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June 30, 2020
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “digression” as, “in discourse or writing, a departure or deviation from the subject.”
Fair enough. Clear as day.
My favorite digression in all literature is the entirety, from first word to last, of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel El amor en los tiempos del cólera…Love in The Time of Cholera. (If you don’t have Spanish, Edith Grossman’s translation to English of this book is one of the best from one language to another I’ve ever read. It is lyrical, kind-hearted, accurate, literate, humorous, and imbued with the many pleasureful oddities of García Márquez’s unique Spanish-language style.)
In this novel, Florentino Ariza is introduced as an enclosed, shy boy attempting manhood in a small late-nineteenth century city in Colombia. He is in love with a local beauty, Fermina Daza. The novel begins as a boy-meets-girl story, progresses through the boy-loses-girl phase, and ends with the boy-wins-girl denouement.
The simplest story ever.
But this series of events takes fifty years, nine months, and four days to unfold and arrive at its successful end. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are by the last pages, of course, elderly. But their love is consummated…finally. During the half century of Florentino’s pursuit of Fermina (during which time he has six hundred and twenty-two affairs with other women) the reader learns about every kind of historical, political, social, and religious event in the Colombia through which the great Magdalena River flows. Cholera is always a factor in the background, and García Márquez uses the disease as a metaphor for love itself…the heat, the heart’s affliction, the very choleric intensity of love’s involvements.
Florentino bides his time for that half-century. After the failure of his youthful efforts at romancing her, Fermina marries a local doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who is one of the most celebrated citizens of their city, an urbane, Europeanized sophisticate. Their marriage is a rich one, with many problems. In the meantime, Florentino begins work as a telegraph operator and is eventually employed by a local riverboat company (freight and passengers, up and down the Magdalena.) In time, he becomes its president, all the while pursuing the many very remarkable women he encounters during the half-century of his bachelorhood.
It is the period of time between the breakdown of Florentino and Fermina’s dalliance as youths and the death of Juvenal Urbino a half century later that the great majority of the digression I mention here takes place. The reader waits, and waits some more, only to wait even more, through hundreds of pages, as Florentino sometimes wanders, sometimes surges through his varied fascinating affairs personal and public. Fermina’s marriage is described in equally specific, breathtaking detail: her fervid happiness and unhappy disappointments, her mistaken rage-filled jealousies, the arrival of her children and their ascension to adulthood, her involvement in the church and her social standing as the important Doctor Urbino’s wife.
Here and there, infrequently, Florentino and Fermina encounter one another by chance. Little happens on those occasions. Little can happen. But Florentino’s fervor for Fermina only increases as the years pass.
The great Magdalena River, which runs south to north through the entirety of Colombia, figures importantly twice in this narrative. Although his entire professional life revolves around the riverboat company, Florentino Ariza makes only two trips up the Magdalena and back (one on his own as a younger man, the second with Fermina Daza, both now geriatrics.)
Both voyages are beyond memorable.
García Márquez uses the changing descriptions of the Magdalena during these two trips as rich backdrop to the emotions, triumphs, and disappointments through which Florentino Ariza passes during his entire life. In the first trip, the river is a life-filled treasure of forested, flood-filled flora and fauna in which a younger Florentino is overwhelmed time and again by lustful carnal pleasure. In the second voyage, decades later, the river has become a half-hearted sorry flow, de-forested and ruined. But it is on a riverboat going up this magnificently sad failure that Florentino receives, finally, the considerable deep love of which Fermina Daza is capable. The detailed sensuous transition in descriptions of the river is one of the novels many strengths. Novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote this: “There is nothing I have read quite like [the] astonishing final chapter (on the Magdalena), symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too….”
Pynchon went on to write, “This novel is revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality—youthful idiocy, to some—may yet be honored much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable…. Love in the Time of Cholera [is a] shining and heartbreaking novel.”
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. García Márquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary…. The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”
Both these reviews, written when the book was published in 1985, are understatements. Love in the Time of Cholera may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The digression does go on for more than three hundred pages. You may be inclined to tell García Márquez to get on with it. But, while the pursuit of each other by the two characters is important and masterfully done, the digression itself is the novel, epitomized by its very last word, which is “forever.”
This is my favorite novel.
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel,The Splendid City, by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer, will be published later this year.
I moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1998. I was working at the time as a marketing person for a large American corporation that provided the conversion of printed documents to digital ones, digital storage capabilities, and corporate mailing services.
I recall too well how boring all that was. I was aware of that already, of course, and although they didn’t know it, I had talked the company into moving me to New York simply so that I could live there. My job was to call on the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies, which may sound thrilling to some. But Fortune 500 companies are as tiresome as any other simply because they are business entities. That they are cash-cow monoliths does not make them any less dull. In whatever case, my interest in the corporate bottom line and a high-rise corner office suite had always been minimal, even though business had allowed me to live with a certain amount of style in San Francisco and now in Manhattan.
I knew on my first morning as a citizen of New York City that I had made the right decision, even though the temperature was in the low teens. It was a rattling cold New York winter day, in bright, cloudless sunlight. The evidence of snow from a few days before was still there on the sidewalks and, as blackened ice, at the street corners. I wore a new wool overcoat buttoned to the top, my neck buffered by a soft wool scarf.
I was happy.
Just then, I met the first New Yorker with whom I was to have a significant encounter. He was a bilingual madman. Dressed untidily, his hair like scum-lined, twisted wires, his overcoat splotched with mud and, maybe, dried soup, wearing sunglasses, he attacked me as I was walking down East Eighty-second toward Fifth Avenue and the Metropolitan Museum.
The first thing he did was to take a swing at me. I fell away—gracefully, I thought—with enough physical panache that the assailant missed. Very angered by this, he began shouting and gesturing at me with a fist. I was, he thought, a son of a bitch, a rich white boy pussy, a faggot and, then, a pendejo, a cuero, an hijo de puta, and a mama ñema. I speak Spanish, and knew all those phrases, except for mama ñema. When I looked it up that afternoon, I found that such a person, in the Dominican Republic, is a man who offers sexual services to another man with his tongue and mouth. The phrase itself carries considerably less politesse than does my explanation of it.
My assailant then turned away and ran across Eighty-second, headed toward Central Park.
A young couple walking their dog hurried up from behind, to make sure I was okay. They asked where I was from. When I told them, they apologized profusely for my attacker’s behavior, and told me that New Yorkers were simply not like that. “New York is safe,” the man said. “You can walk in this city.”
I subsequently found that was true. I was never so approached again during the three years I lived in Manhattan.
I knew that I would write about New York. One of my reasons for wanting to move there was to do just that. I had traveled to Manhattan many times for pleasure and business, and loved the place as a tourist. I expected that would be the case even more so were I to live there, and that also proved to be true. But my encounter with this fellow (despite the fact that I was no mama ñema) was memorable. A fictionalization of it for the first New York story I was to write (titled, appropriately, “The High Line”) was my first effort to describe the experience of living in Manhattan.
Soon enough I was to learn that approximately eight hundred languages are spoken in the five New York boroughs, a result of the city’s numberless immigrations. My previous fiction often features Americans living outside the United States, in circumstances in which a major portion of their difficulty is the fact that they don’t fit in, linguistically or culturally. That was a feature of my own early adulthood when I lived for a few years with tribal peoples on Borneo, on the Malaysia-side of that huge island. I learned then that to be in a position in which I must learn how other people speak, live, feel, think, and treat each other is a true privilege. That understanding has been a major factor in all my writing.
Because of those many cultures in New York, the city is for me its own foreign country. Even those speaking New York-style English from birth are outside the general North American identity, because of the way they talk and, occasionally, act. Throughout my time there, I was often singled out for the way I dressed (“You don’t own a tie, pal?”), the way I proceeded through conversation (“Hey, get to the point.”), and the principled naivety I displayed with regard to how things get done in business in New York. (I once asked a senior marketing guy at one of the Fortune 500s for advice about whom I should call on in the company, to tout our services. He gave me a name, and offered to make an introduction for me. I gladly accepted, and then he suggested that next time I visit his office, I bring along a gift certificate for a full set of Callaway golf clubs and a Wilson bag in which to carry them. Flummoxed, I stammered that I thought the services I was bringing with me would greatly improve his company’s bottom line, and I would make it clear to everyone with whom I spoke that he was personally responsible for such an improvement in operations. After a lengthy silence, he told me he had a meeting to go to. I never saw him again, and never got any business from that Fortune 500.)
I frequently was asked where I was from. (Native New Yorkers thought I talked funny.) A typical response to my answer was given me by my client at ASCAP, which at the time was located in an office building directly across Broadway from Lincoln Center. Joe was a New Yorker from the Bronx…a good guy, no nonsense. When I explained that I was from San Francisco, his response was “I don’t get it. You’re from San Francisco, and you came here to live? Why the f**k would you do somethin’ like that??”
The book I wrote is titled New York, and was published this week.
Terence Clarke is back in San Francisco. His story collection, New York, is available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com. He is currently at work on a new novel, The Splendid City, which recounts an incredible life-threatening adventure in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. This piece appeared originally in HuffPost.
During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.
Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.
De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.
She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.
There is, however, a problem.
Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.
Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.
Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.
Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.
Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.
For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.
Terence Clarke and Irvin Yalom
(Photo: Beatrice Bowles)
Irvin D. Yalom is as well known a writer of fiction as he is of non-fiction. His novels include the famous When Nietzsche Wept (a tour de force rendering of the relationship between Freud’s mentor, the renowned Dr, Joseph Breuer, and the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche), The Schopenhauer Cure and the most recent, 2012’s The Spinoza Problem.
He is also the inventor of a new non-fiction form, in which the psychiatrist Dr. Yalom describes conversations he has had with some of his most challenging patients. One such is his book, Creatures of A Day, and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, which was published in 2016 by Basic Books. The best known of Dr. Yalom’s non-fiction books is Love’s Executioner, which, as well as possessing one of the most compelling titles ever, contains the equally appealing passage from which the title is taken:
I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy — I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.
I spoke with Yalom recently, interested in why he writes both fiction and non-fiction. I wanted to ask him which of these forms he prefers, and what does each form require of him that the other does not.
IY: I have a lot of blurring between fiction and non-fiction in so many of my works. For example, my first novel, When Nietzsche Wept, has a great deal of non-fiction in it. I didn’t create many characters at all. Almost all of them are historical characters that actually existed. Now, I consider that almost like having written fiction with training wheels. Everything, historically, was already there.
But the next novel, Lying On The Couch was entirely made up, and I felt then that, really, I was jumping off into fiction. I’m reading that novel now again, though, for a memoir that I’m writing, and I’m amazed by how much non-fiction there actually is in it. A lot of instances from my past life that I attribute to the characters. Many things from my own past are in there. Even some of the characters’ names… I changed them around, of course, but some of them are very similar to the names of people I actually have known.
Something like that takes place in my non-fiction stories, too… the blurring, I mean. Those stories all have fiction in them. First of all, I have to change almost all the details of a physical, factual nature in the story, in order to protect the identity of the patient. I’ve changed men into women. I’ve made tremendous alterations in the characters. In essence, though, the main character remains as he or she really is, and I will have changed certain features of their appearance or personality.
Incidentally, despite all this, I ask each of the people, on whom patient conversations have been based in a particular story, to read my final story. All of them have approved. But here’s something about those stories. One of my most read books is actually a textbook titled Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. The individual stories in that book, of patients in group therapy, are true. I really was trying to find my wings as a writer at that time, and I am certain — I have no question in my mind at all — that the reason that book is so successful is that it contains those stories, which I bootlegged into the book. Legions of students have told me that what they really like are the stories. They can put up with a lot of dry theory (Yalom grins.) if they know that another story is coming around the bend in a few minutes.
TC: What impact has your being so well known as a writer had on your practice as a psychiatrist?
IY: I’d love to write about that some time. Now, literally every patient I see has come to me because of something I’ve written, and that does have a significant impact upon the course of the therapy. It makes me into a bit of a larger-than-life figure for the people I see, and maybe potentially it even gives me more power to do good, as long as ultimately I can get past their need to see me as a special sort of figure. I don’t want to be idealized by a patient because of what I’ve written.
TC: Is writing fiction more, or less, difficult for you to write than non-fiction?
IY: I enjoy writing fiction more. I have had great experiences… adventures! When I’ve been writing a novel. And now, my inclination is to continue writing only fiction. You know, I’m a compulsive reader of fiction. I fell in love with novels when I was a teenager. My wife Marilyn and I… our initial friendship began because we are both readers. I’ve gone to sleep almost every night of my life after having read in a novel for 30 or 40 minutes. I’m a great reader of fiction, and much less so of non-fiction.
TC: Would you consider writing fiction that does not have a basis in psychiatry? Would you go farther afield?
IY: I can imagine doing that, but even then, my work would be categorized by its looking at internal issues, by how people think, by what consciousness is like. I don’t think I could write a mindless detective story.
In a new afterword for the 2012 re-release of Love’s Executioner, Yalom writes,
“I had always wanted to be a storyteller. As long as I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader and somewhere in early adolescence I began yearning to be a real writer. That desire must have been percolating on the back burner as I pursued my academic career, for as I began writing these ten stories [for Love’s Executioner] I sensed I was on the way to finding myself.”
As fictional elements pervade his non-fiction, and as actual facts determine much of the action of his fiction, Yalom’s devotion to both is clearly evident, and functions on equal terms, the one with the other.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published in April, 2020.
Under the headline “Gabo Returns to Colombia”, the Colombian magazine Revista Arcadia published the following today:
Penguin Random House, owner of the world rights to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, will publish the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner in Colombia on December 12, 2014.
The absurd situation regarding García Márquez’s novels in Colombia seems to be coming to an end. After a number of years during which only paperback editions could be obtained in commercial bookstores here, due to the very low sales commission rates offered to independent book stores by Editorial Norma—the previous owner of the rights—luxury hard-cover editions will finally now be available everywhere in the country.
In recent years, the circumstances have taken on laughable dimensions. When García Márquez passed away, the majority of his books were re-issued in Argentina and Mexico, but not in Colombia.
Given that, some booksellers had to resort to selling English-language editions or to purchasing the books from Amazon for re-sale. Now, thanks to the publisher Penguin Random House, the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner will be re-issued in Colombia.
To celebrate, here following is my translation of a little story by Gabo that was published originally in 1978…
Light’s like Water
Gabriel García Márquez
At Christmas, the boys once again asked for a rowboat.
“All right,” their daddy said. “We’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.”
Totó, who was nine, and Joel, seven, were far more decided about this than their parents could even believe.
“No,” they chorused. “We want it now and here.”
“To start with,” the mother said, “there aren’t any navigable waters here other than what comes out of the shower.”
She was just as right about this as her husband was. In their house in Cartagena de Indias, there was a patio with a pier on the bay, and a boat shelter for two large yachts. By comparison, here in Madrid they all lived jammed together on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end, nether daddy nor mommy could say no because they had promised the boys a rowboat, along with a sextant and a compass, if they were to win the third grade prize, and they had won it.
So it was that the daddy bought the boat without saying a word to his wife, who was the more reluctant of the two to pay off any sort of gambling debt. It was a cute aluminum boat with a line of golden rope along the waterline.
“The boat’s in the garage,” the daddy revealed at lunch. “The problem is, there’s no way to bring it up either in the elevator or on the stairs, and there’s no more available space anywhere.”
That Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited their classmates over, to bring the boat up by the stairs, and they succeeded in getting it into the utility room.
“Congratulations,” the daddy said to them. “And now what?”
“Nothing now,” the boys said. “The only thing we wanted was to get the boat into the room, and now it’s there.”
The next Wednesday night, as on all Wednesday nights, the parents went to the movies. The boys, now owners and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows, and broke the lit-up light bulb of a living room lamp. A spray of golden light, fresh as water, began to come out of the broken bulb, and they let it run up, until the level of it reached that of four open handprints. Then they cut off the current, brought out the boat, and navigated at their pleasure through the islands of the house.
This fabulous adventure was the result of a bit of flippancy on my part when I participated in a seminar on the poetry of domestic utensils.
Totó asked me how it was that light came on simply from the pressing of a switch, and I didn’t have the nerve to think about it even more than just once.
“Light’s like water,” I responded to him. “You open the tap, and out it comes.”
Thus did they continue navigating every Wednesday in the evening, learning how to handle the sextant and the compass, until their parents would come back from the movies to find them sleeping like angels on terra firma.
Months later, eager to go even further, they asked for fishing equipment. Everything: masks, flippers, oxygen tanks and compressed-air spear guns.
“It’s bad enough that you’ve got a rowboat in the utility room that doesn’t do anything,” the father said. “But it’s worse that you also want diving equipment.”
“And if we win the first semester Golden Gardenia?” Joel said.
“No,” said the mother, frightened. “No more!”
The father reproached her for her intransigence.
“Look, these kids don’t get a penny even for doing their homework,” she said, “but with some little caprice like this, they’re able to take over for the teacher himself.”
The parents didn’t say either yes or no finally. But Totó and Joel, who the previous two years had come in last, won the two Golden Gardenias in July, and the public recognition of the school rector. That same afternoon, without having had to ask again, they found in their bedroom the diving gear in its original packaging. So that, the following Wednesday, while the parents saw Last Tango in Paris, the boys filled the apartment up to two fathoms deep, dived like peaceful sharks under the furniture and beds, and rescued from the very bottom of the light those things that for years had been lost in darkness.
At the final awards ceremony, the brothers were acclaimed as an example to the school, and were given diplomas of excellence. This time, they didn’t have to ask for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. The boys were very reasonable, asking only for a party at home to honor their schoolmates.
The father, left alone with their mother, was radiant.
“It’s proof of their maturity,” he said.
“God is listening,” said the mother.
The following Wednesday, while their parents went to see The Battle of Algiers, the people passing up la Castellana saw a cascade of light from an old building hidden among the trees. It came down from the balconies, spilling in gushes down the front of the building, and made a channel up the great avenue in a golden torrent that lit up the city all the way to the Guadarrama.
Called out urgently, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor, and found the house covered in light up to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs, covered in leopard skin, floated around the room at different levels, between bottles from the bar and the baby grand piano and its manila-colored cover, which flapped around half-submerged like a golden manta ray. The domestic utensils, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings across the heaven of the kitchen. The military band instruments, to the music from which the boys danced, floated in a circle around the drain among the fishes liberated from mommy’s fishbowl, which were the only ones that floated alive and happy in the vast illuminated swamp. In the bathroom, everyone’s toothbrush floated about, with daddy’s condoms, mommy’s jars of cream and her extra set of dentures, the television from the principal bedroom floating on its side, still turned on to the last scene of a late-night film prohibited to kids.
At the end of the corridor, floating and perplexed, Totó was seated in the rowboat’s stern, hanging on to the oars with a set face, looking for the port lighthouse from which he could refill the air tanks, and Joel floated in the prow still searching the height of the polar star with the sextant, and their 37 classmates floated through the entire house as though forever in the very moment of going pee-pee in the pot of geraniums, of singing the school hymn changed with lyrics mocking the rector, and secretly drinking glassfuls of brandy from daddy’s bottle. They had turned on so many lights at the same time that the house had spilled over with it, and the entire first-year room of the San Julián el Hospitalario School had been drowned on the fifth floor of number 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, without a sea or a river, whose terra firma aborigines had never mastered the science of navigating the light.
“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”
Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.
They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.
Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”
He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.
“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.
“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”
“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.
A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”
Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”
“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”
Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”
“I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
“Your seeming so foreign.”
Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.
“The great one, who played so out of tune.”
“Yes. My father was a fan.”
“He was a musician?”
“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”
“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”
“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”
“Just the comedy?”
“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”
“He’s gone, your father.”
“A few years ago, yes.”
“And he enjoyed your playing.”
“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”
“Where did it come from?”
“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”
“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”
“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”
“He sold it.”
“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”
“And in yours, the Communists won.”
Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”
“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”
“This year, it’s fifty years.”
“And the piano’s been there…”
“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”
“Why haven’t you ever played it?”
Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”
“No. Rodney, I…”
“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”
Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”
“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”
“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”
Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”
The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”
“Do you remember which ones?”
“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”
“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”
“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”
Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.
“It broke his heart.”
They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”
Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.
Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.
Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.
“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.
Marta insisted on making coffee.
“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”
A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.
“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.
Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.
Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.
(This story is from my book New York.)