In Inez, we find Carlos Fuentes at the height of his magical and realist powers. This profound and beautiful work confirms his standing as one of the world's pre-eminent novelist.
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We shall have nothing to say in regard to our own death."
For a long time this sentence had been going around and around in the aged maestro's head. He did not dare write it down. He was afraid that consigning it to paper would make it real, with fateful consequences. He would have nothing more to say after that: the dead man does not know what death is, but neither do the living. For that reason the sentence that haunted him like a verbal ghost was both sufficient and insufficient. It said everything, but at the price of never saying anything again. It condemned him to silence. And what could he say about silence? He, who had dedicated his life to music-"the least annoying of noises," in the crude phrase of the crude Corsican soldier Bonaparte.
He spent hours concentrating on one object. He liked to imagine that by touching some thing his morbid thoughts would dissipate, would cling to the material and physical. He discovered very soon that the price of such displacement was very high. He believed that if death and music identified him (or themselves) too closely as and with an old man with no resources but those of memory, holding on to an object would give him, at ninety-three, earthly gravity, specific weight. Him and his object. Him and his tactile, precise, visible, physical thing: an object of unalterable form.
It was a seal.
Not the disk of wax or brass or lead you find with coats of arms and insignia, but a seal of crystal. Perfectly circular and perfectly whole. It could not be used to seal a document, a door, or a coffer; its very texture, being crystalline, would prevent it from molding to the object to be sealed. It was crystal, sufficient unto itself, with no utilitarian purpose unless that of imposing an obligation, transcending a dispute with an act of peace, determining a destiny, or perhaps certifying an irrevocable decision.
The crystal seal could be all these things, although it was not possible to know of what use it could be. At times, contemplating the perfect circular object displayed on its tripod near the window, the aged maestro opted for giving it all the traditional attributes-mark of authority, authenticity, approval-without wedding it to any one of them exclusively. Why?
He couldn't say exactly. The crystal seal was part of his daily life and thus easily forgotten. We are all both victims and executioners of the short-term memory that lasts no more than thirty seconds and that allows us to go on living without becoming prisoner to every event that happens around us. But long-term memory is like a castle built of great blocks of stone. It takes only a symbol-the castle itself-to remind us of all its contents. Could this round seal be the key to his own personal dwelling? Not the physical house where he was living in Salzburg; not the transitory houses he had lived in throughout his itinerant profession; not his childhood house in Marseilles, tenaciously forgotten so that he would not have to recall, ever again, the migrant's poverty and humiliation; not even the cave, our first castle, we can reconstruct in our imagination. Could it be the original space, the intimate, inviolable, irreplaceable circle that contains us all but at the price of exchanging sequential memory for an initial memory that is complete in itself and has no need to consider the future?
Baudelaire evokes a deserted house filled with moments now dead. Is it enough to open a door, uncork a bottle, take down an old suit, for a soul to come back to fill it?
He repeated the woman's name.
It rhymed with "regress," Ee-ness, and in the crystal seal the maestro hoped to find the impossible reflection of both: Inez and a return to a time before the years prohibiting his love. Inez. Regress.
It was a crystal seal. Opaque but luminous. That was its greatest marvel. In its place on the tripod by the window, light could shine through it, and then the crystal scintillated. It shot delicate sparks, and illegible letters appeared, revealed by the light: letters of a language unknown to the aged orchestra conductor, a score in a mysterious alphabet, perhaps the language of a lost people, maybe a voiceless clamor that came from a long-ago time and in a certain way mocked the professional artist who was so faithful to the composition that even knowing it by memory he had to have it before his eyes as he directed . . .
Light in silence.
Lyrics without voice.
The maestro had to bow down, had to go to the mysterious sphere and ponder that there wasn't going to be enough time to decipher the message of the signs engraved within its circularity.
A seal of crystal that must have been carved, caressed perhaps, to reach this seamless form, as if the object had been created by means of an instantaneous fiat: Seal, create thyself! And the seal was. The maestro didn't know what to admire most about the delicate sphere that at this very moment he held in his hands, fearful that his small and eccentric treasure might shatter, but tempted every moment (and yielding to that temptation) to lay it in one hand and stroke it with the other, as if looking for both a nonexistent flaw and an inconceivable smoothness. Danger altered everything. The object might fall, crack, shatter to bits . . .
His senses, nevertheless, predominated, and blotted out the presentiment. To see and to touch the crystal seal also meant to savor it, as if it were, more than vessel, wine from an eternally flowing stream. To see and to touch the crystal seal was also to smell it, as if its substance, free of any secretion, should suddenly begin to sweat, erupt in vitreous pores, as if the crystal might expel its own substance and leave an indecent stain on the hand that caressed it.
What was lacking, then, but the fifth sensation, for him the most important: to hear, to listen to, the music of the seal? That would be to trace the complete circuit-to close the circle, to circulate, to emerge from silence and hear a music that could only be the music of the spheres, expressly, the celestial symphony that regulates the movement of all times and all spaces, never-ending, simultaneous . . .
When the crystal seal began, first very low, very distantly, barely in a whisper, to sing, when the center of its circumference vibrated like a magical little bell, invisible, born of the very heart of the crystal-its exaltation and its soul-the old man felt first a shiver of forgotten pleasure run down his spine, then an unwanted rush of saliva, the uncontrollable drool of a mouth fitted with yellowed dentures, and then, as if gaze were allied to taste, he lost command of his tear ducts, and he told himself that old men should disguise their ridiculous tendency to weep at the least excuse, should cover it with the pious veil of a senility-lamentable, but worthy of respect-that tends to dribble like a wineskin run through too often by the swords of time.
He then took the crystal seal in his fist, as if to choke it as he would an annoying little gerbil, extinguishing the voice beginning to issue from its transparency, though he was fearful of snapping the seal's fragility in his grip, for he was still strong-even if stringy and strung out-accustomed to directing, cuing without a baton, with the pure flourish of a long-fingered bare hand, as eloquent for the full orchestra as for a violin or piano or cello solo, and stronger than the fragile bâton he had always scorned because, he said, it's nothing but a little stick, a stage prop that hinders rather than favors the flow of nervous energy that streams from my black curling locks, from my clear brow bursting with the light of Mozart, Bach, Berlioz, as if they, Mozart, Bach, Berlioz, they alone, were inscribing the score upon that brow, and from my eyebrows, beetling but separated by the sensitive, anguished space between them that they-the orchestra-perceive as my fragility, my guilt, and my punishment for being not Mozart or Bach or Berlioz but, rather, the simple transmitter, the conduit: the conductor so filled with energy, yes, but so fragile, too, so fearful of being the first to fail, to betray the work, he who has no right to err, but he who-despite appearances, despite a hiss from the audience or a silent recrimination from the orchestra or an attack from the press or a temperamental scene with the soprano or a gesture of disdain from the soloist or the scornful vanity of a tenor or the buffoonery of a bass-least deserves a critic harsher on himself than he himself, Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara.
He himself, looking at himself alone before the mirror and saying to himself, I wasn't up to the task, I betrayed my art, I deceived everyone who depends on me, the audience, the orchestra, and most of all, the composer . . .
He studied himself every morning in the mirror as he shaved, but he could find nothing now of the man he once had been.
Even the space between the eyebrows, which becomes more noticeable over the years, had in him become overgrown and obscured by the uncontrollable eyebrows sprouting in every direction like those of a tamed Mephistopheles, a tangle he deemed frivolous to groom beyond an impatient shoo-fly gesture that had no effect on the grizzled anarchy, so white now it would be invisible were it not for its copiousness. Once those eyebrows had inspired terror: they commanded, they said that the splendor of the Jovian brow and the tossed-back ebony curls should not be misconstrued, while the space between the eyebrows promised chastisement and sculpted the severe mask of the conductor, with its indescribably invasive eyes, like a pair of black diamonds flaunting their pride in being blazing jewels and inextinguishable carbon, its nose of a perfect Caesar, sharp but with the flaring nostrils of a predator on the scent, brutal but sensitive to the slightest odor; and only then was the mouth traced, admirable, masculine, but fleshy. The lips of an executioner and of a lover, which promise sensuality, but only in exchange for punishment, and pain only as the price of pleasure.
Was this he? This tissue-paper effigy crinkled from so much smoothing out of wrinkles, from being folded so many times among garments packed for the long travels of a famous orchestra, forced, in every climate and under every circumstance, to don the uncomfortable work uniform of white tie and tails instead of the envied overalls that mechanics wear when they-yes, they too-wield the precision instruments of their labors?
That had been he. Today his mirror denied it. But he had the good fortune to possess a second mirror, not the old, flaking mirror in his bathroom but the crystalline reflection from the seal displayed on a tripod before the window open to the unchanging panorama of Salzburg, the Germanic Rome, happy in its gentle valley among massive mountains and its division by the river flowing like a pilgrim from the Alps, bringing water to a city that once perhaps, in another time, had submitted to the impressive power of its natural setting, but at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had created a design rivaling nature's, reflecting but also challenging the world. The architect of Salzburg, Fischer von Erlach, with his twin towers and concave façades and his adornments like billowing air and his surprising military simplicity, which accommodated delirious baroque and Alpine stateliness, had invented a second physical, tangible nature for a city filled with the intangible sculpture of music.
The old man gazed from his window up toward the mountain forests and monasteries, and down at eye level to console himself, but he could not avoid-it was an effort-the monumental presence of the cliffs and fortresses sculpted like a pleonasm on the face of Mönschsberg. The sky raced by above the panorama, with no thought of competing with either nature or architecture.
He had other frontiers. Between the city and him, between the world and him, existed this object from the past, which did not vacillate before the course of time but resisted and reflected it. Was it dangerous, a crystal seal that perhaps contained all the memories of life yet was as fragile as they? Looking at it there, displayed on its tripod near the window, between the city and him, the old man asked himself whether losing that transparent talisman would also mean losing memory; would memory itself splinter if, through his carelessness or that of the maid who came in twice a week, or because of a fit of pique from the good Ulrike-his ponderous housekeeper, affectionately called Dicke or sometimes Dumpling by the neighbors-the crystal seal disappeared from his life?
"If anything happens to your little piece of glass, maestro, don't blame me. If it's so important, put it in a safe place."
Why did he keep it there, in plain sight-almost, you might say, unprotected?
The old man had several answers for such a logical question. He repeated them-authority, resoluteness, fate, emblem-and in the end was left with only one: memory. Stored away in a cabinet, the seal would have to be remembered, instead of being the visible memory of its owner. Exposed, it convoked the memories the maestro needed to go on living. He had decided, seated idly at the piano and slowly picking out, almost like a beginner, a Bach partita, that the crystal seal would be his living past, the receptacle of all he had been and done. It would survive him. The mere fact that it was such a fragile object had led him to impose on it the sign of his own life, almost hoping to transform life into an inanimate object: a thing. The truth was that in the impossible transparency of the object all the past of this man who was, had been, and, briefly, would continue to be him, would persist beyond death . . . Byond death. How long was that? That, he didn't know. It wouldn't be important. The dead man does not know he is dead. The living do not know what death is.
"We shall having nothing to say in regard to our own death."
It was a wager, and he had always been a betting man. Once he had left the poverty of Marseilles behind, and once he had decided to reject wealth without glory, and power without greatness, so as to devote himself to a vocation with true power, music, his life had provided him with the solid pedestal of self-confidence. But all these things that made him him depended on something that did not depend on him: life and death. The wager was that this object, so bound up with his life, would resist death, and that in some mysterious, perhaps supernatural way the seal would maintain the tactile warmth, the sharp sense of smell, the sweet savor, the fantastic sound, and the inflamed vision of its owner's life.
Wager: the crystal seal would break before he did. Certainty-oh yes!-dream, prediction, nightmare, diverted desire, unutterable love: they would die together, the talisman and its owner . . .
The old man smiled. No. This was no scrap of the skin of a wild ass that shrank with each wish granted for and because of its owner. The crystal seal neither grew nor diminished. It was always the same, but its possessor knew that without its changing shape or dimensions all of a lifetime's memories fit miraculously within it, perhaps revealing a mystery. Memory was not an accumulation of matter that eventually, because of sheer quantity, would burst the seal's fragile confines. Memory fit within the object because its dimensions were identical. Memory was not something that overflowed or was shoehorned into the shape of the object; it was something that was distilled, transformed, with each new experience. The original memory recognized each new-come memory, offering it a welcome to the place whence, unknowingly, the new memory had originated, believing itself in the future only to discover that it would always be in the past. What was yet to come would also be a memory.
An image-equally obvious-was different. An image has to be exhibited. Only the most wretched miser hides away a Goya, because he fears not robbers but Goya. Because he fears that the painting, displayed-not even on the wall of a museum, but on a wall in the hoarder's own home-might be seen by others and, worse, might see them. To cut off that communication, to steal from the artist all possibility of seeing and being seen, to interrupt forever his vital outpouring: ah, nothing could be more satisfying to the consummate miser, nothing so near the pleasure of a dry fuck. With every viewing, something of the painting is stolen.
The old man had never, not even when young, wanted to withhold. His arrogance, his isolation, his cruelty, his conceit, his sadistic pleasure-all the defects attributed to him throughout his career-did not include spiritual constipation or a refusal to share his creation with a live audience. It was legend that he refused to give his art to an audience that wasn't present. That decision was definitive. Zero records. Zero films. Zero radio or, horror of horrors, television broadcasts. He was, also legendarily, anti-Karajan, a man he considered a clown to whom the gods' only gift had been the fascination of vanity.
Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara? No, he never wanted that . . . His "art object"-which was how the crystalline seal was presented to society-was in full view. It had become the property of the mae-stro only recently, having before that passed through other hands; its opacity had been converted into a transparency penetrated by many old, old gazes, which perhaps survived only within the crystal, paradoxically alive because they were captive.
Was it an act of generosity to exhibit the objet d'art, as some said? Was it a seigneurial emblem, a seal for a coat of arms, a simple but mysterious cipher engraved on crystal? Was it a heraldic charge? Had it closed a wound? Or was it nothing more or less than the seal of Solomon, imaginable as the matrix of the great Hebrew monarch's royal authority but also identifiable, more modestly, as a rhizomatous plant with pedunculate, drooping greenish-and-white flowers and clusters of red berries: Solomon's seal?
It was none of these. He knew that, but he had no way to confirm its provenance. He was convinced, from what he did know, that this object had been not crafted but found. That it had not been conceived, but had itself conceived. That it had no price because it had absolutely no value.
That it was something transmitted. Yes, transmitted. His experience confirmed that. It came from the past. It had come to him.
But finally, the reason why the crystal seal was exhibited there, near the window looking out over the beautiful Austrian city, had little to do with either memory or image.
It had everything to do-the old man approached the object-with sensuality.
There it was, near at hand, precisely so the hand could touch it, caress it, feeling with every nerve ending the perfect and exciting smoothness of that incorruptible skin, as if it were a woman's shoulder, the beloved's cheek, a lithe waist, or an immortal fruit.
More than sumptuous cloth, more that a perishable flower, more than a hard jewel, the crystal seal was not affected by wear or tear or time. It was something integral, beautiful, forever pleasing to the eye and to the touch when fingers tried to be as delicate as their object.
The old man was a paper ghost, yet his grasp was as strong as forceps. He closed his eyes and picked up the seal in one hand.
This was his greatest temptation. The temptation to love the crystal seal so much that he would destroy it forever with the power of his fist.
This magnetic and virile fist, which conducted Mozart, Bach, Berlioz like no other-what did it leave but a memory, fragile as a crystal seal, of an interpretation, judged in the moment to be genius and unrepeatable. For the maestro never allowed any of his performances to be recorded. He refused, he said, to be "canned like a sardine." His musical ceremonies would be live, only live, and would be unique, unrepeatable, as profound as the experience of those who heard them, as volatile as the memory those same audiences kept of them. In that way, he demanded that if they wanted it they would remember it.
The crystal seal was like that, like the great orchestral ritual presided over by the high priest that gave and took away with an incandescent mixture of will, imagination, and caprice. The interpretation of the work is, at the moment of its execution, the work itself. Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, interpreted, is the Berlioz work. Similarly, the image is the same as the thing. The crystal seal was thing and it was image and both were identical.
He looked at himelf in the mirror and searched in vain for some trace of the young French orchestra conductor renowned throughout Europe, who when the war began broke with the fascist seductions of his occupied country and left to conduct in London, risking the Luftwaffe bombs, a kind of challenge from the ancestral culture of Europe to the beast of the Apocalypse, the lurking and sordid barbaric creature that could fly but not walk, except crawling with its belly flat to the ground and its tits slathered with blood and shit.
Then came the main reason to keep the object in an old man's retreat in the city of Salzburg. He admitted it with an excited and shameful trembling. He wanted to have the crystal seal in his hand so that he could hold it and squeeze it until he destroyed it; hold it the way he wanted to hold her, tighter, tighter, until she choked, communicating a fiery urgency, making her feel that in love-his for her, hers for him, theirs for each other-there was a latent violence, a destructive danger, that was the final homage of passion to beauty. To love Inez, to love her to death.
He dropped the seal, heedless yet fearful. For an instant it rolled across the table. The old man picked it up again, feeling a blend of fear and fondness as vivid as that aroused by the adrenaline rush of watching people jump without a parachute in the Arizona desert, a circus he had sometimes watched with fascination on the television he detested, the passive shame of his aging years. He set the seal back on the little tripod. This was not Columbus's egg, which, like the world itself, could sit on a slightly flattened base. Without support, the crystal seal would roll, fall, shatter . . .
He stared at it until Frau Ulrike-Dicke-appeared, holding his overcoat.
She wasn't really fat, merely clumsy in walking, as if she was dragging, more than wearing, her ample traditional clothing (skirts layered over skirts, apron, thick wool stockings, shawl upon shawl, as if she was never warm). Her hair was white, and it was impossible to guess what color it had been when she was a girl. Everything about her-her bearing, her halting walk, her bowed head-made one forget that Ulrike had once been young.
"Professor, you are going to be late for the performance. Remember, it is in your honor."
"I don't need an overcoat. It's summer."
"Herr Professor, from now on you will always need an overcoat."
"You're a tyrant, Ulrike."
"Don't stand on ceremony. Call me Dicke, like everyone else."
"You know, Dicke? Growing old is a crime. You can end up with no identity and no dignity, sitting around in a nursing home with other old people as stupid and disinherited as you." He looked at her affectionately. "Thank you for taking care of me, my dear Dumpling."
"Haven't I said it many times? You are a sentimental and ridiculous old man." The housekeeper feigned a little hop, making sure the coat fell correctly over the shoulders of her eminent professor.
"Bah, what does it matter how I dress to go to a theater that was once the court stables?"
"It is in your honor."
"What am I going to hear?"
"What do you mean, maestro?"
"What are they playing in my honor, devil take it!"
"The Damnation of Faust. That's what it says in the program."
"You see how forgetful I've become."
"No, no. We all get distracted, especially all you geniuses." She laughed.
The old man took one last look at the crystal sphere before going out into the dusk along the Salzach River. He was going to walk, his step still steady, needing no cane, to the concert hall, the Festspielhaus, and in his head buzzed a self-willed memory: status is measured by the number of Indians under the chief's command. And he was a chief, he should not forget that, not for a single instant, a proud and solitary chief who was dependent on no one-which was why he had refused, ninety-three years and all, to have someone come pick him up at his home. He would walk, alone and without a cane, thanks but no thanks; he was the chief, not "director," not "conductor," but chef d'orchestre, the French expression was the one he really liked-chef. He hoped Dicke wouldn't hear; she'd think he was crazy if in his old age he devoted himself to the kitchen. And he? How could he explain to his own housekeeper that directing an orchestra was walking on a knife blade-exploiting the need that some men have to belong to a group, to be members of an ensemble, feeling free because they follow orders and don't have to give them, to others or to themselves? How many do you command? Is status measured by the number of people we command?
Still, he thought as he set out for the Festspielhaus, Montaigne was right: no matter how high you may be seated, you are never higher than your own ass. There were forces that no one, at least no one human, could dominate. He was headed for a performance of Berlioz's Faust, and he had always known that the work had escaped both its composer, Hector Berlioz, and its chef d'orchestre, Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara, and had installed itself in a territory where it defined itself as the "beautiful, strange, savage, convulsive, and harrowing" master of its own universe and its own meaning, victorious over the composer and the interpreter.
Did the seal, which was his alone, take the place of the fascinating and disturbing independence of the choral symphony?
Maestro Atlan-Ferrara looked at it before leaving for the homage being paid him at the Salzburg Festival.
The seal, so crystalline until now, was suddenly fouled with some excrescence.
An opaque form, dirty, pyramidal, similar to a brown obelisk, began to spread from its center, which only moments before had been perfectly transparent.
That was the last thing he noticed before leaving for the performance, in his honor, of The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz.
It was, perhaps, an error of perception, a perverse mirage in the desert of his old age.
When he came home that darkness had disappeared.
Like a cloud.
Like a bad dream.
As if divining her master's thoughts, Ulrike watched him walk down the street along the riverbank and did not move from her post at the window until she saw the figure of the professor, still noble and upright though cloaked in a heavy overcoat in midsummer, reach what she calculated to be the point where he would not turn back and interrupt the secret plan of his faithful servant.
Ulrike picked up the crystal seal and placed it in the center of her held-out apron. She made sure, forming a fist around it, that the object was carefully wrapped in the cloth, and then she whipped off the apron with a couple of efficient, professional tugs.
She walked to the kitchen, where without a second's hesitation she laid the apron with the seal wrapped in it on the rough table stained with the blod of edible beasts and, picking up a rolling pin, began to pound it with fury.
The servant's face grew agitated and inflamed; her bulging eyes were fixed on the object of her rage as if she wanted to be sure that the seal was crushed to bits beneath the savage strength of the strong right arm of Frau Dicke, with her braids threatening to fall loose in a cascade of white hair.
"Swine, swine, swine!" she grunted in a diapason that swelled until it exploded in a harsh, strange, savage, convulsive, harrowing scream . . .
Copyright © 2000 by Carlos Fuentes
Translation copyright © 2002 by Margaret Sayers Peden
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