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Woes of the true policem.., p.17
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.17

           Roberto Bolaño
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  In Managua, he was paid a pittance to teach Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, Lenin, but he also taught classes on Plato and Aristotle, Boetius and Abelard, and he realized something that in his heart he had always known: that the Whole is impossible, that knowledge is the classification of fragments. After that he taught a class on Mario Bunge that was attended by a single student.

  A short while later Edith Lieberman got sick and they left for Brazil, where he would make more money and be able to afford the medical care that his wife needed. With his daughter on his shoulders he swam on the most beautiful beaches in the world while Edith Lieberman, who was more beautiful than the beaches, watched from the shore, barefoot in the sand, as if she knew things that he would never know and she would never tell him. He was active in a Trotskyist party in Rio de Janeiro. He translated Osman Lins and Osman Lins was his friend, though his translations never sold. He taught courses on the neo-Kantian philosophy of the Marburg School—Natorp, Cohen, Cassirer, Lieber—and on the thought of Sir William Hamilton (Glasgow, 1788–Edinburgh, 1856). He was with his wife until her death, at 3:45 a.m., while in the next bed a middle-aged Brazilian woman dreamed out loud about a crocodile, a mechanical crocodile chasing a girl over a hill of ashes.

  After that he had to be father and mother to his daughter, but he didn’t know how and he ended up hiring a servant for the first time in his life: Rosinha, northeasterner, twenty-one, mother of two little girls who stayed behind in the village, and who was like a good fairy to his daughter. One night, though, he went to bed with Rosinha and as he was making love to her he thought that he was going crazy. Then he got himself into the usual hot water and had to leave Brazil with time enough only to pack the little they could take with them. At the airport his daughter and Rosinha cried and his friend Luiz Lima asked what’s wrong with these women, why are they crying.

  After that he lived in Paris, his savings at a low ebb, and he had to work hanging posters or mopping the floors of office buildings while his daughter slept in a chambre de bonne on avenue Marcel Proust. But he didn’t give up and he strove and strove until he found a job at a high school and then a German university. Around this time he wrote a long essay on Macedonio Fernández and Felisberto Hernández, focusing on their importance as Latin American thinkers rather than their literary achievements. And on the first vacation he was able to permit himself he took his daughter to Egypt and they went sailing on the Nile.

  His situation seemed to improve. Their next trip was to Greece and Turkey. He wrote about Rodolfo Wilcock and the phenomenon of exile in Latin America. He took part in a colloquium in the Netherlands and he bought a laptop computer. Finally he ended up at the University of Barcelona, where he taught a course on idiocy and self-awareness that was so popular that his contract was renewed for a second year. But he never finished the course. Around this time he received a letter from a friend in Mexico, Isabel Aguilar. She had been a student of his in Mexico City and at one time she was in love with him. Now she was a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Santa Teresa and she offered him a job. She said that she was friendly with the head of the department, Professor Horacio Guerra, that for a month now there’d been a position available in the department, and that if he wanted it it was his. Amalfitano discussed it with his daughter, wrote to Professor Aguilar to thank her, and asked her to send him the contract as soon as possible.


  The four policemen got up from their seats at a table at the back of Las Camelias, the bar across the street from the General Sepúlveda police station, when they saw Pedro Negrete and Gumaro coming toward them. The policemen were in tracksuits and Pedro Negrete and Gumaro were wearing suits and ties, though Gumaro’s suit and tie were cheap and wrinkled and Don Pedro’s were expensive. It was eleven in the morning and the four policemen had been at the bar since ten, eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches and drinking beer. Don Pedro instructed them not to get up and ordered a whiskey with water and ice. Gumaro sat next to Don Pedro and didn’t order anything. When the waitress brought Don Pedro the whiskey he asked what his boys owed. The policemen protested, no, no, Don Pedro, it’s on us, but Don Pedro said to the waitress: “Charge it to me, Clarita, and that’s an order.”

  Ten minutes later Pedro Negrete called for another drink and encouraged the policemen to follow suit. The policemen said that one beer was enough for them, but this time they were paying.

  “Out of the question,” said Don Pedro, “I’ve got it.”

  The waitress brought another round of beers and another whiskey for Don Pedro.

  “Aren’t you drinking?” asked Don Pedro.

  “My stomach is funny today,” answered Gumaro in an spectral voice.

  The policemen looked at Gumaro and Don Pedro and then they started to eat the peanuts that the waitress had left on the table.

  “Young people today can’t hold their liquor,” said Pedro Negrete. “In my years in uniform I knew a cop who drank a bottle of tequila every morning before he went on his rounds. His name was Emilio López. Alcohol was the death of him in the end, of course. We never let him drive the patrol car, but he was a good guy, the kind of man you could trust.”

  “He died of a burst liver,” said Gumaro.

  “Well, those are the risks.”

  “His liver was the size of a plum.”

  Don Pedro Negrete ordered another whiskey. The policemen accepted another round of beers.

  “Did you know General Sepúlveda, lads?”

  “No,” said one of the policemen. The others shook their heads.

  “You’re young, of course. Did you know him, Gumaro?”

  “No,” said Gumaro with a sigh.

  “Right after I joined the force I was assigned to guard his house. He lived on this very street, which was already named after him, General Sepúlveda at Colima. It was a big house, with a pool and tennis court. I was stationed at the door and my two buddies were in the street, so I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I just stood there thinking. Then it started to rain, only a drizzle, you could hardly see it, but to be safe I took shelter under a gazebo in the yard. Then the door to the house opened and General Sepúlveda himself appeared. He was wearing a burgundy robe and underneath it he was in pajamas, it was the first time I had seen him in person and I thought he must be at least ninety, though he was probably much younger. At first he didn’t notice I was there. He glanced out into the yard and up at the sky. He seemed worried about something. Maybe he was afraid the rain would ruin some of his flowers, but I don’t think so. When he saw me, he beckoned me over. At your service, mi general, I said. He didn’t say a word, just looked at me, and with a wave of his hand he signaled me to follow him into the house. Of course, as you can imagine, my orders were to stay outside, in case some asshole got past my buddies in the street, but mi general was a tough old son of a bitch and I obeyed without a murmur. As impressive as that house was from the outside, boys, on the inside it was stunning. It had everything. Paintings over six feet tall. It was more like a museum than a house, which pretty much sums it up. Of course, I couldn’t stop to get a good look because mi general was walking quickly and I had to follow close behind so I didn’t get lost in those endless hallways. At last we came to the kitchen and mi general stopped and asked if I wanted coffee. I said I would be delighted, of course, but since I saw that his hands were trembling I offered to make it myself and then the old man sighed, he said all right, go ahead, and he dropped into a chair. I remember that while I was making the coffee I heard him breathing behind me and for a moment I wondered whether something was wrong. Has anything like that ever happened to you, boys?”

  The policemen shook their heads.

  “Well, there I was, making coffee, and I could hear mi general breathing and I said to myself: careful, Pedro, you don’t want General Sepúlveda to die on you. And I was about to ask the general whether he was feeling poorly and whether I should call a doctor, when all of a sudden the old man asks what’s your name. And
I say: Pedro Negrete, at your service, mi general. And he asks how old I am. And I say: twenty-three, mi general. And by then I have his coffee ready and I set it on the table and I notice that the general is staring at me, his eyes are boring into me, and I think, this man is sizing me up, but why is he sizing me up? And then the general says he doesn’t feel well and I say if you want I can call a doctor, mi general, or an ambulance, all you have to do is say the word, but the general looks me up and down and laughs. Not just any laugh. The kind of laugh that makes your hair stand on end, especially when you’re young, and he says I don’t need a doctor. And I got the sense that the word doctor struck him as funny, because when he repeated it he laughed again. And then I thought, old age is making mi general soft in the head. A naïve, foolish thought, because after all, how old was mi general back then? fifty-eight or fifty-nine, in the prime of life, as they say. And a single look at him was enough to tell you that no such thing was possible, the man was saner than you or me, boys, nothing screwy about him. And that’s where I was, my mind flitting from one thought to the next, when I heard mi general ordering me to pour myself a coffee, too, a gesture I appreciated, since I could really use one. And when my coffee was ready, mi general pointed at a cupboard and told me to open it and I opened it and found a stash of whiskey, because mi general drank only whiskey, boys, like me. And he said—I remember like it was yesterday—Negrete, get down a bottle of whiskey and warm up my coffee a little. And I poured a nice splash of whiskey into his cup, which was almost empty, and then mi general said warm yours up, too, jackass, because you’re going to need it. Which was an offer that sounded more like a warning or a threat, don’t you think? but I ignored it because frankly I felt like a drink. So I poured whiskey in my coffee and I drank it down. And when I was done mi general made a toast—to life, I think—and I raised my glass too. And as we were going on the fifth or sixth shot the old man said that in the servant’s room there was a dead body. And I said: you’re kidding, mi general, and he looked me in the eyes and said that he never kidded anyone. Go take a look, he said, see for yourself. Then I got up and went searching all over the house for that goddamn room. I got lost a few times, but at last I found it. It was under the main stairs, the ones that went up to the second floor. And what do you think was the first thing I saw when I went in? Mi general Sepúlveda sitting on one of the beds, waiting for me! I almost shat myself I was so scared, lads! What do you say to that?”

  “Incredible,” said the policemen.

  “Of course, there was nothing uncanny about it. While I was looking all over the house for the room, the old son of a bitch had gone straight there. That was all. But the scare of it almost killed me. The first thing I managed to say was: mi general, what are you doing here? The old man didn’t answer or if he did I instantly forgot what he said. Next to him on the bed was a shape with the sheet pulled up over its head. The general got up and motioned for me to come and take a look. I crept forward, boys, and lifted the sheet. I saw the face of a man who might have been sixty or eighty, his face covered in wrinkles, some of them deep grooves, though his hair was black, jet-black, cut very short, fierce, if you know what I mean. Then the general spoke. I swung around as if I’d been touched with a live wire. The general was sitting on the other bed. He’s dead, isn’t he? he asked. I think so, mi general, I said. But I uncovered him again, the dead man was wearing only his pajama top, but this time I pulled the sheet down to his knees, Christ, I’ve never liked the genitals on a stiff, boys, and I examined him carefully to see whether there were any signs of violence. Not a one. Then I checked his pulse. He had rigor mortis up the ass, as our friend Dr. Cepeda says, and I covered him back up with the sheet. This man is dead, mi general, I said. I thought as much, he said, and then for the first time he seemed to collapse, though it was just for a second, I thought he was about to fall apart, bit by bit, but as I said, it was just for a second. He pulled himself together instantly, rubbed his unshaven face, and ordered me to sit across from him, on the dead man’s bed. The funeral home will have to be called, he said. I thought to myself that who he should really be calling was a doctor to issue a death certificate, and the police, but I didn’t say anything, after all, I was the police and there I was, wasn’t I? Then mi general, seeing that I wasn’t asking any questions, said that the dead man was his employee, his only employee, and that he had been with him for longer than he could remember. This man, he said, this motherfucking corpse, saved my life three times, this bastard was by my side all through the Revolution, this dead meat nursed me when I was sick and took my kids to school. He repeated this several times: he nursed me when I was sick and took my kids to school. Those words made an impression on me, boys. They summed up a whole philosophy of dedication and hard work. Then mi general looked at me again that way he had of looking at you like he was grabbing your heart and he said: you’ll go far, kid. Me, sir? I hope you’re right. And he: yes, you, jackass, but if you want to go far and hold on to what’s yours you have to keep your head on straight. Then it was as if he had fallen asleep and I thought: poor guy, the shock of finding his man dead must have exhausted him. And I started to think, too, about what he’d said to me and about other things and the truth is that suddenly I felt this great sense of calm or quiet fill me, sitting there on the dead man’s bed, across from mi general, whose head had fallen to one side and who was snoring a little. But then the general opened one eye and asked me whether I knew where Nicanor was from and I gathered that Nicanor was the dead man and I had to tell him the truth, which was that I didn’t know. Then mi general said: he was from Villaviciosa, damn it. And I took note of that. And mi general said: those jackasses are the only men in all of Mexico who can be trusted. Really, mi general? I asked. Really, he said. Then I called the funeral home and I led mi general into another room, so he wouldn’t feel bad when he saw Nicanor being put into a coffin. We talked until his lawyer and secretary got there. That was the last time I saw mi general. The next year he died,” said Don Pedro as he ordered his fifth whiskey.

  “He must have been quite a man, General Sepúlveda,” said one of the policemen.

  “More than a man, he was a hero,” said Pedro Negrete. The policemen nodded.

  “And now get to work,” said Don Pedro. “I don’t want any bums on the force.”

  The policemen got up instantly. Two of them were wearing shoulder holsters under their tracksuit jackets and the other two were carrying their guns on their hips.

  “You stay here, Pancho, I want to talk to you,” said Don Pedro.

  Pancho Monje said goodbye to his comrades and sat down again.

  “What are you working on?” asked Don Pedro.

  “The shooting in Los Álamos,” said Pancho.

  “Well, you’ll have to take a break for a few days to tail a university professor. I want a complete report in a week.”

  “Who’s the individual?” asked Pancho.

  Don Pedro pulled a bundle of papers from his suit pocket and began to go through them one by one.

  “His name is Óscar Amalfitano,” said Gumaro. “He’s Chilean. He teaches philosophy at the university.”

  “I want a careful job,” said Don Pedro. “You’ll deliver the report to me personally.”

  “At your service,” said Pancho.


  Homero Sepúlveda (1895–1955) showed an aptitude for military leadership from an early age: at eight he was tall and dauntless and he captained a gang of kids that made itself hated and legendary in the neighborhoods surrounding the old Municipal Slaughterhouse that once stood on the east side of Santa Teresa, where the man soon to be so prominent in the Revolution grew up. His father was a schoolteacher, originally from Hermosillo, and his mother was a self-effacing housewife, born in Santa Teresa. He was the third of a litter of three brothers and four sisters, all tall and strong, though none of them with Homero’s eyes. He didn’t attend high school.

  When the Revolution began, he and his older brother Lucas took up ar
ms with Pancho Villa. Soon his skill at mounting ambushes, planning raids on enemy supply bases, and moving his troops at lightning speed earned him a well-deserved reputation for bravery and intelligence, a reputation he would never lose. But unlike his brother Lucas, who was brave and intelligent, too, and who died in a cavalry charge in 1917, Homero Sepúlveda was also (and chiefly) cautious and prudent and possessed the ability to predict the twists and turns of fate. It wasn’t long before he earned his general’s stripes, bestowed on him by Pancho Villa himself aboard his private train.

  He battled Porfirio Díaz and was a dyed-in-the-wool Maderista (though in his heart—like his father, who read the Latin American classics—he was never too deeply convinced of anything), he fought tirelessly against Huerta and Pascual Orozco, and then he retired, young and newly wed, and returned to Santa Teresa until the Villistas went back to war, this time against Carranza, whom Sepúlveda fought with few resources but great art, winning respect near and far and earning himself the nickname Epaminondas of Sonora or—it depended on the poet and the spot where the ode was composed—Scipio of Chihuahua, not to mention the Spanish baker who called him El Empecinado of the North or the Milans del Bosch of the Border, though General Sepúlveda always preferred the Greek and Roman references.

  He was the only Villista chief (except for Ángeles and Lucio Blanco) who fully exploited the marriage of cavalry, mounted artillery, and mobility: he was skilled at exploiting victories and penetrating the enemy’s rear guard, creating chaos.

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