Without a wheel and in delirium.
By María José Andrade, Assistant Director.
January 20, 2020.
I was watching a Chilean literary TV program from the 1990s on YouTube, where the guest of honor was Roberto Bolaño. The quality of the video had a very low resolution and the audio wasn’t great either, but with a little effort I could follow the conversation between the interviewer and Bolaño. I was also able to distinguish that Bolaño was smoking a cigarette on set while giving his live interview…actually, he had smoked many cigarettes; I could see them in the black ashtray, on top of the table and beside the books. One after the other, he blew the smoke in the air and chatted about a million different things, which was really fascinating to see, because it reminded me of many other little freedoms or little sins, things that people were allowed to do back in the 1990s, that they aren’t allowed to do now.
But I guess that’s not my point here. The point is that I was watching this TV interview because I was conducting research for the Gate Theatre’s stage production and adaptation of Valeria Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd.
In Faces in the Crowd, The Woman, its lead protagonist, spends the first part of the story searching for ‘the next foreign gem – the next Bolaño’ for her American publisher.
“Who’s he, chief?” asked Minni, who never knew anything about anything. “He’s the most popular dead Chilean writer ever. His name gets dropped more often than coins into a wishing well” (Luiselli, 2011).
In the TV interview, Bolaño speaks about his Mexican poet friend Mario Santiago, who he thought was one of the best and most authentic writers he had ever met. This is why he had chosen to open his book, The Ice Rink, with one of his friend’s quotes: “If I live, it shall be without a wheel and in delirium”. During the launch of his book, someone in the audience raised their hand and congratulated Bolaño but told him that he was wrong. The quote he had chosen to open his book wasn’t really Mario Santiago’s. Those words belonged to another Mexican poet.
As I mentioned before, I wasn’t watching this interview only because I loved Bolaño. I was hoping to find useful information and context for our show. So when he got to this point in the interview, I grabbed the screen with both hands and prayed that he said the name I wanted to hear. And…he did!
That burning quote, those words, were written by the one and only Gilberto Owen, the poet who haunts and inspires The Woman in Faces in the Crowd. In Faces in the Crowd, when The Woman finds Owen, she becomes obsessed with him, and this obsession drives the rest of the story.
And this is how, dear friends, I introduce to you one of the many mysteries, joys, uncertainties, truths, lies and possibilities of the life of Owen. A poet that didn’t separate his life from his writing, and who wrote his own myth while living.
“If I live it shall be without a wheel and in delirium” (Gilberto Owen)
Is it a quote from Gilberto Owen? Or was it really from Mario Santiago? Was Bolaño wrong? Does it matter? I guess what really matters is why that quote? Why these poets? And how does all of this relate to the process of making the show Faces in the Crowd for the Gate Theatre?
I would like to be ambitious and attempt to answer those previous questions with only one word:
In the first few days of rehearsals, I remember having a conversation with Ellen McDougall, Director of Faces in The Crowd, where we spoke specifically about Owen. Ellen mentioned she was very intrigued by this poet but she hadn’t had the chance to obtain enough information about him to understand why Luiselli had chosen him in particular to act as the driving force behind The Woman in the novel, and in our play. So I offered to do some research on Owen and on the Latin-American literary context surrounding him.
During the first week of rehearsals some of the script was still being written. Around 80% of the text existed at the start of rehearsals, and from that point onward, the adaptation of the novel, the completion of the script and the staging began to advance in unison, informing, and influencing each other. Intertwining.
Since I first read the novel, I became interested in the idea that The Woman’s need to write and to become a real writer was what would finally open the gate between her present life and her other possible lives, provoking a catharsis, and leading her to discover Gilberto Owen. And I like to think that it is this same burning desire which connects all of the possible lives she chooses to inhabit or create. The blurring of the boundaries of time, places and people emerge from this intensity.
And that’s how we go back to the word ‘ecstasy’ and how relevant it was for us to discover in relation to Gilberto Owen’s life. It is a symbol of how someone’s life can be guided and consumed by the desire of literary excellence; how bright he burned when he wrote, and how he badly it hurt him when he was separated from it.
Roberto Bolaño told the TV interviewer that although all the writers that he admired had lived precisely like this, in delirium, in ecstasy, he would be absolutely terrified if suddenly his son came to him and told him he had decided to follow in their footsteps, or his own footsteps. Bolaño, Owen and The Woman know it well enough. That door is the gate to total lucidity but also to pain and danger, in equivalent measure. ¡Solo para los valientes! (Only for the brave).
Faces in the Crowd is playing at the Gate Theatre until 8 Feb. Book now.