The Hermit and the Despot

Liberty is a far cry once you start crying in your sleep. Happiness is a forgotten luxury once black mail and death threats are hurled upon you. The calmness of a Sunday afternoon, the tenderness of my wife’s silken skin and the sweetness of my daughter’s smile were callously disposed by the powers that be.
    Years of stable democracy and thought exchange prospered. My column in El Rosario newspaper allowed me to express myself candidly about the misgivings and wrong-doings of the government I had staunchly supported. Our country always had a frail economy and had never fully recovered after a string of devastating dictatorships. As is wont with whatever government is in control, we were criticised for not lifting the country out of this squalor.
    This is when the populist party, spear-headed by a charismatic and imposing figure, came into the picture. With this affable image, they took the poorer working classes by storm and won by a staggering 60% at the general election.
     Our broadsheet paper, with its strong ties to the previous government, was apprehensive. While we agreed with their policies on progressive taxes – tax the rich more and the poorer less – there were a number of far-fetched legislation they wanted to pass which we found disconcerting. As this was a democratically elected campaign, we felt free to criticise it however way we liked.   
    The new president, Horacio Guiterrez, paraded himself on all news outlets. As he laid down the rules, dictating the country as to how he should be adulated, there was already cause for alarm. Taking any possibility of backlash in my stride, I wrote a piece entitled The Contrivances and Buffooneries of the Over-Weight Despot. While the title may not seem level-handed, I did take both sides of the argument and tried to objectively analyse the evil Guiterrez was inflicting on all of us. Regardless of the contents of the actual piece, the polemical title was enough to catch the eye of the censors.
    On a calm Sunday afternoon, rocks broke through our glass windows.       My precious daughter cried out in alarm; my wife remained studded to her seat. I paced over to our threshold and found a note saying “Do that again and you will die.” Unsubtle, facile and bullying as it was, it was enough to terrorise me.
     When I walked over to my office, all the windows of our building were shattered. As I walked in, the shards pierced into my shoes. Computers were lying on the floor, desks were hurled over and loose scraps of paper abounded everywhere. Striding through the clutter, I walked up to my office, where our editor was, his back facing me, hunched over the swivel-chair. “Héctor?” I uttered.
     He jerked his head, his eyes glowing with tears. “They have forced us to close down.”
     “It was... It was my piece that did it, wasn’t it?”
     “Oh, no... Don’t say that. The newspaper as a whole condemned their actions. Freedom of the press will now be non-existent, my dear friend. I suggest you find a hiding-place; they’ll be looking for you.” Lurching up from the chair, he walked over to me, wiping the tears from his face. “Let me tell you, Gabriel, you were the worthiest writer I’ve ever had. I’ll always cherish your fine columns.” He walked away, down the stair-way and vanished in the night.
I saw all those scraps of paper on the floor, containing the writings painstakingly laboured by our staff, gone to waste. I realised that I had to review my life. What next? My computer, containing a number of columns and reports, was smashed to smithereens. How could I exert myself in any way possible? How could I express my disbelief?
    I could not face returning home. My wife and daughter would be traumatised; I could not allay them in any way. On a whim, I took my car and drove on the high-way.
     Driving through the motor-way, I could not help but feel resentment when I drove through the shanty towns on the periphery of the city. Yes, these people lived a drab and miserable life that was regrettable, but they had been manipulating into voting this buffoon into power. Completely unawares, they had left me destitute. Perhaps there was no other choice for me than to join them as a tramp scavenging across the streets. I should join the populace and vote this nut-case for another term in power.
    A bottle of wine accompanied in my travels. The wine fuelled my body the same way the gasoline fuelled my car. I drove endlessly for hours on end.
     For once bringing the car to a halt, I let my head slump on the seat. I had positioned the car next to a plain; the grasshoppers chirped and the wind rustled the crops. Completely inebriated, I still could not get to sleep. Why? I was not thinking about the repression inflicted by the newly-appointed government. Still, a lot must have been weighing over my mind. I knew that there was no escape.
     Impulsively, I kicked the door open and fell onto the adjacent grass. Hoisting myself up, I staggered onto the crops. I walked and walked and walked.
Just when exhaustion got the better of me, I collapsed. I had fallen next to a vast grove. Having summoned up sufficient strength to move a limb, I pushed aside the splinters, bushes and trees. A colossal mansion came into view. Rising several metres in the air, it was circumvented by black-tainted windows and gargoyles.
     Limping onto the threshold, I knocked forcefully on the door. No response. The breeze enveloped around me; I became desperate. I turned the door knob and, surprisingly enough, the door creaked open.
    Taking several steps into the house, warmth enveloped around me. Any content of the house was indistinguishable – total, complete darkness. “Hello?” I vainly cried out. But it was clear that, as my voice reverberated across the acoustics of this mansion, that it was uninhabited.
     With the aid of a candle, a close inspection of every single room followed. The most spacious room, with a sizable double-bed, was chosen for my night’s rest. I slept like a log.
    After awaking (from dreams I daren’t remember), I heard rain crushing down on the windows. Mottles of dust were suspended in the air. The windows barred the view on the outside. Pushing them open, grey clouds covered the sky as the rain continued to plummet down. 
     Lethargy got the better of me and I had to recourse to some sort of diversion. I attached candles across every sector of the house, illuminating all the mansion’s contents. The library was sizable. It mostly consisted of fiction. I took out books by Juan Carlos Onetti, Juan Rulfo and Jorge Luis Borges.
     Time passed and passed. All I did was read. Pedro Páramo was my portal into this fantasy world. Always glued to the domain of politics, the surreal events that took place in this book took me by the throat and rattled me. It was read in a single sitting. I was ravenous and hungry for more.
    I set myself a challenging task: attempt to read all these books in alphabetical order. I started with A, with Asturias and Arlt, and delved deeper into this realm.
     I kept a tab on each day. It turned out that an entire year had passed. By this time I had reached letter P (the last book I read was by Manuel Puig).
     Becoming tired of reading nothing but fantasy, I ceased reading novels. Below the tabulations I wrote, in my first year did nothing but read novels.
    Leaving the library, I walked out onto the plain. It was winter again. (During the course of the year I had not gone outdoors, so summer was now a forgotten luxury.) The world of fantasy was something new to me. Having studied political sciences, and having devoted my life to current events, I had no taste for artifice. Yet for a whole year I had exhausted it; I needed to find a new interest.
     Coincidentally enough, I had consumed all the food supplies in the cellar. Now I had to fend for myself. There was a rifle lying next to the barn; I would have to hunt.
     A flock of geese flew in droves. Handling the device (which, like the books, I had no prior acquaintance with) I charged at the sky. A potent shot lunged at the sky and the geese dispersed across various directions. No luck came to me the first time round; I had to wait several hours for a bird to appear and, once more, I did not aim with precision. Several hours passed and I erroneously kept missing. It was only by the tenth shot that I hit my target. The goose plummeted down and landed at a remote location. I had to travail across several lakes, pools of mud, thorns and trees to find the dead bird. Rain crushed down onto my soaking body. Arriving home, I cooked the creature and ate it with relish.
    As the days passed, shooting became my expertise. Any bird that came my way fell from the sky with aplomb. Several rabbits, foxes, moles and lizards (a glorious taste) joined my arsenal of meats.
    It also comes without saying that I became a formidable shooter. Now I spent all my time lining up cans, knocking them over with shots and organising an assortment of riveting games.
    Along with this, I kept my tabulations. Having (quite literally) a blast with my rifle games, I noticed that a whole year had elapsed. Whilst this was a pleasure, it could not be denied that it was superfluous. I needed something a little more transcendental. Concurrently, I was running out of bullets. Below the tabulations I wrote, In my second year I did nothing but shoot.
    Laying the rifles down, they fell with force and whirled a wooden board over. As the board fell, a striking clanging sound resounded. The board did not lie flat, it was at an angle; lifting it up, a large instrument appeared. It was a cello. Encased with dust, its strings were worn and its seasoned bow lay at the side. Never one to believe in superstitious conjectures, there seemed to be something serendipitous about the timing of the discovery. A whole year after the shooting diversion, I had instantly found a new hobby.
     Next to the instrument there was a creased notebook containing musical instructions. I had received rudimentary training as a child, so I had a basic grasp of musical notation. Yet it could not be denied that this was a mighty mount to climb. Such a sophisticated instrument requires years upon years of practice to become a competent amateur notwithstanding the years upon years of practice to become a seasoned veteran. I would have to think in more lateral ways – did I really have to stick to these constraints? Might I not allow myself several years of practise to this instrument? I set myself the following proposition: if I did not make sufficient progress within a year, I’d allow myself more time to the instrument; if I had mastered the instrument within a year, I’d pursue something else.
    What I did not account for was the intensity of my obsessive nature. Once I had started playing the most basic of scales – that was it, I practised literally eighteen hours per day and slept for six. As the alarm clock rang, I pulled the cello and bow to my bed and set to work. The only breaks I set aside were for preparing food, doing basic house maintenance and a one hour walk to grab some fresh air. That aside, my schedule consisted of a full, melomaniac devotion to this beast of an instrument. 
    My muscles ached and twitched. I veered my arm left-ward and right-ward endlessly. My left hand’s fingers became creased and worn. These are trivial and incidental matters, for when a whole year had passed I could play Bach, Faure, Villa-Lobos and even snatches of Webern. I thoroughly enjoyed playing these pieces, and I had reached my goal of conquering the instrument surprisingly quickly, but enough was enough. To this day, the cello strings have left indentations across my fingers. Below the tabulations I wrote, In my third year I did nothing but play the cello.
    In my first year, I experienced mental exhaustion; the second year was there to allay this. With the passing of this year, I had experienced both mental and physical exhaustion. Now, I told myself, I would wallow in languor; now I would literally do nothing.
     Still, there was something quite vacuous about this new proposition. What is worse than boredom? In many ways, the three previous endeavours were there to anaesthetise boredom. No, I could not live with boredom; yet, at the same time, I was daunted by the thought of stretching myself.
    I walked down to the cellar. The mottles of dust were suspended in the air; cob-webs encased the walls. Peering into every corner of the room, I noticed reflections from various angles. Walking closer, I could make out black, murky bottles. Retrieving one out, I saw the inscription Merlot 1920, Chateu San Miguel, Red. Wrenching the cork out with all my might, I downed the red wine with relish. Now completely inebriated, I staggered toward all directions of the cellar. I fell asleep.
     After awakening from delirious nightmares, I hurled myself up and saw the countless bottles surrounding all corners of the room. Yes, they must number in the thousands, I told myself. How quaint. A marvellous way to pass the year.
     And indeed, that is how the year was passed. Still, I tried abstaining from indulging too much, purely for numerical reasons. If I gulped down all the bottles in quick succession, there would be enough to pass me through the year. So I limited myself to a bottle per day.
     The days became a blur. Fortunately I kept the tabulations – almost unconsciously – so I kept a track on time. Scarcely eating, I only consumed the odd scrap of food I could lay my hands on. Red wine became my lifeblood. All those classic novels, all the ingenious shooting I had practiced, and my mastering of the cello, were laid to waste. I drank to forget. I systematically aimed to erase and nullify all the information stored in my mind.
    And, alas, a year passed. It just so happens that, upon waking up in the morning, I suffered from a delirious fever. I purged vomit; I felt nauseous. In the last six months of the year, I had the bends. Always dreaming insipid innocent images in my youth, now I experienced vividly frightful nightmares. I could not go on like this. Below the tabulations I wrote, in my fourth year I did nothing but drink.
    Out of curiosity, I decided to revisit the library I had explored three years ago. The novels remained there; all the books, ranging from A to P, were tattered and worn. All the books from P onwards seemed pristine by comparison. I did not know if I wanted to return to this realm of fantasy; as I wrote earlier, I felt as if I had exhausted it in the first year. Something had to be done – but what?
     A detail that had passed me by on my first perusal of these shelves was the bottom shelf on the right corner. An enormous glass globe took up this place, glistening amidst the scant sunshine. Opening this cabinet, I retrieved it. Swerving it around, those remote locations passed my eyes – Zambia, Ethiopia, China, India, Russia, Mongolia, etc. I had often reported on many of these locations as a journalist. Could I possibly leave this little cocoon and settle there, taking refuge from the ‘over-weight’ despot? This did not seem feasible; somehow I had become accustomed to my austerely obsessive existence.
     Still, I could not deny that the mere sight of these countries overwhelmed me; I felt a raging curiosity for them. In some way or another, I would like to pass the next year occupying myself with Zambia, Ethiopia, Syria, Oman, etc.
     On the cabinet to the left I noticed a number of large atlases. They contained maps covering every corner of the world as well as the most detailed and scrupulous information of these places.
    After a month, I read about every single country of the world; I read about their currency, the capital city, their main export, the language spoken, etc. Even though these atlases dated back to 1972, they still quenched my appetite for geographical knowledge.
     I lay back on the floor, closed my eyes and a series of vivid images rafted into my mind. From the scarce information I had managed to assimilate from these books, I imagined these countries: how it would really be like to set foot on these lands?
      And this is how I spent the remainder of the year. It approximated the first year in that it was a phantasmagorical year, full of dreams, desires and longings being extirpated and fleshed out right before my eyes. It was a year of fantasy, but one created by my own mind. Unlike the first year, I was not exercising my intellect in the slightest. It was a primitive dream.
    The vision I recall most vividly was situated in Germany. For some reason or another I did not imagine taking place in the Germany of the present day, it took place in the 1920s, just after the First World War. I remember walking past fields, next to a train track; I remember how there was camaraderie about living in this town. I remember my name being Otto. My wife was Angela; she held my hand as we walked across the fields. It may sound dull, banal perhaps, but this vision filled me with joy. Somehow the very provinciality of the conceit, of the 1920s German countryside, was endearing. I loved holding Angela’s hand and I loved drinking beer with my fellow friends.
     And as I opened my eyes I was back in the large mansion, the mottles of dust encircling around my eyes. After my childhood I could never imagine visions so vividly; now they blared into my mind as vividly as a drug-induced hallucination. I never felt the need to take drugs and I felt this more strongly than ever. I did not take drugs, I was drugs.
    Just after spending time in Germany, I would find myself in eight century China. I would admire the prairie and go on errands on a small canoe.
     I also dreamt, but these dreams were a mere reiteration of my diurnal visions. At day time I would imagine to be fighting in the Spanish civil war; at night time I would find myself in a sprawling American metropolis.
    As ever, I faithfully kept my tabulations. Another year had passed. The tabulations were placed above the atlas, on which I wrote in my fifth year I did nothing but travel abroad.
     For the last two years I had scarcely eaten, nor had I seen proper sun light. I decided to go outdoors. It was bright outside, but just as I stepped out, a shower of rain came down. Somehow, this was inviting; I let myself get drenched. This was reinvigorating; this was real. I had been too much of a solipsist, too self-consumed. I wasn’t necessarily going to integrate myself into society again; I thought I’d preoccupy myself with an element of the external world.
     The shower eventually receded. Walking into the forest I saw a beautiful blue tit resting on the branch of a birch. Walking farther into the forest I saw a plethora of birds – some whose species I recognised, others I did not. I found this animal type fascinating and recognised immediately that my next endeavour would, in some way or another, be devoted to them.
    I was not, nor ever had been, a man of science. Returning to the mansion, I scoured the library for ornithological or animal biology books but found none. Evidently the previous owner of this mansion had not set time aside for this, either. Because of my obsessive nature, I felt that I would be able to master this subject. After all, I practically became a professional on the cello within a year. I gave it some thought and concluded that I would become an amateur ornithologist. I would not become an expert on birds in the scientific sense, I would approach the subject far more idiosyncratically.
     I took a sketch book, looked at the birds, and drew various figures. For all these figures, I gave them quasi-scientific titles. For robins, I wrote “robinits-tatis-tatis”; for sparrows I wrote “spari-auxiliari”; for eagles I wrote “Exglaratatom-evanetis.” Complete drivel, I know, but writing these never failed to amuse me.
     For the sketches, I methodically drew every single detail of the bird. Its feathers, its beak, its loins, etc. Often, it would fly away into the air and there would go my portrait. Nonetheless, the closer I studied the birds, the more I knew about their features and the more effortless the task became.
     Whilst I was obsessed by their beauty, this gradually became of secondary importance. One night I slept in the woodlands and I was awakened by bird song. I found the polyphony of whistling and bird calls irresistible. I whistled certain melodies and the birds would repeat them in unison. It was beautiful.
    So, in addition to the numerous series of sketches I in my mansion, I began to notate bird call in musical language. I began to spend more time out than in. The previous years in the mansion I was sequestered in an enclosed environment of brooding shadows.
    The greatest irony was that it was the polar opposite of the second year. In that year I systematically shot down any bird with my rifle. Now I was aghast how I ever could have practiced such an abominable aberration. Birds became my life; I could not comprehend how I could make a life out of killing and eating them.
    For some reason or another, I re-visited the shed where I kept all my rifles. This visit, in some way, would be made to pay requiem to all those birds that had vanished and disappeared thanks to my cold ruthless evisceration.
     Yet I could not focus on this while I was there; instead I saw the sooty old cello lying in the corner of the room. It dawned on me that I could make the ultimate retribution to these birds – I would play back their birdsong on this instrument and continue this fascinating dialogue.
    Armed with all the sketches I had drawn of these creatures, all the transcribed musical notation and a cello, I went out to the woodlands. I played all the music I had written down, which the birds thrived on. They replicated all the figures I played. They all whistled at different speeds and at different metres, meaning that the sound wasn’t homophonous. Any wanderer who chanced to walk by, however, would be able disentangle the independent melodies constituting this marvellous fabric of sound.
     This continued indefinitely and I enjoyed it thoroughly. However, the tabulations informed that another year had passed. So, I wrote below them, in my sixth year I studied amateur ornithology.
    I felt like an awful long time had passed. I felt that now I had to produce the summation of every single activity I had undertaken. What medium would I use to produce this? Before arriving here, my profession was journalism. Could I perhaps produce a report of my seven years as hermit?
    Journalism did not seem like the most adept format for this. The greatest shortcoming to journalism is its ephemeral quality – it does not stand the test of time. To read about a war that is no longer being fought does not interest anyone, to read statistics about economic growth written years ago is not relevant and to read about a fifty-year-old domestic election has little social value. What really transcends time is great literature, and I felt the need to produce a literary work that addressed everything that had transpired in this abandoned mansion. I had read all the great Latin-American classics in my first year, so I already had a grasp of how to use language and how to be stylistically inventive.
    Taking out the typewriter, I set out to work. The first two weeks were devoted to planning; for the rest of the year I put my heart and soul into The Hermit and the Despot.
    I set the novel within the context of a new presidential election taking place in an unspecified South American country. I wrote about the election of a populist candidate whom I attributed the adjectives ‘Clown,’ ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Bully.’ I was the central character, thinly disguised. I changed my name from ‘Gabriel’ to Héctor (thus paying tribute to my former editor). I basically fictionalised my entire trajectory, from the despot’s repression to the numerous endeavours I described above.
    This was a consuming task I became completely subsumed into. However clichéd it may sound, I lived and breathed this novel. I set the minimum requirement of 3.000 words per day, which I faithfully stuck to. Later in the day I would proofread and excise unnecessary words.
    Finally, after having completed the manuscript, the seventh (and, as it turned out, final) year passed. Below the tabulations I wrote, in the seventh year I wrote a novel.
Thus, my work here was done. The manuscript had documented my time in these quarters; now I had to publish it. This novel would at once be a scathing criticism of Horacio Guiterrez and the chronicle of an ascetic lifestyle.
    I shaved, had a shower and scrubbed off every shred of dirt on my body. I put my handsome suit back on, gelled my hair and placed my thick black spectacles over my nose. I was back to being Gabriel Rojas.
     Just as I turned the door knob, I felt the presence of somebody on the other end. Nudging the door forward, none other than the big fat despot came to view, Horacio Guiterrez.
    He seemed exasperated and over-wrought. Black circles curled under his eyes, a beard covered his face and he wore a furrowed garment. In my seven years of residency here, I had not encountered a single person. The person I did eventually encounter was the president of the country. What’s more is that he resembled a hermit. I, meanwhile, resembled an ordinary middle-class citizen.
    “What... What are you doing here?” He murmured. “No! They have traced my remote mansion down! They have ceased it! Oh, curses!”
    “Oh... So... You have been ousted as president?”
    “In what planet do you live in!”
     “I have lived here for seven years, Mr. Guiterrez. It was you, may I add, who pushed me into this place. It was you who closed my newspaper down. It was you who sent me death threats. You may as well take back possession of this mansion, I was just happening to leave. I am glad to be returning to democracy, rather your insufferable regime.”
     “Listen... Whoever you are. El Rosario has resumed publication. Someone was meant to stand in a pulpit and give a speech. Maybe you could go there.”
    “Indeed I shall, my dear despot. May you now become a hermit.”
Swathes of people were gathered together, drinking wine and cheering. Balloons floated in the air, confetti fell on all sides and people triumphantly cheered “Adiós Guiterrez! Adiós Guiterrez!”
    I recognised my fellow colleagues in the front row, grinning. They waved to the crowd, occasionally raising their beverages to their mouths. Most strikingly, I saw my wife and my grown daughter together. But my wife held the arms of my editor, Héctor. Time had passed. My wife had found someone else.
    As I walked forward, they caught my sight. Their euphoric grins changed instantly to expressions of astonishment. The crowd did not comprehend this and their chanting soon died down. Everyone turned their direction to me. I took the pulpit.
     “Dear friends, a new age of democracy and pluralism has finally come before us. I am, thankfully, a stranger to dictatorships. No, I did not go into exile all these years. I presume most of you simply thought I was dead. Well, my heart has continued to thump all along.
     “Yes, I was always a journalist, but now I have broadened my horizons. I have mastered the cello, become an ornithologist, read great literature and wrote an entire novel. (Its manuscript lies before me.) In essence, I have lived an ascetic life; I have been a hermit. The greatest irony of all is that my time was spent in a mansion belonging to none other than Horacio Guiterrez himself. You see, my friends, political realities are impossible to avoid. I systematically tried evading the brutality of this deposed regime. Now I have come full circle to reconcile myself with the world. All these themes are explored in this novel I hold before you, The Hermit and the Despot.”
     An awkward silence ensued, followed by scattered applause. I walked backstage. Héctor approached me. “That was an… interesting speech, Gabriel. Listen, I will get your novel published, but I suggest you come back to work as a columnist for us.”
    I turned aside and saw his eyes glazing in the light, his grey moustache curling over his protruding lips. I assented.
April-June, 2012 

No comments: