I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
One morning, the entomologist Endo Hiroshi decided to stop eating anything that other people might term wholesome. He took this decision immediately after the sleepless night he had spent—provoked perhaps by the thought of the ancient family cook about to join the Caravan of the Toothless1—following his parents’ wedding feast. That night, during which he lay in a kind of half-sleep, he could feel his arms and legs gradually being devoured by the unbridled voracity of his own stomach. So aggressive was that bodily organ in his dreams that, with the first light of dawn, Endo Hiroshi already felt he had joined that select band who eat only in order to damage their own stomachs which, in time, become virtually useless.
Endo Hiroshi had heard tell of painfully thin girls who had died because they refused to eat so much as a grain of rice. Some people attributed this loss of appetite to a disappointment in love, and others to a strict adherence to fashions imposed by the West. On the other hand, he knew of men and women who gorged themselves, and whose bulky bodies were evidence of their inability to rid themselves of an intense desire to represent within their own bodies the entire universe.2 These contrary conditions had occurred in his own family on more than one occasion; there was even the case of two cousins, twins, of whom the sister wasted away from anorexia, while her brother became a prominent Sumo wrestler.3
He also remembered stories from the war years that he had heard as a boy, when food was so scarce that many people were driven to kill for a portion of rice or a piece of fish.4 And he heard tales about rat meat wrapped in delicate sushi, and about young men who would spend all their time catching flies in order to eat them as a substitute for millet.5 These stories made such an impact on Endo Hiroshi that, as a child, he acquired an almost reverential attitude toward food, and he would never have agreed with a foreigner’s comment about his nation’s cuisine to the effect that it seemed to have been created as a feast for the eyes, rather than to be eaten.6
In his grandparents’ house, where, since his parents were still not allowed to live together, he had spent part of his childhood, nothing edible was ever wasted. Indeed—basing themselves largely on Prophet Magetsu’s book of teachings—they often employed a strange method of preparing food, which consisted of burying the ingredients for several hours beneath stones heated by burning wood or coal.7 Afterward, they would uncover this “grave,” and as they gazed down on the splendid meal, it was as if they were standing before Mother Earth, who was offering up to them new life from her womb. Prophet Magetsu, a monk who suffered not one but several deaths, imagined the creation of the universe to be a gift from Mother Earth to the constituent elements of the cosmos.
During a trip that Endo Hiroshi made to Africa, at the invitation of the society of entomologists to which he belonged, he ate only the prepackaged food that he bought in a store recommended to him by fellow society members. Up until then, his daily diet had consisted solely of white rice. He made the trip with his suitcases crammed with plastic jars, dishes and cups containing various types of dehydrated food. Endo Hiroshi had only to add boiling water to these containers to obtain a series of meals that bore only a distant relationship to those eaten in his own country. It is not known why he did not simply take some easy-cook rice with him.
The entomologist Endo Hiroshi called the trip “the long journey of boiling water,” for fundamental to its success was the presence of kettles and portable stoves that would not only allow him to feed himself adequately, but also to take tea in the traditional manner. Endo Hiroshi would have been quite capable of going without food for several days, but while awake, it was almost impossible for him to survive for more than four hours without tea. Some entomologists advised him to take advantage of the trip to try one of the many insects that were eaten in the region, from common ants coated in honey and served in paper cones to the flesh of certain blue-legged tarantulas that lived only in the very tops of trees.8 While they were consuming these specimens, it was common for the other members of the expedition to discuss the insects’ nutritional properties. Some years before, certain experts, principally the scientist Olaf Zumfelde from the University of Heidelberg, had drawn up a table which set out clearly the ratio of the amounts of protein from invertebrates that the human body could assimilate.9
Endo Hiroshi, however, ate only what he had bought in his own country. He continued his journey, always carrying with him his prepackaged foods, the tea of which he required a constant supply, a kettle and a small battery-operated stove.10 With only a few days to go before the end of the trip, during which he worked with his usual diligence, he found a strange specimen that he had believed to be extinct. Or rather, he found an entirely unknown variety, for the only one he knew of, the Newton camelus eleoptirus, was an entirely different color. He managed to store the insect in optimum conditions and, without a word to the rest of the expedition, took it with him on the journey home.
Once disembarked, he went straight to the laboratory that had been set up at the rear of what would later become his parents’ house.11 At the time, his parents were still single and lived separately. Despite this, the members of the family gathered every night at the house that was Hiroshi’s permanent residence in order to pray to Prophet Magetsu. Hiroshi knew that finding the insect was vital to his career as an entomologist. His name, Hiroshi, would be used from then on to designate the specimen he had caught. As far as he knew, the known insect was blue and not red like the one he had found. The red eleoptirus he had found on the African steppes would come to be called Hiroshi camelus eleoptirus.
Imagine the entomologist Endo Hiroshi’s surprise when he opened the plastic container and found not his insect, but a tiny black ball. So tiny was the ball that it was astonishing he even noticed it. The plastic container was specially made for transporting specimens. The containers were produced exclusively for the members of the entomological society to which Hiroshi belonged. They were designed in such a way that the insects inside them could survive for a long time. It was impossible that the eleoptirus he had found the previous week could have escaped. Hiroshi had last looked at it in the Nairobi airport before boarding the plane home. He had had another quick glance at it before leaving his hotel, and the previous day, immediately after returning from the trip, he had spent a long time studying it through a special entomologist’s lens.12 On that occasion, he had been comparing it with the Newton camelus eleoptirus that appeared in an illustration in the book of insects he always carried with him.
He was so shocked by the insect’s absence that he was not even aware of the arrival of his parents, who, as they did every day, had gone into the main room of the house to get ready to pray to Prophet Magetsu. During the weeks that he had been away in Africa, his parents had had to pray in the temple to the Prophet built on the side of the highest mountain. Hiroshi heard them calling him, for, without him, the rites could not begin. Shikibu, the old servant woman, had just finished preparing the great pot of white rice that would be eaten after the ceremony. Ever since he was 15 years old, the bowl of rice served after prayers had been the only food Endo Hiroshi ate all day; rice and several liters of tea. Most people would have assumed that such a diet would have left him thin and weak, but his evident good health belied this. One could survive for a whole lifetime on a daily bowl of rice, as the old Buddhist monks and Prophet Magetsu himself had done.
It is said that one of Prophet Magetsu’s deaths—the last, apparently—occurred when the Prophet decided to allow his body to begin feeding off itself.13 In order to leave a record of the process by which his flesh would gradually disappear, he counted on the presence of his disciple Oshiro, who was to write down on a scroll of rice paper the words that his teacher dictated to him. Each day, the Prophet said only one word. Oddly enough, the last word he spoke can be translated as peace. It seems strange that, at the end of such a very complex dying process, a being of Prophet Magetsu’s lofty spirituality should have uttered a word that might strike many as all too obvious.
Before the ceremony could begin, both Endo Hiroshi and his parents had to check their ancient cooks teeth. His parents could only marry once the woman had lost all her teeth and could no longer eat. The cook would later die of starvation after the long solitary journey undertaken immediately after her employers’ wedding.
On the very night that Endo Hiroshi discovered that the insect had gone, the last tooth in the old cook’s mouth fell out. At that moment, it was decided that she should join the Caravan of the Toothless, which was the name given to that final journey. While they were trying to scrutinize her gums, Endo Hiroshi began to get an inkling of what had happened to the insect. By the time his father had delivered the final verdict, the entomologist Endo Hiroshi had begun to understand the nature of that tiny blackball in the plastic container. While the old cook pleaded and at the same time tried to keep her jaws clamped shut, Endo Hiroshi realized that the ball was the insect’s stomach, if, that is, insects have stomachs. The creature had actually eaten itself. The ball was a shapeless mass comprising all the insect’s component parts. The old woman’s cries were heartrending.14 Endo Hiroshi’s parents were unyielding. It was decided that the journey would begin two days later. As soon as the old woman fell silent, in sudden apparent acceptance of her fate, his parents started making plans for their wedding. They spoke mainly about the wedding feast. They would serve traditional food, and there would be no exotic touches, apart from the bream that would be served to the bride and groom before the ceremony. They had to find a cook skilled enough to prepare a ghost bream.15
The recipe involved removing all the flesh from the fish without actually killing it; the fish would then be returned to a tank that would be placed in the middle of the table occupied by the bride and groom. The couple would eat the flesh while the dying fish continued to swim around in the tank, with all its internal organs exposed to view. It was deemed to be a good omen for the marriage only if the meal lasted exactly the time it took for the fish to die.
That night, the entomologist Endo Hiroshi corroborated his suspicions. Once Shikibu had been condemned, he confirmed, with the help of a microscope, that the insect had indeed consumed itself. For no apparent reason, he experienced a wave of nausea. He vomited. Meanwhile, downstairs, his parents were continuing to plan for the wedding which had been impossible until then because of the continuing presence of teeth in the cook’s mouth. From that point on, his mother would be free to paint her teeth black, and his father had the right to go to a dentist and have his front teeth removed. The entomologist Endo Hiroshi could, in turn, have his own teeth replaced with gold ones; however, when he considered the transformation undergone by an insect that could have been named Hiroshi camelus eleoptirus, an event that would have brought him instant fame among his particular group of entomologists, he decided that, after taking part in his parents’ wedding celebrations, his one aim in life would be to reduce the activity of his own stomach to an absolute minimum. He would try to do so by provoking something similar to the hepatic atrophy suffered by specially fattened geese or by cats in certain South American countries, which are bred in tiny cages and fed on corn flavored with fish meal.16
The day after his parents’ wedding, Endo Hiroshi realized that the real reason for his insomnia lay in the cook’s long journey into death. The stubborn presence of that last tooth had prevented her from dying a dignified death ten years earlier. The entomologist Endo Hiroshi did not want to find himself in the same situation. When the sun came in through the window, lighting up the plastic container that still held what he supposed to be the insect’s stomach, he decided to eat not just the blackball, but also a series of weevils and other creatures that he would collect during the morning. In his wardrobe he still had the special suit he wore for the caterpillar hunts that were held each leap year. The last time he took part he had been accompanied by his cousins, the painfully thin sister and her vast Sumo wrestler brother.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.
Margaret Jull Costa has translated the work of many Spanish and Portuguese writers, including Javier Maríasm Bernardo Atxaga, Carmen Martín Gaite, Fernando Pessoa, and Eça de Queiroz. She won the 2000 Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her version of All the Names, by José Saramago.
1. An archaic custom to which all citizens who have lost all their teeth must submit.
2. A popular belief amongst the Assyrian Chaldeans that the human body contained all the celestial spheres. According to recent profound psychological studies, remnants of this belief survive in man as a symbol of social superiority.
3. A form of wrestling intended to celebrate times of harvest and abundance. It is practiced particularly in regions governed by the solar calendar.
4. The fish for which people committed the largest number of murders was sole.
5. Even today there are occasional newspaper reports of traders trying to pass off roasted flies as millet.
6. See Newsweek no. 234, p. 56.
7. In certain Andean countries this practice is known as pachamanca.
8. These were the phosphorescent Larpicus tarantulas that are found only in the eastern part of Namibia.
9. See the Zumfelde Table, available from the Society of Nutrition in Berlin.
10. It was a camping stove made by Hiraoka.
11. According to the traditions of Prophet Magetsu, the owners of a house cannot live together until the last servant loses the last of his or her teeth. This did not exempt the couple from having children.
12. He used Stewarson lenses, imported by the Tenkei-Maru company.
13. See the Sacred Catechism of the Hiro-Sensei sect.
14. It is said that some neighbors were unable to get to sleep that night.
15. The masters of this technique are usually to be found on the south coast.
16. These animals are often used in a recipe called seco de gato.
Born in Mexico in 1960, Mario Bellatin is the author of nine novels: Las mujeres de sal (Women of salt), 1986; Efecto Invernadero (Greenhouse effect), 1992; Canon perpetuo (Perpetual canon), 1993; Salón de Belleza (Beauty parlor), 1994; Damas chinas (Chinese checkers), 1995; Poeta ciego (Blind poet), 1998; El jardín de la Señora Murakami (The garden of Mrs. Murakami), 2000; Flores (Flowers), 2000; and Shiki Nagaoka: una nariz de ficción (Shiki Nagaoka: a fictional nose), 2001.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee