In the Night of Time(4)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina


    Perhaps today the enemy is in Madrid and the passport is no longer valid. On the floor of the hotel room, beside the bed, Ignacio Abel left a rumpled newspaper that the cleaning woman will throw into the trash without looking at it. INSURGENTS ADVANCE ON MADRID. The news item is three days old. INCENDIARY BOMBS FALL ON BATTERED CITY. In the middle of a sleepless night he listened to a news bulletin on the radio, read without pause in a nasal, high-pitched voice; the only word he could catch was “Madrid.” Between the advertising jingles and the whistles of static, the name sounded like a remote, exotic city lit by the brilliance of bombs. Perhaps by now his house is a pile of rubble and the country to which his passport belongs and on which his legal identity depends has ceased to exist. But at least the words “Spain” and “war” and “Madrid” were not on the front pages of newspapers at one of the station newsstands he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. He looks at arrows, displays; he listens in passing to bursts of trivial conversations that become transparent and seem to refer to him or contain prophecies; one by one he examines the faces of all the women, not because he expects suddenly to see Judith Biely but because he doesn’t know how not to look for her. The mellow afternoon twilight descends diagonally through the glass of the vaulted ceiling and traces its broad parallel streaks stippled with dust on people’s heads. He tries to ask a porter in a dark blue uniform and red cap a question, but in the confusion his effort isn’t noticed. A column of people hurries toward a corridor under a large sign and an arrow: DEPARTING TRAINS.

    How long had it been since he’d heard someone say his name out loud? If no one recognizes you and no one names you, little by little you cease to exist. He turned, knowing it couldn’t be true that someone was calling to him, but for a few seconds a reflexive impulse continued to affirm what his rational mind denied. The voices of the past, the ones that still reach him in his flight, join in a sound as powerful as the one that echoes beneath the iron-and-glass vaults of Pennsylvania Station. Distance in time and space is their acoustic chamber. He’s fallen asleep after lunch one Sunday in July in the house in the Sierra, and his children’s voices call to him from the garden where the sound of the rusted swing filtered into his sleep. They tell him it’s getting late, that the train to Madrid will come by very soon. He answers the telephone in the middle of the long hall in his apartment and the foreign voice saying his name is Judith Biely’s. He walks into the shade of the awning over the café next to the Europa movie house on Calle Bravo Murillo and pretends not to hear the voice behind him calling his name, the voice of his old teacher at the Weimar Bauhaus, Professor Rossman. He has no reason to avoid him but prefers not to see him; he doesn’t know that this September morning is the last time Professor Rossman will call him by name on a street in Madrid. His voice is lost in a choral explosion of martial anthems, accompanied by drums and cornets, which emerges from the open doors of the movie theater along with a breath of shade and the smell of disinfectant. But the voice repeats his name, as Professor Rossman pats him on the shoulder, my dear Professor Abel, what a surprise, I thought you’d be in America by now.

    Auditory hallucinations (but the voice that spoke his name outside the locked door was not a dream: Ignacio, for the sake of all you love best, open the door, don’t let them kill me). Ignacio Abel tells himself that perhaps the human brain instinctively hears familiar voices in such situations so that the mind doesn’t lose its grip on reality. He heard them this summer in Madrid, at night in his darkened apartment, larger for not being inhabited since the beginning of July, most of the furniture and lamps draped in white cloths to protect them from dust; he didn’t bother to remove them. He thought he heard the radio at the back of the house, in the ironing room, and it took him several seconds to realize it wasn’t possible, or that his memory had manipulated the sound of another radio in the vicinity and transformed the echo of a recollection into a present sensation. He imagined he heard Miguel and Lita having an argument in their room, or that Adela had just come in and the door slammed behind her. The brevity of the deception made it more intense, as did its unexpected occurrence. At any time, particularly when he abandons himself to restless sleep, the voice of Judith Biely would whisper his name so close to his ear he could feel the brush of her breath. In Paris, on his first morning away from Spain, the unexpected voices combined with the fleeting hallucinations. He would see a figure in the distance, the silhouette of someone on the other side of a café window, and for a second he was sure it was someone he knew in Madrid. His children, about whom he’d heard nothing, played soccer on a sandy path in the Luxembourg Gardens; the day before starting out on his journey, he went to say goodbye to José Moreno Villa, alone and looking older in a tiny office in the National Palace, bending over an old file—and yet now he saw him walking a few paces ahead on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, erect, younger, wearing one of his favorite English wool suits and a felt hat tilted slightly to the side. A second later the illusion disappeared as he came closer to the person who’d inspired it, and Ignacio Abel found it difficult to understand how the deception had been possible: the children playing in the Luxembourg were older than his and in no way resembled them; the man identical to Moreno Villa had a dull face, eyes lacking intelligence, and a suit of mediocre cut. Through the small round window of a restaurant kitchen he saw, and for an instant was paralyzed by, the face of one of the three men who’d come to search his house on one of the last nights in July.

    But the experience of the deception didn’t make him more cautious. Not long afterward, he again saw in the distance, at a café table or on a station platform, an acquaintance from Madrid, someone he knew was dead. At first the faces of the dead are imprinted deep in one’s memory and return in dreams and daytime hallucinations shortly before they fade into nothingness. The bald oval head of Professor Karl Ludwig Rossman, whom he had seen and recognized with difficulty one night early in September at the morgue in Madrid under the funereal light of a bulb hanging from a cord where flies clustered, fleetingly appeared to him one day among the passengers sitting in the weak October sun on the deck of the ship he’d taken to New York: an older bald man, probably a Jew, lying on a canvas hammock, his mouth open, his head twisted to one side, sleeping. The dead look as if they’ve fallen asleep in a strange position, or were laughing in their dreams, or death came without waking them, or they opened their eyes and were already dead, one eye wide, the other half closed, one eye blackened or turned to pulp by a bullet. Sudden memories are projected in the present before him like photograms inserted by mistake in the montage of a film, and though he knows they’re false, he has no way to dispel them and avoid their promise and their poison. Walking along the boulevard that led to the port of Saint-Nazaire—at the end of a perspective of horse chestnut trees rose the curved steel wall of an ocean liner, where a name recently painted in white letters, SS MANHATTAN, gleamed in the sun—he saw a man with a broad face and black hair, dressed in a light-colored suit, sitting in the sun at a café table: through a trick of memory, he saw García Lorca again on a June morning on the Paseo de Recoletos in Madrid, from the taxi in which he was rushing to one of his secret meetings with Judith Biely. One of the last. Distance enlivened the details of memory with the immediacy of physical sensations—the June heat inside the taxi, the worn-leather smell of the seat. Lorca, his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette at a marble-topped table, and for a moment Ignacio Abel thought he’d seen and recognized him. Then the taxi circled Cibeles and drove very slowly up Calle de Alcalá, where traffic had stopped, perhaps for a funeral procession, as there were armed guards at the corners. He looked at his wristwatch and the clock on the Post Office Building; he calculated each minute of his time with Judith that was stolen from him by the slow-moving taxi, the crowd gathered for the funeral with flags, placards, and the convulsive gestures of political mourning. Now he thinks of García Lorca dead and imagines him in the same light-colored summer suit he wore that morning, the same tie and two-toned shoes, dead and curled up like a street urchin in that posture of preparing for sleep displayed by the bodies of some who have been shot, lying on their side with their legs pulled up, face resting on a partially extended arm, sleepers tossed into a ditch or near an adobe wall riddled with bullet holes, spattered with blood.

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