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Woes of the true policem.., p.14
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.14

           Roberto Bolaño
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  Friendships of Arcimboldi

  Raymond Queneau, whom he considered to be his mentor and with whom he quarreled at least ten times. Five times by letter, four times over the phone, and twice in person, the first time with curses and insults, and the second time with scornful gestures and glares.

  Georges Perec, whom he admired deeply. Once he remarked that Perec must surely be the second coming of Christ.

  Raoul Duguay, Quebecois poet, with whom he maintained a relationship based on mutual hospitality: when Duguay was in France he stayed with Arcimboldi, and when Arcimboldi traveled to Canada or taught college classes he stayed with Duguay. On the subject of Duguay’s working life: he might be a professor at a Texas university for three months and a waiter at a bar in Vancouver for the next three months. Which is something that might seem perfectly normal in America but that never failed to astonish Arcimboldi.

  Isidore Isou, whom he saw mostly between 1946 and 1948, and with whom he broke ties upon the appearance of the book Réflexions sur M. André Breton (Lettristes, 1948). As far as Arcimboldi was concerned, Isou was a “Romanian fuck-stick.”

  Elie-Charles Flamand, whom he knew between 1950 and 1955. By this time the young Flamand was already extremely interested in esotericism, which in 1959 got him excommunicated by the surrealists. He and Arcimboldi shared a taste for certain poetic and kabbalistic interpretations of texts. According to Arcimboldi, Flamand was so unobtrusive that when he sat down it was practically as if he had remained standing. (This observation of Arcimboldi’s can be found in an Agatha Christie story.)

  Ivonne Mercier, librarian from Caen, whom he saw from 1952 to 1960. He met Miss Mercier while on holiday in Normandy. For a year their contact was strictly epistolary, though frequent, consisting of two or even three letters a week. At the time, Miss Mercier was engaged and hoped soon to be married. The sudden death of her fiancé brought them closer. Ivonne Mercier traveled to Paris an average of six times a year. Arcimboldi, meanwhile, made only one more trip to Caen in his lifetime, in the summer of 1959, the year of the publication of the novel Hartmann von Aue and the poetry collection Railroad Perfection; or, The Fracturing of the Pursued. In 1960 Ivonne Mercier married a builder from the Normandy coast and broke off her visits to Paris. They continued to write for a few years, though very sporadically.

  René Monardes, childhood friend from Carcassonne whom Arcimboldi always visited on his trips back to town. Monardes, a wine wholesaler, remembered Arcimboldi as a sincere and bighearted person. He had never read any of his books, though he kept some on the bookshelf in the dining room. Even after Arcimboldi had left France, Monardes claimed that he occasionally came back to visit. Once every two years. He comes, we have a glass of wine, maybe eat some figs under the arbor, I fill him in on the news, not that there’s much of it these days, and then he leaves. He’s still a nice guy. Not a big talker, but a nice guy.


  Epistolary Relationships of Arcimboldi

  Robert Goffin, ten letters dated between 1948 and 1951. Subjects: eroticism, painting, motoring, the weather, Belgian and French cyclists, scams and great scam artists.

  Achille Chavée, fifteen letters, 1953 to 1960. Various subjects. Literature, as they say, is noticeable for its absence. In the letters, Chavée rallies Arcimboldi: courage, young man, courage.

  Cecilia Laurent, of the Center for Atomic Energy Research, Paris. Forty letters, postcards, telegrams, all dated 1960. In one postcard Arcimboldi confesses that he wants to kill her. In the next letter he takes it back: what I really want to do is make love with you. To penetrate you = to kill you. That same afternoon he sends her a telegram: never mind, forget what I said, I didn’t mean it.

  Dr. Lester D. Gore, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, Pasadena, California. Ten letters, dated 1962 to 1966, of a pseudoscientific nature. From one of them it may be deduced that Arcimboldi tried to visit Gore during a trip to the United States in 1966, but that in the end they were only able to speak by phone. (Was he trying to gather material for a scientific novel, as he explains in a subsequent letter?)

  Dr. Mario Bianchi, head of the Plastic Surgery Department, St. Peter’s Hospital, Orlando, Florida. Eight letters, dated 1964 to 1965, of a pseudoscientific nature. Arcimboldi expresses an interest in techniques of facial surgery, in nerve elongation, in techniques for bone implants, in “photographs of the inside of the face, the inside of the hands.” And he explains: “color photographs, of course.” Dr. Bianchi expresses an interest in knowing whether any of Arcimboldi’s novels have been translated in the United States, and mentions an upcoming trip to Paris with his wife and son during which they might meet in person.

  Jaime Valle, professor of French literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma of Mexico. Five letters dated between 1969 and 1971. Subjects relating to the purchase of real estate, oceanfront properties, cabins in Oaxaca, hippies, peyote, María Sabina. Regarding Mexican literature: surprisingly, Arcimboldi has read only Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo, in Anne Fontfreda’s translation, Paris, 1951. And a bit of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It’s life in Mexico that interests me, not Mexican literature, he says. The last letter is a long defense of B. Traven, scorned by Jaime Valle as popular and facile.

  Renato Leduc, whom he meets through a mutual friend, the exiled Panamanian Roberto Dole, black, homosexual, and pacifist. Ten letters dated between 1969 and 1974. Subjects: life in Mexico, the desert, the tropics, the places where it rains most and least. Leduc’s responses are clear and to the point. He goes so far as to send Arcimboldi photographs and maps, newspaper clippings and tourist pamphlets. He even presents him with a copy of his book Fábulas y poemas, 1966, and Arcimboldi promises to translate it, though nothing further is heard of the project.

  Dr. John W. Clark, plastic surgeon, Geneva, Switzerland. Twenty letters between 1972 and 1975. Subjects: skin grafts, The Island of Dr. Moreau, the ultimate facelift.

  Dr. André Lejeune, Lacanian psychoanalyst. Eighteen letters between 1963 and 1974. Discussions of literature from which it may be deduced that Dr. Lejeune is a reader to be reckoned with, as well as a shrewd and mordant critic. The final letters contain veiled threats. Arcimboldi discusses killings, people who talk about killings, blood, and silence.

  Amelia De León, Mexican professor of French literature whom Arcimboldi meets on a brief trip to Oaxaca in 1976. Ten letters, all with some exotic postmark, like Mauritania or Senegal; all dated 1977. In them, Arcimboldi makes constant though oblique references to age, to the joys of being twenty-nine and about to turn thirty, which was the case of Professor De León in 1977. Her letters are cold and academic: Stendhal, Balzac, etc.


  Hobbies and Training

  The piano. Arcimboldi learned to play the piano when he was forty-five. His teachers were Jacques Soler and Marie Djiladi. He never had a piano at home or felt the need for one. And yet when he went out at night and came upon a piano at a bar or a friend’s house he would do anything to be allowed to play it. Then he would sit down and run his fingers over the keys and although he played very badly he forgot everything and sang—in a cracked and barely audible voice—blues, ballads, love songs.

  Magic. From the time he was very young he was interested in magic tricks. His apprenticeship was anarchic and ad hoc. He never followed any particular method. At the age of fifty he decided to apply himself to the School of Thought, which should really be called the School of Hidden Words, and involves guessing the objects that an audience member is carrying in his or her purse or wallet. For this trick it’s necessary to have an assistant who uses coded language to inquire after the objects. But it can also be performed without an assistant, according to the magician Arturo De Sisti, by working solely from a person’s external appearance, an alphabet that leads via unexpected yet clear channels to the things he keeps in his pockets. In this case the hidden words aren’t those uttered by an assistant but those spoken by a tie, a handkerchief, a shirt, a hat, a dress, a necklace: words bar
ely whispered, concise words that hardly ever lie. This is not, let it be said, a matter of judging by appearances, but rather of establishing a correlation, a continuity, between what is in plain sight and what—by virtue of its small size or for the sake of convenience—is tucked away. He also developed an interest in the art of making people disappear. Theories on this tricky maneuver were developed by many schools, from the Chinese to the Italian and the Arab to the American (which was itself divided into two schools: the classic school that made people disappear and the modern school that made trains disappear). It’s not known which school interested Arcimboldi. No one ever saw him make a person disappear, though with some friends he talked about it quite a bit.


  Sworn Enemies of Arcimboldi

  Lisa Julien, whom he met in 1946 and with whom he lived from 1947 to 1949. Their breakup was violent: Arcimboldi, in a conversation recorded in 1971, acknowledged having slapped Miss Julien twice, first with his open palm and then with the back of his hand. Between the first and second blows there were punches (Arcimboldi ended up with a black eye), kicks, scratches, and strong words that the writer describes as a limit experience. From beneath the hail of blows, he says, he managed to catch a curious and distracted glimpse of pure nothingness. Miss Julien’s hatred was lasting: in a rare interview conducted in 1992 by a pseudoliterary scandal sheet as part of a feature titled “The Long-Suffering Companions of Creative Men,” she referred to the writer as “that loathsome, impotent dwarf.”

  Arthur Laville, reader for Gallimard and art critic for various European and American trade publications, who saw the main character of The Librarian as a malicious portrayal of himself. Laville, in an uncharacteristic fit of rage, launched a feud with Arcimboldi that lasted from 1966 to 1970. He was also presumably the author of a number of anonymous death threats and countless phone calls during which he showered the writer with insults and mockery or was silent, breathing heavily and noisily. At the end of 1970, Laville’s anger subsided as abruptly as it had arisen. In 1975 they ran into each other in a hallway at Gallimard and exchanged civil remarks.

  Charles Dubillard, patriotic poet, huckster, and inveterate Pétain supporter. In 1943 he gave a public thrashing to the young Arcimboldi, who, it’s worth mentioning, had done nothing to avoid the fight, assuring the friends who tried to talk him out of it that nothing in the world would deprive him of the pleasure of bashing out the brains of that fascist pig Dubillard. In 1947 they met again, this time in Paris, at a poetry reading at which Dubillard, converted to Gaullism, read a poem about the hills of Languedoc, the traces of time, and the light of the motherland (according to Arcimboldi every messiah of fascism got his start and finish under the rustling petticoats of the motherland). The fight, this time, was at the back door of the hall. Arcimboldi was alone, which meant that no one tried to stop him. Dubillard was accompanied by three college friends, one of whom ended his brilliant career as a socialist minister in the eighties, and together they tried to convince Arcimboldi, first, that times had changed, and second, that Dubillard was much stronger and bigger than he and therefore, objectively speaking, it wasn’t a fair fight. They fought anyway, and Arcimboldi lost again. Their next encounter was in 1955, at a well-known Paris restaurant. Dubillard had given up literature and become a businessman. This time all they did was shove each other and shout insults, until Arcimboldi’s friends broke things off by taking him away. Their final encounter was in the fall of 1980. Dubillard was out for a walk with his grandson and his grandson’s nanny and they ran into Arcimboldi. The latter considered spitting at the boy but he thought better of it and contented himself with spitting at a wheel of the baby carriage. Dubillard showed no reaction. They never saw each other again.

  Raoul Delorme, concierge of the building where Arcimboldi lived from 1959 to 1962. Amateur writer of poems about horses and meticulous crime stories in which the killer is never caught. For a while Arcimboldi tried to convince some magazines to publish his work. According to him, Delorme might have been an extraterrestrial boy scout, or perhaps just a telepath. There soon sprang up between them a cool and contained hatred. Delorme, according to Arcimboldi, performed Black Masses in his cramped concierge quarters: he defecated on books by Gide, Maupassant, pissed on books by Pierre Louÿs, Mendès, Banville, shot his wad between the pages of books by Barbusse, Hugo, Chateaubriand, all with the sole intent of improving his French.

  Marina Libakova, architect, literary agent, and poet. One month of passion and five years of hard feelings. One night, according to Madame Libakova, in her house in Thézy-Glimont where they were spending the weekend, Arcimboldi, without provocation or explanation, tossed into the fire a poetry manuscript that she had kindly and eagerly presented for his consideration. 1969–1973. She also admits that Arcimboldi asked her forgiveness for his stupidity something like three hundred times over the course of those five years. No letters were preserved.



  Pancho Monje was born in Villaviciosa, near Santa Teresa, in the state of Sonora.

  One night, when he was sixteen, he was woken up and led half-asleep to the Monte Hebrón, a bar where Don Pedro Negrete, the police chief of Santa Teresa, was waiting for him. He had heard of him but never seen him. Accompanying Don Pedro were two old women and three old men from Villaviciosa, and lined up before him were ten boys about the same age as Pancho, waiting for Don Pedro’s decision.

  The superintendent was sitting in a high-backed chair like a throne, though it was covered in frayed fabric, different from all the other chairs at the Monte Hebrón, and he was drinking whiskey from a bottle that he had brought from home, because no one at the Monte Hebrón drank whiskey. Behind the chief and the old men, in the shadows, was another man who was also drinking. But he wasn’t drinking whiskey, he was drinking Los Suicidas mescal, a rare brand that couldn’t be found anywhere anymore, except in Villaviciosa. The mescal drinker’s name was Gumaro and he was Don Pedro’s driver.

  For some time, without getting up from his chair, Don Pedro examined the boys with a critical eye while every so often the old men whispered in his ear. Then he called Pancho and ordered him to step forward.

  Pancho was still half-asleep and he didn’t understand the order.

  “Me?” he asked.

  “Yes, you, idiot, what’s your name?”

  “Francisco Monje, at your service,” said Pancho.

  One of the old men whispered again in Don Pedro’s ear.

  “What else,” said Don Pedro.

  “What else?” asked Pancho.

  “Francisco Monje what, boy,” said Don Pedro.

  “Francisco Monje Expósito,” said Pancho.

  Don Pedro stared at him and, after consulting with the old men, made his choice. The other boys went home and Pancho was ordered to wait outside.

  The sky was full of stars and it was as bright as day. It was cold, but Don Pedro’s Ford was still warm and Pancho put his two hands on the hood. Inside the Monte Hebrón, Don Pedro handed out money and inquired about people’s health, whether the family was well, whether so-and-so had died or so-and-so had disappeared, then he said good night, ladies and gentlemen, and hurried out, followed by his driver who looked asleep.

  Pancho and Don Pedro sat in the backseat and the Ford rolled slowly along the dark streets of Villaviciosa.

  “Damn it, Gumaro,” said Don Pedro, “I forgot all about the streetlights for this shithole town.”

  “What lights, boss?” said Gumaro without turning.

  That night Pancho slept at the house of Don Gabriel Salazar, a Santa Teresa businessman, in one of the rooms built onto the gardener’s house, a room with four bunks and the smell of sweat and tobacco. Don Pedro turned him over to an American called Pat Cochrane and left without a word. The American asked him a few questions and then gave him a Smith & Wesson and told him how it worked, how much it weighed, how to engage and disengage the safety, how many clips he should carry in his pocket at all times,
when he should draw it, and when he should only pretend to draw it.

  That night, the first that Pancho had spent away from Villaviciosa, he slept with the pistol under his pillow, and his sleep was fitful. At five in the morning he met one of his roommates, who came in drunk and stared at him for a long time, muttering incomprehensibly while Pancho, huddled in the upper bunk, pretended to be asleep. Later he met the other one. They didn’t like him, and he didn’t like them.

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