Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2013, 248 pages
In Camarillas, an island in the middle of a war, a young boy, Carlos, sneaks into the hiding place of a Romanian sniper to ask him to deliver a letter to a woman in Romania. The sniper discovers that the woman in question was his lover during his youth. When they meet again, their shared past is reawakened, from their adolescence under communism and life together in a shabby bedsit in the murky period after the 1989 revolution to her decision to leave him for a man able to give a life without material hardships, albeit one not as happy. At the same time, it dawns on the sniper that his life is stuck in an illusory relationship, from which he has to free himself. He realises that people are more afraid of the past than the future. For this reason, the sniper continually rearranges his past in an album of illusory photographs, which he calls “photographs I wish I had”, and during the solitude of his mission, during the long hours of waiting, he tries to rid himself of the ghost of the woman who holds his mind captive and renders him incapable of living for the future. For many years he remains a prisoner of the past love affair, until he meets Carmen Mercedes Belano, a mysterious, sensual woman, who little by little changes his life. A radical change also comes about in the life of Carlos: the young boy financially supported by a Romanian woman grows up to become a young writer, who learns to throw caution to the winds, after experiencing a love affair that echoes the sniper’s story, followed by an adventure that places his life in genuine danger.
Carlos Murillo Ponti. Twenty seven years old. Two years ago he had published a novel that went on to be translated all over the world. A global bestseller. Constantin knew all too well that a young man of twenty five might write all sorts of things, but from there to sentencing him to death seemed to be taking it a bit far. He thought of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. It was a book he had bought repeatedly, but each time he had given it to somebody as a present before he got a chance to read it. Then it struck him that if he killed Carlos Murillo Ponti, he would induct him into that gallery of famous artists who all died at the age of twenty seven. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse came to mind. He put the photograph back in the folder and decided to make his way back to the hotel on foot. It wasn’t the mild weather that made Constantin inclined to take a stroll, but rather the need to come to a decision in regard to the young man. He wanted to be calm when he got to the hotel, so that he could fall asleep as quickly as possible.
He slung his rucksack over his shoulder, headed out of the park and began to climb the street uphill, remembering another street that led to another hotel, in Toledo, where he had once stayed on a whim. He had booked a room and for four days he had done nothing except sleep. Constantin is a man who does not dream, or rarely dreams, but in that hotel room he dreamed constantly. Whenever he felt the slightest twinge of boredom, he would hurry back to his hotel room, lock the door, throw himself on the bed, fall asleep as soon as he closed his eyes, and begin to dream. He dreamed vastly; he sated himself with dreams. He would wake up groggy from so many dreams, but at the same time rested and content. It had been exactly what he needed.
Climbing the stairs to his room without haste, Constantin realised why the face of the writer he had to kill looked vaguely familiar. Carlos Murillo Ponti was none other than Carlitos, the young boy who had latched onto him during a mission in Camarillas. He remembered noticing him one evening, near the English people’s camp, just before he commenced his real mission, which is to say, before spending a number of days in a hiding place. He was to eliminate a general, a “potential dictator,” they had informed him, but he had told them not to bother with explanations, because many years ago he had come to the realisation that his only incentives were risk taking and padding his bank accounts.
Carlitos sneaked into the hiding place, and Constantin caught him by the arms, he elbowed him in the mouth, he forced the child to unclench his teeth and thrust his elbow in his mouth, like a gag, thinking that maybe the boy was booby trapped, something he knew to have happened countless times, which is to say, a child comes up to you, hugs you and then the bomb goes off. But the child he had immobilised was shaking like a leaf and had burst into tears, whether tears of fear or tears of pain, or both the one and the other, and so he took pity on him. He made him sit down on his rucksack and asked him in Spanish what his name was. “Carlos,” said the child. Then he asked him what he wanted from him, and the kid said that he wanted to talk to him, because he had heard he was Romanian. “You’re Romanian, aren’t you?” Carlos asked and Constantin said that yes, he was, but that there were also other Romanians there, that there were plenty of Romanian soldiers, and the child said that he knew, but that he didn’t trust them, that he had tried to talk to them, but they hadn’t taken him seriously, and then Constantin asked him why he thought he would take him seriously, and the child answered: “Because you’re different. You’re the mercenary. Everybody around here knows you,” and when he said “everybody” he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and Constantin peered down the street, the same as he had done dozens of times in the last few days, and all of a sudden he realised that that town was becoming increasingly deserted, it looked less and less like a capital city, he looked at the sun scorched trees, the cracked asphalt, the garages with dented metal doors, the disintegrating balconies that were nothing but chunks of cement clinging to strands of iron, a bicycle with a contorted frame, the cardboard boxes inside which a little girl had played with a cat the previous day, and which overnight the wind had blown under a burnt out truck, these were the kind of things he had been seeing year after year in all the places he went to, everything was falling apart, crumbling, this was what the other people could see too, but nobody did anything about it, maybe only the ones who ended up with a bullet in the back of the neck, a bullet fired by people like him, or the ones who took photographs, who made films and then moved on, the same as he moved on after he had eliminated his target, today a potential dictator, tomorrow a senile general, the day after a rival sniper, a spy, a volatile politician, and so he moved on, more and more confident in himself, more and more trusted by governments and private individuals, and more and more of a hero to kids like Carlitos.
A week after he completed his mission, he had caught an aeroplane and gone to visit her.
During his first mission in Pakistan, Constantin had started to play a game called “photographs I wish I had”, and since then he had been playing it constantly. He would choose a moment in his more distant or more recent past, or an object that had subsequently proved very important to him, or a house, or a friend, and he would try to capture them photographically, arrange the memories in a well defined frame, release the shutter and then painstakingly go over all the details of the photograph in his mind. After his last mission in Mexico, he had improved the game. He bought a photograph album and gradually filled it with imaginary photographs. He cut out squares of paper and placed them in the album like photographs. On the cover of the album he inscribed the words: “Photographs I wish I had,” and beneath each square of paper he wrote a title. “The villa with the monkeys,” for example, or “Father brings home half a sheep in a raffia bag,” or “Cristina,” or “Aris collecting cigarette ends for me.”
I get the impression that everything I do is one step away from death. Do you remember Sonora? The best place to die we ever found. You ought to remember, although it is true that it was a long time ago, we called it the desert of assassins and suicides, the ideal projection of our murderous and self destructive instincts. Joking slightly or attempting a separation of powers, I would say that you have tried to perfect your killer instincts, whereas I have limited myself to the self destructive ones. I sense that the battle is not yet lost. My only current need, apart from my perverse need for alcohol, is to smash “the clay idols of appearances, as Humbold von Fleisher puts it, or maybe Citrine, or certainly Saul Bellow. “The clay idols of appearances.” But do memories elude appearance? Are they not themselves clay idols? With their innocuous, gentle, benevolent look, are they not ultimately like beastly little old men that you keep bumping into? If you’re not careful, don’t they spread like ivy, swiftly, suffocatingly burgeoning over the expanse of our minds? The clay idols of appearances, and let me leave it at that. I know that rather than such flights of fancy you would prefer that I once more fed your humours for the furious chronicle of an unforeseen separation. Forgive me. I’ve noticed that gin and tonic on an empty stomach makes me sarcastic. And so as not to have an empty stomach, I smoke another cigarette.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth