Mauricio Segura’s Eucalyptus, part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, is a novel about identity and ownership, a narrative that drops a (relative) stranger into a (relative) strange land and lets the skeletons tumble from the closet. This may sound familiar. And yet, Segura avoids the clichés normally associated with these kinds of stories, twisting Eucalyptus into a strange, existential whodunnit. As I wrote in my review, “Segura isn’t quite interested in ‘you can’t go home again’ platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.”
The following excerpt comes from chapter two, chosen because it does a great job representing not only Segura’s skills at immersing the reader in location, but also the thematic ideas of identity and ownership that pervade the narrative. There isn’t much one needs to know to appreciate this snippet: Alberto, Eucalyptus‘s protagonist, has just traveled to Chile with his young son, Marco, to bury his father, Roberto. In chapter one, the duo come across Araya, Alberto’s uncle, who tells Alberto a tale that paints Roberto in a cold light. As chapter two opens, Alberto and Marco are waiting for Roberto’s sister, Noemi, to meet them.
— Benjamin Woodard
In the middle of the afternoon, tired of waiting for Noemi to come back, tired of the stale odour in the house, Alberto took off in the pickup with Marco. His elbow propped on the open window, he watched, through the rear-view mirror, the light wind at play in his son’s hair. When he turned into the Avenida Pablo Neruda, a flash of sunlight created a blinding spot on the windshield, with a rainbow-coloured aura. He passed square after square, and although on many of them youngsters were playing football or marbles, although the benches shone bottle- green, although no litter was lying about, they all seemed drab, desolate. Was it the concrete covering the ground? Or the smog that, like an ulterior motive, darkened the city in full daylight?
He parked the pickup in front of a glass building, in which were reflected the movie theatre’s heavy columns, encrusted with dirt. He bought some fried cheese empanadas, Marco’s favourite, in a nearby grocery store, and they ate them in the shade of a palm tree, on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. As the fountain shot its jet of water towards the sky in a deafening cloud, he scanned an election poster on a lamppost. “Francisco Huenchumilla, Concertación candidate for mayor of Temuco. Para un ciudad próspera.” He wondered if Temuco had ever had a native mayor. Behind them, music from another time, childlike and gay, drifted into the square. A man with a hand organ was drawing all eyes. On his shoulder, a monkey munched peanuts and made faces. When he saw Marco watching the show, wide-eyed, Alberto remembered his first impressions of the city when, after having left Chile at the age of four, he returned with his family. At the time everything seemed dirty and old-fashioned; the cars, the excessive pollution, the shifty faces of the street children, the cadaverous features of the women kneeling on the sidewalk, selling Kleenex or mote con huesillo. And then, during the same visit, he went from one extreme to the other: he suddenly felt as if he were being reunited with a buried part of himself. He didn’t want to leave. But this honeymoon didn’t last: people, his extended family above all, made him understand that he was not quite one of them, that in certain respects, perhaps the most important, he was too gringo, a remark they let drop, sometimes in jest, at other times in all seriousness. Since then, he had never felt at home either here or back there.
A little girl, her hair held back with pink ribbons, was walking with her mother, a balloon in her hand. He bought one for Marco, and made a knot for him at his wrist with the string; from that point on his son kept his eyes on the balloon, a smile on his lips. They strolled, and soon came on itinerant sellers of every age, set up in front of a shopping centre, behind wool blankets on which were displayed miniature tanks, lighters, ballpoint pens, underpants. Alberto told himself that Araya’s story was not at all surprising. He was like that, his father, totally unpredictable, loving to spring surprises and to make a scene, seeking always to protect his moral and material independence.
“And what are going to do now your papa’s dead?” asked Marco.
The question pulled him up short.
“Don’t worry about me.”
And he tried to smile.
“Fleurette says we go up to heaven when we die.”
Fleurette was his schoolteacher.
“You think Abuelo’s going to heaven?”
“If he behaved well, yes. If not, perhaps no.”
“Did he behave well?”
Alberto shrugged his shoulders.
Then, a bit farther on:
“Papa, but why did he die, Abuelo?”
He met his son’s eyes.
“Are you going to die one day, too?”
He nodded, yes.
Seeing his son’s concern, he added:
“Don’t bother about that. It won’t be for many years. We’ve lots of good times ahead of us.”
He gripped his hand a little more tightly.
* * *
Back in his grandparents’ house, he went upstairs with Marco to the room where his father was laid out. Abuela, still sitting in front of the window, raised her head and blinked her eyes when they appeared, her wine-red manta accentuating her slumped shoulders. She stared at them, knitting her brows, then with a movement of her chin she ordered Alberto to introduce himself. When he revealed his identity, she repeated to herself, “Roberto’s son,” as if she no longer remembered Roberto but didn’t want to admit it. After a moment, as Alberto became conscious of the dim light surrounding him, she asked him curtly to leave, because the real Alberto was a boy living in Canada “who’s no bigger than that,” she said, stretching out the fingers of one hand. He replied that he was the boy, that he had visited her four years earlier. But she made a dismissive gesture with her index and middle fingers, indicating that he should leave. Then he took out of his pocket a watch with a chain, a present from his grandfather, went up to her and held it out. She took it, weighed it, and stared for a long time at the motionless hands, as if memories were working their way bit by bit up to the surface of her mind.
“It doesn’t work anymore?”
“For the last few days, it stops and starts. It has to be repaired.”
She gave it back to him, and venturing a smile, she said:
“It’s really you, Albertito?”
He held the watch and got on his knees at her feet. With her rough fingers, she patted Alberto’s hair and cheeks. He looked at her face, which, despite her yellowed eyes, despite the ravages of time, brought back to him a torrent of memories, of when he was Marco’s age and she kept him with her for entire days, before the dictatorship chased them out of the country again.
“You look more and more like Roberto,” she said, mussing his hair. “Do you have his character, too?” she asked, teasingly. “Ay, Dios mío, I hope not!” she added, smiling.
He returned her smile and pushed his face up against her skirts. He felt her own special odour attack his nostrils, one of wool, of tenderness, and of a madness she would not concede. He kept his eyes closed, persuaded that when he opened them he could remove himself from this oppressive climate of mourning.
She gestured to Marco that he should come near. Caressing his hands vigorously, as if she could not believe the softness of his skin, she asked him where his mother was. When the child explained that she had stayed in Canada, she looked at Alberto the way she used to when she was going to scold him.
“I’m not wrong, then?” she said. “You are like Roberto?”
Continuing to pass her hands through his curly hair, she raised her eyes to the ceiling and, in a stronger voice, as if she were addressing a large audience, embarked on a confused tirade against men and the desires that possess them like evil spirits. An evil she traced back to her dead husband, and her husband’s father, and his father before him. She went on with her monologue, digging deeper into the family’s past, and recalling, as she never failed to do, their ancestors’ arrival from Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, from an idyllic village called Monastir, today Bitola, at the heart of Macedonia. And Alberto was treated to the entire narrative of the family’s founding, only now it was timely, because although he knew it was a romanticized version, he needed to hear this story of emigration, of a flight by boat against the backdrop of a great conflagration, of the persecution of the Jewish community, and the decadence of the Ottoman Empire. Then, losing the thread of what she was saying, as if suddenly she had come back to herself and the weighty concerns of the present, she went silent. Her eyes darted this way and that, while at last tears ran down Alberto’s cheeks.
— Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler
Born in Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura grew up in Montreal and studied at Université de Montréal and McGill University. A well-known journalist and documentary filmmaker, he is the author of three novels and a study of French perceptions of Latin America. He lives with his family in Montreal.
Donald Winkler is a Montreal-based literary translator and documentary filmmaker. He has translated books by the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, the philosopher Georges Leroux and the novelists Daniel Poliquin and Nadine Bismuth. Winkler is a three-time winner of the Governor General of Canada’s Award for French-to-English translation.