Right off, let me say that The Trail We Leave is really a splendid book. Jumping between a very empathetic style of observation and a sense of humor which really delights in the obvious absurdity of personal relationships, this is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long time, hands down. (The last really wonderful collection being Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, for what it’s worth. And Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians had its high points, too, for that matter, but I digress…)
The author, Ruben Palma, has an interesting back story to be sure. According to his bio in the back of the book, he grew up in Santiago, Chile, graduated from high school in 1971, and, after dabbling in “esoteric and eastern philosophies” “participated actively in what he believed was a libertarian, leftist movement” which he eventually left because of its “authoritarian nature.” Palma became an army deserter after the coup in 1973, and became a refugee with the United Nations’ protection. The next year, at the age of 19, Palma moved to Denmark. After 25 years in his adoptive country, Palma then actually started writing in Danish, the product being the aforementioned (and very highly acclaimed) story collection.
Most of the stories deal with the experience of (mostly Chilean)immigrants in Denmark in some measure–although some diverge slightly from this formula. We meet a Chilean man whose relationship with his Danish girlfriend is completely and absurdly upended when his language instructor sends an amorous postcard to his home. There’s another man who flees to Finland over New Year’s after some particularly complicated relationship issues, where he meets a man from Bangladesh who is trying, futilely, to win the affections of a Finnish foreign aid worker he met while she was working in his hometown. A little girl practicing her Danish lines in a school play while remembering her home town of Playa Verde.
The thread that runs through each of the stories is one of disjuncture and alienation, the turbulent negotiation of learning to integrate in a society so entirely different from one’s own, of wanting to become something (and someone) new, while still desperately hanging on to what one once was. And while the experiences of the characters are all exquisitely unique and completely specific to them, Palma not only captures the “borderland,” or the “strange places between a country forever lost and a new one,” (as the translator writes in his notes) but also the very sticky process of identity creation and revision that everyone goes through.
The complications of identity creation are best articulated in “The Return of Roy Jackson,” one of the best stories in the book. In it, Artemio Sandoval, a Columbian expat in Denmark, recalls a moment in his boyhood when he decided that he would be a writer one day:
The child Artemio had just written another story about Roy Jackson: his own fictitious cowboy who rode through wild landscapes while he shot at Indians and bandits. In ‘The Return of Roy Jackson,’ as the story was called, the hero, after many years’ absence, had returned to his home town and freed it from the iron grip of a tyrannical villain.
The child used to end all his stories with a drawing, and full of excitement, he concentrated on making the very first stroke: a light, horizontal line drew Roy Jackson’s jawbone, and from there he assumed his full shape gradually…
Suddenly, the child’s mother came in, and her usual flurry seemed to fill the whole room in a flash…She stopped and smiled; her youngest child was far off in his own world when he bent over a piece of paper with pencil in hand. She went over to him, hugged him, closed her eyes and stared into the future…’Some day you will be a famous author, my Temito’…’
And so, even through all of the dramatic events that eventually bring Artemio to Denmark, he still retains this idea of himself as an author. But things aren’t so simple. At first, he must transition to his new country. Then, he must decide what project deserves the majority of his attention. His writing goes nowhere. Time passes. Artemio takes on the persona of an author without ever really writing anything–“His clothes, movements, voice–his whole being took on a kind of literary appearance. Little by little people in his circle of acquaintances referred to him with a certain respect as “the author” or “the one who writes.” But he’s stopped writing all together.
There are a lot of developments and turns in the story which I won’t give away because you should really go out and read it yourself, but suffice to say that eventually, decades later, Artemio realizes that it was never writing that he really loved–it was drawing. And so his whole life, he’s been working towards becoming this person–and towards making people know him as this person–who he never really wanted to be. It’s devastating and liberating all at the same time.
The topic of immigration is a really fraught one in Denmark–a country which has been accustomed to having a coherent national identity, comprised of common traditions, and language, and culture. To become a citizen in Denmark, one has to renounce her former citizenship. It’s not a country that has much experience with the so-called ‘hypenated’ identities that the US does. There are no ‘Chilean-Danes’–a whole national debate has raged for years over what to call immigrants (I’ve believe they are still settled on “New Danes,” as the term, though who knows how long you have to live there before you can just be considered an ‘Old Dane.’)But again, although The Trail We Leave speaks to this very unique transitional experience, it will surely resonate with a much wider audience. I hope that we get more of his work in English in the future.