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You Shall Be What You Are

An excerpt from the diaries of Rafael Chirbes

This is the first entry of “Found in Translation,” a new column showcasing primarily nonfiction writing in translation. For each installment, we will publish in English a previously untranslated work from another language. (When possible, we will publish the text in its original language as well.) The column is intended to promote the craft of literary translation—each entry will feature a different writer/translator pair—as well as introduce Anglophone readers to exciting forms of writing from other literary cultures. We hope to publish writers working in a diverse array of languages, regional settings, and not least, genres. While priority will be given to contemporary essays, we expect to publish older, even ancient texts, so long as the translation can bring them to life. In his great poem, “The Day Lady Died,” Frank O’Hara wrote:

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

We are also curious to know what the poets in Ghana are doing these days. And not only in Ghana. And not only the poets. 

Ratik Asokan

Rafael Chirbes (1949-2015), Spain’s greatest writer at the time of his early death, was born in the town of Tavernes de la Valldigna in Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast. His father committed suicide just before his fifth birthday. His mother, who was determined to see him educated despite the customs of the time (most of the children he grew up around began working around age ten), sent him to a boarding school established for the sons of deceased railway workers. Suicide, especially the suicide of fathers, recurs in Chirbes’s work. And in his novel La Larga Marcha (1996), about Spain’s transition to democracy, he presents a moving portrait of life in Franco-era boarding schools, which were a privilege in a country where few studied past primary school, but which were also bastions of conservative reaction, with catechism, fascist salutes, and portraits of the dictator hanging in the classrooms.

The first volume of Chirbes’s diaries was published in Spanish last year; this excerpt tells the story of a class reunion. Chirbes, who was a great reader of Proust, would surely have thought while writing it of the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past, where the narrator remarks more than once upon the masks that time has affixed to the faces of his old loves and acquaintances. 

—Adrian Nathan West 


October 24, 2004

. . . Yesterday I arrived in Madrid, to a gathering of classmates from the school for the orphan sons of railway workers. Apart from three or four of them, I haven’t seen any of the men in attendance for forty years. Were they the same people I’d known before? I don’t know. I need to think. To observe those children I see transformed now into old men, like in the plays we put on back at school, where the boys slathered on makeup and drew wrinkles in charcoal pencil and donned plastic bald caps or white wigs and white moustaches. I see Jorge, I loved him when I was little, so strong, so neat and tidy. He was short, a bit hefty, halfway between a chubby tike and a grown man. It used to surprise me how he played every sport and never seemed to get dirty. I’d wash my hands ten times before tracing out the first line on a sheet of drawing paper, and no sooner had my hand approached it than I’d smudged it with my fingertips. Then I’d try to rub out the spot with my eraser, but all that did was make it spread. Whereas he would come back sweating from a game of handball or basketball, sit down at his desk, raise the lid, take out his paper, and turn out something exquisite: everything he did with his hands seemed effortless, his fingers executed lines that stretched perfectly across the immaculate surface. When it was time for exams, knowing how graceless I was, he’d draw out a few lines on my paper when he was finished, enough for me to get a passing grade so they’d let me advance another year. Now he looks so old to me (he’s almost the only one I didn’t recognize right away), angular, his eyes shift anxiously, buried in their sockets, his gestures are nervous, mechanical: he reminds me of those apostles El Greco modeled on the inmates of the almshouses and hospices of Toledo. When they asked me, don’t you know who that is? It’s Jorge, I offered him a vague greeting. I didn’t recognize him. I stared at him throughout the meal––we were on opposite ends of the table––until, gradually, I began to rediscover certain traits I recognized. He barely ate, he spent the whole time drinking and smoking. I tried to extract from within that aged man the hale, robust boy I’d known, the one I loved so much, the one I’d often missed all those years without ever knowing what happened to him. Even in his voice, there was no recognizable undertone. Only when the meal was done and everyone was talking over drinks did I decide to go over to him. I looked at him as though hoping to extract from inside that child trapped in the costume of an old man. He had wanted to talk to me, too. (“More than anything else, I came in case I might find you here.”)

He started telling stories about myself, with details I didn’t remember, words I allegedly uttered. He remembered everything with journalistic precision. I always felt inferior around him; I always thought I was the one interested in him. I knew you wouldn’t turn out mediocre like me, he concluded, patting my hands with his. I looked at those hands that patted mine, at his arms, and I started to recognize that skin, those arms, which were still his; even if now they were thin and wiry, the texture, the marble coloration of the skin was the same, and more than anything, those were his hands. His hands were those of the child who drew, who bounced a ball so ably. Beginning with those hands, I started to reconstruct, restore him, love him. He went on: “I got a job in the administration and I never made anything of myself.” He told me he wanted to go back to Avila, to see the city and whether the house he was born in was still standing, he hadn’t seen it in forty years, it was a kind of inn, I went there to find him after we left school and they told me his family no longer lived there, they’d moved away to who knows where. I accompanied him to the station. On the way, he told me that the night before, he’d stayed in train’s café car till they closed it down. He hadn’t stopped drinking since the reunion started at midday. I imagined him arriving in Avila in the middle of the night, where he hadn’t reserved a room, it was a Saturday, lodging wouldn’t be easy to find, he might end up with nowhere to go. A hard night was ahead of him, with that burden of memories, his mood, the cold weather up there (even in Madrid it was cold). “Stay here in Madrid,” I told him, “I’ve got a hotel room. You can go to Avila tomorrow morning.” When we were alone, he’d asked me, “You weren’t happy either, were you, Rafa?” The he blurted out, “I’m a coward, so I haven’t killed myself, but nothing in life interests me.” It appears everything I thought I’d discovered inside him when I first laid eyes on him is true: the agitated drinking and smoking, leaving his dishes untouched, as I could see even from far away, his sunken body, his elusive eyes. Now I had him in front of me and I didn’t know what to do with him. Four or five friends who were also catching the train interrupted our conversation. We went back to talking about trivialities. I told them goodbye and left the station headed for the hotel. I thought of that boy I loved and admired, and remembered the boarding schools in Avila, Leon, Salamanca that we shared and were so alone in, I must have thought I was the only one so thin-skinned or sensitive. I was ashamed, and I tried to cover those feelings up (years later, when I read La sombra del ciprés es alargada[*] with its images of Avila caked in snow, it brought back to me a world I’d known, my sensibility was there in the pages of that book). All that, I thought then, could have been lived otherwise, but how? That boy, small, stout, serious, so neat, so strong, jotting carefully in his notebook, was gone. His shadow had passed before me for a moment before vanishing once more in the vestibule of Atocha Station. His memory remained in the photos some of the attendees had brought to the reunion and passed around, that was all that was left of us, of the people from back then. That and those hands with their lovely fingers, hands made for doing things, strong, the fingers broad, immaculate, perfect, sheathed in gleaming marmoreal skin as if taken from the sculpture of a Renaissance hero who had given up the profession of condottiero to become an artisan. Forty years ago, they had skillfully held a pencil, had bounced a ball against the cement floor.

As I rewrite these lines in a clean draft, on 5 September 2006, I remember I have his number in my agenda, and I feel the urge to talk to him. I call his cell, a voice responds saying out of service. I dial his home phone, and his wife picks up, saying he can’t talk just then. “He’s just lain down,” she says. “Is he all right?” I ask. “He’s better,” she answers, though nothing in my question could have led her to think I suspected he was ill. She takes for granted that I’m familiar with a story that’s just caught me unawares. She says: “He seems to be eating a bit now, before he wouldn’t eat anything. He’s gotten a bit of strength back. We went to the psychiatrist yesterday, and he seems to be in a better mood today.” I tell her I’m an old friend of his. Tell him to call Rafael Chirbes. She says she will. I ask her: “Does he do anything? Does he keep busy?” I don’t dare ask whether he’s employed. She replies: “He says he wants to start painting again. He’s got a piano, too, he wants to learn to play it.” “Tell him to call me,” I repeat, “I’d really like to talk to him.” I hadn’t expected this, and yet I sensed it somehow. As if he had fallen into a story I invented a couple of years back when I saw him in Madrid and struggled to recognize him. Tears come to my eyes when I hang up the phone, and now, as I write these lines, I feel tremendous sorrow and impotence. Vallejo’s words ring in my head: Ay, the corpse keeps dying.

Other old friends at the reunion. Ignacio Alcalde. He’s changed the least out of all of them. I see the same spark in his narrow eyes (we used to call him chino, and when I look at photos from back then, he really does look like a comic-book Fu Manchu); his gestures, the way he moves his lips, his smile, all that takes me back forty years to the boy who used to answer the teacher’s questions in class; the boy who would always lean in to tell me a joke. He was always in good humor. Seeing him again, I relive all that in a rush. He moves me, I can’t resist it, I hug him, we press our cheeks together. “We were the poorest of the poor,” he tells me. Six hundred fatherless children hundreds of miles from their families, subjected to a discipline often more cruel than edifying. We look at each other now, we touch each other as we couldn’t back then, we embrace.

Miguel Rodríguez’s sister has come to the luncheon. He was a good friend of mine. They were twins. She looks so much like him! Observing her traits, I tell myself: that’s what he’d look like now. He became a doctor. Hematologist. No one could cure his depression, no one (none of his three sisters, who loved him like crazy) could keep him company on his journey. Even back in school, Miguel had a mysterious world of his own: he was too handsome besides, with feminine traits. Too sensitive. His looks made him the butt of the most dreadful jokes, and there was all that sexual confusion I suspected he carried around inside him. Many years afterward, sometime in the eighties, I ran into him in La Bobia surrounded by his gay friends, same as me on that Sunday morning. I remember him: a glass of vermouth in one hand, a cigarette in the other, body swaying softly, Praxitelian, same as in his youth. Apparently he’d taken sick leave for depression. When things were supposedly looking up for him, they found him lying dead at the foot of an embankment by a roadwork site on the outskirts of Malaga.

Carlos Villalba died too, and no one’s managed to explain how, the circumstances of his death must also have been awkward or unclear. It’s not easy to cross the threshold to adulthood when orphanhood has left you without a model. Villalba and I got along well because we used to both take the train home to Valencia from Avila, from Leon, it was a long trip, with stops included it took more than twenty-four hours. He spent a few days during the break in Denia, and I visited him at home. If memory doesn’t fail me, his mother or grandmother was the porter at a building behind the cathedral in Valencia, where what they call the crypt of San Vicente stands now. At school he tried to pass himself off as the son of a good family, he was a fibber, he used to go into great detail about his supposed sexual conquests (he was blond, very handsome, very smug). He would talk about going on vacation in the villages of the nearby mountains where the upper classes in Valencia had their summer homes. I don’t know who could have believed a person from a good family would wind up in that sorry haven for the orphan sons of railway workers, maybe we thought his dad had been the stationmaster in some important town. I found out otherwise. His father had been a laborer, I believe, same as mine. Anyway, my childhood friend Villalba’s is gone. And no one could tell me anything about the circumstances of his death. What’s it matter, I ask myself. But of course it matters: if how he died doesn’t matter, then nothing I write in these pages matters. Or is one person’s death supposed to matter less than another? Every man has the right to close his story; if not, it remains forever mutilated.

I already knew Pablo Teruel had died a number of years back. His mother was a ticket taker in the Madrid metro in the old Chamberí station, which they bricked up and which has remained closed to this day––a ghost station whose platform the train shoots past. He studied architecture or industrial engineering (he was a diligent boy) and died in a car accident the day of his graduation celebration. I imagine that poor widow showing up every day at the ticket window in the metro station after her brilliant son’s death. I don’t suppose more than a half-dozen poor children in all of Spain had managed to finish a degree in architecture or industrial engineering, whatever it was. Hélas!

Very studious, very restrained, was another kid taken away in the flower of youth by death: José María González, with his face with its sharply defined features, eyes like those of Janet Leigh in Psycho when she’s driving her car out of the city, stops at a traffic light, and sees her boss crossing the street and he looks back at her: he recognizes her, he’s discovered her betrayal, and her eyes are like those of a startled doe in the presence of danger. The eyes I’m talking about attracted me as a boy. José María González had that same sort of eyes, round, timid, and a thin, fragile body with harmonious movements, a young deer, a delicate dragonfly. The last of the absentees from the luncheon (I don’t know if I’m forgetting one), Agustín Mogollón, I knew well. He was wicked, conniving, envious, and cruel with the weak and awkward. His intelligence was always stronger than his will, and even stronger yet than his benevolence. But he tended to get his way. He stayed behind in Salamanca and turned into a textbook deadbeat. From what I heard, he flunked out, got lost in drunken nights in the blood buckets and dives Salamanca’s always been known for, whoring, gambling with priests gone to seed, hobnobbing with gypsies and cattle rancher lowlifes. He had the same diabolical mentality as certain rock stars that leads them to destroy themselves and to try and drag down those weakest through their pénible behavior, always on the lookout for sidekicks, accomplices (I always suspected he was homosexual and couldn’t accept it). He died of an embolism before he’d even turned thirty. Anyway, I don’t know if there are any other casualties I’ve overlooked.

During the meal, the orphan dandy Mario Detraux sat beside me, nobody ever knew what he was doing among all us scroungers, he was the son of a renowned doctor, the only reason he was there with the sons of railway workers was that his father had plied his trade in one of the insurance companies the railroad contracted. Detraux used to like everything that seemed modern, daring, weird, or arbitrary. He played the role of albatross on the deck of that sorry merchant ship. We shared a passion for the Beatles’ movie A Long Day’s Night and a certain romantic impulse toward the superior, toward whatever struck us as accessible only to the elect. As I said: Albatross. Today he sits beside me during the meal. That straight blond mane that he used every imaginable wile to preserve from the rigors of the school barber, whose orders were to shave us to the scalp, is all gone––he’s bald as a cue ball now; also gone are his fairytale prince good looks. His features have hardened; his thin face looks haggard, scored with vertical lines, and his biography seems to bear out the presumptions of Lombroso or even Balzac: he has fulfilled the destiny prefigured in the physical, psychological, and moral traits of his adolescence. Or let’s say his body found the biography it was seeking: a deserter from the military, he ran off to Brazil and Colombia, got mixed up in the drug business, went to jail for trafficking, and finally, the dandy, the prince of the shadows, met his princess: a girl picked him up, a nurse who helped him detox, if I’m not mistaken, now she’s the mother of his kids and they lived happily ever after, to hear him tell it. The end. I continue to be moved by this practical lesson in the relations between character and fate: the discovery that biography, the thirty years that came afterward, did nothing but unravel the tense tangle of threads the adolescent already bore inside him: you shall be what you are.

© Herederos de Rafael Chirbes, 2021© EDITORIAL ANAGRAMA, S. A., 2021Pau Claris, 17208037 Barcelona

[*] The Cypress’s Shadow is Long, the first novel by Miguel Delibes, one of the major novelists of twentieth-century Spain.

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