Bewitched by Shanghai is narrated by an adolescent, Danny, who lives in postwar Barcelona with his widowed mother. Between school and starting working as an apprentice in a jeweler’s workshop, she has arranged for him to accompany Captain Blay in his daily wanderings round the city to make sure he comes to no harm. Captain Blay was wounded in the Civil War and lost his two sons in the fighting. Now he is obsessed with collecting signatures for a petititon to protest about a gas leak he insists is poisoning everyone in the city, and to get a factory chimney whose smoke he says is poisoning the neighborhood closed down too. Here the narrator and the Captain set out on what is to be their last day together.
Only once did I succeed in getting through the fake wardrobe and into the hideout where the Captain now sought refuge less and less often-I could swear more to escape from his wife than to feed his personal demons. It was a cubbyhole that had once been a bathroom and was now filled with flowerpots and wooden boxes full of geraniums and carnations, as well as a camp bed, a chair, and a small bedside table on which there was a wooden contraption sprouting cables and wires and rusty batteries that looked like some huge dangerous beast but was in fact nothing more than an old cat’s whiskers radio. The toilet and the bidet had been filled with earth where several bright green climbing plants were growing, and fronds of flowering honeysuckle hung down from the cracked wash-basin to the floor. This profusion of flowers was doubtless thanks to Bettibu’s plump green fingers. A tiny window let in a fitful, bright sunlight when it could penetrate the clouds; it looked out over the flat roofs of the neighbourhood, the spires of the Sagrada Familia church further on, and in the distance, the sea.
I got into the Captain’s den that day because his wife asked me to help him bring out the unused camp bed so we could get rid of the bugs and disinfect it. I found the Captain sitting on a chair talking into a microphone as large as a bowl. He was holding it up to his face despite the fact it had no cable and was not connected to anything. He did not seem surprised to see me, and simply put this antiquated relic back on the table. Doña Conxa had emptied the wardrobe of clothes, and shouted instructions to us from the far side, so the Captain and I hauled the bed out into the dining room and onto the balcony, where we shook it until we got rid of all the bugs. Bettibu carefully burned them with bits of newspaper. The effort left the Captain so exhausted I was hoping that for once he would postpone his search for more signatures, but I was wrong.
By the time we were out into the street, later than usual, the sky had clouded over and there was a slight drizzle despite the oppressive heat. I could not convince the old fool we should go back home. After a couple of failed attempts to collect signatures from people in calle Congost, the Captain took pity on me and offered me a lemonade in a bar where a radio was on at full blast on the counter.
“Good day, gentlemen,” the Captain said as he entered. “By chance did any of you hear the most interesting, timely and well-documented political commentary just broadcast on EAJ Independent Health Radio?”
There were four customers, three at the bar and one sitting by the wine barrels. They answered his greeting, but not his question, so the Captain repeated it, singing the radio journalist’s praises.
“All right Blay,” one of them said. “We all heard it.”
“And what do you think, gentlemen? A magnificent speech, as far as I could judge.”
“A load of drivel.”
“Come off it, I enjoyed it,” another of them said jokingly. “That fellow has the gift of the gab.”
“Don’t get him started,” the barkeeper warned them in a whisper.
“A real bolshie that speaker, Captain, but he has style.”
“I’m pleased you liked it,” the Captain said.
“Well Blay, I still reckon it was a real load of tripe,” insisted the first man.
“I suggest you reconsider your opinion,” the Captain persisted, “because it was a lucid and valuable analysis of the national and international situation. No other radio, and much less any of our gagged national press, will give you a more precise, accurate and bold comment on the current political and military state of this Europe in ruins . . .”
“You tell them, Blay,” the other drinker said, trying to stir up trouble in a bored sort of way. “What do this lot know?”
The barman, nervous at Captain Blay’s radio mania, suggested they all changed the subject. I went on drinking my lemonade. The bar was a den of shadow, and over by the barrels there was a faint smell of sulphur. A little man who was swaying in front of a glass of red wine gripped the edge of the bar with red knuckles and blurted out:
“What I like is the Taxi Key programme.”
“And I don’t know what on earth you’re complaining about, Blay,” said the seated customer in his sly manner, winking at the barman. “The truth is there’s never been such peace or prosperity as we have now in this country.”
The little fellow nodded thoughtfully and murmured:
“Prosperity. Ah yes, prosperity.” He pronounced the words as if he were talking about a very special vintage wine, whose bouquet and taste he had just recognised with his eyes closed. “On that score, this gentleman here with the bandaged head is right.”
“How would you know, with the skinful you’ve had?” the fat man said.
“What d’you mean? . . . I drink my wine with water, you ass.”
“You’re the one braying.”
“Gentlemen, calm down please, that’s life,” said the Captain, and added: “I get drunk on life, and who knows what she will do . . .”
“Don’t start with boleros, for God’s sake,” the fat man moaned.
“It’s not a bolero,” the little man protested. “It’s a very beautiful, very sad poem.”
“Yes, and you’re still an ass.”
“Gentlemen, please!” the Captain said, taking the folder from me and turning to the little man, who had gulped down his glass of wine. “You’re new around here, aren’t you? Might I ask you to sign this important document intended to put right an act of injustice?”
For some reason, the little man felt pleased and honored, and he signed straightaway, looking nervously over his shoulder all the time at the fat fellow. “Let’s be off,” the Captain said, digging me in the ribs. “They’ve all got bellies full of gas that’s going to explode at any minute.” He paid for my lemonade and his white wine, and we went out into the street, leaving the customers staring at their glasses or perhaps talking about what they always talked about, with the same well-worn phrases.
Something strange, a kind of blind sense of urgency, drove the Captain on that day, and we roamed a long way from home, across gray, ashen waste ground, and smoking heaps of rubbish. We passed the bullring and all at once, in a bare empty place that sloped down to a black pool of water, we came across a railway carriage, its sides shot up and splintered. The two bits of track it was on could no longer take it anywhere. They emerged from the ground like twisted black snakes, all that was left of a railway line that in the distant past must have crossed this dusty plain dotted with bushes and dried-up broom. It was an old third-class carriage with wooden seats, and one or two windows were still intact. The rain started to come down heavily, so the Captain suggested we take shelter. Nettles and thistles were growing out of the wrecked platform, and sitting by a window inside we found a blue-eyed tramp with filthy skin. His forehead was pressed against the glass, his chin cupped in his hand. He could have been asleep or dead. He seemed to have been there forever, staring out as the devastated, barren world turned around him.
“Where is this train headed, my good man?” Captain Blay asked, sitting down opposite the tramp, who didn’t even turn to look at us. I stared at his fine young lips, smooth and bright in the middle of his fitlhy face. As usual, the Captain was not going to miss out on a conversation if he could help it, so he gave the man a friendly pat on the knee and went on: “I could swear it’s the same train that used to go to Toulouse via Port-Bou. If it is, we’re on the right track, you can sleep soundly . . .”
The shower had finished and the sun came out again. I was anxious to get the Captain home, when all at once the carriage suddenly went dark as if we had just gone into a tunnel, then tilted over slightly toward the pond, its wooden beams creaking and a low, grating metallic sound coming from underneath us. I told the Captain we had arrived, and he stood up and followed me without a word. He looked so withdrawn and exhausted I was frightened.
“He looked like a dead man,” I said as we were walking away from the carriage.
“What does that matter?” said the Captain. “The dead learn to live quickly enough, and better than we do.”
“Let’s go home, Captain, we’ve come a long way.”
He stood there quiet and thoughtful for a moment, then said:
“The thing is, that poor man is hungry. You should look more closely.”
In calle Argentona he came to a halt once more, asked for the folder, and examined the list of names. We continued on our way, but instead of giving it back to me, he kept it under his arm. On the corner of calle Sors and Laurel he started to say he felt weak and complained his knees were hurting.
“I don’t know what’s wrong today,” he growled, leaning on my shoulder. “I’m not too good. My joints are liked barbed wire, and my head is spinning. That bed was so heavy I think I’ve put my back out. . . . Maybe we should have a rest in this wine cellar.”
I was lost in thoughts of my own, and felt crushed by the heat.
“And also,” the Captain went on, “I’ve got that feeling again that this city is built on tunnels that are mined, and that we could all be blown sky high at any moment . . . yes, I’m really doing well today, dammit.”
“I think we should get home, Captain,” I said when we were going into the bar. “You don’t look right.”
“It must be premature aging.” He stood next to a man drinking on his own at a table, and went on: “A lot of people say I’m prematurely old. Yes, I know I’m crazy, but it’s not that. I’ve always been premature. The problem is that recently my premature old age has got mixed up with my retarded youth, and there are days when I don’t know what I am. And besides, I’ve got no one to scratch my back.”
We had a bit of a rest. The Captain smoked half a cheroot and had a small glass of red. I did not want anything. When we left the bar we crossed the road to get under the shade of the acacias, and the Captain sat on the edge of the curb next to the open drain, to tie up the string round his battered slipper. Then he realized he had left the signatures folder in the bar, and told me to go back and get it. I left him sitting where he was, and went into the bar, but neither the barman nor the only customer in there at that time of day had seen any folder. The barman swore that the old lunatic had not been carrying anything like that when he came in. I thought about it, asked for a glass of water, and stood there for a while, content deep down inside we had mislaid the notorious folder: that meant I wouldn’t have to knock on any more doors, or have to go up and down all those stairs making a fool of myself to complete strangers by reading out loud the ghastly protest letter . . .
When I came out into the street again, he was still sitting there, head lolling between his knees, the fingers of his right hand caught up in the twine that had come loose from his shoe. A stream of dirty, foamy water swirled round his feet and down the drain, carrying with it a scattered bunch of wilted white roses. Even before I reached him, I knew the Captain was dead. I could tell just by looking at the way his lifeless hand was caught up in the string, and how the rebellious crest of his gray hair was being ruffled by the breeze, a sudden moment of relief from the heat, an eddy in the air that his skin and his heart could no longer feel.
I ran to tell the man in the bar, who came out to look then went back inside and called the Red Cross. Next to the bar was a convent shcool for poor girls, and two nuns came out. One of them made the sign of the cross on the Captain’s forehead, the other, who was very young, said that perhaps he was not dead yet, but I knew he was. Seeing him doubled over like that, his head tilted carefully toward the drain as if his acute hearing could catch the silent underground spreading of the gas, the same ghostly, lethal gas that many years before had seeped into his brain on the banks of the Ebro, the Captain seemed more absorbed than ever in his own thoughts, while at the same time sniffing the rotten smell of the roses and the drains, a fragrance of faded roses and death that no doubt would have given him cause to denounce fresh abuses and confusion. Nowadays I realize that there was only a tiny gap between the phantom gas pouring from the drains to put us all to sleep, and the valiant belief the old man had that this gas truly existed. He once told me that all the nonsense he was accused of, all the crazy things he had done in his life were nothing more than rehearsals for one single act of lunacy . . . that he never managed to commit because he was never quite sure what it might be.
As ever, I did not know what to do, so I sat beside him and did up the string round his slipper. Then the ambulance arrived, he was put onto a stretcher and taken to the Clinic, while I ran to tell Doña Conxa.
As for the lost folder, it never reappeared. If he had lived to see it, the Captain would have thought it had been stolen and would have raised hell. I imagine he dropped it in the street, and if someone found it and opened it they might have smiled indulgently at the protest letter, the few signatures of support, and my clumsy drawing, then tossed it away again.
Yet something was not lost. In some way, after roaming the steets for so long with him and having to put up with all his craziness, and despite my sense of shame and my reproaches and my desperation to leave him and run to Susana’s villa, her realm of dreams, the sweet warm hive of microbes I could escape to every day, fleeing the lies and misery of the world outside, the old fool had succeeded in infecting me with a dose of the virus that had destroyed his mind, so that sometimes I also felt I could smell the stink from the gas in the drains and was swallowing the black slime from the chimney that dried up Susana’s lungs. That was why, during the last two weeks I spent wandering the streets with him, I sincerely tried as hard as I could to help the brave veteran fight his lost cause.
So it was that over time and without my realizing it, the setting of my childhood adventures gradually became a moral landscape, and that is how it has always remained in my mind.
From El Embrujo De Shanghai, published 1993 by Plaza y Janés. Forthcoming from The Harvill Press, an imprint of Random House. Published by arrangement with The Harvill Press. All rights reserved.