by Daryl Farmer
Bookstores, for me, are sacred spaces and it’s my practice to visit them wherever I go, even in countries where I don’t speak the language. I hold the books in my hands, open them, look at words I don’t understand. In Quito, Ecuador, we – my wife Joan and I – discovered just such a place, connected to a coffee shop half a block from our hotel in the quiet neighborhood where we were staying. The shop owner was very kind, and in him I found a kindred spirit, a fellow lover of books, and astronomy, and travel. I told him we had two days to spend in Quito, and asked what we should see. He pulled a book from the shelf, and handed it to me: america, my brother, my blood, a collaborative collection of work by the artist Oswaldo Guayasamín and poetry by Pablo Neruda’s. I looked through the pages. The paintings were bold, impressionistic, colorful. Among the portraits he’d painted, I recognized human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. When I handed the book back to him, he held it in his hands like prayer.
“Whatever else you do,” he said, “you must visit La Capilla del Hombre.”
The Chapel of Man.
We thanked him. The next morning, we hailed one of Quito’s ever-present cabs.
The Chapel of Man is Guayasamín’s lasting tribute to this city of his birth, and to the people of South America. The cab driver dropped us off, and we walked through a gate, paid, and then down a sidewalk that zigged once and then zagged once more. The building, which brought to mind an Incan temple, was square and made of stone. Near the building entrance a sign displayed Guayasamín’s words:
“For the children that death took while playing, for the men that dimmed while working, for the poor that failed while loving, I will paint with the scream of a shotgun, with the power of thunder and the fury of battle.”
It was a quote that set the tone for the power of his art.
Once inside, a guide greeted us, and shortly we began our tour. The top floor was a circular room with very high ceilings. In the center, we could look down to the next floor and see, in a red circle, a small flame: the Eternal Flame for Human Rights and Peace. A mural titled Potosí, in Search of Light and Freedom, filled the top of a domed ceiling. The mural depicted a circle of human figures, some of them fainting, all reaching skyward. At the very top was a round sunroof. Sunlight streamed through, and the effect was that the people in the mural were all reaching for that light.
Guayasamín’s paintings are large, bold, stark. Many of them document poverty, or brutality. In his painting titled Tears of Blood, a man with his hands over his face, his eyes wide in horror, peers out from the darkness. Blood flows from his eyes. This is Guayasamín’s homage to Neruda, Salvador Allende, and activist and singer-songwriter Víctor Jara.
Later, when I’d return to the bookstore, the bookseller would tell me about Jara, how he had been tortured, how before he was killed, his hands had been smashed so he could no longer play guitar.
But it would be wrong to suggest that the work shown here is only about human cruelty and suffering. There are also tender images of family, of mothers with children, of a man playing guitar. In Meditation a woman rests her head peacefully in her hand, a serene look on her face. In The Family, one of the largest paintings, five women stand closely together, one of them holding and embracing a child. The colors are warm, ranging from light orange to crimson to black.
Guayasamín’s work is impressionistic, cubist, influenced perhaps by Picasso, but in a style all his own. I was quite moved by it. Love and solemnity, in the end, seem to counteract the cruelty, which I like to believe was Guayasamín’s whole point. There was a sense of the sacred, its cathedral feel, its Inca temple influence. Its flame that never dies. One enters wondering about the word “chapel.” One leaves understanding that there is no better word.
When we returned to our hotel, we walked immediately to the book store and purchased america, my brother, my blood. Home in Alaska now, I hold it between my hands like a prayer.
The month before visiting the Chapel of Man, we’d spent several days driving and exploring the vast expanses of the Atacama Desert and other parts of northern Chile. Along the way, I read from Ariel Dorfman’s travel memoir Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North, whichchronicles Dorfman’s journey through his home country, a country from which he was exiled during the Pinochet coup in 1973. This book seemed the perfect companion guide for our trip. The most compelling and heartbreaking aspect of the book is Dorfman’s search for the remains of his friend and fellow activist Freddy Taberna, who in 1973 was executed by a firing squad at the prison camp at Pisagua during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Taberna’s body was never recovered. Dorfman’s quest is really for the memory of Taberna, to make sense of that whole sordid past; whether or not he finds the actually body is not really what matters in the end.
While this personal quest is an important part of this book, it is only a small part. Dorfman excels at bringing the region’s natural and human history to life. He writes of the nitrate mining history, which began in the 1860’s and boomed all the way up until World War I. He writes of the ghost towns that litter the northern Chile landscape, including Humberstone, a once thriving potassium nitrate mining community. But Dorfman’s most eloquent writing is about the desert itself, despite early in the book claiming “a deep seated prejudice against deserts in general.” Like many prejudices, this one is overcome by making the effort to better understand it. Throughout, Dorfman seeks out experts in a variety of fields – archeologists, astronomers, historians, anthropologists – and allows them to collectively tell the story of this place. For me as a writer, the book was a guide on how to seek out expertise wherever I travel, to learn all that I can from people who know, to gather the stories of others, in order to understand the larger stories.
Like Guayasamín’s paintings, there is a mystical quality to Dorfman’s words, to the stories he reveals to us. I think this quality derives from the connections he makes, the way that the levels accumulate to increasingly add new depth. There is a sense of wonder and curiosity in all that he writes, a childlike sense of discovery. On the matter of stars, for example, he writes:
And Miguel (director of the Las Campanas observatories in the Atacama Desert) told me once more, almost as if he were spelling out a fairy tale to a child…He told me how everything on this Earth had been formed inside the thermonuclear machine of stars, the iron in the hemoglobin in our bodies that transports the oxygen through our tissue, the sodium and the potassium that became nitrate and fertilizer, our heart that beats and our brain that thinks and our memories themselves, all, all, all of it made from stars, formed inside a star.
The day I read this was Earth Day. We had driven out of San Pedro de Atacama, onto a gravel road. We waited for the sky to darken, for the stars to slowly appear. Later, I would read Dorfman’s account of Taberna, something he learned from a mutual friend, how just before the bullets hit, he had spoken his final words: “They will not silence us. We will overcome.”
“In the desert,” writes Dorfman, “the only way to really escape is with someone else by your side. In an environment so unforgiving and hostile, the best as well as the worst of our humanity is heightened and magnified.”
The life of Freddy Taberna is remembered through Dorfman’s words, even by those of us who never knew him; Pablo Neruda remains in the light of his poems; the poor laborers, the bathers, the crying women, the songs of Victor Jara haunt us through the paintings of Guayasamín. It is through the beauty of their art that, despite any dictator’s aim to erase, human stories endure.
Daryl Farmer is the authorof the nonfiction book Bicycling beyond the Divide and the short story collection Where We Land. He is an associate professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is a faculty member in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program.