The Garden of Forking Languages: Goodbye Sepúlveda

A month ago, as I was watching television, the tragic death of Luis Sepúlveda from Covid-19 was announced. I was deeply saddened by the news: not only was he one of the most important figures in Chilean literature, but he also had a big impact on my personal development, with his work as a political and environmental activist and as a multilingual writer. For this reason, I want to dedicate my second to last column to his fantastic life and works, as a small personal goodbye. 

I was a child when I first came into contact with Sepúlveda’s work by reading his book The Story of A Seagull and The Cat Who Taught Her To Fly, which is also an animated movie. For those who are not familiar with this story, the plot is quite simple: there is a flock of migrating seagulls who, portrayed as free and magnificent, fly above the ocean and occasionally slice into the water to catch herrings to eat. Suddenly, one of them, Kengah, gets trapped in the slick oil that was released by an oil tank into the ocean, just as she’s trying to leave the water. This is followed by a description of her struggle to not be suffocated by the oil and to fly away as her wings are glued to her body. When she finally manages to clumsily fly ashore, she finds Zorba, a local cat. With one last effort, Kengah lays an egg. Before dying, she asks Zorba to promise that he won’t eat the egg and that he will look after her baby seagull. The remaining of the book is the moving and funny story of the cat taking care of the baby seagull and teaching her how to fly. I believe that what is fantastic about this children story is how much of an impact it can have on young kids who are not fully aware of environmental issues yet: this story truly left a mark on me when I was really young, and I believe that it did the same to many other kids, as it portrays the urgency and the criticality of environmental problems in a way that is easily approachable by the youngest generations.

However, Sepúlveda has not limited himself to writing children books: most of his work consists of delightful stories which subtly (or, sometimes, not so subtly) criticise important social issues, often concerning the environment. Most of them were inspired directly by his life, which was absolutely incredible. During the 1970s, he was a fervent opponent of Pinochet’s military dictatorship, which caused him to be incarcerated and tortured by the government. He was eventually released and put under house arrest thanks to the intervention of Amnesty International. He was a crucial point of reference for the left-wing writers of Latin America at the time, as he collaborated with others to create the very first cultural focus of resistance. He moved around a lot to escape the government persecution, and, as he was eventually exiled, he managed to become a journalist for a German newspaper, thanks to the fact that he had learned German in prison.

In the 1980s, Sepúlveda started working as a crew member on the Greenpeace ships with the aim of protecting the marine fauna in Latin America, which inspired his novel The World at the End of the World. This short fictional novel portrays somebody having exactly that experience, and fighting together with Greenpeace to protect the animals. He also made it his priority to protect his beloved land of Patagonia from environmental issues: his immense love for that region is portrayed in the book Patagonia Express. My favourite work of his is The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, in which the protagonist’s peaceful life in a small village in the French Guiana jungle is interrupted by the looming presence of a vicious jaguar. This story also offers a reflection on hunting wild animals, and the balance between humans and fauna. The work of this writer is strongly heterogeneous: among his many books, I also appreciated the ironic thriller Journal of a Sentimental Killer

When Sepúlveda died because of coronavirus, the journalist who was delivering the news wrongly presented him as ‘the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude’, which was written by Márquez instead, another incredibly important, Nobel-winning voice in Latin American literature. This misattribution on behalf of the journalist made me realise that Sepúlveda’s work is not as well-known as I thought it was, and I was the first to be entirely unaware of what had happened in his extraordinary life. My next quarantine resolution will be to revisit Sepúlveda’s work and to learn more about his wife, Carmen Yáñez: she was also a prolific poet and an inspirational political activist since a really young age, but I have only found out about this when I read an article describing the moving words she pronounced about the death of her husband. This month’s column is nothing more than my small tribute to Sepúlveda and his inspirational life and works: my own humble way of saying, goodbye Sepúlveda.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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