That day—I remember it clearly, I had decided while I was waiting for the bus into town: I would steal a book. When it finally came, I sat next to a woman who was coming from the hot springs; so I turned on my Walkman and listened to Charly García for the fifteen minutes it took us to get to the business district, along the Avenida Bolívar.
At the bookstore I greeted the owner; as usual, he asked after my dad.
“Good, Fernández, we're all well,” I told him, heading over to the shelves of South American literature before he could start in on his favorite subject all these sixteen years: Manchego, why is it so expensive nowadays? What can its price have to do with the devaluation of the Bolívar, if we're talking about a domestic imitation, something not imported? Et cetera, et cetera.
Standing by the shelf of Argentine literature, I had a thought. It really needed to be an important book, something that would justify my first robbery; and not too big, it needed to fit in the pockets of my sweatshirt. I scanned the first letters. Arlt, Borges, Cortázar. Something in the environment, maybe it was the recent news about his marriage to María Kodama, helped me decide on Borges. To be sure, it couldn't be one of his books of stories, I had all of them, or anyway all that I thought at the time were interesting. I was still thinking this when my glance hit the two volumes of his Complete Poetry. I eyeballed the weight of each volume, maybe six hundred grams, and when the doorbell rang and Fernández leaned over to press the buzzer and receive the next client, I grabbed the two volumes and put them in the side pockets of my sweatshirt.
I had the thought that I should leave right away; but I didn't. I went over to the table where Fernández had the poetry books on display and looked at Burning Sea by Pere Gimferrer. To take it or no? I decided not to do it, just because there was nowhere to put it. Better to buy it, I thought: even though I didn't have any money on me, Fernández wouldn't have any problem with me taking it. Dad would pay for it next week anyway.
I turned to see where Fernández was; when he noticed my face through his gray hair, I showed him the book.
“It's marvelous,” he said. “You know I'm a big fan of Gimferrer.”
“I know; the thing is I don't have any money with me.”
“Take it along with you. Tell Francisco not to ask me for a discount next time.”
I walked away. I was carrying Burning Sea in my right hand and the Borges poems in my sweatshirt pockets. Fernández had not offered me a bag—he just jotted down a reference to the Gimferrer book and my dad's name in his ledger.
I walked around the business district a little before I headed back to the bus stop. The bus was delayed almost twenty minutes, and I had to stand the whole trip home, so I didn't even get a chance to look inside any of the books.
I reached home, fixed myself a glass of iced tea; in my room, I opened the first volume of the Complete Poetry. I scarcely left my room two times—once to go to the bathroom, once to fix a sandwich and another glass of tea. I went to bed around ten; the next day when I woke up, the first thing I did was turn on the radio. They were reading the headlines of the morning news; and after the baseball scores, the newscaster said it with no preamble:
“Jorge Luis Borges is dead. The Argentine author died yesterday night in . . .”
Believe it, don't believe it. To tell the truth I had no alternative; but at the same time I could not believe it. My eyes moved from the radio to the second book of the Complete Poetry, next to my pillow. This was the moment when everything began. In this instant, looking about wildly, my heart beating so fast I thought it would burst, I sensed that Borges's death had something to do with my reading of the previous day. I decided to hide the two volumes. I turned off the radio, and behaved as if what had happened had nothing to do with me.
In the bathroom, I spent nearly fifteen minutes brushing my teeth. Then I went out to the bakery where I was supposed to buy, always on my dad's credit, rolls and orange juice for everyone: my parents and Leticia, who had gone to visit my aunt in Maracaibo three days ago. They had called the day before to say they were coming on the overnight bus, they should be arriving any moment.
As I expected, it was my father who gave me what he thought was the scoop when they arrived:
“Felipe, did you hear about Borges?” he asked, hugging me as he showed me the front page of the Equitativo.
“It can't be, it can't be,” I lied barefaced, not daring to say to my own father that I was the one who had murdered Borges.
This idea—that I had murdered Borges—was a hypothesis that would need to be proved; believing (I still don't know why) that I would be able to kill an author just by reading him, I waited five long days before putting into practice the only plan I could come up with: Gimferrer.
Thursday of the following week my parents had decided to return to Maracaibo; Leticia was making the most of their absence and going to Tucacas with Hector. At eleven in the morning I came home from college. I stopped at the bakery and bought provisions for the whole weekend: two ham sandwiches, five liters of fruit punch. Back at home I put away my supplies in the kitchen and my book bag in the library; I took a shower, put on the yellow trousers which my cousin had left in the dirty clothes hamper a while before, one of Leticia's shirts, and the sandals which my mom had brought me from Miami the year before; I carried the armchair from the living room to my bedroom; adjusted the radio's antenna and sat down by my desk, to read Gimferrer's poems.
Each time I finished reading a poem, I would turn the radio on. Sure that the first notice would never be on Radio America, I tuned in to Radio Rumbos; when it didn't have anything I tried a few of the smaller Spanish-language transmissions, whatever I was able to receive on our worn-out old radio. Four or five hours later I finished reading the book. Since I didn't have to go to college that Friday, I stayed put Friday, Saturday, Sunday, sitting there by the radio.
The news I was waiting for never came. Either I would need to abandon my hypothesis, or reformulate it. I took the latter path—the lethal weapon must not simply be my reading . . . perhaps it could be my reading a book which I had stolen. A glass of juice was in front of me as this thought occurred to me, and all of a sudden it seemed so obvious, it seemed to me like the glass was saying: Idiot, how could you not have figured it out before? How could you keep me waiting in fear that Gimferrer was going to die?
Clearly, before I claimed victory I would need to test the veracity of my new hypothesis. The only trouble was, it being Sunday, I would have to wait at least twenty hours before I could visit Fernández again and have a chance to steal something.
I waited, trembling, for as long as I needed to; at nine the next morning I stepped down from the bus at the business district stop. Not wanting to be the first customer of the day, I followed a girl who was carrying a Hanon exercise book around for half an hour. At half past nine I greeted Fernández.
“Which of your books are the least worthwhile?” I asked him.
“The ones from the Ministry of Agriculture, no? Nobody buys those. Why do you ask?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Do you have anything by Carlos Pellicer, the Mexican?” I knew that he didn't have any Mexican authors on his shelves: he would have to check in the storeroom, and I'd get the chance to take a book from the Authors' Association table.
“Let me check in the storeroom.”
“Don't worry about it,” I said and walked over to the table of local books.
There were two poetry collections by Mercedes Corona and five from the ministry; but I didn't want to kill a woman, and the minister, Hernán Jiménez, was a friend of my parents. On the left, the sonnets of a young dentist. I looked over the last, bad enough; I stuck the book in the right pocket of my sweatshirt. I had hardly finished straightening it when Fernández returned:
“Nothing; but if you like, I can order it from Fondo de Cultura.”
“That's fine. I'll come by in a week.”
I didn't go to college that day. I rode back home in a van. Since I was able to get a seat, I started reading the sonnets on the way.
When the van arrived at my development, I was only one sonnet short of the end. I decided to read it at the bakery, drinking a cup of coffee.
While the counter-girl prepared it, I noticed that the workers in the kitchen had a radio on, tuned in to Radio America: they were listening to the radionovelas. As if in a moment of déjà-vu, I knew immediately what was going to happen: the reader's voice interrupted the radionovela announcing an unusual news bulletin, the trumpet sounded which heralded the funeral notices; and right away the reader just said it:
“A young dentist, Benjamín Castro, has been murdered in his office. A man . . .”
In this moment, I knew that I was holding a lethal weapon in my hands. Though I felt no sorrow over the death of Benjamín Castro, I decided that from then on I would never pull the trigger again; or at least use caution.
So, I didn't steal any books in the next seven or eight years. I controlled myself, I simply controlled myself. I even remember the evening of my eighth semester when, in the middle of a conversation in the faculty hallway, the editor in chief of the Student Center's magazine insulted me—I did consider going into the bookstore and stealing a copy of the magazine; but I controlled myself. Maybe I knew that dealing with a collective production—editors, reporters, columnists, et cetera, et cetera—could truly cause a tragedy.
What happened, then? If I was so well-controlled, for what obscure reason am I writing these lines now, confessing such old transgressions, and preparing to list some even more recent. Simply because I could not avoid recidivism. Primarily it was because, after such a long time without exercising my power, I came to believe the whole thing was a fabrication, one of those memories that blurs into fiction, a scene from a poorly directed movie, the fragment of a story—the mental reenactment of one of Maigret's adventures.
I had already been thinking along these lines for a number of years—while studying literature at the university where I now teach—when eventually one day, maybe three years ago, I was speaking with Susana M, who at the time was my girlfriend, not yet having started going out with the faculty dean; and I began to joke about my ability to do away with whatever author she wanted:
“Don't be ridiculous, Felipe. You know, I'm actually more interested in settling down, maybe getting a civil union
“But I'm being serious. I was the one who killed Borges.”
“Cut the bullshit, asshole.”
“If you want, test me. Who do you want to kill?”
“If you insist, Cortázar.”
“Impossible, he's already dead.”
She cut me off. “So, Bioy Casares.”
“OK then,” I said, then thinking perhaps it would be better not to make any demonstration, that it would not make sense to assassinate anyone for the sake of Susana M, who didn't even understand Chapter 7: "I touch your mouth . . ." I was in the middle of that thought when, passing by the faculty bookstore, I decided to go in. Just as well, they didn't have anything by Bioy Casares: sold out. I picked up two Spanish magazines and a Mexican one; then in the middle of everything—I still don't know what I was thinking—I took the opportunity to hide a copy of Eduardo Mendoza's City of Marvels among the papers I was carrying. I paid for the magazines; as I was leaving the store, the alarm sounded.
“Excuse me, Professor, but . . .” the guard addressed me.
“No problem,” I said, almost relieved. “We'll go to the checkout and see what's the matter.”
Of course, among my papers we saw Mendoza's marvelous work, and we both laughed, aware of what an impossibility it would be, for me to have meant to steal a book.
“These things happen, Prof. Too much commotion. In any case, take the book with you; it's a gift.”
Naturally, when I left at last, I couldn't help feeling happy—not for Eduardo Mendoza's sake, just for myself, at not having to kill somebody. I went to the faculty dining room to sit at one of the tables and call Susana M.
“Susana, why don't we go out this evening?”
“Depends, did you knock off Bioy, stronzo?”—a little homage to her Calabrese ancestors.
“What, are you crazy? I was just joking.”
“So, which would you rather be, liar or moron?”
She hung up and I started to wonder; did she really hate Bioy? Or was she just trying to irritate me, wanting to start a fight—now that I think of it, wanting to start dating the faculty dean.
I decided to head home; when I turned the key in the ignition, the battery was dead. I would need to take the metro and the bus.
The train car seemed like a supermarket; but I kept myself occupied with the magazines. I read a short article by Carlos Fuentes and another by Juan Goytisolo; before I knew it, the loudspeaker announced the last station.
I followed the crowd out, down the stairs, and sighed. I felt well. I wasn't sure why, but I felt perfectly well. Maybe it was because I saw in front of me, right in the middle of the business district of my youth, Fernández's little bookshop. I walked over there, rang the bell and greeted him.
“Felipe, Felipe—how are you doing?”
We embraced warmly and I proceeded to empty the shelves (for purchase, obviously)—a lovely edition of Oppiano Licario, the Jackson Collection's Thousand and One Nights, et cetera, et cetera.
When I was paying, just at the moment when Fernández was leaning down to get me a bag, I saw in front of me the third edition of Morel's Invention.
I couldn't resist: without knowing why (or knowing all-too-well why), I slipped it into my briefcase. I took my leave, with another hug from Fernández; an incredible frost in my heart, I made my way to the house, of which I was at that point the sole occupant, my parents dead, my sister married. I pulled the rocking chair into my room, the room that had been my parents' room; hardly breathing, I read until the point in the book where "Tea for Two" starts playing.
When I stopped reading, I suddenly had the feeling that Bioy had died. I didn't need to make sure, I just went to sleep. I dreamed of two leopards in love, in an infinite jungle. I walked past them and picked up the cubs; the female let go of them. One of them scratched at me; I felt a sharp pain in my forearm and awoke to the telephone ringing. From the receiver I heard Susana M's voice, amazed and frightened.
“Did you hear already, Felipe? I just read in the paper that Bioy has died.”
“I told you so. The same thing happened with Borges.”
“Are you crazy, Felipe? How could you have done it?”
She hung up; our thing was over. Perhaps she had already started going out with the dean. I decided to stay home, smothered in a fog of sadness, asking myself if what I had done made any sense, if I hadn't hurt myself by letting Susana M in on it, by once again exercising this strange power which I had tried for years to keep under my control.
Perhaps the only proper response to my questions would be to test whether it was truly a matter of some supernatural power; but I decided to wait until my next visit to Fernández's shop. This time I stole—or better, “I borrowed,” since I had already put together a parcel in which I would return all of Fernández's books, from the Borges forward—an anthology of José Ángel Valente.
Even if today I feel like Jack the Ripper, at the time there was no premeditation, no foreknowledge, to my actions. I just felt an infinite sadness; I went to Fernandez's bookstore looking for the embrace of one of the only counselors remaining in my life. I bought some books; when I stole, the most sacred act I knew, I chose the ones dearest to me.
Valente died; and over the months which followed, I tried to make the most of my skill. To be blunt: I started out studying the works of Juan José Arreola, for an article I was working on. I had looked over almost all his work, I was only lacking one book. I stole this last one; the next day, when we found out about the poet's death, the news was accompanied by my piece. That's how it went, two, four, six, eight, ten months later with Arturo Úslar Pietri, Camilo José Cela, most of the writers you've seen disappear these last few years. I read all of them, wrote lovely, well-researched articles which would be used by the press agencies to accompany their obituaries; and then the day before they died, I stole one of their books—one that I needed to complete some note, or simply when I felt that I had finished the article and needed to move on to the next.
Of course some people took note of the weird coincidences between my articles and authors dying; although to be sure, none of them went so far as to assert a causal relationship between the two. Among these people was Gustavo Sentiel, the chair of the Latin and Greek department. Two days after Úslar's death, I met him in the faculty bar; in front of everybody he called me a jinx.
I was correcting papers at the students' table; I pretended to ignore him, and there's no denying it, he blushed. Maybe that is what saved him—two hours later, when I had to step into the bookstore to order the new edition of Quixote, I stopped by the shelf of reference works; I had in my hands his Latin-Spanish dictionary—if it hadn't been a seven-hundred-page brick . . .
Clearly as my reputation grew, as people talked about my vast knowledge, my ability to work up delicate treatments in just a few hours—speaking, of course, of articles which I had been months writing—the danger grew too; unable to take any other form, the danger decided to assume the body, the face, the legs (which the faculty dean was no longer caressing) of Susana M.
Since we both taught classes on the same material, we saw each other every day; two months earlier she had been nice enough to invite me out for lunch; and while we were enjoying our quesillo—the faculty dining room serves a very tasty one—she confided that the dean had entrusted to her the stewardship of the university press, that she was thinking of relaunching the essays series with a collection of my critical work on . . .
I couldn't believe it. Never once had I thought that the anxiety which carried me down to Fernández's bookstore every two or three months could be anything more than that; I was on the verge of transforming myself into a simple serial killer, a modern-day Jack the Ripper, of making myself the author of a volume with which . . . I was thinking all this when she asked me about Bioy.
“Now you're not going to tell me that really happened?”
“What are you talking about, Susana? That was just coincidence, a simple coincidence.”
“Perhaps, but Sentiel was saying . . .”
“Susana, I have to go. Next week I'll bring you the manuscripts.”
Right then I was writing an essay on Mario Vargas Llosa, and used that as my excuse. As it turns out I shouldn't have: since that day, every time I've met up with Susana M, she greets me with a strange look, as if she was in on some secret of mine, and asks me when we can expect to hear news of Vargas Llosa.
“What are you talking about?” I asked her the first time, trying to act like I didn't understand.
“Mightn't the same thing happen with him as with the others?”
“Which others, Susana? Are you feeling OK?”
“The ones who died, moron.”
“We' re all going to die,” was my only response, and I stepped into a classroom where I definitely did not have to teach a class.
She couldn't leave dissuaded—I realized that I wasn't going to be able to finish the piece on Vargas Llosa if I didn't want her to figure me out.
And once again everything could have ended there. But then came the day of the publication of my own book. I was in the faculty bookstore. I was wearing a blue jacket, French, I had bought it two years back at one of the biannual markets in Beco, green corduroy pants and a blue shirt, no tie. I showed up a minute before the scheduled time, 7 p.m.; I said hi to everyone and listened to the dean's words, Susana's, Sentiel's (which were a little ironic). Then I said my piece and I spilled a drop of Chilean wine on the dedication page, which read: "To my father, for having initiated me into the divine obsession of reading. And to Fernández, father also."
There was a toast, with Chilean wine of course, and the crowd started to thin out into the bookstore's aisles. I went walking toward the Argentine literature shelves and remembered how in front of them, in Fernández's bookshop . . .
The last names were coming at me fast, Fresan, Aguinjis, Gutiérrez, when Susana M. came over. She took my arm and asked me to walk with her. I couldn't say no, she was my editor. So I accepted and even pretended I was glad to. But she turned by the shelf of Peruvian fiction and, why not, pointed out the deluxe edition of The Feast of the Goat.
“Now then. Is that going to be Vargas Llosa's next-to-last book?”
“Are you still on about that, Susana?” I said, extricating myself from her grip. “I'm going to go see where my book is, on the Venezuelan literature table.”
I shouldn't have said that, much less done it. I walked to the table, saw the book and started to feel the anxiety of that first time, across from Borges's Complete Poetry. I felt a kind of fog inside my chest; although I was doing everything I could to avoid it, my hands were reaching for the blue title page, taking the book, pretending to read the biographical note on the jacket flap, sliding it into the right pocket of my jacket.
I said good-bye, turning down some invitations to continue the party at the Chinese bar; ignoring the alarm (which had gone off a few times already that evening), I left without paying. I got home, put my armchair in its customary spot; after I finish with these pages I'll start reading.
It's as if I were singing my own requiem.
Translation of “Réquiem.” Copyright Slavko Zupcic. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Jeremy Osner. All rights reserved.