Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
To: Peter Beyle
President of the Association
of Lucrative Prisons
A man who is in a position of authority and admired by everyone should always be prepared for self-examination, as it says in the Book of Changes. I begin this letter of introduction with a triviality, but like everyone knows, trivialities are actually profound matters that, because of boredom or tiredness, we’ve stopped noticing. Well, now then, don’t think—as you must be thinking at this moment—that the person who is writing to you is a blackmailer. It’s only that I’ll see myself forced to use the language and perhaps also the methods of blackmailers to communicate with you. And even though I know more about your activities than you could suspect, this is purely and simply about a business proposal.
My cautiousness, extreme and even unhealthy if you like, is due to the fact that I find myself in a very unfavorable position and the fear that you—a very successful man and therefore, one can assume, of scarce scruples, despite appearances—will take advantage of that and try to keep all the income that my business proposal could generate.
I can almost imagine the indignant rising and knitting of your eyebrows that these lines have produced, and I hope this doesn’t impede you from continuing to read my letter. However, with the aim of rousing your interest, I should issue a slight threat—rather, a warning: I’m not a respectable person and by revealing this it must seem that I’m a failure at my own resolution of being cautious—a guest of what you once called, cynically, of course, “the most lucrative chain of hotels that have ever existed and that are full 100 percent of the time, with reservations and a waiting list until the year 2010.”
I’ve been enjoying your hospitality for several years, and during all this time I’ve had the opportunity to learn many details about the operation of your company. Of course, I could be lying to you, and it’s possible that everything I know I could have learned by being on the outside, or that I would gain entry here with the sole purpose of putting the final touches on this business proposal, which would be well worth such a sacrifice. Or furthermore, that everything I’ve told you is false, that I’m not your guest but a free man who is hiding behind the facade or the signature of a prisoner. But I’m not so naive and the matter of the business proposal is absolutely true, as I could prove very quickly, as soon as we make contact.
For now, my fighting name will be UndesirableGuest. I implore you to send me an acknowledgment of receipt at Undesirable-Guest@p***house.com over the Internet as soon as possible. Just say: UndesirableGuest, where are you? And I’ll be very happy. It’s a page of personal ads. I’ve opted for this method of communication because I’ve been able to prove that this service respects the privacy of its clients. I’ve experimented, offering up to $10,000 so that they would reveal certain confidential information, and they’ve refused again and again. Of course, for a larger sum, perhaps it would be different. I’ve placed some 200 ads for our UndesirableGuest this week, so that if you try to discover who I am through this service, there’s little probability that you’ll find me in your first attempt, since only one of those 200 ads is the good one.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting your message, and I hope we manage to establish reciprocal communication that will make possible this really original business, and through which not only you and I, but also this entire inexplicable and overpopulated planet can benefit.
To Peter Beyle
Don’t think, please, that I’m offended by the lack of response to the previous. Although I would have been very happy if you had sent me your acknowledgment to formally initiate our correspondence, the fact that you haven’t does not discourage me, yet. I sent the previous by messenger, someone I absolutely trust, to your office in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, where, if my information is correct, you spend most of your time. Again, I’m not trying to scare you with details; I only want to show you I’ve done my work and know your profile. I’ve discovered, for example, that you travel by helicopter every day, starting at about 10:00 A.M., including Sundays, from your mansion (it is a real mansion) on Long Island to the Twin Towers, and you don’t return home until midnight or so. Your office is on the 99th floor in Tower Two, the one with the antenna, to the north. I can imagine the view you have of the city—a vast panorama of cement cubes, a kind of LEGO for prodigious children that at times would appear sublime and at other times hellish. You seem to be in love with the city, and you collect photographs and paintings of this exceptional urban landscape, grafted with a swarm of humans and computer entrails. Your favorite painting, by an artist whose name I don’t remember, is a small watercolor of the city viewed from above, with a somewhat antiquated and a not very realistically colored twilight sky, influenced, I’d say, by Turner.
In any case, I know that someone very close to you could have intercepted the previous, and thus, harm you involuntarily. So, not only is this current letter addressed to you, who perhaps thinks the best way to respond to these slightly desperate missives is with silence, but also to your intimate relation, who might think that by not delivering my messages to you they’re doing you a favor, protecting you, but in reality, are doing harm to you, a disfavor.
My business proposal is lawful and even honorable. I know your reputation as an honest man and I wouldn’t be so dim-witted as to offer you a proposal that would go against the laws of the land or against a strict, high moral code, as yours appears to be. I hope that my gloomy position in society and the unfavorable situation I find myself in won’t be an obstacle in a relationship that could be—and I ask you to forgive the repetition—enormously beneficial for both of us and for humanity in general.
So send me that message that I’m so eagerly awaiting. I’m enclosing my e-mail address once again.
To: Peter Beyle
I’m not giving up. Now l know, with almost absolute certainty, that the two previous letters have reached your hands—given the series of dismissals in the security department that protects your company. This one will reach you by a different messenger; but I assure you that those dismissals were unfair and unnecessary and that my previous messenger remains safe. Anyway, I don’t blame you for having taken those drastic measures, I can understand the fear a man in your position must constantly feel. Nevertheless, I’m annoyed at being forced to insist in this way, at becoming a nuisance to you, when my intention in initiating this correspondence was precisely the opposite: establish a mutually beneficial and even happy relationship.
But I understand that before going forward, I have the responsibility of doing everything possible to gain your trust I’ll do everything within my means to accomplish this, so strongly do I feel the powerful attraction of this idea that I want to explain to you, and which already seems to be a reality to me.
Understand, please, that I won’t be explicit about the nature of my business proposal in itself. I’ll be candid. I’m afraid that if I tell you what I have in mind, you will take full advantage of my idea and forget about me. After all, that would be the most human reaction, especially when I’ve had to become loathsome in your eyes with this series of messages, the reading of which I impose or try to impose on you in this sly and impertinent manner. I haven’t had a choice. But I don’t want to make you waste more of your precious time, so I’ll get to the point.
I don’t need to remind you that in the last few years, the American Association of Lucrative Prisons has turned into one of the companies with the highest yield on the New York Stock Exchange, with shareholding partners like Kentucky Fried Chicken, TWA, and American Express, just to name the most well known. Given the actual state of things, the outlook for AALP is really excellent. The rise of unemployment; the increasing influx of illegal immigrants; the typical desperation at the end of every century, not to mention the millennium; all of this guarantees a rise in the demand for jail cells—and your company actually invests a large part of its huge profits in the construction of new prisons. Or that is to say: the economical risk that the company runs is nonexistent. But there is another risk that exists, which is impossible to forget: the political risk of public opinion.
Nowadays, a large sector of taxpayers complain that there are no funds, for example, for education or public health, and start to ask themselves why their money isn’t invested in these areas, but in the construction and administration of prisons. Or, more precisely, to pay your company to construct and administer them (at a cost only slightly lower than the state prisons). The preoccupation with reducing the operation and maintenance costs of the prisons has been a constant with you, and you have made great progress in that direction, as attested to by the new Lawrenceville prison, a quite advanced panopticon, where a single guard is able to keep watch over five-hundred prisoners simultaneously. Even like that, the costs are high and one can always economize more. But I’m not going to bore you with the facts and figures that you examine every day on the digital graphs embedded in the wall to the right of your desk. The competition, it goes without saying, is tenacious. I refer to the giants like the Corrections Corporation of America, the Prisons for Profit Association, and the Private Prison Fund.
Aren’t you curious to know how it’s possible, in a matter of weeks and with a minimum investment, to start a business that would give you a vital advantage over your competitors—in the humble opinion of a guest in your unusual and successful chain of prisons, someone who knows prisons intimately, and the morals and weaknesses of the prisoners?
P.S. I realize that your most competent partners work incessantly on the problem of reducing cost, and that in the past they have offered proof of abundant capability and enterprise—that is to say, the establishment of a parallel work force inside the prisons, where syndication is prohibited and the hourly wage is 20 cents on the dollar, with which they have created huge profits for your company and have permitted that the same products that barely five years ago carried labels like MADE IN EL SALVADOR, MADE IN KOREA, or MADE IN GUATEMALA, now carry the proud proclamation, MADE IN THE U.S.A., again. And I take this opportunity to also point out that these brilliant measures have incurred the harshest criticism from your rivals, who do everything possible to stick a wrench in the wheels of progress, and who have come to brand you as being an advocate for neoslavery. That is to say, your company has paid a high political price for those measures. Not only the taxpayers, who are tired of paying the costly maintenance of the criminals who constantly threaten them, but also the politicians, who complain about the false morality of the system that you bravely set in motion. Without a doubt, people are wretched and your opponents are malicious, but in this country, the most numerous are the most powerful, and they end up in the right—if you don’t mind me saying so. I have a different solution. It’s a solution that is critic-proof, quick and final, and I’m sure will become popular. I think you’ll appreciate these observations, in view of the preparations for the election activities that are upcoming (at full speed, or that’s what it seems like to me, locked up as I am in this electronic capsule on the eve of the millennium).
To: Peter Beyle
Dear silent friend,
Without a doubt, the previous letters must seem like the work of a maniac, and I blame myself for having given you an undesirable impression. Now, if you think I’m crazy, I ask myself why you haven’t wanted to answer my letters, even though your replies would be out of boredom or compassion. This way, you could get rid of me once and for all (a simple message sent to UndesirableGuest that would say, “Re: Business for the Millennium. Not interested. Thank you,” would make me desist), while with your silence, you only force me to continue writing to you, and I warn you, I’ll be persistent.
Today I don’t want to talk about business; I’ll endeavor, one more time, to make myself understood. I won’t talk to you about my past, for reasons that don’t have to be explained, but also because the past doesn’t interest me. Life in prison has changed me to such an extent that I have very little in common with the individual who was arrested one day, justly or unjustly, little does it matter now, on a populous New York street.
I’ve been able to do things here that I never did when I was on the outside, like taking up the habit of reading and studying. At first, I liked philosophy in particular, and my reading alternated between logic and metaphysics. Apart from that, I wouldn’t read anything else but detective or suspense novels, until a couple of years ago when I started to become interested in the operation of your company.
Imagine a man like me confined to prison, a man who—as in an example in a philosophy book—can barely exercise his will, who must suffer from all the misfortunes of this world, who asks himself how he could attain happiness under such circumstances. Naturally, the philosopher’s answer would be: knowledge. So, I haven’t given up happiness, as insignificant as the happiness of someone like me could be, and I have pursued knowledge; I have taught myself. But because from my cell the exterior world seems as distant as Europe or the moon, I almost exclusively devote myself to the study of jails, particularly private jails; this is how my studies have brought me to you.
Believe me, I’ve read all the books about prisons. I prefer the French authors, with their peculiar cynicism, which for the last two centuries has allowed them to understand that the criminal is necessary for maintaining bourgeois order. Next to the French, the Anglo-Saxon dream of white cities without criminals and prisons seems quite boring. But what a leap we’ve taken, how much unexplored material for a new Foucault, with the newest lucrative correction industry, which you practically invented! It’s as if the ancient chessboard would suddenly change, and with the ancient pieces, we would have to continue playing a game with rules that haven’t been devised and that the new players have to invent or discover.
Well then, I think l’ve discovered something about this new game, and I would like—I interminably repeat myself—to share this discovery. In one of the previous letters, I mentioned something that your experts must have already indicated to you: that the only kind of risk for a company like yours is actually a political risk. Here is one of my axioms. Let’s see if we understand each other: if the problem is political, the solution will be ideological.
There is a limit to the work of the engineers and technicians in norms of behavior. I’ve wanted to go beyond that limit. The answer is so simple, so evident, that I think it’s incredible that no one has thought of it, that no one has considered it before me. But almost all the greatest discoveries have occurred that way. Naturally, I have the advantage of being inside to think about all of this, and the secret of my—I don’t know what to call it anymore: business proposal, project, invention—is in the “soul” of the prisoners and in the way the prisoners think, which almost no one has taken into account. But perhaps the moment has arrived to listen to those of us who are inside, who are many, and who are increasing. Remember, Mr. Beyle, that in France in 1848, the prison inhabitants set a magnificent example for society: while the schools of Angers, La Flèche and Alfort were rebelling violently, the Mattray Prison for Juveniles set the example of restraint.
P.S. A question: If the Twin Towers heliport is located on Tower One, and I’ve seen that there aren’t any elevated passages between the two towers, and your office is in Tower Two, does this mean you have to make four long elevator trips each day?
To: Peter Beyle
I’ll be brief. A little bird, as we used to say, has brought me the news, the regrettable news about those dismissals in the maintenance department. Once again you’ve made a mistake. I suppose the fact that more than 90 percent of the window washers of New York skyscrapers are Latin American would make you suspect that one of my messengers could be found among them. Don’t continue trying to track me down this way, because you won’t succeed. I’ve invested a great amount of time in concentrating on how to make myself impossible to find, unless it’s through the Internet and according to my instructions. I don’t understand why you resist replying, but I suspect that my idea really interests you and that what you are trying to do is appropriate it, taking advantage of your power and my position (supposed—it must have already occurred to you or one of your specialists that I could be a free man and that the convict story is a pretense).
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to ask myself who Peter Beyle really is. I’ve said that I know your profile, but the profile of a contractor like yourself is something that is fabricated, enhanced, or is diminished on a whim, and I could—the same as you regarding me—be mistaken. Might you not be—I ask myself sometimes, while awaiting your reply—the opposite of what I imagined, an obtuse and timid being? A kind of robot (MADE AT M.I.T) with a program that doesn’t foresee communication with someone as unpredictable as me? The only thing you’ve been able to do up to this moment is send hundreds of bizcochos* to my Internet ads to see if I would tip my hand, when I warned you that it would be in vain; and then, start a torrent of dismissals of the people around you, and who have been loyal for years. What a waste.
I take this opportunity to send you my new address, in case you decide to contact me: InvisibleMan@p***house.com—although I doubt that you will, and I start to investigate other prison companies with the hope of finding a partner who is bolder than you are. Accept this as a friendly warning, and remember that it’s you who is forcing me to look into other possibilities. I assure you that, in my judgment, the ideal partner for this venture is you. I would like us to find the way to recover the time, the energy, the money, and other resources already invested.
*bizcocho: a passport, also known as a “cookie,” sent to one’s computer through the Internet while visiting a website. If one visits that site again, the process is reversed and one’s computer and the website’s server start to converse, often without one’s knowledge.
To: Peter Beyle
You disappoint me more and more. I protest: No more dismissals! Last week you decimated,through my fault, the captive personnel of the two companies that employ more qualified convicts than anyone in the entire nation: TWA and AT&T. Yes, I keep blaming myself, but don’t think that I’m accepting all the blame. Don’t you understand that all those dismissals have been in vain? I suppose that this last series of dismissals was ordered because you and your people think that the person who pesters you with these letters must be someone “qualified,” someone with access to telephones and the Internet, so that the person could be one of the hundreds of thousands of captive employees of these companies. That was one possibility, of course. Was. Pay attention to me: stop that stupid waterfall of dismissals, which won’t lead to anything, and which annoy me. They really annoy me, because it causes unnecessary pain and suffering to people who no longer need it, as they already have plenty of all of that.
By continuing to write to you, I feel like one of those lovers who doesn’t receive any love in return. Like that lover, I fear I haven’t used the correct language to touch the heart of the beloved person. And I suffer like him, because I think that what I have to offer you is a treasure, something that, if you could see it, would look like a gift from heaven.*
I am being patient. If something makes me different from that wretched lover, it’s that for me, locked up as I am in your private prison and sentenced to be there for life, tragedies no longer exist. But the conflicts, like the cybernetic spies you continue to send, the inhuman dismissals, the secret maneuvers, all of this seems unnecessary, stupid, and perverse.
But my fits of anger are fleeting, like those of the lover who becomes furious the moment he is rejected, but a short time later returns to his beloved with his song of love.
*Don’t think this idea was inspired by China’s example, which apparently manages its crowded prisons like organ banks for the rich and incurably ill of the so-called free world, whose number increases year after year.
To: Peter Beyle
What is the actual number of people sentenced to life imprisonment in your chain of prisons? The data I have at hand shows a figure of 50,000. Perhaps there are more.
I’ve told you that I find myself among those long-term convicts, and so, indirectly, I’ve abdicated. The circle is closing, as they say, and now is the time to speak plainly. I’ve finally given up. And you don’t know how relieved I feel; it’s as if a large weight had been lifted off of me. This cliché perfectly expresses what I’ve felt about revealing my secret to you: a weight that was pressing down upon my lungs, like an incubus that impeded my breathing, is no longer there, has lifted, and suddenly I know the exact significance of that profound word which has become banal; the word freedom.
I’m putting my cards on the table; the game is about to end.
You know perfectly well what the problem is with life sentences. Even though those of us who are sentenced to life imprisonment are good clients, the cost that we represent to the taxpayers is extremely high. Take my case, for example: I’m 29 years old, and according to the physical examination I was given six months ago, I’m in a perfect state of health, except for some rheumatic pain, which has been worsening since I came here, but that according to the doctors, isn’t going to kill me, at least not for 30 years. So, if the cost of my cell and my food is approximately 50 dollars a day, then to you I represent around half a million dollars, without taking inflation into account, and assuming that I’ll only live another 20 years. Yes, as indicated by my data, the majority of us who are sentenced to lifetime imprisonment are rather young, and we’re talking about a budget of some 25 million dollars, if I’m not mistaken, for the next 20 years.
I don’t have much family; in feet, the only close family I have is my mother, who lives abroad. (I came to the U.S. seven years ago, and when I saw the shining island of Manhattan and the surrounding urban blanket of the great city of New York from the airplane, I knew, with a slight shudder, that I would live and die there. But I’ve made a promise to myself that I will keep: I will not become old in your prison. That’s why I’ve been studying and thinking so much during all these months and years.)
Here is my plan. You will endow a new association, which could be called something like the Beyle Suicide Fund, which will lend the government and society the following service: Let’s imagine a young and desperate man, sentenced to life imprisonment, with a mother to worry about. Well, the Beyle Foundation proposes that he evacuates his cell, by means of suicide, 20 years earlier than anticipated, in exchange for a certain amount of money earmarked for his loved ones. I assure you that he wouldn’t be able to resist an offer of, let’s say, $100,000. Then, your company could charge about $150,000 per evacuated prisoner, under the heading of legal services and procedures, and all of this would mean a savings of at least a quarter of a million dollars per prisoner for the state and the taxpayers. (Although it’s true that in some states the penal code decrees that encouraging suicide is illegal, don’t you think that—just as a few years ago you managed to have certain laws modified that impeded the privatization of prisons—it would be relatively easy, especially in view of the large savings and profits, to set those obstacles aside?)
I’ve already developed a philosophical system that will revolve around my ideas, with which it could be possible to infect many convicts who are friends of mine, to your benefit. And I’ve thought about how to reach not only those who find themselves inside, but also the thousands or millions of desperate brothers who are on the outside. Crime will be profitable for everyone. And since the more serious the crime, the longer the sentence, then the more serious the crime one commits, the more profitable one’s death. Crime would be an intelligent outlet for the desperate, and the planet would be slightly alleviated of the current state of overpopulation. Think about those Latin American countries in which you have or plan to set up branches, like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the costs are generally much lower than here, but where the crime rate is much higher, just as a death wish and desperation are much more intense. Gold mines!
But don’t think that I’m just an ambitious person, or that I’m speaking in the abstract. I’m ready to set the example. Here is my first offer: I’m going to vacate my dwelling 20 years earlier than anticipated (2020), under the condition thatyou deposit exactly 100,000 dollars in a joint bank account I share with my mother.
If my proposal interests you, send me a message over the Internet in care of InvisibleMan, and I’ll send you my bank account number and the name of my mother by return mail.
To: Peter Beyle
IT’S TRUE: While there’s life, there’s hope.
I’ve opted for defenestration for convenience’s sake, and personal economics. (Incidentally, the security in your prisons is deficient.) But I had dreamed about a revolution. Tomorrow, the day of my death, I wouldn’t have died alone; hundreds and perhaps millions of men like me would have died with me. And those deaths would not have been unnecessary, they would have benefited thousands of abandoned families, and would have made you even wealthier.
But it occurs to me that after my death you could spread my philosophy for your own benefit. Perhaps you’ll decide to set up an association like the one I’ve dreamed about, which would endorse and administer my ideas.
So, in order to prevent these ideas, in the form of pamphlets and manuals, from arriving in the hands of the competition through my messengers, and benefit someone else, I implore you to kindly deposit the exact amount of $50,000 as soon as possible in the joint bank account I share with my mother, whose particulars I’m enclosing.
And until never, Peter Beyle.
—From Ningun lugar sagrado, 1998.
Translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales.
Harry Morales’s translations include the work of Mario Benedetti, Ilan Stavans, Eugenio Maria de Hostos and Emir Rodriguez Monegal, among many other Latin American writers. His work has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Agni, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Manoa, WORLDVIEW, and Puerto del Sol.
—Rodrigo Rey Rosa was born in Guatemala City in 1958. He is the author of The Path Doubles Back (1982), The Beggar’s Knife (1985), El cuchillo del mendigo (1986) and Dust on Her Tongue (1989), all translated by Paul Bowles, as well as El agua quieta (1989), Cárcel de arbole, El salvador de buques (1992) and Lo que soñó Sebastián (1994). He has translated several of Paul Bowles’s novels and short story collections into Spanish for both Iberian and Latin American publishers. In recent years, Rey Rosa has lived in Tangier, Morocco and in Guatemala’s remote Peten region.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.