:: Article

The Statue of Camargo

By Alejandro Rossi.

This story comes from Rossi’s collection La fábula de las regiones (Tales from the Countryside), which was published in Spanish in 1997. The story has been translated into English by Janice Goveas. 

“The story of your cousin? Democracy’s Martyr? The victim of the Sultry Sect? Would you like me to tell you the story, Don Fernando? I assure you, it’s very short, and it’s become even shorter over time. There are stories like this one that lose momentum along the way. At first, they seem very lush, full of important details. How the man walked, the words he spoke that day, and we wrack our brains trying to remember if there was a sense of doom in his voice or a premonition that made him nervous. It’s not that we’ve forgotten the details, it’s that they hang in the air, as if disconnected from each other. For example, I wouldn’t know how much importance to attach now to something that consumed my attention back then: the fact that your cousin always wore a jacket when the guayabera was basically a uniform among us. Maybe it expressed something in the recesses of his soul, an inherited ideal, a quality that was intrinsic to who he was. Maybe. But, now, thinking about his life, it seems like a minor detail.”

“The textbooks, Don Leandro, rarely talk about him and have never published a picture of him. In fact, all they’ve dedicated to him are a few lines of vague praise.”

“I don’t read them often, though I understand that the College of Historians is one of the institutions most valued by our government. It’s a privilege and an esteemed honour to be among them. Their task, Don Fernando is to invent the Homeland, to give it shape, to create a hierarchy of the vicious whirlwind of events, to put in order the countless opinions that flutter around the unending countryside like lost birds. The official scribes provide us with an anthology in the hope, I believe, that reality will become reasonable and adjust itself to their version. I, on the other hand, am an old chatterbox whose words wander aimlessly. But let’s talk openly here, Don Fernando.”

Was Don Leandro an old man? Perhaps, but he was still full of energy, a combination that was always a little disturbing. He was a fat man who shuffled around and who had a demanding, but unquestionable, politeness. He raised his right hand, the one I had been looking at, and, with a sardonic gentleness, said to me: “Everyone lacks for something here. They sliced off my index finger, which, apparently, is the inquisitive finger.”

He took a little silver bell from his pocket. It had a sharp sound, like an urgent order.  A teenage girl rushed into the living room, which smelled of waxed wood. She was barefoot, and her big toes were painted a bright red. She was carrying a pitcher of lemonade. She was one of the children of pleasure, dewy and patient, for which these river zones are famous.

“The last of the descendants of that respectable Chinese community.” Don Leandro said contentedly.  “They integrated admirably. Did you know your cousin had a talent for drawing the local flora? He drew it with a delicate touch, more naturalist than painter. Here. Have some lemonade, Don Fernando. In this climate, you have to keep replenishing your body’s fluids. Pay attention to the scent of our plants, and, not to concern you, but be prepared to sweat profusely. Consider yourself at home.

“For me, the story of Antoñito Camargo began when the two agents visited me.”

“Two agents, Don Leandro?”

“Yes. That’s what we called them back then. Agents were, in fact, anyone who came from the Coast, from Puerto, from the Big City, to sell us something, anything from a grandfather clock to a biography of Napoleon. In this case, they were electoral agents. They told me that the Unity Party was looking for an impeccable citizen, someone with a ‘crystal clear’ past, as they called it, with an expression from faraway fairy tales on their faces. I remember them being very refined, very meticulous, very sophisticated in the way they spoke. They wanted to elaborate on the crucial issues, to clarify them, to take them into consideration. They were stunned to discover, after travelling for more than two weeks, that the Homeland was like an endless sea. It was as if they were afraid that it didn’t really exist or that, given its size, that the very idea of it was preposterous. They must have thought what I’ve thought so often: that politics belongs in the city. They explained to me that they were initiating a representation stage in which every sector of the countryside would have a voice in the National Council, which would meet in the Big City of Puerto. It would be the first step toward a democratic future after what was called the Infamous War. You were a child, Don Fernando, but maybe you remember that hopeless melee. They said that the time had come to convert the Homeland into a Nation. I listened to them carefully, me, a man from the countryside. I turned those lovely words around in my mind and pictured our military and civilian leaders in front of an incomplete map of the Homeland with their imaginations running wild. Maps awaken dreams and an obsession with borders, and they create the illusion of holding the world in the palm of your hand. Then they talked about the Sultry Sect, that insidious group, the enemy of unification. They described it as an organization from the Mountains, fueled by defeated military men, the ‘traitorous militia,’ evangelical priests who were tired of shivering in freezing churches built from icy stones, owners of dead mines and pompous little teachers. I felt as if I were listening to a familiar story, Don Fernando, because it’s true that the towns in the high altitudes produce intense and irritable souls, souls with brutal fates who make irrational decisions. The Sect was advancing toward the South, picking up teenagers, seminary students, wandering peasants, dispersed troops and famous harpists along the way. They warned me that, even though they hadn’t yet arrived in the countryside, they would soon. They warned me to be careful, that they showed up with music, bearded men, singers and incorrigible rebels. Behind them came the traitorous militia, the sacrificial lambs. What do the textbooks say about the Sect?”

“The new historians are benign, Don Leandro. They’re not important politically, and they treat the Sect like a quaint, old disease. There is an impatient tone, as if they had to take a detour to describe a carnival. I suspect future editions won’t include this chapter.”

“That’s quite likely. It is, at the end of the day, a cloud that lost its way, water dispersed. But it was important to the life of Antoñito Camargo. He was told that the Unity Party needed a man who believed in the new laws, someone who wouldn’t lose his mind to the songs, the sermons, the young women snatched by the Sultry Sect. That person would be the first representative. I thought they’d consider me, but something about me left them unconvinced. Maybe they realized I was somewhat leaden, not so crystal clear.

“What was Antoñito Camargo like? He had blue eyes, somewhat faded, with a detached look, as if he had nothing to lose. He was very young, of course, and he had the eyes of a traveler, someone who has navigated our network of rivers by himself. I can’t explain the nature of the image of him stamped in my memory, Don Fernando. I remember his passion for botany, his tall rubber boots for which he had paid a lot of money, the straight nose inherited from an extraordinary grandmother, his way of speaking, as if we were already in some sort of afterlife. Speaking of his physical appearance, I should also mention that he had that mysterious beauty of men who have not yet found their path in life. As you must already know, through his family, he belonged to the tradition of the ‘pandectists.’ His great-grandparents had fought, without any material gain, for a unifying constitution for the countryside. It seemed to me, however, that Antoñito no longer remembered that history, part legal, part military, which had been thwarted. It was a time when a plethora of opinions invaded the towns like buzzing bees. It’s possible that I may have mentioned your cousin’s name to the agents, though I’m not arrogant enough to think that I was the one who determined the course of his life.

“I admit, with some remorse, that we sometimes have the misfortune of throwing meaningless words out there that change a man’s destiny without us intending to do so. How can we see it coming, Don Fernando? How can we know which of the words they’ll be from our talks so overflowing with language? Antoñito Camargo listened to the electoral agents and immediately stopped drawing the complicated flora of the countryside. That’s the simple truth. What did they say? Maybe they went fishing for him when he was at that age when we look for signs, for powerful indications of what our destiny holds. He didn’t talk it over with me. All he said was: ‘People in Puerto remembered me,’ as if he were already an inevitable character in the history of the Homeland. Later, he talked eagerly to me about the famous ‘representation stage,’ and described the Sultry Sect as an outdated opposition, the residues from our endless political darkness. I almost never argue, Don Fernando, but an image of Don Teodoro Camargo must have crossed my mind. He was the strictest of the pandectists, but also the biggest fan of the silent, dewy girls who inhabit the homes of the countryside.

“After that, I no longer saw much of your cousin, Democracy’s Martyr. They took him away and put him in the hands of Don Anatol, a true representative of the Unity Party. The Arab was then a person of stature. He was a great cultivator of flowers, an eloquent poet, a man who was serious and had an outrageous amount of energy. He was one of those men for whom physical pleasure is almost a sacred duty. They chew the perfect papaya patiently and hypnotize young girls with detailed, erotic ceremonies. What can I add to that, Don Fernando? I think the rest is what you’d expect: he was tall with curly hair, green eyes and small teeth. Just one of our regular Arabs. He was very protective of his status in the countryside and, at the same time, an obedient lamb before those in power, those from Puerto. But don’t get me wrong. Don Anatol was obedient, not out of fear or weakness, but out of a strong belief in the principle of law and order. He needed there to be a chain of command, someone in charge who protected us from the dizziness of turmoil. Turmoil, Don Fernando, is a disease of the soul that runs rampant in the countryside. It takes over without warning, when contemplating the bright, flat surface of a distant river, for example, or while drinking a second glass of lemonade in the middle of the afternoon, or when confronted with the inexplicable beauty of a young woman. I’ll bring in some harpists to play in a few minutes, so that the hallways of this house can be filled with music, or noise.

“They told me that Don Anatol greeted your cousin, Antoñito Camargo, cheerfully and respectfully, without missing a beat in his lengthy speech about the Homeland’s new constitutional phase and about the scourge of the Sultry Sect. He gave him a political map of the countryside that had the names of the villages and those of the important leaders. He printed out some posters with a photograph of the future martyr, and he gave him about a hundred miniature flags so that he could leave people with a souvenir of the Unity Party. He made a truck available to him, along with two assistants, and, from what I understand, minimal instructions: to not travel at night, to be careful when drinking the aguardientes from the North, to make few promises. If this seems little to you, Don Fernando, if it seems like a stingy reality for such a lofty ideal, think about our impenetrable lowlands, and remember that this was the Arab’s first electoral campaign. Some people later came to believe that your cousin became a martyr the minute he took off in the truck. That’s absurd; nothing begins that suddenly, and as I’ve already said, I want to tell you what I know, clearly and concisely. He drove around the countryside for months that must have seemed unending, following a meandering itinerary that resembled a desperate escape more than it did a new political era. Our geography, Don Fernando, requires careful pacing.  There is a price for speeding: premature aging, dark circles under your eyes, a strange kind of desolation. I’ve always believed in watching things closely, and I’m content with the outcome.

“One day, he showed up at this house. He gave me one of the last miniature flags, sat down in the shaded corridor and said: ‘Not even a trace remains of the Sect. It’s disappeared.’ He also said: ‘I feel as if I’m selling seeds. As if that’s what my words are.’ I thought that he was beginning to look like one of those missionaries consumed by their own sermons. It’s the ugliest face of loneliness.

“News of his death, Don Fernando, came to us in pieces. First, we learned that the truck had disappeared. Of course, we were worried, but not yet alarmed. He must’ve lost his way on a red-dirt backroad and would’ve taken shelter close to a river, at an inn owned by charitable Chinese people. Then they found the truck and, in it, the body of one of his assistants riddled with bullets. Days later, the body of Antoñito Camargo showed up; it was in horrible condition. A stray bullet had gone through his cheek and another one, the fatal one, through his neck. They had left his body about ten kilometres from the truck, in a rice paddy, where it had become waterlogged.”

“What’s the matter, Don Leandro? Is there something else, or is that everything?”

“Death should be the end of a person’s story. There is a biography of Antoñito Camargo, Don Fernando, that ends there. It’s the story of the nature lover, of the silent young man, the story we’ve come to expect. It’s yet another story of the accidental and still unexplained death of a young man. They’ve killed off that person forever, though, and there are just a few of us old men who remember him. The story of ‘Democracy’s Martyr,’ however, began when they found his poor abandoned body, his eyes filled with dirt. You know very well what the leaders over in Puerto have said. It was a crime against the Homeland’s budding democracy, committed by the Sultry Sect, that maniacal, musical sect that had invaded the countryside. No one contradicted that version because over here, to be honest, dead bodies are not very interesting. Maybe it’s a sign of moral apathy or maybe it’s one of an indecent and excessive interest in life. Yes, Antoñito Camargo was a martyr, and, if we think about it, he may well have been democracy’s martyr, Don Fernando. Despite the fact that the political structure dreamed up by people from the Coast was a fantasy. Despite the fact, I should point out, that we never actually saw the Sect. Despite the fact that Antoñito Camargo had died because the people in Puerto needed a corpse that was clean and innocent in order to put an end to certain intransigent who were blind to the new way the countryside was being governed. We judge from our armchairs, and all we are is witness to is the stink of a ravaged corpse, the Arab’s piping voice, the dust on the windows of the truck, the deafening sound of the cicadas. But it’s possible, Don Fernando, that there’s another story for which these isolated and miserable events form the foundation, almost invisible, of a revelation. Let’s just say that the Homeland remains very far away. And, as I’ve said, I’m a man of the countryside.”

“Do you believe in the Homeland, Don Leandro?”

“Of course, though I don’t pretend to understand it. Let that be clear. What else was said? Nothing important. The opinions of cynical bums whispered in the taverns along the rivers: that, in the end, they did that conceited Antoñito Camargo a favour. He was a quack of an advocate who would never have amounted to much and who now found himself on the pedestals of the Homeland. But these are all now voices from long ago. What’s left are the words spilling from the textbooks, what’s left is your interest in him, what’s left is my admiration of his drawings.

“I think we’ve come to the end, Don Fernando. The birds have hidden in the trees and, still, there’s no relief from the heat. We buried him alongside the old pandectists, his outraged great-grandparents, while a band in the town – trumpets, mostly – played tunes that were part festive, part grandiose, which, as you may have noticed, is much sadder than a funeral march.

“A year later, they wrote to us from Puerto to ask us to send them your cousin’s exact measurements so that they could take advantage of a wandering Italian sculptor’s visit and build a statue to him. The sculptor’s name was Perlazzi. I wonder if they’ve finished it. Have you seen it? No? Well, I guess we’ll find out about it someday.

“And now, let’s raise a tall glass of lemonade to Antoñito Camargo, your cousin and our martyr.”

Alejandro Rossi (1932-2009) was one of Mexico’s most outstanding writers and philosophers of the twentieth century. Born in Italy to an Italian father and a Venezuelan mother, in the 1950s he arrived in Mexico, where he is remembered best today for his work as a philosopher and for his collaboration with Octavio Paz in the latter’s various cultural initiatives. As a writer, he is best known for his book Manual del distraído (Manual of the Absent-Minded, 1978), a collection of essays and short stories that combine the thoughtful perspective of the philosopher with the aesthetic concern of the literary artist.

Janice Goveas is a writer and a translator who lives in Toronto, Canada. She has an M.A. in Spanish Literature, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a B.A. in Spanish/English Translation. Her publications include a collection of her plays as well as various pieces of short fiction and travel writing. Her translation into English of Rossi’s La fábula de las regiones (Tales from the Countryside) is her first major undertaking in literary translation.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 23rd, 2019.