Of my first emigration, I have no memories. Of the country that I left, I think I may still have the images from some small colorless photographs. I cannot make out the pain of my mother’s good-bye to her family—or the trip or the landing of the plane or the embrace of my father when he reunited with us. Of my first years as a foreigner I recall a swimming pool where I never learned to swim; that once I got lost running through the lobby of a hotel where we were staying at the time; some cousins who disappeared shortly thereafter; the calls of an ice-cream vendor; a bite sustained during a skirmish at school; and beginning to use words that were unknown in my household. I called the watermelon patilla instead of sandía; lechosa took the place of papaya.

In these memories I do not remember years, only places where I lived, and there were many of them. Every reminiscence encloses me in four walls, in solitary games, in the landscape seen through a window. There were as many gazes outside as there were moves and excuses by landlords to rescind contracts. From the Savoy to the Hilton. From The Terraces to The Hills; Las Mercedes to Caurimare. From one high-rise to another next door. From one apartment to another a floor below. Such waywardness aroused no small amount of malice among the neighbors. We became experts at moving within the same building, so that the routine could be carried off without a hitch and so that the rent wouldn’t vary wildly (it was always being raised anyway), our struggles to pay it being constant.

I remember my second emigration better. I knew then how difficult it would be to preserve a whole life inside a suitcase. That some beloved thing does not fit by millimeters, that a shoe is more important than a book, that what you forgot at the bottom of a box causes tears because you realize you’ll never see it again; that your belongings are not worth anything when you try to resell them. My greatest assets were hundreds of books of classic literature, which is basically all I read because reading the classics is the advice of the authors I so admire. I decided to stick with a dozen or so, and already that was too much for the trip. I did not have a set destination, and the baggage might pique suspicion at customs. I had gone to great lengths to get the tourist visa.

The used bookseller glanced at my collection, made his selection, began stowing away my books. I told him my price and it seemed excessive to him. He wanted to pay less for all the books than what I was asking for one. I left without selling any. It was less painful reselling my clothes, electronics, CDs, my computer, and bed. The books remained in their boxes, where they continue to wait for me. My wife tossed out a shirt from the suitcase so that I could fit in its place my manuscript, a collection of stories.

In a bookstore in Madrid, we took down the addresses of publishing houses from the opening pages of the new releases. A month later, when we had left a copy of the manuscript at various publishing houses throughout the city, we traveled to Barcelona. On the train we sat at a table in the café car, kissing and pretending to nap so that the attendant trying to collect tickets wouldn’t ask us for ours, which we hadn’t bought. Although neither of us smoked, we lit one cigarette after another to cover our reluctance to enter the coach cars.

In Barcelona we visited more publishing houses. We returned to the hostels in Madrid just as winter was setting in. These moves were easier than past ones. We each dragged our suitcase along the cobblestone streets as though by custom.

At this point we live in a sublet room, which we leave only when it is time to cook. Today the three outstanding responses arrived from the remaining publishing houses rejecting my work. My wife collected all the letters, and to console me read aloud part of a newspaper article that said that seventeen publishers had refused Paul Auster’s City of Glass. I would have preferred that she compare me to Balzac, and was put off by her mania for saving papers. I don’t want our baggage to swell past the point of allowing for new moves. I do not want to move from the top to the bottom of the same building either, as my parents used to do. Or from one room to an adjacent one, as we had already done in the house where we were staying.

***

The letter from the publishing house said this: “The pleasure it has given me reading the book that you have so kindly sent us has only been exceeded by the reading of the original version written by Augusto Monterroso, called Animals and Men. The publisher that I represent does not have the rights to said work, and I suspect you do not either. As it stands, we cannot publish your not-so-faithful transcription.” Signed, M. Aizpirrieta.

I looked for old letters that my wife had saved and my suspicion was confirmed. Over five years before, when I had just come to Spain, M. Aizpirrieta, who at the time worked for a different publisher, wrote me: “Owing to the fact that your book of stories shows several similarities to Perpetual Movement, published in 1972 by Augusto Monterroso, we regret to inform you that our reading committee has decided against the publication of your . . . original?”

Two years before, when I wanted to publish my second work, M. Aizpirrieta, in the name of a third publishing house, wrote me: “Your book is fantastic, but someone else has already written it: Augusto Monterroso, and he called it The Black Sheep and Other Fables. Nonetheless, I appreciate your cordiality in sending me the transcription, since rereading this author is always such a pleasure and never robs us of too much time.”

Since receiving the first letter I refused to read Monterroso, even though I began to read less-established authors, out of fear of confirming the words of M. Aizpirrieta. Of course I knew the shortest story in the world, “The Dinosaur,” because a good friend of mine, who knew by memory thousands of episodes in the lives of the famous Latin American writers, always used to recite it to me. I acknowledge that the story seemed like one that was part of a book I had written but not yet sent to publishers. But my protagonist was not so sleepy, and he did not find a dinosaur on waking up. Anyway, if I were to publish my work I would dethrone the record-setting Guatemalan author, since my story has six words, one less than his. But it didn’t matter. Those M. Aizpirrieta-types are always finding similarities between books, even those that do not share a single word in common, all just to find fault with the writing of people like me who like to cultivate a certain concision.

At the time no one knew me, and what I published later, the work that has brought me fame, is not in the least like the work of Monterroso, nor for that matter like any of the other classic writers I revere. It is precisely about how I wrote that text, so celebrated by the critics and mounted on the big screen to great box-office success, that I relate this story; here I pick up the thread.

After receiving the third letter from M. Aizpirrieta I went out to buy the works of Monterroso. In the bookstore were the titles that M. Aizpirrieta mentioned in his three notes. But I opted for his complete work, which fits in a slender volume of 132 pages. I always thought that to earn fame you had to be as prolific as Alexandre Dumas. The small book I bought was a consolation. In quantitative terms, I also had a rather trim literary output.

Although I was still a strictly unpublished writer, I had managed to make a living by my writing: I wrote up the memories of clients who hired me for the task. I made enough money doing that to put an end to my constant moves and settle into a charming apartment in the center of Madrid.

At the start of my career as a kind of scrivener, I advertised my services by putting flyers in all the mailboxes of the city. I brought immortality within the reach of the purse. “Do you want to write the story of your life? A professional will write it for you. Hourly fees for the interview sessions. Take advantage now: the future is closer than you think.” The fees were divided into three easy payments. The first payment came before starting the sessions, and it was for two hours a day, two days a week, over the course of a month; the second payment, when the draft was handed over and submitted to the scrutiny of the dictator of the memories; and the third, when the final version was written, which included the emendations made by the person who, after all, was the author of the book. I wrote between ten and twelve biographies in nine months. In the winter I wrote my own books. The same day, in fact, that I received the letter from M. Aizpirrieta, I was preparing to go into hibernation. I would reject any other contract that came my way until I finished my new book, which would be a highly experimental novel.

At home, I skimmed through Monterroso’s complete works, which alas they were not, though the title maintained that they were; rather, there was one story, seven pages long, accompanied by twelve others. The title had deceived me: Complete Works (And Other Stories). To my surprise, the stories were very similar to those from my own book, which I still had not sent to publishers. Nonetheless, my characters and the broader social context of my work were different from Monterroso’s.

I returned to the bookstore and bought nine other books by the Guatemalan.

I read The Black Sheep and Other Fables. I had trouble finding myself in these jungle animals because I populated my fables with creatures from the marine world. Trying to act like my own accuser, I read between the lines, gave the benefit of the doubt to M. Aizpirrieta. Something saved me yet. My early work did not resemble his, only his fourth work. There was a certain taste of triumph, a kind of relief.

The telephone rang.

“I’m calling about the ad. I want to write a book.”

“Very well, Sir, but you’ll have to wait a few months. If you like, I can take down your information and will be in touch as soon as . . .”

“No, you don’t understand. There isn’t time.”

The voice sounded urgent, quivering, senile, and it ensnared me; somehow, against my will, I found myself accepting a meeting right away in a café in Chamartín, which is nowhere near my neighborhood. I remember consoling myself with the thought that I would bring with me Perpetual Movement to see whether it resembled my second book of stories.

The autumn sun sank. I was already inclined against the job, between the cold and my being underdressed because of my haste to leave the house and my obsession with the need to write my new book in order to get back at Monterroso, with whom I seemed to be so curiously aligned. Nothing could convince me otherwise. I got off the subway at a random station and turned around. I would not keep the appointment.

Back at home the telephone started to ring again. I picked up the receiver without saying anything. It was the old man; I hung up. The telephone pealed out again, insistent now, and its ringing accompanied my reading of Perpetual Movement. This work, I must admit, did seem more like my second book. His aim to create an anthology about flies, which was also an obsession of mine; the palindromes he wrote in Onís es asesino were the same ones that I had constructed after hundreds of hours of work on a similar story, although I maintain that they are not identical; and the odyssey narrated in “How I Got Rid of 500 Books” was the same as the one I had invented to satirize my oversized nostalgia for the books that I left behind so many years ago.

The worst part, however, came when I read The Rest is Silence.  It was an exact replica of what I had planned to write. It had the same ending, which had been the first thing that occurred to me in my plans for the book. I never read so fast. I concluded that my work had already been executed. I imagined the rejection letter from M. Aizpirrieta, for whom I now felt a certain sympathy. “Yours is a superhuman effort that deserves to be recognized. Never has anyone pursued a writer with such tenacity as to actually snatch up his work from him. Although I cannot quite wish that your constancy be compensated, I do hope, on account of this forced friendship we’ve had over the course of these cordial exchanges of your proposals and my rejections, that the publishing house I represent never mounts a legal case against you for plagiarism.”

When I closed the book, I only heard the telephone, which had not stopped ringing. I answered it.

“Sir, we have already lost too much time, and I do not have tomorrow. You are my last chance.”

Skipping out on the meeting had been terrible of me. It was just that I didn’t want the job, least of all the work of a dying man. I responded:

“But it turns out that we have a backlog of over a year, and to comply with the urgency of your request, I must inform you that it would be an extremely costly proposition . . .”

“I understand. Give me a figure, whatever it is, and I’ll pay it.”

I wanted to disappear, to arrive at a place where no one had ever heard of Monterroso. (Did such a place exist?) I sensed that this was my chance to forget about literature for good. I asked for a lot of money, enough to buy a hamburger franchise. I demanded that half the sum be paid upfront, as an advance. The man, surely a millionaire, accepted the proposal, and made an appointment with me in the same café for the following day.

In the café, the man—he looked very old—was already sitting down, waiting and watching the door. He saw me enter, but he did not get up. His hair and his suit were both white, extremely clean, his hair shinier than the suit, because not even the immaculate appearance could hide the encrusted worn fabric, or the cut of the suit, which was long since out of style. His hands rested underneath the table, where the tablecloth appeared to shake for a moment. Leaning on the ashtray was a lit cigarette alongside several toasted butts smoked all the way down to the filter. As soon as I saw him, I realized that he could not pay the fees I had asked from him, and yet I was not willing to negotiate alternative forms of payment or discounts. The interview would be short-lived. I felt the arrogance with which one regards the dispossessed. I know that he knew what I was thinking, since he barely looked me in the eyes and did not even offer an expression of greeting. He pulled out a wad of loose bills, without the least bit of discretion. His hand was shaking uncontrollably.

“I want to dictate a book to you that must be ready in three days. We need to begin right away.”

He slid over the bills and tried to pick up his cigarette. While he fought back his shaking hand, the old man invited me to count the money.

“The advance is complete”—he said—“I do not need you to sign anything. We are gentlemen, isn’t that right?”

The bills were mostly in small denominations, and were scattered over the table, disordered and, most of them anyway, wrinkled or folded over into small bunches. I started to gather up the money. And to ease the tension, I was about to ask if he had robbed his grandson’s piggy bank. But I kept quiet on seeing the old man’s hand struggle to bring the cigarette to his lips.

“Do you feel OK, sir?” I asked.

“It’s nothing, only Parkinson’s.”

Without losing any time and without waiting for me to so much as order a coffee, he began to tell his story. I turned on the recorder.

After five hours, we were both exhausted.

“I’ll wait for you tomorrow in this same place, sir?” he said to me before getting up to leave. I paid the bill. I had drunk twelve coffees; he hadn’t had any. For the next few days, the old man narrated his adventures without cease. Unceasing in his talk and unceasing in his life.

“You have an incredible story,” I said to him at the close of the last session.          

The old man did not even smile.

I began to transcribe. “I was born in 1934, and I am the son of a fugitive of justice.”

His first childhood memory was of a military parade, and how he then knew why his father had been on the run. Ten years later, he enlisted in the Communist Youth and participated in a coup attempt that failed. A friend of his mother who belonged to the sitting regime called to advise them to smuggle him out of the country. And when the police came looking for him, he had already split for Prague, where later he was disillusioned by the bureaucracy of the Party and decided to return to his native country, which he referred to as his little country assaulted by the empire, his definition of El Salvador. He plotted a revolt, and he launched the first battle with his own battalion. He knew he had lost when the guys whom he had initially outfitted with rifles for the cause turned on him and put him before the firing squad.

I heard my voice cut in while he spoke, the only time I interrupted him during any of his narrations. I asked—timidly, because the old man seemed choked up—how he escaped and in what year this had all transpired. He did not look at me. I remember what he said: I am sure that someone would have cried if they shot me.

Then, without another word, he went on to a different story.

The man drifted around in the Parisian scene as a flaneur of sorts, always harboring the desire to act. Finally he had an audition—young, nervous—and got a part. He had a career, triumphed. The first time he traveled, his father, who never showed him much affection, cried with joy. He acted in England, in Spain, Buenos Aires, and Moscow. While he was there, in that far-off city, his mother got in touch with him to say that his father had died. She told him that his father had concealed from him his illness in order not to interfere with his artistic career, which had been such a source of pride for him.

While transcribing, I wrote down that I needed to ask him how he had saved himself from the firing squad and also when his father had stopped being a fugitive.

Later, the man lived in exile in Mexico, where he wrote poetry and met a woman who captivated him. He eventually had to abandon the city. On his departure, she made him promise never to forget her, and he realized that he did not know her full name. The last name she revealed to him was the same as his. The only member of the family who emigrated to Mexico had been his father, when he abandoned his mother. A bitter hunch led him to ask her who her father was. She responded without hesitation: our father. She knew they were brother and sister, and for that reason she loved him.

I asked him her name and the name of his father, which he had not mentioned. He said something inaudible in response, impossible to make out.

I rewound the cassette, paid closer attention. A murmur. I rewound the tape again. I closed my eyes, raised the volume so high that I could hear the ambient noise crackle. “That poetry is well worth committing suicide over.” It was phrases like that that wove together the convoluted story of the old man.

The combatants agonized over their lack of arms and munitions. There was only enough money to send one of them out in search of another country allied to the cause. They picked him. He traveled to Algeria and created an anonymous company which he registered as an exporter of olive oil. He ordered the manufacture of barrels of it for liquid transport, but the barrels had to have double interior siding and concave faces. Between internal and external sheets of thick steel, he would hide the arms and munitions he planned to buy from China while the cylinders were being prepared. There he tried opium, whose path took him as far as India. He traded in drugs and women. A trafficker stabbed him. The barrels were left stranded at the port, awaiting a shipment of arms that never arrived.

Another pause, another day.

The man fought at the front, commanded by his brother. Together they led the armed fight of the revolution when they strafed the façade of the prefecture of the Andes. Later they assaulted the El Encanto train, kidnapped the most celebrated soccer player on the planet who was staying in a hotel in San Bernardino. In the most senseless skirmish, he lost his brother. Elections were held. A man asked him for the time and when he lifted his head back up to respond after checking his watch he found himself surrounded by soldiers. Not carrying a gun on him that afternoon saved his life. While being held back at the fort, he dug a hole with a spoon and escaped. He signed a peace accord. He and the other guerrillas who were left without jobs soon decided to take up their arms again, only this time for their own personal gain. Their first heist was a bank hold-up out in the province. They took down thirty banks in two years. For the sport of it, they began to hit armored cars, which were much better protected. Someone snitched on them, and they were soon surrounded. No one surrendered, and no one escaped.

As I was transcribing from the cassette, I wrote down, so that I could ask the old man at our next meeting, when we would be polishing up the details of his story, just how many people died in that confrontation and how he had managed to save himself.

The man prepared the biggest hit yet. He would rob the complete shipment of money coming from all the bank branches of the island of Margarita while it was en route to the capital, sent under loose watch on a commercial jet. After promising the woman he loved that this would be the last heist of his life, he boarded the plane like any other passenger. Ten minutes after liftoff he held up the pilot at gunpoint and forced him to change course and land the plane in a small airfield on the outskirts of the Higuerote Beach. He packed up the eleven suitcases of money and got on a sailboat that was waiting for him. His accomplices, though, were apprehended.

Three decades later, in a café in Madrid, he remembered the robbery.

I finished transcribing the sessions and, before starting to write, I needed to clear up all my doubts. It seemed like instead of narrating one life, the old man had narrated six.

When we saw each other again I wanted him to clarify some of the shadier parts of his account. He refused to provide dates or names.

“I have already dictated the end. When shall I settle the other half of the payment?”

Only then did I notice that every single day we saw each other he was always wearing the same white suit, each time dirtier than before, and that the man truly appeared exhausted: his face drooped, together with the circles under his eyes. I remembered then the phrase with which he responded when I asked him to tell me his name. “I don’t want my name to appear. I am many people.”

“Within fifteen days, when I hand you the definitive version,” I answered.

“I need the book for tomorrow.”

“Impossible.”

“I will pay you four times the standing fee if you can have it for me by then. Do you think the publishing house will publish the book—what did you say it was called—so that there will be a copy ready as soon as you finish writing?”

“You can only imagine how I would like to be able to publish all the books I write.”

“So we still don’t know who is going to publish the book? Damn!”

“Sir, the contract does not include publication. I only write.”

“Find a publisher and you can keep the rights”—his despair turning into passionate rage—

“I do not want anything more than a copy in hand as soon as possible.”

I assented for the simple fact that I did not want to challenge him. The old man left. Who is this man, I wondered. I did not have his address or his telephone number and I had only ever seen him at the café. I decided to follow him, keeping my distance. We arrived at a public retirement home that was in shambles. The old man entered, with me behind him.

The residents looked stiff and catatonic; there was an odor of urine. How could someone who lived here manage to pay that towering figure I demanded for the contract? I would give him his money back. And so as not to sting his pride I would wait until the next meeting, when he would arrive, probably without the remaining sum of the contract. I would lie to him. I would tell him that a publisher had already shown interest and that this obviated the need to pay out the rest of his contract. Moreover, I would add, we would share the royalties; we would sign together.

I returned home, and wrote like never before, tormented by remorse. I strung together the stories with that magic that words have when they buzz and blur the facts.  I finished the job just as I was due to go meet the old man.

But before meeting him, I went out in search of  M. Aizpirrieta. At the publishing house, I sent word to him that the plagiarist of Monterroso was waiting for him, with urgency, on the ground floor. This time I had truly written an unpublished book.

“Do me the favor of reading this original,” I said to him when we were standing face to face. “It’s about the memories of a character who will not be living for much longer. I want to know—with the same anxiety of this character, in all his anguish—if you will endorse it for publication.

Very politely he promised me that he would read it and that he would call me if there was good news. I gave him my cell phone number, the number I never give to my clients.

I arrived late at the café in Chamartín, and the old man wasn’t there. I asked the waiter, in case the old man had shown and then left, but he told me that he hadn’t seen him come in. I waited for a while, but he never came.

I went to look for him at the retirement home. No one kept watch over the front door. And inside, in a squalid hall, several old men huddled together as if to stay warm. I asked after the old man, described him to them. One lady told me to go into one of the nearby bedrooms, where another man lay in bed, dying.

“He went out early this morning,” the woman told me.

The dying man stammered out something I couldn’t understand.

“He took my shoe polish with him,” she added. “And who are you?”

“His biographer.”

The woman smiled.

“Is your work finished?”

“I’ve come to hand it over.”

“Can I see it? These memories are ours too. We dictated them to him as well, so that he could tell them to you. In fact, we have been paying for your work among ourselves.”

“Where is he,” I asked her with rising concern.

“He has gone out to hunt down the money he still needs to pay you.”

The woman led me from the room, gesturing toward the dying man.

“He is an atheist—you know?—and believes that eternity only exists in literature. We want him to see the book published before he dies, and I also want him to keep on living like this. But writing a book is so expensive! So anyway, we combined our memories . . . I was the famous actress.”

“There were six stories.”

“We included the stories of three great friends.”

“But where is he now?”

“I already told you: he went out to look for the rest of your money. He asked me to forgive an old promise, and I accepted because he assured me that ‘never was it so worth it to rob a bank.’ I wanted to join him, but he wouldn’t let me. He told me he had a pistol, that that was enough. I looked for some sort of nylon sleeve or stocking, but I couldn’t find one. So I gave him my polish instead. I wanted to help him cover his face somehow, but he told me he would do it just before he entered the bank. You say that he didn’t make it to the meeting you both were supposed to have? What could have happened? He’s always so punctual!”

Dizzy, I walked to the doorway of the building and sat down on the curb. I needed to breath air that wasn’t so stale. My telephone rang—it was M. Aizpirrieta.

“I have just recommended your novel for our literary contest.”

“It’s missing the final chapter,” I answered.

“Is that right? How does it end?”

“I’m still waiting to find out, but I’m not expecting a happy ending.”

Translation of "El redactor de memorias." Copyright Doménico Chiappe. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Jonathan Blitzer. All rights reserved.

De mi primera emigración no tengo recuerdos. Del país que dejé creo retener las imágenes de unas fotografías pequeñas y sin color. No vislumbro el dolor que despidió a mi madre. Tampoco el viaje ni el aterrizaje ni el abrazo de mi padre, cuando se reunió con nosotros. De mis primeros años como extranjero evoco una piscina donde no aprendí a nadar, una vez que me perdí corriendo por el lobby del hotel donde nos hospedamos, unos primos que pronto desaparecieron, el sonido del heladero, un mordisco en el aula y el comenzar a utilizar palabras que no conocían en casa. Patilla le dije a la sandía; lechosa, a la papaya.

En los recuerdos no sé de años, sino de lugares donde viví, que fueron muchos. Cualquier reminiscencia me encierra en cuatro paredes, en juegos solitarios, en el paisaje a través de una ventana. Miradores hubo tantos como mudanzas y como excusas de los caseros para rescindir los contratos. Del Savoy al Hilton. De Terrazas para Lomas. De Las Mercedes para Caurimare. De una torre para la de al lado. De un apartamento para el de abajo. Tanto peregrinar despertaba no poca malicia en los vecinos. Nos especializamos en cambiarnos dentro del mismo edificio, para que la rutina permaneciera incólume y nada más variara el alquiler, siempre en aumento, y las privaciones para pagarlo.

Mi segunda emigración la rememoro mejor. Supe, entonces, cuán difícil resulta guardar toda una vida dentro de una maleta. Que lo amado no quepa por milímetros, que un zapato sea más importante que un libro. Que tus pertenencias nada valen cuando se rematan. Mi mayor capital eran cientos de libros de literatura clásica, lo único que leo por consejo de los escritores que tanto admiro. Elegí quedarme con una docena y ya eran demasiados para el viaje. No había destino dónde llegar. El equipaje podría levantar sospechas en la aduana. A duras penas había conseguido la visa de turista.

El vendedor de libros usados miró, seleccionó, arrumó mis ejemplares. Dije mi precio y le pareció excesivo. Quiso pagar por todos lo que no vale ni uno. Regresé sin venderlos. Rematar la ropa, los electrodomésticos, los discos, la computadora y la cama resultó menos doloroso. Los libros se quedaron en las cajas. Todavía me esperan. Mi mujer desalojó una camisa de la maleta, para que cupiera mi manuscrito, una recopilación de cuentos.

Buscamos la dirección de las editoriales en la sección de novedades de una librería de Madrid. Un mes después, cuando habíamos dejado copia del manuscrito en las editoriales de la ciudad, viajamos a Barcelona. En el tren nos sentamos en la mesa del cafetín, nos besamos y fingimos dormitar para no atender al empleado que quiso, durante todo el trayecto, pedir unos boletos que no habíamos comprado. Aunque ninguno de los dos fumaba, prendimos un cigarrillo tras otro, para justificar nuestra renuencia a entrar al compartimiento de literas.

En Barcelona visitamos otras tantas editoriales. Volvimos a los hostales de Madrid justo con el invierno. Estas mudanzas resultaban más fáciles que las anteriores. Cada uno arrastraba su maleta por el empedrado de la calle, como por costumbre.

Ahora vivimos en una habitación subarrendada, que abandonamos sólo para cocinar. Hoy llegaron las tres últimas respuestas de las editoriales que faltaban por rechazar mis relatos. Ella guarda todas las cartas. Para consolarme, me leyó un recorte de periódico que decía que 17 editoriales no quisieron publicar La Ciudad de Cristal de Paul Auster. Yo, que hubiera preferido que me comparara con Balzac, temo a su manía de atesorar papeles. No quiero que nuestro equipaje engorde tanto como para esquivar nuevas mudanzas. Tampoco quiero emigrar de arriba abajo dentro del mismo edificio, como preferían mis padres. O de un cuarto para el de enfrente, como ya nos pasó en esta casa.

 

***

 

La carta de la editorial decía así: “El deleite que me ha producido la novela, que tan amablemente nos ha enviado, sólo ha sido superado por la lectura de la versión original escrita por Augusto Monterroso, titulada Animales y Hombres. La editorial que represento no posee los derechos de autor de dicha obra y sospecho que usted tampoco. Por tanto, no podemos publicar su no tan fiel trascripción”. Firmaba M. Aizpirrieta.

Busqué las cartas viejas que mi mujer atesora y confirmé mi sospecha. Más de cinco años antes, cuando recién había emigrado a España, M. Aizpirrieta, que para entonces trabajaba en otra casa editora, me escribió: “Debido a que su libro de cuentos muestra muchas similitudes con Movimiento Perpetuo, publicado en 1972 por Augusto Monterroso, sentimos comunicarle que nuestro comité de lectura ha desestimado la publicación de su ¿original?”

Dos años antes, cuando quise publicar mi segunda obra, M. Aizpirrieta, en nombre de una tercera editorial, me respondió: “Su libro es fantástico, pero ya alguien más lo escribió: Augusto Monterroso y lo llamó La Oveja Negra y Demás Fábulas. Igual le agradezco la gentileza de enviarme la trascripción, pues la relectura de este autor siempre se agradece y no roba demasiado tiempo”.

Desde que recibí la primera carta deseché la lectura de Monterroso, por temor a verificar las palabras de M. Aizpirrieta. Yo conocía el cuento más breve del mundo, El Dinosaurio, porque siempre lo recitaba un buen amigo que sabía de memoria miles de episodios de la vida de los escritores latinoamericanos famosos. Tengo que reconocer que el cuento se parecía a uno que formaba parte de un libro que aún no había enviado a las editoriales. Sin embargo, mi protagonista no era un durmiente y tampoco se encontraba un dinosaurio al despertar. Además, si publicara mi obra destronaría al escritor guatemalteco del récord, pues mi narración tenía seis palabras, una menos que la de él. Pero siempre existirá gente como M. Aizpirrieta, empeñada en encontrar similitudes entre textos, tan solo para desmeritar la escritura de quienes, como yo, cultivan la concisión.

Después de recibir esa tercera carta de M. Aizpirrieta, salí a comprar las obras de Monterroso. En la librería estaban los títulos que se mencionaban en las tres cartas. Pero preferí adquirir su obra completa, que cabía en un librito de 132 páginas. Siempre creí que para conseguir el éxito se tenía que ser tan prolífico como Alejandro Dumas. El cuadernillo que compraba me consolaba. En términos cuantitativos, yo también tenía un quehacer literario escueto.

Aunque yo era todavía un escritor rigurosamente inédito, había logrado vivir de la literatura: Redactaba las memorias de quienes me contrataban. Ganaba lo suficiente como para haber detenido las mudanzas en un bonito piso del centro de Madrid.

Al comienzo de mi carrera de escribidor, me promocioné repartiendo volantes en todos los buzones de la ciudad. Ofrecía la inmortalidad al alcance del bolsillo. “¿Quiere escribir el libro de su vida? Profesional se lo redacta. Honorarios por hora de entrevista. Aproveche: La posteridad es más fácil de lo que usted cree”. Los honorarios se cancelaban en tres cómodas cuotas. La primera, antes de iniciar la sesión de entrevistas, de dos horas por día, dos días a la semana, durante un mes; el segundo pago, cuando entregaba el borrador, que se sometía al escrutinio del dictador de sus memorias; y el tercero, cuando redactaba la versión final que incluía enmiendas por arrepentimientos de última hora de quien, al fin y al cabo, firmaba el libro. Redactaba entre diez y doce biografías en nueve meses. En invierno escribía mis propios libros. Justo aquel día que recibí la carta de M. Aizpirrieta me preparaba para la hibernación. Rehusaría cualquier contrato, hasta acabar mi nueva obra, que sería una novela muy experimental.

En mi casa, ojeé el volumen de Monterroso, que no era, como anunciaba el título, una obra completa, sino una narración de siete páginas, acompañado de otros doce relatos. El título me había engañado: Obras Completas (Y Otros Cuentos). Para mi sorpresa, las narraciones eran muy similares a algunas que yo había compuesto. Sin embargo, mis personajes y el trasfondo crítico de mi obra difería de la de Monterroso.

            Regresé a la librería. Compré otros nueve libros del guatemalteco.

Leí La Oveja Negra y Demás Fábulas. Al principio no me reconocí en los animales que dibujaba el autor, porque en mis textos yo hago fábulas con los habitantes del ecosistema marino. Después de rebuscar entre líneas, fungiendo como mi propio acusador, concedí el beneficio de la duda a M. Aizpirrieta. Algo me salvaba aún. Mi ópera prima no se parecía a la suya, sino a su cuarta obra. Tuve cierto sabor a triunfo, una especie de consuelo.

Sonó el teléfono.

-Llamo por el anuncio. Quiero escribir un libro.

-Muy bien, señor, pero tendrá que esperar algunos meses. Si desea, puedo anotar sus datos y me podré en contacto con usted tan pronto como...

-No, usted no entiende. No hay tiempo.

La voz era urgente, temblorosa, senil. Involuntariamente acepté una reunión inmediata en una cafetería de Chamartín, muy lejos de mi barrio. Recuerdo que me consolé pensando que, durante el trayecto en Metro, leería Movimiento Perpetuo para comprobar si también tenía parecido con mi segundo conjunto de relatos. El sol de otoño cedía. El frío, mi mal abrigado vestir debido a la premura con que salí y la necesidad de escribir mi nuevo libro para desquitarme de Monterroso, con el que tan sospechosamente coincidía, me predispusieron para no aceptar por ningún motivo el trabajo. Bajé en una estación cualquiera y di la vuelta. No acudiría a la cita.

            Ya en casa, volvió a sonar el teléfono. Levanté el auricular sin contestar. Era el viejo. Colgué. El teléfono repicó insistente y su sonido acompañó la lectura que hiciera de Movimiento Perpetuo. Esta obra, debo admitirlo, se parecía aún más a mi segundo libro. Su intento de elaborar una antología sobre las moscas, que a mí tanto me obsesionaban; los palíndromos que escribió en Onís Es Asesino eran los mismos que había fabricado yo después de cientos de horas de trabajo para un relato parecido, aunque hago la salvedad de que no eran iguales; y la odisea narrada en Cómo me Deshice de Quinientos Libros era la misma que yo había inventado para satirizar mi enorme nostalgia por los libros que dejé en mi tierra.

Lo terrible, sin embargo, se presentó cuando leí Lo Demás es Silencio. Era un calco a lo que yo me había propuesto escribir. Y el mismo final, que había sido lo primero que se me había ocurrido. Concluí que mi trabajo ya había sido hecho. Imaginé la carta de rechazo de M. Aizpirrieta: “El suyo es un esfuerzo sobrehumano que merece ser reconocido. Nunca nadie persiguió tanto a un autor para arrebatarle sus obras. Aunque no puedo desear que su constancia sea recompensada, sí espero, por esta amistad forjada a lo largo de corteses misivas de envíos suyos y rechazos míos, que la editorial que represento nunca entable un juicio contra usted”.

Cuando cerré el libro, sólo escuché el teléfono que, en realidad, nunca calló. Contesté.

-Señor, ya hemos perdido un tiempo del que no dispongo.

No asistir a la entrevista había sido miserable. De todos modos no quería el encargo, menos el de un moribundo. Le respondí:

-Pero sucede que la empresa tiene un retraso de más de un año y dar prioridad a su encargo supondría una inversión muy alta.

-Comprendo. Diga una cifra, la que sea. La pagaré.

Yo quería desaparecer. Llegar a un lugar donde nadie hubiera oído mencionar a Monterroso. ¿Existía acaso? Intuí que esta era mi oportunidad para olvidar la literatura. Pedí mucho dinero, suficiente para comprar una franquicia de hamburguesas. Le exigí la mitad por adelantado. El hombre, de seguro un millonario, aceptó y me citó en el mismo lugar para el día siguiente.

En la cafetería, el hombre, muy viejo, esperaba sentado, mirando a la puerta. Me vio entrar, pero no se levantó. Su cabello y su traje eran, ambos, blancos, muy limpios, más reluciente el cabello que el traje, porque ni siquiera la minuciosa pulcritud puede disimular las telas percudidas ni el corte tan pasado de moda. Las manos del hombre descansaban debajo de la mesa, donde el mantel se sacudía brevemente. Sobre el cenicero, un cigarrillo prendido y varias colillas quemadas hasta el filtro. En cuanto lo observé, supe que no podría pagar los honorarios que le solicité y yo no estaba dispuesto a negociar formas de pago ni rebajas. La entrevista sería fugaz. Sentí la prepotencia con que se trata a los desposeídos. Sé que el hombre advirtió lo que yo pensaba apenas me miró a los ojos y ni siquiera hizo un ademán de saludo. Sacó un montón de billetes descubiertos, sin delicadeza. La mano le temblaba en exceso.

-Quiero dictarle un libro, que debe estar listo en tres días. Comencemos de una vez.

Soltó los billetes y pretendió tomar el cigarrillo. Mientras luchaba con su mano trepidante, el viejo me invitó a contar el dinero.

-El adelanto está completo –retó-. No necesito que me firme ningún papel. Somos caballeros, ¿o no?

Los billetes eran, casi todos, de la denominación más baja, estaban desordenados y, muchos, arrugados o doblados en pequeños paquetes. Los guardé. Yo, para romper la tensión, iba a preguntar: “¿Rompió la alcancía del nieto?” Pero callé al ver el esfuerzo del viejo por llevar su mano hasta los labios.

-¿Se siente usted bien, señor? –interrogué.

-No es nada. Sólo Parkinson.

Sin perder tiempo, sin esperar a que pidiera un café, comenzó a narrar. Yo grabé.

Al cabo de cinco horas, ambos estábamos muy cansados.

-Lo espero mañana en este mismo sitio –me dijo antes de marcharse. Pagué la cuenta: doce cafés que yo ingerí. El no tomó nada. Durante los siguientes días, el viejo narró aventuras sin tregua. Sin tregua en su hablar y sin tregua en su vida.

-Tiene usted una gran historia –dije al final de la última sesión.

El viejo ni siquiera sonrió.

Comencé a transcribir. “Nací en 1934 y soy hijo de un prófugo de la justicia”.

El primer recuerdo del niño fue un desfile militar y supo por qué huía su progenitor. Diez años después, se alistó en la juventud comunista y participó en una intentona golpista que fracasó. Un amigo del régimen y de su madre llamó para avisar que lo sacaran del país. Cuando la policía llegó a buscarlo, ya había partido a Praga donde se decepcionó de la burocracia del partido y regresó a su “país chiquito asediado por el imperio”. Organizó la revuelta y el primer combate lo tuvo con su propio batallón. Supo que había perdido cuando los mismos chicos a los que dio el rifle conformaron el pelotón de fusilamiento.

Escuché mi voz en la única interrupción que le hice mientras hablaba. Pregunté, tímidamente, porque el viejo estaba conmovido, cómo escapó y en qué año sucedió. No me miró. Recuerdo que dijo: Estoy seguro de que alguno habrá llorado mientras disparaba.

Cambió de historia sin más.

El hombre vagó por los escenarios parisinos como espectador, siempre con la tentación de actuar. Al fin, hizo una audición, nervioso, joven y obtuvo un papel. Hizo carrera. Triunfó. La primera vez que viajó, su padre, hombre que nunca había demostrado cariño, lloró. Actuó en Inglaterra, España, Buenos Aires, Moscú. En aquella ciudad, su madre le envió un mensaje: Su padre había muerto. Le dijo que había callado su enfermedad para no interrumpir su carrera artística, que tanto le enorgulleció.

Anoté que debía preguntarle cómo se había salvado del pelotón de fusilamiento y cuándo su padre había dejado de ser prófugo.

El hombre se exilió en México, donde escribió poesía y conoció a una mujer que lo subyugó. El tuvo que abandonar la ciudad. En la despedida, ella le hizo jurar que no la olvidaría y él se dio cuenta que no sabía su nombre completo. El apellido que ella reveló era igual al suyo. El único de la familia que había emigrado a aquel país había sido su padre, cuando abandonó a su madre. Una corazonada amarga le obligó a preguntar de quién era hija. Ella le contestó sin fingir: De nuestro padre.

Pregunté el nombre de ella y cuándo su padre había emigrado. Dijo algo inaudible, difícil de escuchar.

Retrocedí el casete, presté más atención. Un murmullo. Rebobiné la cinta otra vez. Cerré los ojos, subí el volumen hasta que escuché el ruido del vacío. “Aquella poesía bien valía la pena el suicidio”. De frases así se tejió la confusa historia del viejo.

            Los combatientes agonizaban por carecer de armas y municiones. El dinero sólo alcanzaba para enviar a una persona a pedir ayuda a los países comunistas. Los líderes de la insurrección lo eligieron a él. Viajó a Argelia y registró una sociedad anónima dedicada a la exportación de aceite. Ordenó la fabricación de toneles para transportar el líquido, pero que debían tener doble pared y con la cara interna cóncava. Entre las láminas internas y externas, de pesado acero, se esconderían armas y municiones que compraría en China mientras se preparaban los cilindros. Allá probó el opio, cuyo sendero lo condujo hasta la India. Negoció con drogas y mujeres. Un traficante lo apuñaló. Los bidones quedaron varados en el puerto, a la espera de un cargamento de armas que no llegaría.

Otra pausa, otro día.

En la selva perdonó la vida a una osa que protegía a su cachorro. Luchó en el frente comandado por su hermano. Juntos inauguraron la lucha armada de la revolución, cuando acribillaron la fachada de una prefectura andina. Después asaltaron el tren de El Encanto, secuestraron al futbolista más célebre del planeta que se hospedaba en un hotel de San Bernardino. En una escaramuza, perdió a su hermano. Ocurrieron elecciones. Un hombre le preguntó la hora y cuando levantó la vista del reloj, estaba rodeado de militares. No llevar armas esa tarde le salvó la vida. En el fortín excavó un hoyo con una cuchara, escapó. Se firmó la pacificación. El y otros guerrilleros engrosaron la lista de desempleo. Decidieron volver a las armas, pero esta vez para beneficio personal. Su primer atraco fue una agencia bancaria de la provincia. Asaltaron treinta entidades en dos años. Por aventura, comenzaron a atracar también los camiones blindados, mucho mejor protegidos. Alguien delató una operación y los cercaron. Ninguno se rindió ni escapó.

Mientras desgrababa el casete, anoté, para interrogar al viejo en nuestro próximo encuentro, en el que puliríamos los detalles de la historia, cuántos murieron en aquel asalto y cómo se salvó él.

El hombre preparó el gran golpe. Robaría la remesa que llevaba a la capital el dinero íntegro de las sucursales bancarias de la isla, que era enviada con escasa custodia en un vuelo comercial. Después de jurar a una mujer amada que sería el último atraco de su vida, abordó el avión como cualquier pasajero. Diez minutos después del despegue, ya encañonaba al piloto y lo obligaba a desviar su ruta y aterrizar en una pequeña pista al borde de la playa de Higuerote. Cargó con las once valijas de dinero y montó en un velero que lo esperaba. Sus cómplices fueron apresados.

Tres décadas después, en una cafetería de Madrid, recordaba el robo.

Terminé de transcribir las sesiones y, antes de comenzar a redactar, debía aclarar todas las dudas. Parecía como si en vez de una vida, el viejo me hubiera narrado seis.

Cuando nos volvimos a ver, quise que mitigara las sombras del relato. Rehusó detallar fechas y nombres.

-Ya dicté el fin. ¿Cuándo debo cancelar la otra mitad?

Sólo entonces me fijé que todos los días que nos vimos siempre llevó el mismo traje blanco, cada vez más sucio, y que el hombre estaba verdaderamente agotado: Las ojeras hundían su rostro. Recordé entonces la frase con que me respondió cuando le pedí que dijera cómo se llamaba. “No quiero que mi nombre aparezca. Yo soy muchos”.

-Dentro de quince días, cuando yo le entregue la versión definitiva -concluí.

-Necesito el libro para mañana.

-Imposible.

-Le pagaré cuatro veces más si lo tiene para esa fecha. ¿Cree usted que la editorial que publicará el libro, cómo dijo que se llamaba, tenga algún ejemplar listo apenas termine de redactar?

-No sabe usted cómo me gustaría poder editar todos los libros que escribo.

-¿Aún no sabemos quién publicará este libro? ¡Vaya!

-Señor, el contrato no incluye la edición. Yo sólo redacto.

-¡Busque usted una editorial y podrá quedarse con los derechos! –al arrebato le siguió el desconsuelo-. Yo nada más quiero un ejemplar en mi mano lo antes posible.

Acepté sólo por no contrariarlo. El viejo se marchó. ¿Quién es este hombre?, me pregunté. No tenía su dirección ni su teléfono y nada más podría verle otra vez en esa cafetería. Decidí seguirlo. Me mantuve a distancia. Llegamos a un geriátrico público, casi en ruinas. El viejo entró y yo tras él. Vivía allí, entre habitantes ateridos y olor a orín. ¿Cómo pudo cancelar la altísima suma que le pedí para aceptar el contrato? Le devolvería el dinero. Para no herirlo, esperaría a la próxima reunión, cuando él llegara sin el importe restante del contrato. Le mentiría. Le diría que una editorial había mostrado interés y que esto lo exoneraba del pago. Además, agregaría, compartiríamos las regalías. Ambos firmaríamos el ejemplar.

Regresé a casa. Redacté como nunca antes, afiebrado por el remordimiento. Articulé las historias con la magia que tienen las palabras cuando vuelan y velan toda referencia. Terminé el trabajo justo a la hora en que debía ver al viejo.

Pero antes de la cita, buscaría a M. Aizpirrieta. En la editorial, le mandé a decir que el plagiador de Monterroso lo esperaba, con urgencia, en la planta baja. Que esta vez había escrito un libro inédito de veras.

-Haga el favor de leer este original –le dije cuando estuvimos cara a cara-. Se trata de las memorias de un personaje que no vivirá mucho tiempo. Quiero saber, con la prisa que tiene el agonizante, si usted recomendará su publicación.

Muy cortésmente prometió leerlo y llamarme en caso de tener buenas noticias. Le dejé mi teléfono móvil, el que no doy nunca a mis clientes.

Llegué retrasado a la cafetería de Chamartín. El viejo no estaba. Indagué con el mesonero, por si acaso se hubiera marchado, pero me respondió que no lo había visto hoy.  Le esperé pero no llegó.

Lo busqué en el geriátrico. Nadie controlaba el acceso. Adentro, en una sala paupérrima, varios ancianos se acurrucaban entre sí para brindarse calor. Pregunté por el viejo. Lo describí. Una anciana me pidió entrar a una habitación, donde, sobre una cama, un hombre moría.

-Salió muy temprano esta mañana –me respondió la mujer.

El hombre que moría balbuceó algo.

-Se llevó mi betún –agregó ella-. ¿Y usted quién es?

-Su biógrafo.

Ella sonrió.

-¿Y ya terminó su trabajo?

-Vengo a entregarlo.

-¿Puedo verlo? Las memorias son de nosotros también, que se las dictamos a él, para que se las contara a usted.

-¿Dónde está? –pregunté ya con angustia.

-Ha ido a buscar el dinero que nos faltaba para pagarle.

La mujer me sacó de la habitación. Me señaló al moribundo:

-Queremos regalarle el libro con nuestros recuerdos... Yo fui una actriz famosa.

            -Había seis historias.

            -Incluimos la de tres grandes amigos que se fueron hace tiempo.

-¿Pero dónde está él ahora?

            -Ya le dije: Salió a buscar el resto de su dinero. Me pidió que lo exonerará de una vieja promesa. Yo accedí porque él me aseguró: ‘Nunca robar un banco ha merecido tanto la pena’. Quise acompañarlo pero se negó. Me dijo que nada más tenía una pistola. Busqué una media de nylon, pero no la encontré. Por eso le di el betún. También quise ayudarlo a  embadurnarse la cara, pero él me dijo que lo haría en la entrada del banco. ¿Dice usted que no llegó a la cita que tenían ustedes? ¡Siempre ha sido tan puntual!

Mareado, caminé a la salida y me senté en el brocal del geriátrico. Necesitaba respirar un aire menos rancio. Sonó el teléfono móvil. Era M. Aizpirrieta.

-Le recomiendo postular su novela en nuestro certamen literario.

-Falta el último capítulo –le contesté.

-¿Sí? ¿Y cómo termina?

-Aún espero saberlo, pero temo que no será un final feliz.

 




Doménico ChiappeDoménico Chiappe

Doménico Chiappe (Lima, 1970) is a writer and multimedia author.  He has published the nonfiction book Tan real como la ficción: herramientas narrativas en periodismo (Laertes, 2010); the novel Entrevista a Mailer Daemon (La Fábrica, 2007); the book of short stories Párrafos Sueltos (UCM, 2003; Musa a las 9, 2011); and the multimedia work Tierra de extracción (Land of Extraction), which has been selected in 2011 by the Electronic Literature Organization for its anthology ELC2 as one of the best works of multimedia literature in a foreign language.  He grew up in Venezuela, where he worked as a journalist, and has lived in Madrid since 2002.

photo by Lisbeth Salas

Translated from SpanishSpanish by Jonathan BlitzerJonathan Blitzer

Jonathan Blitzer is an editor at Words Without Borders and currently a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid.