The following text explores a very significant chapter in the life of the Chilean writer Juan Emar. It also discusses the story “Pibesa,” from the collection Diez, published in Chile in 1937.
“We have triumphed! Freedom has emerged victorious! The tyrannical Ibáñez and his cronies have been beat… Long live Chile! Long live freedom!” Luisa Yáñez Bianchi wrote to her mother Rosalía Bianchi de Yáñez on August 19, 1931. There were celebrations in the streets across all of Chile when Carlos Ibáñez del Campo left La Moneda Palace. Others learned of his ouster abroad, including Juan Emar in Paris, who was forwarded the same letter that his sister Luisa had written to Rosalía. Emar’s father, Eliodoro Yáñez, was also in Europe at the time. After the Ibáñez dictatorship seized the newspaper La Nación, Eliodoro was forced into exile, and he spent some time living in German, Swiss, and Italian hotels. The confiscation of the paper, the effects of the Great Depression, and the high cost of exile had brought about the family’s financial troubles, which played a major role in Emar’s life.
Eliodoro returned to Chile a few days after Ibáñez left office. His singular concern was reclaiming the newspaper that had been taken from him. But things did not go as he had hoped. In November 1931, in a letter, he asked his son to come home, as “it is not possible to send you the sums that you ask for in the letters to your mother…” Emar had no choice but to return to Chile in March 1932, a few months before Eliodoro died. His father had not successfully reclaimed the paper.
What was Emar doing during that era? We can find a few clues in a February 1928 letter from Sara Malvar, Emar’s friend and his accomplice in the “Notas de Arte” venture at La Nación, who also lived in Paris: “What a year 1927 was […]. Pilo is bitter over La Nación… Now. Because when I was fuming at the beginning of the famous ‘Nación spirit,’ Pilo was deaf and blind […]. But now he sees with perfect clarity. He’s hurt. Even on the inside…” Malvar is referring to the project that began as “Notas de París” and which reached its peak as “La Nación en París,” which Emar led but ultimately had to abandon following the seizure of La Nación. For him, the project meant much more than printing a few pages on contemporary art and various cultural protests that were popping up all over the world. Patricio Lizama points out that the project involved “designing a system for the distribution and sale of material printed in France, which facilitated the purchase and receipt of books, journals, and all kinds of texts of public interest in Chile. Additionally, he organized a tourist service that targeted Chileans planning European travel.” It was, as we would say today, quite the undertaking: a major cultural and economic project, all of which came tumbling down.
The following year, 1928, Emar’s love life was a mess. For some time, he had been carrying on an intimate relationship with the Frenchwoman Alice de la Martiniére, better known as Pépéche, who was a model for Montparnasse painters. In September of that year, painter Luis Vargas Rosas, who was in Paris on a grant, wrote to his wife Henriette Petite that “Last night, Pépéche killed herself, with Calmina and Dial, but this morning she woke up. Pilo looked very nervous last night, but today he’s calmer and laughing.” This episode occurred during the months when Emar was separated from his first wife, Herminia Yáñez, with whom he had two children. The separation was not traumatic for him; to the contrary, he supported his wife’s new romance with a Hungarian circus artist: “There are more details to the story of the Hungarian than I can know […]. Pilo’s detailed stories. The ménage a trois…” Henriette Petite wrote to her husband in October of that year. He replied a month later: “I learned that the Rivadeneira girl is or was crazy from a letter I received from my mother a month ago. She was and is Pilo’s great love, so much so that he’s planning to marry her and create a new life and home around her.” In fact, two years later, in March 1930, Emar traveled to Chile to marry Gabriela Rivadeneira, and brought her back to Paris as his new—much younger—wife. With this union, everything seems to have calmed down in his life: “Pilo now gets up early, writes, works (?), and doesn’t drink. It’s nothing short of a miracle,” Sara Malvar wrote to her husband, Fernando García Oldini.
These were the years when, together with Huidobro and his group, Emar was closely following the experiments of Surrealism. He attended conferences and regularly joined other writers and artists at the cafés of Montparnasse, where he discussed the actions by Breton’s group and read the latest publications that were paving the way for the avant-garde. These were the years in which he conceived of “El pájaro verde,” one of the stories in Diez, and when he wrote the first lines of his novel Ayer.
This all came to a halt when his father wrote to urge him to return to Chile. Beginning in 1932, Emar dedicated himself entirely to writing the stories and texts that he would go on to publish between 1935 and 1937. These included “Pibesa,” from his book of short stories Diez. The protagonist is a “very young woman” (pibesa in Spanish) who “doesn’t know what to do with so much young life,” as the unquestionably older male narrator tells us. The narrator knows that Pibesa will also be with him, and that she will be faithful to him until his death.
On a day like any other, the two are “walking the street one evening, bored and silent.” Suddenly, by chance, they encounter “a wrinkled ball of rose-colored paper” ahead of them. It reads: “Valid on today’s date only.” It’s an authorization to visit the mountains, an invitation to “something new, something to fill the emptiness of our lives,” the narrator tells us. And, with Pibesa, the narrator steps into a story of desire, regret, and blame.
In the mountains, the narrator attempts to possess Pibesa: “I ran towards her. I grabbed her with my left arm, wrapping it around her waist; with my right hand I lifted her gray silk skirt […]. But Pibesa escaped, laughing like a rattle snake […] she escaped like a small, young animal.” The narrator runs after her until she stops. Then he tells her that he loves her. At that moment, “Pibesa, bifurcating herself, split into two. Two young girls, with the youthfulness of water, wrapped in fine silk.” One of them runs at a steady pace down a spiral stairway; the other, slowly: “With each step, her life stopped for a second, she stretched out a little satin foot and lightly grazed it on the next step.” As the first Pibesa descends, very slowly, humming to herself, the narrator goes after the second Pibesa, grabs her from behind, and possesses her. When he opens his eyes to look at hear, he realizes that the person he has in his arms is “an unknown woman,” not Pibesa, who is continuing to descend the spiral staircase. The narrator gets carried away by the sensation of not knowing who he is with or who he has possessed: “it was already too late, I no longer had the strength to hold myself back, and, even though she was unknown, I had to empty myself into that incognito of my life which Pibesa, with the removal of silk, had sown during my impotent persecution.” He had to “empty” himself into her, the narrator tells us, referring to the unknown woman, thinking that she was Pibesa. But Pibesa is descending the spiral staircase, getting farther and farther away. Was he never able to capture her? Was her escape inevitable?
“Pibesa” is the story of an impulse, of a seduction that the narrator is unable to control, and whose consequences may prove fatal. It also introduces one of the problems that will be most pressing in Emar’s work: the fragmentation of the ego—in this case, Pibesa’s. Some years later, Marul Carampangue, one of the interlocuters in Umbral, tells the narrator of Tercer pilar, on page 1325; “So you’re tethering your anxieties to the creation of something. In order to justify them, you’re playing with two characters that may reside inside you. This make you emphasize the one who you would have wanted to be, without laziness. Yes, there is a struggle in you.” This is how two themes cross in “Pibesa”: the unstoppable drive of seduction and the split of the ego.
In point of fact, the narrator commits an act of infidelity. Only “a hundred steps below” the place where the seduction and transgression took place, Pibesa waits: “She saw us and smiled. There was no irony in her smile, no compassion, no resentment.” This is forgiveness from the wronged party, the true Pibesa, who had given the narrator her blessing: “I clearly had the entrance pass, there it was,” the invitation on pink paper. Pibesa accepted the infidelity and her indulgence allows the narrator to “keep revolving” with the two women born as one.
“Soon we heard the rhythmic echoes of heavy footsteps approaching. I felt an instant of horrible fear,” says the narrator. The wronged husband is climbing the spiral staircase in search of his wife. The narrator knows that something is not right, even though he is unable to specify the exact cause of his unease. In his mind, he has not attempted to possess a woman who “was not [his],” and whom he had left at the top of the staircase. Rather, it is the situation as a whole that seems out-of-place: the mountains, the spiral staircase, Pibesa, the other woman, himself, and, most of all, the fact that he is in that particular place at that particular moment. Because to the narrator, none of this matters a bit; he is entirely indifferent. He does not care that he has possessed the other woman, and if Pibesa does not care either, then why should it matter to this man climbing the staircase? He is thinking along these lines when he sees “the tip of his Mexican sombrero” and, beneath it, the man, who “grabbed the other Pibesa and they both disappeared.” The narrator flees down the spiral staircase, through hallways and corridors. Pibesa falls behind. He races to a door that is the same color as “the calm brown streets of my city.” He tries to force it open: “First I hopped over a chain, then removed two bolts and I was about to grab the key when from this same corridor I heard a gunshot.” He finally manages to open it and he calls out to Pibesa that they are saved, but at that moment she appears, dripping blood. “Filled with indignation, I started to scream, to incite those around us against the wretch who had waged war against Pibesa, wounding and bloodying her.” Initially, the crowd that now surrounds the narrator echoes his intentions. But no one moves: not even the wronged husband or the throngs of people hungry for justice. Rather, everyone’s gaze falls on the narrator: they “interrogated me with their eyes […]. A vague sense of guilt made me turn pale.” The narrator’s hesitation enables the husband to make the first move: “with a cold calmness he reached behind his back, grabbed his revolver and with even more calm he pointed it at me, aiming from bottom to top.”
The narrator would have paid for his desire with his life, but a police officer appears and disperses the crowd. The husband lowers his gun, sighs, “spun on his heels and turned around. Pibesa and I also left the scene. We moved quickly through the streets. The crowd dispersed. And the police officer walked away.” Thus, the narrator receives clemency from the Law for his indiscretion, insisting that “we were entirely in the right”: with permission from his partner, he feels empowered to be unfaithful, even though the consequences may prove fatal. To avoid being held accountable by society, they must flee so that “none of those people will ever see us again, since they could, with one gunshot, with one look from their motionless eyes, destroy all of our righteousness, as well-founded as it may be.”
It is interesting to note that the beheading of Rudecindo Malleco in Ayer seems to have a similar plot. But in the latter, the issue at hand is not the satisfaction of a desire, as in “Pibesa,” but a feeling of guilt over having merely thought about socially unacceptable behavior. Justice condemns not the act, but the thought. That is why they cut off Rudecindo Malleco’s head: because it was the place where his sin occurred. This is significant, especially considering that both texts (Ayer as well as “Pibesa”) were written at the same time, in August 1933, shortly after Emar arrived in Chile and a month after he buried his father.
Translated by Kevin Gerry Dunn