Grandfather’s Visit

Casasola Editores proudly shares one of Roberto Carlos Pérez' most heart touching short stories: «Grandfather's Visit». Translated by María Roof, «Grandfather's Visit» is part of the celebrated collection of short stories Around Midnight and Other Stories of Vertigo in History, praised by renowned Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco as «The best Nicaraguan book of short stories since Lizandro Chánvez Alfaro's The Monkeys of San Telmo». Roberto Carlos' short story will give the English audience a different perspective of the Sandinista Revolution and the Diaspora caused by it. A real treat for Central American literature lovers.

Casasola Editores se enorgullece en compartir uno de los cuentos más conmovedores de Roberto Carlos Pérez, «La visita del abuelo». Traducido al inglés por María Roof, este relato forma parte de la aclamado libro de cuentos Alrededor de la medianoche y otros relatos de vértigo en la historia, el cual el poeta mexicano José Emilio Pacheco dijo ser «El mejor libro de cuentos nicaragüenses desde Los monos de San Telmo». Este relato de Roberto Carlos ofrecerá al público anglohablante una perspectiva diferente de la Revolución Sandinista y la diáspora que provocó; una verdadero regalo para los amantes de la literatrua centroamericana.

For my mother, grandmother, and all the

extraordinary women in my family

Grandfather’s Visit

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare

fromwhich I am trying to awake.

--James Joyce, Ulysses

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

--T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Last night, my grandfather visited me. Despite the shadows surrounding him, his image was quite clear, and I immediately knew who he was, though I’d never seen him before. But I couldn’t tell if the sorrow on his face was his alone or actually mine, since I’ve noticed lately that I tend to turn joy into sadness and satisfaction on my most beloved faces into anger.

Not knowing how to interpret his stare, I lay still until dawn and a cardinal came to perch on the window sill. He sang for a few seconds, maybe to tell me that spring had arrived, and I leaned out to examine the cherry tree. Intertwined in the sunlight and caressed by the breeze were the buds that will shortly become laces of flowers. The first bees are buzzing, seeking the blossoms’ earlygifts and, finding the buds closed, explore other plants already reborn after the icy winter. In the midst of azaleas and tulips, April seems not so cruel.

Light had invaded the bedroom, and I stood for a moment, observing the landscape beyond the cherry to see if I could hear shrill noises or the discontent rustling of something. But everything was as peaceful as a painting, telling me that the world is happy. Everything I see is a good sign for the future, I say, and understand at once that only my anxiety-ridden imagination could produce such words this spring.

Still moved by the strangevisit, I pulled out my trumpet, and after two or three warm-ups, I started to play parts of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto, an apparently difficult piece, judging by the composer’s complicated name and his labyrinthine notes. But I could never start the day without playing the trumpet. If I did, it would be like deserting music, the only thing that makes sense, at least to me. And even more when I cannot understand why, at age twenty-five, I am still unable to accept the pendulum of emotions that pursues me, or the voice whispering that my destiny is to be here, surrounded by weeping willows and magnolias in this dazzling city in the United States, and not in Nicaragua, the land that saw me born, only to later open my eyes with the sudden slap of war.

The fear that I have felt for so many years ceases during the magical minutes when the record plays Hummel’s piece and my trumpet manages to join the modulations of the first movement. After a few seconds of nerves, it mixes with the trumpet on the record, and if we’re lucky, the piece plays on in perfect harmony, my trumpet synchronically blended with the other instruments and indistinguishable from them, though it intensifies the breath of life that inspires them all. I am happy during those moments, but when the notes stop, melancholy returns, and I am once again the child whose life was changed forever one morning in May.

Between longtime memories that hammer my soul, I wonder if this sadness is because of the great distance from everything I used to be or my horrific remembrances of the war, for nothing was further from my childhood than monotony. When I was barely two, the Sandinista Revolution burst on the scene, so hated by some, praised by others. Afterwards, war. Since then, I’ve found consolation in music, also in books, although I don’t understand most of what they say. But I suppose that at twenty-five, knowledge is as skittish as a hare, and the only thing I can do in my eternal frustration with philosophy is pick up the trumpet and bring life to the notes trapped in the memory of the pages.

“No way,” my brothers insist, “can a child of two remember what occurred on July 19, 1979, and what happened afterwards.” As far as my memory goes, while many joyfully celebrated the end of the Somoza dictatorship, others, the most hardcore, took things into their own hands, executing people whose eyes betrayed ties to the deposed dictatorship.

Our house on Independence Plaza, right next to Granada’s Central Park where they held the executions, was one of many that witnessed the fury that took possession of the people. From our window I could see the mob spit at the “dirty rats,” a phrase that was confusing to me for years, and even today the sound of it always brings the smell of the victims’ burning flesh. Some nights, especially in winter, I also hear, as if time had stood still, the pleas of the families condemned to witnessing the horrible immolation of a father, a brother, a son.

Once the first waves of vengeful fury had passed, and while the whole world applauded the National Literary Crusade, my father lost the jewelry factory he had worked so hard to build. In the suspicious scrutiny of those who were wielding power now, his social position linked him to the old dictatorship. Despite pulling himself up from nothing, for them he was just another dirty rat, and we lived under constant threats.

The violence did not let up, and without realizing it, we found ourselves in the middle of a civil war. My brother Bruno, the oldest of the six of us, was volunteered for military service by fists and rifle butts. Mom suffered a panic attack that continued unabated for the two years he was away. On the news a man appeared with a thick mustache, broad nose and fierce look, talking to the multitudes about the importance of military service. We had to eradicate the “Contras,” he said, because they were destabilizing the revolution with weapons from the United States.

I still went to school, because I was too young to go to war, and because life must continue, my father insisted, even with Bruno absent. I couldn’t have agreed with him more, because school was a kind of paradise compared to my mother’s silence and my father’s bad mood. Silence reigned at home, and the noisy ruckus of my classmates distracted me. Going to class was a godsend for me, but one day just like any other (I’m sure it was a Monday, and maybe because of that, Mondays in my life are unlucky), the Little Charlies arrived, and I hated them from the start.

All of a sudden, these new schoolbooks got rid of the history I knew, with its twists and turns that sparked my fantasies of being a gallant knight, discoverer of new worlds, or Chorotega Indian warrior. In its place, an acrid gallery of names that meant nothing to me. “These are our new heroes, and you must learn by heart everything that is said here,” Mr. Sandoval, the teacher, said severely, or perhaps somberly, pointing at the book. He realized that I had tossed my good grades in the trashcan and began to incite my classmates or withdraw into myself.

With the new heroes, I thought, nothing had changed at all in the country, since people were still dying, just like before the Little Charlies, and high school students, the oldest ones, disappeared, just like my brother. It was around then that sugar became scarce and along with it, the preserves my mom fixed on Sundays.Then, there was no flour or cakes for our birthdays. Dad yelled like crazy, saying those damned dogs sent everything to Russia and Cuba to trade for arms.

Not everything. We still had potatoes, and the TV was a big help because all the time, at least when we didn’t have blackouts, we saw ads on how good it was to eat potatoes, how patriotic we Nicaraguans were when we ate them, and how when we did, we were helping save the country that was threatened with invasion by the Yankees, those enemies of humanity, according to the new anthem we sang at school.

Nicaragua became a phantom country. The young people had died, gone to war or were in hiding, like Josué, my other brother who turned sixteen and was supposed to join the war. Dad hid him in the living room closet and didn’t let him come out even to eat. Several months went by until my parents, alarmed by the increasing violence and problems we had to face every day, decided to risk it all and immigrate to the United States.

Using bribes, my father got Bruno out of the fight. One night, while neighbors were holding a wake for a son killed in battle, and our mother sobbed inconsolably in the bedroom, Bruno showed up in rags and tatters, fraught with horrible nightmares of severed arms and legs. The next morning, May 22, while I was getting ready for school, my parents gave me the terrible news—“We’re leaving today, Maximiliano. Your brothers are in danger and soon, you will be too.”

We survived an exodus during which many fell along the way, but like others, we landed on our feet. I was eleven years old, and from one day to the next, my life was overrun by silence because I went mute. Exile, English, the capital city of the United States with its imposing avenues and buildings crushed the child and gave way to the adolescent who never could assimilate the changes. Sometimes, I wonder if I ever really had an adolescence. More likely, as I grew and my voice changed, my head entered into a crueler world, that of adults.

The panic attacks began when I understood that life was inhumane and absurd. Because I was a foreigner with broken English, my classmates made fun of me. With no other escape, I took refuge in music. The trumpet taught me to breathe calmly, with slow, sustained pauses. Without it, I would have drowned in one of those attacks that shook and suffocated me. I was reborn as I learned to play, although in my resurrection I began to see death pervading everything. Everywhere and at all times I saw it—in the autumn and the sunset, in every moment that passes and will never return. I discovered a while ago that everything is born dead or scatters into the wind.

At the conservatory I learned to ignore it all through music. Now, I can follow the melodies, chase after each tone and each vibrations, even if the world is falling apart. And I always see it falling apart. But when melancholy overruns me and terror paralyzes me, like last night, not even music can dispel them. Anguished by the images coming to mind, I went out in the yard to see the moonlight sparkle on the lilies and camellias and try to calm this incredibly cruel April whose smell incites death.

I have endured many springs in my new country, and they are always terrible for me, for while nature sows happiness, inside I feel like I’m dying. Terrified by this grotesque contradiction, I went to bed, and in my dreams you came, grandfather, and whispered to me. Though I had never seen you because you’d died before I was born, I recognized you at once. You approached with a confident gait and your head held high, just like my mother and grandmother told me you walked. You tried to console me saying that suffering has to be distracted, confused and tricked. To counter my sorrows, you calmly told me of your own.

It was then that I learned about the tortures you endured at the hand of your great grandmother, because you were an orphan abandoned to her cruelty. About how she made you kneel on grains of rice and then whipped your back. You spoke of your years as a peon on a ranch in Ometepe, where you suffered from cold, hunger, disease, and all sorts of hardship, and of the countless times you knocked on doors to beg for loans so you could access lands to grow coffee.

I felt your voice tremble as you named for me, one by one, your children who died from diarrhea, malnutrition, or lack of medicine, as you told me about years of poverty in which grandmother and you excelled at hiding your misery. Your words wove an endless web, and with patience and simplicity you tried to transmit to me the energy and drive needed to confront adversity. Although I still don’t know if completely did, grandfather, I could see pain and suffering shining in your eyes and in it, my own face reflected.

Seven months ago three airplanes hijacked by terrorists destroyed the west wing of the Pentagon outside the city of Washington and the Twin Towers in New York. The morning everything happened, at a rehearsal for a staging of “La Bohème” we were on break. It was September and Washington gave no sign of wanting to move into autumn. Suddenly, from the window of the theater on the Potomac River, I saw the fateful Boeing 757 crash into that military stronghold that since its creation in 1941, was thought to be indestructible. After the explosive boom people screamed and ran around terrified. “It’s the war,” I thought without hesitation, “the war in Nicaragua is coming back to get me.”

Josué worked near the Pentagon, and that day mom had another attack of hysteria that didn’t let up until we both finally arrived home safe and sound but late, because the streets were closed, and the underground metro train had stopped running. The TV showed scenes of the New York towers crumbling, and I saw people leaping from the highest floors into the abyss before the collapse. On the screen from the Pentagon appeared the bodies incinerated by the airplane crash. “It is incredible,” my father repeated, “that man keeps creating such horrors.”

And he still does, grandfather. That’s why I have lost confidence in human beings. I have lost hope in the face of their immense capacity for destruction. Neither nature nor your words can open my eyes onto a world that is not gray, irrational, monstrous. You left as you came, amid the beating of butterfly wings, and I awoke to another spring morning, ready to play my trumpet, but not understanding why life is as it is or able to imagine it any other way.

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