Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two Eduardos Becharas. Two books in Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Copista Publishing House and Escarabajo Publishing House have the pleasure of inviting you to the presentation of “Creaturas del Mandala” a book by Eduardo Bechara Baracat and “Poemas para una ciudad, un insecto y una mujer” a book by Eduardo Bechara Navratilova.

Day: March 16, 2011
Time: 7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Place: Librería Eterna Cadencia
Address: Calle Honduras 5574, Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The books will be presented by Alberto Mario Perrone, writer and journalist of Ñ literary magazine.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mournful Mariachi - by: Eduardo Bechara Navratilova

From left to right: Sebastián Pineda, R. H. Moreno Duran, Eduardo Bechara Navratilova y Germán Espinosa.

It poured in Bogota. Thunder and lightning fell, producing roars and shines. I took Thirteenth Avenue and went down Eightieth Street, passing in front of the National Heroes’ Monument. The water rose half way up the hubcaps. I made a left onto Caracas Avenue and drove south through the devilish traffic, limited to the movement of the urban snake. I reached Los Martires Park one hour later, just beside the National Recruitment Battalion where I had served a year of military service. The site took me back fourteen years to those days. Up Twelfth Street, garbage was scattered around the neighborhood of houses with discolored facades and crumbling store fronts. Some bums took shelter from the rain under the entrance of San Jose hospital, a republican building with high columns, wooden windows and concrete terraces. Rain drops burst on the windshield. I parked and went out into the rain. The street was one big pool. The water seeped through my sweater and reached my skin with a frosty sensation. I took a few steps and it got inside my shoes. By the time I arrived at the entrance, my socks were soaked. I walked towards the lobby dripping.
“I’m here to see Germán Espinosa,” I told the nurse. She looked at some papers and directed me to intensive care.
My shoes squished. I went up some stairs and walked through some peeled wall corridors until I found Adrián.
“Nobody knows what’s going on with him,” he said with cloudy eyes. “They did an exploratory surgery on him, and now he’s in a coma with his belly half-open.” The bad news and Bogotá’s cold weather on my wet clothing made me shiver. “Father hadn’t pissed in seventy two hours, and had a pain in his bladder. They operated on him without knowing what he really had, and now they’re telling us that it’s an infection in his intestines. They’re going to leave his belly open until it clears up.”
Josefina was in the waiting room covering her face with her hands. At the sound of my shoes she lifted her face and I could see her crying eyes, her fallen cheek bones.
“Come and wait with us,” she said pointing at a seat. Plastic flowers stood on a center table.
I kissed her and greeted León who was wearing his Navy Officer uniform with blue bordered trims. His wife Lida held his hand. I sat where Josefina had told me. The place was somber. A couple of nurses giggled in a nearby counter.
Sebastián arrived from the restroom a moment later. He had introduced me to them some years ago, when we studied literature in college. With time it became a habit to meet with Germán and Josefina at the Jiménez Avenue coffee shop where we spoke about literature and politics.
The Master, as Sebastián used to call him in homage for having written the novel La tejedora de coronas —considered by many as the most important Colombian novel of the XXth century after One Hundred years of solitude— was a grumpy man filled with a deep sense of pride and honor. He could stop talking to old friends if they expressed negative comment about something he had written.
Sebastián sat and leaned towards me. He spoke in my ear. “These sons of bitches opened him up without any need. Can you believe it?”
“Do they know who he is?”
“They didn’t have a clue. I had to warn them that if the Master dies they’re responsible for the death of one of the most important writer in Colombia, if not the first.”
The fabric of the seat I was using was raggedy, the floor was dirty, the hospital’s general appearance was shitty. Their life had been difficult all along. The whole family had lived in a hotel room for over a year, as Germán and Josefina had no money to afford an apartment. Their parents ended up paying for Adrian’s and Leon’s education, as German had struggled in making a living out of writing.
Josefina was uneasy. She went to ask if the doctors had any news and then came back in disappointment. She didn’t say much, but I could tell her life would break down if something happened to him. She cracked down in tears and cleaned them with a tissue. Leon caressed her head. Lida stood in silence.
The image of the sensual Genoveva Alcocer, the character of La tejedora de coronas, came to my mind. I imagined her taking baths under an opened Caribbean sky. Was Josefina the muse that had inspired Germán? If so, she was weeping for Federico, the young man that had discovered a planet and named it after her on a coconut beach beside the blue colored sea of Cartagena de Indias. “Planeta Genoveva,” he called it.
Writers use their lovers as muses. I’d been inspired by the girl I ended up calling Mantis, to write a novel of a young man that killed his former lover. It had been my thesis when graduating from law school.
Adrian walked up and down the hallway with his closed fists over his mouth. The tips of his raincoat fluttered on each turn. When I left the hospital it was still raining. I drove home remembering the day I’d run away from the Mantis. A woman I would have given my soul for. She still wondered in my mind, although she’d been out of my life for years.
I returned with my dad on the weekend. The morning was cloudy, but it wasn’t raining. Germán had awakened, but his belly was still open. The infection hadn’t lessened. We went to a nearby bakery on a street full of holes and puddles, where the thick smoke from old buses dirtied the air. In a corner, against the hospital wall, a man with mutilated legs begged for money.
“You die and you take nothing with you,” he said, shaking the trimmed base of a plastic bottle. Coins rattled inside.
We entered a narrow bakery and asked for some almojábanas. An employee wearing a red uniform with a white apron brought them to the table.
“We need to have faith in his recovery,” dad said. Adrián, León, and Lida nodded. Josefina dazed. Was she imagining Federico? The young man Genoveva had lost by the sword of a French pirate. Her eyes were swollen. The thought of losing her husband at any moment must have made those days the most difficult of her life.
“The Master is already speaking,” Sebastian told me some days later.
I returned with the hope of seeing him. The day was bright and the sky appeared clean. I parked beside a public school. Some girls dressed up in a white and blue checkered uniform spoke among them. I entered the crumbling hospital and found them.
“His infection has lessened, but now they are saying that he has pneumonia.” Josefina told me. Her skin was pale and she was breathing heavily. I walked her through a corridor that led to a small cement terrace, where smoke with the smell of roasted meat was expelled from a chimney. She lit a cigarette. Her eyes were dry, as if they’d run out of tears. For a moment I thought she was ready to surrender.
“It burns me to see him like this!” she said looking at the floor. She smoked frantically. A yellowish color, like faded paper extended through her fingers to the edge of her nails. She lit a new cigarette and then another one as if the world was falling down. We walked back to where Sebastián and Adrian awaited.
“The Master is drugged but awake.” Sebastián said.
“Do you want to see him?” Josefina asked. I entered into the room. He was lying in the bed. A plastic curtain attached to a high beam isolated his abdomen from the environment. “Go close,” she said.
I walked toward him in shock. His skeleton could be seen below his skin. His long beard shone in his cadaverous face, skewed towards one side like a dying bird’s. His slightly opened eyes focused me. His mouth began to move with effort. I leaned close to him to hear what he was saying.
“I’m bored; get me out of here,” he whispered. He was comical even in the verge of dying.
Walking out we ran into a doctor and a group of students from a medical school. My eyes made contact with those of a beautiful student. She looked away.
“These fuckers are using the Master as a guinea pig,” Sebastián said looking at the group that surrounded the bed. Josefina sat in the waiting room and covered her face with her hands. Genoveva Alcocer came back to me. She was being raped by the French pirate, the same man that had previously killed Federico before they could even kiss. Had Germán created her as a premonition of love, life and pain, as Shakespeare had with Romeo and Juliet?
Sebastián called me some weeks later telling me Germán had been discharged. I visited his apartment with Dad. Josefina received us with a hug. She was radiant. Her eyes were wide open. She seated us and knocked on Adrián’s door. Some of her oil canvas paintings hung in the small living room, signed and dated some decades ago. An old wall clock told the time in Roman numerals. 10:10 a.m. I got distracted looking at the pendulum movement of the golden second hand, until Dad pointed to an ash tray filled with cigarette butts in the center table.
“Behind a great character there is always a common man,” he said.
Adrian came out with a clouded look, wearing a dressing gown over his pajamas. “He’s better, but he doesn’t want to do the exercises,” he told us pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes.
After some minutes a door opened. I heard him speak with a low voice. It was far from the booming tone he used in heated discussions. He walked towards us supporting his body with a walker. He sat his thin body slowly in the sofa. He smiled and for a moment I seemed to see in his face the expressions of a boy. He took out a pack of cigarette from the pocket of his gown and lit one. In the bottom of his eyes I saw the strong and determined man that I knew before.
“Master, you’re smoking?” I asked.
“There’s nothing like doing the things you like,” he answered blowing smoke out with pleasure. He took the lighter toward Josefina. She inhaled and the tip of her cigarette lit with a burning color.
I called them a couple of times to see how he was doing. Josefina told me Germán was writing again. He had gained some pounds and they had both returned to going to the Avenida Jiménez coffee shop. The routine of their lives was slowly being reestablished.
We organized a get-together at our place. Germán’s weight had risen to normal. He looked energetic, talked loudly, smoked and drank whisky sitting on the edge of the living room couch with his back straightened. I put on Jorge Negrete’s CD and we heard the first notes of “Me he de comer esa tuna.” He took a deep breath, waited for an instant and sang with a tone that resonated perfectly with dad’s voice. “Dicen que soy hombre malo, malo y mal averiguado, dicen que soy hombre malo, malo y mal averiguado; por que me comí un durazno, porque me comí un durazno, por que me comí un durazno, de corazón colorado…”. He glanced at Josefina broadening his chest and raising his chin. She looked back at him, tilting her head as if they were the same young couple that had married more than forty years ago. Sebastian sang with exaggerated gestures. Adrian smiled and sang while seeing his parents happy.
“Alvaro, there’s nothing like love,” he said sipping his whisky. Germán was a melodramatic man, but that made part of his personality. In time he’d come to look as some of the characters he’d created. He left the glass in the central table, put one hand over the handle of the cane, and intertwined the other one with Josefina’s. She didn’t speak much but had a permanent smile. Her cheek bones stood out on her face.
“Germán, for the happiness of having been happy,” father said raising his glass.
We drank and sang until the night burned its last moments.
Germán’s health problems seemed forgotten until I received a call from Sebastián. “There’s bad news,” he said with a serious voice. “Miss Josefina died yesterday from a heart attack.”
Dad went with me to the wake. We arrived at 9:00 a.m. at the Infantry Battalion, where a soldier inspected the underside of our car with a mirror. Another one searched the interior with the aid of a German shepherd who sniffed the front and back seats. I opened the trunk and the dog passed his snout over it. The soldier’s boots had the American shine just as I remembered it. He wore the green suit tucked at the edge of the black cartridge holders. The retractable-butt Galil rifle was mounted on his shoulder with the strap stretched over his chest as required. His Military Police helmet had some scratches on the white painting strap. A sergeant in the guard allowed our entry once the soldier gave the clearance.
We parked on the opposite side of the drill square, where I had prayed to defend the country in 1992. A Colombian flag fluttered in the wind, over the monument of the heroes fallen in combat. A gate separated the battalion from the Seventh Avenue, where cars passed at full speed. Several sentries kept guard in their various sentry boxes.
On the other side of the Avenue, the cavalry battalion stood against the eastern hills of the city. The sky was cloudy. Some tanks guarded the premises showing their canyons in wartime against the FARC.
What was going to happen now that Genoveva had died before Federico?
Nobody knew anything about her in the chapel. We waited. A man wearing a Navy uniform came in and addressed us as Leon’s friend. “Who would have thought she would go before him. The pain she went through in German’s illness killed her,” he said pulling his uniform sleeves. Seeing him on the verge of dying could have showed her how lonely she would have been without the man that had named a planet after her. Now she was alive in his book.
The Master entered with his family. He wore a red necktie, a white shirt, a shiny black suit with a handkerchief in his front pocket, and a long overcoat that made him look like a man of a past epoch.
His face was perfectly shaved in the cheeks and the edges of his well-trimmed beard. His wet hair in place, a serene look and the slow movements that he used in every one of his actions gave him the appearance of a man beyond good or bad.
“Germán, I’m so sorry,” father said embracing him.
“I know, Alvaro; I know.”
I gave him my condolences and embraced him. The wake room remained closed. We sat around a wooden table waiting for the coffin to arrive. It was a simple place with a bronze crucifix nailed to a white wall. Germán put the cane between his legs, supporting his hands on it, one over the other. He remained like that for a while, until he took out a cigarette and lit it.
“My life ends here. I am going to drink myself to death,” he said shrugging his shoulders.
A red rim encircled his eyes. The cigarettes and liquor on his breath reached me like a wave of sadness and desolation. His dry lips made a contrast with his smooth and pale skin.
He took the cigarette to his mouth and inhaled loosing his eyes into space. The desolation chewed him from top to bottom. He finished the cigarette and pulled out another one that he lit with the smoky butt of the first. The same yellowish color that Josefina wore in her fingers, extended up to the edge of his nails. How many millions of cigarettes had witnessed their passion? He smoked half a pack lighting one after another.
“There’s nothing left but suicide,” he mourned.
Lida brought him coffee. He put his hand inside the overcoat pocket and pulled out a medium bottle of Old Par that he used to liven up the drink. He drank a little to reduce the coffee-level and filled it up with whisky. He then added some to mine.
“Drink with me. She was my woman since she was nineteen.”
Sebastian called my cell phone. “I’ll be there in a while. Johann Rodríguez Bravo and I stayed till dawn with him drinking whisky.”
The coffin arrived some time later. Elder politicians and writers came by and he greeted them in pain.
“Life no longer has any sense. None!” he repeated.
He kept drinking until he appeared delirious. People do strange things when loosing their love ones. I’d written a six hundred page novel after the Mantis was no longer a part of my life.
I went to the mass the following day. There weren’t more than 20 people. On my way out I greeted Luz Mary Giraldo, who told me that in the three hours she’d been with him, nobody else had come to visit. I also greeted Jorge Franco, whom I had not seen since the reception we’d gone to in the French Ambassador’s house, where Germán had been granted the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres medal for writing La tejedora de coronas.
It started to rain. I followed the funeral caravan in my car through the congested 116th Street and then on the freeway. I remembered Josefina smiling in our living room. Happiness shinning in her eyes. How unexpected death is, as sudden as the arrival of the pirate ships to Cartagena.
The rain stopped when we were reaching The Gardens of Peace, although a thin mist persisted. I got out gloomy and caught up with Leon and Lida in front of the crematorium, where a high structure is erected as a monument to the deceased. A rat lay dead in the entrance of the garden.
“Don’t look at it!” Leon told his wife.
We walked on the wet grass among the tombstones. A scent of wet earth could be smelled in the atmosphere. Bogotá’s savannah appeared with all its fertility, surrounded by trees, flowers and green hills. In a neighboring funeral some mariachis sang rancheras dressed in gaudy suits, designed with chamois openwork and stamped metal sets of buttons, playing vihuelas, guitars, violins and trumpets. A couple of them sang with microphones in their hands under their wide wing Mexican hats.
Josefina’s tomb was some yards away. Germán supported his hands on the cane beside the rectangular grave dug in the ground. León and Lida stood beside him hooking his arms. A priest dressed in a white cassock with an embroidered cross that glittered in the center of his chest, gave a sermon. His words clashed with the noisy ranchera songs, cries and tearing shouts that the neighboring funeral produced. By now, she should have met with Genoveva. They would both wait for Germán as one single person, in a place where their planet shone at dusk over the crispy ocean.
The coffin was lowered. I embraced Adrian passing my arm over his back. A man threw a pair of floral crowns over it. The grave diggers let the soil fall with pieces of fresh clay on it. Genoveva was leaving this world but Planeta Genoveva still existed. It existed in me, in Sebastian and in the world of many other readers.
“Yo sé bien que estoy afuera, pero el día en que yo me muera, se que tendrás que llorar. Llorar y llorar,” the mariachis sang. A heart rending shout came from the neighboring funeral. Adrian’s knees seemed to tremble. “…con dinero y sin dinero hago siempre lo que quiero, y mi palabra es la ley, no tengo trono ni reina, ni nadie que me comprenda, pero sigo siendo El Rey…” they sang.
“How can this be? How can this be? How can this be?” a woman shouted.
The mist was fading. Some tender rays of light went through the clouds painting a vertical set of lines that came down over the savannah.
I approached Germán. He continued between his son and his daughter-in-law. He lifted his eyes from the tomb and dazed. Was he imagining the moment he would reunite with Genoveva?
“I’m so sorry, Master, I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks for your words,” he answered with fallen eyelids “but you’re mourning a ghost.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Owning the Street - By: Eduardo Bechara Navratilova

The ochre roofs and Gothic domes formed an idyllic postcard picture in the clear Prague summer night. Jeff and I returned to the dorms after dining at a Czech restaurant. He stopped to talk to some people from the program, while I went to knock on Veronica’s door, a cinnamon skin Mexican girl who’d told me to look for her on the evening. We’d met that morning at the Kolej Komenskeho breakfast.

She opened with cloudy eyes wearing a short tank top which revealed her belly. “I was sleeping” she said with cloudy eyes. “We’ll be meeting with the people of my program at eleven; we’re going to a club. Do you want to come?”

I walked back to my room smiling. She was the type of girl I could fall for. I read some news on the Internet regarding ‘Operation Jaque’, in which the Colombian Army had rescued Ingrid Betancourt without firing a single bullet, and worked on a short story for Robert Olen Butler’s fiction workshop. When the time came I took a shower, dressed and waited. At eleven twenty- five I walked to Jeff's room. He was working on his P.C.

“She must be getting ready. You know how women are,” he said.

I knocked on her door again. She opened and a wave of perfume invaded the hallway. She had makeup on. Her black hair slipped down her shoulders. “I’ll look for you,” she said. Once she turned I glanced at her long legs and the shorts she wore standing on a pair of black high heels that produced a clatter on the tiles. I hadn’t dated a girl I really liked since I’d moved out of Colombia, leaving Tatiana behind.

I went back to Jeff’s room, took the book The years of Smashing Bricks of Richard Katrovas, who would be teaching us the second part of the fiction workshop, and started reading until I heard the sound of Veronica’s high heels on the floor of the hallway. I looked out the door and saw her walking with her roommate towards the stairs.

I put the book on the shelf. “She didn’t come looking for me”, I told Jeff as I rushed out. She was gone.

“She’ll come back,” he said.

I went down to the lobby where Jack was drinking a Pilzen Urquell with Heinz and Paul. I asked him if he’d seen the Mexican girl leaving. He hadn’t been looking.

Had she left without me? It didn’t sound right. I looked for her in the alleys of the old communist architecture dormitory, where the doors handles were broken, the furnishings were built with cheap wood broken at the tips, and the bathrooms were narrow compartments with plastic toilets and high tanks that were flushed pulling a tarnished cord which must have been white. Some people said that the building used to be a center of operations of the KGB. I searched for her once more before going back to Jeff’s room.

“Do you seriously think she left? She could be around,” he said lifting his eyes from the screen of his P.C.

“Tell her I’m in the lobby if she comes looking for me,” I asked him. The second floor of the dorm with its twists and turns was like a labyrinth. I went down. She couldn’t have just left. How was it possible?

Jack gave me a beer. I drank it in short sips looking towards the staircases. Why do these things have to be so difficult? I walked to the reception and asked a lady if she’d seen a group leaving. She answered that several people had just left. I returned gloomy.

“Are you coming with us?” Jack asked. “It’s Heinz’s 21st birthday.”

“I don’t know. I was going to go out with the Mexican girl.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know.”

He looked at me with disbelief, as if it was difficult to think she was still around. He put his hand on my shoulder and showed me the way. The night was chilly. Scenes from my past tormented me as I walked to the tram station. The memory of Tatiana increased my frustration. She had a new boyfriend. A pair of red spot beetles mated on the cobblestones.

Leave it behind. I can’t. I dislike the feeling of losing opportunities that go away and don’t come back, of time leaking in front of me. I’d become a pussy since I’d left Colombia. The world turned faster and nothing was really mine. Like that fleeting emotion of going out with Veronica. I yearned to live in Prague, I’d wanted it since the summer of 97, but it was still impossible, I had to finish my Masters in the United States and perfect my written English.

I still couldn’t believe I was going out with some 21 year old kids. The number 23 tram turned the curve and Jack shouted at Ashley and Julie to hurry up. A beep sounded, the doors closed and the vehicle began its descent making an electric noise. It went around the castle, its gardens and then down a steep slope. I saw Veronica when the city opened up from the hill. She looked at me with her black eyes. I passed my mouth over her neck, her shoulders, and the cleavage of her chest. The Vltava river looked like a dark shadow crossed by bridges.

We got off at Malostranská and crossed the Mánesuv most. The medieval structure of Charles Bridge reflected on the water. It was certainly a romantic scene; the perfect spot to be with Veronica. The walls of the castle and the pointing towers of St. Vitus Cathedral were lit at the top of the mountain, just as I’d known it that first summer, when the image of the bridge and the castle appeared in the mist as the train crossed the river in the twilight. It had seemed the most beautiful place on earth. It still was.

We went by the opera house and the Charles University Philosophy and Literature faculty building, where we attended the fiction workshop. Took Krizovnicka Ulice and walked in the silent street up to the beginning of Karlúv most. The stone carved bridge door with needles in its roof, made a pretty picture with Mala Strana across the river as a background. In a near façade, an English sign promoted the five-story nightclub, Karlovy Lazne: “The biggest disco in Central Europe.” We went through a cobblestone passageway that ran from one side to the other inside the old building. Some bouncers were smoking at the entrance of the disco. Jack suggested drinking somewhere else before going in. We walked by a man made gap where the water fell quietly across the river. I’d read it had been made after a flooding. Some locks allowed the passage of ships on the other side.

When I had seen Veronica in the hallway I should have yelled. I should have stayed waiting for her. Maybe she was in another part of the dorm. What a dick.

We turned onto a street lit by lanterns and went inside a bar of ochre walls with chalk writings and photos of people with unhappy faces. A group of people sang with a guitar in a table. We ordered Pilzen, but when the waitress was walking away, Ashley said that they were leaving because they didn’t like the place. Heinz stood up behind them.

“Let them go,” Jack told him.

A woman with round glasses, black t-shirt and blond hair, played a song that other young girls hummed in the table behind us.

“What language is that?” I asked.

“Russian,” one of the girls said.

A man with Slavic eyes took the guitar and sang. The beer went down my throat and for the first time in the evening I felt relieved, as if Veronica’s vanishing would have never happened. I started to clap to the beat of the song and after a moment Jack got up to dance, raising his elbows over his shoulders. Paul went to the bathroom. When he came back one of the women took his arm and gave him a couple of turns. I took out the camera and started filming. The young girls in the other table kept on singing.

Jack took the guitar and sang My girl. We asked for another beer and then another. Jack and the Russian alternated their songs.

“Happy birthday, Heinz,” Jack said when he finished playing Summer of 69.

A Czech guy sang a couple of local songs. The waitress brought a round of slivovits at the request of the owner. She’d come to Prague three years ago from Georgia. Her friends came from Siberia. We gulped the full cups. “It would have been impossible to see Russians and Americans singing and dancing with each other twenty years ago, before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she said with bright eyes. Those were the times when my mother wouldn’t dare to enter Czechoslovakia or she’d wind up in jail. In 1952 she’d escaped from communism crossing the German border with her father and step mother. The two brothers of her step mother had been degraded from architect to brick layers as punishment.

We left at two, and walked by the river up to Karlovy Lazne, where a group of young people stood at the entrance. As we approached it, a fuss was developing and a bouncer threw a drink on a girl’s face. She tried to fight back but the man held her arms, and then pulled her hair.

“Are there no real men in this country?” she shouted in English.

I grabbed his wrists and lowered them down to his waist, but was immediately surrounded by the other bouncers. One of them hit my forearms, another showed me his closed fist on the face, and another one sprayed me.

“They’re throwing pepper spray!” Jack shouted at my side. My right cheek burned but my eyes were not hit by the lachrymatory agent. I was pulled back by one of my friends and the girl was left by herself among the pack. The bully drew his right hand – I saw it travel through the air, his arm outstretched like a racket –. She took it in the face. I felt it on my skin. Then he hit her in the other cheek.

I wanted to pitch myself at them and start throwing punches like a madman. Various images crossed my mind. I saw myself surrounded, with my nose bleeding, in a police station giving explanations in my limited Czech, having a black eye, speaking with the director of the Prague Summer Program…

The man hit another American girl. The group rescued the girls and withdrew, led by a red-faced fat guy in a curly yellow wig. We stood there digesting the situation. The bouncer’s skin was dark. He stretched his arms widening his shoulders inside the black jacket, and moved his neck to one side and another, as if he’d just won a boxing match. I felt the blood running through my veins. The five bullies regrouped once again in front of Karlovy Lazne, trying to intimidate us. “How fucking brave are they,” I said.

“What are we going to do? They’re looking over here,” Heinz said.

One of them snapped his fingers and moved his hand, motioning us to go away. We stood there. In the two years I’d been in charge of the entrance of Nabu bar in Bogota, I’d never seen something so disgusting.

“Let’s go,” Heinz insisted taking a step backwards.

Jack and Paul stayed put at my side. The five bouncers were planning something. We continued the challenge until one of them shouted an evident threat by the tone of his voice.

“These sons of bitches think they own the street,” I said.

We glanced at them and turned back. The street looked lonely. We went around some railings and walked toward the medieval passageway that led to the bridge door.

"Fuckin’ bastards! What kind of pussy hits a girl?” Paul asked. It was the first time I’d seen something like that in Prague. Petr Bilek was right. The director of the Czech literature department at Charles University had said in class that the city was filling up with laundering establishments where money from drug traffic, white slavery, weapon smuggling and other criminal activities entered the country’s economy. I understood his distress. It was disturbing to see that the Czech Republic had passed from the domination by the communists to the Russian mafia. Before the communists it had been the Nazis and some decades before, at the end of the XIXth century, the country had been under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“It’s the Russian mafia,” I said as we passed the statue of King Charles IV.

Jack was hipper. He threw punches into the air. “We have to do something about it. This never happens in the U.S.,” he said.

“Of course it happens,” Paul replied.

“I’ve never seen something like that in Kalamazoo.”

“Jack, do you want me to tell you the things I’ve seen in the year I’ve been living in Philly? I can tell you this, though: I never saw something like that from the bouncers I worked with on a bar in Bogota,” I said.

The castle shone in the water. It seemed difficult to imagine I was walking in the same fairy tale city where statues speak to you as you pass by their side. I could see the bouncer’s violent arm movement repeating inside my head. The way in which he’d done it led to believe he hit his mother, sister, girlfriend or any other woman who he found in his path. He certainly was not Czech. He couldn’t be. The color of his skin was dark. Czechs were civilized, at least that was the impression I had from my own mother.

We crossed the bridge reaching Mala Strana where my parents and I had thrown my grandmothers ashes into the river some years ago, and walked on Mostecká Ulice up to Malostranské námestí. The green dome of St. Nicholas Cathedral appeared illuminated against the starry sky. We then took Nerudova Ulice in the direction of Kolej Komenskeho.

“We must do something, I’m telling you. Did you see the expression on her face?” Jack asked.

“What can we do? Nothing!” Heinz said.

“Of course we can.”

“Yeah, well what? We’re just plain tourists. This is not our country.”

“It’s my mother’s country,” I replied.

Jack stopped a patrol that drove up the street in front of the Romanian embassy. The policeman told us that there was a station three blocks from there.

“What are we going to tell them, that they hit some tourists? Do you think they care? Maybe it’s not such a big deal to hit a woman here.”

“Not such a big deal? You say that because she wasn’t your girlfriend.”

“No, truly. Maybe these people are used to hitting women. Last week I saw a guy grabbing a girl in the street,” said Heinz.

“Who do you mean? The Czechs?” I asked.

“I don’t know: the Czechs, the Ukrainians, the Russians, what difference does it make. It’s taking place in Prague,” he replied as I remembered a man slapping a girl in a disco at Cesky Budejovice.

“We’ll we must tell the police. It’s what we’d do in America,” Jack replied walking down the street.

“Why the fuck are we gone mess with the Russian mob? My God! It’s my birthday. Let’s go back to the dorm, Ashey and Julie must be there. I just want to get laid,” Heinz said following us.

We made our way to the station passing in front of the church of Our Lady Victoria, where the Infant Jesus of Prague is exhibited. Two police inspected the bottom of a car with mirrors in front of the American Embassy. I told the story to a young police woman and she signaled a building with her index. We knocked in a large wooden door that seemed to be the police station. An untidy cop with a crooked tie opened up.

“You must make the complaint at the station across the river,” he said.

“You see,” Heinz alleged. “Nobody cares!”

“We do,” Jack kept on it.

We spoke with the police woman. She made calls on the radio and after some time she told us to follow her up to the station. She took my Czech passport and I answered some questions to an officer who downloaded my information from a computer. He didn’t seem friendly and wrinkled his face while I tried to explain what had happened in my lousy Czech. He then made me sign the statement and told us to wait.

“All these people are corrupt, this is useless. You tell him,” said Heinz looking at me.

“What do you think?” Jack asked me.

“We’ve already set the complaint, there’s no turning back,” I replied looking at my watch. It was four.

“You guys are so stubborn. Bouncers are bouncers. This is not gone change them.”

“Well, at least it’s gone teach them that Americans fight for their rights,” said Jack.

“I’m not American. I just don’t like to see Prague turned into a fuckin’ mafia paradise. I’ve had enough of that in Colombia.”

“So you think this is gone make a difference? Keep dreaming.”

“I’m sure it won’t, but at least were stating our point.”

“What point?”

“Heinz, this was the fifth most industrialized country before the Second World War. Nobody knows that because it was buried in the Iron Curtain, but even Hitler was afraid of the Czechs. He had to deceive them to invade them. Man, this is Bohemia, you know what that means? This is a place with a big history.”


“Things weren’t always like this. I want something better for it, not the same old shit I’ve had to cope with for more than thirty four years back in Colombia.”

“Corruption is everywhere.”

“Yeah, well that’s why we have to fight it,” Jack jumped in.

“It has always existed.”

“That’s why America is going down man, because of people like you,” Jack replied.

I remained seated as I looked at Heinz wondering if he understood what I’d said. I wanted the night to end. What would have been if I’d gone out with Veronica?

A cop came forty-five minutes after. He was thin and he talked to another cop while staring at us. We were strangers. “We have to go back to the place,” he told me in Czech.

“Go back? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? Why do you guys want to mess with the Russian mob? This is your fault, Jack!” Heinz shouted. Paul was quiet. We got on the old Skoda patrol that ran over the cobblestones.

“What a great birthday party!” said Heinz as we crossed the river on most Legií.

“I couldn’t go to sleep without doing this. It’s our duty as Americans,” Jack replied.

“The principles of justice aren’t only American, Jack. I’m doing this because I want a better future for this place.”

“I still can’t believe that we are making such a fuss. Things are what they are, we’re not gone change them,” Heinz kept whining as the police car pulled over and we saw the five bouncers against the Karlovy Lazne façade. The policeman told us to follow him. “I’m not good at this, I mean it,” Heinz said with a crying voice.

We walked toward the entrance where the owners of the street looked at us in surprise. The one that had hit the girls spoke to the police so quickly that I couldn’t follow. His eyes were black and his nose looked like an eagle’s beak. He acted as if he feared nothing, to the point that the policeman and him appeared to be friends. Would he really be capable of hitting his mother? He would certainly have had to be gentle with a woman. Or as a little boy. I nailed my eyes to those of another bouncer and kept them there. He turned them away. Paul and Jack stood beside me until the police suddenly turned around and walked toward the car. Heinz turned around and then we all did.

“What just happened?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know.”

The policeman got inside the car and talked on the radio until I knocked on his window. “What’s going on?” I asked him.

“Everything’s fine. You can go now,” he said rolling it up.

Jack looked at me with his blue eyes asking for an explanation. I shrugged my shoulder and tilted my head to one side.

“We have to go, their looking at us,” Heinz said.

We went down a street and made a loop on some surrounding alleys to reach Charles Bridge without facing them.

“I’m really pissed off!” Heinz yelled running away from us on the bridges cobblestones.

“He’s a pussy,” Paul said.

“I don’t know. Prague may be very pretty, but there’s no justice here,” Jack shrugged.

It is not Prague’s fault; she is just another victim of violence, one of the statues said to me. Stories from the past that my own mother had told me came back to my mind. I could imagine the Russian soldier that fell in the river and was left to die in the freezing waters as the other drunken soldiers argued it didn’t matter as there were too many of them. My own grandfather had seen that. It seemed as if the old city would never rest from atrocities, not even in this new age of capitalism and democracy. I shook my head in deception.

The sky had begun to clear up. My legs hurt and my whole body was tired. We went up Nerudova towards Kolej Komenskeho in silence. We arrived in broad daylight.

I slept a couple of hours until Jeff knocked on my door telling me breakfast was about to close. I got up with the image of the bouncer reaching to the girl. He couldn’t be Czech. Going down I ran into Hana Zahradnícová and told her what had happened.

“You guys are crazy! People have disappeared from Karlovy Lazne.”

They were putting away the food when I got to the restaurant. I managed to take an apple and sat with Jeff and Jason, who were finishing their breakfast.

“The Mexican girl came looking for you last night,” Jeff said. I was half way from taking the apple to my mouth. I left it on the table and shook my head in silence. “I told her you’d been looking for her. She said she was in the third floor at one of her friends’ room.”

“She had legs a mile long,” Jason said opening his eyes. The waiters started shouting in Czech, saying that we had to get out of there so they could clean the place up.

“Where were you?” Jeff asked. “She even came later when I was already in bed. I heard her call your name in the hallway.”

“Los dueños de la calle” was originally published in Spanish in the 59th edition of Con-fabulación Magazine, dated October 4, 2008. Bogota, Colombia.

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Robert Olen Butler, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Ivan Klima, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilava & Pavel Šrut, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Stuart Dybek, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Arnošt Lustig, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova, Richard Katrovas & Jeffrey Voccola, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova, Prague 2008

Yeah! It's a dog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Let’s say it in English: “We are Colombia!”

A gray cloud spread over South Philadelphia. Carlos and I filled our plastic cups with draft beer while a couple leaned against the backyard’s wooden fence and smoked. We ran away from the cold going inside the house passing the kitchen, where three women chatted beside an open closet covered with a net, where Rachel had put her two cats named Kitty and Other Kitty.

On a table pushed against the wall, a man wearing a New York Giants t-shirt loaded up a cardboard plate with tomato sauce meat balls. Rachel came down the stairs carrying her small blond and blue eyed son, who turned his face away when spotting us. The living room was filled with people sitting on a sofa and dining room chairs gathered around a flat screen television that stood against the other wall.

I took some carrots from a tray, while Carlos sat on the floor beside Ali, hugging his girlfriend at the waist. Everybody was watching the last moments of the game that the New York Giants were winning over the New England Patriots. It was the Super Bowl final. I approached the screen thinking about the previews of the historic game: The Patriots had arrived undefeated, something never seen before, but their accomplishment was tainted by allegations of cheating.

“Can you believe this shit? Life’s like that: Shit! How unfair! I don’t know why these things have to happen?” said a Venezuelan guy named Javier, who I had just met that afternoon. He gestured wildly while speaking, glancing at the other party goers with fury, as they viewed the last moments of the game. He opened a closet and put on his jacket, cap, and gloves with sharp motions.

“Are you O.K.?” I asked.

“No, brother, I’m out of here; this makes me sick. You know what they’re called and nobody wants them to win? The Patriots, and that means nothing to these fuckin’ Americans. I don’t even like this shitty sport!” he yelled at them before crossing in front of the TV, going out and slamming the door as the Patriots quarterback made a desperate last attempt, with a great seventy-yard pass that crossed the whole field and was almost caught by one of the receivers who saw the ball drift through his hands.

“The Patriots didn’t deserve to win,” Ali said, walking back home. “Not after the cheating they did at the beginning of the season, when they were caught filming the coaching strategies of another team in the sidelines; justice does exist.”

“In Colombia, we say that the cheater falls into his own pit,” I told them before saying goodbye. The night had fallen and some people were exiting an Irish Pub, singing victory songs.

I headed home thinking that justice limps but arrives. Something similar had happened with McLaren and Ferrari in the previous Formula 1 championship, that Kimi Raikkonen won by one point, after Lewis Hamilton had lead it throughout the year, in spite of the cheating that his team had made when stealing a technical book mid-season from Ferrari.

God! The same thing needs to happen in Colombia, justice must come, it’s time, we all ask for it, I said to myself as I thought of all of the tricks, lies, and crimes that the FARC have been committing in a continuous and unpunished way for years. Innumerable murders returned to my mind, as did the ever-present images of devastated towns, tortured and harassed peasants that end up floating down the stream or buried in common graves. One in particular—a torched church with more than one hundred people inside—reeled through my mind as if I had just seen it on the news. I thought about the explosion of a car bomb in a social club, the explosion of two grenades in a bar filled with students, the images of a bicycle bomb, a necklace bomb, a donkey bomb, young people and soldiers mutilated by land mines, death, blood, corpses and disjointed men scattered on the floor. I pictured the desolation of hundreds of kidnapped people during endless years of captivity, living in the jungle under subhuman conditions, ill with leishmaniasis and parasites, or the fear and rage of cattle dealers and businessmen while being extorted or running the risk of seeing one of their children become victim of a murder attempt, when they had the courage to say: "I’m not giving one peso to those assassins."

As I finished walking the blocks that led to my apartment in center Philly, a harmless bum with a canvas bag slung over his shoulder asked me for a match to light a cigarette.

“I don’t smoke” I told him and continued my way, analyzing Javier’s reaction to the name of the New England team, thinking that it’s not words that make men, but it’s their acts which speak for them, and that beyond being the denomination for a man who loves his country, a true patriot is someone that wants what’s good for his nation. I went to bed asking myself: What can be more unpatriotic than cheating, lying, blackmailing? Words all united by badness, the intention to take advantage of, harm, or damage someone else. What good could a group that robs, extorts, tortures, kidnaps, assassinates and massacres the civilian population want for its country? What good does a group want, when it perpetuates terror shielded in a political flag while it profits from drug trafficking, kidnapping, and the sale of human beings?

I fell asleep imagining the protest marches that would be carried out on the following day, knowing as it’s always been known, that the façade in which the FARC is shielded is pure shit. It has been pure shit for many years.

I woke up early the next day, and went to work. Once the time of the protest arrived, I said bye to my coworkers and walked out of the student center and onto the street. At 11:45 a.m., I arrived on Broad. It was cold, but not enough to make me take my cap and gloves out. My friend Eduardo was across the street at our meeting point, in front of Wendy’s. He took a step to one side, went back, and took another step towards the other side, with his tall and strong tennis-player body. He held a cell phone to his mouth, speaking naturally, with comfort. He took his hand out from his coat pocket when he saw me and waved; then he returned to his conversation.

The cars passed with their lights on. Some turned on Cecil B. Moore, switching off their blinkers. The traffic light changed and a sharp sound like the singing of an amplified pigeon, resonated from one side of the street to the other, repeating every second. A young man about twenty, wearing brown linen trousers and a blue cotton jacket, threw himself down on the street, moving his thin aluminum cane from side to side. His steps were so fast and confident that we approached the center of the wide street at the same time. The sound of his cane striking the floor methodically—tac-tac-tac-tac, could easily be heard over the sharp noise of the crosswalk light. I glanced at him as I approached, focusing on his eyes that stared off into space. They were blue and his pupils shone.

To my left, I saw City Hall in the distance over the mist, with its gray limestone tower, its second French empire architecture, its enormous clocks, greater still than those of the Big Ben in England, and the bronze statue of William Penn, perched on top of the gothic dome, surrounded by contiguous skyscrapers, like a dumb watchman of the city and its inhabitants.

It was a normal day, like any other Philadelphia winter Monday. Some people took the C bus line towards the city center, students wearing jackets, jeans, boots and backpacks on their shoulders rose from the subway station, walking towards their classes, City View Pizza and the other nearby restaurants prepared to receive their first lunchtime clients, two men went in the Bank of America through its glass doors, one left the Barnes & Noble bookstore holding plastic bags in his hands, while some other people drank coffee in Starbucks, and an African American man with a fluorescent orange vest on top of a heavy dark coat sold newspapers in the corner, lifting them in front of his face, to show a photo of some momentary hero of the New York Giants’ victory over the New England Patriots.

Eduardo took his hand out from his pocket to shake mine. He spoke on his cell phone for a few seconds, striking the air with small kicks he gave with the point of his sneaker, as he stretched his long leg.

“My friend could not get out from work,” he told me after he hung up. “Andrés can’t come either; he’s in class. Who else are we expecting?” he asked, looking at me with certain deception that his likeable face pronounced, as his head leaned towards one side and his eyes raised slightly.

“A friend of mine from Bogota. She’s coming on the subway; she’ll be here any second now. I can’t stay long, as I’ve escaped from work.”

“Me either, I’m training.”

A pair of women went down the stairs opposite to the orange Cecil B. Moore station-sign, holding a steamy bag of French fries that they had bought in Wendy's.

“I don’t know what’s going on with Beatriz,” I told Eduardo before feeling the vibration of the phone in my pocket. It was her.

“I’m already here, in Fern Rock station,” she said.

“Beatrix, I said in the direction of Fern Rock, not Fern Rock station! Go back one station to Olney, we’ll pick you up there. Thank God it’s on the way. Wait for us on Broad south corner.”

We walked towards the car in front of a gray building with big doors and large windows. The wind struck the red Temple University banners placed on each post, making them flap with violence. The noise of the rippling cloth was like that of a kite.

We went up Norris Street, where the ochre-colored bricks from the "Ghetto" houses contrasted with the skeleton branches of the trees.

“The Colombians went marching in Tokyo even though there’s one of the worst snows in history; and in Melbourne there were more than 500 people, my friend told me,” said Eduardo.

“There are simultaneous marches in all the great cities of the world. Isn’t that something demonstrative?”

“It’s without precedent,” he answered as we entered the car under the look of two African American men who examined us, as they spoke of some business they had between them. I undid the steering wheel lock and turned the engine on, seeing the dirty walkways that appeared filled with papers and plastic bags that the wind dragged across the ground, next to some two and three floor houses, sealed with nailed tables over doors and windows.

“In Colombia, they’re thankful to Chávez for having united the people like this. There are millions marching against the FARC in different cities of the country and the world. It seems as if Colombians are finally waking up,” said Eduardo.

“It was about time”.

“But did you know what Chávez said? That all these attitudes are warlike aggressions against the Liberators army,” Eduardo said.

“If that’s true, Chávez is smoking weed,” I countered.

We went down Diamond, and then headed north up Broad. Camilo was waiting for us on Ontario, in front of the Temple University hospital, located a mile and a half away. We hurried in between the flow of the traffic, stopping in front of repeated traffic lights that studded the avenue.

“Who knows how many people there are in New York and Washington? In Miami there’s thousands? The FARC is hated worldwide?”

“Eduardo, that doesn’t matter to them. The Guerrilla is a business; everybody knows it”.

“It’s going to have to matter. The entire world is finding out that the people from Colombia hate them”.

We wove between cars as we approached the University hospital and my watch displayed 12:05 a.m. I accelerated, but the light turned red, and I was forced to stop.

“Thank God that it’s a demonstration rather than a march; if not, it would have already left us behind,” I said, looking at a vacant lot filled with construction waste.

We went under a railroad bridge that crossed Broad diagonally, advancing on some other streets where warehouses and buildings with dirty and peeled facades rose on either side. Soon after, we arrived at Ontario.

Camilo got into the car with a friend who was wearing a cap, a jacket, and a white poncho with the Colombian tricolor. The light clothing contrasted with his brown colored skin and his three-day beard, which had grown in the edges of his moustache.

“Carlos Barrero, nice to meet you,” he said.

“Eduardo Bechara.”

“Camilo Moncada.”

“Eduardo Saavedra.” We shook each others hands.

“All the protests worldwide have just begun,” Camilo said with excitement. “Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, Madrid, Berlin, Moscow, Oslo, Stockholm, and many other European cities already had their marches”.

“It seems that there are protests in the most remote places of the planet: The Sahara desert, the Patagonia, Angola, Kurdsistan. People are speaking of a global repudiation.”

“That’s not amazing, Colombians are everywhere in the world,” Eduardo said, leaning his head forward.

“Are you from Cali?”

“Yes, you guys?” Eduardo asked.

“Bogota and Pereira.”

I sped, trying to pass cars in the increasing traffic. The gray horizon threatened rain.

“What do you guys study?”

“A PhD in biochemistry. We’re working on an investigation project, experimenting with rats on the effect nicotine has as an inhibiting agent of pneumonia. You also study at Temple?” Camilo asked.

“Administration and I’m on the University tennis team. This weekend we play against Penn. Hey, isn’t it incredible that this movement of millions of people was organized through Facebook?” said Eduardo.

“That’s because it’s an initiative by the young people with their hearts, without having stingy political interests of any kind,” I said.

The traffic grew worse as we approached Olney, where Beatriz waited for us. I saw her between the crowds of people that crossed the street even though they did not have the right-of-way. Her face cheered when she saw us. I turned and pulled over onto the bus lane, next to different stores that bordered the two way street.

“You get confused so easily, Beatriz,” I said.

“What can I do, I’m new to Philly. Isn’t this incredible? All the Colombians of the world united against the FARC. It’s something so extraordinary that it’s almost unbelievable.”

“Yes, it’s extraordinary,” I said.

“Nobody wants them anymore. The Guerrilla soldiers that handed themselves in before the government one week ago said that they never wanted to go back to live that torture”.

Beatriz smiled; she wore a gray Penn sweatshirt and a long jacket that reached her knees. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years ago, but she was still as spontaneous as ever. She laughed, opening her black and vivacious eyes as she clasped her hands in front of her mouth. She was surrounded by people of her country, as if part of her land would have extended through the American continent, all the way to the cold Pennsylvanian territory, where the necessity to reject the atrocities of the FARC united her to that national outcry which took us to ignite an inactive nationalism, that erupted even though we were not in our land, but turning onto fifth street, where we saw the Church of the Incarnation. The front of it was packed with people wearing white t-shirts over coats and jackets, flags waving from all sides, camcorders, cameras, reporters and slogans that we listened as we approached, and the blood in our bodies started to run faster.

Chronicle published in El Tiempo Colombian newspaper on February 5, 2008.

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About me

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova was born in Bogotá, Colombia, the ninth (9th) of November, 1972. He’s the son of a Lebanese descendent father and a Czech mother. In 1993 he was awarded the Juan Bautista Solarte's medal by the Colombian Army, granted to the best soldier of the 1992's Fourth (4th) Colombian Recruiting Direction Contingent. He graduated from Universidad de los Andes Law School in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1999, and then went on to receive a degree in Commercial Law in 2000, from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. After working three (3) years as a lawyer, he did a six (6) month trip through Western and Eastern Europe, Mexico and Canada, and went back to Colombia to publish “La novia del torero” (which translates as: The Bullfighter's Girlfriend, 2002, by La Serpiente Emplumada). He graduated from Universidad de los Andes Literature School in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2005, and published his second novel “Unos duermen, otros no” (Some Sleep, Others Don't; 2006, by Escarabajo publishing house). He’s a lecturer and a creative writing workshops teacher. He’s a travel chronicle writer and a Graphical Reporter for Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper. In 2007 he covered all the Brazilian coast writing chronicles to raise funds for poor children with cancer (more info here). He graduated from a Master of Arts in fiction writing at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 2009. He is a freelance writer for various newspapers and magazines. Human beings and their behavior in contemporary world are his principal theme. He graduated from a Master of Arts in fiction writing at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 2009.

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