Excerpt from The Ghost of Porfirio by Ricardo Félix Rodriguez

Translated from the French by the author, and edited by Jonathan Marcantoni

-I see a potential in this subject! Now come with me the competition it’s about to start!

-Competition? What competition? - Simon rushed without answering my question, I pursued him without reaching him as he climbed up a stairwell in the form of a snail. He stopped from time to time to ensure I wasn’t left behind. He wears a hat that gives him an air of Orson Welles. I saw him enter a door and I accelerated the pace. I finally reached the door pulling the air through my mouth, and I breathed deeply to recover. I just opened the lock and Simon's hand pulled my arm in the middle of a dark room. The music may be the opening of Wagner's Tannhäuser, though I cannot tell from the lyrics, we walked in the middle of the darkness until we reached a row of cushioned seats. We sat down and our eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness, we were on the second floor of a kind of theater. Only that instead of a stage it was a quadrilateral. We looked up and down a group of men gathered inside the quadrangle. Simon turned to me with a mischievous smile and said:

-Wait until you see this my friend- He was proud of his project and had invested too much time and money on everything. Simon made himself comfortable in his seat, and unbuttoned his shirt sleeves. He raised his hat slightly and watched the coordination of the event with satisfaction. I took into account that Simon had given me a certain confidence, he liked to share the details of his project with someone. I wanted to ask a lot of questions but this atmosphere was not appropriate. A group of women and men sitting with us wore fur coats, and held glasses of cognac. Women resembling something of a painting by Renoir. We greeted effusively and they asked about a fight. Everyone, including Simon, were excited about the event.  Claudine finally arrived, dressed in a costume like a Charleston dancer. I recognized that there was something in her that attracted me but at the same time I hated her ... she smiled and greeted everyone. Simon whispered in my ear:

-Give her your seat- I change seats and she greeted me with good humor. I noticed that she had a somewhat twisted tooth that you could see when she laughed. I felt his frozen arm in my arm, his red hair falling on his bare shoulders. Forgive me if my narrative confuses a little, but I turned my head back to see if I saw a known person or to give me an idea of how many people were in the auditorium. From the fourth or fifth row of seats the faces of the public were false! What do I mean? They were not human, maybe dolls, mannequins, silhouettes trying to feign great assistance. I wondered if this strategy had been used in other situations. I wanted to remember and see the details of those faces when Claudine pulled my head to the front.

- This writer is named Tendai, he is from Zimbabwe- While she gave me the unsolicited information, a voice was announcing the trajectory of the writer. Tendai Rinos Mwanaka was his full name, a multidisciplinary artist who wrote poetry, composed music and ventured into the visual arts. He greeted the audience while giving small jumps as if he were a boxer. He threw punches in the air to show off his speed. The national anthem of Zimbabwe began to play, and the audience remained silent. From the shadows, another man came running in circles around the ring, receiving applause from the audience.

-That's your compatriot-. Claudine whispered in my ear. I realize that the fighter was Latin American. I asked her if he was Mexican.

-He's Puerto Rican-. She said to me with a question mark in her face. Simon looked at us intermittently while he exchanged information about the fighters.

-The Latin-Americans ... if I can explain ... we are not very close- I tried to be as honest as possible. I had friends from Argentina, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba but while we should embrace a common identity, the concept of the Latin America of José Martí did not exist. Our main enemy had always been disunity, each boat seeking a different port. We celebrate the defeat of our brothers, we celebrate being more advanced than our neighbors, and we underlined the corrupt politicians of other countries, while ours go unpunished. Conflict of identity? Identification with the aggressor?

-His name is Jonathan Marcantoni, in his work he portraits the story of your Latin America- While she described to me the work of the writer, Jonathan did some stretching exercises. The American national anthem began, which provoked his anger to discuss the matter with one of the organizers. Then the notes of La borinqueña (the hymn of Puerto Rico) began to ring out. After the song, a referee gathered them in the middle of the ring and apparently explained the rules of engagement. A group of companions at the bottom of the quadrilateral left the fighters on their own. Only the referee was left, and he made a sign when the bell ringed. The fighters began to dance in circles as they moved their heads from one side to the other to avoid being a fixed target. Tendai managed to hit his opponent with his jab. Jonathan threw a hook to the liver that crashed into his opponent's gloves. The fighters continued to dance around the ring without hurting each other. They were focused on studying his opponent until the bell rang. They sat down to receive instructions from their respective coaches. Simon exchanged tickets with some guests, smoke, music and alcohol were mixed with the struggling environment. Claudine laughed without enjoying too much of the atmosphere. I tried to look back to check at the fake faces but Claudine interrupted.

-Now you'll see the literary battle-. Before I could ask what that "literary battle" thing was, Simon made me a sign carrying his index finger to his mouth. The announcer explained the second phase of the fight. A computer was placed in front of each opponent, their managers removed their gloves and gave them a little water, while they breathed with agitation. A cinema screen shown at the top of the stage with the following text:

 

Situation # 1 the old man sitting every day in the same bench to feed the pigeons...

 

From his computer, Jonathan clicked on the following scene in Spanish:

 

« El viejo avanza a paso lento por la orilla del malecón, observa la vida brillar en las pupilas de los niños jugueteando ».

 

"The old man moves slowly along the jetty, watching life shine through the pupils of the children playing."

 

In his computer, Tendai wrote in English:

 

« Without being conscious the old man started speaking his thoughts in a loud voice, he knew the voice of his father spoke through him ».

 

Two translators sitting on one side of the poets helped interpret simultaneously. The mood of the public had changed: they went from screaming to being attentive to the words of the writers. I looked at Claudine and she was hypnotized with her mouth open. Jonathan continued to write:

 

«De pronto, el sintió que alguien o algo lo observaba, era su sombra. Hay sombras ligeras y sombras pesadas, sombras que inspiran tranquilidad y sombras que sofocan. Hay unas dormidas y otras enfurecidas, que hacen ruido y calor que crecen, y crecen, y crecen como el fuego de una bomba ».

 

"Suddenly, he felt someone or something was watching him, it was his shadow. There are light shadows and heavy shadows, shadows that inspire tranquility and suffocating shadows. There are sleepless and other raged, which make noise and heat that grow, and grow, and grow like the fire of a bomb. "

 

Before people could interpret the meaning of the text by Jonathan, Tendai wrote:

"Our voice is the choice that we are, it is what we want to do, what we do not want to do with our lives, with other people's lives."

 

-I'm sure Tendai is a musician-. Claudine said in my ear. Simon was intrigued by the expression of the bomb in Jonathan's text. I listened to all sorts of interpretations, religious fanaticism, war, psychopaths. There was not much knowledge of what was happening in Latin America. I told them that Puerto Rico was fighting for its independence and some authors reflected the struggle for freedom. Without giving much importance to my comments the drunk guests looked at Jonathan’s words:

 

« Mañanas como hoy yo no reconozco la ciudad. Los olores, los sonidos, y los edificios son los mismos, pero algo adentro ha cambiado. No sé si el cambio viene de adentro o de afuera, pero no se puede negar ».

 

"Mornings like today I do not recognize the city. The smells, sounds, and buildings are the same, but something inside has changed. I do not know if the change comes from inside or outside, but it cannot be denied. "

 

-I love the way it goes- Simon said. Each writer with his particular style began to give way to his inner voice. I was surprised that without being equal the texts deal with similar subjects. Without being able to reflect much Tendai wrote the following sentence:

 

« This poem is about how voices emerges out of nothingness, to be nothing, not at all, can we quantify nothingness? »

 

The old man and the pigeons had disappeared in Tendai's text to make room for his poetry. The audience stayed in complete silence. Simon stood up from his seat and shouted:

-Is a call for freedom! - His guests imitated him and stood up to applaud. Claudine took my hand to get up to applaud all were smiling with joy as if it were a New Year's party. Everyone sat back down while Claudine showed me a button to the right of my seat. She explained to me that with this device the public voted for the text of one of the two authors. It was a tie for me, but there was no button to score a tie. The problems of Africa are very similar to those of Latin America: underdevelopment, political classes serving the developed countries, corruption, this reflected in the writings of both Jonathan and Tendai. After a few minutes, a countdown timer turned on the screen. In the ring the managers put on boxing gloves again. The second round began with Jonathan's more risky style. He didn’t care about being hit as long as he could connect in the abdomen. Tendai started expelling air through his mouth while Jonathan started hitting harder. The audience jumped from their seats cheering them on. He continued to beat the abdomen as if he was trying to shoot down a tree. With the last breath of his strength, Tendai launched an uppercut that shook Jonathan's chin, the Latin American fighter fell back causing the audience to erupt in euphoria. The referee gave the protection count and asked if he could continue. The Puerto Rican replied affirmatively but the referee noted that his gaze was lost and he stopped the fight. The rabid audience applauded the battle while the pugilists embraced. No one took it personally, the winner was Tendai.

-And now what happens? - I asked Claudine. The noise did not let me hear what she said. Everyone started to leave and two guards accompanied me to the exit.

Later in bed, I could not sleep since I did not know what happened to the fighter who lost. Late in the night, sleep defeated me and I dreamt with Claudine. A man carried Claudine in his hands, his hair looking twice as big, straight on top and curling at the bottom. She was not wearing a dress, but like a row of gold bands that left her nipples exposed as a painting by Klimt, remember The Beethoven Frieze? She appeared like a living representation of this painting. I forgot everything around me and in the middle of the shrill chorus I exchanged a look with Claudine. He looked terrified. I watched from behind some benches like a child who sneaks into the circus without paying. Eventually the man put Claudine on the ground and one of them gave her a sword. She handled and tested the edge with her fingers. She danced a little like in the middle of a circus act. She stretched until she had become an arch showing her chubby thighs. A group of men brought a huge box like those that magicians use to cross their swords. Inside was the writer Jonathan. The music stopped. Claudine took two steps until she was in front of the box. The audience remained silent, seconds of panic, drums echoed as Claudine dropped the sword in the poet's neck. At that time I woke up screaming.

I could not believe that Claudine was an executioner.