The Big Joke



A postcard from Chile, amid the weeks of nationwide protests in response to a subway fare hike, rising inequality, high cost of living, and privatization. 

Busses on fire in Santiago (photo: Agence France-Press)

I’m writing these words in clothes that reek of tear gas. Trying to process the pulse of the street while still part of it, while our feet are still there on the ground, fleeing water cannons, not knowing where to go, hiding in the crowd, among people just like us, groups of us marching, dodging smoke and soldiers. This is a celebration, a protest, a demand for change that began with students jumping turnstiles in the metro after fares were hiked. Without any organizer, without petitions, leaders, or negotiations, the whole thing escalated and then exploded into chaos in the streets. And there is yelling, and singing, and banging on pots, and fire, and beatings. In front of the palace of La Moneda, near the theater where I work, a man tells a soldier that he doesn’t understand why the soldier is protecting privileges that will never be his. A woman screams that we’re killing ourselves, we’re committing suicide, with all this inequality.

I walk home from the heart of Santiago. Hours of walking. The metro is closed, streets are occupied, no public transportation is to be found. Thousands of us are on the move. I see young men with their faces painted like the Joker yelling that this uprising is the ultimate punchline to the biggest joke. I wonder what big joke they mean. The fare hike? The minister of the economy’s advice to take advantage of cheaper early morning fares and get up at 6 A.M.? The pizza that President Piñera is eating right now at an upscale Santiago restaurant, deaf to the voice of the city? The pathetic pensions of our retirees? The depressing state of our public education? Our public health? The water that doesn’t belong to us? The militarization of Wallmapu, the ancestral territory of the Mapuche people? The incidents apparently staged by soldiers to incriminate Mapuches? The shameful treatment of our immigrants? The hobbling of our timid abortion law, due to government approval of conscientious objection for conservative doctors? The ridiculous concentration of privileges in the hands of a small minority? Persistent tax evasion by that same minority? The corruption and embezzlement scandals within the armed forces and the national police? The media monopoly of the big conglomerates, owners of television channels, newspapers, and radio stations? The constitution written under the dictatorship that still governs us to this day? Our mayors, representatives, and senators who once worked for Pinochet? Our pseudodemocracy?

The joke has infinite possible interpretations. As I think about it, I see the water cannon approach, and my body, drawing on stores of wisdom from long ago, instinctively runs, hides, face shielded, and manages to get through it all once again. Just like yesterday. Like the day before yesterday.

How many years have I spent running from this dirty water?

How many more years like this will there be?

I walk on through the banging of pots, the honking of horns, barricades. No matter where I go, through one neighborhood after another, there is no place not alight with celebration, protest, and a demand for change. But I know what will happen soon. I sense it because my stubborn memory does more than just rescue me from the water cannons; it also functions as oracle in this authoritarian déjà vu. They’ll blame us. They’ll tell us again that it’s our fault. They’ll brand us as criminals. They’ll condemn the violence as if they weren’t the ones to incite it with their systematized brutality. And they’ll punish us. And they’ll beat us in the name of public order and civic peace. And they’ll shoot us tomorrow just like today. Like yesterday. Like always. And they’ll be incapable of admitting their guilt. Incapable of listening to the demands that the citizens have been voicing for years. Incapable of generating the public policies that are needed to end so very much frustration.

I make it home after walking for three and a half hours. From outside I hear the insistent, clamoring howl of the pots. On the news I see that President Sebastián Piñera has decreed a national state of emergency. There will be a curfew, and again, like long ago, we won’t be able to leave our homes at night. Again the safe-conduct passes, the helicopters, the shots in the night, the fear, and, of course, the military provocateurs in the street. Time doesn’t pass; it turns backward, runs in reverse. There is no escape from the big joke. This is just another line in its sad plot. Let’s hope the punch line doesn’t hurt as much this time.

—Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

First published in El Pais

Natasha Wimmer is the translator of Space Invaders by Nona Fernández, as well as nine books by Roberto Bolaño, including The Savage Detectives and 2666. Her most recent translations are Bolaño’s The Spirit of Science Fiction, Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, and The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

Nona Fernández was born in Santiago, Chile. She is an actress and writer, and has published two plays, a collection of short stories, and six novels, including The Twilight Zone, which was awarded the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. Her novel Space Invaders will be published in November by Graywolf Press.