Anzio. Fortress Europa.
Omaha Beachhead. Summer 1942
I walked the beach when all was dark, reciting the names of the forgotten, names languishing on dusty shelves, until the sun came out again. But are they forgotten names or only names in waiting? I remembered the player as viewed by someone from above, just the head, shoulders, and the back of the hands, and the board game and counters like a stage set, where thousands of beginnings and endings eternally unfold, a kaleidoscopic theater, the only bridge between the player and his memory, a memory that is desire and gaze. How many infantry divisions was it—depleted, untrained—that held the Western front? Which ones halted the advance in Italy, despite treachery? Which armored divisions pierced the French defenses in ’40 and the Russian defenses in ’41 and ’42? And with what key division did Field Marshal Manstein retake Kharkov and exorcise the disaster? What infantry divisions fought to clear the way for tanks in 1944, in the Ardennes? And how many countless combat groups sacrificed themselves to stall the enemy on all fronts? No one can agree. Only the player’s memory knows. Roaming the beach or curled up in my room I invoke the names and they come in soothing waves. My favorite counters: the First Parachute in Anzio, the Panzer Lehr and the First SS LAH in Fortress Europa, the eleven counters of the Third Parachute in Omaha Beachhead, the Seventh Armored Division in France ’40, the Third Armored Division in Panzerkrieg, the First SS Armored Corps in Russian Campaign, the Fortieth Armored Corps in Russian Front, the First SS LAH in Cobra, the Grossdeutschland Armored Corps in Third Reich, the Twenty-first Armored Division in the Longest Day, the One Hundred and Fourth Infantry Regiment in Panzer Armee Afrika . . . Not even reading Sven Hassel aloud at the top of the lungs could be more invigorating . . . (Oh, who was it who read nothing but Sven Hassel? Everyone will say it was M. M.—it sounds like him, it suits him—but it was someone else, someone who resembled his own shadow, someone Conrad and I liked to mock. This kid organized a role-playing festival in Stuttgart in ’85. With the whole city as stage he set up a macrogame about the last days of Berlin, using the reworked rules of Judge Dredd. Describing it now I can see the interest it sparks in El Quemado, interest that could well be faked to distract me from the match, a legitimate but vain strategy, since I can move my corps with my eyes closed. What the game—dubbed Berlin Bunker—was about, what its objectives were, how victory was achieved, and who achieved it were never quite clear. Twelve people played the ring of soldiers defending Berlin. Six people played the Nation and the Party and could move only inside the ring. Three people played the Leadership, and their task was to manage the other eighteen so that they weren’t left outside the perimeter when it shrunk, as it generally did, and especially to prevent the perimeter from being breached, which was inevitable. There was a final player whose role was murky and secret; he could [and should] move all over the besieged city, but he was the only one who never knew the coordinates of the defensive ring; he could [and did] move all over the city, but he was the only one who didn’t know any of the other players; he had the capacity to unseat a member of the Leadership and replace him with a member of the Nation, for example, but he did this blindly, leaving written orders and receiving reports in an agreed-upon spot. His power was as great as his blindness—his innocence, according to Sven Hassel—and his freedom was as great as his constant exposure to danger. He was watched over by a kind of invisible and careful guardian, because his fate determined the ultimate destiny of all. The game, as might have been predicted, ended disastrously, with players lost in the suburbs, cheating, plotting, protesting, sectors of the ring abandoned at nightfall, players who throughout the entire match saw only the referee, etc. Naturally neither Conrad nor I took part, though Conrad went to the trouble of following events from the gymnasium of the School of Industrial Arts where the festival was held and was later able to explain to me the initial dismay and then the moral collapse of Sven Hassel when faced with the evidence of his failure. A few months later Hassel left Stuttgart, and now, according to Conrad, who knows everything, he lives in Paris and has taken up painting. I wouldn’t be surprised to run into him at the convention . . . )
After midnight, the photocopies tacked to the wall take on a funereal air, little doors to the void.
“It’s starting to get chilly,” I say.
El Quemado is wearing a leather jacket, too small, doubtless the gift of some charitable soul. The jacket is old but well made; when he comes over to the game board after eating, he takes it off and sets it on the bed, folding it carefully. His abstracted courtesy is touching. He has a notebook (or maybe a diary, like mine?) in which he jots down the strategic or economic shifts in his alliance, a notebook that he never lets out of his sight . . . It’s as if he’s found, in Third Reich, a satisfactory mode of communication. Here, alongside the map and the force pool, he isn’t a monster but rather a thinking being who expresses himself through hundreds of counters . . . He’s a dictator and a creator . . . And he’s having fun . . . If it weren’t for the photocopies, I’d say that I’ve done him a favor. But these are like a clear warning, the first signal that I should watch my step.
“Quemado,” I ask him, “do you like the game?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And do you think that because you’ve brought me to a standstill you’re going to win?”
“I don’t know, it’s still too early to tell.”
As I open the balcony doors to let the night air clear the smoke from the room, El Quemado, like a dog, his head tilted, snuffles with difficulty and says:
“Tell me which counters are your favorite. Which divisions you think are the most beautiful (yes, literally!) and which battles the most difficult. Talk to me about the games . . . ”
With the Wolf and the Lamb
The Wolf and the Lamb show up at my room. The absence of Frau Else has relaxed the apparently strict rules of the hotel and now anyone is allowed
in. As the hot days come to an end, anarchy is quietly settling in at every level. It’s as if people only knew how to work when they were drenched
in sweat, or when they saw us, the tourists, drenched in sweat. This might
be a good moment to leave without paying, an ignoble act I would contemplate only if some genie would guarantee that afterward I could see the look on Frau Else’s face, her surprise, her astonishment. Maybe when summer ends and many of the seasonal workers also reach the end of their contracts, discipline grows lax and the inevitable occurs: thefts, poor service, untidiness. Today, for example, no one came up to make the bed. I had to do it myself. And I need clean sheets. When I call the reception desk, no one
can give me a convincing explanation. As it happens, the Wolf and the
Lamb arrive while I’m waiting for someone from the laundry room to bring up clean sheets.
“We just had a little free time, and we decided to come and see you. We didn’t want you to leave without saying good-bye.”
I reassured them that I still hadn’t decided when to go.
“Then we should go out for a few drinks to celebrate.”
“Maybe you’ll stay here to live,” says the Lamb.
“Maybe you’ve found something worth staying for,” says the Wolf, winking an eye. Is he referring to Frau Else or something else?
“What did El Quemado find?”
“Work,” answer the two of them, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Both are dressed as laborers in overalls stained with paint and cement.
“The good life is over,” says the Lamb.
Meanwhile, the Wolf’s nervous pacing carries him to the other end of the room where he stares curiously at the game board and the force pool, at this point in the match a chaos of counters hard for a neophyte to understand.
“This is the famous game?”
I nod in assent. I’d like to know who made it famous. It’s probably all
“And is it very difficult?”
“El Quemado learned to play,” I answer.
“But El Quemado is a special case,” says the Lamb, without poking around the game; in fact, he hasn’t even glanced at it, as if he fears leaving his fingerprints near the scene of the crime. Florian Linden?
“If El Quemado learned how, I could, too,” says the Wolf.
“Do you speak English? Could you read the rules in English?”
The Lamb is addressing the Wolf, but he looks at me with a smile, complicit and compassionate.
“A little bit, from when I was a waiter, not enough to read, but . . . ”
“But nothing. If you can’t read The Sporting World in Spanish, how are you going to be able to read a set of rules in English? Don’t be an idiot.”
For the first time, at least in front of me, the little Lamb has taken the upper hand with the Wolf. The Wolf, still mesmerized by the game, points to the hexes where the Battle of Britain is unfolding (though he never touches the map or the piles of counters!) and says that as he understands it, “there, for example”—he means the southeast of London—“there’s been a battle or there’s about to be one.” When I tell him he’s right, the Wolf gestures at the Lamb in a way that I imagine is obscene but that I’ve never seen before and says, See, it’s not so hard.
“Don’t kid yourself, man,” answers the Lamb, stubbornly refusing to look at the table.
“All right, I guessed it by sheer luck, are you happy?”
The Wolf’s attention wanders now, cautiously, from the map to the photo-
copies. With his hands on his hips he examines them, skipping from one to the next without lingering long enough to read any of them. One might say that he’s looking at them like paintings.
Part of the rules? Of course not.
“Statement of the Meeting of the Council of Ministers, November 12, 1938,” reads the Wolf. “Fuck, this is the beginning of the war!”
“No, the war starts later. In the autumn of the following year. The photocopies just help us . . . to set the scene. This kind of game creates a pretty interesting documentary urge. It’s as if we want to know exactly how everything was done in order to change what was done wrong.”
“I get it,” says the Wolf, understanding nothing, of course.
“It’s because if you just repeated the whole thing it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be a game,” whispers the Lamb, sitting down on the rug and blocking the path to the bathroom.
“Something like that. Though it depends on your motive . . . on your point of view . . . ”
“How many books do you have to read to play well?”
“All and none. To play a simple match you just have to know the rules.”
“The rules, the rules, where are the rules?” The Wolf, sitting on my bed, picks up the Third Reich box from the floor and takes out the rules in English. He weighs them in one hand and shakes his head admiringly. “I can’t figure it out . . . ”
“How El Quemado could read this thing, with all the work he has.”
“What work? The pedal boats aren’t bringing in any money now,” said the Lamb.
“Maybe the money’s not there, but it’s hard work, for sure. I’ve spent time with him, helping him, in the sun, and I know what it’s like.”
“You were just trying to hook up with some foreign chick, don’t pretend you weren’t . . . ”
“Man, that too . . . ”
The superiority, the ascendance of the Lamb over the Wolf, was undeniable. I imagined that something extraodinary had happened to the
latter that reversed, even if only for now, the hierarchy between the two
“He didn’t read anything. I explained the rules to El Quemado little by little, very patiently!” I said.
“But then he read them. He photocopied the rules and at night, at the bar, he went over them underlining the parts that he thought were most interesting. I thought he was studying to get his driver’s license; he said no, it was the rules of your game.”
“Photocopied?” The Wolf and the Lamb nodded.
I was surprised because I knew I hadn’t lent the rules to anyone. There were two possibilities: either they were wrong and they had misunderstood El Quemado or El Quemado had told them the first thing that came into his head to get rid of them, or they were right and El Quemado, without my permission, had taken the original to photocopy it, putting it back the next day. As the Wolf and the Lamb moved on to a discussion of other matters (how nice the room was, how comfortable, how much it cost per night, the things they would do in a place like this instead of wasting time on “a puzzle,” etc.), I pondered how likely it really was that El Quemado had taken the rules and, the next day, having photocopied them, returned them to the box. It was impossible. Except for last night, he was always wearing a T-shirt, usually a ragged one, and shorts or long pants that left no room to hide a booklet even half the size of the Third Reich manual; in addition, he was always escorted in and out by me, and if it was naturally difficult to ascribe ulterior motives to El Quemado, it was even harder for me to believe that I would have overlooked a change, no matter how small—a telltale bulge!—in El Quemado’s appearance between his arrival and his departure. The logical conclusion exonerated him; it was materially impossible. At this point I was promptly confronted with a third explanation, at once simple and disturbing: another person, a person from the hotel, using the master key, had been in my room. I could think of only one possible suspect: Frau Else’s husband.
(Just imagining him, on tiptoe, among my things, made my stomach turn. I imagined him tall and skeletal and faceless or with his face wreathed in a kind of dark and shifting cloud, going through my papers and my clothes, alert to footsteps in the hallway, the sound of the elevator, the bastard, as if he’d been waiting for me for ten years, just waiting and biding his time, so that once the moment came he could toss me to his fire-scarred dog and destroy me . . . )
A sound that at first struck me as bizarre and later came to seem like a portent managed to return me to reality.
Someone was knocking at the door.
I opened the door. It was the maid with the clean sheets. Somewhat brusquely, since her arrival couldn’t have been more inopportune, I let her in. All I wanted just then was for her to finish her job quickly so I could tip her and be left alone for a while longer with the Spaniards, in order to subject them to a series of questions that I was convinced couldn’t wait.
“Go ahead and put them on,” I said. “I turned in the other ones this morning.”
“Hey there, Clarita, how’s it going.” The Wolf lounged on the bed as if to emphasize his position as a guest and gave her a lazy, familiar wave.
The maid, the same one who according to Frau Else wanted me to leave the hotel, hesitated for a few seconds as if she’d gotten the wrong room, an instant in which her eyes, deceptively dull, discovered the Lamb, still sitting on the rug and waving to her, and immediately the shyness or distrust (or terror!) that had blossomed in her the minute she crossed the threshhold of my room vanished. She responded to the greetings with a smile and set about putting on the clean sheets—or, that is, she took possession of a strategic spot next to the bed.
“Get off of there,” she ordered the Wolf. The Wolf leaned up against the wall and started to grimace and clown around. I watched him curiously. The faces he was making, at first just idiotic, began to take on a color, gradually darkening until they traced a black mask barely softened by some red and yellow creases.
Clarita spread the sheets. Though she didn’t look it, I realized she
“Careful, don’t knock off the counters,” I warned.
“The ones on the table, the game pieces,” said the Lamb. “You could cause an earthquake, Clarita.”
Hesitating between finishing her task or leaving, she chose to stand
motionless. It was hard to believe that this girl was the same maid who had such a poor opinion of me, the one who, more than once, had received my tips in silence, the one who never opened her mouth in my presence. Now she was giggling, finally laughing at jokes, and saying things like “you’ll never learn,” “look at the mess you’ve made,” “you’re such slobs,” as if the room belonged to the Wolf and the Lamb and not to me.
“I’d never live in a room like this,” said Clarita.
“I don’t live here, I’m just passing through,” I explained.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Clarita. “This is a bottomless pit.”
Later I realized that she was referring to the work, to the infinite labor of cleaning a hotel room; but at the time I took it for a personal judgment and it made me sad that even an adolescent should feel the right to express a critical view of my situation.
“I need to talk to you about something important.” The Wolf, no longer making faces, came around the bed and grabbed the maid by the arm. She jumped as if she’d been bitten by a snake.
“Later,” she said, looking at me and not at him, a tense smile creeping onto her lips, seeking my approval, but approval of what?
“Now, Clarita, we have to talk now.”
“That’s right, now.” The Lamb got up from the floor and cast an approving glance at the fingers gripping the maid’s arm.
Little sadist, I thought, he didn’t dare knock her around himself but he liked to watch and goad the Wolf on. Then my full attention was seized again by Clarita’s gaze, a gaze that had already piqued my interest during the unfortunate incident of the table, but which on that occasion, maybe because it had to compete with another gaze, Frau Else’s, faded into the background, into the limbo of gazes, in order to reemerge now, as rich and quiet as a landscape: Mediterranean? African?
“Man, Clarita, you act like you’re the one who deserves an apology, that’s funny.”
“You owe us an explanation, at least.”
“What you did wasn’t right, was it?”
“Javi is a wreck and you don’t even care.”
“Nobody wants to have anything to do with you anymore.”
With a sharp movement the maid pulled away from the Wolf—let me work!—and fixed the sheets, tucked them under the mattress, changed the pillow case, pulled up the cream-colored coverlet and smoothed it; once everything was done, the flurry of movement having left the Wolf and the Lamb with nothing more to say and no desire to continue, she didn’t leave but rather folded her arms on the opposite side of the room, separated
from us by the immaculate bed, and asked what else anybody had to say to her. For an instant I thought she was talking to me. Her defiant attitude, starkly contrasting with her size, seemed charged with symbols that only I could read.
“I don’t have anything against you. Javi is an asshole.” The Wolf sat on a corner of the bed and started to roll a joint as a single, distinct wrinkle that spread until it reached the far edge of the coverlet, the precipice.
“A fucking idiot,” said the Lamb.
I smiled and shook my head several times as if to inform Clarita that I was taking charge of the situation. I didn’t want to say anything, but deep down it bothered me that they would take the liberty of smoking in my room without asking my permission. What would Frau Else think if she showed up all of a sudden? What would the hotel guests and staff say if they heard about it? Who, when it came down to it, could promise that Clarita wouldn’t blab?
“Want some?” The Wolf dragged on the joint a few times and passed it to me. For appearances’ sake, out of timidity, I inhaled deeply just once, relieved that the filter wasn’t damp, and handed the joint to Clarita. Inevitably our fingers brushed, maybe for longer than was strictly necessary, and it seemed to me that her cheeks turned red. Resignedly, and as if implicitly taking as settled her mysterious business with the Spaniards, the maid sat down by the table with her back to the balcony, and blew a steady stream of smoke over the map. What a complicated game! she said in a loud voice, adding, in a whisper: For brains only!
The Wolf and the Lamb exchanged glances, whether troubled or uncertain I can’t say, and then they, too, sought my approval, but I had eyes only for Clarita, and especially for the smoke, the immense cloud of smoke hanging over Europe, blue and pearly, augmented by the dark lips of the girl, who painstakingly, like a builder, exhaled long, fine tubes of smoke that flattened out over France, Germany, the vast expanses of the East.
“Man, Clarita, pass it back,” complained the Lamb.
As if we were wrenching her from a beautiful and heroic dream, the maid looked at us and without getting up reached out her arm with the joint between her fingers; she had thin arms dotted with small circles lighter than the rest of her skin. I said that maybe she felt sick, maybe she wasn’t used to smoking, maybe it would be better if everyone got back to what they were doing, this last suggestion meant to include the Wolf and the Lamb.
“Nah, she loves it,” said the Wolf, passing me the joint, which this time was soggy and which I smoked with my lips curled inward.
“What do I love?”
“Smoking, cunt,” spat the Lamb.
“It’s not true,” said Clarita, jumping up in a way that was more theatrical than spontaneous.
“Cool it, Clarita, cool it,” said the Wolf in a suddenly honeyed, velvety, even faggotty voice, as he grabbed her by the shoulder and with his other
hand tapped her in the ribs, “don’t knock over the playing pieces, what would our German friend think? That you’re an idiot, right? And you’re no idiot.”
The Lamb winked at me and sat on the bed, behind the maid, miming sex in a way that was doubly silent because even his ear-to-ear smile was turned not toward me or Clarita’s back but toward . . . a kind of realm of stone . . . a silent zone (with raw staring eyes) that had surreptitiously established itself in the middle of my room . . . say from the bed to the wall where the photocopies were tacked.
The Wolf’s hand, which only then did I notice was balled into a fist—so the taps could have hurt—opened and closed around one of the maid’s breasts. Clarita’s body seemed to surrender completely, melted by the confidence with which the Wolf explored it. Without getting up from the bed, his torso unnaturally stiff and his arms moving like a mechanical doll’s, the Lamb grabbed the girl’s buttocks with both hands and whispered an obscenity. He said slut or bitch or cunt. I thought I was going to witness a rape, and I remembered the words of Mr. Pere at the Costa Brava about the town’s rape statistics. Whether rape was their aim or not, they weren’t in a hurry: for an instant the three of them composed a living tableau in which the only jarring element was the voice of Clarita, who every so often said no, each time with different emphasis, as if she wasn’t sure of the most appropriate tone in which to refuse.
“Should we make her more comfortable?” The question was directed at me.
“Yeah, man, that would be better,” said the Lamb.
I nodded but none of the three moved: the Wolf standing and gripping Clarita by the waist, her muscles and bones seemingly turned to jelly, and the Lamb on the edge of the bed massaging the girl’s ass in a circular, rhythmic motion as if he were shuffling domino tiles. Such a lack of dynamism led me to act without thinking. I wondered whether it wasn’t all a performance, a trick to make me look ridiculous, a strange in-joke. I reasoned that if this was the case the hallway at that moment wouldn’t be empty. Since I was the one closest to the door it was easy to reach out and open it, thus clearing up any doubts. With unnecessary swiftness, that’s what I did. There was no one there. Nevertheless, I left the door open. As if they’d been dashed with a bucket of cold water, the Wolf and the Lamb interrupted their gropings with a leap; the maid, meanwhile, gave me a warm look that I fully appreciated and understood. I ordered her to leave. This instant, no arguments! Obediently, Clarita said good-bye to the Spaniards and went off down the corridor with the weary step of all hotel maids; seen from behind she looked vulnerable and not very attractive. Which probably she wasn’t.
When we were left alone, and before the Spaniards had recovered from the surprise, I asked in a tone that admitted of no rejoinders or subterfuge whether Charly had raped anyone. In the moment, I was convinced that my words were divinely inspired. The Wolf and the Lamb exchanged a glance that was equal parts blank and wary. They had no idea what was about to hit them!
“Rape a girl? Poor Charly, may he rest in peace?”
“Yes, Charly, that bastard,” I said.
I think I was prepared to get the truth out of them even if it came to blows. The only one who would make a worthy opponent was the Wolf; the Lamb wasn’t much over five feet tall and he was the scrawny type who could go down with a single punch. Though it didn’t pay to trust them, nor was there reason for me to be overly cautious. Strategically, I was ideally situated: I controlled the only exit, which I could block if it seemed convenient or use as a means of escape if things went badly. And I counted on the surprise factor. On the terror of unexpected confessions. On the Wolf’s and the Lamb’s predictable lack of mental agility. If I’m to be completely candid, none of this had been planned; it simply happened, like in those thrillers where you see an image over and over again before you realize that it’s the key to the crime.
“Let’s respect the dead, especially since he was a friend, man,” said the Lamb.
“Bullshit,” I yelled.
Both of them were pale and I realized that they weren’t going to fight, they just wanted to get out of the room as quickly as possible.
“Who do you think he raped?”
“That’s what I want to know. Hanna?” I asked.
The Wolf looked at me the way you look at a crazy person or a child:
“Hanna was his girlfriend, how could he have raped her?”
“Did he or didn’t he?”
“No, man, of course not, how can you think such a thing,” said the Lamb.
“Charly didn’t rape anybody,” said the Wolf. “He had a heart of gold.”
“Charly, a heart of gold?”
“I can’t believe that you were his friend and you didn’t realize it.”
“He wasn’t my friend.”
The Wolf laughed a brief, deep, heartfelt laugh and said he had realized that by now, believe it or not, he was no idiot. Then he repeated that
Charly was a good person, incapable of forcing anyone, and that if anybody had come close to being fucked, it was Charly himself, on the night
when he left Ingeborg and Hanna abandoned on the highway. When he returned to town he got drunk with some strangers; according to the
Wolf they must have been foreigners, possibly Germans. From the bar, a group of men—it wasn’t clear how many—headed to the beach. Charly remembered the taunts, not all of them directed at him, the shoves (which might have been poor attempts at humor), and an attempt to pull down
“He was raped, then?”
“No. He fought off the guy who was harassing him and got out of there. There weren’t many of them, and Charly was strong. But he was pretty upset, and he wanted revenge. He came to my place looking for me. When we got back to the beach no one was there.”
I believed them: the silence of the room, the muffled noise from the Paseo Marítimo, even the sun behind the clouds and the sea veiled by the balcony curtains, everything seemed to stand witness for a pair of deadbeats.
“You think Charly committed suicide, don’t you? Well he didn’t, Charly never would’ve killed himself. It was an accident.”
The three of us abandoned our postures of challenge and defense and segued directly into attitudes of sadness (though the description is excessive and imprecise), sitting down on the bed or the floor, the three of us enveloped in a warm mantle of solidarity, as if we really were friends or as if we had just fucked the maid, gravely delivering short speeches that the others celebrated with monosyllables, and enduring the extra presence that throbbed with its powerful back to us at the far end of the room.
Luckily the Lamb relit the joint and we passed it around until it was gone. There wasn’t another. With a puff, the Wolf scattered the ash that had fallen on the rug.
We went out for beers at the Andalusia Lodge.
The bar was empty and we sang a song.
An hour later I couldn’t stand them any longer and I left.
My Favorite Generals
I don’t look for perfection in them. Perfection on a game board: What does it mean but death, the void? In the names, the brilliant careers, in that which memory is made of, I search for the image of their sure-fingered white hands, I search for their eyes watching battles (though there are only a few photographs that show them thus engaged): imperfect and singular, delicate, distant, gruff, daring, prudent; in all of them one can find courage and love. In Manstein, Guderian, Rommel. My Favorite Generals. And in von Rundstedt, von Bock, von Leeb. Neither in them nor in others do I demand perfection; I content myself with their faces, open or impassive, with their dispatches, with just a name and a tiny deed sometimes. I even forget whether General X
started the war at the head of a division or a corps, whether he showed more skill at commanding tanks or infantry; I mix up the scenes and the operations. Not for that do they shine less bright. They fade against the larger picture, depending on how one looks at it, but the picture always contains them. No exploit, no weakness, no resistance however brief or prolonged, is lost. If El Quemado had the slightest knowledge or appreciation of twentieth-
century German literature (and it’s likely that he does!), I’d tell him that Manstein is like Günter Grass and that Rommel is like . . . Celan. And Paulus is like Trakl, and his predecessor, Reichenau, is like Heinrich Mann. Guderian is the equivalent of Jünger, and Kluge of Böll. He wouldn’t understand. Or at least he wouldn’t understand yet. I, however, find it easy to assign these generals occupations, nicknames, hobbies, types of houses, seasons of the year, etc. Or to spend hours comparing and compiling statistics from their respective service records. Arranging and rearranging them: by game, by decorations, by victories, by defeats, by years lived, by books published. They’re not saints or anything like it, but sometimes I see them in the sky, like in the movies, their faces superimposed on the clouds, smiling at us, gazing into the distance, rehearsing salutes, some nodding as if clearing up unspoken doubts. They share clouds and sky with generals like Frederick the Great, as if the two eras and all games had merged in a single jet of steam. (Sometimes I imagine that Conrad is sick, in the hospital, with no visitors—except maybe me, standing by the door—and in his suffering he discovers, reflected on the wall, the maps and counters that he’ll never touch again! The era of Frederick and all the other generals escaped from the laws of the afterlife! The void knocking fists with my poor Conrad!) Sympathetic figures, despite everything. Like Model the Titan, Schörner the Ogre, Rendulio the Bastard, Arnim the Obedient, Witzleben the Squirrel, Blaskowitz the Upright, Knobelsdorff the Paladin, Balck the Fist, Manteuffel the Intrepid, Student the Fang, Hausser the Black, Dietrich the Autodidact, Henrici the Rock, Busch the Nervous, Hoth the Thin, Kleist the Astronomer, Paulus the Sad, Breith the Silent, Vietinghoff the Obstinate, Bayerlein the Studious, Hoeppner the Blind, Salmuth the Academic, Geyr the Inconstant, List the Luminous, Reinhardt the Silent, Meindl the Warthog, Dietl the Skater, Wöhler the Stubborn, Chevallerie the Absentminded, Bittrich the Nightmare, Falkenhorst the Leaper, Wenck the Carpenter, Nehring the Enthusiast, Weichs the Clever, Eberbach the Depressive, Dollman the Cardiac, Halder the Butler, Sodenstern the Swift, Kesselring the Mountain, Küchler the Preoccupied, Hube the Inexhaustible, Zangen the Dark, Weiss the Transparent, Friessner the Lame, Stumme the Ashen, Mackensen the Invisible, Lindemann the Engineer, Westphal the Calligrapher, Marcks the Bitter, Stülpnagel the Elegant, von Thoma the Garrulous . . . Firmly ensconced in heaven . . . On the same cloud as Ferdinand, Brunswick, Schwerin, Lehwald, Ziethen, Dohna, Kleist, Wedell, Frederick’s generals . . . On the same cloud as Blücher’s triumphant army in Waterloo: Bülow, Ziethen, Pirch, Thielmann, von Hiller, Losthin, Schwerin, Schulenberg, von Watzdorf, Jagow, Tippelskirchen, etc. Symbolic figures with the ability to storm into your dreams to the cry of Eureka! Eureka! Awake! and make you open your eyes, if you’re able to hear their call without fear, and at the foot of the bed you find the Favorite Situations that were and the Favorite Situations that might have been. Among the former I would single out Rommel’s ride with the Seventh Armored in 1940, Student falling upon Crete, Kleist’s advance through the Caucasus with the First Panzer Army, Manteuffel’s offensive in the Ardennes with the Fifth Panzer Army, Manstein’s campaign in Crimea with the Eleventh Army, the Dora gun itself, the Mount Elbrus flag itself, Hube’s resistance in Russia and Sicily, Reichenau’s Tenth Army breaking the necks of the Poles. From among the Favorite Situations that never were, I have a special fondness for the capture of Moscow by Kluge’s troops, the conquest of Stalingrad by von Reichenau (rather than Paulus), the disembarking of the Ninth and Sixteenth armies in Great Britain (parachute drop included), the securing of the Astrakhan-Arkhangel’sk line, the triumphs in Kursk and Mortain, the orderly retreat to the far side of the Seine, the reconquest of Budapest, the reconquest of Antwerp, the sustained resistance in Courland and Königsberg, the holding of the line along the Oder, the Alpine Redoubt, the death of Zarina and the switching of alliances . . . Silliness, idiocy, useless feats, as Conrad says, in
order to avoid seeing the generals’ last farewell: happy in victory, good losers in defeat. Even in utter defeat. They wink an eye, rehearse military salutes, stare off into the distance, or nod. What have they to do with this hotel that’s falling apart? Nothing, but they help; they comfort. Their farewells stretch on for an eternity and remind me of old matches, afternoons, nights, of which all that remains is not victory or defeat but a movement, a feint, a clash, and friends’ claps on the back.
Autumn 1942. Winter 1942
“I thought you’d gone,” says El Quemado.
“Back home, to Germany.”
“Why would I leave, Quemado? Do you think I’m scared?”
El Quemado says no no no, very slowly, almost without moving his lips, avoiding my eyes; he only stares at the game board; nothing else holds his attention for more than a few seconds. Nervous, he shifts from wall to wall, like a prisoner, but he avoids the balcony area as if he doesn’t want to be seen from the street; he’s wearing a short-sleeve shirt and on his arm, on the burns, there’s a very faint gloss of mossy green, possibly the residue of some lotion. And yet it wasn’t sunny at all today, and as far as I can remember I never saw him applying lotion even on the most scorching days. Should I deduce that this is a growth? Is what looks to me like moss actually new skin, regenerated? Is this his body’s way of replacing dead skin? Whatever it is, it’s disgusting. By the way he moves I’d say that something is bothering him, though with his kind it’s impossible to say for sure. Suddenly his luck with the dice is overwhelming. Everything goes his way, even the most lopsided attacks. Whether his movements are part of an overarching strategy or whether they’re the result of chance, of random strikes here and there, I can’t say, but it’s undeniable that beginner’s luck is with him. In Russia, after a series of attacks and counterattacks, I’m forced to retreat to the Leningrad-Kalinin-Tula-Stalingrad-Elista line, at the same time as a new Red threat, double-pronged, looms far to the south in the Caucasus, poised to attack Maykop, which is almost undefended, and Elista. In England I manage to hold on to at least one hex—Portsmouth—after a massive Anglo-American offensive, which despite everything fails to achieve its goal of running me off the island. With Portsmouth still in my grasp, London remains under threat. In Morocco El Quemado disembarks two corps of American infantry—his only simpleminded play—with seemingly no purpose other than to annoy and to divert German forces from other fronts. The bulk of my army is in Russia, and for now I don’t think I can pull out even a replacement unit.
“So why did you come if you thought I was gone?”
“Because we had an agreement.”
“Do you and I have an agreement, Quemado?”
“Yes. We play nights, that’s the agreement; even if you’re gone, I’ll come until the game is over.”
“One of these days they won’t let you in or they’ll kick you out.”
“One of these days, too, I will decide to leave, and since it’s not always easy to find you I might not be able to say good-bye. I could leave you a note on the pedal boats, true, if they’re still on the beach. But one of these days I’ll get up and go and everything will be over before ’45.”
El Quemado smiles fiercely (and his ferocity reveals glimpses of a precise and insane geometry) with the certainty that his pedal boats will remain on the beach even when every pedal boat in town has retired to winter quarters; the fortress will still stand, he’ll still wait for me or for the shadow even when there are no tourists or the rains come. His stubbornness is a kind of prison.
“The truth is there’s nothing between us, Quemado. By agreement do you mean obligation?”
“No, I see it as a pact.”
“Well, we don’t have any kind of pact, we’re just playing a game, that’s all.”
El Quemado smiles, says yes, he understands, that’s all it is, and in the heat of combat, with the dice going his way, he pulls new photocopies folded into quarters out of his pocket and offers them to me. Some paragraphs are underlined and there are spots of grease and beer on the paper that speak of likely study at a bar table. As with the first offering, an inner voice dictates my reactions; thus, instead of reproaching him for a gift that might well hide an insult or a provocation—though it might also be the innocent device (involving politics rather than military history!) by which El Quemado engages in discussion with me—I proceed to calmly pin them up next to the first photocopies, in such a way that at the end of the operation the wall behind the head of the bed looks completely different than usual. For a moment I feel as if I’m in someone else’s room: the room of a foreign correspondent in a hot and war-torn country? Also: the room seems smaller. Where do the photocopies come from? From two books, one by X and the other by Y. I’ve never heard of them. What kind of strategic lessons do they have to teach us? El Quemado averts his gaze, then smiles innocently and says that he’s not ready to reveal his plans; this is an attempt to make me laugh; out of politeness, I do.
The next day El Quemado comes back even stronger, if possible. He attacks in the East and I have to retreat again, he masses forces in Great Britain, and he begins to advance from Morocco and Egypt, though very slowly for the time being. The patch on his arm has disappeared. All that’s left is the burn, smooth and flat. His movements around the room are confident, even graceful, and they no longer reveal the nervousness of the day before. Still, he doesn’t talk much. His preferred topic is the game, the world of games, the clubs, magazines, championships, matches by correspondence, conventions, etc., and all my attempts to steer the conversation in a different direction—for example, toward the person who gave him photocopies of the Third Reich rules—are in vain. When he’s told something he doesn’t want to hear he sits there like a rock or a mule. He simply acts as if he hasn’t heard. It’s likely that my tactics are too subtle. I’m cautious, and ultimately I try not to hurt his feelings. El Quemado may be my enemy, but he’s a good enemy and those are hard to come by. What would happen if I were honest with him, if I told him what the Wolf and the Lamb have told me and asked him for an explanation? In the end, I’d probably have to choose between taking his word or theirs. Which I’d rather not have to do. So we talk about games and gamers, a subject of seemingly endless appeal to El Quemado. I think if I took him with me to Stuttgart—no, Paris!—he would be the star of the matches; the sense of the ridiculous that I sometimes feel—stupid, I know, but it’s true—when I get to a club and from a distance I see older people trying their hardest to solve military problems that to the rest of the world are old news, would vanish solely with his presence. His charred face lends dignity to the act of gaming. When I ask him whether he’d like to come with me to Paris, his eyes light up, but then he shakes his head. Have you ever been to Paris, Quemado? No, never. Would you like to go? He’d like to, but he can’t. He’d like to play other people, lots of matches, “one after the other,” but he can’t. All he’s got is me, and that’s enough for him. Well, there are worse fates; I am the champion, after all. That makes him feel better. But he’d still like to play other people, though he doesn’t plan to buy the game (or at least he doesn’t say so), and in the middle of his speech, I have the impression that we’re talking about different things. I’m documenting myself, he says. After an effort I realize that he’s talking about the photocopies. I can’t help laughing.
“Are you still going to the library, Quemado?”
“And you only borrow books about the war?”
“Now I do, but before I didn’t.”
“Before I started playing with you.”
“So what kind of books did you borrow before, Quemado?”
“Books of poetry? How nice. What kind of poetry?”
El Quemado looks at me as if I were a bumpkin:
“Vallejo, Neruda, Lorca . . . Do you know them?”
“No. Did you learn the poems by heart?”
“My memory is no good.”
“But you remember something? Can you recite something to give me
“No, I only remember feelings.”
“What kind of feelings? Tell me one.”
“Despair . . . ”
“Nothing else? That’s all?”
“Despair, heights, the sea, things that aren’t closed, things that are partway open, as if your chest were exploding.”
“Yes, I see. And when did you stop reading poetry, Quemado? When we started Third Reich? If I’d known, I wouldn’t have played. I like poetry, too.”
And so on until it’s time to leave.
I left the hotel at five in the afternoon, after talking on the phone to Conrad, dreaming about El Quemado, and making love with Clarita. My head was buzzing, which I attributed to a lack of nourishment, so I headed to the old town, planning to eat at a restaurant that I’d noticed before. Unfortunately it was closed, and suddenly I found myself walking down alleys where I’d never set foot, in a neighborhood of narrow but clean streets behind the shopping district and the port, increasingly sunk in thought, surrendered to the simple pleasure of my surroundings, no longer hungry, and in the mood to keep walking until night fell. That’s the state of mind I was in when I heard someone calling me by name. Mr. Berger. When I turned I saw that it was a boy whose face I didn’t recognize, though he looked vaguely
familiar. His greeting was effusive. It occurred to me that it might be one of the town friends my brother and I had made ten years before. The simple prospect made me happy. A ray of sunlight fell directly on his face, so that he couldn’t stop blinking. The words came tumbling out of his mouth and I could understand barely a quarter of what he said. His two outstretched hands grabbed me by the elbows as if to make sure I wouldn’t slip away. The situation seemed likely to stretch on indefinitely. At last, exasperated, I confessed that I couldn’t remember who he was. I work at the Red Cross, I’m the one who helped you with your friend’s paperwork. So those were the sad circumstances of our meeting! Resolutely, he pulled a wrinkled card out of his pocket that identified him as a member of the Red Cross of the Sea. The matter solved, we both sighed in relief and laughed. Immediately he suggested that we get a beer, and I was happy to agree. With no little surprise I realized that we weren’t going to a bar but to the rescue worker’s house, not far from here, on the same street, on a dark and dusty third floor.
My room at the Del Mar was bigger than that whole apartment, but my host’s good intentions compensated for any material deficiencies. His name was Alfons, and he said he was studying at night school: the springboard for a future move to Barcelona. His goal: to become a designer or painter, mission impossible, as was obvious judging by his clothes, the posters that covered every bit of wall space, the clutter of furniture, all in the worst possible taste. And yet there was something uncanny about the rescue worker. We hadn’t exchanged more than two words, me sitting in an old armchair covered with an Indian-print blanket and him in a chair that he’d probably built himself, when he suddenly asked whether I was an artist, “too.” I answered vaguely that I wrote articles. Where do they come out? In Stuttgart, Cologne, sometimes Milan, New York . . . I knew it, said the rescue worker. How could you know it? By your face. I read faces like books. Something in his tone or maybe in the words he used put me on my guard. I tried to change the subject but all he wanted to talk about was art, and I let him.
Alfons was a bore, but after a while I realized that it was nice to be there, drinking in silence, and protected from what was going on in the town—that is, from what was being plotted in the minds of El Quemado, the Wolf, the Lamb, Frau Else’s husband—protected by the aura of brotherhood that the rescue worker had implicitly spun around us. Beneath the skin we were brothers-in-arms, and, as the poet says, we had recognized each other in the dark—in this case, he had recognized me with his special gift—and we had fallen into each other’s embrace.
Lulled by the stories he couldn’t stop telling, to which I paid not the slightest attention, I revisited the notable incidents of the day. In the first place, in chronological order, the phone conversation with Conrad—brief, since it was he who called—which basically revolved around the disciplinary measures that my office planned to take if I didn’t show up in the next forty-eight hours. In the second place, Clarita, who after straightening my room agreed without much protest to make love with me. She was so small that if by means of some kind of astral projection I could have looked down on the bed from the ceiling, I’m sure that all I would have seen was my back and maybe the tips of her toes. And finally the nightmare, for which the maid was partly responsible, since once our session was over and even before she got dressed and returned to her labors, I fell into a strange doze, as if I were drugged, and I had the following dream. I was walking along the Paseo Marítimo at midnight, aware that Ingeborg was waiting for me in my room. The street, the buildings, the beach, the very sea, if such a thing is possible, were much larger than in reality, as if the town had been turned into a destination for giants. And yet the stars, though they were as numerous as usual on summer nights, were noticeably smaller, pinpoints that cast no more than a sickly glow over the vault of night. I was walking quickly, but the Del Mar still failed to appear on the horizon. Then, just as I was losing hope, El Quemado came walking wearily down the beach with a cardboard box under his arm. He didn’t wave, but sat down on the wall and pointed out to sea, into the darkness. Even though I kept a cautious distance of some thirty feet, the lettering and orange color of the box were perfectly visible and familiar: it was Third Reich, my Third Reich. What was El Quemado doing out so late with my game? Had he gone to the hotel and had Ingeborg given it to him, out of spite? Had he stolen it? I decided to wait and not ask any questions yet, because I sensed that in the darkness between the sea and the Paseo there was another person, and I thought that El Quemado and I would still have time to resolve our business in private. So I stood quietly and waited. El Quemado opened the box and began to set up the game on the wall. He’s going to ruin the counters, I thought, but still I said nothing. The game board shifted a few times in the night breeze. I can’t remember when exactly El Quemado arranged the units in positions I had never seen before. Germany was in bad shape. You’ll play Germany, said El Quemado. I took a seat on the wall facing him and studied the situation. Yes, a bad business, all the fronts about to collapse and the economy sunk, with no air force, no navy, and a land army outmatched by such great foes. A little red light went on in my head. What are we playing for? I asked. Are we playing for the championship of Germany, or of Spain? El Quemado shook his head and pointed again out to where the waves were breaking, toward where the pedal-boat fortress rose, huge and forbidding. What are we playing for? I insisted, with my eyes full of tears. I had the horrible sense that the sea was approaching the Paseo, slowly and without pause, ineluctably. We’re playing for the only thing that matters, answered El Quemado, avoiding looking at me. My armies’ situation didn’t offer much hope, but I made an effort to play as precisely as possible, and I rebuilt the fronts. I didn’t plan to surrender without a fight.
“What’s the only thing that matters?” I asked, watching the movement of the sea.
“Life.” El Quemado’s armies began to methodically demolish my lines.
Does the loser lose his life? I must be crazy, I thought, as the tide continued to rise, bigger than anything I had seen before in Spain or anywhere else.
“The loser forfeits his life to the winner.” El Quemado broke through my front in four different places and invaded Germany through Budapest.
“I don’t want your life, Quemado, let’s not get carried away,” I said, transferring my only reserves to Vienna. By now the sea was licking at the edge of the wall. I began to feel tremors all over my body. The shadows of the buildings were swallowing up the scarce light that still shone on the Paseo.
“And this game is set up to make Germany lose!”
The water rose up the stairs from the beach and spilled over the sidewalk; consider your next play very carefully, warned El Quemado, and he began to splash away toward the Del Mar; there was no other sound to be heard. Like a whirlwind in my head, there spun images of Ingeborg alone in the room, of Frau Else alone in a hallway between the laundry and the kitchen, of poor Clarita leaving work through the service entrance, tired and thin as a broomstick. The water was black and now it came up to my ankles. A kind of paralysis so thoroughly prevented me from moving my arms and legs that I couldn’t rearrange my counters on the map or set off running after El Quemado. The die, white as the moon, sat with the 1 face up. I could move my neck and I could talk (or at least whisper), but that was all. Soon the water swept the board off the wall, and it began to float away from me, along with the force pool and the counters. Where would they go? Toward the hotel or the old town? Would someone find them some day? And if they did, would they be able to see that it was a map of the battles of Third Reich and that the counters were Third Reich armored corps and infantry corps, the aviation, the navy? Of course not. The pieces, more than five hundred of them, would float together for the first few minutes, then inevitably they would drift apart, until they were lost in the depths of the sea; the map and force pool, since they were bigger, would last longer and there was even the chance that the waves would wash them onto the rocks where they could rot in peace. With the water up to my neck, I thought that after all they were just pieces of cardboard. I can’t say that I was distressed. Calmly and with no hope of saving myself, I waited for the instant when the water would cover me. Then, emerging from under the streetlights, came El Quemado’s pedal boats. Falling into a wedge-shaped formation (one pedal boat at the head, six, two by two, behind, and three bringing up the rear), they glided noiselessly along, synchronized and gallant in their way, as if the flood were the perfect moment for a military parade. They took turn after turn around what had once been the beach, with my dumbstruck gaze fixed on them; if anyone was pedaling and steering it must have been ghosts because I couldn’t see a soul. Finally they moved out to sea, though not far, and they changed formation. Now they were lined up in Indian file and somehow, mysteriously, they didn’t advance or retreat, didn’t even move in that madman’s sea, illuminated by a lightning storm in the distance. From my position all I could see was the nose of the first one, so perfect was their new lineup. Suspecting nothing, I watched how the blades cleaved the water and the boats began to move again. They were coming straight for me! Not very fast, but as relentlessly and ponderously as the old dreadnoughts of Jutland. Just before the floater of the first one, surely followed by the remaining nine, was about to smash into my head, I woke up.
Conrad was right, not in insisting that I should come back but in painting my situation as the result of some nervous disorder. But that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve always had nightmares; I was the only one to blame—and possibly that idiot Charly for drowning. Conrad, however, saw instability in the fact that for the first time I was losing at Third Reich. I’m losing, true, but I haven’t resorted to playing dirty. To illustrate this, I laughed out loud a few times. (Germany, according to Conrad, lost because it played fair; the proof is that it didn’t use poison gas, not even against the Russians, ha ha ha.)
Before I left, the rescue worker asked me where Charly was buried. I told him I had no idea. We could go visit his grave some afternoon, he suggested. I can find out at Navy Headquarters. The idea that Charly might be buried in town lodged in my head like a time bomb. Don’t do it, I said. The rescue worker, I realized then, was drunk and overexcited. We must—he stressed the word—pay our friend our last respects. He wasn’t your friend, I muttered. It doesn’t matter, it’s as if he was, we artists are brothers no matter where we are, dead or alive, beyond the limits of age or time. The likeliest thing is that they sent him to Germany, I said. The rescue worker’s face flushed and then he snorted so violently with laughter that he almost fell over backward. That’s a rotten lie! You send potatoes, not dead bodies, and definitely not during the summer. Our friend is here, he said pointing at the floor in a way that admitted of no reply. I had to take him by the shoulders and order him to bed. He insisted on walking me out, with the excuse that the main door might be locked. And tomorrow I’ll find out where they’ve buried our brother. He wasn’t our brother, I repeated wearily, though I realized that at that precise instant, due to who knows what outrageous distortion, his world was made up almost exclusively of us three, the only individuals on a vast and uncharted sea. In this new light, the rescue worker took on the guise of a hero or a madman. Standing in the doorway with him, I looked him in the face, and his glassy stare expressed gratitude for my look without entirely understanding it. We were like two trees, until the rescue worker began to take swipes at me. Like Charly. Then I decided to push him, to see what would happen, and as might have been expected, he fell and didn’t rise again, his legs drawn up and his face half covered by an arm, a white arm, untouched by the sun, like mine. Then I went coolly down the stairs and returned to the hotel with time enough to shower and have dinner.
Spring 1943. El Quemado makes his entrance a little later than usual. In fact, as the days go by his arrival time keeps getting pushed back. If we go
on like this, the final turn will start at six in the morning. Is there any significance to this? In the West I lose my last hex in England. El Quemado continues to have luck with the dice. In the East the front runs through Tallinn-Vitebsk-Smolensk-Bryansk-Kharkov-Rostov and Maykop. In the Mediterranean, I plot an American attack on Oran but I can’t take the offensive; in Egypt no change: the front holds in LL26 and MM26, the hexes along the Qattara Depression.
Like a ray of lightning Frau Else appears at the end of the hallway. I’ve just gotten up and I’m on my way to breakfast, but I’m frozen in place by the surprise.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she says, coming toward me.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“I was in Barcelona, with my family. My husband is sick, as you know, but you aren’t well either and you’re going to listen to what I have to say.”
I let her into my room. It smells bad, like tobacco and stale air. When I open the curtains the sun makes me blink in pain. Frau Else stares at
El Quemado’s photocopies pinned to the wall; I imagine she’ll scold me for breaking the hotel rules.
“This is obscene,” she says, and I don’t know whether she’s talking about the content of the pages or my decision to display them.
“They’re El Quemado’s edicts.”
Frau Else turns. She’s even more beautiful than she was a week ago,
“Was he the one who put them up here?”
“No, it was me. El Quemado gave them to me and . . . I decided it was better not to hide them. For him the copies are like a backdrop to our game.”
“What kind of horrible game are you talking about? The game of atonement? It’s all so tasteless.”
Frau Else’s cheekbones may have gotten slightly sharper during her absence.
“You’re right, it’s tasteless, though the truth is it’s my fault, I was the first to bring out photocopies; of course, mine were articles on the game; anyway, coming from El Quemado it’s to be expected, we all have to do things our own way.”
“Statement of the Meeting of the Council of Ministers, November 12, 1938,” she read in her sweet and melodious voice. “Doesn’t it make your stomach turn, Udo?”
“Sometimes,” I said equivocally. Frau Else seemed increasingly upset. “History in general is a bloody thing, you have to admit.”
“I wasn’t talking about history but about your comings and goings. I don’t care about history. What I do care about is the hotel, and you are a disruptive element here.” With great care she began to take down the photocopies.
I suspected that it wasn’t just the watchman who had come to her telling tales. Clarita, too?
“I’m taking them,” she said with her back to me, gathering up the copies. “I don’t want you to suffer.”
I asked whether that was all she had to say to me. Frau Else was slow to
answer. She shook her head, came over to me, and planted a kiss on my forehead.
“You remind me of my mother,” I said.
With her eyes open, Frau Else kissed me hard on the mouth. How
about now? Without knowing very well what I was doing I took her in my arms and deposited her on the bed. Frau Else started to laugh. You’ve
had nightmares, she said, probably motivated by the terrible mess the room was in. Her laughter, though it may have verged on the hysterical, was like a girl’s. With one hand she stroked my hair murmuring unintelligible
words and when I lay down beside her I felt on my cheek the contrast
between the cold linen of her blouse and her warm skin, soft to the touch. For an instant I thought she was going to surrender at last, but when I
slid my hand under her skirt and tried to pull down her underpants, it
was all over.
“It’s early,” she said, sitting up on the bed as if propelled by a spring of unpredictable force.
“Yes,” I admitted, “I just got up, but what does it matter?”
Frau Else got all the way up and changed the subject as her perfect—and quick!—hands straightened her clothes, moving like entities completely separate from the rest of her body. Cleverly she managed to turn my words against me. I’d just gotten up? Did I have any idea what time it was? Did I think it was decent to get up so late? Didn’t I realize how confusing it was for the cleaning staff? As she delivered this speech, she kicked every so often at the clothes scattered on the floor and put the photocopies in her pocket.
Basically, it became clear that we weren’t about to make love, and my only consolation was the discovery that she had yet to find out about the affair with Clarita.
As we said good-bye, in the elevator, we agreed to meet that evening in the church square.
With Frau Else at Playamar, a restaurant about three miles inland, nine P.M.
“My husband has cancer.”
“Is it serious?” I ask, aware that this is a ridiculous question.
“Terminal.” Frau Else looks at me as if we’re separated by bulletproof glass.
“How much time does he have left?”
“Not much. He might not live through the summer.”
“The summer’s almost over . . . Though it looks as if the good weather will last until October,” I stammer. Under the table, Frau Else’s hand squeezes
my hand. Her gaze, however, is lost in the distance. Only now does the news begin to take shape in my head: her husband is dying; this is the explanation, or the catalyst, for many of the things that have been happening in the hotel and outside of it. Frau Else’s strange mix of seductiveness and rejection. El Quemado’s mysterious advisor. The intrusions into my room and the vigilant presence that I sense in the hotel. Considered from this perspective, was the dream about Florian Linden a warning from my subconscious that I should watch out for Frau Else’s husband? The truth is that it would be disappointing if it all boiled down to a question of jealousy.
“What’s going on between your husband and El Quemado?” I ask after a lapse occupied only by our fingers secretly interlacing: the Playamar restaurant is a busy place and in a short time Frau Else has greeted several people.
Then I try to tell her that she’s wrong, that between the two of them they’re planning to crush me, that her husband stole the rules from my room so that El Quemado could hone his game, that the strategy the Allies are following can’t be the fruit of a single mind, that her husband has spent hours in my room studying the game. I can’t. Instead I promise her that I won’t leave until her situation (that is, the disappearance of her husband) is cleared up, that I’ll stand by her, that she can count on me for anything she needs, that I understand if she doesn’t want to make love, that I’ll help her to be strong.
Frau Else’s way of thanking me for my words is to squeeze my hand in a crushing grip.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, pulling away as surreptitiously as possible.
“You should go back to Germany. You need to take care of yourself, not me.”
Upon declaring this, her eyes fill with tears.
“You are Germany,” I say.
Frau Else lets out a laugh—strong, ringing, irresistible—that draws the gaze of everyone in the restaurant. I also choose to laugh heartily: I’m a hopeless romantic. A hopeless sentimentalist, she corrects me. Fine, then.
On our way back I stop the car at a kind of inn. Down a gravel path there’s a pine grove with stone tables, benches, and garbage cans scattered about at random. When we roll down the window we hear distant music that Frau Else identifies as coming from a club in town. How can that be when the town is so far away? We get out of the car and Frau Else leads me by the hand to a cement balustrade. The inn is at the top of a hill and from up here we can see the lights of the hotels and the neon signs in the shopping district. I try to kiss her but Frau Else refuses me her lips. Paradoxically, back in the car, it’s she who takes the lead. For an hour we kiss and listen to music on the radio. The cool breeze that comes in through the half-open windows smells like flowers and fragrant herbs, and the spot is ideal for making love but I thought it best not to steer things in that direction.
Before I realized, it was after midnight, though Frau Else, her cheeks flushed from so much kissing, seemed in no hurry to get back.
On the steps leading up to the hotel we found El Quemado. I parked on the Paseo Marítimo and Frau Else and I got out of the car together.
El Quemado didn’t see us until we were almost on top of him. His head
was bowed and he was staring distractedly at the ground; despite his broad back, from the distance he looked like a child, hopelessly lost. Hello, I
said, trying to radiate happiness, though from the instant when Frau Else and I got out of the car a vague and insistent sadness settled over me.
El Quemado raised his sheeplike eyes and said good evening. For the first time, if only briefly, Frau Else remained standing by my side, as if we were a couple, with shared interests. Have you been here a long time? El Quemado looked at us and shrugged his shoulders. How is business? asked Frau
Else. Decent. Frau Else laughed her best crystalline laugh, which sweetened the night:
“You’re the last of the season to leave. Do you have work for the winter?”
“If we paint the bar I’ll call you.”
I felt a twinge of envy: Frau Else obviously knew how to talk to
“It’s late and I have to get up early tomorrow. Good night.”
From the stairs we watched as Frau Else stopped for a moment at the reception desk where presumably she spoke to someone, and then moved on down the dark corridor, waited for the elevator, vanished . . .
“What do we do now.” El Quemado’s voice startled me.
“Nothing. Sleep. We’ll play another day,” I said harshly.
It took an instant for El Quemado to digest what I’d said. I’ll be back tomorrow, he said in a tone in which I caught a hint of resentment. He rose in a leap, like a gymnast. For an instant we eyed each other like bitter enemies.
“Tomorrow, perhaps,” I said, trying to control the sudden trembling of my legs and my desire to lunge at his neck.
In a fair fight, the two sides are equally matched. He’s heavier and shorter, I’m nimbler and taller; we both have long arms; he’s accustomed to physical exertion; my determination is my best weapon. The decisive factor might be the spot chosen for the fight. The beach? It seems like the right place, the beach at night, but there, I fear, El Quemado will have the advantage. Where, then?
“If I’m not busy,” I added dismissively.
In reponse El Quemado was silent and then he left. As he was crossing the Paseo Marítimo he looked back as if to check that I was still on the stairs. If only at that moment a car had appeared out of the darkness, going one hundred and fifty miles an hour!
From the balcony not even the faintest glow can be seen from the pedal boat fortress. I’ve turned out my lights, too, of course, except for the one in the bathroom. The bulb over the mirror sheds an aquatic radiance that barely illuminates a wedge of carpet through the half-open door. Later, after closing the curtains, I turn the lights back on and study one by one the various elements of my situation. I’m losing the war. I’ve almost certainly lost my job. Every day that goes by distances me a little further from an improbable reconciliation with Ingeborg. As he lies dying, Frau Else’s husband amuses himself by hating me, assaulting me with all the subtlety of the terminally
ill. Conrad has sent me only a little money. The article that I originally planned to write at the Del Mar is set aside and forgotten . . . not an encouraging panorama.
At three in the morning I got in bed without undressing and picked up the Florian Linden book where I’d left off.
I awoke a little before five, feeling suffocated. I didn’t know where I was, and it took me a few seconds to realize that I was still in the town.
As summer fades (or as the visible signs of it fade), noises begin to be heard at the Del Mar that we never suspected before: the pipes now
seem empty and bigger. The regular muted sound of the elevator has been replaced by scratching and races behind the plaster of the walls. The wind that every night shakes the window frame and hinges is more powerful. The faucets of the sink squeak and shudder before releasing water. Even the
smell of the hallways, perfumed with artificial lavender, breaks down more quickly and turns into a pestilent stink that causes terrible coughing fits late at night.
One can’t help noticing those coughing fits! One can’t help noticing those footsteps in the night that the rugs never manage to muffle!
But if you go out into the hallway overcome by curiosity, what do you see? Nothing.
I wake up to find Clarita in the room. She’s at the foot of the bed in her maid’s uniform, looking at me. I don’t know why her presence makes me happy. I smile and ask her to get in bed with me, though without realizing it, I ask in German. How Clarita manages to understand me is a mystery, but first I prudently lock the door from the inside and then she curls up beside me, taking off nothing but her shoes. As during our previous encounter, her breath smells of black tobacco, which happens to be very attractive in a woman-child like her. According to tradition, her lips should taste of sausage and garlic, or mint gum. I’m glad that’s not the case. When I climb on top of her, her skirt rides up to her waist and if her knees weren’t desperately gripping my thighs I’d say she feels nothing. Not a moan, not a sigh. Clarita makes love with perfect discretion. When we’re done, just like the first time, I ask her if she enjoyed herself. She nods her head, and immediately she jumps out of bed, straightens her skirt, puts on her underpants and shoes, and as I head to the bathroom to wash, she begins to tidy the room in workmanlike fashion, careful not to knock any counters on the floor.
“Are you a Nazi?” I hear her voice as I’m wiping my penis with toilet paper.
“What did you say?”
“I asked whether you’re a Nazi.”
“No. No, I’m not. In fact, I’m more like an anti-Nazi. What makes you think that, the game?” On the Third Reich box there are some drawings of swastikas.
“The Wolf told me you were a Nazi.”
“The Wolf is wrong.” I made her come into the bathroom so I could keep talking to her as I showered. Clarita is so ignorant that I think if I told her the Nazis were in power, say, in Switzerland, she would believe it.
“Doesn’t anybody wonder why it takes you so long to clean a room? Doesn’t anyone miss you?”
Clarita is sitting on the toilet with her back hunched as if getting out of bed brought on a fresh bout of some undisclosed illness. A contagious illness? The rooms are usually cleaned in the morning, she tells me. (I’m a special case.) No one misses her and no one keeps tabs on her. It’s bad enough having to work so hard and earn so little money, without also having to endure constant supervision. Even Frau Else’s?
“Frau Else is different,” says Clarita.
“Why is she different? She lets you do whatever you want? She doesn’t get mixed up in your business? She protects you?”
“My business is my business, isn’t it? What does Frau Else have to do with my business?”
“I meant does she overlook your hookups, your little adventures.”
“Frau Else understands people.” Her sulky voice can scarcely be heard over the noise of the shower.
“Does that make her different?”
Clarita doesn’t answer. But she makes no move to leave either. Separated by the ugly white plastic curtain with yellow polka dots, both of us quiet, both of us waiting, I felt great pity for her and the desire to help her. But how could I help her when I was unable to help myself?
“I’m harassing you, I’m sorry,” I said when I got out of the shower.
My body, partly reflected in the mirror, and Clarita’s body, huddled imperceptibly on the toilet as if it weren’t that of a girl (how old must she be, sixteen?) but the cold body of an old woman, managed to move me to tears.
“You’re crying.” Clarita smiled stupidly. I toweled off my face and hair and exited the bathroom to get dressed. Clarita was left behind mopping up the wet tiles.
There was a five-thousand-peseta bill somewhere in my jeans but I couldn’t find it. As best I could I scraped together three thousand in change and gave it to Clarita. She accepted the money without saying anything.
“Since you know everything, Clarita,” I circled her waist with my arms as if I were about to start groping her again, “do you know what room Frau Else’s husband sleeps in?”
“In the biggest room in the hotel. The dark room.”
“Why dark? Doesn’t it get any sun?”
“The curtains are always closed. He’s very sick.”
“Will he die, Clarita?”
“Yes . . . If you don’t kill him first . . . ”
For some reason I can’t explain, Clarita brings out an instinctual cruelty in me. So far I’ve treated her well; I’ve never hurt her. But by her very presence she’s capable of awakening slumbering images deep inside of me. Quick and terrible images like lightning, which I fear and flee. How to exorcise this power so suddenly unleashed inside of me? By forcing her down on her knees and making her suck my dick and tongue my ass?
“You’re joking, of course.”
“Yes, it’s a joke,” she says, looking down at the ground as a drop of sweat slides neatly down to the tip of her nose.
“Then tell me where your boss sleeps.”
“On the second floor, at the end of the hallway, over the kitchen . . . You can’t miss it . . . ”
After lunch I call Conrad. Today I haven’t left the hotel. I don’t want to risk a chance encounter with the Wolf and the Lamb (how chance would it really be?), or the Red Cross worker, or Mr. Pere . . . For once, Conrad doesn’t seem surprised by my call. I detect a hint of wariness in his voice, as if he were afraid to hear precisely what I plan to ask. Of course, he refuses me nothing. I need money and he agrees to send it. I ask for news of Stuttgart, Cologne, the preparations, and he gives a brief account, with none of the pointed and sarcastic commentary that I used to like so much. I don’t know why, but I can’t bring myself to ask about Ingeborg. When I finally work up the courage, the answer just depresses me. I have the dim suspicion that Conrad is lying. His lack of curiosity is a new symptom; he neither begs me to come back, nor asks when I’m leaving. Don’t worry, he says at some point, by which I gather that my end of the conversation hasn’t been entirely reassuring, I’ll wire the money tomorrow. I thank him. Our farewell is almost a murmur.
I run into Frau Else in one of the hotel corridors. We halt, shaken—in earnest or pretending, what does it matter—some fifteen feet from each other, hands on hips, pale and sad, exchanging glances that reveal the despair beneath our flurry of activity. How is your husband? Frau Else points at the line of light under a door, or maybe the elevator, I don’t know. All I know is that, carried away by a powerful and painful impulse (an impulse generated in my churning stomach), I stepped forward and drew her to me without fear of discovery and meeting little resistance, wanting only to lose myself in her for a few seconds or for life. Udo, are you mad? You almost crushed my ribs. I lowered my head and apologized. What’s wrong with your lips? I don’t know. Frau Else’s finger on my lips is freezing cold and I jump. They’re bleeding, she says. After promising her that I’ll clean up in my room we agree to meet in ten minutes at the hotel restaurant. My treat, says Frau Else, apprised of my new financial straits. If you aren’t there in ten minutes I’ll send a couple of the toughest waiters to get you. Oh, I’ll be there.
Summer 1943. The English and Americans land in Dieppe and Calais. I didn’t expect El Quemado to go on the offensive so soon. It’s worth stressing that the beachheads he’s won aren’t very strong; he’s got a foothold in France but it will still cost him something to establish a secure position and advance. In the East the situation is deteriorating; after a new strategic retreat, the front runs through Riga, Minsk, Kiev, and hexes Q39, R39, and S39. Dnipropetrovs’k has gone over to the Reds. El Quemado has air superiority in Russia as well as in the West. In Africa and the Mediterranean the situation remains unchanged though I suspect that things will look very different by the next turn. Curious detail: as we were playing I fell asleep. For how long, I don’t know. El Quemado shook my shoulder a few times, saying wake up. Then I woke up and I couldn’t get back to sleep again.
I left the room at seven. For hours I had been sitting on the balcony waiting for dawn. When the sun came up I shut the balcony doors, closed the curtains, and stood there in the dark desperately searching for something to do to pass the time. Taking a shower. Changing clothes. These seemed like excellent morning activities but I just stood there, frozen in place, my breathing agitated. Daylight began to filter through the blinds. I opened the balcony doors again and stared for a long time at the beach and the still hazy outline of the pedal-boat fortress. Happy are those who have nothing. Happy are those who by leading such a life earn themselves a rheumatic future and are lucky with the dice and resign themselves to live without women. Not a soul was out on the beach so early in the morning but I heard voices from another balcony, an argument in French. Who but the French raise their voices before seven! I closed the curtains again and tried to undress so I could get in the shower. I couldn’t. The light in the bathroom was like the glare of a torture chamber. With an effort I turned on the water and washed my hands. When I tried to splash my face I realized that my arms were stiff and I decided it would be best to put it off until later. I turned off the lights and went out. The hallway was deserted and lit only at each end by half-hidden bulbs that gave off a faint ochre glow. Without making any noise I went down the stairs until I reached the first floor landing. From there, reflected in the huge hallway mirror, I could see the night watchman’s head resting on the edge of the counter. He had to be asleep. I retraced my steps to the second floor, where I turned toward the back (northeast) with my ears pricked for the
familiar sounds of the kitchen in case the cooks had arrived, which was highly
unlikely. At the beginning of my journey down the hallway, the silence was complete, but as I walked along I was able to make out an asthmatic snore which, at brief intervals, interrupted the monotony of doors and walls. When I came to the end I stopped. Before me was a wooden door with a marble plaque in the middle, with a four-line poem (or so I imagined) inscribed on it in black, written in Catalan. Exhausted, I set my hand on the jamb and pushed. The door opened without the slightest impediment. There was the room, big and dark, as Clarita had described it. All I could see was the outline of a window, and the air was thick, though there was no smell of medicine. I was about to close the door that I had so boldly opened when I heard a voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. A voice of contradictory qualities: icy and warm, threatening and friendly:
“Come in.” The voice spoke in German.
I took a few steps blindly, feeling my way along the wallpaper, after
overcoming an instant of hesitation in which I was tempted to slam the
door and flee.
“Who’s there? Come in. Are you all right?” The voice seemed to issue from a tape recorder though I knew that it was Frau Else’s husband who was speaking, enthroned on his giant hidden bed.
“It’s Udo Berger,” I said standing there in the dark. I was afraid that if I kept moving I would run into the bed or some other piece of furniture.
“Ah, the young German, Udo Berger. Udo Berger, are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
From an unfathomable corner of the room, some murmurs of assent. And then:
“Can you see me? What can I do for you? To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
“I thought we should talk. Get to know each other, at least; exchange ideas in a civilized way,” I said in a whisper.
“But I can’t see you. I can’t see anything . . . and it’s hard to carry on a conversation like this . . . ”
Then I heard the sound of a body sliding between starched sheets, followed by a groan and a curse, and finally, some ten feet from where I stood, the lamp on a night table came on. Lying on his side, in navy-blue pajamas buttoned up to the neck, Frau Else’s husband smiled: Are you an early riser or haven’t you been to bed yet? I slept a few hours, I said. Nothing in that face matched my memories from ten years ago. He had aged rapidly and poorly.
“Did you want to talk to me about the game?”
“No, about your wife.”
“My wife . . . my wife, as you can see, isn’t here.”
Suddenly I realized that Frau Else was, in fact, missing. Her husband pulled the sheets up to his chin while I scanned the rest of the room reflexively, fearing a bad joke or a trap.
“Where is she?”
“That, my dear young man, is something that neither you nor I need concern ourselves about. What my wife does or doesn’t do is nobody’s business but her own.”
Was Frau Else in someone else’s arms? Did she have a secret lover about whom she’d said nothing? Probably someone from the town, another hotelier, the owner of a seafood restaurant? Someone younger than her husband but older than me? Or was it possible that at this time of night Frau Else was taking a therapeutic drive on the back roads, trying to forget her problems?
“You’ve made a number of mistakes,” said Frau Else’s husband. “The main one was attacking the Soviet Union so soon.”
My baleful stare seemed to disconcert him for a moment but he recovered immediately.
“If one could avoid war against the USSR in this game,” he continued, “I’d never attack; I’m speaking, of course, from the German perspective. Your other big mistake was to underestimate the resistance that England could put up; you lost time and money there. It would have been worth it to stake at least fifty percent of your forces in the attempt, but you couldn’t because you were bogged down in the East.”
“How many times have you been in my room without my knowledge?”
“Not many . . . ”
“And aren’t you ashamed to admit it? Do you think it’s ethical for the owner of a hotel to snoop around in his guests’ rooms?”
“It depends. Everything is relative. Do you think it’s ethical to try to get my wife to sleep with you?” A smile, wicked and knowing, rose from under the sheets and settled on his cheeks. “More than once, too, and with
“That’s different. I don’t pretend to hide anything. I’m worried about your wife. Her health concerns me. I love her. I’m prepared to overcome any obstacles . . . ” I saw that he had flushed red.
“Enough talk. I have my worries, too. About the boy you’re playing with.”
“Yes, El Quemado, El Quemado, El Quemado, you have no idea of the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. He’s a viper!”
“El Quemado? Do you mean because of the Soviet offensives? I think much of the credit has to go to you. Really, who devised his strategy? Who advised him where to stand his ground and where to attack?”
“Me, me, me—but it wasn’t all me. He’s a sharp boy. Watch yourself! Keep an eye on Turkey! Retreat from Africa! Tighten your fronts, man!”
“That’s what I’m doing. Do you think he plans to invade Turkey?”
“The Soviet army tends only to grow in strength, and he can permit himself that luxury. Diversify operations! Personally I don’t think it’s necessary, but the advantage of holding Turkey is obvious: the control of the straits and the free movement of the Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean. A Soviet landing in Greece followed by Anglo-American landings in Italy and Spain and you’ll be forced to retreat behind your borders. Capitulation.” From the bedside table he picked up the photocopies that Frau Else had taken from my room and waved them in the air. Two red spots appeared on his cheeks. I got the sense that he was threatening me.
“You’ve forgotten that I can take the offensive, too.”
“You’re a man after my own heart! You never give up, do you?”
“I suspected as much. That is, because of the way you’ve kept after my wife. In my day, if a woman gave me the brush-off, I would have no more to do with her, even if she was Rita Hayworth. Do you know what these papers mean? Yes, they’re copied from war books, more or less, but I didn’t suggest any of this to El Quemado. (I would have recommended Liddell Hart’s History of the Second World War, a fair-minded and straightforward book, or Alexander Werth’s Russia at War.) But this was on his own initiative. And the meaning of it is clear, I think, as my wife and I realized at once. Didn’t you? I guessed as much. Well, I can tell you that young people have always sought my advice. And El Quemado has a special place among them, which is why my wife is holding me somewhat responsible—me, a sick man!—for what might happen to you.”
“I don’t understand anything you’re saying. If we’re talking about Third Reich, I must inform you that in Germany I’m the national champion
of the sport.”
“Sport! These days anything can be called a sport. That’s no sport. And I can promise you that I’m not talking about Third Reich but about the plans that poor boy has in store for you. Not as part of the game (because that’s what it is, that’s all it is), but in real life!”
I shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t about to argue with a sick man. I expressed my skepticism with a friendly laugh; after that I felt better.
“Of course I told my wife that there wasn’t much I could do. At this point that boy only hears what he wants to hear, he’s in this up to his neck, and I don’t think he’ll back down.”
“Frau Else worries too much about me. Though of course it’s very kind of her.”
Her husband’s face took on a dreamy and absent expression.
“She’s a good woman, yes sir, very good. Too good . . . My only regret is not having given her a couple of children.”
The remark struck me as being in poor taste. I thanked the heavens for the probable sterility of that poor man. A pregnancy might have disturbed the classical harmony of Frau Else’s body, the way she commanded a room even from a distance.
“And deep down, like any woman, she wants to be a mother. Well, I hope she’ll have more luck with the next man.” He winked at me and I could swear that beneath the sheets he made an obscene gesture. “Don’t fool yourself, it won’t be you. And the sooner you realize it the better, that way you won’t suffer or make her suffer. Though she holds you in great esteem, there’s no denying that. She told me that years ago you used to come to the Del Mar with your parents. What’s your father’s name?”
“Heinz Berger. I came with my parents and my older brother. Every summer.”
“I don’t remember.”
I said it didn’t matter. Frau Else’s husband seemed to focus all his energies on the past. He looked unwell. I was alarmed.
“And you, do you remember me?”
“What was I like, what image do you have of me?”
“You were tall and very thin. You wore white shirts and Frau Else looked happy to be with you. Nothing much.”
He sighed and his face relaxed. My legs were beginning to ache from standing for so long. I thought I’d better leave, sleep a little, or get in the car and go in search of a deserted cove where I could take a dip and then get some rest on the clean sand.
“Wait, I still have a warning to give you. Stay away from El Quemado. Starting now!”
“I will,” I said wearily, “when I leave town.”
“So what are you waiting for to go home? Don’t you realize that . . . unhappiness and misfortune haunt this hotel?”
By this he meant Charly’s death, I guessed. And yet if trouble loomed over a hotel it should be the Costa Brava, where Charly had stayed, not the Del Mar. My smile of understanding bothered Frau Else’s husband.
“Do you have any idea what will happen the night that Berlin falls?”
Suddenly I realized that the misfortune to which he was alluding was the war.
“Don’t underestimate me,” I said, trying to get a glimpse of the inner courtyards that were surely visible through the curtains. Why hadn’t they chosen a room with sea views?
Frau Else’s husband telescoped his neck like a worm. He was pale and his skin was slick with fever.
“You fool, do you still think you can win?”
“I can try. I’m good at comebacks. I can mount offensives that keep the Russians at bay. I still have great strike potential . . . ” I talked and talked, about Italy, Romania, my armored forces, the reorganization of my air force, my plans for wiping out the beachheads in France, even for the defense of Spain, and gradually I felt that the inside of my head was turning to ice and that the cold was trickling down into my mouth, my tongue, my throat, so that even the words that came out of my mouth grew foggy on their way toward the sick man’s bed. I heard him say: Give up, pack your things, pay your bill—and go. I understood with horror that all he wanted was to help me. That in his own way—and because he’d been asked to do so—he was watching out for me.
“What time is your wife coming back?” Despite myself, my voice sounded desperate. From outside came birdsong and the muted sound of motors and doors. Frau Else’s husband pretended not to hear me and said he was tired. As if to confirm this, his eyelids drooped.
I was afraid he really would fall asleep.
“What will happen after the fall of Berlin?”
“As I see it,” he said without opening his eyes and drawling his words, “he won’t be satisfied with a handshake.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
“The logical thing, Herr Udo Berger, the logical thing. Think, what does the winner do? What is he like?”
I confessed my ignorance. Frau Else’s husband turned on his side so that all I could see was his profile, haggard and angular. This was how I discovered that he looked like Don Quixote. A weakened Quixote, ordinary and terrible as Fate. The discovery disturbed me. Maybe that was what had attracted Frau Else.
“It’s in all the history books,” his voice sounded weak and tired, “even the German ones. Let the trial of the war criminals begin.”
I laughed in his face:
“The game ends with Decisive Victory, Tactical Victory, Marginal Victory, or Stalemate, not with trials or stupid things like that,” I intoned.
“Ah, my friend, in that poor boy’s nightmares the trial may be the most important part of the game, the only thing that makes it worthwhile to spend so many hours playing. A chance to hang the Nazis!”
I stretched the fingers of my right hand, waiting to hear each bone crack.
“It’s a game of strategy,” I whispered, “of high strategy, what kind of insanity is this?”
“I’m simply advising you to pack your suitcases and go. After all, Berlin—the one true Berlin—fell some time ago, didn’t it?”
We both nodded our heads sadly. The sense that we were talking about different and even categorically opposed subjects was increasingly obvious.
“Who does he plan to put on trial? The little counters for the SS corps?” Frau Else’s husband seemed amused by my outburst and he smiled in a nasty way, half sitting up in bed.
“I’m afraid you’re the one who inspires his hatred.” The sick man’s body suddenly became a single throb, irregular, big, clear.
“Am I the one he’s going to sit in the dock?” Though I was trying to keep my composure my voice shook with indignation.
“And how does he plan to do that?”
“On the beach, like a man—like a man with balls.” The nasty smile broadened and at the same time grew more pronounced.
“Will he rape me?”
“Don’t be an idiot. If that’s what you’re expecting you’ve got the wrong movie.”
I admit that I was confused.
“What will he do to me, then?”
“What people usually do to Nazi pigs: Beat their brains out. Bleed them to death in the sea! Send you to Valhalla with your friend, the windsurfer!”
“Charly wasn’t a Nazi, as far as I know.”
“And neither are you, but at this point in the war, El Quemado doesn’t care. You’ve laid waste to the English Riviera and the wheat fields of the Ukraine, to put it poetically; you can’t expect that now he’ll handle you with kid gloves.”
“Are you the one who came up with this diabolical plan?”
“No, certainly not. But it sounds like fun!”
“It’s partly your fault; without your advice El Quemado would’ve had
“You’re wrong! El Quemado has gone beyond my advice. In a way he reminds me of Atahuallpa, the Inca prisoner of the Spaniards who learned to play chess in a single afternoon by watching how his captors moved the pieces.”
“Is El Quemado from South America?”
“Warm, warm . . . ”
“And the burns on his body . . . ?
Giant drops of sweat bathed the sick man’s face when I said good-bye. I would have liked to throw myself into Frau Else’s arms and hear only words of reassurance for the rest of the day. Instead, when I found her, much later and with my spirits considerably lower, all I did was whisper abuse and recriminations. Where did you spend the night?, who were you with?, etc. Frau Else gave me a withering look (at the same time, she didn’t seem surprised at all that I had talked to her husband), but I was numb to everything.
Autumn 1943 and a new offensive for El Quemado. I lose Warsaw and Bessarabia. The west and the south of France fall to the Anglo-Americans. It’s possible it’s exhaustion that’s impairing my ability to respond.
“You’re going to win, Quemado,” I say in a low voice.
“Yes, that’s how it looks.”
“And what will we do then?” But fear made me elaborate on the question in order to avoid a concrete response. “Where will we celebrate your initiation as a war-games player? I’ll be getting money soon from Germany and we can have a night out on the town, at a club, with girls, champagne, that kind of thing.”
El Quemado, removed from anything but the progress of his two huge steamrollers, answered with a remark to which I later ascribed symbolic meaning: “Keep watch over what you’ve got in Spain.”
Did he mean the three German infantry corps and the one Italian infantry corps that appear to be stranded in Spain and Portugal now that the Allies control the south of France? The truth is that if I wanted to I could evacuate them from the Mediterranean ports during the Strategic Redeployment phase, but I won’t; in fact, maybe I’ll bring in reinforcements to create a threat or a diversion on the enemy’s flank; at least that will slow the Anglo-American march toward the Rhine. This is a strategic possibility that El Quemado must be aware of, if it’s as good as it seems. Or did he mean something else? Something personal? What have I got in Spain? Myself!
“You’re falling asleep, Udo.”
“The sea breeze does me good.”
“You drink too much and you hardly sleep. That’s not good.”
“But you’ve never seen me drunk.”
“Even worse: that means you drink alone. You’re constantly eating and spewing your own demons.”
“Don’t worry, I have a big, big, big stomach.”
“There are terrible circles under your eyes and you just keep getting
paler, as if you were gradually turning into the Invisible Man.”
“It’s my natural complexion.”
“You look sickly. You don’t listen to what anyone says, you don’t see anyone, you seem resigned to staying here forever.”
“Every day I stay costs me money. No one is making me a gift of anything.”
“This isn’t about money, it’s about your health. If you gave me your parents’ phone number I would call them to come and get you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“It doesn’t seem that way. One minute you’re in a state of rage, and the next you lapse into passivity. Yesterday you yelled at me and today you just smile like a moron, sitting at the same table all morning.”
“I can’t tell the mornings and the afternoons apart. I can breathe better here. The weather has changed; it’s humid and oppressive now. This is the only comfortable spot.”
“You should be in bed.”
“If I doze off, don’t worry. It’s because of the sun. It comes and goes. Inside, my resolve is still strong.”
“But you’re talking in your sleep!”
“I’m not asleep, I only look it.”
“I think I’ll have to get a doctor to come and give you a checkup.”
“A fine German doctor.”
“I don’t want anyone to come. The truth is, I was sitting quietly, enjoying the sea breeze, and you come along to lecture me unasked, out of the blue, just for kicks.”
“You’re not well, Udo.”
“And you’re a cock tease, lots of kissing, lots of fooling around, and that’s it. Half there and half somewhere else.”
“Don’t raise your voice.”
“Now that I’m raising my voice at least you can see I’m not asleep.”
“We could try to talk like good friends.”
“Go ahead, you know my patience and curiosity are boundless. Like my love.”
“Do you want to know what the waiters call you? The freak. And you can see why, someone who spends all day on the terrace, huddled under a blanket like an old cripple, nodding off, and who at night turns into a lord of war and welcomes the lowest of the low—disfigured, to make it even more grotesque—it’s not what you’d call ordinary. There are those who think you’re a homosexual and others who say you’re just eccentric.”
“Eccentric! What idiocy. All freaks are eccentric. Did you hear that or did you make it up just now? The waiters only make fun of things they don’t understand.”
“The waiters hate you. They think you bring bad luck to the hotel. When I hear them talk I think they wouldn’t mind if you drowned like your friend Charly.”
“Fortunately, I don’t do a lot of swimming. The weather is getting worse and worse. In any case, lovely sentiments.”
“It happens every summer. There’s always a guest who rubs everyone the wrong way. But why you?”
“Because I’m losing the match and no one likes a loser.”
“Maybe you haven’t been polite to the staff. Don’t fall asleep, Udo.”
“My armies in the East are collapsing,” I said to El Quemado. “Just the way it really happened, the Romanian flank is crumbling, and there are no reserves to contain the wave of Russian tokens advancing on the Carpathians, the Balkans, the Hungarian plain, Austria. This is the end of the Seventeenth Army, the First Panzer Army, the Sixth Army, the Eigth Army.”
“Next turn,” whispers El Quemado, burning like a torch swollen with veins.
“Will I lose in the next turn?”
“Deep down, very deep down, I love you,” says Frau Else.
“This is the coldest winter of the war and nothing could possibly go worse. I’m in a deep hole that I may not be able to dig myself out of. Confidence is a poor counselor,” I hear myself say in a neutral voice.
“Where are the photocopies?” asks El Quemado.
“Frau Else gave them to your coach,” I answer, knowing that El Quemado has no coach or anything of the kind. The closest thing might be me, since I taught him to play! But not even.
“I don’t have a coach,” says El Quemado, predictably.
In the afternoon, before the match, I lay down in bed, exhausted, and dreamed that I was a detective (Florian Linden?) who, following a clue, made my way into a temple like the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. What was I doing there? I don’t know. All I know is that I went up and down corridors and through halls with no sense of foreboding, almost with pleasure, and that the coldness inside reminded me of the cold weather of childhood and an imaginary winter when everything, though only for an instant, was white and infinitely still. In the middle of the temple, which must have been built into the hill that looms over the town, I found a man, lit by a cone of light, who was playing chess. Though no one told me who it was, I knew it was Atahuallpa. When I approached, peering over the player’s shoulder, I saw that the black pieces were charred. What had happened? The Indian chief turned to study me without much interest and said that someone had thrown the black pieces into the fire. Why? For spite? Instead of answering, Atahuallpa moved the white queen to a square within reach of the black pieces. She’ll be taken! I thought. Then I told myself that it didn’t matter since Atahuallpa was playing himself. In the next move the white queen was eliminated by a bishop. What’s the point of playing yourself if you’re going to cheat? I asked. This time the Indian didn’t even turn around. Extending his arm, he pointed toward the back of the temple, a dark space suspended between the vaulted ceiling and the granite floor. I took a few steps, more or less in the direction he was pointing, and I saw a huge red brick fireplace with cast-iron guards that still contained the embers of a fire that must consume hundreds of logs. Poking out here and there among the ashes were the twisted tips of different chess pieces. What was the meaning of this? My face burning with indignation and rage, I turned and challenged Atahuallpa to play me. He didn’t bother to look up from the game board. When I examined him more carefully I realized that he wasn’t as old as I had mistakenly thought at first; his gnarled fingers and the long dirty hair that fell over his face were misleading. Play me if you’re a man, I shouted, wanting to escape from the dream. Behind me I felt the presence of the fireplace as a living organism, cold-hot, alien to me and alien to the Indian lost in thought. Why destroy a beautiful work of craftsmanship? I asked. The Indian laughed but the laugh caught in his throat. When the game was over he got up and went over to the fireplace, carrying the board and pieces on a tray. I realized that he was going to feed the fire and I decided that it would be wisest to watch and wait. From the embers, flames sprang up again, swift tongues of fire that soon vanished, scarcely sated by such a meager offering. Atahuallpa’s eyes were now fixed on the temple vault. Who are you? he asked. From my mouth came an outlandish answer: I’m Florian Linden and I’m looking for the murderer of Karl Schneider, otherwise known as Charly, a tourist here. The Indian gave me a scornful look and returned to the central circle of light, where, as if by magic, another board and more pieces were waiting for him. I heard him grunt something unintelligible; I begged him to repeat it: that man was killed by the sea, by his own kindness and stupidity, the curt words in Spanish echoing off the walls of the cave. I understood that the dream wasn’t making sense anymore or that it was coming to an end and I hurried to ask a last few questions. Were the chess pieces offerings to a god? Why was he playing alone? When would it all be over? (I still don’t know what I meant by this.) Who else knew of the existence of the temple and how to get out of it? The Indian made his first play and sighed. Where do you think we are? he asked in turn. I confessed that I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected that we were under the hill on which the town was built. You’re wrong, he said. Where are we? My voice was growing more and more hysterical. I was scared, I admit, and I wanted out. Atahuallpa’s bright eyes observed me through the hair that fell over his face like a cascade of stagnant water. Haven’t you realized? How did you get here? I don’t know, I said, I was walking along the beach . . . Atahuallpa laughed to himself: we’re under the pedal boats, he said; with luck El Quemado will gradually rent them out—though considering the weather it’s hard to say for sure—and you’ll be able to leave. My last memory is of me hurling myself at the Indian, yelling . . . I woke up just in time to go down to let in El Quemado but not in time to shower. My groin and inner thighs burned. In Poland and on the Western front I made two grave mistakes. In the Mediterranean El Quemado has wiped out the few army corps left behind as a diversion in western Libya and Tunisia. In the next turn I’ll lose Italy. And by the summer of ’44 I’ll probably have lost the game. Then what will happen?
This afternoon—or this morning, I can’t say for sure; whenever it was that I got up for breakfast!—I ran into Frau Else, her husband, and a man I had never seen before sitting at a table off to one side in the restaurant, having tea and cakes. The stranger, tall, with blond hair and a deep tan, was the one leading the conversation, and every so often Frau Else and her husband laughed at his jokes or witticisms, leaning in toward each other until their heads touched and waving their hands as if in a plea to stop the avalanche of stories. After considering whether it was a good idea to join the group, I perched on a stool at the bar and ordered coffee. For once, the waiter hurried to bring it, which only backfired: the coffee spilled, the milk was too hot. As I was waiting I buried my face in my hands and tried to escape the nightmare. It didn’t work, so as soon as I had paid I hurried back up to my room.
I slept for a while, and when I woke up I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. I asked to have a call put through to Stuttgart. I needed to talk to someone, and who better than Conrad. Little by little I felt calmer, but no one picked up the phone at Conrad’s house. I ended the call and for a while I paced around the room, glancing at the German line of defense every time I passed the table, going out on the balcony, pounding, or rather slapping
at the walls and the doors, fighting the octopus of nerves that squirmed in my stomach.
A little while later the phone rang. It was a call from downstairs, announcing a visitor. I said I didn’t want to see anyone, but the clerk insisted. My visitor refused to leave without seeing me. It was Alfons. Alfons who? I was given a last name that meant nothing to me. I could hear voices arguing. The designer I had gotten drunk with! I gave strict instructions that I didn’t want to see him, that they shouldn’t let him up. Through the receiver I could now hear with utter clarity the voice of my visitor protesting the rudeness, the lack of manners, the inhospitality, etc. I hung up.
A minute or two later some agonized howls in the street drew me out onto the balcony. In the middle of the Paseo the designer was yelling up at the front of the hotel, shouting himself hoarse. The poor kid, I decided, was shortsighted and couldn’t see me. It took me a while to realize that he was just saying asshole, over and over. His hair was matted and he was wearing a mustard-colored blazer with huge shoulder pads. For an instant I was afraid he would be hit by a car, but luckily the Paseo Marítimo was almost deserted at that hour.
Unnerved, I went back to bed but I couldn’t sleep anymore. The insults had ceased a while ago, but the mysterious and hurtful words still echoed in my head. I asked myself who the long-winded stranger spotted with Frau Else could be. Her lover? A friend of the family? The doctor? No, doctors are quieter, more reserved. I asked myself whether Conrad had seen Ingeborg again. I imagined them holding hands and strolling down an autumn street. If only Conrad were less shy! The scene, full of possibilities as I saw it, brought tears of pain and happiness to my eyes. How I loved both of them, deep down.
As I lay there thinking, I suddenly realized that the hotel was sunk in a wintry silence. I got nervous and began to pace the room again. With no hope of getting things straight I studied the strategic situation: at best I could hold out for three turns, or with great luck, for four. I coughed, I talked out loud, I searched through my notebooks for a postcard that I then wrote while listening to the sound of the pen as it moved across the stiff surface. I recited these lines by Goethe:
And until you have possessed
dying and rebirth,
you are but a sullen guest
on the gloomy earth.
(Und so lang du das nicht hast, / Dieses: Stirb und werde! / Bist du nur ein trüber Gast / Auf der dunklen Erde.)
All for nothing. I tried to assuage the loneliness, the sense of forlornness, by calling Conrad, Ingeborg, Franz Grabowski, but no one answered. For a moment I wondered whether there was a single soul left in Stuttgart. I began to make random calls, flipping through my address book. It was fate that led me to dial the number of Mathias Müller, the pompous kid from Forced Marches, one of my sworn enemies. He was in. The surprise, I suppose, was mutual.
Müller’s voice, phonily masculine, obeys his intent to show no emotion. Coldly, then, he welcomes me home. Naturally, he thinks I’ve returned. Naturally, too, he expects that I have some professional reason for calling, that perhaps I want to invite him to work together to prepare our Paris lectures. I disabuse him of this notion. I’m still in Spain. I heard something of the kind, he lies. Immediately he turns defensive, as if calling from Spain in itself constituted a trap or an insult. I’m just calling you at random, I said. Silence. I’m in my room making calls at random, and you’re the lucky winner. I burst out laughing and Müller tried in vain to imitate me. All he managed was a kind of squawk.
“I’m the lucky winner,” he repeated.
“That’s right. It could have been any other citizen of Stuttgart, but it was you.”
“It was me. So did you get the numbers from a phone book or your
“My address book.”
“Then I wasn’t so lucky.”
Suddenly Müller’s voice changed markedly. It was as if I were talking to a ten-year-old boy trying out bizarre ideas for size. Yesterday I saw Conrad, he said, at the club; he’s changed a lot, did you know? Conrad? How could I know when I’ve been in Spain for ages? This summer it looks like someone snagged him at last. Snagged him? Yes, dropped him, roped him, brought him down, took him out, put a bullet in him. He’s in love, he concluded. Conrad in love? On the other end of the line there was an affirmative
uh-huh, and then the two of us retreated into an embarrassing silence as we realized that we’d said too much. At last, Müller said: the Elephant is dead. Who the hell is the Elephant? My dog, he said, and then he burst into a torrent of onomatopoeic sounds: oink oink oink. That was a pig! Did his dog bark like a pig? See you later, I said hurriedly, and I hung up.
When it got dark I called the reception desk asking for Clarita. The clerk said she wasn’t there. I thought I caught a hint of disgust in her reply. To whom am I speaking? The suspicion that it was Frau Else disguising her voice again lodged in my breast like a horror movie with swimming pools full of blood. This is Nuria, the receptionist, said the voice. How are you, Nuria? I asked in German. Fine, thank you, and you? she answered, also in German. Fine, fine, very well. It wasn’t Frau Else. Convulsed in happiness, I rolled to the edge of the bed and fell off, hurting myself. With my face buried in the rug I let out all the tears that had built up over the course of the afternoon. Then I showered, shaved, and kept waiting.
Spring 1944. I lose Spain and Portugal, Italy (except for Trieste), the last bridgehead on the western side of the Rhine, Hungary, Königsberg, Danzig, Kraków, Breslau, Poznan, Lodz (east of the Oder only Kolberg still stands), Belgrade, Sarajevo, Ragusa (in Yugoslavia only Zagreb still stands), four armored corps, ten infantry corps, fourteen air factors . . .
I’m woken by a noise from the street. When I sit up in bed I can’t hear anything. And yet the feeling of having been called is strong and ineffable. I go out to the balcony in my undershorts: the sun isn’t up yet or maybe it has set already, and parked in front of the hotel is an ambulance with all its lights on. Between the back end of the ambulance and the stairs three people are speaking in soft voices, though they gesture emphatically. Their voices reach the balconies reduced to an unintelligible murmur. The horizon glows dark blue with phosphorescent streaks, like the prelude to a storm. The Paseo Marítimo is empty except for a shadow that vanishes along the boardwalk toward the campground zone, which at this time of day (but what time of day is it?) resembles a milky gray cupola, a bulge in the curve of the beach. At the other end, the lights of the port have faded or simply gone out. The asphalt of the Paseo is wet, a clear sign that it has rained. Suddenly an order rouses the men who are waiting. The doors to the hotel and the ambulance open simultaneously and a stretcher comes down the stairs carried by a couple of medics. With them, lagging solicitously a few steps behind, near the head of the prone figure, comes Frau Else dressed in a long red coat and the big talker with the heavy tan, followed by the receptionist, the night watchman, a waiter, the fat lady from the kitchen. On the stretcher, a blanket pulled up to his chin, is Frau Else’s husband. The way they come down the stairs is extremely cautious, or so it seems to me. Everyone is watching the sick man. Lying on his back and looking desolate, he murmurs instructions for going down the stairs. No one pays any attention to him. Just then our gazes meet in the transparent (and shuddering) space between the balcony and the street.
Then the doors close, the ambulance sets off with its siren blaring, though there isn’t a single car to be seen on the Paseo, the light coming through the ground floor windows goes out, silence descends once again on the Del Mar.
Summer 1944. Like Krebs, Freytag von Loringhoven, Gerhardt Boldt, I record the stages of war despite knowing that it is lost. The storm has broken and now the rain is beating down on the open balcony like a long and bony hand, strangely maternal, as if trying to warn me of the hazards of pride. There’s no one keeping watch over the doors to the hotel, so El Quemado had no problem coming up to my room on his own. The sea is rising. It whispers inside the bathroom where I’ve brought El Quemado to towel off his hair. It’s the perfect moment to hit him, but I don’t move a muscle. El Quemado’s head, wrapped in the towel, exerts a cold and bright fascination over me. Under his feet a little puddle of water forms. Before we start playing I make him take off his wet T-shirt and put on one of mine. It’s a bit tight on him but at least it’s dry. As if at this point it were only natural for me to give him something, El Quemado puts it on without a word. It’s the end of summer and the end of the game. The Oder front and the Rhine front collapse at the first onslaught. El Quemado moves around the table as if he were dancing. Which may be the case. My final circle of defense is Berlin-Szczecin-Bremen-Berlin; everything else, including my armies in Bavaria and the north of Italy, is cut off from supply lines. Where will you sleep tonight, Quemado? I ask. At my place, answers El Quemado. The other questions, of which there are many, stick in my throat. After we parted, I went out on the balcony and stared into the rainy night. Big enough to swallow us all up. Tomorrow there is no doubt I’ll be defeated.
I woke up late and with no appetite. Which is all for the best because I don’t have much money left. The rain hasn’t let up. When I ask for Frau Else at the reception desk, I’m told that she’s in Barcelona or Gerona, “at the Grand Hospital,” with her husband. The verdict on his health is unequivocal: he’s dying. My breakfast consisted of coffee and a croissant. At the restaurant only one waiter was left to wait on five elderly Surinamese and me. All of a sudden the Del Mar is empty.
In mid-afternoon, sitting on the balcony, I realized that my watch wasn’t working anymore. I tried to wind it, I tapped at it, but nothing helped. How long has it been broken? Is this a sign? I hope so. Through the balcony railing I watch the few passersby who hurry along the Paseo Marítimo. Walking toward the port I spot the Wolf and the Lamb, in identical denim jackets. I raised a hand to wave, but of course they didn’t see me. They looked like two puppies, jumping puddles, pushing each other and laughing.
A little while later I went down to the dining room. There once again were the elderly Surinamese, sitting around a big paella pot heaped with yellow rice and seafood. I took a seat at a table nearby and ordered a hamburger and a glass of water. The Surinamese were talking very fast, whether in Dutch or their native tongue I couldn’t say, and the hum of their voices managed to soothe me for an instant. When the waiter appeared with the hamburger I asked whether they were the only people left at the hotel. No, there are other guests who go on bus tours during the day. Retirees, he said. Retirees? How odd. And do they come in very late? Late and making a racket, said the waiter. After eating I went back to my room, took a hot shower, and went to bed.
I woke up in time to pack my suitcases and to ask that a collect call be put through to Germany. The novels I’d brought to read on the beach (and that I hadn’t even flipped through) I left on the night table for Frau Else to find when she got back. The only one I kept was the Florian Linden novel. After a while the receptionist came to inform me that I could talk now. Conrad had accepted the call. In a few brief words I told him that I was happy to talk to him and that with luck we would see each other soon. At first Conrad was a bit brusque and distant, but he soon realized the gravity of what was brewing. Is this our last good-bye? he asked in a rather affected way. I said no, though I was starting to sound less and less sure. Before we hung up we reminisced about our evenings at the club, the epic and unforgettable matches, and we had a good laugh when I told him about my phone conversation with Mathias Müller. Take good care of Ingeborg, I said by way of farewell. I will, Conrad promised solemnly.
I left the door ajar and waited. The sound of the elevator preceded the arrival of El Quemado. The room clearly looked different than it had on previous nights—the suitcases were next to the bed, in a very visible spot—but El Quemado didn’t even give them a glance. We sat down, I on the bed and he near the table, and for an instant nothing happened, as if we had been granted the ability to exit and enter the inside of an iceberg at will. (Now, as I think about it, I see El Quemado with a face floured lunar white, though beneath the thin layer of paint his scars are visible.) The initiative was his, and with no need to draw up sums—he hadn’t brought his notebook,
but all the BRP in the world were his—he unleashed the Russian army on Berlin and conquered it. With the British and American armies he made sure to destroy the units that I might have been able to send to retake the city. Victory was that simple. When my turn came, I tried to move my armored reserves out of the Bremen area and I came up against a wall of Allies. Actually, it was a symbolic move. Immediately thereafter I acknowledged defeat and surrendered. And now what? I asked. El Quemado exhaled a
giant’s sigh and went out on the balcony, from which he made gestures that I should follow. The rain and the wind grew stronger, bowing the palm
trees of the Paseo. El Quemado’s finger pointed ahead of us, over the seawall. On the beach, where the fortress of pedal boats rose, I saw a light, flickering and unreal as St. Elmo’s fire. A light inside the pedal boats?
El Quemado roared like the rain. I’m not ashamed to confess that I thought of Charly, a ghostly Charly returned from beyond the grave to mourn my ruin. Clearly I wasn’t in my right mind. El Quemado said: “Come on, there’s no turning back now,” and I followed him. We went down the steps of
the hotel, passing through the bright and empty reception hall, until we
were in the middle of the Paseo. The rain that struck my face worked on me like a stimulant. I stopped and shouted: Who’s there? El Quemado didn’t answer and kept heading down to the beach. Without thinking I went running after him. Suddenly the mass of stacked pedal boats rose up before
me. I don’t know whether it was because of the rain or the bigger and bigger waves, but it looked to me as if the pedal boats were sinking in the
sand. Were we all sinking? I remembered the night when I slipped stealthily out this way to hear the war counsels of the stranger whom I later took to be Frau Else’s husband. I remembered how hot it was back then and
I compared it to the heat that I now felt coursing through my body. The light we’d seen from the balcony sputtered furiously inside the hut. I leaned heavily on a floater in a stance that communicated both determination and exhaustion, and through the cracks I tried to make out who could be in there by the light; it was useless. Pushing with all my might I tried to topple the structure and only managed to scratch my hands on wood and rusting metal. The fortress was like granite. I had taken my eyes off of El Quemado for a few seconds, and now he was standing with his back to the pedal
boats, absorbed in the contemplation of the storm. Who’s there? Please answer, I shouted. Without waiting for a response that might never come I tried to scale the hut but took a wrong step and fell flat on the sand.
As I was getting up, El Quemado appeared beside me. I understood that there was nothing left to do. El Quemado’s hand grabbed me by the scruff
of the neck and yanked me up. I flailed a little, without hope, and tried
to kick him, but my limbs were limp. Though I don’t think El Quemado
heard me I whispered that I was no Nazi, that none of it was my fault. Beyond that, there was nothing I could do; the strength and determination of El Quemado, spurred on by the storm and surf, were boundless. After
this my memories are vague and fragmented. I was lifted up like a rag doll and instead of what I expected (death by water), I was dragged toward the opening of the pedal-boat hut. I put up no resistance, I made no further pleas, I didn’t close my eyes except when—grabbed by the neck and the crotch—I commenced my trip inside; then I did close my eyes and I saw myself inhabiting another day, less black but still not bright, the “sullen guest on the gloomy earth,” and I saw El Quemado leaving town and country
down a winding path of cartoons and nightmares (but what country?
Spain? the European Union?) like the eternal mourner. I opened my eyes when I felt myself beached in the sand, a few inches from a kerosene lamp. It wasn’t long before I realized, as I twisted like a worm, that I was alone and that there never had been anyone beside the lamp; it had been lighted in the storm precisely so that I would see it from the hotel balcony.
Outside, walking in circles around the fortress, El Quemado laughed. I
could hear his footsteps in the sand and his clear, happy laugh, like that of a child. How long was I there, on my knees among El Quemado’s sparse belongings? I don’t know. When I came out it wasn’t raining anymore and dawn was beginning to appear on the horizon. I put out the lamp and hoisted myself out of the hole. El Quemado was sitting cross-legged, gazing toward the east, away from his pedal boats. He might easily have been dead and still propped up there on the sand. I came closer, but not much, and said good-bye.
September 25. Bar Casanova. La Jonquera
With the first light of day I left the Del Mar; in my car, I rolled slowly along the Paseo Marítimo, careful not to make too much noise and disturb anyone. When I reached the Costa Brava I turned and parked in the lot where at the start of our vacation Charly had shown us his windsurfing board. On my way to the pedal boats I saw no one on the beach except for a couple of runners in track suits who vanished in the direction of the campgrounds. The rain had stopped some time ago; by the purity of the air one could sense that it would be a sunny day. The sand, however, was still wet. When I reached the pedal boats I listened for any sound that might betray the presence of El Quemado and I thought I caught a very soft snore coming from inside, but I can’t be sure. In a plastic bag I was carrying Third Reich. Carefully I set it on the tarp that covered the pedal boats and returned to the car. It was nine in the morning when I left town. The streets were half-deserted, which made me think it must be some local holiday. Everyone seemed to be in bed. On the highway the traffic picked up, cars with
French and German license plates headed in the same direction as me.
Now I’m in La Jonquera . . .
For three days I saw no one. Yesterday, at last, I dropped by the club, secretly convinced that seeing my old friends wasn’t a good idea, at least not yet. Conrad was sitting at a table in the corner. His hair was longer and he had dark circles under his eyes that I didn’t remember. For a while I watched him without saying anything as the others came up to greet me. Hello, champ. With what warmth and sincerity I was welcomed, and yet all I felt was bitterness! When he saw me in the midst of the commotion, Conrad sauntered over and shook my hand. It was a less effusive welcome than that of the others but more genuine, which was balm to my soul; I felt at home. Soon everyone went back to their tables and new battles were begun. Conrad got someone to take his place and asked whether I wanted to talk at the club or outside. I said I’d like to walk. We ended up at my house, drinking coffee and talking about everything except what really mattered, until after midnight, when I offered to drive him home. We spent the whole ride in silence. I chose not to come in. I’m tired, I explained. When we parted, Conrad said that if I needed money I shouldn’t hesitate to ask him for it. I probably will need a little money. Again we shook hands, longer and more earnestly than before.
Neither of us had any intention of making love and yet we ended up in bed. This was due in part to the seductive arrangement of the furniture, rugs, and various objects with which Ingeborg has redecorated her large room, and to the music of an American singer whose name I can’t recall, and also to the rare peace of the indigo Sunday afternoon. This doesn’t mean that we’ve resumed our relationship; the decision to remain friends is firm on both sides and surely will lead to better things than our old bond. To be honest, the difference between the two situations isn’t great. Of course I had to tell her some of the things that happened in Spain after she left. Basically I talked about Clarita and the discovery of Charly’s body. Both stories made a strong impression on her. In return, she revealed something that I’m not sure whether to consider pathetic or funny. While I was away, Conrad tried to woo her. Always, it goes without saying, in the most respectful fashion. And what happened? I asked, surprised. Nothing. Did he kiss you? He tried, but I slapped him. Ingeborg and I laughed, but later I felt bad about it.
I spoke to Hanna on the phone. She told me that Charly had arrived in Oberhausen in a twenty-inch plastic bag—like an extra-large trash bag, more or less—according to Charly’s older brother, who was the one who dealt with receiving the remains and handling the red tape. Hanna’s son is fine. Hanna is happy, or so she says, and she plans to vacation in Spain again some day. “Charly would have liked that, don’t you think?” I said yes, maybe. So what really happened to you? asks Hanna. Poor Ingeborg believed the whole story, but I’ve been around longer, haven’t I? Nothing happened to me, I said. What happened to you? After a moment (voices in the background, Hanna isn’t alone) she says: To me? . . . The same as always.
Starting tomorrow I’ll be working as a clerk for a company that makes spoons, forks, knives, and such things. My hours aren’t much different than they were before and the salary is a little better. Since I got back, I’ve been on hiatus from games. (A lie: last week I played cards with Ingeborg and her flatmate.) No one from my circle—because I’ve been going to the club twice a week—has noticed. There they ascribe my lack of enthusiasm to burnout or to long hours spent writing about games. How wrong they are! The paper that I was going to present in Paris is being written by Conrad. My only contribution will be to translate it into English. And now that I’ve embarked on a new stage in my work life, even that is uncertain.
Today, after a long walk, I told Conrad that when you really thought about it we were all essentially ghosts belonging to a ghostly General Staff, forever performing military exercises on game boards. Scale maneuvers. Remember von Seeckt? We’re like his officers, breaking the law, shadows playing with shadows. You’re very poetic tonight, said Conrad. He didn’t understand, of course. I added that I probably wouldn’t go to Paris. At first Conrad thought I couldn’t go because of work and he accepted that, but when I said that at work everyone was going on vacation in December and I had other reasons, he took it personally and for a long time he refused to talk to me. It’s as if you’re throwing me to the lions, he said. I laughed at that: We’re von Seeckt’s trash but we love each other, right? Finally, Conrad laughed, too, but sadly.
I talked on the phone to Frau Else. A cold and energetic conversation. As if the two of us had nothing better to do than to shout. My husband is dead! I’m fine, what can I say! Clarita is out of work! The weather is good! There are still tourists in town but the Del Mar is closed! Soon I’m off on a trip to Tunisia! I assumed that the pedal boats were gone by now. Instead of inquiring directly about El Quemado, I asked a stupid question. I said: Is the beach empty? What else! Of course it’s empty! As if autumn had turned us deaf. Not that it mattered. Before we said good-bye Frau Else reminded me that I had left some books behind at the hotel, and she said she planned to send them. I didn’t forget them, I said, I left them there for you. I think she got a little choked up. Then we said good night and hung up.
I decided to go with Conrad to the convention just to watch. The first few days were boring and although I occasionally did some interpreting for my German, French, and English colleagues, I escaped as soon as I was free and spent the rest of the time taking long walks around Paris. For better or for worse, all the papers and speeches were delivered, all the games were played, and all the plans for a European federation of players were sketched out and deliberated. For my part, I came to the conclusion that eighty percent of the speakers needed psychiatric help. As consolation, I kept reminding myself that they were harmless until finally I was convinced, for lack of a better option. The main attraction was the arrival of Rex Douglas and the Americans. Rex is a guy in his forties, tall, strong, with thick, glossy brown hair (does he use pomade? hard to say), who radiates energy wherever he goes. One could say that he was the undisputed star of the convention and the driving force behind every idea hatched, no matter how random or stupid. As for me, I chose not to greet him, though it would be closer to the truth to say that I chose not to make the effort to approach him, permanently surrounded as he was by a cloud of organizers and admirers. The day of his arrival Conrad exchanged a few words with him and every night at Jean-Marc’s house, where we were staying, all he talked about was how interesting and intelligent Rex was. Apparently Rex even played a round of Apocalypse, the new game just launched by his publishing house, but that evening I wasn’t there and I didn’t see him. My chance came on the second-to-last day of the convention. Rex was standing with a group of Germans and Italians and I was just fifteen feet away, at the Stuttgart group’s booth, when I heard my name being called. This is Udo Berger, our German champion. When I came over the others stepped aside and there I was, face to face with Rex Douglas. I tried to say something but the only words I could get out were garbled and incoherent. Rex shook my hand. He didn’t remember our brief correspondence, or maybe he preferred not to make it public. He turned straight back to his conversation with someone from the Cologne group and I stood there for an instant listening, with my eyes half closed. They were talking about Third Reich and the strategies to be used with the new variants that Beyma had added. At the convention they were playing a Third Reich and I hadn’t even gone for a stroll around the games area! By what they said I inferred that the guy from Cologne was playing the German side and that the war had reached a stalemate.
“That’s good for you,” said Rex Douglas brusquely.
“Yes, if we hold on to what we’ve won, which won’t be easy,” said the guy from Cologne.
The others nodded. Praises were sung of a French player who was leading the team playing the USSR and immediately they began to make plans for the dinner that night, another “brotherhood banquet,” like all the rest. Unnoticed, I slipped away from the group. I went back to the Stuttgart booth, which was empty except for the projects sponsored by Conrad, and I straightened it a little, adjusting a magazine here, a game there, and left the convention hall without a sound.
—Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer