In Memoriam: José Emilio Pacheco, Carlos Montemayor, Carlos Monsiváis, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and most recently, Gabo. Also: for my friend, Evodio Escalante, Elena Poniatowska and remembering A. Kerlow (RIP)
For months, Marvin, a college Spanish professor, lived with one central obsession—that he had somehow broken or defaced a small but valuable sculpture that had been given to him to hold in safekeeping by one of the best-known novelists of the Americas.
The sculpture was a bust-like stylized profile by a respected Mexican modernist artist who somehow thought to honor his country’s famous narrator by giving him a sculpture of his country’s greatest poet. On first discovering the rather obvious damage to the piece, Marvin realized he was in serious trouble with his integrity and whatever might be left of his good name at stake. He didn’t know what to do other than to hide the piece in his closet. He subsequently moved from his home city and his long-standing university position to a far less cosmopolitan city and place of work. He changed his cell-phone number and even his clothing style; he shaved his beard and only published his articles and books of criticism in obscure venues he knew would draw scant attention. But somehow he knew that all this would not be enough; and so he could not be totally surprised when, after all his feeble efforts, this very day, he received a call from the famous novelist’s secretary asking if he was indeed Marvin and if he could arrange for the return of the sculpture in time for it to be the centerpiece of the novelist’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration.
Marvin had written some books of literary history and just one slim and unnoticed collection of fiction. He was therefore not surprised but was of course irritated by the fact that it was the secretary and not the novelist who had called him. He was above all dismayed by the prospect of his disgrace—so much so that he claimed to be some one else and said he’d pass on the message. Immediately after the call, he found the piece, and uncovered it, hoping to find it, somehow, in perfect condition—as if his having damaged the piece had been a dream. But there it was, jagged along the lines of breakage, damaged almost beyond recognition.
Try as he might, Marvin could not quite recall what had caused the damage—whether it had been unintentional or otherwise, if the sculpture had been maimed and battered out of envy, resentment, or anger, or if, as he might hope (was it indeed possible?), the damage was really the fault of some one else. He couldn’t even remember what the sculpture had looked like and how it might have been altered. Try as he might, he could not recall the most pronounced detail, even as he saw points of breakage and somehow knew it had not been like this when he had received it.
Marvin imagined that it probably irked the novelist that a sculpture made to honor him was not of him but of a national figure who for years had kept the novelist in his shadow as a prime spokesman for his country’s literature and culture. The idea behind it all, Marvin surmised, was to recognize the novelist for his somehow having reached a level that perhaps almost, if not quite, approximated that of the poet. If so, perhaps this would explain why the novelist didn’t want to take the sculpture with him on his travels, and why he had left it with M—because he somehow considered the gift to be an underhanded insult best relegated to a dark recess of what must inevitably be the drab apartment of a rather obscure critic and sometime writer. In this case, Marvin ‘s being entrusted the sculpture might itself have been more of an insult than an honor.
But Marvin wasn’t really sure of any of this, and it occurred to him that his memory and sense of judgment were failing. Perhaps, he thought hopefully, this could be the excuse that would extricate him from the shame of his disgraceful disfiguration of an important piece of work. But then Marvin realized this was no way out, because it left him exposed as a washed-up, senile figure in the face of the world. As horrible as it might seem, wasn’t it better to be a kind of Erostratus, a destroyer of icons and wonders, than a useless old man? Or, was it possible that both interpretations could fall on him as his shame became public?
Then he thought, with the kind of magical thinking of a child who accidents in class and closes his eyes hoping the smell and stain will go away, that all he had to do was lay low, not respond and maybe he would never be called again. Of course, the way to make that dream take place would be to cut off his phone completely and disappear from the obscure city and school where he had come to hide. But that would leave him without an income, and he’d no one to turn to, his wife having left him some time ago, his one child having gone off to who knew where and all his friends alienated and in some cases deceased.
What could he do? He began to consider pursuing some of the more extreme alternatives but then his phone rang again, and he blocked his impulse to answer. When it stopped ringing, he waited for the signal that a message had been left. It was Ambrosio Escalera, a fairly well known literary critic, telling him he’d heard that Marvin was on the verge of giving the sculpture to the famous novelist and asking Marvin if he might accompany him to what seemed might be a significant public event from which, Marvin surmised, the critic thought he might otherwise be excluded.
Then came another call, this time from a glamorous woman free-lance art critic. Marvin feigned the voice of a butler only to hear her insist on calling him by name and asking him, with a glint of suggestion, for a personal interview in relation to this great upcoming ceremony. Then as if that were not enough, there was a knock on the door, and a delivery boy presented him with a package which proved to be the galley proofs for a book on the novelist which opened with a few pictures including one tagged blank space that was marked, “Photo of award ceremony: Presentation of sculpture of great poet to famous novelist. (Piece possibly presented by Marvin—find out who and where he is and arrange for photo op.).”
The situation was impossible, and Marvin had no one he could turn to, no one he could talk it through without risking exposure, ridicule and worst. He felt utterly alone and the ruins of a once mildly happy and successful life were plain enough for him to see. He sat at his desk, staring at the objects and photos about him. And there, lo and behold, amidst ex-wives and lost loves, Marvin saw, staring back at him, the framed snapshot of his rather mischievous and only recently deceased friend Martín. He lifted the frame and stared into and almost through his friend’s large, smiling, reddish and impudent face, and the devilish glint in his eyes. Marvin realized suddenly how much he missed his devilish friend, what a brother and bother he’d been. Staring at Martín’s face, Marvin suddenly trembled and dropped the photo, so that it clattered on the desk, upsetting several of the other objects, and sending not a few along with it to the floor. Marvin saw that the photo glass was now cracked, with the break line cutting across Martín’s face. And it was at this precise moment of his most extreme feeling of loss and desperation, from the very bottom of his all but emptied out sense of being, that it dawned on Marvin (was it a repressed memory suddenly visiting upon him?) that it was not he (of course, after all, how could it be he?), but rather his ever-too-playful (and now ever-so-sadly but perhaps conveniently dead) friend who had been the culprit in this matter and the source of his deepest anxiety?
Martín was a doctor who also passed his free moments writing stories and drawing pictures. It especially irked Marvin that this man dedicated to the healing arts was more creative and better read than he, a professional scholar and writer who had always devoted himself to literature. Indeed, Martín was a minor celebrity of the great city from which Marvin was later to flee, a man invited to all openings who in turn frequently held parties for visiting celebrities. Such was the case of the famous novelist on one of his visits to the city, one of the three times Marvin had personally sponsored and hosted him. Finding his own apartment inadequate, Marvin felt deeply humiliated as he was virtually compelled to ask Martín if he could use his friend’s apartment as the site for a party in the novelist’s honor after his public presentation. So it was that there, in Martín’s apartment, the novelist was sitting at a desk and signing copies of his latest book for an interminable line of admirers. “Doesn’t all this signing bother you?” Martín asked the novelist. “Maybe I could sign some for you,” he quipped. “With love and admiration.” The novelist laughed and said “Why no, I can handle the signing” and then he added, “it’s always a great pleasure to greet my public.”
Marvin found this answer pretentious and pompous, and so did Martín, who commented on it and all the people fawning over the famous novelist in his apartment. “This is the last time I’ll hold one of these soirées,” said Marvin’s talented friend on this night some months before he died, when, as Marvin now realized, Martín began to say goodbye to what had been his life. Another goodbye on that road had occurred when on preparing to leave the city, the famous novelist had received the gift of the sculpture from the respected artist, but burdened by the luggage required for his book-signing trip, asked that Marvin keep the sculpture until further notice. But, the severe modesty of his apartment also meant that Marvin was in no position to give the sculpture its required security; and a few days after the novelist’s departure, he now remembered, he had brought the sculpture to Martín’s house for safe keeping as he went off on what he claimed was a little speaking tour of his own, to present his latest findings on some obscure writer of whom the great poet and famous writer had probably never heard—and perhaps with good reason.
Marvin remembered Martín complaining that the novelist was really beyond words, pawning off a mediocre work as a masterpiece and entrusting it to a man who had no clue how to deal with it and would be foolish enough to think it was really worth keeping or feel shame about if he failed to do well by it. In fact, Martín railed against the novelist for his pomposity and his pretensions in writing so many words and novels when he was not that talented or wise after all. He attacked the novelist’s ever-so-correct politics, which won him high-priced speaking engagements, abundant book sales, and enthusiastic plaudits—especially from certain people who wished so much to be counted among those opposing their own country’s policies with respect to its “distant neighbor” and Latin America as a whole. He went so far as to remind Marvin that the novelist had once declared that another, less urbane writer from his country, who had only written two slim volumes, was the greatest writer of his generation—although even here, Martín considered this all a pose to win the novelist added admiration.
All this said, Martín took in the sculpture, and it was only on his sudden death that Marvin retrieved it, wrapped in a red towel, and brought it to his home. Only was it then that, as best he remembered now, the piece slipped from his fingers and hit against the desk and was only saved from falling by Marvin’s trapping it against the desk’s edge. At this moment, opening the towel, Marvin found the piece broken and at this point too, he made matters worse by propping the sculpture on the table, discarding the tiny chips and attempting to fix what could not be fixed.
But Marvin now recalled that it did occur to him then as it did now, that perhaps the near fall of the piece had not been the cause of its breakage and deformation and that Martín himself had damaged the piece before Marvin had opened it. After all, the slip had not been severe, and as always, his fixing efforts were tentative and feeble. It was Martín who indeed prided himself on doing outrageous and unheard of things. And Marvin now could picture his friend avenging the novelist’s pompous behavior and pretentious comments by doing something to the sculpture. An inventive amateur artist himself, he would have been quite capable of working over and in fact parodying the original piece until it became a virtual mockery of the novelist and probably even the poet as well.
Looking at the sculpture now, once again, Marvin was impressed by the power of the broken image. Surely it showed all the signs of his friend’s handiwork. Surely it was better than the forgettable original he had received from the novelist—a tribute to his friend’s outrageous character but also his good taste and creative power. Now looking at the piece, he decided that what had happened was nothing for him to be ashamed of after all and that he deserved recompense for his months of agonizing.
So it was that, phoenix-like, Marvin garnered his courage and called back the novelist’s secretary to inform him that he was well up on the issue at hand and was quite ready now to return the sculpture. The secretary then asked him how he might retrieve the piece, and Marvin said, “I will return it the evening I present it to him on his seventy-fifth birthday.” “But the novelist has asked for some one else to present it.” “Then tell the novelist that I shall present it to the presenter,” Marvin said, now with some courage and resolve, “at the ceremony,” he insisted. “Very well,” said the secretary, “I shall so inform him of your suggestion.” “It’s not a suggestion,” Marvin was shocked to hear himself say. “It is how it shall be if it shall be at all.”
And so it came to be. Marvin called Ambrosio Escalera and invited his ever so eager friend to attend the ceremony with him. He called the publisher of the book-in-progress to confirm that he would be available for the required photo shoot. He called the glamorous freelance critic whose alluring questions led to a provocative interview which appeared in the local press and even circulated in other newspapers throughout the Americas and Europe. He called the secretary to confirm the hour, place, proper attire and schedule for the now widely announced event. He had his tux cleaned, and bought a special box for the sculpture. He even arranged for a limousine that would take him and Escalera to the event in style.
And so it was. The limousine, large, stark black and portentous, Marvin made the desired impression, and he was called to the stage to bestow the sculpture on a celebrated chronicler who’d been chosen to present it to the novelist. He shook the celebrated chronicler’s hand and even took the opportunity to squeeze the hand of the novelist who seemed somewhat taken aback but was of course quite gracious. Then with the shortest speech possible he expressed his sense of honor at having been entrusted the piece and now handing it over to he who would hand it over. He did add a line, however, to express his sorrow that the novelist’s host on a recent tour, a man of great talent who had indeed helped with the sculpture and improved upon it, he added ever so casually, had since passed away. Giving one of his acidic and witty commentaries, the chronicler/celebrity compared the famous novelist with the incomparable poet and then presented the box to the novelist who drew out the sculpture and held it up for all to see. The crowd buzzed with excitement as the piece emerged—there were sighs and ahs and then a round burst of applause.
At the reception which followed, the celebrated chronicler, who was also known as a connoisseur and collector of Mexican art, examined the piece and declared (though in the sardonic, parodic tone all his own) that the respected sculptor had never done anything better, that the sculpture was an extreme example of the tension between modernity and postmodernity in their most urban and urbane modes, in which the creative tension between the great poet and the famous novelist, had found its full expression. Poet and novelist posed as boxers in a faceoff before their great fight, as every one laughed and applauded, and the flashbulbs blinded all in attendance.
A major writer known for his Zapatista sympathies mounted the stage and began to sing a ditty in honor of the occasion; and Escalera, seizing the moment, all but ran to the piano to give him backup. “This is a memorable event,” said a major poet, who attended. “I hope we’ll remember it. But will we be remembered? The whole thing is a circus,” he concluded. “What?” a listener asked. But the poet said he couldn’t recall. “The women remember what’s most important,” said the most famous woman writer in attendance, as she recorded all that was said, and took notes on what was implied. In the corner, a novelist from the south who was even more renowned than the famous novelist kept his distance from the local guests as he dreamed of making a film out of the story he was already writing in his head about this festive evening (but another, not he, wrote the story); he then flew off on magical wings to Cuba and beyond before the evening came to end.
Meanwhile the glamorous and indeed lovely freelance critic approached Marvin and asked him what he had meant by saying that his friend Martín had somehow improved on the image. She punctuated her question by poking him gently in the ribs, and adding “are you sure you weren’t the one who improved it?” Marvin sidestepped the questions saying it was only a manner of speaking, a figure of speech—a matter which he would be happy to explain in greater detail if given the opportunity. The famous novelist and guest of honor came over to personally thank Marvin and greet Escalera. “I want to thank you for your care,” he said to Marvin “I knew I could count on you,” he said pompously. “And how nice of you to come and to play as well, Ambrose, you devil,” he added, citing himself, perhaps with a touch of irony aimed at the critic.
Marvin and Escalera left the party elated; they shared a drink before going their separate ways, the limousine dismissed, and each of them staggering home in a separate direction, though sharing in a state of drunken exaltation. Some days later Marvin began dating the glamorous, lovely and ever-more erotic freelancer with whom he came to share more than one secret; and soon after that, he finally published his long-delayed second volume of stories, including one called “The Sculpture.” It was well received by a small but select group of critics, one remarking that it was reminiscent of the posthumous and soon-to appear collection Marvin had arranged of his friend Martín’s stories and pictures; and another, indeed Escalera, noting that as a whole Marvin’s book represented a near-break (or was it a still another crack?), with respect to previous writing and surpassed even the work of a writer whose two short books the famous novelist had confessed were a greater contribution than his almost thirty novels of production.
As the months went by, the great poet died, greatly missed and eulogized, perhaps most thoroughly but also most sardonically, by the celebrity-chronicler-connoisseur-collector. Strangely enough, the respected artist, and then even the sardonic chronicler-connoisseur-collector also died, to the great dismay of their many friends and admirers. The novelist-singer-zapatista-supporter died, as did the memorable major poet of limited memory, remember? The famous novelist continued writing novel after novel and gave speech after speech, though some argued that he was already a kind of ghost awaiting his final exit. And then he too passed away. And soon afterward, so did the novelist who was even more renowned than the famous novelist.
As for Escalera, he seemed to come into his own in a series of telling essays about each of the lamented icons; and with them gone his own stock seemed to increase so that he did not have to squeeze his way into any literary events and was often invited to speak. Indeed, some came to claim however erroneously that he himself was the true author of “The Sculpture.”
According to Escalera’s account and that of others, Marvin was left saddened by the loss of the people who were so central to the world he had known so long; but, almost all agree, he could not help but feel his spirits rise by the day and week. First his glamorous freelancing lover produced a book that was even more praised than his own; and to his surprise, he actually took pleasure and pride in her success, without a trace of envy. Then too, he began working on a novel he himself believed could be his masterpiece—though in his newfound romantic entanglement and his bourgeoning happiness, so late in life, he realized it didn’t matter or mean too much if he finished the novel or not.
Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.
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