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Authors: Mordecai Richler

The Acrobats (9 page)

BOOK: The Acrobats
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“I’ve been in Madrid.”

Guillermo had lost weight and his skin was yellow. A wrinkle like a jumping wire ran from his left eye down to the corner of his melancholy mouth.

“Will you be here long?”

“No. I’m going to Barcelona tomorrow. But only for a few days. Then I expect I shall be in Valencia for several months.”

André said nothing. Everybody gets their part to play, he thought. We get a card with our number on it.

“He just got out last week,” Guillermo said. “The last time he was saved only because the officer in charge of the firing squad decided to break up for lunch. They had been shooting for four hours without stop. He is a hero, André. He … well, he expected things to be different when he got out.”

“Guillermo, you look like you’ve got jaundice. Must you go to Barcelona?”

“There is going to be a strike in Barcelona.”

“But you have no arms! You have no money! The city is packed with civil guards. It’s suicide, Guillermo!”

“It will be the first time we have done anything concrete since the war. Do you realise what that means?”

“Yeah. More heroes,” André grinned insipidly. He felt ashamed. “Will many be killed?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

Guillermo took out his tobacco pouch and rolled himself a cigarette. His hands were rough, callused, but remarkably sensitive. André remembered how he had once seen him rush across the street and save a dog from being run over at the risk of his own life. (I would never do that, he thought suddenly. I would simply turn away, cringing with fear.) And looking into his face André realised for the first time how very stern it really was. Even the eyes – tender, brilliant, angry – still stern. What goes into the making of a revolutionary?

“You can stay here tonight. I’ll be staying with Toni. Don’t go down to Pepe. María is pregnant. You know how excited Pepe gets when he sees you. I don’t think it would be a good idea.”

“All right.” Guillermo got up and examined the picture on the easel. “It is a very beautiful picture, André. You seem to know so many lovely things about colour. You are a fine artist.”

André refilled his glass.

“Did you ever read
The Edge?”
he asked.

“The Edge.…”

“Yes. It’s a long poem about the defence of Madrid. Oh young comrades, and all that. It’s pretty good, you know. By a man named Raymond, an American.”

“Yes, I remember now.”

“Isn’t he a Catholic now?”

“I don’t know. But I could ask him. I met him yesterday afternoon at Ruzafa’s.”

“They got bored with the cocktail parties in New York so they came over for the party in Spain. The ones who wrote the most moving things about Madrid never got any closer to the lines than the writer’s conferences.” Guillermo laughed helplessly and wrinkles showed in his forehead. I am tired, he thought. André wants me to say such things that will allow him to repudiate or label me. (If I was like Manuel it would be easier for him.) Then, completely isolated, he will be able
to die his selfish death. “They switch their political favours like a woman changing petticoats. Many of them were queers, and they don’t understand war or revolution. They were never truly communists or anything – just shadows. Fireflies! They come just near enough to warm their bellies, then they fly away to their pink suburban bedrooms. Life is so dirty for the aesthete!”

“What about the Lincoln Brigade?”

“All right. There was the Brigade. But your friend Raymond is much better off in the Church. There are nicer costumes, and a lot more secrets.”

“You hate the Americans, I know. But the American bourgeois is no worse than any other. They have had more advantages, that’s all.”

If I hate them, Guillermo thought, it is for their own sake.

“I remember when you were ill,” he said. “When all you knew was despair and all you did was drink. Do you know why, André? Not because of the girl and her father. That is only incidental. It is because you are without hope or reason or direction. You are
sin centimo
. If you are a humanist there is only one place for you. You must join us.”

“No, dammit! Too few of our reformers have no other cause for their anger besides a basic contempt for humanity. Too …”

“Who do you paint for?”

“I don’t think that we can be expected to kill and paint as well. I …” André stopped. “Perhaps you think I’m being pompous?”

“Are you a pacifist?”

André walked over to the window. I guess my crime is that I haven’t chosen, he thought. I wonder what my punishment will be? And who will be my judge? Below, the unlovely buildings clung together wretchedly.
A falla
satirising bullfighters was being repaired on the street corner. The gaudy cardboard
fantasy stood out in colourful contrast to the greying streets. Chaim had told him: “In America they believe in the buildings. The buildings are the lies of weak ignorant men.”

“No, I am not a pacifist,” André said. “I
must
act. There is a need to live – or die, if you like – nobly and with purpose. But I don’t know what to do?”

“Who do you paint for?”

“I paint for the understanding.”

Guillermo shrugged his shoulders. It was an old man’s gesture. Not bitter and not hopeful. “We could give you the opportunity to reach an audience so far untouched. You wouldn’t have to paint for the fatuous, corrupt bourgeois.”

“Look, I don’t paint for audiences. I don’t make a hobby out of humanity and I don’t collect workers. But Pepe likes my stuff. So do many of his friends. But for the most part their appreciation is a kind of snobbery, and if they were bourgeois they would have about as much use for art as their fellows. It’s just as true that their tremendous concern with social justice is directly related to their own poverty and as much expected of them as is the puerility and such that we get from the bourgeois. Christ, there’s nothing unusual about being a bourgeois or a worker. It is the man who is unusual – the man who rises above the restrictions of his own class to assert himself as an individual and humanitarian. It’s pretty damn elementary to be aware of social injustice and poetic truth and beauty but to be capable of empathy, to understand the failings of a man – any man – even as you condemn him, well … Look, every human being is to be approached with a sense of wonder. The rest is crap, or incidental.”

“Hitler was a great individualist. He said there was no substitute for personality.”

“Christ! that’s not fair.”

“Individuality! When a man has enough bread then he can worry about being an individual. You talk like an anarchist!”

“Dammit, Guillermo! Will you get it through your head that I am nothing. Not an anarchist. Not a communist. Not a fascist. Nothing.”

“I’m afraid that’s nineteenth century, André. You will be killed. It is the will of society and unavoidable. Even if it is only a symbolic death.”

“There are worse things to die for than beauty.”

“There are better things. Humanity.”

“Aren’t they the same?”

“We think so.”

“So do I. But we see things differently.”

“People are hungry. There can be no misunderstanding about that.”

André swallowed his cognac, and grunted. He paced up and down the room smoking. He thought: Panic is shaped like a tree and all the branches reach for you. Panic is the chill on the lips of the young. Panic is shot from guns. (It doesn’t happen to the Best People. Nothing happens to the Best People. Why? Because they change their ideas. They salt away money for rainy days. They don’t learn new tricks and they subscribe to the Thought of the Week. For the Best People life is just a B movie.)

“Are you going to marry Toni?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Aren’t you in love with her?”

“Sometimes I don’t know.” André lit another cigarette off his butt and laughed nervously. “Love? … today we come together out of mutual desperation.”

“I have to go now, André. The others will be waiting for me at Cosmi’s.”

“Are you angry?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Will you have supper with me?”

“I can’t, André. I’m sorry. But when I get back I hope that we will see each other often.”

No, André thought. We won’t see each other often. He feels only pity for me – I am the End and he is the Beginning. Chaim? Chaim comes after, when he will be needed.
God knows he will be needed!
For Guillermo is only capable of destruction.

“Take care of yourself, Guillermo. Don’t be a hero.”

Guillermo got up. He took a thick notebook out of his breast pocket. “I wrote some poems. Would you like to read them?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’ll leave them with you.”

“Great, I’ll do some drawings for them.”

“They are communist poems. They will be printed in our paper.”

“When you get back let’s do a book together. I haven’t done any engravings for a long time. We could print it ourselves. I think it would be fun.”

“We shall talk about it again.” Guillermo smiled awkwardly. “Well. So long. Thanks for the drinks.”

André grinned self-consciously. “Aren’t you going to apologise for dirtying my rug?”

“Don’t joke about it. Please.”

“Why not? Everything is a joke. It has to be.”

III

Guitarist whining, whining:

Ay! puerto moro de Tanger;
Ay! ya no te veo más;
Ay! ay ay ay
Ay! que no te puedo olvidar
.

Eyes of burning coal. Sweat running down leather cheeks. Fingers beating on a guitar. Beating, beating, beating. Head
in a coma, head in a spell. Fluid body swaying. Twangy guitar sending up a burst of metal song:

Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!

The Andalusian dancer, a beautiful homosexual from Seville, stamps his small feet furiously down on the floor. Waving his arms through the air he entices his sweating partner into a deeper ecstasy; clacking her castanets with a brilliant perfection the dark girl abandons herself completely, winding and unwinding her body in quickening raptures.…

A song of great pain freely flowing.

“Olé!”

The excited rhythmic clapping of men and women enchanted by the naked dance of their souls performing.

The crowd shouts:
“Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!”

Mad guitar raving! Ten joy-crazy soulfingers swooping down on the strings bonily.

“Venga hombre!”

“Venga! Venga!”

Backwards bending, down, down, bends the dark girl. Castanets clacking clear and hard. The sweat-soaking boy, hands clapping loud overhead, stamps around her triumphantly. Up she dances, body panting, hair flowing.

“Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!”

Guitar exhausted, fingers dying on strings, dancers slowing to a stop, clacking, feet now beating softly …

The music stops.

All applaud.
“Olé! Olé!”

“Christ! They really get their water hot, huh? I never saw people get so excited over a dance,” Barney said.

“They’re Spanish! Didn’t you know? Didn’t I tell you they’re Spanish?”

Derek tittered. I hate you, Barney, he thought. You live in an official world of official lives and official deaths and official
loves. I am unofficial and dark so I hate you. Derek reconsidered his thoughts and again he tittered. In our awfully arty villa in Tourettes, Jon is strutting up and down and thinking of throwing himself into the ravine. He won’t do it because he is a coward. With me it is different, I wasn’t always a coward.
I hate him too
, he thought. He turned to Jessie. “It’s too bad Mama isn’t with us,” he said. “Wouldn’t she simply adore that small-assed dancer?”

Jessie scowled. “Stop it, you fool. You’re drunk!”

“That was very typical. Now we should dance ourselves,” Juanito said. “Would you like me to arrange for two other girls to join us?”

“Now that would be damn nice!” Barney said.

Juanito arranged his tie, smoothed back his sleek black hair, and disappeared through the velvet backdrop of the booth.

“He’s really a good guy! Sometimes you can tell about people on the first meeting.”

Jessie arranged her tufty auburn hair. “He has wonderful teeth,” she said.

Derek smirked.

They had met Juanito in the hotel. Apparently he was a visiting textile salesman from Madrid and knew Valencia intimately. After supper they had had a few cognacs together in the bar and Juanito had suggested they visit a typical Valencian cabaret. He had carried himself with such aplomb, made his suggestions so decorously, that none of them had the will to resist him. Then he had particularly endeared himself to Barney by listening attentively to his political dissertations on Spain, emphatically agreeing with him that if nothing else, Franco had ingeniously imposed order on a nation of anarchists.

Ushering in two attractive girls before him, Juanito reentered the booth. The girls appeared so much alike – flowing black hair, portentous black eyes under heavy lids, full lips and good figures – that they might easily have been sisters. They smiled shyly, professionally unprofessional.

“This is Carmen.” Juanito grinned at the girl in the green dress. “And this is Maria.”

He said something to them in Spanish and they sat down. Barney offered them each a glass of champagne which they gratefully accepted.

“Shall we dance?” Juanito asked, still grinning.

“Nothing like the present.”

But Barney was not of the present. This, at long last, was one of his European experiences. He was already thinking of the evening in terms of how he would embellish on it over cocktails for the benefit of the boys at the lodge several months hence.

“Will you allow me the pleasure of dancing with the beautiful
señora?”
Juanito asked.

“Certainly.”

“Which whore is mine?” Derek asked. “Sometimes you make me sick!”

Because of the heat the men abandoned their jackets before they left the booth.

Juanito, even with his satisfactory talents, fell into difficulties wheeling his tipsy partner about the floor.

From the bar André watched the swarming couples jerk their bodies in sympathy with the samba. Although he was loathe to admit it, he was grateful for this bit of America, as it was, superimposed on the catastrophe of Spain. His breakdown, even as his first childhood tantrum …

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