La vejez / Rodrigo Blanco Calderón

Old Age

The Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton and the Venezuelan writer Elizabeth Burgos in Havana in 1970. (Photo taken from the blog Tribulaciones y Asteriscos.)

The phrase is by Roque Dalton. It belongs to an essay titled “The Night I Met Régis” and it goes:

“And suddenly I saw the greying soul of thirty-one years almost caressing the scarf of its retreat in Prague and I felt in some way complicit with a form of being a certain age that couldn’t be mine consciously.”

Dalton speaks of old age, of that unrepeatable instant when a man sees with no distortion his own senescence, the slow acceleration towards death. Although the text was published in the magazine Casa de las Américas in the month of August 1968, Dalton makes a reference to a night in another August, in 1965, when he met Régis Debray in the apartment Oswaldo Barreto was assigned in Prague.

To come across this text precisely today, July 31st of 2012, the day I turn thirty-one, is enough to make you think of the matter with some method: to sit down and think by writing.

Just yesterday while I stared at Alejandra watching TV, I started to hum in my head, to ask her in silence: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”

When I’m sixty-two, Alejandra will be fifty-two. Only then, in 2043, will our love have reached its own thirty-two years. Only then will our love, like an independent being, different from us and from our children, begin to think of its own old age, about whether it will arrive and how it will be when it’s sixty-four, when their bodies and love walk step in step to face dissolution together.

But I don’t want to think about those sad things. I wanted to think about and remember the late night of the 28th of September last year when I had a long conversation for more than five hours with Oswaldo Barreto.

I was at the decisive stage of the biography I was writing about Darío Lancini. Oswaldo Barreto, a former Communist Party activist, ex guerrilla fighter, university professor, writer, very sharp critic and airplane hijacker, he had been one of Darío Lancini’s closest friends. I was gathering various testimonies, but up to that point I had stumbled on the irreducible subtlety that Lancini had used to tempt the world. A bunch of evanescent anecdotes, perplexity shells. When I got in touch with Barreto to ask for a meeting, I had low expectations, I was prepared to leave his house and throw in the towel.

The encounter was magical, it made the book possible and produced an important change in my life.

We had agreed on meeting at four in the afternoon at his house, an apartment on Cajigal Avenue in San Bernardino. At four on the dot, at the entrance to his building, I called him from my cell phone. He answered the phone slightly flustered. He was just leaving the Bellas Artes subway station, the closest one to his house.

“We had agreed on five o’clock,” he said, “Right?”

“I had understood four o’clock,” I said.

“I’m on my way up, call me in a little while.”

I thought the meeting might not happen. Cajigal Avenue offered no café to kill time at, not even a little bench or a shaded spot where I might rest. The first drops of a personal rain began to fall. The sky stayed blue, the heat wouldn’t give up.

I walked down to plaza La Estrella and right beside a newsstand I found a low wall under the branches of a jabillo tree. I took out a book and settled down to wait for it to be five o'clock.

After ten pages, I heard a car braking, a horn blast and someone shouting. It was Oswaldo Barreto who was banging on the trunk of a taxi driver who hadn’t stopped for him to cross the street. He was carrying two grocery bags that slowed him down, wearing a little Persian cap and a woven shirt. His pants were jovial and baggy.

He seemed like he had been wounded somewhere by the commerce of Caracas. He was (and at the moment of writing these pages is) seventy-seven years old. The white chain of his beard, certain gentlemanly gestures, made me think of Baron von Münchhausen. Or at least, Terry Gilliam’s version in the opening scenes, when he bursts in, defeated, at a theater where his life is being played out falsely.

He saw me and kept walking while including me in his gait, as though we had agreed on neither four nor five o'clock at the door to his building, but at the conciliatory mid point of four-thirty, mid way home.

Swallowing Stones: A Novel is the fictionalized biography of Oswaldo Barreto written by Lisa St. Aubin de Terán.

The apartment was small and had high ceilings. Two large photos of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir presided one of the columns. The walls were covered by a crawling bookshelf and with paintings I couldn’t identify. As if each were an incarnation, two cats were hiding in different parts of the living room, each one involved in its own thoughts, but intimately linked, like Sartre and de Beauvoir.

But that was only an effect of the decoration, because the cats were called Cynthia and Freud.

“Cynthia for the Turkish singer Cynthia Gooding. Such a beautiful woman, with an exquisite voice. A name that’s turned out to fit her well, since she’s quite a lady,” Oswaldo said.

The cat, a turquoise grey, climbed onto one of the high chairs in the kitchen and purred.

“Freud, in his own way, also honors his own name: sex above all else, for him.”

Now is not the occasion to reconstruct the heart of the conversation that afternoon. Specifically, the tale from the night when Barreto, accompanied by Dalton, met Louis Aragon. That’s already been told in the biography, along with the secret connections between that scene and Lancini’s life. I’m interested, on the other hand, in referring to an anecdote that emerged almost at the end of the night, that Oswaldo told me specifically I should turn into a short story, whose title should be “Old Age.”

On September 18th 1975, when he turned forty-one, Oswaldo Barreto received one of the most beautiful gifts he has ever been given. A silk shirt. The most elegant and delicate silk shirt that his hands had ever touched.

Just a few months earlier, on the 10th of May, Roque Dalton was executed, it seems by a faction of the Revolutionary Army of the People, in El Salvador, accused of being a CIA spy. He was four days away from turning forty. Reaching forty-one was, for Barreto, the guarantee of his own survival. On that day Barreto knew he would face the most exotic destiny for a man of action: to grow old. He knew that the death of Dalton, his brother in combativeness and poetry, would propel him to the end of history.

The shirt was a gift from the mother of Mariana, his girlfriend at the time.

“Back then she must have been the age I am now,” Oswaldo said.

The next week, he went to the department store where she had bought him the shirt. He spoke with a clerk who changed it for another shirt, a pair of pants and two pairs of shoes. All the items were tasteful and much cheaper.

Days later, Mariana took him to her mother’s house to have lunch. Oswaldo arrayed himself with the loot he had obtained in exchange for the silk shirt. His girlfriend greeted her mom and went straight to the kitchen to help. He was left alone with her mother and as if he were a mannequin, he posed for her so she could appreciate his clothing.

“What happened to the silk shirt?” she asked.

“I exchanged it for all this,” Oswaldo said.

“Why did you do that? Didn’t you like it?”

Oswaldo’s answer prevented any reproach from her.

“That shirt was so lovely, ma’m, that in order for me to wear it I’d have to change my whole life.”

The mother, who knew about the turbulent agenda of her near son-in-law, understood perfectly what he wanted to say. So much that she sealed the pact with a kiss.

“She kissed me on the lips. A long and chaste kiss on the lips.”

A second later Mariana entered. Oswaldo looked at each of them, activating a game of mirrors that failed within seconds. Mother and daughter didn’t look anything alike.

“That’s when I knew that relationship had no future.”

Thirty-seven years later, on his seventy-eight birthday, Oswaldo received a gift that made him remember the other one.

He stood up from the table for a moment and went into his room to look for it. At that instant, we had already left behind his memories of Darío Lancini and a whole bottle of whiskey. Garcilaso appeared with two bottles of red wine and Iván Darío, the youngest of Oswaldo's children, joined the conversation with several plates of cheese and crackers from the kitchen.

It was a small and very elegant black bag. Before bringing it out, Oswaldo spent a while trying to describe it. It was one of those little bags, good for carrying over your shoulder, very comfortable. We spent a few minutes looking for the word mapire which we completely overlooked and now, ten months later, appears in the middle of my silence. The bag he was given was in dialogue with the spirit of the mapire, but it exceeded it in practicality, quality and beauty. And just as they gave it to him he decided to use it.

It was at the main desk of the newspaper Tal Cual, where Oswaldo writes a column that comes out twice a week, that someone mentioned that gift to him. The girl there asked him what he was doing with that bag on his shoulder:

“A gift. Don’t you think it’s nice?”

“Very nice. Too nice, Mr. Oswaldo. That’s the problem. Be careful.”

Then Oswaldo got the bag and let us look at it. Once I saw the label I understood everything: Mario Hernández. This ad is enough to explain the passage of time in Venezuela. In the fifties and sixties you could die for your ideals. Today, subversion consists of wearing a certain brand of shoes, bag or cell phone to tempt your luck.

Oswaldo Barreto, an ex guerrilla at heart, pursues danger in any of its transformations. He wears across his chest, as if it were a Mexican revolutionary’s cartridge belt, his bag, displaying it with no fear. But this isn’t the moral of this story. The moral of the short story he wanted me to write is more superficial and at the same time much deeper:

“Being old means accepting new things. That’s it, in the most materialist and historical sense of the word,” said Oswaldo.

Everyone celebrated the anecdote.

And yet, I had taken the job seriously and I paid the excessive attention I tend to pay, not very pleasant at all, when I feel as though I’m on the edge of a story. Something was missing in the tale for me to be able to write it. Something that couldn’t come from outside but rather from the very heart of the plot itself, but which had yet to be revealed. That something I’ve found today like a spontaneous birthday present.

Régis Debray, with a cigarette in his mouth, after being captured in Bolivia in 1967 for his participation in Che Guevara’s guerrilla army.

Dalton, in that account of a night in Prague in August of 1965, tells the following: “A French writer was staying at Oswaldo’s house. His wife, a Venezuelan girl who had been at my house a few days earlier, when I had been merely a pathetic drunk who needed to see new faces, and was staying up late excitedly. Oswaldo said: “Right over there with that child’s face, that’s the Frenchman who knows more than anyone else about guerrillas in Latin America.””

The Venezuelan girl was Elizabeth Burgos. And the Frenchman, Régis Debray. That night they had an appointment at the home of comrade Pierre Hentgés, on Lermontov Street. Louis Aragon, Elsa Triolet and Lily Brick would all be attending. Debray, when he woke up, between uncombed and confused, attacked this commitment. “Do you still insist on attending these intimate acts with the Party bourgeoisie, with the great whores of the French intelligentsia, seated with their big asses on the world’s pinnacle, verbose, didactic and unbearable?” Dalton writes that Debray told them.

From this point on, what seemed like a chronicle of diaspora and political activism is transformed into a serene but no less implacable reflection on youth and old age. Dalton receives Debray’s anger indulgently (“the youth of the world, beautiful pumas trembling with rage”) and he also seals a pact with the wisdom of the old. Maybe he does this because at that moment, at thirty-one, he doesn’t feel young or old. Maybe he does it following the senseless calling to connect the impossible, the past and the future, sleep and vigil, communism and reality. That interregnum, the present the majority assimilates as a transition, is his definitive season. That’s where Roque Dalton remains, tied to the wall of his reflexive mood, ready to die and enter eternity in his own particular manner.

It’s in the final lines of Dalton’s text where I find the phrase that Oswaldo Barreto brought to life: “Being old means having renounced the elimination of a nothingness, the highest proof of the guiltiest overestimation.”

Those are the citations. They, along with the memory of that unforgettable conversation, have allowed me to identify where the nucleus of the story is to be found. At least, for the story that I was given to write, which is at each moment the point of contact between ages, states of being, experiences that aren’t consciously my own.

Now I see that the nucleus of the story, its possibility, is to be found in the mother’s kiss. In that door of time that opened up for Oswaldo when he was kissed by his own girlfriend’s mother. A maternal kiss, but not in the Oedipal sense that Freud, with catlike sumptuousness, would have surely emphasized. A maternal kiss in the sense of the helplessness in which our persistence places us, when we become children of the past and we fall asleep to the lullaby of the best memories.

But I didn’t want to think about such sad things. And much less on my birthday. I think I’ll stop here. I’m going to meet Alejandra. To find my future in her lips.

{ Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Iowa Literaria, 1 October 2013 }

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