Authors: Carlos Fuentes
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To my son,
braver than many warriors, with all my love
The RÃo de la Plata
On the night of May 24, 1810, my friend Baltasar Bustos entered the bedroom of the Marquise de Cabra, the wife of the President of the Superior Court for the Viceroyalty of the RÃo de la Plata, and kidnapped her newborn child. In its place, he put a black baby, the child of a prostitute who had just been publicly flogged.
The anecdote is part of the story of three friendsâXavier Dorrego, Baltasar Bustos, and me, Manuel Varelaâand a city, Buenos Aires, where the three of us were struggling to get an education, a city of smugglers too embarrassed to show off their wealth. Even though there are now about forty thousand of us
as we inhabitants of the city call ourselves, Buenos Aires is drab, its buildings crouched low, its churches austere. The city wears a faÃ§ade of false modesty and disgusting dissimulation. The rich subsidize the convents so the convents will hide their smuggled goods. But this also works to the advantage of those of us who love ideas and books: since crates containing chalices and ecclesiastical garments are not opened at customs, friendly priests use them to send us forbidden books by Voltaire, Rousseau, and DiderotÂ â¦ Dorrego, from a family of rich businessmen, buys the books; I work in the printing shop of the orphanage, where I secretly reprint them; and Baltasar Bustos, who is from the country, where his father has a big estate, turns the books into action. He wants to be a lawyer under a regime that despises lawyers, that accuses them of stirring up endless lawsuits, hatred, and rancor. What they're really afraid of is that we'll educate creole lawyers who will speak for the people and bring about independence. That's Baltasar's real problem: he's got to study without a university in Buenos Aires and rely (like his two friends, Dorrego and me, Varela) on smuggled books and private libraries. The authorities keep an eye on us. The last viceroy was right when he said that the spread of “seduction” had to be stopped in Buenos Aires; this vice, he exclaimed, seemed to be rampant everywhere.
Seduction! What is it, where does it come from, where will it end? Ideas are what seduce us, and when all this is over, I will always remember the young Baltasar Bustos drinking a toast in the CafÃ© de Malcos, bubbling with optimism, seduced and now seducing us with the vision of a political idyll, the social contract renewed on the banks of Buenos Aires's muddy, swampy river. Our friend's fiery spirit made everyone stop working, even the boys pouring river water into clay jugs to make it drinkable and the cooks holding half-butchered chickens, capons, and turkeys. Baltasar Bustos drinks to the happiness of the citizens of Argentina, governed by human laws and not by the divine plan incarnate in the king, and even the wagons laden with freshly cut barley and hay destined for the stables stop to listen. He proclaims that man is born free but is everywhere in chains, and his voice grips this city of creoles, Spaniards, monks, nuns, convicts, slaves, Indians, blacks, and soldiers in their orderly ranksÂ â¦ Seduced by a miserly Citizen of Geneva who abandoned his bastards at the door of a church!
Does Baltasar seduce? Or is he seduced by his audience, real or imagined, in the streets of a city that has barely left the suffocation of summer as it is enveloped by the fogs that blow in from June to September? May is the ideal month to talk, to make oneself heard, to seduce and be seduced in Buenos Aires. We are seduced by the idea of being young, of being Argentine
with cosmopolitan ideas and books. But this isn't all that seduces us; we are also seduced by a new idea of faith in the nation, its geography, its history. The three of us are seduced by the fact that we aren't Spaniards who get rich on smuggling and run back to Spain; we are seduced by not being like the rich, who hoard grain to push up the price of bread.
I really don't know if we seduce one another. I am thin and dark, with a big upper lip I cover with a black mustache, whose bristles are so wiry they seem aggressive even to me, as if they were attacking my face pitilessly. I defend myself from this hairy assault by shaving my cheeks three times a day, using the mirror to contemplate the inflamed fury in my almost light (they really aren't) eyes set in all that blackness. I try to compensate for my savage appearance with calm gestures and an almost ecclesiastical composure. Xavier Dorrego, by comparison, is ugly, a redhead, his hair cropped close to his skull, almost shaved, which makes him look like something he isn't: a manhunter, a usurer, the kind of man who keeps strict accounts. The beauty of his skin, which is translucent and opaline, like an egg illuminated from within by an eternal flame, makes up for the rest.
And BaltasarÂ â¦
The clocks in the plazas ring out on these May days, and the three of us confess how fascinated we are by clocks. We admire them, collect them, and feel thus that we own time, or at least the mystery of time, which is to imagine it running backward or speeding us to our meeting with the future, until we reject that idea and define all time as the present: the past that we not only remember but that we imagine, as much as we imagine the future, so that both will have meaning. Where? Only here, today, we tell each other, wordlessly, when we admire the jewels Dorrego is collecting thanks to his father's money: a clock in the shape of a carriage, covered by a glass dome; a ring clock; a snuff-box clockÂ â¦ I have my own special treasure, which I inherited from my father, who for some reason never sold it. A Calvary watch: the Cross presides over the entire works, and marks, as a memento mori, the hours of the passion and death of Christ.
“Citizens,” exclaims Dorrego when I go into raptures over my religious clock. “Remember that now we are citizens.” And that seduced us and bound us together as well: the name of our group is the Citizens.
He was educated on his father's estate by one of those Jesuit tutors who, though they were expelled by the king, managed to return in secular clothes to carry out their obsessive mission among us: to teach us that American flora and fauna exist, that there are American mountains and rivers, and, above all, that we have a history that isn't Spanish but Argentine, Chilean, MexicanÂ â¦
Baltasar's father, Don JosÃ© Antonio Bustos, sided with the Crown against the English invaders and now again against Bonaparte in Spain. Which is how he acquired the influence to get Baltasar, the law student, a job at the Superior Court during the impeachment trials of the discredited viceroys Sobremonte and Liniers. Sobremonte was accused of dereliction of duty and neglect in the defense of the port during the English invasions of 1806 and 1807, when he fled from the British attack, absconded with public funds, and abandoned the defense of Buenos Aires to creole militiamen. Those soldiers eventually repelled the English and gained prestige which grew like a tidal wave that would reach its peak during the revolutionary days of May. The irony of these two trials is that Liniers led the militiamen who defeated the English. But when events rapidly moved toward independence, Liniers lost courage, hesitated, fell out with everyone (except, it was said, his French mistress, Madame Pernichon), and went from being a hero of the defense against the British to being a nullity during the fight for independence.
As he listened to the charges against the former hero, my friend Baltasar, the young legal clerk, imagined himself raised to a glorious position thanks to the new spirit and the speed of events. He wrote all that down in a document he sent to me later, at a certain point in our long and unpredictable friendship. “Since Liniers is being tried in absentia, I have to imagine him sitting here, his wig half powdered, forceful one day, feeble the next. Apparently, all we need is one demurrer to strip the hero of his honors and sentence him. You know, Varela, I imagine a fleeting fire passing through Liniers's eyes. I see it and wonder if we three friends from the CafÃ© de Malcos are up to events. I live these days intensely, but I'm afraid we are fated to enjoy an uncertain glory which our hasty spirits will rapidly exhaust. I write our three names. His, Xavier Dorrego. Yours, Manuel Varela. And mine, Baltasar Bustos. I can trace back our names. But I cannot give them a final fate. And thinking of Liniers's fortunes, a hero one day, a traitor the next, I want to avoid such a deviation of destiny. Yet I also ask myself a troubling question. Can we expect anything at all except knowing that we have a destiny yet are unable to master it? Wouldn't this be the saddest destiny imaginable?”
I received these notes from my friend and imagined him carrying out his tasks as clerk in the trials of the viceroys with praiseworthy patience.
What I didn't know is that Baltasar was meticulously rehearsing quite a sequence of actions.
A dry, old, cynical man, the Marquis de Cabra, presided over the sessions in the courtroom. He never even glanced at the clerk Baltasar, but Baltasar took careful note of the president of the court, seeking to read his thoughts, observing his every movement. Above all, as we shall see, Baltasar envied him.
Baltasar continued writing and pretending that he was sorting papers after the day's session was finished. When asked to leave the hall, he apologized, acting very busy, and left by a side door, giving the impression by his gestures that he knew his way around the building better than anyone else. The main doors were locked; he would have to walk down the corridors and exit by a door at the back.
He walked along one of the halls to the noisy rhythm of his gold-buckled, high-heeled shoes, hugging the documents against his cambric shirt and scattering between the tails of his frock coat the crumbs that had accumulated in the lap of his nankeen trousers, the remains of a roll he'd eaten surreptitiously. Instead of leaving the building, he went into the now empty library, hid in the stacks, and waited patiently for the lights to go out. His father had told him a secret: behind the thick volumes containing the works of the church fathers, there was a hidden passage through which the presidents of the Superior Court passed unseen and unhindered into their private chambers.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
He waited another half hour, then poked his finger hard against volume 4 of St. Thomas's
Slowly and silently the stack slid openâthe hinges, Baltasar noted, as always were perfectly oiled. The passageway led to a patio shaded by peach trees. But a gray, dusty vine allowed an agile man to climb from the patio to the balcony. It was almost as if the ivy invited the young body to come up and celebrate the arrival of May and the departure of the humid, unbearable heat of summer in the RÃo de la Plata, heat that turns clothing into a clammy, undesirable second skin.
Now, however, a cool breeze with a touch of ice blew off the Plata, as if to quell the ardent spirits of the revolutionary city, itself rejuvenated by the speed at which events were taking place. On the thirteenth of May, an English (always the English!) ship had brought the news: the French occupied Seville; Napoleon held not only political control over Spain but economic control as well. Spain was no more. King Ferdinand VII was no more. What would Spain's New World colonies do? The Argentine viceroyalty had only one strength, the militias forged to repulse the English invasions and replace viceregal ineptitude: Riverside Men, Plainsmen, Patriciansâsuch were the names of the regiments that on the twentieth of May withdrew their support for the viceroy, Hidalgo de Cisneros, saying: “You represent nothing now.” And then they rallied around Cornelio de Saavedra, commander in chief of the Patricians, giving him the power to rule. On May 21, Saavedra's ally, a fiery Jacobin orator, Juan JosÃ© Castelli, appeared in the Plaza Mayor with six hundred hooded, well-armed men the people dubbed “the infernal legion,” and forced the viceroy to hold an open meeting at the City Hall, where Baltasar Bustos deliriously applauded Castelli's speechÂ â¦