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"The gargantuan epic of medical student Palinuro's quest for the relationships between knowledge, myth, history, and art as he journeys through the real and imaginary realms of Mexico's cultural body. Original published in 1977 (see HLAS 42:5203) and winner of numerous international awards. Translation is inventive and 'reads like hypertext' (New York Times Book Review, 11 Aug. 1996). Lacks the introduction needed to bring its huge dimensions of slapstick and satire within reader's grasp"--Handbook of Latin American Studies, v. 58.
The Grand Illusion
The science of medicine was a spirit which haunted Palinuro's heart throughout his life. Sometimes it was a sad spirit, drawing along the hospital corridors of this earth a train of floating kidneys and iron camisoles. At others, it was a wise spirit which came to him in dreams to offer to him, as Athene to Ascelpius, two phials filled with blood: the first serving to resuscitate his dear departed and the second to destroy them, and himself, both.
Uncle Esteban was among the dear departed, or would be one day, when in his chest ceased to be heard the infinitesimal crepitations which choked him, dark and barely perceptible as the wing beat of butterflies - yet another of the beings beloved or admired by Palinuro and who, like himself, had always been held in the thrall of medicine. In effect, Uncle Esteban, who had long white hands which could trace master operations in the air and, with two arabesques, link the iliac artery of John Abernethy, the English surgeon who a hundred years previously had invented this very operation to the awe of posterity; this Uncle Esteban, as we were saying, had also dreamed of one day becoming a doctor.
The bells of Leopoldstadt Cathedral were pealing when Uncle Esteban was born, on the left bank of the Danube, within the empire extending from Transylvania to the frozen peaks of Tirol. His father, a surgeon and also chamber musician on Sundays and public holidays, raised him up between his hands and dedicated him to all the gods of medicine he knew: Apollo, Dhanvantari, Eshmoun the Phoenician and Khors the Slav.However, in 1916, when Uncle Esteban was sixteen years old, his birthday having coincided with that of the century in which von Hofmannsthal's prophecy was to be realized and Austria, together with the entire Kakania, was to fall - his father already dead and far removed from the surgical instruments and the medical books he had inherited - Uncle Esteban, studying in Berlin at the time, found himself suddenly conscripted into the ranks of the German army.
And thus was his fate sealed, and Estefania's and my own. In July of that same year, Uncle Esteban took part in the Battle of the Somme and, a bullet failing through a defection of scant millimetres to perforate his aorta, he was saved from becoming one of the 4(30,000 soldiers of the German army who never left the battlefield and whose blood mingled with the sap of French sugar beet while the vultures bore away in their beaks the pages of the Star of Alliance. That was the gist time Uncle Esteban escaped death.
During the initial months spent in hospital - if indeed that series of dirty and evil-smelling tents where he met the Polish nurse could be called a hospital - Uncle Esteban had the opportunity to read several books on surgery and medicine and, yet again, confirm his vocation. He vowed that when the war was over he would begin his university studies and, in time, become a surgeon of note in his beloved Budapest. It would have been true to say that Uncle Esteban had a difficult time of it, one complication succeeding another, relapsing fever followed by dysentery, infection by delirium. And, to make matters worse, he had several times to be moved, along with the hospital and all the wounded and the dying. Uncle Esteban never knew, for instance, if he only dreamed it or if, in fact, at one point they took him up the Alps in a stretcher hung from a ski lift. The fact of the matter was however that, absorbed as he was in his twin loves of medicine and the Polish nurse, Uncle Esteban spent in that hospital some of the happiest days of his youth.
Between one convalescence and the next, he became the Polish nurse's assistant and learned to bandage patients: the ordinary capeline bandage, the Velpeau bandage and the figure-of-eight gauntlet bandage. Later, when their supplies of cotton bandages were exhausted, he was taught to improvise dressings with sphagnous mosses. After a few short weeks, Uncle Esteban could insert a gastric catheter and give intravenous injections of salvarsan to syphilitic comrades-in-arms and, during the same few weeks, he learned to diagnose correctly cases of sepsis, to prescribe a venesection for a victim of toxic gases, to interpret the sombre prognosis of temperature charts featuring the oscillations of a pendulum swing and to apply solutions of physiological salt and water to wounds to stimulate the production of pus. But Uncle Esteban also took it upon himself to carry out certain more humble tasks which later proved to be the best example he could have given Estefania, such as merely cleaning the gums of the wounded or washing their bodies with ointment of zinc and castor oil when they soiled themselves in bed or picking lice from their heads with infinite patience.
`One thing we were never short of during the Great War was lice,' Uncle Esteban told his daughter Estefania. `There were more lice than Germans, Russians and Brits added together and multiplied by a thousand.' Whenever Uncle Esteban and the Polish nurse made love, whether in the old, horsedrawn, South African-style ambulances or in the mobile bacteriological laboratory, either afterwards or during lulls, they would always remove each other's lice. Then they would go to sleep or make love again after tying around their heads woollen bandages soaked in mercury and beeswax. But not for this did they love each other less: she a nurse and he a future doctor and living as they did surrounded by what were coming to be considered the horrors of the war, Uncle Esteban and the Polish nurse lost their disgust for life. Uncle Esteban was quite equal to whistling a Brandenburg concerto while he incinerated the excrement from the latrines. Uncle Esteban - and with him his Hungarian friends, the Polish nurse and the other nurses - continued to eat and laugh as they worked in the tents among the rotting limbs of patients suffering from gaseous gangrene and they talked of books and of their families, of the spring and of going to dine in restaurants and dancing the night away when the war was over, after going to the cinema to see Mary Pickford in The Paris Hat.
And the filth accumulated and the lice multiplied and Uncle Esteban developed trench foot and the Polish nurse was smitten with itch mite and the teeth of both became encrusted with tartar and still they continued to love each other. Although, if the truth be known, they did once - or perhaps twice, or five times - frolic with their friends in a huge wooden barrel full of water, reminding them of the barrels in which grapes are pressed and they dreamed that they were bathing in Tokay wine.
From then onwards, Uncle imagined himself in the future as an ophthalmologist, married to the Polish nurse; it was her eyes which made him decide on this specialization. However, his own plans for the future were one thing, while the orders they gave him and the fate awaiting him were another. He was refused permission to continue working at the hospital and was sent back to the front. Uncle Esteban and the Polish nurse made desperate love throughout several nights and the intervening days: sometimes in the filth of the trenches, sometimes under the tarpaulin of a lorry loaded with thousands of doses of anti-tetanus serum and once again, and for the last time, in the mobile laboratory. Afterwards, Uncle Esteban trapped a louse and, observing it under his microscope, told the Polish nurse that he had discovered that her lice were in fact female because they all had a pair of black tits. They laughed so much that the Polish nurse's tears bathed the swastika hanging around her neck which, she had explained to him, was a symbol of good luck and represented the source of life and sacred fire. Our uncle believed her, since neither he nor she - they were both Jewish - knew at that time what the swastika would come to signify. In fact, she never had time to find out because she died, her body riddled with shrapnel, just a few months after Uncle Esteban marched off to the eastern front to join the Austro-Hungarian army. And, for the time being, he had little leisure to mourn her death; when the Russian offensive was launched by the general who, according to Uncle Esteban, bore a name more suited to a vaccine - the Brusilov vaccine - than to a military man, it was Uncle Esteban's lot to become one of the thousands of Hungarians taken prisoner in the Carpathian Mountains. And that was how he escaped death for the second time. But, before he was finally captured, he flung down his rifle and ran, ran for all he was worth while, thousands of miles away in Mexico, the land he was eventually to adopt, Grandfather Francisco fled from the punitiveraid leaf by John J. Pershing. Grandfather Francisco, later to become Uncle Esteban's father-in-law, was a revolutionary and initiate of a rite dating back to the Son of Hiram and the Living Caltzontzi, who rode as always beside General Villa.
But in Siberia, that Siberia of legend, below the tundra carpeted with moss and lichen, that Siberia which was after all not as inhospitable and as far removed from the world as he had been told, Uncle Esteban had days, weeks and years to spare for mourning the Polish nurse. More than enough time when the snow thawed each spring, when the corpses hidden throughout the winter began to emerge, here and there a hand, a foot, an elbow, to picture her likewise, pale and frozen, beneath the snow. Thus he imagined her whenever the whiteness was blemished by a black and liquid hollow from which protruded a lock of silken blonde hair. So profound was his grief that, when he was released, he knew that he had forgotten her. Such was his grief also for his homeland that, although the House of Austria had failed to fulfil its proud, bilingual five-worded motto: Austria est imperare orbi universo - Alles Erdreich ist Oesterreich unterthan - and Hungary was therefore free, Uncle Esteban no longer desired to return to the land of his birth. To him, Europe was rotten. And so it was that he came to escape death for a third time, failing to become one of the 20 million Europeans who died between 1918 and 1919 in the influenza epidemic.
With four languages and a World War behind him, Uncle Esteban headed for Vladivostok. He made part of the journey on foot, bidding farewell to the passengers travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Another part he completed on the Trans-Siberian, bidding farewell to those walking across the countryside. From Vladivostok he went to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to San Francisco. There, in America, while he worked as dishwasher in Chinatown, as downhill tram driver, as crab cleaner on the quay and as doorman of a whorehouse in Haight-Ashbury, Uncle Esteban continued to dream of becoming a doctor and of plumbing the mysteries of sal reverberatum, described by Paracelsus, which purifies the whole of Nature, of contemplating through the eye of a microscope the sinister black spirilla of garlic disease and of identifying the cause of death of a sailor who succumbed to an embolism with his heart full of foam. He visited museums at weekends, bought second-hand books and magazines and collected old instruments: Dr Wirtz ophthalmic electrodes, Gibson spoons for giving medicine to children and lunatics, along with anatomical illustrations, sets of homoeopathic instruments and golden microscopes. At night he devoured the books and f everything, quite without method: ancient and modern knowledge, prescriptions written in verse by doctors of the Salerno School and anecdotes of the life of Liston, who used to walk through the hospitals of Edinburgh in his wellington boors proclaiming the supremacy of Scotland in the medical world of his day. And so the years passed for him and when he was over thirty years of age, never having attempted to sit an entrance exam for any school of medicine, Uncle Esteban packed up his treasures and, with these and a group of gypsies, he set off to travel right across the United States until he reached New Orleans. This particular city was also visited, two or three times a year, by Grandfather Francisco - at that time at the peak of his political career - to listen to jazz, practice his English on the Irish prostitutes and eat mackerel in white wine on Bourbon Street. Yet Uncle Esteban, who was destined not only to become his son-in-law but also to make him a true grandfather for the first time, did not meet Grandfather Francisco in that city. They may, perhaps, have crossed in the street without knowing it. Grandfather Francisco may have passed a rail, pale young man with hair blacker that the grapes of Corinth, and Uncle Esteban - who at that time was nobody's uncle - may have passed a very fat man with immense whiskers - which were not yet white - sporting a walking stick with a mother-of-pearl knob and a sterling silver railwayman's watch. Perhaps. But there were so many such very strange people in New Orleans in those days and such a number of extraordinary events occurring which nobody even noticed; you could meet Louis Armstrong in the street and not know it or attend the funeral of a musician and doff your hat as the carriage of coloured windows passed, drawn by black-plumed horses whose eyes had been rubbed with onion to make them weep throughout the burial while behind them the jazz widows mourned to a blues rhythm.
But, though they may not have met in New Orleans, there was no doubt that Uncle Esteban was fast approaching his destiny and he took pains to do it in style: it was there that he not only learned to drink milk with salt like certain Cubans - something which always greatly amused Grandfather Francisco - but, more important still, he became well-versed in the swaggering arts of poker, the favourite game of the mayor of the San Angel district of Mexico City.
One day a Mexican boat, El Tabasco, anchored in New Orleans, arriving as usual with a cargo of bananas and plantains, before returning by way of Tampico to the fair city of Veracruz - the other two cities often visited by Grandfather - stuffed full of contraband: whiskies, cognacs, cashmeres, French perfumes and Florentine cameos. The ship's captain, by pure coincidence a distant cousin of Grandfather Francisco's, won twenty dollars and a Ricord vaginal speculum from Uncle Esteban in a poker game and then invited him to travel to Mexico. And so Uncle Esteban became
part of El Tabasco's contraband and entered Mexico riding the crest of a puff of trade wind, at the very port of arrival, twenty-six years previously, of Jean Paul, the French botanist whom Aunt Luisa, only sister of Grandfather Francisco, had never married. When they said goodbye, the captain returned the speculum and gave Uncle Esteban the address of his cousin in Mexico City who he said was a senator and might suddenly, when least expected, rise to the dizzy heights of state governor.
But Uncle Esteban was not to witness the golden era of Grandfather Francisco who did, effectively, become state governor, but only for a few months as his nomination was merely of an interim nature. And those few months were reduced to a few weeks when Grandfather had an unfortunate accident which forced him to retire permanently from politics and the good life: he was in a bar in Tampico, gossiping about Obregon's assassination in La Bombilla, when a lorry crashed through the wall and came to rest against the counter. Grandfather just managed to leap aside and throw himself to the floor, as though expecting a bomb to explode. But a huge cash register toppled over and crushed his leg, the same leg which had previously caused him suffering when it had caught a bullet during the revolution, and which they had since, more than once, been on the point of amputating. The contents of the till showered all over him and, when the ambulance arrived, Grandfather - who never lost his sense of humour - threw notes and gold coins into the air shouting: `I'm rich, I'm rich.' But, from then onwards, subject to a consistently ironic destiny, Grandfather Francisco's fortunes began to wane and finally he sank in a sudden and spectacular manner - as ships and liners sink, as the Titanic and the Lusitania sank - and his final glories coincided, give or take a few years, with the apocalyptic blowout of the Meriwether and Morrison oilwells which had at one time or, more specifically, on account of the First War, made Tampico the greatest oil emporium of this orb.
His wife, Grandmother Altagracia, who loved her garden above all else in this world, got up one day determined to resolve her financial straits without having to sell the house. `You haven't burned the dry leaves,' she said to Ricardo the gardener the moment she emerged from her room. `No ma'am,' replied Ricardo. `You haven't burned the dry leaves,' she said again when she returned from mass. `No ma'am.' `You haven't burned the dry leaves,' she repeated after breakfast until, finally, Ricardo the gardener raked the dry leaves into a pile in the yard and consummated the funeral rite of autumn. Ricardo the gardener breathed a sigh of relief and, in the kitchen, Grandmother Altagracia contentedly sniffed the scent of short circuits and expiatory caterpillars. It was then that the notion struck her actually bearing no relation to the dry leaves - and that very night she painted a sign and hung it on the front of the house. And thus it was that when Uncle Esteban, sporting a stetson hat of beaver fur and socks of Egyptian yarn, made an appearance to pay his respects to the governor, almost two years after disembarking in Veracruz, he came to be confronted with a sign saying: `Rooms to Rent' and concluded that he must have come to the wrong address. But no, Grandmother had simply transformed the Porfirian mansion into a guest house. And the house was of such dimensions - dimensions on a par with the governor's political career that there was room in it not only for the traffic police commander, a retired cabaret artist, don Prospero the encyclopaedia salesman, the mother of the Under-Secretary of State for the Mexican Navy and several other guests, besides Francisco and Altagracia themselves, their daughters and sons-in-law and of course Aunt Luisa, but also for Uncle Esteban who after conversing with the ex-governor and meeting Aunt Lucrecia (who gazed at him from beneath her Marlene eyebrows and rainshower lashes with two moist green eyes closely resembling the fish of her birth sign), that very same day and without a second thought, rented the Provencal bedroom.
And it was in this house of trellised arbours and lilac walkways and shadowy portals, that first Aunt Lucrecia and Uncle Esteban - later Papa Eduardo and Mamma Clementina - beneath a diamond cloak of virtues, swore, back to back, an enigmatic love and, standing, kissed in the region of the Adam's apple. And it was thus, in these caresses, that Palinuro and Estefania started to be born and in this same house, of perfumed corridors and blue attics, where they finished being born and where they lived their first years, as cousins, as brother and sister, marvelling at the Japanese lodgers and the luminous grubs of the garden, at the huge bath tub and the kaleidoscope chandelier in the dining room. There, in their grandparents' house, Palinuro and Estefania would sit of an afternoon, with their Aunt Luisa, discovering faces in the chiaroscuro of the forget-me-nots. And some were faces they had never seen before, white and of stone with startled moss on their lips, and others were the faces which looked down on them from the tapestries and from the walls of the room belonging to Grandmother Altagracia, who not only knew the secret of grooming her hair with soft brushes soaked in salt water to make it shiny, but also managed to fill her life with portraits, silhouettes, photographs and miniatures of all her relatives, living and dead, who nightly rescued her from hell through the vicissitudes of their chequered fortunes.
Then, Palinuro and Estefania would sit beside Uncle Esteban to hear him talk of medicine. Uncle Esteban had waited many years for my cousin and me, that is Estefania and Palinuro, to reach an age to become his listeners. Sometimes our cousin Walter, who was a few years older than ourselves, also appeared. Formerly, Uncle Esteban had no sooner mentioned poultices, bubonic plague or tuberculin eye drops, than Aunt Luisa, or the lodgers, or Grandmother, would exclaim: `How ghastly, how ghastly!' Uncle Esteban was eventually obliged to accept that nobody derived any amusement from his conversations about the marvels and horrors of the art and history of Hippocrates and Avicenna. And this was not because Grandfather Francisco and the others were uneducated people. Even don Prospero who, when Uncle Esteban arrived, had already reached the letter D in the encyclopaedia, already knew who wrote The Decameron, who Daedalus was and where the Delaware River was situated. Even Grandmother Altagracia, who played `Clair de Lune' on the piano and knew how to lower her lashes in gatherings to hide her spiritual myopia, read the Reader's Digest Selections and remembered having once seen a Titian original. The fact of the matter was, quite simply, that their interest in medicine went no further than pills, injections, syrups, enemas and paregoric tinctures to cure or relieve their constipation, angina or lumbago. Moreover, not everybody had the stomach or courage to hear of mutilations and amputations, even adorned as they were by Uncle Esteban with egg yolks and rose oil which were the ingredients of the poultices prepared by Ambrose Pare, surgeon to Francis II, to apply to truncated stumps. Not everyone was equal, either, to imagining John Hunter dissecting foetuses in his Covent Garden home, however alluringly Uncle Esteban portrayed the Elysian spectacle of the square with its vegetable and flower ladies calling the day's wares of extroverted artichokes and cauliflowers while, close at hand, in the opera house, Parsifal slew the swan with his arrows and Ariadne lamented the loneliness of Naxos. Only Aunt Clementina, Palinuro's mother, was moved by such references to the opera. Otherwise, nobody - with the previously referred exception of Palinuro, Estefania and Cousin Walter - could understand the delicate metaphors - based on the same humble fruits and flowers of Covent Garden - evoked by Uncle Esteban to attenuate the decay and delitescence of corpses and their metamorphosis into sugar animals, maintaining that the figures in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum could, from one day to the next, be converted by a madman's pyromania - after melting in the darkness like Medardo Rosso sculptures - into the apples, plums and peaches, also of wax, which Grandmother Altagracia placed every Sunday in the centre of the dining-room table.
It goes without saying that Uncle Esteban never actually studied medicine. What is more, he never set foot inside a school of medicine: he was never seen in Budapest University, because he never returned to Hungary. Neither did he visit the Mexico City University School of Medicine, although he always said that one Saturday he would go there and take photographs of the Fernando Ocaranza Laboratory and of the coiled serpents and onyx globes adorning the stairways of the former Palace of the Inquisition. But he didn't need to: from hospital orderly he graduated, in Mexico, to errand boy in a laboratory belonging to Czechoslovakian immigrants who were later to begin producing sulfonamides and other miraculous drugs and, by the time he arrived at our grandparents' house, Uncle Esteban already spoke Spanish and had become one of the laboratory's best-paid salesmen, as well as writing articles for the History of Medicine quarterly.
To become the star salesman of the laboratories, Uncle Esteban was obliged to understand and retain an infinite knowledge of bacteriology, physiology and biochemistry. Infinite were the mysteries and wonders of the body revealed to him: the dance of the arteries in the neck, writhing like serpents from aortic insufficiency; the five hundred functions of the liver in the human metabolism; the journey of the sperm, travelling like silver salmon against the current in search of the egg which had existed since the woman's birth, lying in the darkness for twenty years, or perhaps forty, waiting to be fertilized; the fresh eyes of the dead submerged in citrated water in Lariboisiere's eye bank in anticipation of the opportunity to open in another body, to look on other landscapes. Infinite also the histories and biographies of researchers and doctors which he had to read in order to write his articles on the history of medicine - the triumphant life of Pasteur and the dark life of Mendel, the tragic life of Servet and the legendary life of Albucassis - and infinite the illustrations and plates that passed through his hands, from the macabre dances of Holbein of Basel which inspired Saint-Saens and Glazunov, to the Pesthouse at Jaffa by Baron Gros, by way of all Bosch's cripples, van Ostade's dentists, van Noort's possessed, Teniers' barber-surgeons, Breughel's blind and Giovanni della Robbia's ragamuffins, and not only did Uncle Esteban never feel frustrated, he even came to think and act as a true physician and believed that he had by some err of metempsychosis - or metemsomatosis - lived the life of those men he admired or, at least, of their closest colleagues.
Uncle Esteban repeatedly demonstrated his knowledge of twentieth-century medicine, executing the not least important or spectacular of his feats when the gynaecologist detected that Aunt Lucrecia's baby - none other than Estefania - was the wrong way round: within three minutes, never before having attempted such an exploit but without hurting Aunt Lucrecia or my embryonic cousin in any way, Uncle Esteban turned Estefania right round inside her mother's womb, so delivering her from the danger and embarrassment of entering the world bottom-first. Estefania was born one year and one month after the marriage of Uncle Esteban and Aunt Lucrecia. Palinuro, only twenty days after Estefania.
And we, my cousin and 1, always believed that Uncle Esteban had in fact, in another life, been a Doctor Wertt of Hamburg who was burned alive, skirts and all, for having attended a delivery disguised as a woman; and, in yet another life, Alphonse Ferri the inventor of famous alfonsin or forceps for extracting bullets - such as the one in Grandfather Francisco's leg - or even Doctor Harvey himself. He would tell Estefania and me how the master, wielding a baton of whalebone with an engraved silver handle, would point out the viscera of the corpse and, to ensure that the students and gawkers did not get bored, he would talk to them about a thousand things at once. He spoke not only on the subject of the actual viscera, such as the lesser curvature of the stomach and the left colon angle, but also of many other totally unrelated things, such as the iron regiments of Oliver Cromwell or the arrival in St James's Park of a pair of Brazilian toucans with orange beaks which drank the dew cupped in the hearts of the flowers and which Charles I was never to see. And, of course, more than once Uncle Esteban was Andreas Vesalius himself - or, at least, one of the assistants who helped him to frighten off the vultures and the rats from Montfaucon's scaffold so he could collect the bones he needed to reconstruct a skeleton.
`How revolting!' said Estefania in horror, thus becoming the first of Uncle Esteban's assiduous and loyal listeners to display any sign of displeasure at his stories. And that was not all; Estefania had to run to the bathroom to vomit when Uncle Esteban added that, of course, when the illustrious sage arrived home with his sack of bones he had to finish stripping them with the bone scraper to remove clinging ligaments and tendons and then leave them for months on end in a bath full of lye soda, alum and wood ash. And only then, said Uncle Esteban, only when the two hundred and six bones of the human skeleton were clean, without trace of blood or marrow, of agonistic muscles or nacreous tendons, clean indeed and as white as in Testut illustrations or the Quiroz Anatomy, as those sold by Charon, the aged porter of the School of Medicine, only then did the bones recover their innocence and cease to be the bones of a beggar or wrongdoer - or even the bones of a murderer such as Helen Torrence or Jane Waldie who spent their time strangling babies in order to sell the corpses to surgeons - and become no more, though also no less, than the bones of Man, Man who is the measure of all things, as described by Pythagoras; man beyond Good and Evil who has ceased to be Marcus Aurelius, master of the slave Epictetus; Man, microcosmos of creation, in the words of Scotus Erigena; Man who is the image rather than the vestige of God; Man, finally, of the cosmic fall related by Jakob Boehme, who is torn from the Creator by a centrifugal force but will, promises Schelling, one day be restored to His bosom: in short, Homo sapiens. `But what if they are a woman's bones,' said Estefania, wide-eyed. `Is it then Woman sapiens?' `Well,' answered Uncle Esteban, `in such cases, when the bones are clean and white, men and women are closer to the celestial man spoken of by St Gregory the Thaumaturge than to earthly man and, therefore, have no sex.' `And what does sex mean?' asked my cousin.
Many years before Estefania truly learned the meaning of sex, before they ever dreamed, she and Palinuro, that they would discover it together, one afternoon, on the sands of Mocambo beach and would carry on discovering it, throughout thousands of afternoons and nights, in the room in Holy Sunday Square, Estefania was obliged to take one of the most important decisions of her life. She went and sat in the garden, to think it through. At that time, it was the magic garden of our grandparents' house that furnished us with all solutions. The garden was in the centre of the house and in it proliferated woodlice which rolled into balls when we touched them and worms which multiplied by the act and grace of a penknife and would perhaps, like the long-memoried planarians, forever recall our cruelty. At first light, invisible stalactites roved among the rose bushes, sharpening their fangs on the morning breeze and preparing to petrify the roses in a single bite. At that time of day, on Saturdays and Sundays, Palinuro and Estefania were already in the garden and the smell of their own skins and the scent of the soap with which the pillow slips were laundered were overwhelmed by the fragrance of citron blossom. Crouching, they searched for beetles encased in drops of water. Very soon the rugged orange tree would succumb to the morning sun. Then would come the blue, spreading from branch to branch: a squally blue, frothy as cake frosting which, when it dissolved into the red of the roses, produced a gentian violet to which Aunt Luisa helped herself to daub our throats and stain our tonsils in their juice of staphylococci. Grandmother would call `breakfast's ready' and Estefania and I would leave in the grass the rose thorn rings we had made and run to wash our hands for breakfast. And if by chance we had been pricked by a rose, the peroxide they dabbed on would mix with the blood to form a cluster of red bubbles. This in itself presented no problem; the problem was not the blood, but the word blood, which could not be mentioned in front of Estefania when she was having breakfast - or when she was having lunch, which amounted to the same thing. And, whether she was eating or not, any mention of saliva, faecal matter or cephalorrachidian liquids made her nauseous. This happened for the first time when Uncle Esteban told the story of how they cleaned the bones and, since it happened again on several occasions, Uncle Esteban gave up and promised her that he would never again speak of medicine - or of anything remotely related to it - in her presence. And Estefania wept and asked why Uncle Esteban was punishing her, saying that she wished to become a doctor and that when she was grown up she would no longer feel sick. Uncle Esteban was not fully convinced but, on that morning on which she went to sit in the garden, my cousin Estefania resolved to control this nausea once and for all. And she succeeded in doing so for many years. That is to say, she was able to hide the terrible disgust that the words produced in her. Because, the things in themselves - not the things in themselves in the sense used by Kant whom she had not yet encountered but simply the things in isolation, without the names that went with them - be it blood or the greeny-blue urine of cholera sufferers or the ghastly Kaposi's sarcomata - never caused this disgust and she was always able to deal with them, to see and even touch and smell them, without ill effect.
And the strangest thing of all - a result of the second major decision of her life - was that Estefania never became a doctor, but a nurse. In other words, this contact with the most horrifying and wretched aspects of the human condition became the daily routine of her existence. Only when she was in the hospital with her patients and her cultures, in her white uniform and coif, could she forget nausea and apprehension. For the same reason, she discovered that she could study her nursing books only in the hospital wards, surrounded by her patients and their detritus, their mucopurulent sputum and breath of newly mown hay. And finally, after several years of heroic effort, Estefania qualified as a nurse, tall and slim and blue-eyed, immaculate and white, stern and compassionate as the nurses of her dreams: the deaconesses of the Diakonissenanstalt, the hieronymites of Rome, Florence Nightingale in Scutari, Edith Cavell shot by the Germans, the Augustine sisters of the Hotel Dieu de Paris who, during the great epidemics, laid the living and the dead in the same beds. Even so, the minute her shift ended and she changed out of her white uniform into a flowered dress, she forgot the wretchedness of hospitals and no illness could be mentioned in her presence: neither by syndrome nor cause, neither by prognosis nor treatment and, much less, very much less, by name.
It was, above all, her enduring love of animals that led Estefania to study nursing rather than medicine. Her favourite saint was St Anthony of Padua because, according to legend, he preached to animals, and fish came to the surface to hear him. She knew by heart the ten animals entitled to enter Paradise, among them Balkis' dove, Ishmael's sheep, the Queen of Sheba's ass and Jonah's whale. She collected stamps for the Larin chocolate zoological album. She held a markedly Jainistic attitude towards the animal kingdom and respected the existence of tarantulas and anacondas. She would ask Grandmother to play Chopin's waltz of the dog and waltz of the cat. When still a child, my cousin had been distraught when her cat was giving birth to a seemingly infinite number of kittens, believing that her pet was going to die because all her lives were coming out of her. Once, Uncle Esteban gave her a collection of postage stamps from Guinea and other countries depicting all kinds of animals: tigers, pelicans, monkeys with multicoloured iridescent behinds; Estefania loved Uncle Esteban more than ever for this gift. However, she was not sure she could continue to love him - or love and respect him - when she later discovered in his library a plate from Jean Pecquet's De Nova Anatomica showing a dog split open from top to bottom which revealed to her, for the first time, that medicine had advanced through endless experiments on animals by innumerable researchers.
`But of course, child,' said Uncle Esteban, `you wouldn't expect them to experiment on human beings now, would you? Experiments on animals go back to Galen, the father of medicine, who spent his life vivisecting monkeys, cows, mules, asses, lions and lynxes and, it is said, at least one elephant, though it hasn't been definitely proved. It is a fact, however,' he added, `that Astley Cooper made an agreement with a menagerie near the Tower of London to send him corpses of rare animals and he certainly did dissect an elephant, in the open air in the forecourt of St Mary Axe. Empedocles, Alcmaeon and Democritus also dissected animals.'
Estefania continued to love and respect Uncle Esteban. But she never forgave Galen or Astley Cooper. Neither did she forgive Alexander Read for chopping off a dog's leg, nor Malpighi for cutting up silk worms, nor Edward Tyron for dissecting porpoises and rattlesnakes, nor Lister for spying on the does in the Royal Park of Windsor to note when they mated and then opening them up a few weeks later to study the embryos. Neither did she forgive Lavoisier - some hope! - for suffocating sparrows in a glass bell to demonstrate that animal respiration is analogous with chemical combustion. Nor could she forgive Claude Perrault for devoting his life to the murder of doves and eagles, particularly as he was the brother of the man who wrote Mother Goose Tales, who had led her by the hand through the lands of marine fairies with moon skin, of footmen holding aloft agate fires and of castles with proud towers greenly inundated every four hours. `It was not for nothing,' thought Estefania, `it was not for nothing that God punished him and, like Paracelsus who was castrated by a pig, so Perrault died of a fatal injury after dissecting a dromedary . . .'
But it was for Flourens that she reserved her greatest hatred. For Pierre Jean Louis Flourens, the French physiologist who removed the cerebrum and cerebellum of doves to pin-point the organs governing balance and transmission of motor impulses. Removing the cerebellum, the doves had no sense of direction and balance: they got lost in the nave of Notre Dame, among the bridges of the Seine and in the Porte de Lilas and crashed into the stained glass and rose windows. With the cerebrum removed, their flight was in no way impaired when Flourens released them but they never rested of their own accord, flying ever onward as though blindly crossing an infinite sea to convey a message of love or scorn to an unattainable lover. When at last they fell to the ground in exhaustion, their hearts almost bursting in their chests, they remained prostrate, indifferent to food, to the blue flames of the bunsen burners, to ether explosions and other such efforts by Flourens to provoke a reaction, even when he threatened to wring their necks or melt their feathers with sulphuric acid. Estefania was never able to understand why these macabre experiments should be essential to the advance of medical science, as Uncle Esteban so often assured her: `Physiology would not be where it is today if Claude Bernard had not cut the left sympathetic nerve of a rabbit to demonstrate that the left side of the head would become red and hot as a result. Nor would we at this stage know anything whatsoever about the velocity of tears or the functions of the risorius muscle. In fact, we wouldn't even know why we cry or why we laugh. And sailors would still be dying of scurvy . . .'
`I don't care,' replied Estefania, who knew quite well why and for whom she cried.
`And if Richard Lower had not linked the carotid artery of one dog to another's jugular vein with a goose feather, the process of blood transfusion would never have been discovered. Can you imagine how many children would have died on the operating table, how many men in war? Can you imagine a world without people of compatible blood?'
`I don't care,' replied Estefania.
`And if Pasteur (and this is something you will be better able to appreciate) had not inoculated rabbits with rabies in order to study fragments of the spinal marrow, Joseph Meister would have died. And you too, Estefania . . .' And here Uncle Esteban stopped short, because he was loath to allude to the past, future or possible death of any of his loved ones.
`Yes, I know: I too would have died,' admitted Estefania, thinking of the time she had been bitten by a rabid dog. `Even so, I don't care.'
And the list of the poor animals that had contributed to the advance of science, and of those that would do so in the future, was endless. Avenzoar removed the bronchial tubes from goats. Galen himself left animals speechless by cutting the recurrent nerve. Pliny dissected chameleons. Rufus of Ephesus carved up monkeys in order to study their anatomy, Behring burned rabbits with bichloride of iodine. And, while Pavlov drove dogs neurotic by playing tricks with their most sacred reflexes and confusing them with lights and bells, Bard and Mountcastle deprived cats of their rhinencephalic structures, causing them to turn savage, and exposed the trembling brain of a living dog. Block opened up rabbits, deliberately damaged their hearts, operated on them and then sewed them up again and returned them to life. Kluver and Bucy removed monkeys' hypothalami to prove that they lost all sense of fear and anger, became libidinous and engaged in oral sex. Papez also undertook experiments on monkeys and Harlow bamboozled baby monkeys into accepting rag figures as their mothers and Kitasato inoculated the tails of rats with tetanus bacilli. `And in all the hospitals of the world, in all the laboratories and schools of medicine: in Rochester, in the Children's Hospital, in Guadalejara University, in Vienna, Moscow and Houston, in the Lewisham Hospital, by the way of the Albany School of Medicine laboratory which Carpenter crammed full of every imaginable type of rabbit and including all the names of famous doctors and researchers from Cardan to Koch, from Bell to Ochoterena, you will encounter in these hospitals and in the biographies of these individuals, rearers of white mice and guinea pigs injected with sputum, squirrels with sarcomata, marmots with colds, chimpanzees with trichinosis and dogs and canaries sacrificed to the cause of progressively reducing human illness-and death from such diseases as gout, angina pectoris, rickets, poliomyelitis, cancer, leprosy and lumbago.'
All this Estefania was told by Uncle Esteban, over and over again, and he never knew that at night my poor cousin had ghastly dreams in which were equally represented the horrors and the marvels, the hopes and the fears, which these and other conversations had sown in her fertile child's imagination, fed by her reading of children's books and by other dreams, both her own and those of other people. And my cousin's anguish was greater still when she awoke the next day because, just as she always believed the fairy tales of Perrault, Andersen and Grimm, and stories of horror and crime - she believed them all: lock, stock and barrel, from the silver ear to the prince of Arabia Felix, from the victim set upon with dagger thrusts to the red steps following the road to the aquariums - so Estefania always believed her dreams to be true.
Copyright © 1997 Carol Dawson. All rights reserved.
|1. The Grand Illusion||3|
|2. Estefania in Wonderland||18|
|3. My first encounter with Palinuro||36|
|4. A few words about Estefania||57|
|5. The Universal Eye||74|
|6. Sponsalia Plantarum and the room in Holy Sunday Square||91|
|7. In the name of science||106|
|8. The death of our mirror||122|
|9. The happy half, the sad half, the fragile half of the world||138|
|10. The Olendorf method and the general with a hundred glass eyes||162|
|11||Palinuro's Travels among the Advertising Agencies and other|
|12. Cousin Walter's erudition and Tristram Shandy's apples||227|
|13. Our daily bread||245|
|14. Further confessions: Molkas's Milkrun||263|
|15. Love's labours lost||283|
|16. A Technicolor mass||299|
|17. Oh my darlingClementine!||320|
|18. The last of the Imaginary Islands: this house of the sick||336|
|19. A story, other stories||378|
|20. The Priaprank||394|
|21. A bullet very close to the heart and reflections on incest||414|
|22. Thetragicomic sense of life||432|
|23. The Brotherhood of the Flaming Fart||472|
|24. Palinuro on the stairs or the art of comedy||486|
|25||All the roses, all the animals, all the squares, all the planets,|
|all the characters of the earth||536|