Alejandro Rossi (1932-2009) was one of Mexico’s most outstanding writers and philosophers of the twentieth century. Born in Italy to an Italian father and a Venezuelan mother, in the 1950s he arrived in Mexico, where he is remembered best today for his work as a philosopher and for his collaboration with Octavio Paz in the latter’s various cultural initiatives. As a writer, he is best known for his book Manual del distraído (“Manual of the Absent-Minded” 1978), a collection of essays and short stories that combine the thoughtful perspective of the philosopher with the aesthetic concern of the litterateur. Another example of this combination is El cielo de Sotero (“Sotero’s Heaven”, 1987), a short story that explores the universal and at the same time particularly Latin American themes of colonialism, social inequality, and revolution. It appears here now in its first published English translation, by Janice Goveas.
His name could not have been more common. Good enough for a boy from the slums – though the cities were now all abandoned shacks – that had sprung up between puddles and police sirens. Remigio Maldonado, a nobody, as they would later refer to him. Many years have gone by, but time has not been his friend. If anything, it has erased his life story and reduced him to that one devastating moment when he elbowed his way through the screaming crowd at Santa Clara de las Flores and, with his eyes wide open, fired a burst of six bullets at Don Gregorio Sotero, whose scrawny body jumped and twisted as if it had been hit by an electric shock.
History books described that heinous moment in detail and, of course, mentioned the name of the teenage murderer. Later, though, he was forgotten and despised. Maybe they thought it would diminish Don Gregorio’s greatness to remember that a scumbag and a nobody had stolen the thunder of the strongest, most beloved man in those vast rural areas of the country. What was the meaning of power, after all? Where was there order in this world? Or maybe they chose to forget him because they subscribed to the belief that evil should not be remembered, as if the mere mention of it would be to consecrate it. I think they believed that evil seduced like a diamond. Maybe that is why their stories were so boring, stories of a humanity without complexity, of automatic goodness. Their stories moved forward, so to speak, treading carefully, with peace among those dispersed towns more in mind than the truths about how terrible – or careless – life could be. I have also heard it said that the purpose of the silence around Remigio Maldonado’s past was to remember him as a murderer, pure and simple, and to prevent any understanding of him or pity for him. With so much time gone by, it is simply impossible to know the true intentions of those reticent scribes. These were poor people in love, as they always had been, with gestures and rituals. It would have seemed strange to them – shocking even – if official versions of the story had reflected their gossip. Recorded history was, for them, an extension of politics, of the “great struggle”, as they called it. Either way, Remigio Maldonado, ironically, barely exists. It is as if he were a poisonous arrow, without origin or destination, that had flown across the wounded air of Santa Clara de las Flores.
The reality, however, is less symbolic. In fact, it is rather dirty. I have collected some facts about the incident and offer the reader a mix of historical information and a reasonable reconstruction of his psychological state. I venture to include the latter to make my story more fluid and also – I admit – to underline our similarities.
Remigio Maldonado was seventeen years old when he joined an organization called Luz y Patria, a religious-military sect whose members included capitanejos – local political bosses – enraged by their defeat, the Worshippers of the Lady of the Mountain, old-school nationalists who still spouted speeches about hymns and flags, and – these were melodramatic times – the so-called “Corncob Visionaries”. They were an eclectic group whose ideas mattered less than the passion that united them: a hatred for the Adviser with grey eyes, the indefatigable wanderer. The bitter Corncob Visionaries were the most active, the ones who organized the “executor arm”, that is, the crucial cannon fodder. These organizations offered singularity and purpose to the vulnerable, a life line to a youth like Remigio Maldonado. It was as if they were giving him a name, as if they were giving him a way to spend the time he was wasting. They told him something he already knew in his heart: that there were men who did not deserve forgiveness. I suppose, too, that defining the enemy is much easier when it happens within the illusion of friendship and glorified camaraderie. What I am trying to say is that it was not difficult for Remigio Maldonado to despise Gregorio Sotero – that sexagenarian with a hard glare and an irresistible smile – with an intensity that grew over time. They told him things that were unknown: that Gregorio Sotero had made Nations disappear, that he had insulted the cult of the Virgin Mary, that he advised the people to be meek and humble, but thought himself too good for either. The more abstract the arguments, the more powerful and respectable Remigio Maldonado thought the Organization was. When they told him that Gregorio Sotero has sullied the purity of the region, when they called him the “Filthy Father”, the young man was left more deeply affected than he had been by gossip about him spending a night in the Sierra Nevada with a harpist and María Candelaria, the tailor’s eldest daughter, a story Remigio Maldonado thought had more to do with weakness than with strength. They forbade him from looking at the Adviser when he went by on one of his never-ending rounds of a city ravaged by salt from the sea and ruined by old coconut trees. By then, they had realized that Remigio Maldonado was brave, that his heart beat like anyone else’s, but that he hated fear. They did not let him see the timid smile that Gregorio Sotero wore.
They took him into the country to a house with red walls and hammocks the colour of wheat. There a man with teeth like a horse’s and an accent from the South gave him, as part of his education, lessons in precision ballistics. They were long sessions to which the youth happily gave his full attention. One day, the man from the South interrupted him impatiently by saying: “If you don’t want to kill a man, all this training is pointless.” When they returned to the City, taking twisting side roads to get there, the man from the South – who had not let him drive the rusty truck filled with green mangoes – warned him: “Listen, kid, you have to take the shot. Anything else is just an excuse.”
Two days earlier, they had explained the plan to him with a crisp arrogance. Gregorio Sotero’s time was up and their fellow conspirators in the towns and rural areas were demanding decisive efforts to that end. In lowered voices, they told him that, for a few minutes, he, Remigio Maldonado, would hold the fate of the Nation in his hands. That was what the Supreme Council had decided. They made a passing reference to the fact that his own death was inevitable, but it would have felt like blasphemy to the youth to ask for clarification. With naïve pride, he remembered a scene from his childhood on the run-down beach at the Old Market when his uncle Julián had pointed out a rock at the water’s edge and said: “You realize, Remigio, that here, right here, is where our Great Country begins. It’s as if we were touching it on the head.”
He was unsettled, of course, being overwhelmed by the momentum his life was about to take on. They gave him a white shirt and a bulky jacket. He arrived at Santa Clara de las Flores at ten at night. While he brushed his teeth with the solitary discipline of a recruit, he thought: “I won’t get to talk to my friends, but they will be talking about me.” He also thought: “That Filthy Father.” He now had the simplicity of a martyr, or a murderer.
Although I have nothing to prove it, I think it was Lorenzo Cruz who stopped him from being lynched. Cruz is an inconvenient character for historians of our time: he never broadcast his views, and the statements he made held little substance for them. He was a short man with what I would call an untiring gaze, as if everything in the world were a fascinating novelty. He was a complicated character because the key or the secret to his life was not politics but a love of the ground under his feet, which connected him to Gregorio Sotero. He had accompanied the wandering Adviser on countless walks through devastated areas, hiding his pistol so that the old man did not see it, and he was with him during critical negotiations with weary generals and nervous interpreters. Cruz loved Gregorio Sotero with a passion and he knew he was irreplaceable: a life-giving rain that had fallen on the cracked earth of those regions. He knew with absolute certainty that he was the only one who had the strength, the restrained power, the necessary cruelty for what would come next. Radiance, the unquestionable moral authority of a soul, had been snuffed out.
They tortured the youth without mercy. One day, Cruz attended an interrogation session and noticed, with surprise, Remigio Maldonado’s irrefutable resistance, but he also noticed that his hardness was based on profound ignorance. He immediately ordered them to put him in a house that had been converted into a jail, to provide him with healthy food and a lot of it, and to treat him with strictness, but also with respect. Lorenzo Cruz had decided to educate him.
They taught him to read and to write in crude school books. The first book he read was The Gods of the Rustic Lands, an ancient compilation of legends and fairy tales based on the figures of the Golden Crocodile and the White Girl, both of whom protected nighttime travellers and solitary fishermen, an altruistic couple who nurtured the hearts of those vulnerable people. One day, they brought him a volume that was thick and poorly bound: The History of the Middle Rivers, the magnum opus of the wise man Antonio Regueiro, a book that was somewhere between a textbook and a novel in that it described a bird as yet unknown that narrated Don Antonio’s mutterings in order to survive in the middle of a mystical and famished farmhouse, a disorganized book with a mass of information that, nevertheless, left behind a disquieting sense of its magnitude. Later, they gave him something very different: The Military Memories of Colonel Eusebio Andrade. The federal wars, the gangs, the extravagant story of a serviceman from the academy who, little by little, picked away at his stripes until he became, in a questionable choice of words, a “soldier who was the salt of the earth”. Nowadays, all his campaigns – all his horsing around – would seem erratic to us, but we have to recognize the posthumous gift of his central thesis: that the heart and soul of a country is in its rural areas, not in the borders drawn in India ink by diplomats. It could be argued that these were all readings that represented something, as if Lorenzo Cruz wanted to share with Remigio Maldonado his vision of the rural spaces of their country.
It is very difficult to specify dates, but it is likely that at least a year went by before Arcadio Reverón began talking with the young man. A man who always wore a guayabera, with skin that was dark and shiny like polished mahogany, he had arrived at an old age from which he aged no further. With a big hand resting on his knee and eyes that were tranquil like those of Glaucus, the Greek God of the Sea, he talked to Remigio Maldonado about what it took to build a town in the mountains and how difficult it was to live close to large bodies of water. He talked to him about the complicated network of relatives throughout the rural areas, of unfortunate breeding, which was worse than a plague, and he described to the young man the hundreds of abandoned mines that were like sandy vaginas. The cities did not matter, he told him; they were neon lights and garbage. And one afternoon, an afternoon when puffy clouds floated across the sky, he added: “Gregorio Sotero understood all of this.” There was nothing left for them to talk about.
Gradually, like a fear creeping up on him, Remigio Maldonado began to understand the historical importance of Gregorio Sotero. “He was looking for a thread,” Reverón had explained with measured fervour, “a thread that would unite all the rural areas, like an invisible lattice. Towards the end, he thought he had found it. There is no reason to fear great men, Remigio. Gregorio taught us that everything that had happened was a mistake: the old, useless wars, the artificial nations. He told us that our true history had not yet begun. He was that audacious.”
The second blow was realizing the boundless love that had surrounded Gregorio Sotero. I believe that once we understand the love a person evokes in others, we give ourselves up to that person. The youth, through one of those tricks that the heart plays, became a devoted disciple of the wandering Adviser. What followed was predictable. The sudden dreamlike idyll made clear to him, with absolute lucidity, the wretched scene at Santa Clara de las Flores: the person he had murdered there was a Friend of the Country People, an Adviser with a kind smile, not the villain with nervous ticks that he had gunned down.
It should be mentioned that, to Remigio Maldonado’s credit, he never expected redemption. He knew he was not allowed to walk the paths taken by normal men. He knew, if it could be put it into words, that his soul had remained unused. He also knew that his inexorable reverence for Don Gregorio was his punishment. “Now we live in the kingdom of ordinary men,” Reverón said at the end of their final meeting, “and you were the key that unlocked the door. They did you wrong.”
They transferred him to a bare cell. Lorenzo Cruz gave strict instructions that prevented the taking of Remigio Maldonado’s life. The people thought he was dead, and official stories, as I have mentioned, were not interested in him. After a few years, Cruz bestowed upon him the gift of execution. He died with dignity, at dawn and tied to a saman tree, in accordance with military tradition. He was probably tempted to shout: “Long live Don Gregorio,” but as far as I have been able to determine, he did not move his lips.
Commander Lorenzo Cruz governed for many years, like many others, with a sense of accomplishment from his youth and the taste in his mouth of a lost opportunity.
Or so the story goes.
Translated by Janice Goveas
About the translator: Janice Goveas is a writer and translator who lives in Toronto. She has an M.A. in Spanish Literature, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a B.A. in Spanish-English Translation. Her publications include a collection of her plays as well as various pieces of short fiction and travel writing. She is currently working on a novel while continuing to build her career as a translator. This is her first publication of a work of literary translation. To contact Janice, please write to her at: [email protected].