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An enduringly original literary presence, unquestionalby Cuba's most important living writer.?Alistar Reed, The New York Review of Books
An enduringly original literary presence, unquestionalby Cuba's most important living writer.—Alistar Reed, The New York Review of Books
The Great Ekbó
IT WAS RAINING. THE RAIN HIT HARD THE OLD AND SICKLY columns. A man and a woman were out of reach of the rain because they were sitting in a restaurant. The man was staring at the white tablecloth as if it had patterns. The woman was wearing white, even the waiter wore white. He came to take the order in a florid flurry of pen and pad. The man thought: "I bet he's new in the job." He, who was not wearing white, asked her:
"What are you going to have?"
She looked up from the menu. The dark brown cover bore an inscription that was either a promise or a tautology: La Maravilla—Menu. Her eyes seemed lighter now with the limelike light that came from the squalid square in the rain. "The light that comes from nowhere, according to Da Vinci," he thought. He heard her talking to the waiter in a stage whisper blurred by the sound of the rain.
"And you, sir?"
The waiter was waiting on him now. "Ah, the waiter that came from abroad. Or is he really good-mannered?"
"No sir. Today it's Friday, sir."
"Catholics! Obsessed with rules and regulations." He thought it over for a second or two.
"Beg your pardon?" asked the waiter.
"Bring me red snapper then, grilled. And mashed potatoes. Oh yes,and a malta." As he was not Irish he didn't mean whiskey but a light beverage made in Havana of burnt brown sugar and malt.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked her.
"You bet," he thought and she said she would have a beer. "She ain't like a little girl."
While lunch was coming, he looked at her. "But she ain't just like a woman." She looked up from the plain tablecloth at him. "The defiant dame," he thought. "Why don't you look beat today? You ought to, you know."
"What are you thinking about?" she asked and her voice sounded strangely softly calmly.
"If only you knew, little girl." But he said: "Nothing. Nothing in particular."
"Were you examining me?" she asked.
"I was looking at your eyes."
"Eyes of a Christian in a Jewish face," she quoted him.
He smiled. In fact he was slightly bored.
"When do you think it'll stop?" she asked. "I mean the rain."
"I know but I don't know," he said. "In a coon's year maybe. Perhaps in a minute or two. You never know in Cuba."
He always spoke as if he had just come back from a long voyage abroad. Trip or trek. Or as if he had been brought up somewhere else. Or even as if he were a tourist passing through. As a matter of fact, he had never been out of Cuba. He was a tourist in his own country, an alien.
"Do you think we will be able to go to Anabacoa?"
"Guan-abacoa," he corrected her.
"Yes, that. Do you think we'll go there?"
"I do." Was he marrying her? "Though I don't know if there'll be anything going on just yet. It's not raining violets, you know."
"I know." She smiled.
They stopped talking by mute mutual agreement. He looked at the square beyond the wounded pillars, along the colonial street still cobbled in bluish stones made abroad, at the old green-hued moldy church beside the square with its scarce thin trees. It was a livid landscape in the rain.
Now he realized she was staring at him.
"What are you thinking about?" he said. "Remember we swore we would always tell each other the truth?"
"I would have told it to you anyway. I—"
She stopped. She bit her lips and then opened her mouth wide. She did this often. He had advised her not to: it didn't suit her.
"I was thinking." He wondered if she was thinking what she was thinking about now or earlier. "I don't know why I love you. You are exactly the opposite of the man of my dreams. But all the same I can look at you and feel I love you. Moreover, I like you."
"Thank you," he said petulantly.
"Don't!" she said, upset. It was her turn to stare at the tablecloth. Then she looked at her hands, at her fingers rather, with unpainted nails. She was tall and slim and she looked elegant in the white dress she had on, with its wide, square décolletage. Her breasts were in fact small but the curve of her chest made her appear to have a larger bust. She wore a long strass necklace and had her hair coiffed in a chignon. Her lips were full and even and pink. She had no makeup, except perhaps for some mascara that made her eyes bigger, her pupils lighter. She was really put off now and they didn't speak again before the meal was over.
"It's not stopping," she said, meaning the rain.
"Indeed it isn't," he said.
"Anything else?" said the waiter, coming back.
He looked at her, deferentially.
"No thank you," she said to the waiter.
"I just want a cup of coffee and a cigar," he said.
"Certainly, sir," said the waiter.
"And the bill."
"Are you going to smoke?"
"Yes," he said. She loathed cigars.
"You do it on purpose."
"You know I don't. I do it because I like it."
"It's not good to do everything one likes."
"Sometimes it is."
"And sometimes it isn't."
He looked at her and smiled. She didn't smile back.
"Now I wish it hadn't happened."
He knew what she meant.
"What do you mean, why? Because I do. Do you think everything is so easy?"
"No," he said. "On the contrary. Life is complicated and hard. Everything is hard. Even the good life is hard."
"It's especially hard to go on living," she said. He could follow her train of thought. She was back on the old dark subject. At the beginning she had spoken of death all day, all night. All the time in fact. Then he made her forget the idea of death, but right now he thought that to die was almost an anagram of idea. Yesterday, yesterday evening to be exact, she began to talk of death again. Not that he found the topic unpleasant, but as you can see he was more interested in the literary aspects of it, and although he thought a lot about it, he didn't like to talk about it—especially with her.
"Dying is no problem," she said finally: "The cat is out of the bag," he thought. Then he looked at the street. It was raining very hard indeed now. "Just like the beginning of Rashomon," he was still thinking. "All we need is an old Zen sage to come out of the pillars to say: `I don't understand, I don't understand ...'"
"I don't understand," he said aloud.
"You don't understand that I'm not afraid to die? I'm not."
He smiled at his own slip and at her confusion after wards.
"You look like the Mona Lisa," she said. "All smiles and no mystery."
He didn't say anything. He looked at her eyes, her mouth, her cleavage—then remembered. He liked remembering. Nothing was better than remembering. Sometimes he believed that he found things interesting only if he could remember them again. Like all this now. This moment exactly. And her. Her of course. Her eyes, her long lashes, the yellow-olive color of her eyes, the light reflected from the tablecloth on her face, her eyes, her lips, the words they revealed or hid, the quiet, caressing sound of her voice, her teeth as white as the light, her tongue, redder than her livid lips now, that at times reached the edge of her mouth and was quickly withdrawn, the running rain, the tinkling glass and the rattling cutlery drumming metallic on the crockery, a remote and barely heard incidental music coming from nowhere, Muzak making a musing, the steel blue of the cigar smoke as if coming from a fired gun, the fruity, fresh air from the terminally ill square. He was deeply moved by wondering what the exact recollection of this moment would be like tomorrow. Or even better, the day after tomorrow.
"Let's go," he said, suddenly standing up.
"But it's still raining," she protested.
"And it's going to go on raining all afternoon, evening, and night. It's three o'clock already."
"Come on, the car is just outside."
They ran to the car and they got in. For a moment he felt that the rarified air pocket inside the car was going to smother him. But he settled himself in the small driver's seat and started the engine. He pulled out.
The car left behind the narrow, meandering streets of downtown Havana, the old handsome houses, some of them mercilessly, crassly demolished and turned into car parks, even the Plaza Vieja destroyed to dig under it just one more car park, the intricate ironwork of the balconies ("This is a city of baroque balconies and flat rooftops," he thought), the huge solid and stately Customs House, the muelle de Luz and La Machina, giant wharfs both, and La Lonja the stock exchange, then the Paula Promenade, prominent in the eighteenth century and now a faultless pastiche of itself, and the old church of Paula, its south end looking like a half-built Roman temple (or a preserved ruin) and the crumbling segments of the city wall with a tree growing on top, nature conquering the remnants of a fortress, the Tallapiedra powerhouse with its corrupt stench redolent of sulphur mines to give light to night life, and the Elevado, the elevated structure for toy trains, and Atares Castle looming in the rain, and the flyover, dull and dour, let him see the amazing crisscross of railway lines down below and the electric cables and the telephone wires up above running like a horizontal rain, a maze without a Daedalus—and at last he came onto the open road, so propitious to flight for an Icarus without wings.
"I would like to see the photos again," she said suddenly.
He fished out his wallet and gave it to her. She looked at the photographs silently in the dim light of the car. She didn't say anything when she returned the wallet to him. Then, when the car left the main road to turn into a side road, she said:
"Why did you show them to me?"
"Because you asked to see them, darling," he said. "What else?"
"I don't mean now."
"I don't know." He smiled. "I suppose it was the marquis de Sade in me."
"No, it wasn't that," she said. "It was vanity. Vanity and something extra. You did it to get hold of me completely, to reassure yourself that I was yours above everything. Above desire and remorse. Remorse above all."
"Now we're living in sin."
"Is that all?"
"Don't you think it's enough?"
"Where you'll always find it."
"Where you'll always find it."
It was an old charade they had played many times. Now she was supposed to say where exactly pleasure was to be found—but she didn't say anything.
"There's none to be had," she said with finality. "We're living in sin."
He pushed the waterproof transparent wing back a little and threw what was left of his cigar away. Then he said to her:
"Open the glove compartment, please."
She did so.
"There's a book in it. Take it out."
She did so.
"Open it at the bookmark."
She did so.
"Read what it says."
She saw it said in capital letters: "NEUROSIS AND GUILT FEELINGS." And she closed the book and put it back in the compartment and closed it. For good.
"I've no need to read anything to know how I feel."
"But," he said, "it's not supposed to tell you how you feel but why you feel how you feel."
"I know quite well why I feel the way I feel and so do you."
"Of course I do."
The small car bounced and then turned off to the right.
"Look," he said.
Ahead of them, to the left, a small graveyard shone all white and wild through the rain. Its sterilized symmetry belied any thoughts of maggots and foul corruption.
"Isn't it beautiful!" she said.
He slowed down.
"Why don't we get out and walk around it for a few minutes?"
He gave her a brief, half-taunting look.
"Do you know what time it is? It's four already. We're going to get there when the party's over."
"You're a bore," she grumbled.
That was the other half of her personality: the little girl. She was a monster, half woman, half child. "Borges should include her in his fantastic fauna," he thought. The infant female. Along with the catoblepas and the amphisbaena. The female child.
He saw the village and stopped the car at a fork in the road.
"Could you tell me where the baseball ground is, please?" he asked a group of people and two or three of them described the way in a way that he knew he would get lost. At the next crossing he asked a policeman, who showed him the road.
"Aren't people obliging here?" she said.
"Serf-service. Man on foot and man on a horse. Nowadays the car is the horse."
"Why are you so arrogant?"
"I don't think I am really. It's just what people think but I have the courage to say it."
"It's the only kind of courage you have ..."
"Never perhaps. You know yourself ..."
"All right, I do! I warned you from the beginning, though."
She turned around and looked at him closely.
"I don't know how I can love such a coward!" she said.
They had arrived.
They ran through the rain to the building. At first he thought there wasn't going to be anything on because he couldn't hear anything but the rain and—among some buses and a few old cars—saw nothing but a bunch of boys dressed as baseball players. But when he went in he felt as if he had penetrated all of a sudden a magic domain: there were a hundred or two hundred blacks dressed in white from head to toe: white shirts and white trousers and white socks and white shoes and their heads covered with white caps which made them look "Just like a convention of colored cooks," he thought, and the women were also dressed in white and there were a few white-skinned women among them and they were all dancing in a ring to the rhythm of the drums and in the middle a huge black man who was already old but still powerful and wore dark glasses so that only his white teeth could be seen perhaps as another part of the ritual dress and who thumped on the floor with a long wooden staff that had a carved black's head made of wood with human hairs for a handle and this old black man with the dark glasses sang and the others answered as he shouted olofi and paused while the holy word resounded against the walls and the rain and he shouted olofi again and then sang tendundu kipungule and waited as the chorus repeated olofi olofi olofi and in that atmosphere so strange and turbulent yet cool and damply lit the black master of ceremonies sang again nani masongo silanbasa and the chorus repeated nani masongo silanbasa and again his slightly guttural and hoarse voice sang out sese maddie silanbaka and the chorus repeated sese maddie silanbaka and again.
She came up close to him and whispered in his ear:
"Damned theater slang!" he thought. But he smiled because he felt her breath on the back of his neck and her chin resting on his shoulder.
the black man sang olofi and the chorus answered olofi and he said tendundu kipungule and the chorus repeated tendundu kipungule all the time keeping the rhythm with their feet and going endlessly round in a circle in a close group knowing they were singing to the dead and praying that the dead might rest in eternal peace and that those still alive might be comforted and waiting for their leader to say olofi again so that they could say olofi and begin again with the invocation sese maddie and then olofi.
"Olofi is God in their language," he explained to her.
"What does the rest of it mean?"
"For me to explain what Olofi means is bad enough," he thought. Then:
"They're hymns to the dead," he said. "They sing to the dead so that they may rest in peace forever."
Her eyes shone with curiosity and excitement. She clutched his arm. The dance went on round and round, tirelessly. Young and old alike were frantically dancing. One small black man wore a white shirt completely covered with white buttons in front.
"Look!" she said into his ear. "He's got hundreds of buttons on his shirt!"
"Hush!" he said, because the man had looked up.
silanbaka bica dioko bica ndiambe and the old black man humped his staff rhythmically against the floor and great drops of sweat ran down his arms and face and made faintly dark patches on the immaculate whiteness of his shirt and the chorus said after him again bica dioko bica ndiambe and close to the man in the middle other ringleaders were dancing and repeating the chorus's response and when the black man in the dark glasses murmured take it! one of them chanted olofi sese maddie sese maddie and the chorus repeated sese maddie sese maddie while the black man in the dark glasses thumped his staff against the floor vigorously as he wiped away the sweat with a handkerchief that was of the purest white linen—
"Why do they dress in white?" she asked.
"They are worshipping Obbatala, the goddess of the pure and unblemished."
"Then I can't worship Obbatala," she said perhaps as a joke.
But he looked at her reproachfully and said:
"Don't talk nonsense."
She looked at him and then turned her attention to the old black man and said, ridding what she had said before of all insinuation:
"Besides, it wouldn't suit me. I'm much too pale for white."
"But you are wearing white!"
"It's not pure white."
and at his side another black swayed in time to the music and something indeterminate which went against the rhythm and interrupted it with his fingers on his eyes and he opened his eyes extremely wide and pointed to them again and emphasized the sensual and somewhat disjointed and mechanical movements of his body which nevertheless seemed possessed by an unseen power and now the chanting reverberated against the wall olofi olofi sese maddie sese maddie and invaded the whole building and reached two black boys in baseball caps who listened and looked on as if unwilling to embrace something that was theirs and reached the other spectators and drowned the noise of the beer bottles and the glasses in the bar at the back and flowed down the steps of the stands and danced among the puddles in the baseball field and went on over the sodden outer fields and through the rain reached the aloof and distant palm trees and went on further into the wild country and seemed to want to surmount the far-off hills and climb them and crown their summits and go on higher still olofi olofi bica dioko bica dioko ndiambe bica ndiambe ndiambe y olofi y olofi y olofi but again sese maddie but again sese maddie but again sese but again sese
Excerpted from Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá by G. Cabrera Infante. Copyright © 1995 by Santillana. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
|Three in One: A Prologue||11|
|The Great Ekbo||15|
|A Woman Saved from Drowning||43|
|Guilty of Dancing the Chachacha||65|