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Colonel Lágrimas

The colonel must be looked at from up close. We have to approach him, get near enough to be a nuisance, near enough to see his slow-motion blinking — that face of his, youthful still, though tired, as he bends himself once more over the page. Now we will see him engaged in his true passion, meticulous over the paper that he touches with what seems a monk’s devotion, as if it were not his writing, but something sacred. But that’s not enough. We must get closer, until we see his image dissolving into tiny points. Pixels of a latent madness. Pale-cream shades from which suddenly, as we focus once again, that face we know so well emerges: the curly locks falling in a cascade, the receding hairline, and his eyes burning with a passion we do not understand. It is this mortal passion we seek in all his gestures, in all his movements, until we see him broken down into a series of successive photographic frames: here, the hands in a pose of writing; there, the hands relaxed; here, the hands suspended; there, the hands hovering over the coffee. Yes. The colonel drinks coffee because he is writing. On a white winter morning, the colonel sits down to write his life.

 

***

 

Spanish: Pirineos; French: Pyrénés; Catalan: Pirineaus; Occitan: Pireneus; Aragonese: Pireneus; Euskera: Pirinioak. One would need to draw a map and tell a story. But there’s no time. The colonel has little time left. And so it is enough to say: the colonel lives in the Pyrenees, and now, when he removes his glasses, round and adorable, the morning blurs into a solid white. Even there, with his gaze turned to the white horizon, sitting calmly, we can see the signs of an unextinguished passion. He doesn’t know it, but he has little time left. That’s why it is enough to sketch the scenes with oriental brushstrokes. Approach until we can get no closer, and see him dissolved in his own passion. On an afternoon like any other, the colonel sits down to write three stories.

 

***

 

We don’t know why we call him the colonel. Perhaps because we can see in his face the marks of a man on a mission, one who comes from an aristocratic megalomania that knows no bounds. In the midst of war, he opted for idleness and for knowledge. Yes. The colonel used to be a mathematician, but no longer. The colonel saw the war from the battlefield, but he was unarmed. The colonel was famous, but he decided to stop being so. Now, as we see him seated before the white morning, we can’t imagine him in the mountains of Hanoi, his head shaved Gonzo style, writing indecipherable equations that only a handful of people understood, giving a lecture while around him a carnival of explosions serve as background music. Vietnam was for him a dodecaphonic symphony written in symbols on a black chalkboard. He never liked applause. Perhaps it is due to this military rectitude that we must call him colonel, and not professor. As he is now, with his curls cascading from an impressive baldness, he has something of the Greek hero about him, a Socratic Achilles, a solitary teacher. For years now he has preferred the green and white mountains to the hubbub of the city. Twenty years ago he made the decision: when death came for him, it would find him peaceful.

 

***

 

Now that he only has little time left, our monastic aristocrat leaves his coffee on the table, looks at a photograph of a white desert, and takes his pen in hand. A fountain pen, same as he’s always used, with good ink, his name etched along the side. We could move a little closer to see his name, but we would rather not; the colonel doesn’t like his name. He takes the syringe, fills the cartridge with ink, and inserts it. He is ready to start. Then, desperate to see what he writes, we run over, but it’s not easy. The colonel writes with his back very hunched, which doesn’t leave space for spying. We move to one side, we move to the other, but it’s no use. The colonel’s curved back recalls the herons on the green grasses of Andorra.

 

***

 

The title takes up half a line: Aqua Vitae.

 

The subtitle follows: Portraits of Three Alchemical Divas.

 

***

 

We don’t know at what point, or why, the colonel decided to abandon his serious work, his respectable and honourable work, his professional work as a mathematician. In sum, his well-paid work. What we do know is that ever since then he has taken up a mad kind of project — an autobiography by means of a megalomaniacal catalogue of other people’s lives. Life written in mirrors, life become external, life become multiple lives. Yes, the colonel has many lives that he hides away day by day in a cupboard of many drawers, among a disarray of books and tobacco. The colonel always smokes while he writes. Tobacco has accompanied him on this long autobiographical journey, which has also been a kind of spiritual monasticism. Now that we approach him again, we see him writing at a frantic pace, with an almost arbitrary punctuation, his pipe suspended in the air and his eyes fixed on the paper. The strangest thing of all is that this autobiography of others — as he called it once — is not written in his own voice, or even in a masculine one, but rather in a very objective tone that portrays feminine lives. Today he returns to one of his favourite subjects: alchemy. And, as always, divas.

 

***

 

Sometimes he walks about the house with a thoughtful expression. He walks through the house; it is at times too big for him, alone as he is, but he fills it with his presence, calm and expansive like a yogi from the East. He wears a cream-coloured toga that speaks of his eccentricity. Then we can approach his work desk, rummage around a bit among the papers, and see what he has written so far. We can see his methodology: he organises the entries alphabetically, in that arbitrary, false order of encyclopedias that nonetheless soothes our need for rectitude. We can look from up close, with patience, and see how the newest entry has been placed among the papers that correspond to the letter a, and, more specifically, to ‘Alchemy’. Alquimía, a feminine name, we say to ourselves, the colonel must like it. And if we went further and dared to open all the drawers, we would find what seems to be a universal history of the false sciences: alchemy and physiognomy, mesmerism and humorism, magic and astrology. We would see, among the papers covered in idiosyncratic handwriting, a protohistory of science unfolding, a subterranean history of forgotten principles narrated through a series of feminine figures who chose to enter a history that had expelled them from the start. And it’s all accompanied by a strange assertion that we can only attribute to a purposeful madness: ‘all this leads to the current moment, and it is written in my name’.

 

***

 

The colonel must be saved from insanity and from psychiatrists. One must get close enough to him to believe in his project. We know, there’s a precise distance from which all of this makes sense. We just have to look for it, find it, and then sit down to watch him write the prophesies of this forgotten science.

 

***

 

For now, he has written a name, a few dates, and what seems to be the outline for a love story. The name Anna Maria Zieglerin. The three dates: 1574, 1550, 1564. All this in his perfect, exceptionally hygienic handwriting, which we also find on the letters that he wrote to his Mexican colleague Maximiliano Cienfuegos during his first years of hermetism. Though he now repudiates these documents, they leave one thing clear: the colonel’s madness has order and method. That’s why, now that he puts pen to paper, we again look over his shoulder as if peering at an oracle.

 

***

 

No doubt about it, our character is a noble hermit. And as such, he belongs to a grand tradition. He knows very well that the curse of the modern world is its categories. Ermitaño: from the Latin eremita, which in turn derives from the Greek ἔρημος, or from ἐρημίτης, meaning ‘of the desert’. He knows it very well. This is why he has included an entry about the famous Desert Mothers in his encyclopedia. Ascetics who, following the tradition established after the Council of Constantinople, left the imperial cities and set out for the deserts of Thebaid. One name stands out: Syncletica of Alexandria. If we search among the colonel’s papers, we would find one that says,

 

Syncletica of Alexandria: Icon of the brave Desert Mothers. She was born in Egypt in the fourth century AD and lived a hermetic life. Part of an aristocratic family from Macedonia, the beautiful virgin chose to leave the city and shut herself away in a tomb belonging to her family. There, she cut her hair before a priest and swore to fast for months. Her works include Apopthegmata Matum.

 

But the colonel doesn’t live in the desert. As much as a photograph of a salt desert resembles the landscape surrounding him now, he loves knowing that this silence belongs to the Pyrenees. And thus, our noble hermit is a modern reincarnation of that Simon of the Desert who, from a height of seventeen metres, saw human history as something that didn’t apply to him. Sometimes the colonel looks at the village miles below and laughs a laugh not devoid of melancholy.

 

***

 

Nevertheless, today the morning smiles on him perversely. The life of this Anna Marie Zieglerin is deliciously perverse. As with everything else, the colonel has his methods when it comes to writing the lives of others. He begins with the minimum: date of birth. Just a number: 1550. He loves to feel the temporal distance that transports him to a vague territory where anything is possible, and even so, everything is also objective. The beauty of being able to say, ‘On January 6, 1550, Captain Hernando de Santana founds the city of Valledupar in what is today Colombia.’ To say immediately afterward, ‘Fourteen years later, Anna Maria Zieglerin loses the virginity that up until now has served as the banner of her supposed divine purity.’ The colonel looks at what he has written and says to himself, ‘Objective and vague beauty.’ Then the rest is simple: letting himself get tangled up in the story until he can’t get out again, let the threads suggest themselves until he feels the autobiographical temptation. The colonel follows his curiosity with a mathematical precision.

 

***

 

To say, for example, ‘On March 6, 1550, while a young and unknown Nostradamus puts the final full stop to his first almanac, two street dogs battle over a piece of bread in an alley in Granada.’

 

The pleasure of dates.

 

***

 

To say hermit is, then, not necessarily the same thing as to say suffering. Twenty years in the mountains have taught him the occasional, though unequivocal, pleasures of life. That’s why, this midmorning, with the fog now diffuse and the landscape growing clearer, the colonel stops his work, even though he has written little more than a name, three dates, and some notes. He breathes in an exquisite torpor now that it’s time to choose the first sweet: a tasty, cloying pastry that he wastes no time in scarfing down. It’s followed by a caramel with sugared strawberries, and more coffee, this time with milk. The colonel’s sin is gluttony, but gluttony is welcome here. That’s why there’s no reason to lose hope as we watch him linger over the food. We who know him and see him up close every day, we respect his rituals. A solitary but delicious medieval banquet for this forgotten king. But our anarchist colonel doesn’t believe in kings.

 

***

 

We must pause now and finally take a look at this file of his we have here at hand. For some people, to find our dear anchorite’s biography would be a mere matter of diving into his records and retrieving the pertinent information. Not for him. That’s why he struggles day after day with this autobiography of others that gradually extends over everything, threatening to become infinite. The colonel would correct us: it is not a threat, but a joy. The beauty of a life that covers the history of a century, exploding in all directions from there. But there are dense points, details it would serve us well to corroborate; they’ll make good anecdotes. If we go into the file and read it cover to cover, we’ll see them sprouting up everywhere. Here’s one: it is said that the colonel’s father, one Vladimir Vostokov, aficionado of long beards and hearty drink, reader of Proudhon, and a wholehearted anarchist, decided to set out for Mexico at the start of the twenties in search of political asylum. Suffice to say that he was a sworn enemy of Trotsky’s, and was driven by a different project: to found an anarchist commune in Chalco, at the foot of the Iztaccíhuatl volcano. There, in the middle of the summer rains, our anchorite was born along with the new decade. This does not matter, though, to the colonel.

 

***

 

It doesn’t matter to him because today his task is to narrate the life and work of the first alchemical diva: Anna Maria Zieglerin. He likes the little bells that ring out with the name. He likes even more to imagine her naked and pure in that strange birth of hers. The poor diva was born two months premature. In the weightless morning, the colonel repeats the name and the story again: ‘Anna Maria Zieglerin was born in the seventh month.’ But then he gets stuck, because the details he finds next strike him as morbid. This birth comes to us with a strange texture: it is said that the premature child survived the first months of her life wrapped in a peculiar sheet of skin. He doesn’t know how to say it, but he says it: ‘A blanket of human skins.’ In the deep morning, the detail sounds atrocious but true. In sum, the detail of a diva. And so he merely states, ‘Anna Maria Zieglerin was born and swaddled in skins.’

 

***

 

Not even this horrifying detail is able to hold his attention. Our gluttonous hermit has gotten distracted. We just look at him again from up close, see him sitting in that impeccable and slightly pathetic calm, staring into space with his fine pen poised over the paper. He doesn’t write. The colonel, in his advanced childhood, just doodles. Little restless puppets, medieval dollies, scribbles of random little curves. The colonel no longer studies curves, he only sketches them in their most infantile contours. Mathematics comes to him in playful whispers. Now that we see him pick up another sweet, a sugared cookie, we finally comprehend something: the colonel may not have much time left, but he doesn’t know it. That’s why he sticks to sketching those playful doodles that certainly won’t be left out of his legacy. Because our dear anchorite’s life and work is awaiting a final review. Someone will take charge of the macabre task of looking into the corners of this mouldy home in search of his final work: a mathematical sketch of an invisible project. Then will come the meetings and a kind of mathematics-cum-mysticism, the posthumous labour of a group of professors-cum-Talmudic sect. Then the colonel will smile his final faint smile.

 

***

 

To say, for example, ‘On September 19, 1566, while Nikolaus von Hamdorff dies in a small, overly perfumed bedroom, thousands of cortigianas flood the streets of Rome in a triumphant sendoff.’

 

The pleasure of facts.

 

***

 

The colonel’s passion may be discrete, but it is punctual: we see it rise up sometimes, hidden in a gesture, restless but brief, to then sink down again like a dolphin in open waters. Discrete but punctual, like the death of a German in a well-perfumed bedroom. This Nikolaus von Hamdorff, a gentleman not as dignified as his name would imply, is introduced to us as the first husband of our unfortunate diva. At fifteen years old, the diva of skins, Anna Maria Zieglerin, finds her purity struck by a sudden tremor. The product: a boy who, as in the best of biblical stories, becomes lighter and lighter until he is weightless. On an August afternoon, the child disappears behind his father. The diva is alone once again, though not for long. No. Like any good diva, the alchemical countess is never alone. The colonel knows it, which is why he merely outlines a name and a date: Heinrich Schombach, 1566. Beside it, in small script among the doodles in the margin, he adds a title: court jester. He may not like kings or courts, aristocracies or titles, but this colonel is pursued by the court to the ends of the earth.

 

***

 

At times we are seized by the pleasures of the archive. We open the file, we reread the notes, look at the photographs, examine the letters, and we believe we know everything about this anachronous hermit. We tag along behind those slow, decisive steps with which he moves about the house in his cream-colored toga, as if this were a Buddhist monastery-cum-military court. Suddenly, everything mixes together: the militant activist and the noble mathematician, the esoteric monk and the perfumed aristocrat. Then we come annoyingly, irritatingly close, until we see his lips forming a round o of levity, murmuring words in an ambiguous language. Barbarisms, the Greeks would say. Deutsch, English, español, ру́сский? No. If we get even closer, if we close our eyes and lend a good ear, we will find that the colonel is murmuring in French. And in that language that could be any but is clearly French, the house in the Pyrenees is just a mouldy house that could pass for an old people’s home, an insane asylum or royal court, a monastery or classroom. In the white winter morning, the pale babbling carries to us the voice of a tired man.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, published in Spain and Latin America by Anagrama, is forthcoming this October from Restless Books. His work has appeared in publications including BOMBArt Flash and Asymptote. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.


Megan McDowell is a Spanish-language literary translator from Kentucky. Her work includes books by Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Lina Meruane, Mariana Enríquez, Álvaro Bisama, Arturo Fontaine, and Juan Emar. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin HouseMcSweeney's, Words Without Borders, Mandorla, and VICE, among others. Her translation of Zambra's novel Ways of Going Home won the 2013 PEN Award for Writing in Translation. She lives in Santiago, Chile.

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