from Red, Yellow, and Green
Cardán, I’m sure you remember that night, and correct me if I’m wrong, cross out this line, tear up this page, grab a new one and write down what you think really happened. I’m telling you about the night Boxeador died, when we found pieces of his skull embedded in the wooden beams that held up the roof in guard post number eleven—or was it sixteen?—in that vast space at the El Alto Air Base, and we found at our feet brain mass spread in all directions of the highlands, globs of white and greyish gelatinous matter running down the adobe walls, their tiny veins still pulsating. Do you remember? Remember, because the dead only die for real when no one can remember them anymore. Correct me if I’m wrong, Cardán hermano, because I don’t even know if I remember these things. These days people don’t like to remember. People say memory is for old people—when it’s passive—or they’ll you’re being seditious and dissatisfied if you want to know the how and why of every story. Maybe I remember because it’s a lie that the dead are asleep. It’s a lie they are only dust. The worms may have feasted on their bodies, hands, tongues and eyes, and there may be no heaven or hell beyond the infinity of those tireless microscopic jaws, but their images remain, their voices remain inside of us. There are those who insist in making us believe everything that happens, life and death, is all due to divine will. That all the misery and atrocities in this life will be rewarded after death with gentle geographies, celestial clouds of milk and manna. They say all of this because they have candles to sell, alms to hand out, believers to domesticate, and miseries to justify. Or perhaps it’s because the dead are more rebellious than anyone else. There’s nothing you can do to them. You can’t arrest them, beat them, or exile them, and they live and come near us with their restlessness, and they leave whenever they please, they go up and down, go from night to day, from sleep to wakefulness, and sometimes they whisper stories in our ear while we sleep, without us noticing that their bones become the roots that guide our very steps, nimble bones moving underground the way a pianist’s fingers would accompany us, guide us until the moment comes when we, too, will whisper our last words before plunging into the same silence with our mouth full of dirt. Then, with that same dirt filling our eye sockets, kneecaps and ribcages, we will speak sweetly with the living, telling them about the things we’ve seen and how the double edge of dust and oblivion is killing us little by little. I don’t know who ended up picking up the bloody body of that soldier of the second company of Air Base fusiliers. I don’t even know if they took what was left of him in a stretcher. I don’t remember if his body exhaled a something, a soul, as it was lifted. I don’t know if his body was rigid and resisting death, or was a flaccid empty costume discarded on the floor after a sad party. I knew Boxeador had come to the city from somewhere in the Altiplano, stubbornly set on enduring one year in the Army. Just like him, every year hundreds, thousands of indigenous youth left the deepest regions of the Andean lands and headed to the barracks to meet the violent rite of passage. They arrived at the doors in silence. They arrived after days of anticipation. They spent their hours and their nights waiting for the regiment doors to open—artillery, motorized cavalry, infantry—waiting for their sergeants to take their name and last name, to examine their teeth, waiting for the army physicians to mark their chests with odd numbers written in iodine on their skin, waiting for the armed doctors to spread their butt cheeks to check for hemorrhoids. There were always extras—too many boys begging in Aymara, “Let me join up, sergeant, don’t be mean, I don’t have enough money for the bus back to my community. I can’t go back until I’m a veteran.” The first month of military service, Boxeador was an extra, wasn’t needed in the company and in the battalion. But he insisted on staying and began as a supernumerary. He made it work, slept on the cement floor with no mattress and only one blanket, he was stubborn against the cold and lack of food, and he endured every single insult and humiliation, for better or for worse. Supernumeraries like him didn’t have access to a sleeping cot, supplies, or anything else. But he’d decided to stay no matter what and endure anything that came his way. On his first day off, the first break for conscripts to return to old civilian life, Boxeador finally managed to secure a sleeping cot for himself. This, because many of the new recruits never returned to the barracks, possessed by the frenzy of prisoners who have just been released, burdened by the language, hygiene, elegant manners and finesse of Bolivia’s military world. It was mostly those lucky enough to have family in La Paz who could free themselves from having to return to the filthy military barracks. City dwellers were spared having to step back into reeking, tattered uniforms inherited from other bodies and miseries. The families of those who ignored the motherland’s call would later take care of bribing the appropriate military authorities and obtain the military service card that opened doors to higher education, employment and the right to vote. Others, like Boxeador, whose Native families lacked the necessary funds and language, who’d come from lost places on the republic’s map, had to stick it out because they couldn’t show their face in their hometowns, where many of their relatives, with an absurd dose of pride, were already spreading the news that their sons were serving the nation to become real men—able to get drunk, build a hut and choose a woman they would hit every once in a while following the military style they’d learned. The sacred vulture perched on the oval in the national coat of arms presaged the fundamental notions of the Bolivian nation. God, patria, home. Perhaps Boxeador thought that’s what it meant to be a Bolivian Native or mestizo: to be capable of absolute stoicism and resistance, capable of being a heroic wall that could stop the machinegun fire of the enemy, be they rotas, pilas, or Red and do anything to serve the great Bolivian Patria. To embody the myth of the bronze race, that which dies at the base of the cannon, that which endures everything. But that bronze race doesn’t exist, it never existed because behind that imaginary Andean stoicism there is nothing but infinite, exhausted resignation, even greater than Illimani itself. The bronze race was invented to legitimize violence: the andino can endure anything, suffer through anything. Ponguito who never complains. Little miner who thinks he’ll be rewarded in heaven after singing about his somber mineshaft days and tragic nights. Sardine-eating little worker. Little builder made of bread, banana and papaya. Indiecito, campesino buenagente. Little thief with no bad intentions. He’s just drunk, leave him alone. He’ll take it, he’ll just take it because a good Bolivian, because he’s made of bronze. Metal doesn’t talk or suffer or feel, and it bends only in the fire. Bronze race for the Palacio Quemado condors to defecate on.
They put him in a makeshift casket bought last-minute in the slums of El Alto. It wasn’t very solid—rather rustic with a light coat of varnish with bare spots in the wood. I don’t know if it was Sergeant Walter Rubin de Celis, Non-Commissioned Officer Juan Barrón Huet, Lieutenant Torres or first battalion commander Major Trifón Echalar Miranda who gave the order to buy two 25-litre cans of 100-proof Caimán-brand liquor so they could prepare té con té for the wake. It was almost midnight and the quarters where soldiers in other companies slept—unaware of what had happened—were still quiet, barely lit by the dim yellow lamps that edged the battalion’s square. One week earlier, the soldiers had limed the walls of the dorms. The off-white greyish walls were pale and ghostly like a screen in the ruins of an abandoned movie theatre. Every so often, steps would echo through the space, grumbling faraway voices repeating the mechanical nightly ritual of, “Stopwhosthere!”, soldiers who went from post to post in the cold darkness of the Altiplano, rifle on their shoulder. Soldiers on watch at their adobe, calamine and straw quarters would return the tired watchword selected for the night followed by the recited formula of “Guardpostnumberelevennothingtoreport.” That night our company was the only one busy with wake arrangements. At his own or someone else’s hand, Boxeador had died fulfilling his duty, in full service to the patria, blocking the enemy—whoever they were—at the northeast end of the military base. Death came disguised in 7.62 caliber when it blasted his brown Andean body and sunk its fangs of smoke, gunpowder and metal into his skull. It was cold in the early dawn hours. The Altiplano wind was blowing, lifting small swirls of paper, plastic bags and garbage in the garrison yard. Our superiors ordered us to change out of our daily fatigues—old, mended rough wool—and don a newer cotton-polyester formal uniform and light cap. We were posted as the honor guard at each cardinal direction of the casket, in the center of the improvised reposing room in the officers’ casino. We all took shifts watching the body of the dead soldier until it was time to bury him at the General Cemetery. Cardán, do you remember when we walked into the room where the body was and there were already four soldiers from our company standing at each corner of the casket, their faces sullen, sad and absent? A few soldiers decided to close the coffin to avoid looking straight at the corpse, to evade the intense gaze of his single eye, the only thing left on Boxeador’s face. The sergeant on duty that week, in charge of the eighty-one soldiers in company B, ordered all personnel to be present equipped with their tin mugs. Every so often, two soldiers filled the mugs to the brim with a potent mix of liquor and agua de sultana in the last instants of martial pain with the mangled soldadito boliviano. Officers from other companies in attendance sat on one side of the officers’ casino, some half asleep, some sipping the coarse té con té, admiring within their inner jurisdiction the stoicism required for someone to put the barrel of a rifle under his chin and pull the trigger. Three shots had come out of Boxeador’s automatic rifle. The first pierced the visor of his kepi and launched it across the room—we later found it curled up in a corner of the guard post. The second bullet sliced open his lips, eyebrow and forehead as if he’d been hit with a sabre or a bayonet, tearing off one of his nostrils as well. The third bullet hit his left malar bone causing a massive earthquake in his facial nerves and muscles. The power of the shot tore through all tissue in its path like a battering ram, blowing up his eyeball, inferior cranial wall, part of his frontal bone, parietal bone and the entire side of his skull. His brain burst and splattered pieces of brain mass everywhere and embedded bone splinters in the walls and wooden beams. Around 2:00 AM the officers went to sleep, bored by a death that had failed to be epic. We simple soldiers stayed behind with Boxeador’s body. Perhaps because for many it was our first time drinking such a cruel alcoholic mix, or because our empty stomachs were being eaten away by the liquor, or perhaps because the spectacle of death before us was terrifying and hypnotizing, but suddenly some of the mourners began to stumble around. Some dozed off and fell off their chairs, woke up frightened upon finding themselves in a place they didn’t recognize and quietly slipped away to their dorms. The soldiers’ faces began to lose their shape, became stretched and distorted. Against the military casino’s walls, their faces turned the bitter yellow-green of the walls in that painting at the Guggenheim showing gaunt soldiers in a shower. Silhouettes softened as dawn approached. Noises reached us taking long, slow steps. Some of the soldiers looked like sleepy children wandering through the casino hall, their faces flooded with guilt and regret as if their presence at the station, at the funeral, was somehow a betrayal to their families. A voice began to hum a Native song, perhaps a yaraví, while the rifles started walking around on their own and mingling with the chairs, pouring té con té into their thin barrels whose necks and long beaks stretched out like a flock of black storks drinking out of tin mugs. Some soldiers held their weapons tenderly, or yelled at them, or whispered to them calling them their cholas, their sweethearts, twisting their belt around their arms, giving them slow sips or sprinkling them with alcohol in a sort of baptism—a mythical challa. “Estoy challando a mi chola,” they explained with a grimace and a twang in their voice. They would laugh and repeat the Carnival Tuesday ritual over and over. Then either the dead soldier got up, only a few shreds of charred lips on his face, or the casket fell on the ground when someone bumped into it and the body rolled out of the casket like a doll. A few solicitous soldiers approached him, talking to him in Aymara and Spanish, grabbing him by the arms. They propped him up on a chair against the wall. Boxeador sat and leaned what was left of his head on one of his shoulders. He was drunk, too. Someone put a mug of té con té in his bruised hands. We could see he wasn’t dead. He was with us, or we were with him, and instead of blood his flesh and exposed bone were oozing a yellowish fluid, like blood mixed with sugarcane juice, and it became lodged in our throats and mixed with the sweet taste of liquor in the té con té we were drinking. That was the scent of our own baptism, the mark, the sign of a ritual that would never leave us. Death welcomed us joyfully in her domains, inebriated us, seduced us, and made us laugh showing us what she was capable of. Somehow that night ripped something out from deep inside our bones. We lost something and were ever since then incomplete, fragmented. Some soldiers cried in a corner watching Boxeador’s incomplete, disfigured face. Another cried and didn’t notice himself wetting his pants. We were floating in the air. At one point we walked up to Boxeador and formed a semicircle around him, asked him why he’d died, if he’d been killed, what death was like. He looked at us with his one good eye, an island of light in a bloody, black-and-blue face and responded by sweating tiny beads of blood that struggled not to clot and dry up. He tried to have a drink but couldn’t move his lips. Someone dipped a handkerchief in té con té and put it to his lips. Slowly Boxeador savored that last sip with what was left of his mouth. We said goodbye, told him to take care of himself. We promised we would always remember him and hugged him as if he’d just won the most important boxing match in Bolivia’s history. Moved by all the attention he was receiving, as if we’d all forgotten we were indios, mestizos, indios again and sometimes white coming together to be close to him, he decided to spare us further pain. He wobbled and stood up slowly. He felt his way across the short distance between his chair and the casket, which was now back on top of two tripods in the middle of the room. He climbed into his coffin as delicately as one would climb onto a totora raft swaying in the middle of Lake Titicaca, sat down and arranged himself inside his wooden boat and looked at us one more time. He wanted to say something but he no longer had a voice, so with a small movement of his hand he lay back down in his coffin. He then became still forever. By then, sleep had slowed down our breathing, and fatigue yawned heavily on our eyelids. Some of us stepped outside and headed to our sleeping quarters—the stars above spiraled in the still dawn sky like eyes around a faint eddy reflecting in our pupils. I managed to drag my body all the way to the edge of my cot. Someone cried out in the distance, “Buenas noches, Boxeador.” Another voice responded, “Güenas.”
The translator acknowledges the assistance of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre at The Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Translation of this book was also supported by a literary translation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Red, Yellow, and Green by Alejandro Saravia, translated from the Spanish by María José Giménez, is forthcoming from Biblioasis International in 2017.
Original text: Saravia, Alejandro. Excerpt from Rojo, amarillo y verde. Toronto/Montreal: Artifact Press/White Dwarf Editions, 2003.