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Woes of the true policem.., p.18
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.18

           Roberto Bolaño
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  He didn’t fight against Obregón. For a while he retreated to his house in Santa Teresa, supposedly writing his memoirs but really letting matters take their course. Then he was admitted with full honors into the Obregonista camp. He was a personal friend of General Plutarco Elías Calles. In 1935, his friendships and clout got him named state governor. He prospered, like all of them, and his house in Santa Teresa grew like an Erector set, without rhyme or reason, with new wings and stables and staff quarters and even a tennis court used only by his children. As a politician he was a disaster and there were those who said he was like some notorious Greek tyrant or deranged Roman general and others who likened him to Napoleon the Small or the bloodthirsty hypocrite Thiers, but General Sepúlveda didn’t give a fig about the nicknames and comparisons, classical or modern.

  He survived three assassination attempts.

  He had three sons, two of whom went to study and live in Texas, married American women, and founded the Austin branch of the Sepúlveda family. The third never married and lived in the big house in Santa Teresa until his death, in 1990. General Sepúlveda hardly undertook or encouraged any public works during the long years in which he served Mexico as governor of his home state or senator of the Republic. Three years before his death the street where he lived was rechristened Calle General Sepúlveda. After he died his name was given to a street in Hermosillo and the Santa Teresa State Hospital.

  A life-size bronze statue memorializes him now in the city’s main square. Its creator was the sculptor Francisco Clayton and it portrays the general staring nostalgically into the distance. It’s a strange sculpture, with much more dignity than the intellectuals of Santa Teresa, with their sarcastic and naïve mockery, give it credit for, and it’s also a sad sculpture—so sad, one might say, that it is rendered absent.


  Pancho Monje began to tail Amalfitano one Monday morning. He watched him leave at nine for the university and then, half an hour later, he watched his daughter leave. The usual thing would have been to follow Amalfitano, but Pancho let himself be guided by his instinct. When Rosa had turned the corner he got out of the car and followed her. Rosa walked along Avenida Escandón for a long time. For a moment Pancho was convinced that she didn’t know herself where she was going, then he thought that maybe she was on her way to school, some school, but the lightness of her step and the fact that she wasn’t carrying any books convinced him otherwise. At the intersection with Calle Sonora, Avenida Escandón changed name and got more crowded, and suddenly Rosa disappeared. There was no lack of coffee shops nearby, and Pancho went into one of them and ordered a breakfast of coffee, huevos a la ranchera, and toast. When he took the first sip of his coffee he realized that his hands were shaking. That night, at the police station, he was told that a girl had turned up dead in Parque México and he learned that Álvarez and Chucho Peguero were on the case. He went to see them and asked who the dead girl was.

  “Edelmira Sánchez, sixteen, hot stuff,” said Álvarez, and showed him a picture of a girl in a torn dress.

  While his buddies were working, he thought, he had spent the whole day at home, watching television and doing nothing.

  On Tuesday he began his vigil at Amalfitano’s house at seven in the morning. He left the Ford parked a block away and waited. For a long time he thought the house seemed empty, as if life inside had ceased that night while he was away, unable do anything about it. At nine the door opened and Amalfitano appeared. He was wearing a black blazer, and his white hair, perhaps too long for a man of his age, was still wet. Before he closed the door he said something to someone inside the house and then he set off walking. Pancho let him get a head start and then he got out of the car and followed him. Amalfitano’s strides were long. In his right hand he was carrying a cheap briefcase and there were two books in the pocket of his blazer. He passed several people but didn’t say hello to any of them. When he got to the bus stop he stopped. Pancho walked on past and went into a store, some fifty yards away. He found a can of Nestlé evaporated milk, paid for it, took out his penknife, punctured the top in two places, and drank from it once he was back out in the street. He passed the bus stop again, but didn’t pause. Amalfitano was reading one of the books. Pancho walked to where he had left the Ford and started it. Then he headed down the street until he found the bus that Amalfitano was waiting for and followed it. When the bus got to the stop, Amalfitano was still there. He got on with some other people and the bus pulled away. At nine forty Amalfitano entered the university amid a stream of students. Pancho followed him into the philosophy department and spent a while chatting with a secretary. The secretary’s name was Estela and she liked to go out dancing on Saturday nights. She was twenty-eight and divorced. She believed in friendship and honesty.

  “Clearly you work in the philosophy department,” Pancho said.

  When he got back to Amalfitano’s house Rosa had already gone out. Pancho rang the doorbell for a while. Then he went back to the car and put on some music. He felt his eyes closing and he fell asleep. When he woke up it was past noon. He started the car and drove away. He spent the rest of the day at El Jacinto, a bar on Calle Nuevo León that catered to policemen. At seven he went to wait for Amalfitano at the entrance to the university.

  The next day Pancho arrived a little before nine. At nine fifteen a taxi stopped in front of the house and Amalfitano ran out. At nine thirty Rosa emerged and set off on foot toward Avenida Escandón. This time she was carrying a plastic bag full of videocassettes. When Rosa turned the corner Pancho got out of the car and headed for the house. Getting in was no problem.

  The house consisted of a living room with an open kitchen, two big bedrooms and one small one, which was used as a junk room, and a bathroom. Behind was a yard with no plants or flowers. Pancho spent a while poking around the bedrooms. He didn’t find anything of potential interest, except some letters from Barcelona. He sat in a chair by the living room window to read them. He didn’t read all of them. Then he spent a while in Rosa’s room. He liked the smell. He looked for pictures but all he could find were a few snapshots of a beautiful woman with her arms around a girl. Hanging in the closet were clothes that might have been a girl’s or a woman’s. Under the bed were a pair of plush Pluto slippers. He smelled them. They smelled good. Like the feet of someone young and healthy. When he put them back under the bed his heart seemed to leap into his throat. He knelt there, still, his face buried in the blankets, which also smelled good, of lavender, warmth. Then he got up and and decided he had seen all he wanted to see.


  That night Professor Isabel Aguilar was thinking about Amalfitano when he called on the phone. Though it was still early, she had already put on her pajamas and poured herself a whiskey, which she planned to drink while she read a novel that she had been wanting to read for a long time. She lived alone and in recent years she had even found a certain satisfaction in that. She didn’t miss being part of a couple. There hadn’t been many men in her life and almost every relationship had ended in disaster. Isabel Aguilar had been in love with a philosophy student who ended up turning to the occult sciences, a militant Trotskyite who also ended up turning to the occult sciences (and bodybuilding), a truck driver from Hermosillo who made fun of her love of reading and who only wanted to get her pregnant (and then run off, or so she suspected), and a Santa Teresa mechanic whose intellectual horizon was soccer matches and weekend drinking marathons, marathons to which she herself became addicted. The only real love of her life was Óscar Amalfitano, who had been her philosophy professor at UNAM and with whom she had never gotten anywhere.

  Once Isabel Aguilar went to see him at his house, in Mexico City, prepared to confess her feelings for him, but when she knocked at the door it was opened by a woman so beautiful and with such a visible look of happiness and self-confidence that she almost turned and ran down the stairs.

  From that day on she became very good friends with Edith Lieberman, whom she admired and loved wholeheartedl
y, and she banished the love she felt for Amalfitano to the limbo of platonic affections. When Amalfitano and his family left for Canada their ties weren’t severed. Once a month, at least, Isabel wrote a letter telling them about her life and her professional advances and each month she got a letter, usually from Edith, updating her on the vicissitudes of the Amalfitano family.

  When Edith Lieberman died Isabel was truly sad, but deep down she thought that her day might have come. At the time she was living in Mexico City with the militant macrobiotic Trotskyite and for a few weeks she went so far as to dream of getting on a plane and leaving for a new life in Brazil, with Rosa (whom she planned to care for as if she were her own daughter) and Amalfitano. But her timidity and indecisiveness were insurmountable obstacles and for one reason or another in the end she never traveled to Rio.

  The letters, nevertheless, continued with even greater intensity than before. In them Isabel told Amalfitano things that she didn’t tell anyone else. When she separated from the Trotskyite he was her greatest source of support. Later, with the changes, they began to write less. Isabel fell in love with the truck driver and experienced a brief period of sexual fulfillment. It was for his sake that she went north, to Hermosillo, where she taught at the university. There she met Horacio Guerra, who at the time was putting together a new philosophy department at the University of Santa Teresa. When she broke up with the truck driver she didn’t think twice before accepting the offer that Horacio Guerra kept extending year after year.

  The first months in Santa Teresa were lonely. At some point Isabel Aguilar dreamed of a more active social life, the kind that because of the truck driver (or because of her faculty mates, who despised the truck driver) she hadn’t had during her time in Hermosillo, but she soon discovered that in Santa Teresa the philosophy professors didn’t associate with anyone and that the professors from the other departments shunned the members of the philosophy department as if they had the plague. This loneliness and her sexual proclivities (warped by her daily contact with the truck driver) led her almost without realizing it into the arms of the soccer fiend mechanic. When she was able to break up with him at last, she felt even lonelier than ever and she resumed with new vigor her correspondence with her former professor. At the same time—Isabel Aguilar would have had to be very dense not to notice it—her friendship with Horacio Guerra, after the interregnum of the mechanic, became closer, and at some point she even went so far as to think that after all they didn’t make such a bad pair.

  But Horacio Guerra, though far from avoiding Isabel’s presence, never seemed prepared to take the crucial step, to speak the precise words that would make Isabel, tired of sleeping with her intellectual inferiors, fall into his arms.

  Sometimes Isabel Aguilar thought that all her problems could simply be attributed to the fact that she had no luck with men.

  When Amalfitano arrived in Santa Teresa it was like a rebirth. For the first few days she was at his side almost constantly. She located a motel where he and Rosa could stay until they found a house. She helped them look for a house that was to Rosa’s liking. She drove them everywhere, like an absolutely loyal and selfless taxi driver. She took them to eat at local restaurants and showed them the city. To her surprise, Amalfitano and his daughter seemed not to appreciate any of her efforts. Rosa was in a perpetual bad mood and Amalfitano was lost in his own thoughts. One afternoon she decided that rather than being a help to the Amalfitanos, her presence had become an annoyance, and she stopped seeing them. She wasn’t capable, however, of distancing herself entirely, and on weekends they often got together. Isabel would pick up her car and arrive at the Amalfitano residence at the cocktail hour. Then they would go for a drive, never a very long one. Sometimes Isabel would take them to a place on the edge of town for a drink. Other times she saw Amalfitano alone, in the evenings, and they would go for a stroll or to the movies.

  When Amalfitano called and said that he wanted to see her, Isabel thought they would make a date for the following Saturday, so her astonishment was great when he said he wanted to see her that very night.

  “I’m in my pajamas,” said Isabel, accustomed to being the one who always visited Amalfitano.

  “I’m coming to your house,” said Amalfitano. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes. I need to talk to someone and I can’t do it over the phone.”

  Isabel downed the whiskey in a single gulp and then began to tidy up. She picked up some things in the living room, made the bed and straightened the bedroom, opened a few windows and aired out the house, closed the windows and sprayed a bit of Holiday Forever air freshener in the corners, then she splashed water on her face, put on a little makeup, and poured another whiskey.


  By Thursday Pancho could have delivered a full report on Amalfitano, but he didn’t.

  That morning he followed Rosa: he followed her along Avenida Sonora, followed her into a covered market where she did the shopping, and then followed her back to the house. It was noon before she appeared again. At twelve fifteen, one of the windows in the living room opened and he presumed that she was cleaning. Then he watched her go out into the yard, walk to the fence, bend down, and look for something. Then he watched her get up and head back to the house with surer steps. Muted pop music drifted on the breeze to the windows of his car. Then Rosa closed the window and all he could hear was the whisper of the sun falling on the pavement and the trees.

  At four in the afternoon Rosa went out again.

  He followed her on foot. Rosa walked at a good clip, in the same direction as always, toward Calle Sonora and then Avenida Revolución. She was wearing jeans and a gray sweatshirt. She had on low boots, with no heel.


  Padilla’s next letter was torrential. He began by saying that one night, drunk and high on pills, he had somehow ended up at a used-book store on Calle Aribau and suddenly, as if the book had leaped into his hands, he found himself with an old copy of J.M.G. Arcimboldi’s The Endless Rose, translated by Amalfitano. Your name in that tattered and precious volume!

  Arcimboldi, he said, had overnight become a fashionable author in Spain, where they were publishing or about to publish everything he’d written. Not a week went by without an article on the great French writer, or a profile of him. Even The Endless Rose (his third or fourth novel?)—a difficult and deceptive work despite its apparent simplicity, to the point that sometimes it seemed like a book for morons—was already in a second printing, when it had scarcely been out for a month. The new Spanish translation was by a writer from Navarra, suddenly revealed to be an expert—which he was, though he’d certainly kept it under wraps—on the Arcimboldean oeuvre. I prefer your translation, said Padilla, and every page that I reread makes me imagine you in that storm-tossed Buenos Aires, freighted with omens, where your innocence triumphed. Here Padilla gets it wrong again, thought Amalfitano, because even though the translation was for a Buenos Aires publishing house, he had done it while he was living in Mexico City. If I had translated Arcimboldi in Buenos Aires, he thought, I would be dead now.

  Of course, continued Padilla, he, too, had succumbed to the fashion for Arcimboldi and in a week he’d devoured the three novels in Spanish translation, plus another three in the original French that he’d found at the Librería Apollinaire on Calle Córcega, plus the controversial novella or long short story Riquer, which he’d read in Juli Montaner’s Catalan translation and which seemed to him a kind of long-winded Borges. In Barcelona there are those who say, said Padilla, that Arcimboldi is the perfect blend of Thomas Bernhard and Stevenson (old R.L., you heard me right), but he placed him somewhere nearer the unlikely intersection of Aloysius Bertrand and Perec and (brace yourself) Gide and the Robbe-Grillet of Project for a Revolution in New York. In any case, French to the hilt. Finally, he said that he was starting to get sick of the flocks of Arcimboldi exegetes, whom he equated with donkeys, animals he had always pitied though he hadn’t seen one in the flesh until he was nineteen, in Gracia, the propert
y of some Gypsies who moved like metropolitan shepherds from the grazing lands of one Barcelona neighborhood to another with the donkey, a monkey, and a barrel organ. Despite Buñuel and Dalí, I always loved Platero, it must be because we faggots get a kick out of all that Andalusian shit, he wrote, and these lines wounded Amalfitano deeply.

  As he saw it, Padilla was a poet, an intellectual, a fighter, a gay free spirit who dispensed his favors liberally, an engaging companion, but never a faggot, a term he associated with cowardice and enforced loneliness. But it was true, he thought then, he and Padilla were faggots, and that was all there was to it, period.

  With sadness, Amalfitano realized that he in fact wasn’t an authority on the work of Arcimboldi, though he had been the first to translate him into Spanish, more than seventeen years ago, when almost no one had heard of him. I should have kept translating him, he said to himself, and not wasted my time on Osman Lins, the concrete poets, and my atrocious Portuguese, but I struck out there too. And yet Padilla, Amalfitano realized, had overlooked something in his long letter (as had probably all the other Arcimboldians of Barcelona), a crucial feature of the French writer’s work: even if all his stories, no matter their style (and in this regard Arcimboldi was eclectic and seemed to subscribe to the maxim of De Kooning: style is a fraud), were mysteries, they were only solved through flight, or sometimes through bloodshed (real or imaginary) followed by endless flight, as if Arcimboldi’s characters, once the book had come to an end, literally leapt from the last page and kept fleeing.

  Padilla’s letter ended with two pieces of news: his breakup with his SEAT boyfriend, and the imminent—though why it was so imminent he didn’t say—end to his job as a proofreader. If I keep proofreading, he said, I won’t enjoy reading anymore, and that’s the end, isn’t it? About The God of Homosexuals he had little or a lot to say, depending: it’s a waltz.

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