Woes of the True Policeman, p.2Roberto Bolaño
On the Ruin of Amalfitano at the University of Barcelona
The rector and the head of the literature department entrusted Professor Carrera with the mission of informing Amalfitano of his situation at the university. Antoni Carrera was forty-eight, a former anti-Franco militant, someone who at first glance led an enviable life. He seemed reasonably content, a happy man. His salary and that of his wife, a high school French teacher, covered the mortgage on an old house that he had renovated to suit himself and the occasional whims of an architect friend. The house was magnificent, with six bedrooms, a huge, bright living room, a garden, and a little sauna that was Professor Carrera’s greatest domestic pride.
His son, seventeen, was a good student, or so his parents thought. He was six foot two, and every Saturday aftenoon the Carreras went to watch him play basketball at a club in Sant Andreu. All three were in good health. Antoni Carrera and Anna Carrera had gone through some hard times and once, long ago, had even come close to divorcing, but that was in the past and their marriage had gradually stabilized; now they were good friends, they shared some things, but in general each led his or her own life. One of the things they shared was their friendship with Amalfitano. When he arrived at the university he didn’t know anyone, and Carrera, taking pity on him and following the unwritten rules of scholarly hospitality, held a dinner at his house—his welcoming, wonderful house—and invited Amalfitano and three other department colleagues. It was a peculiar affair. The professors didn’t know each other, nor did they have any particular interest in getting to know Amalfitano (Latin American literature no longer roused passions); the professors’ wives looked terminally bored; Carrera’s own wife wasn’t in the best of moods. And Amalfitano didn’t appear at the agreed-upon time. In fact, he was very late, and the hungry professors got impatient. One suggested that they begin without him. Most would have seconded the motion, but Anna Carrera had no interest in starting the same dinner twice. So they ate cheese and Serrano ham and reflected on the impunctuality of South Americans. When Amalfitano arrived at last he was accompanied by a strikingly beautiful adolescent. At first the Carreras assumed, stunned, that it was his wife. Humbert Humbert, thought Antoni in terror, seconds before Amalfitano introduced her as his only daughter. I’m a widower, he remarked later, unprompted.
The dinner, as Anna had feared, proceeded in the usual fashion. The Amalfitanos, father and daughter, weren’t very chatty. The professors discussed seminars, books, university politics, and gossip, though no one could say exactly what the topic was at any given moment: gossip turned into seminars, university politics into books, seminars into university politics, books into gossip, until every permutation was exhausted. In fact they were really only talking about one thing: their work. When they tried to get Amalfitano to tell the same kind of stories about his previous university (it was very small and I taught only one course, on Rodolfo Wilcock, he said, politely and abashedly), the result was disappointing. No one had read Rodolfo Wilcock, no one cared about him. His daughter talked even less. Despite all their efforts, the professors’ wives got monosyllabic replies to their questions: did she like Barcelona, yes, could she speak some Catalan yet, no, had she lived in many countries, yes, did she find it difficult to keep house for her widowed father, the classic absentminded literature professor, no. Though at the coffee hour (after eating, thought Carrera, as if father and daughter were used to eating in silence) the Amalfitanos began to take part in the conversation. Someone, taking pity on them, brought up a subject having to do with Latin American literature, which led to the first lengthy remarks by Amalfitano. They talked about poetry. To everyone’s surprise, and to the disgust of some (feigned surprise and disgust, of course), Amalfitano held Nicanor Parra in higher esteem than Octavio Paz. After that, as far as the Carreras—who hadn’t read Parra and didn’t care much about Octavio Paz—were concerned, everything began to go well. By the time the whiskey was brought out, Amalfitano was frankly winning, witty, brilliant, and Rosa Amalfitano, as her father’s happiness drew everyone into its embrace, grew more talkative, more forthcoming, though she never shed a certain reserve, a watchfulness, that made her even more charming in a way that struck Anna Carrera as most unusual. An intelligent girl, an attractive and responsible girl, she thought, realizing that imperceptibly she had begun to love her.
A week later the Carreras invited the Amalfitanos for dinner again, but this time, instead of the professors and their wives, the fifth person at the table was Jordi Carrera, the pride of his mother, a slender adolescent with a shyness that was in some ways like Rosa’s.
As Anna hoped, they became friends on the spot. And the children’s friendship ran parallel to their parents’ friendship, at least during the time the Amalfitanos lived in Barcelona. Rosa and Jordi began to see each other at least twice a week. Once a week or once every two weeks Amalfitano and the Carreras talked on the phone, dined together, went to the movies, attended exhibitions and concerts, spent hours—the three of them—in the Carreras’ living room, by the fireplace in winter or in the garden in summer, talking and telling stories about when they were twenty, thirty, and possessed of an invincible courage. Concerning the past—their personal pasts—the opinions of the three diverged. Anna looked back on those days with sadness, a fond and rather serene sadness, but sadness nonetheless. Antoni viewed his heroic years with indifference, as something necessary but almost nonexistent; he despised nostalgia and melancholy as pointless, sterile emotions. Amalfitano, on the other hand, was dizzied, thrilled, depressed by remembering, capable of weeping in front of his friends or bursting into laughter.
They usually talked late into the night, when Carrera would give Amalfitano a ride back to his apartment on the other side of Barcelona, wondering how he had come to confide in him so easily, how he had learned to trust him in a way that he hardly ever trusted anyone. Amalfitano, meanwhile, usually made the trip half-asleep, watching through half-closed eyes the empty streets, the yellow signs, the dark and bright windows, at peace with himself in Carrera’s car, sure of arriving home safe and sound, of coming in the door quietly, jacket on the coatrack, glass of water, and before getting into bed, a last glance into Rosa’s room, out of pure habit.
And now the rector and the department head, always so prudent, so circumspect, had assigned Carrera—because you see him socially, one might call him your friend, he’ll listen to you (was there a threat there? a joke that only the rector and the department head understood?)—this delicate mission which had to be carried out tactfully, with decorum, persuasively, and at the same time firmly. With unshakable firmness. And who better than you, Antoni. Who better than you to find a solution to this problem.
So Amalfitano wasn’t surprised when Carrera told him that he had to leave the university. Jordi, under instructions from his parents, had taken Rosa to his room, and from the end of the hallway came the faint sound of the stereo. For a while Amalfitano was quiet, looking down at the rug and at the feet of the Carreras sitting one next to the other on the sofa. So they want to get rid of me, he said at last.
“They want you to go voluntarily, as quietly as possible,” said Antoni Carrera.
“If you don’t they’ll take you to court,” said Anna Carrera.
“I’ve been talking to some people in the department and it’s the best you can hope for,” said Antoni Carrera. “Otherwise, you risk everything.”
“What’s everything?” Amalfitano wanted to know.
The Carreras gave him looks of pity. Then Anna got up, went to the kitchen, and came back with three glasses. When her husband, the night before, had told her that Amalfitano’s days at the university were numbered, and why they were numbered, she had begun to cry. Where’s the cognac? she asked. After a few seconds in which Amalfitano couldn’t understand what the hell this woman wanted, he answered that he didn’t drink cognac anymore. I gave it up, he said, closing his eyes, his lungs filling with air like someone about to scale a hill. Not a hill, thoug
“Don’t complain now,” said Antoni Carrera, as if reading his thoughts. “After all, it’s your own fault. You should have been more careful choosing your friends.”
“I didn’t choose them,” said Amalfitano, smiling. “They chose me, or life did.”
“Don’t wax poetic, for God’s sake,” said Anna Carrera, secretly angry that a man who was still handsome—and she really did find him handsome, tall and lean as he was, like a matinee idol, with that shock of white hair—would rather sleep with boys (probably pimply ones) than women. “You fucked up and now you have to suffer the consequences, do what’s best for you, and for your daughter, especially. If you fight it, the literature department will bury you in shit,” she said as she filled three glasses to overflowing with Viuda Canseco.
What a nice, blunt way to put it, thought Antoni Carrera, admiringly and gloomily.
Anna handed them the glasses: “Drink up, we’ll need it. What we should really do is send the kids to the movies and get drunk.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” said Amalfitano.
“The university is rotten,” said Antoni Carrera without conviction.
“But what does that mean?” asked Amalfitano.
“It means that in the best of cases, you’ll be left with a near-indelible stain on your record. Worst case, you could end up in jail as a corruptor of minors.”
Who was the minor, my God? thought Amalfitano, and he remembered the faces of the poet Pere Girau and a friend who sometimes turned up at Padilla’s studio, an economics student he had never slept with but whom he had seen in Padilla’s arms, the memory excited him, the boy surrendering to Padilla in a way that Amalfitano would never be able to, begging him between sobs and entreaties not to pull out, to keep going, as if the poor bastard were a woman, thought Amalfitano, and could have multiple orgasms. I disgust myself, he thought, though the truth is he didn’t disgust himself at all. He remembered other boys, too, whom he’d never seen before and yet who claimed to be students of his, Padilla’s gang, Padilla’s hangers-on, whom he favored upon grading exams (but not overly so) and whom he later saw at parties and on late-night pilgrimages to the James Dean, the Roxy, the Simplicissimus, the Gardel, Chance Encounters, the Doña Rosita, and the Atalante.
“How could you risk so much?” asked Antoni Carrera.
“I always used condoms,” said Amalfitano, remembering Padilla’s body.
The Carreras looked at him in confusion. Anna bit her lower lit. Amalfitano closed his eyes. He thought. About Padilla and his condoms. And suddenly the act appeared to him in a terrifying light. Padilla always used condoms when they slept together! And I never noticed. What horrific thing, what gallantry, lay hidden in that gesture? wondered Amalfitano with a lump in his throat. For a moment he was afraid he would pass out. The music coming from the room where Rosa was persuaded him not to.
“The rector has really behaved in a civilized fashion,” said Antoni Carrera.
“Put yourself in his place,” said Anna Carrera, still thinking about the condoms.
“I have,” answered Amalfitano despondently.
“Then will you do what we suggest? Will you be reasonable?”
“I will. What’s the plan?”
The plan was for him to make an official request for a leave of absence, claiming some physical ailment. A nervous breakdown, for example, said Antoni Carrera, anything. For two months he would continue to receive his full salary, after which he would resign. The university, of course, would furnish all the requisite positive recommendations and draw a veil over the affair. Naturally, he should by no means show his face at the department offices. Not even to get my things? asked Amalfitano. Your things are in the trunk of our car, said the Carreras in unison, downing their drinks together too.
I, thought Amalfitano, who was a creative, loving, happy child, the brightest at my elementary school lost on the muddy plain and the bravest at my high school lost in the mountains and the fog, I who was the most cowardly of adolescents and who spent afternoons of slingshot fights reading and dreaming over the maps in my geography book, I who learned to dance rock and roll and the twist, boleros and the tango, but not the cueca, though more than once I bounded under the leafy bower, handkerchief at the ready and driven by something deep inside me because I had no friends in my burst of patriotism, only enemies, purist hicks scandalized by my heel-tapping cueca, my needless and suicidal heterodoxy, I who slept off drinking binges under a tree and who met the imploring eyes of Carmencita Martínez, I who swam one stormy afternoon at Las Ventanas, I who made the best coffee in the apartment I shared with other students in the center of Santiago, and my roommates, southerners like me, would say wonderful coffee, Óscar, you make the most wonderful coffee, though actually it’s a little strong, actually it’s too Italian, I who heard the call of the Absolute Lazy Motherfuckers, time and time again, on buses and in restaurants, as if I had gone mad, as if Nature, sharpening my senses, wanted to warn me of something terrible and invisible, I who joined the Communist Party and the Association of Progressive Students, I who wrote pamphlets and read Das Kapital, I who worshipped and married Edith Lieberman, the most beautiful and loving woman in the Southern Hemisphere, I who didn’t realize that Edith Lieberman deserved it all, the sun and the moon and a thousand kisses and then another thousand and another, I who drank with Jorge Teillier and talked psychoanalysis with Enrique Lihn, I who was expelled from the Party and who kept believing in the class struggle and the fight for the revolution of the Americas, I who taught literature at the University of Chile, I who translated John Donne and bits of Ben Jonson and Spenser and Henry Howard, I who signed proclamations and letters from leftist groups, I who believed in change, in doing my bit to wipe away some of the world’s misery and abjection (without knowing yet—innocent that I was—the real nature of misery and abjection), I who was a romantic and who in my heart of hearts just wanted to stroll bright boulevards with Edith Lieberman, up and down, feeling her warm hand in mine, at peace, in love, while storms and hurricanes and great earthquakes of fate built up behind us, I who predicted the fall of Allende and yet did nothing to prepare for it, I who was arrested and brought in blindfolded to be interrogated, and who withstood torture when stronger men were broken, I who heard the cries of three Conservatory students as they were tortured and raped and killed, I who spent months at the Tejas Verdes concentration camp, I who came out alive and was reunited with my wife in Buenos Aires, I who kept up my ties with leftist groups, that gallery of romantics (or modernists), gunmen, psychopaths, dogmatists, and fools, all brave notwithstanding, but what good is bravery? how long do we have to keep being brave? I who taught at the University of Buenos Aires, I who translated J.M.G. Arcimboldi’s The Endless Rose for a Buenos Aires publishing house, listening as my beloved Edith speculated that our daughter’s name was an homage to the title of Arcimboldi’s novel and not, as I claimed, a tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, I who watched my daughter smile in Argentina and crawl in Colombia and take her first steps in Costa Rica and then in Canada, moving from university to university, leaving countries for political reasons and entering them for academic ones, carting along the remains of my library, as well as the few dresses belonging to my wife, who was in increasingly poor health, and the very few toys belonging to my daughter, and my only pair of shoes, which I called the Invincibles, miraculous leather tooled in the shop of an old Italian shoemaker in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca, I who spent sweltering evenings talking to the new radicals of Latin America, I who watched smoke drift from a volcano and aquatic mammals that looked like women frolicking in a coffee-colored river, I who joined the Sandinista Revolution, I who left my wife and daughter and entered Nicaragua with a guerrilla column, I who brought my wife and daughter to Managua and when they asked me what battles I had fought in, I
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