The Man Who Spoke of Inauspicious Dates
The last time I saw him, Carlos Carballo was climbing with difficulty into a police van, his hands cuffed behind his back and his head hunched down between his shoulders, while a news ticker running along the bottom of the screen reported the reason for his arrest: the attempted theft of the serge suit of an assassinated politician. It was a fleeting image, spotted by chance on one of the late-night newscasts, after the loudmouthed assault of the commercials and shortly before the sports update, and I remember having thought that thousands of television viewers would be sharing that moment with me, but only I could say without lying that I wasn't surprised. He was arrested in front of the former home of Liberal leader Jorge Elicer Gait‡n, now a museum, where armies of visitors arrive every year to come into brief and vicarious contact with the most famous political crime in Colombian history. The serge suit was the one Gait‡n was wearing on April 9, 1948, the day Juan Roa Sierra, a young man with vague Nazi sympathies, who had flirted with Rosicrucian sects and often conversed with the Virgin Mary, awaited him as he left his office and shot him four times at close range in the middle of a busy street in the broad daylight of a Bogot‡ lunchtime. The bullets left holes in the jacket and the waistcoat, and people who know that visit the museum just to see those dark empty circles. Carlos Carballo, it might have been thought, was one of those visitors.
That happened on the second Wednesday of April in the year 2014. It seems Carballo had arrived at the museum around eleven in the morning, and for several hours had been wandering through the house like a worshipper in a trance, or standing with his head tilted in front of the books on criminal law, or watching a documentary with stills of burning tramcars and irate people with raised machetes shown repeatedly over the course of the day. He waited for the last group of uniformed schoolchildren to leave before going up to the second floor, where a glass case protected the suit Gait‡n was wearing on the day of his assassination, and then he began to shatter the thick glass with a knuckle-duster. He managed to put his hand on the shoulder of the midnight-blue jacket, but he didn't have time for anything else: the second-floor guard, alerted by the crash, was pointing his pistol at him. Carballo noticed then that he'd cut himself on the broken glass of the case, and began to lick his fingers like a stray dog. But he didn't seem too worried. On television a young girl in a white blouse and tartan skirt summed it up:
"It was as if he'd been caught painting on a wall."
All the newspapers the next day referred to the frustrated robbery. All of them were surprised, hypocritically shocked, that the myth of Gait‡n still awoke such passions sixty-six years after the events, and some made the comparison for the umpteenth time to the Kennedy assassination, the fiftieth anniversary of which had been marked the previous year without the slightest diminution of its power to fascinate. All of them remembered, in case anyone had forgotten, the unforeseen consequences of the assassination: the city set on fire by the populist protests, the snipers stationed on the rooftops firing indiscriminately, and the country at war in the years that followed. The same information was repeated everywhere, with more or less subtlety and more or less melodrama, sometimes accompanied by images, including those of the furious crowd, which had just lynched the murderer, dragging his half-naked corpse along the cobblestones of Carrera Sptima, in the direction of the Presidential Palace; but on no media outlet could you find a speculation, as gratuitous as it might be, about the reasons a man who wasn't mad might have for deciding to break into a glass case in a guarded house and make off with the bullet-ridden clothing of a famous dead man. Nobody posed that question, and our media memory gradually began to forget Carlos Carballo. Swamped by everyday violence, which doesn't give anyone time to even feel discouraged, Colombians allowed that inoffensive man to fade away like a shadow at twilight. Nobody thought of him again.
It's his story, in part, that I want to tell. I can't say that I knew him, but I had a level of intimacy with him that only those who have tried to deceive each other achieve. However, to begin this story I must first speak of the man who introduced us, for what happened to me afterward has meaning only if I first tell of the circumstances in which Francisco Benavides came into my life. Yesterday, walking around the places in central Bogot‡ where some of the events that I'm going to explore in this report happened, trying to make sure once more that nothing has escaped me in its painstaking reconstruction, I found myself wondering aloud how I've come to know these things I might be better off not knowing: how I had come to spend so much time thinking about these dead people, living with them, talking to them, listening to their regrets and regretting, in turn, not being able to do anything to alleviate their suffering. And I was astonished that it had all started with a few casual words, casually spoken by Dr. Benavides inviting me to his house. At that moment, I thought I was accepting in order not to deny someone my time who had been generous with his own at a difficult moment, so the visit would simply be one more commitment out of the many insignificant things that use up our lives. I couldn't know how mistaken I'd been, for what happened that night put in motion a frightful mechanism that would only end with this book: this book written in atonement for crimes that, although I did not commit them, I have ended up inheriting.
Francisco Benavides was one of the most reputable surgeons in the country, a drinker of fine single-malt whiskey and a voracious reader, though he made a point of emphasizing that he was more interested in history than in invented stories, and if he had read a novel of mine, with less pleasure than stoicism, it was only due to the sentimentalism his patients stirred in him. I was not, in the strictest sense, a patient of his, but it was a matter of health that had put us in touch the first time. One night in 1996, a few weeks after moving to Paris, I was trying to decipher an essay by Georges Perec when I noticed a strange presence beneath my jaw on the left side, like a marble under the skin. The marble grew over the next few days, but my concentration on the change in my life, puzzling out the rules of the new city and trying to find my place in it, prevented me from noticing the changes. In a matter of days, I had a growth so swollen that it deformed my face; in the street people looked at me with pity, and a classmate stopped greeting me out of fear of some unknown contagious disease. I underwent many examinations; a whole legion of Parisian doctors were unable to reach a correct diagnosis; one of them, whose name I do not wish to recall, dared to suggest the possibility of lymphatic cancer. That was when my family back in Colombia turned to Benavides to ask if that were possible. Benavides was not an oncologist, but in recent years he had devoted himself to accompanying terminal patients: a sort of private labor he carried out on his own and for no payment whatsoever. So, although it would have been irresponsible to diagnose someone who was on the other side of the ocean, and more so in those days before telephones sent photos and cameras were integrated into computers, Benavides was generous with his time, his knowledge, and his intuition, and his transatlantic support was almost as useful to me as a definitive diagnosis would have been. ÒIf you had what theyÕre looking for,Ó he told me once by telephone, Òthey would have found it by now.Ó The complex logic of the sentence was like a life buoy thrown to a drowning man: you grab on to it without wondering if it might have a hole in it.
After a few weeks (which I spent in a timeless time, coexisting with the very concrete possibility that my life was ending at the age of twenty-three, but so numbed by the blow that I couldn't even feel true fear or true sadness), a general practitioner I met by chance in Belgium, a member of Mdecins Sans Frontires recently returned from the horrors of Afghanistan, needed just one look to diagnose me with a form of lymphotuberculosis that had disappeared from Europe and could be found (it was explained to me without the quotation marks I will now use) only in the "third world." I was admitted to a hospital in Lige, shut away in a dark room, examined in a way that made my blood burn, then anesthetized, and an incision was made on the right-hand side of my face, below my jawline, so they could extract a lymph node and do a biopsy; a week later, the lab confirmed what the recent arrival had said without needing so many expensive tests. For nine months I followed a triple course of antibiotics that dyed my urine a lurid shade of orange; the inflamed node gradually shrank; one morning I felt dampness on the pillow, and realized something had burst. After that, the contours of my face went back to normal (except for two scars, one discreet and the other, the result of the surgery, more flagrant) and I was finally able to put the whole business behind me, although in all these years I haven't managed to forget it entirely, for the scars are there to remind me. The feeling of being in debt to Dr. Benavides has never left me. And the only thing that occurred to me when we saw each other in person for the first time, nine years later, was that I had never thanked him properly. Maybe that was why I accepted his entry into my life so easily.
We met by chance in the cafeteria of the Santa Fe clinic. My wife had been admitted fifteen days earlier, and we were trying the best we could to cope with the emergency that had forced us to extend our stay in Bogot‡. We had landed at the beginning of August, the day after the Independence Day celebrations, intending to spend the European summer holidays with our families and return to Barcelona in time for her due date. The pregnancy had reached its twenty-fourth week in complete normality, for which we gave thanks every day: we knew from the start that any pregnancy with twins goes by definition in the column labeled high-risk. But the normality was shattered one Sunday, when, after a night of discomfort and strange pains, we visited Dr. Ricardo Rueda, the specialist in complicated pregnancies we'd been consulting since the beginning. After a careful ultrasound, Dr. Rueda gave us the news.
"Go home and get some clothes," he told me. "Your wife is staying here until further notice."
He explained what was happening with the manners and tone of someone announcing a fire in a cinema: the gravity of the situation must be made clear, but not so forcefully that people kill each other in a stampede for the exit. He described in detail what cervical insufficiency meant, asked M if she'd had any contractions, and finished by communicating the necessity of an urgent operation, to delay the irreversible process we'd begun without knowing. Then he said-finding a fire, trying to prevent a stampede-that premature delivery was an inevitable reality; now we had to try to see how much time we could gain in such an adverse situation, and on the length of this time my daughters' survival depended. In other words: We had begun a race against the calendar, and knew that the risks, if we lost, were the kinds that destroy lives. From then on, the objective of every decision was to delay the delivery. By the time September began, M had been hidden away in a room on the first floor of the clinic for two weeks, lying down, not allowed to move, and undergoing daily examinations that had put our endurance, our courage, and our nerves to the test.
The days' routine was built around cortisone injections to develop my unborn daughters' lungs, such frequent blood tests that very soon my wife had no unpunctured spots on her forearms, infernal ultrasounds that could last up to two hours and during which the health of their brains, spinal columns, and two hearts with their accelerated rhythms that never beat in unison were determined. The nightly routine was no less busy. The nurses came in at any moment to check some detail or ask a question, and the constant lack of sleep, as well as the state of tension we were living in, made us irritable. M had begun to have contractions she didn't feel; to reduce them (I never knew whether their intensity or frequency) she was given a drug called Adalat, responsible, as they explained to us, for her having violent hot flashes that forced me to open the windows wide and try to sleep under the inclement cold of the small hours in Bogot‡. Sometimes, when sleep was already frightened off by the cold or the nurses' visits, I would go for a walk around the deserted clinic; I'd sit on the leather sofas in the waiting rooms, if I found a place with the lights on, I'd read a few pages of Lolita in an edition from the cover of which Jeremy Irons observed me; or I'd wander down the dim corridors, in those hours when the clinic shut off half the neon panels, walking from the room to the neonatal unit and from there to the waiting room for out-patient surgery. On those nocturnal strolls through white corridors I would try to remember the latest explanations received from the doctors, and to figure the risks the twins would run if they were born in that instant. Then I'd make mental calculations of how much weight the girls had gained in the last few days and the time it would take them to get up to the minimum required for survival, and it unnerved me that my well-being depended on that obstinate counting of grams. I tried not to get too far away from the room, and in any case to have my phone in my hand rather than in some pocket, so I'd be sure to hear it ring. I looked at it frequently: to confirm that I had coverage, that the signal was good, that my daughters would not be born in my absence due to the lack of four black lines on the small gray firmament of a liquid screen.