For more on El Testigo, see Mauro Javier Cardenas’s essay on El Testigo, also in Issue 16.
The following piece is an excerpt from the novel El Testigo, (The Witness) published in Spanish by Anagrama and currently unpublished in English. It is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. Andrews previously published chapter 1 of El Testigo in the journal Common Knowledge volume 13, issues 2 and 3 (2007).
There was a more direct route to Los Cominos, but Julio went via Jerez, because he wanted to soak up the atmosphere of López Velarde’s poetry.
He arrived by bus, a few hours before he had arranged to meet Eleno, the One-Man Band, as Julio’s uncle described him, who would be coming to fetch the guest in his pick-up.
He visited López Velarde’s house, now a museum, with “its old well and its old patio”; drank a cup of coffee in a place with stanzas from “The Sweet Homeland” printed on the tablecloths; saw a bust of the poet—a young, simple face, difficult to sculpt—and a Mexican Airways office called “López Velarde Travel Agency”; smelled an acidic odor of penned animals, blended with the scents of honey, pork scratchings and pastries; paused in front of a stationery store called The Encyclopedic Dog. Only in Lisbon had he felt, as he did in Jerez, that every corner of the city was inhabited by its most eminent poet.
At an intersection, a woman came up and stared him in the face, fixedly, as if she were searching for a mole by which to recognize him. She must have been about eighty years old. Maybe her eyesight was very poor or she had mixed him up with someone else. Maybe she was just crazy.
To escape from that stare Julio slipped into a clothing store for the well-groomed cowboy. Snakeskin boots, exorbitantly priced belts of embroidered leather, silver buckles, hats with brims of all shapes and sizes, rococo neckerchiefs, intricately worked spurs, a curious blend of toughness and outrageous vanity.
When he came out again, the street was empty. The sound of a jukebox carried sadly from a distance.
He walked along the avenue, among strollers stopping to buy balloons, fruit drinks and lottery tickets. A rustic, relatively prosperous Mexico, with no visible indigenous population.
He went into the Hinojosa Theater. A wall in the lobby was being painted. A man in overalls was copying the design of a frieze from a card. There was a smell of fresh paint and linseed oil. Somewhere a bird was singing. He walked along a corridor to a courtyard, where he found the canary’s cage. He saw the plumage “with its initial lettuce green” as López Velarde would have said.
A door opened into another corridor, which led to one of the theater’s side entrances. The seats were not fixed to the floor; it was like a Wild West movie set.
He lingered in that space reminiscent of vanished elegance, of a time when the intellectuals of the province had striven to invent an affordable Paris, then went into a box, sat down and contemplated the stage.
“There are all sorts of things you could call me, but my name is Librado,” said a voice from above. “It’s obvious you’re not a local. You’re in a hurry. When your feet get used to the land around here, you hardly need to lift them. We’re shufflers, not marchers. We like to take wee little steps.”
Julio craned his neck to see who was speaking, but couldn’t.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t follow you, my friend. I like sitting in this box, but when I saw you come in and stumble among the chairs, it was as if you were running away from me. As you can tell, I’m above you. Librado Fernández, in case you’re asking. I suppose you’ve come to pay homage to Ramón. That folder of yours is almost the size of a briefcase.”
Julio craned his neck again, but all he could see was the gilt edge of the box above him.
The voice fell silent. When it spoke again, it sounded listless, as if the speaker had moved in order to remain concealed and in so doing had exhausted himself.
“I traveled too, years ago, to Laredo. They accepted my passport, no problem; it was tough in those days. Now the kids can get across without papers. It’s the cents they send back from the other side that keep Jerez afloat. Even the hairdresser accepts payment in US currency. Even pomegranate punch and tranquilizers are priced in dollars. You know what I mean by tranquilizers? That’s what we call corks in my village. I’m not from here, but I might as well be. When I first came to this town, the women used to go away to work as servants. A place full of weak men, living alone. The women would send money home. Now it’s the men who go away. Would you like me to recite you a poem? If you like it, you can leave ten pesos for the canary, he’ll appreciate it.”
Julio was going to make a request, but the voice continued without waiting for an answer, in the emphatic, grating tone of the professional reciter:
Where could she be now, the girl
who told me as we danced one night
in that wretched place, how she longed
to travel and how bored she was . . .
After the final stanza, Julio waited a few moments. Then, “Señor Librado?” he asked, with a small-town formality.
There was no reply. He left the box, made his way through the chairs, climbed onto the stage and looked around the theater. The reciter had gone.
He went to the canary’s cage. There was a cardboard envelope hanging on one side, in which he deposited a ten-peso bill. He ran through the poem, one of the few he knew by heart, in spite of the ease with which López Velarde’s rhythms lodged themselves in the memory. In his mind, without the reciter’s overdramatizing voice, the verses recalled his cousin Nieves:
Girl who told me, as we danced
one night in that wretched place
the secrets of your boredom:
wherever now your gentle breath
stirs the air, our lives are like
pendulums, twin pendulums
far apart, yet swinging in time,
lost in the same wintry mist.
He went back to the park and sat on a wrought-iron bench with floral motifs. A pick-up with Texas plates pulled up in front of him. The back was full of electrical appliances. Julio stood up, on the alert. The driver pulled aside a blanket to reveal a rosy mosaic of pornographic videos.
Julio felt he was being watched. He turned around: the old woman who had stared at him before was back, searching for a resemblance, a mole or a name. Julio stared back at her. She crossed herself with baroque flourishes.
He returned to the bench with its metal flowers, and dozed until a voice roused him from his torpor:
A tall man with a white Texan hat was blocking the sun. A little way off, Julio saw shadowy figures gathered around a newsstand, “the jovial ambit of women.”
Eleno held out a bony hand; he was wearing an opal ring.
Uncle Donosiano’s One-Man-Band had grown old athletically. Although his shoulders were hunched, his denim shirt covered firm muscles. It was hard to keep up with him. “We like to take wee little steps,” the reciter had said in the theatre. Eleno couldn’t have been a real local.
They climbed into a pick-up loaded with provisions, and went to fetch Julio’s luggage at the coach terminal. His big suitcase was squeezed into the back of the truck between two sacks of flour.
They drove down narrow, poorly surfaced roads, then turned onto an endless and definitively unsealed track. The semi-arid landscape, covered with cacti as high as the pick-up, was occasionally traversed by the flight of a zenzontle or by stone walls, which rather than marking the limits of ranches or fields, seemed to be capricious delineations separating one identical stretch of desert from the next. A sky of purest blue cried out to be streaked by a vapor trail, but all they saw was the red spot of a light plane, which left no trace.
Two hours later they came to some small wooden sheds intended to provide shelter for a few goats. It was impossible to imagine anyone spending the night there. They continued on their way.
Julio hadn’t been back to the hacienda for so long, and now he was returning by the roughest route; although perhaps the other tracks were equally neglected.
In his youth, he had known Eleno, but had not paid him much attention. He couldn’t remember if the overseer had been taciturn back then. Now he spoke only in order to get something done, having no time for the kind of conversation in which people evoke situations that cannot be modified. Julio began to drowse but was periodically jolted awake by bumpy patches on the track
For decades, submarines had provided the dominant metaphor for his life: narrow university corridors, rooms perched one on top of another in the old quarters of European cities, a life without wardrobes, winter clothing stored in a suitcase underneath his daughter’s bunk beds. A shortage of space. Tight passages, subway tunnels, hatches. He lived in a ship, below decks, with too many people around him to feel like his screen hero: Delon in Le Samourai. Now he was outside, exposed (“in free air” as Paola said, thinking in Italian), crossing one uninhabited valley and bound for another.
A crosswind blew dust up a slope toward a herd of mules on the move, with no driver in sight.
It was hot. They wound the windows down. The noise of the wind filled and eased the awkward silence between them.
Julio thought of his uncle Donosiano, who referred to his 48-year-old nephew as “young Mr Sanforized.” He was looking forward to seeing him again. He remembered his uncle’s eternal coffee-colored leather jacket, which made him look like a World War Two pilot, the walking boots which Nieves’s father had bought for him in Austria, his khaki trousers, his extra-long flashlight, his absent manner, as if he could only be a witness, and was incapable of intervention. As children, Julio, Nieves and the others liked to see how many lizards they could put on his desk before he reacted: they got up to three. He came from a long line of complainers, but seemed indifferent to the most egregious irritations. One night, half the ceiling of his room collapsed; he turned over and went on snoring.
Donosiano had lived most of his life with Aunt Florinda. Both had long since accepted their unmarried status. Each was already so individually eccentric that an incestuous relationship between them would have been unimaginable.
In the juddering pick-up full of swirling dust—it was too hot to close the windows—Julio remembered how much his grandparents, parents, uncles, cousins and second cousins enjoyed dunking cookies into their cups of milky coffee. Perhaps some genetic defect obliged them to organize their existences around a sweetened beverage. As long as they could go on nibbling soggy cookies, the world would make sense for them. That was the pivot, the linchpin. They had lost their ranches and their city houses but they had always been able to suck on a cookie. They complained, of course, but they could lick their fingers, sticky all the way down to the palm. Only Uncle Donosiano hated cookies. That was the source of his strength. Actually, Aunt Florinda hated them too, but that was neither here nor there.
Using the documents the Viking had given him, Julio pieced together the history of Los Cominos (“The Cumin Seeds”). In the 18th century it had been a smelter for the local mines. In the third courtyard, there were stone channels in which mercury had once retained the precious residues, and cupels which had turned out purified gold by the bagful. There the ore was refined and transformed into metal. The founder of the estate was an embittered Asturian. His father had told him that he would come to nothing: he would never be worth a cumin seed. When he acquired an estate he baptized it defiantly: Los Cominos. The plural intensified his revenge: a multiplicity of nothings.
Donosiano had prepared the meeting carefully. Luciano, Nieves’s son, lived with him (“He tends the plants with Benedictine care,” Julio had been informed by phone). Alicia, Luciano’s elder sister, would be coming from Los Angeles.
Donosiano had also announced that the visitors would include Father Monteverde, a confessor to whom he recounted “imaginary sins” (“I can’t get up to much mischief any more, my boy”) and who knew everything, absolutely everything, about López Velarde. But it was hard to nail the priest down. He had various irons in the fire: he attended conferences, worked as an advisor for an NGO, and was active in a Eucharistic network for peace.
Among the many possible identities of López Velarde, Donosiano no doubt favored the man who returned to his native Jerez during the Revolution and found a “subverted Eden,” the fervent youth who joined the National Catholic Party, supported the democrat Madero, and was horrified by Emiliano Zapata’s hordes.
For Julio, López Velarde was Nieves and a line that still made him ache: “the delicate pleasure there is in fleeing you.”
They arrived at dusk. Julio had been dozing, and when he opened his eyes, for a moment he thought he was seeing a counterfeit dawn. Haloes of fine dust fringed the silhouettes of low houses with adobe walls. There were washbasins, bottles, cans and plastic buckets on the rooftops.
“Rain’s been feeble,” said Eleno, referring perhaps to the small quantities of dirty water that had collected in the containers.
With a crooked finger the One-Man Band pointed to a steeple among the pepper trees. They continued down a sandy road. Scrawny figures appeared from the alleyways, women with intent expressions, looking at the sky as if birds were flying there.
They slowed down in a dry river bed, then continued up a slope onto a dusty bank. Julio saw a herd of donkeys, a drunk sleeping with his head against a bicycle wheel, a basketball court. There were no nets in the rings. The backboards bore the emblem of the PRI.
They came to the town square. The church stood in front of them, the barracks of the old lancers’ corps to their right, and the hacienda to their left. Los Cominos had walls like the ramparts of a fortress. The main gate was the only opening onto the street.
As a boy, Julio had spent his vacations shut up in there. In the wilds outside, the village, everyone was drunk.
Eleno sounded the horn.
A woman opened the gate, accompanied by excited dogs. They parked in the first courtyard, the one with the orange trees. It was seven.
“They’re here already,” said Eleno. He wasn’t referring to the other guests; he pointed to the trees where bats were fluttering. “This way,” he said, taking Julio’s suitcase.
In the passage, under spotted wooden beams, Julio breathed the unmistakable scent of Los Cominos: bat guano.
Donosiano had given him the visitor’s barn, at the far end of the property. They crossed the second courtyard. Weeds had sprouted in the gaps between the paving stones, as if the soil were more fertile there. Under the arches of the old stable were a broken-down tractor, abstract iron forms, a humming generator.
He followed Eleno along a path lined with acacias.
“We keep having blackouts,” said the One-Man Band. “When the power comes back, it makes a god-awful noise and the radiostat switches itself on, down there at the back of the shed.”
“What’s the radiostat?”
“A weird contraption, I’ll show you. A kind of talking spider.”
In the dim distance, irregular masses loomed: walls and broken windows, perhaps.
The barn door had swollen. Eleno had to give it three shoves with his shoulder. At a height of four meters, a bare light globe hung from the roof. The shelves by the door were stacked with tattered red magazines: issues of Time obsessively collected over several decades.
Beside the canopied bed with its mosquito net lay the skin of a ringtail cat.
The centerpiece was on the desk: a stuffed dog. Slightly built and sparsely furred, it belonged to some ugly and probably expensive breed. A pigmy greyhound or a super-chihuahua. A delicate and anomalous cross. Julio tried to put it in the wardrobe, but couldn’t. The dog was nailed to the desk.
The hacienda was a museum of taxidermy. In other rooms there were antelopes, pumas, wild boar, ocelots, coyotes, bighorn sheep, wolves, white-tailed deer, and hares. As well as thinking that hunting and home decoration were better pursued independently, Julio felt somewhat slighted. He would have to sleep under the black-eyed gaze of a dwarf greyhound.
On the other side of the wall, a truck went past with a loudspeaker, announcing a dance the following Saturday in Los Faraones, the region’s administrative center, featuring Los Merengues: “Beto on drums, Memo on congas, Lucio on bass . . .” Then there was an advertisement for a pharmacy, a hardware shop, a chili sauce outlet, then rap syncopated by the truck’s jolting.
How much did Father Monteverde really know about López Velarde? Was he coming to the hacienda to see if Julio deserved to be told about his uncle’s discoveries? But why would Donosiano involve a representative of the church in such a private decision?
While the hacienda was producing mezcal, up until the ’30s, there had been a priest in residence. Until he was a grown man, Julio’s father, Salvador Valdivieso, never saw a film without the clergy’s express approval. A slightly milder version of that providential rule was applied inflexibly to Julio: he could only see films already viewed by his father. Luckily, in Mexico, during his adolescence, the Dominicans had a soft spot for Godard.
The truck came back to repeat its blare. The upcoming dance had a slogan: “Take a neighbor by the hand.” Publicity spots for local businesses followed, and then, for no conceivable reason, a song by Supertramp.
In that god-forsaken place, on the edge of nowhere, surely he should have been safe. But no; they were pursuing him relentlessly, giving no quarter. The continuing existence of Supertramp was an enigma. How had they survived hard drugs, cut-throat competition and the crisis in the record industry? How could a product so derivative and devoid of personality have resisted successive waves of fashion? Shortly before returning to Mexico, Julio had noticed that they were about to tour: the posters blemished Paris like mustard stains. He didn’t know if they had a new album or were simply reiterating the same old nasal malaise.
The truck on the other side of the wall seemed to be in the hands of a crazed chicano. Nothing could be more natural than a dislike of Supertramp. But there was story behind Julio’s distress.
He liked to think that every decent life, every normal, interesting, real life, drew sustenance from an uncommitted or deferred or finally insignificant misdemeanor. Julio Valdivieso and his guilty secret. He couldn’t see himself as an impostor, but his career had begun with a falsification. He had committed plagiarism, which in the spectrum of sins, belonged somewhere near white lies and necessary bribes. It wasn’t so different from what he had done every Sunday at the age of eighteen: depositing a few pesos in the palm of a sergeant in the Parque de los Venados. That was his military service. It was better that way, for him and for the army.
Something similar happened with his undergraduate thesis. He was in a hurry to leave the country; he had been accepted as a postgraduate in Florence and needed the degree. He and Nieves had begun taking Italian lessons at the Dante Alighieri Institute.
Julio spent months filling up a Blasito shoebox with index cards on the Contemporaneos group: proof that he wasn’t afraid of hard work. He had done the reading and the thinking, but didn’t have the time or the concentration to turn that mass of ideas into a thesis.
He did his community service in the library of the Metropolitan Autonomous University, on the Iztapalapa campus. The university buildings, on the eastern edge of the city, were like an abandoned space station on a planet without oxygen. The library was a cube subdivided into cells, where students could sleep slumped on desks while waiting for the books to appear on the shelves.
Erratic donations and urgent purchases needed to be classified for the embryonic catalog. In those days, before personal computers, the cataloging was done by hand in registers whose size underlined their “technical” function. They were too big to be shifted from the desks on which they lay.
Julio filled in labels with robotic regularity, until one afternoon, while eating charritos and classifying with red fingers, his apathy dissolved at the sight of a title: Celibate Machines: Mexican Poetry and the Contemporaneos Generation. An undergraduate thesis written in Uruguay.
Without even licking his fingers, he slipped the volume into his woven satchel, staining the cover with chili powder. He hated that bag, but had to take it to the library because it was a gift from Doctora Ferriz y Sánchez, who oversaw the building from a glass cubicle.
No one would know the thesis had arrived unless he classified it. While it was in his possession, its disappearance could not be detected. Although the theft was a thoughtless reflex, having read the thesis, Julio conceived the perfect crime.
It had been difficult for the Uruguayan student to get access to the primary sources. In a slightly querulous prologue, he related his trials and lamented the unavailability of certain classic works of 20th-century Hispanic literature. Montevideo was a metaphor for isolation, a beach on a boundless river, a raft adrift. Yet in spite of his incomplete, almost defiantly limited reading, the author had tackled the “group without a group” impressively. Sometimes his adjectives ran wild, as if the academic prose were cloaking a frustrated novelist who occasionally manifested himself in outbursts of irritation or impatience. The members of the group were baptized with Homeric epithets, like characters in an outrageous epic poem. One was “the poet of the burning liver,” another was dubbed “the poet without eyebrows,” yet another “the poet who wrote with a single eye.”
In that poetic landscape, Ramón López Velarde was a major river, and the Uruguayan had devoted a substantial chapter to his work. There Julio found what he wanted to say, with tics and purple passages that were not his style, but also with a conceptual clarity of which he knew he was incapable.
When he had finished reading the thesis, he looked at himself in the mirror. A pimple had cropped up at the edge of his beard (which, to his disappointment, was only vaguely Guevara-like). It struck him as the symbol of his troubles; he squeezed till it bled. Aunt Florinda had made a huge fuss about him and Nieves, the bells of San Luis Potosí rang as if to echo the scandal, everyone was sharpening scissors and knives, his father had called him into his office at the legal practice and firmly instructed him to put an end to the “unfortunate business” like a “man of honor” (he didn’t suggest any particular method and would not have balked at murder had there been some arcane justification for it in jurisprudence). Julio needed to graduate to take up the scholarship in Florence; he couldn’t give up Nieves and her caresses, her tongue licking his eyelashes, the filthy, delicious words she whispered in his ear, their trip already archived in his memory like the films they loved, photographed through the blue filter of melancholy. Unfortunately, reality was intent on resembling the sort of production he had no desire to see, a low-budget horror film closing in on him with claws outstretched. He had to get out of that theater as soon as he could. Celibate Machines had dropped into his lap like a passport.
Julio stowed the thesis in a box where his badminton racket had long lain undisturbed.
During the protracted bus trips to the Iztapalapa campus, his mind was completely occupied by daydreams of the future. On the bend around the Cerro de la Estrella he saw stalls selling bathroom fittings—a long line of toilet bowls and handbasins, among which the local stray dogs took shelter from dust devils. In a place where bathroom fittings were displayed along an avenue, as if the sight would suddenly inspire motorists to purchase one, the rules of logic were clearly in abeyance. How could misdemeanors be defined in such shifty terrain? The university was surrounded by a women’s prison, a vast garbage dump and a forlorn convent. Iztapalapa marked the far edge of the city, a satellite suburb with its own laws, all provisional.
The Aztecs used to light the new fire on the Cerro de la Estrella when they observed that the year had ended without bringing the world to an end. A hard, long-suffering place, which had fostered rituals of survival. A pioneer in that wasteland, among women prisoners, garbage and Vicentine nuns, Julio could rewrite the rulebook as he pleased. His frontier spirit was fixed and crystallized by a desolate image.
He was fingering the envelope that contained the letter of conditional acceptance from the University of Florence (delighting at the touch of the magnificently rough paper), when he came face to face with a dog on the esplanade in front of the university’s small administration building. Its fur was the color of beer. Its purplish tongue licked at the scabs and sores that mottled its body. Abysses of despair, its eyes cried out for an end to suffering.
Black smoke from the fires in the garbage dump dimmed the sky. Julio promised himself that he would not forget that moment. Whatever happened, wherever he ended up, he would have been a student there, in that far-flung suburb. Nothing could cure him of that wretchedness. Even if he escaped, he would carry the pain and the filth with him.
The memory would prove to be very useful. He would feel he had suffered enough to deserve some compensation.
He kept touching the Italian envelope on his way to the cafeteria. He hadn’t been there much since the biology students had drawn up a list of the pathogenic microbes you could ingest along with a serve of macaroni. Claudio Gaetano, his history professor, was sitting at a table.
In spite of having been imprisoned and tortured in Uruguay, Gaetano was a robust, optimistic man. He had a tennis racket, and was in the habit of absent-mindedly touching the strings, as serious players often do to help them concentrate.
Julio hadn’t been planning to bring up the subject, but emboldened by his teacher’s openness with students and the stiffness of the Italian envelope against his chest, he mentioned the young Uruguayan who had written a book (he didn’t use the word “thesis”) on the Contemporaneos group. The professor’s hand froze on the racket, like a fossilized starfish. Yes, he knew him; he’d taught him in Montevideo. An amazing kid. Everyone adored him, especially the girls. Killed by the army, four years back. Gaetano spoke soberly and evenly, as he always did when referring to the horrors he knew so well, without displays of emotion or vows of vengeance. His reticence and discretion made what he said all the more poignant. In this case, the stillness of his hand on the racket was the only sign that the news had affected him.
So the thesis had not been sent to Mexico by a colleague keen to make contact with his peers. The dead student’s mother or his girlfriend or someone had rendered him that service in loving memory, so that his voice might find a final echo, a posthumous exile in the country to which he had traveled only in imagination, via its literature.
Julio looked at Gaetano’s face, the scattering of gray hairs at his temples, his healthy, tennis-player’s skin, his wry smile, the elegance with which he demonstrated that atrocity can be overcome. He taught history with humor and precision, convinced that certain humble truths would stand. In the satellite suburb of Iztlapalapa, course plans were as haphazard as the dirt tracks that led to the campus. Gaetano’s Contemporary History subject cut across Julio’s degree in Hispanic Literature, and provided him with an unforgettable wealth of circumstantial detail. He would never know quite how to use what he had learnt about sugar taxes or the coffee pots that changed the world, but that classroom remained in his memory like the illustration of an ethical lesson. The moribund dog in front of the administration building was not the only thing he would take away with him. He had also attended classes in which small things, secondary, marginal objects of study, were discussed with the conviction that they too were part of an order, the other side of the carpet. Gaetano practiced an utterly unemphatic form of resistance.
At the table in the cafeteria, the professor spoke calmly, just as he did when explaining the fall of an empire by gathering an assortment of apparently unrelated details.
Someone had died so that Julio could live. He was so struck by the neatness of the correspondences that plagiarizing the thesis seemed a logical outcome, a distasteful but preordained sleight of hand. The presence of Gaetano the Magnificent (as he couldn’t help secretly calling the Uruguayan, as if he were an emperor, a magician or a center forward) made what Julio was about to do even more contemptible; and, in a way, more inexorable.
For four years he had seen washbasins in those absurd roadside stalls on the way to Iztlapalapa: reason was out of bounds. He could seize Aztec prerogatives and kindle his own new fire. Gaetano had revealed that the thesis, his thesis, had been written in genuinely atrocious conditions. Julio’s appropriation of it was crueler than he had thought. But easier too: the precise historical fact of the author’s death (trust Gaetano to provide it) meant that his pilfering would go undetected. And it was only a temporary expedient after all.
He was about to get up and leave when another student sat down at the table. Whether to make polite conversation or moved by his infinite curiosity, Gaetano asked about the name printed on the newcomer’s tee shirt: Supertramp.
Until that moment, the only thing Julio knew about this fellow student was that he subscribed to a fundamentalist vegetarian creed which forbade him to eat honey. In response to Gaetano’s question, he pulled a cassette player out of his denim bag and released the voices of the castrati. The professor proved his valor under torture once again as the fan sang convulsive harmonies. For Julio, Supertramp became a symbol of moral turpitude, the soundtrack of his intellectual larceny.
When stricken with insomnia, he would imagine the vegetarian’s last days: he was about to take part in a collective suicide somewhere in the Caribbean, preparing to enter a higher energy dimension.
The cafeteria table was laden with death: the death of the Uruguayan, the death Gaetano had eluded, the death he wished upon his fellow student who was looking at him as if he were a cannibal.
He courted his own death as well. He felt so terrible that he served himself some leek and potato soup, giving destiny a chance of wiping him out with typhoid. He already knew what he was going to do in the unlikely event of his survival: remove the cover and the first pages of the thesis. He would make it his, like the predator that he was. The vegetarian had the tact not to mention the suffering of animals as Julio ate his ham sandwich, but his tee shirt was implacable.
Julio said goodbye to Gaetano as to a hero betrayed. The wheel of destiny was in motion.
Two weeks later, something unexpected happened. Julio forgot the name of the student who had written Celibate Machines (which he had renamed, more predictably, as An Archipelago of Solitudes). He could no longer trace the plagiarism to its source. His faulty memory pardoned and protected him.
Having witnessed shameful acts on a far greater scale, Professor Gaetano would surely have forgiven him. And yet, when the voices of Supertramp sprang from some hostile quarter, Julio was forced to acknowledge what he was. A man who ate animals and was nourished by the blood of others.
His thesis received an honorable mention. To his surprise, the examiners had expected nothing less. The falsification revealed a terrible gap between his capacities and the hopes he had raised. Only by fraud had he managed to stay on track.
After the defense of his thesis, there was a celebration in a vaguely Spanish tavern. Doctora Ferriz y Sánchez looked at him through her half-moon glasses with initiatory affection and presented him with a first edition of Gorostiza’s Death Without End, which made him feel even more like a necrophiliac.
At one in the morning, Julio was leaning on El Flaco Cerejido’s shoulder. “I’m not like that,” he said, staring at a ham hanging from the ceiling. A Goya print. The Predator’s Cave, it could have been called.
El Flaco thought it wasn’t so terrible to become an academic. Sure, there was more to life than the high drama of footnotes, and it was widely known that Hispanic Literature was a hopeless discipline for getting laid, but Julio didn’t have to worry, he’d never be a genuine egghead, he didn’t have it in him. El Flaco gave him a hug of affectionate commiseration, while Julio sobbed as if he were being forgiven for having eaten a brother’s flesh.
That night he dreamed of the Uruguayan. He woke up in the small hours of the morning and was completely left wing for a couple of hours. He would give himself up to the Russell Tribunal, accept an onerous regimen, eat all the necessary roots and tubers. Then he fell into an imageless sleep.
The following day he awoke in a strange world where Nieves admired his scholarship, and he still couldn’t remember the name of the Uruguayan. He made a pact with himself. When he remembered, he would confess everything. By then he would have written books that would counterbalance his youthful peccadillo.
After a few days, urgent arrangements displaced his scruples. He saw Nieves in secret, less often than before, joyfully anticipating all the time they would have together in Europe. He suggested an express wedding celebrated by a magistrate in Cuernavaca. She thought they shouldn’t make any more waves; they’d have plenty of time to get married in Italy, inform the family by mail, let them come to terms with it, and then think about returning. Nieves laid out these phases with a curious confidence, as if she had already been through them. Sure of their future happiness, she insisted on adding an adventurous touch to the departure. She arranged to meet Julio in the Plaza de Mixcoac, which was mentioned in “A Draft of Shadows.” If one or the other didn’t turn up, it would mean a change of heart. They loved each other so much, they could afford to entertain that possibility; it would be like a game or a scene from a movie, to begin their voyage in a square instead of at an airline counter.
Having started off on the wrong foot could have been a spur to virtue; Julio’s initial shame might have impelled him to strive for perfection. But he had no compensatory achievements of which to boast. His own books had not materialized. In Italy he had met the famous hispanist Benedetto Capelli, who had introduced him to his daughter Paola, and laid the groundwork by recounting the strange and marvelous deeds of his Mexican protegé. At the age of forty-eight he had not produced outstanding works of scholarship. But perhaps his talent lay elsewhere, in the creation of circumstances rather than works.
Sometimes Julio dreamed that he was playing poker with a Chinese man, whose placid expression was transformed whenever he won a hand, as if the object of the game were to reveal a hidden vice. The man would then pronounce the Uruguayan’s name, with the accent of a sheep farmer from the Río de la Plata. Julio saw the cards on the table and his opponent’s hand; he heard nicknames one after another, like so many trumps played against him: “the poet of the burning liver,” “the poet without eyebrows,” “the poet who writes with a single eye.” He would wake bathed in a cold sweat. He would run through the members of the Contemporaneos group, but was admirably consistent in his failure to retrieve the name of the Uruguayan.
Chris Andrews is the translator of numerous works by Roberto Bolaño, as well as works by César Aira and numerous others. Juan Villoro received the Herralde Prize for El Testigo, which brought him widespread recognition among Mexican novelists. He is the author of numerous other novels and short story collections.
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