Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
from Issue 25
Note: This story accompanies Enrique Vila-Matas’s “Sea Swell” found in Issue 25 and also translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
This man, called José Ferrato, with a somewhat unprepossessing physique, whom we can see waking up in his apartment in Plaza de San Lorenzo, has just been dreaming about a donkey that resembled a very cautious greyhound. He observed that donkey closely throughout the dream, because he was aware what a rare phenomenon it was. However, on waking, all he can recall of the creature are its unpleasantly long, slender, symmetrical, human feet.
That donkey who always longed to be a greyhound is me, the man says to himself, and, for a few seconds, we see him lying in bed, motionless and distraught and deeply depressed. Then he remembers that when he went to bed last night, he had promised himself that, this morning, he would go to the cathedral to see the boy with the unsurpassable, Murilloesque face, the marvelous, unattainable boy who wants nothing whatever to do with him.
I will go and see him, José Ferrato thinks, his head resting on his pillow, and it will be the last time, for I have pestered him long enough. I will trouble Beauty no more. This is what José Ferrato says to himself as he lies in bed, remembering his excitement the previous afternoon in the cathedral, when he again spotted the boy among the other boys standing before the high altar, all dressed in blue and silver and wearing plumed hats, and dancing slowly and on tiptoe to the sound of castanets and a strange liturgy halfway between a seguidilla and a minuet: the baile de los seises, an ancient tradition in the cathedral of Seville.
Last night, he fell asleep thinking about Beauty, and a donkey ruled his dreams, and now, on waking, we have seen how this donkey—which is none other than himself, or so at least he believes—this donkey is trying not to forget that in two hours, the boy will reappear in the cathedral, this time in the guise of an altar boy in a side chapel where Sunday mass will be held.
Into his mind comes the memory of another liturgy, as strange as the baile de los seises, but belonging to the private world of his family. He recalls another processional dance, this time from his childhood, the eccentric game that his giant of a father had invented. He can see his father so clearly now, so very tall in his black boots, processing majestically and slowly through the house, tapping lightly with his heels to mark the different sections of his route, as if each section were important to him, as if none deserved to be dismissed and all were worthy of being drawn to the boy’s attention, tapped out, suggested, signalled. Thus his giant of a father continued his crazy progress, dancing slowly from the dining room in their house in Carmona to another forbidden room, thus his father made his mad progress, and the boy would follow, respectfully, adoringly, the two of them forming a strange, slow procession whose familiar itinerary his father never changed, always going from the dining room, down the endless, gloomy corridor to a room that was kept in permanent darkness and which no one could enter because it belonged to his grandfather; and so when his father reached the threshold of that secret room, he would spin around and make his way back down the gloomy corridor to where the procession or dance had begun, always respectfully followed by the boy who—knowing that he would be forgiven everything because he was ugly and hunchbacked—occasionally dared to break the light tapping rhythm of that processional dance and linger for a few long seconds hidden in the darkness of the forbidden room; and then his father, greatly surprised to find his offspring following neither the rules of the game nor his footsteps, would angrily interrupt the dance lesson and turn back and peer into the forbidden shadows in which his son had taken fleeting, fugitive refuge.
José Ferrato abandons his childhood memories now and remains for a long time pondering what he had heard people talk about yesterday, that strange business of the Russians sending up a second Sputnik into space with only a dog called Laika as passenger. Those Russians really are bizarre, he thinks. This is exactly what he said yesterday when he first heard the news and was plunged into a state of utter perplexity. A dog journeying through space, he says several times. What will God think when he sees a dog flying towards the Kingdom of Heaven? Only a Russian would consider it normal to send a dog up to see the stars. Besides, José Ferrato continues to reflect, why didn’t they consult the rest of humankind? They never ask us what we think about some decision they’re making. Obviously, we’re not Russians, but the same thing happens here in Spain, and they never consult us, they don’t care if we have a particular interest in whatever it is, or if anything’s what they call “a matter of national interest.” Of course, History goes one way and we, poor anonymous citizens, go another, and no one listens to or consults with us. At least we have the consolation of knowing that they didn’t treat God with complete irreverence and send a greyhound or a donkey up to heaven, because that would have been even worse…
While he’s shaving, he thinks again about the boy with the unsurpassable, Murilloesque face, whom he will soon be able to glimpse again in a side chapel of the cathedral. It will be the last time he will enjoy this vision, of that he is quite sure. As he contemplates the boy, he will try to experience, one last time, the matchless feeling that, at that precise moment, his eyes are the most fortunate on earth.
We see him, well-dressed and well-shaven, go down to have breakfast, as he does every morning, at the Sardinero, the bar next to the Basílica del Gran Poder, the church whose Christ has always listened to him so attentively, although whether he was able to understand him is another matter, because it still is a sin for a man to fall in love with a boy.
We see him go into the bar and, although he is of medium height, José Ferrato seems small, mainly because of his hump. He has very stubby, white hands, a soft voice, and rather effeminate gestures; he takes almost excessive care—perhaps because he is a barber—of his lank hair and moustache, and uses an extravagantly perfumed handkerchief. When he smiles, he reveals two sharp vampire’s teeth. He has clearly not been blessed with good looks, but he has always tried to make up for his monstrous appearance with his infallibly good manners and his infinite kindness and patience—he’s a real saint—in putting up with the locals, who, affectionately, but also cruelly, insist on calling him Nosferatu.
As soon as he enters the Sardinero, the waiters—of whom there are many, because there have always been hordes of them in this bar—make the usual jokes at his expense: José Ferrato, Nosferatu! Today, though, he doesn’t even bother to respond, which is unusual for him, because, according to his philosophy—elementary, but perfectly reasonable for a single man of his status—it is always best to be on good terms with your fellow man, because we men are bound together by threads, and it would be a bad business if the threads binding us slackened and sent one of us plunging a little further than the others into the void. For Nosferatu, it would be more horrible still if one of those threads broke entirely and someone fell. That is why we should remain bound to each other, he tells himself several times a day, the first being when he has breakfast at the Sardinero and, armed with infinite patience and saintliness, has to listen to the nonsensical remarks and other innocently mocking comments given by that veritable cloud or horde of waiters: one for every two square yards of that small bar.
This morning, however—and this is most unusual—he does not respond to their jokes. This is because he has the impression that his whole small world is beginning to drift definitively away and it seems to him that the moment has come to say goodbye to it all. He enters the Sardinero with surprising haste. He orders a hot chocolate, and the customer beside him orders exactly the same. Nosferatu gives him a scornful, censorious look, indicating how much he dislikes having someone order the same drink as him. However, the two end up talking to each other and commenting on how well the soccer player Campanal has been playing lately, until a mistake—a mere slip of the tongue on Nosferatu’s part—leads them into a completely different, more meaningful conversation. They find themselves discussing old age. Nosferatu says that he has always found it hard to accept his ugliness and his hump back, but the worst thing of all is that, lately, he is constantly, painfully aware that he is growing old.
“Oh, I really like getting old,” says the other man. “I hate the golden curls of childhood, the spots and pimples of adolescence, all that nonsense about being in one’s prime. Old age, on the other hand, brings calm and equilibrium. Friendship, love, and work take their proper places. Getting old is an excellent thing.”
Nosferatu is so troubled by these words that he decides to leave the bar at once. Raising his left hand, he waves a silent farewell to the waiters. Farewell forever, he thinks. And he leaves. He knows perfectly well where he’s going and what he’s going to do, he knows exactly what his intentions are on this November morning. He’s walking very fast, thinking to himself that if he keeps up this pace, he’ll take off. It’s clear that all he wants is to see the boy’s perfect beauty one last time and then, yes, take off, fly, free forever, through the cold, silent air of that Seville morning, along with the angels, because there are (they say) no hunchbacks in the infinite.
As he quickens his pace, he thinks how little he cares now about his fellow man, those waiters at the Sardinero, for example. They don’t matter one jot, just as he doesn’t give a fig for the collective fate of humanity, and yet he cares enormously about his own personal fate, around which, this morning, his tortured thoughts keep circling and circling.
He has turned the corner now and is just leaving the Plaza de San Lorenzo, when a waiter grabs his arm and tells him that he forgot to pass on a message from his mother, saying that he should call her urgently.
His mother is the least alarmist of people; she’s normally a very calm person. She would never worry her son for no reason, and so it really must be very urgent, assuming that anything ever is. Nosferatu goes back to the bar and phones his mother at her home in Carmona, the village she has barely left in recent years. His mother’s voice sounds rather distant, her tone surprisingly shrill, the message bewildering: Uncle Adolfo has died at the age of ninety-five.
“So?” says Nosferatu, most put out that such a trivial incident should have interrupted his walk to the cathedral.
Uncle Adolfo is almost a stranger. He has heard nothing of him for years and years and wasn’t even aware that he was still alive. In fact, he only met his uncle Adolfo once, when he was taken to visit him in Madrid—almost half a century ago—a visit to what his mother believed to be a house of ill repute, the house of an outrageous sinner and a confirmed bachelor.
What he remembers most about that visit—he was quite small—was all the talk about his uncle’s influential job as director of the Spanish railways. He also remembers a silk dressing gown—which revealed to him the existence of something called luxury—and the evil look on his uncle’s face when he asked him if he wanted to hear a great truth. When Nosferatu said yes he would, his uncle merely told him that God was dead.
This malign, gratuitous action meant that the uncle never again saw his nephew. This nephew is now fifty years old and has never felt particularly affected by his uncle’s words. He is very devout and has all the saintliness of the hunchbacked buffoon, who is almost pleased when he finds himself the butt of other people’s jokes. The nephew believes in God, although he does regret God making him so ugly and so hunchbacked, and when he attends mass, he always feels very annoyed, because the son of that same God won’t really suffer the little children to come anywhere near him. He believes in God and is a good man and a real saint, if we understand by this everything that goes with that, namely, that he is also drawn to sin and fascinated by profound Evil (which is radically opposed to Good), the perfect evil that is perfect beauty.
Nosferatu had been heading towards that beauty when his mother called him back.
“So?” he asks, rather tetchily. “Do you mean my uncle in Madrid?”
“Yes, Uncle Adolfo. He’s died.”
“That’s very interesting, but I always assumed he’d died years ago. What is so urgent about that?”
“Nosferatu, bugaboo!” a regular customer who has just arrived calls out to him, intending this as an affectionate, everyday greeting.
Nosferatu picks up a bowl of Russian salad from the counter and hurls it at the head of the surprised customer, just missing his target.
“Are you still there, son?” can be heard coming down the telephone line.
“Let me at him!” yells the regular, restrained by a legion of waiters.
“Uncle Adolfo,” says the voice, “has left you his entire fortune.”
“Have you gone raving mad, you old queen!” screams the customer, beside himself with rage.
“Isn’t that amazing, son? Two hundred or three hundred million, we don’t know exactly how much, but a real fortune. Can you hear me?” His mother sounds very excited. “Say something, son.”
There is no reaction from Nosferatu.
“I can understand why you’re at a loss for words,” his mother says. “Uncle Adolfo left a note explaining why he made you his sole heir. He was obviously a bit loopy at the end, but we won’t say that too loudly in case the lawyers declare the inheritance null and void. Shall I read the note out to you?”
Nosferatu still says nothing, as if he had suddenly been frozen into silence by an arctic blast, but in fact for him it’s as if nothing had changed and everything was the same when he first came into the bar that morning; he still feels as if his small world is beginning to move away from him, that the time has come for him to say goodbye to everything, to everyone who has, up until now, accompanied his wretched existence as a barber fascinated by perfect evil.
“All right, I’ll read it out to you,” says the voice on the line. “This is what it says, son, now listen carefully: ‘I really took to you the one time I met you all those years ago. This money is a bulwark against all your unhappiness, because I know you have been very unhappy. I have my sources and I am making you my heir, because I feel proud to know that you, too, have remained free of any matrimonial ties. I want you to set up a brotherhood of bachelors in my honor and to use my money to the detriment of those ever-proliferating large families receiving all those government hand-outs.”
“What?” is the only response Nosferatu can manage.
“Are you still there, son? I think your uncle was suffering from senile dementia, but, like I said, best not mention that in case the lawyers declare the inheritance null and void. Are you still there? Say something.”
Nosferatu doesn’t reply, he seems to be in shock.
“Apparently,” his mother goes on, “this is his revenge on his other nieces and nephews, whom he hates…. You may wonder why he hates them, and I have no idea, but what matters is that you are his sole beneficiary. Please, say something.”
Nosferatu is completely bowled over by the news, unable to respond. He leans his hump against the wall and, very slowly, slides down until he is sitting on the floor, laughing like a madman and with a calendar bearing a photo of the Giralda tower perched on his head like a hat. He sits there laughing for quite a while and when he recovers, there is no one at the other end of the line. The others tell him not to bother calling his mother back because she has already left her house in Carmona and is on her way to the bar to administer first aid.
He spends a few seconds seriously pondering his fate before starting to laugh again, feebly at first, then desperately, wildly.
“What did your mother say?” the other men in the bar ask.
Nosferatu doesn’t answer, he merely pulls a face.
“Are you thirsty?” they ask and, in an attempt to gain his confidence, offer him an aperitif, which he drinks, slowly, calmly, silently.
“You’re certainly in a very strange mood today,” says the regular customer, who seems to be the one most startled by Nosferatu’s reactions.
“What did your mother say to upset you so much?” they ask again.
“You’re like a swarm of flies,” he says suddenly, “pesky creatures, always sticking your nose in where it isn’t wanted.”
“You really are in a most peculiar mood,” insists the regular.
Nosferatu pays and, without another word, leaves the bar. Two of the waiters run after him and remind him that his mother is traveling from Carmona to see him.
“Are you coming back? What shall we say to her if she arrives?”
“I’m not coming back,” says Nosferatu. “Beloved flies, give my mother a big kiss from me and tell her it wasn’t her fault I was born with a hump.”
Leaving the astonished waiters behind, he hurries off. He’s thinking about the boy with the unsurpassable, Murilloesque face, about the perfect evil that so afflicts his soul, about the perfect beauty which, for days now, has gripped, overwhelmed and seduced him, reminding him constantly that he is ugly and hunchbacked, and, above all, that he is growing old. And while he is thinking this, he looks up at the sky above the rooftops, which is no longer clear blue but white, overlaid by an opaque patina similar to that in his soul, which is trying, unsuccessfully, to erase the image of the forbidden boy and of perfect evil, but he can still see that same perfect beauty even in the smudge of light that is the sun, glowing like the very dullest of love’s pangs. Yes, perfect evil awaits him in the Cathedral. Beauty is sinful, he thinks. And Nosferatu’s saintliness has never before been more obvious. His concern about sin would vanish if he knew that saintliness derives from the sacred, which is another word for the forbidden. However, he knows nothing of this. Nosferatu suddenly slows down and begins to take pleasure in what he sees along the way. He’s heading towards the river now, almost dancing, marking each step with a slight tap of the heel, just as his father used to do, as if pointing out anything of interest along the way.
Near the river, still keeping up that light, musical tapping, he goes into the butcher’s shop owned by a friend of his, a woman who has always been very kind to him. Nosferatu goes in, intending to say goodbye, because he wants to say goodbye to many things today. Somewhat perversely, he hopes to say goodbye to his friend, because he has always found her exaggerated kindness unbearable. He is tired of being pitied. That’s all over, he thinks.
“Business is very bad,” she says when she sees him standing there, staring at her, not saying a word.
Saint Nosferatu—I’m going to call him that because, like all those in love, he is both vampire and martyr—maintains a rigorous silence.
The sun sidesteps the obstacle of the clouds and reappears in triumph. For a moment, it looks as if Nosferatu is about to speak, but he doesn’t.
“Yes, business is very bad,” she says again, feeling slightly uneasy now, “because everyone walks past on the other side of the street. As you see, I’m on the sunny side, but it seems people around here prefer the shade.”
Nosferatu’s face remains a complete blank. He is a very good man, who has grown tired of being good. Rather than having an unattractive face, he would like to have a brutal, false face, to smile only rarely and always insincerely, and thus win an obscene victory over his whole person. Nosferatu is silently bidding farewell to the butcher. To do this, he smiles shyly and reveals his two sharp vampire teeth.
“Have you nothing to say? Is something wrong?” she asks.
Nosferatu rests his elbows on the counter and stares even more fixedly at his friend. At that moment, a group walks past the sunny door of the shop. This, for him, disproves her statement that no one walks on the sunny side of the street. As if she had been found out, she changes the subject and says the first thing that comes to mind, something that is guaranteed to neither please nor amuse Nosferatu. She says:
“Do you know, for a moment there, I thought you wouldn’t be able to reach the counter with your elbows. How silly of me.”
Nosferatu now hates the butcher and thinks that he was quite right to come in and bid farewell forever to such a monster.
“Why don’t you say something, Nosferatu? You’re behaving very strangely.”
Then he makes as if to open his mouth and say goodbye, but instead says nothing, and leaves, looking pleased not to have uttered a word in that pathetic butcher’s shop.
He continues on towards the river, still keeping up that slow, light tapping, and when he is already some distance away, he turns for a moment, not in order to see his friend, but to confirm what he thought he had noticed when he was talking to her: her shop window is as tiny as the windows on the opposite side of the road.
It’s a real disadvantage having a small shop window like that—he thinks—that’s the real reason why business is so bad, but she, poor thing—and the word “poor” reminds him that he has suddenly become rich, one of those men whom others call “fortunate”—she blames it on people preferring to walk in the shade, which is pure self-deception.
When he woke up this morning, he, too, had succumbed to self-deception. He remembers that, shortly after thinking about the Sputnik, he had sat in bed reading one of those adventure stories he had liked so much as a child, but, when it failed to drive from his mind thoughts of the boy with the Murilloesque face, he had stopped reading to see what the weather was doing. A clear sky with a few clouds. He had gone back to bed after looking intently out of the window. He went back to bed and again tried to read, and it was then, without noticing and while he was still reading, that he changed the angle of the hand holding the book, which led him to think—erroneously—that a large cloud must have covered the sun, and everything suddenly seemed darker, even though the light in his room hadn’t changed at all.
The same thing is happening to my butcher friend, he thinks. And it occurs to Nosferatu now that this is what often happens: we look for distant causes when the real one is to be found much closer to home, in ourselves.
Nosferatu keeps up the rhythm of his ceremonial dance, and when he passes the cinema next to the Torre del Oro, he is surprised to see what sounds like a vampire movie called Rhapsody of Blood, which has been declared to be “of national interest”; but he soon realizes that he was wrong to think that the movie dealt with the hellish, humiliating world of vampires like him, poor devils who, on a cold Sunday morning in winter in Seville, have suddenly become fortunate men. The movie is about something quite different: it’s an apologia for the Hungarian uprising against the Communists. And he thinks: I did find it rather strange that a movie about sad Nosferatus should be declared to be of national interest.
His thoughts turn to Hungarians and he realizes that he doesn’t know a single one. On the other hand, he does know a few vampires, because he is one himself. And he thinks: We look for distant people who are often to be found much closer to home; in movies, we look for the vampires that exist inside us.
This conclusion seems to him rather clever, although he doesn’t quite understand it. Not that it matters, he thinks, as he sees the sun disappear once more behind the clouds. His footsteps slow right down, adopt the rhythm of his father’s dance, a dance of initiation into life and also—for him—into the forbidden. He passes an acquaintance, one of his customers at the barber shop, who smiles with pleasure to see him dancing in that strange way along the edge of the pavement. With his slow, tapping gait, Nosferatu cuts such a jaunty, eccentric figure that the acquaintance assumes he must be celebrating something and says how glad he is to see him finally looking so contented and in such a festive mood.
“Have you won the lottery?” he asks.
For a few seconds, Nosferatu continues his tapping dance, then says:
“No, I’m simply moving more slowly, much more slowly.”
And he resumes his dance, continuing to focus on each stretch of the road that leads him along the river to the cathedral. He meets another friend, a fellow member of the Rifle Club. Since they saw each other just a few days ago, he doesn’t have much to say to him and so—rather hastily and still tap-tapping, on the spot this time—he ends up telling him about his recent confusion over the rhapsodic and bloody title of the movie being shown at the local cinema. The friend listens to him gravely, and, although at first, one would assume that he was concerned by Nosferatu’s permanently tapping feet, it soon becomes clear that it is the movie about Hungarians that he finds so troubling.
“The other day,” he tells Nosferatu, “I asked to be taken to the movies. I hadn’t been to see a movie for years and I’d forgotten what cinemas were like, the darkened room and all that. Anyway, what I saw was that movie about the Hungarians and, to be honest, I couldn’t follow the plot at all. Besides, the Hungarians were all Spaniards: one was even called Parra, yes, every single one of them was Spanish. I didn’t understand a thing and fell asleep on the shoulder of the woman who had bought me the ticket.”
Nosferatu can’t contain his anger, first, because he feels that his friend is lying when he says that he’d forgotten what cinemas were like, and, second, his friend is boasting about being invited to the movies by a woman, which is something that might happen in Paris, but definitely not in Seville. He feels so indignant that he immediately says goodbye to his friend and continues his dance, meanwhile thinking what a ridiculous thing the cinema is with its absurd rhapsodies being declared to be of national interest—and without even being consulted about it. He feels so indignant that he decides to bid farewell to the cinema too, to bid farewell forever to the darkened rooms in which so many traps are laid for our imagination, traps that go uncriticized. Am I perhaps saying goodbye to traps of all kinds? he wonders, and then he even says goodbye to the Guadalquivir river despite its calm, luminous waters, he says goodbye to the flowering acacia trees and the marvelous clayey slopes of the river bank. He is saying goodbye to beauty, which is, after all, the very first thing to lay a trap for us. He says goodbye to the magnolias, to the unforgettable pages of those adventure stories, to the limpid blue sky of Seville. And in passing—although this is something he has been doing since he was a child—he also says goodbye to women, whom he now can’t forgive now for never having invited him to the cinema. He even says goodbye to the pedestrian walking past him now.
“Goodbye, my good sir,” he says to me.
He, of course, is unaware that I know everything about him, which is why I’m writing this.
“Are you kidding?” I ask.
“No, I’m just moving more slowly.”
He is indeed walking more slowly, almost wearily, meticulously saying goodbye to every stretch of the road, and at last we see him reach the cathedral. In the semi-darkness, apart from the rays of light sometimes snaking in through the glass panes, the great harmonious nave welcomes him and soothes his soul. He stops his slow dance and goes over to where he can see the perfectly beautiful boy, who, dressed now as an altar boy, is assisting at mass. And just as happened yesterday, Nosferatu again feels overwhelmed as he contemplates what will never be his; he is left defeated and ecstatic before the beauty of perfect evil, pierced by the pain of knowing he can never have the Murilloesque face that condemns him to endure in silence the bitter, intoxicating emotion filling his eyes with tears. He spends the entire mass looking at the boy and remembering him as he was yesterday, dressed in his blue and silver uniform and his plumed hat, in perfect harmony with perfect evil and the Christian liturgy. He is troubled by the memory of the moment when, caught up in his innocent dance and oblivious to the fact that he was being watched, the boy, on tiptoe, lightly clicked his castanets before the obscene, repellent eyes of those pederast monsignors.
Mass ends, and Nosferatu hides near the sacristy, where he knows the boy and the priest will pass. He takes refuge in a dark corner and feels as if he had regained the strange darkness of the forbidden room of his childhood. He takes a 7.65 automatic out of his pocket, removes the magazine, examines it, then puts it back. When the boy and the priest walk past, he emerges from the shadows and follows them, his feet again tap-tapping lightly to attract the attention of the boy, who, when he feels someone tugging hard at his surplice, turns and, with a look of horror, sees the intruder.
“Blessed are the eyes that see what I see,” Nosferatu whispers.
“Sir, sir, you’ve been told before to stop bothering me,” the boy warns him.
“But I just wanted to see you one last time,” says Nosferatu. He succumbs to a burst of wild, desperate laughter, and hoping that his farewell will be the culminating point of the day, he fires the gun, only to discover that he has left the bullets at home.
I have no luck even when it comes to killing myself, thinks Nosferatu, completely exhausted now and kneeling before the fierce gaze of the priest, who reproaches him for committing so many sins in one day. And there he stays, defeated by the things of this world and of the Church, defeated by the greatest of all misfortunes, when, looking up, he senses a faint ray of light flagellating him from on high and sending him the dullest, most perfect pang of pain at the sight of so much beauty.
Enrique Vila-Matas has been translated into nearly 40 languages and has won numerous international literary prizes. The author of over two dozen books in various genres, he lives in Barcelona.
Margaret Jull Costa, OBE, has been translating Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American fiction for over twenty years. She won the translator’s portion of the 1997 IMPAC Award for Javier Marías’s A Heart So White and the 2006 Premio Valle-Inclán for her translation of the first volume of Marías’s trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow.