Portrait of Brother, with Bat (2003)
Portrait of Brother with Flying Bat
Luis Ignacio Helguera (1962-2003)
When I die, I shall finally have both garden and basement
The Colonia Condesa is perhaps the most extemporaneous and melancholic neighborhood in Mexico City. Despite the recent commercial metamorphosis that has devalued its character, its buildings continue acting as tableaux vivants or postcards from an old Mexico: the subtle provincial air composed by the texture of the trees and the 1930s avuncular houses, the parque España and the parque México, the now extinct Bella Epoca cinema, the Rosa and Basurto buildings.
It made sense for Luis Ignacio to live there: not only due to his fascination for that era, but also because his state of mind always required a certain inoculation against the present. He hated driving, or any other speed-based activity outside of soccer: his favorite thing to do was to walk down Veracruz street, where he lived, go into the tio Luis restaurant or any given Cuban joint, visit the street fair and check out the man shooting ducks at the shooting stand, examine the meat and poultry shops, or simply sitting at the park bench and watch children go by with their balloons, and think about Aristotle and man’s final goal:
Happiness lies high for us
man’s ultimate goal, according to Aristotle
it lies high
rarely do we ever reach it
in a burlesque balloon fashion
it comes down our poor heads
and we feel its softness
electrify our hair
and we hold its string
and we caress its oval weightlessness
and we stroll through the park of the world
with our balloon
and we laugh like idiots
drunken with joy,
until we find it ordinary, boring, dull
to stroll through the world with a balloon like idiots
and the hand loses the string
and the balloon flies away in our anguish
as if into a precipice
towards the infinite.
As with everything else that surrounded him, he had a contradictory passion with the place where he lived, which simultaneously captivated and exasperated him (a feeling not that uncommon amongst those who live in Mexico City). One of this favorite quotes was by the Latin poet Catulus: “I love and hate. Do not ask me why, but I feel it so. And I suffer.”
Be it houses, hotels, villages or neighborhoods, plazas or alleys or mask stores, places in general provoked in Luis Ignacio long, repeated and intense experiences. These would result in memories, which, in turn, after many meditations during naptime and insomniac exercises with the pen and the paper at night, turned into literature. His works usually were born at the table of our family dining room set, the one thing that was with him his entire life and which he himself commemorated in a poem:
Pain and pride of my movings
the ony imperial thing I’ve got
this dining room set of my grandfather
in which I portrayed him when I was four
while he was talking business
with my dad
This dining room
in which the family
passed around salty and sweet phrases
changes with me of time and home
I fly with the dining set,
I touch its wood to land
while my daughter hides under the table
as if behind a tree
as I did as a kid
returning the legs to the woods
of diffused genealogies
We hit our heads with the table
we scratched it
we poured hot coffees onto it
and my grandmother, and my mother, and my wife
rubbed red oil on its wounds
When after all
that’s all it ends up remaining
on the table of the dining room.
Luis Ignacio was particularly sensitive to the personal anecdote and the place where it had transpired. My brother and I shared together, for more than a decade, a room in the old family house in Arizona 106, along with my parents and my two sisters. (Also with us there was a ghostly, 90-year old great aunt, Lolina, who I remember as an entirely white and almost ethereal being who would walk silently around the house. When she died, we continued suspecting her quiet steps around the stairs). Our room had very large windows, with beautiful dark wood French blinds, and it overlooked a garden with high walls covered with ivy. It was in this room where Luis Ignacio one day was working at his desk and suddenly a bat appeared, hitting against the window, disappearing almost instantly. This incident resulted in a prose poem that gave the title of one of his books and which he dedicated to me (according to him, as a right for the co-ownership of the room):
Bat at Midday
To Pablo Helguera
A group of mockingbirds breaks loose into flight from the high ivy of the house in the garden. Fearful premonition of birds. Only one moment later, indeed, a brownish bat —slow, indifferent intrusion— arrives pushing itself in the air against midday, and passes through the abandoned home, clumsily hitting his wings against the windows, the ivy, the instants. Brief accidents of things, glitches of the itinerary. Lethargy, disorientation, untimeliness, flight in the desert of light. The inside surface of the dry leaves, the dark tree trunks, the hidden shadows. Soul in disarray. Sad comet of ash. Hairy and stupid flapping that crumbles in cave dust on the illuminated wall.
And the night still so absent in the plants.
In the room where he was visited by the bat, Luis Ignacio discovered Chekhov, Ravel, Stravinsky, Tartini and Khachaturian, Capablanca, Zeno, Heraclitus and Heidegger, and Julio Torri —all of them fascinations that would become the basis of his aesthetic vocabulary. Each one of these discoveries took place at different times, but his loyalty toward them —which sometimes appeared to be simple partiality— always was eternal and unconditional, maybe because each one of these discoveries had marked a moment of profound personal identification. He treated his influences like his friends, as holding an unbreakable contract. His list of loyalties started with being a fan of the Mexican soccer team León, and particularly for his heroic goalkeeper Salomone, who once held him in his arms. Even though the León eventually went onto the minor leagues, and long after its heyday, Luis Ignacio continued watching its games till the end, from his frail black and white TV.
He always felt the urgency to communicate his fascination for things. It was vital to him to have some sort of interlocutor in order to share the way in which he felt about a poem, a philosophical phrase, a photograph, or a musical work. As a child, and being nine years younger than him, he made me his first fan and audience member, job that I took enthusiastically. I would usually sit there, a bit perplexed, as I would hear his first drafts of poems or stories (many of which would go straight to the trash can later). Oftentimes, in order to entertain both of us, he would transform his interests in games: in the height of his passion for chess, we would organize fictional tournaments that would last days (“round robin” style) where we would place “real” players of international and historical fame (Spassky, Karpov, Korshnoii, Reti, Lasker, Capablanca), alongside Mexican ones (Kenneth Frey, Marcel Sisniega, Willy de Winter) and entirely fictitious ones (Tontocho Chávez). Notably, Nacho would adjust his playing style throughout the tournament according to the apertures and strategies of every player. Despite such educational displays, I didn’t become such a great apprentice, although I did win under his training a few children tournaments, while he was teaching chess at a cultural center near our house and at the Casa del lago in Chapultepec. Sometimes I would accompany him to his own class the Black Bishop at the Colonia Roma, a chess club where his teacher was Enrique Palos Báez, a timid and smiling man who mysteriously lived at the club in a tiny room and had the looks of a friar (was he the black bishop, perhaps?)
Then there was a turn of experiences that gave him a strong aesthetic focus. In 1981, my aunts Elsa and Elena took Luis Ignacio to Europe, for his first and only time. It was an experience that impacted him deeply. Upon his return, he brought back ashtrays from Milan and Rome, small bottles of Grand Marnier, a gray checkered hat from London that he kept for decades, a handful of cotton balls he picked up from a garden in Bruges. He also brought back a firm passion for French music and art in general, adding many names to his pantheon. I helped him put together a huge poster-like collage with postcards and magazine cutouts that reminded him of this trip. The impact of symbolism, impressionism, and the modernist movements of the beginning of the century became around that time, and from then on, the main basis of influence in his work.
Luis Ignacio’s passion for music, which had been greatly nourished by our parents, manifested itself first for the works of Ravel and Debussy, Milhaud and Ibert, and for the Russians like Mussorgsky, Borodin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. In childhood games we would put records on the dinosaur-like Philco player, and we would act out choreographies or invent stories around Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Pavanne for a Dead Maiden, Milhaud’s Beuf sur le Toit, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Petrouschka and The Firebird, Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances, or Respighi’s Pines of Rome. As he himself tells in his work “Atril del Melómano”, he tried to study music at the national conservatory, “in the bucolic gardens of the ruinous and for me attractive building of Pani”, another mysterious place which, with its huge windows and its burgundy concrete floors, would make him decide toward not making music, but writing about it.
It would be hard to find many people who enjoyed music with the intensity in which he did: he would spend hours next to the record player, looking toward the window or the ceiling, whistling, leaned over backwards, with the pen in the hand, closing his eyes, intensely savoring every note played by Heifetz, Gidon Kremer, Victoria de los Angeles or Tom Waits.
His literary interests, which would end up becoming his true profession, started with his attendance to literary workshops, chess games seasoned with literary conversations with Juan José Arreola, and with the guidance of Eduardo Lizalde, who was no doubt the greater inspiration of his youth.
However, when he was eighteen his passion suddenly veered toward philosophy, particularly existentialism. His studies at the faculty of philosophy and letters of the National University brought him eventually to phenomenology. He made his thesis on the notion of understanding in “Being and Time” by Heidegger, likely the most influential philosopher in his work. Heidegger’s and Husserl’s methodology and hermeneutics gave him a fundamental structure onto which exercise his critical and essayistic work, both musical and literary, whereas his interest in existential themes would constantly be expressed in his poetry and fiction. As editorial assistant of Octavio Paz’s magazine Vuelta at the end of the eighties, Luis Ignacio returned fully to literature and entered in touch with many leading Mexican writers, thus creating his most enduring artistic and personal friendships: Antonio Deltoro, Verónica Volkow, Aurelio Asiaín, Fabio Morábito, Gerardo Deniz, and many others.
His work on both music and literature never obeyed any sort of following of “current tendencies.” Instead, he almost automatically would lean toward any marginal or semi-obscure expressions that had captured little interest of other critics. This made him write about composers such as Conlon Nancarrow, Cri-Cri, or Candelario Huízar. In a similar way, his way of covering “current issues” was based mainly in commemorating death or birth centennials, or similar occasions, which were presented in the pages of Pauta, the magazine of which he was the editor for fifteen years under the approving oversight of Mario Lavista. Few music critics in Mexico have produced comparative music essays as useful and rigorous as the ones he made on the work of Silvestre Revueltas, Carlos Chávez, Rodolfo Halffter, and many others. He knew the work of Ravel and Stravinsky like no one else. One of the works that he never got to write could have well been a critical biography of either composer.
The “marginal” writers that occupied his interest, on the other hand, included
Pedro F. Miret – whose nightmarish and extravagant stories he loved—Uwe Frisch, Virgilio Piñera, Julio Torri and Dino Buzzatti. Toward the end, his interests darkened, ending with Charles Bukowski. On the other hand, his emphasis on “impure” genres culminated perhaps on his work on prose poetry, a form that combined his inclination for elegance and brevity. This resulted eventually in his making the definitive anthology of prose poetry in Mexico.
Like every other family, our memories were marked by the places where we lived or visited. However, the circumstances around our leaving of these places —including the eventual departure of the core of the family to the U.S., which left Luis Ignacio as their sole interlocutor— made them acquire a more ghostlike quality. In his works, these places became part of a vocabulary of nostalgic mythology.
The first one of these places was our childhood home, located in the street of Orizaba 21 in the Colonia Roma, near the Insurgentes subway. When we left that house, an enormous mansion that housed the family for three generations, it was never inhabited again up till today, for reasons that to this date we ignore. Its continuous, empty presence, and the fact that it inexplicably appeared to resist being populated by new memories or people, gave it a certain air of enigmatic freezer of history, a sort of monument or memorial of a time that remains unburied. Luis Ignacio used to go visit it when he was in the area. “I went by Orizaba the other day,” he would say, which would be just as saying “ I was thinking about those days.”
Another house that Luis Ignacio was prone to visit is located in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, and it has belonged to the family since the eighteenth century. This one also occupies a symbolic place as it retains the residues and personal objects of more than six generations. Full of paintings, objects and photographs (“of diffused genealogies”), it has a great open patio with a well and a doorway through which we would see people like Kika freely enter in an out. Kika was a feeble, deaf, hunched old lady and neighbor of the family for more than half a century. Luis Ignacio developed a certain fondness toward her, in the same way in which he would grow an affection for all things and people who were in appearance marginal, forgotten, or invisible.
It was in this house (as well as in brief stays in Patzcuaro) where Luis Ignacio wrote great part of the material of his first book, Traspatios. Traspatios contains a series of daguerreotype-like vignettes of the provincial family life with which he exerts a phenomenology of memory and of the past. The personal experience and the family space would inevitably transform in a new place, populated by the familiar but also by the philosophical reflection:
In middle voice, through the antique hallway, lonely, an insinuation in chiaroscuro, preterital song of a woman who washes clothes by ear, rake that returns every afternoon for the leaves of the album to the tree of memory, friend of the house with her own key of the doorway, silent deaf old woman, subtle murmur of light debating between shadows, silent melody that lulls years, centuries, in the well of the oranges and hours (…)
Another place of the mnemonic nomenclature of the family, where we spent most of our childhood vacations, was the Jacarandas hotel in Cuernavaca, which has a number of gardens in a large area, filled with bungalows, golf courses, and cozy pool sections in the American style of the fifties. Over the course of the years, the gardens have been preserved, and the hotel still exists although a bit decayed, rather as a memory of a better time. But for us who remembered it in its times of glory, walking through its gardens was a process of reliving a series of anecdotes and incidents of before. Also stuck in its own time, this hotel also was an obsession to Luis Ignacio, who used to go back to stay at the bungalows to write perhaps to recover certain moments that could only be retrieved right there and then:
Here thirty years later. The gardens grow experiences; memories take part of the vegetation. Just like those who grow in these corners: spot of soul, elbow, knee, shadow plant, ivy in waiting of being gardened by memory (…) in the leaf of the jacaranda is the living ground of the voices, the detention, the immense instant. We are a speck, a speck of a speck of our remembrances; and through specks like that, eternity shows.
Although for Luis Ignacio these places were constant references, the resulting works were in general a distilled product, composed by a variety of situations that he wasn’t seeking to represent but rather to reflect upon, leading to metaphysical and metahistorical problems that consumed his mind. On the other hand, as he himself admitted, by force of repetition and revision of anecdotes in after-meal table conversations, these memories would be transformed in new fictions (“human memory ([is]…) full of whims and prone to falsify, free and creative”), to the point that in many cases he himself wasn’t sure about what was real and what had been a fabrication (in some cases he would even adopt our own personal anecdotes and place himself in them, although conveniently taking the most heroic role). On the other hand, his way of experiencing things was almost preceded by the very act of commemorating the transformation of the act of living into the act of remembering (“moments which since one lives them appear to be old memories”; “this perfume, which today only smells to itself, tomorrow will smell to these moments”). His work is thus an enactment of automatic historicity, commemorative and meditative, sometimes sad and nostalgic (“rain belongs to yesterday”) and sometimes ironic, critic, skeptical, and humoristic.
Luis Ignacio’s extraordinary attachment to things, to ideas, to places, people, music, and definitely to confrontations of every kind, was in general fairly selective, although implemented with formidable vigor. Sometimes he was extreme (“neither yes, neither no, neither neither”). Every person or thing that would capture his interest he would take over with absolute dedication and sense of ownership, as if he was afraid of loosing everything he would find along, and if it went away from him he would do enormous efforts to claim it back. His literary works, in a similar way, at times appear to reveal that enterprise of recovering things and commemorate them in a symbolical process that was at the same time an acknowledgement nothing truly can be retained.
His greater obsession lied in trying to understand things, for which he had an ongoing anguish; the greatest of them all, I think, was the very impossibility of understanding himself. His introspective writing could be excessively self-critical, and sometimes even ruthless: highly suspicious of his identity, which in fact is manifested already in his earliest published text (written in 1981):
Scrap of Film
…all seen from the eyes of a dog. Discolored images, rather in black and white, in slow motion. It looks like dawn in these fields, although it could well be a gray dusk. The immense field seen through the eyes of a dog, which could well be a cow. The wheat sprigs bow against the passing of the wind, but with the same sleepy rhythm. The images wag from the dog because he walks, because all this moves… And again they relatively fix as they stop in front of a milkmaid who carries two pails of water. She looks toward our canine visual field: she looks at us with surprise and horror. She slowly leaves the pails on the ground and with the perplexed expression she moves back, without looking at me. She touches her apron with her white hands and mumbles something that is not heard (nothing can be heard, actually). She continues to walk back and I think that I am also walking, toward her, as she walks back. We arrive to a humble looking house, nearby the abandoned mill. She pulls the door, a bit faster, and now without looking at me, she gestures with despair as she locks the door behind her. I am left alone, immobile. I touch my face. I must be a monster.
This kind of writing, that sometimes adopts the tone of Kafka or Mary Shelley -although not without a touch of irony- appears repeatedly in various poems that revolve around the notion of self-recognition, such as in his text “mask store” (“almost without realizing, I bring my hand to my face and touch it”), Minotauro (“people, prey of fear, move out of his way”), in his short story “costume party”, where an unknown character crashes a party, and his well known text “The child face” (“and a radiant blow of light in the plain visage of the insect revealed to the executioner an unknown shot, in which he himself appeared as a child making a painful and whining gesture”).
As a great humorist, either by inventing bestiaries for his daughter Marina or ridiculing the music milieu in Mexico from the pages of his magazine Pauta, he practiced his humor toward himself over anyone else. Toward the end of his life, as he himself wrote, his life turned into literature (“without realizing, he became all literature”), in a process that was known to his friends as the “Nachoaventuras”.
Our aesthetic arguments usually revolved around contemporary art, the area toward which I gravitated as a visual artist. We never were fully in agreement in terms of form, neither in regards to conceptualism and the social dimensions of art. Luis Ignacio could never get enthusiastic about the problems that he found too alien or that didn’t concern him at a very intimate level. This very condition made him become a writer distant from every kind of current fashion or tendency, as well as any kind of careerist style, which he reasonably despised. In my view, it also made him one of the most original literary voices of his generation.
In a most ironical fashion that he himself would have approved, we gave burial to Luis Ignacio on a Tuesday the Thirteenth, finally enacting a series of scenes that he had obsessively envisioned throughout the years: the wake ( “the wake is a party without host”), the funerary arrangements ( “there is some kind of sweet innocence in dying and in taking care of the dead one”), the ritual of the burial (which he addressed in his short story “Milpa Alta”), and in the large family gatherings that precisely take place only in wakes and weddings, with which he claimed to dream regularly and which had caused in him a mix of anguish and fascination.
Always prone to observing funerary coincidences, he would have been the first one to point out that, at his forty years of age, he punctually followed the steps of his most admired Mexican composer, Silvestre Revueltas, whose music, sensibility, and biography captivated him. In an article of his (“Revueltas between the music and the wall”) he quoted a phrase of Revueltas that he liked very much: “wherever I want to go, I always run into a wall”.
Today I realize that he must have identified himself with that bat in midday that hit against our window: an anachronistic being, whose erratic presence, disoriented, seemed to enter in constant conflict with with the practical world into which he had arrived, a darkness in the middle of the light. Luis Ignacio constantly questioned his place in the world, with full conscience of his finitude, as a true subject of a heideggerian “dasein” (or “being toward’s death”) with full lack of synch with time but in active search of his own parameters of duration ( from there his admiration to Bergson). The work of Luis Ignacio is an exercise in extemporaneity, a dialogue with a world full of objects and circumstances that refer to a certain present, but that as they are integrated into the territory of his literature evolve into signifiers of a lucid metahistorical reflection about our relationship with memory and time. This is because, despite his permanent restlesness with the place and time where he was, he was profoundly in touch with the experiences of life in a way that many of us will never be able to be.
I will miss him unspeakably. His life, which involved all of us near him in an extraordinary way, was unfairly consumed by his own personality, which absorbed both good and bad things without distinction— which is impossible to sustain in a regular life.
In his flight through life, Luis Ignacio always hit his head against the transparent window of reality. But as a redemption to his enormous anguish, every little blow generated a work that help us understand from the most abstract to the most banal. As a bat that emerged from Plato’s cave, his work comes from a world of shadows that at first may seem unfamiliar, but if seen carefully, bestow the most prodigious clarities.
Zurich, May 2003