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Authors: Mordecai Richler

The Acrobats

BOOK: The Acrobats
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The Author

MORDECAI RICHLER
was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1931. Raised there in the working-class Jewish neighbourhood around St. Urbain Street, he attended Sir George Williams College (now a part of Concordia University). In 1951 he left Canada for Europe, settling in London, England, in 1954. Eighteen years later, he moved back to Montreal.

Novelist and journalist, screenwriter and editor, Richler, one of our most acclaimed writers, spent much of his career chronicling, celebrating, and criticizing the Montreal and the Canada of his youth. Whether the settings of his fiction are St. Urbain Street or European capitals, his major characters never forsake the Montreal world that shaped them. His most frequent voice is that of the satirist, rendering an honest account of his times with care and humour.

Richler’s many honours included the Giller Prize, two Governor General’s Awards, and innumerable other awards for fiction, journalism, and screenwriting.

Mordecai Richler died in Montreal in 2001.

THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY

General Editor: David Staines

ADVISORY BOARD
Alice Munro
W.H. New
Guy Vanderhaeghe

Copyright © 1954 by Mordecai Richler
Copyright © 2002 by Mordecai Richler Productions, Inc.
Afterword copyright © 2002 by Ted Kotcheff

This book was first published by André Deutsch Limited in 1954 New Canadian Library edition 2002

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data

Richler, Mordecai, 1931–2001
The acrobats / Mordecai Richler ; with an afterword by Ted Kotcheff.

(New Canadian library)
eISBN: 978-1-55199-563-2

I. Title. II. Series.
PS
8535.
I
38
A
7 2002      
C
813′.54      
C
2002-901347-
X
PR
9199.3.
R
3
A
7 2002

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario
M
5
A
2
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9
www.mcclelland.com/NCL

v3.1

The following dedication appeared in the original edition:

FOR MY MOTHER

Contents
B
OOK
O
NE
SATURDAY

Fué un tiempo de mentira, de infamia. A España toda,
la malherida España, de Carnaval vestida
nos la pusieron, pobre y escuálida y beoda,
para que no acertara la mano con la herida
.

ANTONIO MACHADO

It was a time of lies, of infamy. They put our Spain,
That sorely wounded Spain, in Carnival dress,
And then they made her poor, squalid and drunken,
So that no hand should touch the open wound.

I

S
PRAWLED OUT
on the terrace of Café Ruzafa, Barney felt uneasy now that the afternoon sun glared into his eyes. His face was not so much childish as prematurely aged but still unformed: also irreverent, as if his presence in the Colosseum would have been sufficient to render it into a baseball stadium. His eyes gleamed with something of the innocence and awkward aspirations of the American. He was wearing a tan gabardine suit and a loud bow tie. His pink hands rested dumbly on the table, curled up in hairless balls.

He was sorry. He wasn’t going to remind her again how much money the trip was costing him, how the business was floundering without him around to look after his own interests.

An emaciated girl with hollow dark eyes and probably no more than seven years appeared suddenly at their table, the palm of her dirty hand outstretched. She looked at him. Not smiling, not frowning. He tried to ignore her.

Jessie puckered up her cherry lips impatiently. “Oh, do give her something, Barney. People are watching us.”

“I don’t give a damn about the money. But if I give her something in a minute every bum in town will be down on me.”

There were two bulging circles under the girl’s eyes. Her palm still silently outstretched she scratched a pimple on her cheek with her free hand.

“Barney! Will you please please do something. She smells so badly. She must have fleas!”

Barney pulled out his damp linen handkerchief again and mopped his forehead. As soon as he was finished, new beads of sweat began to form.

“You think this kid is poor, huh? I bet her pop owns stacks of property all over town. The whole thing is a racket. They know just too damn well what suckers we all are.”

“People are watching us!”

Barney glared at Derek, hoping for support.

“Merde, alors!
Give the brat her
centimos.”
Immediately, Derek was sorry for having said
“merde, alors.”
Why try to impress Barney? “Perhaps she’s an orphan? Think of it,
amigo
. Her proletarian papa died for freedom.” Derek, his eyes sick with mockery, pretended the table was a drum. He began to tap out
Freiheit
with his fingers. His voice was solemn. “On that day, the day he fell, the sun was high in the sky, all was quiet along the Manzanares. El Campesino clapped him on the shoulder. Comrade, he said, the fate of Madrid is in your hands. Go get us Mola! Juan gritted his teeth. He was pleased with his mission. With him, or under him, was his faithful stallion, Trigger.
No pasarán
, he said grimly. Then, as he galloped off into the setting sun,
MGM
cameras grinding madly, a fascist sniper laid him flat with three quick shots in the buttocks. Fade out. And today his only child, a street urchin destined for stardom in ’60, begs alms from the American
nouveaux-riches.”

Jessie applauded. “Whee!” she said.

Barney selected a few
centimos
from his loose change and pressed it into the child’s filthy hand. I had to bring along her good-for-nothing brother too, he thought. Mr. D.T.’s in person. And I’ve yet to see the day when that cheapskate will pick up a bill.

Here, on this dilapidated street of cafés, theatres, and hotels, between the Plaza de Torros and the Plaza del Caudillo, all of Valencia appeared to be passing in lazy procession.
Many primlipped girls paraded about in the traditional costumes. Their dresses were hoopskirted and coloured like candysticks. The girls floated down the street as if secretly afraid that at any moment they might topple over. This year the
Fallera Mayor
was the homely daughter of the Minister of Education. Her attendants included the daughters of the Mayor of Valencia, a veteran of the Blue Division. Visitors to the city were taking advantage of the holiday to shop. Many a sorry husband toddled along after his puffy wife, hidden under mountains of parcels and souvenirs, perpetually exposed to ridicule from more masterful men who guzzled wine on shady terraces whilst their wives fussed to no avail opposite them, perhaps sipping a warm
gaseosa
. Ragged guitarists serenaded the tourists and leered for the occasional snapshot, cunning children of the poor played an earnest game of tag in and out amongst the crowd, lifting wallets on their way, sluts bargained here and there with fading gallants, and the aloof bourgeois in their mean black suits, sweating, unimpressed, just a bit too conscious of the stink of other bodies, idled about glumly, their pious wives dangling like dumplings from their sides.

The children felt time lag painfully until night would fall and again there would be a gigantic display of fireworks. The ineffectual revolutionaries continued to plot and groan, but they drank more and sang their songs in lustier voices. Police, spies, guards, continued to move among them.

Barney tried to interest himself in the passing women, but all he could think of was that time and money wasted kept adding up, that the whole trip, contrary to his calculations, wasn’t helping things any. Through eight years of marriage it had always been nag nag nag – why? because he had unfailingly insisted that a dollar in the bank was just that much wiser living than a dollar spent. She wanted to look up her worthless brother – okay! But now his investment wasn’t paying off. And that’s dangerous, he thought. For there are the
kids. Mary Anne, six; Sheldon, four. And Jessie, he had to admit, looked pretty and said bright things when he was obliged to take so-and-so and his wife out for dinner.

“Garçon!”
Jessie yelled. “More coniak!”

Derek frowned. “They’re not
garçons
in Spain.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have anything more to drink before supper?” Barney said.

“Why?” Jessie asked. “Can you think of anything else to do in this half-assed town?”

“Well we could look at the fireworks.”

“Boom! Bam! Pszzt!” Derek twisted his weak handsome face so that his dimples showed. “I’m tired of fireworks.”

“Wook at the ity-pretty menses working on the big figure in the square.”

“That’s the major falla,” Barney said earnestly. “It’s supposed to represent a Valencian of the Middle Ages.”

“Falya
, not falla,” Derek said absently.

“Okay! Fine. Falyah!”

“Derek isn’t the falyah so pwetty? Awen’t you gwad we came?”

“One, I’m not glad we came. I find the two of you absolutely boring.” His eyes, deeply set and wild from drink, shone like buttons. “Two, I don’t find the
falla
pretty. Even as a symbol it’s gross, uncultured.”

“It seems silly,” Barney said. “They spend a whole week making ’em and then they burn ’em in one night. Not that they don’t clean up enough on a fiesta anyway. But why make something only to burn it? It doesn’t seem practical.”

Derek lit a cigarette. He tossed his head back with studied abandon and blew a big puff of smoke into the still air. I shouldn’t have come back, he thought. It was wrong.

“You know what?” There was a taunt in Jessie’s eyes, and her voice was unnaturally thick. “He thinks I’m going to get high and maybe go to bed with a cute Spaniard. Don’t you,
honey-bunny?”

Barney faked a laugh. “Now don’t be silly, dear.”

“Watsamatter? Don’t you think they’re cute?”

“Of course they’re cute.”

“You see, Derek, he thinks they’re cute.”

“He’s a fairy,” Derek said obligingly.

“Derek says you’re a fairy, dear.”

“I heard him,
dear.”

“Aren’t you going to do anything?”

“Can’t you stop for just two minutes?” Derek asked. “Let’s order another round of drinks.”

“I think maybe we’ve all had plenty to drink.”

Jessie stared at him with a knowing disgust – an emotion that was the flux of a degenerated intimacy; an intimacy of smelly socks, after-dinner burping, sleeping noises, soiled underwear, and dental odours. Barney avoided her eyes: it was a look he had come to dread. She shuddered. “Are you worried about the business, dear?” she asked dryly.

“No!”

Jessie pointed a slender, elegantly manicured finger at the man who was seated alone at another table. “Oh, look at the cute fairy with the sketch book!” The man was young. He had a lean, bony head. His brown and brooding eyes stared ahead vacantly, probing for something apart, inwards, as if they had temporarily rejected reality. He sat absolutely still, rigidly so, and Jessie recognised the posture as a painful discipline. “Look, Derek! Can’t you see him?”

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