Sarah Jane Foster translating Gabriela Alemán

(Eskeletra Editorial, Quito, 2001)

An Amber Prison

That’s how it happened. I was walking down the Paseo Ahumada with Sergio, we were coming back from the market and looking for a place to get coffee and talk. After a long meal, we welcomed the walk in search of a table, but when we got to the university campus and the street ended and we still hadn’t found anything, I was happy to accept his proposal to change out the coffee for a glass of something in a nearby bar. On the corner of Ovalle and Tarapacá, we walked into La Manoseada; we sat next to the kitchen door, by the jukebox, and ordered two glasses of pisco. By that time, the blue-walled hall was almost empty, and through the blinds, we could see into a barroom, just like any other, tables and chairs. There was just one man at the bar, talking slow sips from his glass, while Sergio told me the story of a scar on his side. We sat there for a few hours, the tables stayed busy; we drank side by side, until Sergio looked at a message on his phone. He got up, stumbling, to go out and make a call, and I, who was no better off, only made it over to the music machine. I put two coins into the slot, pressed a button to play Niégalo todo by Germán Rosario and La copa rota by Benito de Jesús. When the songs ended and Sergio still wasn’t back,  I got up to look for the door to the outside. Behind the darkness, I could hear the complicity of silence; I went back to get another drink. I think maybe it was the contrast, but when I came back inside, the air felt thick. I let it soak in, and then came a slow wave of exhaustion, and I fell asleep with my head on the table. Strangely, none of the thugs in the bar gave me any trouble; I guess it was the monotonous mood of the place, clotting and turning heavy in the air. It was a cosmic fatigue that could have unbalanced anyone, or forced them to accept even the most implausible story as true.

The man who had been at the bar came up to me with a glass in his hand and asked if he could sit next to me, I accepted.

The only light, from a bare bulb whose base had sunk into the ceiling, captured the fractured image: a dark-skinned figure, slightly hunched over, dressed in black and bearing the stale smell of burnt oil. He wasn’t talking, he was reciting a string of statements as a litany, raising them up like a shield:

Submission to morality can be enslaving or vain or egotistical or resigned or obtusely enthusiastic or without consequence or an act of desperation, as in subjugating oneself to principle: on its own nothing is moral. To accept a faith only by custom is to be dishonest, cowardly, lazy. And to be dishonest, cowardly, lazy— does morality afford that? How did reason enter the world? As a habit, as an irrationality, as an accident. One would have to question it as if  it were a riddle. 

I interrupted him, asked what he was drinking and ordered two. I wanted to tell him, but I stopped myself, that with alcohol a lot and a little are both no good at finding the truth, although more tends to be better than less. Out of pure boredom, I started to ask him what he was doing there, why he had spent six hours sitting in a bar drinking alone. (If I had considered at the time, as I ought to have, that you don’t need to know so many things to lead an honest life, that we suffer from our excesses of knowledge, among other things, I would have kept my mouth shut. But I didn’t, and faced the consequences.) He focused his attention, but more on some imaginary point off in the distance than on me, he told me he was waiting.  

I asked, “What for?”  
“To go to Paraguay,” was his response.
“That’s funny,” I proceeded. “I just came from there.”
“I was following the route of Elisabeth Nietzsche down the Chaco.”

His face clouded as he came up to me.

“No one tried to kill you?” Something had struck him.
“Why would they have?”
“What did you find out?” He kept asking.
“Nothing new, I got to Nueva Germania, they showed me the house, and they pointed out a few places where I could take photographs. Later they sent me out on the first truck towards the Paraguay River and didn’t let me out of their sight until I was on my way to Asunción.”
“Who?” he was raising his voice.
“The people in charge of her estate, they didn’t let me look at any papers or talk to the other settlers. They told me no one spoke Spanish,” I went on.
“That’s true,” he said, and I was surprised.
“You’ve been there?” I asked
“Several times.”
“So, what were you doing?”
“What about you?”
“A magazine sent me.”
“To do what?”
“To follow a lead, it seems that before his breakdown in Turin, Nietzsche gave his sister a finished work that she never touched, that she didn’t dare show anyone. Not even her husband, Dr. Forster. Maybe she wanted to keep some cards up her sleeve in case their utopian experiment went wrong, in case she needed to leave. But it’s been lost god-knows-how-many years. Some people think that Elisabeth had a child with another man.” (I took out some photos that I had kept in my purse) “See? These pictures are eleven months apart. It’s not a long time, but still, can’t you see the change? It’s the thickness of her waist. I went to look for a descendent of that child, someone must have kept the only copy of that lost Nietzsche manuscript.” The words were spilling out of me.

“The people in that settlement are a band of Nazis, anti-Semites, and criminals, and of course they are all direct descendants of Forster,” he said sharply. “When Elisabeth left Paraguay and went back to her brother, she didn’t leave behind anything worth taking. If she had a son, you’d be better off looking for him in Germany or here.” I shifted my eyes to look where he pointed, and from the new, unexpected angle (the same abrupt movement that sharks make before attacking, showing their silver bellies as they turn), he looked like a madman. “In Nueva Germania, there are only bad memories and Forster’s tomb.”

I was thrown off.  “And how do you know so much?”
“Let’s say I have a certain personal interest that draws me to the character of Elisabeth.”
“What are you going to do there now?” I asked, keeping up in turn.
“I’m giving a class,” he said serenely, tilting his glass to finish the last drops of his drink.
“But you said no one spoke Spanish?”
“Did I say I was giving the class in Spanish?”

I thought through all the doors that tedium can unlock before I asked my next question.

“Who hired you to teach these classes?”
“The Goethe Institute. Every six months, I go to Philadelphia and to Nueva Germania, we give workshops in a Mennonite church; I stay in the meeting room. I asked if they had tried to kill you because in my last two trips I’ve noticed that those expatriated Nazis seem up to something. And it’s not because of anything I’ve done; I just go, give my classes, and try to keep my distance.”
“What are you going to teach?” I was curious.
“Céline and Kafka.”
“You choose the topics?” I continued.
“No, the Institute gives me the programs. But those demented anti-Semites have already got me condemned without trial I’m no threat to them, but they have, in their stupidity, convinced themselves that I am guilty.”
“Of what?” I asked.
“Who knows? Motives— as Céline says— seem to supply themselves.”
I kept prying, “When are you going?
“I have to go to Israel first, when I get back from this trip.”
“Well, what are you going to do in Israel?”
“See family, find some documents.”
“You’re Jewish?”
“And Forster’s heirs know that?”
“Why the hell should they care?” he answered, irritated.
“If I remember correctly, wasn’t it also Céline who said that every day there are at least a hundred people who would rather see us dead: people standing behind us in the ticket line, people who see you sitting in your house when they don’t have one; and that, in some extreme conditions, I might think of you hundreds of miles away from the nearest highway, that impatience can turn even more violent and irrational.”
“Yes, but you forget that I’m not a vile and repulsive criminal, my picture has never appeared in the newspapers with that caption,” he said stiffly.
“And what can that matter? When you are looking for reasons to blame someone, just like you said, they supply themselves,” I said, and then kept quiet.

His eyes went lost again. Without a doubt, the most important things happen in the dark, or at least in an amber prison. I stood up and went to get to more drinks. When I came back, I could tell that something had happened, there inside his head, his thoughts stayed still in the empty space. He picked up his glass and took a long swig before proceeding.

“Do you know the difference between beliefs and facts?” he asked me.
“Only that they’re lightly drawn distinctions and that I couldn’t defend myself if I had to tell them apart with absolute precision.”
“You mean, no?”
“Well, the truth, which you say doesn’t really matter, is made up of a kind of correspondence between the two. Minds don’t create truth, they create beliefs, and what makes these beliefs reality are facts. Are you following me?”

I nodded.

“To establish something as true it must meet three requirements: first, the truth must have an opposite, a lie (I am a villain, for example); second, the truth depends on certain beliefs (everyone is innocent until proven guilty); but, at the same time, it depends on the relationship between those beliefs and how things really are (I have never killed anyone, you can find the proof in my police record).”
“Yes, I agree, but that wouldn’t save you from anything, if the beliefs held against you are false; let’s forget the facts for a minute, just like your alleged attackers would. What’re you going to do then?”
“Simple,” he pulled a cigarette out of the carton with his lips. “I’d run away. I’ve had enough discussions about The Penal Colony with those men, I know better than to wait around and see how they react. Fear,” his eyes shined off-focus as he looked over at me, “is probably the best way out of an uncomfortable situation.”
“And it would end just like that?”
“Ma’am, our dignity depends on whether or not we can pay back as much good as we do evil. I would take some revenge.”
“What would you do?”
“I’ve been collecting evidence, spent years talking to people, came across hidden sites. I’ve found other colonies, places you couldn’t even imagine.”

He started to trace an imaginary map of Paraguay over the table, named unspeakable places, underground estates, prisons, and human zoos. He started to mention a town close by where the Nazi elites…

“The nonagenarian elites?” I asked.

He waved his hand and cut me off with a single gesture, then got up and headed over to the bar. For the rest of the small hours, I cradled the hope that he’d come back, but he knew to keep me in suspense. He was taunting me, and I toughed it out - listening to the only coin left in the jukebox - until he made sure he’d shaken off enough dead weight. When the barman started to sweep and pick up the chairs, I went over to him. It was close to dawn and in the clean light, I fixed in on his shadowy eyebrows and the thick hairs of his mustache, his fragile frame, and the attaché case, tied with a string and attached to his wrist. At first, I thought my enthusiasm was getting the better of me; I had in front of me an unhappy copy of the philosopher I’d been looking for. How could I have missed all the details of that night? I walked up to him like a sinner; he was talking to himself: We are all corrupted for having lost our instinct of survival. I touched his shoulder, “What do you want?” he said, without turning around. I didn’t know what to say, I stuttered at first, but my point was to provoke him, and it worked. I repeated the final words of Nietzsche, the last that he wrote in his own hand before losing his mind, "Siamo contenti? Sono dio, ho fatto questa caricatura."

“So, you are the creator then,” he said, and kept drinking, “Tell your husband I feel sorry for him, living with someone so worthy of contempt.”

After that, I left. What could I possibly say to him? How could I object to his reasoning (in the end, he at least admitted that God was a woman), how could I question his knowledge of Italian, how could I tell him I was just a journalist looking for a lead that might be tied to his wrist. How could I accept the possibility that there were more answers in a dirty bar in Santiago than in Germany or Italy? I walked toward the river. When I reached the Diagonal Paraguay, I stumbled. But, if it really was him?

Sarah Jane Foster

Sarah Jane Foster is a writer and translator living in Quito, Ecuador. She studied history and comparative literature at Brown University and Dartmouth College. 

Gabriela Alemán

Gabriela Alemán has published eight books of fiction; her most recent is HUMO (SMOKE) published by Penguin Random House in 2017. Alemán has written for radio, film, and the press. Her stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Antología del Nuevo Cuento Latinoamericano (Ed. Norma, Bogotá, 2008), and Les bonnes nouvelles de l’Amérique latine (Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2010). She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006 and formed part of the literary group Bogotá 39, along with Junot Díaz and Daniel Alarcón, among others, in 2007.