If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Alfredo was Peruvian and a painter, and Mario, well, no one ever knew for sure what he was aside from being from El Salvador, dearly loved by all, and a great devotee of good food, among other elements of the good life.
To Luchita and Felipe del Río Málaga
Alfredo was Peruvian and a painter, and Mario, well, no one ever knew for sure what he was aside from being from El Salvador, dearly loved by all, and a great devotee of good food, among other elements of the good life. He’d written a couple of books, true enough, and had also been a diplomat in the service of the Argentine Republic—it was in Buenos Aires where he picked up that accent (the use ofche) that he would never abandon him—but I think that if one word could define Mario’s profession completely, it would be the Italian word dilettante, meaning one who takes delight.
Mario and Alfredo were penniless at the time I met them, but it was impressive to see how well set up the two of them were in Paris, hungry or not. Mario rented a small but extremely elegant apartment on Rue Charles-V, exquisitely and even historically furnished by an elderly, amnesiac landlady who, whenever she came to collect the rent, would discover to her horror—though with complete faith in the words of Monsieur Mario—that he’d paid her the day before. Eating and drinking were even less of a problem for Mario because people fought one another to invite him out and because he preferred a few days of abstinence to dining at home with, or being brought to a restaurant by, people capable of eating any old thing as long as they ate.
Unlike his eternal friend Mario, who was rather chubby, extroverted, and short, Alfredo was born, as some put it, with a highly quixotic air. He was very thin, tall, a man of few words and of even less eating. Mind you, he did adore red wine and good whiskey, but 90% of the products of air, sea, or land which we humans consume as food disagreed with him, or he didn’t like them, or they purely and simply disgusted him. And although he too was invited out a lot, because he too was deeply loved by all, he almost always limited himself to rejecting course after course—fish and other seafood, for instance, he hated. So his hunger, atrocious though it was from time to time, derived mostly from the fact that a man must eat to survive and the poor guy, as much as it annoyed him, was no exception to the rule.
But the place where Alfredo lived, a few blocks away from the divine little bachelor flat of his friend Mario, was a place where I would have wanted to throw a party. Alfredo lived in a modern, huge, very well-lighted artist’s atelier in the Cité Internationale des Arts. With a view of the Seine! And he didn’t even pay any rent because the studio was a scholarship that the city of Paris—through the mayor’s office, I imagine—granted to sculptors, painters, and musicians. That is, to all those artists who require large spaces or perfect soundproofing for their daily work, as I later found out when I urgently applied for a studio-living space like Alfredo’s. Not a chance in the world: we writers don’t make noise when we write and our pages fit anywhere, even under one of the bridges over the Seine. That was the only explanation I ever got.
One tall and thin, the other short and fat, one quixotic and the other a squire. Alfredo and Mario were a couple of tremendously attractive ugly guys, two ugly men who have a great deal of charm. And there was also this anecdote told about the days when they were dodging poverty in a Madrid rooming house along with a horrible Peruvian poet named Valle: The concierge at their rooming house, who was frankly horrified at the bearded, long-haired, and ill-dressed ugliness of this trio, could not restrain herself and one day, as she saw them passing by her office, pointed out to her husband how dangerously ugly these creeps were. “Shut up,” he answered, admonishing her to be silent by placing a finger over his lips. “And be very careful: they’re Incas, you know.”
Poor Alfredo. It was even said that at night, when people saw him coming with all that hair and his savage beard, they’d cross the street in fear. But no one knew that this man who was as good as gold was very shortsighted, and that because of the aristocratic hunger he chronically suffered, he’d fractured a rib several times merely colliding with a lamp post or one of the little trees beautifying the boulevards. He also broke a rib, poor man, one day while he was showering in his spacious bathroom at the Cité Internationale des Arts. He dropped the soap and had to feel around so much to find it—he was that shortsighted—something in his chest cracked, and, once again, he had fractured a rib.
I was working nearby, giving whatever classes came my way in a rather illegal and quite disgusting school. Every so often, I’d ring Alfredo’s bell to chat with him a while before I made my way home. Few things have given me as much pleasure in life as talking with that dear, dear friend, so cultured, so refined, a man born to be a king. For me, he always was a king, incarnating wholly my idea of true nobility, nobility of soul.
But I already said that Alfredo was also quixotic from birth. And to my friendly bell-ringing on the way home from my miserable school, he would always answer, asking who is it?, then let me in as soon as I answered through the door that it was me, his namesake. A good-natured smile partially hidden under his savage beard and moustache: that was his way of welcoming me, although instantly my namesake would add, “Darn it, I had just slept off my breakfast and was just about to sleep off lunch … But don’t worry, it’s all right. Come in, and I’ll make you a cup of coffee. Actually, a Nescafé, which lasts longer, is cheaper, and is no trouble to make.”
Alfredo the great never accepted my suggestion that he come out with me for a moment to buy some bread and cheese we could eat together so I could pay him back for the harm I’d done by keeping him from sleeping away his lunch. Oh yes, one more thing: It took me years to understand why my namesake washed and collected, in perfect order—he who was the supreme expression of disorder and negligence—the small jars of Nescafé he consumed during his residence at the studio in the Cité Internationale des Arts.
Okay, okay, let’s take things in their proper order. Because first came the high-priced assassination of Juan Domingo Perón, the former Argentine strongman. That most certainly was worthwhile because it took place precisely during one of those periods when Alfredo had a series of ribs fractured because of malnutrition, and when Mario’s amnesiac landlady had raised his rent. “Che, not that I have the slightest intention of paying it,” Mario declared in his Buenos Aires accent, “but that damned millionaire could recover her memory any time and she’s perfectly capable of trying to collect three years’ worth of rent all at the same time.” Well, it seemed that merely thinking about that possibility caused that great friend from El Salvador to experience an anguishing thirst for whiskey. So night after night, he would sit with his eternal friend Alfredo on the terrace of the Café Flore, right in the heart of Saint Germain des Près.
And there they would hope that some gentleman they knew and who knew them would pass by, someone from whom they could accept a drink without feeling ashamed. And when that didn’t happen, the waiter, who’d known them for ages and knew just how trustworthy those two old customers were, let them put whiskey after whiskey on their tab night after night until such time as the gentleman appeared who was worthy of paying that massive debt, itself worthy of a great pair of gentlemen. So, it was an entire philosophy of life, which I’m describing here using more or less the same words the great Mario himself used.
But one night, it was not a familiar gentleman who came over to their table. It was three unknown men of Argentine nationality. Their pockets were certainly full, and although it could be humiliating to be taken for a murderer simply because one happens to be ugly, bearded, and hairy, it amused Mario and Alfredo enormously that these three paramilitary types had deduced, after a long and conscientious scrutiny of the Flore’s clientele, that they exhibited sufficient lombrosian dangerousness to be, evidently and even from birth one might say, the criminal contact to be made in Paris that night, in that café, and at that time of the evening. Besides, Mario and Alfredo were delighted that these thugs had no problem whatsoever paying their extremely overdue whiskey bill.
Thus, the Paris contact was made, so all that was left to sort out were the final details for the assassination of Juan Domingo Perón. It seems these paramilitary men were in a hurry, while their contacts were very hungry and very thirsty, which is why the matter had to be studied over the course of several evenings in a row in different good restaurants and then on the terrace of the Flore. Of course. There, Alfredo, who was a great reader of detective novels, began to mix plots and episodes, interpolating them among many whiskeys, from various books to entertain and convince the paramilitaries with tremendously believable information, while Mario, allowing Alfredo to proceed, went from whiskey to champagne and began sampling, at dawn, the best oysters of the season. And whenever he was asked a question, he would simply point to his friend and say, “Che, ask the technician here,” until he’d practically turned into the refined mastermind of that murder that had to be carried out in Madrid in 1969, because that was where Juan Domingo Perón was living at the time.
Night after night, the technician would add another detail, for example, the bazooka, which wouldn’t be much of a problem, because he could sneak it into Spain disguised as the exhaust pipe on his car. “Nothing easier in the world than camouflaging a bazooka,” opined the technician, while the mastermind was fastidiously consuming oysters and champagne. And it was only after the paramilitaries declared their complete approval of the plan, at least to the point to which it had been refined that night, that Alfredo revealed a tremendous and extremely expensive obstacle: the purchase of an apartment opposite that of Perón, who was living in a building in the most elegant neighborhood in Madrid. Because how else were they going to keep tabs on all his movements until the day they put the bazooka into action?
And so, the extremely abashed paramilitaries, after admitting to the mastermind and the technician that they were totally right regarding the assassination plans and the details regarding how it would be carried out, after paying bill after bill in restaurants and the Flore, confessed that they did not have that kind of budget. They humbly begged pardon and left forever, though not without paying the last bill at the Flore for this extremely expensive pair of international terrorists.
“Finally!” exclaimed Mario. “I thought we’d never get out of this one.”
“Being so ugly finally paid off,” Alfredo commented, giving a sigh of relief.
A short time later, the so-called Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras broke out and Mario decided to return to his native land to become a hero. But it didn’t happen that way, unfortunately, because it took so long for all of us to get together enough money for his flight that by the time he landed at the San Salvador airport, the war had just ended. And we never heard anything more about him, except for that postcard he sent to his great friend Alfredo, the day Alfredo’s scholarship ran out and he had to abandon his spacious and modern studio-living space.
Where the poor guy, homeless and penniless, was going to go was something no one knew. And nevertheless, what a jolly cocktail party he threw—with lots of bread, a few measly cheeses, and torrents of bad red wine—the day before he moved. That night, even his millionaire lady friends fought to drink that rot gut. And the fact is they’d never seen anything like that before. Nothing so chic, nothing so bohemian, nothing so Alfredo, so … Only to our little Alfredo would it occur to serve wine in Nescafé jars.
Translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam.
Alfred Mac Adam teaches Latin American Literature at Barnard College and Columbia University and has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Julio Cortázar, among others.
Born in Lima in 1939, Alfredo Bryce Echenique is of an ancient and distinguished Peruvian family. Educated in Peru, he has lived in Europe since 1969, alternating between Spain and France where he has taught at several universities. Echenique’s writing—eight novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir, travel notes—chronicle the decline and fall of Peru’s aristocratic upper classes as well as the lives of Latin American exiles and expatriates in Europe. His 1998 novel, Reo de Nocturnidad (Nocturnal Defendent), won the National Narrative Prize, and his novel, Amigdalitis de Tarzan (Tarázanos Tonsilitis), was recently published.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.