Read an ExcerptLa Caverna
By Jose Saramago Alfaguara
Copyright © 2001Jose Saramago
All right reserved.
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, Margal 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 Margal 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 The truck does not really deserve thename of truck, since it is really only a medium-sized van, of a kind now out of date, and it is laden with crockery.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 Margal 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 Margal 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 Margal 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. Margal 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. Margal 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 Margal, 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 Margal 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 Margal 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. Margal 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, Margal 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 fagade. 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-ahead, What for, They've been talking for weeks now about a new extension, said Margal 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.
Excerpted from La Caverna by Jose Saramago Copyright © 2001 by Jose Saramago. Excerpted by permission.
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