Selections from Impure Thoughts


A few months ago, I saw a report about a termite infestation on the news. Maybe this isn’t something that used to happen, or maybe we just talk about it more now, because not long before that report, and not long after, I heard several other stories about infestations. I had always thought they were just some kind of tropical insect. Organized, ravenous, good builders, unstoppable, and . . . tropical, but it looked like they had found their way onto the Iberian Peninsula and were making their way north. Sound the alarms.

The ones we’re concerned with here were culturites, threatening to devour the historic Juan Ramón Jiménez house-museum or foundation in his hometown. It was the house he’d been born in, and it must have been cursed because it was starting to have all kinds of problems. There was a library in the basement and the first floor was wasting away from the humidity and upstairs, the termites were chomping away at the frames, doors, beams, and furniture. The director of the museum stared into the camera and demanded respect and subsidies for the renowned Nobel Prize recipient. There was still time.

The strictly literary analysis would be to see these ants as emissaries of the poet himself—coming from the great beyond (not the tropics) to destroy what was left of his manuscripts. Juan Ramón edited his poems draft after draft, antolojía after antolojía, and he was never satisfied with the final versions. So, it stands to reason that he was still dissatisfied, and if he could no longer edit his manuscripts, he was going to have to annihilate them. In fact, during his life, he destroyed every copy of his first two books (Ninfeas and Almas de violeta) that he could get his hands on.

The termites besieged what had once been his rooms: the desk, the bed, the photographs, the clothing in the wardrobes. They were doing more than just destroying his texts, they were destroying him. Editing your own work means editing yourself. If he never liked the final version of his poems, it’s not so far-fetched to think he didn’t like the final version of his life; there are some things even a Nobel laureate can’t contrive. So, he had to be eliminated, but not with a lightning bolt or a shovel, and not even a fire. He had to consume himself, and that way, at least, his remains could still be good for something: fertilizer.

That would be the literary reading. The real one, the believable one, would be more random.

According to encyclopedias and biologists, termites aren’t from the great beyond, or even necessarily from the glades of Central Africa or the Amazon rainforest. But it’s still true that they like humidity and wood pulp, which they digest with the help of some protozoans in their digestive tract, and apparently they’re not ants. Also, a queen termite can lay between 36,000 and 86,000 eggs a day for fifty years, and they play an important part in the ecosystem. I’m sure Jiménez loved animals, but he wasn’t the one who ordered them to invade. The dead don’t do much ordering around.

The one thing the termites hadn’t gnawed into yet was a suit hanging in the open door to a chestnut wardrobe. It was a dark grey suit, and it caught the reporter’s attention, so he had the cameraperson put it in frame for a few seconds. “This is the suit he wore on his walks along the cobbled streets,” the guides would say, or, “This is the suit he wore when the King of Sweden handed him the world’s most coveted literary prize,” or maybe even, “This was his wife Zenobia’s favorite suit.” How could Juan Ramón have ever imagined it? His suit.

I have not and never will win a Nobel Prize, but I am a writer, and like him, I’m from a small town. I can’t bear to think what clothes they would choose to put in my house-museum. A friend of mine once told me that it was easy to figure out a writer’s style just by looking at their underwear, all the way from the kinds of stories they liked to tell, up to their syntax and characterizations. It also worked the other way around. If you analyzed Baudelaire’s style, you could figure out how often he changed underpants, which parts wore away first, and whether or not he washed himself well when he dropped his pants (for whatever reason it may have been). Amazing. This friend has already worked his magic on the author of The Flowers of Evil, Poe, Rosalía, Goethe, Dante, and Rómulo Gallegos. I might need to start being more conscientious about my clothes. Hey Mom, will you pass me the broom? “This is the room where the four brothers slept.”


However it turns out, I’m begging, please, termites, help me! Their value to the ecosystem is clear to me now, and they’d play an even bigger role if the poor queen could keep up. Why don’t they form a republic? How can a monarch like that not abdicate her throne ipso facto?

It really is true that we’re nothing, oh, the horror!


Pancho gave me a call and we agreed to meet up for a drink. He wanted to talk to me about something, and preferred to do it calmly, in person. I’m really busy grading exams at this time of year, but I figured it was better to say yes so as not to disappoint him. The last time he’d called me, he’d told me he had whales in his head—an entire pod of them—and that every once in a while one of them would mysteriously swim to a beach to die, and he would go out of his mind. I wasn’t sure whether the story was supposed to be a metaphor for his state of mind, some kind of mammal (or subaquatic animal) empathy, or if he really saw it like that, literally.

He was waiting for me when I got to the bar. By the time I got there (right on time) he had already finished his glass of wine and proceeded to order two more for us. He was holding some papers, either pamphlets or magazines, that he’d rolled into a cone and was neurotically twisting in his hands. I asked about Olga and their home library. “Great, great,” he said, avoiding the topic, before he hastily unfurled the magazines onto the faux marble table. They were about cars.

“You have a diesel, right?” he blurted out.

I nodded and leaned away from the table to give the waiter room to set down the glasses and pour the wine.


“We’re going to buy a new car. Olga wants to stick with gasoline, she says that diesel engines make her head throb, but they’re not like they used to be anymore, right? They’re quieter.”

“I mean . . . they’re still not gas engines, so they definitely make more noise.”

“You’re right, you’re right. I just want to figure out which is best for us. There’s no competition at the pump, though, right?”

If there’s one topic of conversation I truly hate, it’s cars, or the practical side of any technology: computers, TVs, speaker systems, home appliances. Theoretically, or sociologically speaking, I can get a few words in, but there’s no enthusiasm behind them. The practical side of technology depresses me, partly because I don’t try to learn anything, or because I’m just clumsy with it. Pancho had me trapped like the termites with their queen.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You need to think about what you want. Diesel cars get better mileage, but they’re more expensive, so it depends on how much you’ll be driving.”

“Yeah, yeah,” (lay an egg, oh queen, lay an egg!). “There’s a formula to calculate that kind of thing.” He flipped a magazine called CAR. “Here we go.” He turned it around so that I could see the formula. “If the price of fuel evolves steadily over the next six or seven years, we’ll have made up the difference, more or less, depending on the car we buy. Does yours have turbo?”


“And you can tell the difference, right?” There was a big stink about it, but now all cars have turbo, from 90 horsepower and up. What do you think?”

“I can’t tell the difference. I know our car has it, but I couldn’t tell you if it really changes anything, Pancho, you’d have to talk to someone who knows more.”

“I have, but I also want to hear the user experience, you know? Car salesmen lie through their teeth and whenever you walk out of their dealership you leave thinking they have the best cars in the world. It’s happened to me. And don’t even get me started on the prices. There’s about a half a million between what they advertise and what it should actually be, I mean, come on. How many airbags does yours have?”


“Nowadays they come with four, in the front. At least, the bigger ones like yours. Power steering, ABS, air conditioning, alloy tires, and a bunch of other bullshit, like thermometers, buttons to adjust the mirrors, RDS radio systems, a computer in the console, a three-year guarantee . . . Did yours come with three years?”

“I think it came with five. Or was that for the body? Honestly, Pancho, I don’t know,” I said.

“Five? Hot damn! As for the body . . . they say if you live by the sea it’s best to have metallic paint because it’s tougher, but it also costs you four hundred more euros. Otherwise, they say the best colors are white and I can’t remember what else. Olga and I are having trouble deciding between these two 110 horsepower models. One has more add-ons, and the other has more power at less RPMs, and obviously that means the motor will last longer. And, you know, a car’s motor . . . Is your spare tire the same as your regular ones?”


“Your spare tire. Nowadays, these assholes give you this tiny little toy instead of a regular tire, and you just about kill yourself trying to get to an auto shop.”

“I have no idea,” I confessed.

“Sure, sure, you’d have no reason to check. They’ll get you any way they can. But they don’t always trick you the same way, it depends on the company. Christ, these companies and dealerships! If you let them get in your way, you’ll never end up with a car.” He picked up another magazine.

It didn’t seem like there was a break coming any time soon, so I ordered another glass of wine and settled into my chair.


My friend Xes, the hyperrealist painter, just got out of the mental hospital. He was there for two months for we know not what, but he must have needed it and he seems to be doing well, like a new paintbrush. But he might be doing too well, that’s what worries us. He’s even started to paint regularly again.

Describing the painting to come, the irrepresentability of the idea, the technical obstacles, the furor or excitement of the project, these have always been his favorite things about the process.

“Remember how gorgeous it was outside yesterday morning, and what came after?”

“Yes,” I said.

“When the rain started to fall, I went around the house closing the windows. It was coming from the southwest and flying into the back room, drops were hitting me on the hands and face. I ran to my studio for a sketchpad and a pencil.”

“You’ve never been one for improvisation, Xes.”

“You’re right, I haven’t. It was all marinated over time, that’s how it felt. Like I had it all well thought out and time wasn’t a factor, something more concentrated, intense, Xurxo, but also disparate. Like the things I’ve heard you say about time.”

“What do you mean?”

“How the passage of time and the value of our measurements of it have a complex relationship. What happened with me yesterday must have been an example of that.”

I didn’t want to clarify his citation of me in order to keep out of trouble, it was too soon to know how fragile or sensitive Xes’ emotional state was. The doctors had told me I didn’t have to systematically agree with everything he said, but should try not to be aggressive or start conflicts.

“What did you paint?”

“Draw. But that’s not important. The rain started to fall harder and the wind was sucking the curtains out, soaked and hanging outside the window. The drops pattered on the aluminum roof and puddles started to form on the parquet, moving towards the rug. After weeks without rain, after a clear morning . . .”

“Did you let it rain in your apartment, Xes?”

This kind of thing wasn’t a product of his last breakdown. It was more like rain falling on a pond, so I let it be. Selling a minor work would earn him more than enough to replace the entire parquet floor.

“Listening to the rain in a city is a million times better than in the countryside. Rain isn’t just water here, it’s an event.”

“That’s your opinion.” Faced with the doubts of the weak, you tend to take refuge in the security of the obvious. “I find the rain very sad.”

“Sad? Well, so do I. What’s wrong with it being sad, Xurxo?”

“Should I answer that as the spokesperson for Western philosophy or as myself?”

“Answer how you feel.”

“Xes, all that about listening to the rain and the pattering on the glass is for bad poets, for people who rain on the inside. But since you had the windows open . . .”

“Here’s what I drew,” he interrupted.

There was no rain, there were no open windows, curtains, or rugs, unless they were superimposed on each other. There was no confusion or disorder, either.

“I made it in real time, in the time the downpour lasted.”

“But that’s not hyperrealism.”

“Realism, Xurxo, is like time.” He gave me a knowing look, as if we shared an understanding, a definitive, mutual explanation. His mental disarray ran parallel to his lucidity when it came to painting.

“You can tell me if you don’t like it,” he said. “It never rains to everyone’s liking.”

No, I thought. And there’s never been a rain that didn’t stop.

The drawing was great and Xes gave it to me. Who knows, maybe one day it’ll be in my house-museum.


Pancho has made a list of all the lists he still needs to write. He says otherwise, but it’s obvious that his intention would be to publish them as a kind of unorthodox collection. Maybe not his intention . . . more like his satisfaction.

“Do you think there are such stupid publishers out there?” he says. “I’d rather give you the intellectual property rights and go on living my life.”

There’s another one. I’m going to end up as an archive, a legal deposit, or a confessional, and I don’t know which is worse. There’s no small number of authors who, during their life or after their premature death, had a big helping hand in publishing and advocating for their work. What does it mean that such an extreme isn’t uncommon?

One of Pancho’s lists is about the events that changed the world, but not broad things like the invention of agriculture. His focus is on singular, hypothetical moments: a storm during the voyage of a Phoenician ship, two people crossing paths as they walk through Argolis, a tumble down a tower, a lost arrow, an uncontrollable fire . . . Another list would be a map, with all the different paths that can take you between heaven and hell without being spotted, another about people who forgot each other’s faces, and about the things we see without noticing them, invisible things, and things that only people with green eyes (which isn’t his case) can see in the dark.

He’ll also have to make a list of all the beginnings of masterworks by winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Pancho insists that I’d be interested in that one because there has to be a pattern, not so much in the words themselves as in the impulse. He left that list to-do because having to get translations from Norwegian and Japanese would make it less effective. There’d be another list with the names of mountains over 7,000 meters high, in their native tongues. He’d seen a pattern in mountaineering documentaries where, once you surpassed that height, the going got tough and you saw who truly had it in them to climb high and look on at the world from above. As far as the native tongues part, I think he’s off-base because he’s assuming those names are any less arbitrary than others, but he is right that it would work aesthetically.

He’d like to make one with the number of crashed or cracked oil tankers and all the tons of oil or gasoline that had been spilt even though the authorities had said they were under control, and to see if we could get a fuller picture by dividing that by the number of bodies of water on Earth. He’d also make a list about all the definitions of love in literature before Virgil, planets with an atmosphere (breathable or not), useless inventions, and useful ones which were, in spite of that, not utilized. There would be long lists about objectively awful artists and all the years the end of the world has been predicted for. That one would have to go along with another about all the times the end of the world had actually happened. Pancho was confident in his observational abilities and told me the list would be much longer than most people would think.

Then there’d be the inventory of monarchs, popes, presidents, generals, and dignitaries stripped of their title and their life in simultaneous, sudden, and deliberate fashion. He had a special fondness for the ones about the best places to die and the cafés and bars he could recognize by smell. He also liked the satirical list that would be made up of declarations of self-love.

This list of lists still to-do isn’t finished yet, but, he reminds me, “It’s not because I’m missing the list everyone thinks of when they think of lists.” Maybe not everyone . . . but we both know he’s referring to the famous list by a blind Latin American writer who’s not on Pancho’s list of the beginnings of masterworks by Nobel laureates. I occasionally make a suggestion, like a list of all the books with no genre, but he turns sarcastic and shoots me down, saying that books are for other people and that if he did make one about them, it would be about all the books that were never published, or better yet, never written. It had also occurred to him to make one about unpronounceable words and words that provoke death.

“Words that provoke death?” I said in horror.

“There are loads, Xurxo, but don’t ask me to tell you any of them.”

“I’m not superstitious.”

He said nothing for a moment and then gave me this terse reply:

“I could make a long one about all the non-superstitious people who have kicked the bucket trying to prove it.”

I used to ask him what he was going to do with his lists when they were finished, but he always replied that “a good list is never finished, whether it’s about nonexistent objects or imaginary ones.” “But the ones you’ve already done,” I would ask, “you’ve finished those, right?”

“When you make a list, you get excited about all the unexpected, surprising connections, you start coming up with things you hadn’t even considered before—that’s the creative phase. There always comes a point when you realize a lot of those connections are arbitrary, but it’s worse if you get rid of them, because then you basically just have a shopping list. That’s the exact moment to give up on the list and start a new one, to renew your creative impulse.”

Having read that, I’m sure you’ll understand, without my needing to explain, why I have such a deep admiration for Pancho.


In a previous book, I dedicated four or five sections to libraries, one of them Alexandria and the scarcely fortunate flames that devoured it. When a library burns down, you can’t place the blame on the greed and scrupulousness of logging companies, or a political adversary—the agents are otherwise. The Alexandria fire has a well-deserved reputation as being especially tragic, and those tasked with passing knowledge down through the centuries tell us that the wisdom of Antiquity melted in the fire, but there have been others, too. If only it were just Alexandria . . .

In his History of Books, Svend Dahl says that in 213 BC, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi ordered all existing books to be burnt as a punishment for the writers who’d dared to criticize his politics, which, paradoxically, led to an intense period of literary activity not long after.

Before that, in 612 BC, Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes, ancient relatives of the Persians. Augustus’ Palatine and Octavian libraries went up in flames too, along with Tiberius’, and Caesar’s in Palestine. The bell tolled for Constantine’s library in the year 475 AC, and the same happened to its successor when the Turks took Constantinople in 1453. In fact, the Turks had also sacked the Cairo library a few centuries before. It’s worth pointing out that the ones I’m mentioning are only the fires that there are written records of, there were probably more, and Aristotle’s Poetics and Sappho’s poems must have also tasted those extreme temperatures. These were times when books weren’t books, but pieces of papyrus, clay, wood, or marble tablets, turtle shells, bones, the insides of bamboo stalks, tree bark, silk, palm leaves, linen paper, leather . . .

Nearer to us in time, there was the burning of the Islamic library in Cordoba, and farther back, those of Baghdad and Samarkand at the hands of the Mongols. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings cleared the shelves of the monasteries in England and Ireland, most notably in Canterbury. The priest and the barber in Don Quixote were absolutely unoriginal when they built their pyre.

The Turks got back to it in 1526 in Italy, when they sacked the Bibliotheca Corviniana. One century later, the Fronde rebellions put an end to the Bibliothèque Mazarine in France. The El Escorial Library was put to the torch in 1671. The Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg was fortunate enough to only be burglarized by the Catholics in 1623, when it was one of the most prominent collections in Europe. Around that time, the Swedes were off seizing the libraries in Riga and Prussia. They were world leaders for centuries when it came to their systematic pillaging.

After the Thirty Years’ War came to a close, it was Moravia and Bohemia’s turn. From the Bohemian royal library in Hradčany disappeared the longest parchment manuscript in history, The Devil’s Bible, and that honor again goes to the Swedes, who had also popped up in Poland, Denmark, and Prague, where their loot included the Codex Argenteus, the Gothic Bible overseen by Bishop Ulfilas. It’s one of the ironies of fate that Stockholm’s Royal Library became fuel for the flames at the end of the seventeenth century. When it rains, it pours, and soon after that, the Swedes were sacked by the Danes. And, naturally enough, at the dawn of the next century the flames flicked their way to the library at the University of Copenhagen, a black day in the history of Danish books, though there were several others, such as the day a fire destroyed the Sorø Academy.

Napoleon’s troops counted among their ranks numerous functionaries with lists of manuscripts and incunabula from the best collections in Europe: the Royal Library in Brussels, El Escorial, the Vatican, the Viennese court, the Wolfenbüttel, and many others whose regional catalogues his industrious henchmen helped to decimate for the sake of improving the collection at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

This is already plenty—the list would probably turn boring if I went on any longer, and I think I’ve given a good sense of things, but it would be a crime to skip the twentieth century. I talked to Pancho about it and we agreed that there are no boring lists, just listless readers. The simple mention of the Nazis should have your hair on edge. In the Great War, the only important library utterly destroyed was at the University of Leuven. It was with the arrival of Hitler and his expansionism that the sacking and fires began in the Balkans, Poland, Sudetenland, Bulgaria, and again in Leuven. In France alone: Caen, Strasbourg, Douai, Cambrai, Tours, Brest, Chartres, Dunkirk, Lorient, Saint-Malo, and Metz. And in England: Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth, London College, and the National Central Library. The Allied Forces weren’t exactly dropping books either, and turned the libraries of Berlin, Munich, Bonn, Breslau, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Dresden, Darmstadt, Kalsruhe, and Stuttgart into ashes. In Italy: Monte Cassino, Bologna, Pisa, Parma, Turin, Milan, Naples, Mesina . . . I still haven’t even gotten to Austria, Hungary . . .

But it has to end somewhere, Pancho. Then there was the one in Sarajevo . . . no, it has to end somewhere! It’s Saint John’s Eve tonight and it’s getting dark out. We’ve been luckier here by having fewer libraries. If we had them only to watch them burn, it’d almost be better not to have had them in the first place. That’s probably why our governments neglect and abandon them, thanks to good sense and the lessons of history. Nowadays, now that books are going back to not being books, the fires could be virtual, invisible, microwave . . . We don’t even need Mongols, Turks, Vikings, Romans, monks, or Nazis anymore, but these new formats won’t solve anything so long as the fire is burning inside us. I can already feel the heat!


Xurxo Borrazás

Xurxo Borrazás was born in Galicia in 1963. He graduated in English Philology at the University of Santiago de Compostela. He is the author of novels, stories, essays, and various volumes of miscellanea in the Galician language, some of which have been translated into Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Polish, and English. He’s been published in Best European Fiction 2014, Asymptote, and Cagibi, and his novel, Vicious, came out from Small Stations Press in 2015. He has received the Spanish Critics Award for Fiction and the Galician Critics Award for Nonfiction, among others. He writes regularly in the Galician press about culture, ideology, and politics, has published articles in The Charles River Journal, and has translated Henry Miller and William Faulkner into Galician.

Jacob Rogers

Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician and Spanish prose and poetry. He was selected as one of the winners of the Words Without Borders + Poems in Translation Contest, and his translations have appeared in Asymptote, Best European Fiction 2019, Copper Nickel, ANMLY, PRISM international, Cagibi, Lunch Ticket, Your Impossible Voice, Nashville Review, InTranslation, and the Portico of Galician Literature, with work forthcoming in Columbia Journal. His translation of Carlos Casares’ novel His Excellency came out from Small Stations Press in 2017.

Pensamentos impuros. Copyright (c) Xurxo Borrazás, 2002. English translation copyright (c) Jacob Rogers, 2020.