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Purgatory
Raúl Zurita
Trans. Anna Deeny
University of California Press, 2009
Review by Matthew Falk

For nearly 30 years prior to 2001, September 11 held a different significance than it does now. It was on that date in 1973 that a U.S.-backed coup deposed the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and replaced him with the anti-Communist dictator Augusto Pinochet. During Pinochet's 17-year reign, as many as 3,000 Chileans were murdered by the state, and 10 times that many were tortured.

Among the latter group was Raúl Zurita, a 24-year-old engineering student arrested along with a number of his classmates. After his release, Zurita began writing poetry as a form of protest against the regime, hoping to make "art that was stronger and more vast than the pain and damage inflicted upon us." The result was Purgatory, published in 1979: a strange, hybrid text that embodies the disintegration experienced by Zurita's generation. "I had to learn to speak again," Zurita writes in the Preface to Anna Deeny's new translation, "from total wreckage, almost from madness…. Writing this book was my private form of resurrection." The fragmentation and alienation one finds on every page of Purgatory represent this poet's anguished attempt to establish a new discourse, one capable of expressing and enacting true resistance to the horrors of the 20th century.

As its title suggests, Zurita's book is deeply indebted to Dante. It begins with a section called "In the Middle of the Road." On the verso page there's a grainy photo of a spooked-looking Zurita, his left cheek marred by a self-inflicted scar; on the recto, a hand-written declaration by a speaker who calls herself Rachel: "I'm in the / middle of my life. / I lost my way." Across the bottom of both pages, block printed in all caps, runs the Biblical phrase "EGO SUM QUI SUM." From there, a series of cantos, numbered though not consecutively, suggests an oblique narrative of spiritual quest and physical violence. Throughout, the narrator repeatedly puts on and puts aside personae: "here s/he is a cow imagining itself a King; there s/he is Joan of Arc." At one point the poet inserts himself, displaced into the third person: "Zurita enamored friend / takes in the sun of photosynthesis / Zurita will now never again be friend." By the time "Rachel" finally declares, "A column has broken: I saw God / even if you don't believe it I'm telling you / it's true," the reader has become thoroughly disoriented, has lost his way, just like the narrator.

Having left the road behind, we must wander through the desert: specifically, the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile-long strip of land in northern Chile between the Andes and the Pacific that is, according to National Geographic, the driest place on earth. In this actual and metaphorical wasteland, Zurita (or is it still Rachel?) cries out, in language that veers between prophetic and profane. Forsaken like Christ, he perceives himself to be as vast and empty as Atacama; he literally loses himself in the landscape. But this loss of self, rather than a source of anxiety, becomes a source of power and resistance, as well as an opportunity for compassion and empathy. The poet contains multitudes.

Here another document is inserted into the work: a letter from a psychologist, dated May 4, 1974, confirming a diagnosis of "epileptic psychosis." The patient's name, Raúl Zurita, is crossed out and overwritten four times: "Violeta / Dulce Beatriz / Rosamunda / Manuela." Along the bottom of the page, overrunning the margin, is printed "OVE YOU I LOVE YOU INFINITELY I L."

In the next section, "Green Areas," the desert abruptly gives way to the surrounding pampas and "THE IMMENSE REPOSE OF THE COW / below the stars." It is unclear whether psychiatric intervention is to be given credit for this transition; one possible reading suggests that Raúl/Rachel/Etc. has been given electric shock treatments by Pinochet's officials. In any case, Zurita enters the inner life of grazing livestock in a strikingly unsentimental way, with not a jot of pathetic fallacy. The cow becomes an emblem of pure Being, beyond both separateness and connection. The "Green Areas," therefore, become a map to the next stage in the narrator's journey; s/he has emerged from the inferno and can begin to see the way, if not to paradise, then at least to reintegration: "now without areas that intersect each / other all of the symbols begin to crisscross themselves / among themselves…"

Zurita's difficult rebirth, the crisscrossing of all his symbols, soon carries him to a gnomic realm almost outside of language, a zone sheltered from the violence of received discourse. In "My Love of God," he draws geometric diagrams and presents mathematical operations in lieu of linguistic content. The final section of the book, "The New Life" (that's right, Dante again), consists of a printout of an EEG reading overlaid with short phrases. The last words, in bold at the bottom right corner of the penultimate page, are "My friends and I/ MY STRUGGLE."

Although Purgatory is, in my opinion, complete in itself, its author conceived it as the first part of a trilogy. Its two companion volumes, in addition to other major works such as INRI, would cement Zurita's reputation as one of the most significant Latin American poets of his time. Now in his sixties, Zurita has Parkinson's and has said that he will not publish any more books. Therefore, this new translation of the debut that made his name is a good opportunity for those who haven't discovered his work to do so.

Anna Deeny has done a fine job capturing Zurita's idiosyncratic diction, his broken syntax and often cold, clinical tone. The bilingual, en face edition allows a reader, like me, with a modest grasp of half-remembered high-school Spanish to study the original and the translation side by side, interrogating Deeny's choices throughout. Moreover, her interesting end notes go into considerable detail about some of the problems presented by this unusual text. For example: "The use of the nominalized adjective 'iluminada,' as opposed to the noun 'iluminación,' feminizes the poetic voice, the 'I,' and thus confuses any assumption regarding the speaker's gender." Similarly, Zurita jumbles pronouns and verb endings in order to blur boundaries between self and other, creating a host of quandaries for the translator.

General Pinochet, of course, is dead now, forever unaccountable. Nixon, too, is gone; and the evil war-criminal Kissinger has somehow managed to surround himself with a force field of elder-statesman impunity. The Cold War itself is but a story out of the past. Furthermore, many of the once daring and subversive linguistic and formal strategies employed by Zurita and others of his generation have by now been assimilated into the twin machines of pop culture and academic theory, stripped of their power to confront and challenge. Arguably, then, Purgatory is an artifact, a relic. But totalitarianism is alive and well, and what's more, this book is still so full of despair and rage and, ultimately, a kind of triumph that it transcends its origins to stand as a classic of contemporary world literature. If you want to know what it means to make art that's stronger and more vast than pain, art that can stand up to terror, you should read this.

© Matthew Falk, 2010