Woes of the True Policeman, p.6Roberto Bolaño
Once, after discussing the curious nature of art with Castillo, Amalfitano told him a story he had heard in Barcelona. The story was about a recruit in Spain’s Blue Division who had fought on the Russian front in World War II, the northern front, to be precise, in an area near Novgorod. The recruit was a little man from Sevilla, thin and blue-eyed, who by some trick of fate (he was no Dionisio Ridruejo or Tomás Salvador and when he had to give the Roman salute he saluted, but he wasn’t a real fascist, or even a Falangist) had ended up in Russia. In Russia, someone said hey, sorche, hey, recruit, come here, do this, do that, and the word recruit stuck with the Sevillan, but in the dark recesses of his mind and in that vast place, with the passage of time and the daily terrors, it turned into the word chantre, or cantor. So the Andalusian thought of himself in terms of a cantor, with all the duties and obligations of a cantor, though he didn’t have any conscious idea what the word meant, which was choir director at some cathedrals. And yet somehow, by thinking of himself as a cantor he became one: during the terrible Christmas of ’41 he directed the choir that sang carols while the Russians pounded the 250th Regiment. In general, he bore himself with courage, though as time went by he began to lose his sense of humor. Soon enough he was wounded. For two weeks he was at the hospital in Riga under the care of the sturdy, smiling nurses of the Reich and some incredibly ugly Spanish volunteer nurses, probably sisters, sisters-in-law, and distant cousins of José Antonio. When he was released, something happened that would have serious consequences for the Sevillan: instead of being given a billet with the correct destination, he was given one that sent him to the quarters of an SS battalion stationed some two hundred miles from his regiment. There, surrounded by Germans, Austrians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, all much taller and stronger than he, he tried to explain the mistake but the SS kept delaying their verdict and until the matter was settled they gave him a broom, a bucket of water, and a scouring brush and set him to sweep the barracks and scrub the huge, oblong wooden structure where all kinds of prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Without resigning himself entirely to the situation, but performing his new duties conscientiously, the Sevillan watched the time go by from his new barracks, eating much better than he had before and safe from any fresh threat. Then, in the dark recesses of his mind, the word recruit began to appear again. I’m a recruit, he said, a raw recruit, and I must accept my fate. Little by little, the word cantor vanished, though some evenings, under an endless sky that filled him with Sevillan longing, it still echoed, lost who knows where. And one fine day the inevitable happened. The barracks of the SS battalion were attacked and taken by a regiment of Russian cavalry, according to some, or a group of partisans, according to others. The result was that the Russians found the Sevillan hiding in the oblong building, wearing the uniform of an SS auxiliary and surrounded by the not exactly past-tense horrors perpetrated there. Caught red-handed, as they say. Soon he was tied to one of the chairs that the SS used for interrogations, one of those chairs with straps on the legs and the seat, and every time the Russians asked him a question, the Sevillan replied in Spanish that he didn’t understand, he was just an underling there. He tried to say it in German, too, but he hardly spoke a word of the language, and the Russians didn’t speak it at all. After beating him for a while, they went to get another Russian who spoke German and who was interrogating prisoners in one of the other cells in the oblong building. Before they came back, the Sevillan heard shots and realized that they were killing some of the SS, and he almost gave up hope; but when the shooting ended, he clung to life again with all his might. The German speaker asked him what he did there, what his duties and his rank were. The Sevillan tried to explain in German, but to no avail. Then the Russians opened his mouth and with a pair of pliers that the Germans used for other purposes they seized his tongue and yanked. The pain made tears spring to his eyes and he said, or rather shouted, the word coño, cunt. With the pliers in his mouth the exclamation was transformed, coming out as the word kunst. The Russian who spoke German stared at him in surprise. The Sevillan shouted Kunst, Kunst, and wept in pain. The word Kunst, in German, means art, and that was how the bilingual soldier heard it and he said that the son of a bitch was an artist or something. The soldiers who were torturing the Sevillan removed the pliers along with a little piece of tongue and waited, momentarily hypnotized by the discovery. Art. The thing that soothes wild beasts. And just like that, like soothed beasts, the Russians took a break and waited for some sign while the recruit bled from the mouth and swallowed his own blood mixed with big doses of saliva and choked and retched. The word coño, however, transformed into the word art, had saved his life. The Russians took him away with the few remaining prisoners, and later another Russian who spoke Spanish came to hear the Sevillan’s story and he ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia while his accidental comrades were shot. It was well into the 1950s before he left Siberia. In 1957 he settled in Barcelona. Sometimes he opened his mouth and told the story of his little war in great good humor. Other times, he opened his mouth and showed the piece of tongue he was missing. It was hardly noticeable. When people told him so, the Sevillan explained that over the years it had grown back. Amalfitano didn’t know him personally, but when he heard the story the Sevillan was still living in the concierge quarters of some building in Barcelona.
At some point Castillo brought Amalfitano to see Juan Ponce Esquivel, art student and amateur numerologist, who lived in Aquiles Serdán, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Santa Teresa, west of Colonia El Milagro, near the old railroad tracks. The original idea was that Ponce would tell their fortunes, but when they got there they found him absorbed in a forecast of the nation’s future. I think we’re going to see the same heroes all over again, said Ponce as he served them tea. Carranza, for example, has already been born. He’ll die in the year 2020. Villa too: right now he’s a kid mixed up with narcos, hookers, and illegals. He’ll be shot to death in 2023. Obregón was born in 1980 and will be killed in 2028. Elías Calles was born in 1977 and will die in 2045. Huerta was born in the year that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and he’ll die in 2016. Pascual Orozco was born in 1982 and will die in 2016. Madero was born in 1973, the year of Allende’s fall, and he’ll be killed in 2013. Everything will happen all over again. The Mexican people will watch spellbound as new rivers of blood are shed. I get a bad vibe from 2015. Zapata was born already, in 1983; he’s still a kid playing out in the street, memorizing two or three Amado Nervo poems or four poemínimos by Efraín Huerta. He’ll die in a hail of bullets in 2019. The numbers say that everything will repeat itself. Everybody will be born again, the heroes, the soldiers, the innocent victims. The most important ones and the ones who’ll die first have already been born. But some are still missing. The numbers say that Aquiles Serdán will be killed again. Shit for luck, shit for fate.
Viva Mexico, said Castillo.
Amalfitano didn’t say anything, but he had the sense that someone, a fourth person, was saying something from the next room or from a big chest that Juan Ponce Esquivel had at the back of the room: excuse me, is anyone there? excuse me, excuse me?
Between the medical school and the plain—a bare open space scarcely interrupted by yellow hills under a high and mobile sky, across which the highway ran east—was the famous Botanic Garden of the city of Santa Teresa, under the stewardship of the university.
“Come and take a good look around,” said Professor Horacio Guerra.
There, tended by four bored gardeners, stood a small forest of no more than three specimens per species. The little dirt paths bordered by alluvial stones wound and unwound like snakes through the garden; in the middle rose a wrought-iron gazebo and every so often, in random spots, the visitor came upon limestone benches where he could sit. Little labels on stakes in the ground announced the name of each tree and plant.
Guerra moved like a fish in the water, his st
“There’s no need for that, I believe you, I believe you,” said Amalfitano, alarmed to see that Guerra was about to make good on his words and had pulled a bright green handkerchief emblazoned with the crest of the University of Charleston from his suit pocket.
“Blindfold me,” bellowed Guerra, with a smile that said I can’t help myself, don’t worry, I haven’t lost my mind.
Then he wiped the sweat from his brow with the handkerchief.
“Look at the plants and trees,” he said with a sigh, “and you’ll begin to understand this country.”
“They’re impressive,” said Amalfitano as he wondered what kind of person Guerra was.
“Here you have all kinds of agave and mesquite, our native plant,” said Guerra, making a sweeping gesture.
Amalfitano heard the song of a bird: it was a shrill sound, as if the bird were being strangled.
“Various species of cactus, like the giant pitahaya (Cereus pitajaya), the organ pipes, which are a different species of cereus, and the prickly pears, so delicious.”
Guerra filled his lungs with air.
“That’s a Cereus pringlei from Sonora, quite a night-bloomer if you look closely.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Amalfitano.
“There to the left is the yucca, beautiful without being showy, wouldn’t you say? and here is the divine Agave atrovirens, the source of pulque, which is a brew you should try, though make sure you don’t get hooked, sir, heh heh. Life is hard. Just think: if Mexico could export pulque, we’d give the whiskey, cognac, and wine makers of the goddamn world a run for their money. But pulque ferments too fast and can’t be bottled, so there you have it.”
“I’ll try it,” promised Amalfitano.
“That’s the spirit,” said Guerra, “one of these days we’ll go to a pulquería. You’d better come with me. Don’t even think of going alone, eh? No giving in to temptation.”
A gardener went by with a sack of dirt and he waved to them. Professor Guerra began to walk backwards. Over there, he said, more species of agave, the Agave lechuguilla, source of istle, the Agave fourcroydes, source of henequen. The path zigzagged constantly. Bits of sky and small, fast clouds appeared through the branches. Every so often Guerra sought something in the shadows: dark eyes that he scrutinized with his brown eyes without bothering to offer Amalfitano any sort of explanation. Ah, he said, ah, and then he was silent and he gazed around the Botanic Garden with a scowl that flickered between displeasure and the certainty of having found something.
Amalfitano recognized an avocado tree and was reminded of the trees of his childhood. How far away I am, he thought with satisfaction. Also: how near. The sky, over their heads and over the tops of the trees, seemed to be put together like a puzzle. Occasionally, depending on how you looked at it, it sparkled.
“There’s an avocado,” said Guerra, “and a brazilwood and a mahogany tree and two red cedars, no, three, and a Lignum vitae, and there you have the quebracho and the sapodilla and the guava. Along this little path is the cocoyol palm (Cocos butyracea) and in that clearing there’s amaranth, jicama, arborescent begonia, and spiny mimosa (Mimosa comigera, plena and asperata).
Something moved in the branches.
“Do you like botany, Professor Amalfitano?”
From where Amalfitano was standing, he could scarcely see Guerra. Guerra’s face was completely obscured by shadows and a tree branch.
“I don’t know, Professor Guerra, it’s a subject on which I plead ignorance.”
“Put it this way, do you appreciate the shapes, the external aspect of plants, their style, their spirit, their beauty?” Guerra’s voice mingled with the song of the strangled bird.
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, then, that’s something at least,” he heard Guerra say as the Mexican stepped off the visitors’ path and into the garden.
After a brief hesitation, Amalfitano followed him. Guerra was standing by a tree, urinating. This time it was Amalfitano who paused, startled, in the shadows under the branches of an oak tree. That oak, said Guerra, still urinating, shouldn’t be there. Amalfitano looked up: he thought he heard noises, little feet pattering in the branches. Follow me, ordered Guerra.
They came out onto a new path. Night was falling and the clouds that had been breaking up to the east were massing again and getting bigger. That’s the sacred fir, said Guerra walking ahead of Amalfitano, and those are pines. That’s a common juniper. When he came around a bend Amalfitano saw three gardeners taking off their overalls and putting away their tools. They’re leaving, he thought as he followed Guerra into the garden, which was growing darker and darker. The man is going to smother me with hospitality, thought Amalfitano. Guerra’s voice droned on, listing the gems of the Botanic Garden:
“The sacred fir. The common fir. Two shrubs, the guayule and the candelilla. Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides). The grass called zacatón (Epicampes macroura). Giant grass (Guadua amplexifolia). And here,” said Guerra, stopping at last, “our national tree, or at least that’s how I think of it, our dear, beloved ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum).”
Amalfitano gazed at Guerra and the tree and thought wearily but also with emotion that he was back in America. His eyes filled with tears that later he wouldn’t be able to explain to himself. Ten feet from him, his back turned, Professor Guerra trembled.
In his next letter, Padilla talked about Raoul Delorme and the sect known as the barbaric writers, created by Delorme midway through the 1960s. While the future novelists of France were breaking the windows of their high schools or erecting barricades or making love for the first time, Delorme and the nucleus of the soon-to-be barbaric writers were shut up in tiny garrets, concierge quarters, hotel rooms, and the backs of stores and pharmacies, preparing for the coming of a new literature. For them, according to Padilla’s sources, May of ’68 was a period of creative retreat: they kept indoors (eating stockpiled provisions or fasting), talked only among themselves, and—singly and in groups of three—practiced new writing techniques that would astonish the world, attempting to predict the moment when they would burst onto the world scene, a moment that was first erroneously calculated be 1991 but upon further divining adjusted to 2005. The sources Padilla cited were magazines that Amalfitano had never heard of before: Issue 1 of the Evreux Literary Gazette, Issue 0 of the Metz Literary Journal, Issue 2 of the Arras Journal of Night Watchmen, Issue 4 of the Literary and Trade Journal of the Grocers’ Guild of the Poitou. A “foundational elegy” by someone called Xavier Rouberg (“We salute a new literary school”) had been printed twice, in the Literary Gazette and the Literary Journal. The Journal of Night Watchmen included a crime story by Delorme and a poem by Sabrina Martin (“The Inner and Outer Sea”) preceded by an introductory note by Xavier Rouberg that was simply a shorter version of his “foundational elegy.” Featured in the Literary and Trade Journal was the work of six poets (Delorme, Sabrina Martin, Ilse von Kraunitz, M. Poul, Antoine Dubacq, and Antoine Madrid), each represented by a single poem—except Delorme and Dubacq with three and two, respectively—under the collective heading “The Barbaric Poets: When Pastime Becomes Profession.” As if to confirm what amateurs the poets were, their day jobs were indicated in parentheses beneath their names, next to the passport-style photos. Thus the reader learned that Delorme owned a bar, that Von Kraunitz was a nurse’s aide at a Strasbourg hospital, that Sabrina Martin worked cleaning houses in Paris, that M. Poul was a butcher, and that Antoine Madrid and Antoine Dubacq made a living tending newsstands. Regarding X
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