Israel Centeno: The Tower Overturned
The towers, they say, were built atop a sphere, the sphere moves when the earth does, but beneath the towers a labyrinthine parking garage had been built, and upon that some galleries, the basements, intended for business, shops with large display windows, restaurants and bars for a privileged bureaucracy. Tailors, barbers, jewelers, stylists, bookstores, shoeshine stands, to the good nuyorican air, kiosks exhibiting magazines from across the world. The mosaic murals, exposing the timid virility of a remote and national past. It showcased the best, the select, and the discretely sordid, almost related to the Zing pass and the principal churches, theaters, plazas and the old colonial neighborhood; it was conceived thusly, the center, the vortex of modernity, though it power bustled from one concourse to another confounded by the great diversity of the passers-by, going in Silence, shopping at their stores, it meant walking through place where the faces of the world walk, searching for a suit or a lunch spot, beautiful people. Could it be? The morning smells were the smells of good breakfasts, and through the air in the corridors flowed the aroma of lavender, the sweet perfume of a woman, and verbena; the downtown parks and plazas were immersed with the sunshine or with the serene warmth of night in a place, as Hemingway said, that was clean and well-lighted.
- Israel Centeno
- Israel Centeno was born in 1958 in Caracas, Venezuela, and currently lives in Pittsburgh as a Writer-in-Residence with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. He writes both novels and short stories, and also works as an editor and professor of literature. He has published nine books in Venezuela and three in Spain.
In the vortex was a convergence of women and prostitutes, honest men and swindlers, troupes of actors and cabaret entertainers, time went, or was superimposed like layers of asphalt, hot and black, the sphere began to on and its axis which produced those drastic changes of that era, it came to be a place of diversity, of variety, of the avant-garde and later it would morph into dark, tumultuous chambers, the bathrooms with their marble walls the color of copper or perhaps travertine, and the brass fixtures morphed into prison bedpans, arcades open to all the city’s spaces, a transformation began, subtle at first then suddenly vertiginous to the point where it became the mouth of a terrible God devouring spaces, in the rotten, ravenous jaws of Baal. That was more or less how the balance was broken, with dramatic scenes, those arcades became ducts, then redoubts, and finally the place where the first man-rat was born, the father of the other rats with the eyes and brows of men, vampire rats, dismembering demons, thirsting for entrails, rats from the Caracas Stock Exchange, rats from the surrounding institutions, they all gnawed the canals and ducts, each and every space was left to the care of the largest rodents and eventually they didn’t want to share even the trash with the hordes of migratory collectors. They tried to understand, learned the language and were just as ravenous as any rodent or vampire, they sought to negotiate for time and space, but for all their good and civilized intentions they were just sitting down at the negotiating staircase, at the entrances to the underworld, when they were ripped to pieces and their entrails displayed on the balustrades of the interior plazas. The statues, the monuments, the murals and the frescoes were stained with the color and the light’s corrosive urine, the moldy dark military green, and the pitch black of the expanding leaks which, along with the fungus, gave the place the stench of sewers, latrines, and dungeons. And from the foundations of the towers to their highest floors, the entrails and urine, the lichens and the shadows, the confinement and humidity, the Minister of Closure granting the territory to the rodents and to the devils in the pipes. For through those spaces they could reach the plaza – Roberto Morel, Santiago, and Merlinda – and after them, those who still held hopes of escaping the cloisters of decaying files. Alenka, the Gilded Lady, seated on a desk, her gaze fixed on a window covered in black paint and plastic.
A meaning must have meaning; the absurd has logic. Having been a witch at one time and a person deprived of their rights in a section of the walled city, a quarry hunted by people, crossbows at hand, riding vehicles with varying engine displacement, lording over the canton, seen from a rusty desk in a damp, dark, bricked-up office is – despite the current nightmare – one of those composures of the subconscious mind, the oneiric world reigning over the real one. And hiding her head in her arms, not knowing her place, her city, her country… trying to comprehend the sense of having been – being? – an Amazon, a witch, or an old hag in Dahomey. She thought about Mama Zawe and her understanding of reality, she told her and Merlinda, before facing them in one of those fights in which warriors are formed: between the world of the living and the world of the dead, there is a universe of both living and dead, and rebirth exists in metamorphosis. She told her in her language, she said it with her mouth reeking of dried blood, metamorphosis, she now thought, is being reborn in forms, and the forms make me the Gilded Lady, Ludmilla, or Alenka. Which is why she stopped to examine the cauldron. A dead man? Dead men. For there was a confrontation, they lost the crescent moon where she reclined and upon passing by them she dissolved and could have gone first to the Altamira canton, repeating the history of witches or being reborn even more flexible, ready to walk along the cornices and face the abyss on the other side of the doorjamb, upon turning one of the corners of the tower.
And Morel’s forms? Roberto Morel was the same and yet he had changed into oblivion, his memories, his relationship with the navigated realities, or by the act of sailing itself, his forms changed. As Alberto would say, it’s the Wheel of Fortune. Who is Alberto, why see the man tearing at his beard in another space, tranquil like the houses in Bahia where, in one of his transitions, he was raised facing the crashing waves of the Atlantic, later having an epiphany, if we reach the open ocean we will return to them, to the life of men and women with their logic of war, of peace, and of progress, their high stone walls covered in pansies, their fruiting gardens, and their stucco bedrooms. Alberto was in this other place, she can see him, looking out over a garden where seven cacti grew. His image and his name returned. And then, the image of Julio and Lola. Of Julio and Carola, of Julio before being bitten by a serpent on a terraced road in Ávila, his downfall the result of reality laid bare, Julio is another traveler and arrives here riding a migratory wave, concerned. And then, Alenka added to the tranquility of his thought, I can be all men and all women, all realities and all things in a fraction of a second, an epiphany to write a voluminous novel laden with pages, a fragment of a fragment in which each and every life can fit, superimposed on one another. She understood Morel’s oblivion. Since when had Roberto Morel transcended the fragment of a second of an epiphany? It’s subtraction. She said it time and again. It’s subtraction. We die in order to be subtracted and we are reborn in order to continue subtracting and in the remaindering, in the stripping, we arrive at a denuded reality and do not change further.
That’s part of the truth, Morel would say, without comprehending the other part, only perceiving it. He, along with the others, began searching the elevator shafts and the devastated, lichen-covered ductwork for a space open enough for you to fit your hand, a place in front of which Santiago could wave his cape, fragmenting the material until it becomes penetrable.
Morel was up against an air duct, then he began to pound on the wall in search of false columns, and the Queen of Swords, Merlinda now with her cauldron, Which among the dead? he thought about the return of his power, he felt a strong pain in his stomach, the weakness born of his deficiencies, he felt dry and parched and asked Santiago, can you do something to quench my thirst? And Santiago dispelled the darkness for a moment, abstaining. Are you conscious? That was the question, the obvious, and Merlinda recalled the word metamorphosis, he is looking to change forms in order to exit his undead state: the epiphany. Then she exchanged glances with the Dwarf of the guava tree and he smiled at her, she feared his smile, the Dwarf’s mischief weighed heavily, she took her time, Merlinda didn’t think so as not to be heard, deciding to conserve her powers and calm the dead in her cauldron, which had to be attended to in order to observe the fast, and the change of forms which Santiago had sought was being induced. A smile of, you’re screwed, you little witch. She raised her hand to her face, over the cheekbone and just below her right eye, and cast a spell, her eyes darting and wide: this one and that one covered in molasses. The Dwarf winced and was lost among those waiting for them at the passageway to the basement.
Here, a simple thought, and immediately the apparition of Santiago, the Page of Cups: this time he didn’t wave his cloak, he took it by the corners and let it fall, wizardry, that’s what it was about, accelerating the particles in matter to the point where solidity, phenomenological entity, and the tangible begin to break down. Magic. Magic is science, science is physics, physics is alchemy, such things cannot be said around here, in worlds where a caste of priests are the heads of research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and the military industrial complex, nor can you say anything about lucid states of madness in a world where sanity is a dogma, and so the things, the walls, the girders and the concrete disappear and – as if an act of illusion – everyone was thrown through the turnstile, distorted and twisted from the physical world. It could have been more transcendent, producing a change of context, not falling into a heap of garbage in a dingy corner of the plaza between the towers, they’ve been appearing one summer afternoon in San Marcos, in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or in the Zócalo in Mexico City, but now they have to exit through the plaza in Caracas and merge with the new migration from the East and cross that battlefield from one edge to the other. If they had gone down through the air ducts they would have crossed forests of lichens, prairies of moss, mountains of waste, slime, and trash, making their way through a brambly thicket strewn with rubble and debris, to confront the broods of rats, the rats and the man-rats, the piercing, gutting demons, lost in the ravenous jaws of the Ministry of Closure guards. Upon tumbling through the disrupting turnstiles of the physical world, they passed through a weak, transparent curtain and appeared out of nowhere in a section of the beshitten city, surrounded by an expanse of white sand, much to the astonishment of those who defended or won territories, the trash collectors armed with torches and truncheons, facing the rats with their invincible teeth and claws, their eyes and brows of men or vampirous rodents.
Lutecia returned and has been staying at the house of Alberto, who – after his fetish, her cauldron, disappeared – walks around immersed in a dilemma, return the dead one, bring back the dead one, inquire as to the whereabouts of the nganga. The pressure rises in his throat, inside and out, two fingers applying pressure, he must be strong, feeling faint and without the need to push back, it’s agony, he complains, breathing despite believing you’re not, the blows to the chest and the constant certainty of dying, which is why he was cautious, upon returning to Mexico, his initiation into the world of peyote would feel like a form of death, it’s part of the ritual and he would see, from yet another perspective, his own death outside of his own life, outside of the fear of death itself, death as completely separate from the thing that’s living and the thing that’s dying. It might seem like wordplay but it was actually an experience, those fingers tightening around his throat became sensations, they were, in fact, feelings: not being able to breathe, drowning, and thinking to yourself, yes, I’m dying now, he could hear himself saying this, deep down where his body itself believed it, sweating profusely. Julio declared, you’re not dying, you’re in agony, you’re feeling the absence of air in your lungs, feeling faint, let yourself go, place your hands in these pots of hot water, the cold isn’t stemming from your body, do you think the dead feel anything, the coldness entering their bodies, the loss of their own lives? Alberto wanted to affirm, to feel externally and without affection, that was his experience, truly dying amidst the peyote and being reborn without any rational attachments, that’s what it was about, not decoding the fear yet again and thus lending sense to metamorphosis, defeating the panic and with it bringing truth, having a dead being in the cauldron, Who is it? making your fetish empower the ineffable, the intangible, the elusive… it is the powerful abstraction, for although death is tangible the dead continues to feel Hamlet’s dilemma, he does not solve it with either the pen or the sword, because he is neither dead nor alive, there is an attribute of being dead or being alive and it doesn’t matter whether if it’s perceived or not, for what matters is the spell: something happened from the outset, it descended over the darkened world and foreshadowed the passage through those valleys where shadows and demons roam, where they float and transmute in order to return, it has come, and it knows, consciously, to continue to cultivate the seven cacti. Ah, but you missed one, the eighth or the seventh? If you lost a different one, it’s irrelevant. If you lose the eighth, you don’t return, nurturing and death, I must feed the dead and the dead will nourish my life, that much was certain. The case was closed and sealed for Julio, but it had been completed, he accompanied his friend on his journey, induced by the peyote seeds, and the rest matters not. Alberto remembers this gratefully and would like to appeal to hermetic wisdom in order to defeat the overwhelming paralysis, the agoraphobia, the prison sentence imposed ever since the disappearance of his friend. The dead one? Lutecia had become his guardian, the bottleneck joined to another bottleneck, his relationship with the external reality. Since his fetish had disappeared, Alberto became reclusive and barely even tended to the cactus plants, he had the deck of cards for understanding the histories, he wasn’t interested in the future, he didn’t see an oracular element in the markings, using them instead to keep watch on Julio – his dead? – Merlinda, and the Dwarf, he was on the verge of producing an emergence, he could see it in the framework of reality, the atmosphere was charged with an energy that could have disastrous effects, laden with the same militant impressions of a meteor cutting through the heavens. Lutecia began serving tea and cake, a bit of sugar in your diet, and somehow ended up awakening the latent chakra, that mouth numbed by anxiety, the portal of tranquility, the space between her arms.
Julio began to climb the hill in order to compensate for the absence of Carola, and then to leave home every morning, leaving the warm nest, the daughter, the wife, and after the first loop around one of the promenades, he passed through a veil and those conflicts with his women, the annoying hassles of the country, the persistence of those sickly landscapes, his own denial, for denial is yet another form, the most painful, personal form of washing away. What in him could fade? And then, the being, having been confounded among others, playing an unforeseen role, that of a leader, the man with the staff and the barrel, wanting to rebel against predestination, but marching along among the ragged, tattered trash collectors in a cloistered city to a meeting, a final confrontation – With whom? – because waking up one morning after dreaming about snakes, seeing them etched on lottery tickets like Egyptian hieroglyphs, remembering his grandmother and continuing his routine of ascending the hill should have inhibited him just a bit, but in summoning up the last bit of courage to reach the summit, he would be assaulted, haunted, there would be witches or a cloven hoofed beast… the indications were clear: the malevolence in the blood would seep down into naked reality itself, leaving him alongside the Poet of El Ávila and his journalist in that world of men facing off against rats with human eyes and brows, a deadly or transitional event.
What are the trash collectors rummaging around for? They permeate the closed buildings, they’re boarded up and yet they produce garbage, the garbage is recycled and put into black bags and landfills, so they gather up plastic, lighting fixtures, iron weather vanes with their cardinal points, but they do not search among these things for the meaning of life, that’s what the journalist says to Julio, it’s other garbage that contains the meaning of life and it’s too annoying to try to explain it in so many words, there are no reasons for living or dying, and she pulls a bracelet from out of a trash can… it meant something to someone, this object lent a sense of wealth and misery to somebody, to Pablito. The Poet has become her lover, at night while searching or a bonfire and boiling water with salt and herbs to calm the hunger they try to remember, they stay alert to fend off the vampirous rats, telling some story about a man whose life has no history, saying you can go through life without a timeline, you fall like water and you repeat a routine, later you learn the verses of some poem and a door opens up, the story begins, my story, I’m the character in that novel, my previous biography presupposes whoever writes me and is this: for decades, the drop falls on exactly the same spot and on one fine day the ritual of falling ceases to repeat itself, you put on the same trousers, the same tie, you shave, coming and going impeccably down the same road. Then you decide to shift a bit, climb a hill, read a poem, and you read parts of this poem to people, a verse altered time and time again, for if altering the letters of the alphabet opens up an infinite portal, then why not a poetic verse, that’s how the journalist saw it and therefore she uploaded the event to social networks and made it into a communicational phenomenon, that was all, she threw the engine of cause and effect into gear, and later, weary from remembering, in a blind turn along the path up the hill, now heading down, surrounded by a thick fog, together they forgot the bend in the road immediately behind them, a rivet, a chain, a blind rivet, a lost rivet: it was like counting sheep, they embraced, in a certain way they loved one another, she welcomed him into her filthy rags and after a few movements signifying neither desperation nor tenderness, they fell asleep.
There were many who were marching towards the center, and among themselves they spoke of waves of migration, migrating to the center, insisting on the distribution of the trash, the plastic, inorganic trash, the country had become detritus mine, it was the carbide spilled from the waste dispensers in the buildings and their various iterations: bank towers, ministerial towers, corporate towers, luxurious governmental towers, the distribution of garbage, she appeared and offered her keys, she smelled of hydrocarbons and the viscosity of petroleum jelly, they migrated to fight over the garbage dump in the plaza between the towers, a place where the trash collectors would face eternal battles with the man-rats, the vampires.