“He’s going to die any minute now,” a college classmate of mine said in 1994, when the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra had just turned eighty and we were eighteen. I asked if the poet was sick or something. “When people are eighty, it’s highly probable that they’ll die at any minute,” he replied. We were on campus in Santiago, doing nothing, pretty high. Someone said that there was an event at Cine Arte Alameda to celebrate Parra, and the usual four or five of us headed over—uninvited, of course, but we managed to sneak in. I remember almost nothing about the event. The place was packed. Any rock band would love to have half the fans that Parra did.
Almost a decade later, in 2003, I went to Nicanor’s house in Las Cruces for the first time. I was pretty much uninvited then, too, but Nicanor knew that his friends were bringing with them a professor and aspiring poet, still in his twenties, who was longing to meet him. When people are almost ninety years old, it’s highly probable that they’ll die at any moment, but Nicanor was still going strong.
Conversations with him were always an adventure. They began with an exchange of pennants, followed by a few loose, exploratory phrases that were really his most recent poems, his thoughts from the week. During lunch, he’d talk about the joys of wine, the unbeatable pork roll from Las Cruces, the interesting color of the tomatoes. The best part was the conversation after the meal, when the script would take off in unexpected directions and he didn’t seem to be trying to teach anything, although one always learned a great deal.
The press and the academy demonstrated a persistent, sometimes insistent, interest in digging around in his life, but the truth is that, except for the usual enumeration of children and romances, we know little about Nicanor Parra. His relationship with interviews was complicated. “Every question is an impertinence, an aggression,” he declared, with paradoxical warmth. Sometimes he refused interviews outright; at other times, he would open up with long preambles that led to nothing. But a skilled observer would always leave Nicanor’s house with enough material for a good article. Interviewing Parra, in fact, became a kind of elective but important rite of passage for cultural journalists in Chile.
I was a more or less involuntary witness to some of his interviews. I remember, especially, his tug of war with the journalist Matías del Río. Nicanor had agreed to talk to him on the condition that there be no questions or recordings, but del Río took two minutes to break the rules. “You, sir, are a pontificator, and pontiffs belong in Rome,” Nicanor said, suddenly, and walked out without a word. Del Río didn’t know whether to go or stay, but, after a while, our host returned, apologized, and invited him to stay for lunch. While we ate, he answered the journalist’s questions in extenso. At one point, Parra looked at me, winked, and pointed with his right index finger at the journalist’s sleeve: he knew perfectly well that his interlocutor was hiding a recorder.
Thanks to a series of coincidences, mostly initiated by the editor Matías Rivas, not long after I met Nicanor I was put in charge of editing his translation of “King Lear,” called “Lear Rey & Mendingo” (“Lear, King & Beggar”). Nicanor had undertaken the translation in 1990, for a successful staging at the Teatro Universidad Catolica, but he was reluctant to publish it because he didn’t consider it finished, and so it had remained in a state of semi-abandonment.