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The Master Of Fate is a coming of age novel of a different sort. It is not about the building of chacter but about its erosion. It is not about the traumatic experiences that the protagonist must learn from as a part of growing up, but about the accumulation of small events and pressures that result in the unraveling of a life. Oscar grows up in Bogata, Columbia, a youth of intellect and ambition from a middle-class family. But social corruption, most notably the anti-Semitism that even the "best people" accept ...
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The Master Of Fate is a coming of age novel of a different sort. It is not about the building of chacter but about its erosion. It is not about the traumatic experiences that the protagonist must learn from as a part of growing up, but about the accumulation of small events and pressures that result in the unraveling of a life. Oscar grows up in Bogata, Columbia, a youth of intellect and ambition from a middle-class family. But social corruption, most notably the anti-Semitism that even the "best people" accept as a fact of life, and political and economic corruption, shown in part by the portrayal of the machinations in the system of higher education, through their affects on Oscar and his family act to thwart his ambition and turn his intellect in upon itself. Both existential and realistic, The Master of Fate is reminiscent of Sarte's early post-war stories.
Bogota, damn you Bogota! How I hated you that cold and foggy morning on the soccer field of the Calasanz School for Men. "You will be the pride of your family, of your school, of your country," the principal of the provincial school had said to me in public. And so my parents had sent me to boarding school in the capital, to prove myself, with my younger brother Homero, who would have been far happier moving with the rest of the family to our new home in Cartagena. We thought about that city on the Caribbean coast as we shivered and waited for the school year to begin. Damn you Bogota! A whistle pierced the fog and we joined the many other bodies that converged toward the classroom building. Under the front doorway Homero and I glanced briefly at each other and went our separate ways. We were so young—two to three years younger than most of the classmates we were about to meet. When I walked into the classroom a priest stopped me and asked me, "Do you really belong in the fourth form of secondary, child?"
Not an auspicious beginning. But in a few minutes the sun would break through, my new classmates would make me feel welcome, and everything around me would be colored by hope. How quickly my confidence grew. And how misguided!
What went wrong? I soon learned my way around the boarding school and, already in that very February of '59, I thought that I could conquer all, that my life could be limited only by the bounds of my ambition and my dreams. In retrospect that confidence was not entirely unwarranted. So what went wrong? I wish I could understand.I need to understand why nothing matters, why I no longer care. I walk aimlessly about the cold and rainy city, I observe it from its ugly, filthy entrails. Goddamned Bogota! I walk its gray, endless streets while trying to remember, to remember so I can understand. I need to tell my own story, to make sense of my own story. I must do this on my own because my books—and what they represent—have forsaken me. Of what use can the myths of modern psychology be, for example? By having my memories twisted into a formula of infantile incest and problems with toilet training, or something just as fanciful, I will end up with a tale not my own, with a fabrication that will belong to no one. I might even come to believe that I understand. But it will not be my life, not the life of Oscar Moreira, not the life of that boy, not yet fourteen, who waited in the cold fog with his brother Homero, blades of grass sticking to our wet shoes, for the new school year, for a new life to begin.
No, in my protected life up to that point, I was what might be called "well adjusted." And whatever apprehensions I might have had prior to the school year faded away quickly. In the previous months I had formed an image of authoritarian Spanish priests awakening us at five in the morning to take a cold shower, hurrying us to make our beds in military style, leading us to dimly lit dining rooms where we would stand in line for our daily rations of swill, an image of all those pleasant character-building niceties ("will make men out of you," my father had said) that one could expect from a boarding school. Thus I could not be unhappy later on that first day, as I sat at my assigned table in that dining room of high ceilings, tall windows, and bright colors, as the waiter served me seconds of that hardy and appetizing food, as I looked across the clean white table cloth and the sparkling china and engaged my three table mates in easy conversation.
Nor was I exhausted by that time, as I had feared, for the morning began at a reasonable hour actually, with a nice, hot shower. And then—to top it all—the maids made the bed. As for the Escolapian priests who ran the school, far from being authoritarian—with a couple of exceptions—they were friendly and informal. That first letter home was going to be a good one!
No, something happened after that, although I suspect I must begin my story at that time, when it looked as if the realization of the promise within me had just began. How I wish that this story were not necessary, that I could find the required wisdom in the vast treasures of literature. But I search in vain. So many tales of woe, yet none seem to apply. Characters rise from the ruins of their souls, face up to their tragedies and as a consequence achieve peace, insight, redemption, or perhaps just plain maturity. So many things that characters achieve. But there are no concentration camps in my past, no horrors of war, no murder, no crippling accidents, no betrayal of incendiary love, no extraordinary episodes of any kind. Nor am I enlightened by stories in which the character "finds himself," for it puzzles me more to know how the character could be in the position that necessitated his voyage of self-discovery in the first place. No. Mine could not be a story about the building of character, but about its erosion, about the slow accumulation of small forces and events that ultimately dries the soul and leaves the heart empty.
This may be too melodramatic a beginning. If I claim not to care, not to feel, why should I say that I need to tell my own story, to understand, and so on. But this is just a manner of speaking; it is more accurate, but also more cumbersome, to say that I think I should care, I should feel, but that I cannot unless I understand what has happened to me. So the task ahead is not the painting of rich melodrama but rather the surrealistic drawing of distorted lives melting on arid landscapes. If my ends are to be served, this must be a clinical examination, at times perhaps even brutal. It is not enough to know that my life is distorted, I must also know how it is distorted. To draw with sympathy may undermine my very purpose. To color with poignancy may forever falsify the very object I am trying to illuminate. Excuses are so easy to accept. I have no choice: my own light must shine harshly, it must leave no place to hide.
My only initial problem seemed to be that I had great difficulty understanding the Spaniards' accents. I finally had to tell Professor Reyes, my geometry teacher, about it and from then on he would finish his explanations by saying "Has Moreira understood?" With Father Francisco—Pancho—the Prefect of Discipline, there was no such problem: his clear, booming voice would carry anywhere, startling wrongdoers and imposing order in every corner of the school. I always watched my step in his anatomy class, as well as everywhere I suspected his small but imposing presence. At first I thought that clear Spanish accents went with rather unfriendly temperaments. There was Father Jorge—"The Ogre"—the head of the boarding section, for example. He was young, skinny, long-nosed, and wore thick glasses and a constant frown. Every night before bedtime he spoke to us about duty, restraint, persistence and other such edifying topics. Students would snicker at him behind his back, but as time went on I found his little chats rather pleasant. And as I did increasingly well in anatomy class I came to suspect that Pancho was a bit paternal and that he might even think well of me. The other Escolapians were easy to like. My greatest enthusiasm was reserved for Father Miguel, the priest who had initially embarrassed me with his question about the propriety of my presence in the fourth form. He was handsome and witty, was always interceding on the students' behalf with the rest of the faculty, and in general made himself our friend and patron saint. And he seemed to enjoy a good round of teasing. He, like most of the other Escolapians, was a fanatic follower of Franco; so we would make fun of his hero and go on at length about dictators and fascist leftovers. He would mumble something about uncivilized savages not being able to comprehend great historical missions, egging us on to counterattack.
"You Spaniards are a bunch of thieves," we would say. "You came and stole all the gold from South America. Now you begrudge us our being poor. Of course we are. After you carried away everything we had."
"You're ungrateful," he charged, "you shouldn't insult the name of Spain after she gave you your culture and your religion."
"Some culture, the most backward in the world."
"I wouldn't say that. And, besides, if you wish to call us thieves, just remember that you are descendants from the people the kings sent here, and that those people were the worst of Spain: thieves, murderers, Jews. If you want to talk about thieves you should remember the kind of blood that flows in your veins."
"That's a lie! Only the best from Spain cane here, that's why they had to get a certificate of good conduct before they could come."
"If you were robbed, it happened because you were fools."
One of my table mates, Ochoa, who was always bragging about his sexual adventures, came up with the story that Father Miguel had not only one but several girlfriends, naturally, his being so handsome. I didn't believe him. Neither did the others, I Imagine. But it added to Father Miguel's mystique. Nevertheless, my greatest enthusiasm for Father Miguel stemmed from the promise implicit in his apologetics class: he was going to offer us a rational defense of religion. Like most of us, he said, he had once been beset by doubts, but obviously he had overcome them. That, I thought, was the greatest service El Calasanz could offer me: to rid me of those nagging questions about the existence of God. And it was good also to know that I was not alone in my predicament, that those around me experienced the same disquieting thoughts.
Those remarks by Father Miguel made me feel closer to my classmates, or at least to some of them. The fourth form was divided into two sections, of about twenty-five students each. And my section was itself informally divided into two groups. I belonged to the soccer group, which was led by Hoyos and Pinto. We played during every recess, and in general whenever we had a chance. And when we didn't play we argued about our favorite teams. Pinto was the chief supporter of Santa Fe, I of Millonarios. For three entire years we played and played, and we argued. The more "serious" members of the class had their own group and thought us rather immature. They only talked about adult matters. But during the study periods they would take the ball away from us and throw it all over the room, bouncing it off the heads of those who studied or slept. Once in a while some indignant victim would throw the ball out the window and we had to muster the ingenuity to recover it before Pancho did.
To the "serious" group belonged Ochoa, who was as old with respect to the class as I was young (some people said as old as twenty), and another of my table mates, Iriarte, a redhead from Cali. Not that Iriarte had anything against soccer. He was the best player in the class, and perhaps in the entire school. I liked him, not only because he was always friendly to me, but because I found him amusing at the dining table. It was very common for him to start the table conversation with some bizarre statement. One day, for example, he said to Ochoa, "Did you know that Boada's sister is a whore?"
"You mean she is easy?"
"No. A whore. A streetwalker."
"Aw, come on!"
"Ask him if you don't believe me."
"I can't ask him something like that!"
"I'll do it myself then."
Iriarte turned to Boada, who was at the next table. "Boada! Hey, Boada!" he shouted. "These guys don't believe me that your sister is a streetwalker. Tell them."
"Yes," Boada said. "She and Iriarte's sister work together."
Iriarte shrugged his shoulders. "He got me there." Then he began to eat his soup.
One big topic of conversation that year was the Jew. The Jew came into the lunchroom late that first day, but there had been advance word of his arrival and immediately all eyes were set in his direction. He was tall, skinny, pale, with a long nose, and kinky hair.
"That's what all Jews look like," Ochoa said. "One can tell by the nose and the hair."
"I don't think so," Iriarte argued. "I know many of them and they look just like anybody else."
Apparently, however, many of us had never seen a Jew before. He first became a victim of curiosity and then—when he reacted against the general attitude—of malice. By supper time he had already been in two fights. He was not only beaten up but nicknamed. "Ugly as a fetus!" The insult ricocheted throughout the dining room and by dessert almost everybody was scoffing at the Fetus.
The Jew slept only two beds away from Homero, whose bed was next to mine. The first night, when the lights went out someone shouted, "Smells like fetus around here." The Jew's reply was drowned by the laughter of the twenty or so students in the dormitory.
Soon enough his situation become impossible. "Have you heard the latest about the Fetus?" would run from table to table in the dining room. Someone had put a tack on his seat, a padlock on his desk, had pushed him out of formation in front of Pancho who, thinking he was clowning, had punished him. Sometimes the Jew would push back or express doubts about the joker's ancestry, which only increased his persecutors' viciousness. And the Jew would isolate himself even more, head bowed over his meal. Once in a while he would raise his big black eyes, bright with hate, or perhaps with pain.
Unlike the Jew, I felt very pleased with life in El Calasanz.
In the thick, solid walls of the buildings I saw a guarantee of warmth and security. And on the soccer field I could let myself go completely in my pursuit of the great pass, of the deciding goal. I also loved most of my classes and at night would relish doing the homework. During an evening study period, Father Jorge stopped by the side of my desk. He smiled at me. "You're a good boy," he said. I thought that he really wasn't as bad as people claimed. Yes, things were going well then. And not only for me. I could see that my brother Homero was also flourishing. We even stopped wishing that our parents had taken us to Cartagena. We wrote them about our good life instead.
After lunch on Saturday, we had several free hours for sports or reading. At four in the afternoon they showed movies to us and the boarders from the Calasanz for Women. The girls sat on one side and we on the other. Unfortunately we never had occasion to talk to them.
On Sunday we slept in late. After Mass we went on a trip. Sometimes they took us picnicking to the lowlands, other times to a soccer game. The stops at the ice cream parlor were frequent. At night we watched tv until it was time to go to bed.
Acouple of weeks after the beginning of school our grandfather Humberto Moreira took us to see Millonarios play against Santa Fe. To my great distress, Santa Fe won on a lucky goal by the center forward. This gave the soccer group in my class an opportunity to tease me for weeks.
Of course, after a while the situation began to fall a bit short of ideal. Father Miguel's apologetics class was not living up to my hopes. St. Anselm's proof for the existence of God seemed ludicrous, for example, and my exchanges about it with Father Miguel were becoming exasperating. "Father, I don't see the sense of saying that the idea of a perfect being implies that it exists. Let's suppose that I imagine a perfect dog; according to your reasoning it must exist because if it didn't it wouldn't be perfect."
"That is not the point at all, Moreira. I don't know what's the matter with you. Perhaps if you tried to see things with a little more faith it wouldn't be so hard for you to understand."
I decided to take my doubts to Father Jorge instead. His room was next to my dormitory. "Come in," I heard his voice from inside. "What a pleasant surprise." The room was rather large and Spartan, the furniture plain and cheap. "Sit down." He offered me a chair by the desk and then sat next to me.
"In spite of the loss to Santa Fe, Millonarios is the best," he said. How could he know it was so important to me? I was surprised.
"Panzutto's goal was sheer luck," I commented. He smiled.
"And what else brings you around here?" He placed his hand on my shoulder, which annoyed me.
"Well, Father, I want to talk to you about a problem I have." The pressure of his hand made me ill at ease, but I didn't know how to get rid of it. He waited for me to continue.
"I have doubts about the existence of God, Father."
"You shouldn't worry; the same thing has happened to all of us at some time in our lives, particularly during our youth. It's natural. When we grow up the doubts disappear."
"But what am I going to do in the meantime, Father?" I wished that he would remove his hand.
"Father Miguel's course should help you in the meantime."
"But it isn't helping, Father. I still can't buy that some Being created for our benefit everything we see."
"But someone must have created it, right?"
"But why, Father? Why?"
"Have you ever seen anything that doesn't have a cause? Everything has a cause, and the cause of all causes is God."
"But what is the cause of God?"
"God has no cause because He is God."
"That's what I don't see, Father. If the world must have a cause, why mustn't God?"
"Look," he said, taking his arm away, which I really appreciated, "I am going to lend you a very good book. I think it may help you. Better still, I'll give it to you as a present." He began to look for it among a pile of books spread on top of his dresser. "Here it is." Its title: Power and Purity. I thanked him and went to bed.
He was alone in the room and the idea came to him. A few days earlier some friends had told him about it. He undressed slowly, pondering what he was about to do. Yielding to the force of the flesh, he gave himself, finally, to the solitary sin.
Passages of that sort abounded in the book Father Jorge had given me. Later would follow details on the moral degradation of the individuals who thus left the "good path." And then apocalyptic visions of terrible illness and other punishments that befell the transgressors of the natural and divine laws.
The most pathetic case was that of a man who had dedicated himself to the "solitary sin" in his youth and thus contracted a venereal disease that affected his eyesight. Years later all his children were born blind and the poor repentant sinner continuously wept over his weakness of will during his younger years.
The book placed great emphasis on the sins of the flesh as the main cause of atheism: One became an atheist in order to excuse his bad behavior. The other two causes were ignorance of Christ's principles and false pride. The book did not help me at all because my situation did not seem to resemble any of the cases offered as evidence. The solitary sin intrigued me, however. I realized that one could commit the sexual act with other men rather than with women, as it was said of the Vallians, or with animals, as was unfortunately alleged of the people from the Coast. But with himself?
I finally decided to ask Father Jorge.
He was dumbstruck for a long while. "You really don't know?" he finally said.
"No, Father, I simply can't imagine it."
He looked at me in silence again, letting his hand wander through my hair. "You are truly surprising. Perhaps it would be better for you not to find out yet."
Evidently he sensed that I was not satisfied, for he went on. "If you don't know what the solitary sin is you can't commit it, can you? So you are better off not knowing."
"Perhaps you are right, Father," I told him. What a long, skinny nose he has, I thought. Should I tell him that I didn't like to be touched? His fingers kept on playing with my hair while he explained how unusual and valuable was a fourteen-year-old boy who still preserved his purity.
"You have never gone to bed with a woman, have you? No. Of course not."
"Perhaps it will surprise you, but at least half your class.... I wish we had more boys of your caliber at this school."
A few weeks later I received a package from Cartagena: my birthday cake. That night I distributed it in the dormitory. Father Jorge brought some consecration wine and we all made a party of it—followed by a general pillow fight as soon as Father Jorge retired. I was finally fourteen, but many of my classmates still treated me as a little boy. Ochoa—in particular—after each of his dirty jokes at the table would make some remark about "innocence" and would remind himself that he shouldn't tell such stories in front of me even if I couldn't understand them. I am sure he was the one who nicknamed me "little angel." His favorite topics were French movies and his sexual adventures whose descriptions he exaggerated until I called him immoral. He would then say something about "maturity" or simply smile at me with superiority and satisfaction. I suspected every time that he was setting a trap for me, but I would nonetheless fall for it.
It was infuriating to see him take communion every day. I didn't feel I had enough of a right to receive the sacraments and yet he put on such pious airs that one would expect him to levitate at any moment. During one of my frequent visits I mentioned to Father Jorge that Ochoa was a hypocrite and the priest agreed with me.
I was not really bothered, however, by all the teasing about my age. I was used to it, on the one hand, and I was actually proud of being ahead of my years, on the other.
Homero, who was in the same boat, found things even easier because he looked older than his age, and in addition could be very tough in a fight, when someone tried to push him too far.
As Easter vacation neared we took our first important examinations. I was rather concerned about my performance because, as my mother had said, "El Calasanz is a really serious school." It is true that I felt at ease in most classes, but being new I couldn't be all that confident. And then there were the two Colombian professors, who simply did not measure up to the Spaniards. One of the two taught us philosophy. He always seemed embarrassed about his subject matter. Upon learning, for example, that Thales of Miletus had claimed that the world was made of water, we would make fun: "Not the whole world, Colombia is made of beer." He then reacted as if it were his fault that we found Thales stupid.
The other Colombian was Piggy, our English and French instructor. He was a short, chubby man with an enormous head. His eyes were small, and his thick face sported the sort of mustache that Hitler made infamous. Piggy wasted no time in becoming the laughing stock of the entire school. His very first day he walked into a classroom and immediately—without provocation—delivered a most threatening harangue, only to find out that he was not just in the wrong classroom but on the wrong floor altogether. When he finally came to us, he said that he was going to "tame" us. It is amazing that anyone would say such things. But Piggy did. Right before our first English exam he announced that he had been with Scotland Yard for seventeen years and there was no chance that cheating would go undetected by him. The cheating that went on that day! And more out of daring than out of necessity, I would suspect.
Piggy was a joke, but he was a vindictive joke. And he had accumulated a long and rather inaccurate list of what he called "saboteurs." He was convinced, rather perceptively, that the students had declared war on him. People destroyed his classes by laughing, singing, fighting, or playing tricks on the teacher. Neither his threats nor Pancho's frequent punishments changed things much.
There were many unknowns, then, and I awaited the results of the examinations anxiously. A detestable guy named Ruiz was expected to take first place. Because of an illness at the end of the previous year he had to repeat the fourth form, and now he kept telling us how easy it was for him. He also gave himself grand society airs, talked continuously of his family's money and the Country Club, and despised the rest of us for not being as rich and intelligent. We hated him. And when the time came we hated to see him take first place. But I placed second and that made me very happy. It was not a bad start. My parents would be proud.