the sun. She rubbed her head; it didn’t seem like anything serious, just a scare. He frowned at the beer that had spilled on the seats. You hit it, she said accusingly. I have no idea, he answered, dizzy from the car’s maneuvers. I heard it. You hit it. You killed it. A muffled howl came from the rear of the Ford Fiesta. The dog, she squealed, nervous. I’m not going to get out and check, he said, and he reversed the car back into the right lane. The car jolted slightly as they passed over the animal. Ohhh, she shouted, and covered her ears with her hands. It’s better for him. His suffering is over. How terrible, she said. He shook the beer off his clothes and turned up the volume on the radio. She sat frozen in her seat, her hair messed up from the car’s sudden deceleration. That was close, he said and opened another can of beer. People die in accidents like that. She didn’t respond. He only realized there was something wrong when, a few kilometers down the road, he turned to talk to her and saw that she was crying. Now what? he said, slamming on the brakes. This isn’t going to work. I want to get out. What did I do? Leave me alone. He got out of the car and leaned against the door. He lit a cigarette. He didn’t know where they were. The highway stretched on forever. He felt exhausted and bored. Get out, he said. She dried her tears with the back of her hand. We’re not going to get married any more? she asked. Some other day, he answered, containing his irritation. Analía got out of the car with a slam of the door and began to follow the asphalt into the sunset. Diego started the car and turned back toward the city. She had a long walk ahead of her. She turned and threw the can of beer after him. She missed. Luckily she had her Discman in her pocket; this time she didn’t know how long it would take her to get home.
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