The New York Times Book Review
The Nanny and the Iceberg: A Novelby Ariel Dorfman
Conceived the night of Che Guevara’s burial in 1967, Gabriel McKenzie is inextricably bound up in the history and politics of his native Chile. Twenty-four years on, and still a virgin, Gabriel returns from Manhattan exile to confront his legacy: a Don Juan father and a country preparing for the five-hundredth anniversary of America’s "discovery." Into Gabriel’s quest for manhood and identity enter one iceberg, a faithful if eccentric nanny, and a whole host of fantastical characters.
The New York Times Book Review
- Seven Stories Press
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Read an Excerpt
Surprise, Janice. It's me. Gabriel. Gabriel McKenzie. I'm backthough not really, not for long. I know, I knowI promised that I would write fromwell, I didn't tell you what country I was going to, did I? Just those goodbye words, a year and a half ago, on July 8, 1991, promising to pop an E-mail message on your screen the next day, promising to come back and ball you, complete what we hadn't quite managed to do when we were fifteen. As if anybody keeps a promise in this world.
Sorry that I disappeared. Sorry to burden you with this bundle of pages in the real mailthe longest suicide note in history, I guess. Send it to the Guinness Book of Records. Send it to a dwarf I know there. Tell him he can celebrate. Tell him I killed myself in Sevilla one minute before October 12 dawned. Tell him I killed some other people, too. Yes: I've got three days left. That's how long it should take to write this and print it and send it. If I decide to send it instead of pressing the DELETE button, that is, and don't remain the only reader of my story. I could send it and still be the only reader. You could decide not to read till the end, not to reach the climax, so to speak. But I've tried to make sure you will. This is a promise I can deliver on: besides my own death at the end, there'll be violence and murder. More murder than I bargained for when I set out on this voyage back home. And sex.
Real sex. Not what I bragged to you about in my E-mail drips and drops. All that infinite experience, the ins and outs, the multiple orgasms in those many beds, what Iboasted I had done to other women after I stopped seeing you, after we didn't quite make outall that was my father, what I imagined he was doing, Cristóbal McKenzie, my dad, the greatest lover in the world. Would have been accepted as such by the Guinness Book of Records if I hadn't fucked up his getting recognized. So it wasn't my appendage that went into all those women and bodies, just like it never went into yoursall false, Janice. I used faraway words to seduce you. What I've always been best at. My teachers knew it. Kept on reporting to my mom that Gabriel is "too clever for his own good, mature beyond his years." Except for my face. They never mentioned my face.
There's a reason why I've refused to show you my face, to meet you when you've come to New York to visit. The first thing you asked for when we reconnected through the Internet. "Send me a photo, please send me a photo, to see how much you've changed since I left for Seattle." What I didn't want you to know is that it hasn't changed. Not at all. That it's the same face you last saw walking out the door of your parents' house nine years ago. At twenty-four, I look like I'm still fifteen. Easy to deceive you, tell you I looked thirty, thirty-five.
Not the only lie. I'm not American. Fooled you when we first met, when we almostand kept on fooling you when we hooked up again to couple in cyberspace. Didn't want you to know I was Chilean. I came here from Chile when I was five. Me and my mother. Exiled. That's the mystery country I returned to eighteen months ago. That long dagger of a country on the Pacific Ocean. Means the end of the world in Quechua, Chile does. Even the Peruvian Indians thought it was too far away, too inaccessible and destitute to be conquered. Driest desert on earth, the Atacama, to the north; the Andes forbidding safe passage to the east; to the west that ocean, with no land for thousands of miles, except for the tiny isle of Juan Fernández, where poor Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked, and Easter Island and then nothing until Polynesia. And to the south ... I went there, to the mythical continent south of the south, first to Patagonia, then to Antarctica: I went to the white continent that for most of humanity's history did not even exist on a map. Only in dreams. I watched an iceberg being hacked from that floating mountain in Paradise Bay as the snow flurries licked my face and I tricked my father into telling me how he had fucked more women on this planet than any other man alive. As we watched that ice nobody had ever seen before in human history.
Maybe that's where I should begin the story I never told you: on a day in 1492 when snow was falling on Antarctica, it was falling and compactly forming the iceberg that my crazy compatriotas Chilenos have carted across the Atlantic Ocean here to Sevilla to prove how modern they are, how far they've traveled from the tropical day when Columbus sighted land. But don't get me started on snow. It was still falling on the same iceberg hundreds of years later on the night when this really begins, when I begin, when my mother and my father began what would be little lying-and-conniving me. Though my story can't really start there, my mom inserted the death of someone else into my own birth, before it. That's how she told it to me: I was alive because somebody else had died, died the day before I was conceived. Maybe it's always like that and we never know it: somebody old has to die for somebody new to live. In this case, Che Guevara. He died exactly twenty-five years ago today, come to think of it. One more coincidence, one more sign of how someone, something, is perversely playing with me.
So I'll let his death start my confession. He's sort of ubiquitous, Che is, nowadays. The man who declared that he would create two, three, many Vietnams is adorning coffee mugs and T-shirts, maybe you'll have a Guevara T-shirt on in Seattle, Janice, when you receive this confession in the mail. Che: for me, he's not something recent or merely fashionable. He's been nearby ever since I can remember, the poster with his face looming enormous on the wall of my room in Santiago as a childand now, it's still here, the first thing I see when I wake up, the last glimmer when I go to sleep, here in this small apartment on the Calle Rodrigo de Triana in Sevilla, I put him up there of my own accord to accompany me on this last lap of my trip. Mom packed that poster in her suitcase first thing when we left Chile in 1974 after the military takeover, and seventeen years later, when we went back in July of last year for what was supposed to be a one-month visit, she brought it with her and here it still is, I brought it all the way to Spain. I hope he would approve of what I am about to do, how I'm about to avenge him and myself. If he started it all, he may as well be here for the ending.
"You owe that man your life," Mom answered, when one Manhattan evening I asked who that face up there on the sky of the wall belonged to, how come she was tacking it up there as soon as we arrived in the United States back in 1974, and when I asked why, what had he done? she simply added, "I'll tell you when you're ready." I looked him up, you can believe I did my research, prefiguring early on that I would be a bookish nerdand by the age of ten, without the aid of a computer or an on-line encyclopedia, nonexistent back then, I had discovered that the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Guevara, known as Che, had been captured and executed on October 9, 1967, around nine months before my birth, and I got to wondering if my mother believed that the legendary guerrilla's soul had somehow magically been transferred into my body.
When I presented my transmigratory theory to her, she laughed and said that was not the link. "You were conceived the next day, mi amor," she said: "we were fucking you into existence, your father and me, in a hotel bed in Santiago de Chile, several thousand miles to the south of where they were lowering Che, alone and dead, into a stink-hole grave in Bolivia. I won't deny that I'd have liked Che's soul to have wandered into your tiny cells as they were developing inside me, but frankly, would the leftovers of his spirit have crossed the jungles and deserts of Latin America for thirty-six hours only to reincarnate in you, of all people? No need to resort to that sort of spiritual mumbo jumbo, because it turns out, Gabrielito, there's a more direct connection between you and Che and more than one. I'll tell you all about it in good time. Just remember: you're alive because he's dead. It's that simple. So you owe him."
I had two fathers, therefore, Janiceboth of them equally mysterious and distant. Che was always there sharing my space, my time, my wall with the man who was supposed to be my father, Cristóbal McKenzie, the great McKenzie, who foryeah, that's right"reasons you're too young to know yet," stayed behind in Santiago when my mom escaped that military coup in our country. A mystery, my dad, even if I knew all the basic biographical facts: he was a detective of sorts, a psychologist of sorts, he brought back errant kidsthat was his profession, to find runaways and persuade them to return to the family fold, and if they didn't want to, he'd put them up for a while at his own house, which he had baptized Casa Milagros in honor of my mom. And one more thing: my dad wanted me to come home.
Every week a letter postmarked Santiago would arrive at our New York apartment, and in the letter a new photo, so my eyes could accommodate the subtle changes in his appearance, so I could substitute the face in my memory with the face time and distance were molding for him far away. And in each letter, cozy, funny, humane, he was calling me back, as if all it took was to board the next plane, I felt he was rehearsing with me all the words he used to persuade those other boys to return to their parents. Full of stories, his letters, promising mepromises, Janice!that if all else failed there was one place for me in the world and always would be. I could feel his charm oozing through the pages, I wanted to plunge my hand into the page and snatch him out of it, physically transport my father to this New York where Chile seemed ever more remote, ever more unreal, I waited for the day when he would announce a visit so I could probe his real hands and see his real face, when I could burn all his photos. But he never came. "He doesn't travel, he won't leave the country," my mother would say, hinting as usual at some enigma, "for reasons that I'll explain someday."
The reasons vaguely seemed to center on women, other women. It became clear to me that my dad was something of a ladies' man, extremely popular with "those bitches," Mom would say disdainfully, though he and my mother still loved each other and had not divorced, not because there was no divorce in Chile (there's still no divorce in Chile, Janice) but because they wanted to go on living together if he would onlyand then Mom would grow quiet, and to tell you the truth, I didn't quite understand what was going on and there was nobody to ask. Even when my Abuela Claudia, Dad's mother, came to visit, if I ventured into forbidden territory, asked why Che Guevara was on my wall, why my dad couldn't travel outside the country, how my mom and dad had met, the old woman would simply lift her eyebrows, graze my cheek with her withered hand, and say, "Querido, I think you'd better ask Milagros about that."
And whenever I approached my mom, she'd say, "We met because of Che and we're not together because of Che, because of that damn bet your father made the night after we made you, poor thing," and before I could ask another questionWhat bet? Why is it so damned? What in carajo are you talking about, Mom?she would cross to the rundown stereo. She always had the same cassette on hand, Mozart's Don Giovanni, though all she wanted to play over and over was one aria. Leporello, "that scoundrel's servant," Mom explained the first time I demanded a translation from the Italian, "he's telling Donna Elvira about his patrón's conquests, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," this is the list of all the women he's fucked, in Italy so many, in France so many, but in Spain, ah, "in Ispagna son già mille e tre," in Spain he's already bamboozled a thousand and three, which left me even more puzzled: my dad was not in Spain. How was I to know he would end up here, in Spain, with me and my mom and everybody else? Outside their hotel room is the bustling Sevilla that made Don Juan famous, where he came from originally, el burlador de Sevilla, the trickster of Sevillathough trickster cannot give you the sense of burla in Spanish: it is to make mockery. And he made a mockery of women and God made a mockery of him. In this very city in Andalucía, Don Juan fucked one woman too many and then killed her father when the old man came to defend his daughter's honor and then the burlador insulted that murdered man's statue by inviting him to dinner, not knowing that the Commendatore's statue itself would take him straight to hell. Not that my mom entertained me back then with such lurid tales. She merely pointed at the voice on the tape as if it were to blame for everything. "That bet," she said in our apartment there in New York when I was hardly even a child, that's how small I was, she would rail against that damn bet whenever something went wrong, when the clients left without paying at her restaurant, when one of the Puerto Rican waitresses had a baby in the kitchen one nightthere was nothing in the world that was not directly or indirectly linked to the bet my father had made with his brother, Pancho, and their best friend, Pablo Barón, the day after he and Mom made love for the first time. Fucked me into existence: her words.
She had no problem using that sort of language around me. Very explicit about sex, my mom was. Not too typical for Chile, as you'll seea country where everybody fucks but nobody likes to say the word, at least not in the presence of ladies, a country of hypocrites. A country where the military can put electrodes on your picobut what's obscene is to say the dick word on TV. Mom was different, outspoken, straightforward, at least that's what I thought. I should have suspected, though: Mom was keeping too many things to herself. To begin with, she had never once, in her infinite depictions of labia and clitoris and glans and erections, referred to her relationship with my father, not one hint about what intimacies they had shared, how I had been born. She would only point at the huge portrait of Che on the wall. "He's responsible," she ranted, and that was as far as I could draw her out.
So it wasn't that I had no sex educationonly that my father was regularly left out of those lessons. If he'd been around ... Instead, when I was about thirteen, two years before I met you, it was my crazy mom who mentioned one evening that she'd noticed semen stains on my bedsheets. "It's called a wet dream," she announced, and then: "Did it feel good?"
"Dreamy," I answered, "but pretty good."
"Well, your father's not here so I guess I'll have to teach you how to masturbate." And then went on to explain the process to me quite graphicallyas if I didn't already know! Chill out, Mom! And then escorted me to the bathroom and said that she recommended that I not use my hand. She pointed to the toilet seat. "There," she said, "use that." My whacky mom had cleaned the damn thing, scrubbed it a motherly white for my inaugural launch. "You get down on your knees"she had put a little cushion on the floor, very considerate of her"and just move your ass back and forth, gently. You can use some soap if you want. Remember: hands are the lazy way of doing it. Women can't help it; basically, we sort of need fingers to help us along. But men, men should find more creative ways. I'll be making dinner, amorcito. A great cazuela, to celebrate. You have a good time." And she left me there. I touched it. The glittering enamel of the toilet was glacial and the wooden seat not much better, both cold as hell, so I went ahead and did it with my hand as I usually did and then told her later, when I emerged, that I had really enjoyed the toilet seat, thanks for the suggestion.
"Wait till you do it with a woman," she crooned, doing a jerky mambo with her hips to the rhythm of Pérez Prado. "And when you do, there's something I'm going to tell you,"it was the first time I could look forward to a concrete deadline, a moment in the future when she would reveal the secrets of my origins"I've got a story about your dad. And about Che Guevara. But you have to be ready for it, that story."
That was the story she finally poured into my anxious ears a couple of years later when I returned home at three in the morning after having been out with you, my dear Janice Worth, and Mom was waiting up for me in the kitchen under a sad lightbulb. She was trying to imitate her Nanny. It's about time I mentioned Mom's Nana in this story, Janice, because she's the key to everything that happened: beginning with the fact that Mom was waiting for me only because her Nana had been waiting for her the night of my conception and Che's burial back in 1967. Nana realized immediately from Mom's feverish eyes that Mom was pregnant. If Mom had been that wise all those years later in New York as she worked at her interminable restaurant accounts with an eye on the door night after night, if Mom had been like Nana, known what was what, able to always guess exactly who was doing what to whom ... But my mother jumped to conclusions, was too eager to congratulate me, and without giving me even a chance to say a word, embraced me, sat me down to tell me, now that I was a man, she said, how I had come into being.
I didn't inform her, of course, that the thing with you hadn't worked out because neither of us had considered bringing along a condom. I wasn't about to let her in on my secret: you had been adamant, hot and squirming and arching up and down under the pressure of those fingers of mine that were helping you along in accordance with my mother's advice. God, how could you move like that and still remain so stubbornly adamant? Nor, did I tell Mom that you and I were going to rendezvous the next night and go for it, all the way, make 1983 the year we both lost our virginity, first because Mom had no business knowing any of this anyway, and as for me, I had been waiting foreverit seemed like forever, we had been away from Chile almost ten years by thento find out about my dad, to unravel the mystery of the man who had made me. Get inside you so I could get inside him, inside his story.
They had conceived me the night of October 10, 1967, that much I knew, that they had met at a protest rally on the Alameda, but now I found out that it had all started seven years before, that they already had a more than passing acquaintance. They had played hide and seek, you could say. It had started one day in early 1960, at her father's house, the same gigantic house that would someday be turned into the Casa Milagros, in the vast backyard where Professor Gallardo had decided, as he did every year, to throw an asado, a barbecue, for his incoming students at the Universidad de Chile. A certain Cristóbal McKenzie, not yet eighteen, a freshman majoring in psychology, had come along, timid and tentative and virginal, yes, my dad hadn't made love to one lonely lady in his life. Runs in the family. But instead of using the occasion to try and bed one of the voluptuous university damsels who were flirting in that backyard under the stern gaze of none other than the Nana who did not approve of such profligate behavior but who nevertheless was dishing out her ensalada a la chilena in huge spoonfuls, liberally sprinkling it with enough coriander to make an army gag, instead of wriggling his way into somebody else's arms or even toadying up to the other professors munching away at the strips of steak and innards, this young McKenzie, astoundingly, spent the whole afternoon speaking to fucked-up twelve-year-old Milagros, the daughter of Professor Gallardo, the two of them talking the asado away in a corner.
And when he left several hours later, it was as if the world had come to an end for bobby-soxer Milagros Gallardo. His kindness toward her, the fact that he had treated her as a real human being and dispensed with the usual adult bullshit of "You're a sweet young thing, hello and goodbye, let's see if there's somebody fuckable over there," had revealed how lonely she really was and two days later she decided she could not stand another minute in that motherless home where even the Nana did not seem to understand her preteen blues. When she hightailed it out of there, the first suspect the police interrogated was, of course, none other than Professor Gallardo's psychology student. After all, this weird tipo Cristóbal McKenzie had spent a whole afternoon in conversation with la niña; he probably had something to do with her disappearance.
When the police released the suspect for lack of evidence, Cristóbal, instead of forgetting the whole unpleasant episode, grabbed the first bus back to Professor Gallardo's.
"I'm not responsible for her escape," he informed the old man, while the Nana hovered in the background, listening carefully, "but I have a good idea where she might have gone."
"Why didn't you tell the police then?" the professor asked.
And it was the Nana who answered, as if she could read young McKenzie's deepest thoughts: "Because she'll only come back," Nana said, "if this joven convinces her."
So Milagros's Nanny was the first one who recognized the great McKenzie gift, who started him on his career, so to speak. She was the one who convinced Professor Gallardo to beg Cris to try and find, God willing, the vagabond daughter.
Milagros was at the seaside near Cartagenathat ocean Magellan had baptized the Pacific because he came upon it the one day in the last three centuries when it was calmand what she liked about it was precisely how wild the water was. She had described the site to Cris when they talked at the asado, the open beach, la playa grande, the way the waves reminded her of something she desired but could never really possess, the spray a suggestion of how everything passes, the harsh light of the sun a hint that maybe something stays in September.
Her future husband and my future dad came up behind Milagros on that beach, touched her unobtrusively on the shoulder, and before she even turned she knew who it was, era él. This was the reason she had run away, to force him to follow her, so he could see she had not been lying when she said there was a place in the world where you could smell the sand and the breeze and the crabs scuttling their existence away and not feel sad. She had fled home, she now realized, with the hope that he would come after her.
It wasn't difficult for Cristóbal McKenzie to induce Milagros Gallardo to return home. She was just a lonely kid who tolerated her father and adored her Nanny and wanted some attention, needed someone just out of adolescence to reassure her that this pubescent desolation wouldn't last forever. That was it, that was all.
Except that before he deposited her into the loving arms of her Nanny (and refused any compensation from her father, though he did expect old man Gallardo to correct any future papers and exams with a supremely benevolent eye), Milagros had extracted from Cristóbal a promise. It was on the train they took back to Santiago when she let slip the remark that he would be going back to his other women, and he answered, with utter simplicity, the truth:
"I haven't got any women in my life, not one."
"You'll have lots," she answered, already insanely jealous of the thousands of females he would eventually dazzle and poke. "You're good at this. You're going to spend the rest of your life doing it, finding little lost girls and boys."
Meet the Author
ARIEL DORFMAN is considered to be one of “the greatest Latin American novelists” (Newsweek) and one of the United States’ most important cultural and political voices. Dorfman's numerous works of fiction and nonfiction have been translated into more than thirty languages, including Death and the Maiden, which has been produced in over one hundred countries and made into a film by Roman Polanski. Dorfman has won many international awards, including the Sudamericana Award, the Laurence Olivier, and two from the Kennedy Center. He is distinguished professor at Duke University and lives in Durham, North Carolina.
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