Written by Roberto Rivera Vicencio, translated from the Spanish by J.C.Kelly
I plotted many things, but none of my projects did hit right, but fell out crosse, if not quite contrarie to what I had proposed. All was vaine, all lyes, all illusion, all falsehood, and deception of the imagination and like Duende’s Tresure, all cold embers and dead coales.
Guzmán de Alfarache
Mateo Alemán (trans. James Mabbe)
Winter or summer, the alarm would go off before dawn, and the young lad Nicomedes would stick his long, white arm out from underneath the covers and grope and grope, each time with greater urgency, until he’d silenced it with an almighty blow, dead to the world, desperately clinging to his sleep-filled eyelashes with all his might. Then, already more relaxed, his milky arm would re-enter, the few little hairs stood on end from the cold, and he’d snuggle it against the warmth of his body like some delicate creature.
A heavy sleeper was the young lad; he liked to stay tangled up in the warmth of the sheets and let that critical moment pass by without even noticing, first he’d stick his feet out, straightening himself up gradually, and sit balancing like a drunkard on the edge of the bed, then, in the initial rush, it goes without saying, a first thud would be heard against the bedside table and chest of drawers, and he’d continue his journey, barely opening his eyes as he pushed past the side of the wardrobe; and although he could scarcely point himself towards the bathroom door, little by little, he’d begin to warm up and with the first drops of cold water he’d start to remember who he was.
Yet in spite of all this, he never arrived late for work; indeed, if he was bad at getting up in the morning, he was good at making haste. That said however, the first few hours would pass in silence as he came to, because sometimes his nights would go on well into the early hours of the morning; but as soon as the time came to fetch down his tea mug and huddle round the boiler to receive the boiling hot brew and doughy bread, he’d begin not to forget about the night but to gradually slip it into the conversation by the back door, nice and slowly, and he’d start to feel good about himself, like a new man, or the same one as always, because for him the night was his best friend: accomplice in thought, generous in wine, favourable to music, the very marrow of poetry.
His workmates would know to wait for him, inspiration’s not just something which comes on its own, just like that, they’d say, give him time; and sat with steaming mugs in their hands, on crates, machines and sometimes even the floor, they’d light up their cigarettes as the great oafs won over the crowd with their tales, boasting of implausibly sized members, endless nights and insatiable women. Still serious, the young lad Nicomedes would bide his time; he’d gulp down the last mouthfuls of his tea, alternating them with deep breaths which drew the catarrh up to his very brain, and he’d focus himself, looking who knows where, until he’d come up with an idea that was heavier than stone, an idea that would leave even the best of their brags hanging in the air; because the young lad was, without doubt, the indisputable master of the crowd.
Chicha de Curacaví, chicha baya y curadora…, he’d sing, for he knew how to pick just the right cueca to make his entrance when the independence day celebrations were drawing near, or the weepiest, most tearful bolero when it was time to feel sad, and his fingers would thump and pound on the crates, planting his own night there amidst the work; and joining in the chorus, the great oafs would initiate their retreat. Years before, it’s also true, they’d sustained a monumental struggle with the young lad, who at that time was still to be found honing his skills, in order to determine who was master of the crowd, but later, like the just men they were, they came to accept the honourable second place they deserved. Of universality, only the young lad was capable.
Then afterwards he’d be getting on with the work, a piece of cake, lugging around rolls of rough paper, letters and lead ingots to their shouts, all for the master typesetter who’ll know the day’s news before anyone else but wardsback. Routine, a song well learnt, the job would take on its own rhythm until a story had been put together to go out, because Master González, who was also a good friend, had been explaining the trade to him out of kindness, a noble one, the trade of many a great social fighter, he would say. Yet in spite of his efforts and performance, there were also those who didn’t like him, Ponce for example, who never laughed at anything, although he had an excuse because we shouldn’t forget that his woman went around doing the dirty on the poor chap, and the bosses who, without being cuckolds, although who knows whether to believe that, it’s not that they didn’t care for him, but more accurately, that under their breath they despised him, because it was clear that the young lad, not that he didn’t respect their authority either, but that he just didn’t give a damn; the owners too had their version of the “Nicomedes case,” different for sure, as befitting those who see from afar through the empirical observations of factory foremen and gossips; and so for them Froilán Nicomedes Mateluna was punctual, a detail strictly recorded in the time cards, although sometimes he would carry the smell of wine under his breath; he worked well, but could work harder, he’d act the goat, disrupting work in order to sing, tell jokes and tales, or give recitals, and, without a shadow of doubt, he’d be first in line for the strikes; in short, they’d have to catch him “red handed”, and the young lad had gone weeks and even years without giving them the pleasure, until suddenly the opportunity arose, in flagrante, “Interrupting productivity.” That time, Acebedo the Lion, owner and associate, had, thanks to his stealth, the opportunity to listen until the very end: “Sobre el campo el agua mustia,” he’d begun, reciting Pezoa Véliz’s poem, evoking the rain’s sadness… it was raining then and, let’s see, we’ll stick with Véliz, and there they were, making a circle, when the Lion appears from behind and plants himself in the middle, each picks up their tools and, playing dumb, disappears amongst the machines, but the young lad didn’t bother, even though they were left standing there face to face, he continued as if nothing had happened, right to the very end, becoming even more theatrical, as if he were dying on the spot from anguish and sorrow, and after he’d pronounced the final word, taking his time to come out of character, although not enough to let the lion speak, he went straight over and held out his hand.
“What do you say Don Acebedo, you can’t deny there’s talent here?” he said, and the Lion congratulated him, even more surprised, and without losing all sense of perspective he spoke to him about commitment and responsibility at work, but even though he’d set himself up for it, he just couldn’t find the words to send the young lad to hell, and anyway, what was he to do, the poetry was good, and besides, he apologised later on, another opportunity will arise, and so it was that in the end the young lad’s file was left awaiting “the second time,” which also came and was when they fired him, although it’s only right to point out that it happened only when he was ready, because even when he was going backwards, the young lad was always one step ahead.
Evening and night would find him in vain, and that was why he found it so hard to get up in the morning; the words would come out precise and his vision well adorned. With a fresh white for the hotter months and a warm red for the cold ones, he never lacked a partner in conversation, those whom his missus, because the young lad had a missus, to give them a name, called vagrants. The only one she really cared for was his good friend González; and so from time to time he’d drop by in the evening with a bottle of wine to whet their appetites, and his missus would stare at him wide-eyed, although she’d serve him his plate all the same and, for a while would include herself in the conversation; the thing was that Maestro González, as well as the daily news, knew all about what was happening in the world. With him they could talk about Gabriela and Violeta, whom she liked so much, but when the conversation turned to De Rokha and Neruda, and with their yes-but-no-buts and their hearty slaps on the back, his missus would turn and make her way silently to bed. Maestro González would argue for Neruda and the young lad would say that both were good, and the discussion would go on until they’d finished the bottle; and just as they’d be reaching an agreement once again, the ecstasy of the wine would fade and they’d turn to talk of the union, of the USSR, of the country and the working class; those were the best moments, because by means of a well-grounded argument they’d reach the conclusion of the imminent revolution by the working classes; and then their enthusiasm, somewhat flagging, would be redoubled and they’d uncork the next bottle.
A good man, my friend González, the young lad would say, salt of the earth, as strong as Chilean oak and more learned than a dunce-slaying encyclopaedia, a man who calls a spade a spade and quells storms in deep waters. It was this friendship that brought them to agree on many points and also laid bare the crude differences, which his friend González would swear were deep and fundamental, and the young lad that no, that when it came to seeing things, scarcely a pane of glass stood between them, and that if they weren’t all so solemn serious in the party, he’d go there himself tomorrow and take charge. No my good friend, Master González would say to him, what you don’t realize is that you just don’t understand, first of all you need to read Lenin and learn the linotype properly, the party will follow, how can it even cross your mind that a revolutionary would turn up for work smelling of wine and spend the night screwing around with crusties in godforsaken drinking dens; we, the workers, can’t permit ourselves such luxuries, never mind the revolutionaries. And the young lad Nicomedes took heed, he stopped going out at night and began to read Lenin with such resolve that his missus almost died of a heart attack, right there on the second day she found him reading; at first she cared for him as though he were ill and then, after almost a week, she began to look after him better still, it can’t be that Nicomedes has found himself a bit on the side, she said to herself, but after two weeks, she didn’t know what to think; maybe the years have caught up with him, all that bad wine and staying out until the break of dawn, she said, because when it comes to me, after all that enthusiasm, he won’t even look at my legs. What’s more, at that time, the young lad had mastered the linotype machine, and was able to read proficiently from back to front, to carefully place the letters at the same level and tighten the quoin key slowly without damaging them, but just when it seemed he was getting somewhere and that the young lad was on track once and for all, the depression hit him, and for the first time in his life, they saw him walk worse than a dead man. That was when his friend González stepped in amongst the commentaries and backstabbing, the conchivirivirín. The truth is my friend, he began, I’m not convinced you’re cut out for the linotype at all, because you tighten the letters well, but without feeling, and in this trade that just won’t do, and let’s not even mention the party. Your biggest weakness is that you’re half libertine and half poet, and more libertine than poet because you never get stuck in, because if you really like poetry or music, you need to get stuck in there, good and fast, not be staying out until the break of dawn in bars, open air drinking dens and whore houses. But it’s not like that at all, the young lad began, but Master González continued unabated, lest he forgot all he had been thinking; I, my friend, would love that the linotype were for you, but if that’s not how it is, then do whatever makes you happy, but just do it, a man is defined by his trade; and the young lad was left in two minds when afterwards he said that it hadn’t damaged their friendship, but that much was certain.
That night, when Master González showed up with the bottles under his arm, the young lad was already waiting for him. His missus cooked the dinner and sat herself down for the conversation, but from what they were saying, she thought carefully, something strange was going on, and when she heard the talk of compromise and of content and form, that his friend González didn’t give a damn for something that was all form, what’s more, he grumbled, cursed and swore against “form”, she looked them in the face to see if they had fallen out and if the whole thing was about to come to blows, and as she couldn’t see anything, she put it all down to some profound difference amongst the belles lettres with which Nicomedes, out of pure idleness, would meddle, concerned and disheartened, she went to bed early that night; the time passed quickly and the conversation passed over shared ground and the imminent socialist republics of the South, forging headlong into the uncertain terrain of poetry, night and song. The last bottles found them seeking the advantages of real art, which did exist, which existed even in the very same United States of America, and was far superior to charlatanry, until Master González made his retreat, affirming the supremacy of the linotype machine above all other art forms, true or false. That night something unexpected happened; the young lad Nicomedes couldn’t get to sleep, and the time to get up came without him having even closed his eyes, without wanting to go to work and without having slept a single wink, the time had come to get stuck in, good and fast
Translation first Published in The Radgeworks Miscellany, 2010