Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The ballerina and the candied peanuts

La bailarina y el maní confitado

La bailarina de ballet salió del teatro. Aunque esa noche la habían aplaudido muchísimo, en la calle nadie la conocía. Se paró en la esquina a esperar su micro, la Cerrillos-La Florida. Entonces, el aroma del maní confitado llegó a su nariz. “No debería”, pensó. “Pero esta noche dancé tan bien, que me merezco un premio, haré una excepción”, se dijo mientras caminaba. “¡Qué bueno verla de nuevo en el carrito, señorita!”, la saludó el manicero.

Paulina Leiva, Santiago en 100 palabras

This is one of a number of stories selected as winners in Santiago en 100 palabras, a short fiction contest organized by Santiago’s Metro, among other organizations. Here’s my best effort at an English translation:

The Ballerina and the Candied Peanuts

The ballerina left the theater. Although she'd been applauded for a lot that night, on the street no one knew her. She stopped on the corner to wait for her bus, the Cerrillos-La Florida. Then, the aroma of candied peanuts reached her nose. “I shouldn’t,” she thought. “But tonight I danced so well that I deserve a prize; I’ll make an exception,” she told herself as she walked.

“How good to see you at the cart again, miss!” the peanut vendor greeted her.

After my blurred vision and orb-like pupils—vestiges of a visit to the eye doctor—returned to normal today, I picked up my Santiago en 100 palabras book and reread a few of the stories. The sun-yellow, pocket-sized volume was obtained through an arduous trial of danger and perseverance: being part of a large, nearly riotous throng of 100 palabras fans in one of Santiago’s busiest Metro stations. Significantly behind schedule, Metro employees emerged to hand out the long-promised books to the angry chants of hundreds of readers. It was refreshing to see so many people as excited about words as many tend to be about sports showdowns or celebrity sightings.

Readers’ enthusiasm isn’t the only refreshing thing about 100 palabras. The stories, which are published in Metro stations across Santiago, don’t all reflect sparklingly positive views of the city; indeed, many refer to poverty, alienation and oppressive smog. However, the project promotes a kind of urban solidarity that, in my view, can be lacking Chile’s capital. Some santiaguinos routinely refer to their city as “Santiasco” (“asco,” for those who don’t speak Spanish, refers to something disgusting). As in any city, there are others who rarely leave the confines of their neighborhoods; stark socioeconomic segregation fragments the city into sectors of haves, have-nots, and have-somes.

Obviously, Santiago en 100 palabras doesn’t cure the pollution and social exclusion that plague the capital. What it does do is transform the city into a dynamic text that can be actively created and read by its inhabitants. The stories in my little yellow compilation aren’t just about Santiago, but about people living in Santiago; everyone becomes a protagonist. The writers range from teenagers to senior citizens, their settings from urban landmarks to public buses, and their characters from unemployed workers to statues to Pinochet himself. For the most part, the stories are snapshots of moments in urban life or details that passerby routinely overlook. The end result, just like Santiago, is fragmentary (check out Néstor García Canclini's Imaginarios urbanos for an interesting discussion of the fragmentary perception of modern cities). However, this fragmentation—unlike other brands of division that can be found in Santiago—seems to promote identification rather than alienation; the crowd shouting for 100 palabras books in the Metro station demonstrated that the stories resonated with more than a few santiaguinos. Despite the fact that a particular individual may view Santiago as a contaminated, unsafe sprawl, he or she might be pleasantly surprised to learn that someone else has noticed that a certain downtown dumspter is always empty (Gonzalo Andrade, "Basurero," honorable mention 2003).

Paulina Leiva's story called my attention for a few reasons. First of all (or "firstable," as a number of my well-meaning students in Quito wrote), I was thrilled to see the delicious perfection that is maní confitado exalted in writing. As many of you know, I'll be heading back to Santiago in a week to start an internship with The Santiago Times, and if anyone were to recognize me on the street there, it would be the peanut vendors. While I was living in Chile as an exchange student, nothing had the power to divert me from my path like the smell of peanuts roasting in caramel. When I return to Santiago, I won't consider searching for a cell phone or an apartment until I get my maní fix. Secondly, I believe that anyone who's ever lived in a city as big as Santiago can relate to the coexistence of anonymity and recognition described in the story. I love the feeling of being able to turn a corner and slip into a new world, tabula rasa. At the same time, one of my favorite days in Santiago was the one on which I saw the same girl on the bus in the morning and on the Metro in the afternoon, several hours later and in a completely different part of the city. I didn't know her, but I felt like, for the first time, I was truly a part of my adoptive city.


nataliemma said...

I think I remember an advertisement for those 100 word short stories about Santiago in the Escuela Militar metro stop. They sound delightful - thanks for sharing. You're an amazing writer... so you're working at an English news outlet in Santiago? How did you do that? Where will you be living? That's awesome; I'm jealous!

Noel said...

Leigh - If you could only eat one food for the next ten years -- alfajores or candied peanuts -- which would you choose?!

Leigh said...

it hurts to think about such a gut-wrenching decision...