The Insufferable Gaucho, p.1Roberto Bolaño
The Insufferable Gaucho
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
The Insufferable Gaucho
Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey
Two Catholic Tales
Literature + Illness = Illness
The Myths of Cthulhu
For my children Lautaro and Alexandra
and for my friend Ignacio Echevarría
So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all.
Many years ago I had a friend named Jim, and he was the saddest North American I’ve ever come across. I’ve seen a lot of desperate men. But never one as sad as Jim. Once he went to Peru—supposedly for more than six months, but it wasn’t long before I saw him again. The Mexican street kids used to ask him, what’s poetry made of, Jim? Listening to them, Jim would stare at the clouds and then he’d start throwing up. Vocabulary, eloquence, the search for truth. Epiphany. Like when you have a vision of the Virgin. He was mugged several times in Central America, which is surprising, because he’d been a Marine and fought in Vietnam. No more fighting, Jim used to say. I’m a poet now, searching for the extraordinary, trying to express it in ordinary, everyday words. So you think there are ordinary, everyday words? I think there are, Jim used to say. His wife was a Chicana poet; every so often she’d threaten to leave him. He showed me a photo of her. She wasn’t especially pretty. Her face betrayed suffering, and under that suffering, simmering rage. I imagined her in an apartment in San Francisco or a house in Los Angeles, with the windows shut and the curtains open, sitting at a table, eating sliced bread and a bowl of green soup. Jim liked dark women, apparently, history’s secret women, he would say, without elaborating. As for me, I liked blondes. Once I saw him watching fire-eaters on a street in Mexico City. I saw him from behind, and I didn’t say hello, but it was obviously Jim. The badly cut hair, the dirty white shirt and the stoop, as if he were still weighed down by his pack. Somehow his neck, his red neck, summoned up the image of a lynching in the country—a landscape in black and white, without billboards or gas station lights—the country as it is or ought to be: one expanse of idle land blurring into the next, brick-walled rooms or bunkers from which we have escaped, standing there, awaiting our return. Jim had his hands in his pockets. The fire-eater was waving his torch and laughing fiercely. His blackened face was ageless: he could have been thirty-five or fifteen. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and there was a vertical scar from his navel to his breastbone. Every so often he’d fill his mouth with flammable liquid and spit out a long snake of fire. The people in the street would watch him for a while, admire his skill, and continue on their way, except for Jim, who remained there on the edge of the sidewalk, stock-still, as if he expected something more from the fire-eater, a tenth signal (having deciphered the usual nine), or as if he’d seen in that discolored face the features of an old friend or of someone he’d killed. I watched him for a good long while. I was eighteen or nineteen at the time and believed I was immortal. If I’d realized that I wasn’t, I would have turned around and walked away. After a while I got tired of looking at Jim’s back and the fire-eater’s grimaces. So I went over and called his name. Jim didn’t seem to hear me. When he turned around I noticed that his face was covered with sweat. He seemed to be feverish, and it took him a while to work out who I was; he greeted me with a nod and then turned back to the fire-eater. Standing beside him, I noticed he was crying. He probably had a fever as well. I also discovered something that surprised me less at the time than it does now, writing this: the fire-eater was performing exclusively for Jim, as if all the other passersby on that corner in Mexico City simply didn’t exist. Sometimes the flames came within a yard of where we were standing. What are you waiting for, I said, you want to get barbecued in the street? It was a stupid wisecrack, I said it without thinking, but then it hit me: that’s exactly what Jim’s waiting for. That year, I seem to remember, there was a song they kept playing in some of the funkier places with a refrain that went, Chingado, hechizado (Fucked up, spellbound). That was Jim: fucked up and spellbound. Mexico’s spell had bound him and now he was looking his demons right in the face. Let’s get out of here, I said. I also asked him if he was high, or feeling ill. He shook his head. The fire-eater was staring at us. Then, with his cheeks puffed out like Aeolus, the god of the winds, he began to approach us. In a fraction of a second I realized that it wasn’t a gust of wind we’d be getting. Let’s go, I said, and yanked Jim away from the fatal edge of that sidewalk. We took ourselves off down the street toward Reforma, and after a while we went our separate ways. Jim didn’t say a word in all that time. I never saw him again.
THE INSUFFERABLE GAUCHO
for Rodrigo Fresán
In the opinion of those who knew him well, Manuel Pereda had two outstanding virtues: he was a caring and affectionate father, and an irreproachable lawyer with a record of honesty, in a time and place that were hardly conducive to such rectitude. As a result of the first virtue, his son and daughter, Bebe and Cuca, whose childhood and adolescent years had been happy, later accused him of having sheltered them from the hard realities of life, focusing their attack particularly on his handling of practical matters. Of his work as a lawyer, there is little to be said. He prospered and made more friends than enemies, which was no mean feat, and when he had the choice between becoming a judge or a candidate for a political party, he chose the bench without hesitation, although it obviously meant giving up the opportunities for greater financial gain that would have been open to him in politics.
After three years, however, disappointed by his judicial career, he gave up public life and spent some time, perhaps even years, reading and traveling. Naturally there was also a Mrs. Pereda, née Hirschman, with whom the lawyer was, so they say, madly in love. There are photos from the time to prove it: in one of them, Pereda, in a black suit, is dancing a tango with a blonde, almost platinum blonde, woman, who is looking at the camera and smiling, while the lawyer’s eyes remain fixed on her, like the eyes of a sleepwalker or a sheep. Unfortunately, Mrs. Pereda died suddenly, when Cuca was five and Bebe was seven. The young widower never remarried, although there were various women in his social circle with whom he was known to maintain friendly (though never intimate) relations, and who had, moreover, all the qualities required to become the new Mrs. Pereda.
When the lawyer’s two or three close friends asked him why he remained single, his response was always that he didn’t want to impose the unbearable burden (as he put it) of a stepmother on his offspring. In Pereda’s opinion, most of Argentina’s recent problems could be traced back to the figure of the stepmother. As a nation, we never had a mother, he would say, or she was never there, or she left us on the doorstep of the orphanage. But we’ve had plenty of stepmothers, of all sorts, starting with the great Peronist stepmother. And he would conclude: In Latin America, when it comes to stepmothers, we’re the experts.
In spite of everything, his life was happy. It’s hard not to be happy, he used to say, in Buenos Aires, which is a perfect blend of Paris and Berlin, although if you look closely it’s more like a perfe
Eventually the children grew up. First Cuca got married and went to live in Rio de Janeiro; then Bebe started writing and indeed became a highly successful writer, which was a source of great pride for Pereda, who read each and every page his son published. Bebe went on living at home for a few more years (where else could he have had it so good?), after which, like his sister, he flew the coop.
At first the lawyer tried to resign himself to solitude. He had an affair with a widow, went on a long trip through France and Italy, met a girl called Rebeca, and finally contented himself with organizing his huge, chaotic library. When Bebe came back from the United States, where he had spent a year teaching at a university, Pereda had aged prematurely. Bebe was worried and tried to spend as much time as he could with his father, so sometimes they went to the movies or the theater, where the lawyer would usually fall into a deep sleep, and sometimes Bebe dragged him along (though he only had to drag him at first) to the literary gatherings held in a café called El Lapiz Negro, where authors basking in the glory of some municipal prize held forth at length about the nation’s destiny. Pereda, who never opened his mouth at those gatherings, began to take an interest in what his son’s colleagues had to say. When they talked about literature, he was completely bored. In his opinion, the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous. But when they talked about national and international politics, the lawyer’s body grew tense, as if under the effect of an electric current. From then on, his daily habits changed. He began to get up early and look through the old books in his library, searching for something, though he couldn’t have said what. He spent his mornings reading. He decided to give up wine and heavy meals, because he realized they were dulling his intellect. His personal hygiene also underwent a change. He no longer spruced himself up when he was going out. He soon stopped taking a daily shower. One day he went to read the paper in a park without putting on a tie. His old friends barely recognized this new Pereda as the lawyer they had known, who had been irreproachable in every respect. One day he woke up feeling more agitated than usual. He had lunch with a retired judge and a retired journalist, and laughed all the way through the meal. Afterward, while they were drinking cognac, the judge asked him what he found so funny. Buenos Aires is sinking, Pereda replied. The ex-journalist thought that the lawyer had gone crazy and recommended some time by the seaside: the beach, that invigorating air. The judge, less given to speculation, simply thought that Pereda had gone off on a tangent.
A few days later, however, the Argentine economy collapsed. Accounts in American dollars were frozen, and those who hadn’t moved their capital (or their savings) offshore suddenly discovered that they had nothing left, except perhaps a few bonds and bank bills—just looking at them was enough to give you goosebumps—vague promises inspired in equal parts by some forgotten tango and the words of the national anthem. I told you so, said the lawyer to anyone who would listen. Then, accompanied by his cook and maid, he stood in long lines, like many other inhabitants of Buenos Aires, and entered into long conversations with strangers (who struck him as utterly charming) in streets thronged with people swindled by the government or the banks, or some other culprit.
When the President resigned, Pereda was there among the protestors as they banged their pots and pans. It wasn’t the only demonstration. Sometimes it seemed that the elderly had taken control of the streets, old people of all social classes, and he liked that, although he didn’t know why; it seemed like a sign that something was changing, that something was moving in the darkness, although he was also happy to join in the wildcat strikes and blockades that soon degenerated into brawling. In the space of a few days, Argentina had three different Presidents. It didn’t occur to anyone to start a revolution, or mount a military coup. That was when Pereda decided to go back to the country.
Before leaving, he explained his plan to the maid and the cook. Buenos Aires is falling apart; I’m going to the ranch, he said. They talked for hours, sitting at the kitchen table. The cook had been to the ranch as often as Pereda, who in the past had always said that the country was no place for a man like him, a cultivated family man, who wanted to make sure that his children got a good education. His mental images of the ranch had blurred and faded, leaving only a house with a hole in the middle, an enormous, threatening tree, and a barn whose dim interior flickered with shadows that might have been rats. Nevertheless, that night, as he drank tea in the kitchen, he told his employees that he had hardly any money left for their wages (it was all frozen in the bank—in other words, as good as lost), and the only solution he could think of was to take them to the country, where at least they wouldn’t be short of food, or so he liked to think.
The maid and the cook listened to him compassionately. At one point the lawyer burst into tears. Trying to console him, they told him not to worry about the money; they were prepared to go on working even if he couldn’t pay them. The lawyer definitively rejected any such arrangement. I’m too old to become a pimp, he said with an apologetic smile. The next morning, he packed a suitcase and took a taxi to the station. The women waved goodbye from the sidewalk.
The long, monotonous train trip gave him ample time for reflection. At first, the carriage was full. He observed that there were basically two topics of conversation: the country’s state of bankruptcy and how the Argentine team was shaping up for the World Cup in Korea and Japan. The press of passengers reminded him of the trains departing from Moscow in the film Doctor Zhivago, which he had seen some time before, except that in the Russian carriages as filmed by that English director, the talk was not about ice hockey or skiing. What hope have we got, he thought, although he had to agree that on paper the Argentine selection looked unbeatable. When night fell, the conversations petered out, and the lawyer thought of his children, Cuca and Bebe, both of them abroad; he was also surprised to find himself remembering a number of women wit
Then the train began to advance across the pampas, and the lawyer leaned his head against the cold glass of the window and fell asleep.
When he woke, the carriage was half empty and there was a man who looked part Indian sitting beside him, reading a Batman comic. Where are we? asked Pereda. In Coronel Gutiérrez, said the man. Ah, that’s all right, thought the lawyer, I’m going to Capitán Jourdan. Then he got up, stretched his legs, and sat down again. Out on the dry plain he saw a rabbit that seemed to be racing the train. There were five other rabbits running behind it. The first rabbit, running just outside the window, had wide-open eyes, as if the race against the train required a superhuman effort (super-leporine, actually, thought the lawyer). The rabbits in pursuit, on the other hand, seemed to be running in tandem, like cyclists in the Tour de France. With a couple of big leaps, the rabbit bringing up the rear relieved the front-runner, who dropped back to last position, while the third rabbit moved up to second place, and the fourth moved up to third; and all the while the group was closing in on the solitary rabbit running beside the lawyer’s window. Rabbits, he thought, how wonderful! On the plains there was nothing else to be seen: a vast, boundless expanse of scanty grass under massive, low clouds, and no indication that a town might be near. Are you going to Capitán Jourdan? Pereda asked the Batman reader, who seemed to be examining every panel with extreme care, scrutinizing every detail, as if he were visiting a portable museum. No, he replied, I’m getting off at El Apeadero. Pereda tried to remember a station of that name but couldn’t. And what’s that, a station or a factory? The guy with the Indian look stared back at him fixedly: A station, he replied. He seems annoyed, thought Pereda. It wasn’t the sort of question he would normally have asked, given his habitual discretion. The pampas had made him inquire in that frank, manly, and down-to-earth way, he thought.
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