First he spat, then he expelled the remainder of the smoke from deep within his lungs and finally he threw the tiny cigarette butt into the water, flicking it with his fingers. The burning sensation on his skin brought him back to reality, and, once back in the world, he thought how much he would have liked to know the real reason for his being here, looking out to sea, preparing to undertake an unpredictable journey into the past. He then began to convince himself that many of the questions he would have to ask would have no answers; but it reassured him to remember how it had been the same with many other questions that had pursued him throughout his life, and he accepted the gloomy fact that he was going to have to live with more doubts than certainties. Perhaps that was why he was no longer a policeman, he said to himself, as he put another cigarette between his lips.
The pleasant breeze coming from the little cove proved to be a blessing in the midst of the summer heat, but Mario Conde had chosen that short stretch of seafront, shaded by some ancient casuarina trees, for reasons connected with neither the sun nor the heat. Sitting on the wall, with his feet dangling down towards the rocks, he enjoyed the sensation of freedom from the tyranny of time, imagining how good it would be to spend the rest of his life in that exact spot, devoting his time just to thinking, reminiscing and watching the calm, peaceful sea. And if a good idea occurred to him he might even start writing, since in his personal paradise Conde had turned the sea, with its smells and sounds, into the perfect setting for his spirit. There abided, fixed in his imagination like a tenacious shipwrecked sailor, the sweet image of himself living in a wooden house, looking out over the sea, given over to writing in the mornings and to fishing and swimming in the afternoons. Reality had been battering this dream for some years now with typical fervour, and Conde couldn’t understand why he still clung to the image, which had been so vivid and photographic at first, but from whose rather poor impressionist palette he could now barely make out the lighter patches or faded brightness.
So he stopped trying to find an explanation for that afternoon: he just knew that he had had to return to that little cove at Coj’mar so grounded in his memory. In fact, everything had begun in that very place, facing the same sea, beneath the same casuarina trees, amongst the same old indelible smells, that day in 1960 when he had encountered Ernest Hemingway. The exact date eluded him (as had so many good things in life) and he couldn’t be sure if he had still been five or if he was already six, although at the time his grandfather Rufino was already taking him along to the most varied of places, from cockpits and the bars in the port, to the domino tables and the baseball stadiums – those cherished spots where Conde had learnt some of the most important things a man must know. That unforgettable afternoon they had watched some cockfights in Guanabacoa, and his grandfather, who had won his bets, as he usually did, decided to reward them by taking young Mario to visit the small town of Coj’mar, so that he could have what he insisted was the best ice cream in Cuba, made by the Chinaman Casimiro Chon, with fresh fruit in old wooden sorbet bowls.
Conde thought that he could still remember the creamy taste of the mamey fruit ice cream, and his delight in watching the manoeuvres of a beautiful yacht with a black hull and brown woodwork, from which two huge fishing-rods stuck out skywards, making it look like an amphibious insect. If his memory was accurate, Conde had watched the yacht as it gently approached the shore, making its way between the flotilla of dilapidated fishing-boats anchored in the cove and dropping its anchor next to the jetty. At that moment a reddish-haired, shirtless man jumped from the yacht onto the concrete quay, caught hold of the rope that another man, hidden beneath a dirty white cap, threw to him from the vessel. Pulling on the end of the rope the red-haired man pulled the yacht up to a post and moored it there with a perfect knot. Perhaps his grandfather Rufino pointed something out to him, but Conde’s eyes and memory had already fixed upon the other person – the man wearing the cap – who wore round-framed glasses with green lenses and had a thick, grey beard. He watched him as he jumped ashore and paused to say something to the man already standing on the quayside. Conde would live with the belief that he had seen how the two men shook hands and, without letting go, spoke for a while – perhaps a minute, perhaps even an hour – he couldn’t remember. Then the old man with the beard embraced the other and, without casting a glance behind him, went along the quay towards the shore. There was something of Santa Claus in that old, rather dirty-bearded man with his large hands and feet; he walked with assurance, but somehow sadness emanated from him. Or perhaps it was just an unfathomable, magnetic premonition, foretelling the nostalgia lying in wait in a future that the boy could not even imagine.
When the man with the grey beard climbed the concrete steps and reached the pavement, Conde saw how he tucked his cap under his arm. He took a small plastic comb from his shirt pocket and started to smooth down his hair, combing it backwards over and over again, as if this repeated action were essential. For a moment the man was so close to Conde and his grandfather that Conde caught a whiff of his smell: a mixture of sweat and the sea, of petrol and fish, an unhealthy, engulfing stench.
His grandfather had said this, but Conde had never figured out if he had been referring to the man or the weather, for at that stage in his recollection what he remembered and what he’d been told later became confused, the man walking past him and thunder heard from afar. So Conde usually cut off the reconstruction of his only encounter with Ernest Hemingway at that point.
“That’s Hemingway, the American writer,” added his grandfather after the man had walked past. “He likes cockfights too.”
Conde imagined turning the remark over in his mind as he watched the writer walking over to a shiny black Chrysler parked on the other side of the street, and from the car window, without taking off his green-lensed glasses, he seemed to wave goodbye to him and his grandfather, although perhaps he extended his farewell much further than them, to the cove with the yacht and the red-haired man whom he had hugged, or to the Spanish watchtower constructed to defy the passage of time, or perhaps even at the furthest part of the Gulf Stream . . . But the boy had already caught the farewell gesture in mid-air and, before the car moved off, he returned it with his hand and voice.
“Adiós, Hemingway,” he shouted, and received in reply a smile from the man. Some years later, when he himself discovered the painful need to write and began to choose his literary idols, Mario Conde knew that that had been Ernest Hemingway’s last trip across a stretch of sea that he had loved like few other places in the world, and he understood that the American writer could not have been saying goodbye to him, a tiny insect that had landed on the sea front at Coj’mar, but that he had at that moment been bidding farewell to several of the most important things in his life.
“Want another?” asked Manolo.
“OK,” replied Conde.
“A double or a single?”
“What do you think?”
“Cachimba, two double rums,” shouted Inspector Manuel Palacios, with one arm raised, addressing the barman who began to serve the drink without removing the pipe from his mouth. The Watchtower wasn’t a clean bar, let alone well-lit, but there was rum, silence and few drunkards, and from his table Conde could carry on watching the sea and the worn stones of the colonial tower to which the place owed its grand-sounding name. Unhurriedly, the barman walked over to their table, placed the drinks on it, and collected the empty glasses, picking them up between his dirty-nailed fingers, and looked at Manolo.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” he said, slowly, “I don’t believe a word about you being a policeman.”
“For God’s sake, Cachimba, don’t get so fucking worked up,” said Manolo, trying to calm him down. “I was only joking.”
The barman glared at him and moved away. He had already looked at Mario with loathing when he had asked him if they served a “Papa Hemingway” there, the daiquiri the writer used to drink, made of two measures of rum, lemon juice, a few drops of maraschino and a lot of finelycrushed ice, but no sugar at all. (“The last time I saw a piece of ice was when I was a penguin,” the barman had replied.)
“So how did you know I was here?” Conde asked his former colleague after knocking back half his drink in one go.
“I’m not a cop for nothing, am I?”
“Don’t steal my lines.”
“They’re no good to you now, Conde . . . you’re not a cop any longer,” said Inspector Manuel Palacios with a smile. “It’s quite simple. I know you so well, I expected you to be here. I don’t know how many times you’ve told me that story about the day you saw Hemingway. Did he really wave goodbye to you, or is that something you made up?”
“You find out, that’s what you’re a cop for.”
“You pissed off with me?”
“Don’t know. I just don’t want to get involved in this . . . but at the same time I do want to get involved.”
“Listen, you get as involved in it as you want, and when you want to, walk away. After all, there’s not much point to it anyway. It’s almost forty years since . . .”
“I don’t know why the hell I agreed to it . . . but then, I couldn’t help myself even if I’d wanted to.”
Conde finished his drink, feeling sorry for himself. Eight years out of the police force is a long time and he would never have imagined it would be so easy to return to the fold. Recently, as he supposedly spent time writing, or at least trying to write, he had found himself spending much of the day buying old books all over the city in order to supply the bookstall of a dealer friend of his from whom he received 50 per cent of the profits.
Although the business was not that profitable, Conde liked the job for its peculiar advantages; he enjoyed the personal stories concealed behind the decision to get rid of a library that might have been built up over three or four generations, and he liked the time lapse between purchase and sale, during which he could read anything he liked as it passed through his hands. The essential drawback of the business operation, however, was evident when Conde suffered small cuts to his skin when he handled good old books damaged, at times irreparably, by carelessness and ignorance or when, instead of taking certain tempting volumes to his friend’s bookstall, he decided to keep them in his own bookcase, an incurable symptom of the terrible infirmity of bibliophilia. But that morning, the day after a fierce summer storm, when his former colleague had phoned him and told him the story of the dead body discovered at Finca Vigía and offered to hand the investigation over to him if he wanted it, a visceral reaction had forced Conde to look painfully at the blank sheet of paper in his prehistoric Underwood typewriter and agree, even though he’d barely heard the first details of the case.
That summer storm had also lashed the district where Conde lived. Unlike hurricanes, these ferocious downpours, gales and flashes of lightning could arrive with no prior warning at any time in the afternoon to perform a swift, macabre dance over parts of the island. Their power, capable of devastating banana plantations and over-running drains, very rarely did any greater damage, but this particular storm had shown no mercy on Finca Vig”a, once Hemingway’s Havana home. It tore some of the tiles from the roof, cut off the electricity, demolished part of the fence around the courtyard and brought down an ancient, dying mango tree which had certainly been there before the building of the house back in 1905. Among the tree’s exposed roots there had emerged some bones, which the experts had quickly identified as belonging to a man, Caucasian, about sixty years old, with the first signs of arthritis and an old, badly-healed fracture of the patella. He seemed to have been killed thirty or forty years ago, probably the late “50s, by two shots, almost certainly from a rifle. He had received one of the shots in the chest, seemingly through the right side, which, in addition to going through several of his vital organs, had severed his sternum and his vertebral column. The other bullet seemed to have entered his body through his abdomen, since it had fractured a rib in the dorsal area. Two shots fired from a powerful weapon, apparently at close range, causing the death of a man who, now, was nothing more than a bag of crumbling bones.
“Do you know why you agreed?” Manolo asked him, with a satisfied glance. Then, going crosseyed, “because a sonofabitch will always be a sonofabitch, however much he goes to confession and attends church. Once a cop, always a cop. That’s why, Conde.”
“Why don’t you tell me something useful instead of all that shit? With the information I’ve got, I can’t even start to –”
“Because there isn’t anything else and I doubt there will be either. It was forty years ago, Conde.”
“Be straight with me, Manolo . . . who cares anything about this case?”
“You really want to know? As things stand, just you, the dead man, Hemingway and I don’t think anyone else . . . Look, as far as I’m concerned it couldn’t be clearer. Hemingway had a filthy temper. One day someone fucked him around too much and he let him have two shots. Then he buried him. Nobody had any interest in the dead man at the time. Then Hemingway shot himself in the head and that was an end to the story. I called you up because I knew it would interest you and I want to leave an interval before closing the case. When I close it and the news gets out, the story of a dead man buried at Hemingway’s house is going to make headlines halfway around the world . . .”
“And naturally, they’re going to say that Hemingway killed him. And if it wasn’t him, who did kill him?”
“That’s what you’re going to find out. If you can . . . Look, Conde, I’m up to here with work,” he said as he brought his hand up to his eyebrows. “Things here are getting bloody nasty: every day there are more hold-ups, cases of embezzlement, muggings, prostitution, pornography . . .”
“Pity I’m not a cop any more. I love pornography.”
“Shut up Conde: pornography involving children.”
“This country’s gone crazy . . .”
“That doesn’t sound like you . . . Do you think I’ve got time to investigate Hemingway’s life, someone who killed himself a thousand years ago, to find out if he’s guilty or innocent?”
Conde smiled and looked out at the sea.
“Know something, Manolo? I would love to find out that it was Hemingway who killed that guy. That bastard has been getting up my nose for years. But it pisses me off to think they might land him with a murder he didn’t commit. That’s why I’m going to look into it . . . Have they already fully searched the place where they found the body?”
“Not yet, but tomorrow Crespo and Greco are going over there. We couldn’t let any old labourer do it.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Carry on with my work and within a week, when you tell me what you’ve found out, I’ll close the case and forget this story and let someone else carry the can.”
Conde looked out to sea again. He knew that Inspector Palacios was right, but he felt strangely uncomfortable about it. Is it because I was a cop for too long? he wondered. And now I’m trying to be a writer, he thought, so as not to forget his true ambition.
“Come here, I want you to see something,” Conde said as he stood up. Without waiting for Manolo he crossed the road and went over to the small park where, under a canopy, there was a stone pedestal with a bronze bust. The light of the sun, slanting as it set, cast its final rays upon the green, almost smiling face of the man immortalised there.
“When I started writing, I imitated him. That guy was very important for me,” said Conde, staring at the sculpture.
Of all the tributes, invocations and commemorations of Hemingway that existed in Cuba, only this bust seemed tangible and real to him, like one of those simple affirmative clauses that Hemingway learnt to write in his old days as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. To him, it seemed excessive and even unliterary that a marlin fishing competition should survive, invented by the writer himself and carried on after his death, still bearing the authority of his name. He considered phoney and tasteless (actually, disgusting) the “Papa Doble” that he had once drunk at the Floridita, which had cost him money he could ill afford – a concoction that Hemingway had insisted – for medical reasons, of all things – on drinking without the saving grace of the spoonful of sugar that could have made the difference between a good cocktail and a rum baptised with too little water. More than tacky, he considered offensive the development of a glamorous Marina Hemingway designed to exclude the scruffy Cuban but enable the rich and beautiful of the world to enjoy yachts, beaches, meals, obliging whores and lots of skin-flattering sun. Even the Finca Vigía Museum, which he had stopped visiting years ago, seemed to him like a stage-set devised in life to commemorate death. In short, only the decaying and deserted square in Coj’mar with its bronze bust felt real to him: it was the first posthumous tribute paid to the writer anywhere in the world, and it was the one that his biographers always forgot to mention. But it was the only sincere one, since it had been erected by the poor fishermen of Coj’mar with their own money after they had scoured Havana for the bronze for the sculptor, who hadn’t charged for his work either. Those fishermen, to whom in hard times Hemingway had given what he caught in favourable waters; to whom he had given well-paid work when they filmed The Old Man and The Sea; with whom he had drunk beer and rum that he paid for, and to whom he listened, in silence, as they spoke of huge fish caught in the warm waters of the great Gulf Stream – they felt what nobody else in the world could feel. For them a comrade had died, and that was something Hemingway was not even for other writers, journalists, bull fighters or white hunters in Africa, or even for the Spanish militiamen or those French resistance fighters at whose head he had entered Paris to carry out the alcoholic, euphoric liberation of the Ritz Hotel from Nazi occupation . . . That piece of bronze stood out against all the spectacular falsehood of Hemingway’s life, the one true element among the myths that overcame the lies, and Conde admired the tribute not on account of the writer, who would never know of it, but for those men who had conceived it, with an honest intent that is rarely seen.
“And you know the worst thing about it?” added the former cop, “I think he still is important to me.”
If Miss Mary had been at home that Wednesday night, they would have had dinner guests, as they did every Wednesday night, and he wouldn’t have been able to drink so much wine. There probably wouldn’t have been many guests because of late he tended to prefer peace and quiet and the conversation of a couple of friends to the alcoholic binges of previous times, especially since his liver had sounded a warning call on account of the quantity of alcohol he had consumed over the years; both drink and food featured at the top of a horrible list of prohibitions that was growing relentlessly. Still, Wednesday dinners at Finca Vig”a were kept up as a ritual, and of all the people with whom he was acquainted, he preferred to share them with his old friend from the Spanish Civil War, Doctor Ferrer Machuca, and with the disturbing Valerie Danby-Smith, that gentle red-haired Irish girl who was so young and whom he had turned into his assistant so as not to fall in love with her, being convinced that matters of business and love should not be combined.
The sudden departure of his wife for the US to speed up the purchase of some land in Ketchum had left him alone, and at least for a few days he wanted to make the most of the sharp, unfamiliar feeling of solitude that so symptomised his old age. Each morning he got up with the sun and, as in the good old days, worked hard and well, standing before his typewriter and producing more than three hundred words a day, despite the fact that the truth that he was pursuing in the slippery story he had entitled The Garden of Eden seemed more and more elusive. Although he couldn’t admit as much to anyone, the fact was that he had gone back to this project, conceived ten years before as a short story but now grown beyond his control, because he had had to stop work on updating Death in the Afternoon. As he’d been working on the old chronicle, devoted to the art and philosophy of bullfighting and in need of a thorough revision for the planned new edition, he had felt that his brain was functioning too slowly and on more than one occasion he had had to make an effort to remember details and even to consult some text about bullfighting in order to clarify certain points about that world which he had discovered in his prolonged love affair with Spain.
On the morning of Wednesday, 2 October 1958 he managed to write three hundred and seventy words and by midday he had been swimming, though he didn’t keep track of the number of lengths covered so he wouldn’t be ashamed by the ridiculous figures he achieved now – so much less than the mile that he used to swim every day even three or four years back. After lunch, he ordered his driver to take him to Coj’mar, where he would have a chat with his old friend Ruperto, the skipper of the Pilar, and let him know of his intention to set out for the Gulf the following weekend, and give his exhausted brain a rest. Overcoming temptation, he got back home at dusk without stopping off first at the Floridita, a bar he was incapable of entering for just one drink.
He tucked into two swordfish steaks, covered with slices of onion, and a big plate of vegetables dressed just with lime juice, and at nine o’clock he asked Ra”l to clear the table, close the windows and, when he had finished, go home – but first to bring up the bottle of Chianti he had been given the previous week. With lunch he had preferred a light, fragrant Valdepe”as, and his palate now needed the dry, virile taste of the Italian wine.
When he got up from the table he noticed a movement at the front door and saw Calixto’s dark head appear. It always amazed him that despite being older than him and having spent fifteen years in prison, Calixto didn’t have a single grey hair on his head.
“Can I come in, Ernesto?” the man asked. Hemingway beckoned him in. Calixto walked over and looked at him. “How are you today?”
“Fine, I guess,” gesturing towards the empty bottle on the table.
“Delighted to hear it.”
Calixto was the most ubiquitous employee at the Finca, since he carried out the most varied tasks. He was just as happy working with the gardener as covering for the driver when he was on holiday; he also worked with the carpenter or spent his time painting the walls of the house. These days, at the insistence of Miss Mary – as everyone, including her husband, called her – he was in charge of the night security of the Finca with the responsibility of not leaving his boss alone in that huge house. If that order was not confirmation that they thought of him as an old man, then what the hell was it? He and Calixto had known each other for almost thirty years, ever since the days when Calixto smuggled alcohol into Key West and Joe Russell bought it from him. They often drank together in Sloppy Joe’s and in Hemingway’s house at Key West, and he enjoyed hearing the tough Cuban’s stories of how, during the Prohibition years, he had crossed the Straits of Florida more than two hundred times to get Cuban rum into the southern states of America. Then they didn’t see each other for a long time, though when he began to visit Havana, Hemingway found that Calixto was in prison for having killed a man during a drunken brawl in a bar on the quayside. When he got out of prison, in 1947, they had met by chance at the door of the Floridita, and, when he heard about all Calixto’s problems, Hemingway offered him work, without the faintest idea what kind of work he could give him. Since that moment, Calixto had roamed around his property, determined to do something useful to justify his wages and the favour he owed his writer friend.
“I’m going to have a coffee. Shall I pour you one?” asked Calixto, moving off towards the kitchen.
“No, not today. I’ll carry on drinking wine.”
“Don’t overdo it, Ernesto,” he said from the next room.
“I won’t overdo it. And you can go to hell with your reformed drunkard’s advice . . .”
Calixto came back into the drawing-room, with a cigarette between his lips. He smiled as he talked to his boss.
“In the good old days in Key West I always used to knock you out. Or have you already forgotten that?”
“Nobody remembers about that any more. Least of all me.”
“Well, I’m off now. I’ll take a cup of coffee with me,” he said. ‘shall I do the rounds?”
“No, I’ll do it.”
“See you later?”
“Sure. See you later.”
If Miss Mary had been at home, after the meal and conversation, he would have read a few pages from some book – perhaps the Argentinian edition of The Liver and its Illnesses by a certain H.P. Himsworth, which described liver ailments and their distressing consequences in brutal terms – while he drank his one permitted glass of wine, usually left over from the meal. Miss Mary would play canasta with Ferrer and Valerie, while he, a silent presence, enjoyed his sideways view of Valerie, whom Mary had cleverly taken off with her, arguing that she needed her help for certain legal and banking business she had to carry out in New York. When all’s said and done, an old leopard doesn’t change its spots . . . After drinking the wine and reading for a while he wouldn’t have stayed up long: he would have soon said goodnight to the three of them, as they all knew that it had become his habit to go to bed at about eleven o’clock, whether he was doing the rounds of the Finca or not . . . So much routine, repetition, habits that were taken for granted, foreseeable actions; they all seemed to him the most incontrovertible indicator of his state of old age, but he found it enjoyable to deceive himself with a feeling of responsibility towards literature that he had not felt since those distant days in Paris, when he didn’t know who would publish his books or who would read them, and he fought for each word as if his very life were at stake.
“Here’s your wine, Papa.”
Ra”l Villaroy placed the uncorked bottle and the clean, crystal glass on top of the small bar next to the armchair. Even though he had served him since 1941, shortly after Hemingway had taken up residence in the house with his third wife, Ra”l would never have dared to say anything to him about the wine and Hemingway knew that he wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag to Miss Mary. Ra”l’s loyalty was as absolute as that of Calixto, but with a devoted dog-like quality that made it calmer and more reserved. Of all his employees, Ra”l was the one he loved most and the only one who, when he called him “Papa”, said it as if he really was his father.
“Papa, are you sure you want to spend another night alone here?”
“Yes, Ra”l, don’t worry. Have the cats been fed?”
“Yes, Dolores took them their fish, and I fed the dogs. Black Dog was the only one who didn’t want to eat; he seems on edge. A moment ago he was barking back there. I went down to the swimming pool, but I didn’t see anyone.”
“I’ll give him something. He always eats when I feed him.”
“That’s true, Papa.”
Ra”l picked up the bottle and half-filled the wine glass. Hemingway had taught him to leave it
open for a few minutes before pouring, to let the wine breathe and settle.
“Who’s going to do the rounds?”
“I’ll do it. I’ve already told Calixto.”
“Do you really want me to go off and leave you alone?”
“Yes, Raúl, that’s fine. If I need you I’ll call.”
“Mind you do call me. But I’ll have a look around later anyway.”
“You’re as bad as Miss Mary . . . Don’t you worry, I’m not a helpless old man.”
“I know that Papa. OK, sleep well. Tomorrow I’ll be here at six o’clock for breakfast.”
“What about Dolores? Why can’t she prepare it? She usually does.”
“If Miss Mary’s away, I should be here.”
“That’s fine, Ra”l. Good night.”
“Good night, Papa. Is the wine all right?”
“That’s good. I’m off now. Good night, Papa.”
“Good night, Ra”l.”
That Chianti really did have a great taste. It was a present from Adriana Ivancich, the Venetian countess with whom he had fallen in love a few years back and whom he had turned into Renata in Across the River And Into the Trees. Drinking it reminded him of how the young girl’s lips tasted, and that comforted him and eased the feeling of guilt at drinking more than was advisable.
If you want to carry on living, cut out drinking and adventures, Ferrer and the other doctors had warned him. He had problems with his blood pressure, his cholesterol level was high, his incipient diabetes could get worse, his liver and kidneys hadn’t recovered after he was injured in those plane crashes in Africa, and his sight and hearing were going to deteriorate if he didn’t look after himself: such a collection of illnesses and restrictions was what he was being reduced to. And what about bullfights? Fine, but in moderation. He had to return to the bullring; he needed to get back to bullfights and their atmosphere for the re-write of Death in the Afternoon which was turning out to be so difficult. He downed the whole glass and poured himself some more. The sound of the red wine pouring into the glass conjured up something he couldn’t quite remember, although it was connected with one of his adventures. What the hell can it be? he wondered, and the horrible realisation dawned on him, familiar, though he tried not to think about it: with no more adventures or memories, what would he write about?
His biographers and critics always insisted on emphasising his taste for danger, war, extreme situations – in short, for adventure. Some of them considered him a man-of-action-turned-writer, others thought him a clown in search of exotic or dangerous settings that would add impact to what he wrote. But they had all played their part in mythologising, either through praise or criticism, a life that they all agreed he had forged with his actions across half the globe. The truth, as usual, was more complicated and awful: without my life story I wouldn’t have been a writer, he said to himself, and looked at his wine against the light, without drinking it. He knew that his imagination had always been limited and unreliable, and merely recounting the things that he had seen and learnt about in life had allowed him to write in a way that exuded the veracity he demanded of literature. Without the bohemian experience in Paris and the bullfights he wouldn’t have written The Sun Also Rises. Without the wounds received at Fossalta, the hospital in Milan and his desperate love for Agnes von Kurosowsky, he would never have had the idea for A Farewell to Arms. Without the safari in 1934 and the bitter taste of fear he experienced in his close encounter with a wounded buffalo, he wouldn’t have written Green Hills of Africa, or two of his best stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. Without Key West, the Pilar, Sloppy Joe’s and smuggled alcohol, To Have and Have Not wouldn’t have been born. Without the war in Spain and the bombing raids and heartless Martha Gellhorn, he would never have written The Fifth Column and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Without the Second World War and without Adriana Ivancich Across the River And Into the Trees wouldn’t exist. Without all those days devoted to the Gulf and without the marlin that he caught and without the stories of other huge marlin that he had heard the fishermen of Coj’mar talking about, The Old Man and the Sea would never have seen the light of day. Without the “Crooks’ Factory” that went with him to hunt for Nazi submarines, without Finca Vig”a, and without the Floridita and the drinks he’d consumed and the characters he’d met there, he wouldn’t have written Islands in the Stream. And what about A Moveable Feast? And Death in the Afternoon?
And what about the “Nick Adams’ short stories? And this Garden of Eden that was refusing to flow as it should and dragging on and getting lost? He had to forge a life for himself in order to forge a literature; he had to fight, kill, fish, live, in order to be able to write.
“No, for fuck’s sake, I didn’t invent a life for myself,” he said aloud, and he didn’t like the sound of his own voice in the midst of so much silence. He drained his glass.
With the bottle of Chianti beneath his arm and the glass in his hand, he walked over to the window of the drawing-room and looked out at the garden and the night. He strained his eyes, almost until they hurt, trying to see into the darkness, just as those African cats did. Something must exist, beyond what can be foreseen, beyond what is obvious; something that could lend some charm to the final years of his life. It couldn’t just be the horror of prohibitions and medication, of things forgotten, of weariness, pain and routine. If that were the case, life would have defeated him, destroyed him without mercy, he, who had proclaimed that man can be destroyed but never defeated. Absolute rubbish: just rhetoric and lies, he thought, and poured himself another glass of wine. He needed to drink. That night threatened to be a bad one. But, if Miss Mary had been at home, perhaps it wouldn’t have been the night that set in motion the end of his life.
©2005 by Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Translation Copyright ” 2005 by John King. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.