CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Manuscript
Severo Sarduy
translated by Esther Allen


I.

He had spent the entire night smoking twisted and intoxicating cigars that filled the room with a bluish, sickly sweet smoke. When it began to grow light, he threw open the window: the misty strata condensed around the leather chair dispersed as if erased by the invisible swipe of a titan. As if shaken by a light seismic tremor, the glass cannelloni on a lamp tinkled.
      It was morning. He heard, far away, the screech of the first tram, and also, over the radio, a popular band’s high-pitched flute, brilliant and sinuous as a filigree. A familiar smell reached him in waves: freshly ground coffee, condensed milk. He could hear in the distance the three headlines that a news vendor he imagined as a mestizo wearing an unbuttoned shirt was calling out. In the overflowing ashtray, he counted the cigars he had smoked: six. As if ashamed, he covered the ashes with a handkerchief.
      His eyes were drooping with sleep, he was sweating. His Nirvana, he thought, would be a bathtub brimming with fresh water. He counted the pages filled with a regular, minuscule handwriting. He was about to reread this nocturnal exercise when he was assaulted by an insistent cough that rose up from his bronchial tubes as if trying to asphyxiate him, and by an unbounded fatigue that forced him to postpone the revision.
      He ran his eyes quickly around the room which was full of magazines in unstable piles. Humidity had stained the walls wherever they were not protected by the general disorder. Two Yoruba masks, with bells and sulfur feathers, clinked against each other in a corner.
      He placed the papers on the floor to the left of the chair. His stocky arm dangled, limp. He was no longer aware of anything.
      What he had written—an infrequent practice for him—was a dream. He saw himself in a blue city with regular, symmetrical buildings. Ideal, resplendent, but empty. He listened to the murmur of the fountains; the crystalline water reflected immaculate facades and the order of azurite capitals.

He was awakened by the sound of the approaching hordes. He tried to get up to close the window, but his corpulence and deficient respiration kept him from making sudden movements. His swollen ankles and the joints of his fingers ached; he felt a burning in back of his eyes, which he pressed down on uselessly.
      The neighborhood had been occupied by a gang of thugs. Bearded, smelly, barefoot, drugged and in rags, since dawn they had been running through the streets singing hymns they called songs of renewal but which were nothing more than pretentious copies with other lyrics and some crude jabs at current events.
      They had pulled parking meters right out of the ground and pulverized phone booths with hammers. In the entire city, not a single neon sign—a satanic symbol—remained. They began harassing shopkeepers and mom-and-pop grocers, demanding a “dignity tithe.” Their shrieks, bursts of laughter and singing were drowned out by the kicks they delivered to garbage cans as they went along. They left behind a trail of broken bottles, urine and even syringes with bloodied plungers, as well as a smell of marijuana and rum.

He wanted with all his heart to go back to sleep. He didn’t know if this was in order to escape from the fatigue and the aching, in order not to feel the growing threat of the hooligans, or in order to return and contemplate the city and feel in his light body the delicate vibration of blue. Before going back to sleep, he closed the window with a sharp tug. Again the glass cannelloni jingled.

The hordes withdrew. They seemed to have grown calmer. But their clemency was only apparent. In reality, they were concentrating their energy, like carnivores about to leap onto their prey. They stopped singing and talking in loud voices. Their gestures became slower and slower, in order to concentrate their accumulated hatred.
      In the space of a few minutes, on the order of one of the ringleaders, they pulverized a supermarket. They didn’t take anything. It was destruction for its own sake.
      Back in the leather chair, the poet heard them leaving, again vociferating the hymns.
      In the cramped kitchen a canary was singing.
      Water was boiling for a coffee.

The next day they appeared, early in the morning. Of course: they were not the ones. They quickly explained that they were opposed to all forms of violence, all forms—the visitor-in-chief took a deep breath before finishing the phrase, as if disappointed by something or exhausted—no matter where they originated.
      There were three of them, each with a somewhat frayed collar and a striped tie. Their manners were proper, their shoes correctly laced.
      Maestro …, the one with the singsong voice said purposefully, I do not believe it is necessary to describe the situation. He separated the syllables of the final word.
      No … the poet limited himself to answering, holding in a yawn. He contemplated the shelves; between two blue and violet paintings that looked like semicircular stained glass windows of the colonial era was the last edition he had acquired in a used book store: a well-thumbed and somewhat yellowed Mallarmé.
      We wish, then, the spokesman continued, tightening the knot of his tie, to launch a strictly clandestine document … a literary document, of course, aimed at rescuing the national image. The poet observed dark nicotine stains on the visitor’s beringed fingers and a slight tremor or nervousness.
      It goes without saying that we’re counting on something of yours for this pamphlet. As soon as possible.
      The phrase ran through him like an electric shock and erased all his remaining drowsiness. Immediately, to gain time before answering, he offered them a cigar, a tamarind juice, a coffee with rum. He was terrorized by the thought of possible reprisals if he denied them a few pages. Wouldn’t saying no—he asked himself—be the equivalent of marking myself as one more acolyte of the official power, a clown in the pay of the State and therefore the designated victim of the hordes’ next raid? He reflected for a moment while he opened and passed around the case of Havanas:
      What I write—he was running his words together in a low voice, without emphasis, as if he knew in advance that his argument wasn’t going to convince them—cannot be used to sustain anything, defend anything. The three of you know that very well. And even less so in secrecy. He closed the cigar case with a dry thud. A little vintage rum?
      That’s precisely the reason—the leader immediately rejoined—that your work interests us: because it doesn’t broadcast slogans or have any kind of program. It’s pure textual pleasure. Other writers’ works, as you must know, rush to congregate in the shadow of any political party …
      The poet adjusted the handkerchief that was covering the ashtray. It seemed to him that one of the African masks was staring at him fixedly, with a reproachful or mocking titter.
      I, the poet added, almost contrite, can’t help with anything. What I do, and this isn’t false modesty, is of minimal importance, almost none at all.
      But Maestro, look, his opponent replied immediately with an erudite, almost conceited air, today we know, and in the most scientific way, that the movement of a butterfly’s wings in Australia can unleash a tremendous cyclone in Jamaica a week later.
      And, acting secretly angry, though calm, the young leader went on like that, levelling the most elaborate reasonings at him as the hot, humid morning wore on. The stagnant air was even more dense in the poet’s narrow cell, refreshed only by the light green of some areca palms and the shade of the eaves in the ramshackle interior courtyard.
      Interrupting another of the commonplaces of that strenuous discourse—this time the subject was his future image—the poet tried to stand up. But his ankles were two iron hinges. Finally, supporting himself with his plump, stubby little hands on the leather chair, he succeeded in rising to his feet. Shuffling along in shoes he had permanently deformed, he undertook the hazardous excursion to the kitchen. The lecture continued in the other room, but louder now, as if from a pulpit.
      In the kitchen, he attempted a restorative coffee, to which out of sheer nervousness he added salt. He absorbed three urgent glasses of tap water which was excessively chlorinated and lukewarm. He went back to the other room and fell into the chair like an adipose breakdown, fed up with the visitors, literature and even himself.
      His arms hung down on either side of the chair. He heard his own breathing. He imagined that he was sweaty and pale. He was assaulted by a doubt: And what if they were right? He gazed upon the inopportune visitors as if they were wholly alien beings with whom no communication whatsoever was possible.
      Then he realized. The fingers of his left hand were brushing against the unfinished papers, the nocturnal writing.
      Without further ado, he handed them over.

II.


The smell of goulash. And lamb marinated in bay leaves. The Hungarians across from the print shop inundated the narrow street with the smoke of spiced meat, little dollops of which swirled in the middle of the sidewalk.
      At noon, the eatery, which had pink walls and paper flowers on every table and under every saint’s medallion, welcomed the three strapping lads with hearts of gold who, to the best of their abilities, operated the jerking printing presses that screeched like rusty locomotives.
      The din from these malfunctioning relics was attenuated by a blinking television, a transistor radio that shouted itself hoarse throughout the day and the subtle modulations of a parrot who sang, even when asking to be fed, the first verse of the Marseillaise.
     
After the visit to the poet, the rebels had made an urgent call at the rudimentary print shop, which published in bulk advertisements for bleach, cinema programs, bingo cards for the lottery game known as “Chinese charades” and instant mortuary notices for which there were two possible formats: Santa Bárbara and the Virgen de la Caridad. Depending on the bereaved client’s taste, the strapping lads yelled the order back from the counter as if it were hot soup in an eatery with a single cry of Ochum or Changó.
      The three tie-wearing partisans and the chief printer—the oldest of the strapping lads, smelling of deodorant and wearing a t-shirt and canvas mules—reached a friendly, verbal and succinct agreement.
      The printers promised, for the sum of one hundred pesos in ready money to be paid in two parts—one right away and the other when the material was delivered—to bring out a secret literary magazine. The editors added that the lead piece was a completely new and unpublished work by the great poet. The proof was that it was still in handwritten form which, in their haste, they hadn’t even had time to read …
      If we are accepting this dangerous work, the printer with the mules clarified, it’s only out of vocation. We know the risks it entails all too well but … he took a brief pause, his features stamped with seriousness, we are poets, too.

That very day everything was ready. They met again in the greasy spoon around a red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloth that was put out only for important occasions. Three bottles of beer clanked against each other next to the bread basket while the rest were brought up.
      The printers were rubbing their eyes and yawning: they had spent the night out on the town and had handed over the rebellion’s document to a typesetter who was an aficionado, though unread and uncalibrated. They were exhausted and looked terrible, belching straight from their shot livers.
      A clever system of pulleys brought up drinks and dishes from a cellar that seemed to be distant, very deep in the earth, so long and laborious was the ascent.
      Colleagues, the editors burst out before making the toast, what did you think of the poet’s text?
      There was a silence. One of the printers swallowed a morsel of bread. He ordered more beer, and make sure it’s cold, please.
      To tell the truth, he answered, as an extremely tall Hungarian hostess, redheaded and coarse, served them, spilling thick foam onto the tablecloth, we were working so fast, as you asked us to, that everything went directly to the typesetter, and you know, when someone sets a piece of writing letter by letter he doesn’t have the faintest idea what he is going to print …
      He had to repeat the last phrase; two waiters were arguing in Hungarian, very loudly.

III.


The hordes, it goes without saying, imposed their laws. Yesterday’s rampage became order. The recent fires, robberies, lootings and assaults were collectively dubbed the “recuperation,” a term that was always adorned with heroic adjectives.
      Then loudspeakers were installed so that the precursor hymn could be heard in every street. The radio broadcast it ceaselessly and it even came over the telephone when the receiver was picked up.
      As the days passed, the furtively printed magazine was becoming a primer, or, as they themselves proclaimed, now that the printings were official and massive, a popular Bible without convoluted parables, within everyone’s grasp.
      The pamphlet was read in the schools, at the most relaxed suburban gatherings, in the tight squeeze of the bus, between two coffees, waiting for a turn at the brothel, even in the toilet. Every word of it was studied, analyzed, discussed and memorized. All except the poet’s arduous pages.
      He was celebrated, extolled, exalted at every mass rally, every graduation ceremony. Still in his chair, he received the clamorous gloriole with the same indifference he had previously shown towards the general contempt and sarcasm.
      Every day he shut himself up longer in the humid cell where he wrote, and within himself. He was becoming immobile—a journalist called him “the seated poet”—glued to the leather of his chair. Inhabited by the faithful, the orishas, the masks were his nocturnal and only company.
      He was losing the regularity of his handwriting, and then the quickness of mind to capture and send down to his hand the instantaneous flow of images. He felt that his disease was defeating him; it was an illness which, though fierce, was diffuse, without visible stigmata, more like an abandonment, as if the little energy in his body were being drained without being renewed. With greater bitterness, he understood that his end was approaching while his work—though used by everyone—had not yet had the recognition or even so much as the simple consideration of a reader.
      A total resignation, a serenity, quieted his final moments. In the middle of an autumn day, without theatricality or excess in his leavetaking, he came to an end.
      Now free from the shackles which, for the exegete, the awkward presence of the author represents, the thurifers delivered themselves to the compulsive recuperation of the manuscript. Its first three words, thus deprived of any meaning, appeared on the State’s engraved letterhead, and decorated, in gothic letters, the ornamental gates of the new playgrounds.
      The once-clandestine pamphlet made its entry into academia. A doctoral thesis deconstructed its pages one by one. Except those of the poet which, according to the author of this intimidating treatise, were already more than deconstructed enough.
      In the book-crammed house, nothing was touched. The cracks in the walls were hidden by paintings, the leaks were sealed, the chair was polished. A charitable neighbor volunteered to come twice a week and water the areca palms, which also need to be talked to, she added knowingly, because otherwise they wither and won’t grow. Another neighbor took in the canary, which left its birdseed untouched and, despite whistles of encouragement, did not want to sing.
      On a long mahogany table in the former bedroom, as if laid out for a christening, the handwritten pages were displayed, covered by thick panes of glass and painstakingly numbered. The efficient museologists of power had retrieved them from the rubbish of the print shop—the blackened presses had been sold for scrap metal—already on their way to the flea market in overflowing sacks, along with the incomplete cases of linotype.
      Among the workers who installed this piece of furniture, one, the youngest, felt a certain curiosity about the document that was to be displayed. But he had only recently become literate and could barely sound out the first line. So he abandoned the reluctant pages, or rather entombed them under the glass panes which enlarged the strokes of the poet’s handwriting like a magnifying glass.
      They’re letters, he said to his companion with equanimity.
      What will they come up with next.

The time for commemorations arrived at last. A headlong, eyepopping year had gone by during which events had succeeded each other without any coherence, as if they had emerged gratuitously or out of nothing, “without rhyme or reason,” said their few beneficiaries and their numerous victims.
      The inauguration of the copper plaque with the poet’s name, the two dates and the first paragraph of the manuscript, on the somewhat Mozarabic facade of the flashily restored house aroused little interest among the neighbors who never suspected or, later, acknowledged, the importance of the lawyer without an office or clients, the professor without a chair, whom foreigners came to see.
      With the remaining instruments of the national symphony—the soloists had all resigned—a small orchestra was improvised and, with the chapel chorale joining in, the hordes’ hymn could be intoned during the unveiling ceremony.
      A brief celebration with punch, drums and a piano shipped in from the provinces followed the cloying, twisted oration of one of the poet’s epigones who immediately proclaimed himself his “spiritual heir.”

The plaque gleamed for a few days then, defeated by the humidity and the saltpeter in the air, began to develop a green patina. There was no one left in the neighborhood with the zeal to get up on a ladder and clean it. Those who had known the poet were old, absent or ill; the rest, the younger ones, didn’t even know who he was.
      Students from the nearby school went by, vendors, indistinct people, always aloof and in a rush, but no one ever stopped to decipher the name, the date and the text, because who ever stops to read a public plaque?