In the Night of Time(6)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina

    It feels like yesterday, but so much time has gone by. He knows now that personal identity is too fragile a tower to stand on its own without witnesses to certify it or glances to acknowledge it. The memories of what matters to him most are as distant as if they belonged to another man. The face in the passport is almost a stranger’s; the one he is used to seeing now in the mirror, Judith Biely or his children would barely recognize. In Madrid he saw the faces of people he thought he knew well transformed overnight into the faces of executioners or prophets or fugitives or cattle brought to the slaughter; faces entirely occupied by mouths shouting in euphoria or panic; faces of the dead barely recognizable, half converted into red pulp by a rifle bullet; waxen faces deciding on life and death behind a table lit by a lamp while rapid fingers type lists of names. Like the face of someone in the glare of headlights moments before being murdered, or falling gravely wounded, twisting in the throes of death until a pistol placed at the back of his neck ends the misery. Death in Madrid is sometimes a sudden explosion of gunfire and at other times a slow procedure requiring documents written in administrative prose and typed with several carbon copies and legalized with rubber stamps. As he reminisces about the day a little over a year ago when he first saw Judith there’s almost no feeling of loss, because what’s lost has ceased to exist as completely as the man who might have longed for it. There is instead a scrupulous striving for exactitude, the desire to leave a mark through the effort to imagine a world that’s been erased, leaving behind few material traces, so fragile they too are destined for a swift disappearance. But he isn’t satisfied with his attempts to restore that moment to its authenticity, stripping away the additions and superimpositions of memory, like the restorer who cleans a fresco with delicate patience to bring back the splendor of its original colors. He wants to relive the steps that led him to an encounter that might not have happened, to reconstruct step by step that entire afternoon, the prelude, the hours that brought him to this point in his life.

    He sees himself as if in a snapshot, frozen in time, as I saw him appearing in the crowd in Pennsylvania Station, or as I see him now, easier to grasp because he’s motionless, leaning back in his seat as the train begins to move, exhausted, relieved, still wearing his raincoat, his hat on his lap, his suitcase on the seat beside him, the signs of deterioration visible to an attentive eye, the knot in his tie crooked, his shirt collar worn and a little dark because he perspired on the way to the station, more out of fear of missing the train than from the heat on a sunny October day, its clean golden light looking remarkably like the light in Madrid. When he reaches Rhineberg Station, Professor Stevens, who’ll be waiting for him on the platform and who met him the year before in his office in University City, will be amazed at the change he sees in him and will attribute it, out of compassion, to war, while also feeling a certain displeasure, an impulse of rejection that is above all the discomfort produced by the proximity of misfortune. Ignacio Abel felt much the same and tried not to let it show on his face when he saw Professor Rossman, who appeared suddenly in Madrid, having arrived from Moscow after a tortuous journey across half of Europe, looking so different that the only traces of his former self were his round tortoise-shell glasses and the large black briefcase he carried under his arm. But on this late September afternoon in 1935, Ignacio Abel knows nothing yet: it’s the extent of his own ignorance he finds most difficult to imagine now, like looking at someone’s expression in a photo taken back then, like examining the smiling expressions of those who walk along the street or chat in a café, and though they look directly into the lens and seem to see us, they don’t know how to go beyond the boundary of time, don’t see what’s going to happen to them, what’s happening close by, perhaps, without their realizing it or knowing that this ordinary date on which they’re alive will acquire a sinister importance in history books. Ignacio Abel stands in his shirtsleeves, so absorbed in the drawing board he doesn’t realize he’s alone in the office in front of a large window overlooking the construction at University City, and beyond that a horizon of oak groves dissolved by distance on the slopes of the Sierra. Raising his eyes, which are suddenly fatigued, he looked at the rows of empty drawing boards, tilted like school desks, with pale blue plans spread over them, jars of pencils, inkwells, rulers, and the desks where until a few minutes ago phones rang and secretaries typed. An abandoned cigarette still smoldered in an ashtray. The sound of voices and work still floated in the air. In the middle of the room, on a stand sixteen inches high, stood the scale models of what didn’t yet exist completely beyond the window: tree-lined avenues, athletic fields, classroom buildings, the university hospital, the hills and valleys of the landscape. Ignacio Abel would have recognized them in the dark just by feeling them, as a blind man perceives volumes and spaces with his hands. He’d drawn and folded some of those scale models himself, studying the elevations on the plans, focusing on the skill of the master model maker, whom he would visit in his workshop every time he had a new assignment for him, simply for the pleasure of watching his hands move and breathing in the smell of Bristol board, fresh wood, and hot glue. Childishly, he had drawn, colored, and cut out many of the trees, some of the tiny human figures walking along the still nonexistent avenues; he’d added small toy automobiles and streetcars like the ones he gave his son as presents (alarmed, he realized he’d almost forgotten that today was the boy’s saint’s day, San Miguel). For the past six years he’d lived many hours each day between one space and another, as if moving between two parallel worlds governed by different laws and scales, the University City coming to life so slowly because of the labor of hundreds of men, and its approximate, illusory model taking form on a stand with a perfection and a consistency both tangible and fantastic, like the stations and Alpine villages and the electric trains circling past them in the windows of expensive toy stores in Madrid. The model had grown incrementally, as did the real buildings, though at a different pace. At times the scale model occupied its exact site on the surface that reproduced the uneven terrain long before the building it anticipated came to be; at other times it remained for years on the same spot in that large imaginary space, even after the building it anticipated had been rejected: a future no longer possible but somehow still existing, the ghost not of what was demolished but of what had never been erected. Unlike real buildings, the scale models had an abstract quality his hands appreciated as much as his eyes, pure forms, polished surfaces, window cuts or right angles of corners and eaves in which his fingertips took pleasure. On a shelf in his office he kept the model of the national school he’d designed almost four years earlier for his neighborhood in Madrid, the one where he’d been born, La Latina, not Salamanca where he lived now, on the other side of the city.

    The workday had also ended beyond the windows of the drafting room, where Ignacio Abel was getting ready to leave, fixing his tie, putting papers in his briefcase. The workers were leaving their jobs in groups, following paths between the clearings on their way to distant metro and streetcar stops. Lowered heads, dun-colored clothing, lunch bags over their shoulders. Ignacio Abel recognized with a rush of old affection the figure of Eutimio Gómez, the construction foreman at the Medical School, who turned, looked up, and waved. Eutimio was tall, strong, graceful in spite of his years, with the slow, flexible verticality of a poplar. When he was young, he’d worked as an apprentice stucco laborer in the crew of Ignacio Abel’s father. Among the cement pillars of a building where the partitions had not yet been put up, the rifle of a uniformed watchman could be seen gleaming in the oblique afternoon sun. A truck carrying Assault Guards advanced slowly along the main avenue, which would be called Avenue of the Republic when it was completed. As night fell they’d begin to search the construction site for gangs that stole materials and for saboteurs prepared to overturn or burn the machinery they blamed for their low wages, men inspired by a primitive millenarianism, like the weavers who in another century burned steam looms. Steam shovels, steamrollers, machines for laying asphalt, cement mixers, now motionless, took on a presence as solid as the buildings that already had roofs, where beautiful tricolor flags waved in the luminous late September afternoon.

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