Fresh Chilean Writing: Jonathan Urqueta on Memory and Nostalgia
Introduced and translated by Pallavi Narayan
Jonathan Urqueta was born on 18 September 1991 in the Colchagua Valley, Chile. He was raised in Marchigüe, a huaso (country) village in the central region of Chile, where he learned the names of trees, got to know birds by their song, and had a hard and, at the same time fragrant, childhood soaked in criollismo (Creole). From the age of eleven he started travelling in Chile, from the south to the north, and passed through many transversal valleys, resting in some of them for a couple of years. He owes his survival to a couple of occupations that he learnt on his path. Today he works and lives in Vicuña, a town in Elqui Valley, caught in the eternal sun of the Norte Chico (small north). Always captivated by folklore and natural landscapes, regionalism and social questions, he has been writing since the age of fourteen. Urqueta has been working on publishing his poetry for the last couple of years.
As a researcher on contemporary translated texts, I was invited to participate in a prestigious two-week summer school on challenges of translation in July 2019, organised at the Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile. With my prior knowledge of Spanish and interest of many years in South American literature, this workshop gave me the perfect opportunity to delve into the beauty and strife of producing and examining translated poetry and fiction, in the esteemed company of some of the foremost, and emerging, translation studies academics and translators across continents. This is the 40th year of Chile-Singapore relations, making this text a privilege for me to pen. Cultural and literary events to bring together Chileans and Singapore residents, and to discuss pertinent issues, are being organised through the year
Organically, I was drawn into exploring Chilean literature, particularly in the process of its production. What happened was a series of happy chances, one of them being meeting young Chilean poet Jonathan Urqueta. Travelling in the Coquimbo region with my friend Francisco Silva Riesco, we decided to stay, for a few days, in the striking town of Vicuña, the birthplace of Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, whose work has influenced my thought process over the years. Post a visit to the spacious, beautifully laid out Gabriela Mistral Museum, which overlooks the Andes and indeed is nestled within them, we looked up nearby restaurants for a lazy lunch. And that is how we ended up at Chivato Negro, where Urqueta has been working for the past couple of years. Over our exquisite berry juice and appetising salad and sandwiches in the funky outdoor area and garden (oddly reminiscent to me of restaurants in Bali), we managed to digest, also, Urqueta’s life story, his passion for poetry, and the inspiration he garners from living in Vicuña. He told us of a writer who writes under a pen name, and frequently visits the restaurant to have a coffee while speaking aloud with his alter ego, all of which sounded fairly delicious to me. The local architecture was lovely, and I painted a watercolour of Vicuña while we conversed in the garden: it is included here.
I couldn’t help but ask him if I could translate some of his work. Thus “Una arruga de Paihuano” or, in my translation, “A Wrinkle of Paihuano,” a lovely poem about aging and self-perception in the figure of a woman. Paihuano, a small agricultural commune, also in the Coquimbo region, is an entirely rural area. Urqueta’s poem is a reflective rendition of a life well lived under the clear skies of the Elqui Valley, where the fruit grows full and sweet, the grapevines in the fields waver in the breeze, and you raise your glass of pisco sour (a popular cocktail in Chile and Peru) to nights twinkling with all the stars and nebulae of the astounding Milky Way.
Una arruga de Paihuano
by Jonathan Urqueta
Está ella sentada fuera de su casa
en un escaño viejo toma el sol,
tiene en sus manos una cortapluma y un durazno
y sus labios balbucean una canción.
En su cara arrugada por el tiempo
guarda dos ojos vestidos de azul,
ojos que miran la tajada de cielo,
ojos que brillan cuando cae a ellos la luz.
Con una trenza larga sujeta sus cabellos,
por lo dulce del durazno se le escapa una sonrisa
de verse antes niña con el sabor en su boca
y ahora de energía cansada y cabeza plomiza.
Viaja con el sabor ella a su infancia
ve en las manos que pelan, las de su madre.
Pela y come feliz el dulce durazno.
Aroma y recuerdo se mueven en el aire.
Guarda el cuesco con maternal ternura
lo deja secando envuelto en servilletas,
sabe que si lo planta germinará la semilla
y dará el fruto que a su recuerdo revienta.
Se entra a la casa con sonrisa llena,
el Sol en naranjo cielo se lleva luz y calor,
junta un par de ramas y prende el bracero,
descansa arropada en recuerdo y sabor.
A Wrinkle of Paihuano
By Jonathan Urqueta
Translated by Pallavi Narayan
She is sitting outside her house
On an old bench, drinking in the sun,
In her hands, a penknife and a peach,
And on her lips the snatch of a song.
Her face, wrinkled by time,
Protects two eyes dressed in blue
Eyes that look at the slice of heaven
Eyes that shine when the light falls on them.
Her hair fastened in a long braid,
A smile escapes her, for the sweetness of the peach
Has her see herself as a girl with the taste in her mouth
And now her energy exhausted and head leaden.
She travels with the flavour to her childhood
Sees in the hands, those of her mother’s, that peel.
Happily peels and eats the sweet peach.
Aroma and memory, they shift in the air.
She guards the pit with maternal tenderness
Leaves it to dry, wrapped in serviettes
Knows that if planted, the seed will germinate
And will bear fruit that will burst her memory.
She enters the house with a full smile,
The sun in the orange sky takes away light and heat;
Gathers a couple of branches and turns on the brazier,
Her rest wrapped in memory and taste.
Pallavi Narayan has been studying Spanish since 2005. She holds a doctorate in literature in English and has worked in book and journal publishing in Singapore and India for several years. She has published her poetry in anthologies such as Asingbol: An Archaeology of the Singaporean Poetic Form (2017), 40 under 40: An Anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry (2016) and SingPoWriMo 2015, and journals such as Kitaab (forthcoming 2020), Muse India, New Quest, and Literary Paritantra. She is finalising her first poetry manuscript for publication.
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