Thursday, March 24, 2011

Felipe Alfau Story

      IN WRITING THIS STORY, I am fulfiling a promise to my poor friend Fulano.
      My friend Fulano was the least important of men and this was the great tragedy of his life. Fulano had come to this world with the undaunted purpose of being famous and he had failed completely, developing into the most obscure person. He had tried all possible plans of acquiring importance, popularity, public acknowledgment, etc., and the world with a grim determination persistently refused to acknowledge even his existence.
      It seems that about Fulano's personality, if we are to grant him a personality, hung a cloud of inattention which withstood his almost heroic assaults to break through it.
      Fulano made the utmost efforts to be noticed, and people constantly missed him.
      I have seen Fulano shake hands during an introduction in a vehement way, stare violently and shake his face close to the other person's, literally yelling:
      "Tanto gusto en conocerle."
      And the next moment, the other individual was talking to somebody else, completely oblivious of Fulano.
      I have seen Fulano at another introduction remain seated and extend two fingers in the most supercilious manner. Nothing! All in vain. A second after the other person had absolutely forgotten his existence and was blankly looking through him.
      On one occasion I introduced Fulano to a friend and had to repeat three times:
      "Please meet my friend Fulano." In a normal voice.
      "Please meet my friend Fulano." In a louder voice.
      "Please meet my friend Fulano." At the top of my voice.
      The friend looked around several times and at last he perceived Fulano almost on top of him, shaking him by the shoulders with murder in his eyes.
      He opened his mouth and uttered in the most discouraging manner:
      "Oh... how do you do?"
      Poor Fulano's unimportance had arrived at the degree of making him almost invisible and inaudible. His name was unimportant, his face and figure were unimportant, his attire was unimportant and his whole life was unimportant. In fact, I don't know how I, myself ever noticed him. True enough that he crushed my hand, dislocated my arm and kicked me on the shin when I met him.
      Fulano had read all the pamphlets entitled: "Personal Magnetism," "Individuality and Success," etc. He had exhausted all the man- building literature, and in vain. One day he stood in the middle of La Puerta del Sol shouting:
      "Fire... fire...!"
      But no one seemed to hear him and at last he had to quit his post because a trolley car nearly ran him down.
      Another day he threw a stone at a window of a well-known jewelry shop. At the noise of the broken glass, the owner came out. He looked at the window, and disregarding Fulano completely, muttered:
      "Well, well, I wonder how that happened," and went back inside.
      Not even beggars approached Fulano for alms.
      All this would have been considered a blessing by a more practical person, but Fulano had no other purpose in his life except to be important, to attract attention, and these things made him only the more desperate.
      Once I was at the Cafe' de los Locos in Toledo. Bad writers were in the habit of coming to that café in quest of characters, and I came now and then among them. At that particular place one could find some very good secondhand bargains and also some fairly good, cheap, new material. As fashion has a great deal to do with market value, one could find at that place some characters who in their time had been glorious and served under famous geniuses, but who for some time had been out of a job, due to the change of literary trend toward other ideals.
      I remember seeing there a poor and shabby lean fellow. He claimed to have served Cervantes. Well, the poor man could interest no author at the present moment. In that manner, there was a score of good characters who had been great in their day, but were now of no earthly use.
      On this particular day I had been sitting for some time at the table chatting with a friend of mine, Dr. José de los Rios, and looking around at the different faces and types. Suddenly I heard three blows struck upon my table and a hand pulled me by the collar. At the same time a voice said loudly:
      "Here I am."
      I turned around and saw Fulano sitting by my side.
      "Well, when did you get here?"
      "About half an hour ago. I have been sitting right here and trying to get into your conversation."
      I apologized, saying that I had been absorbed in the contemplation of characters I expected to use in this book. After that, with no little difficulty and by applying some violent methods, I succeeded in introducing him to Dr. de los Rios. Then I observed that Fulano looked more dejected than usual.
      "What is the matter? You look sad, Fulano."
      "What do you expect? I have come to realize that I shall never be important, no matter how hard I try. It is no use, the world will simply ignore me."
      "It is very disagreeable," I admitted. "But there are a lot of other people in the same predicament. There are, for instance, a number of husbands, preachers, dictators and..."
      "This is no time for secondhand witty remarks. What I am telling you is serious. I know that I will never be important as a human being, and
      I have thought that perhaps I might gain fame and importance as a character."
      "I don't care whether it is you or somebody else. You are my friend. You know I am willing, and perhaps you can make me a great character."
      I bowed under the weight of the compliment.
      "If you cannot use me, then pass me along to some other writer. If you could smuggle me somewhere in this book you say you are going to write, my gratitude would know no limits. I don't care what I do, provided I gain importance."
      "And... what are your qualifications to be a character?"
      "The deuce! My very lack of importance. I shall be rated as the most unimportant character in fiction. You know that every character has more or less of a striking personality, that extraordinary things happen to all characters. Don't tell me that you will be ever able to find a character as flat and little interesting as myself"
      "Well... you can find a lot of that in present-day literature... I really..."
      Dr. José de los Rios, who had remained silent during this conversation, turned on my friend and spoke:
      "Señor Fulano, although I have known you for a very short time, I can see only one way of hoping to get you out of your present condition. Señor Fulano, you must commit suicide."
      "I don't mean actually kill yourself but commit an official suicide."
      "What do you mean?"
      "Just what I said. This evening as soon as it gets dark, you walk over the bridge of Alcántara and leave your coat on the ground with all your personal identification, all your credentials, your money, bankbook, etc., and a note saying that you have thrown yourself to the Tajo. Then you go back to Madrid, having lost your official identity, and there we will try to make a character out of you.
      Fulano looked at me questioningly. I said:
      "I think that what Dr. de los Rios proposes is very logical."
      Dr. de los Rios went on:
      "You see? This apparent suicide will also serve as a little step toward notoriety. It is fortunate that this has taken place in this city. Toledo, the Tajo, and the bridge of Alcántara have historical background and that will lend color to your action."
      There was gratitude in the eyes of Fulano and he thanked Dr. de los Rios warmly, and I promised to do everything in my power to help him after he had complied with his part of the bargain.
      By this time it was quite late in the afternoon. Dr. de los Rios had to go on a professional visit, and he left wishing Fulano a very successful enterprise. We remained seated at the table, and as Fulano had to wait until dark and we had nothing to do, I decided to amuse him by pointing out the characters that were gathered at the cafe'.
      "Do you see that fat, bald-headed policeman? He is Don Benito." The policeman was unsuccessfully endeavoring to light a cigar with matches that consistently went out. Then he noticed we were speaking of him and assumed a proud air.
      "Now look at that table by the window. The waitress who is laughing now is Lunarito. They call her that because of a beauty spot which cannot be seen from here. The good-looking young man who is smoking a pipe and pinching her leg is Pepe Bejarano.
      "Direct your attention toward that man whose collar is open. The one standing by the bar drinking... there now... the one that is pushing that woman away and insulting her.... He is El Cogote."
      At this moment two nuns entered the cafe' and went from table to table seeking alms for their convent. I pointed at one of them:
      "Look at that nun. The one that is interfering now between El Cogote and the woman. She is quite attractive to be a nun. She would have made a good woman of the world. Do you notice how gaily she smiles and how white her teeth are? That is Sister Carmela."
      The two nuns had now approached a distant table where two priests sat, and were talking to them.
      "Look at that priest, the one with the best manners who is standing talking to Sister Carmela. That is Padre Inocencio. He is supposed to do a great deal of good around here."
      The two nuns went out followed by Padre Inocencio, who opened the door for them and remained there a while watching them walk across the plaza.
      "Behold the bartender. See his splendid apostolic beard and the boisterous way in which he is laughing with El Cogote. He is Don Laureano Baez, an old rogue and very amusing. The old woman behind him with the sad expression who is wiping the glasses is his wife, Doña Felisa.
      "Now notice that man sitting at that table. The one with the white wig and the poetic expression, who seems so distracted and aloof. His name is Garcia."
      The man was smelling a flower pinned to his lapel.
      At that moment a little dog, who was nosing about the cafe', began to paw the man's leg. Garcia gave the dog a vicious kick, then he tossed a coin over to the bartender and departed.
      "Look at that pale lady dressed in black sitting at that table with a gentleman. Notice how she is going to sleep. She is Doña Micaela Valverde."
      Her escort got up silently, took his hat and left the cafe' on tiptoes. Doña Micaela, who was now fast asleep, did not see him go.
      For some time I had been noticing a man standing by a table where four men sat. He was showing them small objects which he took out of his pocket and which apparently he was trying to sell them. He turned around and then I recognized him. We greeted each other and he walked toward our table holding a small object in his hand.
      I said to Fulano:
      "This is Don Gil, an old dealer in junk, who peddles his stuff around the cafe's."
      Don Gil approached us. He leaned with a hand on the wall and in the other he showed us a little Chinese figure made of porcelain.
      "Here is a real bargain," he said, tossing the porcelain figure on the palm of his hand. "It is a real old work of art made in China. What do you say?"
      I looked at the figure which was delicately made. It represented a Herculean warrior with drooping mustache and a ferocious expression.
      He had a butterfly on his shoulder. The color of the face was not yellow but a darker color, more like bronze, and as the attire was not very representative, I suggested:
      "Perhaps it is not Chinese but Indian."
      Don Gil, who undoubtedly liked China better than India, looked slightly annoyed.
      "No, it is Chinese," he said.
      Then I could not help noticing that the hand that held the figure was quite dirty and inferred that its sister probably was in the same condition.
      I said:
      "Don Gil, be careful. Don Laureano is going to scold you for dirtying his walls."
      Don Gil withdrew his hand, leaving a dirty mark that seemed unusually small upon the whitewashed wall, and continued to praise his merchandise:
      "Yes, this is a real Chinese mandarin or warrior, I don't know which, and it is a real bargain. Perhaps your friend might be interested
      Fulano gave a jump and let out a yell. It was the first time that a stranger had noticed him of his own accord.
      Poor Don Gil was so frightened that he dropped the porcelain figure, smashing it in a thousand pieces on the marble top of the table. I fancied I saw a furious look in the little porcelain head now detached from the body.
      Don Gil wiped the pieces to the floor and went away, trampling over them with a chagrined expression.
      "Well," I said when Don Gil had gone, "I suppose you have had enough characters for a day. It is quite dark now and you had better get ready for your suicide."
      Fulano scribbled a note saying: I have committed suicide by jumping into the Tajo, and said:
      "All my hopes depend on this." He got up and departed, promising to see me in Madrid.
      Now I, as the author of this tale, can see all that Fulano did after he went away, although I am supposed to remain seated at the café table.
      Fulano went to his room. He gathered all his documents and credentials and started on his fateful journey. As he walked down the stairs to the street, night had fallen, and each step he took was like dropping a century into the past, until he emerged in the midst of a hostile city which died in the Renaissance and yet lived the strangest, posthumous life. Toledo was in silence, but Toledo did not rest. As Fulano advanced hesitantly, he felt the restless and decrepit lines of buildings suddenly agitated by a wind of the past, the pavement seemed to rise, fall and revolt in its stony unevenness, like a stormy sea; he walked through streets so steep that he had to lean against the wall to keep from falling and he rushed through alleys that ran down from the top of the city like jumping torrents, to precipitate themselves down into the waters of the Tajo.
      Toledo comes to life every night. It is a city of silence, but not a city of peace; at night it multiplies its interests, it becomes a city of horror, of fearful dreams of the past, of dreadful historical nightmares. At the turn of a street, this impression hit Fulano with such force that it nailed him to the spot, as if turned into one more stony specter. All the shadows of things gone came to meet him from out dark alleys, from out sad corners, to condense and take shape, to make the night blacker. He could imagine the figure of Don Pedro el Cruel, his knees rattling, trailing along the familiar alley to the house of the Jew who lent him money. He could sense the heavy atmosphere charged with the deadly breath of the Inquisition.
      This silence, this feeling of being left alone to share a city with the dead, suddenly revealed an idea to Fulano. Toledo, as he hoped to be soon, was a myth, Toledo did not exist. It rose at night upon its historical and aesthetic signification, forsaken among this loneliness of sterile Castilla. And thus thinking, Fulano stumbled on like a frightened, forsaken shadow after its own body. The narrow, crooked, tortuous streets fled from him, denying his path, mocking, snarling, like snakes in a jungle of bizarre structures; he staggered from one surprise into another, carried by this immense and irresistibly suggestive strength. He passed houses that were horribly worn out where they joined the ground, their stones blent together, and doors that were never opened and through whose ragged bottoms medieval cats sneaked in and out. He heard the waters of the Tajo calling and all this past splendor fading away in eternal response, all this past glory slipping down the hill, sinking into the Tajo below.
      Fulano knew he had been swallowed by this maelstrom of the past, that he had sunk back centuries in history, and had already lost his identity of present existence. He was choking from this overwhelming feeling of condensed time, he was hopelessly lost in this darkness of thousands of superimposed past nights, in this labyrinth of streets that tossed him to and fro, threatening to drag him in their ominous stream and thrust him down into the Tajo, into oblivion.
      His sense of direction utterly lost, Fulano let himself be ejected, cast Out centrifugally, gravitationally by this semiconical city, now spinning in his dizzy mind, and he crossed one by one all the walls of Toledo, each one framing a period of history, like conquering phalanxes seen in perspective, each wall larger and lower, descending the hill, like steps, falling down into the Tajo.
      And it was in this manner that the city of Toledo discarded this insignificant individual upon the bridge of Alcántara.
      In the middle of the bridge, Fulano stripped himself of his coat and placed it on the ground, pinning the note on the outside.
      Having done this and ascertained that no one saw him, he walked in his shirt sleeves toward the station.
      Fulano did not see what happened after he left the bridge but I, of course, saw it, and if a writer had the privilege of interfering or preventing the incidents which he has the misfortune to witness, I would have prevented what took place, for the sake of my poor friend, Fulano. However, if a writer could do that, all stories would end happily and justice would prevail in all literature. As this would create a great monotony, such power has not been granted. Therefore, I had to stand by and see the happenings in a state of utter impotence and indignation.
      A man of evil appearance walked along the bridge. By the moonlight he saw the coat on the ground and stooped and picked it up. He fumbled in the pockets and took out all the papers. He lighted a match and examined them rapidly. He then saw the note pinned to the coat and a devilish smile played over his face.
      With haste he put all the papers back in the pockets, took off his own coat, pinned the note on it, and donned Fulano's coat.
      In the train to Madrid, Fulano did not notice a man with a cap pulled down over his eyes and a coat that matched Fulano's trousers to perfection. Fulano sneezed furiously now and then, but his mind and heart were jumping with anticipation and happiness.
      The next day a local paper of Toledo carried the following account:

   Yesterday evening So-and-so who had escaped from prison and whom the authorities were prosecuting, committed suicide by jumping into the river Tajo from the bridge of Alcántara. This has been deduced from a note pinned to his coat which was found on the bridge. It seems that after the many crimes he had committed, remorse seized him at last and he decided to end his sinful existence. R.I.P.
      One day, after returning to Madrid, I was walking through the street of Sevilla when I found myself seized by the shoulders and beheld a face pale with rage at two inches from my nose.
      "Hello, Fulano! But what is the matter with you?"
      "What is the matter with me, you ask?"
      "Yes. How did the suicide trick work?" (Of course, I had entirely forgotten what I saw at the bridge.)
      "How did it work...? How did it work...? Infernally!!"
      "What do you mean, infernally? What happened, then?"
      Fulano took two steps back and stood there looking at me:
      "Do you see me here?"
      "A bit blurred, but I still see you."
      "Well, I do not exist."
      "I do not exist."
      "You do not exist?"
      "But how is that possible?"
      "Since I have had any use of reason, I have entertained strong doubts about my existence. No, don't look at me as if I were going to enter into a metaphysical discussion. I am talking seriously now. Yes, I had always entertained strong doubts about my own existence, but since your idiotic suggestion about suicide those doubts have abandoned me completely. Now I am sure that I do not exist."
      "But explain yourself." Fulano had already spent some of his initial steam and could speak more calmly.
      "Well, someone is now here in Madrid, enjoying my personality, my name, my property, my home, my wife... everything that belonged to me. And he is enormously famous, mind you, one of the best known politicians and businessmen, and accumulating a tremendous fortune. And I am nothing, I am absolutely lost, looking for some loose identity in order to find myself But every identity has its owner and I am nothing, nothing. I do not exist Fulano broke down and put a handkerchief to his eyes.
      "But do you mean to say that the people who knew you cannot tell the difference? Cannot realize that this other Fulano is an impostor?"
      "How can they tell the difference if they never noticed me before? I was always so unimportant, so absolutely unimportant!"
      For the first time I realized in all its magnitude the tragedy of this unimportant man's life.
      Fulano produced a newspaper and pointed silently but eloquently at the big headlines which said something very flattering about Fulano.
      "See what they say about him. What they should be saying about me. He has taken my name, my identity, and with it all the fame and Importance that should have been mine."
      "No, Fulano, do not deceive yourself It is not the name that has made him precisely. You would have never attained that success if you had remained Fulano. The man must possess the personality which you lack and he has made the name famous. Really, in a way you should be grateful to him."
      "Be grateful to him...! That is what you say after you got me into this mess with your idiotic suggestion!"
      It was Dr. de los Rios and not I who made the suggestion."
      "Just the same, you sided with him and you are just as responsible, and now you advise me to remain nothing, while he enjoys all my possessions and glory and fame, and all that the world can offer a man. I must sit back patiently, glad to be no one and thank him to boot! Do you realize the inconvenience of being alive and not existing?"
      I had to admit the inconvenience of such a strange situation:
      "Yes, something must be done about it."
      "Of course, something must be done about it, and it is you who must do it, you who got me into ..... . But, my Lord! How did it happen that this man took my place in the world?"
      I felt that I must confess to Fulano, that the situation compelled me to betray an author's secret. After all, to lose one's identity must be the weirdest sensation in this world. Therefore, I related all that I had seen at the bridge and mentioned the account that had been published in the paper the day after the incident.
      When I finished, Fulano was foaming at the mouth and ready to spring upon me, but he was firmly seized by a hand. It was Dr. José de los Rios himself
      Fulano struggled to free himself and yelled at me:
      "So you mean to say that you stood by and didn't do anything to prevent it, to save me from this horrible tragedy?"
      Dr. de los Rios tried to calm him. I lowered my head. "Fulano, my friend. If I could have done anything, I would not have hesitated to do it, but it is not in my power to interfere with the destinies of men."
      "And I am supposed to be satisfied with that answer, to remain an empty body without a place in society, a supernumerary in this world.... To hell with you writers who can place a fellow in a situation like this and then cannot get him out of it!"
      I lowered my head further.
      "Forgive me, Fulano, I will see what I can do for you...."
"Well, go ahead and see. I suppose you cannot make things worse than you have. Nothing could be worse."
Dr. de los Rios, who had been too busy holding Fulano, spoke now:
      "Señor Fulano, I was the one who made the original suggestion about the suicide and I assume the whole responsibility."
      "But I don't care who the devil is responsible. I am in trouble and want to be helped out of it."
      "Very well, Señor Fulano, I admit that you are right in your demands, but I can only see one way out of it. There are no loose identities in this world which you can seize in order to regain your footing in life. There is only one superfluous identity as superfluous as yourself and that identity is under the river Tajo. Yes, Señor Fulano, officially that identity is under that river and lately you must have realized the importance of official things. That soul upon the bed of the Tajo is craving for a body as much as you crave a soul. Go join it and end your mutual absurdity. After that I am sure that my friend will try to revive you in a story and to make a character out of you."
      Again Fulano turned to me questioningly. I said:
      "Yes, Fulano, I promise to do what Dr. de los Rios says." Fulano gripped our hands firmly. Upon his features there was the determination born from despair.
      "Good-by, Fulano."
      That night Fulano was again upon the bridge of Alcántara. He had come to look for an identity in the same place where he had gone to lose one. He looked down on the dark waters of the Tajo. Yes, there it was, his only salvation.
      And once more he saw Toledo covering its hill like a petrified forest of centuries. It was absurd. With all useful justification of its existence gone, the city sat there like a dead emperor upon his wrecked throne, yet greater in his downfall than in his glory. There lay the corpse of a city draped upon a forgotten hill, history written in every deep furrow of its broken countenance, its limbs hanging down the banks to be buried under the waters of a relentless river.
      Fulano looked down and then knew fate and greatness; he hesitated no more; with resolution he jumped.
      And in order to fulfill my promise to that unfortunate and most unimportant of all men, I have written this story. Whether I have succeeded in making a character or even a symbol out of him, or whether he will enjoy this poor revival, I do not know. I have done my best.
© 1936, 1963 Felipe Alfau