To celebrate the publication of Rodrigo Blanco Calderón's English debut, The Night, translated from Spanish by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn, we're proud to share an excerpt from the second chapter of the book, which Publishers Weekly calls "a wild and complex celebration of language and storytelling... the result is exhilarating and entertaining."
Origins of Symmetry
I like symmetries and detest motorbikes. Actually, I love them, and I think it’s down to some kind of fear. Symmetries, I mean. And motorbikes. I know what I’m saying. And because I know what I’m saying, I don’t need to go on about it. I don’t have to tell anyone either. If I’m talking to you, doctor, it’s only as a courtesy to Matías. He was so insistent I should come see you, especially given what happened after class, I had to promise I would. He convinced me with the fact that you’re a psychiatrist—that is, a physician, not a psychologist, a psychotherapist or a charlatan. I mean, I presume you treat your patients with medication, and I’m an advocate for the prescription and use of medication. Take depression, for instance. They say it’s the illness of the century. Depression, leaving its causes aside, is a biochemical process. Serotonin levels drop and antidepressants restore them. That’s why I say, when it comes to health matters, it’s medicine first and words after. And if words can be avoided altogether, so much the better. Since I’m convinced that all the evil in this world originates in them. In words.
That’s why I came. So you could prescribe me tranquilizers or whatever to help me erase the anxiety when it suddenly overwhelms me. Or, at least, build some kind of firewall to buy enough time to maneuver before the instant strikes, so that when I sense the motorbike approaching, I can be braced for the impact. Or run away from that damn chainsaw sound all the faster. Ever seen those Friday the 13th movies? Remember Jason? That’s what I feel like whenever I hear a motorbike coming. In fact, I don’t need to hear them anymore. Just imagining the damn sound — like a saw drawing near to cut my head off—that’s enough to make disaster unravel.
I’d like to point out, Dr. Ardiles, that Friday the 13th is only an example. I’m not traumatized by it. Freddy Krueger and Jason have always left me cold. Here in Caracas, Jason would just be a tree surgeon and Freddy some emo kid with long nails. Freddy and Jason are brats compared with the plague of motorized thugs who’ve taken over the city. Wipe them all out: that’d be the first step to truly rebuild this city. Hit them with their own helmets until they die. One by one. Margarita, a friend of mine from the workshop, told me something unbelievable the other day. She took a motorcycle taxi in Altamira to go to Paseo Las Mercedes. It was six in the afternoon, the subway system had collapsed and the buses were packed. When they were about to pull out of Chacaíto to take the main road to Las Mercedes, just opposite the McDonald’s in El Rosal, the taxi driver took advantage of a red traffic light to pull out a gun and steal a BlackBerry from the woman in the car alongside them. He didn’t wait for the light to go green. He left the cars behind and continued on his way. When they arrived at Paseo, Margarita was shaking all over. Even though she can defend herself better than your average guy, she could barely take the cash out of her purse. The driver received the fare and, seeing her so rattled, said:
“Don’t be scared, honey. I would never rob my customers.”
See what I mean, doctor? What are you supposed to do with a piece of shit like that? Huh? Excuse my language. The thing is . . . you know what I’m saying. But don’t go making assumptions either. It’s not PTSD. Despite everything, I haven’t been robbed for a while—touch wood. The thing about the motorbikes comes from before, from when I was married to Margarita. No, not the one from the story about the motorcycle taxi. Another one—my wife.
I could tell you about one particular experience that might explain it all. But I’m not going to, because I didn’t come here to talk. Let’s look at this, if you will, as a mere formality, so you can prescribe me the drugs. Because if I start talking about what happened to me back then, you’ll forget about the present, about what’s happening to me now. It’d be unfair to blame that one biker—just check out my ability for synderesis: I’m talking about being fair to such a scumbag—for all the excesses of today’s bikers. Also, it’d be impossible for them to be one and the same. It’d be too much of a coincidence. And for me, coincidences don’t exist.
Last week? Where should I start. . . . From the beginning, Aristotle would say. But where are the origins of symmetry? The thing could have started more than twenty-five years ago, or a month ago. It doesn’t matter, whatever suits you, the only thing that’d change is the direction you’re going in. You’re right, it was me who said I didn’t want to talk about the past, about the causes. Let’s start with the present then, and with the consequences, and hopefully, we’ll leave it there.
It all started, or started again, or started to take shape, when Margarita stared at me. Yes, the one in the workshop, not the one who was my wife. It was Matías’s fault. I’d sort of hoped Matías wouldn’t recognize me, that my name wouldn’t make him go back to 1982. But the morning after the first lesson, I read an email from Matías where he asked whether I was the author of “Neercseht.” I answered a simple “yes,” as if to suggest I didn’t want to talk about it. Doctor, if you want to know more, you should ask Matías. I wouldn’t recommend that you read my short story under any circumstances. I wouldn’t put anyone through that. Though there is a version of the story you might find interesting. It’s the same story but from back to front. Its title is “The Screen,” and it’s by a young writer called Rodrigo Blanco. I’ve been racking my brains but can’t think of anyone who could have shared the information with that young man. Anyhow, his story is totally misleading when it comes to my affair with Sara Calcaño. It’s true I slept with her, but it’s also true that Sara Calcaño slept with each and every one of the writers there at the time, male and female, young and old. A fact that is as true as it is useless, since Sarita ended up crazy and must be dead by now.
After the last class of December, Margarita, Matías and I stayed behind to discuss some details from “Theses on the Short Story” by Ricardo Piglia. Now I think of it, the whole thing was an ambush, with Matías playing a dirty trick on me.
“So, you are Pedro Álamo,” said Matías.
Margarita looked at him and then at me as if waiting for an explanation.
“Pedro caused one of the biggest scandals in Venezuelan literature,” he told her. “Of course, you weren’t even born yet.”
He went on to tell her all about my short story, the El Nacional award, the angry reaction of most critics, the incredible reaction of the few who championed my work, my stubborn silence in the following months and subsequent retreat from public life.
“Pedro Álamo was what people call—with sincere admiration but somehow bitterly—a rising star in our literature. Then he vanished. What were you up to, Pedro?”
I’d have liked to explain that all it takes to vanish from our literature, as he put it, is to avoid book launches and stop taking calls from the press. Instead, I said I’d been doing something else.
“I’m an advertising executive.”
I must confess, doctor, I enjoyed seeing the disappointment on his face. But it’s the truth: I’m an advertising executive.
“Do you still write?” Matías wouldn’t give up.
“No,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. I want to try to start afresh.”
Matías seemed unconvinced. I’m not sure myself whether what I said was true. Is it writing, this thing I’ve been doing ever since? As in, what writers usually understand by writing? I don’t know. I don’t care either. All my life I’ve been trying to play down the high hopes that, despite myself, I raise in those around me. Matías didn’t bring the subject up again, but that time, when we said goodbye, Margarita stared at me.
That night I dreamed about a noise. It sounded like a motorbike, and in the dream I didn’t know whether it was moving closer, moving away, or doing both things at once. I live in the annex of a house in the Santa Inés development. Not sure if you know the place. I’d guess not. Most Caraqueños haven’t a clue where it is, as they get it mixed up with Santa Paula, Santa Marta, Santa Fe and every other eastern santa. Meaning only the people who live there know for sure where Santa Inés is, as if Santa Inés was more than a development, it was a bond. This only happens because the place is just a handful of houses scattered in a sort of canyon that lies between the old road to Baruta and Los Samanes on one side, and the hills of Santa Rosa de Lima and San Román on the other. Santa Inés is, how can I put it, it’s a weird echo chamber. Sounds bounce around, cutting off their source on their way back, as well as the notion of what’s far away or close, like errant atoms tuning the universe.
The truth is that midway through my dream, in the dead of the night, I heard a motorbike. A humming that was gaining ground on the silence of the hour, eroding the night. That noise, the dream of the noise, seemed to go on forever. I woke at last, anxious, rolling out of bed and falling onto the floor of my room like a dead tree.
I knocked over the glass of water I always leave on the bedside table. Even though I could’ve cut myself with the shards I didn’t turn the light on. I remained on the floor like that, sitting there with a wet ass. Margarita used to hate that habit of mine. Leaving an overflowing glass on the bedside table, only to toss the water in the sink in the morning, almost untouched. I’d hardly take a sip after brushing my teeth and before turning out the light. My marriage with Margarita was a short and mis- erable obstacle course. Our financial situation would force us to move from one apartment to the next, from one side of the city to the other and, in every place we lived, the glass of water on the bedside table was the subject of our conversation. In the beginning, that habit of mine used to provoke a kind of affectionate confusion. But as time went by, her reaction became pure hostility. Toward the end, it was just indifference. I was very young and focused on my job in advertising after failing as a writer, and palindromes had already become an obsession. I failed to see what was evident, that things were coming to an end. Margarita would look at the glass of water on the bedside table and accept I wasn’t going to change, that I wasn’t going to give up this absurd routine or any other. That’s what Margarita would see every morning: how the fluids of our first intimacy were slowly drying, even within that glass still filled with water. I was still on the floor, mind wandering, but one last feeling finally woke me up. The distant sound of the dream reverberated in my ears. The motorbike could easily now be a small plane disappearing into the horizon. And the slow fading of the sound was so subtle it became indistinguishable from the col- lapse of the night. I looked around before getting up. The small puddle of water and the bits of glass made me think about global warming and melting ice caps. I couldn’t help but notice that the puddle was pulsating, and I kept thinking about it for the rest of the day.
Sorry to have taken up your time, and thank you. I really appreciate the prescription and the Xanax.
Yeah, sure, anything you like. Don’t worry, honestly, go ahead. Margarita? My wife?
Oh, she died years ago. Killed, poor thing.