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Perihan Magden Courage Does Not Reign June 21, 2006

Posted by wwbtest in Fiction, Turkish.
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I was kicked out of the Conservatory. When called to the office of the elderly director where I was handed my dismissal papers, I said: "Sir, believe me Sir, I am not concerned for my sake regarding this decision of yours. What concerns me is how the St. Petersburg Conservatory will shoulder the heavy burden of having kicked out the best student it has ever had—just for one or two disciplinary offenses: That is what concerns me."

"I do not know what to say to you," said the director. "Therefore I shall say nothing."

Undoubtedly by my use of the words "one or two disciplinary offenses" he thought I was making light of having gotten drunk in the dining hall and making scenes, of having sent the music history professor to the hospital with a diagnosis of neurosis, and lastly, of having burned down the dormitory by pouring gasoline over. Therefore, he did not know what to say. I was tired of people who didn’t know what to say, and even more of those who didn’t know what they had already said. I always know what I have said.

Naturally, a conservatory student has the right to make scenes at school, to act this or that way with professors, even to burn down the dormitory. The things I did were not insignificant. Besides, I do not wish to do insignificant things. Then again it would have been to no avail for me to discuss with the old, white-haired director where my rights started and where they stopped. In a way I also liked him. And I knew that no matter how hard he tried to hide it, he felt a fine thread of love for me; yet because I was beyond his limits of endurance he would never give admit it.

Politely I bade him farewell. My dismissal papers in one hand, my purple velvet cape and rough leather suitcase in the other, I made my way to the train station. I was going back home after seven years.

As my father had died years ago and as my mother was a rather "different" person, my home was not one of those real family homes which are like a distress balloon, filled with a sort of sticky, stale, castrating gas: thank God! But home is home after all, and I felt stifled with nausea, having to go back.

When I reached the station my train was about to depart; I followed the numbers until I found my compartment. Breathless, I plunged in to see what: that I was sharing the same compartment with a dwarf and his monkey.

The monkey had on an astrakhan coat fitting tightly around the waist; on its head was a kalpak of the same astrakhan. The dwarf wore a gray-striped black gabardine suit with a bordeaux satin waistcoat inside and a bordeaux-gray striped silk tie around his neck. His tiepin was a diamond the size of my thumb nails. His thick red hair was meticulously combed back, emphasizing his disturbingly blue, sparkling eyes.

I put up my suitcase and cape and took my place by the window. On such a miserable day for me as this I must admit I was rather annoyed to be obliged to travel with such a dolled-up dwarf and his dolled-up monkey.

People with certain flaws comfort me. They entertain me with their flaws and absurdities, they show me that I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one with handicaps and misdemeanors; they almost bind me to life. But honestly, I cannot make such generous comments about physical disabilities. Facing such people here and there distresses me, obliges me to wonder why they don't sit at home rather than poison my day. This dwarf was a festival in and of himself: Let aside not hiding his faulty body in his nest, he was parading it on inter-city rail with pride, underlining it with his nerve-rackingly chic outfit. With a look of almost anger, my eyes became anchored to his cuff links. One of them was an emerald-eyed grinning cat’s head made of diamonds. The other a porcelain-faced head of a little girl with blonde bangs. This was Alice. Alice in Wonderland.

"Yes," said the dwarf. "Alice, Alice in Wonderland."

His tone of voice was astonishingly beautiful: soft, hoarse and deep. I couldn’t fail to be impressed. I hold one’s tone of voice to be of importance. I am a fine conversationalist as conversationalists go, but I have a high-pitched, horrible voice. Such a lovely tone coming from this dwarf . . . Now fancy that!

"Oh," I said so as to say the least possible, and also so that my voice was heard as little as possible. At any rate, I do not enjoy traveling companions: Intimacy suddenly established beyond any logic with a person you have not met before is not my style, definitely not.

"Let me introduce you," said the dwarf. "Isabelle!"

The monkey, I mean Isabelle, politely held out her hand. Reluctantly I held out my own and shook her small warm little monkeyhand. I do not like shaking hands at all, especially with a monkey—especially on such a miserable day for me with an astrakhan-coated monkey of a dwarf I have met for the first time! But there was something about that dwarf’s voice: an imperiousness wrapped in unmatched politeness, a magical air which made one take pleasure in obeying.

"Isabelle is ill," said the dwarf. "Indeed, very ill."

While the gentleman spoke with his astonishingly beautiful voice, Isabelle was shaking her head with melancholy. When the gentleman, I should say the dwarf, finished his sentence she rolled her eyes and inclined her head to rest on her shoulder.

"In your hometown there lives a very famous physician; he is the reason for our journey. Otherwise, I agree with you absolutely: I wouldn’t like to exhibit this faulty body here and there, distressing people with my appearance."

The train had just started; it was moving very slowly. Otherwise I would have opened the window and thrown myself out in order to smash that spoiled head of mine with its burning cheeks.

"Isabelle liked you rather much," said the dwarf. "When she saw you coming toward us with your purple cape and rough leather suitcase in your hand, she prayed that you would be traveling in the same compartment with us."

"She must know a very short prayer," I said, for I was running in fear of missing the train.

The dwarf, I mean the gentleman, laughed. It was the nicest laugh I had ever heard. Isabelle smiled politely. What a sweet monkey she was.

"I have been kicked out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory," I said. "You must have known it anyway; I’m going back home."

"That was quite obvious," said the dwarf. "If you would like, let us pour cognac on your dismissal papers, and then throw them out the window. That way you can clear your mind of the conservatory, the music, and St. Petersburg. One should never carry around the places one has been kicked out of."

I don’t know why, but all of a sudden my eyes were filled with tears, my voice trembled: "I wouldn't compose emotional arias starting with minor and ending in major keys," I said. "I also relentlessly cursed certain classics which are regarded as sacred. Frankly, I have also committed one or two disciplinary offenses; but no one should be kicked out of any place."

"It’s such a coincidence, I have a wonderful bottle of cognac with me," said the dwarf. "Let us drink together and talk of other things."

We poured cognac on my dismissal papers, threw them out of the window, and talked of other things. I fell asleep drunk. When I opened my eyes we were halting in front of a large station. Isabelle was sleeping under a mink coverlet, sighing deeply. The gentleman sat erect, with his sparkling eyes fixed on me.

"You have slept for hours," he said. "Isabelle, too. She is so happy that she met you, she hasn't had even one single nightmare about death tonight. Isabelle is very afraid of dying." He stopped and lowered his eyes: "She is about to die," he said. "My sweetheart is about to die and is surrounded by fears. All I want is to rid her of her fears. Death is nothing to be afraid of. But it is not only she who will be lonely; I will be too . . ."

He couldn’t bring himself to complete his sentence. He fixed those madly sparkling, big blue eyes of his on the train windows. I also stared out of the window, whether I liked it or not, and started watching the people at the station. Ahhh, but what was that?

Six people in strange outfits had surrounded an unbelievably beautiful dark young man, whose long black hair reached his shoulders. The young man was wearing a white robe which touched the ground and on his feet were roman sandals. His eyes, which heralded the existence of other worlds, were dreamy, dazzling. In his hand he gently waved a peacock feather. I looked more carefully; it wasn’t a peacock feather after all, I had only assumed it was. In his hand was an old book with a black cover. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe, and my heart pounded wildly.

"The Prince of Manchuria," said the gentleman dwarf. "The Prince of Manchuria—according to some—the New Messiah."

"The Prince of Manchuria!" I exclaimed.

The Prince and his entourage entered the compartment just next to ours.

"Manchuria is a very poor country," said the gentleman dwarf. "He’s a prince, but when the British discovered him he was covered with dirt playing marbles in a muddy street with his friends. The moment the British saw him they said: ‘Here is what we have been looking for, here is the Messiah.’ It’s obvious that they were impressed by his beauty, his extraordinary beauty. In haste they kidnapped the child from Manchuria. It’s presumed that the Prince’s mother was an alcoholic Irishwoman. She was an anthropologist, living in Manchuria for many years. She died while giving birth to the Prince. Also, she had six toes on her right foot. Unfathomable details! I report them to you as they were told to me. The British held him in absolute isolation so that no worldly events could sully his spiritual world. As you can tell from his expression, the New Messiah or the Prince of Manchuria doesn’t like people; indeed he is unable to love. If one can recall how hard it was 2000 years ago for Jesus Christ to love mankind, one has to admit that he’s right. Moreover, the British fastidiously protect his person, which becomes thoroughly exhausted from his spiritual journeys. That’s all I know. I presume that no one knows any more than this."

While the gentleman dwarf was relating the story to me, Isabelle woke up. She started drawing circles in the air with her index finger. As she had taken off her kalpak while sleeping, I was able to see her head easily now. On Isabelle’s forehead were deep scars, and in one of her ears there was a butterfly-shaped earring made of diamonds.

The dwarf burst into one of his beautiful laughs. "Dear Isabelle," he said, his eyes shining with love, "you forget nothing, absolutely nothing."

Isabelle was smiling as she went on drawing circles in the air with her index finger.

"Isabelle is reminding me of another detail I forgot to mention to you," said the gentleman dwarf. "The British desired that the Prince of Manchuria or, according to some, the new Messiah, be given a classical education. He was tutored privately for three years by the most esteemed teachers in order to take the Oxford Proficiency Examination. The result was a complete fiasco. All through the examination he did nothing but draw pictures of snails on the papers. They weren’t even good drawings; they barely exhibited the talent of a terrified five-year-old. When they told us this story Isabelle laughed so hard that she almost fell off her armchair."

Isabelle smiled sweetly. It was obvious that she was ill, very ill, and far removed from the days when she fell off armchairs from laughter.

"Isabelle’s earring is eye-catching," I said. "So are your cuff links and tiepin. Believe me, to this day I have never seen such precious jewelry."

I had barely finished my sentence when I blushed from head to toe. The more I tried to avoid being tactless, the more tactless I became. All right, but isn’t this the summary of life? Don’t we always get caught by what we are running away from?

Isabelle and the gentleman shook with laughter. While wiping his wet, mirth-filled eyes with his purple silk handkerchief, the gentleman dwarf observed, "Oh, you are tactless! That’s what makes you so charming, so entertaining. Some things slip from your tongue before they even cross your mind. You are charming, believe me, very charming."

The sound coming from Isabelle wasn’t quite laughter, her laughter was more of a gasp. "Her lungs are rotten, too," I thought. But believe me, I held my tongue.

"All this precious jewelry is a must in my profession," said the dwarf. "The more precious jewels you have, the more others feel ‘obliged’ to give you precious gifts. Or shall we say feel ‘compelled’ rather than ‘obliged.' They encourage, stimulate, and force one into competition. As money begets money, our dear traveling companion, jewelry invites jewelry. Besides, it’s a good investment, takes up little space, is easy to carry, and can be cashed anywhere."

"Ah," I said again. This time my voice was rather hoarse. With all these precious gifts, what could this dwarf’s, this gentleman dwarf’s profession possibly be?

Right at that moment there was a polite knock on our compartment door.

"Come in," said the gentleman dwarf. "Please come in."

It was one of the weirdly attired Englishmen from the Prince of Manchuria’s company who entered. He was a tall, beak-nosed, sandy-haired man. He smiled like frozen fat: that most renowned British smile—obligatory, inevitable, only arousing the feeling of "uff . . . why is he doing this?" In his hand was a basket of luscious figs. With his long arms he placed the basket next to me.

"From His Majesty the Messiah to your mother," he said in his Oxbridge accent, Oxbridge voice. "His Majesty the Messiah, hoping not to disturb you, expressed his desire to relate his wish: Your mother . . ."

Interrupting his sentence with all my nastiness; "Yes," I said, "my mother really likes figs. You may extend my deepest gratitude to His Majesty of Manchuria . . . uhhhh, the Messiah. On behalf of my mother of course."

The Briton, in order to steer the conversation to warmer waters, fixing his frozen eyes on Isabelle said: "Oh, what a cute monkey this is." He tried to reach out to pet Isabelle.

"Don’t ever try to touch her please!" I screamed. "Don’t touch Isabelle, Sir. Besides, let us not detain you any longer. Thank you for the figs and may you have a good day."

My voice sounded so sharp, so crazy that the Briton was utterly shocked. Making sounds like "aaaah, uuuh, oooh" and saluting each of us with his head, he departed.

The gentleman dwarf and Isabelle, barely glancing at each other, burst into laughter.

"You are terrific," said the gentleman dwarf. "You are one of those whose species has become extinct . . . Because courage doesn’t reign anymore."

I inclined my head slightly. I liked Isabelle and the gentleman dwarf, and I liked being liked with them.

"It has been months since Isabelle has laughed this much," said the gentleman dwarf. "I am so thankful to you."

He took Isabelle’s hand. Isabelle shook her head sweetly, as if to say: Yes, darling, you are so right.

Isabelle and the dwarf loved each other. There was no doubt about it: They loved directly and grandly! How cute, how cute, I thought. It had been months, years, since I had seen two persons or two things or one person and one thing—whatever—in love.

"Your mother must be an important person," said the gentleman dwarf. "It is no small thing to attract the attention of the Prince of Manchuria, the New Messiah according to some. The poor kid is engulfed in such immense loneliness, his life is so miserable that he views the world from behind a heavy curtain of selfishness. In the lines of a favorite poem of mine, ‘If the universe burst into pieces one afternoon,’ that young man would not even be aware of it."

"You never know from under which stone my mother will pop up," I said. "I wouldn’t know whether she is important or not. We do not see each other that often. She lives in a house she inherited from my grandfather, with her servant Wang Yu. You might consider me a stranger in my hometown; all my life has been spent in boarding schools and on journeys."

"I see," the gentleman dwarf said. And believe me, when he said this phrase, which is usually used when people understand nothing, it was as if he really saw everything.

Isabelle felt warm. She took her astrakhan coat off. Around her neck she had on an exquisite necklace wrought in the shape of butterflies adorned with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds.

The gentleman of course noticed my saucer eyes.

"Isabelle has a passion for butterflies. A lady admirer of mine who knows my passion for Isabelle had this made for her in Burma. The stones are quite good, the craftsmanship excellent. Isabelle likes to wear it from time to time—what more can I say?"

"You mean your lady admirers buy all this jewelry?" I said. At that moment I could have swapped voices even with a peacock.

"I work for money because of my profession," said the gentleman dwarf. "I live in a mansion with Isabelle, and though we rarely go out, our expenses are rather high. In short, my income only just suffices to cover our expenses. As I said before, I have to accept such presents, moreover, encourage them. We have a very poor background; you could also call this passion for jewelry the fear of going back to the past. The moment I cease to excel in my profession, I must be able to quit. When that moment comes I will be in need of this jewelry to live in comfort with Isabelle."

"Excuse me, but if you don’t mind . . . I mean, if I don’t ask I will burst. What’s your profession?" I exploded.

"Ah, I thought you already knew," he said sending me one of his beautiful laughs. "I am a gigolo."

"But you . . . how come?" I screamed. Yes, I also performed this insolence.

"You mean because I’m a dwarf?" he said. "That’s the key point."

While I was screaming, "Key point, your being a dwarf?" Isabelle was laughing uncontainably, looking at my surprise-smothered face.

"Yes," said the gentleman dwarf. "Forget about the psychological theories that claim women always seek their fathers. Women always seek their children to fall in love with, their unborn children. My being a dwarf is functional here. I am not their equal nor am I above them. Plus, I am not trapped in the ignorance of being spiritually inferior and being unaware of it like so many men are. I am full of flaws: from head to toe, very obviously and clearly! They can feel as much pity as they want toward me, they can shower me with all the passion that they suppress, they can make me the object of their desire. I am only myself, not like those men who drive them crazy with their stupidity and heartlessness in their flawless bodies: I am certainly not like that. They know that I do this for money, that I’ll never love, wouldn’t love, any of them. I wouldn’t pretend to make a place in my heart for them: I wouldn’t cheat them because I wouldn’t cheat myself. They know that I only, and only I, love Isabelle; but I do my job perfectly. They accept me as I am. This is a great relief for them. Women either poison their lives by trying to change their lives for a man who does not accept them as they are, or by trying to change a man whom they can’t accept as he is. As they feel the greatest love for those who cannot reciprocate—their children—they fall in love with me. When they are making love to me they feel the highest of all pleasures, the most inhibited and inevitable pleasure: the pleasure of incest. Very complicated and very simple. I have never tried to explain it before, I hope I've made myself clear."

Like a child who is bent from his waist over a well in which he has seen hundreds of unknown stars, I was shaking my head in wonder when a loud voice was heard outside the compartment.

A young man was screaming: "I want to talk, leave me alone, I want to meet them and talk to them."

Two or three other people were whispering things to calm him down, begging him to go back to his compartment. I recognized one of the voices. It was the Oxbridge voice of the tedious Briton who had brought the figs a while ago. Suddenly the conversation was cut short. The door of the neighboring compartment was aggressively slammed.

Indicating the neighboring compartment with his eyes, the gentleman dwarf said, "The Prince of Manchuria. He tried to meet and talk with us." He sighed deeply. "Ahh, poor young man! They don’t even allow him to breathe and then they expect from him philosophies which will salvage the world . . . Believe me, nothing will come out of sterile circumstances: comfort, peace and isolation. If something were going to come out of these, our world’s greatest thinker would probably have been Rudolf Hess."

"You’re so right!" I shouted. "Either he or Howard Hughes."

"The New Messiah wrote an incredibly good book when he was twelve years old. However, seven years have now passed without his writing a single line. What could one feel with men who are like funeral attendants? What could one feel, what could one write? Whatever I have learned about life, I learned in the circus in which I was born. Everything beyond that, I've learned from Isabelle’s love."

He turned and looked lovingly at Isabelle. Isabelle shyly nodded her head.

"Were you born in a circus?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "I am the son of a dwarf clown and the world’s most beautiful woman acrobat. I have something in common with the Prince of Manchuria: My mother also died giving birth to me. Imagine how insufferable it would have been for such a beautiful woman to be the mother of a dwarf like me. When I was a child I tried to be glad about my mother’s death thinking of this. My father was so in love with my mother that he couldn’t even bear to see my face. Abandoning me to the circus in which I was born, he joined another. After three or four years he died by falling from a trapeze: one of those deaths which is a mixture of accident and suicide. It could be said that the circus cook brought me up. She was a very fat and lonely lady. She loved me madly. Isabelle was the baby of the most renowned monkey in that circus. She was very feeble, and guess what happened?"

"Her mother died giving birth to her," I said mischievously.

"Yes, that’s exactly what happened," said the gentleman dwarf. "Monkeys are like human beings, they need a mother’s care. The other monkeys didn’t look after Isabelle. She was a teeny-weeny thing. She was so sweet, so pretty . . . I looked after her. I gave her her name, I taught her everything she knows, and Isabelle has made me happy."

He turned and gazed at Isabelle for a long time. Isabelle was again under her mink coverlet, sleeping and sighing deeply.

"I have tired you," he said, with heart-winning politeness. "Look, you have become sleepy."

"Oh no," I said. "Never! It is such a pleasure to listen to you."

Our compartment was warm. Beyond our window was the night and trees. I fell asleep.

When I woke up the train was about to enter my hometown station. The gentleman dwarf and Isabelle were gone. Feeling almost melancholic—without even saying good-bye, I was thinking—I noticed the envelope on the basket of figs. On the envelope, in incredibly beautiful handwriting, my name was written. I opened and started reading the letter which was inscribed on exceedingly fine, beige-colored parchment.

"Our Dear Dear Traveling Companion,

You made me and Isabelle so happy . . . When Isabelle woke up she was a different person; your liveliness, your youth and your courage toward life have made her a totally new person. She does not want to see the doctor in your hometown anymore, or any other doctor for that matter. Her desire is to pass her last days in peace and happiness in our home. We are glad to have met a person like you. I hope you will accept a small remembrance. Perhaps we shall inspire you to sell it and set off on journeys. What do you think?"

His signature was eye-catching, displayed a special character, and was absolutely illegible. In the envelope was his diamond tiepin, the size of my thumbnail. I placed it in the palm of my hand and looked. In it I could see India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Nothing else happened on the journey.


Anonymous: I Found A White Bean June 21, 2006

Posted by wwbtest in Folksongs, Latvian, Uncategorized.
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Translated from the Latvian by Bitite Vinklers

I found a white bean:
where did I plant it?
In the middle of a garden
on a white sandy hill.
Strong and tall, the beanstalk grew
all the way to the sky;
up the stalk, branch by branch,
I climbed until I reached the sky.
There I saw a son of God
tally bees by the basket;
from the stingers of his bees
I forged a pointed sword,
with my pointed sword
I slew the devil's mother.
My brown coat was stained,
spattered with her blood:
I asked Mara1, "Where shall I
wash the coat clean?"
"Wash it in the river, lad,
where nine currents run."
"Tell me, Mara, where shall I
spread the coat to dry?"
"Dry it in a garden, lad,
in the sunlight of nine suns."
"Tell me, Mara, where shall I
press the coat smooth?"
"Press it where you find, my lad,
nine maids with mangles."
"Tell me, Mara, when shall I
wear that coat again?"
"Wear it on the day, my lad,
when nine suns appear."


1. Mara is an earth goddess.

Jacques Sagot The Enigma of Ursa Major June 21, 2006

Posted by wwbtest in Costa Rican, Fiction, Spanish.
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Poetry peers over the shoulders of science.

–Antonio Machado

The astronomer of that kingdom had been honored with the difficult charge of figuring out the meaning of Ursa Major. The king, who had been humiliated by his failed military campaigns against neighboring lands, was determined to claim a scientific victory which would restore the injured pride of his countrymen. His troops had been indisputably trounced, and his knights had been shamed, but what glorious revenge awaited them in the realm of knowledge, the unraveling of the mystery of that most arcane of constellations! Where the wise men of neighboring provinces had failed, their all-knowing astronomer would sound the trumpets of cognition, so much more powerful than the sword or the crossbow.

The astronomer had been promised immortal glory if he could complete this assignment. If he failed, he was promised certain death and anonymity forevermore. Lacking even a shred of talent for motivating his minions, as most despots are, this was the king’s best effort to incite his favorite scientist’s investigative fervor. The astronomer had been granted a year, at the end of which he would be expected to make a formal report to the council of wise men on his heavenly inquiry. Until then, the honor of the kingdom would hang on his spectacles, and on a cluster of fickle stars.

An entire life spent scrutinizing the firmament out of pure love, and now this piddling king thought he could motivate him with a futile promise of immortality. Immortality, to him, when the only thing he had ever desired was to dissolve forever into the blue infinity of the skies! It was like promising a river that it would never reach the sea! But what was he going to do? Tyrants assume that the whole world suffers from the same thirst for power that consumes their lives, incapable of comprehending the man who declares himself indifferent to earthly glory.

That very night the astronomer examined the heavens from his observatory. Something worried him. His books of ancient wisdom, his instruments of measurement, and the steely probe of his intellect could without a doubt furnish a variety of theories on the distance, configuration, age and origin of the stars that made up Ursa Major. But the meaning, the very essence of that silent assembly of stars was something that his methodologies seemed incapable of apprehending. Tragically aware of the limits of his science, the astronomer decided to consult the Court Poet. Perhaps that illustrious bard, who kept company with mystery and the lofty art of interpretation, would be able to see clearly that which the poor astronomer could hardly even begin to imagine.

“I am no oracle, but rather a keeper of mysteries,” the poet responded. “It’s no good to ask for my help. I conceal things, not decipher them. I’m the priest who guards the gates of the unknown.”

“What more do you want from me?” begged the astronomer. “Here I am, laying the tools of my science down before you, and humbling myself by acknowledging the superiority of your intuition as a poet. Help me solve the enigma of Ursa Major, because the kingdom’s honor depends upon it. If only I had been blessed like you with the gift of a poet’s perspicacity!”

“Nonsense! Anyone who spends a lifetime observing the skies is a poet, whether they know it or not.”

The old astronomer had already moved off quite a way when he heard the poet’s voice call out of sympathy for his apparent despair.

“Let me consult my faithful muses, and within a month I’ll have the answer you desire.”

Meanwhile the astronomer continued to be captivated by the heavens, a clumsy poet whose odes did not rhyme, a suitor whose beloved refused time and again to share her secret. Set in the canvas of night, the stars winked at him in cruel coquetry.

A few days before the end of the stipulated month, the astronomer once again knocked upon the Poet’s door. The poem was complete! No sooner had the man started to recite his composition in his pompous voice than the astronomer’s hopes turned to bitter disappointment. The rhapsody in question seemed imbued with the same eternity as outer space: an eternity of alliterations, of descriptions, of metaphors… an eternity of tedium.

“You are, without a doubt, a skilled versifier,” the astronomer responded, “but never, not for one moment have you shown yourself to be a poet. Your verbs are not vehicles for superior thoughts, your words cannot express hidden truths, and there is nothing in your learned phraseologies that even approaches authenticity. Not once have you succeeded in producing words that belong together to create a reflection of the mysterious, extant harmony that rules our universe. Grace has not blessed a single one of your lines because your technique has driven her away. The fanfare of your rhetoric has made it impossible to capture the voice of night. Your verses are no better than my crude instruments, which at least have the virtue of telling the truth and won’t support the ugly vice of narcissism.”

The astronomer retreated in silence, certain that his disquisition would not leave a mark on the fatuous poet, whose cosmic arrogance would protect him from such opprobrium since the criticism would vaporize as soon as it came into contact with the atmosphere of his vanity.

His next step was to consult the High Priest of the kingdom. Of all the wise men in that country there was none so eminent or humble. He went immediately to him, certain that truth, pure and holy, lived upon his lips.

“Ursa Major?” inquired the venerable priest. “Of course I know its meaning! You’ll see, my son, the constellations are nothing more than the fetid miasmas of human sins, which, when distilled, ascend to the heavens and condense into luminous points of light so that there, suspended in the heart of night, they may always remind mankind of the iniquities of his weak nature…”

“I kiss your hands, Holy Father,” the astronomer thanked him, and left with a heavy heart. There was no doubt that the priest was a logical man, an attribute that the vast majority of wise men cannot claim, but how deeply his perception of the world was tainted by the age-old struggle between good and evil! What a paucity of love manifested itself in the truth he pursued: naked, simple, supreme…!

Once again confined to the isolation of his observatory, the astronomer redoubled his efforts night after night. He was struck by a terrible fear. Could it be that the fundamental obstacle in his quest was not the remoteness of Ursa Major, but rather the very nature of the mystery he was trying to solve? The stars could be right before him, within arm’s reach, but their essence would be none the less enigmatic. Perhaps if he dedicated himself to loving them, prostrating himself before their beauty, they would reveal their secret once and for all. Maybe the stars were there to be admired, not explained; his very curiosity was profanity, a brutal and violent invasion in which the scientist’s furious scrutiny battered the walls of silence time and time again. Better to adore them than to analyze them: that was what stars were meant for. In the end, perhaps the poet had been right in establishing himself as the official guardian of mystery. But how unfortunate his tendency to love himself far more than the objects of his art!

The astronomer desperately needed to consult the kingdom’s Astrologist, confidant and amanuensis of the stars. No one but he knew how to interpret them, no one else could boast of understanding the cryptic messages of their nocturnal choreography better. It was sheer insanity not to have called on him in the first place, but there were still six months left before the year specified by the king expired, and the astrologer’s revelations might still help elucidate the dilemma.

“The vault of heaven is an open book for those who know how to read it,” pontificated the astrologer. “It is the book of books, in which the destinies of mankind are inscribed. My entire life has been nothing more than a labor of decodification, an astral exegesis whose only purpose is to help men understand the cosmic forces that govern their lives. The stars exist to be read. But mankind is blind to their tidings.”

If the responses of the poet and the high priest had been completely inept, the astrologer’s appeared to be sheer impertinence.

“I see, the stars are there for us to help ourselves!” the astronomer responded irritably. “A mere instrument, a registry of births and deaths, celestial playing cards in the hands of soothsayers, a crystal ball which encapsulates the entire universe…!”

In truth he had never in his life encountered such egotism, such arrogance and myopia disguised as wisdom and erudition. He had asked about the essence of a thing, and the ass had answered by explaining its use. What in the name of God could be divined from sunsets, rainbows, the northern lights? The stars at the exclusive, personal service of mankind? It was like trying to use the tail of a comet to light your cigarette!

The only person left to consult, in the hopes that his daily commerce in ideas might endow him with a certain authority on the constellations, was the Philosopher. After so much sophism, the astronomer no longer harbored the illusion that he might hear the words that would finally unlock the doors to this mystery, but his quest would not be complete without consulting that great thinker, without a doubt one of the sharpest minds in the kingdom.

“I’m afraid I’m not the man you need,” said the philosopher with a pomposity that was vaguely reminiscent of the poet’s. “It’s not Ursa Major that interests me so much as the mechanisms by which the spirit of man is capable of understanding it. As vast as outer space may be, the abyss of the human soul is far more unfathomable and dizzying. It’s the infinity within, and not that without, that fascinates me. The universe is immense, but it’s man’s consciousness that makes it real by registering it, recognizing it, and studying it. Without the eye of humanity, each star in the firmament would be extinguished like a candle blown out in the middle of the night. The abyss we perceive is simply an emanation of our inner abyss, and that is where we should be searching for the keys to the universe.”

This answer managed to combine the narcissism of the poet, the myopia of the priest, and the arrogance of the astrologer. Why did men have to view things through the prism of rationality, assuming that the world is ruled by the same principles that inform and govern his own intellect? It’s like the prisoner who, confined from birth, believes that the bars in his only window on the world are part of the world itself. To impose the limits of our consciousness on the mystery and chaos of reality! To fish the oceans of irrationality with the flimsy nets of reason!

“I believe your pride has deluded you,” the astronomer asserted. “Men christen stars with ancient, affected names, forgetting that the stars have absolutely no need for such ostentatious appellations, whether they are feminine or masculine, scientific or mythological. In this way we believe we can appropriate them for ourselves. Open your eyes, my all-too-human friend. We men need the stars but they, on the contrary, would be perfectly well-off without us.”

The astronomer returns to his office. With his head bowed among the piles of papers that inundate his desk he ruminates, or dreams, once in a while he even cries. The opaline splendor of the night sky slips through the window that is wide open to the inscrutable firmament. For the first time in his life he turns his back on the stars, on taciturn Astarte, on cold, grim infinity. He knows he is ruined. A full year has passed, and like docile beasts the stars have returned to the same positions they were in on the day he received this accursed assignment. Tomorrow he was going to have to appear before all the dignitaries of the kingdom and offer a stammering apology when they were expecting the most spectacular astronomical discovery of modern times. The king’s fury, the public lynching, the criticism and ignominy that would follow were the least of his worries in that moment of disillusion and surrender. It was the futility of the quest for knowledge that seemed to him most atrocious. To fail to solve a mystery, forever shipwrecked on the voyage to enlightenment, whether it was two paces or a billion light years away–it would have been better to spend life drinking and frolicking like a faun.

The astronomer took pencil and paper and began to outline the preface of his report, this report that would never be, that could not be, that no one had right to require of him:

“Men believe it is mathematics, or our theories, or our primitive reasoning that makes the stars move in their orbits with the constancy we have come to expect of them. But the time has come for us to realize that the stars don’t take the least notice of our absurd numerologies. It is supremely ironic that the human desire to endow reality with rational structures is rooted in a fundamentally irrational impulse. We refuse to accept that human reason may just be one solitary point of light in an abyss of irrationality because we don’t want to feel orphaned, lost in chaos and swallowed by the absurd. When we declare that the world can be rationally explained, we can feel one with the universe, tiny pieces of a grand master plan ruled by a Logos in which we are happy participants. As with all dogma, this is a soothing notion. Anything rather than the distressing solitude which makes man feel like an island lost in an ocean of gloom. The result of which is such vertigo, such anxiety that we begin to feel we are no more than a genetic mutation, a virus of rationality struggling in a universe that is deaf, dumb and blind. Our belief in the rational nature of the cosmos fills us with the same kind of beatitude newborn babes exhibit, because they are unaware of their separateness and believe that the world surrounding them is part of them, the world is simply a projection, an outgrowth of their own little bodies. The nostalgia of that feeling pursues us for the rest of our lives: it is the grief of the drop of water yearning for the ocean from whence it came.”

And while he was thinking all this, the astronomer had to laugh at the realization that to rave against philosophy he had to actually employ it: what a merciless malady thought was!

“I have consulted with four eminences grises,” he continued to write, “and not one of them exhibited an attitude of astonishment, or wonder at the metaphysical, or the genuine humility without which scientific inquiry is sterile. The man who does not begin his investigations by marveling at the object of his exegesis has started off on the wrong foot. First reverence is necessary, then curiosity, and knowledge proceeds from these. A scientific inquiry has achieved its mission when knowledge begets love, which is the corollary to all cognitive processes. The dawning of understanding can be nothing other than man’s spontaneous capacity of appreciation for the mysteries of the world. One’s soul should always remain childlike, abandoned to the awe without which the world is dead.

“Grandpa… Grandpa… Are you alright?”

Upon raising his head, the astronomer saw before him a fairy-like creature with ringlets and skin luminous as the moon. It was his granddaughter, who had come for her goodnight kiss, staring up at him with damp eyes and a little, flower-like pout. She must have thought he was dead, slumped on his desk and half-buried in paper. The old wise man smiled sadly, just enough to calm the girl, who was observing him now with more curiosity than concern. She often came into his observatory just to play with his instruments. And he let her entertain herself without any objection because, after all, weren’t they just very large toys? Hadn’t he, too, spent countless hours playing hopscotch with the stars? Or was it that the stars were playing hide-and-seek with him?

“Do you know what the stars are?” asked the astronomer asked glumly as he stroked her golden curls. Without batting an eyelash at the magnitude of the question, she went straight to the window and proceeded to study the sky as naturally as could be. She leaned out the window and her eyes filled with the twinkling of stars and the silvery iridescence of the Milky Way.

“I’ve got it, Grandpa!” she exclaimed with joy. “The stars are the sun’s wedding gift to the moon!”

The astronomer found space in his heart to smile, and it was like a drop of honey into the bitterness that was consuming him. He gave his grand-daughter her nightly kiss and immersed himself once again among the papers on his desk.

The trumpets of the kingdom announced the new day, joining a chorus of bells and the chattering of birds. Cold dawn found the astronomer at his desk, where fatigue had overcome him the night before. Morning and the jubilant rebirth of the world: the cruelest of ironies for the condemned man awaking on the day of his death. The astronomer tears himself from his dreams and hurries to prepare himself for his execution. A few hours later he stands before the gates of the palace. Brass fanfare announces his arrival: the entire court is eagerly expecting his appearance. The council of wise men as well as dignitaries from neighboring kingdoms—whom the king has made sure to invite—await his entrance with sibylline expressions. The king cannot hide his excitement as soon as the Astronomer sets foot in the hall, and he shares a smug little smile with his counselors. This decipherer of stars is worth more to him than a hundred-thousand warriors, five hundred archers and a flotilla of two-hundred ships. His proud expression displays a blind confidence in the abilities of the court astronomer: it’s the look of a man who has not stopped to consider the possibility that his hopes may be dashed.

The astronomer is standing in the center of the royal assembly hall, his hands, his heart and his head completely empty. The crowd hushes when they see he does not have the jumble of papers they expect. Could it be possible that he has memorized the contents of his transcendental report? Does he really have something worth teaching us, this rumpled and decrepit old man? Why does he vacillate so, why does he raise his hand to his damp, wrinkled forehead, why do his trembling hands hurry to shield his blushing face, every time he tries to lift his gaze from the floor? A deafening murmur runs through the room, like a swarming of bees. Some of the courtiers, alarmed by his uncertain air, watch him nervously and look to the king for reassurance, in whose confident face they find it.

The astronomer steps towards his sovereign, and after paying homage on one knee he prepares to speak. The king’s advisors sharpen their hearing and take up their papyrus, ready to transcribe each word. Not an eye blinks, not a breath can be heard, nor the beat of a single heart… The astronomer opens his mouth… but words fail him. He falters, he coughs, and he brings his hand to his forehead again, as if trying to wave off a bad dream. The air is so thick with expectation you could slice it. He tries again to address the crowd… and his voice gets caught in his throat. The king turns pale. His brow furrows and his hands twitch on his scepter. His throne is purple, and now his face is, too. The astronomer gathers all his dignity and resolves to speak. But hold on! If his disgrace is inevitable, he might as well do this with a little humor, a little wit, with something so crazy that it will incite a riot in hall! Even derision would be preferable to that dead silence, pouring into his soul like melted lead. He breathes deeply, pauses and proclaims serenely:

“Ursa Major is the sun’s wedding gift to the moon…”

Silence. A solitary cough. The crowd’s stupor becomes a roaring whisper, crowned by the unmistakable smile of the king. A smile that grows from pianissimo to fortissimo to a thunderous laugh, setting off guffaws throughout the court. The astronomer lowers his head, but then he realizes that this laughter does not carry a single note of mocking. It is the sound of a crowd in awe, breaking into deafening and victorious rounds of applause. The poor old man looks round the room, eyes wider than they have ever been, he smiles disconcertedly, he wobbles, he is reeling… and it dawns on him that poetry—true poetry, which poets create every once in a blue moon—has by chance given him the key to the very heart of reality.

The astronomer died immortalized by fame, borne in a nobleman’s coffin with a laurel wreath atop his head. A park, two theaters, three avenues and four plazas were baptized with his name, and his words were chiseled into marble above the gates to the city so that every visitor to that land would know about the very wisest of men who had brought such glory to his people. The king ruled until the ripe old age of one-hundred-and-four, and his reign was the most prosperous and flourishing period in memory. And as far as Ursa Major is concerned, there are still those who would like to rename the constellation, “The Wedding Gift.”
Houston, October 1997

Carmen Boullosa from Lepanto’s Other Hand June 21, 2006

Posted by wwbtest in Fiction, Spanish, War.
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The story of the Juan Latino’s portraitist, Esteban Luz, who enters this story when Don Juan of Austria visits Granada during the Alpujarras War (1568-70), otherwise known as the Civil War.

Near the city of Grenada, in a village whose name has been forgotten–it was one of those Moorish villages wiped out during the war–a boy with an astonishing gift was born. He became a painter, an excellent one; he executed portraits that were both more faithful and inspired than any of his peers’. Wherever he placed his brush, the world magically appeared. People called him Esteban Luz. He was a Moorish boy from a small town, and to make the story even more extraordinary, his fellow townsmen despised him–they believed it was sinful to paint anything that looked so real. Indeed, his friends and enemies, his intimates and strangers alike scorned his gift, the Moors because they considered his livelihood despicable, while those Christians who made the long trip to commission portraits couldn’t comprehend why he stayed in that hamlet when he could have left those dirty Moors behind for a career in the royal court, surrounded by people of culture. The better he painted, the more he was detested by both camps. But his canvases were irresistible, hypnotic, and no sooner did his greatest critics lay eyes on them than they rushed to have their own portraits executed by that magical hand. All the aristocrats from neighboring towns had already approached him to be painted, and even the gentry; there was never a lack of money when it came to paying for one of his canvases. Nevertheless, he didn’t ask a single penny for his efforts, he accepted whatever people thought fit to pay. He did not know avarice, nor the fact that one needs to look after oneself, to protect oneself, and that money affords great protection. If he’d had the guile or the malice to suggest that his patrons donate the same pittance to the Church that they were paying for his works of art, it would have been a completely different story, the priest would have done whatever it took to ensure Esteban Luz continued painting, and he’d still be painting today, because at the time of this story he was barely sixteen years old.

Esteban Luz worked on his canvases from dawn till dusk, and if he stopped it was only for lack of light. The only thing he liked to do was paint. It was his all-consuming passion. He was perfectly happy so long as he was paid enough to buy brushes, canvas, paints, and food for himself and his elderly parents. If patrons brought their own materials, so much the better. The people in a nearby village profited nicely by selling these things to visitors.

He could have had a brilliant and lucrative career in any big city if he had learned the art of what I have called guile, he would have made it all the way to the royal court. He certainly painted no worse than, say, a Madrazo; he truly was a splendid artist. But Esteban Luz had no intention of abandoning his town, perhaps for one simple reason: his parents were blind. He always had two shadows following him, two shadows in complete darkness. But the truth was that he just didn’t want to leave. The more his neighbors despised him, the more he wanted to stay. He loved his home. Every morning he lifted his gaze to the green hills in the distance, and beyond them the vigilant sierra. He would never trade this landscape for a palace, nor for other hills and mountains. And least of all for the sea. At night he was tormented by visions of the sea, a black place, black as the blindness of his parents, dark without a glimmer of light, full of bodies being tossed about aimlessly.

Esteban Luz was not fond of painting the same model twice but even this didn’t compel him to leave his hometown in pursuit of new people and places, because there were always new births, and because physiognomies change over the years until they have become that completely strange and fascinating thing that is the face of an old man. Not to mention animals, which he also loved to paint, capturing the unique personality of each creature; there’s not a cat or a dog that doesn’t have one.

So that’s why he wasn’t wealthy, and why he didn’t have powerful friends; people were jealous of his talent and this jealously grew because he didn’t have the means to defend himself from the anger that the beauty he created in his paintings provoked.

A rumor was born out of this envy: that his parents were miraculously able to see anything that Esteban Luz committed to canvas. And that this was why he painted day and night, tirelessly, still-lives, palaces, people. Since the skies of his paintings were beyond compare, it was said that those two old blind folks could see them. Afternoons they could be found on their stoop, gazing at the sky in rapture. They’re seeing the heavens Esteban Luz painted instead of these leaden skies. And the villagers boiled with twice the envy.

This rumor spread, it became more specific and thus more credible, to the point that it was said when Esteban Luz received a visit in his humble home from one of his previous subjects, his parents recognized the patron immediately. Tongues wagged with the details of all these encounters, which were proof of Esteban Luz’s witchcraft. Did no one stop to think that, since they were blind, Esteban’s parents had developed a heightened sense of hearing and were able to recognize voices immediately? Everyone knows that blind people identify those around them by sound since nature has deprived them of sight.

This jealousy and envy grew and enveloped the poor painter, such that one day the ecclesiastical authorities appeared at his house and carted him off for engaging in witchcraft. To be fair, he was a sort of magician who knew how to create marvels out of nothing. But warlock he was not, and certainly not the kind to burn at the stake just so the children of the Church could sleep soundly.

They took him to jail. His elderly, blind parents had to leave their home to try to provide for themselves. People saw them and instead of feeling pity for the forsaken old couple they spread more rumors about them: that if they could walk down the street just like normal people then it was because they could see, and that if they could see it was because their son’s paint brush had restored their vision. Witch! Warlock! The village chanted in unison. The Inquisition made them quick to judge.

The painter was moved to the city. Upon arriving at the prison in Seville the warden provided him with paints and brushes–he too wanted to be immortalized by the great Esteban Luz. But the canvas the warden brought was of the very poorest quality, and on top of that it wasn’t primed. “I can’t paint on this,” the painter explained, “the canvas hasn’t been properly prepared.” What else could he paint on? “Bring me a canvas that’s been gessoed and I will gladly paint your portrait.” But the warden knew that the painter only had a few hours until his trials began. He knew all too well what the interrogations of the Inquisition were like; when they were over the painter would be unable to paint. If he regained any strength, it would be only to moan in pain. “Paint me on that wall there, it’s whitewashed,” he said. Esteban Luz considered the wall. The cell had recently been renovated due to a terrible fire; since he was a famous prisoner they had gifted him with whitewashed walls, which were, in effect, perfect for painting. Esteban Luz regarded the warden from head to toe as if he were taking notes on his personage. When he finished he said, “I’m going to begin painting now,” and he waved him off.

Esteban Luz arranged his brushes the way he always did before he began painting, he prepared his palette as best he could, and then he began his work.

First he traced the outline of a tree, both to put his stamp on the work and to make it more appealing, because the warden was not an attractive man. He copied from memory the tree that stood outside his home, an old elm that his mother loved and that he had painted time and again, discovering something new about it each time, a new expression, different gestures. Next he painted a horse. But once that was on the wall, Esteban Luz’s brush refused to paint the revolting warden into the saddle. Better, he thought, to fix this or that detail.

The horse seemed so real he looked like he would whinny. His coat shone, his eyes showed his character; they made you want to reach out and feel his breath.

The warden was growing impatient. He stopped by under the pretext of bringing him fire and water – night was falling–and he didn’t see anything but the horse. “What about me?” he asked. “You’ll be up there in no time, your feet won’t even touch the ground.” And the warden left, waited a little while, and then returned.

But he returned to find the cell empty. There was no sign of Esteban Luz or even of the horse. The elm was there in all its glory. But that was all.

Esteban Luz had not lied to him. A few hours later the warden dangled in the air, hanged for helping Esteban Luz escape. But before that, as soon as the painter had disappeared, a dutiful young man flew like the wind to Esteban Luz’s village to convey the news to his parents. Upon arriving at their humble abode, however, he found the doors wide open. Night was well-advanced, but with the help of a torch he entered the house in search of the parents, thinking that the old folks had forgotten to close the doors. Now, the whole town knew that every inch of those walls was hung with Esteban Luz’s paintings, but the walls were completely bare, there wasn’t even a mark where the paintings had been. The hastily-made pallets they slept on were empty. They had disappeared.

Some say that Esteban Luz mounted that horse he painted on the wall in Seville’s prison and that, grateful for being created as such a perfect specimen, the horse had carried him quickly away.

Others don’t believe the tale and say: “Someone offered to help Esteban Luz escape from prison and gave refuge to him and his parents in order to take advantage of his talents.” Which story is true? Neither? Did time itself do away with Esteban Luz, since he never understood that to practice his art he needed protection, money, friends in high places?

And protection from what?

Why such jealousy?

Why could he not just paint and be admired and bask in glory?

Welcome to the WWBTest Blog June 20, 2006

Posted by wwbtest in Uncategorized.
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Hello, WWB Staffers!  The purpose of this page is to provide an example of a standard (non-customized) WordPress installation and to demonstrate how basic WordPress navigation works. 

As you have undoubtedly heard, we are going to be using the WordPress toolset to build a new version of the entire WordsWithoutBorders.org site.  While this finished site will look nothing like the page you are looking at now, the underlying technology will be similar.