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from the February 2006 issue

from “The Death of the Philosopher”

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: In 1996, a group of young Mexican writers published a manifesto about a new wave of Mexican writing in reaction to the Latin American Boom. They called themselves the Crack Generation. The name was a complex pun. The Mexican Nobelist Octavio Paz had described a new school of Mexican painting in reaction to the muralist tradition as La Ruptura (the Break). The Crack Generation used English, not Spanish, and made a pun on crack cocaine. No one among them was either a crack cocaine user or a traditional Mexican novelist. Several of them wrote about Central Europe. Vicente Herrasti set a novel, Diorama, in Scotland. Along with his novel Taxidermia (Taxidermy), it marked the beginning of an important career. Herrasti (b. 1967) recently published La Muerte del Filosofo (The Death of the Philosopher) to what can only be called rave reviews from Mexico's important critics. The novel covers the last days of the rhetorician and philosopher Gorgias, best known perhaps for the Platonic dialogue by that name. Relatively little is known about Gorgias and only a small amount of his work survives. The opening chapter, translated below, sets the scene in ancient Greece for the story of intrigue, treasure, philosophy, and murder that follows. In Spanish, Herrasti's style is complex, using a vast vocabulary. As is the custom set by Gregory Rabassa's translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the English used here is Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate, although great effort has been made to hew closely to Herrasti's language rather than trying to "give the sense of the story in English." The Spanish for "banging their jaws" becomes "laughing their heads off" in English, but it is only such idioms that have been converted. Herrasti, who lives in Mexico City, is a translator as well as a novelist and the editor of one of the Mexican imprints of the Spanish firm Santillana. He is at work on another novel.

The light of the lamp was extinguished at almost the exact moment that Gorgias, son of Charmantides, finished writing the speech that had taken him most of the night. His eyes hurt and he could barely stand the spasms that afflicted the joints of his right hand (his left hand was immobilized , the little finger was so twisted that for decades it had rested on the bone of the middle finger). If not for the laurel berry poultices that his eunuch applied every morning, it would have been impossible for Gorgias to finish the urgent task that Jason, his benefactor and pupil, had set for him. Fortunately, the Exhortation to Obedience was ready, and no human being could fault such a distinguished piece of oratory, done in the flowery Sicilian style. "What would you gain by showing anything to the vain Hippias?" thought Gorgias as he smiled with tightly closed lips to hide his toothless gums, a vain gesture since the legendary rhetorician was alone in the house. "He would die of envy," he concluded, without taking into account that Hippias had died sixteen years ago on a dusty road on the way to the Meandrus River. The name Hippias brought to mind much older scenes in which Protagoras argued with Corax and Prodicus under a dead olive tree, as dead as Protagoras had been for forty years, or maybe thirty-eight. And Plato... "Old fox, never in the world had there been a more obstinate man," he thought, this time with a smile so genuine that it transformed his withered face into an almost handsome one. "And what whims he had," he muttered to himself, remembering the aversion that the Athenian had to horses that were not white, as well as the strange habit he had of calling himself Socrates when he had drunk too much wine without any water. Next, Gorgias did the numbers and calculated that it was seventy years since he met the philosopher of the big shoulders, not sixty, as it was asserted in the ingenious, comic dialogue that Plato had signed and sent him from Syracuse. Poor man. His trip had been dismal, but it deserved the misfortune that befell it. "He who associates with tyrants, sooner or later, finds himself tyrannized," had been said very clearly when Plato was young, impetuous, and foolish. Then it turned out that he himself, the venerable Gorgias of Leontini, was living on expenses paid for by the tyrant, Jason. The shame of it caused Gorgias to feel hollowness in the pit of his stomach. "Clearly," he rationalized with great seriousness, "the Dionysians were certainly tyrants, but not like that wild Jason, who is a tyrant more out of stupidity than evil. They say that a king who is illiterate is a jackass with a crown.... May the gods liberate us from ignoramuses with initiative. Some day...." Gorgias sighed. Just as he finished sighing, the flame of the lamp stopped threatening and finally went out. The synchronization was so perfect that the old man thought he might have blown out the lamp with his breath. This was unlikely however, when you take into account the weakness of this celebrated person. The room did not become completely dark because, outside, not far from the window that gave onto the interior patio, the guards were playing cotabo around a bonfire. "Indeed, they were drunk. Oh, Thessaly, what will become of you!" He got up with difficulty and walked to the window dragging his favorite chair, intending to verify his suspicions and to tell the tyrant how he so darkened the dawn. Yes, the guards had been drinking.

Young people weren't the same as they used to be. Everything had changed. In his native Sicily young men didn't play cotabo. Although by now, who knows? Eighty-nine years had passed since he had last set foot on Sicilian soil, and such a long absence could make a stranger out of the most loyal native son. Gorgias sat down, crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. In his mind he kept the image of two guards laughing their heads off. He had never laughed like that, not even when he was young. He certainly wouldn't laugh like that now, at the age of one-hundred and nine. Little by little, the image of the guards was replaced by another image, that of himself as a child, chasing a goose. The dream took place in the city of Feres.

At the same time, Feres witnessed the sudden awakening of Jason. He was sweating like a Nubian in spite of wearing the lightest clothes that Aglaura, his favorite, could find for him. She was a simple woman who, because of her self-denial and her ability to keep quiet, received certain favors from the leader, although at times she tried his patience with her excessive anxiety and her irrational fear of drafts. ("That cough will kill you," she would warn every time Jason so much as cleared his throat in her presence.) This digression is necessary in order to understand the disgust that Jason felt when he noticed that Aglaura—who else—had surreptitiously closed the window that he had opened in order to let some air into his room. He muttered a reproach so ambiguous that it either could have turned her pale or lavished a touch of the warmth of Pyanepsion (the fifth Greek month ) on her. He wouldn't go back to sleep until the following night. He was used to waking up once a day. Nevertheless, this was far from being an ordinary dawn. The water clock was not used up. Jason stretched and then went to check on the amount of water left in the main container. It was still two hours before daybreak, assuming that the slave had used clean well water without any residue that could clog up the narrow pipe. The water clock looked so beautiful, so delicate. The falconer motif was evidence of the good taste of Cardopion, the ambassador from Eubea, who upon presenting his gift of said waterclock, claimed that if not for the dithyrambs and iambs that enriched it, it would have been an exact copy of the one that guarded the cave of Pan. (When the ambassador and his party retired, Gorgias contradicted the words of the dignitary because he knew why he had said them. The water clock actually lacked the falconer motif that Jason was so enthusiastic about). The rhythmic fall of the drops entirely dominated the room on this quiet night and soon began to take over Jason's thoughts: time, its passage, the falconer. Jason owed his ill-timed vigil to the falconer who had recently visited him in his dreams. It was like the water clock, except that instead of hunting with his peregrine falcon, he was consulting the innards of a hoopoo that he found beside a rose bush. Attired in worn-out clothing, with torn sandals and dirty feet, he used a small dagger to remove the insides of the bird, looking for omens.

"What fate does the future hold for me?" Jason asked, intrigued.

"Neither friends nor fate seem to be affected by your wealth. What the future has in store for you is the stench of the hoopoo and death without honor. This iron will finish you and free the people that you rule from their pain—" he condemned the man as he pulled the dagger out of the bird to put it closer to the tyrant's face, which had turned pale.

A slight tremor consisting of equal parts of fear and hatred shook Jason's body. First he felt an unbearable urge to run away and then an intense desire to spit in the falconer's face. "What insolence," he thought before he gave in to the second impulse. The falconer merely wiped the spittle off with the back of his hand and, with the calm suited to encomium, he continued, "If only Gorgias could help you to follow his advice, but your comprehension is small and your arrogance is great. Do you understand? The water clock of Eubea is not the only one that is drying up. There are others that, even with patience, cannot be fixed."

Jason awoke in the state already referred to. The memory of that strange dialogue aroused his ire. He was breathing with difficulty and began to punch the air with his fists trying to contain himself. But his efforts at moderation were not enough. He rushed to the window, opened it and without thinking twice, he threw the beautiful water clock out the window. The racket was instantaneous. The dogs began to bark and the guards who were stationed at the main entrance ran in, brandishing their swords. The guards at the inside courtyard limited themselves to hiding their liquor because they were forbidden to abandon their posts without authorization from a superior. Aglaura ran down the corridor to see what had happened, shouting the name of her master. When she reached the door she began to beat it in desperation, while listening to Jason's voice. But that was a sure sign that nothing serious, or at least nothing irrevocable had happened to the ruler. "Be quiet woman. Stop screaming like a maniac." Jason opened the door and Aglaura immediately seized his neck. "Let go of me, let go I say," ordered Jason, pushing the woman away with great force. She fell to the floor, suffering a painful injury in the process. "Prepare the wash basin and the white clothes that the maestro likes. I have to speak to him as soon as possible." Aglaura made an effort not to let even one tear fall in front of Jason. "The maestro," she whispered to herself jealously, realizing that Jason didn't wash before obtaining her favors.

Neither the Athenian writer nor Pausanias, the traveler, were ever aware that Gorgias needed only two hours of sleep at night in order to overcome his weariness and regain his lucidity. On the other hand, a person as humble as the eunuch Acarnio understood even more than he needed to about the details of the life of the distinguished sophist. He took care of the old man with incomparable dedication, even though his master barely spoke to him. From the start Gorgias never asked him for his name and addressed him as Acarnio, simply Acarnio, a goodwill gesture as far as the servant was concerned because he wasn't addressed simply as the eunuch. Finally this man [who will be referred to as the Acarnio, so as not to betray the bonhomie of Gorgias], conscientiously crushed laurel berries previously soaked in vinegar, and later combined them with clay from Peneo, and thus obtained the best consistency so they would not slip off the weak hands they were meant for. The plaster had to be applied as soon as Gorgias opened his eyes before dawn because his joints would be inflamed after his rest. As a result, the Acarnio was always waiting for the old man to wake up. He stood in absolute silence between the table and the window. But this time the window was not closed as usual; the chair that the maestro used for writing was out of place, in front of the window and . . . . By Zeus! there was Gorgias stretched out on the cold marble floor, with his neck strangely twisted and one hand, the one that hurt him, apparently broken. His eyes were open. A little distance away, on the left, he noted a spill of some kind. The Acarnio dropped the earthenware bowl that held the plaster and was dismayed to see that one of the fragments had come to rest on his master's mouth and the liquid had spilled. He drew closer, went down on his knees and retrieved the fragment. No, he had not died. Gorgias desperately blinked his eyes even as he tried to make himself understood with barely audible grunts and groans. The Acarnio, astonished, decided to pick up the old man and carry him to his bed. He wiped the old man's brow with his tunic and addressed him, raising his voice, as if this unusual event had affected Gorgias's hearing. "I'll go and ask for help, Sir, and I'll be right back." He had barely stepped over the threshold of the door when he heard an uproar coming from the walkway. People were coming and going. The guards were warning everyone to watch over the doors and windows. Dogs were barking. Eventually calm ensued. Nobody paid any attention to the Acarnio and his emergency. Keeping in mind that Gorgias was highly placed in Jason's favor, the Acarnio decided to ask in a loud voice that no one use the main flight of stairs. He climbed the stairs two at a time, intending to advise Aglaura, but surprise, on reaching the final step he found himself facing Jason! The handsome tyrant had been about to fall and his reaction was not long in coming. He raised his arm to strike the Acarnio but fortunately, the latter had the opportunity to relate the misfortune that had occurred in three words, "Gorgias is dying." Jason was struck dumb, he lowered his arm, and once he got over his initial dismay, ordered the servant to go outside and find Jantias, his own personal physician. He told the Acarnio to bring him, whether he wanted to come or not (Jason had once threatened to kill the doctor, which might have made him understandably reluctant to rush right over). "Let two guards go with you. Go, hurry up." The Acarnio obeyed without much enthusiasm. He would have preferred to return to Gorgias' bedside, to attend to his broken hand and cool his fevered brow with water, not from a river or a fountain, but from a well.

The maestro had appreciated the little pleasures of life that now deserted him. He liked to feel the gentle breeze quietly enter his room, respecting the punctual drops of the water clock. He liked discovering the simple eloquence of time, neither cycles nor concatenations; he was steadfast in his belief that words and a sense or understanding of the situation would generate the truth, just as breathing generated music in co-existence with the chamber of a flute. He enjoyed the benevolence of pain, which was largely absent during this period of transition; his body was not astonished by the lack of either the movements or the sensations that, after his attack, belonged exclusively to his face, which now gave shelter to what previously had been all of Gorgias. "The essence of a person is transferred to his head," he thought. "It's like a rat moving to the prow of a ship when the stern is flooded." Under normal circumstances he would have laughed, but his body or his head, or the nameless receptacle that now held Gorgias, did not permit either laughter or weeping, so as not to waste any energy on the luxury of emotions. The desire to do so was also suppressed; all in all, voluntary action was reduced to the minimum needed for the full function of consciousness. It would be difficult to affirm a link between the outside world and the still sound essence of Gorgias. There was no indication that his hearing was diminished, judging from the intensity and clarity with which he perceived the gradual emptying of the water clock. As for his vision, it was impossible to say one way or the other because the Acarnio had taken the lamp without realizing that he was leaving the old man completely in the dark; the window remained outside his field of vision—the sky was filled with stars, and Gorgias did not know it.

Jason walked more quickly fearing that the candles in the candelabra that he carried might go out. The darkness that prevailed in the east wing provoked certain unease in the ruler, who was never allowed to walk about alone at night since he had made public his hegemonic intentions regarding the village of Helade. Gorgias had advised him to the contrary, but Jason turned a deaf ear to his timely advice, citing that, in any event, the understanding of the maestro in relation to the new political events was too limited on which to base his obsolete schemes (when Gorgias declared that prudence was perennial, Jason was already deliberating other affairs of less importance). So it was that the adverse consequences of the speech resulted in Jason's promise that he would never again ignore the word of his mentor. But now, if the Acarnio's news was confirmed, words would be scarce when, on other occasions, there would have been a veritable sea of eloquence. What a shame! "What a pity the word dies with the man," said Jason under his breath, but not so softly that Gorgias didn't hear him. He had arrived at the maestro's room and, for the first time, he did not believe he had to knock first. Gorgias, stretched out, looked about the size of a thirteen-year-old child, no bigger. His head seemed too large for his body. Sparse white hair lay on his temples in strange shapes, like threads of white smoke on a windless afternoon. The obvious fracture of his hand had left an oblong stain on the floor. Fortunately, it wasn't bleeding now. Jason put the candelabra on the worktable and leaned over to put his lips closer to his mentor's ear.

"Maestro, can you hear me?" asked Jason, with his gaze fixed on Gorgias's open mouth, devoid of both teeth and sound. Even before he got no answer, he placed his finger on the old man's upper lip and deduced that, however weak it was, his breath was perceptible. "I need your advice. Don't leave me." Gorgias blinked slowly, and at the same time, emitted a long, low murmur that came from his throat. Jason smiled hopefully and proceeded to put a pillow between Gorgias' head and the thick woolen mattress on which he rested. The eyes that, moments before, seemed to be scrutinizing every mark on the wall, now looked in the direction of the table and the window. Gorgias was aware of the starry sky as it gave way to daybreak. "Only you can help me because in my dreams . . . " Jason began to talk about the water clock, the hoopoo, the dagger, and the foreboding that weighed so heavily on him, but Gorgias paid no heed. He knew the story beforehand. He had been a witness. His efforts to trap the goose had been in vain but, like the good boy he had been in his dreams, he had kept on trying until the animal fled, burrowing in between a rose garden and some thorny scrub that would impede the child's entrance. Gorgias was getting ready to try again when he heard voices nearby. He held his breath and craned his neck so that he could see the brambles where the sound seemed to be coming from. He saw a ragged-looking man removing the entrails of a hoopoo. He was working with a thin dagger, very different from the one his father used. It wasn't unusual for people to open up animals, in order to learn their fate. But in Sicily they used tough kids to do the job (the birds were considered a bad omen). For a moment, Gorgias considered running to tell his father about what had happened, but he thought better of it when he saw a richly attired individual who came out of nowhere ready to start a conversation. During the exchange of several phrases in a language that Gorgias did not understand, the recent arrival spat on Gorgias's face and then suddenly disappeared. What kind of man would permit himself to be spat upon without paying the other person back? Gorgias had seen death and dying in Leontini's tavern when he delivered coarse bread that had been freshly baked for his father and some cronies. "Oh, those foreigners," lamented little Gorgias, borrowing an expression often used by his mother. "And also you, Gorgias of Leontini, foreign centenarian, are using up your water clock," said a man in a familiar language. The boy felt a sense of dread, heretofore unknown to him, but the stranger had not even looked at the rose garden where he was hiding. He had called him by name. And what was a water clock? "This goose doesn't lie. Your curiosity will soon be sated," said the falconer as he analyzed the entrails of the goose that had been pursuing Gorgias. "I will tell you the truth that you have already sensed, which is that virtue cannot be taught or learned." And then the dream ended, leaving in its place, the fall. And the fall led to his cold contact with the marble, which broke his hand and neck. And Gorgias patiently awaited the arrival of the Acarnio, not to be saved but to take his leave. How grateful he was for the company of this unmanly fellow!

"What a shame that the word dies with the man!" A surprise indeed. The maestro made an effort to remember the last time that Jason had said something similar. Failure. Idiotic arguments were coming to mind as well as useless speeches that were lost in all the details that his pupil was talking about. The coarse voice of the tyrant hurt Gorgias' ears, but he felt some relief when Jason finally finished the inventory of his fears. Yes, he Gorgias of Leontini, could help Jason if only it were possible to teach or learn about virtue. But no. "What must I do, maestro? At least give me a sign, if you would." The Sicilian agreed and did everything possible to help Jason fix on the two scrolls that rested on the worktable (the possibilities were slight: Gorgias limited himself to looking alternately at the face of the tyrant and the scrolls that were illuminated by the candles that Jason carried). He knew that all was lost and that fate had already written what was to be, and that few men were "tabula rasa," as the Stagirians (of Macedonia) were in the habit of saying. He knew that not even the Exhortation to Prudence, the masterwork, was capable of transmitting the crux of virtue to Jason. What solution was there? Gorgias saw the tyrant lean over the table to glance at one of the scrolls. The Exhortation to Obedience seemed to calm his pupil. He didn't even bother to unroll the second scroll. Behind the tyrant the last of the evening stars was conquered by the sunrise. "Too much light," thought Gorgias. "Sleep delivers me to her sister." And death came to him, stealing his words. Finally, he stopped thinking.

Jason reverently closed the maestro's eyes. He wanted to cry but couldn't. He was certain that the world was poorer than it had been yesterday. He was right. He wasn't there when the Acarnio returned with Jantias, nor did he see the eunuch cry. His grief was so intense that he had forgotten to fill the water clock with well water. Who knows? Perhaps he didn't feel like doing it.

The city of Feres awakened, indifferent to one of the most important days in its history. Neither the water-bearers, nor the food sellers, nor the shopkeepers, nor even the women who were early risers, imagined that a few hours later Aglaura would stab Jason to death. A guard reported that the woman, seeing that Jason was choking on his own blood, dropped the four-edged dagger and said, "That cough is going to kill you," or something like that.

All that was of no importance to Gorgias. A new tyrant ruled Feres, while Gorgias walked the hills of Pindo with his father's arms around him. "What a coincidence," he exclaimed when Charmantides let him know that he too had died at the age of one hundred and nine in Leontini, the city of his birth.

Read more from the February 2006 issue
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