Woes of the True Policeman, p.3Roberto Bolaño
Horacio Guerra, professor of literature and official historian of Santa Teresa, distinguished polymath according to some friends from Mexico City, where he went every four months to soak up ideas, was, like Amalfitano, fifty years old, though unlike the latter he was beginning to enjoy a certain reputation—earned, God only knew, by the sweat of his own brow.
Born of humble stock, he had worked stubbornly his whole life to get ahead. He was awarded a scholarship by the government of Sonora, and finished his university studies at twenty-eight; he wasn’t a great student, but he was curious and, in his own way, diligent. At twenty-one he published a book of sonnets and cataphoras (Spell of the Dawn, Tijuana, 1964) that won him the respect of some influential reviewers at northern Mexico newspapers and inclusion, six years later, in an anthology of young Mexican poets edited by a young lady from Monterrey which managed to briefly engage Octavio Paz and Efraín Huerta in a dialectical battle (both despised the anthology, though for reasons that were contradictory and mutually opposed).
In 1971 he moved to Santa Teresa and began to work at the university there. At first the contract was for only one year, during which time Horacio Guerra finished a study and anthology of the work of Orestes Gullón (The Temple and the Wood: The Poetry of O. Gullón, with prologue and notes by J. Guerra, University of Santa Teresa, 1973), an underappreciated Oaxacan poet and old friend of the university rector. His contract was extended for another year and then for five and then indefinitely. Now his interests multiplied. It was as if he had suddenly become a Renaissance man. From the sculpture and architecture of the school of Maestro Garabito to the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Ramón López Velarde, pillars of Mexicanness, he dabbled in everything, sought to learn about everything, studied everything. He wrote a treatise on the flora and fauna of the Mexican northeast, and it wasn’t long before he was named honorary president of the Santa Teresa Botanic Garden. He wrote a brief history of the city’s old town, kept up a regular column called “Memories of Our City Streets,” and finally was named official historian, a distinction that filled him with satisfaction and pride. All his life he would remember the ceremony, which was only an informal gathering but was attended by the bishop of Sonora and the state governor.
In academic circles his presence was inevitable: he might have been slow on the uptake and not particularly charming, but he made sure he was seen where he needed to be seen. The other professors were divided between those who admired him and those who feared him; it was easy to take issue with his ideas, his projects, or his teaching methods, but not advisable if one didn’t want to be excluded from university activities and social life. Though a serious man, he was up on all the gossip and secrets.
In 1977 he published a book on the Potosí school of Maestro Garabito, who left his mark on the public buildings and plazas of the north of Mexico (Statues and Houses of the Border, University of Santa Teresa, thirty photographs and illustrations). Shortly after he was named professor, the book he considered his masterwork appeared: Ramonian Studies, on the life and work of Ramón López Velarde (University of Santa Teresa, 1979). The following year saw his book on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (The Birth of Mexico, University of Santa Teresa, 1980), a work that was dedicated to the rector and that sparked a kind of polemic: accusations of plagiarism appeared in two Mexico City newspapers but the slander didn’t stick. By this point something had developed between Guerra and the rector, Pablo Negrete, that could superficially have been called friendship. They saw each other, yes, and sometimes they had a drink together, but they weren’t friends. Guerra knew he was a glorified courtier—courtier, the term wounded and pleased him, filled him with pride and gloom, but it was the only one that fit the facts—and yet he believed that he, too, when the moment came, would be university president and that he would take under his wing another professor in circumstances similar to his own. For years now, too, he suspected that Pablo Negrete had been delegating to him only practical matters, resolving worldly matters without his counsel.
He lived in a permanent state of agitation.
At the time when Amalfitano met him, Horacio Guerra was a well-dressed man (this was a quality—like so many others—that he shared with the president, who over the years had become a dandy) among poorly or sloppily dressed professors and students. His manner was cordial, though he sometimes raised his voice excessively. His gestures for years now had tended to be peremptory. It was said that he was ill, but no one knew what was wrong with him. It was probably something do to with his nerves. He never missed a class. He lived in a fifteen-hundred-square-foot apartment in the center of Santa Teresa. He was still a bachelor. For a while now his students had been calling him by the nicer-sounding and more peaceable name of Horacio Tregua, Truce replacing War.
After Amalfitano had sent out fifty job applications and pestered the few friends he had left, the only school to show an interest in his services was the University of Santa Teresa. For a full week Amalfitano debated whether to accept the job or to wait by the mailbox for a better offer. In terms of quality, the only worse options were a Guatemalan university and a Honduran one, though neither had even bothered to send him a written rejection. In fact, the only universities that had gotten back to him to say no were the European ones with which Amalfitano had had previous dealings. All that was left was the University of Santa Teresa, and after a week of thinking it over, sunk in a deepening depression, Amalfitano sent word that he would accept the position. He soon received a copy of the contract, all the papers and forms he would need to fill out for his work permit, and the date when he was expected in Santa Teresa.
He lied to Rosa. He told her that his job was ending and that they had to leave. Rosa thought they would return to Italy, but she wasn’t unhappy to hear that they were going to Mexico.
At night Amalfitano and his daughter talked about the trip. They made plans, studied maps of northern Mexico and the southern United States, decided which places they would visit on their first vacations, what kind of car they would buy (a used one, like in the movies, at one of those lots with a salesman in a blue suit, red tie, and snakeskin boots), the house they would rent, no more apartments, a little house with two or three bedrooms, a front yard, and a backyard where they could barbecue, though neither Amalfitano nor his daughter was entirely sure what barbecuing was: Rosa claimed it involved a grill set up in the backyard (next to the pool, if possible) where meat and even fish were grilled; Amalfitano thought that in Mexico it actually involved a pit—a pit out in the country, ideally—into which one shoveled hot coals, then a layer of earth, then slabs of goat, then another layer of earth, and finally more hot coals; the pieces of meat, according to Amalfitano, were wrapped in the leaves of some ancient tree, the name of which escaped him. Or in aluminum foil.
Those last days in Barcelona, Amalfitano sat at his desk for hours, supposedly working but really doing nothing. He thought about Padilla, his daughter, his dead wife, random scenes from his youth and childhood. Rosa, meanwhile, was never at home, as if the moment she had to leave Barcelona she was seized by an irresistible urge to walk its streets, to see and commit to memory every inch of it. Usually she went out alone, although occasionally she was accompanied by Jordi Carrera, silent and distant. Amalfitano would hear him arrive, and after a brief interval in which nothing seemed to happen, he would hear them go and it was then that he most regretted having to leave Barcelona. Then he would stay up, though with the lights off, until one or two or three in the morning, which was when Rosa generally came home.
To Amalfitano, Jordi seemed a shy and formal boy. Rosa liked his silence, which she mistook for thoughtfulness when it was really just a symptom of the confusion raging in his head. For both young people, each day that went by was like a sign, the announcement of an impending future full of significant events; Rosa suspected that the trip to Mexico would mark the end of her adolescence; Jordi sensed that their time together would torment him someday and he
One night they went to a concert. Another night they went to a club where they danced for a long time like two strangers.
Who came to the airport? The Carreras—and, thirty minutes before boarding, Padilla and the poet Pere Girau. Jordi and Rosa’s farewell was silent. The Carreras and Amalfitano’s was traditional, a hug and good luck, write to us. Antoni Carrera knew the poet Pere Girau by reputation, but he greeted him politely. Anna Carrera, however, asked him whether his work had been published and if so where she could buy it. Jordi gave his mother an incredulous look. But you don’t read poetry, he said. Rosa—who, standing next to Jordi, looked much smaller than she was—said: it’s never too late to start, though I would choose something more classic, more solid. Like what, for example? asked the poet Pere Girau, who next to Jordi looked smaller, too (even smaller than Rosa), and who was hurt by the word solid. Padilla cast his gaze skyward. Amalfitano seemed to develop an interest in the fine print on his boarding passes. Catullus, said Rosa, he’s quick and fun. Oh, Catullus, said Anna, I read him ages ago, in college, I think, wasn’t it? Yes, said Antoni Carrera, we read him, of course. Jordi shrugged, but that was a long time ago, I’m sure you don’t remember any of it now. I haven’t been published yet, said the poet Pere Girau with a smile, though this year a collection of mine is coming out with Cavall amb Barretina, the new Catalan publishing house. And do you write poetry too? Anna asked Padilla. Yes, ma’am, but in Spanish, which means there’s no chance I’ll be published by Cavall amb Barretina. But there are other places where you could be published, aren’t there? Or so I imagine. What do you think, Toni? Of course there are other places, said Antoni Carrera, trying to give her a look that explained who Padilla was. Are all of your students poets? asked Rosa. Amalfitano smiled without looking at her. Not all of them, he said. Jordi thought: I should ask Rosa to come with me to the café for a drink, I should get her alone, I should bring her with me to the newsstand and say something, anything. Oh, these are students of yours, said Anna Carrera, at last understanding who they were. Yes, said Amalfitano, and then he smiled: former students. Shall we go get something to drink? Jordi asked. Rosa, after hesitating for a few seconds, said no, there wasn’t time. No, there isn’t time, said the Carreras and Amalfitano. Amalfitano was the only one to notice the boy’s dejected slump and he smiled, youth is the pits. Well, well, well, said Anna Carrera. Yes, the hour approaches, said Amalfitano. I’m so envious, said the poet Pere Girau, I’d love to be on my way to Mexico tonight, wouldn’t you all? I’m starting to feel that way, admitted Antoni Carrera. Padilla gave them a smile that was intended to be ironic but was only tender. It must be the moon, said Anna Carrera. The moon? asked Amalfitano. The moon, the moon, said Anna Carrera, the moon is huge, the kind that makes people go wild or take long trips to exotic countries. There are no exotic countries left in Latin America, said Rosa. Oh, no? asked Anna, who had always liked Rosa’s wit. No, Anna, there are no exotic countries left anywhere in the world, said Jordi. Don’t you believe it, said Amalfitano, there are still exotic countries and there must be one or two of them left in Latin America. Catalonia is an exotic country, said Padilla. Catalonia? asked the poet Pere Girau. The moon is certainly exotic, said Antoni Carrera sadly. Not even the moon, said Jordi, the moon is just a satellite. I love the full moon when I’m at the beach, I love to listen to the tide—is it coming in or going out? I’m never sure—while I’m moon gazing, said the poet Pere Girau. It’s coming in, said Antoni Carrera, and it’s called high tide. I thought high tide was when the water stopped rising, said Padilla. Actually, it’s the time it takes it to rise, said Antoni Carrera. I adore the ebb and flow, said the poet Pere Girau, rolling his eyes back in his head, though low tide is more practical because you can find treasures. He rolled his eyes back in his head, thought Rosa, disgusting! Do you remember our honeymoon in Peniche, Toni? asked Anna Carrera. Yes, said Antoni Carrera. The tide was very low, hundreds of yards out, and in the early morning light the beach looked like some extraterrestrial landscape, said Anna. In Brittany you see things like that every day, said the poet Pere Girau. But what you’re talking about has nothing to do with the moon, said Antoni Carrera. Of course it does, said Amalfitano. I don’t think so, said Antoni Carrera. It certainly does, said Amalfitano. Peniche is an exotic place, too, said Padilla, in its own way and with its government workers. Have you ever been to Peniche? asked Anna Carrera. No, but a third of Barcelona has camped there, said Padilla. Funny, it’s true, now everyone has been to Portugal, but when we went it was unusual to see another Catalonian, said Anna Carrera. It was political tourism, admitted Antoni Carrera quietly. My father took me to the Alentejo on vacation, said Rosa. Amalfitano smiled, in fact they had made only a brief stop in Lisbon, but he loved his daughter’s finely honed malice, she might be Brazilian, he thought happily. What is an exotic country, essentially? asked Jordi. A poor but happy place, said Amalfitano. Somalia isn’t exotic, of course, said Anna Carrera. And neither is Morocco, said Jordi. It can also be a country that’s poor in spirit but deeply joyful, said Padilla. Like Germany, which at least to me seems very exotic, said Rosa. What’s exotic about Germany? asked Jordi. The beer halls, the street food, and the ruins of the concentration camps, said Padilla. No, no, said Rosa, not that, the wealth. Mexico is a truly exotic country, said the poet Pere Girau, Breton’s favorite country, the promised land of Artaud and the Mayas, home of Alfonso Reyes and Atahualpa. Atahualpa was an Inca, a Peruvian Inca, said Rosa. True, true, said the poet Pere Girau. Then he was quiet until the moment came for hugs and farewells. Take care of your father, Anna Carrera said to Rosa. Take care of yourself and think of us every now and then, Padilla said to Amalfitano. The plural, like a flower flung in his face, dealt Amalfitano a soft blow. So low, he thought sadly. Good luck and bon voyage, said the poet Pere Girau. Jordi looked at Rosa, made a gesture of resignation, and couldn’t think what to say. Rosa turned to him and said let me give you a kiss, silly. Of course, said Jordi, and he bent down clumsily and they kissed on both cheeks. Jordi’s cheeks burned as if he had a fever, Rosa’s were warm and smelled like lavender. Anna kissed Rosa, too, and Amalfitano. Finally, they all hugged and kissed, even the poet Pere Girau and Anna Carrera, who weren’t going anywhere. When they were in line to board, Amalfitano raised his hand and waved a last time. Rosa didn’t turn around. Then the Carreras, the poet Pere Girau, and Padilla hurried up to the viewing area but they couldn’t see the Amalfitanos’ plane, though they did see a huge moon, and after a while, not knowing what to say to each other, each group went its own way.
Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes