I was raised by a depressed mother and an alcoholic father. Mother soon stopped being a mom in every sense of the word and became more of a nuisance than an iconic figure, just a body to trip over. And Pops was tripping on her less and less, ‘cause when my older sisters seemed ready, straight away he started banging them, first one then the other, till finally he was banging one in front of the other, and I was starting to see myself as next on the list; soon as the girls started holding off, or skipped town, or were simply bored, the next ruptured hole was going to be my ass. And my old lady was present through it all, with her ashen skin and vacant look.
One afternoon when I came home from school I encountered a most unusual spectacle. The next-door neighbor had Mom against the kitchen table and was fucking her to the tick-tock rhythm of a clock, the creaking of the table legs marking the tempo. Neither of them seemed bothered by my presence, nothing changed, Mom, gripping the sides of the table with her hands, same face as always, a perfect void, emptied of desire and opinions. They hadn’t even taken their clothes off. Mom, her skirt rolled up to her waist, the neighbor’s trousers crumpled on the floor around his shoes like an enormous, dark water lily, at the base of those skinny, hairy white legs, trembling and offensive. The bottom of his shirt was flapping against his ass: this was the point of greatest movement. I put down my folder and pencil case and walked over to the kitchen cupboard and took out some crackers, trying my best not to attract attention, but then I wasn’t particularly worried about hiding my presence either; I grabbed a glass, made my way to the fridge in search of milk, and filled it.
I started munching as I looked out the window onto the courtyard, looking without seeing, without thinking, no particular feeling that I could articulate or identify. I couldn’t tell you how long I’d stood there, probably not as long as it seemed, when I jerked around as the front door opened with that familiar intensity. Dad entered and came to a halt a meter from Mom and the neighbor, all three petrified, sort of like they were frozen in some photograph. Then, all at the same time, like they’d just heard the starter’s pistol, one was yanking his trousers up, the other rummaging in a drawer, and Mom—slowly standing up, turning around without changing expression, like she was from some other world—let her skirt fall, fatality drawing it downward to a more presentable position.
Dad had grabbed the largest knife in the drawer before the neighbor was zipped up, and in the perfect silence of the room, he stabbed him forty-eight times, all over his body, methodical, thorough, conscientious. He let him drop in the middle of the room, and when the guy had stopped moving, no jerks, no residual movements, Dad stood there staring at him, like he was contemplating a job well done; then he scrubbed his hands and all the way up to his elbows, cleaned the knife with the green sponge, dried it, and put it back in the drawer. Mom’s expression never changed. Dad turned to me:
“Listen,” he said calmly, speaking slowly. “Now I’m going to tell you, down to the last detail, how we’re going to explain this. Pay attention, ‘cause they’re going to ask us over and over, and there can’t be no changes, no hesitation.”
First off, he presented the whole story in an orderly fashion, next, how we should respond if they asked this, how if they asked that; and all the while Mom was rubbing up against the edge of the table, one leg lifted, then against the arm of the rocking chair, same rhythm as before, against the knob on the stove, anything would do the trick as long as it was hard, smooth, steady, and handy, same expression on her face, and the neighbor just laying there, blending into the floor, in a position that struck me as pretty dynamic, but the longer I stared, the more definitive it seemed, a puddle of blood forming slowly, steadily on the right side of the body that increasingly resembled the west coast of the island of England.
I told them everything the way Dad said to, made no mistakes in any of the subsequent interrogations, but they still threw him in the can, and Mom was sent to a state mental institution for the destitute, the older sister went to work at the Fabre & Coats factory, the younger to live with Grandma in Norfolk, and me, the judge put me in foster care, but I got out of there soon as I could and found a living down at the docks.
The way of life I’d learned from Pops proved most helpful. On more than one occasion, finding myself in an extremely difficult situation, I’d stop to think: now what would Dad do here? And that not only saved my life but purveyed me material benefits. I’m not talking about doing what the old man would have done, but rather the opposite. Dad would’ve done that, so I’ll do this. I was barely twenty years old and had already managed to achieve a remarkable position in life, and what’s more important, I was respected among the wholesale distributors, even though I didn’t have a degree Once a year, more or less, my younger sister would send news about the family, nothing to lose any sleep over. Dad was still behind bars and big sister had become a hooker, though she passed herself off as a tour guide.
One day I learned that Mom had died, and I had the strangest feeling. And I was informed that Dad had served more than a third of his sentence, and every other week now he got out ‘cause of good behavior. I kept my eyes peeled, trailed him, and when, just like I suspected, he went for a night hunt, I waited for him in a clearing, in the darkest spot, and shot him five times, the last right between the eyes.
That same night I went hunting for my older sister and didn’t tell her who I was till I’d fucked her. At first she didn’t believe me, but when I furnished sufficient evidence, details, impossible-to-invent anecdotes, when I responded to all her questions, even though I wasn’t much inclined to, then she cursed me, tried to belt me, so I left, but not before making sure I’d put her out of work for a while.
The very next day, I visited my younger sister—Grandma had died and the house was now hers—and gave her the rundown. She appeared confounded, incapable of reacting, so I had to take matters into my own hands; I did her four times and beat the crap out of her. Justice had been done. But by shouldering the misery of the world, I had also acquired a substantial obligation. I had become the Exterminating Angel, and in order to restore peace to myself, I had no choice but to incarnate absolute goodness from then on.
The following day the members of the Central Commission of the Waterfront Cooperative held an important event. A committee from the House of Commons had organized a meeting to discuss needs and conditions for expanding the shipyard and building a new breakwater, and so us long-time rakes all donned our best suits and flashiest ties for the occasion.
The meeting was smooth sailing, and afterward we invited the committee to dine at the Co-op’s terrace restaurant. We were all standing around, stiff with cold, having a cocktail, when a couple MPs introduced their wives to us. When I shook the hand of the juiciest dame, I turned to her husband and said:
“Ah, shit, so this pork chop is your little missus?” An icy silence followed, and having achieved my moment of glory, I topped it off, “She any good with BJs? Doesn’t look like she would be, with that asshole of a mouth.” I grabbed one of her tits, she shrank back, I advanced. “You could always try wanking on this. Shall we give it a stab?”
Three of the thumbscrew boys dragged me outside.
“What’s got into you?” shouted my mentor, the head honcho at the Commission, on the front porch of the restaurant. “You off your rocker?”
“Just the opposite, I’m simply recalibrating the scales of justice.”
“What the hell are you babbling about? Trying to sink the whole deal?”
“Nothing could be farther from my intention. I’m searching for profundities.”
“And how are you planning to go about this, if I might ask?” he shot back. (I made a gesture that said: wait and see.) “Go back in there and apologize to the man, tell him you’re going through a rough spell and the drink went to your head.”
“There ain’t no rough spell and I’m not drunk.”
He turned to his thugs.
“Take him out to the pantry and see that when you’re done with him he’s left without a social life for a week.” We were out of sight when he yelled: “But don’t overdo it, boys.”
Nothing could be more reactionary than compartmentalized behavior: here I have to behave like a gentleman, there like a pig. It’s the worst possible show of contempt, cowardice, and meanness, one more aspect of the moral exercise of public virtues and private vices. Well no: pariahs deserve considerably more respect than princes, sluts more than ladies. That and many other profound thoughts occupied my brain at that moment; I’d have been able to think more and much clearer had I not been tethered to the radiator in the laundry room in the head office of the Commission, unable to dry the blood dripping down my nose and cheek, mixing with my snot, and I didn’t know how many broken bones I had; Anaximander said it himself—though I didn't even know he existed at the time—that things have a way of canceling each other out, debts and compensations, according to the judgment of Time. Among the pariahs I would behave like a monk, among the monks like a criminal.
I knew what was coming, and I shuddered to consider the angles at which the blows would land. But I got off pretty easy: a few more punches to the stomach, the usual detailed proviso of warnings and threats, a string of forbidden conduct, folks I needed to avoid for the rest of my life—and me back on the street with my tail between my legs. I was feeling kind of low and in my moment of consternation decided to visit the sisters to ask for their forgiveness, and, you know, just in case, see if I could get some dough out of them. The older had the Swedish truck driver she lived with throw me down the stairs, the younger—who wasn’t so young now, and had become a bodybuilder, or something along that line, anyway stronger that me who wasn’t eating much those days—well, she threw me down the stairs herself.
I didn’t know what I wanted or what I should do, not even what my options were—the possibilities within myself, in my environment, my own aptitudes—but it all seemed to be leading me to a turning point in which my transience might easily develop into the paralyzing dependence typical of an addict. I had personally explored my father’s territory, had even killed his physical body, and I bundled up what I’d gained from the experience and stuck it up my ass, but none of it served to free me of my original debt. I realized that nothing had happened just because, but rather I had been chosen to bear the sins of the world, and whether or not the world liked it or not or would merely sit back and watch me with indifference, none of that affected my resolve. I abandoned my country, crossed the ocean, lived in foreign lands, devoted myself to grotesque jobs, even had the fantasy once that I’d return, just for the inane reason that I’d have to leave again. And I ended up being carried away by the supreme illusion: the rarefied quietude of the Mediterranean shores.
One day I spotted huge headlines in the newspapers announcing a car bombing in the parking lot of the central bus station, and the black lettering was so attractive that I knew immediately, without hesitation, what I should do. I headed straight for the General Directorate of Security and asked to see the chief. I was referred to a subordinate, but soon as they heard my story I was arrested, moved to another room, videotaped, and some seven or eight guys came to listen to me, the chief himself present all the while.
“Start over,” the first guy grumbled at me.
“It was me.”
“I planted the bomb at the station.”
They introduced me to a public defender, made me repeat my story ten or twelve times, they entered and left in pairs, who knows how many times, whispered to each other, and there I was so conscious that from a world perspective—judged according to the scales of the World—I had committed the crime (that crime and a thousand others) that I seriously considered grabbing one of the cops’ guns and emptying the clip till they finally shot me down. In the end, they left me alone with my lawyer, who spoke these words:
“Sorry, but based on your story—I can’t imagine what could have possessed you to behave thus—it’s impossible for you to have done it. Nevertheless, since they don’t have anything else on you, they’re willing to charge you with obstruction of justice and contempt of authority. I’ve insisted that you undergo a psychological evaluation, and according to the results, you’ll probably be set free with the obligation to follow the prescribed treatment.”
“My head’s in fine condition, “I told him. “I don’t need no psychiatric treatment.”
“You prefer to go to jail?”
He struck me as a reasonable guy and I opted to tell the truth.
“There’s an imbalance of hierophantic forces that I aim to set right. So, this means that even if I didn’t commit the crime in material terms, it was in fact me.”
We held each other in a steady poker gaze.
“Don’t worry,” he told me with a smile of complicity, “I know just the person you should speak to.”
Everything went exactly like the public defender had foreseen, and soon I realized that I wasn’t the least bit innocent. They ran two different tests, one ordered by the prosecution, the other by my lawyer, and they discovered that I suffered from a mild bipolar disorder; I was treated as an outpatient under strict medical and police control, with various obligations to show up here and there every week. And I was free.
Not fifteen days had elapsed when the public defender—a fellow by the name of Ariman—called me in. I went thinking there was some complication in my case, but soon as I entered his office (and, incidentally, he made me wait quite a while) I found him accompanied by some other guy—an old man, tall and thin—I don’t know how to communicate the impression he made on me, both thin and corpulent at the same time, like some kind of derelict ghost of a man but at the same time indestructible, and this guy shot me such a tough look that I averted my eyes. The lawyer had me sit down and not only did he not bother to introduce me, but he started talking like I wasn’t even present.
“Could it be that he simply pretended—and so clumsily—to commit the crime to disguise the fact that he actually did it?” the old man asked. To which my lawyer replied:
“Following that line of reasoning, why would he have turned himself in, if there wasn’t any evidence linking him to the scene?”
They must have been attempting to involve me in the crime or testing me, and I had the distinct impression that what I did or failed to do in the next five minutes would determine the rest of my life.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, “If you’re referring to me, there’s no need to waste any more of your time on speculations. I planted the bomb, and whether you believe me or not is of no consequence.”
“But, then of course,” the old man said, hardly glancing at me, “not believing him might provide him the reason he needs to continue thus.”
“Excuse me, Sir, “I said, appealing to the old man, wondering if it was worth the trouble to be polite, “but I believe that I’m at a disadvantage here.”
“Just be patient, Curdwyn,” my lawyer said, “Don’t worry, you’ll have it your way and you’ll even come out ahead. For now, you don’t need to know the name of your benefactor. (I deduced he was referring to the old man, but I didn’t know what I had benefited from.) For the sake of convenience, however, you can address him as Mister Swann.”
I feigned an attack of courtesy.
“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister Swann.”
I was suffused with a sense of infinite patience as I awaited my chance.
I paid close attention to the news during the following days, and I didn’t have to wait long. One weekend there was an attempt on the Prime Minister, and I raced to the Police Station to claim my part in it. At first I assembled a group of policemen who didn’t know me and were very attentive, to such a degree that for a moment I was sure they were going to rough me up. But then the big bosses appeared, and soon as they spotted me their expressions turned to scowls of disgust and disappointment.
“You got nothing else to do?” asked the officer who had taken my statement the first time. He was starting to feel like family.
I demanded to be heard, disclosed all sorts of details about my scheme. But when they asked for the names of my accomplices, I blew the whole thing by hesitating. We all know that hesitation is never neutral territory, and apparently practice makes it easier to distinguish between someone who hesitates because he’s reluctant to divulge what he doesn’t want to, someone who actually doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and the guy who’s just putting on an act. Who knows, maybe they were trying to set me up, and when I realized it, it was too late, I wasn’t in time to feign improvisation—which for that matter would have been pretty close to the truth—but the disappointed face gave me away.
Nevertheless, I reeled off some names, which at the time seemed an irresistible mixture, but now it strikes me as rather tame: common criminals, top members of armed gangs, international terrorists, bankers who had absconded—I even interpolated invented names here and there. They laughed as they listened.
“Good day, Sir,” snapped the officer from the first meeting. “Do us a favor would you, don’t waste any more of our time.”
Things were looking bad. No legal proceedings, no charges, nothing this time around. I considered the possibility of actually committing a crime of considerable social consequences. It wasn’t enough to sit back and wait for it, knowing that the appropriate crime would eventually be committed—it and others—especially since no one was better equipped than me to atone for it, and with such neatness and distinction, so completely. Something else was needed. The expiatory path to goodness is tortuous and full of thorns! Tears of gratitude are so difficult to obtain and so very dear!
In five months I pleaded guilty to one kidnapping, another bombing, the assassination of a traffic officer, and one mass poisoning (the authorship of which was later claimed by a small group called The Liberation Sect). The police insisted that my lawyer keep me under control, something exceedingly difficult within the letter and spirit of the law, but Ariman did what he could. One day he invited me to lunch in a posh restaurant, and just like I thought, he was accompanied by the enigmatic Mister Swann.
“Curdwyn,” my lawyers says to me, “we can’t keep this up any longer. It’s time for you to tell us what’s going on in that head of yours. You’ve been very skillful and you have no criminal record, but we do know that a few years ago you were part of an organization engaged in illegal trade in the U.K. That’s why your present attitude proves more complex and at the same time less clear. You must stop trying to atone for the sins of the world. You’re moved by Goodness, I know, but not everyone is in a position to appreciate this.”
“What can I say? Until my debt is paid off, I can’t do otherwise. And I can’t do this except in absolute terms.”
“What absolute terms?” Swann asked. “Good and Evil are not hierarchical categories, but rather degrees of the same substance, and as predicates they blend together, like black and white (which aren’t substances either) to form figures that are grey or some other color, where one or the other predominates. Rarely can one be found in a pure state, unless someone has worked diligently in the distilling process.”
“Evil’s the black one, right? And Good, the white?”
“No, it’s just the opposite,” Swann said, but I was sure he was improvising.
“And so?” I said with a touch of impatience. “How does this translate into what I’m supposed to do?”
“It’s more what you shouldn’t do,” said Ariman. “Mister Swann and I are worried about what you might be capable of doing.”
Swann observed me, as an entomologist might a specimen.
“Let’s see if I’ve understood this correctly.” I said. “If I’m moved by Evil, I shouldn’t neglect the presence of Good, but if I’m moved by Good, I shouldn’t neglect Evil.”
“The problem lies with the adversative,” Ariman said. “The order in which you phrased your sentence suggests a hierarchy of dangerous values.”
“You’re worried that I might have committed some of the crimes I lay claim to?” I said. They didn’t utter a word. “Or maybe you think that I didn’t carry them out and I’m going loco-bonkers.” More silence. “Maybe you’re worried, according to this value system, that I might commit them and you’ll find yourselves involved.”
Swann shot me a military look, one of piercing symmetry.
“Your lawyer is almost as kind as you are yourself, but if you’ll forgive me, I’m not a sentimental type nor do I have time to be one.”
“So, you want me to certify, Sir, that I can claim to be author of any crimes I wish,” I said interrupting the gentleman, not daring to address him with a show of familiarity, “as long as I don’t commit them.”
Swann stepped away, glanced into the distance then back at me, and I had the impression that his eyes were more intent in their fixity, that he saw deeper inside me than ever before. I found it hard to imagine the tender child this terrible old man had once been.
“On the contrary,” he said slowly but not with a serious tone—it was almost an offhand remark. “If you claim authorship of another crime, I want you to guarantee that you have actually committed the crime.”
I waited for them to laugh, explain the joke, but like a couple of automatons they simply turned and looked at me. I was really discombobulated now; they had made me backtrack on my road to Damascus and the rectitude I had resolved upon.
I found myself wondering if I would suddenly discover some meaning to that which has none and never will. What exactly is the difference between a real solution and an invented one?
“Mister Swann,” I said, “I understand that in one way or another I am on the point of rendering you an important service.”
“Excellent, Curdwyn, from the very beginning it was clear that you were no fool. You want to know what your prospects will be once this is over.”
“More or less, Mister Swann. I would like to know.”
“And what exactly do you know how to do?” Ariman asked, and the two of them chuckled. “Because of course, though it may not be an important detail, it should be taken into account.”
It didn’t strike me that a display of my skills was a good way to further my options.
Swann spoke with a professorial tone:
“With God dead, His attributes have been hacked into pieces and distributed among us in this carnage of existence. Performance: media stars. Power: bankers. Being in itself: Art. Where among these would you say that you fit?”
I pretended to be buried in deepest thought.
“In Art, maybe?”
They burst into laughter. “I told you so. Another total waste.”