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Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa

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Conversation in the Cathedral

BOOK: Conversation in the Cathedral
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in the Cathedral

Translated by Gregory Rabassa


To Luis Loayza and Abelardo Oquendo


Il faut avoir fouillé toute la vie sociale pour être un vrai romancier, vu que le roman est l’histoire privée des nations.

Petites misères de
la vie conjugale 


Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy
of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday. At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up? The newsboys weave in and out among the vehicles halted by the red light on Wilson, hawking the afternoon papers, and he starts to walk slowly toward Colmena. His hands in his pockets, head down, he goes along escorted by people who are also going in the direction of the Plaza San Martín. He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he’d fucked himself up somewhere along the line. He thinks: when? Across from the Hotel Crillón a dog comes over to lick his feet: don’t get your rabies on me, get away. Peru all fucked up, Carlitos all fucked up, everybody all fucked up. He thinks: there’s no solution. He sees a long line at the taxi stop for Miraflores, he crosses the square, and there’s Norwin, hello, at a table in the Zela Bar, have a seat, Zavalita, fondling a
and having his shoes shined, he invites him to have a drink. He doesn’t look drunk yet and Santiago sits down, tells the bootblack to shine his shoes too. Yes, sir, boss, right away, boss, they’ll look like a mirror, boss.

“No one’s seen you for ages, Mr. Editorial Writer,” Norwin says. “Are you happier on the editorial page than with the local news?”

“There’s less work.” He shrugs his shoulders, it was probably that day when the editor called him in, he orders a cold Cristal, did he want to take Orgambide’s place, Zavalita? He thinks: that’s when I fucked myself up. “I get in early, they give me my topic, I hold my nose, and in two or three hours all set, I unbuckle my chains and that’s it.”

“I wouldn’t write editorials for all the money in the world,” Norwin says. “It’s too far removed from the news, and journalism is news, Zavalita, believe me. I’ll end my days on the police beat, that’s all. By the way, did Carlitos die yet?”

“He’s still in the hospital, but they’re going to let him out soon,” Santiago says. “He swears he’s off the bottle this time.”

“Is it true that one night he saw cockroaches and spiders when he went to bed?” Norwin asks.

“He lifted up the sheet and thousands of tarantulas and mice came at him,” Santiago says. “He ran out into the street bare-ass and hollering.”

Norwin laughs and Santiago closes his eyes: the houses in Chorrillos are cubes with gratings on them, caves cracked by earthquakes, inside there’s a traffic of utensils and reeking little old women with slippers and varicose legs. A small figure runs among the cubes, his shrieks make the oily predawn shudder and infuriate the ants and scorpions that pursue him. Consolation through alcohol, he thinks, against the slow death of the blue devils of hallucination. He was all right, Carlitos was, you had to defend yourself against Peru as best you could.

“One of these days I’m going to come across the creatures too.” Norwin contemplates his
with curiosity, half smiles. “But there’s no such thing as a teetotaling newspaperman, Zavalita. Drinking gives you inspiration, believe me.”

The bootblack is through with Norwin and now he’s putting polish on Santiago’s shoes, whistling. How were things at
what were the scoundrels there saying? They were complaining about your
, Zavalita, that you should stop by and see them sometime, the way you used to. But since you have lots of free time now, Zavalita, did you take a second job?

“I read, I take naps,” Santiago says. “Maybe I’ll go back to law school.”

“You get away from the news and now you want a degree.” Norwin looks at him sadly. “The editorial page is the end of the road, Zavalita. You’ll get a job as a lawyer, you’ll leave the newspaper business. I can already see you as a proper bourgeois.”

“I’ve just turned thirty,” Santiago says. “That’s kind of late for me to start being a bourgeois.”

“Thirty, is that all?” Norwin is thoughtful. “I’m thirty-six and I could pass for your father. The police page puts you through the grinder, believe me.”

Male faces, dull and defeated eyes at the tables of the Zela Bar, hands that reach for ashtrays and glasses of beer. How ugly people are here, Carlitos is right. He thinks: what’s come over me today? The bootblack cuffs away two dogs that are panting among the tables.

“How long is the campaign against rabies in
going to last?” Norwin asks. “It’s getting boring, another whole page on it this morning.”

“I wrote all the editorials against rabies,” Santiago says. “Hell, that doesn’t bother me as much as writing on Cuba or Vietnam. Well, the line’s gone now. I’m going to catch a taxi.”

“Let’s have lunch, I’m inviting,” Norwin says. “Forget about your wife, Zavalita. Let’s bring back the good old days.”

Hot coney and cold beer, the Rinconcito Cajamarquino in the Bajo el Puente district and a view of the vague waters of the Rímac River slipping along over snot-colored rocks, the muddy Haitian coffee,
at Milton’s place,
and a shower at Norwin’s, the midnight apotheosis at the whorehouse with Becerrita, which brought on
, the acid sleep, the nausea and the doubts of dawn. The good old days, maybe it had been then.

“Ana’s made some shrimp soup and I wouldn’t want to miss that,” Santiago says. “Some other time.”

“You’re afraid of your wife,” Norwin says. “Boy, you really are fucked up, Zavalita.”

Not because of what you thought, brother. Norwin insists on paying for the beer, the shine, and they shake hands. Santiago goes back to the taxi stop, the car he takes is a Chevrolet and the radio is on, Inca Cola refreshed the best, then a waltz, rivers, canyons, the veteran voice of Jesús Vásquez, it was my Peru. There were still some jams downtown, but República and Arequipa were empty and the car was able to move along, another waltz, Lima women had traditional souls. Why are all Peruvian waltzes so goddamned stupid? He thinks: what’s come over me today? He has his chin on his chest and his eyes are half closed, as if he’s spying on his belly: God, Zavalita, every time you sit down you get that bulge in your jacket. Was it the first time he’d drunk beer? Fifteen, twenty years ago? Four weeks without seeing his mother, Teté. Who would have thought that Popeye would become an architect, Zavalita, who would have thought that you’d end up writing editorials against the dogs of Lima? He thinks: I’ll be potbellied in a little while. He’d go to the Turkish baths, play tennis at the Terrazas, in six months the fat would burn away and he’d have a flat belly again the way he did when he was fifteen years old. Get moving, break the inertia, shake himself up. He thinks: sports, that’s the answer. Miraflores Park already, Quebrada, the Malecón, the corner of Benavides, driver. He gets out, walks toward Porta, his hands in his pockets, his head down, what’s come over me today? The sky is still cloudy, the atmosphere is even grayer and the light drizzle has begun: mosquito legs on his skin, the caress of a cobweb. Not even that, a more furtive and disagreeable feeling. Even the rain is fucked up in this country. He thinks: if at least there were a heavy rain. What were they showing at the Colina, the Montecarlo, the Marsano? He’d have lunch, a chapter of
, which would drag and carry him in its arms to the sticky sleep of siesta time, maybe they were showing a crime movie, like
a cowboy picture like
But Ana would have her tear-jerker all checked off in the newspaper, what’s come over me today? He thinks: if the censors would only ban all Mexican films he’d fight less with Ana. And after the movies, what then? They’d take a walk along the Malecón, smoke under the cement shelters in Necochea Park listening to the sea roaring in the darkness, they would return to the elf houses, we fight a lot, love, we argue a lot, love, and between yawns, Huxley. The two rooms would fill up with smoke and the smell of oil, was he very hungry, love? The morning alarm clock, the cold water in the shower, the taxi, walking among office workers along Colmena, the voice of the editor, would he rather have the bank strike, the fishing crisis, or Israel? Maybe it would be worth putting out a little effort and getting a degree. He thinks: going backward. He sees the harsh orange wails, the red tiles, the small barred windows of the elf houses. The apartment door is open but Rowdy doesn’t appear, mongrel, leaping, noisy and effusive. Why do you leave the door open when you go to the Chinaman’s, dear? But no, there’s Ana, what’s the matter, her eyes are puffy and weepy, her hair disheveled: they took Rowdy away, love.

“They pulled him out of my hands,” Ana sobs. “Some dirty niggers, love. They put him in the truck. They stole him, they stole him.”

The kiss on the temple, calm down, love, he caresses her face, how did it happen, he leads her to the house by the shoulder, don’t cry, silly.

“I called you at
and you weren’t there.” Ana pouts. “Bandits, Negroes with the faces of criminals. I had him on the leash and everything. They grabbed him, put him in the truck, they stole him.”

“I’ll have lunch and go to the pound and get him out.” Santiago kisses her again. “Nothing will happen to him, don’t be silly.”

“He started to kick his legs, wag his tail.” She wipes her eyes with the apron, sighs. “He seemed to understand, love. Poor thing, poor little thing.”

“Did they grab him out of your arms?” Santiago asks. “What a bunch. I’m going to raise hell.”

He picks up the jacket he threw onto a chair and takes a step toward the door, but Ana holds him back: he should eat first, quickly, love. Her voice is soft, dimples on her cheeks, her eyes sad, she’s pale.

“The soup must be cold by now.” She smiles, her lips trembling. “I forgot about everything with what happened, sweet. Poor little Rowdy.”

They eat lunch without talking, at the small table against the window that looks out on the courtyard of the houses: earth the color of brick, like the tennis courts at the Terrazas, a twisting gravel path with geranium pots on the side. The soup has grown cold, a film of grease tints the edges of the plate, the shrimp look like tin. She was on her way to the Chinaman’s on San Martín to buy a bottle of vinegar, love, and all of a sudden a truck put on its brakes beside her and two Negroes with criminal faces got out, the worst kind of bandits, one of them gave her a shove and the other one grabbed the leash and before she knew what was happening they’d put him in the cage and had gone. Poor thing, poor little creature. Santiago gets up: they’d hear from him about an abuse like that. Did he see, did he see? Ana is sobbing again; he too was afraid they were going to kill him, love.

“They won’t do anything to him, sweet.” He kisses Ana on the cheek, a momentary taste of raw meat and salt. “I’ll bring him right back, you’ll see.”

BOOK: Conversation in the Cathedral
7.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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