El Cónsul / Tomás Eloy Martínez

The Consul

Now the insomnia had installed itself in his body with such a vigorous sense of belonging that the Consul could only recognize things beyond himself through the eyes of that intruder. Each time he opened a book, insomnia was there, arriving at the letters first and taking them to a horizon where he, José Antonio Ramos Sucre, could never read them.

He looked out the Consulate windows, onto the rue du Rhône, and distractedly licked the envelope of the most recent letter he had written. To miss Dolores Emilia Madriz —his cousin—, in Cumaná, Venezuela: “I still shave each day. I barely read: I discover a radical change of character in myself. The day after tomorrow I turn 40 and it’s been two years since I’ve written anything.”

He had grown thinner. He had so many bags under his eyes they couldn’t all be his: sometimes he thought another person’s bags (the Other?) had descended on his face to torment him. He was getting dressed carelessly, feeling that the shirt was adhering to two different bodies and that the tie was tightening around two necks. For six months now he had wandered from sanatorium to sanatorium, submitting himself to desperate examinations and interrogations, so they might extirpate that company. But the insomnia was (he wrote to José Nucete Sardi in January) “of an unbelievable tenacity”: it would climb onto the same trains as he, stretch out in the same bed sheets, shave with the same hands.

The spring air was tossing a few sad gusts of pollen into the street. In the distance, the twelve arches of the Mont-Blanc bridge, above the Rhône, were dissolving in the viscous light of early evening, and the ringing of a bell, descending from the hill of Saint-Pierre, was bringing the first sounds of insomnia to his room. The Consul’s body tensed up with alertness: he, José Antonio Ramos Sucre, stealthily moved towards the darkness of the curtains so the Other wouldn’t see him. From there, he glimpsed the street. A homeless dog was preceding the parade of the last office workers toward Saint-Gervais, the jewelry shop in front was turning its lights off, and further on, at the corner, the waiters at the Aux Nations were setting up the tables on the sidewalk. Suddenly, the Consul saw insomnia cross the street, dodge two cars, and approach the portals of the rue du Rhône. What should he do now? Once again insomnia would break through the entrance in a single thrust, leave his straw hat on the rack in the vestibule, he’d glance at the remaining files the secretary had organized on the desk by the entrance, and with a malevolent smile then burst into the library where the Consul’s body was preparing itself, tensed, to resist the assault. But even though José Antonio Ramos Sucre had hidden his body in the banks of the window, even though his eyes were closed and his palms were open and facing forwards, using his already exhausted strength to oppose the invasion, he knew insomnia would eventually occupy him, as always: it would breathe for him, it would dictate all the words and gestures of his life.

Since his arrival in Geneva, on the 12th of March, the Consul was plotting to kill his enemy. Leaving Venezuela had allowed him to throw away the last traces of “anthropophagous morality” that prohibited the crime and, now relieved, with his hands free, he was reviewing the means to put an end to his torment. “I can only assure you that you won’t see me sick again,” he had written to Dolores Emilia —his cousin—, on April 8th. By then he had already dismissed a violent death —all the variations of gunpowder and knives—, because he couldn’t tolerate the idea of the body being disfigured in that combat, and that his relatives would have to later hide the traces of his wounds when displaying his body. He was thinking more of a clean and peaceful death, one that would disconcert insomnia and leave it defenseless. He would often ask himself if the Other, who had resisted the infinite assaults of sleeping pills and distractions, would be capable of surviving that final attack: if insomnia would continue to float over the streets of Geneva even after all of reality had fallen asleep.

He had consulted the possibilities of the poison in an old vademecum: he rejected arsenic, due to the horror of convulsions, the ulceration, the risk of wandering; he excluded belladonna and strychnine because he imagined them entering the body in a slow, violent sunset, taken over by a basement of asphyxia, and the mere possibility of that death was even more unbearable for him than dying. He vacillated, how many times he had vacillated! “Only the fear of suicide allows me to suffer with patience,” he wrote. But insomnia itself had been in charge of diminishing that fear, until it was reduced to the size of nothing: he had continued to make fear fade with its nocturnal screams and its servant’s insolence, until he himself, José Antonio, had ended up forgetting it.

Now everything was clear: he would annihilate the Other through sleep, with an overdose of a sleeping pill the doctors at the Stefania sanatorium had taken away from him in Merano and that he had secretly rescued, with the help of some compassionate German nuns. He consulted the vademecum once more: “Individual susceptibility varies” —he read—. “The signs of intoxication habitually appear after five centigrade. A dose of .25 grams (by one means or another) tends to be mortal in an individual not used to taking it.” He took the beautiful edition of Wilhelm Meister from the library shelf, the one that had accompanied him on the journey between Hamburg and Merano, four months ago, and he left the bottle of pills out in the open. He carefully calculated its contents: one gram, maybe even 1.25 grams. It was more than enough to attack insomnia two days from now, when the Consul would have the misfortune of turning 40.

The muddled hopes he had left Caracas with had dissipated by now. For months he had been wrapped up in petitions and procedures so that the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry could transfer him from his duties as official translator to a position abroad. He trusted they would send him to Paris, where the Minister César Zumeta had promised him hospitality and protection, but the unexpected vacancy of the Consulate in Geneva detoured him in that direction, at the end of December 1929.

Upon arrival he had stayed at the Bellevue Hotel, in front of whose windows both Mont-Blanc and Lake Léman spread out and, with a joyous impatience he hadn’t felt since his university years, he had gone out to exhaust himself strolling through the city: he willingly got lost on Rousseau Island, enjoyed the slight sun in the gardens of the Grand Quai, and he was about to explore the suburb of Petit Saconnet when the lashing of the cold pushed him back towards the hotel lobby, in whose fireplace the forms of fire were rousing.

He had thought insomnia, like all the creatures of the night, would resist following him in his displacements. It seemed natural that, the further the boat got from La Guaira, the easier it would be for him to recover his intimacy with sleep, to the point that by the second week of navigation he had been able to sleep for three hours in a row.

The minister Hurtado Machado had received him at the station in Geneva, and after accompanying him to drop off his luggage at the Hotel Bellevue, took him to the Consulate building, on the rue du Rhône, where they confirmed the secretary’s diligence and the good manners of the neighbors. Hurtado confided in him that they were considering moving the offices to a building facing the lake, but Ramos Sucre begged him to not do it: where would they find such silence, such courteous people? And as for lodgings, the departing consul, Luis Yépez would soon find him a placid hotel nearby (Hurtado said). “None of that” (Ramos Sucre stopped him): he only aspired to a house where the kitchen was clean and the guests silent. He told Hurtado about his long months of suffering: he was a victim (he said) of a tropical parasite that didn’t allow him to sleep and unleashed in him nervous crises and intestinal disorders. He had been recommended a sanatorium in Hamburg that was experienced in cleansing the body of those parasites, and after a few weeks of acclimatization in Geneva, he would depart for Germany to begin treatment. He was sure that by March, when Yépez had to return to Caracas, he would be taking charge of the Consulate, with no other disorder besides solitude.

When night fell, Hurtado had returned to visit him at the hotel, with a few letters of recommendation for the doctors in Hamburg, and had explained in detail about the pending problems at the Consulate. Yépez (he told him), who was spending the Christmas holiday outside Geneva, would definitely be back by the 26th. They spoke of him affectionately, and the minister entertained himself with a long sermon about the painful separations to which a functionary of the Foreign Service is exposed and about the need for keeping one’s feelings under control.

It was when the minister left that Ramos Sucre felt once again, while he was crossing the hotel lobby, the sharp pain in his stomach that hadn’t attacked him since his departure from Caracas. His hair stood on end as a current of sweat froze his back. Hunched, he let himself fall into an armchair hoping to catch his breath. Was that pain the thing that opened the doors of his body to insomnia, or was it actually insomnia that, once settled inside him, damaged his guts?

He went up as best as he could to his room and laid down fully dressed on the bed, waiting for the night’s inferno, with no other defense but immobility and a profound awareness of suffering. He was comforted when he suddenly thought that the insomnia was suffering as well: so many times he had felt memories and remorse belonging to the Other enter his body, he had so frequently felt, when he spoke, the words of insomnia flowing from his mouth, that he couldn’t imagine it being removed from his pains. And yet, the idea didn’t comfort him: suffering was there, and it was he, Ramos Sucre, who never ceased to endure it.

He guessed that the following days would only get worse, because he’d be forced into a chain of inevitable social rituals: meetings with Venezuelans from the embassy, conversations with the secretary, visits to the Palace of Nations, and a starched Christmas Eve with Hurtado’s family who would force him to eat hallacas and toast champagne. What sense did any of it make?

At dawn, he wrote a hurried note to the minister, explaining that the disorder of his health was forcing him to leave immediately on his trip to Hamburg and begging him to not worry about him. He packed his luggage once again, left the letter with the hotel’s reception, and wandered through Geneva in a rented car, searching for a modest rooming house. He found it at the entrance of Petit Saconnet, over the slope that opens onto the Saint-Gervais.

He spent three days there, without moving from his bed other than to try some of the food the owner would bring him, concentrated in his tenacious combat against insomnia. At dawn on the 27th of December, in such a pathetic state of weakness that even parting the air required a great deal of effort from him, José Antonio Ramos Sucre took the express to Hamburg. The fields were covered in snow, and the whiteness entered everything gently: even the dark demons of his thought.

He spent an entire week in Hamburg without leaving the Esplanade Hotel, not daring to face the cold on the street. The wind was creating whirlwinds in the main plaza and, through the fog Ramos Sucre could blurrily distinguish the imperial eagle displayed on the tower of town hall along with the chorus formed by twenty emperors sculpted in bronze around the monument to Wilhelm I, in the center of the plaza.

Sometimes, when he managed to gather up all his dispersed courage, he’d go down to the restaurant and drink a little soup, anguished by the currents of air that would arise each time one of the guests entered or exited the hotel. Then he would hurry back to the room, where he’d try to distract himself reading Goethe and Leopardi, or unburdening himself in a rosary of letters to Zumeta, to Luis Yépez, to Dolores Emilia: “… I beg some indulgence for someone afflicted by agonizing insomnia, direct enemy of mental faculties.”

Starting January 2nd he lived attached to the phone: he would call the Tropensinstitut over and over again to set up his appointment with doctor Mühlens, he’d inquire about the type of treatment he would undergo, about the temperature of the room where he would stay, about the remedies they’d employ to combat his insomnia. On the 3rd he called the Consulate of Venezuela to request references regarding doctor Mülhens’s reputation and to ask if any correspondence had arrived for him. He said he was anxious about the confusion that could arise regarding his first paycheck: the director of the Office of Consulates had promised to send it to Geneva, but he needed it in Hamburg, where he would undergo a costly treatment. He spoke with the irritation and anguish of those who by chance fall into the web of bureaucracy and don’t know how to orient themselves. He lived in constant tension, and his jaws hurt from clenching his teeth so much.

Finally, on the 4th he entered the clinic. He felt a certain amount of relief in delegating to others the care of his body and in being able to depend on the auxiliary will of others to keep the assaults of insomnia at bay. With a certain degree of distraction, he tended to think of the forms God used to manifest himself, and he would say to himself that the light rain, the vapors of the sun, the defenselessness of women and the perfume of soap were signs that God chose so men might not forget his existence. He was enthused by the discovery of a theological outbreak in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and he rushed to confide the discovery to César Zumeta in the first letter he wrote after plunging into the sanatorium.

During all of January he noted with concern that the insomnia didn’t recede. On the first nights of his internment, the nuns of the sanatorium had surrounded his bed, praying aloud for him to sleep. More out of surprise than conviction, the insomnia seemed to let down its guard when faced by the murmuring of the prayers. At that point, sleep, taking advantage of the distraction, ascended to José Antonio’s eyes with the caution of a secret. But once it returned, insomnia took charge of the airs in the room with such force that the nuns’ Ave Marias became tangled and the nurses didn’t know how to soothe the commotion of the pampering gestures.

When he was able to rest, Ramos Sucre would become loquacious. He would write beatific letters to Dolores Emilia and entertain the laboratory analysts with his lessons on morality: “Austere virtue, even when it wears a donkey’s face and a cannibal’s soul, deserves my abomination at each step,” he would explain, euphoric. “The habit of censorship is merely a release for our arrogance, of believing ourselves to be superior to others, and superiority depends on one’s point of view and it is almost always illusory.”

He would contradict himself when speaking of Europe. The initial impressions were dark: “I find Europe in discord, impoverished and relaxed. That spectacle saddens me; I wish for the good of all mankind.” But then he’d be guarded against his own dissatisfaction and would write, moderating himself: “The best part of Europe is the people. Everyone is courteous and cheerful here.”

He was happy to find himself with the strength to once again tend to the gardens of his language, cleaning the weeds that grew in them during his insomnia: he would carefully pull out relative pronouns that muddled the fluency of paragraphs, separate infinitive nouns and idle adjectives. But sometimes, the mere premonition of insomnia would depress him, and in the final phrase of his letters his cards would fall on the table: “Forgive the nuisances that I might cause you;” “I hope that all of you prosper;” “I beg that you forgive these secrets.”

He fearfully observed the succession of the analysis he underwent every day. Each time the results were negative, he would hide desolately in his room, until the doctors opted for going along with him and admitting that yes, the insomnia and the tropical virus were an indissoluble marriage, and that the death of one would drag the other down with it. But he would sometimes let his doubts show through in his letters: “… if the illness possesses an independent existence and isn’t derived from that infection, I’m lost.”

At the beginning of February, one of the doctors told him the virus had been isolated, and that a couple injections would annihilate it. He felt with fruition the adversary’s retreat; he recalled, with all the memories and feelings that had been displaced by the disease, the beautiful deserted field that now opened within his body, free so the winds of sleep might blow and he be occupied again by the houses of thought.

On the 5th they declared him as being cured and advised him to spend his convalescence in Merano. On the 7th he crossed Germany on the Munich express, and there changed trains. In the station he disinterestedly read the news about the alliance of two unknown right-wing caudillos, Alfred Hugenberg and Adolf Hitler, who had come together to bring an end to “the slavery of the German people” and to reject the economic responsibility of the country during the disasters of the Great War. He felt a profound disdain for all the farces of politics, and the defiant march of a dozen young men with brown uniforms along the platforms of the station seemed like a ridiculous prelude to a carnival.

Suddenly, amidst the benches in the waiting area, he thought he saw a dying swallow dragging itself towards the wall. He remembered the myth that he himself had imagined in a poem (“The swallows… rose to the rigorous clime and spoke into the wise ear the solution to the enigma of the universe”). He approached to help it and offer the new warmth of his body. He took it carefully in his hands and tried to caress it. The swallow then turned its head toward him, lifted its beak and outlined the same cruel smile that Ramos Sucre had seen so many times before in the face of insomnia.

When he left Hamburg he supposed there were no longer any corners of his body that hadn’t been taken over by suffering, and to a certain degree, the sensation of having reached bottom soothed him. But in Merano he learned that the worst part of suffering isn’t the size but the intensity of it.

They had reserved a room in the rest home Stefania (he called it the Stephanie sanatorium, making the name French). It was a two story building, in the lower half of the city, about two hundred meters from the Post Office and a hundred and fifty from the Passer river, on whose banks he began to stroll as soon as the cold diminished. He paid fifty liras a day, a third of what a hotel would have cost him, with the advantage that the neighborhood was pleasant and rarely tormented by fascist fanfare.

After lunch, at least during the first days, he would venture out along the via del Portici, until the beautiful Gothic Duomo whose campanile dominated the city. Or, if the afternoon was sunny, he would entertain himself at the Paseggiata Regina Elena, in front of the Municipal Casino, listening to the martial concerts of the bands that arrived from Bolzano to Naturno to compete for the prizes awarded by the Town Hall. One of those walks brought him close to the via Goethe, near the church of the capuchins. Upon returning to the sanatorium, he wrote Yépez: “I’ve discovered a vestige of Goethe here, the street with his name, and I’ve joined this discovery with the memory of Manuel Díaz Rodríguez, who spoke to me once about the ethnic composition of the Tirol. Many Slavs. The German poet must have resided here when he was headed to Italy. I don’t have the means for verifying that conjecture. I precisely recall his stay in Trento, where he only discovered one distinguished building: a palace attributed to the devil, built by him in a single night.”

Each day at sunset, insomnia would present itself punctually. The doctors verified that, truly, the tropical virus had completely vanished, and that the insomnia survived on its own, armed with even more ferocity, now that it shared the possession of that body with no one else. Ramos Sucre felt mortally wounded, waiting for his extreme weakness to lead to consumption. He barely moved. The cold that came down at dawn from mount Benedetto extinguished the last embers of his will and thus, stretched out for hours, he would let his attention drift after the small phosphorescence that opened in the air.

At the beginning of March, tired of the tenacity with which the insomnia attacked him, he gathered the last of his strength and returned to Geneva.

During the first weeks, he was kept busy by his apprenticeship at the new job and the preparation of several reports for the delegation that would attend the assembly of the League of Nations in April. He didn’t sleep, but he would face the nights exercising his mind with the translation of some Danish poet (someone, maybe his cousin Dolores Emilia, said it was Jens Peter Jacobsen) or randomly interspersing verses from the Iliad and the Hymn to Hermes, that, once they were joined, composed another Homeric saga, in which fire was born between laurel branches and pomegranate leaves. Time (now he knew it) cruelly dissolves the identity of men: Homer, who at one time had been many poets, was once again a single poet thanks to that game of Greek verses that would approach the Consul’s mouth from different centuries.

When he got to know the consular files down to the last detail and was left once again with his misfortune, Ramos Sucre felt that murder was his only escape. Each time with less uncertainty he witnessed, as the afternoon advanced, the displacements of insomnia along the rue du Rhône, intrepidly dodging automobiles and stopping at the cigarette kiosk to exchange some vulgar joke with the vendors. The intruder dressed stylishly: a dark suit, impeccable shirt and a stiff straw hat that covered up his long forehead and the slight separation of his ears. That was how he would enter to occupy the Consul’s body, each time the evening fell over Geneva.

He managed to keep his mind removed from the meetings at the League between the 27th of April and the 2nd of May. He would mechanically translate the reports, serving as an interpreter for the Venezuelan delegates with a courteous distraction, and he’d even allow himself the luxury of walking with them along the banks of the lake, entertaining them with his erudite observations about Calvinism and Saussure’s linguistic theories, without for an instant setting aside his attention from the tactics he would soon employ to do away with the Other. He reflected on insomnia’s weaknesses, he’d review the distractions in which he had incurred, he essayed formulas to attack it by surprise and choke its throat until it died.

Little by little, the desire to kill was more solid than the fear of dying. He knew that on the other side there were only empty plains and mirrors in which nothingness was reflected. That he would never again hear another name other than his own pronounced nor would he see any other silhouette besides the horizon.

On June 7th, 1930, two days before his birthday, he wrote his final letters. He knew he was about to take the leap and yet he trusted his body would remain unscathed on that other shore of life, where hands that might console him with tenderness still existed.

At dawn on the 9th he shaved and dressed with care. He felt, under the sad palpitations of his throat, the movement of insomnia: he guessed the framework of his musculature, the ferocity of his appetite, the dimensions of his hate. He walked to the window and contemplated, without the slightest melancholy, the blue vapors that rose from the lake and gently wrapped around the city’s needles, wound through the tires of the automobiles and then advanced toward the foothills of Mont-Blanc.

He suddenly took a hunter’s leap: he pulled from the library the copy of Wilhelm Meister and trapped the bottle of narcotics. Before insomnia could recover from the surprise, he drank the syrup in a single gulp.

It took four days for both of them to die, but when the savage bites of the intoxication gave him some respite, the Consul could happily recognize, in the depths of his body, the clear sea of his early childhood, the white church of Santa Lucía, the arrival of the boats carrying sea salt at the old dock in Cumaná, the smell of the flowers, the color of the walls, the rounds he had timidly rehearsed at the school of don Jacinto Alarcón. Insomnia’s dirty corpse was moving away between the jars of alcohol and the syringes for the transfusions, while he, José Antonio Ramos Sucre, entered a forgotten sky, where things had no name and the rivers went nowhere.


{ Tomás Eloy Martínez, Lugar común la muerte, Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 2009 }

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