“madness really is contagious”—more from “the part about amalfitano” in bolaño’s 2666


They returned the next day but were told that the patient was on bedrest. The same thing happened the following days. One day their money ran out, and Imma decided to take to the road again, this time heading south, to Madrid, where she had a brother who had done well for himself under the democracy and whom she planned to ask for a loan. Lola didn’t have the strength to travel and the two women agreed that she should wait at the boardinghouse, as if nothing had happened, and Imma would be back in a week. Alone, Lola killed time writing long letters to Amalfitano in which she described her daily life in San Sebastian and the area around the asylum, which she visited every day. Clinging to the fence, she imagined that she was establishing telepathic contactwith the poet. Most of the time she would find a clearing in the nearby woods and read or pick little flowers and bunches of grasses with which she made bouquets that she dropped through the railings or took back to the boardinghouse. Once one of the drivers who picked her up on the highway asked if she wanted to see the Mondragon cemetery and she said she did. He parked the car outside, under an acacia tree, and tor a while they walked among the graves, most of them with Basque names, until they came to the niche where the driver’s mother was buried. Then he told Lola that he’d like to fuck her right there. Lola laughed and warned him that they would be in plain view of any visitor coming along the cemetery’s main path. The driver thought for a few seconds, then he said: Christ, you’re right. They went looking for a more Private spot and it was all over in less than fifteen minutes. The driver’s last name was Larrazabal, and although he had a first name, he didn’t want to tell her what it was. Just Larrazabal, like my friends call me, he said. Then he told Lola that this wasn’t the first time he’d made love in the cemetery. He’d been there with a sort-of girlfriend before, with a girl he’d met at a club, and with two prostitutes from San Sebastian. As they were leaving, he tried to give her money, but she wouldn’t take it. They talked for a long time in the car. Larrazabal asked her whether she had a relative at the asylum, and Lola told him her story. Larrazabal said he’d never read a poem. He added that he didn’t understand Lola’s obsession with the poet. I don’t understand your fascination with fucking in the cemetery either, said Lola, but I don’t judge you for it. True, Larrazabal admitted, everyone’s got obsessions. Before Lola got out of the car, at the entrance to the asylum, Larrazabal snuck a five-thousand-peseta note into her pocket. Lola noticed but didn’t say anything and then she was left alone under the trees, in front of the iron gate to the madhouse, home to the poet who was supremely ignoring her.

Madness is contagious, thought Amalfitano, sitting on the floor of his front porch as the sky grew suddenly overcast and the moon and the stars disappeared, along with the ghostly lights that are famously visible without binoculars or telescope in northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

After a week Imma still wasn’t back. Lola imagined her tiny, impassively staring, with her face like an educated peasant’s or a high school teacher’s looking out over a vast prehistoric field, a woman near fifty, dressed in black, walking without looking to either side, without looking back, through a valley where it was still possible to distinguish the tracks of the great predators from the tracks of the scurrying herbivores. She imagined her stopped at a crossroads as the trucks with their many tons of cargo passed at full speed, raising dust clouds that didn’t touch her, as if her hesitance and vulnerability constituted a state of grace, a dome that protected her from the inclemencies of fate, nature, and her fellow beings. On the ninth day the owner of the boardinghouse kicked her out. After that she slept at the railroad station, or in an abandoned warehouse where some tramps slept, each keeping to himself, or in the open country, near the border between the asylum and the outside world. One night she hitchhiked to the cemetery and slept in an empty niche. The next morning she felt happy and lucky and she decided to wait there for Imma to come back. She had water to drink and wash her face and brush her teeth, she was near the asylum, it was a peaceful spot. One afternoon, as she was laying a shirt that she had just washed out to dry on a white slab propped against the cemetery wall, she heard voices coming from a mausoleum, and she went to see what was happening. The mausoleum belonged to the Lagasca family, and judging by the state it was in, the last of the Lagascas had long since died or moved far away. Inside the crypt she saw the beam of a flashlight and she asked who was there.

Christ, it’s you, she heard a voice say inside. She thought it might be thieves or workers restoring the mausoleum or grave robbers, then she heard a kind of meow and when she was about to turn away she saw Larrazabal’s sallow face at the barred door of the crypt. Then a woman came out. Larrazabal ordered her to wait for him by his car, and for a while he and Lola talked and strolled arm in arm along the cemetery paths until the sun began to drop behind the worn edges of the niches.

 

Madness really is contagious, and friends are a blessing, especially when you’re on your own. It was in these words, years before, in a letter with no postmark, that Lola had told Amalfitano about her chance encounter with Larrazabal, which ended with him forcing her to accept a loan of ten thousand pesetas and promising to come back the next day, before he got in his car, motioning to the prostitute who was waiting impatiently for him to do the same. That night Lola slept in her niche, although she was tempted to try the open crypt, happy because things were looking up. The next morning, she scrubbed herself all over with a wet rag, brushed her teeth, combed her hair, put on clean clothes, then went out to the highway to hitchhike to Mondragon. In town she bought some goat cheese and bread and had breakfast in the square, hungrily, since she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Then she went into a bar full of construction workers and had coffee. She’d forgotten when Larrazabal had said he’d come to the cemetery, but that didn’t matter, and in the same distant way, Larrazabal and the cemetery and the town and the tremulous early morning landscape didn’t matter to her either. Before she left the bar she went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She walked back to the highway and stood there waiting until a woman stopped and asked where she was going. To the asylum, said Lola. Her reply clearly took the woman aback, but she told her to get in nevertheless. That’s where she was going. Are you visiting someone or are you an inmate? she asked Lola. I’m visiting, answered Lola. The woman’s face was thin and long, her almost nonexistent lips giving her a cold, calculating look, although she had nice cheekbones and she dressed like a professional woman who is no longer single, who has a house, a husband, maybe even a child to care for. My father is there, she confessed. Lola didn’t say anything. When they reached the entrance, Lola got out of the car and the woman went on alone. For a while Lola wandered along the edge of the asylum grounds. She heard the sound of horses and she guessed that somewhere, on the other side of the woods, there must be a riding club or school. At a certain point she spotted the red-tiled roof of a house that wasn’t part of the asylum. She retraced her steps. She returned to the section of fence that gave the best view of the grounds. As the sun rose higher in the sky she saw a tight knot of patients emerge from a slate outbuilding, then they scattered to the benches in the park and lit cigarettes. She thought she saw the poet. He was with two inmates and he was wearing jeans and a very tight white T-shirt. She waved to him, shyly at first, as if her arms I were stiff from the cold, then openly, tracing strange patterns in the still-cold air, trying to give her signals a laserlike urgency, trying to transmit telepathic messages in his direction. Five minutes later, she watched as the poet got up from his bench and one of the lunatics kicked him in the legs. With an effort she resisted the urge to scream. The poet turned around and kicked back. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird. The inmate smoking next to him got up and chased the poet for thirty feet, aiming kicks at his ass and throwing punches at his back. Then he returned calmly to his seat, where the other inmate had revived and was rubbing his chest, neck, and head, which anyone would call excessive, since he had been kicked only in the chest. At that moment Lola stopped signaling. One of the lunatics on the bench began to masturbate. The other one, the one in exaggerated pain, felt in one of his pockets and pulled out a cigarette. The poet approached them. Lola thought she heard his laugh. An ironic laugh, as if he were saying: boys, you can’t take a joke. But maybe the poet wasn’t laughing. Maybe, Lola said in her letter to Amalfitano, it was my madness that was laughing. In any case, whether it was her madness or not, the poet went over to the other two and said something to them. Neither of the lunatics answered. Lola saw them: they were looking down, at the life throbbing at ground level, between the blades of grass and under the loose clumps of dirt. A blind life in which everything had the transparency of water. The poet, however, must have scanned the faces of his companions in misfortune, first one and then the other, looking for a sign that would tell him whether it was safe for him to sit down on the bench again. Which he finally did. He raised his hand in a gesture of truce or surrender and he sat between the other two. He raised his hand the way someone might raise a tattered flag. He moved his fingers, each finger, as if his fingers were a flag in flames, the flag of the un-vanquished. And he sat between them and then he looked at the one who was masturbating and said something into his ear. This time Lola couldn’t hear him but she saw clearly how the poet’s left hand groped its way into the other inmate’s robe. And then she watched the three of them smoke. And she watched the artful spirals issuing from the poet’s mouth and nose.

 

read on…