In the Night of Time(8)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina

    Now the highway took on a more precise meaning, defined by rows of electric and telephone wires. In the flat, unpopulated outskirts of Madrid, the avenues of its future expansion stretched with the abstract rigor of a drawn plan. Settlements of small hotels emerged like islands among the desert-like lots and cultivated fields along the sinuous lines of streetcar cables, fragile urban outposts in the middle of nothing. He could imagine districts of white apartment buildings for workers among wooded areas and sports fields, the kind of housing he’d seen in Berlin ten years earlier, in a less rugged climate and with gray, low skies—tall towers among fields of grass, as in the cities of Le Corbusier. Architecture was an effort of the imagination to see what doesn’t exist more clearly than what you have before your eyes, the rundown buildings that have endured for no reason other than the obstinacy of their materials, just as religion or malaria endures, or the pride of the strong, or the misery of the deprived. Arise, you prisoners of starvation! Arise, you wretched of the earth! As he drove he saw, along with the high mirages of clouds over the peaks of the Sierra, the public housing that already existed in his sketchbooks, with large windows, terraces, athletic fields, playgrounds, plazas with community centers and libraries. He saw luminous patches of green—an orchard, a line of poplars along a stream—in the midst of treeless barrens and slopes cracked by erosion, scarred by dry avalanches. More irrigation and fewer words, more trees with roots that can hold down the fertile soil, more pipelines of clean, fresh water, more rail lines brilliant in the sun, along which trolleys painted in bright colors will glide. He saw shacks, garbage dumps where the indigent swarmed, farmhouses with caved-in roofs, wastelands devoured by brambles, a dog tied to a tree with too short a rope cutting into his neck, a shepherd dressed in rags or animal hides guarding a flock of goats as if in a biblical desert—all within two kilometers of the center of Madrid.

    He saw the future in its isolated signs: in the energy of what was being built, solidly in the earth, on the still barren plain, broken by the right angles of future avenues, the framework of sidewalks, the lines of streetlights and trolley cables, and pierced by tunnels and underground transport. On the bare horizon the huge outline of a wall rising beneath its scaffolding. In the not too distant future, it would be referred to as the new government offices. Another, more transparent city that wouldn’t resemble Madrid, though it would continue to bear its name, would soon extend through those cleared fields in the north. Pockets of the future: to his left, on the other side of the sweeping extension of wasteland, above the row of saplings that delineated like broad ink strokes the extension to the north of La Castellana Boulevard, the Student Residence crowned an undeveloped hill shaded by poplars, at the foot of which stood the School of Engineering and the exaggerated dome of the Museum of Natural Sciences. Diminutive white figures were prominent on the gray-brown expanse of athletic fields. The sun of late September burned with golden brilliance on the windows facing west. Suddenly he remembered that he had to give an answer to José Moreno Villa, who had asked him weeks earlier to give a talk on Spanish architecture. A kind, solitary man, very formal in his dress and manner, older than most of his acquaintances. Moreno Villa would appreciate a letter or personal visit much more than a phone call. He lived in his room at the Residence as if it were a cell in a comfortable lay monastery, surrounded by paintings and books, enjoying with the melancholy of an old bachelor the proximity of foreign students, girls who flooded the halls with the clicking of high heels, sonorous laughter, and conversations in English.

    Without giving it another thought, Ignacio Abel turned left and drove up the hill to the Residence. At a snack bar among the poplars—still open, though it was late in the season—the radio played dance music at top volume, but there was almost no one at the iron tables. At the reception desk he was told that Señor Moreno Villa was probably in the auditorium. As he walked toward it, he heard muffled piano music and singing on the other side of the closed door. Perhaps he shouldn’t have opened it, at the risk of interrupting what might be a rehearsal. He could have turned away but didn’t. He opened the door softly, barely putting his head inside. A woman turned when she heard the door open. She was young and undoubtedly foreign. The sun shone on her light chestnut hair, which she brushed aside. She stopped singing but finished the phrase on the piano. Ignacio Abel murmured an apology and closed the door. As he walked away, he continued to hear a melody at once sentimental and rhythmic.

    3DULL FOOTSTEPS echoing down the hall, getting closer, urgent knocking on the door, like the footsteps of someone looking for something in a hurry, the leather shoes creaking as they walked on the tiles: someone under the pressure of an assignment, unlike him, José Moreno Villa, who felt no urgency about anything and often would find himself forgetting what he was looking for, or searching for something different from what he originally had in mind. Almost nothing touched his heart; he held no conviction about anything. At times he was ashamed of his apathy, and at other times relieved—if it often took away his drive, it also saved him from suffering and mistakes he would later regret. He’d had a passionate love affair late in life and lost her, largely because of his own apathy; when he realized he wasn’t going to win her back, the sorrow he felt was tinged with relief. He felt a certain joy at finding himself alone again, as he settled into his cabin on the ship that would sail from New York and carry him back to Spain, leaving behind the woman he’d been about to marry; what a relief, after all the emotional turmoil, to settle down again among his possessions in his simple room at the Residence. So much fury in Spain, so much harshness, passionate crimes and savage Anarchist uprisings drowned in blood, crude barracks proclamations; so many saints, martyrs, fanatics, like the paintings in the Prado in which the skin of ascetics seems as torn as the sackcloth they wear, their eyes rendered unforgiving by a vision of purity incompatible with the real world; and the throats raw from shouting so many “long live”s and “death to”s, the aggressive vulgarity that has been taking over his beloved Madrid, where he ventures less and less frequently, with the displeasure of a man no longer young who experiences change like a personal insult. The coarse ways of politics, the desecration of ideas that, after all, no one had asked him to believe in, though for a time they warmed his heart, as full of rational promises and esthetic dreams as the tricolor flags waving at the tops of buildings against a blue as clean and new as the flags themselves. How typical of him that his political convictions, so easily attenuated by his skepticism—about the selfishness of the human soul, the triviality and profound misery of Spanish life—were so closely associated with esthetic whim, with his preference for the tricolor rather than for the vulgar red-and-yellow flag of the scoundrel king for whom no one yearned, or the red-and-black that for some incomprehensible reason was shared by the Fascists and the Anarchists, or the entirely red flag with a hammer and sickle so favored by some of his friends, sudden enthusiasts for the Soviet union  , for photographic collages of workers, soldiers in greatcoats holding bayonets, tractors and hydroelectric plants, sky-blue shirts, leather straps, clenched fists. Perhaps he didn’t understand or, worse, didn’t believe in the sincerity or substance of their attitudes because they were younger than him, or because they were more successful; he saw them stand up to sing anthems at the end of literary banquets, and what he felt wasn’t ideological disagreement but embarrassment for them. He’d never known how to participate in public enthusiasm without observing himself from the outside. He was a bourgeois, of course, and not only that, he had independent means and was a bureaucrat. But some of them, his old friends, were more bourgeois, idle rich men who’d never really worked but spoke with extraordinary gravity about the dictatorship of the proletariat as they crossed their legs, a whiskey in hand, on the terrace of the Palace Hotel after having a haircut in the barbershop. They predicted the imminent fall of the Republic, crushed by the social revolution, and at the same time they prospered by going abroad on official lecture tours or receiving salaries justified by vague cultural assignments.

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