In the Night of Time(10)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina

    The celebrity of others made him invisible; better to erase his existence so his shadow would not be projected in a revealing way onto the triumphal faces of those who owed him so much. If not greatness, then retirement. Writing verses with a passion that was sabotaged by his own apathy to things, knowing that for some reason they would repel success. Investigating things in archives no one had visited for centuries, the lives of dwarves and buffoons in the gloomy courts of Felipe IV and Carlos II. Not thinking about all the work completed, or the dubious future of his painting, or its probable distance from a style he didn’t care about but that pained him like an insult to all the years he’d devoted to painting with no recognition. Not imagining oneself a painter: limiting one’s expectations, the field of vision. Concentrating on the relatively simple but still inexhaustible problem of representing on a small canvas that bowl with a few pieces of fruit. But what if he really deserved the mediocre place where he’d been relegated? Perhaps, after all, it wasn’t that Lorca had silenced the debt he owed him but simply hadn’t read his poems about New York and the book of prose pieces about the city written on his return trip and then published serially in El Sol, to unanimous indifference. (In Madrid there didn’t seem to be much interest in the outside world: he went to the café the day following his return from New York, excited by all the stories he had to tell, and his friends received him as if he hadn’t been away and didn’t ask a single question.) What if he’d become old and was being poisoned by what he’d always disliked most, resentment? Juan Ramón Jiménez, who was actually more accomplished, was infected by an ignoble bitterness, an obsessive mean-spiritedness fed by any small slight, imagined or real, by each scintilla of recognition not dedicated to him, muddied water that debased his luminous talent. How sordid it would be if one lacked not only talent but nobility as well and allowed oneself to be hopelessly intoxicated by an aging man’s rancor toward those who are younger, by the affront of feeling offended by the jealously observed good fortune of others who didn’t even notice him, who insulted him by achieving with no apparent effort what had been denied to him, when he was the more deserving. But did he really want to be like Lorca, his success hovering between folklore and bullfights, his fondness for the parties of diplomats and duchesses? Hadn’t he told himself at some point that his secret models were Antonio Machado and Juan Gris? He didn’t imagine Juan Gris as resentful over Picasso’s triumph, aggrieved by his obscene energy, his simian histrionics, filling canvases as quickly as he seduced and abandoned women. But Juan Gris, alone in Paris, not merely overshadowed but erased by the other and ill with tuberculosis, probably had possessed a certainty in the depths of his soul that he, Moreno Villa, was lacking, had obeyed a single passion, had known how, like an ascetic or a mystic, to strip away all the worldly comforts he’d never be able to renounce no matter how modest: his functionary’s secure salary, his two adjoining rooms in the Residence, his well-cut suits, his English cigarettes. It wasn’t true—he hadn’t withdrawn from the world. The insight he’d been so close to having while looking at the bowl of autumn fruit and the seductive, vulgar typography of the illustrated magazine would never come simply because he couldn’t sustain the required intensity of observation, the state of alertness that would have sharpened his eye and guided his hand on the blank sheet of paper. Someone was coming down the hall, walking with an almost violent determination, then knocking on his door. No matter how short the anticipated visit, he knew he wouldn’t be able to recapture that moment of being on the verge of enlightenment.

    “Come in,” he said, giving in to the interruption, relieved deep down, resigned, the thick charcoal with its creamy tip still in his hand, held close to the surface of the paper.

    Ignacio Abel burst into the stillness of his room, bringing with him the rush of the street, the busy life, as if he’d let in a cold current through the door. With a glance that Moreno Villa noticed, he quickly formed an impression of the messy room, a combination of painter’s studio, scholar’s library, and old-bachelor’s den, canvases stacked against the walls and sketches upon sketches in disordered piles on the floor, paint-smudged rags, postcards pinned haphazardly on the walls. Ignacio Abel’s suit with its wide trousers and double-breasted jacket, his silk tie, shined shoes, and good wristwatch, made him conscious of the penury of his own appearance in the stained smock and flannel slippers he put on to paint. It comforted Moreno Villa, however, who’d spent perhaps too much of his life with younger people, that Ignacio Abel was almost his age, and even more that he didn’t attempt to feign youth. But he knew him only superficially: the architect also belonged to that other world, the world of people with careers and projects, those capable of acting with a pragmatism he’d never possessed.

    “You were working and I’ve interrupted you.”

    “Don’t worry, Abel my friend, I’ve been alone all afternoon. I was actually in the mood to talk to someone.”

    “I’ll bother you only for a few minutes.”

    He looked at his watch as if measuring the exact amount of time he had left. He spread papers on the table, from which Moreno Villa removed the fruit bowl that Abel had glanced at, intrigued, followed by another glance at the almost blank canvas, where the only result of several lazy hours of contemplation were a few lines in charcoal. An active man who consulted an appointment book and made phone calls, drove a car, worked ten hours a day on the construction of University City, and recently had completed a municipal food market and a public school. He asked for details: how long his lecture was to be, what kind of slide projector would be available, how many posters had been printed, how many invitations sent out. Moreno Villa observed him as if from his shore of slower time, improvising answers to things he didn’t know or hadn’t thought about. To come as far as he had from such an unpromising background, Ignacio Abel needed exceptional determination, a moral and physical energy that was evident in his gestures and perhaps in his somewhat excessive cordiality, as if at each moment, and with each person, he were calibrating the practical importance of being agreeable. Perhaps he, Moreno Villa, never had to make too much of an effort, thus his overall apathy toward things, his inability to set his mind to one thing, his tendency to give up so easily. He had the reluctance of an heir to a limited position but one that allows him to live with no effort other than not aspiring to too much, accommodating to the soporific inertia and lethargy of the Spanish provincial middle class. He looked at Ignacio Abel’s gold watch, his shirt cuffs, the cap of his fountain pen visible in the breast pocket next to the tip of a white handkerchief with embroidered initials. He’d married well, he recalled someone saying in those Madrid circles where everything was known; he’d married an older woman, the daughter of someone influential. Here in the stillness of Moreno Villa’s room, he seemed out of place, his energy intact after so many hours at the office, a day full of phone calls and paperwork, decision after decision, executed by his construction crew at the other end of the city.

    I can easily imagine the two men talking, and listen to their calm voices as the afternoon sun slowly leaves the room and disappears behind the roofs of the city. They are not exactly friends, because neither one is particularly sociable, yet they are united by a vague familiarity, by a common air of decorum, though Ignacio Abel is younger, of course. They use the formal usted with each other, which is a relief to Moreno Villa now that almost everyone calls him Pepe or even Pepito, reinforcing the suspicion that he’s lost his youth without gaining respect. He keeps comparing—he can’t help it—his rumpled, stained clothing to Abel’s suit; the tense, erect posture the other maintains in the upright chair as he spreads drawings and photos on the table to his own, old man’s carelessness in the easy chair that belonged to his father; his two more or less borrowed rooms to Ignacio Abel’s apartment in a new building in the Salamanca district, this father of two children whose work gives him a solid, undeniable place in the world.

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