Woes of the True Policeman, p.5Roberto Bolaño
For a while they strolled aimlessly along narrow sidewalks, skirting terraces, fried-fish stands, and northern European tourists. The few words they spoke to each other made them smile.
“Do you think I look like a gay German?” asked Padilla as they wandered the port in search of a cheap hotel.
“No,” said Amalfitano, “the gay Germans I know—and all my knowledge of them comes from books—are happy brutes like you, but they tend toward self-destruction and you seem to be made of stronger stuff.”
Immediately he regretted his words; it’s talk like that, he thought, that will destroy any kind of love.
About the plane trip Rosa remembered that in the middle of the Atlantic her father seemed sick or queasy and all of a sudden a stewardess appeared without being called and offered them a deep golden liquid, bright and sweet smelling. The stewardess was dark-skinned, of average height, with short dark hair, and she was wearing hardly any makeup but her nails were very well kept. She asked them to try the juice and then tell her what it was. She smiled with her whole face, like someone playing a game.
Amalfitano and Rosa, distrustful by nature, each took a sip.
“Peach,” said Rosa.
“Nectarine,” murmured Amalfitano, almost in unison.
No, said the stewardess, and her good-humored smile restored some of Amalfitano’s lost courage, it’s mango.
Father and daughter drank again. This time they took lingering sips, like sommeliers who are back on the right path. Mango: have you tried it before? asked the stewardess. Yes, said Rosa and Amalfitano, but we’d forgotten. The stewardess wanted to know where. In Paris, probably, said Rosa, in a Mexican bar in Paris, a long time ago, when I was small, but I still remember it. The stewardess smiled again. It’s delicious, added Rosa. Mango, mango, thought Amalfitano, and he closed his eyes.
Shortly after classes began, Amalfitano met Castillo.
It was one evening, almost night, when the Santa Teresa sky turns from deep blue to an array of vermillions and purples that linger scarcely a few minutes before the sky turns back to deep blue and then black.
Amalfitano left the department library and as he crossed the campus he spotted a shape under a tree. He thought it might be a bum or a sick student and he went over to check. It was Castillo, who was sleeping peacefully and was awakened by Amalfitano’s presence: when he opened his eyes he saw a tall, angular, white-haired figure, looking vaguely like Christopher Walken, with a worried expression on his face, and he knew right away that he would fall in love.
“I thought you were dying,” said Amalfitano.
“No, I was dreaming,” said Castillo.
Amalfitano smiled, satisfied, and made as if to leave but didn’t. This part of the campus was like an oasis, three trees on a mound surrounded by a sea of grass.
“I was dreaming about the paintings of an American artist,” said Castillo, “they were set along a wide street, in the open air, the street was unpaved, lined with houses and stores, all built of wood, and the paintings seemed about to melt away in the sun and dust. It made me feel very sad. I think it was a dream about the end of the world.”
“Ah,” said Amalfitano.
“The strangest thing is that some of the paintings were mine.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, it is a strange dream.”
“No it isn’t,” said Castillo. “I shouldn’t be telling this to a stranger, but somehow I trust you: I really did paint some of them.”
“Some of them?” asked Amalfitano as night fell suddenly over Santa Teresa and from a campus building, a building that seemed empty, came the music of drums and horns and something that might have or might not have been a harp.
“Some paintings,” said Castillo. “I painted them myself, forged them.”
“Yes, that’s how I make a living.”
“And you tell this to the first person who walks by, or is it common knowledge?”
“You’re the first person I’ve told, no one knows, it’s a secret.”
“I see,” said Amalfitano. “And why are you telling me?”
“I don’t know,” said Castillo, “I really don’t. Who are you?”
“Well, it doesn’t matter, that was a rude question, never mind,” said Castillo, in a protective tone that grated on Amalfitano’s nerves. “You aren’t Mexican, that’s plain to see.”
“I’m Chilean,” said Amalfitano.
His reply and the expression on his face when he admitted where he was from were humble in the extreme. So far away, said Castillo. Then both of them were silent, standing there facing each other, Castillo a bit taller because he was up on the mound, Amalfitano like a bird or some hulking raptor sensing in every pore the coming of night, the stars that were beginning swiftly (and also violently, this Amalfitano noticed clearly for the first time) to fill the sky of Santa Teresa, standing there motionless, waiting for some sign under the sturdy trees that rose like an island between the literature department and the administration building.
“Shall we get some coffee?” asked Castillo finally.
“All right,” said Amalfitano, grateful though he couldn’t say why.
They circled around the center of Santa Teresa in Castillo’s car, a yellow 1980 Chevy. Their first stop was at the Dallas, where they chatted politely about painting, forgeries, and literature, and then they left because Castillo decided there were too many students. Without speaking, they drove along streets unfamiliar to Amalfitano until they reached the Just Once, and then, strolling down brightly lit and shuttered streets where it was hard to park a car, they stopped at the Dominium of Tamaulipas and the North Star and later the Toltecatl. Castillo kept laughing and drinking more mescal.
The Toltecatl was a big, rectangular room, the walls painted sky blue. On the back wall, a six-foot-square mural featured Toltecatl, god of pulque and brother of the maguey goddess Mayahuel. Indian drifters, cowboys and herds of cattle, policemen and police cars, ominously abandoned customs stations, amusement parks on either side of the border, children on their way out of a school blazoned with the name—painted in blue on a whitewashed wall—Benito Juárez, distinguished son of the Americas, a fruit market and a pottery market, North American tourists, shoeshine men, singers of rancheras and boleros (the ranchera singers looked like gunmen, the bolero singers suicidal or like pimps, Castillo remarked), women on their way to church, and hookers talking, running, or gesturing mysteriously: this was the backdrop, while in the foreground the god Toltecatl, an Indian with a chubby face covered with welts and scars, laughed uproariously. The owner of the bar, Castillo told him, was a man by the name of Aparicio Montes de Oca, and in 1985, the year he bought the place, he had killed a man at the busiest time of day, in front of everyone. At the trial he got off by pleading self-defense.
When Castillo pointed out Aparicio Montes de Oca behind the bar, Amalfitano noticed how much the bar owner looked like the figure of Toltecatl painted on the wall.
“It’s a portrait of him,” said Amalfitano.
“Yes,” said Castillo, “he commissioned it when he got out of jail.”
Then Castillo took Amalfitano home with him to prove that he wasn’t lying, he really was a forger.
He lived on the second floor of a dilapidated three-story building on the edge of town. On the first floor hung the sign for a tool wholesaler; no one lived on the third floor. Close your eyes, said Castillo when he opened the door. Amalfitano smiled but didn’t close his eyes. Go on, close your eyes, insisted Castillo. Amalfitano obeyed and ventured cautiously into the sanctum to which he was being granted access.
“Don’t open them until I turn on the light.”
Amalfitano opened his eyes immediately. In the moonlight coming in through the uncurtained windows, he got a glimpse of the contours of a large room plunged in a gray fog. At the back he could make out a big Larry Rivers painting. What am I doing he
“Now you can look,” said Castillo.
The studio was much bigger than he had thought at first, lit by many fluorescent bars. In a corner was Castillo’s spartan-looking bed; in another corner, a kitchen reduced to the bare essentials: hot plate, sink, a few pots, glasses, plates, cutlery. The rest of the furnishings, apart from the canvases stacked everywhere, consisted of two old armchairs, a rocking chair, two sturdy wooden tables, and a bookcase filled mostly with art books. Near the window and on one of the tables were the forgeries. Do you like them? Amalfitano nodded.
“Do you know who the artist is?”
“No,” said Amalfitano.
“He’s American,” said Castillo.
“I can tell that much. But I don’t know who he is. I’d rather not know.”
“Do you want something to drink? I think I have everything.”
“Whiskey,” said Amalfitano, suddenly feeling very sad.
I’ve come here to make love, he thought, I’ve come here to take my pants off and fuck this naïve kid, this art student, this forger of Larry Rivers, early-or mid-career Larry Rivers, what do I know, a forger who brags when he should cringe, I’ve come to do what Padilla predicted I would do and what he surely hasn’t stopped doing for even a moment, even a second.
“He’s Larry Rivers,” said Castillo, “an artist from New York.”
Amalfitano took a desperate gulp of whiskey.
“I know,” he said. “I know Larry Rivers. I know Frank O’Hara, so I know Larry Rivers.”
“Why did you say you didn’t, then? Are they that bad?” asked Castillo, not offended in the least.
“I can’t imagine who buys them, frankly,” said Amalfitano, feeling worse and worse.
“Oh, they sell, believe me.” Castillo’s voice was smooth and persuasive. “There’s a Texan who buys them—short little guy, a real character, you have to meet him—and then he sells them to other filthy rich Texans.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Amalfitano. “Forgive me. We’re here to go to bed, aren’t we? Or maybe not. Again, forgive me.”
“Yes, if you want. If you don’t, I’ll take you home and we’ll pretend nothing happened. I think you’ve had too much to drink.”
“So do you want to?”
“I want to be with you, in bed or talking, it makes no difference. Or not much, anyway.”
“Forgive me,” murmured Amalfitano and he dropped onto a sofa. “I don’t feel well, I think I’m drunk.”
“No worries,” said Castillo, sitting down beside him, on the floor, on an old Indian rug. “I’ll make you coffee.”
After a while the two of them lit cigarettes. Amalfitano told Castillo that he had a seventeen-year-old daughter. They talked, too, about painting and poetry, about Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara. Then Castillo drove him home.
The next day, when he got out of his last class, Castillo was waiting for him in the hall. That same afternoon they slept together for the first time.
One morning a gardener stopped by Amalfitano’s classroom and handed him a note from Horacio Guerra. Guerra wanted to see him in his office at two. Without fail. Guerra’s office turned out to be hard to find. Guerra’s secretary and another woman drew him a map. It was on the first floor of the department building, at the back, next to the little theater—hardly bigger than a classroom—where college actors put on plays once a month for students, family, teachers, and other Santa Teresa intellectuals. Horacio Guerra was the director, and next to the dressing room, in what must once have been the props room, he had set up his office. It was a space with no natural light, the walls papered with posters for old shows, a shelf of university press books, a big oak table stacked with papers, and three chairs in a semicircle, facing a black leather swivel chair.
When Amalfitano came in, the room was dark. He spied Guerra sunk low in the big chair and for an instant he thought the other man was asleep. When he turned on the light he saw that Guerra was wide awake: his eyes were unnaturally alert and bright, as if he were high, and there was a sly smile on his lips. Despite the manner of their meeting, they greeted each other formally. They talked about the school year, about Amalfitano’s predecessors, and about the university’s need for good professors. In the sciences the best people left for Monterrey or Mexico City, or made the leap to some American university. In the arts it’s a different story, said Guerra, nobody pulls a fast one on me, but to make sure of it I have to be everywhere, supervise everything personally, it’s a lot to handle. I can imagine, said Amalfitano, who had decided to tread with care. Then they talked about theater. Horacio Guerra wanted to revamp the department’s drama program and in order to do so he needed the cooperation of everyone. Absolutely everyone. The department had two theater groups, but if he was to speak frankly both were undisciplined. Though the students weren’t bad actors. Amalfitano wanted to know what he meant by undisciplined. Announcing the date of an opening and not opening, losing an actor and having no understudy, starting the show half an hour late, failing to stick to a budget. My task, explained Guerra, is to find the evil and root it out. And I’ve found it, my friend, and I’ve rooted it out. Do you want to know what it was? Yes, of course, said Amalfitano. The directors! That’s right, those ignorant kids, ignorant but most of all undisciplined, who have no idea that a play is like a battlefield, complete with logistics, artillery, infantry, cavalry to cover the flanks (or light armored units, don’t take me for some old fart, even air squadrons if you insist), tanks, engineers, scouts, etc., etc.
“Actually,” said Guerra, “as you may have guessed, this isn’t my office. My office has air and light and I take pride in the furniture, but good generals have to stand with their troops, so I moved here.”
“I know,” said Amalfitano, “your secretary told me.”
“Have you been to my other office?”
“Yes,” said Amalfitano, “that’s where they told me how to get here. I guess it took me a while to find you. At first I got lost.”
“Yes, yes, the same thing always happens. Even our theatergoers get lost on their way to our plays. Maybe I should put up signs pointing the way.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Amalfitano.
They continued their conversation about theater, although Guerra avoided asking Amalfitano what he thought about the repertory he had planned. The only authors Amalfitano had heard of were Salvador Novo and Rodolfo Usigli. The others sounded either like discoveries or yawning pits. All the while Guerra talked about his project as if he were planning a delicate repast that only a few would really attack with relish. Not a word was spoken about Amalfitano’s job. When they parted, an hour later, Guerra asked whether he’d been to the Botanic Garden. Not yet, answered Amalfitano. Later, as he was waiting for a taxi to take him home, he wondered why Guerra had sent a gardener rather than an office boy to summon him. It seems a good sign, he thought.
The Texan; the people who bought the fake Larry Rivers paintings from the Texan; Castillo, who sincerely believed he was doing good work; the art market in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas: all of them, thought Amalfitano, were ultimately like characters from an eighteenth-century philosophical novel, exiled on a continent like the moon, the dark side of the moon, the perfect spot for them to grow and be formed, innocent and greedy, singular and brave, dreamers and utterly naïve. How else to explain, he thought, that not only are these paintings commissioned and painted but even sold, that there are people who buy them, and no one exposes them and turns them in? The art spreads across Texas, thought Amalfitano, like a revelation, like a lesson in humility that bypasses the dealers, like a kind of goodness that redeems everything, even bad forgeries, and he immediately pictured those fake Berdies, those fake camels, and those extremely fake Primo Levis (some of the faces undeniably Mexican) in the private salons
But then he came back down to earth and cast a skeptical eye over Castillo’s paintings and was assailed by doubt: either he had forgotten how Larry Rivers painted or the Texas art buyers were a bunch of blind raving lunatics. He thought, too, about the loathsome Tom Castro and said to himself that yes, maybe the authenticity of the canvases resided precisely in their failure to exactly replicate the Larry Rivers paintings, allowing them, paradoxically, to pass for originals. Through an act of faith. Because those Texans needed paintings and because faith is comforting.
Then he imagined Castillo painting—with such effort, such dedication—a beautiful boy blithely asleep on the university campus or wherever, dreaming about mixed-race exhibitions in which the authentic and the fake, the serious and the playful, the real work and the shadow, embraced and marched together toward destruction. And he thought about Castillo’s smiling eyes, his laugh, his big white teeth, about his hands showing him the strange city, and despite everything he felt happy, lucky, and he even managed to appreciate the camels.
Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes