Manual of painting and c.., p.21

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 21


Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

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  Chico has just telephoned me to say that no one in the group knows where Antonio’s parents live. We both agree that something must be done, but what? I propose we go to Caxias the following day to try to get some news and Chico agrees, but preferably not tomorrow, when he expects to be very busy, appointments he cannot afford to cancel and several urgent visits to clients, that’s business, and he cannot neglect his responsibilities at the agency. He suggests I go there with Ricardo, who is a doctor, or with Sandra, who is not easily intimidated and usually gets her way. “More than can be said for me,” I think to myself. Yes, I shall go, but without Sandra, because this is a matter I must resolve on my own. “Unless we go there the day after tomorrow,” Chico suggested halfheartedly. “No, there’s no time to lose, it has to be tomorrow.”

  I will go. I am familiar with the walls of Caxias, which can be seen from the road. About the prison itself I know nothing. Or something, if seeing is enough. I can visualize the Prigioni of Piranesi, the photographs of Hitler’s concentration camps, the various Sing Sings one sees in films. Images. Not really much help in this situation. By now Antonio has experienced the rest: the prison cell, the interrogations, the guards, prison food, hard bunks. And perhaps even torture. Not just physical aggression but being deprived of sleep for days on end. No one is likely to give me any information, I am not a relative and can think of no persuasive arguments. While I am speaking (where? to whom?) they will take down the registration number of my car and bring it up at trial, every little detail or scrap of information might be useful, nothing is superfluous, nothing is discarded in case it turns out to be vital information. Antonio was of no interest to the police, then suddenly they pounced and put him under arrest. What did he do? What did he know? When and where did Antonio make some compromising move which warranted his arrest and detention in Caxias? For how long had he known he was in danger of being arrested because of subversive activities which had put him at risk? When Antonio conversed with us or went to the cinema or took a stroll, or right here in my apartment held up a portrait covered in black paint, what was he thinking about, mulling over, plotting, and where and when and how? And with whom? We all have certain things we allow or wish others to know, certain other things we hide from them, and this is the code of social conduct we observe, tolerated because harmless and normal, but Antonio had more to hide than the rest of us. He concealed the most important thing of all, his secret life. He was concerned about his safety and the safety of those who depended on him. And as we chatted and he listened, saying nothing, smoking, watching us attentively, what could he have been thinking? On a par with the audible reply he gave us, what other reply was he mentally construing in silence?

  Enough of asking questions. On the territory of S.’s adversary I revive those questions I asked myself when I decided halfway through painting the second portrait to turn to writing to try and find out more about S. I went around in a circle and came back to where I had started from—after making my journey. I must refrain from asking myself any more questions, from interrogating Antonio, who, like S., but for other reasons, might not want to answer me. Either I find out by myself or I will never know. And today, within this circle, I have traveled in all directions, at least I know where the wall and boundaries are situated. No one can proceed further without this knowledge. The difference between the circle and the spiral.

  JUST AS I EXPECTED. They turned me away from the northern gate and sent me to the southern entrance of the prison. I filled in a chit and waited for almost an hour. They summoned me at their leisure. I was not allowed beyond the corridor. A young smooth-faced policeman received me with chilling courtesy and indifference and confirmed that since I was not a relative I could not visit the prisoner. I inquired if Antonio was all right, but he refused to answer me. I asked if his family had been notified, and he told me curtly it was none of my business. Then added, “Just because you turn up here claiming to be a friend of the prisoner is no proof that you even know him. I’m in no position to give you any information. Is there anything else I can do for you?” He accompanied me to the door. I left without so much as looking at him or saying another word. I climbed the rough path as far as the square in front of the northern entrance where I had parked my car. I opened the door, got in and clutched the wheel with all my might, shaking with rage and humiliation. Through the windscreen I could see the Republican guard in his sentry box, and higher up on a low wall stood two more guards armed with rifles. This was Caxias. A tall, massive building with barred windows, cells I could only imagine, interrogations for hours on end, continuous beatings day and night, prisoners kept standing without sleep until their feet swelled up, causing the laces of their shoes to snap—a form of torture I had heard people discuss and which Antonio must be familiar with by now. I turned the car around and slowly began descending the path until I reached the highway. My mind was made up. Next day I would go to Santarém and would neither rest nor give up until I had found Antonio’s parents. This was the least I could do.

  THERE WAS NO NEED to go. Around seven that same evening the telephone rang. I thought it must be Chico, although I had already told him about my fruitless trip to Caxias. I lifted the receiver and gave my number. I heard a woman’s voice: “This is Antonio’s sister. I’d like to talk to you alone. Is that possible?” I immediately tried to recall if Antonio had ever told us about his sister. Perhaps he had mentioned her in passing a long time ago, just as he had spoken of his parents in passing. I replied, “Certainly. Whenever you like. Where do you suggest we meet? I can see you right away. Or are you calling from Santarém?” Without a moment’s hesitation she replied, “I’m here in Lisbon. Could we meet at your place?” “Of course. When do you want to come? At once?” “Yes, if you don’t mind.” “I’ll be here waiting.” I was about to put down the receiver when the thought occurred to me: “Are you still there? Can you hear me? Take down my address.” She assured me, “That won’t be necessary, I know where you live.”

  Feeling somewhat puzzled by this sudden call, I replaced the receiver. I was eager to have news of Antonio but discovered I was more nervous than pleased as I quickly began tidying up the room, putting away the clothes scattered over chairs and plumping up the cushions on the sofa. I wanted the place to look reasonably tidy. I put fresh towels in the bathroom, covered the unwashed dishes in the kitchen with a plastic cloth. This did not take long and I was soon sitting with a book and leafing through the pages. I seem to remember it was a book about Braque.

  It is now two o’clock in the morning (night for those who go to bed late, morning for those who rise early) and I have just come in. I accompanied Antonio’s sister to his apartment, where she will spend the night. We were together for more than six hours and I think I ought to refer to her as M. Let us say it is a premonition, some vague desire or vow, the simple superstition of appeasing gestures. I am writing slowly, writing with enormous effort after six hours of dialogue, and I am probably incapable of expressing vivid sentiments and emotions, which are set out here with some sense of order, not exactly classified, but passed from hand to hand and arranged according to their weight, density and (since I have not given up painting) color. This is what I have been doing while writing out some two hundred pages. I cannot write in any other way, and if I have thrown myself into this writing, it was precisely in order to give myself sufficient time to think, to think with time. To be born, live and die are universal truths which form a natural sequence. If we wish to transform them into a personal truth and natural sequence, then we shall have to write much more than the three verbs arranged in that order and concede that between the two extremes of nothingness and nothingness, life may contain a number of births and deaths, not only those of others, which may touch or distress us, but our own births and deaths. Like the cobra, we shed our skin when we no longer fit inside it, or we lose our strength and waste away, and this only happens to humans. A skin which has aged, turned dry and wrinkled covers these pages with black and white pe
llicles, the words and the spaces between them. At this moment, I would describe myself as being as flayed as Saint Bartholomew, the same image if not the pain. I am still holding bits of withered skin, but the fibers of my muscles and cords of my tendons are covered with a delicate membrane, the first metamorphosis of my personal silkworm, which I assume will have continuous life rather than death inside its cocoon. The state of the chrysalis is not to be envied. Its very nature contradicts my perception of the continuous flow of life. (Nevertheless, the chrysalis is alive.)

  A door is at once an opening and that which closes it. In novels as in life, people and characters spend much of their time going in and out of houses or other places. One thinks of it as being a somewhat banal act, a movement which is scarcely worth noticing or registering. As far as I can recall, only the most literary of painters (Magritte) observed the door and the passage through with a look of amazement and even disquiet. The doors of Magritte, open or ajar, offer no guarantee that what we left behind is still on the other side. When we last entered, it was a bedroom; next time we enter we may find an empty and luminous space, with clouds slowly passing over a pale, serene blue sky. How strange that literature (if I have studied lots of paintings, I have also read many books) should not have paid more attention to doors, to these broad wooden planks joined together, or mobile panels, lids standing upright and defying the law of gravity. And strangest of all, that no importance should be given to that unstable space between the doorposts. Yet that is where bodies pass through and pause to look.

  This was how I first set eyes on Antonio’s sister. I thought I was being alert but failed to hear her climbing the stairs. A sharp ping from the bell made me jump, put my book aside, childishly hoping its cover was facing upward as I walked across the studio to open and pull back the door. A measured, uninterrupted movement. And now the briefest of pauses, just enough time to break that invisible membrane covering the gap in the doorway, just enough time for those feet to vacillate for a second on the threshold, enough time for our eyes to seek and meet as she arrives and I stand there waiting to greet her. A man and a woman. I repeat: I am writing this hours later and I am narrating our meeting in the light of what took place; I am not describing, I am remembering and reconstructing. Linking the last tactile sensation to the first, the latter now reconstituted on another plane: I said goodbye to M. a short time ago with a handshake—well, not exactly, the handshake was when I first greeted her. I would say the two gestures were uniform. Inasmuch as the time that elapsed between these gestures is taken as a mere instant and not as a juxtaposed succession of hours, full or otherwise, fluid or dense, slow or quite the opposite, flickering. That is why this narrative must appear to contain less and more. And one will never know how much the time compressed into these pages really contained.

  Lingering in the doorway, M. stood there looking at me. The first thing I noticed were her eyes: bright, hazel, tawny, the color of gold, big and open, staring at me like windows and who knows, perhaps more open inwardly than outwardly. The hair, short, the same color as her eyes but then darker under the electric light. Her face triangular with a sharp chin. The faintest tremor on the lips because of an unexpected line of tiny stitches which successively change in tonality once she starts speaking. Her nose narrow and nicely shaped. A hand’s breadth shorter than me. Her body agile. Her shoulders slender. A tiny girlish waist over a woman’s hips. Forty years old, or thereabouts. Not a bad description for someone who claims to have seen all this in the time it takes to pass through a door, to enter the room, remain standing there and then sit down, a brief exchange of words distracting his observations, which at that moment could not possibly have been very precise. But let me remind you that there have been six hours of eyes, words and pauses. It was only in the restaurant, for example, that I became aware of that curious tremor on her lips which the waning evening light in my apartment had prevented me from noticing sooner.

  She repeated the words she had started to say to me over the telephone. “I’m Antonio’s sister.” And added, “My name is M.” I opened the door wider to allow her to enter. I introduced myself. “My brother spoke to me about you.” “Did he really?” I was more surprised than I looked as I led her to my shabby and much-used sofa. “Can I offer you anything?” She declined, explaining that she rarely drank. “I suppose you must be wondering why I’ve come here but would rather not ask in case I take offense.” I made some vague gesture which could not be translated into words but was meant to say much the same or at least the first part. “Antonio told me ages ago that if something were to happen to him, if he should be arrested, I was to contact you. That’s why I’ve come.” How can I express what I felt? Let me put it like this: the lines of my relational diagram (does the term exist?) wavered and broke, tried to reconnect where they were broken, some succeeded, others went on vibrating, detached, seeking new moorings. “I’m afraid I won’t be of much help. This very day . . .” I broke off as I recalled the smooth complexion of the young policeman. “This very day I went to Caxias and achieved nothing.” “You went to Caxias?” “Yes, I’ve been there myself. They wouldn’t let me see Antonio. Not before Wednesday of next week. Perhaps, was the word they used.” “Not before next Wednesday?” “They told me they could give me no information whatsoever. Nor were they obliged to do so.” “We all know they have no obligations. They do just as they please. It was only yesterday that they contacted us in Santarém. Yet Antonio has been under arrest for four days.” M. was not leaning back on the cushions of the sofa, but she showed no signs of tension or nervousness. “Antonio and I are friends, but we haven’t seen much of each other recently. What you said just now rather surprised me, I must confess.” “That I should contact you if anything were to happen?” “Yes.” “He must have had his reasons. But there is one hypothesis which I myself must eliminate. You said you haven’t seen much of Antonio lately?” “That’s true.” “So there were no political ties between you?” “None whatsoever.” M. stared at me for some time, as if examining an equation before trying to resolve it, or a model before tracing the first line. “In that case, my brother was asking me to contact you simply as a human being.” I smiled. “It would appear so, simply as a human being. Forgive my being so little.” She also smiled. (M. does not smile like most people, who slowly part their lips with some effort. M’s smile opens up at once and is slow to fade; she smiles like a child startled by wonders which continue to be wonders even after that smile, which is why it is retained. Although as a mere spectator I do not include myself in this category.) “I am grateful to you. You did more than your duty. You went to Caxias and did your best. I believe my brother was right.” “If I can be useful in any way, you may count on me. I want to help Antonio clear his name.” This time it was perfect, we both smiled at the same time. Then I remembered the prison, tried to imagine what might be happening there and shuddered. “How do you feel about Antonio’s imprisonment?” I asked. She crossed her hands on her lap. “Nothing in particular—obviously I’m worried, of course I am, but I’m trying to persuade myself that Antonio is spending a few days of his life in some other place, that those days, however few or many, are also part of his life and that the place itself is where any one of us might spend a part of our life.” She said this in a firm tone of voice, yet unemphatically, as if the very weight of the words excluded any affectation in the intonation. “You said any one of us. I’m just an ordinary citizen of no political significance, so I doubt whether you could include me.” “I mean all of us. You’re Antonio’s friend, you went to Caxias, even now the police must be checking up on any visitors. And if they haven’t already started making inquiries, they won’t be long in starting. I’m Antonio’s sister, I’ve been to Caxias, I am sitting here in your apartment, they may even have had me followed.” M. now gave a wan smile. “As you can see, between being free and under suspicion, between being under suspicion and in prison, there isn’t much distance. But we mustn’t let this worry us. The police can’
t throw everyone under suspicion into prison. Besides, the fascist regime has found an effective and simple manner of dealing with this problem. Caxias is merely a prison inside a much larger prison, the whole country. Very practical, don’t you agree? Within the larger prison suspects can usually move about at will; once they become dangerous they are transferred to smaller prisons: Caxias, Peniche and other, less notorious institutions. It’s as simple as that.” What impressed me was her straightforward manner. I got up from my bench, switched on the lights and went to pour her a whisky and one for myself. I dropped in some ice from the bucket I’d prepared, distracted, and completely forgetting that M. had told me she rarely drank. It was only when I held out the glass that I became aware of my foolishness (I did not even know whether she liked whisky), but she accepted it quite naturally and raised it to her lips. I also drank. “Have you ever been imprisoned?” I asked her. “Yes, I have.” “A long time ago?” “Years ago. Twice. The first time for three months; the second, for eight.” “How did you cope?” “It wasn’t very pleasant. But there were others who had a worse time than me.”

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