18.02.2014 - 02:03
Jaume Cabré has been called Catalonia’s best living author. His last few novels are worldwide bestsellers and have been translated into many languages, but English readers have mostly had to wait, with the exception of the translation of ‘Winter Journey’, by Patricia Dunn and published by Swan Isle Press.
Cabré has written novels, short stories and young adult fiction, and has collaborated on tv screenplays—including Catalonia’s first-ever tv series, La Granja [The café]. He has won many of Catalonia’s highest literary honors, including the Sant Jordi Prize in 1983, and the 2010 Catalan Literary Lifetime Achievement Award.
Cabré latest novel is ‘Jo confesso’ a story about Europe, about evil, about remembering, and about forgetting. It took eight years to complete and fills more than one thousand pages. It was recently reported that ‘Jo confesso’ will soon be translated into more than 20 languages, including English in the fall, thanks to Arcadia Books in London.
Cabré was interviewed on #CatalanTalk (on Twitter) on Tuesday, February 18.
Exclusive short story for VilaWeb readers
We are pleased to offer an exclusive for VilaWeb readers of an English edition of one of Jaume Cabré’s short stories. It is called ‘Pandora’, and was originally published in Catalan, in a collection titled ‘Set claus. Relats d’Andorra’ [Seven keys. Stories about Andorra] by Proa in 2001. The translation is by Liz Castro.
“I know how you feel. You wish she were dead, right?”
“Yes, I don’t want her to get hurt, but it would be great if she were dead, yeah.”
They were quiet for a moment. The lean man picked up a roasted almond and chewed it carefully, as if it were the most important thing in the world. He leaned back in his chair, adjusted his sunglasses, which hid his soul, looked around discreetly and said, as if he were talking about the coming thunderstorm, “That can be arranged.”
A shiver went down Carles’ spine. So it was true.
“Excuse me?” he said as he began to sweat.
“That everything that can be solved can be solved with money. Don’t you see it that way?”
“I’m not following you.”
“Yes, you follow me.” The lean man picked up another almond. He smiled and he waited, with utter patience for the other to confess that, yes, he did understand perfectly, and how much would it cost. But he didn’t seem able to start. To help him, he spoke softly, in an almost teacherly tone: “There’s someone who’s standing in the way of your heart, and bothering your pocket, and not only that, they don’t pay attention when you tell them to get out of the way.”
“Yes, that’s it exactly, but…”
The lean man stood up, pointing at him in a friendly way.
“If you don’t pay attention, you’re going to get caught in this god-awful storm.”
Before leaving, the man reminded him that Carles knew where to find him if he wanted, then grabbed the three last almonds and disappeared from the café. Carles didn’t dare turn around to see where he was going; he was too stunned. He picked up the pitcher and took a gulp. The beer was, all of a sudden, more bitter than ever. He didn’t realize that the outdoor cafe was emptying rather quickly, nor did he pay attention to the polite warning from the waiter. He was thinking about Fran and if he had it in him to be that brave. Then Claire’s sweet face flashed across his mind and he thought he was, that for Claire he could do practically any crazy thing. And he was afraid because it wasn’t possible for life to give you such absurd choices. It should be prohibited by the gods. When he tasted the beer again, he noticed it was watery, and he realized all of a sudden that, indeed, he had been caught in the god-awful storm.
With his shirt hanging up, his pants near the window, his shoes a mess, he rubbed his hair energetically with a towel, and cursed the day that he had talked to Tino, who had told him a while back there were people who specialized in solving all kinds of problems.
Once he was dry, he sprinkled cologne in his hair, put on a dry shirt, and, for strength, he looked at the picture of Claire that he kept in his wallet. He decided against calling from the room phone or his cell and instead went down to Ordino, the phone booth in front of the bank. He smoothed out the crumpled, soggy paper and dialed the number in front of him. As if he were waiting for the call, the lean man with the almonds said hello, almost like they were still continuing the morning’s conversation.
“Why don’t we talk about it a little. No commitments.”
After a thick silence, Carles sighed and mentioned the thing he cared about the least.
“It’s a lot of money.”
“We don’t do discounts, we don’t discuss price, we evaluate every minute risk for ourselves and for our clients, and once the deal is made and the first payment received, we don’t turn back, no matter what unforeseen obstacles come up for the client. Our study of the patient and the first contacts with him are completely up to us, for reasons of the strictest security. One hundred percent accuracy, one hundred percent post-operative security. Try to find someone else who can equal that at a better price.”
The lean man, after his speech, stood up and looked toward the table as if he expected to see a plate of almonds there. Carles, with his eyes closed, meditated. The conditions were tough, the guarantee, absolute, and the conduct serious and exquisite, and everyone has to wrestle with their own conscience. That was the gist of it.
“The thing is I have to think about it.”
“I’m going to Andorra tonight. Security reasons.”
“You think that I…”
“I think I reminded you once that I told you that I don’t think anything,” interrupted the lean man. “But in four hours, I’m going to be far away from here, looking at another deal and establishing new priorities in my portfolio of clients.”
“Don’t pressure me. I need more time to think about it.”
“Things are what they are.” He looked at his watch absentmindedly and then stared at it. “If we don’t have an answer in an hour, the deal is off, we go our separate ways and we never spoke about anything that has to do with your partner. In fact, we don’t know each other.”
“I don’t know how to decide something like that in an hour.”
If he looked at her rationally, he had to recognize that she was a handsome woman. But he couldn’t separate those traits from the hateful way she had been acting lately. Now she sat down, helped by the waiter, and he, who had gotten up out of habit, to keep the people nearby from paying much attention to them, sat back down, very seriously, keeping his eyes down. He waited for her to speak. But she was busy with the menu, asking the waiter outlandish things, almost as if she were afraid to be left alone. She took care of herself without worrying if he had ordered or not. Typical Fran. When the waiter looked his way, he said he’d have whatever the lady was having and waited impatiently for the waiter to disappear.
“Why did you want to see me?”
He still hadn’t looked her in the eye. He did now as she waited for him to respond. Her gaze hurt his pupils. It pierced holes in them with that power she had and kept right on going through his brain until they had read his thoughts and he was suddenly lost because Fran was finding out about his meeting with the roasted almond man, the decision to go ahead with the whole thing, the entire cost before they even began, and the absolute guarantee that nothing would implicate him because it wouldn’t seem like an accident, it would actually be one. And Fran, with that deadly ease, was spooning out his thoughts onto the table and he thought, I’m sorry, Fran, I didn’t mean to, really, you don’t know the weight that’s pressing against my chest now that I know they’re going to kill you, but it’s just the way it is, you earned it. Yes, you earned it, and despite that, when I signed the withdrawal sheet at the bank for the money, the sound of the pen on the form seemed like the quill that a king uses when he signs an execution order for a convict. Carles waited for her to call him a murderer, I’m going to report you right now and you’ll end up publicly disgraced, not to mention in jail. But instead, she said are you still sleeping with that whore?
“You’re as tactful as ever.”
Fran pushed a manila folder over the table toward him. He opened it knowing that he would find photos of him and Claire, in a bed in some hotel in Arieja or Llenguadoc, loving each other out of sight, away from their friends’ teasing but not far away enough from the fury of Fran’s eyes; how pretty Claire was, nude, caressing his chest, loving him like no woman ever had. But the photo was not of any night he shared with Claire, it was from the day that he had gone to Montpelier to bring a suitcase to somebody who paid well and who didn’t ask questions. Carles looked at Fran over the photo. She smiled at him angelically and leaned forward, as if to tell him a secret:
“I’ve got you by the balls.”
“I don’t know what I was carrying.”
“Are you blackmailing me?”
She pretended she was looking at the huge bouquet of flowers that was next to the mirror in the corner of the restaurant.
“So why did you want to meet me here?”
“I’m willing to talk about divorce,” she announced. “And I’m willing to share all our stock and the value of the two apartments and the house.”
Two years and three months waiting to hear those blessed words that had finally arrived at this particular moment in time.
“And I give up any claims to the house.”
“No, we’ll share it.”
So much generosity was impossible. Something wasn’t right. Or she had finally turned into a person? Too many years together kept him from trusting her too soon:
“Why are you showing me the picture, then?”
“No reason, just to warn you that if you play dirty, I know everything, about you…”
Everything? Do you know that I talked to a lean man who eats almonds? That they’re following you twenty-four hours a day so they can…
“There’s just one condition.”
He closed the folder and returned it without bothering to rip up the photo. He waited for her to dictate the terms. It would be something impossible to accept and everything would end up just like before, but now the bad guy would be him.
“You have to take me on a flight over Andorra.”
“I can ask for permission.”
“Without permission. Improvised.”
“Well, well. Just a few days ago you took the whore around and didn’t ask anybody’s permission.”
If she was watching him that closely, it was possible she knew everything. Even his conversations with the lean man.
“One flight and that’s it?”
“With someone else.”
Now he understood everything. Fran, though it seemed impossible, had fallen in love. What a relief, thank God. He ignored the insult to Claire, as he had so many times before:
“I’ll see what I can work out.”
“No. Work it out. Or I take it all back.”
The day that he had told Fran that he wanted to fall in love, and be happy, and enough already, that he was done, that he couldn’t stand this relationship any more, so cold, so distant, so I don’t know why we live together, she had looked straight at him with her ice cold eyes and told him to forget it: until death do us part. Besides, you do what you want, you spend all day risking your life, you think you’re the hero of the movie, you hang out with frigging photographers and mountain climbers with broken bones, you make buckets of money and we’re living easy. What else do you want?
That’s when the problems started. That’s when he began to see Fran as the real enemy because she had put herself in the enemy role, not doing anything or letting him do anything, and he got this thought stuck in his head so bad that his friends at work started teasing him saying that he was Sad Carles and one day you’re going to have an accident because you’re going to be more distracted than usual and that’s when Tino said I don’t know what the matter with you is but I know some people who can solve all the problems in the world and he gave him an indirect contact and he, idiot that he was, goddamnit, had called and now no matter how often he dialed the number they didn’t answer for anything and he understood that the number had been disconnected for security reasons but how the hell am I going to reach that guy with the almonds and tell him, hey, never mind, everything’s solved, you don’t have to do anything, the patient is no longer a problem, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks, you know?
Since they had to go to the heliport in Tírvia to pick up a guy who had had a heart attack and bring him to the hospital in Andorra, once they had taken off, he closed the radio with the Control, he took off his headphones and Tino, afraid, said, what the hell are you doing? And he signaled for him to take off his headphones too and then he shouted you should give me that number of the guy that solves problems. Tino said OK and then they went on to Tírvia, and Carles felt better. On the way back, after they’d done the job, in the bar, that damned Tino gave him the same number he had given him before and he said no, Tino, not that one, I’ve called that one eighty times and they don’t answer.
“Why so worried?”
“No. It’s that… Anyways, I need to contact him.”
“Well, this is the only number I have.”
God damn Tino and the guy with the almonds. And what do I do now, huh? Huh? What do I do? Should I start yelling, hey, don’t kill Fran, it’s not necessary any more and that’s one less death on my conscience, whose memory is already too keen? He started to sweat because, not only that, not even God is 100% secure. Or only God, but the almond guy might make a mistake; there was always a first time.
It was a stupid, senseless trip. Fran, seated in front with him, like old times, and the idiot oaf (a hard-nosed seeming guy who spoke a wimpy French from l’Étoile, wore a ridiculous pony tail at the base of his neck, and who had arrived in a silver Mercedes) in back—he hoped, nauseated. When they were above Miquel d’Engolasters, Fran, all excited, shouted over her shoulder look at those cows, chéri, and Carles found it completely absurd, and concentrated on flying and pretended that a burst of wind had shaken the helicopter so he could have the pleasure of seeing chéri throw up. But the guy held on and when they got back to Beta Base, he went with them to have a coffee, that would be the last thing he hoped to do with poor, damned, fucking Fran, and then, taking advantage of the only moment when chéri had left them alone, he told her be careful, Fran.
“What do you mean?”
“Watch out. Don’t get hurt.”
“Why should I get hurt?”
“No, it’s just…”
No. He couldn’t tell her just anything. He couldn’t tell her that there was no human way of getting back in touch with the hitmen and that one day sooner or later, she would, well, she…
“Spit it out. What do you mean about getting hurt?”
At that moment, chéri came back from the bathroom and Carles motioned like whatever, sorry, I can’t do anything about it, and before either she or the pet could react, he kissed her on the mouth and said goodbye forever, as coldly as possible, which was the only way he could.
He saw them drive off in the silent Mercedes, toward Pas de la Casa, on the way to France, and he thought he was a coward for keeping his mouth shut.
It was Tino again, with an I-told-you-so kind of voice, who told him over the radio that he had to go to the hospital, Carles, it looks like… Well, that…
Without realizing it, he knew it, and he was only surprised that the accident had happened so quickly that it hadn’t seemed like an accident, such a useless crime since he didn’t need to kill Fran anymore.
“Fran,” said Tino’s hushed voice, “it seems like… well, they think she’s been murdered.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Freaking out. One hundred percent post-operative security, brutes, why did I get mixed up in this, god, and what do I do, now. Tino’s voice woke him up:
“Her and the chauffeur.”
“But why are you saying that…”
“Somebody was trying to make it look like an accident. Amateurs. I’m coming to get you. Where are you?”
“You don’t have to. I’m at Beta Base.” He had to go back anyway. “Will you wait for me?”
It was all your fault, Tino, for giving me that phone number that you never should’ve given me.
He didn’t think about Claire, he didn’t think that this idea was meant to turn their lives around completely. He was too stunned with fear. As the helicopter gained some altitude he even thought about running away to the ends of the earth because it wouldn’t be twenty-four hours before they put it all together.
When he was above Madriu, with Sant Miquel to one side, he could still see the cows that were grazing, indifferent to celestial tragedies. Then he circled around to gain altitude, a closed circle above the cows, that also served to prove to himself that he was still scared, that it was better to be alive, with fear and a guilty conscience, than dead, from a bungled murder that should have been an accident and then finally, underneath the back seat, the pendulum moved and activated the mechanism and made contact and the whole helicopter made a majestic boom and turned into Elijah’s chariot, right in front of the cows, in the form of an immense, tragic, beautiful ball of fire. And when the ball of fire was just a mountain of smoking scrap metal, it crashed against the field as if it, too, were anxious to eat some grass.
—Jaume Cabré, 2001