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Woes of the true policem.., p.7
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.7

           Roberto Bolaño
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  As had become customary, Padilla didn’t wait for Amalfitano to answer before he sent another letter. It was as if after putting a letter in the mail, a zeal for accuracy and precision compelled him to immediately send a series of explanations, particulars, and sources intended to shed further light on the missive already dispatched. This time Amalfitano found neatly folded photocopies of the covers of the Literary Gazette, the Literary Journal, the Journal of Night Watchmen, and the Literary and Trade Journal of the Grocers’ Guild. Also: photocopies of the articles cited and of the poems and stories by the barbaric writers, which upon brief perusal struck him as horrible: a blend of Claudel and Maurice Chevalier, crime fiction and first-year creative writing workshop. More interesting were the photographs (appearing in the Literary and Trade Journal, which looked as if it were printed by professionals, unlike the Journal and the Gazette, surely put out by the barbarics themselves, not to mention the Journal of Night Watchmen, mimeographed in the manner of the 1960s and full of crossings-out, smudges, spelling mistakes). There was something magnetic about the faces of Delorme and his gang: first, they were all staring straight at the camera and therefore straight into Amalfitano’s eyes, or the eyes of any reader; second, all of them, without exception, seemed confident and sure of themselves, especially the latter, light-years from self-doubt or a sense of their own absurdity, which—considering that they were French writers—might not have been so surprising, and yet it was, despite everything (let’s not forget that they were amateurs, though maybe it was precisely because they were amateurs, thought Amalfitano, that they were beyond any awkwardness, embarrassment, or whatever, drifting in the limbo of the naïve); third, the age difference wasn’t just striking, it was unsettling: what bond—let alone literary school—could unite Delorme, who was well into his sixties and looked his age, and Antoine Madrid, who surely had yet to turn twenty-two? Confident expressions aside, the faces could be classified either as open (Sabrina Martin, who seemed to be about thirty, and Antoine Madrid, though there was something about him that spoke of the tight player, the man of reserve), or closed (Antoine Dubacq, a bald man with big glasses who must have been in his late forties, and Von Kraunitz, who might just as easily have been forty as sixty), or mysterious (M. Poul, nearly skeletal, spindle-faced, cropped hair, long bony nose, ears flat to the skull, prominent and probably jumpy Adam’s apple, maybe fifty, and Delorme, by all lights the chief, the Breton of this writerly proletariat, as Padilla described him). Without Rouberg’s notes, Amalfitano would have taken them for advanced students—or simply eager students—of a writing workshop in some blue-collar suburban neighborhood. But no: they had been writing for a long time, they met regularly, they had a common writing process, common techniques, a style (undetected by Amalfitano), goals. The information on Rouberg came from Issue 1 of the Literary and Trade Journal of which he seemed to be the editor in chief, though his name didn’t appear on the masthead. It wasn’t hard to imagine old Rouberg—retired, though only spiritually, and under the stigma of who can say what sins—in the Poitou. The journals, of course, were from the collection of Raguenau, who each month received copies from all over the world. And yet, added Padilla, when asked about the four journals in question and the complete collection (Issues 1 through 5) of the grocers’ organ, Raguenau admitted to Padilla and his nephew Adrià, who was digitizing his library with the occasional assistance of Padilla, that he didn’t subscribe to any of them. How, then, had they come into his power? Raguenau couldn’t remember, though he advanced a hypothesis: perhaps he had bought them at an antiquarian bookshop or a bookseller’s stall on his last trip to Paris. Padilla affirmed that he had subjected Raguenau to hours of interrogation before coming to the conclusion that he was innocent. What had attracted him to the magazines was probably their air of kitsch. And yet it was too much of a coincidence that all of them contained information on the barbaric writers and that Raguenau had bought them at random. Padilla ventured another hypothesis: that Raguenau had gotten them from one of the barbaric writers, working among the other stall keepers. But the interesting thing, the truly interesting thing about this business, was that Padilla (astounding memory, thought Amalfitano, more and more intrigued) had previously come across references to Delorme. His name was mentioned by Arcimboldi in an old interview dating back to 1970 published in a Barcelona magazine in 1991, and also by Albert Derville in an essay on Arcimboldi from a book on the contemporary French novel. In the interview Arcimboldi spoke of “a man named Delorme, an amazing autodidact who wrote stories near where I was living.”

  Later he explained that Delorme was the concierge of the building where he lived in the early 1960s. The context in which he referred to him was one of fear. Fears, frights, attacks, surprises, etc. Derville mentions him as part of a list of bizarre writers handed to him by Arcimboldi just before the publication of The Librarian. According to Derville, Arcimboldi confessed that he had grown afraid of Delorme, believing that he cast spells and performed Satanic rituals and black masses in his cramped concierge quarters, by means of which he hoped to improve his written French and the pacing of his stories. And that was all. Padilla promised that he would delve further and report back soon. Was Arcimboldi’s disappearance related to the barbaric writers? He didn’t know but he would keep up the investigation.


  That night, after rereading the letter for the fourth or fifth time, Amalfitano had to get out of the house. He put on a light jacket and went for a walk. His steps led him to the center of the city, and after wandering around the plaza where the statue of General Sepúlveda stood with its back to the sculpture group commemorating the victory of the city of Santa Teresa over the French, he found himself in a neighborhood that, though only two blocks from the city center, displayed—even flaunted—every stigma, every sign of poverty, squalor, and danger. A no-man’s-land.

  The term amused Amalfitano, eliciting feelings of bitterness and tenderness; he too, over the course of his life, had known no-man’s-lands. First the working-class neighborhoods and the industrial belts; then the terrain liberated by the guerrilla. Calling a neighborhood of prostitutes a no-man’s-land, however, struck him as felicitous and he wondered whether those distant danger zones of his youth weren’t simply giant prostitution belts camouflaged in Rhetoric and Dialectic. Our every effort, our long prison revolt: a field of invisible whores, the glare of pimps and policemen.

  Suddenly he was sad and also starving. In blatant disregard of gastrointestinal prudence and caution, he stopped at a cart on the corner of Avenida Guerrero and General Mina and bought a ham sandwich and a hibiscus drink that in his fevered imagination was like the jasmine nectar or Chinese peach blossom juice of his childhood. The fucking insane wisdom, the discernment of these Mexicans, he thought as he savored one of the best sandwiches of his life: between two slices of bread, sour cream, black bean paste, avocado, lettuce, tomato, three or four slices of chipotle chile, and a thin slice of ham, which was what gave the sandwich its name and at the same time was the least important part. Like a philosophy lesson. Chinese philosophy, of course! he thought. Which reminded him of the following lines from the Tao Te Ching: “Mystery defines him. And in that mystery lies the gate of all that is most wonderful.” What defines Padilla? he wondered, walking away from the stand toward a big floodlit sign in the middle of Calle Mina. The mystery, the wonder of being young and unafraid and then suddenly afraid. But was Padilla really afraid? or were the signs that Amalfitano interpreted as fear actually indications of something else? In big red letters, the sign announced Coral Vidal, singer of rancheras; a communicative striptease; and a magician, Alexander the Great. Under the marquee, amid a swarm of insomniacs, were vendors of cigarettes, drugs, dried fruit, magazines, and newspapers from Santa Teresa, Mexico City, California, and Texas. As he was paying for a Mexico City paper—any of them, the Excélsior, he told the vendor—a boy tugged at his sleeve.

  Amalfitano turned. The boy was dark, thin, about ele
ven, wearing a yellow University of Wisconsin sweatshirt and running shorts. Come, sir, follow me, he insisted in the face of Amalfitano’s initial resistance. A few people had stopped and were staring at them. Finally he decided to obey. The boy turned down a side street full of tenements that seemed on the verge of collapse. The sidewalks were lined with cars that had been sloppily parked or, to judge by their sorry state, abandoned by their owners. From inside some apartments came a cacophony of angry voices and televisions blaring at full volume. Amalfitano counted at least three signs for cheap hotels. Their names struck him as picturesque, but not as picturesque as the sign on Calle Mina. What did communicative striptease mean? Did the audience undress too or did the stripper announce the items that she was about to take off?

  Suddenly the street fell silent, as if drawing in on itself. The boy stopped between two particularly dilapidated cars and met Amalfitano’s eyes. At last, Amalfitano understood and shook his head. Then he forced a smile and said no, no. He took a bill out of his pocket and put it in the boy’s hand. The boy took it and tucked it into one of his sneakers. When he bent down a ray of moonlight seemed to fall on his small, bony back. Amalfitano’s eyes filled with tears. Mystery defines him, he remembered. Now what? asked the boy. Now you go home and go to bed, said Amalfitano, and immediately he realized how stupid his chiding was. As they walked back, this time side by side, he pulled out more money and gave it to him. Wow, thanks, said the boy. Get yourself something to eat this week, said Amalfitano with a sigh.

  Before they left the street they heard sobbing. Amalfitano stopped. It’s nothing, said the boy, it comes from over there, it’s La Llorona. The boy pointed to the front door of a house in ruins. Amalfitano approached with hesitant steps. In the darkness behind the door, the sobs could be heard again. They came from above, from one of the upper floors. The boy stood next to him and pointed the way. Amalfitano took a few steps in the darkness but was afraid to follow the sound. When he turned he saw the boy standing there, balancing on a piece of rubble. It’s some guy from around here who’s dying of AIDS, he said glancing absentmindedly toward the upper floors. Amalfitano said nothing. On Calle Mina they parted ways.


  A week later Amalfitano returned with Castillo to the street where he’d heard the sobs. He found the house without difficulty: by the light of day it didn’t look as terrible as it had that night. In the entryway someone had tried to build a barricade. Inside, however, the building was in slightly better shape, though the windows had no glass and the hallways were a succession of rubble and holes.

  Should we go in? asked Castillo, with a squeamish look on his face. Amalfitano didn’t answer and began to poke around. In a room on the second floor he found a mattress and a couple of dirty blankets. This is it, come up, he called. In a corner was a kind of improvised brick hearth, and above it, dug into the wall, a rough niche holding a pot, a griddle, two soup spoons, and a plastic cup. At the foot of the mattress—on the floor but in relatively neat stacks—were movie magazines, everything from trash to art monographs, the latter in English but with lots of photographs. The spacing of the mattress, niche, and magazines conveyed a subtle and desperate sense of order holding at bay the chaos and ruin of the rest of the house.

  Amalfitano knelt to get a better look at the objects. This is like reading a letter from a dying man, he said when he was done with his scrutiny. Castillo, leaning in the doorway, shrugged. What does the letter say? he asked grudgingly. I can’t read it, it’s in a foreign language, though sometimes I think I recognize one or two words. Castillo laughed. What words: love, loneliness, desperation, rage, sadness, isolation? No, said Amalfitano, nothing like that. The word I see gives me the shivers because I never would have thought I’d find it here. What is it, then, let’s hear it. Hope, said Amalfitano, but so softly that at first Castillo didn’t hear him. Hope, he repeated. Oh, that, said Castillo, and after a few seconds he added: I have no idea where you see it, there’s more filth here than hope. Amalfitano stared at Castillo (Padilla would have understood) and smiled. Castillo returned the smile. When you’re like this, when you smile like that, he said, you look like Christopher Walken. Amalfitano gave him a grateful look (he knew very well that he looked nothing like Christopher Walken, but it was nice to hear Castillo say he did) and went back to rummaging through the room. Suddenly it occurred to him to lift up the mattress. Underneath, as if put there to iron out the wrinkles, he found a Hawaiian shirt. The shirt was green with swaying palm trees and blue waves tipped with the purest white foam and red convertibles and white hotels and yellow cake and tourists dressed in Hawaiian shirts identical to the Great Hawaiian Shirt with swaying palm trees and blue waves and red convertibles as if infinitely repeated in a pair of facing mirrors. No, not infinitely, thought Amalfitano. In one of the reflections, one of the layers, the tourists would be unsmiling, their shirts black. The images on the shirt sprang from the floor and clung to the back of Amalfitano’s troubled spirit. The rotting smell that suddenly swept over the room made him cover his nose and gag. The shirt was rotten. From the doorway Castillo made a face of disgust. Someone died here, said Amalfitano. Where’s the body, Sherlock? asked Castillo. At the morgue, of course. Oh, you can be so negative, sighed Castillo.

  When they emerged, the sun was beginning to drop behind roofs bristling with antennas. The sharp points seemed to puncture the bellies of the low-hanging clouds. On Calle Mina, the Teatro Carlota was advertising the same show. Amalfitano and Castillo stopped under the marquee and spent a long time reading the display while a big cloud passed overhead. Just then the box office opened. My treat, said Amalfitano. Are we going to see the communicative striptease? asked Castillo with a smile. Come on, keep me company, I want to see it, said Amalfitano. He was laughing too. If we don’t like it we’ll leave. All right, Castillo said.


  The show at the Teatro Carlota began at eight and was repeated continuously until two in the morning, though closing time tended to vary depending on the size of the audience and the mood of the performers. If a spectator arrived at eight, one ticket bought him the right to see the show multiple times or to sleep until the usher kicked him out in the early morning hours. This was the habit of country folk on visits to Santa Teresa when they got tired of their cheap hotels, and, more frequently, the habit of the pimps who worked Calle Mina. Those who were there to see the show usually sat in the orchestra seats. Those who were there to sleep or do business sat in the gallery. The seats there were less tattered and the lighting was lower. In fact, most of the time the gallery was sunk in impenetrable darkness, at least as viewed from the orchestra seats, a darkness broken only when the lighting man flung the spotlights here and there for one of the danceable numbers. Then the beams of red, blue, and green light illuminated the bodies of sleeping men and interlaced couples, as well as the huddles of pimps and pickpockets discussing the events of the afternoon and evening. Below, in the orchestra seats, the atmosphere was radically different. People were there to have fun and they came in search of the best seats, the closest to the stage, bringing beer and assorted sandwiches and ears of corn that they ate—previously slathered with butter or sour cream and dusted with chile powder or cheese—skewered on little sticks. Though the show was in theory restricted to those over sixteen, it wasn’t unusual to see couples with small children in tow. In the view of the box office, these children were so young that the show wouldn’t compromise their moral integrity, and thus their parents, for lack of a babysitter, needn’t be deprived of the miracle of Coral Vida singing rancheras. The only thing requested—of the children and their parents—was that they not run too much in the aisles while the acts were under way.

  This season the stars were Coral Vidal and a magician, Alexander the Great. The communicative striptease, which was what had brought Amalfitano to the Teatro Carlota, was in fact something supposedly new, brainchild of a choreographer who happened to be a first cousin of the owner and manager of the Teatro Carlota. But it didn
t work in practice, though its creator refused to admit it. In concept it was fairly simple. The stripper came out fully dressed and carrying an extra set of clothes, which, after much huffing and puffing, she crammed on over the clothes of a generally reluctant volunteer. Then she began to remove her garments while the spectator who had joined the act was invited to do the same. The end came when the performers were naked and the volunteer finally managed to rid himself, clumsily and sometimes violently, of his ridiculous robes and trappings.

  And that was all, and if the great Alexander hadn’t suddenly appeared—almost without transition and with no introduction whatsoever—Amalfitano and Castillo would have left disappointed. But Alexander was a different thing entirely, and there was something about the way he came out onstage, the way he moved, and the way he gazed at the spectators in the orchestra seats and the gallery (he had the stare of a sad old man but also the stare of an X-ray-eyed old man who understood and accepted everyone equally: the connoisseurs of sleight of hand, the working couples with children, the pimps plotting their desperate long-range schemes) that kept Amalfitano glued to his seat.

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