I can’t say that my beginnings were easy, no, no way. Perhaps that’s why I believe anything gained without great sacrifice lacks, how shall I say, true stability, solidity, worth, that’s it, worth. Let’s say a man inherits a large fortune—in what does his worth consist? Only in conserving that fortune, and not squandering it in orgiastic living and foolish business deals. No example for the younger generation, right? I mean conserving a fortune is minimal work because waste and stupidity not only are not examples, but are tantamount to crime. I was born in Herskilla, a tiny Central European village that no longer exists. I can still see it: a single street, narrow and crooked, flanked by wooden houses, covered with snow nine months out of the year, with mud two months, dirt and weeds the one month left. And from there, from that humble conglomeration of rustic houses inhabited by poor folks without vision or ambition, I arrived here. How? By concentrated work, will, honesty, and why not say it, a vision of the future. All qualities that can and should be cultivated from infancy if we want today’s children to be tomorrow’s men of progress, of use to society and the nation. I ask myself: if all the people of that little lost village could have received a steady, adequate and healthy education, an education that would have opened their eyes to the reality of the world and pointed the way, how many of those whose intrinsic qualities were dormant owing to ignorance and a lack of faith in themselves would not have achieved great destinies? That’s what I ask myself. A lot of the kids I ran around with had will, talent, a certain lucidity, if I can put it so. But nevertheless, I was the only one who was impelled to leave that place in order to become Someone; the only one who had enough determination to travel on foot, to beg, to accept those first, modest jobs, to make progress through sacrifice and privation, to gain independence, finally, after all those years, to be able to say with legitimate pride: I am the founder of this enormous industrial and commercial empire whose name resounds in all the cities of the world, whose products are consumed in every nation, and would be in Herskilla too, if it still existed. Perhaps those innate qualities were stronger in me than in my companions, and didn’t need the reveille of an adequate education to be awakened, I don’t know, and so my childhood friends remained, grew up and live, or perhaps have died, in some unknown part of the world. Because we sure never had a school worthy of that name, but only a half-demolished shed next to the church, where Marcos, the teacher, gave lessons when he wasn’t sick, which wasn’t too often, to a bunch of boys of all ages who did nothing but make trouble until it was time to go home, which could be anytime, according to the teacher’s mood. A rare bird, this Marcos, cultured, I realize now, but undisciplined, sick in his lungs and stomach, solitary, and uncommunicative about himself. Almost as rare as the priest Osponio who didn’t live in the village but arrived once a week in a cart pulled by two oxen and driven by Ravi the deaf-mute, to prophesy the end of the world and in passing say Mass. I’ve thought many times that there was quite a collection of strange people in my village—you see, I still call it my village even though I am a citizen of this great, generous nation which gathered me to her breast—though it doesn’t even exist, it was erased in a war, lost in oblivion and no one remembers it, except me, and that’s because I never denied my humble origins, on the contrary, I feel a legitimate pride. There were Marcos and the priest to begin with. There was also Señora Selene, enormously fat and pale, a recluse since the death of her husband, years before, whom everyone talked about but no one seemed to know. I, at least, never saw her. There was also a character who even if he wasn’t from the village lived there a long time, whose children, I still don’t know why, called him the Black Prince, and whose elders said he had a pact with the devil. And Rustl the fool. And as always, there was a poor guy who was the butt of all the gossip, gags and pranks, and I must admit, ours, the children’s, were the cruelest. The tailor, I remember him as though I’d seen him yesterday. Thin, nearly bald, with his wire-rimmed spectacles, gray as a dustcover that’s never been changed, the ideal subject for everyone to dump their share of meanness on. And in a village like this there was the worst disgrace, a cuckold. The wife was tasty, fleshy, always smiling, and sleeping with Pold, the blacksmith, a rival I wouldn’t want, believe me. The husband tolerated it all without a word. He worked and worked and practically stopped going out even to the tavern, where they either made fun of him or looked at him with pity. And when the wife gave birth to a girl, the whole village paraded over to the house, on pretext of courtesy, but really to see whether or not she looked like Pold. She did, of course, or at least that’s what I seem to recall. You can imagine the laughs and the jokes. One day, one of Marcos’s sick days when we were roaming around not knowing what to do, two of my friends, Jorg and Lule—I never got involved in such things, oh no—dressed up as Pold and the tailor’s wife, and spent the whole morning in front of the poor man’s shop, walking up and down, up and down, cuddling and kissing. Incredible, but I can’t remember if Jorg was dressed as Pold and Lule as the wife, or the reverse, I really can’t remember. Poor kids, not long after, something frightful happened: playing in old Rumberg’s field, where we went every day, I don’t know how but they got locked inside an old carpentry shed, the door got stuck and couldn’t be opened from inside or out, and there weren’t any windows. The rest of us went to get an ax to break through the lower part of the door, and when we returned—we were gone quite a while, you know how kids are, easily distracted and ready to amuse themselves with whatever they might find—when we returned the shed was in flames. How did the fire start? It was summer and everything was parched, you can imagine how the place caught, all full of wood, poor creatures. It was an especially wretched summer: there was a plague in the pigsty, the bridge collapsed, the wells were nearly dry. And old Rumberg’s shed wasn’t the only fire, there was a fire at Pold’s house—the first one you came to if you entered the village from the south—but it was night and someone saw the glare and the men who were in the tavern left and woke up the blacksmith and all together they managed to put the fire out. After that, Biwi the hunchback, who was usually drunk, also died in a fire when he fell asleep on a pile of firewood. He was an unpleasant guy, always picking fights with everyone, violent when drunk, which was almost always. The tailor thought he was crazy, and I think Biwi was the true cause of the unhappiness that never dared leave the tailor’s house. There was another misfortune, I remember this summer like it was yesterday, for I’d just turned 13 and decided then, when still practically a child, remark, to leave the village and try my fortune in a big city, ah, yes, now I remember, two guys, a little older than us, one of them blind and the other without a hand. They were working at the bread oven, it would soon be the feast of San Rufo and everyone was bringing something to the baker’s oven, so the man had to take on these two guys as helpers. The oven blew up. Later someone said that they’d found a bottle of rags, soaked in something flammable, among the remains of the oven, but it must have been the baker himself who said all those things, because he couldn’t resign himself to having lost the oven and take the blame for having overworked it; besides there were so many things, so much junk lying around, the baker was a bachelor and pretty sloppy, who’s to know. In any case it was a year of sorrow, two young guys, who knows if they would rather have died in the explosion than be disfigured. I don’t remember their names, as I said they were older than us, already into other things, they were cocks of the walk, went to the tavern, ran after anything in skirts, and even tried their luck with the tailor’s wife, with great success they said, although I doubt it. No, I think afterwards bad luck left the village in peace, at least there were no more fires. A few years later though there was a fire, a big one, I was in Paris at the time, I was 20 and already assistant sales chief of the Sydenham Co., and still kept up a correspondence with my parents; they died a few years afterward and I had no one to write to anymore, and so I stopped getting news about my village. But my father had written me all about how the fire had started in the tailor’s house, poor man, as though he hadn’t suffered enough. Humble and insignificant as he was, who would have believed it, but he acted like a hero, rushing into the flaming house, no one knew where he was when the fire broke out but suddenly he came running down the street, tore into the house and came out with the daughter in his arms, practically smothered by the smoke, that girl they said wasn’t his but Pold’s, you remember, but they couldn’t get the wife out, not he or anyone. As soon as the tailor came out, coughing and practically unconscious, the roof fell in and they had to wait for the ashes to cool before they could even see what was left of her, can you imagine, what a scene. There are sad stories in those tiny villages, my friend, you might almost say that a novelist could find as much material for a novel on human wretchedness and grandeur in those tiny communities as in a big city. But I’ve let myself get carried away with personal, intimate memories, and that’s not what you came here to talk about, is it. Anyway, I suppose that none of this is of any interest to you and we can think of it as having nothing to do with the interview, since it won’t be published, right? They’re just things that came to me, I don’t know how, talking about my early years. What I wanted above all to tell you about my beginnings is that.
Translated from the Spanish by Marguerite Feitlowitz from Twenty-Three Scribes.