Woes of the True Policeman, p.9Roberto Bolaño
Sometimes Amalfitano meditated on his relatively recent homosexuality and sought literary affirmation and examples as consolation. All that came to mind was Thomas Mann and the kind of languid, innocent fairyhood with which he was afflicted in his old age. But I’m not that old, he thought, and Thomas Mann was probably gaga by then, which isn’t the case for me. Nor did he find consolation in those few Spanish novelists who, once past the age of thirty, suddenly discovered that they were queer: most of them were such jingoistic butches that when he thought about them he became actively depressed. Sometimes he remembered Rimbaud and drew convoluted analogies: in “Le cœur volé,” which some critics read as the detailed account of the rape of Rimbaud by a group of soldiers while the poet was on his way to Paris to join the dream of the Commune, Amalfitano, turning over in his head a text that could be read many different ways, saw the end of his heterosexuality, stifled by the absence of something he couldn’t put his finger on, a woman, a heroine, a superwoman. And sometimes, instead of just thinking about Rimbaud’s poem, he recited it aloud, which was a habit that Amalfitano, like Rosa, had inherited from Edith Lieberman: Mon triste cœur bave à la poupe,
Mon cœur couvert de caporal:
Ils y lancent des jets de soupe,
Mon triste cœur bave à la poupe:
Sous les quolibets de la troupe
Qui pousse un rire général,
Mon triste cœur bave à la poupe,
Mon cœur couvert de caporal!
Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques
Leurs quolibets l’ont dépravé!
Au gouvernail on voit des fresques
Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques.
Ô flots abracadabrantesques,
Prenez mon cœur, qu’il soit lavé!
Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques
Leurs quolibets l’ont dépravé!
Quand ils auront tari leurs chiques, Comment agir, ô cœur volé?
Ce seront des hoquets bachiques
Quand ils auront tari leurs chiques: J’aurai des sursauts stomachiques,
Moi, si mon cœur est ravalé:
Quand ils auront tari leurs chiques
Comment agir, ô cœur volé?
It all made sense, thought Amalfitano, the adolescent poet degraded by brutish soldiers just as he was heading—on foot!—toward an encounter with the Chimera, and how strong Rimbaud was, thought Amalfitano (he had given up any idea of consolation and was filled with excitement and astonishment), to write this poem almost immediately afterward, with a steady hand, the rhymes original, the images oscillating between the comic and the monstrous …
What Amalfitano would never know was that the corporal of “mon cœur couvert de caporal,” the son of a bitch who raped Rimbaud, had been a soldier in Bazaine’s army in the Mexican adventure of Maximilian and Napoleon III.
In March 1865, unable to learn anything about the fate of Colonel Libbrecht’s column, Colonel Eydoux, commander of the plaza of El Tajo, which served as supply depot for all of the troops operating in that part of the Mexican northeast, sent a detail of thirty horsemen toward Santa Teresa. The detail was under the command of Captain Laurent and Lieutenants Rouffanche and González, the latter a Mexican monarchist.
The detail arrived in Villaviciosa on the second day of March. It never made it to Santa Teresa. All the men—except for Lieutenant Rouffanche and three soldiers who were killed when the French were ambushed as they ate at the only inn in town—were taken prisoner, among them the future corporal, then a twenty-two-year-old recruit. The prisoners, gagged and with their hands bound with hemp rope, were brought before the man acting as military boss of Villaviciosa and a group of town notables. The boss was a mestizo addressed alternately as Inocencio and El Loco. The notables were country folk, most of them barefoot, who stared at the Frenchmen and then withdrew to a corner to confer. Half an hour later, after a bit of hard bargaining between two evidently opposed groups, the Frenchmen were taken to a covered corral where, after being stripped of their clothes and shoes, they were raped and tortured by a group of captors for the rest of the day.
At midnight Captain Laurent’s throat was cut. Lieutenant González, two sergeants, and seven soldiers were taken to the main street and forced to play chasing games by torchlight. They all died, either run through or with their throats slit by pursuers on the backs of the soldiers’ own horses.
At dawn, the future corporal and two other soldiers managed to break their bonds and flee cross-country. Only the corporal survived. Two weeks later he reached El Tajo. He was decorated and remained in Mexico until 1867, when he returned to France with Bazaine, who retreated with his army, abandoning the emperor to his fate.
Sometimes Amalfitano saw himself as the Prince of Antioch or the homesick Knight of Tyre, the King of Tarsus or the Lord of Ephesus, adventurers of the Middle Ages once upon a time read or misread—with equal enthusiasm—by a luckless God-fearing lord in the midst of pandemonium and exile and untold confusion, accompanied by a beautiful daughter and an aura intensified by the ravages of time. As in the story by Alfonso Reyes (God rest his soul, thought Amalfitano, who truly loved him), “The Fortunes of Apollonius of Tyre,” from Real and Imaginary Portraits. A dethroned king, he thought, wandering the Mediterranean islands painted by that so-called Michelangelo of comic strips, the creator of Prince Valiant, those divine and infernal islands where Valiant met Aleta, but also where the Knight of Epirus bewailed his unjust persecution, and the giddy vagabond of Mytilene told the story of his misfortunes, these characters who, as Reyes noted, sprang from the Greek or Roman depths of our memory, and this was precisely what was false about it all, what was disturbing and revelatory: the vagabond prince was a stand-in for Ulysses and the Baron of Thebes was a stand-in for Theseus, though both were God-fearing knights who prayed morning and night. In this masquerade, Amalfitano discovered unknown regions of himself. In the Greek king who fled with his daughter from monastery to monastery, from desert island to desert island, as if he were traveling backward from the year 1300 to 500 and from 500 to 20 B.C. and onward, ever deeper in time, he saw the futility of his efforts, the basic naïveté of his struggle, his spurious role as scrivener monk. Now all I need is to go blind, with Rosa as my cherished guide leading me from classroom to classroom, he thought gloomily.
When Amalfitano learned that his daughter had disappeared with a black man, he thought randomly of a line from Lugones that he had come across years—many years—ago. Lugones’s words were these: “It is well known that youth is the most intellectual stage of an ape’s life, as it is of the Negro’s.” What a brute, that Lugones! And then he remembered the story, Lugones’s plot: a man, a neurotic, the narrator, labors for years to teach a chimpanzee to talk. All his efforts are in vain. One day the narrator senses that the ape can talk, that he has learned to talk but hides it cleverly. Whether he hides it out of fear or atavism, Amalfitano can’t remember. Probably fear. So unrelenting is his master that the ape falls ill. His sufferings are almost human. The man cares for him as devotedly as he might care for his own child. Both feel the pain of their imminent separation. At the final moment, the ape whispers: Water, master, my master, my master. This was where the Lugones story ended (for a second, Amalfitano imagined Lugones shooting himself in the mouth in the darkest and coolest corner of his library, swallowing poison in an attic strung with cobwebs, hanging himself from the highest beam of the bathroom, but could Lugones’s bathroom possibly have had beams? where had he read that or seen it? Amalfitano didn’t know), giving way—one ape leading to another—to the story by Kafka, the Chinese Jew. What different viewpoints, thought Amalfitano. Good old Kafka puts himself without hesitation into the skin of the ape. Lugones sets out to make the ape speak; Kafka gives him voice. Lugones’s story, which Amalfitano thought extraordinary, was a horror story. Kafka’s story, Kafka’s incomprehensible text, also took wing through realms of horror, but it was a re
So what did Amalfitano’s students learn? They learned to recite aloud. They memorized the two or three poems they loved most in order to remember them and recite them at the proper times: funerals, weddings, moments of solitude. They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst. That all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune and that the grand highway of selfless acts, of the elegance of eyes and the fate of Marcabrú, passes near its abode. That the main lesson of literature was courage, a rare courage like a stone well in the middle of a lake district, like a whirlwind and a mirror. That reading wasn’t more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember. That memory was love.
Amalfitano’s sense of humor tended to go hand and hand with his sense of history and both were as fine as wire: a skein in which horror mingled with a gaze of wonderment, the kind of gaze that knows everything is a game, which might explain why after these rare outpourings Amalfitano’s inner self, forged in the rigors of dialectical materialism, was left stricken, somehow ashamed of itself. But this was his sense of humor and there was nothing he could do about it.
Once, when he was teaching in Italy, he somehow found himself in the middle of an informal dinner attended by new-fledged Italian patriots, the same people who years later would form the New Right.
The dinner was held at a celebrated Bologna hotel and between the dessert course and the after-dinner drinks there were speeches. At a certain point, clearly as the result of a misunderstanding, it was Amalfitano’s turn to speak. To sum it up in a few words, his short speech—delivered in a passable Italian flavored by what more than a few listeners thought was a real or faked central European accent—was about the mystery of so-called great civilizations. In two lines he dispatched the Romans and the princes of the Renaissance (with a tossed-off mention of the tragic fate of the Orsini, probably referring to Mujica Láinez’s Orsini), arriving rapidly at the subject of his toast: World War II and the role of Italy. A role that was distorted by history and obscured by Theory: the ersatz exploits, forged in mystery, of the brave Alpini and the gallant Bersaglieri. Immediately, and without putting too fine a point on it, he asked what the French of the Charlemagne Brigade had achieved, what the Croats or the Austrians or the Scandinavians of the Viking Division, the Americans of the 82nd Airborne Division or the 1st Armored Division, the Germans of the 7th Panzer Division or the Russians of the 3rd Guards Tank Army had really accomplished. Shreds of glory, he mused aloud, deeds that pale alongside the countless hardships of old Badoglio’s Greek Campaign or the Libyan campaign of bold Graziani, the anvil on which Italian identity was forged and the well from which the strategists of the future will drink when the mystery is uncovered at last. The desert raids, he said, and he raised a finger skyward, the bitter fight to hold the forts, the fixed-bayonet charges of the brave men of the Littorio (a tank division) still rouse the ardor of this patient and peaceful nation. Next he spoke in commemoration of the generals, old and young, the most skilled and steadfast that the palm groves and huts of Africa (he said the word huts, or bohíos, in Spanish, to the bafflement of his audience, except for a professor of Latin American literature who understood the term but was left even more in the dark) had ever seen. Then he argued that the glory of the Germans obscured the memory of Gariboldi, for one, who, to make matters worse, was dogged by a nagging error: in nearly every country’s history books, except those of Italy, France, and Germany—meticulous in this regard—he was referred to as Garibaldi, but history, Amalfitano confided, was rewritten daily, and, like a humble and virtuous seamstress, constantly stitched up any holes. He warned that Africa should strive to be worthy of Sicily’s stubborn resistance or the hard fighting on the steppes that had earned Italy the admiration of the Slavs. At this point, those who weren’t whispering to each other or staring off into space with cigars in their mouths realized that he was pulling their leg and the uproar and shouting began. But Amalfitano refused to be cowed and he continued to hold forth on the matchless courage of those who fought to the last on the peninsula, the San Marco Regiment, the Monte Rosa, the Italia, the Grenadiers of Sardinia, the Cremona, the Centauro, the Pasubio, the Piacenza, the Mantua, the Sassari, the Rovigo, the Lupi de Toscana, the Nembo. The betrayed Army, fighting at a disadvantage, and yet still, at some point, like a miracle or an annunciation, laughing in the faces of the arrogant pups from Chicago and the City.
The end was quick. Blood, Amalfitano asked himself, to what end? What justifies it, what redeems it? And he answered himself: the awakening of the Italian colossus. The colossus that everyone since Napoleon has tried to anesthetize. The Italian nation, which has yet to speak its final word, its brilliant final word. Its radiant final word, in Europe and the world. (Punches, shoves, shouts of foreigner go home, the applause of two vaguely anarchist professors.)
Sitting on the porch of his Mexican house at dusk, Amalfitano thought that it was strange that he hadn’t read Arcimboldi in Paris, when the books were closer at hand. As if the writer’s name had been suddenly erased from his mind when the logical thing would have been to go in search of all his novels and read them. He had translated The Endless Rose at a moment when no one outside of France, except for a few Argentinean readers and publishers, had shown any interest in Arcimboldi. And he had liked it so much, it had been so thrilling. Those days, he remembered, the months before the birth of his daughter, were perhaps the happiest of his life. Edith Lieberman was so beautiful that sometimes she seemed to glow with a dense light: lying in bed, on her side, naked and smooth, her knees drawn up a little, the serenity of her closed lips disarming, as if she passed straight through every nightmare. Forever unscathed. He would stand there watching her for a long time. Exile, with her, was an endless adventure. His head swarmed with projects. Buenos Aires was a city on the edge of the abyss, but everyone seemed happy, everyone was content to live and talk and plan. The Endless Rose and Arcimboldi were—he realized then, though later he forgot—a gift. A final gift before he and his wife and daughter entered the tunnel. What could have made him fail to seek out those words? What could have lulled him like that? Life, of course, which puts the essential books under our noses only when they are strictly essential, or on some cosmic whim. Now that it was too late, he was going to read the rest of Arcimboldi’s novels.
III. ROSA AMALFITANO
For the first week they stayed at the Sinaloa Motel, on the edge of Santa Teresa, off the northbound highway. Each morning Amalfitano called a taxi to take him to the university. An hour or two later Rosa followed suit and spent the rest of the morning wandering the streets of Santa Teresa. When it was time for lunch they met at the university cafeteria or at a cheap restaurant discovered by Rosa called The King and the Queen, which served only Mexican food.
They spent the afternoons looking for a place to live. They hired a taxi and visited apartments and houses downtown or in other neighborhoods, but none of them satisfied Rosa, either because they were awful or too expensive or the neighborhoods weren’t to her liking. As they went back and forth by taxi, Amalfitano read and prepared for his new job and Rosa
Until at last they found a three-bedroom house with a big, sunny living room, a bathroom with a bathtub, and an open kitchen in Colonia Mancera, a middle-class neighborhood in the south of the city.
The house had a small front yard that had once been well tended but was now full of weeds and burrows, as if inhabited by moles. There was a front porch with a tiled floor and wooden railings that promised rocking chairs and peaceful afternoons. There was a smaller backyard, too, about two hundred square feet, and a junk room filled to the rafters with useless objects. It’s the perfect house, Dad, said Rosa, and there they stayed.
Amalfitano took the biggest bedroom. In addition to the bed, the bedside table, and the wardrobe, Rosa found a writing table, moved in a chair from the dining room, and hired a carpenter to build two big bookcases for the books that had been sent by boat from Barcelona and would still be a while in coming. In the room that she chose for herself Rosa put a smaller bookcase and after filling it hastily with the old belongings of her nomadic childhood she painted the walls, taking all the time in the world: two the shade of tobacco and two a very pale green.
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