By Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell and James Yeh, originally published in Harper’s Magazine (2017)
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan
My grandmother lost nearly her entire family in the 1939 Chillán earthquake. We grew up hearing the story of her mother’s death: they were in the same room but at opposite corners, and there was no chance for an embrace. My grandmother, who was twenty-one at the time, spent hours choking on dirt before her brother managed to rescue her. She survived by a miracle and went on to become the most delightful person in the world, but whenever she told us this story, it ended in a generous bout of weeping.
My grandmother was with us in Santiago when the March 1985 earthquake hit. I was playing foosball with my cousin Rodrigo—I remember I was winning: my white team was beating his blue team. My grandmother swooped us out of the house and into the yard, where she hugged us fiercely. My mother and my sister came out next, and five or ten anxious seconds later, my father emerged. That night I thought: So this is an earthquake.
Later that year, on September 19, came the big earthquake in Mexico. Glued to the TV, we watched the horrible images of Mexico City’s destruction over and over. I asked my father if we could go and help the victims. He laughed and explained to me that Mexico was far away, many hours by plane. I was embarrassed. I was nine years old and apparently had never seen a map. Maybe it was TV or music that had made me assume Mexico was as close to Chile as Peru or Argentina.
Fast-forward to February 2010. The night of the earthquake I was by myself; I lived alone. I thought, like so many Chileans, that it was the end of the world. I thought, above all, about how I had no one to protect. The next day, I searched through the wreckage of my books to find Jorge Teillie’s poem “A Lone Man in a Lonely House,” and I memorized it. I wanted to laugh at myself—at my self-pity, at my sadness—but I couldn’t summon a smile: “A lone man in a lonely house / Has no wish to light a fire / No wish to sleep or stay awake / A lone man in a sick house.”
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