The Matter of Desire is the story of Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist who teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father's past. Trapped between two cultures, Pedro ultimately finds himself in an existential dilemma of tragic dimensions. The Matter of Desire combines elements of the political thriller and the family mystery with a torrid illicit love affair and brilliantly elucidates the complex relationship between Latin America and the United States.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Edmundo Paz Soldán is the author of six novels and two short story collections. He was awarded the 2002 Bolivian National Book Award for Turing’s Delirium and a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship. He has won the National Book Award in Bolivia, the prestigious Juan Rulfo Award, and was a finalist for the Romulo Gállegos Award. He is an associate professor at Cornell University. One of the few McOndo writers who live in the United States, he is frequently called upon as the movement’s spokesperson by the American media.
Read an Excerpt
I approach the window a few times and, surreptitiously,
search the faces in vain, looking for Uncle David. There's still the
possibility that he's waiting for me outside, reading the paper in
the shade of a molle tree—after all, he's a bit of a misanthrope and
avoids contact with people whenever he can. I can't help being annoyed
that he might not be here: he said he'd come to meet me.
This is my city, but I would still feel like a stranger if there were no
familiar face to help me, a glance to save me from my frequent forays
into the depths of solitude at the slightest blunder into reality.
This is my city, but the airport is new, recently inaugurated, smelling
of fresh paint and plastic covers, and the view outside changes
and is ever more distant from me. This is the price you pay for
leaving: objects don't stay where you left them, friends forget you
as soon as you turn your back, relatives don't come to meet you
because the fragile bonds have stretched with the distance and
broken. The map of Treasure Island is lost. It happens to everyone
because everyone, sooner or later, leaves for someplace else. It's
happening to an espresso-skinned girl who looks at her watch
every ten seconds, then lifts her eyes to the windows behind which
people crowd, looks for someone and he's not there.
The luggage arrives. I light a cigarette, wondering whether
there'll be a shout to put my hands in the air, a shove that'll knock
me to the ground, making the pack of Marlboros fall, an arrest and
six months in a federal prison. Nothing happens. The actdoesn't
lead to hysteria here; you're free to damage your own lungs, change
the color of your own teeth, and damage everyone else's lungs in
the process. Secondhand smoke kills, so the magazines say. I'm not
the only one smoking. There are a couple of young kids who look
like brothers. The smell of their cigarettes is unmistakable; they're
smoking marijuana, maría, bayer, what other names have been
invented during my absence? Earrings, Bob Marley sweatshirts,
Birkenstocks: they left wearing shirts and ties and this is how the
North sends them back. We come back with full pockets, new
knowledge, and old things forgotten, contaminating and willing to
contaminate, so that what is disappears faster than it ordinarily
tends to, so that the reign of the temporary sinks its claws into this
world once and for all.
The ash falls onto the cream-colored tile ﬂoor. And at that moment
they knew in unison, once and for all and forever, that they
would soon be that which they had been born for and which a thousand
permutations had hidden: ash. Like in the Villa de Ash. Like
A wrinkled old skycap in a dark blue uniform approaches and
asks if he can take my bag. There's only one and it's not heavy, but I
recognize him and say yes. He's been working at the airport ever
since I started to travel ﬁfteen years ago (when the airport was one
barnlike terminal and the bathrooms smelled of urine; it should've
been easy to forget, but it wasn't). He's very small and frail; I've often
wondered how he does it, like an ant, capable of carrying twice
his own weight. He leaves with my green canvas bag while I carry
my briefcase containing a tangerine-colored iBook, magazines,
and Berkeley, Dad's novel, which I'd reached out to again when my
problems began (that sleepless semester I'd taught it and kept it
close by, on my desk, but it's one thing to read in order to teach
and another in order to escape from the world). It's a ﬁrst-edition
paperback, full of coffee stains, notes in the margins, and phrases
underlined. I bought it at a used-book stall near the post ofﬁce a
few return trips ago. On the cover, silvery tones and Ansel Adams
lighting, there's a photo of the signpost of two streets that converge
to form that mythical corner, Bancroft and Telegraph. The tele-
graph: that marvelous invention for coding messages. It's a photo
that manages to summarize the central themes. A masterful 132-
page work through which Dad ﬁnally discovered that he could be
more successful as a writer than as a politician—not in the end,
but, rather, at the same time. And then came the military attack on
the Unzueta Street apartment, where the leadership of Dad's party
clandestinely met, and his savage, bloody death, as well as that of
Aunt Elsa, Uncle David's wife. His brother was the only survivor
(apart from René Mérida, the traitor who informed on them and
so didn't come to the meeting). Dad, who left me when I was
young, and I, who strive to ﬁnd him in a novel.
I walk on polished tiles toward the main exit, amid the rejoicing
of my travel companions and those who receive them.
Through the loudspeaker a woman's singsong voice announces
ﬂight delays, the escalators operate incessantly, the sounds reverberate
sonorously on the high yellow walls with neon signs advertising
Coca-Cola,McDonald's, Entelnet, and several hotels. There's
a large photo of PresidentMontenegro—affable, triumphant, not
at all dictatorial—and a plaque saying the airport was opened
during his administration. I stop at a kiosk bursting with Argentine
and Chilean magazines, the covers featuring the sentimental
crises of models and the salary ﬁgures for today's soccer players. I
buy newspapers—El Posmo and Veintiuno—and M&Ms, place
two dollars on the counter. The salesgirl is watching a Mexican
soap opera on a miniature TV and barely glances my way. I get two
candies as change.
On the front page of both papers, big headlines announce that
the government has ofﬁcially approved Jaime Villa's extradition to
the United States. Villa, that legendary drug trafﬁcker who thought
himself a Robin Hood but was really more like Al Capone. In El
Posmo, a full-color photo of an effusive Villa in a mariachi's sombrero
and white suit, like García Márquez when he accepted the
Nobel Prize in Stockholm. In Veintiuno, a photo of the drug traf-
ﬁcker with his cousin, that militaryMinister of the Interior who in
1980 planned the Unzueta Street massacre.Welcome to Bolivia.
As soon as I leave the terminal I hear the voices of taxi drivers
offering their services. I miss the kids looking for handouts. They
must not let them come into the new terminal: the price of modernization,
I stop at the edge of the sidewalk, anxious. Am I to be punished
by a migraine, one of those that force me to hole up in a room
with the lights out and damn my fate? The restless trigeminal
nerve, the neuropeptides, the pressure behind the right eye: the
Migraine, that mythical animal I only just domesticate with Imitrex.
No, it's not. Just a pang this time. I inhale the dirty air with relief,
and now, seeing the cloud of dust ﬂoating over the city, the
washed-out blue sky, feeling the aggressive heat of the sun, so far
from the snow, I recognize Río Fugitivo, smile faintly, and know, at
last, once more, I'm home. Everything stops for a few seconds and
I'm the child, the young man who never left, the one who planned
on following in Dad's footsteps, the idealist who wanted to dedicate
his life to politics in order to change the country once and for
all and forever.
The skycap asks where he should take my bag. End of the rapture.
"Leave it here," I say, and give him a dollar.
Uncle David isn't anywhere in sight. Maybe he's running late.
Or maybe not—at least not here, where everything is so nearby.
How often had I waited to hear the roar of a plane's engines before
ﬁnally leaving for the airport? How long should I wait? Half an
hour? Twenty minutes, no more. Or should I call him? No, I don't
want to go back into the terminal.
I sit down on my bag, take my glasses off, put them on again. I
take out my Palm Pilot, turn it on, stare, not knowing what to do,
and put it away again. I don't feel like playing blackjack, I'm tired
of losing at chess, and I have to reorganize myself for a new game
of DopeWars (where you head up a drug cartel, have to build your
empire to ﬁght against other cartels, and are chased by the DEA;
true, its not at all educational).
I quickly ﬂip through the newspapers and then look in section
two of El Posmo for one of the things I miss most about Río
Fugitivo: the Cryptogram, the crossword that Uncle David sets
(they don't put it on the Internet version of the newspaper—big
mistake; how many times have I had to have it sent to me from
Bolivia?). Firmenich's nickname. While waiting for him I'll
solve his verbal labyrinths, ﬁnd out about the latest things he's seen
and read, discover the extravagant ramiﬁcations of his education.
Joined Hungary and Bulgaria. Horizontal and vertical
phrases that intermingle, blank spaces that need to be ﬁlled in. Astronaut
on Friendship VII, ﬁve letters. Some were born to leave
hieroglyphics behind them; others, to decipher them, to clarify the
world another strives to make opaque. I belong to the latter, and
I'm convinced that our work is no less honorable, no less deserving
of recognition, than that of the creators. Without us, without
our answer to their threatening, secretive challenge, they could not
Pioneer of French aviation. Defeated Spassky. Creator
of Hermann Soergel. Coach of the Brazilian team defeated
at the Maracanazo. Catalan painter mentioned in
The Crying of Lot 49. So he's been reading Pynchon? How dare
he use such a speciﬁc clue when so few of his followers even
know who Pynchon is? But I guess it's not so bad, you don't have
to know everything to do a crossword. It's a matter of having a
nose for it, analytical and deductive abilities, and being generally
knowledgeable. It's also a matter of good dictionaries and encyclopedias,
having a talent for looking up information on the Internet,
friends who share the fervor, and patience. Above all, that: patience.
Half an hour goes by. My uncle doesn't arrive, nor do I ﬁnish
his crossword. I get into a taxi.
In the back seat of a white Toyota, being tortured by the sound
of Enrique Iglesias and the smell of home-brewed chicha, I wipe
my mouth on the sleeve of my T-shirt and tell myself again what I
got tired of thinking on the plane, while dozing next to a gay Chilean
reading Look Homeward, Angel: that I came to Río Fugitivo
with the excuse of looking for Dad when I really came to escape a
woman. Ashley. Beautiful, sweet, cruel, wild Ashley.
Finally, in the taxi, as we drive alongside the stagnant waters of
the river that winds through the city, the pain of Ashley's absence
overwhelms me. I miss Madison, its leaden sky in the heart of
New York State—centrally isolated, closer to Canada than to
Manhattan—the intolerable snow, the cheap motels on Route 15,
and the rooms with MTV on at full volume to drown out our boisterous
Catalan painter, four letters.
I ask the taxi driver if he can turn off the radio. He replies with
a simple no. Welcome to Río Fugitivo, where the customer is not
Uncle David was waiting for me at the door of his house as if nothing
had happened. His hands were stained with ink or grease. He
greeted me wearing slippers and a threadbare blue-and-whitechecked
robe, gave me a brief hug, and made no mention of our
telephone conversation, no attempt to excuse his absence at the
airport. It was as if the words spoken into the phone a few days
ago, that booming voice, had been just another form of static,
noises that disappear once emitted, invisible frequencies you swear
exist but need complicated experiments, chemical or alchemical
formulas, electromagnetic radiations, to prove.
"How was your trip? Come in, come in. So many hours stuck
in a plane. There's no way you could make me get on one, even
though I admire the Wright brothers and all those who followed.
The Spirit of . . .where?"
"Well, well. The house is small, but the heart . . . This is your
room; it's not very clean. I don't have a housekeeper.What for? So
they can steal from me? You'd like a shower, I suppose."
"I'm ﬁne," I said, looking at the single bed in a corner, the paint
peeling off the walls, the nondescript night table and narrow chest
of drawers where blankets smelling of mothballs were piled. I put
my bag on the ﬂoor and opened the light blue curtains, and light
timidly entered the room from the interior patio. Nothing to write
home about. In truth, I wasn't ﬁne. I needed a desk and more life
on the walls. But what could I say? I had brought all this upon
I'd lived here during my childhood, from time to time, but
didn't remember much (or better: my memory's reconstruction of
the house wasn't very helpful). I wanted to sniff around my new
territory, like a dog, but felt that my uncle, his tall, thin ﬁgure in
the doorway, wanted to be left alone.Maybe I had interrupted him
in the ﬁnal stage of setting a crossword. Sure, he'd spent all night
working, that was why he didn't go to the airport. That explained
the bags under his eyes and the bloodshot left one. (His right eye
was glass; he lost it when a paramilitary's bullet went through it
that evening on Unzueta Street.)
"No, thanks. I had breakfast in La Paz, at the airport."
"Then rest and I'll call you for lunch. You'll eat here, right?
Nothing special, I cook myself, so don't expect miracles. A girl
comes in on Mondays and leaves meals for a few days. The rest of
the time, it's just whatever. You've gained a bit of weight."
"Age," I said, patting my stomach. "I've started going to the
gym, watching what I eat—although this isn't the best place for
that. One of the things I miss most about here is the food. Parrilladas
are so much better than barbecues in the States. I tried to
do your crossword. I'm almost done. They're increasingly difﬁcult.
Catalan painter . . . ?"
"Four letters.Who else? Remedios Varo. But don't ask me again
because I don't like it, that's cheating."
"I thought she was Mexican?"
"That's what most people think."
"In Spanish. It's too difﬁcult in English."
"For anyone. Even in Spanish it's commendable."
"It's easier than his reputation suggests. And very entertaining.
Vineland most of all."
"I didn't read it. I loved The Crying of Lot 49. Read it a long
time ago, in Berkeley. I should read it again."
"So many things to read again."
The conversation wasn't going anywhere. My uncle closed the
door and left. I cleaned the accumulated dust off the night table,
got rid of a spider web on the lamp, lay down on the bed. The day's
warm air and the smell of the lemon tree in the patio drifted in
through the windows.
I'd called to ask if I could stay for a couple of weeks; I hoped to
ﬁnd an apartment during that time. Mom wasn't here. She'd been
traveling in Europe for the last few months with an Italian who
had money to burn, looking for a love that was stable and selfdestructing
at the same time. Maybe I should have imposed on
Federico or Carlos, or even Carolina. Or I should have gone to a
hotel. I wasn't a student any longer; I was now a professor at the
Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Madison,
someone who, because of an article on the political situation in
the region, had become (to the fury of some older and more
prestigious colleagues) a ﬁgure whose opinions were sought by
NewTimes, Latin American Affairs, and other American magazines
and newspapers interested in the topic (not many, it's true).What
would my editors say? Surely they pictured me in some local version
of the Hyatt or other international hotel chain. I was in a period
of transition.My new life required more expenses, Italian silk
ties and clothes that make the man—like those of my Chilean
and Peruvian friends on Wall Street—but I still hadn't lost my
frugal student habits. My one small step up: from the Gap to Banana
Republic, casual elegance at a relatively low price (sometimes
I went to an outlet mall an hour outside Madison and bought
ﬂawed Polo shirts and sweaters). My only weaknesses were colognes
and electronic gadgets—Palm Pilots and MP3 players
(Ashley's inﬂuence, I should add).
Who should I call? I wasn't anxious to call any one of my
friends. Each of my previous visits had served to prove, painfully,
how life was separating me from them. The only ties that bound us
were common memories of a time shared during our youth and
maybe a night or two of getting high during my vacations. Even
those memories were fading. Sometimes I wondered how we had
ever shared something as intimate as a case of gonorrhea, thanks
to the same whore. Married, yuppies, divorced and living with
their parents, winners big and small, nine-to-ﬁve jobs and all the
while searching for an easier way to get rich, at home in a world
that I hadn't found yet, certain of their greatness and not knowing
how small they really were. I wasn't the only one to wonder. Surely
they, too, asked themselves what had bound them to someone so
apparently similar but deep down so different (someone without
much certainty, someone who at least knew how small he was).
It was typical of me to think this way: starting at one extreme
and then heading to the other before ending up in the schizophrenia
of both extremes at once. Soon I'd be with them, drinking and
helping to settle their lives between spouses and lovers, between
Nokia and Motorola (Nokia, always). Cosmopolitan though I was,
this was my truest world, and I had to admit that. If I'd stayed here
I wouldn't have been out of place—I'd have a paunch and a couple
of kids, be importing tampons from Brazil, deciding whether
or not to open a video store, planning Friday night out, Saturday's
parrillada and Sunday's Italian soccer game on cable while the wife
sleeps and others confess their sins only to begin again that same
afternoon (the motels full at any hour).
To relieve my tension in a shower with lukewarm water and no
pressure, I masturbated, thinking of Ashley naked on the carpet in
my apartment, desire and tenderness in her eyes.
The house was one story. At the entrance there was a well-kept garden
with pretentious carnations and a creeper on the rusted bars
of the wrought-iron grille. Was it true that as a boy I had caught
butterﬂies here? A hallway had old maps on the walls—the Americas
in several Renaissance versions—and photos of famous people
with the background digitally altered: Sartre at the Palacio
Quemado, Franco at the White House, Walt Disney in the Potosí
mines, Evita in the Café DeuxMagots, Cantinﬂas as director of the
U.N. General Assembly, Pelé playing soccer in the Chicago Bulls
arena.My uncle certainly amused himself. To the right of my room
was more hallway and then the living room.
When I reached the door to the living room, I stopped and for
an instant saw bouquets of ﬂowers scattered all over the ﬂoor and
two cofﬁns side by side: Dad's and Aunt Elsa's wake. But it hadn't
been that way at all. There was no wake; their corpses were never
found and are likely now cracked bones in some communal grave
or under the Police Headquarters patio (where they play futsal
every afternoon). Can you imagine something forcefully enough
that you ﬁnally impose it on reality? Aren't we weaker than we believe,
don't we yearn deep down to give in to our desires?
The ﬂowers disappeared and then the cofﬁns, replaced by a
couch and a couple of chairs around a glass table weighed down by
stacks of books, magazines, and dictionaries. In the corner an obscene
forty-inch television demanded unconditional veneration.
To my left was a wooden cart piled with bottles of whiskey and
singani, glasses, a cocktail shaker, and an ice bucket. All around the
room, against the walls, as if in a museum, were antiques on
wooden pedestals: obsolete Smith Corona and Underwood typewriters,
phonographs dating from the early twentieth century, a
Sinclair Spectrum computer, a monstrous Blaupunkt radio from
the forties (jealous of the TV's presence and yet conﬁdent that,
sooner or later, this too would come to keep it company). When I
came to Madison there was a Smith Corona factory nearby. The
last time I drove past, a couple of months ago, the factory had
closed. The sight of so much desolation in buildings once full of
workers had moved me.
"What do you think?"my uncle said, looking at me proudly.He
had a glass of Chivas in his hand, ceaselessly rattling the ice. "This
room is too small. There's more,much more, in the storage room."
"Chapter Thirty," I said.
An idea stolen from or a tribute to Berkeley, I thought, remembering
Bernard's Museum of Media. I admired the Underwood up
close, touched its cold keys, the bulky case. Invented for the blind,
it had been adopted by philosophers, secretaries, and writers. On
one of those machines Dad had written the 132 pages of his novel,
not counting the multiple revisions, the errors, the pages started
anew. Exhausting just to think about. Quality of the work aside, all
those who had sat down to compose their works key by key, without
the ease of a word processor, were admirable and deserved recognition.
To say nothing of those who had done it by hand, or
those who still do—more than one of today's writers would have
felt at home in a medieval monastery.
"It's a bad habit of mine," he said. "I collect what others disdain.
So much history in each one of these machines."
He had an intimidating voice: he seemed to be shouting even
when speaking quietly. They say Dad's could also be intimidating,
gravelly like that of a chronic smoker. His was a captivating
voice that elegantly ordered obedience. Or so they say. I remember
hardly anything about him. He's just a blurry ﬁgure that rushed in
and out of my childhood, him not paying much attention to me
or me to him. An unknown stranger I saw so few times in person,
someone I had to reconstruct—I'm still doing so—through
photos, his novel, the memories of others. The most salient image
comes from one of my birthdays. There's going to be a big surprise,
Mom had said, and I waited anxiously.When it was time for
cake, someone in an old red leather mask and a feather headdress
jumped out of the cupboard. I was frightened even though I knew
who it was. He took off the mask, approached, and hugged me,
and everyone clapped. Now I remember the mask, vividly, but little
of the face behind it.
"It's a new hobby?"
"Uh-uh, I started a long time ago."
Maybe it wasn't an idea taken from Berkeley. Perhaps, with the
Museum of Media, Dad was paying homage to his brother, and
that was why the room was a kind of return to the beginning. But I
didn't remember it from my childhood.
"It's just that now I can apply myself more seriously."
I wasn't surprised by his attraction to relics like these: he
would've liked to have invented one. Apart from his verbal ability,
he was very good with his hands. The doorbell, different tones
from classical pieces—from Bach to Stravinsky—was his invention,
as were the multiple speeds of a blender for preparing cocktails,
a lawnmower whose motor was an extravagance of wires
and screws, and the connections thanks to which he watched cable
TV for free. "Poet and mathematician," he often said. He'd studied
industrial engineering but hardly practiced his profession. He
wanted to be an inventor despite the lack of funds and support for
his crazy projects. Dad had made fun of him and called him a
"conceptual inventor." There were more inventions left half-done
than ﬁnished. They say that as a kid he spent his time taking radios
apart and putting them back together, studying their wires and
diodes, trying to improve on the original product. He and his
wife had suffered many privations because of his multidirectional
passion, constant in its inconstancy. He had the intelligence to
succeed at any profession he chose, just not the discipline. He'd
moved from job to job, failure to failure, and ended up, convinced
by Dad and Aunt Elsa, involved in politics. He'd been fanatical
about crosswords since adolescence, but his dedication to creating
them came later in life. He's been doing it for ﬁve years now, and I
often ask myself when he'll abandon them. But he seems ﬁnally to
have discovered something to hold on to. Sometimes it's bad to be
good at everything; it's better to have a talent for just one thing, be
it knitting alpaca sweaters or designing the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
"Whose is this?" I said, pointing to the light green Smith Corona
that occupied center stage.
"Your dad's. He wrote parts of Berkeley on it. A collector
wanted to buy it from me for a lot of money. Did he think I was
I admired it in silence: a small machine, portable, more suited
to a professional or a busy executive than a romanticized writer.
"I saw your iBook," he said. "I don't like the color, prefer something
more subtle. I have a Mac too. Until just a while ago I had a
Commodore 64 that I'd made some adjustments to, to make it
faster and run current programs. I ﬁnally got tired. It was too
"You don't collect any other type of antique. They all have
something in common."
"Yes. They allow communication at a distance. Because, you
know, that's the best way to communicate. At a distance. The presence
of people only blocks communication."
"And what we're doing now?"
"Sometimes it can't be helped." He ﬁnished his whiskey in one
long swallow and put the glass down on top of a dictionary on the
I looked at him to see if he was joking. He wasn't. I felt the cold
radiating off him. The prominent nose, the furrowed brow, the
elongated, austere face, the wrinkles etched deeply into his cheeks,
the immovable glass eye. He had given me puzzles and played
chess with me when I was a kid. He also taught me to do acrostics
and crosswords, revealed the secrets that all crossword setters invoke
of the periodic table andMorse code.He knew how to do implausible
tricks with coins and cards, but I never could learn them.
Then a chasm opened up between us: at times I blamed him for
having survived instead of Dad.We had become closer again in the
last few years, but our relationship was purely intellectual, based
on the crosswords. When I returned on vacation I saw him only
rarely, contented myself with a few obligatory phone calls. That
was enough for him as well. It had been a mistake to ask him to
put me up.
"The chicken should be ready," he said, and headed into the
I followed. I was hungry.
I check my e-mail on Yahoo. NewTimes asks if the latest peace accords
in Colombia will last long. NOWAY, I reply, and then a conventional
phrase, one of those I know by heart for each country,
more for Colombia, civilized as few are and at the same time a
tragic summary of the continent's greatest ills. A touching goodbye
from Yasemin. One more of the sarcastic and petulant messages
Clavijero sends to all the professors at the Institute. Ashley
still hasn't written the incendiary e-mail I deserve. Maybe she
hasn't yet heard that I left (I doubt that).
I read the headlines from El País and the New York Times.
Nothing grabs my attention.
Carolina came to pick me up at four in the afternoon on a yellow
Kawasaki racing bike. She'll never change. At ﬁfteen she raced in a
rally as her dad's co-pilot, and since then her life has accumulated
more risks than the lives of all my friends put together. She thrives
on hang-gliding, mountain climbing, and river rafting. She was
wearing a blue aviator jacket, parachute pants, earrings and gloves,
purple lipstick, and mascara on her long lashes. A ring indented
the skin above her right eyebrow. She looked radiant; the new haircut,
almost to the scalp, ﬂattered her angular face.
"You've gained weight," she said, smiling, not knowing how
much she hurt my vanity. I took off my glasses to show her my best
"And you, so thin. You look younger all the time."
"Appearances can be deceiving." A mischievous glance. "At
least you're ﬁnally learning to combine colors. And got over your
obsession with pinstripes. You dress better than before. Although
formal, as always."
"If Berkeley didn't change me,Madison isn't likely to. Can you
picture me in tie-dye? Black on black, I'll stick with a sure thing.
Doesn't that hurt?" I asked, pointing at her pierced eyebrow, reminded
of Yasemin and her ﬁve earrings.
"Sometimes. They say there's no pleasure without pain."
"And you smell very nice."
"Swiss Army. Fresh, for daytime, although you can also use it at
night. I bought it at duty-free in Miami."
I got on the bike, Carolina took off, and I clung to her. She was
thirty years old. Five years ago we were together for a few months
during one of my vacations. It was an intense relationship, full of
trust and multiple ways of spending time together without getting
bored, from losing ourselves in the country on weekends to inventing
pornographic stories (we created a recurring character,
Dick Top, a bisexual cop).What also united us was a certain emptiness
in the relationships we had with our parents. Her mom had
died of lung cancer when she was a kid; her dad lived in Buenos
Aires and didn't try very hard to maintain a relationship with his
daughter. (In that regard, I should say that my mother was perfect
during my childhood and adolescence, but as soon as she felt she'd
complied with her formative duties, she took me off her list of priorities
and made time only for herself.) My return to the U.S. had
cooled things off. On my next vacation we came to be very good
friends who included, without any commitment, sex as one of our
friendliest activities. Girls I dated were jealous of her. Not without
good reason, because sometimes I spent more time with Carolina
than I did with them. Even though I swore our relationship was
platonic, they didn't believe me and said that she didn't look at me
like a friend, that it was obvious she wanted much more. Could be.
I chose to feign ignorance. Two years ago there was an unexpected
jealous scene and tearful confession at her door. On my most recent
trips I tried to create some distance, tried my hardest to avoid
caresses and sex. I wasn't entirely successful.
Now I'd wanted to call someone, and no one other than Carolina
came to mind. I didn't want to stay at home and wallow in
melancholy. I needed to forget about Ashley.
We passed over Suicide Bridge—narrow, with low, rusted iron
railings—and over the mouth of the river with soothing eucalyptus
trees on the shores. I realized that this legendary place was
Dad's inspiration for the fateful role bridges played in Berkeley: the
entrance from one life to another, the preferred place for power, in
its many incarnations, to get rid of its enemies, in their many incarnations.
I exchanged dollars with an overweight moneychanger. Then
we went to the Twenty-First Century Mall. There were lots of people,
out more for a stroll than to shop; the Benetton sweaters and
Polo shirts in store windows were admired and abandoned. I ran
into a couple of acquaintances; we said hello and promised to call
(we wouldn't). On the escalator I commented that the young girls
of this new generation, milling around the stores, seemed more
self-possessed than our generation had been.
"They go to the gym like you wouldn't believe," said Carolina.
"We didn't do that in our day. And they know everything. We
picked our noses when we were their age."
I kept looking at a girl who wasn't even ﬁfteen in a tight white
tank top, stomach bared. Soft skin that perhaps hadn't yet been caressed
or maybe only inexpert hands had touched, hands that
didn't teach much but helped her to enter, bit by bit, the territory
of restless skin and failed morals that I had entered a long time ago
and found hard to leave.
In the Mediterranean Café, surrounded by photos of stars from
Hollywood's golden era—above all Bogart and Bacall—we ordered
a latte for her, a cappuccino for me, and two cheese-ﬁlled
cuñapés. A Ricky Martin song could be heard from the music store
next door. Two young people passed by us speaking Portuguese.
"There's not much new," she said. "I told you almost everything
in that huge e-mail I sent about a month ago. The one you
replied to with two lines, by the way."
"E-mail isn't for long letters, it's for chatting back and forth."
"We have a new airport. It's very nice. Late, but we got it."
"To think that the decree for its urgent construction was signed
in 1949 . . . No one can accuse us of rushing into things. And
Montenegro took all the credit, as if he'd been ultimately responsible
for its construction."
"The mayor blew his own horn too. But in the end, that's
how politicians are, right? There's a recession, a bad one. At my
brother's optical store, for example, sales are forty percent lower
than a year ago. You missed the trouble in April. Three weeks
of campesino blockades, teacher strikes, shortages. Chaos. You
couldn't go anywhere. A couple of people were killed at a demonstration
in the main plaza. Of course, what happened here is nothing
compared to Cochabamba. Truth is, a lot of people are tired;
they say this country isn't viable and are applying for a visa to the
North. I even have friends who've gone to Arica or Lima."
"And it's going to get worse. The government has serious liquidity
problems, exports have decreased considerably, and the
balance of payments . . . The solutions have merely been patches,
nothing long-term. The war on drug trafﬁcking left us without a
cushion of dollars to protect us. The hangover after too much outof-
"You know more than I do about what's going on here."
The waiter arrived with the coffees and cuñapés.
"I told you I left my job at the government."
"About time. I never could believe you worked for Montenegro."
"I think you're the only one who remembers he was a dictator.
Even the guerrillas who fought him are now his allies."
"Not all of them."
"Almost all. It's been three decades. Let him be. He's almost
done with his term and it doesn't help to complain. We elected
him now, didn't we?"
"You can't erase the past so easily."
"In this country, everything can be erased. I'm amazed you
don't know that."
Carolina had worked for two years in the government's public
relations ofﬁce at the Ciudadela. She was in charge of general image,
of making sure the government's work was broadcast via different
media and received positive coverage. It was her job to do
things like teach the Minister of Employment to smile at the precise
moment he announced there would be no wage increases for
the next ﬁve years.
"As I was saying, I left my job. It's one thing to help them better
their image and another to lie in order to achieve that. I lied for a
long time, felt bad, and left it."
She drank her coffee. Ricky Martin gave way to Shakira and
Shakira to Matchbox Twenty.
"And now," she continued, "I help build Web sites—personal
pages, for companies, whatever you want. There's no recession in
this business. Everyone wants a Web site. If you don't have one,
you don't exist."
"I didn't know you knew anything about computers."
"I learned along the way. I have a business partner, Estela—
opened an ofﬁce with her. My area is more graphic design. She's
the expert in HTML, Java, all those. She writes programs to recover
erased e-mails. Did you know that all the e-mails we erase
are really stored in some secret corner of the computer? So you
better not go around sending compromising messages."
I thought about the e-mails Ashley and I had exchanged,
erased as soon as we'd written or read them. If Patrick used Estela's
services, he'd recover them and have proof of our correspondence.
But what use would they be if he couldn't decipher the most compromising
ones? Ashley and I had many secret codes—simple
substitutions, codes that led to other codes—and Estela wouldn't
get to those as easily as she could the messages.
"Also," continued Carolina, "I'm really involved in a magazine
that's going to come out exclusively on the Internet. Sort of like
"You know more about the States than I do."
"You don't live on another planet. It's called Digitar. In the ﬁrst
issue there's an exclusive interview with Jaime Villa. I got to meet
him. Ricardo, the editor of the magazine, asked me to go with him,
and we became friends."
"With Ricardo or Villa?"
"He's probably ﬂirting with you. All prisoners are like that."
"You pronounce the l and r worse all the time. You're becoming
"The years take their toll."
"Well, maybe 'friends' isn't the right word. Let me know if
you'd like to visit him. He has an incredible personality. You can
feel the energy as soon as he enters the room."
Carolina was given to psychics, personal energy ﬁelds, and
changes in personality based on the position of the moon. She believed
in the Christ who cries tears of blood in Cochabamba, said
she'd had a couple of out-of-body experiences. Once she told me
she wanted to contact her mother through a medium and that
every once in a while her mom speaks to her in dreams and gives
her advice. Now she was wearing a silver chain around her neck,
a pendant engraved with the image of Cristina, the ﬁfteen-yearold
who is said to have transcribed six books dictated by God in
Latin and had become a phenomenon of popular devotion in Río
Fugitivo. I never understood that side of Carolina.
"Of course I'd like to," I said, thinking about the possibility of
an article that might end my dry spell. "The more ﬁrsthand information
I have, the better."
The coffee was better than at Starbucks but not as good as at
Common Ground. That's where I saw Ashley for the ﬁrst time. It
was August, and she was sitting at a table with Patrick, the tall,
blond Dutch man she was going to marry in December. As I was
passing by the two of them, she stood up and asked if I was a professor
at the Institute. I said I was, holding on to my copy of the
New York Times. She had very long red hair, almost to her waist,
and round, ﬁxed green eyes that made me nervous.
"Nice to meet you," she said, extending her hand and smiling,
showing her braces. "I'm Ashley, your future student. This is my
ﬁrst semester here. I'm taking the 'Politics and Dictatorship' class
you're offering. I've heard very good things about you."
"It's nice to meet you too. Don't believe everything you hear
"I read one of your articles in NewTimes."
"I'm so sorry."
"More professors should do that, write for newspapers and
magazines. Otherwise the university will continue to be insulated
from what happens in the real world. Who reads those boring
journals they make us publish in anyhow?"
"The university is the real world too. And while I'm glad you
think that way, you'd be better off thinking about twenty-page articles
for those journals. Newspapers and magazines won't get you
"This is Patrick," she said. The Dutch man nodded his head
and held out his hand without moving from his seat.
"You're very young to be a professor," said Patrick, in neutral,
"Thanks for the compliment," I said, and smiled.
"Is something wrong?" Carolina interrupted.
"No. I was listening."
"Didn't seem like it. You were somewhere else. Very serious."
"You were talking about Jaime Villa."
"He's the worst, but people are tired of their government doing
what the gringos tell them to do. Wipe out coca crops, extradite
Villa . . . Incredible. Even leftist politicians have come out in defense
of Villa, not because of him but because of the fact of extradition.
They say he should be tried here, which doesn't seem like
such a bad idea to me. Although there's always the danger that in a
ﬂash he'd buy even the Supreme Court judges."
I knew all that. It was my job to be up-to-date on things concerning
Latin America. Newspapers, magazines, and television,
continual searching on the Internet, and a vast network of friends
kept me in touch with people's perceptions regarding their governments,
future leaders, the economy. Just three years ago I was a
bright political science doctoral student with a promising thesis on
the role of the left during the dictatorships of the seventies. My
professors and classmates had high expectations for me. But at
some point I lost my way and let myself be seduced by the role of
professional commentator in magazines and newspapers, with a
ready response for any occasion ("If Argentina accepts the dollar,
the country will sink" or "Zapatistas are papier-mâché guerrillas,
unexceptional and therefore superﬁcial"). I had lost interest in my
little academic world of paused, continuous reﬂection, of exhaustive
work on a very narrow subject area, and I quickly abandoned
it. No wonder some of my colleagues—Clavijero, Shaw—mistrusted
"The government has already approved extradition and the situation
is unstable. Groups have called for the defense of national
sovereignty. A bomb exploded last Friday at the post ofﬁce," Carolina
Not one group had claimed responsibility for the bomb. It was
strange to arrive and know more about the country than its inhabitants
did, incapable as they were of suspecting the magnitude of
the crisis that was coming. The government needed economic assistance
from the U.S., so they had no recourse but to hand over
Villa and continue eradicating coca crops. Carolina kept talking. I
amused myself by making anagrams out of her name. Aanilorc: a
planet in Star Wars. Oilancar: a brand of car oil.
Carolina paid the bill. As we went down the escalator she commented
that I was very quiet.
"And what's new about that?"
"Nothing, to be honest."
I had perfected the art of listening, of letting others reveal
themselves so that I wouldn't have to. This was one of the reasons I
got along better with women than men: women like confessing,
and one of the things they value most in a man—or in another
woman—is the ability to listen to them hour after hour, or at
least appear to listen, nodding the head at the right moment, a
blink of the eye or a facial expression to give signs of life.
But it was true that I was more introverted than usual. Ashley
swirled around and in me all the time, her mole-speckled back
arching under my tongue's soft caresses. Her absence hurt, her ab-
sence was anguish, and at times I asked myself whether I had done
the right thing by leaving Madison in order to calm the waters and
let everything return to its normal course. The most intelligent
plan of action is not necessarily the best.
"How long are you here? The usual three months?"
"This time until the end of the year. Eight months. I got a research
scholarship." I had my answer prepared. "I want to write a
book about my dad. About the novel, the armed struggle . . ."
"Interesting," she said, and looked at me with delight, maybe
happy to know she had more time than she'd thought. Three
months wasn't enough, eight might be.
Copyright © 2001 by Edmundo Paz Soldán
Translation copyright © 2003 by Lisa Carter. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.