Translator’s note: Sergio Altesor Licandro’s 2016 novel TAXI (Estuary Editora, 2016) holds particular resonance this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the brutal military dictatorship in Uruguay, which held power from 1973 to 1985. The novel is structured as a series of journal entries recorded by the protagonist, Pedro Fontana, who in his youth—like the author—spent years in military prisons in Uruguay, as punishment for his opposition to the military dictatorship, before being exiled to Sweden. In Sweden, Fontana trained to become an artist, lived there for some years, and eventually left to search elsewhere for his destiny. Now, many years later, he has returned to Sweden for a conceptual art project, which is to drive a taxi in Stockholm and record his interactions with the passengers, as a way of analyzing life in Sweden at a time when the democratic-socialist ideals of the past have given way to a grim neoliberalism. In this excerpt, however, Pedro Fontana must instead analyze his own past.
Wednesday, November 12
As we’d agreed, Walter meets me at noon and we have lunch in the small pizzeria across from the Tellus movie theater. After studying the menu and ordering some pizzas, Walter asks me about the years in prison. He wants me to tell him about his dad, particularly any anecdotes with his father at the center of them. So I make a superhuman effort to retrieve the figure of skinny Etchenique from the depths of my memory, and I feel justified in embroidering those memories a bit. It’s helpful that Walter is especially interested in the stories about the freight car where Skinny E and I were locked up for many months. I tell him, for example, that we played Truco with a deck of cards that his father made by drawing the figures on the backs of Luna matchboxes. I can’t imagine my dad drawing or painting, says Walter, pleasantly surprised. In the joint everyone could do that, I say. Skinny E, who was quite a funny guy, invented the nightclub ritual, I continue. The nightclub ritual? Uh huh, you could call it that. We improvised a table by setting a board on top of a cardboard box, with four players seated around it. Your father and I were always partners. Were you two close? Yeah, pretty close… And at the end of every Truco session we busted up the nightclub. Walter raises his eyebrows. I explain that we’d pretend to be these crazy, pissed-off guys who, when we lost, would bust up the nightclub by fighting, and when we won, we’d bust it up by celebrating. The main thing was to knock over the table, meaning we’d flip the board and kick the box, and your father always loved throwing the cards in the air. And sometimes we even hit the bartender. What do you mean, “bartender”? asks Walter. There was this fatherly veteran, old Silva, who was perfect as the bartender because he liked to make mate or cocoa for us while we played—keep in mind that we were really young—so we called him the bartender. Sometimes, as a finishing touch, Skinny E would pretend to throw a few punches at him and old Silva would crack up. And the guards, they didn’t say anything? The guards didn’t actually see us. We were shut up inside an old windowless freight car, surrounded by a double row of barbed-wire. The guards were on the other side of that fence. Of course sometimes we got real loud inside and then they’d shout at us or throw a rock at the train car.
Walter is fascinated, but what he likes best is the true story of how I met his father. I tell him, one day the door of the train car was opened and there was your old man, tall and skinny as a palm tree, looking terrified. He must have been the age you are now. When they left him with us and locked the door, right away we started explaining everything to him, as we always did with new arrivals. We brought him up to speed on our daily routines and the personalities of the different soldiers we were in contact with. In particular we told him about the Lizard, the noncommissioned officer of intelligence who was in charge of the prisoners, an ambitious, pedantic hayseed from some little town on the Brazilian border, who practically killed himself trying to disguise the heavy Brazilian accent that all those hicks have. He’d speak slowly, swallowing the words in a deep voice like he had a hot yam in his mouth. He was really proud of being in the intelligence service because he thought, accurately, that it was the right place for a good career inside the army. He always wore a new, clean uniform and went everywhere with a pad of writing paper even though he didn’t need it, just so everyone would see he wasn’t a common soldier. He thought of himself as a very cultured person and was fascinated by difficult words and technical military terms. During his visits to the freight car he’d act very mysterious, like he was full of highly confidential information, and he’d throw around big words that he didn’t always know how to pronounce. Like other conceited people, his weakness was that he loved getting attention and being praised for his knowledge. So whenever he came to the train car, we’d flock around him like he was a VIP, asking questions about his experiences with military life and his possibilities for advancement. The Lizard couldn’t resist that much interest—it was just like when they interview some big expert on TV—so he’d give seminars on the motorized cavalry, the firepower of battle tanks, the mobility of the armored units supporting the infantry and the role of military intelligence in unconventional warfare. As he stood firmly in front of the open door, his legs set apart, his hands holding the pad of paper behind his back, balancing on the toes of his boots—a custom he’d copied from the officers when they gave orders to the troops—his speeches would get more convoluted the more sophisticated he tried to be. According to his wild inflation of fantastical facts, Uruguayan tanks were unique in the world because they could reach speeds of 150 kilometers an hour, thanks to improvements made by military mechanics, and the intelligence service had detailed knowledge of what every citizen in the country was thinking, since with the help of “sicoloshy,” “societude,” “shotistics,” “high-votage electicity,” and the “physical laws of wanted bodies,” they could precisely determine the detainees’ degree of guilt. We’d exclaim in awe, our admiration and interest in this leader’s vast knowledge seemed boundless. We were like eager journalists competing for quotes from a politician or a movie star, taking turns to ask questions that would keep the Lizard standing there a little while longer with the open door of the freight car behind him, a not insignificant detail if you keep in mind that the doors were barred shut twenty-four hours a day… (Oh, that green, rolling landscape—I think to myself—the hills of eucalyptus trees in the distance under the open sky, breathing in fresh air seasoned with the putrefying stink of the sewer trench that ran from the barracks kitchen right under the freight car, the trench where magnificent specimens of field rats freely roamed, visiting us some nights by way of the drain in the corner of the wagon, walking over our bodies) offering the possibility, with the necessary authorization, of taking a shit in the latrine once more, what a triumph. No one else listened to the Lizard like we did. The troops were basically ignorant people who scorned his knowledge and made fun of him. Sometimes we could hear them teasing him from their guardhouses when he paid us a visit: “Hey, Lizard, when will they make you a colonel?” “Hey, Lizard, be careful those bums don’t eat your tail!” That’s why, despite being among his enemies, Lizard absolutely loved to visit the freight car. “Looks at how impressed those bums are,” he must have thought to himself. Even Doctor Rucci, a dentist who’d taken a wrong turn, seemed enthralled by his knowledge of armored cars and deeply respectful of the responsibilities the Lizard bore upon his shoulders.
When they brought your father to the freight car, Dominguito grabbed him, a guy with a natural gift for clowning, who took it upon himself to describe the Lizard the only way he knew: by mimicking him. Dominguito had studied the Lizard’s personality so closely that he was better than the original, as happens with the best imitations. Aside from the practical advantages of the Lizard’s visits (the chance to use the latrine, see a little greenery in the distance, acquire useful information, or convince him to let some package from relatives get through to us), over time his visits became a little boring, and no one had to make a huge effort anymore not to die of laughter—or as Dr. Rucci would advise: “Instead of shitting yourself laughing, use the moment to go shit in the latrine”—so that Dominguito’s imitations became a preferable substitute. Coming from Dominguito, the Lizard’s exaggerations acquired a cosmic dimension: the armored cars were fueled with atomic energy, the prisoners were interrogated by computers and the soldiers were intelligence officers in disguise, among whom the Lizard was a general. Assuming a manly stance in front of the train car’s closed door, balancing on the toes of his frayed slippers, and using a deep voice with a Brazilian accent, Dominguito would transform into a Lizard who was not only more entertaining, but superior to the real one, to the point that Skinny E was dying of laughter before he’d even met the man in charge. Dominguito was just finishing his imitation when the train door banged open and the Lizard himself nimbly jumped inside. He had written Skinny E’s name on his pad of paper, and read it aloud as if he were in front of an entire company of unknown recruits and not ten prisoners he knew very well. That meeting wasn’t easy for your father. The Lizard, for his part, was bothered by the prisoner’s nervous high spirits, his lip-biting and his smiles. Maybe that’s why he treated him more strictly than usual, so the new guy would feel the weight of his authority, would be up to speed on the Lizard’s role as the man in charge and on the conduct that would be expected in that place. When the doors closed again, your father breathed a sigh of relief. He said he’d been tempted to laugh, not because of the Lizard, but because of remembering Dominguito, of whom the Lizard seemed to be only a bad imitation.
Walter laughs a lot during this story and at times his eyes, wide open and shining, look at mine with fascination. But then, drinking his coffee at the end of our lunch, he falls oddly silent, asks no more questions, keeps his eyes lowered as he plays with the spoon, stirring the drops of coffee on his saucer.
I think about the last time I saw Skinny Etchenique. I had a package someone had sent to him or something like that. Axel went with me for some reason, and as we walked from Jakobsberg Station to the apartment where Skinny E had settled with his wife and son when he was exiled to Sweden, I said it would be a quick visit. I added that I didn’t want to be with Etchenique for very long, since I’d already spent too much time with him in prison. Axel gave me a shocked look because back then he still had a pretty idealistic image of the relationships that could be forged among political prisoners. My comment undoubtedly struck him as a little cynical.
When Etchenique’s wife opened the door, she looked at us first like we were a pair of policemen, then timidly kissed me and looked fearfully at Axel before greeting him with an imperceptible nod of her head. She was a very shy woman who seemed frightened of everything and always tried to slip by unnoticed. I don’t remember ever exchanging more than a few words with her.
She led us to the kitchen. Although it was springtime, the windows were closed and the blinds, which were lowered, prevented daylight from entering. The place was barely illuminated by a single dim bulb hanging from the ceiling, just like in the freight car where we’d been locked up, and the air was almost unbreathable. Etchenique was sitting at a table, smoking, next to a big ashtray full of cigarette butts. Without a word, his wife dumped the ashtray in the garbage and set it back on the table, and then began to wash the dishes. Behind the table was a crib where Walter was sleeping. Skinny E didn’t get up to greet us and didn’t extend his hand. I don’t think he even said hello. Instead he looked at us with an almost vacant smile that matched the complete lack of expression in his eyes. He answered my questions in monosyllables, smoking the whole time and letting the ashes fall on his shirt like he didn’t notice. His gaunt face had a yellowish tinge. By then he was quite ill. Two months after that last visit, Paco Villanueva called to say he’d died and told me the day and time of the funeral, but I didn’t go.
When we left, I told Axel that Etchenique had tried to commit suicide several times in prison, something that, instead of earning our sympathy, struck a lot of us as suspicious, because it was pretty hard not to kill yourself if you really wanted to die. Before that, Etchenique had collaborated with military intelligence, leading to the detention of a dozen people and the death of his own brother, who had resisted.
Etchenique’s psychic state in prison was highly unstable. One day he’d be shut down, profoundly depressed, and the next he’d act euphoric, like nothing had happened. At first the situation in the freight car was really tough because a number of the guys openly scorned him, ignoring him like he didn’t exist, and in such a small, closed environment this did nothing to improve his state of mind, in fact the opposite. So a few of us, the ones who’d spent more time in jail and had more experience with this stuff, knew we had to do something to avoid a disaster. We understood that isolating him could be very counterproductive and decided to give him some special attention. This wasn’t just a humanitarian attitude; it was mainly to make sure that a spike in his mental instability wouldn’t lead him to seek help from the military and become a snitch again. The danger wasn’t that he’d keep informing on people who hadn’t been caught yet. Skinny E had been a simple collaborator, he never held important responsibilities like his brother and undoubtedly he’d already given the military all the information he could about what was going on outside. Otherwise they wouldn’t have placed him with prisoners who’d already been processed, as we had.
The danger was much closer and more palpable. It was, in fact, about our own survival. Because even in those circumstances we were still carrying out a type of organized work, not necessarily political militancy, but focused instead on resisting and enduring our situation as best we could. It was a job that took a lot of time and effort, a lot of patience and savvy. Broadly speaking, it was about weaving a web of relationships with different soldiers to lay in a few provisions and get out sometimes for a little sunshine and fresh air, but also to gather information and try to set up communication channels with the outside world. In our situation those possibilities were very scarce, but they did exist. Many of us had developed a well-honed ability to exploit and expand the tiniest weaknesses in the military system. We were always happy to relieve the soldiers of work and we’d managed, for example, to ensure that every day they’d bring two of us to the kitchen to carry out the food containers, and then return us to the kitchen to wash them. In the same way we could get out sometimes to do other jobs, because we were a more qualified and productive workforce than the troops, which solved a lot of problems for the military. Those rare occasions were crucial for building relationships, obtaining information, and for hiding various items in our clothes (everything was useful: wires, cables, threads, newspaper clippings, wood scraps, plastic, cardboard boxes, razor blades, cans) if we could send people who were quick-witted enough. But we had also created a barter system with the perimeter guards, who generally weren’t looped in with military intelligence. Many of the soldiers came from misery and absolute ignorance, from forgotten places in the countryside, and they took a naive liking to the drawings and artworks we made for our families. They’d make contact with us when we were in the latrine that was around the corner from the freight car, a cement-block structure with walls only a meter high so they could watch us. Without even waiting for us to finish wiping our asses, they would sneak up on the other side of the wire fence, careful not to be seen by any officers, to ask if we could make a bone medallion with some romantic saying or a portrait of their girlfriends from a small, wrinkled ID photo. To satisfy those requests we’d built an industry sustained by perfect teamwork: some would choose and prepare bones from the food scraps; others wove colored cords; others made woodburning tools out of wire and bits of cable; and finally I came along, with the task of burning a drawing and a few words into the medallions. I was the artist, the one who turned all that effort into what was, for the soldiers, a work of art, especially when I had to transform their wrinkled photos into grand portraits, sometimes picturing the models to myself and always embellishing them a little. And to be honest, never in my poor and unsuccessful life as a professional artist did my work have a function so clear, so collective, or so tied to the feeding of all and the survival of the group; nor did it ever reach such humble levels of society. Once complete, the “works of art” were exchanged for tobacco, crackers, fruit, old newspapers and magazines (which were always new for people as isolated from the outside world as we were), but at times they also initiated a relationship that didn’t entirely exclude human feeling, and offered us useful information or risky favors, like sending a letter that otherwise couldn’t have reached its destination.
So the real danger wasn’t the threat of bringing down an important subversive organization, but that a new accusation from Etchenique would shatter our small organization for survival into pieces, each of us ending up even more isolated and experiencing worse hardships in some dungeon or prison cell. That was the real reason I became a “friend” of Etchenique’s.
As Walter plays with the spoon, I think about who I was when I was with his father. It’s like thinking about another person, someone I don’t recognize anymore. I wonder where I got those crazy impulses to have fun together. My energy was so powerful that I could drag Skinny E along as if I were telling him: “Come on, the only thing that works in here is a little craziness, either we enjoy ourselves or we die.” And that skinny guy, who was neither the inventor of the nightclub ritual nor the vital, happy man that I described to his son, believed in me because I was sincere. I knew that living in there, locked up by human scum, it would be too easy to become one of them. I was aware it could have been me in his place, but that perhaps my history and a few random events had prevented it. Though I had no affection for Etchenique, I didn’t despise him either. I knew how weak he was, so weak he didn’t even have the strength to kill himself, and what I saw in him wasn’t a betrayal, but the horrible image of the world we lived in. I don’t believe I really wanted to help him. I think what I did was more for me, like an experiment in spreading insanity, through the magical art of trading reality for imagination. An art that wasn’t any invention of mine, but something that others in their turn had taught me, during the years I was inside. I’d been locked up for so long that I could get by perfectly well without the abstraction the outside world had become. I forgot about longing and desire, I was twenty-something years old with an urge to live that oozed from all my pores. And despite my youth, I was already a veteran in that microcosm, whose particular laws I understood much better than others did. I often let myself believe that this was all there was to life, there was no life apart from that dark hole where we lived, because it was better for my own morale than suffering in a swamp of uncertainty.
When we first arrived at the freight car they took everything from us. It had rained and they made us drop our belongings in the puddle of mud that had formed near the fence. A few soldiers picked everything up and tossed it into a cart like it was garbage. They left us only the clothes we were wearing, mattresses, and blankets. Among the things they took from us were our books, but by then I’d learned it was worth it to take a few risks, so as a preventive measure I’d hidden a book inside my mattress, the only book we’d have for a long time, a red copy of the illustrated dictionary Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado. No other book, in my past or future life, ever offered as much knowledge. With that very basic encyclopedic dictionary, plus the knowledge each of us either possessed or invented, we developed classes in political history, literature, mechanics, architectural history, music history; it was the basis for workshops in math and geometry, grammar, botany, zoology, geography, physics, and even astronomy.
I’d often spend time watching the thin rays of sunlight that entered the old freight car through gaps in the joints, fascinated by the contrast between those threads of light and the darkness in which we lived. At times my life was full of a wild, exalted lyricism, but what mattered most to me were the images, perhaps because there were so few of them in there that it gave me the chance to absorb them, capture them, to study the light on the faces of my companions, to draw dozens of versions of those rays outlining the contours of a jar or the profile of a face. And also the journey, the abstraction in full color that I painted of the green hills I saw in the distance during the precious minutes the door of the car was open. But even beyond that, beyond any particular item, everything was images. The situation and the setting formed an extreme image and I felt like a cameraman who constantly filmed everything. When I looked at the others it was always through the lens of a camera. When they took me out to get the food containers, I filmed my feet from under the blindfold, my feet walking through the grass, but I also filmed the military absurdity of the one corporal who in the end would order the blindfolds removed so we could fill up the containers or scrub the dented aluminum dishes in the pig trough. I filmed with zeal the filth that ran through the sewer trench and badly wanted to film the rat that ran across our bodies on the floor of the car some nights, just as I filmed Beto Piriz throwing shoes left and right because he’d seen the rat and no one believed him. I filmed it all, documenting those soldiers and recording their conversations as if I stood before a kind of palimpsest, with a lost prehistoric language at its base, a layer of neolithic animism, another layer of medieval superstition, another of crude nineteenth-century language, another of 1950s radio melodramas, another of Brazilian soap operas, and then a pathetic, naïve effort to be virile men. Through my camera I had an external view of the details of the world in which we lived; sometimes I’d take a close-up of a face or an object and sometimes a wide shot of a scene, but I knew all those images were uniquely valuable because they captured an extreme situation where everything was catharsis, revelation, rupture, pure truth. In that place there were no cosmetics nor affectations of any kind, and what I could see through my lens was not only a priceless document but an overflowing of the world, a final judgment where each image had no flip side and everything was displayed with the worst vulgarity or the greatest human kindness. And even more interesting was the humor that bubbled up in the cracks of that extreme world, a humor whose images I also pushed myself to film over and over again, but without much success, since I myself, in order to survive, had to set the camera aside and dissolve into that humor.
So usually after we drank our mate or ate a little food in the evening, before they turned off the only light in the car, we’d pretend we were going out on a Saturday night, we’d go to the nightclub to play Truco or we’d have a chess tournament, or a Q&A program, or we’d attend a recital where someone sang off-key tangos.
Actually I was the one who drew the card faces on the backs of matchboxes, who urged on the busting up of the “nightclub,” who flipped the board we called a “table,” who threw the cards in the air and pretended to hit old Silva. Until finally we’d see Etchenique laughing, amazed and amused by so much insanity, perhaps relieved of the guilt on his conscience and feeling almost like one of us. It was important, also, for him to share the dynamics of our communal life. He took part in some of the courses we held with the so-called “Red Bible” —my little Larousse Ilustrado—and once he learned to play chess, he joined our tournaments. Over time, Etchenique understood that the barter system and an approach that would disrupt our isolation benefited even him; and so despite the skepticism and misgivings of those who feared he was a spy or provocateur, he timidly began to contribute his own grains of sand. At first he cleaned bones for the medallions, and then he developed a keen eye for finding wires and buttons in the trash chute. One day he volunteered when a sergeant asked for people to card wool, and came back with a bundle of fabric scraps that we used later on to make puppets.
# # #
When we leave the pizzeria we cross the street to the Tellus, and as we look at the posters for upcoming films, I explain that the Tellus is an old movie theater run by a neighborhood cultural association. Intellectual neighbors? Walter asks suddenly, with heavy irony and a shaky tremor in his voice. His question throws me and I feel obliged to use a pedagogical tone when I respond. I say I don’t think they’re intellectuals, they’re just neighbors and families who think it’s good for the area to have a cultural association that organizes classes, concerts, and conferences, and runs an old independent movie house to show films that aren’t controlled by the big distributors. I even suggest we could go there together some day to see something.
I must not be explaining it well because Walter ignores my invitation and walks for a while in silence. He seems odd, nervous, and finally I ask if something’s wrong. Then he explodes: he asks do I think he’s an idiot, I’ve been shitting on him with lies, his father was actually an arrogant ass who thought he knew everything and I’m exactly the same, we’re all the same, we live in the clouds and think we’re superior, but his father never thought about him, we never think about our children, we’re selfish bastards and when he lived in Montevideo, no one helped him, he had to do whatever he could to survive and his father’s so-called comrades, so revolutionary, so militant, never asked if he needed anything, no one asked his mother if she needed anything after she was widowed, and whatever he’d gotten he had to earn by himself, he owed nothing to anyone and now I come along shitting on him with lies and pretending to be so educated, showing him a ratty movie theater from another era, where they had movies for intellectuals, and I was doing all that to humiliate him, to make him feel inferior because I didn’t think he knew anything about anything, and I was doing that to him even though he’d gotten me the taxi job because I, Pedro Fontana, the great artist, suddenly got the urge to return to Stockholm and join the proletariat. And more along those lines, like an angry tornado, not letting me speak, until he suddenly pulls away from me, crosses the street, turns the corner and disappears.
I listen to him at first with my mouth open, completely bewildered. Then I try to stop the barrage so we can talk, but it’s impossible because he’s not listening. So I stand there paralyzed, staring at the empty corner where Walter turned. I finally react and run over there, just in time to see him get into the gray Audi and speed away.
Mary Hawley is a poet, fiction writer, and literary translator. She is the author of a poetry collection, Double Tongues, and received a 2019 Illinois Literary Award in fiction. Current projects include a bilingual poetry collaboration with Silvia Goldman Pérez and translating a trilogy of novels by Sergio Altesor Licandro.
Sergio Altesor Licandro wrote his first collection of poetry (Río testigo, 1973) while imprisoned in Uruguay for his political activities. He was later deported to Sweden, where he became a visual artist and continued publishing works of poetry and prose. After returning to Uruguay in 1985, he published various prize-winning poetry collections and novels. His novels Río Escondido(2000) and TAXI (2016) are part of a loose trilogy of novels set in Uruguay, Sweden, Nicaragua, and other parts of the world. He is currently at work on the third novel in the trilogy.
Photo by Urban Götling.