Life Is a Novel

Translator's Note: In Fritz Glockner's Memories of the Underground: A Clandestine Life, Miguel Ángel abandons not only his job but also his wife and five children to join a clandestine guerrilla group and fight against what some considered, in the early 1970s, an oppressive central Mexican government. The novel opens as the narrator examines the difficulties his younger brother Irving faces when he finally finds the father he never knew. While searching the archives of Lecumberri Palace, the once-feared high security prison now turned General National Archive, Irving discovers details about his father in yellowed newspapers and other previously sealed official documents. The narrator apologizes to his younger brother for concealing from him the difficult and unbelievable truth of so many years ago, then describes his father's self-imposed exile.

It's a bitch to talk to you about those ghosts you discovered. Without really wanting to, you realized you had a past that you didn't know about. Finding that document in the book in the bedroom probably wasn't the best way to face a story that we hid for so long (the dates, the events, the people, the photographs of an unfamiliar place, they didn't seem to have anything to do with you).It wasn't the best way to discover the truth in those yellowed newspapers, either. And besides, how would you know what awaited you in the archives? Maybe there, my dear Irving, you found impersonal stories that made you anxious. It was your collective past, the emotions of your family that inhabited every note.

At long last you found the father you never knew, the one you never had except for the strange, fleeting references. You remembered only endless hallways with people everywhere; you were four years old and it shocked you that we put you in front of a strange man, a man who lived in that dark building. We all waited anxiously for your answer, your reaction.

"It's Papá," you heard someone say.

Scared, you could only say that you didn't like Papá's school, you wanted to leave and never return. Since then you haven't returned to Lecumberri.

Later, when that man was freed from jail, he had so many things to think about. He had to organize his existence, refamiliarize himself with his abandoned family, offer explanations, and integrate back into society. He almost didn't have time for you. Occasionally the man with the moustache arrived with books for his youngest son, a book entitled The Chinese Circus or This is How Children See the Moncada, publications you guarded jealously, as they were your only reference for understanding fatherhood.

One day we told you that this stranger, your father, had suffered an accident, and that you would never see him again. In any event, you never had time to miss him, your encounters had been so incidental that the habit of seeing him had never set down roots; it's possible that you felt sad, nostalgic, that the atmosphere around you was contagious, but you didn't suffer. No one in the family had the time to bring you up to date, in spite of the fact that you had every right to know what had happened. I know now that it's not easy for you to understand our arguments, which tried to justify oblivion, which explained to you that your presence was necessary for us to be able to put up with adverse times, that your tricks and your innocence kept our family united. It will take time for you to understand the surprise, the reproaches for having marginalized you in the past, and above all, the way you met him. I guess it's a bitch to open a newspaper after fifteen years and discover the brutalized face of the person they called your father . . . .

On the other hand, there was no opportunity to know his reasons; time didn't allow you to demand anything of him. The notes you read included familiar names. You tell me that the indignation and your doubts kept mounting. You must really feel like getting even . . .

In a detailed manner you learned about his detention, about his activity as a guerrilla, about the official lies, why he was absent, the reason you were strangers to each other. You entered this turbid story through the press, alone and defenseless; the time: two years and five months. During this time the stranger dedicated little to you. At least we didn't lie about the accident; because of course there is a huge difference between a car accident and being shot down in broad daylight. You probably didn't give much weight to that note written in red ink, they're always commonplace and impersonal.

As the youngest of the family you had to live with a false version, which you are only now just discovering.

Life may seem, perhaps, like a novel that someone invented and is trying to force you to believe.

***

They arrived on time, at the stipulated hour. That was the day you chose to change your life, in spite of the doubts and the remorse that every once in a while were thrown at you for abandoning your family.

"It's for them," you repeated over and over amid the uncertainty.

All the details seemed to be in place. It was probably not the best time to get involved in the subversive activities that the organization was carrying out, the ones you had supported financially for some time now. You were tired, however, of figuring out how to survive even the most absurd hardships. You recalled the last time you gave your support and how harshly they treated you:

"The commitment to the destitute, to the people of Mexico is not Christian charity, it's a duty of conscience, of ideology; you are a passive guerrillero, but just the same you are committed to our cause."

Then came the decision to become active. You thought about it for a long time. In spite of the doubts, no one ordered you to make that decision. You successfully met the requirements of the training exams, you had enough courage to face death, you transformed the personality of many compañeros, you took care of several gunshot wounds, and you never missed a weekly training. It seemed ridiculous to you that at your age you were following the local fairs just to be able to practice shooting at targets, but it was the best way to get target practice without spending a lot of money.

"It's time," you heard them say from behind the door.

Your case was exceptional: few people with a relatively comfortable status, at your age, and with a family made this kind of decision. Few dare to put ideals above all, to leave all behind: friendships, family, business. You had asked yourself many times where these utopian ideals could lead.

"Are you ready?" the young man who had walked into your office asked you, knowing full well that in order to make the connection time was of the essence.

"Let's go," you managed to say before looking around for the last time, at the walls, the desk, the shelves, the decorations in that room. You knew there was no time to turn back, the decision you had made was forever. The prize of the game you were about to enter was life or death, even though the starting place seemed common enough. Today you would change your name, your past; nothing you were leaving behind mattered, you were about to turn into another person: Miguel Ángel would disappear as soon as you got into the car that was waiting outside. A person dedicated to changing the unjust structures of this country, through the use of arms, was about to be born.

You gave your secretary an envelope. She knew beforehand that she was to give it to your wife; it contained the pretext to justify your absence from that point on. You said good-bye, it was just about eleven o'clock in the morning; the young man who was waiting for you wanted to understand you. You didn't know him, that's how it had to be. Contact with the organization was made through channels, no one knew the members of other cells, for the safety of all. You put your briefcase, which held a change of clothes, under your arm. It was your only luggage. No one should know that you were going on a trip.

You got into the car, followed by the young man that spoke to you as if you had known each other forever. You responded mechanically. All of your muscles were stiff, your face had a theatrical smile pasted on; acting normal was the best guarantee: the police might show up to interview the employees of the hospital. Your family, worried, would look for some way to release them from this nightmare, because the reasons you gave in the letter might not have justified your abandoning them. All the possibilities had been studied; you had to follow the script step by step, leaving no room for eventualities.

Shortly after, the car that was leading you off to a new life took the old road to Mexico City. The countryside made you feel safe. The trees that lined the way bade you a sweet farewell. The pretending was over; the person accompanying you let you sink deep into your thoughts. He turned on the radio to make the trip easier for you.

Just ten days had passed since the massacre in Mexico City, on Maestros Avenue. That Holy Thursday was still present in the national newspapers, the young man at the wheel showed his indignation, his pain; at the hands of the "falcons" one of his brothers had lost his life. You didn't know what to say, the driver interpreted your silence.

Upon reaching Rio Frio he stopped the car. You didn't know where he was taking you; you went into a truck stop.

"We're going to eat something, and when I'm finished I'll get up and leave. Fifteen minutes after I've disappeared, you'll leave and take the next bus that's going to Mexico City, and get off at the city limits. At the first traffic light on Zaragoza Avenue a grey Chevrolet will be waiting for you. You'll give this envelope to the person in the car, and he will continue guiding you."

You listened attentively to the instructions, nervous due to lack of experience. You thought someone could have overheard, but the truck drivers were immersed in their lunch, the music was too loud for eavesdropping and the young man acted with ease. You didn't speak to each other again until he left.

"Good luck" was the last thing you heard him say before you were left alone.

You waited, apparently calm, until the fifteen minutes had passed, while you finished your cup of coffee. When the time was up you paid the bill and waited five more minutes until the bus to Rio Frio arrived.

You settled in among chickens, baskets, sacks, hats, toys, ready to continue the trip; you had never before traveled like this to Mexico City: the people were before you, the oppressed ones for whom you were changing your way of life.

It took a little over an hour and a half to reach the place. When you got off the bus Zaragoza Avenue seemed different, you discovered buildings you had never seen before. The designated car was at the first traffic light. The signs all lined up, even though doubt, due to your lack of experience, bombarded you. You traveled the distance that separated you from the car, you made double sure that the indicated person was in the car, you felt for the envelope hidden in your jacket, and you reached the window on the driver's side. A lazy hand gestured out the window and received the password.

"Shall we go?" was the answer you got in exchange for the envelope, and still suspicious you got into the car. "I'm the right person, don't worry. Was the trip difficult?" he asked, to alleviate the tension that dominated you.

"A little trying, nothing too bad."

You decided to hide the feelings that traveling in a second-class bus had brought up, the excitement made you forget your previous thoughts, you began to transform yourself into the new character you would be from that day on. You tried to stop worrying about your past, about the people you were abandoning. Now, you had to do things right, you told yourself: arrive on time, turn to the appropriate people, have the password ready, those were the obsessions of the moment.

The second guide turned out to be a better conversationalist, he distracted you so much that you didn't notice how far you had traveled until you stopped for a minute at the second toll booth on the Mexico D.F.-Querétaro highway.

"You'll only be at the first safe house for two months"–he started to give you the first instructions. He gave you a new name, he handed you an identification card, he listed the things you should learn by heart, the phone number to call in case of an emergency. He gave you a gun, he took the money you had on you, and he explained the different ways to dye your hair.

"Nothing written," he repeated over and over again. "You're going to get out at the restaurant just past Querétaro. Next to the gas station there's a parking lot, there'll be a wood-paneled van there, you're going to tell the driver where you're coming from, your new name, and he'll take you to where you should go. Welcome."

Once again you felt nervous, this way of welcoming you in brought you back to reality, you hurriedly put what the second young man had given you into your briefcase. The car stopped and first you went to the bathroom at the restaurant. Maybe urinating would alleviate the tension. You didn't see the conversationalist leave. When you left the restaurant you walked toward the van parked next to the gasoline station, and the new driver knew it was you as you approached. You had seen him before, when he had picked up some of your contributions. You followed instructions, talking for a moment outside the van, and then he asked you to get in the back door, to put on the blindfold that another compañero in the van would give you, to get comfortable and for the moment not to talk to the other two people that were, just like you, in the van.

That attitude seemed a bit strange, for a moment you felt distrust, but later you understood those extreme security measures.

You took your place in the van; you didn't even have time to see the other two compañeros who were crossing over to the underground along with you. The trip was long, your thoughts ran wild the whole way, the fight against the past that you had to erase started up once again.

Different images came to mind; feelings of anxiety, insecurity, fear, and remorse invaded you. For an instant you felt ashamed of this type of affliction, but the silence and that hint of loneliness you felt, in spite of the company, added to the unknown of what awaited you, even though you were conscious that this had been your choice. It made you realize that beyond ideology, beyond the balls you had (or didn't have), you were just one more fucking human being, with normal defects and weaknesses. Superheroes don't exist, not even in the cartoons your kids watched. It helped you a bit to believe that your two travel companions would be feeling the same. Mal de muchos, remedio de pendejos. The saying grew in your mind, the saying your father, partner, ex-president of the university, the legend, whom you also, you felt, had the obligation to forget.

Night had fallen when the van finally stopped. "We're here," shouted the driver, as the second compañero opened the door, the one who sat next to the new underground members. He helped you stretch out your stiff muscles, contracted from the anxiety, the uncomfortable trip, the adrenaline. You took your blindfold off and you were surprised that one of your companions, recently recruited, was a young girl who could have been the age of one of your daughters. The safe house was in the middle of a large tract of land.

"Come in and eat, you must be starving," another young man said as he welcomed you in a tone so familiar that it surprised you, unleashing all the tension accumulated during the trip.

The conversation at dinner was a bit forced, and since you couldn't talk about the past, there were few things in common, except for the cause.

It was after nine when they showed you to your rooms and gave you the necessary information to survive during the training period.

When you lay down you were sure that it wouldn't be easy to fall asleep. The decision had been difficult. You felt the lonely space next to the bed, you rubbed shoulders with it, and the only thing you wanted was to share that feeling with the night.

Militia est vita. The slogan of the Jesuit school where you had studied many years ago came to mind. Without even noticing you let yourself be carried away by the exhaustion of the trip and of so much pent-up nervousness, and contrary to your predictions, you fell asleep almost immediately. Your training would start the next day.

***

To cling onto something, I ran desperately, many times, aimlessly. Papá could be on any corner: all the faces became his.

Imagination and necessity allow you to change reality in your own interest, you've been thrown onto the stage, and you don't even know the role that you are supposed to play. Every once in a while you discover eyes in the walls, shadows in the windows. I wanted to crash into him, because his voice was becoming more and more distant.

All of a sudden you have only reality left, presence living in memory; the shadow that lies in wait but doesn't grow, it only follows. It doesn't let you be, it only chases you.

When I turned ten I wanted to receive many gifts, most of all one from Papá. It was perhaps that day that I understood abandonment.

Mamá was at the beauty parlor, I had gone to the store next door; stamp collections were in fashion; when we played at exchanging stamps, it was "yes, yes, yes, I have that one, noooooooooooooooo!" María showed up in the street all of a sudden, her face holding back the happiness, it seemed like she wanted to shout. Since I could read her emotions, I guessed what was happening. Without even talking to her I began to run as fast as I could. There were three blocks between our house and the beauty salon and the store. I ran frenetically: I didn't care if cars were driving by or not, I had little time.

When I arrived I couldn't stop ringing the bell. Since no one answered, I went in through the bathroom window. When I was halfway in, the door to the street opened: Papá was there; we hugged. I so wanted to reproach him for not giving me a gift on my birthday; maybe he owed me an explanation. Time was short, we couldn't waste it on absurd resentments, and we both let the tears well up.

Someone knocked at the door, Mamá and María were in the street, it took me a while, I opened the door for them.

In the stairway, where I had hugged my father, only my memory remained.

From Veinte de cobre: Memoria de la clanestinidad. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Elizabeth Polli. All rights reserved.