E
Jan/Feb 2004 fiction

Chameleons

by J. Delgado-Figueroa


News of the Lisbon incident had rippled out in a shameful way that made me realize how truly significant I had become. Six-figure royalty checks had not made it as transparent as the impact of my naïve joke at the Conferência de Lisbõa. I had stepped on toes and ripped out nails, skin and all. The roundtable subject was intellectual property in the cyber age. Too much Matheus Rosé untied tongues and dulled the brain. Somehow a question was thrown at me, bounced over from some Guatemalan writer who was just beginning to become the toast of dollar-funded Casa de Las Américas promos in Havana and the rest of the crypto communist world.

"Sure." Phlegm darkened the syllable. I was doing my best Vidal as interpreted by Tru. "That's what Borges thought. Easy for him to claim."

The drinking straw twirling against my hand seemed much more captivating than the person who asked the question. What was the point? How could they expect a lucid head, much less an unobstructed voice, in that overheated chamber at six in the evening, and for that pitiful stipend?

"'Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.' I wonder whether Mr. Borges would have felt the same if I had published Joshua Palmer's Ficciones and copied his every word verbatim. And then taken his royalties."

"Meu Deus do ceu," shrieked Judith de Andrade later that night amidst Bonhomie's press conference cum booze fest. "Now he thinks he's Borges!" Jaime Patxot himself told me hours later.

François Benoit derided me in Le Figaro: "Only his circular ruins bind him to the glorious blind master." Buenos Aires declared me persona non grata. I uselessly denounced the unwarranted abuse by pointing out that once upon a time illustrious Argentines of the Fascist persuasion had condemned the former director of their Biblioteca Nacional and Nobel bridesmaid to the job of poultry farm inspector. Roger held me back: it would only fuel the he-said, they-all-said fracas.

The whole literary universe had turned on me, or so I felt. I flew directly to Quebec and boarded the next flight to Havana. If Goytisolo wasn't around, I'd commiserate with Gabito García Márquez. At least he'd understand. He'd join me for a dozen stiff shots of Havana 70 and a slow-burning Churchill by Romeo y Julieta.

Two days later Roger was on the phone to my suite in Varadero.

"You're overreacting. This will blow over in a couple of days. You have more important matters to take care of, Joshua. Come home. Please?"

All I could think of was a chain of non sequiturs that Roger would try to soak in vats of elusive meaning, something like the sense of my non-sense as a vehicle for the expression of my deep-seated insecurity, my paranoid inability to deal with fame. Something like that.

"I feel like deconstruction, deconstructed. Derrida's derriere. Gender studies, spayed or neutered."

He knew my quill was dripping venomous irrationality. When I returned to South Beach he suggested a break.

"A real vacation. Something truly therapeutic," he suggested. He wanted to make it sound like affection draped in velvet, but it was really pressure wrapped in the silk of his voice.

"If this is all because of that phone call," I started to say.

"No. Josh. It's been going on for a while. I just didn't say anything before, but—"

"But what? I'm tired, jet-lagged and angry. Be quick or I'm going to bed in the midst of your stream." His fulmination worsened my crabbiness.

"I've been reading the essays," he remarked on the edge of hesitation. He knew me well: twelve years had taught him how to adjust his passion around me. "Josh, take a break."

My erstwhile easy disposition had disappeared over the years for no reason other than the realization that I no longer had to play nice. If the world hated me, I had accumulated enough of its wealth to become indifferent to its whining. It could still hurt me, but not as before. My transubstantiation had garnered me untold enemies. They could all go to hell.

"Did you revise the galleys before they went back to Dunlap?"

"How many times do I have to read and reread? I've been in this game for a long time," I replied. The discomfort was obvious.

Roger remained silent for a brief moment, then said, "Take a break, Josh."

He turned around and left when it became obvious that my ostensible pause was really the prelude to an obdurate silence.

My mail had piled up on my desk. I poured myself some vodka from the bottle in the freezer and sat at the blotter to open envelopes. On the right-side basket, the one I had given Roger after his music sheets began to litter and clutter my desk, on top of several scores and receipts, I caught a glimpse of an unfinished note in Roger's meticulous script. It was addressed to Margot Miura, his confidant, the woman who had warned Roger the year before that I was due for a hard knock, and that he would be well advised to go away while I came to my senses. Margot, whom I had christened Clichetta di Paura, had said it all in front of me, which galled me so that I told her she was not to step into any of my houses or on my island ever again.

"It was off the wall, all bizarre." That was the best appreciation of my recently-released collection of essays, which Dunlap had precisely titled No Apologies. It spanned fifteen years of deeply pondered analyses of trends in literary criticism, the media and society, contemporary cinema and the inconsequential transcendence of liberation theology. That volume was my identity, the zenith I had strived for in cultural historiography, the substitute for the child I never had. It was literary philosophy divested of tinsel, the most enduring of my works, for in that spirit I had traced every stroke of every letter, every comma of its text. I was born to my true self the day I finished the longhand manuscript for No Apologies.

"It was off the wall, all bizarre," was how this man, who owed me connections and support during his darkest obscurity, had expressed himself about my encyclopedic work, a reasoned treatise concerning various topics, the distillation of my reason to create.

The idea struck me then. I could become infuriated and throw Roger out on the street. But that would only confirm his obvious suspicions. Maybe I had lost track of the reality in which the world of literature now found itself. It would be an opportunity for true ephiphanea to return to my academic roots, to once again be the malleable matter that absorbed all the critical truth from which my current notoriety had shielded me.

That same afternoon I packed a bag and left. Roger would find no notes, no explanations. The breach of trust was unforgivable. No apologies. I flew back to the city that had shaped my literary consciousness at a geographic latitude that paralleled Siberia's. In its very heart was that famous university, full of memories of emerging glory and agonizing scholarship. As an auditor I needed only permission from instructors. Each would be flattered that I would want to sit in his classroom.

The degree was mine already. It was the same one most professors held. I had returned to the stuffy halls of ceilings as high as the instructor's self-image, the same corridors that Saul Bellow had walked many years before my time. Then smoking was still allowed, and students puffed evanescent pyres that blurred their uninspired teachers in the building on Pleasant Avenue. I was there to awaken knowledge that had gone to sleep eighteen years before.

Few professors remained of those who frightened me to tears—how could I aspire to learn a fraction of what they knew in three or four years?—with what then masqueraded as infinite wisdom. They had the power to make me fall in graduate disgrace unless I took one of their tediously grandiose classes, lacking completely in awareness of restrictions imposed by clocks. They all had something that had eluded them until the last two minutes of a scheduled session, something without which our lives would not be complete.

"If you just give me ten more minutes," was the usual command under the species of a plea. Pearls before the annoyed, cast upon us by the anointed. Since then Rodolfo had died, Ricardo and Betty also. No one knew what had become of Lawrence and his Saussuresque logorrhea.

However, Nicholas, with the speed of frozen tar, spoke still of Calderón and Cervantes as if they had been childhood chums of his. Russell was also there, turtlenecked Carioca via Chattanooga, fossilized in a fashion diorama. So was Constantin, but no longer with Melina; she had slashed her wrists in Madrid after the bullfighter abandoned her to her scarce wits, and she had to return to Sheboygan with her tail between her hind legs. And still around was Román Bernal, fixed in his world of Socialist Party carnets and paradigms that brought to a half-life his literary theory of economic dependency, which he enameled with left-handed strokes. Like most, I too had fallen under his spell for a year or so some twenty years before.

I had no interest in listening to any of them. Now both time and money were mine. I was not bound to the slavery of the teaching assistant, the docile and cowering student who had to do as told or else, contributing research that made everyone's name but my own. My Reason Enough had already become an international success, translated even into Quechua. Laura Esquivel and Umberto Eco were not getting their calls to my beach house answered as often as perhaps they would have wished, and I had it on reliable sources that the Pulitzer committee was busy reading recommendations from my fans. Bernal was assigning Reason Enough in his undergraduate honors seminar. With my other three novels also scripted for the movies and begged for by Altman and Polanski (Altman aced out John Schlesinger for In This Sacred Place; it was an ugly affair that earned the film the moniker of The Fallout Piece), I could well afford the luxury of whole decadent seasons in Havana and weekends in the Arabian Desert, enjoying carefree, pampered dawns with Roger.

"Back from Lisbon so soon," Román said. The sheepish smirk was his trademark. He surely had learned that our roles were reversed, but was taking liberties, hoping perhaps that I could see the humor.

"I don't know what you could possible learn from me," said Celso de Mandingueira, who had made a name for himself in some circles with his translations of Raquel de Queiroz, once praised by Rabassa himself. He knew well, however, that my own adaptation of O Grande Sertão, Veredas for Visconti was in a category inaccessible to him. I could not imagine how overwhelmed he must have felt when I asked him to allow me to sit in his graduate course, an interdisciplinary mishmash concocted to increase dwindling enrollments in Portuguese courses. Mandingueira had written extensively on Graciliano Ramos and Cyro Dos Anjos; for him all Brazilian literature had ceased to exist when Graciliano published Vidas Secas and Dos Anjos dotted the final paragraph in O Amanuense Belmiro. His course, like his subjects, died in the '60s following a briefly intense agony, but he reached out to resuscitate it by throwing in the deconstructivist fad and Foucault's self-loathing spittle. If nothing else, Mandingueira would supply me plenty of tripe for a subsequent satire I was beginning to sketch.

A seminar on contemporary Latin American writers on the term's schedule called my attention. The lecturer was unknown to me. I asked Cynthia, the old junior secretary who was still in the department office and knew me from days when I relieved stress by doing outstanding impressions of Constantin's deranged enthusiasm and Gregory's insidious sarcasm.

"He's wonderful, I hear," Cynthia said about the unknown Radamés Ramírez de Arellano. "He sure is gorgeous." As was her habit when she was twenty, she melted when she described him, rolling her eyes, flexing her knees and stretching vowels.

"What have you heard from students?" I asked, hoping she would quickly regain her dignity.

"Er... hmm. He's alright."

The department was not offering too many choices. If I was to come back to myself while also capturing the treasures I had missed while becoming a gem in my own right, I need to decide quickly on the basis of what was available. No time remained to ask him for permission prior to the first meeting. I'd ask him after the lecture.

It was obvious that some students recognized me. It was not a large department; rumors and gossip spread quickly. I supposed it must have seemed strange to them that rather than being there as stellar alumnus to deliver a series of lectures, like Anita Sandoval the previous year, I had returned as a student. Maybe my presence would teach them that learning never ended, even for those at the pinnacle of success. Life could always surprise us with the novelties that humanity was capable of constantly churning out. I was there to grasp everything I might still need to digest, to have my eyes opened, my brain fed—even if two of my novels were on the department reading list and a doctoral dissertation two years before had analyzed my work. It had incidentally completely missed the mark and seen symbols and myths in my fiction that I never knew existed, some grotesque amalgam of social construction of reality and Joseph Campbell with which doubtlessly some ambitious scholar had impressed Constantin, Russell, and a faculty hiring committee in a small albeit progressive women's college in Maine.

A douple dozen students of various ages were scattered around the room.

One woman in a sarape leaned to another next to her and said, "I hear, like, totally, he's like an out of body experience?" in that annoying sing-song characteristic of the terminally inarticulate that insist on making inquiries of assertions.

I sat in the back, still wrapped in a winter coat too heavy for the early spring. My skin had become vulnerable to the wind that blew across the Midwestern tundra. It had been years since I had experienced the invigoration of permafrost. The room was cold, although for those who had endured winter, it was downright tropical.

Shortly after the bell rang, the hall outside became uncomfortably silent. Our room had detached from the reality outside. We were in an isolation chamber that floated over the Gothic peaks of the old building.

The door opened. Cynthia had not exaggerated. Ramírez de Arellano was the indisputable offspring of Vargas Llosa and Aphrodite. His hair, combed back against his perfect skull, was jet black, his features sultry in their masculinity. That nose was chiseled by gods in their image. The double-breasted jacket, designed for his athletic torso, was definitely of European origin. Not a crease defiled it, even when he slipped his hand in his pocket. He placed several sheets on the lectern in front of him.

He looked around the room with the dignified black stare of a premature sage dressed in Armani. He was not friendly; he was not forbidding. With long, thin fingers he held the sides of the lectern, as if waiting for a silence that already reigned in the room or for a switch to go off in his brain. He exuded elegantly ethereal distance.

We were all expecting the resonance of his voice. It startled us just the same, as if he had shaken us out of a coma. He did not yell. His voice was not particularly deep. It simply flowed, powered by an entity he obeyed in spite of himself.

Ramírez de Arellano did not introduce himself. His address began as if momentarily interrupted seconds before: we were all to follow the thread of his discourse from a context defined previously. The logic of his ideas was unassailable, though the precise subject was difficult to discern. He connected subtle sub-themes with transitions that all seemed natural, but that I would not be able to understand or paraphrase seconds after he stopped uttering them. I was barely suspended over the surface of a stream that carried me wherever it was going. I knew, even if I felt helpless against the flow, that eventually I would reach some shore, but ignorant of how I reached it, incapable of walking back along the shore to return to my point of origin.

"Some events happen to us to teach us without teaching us," Gabito had said that day in the outskirts of Havana, his batrachian back against the mid afternoon glare. He had not said much more; he did not even seem happy to see me. El Comandante was pouting and needed the barefoot Comte de Macondo to soothe him. Gabito had to leave for one of the secret hideaways in Batabanó.

What specifically was I to learn from this braided voice whose threads unraveled against the floor and crept onto my eardrums?

Ramírez de Arellano paused. He turned a sheet and continued to speak. He held his head up high and lowered his eyes to read from the notes. He was not shy, he simply could not afford to overlook a single word of his text, carefully crafted for impeccable delivery.

A string snapped in the cello of his throat. I heard my name. Was I imagining it? No, there it was again. But he was not calling me. He was speaking of me. He made some reference to Reason Enough. Was he praising it? No. Was he condemning it. No. It was a neutral bromide that clashed with the torrent of eloquence that preceded it.

He stuck his hand under the lectern and pulled out No Apologies, its gold lettering against a royal purple background, the hardbound book that had come to market a few days before. He held it up the way a tent preacher holds up a Bible, then put it down deliberately, all the while ascribing to it references and claims I had never made.

He evolved into an inquisitorial monk, thundering against my heresies. No one looked to the back of the room, not even Ramírez de Arellano. I struggled to remain silent. My fingernails drew blood from my forearms. For the better part of ten minutes he continued to place my best work, the source of my deepest pride, among the worst refuse of literary pretense. It was an insult to my readers to take advantage of my position to traffic in commercially reprehensible inaccuracies, slander, disinformation. This was nothing more than an attempt by me to capitalize on the mainstream publishing world and simultaneously crush it. It was not a case of fame devoid of accomplishment, but rather of depraved exploitation leading to pedestrian notoriety. Ramírez de Arellano delivered the diatribe with the emotive depth of a recorded message in a museum exhibit.

The bell rang, breaking the evil spell. The room had become overheated, and beads of sweat had collected at the end of my spine. The other students walked out. Ramírez de Arellano looked at them filing out. I headed toward him.

"How could you stand there and blather so relentlessly, mercilessly, at this book?" I asked, keeping a syllabic count with one hand that pounded against the palm of the other, ready to strike him if he repeated any of it.

"Can I help you?" No store clerk, he had just descended from his throne and was not going to tolerate this impertinence. The mediocrity of his reply surprised me.

"I need to go," he said. He truly believed that he could walk away from me and leave me there with words hanging from my lips.

"Out to the hall, you mean," I replied. "You owe me an explanation."

He preceded me into the apse of a hall, holding his notes in one hand and No Apologies in the other.

"Do you know who I am?" Certainly this man had recognized me from some popular magazine photograph or my books' dustcovers.

"Any reason why I should?"

This game was only going to exacerbate my anger.

"I am Joshua Palmer."

Ramírez de Arellano cocked his head and for the first time displayed the emotion of confusion.

"If you are Joshua Palmer, what were you doing in my class?"

"You mean you haven't heard?" I asked. It was authentic astonishment. "I am here to audit some refresher courses. I thought the department faculty had been notified."

"No one has mentioned anything. At least not to me." He was not the least rattled by the realization.

This was inconceivable. He was as clueless as the undergraduates shuffling past us.

"Regardless. What right do you have to belittle my most important work? You couldn't have read it!"

"I most certainly have, sir, and I stand by everything I said."

"But I never made any of those statements," I protested.

"See for yourself," he said, and handed me the book.

I flipped through it, sure that even the most casual of glances would yield no surprising revelations. For God's sake, this was, after all, my book, the essence of my very intellectual being imprisoned forever in ink, in those characters printed on each page.

A photographic plate?

I looked at Ramírez de Arellano. His eyes avoided mine; they had gone astray after something moving slowly on the other side of the hall.

It was a faded reproduction of a daguerreotype, gauchos outside a pulpería store somewhere in the outskirts of the hamlet of General Villegas. The page preceding it made various references to Puig's Pubis Angelical and Sánchez's Macho Camacho's Beat, neither of which I had ever deemed worth reading. The next page was another glossy reproduction, publicity shots of Rita Moreno before turning Caucasian and Rita Hayworth after turning Irish.

I shut the book and examined the cover, the binding, the bio sketch on the back, my picture, taken ten years before, when brown hair still covered my head. It was my book, but not what I had written.

The first two pages seemed stuck together. My fingers finally separated them. The table of contents looked familiar. No, not really. "Modern Anguish in Von Stroheim's Greed." What was that? "Wilde about Oscar"? Not even in the vortex of a bad dream could I produce something as pedestrian as that. "Fuentes Molts." "Severely Sarduy." "G Gaín Is Defunct." "Arráncame la Mastretta." "Borges' Antisystem Lives on in Ferré's Rosary."

Clouds were blocking the sun outside. The bell had rung again. Only Ramírez de Arellano and I stood by the granite steps. I shifted my feet. Sand from attempts to make ice negotiable all winter long covered the floor, and the grit set my teeth on edge.

"I need to go," Ramírez de Arellano repeated.

No one was holding him back.

"I want to put the book back in the lectern," he said. "Someone else might need it."

My face must have betrayed my discomfiture.

"Others may have to denounce it for what it is," he said as if making a statement on the weather.

One by one I flipped the pages of this denial of my existence. Here and there, quotations from Proust I couldn't have remembered if I had tried to recapture, whole passages from Coleridge that had nothing to do with the essay in which they appeared. Even a section on Cousteau and the homosexual aesthetic, and a review of an apocryphal manifesto falsely attributed to Francisco Scarano. And reviews of films I had never seen.

"None of this is mine," I pleaded with Ramírez de Arellano.

"It's printed right there, isn't it? Do you now claim that its authorship lies elsewhere? Who would go through all this trouble?" he asked as excitedly as he had torn it apart some thirty minutes before.

"I never wrote this. Perhaps a publisher's error," I said. The sand was rising quickly, and I was choking in a quickness of anxiety.

Ramírez de Arellano's eyes narrowed. He reached out for the book. I handed it over, and he disappeared into the classroom with the book. When again he emerged from the darkened room, he realized I still stood there, stopped and changed course, heading in the opposite direction.

What could I do, rush to a phone and call Dunlap to demand that the book be withdrawn? It had been distributed around the world while I sulked in a beachside resort in Cuba, surrounded by German excess clad in scant swimwear.

"Some events teach us..." Gabito's words kept coming back devoid of meaning.

But what the hell was to be learned from this terrible mistake?

I called Roger instead.

"Nothing's wrong," I lied, but immediately rectified. "Everything. Everything's wrong."

Roger remained silent.

"Are you still there?" I asked.

"Did you revise the galleys before sending them back to Dunlap?" he asked.

The question was meant to enlighten me, I knew, but how?

The receiver made a cutting noise when I placed it carefully on the pay phone's vertical cradle. My legs were melting, the floor was shifting, my head was severed from what remained of my body. It had ceased to be me, just as my book had become something else by chance, error or intent.

 

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