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Woes of the true policem.., p.8
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       Woes of the True Policeman, p.8

           Roberto Bolaño
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  Good day, said Alexander. Good day and good evening, kind members of the audience. From his left hand sprouted a paper moon, some ten inches in diameter, white with gray striations. It began to rise on its own until it was six feet above his head. His accent, Amalfitano realized almost at once, wasn’t Mexican or Latin American or Spanish. Then the balloon burst in the air, releasing a cascade of white flowers, carnations. The audience, which seemed to know Alexander from previous shows and to respect him, applauded generously. Amalfitano wanted to clap, too, but then the flowers froze in the air and—after a brief pause in which they remained still and trembling—re-formed in a five-foot ring around the old man’s waist. The burst of applause was even greater. And now, esteemed and honorable members of the audience, we’re going to play some cards. So the magician was a foreigner, not a native speaker of Spanish, but where is he from, wondered Amalfitano, and how did he end up in this lost city, good as he is? Maybe he’s from Texas, he thought.

  The card trick was nothing spectacular, but it managed to interest Amalfitano in a strange way that even he didn’t understand. Part of it was anticipation, but part of it also was fear. At first Alexander spoke from onstage—with a deck of cards in his right hand one moment and in his left the next—on the qualities of the cardsharp and the countless dangers that lie in wait for him. A deck of cards, as anyone can see, he said, can lead a decent working man to ruin, humiliation, or death. It can lead a woman to perdition, if you know what I mean, he said, winking an eye but never losing his air of solemnity. He was like a TV evangelist, thought Amalfitano, but the strangest thing was that the people listened to him intently. Even up above, in the gallery, a few crime-hardened and sleepy faces popped up, the better to follow the magician’s rounds. Alexander moved with increasing decisiveness around the stage and then up and down the aisles of the orchestra level, talking always about cards, cards as nemesis, the great lonely dream of the deck, poker-faced players and players who talk a big game, in an accent that definitely wasn’t Texan, while the eyes of the audience followed him in silence, uncomprehendingly, or so Amalfitano supposed (he didn’t understand, either, and maybe there was nothing to understand). Until suddenly the old man stopped in the middle of an aisle and said all right, here we go, I won’t take up any more of your time.

  What happened next left Amalfitano openmouthed in astonishment. Alexander approached a member of the audience and asked him to check his pocket. The man did as he was told, and when he removed his hand there was a card in it. Immediately the magician urged another person in the same row, much farther down, to do the same. Another card. And then a new card appeared in a different row, and one after another the cards—to the cheers of the audience—began to form a royal flush of hearts. When only two cards were left, the magician looked at Amalfitano and asked him to check his wallet. He’s more than ten feet away, thought Amalfitano, if there’s a trick it must be a good one. In his wallet, between a picture of Rosa at ten and a wrinkled, yellowing slip of paper, he found the card. What card is it, sir? asked the magician, fixing his eyes on Amalfitano and speaking in that peculiar accent that Amalfitano couldn’t quite place. The queen of hearts, said Amalfitano. The magician smiled at him the way his father might have. Perfect, sir, thank you, he said, and before he turned he winked an eye. The eye was neither big nor small, brown with green splotches. Then he strode confidently—triumphantly, one might say—to a row where two children were asleep in their parents’ arms. Do me the favor of removing your son’s shoe, he said. The father, a thin, sinewy man with a friendly smile, removed the child’s shoe. In it was the card. Tears rolled down Amalfitano’s face and Castillo’s fingers delicately brushed his cheek. The king of hearts, said the father. The magician nodded. And now the little girl’s shoe, he said. The father removed his daughter’s shoe and held another card up in the air, so that everyone could see it. And what card is that, sir, if you’ll be so kind? The joker, said the father.


  Amalfitano often had nightmares. His dream (one in which Edith Lieberman and Padilla had Chilean elevenses with tea, buns, avocado, tomato jam made by his mother, rolls and homemade butter nearly the color of a sheet of Ingres-Fabriano paper) opened up and let in the nightmare. There, in those lonely latitudes, Che Guevara strolled up and down a dark corridor and in the background huge diamond-crusted glaciers shifted and creaked and seemed to sigh as at the birth of history. Why did I translate the Elizabethans and not Isaac Babel or Boris Pilniak? Amalfitano asked himself, disconsolate, unable to escape the nightmare but still holding scraps of the dream (beyond the glaciers the whole distant horizon was Edith Lieberman and Padilla having their delicious elevenses) in his empty, frozen, nearly transparent hands. Why didn’t I slip like Mighty Mouse through the bars of the Lenin Prizes and the Stalin Prizes and the Korean Women Collecting Signatures for Peace and discover what was there to be discovered, what only the blind couldn’t see? Why didn’t I stand up at one of those oh-so-serious meetings of leftist intellectuals and say the Russians the Chinese the Cubans are making a fucking mess of things? Why didn’t I stand up for the Marxists? Stand up for the pariahs? March in step with history while history was being born? Offer silent assistance at its birth along the way? Somehow, Amalfitano said to himself from the depths of his nightmare, his tone scholarly and his voice unrecognizably hoarse, masochist that I am, I blame myself for crimes that were never committed: by 1967 I had already been expelled from the Chilean Communist Party, my comrades had run me down and turned me out, I was no longer well liked. Why do I blame myself, then? I didn’t kill Isaac Babel. I didn’t destroy Reinaldo Arenas’s life. I wasn’t part of the Cultural Revolution and I didn’t sing the praises of the Gang of Four like other Latin American intellectuals. I was the simple-minded son of Rosa Luxemburg and now I’m an old faggot, in each case the object of mockery and ridicule. So what do I have to blame myself for? My Gramsci, my situationism, my Kropotkin (lauded by Oscar Wilde as one of the greatest men on earth)? For my mental hang-ups, my lack of civic responsibility? For having seen the Korean Women Gathering Signatures for Peace and not stoning them? (I should have buggered them, thought Amalfitano from the whirl of glaciers, I should have fucked those fake Koreans until their true identity was revealed: Ukrainian Women Gathering Wheat for Peace, Cuban Women Gathering Cockles in an Unremitting Latin American Twilight.) What am I guilty of, then? Of having loved and continuing to love—no, not of loving: of longing. Of longing for the conversation of my friends who took to the hills because they never grew up and they believed in a dream and because they were Latin American men, true macho men, and they died? (And what do their mothers, their widows, have to say about it?) Did they die like rats? Did they die like soldiers in the Wars of Independence? Did they die tortured, shot in the back of the head, dumped in the sea, buried in secret cemeteries? Was their dream the dream of Neruda, of the Party bureaucrats, of the opportunists? Mystery, mystery, Amalfitano said to himself from the depths of the nightmare. And he said to himself: someday Neruda and Octavio Paz will shake hands. Sooner or later Paz will make room on Olympus for Neruda. But we will always be on the outside. Far from Octavio Paz and Neruda. Over there, Amalfitano said to himself like a madman, look over there, dig over there, over there lie traces of truth. In the Great Wilderness. And he said to himself: it’s with the pariahs, with those who have nothing at all to lose, that you’ll find some justification, if not vindication; and if not justification, then the song, barely a murmur (maybe not voices, maybe only the wind in the branches), but a murmur that cannot be silenced.


  The root of all my ills, thought Amalfitano sometimes, is my admiration for Jews, homosexuals, and revolutionaries (true revolutionaries, the romantics and the dangerous madmen, not the apparatchiks of the Communist Party of Chile or its despicable thugs, those hideous gray beings). The root of all my ills, he thought, is my admiration for a certain kind of junkie (not the poet junkie or the artist junkie but the straight-up junkie, the kind y
ou rarely come across, the kind who almost literally gnaws at himself, the kind like a black hole or a black eye, with no hands or legs, a black eye that never opens or closes, the Lost Witness of the Tribe, the kind who seems to cling to drugs in the same way that drugs cling to him). The root of all my ills is my admiration for delinquents, whores, the mentally disturbed, said Amalfitano to himself with bitterness. When I was an adolescent I wanted to be a Jew, a Bolshevik, black, homosexual, a junkie, half-crazy, and—the crowning touch—a one-armed amputee, but all I became was a literature professor. At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels. (The Poets, in Amalfitano’s view, were those beings who flashed like lightning bolts, and the Novels were the stories that sprang from Don Quixote). At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful.


  Amalfitano hardly ever thought about old age. Sometimes he saw himself with a cane, strolling along a bright tree-lined boulevard and cackling to himself. Other times he saw himself trapped, without Rosa, the curtains drawn and the door propped shut with two chairs. We Chileans, he said to himself, don’t know how to grow old and as a general rule we make the most terrific fools of ourselves; ridiculous as we are, though, there’s something courageous about our old age, as if when we grow wrinkled and fall ill we recover the courage of our rugged childhoods in the land of earthquakes and tsunamis. (Though what Amalfitano knew about Chileans was only supposition, considering how long it had been since he’d associated with any of them.)


  In one of his classes, Amalfitano said: the birth of modern Latin American poetry is marked by two poems. The first is “The Soliloquy of the Individual,” by Nicanor Parra, published in Poemas y antipoemas, Editorial Nascimento, Chile, 1954. The second is “Trip to New York,” by Ernesto Cardenal, published in a Mexico City magazine in the mid-’70s (1974, I think, but don’t quote me on that), which I have in Ernesto Cardenal’s Antología, Editorial Laia, Barcelona, 1978. Of course, Cardenal had already written “Zero Hour,” “Psalms,” “Homage to the American Indians,” and “Coplas on the Death of Merton,” but it’s “Trip to New York” that to me marks the turning point, the definitive fork in the road. “Trip” and “Soliloquy” are the two faces of modern poetry, the devil and the angel, respectively (and let us not forget the curious fact—though it may be rather more than that—that in “Trip” Ernesto Cardenal mentions Nicanor Parra). This is perhaps the most lucid and terrible moment, after which the sky grows dark and the storm is unleashed.

  Those who disagree can sit here and wait for Don Horacio Tregua, those who agree can follow me.


  Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet Happiest: García Lorca.

  Most tormented: Celan. Or Trakl, according to others, though there are some who claim that the honors go to the Latin American poets killed in the insurrections of the ’60s and ’70s. And there are those who say: Hart Crane.

  Most handsome: Crevel and Félix de Azúa.

  Fattest: Neruda and Lezama Lima (though I remembered—and with grateful resolve chose not to mention—the whale-like bulk of a Panamanian poet by the name of Roberto Fernández, keen reader and best of friends).

  Banker of the soul: T. S. Eliot.

  Whitest, the alabaster banker: Wallace Stevens.

  Rich kid in hell: Cernuda and Gilberto Owen.

  Strangest wrinkles: Auden.

  Worst temper: Salvador Díaz Mirón. Or Gabriela Mistral, according to others.

  Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.

  Secretary to the alabaster banker: Francis Ponge.

  Best houseguest: Amado Nervo.

  Worst houseguest: various and conflicting opinions: Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, e. e. cummings, Adrian Henri, Seamus Heaney, Gregory Corso, Michel Bulteau, the Hermanitos Campos, Alejandra Pizarnik, Leopoldo María Panero and his older brother, Jaime Sabines, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Mario Benedetti.

  Best deathbed companion: Ernesto Cardenal.

  Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, José Emilio Pacheco.

  Best in the kitchen: Coronel Urtecho (but Amalfitano reminded them of Pablo de Rokha and read him and there was no argument).

  Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra. Others: Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder.

  Most clearsighted: Martín Adán.

  Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olson.

  Most desirable as a literature professor, though only in short bursts: Ezra Pound.

  Most desirable as a literature professor for all eternity: Borges.

  Greatest sufferer: Vallejo, Pavese.

  Best deathbed companion after Ernesto Cardenal: William Carlos Williams.

  Most full of life: Violeta Parra, Alfonsina Storni (though Amalfitano pointed out that both had killed themselves), Dario Bellezza.

  Most rational way of life: Emily Dickinson and Cavafy (though Amalfitano pointed out that—according to conventional wisdom—both were failures).

  Most elegant: Tablada.

  Best Hollywood gangster: Antonin Artaud.

  Best New York gangster: Kenneth Patchen.

  Best Medellín gangster: Álvaro Mutis.

  Best Hong Kong gangster: Robert Lowell (applause), Pere Gimferrer.

  Best Miami gangster: Vicente Huidobro.

  Best Mexican gangster: Renato Leduc.

  Laziest: Daniel Biga. Or, according to some, Oquendo de Amat.

  Best masked man: Salvador Novo.

  Biggest nervous wreck: Roque Dalton. Also: Diane Di Prima, Pasolini, Enrique Lihn.

  Best drinking buddy: several names were mentioned, among them Cintio Vitier, Oliverio Girondo, Nicolas Born, Jacques Prévert, and Mark Strand, who was said to be an expert in martial arts.

  Worst drinking buddy: Mayakovsky and Orlando Guillén.

  Most fearless dancer with American death: Macedonio Fernández.

  Most homegrown, most Mexican: Ramón López Velarde and Efraín Huerta. Other opinions: Maples Arce, Enrique González Martínez, Alfonso Reyes, Carlos Pellicer, fair-haired Villaurrutia, Octavio Paz, of course, and the female author of Rincones románticos (1992), whose name no one could remember.


  Question: Why would you want Amado Nervo as a houseguest?

  Answer: Because he was a good man, industrious and resourceful, the kind of person who helps set the table and wash the dishes. I’m sure he wouldn’t even hesitate to sweep the floor, though I wouldn’t let him. He would watch TV shows with me and discuss them afterward, he would listen to my troubles, he would never let things get blown out of proportion: he would always have the right thing to say, the appropriate levelheaded response to any problem. If there were some disaster—an earthquake, a civil war, a nuclear accident—he wouldn’t flee like a rat or collapse in hysterics, he would help me pack the bags, he would keep an eye on the children so that they didn’t run off in fear or for fun or get lost, he would always be calm, his head firmly on his shoulders, but most of all he would always be true to his word, to the decisive gesture expected of him.


  Poems by Amado Nervo (Los jardines interiores; En voz baja; Elevación; Perlas negras; Serenidad; La amada inmóvil). Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey (Colección Austral, Espasa Calpe). Matsuo Basho, Narrow Road to the Interior (Hiperión).


  Of all the habits, remembered Amalfitano, Padilla defended smoking. The one thing ever to unite Catalonians and Castilians, Asturians and Andalusians, Basques and Valencians, was the art, the appalling circumstance of communal smoking. According to Padilla, the most beautiful phrase in the Spanish language was the request for a light. Beautiful, soothing phrase, the kind of thing you could say to Prometheus, full of courage and humble complicity. When an inhabitant of the peninsula said “¿tienes fuego?” a wave of lava or saliva gushed anew in the miracle of communication and lon
eliness. Because for Padilla the shared act of smoking was basically a staging of loneliness: the tough guys, the talkers, the quick to forget and the long to remember, lost themselves for an instant, the length of time it took the cigarette to burn, an instant in which time was frozen and yet all times in Spanish history were concentrated, all the cruelty and the broken dreams, and in that “night of the soul” the smokers recognized each other, unsurprised, and embraced. The spirals of smoke were the embrace. It was in the kingdom of Celtas and Bisontes, of Ducados and Rexes, that his fellow countrymen truly lived. The rest: confusion, shouting, the occasional potato tortilla. And as for the repeated warnings of the Department of Health: rubbish. Though every day, it was said, people smoked less and more smokers switched to ultra-light cigarettes. He himself no longer smoked Ducados, as he had in his adolescence, but unfiltered Camels.

  There was nothing strange, he said, about a condemned man being offered a cigarette before he was executed. As a popular rite of faith, the cigarette was more important than the prayers and blessing of the priest. And yet those who were executed in the electric chair or the gas chamber weren’t offered anything: it was a Latin custom, a Hispanic custom. And he could go on and on like this, dredging up an endless string of anecdotes. The one that Amalfitano remembered most vividly and that struck him as most significant—and premonitory, in a way, since it was about Mexico and a Mexican and he had ended up in Mexico—was the story of a colonel of the Revolution who had the misfortune to end his days in front of a firing squad. His last wish was for a cigarette. The captain of the firing squad, who must have been a good man, granted his request. The colonel found a cigar and proceeded to smoke it, not saying a thing to anyone, gazing at the barren landscape. When he had finished, the ash still clung to the cigar. His hand hadn’t trembled; the execution could proceed. That man must be one of the patron saints of smokers, said Padilla. So what was the story about, the colonel’s nerves of steel or the calming effects of smoke, the communion with smoke? Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, couldn’t say and didn’t care.

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