A Surprising Tale in the Form of an Alphabet

They say that the monks of eight or nine hundred centuries ago often had to face unenthusiastic, occasionally hostile audiences, who were most reluctant to follow the steps of a theological proof or of a moral sermon, and that the Alphabeta exemplorum was born out of that difficulty and the need to overcome it. What the monks did was to share out the weight of the discourse equally, so that each of the twenty or so letters of the corresponding alphabet would bear some of that weight on its tiny shoulders and help to carry the load; for example, A might be used to demonstrate the existence of the Afterlife, B would speak of St. Basil, and C would summarize the arguments of its two fellows and offer a first Conclusion. In short, all the other letters—with the possible Exception of the E—would do the same, and the audience would arrive at Z with their minds fully focused on all those ideas, which seemed to advance as if by leaps.

When one of those Alphabeta exemplorum first fell into my hands, I immediately saw the point of that verbal contrivance, having already spent quite long enough facing unenthusiastic, occasionally hostile audiences, who were most reluctant to follow the steps of my faltering literary and political proofs. I did not hesitate; I decided at once to appropriate the method and write an alphabet about children's literature which began with A for Alice and continued with B for Baghdad and C for Collodi; then I wrote another one about the poetry of Blas de Otero; later, I wrote alphabets about ghosts and plagiarism. A year passed, and already ten or so such alphabets had left my desk to be read or published in the most disparate places. My friends were beginning to worry: Was I writing too many alphabets? It was, of course, an excellent method, but its theatrical nature counseled prudence. All that traveling from A to Z could be dangerous; all that going back and forth to the spring might break the water jug. It's true, both the theatrical and the glaringly original can prove irritating in the end.

"One tires of always eating partridge," a certain king once said. So, I had to say good-bye to the method I had learned from the monks of the Middle Ages and return to normal expository methods, with their careful steps and rhetorical formulae; mediocre, maybe, but as safe and reassuring as the "Dear Sir" of business letters. Nevertheless, I felt rather sad about it, and just as smokers cannot entirely give up smoking, so I resisted giving up alphabets. I had spent many a journey and many an hour between A and Z, sleeping in the H of hotels or simply out in the open beneath the P of palm trees, and I was no longer the same man; I could not go back to the old landscapes and simply take up my old life as if nothing had happened. Those journeys had made me realize that the alphabet hides an infinite number of secrets, and that the letters—far from being mere load-bearing shoulders—had their own messages and their own stories to tell. Were they not troubling, those alphabets in which the H concealed a hatchet, the P poison and the M…? On the other hand, how could one define an alphabet whose first and only letter was the A of adieu? And what can one say about those that begin with the A of alleluia? That they are always happy? Certainly not, because an alphabetic story is never over until the Z provides the full stop, and one can guarantee, for example, that D was not always delightful nor F altogether frightful.

In public, I stopped using alphabets, but I did not abandon them completely. In my free time, on nights when I was bored or couldn't sleep, I would spread the twenty or so letters out on the table and play solitaire: I would look for stories, messages, signs. Sometimes I found them and sometimes I didn't; sometimes I would forget them and sometimes I wouldn't. The story I'm going to tell now is one I have not as yet forgotten. It all began when I picked up the first letter and found the word Azar.

AZAR

Azar is a very ancient word that has its origins in the flower—zahr in Arabic—which used to appear on one side of a gambling die. Despite appearances, the flower was fatal, and the player who threw it would immediately be eliminated from the game; thus Azar came to mean any chance event that brought misfortune and, ultimately, it came to symbolise the malign nature of fate. With the passing of the years and the centuries, the word moved almost effortlessly from the gambling table to the table of life, owing to the fact that the ground had already been prepared by metaphors suggesting that both life and the game of dice were materially the same. Then, with the passing of more years and more centuries, the design of gambling dice changed and the flower disappeared. The word remained, however: Sucedió por Azar—"It was just bad luck"—we say when referring, for example, to a road accident and we mean that no one was to blame, that the accident just happened, because it had to. Nevertheless, one has only to look a little closer to see, surrounding any misfortune, the shadow cast by an evil flower…Has the reader already noticed the shadow it has cast over the beginnings of this alphabet? Perhaps not yet, because we have only just begun. However, if there is a protagonist in this story, which we are going to reveal letter by letter, that protagonist is Azar. I remember seeing a play once in which a high priest addressed the main character, crying: "Your name is written in letters of fire!" I can say the same, only without shouting: in this alphabet, the letter that symbolizes Azar is a fiery A, and no other letter can dim its starry brilliance, the brilliance of a distant, evil star…But literature cannot live by protagonists alone, and the star—which is also a flower, which is also Azar—will be accompanied in this story by less emphatic characters. And since it is not nice to talk about people who have not yet been introduced, I summarize below, in probable order of appearance, most of those characters. They are as follows: Antonio, aged twenty-eight, a Republican soldier from Bilbao; Ana, aged twenty-four, a teacher, also from Bilbao; Alberto, aged twenty-seven, a Republican soldier from the village of Albiztur, Guipúzcoa; and Aldo Amiani, aged thirty, a lieutenant in the Italian forces that intervened in the Spanish Civil War, and who was from the seaside town of Ancona.But let us forget about Azar for a moment, and pick up the second letter of the alphabet and see where the story of all these people will lead. And there it is, I've picked it up, it's the B of Bilbao.

BILBAO

"Ah, Bilbao, Bilbao, and its beautiful moon!" wrote a German poet, and it was by the light of the Bilbao moon that, in early 1936, two of the characters I have just introduced, Antonio and Ana, used to stroll. The pale planet would appear later in the poems that he sent to her, copied out of a local literary magazine. One of them, by the poet Lauaxeta, said:

You question the moon that slides past your window. "Does he really love me?" you ask. You spend the night failing to understand The nightingale perched in the white rosebush.

You softly ask the same question of the wind. It prefers to play with your hair. Do the stars know the answer perhaps? They all kiss you tenderly.

You ask the same question of the blue sky, Of the ocean waves, of the whole world. But, my love, it was your own heart That you should have asked first.

Ana had known how Antonio felt about her for some time and so she had no need to ask all those questions; but she read the poems, the one by Lauaxeta and others, over and over, until she grew tired, until she fell asleep with the image of that man who, without a shadow of a doubt, loved her deeply. The following morning, she would spend the school break leafing through encyclopedias and collections of poems and songs in order to find, with a little luck, words that would match those she had received from Antonio and which would serve to prolong, vary and embellish the conversation that the two had begun the moment they had met. When the search was successful, Ana would copy out the poem or song and put another letter in the post:

Moon so brightly shining, Light up the night. Ah, moon so brightly shining, Silvery and white, Light up the night For my fine lover! Moon so brightly shining, Light up the night.

They would meet every day, when Antonio finished work at the office in the shipyard, but neither knew when they would receive the letter containing the poem or song. These were sent secretly, and that element of uncertainty and surprise was intended to increase the significance of their walks beneath the moon. Gradually, Antonio and Ana began to create their own world and to grow apart from everyone else. By the time summer arrived, they were, literally, over the moon in love. They considered the moon benign and commended themselves to her care.

But, benign or not, the moon was only a minor planet and was helpless against the malign influence of that powerful star which was also a flower which was also Azar. In July, there was a military uprising and war broke out. Antonio was called up. And there were no more walks. There were letters, but these—which had become a daily event—became fewer and farther between. And time passed. To be precise, four years passed, and, just like many other men, Antonio did not go back to the B of Bilbao. Nor did his letters arrive. Ana resumed her moonlight walks, this time alone. Where was Antonio?

In order to answer that question—which some readers might also be asking—we must look hard at the letter we are on and watch the B of Bilbao shrink to the B of Beanes.

BEANES

Beanes is a valley in Asturias, as green as all the other green, green valleys that breathe in the green Atlantic. Its only other interesting feature is the large rock found there which, because of its shape and colour, some guides refer to as La Rosa—The Rose. But, however beautiful, it is not the landscape that brings this alphabet to Beanes, but the fact that it was here, around 1940, that the first protagonist of this story—the star which was also a flower which was also Azar—had hidden Ana's lover Antonio. It did more: it also arranged for Antonio to be there at the same time as Alberto and Aldo Amiani. In order to do that—as the third letter we pick up from the table tells us—it had recourse to the laws of war and to a sinister C, the C of Captivity.

CAPTIVITY

At that time, in 1940, Beanes was a prison camp. Many of the men who had fought on the northern front were kept there after the war, working in the forests that flanked the valley and sleeping in the huts that they themselves had built in the first weeks of their captivity. It was—as the fourth letter tells us at once—the price they paid for a disastrous, desperate D, the D of Defeat. Antonio, Alberto and all their Republican companions had been defeated by the Italian division led by General Roata. It was, of course, a high price to pay, but not the highest. Lauaxeta—the poet who wrote the poems that Antonio used to copy from the literary magazines in order to send them to Ana—he knew that all too well. He had been shot after the bombing of Guernica. As another poet wrote:

The soldier lies dead On the slopes of Urkiola; Tell me, shepherd: Is it Lauaxeta?

The soldier lies dead On the slopes of Urkiola; His dreaming brow Shines in the sunlight.

But perhaps the moment has come to abandon D and all its data and to move on as quickly as possible to the story proper. I turn, then, to that most all-embracing of Es, the E of Everyone.

EVERYONE

Everyone in the battalion of eight hundred prisoners was glad not to have met the same fate as Lauaxeta and not to have lost the most important thing of all, their life, everything; and they were glad too—since not so many years had passed since that business with Cain and Abel—to be in the hands of the Italians rather than in those of their brothers, those of the Other Spain, their former neighbors, their old friends from school and from the local bar. Their brothers and the Italians all belonged—as the next letter tells me—to the F of Fascism, but they had a very different attitude to the firing squad. Their brothers were very keen on firing squads, and would have gladly shot any Republican soldier—near the rock called La Rosa, for example—for the slightest thing, as a bet, as a gesture, or simply in compliance with the Biblical story referred to above. The Italians, on the other hand, never shot anyone. Yes, it was best that their guards should be people from outside the family. The Italian soldiers were friendly and had nothing personal against them. Besides, they were better educated.Evidence of that, of the Italians' greater understanding, was—as the next letter tells us—the G of Geraniums. Both Aldo Amiani and the other Italian officers allowed them to grow geraniums outside the windows of their huts, and they would plant them out in old tins and remember the sentimental poems of before the war:

Day and night I would see it there, The red flower at your window; The glad symbol of our love.

Then, one Sunday morning, I saw you Pick that flower and, with a kiss, Offer it to another man.

Small things like the geraniums meant that, at least in spring and summer, Beanes had something of the H of Home. But spring and summer passed and the first cold weather arrived, and the soldiers once more felt lost and vulnerable. Some, like Antonio, could not sleep.

"Can't you sleep?" Alberto, who slept in the next bunk, asked him one night.

"No, I can't. I'll go crazy if I carry on like this. Do you remember that song they used to sing when the geraniums were out? The one about the red flower that was the symbol of a couple's love, and how the woman picked it and gave it to another man?" Antonio asked, raising his voice, then lowering it again.

Everyone else in the hut was sleeping.

Alberto nodded. In his village of Albiztur, where he was born and where he had worked as a baker, they never sang songs like that. It seemed strange to him.

"Well, that put the idea in my head that Ana might have done the same and left me for another man."

"No, women aren't like that," said Alberto quietly. He knew very little about women and felt uncomfortable talking about them.

"Yes, you're right. Ana knows I'm still alive and she could never just abandon me in these circumstances. But, sometimes, it almost drives me crazy. I must get them to move me to a prison camp nearer Bilbao. I don't want to spend another whole year without seeing her. I couldn't bear it."

Antonio wasn't lying or exaggerating. He was so obsessed with thoughts of Ana that, a few months before, he had escaped from the valley in the belief that he could reach Bilbao unscathed. The exhaustion of three hours walking in the darkness had made him reconsider and give up the attempt, and all had ended well, without mishap. The Italians' proverbial lack of enthusiasm for war had proved a tremendous help. In Beanes they only took roll call once a day.

"Have you thought of a way of getting a transfer?" Alberto asked him, sitting up a little and lighting a cigarette. He had started to smoke in Beanes.

"Yes," said Antonio, with a sigh, looking out of the mean little window between his bed and Alberto's. An idea crossed his mind: in different circumstances that valley would have been Idyllic, le plus beau jardin du monde. But there was a law, a constant, a K that spoiled everything. Life, as ever, was not kind…

"I've asked our lieutenant to teach me Italian," Antonio said at last, rather apprehensively. Relations between them and the Italians were cordial, but such a request might be considered overstepping the mark.

"No one will mind," said Alberto, guessing his companion's thoughts and raising his cigarette to his lips.

Antonio sighed again. The moon slipping through the panes of that mean little window reminded him of a song, one that Ana had copied out for him:

Moon so brightly shining, Light up the night. Ah, moon so brightly shining, Silvery and white, Light up the night For my fine lover! Moon so brightly shining, Light up the night.

"Lieutenant Amiani thought it was a good idea. He says he gets really bored here," he said, once he had managed to get the song out of his head.

"I think it's a good idea too. If you become friends with him, then you'll have no problem getting a transfer. Amiani's a good chap."

For a long time, the two men said nothing. Antonio was still staring out of the window at the serene darkness of the valley.

"How do you think you say 'the mantle of the night' in Italian?" he asked at last, lying down on his bed again.

"No idea," Alberto replied, stubbing out his cigarette and stuffing the cigarette end into a hole in the wall.

"I suppose you'd say il manto de la notte," Antonio said, before saying good night to Alberto and settling down to sleep.

It did not take long for Antonio to correct that error and to learn that, instead of manto, you said mantello, or to discover that the twelve months of the year were Gennaio, Febbraio, Marzo, Aprile, Maggio, Giugno, Luglio, Agosto, Settembre, Ottobre, Novembre and Dicembre. And the classes came and went, and Ottobre came and went, and the relationship between Lieutenant Amiani and Antonio became closer and closer.

"I have a favor to ask you, Lieutenant Amiani," Antonio said to him after one of their classes. "I've heard that General Roata is going to visit our camp."

"That's true. It's not the best news in the world, of course. You'll have to clean the huts from top to bottom," said Amiani with a smile. He was a history graduate and, for a long time now, had been anxious to take up his real career again. Military life bored him.

"The fact is I need a transfer," Antonio said straight out.

Half an hour later, everything was explained, and Antonio had his friend's promise of help. He would speak to the General and arrange for him to be transferred to Bilbao. He would miss Antonio like a brother, but he quite understood his reasons. He too dreamed of the beaches of his home town.

General Roata arrived at the camp toward evening on November 20, on a cold, rainy day which was punctuated by the occasional hail shower.

"Brutto tempo, tenente," one of the company sergeants remarked to Amiani.

"Ripugnante!" replied Amiani. Then he went over to Antonio.

"I don't know if I'll be able to do anything," he whispered in his ear. "It's not a very good day for asking favors."

By then, all the prisoners were lined up in front of the huts, including the men in the charge of Lieutenant Amiani.

"Do please try, though," said Antonio, barely moving his lips, intimidated by the sudden silence that had fallen over the camp with the arrival of General Roata's Hispano-Suiza. Throughout the valley, as green as any of the green, green valleys of the green Atlantic, you could hear only unceremonious noises: the pattering of the rain on the wooden huts and the snorting of the horses that were used as beasts of burden.

Amiani nodded and went back to his post, but he was not at all confident of success. Given the dreadful weather, it was likely that General Roata would decline the invitation to supper. He was a gourmet, a sybarite, an obsessive, it was said, who could only bear to drink out of delicate crystal glasses. A cold, muddy dining room would definitely not appeal to him.

As soon the review began, Amiani realised that his assessment of the situation had been absolutely right. Not only was General Roata not intending to stay to supper, he wasn't intending to stay at all. He received Amiani's report without even asking his driver to stop the car; in a few seconds he would be in front of another company of prisoners. Amiani swallowed hard and, having cleared his throat, shouted:

"Sir! Lieutenant Aldo Amiani in charge of forty prisoners…"

The Hispano-Suiza had already gone by when a sudden idea entered his head. At meetings and in his speeches, General Roata was always talking about the friendship between the Italians and the Spaniards, about the bonds uniting the two peoples, about their sister languages which were both daughters of the glory that was Rome. He would surely approve of the attitude of someone like Antonio, since it was in accord with everything the General represented. Yes, he would make the General stop; he couldn't disappoint his friend.

"…one of whom, most unusually, speaks Italian!" he shouted as loud as he could.

The car screeched to a halt and reversed. After a few moments—the silence in the valley was now absolute—General Roata's bald head appeared at the window.

"One of them speaks Italian?" he barked.

"Yes, General."

"Then he must be a spy. Have him shot at once! Immediately, Lieutenant!" he barked out again. He may have been a toad, but he still barked.

Before Amiani could respond, the Hispano-Suiza had disappeared from view, carrying with it the sound of the engine, a purring noise that moved further and further and further away… After a few moments, there was no other sound in the valley apart from that of the rain falling on the huts and filling the puddles that had formed amongst the grass. Not even the horses could be heard. The horses had fallen silent and were looking at the company of men led by Lieutenant Amiani. The other officers and soldiers in the camp were doing the same. There were even some prisoners who, disobeying the order to keep their eyes front, were scanning the ranks for that Italian-speaking colleague. For his part, Antonio was looking up at the dark sky, imagining he could see a moon that wasn't there. "Oh, Bilbao, Bilbao, and its beautiful moon!" he thought. He had held out a thread to Ana, but the thread had broken. His situation reminded him of the last verse in one of ballads she had sent him:

The silken thread is broken, And the death that was bound therein Says: Come, my love, come with me, The hour, the hour is here.

"We can't delay, Lieutenant," said the sergeant rather nervously, going over to Amiani. They had to act quickly. General Roata's order had been categorical.

"It would be best to have him executed in the wood. La Rosa would be too…"

The sergeant did not know how to finish the sentence and he walked back to the hut where the general staff were gathered. Amiani turned on his heel and walked swiftly over to where Antonio's company was waiting…

"How predictable!" a reader might say, picking up the P which should come next in this alphabet, after that not so very distant Ottobre. This story—the reader will go on to say—suffers from the worst defect a short story can have—at least according to Cortázar and many others. It lacks the element of surprise. And that, if you'll forgive the repetition, is somewhat surprising in a story which the title itself describes as surprising. Such arrogance!

"Quite," I say to that reader, picking up the Q that is next in line. And using the R now, I add: "Reread what you've read up till now and just ponder a little. If you'll allow me to resort to an S, I wouldn't be so Sure about the ending of this story. Do you want to reread it? Have you done so? Do you remember what we said at the beginning, when almost all the letters were still on the table? About how the protagonist of this story was a star that was also a flower…"

But why bother with lengthy explanations when we still have six letters to pick up. Let the game continue! Let the journey recommence! Let's see right now what the T and the U have to say to us.

It turns out—I can see it now—that the T of this alphabet is a very familiar one, the T of Tío and the U of Ultimate.

TÍO

I have a confession to make. At home, when we talk about Alberto, we never call him just plain Alberto. Whenever we mention him, we call him Tío Alberto—Uncle Alberto.

ULTIMATE

There are only four letters left (at least in the Spanish alphabet)—the V, the X, the Y and the Z—and they will give us the Ultimate solution.

V: The version I am about to give you is the true version. It is a story drawn from the author's own family history, the story of Tío Alberto.

X: The unknown factor. Did Lieutenant Amiani carry out General Roata's order?

The answer perhaps is still unclear and it may be that, in order for the reader to arrive at it, he will need a couple more facts. Let us bring on Y and Z, those two "dependent variables"—dependent on the author that is—which might help us toward the solution.

Y: The lieutenant did not want to kill his friend. He did not want to go back to Ancona with that weight on his conscience. He could never have brought himself to tell his wife about his friend, and how that friend had died because of his ineptitude and in front of a firing squad led by him.

Z: It occurred to him that, apart from Antonio, no other prisoner would have completely understood his dialogue with the General. Why not leave it all in the hands of Azar? He could pick a soldier at random, the one standing next to Antonio, for example, and make him the victim of that absurd punishment. And that is precisely what Lieutenant Amiani did that day, November 20, 1940.

By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Margaret Jull Costa. All rights reserved.