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Authors: Martin Booth

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BOOK: The American
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I went back two years later. I found the muddy approach had become a pedestrian precinct with pretty posts made of iron and painted with the crest of the council. The archways had become a trendy restaurant, a photographic studio and a unisex hair salon. I also found the mechanic living in a quiet, tree-lined square off the Old Kent Road. According to the tabloids, he and his young common-law wife committed suicide. A lovers’ pact, the articles suggested. I fixed it to look that way.

It was the only time I ever returned. Marseilles, Hong Kong . . . I never went back. Athens, Tucson, Livingstone. Fort Lauderdale, Adelaide, New Jersey, Madrid . . . I never saw them again.

Of all the workshops I have had, however, the second bedroom in this, my Italian refuge, is by far the best. It is airy. Even with the shutters closed on a hot day in high summer, there is a continuous, transient breeze passing through. Enough daylight enters through the door or the shutter slats for me to dispense with the spotlamps unless I am doing the most detailed of work. Any pernicious redolence I might cause from time to time, as a part of this or that stage in one or another process, blows away to be replaced with fresh air. Outside, it is quickly diluted in the sky. The floors, being made of stone, are strong and absorb a good deal of the sound.

The room contains no furniture as such. In the centre is a large workbench. Beside it stands a bank of metal shelves upon which I keep tools. Against the wall, to the right of the window, is a small lathe of the sort jewellers use. It is mounted upon iron legs which stand upon two blocks of wood between which is sandwiched a layer of solid rubber of the sort used in car-engine mountings. Screwed on to the wall beside the lathe is a stereo speaker; across the room is another. I have installed a steel kitchen sink in the room and a cold-water tap, connected to the water and outflow pipes in the bathroom next door. I have a stool upon which to sit and a square of carpet beneath it. By the workbench is an electric fan heater. To the left of the door is an architect’s drawing board and another stool. That is all.

The lathe was awkward. Signora Prasca understood the workbench. Artists use such tables, she thought. Besides, I made sure she noticed my easel and drawing board arrive at the same time. And the spotlamps. The workbench was therefore disguised as a part of the artist’s requirements. But the artistry of miniatures necessitates no lathe. This I kept in pieces in the rented van in which I had driven up from Rome, parked in the Largo Bradano. Bit by bit, over four days, I moved it to the apartment. The bed of the lathe was too heavy for me to lift. I obtained the help of one of Alfonso’s mechanics from his garage in the Piazza della Vanga. He believed he was carrying a printing press: after all, artists made prints of their work. He said so himself. Signora Prasca was out shopping in the market at the time.

Should the lathe be making too much noise, I turn on the stereo loudly. The speakers are wired to the compact-disc player in the sitting room. If the metal tends to screech in the turning, I play one of three pieces: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’, the second movement, and, most appropriately, for I appreciate twists of irony, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, the ‘Italian’. Perhaps, in order to complete the irony, I should add to my little repertoire of covering music the closing five minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (opus 49). The cannon fire would be a suitable accompaniment for the lathe.

Imbert. He was a quiet man, as I recall. Antonio Imbert. You will not have heard of him unless you are a specialist in Central American affairs, or an elderly official in the CIA. Nor will you know of his associates, his comrades-in-deed, his co-conspirators. They were important men in their world, in their history: Diaz was a brigadier general, Guerrero a presidential aide, Tejeda and Pastoriza both engineers (I never knew of what). There were also Pimentel and Vasquez and Cedeno. And Imbert.

Of the assassination squad, I met only him and only on the one occasion, for about twenty minutes over a cocktail in a hotel in South Miami Beach. It was a most apt rendezvous. The hotel was a seedy joint once glorious in the days of bootlegging, tommy-gun-toting gangsters. It was an art deco building, all rounded edges and curving lines like an old-fashioned American limousine, a Dodge, say, or a Buick, a
Great Gatsby
automobile. It was said Al Capone had spent a holiday there, once: Lucky Luciano, too. I ordered, I remember, a manhattan whilst Antonio had a tequila, sipping it with salt and lemon.

It was reported he was the only one to escape the subsequent fusillade of bullets which chase after such men as him, just as angry wasps pursue him who kicks the hive. They were all hive-kickers. Their hive was the Dominican Republic and the wasps were the followers of Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.

He disappeared – Antonio, that is; Trujillo just died. I never knew where he went, though I have an inkling of a suspicion he went first to Panama. As agreed, on 30 July, two months to the day after the event, I received a bank draft drawn on the First National City Bank mailed to me in Colon.

It was all so long ago, late February 1981, when we met. Trujillo’s assassination was that May.

It was a traditional killing. Al Capone would have been more than satisfied by it. It had all the hallmarks of a gangster slaying, the same type of planning, the same type of execution. I am not given to flippant absurdity: it is no clumsy pun but a bald statement of irredeemable fact. Such a conception is rare nowadays: the grand assassinations are no more, gone with the eloquent, decadent age of the ocean liner, the flying boat and macabre dowagers in mink overcoats and thick cosmetics. Now it is just the bomb and the blitz, the spraying of bullets, the radio-controlled landmine, the random explosions of uncontrolled violence. There is no artistry left, no pride taken in the job, no assiduity, no coolly collected, assimilated deliberation. No real nerve.

Trujillo was a man of habit. He visited his very elderly mother every night at San Cristóbal, thirty-two kilometres from Ciudad Trujillo. They, Antonio and his chums, blocked the road with two cars. Another followed on behind. As the Generalissimo’s vehicle slowed, the men in the car opened fire. From the road-side, the others let rip with machine guns. Or so the report went. The Generalissimo fired back with his personal revolver. His chauffeur returned fire with the two sub-machine guns kept in the car. The chauffeur survived. The assailants were not aiming at the front seat. They were directing their fire exactly at the rear, at the wound-down window, at the single spits of flame which were the target’s handgun.

Once they had felled their target, it was not enough to see him dead. They came out of the cover, kicking his body, smashing it with the butts of their guns, pulverizing his left arm. They dumped his body in the trunk of one of the roadblock cars and drove off to abandon it, in the darkness, with a last look at the bruised, contorted face of the dictator.

What they did was wrong: not the killing, for death can always be justified. It was the mutilation that was wrong. They should have been satisfied with the end of their enemy. It is not a matter of aesthetics or moralities, of political expediency or humanity. It is simply a waste of time.

The dead feel nothing. For them, it is over. For the killers, there is nothing to gain from the beating of a corpse. I can see no pleasure in such actions, no self-justification, although I accept there must be some. It dehumanizes the killers and they abase themselves by such actions. After all, to kill cleanly, exactly, quickly, is such a human action that to bestialize it is to reduce it to mere carnality.

Yet I suppose I can appreciate their reasoning, the hatred which bubbled within them for Trujillo, for what he had done, to which they were opposed.

At least they left the chauffeur, injured and unconscious. They did not beat him, kill him. He was merely a bystander in history’s unfolding tapestry.

That, too, was a mistake. Never leave an involved onlooker. They should become a part of the history they witness. It is their right as much as their lot. To deprive them is to deprive history of another victim.

If you were to tell Europeans it was taboo to urinate against a kapok tree – that by doing so they would release the devil inhabiting the trunk and it would escape, climb up the stream of piss and enter the genitals, rendering them infertile – you would be ridiculed. Taboo is not a word considered with any seriousness in the Old World. It is the stuff of primitive tribes, of head-hunters and face-painters.

Yet, for every supposedly civilized man, death is a taboo. We fear it, abhor it, wonder superstitiously about it. Our religions warn us of it, of the brimstone and flames, of red-tailed demons armed with pitchforks, eager to ensnare us, press us into the pit. As I see it, there is no dybbuk in the kapok tree, nor is there a hell. Death is but a part of a process, inescapable and irrevocable. We live and we die. Once born, these are the only certainties, the only inevitabilities. The only true variable is the timing of the event of death.

It is as pointless to fear death as it is to fear life. We are presented with the facts of both and have to accept them. There is no Faustian avoidance on offer. All we can do is attempt to delay or accelerate the approach of death. Men strive to postpone it. They do this instinctively, for life, it seems, is preferable to death.

I admit that I too seek to put off the coming of the dark. I do not know why. There is nothing I can do about it. It will come, and only the manner of its coming can potentially be controlled.

Tomorrow, it is within my power to kill myself. The bottle of codeine is on the bathroom shelf, waiting. There is a through train to the south from Milano every day bar Sunday which does not stop at the station: it would take but a step forward there to end it all. The mountains too have cliffs as high as the sky, and there is always the gun, the clean quick way to die.

I may have the quotation wrong – my classical languages were never good – but I think it was Simonides who wrote, ‘Somebody is happy because I, Theodorus, am dead; and someone else will be glad when that somebody dies as well, for we are, every one of us, in arrears to death.’

Certainly, there will be those who shall celebrate my passing should they get to hear of it, for whom the dictum of Charles IX of France will ring so true: ‘Nothing smells so good as the body of a slain enemy.’ Just as sure is the fact there will be few mourners at my graveside. Perhaps, if I was to die today, Signora Prasca might weep. Clara and Dindina too. Father Benedetto would mutter a few words, be sorrowful he had not heard my last confession. Indeed, if he values my friendship as I think he does, he might pretend he heard a final, faint breath of contrition or caught the merest flicker of an eyelid in response to the last great question. There would be no such thing, of course. Any twitch of the flesh would be caused by the nerves fading, the flesh discharging its electricity, the muscles relaxing and starting their genteel corruption into dust.

What name might be spoken in my eulogy or carved upon my tablet in the cemetery, I cannot say. ‘A.E. Clarke’, perhaps. I should prefer ‘il Signor Farfalla’. I have to accept, when death rears up before me, so too will arise the question of my identity. Whatever happens, the headstone will not bear my true name. I shall forever be an administrative error in the affairs of the graveyard.

I am not afraid of death nor of dying. I do not consider it where I am concerned. I just accept that it will arrive, in its own due time. I am of the opinion of Epicurus. Death, purportedly the most terrifying ill, is nothing to me. So long as I am alive, it does not exist, for it is not here, has not occurred, is neither tangible nor foreseeable. When it arrives, it is nothing. It merely implies I no longer exist. It is of little concern, therefore, for the living have it not and the dead, being no more in existence, similarly know nothing of it. It is no more than a swing door between being and ceasing to be. It is not an event of living. It is not experienced as a part of life. It is an entity of its own. So long as I live, it is non-existent.

As I care little for death, it follows I care not that I create it for others. I am not an assassin. I have never killed a man by pulling a trigger and taking a pay-off. I wonder if you thought I had. If this is so, then you are wrong.

My job is the gift-wrapping of death. I am the salesman of death, the arbiter who can bring death into existence as easily as a fairground magician conjures a dove from a handkerchief. I do not cause it. I merely arrange for its delivery. I am death’s booking clerk, death’s bellhop. I am the guide on the path towards darkness. I am the one with his hand on the switch.

It is the case I support assassination. It is the best of deaths. Death should be noble, clean, final, exact, specific. Its beauty lies in its finality. It is the last brushstroke to the canvas of life, the final daub of colour which completes the picture, which rounds it to perfection. Life is ugly with uncertainties, its unsureness abhorrent. One can become bankrupt and beggared, lose love and respect, be hated and downcast by life. Death does none of these.

Death should be tidy, as precise as a surgeon’s cut. Life is a blunt instrument. Death is a scalpel, sharp as light, and used but once then thrown away as dulled.

I cannot bear those who dole out death in ragged slovenliness, the hunters of fox and stag, for example. For those cruel and empty souls, death is not a mastery of beauty, though they claim it is, but a long-drawn-out journey of barbarity into an obscenity, into a degraded death. For them, death is fun. They should wish themselves to die quickly, avoid the deathbed scene and the agony of cancers, the slow deterioration of the flesh and the spirit: they would wish to die as if struck by lightning, one minute fully aware of the sun cutting its rays under broiling storm clouds, the next gone. Yet they want to issue death as slowly as they can, extort its every twist of fate, its every ounce of anguish.

I am not like them, the obscene men in their hunting uniforms, the colour of arterial blood. You see, they even fear to call their jackets crimson, vermilion or bloody red. They call them pink.

BOOK: The American
13.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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