The Beginning of Our Quest for Your Mother’s Missing Body

An excerpt from THE REMAINDER by Chilean author Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes


Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, translated by Sophie Hughes, a winner of the 2018 PEN Translates Award and shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, is a fresh look at a past that still haunts Chile. Zerán introduces us to two “I”s, Iquela and Felipe, whose lives have been interwoven since childhood. Now they are off to a new adventure together, a road trip, to help Paloma, another person appearing out of their shared past. They have to retrace and bury Paloma’s mother, whose corpse has been lost on its way from Germany to Santiago, due to bad weather conditions, or more specifically ash rain, right on the other side of the border in Argentina.

Intellectuals, exiles, decedents, weirdos, the characters each engage with the past in their own way, with their own obsessions: mathematics, language, bodies. The narrative’s attention to “eyes” and “voice” speaks to how one bears witness and offers testimonies. The “as if”s seem to point to the intersections of reality and speculations of that reality, the concrete and the not-so-concrete. These elements and the tone of the novel remind one of Roberto Bolaño, especially the short stories in Last Evenings on Earth, reading simultaneously as hyperreal and surreal, somber and yet light, highly involved and yet detached.

Then there are the mountains, the cordillera, the sky, and the ash rain, and the role they play in the characters’ journey. Does this ash carry the remains of those whose bodies were once dropped from helicopters into the volcanos, not to be ever retrieved? Is it the past showering down on the residents of the city? Are the mountains the forever tombs of the disappeared? Their presence reminds one of Raúl Zurita’s poems and Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries: the natural elements are not just a background to history, but are participants in it; they are caretakers of the dead and the living.

It is very fitting that when Iquela finally gets to leave Santiago, it is with her friends toward the mountains in order to fetch a corpse, that of a woman who left and died in exile but wished to be buried back home. “. . . Anybody, all of us would want to be buried in our patria,” says the funeral home director they rent a hearse from. It’s as if Zerán is saying: In order to move toward the future, one first needs to move toward the past, bring it back home, bury it—what Felipe too is doing in his own way. And it makes sense that it’s the new generation, regardless of living in Chile or not, who is to do so. But Iquela also wonders whether it is possible at all to “repatriate” someone, “if there was such a thing as a patria to return to.”

The Remainder is a novel not to be missed, especially if you’re interested in literature addressing dictatorial states and the residues of a past burdening the present. Zerán’s dark humor and adventurous narrative make for an entertaining read that effortlessly takes us to the heart of the matter: the entanglements of the past, present, and future, and our movements in and out of them.

Poupeh Missaghi
Author of Trans(re)lating House One (forthcoming)

The Beginning of Our Quest for Your Mother’s Missing Body

Felipe was surprisingly quick to agree to the plan, as if his sole ambition in life had always been to recover Ingrid from the other side of the cordillera. I, on the other hand, had my misgivings. Or if not misgivings, exactly, I felt unnervingly removed from it all, as if I couldn’t even imagine the journey, as if it were a scene from a road movie that I would never play a part in. But Felipe was dead set on going, and even though I was the one who’d always dreamed of traveling, it was he who went places and my job to follow him, to find out for my mother when he’d be back. He wasn’t to go out alone. My mother had warned me as much when his Grandma Elsa died and Felipe came to live with us in Santiago. It was an old promise (and the old ones weigh twice as much as the new ones), and Felipe took advantage of it. Incapable of staying put in one place for more than   a couple of weeks, he would vanish from the apartment, forcing me to come up with all kinds of stories to cover for him: “he’s in the bathroom, Mother,” “he’s sleeping,” “he’s lost his voice.”

If I’d had a say in the matter, the three of us wouldn’t

have gone anywhere, especially not right away. Had it been up to me, I would have drawn the apartment curtains to block out the horrible symmetry of the streets, the cement-coated trees, the children already accustomed to the ash, building castles out of it. I would have told Paloma to be patient.  Her mother certainly wasn’t in a hurry. But I couldn’t persuade her to let me stay behind. “Two days at most,” she replied when I tried to convince her that I had to be in Santiago and asked her to understand (“my mother, Paloma, mine”).

Still undecided, I walked for a few more blocks before eventually resolving to go with them, to see the city from above and then come straight back. I’d ask my mother to lend me her car and we’d take the mountain road.

“Sounds simple enough,” Paloma said as we strolled through Forestal Park, Felipe whistling at the dogs who in turn were barking at a perfectly still Mapocho River. Only once we’d all agreed to the plan did Felipe come out with the real obstacle.

“And where will we put the body?” he asked, freezing on the spot.

“My mum,” Paloma corrected him with a little punch

on the arm (an unbearable caress). “My mum, Felipe. Stop referring to her as ‘the body.’”

But Felipe wouldn’t let it drop and walked right up to Paloma.

“Your mother’s dead body, Fräulein. Her body,” he said, biting the air a centimeter from her face (and a fine powder settled on their shoulders, making them look hatefully alike).

This was precisely the problem: Ingrid was dead. The image of a coffin tied to the roof of the car seemed reason enough to call the whole thing off, but within barely a couple of blocks, those two had come up with the solution.

The Hogar de Cristo funeral home was just about to close—the steel roller shutters were gliding down to the ground—when Felipe ran ahead, stuck out his foot, bent down, and banged on the door until a man dressed in black reluctantly came to attend them. He led us from a dark reception area (eight seats, a screen, a solitary weeping fig) to a room arranged in a maze of identical cubicles with office chairs and ergonomic keyboards. Felipe began talking before even taking a seat. The man listened keenly but soon lost his patience when he realized what our plan was. He pulled away in his chair, stood up, and pointed to the door. 

“Are you out of your minds?” he asked, brandishing a catalog of funeral services. “We don’t rent by the hour, sonny. Prices are per service. This isn’t a motel, and it isn’t Rent-A-Car.”

Felipe and I left the place in stitches. Paloma, on the other hand, was gnawing her nails, red with rage. I tried to calm her down, to touch her, but this only made her walk faster, storming ahead as if we might find another funeral parlor around the corner. Which is, in fact, what happened. In the middle of Avenida Vicuña Mackenna, almost unrecognizable under a blanket of ash, we found a hearse parked up waiting. (“Always prepare for the worst,” the man covering his car the night before had said.) I crossed the street, incredulous. It had to be a mirage. But Felipe was only too happy to dispel my doubts.

“Mercedes-Benz, 1979,” he said before striding toward an

old, single-story colonial house, its brickwork cracked from past earthquakes and the windows clad in dark iron bars. 

Above the doorframe, hanging on a single nail, a sign read, “Fun al O tega & Ort,” and just beneath, “Fifty ears

with you i your grief.”

The man who opened the door was young, tall, and slim, his face pockmarked by years of adolescent acne. He left us standing on the doorstep while he eyed us up. On seeing Felipe he stood up straight and held out his hand in a robotic gesture.

“I’m deeply sorry for your loss,” he said in a somber voice while nodding his head.

He was extending his sympathy to Felipe. Not to me, and not to Paloma. The aggrieved party was Felipe, who returned the man’s greeting through pursed lips, clearly fighting back the giggles. They stood there like that, as if they didn’t know how to snap out of that gesture, those mechanical condo- lences, and it occurred to me then that they were flirting, that their handshake had gone on longer than was necessary.

It was cold in the house, and as we walked in I heard a man singing along to a cumbia track in the room next door. An intense smell of fried food pervaded the hallway, making my eyes smart and forcing me to take a few steps back to get some air (onions or ash, there was no alternative). My attention turned to a living room with a tall ceiling and five coffins arranged in the middle of it. Cracked and dirty paintings of flowers hung on the walls. Felipe moved in to read the inscription beneath the image of calla lilies.

“We provide traditional wreaths, inside pieces, rose wreaths, teardrop casket sprays, and floral pillows,” he read out with a snicker. “I guess the pillows are to make the stiffs more comfortable?”

Paloma either didn’t hear or chose to ignore him. She was staring at the wood of a casket, appreciating it, stroking it with the tips of her fingers as the young man reeled off a list of characteristics from memory.

“Superior, hardy wood,” he said, rocking from side to side like a pendulum by the door. 

We were interrupted by a creaking floorboard and the appearance of Ortega Senior, taller than his son but also quite large, with a steady gaze and thick eyebrows weighing down on his eyes. He came over, dragging his slippers and meticulously drying his fat, calloused hands on a tea towel. He gave Ortega Junior a slap on the back (a pointed thump, which put a stop to the latter’s swaying) and told him that it was a matter of experience, he must watch and learn how to get it right, before adding that his son had no doubt messed it up again. I didn’t understand what he was talking about until he entered the room properly. He looked at us one by one, checking us over, then pinched his eyebrows together into a single line. 

“I’m so sorry for your loss, young man,” he said confidently. Next, and in sequence, he took Felipe’s hand firmly in his, stroked Paloma’s arm, and finally took my hand as if it were a baby bird, nestling it inside his own with heart-rending tenderness. “My condolences to you both,” he said, his eyes welling up.

We all mumbled thank you in unison.

Ortega Senior listened to Paloma without interrupting her. He nodded as she explained what had happened at the consulate, the forms, the plane diverted to Mendoza.

“I’m German,” she explained. “I’m just visiting. Help me,” she begged in a sugary voice.

Her story, told without pauses, sounded ludicrous, and I had the distinct sense that I was locked inside a dream. Ortega, however, seemed more than happy to hear her out, and he didn’t consider her cause to be hopeless. He only added, with galling solemnity, that he too would want to be buried in his patria, that anybody, all of us, would want to be buried in our patria. 

“You’ve done the right thing,” he told Paloma, and he disappeared for a moment, again dragging his slippers.

When he came back he was carrying a set of keys and a cushion under his arm.

“So you can all sit up front,” he said. “It’s bad luck to ride in the back of the General,” and he handed the cushion to Felipe, who was still spellbound by Ortega Junior. He seemed shorter and skinnier now, as if the mere presence of his father had shrunk him.

Together, father and son accompanied us to the door, and, once outside, Ortega Senior handed me the keys and looked at me doubtfully, his eyebrows hanging low over his puffy, bulbous eyes. I thanked him and sat at the wheel. Paloma took the other window seat and Felipe squeezed in between us. It was that simple: we would pay him on

our return and call if there were any problems. I wound the window down to get one last look at him and he took the opportunity to repeat, giving the hearse a couple of little dusty pats, that I should drive carefully.

“Careful with the clutch, it’s a tricky one. The General is getting on a bit now, although he hasn’t failed me yet.” (Failed, I thought, pondering that failure.)

The General was cramped inside, or at least the front compartment was, the part reserved for the living. Felipe could barely squeeze his long legs into the space between the two front seats, meaning they thumped against the gearbox no matter what position he sat in. Hanging from the rearview mirror, a toy Dalmatian and a photo of a young Ortega Junior swung to the rhythm of the vehicle, first watching then turning their backs on us. Only Paloma seemed comfortable, her legs scooped up onto those rough, threadbare seats and her eyes glued to the rearview mirror, where five, maybe ten cars had lined up in a tailback, of which we were at the front. They followed us in an orderly fashion with their headlights on.

The moment we set foot back inside my apartment, something felt wrong again. I blamed Paloma, who was adamant that it was a bad idea to tell my mother about our trip (and I counted four round halos where the mugs had been, seven cigarette butts in an ashtray, and the eight and a half blocks to cover). Paloma thought it best for us not to disclose our plans: my mother would only worry.

“She doesn’t tend to, how can I put it, take things lightly,” she said, proposing that we only tell her what we’d done afterward, once we’d come back with her (and by “her” she meant her dead mother, and by “what we’d done” she meant repatriate her, if there was such a thing as a patria to return to).

I could barely keep up with the conversation. It was only a short trip and she was sure that my mother, too, would want Ingrid to be buried in Santiago. She’d be proud of us for getting her back: it was the kind of thing she would have done (the  kind of thing that was worthwhile). It’s a good idea, I told myself, but I couldn’t shake the image of my mother cleaning the magnolia leaves, wiping each blade of grass, removing the dust now settled on the acanthus and paving stones. I pictured her shaking the trees and sweeping the floor, only to sweep it again, and once more. I pictured her dialing my number on repeat, wondering, exasperated, why I wasn’t picking up, what was taking me so long, why I’d forgotten about her. I saw her, stubborn as she was, dialing again, her breath misting up the mouthpiece, asking why I hadn’t picked up earlier, what I was up to, where I was going, why Mendoza, for how long?

“For exactly how long, Iquela? Don’t lie to me,” she would say. “What could be so urgent now when all you ever do is waste time?”

So much wasted time.

I left Santiago without leaving, or without believing that  I was really getting out. The ash was coming down even heavier as we made our way out of town and toward the foothills. Behind us, the road disappeared in a cloud of dust. Crouched on the floor to my right, Felipe was humming a vaguely familiar tune, which I soon recognized.

“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round . . .”

He had put on his little-boy voice and was reliving the memory of being in the back seat of the car, banging my mother’s headrest euphorically (“shush now,” “seatbelt,” “calm down, Felipe”). It was always the same. First he would tell me to sit right back in my seat.

“Let’s try something, Ique, let’s play hangman,” he would whisper in his little-boy voice, so that only I could hear it. And I would shrug my little-girl shoulders, convinced that he was about to pull out a pencil and pad and that our game would entail guessing the right vowels or burning at the stake. But Felipe never wanted to play that hangman; he wanted to play the version he’d invented himself, back in Chinquihue, which is why he would pull out a pencil and a long piece of black thread from his rucksack. 

“Stretch out your fingers, Ique. But don’t move,” he’d say, splaying my short, stubby fingers.

With my hand resting steadily on his knees, palm facing upward, on each of my fingertips Felipe would painstakingly draw two black dots for eyes, a circle for a nose, and a straight line for the mouth: five mean-looking faces. Then we’d switch roles: now it would be my turn to draw figures on his fingers. I’d give them little ties and curls, and together we’d snicker, wave our hands as if saying goodbye, and tickle one another. And then came eeny, meeny, miny, moe. 

“. . . if he squeals, let him go, eeny, meeny, miny, moe!”

One of Felipe’s fingers (the selected one) would come to the front, and the other fingers would bow in solemn reverence while my hand (my five obedient soldiers) took hold of the thread, the long rope, and tied it firmly.

“Tighter, Ique, tie it tighter,” he would say (his voice revitalized, high-pitched; impossible, that voice).

And I would watch as the blood built up at the tip of his strangled finger, those drawn-on eyes bulging as the thread cut deep into the top joint, a head on the brink of bursting, and our stifled laughter, because we mustn’t make a peep, that’s what my mother would say, “Stop that racket, for heaven’s sake, there’s a special bulletin.” (The drums, the gross persistence of those drums.)

Back in the present, the cordillera was looming over us like an apparition. I said something to the others about how dark the sky was, the fields buried under a carpet of ash, the wind’s texture now visible somehow: a gray shroud over Santiago. I had to pinch myself to believe that I was really leaving. It’s a trip, it’s real, I thought, putting my foot down to the max and feeling another flutter in the pit of my stomach. Felipe was engrossed in a pile of newspapers and Paloma had taken charge of the map, as if she’d been planning to rent a funeral car and cross the cordillera ever since she was back in Germany.

“Take Route 5 northbound, then Route 57 heading for Río Blanco and Guardia Vieja.”

I followed her instructions until I noticed the incorrect names, the altered distances, the geography of a bygone city (she was directing us out of a city from another time).

We stopped for petrol a couple of kilometers before the border. The pump attendant was killing time, dozing beneath an awning with his legs stretched out and a newspaper for a hat. Felipe got out to buy something at a vending machine (one coin, two coins, he himself an automaton), and the guy leapt up and gave Felipe a peculiar kind of bow. Once again, the condolences were for him. Then the attendant came over and, giving the hearse a once-over, even peering into the rear window, he asked after the coffin (the corpse, the sarcophagus, the casket, the house). He didn’t seem particularly interested in the answer. He’d spent the whole day on his own and wanted to talk.

“It’s dull as hell, imagine. So you guys are heading up to the snow, are you? You’ve never been to the mountains? Seriously? Just go, you’ll see. It’s really something,” he said and then gazed upward, hypnotized by those ash-cloaked peaks.

The curves in the road were getting tighter and I regretted having given in to Felipe’s pleas. Now I was the one crouched on the cushion and he was behind the wheel. The photo of Ortega Junior was swinging from side to side, as was I, barely managing to keep my balance. The road was one interminable zigzag and my heart was in my mouth as Felipe took each curve without braking.

“Don’t you girls slip into a trance now,” he said as we climbed that never-ending corkscrew. 

We couldn’t laugh. With her right hand, Paloma was clutching the door handle. Her left one was resting on my shoulder, either to stop herself from toppling sideways, or to stop me from rolling around on the floor. After a dozen or so curves, she couldn’t take any more.

“Let’s stop for some air,” she said. “I feel sick.”

From the roadside, perfectly still, the valley of Santiago stretched out before us, a sunken basin between the mountain peaks with the odd light dotted around. The road we’d just come from showed not a trace of either the hearse or us; the ash was falling so heavily that it was impossible to leave tracks. Paloma was struggling to breathe and had covered her nose with one hand, holding on to my arm affectionately with the other. Or perhaps it was merely to prevent herself from collapsing. If she’d only taken a few deep breaths she might have been able to calm down. Neither Felipe nor I had any trouble breathing that thin air. He wandered off in the direction of a cave that had somehow managed to cling onto some snow, even after the heat of the preceding days. He moved swiftly through the ash, just as he used to dash along the beach when we were children, ripping his clothes off despite my mother’s cries of “No, Felipe! Put your clothes back on right this minute. The flag’s red, it’s not safe!” Felipe would strip off and run bone naked into the waves, hurling himself at the sea the only way he knew how: like a wild animal. His wasn’t a dive for swimming, but more like an attempt to drive his scrawny body into the spray,  or rather the waves: to pierce them. I pictured Felipe running—sprinting at lightning speed— across the black, pebbly sand of Chinquihue, picking his feet up off the ground as he reached the water’s edge, taking off. With his legs still in the air, his body gradually disappeared into the water, until the inevitable happened; until, from where I stood waiting (from the dry shore, from the obedient shade of the shore), I could no longer see anything but his hands, his fingers breaking the waves that in turn broke him, tossing him into a whirlpool, swallowing him up for fifteen seconds (fifteen seconds exactly, which I counted, terrified), until he emerged again shaking and spitting. He was soon back again, tumbling into the water, slicing through it until, eventually, he came out, numb, breathless and blue, his eyes sore and his teeth chattering, telling me how wonderful, how refreshing the water was.

Felipe approached the cave where the eternal snow held on, completely impervious to the ash, and from there he shouted back that there was still some left.

“Come and see! I’ve never touched snow before,” he said with his back to us.

Then he turned to face us and held out his arms, smiling. His hands were cupping a horrible gray mush, slushy droplets of which were dripping through his fingers.

I pleaded with Felipe for us to get back on the road. It was getting dark and the ash was driving me mad, sticking to my skin. I wanted to make a move before I got stuck there, buried in the stuff. Felipe glared at me, challenging me to put up with fifteen minutes of ash on my shoulders. After some time trying to persuade him I managed to get us all back into the hearse: Felipe annoyed, Paloma indifferent, and I calmer, although my sense of relief was short-lived. The road was a black horizon. Most of the streetlights had burnt out and the route to Uspallata had become impassable. We had no choice. Felipe came off the main road and, heading deep into the valley, getting lost there in the middle of the mountains, he stopped the car and turned off the lights.

Night fell for the first time.

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