Read an Excerpt
The man driving the truck is called Cipriano Algor, he is a potter by profession and is sixty-four years old, although he certainly does not look his age. The man sitting beside him is his son-in-law, Marçal Gacho, and he is not yet thirty. Nevertheless, from his face too, you would think him much younger. As you will have noticed, attached to their first names both these men have unusual family names, whose origin, meaning, and reason they do not know. They would probably be most put out to learn that "algor" means the intense cold one feels in one's body before a fever sets in, and that "gacho" is neither more nor less than the part of an ox's neck on which the yoke rests. The younger man is wearing a uniform, but is unarmed. The older man has on an ordinary jacket and a pair of more or less matching trousers, and his shirt is soberly buttoned up to the neck, with no tie. The hands grasping the wheel are large and strong, peasant's hands, and yet, perhaps because of the daily contact with soft clay inevitable in his profession, they also suggest sensitivity. There is nothing unusual about Marçal Gacho's right hand, but there is a scar on the back of his left hand that looks like the mark left by a burn, a diagonal line that goes from the base of his thumb to the base of his little finger. The truck does not really deserve the name of truck, since it is really only a medium-sized van, of a kind now out of date, and it is laden with crockery. When the two men left home, twenty kilometers back, the day had barely begun to dawn, but now the morning has filled the world with sufficient light for one to notice Marçal Gacho's scar and to speculate about the sensitivity of Cipriano Algor's hands. The two men are traveling slowly because of the fragile nature of the load and also because of the uneven road surface. The delivery of merchandise not considered to be of primary or even secondary importance, as is the case with plain ordinary crockery, is carried out, in accordance with the official timetables, at mid-morning, and the only reason these two men got up so early is that Marçal Gacho has to clock in at least half an hour before the doors of the Center open to the public. On the days when he does not have to give his son-in-law a lift but still has crockery to deliver, Cipriano Algor does not have to get up quite so early. However, every ten days, he is the one who goes to fetch Marçal Gacho from work so that the latter can spend the forty hours with his family to which he is entitled, and, afterward, Cipriano Algor is also the one who, with or without crockery in the back of the van, punctually returns him to his responsibilities and duties as a security guard. Cipriano Algor's daughter, who is called Marta and bears the family names of Isasca, from her late mother, and Algor, from her father, only enjoys the presence of her husband at home and in bed for six nights and three days every month. On the previous night, she became pregnant, although she does not know this yet.
The area they are driving through is dull and dirty, not worth a second glance. Someone gave these vast and decidedly unrural expanses the technical name of the Agricultural Belt and also, by poetic analogy, the Green Belt, but the only landscape the eyes can see on either side of the road, covering many thousands of apparently uninterrupted hectares, are vast, rectangular, flat-roofed structures, made of neutral-colored plastic which time and dust have gradually turned gray or brown. Beneath them, where the eyes of passersby cannot reach, plants are growing. Now and then, trucks and tractors with trailers laden with vegetables emerge from side roads onto the main road, but most of these deliveries are done at night, and those appearing now either have express and exceptional permission to deliver late or else they must have overslept. Marçal Gacho discreetly pushed back the left sleeve of his jacket to look at his watch, he is worried because the traffic is gradually becoming denser and because he knows that, from now on, once they enter the Industrial Belt, things will only get worse. His father-in-law saw the gesture, but said nothing, this son-in-law of his is a nice fellow, but very nervous, one of those people who was born anxious, always fretting about the passage of time, even if he has more than enough, in which case he never seems to know quite how to fill it, time, that is. What will he be like when he's my age, he thought. They left the Agricultural Belt behind them, and the road, which grows dirtier now, crosses the Industrial Belt, cutting a swath through not only factory buildings of every size, shape, and type, but also fuel tanks, both spherical and cylindrical, electricity substations, networks of pipes, air ducts, suspension bridges, tubes of every thickness, some red, some black, chimneys belching out pillars of toxic fumes into the atmosphere, long-armed cranes, chemical laboratories, oil refineries, fetid, bitter, sickly odors, the strident noise of drilling, the buzz of mechanical saws, the brutal thud of steam hammers and, very occasionally, a zone of silence, where no one knows exactly what is being produced. That was when Cipriano Algor said, Don't worry, we'll get there on time, I'm not worried, replied his son-in-law, only just managing to conceal his anxiety, Of course you're not, but you know what I mean, said Cipriano Algor. He turned the van into a side road reserved for local traffic, Let's take a shortcut down here, he said, if the police ask us why we're here, just remember what we agreed, we had some business to deal with at one of these factories before we went into town. Marçal Gacho took a deep breath, whenever the traffic on the main road got bad, his father-in-law would always, sooner or later, take a detour. What worried him was that he might get distracted and decide to make the turn too late. Fortunately, despite all his fears and his father-in-law's warnings, they had never yet been stopped by the police, One day, he'll realize that I'm not a little boy any more, thought Marçal, and that he doesn't have to remind me every time about how we have business to deal with at one of the factories. It did not occur to either of them that the real reason behind the continued tolerance or benevolent indifference of the traffic police was Marçal Gacho's uniform, that of a security guard working at the Center, rather than the result of multiple random lucky breaks or of stubborn fate, as they would doubtless have said if asked why they thought they had so far escaped being fined. Had Marçal Gacho known this, he might have made more of the weight of authority conferred on him by his uniform, and had Cipriano Algor known this, he might have spoken to his son-in-law with less ironic condescension. It is true what people say, the young have the ability, but lack the wisdom, and the old have the wisdom, but lack the ability.
Once past the Industrial Belt, the city finally begins, not the city proper, for that can be seen beyond, touched by the caress of the first, rosy light of the sun, and what greets one are chaotic conglomerations of shacks made by their ill-housed inhabitants out of whatever mostly flimsy materials might help to keep out the elements, especially the rain and the cold. It is, as the inhabitants of the city put it, a frightening place. Here, every now and then, and in the name of the classical axiom which says that necessity knows no law, a truck laden with food is held up and emptied of its contents before you can say knife. The modus operandi, which is extremely efficient, was devised and developed after a prolonged period of collective reflection on the results of earlier attempts whose failure, as immediately became apparent, was due to a total lack of strategy, to antiquated tactics, if one could glorify them with that name, and, lastly, to a poor and erratic coordination of forces, which amounted, in practice, to a system of every man for himself. Since the flow of traffic was almost continuous throughout the night, blocking the road in order to stop one truck, which was their first plan of action, meant that the assailants fell into their own trap, for behind that truck came others, bringing reinforcements and immediate help for the driver in distress. The solution to the problem, quite brilliant, as the police themselves privately acknowledged, consisted in dividing the assailants into two groups, one tactical, the other strategic, and in erecting two barriers instead of one, the tactical group swiftly blocking the road after one sufficiently isolated truck had passed, and the strategic group, a few hundred meters farther up the road and informed of this action by the predetermined signal of a flashing light, equally rapidly setting up a second barrier where the ill-fated vehicle would have no alternative but to stop and allow itself to be robbed. No roadblock was required for the vehicles traveling in the opposite direction, the drivers themselves would stop when they saw what was going on up ahead. A third group, the rapid intervention force, was responsible for dissuading any bold attempt at solidarity with a rain of stones. The barriers were built out of large boulders transported on stretchers, and, afterward, some of the actual assailants, swearing blind that they had had nothing to do with the robbery, would help to move the boulders onto the hard shoulder, It's people like them that give our area a bad name, we're honest folk, they would say, and the drivers of the other trucks, anxious to have the road cleared so that they would not arrive late at the Center, merely responded, Yeah, sure. Cipriano Algor's van has been saved from such incidents en route mainly because he nearly always travels through these areas by day. At least, up until now. Indeed, since earthenware crockery usually appears on poor tables and tends to break fairly easily, the potter is not entirely safe, for, who knows, some woman, one of the many who struggle to make ends meet in these shantytowns, might one day say to the head of the household, We need some new plates, to which he will doubtless respond, No problem, I sometimes see a van driving past with Pottery written on the side, it's bound to have some plates on board, And some mugs too, the woman will add, making the most of the favorable tide, All right, some mugs as well, I won't forget.
Between the shacks and the first city buildings, like a no-man's-land separating two warring factions, is a large empty space as yet unbuilt on, although a closer look reveals on the ground a crisscrossing network of tractor trails and areas of flattened earth that can only have been created by large mechanical diggers, whose implacable curved blades pitilessly sweep everything away, the ancient house, the new root, the sheltering wall, the place where a shadow once fell and where it will never fall again. However, just as happens in our own lives when we think that everything has been taken away from us, only to notice later that something does, in fact, still remain, so here too a few scattered fragments, some filthy rags, some bits of recycled rubbish, some rusty cans, some rotten planks, a piece of plastic sheeting blown hither and thither by the wind, reveal to us that this territory was once occupied by the homes of the excluded. It will not be long before the city buildings advance like a line of riflemen and take over this plot, leaving only a thin strip of land between the outermost buildings and the first shacks, a new no-man's-land that will remain until it is time to move on to the third phase.
The main road, to which they had now returned, had grown wider, with one lane reserved exclusively for heavy vehicles, and although the van could only by some flight of fancy be included in that superior category, the fact that it is undoubtedly a vehicle transporting goods gives its driver the right to compete on equal terms with the slow, mastodonic machines that roar and groan and spew out choking clouds of smoke from their exhausts, and to overtake them with a swift, sinuous agility that sets the crockery in the back rattling. Marçal Gacho glanced at his watch again and breathed more easily. He would arrive on time. They were already on the outskirts of the city, and although they still had to drive down a few winding streets, take a left, take a right, another left, another right, right again, right, left, left, right, and straight ahead, they would finally emerge into a square and, from then on, all their difficulties would be over, for a straight avenue would carry them to their destinations, to where the security guard, Marçal Gacho, was expected and to where the potter, Cipriano Algor, would leave his cargo. At the far end, an extremely high wall, much higher than the highest of the buildings on either side of the avenue, abruptly blocked the road. It did not actually block the road, this was just an optical illusion, there were streets that ran alongside the wall, which, in turn, was not a freestanding wall, as such, but the outer wall of a huge building, a gigantic quadrangular edifice, with no windows on its smooth, featureless façade. Here we are, said Cipriano Algor, we made it and with ten minutes to spare before you have to go in, You know very well why I can't be late, it could affect my position on the list of candidates for resident guard, Your wife isn't exactly wild about the idea of you becoming a resident guard, It would be better for us, it would make life easier, we'd have a better standard of living. Cipriano stopped the van opposite the corner of the building, it seemed that he was about to respond to his son-in-law's remark, but instead he asked, Why are they demolishing that block of buildings, They must have finally got the go-ahad, What for, They've been talking for weeks now about a new extension, said Marçal Gacho as he got out of the van. They had stopped by a door above which hung a notice bearing the words No Entry Except for Security Personnel. Cipriano Algor said, Maybe, There's no maybe about it, the proof is there, the demolition work has started, Sorry, I didn't mean the extension, but what you said before about living conditions, now I won't argue with you about it making your life easier, not that we have much to complain about, since we could hardly be classed among the unfortunate, Look, I respect your opinion, but I have my own views too, and when it comes to it, you'll see, Marta will agree with me. He took a couple of steps and then stopped, doubtless realizing that this was not the correct way for a son-in-law to say good-bye to a father-in-law who had just given him a lift in to work, and he said, Thanks, and have a good trip back, See you in ten days' time, said the potter, Yes, see you then, said the security guard, at the same time waving to a colleague who was also just arriving for work. They went in together and the door closed.
Cipriano Algor started the engine, but did not immediately drive off. He looked at the buildings that were being pulled down. This time, probably because the buildings to be demolished were not particularly tall, they were not using explosives, that swift, modern and highly spectacular process that, in a matter of seconds, can transform a solid, organized structure into a chaotic heap of rubble. As one would expect, the street at right angles to this one was closed to traffic. In order to deliver his merchandise, Cipriano Algor would have to go behind the back of the block under demolition, drive around it, and then straight ahead, the door at which he would have to knock was on the corner farthest from where he was now, at the other end of an imaginary straight line that cut obliquely through the building Marçal Gacho had just entered. Diagonally across, the potter thought to himself to make the explanation shorter. When he comes to pick up his son-in-law in ten days' time, there will be no trace left of these buildings, the dust of destruction now hovering in the air will have settled, they may even have excavated the great pit in which they will dig the trenches for the foundations of the new building. Then they will erect the three walls, one of which will run parallel with the street along which Cipriano Algor will shortly have to drive, the other two will seal off on either side the land gained at the cost of the street running through it and of the demolished buildings, obliterating the façade of the building he can see now, the door for the security personnel will have to be moved, and, after a matter of days, not even the most keen-eyed observer, viewing it from the outside, still less from the inside, will be able to distinguish between new and old. The potter looked at his watch, it was still early, on the days when he drove in with his son-in-law he always had a two-hour wait before they opened the reception area he was heading for, plus all the time he would have to wait before it was his turn, But at least I have the advantage of getting a good place in the line, I might even be first, he thought. Not that he ever had been, there were always people who got up earlier than he did, some of them had probably spent part of the night in the cabins of their trucks. They would go up onto the street when it was growing light and have a cup of coffee, a sandwich, even, on cold, damp mornings, a drop of brandy, then they would stand around talking, until about ten minutes before the doors opened, when the younger drivers, as nervous as apprentices, would rush down the ramp to take up their positions, while the older ones, especially if they were parked toward the rear of the line, would saunter back, chatting quietly, taking one last drag of their cigarette, because underground, if any engines were running, smoking was forbidden. It wasn't quite the end of the world, they judged, so there was no point in rushing.
Cipriano Algor started up the van. He had got distracted by the buildings under demolition and now wanted to make up for lost time, a ridiculous expression if ever there was one, an absurd idiom with which we hope to disguise the harsh fact that no time once lost can ever be made up or recovered, as if we believed, contrary to this evident truth, that the time we thought forever lost might, after all, have decided to hang back and wait, with the patience of one who has all the time in the world, for us to notice its absence. Stimulated by the sense of urgency born of these thoughts about who would arrive first and who would arrive later, the potter quickly drove around the block and straight down the street that ran parallel with the other façade of the building. As invariably happened, there were already people waiting outside for the doors to be opened to the public. He pulled over into the left-hand lane, into the access road for the ramp that led down to the basement, he showed the guard his supplier's identity card and joined the line of vehicles, behind a truck loaded with boxes which, to judge by the labels on the packages, contained objects made of glass. He got out of the van to see how many other suppliers were ahead of him and thus calculate, more or less accurately, how long he would have to wait. He was number thirteen. He counted again, no, there was no doubt about it. Although he was not a superstitious person, he knew about that number's bad reputation, in any conversation about chance, fate, or destiny, someone always chips in with some real-life experience of the negative, even fatal influence of the number thirteen. He tried to remember if he had ever been in this place in the line before, but the long and the short of it was that either it had never happened or else he had simply forgotten. He got annoyed with himself, it was nonsense, utterly absurd to worry about something that has no real existence, yes, that was right, he had never thought of that before, numbers don't really exist, things couldn't care less what number we give them, it's all the same to them if we say they're number thirteen or number forty-four, we can conclude, at the very least, that they do not even notice the position they happen to end up in. People aren't things, people always want to be in first place, thought the potter. And it isn't enough simply to be there either, they want the fact to be known and want other people to notice, he muttered. The basement was deserted apart from the two guards who were posted at either end, watching the entrance and the exit. It was always the same, the drivers left their vehicle in the line as soon as they arrived and went up to the street to have a coffee. Well, if they think I'm going to stay here, said Cipriano Algor out loud, they're very much mistken. And as if he did not after all have anything to unload, he put the van into reverse and left the line, That way I won't be number thirteen, he thought. A few moments later, a truck came down the ramp and stopped in the place that his van had vacated. The driver got out of his cabin, looked at his watch, I've still got time, he must have thought. And as he disappeared up the ramp, the potter, after some rapid maneuvering, parked behind the truck, Now I'm number fourteen, he said, pleased with his own cunning. He leaned back in the seat and sighed, he could hear the hum of traffic in the street above, usually he joined the other drivers to have a cup of coffee and buy the newspaper, but he didn't feel like it today. He closed his eyes as if withdrawing into himself and immediately began to dream, it was his son-in-law explaining to him that when he was appointed resident guard the whole situation would change overnight, he and Marta would no longer live at the pottery, it was time to start a family life of their own, Try to understand, what will be, as the saying goes, will be, the world doesn't stop turning, and if the people you depend on for your living promote you, you should raise your hands to heaven in gratitude, it would be silly to turn our backs on fate when fate is on our side, besides, I'm sure that your greatest wish is for Marta to be happy, so you should be pleased. Cipriano Algor was listening to his son-in-law and smiling to himself, You're just saying all this because you think I'm number thirteen, you don't know that now I'm number fourteen. He woke up with a start to the sound of car doors slamming, the signal that unloading was about to begin. Then, still not fully emerged from his dream, he thought, I haven't changed numbers at all, I'm still number thirteen, I just happen to be parked in the place of number fourteen.
So it was. Almost an hour later, his turn came. He got out of the van and went over to the reception desk with the usual papers, the delivery note in triplicate, the invoice for the actual sales from the last delivery, the quality statement that accompanied each shipment and in which the potter took responsibility for any production defect found during the inspection to which the crockery would be submitted, the confirmation of exclusivity, again obligatory with every shipment, in which the potter undertook, subject to sanctions in the event of any infraction, to have no commercial relations with any other establishment regarding the sale of goods. As was customary, a clerk came over to help him unload, but the assistant head of department in charge of reception called to him and said, Just unload half the shipment and check it against the delivery note. Surprised and alarmed, Cipriano Algor asked Half, why, Sales have fallen off a lot in the last few weeks, we'll probably have to return anything of yours that we've got in the warehouse too because of lack of demand, Return what's in the warehouse, Yes, it's in your contract, Oh, I know it's in the contract, but since the contract also forbids me to have any other customers, would you mind telling me where I'm supposed to sell the other half of the shipment, That's not my problem, I'm just carrying out orders, Can I speak to the manager, No, it's not worth it, he wouldn't see you. Cipriano Algor's hands were shaking, he looked around him in bewilderment, to ask for help, but he saw only indifference on the faces of the three drivers who had arrived after him. Despite this, he made an appeal to class solidarity, Can you believe it, a man brings along the fruits of his labor, having dug the clay, mixed it, and shaped the crockery that they ordered from him, then fired it all in the kiln, and now they tell him they're only going to take half of what he's made and are going to return everything of his that's in the warehouse, I mean, where's the justice in that. The drivers looked at each other and shrugged, they weren't sure how best to respond nor to whom they should respond, one of them even got out a cigarette to make it clear that he was having nothing to do with it, then remembered that he couldn't smoke down there and, instead, turned his back and removed himself from events by taking refuge in the cabin of his truck. The potter realized that he could lose everything if he continued to protest, he tried to pour oil on the troubled waters that he himself had churned up, after all, selling half was better than selling nothing, things would probably sort themselves out, he thought. He turned submissively to the assistant head of department at the reception desk, Could you just tell me why sales have dropped so sharply, Yes, I think it was the launch of some imitation crockery made out of plastic, it's so good that it looks like the real thing, with the added advantage that it's much lighter and much cheaper, But that's no reason for people to stop buying mine, earthenware's earthenware, it's authentic, it's natural, Tell that to the customers, look, I don't want to worry you, but I think that from now on your earthenware products will be of interest to collectors only, and there are fewer and fewer of them nowadays. The counting was done, the assistant head of department wrote on the delivery note, Received half, and said, Don't bring in any more until you hear from us, Do you think I should go on making things, asked the potter, That's up to you, I really couldn't say, And what about the returns, you've still got to return to me what you've got here, his words were so full of despair and bitterness that the assistant head of department made an attempt to sound conciliatory, We'll see. The potter got into the van and set off so abruptly that some boxes, no longer secured now that half the load had been taken out, slithered across the floor and slammed into the rear door, Oh, let it all break, who cares, he shouted angrily. He had to stop at the bottom of the exit ramp, regulations demanded that he show his card to that guard too, pure bureaucracy, no one knows why, after all, someone who enters as a supplier will leave as a supplier, but there are apparently exceptions, a case in point being Cipriano Algor, who was a supplier when he came in and now, if those threats are carried out, is just about to cease being one. It must all have been the fault of the number thirteen, destiny isn't taken in by people trying to make what came first come afterward. The van went up the ramp into the light of day, there's nothing to be done now but to go home. The potter smiled sadly, It wasn't the number thirteen, the number thirteen doesn't exist, if I had been the first to arrive, the sentence passed would have been just the same, give us half now and then we'll see.
The woman in the shantytown, the one who needed new plates and mugs, asked her husband, So did you see that pottery van, and her husband replied, Yes, I made him stop, but then I let him go, Why, If you'd seen thatdriver's face, you would have done the same.
© José Saramago e Editorial Caminho, SA, Lisboa-2000
English translation copyright © 2002 by Margaret Jull Costa
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
This is a translation of A Caverna