Lazare Lonsonier was reading in the bath when news of the outbreak of the First World War reached Chile. In those days, he would often leaf through French newspapers at a 12,000-kilometer distance as he soaked in water infused with lemon peel. Later, when he returned from the front with half a lung, having lost two brothers to the trenches of the Marne, the scent of citrus would be forever associated in his mind with the stench of shells.
According to family legend, his father had left France with thirty francs in one pocket and a vine stock in the other. Born in Lons-le-Saunier in the foothills of the Jura, he had been the owner of a six-hectare estate when the wine blight hit, withering his vines and driving him to ruin. In the space of a few months, all that remained of four generations of winegrowing were dead roots in the apple orchards and wild plants from which he made a dismal absinthe. He left this land of chalk and cereal, morels and walnuts to board an iron ship at Le Havre bound for California. Since the Panama Canal was yet to open, he had to go the whole way round South America, traveling for forty days on a Cape Horner, aboard which two hundred men were crammed into cargo holds filled with caged birds, and the noisy fanfare was such that he didn’t get a wink of sleep until the coast of Patagonia.
One night when he was wandering like a sleepwalker between berths, he saw an old, yellow-lipped woman with bracelets all the way up her arms and star tattoos on her forehead, sitting in the darkness on a rattan chair. She beckoned him towards her.
“Can’t you sleep?” she asked.
She took from her bodice a small green stone pitted with tiny twinkling holes, no bigger than an agate bead.
“It’s three francs,” she said.
He paid, and the old woman burned the stone on a tortoiseshell which she waved under his nose. The rush of smoke went straight to his head and he thought he would faint. That night, he slept for forty-seven hours, a deep, unshakeable sleep filled with dreams of sea creatures swimming through golden vines. When he awoke, he threw up the entire contents of his stomach and he felt so heavy he could not get out of bed. He never knew if it was the old Roma woman’s fumes or the fetid reek of the birdcages, but he sank into a delirious fever as they crossed the Strait of Magellan, hallucinating amid the cathedrals of ice, watching his skin become covered in gray patches as if turning to ash. The captain, who had learned to recognize the early signs of black magic, took one look at him and saw an epidemic looming.
“Typhoid fever,” he declared. “We’ll leave him at the next port.”
This was how he found himself in Valparaíso, Chile, in the middle of the War of the Pacific, in a country he could not have placed on a map and of whose language he was utterly ignorant. On his arrival, he joined the long queue snaking from the fish warehouse to the customs post. Having realized that the immigration officer was asking each passenger the same two questions before stamping their forms, he concluded that the first must concern where the passenger had come from and the second his or her destination.
When he reached the front of the queue, the officer asked, without looking up: “Nombre?”
Not understanding a word of Spanish, but convinced of having guessed the question correctly, he responded without hesitation, “Lons-le-Saunier.”
The officer’s face was expressionless. Slowly, wearily, he noted down: Lonsonier.
“Fecha de nacimiento?”
“California,” he replied.
The officer shrugged, wrote down a date and handed over the form. And so it was that this exile of the vineyards of the Jura was rechristened Lonsonier and was born a second time on May 21, the day of his arrival in Chile. Over the course of the next century, he never did continue his journey north, discouraged as much by the Atacama Desert as by the words of witch doctors, so that he sometimes said, as he gazed towards the Andes, “Chile has always reminded me of California.”
Lonsonier soon became used to the reversal of the seasons, to midday siestas and his new name which, despite everything, still sounded French. He learned to feel an earthquake coming and in no time was thanking God for everything, good or bad. Within a few months he spoke as if he had been born in the region, rolling his “r”s like stones in a river, though a trace of an accent gave him away. As he had been taught to understand the constellations of the zodiac and to measure astronomical distances, he could decipher this new writing of the southern skies, with its fugitive star algebra, and understood that he had settled in another world of pumas and araucarias, a primeval world peopled with stone giants, willows and condors.
He was taken on as head grower at the Concha y Toro wine estate and set up several wineries called bodegas on the farms of llama and goose breeders. The venerable French vine claimed a second lease of life on the skirts of the cordillera, on the long, narrow strip of land which hung from the South American continent like a sword from a belt, a land where the sun shone blue. He soon joined a circle of French expatriates, transplanted and chilianisés, who had made smart matches and made their fortune in the foreign wine trade. Lonsonier, the humble winegrower, the simple countryman who had taken the road into the unknown, had suddenly become a shrewd businessman running several estates. From then on nothing—neither war nor blight, revolt nor dictatorship—could threaten his newfound prosperity, and as he marked the end of his first year in Santiago, Lonsonier blessed the day a Roma woman on an iron ship had burned a green stone beneath his nose.
He married Delphine Moriset, a waifish, delicate woman with straight red hair, who came from an old family of umbrella merchants from Bordeaux. Delphine would tell how her family had decided to emigrate to San Francisco after a drought in France, hoping to open a shop in California. The Morisets had crossed the Atlantic, sailed the coasts of Brazil and Argentina and passed through the Strait of Magellan before the ship called at the port of Valparaíso. It just so happened to be raining that day. Her father, the decisive Monsieur Moriset, walked onto the quay and within an hour had sold all the umbrellas he had brought on the journey in great sealed trunks. They never reboarded the ship for San Francisco and set up permanent home in this drizzly land sandwiched between mountain and ocean, where it was said that in some regions the rain could fall for half a century.
Brought together by twists of fate, the couple went to live in Santiago in an Andalusian-style house on Calle Santo Domingo, near the river Mapocho, whose waters swelled with the melting snows. The front of the house was screened by three lemon trees. The high-ceilinged rooms boasted Empire-era wicker furniture from Punta Arenas. In December, they had French specialities delivered, and the house was filled with boxes of pumpkins and veal paupiettes, cages of live quail, and plucked pheasants already displayed on silver platters, their flesh so toughened by the journey that it was hard to cut into them. The women would conduct incredible culinary experiments which seemed closer to sorcery than gastronomy. They mixed the age-old traditions of French cooking with the produce of the cordillera, filling the corridors with mysterious smells and clouds of yellow steam. They served empanadas stuffed with boudin, coq au malbec, pasteles de jaiba with morels, and reblochons so smelly the Chilean servants thought they must be made from the milk of sick cows.
Their children, who hadn’t a drop of Latin American blood in their veins, were more French than the French. Lazare Lonsonier was the first of three boys born in bedrooms with red sheets which smelled of aguardiente and snake oil. Despite growing up surrounded by old women speaking Mapuche, their mother tongue was French. Their parents had not wanted to refuse them the heritage they had clung to along their journey, a legacy saved from exile. The French language was a kind of secret refuge, a code they shared, both a relic and badge of victory from a former life. On the afternoon of Lazare’s birth, after his baptism under the lemon trees at the front of the house, they all processed into the garden and, dressed in white ponchos, celebrated by planting out the vine stock that Lonsonier senior had kept alive with a handful of soil inside a hat.
“Now,” he said, packing down the earth around the stem, “we have properly put down roots.”
From then on, despite the fact young Lazare Lonsonier had never set foot in France, it became the focus of his wildest flights of fancy, as the chroniclers of the Indies must have imagined the New World. He spent his youth in a world of magical faraway stories, sheltered from wars and political upheaval, drawn to France by a siren-like call. To his mind, the French empire had so perfected the art of refinement that no account of it could ever do it justice. Distance, time and the lifting of roots had glorified the land his parents had bitterly left behind, so that he longed for a France he had never seen.
One day, a young neighbor with a German accent asked him which region his surname was from. The blond, well-dressed boy was descended from German settlers who had arrived in Chile twenty years earlier, his family having headed south to work the hard lands of Araucania. Lazare went home with the boy’s question burning on his lips.
That same evening, his father, mindful of the fact his family had taken its name from a misunderstanding at a customs post, whispered in his ear: “When you go to France, you’ll meet your uncle. He’ll tell you everything.”
“What’s his name?”
“Where does he live?”
“Here,” he replied, placing a finger over his heart.
The traditions of the old continent were so deeply engrained in the family that come August, no one was surprised when they adopted the fashion for baths. Monsieur Lonsonier came home one afternoon with opinions on domestic cleanliness and imported the latest model of enameled cast-iron bathtub standing on four bronze lion feet, which had neither taps nor plughole, but was shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly, with space enough for two people to lie side by side in the fetal position. Madame was impressed, the children giggled at its size and their father told them it was made of elephant tusks, proof that what lay before them was surely the most captivating discovery since the steam engine or the camera.
To fill the bath, he called for Fernandito Bracamonte, el aguatero, the neighborhood water carrier and father of Hector Bracamonte, who, some years later, was to play a decisive role in the family destiny. Fernandito was already as bent as a birch branch, with the enormous hands common to his trade. He would cross the city on a mule, carting barrels of hot water and carrying them upstairs to fill basins, his tiredness showing. He talked of being the eldest of many siblings on the Caribbean side of the continent, including the gold-digger Severo Bracamonte; a church restorer in San Pablo del Limón; a utopian from Libertalia and a maracucho journalist who answered to the name of Babel Bracamonte. Yet despite having many brothers, nobody seemed to care about him on the night the firemen found him drowned in the back of a tanker.
The tub was placed in the center of the room and, as each Lonsonier took turns to bathe in it, they added lemons from the porch to purify the water, and a bamboo bath rack on which to rest their newspaper.
Which is why, in August 1914, when news of the outbreak of the First World War reached Chile, Lazare Lonsonier was reading in the bath. A pile of newspapers had all arrived on the same day, two months late. L’Homme Enchaîné published Wilhelm II’s telegrams to the Tsar. L’Humanité broke the news that Jaurès had been murdered. Le Petit Parisien gave information on the general state of siege. But the headline of the most recent edition of Le Petit Journal announced, in big, menacing characters, that Germany had just declared war on France.
“Pucha,” he muttered.
The news brought home the distance between him and the land of his fathers. He was suddenly struck by a sense of belonging to this faraway country whose borders were being attacked. He leapt from his bath and despite the small, skinny, innocuous-looking body he saw in the mirror, a body ill-equipped for combat, he felt a surge of heroism rush through him. He pumped his muscles, and a simple pride warmed his heart. He felt he could hear his ancestors whispering to him and knew right away, with a tinge of fear, that he must respond to the call of destiny which, for a generation, had pitched his family towards the ocean.
He tied a towel around his waist and went down to the living room with the newspaper in his hand. With his family assembled in front of him, amid the thick scent of citrus, he raised his fist and declared: “I’m off to fight for France.”
Excerpted from Heritage by Miguel Bonnefoy, translated by Emily Boyce. Forthcoming from Other Press.