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Summary: Winner of Spain's National Prize for Literature, Carmen Martín Gaite's masterpiece The Back Room
In The Back Room Carmen Martín Gaite spins out a hypnotic evocation of one woman's life counterpointed against the social history of modern Spain. The growth of a personal identity and the terrors of fascism are woven together within the delicate fabric of this dreamlike narrative. The result is an intimate and existential confessional -- part auto ...show morebiography, part fiction. In direct and simple language, Martín Gaite envisions life within a world besieged. This, her finest work, explores the back room of memory with a quiet but irresistible power. ...show less
THE BAREFOOT MAN
... AND YET I'D swear that the position was the same-I think I've always slept this way, with my right arm underneath the pillow and my body turned slightly over onto that side, my feet searching for the place where the sheet is tucked in. What's more, if I close my eyes - and I end up closing them as a last, routine resort - I am visited by a long-familiar apparition, always the same: a parade of stars, each with a clown's face, that go soaring up like a balloon that's escaped and laugh with a frozen grin, following one after the other in a zigzag pattern, like spirals of smoke gradually becoming thicker and thicker. There are so many of them that in a little while there won't be any room left for them and they'll have to descend to seek more space in the riverbed of my blood, and then they'll be petals that the river carries away. At the moment they're rising in bunches. I see the minuscule face drawn in the center of each one of them, like a cherry pit surrounded by spangles. But what never changes is the tune that accompanies the ascent, a melody that can't be heard yet marks the beat, a special silence whose very denseness makes it count more than it would if it could be heard. This was the most typical thing back then too. I recognized that strange silence as being the prelude to something that was about to happen. I breathed slowly, I felt my insides pulsing, my ears buzzing, and my blood locked in. At any moment - where exactly? - that ascending multitude would fall and swell the invisible inner flow like an intravenous drug, capable of altering all my visions. And I was wide awake, awaiting the prodigious change, so lightning-quick that there was never a night when I managed to trap the very instant of its sudden stealthy appearance as I lay in wait there, watching for it eagerly and fearfully, just as I'm doing now.
But that's not true, it wasn't just the same, the exact feel of the waiting was different. I have said "eagerly and fearfully," justto hear myself talk, groping my way along blindly, and when one takes a shot at random that way, one never hits the bull's-eye. Words are for the light. At night they run away, though the heat of the chase is more feverish and compelling in the dark, but for that very reason it is also a more fruitless one. Trying at one and the same time to understand and to dream: that is the fate to which my nights are doomed. Back then, I wasn't trying to understand anything. I saw the swarm of stars rising, heard the ringing of the silence, and felt the touch of the sheet. I hugged the pillow and lay there quietly, but how could it possibly be the same now! I awaited the transformation submerged in a pleasurable impatience, like just before going in to the circus, when my parents were getting the tickets, and would say to me: "Don't get lost in all this confusion." And I would stand there quietly, amid the confusion, staring fascinated at the posters showing what I was about to see in just a little while-a bit afraid, of course, because the lions might look at me or the trapeze artist might fall from the very top of the tent, but also ready, willing, and eager, and above all enjoying that wait, experiencing it knowing that the best part is always the waiting; I've believed that ever since I was a little girl, up until quite recently. I'd give anything to relive that sensation, sell my soul to the Devil just to experience it again, if only for a few minutes; I might understand the ways in which it differs from this irritation out of the midst of which I am trying to summon it now, a vain summons. The words dance and move farther and farther away from me, it's like being bent on reading small print without one's glasses.
So what shall I do? ... I'm helpless without my glasses, I'll busy myself making simple drawings, that will rest my eyes; I'm going to imagine that I'm drawing lines in the sand of the beach with a little stick. It's lots of fun because the sand is hard and the little stick is sharp, or maybe it's a sharp-pinted seashell, it doesn't matter. I don't know what beach it is either, it might be Zumaya or La Lanzada, it's late in the afternoon and there isn't anybody around, the sun is going down, red and flattened in the haze, to take a dip in the sea. I'm painting, I'm painting, what am I painting? What color am I using and what letter? The C of my name, three things beginning with C, a casa first, then a cuarto, and then a cama. The apartment has an old-fashioned balcony overlooking a little square. You paint the thick parallel bars of the railing and behind them the doors leading inside, left open because it was spring, and from the little square (though I don't paint it, I see it, I see it again every time) there came the sound of water splashing through three pipes into the basin of a fountain that stood in the middle, the only sound to be heard in the bedroom at night. We've gotten as far as the bedroom now: you begin at the corner of the ceiling, and running down from there, the vertical line where the walls come together. There we are. There's no need to draw the line all the way down to the floor because the bed, a studio couch against the wall in the corner, is hiding it. In the daytime there were cushions on it and you could stretch out on it when you were bored. It's easy to paint: a simple rectangle, without a headboard, the two slightly curved lines of the pillow, the vertical line of the sheet folded back and the rest of the space filled with little wavy tildes like those over ñ's, representing the design on the spread. And that's all. It hasn't turned out very well, but it doesn't matter. It can be completed by closing your eyes. To do that it's best to keep them closed: changing the décor has always been the specialty of the little flashing stars, the first number of the performance they're announcing up there in the air with their clown's laugh.
The shifting back and forth has started, I no longer can tell if I'm lying in this bed or in that one. I think, rather, that I'mmoving from one to the other. At certain times what predominates is the layout - as natural to me as a second skin - of the furniture whose presence I could substantiate merely by stretching out my arm and turning the light on. But then, with no transition, that drawing that insinuated itself onto the sand of the beach superimposes itself, and this big bed surrounded by books and papers in which I was seeking consolation a little while ago vanishes, displaced by the one in the bedroom off the balcony, and I begin to perceive the feel of the bedspread, a rough fabric in blue tones. That fabric had a name, I don't remember what it was, all fabrics had one, and it was essential to know how to tell a shantung from a pique, a moiré, or an organdy. Not to be able to recognize fabrics by their names was as scandalous as to call neighbors by the wrong names. There were many drygoods shops, long and dark, many sorts of fabrics, and as one stood in front of the counter one signaled with a knowledgeable gesture to the clerk, who was always most deferent, to take the bolt of material that had been pointed to over to the door and unroll it in order to display its outstanding virtues in the light. One never bought anything at first sight, one consulted with one's women friends or one's husband: "I saw some very pretty material for the girls' room." My mother copied the idea of how to decorate that room from the magazine Lecturas and sewed the curtains herself, with matching flounced bedspreads and pillow covers with a sort of sash that fastened around the middle of them, and then the cushions - of different material but in the same color - which - on being thrown on the couch in a studied disorder, completed the daily transformation of that décor. The little round lamps in yellow glass, the knickknacks on the shelves, the night tables lacquered in blue: it was all very modern - art deco as it's called nowadays - but what seemed most modern to me was the fact that the bed could be converted into a couch and I could streth out on it when I was alone, imitating the attitude of those women, so remote as to be nonexistent, who appeared in the illustrations drawn by Emilio Freixas in Lecturas for the novelettes by Elisabeth Mulder, whom I envied because of her name and because she wrote novelettes, women with dreamy eyes, hair cut in a "boyish bob," and stylized legs, who had conversations on the telephone, held a tall glass between their fingers, or smoked Turkish cigarettes on the "Turkish bed" of their garconnière (if anything was "Turkish" it was "modern"). At other times they appeared in lounge pajamas with wide floppy legs, but even though it was nighttime they were always awake, waiting for something, most likely a telephone call, and behind their bitter lips and their half-closed eyes lay hidden the secret story that they were recollecting in solitude.
When it took me a long time to drop off to sleep - I always took longer than my sister - and the stars began to rise inside my eyelids like spirals of smoke from Turkish cigarettes, the room changed into another one. There was a telephone, but not the black telephone hanging on the wall opposite the bench in the hallway, on which messages were received for my father, or the occasional call from a schoolmate of mine at the Institute, a girl with slightly bulging eyes who had a terrible time taking notes in class ("Is this 1438? ... Hey listen, this is Toñi"). No, this phone sat on top of the night table, within reach of my hand, and it was white: a white telephone, the quintessence of the unattainable. Moreover, the bedroom belonged to me alone, and if I turned on the light I didn't bother anybody. It was a room on the top floor of a skyscraper. I could turn the light on, get up out of bed, take a bath at midnight, rub my body with beauty products from the House of Gal, read a letter that I had received that afternoon in which someone contemplating the sea said that he was thinking of me, put on a chiffon dress, take the elevator downstairs and step out into a cty full of bright lights, wander aimlessly about amid passersby who cast sidelong glances at me, avoid the risk of our eyes meeting, enter a cafe called the Negresco with a resolute tapping of my high heels and evasive gestures, allow my absent gaze to wander over the black marble tabletops, the Cubist surfaces and the mirrors wreathed in smoke, light a Turkish cigarette, wait.
I crept out of bed on tiptoe so as not to wake my sister up and went out onto the balcony. It was a second floor apartment. I saw the shadow of the trees just beyond, and across the street the façade of the Iglesia del Carmen with its bell tower. The only sound to be heard was the water falling into the basin of the fountain. The street lamps shed a faint glow. Not a soul was passing by, perhaps I was the only person awake beneath the stars that were keeping watch over the city as it slept. I looked at them for a long time, as though to fill up the storehouse in my eyelids. Cold little pinheads. I smiled with my eyes closed, I liked feeling the cool night air stealing through my nightdress: "Some day I'll have sorrows to weep over, stories to remember, wide avenues to wander down. I'll be able to leave the house and lose myself in the night." The lava of my bouts of insomnia was seething with the future.
It's no use, I can't get to sleep. I've turned on the light, the hands of the clock have stopped at ten. It seems to me that that was what time it was when I climbed into bed, intending to take notes. The dial of the clock has the mysterious glow of a dead moon. I sit up in bed and the room tilts like a landscape seen from a plane pitching forward: the books, the piles of clothes on the armchair, the night table, the pictures on the wall, everything is tilted. I thrust my feet out of the bed and contemplate them in amazement, they look like two handfuls of goose barnacles on the inclined plane of the gray carpet. When I stand up I'm surely going to fall, and it may very well be that the weight of my body will cause the floor to sway ack and forth even more violently and the room to pivot and turn upside down. I hope so, I'm going to try, it must be amusing to walk around upside down.
I rise to my feet and the swing rights itself, as do the ceiling, the walls, and the long rectangular frame of the mirror in front of which I stand motionless, disappointed. The room reflected in its quicksilvered depths seems unreal to me in its static reality. Behind my back everything is right side up again, perfectly in plumb, and I am so taken aback by the gaze of that vertical figure, with its arms dangling down the sides of its blue pajamas, beaming back at me from the mirror, that it scares me. I whirl about anxiously, wanting to recapture the truth in that dislocation glimpsed a few seconds before by taking it by surprise, but outside the mirror the normality that it has reflected persists, and perhaps for this very reason the disorder that reigns there is even more depressingly obvious: shoes on the floor, a cushion that has fallen, magazines, and looking down at me from all the shelves and horizontal surfaces, lying in ambush like stuffed animals, that jumble of objects whose history, embedded in their silhouettes, awakens muffled echoes in my memory and scrapes unsuspected depths in my soul, dredging up dates, rotten fruits. What a hodgepodge of posters, photographs, odds and ends, books ...! Books that, to make things even messier, have dates, slips of paper, telegrams, drawings inside them, one text on top of another - dozens of books that I could merely open and then close again, whereupon they would immediately be out of place, piled one atop the other, proliferating like weeds. A lady I know, may she rest in peace, who spent her life fighting against the anarchy of objects, used to say that the minute you leave a book on top of a radiator, it instantly gives birth to another. I walk over to the radiator. I really should get busy and tidy up this room. I stop and look at it from here. The bed is now enormous, if it grew any bigger it would drie me into the corner and crush me, but no, it doesn't get any bigger, a strip of carpet still separates me from its bottom edge. I wonder what it was I came over here to look for, if in fact I was looking for something, perhaps a pill to put me to sleep - Mogadon, Pelson, Dapaz - or to wake me up - Dexedrine, Maxibamato - or to get rid of a headache - Cafiaspirina, Optalidón, Fiorinal. Those are names that come to my mind automatically, names that it bores me to run through, that I've lost all faith in, names as over-familiar as those in my list of phone numbers, friends I've lost all desire to call upon for anything.
Above the radiator is a set of knickknack shelves lacquered in white with lathe-turned bars at each end - an étagère, as they used to be called in the years of art deco - and in a gap between two groups of books, pinned to the wall with thumbtacks, is a black and white print approximately eight inches high and five inches wide. It has been there across from my bed for a long time now, and in the middle of certain long sleepless nights, when the real and the fictitious become confused, the thought has occurred to me that it was a little mirror reflecting, with a slight distortion, the very situation that had led me to look over at it. It shows a man with very dark hair and eyes who is leaning on his left elbow in a bed with a canopy. His nightshirt is unbuttoned and the shadow of his torso is projected onto the circular curtains that fall in folds from the tall flounce edged with fringe overhead. His two hands are outside the sheet. He is resting his head on one of them and in a gesture that appears to be meant to emphasize words that cannot be heard, the index finger of his other hand is pointing toward the second figure in the print. This figure is naked, and with the exception of the corneas of his two eyes, is totally black. The skin on his body is black, his curly hair is black, his pointed ears are black, his horns are black, the two huge wings on his back are black. He is shown in prfile, sitting on a table loaded with books, with his feet resting on another pile of books that are lying on the floor, and from there - leaning his elbows on his knees and holding his chin between his two fists that are touching at the wrists - he is insolently meeting the somber and penetrating gaze of the person speaking to him. The legend underneath reads: "Luther's Discussion with the Devil," and it helps me to escape from the spell that the room in the print was beginning to cast over me. It seemed to me that it was taking on depth and relief, that I was entering it, and lowering my eyes to the title has been like coming out of it, before the lips of the figures began to move or the unstable equilibrium of the books on which the Devil is carelessly resting his heels was shattered. Legends orient us, help us to escape from abysses and labyrinths, but the nostalgia of the perdition that was imminent nonetheless lingers on.
I look farther downward. More books, forming two walls above the radiator, and between them, holding them in place, the sewing basket that belonged to Grandma Rosario. It is stuffed so full it almost won't shut. I am unable to fathom how so many things can fit inside it. I always look in it first thing whenever I'm perplexed. Everything inevitably ends up there inside it. It's a foregone conclusion that when I open it I'll remember what I was in the midst of searching for. I tug on one of its handles, the wails of books that it was holding in place lose their support and a number of them tumble down in a spectacular cascade. Just as I am about to bend over to pick them up, with the sewing basket in my hand, I slip on one of them and I too tumble to the floor. From the half-open wicker lid there come spilling out spools of thread, electric plugs, cubes of sugar, thimbles, safety pins, bills, a candle end, snapshots, buttons, coins, bottles of pills, everything imaginable, all tangled up in colored thread.
I haven't hurt myself. I reach for a pillow, place it between my back and the botom edge of the bed and sit there in the narrow strip of hallway, contemplating the objects scattered all about and the threads tying together their heterogeneous profiles. Over there is the book that made me lose my footing: Introduction to Fantastic Literature, by Todorov. Well it's about time, I've been hunting for it for I don't know how long. It deals with the subject of split personalities, of breaking through the boundaries between time and space, of ambiguity and uncertainty. It's one of those books that wake you up and set you to taking notes furiously. When I finished it, I wrote in a notebook: "I swear I'm going to write a fantastic novel." I suppose it was a promise I made to Todorov. That was around the middle of January, five months have gone by since then. Projects often flare up like will-o'-the-wisps in the heat of certain readings, but then when one's enthusiasm flags it's of little use to return to the source that aroused it, because what's missing, as usual, is the incandescent spark of the first encounter. The covers of the book, which is lying alongside a gold thimble, begin to fade. The light flickers and grows dimmer, it's comfortable sitting here on the floor; I relive my pleasure of long ago at lingering about in passageways, odd corners, attics, that childish predilection for hiding-places. "They won't find me here," that was the first thought that used to come to mind as I settled down to feed my fantasies. I can play now too. The objects scattered all about look like fetishes, the pieces of furniture are the tops of trees, I'm lost in the woods, amid treasures that I alone discover. Something is going to happen to me, the secret is to wait without becoming anxious, to let oneself drift. We've lost our love of playing games just for the fun of it, and basically it's so easy. I'm going to make myself more comfortable.
I give Todorov a push with my foot. That fall of mine was right out of a Buster Keaton movie. How those calamities of silent films, that later on I myself played he leading role in a thousand times over, used to make me laugh: falling out of a chair, tumbling down stairs, breaking dishes, spattering pie all over a new dress, getting singed in fires one has lighted oneself, repeated accidents which, each time they happen yet again, relieve the tension and restore one's sense of identity as no deliberate effort can, clumsy acts revealing the insecurity of the antihero.
The sewing basket is still lying alongside me, a vessel that has come through the shipwreck with a handful of survivors in the hold. I place it in my lap and beneath an amber-colored buckle I discover a folded sheet of paper glowing with a strange phosphorescence. I take it out of the basket and begin unfolding it. It has so many folds in it that as I spread it out, it gradually turns into a larger and larger surface. I kneel down to lay it out on the floor after moving aside the objects that are in the way. The pale blue paper is very thin and it has now taken on the dimensions of a plane occupying the entire width of the passageway. It must reveal where the treasure is hidden. The breeze coming in through the window lifts it up. I place a weight on each of its four corners. Having first to solve these difficulties merely piques my desire to read it, and I finally begin to do so, sprawled out with my elbows resting on the floor.
It is a long letter, in cramped handwriting, addressed to me. It bears no date. My body is hiding the place where the signature must be. I change position, consumed with curiosity, thereby revealing a blurred, indecipherable initial. The ink appears to have run, as though a tear had fallen on it. I look in bewilderment at the smudged capital letter and then stretch out on top of the large sheet again, sliding farther and farther down as I read. Someone is writing me that he's sitting on a beach, someone who says the immensity he has before him and the freedom to choose any itinerary he likes depress him because they remind him of my absence, which is apparently irreversible. Itwould appear from his allusions to the subject that this freedom that now seems empty to him has been something that he has fervently desired during a previous stage in which I am involved. It's a man writing because the adjectives that refer to him are in the masculine gender - "mutilated, reduced to nothing without you." He is gazing at the horizon and begins to call to me again and again. There are several lines consisting of nothing but my name, written between dashes and in small letters, with crests and troughs imitating the ocean waves. I allow myself to be lulled by the rippling lines that call me, as the sound of the real waves carried off with them the echo of his call from the shore. He says so a little further on, and from the literary point of view it is very expressive. He also reports that he is unable to calculate the time that he has spent reciting my name, nor does it matter, because from this moment onward time will never again count for anything with him. Then he gets up and begins to stroll idly down the deserted beach, allowing himself to get his feet wet. He notices that there are many fragments of broken dolls, arms, heads, trunks, legs, lying strewn about on the beach. Some of these remains come in on the tide. He describes the phenomenon as though it did not strike him as odd. He goes on walking, he disappears in the distance with his shoes in his hand. He does not appear to be carrying any other impedimenta.
I am sorry to see him wandering off in the distance before I manage to make out exactly what he looks like. Is he tall? How old is he? The beach is easier to imagine because all beaches look more or less alike. It might be the same one where I amused myself making drawings a while ago. If real time and that of dreams coincided, there would be a possibility that he would meet me a little farther on. Before reaching the last rocks he would stop, he would ask me why I was drawing a house, a bedroom, and a bed, and I would say to him: "If you want me to tell you, sit down, because its a very long story," and I'd go on telling about them aloud, thus rescuing from oblivion all the things I've been remembering and heaven only knows how many more. There's no way of calculating how many ramifications a story will take on once one spies a gleam of attention in another's eyes. He too would surely be eager to tell me things. He would sit down at my side, we would begin to exchange memories the way children exchange little colored cards, and twilight would fall without our noticing. An intriguing, rambling story would come out, a tissue of truths and lies, like all stories. "All that calling to me" - I would say to him - "and you see, I was here all the time, less than a kilometer away. It's lucky you chanced to stroll to this end of the beach instead of heading for the other end." And we would talk about chance, in this sort of encounter one always speaks of chance, chance that forms the warp and woof of life and determines the plot of stories. The sun would set. Though it could also be that he wouldn't recognize me, because the times, of course, don't coincide. Perhaps he'd stroll by indifferently, lost in contemplation of his footprints, and I wouldn't be surprised either. Why would I be surprised? I would merely think: "Where can this man who's so pensive be going, carrying his shoes in his hand?"
I wonder who he can be and when and from where he can have written me. Years ago, I sometimes used to write myself apocryphal letters. I would keep them under lock and key for a while and then drop them in the mailbox with my own address on them. But this isn't my handwriting, though it does look vaguely familiar to me.... I can't rack my brains any more, my head is splitting. Where can the Optalidón pills have disappeared to? The floor has filled up with broken dolls whose remains have mingled with the objects that have spilled out of the sewing basket and gotten caught in turn in the tangle of multicolored threads. As the difficulty of the hieroglyph increases, my desire to understand it trickles aay. The tide has suddenly surged over the beach in an unexpected swell and is sweeping everything away as it recedes. I admit defeat and give up. The barefoot man has now disappeared from sight.
Now the little girl from the provinces who can't manage to fall asleep is looking at me in the light of the little yellow lamp, whose bright glow has been dimmed by putting a handkerchief over it. She sees this bedroom drawn by Emilio Freixas on a glossy page in half-tones, the big unmade bed and the woman in pajamas reading a love letter on the rug. Her eyes gleam, she is imagining my distress. I am seeing her just as she is seeing me. In order that my image may recompose itself and not be swept away by the receding tide, I need to seek hospitality from that impatient, sleepless heart, that is to say my own heart. I perceive to my amazement that it is the same as always. I feel my chest, there it is, it is still beating in the same place, synchronized with my pulse at wrists and temples. I note the fact with voluptuous pleasure. I do not believe that the heart increases very much in size with age. It is subject to unknown disturbances. They say that tobacco smoke adversely affects it, just as excessive emotional stress does, but who can see this? These are subtle changes that stealthily creep up on us. Our growth was more immediately evident, betrayed by the fact that from one year to the next the hems of our dresses had to be let down or that our shoes from the previous winter began to pinch. But I don't believe the heart grows, it's simply that when it stops it stops. The important thing is for it not to stop. Sometimes doctors show you tracings that correspond to its strange adventures and in whose ups and downs they decipher an obscure destiny, just as though they were reading the lines of your palm - "You have a very good heart"- and we are amazed that those peaks and valleys have something to do with our anxieties, our disappointments, our enthusiasms. Tick-tock ... it's still wound up. I've had rather good luckwith that vital organ, with its auricles and ventricles that I drew on the blackboard of that schoolroom with dirty windows when my name was called to recite the Natural Sciences lesson. My name was also the same then, short and common. I had no idea that it could have that nice a sound on being uttered by a man on the beach. I would rather have been named Esperanza or Esmeralda or Elisabeth, like Elisabeth Mulder. Names with long exotic E's were popular. Mine didn't surpirse anybody, it began with the C of cuarto, casa, cama and of that corazón that I drew in chalk beneath the bored gaze of the teacher, the heart that raced when Norma Shearer kissed Leslie Howard, the one with an arrow through it that sweethearts carved into the trees of the Alamedilla, the one edged in red that men of the Foreign Legion wore underneath their battle jackets ("Stop, bullet, the heart of Jesus is with me"), the one that inevitably turned up in the boleros they played on the radio and in the titles of novels (The Heart Doesn't Change, The Pitfalls of the Heart, Fearless Hearts). How much talk there has been of the heart! But how few times, on the other hand, do we stop to render it real homage, to think that it alone runs all the risks and keeps us alive. Here I am, my friend, still bearing up, like a good helmsman. How valiant, how humble, and how unknown, without ever once ceasing your endless toil, tick-tock, tick-tock.
The little girl lets the magazine fall to the floor and turns out the little yellow lamp. She is getting sleepy and I am too. I lie down on top of the letter. The stars move faster and faster and I have just enough time to say: "I want to see you, I want to see you," with my eyes closed. But I have no idea who it is I'm saying that to.
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