The art of narration consists in endowing a story with the pleasant vertigo of a lucid carousal. Paradoxically, those aspiring to this aesthetic ideal have to drink in moderation, because a producer of spirits cannot have the luxury of consuming them in excess, although they must be familiarized with the effects. The task of intoxicating readers demands, unfortunately, a high degree of mental concentration and clarity. I shall never tire of lamenting it, because my vocation as a drinker is almost as strong as my literary one. In youth, when the physical vigor allows one to abuse drink without lessening one’s intellectual faculties, the ethylic unruliness seemed to me compatible with writing. Like all kids, I felt invulnerable, but the changes in metabolism that ensue after the age of Christ damaged my capacity for resistance to alcohol. On the verge of a nervous breakdown due to the compulsive intake of Cuba libres, exacerbated in my case by smoking and tranquilizers, at the start of the 90s I had to choose between my vocation as a writer and drunkenness. I have renounced since then my preferred state of being, in order to preserve a lucidity that I sometimes deplore because humankind, as Eliot said, “cannot bear very much reality.”
The majority of the unadept need drink in order to become disinhibited. Writing and a taste for drinking satisfy halfway the spiritual necessity of taking down the barriers that separate us from others. The temptation of mixing each approach with the other is very strong for anyone because even the strongest individualism succumbs, sooner or later, to the search for acceptance. Robbed of the false personality that is imposed by the social script, drunks attain a liberating catharsis and a vague illusion of fraternity, although some crafty drinkers use alcohol in order to better hide themselves. As a participant in and spectator of inebriated nakedness, I acquired an accumulation of experiences that weeks or months later—when they were sifted through soberly—fertilized my first novels and short stories. However, perhaps I fell into self-deception by idealizing a lifestyle that cloaked or anaesthetized my complexes instead of helping me overcome them.
At the age when the soul is a ductile clay, books change our lives for better or for worse. As much so in my flirting with alcoholism as in my distancing myself from this vice, my readings established the guidelines of my behavior. I began overestimating the Bohemian lifestyle on my seventeenth April, when I discovered the great Persian poet Omar Khayyám (1048-1131). At that age, I didn’t have sophisticated literary tastes, but my mother had a subscription to Círculo de Lectores and we received in the mail a Spanish translation of The Ruba’iyat, in Nuria Parés’s excellent rendition. It was my first plunge into the topic of carpe diem and I couldn’t come out unharmed from the tremor.
A eulogist of wine and carnal pleasures, convinced of the fleeting nature of existence, Khayyám was a heterodox astronomer and mathematician who enjoyed great privileges in the court of Sultan Malik Shah, including proclaiming himself an agnostic. Ruba’iyat means “quartets,” a metric form of pre-Islamic poetry similar because of their brevity to the hai-kai of the East, but with a more reflective than metaphorical character. Known in the West through the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald, who according to Borges reinvented the language to the point of setting himself up as a co-author of the quartets, Khayyám’s magic emerges relatively unharmed in its translations to other languages, although neither the rhyme nor the meter of the original may be respected.
Educated in Catholic schools (at the Instituto Patria and the Simón Bolívar), before reading the Ruba’iyat, I still believed in life after death. His persuasive power convinced me that after death, everything is over. Since then, the lyrical emotion has encouraged me to discover hidden truths with greater efficacy than political or philosophical theories. In Khayyám, the categorical negation of the afterlife is inseparable from the cult to inebriation, as if renouncing transcendence implicitly meant the necessity of escapism. I provide here three examples of his exalted hedonism, in order to illustrate my youthful commotion:
Drink wine! A long time must you sleep below the earth without a woman or a friend.
Listen to this secret: the wilted tulips never come back to life.
They advise me: “Don’t drink anymore, Khayyám!”
I reply to them: “When I drink, I hear the roses,
Jasmines, and tulips.
When I drink, I also hear
What my belovèd cannot tell me.”
The dawn has thickened with roses the canopy of heaven.
In the air, lost is the song of the last nightingale.
The perfume of wine, now, is lighter.
And to think that at this instant there are senseless people
Who dream about honor and glory!
How silky is your hair, my belovèd!”
In the middle of my reading, Cecilia Lobato, my friend Emilio’s charming sister, came to visit me. I secretly loved her, but I hadn’t had the courage to tell anyone. With the book resting on our knees, I read out loud to her the quartets that intoxicated me the most. We got closer and closer on the sofa and the impulse to bring the reading to life united our mouths, in an arrow shot similar to Paolo and Francesca’s in the Divine Comedy, where there is also a book that serves as a matchmaker (I’m leaving out the details of the incident because I already recounted them in Fruta verde). Since then, good and bad experiences make me suffer from insomnia. Anxious with happiness, like all neurotics prone to suffering, in the middle of the night, I got up to write a ridiculous imitation of Khayyám: “On the day of my death, I was drunk. / There were friends of mine who didn’t drink enough. / If they had seen my soul during that instant, / they would have drunk a barrel, perhaps even a tankful.”
I’m not trying to blame my sins on a licentious poet of the eleventh century, nor to minimize the role of free will in any existential juncture. Without the pernicious influence of an illustrious corrupter, I would have taken to drinking anyway because at that time I needed to belong to a group, or to several, and all of my friends drank, but Khayyám gave me the push I needed to idolize inebriation and clothe it with romantic prestige. If I had known myself better, I would have taken into consideration that that afternoon I abandoned the trappings of conscience without the need of any drink. Cecilia and poetry were all I needed in order to live in paradise. However, lucidity is not an attribute characteristic of youth and of all the licentiousness celebrated in the Ruba’iyat I chose the most damaging, perhaps because it offered a psychological alibi for the weakness of my personality.
For fifteen years, I drank with a desperate thirst. Thanks to my mother’s charisma and hospitality, every Saturday we had a party at our house and I never lacked occasions for a toast. All of us drank Cuba libres and since the family economy was not very buoyant, sometimes we would buy the most run-of-the-mill rums on the market. I could hold my liquor and since the caffeine in the Coca-Cola kept me awake well past dawn, many times I continued the partying without having slept. Proud of my feat, I festively called those suicidal marathons “swings.” I had several circles of late-night friends to hang out with, but when they went to sleep, I continued my parties by myself, hopping through the dive bars of the capital, which in the 80s were not as dangerous as they are now, or I drank in the loneliness of my apartment (I became independent at 23 years of age), because I detested ending the party and resigning myself to the next day’s hangover.
It’s a miracle I’m alive, because in addition to being the victim of “express” kidnappings and robberies, one winter morning, when I walked out stumbling from a seedy bar in the Juárez neighborhood, the sudden oxygenation that rushes the alcohol to the brain when you’re drunk knocked me down when I was crossing Insurgentes Avenue. Thank God I fell flat on my face on the traffic island—otherwise, I would not have been able to recount it. However, more than those dangers, the physical and moral ailments tortured me: the pain in my lungs, the burning gastritis, the shocks of hypoglycemia (sugar lows that numb the arms and legs), chronic neuritis (an irritation of the nerve filaments), the guilt of wasting away my youth, the horror of being reduced to imbecility, and the persistent insomnia in which all the noise from the street presaged my misfortunes.
At that time, I read Rubén Darío’s Cantos de vida y esperanza, the intimate prayer of a drunken genius looking down on the precipice of insanity. Rubén’s alcoholism, well known by all Hispanists, took him to the extreme of suffering various attacks of delirium tremens during which he saw the cegua, a mythological beast from Central America (also feared in Chiapas), with the body of a tempting woman and the skeletal head of a mare. On his triumphal tours through the countries of Spanish America, Rubén left more than one president of the republic waiting because he couldn’t get up out of bed after too much partying. Probably no one offered him a line of coke, or he was afraid of having another vice. Following the frivolous exoticism of the Prosas profanas, a lavish waste of verbal opulence, Darío inaugurated in the Cantos a new poetic intonation, that of a wizard defeated by his demons, introducing contemplative serenity into the reign of chaos. From the first poem in the book, I had the sensation of having found a soulmate, as if Darío had dedicated it to me: “Unbridled foal my instinct launched, / my youth rode a horse without bridle; / She was drunk and with a dagger at her belt: / if it did not fall, it was because God is good.”
Above all, I was moved by the nocturne in which he declares abolished his “youth of roses and of dreams,” a sort of epitaph that I accepted with resignation. By deploring “the embarrassment of the swan in the puddles / and the false blue nocturne of inquiring bohemia,” Darío was offering me a route to salvation free from the sentimentality that the anti-alcoholic groups use to distance repentant dipsomaniacs from their vice. If I didn’t defend myself from “the terrible flask of the divine poison / that turns life into an internal torture,” in a few years I would have ended up stultified without recourse. More than an explicit sermon against alcohol, the Cantos de vida y esperanza are a formidable victory over the lethargy of a narcotized conscience. The supreme magus of the Spanish language rose up from his abysmal hangovers to write the intimate chronicle of his disillusion and by putting that experience into perfect poetry, he composed a hymn to the most noble inebriation: that which the poet concentrates and refines in the alembics of the imagination.
Prose is a low-grade alcohol next to poetry. Rubén produced champagne and I, when things go well, produce artisanal beer with hard work, but his feat made me see clearly what the inebriation was that I was renouncing in order to dive into the puddles of an induced euphoria. Like him, I was “sad of partying” after having burnt my nerves in a war without mercy against an orderly life. Of course, Darío never resigned himself to existential boredom, but he understood that his function as a “celestial lightning rod” consisted of distilling the finest liquor in the Spanish language, in order to intoxicate with it his legion of readers. The writer must be the efficient cause, not the passive receptor of drunkenness, because his function consists of extracting harmony from his internal tempest. To your health, Rubén, for giving me the antidote to the “divine poison” of the Persian sorcerer.
Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio
Luis Guzmán Valerio has a Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His creative writing has appeared in Chiricú. His literary translations have been published in BODY Literature, Delos, FIVE:2:ONE, Sargasso, and Translators’ Corner. He lives in New York City.
Enrique Serna began his career as a writer for popular Mexican soap operas (telenovelas) in the 1990s. He moved on to publish several novels, among them El miedo a los animales, El seductor de la patria (Mazatlán Prize), Ángeles del abismo (Colima Prize), and La sangre erguida (Antonin Artaud Prize); as well as collections of short stories such as Amores de segunda mano (where “The Last Visit” is found). Gabriel García Márquez called Serna one of Mexico’s best short-story writers. Additionally, the author has published three books of essays and writes a monthly article for the literary magazine, Letras libres.
With our twentieth issue, we celebrate the close of five years of publication. The cover feature reflects on LALT’s achievements thus far and on our goals for the years to come. Other dossiers highlight Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz on the centennial of his birth, 2006 Neustadt Prize winner Claribel Alegría, Spanish-language creative writing programs, and poetry and prose in translation from Quechua.