This story has been excerpted and translated by Samantha Schnee from Carmen Boullosa’s novel El complot de los Románticos, published in Spanish by Siruela in 2009. Read the foreword to the issue 31 literature section here.
I was going to keep my mouth shut, but given all the commotion, what else can I do? Let someone else spill the tea, making me look the fool with their fabricated version of events and taking all the credit for themselves? No way, nohow. Better I let the cat out of the bag, and if no one wants to believe me, who cares, call me crazy, my conscience is clear, I’m explaining the pandemonium for free, the reason for all this commotion. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls—notice I’m not shrinking despite the sheer number of you—let me tell you, from the horse’s mouth, that the people who have been hounded by paparazzi, the subjects of all the conjecture and discussion, are not actors, jokers or impostors; what you saw in Madrid were actual people, the OGs, not look-alikes but the real McCoys, or as we say in my country, la mera neta. If the media have published photographs of someone who looks like Virginia Woolf on the Paseo de la Castellana, or the spitting image of Victoria Ocampo on Calle Serrano, or Bioy Casares’s double sitting with a “dead ringer”—that’s the way they worded it in the Mexican press—for Silvina Ocampo in la Ancha, and just a few hours later with a woman who looked uncannily like Elena Garro at the same table, or “an” Oscar Wilde at the Café Gijón where “an” Edna St. Vincent Millay was painting the face of the Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva with lipstick and writing “Lord, God in heaven, will it never be dawn?” on the mirror, or Rabindranath Tagore’s body double in that vegan joint Artemisa, it’s because it was them. The guy they called a “joker” for going to the National Library dressed as Homer was Homer himself. The giant striding from one end of the Plaza Hotel bar to the other and back, arguing passionately in a notably Argentine, lisping accent was none other than Cortázar, and the guy standing next to him for a few minutes—the only time Julio stopped pacing like a caged lion—was Sartre. What you have witnessed was the apparition of these writers I have just mentioned, and many others. Anyone quick enough could have snapped handsome Ovid ambling through Madrid’s old town, or Hemingway bragging about being Hemingway in his booming voice, or Drieu La Rochelle walking by himself, or Sylvia Plath in high spirits, arm in arm with an attractive man who wasn’t Ted Hughes, free of all melancholy. Others took advantage of their time in Madrid to do what they had been unable to in life, especially the women: Sor Juana donned jeans to go drink wine with George Sand at a table in the Platerías plaza, both of them talking a mile a minute; Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen and Carson McCullers exploded in laughter when Clarice Lispector translated the word chulas (what the waiter had just called them): cuties.
What people thought was a street performance by a magician was Mishima reenacting or performing his suicide again, outside the Corte Inglés in Puerta del Sol. If the blood of ghosts had color like ours does, it would have been messy, but no one was splattered. He gave this performance before leaving for the Teatro de la Zarzuela. We’ll have to talk more about what happened there later, but back to Mishima: a group of passersby stopped to watch this ritual performed by “some Chinese guy” who collapsed for a few seconds, his guts spilling out, and recovered a few moments later, standing up and walking away.
I won’t digress further, we’ll get back to that part of the story when it’s time.
To summarize: these celebrities, among others, were all in Madrid until early this morning. It’s possible some of them are still around, musing over and arguing about what happened at the Teatro de la Zarzuela last night. I formally request their forgiveness for any problems that my revelations here might cause them. But not all of them; I’ll take great pleasure in the headaches it creates for some of the loudmouth asshats who gave me a headache earlier, don’t think I’m a hypocrite.
The reason for their being here is as clear as day: they came for the Parnassus, the gathering of writers that has been celebrated periodically since the nineteenth century and which has been celebrated annually for the last two decades, now for the first time ever in Madrid; and, given the way things ended, almost certainly the last time it will be celebrated in Madrid or anywhere else for that matter. I was Madam President, more or less in charge of things, la mera mera petatera, the one running the show, la que sus cacahuates truenan, and their shoe shiner, too, doing all kinds of stuff for them, solving their problems, their fixer, their “at your service, please.” The Parnassus is over. I didn’t need to offer my resignation; speaking here is tantamount to desertion, closing the door and slamming my fingers in it, because I’m breaking the golden rule of discretion, without which it’s unthinkable to hold the position of Madam President, Organizer of the Parnassus Literary Festival. I served for five years—the first woman, of course. Before that I wasn’t known for my discretion, but once they nominated me, I tried hard to cultivate it. Now, however, I will speak. The Parnassus Literary Festival is over forever, but not the Parnassus.
All acclaimed authors become members of the Parnassus, they have a right to join from the moment they kick the bucket, whether they arrive via the coffin or the oven, according to their last will and testament, or the wishes of their kin, regardless of whether they loved them or not. Here’s what I think: without meaning to diminish the other aspects of literary life—which is not as much of a life as those words might suggest, it’s more like a deep freeze, or joining a herd, and if it happens to turn interesting it creates vendettas, becomes weaponized by patrons and tyrants, reinforcing the corset of tradition—the dead have the final say on who becomes a member of the Parnassus or not, only they have the power to anoint the chosen. Eça de Queirós wasn’t all wrong when he believed it was necessary to behave eccentrically in order to achieve success—apart from writing great books, of course—and he followed many superstitions, like always stepping across the threshold of his home with his right foot and buttoning his cuffs unevenly; he was afraid of howling dogs, the hooting of small owls and spilt oil. When The Relic was about to be published he dreamed that someone asked the parish priest for a relic, and that the priest understood the believer wasn’t asking for any old relic (a fragment of coccyx, a piece of skull, a lock of hair, the Virgin’s tears, a bit of the son of God’s shroud, a splinter from the cross of some other martyr), the guy was asking him for The Relic. The priest left the sacristy and returned to the church carrying a stack of copies of Queirós’s book, gave a copy to the parishioner and handed out the other copies left and right. In his dream Eça believed that people were reading the copies because the priest had touched them, and though this was no more than an absurd dream, for the rest of his life each time Eça published a book he sent a copy to the church, making sure there was no return address on the envelope so the book could not be sent back to him. Eça was convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that the subjects of his most acerbic criticism, the representatives of the institution he despised, held the power to ensure his books were read. I’m not saying that buttoning his cuffs unevenly or donating books to the parish did a damn thing, but rather that the possibility of joining the Parnassus remains in the hands of those who are no longer with us, who are of the past, and as such is totally out of our control. The reception of our books is a function of fate, though it’s not exactly fate, but influence—of those on the other side. Yeah, yeah, I know: you, dear reader, are not likely to believe me. If I were in your shoes I’d feel the same way, but I witnessed this with my own eyes, I’ve been there and back, and I have to believe what my eyes have seen, what my ears have heard, what I experienced, capisce? And I know this is not about me, but I have to explain why I’m mixed up in this mess: Who am I and how do I know all this? I’m a nobody, just another author among many other virtually unknown writers. You have every reason to look at me askance. But it’s because of this unenviable stature that I was nominated to be President of the Parnassus. As I mentioned, I’ve held this position since 2002, when I was still dead to the world of literature, with hopes of being considered a writer, but those are long gone. It wasn’t hard for them to convince me that accepting the role was my best option. The truth is that I should have already thrown in the pen, but faith is slow to die. Nary an editor wanted my books, nary a critic cared about my work, I didn’t have a single, sorry reader—not even the most confused of academics was interested in—I won’t say studying—even mentioning me; no one was barking up my tree despite my bids for their attention. Ay, what a humiliating predicament! I acted like I was fending off a pack of hounds when I wasn’t even on the radar. One day I went to do a reading—after begging the organizer of a poetry series who said yes to me out of pity but made it clear he wouldn’t be able to attend himself—dressed in floaty chiffon that I sewed onto my dress to give a physical dimension to my poems (I think), to look like I was up to the task (which was not demanding), to seem like a r-e-a-l poet, and what do you know? Not a soul showed up. No one except me. Not even someone to turn on the mic.
Now, why would the illustrious members of the Parnassus elect a writer in virtual limbo, like me, to lead their annual reunion on earth? The answer seems obvious to me: because they’re dead and they want to interact with people whom they’re comfortable with. I don’t want to get too heavy, but the only analogy I can come up with is Mexico City in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the Iberians preferred their servants to be black rather than indigenous, because they were accustomed to them, whereas they couldn’t understand a damn thing about the locals. To be clear, they didn’t choose servants of their own kind, they opted for other skin tones. That’s why they chose me, a Limboist (what do you call someone who’s in limbo?): as good as dead, similar but distinct, familiar but from a different bloodline. It’s possible (excuse the dime-store philosophy, I can’t think of a better, more elegant way to put it, not even something vaguely Franciscan or Octavian or Virgilesque, you can thank your lucky stars it’s not Chuchotilla or Peralvillina, fuhgeddaboudit, and here I am, running out of ink and I’ve hardly even started) they choose writers who are in limbo because no one else wants the job, because all writers, and I mean all of them, are selfish by nature, and who would dedicate their own precious time to such an enormous job, out of sheer generosity? And I include myself in that category, because though I accepted the gig it wasn’t for the love of the art or to be near writers I admire, but rather because of the bone that they threw me: the possibility of joining their elite group one day.
Enough with my digressions: the… (but I must add one more thing, to clarify why the dead writers chose me, otherwise who would believe me, there are tons of us. First because being a near-dead writer means lots of things: you’re dead as far as the public is concerned, dead as a writer—I mean not writing a word, not even crappy words—and dead as far as your social life is concerned. I met all these criteria, and how; in all those respects I’m hyper-dead. So how did I attain this unenviable position? The explanation is simple: I live in New York. Everyone’s heard the old cliché that there’s no better city for being lonely or for knowing that you’re not part of the beau monde, I’m not sure if that was a saying before E. B. White or if he was the one who popularized it. This is the perfect city for writing, in a way: there’s no lack of either stimulation or isolation. E. B. White also said that no one comes to this city unless they’re looking for a lucky break. So, fine: I haven’t been lucky, but since it looked like I had the chance to get lucky I paid with my most valuable asset, precious time, because ever since I embarked on this adventure with the Parnassus, farewell, sweet moments when I could pick up my pen! I was more than an employee, I was their slave. My time was theirs, it belonged to the dead. Because despite being famous writers—despite being Aristotle or Plutarch or some other bigwig—they’re still dead. Plus, I admit, when they chose me, when they sniffed out my as-good-as-dead-ness they didn’t see themselves as dead at all. In the beginning I tried to avoid them as much as I could, then I just ignored them, then I avoided them again, and then I went back to ignoring them. But they showed up everywhere. I thought I was losing my mind until I listened to what they had to say and realized that these apparitions were perfectly reasonable. I had to deal with them. But that hasn’t solved my problems because I can’t even understand most of them, and it’s not because of the language barrier since the dead automatically enter what I’ll call an Esperanto-zone the moment they’re wrapped in the sheets in which they’re returned to the earth; I just can’t understand what they’re talking about, what’s bothering them. They come from all over the place, but what difference does that make, the point is that it’s very disruptive dealing with dead people every day. What can I say, here in New York it seemed inevitable to me; maybe this is just something that happens to people who don’t live in their home country, or it’s typical of living in exile, or it’s just the nature of this city, which always seems to be selling itself, full of promises, always grasping for the future, a place to compete and to win, and it would seem that in this city’s self-image there’s no place for its dead, and that those of us who come here have to make room for them at our own expense. That really is the last of my digressions).
The role isn’t completely undesirable, it just has to be filled by a writer whose work is neither well known nor utter drivel. In fact, their writing should be top-notch. I won’t disclose the identities of all the others who held this office before me because you’ll think that I’m tooting my own horn and that’s not the case.
I repeat that the main reason for becoming President of the Parnassus is that working with the writers on the other side is helpful, it’s a jump-start, an incredible boost. And it’s necessary, without them there’s no way to join the Parnassus; that’s why writers—those of us who might as well be dead (or super-dead, in my case)—accept this chinguísima gig: for the promise of future fame, not because we want to be their lackeys; we do it for the carrot that comes after the stick. That’s all I’m going to say about myself, I’m the least important thing about this story. If I leave anything out, it’s only to make things easier to understand, but you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, I’m just explaining what happened because it’s my only option, I’m not trying to convince you or convert you or curry your favor, there’s no reason for me to do that.
Before we get into the details, let me repeat: when you’re serving as President you can’t write a single word, not a damn one. So he or she better have already written a book, otherwise there’s no point, no one wants to go down in history as another forgettable name, the list of Nobel laureates even has some of those, the literary glitterati who have zero substance. Absolutely not. I had the chops and the words to prove it. And every cloud has its silver lining: being as good as dead when you’re alive isn’t necessarily bad for a writer, it’s liberating, it’s easier to fight that literary affliction (if it is literary) called “woodenness.” A quick explanation: sometimes literary titans write like bores. Their books can be real bricks. People buy them because of the author’s reputation, but the books don’t do anything for them except make them need to see the chiropractor, lugging those unreadable doorstoppers around.
It wasn’t part of my job description to oversee a change of host city. Throughout the administration of my (failed) presidency, the Parnassus met in New York; the gringos had thrown their weight around for decades, ever since the end of World War II, right up till 2006. Each time someone tried to return the gathering to Paris or move it to Rome or London, the New Yorkers played their trump cards.
And when I say trump cards, I mean it. Here’s one example, it happened in 1962: they pulled an ace out of their sleeve and got Faulkner together with Melville. Yes, I know those two guys have nothing in common, but in 1962 they were celebrating the Year of Melville with great fanfare—because he had served as first President of the Parnassus in 1862, when he might as well have been dead because he had fallen out with Hawthorne and had received zero recognition as a writer, so the capos contacted him to organize the first international gathering of hallowed writers, the very first Parnassus—and at the last minute they threw in the guy who had just kicked the bucket, turning it into a Melville-Faulkner celebration.
It wasn’t such a big deal, but it did get many writers who had never bothered to cross the ocean to visit the New World for the first time. Unbelievable but true: the place Mártir de Anglería had christened the Orbe Novo remained unknown to many of the Greats at the dawn of the Sixties. And it still is for some because the dead don’t enjoy total freedom of movement. Although they’re not subject to temporal or spatial limitations, they do have difficulty getting around because:
1. They don’t have bodies, since they’re dead;
2. They’re not from this side anymore, they’re from the other side of the Acheron, and crossing it without losing consciousness isn’t so easy;
3. They need an Ariadne (or a male one) to show them the way and finding one may look easy but it’s as difficult for them to do that as it is for us to reel in one of those dead masters to share the secrets of their expertise;
4. They must have a travel permit sponsored by a living person and issued by an authorized agency;
5. And then they have to rely on the goodwill of the guys on the other side to be able to return otherwise they get stuck in Limbo, neither here nor there, and end up being completely forgotten.
But back to the Melville-Faulkner shindig: they held the gathering in the old customs house facing Brooklyn Bridge, not in the Gansevoort Street office where Melville worked as a customs inspector for nineteen seemingly endless years—what a miserable dog’s life. Those years were like a stubby tail that had been stuck onto his actual life, the one when he was a sailor, living abroad, delivering books to his editor and receiving a modicum of recognition, finding a wife and setting up house with her. Then came this stub I referred to, like a dinosaur’s tail or maybe it was more like having his wings clipped: disappointment, an unhappy marriage (or a normal one), settling down in New York with his four children, the eldest blows his brains out at the age of nineteen, a brief and lousy life, what consolation could there be for Melville now that no one would throw the writer a lifeline? Where did he find the strength to get out of bed in the morning or even to sleep at night (I have to believe he was an insomniac) (if he wasn’t, he must have fallen into bed at the end of each day and dreamed horrible, violent, vivid dreams) (but he must have been an insomniac, how else would he have found time to write his looooong poems if not in the wee hours, when else would he have found time to send a young man to visit the Holy Land?) (did he write in bed while his wife was asleep in a different room?) (it’s a terrible idea to write in bed because it makes it harder to go to sleep, that’s rule number one: keep your workplace and your resting place separate) (although what do I know, the last thing I need is to become an insomniac on top of everything else, and I’m not, I have the opposite problem: I’m such a sleepyhead) (regardless, it seems to me that whether he slept or not, it would have been equally unpleasant for someone who had to get up day after day to do an uninspiring job in a loathsome workplace that, to top it all off, was on a street named after his mother’s famous family, telling himself, “I sailed the southern seas, I once wrote a book called Moby-Dick that received some acclaim when it was published; I wrote the most ambitious and formidable poem ever penned by human hand; now I’m the author of books no one wants to publish, I’m a dung beetle as far as my wife’s concerned, her punching bag; I’m the reincarnation of my father, a good-for-nothing like me; I have to beg my uncles for money while they laugh behind my back and take advantage of my widowed mother right under my nose”)? Where did he find an iota of energy to slog away at nothing, as good as dead, forgotten, a nobody, an exile in his own country, a world traveler permanently at anchor, Herman Melville? The same Herman Melville that the Parnassus awarded the Annual Prize (note the capitals) for his Isle of the Cross, which was rejected by his editor and remained unpublished and is now lost, at least to the living.
Beneath the stars, and a little bit off-kilter, he read the complete novel aloud as part of the Annual Prize ceremony, framed by the beautiful domed ceiling of the customs house, not the one where he worked like a sacrificed martyr, nailed to the cross of his desk and mocked by posterity, good old (or not good) Melville, tormented and unhappy; a reading in which only authors of low stature participated, of course I’m referring to their physical aspect, not their literary prowess (I mean the readers were all knee-high to a grasshopper, including Faulkner, who had just died), which really amplified the building’s grandiosity and beauty—I know firsthand how unpleasant it can be to deal with people who have yet to realize that they’re no longer here, though in Faulkner’s case they say he handled it enormously well; people might not believe this, but that year, unlike all the ones that followed, William was in exceptionally good humor, he seemed delighted to have joined the ranks of the dead, and when people asked him how he had died, he’d say, As I Lay Dying, as in, “Well, you see, as I lay dying,” and nothing could get him to stop making that dumb joke, he was completely full of himself, what with the Nobel and all, and now, dead at his peak, the world had thrown itself at his feet, because those of us writers who might as well be dead adore truly dead writers almost as much as readers love to tackle authors who die suddenly, beautifully, pretending to be alive even when they’re dead, not to mention suicides, they really fascinate people, whereas we despise declarations of love for life—such as, for example, that Sé que amo la vida por la vida / misma, por el olor de la vida…—I love life for life itself, for the very scent of life…—sure they forgave César Moro later, after Mi cadáver de noche que arroja piedras sobre la pantalla del día—My night-corpse-self that hurls stones at the projection of day. —But back to the reading of Isle of the Cross, which Faulkner organized and which irritated Joseph Conrad in epic proportion, arguing (to make it seem like he wasn’t angry on his own account) that “out of basic respect for a writer’s stature, if Juan Ruiz Alarcón is here he should be accorded the same stature as the classicists like Socrates, or Pope, it’s ridiculous.” “Stature!” the guy who had held the POTP1 chair joked, “Stature!” which made Conrad even angrier, and Juan Ruiz Alarcón, whose delusions of grandeur persisted when he died—he purported to have noble blood running through his veins and who-knows-what-other-cuckoo, just between us he had nothing to be vainglorious about—began to get angry too. Misery loves company, and when the reading was over, everyone there was furious at everyone else, or so James Thurber told me.
Art credit: José Delgado Zúñiga, “Blooming,” 2021. ©️ José Delgado Zúñiga. Courtesy of the artist and CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach. Photo by Thomas Muëller.