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Who is Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
MANUEL VÁZQUEZ MONTALBÁN
(El pianista, 1985)
[A pianist is playing in a nightclub. The scene is the Barcelona of 1984, of the Socialist electoral victory and of a new generation which has no illusions but which is in power: Luisa, Fisas, Schubert, Ventura... Rosell —the pianist— is an anonymous figure and the witness of a story of failures and defeats. For him, there was one other time: the Barcelona of the 1940s, in which he was part of a collective desire for recovery. And then there were the happy days of 1936, when there was hope, love and struggle, when he and Doria —the winner— were just two musicians with a promising future.]
Her face flushed, Luisa felt a wave of courage and indignation run through her, but Fisas' hand on her arm held her back, as did the warning note in Schubert's "Listen".
—What is there to listen to?
But they did listen and Schubert's suggestion began to make sense. In the interval before the next performance, the pianist had launched into an intimate piece, whose rhythm was slow, fugitive notes in search of a final harmony.
—What is he playing?
—It's a fragment of Mompou's Silent Music.
—That's what I call a good ear.
—That's what I call using Mompou as background music while I work and having read Jankelevitch's essay on Mompou, Le message de Mompou. Jankelevitch is a philosopher at the Sorbonne. Look at the apparent independence of the fingers, feel the sensation of clarity in each note. Yo have to go back to Chopin to find such rare magic at the piano.
—Chopin had small hands, commented Ventura, but declined to clarify his enigmatic reply when the surprised faces of the others rounded on him.
—You're referring to Benn's poem.
It had to be Fisas.
—It's a beatiful poem by Benn about Chopin... (...).
The to and from of the pianist's advancing white raincoat seems to indicate the route northwards. But the pianist does not follow that route. When he reaches the Calle del Hospital, he leaves the centre of the boulevard, as though his feet had been warned off by the Gordian Knot of Miró's rosette, painted on the pavement, and the Calle del Hospital becomes a solitary nocturnal gorge which the pianist hurries throuqh, competing with himself, with the same pianist who, yesterday and the day before yesterday, traced the same path.
Like an arqueological stage set of picturesque poverty, for the pianist it is simply a path which leads to the plaza del Padró, with its solitary statue of Saint Eulalia over the worn-away fountain. As soon as he enters the Calle de la Botella, the pianist takes out of the pocket of his raincoat a clumsy aluminium key, with which he opens no more than a crack in the entrance doorway and slips through. The old man closes the door again and starts up the steep, wooden-edged, brick stairs. He helps himself along with his elbows, one on the handrail, the other against a wall, from which flakes of plaster shower down, peeled off by the damp. On the landing, he recovers his breath in the darkness, then explores the surface of the door with the fingertips of one hand, until he finds the lock and puts the key in the crack with the other. The mouth of the flat opens and exudes a breath of slow putrefaction. The pianist closes the door as carefully as if he were closing his piano and switches on the lamp which hangs from the center of the ceiling. Its glow reveals a hall like a furniture store, containing a hat stand with a broken arm, electric cables let into the walls, a console table acquired in some Oiental-style love-nest rented by the hour, and scores of bundles of old newspapers tied up with string. On the table, a time-dulled porcelain goddess of the hunt points with her bow towards the shadowy corridor.
—Teresa, Teresa, it's me.
He puts out the light in the hall and switches on the one in the passage. The wallpaper is a reproduction of pergolas with corinthian columns, ponds, water lilies and aquatic birds. Between the columns, a door stands ajar and through it comes the soft whimper of a small animal. But the light reveals the body of a woman as wide as the ornamented metal bedstead. Wrapped in a nightdress of discoloured brown stuff, she lies spreadeagled on a double mattress, her bare arms as big as thighs, her white hair like piping around an old, swollen face in which the eyes, at either end of two slits, understand nothing except pain. The eyes have recognized the man and the rhythm of the whimpering accelerates.
—It's me, Teresa. I'm here now.
Broken dolls lie on a wooden chest, alongside a bust of Chopin. The pianist pulls aside velvet curtains, threadbare like a sick skin, to open the window and allow the faint stink to escape into the street.
—Allright, allright, I've come as fast as I could.
He turns round and, with expert eyes, goes over the elephant body from the soles of the feet, with their petrified purple nails, to the stricken head, which shakes from side to side in time to the moaning. Beside the bed, a bed-pan stands on a stool and on a little, lame, cretonne armchair, spare packets of bandages. He takes off his raincoat, and his jacket, and from them emerges a small, waistcoated body, with a pointed, balding white head. He swings his arms to get himself moving and his footsteps lead him to a bathroom, where a chipped lavatory is set into a wooden board rotted by damp. He takes down a basin from a hook on the wall and an aging sponge which has been put to dry on the sill of the tiny window which gives onto the wall of the inner courtyard. He fills the basin with water and leaves the sponge to sink or swim in the water, as it slops about in time to the steps which take him back to the room from which the half-complaining, half-demanding whine is still coming. An invisible but nearby clock announces that it is four in the morning and the pianist's eyelids close in spite of himself, lamenting something forgotten.
—First I'll wash you, then I'll give you your tablets, he informs the body. He places the basin on the mattress, takes hold of the lower edge of the nightdress with both hands and pulls on it as he walks towards the bedhead. Laboriously, the material uncovers the naked body of a woman. The elephantine legs are red and swollen, with the scabs of dirty sores or of filth which has become sores. A huge pair of bloomers enclose bandages, excrement, oxidized urine, the heat of raw groins and a belly like a bloated wineskin, whose surface is furrowed with the remains of faeces which have sought out the few soakaways to the slopes of the twisted bed. The shroud's withdrawal stops prudishly at the breasts and the pianist's hands grasp the edge of the bloomers and pull them down, uncovering the soiled dressings and letting out a pestilential jet which scarcely causes a flicker on the man's motionless face. He removes the bandages with care in order not to spill their load and drops them into a zinc bucket, where they fall with a sound of soaking death. With the sponge and using light, careful, strokes which will not hurt the inflamed skin, he wipes the last incrustations from the immobile body. He rinses the sponge and soaks it again, then, with a firm hand cleans the folds of the joints, while the water gathers in runnels on the oilcloth which serves as eternal background to the operation. Once the flesh is clean, the pianist dries it with a towel which still smells of the toilet soap that, when she was well, Teresa used to put among her underwear and that the pianist conserves as the keepsake of a happier past.
—You're better now, aren't you?
The man's hands struggle with a stubborn tube of ointment which finally yields its contents on to his fingertips and he spreads it on the raw flesh. Not a single cranny escapes him, as though his sensitive fingers were pushing waves of balsam into the very corners of pain, and the woman's anguished face recovers a certain human calm. Her plaintive moan is now a kindly grumble and the slits of the eyes open to show the blue pupils of a broken doll.
—You're better now, aren't you?
Placing her lifeless arms on the pillow, he finishes undressing her, pulling the nightdress over two breasts which look like two bellies, each with a sunken navel. He throws the defeated nightdress on to the floor and takes from a cupboard another garment similar to the first, except that this one is blue.
—I'll put the blue one on you. You like it better, don't you?
The veins of his temples stand out and his face flushes with the effort of clothing the body. When he has done it, he falls exhausted on the woman and lies there until his heart beats normally again, grateful for the wholesome smell that comes from the mountain of flesh. He pulls himself upright and sits on the edge of the bed selecting the bottle of pills. One by one, he inserts the four tablets between the half-closed lips at the same time as he pours a measured glass of water into the mysterious inner chasm of the mute body. Now
there are neither whimpers nor groans, just anxious breathing and the blinking of eyelids.
—Now I'll read you the news and you try to go to sleep.
The pianist goes to get the newspaper from the depths of the pocket of his ancient gabardine and returns aimlessly, as though his life force were running out. He sits down again on the edge of the bed.
—Schultz states that the United States will resume constructive talks with Nicaragua. Felipe González gave Pujol an official report on Banca Catalana in January. The South African premier had talks yesterday with Margaret Thatcher during a brief visit to the United Kingdom. A telephone call from Sajarov's wife arouses fears for the Soviet dissident's life. Ireland greets Reagan with protests against his policies in Central America. Are you asleep?
A hurried, urgent grunt.
—Don't worry. I'll carry on reading until you fall asleep. The committee of enquiry into missing persons in Argentina concludes its investigations. Norwegian pacifism coexists with NATO. Gonzalez states that home rule will not take the same form everywhere, although there will not be seventeen different types either. Teresa?
Silence has invaded the body, which now breathes peacefully. The pianist folds the newspaper and bends forward with the paper clutched between his hands. He remains pensive, or waiting for the woman's sleep to become deeper, then stands up and looks at her face. The nearby clock chimes five. He leaves the bedroom and goes in the direction of the bells. Opening the door, the light reveals a small room, full of stagnant order and culture. Books, tightly packed together, line wooden shelves alongside reproductions of Munch's La Madona and Rouault's Bal Tabarin. A Shimmel stands against a wall, on which hang a map of Catalonia and another of the imaginary Icaria, published by Cartes Tarige, Paris, 1935. Yellowing cuttings and photographs from La Vanguardia are pinned on a cork panel. Luis Doria in different periods of his life, awards, prizes, perfor-
mances at the United Nations, in El Pardo, in the presence of Charles de Gaulle, in Salzburg. Some headlines, too: Luis Doria states, Music has ceased to be a prostitute. Long live free love! The pianist pulls out a foldaway bed, already made up. He hesitates, then decides to retrace his steps, gather up the remains and the utensils of the cleaning operation and leave them in place for cleaning the body at mid-morning. He fills the basin with water and takes it to the calor gas stove. Beyond the window, opposite it, another window and the dreams of unseen neighbours who are either too old, like them, or too young, so young that they have no face and
occupy no space in anyone's memory. He heats water in a pot and mixes it with the water in the basin. He returns to his refuge with the basin and from a soap box on a shelf, takes out a half-used tablet of fresh, green, aromatic soap. He rolls up his sleeves and washes his hands and his arms as though he were carriying out a prophylactic routine. After, his face. Then he takes off his shoes. He places the basin on the floor and puts his gnarled, tortured feet into the soapy water. The pianist closes his small eyes and, when he opens them again, is surprised to see the first light of dawn on the wall opposite. He sees the sign of the chemist's shop and hears the hum of a car, the first of the day's noises. To his right, the hanghty face of Luis Doria looks out from beneath another headline: I am Spanish music. The pianist lies back in the elegant armchair with its lace cover, and falls into a half sleep which is only interrupted by his lips when they pronounce the words,
Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.