Authors: Carlos Castán
From Paris, at a distance of so many miles, I was seeking to get a clear view, from another vantage point, of the recent events in my life and the state of mind in which I found myself, while trying, as far as possible, to put things back in some sort of order. I had just moved into a tenthfloor apartment from which I could see the towers on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Pilar and one or two other high-rises that gave the city skyline a Mudejar air. A welcoming spot, with plenty of wood, just as I’ve always liked, plaster bas-reliefs even in the bathroom, and festooned with Japanese ornaments, prints, and plates with painted birds hanging on the walls. The street was on a slope, and the city buses hurtled by, heading downhill to the center of town or skidding alarmingly to a halt in front of the bus shelter that stood on the opposite sidewalk. Sometimes, at night, the noise got mixed up in my slumbers with the sound of a cliff top suddenly crumbling. The bedding and the table linen were the most characterful items in that apartment, everything as if from a bygone age, as if stolen from an imaginary museum dedicated to my childhood. A female friend who dropped by from time to time back then to spice up my siestas a little bought me a new set of bedsheets—“I sleep in this bed of yours and I feel like my own mother or something. I can’t fuck like this.” Though I began using the sheets she had brought, in deference to her, the others were more to my liking. I explained to her that even in Barcelona, most apartments are like this on the inside, I’d seen them. Later, you’d spot their occupants out and about, sporting their designer gear, wearing those gray shirts or riding their bikes, a Nike backpack or a leather bag slung over their shoulders. Which is all well and good, but their apartments are just like this on the inside. Most are, anyway. Flick any switch, and desolation lights up on the ceiling. On the six-bulb chandeliers, two or three bulbs at most work, and they give off a light so yellowish and washed out it’s almost enough to make you wish you were dead, if only so as not to belong, as though you were just one more item among all the others, to the collection of things surrounding you, all taking up a certain volume of air, just like you—everything: crochet circles, porcelain objects, faded towels folded in two in the top drawer of a closet that doesn’t quite close right.
The children would sometimes come by on Fridays. They’d arrive bearing a ton of luggage to spend the weekend. The refrigerator empty. Me barely able to get a word out. They took in their surroundings and exchanged glances before finally turning to face me. I guess the question that hung in the air was something like
now what do we do
? Not in terms of that particular moment, but rather from now on,
what are we going to do, how are we going to manage now that everything we once were has come apart at the seams
? With all the suitcases lying around, the travel bags stuffed with changes of clothes, pajamas, and small toys, the backpacks with homework for school, the overcoats lying in a heap, we looked like the surviving members of a family in a refugee camp. It was as if their mother had been killed in an air raid and the three of us, before fleeing, had spotted her dead body peeking out from among the ruins, her white lips stuck to the earth, her hair matted with lime scale, a hazy cloud of flies and dust. I asked myself what right I had to make them breathe the air of that tormented world of mine, the silence, the books strewn on the floor, the grime in the corners, whether I had anything other than sorrow to offer them. And I wondered if a dead father might not be preferable to a downtrodden father falling to pieces before your eyes while you’re powerless to do anything, unable to understand a thing. We would go out for a stroll every now and then, swaddled in scarves and without quite knowing where we were heading. The two of them always trailing behind, following mother duck, bursting with questions but never daring to articulate a single one. Sometimes I would take the little one’s hand and squeeze it tight. Rather than affection or the sense of security he no doubt needed, I feel that this gesture served only to convey the unwanted lesson that there is no such thing, when all is said and done, as love without weeping, time without emptiness, or flesh without tearing, and that the defeated man he now saw before him is how things always turn out when you set your heart with sufficient fervor on something, whatever it may be. In his eyes, the figure of a protective father had no doubt vanished for good, his place taken by another creature, familiar and unknown in equal measure, as lost as he was and cornered by a sorrow that mirrored his own. The scene reminded me of a fairly well-known photograph by Manuel Ferrol that has for some reason been etched in my memory ever since I first saw it and somehow sums up the mood of those first weekends in the company of my children, one called
, taken in La Coruña in ’56. It’s not clear whether father and son are about to go their separate ways any minute or are saying goodbye to a third person just out of shot. A rough hand attempts to embrace the child with tenderness, although it does so with great awkwardness. The two of them are crying and looking straight ahead, perhaps at the gangway of a ship. Though in our case there were no ships, or sea, or anything in sight, everything that surrounded us was shot through with that air of a dockside farewell and the certainty that someone or something was stealing, from under our very noses, a huge shipment of things we would never see again. Perhaps my son, even as I embraced him, saw his father leaving.
How long does it take for a man to die, lying on the bed without another thought in his head, staring at the ceiling, determined not to budge an inch, not to eat, to let buzzers and phones go unanswered? How long before the tears on his face dry up? At what precise moment do the relevant ducts run dry and cease flowing? There is a type of madness akin to a black nausea that tends to spread upward to the brain. Sometimes this happens at such speed that it takes on the unmistakable air of a fit of insanity. This is what happens to the occasional somewhat half-heartedly suicidal individual, as well as certain murderers of the sort that repent straight away, no sooner has the deed been done, who ask themselves what they’ve done and call the police themselves, covering the corpse laid out on the floor with kisses, drenching it with snot and words. In my case, the froth of that retching takes somewhat longer to rise. It starts in the gut and advances in slow waves like a thick foam before taking up residence among the folds of my brain, flooding that uncharted viscosity with images of skulls, and memories, and loathing, inserting the word
into every thought, with a shoe horn if need be, not as a crystal-clear concept but rather as the hazy outline of a rusty scythe or a cross driven into the earth in the midst of the trembling. And it’s hard then to pull yourself together, for the vantage point from which you survey the world retreats from the present moment and takes up position somewhere so dark that time becomes a murderous, nimble entity and death, or signs that relentlessly bring it to mind, is everywhere you look; for example, try as I might, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing some of my female friends who often dropped by the apartment in those days not as they were there and then but rather how I imagined they might be on reaching old age, and myself as a more or less banal episode from their past. Beneath their current flesh, I could already see an old woman beginning to emerge, sighing wearily while waiting in line at some market or other, for whom someone, perhaps I myself, had laid out their medicines on the bedside table. The beginnings of the odd wrinkle here and there foreshadowed a face that was not yet a reality but that I was powerless to ward off, also affecting their breath, the way they carried themselves, and the way they fell silent. In the case of Julia, it didn’t stop there; I found it impossible to be by her side without picturing her naked skull and the tomb that would sooner or later house all those bones, the pubis that ground itself against me in a frenzy, the spread-eagled femurs, the wornout shinbones that circled my waist, the jawbone that set upon my mouth in the darkness. I feel that the idea of death is like a giant crow, or any other carrion bird with huge wings like oily capes that’s able to smell sorrow from a long way off, as if it were incense dissolved in the air, and draws near whenever someone looks weak, in order to lurk close by and, depending on the conviction with which the wounded man blindly flails, to peck timidly or tear into flesh for which no one yearns.
The lifeless body of Paul Celan was fished out from a quiet spot on the Seine six miles downstream. I felt I was already halfway down a similar route. All that remained was to wait and see which riverside branch might snag my legs. A shoe would no doubt detach itself to continue its journey oceanward, like a small grave boat. I thought of someone gathering up the body and of the possibility that a breath of air might bring me back to life. But I did not, in the end, jump from any bridge. Not that time.
I took to my bed early that night in my room at the Hôtel du Nord, as the sleet continued to fall in the interior courtyard onto which my window looked, and the TV news kept replaying the same images of cars set ablaze the night before, seats burnt to a cinder, puddles of gasoline, warped scrap metal. I remember closing my eyes, then running my fingers though my own hair, imagining that my hand belonged to someone else, anyone, someone who knows that my heart is filled with bitter wells into which they do not entirely want to peer, nor look the other way, either, and who tells me, as sleep slowly comes, that there are cities in the world in which day has already broken, where people are beginning to head outdoors, fresh from the shower, to buy some bread and the morning papers and grab a freshly roasted coffee and buttered toast with marmalade on the terraces of the corner bars, and who speaks to me of the sun breaking through the most wayward of clouds and the treetops, reassuring me, in barely more than a murmur, that little by little, without my realizing, I will gather together the pieces and reassemble, with what little remains, something resembling a human being. You’ll see. I’ll see. And I doze off a few blocks from a vast river, beneath a cracked sky, in the room of a two-bit hotel where no one who knows me is aware I’m staying, hidden by the shadows of a boulevard not too far from the ranks of burnt-out cars, not so many yards from my lost footsteps. Resting means that no one can see me.
Around about the date of my return from that trip came the period when Jacobo began to feel afraid at night. Very afraid, I mean, like a sort of extra helping on top of what he had felt, as a matter of course, his entire life. He could not bring himself to be alone. Sometimes he feared he would once again dream of the ghosts of Gestapo officers, hustling him from office to office before forcing him on board a train that crossed snow-covered forests, but for the most part he was afraid of more voracious, vaguer horrors. He would call me as the afternoon neared its end and summon me to his side. And so, without much of a fuss, I would toss my pajamas, a transistor radio with headphones, a toiletry bag, and a couple of books I had into a small backpack, and before long, I’d turn up at his door. It was easy, I barely had to lift a finger, and that’s the sort of job that’s always been right up my alley. Truth be told, he didn’t need looking after, and his mental state was seemingly normal most of the time. Indeed, on some nights you could say he was in particularly good spirits, and it was not therefore a matter for urgency or alarm. All that was asked of me was that I remain there, in his apartment, chatting idly about this, that, and the other, or each to his own, reading opposite one another, each man seated in his armchair, until we succumbed to sleep. It was by no means an unattractive proposition. Sometimes I’d sit there observing him, engrossed in his book and unaware that I was staring at him so openly—his close-cropped, graying hair, his air of a Reserve Marine, well into his sixties, equal parts affectionate and gruff, forever torn between those bottomless wells into which he would sink with increasing frequency and a certain
joie de vivre
that had to do above all with a love of art and fine wine, and a worship of women that might be described as not of this world; he even took pleasure in watching as they passed him by.
It’s strange to stand guard over something you cannot see. My enemy there, on that house-bound mission, was supposedly the legion of ghosts that were filing through his head, something intangible, dark, slippery to the touch, creatures that roamed unchecked on a plane to which I had no direct access (nor did he, that was the problem) and that would all of a sudden make him suspect the presence, on the other side of the window, of snout-like things all set to explode in a snarling fury or gleaming blades that made him think of an artery sliced in half, although for the time being they were content simply to bide their time out there, behind the poplars gently rocking in the nighttime breeze or submerged in the pools of asphalt lit up in amber by the traffic lights flashing throughout the early hours of morning. A force without name or measure. I would have been of little use in the event of an attack. I felt in a way as if I formed part of the sentry of a medieval king, facing the possible arrival of an alien invasion that would descend from the skies at supersonic speed, unleashing laser beams left, right, and center from a flying saucer. Eyes watchful, bow string and muscles pulled taut, a fierce gesture, and nothing more. That’s about it, little more than a token gesture of pointless loyalty, like the chanting of a crew as their ship goes inexorably under. I guess my presence was about as much use as a few drops of a placebo slipped slyly into his after-dinner glass of milk. But I realize that Jacobo did not call me so that I might air my opinion as to whether or not my dropping by was necessary or useful, but rather in order that I might heed his call, pure and simple; that’s how it goes when anxiety begins to squirm in the guts or the trembling of a memory, which all of a sudden, deep down, takes on a monstrous form, setting off alarms for good reason or otherwise. “You have to come, my thoughts are aquiver again,” he’d say, or, “I feel like I’m dying tonight.” This was his way of putting a name to the fear that everything would fade to black with no one on hand to whom he might say goodbye, or of spending another night sitting on the edge of the mattress, clawing at his scalp, as had happened before. When push came to shove, matters rarely came to a head when I was around. At times the anxiety was a little shriller and brandished shadowy claws that were never actually put to use, while at others it was simply the gentle perception of a heart slowing down, a sadness like a faded afternoon, when tedium cloaks objects and memories, without distinction, in the same invisible fog in which desire cannot breathe.
This was not the first time someone had made such a request of me. I have had relatives who were afraid of dying alone, in the middle of the night, and I have turned up on their doorsteps carrying a similar backpack, with the same satisfaction at being of use without having to lift barely a finger, for in reality they are content just to hear your breathing, to sense the mild heat a human body gives off, the occasional household noise close by, anything will do—the coffee pot on the stove, the click of a lighter—and to know that you’re on hand and will call the on-duty doctor, the ambulance, or whoever, should it come to that, or will at least squeeze their hand when the time comes to drift inevitably off to what they have occasionally glimpsed as a clinging darkness with no hope of return, when a sticky silence begins to pull them by the feet, dragging them with irresistible force from the other side of a sudden vertigo or the very sound of their galloping pulse. There ought to be some sort of protection for the mind, somehow, like a kind of sheepdog that, whenever one such venomous thought is about to venture into the swampy regions of the memory or project new forms of shadow or cobwebs, would herd it back together with the rest of the flock into some quiet enclosure bathed in light; it would tear the circle of obsession apart with its teeth, round up the stampeding ghosts, hunt them down through the labyrinths, sink its fangs into them until their veins of black juice burst once and for all or they were imprisoned in silence inside the pen.
In times gone by, many years ago now, I’ve also found myself on the other side. In other words, I was the one in dire need of a nearby presence so as not to succumb to panic. This was back in the toxic, hectic Madrid of the eighties, when my brain was a giant, raw wound inside my head. I remember my little mat laid out on the floor, at the foot of my friend Andrés’s bed, when we shared an apartment in the Estrecho district, and how his steady breathing somehow helped me keep time with my own in an attempt to sleep. Truth is, there is little more that can be done. It is at such times that I have caught the clearest glimpse of the fundamental loneliness of a human being, any human being, and the impossibility of any real communication. There is no transplant of nerves or blood, no way of releasing that fear from its cage. Two people can even hold each other tight, clutching hands, yet one will never truly be able to penetrate the other’s hell, or even remotely understand it. It’s impossible. Beyond a rudimentary sense of empathy that all but ends with the certainty that the other is suffering—but this is just abstract—there is nothing that can be done to penetrate the other’s thoughts, the other’s fear, and to fight tooth and nail, as one might so often wish, against the ghosts and the storms that are gathering in there. There is a profound, painful truth to that vision of Goethe’s whereby one’s inner life is akin to a sort of fortified citadel that no one can ever truly breach or, for that matter, leave, though linguistic sleight of hand may conjure an illusion to the contrary. In the middle of the night, two friends embrace in their pajamas, they ruffle each other’s hair, exchanging words of loyalty and encouragement, but only one is torn asunder, trembling inside, only one breaks out in an icy sweat.
Jacobo would sometimes try his hand at watercolor, usually vases of flowers, or fruit bowls, or candelabras, but also landscapes with outlandish skies, fearsome storms, or Vettriano knockoffs, those women who emerge when night, sin, and silk entwine, who gaze off into the distance, a cigarette in their hand, fancying themselves the magnets of all desire. For me, one of life’s great pleasures has always been to look on as someone paints or sketches at my side, acting as if I weren’t there. It must, however, be someone who takes the matter seriously, not some half-hearted exercise that matters little one way or the other, for here the other person’s passion is even more key to the performance than the outcome itself; and Jacobo, even though he ended up tearing almost every canvas to shreds, threw himself headlong into the task as if his life depended on it, head tilted to one side, tongue poking out like a schoolboy endeavoring to write out his first letters by hand, holding his sketch pad out in search of the right distance from which to gauge the play of texture, light, and line. If everything falls into place, I can be sent into a trance of sorts by the smell of pencils, ink, and oil paint and the sound of lead pencils and erasers on the paper. I can sometimes feel a shudder of delight up around the ears that takes me back to those dingy, old shoe repair shops, tiny and cramped, that were a regular feature in the neighborhoods of my childhood. Outside, the heavens have opened and the air in the street carries the scent of waves and sardines; there’s a small glass-fronted den where a half-broken, staticky radio dripping with grease can be heard, along with the hammer blows of an old man struggling with a midsole, daubing it with glue, rummaging around for the exact size of nail through cluttered drawers in which finding anything seems an impossible task. Everything is awash with the penetrating aroma of those super-strength glues that, in turn, smell of a bygone industry, of Hernani and other northern factory towns in the seventies, and also, as if in passing, of a kid getting high, hunched over a plastic bag, seated on the edge of a sidewalk that lies on the other side of an Atlantic Ocean also perhaps battered into submission by the very same rain; and the perfume of leather and polish, of the yellowish light of the cozy hideout from which I hoped I would never be dragged away, praying to the heavens that the cobbler would take his time in seeing to the clients ahead of me, for some last-minute repair to be made on the spot, for some shoe that had slipped his mind and had to be returned without delay to the woman standing before me in line, or for some barefoot girl to enter, clutching a heel, pleading for assistance there and then, hopping on one leg, her tights soaked through, the nylon flecked with mud.
Our conversations often turned to literature; his entire living room was strewn with books, most arranged on dusty shelves, many other piled up in various heaps: those he had just read, those he planned to read, and those that flitted between the two piles for one reason or other. Many of them were bookmarked, with yellow notes signaling the paragraphs that in recent days Jacobo had thought he might read out loud to me, sometimes whole passages and sometimes, more often than not, brief snippets of something pithy or that had, for whatever reason, taken his fancy, underlined in pencil, by way of aphorisms that we might discuss as he whipped up something to eat—in his underwear, as usual, wearing his battered slippers. After painstaking rereadings of nineteenth and early twentieth century novels, as if to take a break from the thousands of pages of Proust, Baroja, and Thomas Mann’s unbridled prose, he had recently decided to throw himself back into the poetry of Jabès and Celan, old acquaintances, and had even learned certain poems from
Poppy and Memory
No One’s Rose
by heart, seeking out different translations that he later liked for the two of us to compare, though neither of us spoke a word of German. He tended to turn to poetry only when he was at his lowest ebb and could barely concentrate or even sit down to read without having to get up from his chair every other minute to pace up and down the hallway or fix himself something from the fridge or the drinks cabinet. He brought me up to speed on Celan’s life story and his addictive verse. Indeed, thanks to him, I ended up drenched in the work of Celan, whom I began to picture always in the midst of a snowy landscape, a lump in his throat, the proprietor of an inhuman sadness and a feeling of guilt that never, not a single day in his life, allowed him to banish from his thoughts the image of his dead parents lying on the cold ground, in the Mikhailovka camp, on the banks of the Bug. The bullet hole in the back of his mother’s head, the knowledge that he could have saved them, everything half-shrouded in a blanket of white. Jacobo managed to inject me with the poison of that delicacy. There are works that take you over like a virus. We carry them with us for a while, much like someone who has come down with an illness, then they slowly disappear, albeit leaving in their wake traces of what was once their way of gazing upon the world and things, and a handful of verses with all the flavor of what has seemingly been forgotten.
Aside from all the talk of books and reading, I hoped he might also tell me how things were on the female front, in part because that sort of conversation had always, in the past at least, ended up lifting his spirits, and also partly so that I myself might enjoy the women in his telling, beautiful as only they were, and who, in Jacobo’s words, took dainty little steps, word by word, as if down the carpeted, hushed corridor of a ghostly hotel, toward glorious sin. He led me to believe that there was little to report in that regard, although certain aspects of his appearance—the frequency with which he shaved and the new wardrobe he had recently acquired—inclined me to think he was lying.
At the usual hour of my arrival at his apartment, the city outside was for Jacobo little more than an indeterminate threat that slowly waned as people at last holed themselves up in their lairs, a sort of fleeting false alarm or slumbering monster before which it would on no account do to lower one’s guard, above all once you have learned that the night lays down cables that connect directly to dangerous gaps in the memory, cables along which fear travels like electricity. But the battles and the turmoil often lay below the surface, and a casual onlooker might have observed calm above all on those nights of standing guard against panic. Almost, you might say, peace of mind. A teapot on the stove, two men chatting in their slippers against a backdrop of gentle music, Satie’s piano on
Après la Pluie
, say, or one of Brahms’s violin or violoncello concertos, the books on the table, a glass holding paintbrushes and murky water, yawns after a certain hour, the record coming to an end, the smoke getting everywhere, the ice melting inside the tumbler to mark the passing of time and all its clinging drowsiness, the brimming ashtrays strategically placed within reach of our four hands, the cushions, the checkered blankets that clash with the upholstery on the couch, and finally, as if by magic, almost when you least expect it, the cleansing miracle of daybreak, the light dissolving the cobwebs of sleep in the nick of time, at the last gasp, not long before they were to begin their perilous transformation into something yet darker and denser.