Excerpt

Nietzsche on His Balcony

Carlos Fuentes, Trans. by Ethan Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

December 9, 2016 
The following is from Carlos Fuentes’s novel, Nietzsche on His Balcony. Fuentes was a Mexican novelist and essayist. Among his works are The Death of Artemio Cruz, Aura, Terra Nostra, The Old Gringo and Christopher Unborn (1987). His many literary honors include the Miguel de Cervantes Prize as well as Mexico's highest award, the Belisario Domínguez Medal of Honor.

The Garden of Epicurus

That’s what María-Águila called the tiny green space behind her house. Though it was only a block off the Great Boulevard, its cacophony did not reach the Garden. She considered that a minor miracle. Nothing could explain  a silent garden just a few meters from the busiest street in the city. Where the three friends could meet. And she could serve them tea, coffee and listen to them, thinking that this would never happen again. Because we would all grow old and die. Because today’s history wouldn’t be tomorrow’s. Because tomorrow we would be forgotten, though the plane trees and the yellowish sycamores would last a little while longer.

She looked at the three friends gathered in the impossible garden, seated on the backless benches she’d gathered for them, closer to the ivy climbing up the walls that just yesterday were bare but were greener each day, as though nature obeyed María-Águila’s secret desire:

“Give us some beauty, give us some greenery.”

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Nor did María-Águila ever mention her other desire. Even thinking about it was hard: how could this happiness last? She wanted the youth of her three friends, so different from each other, to be extended for her own sake.

Aaron Azar was small and self-conscious about his premature balding, which he couldn’t decide whether to reveal or hide, grateful for the lawyer’s cap that covered his head, in court anyway. Outside, he lowered the brim of his hat, casting a shadow on his face. But in the Garden of Epicurus, none of the three friends wore a hat, and Aaron himself, in the warmth of their conversation and their friendship, forgot the small (and ridiculous) anxiety of his receding hair. Would he become vain enough—María-Águila smiled to herself—to give in to the temptation of wearing a toupee if only to extend the seriousness of his masculinity beyond his cap-wearing days at court?

María-Águila had often gone with Saul to the trials in which Aaron was sometimes defense attorney, prosecutor other times, and she found him convincing in both rôles. She forgot—so did Aaron—about the undeserved baldness in this not-yet-thirty-year-old man. Saul, like everyone watching Aaron, admired him for what he was: an eloquent lawyer, skillful in argument, the way he was now in juvenile court, defending that twelve-year-old girl, Elisa, rescued from a couple of dirty sadists and taken in by another couple, honorable people, whom the girl, nevertheless, murdered. Now the girl Elisa stared at Aaron, amazed by the defense attorney’s luminous eloquence, unable to understand a word but dazzled, infatuated by the virtuosity of a man who was saving her from jail or—who knows? she didn’t understand—from death. María-Águila thought she saw this too in the eyes of freedom’s little girl. Dante had brought her to the meeting to hand her over to Aaron. And the girl didn’t say or do anything. She observed. Did she understand what they were saying? María-Águila wanted to exchange glances with the girl, but she only had eyes for Aaron, her defender. With that gaze, the little girl displaced her own personality. Who was she? Where did she come from? What was she accused of?

“Of killing her parents,” Saul whispered to her.

“Who weren’t hers,” Dante added.

“They adopted her” (Saul).

“She looks at Aaron with great affection” (María-Águila).

“I think this is the first time she’s loved someone” (Dante).

“Well, if our friend Aaron manages to tame this beastie!” (Saul).

Now, in the garden, uncomfortable with his exposed head (because neither Saul nor Dante wore hats), Aaron listened attentively to the ideas of the young aristocrat turned rebel-against-his-family’s-tradition, especially in opposition to his brother Leonardo, talented consultant to a government doomed (Saul) to disappear.

“We need the will to win people over” (Saul).

“The worst people, too?” (Aaron).

“If we want to persuade them” (Dante).

“Some people are un-per-sway-da-ble” (Aaron).

“So, not them” (Dante smiled).

And he went on to say that the revolution’s needed to touch the hardest and most recalcitrant depths of the soul, to convince the most reluctant that a free world was even in the best interest of the enemies of freedom.

“Matter becomes spirit!” (Aaron).

“Take it easy. But thought solidifies into power; it turns mineral” (Saul).

Then they argued. María-Águila served tea; the indifferent ivy ascended the brick walls; the noises from the boulevard didn’t reach the green space; and the girl Elisa looked on, trying to figure out if she should trust their convictions or doubt them.

“Whose?” (Dante).

“Your people’s, for starters” (Aaron).

“I’m here. With all of you. That’s what matters. Isn’t that enough?” (Dante).

“Today, yes. But tomorrow?” (Aaron).

“Are you talking about me?” (Dante).

“I’m talking about everyone: you, me (Aaron), everyone.”

Aaron looked at Saul.

“I’m talking about you” (Aaron).

Saul smiled. María-Águila, unsettled, froze with the tea tray in her hands. She glanced at Saul. He had made it this far, to the great days that were approaching, for which the two—the couple Saul-María-Águila—had fought so hard, despite his precarious health. Since they met at the university, they’d discovered something incredible: they shared their ideas as much as their bodies and their intellectual and political relationship was no less satisfying than their sexual relationship.

But María-Águila had quickly realized that Saul was a sick, weak man, incapable of asking for more affection and care than that which she, from the first moment, gave him.

(“I am not just yours, Saul. I am you.”)

The garden of friendship.

She offered to receive them, to keep them company. She felt that the unity of friends was indispensable in order to arrive at the truth. What was Elisa doing there? What could the girl see?

“Power?” (Aaron).

“Truth?” (Saul). “More important than power.”

“Are you worried that power and truth won’t get along?” (Dante).

“I wouldn’t want to put it to the test” (Saul).

María-Águila avoided looking at Saul whenever he said such things. She preferred to look at Dante, and Dante understood. Saul needed his body for his mind to shine and to manifest his spirit. Without the body, would the mind, the spirit, cease to be that part of ourselves (María-Águila, Dante) that we value the most, sometimes without thinking (María-Águila) that without the body the spirit can’t function, that it falls silent and disappears when the body dies. She refused, looking at Saul, to believe it.

She served the tea. She wanted her usual, everyday actions to conceal her inner anguish. She didn’t want to make it visible (my anguish, don’t reveal yourself, please don’t disturb the moment: María-Águila), and a serenity imposed itself, which, perhaps, didn’t fool Saul, who knew the truths and shared them with his wife (María-Águila) as part of the unity with Aaron the attorney and with Dante the aristocrat. The three of them brought together by a common goal. The revolution. What about the girl named Elisa?

Wouldn’t unconsciousness be better? thought María-Águila. Wouldn’t it be better if she slipped a drug in their tea to anesthetize them? Wouldn’t it be better, for God’s sake, if nothing happened which, inevitably, would happen? Is that why that girl was there, to reject the inevitable?

Serenity. Such would be the drug that María-Águila would administer to herself. Serenity.

But the time would come (as she knew) when serenity would not be possible.

“Why not?” (Dante).

“Because history forbids it” (Saul).

“We’re serene now. Aren’t we historical, Saul?” (Dante).

“Before the revolution, everything is pre-history” (Saul).

“After the revolution?” (Aaron).

“I hope we don’t see it” (Saul).

“Then, what’s the—?” (Dante).

“Heaven must also be transitory” (Saul).

“And hell?” (Aaron)

“That’s up to us” (Saul).

One afternoon, María-Águila welcomed, accompanied by Dante, the woman with the long skirt, and lies even more ample, the woman known as Gala, who was scared away by the questions posed by María-Águila’s mood.

“Do you mind?” (María-Águila).

“You’re in charge. It’s your house. No offense, but may I ask why?” (Dante).

“Because she believes in God” (María-Águila).

“What’s that? I think she’s fun because she’s very imaginative. There are plain lies that are not amusing. But Gala’s are fun” (Dante).

“She believes in God” (repeated María-Águila).

“So what?” (Dante).

“She believes in perfection. We’re not. We can’t be, Dante. We wouldn’t be revolutionaries” (María-Águila). “We would have stuck to faith.”

“Why? What do you think God is?” (Aaron).

“He’s perfect.” (Saul took the words out of María-Águila’s mouth). “He exists: but he is not.”

“Then it doesn’t matter. We exist without him” (Aaron).

María-Águila wasn’t disturbed by these words. However, the presence of the two females disturbed her: the girl Elisa, whom Dante delivered to Aaron, and the woman Gala, whom Dante invited on his own. María-Águila didn’t object to these presences that would upset what began as the intimate, secret conspiracy of three men and a woman. Now, each man showed up with one—Elisa, Gala—and María-Águila took refuge in her own religious feelings—she had been a nun, she had belonged to a sacred congregation—now that she was supposed to admire the fact that the new revolutionary congregation admitted, next to the circle of the three men, three women: herself, the girl Elisa, the so-called Gala.

In her spirit, she struggled with the conflict. She herself was the woman who went from the convent to the conspiracy, the only true revolutionary; and the two women of uncertain political loyalties—one a girl, the other a stranger—were fellow travelers of the revolutionaries, lacking María-Águila’s credentials. In spite of her doubts, her Christian charity prevented her from denying Gala and Elisa’s presence in the “Garden of Epicurus.” Still, her unease persisted.

* * * *

The soldier in the dark-gray uniform watched them. He’d been watching them for some time now. The three of them, though quite different from each other, were friends.

The three had a common goal.

The one who stood out most was Saul Mendes-Renania. He was Jewish. His was the name of a Sephardic family driven out of Spain in 1492. Saul still heard the inquisitor’s demands, words he carried in his head and heart: “Tell the truth… Tell the truth, or we will twist the garrote into the biceps of your left arm. Tell the truth or we will order a second turn of the wheel… Tell the truth.

“Why didn’t you take up the trades of plowing and shoveling, of raising cattle? Why instead did you amass so much wealth and land with usurious interest from loans? For reviling Jesus Christ and His Church: monasteries desecrated, nuns who professed solemn vows ridiculed and forced into adultery?”

They left Spain bound for northern Europe. On their backs they carried their doors so they could dream that one day, when they opened them, they would return to their homes in Spain, Mendes-France, Mendes-Germany, Mendes-Renania, he, Saul, staring since he was a child at the ancient Spanish door from Valencia at his family home in Mainz. He grew up intent on never agreeing with those who persecuted his people: never wanting revenge, but instead offering a new life upon opening the old door of bitter grudges and nostalgia.

He named the door of his house in Mainz “Revolution,” and he looked beyond the river, at both sides, and he was grateful for the pain of the past because it allowed him to predict, in contrast, the joy of the future. From then on he attended the Christian churches of Mainz to shed those ancient grudges, breathing in deeply the incense that transformed the air even though the sacred perfume never left that temple for the streets.

Except once. A nun prayed near him in the church. She crossed herself, stood, and walked toward the exit. Saul smelled the incense of the church and realized that the nun smelled the same. He stood. He followed her into the street. The woman kept the sacred scent of benzene and florist’s shops, of dishrags and tomatoes, of trees and clothes; the nun kept her distance from him, limiting his access to the aroma of incense that emanated from her.

He followed her to a convent’s door. There, Saul stood in her way and spread his arms to prevent the nun’s entry. He told himself that this action wasn’t just about today, but about forever. He felt this when he looked at the woman’s face, framed by her order’s coif: a face that became detached from her habit and turned into something different, something for him alone, a face of love, which Saul became attached to from that moment on, forever, even if she rejected him.

And why in the world wouldn’t she reject him, this insolent intruder, this stranger who blocked her entry to the convent?

María-Águila, then known as the nun Sister Consolata, looked at Saul Mendes-Renania, with his outstretched arms blocking her way, and saw, in the man’s palms, bleeding wounds, stigmata of an endless sacrifice. She fell to her knees before the man and swore never to leave his side, just as the wounds in Saul’s hands would never heal.

“When we’re not alone, wear gloves,” María-Águila suggested, as she shed her habit (Sister Consolata), rolled it into a ball, and tossed it into the river that flowed into another river: the Rhine and the Main.

Together, they devoted themselves to spreading the idea of revolution in public squares and auditoriums, wherever they could or were allowed to until they were eventually thrown out. But they were never jailed. He would point his bleeding palms toward the police officers, and they would fall to their knees and pray as their mothers had taught them. And María-Águila, no longer with a nun’s habit (Sister Consolata), gathered such gravity in her expression that a blessing from her was enough to ward off danger.

“Don’t pay them any mind. They’re crazy.”

In cafés and in the streets, in public squares and auditoriums, Saul and María-Águila. Two crazy people. Two saints.

* * * *

And far away from his ancestral home and Colbert tradition, from the Loredanos, the rebellious son, Dante, was driven—the officer in the dark-gray uniform imagined— perhaps by the desire to not be what he was expected to be, to disappoint his family (even though his mother, Charlotte Colbert, lived very far away in a castle in Dordogne, and his father, Zacarías, had lost consciousness after a stroke, and that is why Dante perhaps opposed his brother Leonardo). Why? the officer asked himself. His rebelliousness no longer affected his parents. It only affected his brother. And Leonardo himself was who he was and did what he did because that’s who he was, and he did what was not expected of an heir like him: to reject an inherited rôle, instead to make a new place for himself in the new regime, propose ideas, cover up crimes, help perpetuate the big lie… The officer who pondered this was Andrea del Sargo, and he was willing to do anything to change the current state of affairs, as was Dante even though his motives included—Andrea must have imagined—rebelling against his family, against his brother.

“And that’s not all,” Andrea told his army buddies. “I admit it. Not only that. And I will concede to him one other thing.”

“What other thing?”

“The thing is that, like us, he wants change, a revolution.”

“Would you be willing to bet on that?”

“I am. The three of them will serve as our battering ram to demolish the current wall of power.”

“What about us?”

“Wait. Be patient.”

* * * *

The third friend was Aaron Azar. He was a trial lawyer. He lived in a modest guest house. He kept birds in cages and took good care of them. A solitary and meticulous man, he enjoyed embroidery and knitting, distractions from his work in the courts. He walked to work and returned home on foot. He didn’t scare anyone. But when he had to prosecute or defend an accused person, he put his heart and soul into the work.

“Beware of men with reputations for honesty, Saul. They’re usually the least honest.”

“I don’t know about that, my comrade. He’s useful to us for now.”

Andrea and his men stopped the transport flight from taking off for the Middle East. Together with the pilots and soldiers from the Middle East flight, they stopped the one leaving for North Africa. By then there were fifty men. They stopped the flight to the Caribbean. They grew in number, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand. Preventing others from leaving. Rescuing those who returned.

“Join us. They’re about to send you to the insane asylum.”

“Join us. If you rebel, they execute you.”

“Join us.”

They marched through the streets. Nobody could stop them. The police weren’t about to stop armed soldiers from marching. A lot of them joined in. People looked out their windows, went out to the streets, abandoned the cafes, the movie theaters, the stores.

What was going on?

Storms. Rain. Fear. A teacher takes his students hostage. A recluse abandons his wife, children, home to join what he sees as the collapse of everything he hates: everything. A man and a woman come together and proclaim their mad love: never before, only now, why now? Another man loses the ability to tell yesterday from tomorrow and desperately goes out in search of today amidst the crowds that march, devastate, attract, until they reach the building where Saul Mendes-Renania lives, the one who for some time had spoken and proclaimed and now must lead his own creation, the revolution.

What he said, what Saul called for, is already here, in the streets. Now, Saul must lead the movement.

Together with him, his loyal friends, the attorney Aaron Azar, the nobleman Dante Loredano.

The revolution’s ruling triad. Military commander Andrea del Sargo says so.

Backing him up, the liberated regiments.

The proof of revolutionary success: President Solibor’s head is paraded on a pike along the feverish, celebratory, confused, and happy avenues of free citizens.

The tribune balcony. Saul Mendes and his wife María-Águila and their comrades in arms, Dante and Aaron, who entered through the old Jewish door from 1492, that had been carried from house to house until it arrived, today, at Saul and María-Águila’s.

Its final resting place.

The door known as Revolution.

 

 

From NIETZSCHE ON HIS BALCONY.  Used with permission of Dalkey Archive Press. Copyright © 2016 by Carlos Fuentes.


  • James Ashley Shea

    Thanks! Now I won’t have to bother about Carlos Fuentes.



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