I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
This First Proof contains the story “My Grandfather’s Disintegration” by Antonio Ungar, translated by Katherine Silver.
My grandfather was born in 1945 in a dark bomb shelter underneath a train station on which 45 Allied bombs, three megatons each, were dropped in a half hour. Nobody heard his first cry because he had the wherewithal to be born precisely during that half hour, and at the exact moment of his first cry a large bomb fell through the dome of what had been a church and is now only a dome with a hole in it, according to the tourist guidebooks that show blue skies, and to a boring German movie in which it’s raining.
My grandfather kicked and screamed, but nobody wanted to listen to him. They wiped him off, washed him up, cut the cord that connected him to something that was shaking under a white sheet, and placed him in one corner of the shelter; him and the body of a gigantic mother who looked at him with cow eyes, as if he were a calf, which he wasn’t. All this going on while other men with moustaches were very busy deciphering the deep groans, like the song of a whale, that poured out of the loudspeakers in the train station hovering over their heads; groans that warned them with a certain degree of precision exactly when everything would shake. Fear would make them close their eyes, and rocks would fall from the rafters of the refuge, and my grandfather’s mother would cry a little more, now smiling, without making any noise at all, and my grandfather would collaborate by crying heartily, his feet pushing out and his mouth opened wide.
* * *
My grandfather, poor thing, died yesterday.
I never understood why, in order to liberate the Jews and the Communists from the Nazi camps, the English dropped bombs on the train station where my great-grandmother used to wash overalls before she got pregnant. Why, that is, if the English were not actually Communists and my great-grandmother was, actually, a Communist, and though she never became a Jew she liked the people who were living in the warehouse attics in the working-class neighborhood.
They didn’t liberate me from anything, those English, my grandfather used to say, except from my mother’s belly, and from eating three meals a day for five years. He would say this very seriously, and then let out one of those German laughs that are never directed anywhere and never have an echo, not even from the grandchildren.
Maybe that’s why he, my grandfather, refused to go to London. He refused to go even when a boss who was fatter than he was, the owner of the anvil company, threatened to send him to the “Indies”—that’s how the Germans called South America, because the part to the north was really America—if he didn’t go to London to sell anvils, immediately. He answered that England at the moment didn’t deserve anything, not even the company’s anvils, and fortunately nobody understood my grandfather’s irony because if they had they would never have sent him to manage an abandoned gold mine in the deepest depths of the Brazilian jungle, which at that time really was what you might imagine if you are not an intellectual and somebody said “Brazil.”
If my grandfather hadn’t gone to the jungle—which was so humid that every single day he had to clean the green and sticky mold that grew during the night off his Bavarian knife and his rabbit-hunting rifle—he never would have gotten fed up with cleaning knives and rifles and killing mosquitoes and not understanding one word spoken by the black Brazilians, who always laughed at him before talking to him and after talking to him would laugh again even harder. If none of that had happened, my grandfather would not have traded in his lion-hunting outfit, which was too tight for him, and his rubber boots for a straw hat and a linen suit, and he wouldn’t have written to the owner of the anvils to tell him what he thought of his anvils and the black Brazilians and the English, nor would he have emigrated to a village that looked like it had been plucked out of the south of Spain and dropped into this new land. Though my grandfather had never been to the south of Spain, or to the north.
Nor would my grandfather have found the reddest and most beautiful plateau he had ever seen and which he would never again leave until yesterday, when he left lying in a black coffin, not saying a word, dead, on a cart drawn by oxen, with his eyes wide open and his feet pointing to another village that was similar except that in its cemetery not a single dead Englishman—next to whom my grandfather had refused to be buried—had been decomposing since 1952. He never would have met my grandmother, either, who at the time was a chubby though elegant beauty whom my grandfather had to woo for five years before her father allowed him to approach her. And then it wasn’t because of his German courting rituals which consisted of paying her visits and sweating in front of her and playing Wagner operas through a megaphone, but rather because by then my grandfather was almost the owner of a cement factory that he had built, himself, with his own two hands and those belonging to Plinio, a guy I met yesterday at the funeral who can still go five minutes without breathing, with a straight face, and can drink a whole case of beer in half an hour.
That’s the same amount of time the bombing had lasted, while my grandfather was being born. Finally, they were able to get married. My grandfather and my grandmother. By that time my grandfather owned the whole factory. There was no opposition to the marriage, fortunately, because if there had been he would have ended up buying the house and the chairs and the bed where his poor old consumptive father-in-law was lying, who then wouldn’t have been able to keep worshipping in whispers his relics from the War of Independence. Exactly ten days after the old man died, and in spite of the scandal the oldest of the old women wanted to make, my grandfather—with my grandmother’s older sister’s full support, and with the cooperation of the village priest in exchange for alms paid in cement (and with Plinio, who threw a party with more barbecued beef and beer than anybody in Berlin has ever seen)—married my grandmother in the village church. Accompanied by a bottle of sweet wine, rice falling through the sun’s rays, a brass band, pretty girls, men arriving on horseback, and 30 rounds of fireworks that exploded over our heads and reminded my grandfather of something.
That’s the story of my grandfather, who died yesterday. What came next was my mother, about whom there’s nothing to tell. Just that she emigrated to Bogotá, big and impoverished, like all big and impoverished cities, and married my father, who was an important door-to-door coffeemaker salesman. Mama spent her time making jams in a poor but respectable house, in a pleasant lower-middle-class neighborhood, gray and off the beaten track, and when she had made enough jam and my father had sold enough coffeemakers, my two elder sisters were born, who are already married and pregnant now, and then I was born, who will never be pregnant and has never wanted to live in that city and who has never written a single word until these words I want to write about my grandfather, who died yesterday, poor thing. Precisely.
So: my grandfather died yesterday. At this very moment I am sitting on the second-to-last seat at the back of a rusty old bus, struggling to write between one pothole and the next, breathing deeply around each curve that takes me closer to the finca where my grandfather built his cement factory. Instead of returning to the big cold city, to a house where a fat lady keeps making blackberry jam while they are burying her father in the most beautiful village in the world. Refusing to go to a house to which, at this hour of the day, my father still hasn’t returned. My father, poor thing, who no longer sells coffeemakers but now works in a bank and spends all day counting money other people are going to spend on everything but coffeemakers.
Another clarification. I am a Communist. A real Communist. And while riding this bus I hereby declare that I will never return to that city. That I’m staying here. Not on this bus, but in this town and on this finca, which I am going to inherit without much difficulty by convincing Plinio that we should drink a case of beer together, though maybe I’ll have to put out for a few more beers, in addition to the case, and even if Plinio does suddenly shout, “Long live the Liberal Party” and wield his machete in the street. I like this village. I’m going to keep doing here what I’ve been doing in my neighborhood, in Bogotá: falsifying all kinds of documents from all kinds of bureaucracies, which are the same everywhere in the country. I’m going to falsify a good degree in architecture, and I’m going to be the only architect in this village full of peasants, who are better people than all the neighbors I’ve ever had in my life, and as an architect with a degree from the University of Rome, which I’m going to be, I’m going to forbid the demolition of any house in this village or its surroundings, or the construction of any other house. Period. Only the old houses. By order of the governor, through a decree that I am also going to falsify and send to the mayor after placing a call in the governor’s voice.
And that will be that. What made me write these words, then, besides my grandfather’s story, and my father’s boredom, besides my plans for the future, was, in fact, my grandfather himself. His body, as well as his history. His presence. His presence and the life he created around himself while he was alive. And, of course, the big hullabaloo his presence created, a presence as hard as a rock, once his body decided to die. I’m also going to say something about my dead grandfather, about his funeral, which was a lot like something from my living grandfather’s jokes. I really liked it, my grandfather’s funeral, a lot. At first it was boring. That priest, before the procession, while we were still in the village, told every detail of the donation of cement that allowed the parish to flourish and how it had gained importance in comparison to the other parishes, which also had short, chubby women helpers and moss growing between the floor tiles and corrugated roofs with leaks. That was boring. But my grandfather’s coffin wasn’t boring at all. Black, heavy, above the red soil of the street.
And my grandfather lying there inside, still seeing the clouds in the blue sky on the other side of that really clean little window, with his gray eyes. That’s how he would have liked to see himself, if he could have come to his own funeral. Stiff, with his arms stretched out along both sides of his body, still laughing, because he died in the middle of another burst of laughter that had no echo, dry, that he let out in the middle of the night in the middle of his double bed. My grandmother couldn’t hear him, poor thing, because my grandmother has been dead and buried for 15 years. Those who know have told me that he used to drink a lot, my grandfather. I understand him. We’re alike also in that way. Besides both being Communists. And also the name, both of us are Peter Lübeck, (though in between my Peter and my Lübeck, there’s a Martínez). We’re almost identical, really. We were. Tall, fat, with black hair and big noses and green eyes. We both have a long stride. And both, deep voices. Before he died my grandfather used to say that when he was young and still hadn’t sold a single anvil or had a single child, he could break crystal glasses full of champagne just by calling to the waiter at the restaurant. I don’t believe he ever set foot in a restaurant in Berlin, not my grandfather, but the part about the glasses, without champagne, I do believe. He had a chest like an anvil salesman and a smile that showed more than seven teeth and a thick black moustache and little eyes that made his whole face wrinkle up every time he laughed.
But I was saying how much I enjoyed the funeral. The priest had just finished speaking. A large, dark-skinned woman with full lips who was sweating under her huge lace mourning collar collapsed in a fit of sobbing and the thin, elegant ladies had to clear their throats until they began choking on their own phlegm. Plinio, who was already a little tipsy, took the lady in black behind a guava tree next to the chapel and gave her a sip of aguardiente and urged her to look around: at the faraway canyon, at the white clouds licking the distant wall of the cordillera. If the priest hadn’t called him by name, Plinio, they would have stayed right there. Watching the clouds. And the best part was yet to come. Down the cobblestone street that was almost too narrow for them, where their bellies and their hides brushed against the fronts of the most elegant houses, came two enormous oxen. They were worthy of my grandfather: black, with thick horns, wearing black yokes in honor of the deceased. I could picture my grandfather before, standing next to those oxen, stroking their backs. But he didn’t stroke anything, he stayed very quiet in his coffin. And I understood. With that sky and that smell of the distant river and the mountains and the tobacco leaves drying in the sun, it was better to just stay still.
I was alone, the whole time. But not so alone. Because as if I weren’t myself but instead I were my grandfather, my grandfather’s women friends started gathering around me as we walked from village to village. There were a lot of them. The one from the butcher’s came with her husband; the one from the pharmacy, with her father; and the one from the market in the plaza came too. And we were all walking for half an hour behind that cart drawn by those oxen. But we didn’t suffer. We were sweating, that’s true, and we held each other by the elbows going up the hills, and we looked after an old woman who swore between sobs that she had carried my father when he still didn’t know how to say boo. The young men stayed farther back. They were talking about their problems with the pineapple planting, with the horseshoes, with a fire in the field cabin. Plinio was on his own: he came and went, warning my grandfather about each pothole, joking with the priest when the priest told him the dead couldn’t hear, and it was as if the sun and my grandfather’s smile were making both of them laugh. He told me anecdotes about the elections he’d been through with my grandfather, the first days of the factory, a picnic they’d had with young ladies near the river when my grandfather showed such bravery and swam to the end of the canyon, where the river disappears and the weather changes, to rescue my grandmother’s embroidered shawl; my grandmother, who was then just a pretty, plump thing.
Nice image. Just right for one of those European journalists to make a movie about. And so here I am, alone. Plinio has fallen asleep. The man driving the bus is a doctor. An old-fashioned doctor. Almost an alchemist. My grandfather’s best friend. He already promised me that he would give me my grandfather’s records and Communist books. When we get to the finca. I would fall asleep, too, if I could, but I feel sorry for the man who’s driving. What’s more, he can’t be left alone on this road, because he might suddenly doze off, and then we’d all go join my grandfather. And that’s not the idea at all. The best part of the funeral was the end. At the end four men lifted him out of the cart. The woman from the market approached, leaned over, and gave him a bouquet of flowers. She blew him a kiss off her fingers, from her full lips to his, which just kept smiling on the other side of the cold glass.
And then they lowered him down. Slowly, carefully releasing the pulleys into the red earth, under the boiling air, under all that blue. Once the black weight was resting on the bottom, a flock of turtledoves flew overhead. Plinio placed his hand over his heart and shouted: “Farewell, Don Lübeck!” And then the silence of wind that came next were the clumps of red earth from the shovels of the two peasants who knew what they had to do, now that the black coffin had reached the bottom of the grave. And they did it. And I cried a little too, imagining how his mother would cry, my grandfather’s mother, if she saw him here, sinking into that red earth.
When we left the village only one radio was playing in the cantina, the only one, empty. I told Plinio that if he gave me the farm, he could keep the hens. Now the bus is swaying. The doctor is going to stop here. The cicadas are singing. The dogs are barking; maybe they think it’s my grandfather who’s coming. But my grandfather just died, yesterday, in his bed. I’m the one who’s coming.
—Peter M. Lübeck
October 12, 1997
Translated by Katherine Silver.
First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.
Katherine Silver is a translator of Spanish and Latin American literature. Her most recent translations include works by Horacio Castellanos Moya, César Aira, Antonio Skármeta, and Jorge Franco. She has received two NEA fellowships, a PEN Translation Fund grant, the 2008 NCBA Translation Award, and the 2009 Colombian Ministry of Culture’s Translation Award for her translation of Antonio Ungar’s The Ears of the Wolf. Her collection of modern and contemporary Chilean fiction, Chile, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, was published in 2003.
Antonio Ungar is author of the short-story collections Trece circos comunes (Thirteen common circuses) and De ciertos animales tristes (Of certain sad animals), and the novels Zanahorias voladoras (Flying carrots) and Las orejas del lobo (The Ears of the Wolf), a finalist for the best book published in France in 2008. He writes journalism and lives in Bogotá.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Antonio Caro and Victor Manuel Rodriquez, Ducle Gomez, Ana Teresa Torres and Carmen Boullosa, Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Silvana Paternostro, Javier Tellez, Mario Galeano Toro and Marc Nasdor, Sergio Fajardo, and Carlos Cruz-Diez.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.