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Woes of the true policem.., p.10
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.10

           Roberto Bolaño
 
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  When she wanted to give Amalfitano’s walls the same treatment, he refused. He liked white walls and it distressed him to see his daughter dressed in a T-shirt and old pants all day doing work that he should ostensibly be doing himself.

  They had never lived in a house with an open kitchen, and the first few nights, dazzled by the novelty, they cooked together, talking and moving constantly from the kitchen to the living room, wiping the counter, watching each other cook, and then eating, one of them perched on a stool while the other served, as if they were at a bar, taking turns being waiter and customer.

  2

  When life returned to normal, Rosa had time to fall in love with the streets of Santa Teresa, cool streets, streets that in a secret way spoke of a field of transparencies and Indian colors, and she never took a taxi again.

  Accustomed as she was to the colorful, perfectly demarcated streets of Barcelona or the perfectly fussy streets of the Casco Antiguo—the streets of a civilization, or in other words real streets—the streets of Santa Teresa seemed somehow newborn, streets with a secret logic and aesthetic, streets with their hair down, where she could walk and feel alive walking, on her own and not a part of.

  And also, she discovered in surprise, they were streets shooting outward, urban and at the same time open to the country, a country of great mysterious spaces that crept in during the first hours of dusk down streets shaded by stunted or powerful trees, in a system she couldn’t explain to herself, as if Santa Teresa were interleaved with even the humblest of the nearby hills, viewed from an impossible perspective. As if the streets were the barrels of multiple telescopes trained on the desert, on the planted fields, on the scrubland and pastures, or on the bare hills that on moonlit nights seemed to be made of bread crumbs.

  3

  Rosa Amalfitano and Jordi Carrera began to write to each other a week after the Amalfitanos arrived in Mexico. The first to write was Jordi. After a strange week in which he could hardly sleep a wink, he decided to do something that in all his seventeen years he had never done before. After much hesitation, he bought what seemed to him the most appropriate postcard, a panel from a comic strip by Tamburini and Liberatore (one of the two of them, he thought he remembered, but everything was so hazy, had died of an overdose), and after writing a couple of sentences that seemed stupid to him, I hope you’re well, we miss you (why the fucking plural?), he put it in the mail and tried in vain to forget her.

  Rosa’s typed response was three pages long. It said, more or less, that she was advancing by forced marches into adulthood and that the feeling this gave her was wonderful and exciting at first, though later, as always, one got used to it. She also talked about Santa Teresa and how pretty some of the colonial buildings were: a church, a porticoed market, and the house of the bullfighter Celestino Arraya, now a museum, that she had visited soon after arriving, as if magnetically drawn. Not only was this Celestino handsome, he was a local luminary killed in the flower of his youth (here Rosa went on to make various half-comprehensible and not quite successful jokes about the flower of desire and the flower of sin), and there was an impressive statue of him in the Santa Teresa cemetery that she planned to visit later on. She sounds like a sculptor or an architect, thought Jordi despondently after reading the letter for the tenth time.

  It took him twenty days to answer. This time he sent her an extra-large postcard of a Nazario comic. Faced with the impossibility of telling her what he really needed to say, he launched into a garbled but scrupulously truthful account of his latest basketball game. It’s like an absurdist poem, thought Rosa when she read the postcard. The game was described as a series of electrokinetic and electromagnetic instants, bodies moving in a rapid blur, the ball sometimes too big or too small, too bright or too dark, and the shouts of the crowd—which Jordi compared enthusiastically (for once) to the cries at a Roman circus—like a metronome behind his ribs. I hope I’m not overdoing it, he thought. As for himself, he insinuated that he had played badly, inattentively, listlessly, and by this he meant that he was feeling down and he missed her.

  This time Rosa’s response was only two pages long. She wrote about her English classes, the exploratory walks she took around the neighborhoods of Santa Teresa, the solitude she deemed a precious gift and that she spent reading and getting to know herself, Mexican food (here in passing she mentioned Catalan white beans with sausage in a way that Jordi found derogatory and unfair), some of which she had already tried to make for her father, chicken with red mole sauce, for example, which was relatively easy, she said, all you had to do was boil a chicken or a couple of chicken breasts and make the mole (an earthen red powder that was bought premixed, from a bin or in jars) in a frying pan with a little oil and then a little water, ideally the broth left over from boiling the chicken, and in a separate pot, of course, you boiled a little rice, which was served with the chicken and plenty of mole sauce. It was a hot, strong-flavored dish (maybe a little too intense for her father—not her—to eat at night), but she had loved it from the start and now she couldn’t do without it. It’s possible, she said, that I’ve become a chicken mole fanatic, which traditionally should really be turkey mole, or mole de guajolote, as they call it here.

  In a nutshell, she wrote at the end of the letter, she was happy and life couldn’t be better. In this sense, she confessed, I’m a little like Candide, and my teacher, Pangloss, is this fascinating part of Mexico. My father, too—though actually no, my father is nothing at all like Pangloss.

  Jordi read the letter in the subway. He had no idea who Candide and Pangloss were, but it seemed to him that his friend was at the gates of paradise while he was stuck permanently in purgatory.

  4

  At night, after they had watched a movie together on TV, he asked his father who Candide and Pangloss were.

  “Two characters from Voltaire,” said Antoni Carrera.

  “Yes, but who are they,” asked Jordi, to whom Voltaire sounded vaguely like some cabaret or rock band.

  “The characters in a philosophical novel,” said Antoni Carrera, “but you should know that by now. Is this for some school project?”

  “No. It’s personal,” said Jordi, feeling that his house was suffocating him. The furniture, the TV, the yard with the lights on, everything was suddenly oppressive.

  “Candide is the quintessential innocent, and Pangloss is, too, more or less.”

  “Pangloss is his teacher?”

  “Yes. He’s a philosopher. The classic optimist. Like Candide, except that Candide is an optimist by nature and Pangloss argues rationally for optimism. He’s a moron, basically.”

  “And is the novel set in Mexico?”

  “No, I don’t think so. Pangloss teaches theology, metaphysics, cosmology, and nigology, and don’t ask me what that is because I don’t know.”

  “Nigology. Huh,” said Jordi.

  That night he looked up nigology in the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy. He couldn’t find it. Those fucking professors, he thought angrily. The closest thing was nigola: (Naut.) Lengths of thin line strung between the shrouds of a sailing ship to make a ladder; ratline. To sail amid the rigging and the topsails! There was also nigromancia, or necromancy, the meaning of which Jordi knew thanks to role-playing games, and also nigérrimo, ma. (Del lat. Nigerrimus.) adj. sup. de negro. Negrísimo, very black.

  Nor was it in the Ideological Dictionary of the Spanish Language by Julio Casares or in the Pompeu I Fabra.

  Much later, while his parents were sleeping, he got out of bed naked, and with measured steps, as if he were on a phantom basketball court, he headed for his father’s library and searched until he found a Spanish translation of Candide.

  He read: “It is clear,” said Pangloss, “that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have
breeches. Stones were made to be shaped and to build castles with; thus My Lord has a fine castle, for the greatest Baron in the province should have the finest house; and since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round. Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.”

  For a while he knelt there on the rug in the library, rocking slightly back and forth with his five senses elsewhere. Have I fallen in love with you? he thought. Am I falling in love? And if I am, what can I do about it? I don’t know how to write letters. I’m doomed. Then, stricken, he whispered: fuck, Rosa, fuck, it’s so unfair, so unfair …

  5

  Around this time Jordi Carrera dreamed that he was playing for Barcelona at the Palau Sant Jordi alongside the stars of Catalan basketball. The opposing team was Real Madrid, but it wasn’t the usual Real Madrid. The only player he recognized was Sabonis, but this Sabonis was much older and slower and his hands shook when he caught the ball. The rest of the Madrid players were strangers, and not only were they strangers, even their bodies were indistinct. Their legs were legs, but at the same time there was something about them that was uncharacteristic of a pair of limbs, as if they were constantly coming in and out of focus. The same was true of their arms and faces, which never seemed to settle into a fixed expression or firm outline, though this strange phenomenon didn’t seem to bother the other Barcelona players. The Palau was full to bursting and the shouting of the spectators was so loud that for a moment Jordi thought he would pass out. Without much surprise he realized that he was playing point guard, not center. The Madrid players soon began to commit fouls and almost all of them were against him. He didn’t know the score. So focused was he on the game that he never lifted his head to glance at the electronic scoreboard. In fact, he had no idea where the scoreboard was, but he suspected that his team was winning, and this made him incredibly happy. When he noticed that he was bleeding from the nose, the brow, and the upper lip, the scene underwent a radical shift.

  Now he wasn’t on the Palau court but in a dark locker room with raw cement walls and long, damp benches and a constant noise of water, as if a river were running above the changing room. He wasn’t alone. A shadowy figure was watching him from a corner. Jordi felt his bloody face and cursed the shadow in Catalan. He said son of a bitch in Catalan, then he said bastard, though the word was the same in Spanish. The shadowy figure quivered like a broken fan. Jordi told himself that he should take a shower, but the ominous presence in the corner made it an ordeal to undress. Feeling cramps in both legs, he sat down and covered his face with his hands. Incomprehensibly, he saw his father, his mother, and Amalfitano drinking whiskey in the yard one fall afternoon, happy, with no problems on the horizon. The afternoon, the sky, and the rooftops of the neighboring buildings were heartrendingly beautiful. Where is Rosa? he asked longingly, careful not to disturb the equilibrium of the scene, which he sensed was precarious. But his parents didn’t seem to hear him. He soon realized that they were in another dimension. Then the dream lifted, drifting away in a balloon or on a cloud, and below, in the streets of Barcelona, Catalan nationalists fought house to house against the Spanish army. Jordi knew the name of the army without being told: it was the King’s Army, the National Army, and it fought with commendable tenacity against him and his compatriots. But this time it wasn’t just the Castilian soldiers whose faces and limbs were blurred. The Catalan militiamen also grew hazy amid the rubble and even the cries of the wounded or the leaders ordering their men to advance or retreat took on the same quality, blurring in the air, fleeing the Catalan and Spanish languages for a kingdom where words were like electrocardiograms, where voices were like Tartar dreams.

  In the last image of his dream Jordi saw himself huddled in a corner, hugging his knees as hard as he could and thinking of Rosa, Rosa, Rosa, so far away.

  6

  Celestino Arraya, whose house Rosa Amalfitano visited on the third day after her arrival in Santa Teresa, was born in Villaviciosa in 1900 and died at a cantina called Los Primos Hermanos in 1933, a few months after Hitler came to power. Little information is available about his childhood: legend has him as a brave young soldier with Pancho Villa when the reality is that he spent the Villa years hiding away on a ranch where his friend Federico Montero—an eminent politician and landowner who managed to navigate the turbulent years of the Revolution with courage and unerring instinct—bred fighting bulls. It was the Piedras Negras bullring that saw his first triumph, in 1920. After that, successful appearances followed in other border cities and towns: Ojinaga, Nogales, Matamoros, Nueva Rosita. These were some of the rings from which he emerged raised aloft, clutching tail and ears in his hands like a shipwrecked sailor frozen stiff with cold. He was extremely adept in the art of killing. His final anointing occurred at the Monterrey bullring and, in 1928, in Mexico City, where he was acclaimed in the ring and feted on public thoroughfares. He was tall and slender—cadaverous, according to some—and always sharply dressed, whether in bullfighting attire or civilian clothes. The elegance with which he moved in the ring, though, became a mannered stride in everyday life, the strut of a preening gangster. Along with Federico Montero and other friends, he belonged to a bachelor’s club, The Cowboys of Death, which was officially gastronomic and harmless, though of terrible memory. Death, the real thing, came to him at the hands of a sixteen-year-old boy who for motives that remain unknown came looking for him at the cantina Los Primos Hermanos and with his old rifle put two bullets in his head before being shot in turn by the bullfighter’s comrades. The statue that stands guard over his mausoleum was erected at the initiative of Montero and other friends, who bore the full cost themselves. The sculptor was Pablo Mesones Sarabia (1891–1942), of the Potosí school of Maestro Garabito.

  7

  The sculpture group titled Victory of the Town of Santa Teresa over the French, situated in the Plaza del Norte one hundred feet from the statue of General Sepúlveda, hero of the Revolution, and created by Pedro Xavier Terrades (1899–1949) and Jacinto Prado Salamanca (1901–1975), both sculptors of the Potosí school of Maestro Garabito, presented a kind of inaccuracy or basic historical error. The work in itself was nothing to sneeze at: composed of five wrought-iron figures, it possessed the characteristic élan of the Potosí school, a quality of the sublime or of transfigurement, its frenzied figures contorted, one might say, by the breath of History. The life-size group included a Santa Teresa militiaman pointing southeast toward something that the spectator might guess were the retreating enemy troops. The face of the militiaman, lips clenched and features twisted in a scowl of pain or rage, is partly obscured by a too-big bandage around his head. In his left hand he carries a musket. Behind, at his feet on the ground, lies a dead Frenchman. The Frenchman’s arms are flung wide and his hands are gnarled as if by fire. His face, nevertheless, has the thing that artists of old called the repose of death. To one side, a soldier of the irregular forces dies in the arms of a girl no older than fifteen. The gaze of the soldier—eyes of a madman, eyes of a visionary—turns to the sky, while the eyes of the girl, part Madonna and part Goya Gypsy, remain gravely and piously shut. The left hand of the dying man clutches the girl’s right hand. And yet these are not two hands together; not at all. They are two hands that reach for each other in the dark, two hands that repel each other, two hands that recognize each other and flee in despair. Finally, there is an old man, half turned to the side, his head lowered as if he’d rather not see what’s happened, his lips puckered in an expression that might be of pain, but might also signify the act of whistling (and that’s what the children who play in the square call him: the Whistler). The old man is frozen, his right hand over his heart but not quite resting on his breast, the left hanging to one side, as if rendered useless. The sculpture group was commissioned in 1940 and finished in 1945. According to some critics, it is Terrades and Prado Salamanca’s masterpiece, and the last piece on which they worked together. Be that as it may, t
he work’s flaw is in its title. There was never a battle against the French for the simple reason that the men against whom the town of Santa Teresa fought under José Mariño and Amador Pérez Pesqueira weren’t French but Belgian. The campaign and subsequent battle, according to the well-documented book Benito Juárez vs. Maximilian: The Fall of Europe, by the Mexican historian Julio V. Anaya, proceeded like this: in August 1865 a battalion of four companies of one hundred men each, made up of volunteers from the Belgian Legion and led by Colonel Maurice Libbrecht, tried to take Santa Teresa, which at that time was undefended by Republican troops. The column came first to Villaviciosa, where it encountered no resistence. After revictualing, it set out from Villaviciosa, leaving behind a garrison of twenty men. An alert was raised and in Santa Teresa preparations for the defense of the city were rapidly made under the leadership of Señor Pérez Pesqueira, mayor of the city, and Don José Mariño, wealthy local landowner and liberal with a reputation as an adventurer and eccentric, who recruited any man who could bear arms to swell the ranks of the militia. On August 28, at noon, Libbrecht’s Belgians reached the edge of town and after sending out a scouting party—which returned with the news that the city’s defenses were nonexistent and that three horsemen had been lost in a skirmish—it was decided to give the troops an hour of rest and then launch a direct assault. The battle was one of the worst disasters to befall the invading army in the northeast of Mexico. The militiamen of Santa Teresa were waiting for the Belgians in the center of the city. A few snipers on the edge of town who immediately retreated and even some flower-bedecked balconies draped with banners made from sheets, reading “Long Live the French” or “Long Live the Emperor,” were enough to cause the unsuspecting Libbrecht to fall into the trap. The battle was fierce and both sides fought without seeking or granting mercy. The Belgians made their stand in the Central Market and in the streets leading to the Plaza Mayor. The militiamen made theirs at the Town Hall and the Cathedral, as well as in the streets between the Belgian position and the fields outside of town, the ochre fields that—except for Libbrecht’s few supply troops and some shepherds who moved across foreground and background, through pastures and over hills, like figures in a Flemish painting—bore empty and as if fear-struck witness to the din and the cannon blasts that resounded in the city, an abstract entity within which there unfolded a battle of wills and agonies. By night, with the Belgians demoralized after various attempts to break the siege, José Mariño’s militiamen launched the final attack. Libbrecht fell in the onslaught and shortly afterward the Belgians surrendered. Among them was Captain Robert Lecomte, of Bruges, who would later marry the daughter of Don Marcial Hernández, in whose house he spent the rest of the war, more as a guest than as a captive. In his memoirs, published in four installments in the Bruges Monitor, Lecomte hints that the defeat owed to Libbrecht’s overconfidence and ignorance of Mexican idiosyncracies. His story is almost entirely consistent with that of J. V. Anaya, who draws upon it: the battle was cruel but remained within the bounds of chivalry and gallantry; most of the prisoners were taken to Piedras Negras, where the division of General Arístides Mancera was stationed; their treatment at the hands of the Mexicans was exquisite. Nor does it differ from the memories of another extraordinary witness, José Mariño, patron of the arts and man of the world, who in 1867, as the guest of General Mariano Escobedo, was present at the Battle of Querétaro and the subsequent shooting of the Emperor; in his Memoirs, New York, 1905, Mariño gives an extensive account of the preparations for the battle and a succinct description of the battle itself. Mariño’s book is full of so many things—battles, affairs of honor, political intrigues, romances, ties to great poets (he was a personal friend of Martí and Salvador Díaz Mirón, some of whose letters are woven into the eight-hundred-plus-page volume)—that the episode of the Battle of Santa Teresa necessarily plays a minor role, included only, one might say, in order to once again demonstrate the personal initiative and battle-tested courage of its author. Nevertheless, Mariño devotes nearly four full pages to the pursuit that was launched soon after the conclusion of the battle, a pursuit in which he played no part. Who was pursued? The troops who didn’t enter Santa Teresa and the few soldiers who managed to escape the siege. A certain Emilio Hernández (son of Don Marcial Hernández?) led the chase. First to be pursued were the men who escaped Santa Teresa; they put up little resistance. Next were the supply troops with their gear; they surrendered without a fight. Warned of the presence of “French” troops in Villaviciosa, Emilio Hernández returned prisoners and captured equipment to Santa Teresa, and with only thirty horsemen headed off to liberate Villaviciosa. He arrived in the early hours of the following day and found no “Frenchmen” or Belgians. Some villagers had left town and scattered through the neighboring fields. Others were asleep in their low, dark houses and wouldn’t rise until past noon. When they were asked, the peasants said that the soldiers had gone. Where, which way? inquired Emilio Hernández. Home, said the peasants. Though dauntless, Emilio Hernández’s men—half of them ranchers and gentlemen, the other half cowboys and hired men—grew uneasy, feeling watched, as if they were on the threshhold of something better ignored (this is made plain by José Mariño, an excellent narrator of boudoir scenes and opera finales and an amateur translator of Poe). But Emilio Hernández refused to give up and sent half of his men after the soldiers while with the others he set out to comb the town. The first group found a horse hacked to death by machete. The second found only sleeping people, children with a dazed look, and women washing clothes. As the afternoon wore on, a smell of decay crept into everything. At dusk, Emilio Hernández decided to return to Santa Teresa. The Belgians of Villaviciosa had vanished into thin air. Concludes Mariño: “the town seemed one thousand, two thousand years old, the houses like tumors blooming from the earth; it was a lost town and yet it was haloed with the invincible nimbus of mystery…”

 
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