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Excerpt from 'The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction'

 

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BEST OF CONTEMPORARY MEXICAN FICTION


DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Dalkey Archive Press
All right reserved.

 

ISBN: 978-1-56478-514-5

 


Contents

SEALTIEL ALATRISTE  Preface..........................................................................................xi
ÁLVARO URIBE  Introduction...........................................................................................xv
VIVIAN ABENSHUSHAN  La cama de Lukin / Lukin's Bed  TR. SUSAN OURIOU.................................................3
ÁLVARO ENRIGUE  Sobre la muerte del autor / On the Death of the Author TR. C. M. MAYO................................33
EDUARDO ANTONIO PARRA  Cuerpo presente / Requiem  TR. ANDREW HURLEY..................................................57
CRISTINA RIVERA-GARZA  Nostalgia / Nostalgia  TR. LISA DILLMAN.......................................................129
GUILLERMO FADANELLI  Interroguen a Samantha / Questioning Samantha  TR. DICK CLUSTER.................................159
JORGE F. HERNÁNDEZ  True Friendship / True Friendship  TR. ANITA SAGÁSTEGUI..........................................169
ANA GARCÍA BERGUA  Los conservadores / The Preservers  TR. BARBARA PASCHKE...........................................185
ROSA BELTRÁN  Shere-Sade / Sheri-Sade  TR. LELAND H. CHAMBERS........................................................205
ENRIQUE SERNA  Tesoro viviente / Living Treasure  TR. KATHERINE SILVER...............................................221
JUAN VILLORO  Mariachi / Mariachi  TR. HARRY MORALES.................................................................289
FABIO MORÁBITO  Los crucigramas / Crosswords  TR. PETER BUSH.........................................................319
FRANCISCO HINOJOSA  La muda boca / The Muted Mouth  TR. THOMAS CHRISTENSEN...........................................341
DANIEL SADA  El fenómeno ominoso / The Ominous Phenomenon  TR. KATHERINE SILVER......................................369
GUILLERMO SAMPERIO  La mujer de la gabardina roja / The Woman in the Red Coat  TR. KIRK ANDERSON.....................405
HERNÁN LARA ZAVALA  A golpe de martillo / Hammering Away  TR. PAMELA CARMELL.........................................435
HÉCTOR MANJARREZ  Fin del mundo / The End of the World  TR. ELIZABETH BELL...........................................451
AUTHORS..............................................................................................................523
TRANSLATORS..........................................................................................................527

 

Chapter One

VIVIAN ABENSHUSHAN

 

LUKIN'S BED

 

At one point or another, each of us found ourselves alone and we all ended up heading for Lukin's bed. He assured us we would found a new civilization, the civilization of the bed, shared by millions of men, a civilization that would eventually blanket the globe. It was obviously nothing but a fantasy-who could get enthusiastic about a world inhabited by such a cold, hopeless lineage as ours? I think Lukin was trying to do right by us, to be a friend and comfort us like any good host would. Moreover, he didn't want to see us leave since he, too, had been forsaken, sad, and free. But in a certain sense his prophecy was being fulfilled: soon Lukin's bed-a kingsize one that used to belong to his ex-wife Sonia's great-grandparents-proved insufficient. It was then that our hardworking, fraternal community of abandoned men began building The Bed.

This all took place during the famous season of mass divorces. It was wintertime and the ice-cold nights in the city were unbearable without a companion. What to do? Where to go? How to put a stop to the stampede? From one minute to the next, women had felt the call to flee and a huge hubbub started up in the streets: hundreds of movers and moving vans came and went with books and plants and stools and all the carved wooden or ceramic figurines that sparked little interest in us beforehand, but which, deep down, were so familiar-in other words, unique. But our spouses wanted more convincing responses, an "Ah!," an "Oh!," a "How extraordinary our conjugal blanket, our brass ashtray, the grime on our walls is!" something to give our home its own unrelinquishable character. I believe the women's demands, the slight pressure they brought to bear on us, were not the result of a mere caprice; they were more like desperate measures driven by the women's anticipation of their imminent flight, as though they had to convince themselves that neither they nor their belongings were just passing through our lives and that we, their provisional husbands, would love them even after they were gone. How difficult it must have been, now that I think about it, to lead such an unsettled life, forever going from one spouse to the next, from one city to the next, like gypsies carrying their bedrolls on their backs.

It goes without saying that in this high-altitude mountain city the change in seasons is so dramatic that the climate mutates brutally-not only do trees lose their leaves and birds migrate in flocks, but our partners, like nature, begin to move, one being exchanged for another, along with the contents of our homes, which were obliged to adopt a totally new look, integrating objects brought by the new female companion, who always arrives loaded down with used items, each one bearing its own weight and scratches from the past. Making room for them is obviously not as simple as all that, and loving them as one's own even less so (the objects I mean). Some women-especially the foreign ones or the beautiful, intelligent local women who, after setting out for new horizons, brazenly make their way back to us-have even gone so far as to bring all of their children with them to live in our homes-a particular inconvenience to us-thus accelerating the natural divorce process. Here, in this progressive high-altitude mountain city, it has been decades since the menfolk have been able or, in fact, have wanted to sire offspring. If we do on certain occasions agree to live with foreign children-one way of putting it-it's mostly because instinctively we know it won't last.

Still no one knows what provokes the stampedes or whether they will stop one day. In the grip of some irrepressible impulse, the women simply leave shortly before the first snowfall, without a word as to why or where they're going, leaving us gaping, incredulous, stunned. Every year the same scene plays out and every year our expression is the same, as though past experience has taught us nothing or, frankly, that we enjoy suffering. What's left to us? The litany we comfort each other with, "No matter, old pal, it's just a passing fancy, they'll soon get over it." Such ingeniousness! One could ask oneself, as our ingenious friend Lukin has been doing for decades: if we've renounced without the slightest remorse or pain all hope of having children, why haven't we grown accustomed to celibacy? The way Lukin tells it, such emotional autonomy represents something like a "leap of civilization," namely the acquisition of absolute freedom in the face of nature's pressure. However, that supposedly glorious phase of our evolution has yet to take place. Something quite to the contrary has, in fact, transpired: our restlessness and dependency have only increased. As well as the severity of our insomnia. Each time the snow begins to fall on the mountain, we hold tight to the notion that this is it, that this will be the last lonely winter, that there will be no more mass flights, that the next batch of women will provide us with lasting serenity (until death or beyond), giving us enough time and opportunity to better understand them, their little obsessions, their whims, and to love them extravagantly, both them and their rare objects, such as my ex-spouse Francisca's small Tuscan table, which I thought slightly vulgar at first, but which now is the bearer of so many wonderful memories that I feel incapable of ever getting rid of it.

The fact is, far from decreasing, the number of divorces has multiplied and the diaspora of women has become increasingly unpredictable. Last winter was one of the worst ever, unforgivably cruel. Never before had every single woman left, absolutely every one, all together at the same time; previously, at least ten or twenty used to stay through the year, either because they lacked the energy to take flight or because they were entirely satisfied with their husbands. What's more, we always used to be able to turn to the comfort of the girls in the brothel run by Mikaína-an extraordinary woman with huge hips whose statue presides proudly over the small square in the middle of our city's central plaza. The girls only ever abandoned their posts after our ex-wives' replacements had arrived during the rainy season. This was a small gesture from Mikaína towards her clients for which we gave thanks and then some, sponsoring the aforementioned square that bears her name. But in last winter's stampede, even they left. How sad to come home from work only to find half-empty houses! As though during the morning a gang of invisible thieves had burglarized even the most remote corners of the city without making a sound.

General consternation ensued, if not something verging on panic. I, for instance, sat staring at my hands for hours at a time without knowing what to do with them. I kept asking myself every second, "Where on earth shall I put them now?" I was so used to placing them gently on Francisca's back right next to the nape of her neck as we slept that, the first night in her absence, I was obliged to lie on my back with my arms stretched out in front of me like a sleepwalker. But that was nothing compared to the shivering brought on by the cold. Shortly before dawn when the city hit the freezing mark, it felt to me-and at the same time to all my fellow citizens, I know-that we would never survive without our wives. An insidious, freezing wind squeezed through the cracks in the doors and windows to penetrate our bones like the sharp tips of icebergs, setting us to trembling uncontrollably, the victims of stomach cramps and unspeakable anguish. From my alcove, I could hear the comings and goings of my neighbors who, stiff with cold like me, were unable to keep to their beds. In order not to freeze to death, one had to get to one's feet and pace among old, lusterless pieces of furniture like rats that come out at night.

We all knew full well that the sessions of wandering would invariably end in bitter weeping or pointless pleas. But we tried to keep it to ourselves. In the morning, when my buddies and I met at the market or the laundromat, we laughed and slapped each other on the back to ease our dejection. "They'll be back," we told each other hopefully. No one seemed to be starving or ill since we mountain men had learned a century ago how to cook even better than women and take care of ourselves. However, if we bothered to look a bit closer, the ravages of a bad night's sleep could not be concealed: sunken eyes surrounded by an ashen halo, pallid features, bad temper, and the oh-so-telling way of letting our words trail off at the end of a sentence. Most depressing of all was to see how insomnia had aggravated character flaws which, under normal circumstances, went unnoticed. My friend Umbertico, who owned the antiquarian bookstore in the center of town, stuttered more than usual; Antonín's armpits smelled worse than ever before; and Lukin, who loved nothing more than a good political harangue, went on and on spouting nonsense. For my part, I existed in a constant state of melancholy and stupor, with the sensation that everything around me took place in maddeningly slow motion.

Unfortunately, this was not just an impression: the slightest gesture, the slightest activity no matter how mundane, took us twice the time it used to; for instance, we had to be sure to ask for the bill as soon as we placed our order for breakfast at the restaurant if we didn't want to still be there at suppertime. But it wasn't just the general lack of sleep and intense cold that contributed to the mood of sluggishness and lethargy. The principal cause was to be found in the women's absence: without them, our obligations and work multiplied to the point of exhaustion, any hours of effective rest disappeared and the economy entered into alarming recession, as though money itself were trudging through mounds of snow. What strange, incomprehensible days during which the life of our modern high-mountain city adopted a nineteenth-century pace, with letters taking three months to reach their destinations and physicians losing their patients en route! We felt insecure, prone to mistakes, and backward in the eyes of the world.

At times like these, Lukin and his theories sprang into action, although, for him, action consisted of nothing more than never-ending tongue-wagging. "Hope," he declared to the regulars at Miguel's canteen, "is the most refined of delaying tactics." He liked to reiterate, oblivious to the fact we were sick of hearing it, that as long as we failed to endure with dignity both the nights and the snowfalls and continued to expect anything at all from the women, our emancipation would be postponed indefinitely. Hadn't we taken care of ourselves for all these years? Yet we continued to suffer from the women's tyranny and the desire to see them return home. The way Lukin put it, our history, our economy, our progressive high-altitude mountain civilization, were forever undermining in the wintertime all that was achieved in the summer, which was why we hit a point of stagnation every year. Everyone knows how hard it is to get over a divorce; not only does one's self-confidence suffer and one's will falter, one is also obliged to start over from scratch and fertilize unknown terrain again and again, like a poor directionless nomad. What could be expected of a city suffering from mass divorce? Paralysis. But things didn't have to be this way ...

One day as I was taking out the garbage, I bumped into Lukin coming up the stairwell of my building. He was running up quickly as though bringing me urgent news. He said, "Yesterday, the last women left. Victoria, the tavernkeeper's wife, and even Mikaína, who's taken all the girls from the brothel with her. Antonín's wife threw her things out the window and locked the apartment with a master key. Which she then swallowed. So Antonín had to spend the night at my place."

"We're done for," I said.

"No," he exclaimed in his usual booming leader's voice, "we'll show them we have no need of them. Never again will we toss and turn between our sheets, stiff with cold!"

"You're repeating yourself," I said, looking him up and down.

"It doesn't matter."

"It does matter, Lukin. You're always repeating yourself, which is why Sonia left you."

"What I mean is that from now on, we can sleep together and continue our lives without them."

"Fine," I said with little conviction.

Lukin invited me to spend the night in his apartment along with Antonín. Armed with my pillow and a change of clothes, I arrived before the appointed hour since the sun had set early and my apartment, stripped of curtains and carpets, was an icebox now. Worse than the cold, however, was the silence. Scarcely three weeks ago, I would make maté or tea with butter for Francisca and myself when we returned home from work shortly after sunset. We'd talk effortlessly, at ease, as if for a moment life had lost all its rancor and become simple and pleasing. But when Francisca left, all conversation left, too. What's more, because of my solitude, the air in my apartment began to acquire a vinegary, caged animal smell that thoroughly discouraged me. That same smell now permeated Lukin's house and Umbertico's bookstore and Miguel's tavern. The entire city smelled rank, and there was no woman's scent making it possible to distinguish one spot from another like before. Everything was the same, monotonous, humdrum. Why go to Miguel's tavern, for instance, if all one found there was Lukin and Umbertico and Antonín? But life was so tough after a divorce that anything, even Lukin's repetitions and Antonín's stench, seemed less oppressive than my own silence.

Since it was Friday, Umbertico, Miguel, and two other friends, Pedro and Jonás-unemployed due to our economy's winter paralysis-showed up at Lukin's apartment. They looked awful. To comfort them, Lukin welcomed them with an exquisite spaghetti alla puttanesca; after tapping on the side of a glass a couple of times with his spoon, he announced, "Tonight we won't look at photographs or worse yet share secrets about our women ..."

He was referring, of course, to our traditional exchange of pictures-a countless unfurling of images of the women who had crossed our paths-which for decades animated our get-togethers every Friday in Lukin's house. It's true that the relaxed sessions were wonderful (and indispensable during months of abstinence), since we not only played darts, but could gaze at the wives of our friends, prying further into their virtues and flaws, for instance, and a few more private tidbits concerning their favorite books and sexual fantasies, realizing there was a good chance we'd find the next woman to share our bed among their ranks (such was our destiny). Since the women in question were distant in both time and space, it was almost possible to see them as mere abstractions; any given one of us could desire his neighbor's wife without remorse. It's no wonder then that Lukin's announcement elicited a protest from Antonín, "Without the pictures, these get-togethers are just plain absurd."

"The only thing that's absurd," Lukin snapped, "is to keep living under this horrible yoke, the yoke of hope ... I hate seeing you turn into beggars on life's road every year. The women won't be back! We shouldn't let them back! Think about it, my friends, be reasonable: why humiliate ourselves before them any longer? We've conquered the pressures of the species, we've managed to stifle the impulse toward conception. So let's take advantage of the opportunity and liberate ourselves from all suffering and all unhealthy passion, too: jealousy, imaginary fears, infidelity. Let's not waste another night thinking about them! At least here in this apartment where you have always been welcome, let us never again worship women ... I'm sorry Antonín, but if you don't agree, you have the option of going home."

Since Lukin had always been a host beyond reproach, his intransigence made us suspect that Lukin had something up his sleeve. From then on, he was spared our reproaches; if only to avoid having him launch into another exhausting-for us-harangue on men's liberation and the leap of civilization. After several weeks of bad nights, our brains dulled, our nerves hanging by a thread, Lukin's speeches could be hell. Antonín wisely held his tongue, too, not just because he no longer had a home to return to, but basically because he was fully absorbed in his spaghetti. From then on, we kept our wives to ourselves; however, every time Lukin went to the kitchen for bread or wine, Jonás would pull a picture out of his wallet to exchange with me under the table, the way boys trade collector's stamps, hiding them from their teacher's gaze. Soon enough, Lukin caught us in the act and, as he uncorked the fifth bottle of the night, said, "Let me see that picture."

(Continues...)

 



Excerpted from BEST OF CONTEMPORARY MEXICAN FICTION Copyright © 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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