Snapshots of Fogwill
I’m a writer who tries to avoid being written about, Rodrigo Enrique Fogwill—whose second middle name was Samuel—once said, or wrote. But time passes, gradually relaxing its imperative to forget, and memory reemerges: a series of mental snapshots, witness to the experience of a life, an encounter, a book left unfinished, waiting to be picked up again. The sensitive experience, as Fogwill—who approved and authorized the sharing of these snapshots—would say.
1. The Table in Santiago
I met Fogwill at a table in a restaurant and bar on Calle Rancagua in Santiago, at the end of 2004. He was well dressed, unusual for a modernist: dark jacket and pants, white shirt, and a pair of perfectly shined brown shoes. It was either Álvaro Matus or Pedro Pablo Guerrero who had invited me, but I don’t remember which. The two of them, dedicated Chilean cultural journalists, met with Fogwill in this shabby restaurant whenever he came to the city for work, not an infrequent occurrence at the time. He was freelancing then as a marketing consultant for a company that trusted him implicitly because of a chewing gum ad he’d created, and which had given him a certain renown in Argentina. I had never read any of his writing before that night, but after our meeting I devoured everything, or almost everything, he had ever published—as well as everything he continued to publish until his death, six years later. With his well-kept mustache and messy hair, Fogwill let the rest of us talk, an even rarer quality among his compatriot writers. We got along instantly: he couldn’t stand the milk-drowned coffee served at Café Tavelli, admired Zurita and followed his work closely, and said that Aira’s virtue was in knowing every possible move a text could make and taking the least expected one—checkmate to the reader. And you? he asked me. You’re a lefty psychoanalytical type, right? I don’t know if it was a guess or if he’d been told before joining the table, but we both laughed. I’d brought him Últimos días de la historia [Last days of history], a short novel set during Allende’s presidency, which he took affectionately and then put it away. He smoked cigarette after cigarette, almost desperately, and pursed his lips a little to blow the smoke from his whiskered mouth. During dinner he shared with Guerrero his enthusiasm for Bruce Chatwin, considered with some distance the shallowness of his country’s young novelists, and told us about the random way he had met his current wife and the reasons they decided to get married. She had known nothing about the writer Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, author of Los pichiciegos and Muchacha punk, cultural provocateur, sociologist by trade, poet by revulsion, famous novelist by mistake. He told us he fell for her instantly, this woman who could offer him a measure of domestic anonymity. Then he spoke of his children, whom he adored, and of his various adventures. He was staying not far away, at the NH Hotel on Calle Condell. After dinner, once we were out on the street, I offered to give him a lift in the old white Beetle I was driving at the time. Where’s the car? he asked, assuming, I’m sure, that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble, given how close we were to the hotel. I pointed to the car and Fogwill opened those fried-egg eyes that exaggerated his features: A convertible! he said, overjoyed. How wonderful! We got in and he told me the entire history of the car Hitler thought would win him the war, until German industry decided it would rather lose the war and make money instead, transforming Volkswagen into the people’s car all over the world. At one point on the way to the hotel, Fogwill suddenly stood up on his seat, face to the wind above the open roof of the Beetle. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye: he was like a happy child. When we got to the hotel, he asked me to wait a couple minutes. He went up to his room and returned with Runa [Rune], his latest publication, equal parts poetic-anthropological reflection and invocation of chance. That night, I started reading Fogwill, and I never stopped.
2. A Visit to the Office
One afternoon, months later, once we were already well acquainted and had become friends during our meetings at the Metales Pesados bookstore, Fogwill appeared at the cultural office where I worked as director, employee, janitor, and occasionally night watchman (whenever there were problems in Bellavista, our neighborhood, and the police called to let us know someone needed to stay and turn off the alarm). Fogwill came with an Onetti book under his arm. I can’t quite remember which one it was, but I do remember being struck by surprise: it was the first time he had read the writer I considered the absolute master of Latin American narrative. Fogwill, on the other hand, was finding Onetti to be merely interesting, and not much else. He sat on the only chair I had for visitors, in front of my desk, and started to smoke and talk about his reading. I wasn’t about to argue over Onetti’s qualities, so I simply listened. I realized then that he was a scarce commodity in the world of letters, much like creative freedom was among Latin American writers of the day, all so orderly and disciplined, so correct in placing every comma and period where they belonged. Fogwill had no agent then. He had fought with his old publishers, and he cared more about swimming than being translated into Chinese. If, at that time, Argentine narrative was divided between fans of Aira and fans of Piglia, Fogwill came to occupy a third space: the world of Río de La Plata, broken at every turn. He was the writer of the terminal crisis, which he wrote with the utmost freedom, tossing aside style norms in order to instead privilege incoherence, paradox, suspended movement, the donkey in the pit. Borges said he was the most knowledgeable writer on the subject of cars, and it’s true. His interest in the infinite was so nonexistent that he rewrote Borges’s El Aleph as Help a él, a literal and sarcastic inversion of Borgesian discovery, modulated to the key of the mundane, extravagant, and carnal. The text was published in 1982 and republished by Periférica in 2007, but Fogwill would never have guessed the interest his modernist nonsense humor would later inspire. He didn’t like having to carry books around, so he asked me to come with him to his hotel before we went to dinner. We left the Bellavista offices and crossed the bridge on our way to the NH Hotel on Calle Condell. Once we were in his room, Fogwill put down the Onetti book and went to shower. Five minutes later he came out of the bathroom wrapped in a cloud of steam, sputtering helplessly. He took a cigarette from the nightstand, lit it, and gasped for the smoke he needed to breathe.
3. All Dressed Up for Panero
The year 2006 was in full swing and my office in Santiago was playing host to a meeting of poets and writers, with Leopoldo María Panero as the featured guest. We owed Panero’s appearance to more than a simple invitation. We’d had to get him out of the psychiatric hospital in the Canary Islands where he’d been committed for years and bring him to the extreme south of the planet to attend a celebration of Latin American poetry. Fogwill was the Argentine representative. On the first day, in the events hall at the sponsoring university, I saw Fogwill enter, dressed all in white. He pushed through the crowd of hundreds thronging for Panero’s autograph, who were keeping the program from beginning. As if in a scene from an old movie, Fogwill rose above the confusion, like a bride walking down the aisle in her white dress. He made his way toward Panero, stopping in front of him. Then he took his hand, kissed it, and sat at the mad poet’s feet, in a gesture of recognition and humility. It was one madness on top of another, but Fogwill’s intervention had the effect of imposing some order to the podium and allowing the opening ceremony to begin. It’s hard to say what Panero might have been thinking then, if he even knew where he was and why he had been brought there, but Fogwill’s gesture, dressed to the nines there at his feet, could not have passed unnoticed: Fogwill, the life of the party, drawing a chalk circle around Panero, its madman. The chaos began to abate as the minutes passed, leaving the room under the spell of a wide-eyed Diogenes with his disciple at his feet, both waiting for the noise to dissipate so the speaking could begin.
4. A Swing through the Periphery
In July 2008 I traveled to Buenos Aires to present my novel Bosque quemado [Burnt forest], which had won a prize in Spain and was now being published in Argentina. Fogwill was to be the presenter, in a bar in the northern part of the city. Old friends from Argentina, and some from Chile, were in attendance. I hadn’t seen Fogwill since the year before, when we’d said goodbye in Santiago before I moved to the United States, and I noticed a sort of breathlessness in him. He didn’t have the energy anymore for long writing trips and the agency in Chile was running out of money to keep up his consulting contract, but he wasn’t complaining. After the book talk, in which he played the distrustful interrogator and astute observer of my novel’s tricks, we went out to eat with a small group. He told a ridiculous and uncomfortable story that nonetheless made everyone laugh, something about how Black people never sneeze or drink milk, and the entire conversation wandered along similar lines: hard to believe or verify but always backed up with “facts” that sounded true. A bit like the heightened reality of his own writing. After dinner we went out to the street and he offered to take me to my hotel. We walked to the parking lot and only then did I realize what was happening. The most knowledgeable Argentine writer on the subject of cars was living in one; Fogwill had turned his car into his house. The backseat had been pushed down in order to maximize space, and the inside was filled up to the ceiling with books and papers. I could make out two half-open suitcases with clothes spilling out. We got in the car. He explained that he was recently separated and was living the nomadic life until he found a new place. I suppose this was the detour that brought us to the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Neither of us was in a hurry and Fogwill drove like an expert guide to the city’s social catastrophe: the poverty on the edge of the highway, shacks built from planks of wood, threatening faces emerging in the dark, people who were shirtless despite the cold, and a surprising number of stray dogs (I’d thought Santiago was the only place you could see so many of them). We drove around for an hour, tracing the periphery of a city that I had never really known, even though I had spent two important years there. Fogwill drove with the window open and smoked the entire time, expounding a theory of the crisis, the fake solutions, the bottleneck of defeat. Maybe next time you come I’ll have a new house, he said at one point. But that would prove impossible. The place of a modernist writer, as Fogwill was, could only be the streets. There, he could dress all in white, or in rags, with his shirts and neckties in the trunk of his car. In any case, no pre-cut role could ever contain his fierce individuality. He left me at the entrance to my hotel and disappeared into the night, carrying his home on his back, a modern-day Diogenes living in his own big clay jar.
Translated by Will Morningstar
A writer and university professor, Roberto Brodsky lives in Washington, D.C., where he has worked as an adjunct professor and Visiting Researcher at the Center for Latin American Studies of Georgetown University since 2008. He has worked for the magazines Apsi, Hoy, Don Balón, and Caras and for the newspapers Fortín Mapocho and La Nación Domingo, where he served as editor of the cultural supplement Diagonal. He was cofounder and a columnist of The Clinic and a collaborator in the supplement Artes y Letras and Revista Poder. He has published the novels Casa chilena (Penguin Random House, 2015), Veneno (Random House, 2012), Bosque quemado (Random House, 2008, Premio Jaén España, Premio Municipal de Santiago, and Premio Nuez Marín de la Escuela de Letras de la UC), El arte de callar (Sudamericana, 2004), Últimos días de la historia (Ediciones B, 2001), and El peor de los héroes (Alfaguara, 1999). He co-wrote the screenplays of the films Machuca (A. Wood, 2004) and Mi vida con Carlos (G. Berger, 2009), among other audiovisual works. He has published essays and prologues over the work of Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, Witold Gombrowicz, and Roberto Arlt. In 2007, he left his post as Director of the Office of the Unión Latina in Chile, which he had held for ten years, to live with his family in the United States.
Will Morningstar is a freelance editor and translator from Boston, with a master’s degree in religion and anthropology from Harvard Divinity School. His translation work has appeared and is forthcoming in ReVista: The Harvard Review of Latin America and the Massachusetts Review.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo