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IMG_0072_1024Ninety- nine years ago today, September 15, 1916, the bandit-general of the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa pulled off a daring attack against Carrancista forces in Chihuahua City, in state of Chihuahua, with 2,000 Villista irregular troops against 9,000 government soldiers—the opposing revolutionary faction recognized and supported by the U.S. At the same time, 10,000 American troops under General Pershing were not that far away, looking for Villa for his attack on Columbus, New Mexico earlier that year on March 8 – 9, in which eighteen Americans died.

September 15, at midnight, is when Mexicans traditionally give the Grito, the Cry of Independence, re-enacting the cry Hidalgo gave in 1810 in Dolores Hidalgo, a town forty-five minutes from here, Guanajuato, declaring war against Spanish control.

Villa’s troops entered Chihuahua at midnight without challenge because they blended in with people coming into town for the celebration. Much of the citizenry was sympathetic to Villa. The Cry for Independence—”Viva, viva México!” soon turned into “Viva Villa!” as sympathizers realized what was happening. Villa freed potential allies from the Penitentiary and occupied the Presidential Palace, then withdrew.

This is the scene then in my novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, when Frank Holloway and his friend Juan Carlos, a young doctor, captives, find themselves forced to join Villa’s attack on Chihuahua. Frank survives, Juan Carlos does not.

Because the latter believed in the civilizing power of horses, that night still outside Chihuahua, Frank and friends build an immense fire beside the river Chuviscar and burn Juan Carlos on top of his horse’s side—both killed by Carrancista machinegun fire.

“Dawn was coming and the stars faded. A river of sparks curved up and away. The fire crackled and spit. River stones exploded from the heat. A slight breeze came up. The three of us stood upwind, so we would not have to smell the roasting horse, which was acceptable, or Juan Carlos, which was foreign and troubling.”

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I hope I’m not misleading you on the subject of your research. You’re ready to record? All right—I’m trying to remember when it began. Probably with the usual things, like imitating my father’s voice and style with a note to the principal of the elementary school, excusing me from gym class, then from arithmetic because of my brain tumor, then from lunch period—so I could go out behind the baseball backstop and slip into the woods, where I smoked Philip Morris cigarettes and met with girls too brain impaired to attend school.

How did I get them to come there? By imitating the principal, with invitations to join a softball team that would consist equally of elementary school children—without concern for mental development.

Later, when I was in high school, I studied, then submitted—without return address—unknown works by Hemingway, Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters. I submitted them to publishers, claiming they had been discovered in this or that archive nook or rare book library.

At first, there were nothing but rejections. Then, gradually, experts began to pay attention. A letter here, a short story there, a poem, even a thin novel hitherto unknown. Literary and library journals could not resist the fact that priceless pieces had been discovered, and they began to publish them and attribute them to the Brontës, Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway.

I studied other languages and with the years managed to place essays by Camus and Thomas Mann, in clotted Courier type. Once even a pornographic piece by Richard Wagner. The submissions were always anonymous, but written with such skill—on blank pages ripped from old books—that academic journals fought with each other over who presented the best argument for their authenticity. All the while, I worked as a quiet librarian in Orange, New Jersey.

In time, I grew bored with these shenanigans and began submitting work of my own—with the result, over and over, that I was accused of borrowing, i.e. stealing the style and vocabulary of known authors.

I had a few successes with small literary magazine, where the gatekeepers—usually severely male—were so schooled in mimicry and where so many of their submissions were youthfully imitative, that my own lingering trickery went undetected.

I married and had a daughter—a delightful child with equally generous measures of intelligence and heart. When she went away to camp, I wrote her news and stories I had not made up. By college, she began to complain to her mother—we were no longer together—that she no longer knew me and—more troubling—that there was something inauthentic about me.

When my ex-wife told me this, with an expression between gloating and reprimand, I spent the rest of the day and night drinking enough whisky to kill an elephant.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to a psychiatrist, who told me to explore my relationship with my parents, both of whom had had careers in persuading people to trust them. My father, a financial advisor, had been warned a few times by his firm, for irregularities. And my mother had been a painter of modest talents, who openly painted copies of Breughel, Rembrandt and the Impressionists for clients in Santa Monica, California with blue hair and rooms to decorate.

After some years of therapy, I joined an ashram to learn how to meditate and give up wants in the material world. I spent time with a number of the lovely apostles of the promised more spiritual life, practicing the arts of defense and rendition. While my daughter, though always polite, grew ever more remote from me.

When my granddaughter was born, my daughter softened and allowed me to play my role as grandfather. She even allowed me to tell the child bedtime stories. And over time, something happened whereby I began to tell stories that were different from my earlier ones and clung more to the questions my granddaughter asked me. About whether bears could talk with children, and had I ever talked with a bear or an elephant. I did not want to lie to her, so I said I hadn’t. She was three or four, and so she suggested we could go to the zoo and try to talk to a bear and maybe an elephant.

And so we went to the zoo. And then we went again. And then, again. We tried other animals as well. None of them actually talked to us, but we made up stories about what they said and laughed because some of the stories were funny. And besides, we were happy to be with each other.

I began to go back alone, and when other people weren’t around I talked to the animals by myself. And something changed, and I learned something that seems too trivial to say. But I will. That there is no reason to disguise who you are. My granddaughter and the elephants were who they were—and pretended nothing more.

My time to leave the earth has come now—as you can see for yourself. On her last visit, my lovely ex-wife held my hand and said it was too bad we had not spent more time together—in every aspect—over the last twenty or thirty years. My daughter weeps uncontrollably when she visits. And my granddaughter—now a wonderful writer at the age of twenty-five—sits beside my bed and tells me in many different ways which animals I should visit and what I should say to them when I go to join them.

That is my story about forgery. It may not have been what you wanted. But there it is.

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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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