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from the October 2006 issue

from “Senselessness”


I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn't just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that stunned me most of all the sentences I read that first day on the job, the sentence that left me dumbfounded during that, my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so that I could get some idea of the labor that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation this Cakchiquel Indian, who had witnessed his family's murder, experienced, by the fact that this Indian was aware of the breakdown of his psychic apparatus as a result of having witnessed, though wounded and impotent, soldiers of his country's army scornfully chop to pieces with machetes and in cold blood each one of his four small children, then turn on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to witness as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh. Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself, morbidly mulling it over, trying to imagine what waking up must have been like for this Indian, whom they had left for dead among the chunks of his children's and his wife's flesh and who then, many years later, had the opportunity to give his testimony so that I could read it and make stylistic corrections, an account that began, in fact, with the sentence I am not complete in the mind that so moved me because it summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental state in which dozens of thousands of people who have suffered experiences similar to the ones recounted by the Cakchiquel Indian found themselves and also summed up the mental state of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary men who had with relish cut to pieces their so-called compatriots, though I must admit that it is not the same to be not complete in the mind from having watched your own children drawn and quartered as from having drawn and quartered other peoples' children, as I told myself before reaching the overwhelming conclusion that it was the entire population of that country that wasn't complete in the mind, which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of editing an extensive report of one thousand one hundred pages that documents the massacre of hundreds and proves the general perturbation. I also am not complete in the mind, I then told myself, on that, my first day of work, sitting at what would be my desk for that period of time, my eyes wandering aimlessly over the tall, almost bare white walls of that office I would be using for the next three months and whose furnishings consisted of nothing besides the desk, the computer, the chair in which I was digressing and a crucifix behind my back, thanks to which the walls were not completely bare. I must be much less complete in the mind than those individuals, I managed to think as I threw my head back without knocking myself off balance in the chair, wondering how much time it would take me to get used to the presence of the crucifix, which I could not even think of taking down because this wasn't my office but rather that of the monsignor, as my friend Erick had explained to me a few hours earlier as he was leading me toward it, even though the monsignor almost never used it, preferring the one in the parish church where he also lived, so I could use this office as long as I wanted to, but not so as to get rid of the crucifix and replace it with some other decorations that would lighten my spirits, decorations that would have been as far removed from any religion as I was myself, even though at that moment and for the coming weeks I would find myself working in the archbishop's see, located precisely behind the metropolitan cathedral, another sign that I am not complete in the mind, I said to myself with real concern, because it was the only way to explain the fact that a depraved atheist like me had agreed to work for the perfidious Catholic Church, it was the only way to explain that in spite of the hearty repugnance I felt for the Catholic Church and for all other churches, no matter how small they were, I found myself now precisely in the archbishop's see facing one thousand one hundred pages of almost single-spaced text that contained the horrific stories of how the armed forces had decimated dozens of villages and their inhabitants. I am the least complete in the mind! I thought with alarm as I stood up and began like a caged animal to pace around that office whose only window facing the street was walled up so that neither the passers-by nor whoever was inside would succumb to temptation, I began to pace around as I would frequently do each and every one of the days I spent within those four walls, but at that moment, on the verge of going mad after realizing that I was so not complete in the mind that I had accepted and was starting a job for the church that had already put me in the sights of the armed forces of this country, as if I didn't already have enough problems with the armed forces of my own country, as if the enemies in my own country weren't enough for me I was about to stick my snout into somebody else's wasps' nest, to make certain that the Catholic hands that were getting ready to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had gotten a manicure, because that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and doing a manicure on the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the tiger's balls, I thought as I fixed my gaze on the bulky stack of one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk, and, momentarily stopping my pacing, in a growing stupor I understood that it was not going to be easy to read, organize into volumes, and copyedit those one thousand one hundred pages in the three months my friend Erick and I had agreed on: Shit! Having agreed to edit that report in just three months proved that my problem wasn't that I wasn't complete in the mind but that I was completely out of my mind. All of a sudden I felt trapped in that office with those high bare walls, a victim of a conspiracy between the church and the armed forces in a foreign country, a lamb being led to the slaughter because of a stupid and dangerous zeal that made me trust my friend Erick when one month earlier-as we sipped Rioja in an old Spanish bar near police headquarters-he had asked me if I would be interested in editing the final report of the project he was involved in, a project that consisted of recovering the memories of the hundreds of survivors of and witnesses to the massacres perpetrated in the throes of the so-called armed conflict between the army and the guerrillas, if I would be interested in earning five thousand dollars for spending three months editing about five hundred pages written by well-known journalists and academicians, who were turning in a text that was almost perfect, that I would only have to look it over, a final proofing, it was really a great gig, five thousand dollars just to put the finishing touches on a project that dozens and dozens of persons had participated in, beginning with the group of missionaries who had managed to get the testimonies from the Indians, witnesses and survivors, most of whom didn't even speak Spanish and were afraid above all else of anything that had to do with the events of which they had been victims, followed by those in charge of transcribing the tapes and translating the testimonies from the Mayan languages into Spanish, in which the report would have to be written, and ending with teams of distinguished professionals, who would classify and analyze the testimonies, and who would also write out the report, my friend Erick explained to me in detail, without much excitement, very calmly in fact, in that conspiratorial tone so typical of him, knowing that I would never refuse such an offer, not because of any zeal a good Rioja would awaken in my spirit but rather because he perceived that I was so not complete in the mind that I would accept his offer and even get excited about the idea of getting involved in such a project without negotiating or considering the pros and cons, which is in effect what happened.

I rushed to open the door, terrified, as if I were suffocating and about to faint from a thunderous attack of paranoia in that walled-off room, and I stood in the doorway, maybe with my eyes popping out of my head, I concluded as a result of the way the two secretaries turned around to look at me, for I decided to remain with the door open while I got used to that place and my new job although the fact that the door was open would undoubtedly affect my concentration while I was reading. I didn't care, I preferred any distraction at all that might interfere with my reading of those one thousand one hundred pages to undergoing new attacks of paranoia from being shut up in there and from my sick imagination that because of one sentence that wasn't even that naive but, after all was said and done, just one among hundreds that I would have to read in the coming weeks, I had gotten myself into a tizzy that could only lead to paralysis, as I could ascertain now when I returned from the doorway to the chair where I soon sat down and stared at the aforementioned sentence, I am not complete in the mind, and which I intended to immediately skip over to the one that followed without stopping to digress as I had recently done at the risk of getting dangerously bogged down in the job I was just beginning, but my intention was thwarted a few seconds later by the appearance in my office of a little guy with glasses and a Mexican mustache, the guy whose office was right next to mine and whom my friend Erick had introduced me to about an hour earlier as he was leading me to my place of work, a little guy who was nothing less than the director of the entire complex of offices of the archbishopric dedicated to monitoring human rights, the second in command under the monsignor, Erick explained to me as I offered him my hand and peered at the framed and very prominently placed photographs in which he appeared next to Pope John Paul II in one and next to the president of the United States, William Clinton, in another, which immediately alerted me to the fact that I wasn't giving my hand to any old little guy, but rather one who had given that same hand to the pope and President Clinton, an idea that almost managed to intimidate me, given the fact that the pope and the president of the United States were the two most powerful men on the planet, and the little guy who was now entering my office had had his picture taken with both dignitaries, no minor thing, so that I immediately stood up and asked him solicitously what I could do for him, to which the little guy responded just as kindly as possible if I would please excuse the interruption, he was aware that I was facing an arduous task, he said as he pointed to the one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk, but taking advantage of my having opened the door to take what was surely my first break, he had taken the liberty of coming to invite me for a tour of the whole building so that I could meet the rest of the staff, a tour my friend Erick, always in a constant rush, had omitted when he led me directly from the reception area to what would be my office, stopping only at the little guy's office as I already mentioned, an invitation I immediately accepted and that carried me to each and every office in that building that, truth be told, wasn't a building so much as a colonial structure behind the metropolitan cathedral, built like a typical archbishop's palace: two floors of solid stone with wide corridors that led to a square central patio, where we found several employees enjoying their morning break, and who seeing me with Mynor, for this was the name of the little lay director of that institution, greeted me effusively and with some fawning, as if I were a new seminarian, while the little guy pointed out my professional virtues thanks to which the report about the massacres would end up being a first-class text, and I told myself that the good-looking girls had to be hiding somewhere, because the ones the little guy had introduced me to were not only not complete in the mind but also in the body, lacking even one beautiful feature, an observation I did not share with my guide and that, as the days passed, I discovered to be intrinsic to that institution, not only to the extreme left, as I used to think, that ugly women were an exclusive attribute of extreme left-wing organizations, no, now I understood that they also were of Catholic organizations dedicated to monitoring human rights, a conclusion I reached later, as I said, and at no time did I share this with the guy who had posed for a photograph with John Paul II and Bill Clinton, the little guy who took me everywhere, from one office to another, until finally he left me alone again in front of the one thousand one hundred pages that awaited me in my office, not before asking me if I'd like him to close the door to my office, to which I responded that it would be better to leave it open since we were in the quietest corner of the palace and there wouldn't be any disturbances that would distract me.


In order to celebrate my first day of work, as God intended, I arranged to meet my buddy Toto at noon at El Portalito, the most legendary cantina in the city, fortunately located a mere two hundred yards from my office, close enough to prevent the onset of anxiety in someone who fears, above all else, a lack of punctuality, as is the case with me, someone who, at the most unexpected moments, requires a drink to calm the nervous system, as is also the case with me, which made me consider the proximity of the archbishop's palace to El Portalito well-nigh miraculous, like a wink from the heavens that would allow me to be able to do my work without getting dispirited, just as I said to my buddy Toto once we had sat down at a table in the cantina and were awaiting the voluminous mugs of beer, looking over the faces of the other clientele: the fact of having a cantina so close by, right at hand, no matter what kind of office I am stuck in, gives me grounds for a certain degree of spiritual peace, I explained to him at the very moment we picked up our mugs to offer a toast, which my buddy Toto took advantage of to show off his peculiar sense of humor: "May you come out of this shit alive," the jokester pronounced in solemn tones, a jest that immediately awakened my suspicions about some guys sitting at a neighboring table, realizing that all manner of thugs hung out in that dark and squalid cantina, including informers and torturers that belonged to the so-called Presidential General Staff, torturers who usually drank alone, almost never looking up from the table, their eyes bloodshot and their grimace sinister, who could be detected by the dense, ghastly halo surrounding them. "Don't worry, take it easy," my buddy Toto told me, showing his equine teeth under his Pancho Villa mustache, and right away asked what my impressions were after my first morning of work, how had the priests treated me, that I should tell him all about it, but at the precise instant my story was about to begin, a marimba thundered deafeningly from a mezzanine next to the door, a marimba played by two very old men, who's notes swept all conversation away from the tables, especially from those tables closest to the door, as ours was, where we would have to shout in order to hear each other, as my buddy Toto then did to tell me that this music was a kind of welcome march, that it was undoubtedly dedicated to me, he shouted with a mocking grin, knowing that if there is anything I despise with particular intensity it is folk music, and especially the sad, mournful music of the marimba, an instrument that can only be adored by a sad and mournful people, as I have said many times. "Cut the shit, my friend, and tell me all about it," he said, laughing at my expense, because I didn't have much choice, given the fact that the marimba was just beginning its serenade, and I would have to shout to be heard over that sad and mournful music, something that truth be told wouldn't be difficult for me, much less now that we had ordered a second round of beers, but also I had to forget about the marimba and its irritating music in order to concentrate on telling him my impressions from my first morning of work, a story that I could only begin with the strange sensation I had when I touched that enormous wood door located behind the cathedral, as if I were asking for them to open the door into some catacombs I had always feared and abhorred but which destiny had obliged me to enter, that strange sensation of being about to enter a forbidden and undesirable world was what I had early in the morning while I waited for them to open the enormous wood doors on that filthy, stinking street already infested with street vendors and suspicious-looking characters like those who also hung out at this cantina, where the marimba finally finished its first song and the waitress brought us our second round of beer. Once I had stepped through the enormous wood door, led by a porter who looked like an old sexton, I hastened to tell my buddy Toto, taking advantage of the interregnum of silence between one song and the next, I was led to a cold and dreadful waiting room, like the anteroom of a convent, where I remained alone for too many minutes while the porter went to find my friend Erick, sitting on a bench that was lacking only the prie-dieu and where I could appreciate in all its dimensions the fact that I was penetrating a world ruled by the laws of Catholicism, for which I had always felt the greatest revulsion, which made me consider the possibility of rushing out of there at that instant, although immediately I was overwhelmed by an even stranger sensation, as if I had been in that place before and now I was back to relive the same experience all over again and that it would affect my life in some definitive way, I told my buddy Toto at the very moment the marimba started up with a new song, a sensation that was chilling more than anything else, as if I were about to begin living out a destiny in which my will barely counted and whose principal feature was danger.

Before going on I should state clearly that I felt especially safe with my buddy Toto, not only because we were in his city where he knew his way about with great ease, but also because he looked like a farmer-the wide-brimmed hat, the military boots, and the loose-fitting jacket-a look that demanded respect, who knows why, and he probably was carrying a loaded pistol on his belt, any cautious Christian would assume as much, and Toto defined himself as a farmer and a poet, a fact I alone knew, given our close friendship, but to the rest of the clientele he would look like just a farmer, a feared species in this country as a result of its aggressiveness and the little consideration it showed for others' lives, as might be gathered from the one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk in the archbishopric and about which my buddy Toto now started to interrogate me. I told him that my friend Erick had stuck it in me crooked and without lubrication, the clever asshole. Instead of the five hundred pages we had agreed on I would have twice that amount of text to edit without him agreeing to also double my remuneration. True, at that point I wouldn't have backed down in the face of his argument that three hundred of those pages were lists of massacres and names of victims and the other eight hundred were very well written, as I was soon to discover, and as he assured me, so that my job was only to fine tune and touch up the final version, although of course I had carte blanche to modify anything I thought necessary, without changing the focus-and his trust in me was such that it wasn't necessary to go into much detail, he said. The truth was, I admitted to my buddy Toto, that the fifty pages I had read this morning were very carefully written indeed, I would even say they were impeccable, in spite of the antiseptic and slightly academic style of the psychiatrist who had written this first part of the report, a Basque by the name of Joseba, whom I didn't know and who was now out of the country, whose method consisted of proposing several theses about the effects that the specific and generalized drawing and quartering had on the physical, mental, and emotional health of the surviving population, only to then support his theses with the testimonies of the same individuals, carefully chosen out of hundreds and hundreds of cases that were in the archives, some of which, read this morning, had unsettled my sick imagination, I admitted to my buddy Toto, who drank his beer a little too quickly or, rather, drank while I was talking and so got ahead of me, for example the case of the village deaf-mute, I continued, I don't remember in which far-flung village up in the highlands this happened, I read it just before leaving the office, I was even mulling it over on my way here as I crossed Parque Central in front of the cathedral, because the poor deaf-mute had the misfortune of being interrogated by soldiers who didn't know he was deaf, the misfortune of receiving the first blows to make him spill the names of those who had collaborated with the guerrillas, in front of the other inhabitants of the village and without saying a word the deaf-mute received the blows that followed each question the sergeant who commanded the unit asked him, without anybody in the village daring to tell the sergeant that the deaf-mute couldn't answer even when they tied him to that tree in the plaza and the sergeant began to make incisions on his body with a saber to his shouts of "Speak, you Indian son-of-a-bitch before I really get pissed off!" but the deaf-mute just opened his bulging eyes so wide that it looked like they were going to pop out of his sockets from terror, without being able to answer the sergeant, who, of course, interpreted his silence as defiance and who unsheathed his machete to make him spew it out like a sports announcer and so that this herd of Indians watching the scene in terror would understand that the worst thing they could ever think of doing was to defy authority, a sergeant who was pretty stupid if we consider that he cut the deaf-mute to pieces without even realizing that his shouts were not only of pain but also the only means for the deaf-mute to express himself. "What a stupid deaf-mute, why didn't he make signs with his hands?" my buddy Toto commented as he picked some potatoes and onions off the plates the waitress had just brought to the table, as if he had no idea that the first thing the soldiers do is tie the victim's wrists to immobilize him and as if I hadn't explained that with the first swing of the machete the god-damn hands of the deaf-mute went flying, tied and all, and that at that point nobody was about to start explaining himself with hand signals; as a result, after the deaf-mute, every single other inhabitant of the village was passed over with the machete even though they knew how to talk and said they were willing to denounce the people who had collaborated with the guerrillas, but it didn't do them any good, the orgy had begun and only a couple of them managed to survive and come and tell about it twelve years later, I said at the same moment my buddy Toto ordered his third mug of beer while I still had half of my second one, which seemed wise, I must confess, given the fact that it would have been quite inappropriate for me to arrive drunk and disorderly on my first afternoon of work to pound on the enormous wood door so that they would let me in to keep reading stories like the one about the deaf-mute or to pick through the testimonies to find sentences like I'm not complete in the mind, just one of the many that astonished me as I went through the pages, as I explained to my buddy Toto, overpowering sentences spoken by Indians for whom remembering the events they told about there surely meant bringing back their most painful memories, but also entering a therapeutic stage by being able to confront their past, bring out into the open those bloody ghosts that haunted their dreams, as they themselves recognized in those testimonies, which seemed like concentrated capsules of pain and whose sentences had so much sonority, strength, and depth that I wrote down some of them in my personal notebook, I said at the same time as I took my little reporter's notebook out of the inside pocket of my tweed jacket, realizing that my buddy Toto had stopped paying attention because the cantina was filling up and sitting at a few of the other tables were some girls who weren't all bad. Just listen to this beaut, you're a poet, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having finished playing its song, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my companion, but he in turn looked back at me as if waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because of no people inside them. . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he had to have fathomed those verses that to me expressed all the despair of the massacre, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a farmer than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like "Cool . . . ," to be polite, I guess, because then he stared at me with that your-money-or-your-life look in his eyes and said that I should calm down, that editing one thousand one hundred pages of stories of Indians obsessed with terror and death could break even the strongest of spirits, infect me with malignant and morbid fascination, the best thing to do was to distract myself, counter the effects, according to him, and so I could forget about my work once I was out of the office, pointing accusingly at my notebook, that I should be grateful that they didn't allow me to take the manuscript out of the palace, for security reasons, because to live with that text twenty-four hours a day could be fatal to someone as compulsive as I was, it would ratchet up my paranoia to unhealthy levels, you shouldn't take that out of the priests' quarters, and he pointed again at my notebook, and just think of it as any other office job, my buddy Toto said and gestured with his mouth to the table next to us and behind me, where a couple of damsels were conversing with some jackass, as if this were the appropriate moment to start flirting, as if I had read him those sentences out of my notebook to convince him of the righteousness of a just cause I was committing myself to, when what I really wanted, as I told him now a little pissed off by the circumstances, was to show him the richness of the language of his so-called aboriginal compatriots, nothing more, assuming that he as a poet might have been interested in them, in their intense figurative language and their curious syntactic construction that reminded me of poets like the Peruvian César Vallejo, and I proceeded to read, now with more resolve and without letting myself be intimidated by the marimba that again started up, a longer fragment so that my buddy Toto would have no doubts whatsoever: Three days I am crying, crying I am for wanting to see him. There I sat down below on the earth, to say, there is the little cross, there is he, there is our dust and show respect we will, bring him a candle, but when bring the candle we do, the candle there's nowhere to put . . . And this sentence, tell me, I rebuked him, now decidedly more pissed off, if this isn't a great verse, a poetic jewel, I said before pronouncing it with great intensity: Because for me the sorrow is to not bury him myself. . . . That was when I detected alarm in my buddy Toto's eyes, as if I were shooting off my mouth and some informer were taking down notes without my realizing, which gave me the shivers and made me instinctively look around nervously at the clientele at the tables around us, some of whom could well have been military informers, it wouldn't even have surprised me if many of them were, given the state of affairs in that country, more reason for me to put my little notebook away in my jacket pocket and motion to the waitress to bring me my third and last beer. "To not desire, this alone I now desire," my buddy recited with a mocking smile, wiping the foam off his mustache, and then he said, "Quevedo1."

FOOTNOTE: 1. Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas (1580 - 1645) preeminent Spanish baroque poet. The line comes from a sonnet called "Prevención para la vida y para la muerte."

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