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There is a theory circulating, around me mainly, that Mexican writers–because of their national history, the church, the social structure, and their mothers–see reading their writing in public as the kind of adventure that can have no good ending. In all my considerable humility, I believe this is because, for Mexican writers, the distance between fiction and reality is not great enough. As if one were nailed to the other, and impossible to pry apart.

The writers I have seen at the local salon either don’t read at all or read so quickly that one can’t absorb what they’re saying. A cloud of anxiety rises around them and then streams out over their listeners like fog from dry ice.

My friend the fiction writer teaches Theology at the local university. He is a very good writer, but he will not read for others. That is, I suspect, partly because he has a built-in safety mechanism which keeps him from showing parts of himself that are not perfect. Comedy, irony, and the ridiculous are all too dangerous, even when only directed at others. He takes Goethe’s famous line from Faust I, Prologue in Heaven, most seriously: Es irrt der Mensch solang’ er strebt. Man errs however much he strives.

Mexican writers know instinctively that something like fiction, or irony, can be taken literally. For example, my friend wrote a story about a conversation with the Devil. When he read it to his wife, she looked at him with astonishment.

“Was that this morning?” she asked.

He thought she was referring to his writing session with his French writer friend. She meant, it turned out, an actual conversation with that lisping cloven-hoofed personage she would never invite to her house for all the reasons learned from the priests who have taken her confessions over the years.

After lunch, while washing the dishes with her daughter, she mentioned, “Your father had a conversation with the Devil.” The daughter, a lovely intelligent creature, assumed her mother was referring to her former boyfriend.

My friend published the story “A Conversation with the Devil” in a local literary journal, bowing to pressure from his French friend. Rather than use his own name, he chose F. Scott Fitzgerald Cruz as his nom de plume–and was immediately recognized by half of the city’s bureaucrats, municipal and ecclesiastical.

The results came quickly. The Federal Commission of Electricity moved him up into a consumer category no longer eligible for government subsidization. His wife and daughter, at communion, each received three red Cheerios on their tongues, instead of the holy wafer. When he went to pay his predial, his property tax, they directed him to a different window, one that had bars on it, as if the bars might offer better protection for the person waiting on him. Half of those who rented his several business properties began to pay their rent more than ten days late. The men who passed his house regularly in the morning, calling “Gaaaassss!” for natural gas and “Aawaa Ciel,” for water, which is a product of the Coca Cola Company, no longer came by, and his wife had to call the companies and demand delivery. Even then, the water garrafones and the gas tanques leaked, spilling water on their floor tiles and seeping gas into the family lungs. When he gave up his briefcase at the central university library, where he went to write, the receptionist and the guard, who accepted his briefcase for a numbered tab in return, gingerly examined the item, as if it might explode or have the capability to fly around over the city at night.

When I learned about the story, the fictional conversation with the Devil, I suggested he read it at the local literary salon. He looked at me very seriously and said, “You know the iron cages at the top corners of the Alhóndiga, where they hung the heads of Allende and others, rebels against the Spanish, and let them rot for years?”

I nodded.

“Well, that’s why they do it,” he said, as if he were talking of just yesterday.

I nodded again, as if I understood.

I told a friend of mine, who has written many books in Northern California, about my Mexican writer friend. I told him about the conversation with the Diablo, and that it was a fine piece of writing that should be published in the States. My California writer friend asked for a copy. My friend sent the story north, but then, after a week of consideration, asked that it be returned, since he feared that it might affect his visa status.

Hoping to help finalize things–move them along, so to speak, I mentioned, in a pique of disappointment, that the National Security Agency had probably already detected the word “devil” in the email transmission. It was, after all, a country where at least 40% of the people followed an orthodox religious conservatism. Perhaps a higher percentage in the intelligence agencies. And those people were probably sniff-sensitive to something like conversation with the Devil, and detected either the smell of heresy or a whiff of conspiracy.

That was several Mondays ago. Monday morning is when he and his French friend write at the café that has the best coffee in Central Mexico. His email transmissions have ceased, I learned from the Frenchman. Telephone calls go unanswered. He does not show up at the café. And I do not think he will be coming to the next literary salon reading, scheduled for a week from today.

Any good Mexican publisher who reads this report should consider sending men in black, at night, with flash lights, to find the manuscript. And take it. Out of his hands, so to speak. They should publish it, change his name entirely and, here and there, elements of his style, to protect him from recognition. Mexico’s federal attorney general will have to work out ahead of time the mechanics of full protection from any foreign or domestic governmental or ecclesiastical agency, observing the Constitution’s strict reaffirmation of the co-existence of fiction and reality. In this way, all of us will be able to read one of Mexico’s great writers. Whoever that may actually be.

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When the mountains grow cold and dark around my Mexican city, when night pours into this urban canyon and the wind begins to shake the tall small-paned windows of my house, deep down I feel there is something wrong, and I cannot sleep. This happened a few nights ago, and so I edged away from my sweet wife, bundled up in my warmest coat, and shuffled into my studio to paint.

I had been working for several sessions with a young model, slender and lovely, with urraca – black hair, and mouth tissue – a kind of pout – which stood away from her upper teeth and mandible.

I sat for some time sipping a hot coffee substitute of ground and roasted European grains, grown on Polish fields just downwind from Chernobyl, staring at the painting on the canvas, and pondering the difficulty of catching the essence of Mariana in Venetian Red, Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue, and Flake White Replacement. Catch her youthful contours, her intelligence, the dark eyes, the downward twists in the corners of her mouth, the lower lip.

The windows rattled, and I was barely able to hear Dawn Upshaw singing Schubert lieder – the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Something stirred in the corner where Mariana usually sat. It was Lilus our black cat, I assumed, who ghosts around and irritates me with silent messages that I should restore the nocturnal order of snuggle and endless sleep and return to my place under the goose down, beside my softly breathing spouse.

I glanced again at the corner, at Mariana’s stool. There was a form, but it was larger than a cat and seemed to grow as I squinted through my sheepdog eyebrows. I turned down Mr. Schubert and looked again.

Apparently, someone had entered the room without me noticing.

“I didn’t see you enter,” I said, to my love.

“Guten Morgen,” said my visitor, in a voice of undetermined gender and, I suspect, from a hemisphere further east. “Noto que no puedethh dormir,” he said, in lisped Castilian, perhaps something older, less distinct or known. “Waz wirret dir?” he continued , mocking me with Wolfram’s medieval lingo, suggesting nether things, the prostate, the cusp of matters septuagenarian.

I cleared my throat. “Well, which will it be? German or Spanish? What century shall we settle on? What, modern languages out and doggerel in? Plus, uninvited? Whatever happened to introductions? Speak now or has the cat got your tongue?”

“I am your neighbor,” he exclaimed. “Dein Nachbar, vecino, fellow painter – pintor, Mahler, specializing, like you, in the faces of women too young for you. Pretty damsels.” He sneered a grin.

The wind howled, the windows rattled. I took a sip of my un-coffeed drink, now grown cold. I thought a bit and assessed my foe. “Insolent as well as trapped in babble,” I said, “I did not ask for your advice, you know. And it’s not my way to consort with rabble.”

He waved a dandy’s hand across my canvas. “There’s something missing, a je ne thais quoi. Like playing Mozart out of tune. The clarinet pure, the strings verstimmt, a quintet wrecked upon both sharps and flats, the smell of fish, the howl of cats.”

“An artist finds his way, solang’ er strebt,” I rebutted, in Knittelvers, a clever reference to Faust, “Prologue in Heaven,” the translation a little free, from the tip of my tongue: Eric Trunz, Hamburg edition, sixth printing, page twenty-three.

“But it takes so long, “ he said, with garlic breath. “There’s no guarantee. Arbeit macht den Brei. Qué sopa amarga! What scat and mess! I can show you a trick, if – behold the model – you lightly press.” And then, with a carny’s wink and a jab of his elbow, he said, “Pay a little attention, and I’ll do the rest.”

Immediately, I saw what he meant. Mariana’s right eyebrow had risen in a question, her lower lip trembled. The eyes followed me when I walked. My mouth hung agoggle, my face agawk.

“You’re not really young anymore,” he said. “Not much time to come at these things. Unlikely you’ll be known, visited by acolytes, let alone shown.”

He wagged his head at the painted cloth. Again I looked. It was better than Corbet, Manet, Morisot, Van Gogh. My head spun. Then Mariana gave a half-sneezed gentle tubercular cough.

“How would that look to your friends in their studios? Their knees would quake. You’d be compared to masterpieces pilfered by King George and Goering. You’d be in the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Frick, and on TV. And the ladies in pearls and tight dresses, you’ll have them stirring. You’d be the rake.”

The wind blew from the sierra. The doors clattered. “Alright, you ass, I admit I’m hooked. Let’s hear your price, your terms. But everyone knows, you consort with the devil and your goose is stewed, your knight gets rooked.”

I saw him smile, I’m not sure why.

“I like your rhyming, the suggestion of purse, not at all like a fly wrapped tight by his own Knittelvers. And as for the price, ” he said. “I give you perfect likeness, something essentially living, except to the touch. That too, if you think you’re a man, as much as such. But being successful and famous I think is what you want. Life is short, die Kunst ist lang. Just sign here.” He pointed to the bottom of the canvas. “You can’t go wrong.”

“I think I would feel better, if we switched back to prose,” I said. “A mistake could be costly, heaven knows. What’s the gimmick? I assume it’s my soul you’re after.”

“Well, right to the point,” he said. “I give you this, you give me laughter.”

“What?” I said. “Say that again. “

“I repeat,” he said. “I make you Rembrandt, then – no laughing thereafter.”

I thought about that, as quick as I could. It was what it was. A laughing matter.

“I don’t think I like it,” I said. “I couldn’t live without being funny.”

“Alright,” he said. “We’ll settle for something more like money.”

“You could take my soul,” I suggested, planning my pin. I had him here, perhaps even bested. For the simple truth is, though I’m in Mexico, I’m not theological. If I don’t have a soul, he really can’t take it. So when he gives me fame, I just fake it.

“Okay,” he said, and began receding again. “The interview’s over. We’ll talk more later. A little less Knittelvers eases the strain. The truth be known, a four-foot rhythm goes against my grain.”

I put down the brush that I’d held all along. I rubbed my eyes. And all that was left in the corner was a furry lump that swished her tail. It was Lilus our Mexican cat, on top of the stool, eyeing me rudely, staring too long.

“Go to bed,” she said, with mental telepathy. “The night grows pale. Forget what he said, and leave it at that. The Devil is nothing compared to a cat. Your place is in bed when everything blows. There are no short cuts to anywhere, as everyone knows. We do what we do, we snuggle together. Better we sleep the long sleep and stick to small things. By that I mean petting, then painting, then aging, love, purring and prose.”

[In the name of pedantry]
Mephistopheles is making an appearance in Mexico. As Goethe’s creation, he remains German, but of course can speak other languages: here, phrases occur in German, Middle High German, Spanish, and once in French.

Guten Morgen – German for Good Morning!

Noto que no puedeth dormir – Phoneticized Castilian Spanish (for puedes), or does the Devil simply lisp? I notice you can’t sleep.

Waz wirret dir? Medieval German: What is your distress? The ethical question Parzival does not put to the ailing Grail King in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic “Parzival,” It is unlikely here that the Devil’s concern is one of ethics.

Dein Nachbar, vecino: German, your neighbor; followed by Spanish, (your) neighbor.

pintor, Mahler: The first word is Spanish for painter; the second, German for painter.

Je ne thais quoi – A phrase that has to be said in French, in this case with a lisp (thais for sais): A certain something.

verstimmt: German for out of tune.

solang’ er strebt: a famous line out of Goethe’s Faust: Der Mensch irrt solang’ er strebt: A person errs as long as (s)he strives.”

Knittelvers: German for a type of four-beat line used in Goethe’s Faust.

Arbeit macht den Brei: A cynical echo of “Arbeit macht frei,” the slogan written over the entrance to Auschwitz? Here the final word is Brei, the German word for hot cereal, or simply a mess – suggesting that what this painter is producing isn’t very good.

Qué sopa amarga! Spanish: What a bitter soup!

Sierra: Spanish for mountains.

Die Kunst ist lang: Part of a famous phrase. Das Leben ist kurz, die Kunst ist lang, used by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: Life is short, art is long. More babble to confuse and ensnare the neophyte.

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