“Ever since the moment that he, the younger brother, was dead, everything else should have died too.” That sentence ties many knots between two or three characters; the next death will be one of theirs, that of a younger brother. However, before all of that, there is an older story and a prologue, both of them tragic. The sentence belongs to an author that writes in French. She—Marguerite Duras—was born in Vietnam. She has underlined it with a pencil. She wouldn’t do so with a pen anymore. They have convinced her that it does violence to the page. That it just isn’t done. That one should respect the right of the other (the other reader), to the virgin reading of the text.
He wakes up early and enjoys the isolation of the first coffee.
Here, the mornings and the nights are cold, as if the house did not have a roof. It doesn’t seem to have one, in point of fact. What looks like a skylight in the small patio could be just that, or it could just be the simple consequence of having to rent this house as quickly as possible. The cold is almost never over. From the sides. From below. A cold smoke, another tenant. He is in a very high neighborhood of the city. Barrio La R., they call it.
It is a small, rectangular house.
Two people live with him.
He is the husband.
There is also a wife, and a mother-in-law.
There are no animals except for those that live outside, and those belong to the neighbors. There was that one furry cat that came close last night, that he managed to pet a few times before slowly closing the door. There are plenty of dogs in the street; the owners leave the bodily wastes of those dogs in the grass, left in precisely the right place for passersby to step on or to dodge. Just so they go along looking at the ground.
He tries to hold onto the flavor of the coffee, that bitterness that fades in one’s mouth with the production of more saliva. He should go get more coffee. He’ll make breakfast. Something simple: whatever can be cooked quickly. Whatever makes the least mess. Whatever can be digested as quickly as possible, but not so quickly as to leave him hungry shortly thereafter. He goes to turn on the oven, then returns to the computer to keep writing. It’s up to him to get his wife out of bed. The fire on the stove is uniform, the habitual colors of the flame alternating nearly perfectly.
This new house is not like the old one. To tell the truth, the other wasn’t even a house, just two rooms connected by the absence of a door. The three had lived there since October. It took nine months to move. This new house is embedded in the lower part of a hill. There are two rows of facades, separated by a canal of green grass. The neighbors have gone about planting some small trees and some flowers surrounded by brightly colored pieces of rubber. The location of the house isolates it from the noise outside. Not completely, but enough to convert into tolerable sounds: distant conversations, steps outside the door, or the faint hum of a motor. Someone coughs, and that counts as a sound as well.
The cover of Duras’ novel, the one with the disturbing quote about the dead brother (El amante), is adorned with the provocative image of a woman laying across a pillow surrounded by unassuming, characteristic flowers. There are like the flowers from a colony in the East. The woman looks outward, towards him (towards me, as I want to understand it), towards anyone who sees her. Toward anyone who picks up the book. Her breasts also look at whoever takes the book. More specifically, the right breast, the right nipple of that woman with somewhat long (or somewhat short) hair. The cover was done by one José Ruiz. Did José Ruiz take the photo? Who is the model? Where are they?
Here the houses grow upward.
They look like small buildings, but they aren’t.
There are houses on top of other houses.
They are so high up. One can almost see the entire city. During the day, surely, the vastness of the rooftops surrounded by mountains is startling. It is a large valley – a gigantic valley. Someone said that it is a plateau (a friend of his jokingly quipped that one doesn’t just go up to Bogota, they have to climb). But at night the spectacle is even greater if one is looking on without prejudice: everything is awash in the tiny, carefree lights of humble homes locked in a rivalry with more ostentatious buildings.
An enormous canvas of lights.
The wife gets up to have breakfast. Eggs with country-style sausage. Arepas. He should make more coffee for both of them.
The house is attached to another, but they are independent. They are connected by a single wall and the sometimes-heated conversations of the neighbors. It is one single house if one looks upon it from outside. They say that there are different houses, but they look like the same house.
He always sleeps with two socks and athletic pants. He’s slept the same way since he got to the cold city, to a different climate. Now, in this new house, he should sleep with a sweater and gloves.
She is cold most of the time. The mother-in-law is always cold. Now all three share the cold.
The suffering is more democratic.
They find several photos of Marguerite on the internet. One of them grabs their attention: the one where she is youngest. She looks on in black and white, thinking about her novel, El amante. One could even intuit the whiteness of fifteen years that the author describes. She does so so many times that the whiteness leaps from the prose and acquires the texture of skin more given to caressing than to leisure reading.
The brother from the first sentence, from the first paragraph, is 27 years old when he dies. He isn’t the oldest. His sister describes him; he only exists when he is embodied in the writing of his sister. His mother did not let him grow up. A Peter Pan complex, they call it. She suffered for him. She swallowed all of her son’s suffering in small bites of maternal domination. He could have grown, but they didn’t let him. Thus the cry of his sister. This sentence, the one about the dead son, seems convenient to recreate a dialogue with the same name or with another.
Marguerite’s young body ceased to appear so that night with the businessman. She had not yet shed off her girl’s body: something remained. Little by little, less chrysalis and more butterfly’s wings. Some people call it a lack of inhibition. Rather, a new figure appeared, just as thin but more agile. The give and take of bodies, with Marguerite’s trying to flee and simultaneously staying quiet and beginning to move in the man’s hands. It seemed like a mutually confused contemplation, as if they just found out about human proportions from an old anatomy book or in the forests of Vitruvius. At first, it translated into focused and slow caresses. Later it devolved into progressive accelerating and exhaustion. The sweat began to dry in that same moment. He is twelve years older than she. He is above her in status and prejudice, but not in physical skill. He speaks French with a slightly forced Parisian accent, talking about money with a sense of sincere ease. There is no explicit conversation between the two. Generally, he speaks little and she does not try for an explanation. Once they are dressed, he takes her home, and, upon arrival, he won’t get out of the car. Her mother will watch her get out from the kitchen window and won’t say anything, at least not apart from the undercover sermon over breakfast. Breakfast is a chance for them to find one another, and the muteness of the brother. All between the silence of Ricardo, the brother, and the brief sentences of mother and daughter.
— Is it you, Ricardo? He waits a few moments in saying yes. The mother looks at him from the edge of the kitchen that is both a table and a bar. She asks that because he and Marguerite are almost the same age and weight. They don’t speak much between themselves (or she doesn’t let them). Their thinness matches their footfalls.
— What do you want to eat for breakfast? She asks as a mere rhetorical question, because she knows that her son wil say yes to her menu which is now nearly ready on the kitchen’s bar-table. It’s basically the same dish reinvented every morning give or take a few vegetables.
Ricardo is Marguerite’s closest brother. They don’t speak much amongst themselves, but they are close enough to figure out what the other omits to say.
— Is your sister still asleep?
— Yes, she’s asleep. She went to bed late last night. — Ricardo knows that she isn’t asleep and still answers in the affirmative. Marguerite is in bed, but not asleep. She extends her insomnia looking up at the ceiling. She usually spends a few minutes looking up at the ceiling. She wants to avoid the face-to-face contact in the kitchen. She knows that her mother doesn’t cook for both of them, even though there are two plates on the table-bar. The mother cooks for two, but while she turns over the tortilla from one side to the other, there is just one child and one plate in her head. Marguerite goes down the stairs slowly to put breakfast off a little longer.
— Your brother always gets up before you. You should learn from him — says the mother.
— But I’m not him.
Right now, Marguerite is a little over fifteen years old. They are in Saigon by her mother’s choice to plan the unhappiness of the family. Marguerite, in response to the uncomfortable questions, returns short, direct answers, just yes or no or no answers. That has been one constant between them.
— You’ll get home late again tonight, I suppose — says the mother.
— You suppose right.
Breakfast is a tacit formality to pretend inside the house. It is the other side of the coin in the social exercise of appearances.
— Will you come home late again with the businessman?
Marguerite doesn’t answer. The silence is affirmative.
This could be a triangular conversation, but it almost never is. Ricardo is a spectator. He has almost finished his tortilla already (just a couple more bites), and Marguerite’s silverware is still sitting parallel alongside her plate.
— They saw you pull up with a Chinese man much older than you.
— I don’t know what you’re talking about.
— That’s why you get to school late, right?
The consecutive questions confuse the mother more than Marguerite. Even stranger is that she dares to break the thin line between maternal questioning and the succinct breakfast monologue.
— Try to arrive later or earlier or have him drop you on the other side of the street. You could be inconveniencing the neighbors— is the mother’s response, involving third persons so that her reprimand can be indirect, as though she wanted to drag the shame towards the neighbor’s patio.
What intense cold. I don’t know what I was thinking. Wasn’t it logical to think that the closer one gets to the mountain the cold will climb too? And to think that he was going to get rid of that black overcoat that he used to use as a doorman at the bar, when he had just arrived in the cold city more than a year before. Now he uses it to sleep. Despite its thickness, it doesn’t seem to make a difference with the low nighttime temperature of Barrio La R. He doesn’t want to go to work; he is still tired from the long and rainy walk yesterday coming home from the free concert and from the prolonged delay of a paycheck. The wife and mother-in-law are asleep.
There is practically no noise outside.
The refrigerator suddenly begins to emit the sound that means it is making things cold.
He comes home from work. His knees hurt. He has to get used to climbing down in the morning. He did something crazy a few nights ago: he climbed up the slope at a quick pace until he got home. It was nighttime, he had been drinking, and he believed that he could do it without any problems. His chest still hurts and a he still has a heart murmur despite the intervening days. He has to get used to the new space. Somehow, (this happens a little bit at a time), he should get to know people and their habits. That comes with a move. Most uncomfortable: going out like a local in the new neighborhood. He doesn’t like the way that people who are new to an unknown place look out at it.
He thinks about the photo of young Marguerite. Why are the old photos so provocative? It must be because of the effort to make them look older, to rid them of any childish feature and make way for the woman that will come.
In his old apartment (not in the cold city but in a sunny one, in Venezuela), he left behind two books by Marguerite Duras. Two translations by the poet A.S.H. He regrets not bringing those books. He found El amante for sale on a sheet in the center of Bogota a few months ago. He bought it for his wife and he couldn’t wait for her to begin reading it. It is a hardcover edition in good condition.
Who loves who in El amante? The most obvious answer is the tryst between the white girl (that narrative voice in third person that we confuse with Marguerite’s) and the Chinese businessman from Cholen. Nevertheless, the closeness between Ricardo and Marguerite signals other alternatives.
The author speaks about herself (which makes us believe her). She speaks with such anguish and gentleness about the expected death of her brother that we forget about her (“He didn’t know how to talk, barely how to read, barely to write, so sometimes we believed that he didn’t know how to suffer”); she speaks in third person about her own thin, adolescent body, about her white, caressed skin so that we forget about her, the author (“The lover from Cholen has gotten used to the adolescence of the white girl to the point of losing himself”). And it was especially about her relationship and conflict with her primogenitor (“my mother’s misfortune has taken the place of sleep”; “One day she wasn’t capable of planning great things for her children so she planned misery.”). El amante, a novelized autobiography, can be looked upon as the memories of Marguerite Duras, of the girl that grows up in old Indochina, modern-day Vietnam, under the daily realities of French colonialism. More than a novel about her first lover, a Chinese merchant, it is an eroticized chronical by the beloved. Also: a lyrical store about a Francophone, dysfunctional family, held together by the habits and prejudices of the time.
He is tired. Yesterday, he, his wife, and two friends (one real friend and one that they met that same night) had five beers each. He is still a little tired but wants to work from home. Not exactly from home, because there’s no internet there right now. He wants to go out, to head up to the corner to send a few important messages. Sleep comes closer with each passing moment.
The author is there (Marguerite Duras);
The one who speaks in El amante
And the one that the husband tries to recreate in those dialogues.
The younger brother died from bronchopneumonia.
Over the course of ten years, he wrote to Marguerite just once.
The letter was conventional,
She, the author, notes the date of his death in El amante: December of 1942, during the Japanese occupation.
Another hangover. Another nighttime talk. His feet are damp from the nighttime cold. Duras’ book is on the table. The photo of young Duras is in its pages: her hair pulled back, with that line, that highway, that divides her hair in two. And those eyes, those wrinkles in them that confer premature maturity. Would she have been ten in that one? You can’t miss the prominent lipstick, probably red, that conquers the white and black of the old photo. Maybe she isn’t ten, but thirteen. Those eyes put to the test by premature caresses.
Marguerite speaks about her mother, of her lack of love for her mother. She does so with the distance and pain of advanced maturity. In Marguerite, everything seems to be in full chrysalis. And not just the love for the Chinese paramour, that is just a byproduct; it is the intrafamilial crisis, the distance of her mother and the visible preference of Duras’ mother for her introverted older brother. As far as the younger brother is concerned, in submission to the older, one finds another of the tense relationships of El amante.
After finishing his work in A.’s house, he wants to go down to the central boulevard to buy a pair of books that are on sale. With a pleasant bouquet, he finished El amante and La última escala del Tramp Steamer, the latter by Álvaro Mutis. Sometimes this happens in the husband: he reads several consecutive novels, frenetically, four or six, and keeps up with the intermittent poems and unfocused essays. During this same push he read a trilogy of short novels by the Cuban-Venezuelan Julio Miranda, Agua por todas partes. Since last night, he has been working on another work by Mutis: Amirbar.
A sentence appeared in the bathroom. Sometimes this happens; the place of the apparition doesn’t matter. “There is a God of war and a God of peace.” It wasn’t exactly in that order or with that purpose, but rather an expression of duality. It was something more precise, more perfect, more than just a sentence that could just be a quote he was remembering.
Another image that he could advance (or draw back) for a possible poem: the deconstruction of beauty, the regressive description of (physical) beauty, starting with old age and going back to describe the youthful and childish features of a body. Something like Benjamin Button.
El amante de Marguerite, the book, isn’t on the table anymore. He found a spot for it in what he calls his “library” with youthful exuberance: two small shelves of books below the television.
Translated by Michael Redzich