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The Writer of Memories

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.