"Argueta's best novel."
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Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District is Manlio Argueta's most popular novel in El Salvador. It has gone through eight editions and has been newly revised by the author for this English translation. The story revolves around the relationship of two young lovers in a time of political upheaval Manlio Argueta's novels have earned him an/i>
Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District is Manlio Argueta's most popular novel in El Salvador. It has gone through eight editions and has been newly revised by the author for this English translation. The story revolves around the relationship of two young lovers in a time of political upheaval Manlio Argueta's novels have earned him an international reputation and have endeared him to the Salvadoran people. Caperucita en la zona roja received the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1977. Manlio Argueta currently lives in San Salvador.
"Argueta's best novel."
IN THE FOREST
-- i --
It is a sudden decision. It's inexplicable that I would abandon this hole in the wall after spending so much time here, surrounded by small objects, a book, a night stand, discarded ball point pens, old shoes. I enter Doña Gracia's room so she can tell me what I owe her. I think about leaving (apprehensively). I don't know how to repay her (fearfully). I wonder what Ant will say when she can't find me? Not being able to pay for the room is enough although that would seem a problem of conscience. Something makes me tell her without thinking it over very much. It would be better for me to go to live beneath the river almond trees, perched on the branch of a green lemon tree, the pinta bird of the children's rhyme. Making "coo, coo" sounds at people, on a branch with pink flowers, the branch with many flowers, like an upside-down necklace. So I have the courage to go to Doña Gracia's room to tell her I am leaving, but why, if no one is throwing you out? It's been two hours that I haven't sensed Ant's climbing-bird's steps ascending the stairs to the place where she hangs clothes, or passing a rag over the floor that shines with healthy filth. "When beautiful life is a tournament the best thing to do is to split forever," parodying a memorized phrase that says torment but isn't worth a damn. Who told it to me? Oh, Mamma, when she was alive, with her obsession of speaking in eleven-syllable verses. She is taking a siesta. Doña Gracia that is, Mamma never took a siesta. To leave now because you haven't come, pretty Peruvian Ant of reeds and capulí trees, your hair covered with a red scarf and your locks protruding from under your hood, the locks of hair that rise to heaven with the wind that blows. Sorry to bother you, as I knock on the door (terrified). My voice is like that of a choking dog. W-will you f-forgive me? I stutter whenever I speak from my heart. I push the curtain aside and tell her I want to settle my account, and she gets out of bed? Wait for me, I was lying down in bed, a headache, although it's gone now, thanks, through the curtain with blue tassels. Wait son, because she calls me her little boy. I make myself comfortable on the canvas seat of a chair, already wobbly from being sat on so much, the poor thing. She says to me: you don't look well. She pushes aside the blue tassels which flow down her back. Sit down, I tell her. Five months, makes five hundred, with your decent person's logic, of beloved mother and dead when I was seven years old, walking among the amate trees' brilliant green leaves. That's right, I tell her, it's five months. As I remember the time I moved the Honduran poet Clementina Suarez's piano, to celebrate her assignment as cultural attache, and the piano got away and rolled downhill until it was smashed to smithereens on the Santa Tecla highway. And I: how am I going to pay for it? Not even the family jewels would cover it. Whimpering, with great big tears and every swear word in the book. There is no name for what you have done to me. And I, poor little poet. Doña Gracia would like to know what I am thinking; her what's-wrong-with-you-son eyes tell me so. I left you a note, nice-butt Ant, spearmint love. A goodbye forever note. Don't get upset Doña Gracia. I pull out my five-and-a-half ruby watch. If you want we can count the bread. Don't be crazy, I trust you, as she puts the bills away. You're not well. How do you know, I ask. You can tell, you look like you're sleeping the sleep of the unjust. I: what's that? Stop the nonsense because I'm going to take your temperature, as she touches my arm. "My God, you're burning up!" And then she places her hand on my forehead. Beloved mother on the shoulders of my uncles buried in the Chaparrastique Valley, by the bluest volcano in my country. "You're not leaving," leading me by the hand to my room, downstairs; each step is a tremor of weak knees. "Dear thing, you're trembling." And all your little children pour shovelfuls of earth on you, so your spirit won't come out to scare folks. "I'm not your mother." Her hand on my forehead, while I bring you water and an aspirin to bring your fever down. I wake up slowly; and at the same pace the window that faces the clothes-drying area opens, where I see you every day, Ant, love (madness) of my life, with poems dedicated to you. The window through which you enter my room. And further away, the buzzards circling above the garbage dump of the Soyapango neighborhoods.
-- ii --
When I was in the Latino Café I knew you would arrive, but I acted like I was waiting for you, in order to play the part of the run-of-the-mill person and not a desperate individual. You know, there are situations known as cathartic, that is, when things are upside down and you have to turn them right side up, like in photographic negatives where people have their hands backwards. That's what you are, an inside-out image, a bat hanging in the air from a branch. Look at your truth and not the lies that appear to be true, you have the bad luck of not falling into any of the categories or temperaments, you are the exception of the exceptions. As they say, the normal among the abnormal. I am right aren't I, my dear little animal? We aren't ordinary people.
"Did you know I don't like this café one bit because everyone can see what we are doing and you have to watch yourself even when you make little noises as you sip your coffee, this place with its windows open, displaying you like a storefront window."
"It's a way of showing off our riches, turning ourselves into mannequins of conspicuous consumption, helium balloons of this beautiful medieval age with automobiles and window seats."
"You don't show up when you're invited. You have the courage to leave your Ant abandoned, watching my movements in the windows in front of me, stuck in this two-bit café for big-time thieves and merchants. Who knows where the heck you are. Al, searching for me somewhere. And you shall never find me. Speaking to me in your strange languages, you look for me somewhere else, in hidden places. As if you were an abstraction. And then you show up unannounced, a surprise wrapped in papier mache; and no sooner have you arrived than you are nowhere to be found, you are the invisible man who also goes after kids in the darkness of their bedrooms. The worst thing is that you go away and never come back; you take the final trip, abandoning everything, even this Ant that thinks twice before tossing a match stick, you leave me like a piece of old tortilla, inedible food, unknown soldier, dead animal. I wait for you in the Latino Café. Best wishes."
The likeness on the window in front gets up, exits through the front door, and advances towards its own image. I give myself a hug with my own shadow. Thinking that if we ever see each other again it will be never to part again and to find ourselves in the little room of photographs, with snot-nosed kids who belong to this world, kids who scream, who are a pain in the ass, who break dishes, who shall be different now and at the hour of our death, amen.
-- iii --
At one time we went off to live as a couple.
"Don't you notice anything different about me, Ant, it just happens that I have been quiet for an hour. Who am I going to talk to if today I've already said everything? That's not all, we've gone through enough arguments for the next two weeks. You want to squeeze the words out of me one at a time. To be different is to speak to you less, to stop looking at you for a second or for a long time; because neither you nor I are always right on time."
"It's nothing ..."
"You can't hide it from me ..."
You are speaking to me from the kitchen. We are in different countries, making ourselves understood through gestures, because your word in the light of day sounds like anything but you. Your notion of telephone is lack of communication. I light one of those cigarettes that seem hideous to you. We are talking in a different language; yes, that's it.
"My lost fool, my wolf."
"I'm not a wolf, Ant."
In protest, you put up the folding screen that separates the kitchen and the bedroom. Now you separate the two beds. And you have left the kitchen naked. You know I don't like anyone watching while I'm cooking. Especially you, because I could become petrified, hypnotized by your velvety eyes. And, speaking back and forth from one side to the other can turn anyone into a sleepwalker. But every dark cloud has a silver lining: now you can't see me when I take my clothes off. Why do you always feel like biting me every time you see me naked? Why do you look at me that way when you see me naked? And you tell me the same thing: then, why do you take your clothes off in front of me as if it were the most natural thing in the world? And I tell you: taking one's clothes off is an original virtue, like going to bed or the bathroom. And you say to me, acting crazy: don't leave me, my feather skin. Who is leaving you, I say. Especially if we're having a baby.
We have great long-distance dialogues via radiography of the conscience. And all that remains of the cigarette are tiny, black, windblown ashes.
Did you know that I like to see your pictures stuck to the folding screen? Why are there so many photos of you up on the screen? Could it be that you're losing your marbles and so admiring yourself more than you should? If you have a mirror, you don't need photographs because with a mirror you can reproduce a thousand pictures a minute.
All of a sudden we come to the why's. Are we an interrogation or the same question as always? Is that the issue? Sometime we shall be together without asking each other questions and that will be when we no longer understand each other, when everything in the world has been lost and we are standing in the yellow sand in the middle of the desert and no one will know why we are alone. You will be standing in front of the kitchen and I will be chained to the chair within these four walls that are like our feelings. To ask ourselves the same question is to find the missing links that lead to the same cave; there, we have run into each other until we are stuck together, nose to nose, mouth to mouth, your lips and mine: a word in the darkness.
Ant lets out a little owl--or rather a little howl.
"The saucepan is hot, I almost spilled grease on myself."
"One of these days you're going to get tied (I meant to say fried, why are we always making mistakes?)."
"There is something different about you Ant."
"Why do you say that?"
"The way you look at things.
"I'd like to call myself Sofia or Maria Elena, what do you think?"
"You're never happy."
"Perhaps I should call myself Virgin Mary mother of God ..."
"What more do you want, your name is Little Red Riding Hood, you are the forest full of flowers and rabbits."
"And you are the wolf."
"I'm not a wolf." I end the conversation.
-- iv --
Who would think of putting a folding screen between the beds of two lunatics who love each other? Now I would no longer be able to see with complete liberty her nude hills. Nor touch the smooth roughness of her pores. The fine hairs of her skin. The questions arise once again. Was it out of a lack of intelligence we fell into this desperate union? And all this is called love. The hope of being tied one to the other, an old overcoat, a hat hanging from a nail; you posing rigidly, covered with yellow lemons and the unfailing flowers in your lap in the photo; I shackled to one of your arms; or you piercing me like a hook in my life. Each is the coat hanger of the other. You leave me a note in which you say it's necessary--just like that, in a cultured, poetic tone--that we reconsider our differences of opinion and for that we must admit our mistakes; one of my errors would be not to remember anything about the time we have lived together--which happens to us for concentrating too much on ourselves. We think about nothing and faint. Your shadow gathers the papers from the garbage strewn about the floor, you wash the dirty dinner dishes, you light a cigarette and you sit on my lap. We get tired and we realize that to overcome the inevitable separations we should have been unequal and not these beings who look so much like each other, as if we were in front of a mirror.
"I imagine that they must be tall, serious, and educated, those pretty girls who show up to destroy everything."
"You're speaking about a spirit."
"Instead of all that suffering I bring you, she can give you what I can't offer you. I admit it. She must be a beautiful woman, chestnut hair and rainy eyes, the way you like them."
You throw blows left and right until you scratch me--I smile to myself. Sometimes I wonder if maybe you don't enjoy the roughness of your temperament.
I end up howling out one of the windows to get even with her impossible love. I bark at the sky and I feel like I'm her most cherished dog. Beloved dog, give me a paw. We are in the chiaroscuro of the room. In some way we are able to come to terms so that I will stop my howls. You're going to frighten the neighbors.
"I'd better go to my bedroom with blood-sucking insects, I'm going to try to forget everything," she says.
Some bell in a church tower always tolls at eight and it finds us in the same situation, Ant washing the dishes she didn't wash after lunch and I looking for a corner just for myself. If you knew everything that is happening. And what is happening? Repeating the Sermon of the magic mountain. I don't want to explain any more. Forget about the plates, the dirty clothes, stop washing them at home so we can go to the river to wash. If you don't make anything clear, I'm not going to know a thing, I'm not a fortune teller. And she raises her apron to her face. If you leave, everything will be different. Our crying is pathetic, for the love of the Magdalene. With so much resentment we carry, a Gordian knot forms in our throats.
"What will come of our dreams?"
The truth is plain to see, Ant, eater of fruits, I can't love anyone but you; after so many experiences, tell me, what path remains, with our cuddling, with a what-do-you-want-my-love look, with our saliva filling our throats. Your love is this half-light love, where each one howls like a dog through the window that opens to the clouds. Howling is a way of feeling important, and we howl when we are happy; to see the future, since otherwise we would be like irrational, ridiculous animals.
I receive each of your words with happiness. Have you realized how I adore you? Or are you blind or unaware that you are my finest jewel, my lapis lazuli stone. I would like to call you love in all languages, but it would be to no avail because I couldn't really love you in different languages.
She doesn't respond at all to my provocations.
"Why the quarantine-like silences?"
Our voices pass over the folding screen.
"I'm fed up with your ingratitude. I need you to leave me alone because it's the best way to be with you. That way I see you as more defined and I enjoy your beautiful words. But that doesn't mean I'm telling you to go."
Finally she starts falling asleep, exhausted from talking to the wall and the folding screen with the newspaper pictures on it. We sleep in silence. We don't speak but we understand one another and listen to each other. Asleep she is a peaceful animal, a small river bunny. Eater of water cress. Her mind soars to other places. Covered by a sheet, from head to toe so only the tiny windows of your eyes can be seen, Indira Gandhi, staring at the wall without noticing that I spy and caress, as if on horseback, your slightest movement. Spy of your dreams, that's what I am. Little smiles of oh-my-love-don't-love-me-so. Your little girl nose with a basket full of fruit for greedy, gluttonous grannies. Catching scent of the enemy that I am, trying to leave you forever without leaving tracks so that neither what happened to you nor where you went will ever be known, if indeed we did exist before this night that is so real. In this chocolate shack, a bedroom-kitchen-pisshole-dining room, and next to a miserable radio that gives news in a whisper. You saying in your sleep: If you leave, it's better that there be no farewell.
Until we get to the next day so fast we can see the trees flying by us on the sides of the road. Wake up my sweetheart, wake up, little cross eyes looking towards the sides of consciousness, asking what the hell have I got myself into?
Now you only talk to me under your breath because you have fallen in love with another, because you no longer love me and you have turned around five hundred degrees as if you were a toy animal.
The little wind-up animal has begun to jump: ten steps in the direction of the pisshole, another ten steps to the dining room. My eyes vent fatuous flames.
In back of me the noise from the toy animal's spring as it uncoils. Ant watching me strangely and that's enough! I keep walking. She lets out a howl--owl--to get my attention. I have left her behind me. And I see with the eyes of my conscience that she lifts her apron to her eyes. This always happens: when she wants to cry she doesn't and sometimes she cries when she doesn't want to.
"Sometime we should act like brother and sister, Ant, what do you think?" I say to console her. And my spring says tic-tac-tic. If you keep crying you're going to flood the house, Ant, pillar of salt, acting so obvious, with tears the size of jocote fruits from Usulutan.
"We aren't children to be hiding behind strange games," she protests.
"Look at my face, my muscles, all of my expressions are dedicated to you. In these moments when we are content as Christmas and Happy New Year."
"You're making fun of me. Me, slave. You asshole. She damsel. And then those silences of yours that deafen me."
The spring continues to uncoil until I reach the back wall. I trip over the first obstacle and I stumble. I can only walk in a straight line, that's the problem. My nose bumps into the cold wall. There I stay until the spring is uncoiled. Ant swallows the mucous from her pouting. To hell with it my love, she says to me, why do we start playing if we're so sentimental. The spring's unwinding came to an end and I stopped moving.
"You used to lock me in the room in the house when I behaved badly."
"When you went out with other women. Besides, you decided to stay there to pay your debts of infidelity, but you're not going to deny that I served you your milk on time, your refried beans. If I'm lying, let me know it right now."
Manlio Argueta's novels have earned him an international reputation and have endeared him to the Salvadoran people. Caperucita en la zona rosa received the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1977. Manlio Argueta currently lives in San Salvador.
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