My story This is my Husband is one of the works featured in the anthology ‘On the Back of a Motorbike: Stories and Poems from Southeast Asia’. Available at smashwords and also in kindle and print editions.
The puppy, Old, went out the door and crossed the patio with an upright, lazy step. He paused at the boundary of the pasture, craned his neck in the direction of the mountain, half-closed his eyes, and sat quietly. He looked at the monotonous Chaco plain with its alternating mountains and fields, fields and mountains, colourless except for the creaminess of the pasture and the blackness of the mountains. The view enclosed the farm to a distance of 200 metres on three sides. Toward the east the field broadened into a clearing marked nevertheless by the inescapable shady line farther on.
At the early hour, the confines, washed in blinding light at midday, possessed an air of repose. There was not a cloud or a breath of wind. Beneath the silver sky, the fields exuded the freshness of a tonic that brought to the pensive soul, aside from the certainty of another day of drought, dreams of better-paid work.
Milk, the father of the puppy, crossed the patio in his turn and with a lazy moan of well-being sat beside Old. Because there were no flies both remained unmoving.
“It’s a fresh morning,” observed Old, gazing at the edge of the mountain.
Milk followed the puppy’s gaze and looked fixedly, blinking with absent-mindedness. “There are two falcons in that tree,” he said after a moment.
They turned their indifferent gazes on a passing ox and went on looking at things out of pure habit.
Meanwhile the eastern sky commenced glowing in a fan shaped blaze of purple and the horizon lost its early morning precision. Milk crossed his front paws and felt a slight pain. He looked at his toes without moving them, deciding finally to sniff them. He had removed a flea the day before. In memory of what he had suffered he licked the full expanse of the toe.
“I can’t walk,” he exclaimed at last. Old did not understand what he was referring to. Milk added: “There are a lot of fleas.’
This time the puppy understood and after a long pause responded in like manner: “There are a lot of fleas.”
One by one they quietened down again, convinced.
The sun rose and in the first blaze of light the mountain turkeys cried out with the tumultuous trumpeting of a musical instrument. The dogs, golden in the oblique sun, half-opened their eyes, further enhancing the sweetness of their lives in a blessed blinking. Their friends arrived one by one: Dick, the favoured silent one; Prince, whose teeth showed behind his upper lip, once split by a coati; and Isondú, an indigenous name. The five fox terriers spread out on the ground, deadened by their lives of ease, and slept.
After an hour they raised their heads. They sensed the footsteps of their owner on the opposite side of the large two-level ranch, the lower level of which was made of mud, the upper of wood, with corridors and banisters on the stairs fit for a villa. The owner stopped for a moment at the corner and looked at the sun, already high. A solitary night of whiskey drinking, a night more prolonged than usual, showed in his dead gaze and protuberant lower lip.
While he washed, the dogs approached and smelled his boots, lazily wagging their tails. Like trained wild animals, dogs can sense even the least indication of drunkenness in their masters. They slowly removed themselves and lay back down in the sun until the increasing warmth drove them into the shade.
The day continued precisely as those of the entire month had done: dry, clear, and with fourteen hours of burning sunshine that maintained the melting cycle and that in an instant scorched the damp earth, leaving it encrusted with white. Mr. Jones went to the farm, examined the work of the day before, and returned to the ranch. He did nothing that whole morning. He ate lunch and then went up to take a siesta.
Despite the heat and because the cotton was not yet free of weeds, the farmhands returned to work at two in the afternoon. After them followed the dogs, who had taken a liking to the cultivating process the previous winter when they learned how to fight the falcons for the white worms the plough brought to the surface. Each of the dogs waited by a cotton plant, panting along with the dull blows of the hoe.
In the meantime the heat intensified. In the silent landscape the dazzling sun vibrated the air on all sides, distorting the view. The turned over earth exuded an oven-like steam that the farmhands coped with as best they could, wrapped in flowing scarves up to their ears, as their silent work continued. The dogs changed their location every so often, determined to find cooler patches of shade. They lay down lengthwise until fatigue brought them on to their back paws, a position that enabled them to breath better.
A bleak plateau that had never been ploughed shimmered into view before them. There, the puppy suddenly saw Mr. Jones sitting on a trunk gazing fixedly at him. Old got to his paws, wagging his tail. The other dogs rose too, their hair bristling.
“It’s the owner!” exclaimed the puppy, surprised by the attitude of the others.
“No, no it’s not him,” replied Dick.
The four older dogs growled dully, without shifting their eyes from Mr. Jones, who continued to sit unmoving, looking at them. Incredulous, the puppy started approaching but Prince bared his teeth:
“It’s not him, it’s Death.”
The puppy’s hair bristled and he rejoined the group.
“Is the owner dead?” he asked, anxiously.
The others, without responding to the question, broke into furious, frightened barking. But Mr. Jones had already vanished in the undulating air.
On hearing the barks, the farmhands raised their eyes and turned their heads to see if a horse had entered the farm. Unable to distinguish anything, they bent over again.
The fox terriers made their way back to the trail leading to the ranch. The puppy, frightened still, led the pack and covered the ground with short, nervous steps, aware from the experience of his friends that when something’s going to die the signs appear beforehand.
“And how do you know it wasn’t the patron himself that we saw?”
“Because it wasn’t him,” they responded, peevishly.
After Death would come a new master, misery, and kicks! They passed the remainder of the afternoon at the side of their owner, sombre and alert. At the slightest noise, without even being sure of the direction it came from, they growled. Mr. Jones felt at ease in the company of his anxious guardians.
Finally, the sun sank behind the black palm tree by the stream and in the calm of the silvery night the dogs positioned themselves around the ranch while on the upper level Mr. Jones recommenced drinking. At midnight they heard his steps and then the double sound of his boots tossed upon the floorboards. The light went out. The dogs felt closer then than ever to the reality of a change of master and alone, outside the sleeping house, commenced whimpering. They whimpered in a chorus, releasing their dry, convulsive sobs as if they were chewing, in a grief-stricken howl that Prince’s hunting voice sustained while the others sobbed again and again. The puppy could only bark. The night wore on and the four older dogs, in a group beneath the moonlight, their snouts extended and swollen with their moans – snouts so well-fed and caressed by the master they were going to lose – continued whimpering their domestic misery.
The following morning Mr. Jones himself went and got the mules ready for ploughing, working until nine o’clock. He wasn’t satisfied though. Besides the fact that the earth had never been well ploughed, the blades of the hoe lacked an edge and with the rapid movement of the mules it jumped out of the ground. He sharpened the blades. But a screw that he had already noticed was bad when he bought the machine broke when he tried to put everything back together. He asked one of the farmhands to go to the nearest mill, recommending that he take care of the horse, a good animal but one that had seen a great deal of sun. He raised his head to look at the fluctuating sun of midday and insisted that he not gallop the horse for even a moment. Then he ate breakfast and went upstairs. The dogs, which had not left their owner’s side that morning, remained in the shade below.
The siesta hour hung heavy, weighed down with light and silence. The surrounding area had become misty with the intense heat. Around the ranch, the white earth of the courtyard, dazzling beneath the heavy sunlight, appeared deformed into a tremulous boiling that made the fox terriers’ eyes heavy with sleep.
“It hasn’t returned,” said Milk.
Hearing the word ‘returned’, Old’s ears rose with alacrity. Incited by what the word evoked, the puppy rose and barked at that. In a moment he quietened down and, together with his friends, began defending himself against flies.
“It hasn’t come again,” added Isondú.
“There was a lizard beneath the stump,” Prince recalled for the first time.
A hen, its beak open and its wings spread out, crossed the incandescent courtyard, trotting with heavy step in the heat. Prince lazily followed it with his eyes and then jumped.
“Here it comes again,” he cried.
The horse the farmhand had taken entered the courtyard from the north without its rider. The dogs arched upon their paws and barked with cautious fury as Death drew nearer. The horse walked with its head lowered, apparently unsure which route to follow. Passing in front of the farm it took several steps in the direction of the well, slowly disappearing in the harsh light.
Mr. Jones came downstairs. He had not slept. As he prepared to continue assembling the hoe, the farmhand arrived unexpectedly. Despite the order given, he must have galloped to return so quickly. Unfastened, its mission completed, the poor horse, whose flanks bore the marks of countless beatings with the whip, shook and lowered its head and collapsed on its side. Mr. Jones sent the farmhand, still carrying the whip, away; he would fire him if he had to keep listening to him apologising like a Jesuit.
But the dogs were content. Death had looked for their owner but satisfied itself with the horse. They felt happy, free of worries, and were preparing to follow the hand to the farm when they heard Mr. Jones in the distance, shouting out for the screw to be brought to him. But there was no screw. The store was closed; the manager was sleeping, etc. Mr. Jones, without replying, removed the casing and went off himself in search of the part. He stood up to the sun like one of the farmhands and the walk did wonders for his bad temper.
The dogs left with him but sought the shade of the first carob tree they sighted; it was too hot. From there they watched the owner move away on steady feet, frowning and observant. But fear of solitude overcame them and with heavy step they followed on after him.
Mr. Jones obtained the screw and returned. To shorten the distance and avoid the dusty bend of the road, he followed a straight line to his farm. He arrived at a stream and penetrated the straw field, the flooded Saladito River straw field, which has followed a cycle of growth, drying out, and new growth since straw came into existence in the world, without once having been destroyed by fire. The bent brushes formed a vault at chest level and transformed themselves into solid blocks. The task of crossing it, difficult enough at a cool hour, was very hard at this time of day. However, Mr. Jones succeeded, waving his arms between the cracking, dusty crescents of straw as he made his way through the mud, suffocating from fatigue and acrid nitrous vapours.
He got through finally and stopped at the boundary. But it was impossible to remain still in this sun and feeling so tired. He went on again. The heat, which had increased without let-up for three days, now became enjoined with the suffocating effect of time corrupted. The sky was white and there was not a breath of wind. The shortage of air was such that it was hard to breathe properly.
Mr. Jones became convinced that he had passed the limit of his resistance. He felt the throbbing of his carotid artery in his ears and sensed that he was floating in the air as if the skull inside his head was being thrust upward. He became dizzy looking at the grass. He resumed walking so as to remove that feeling once and for all … and soon came to his senses and found himself in a different place; he had gone half a block without noticing anything. He looked behind him and experienced another wave of dizziness.
Meanwhile the dogs followed after him, trotting with their tongues hanging out. Now and again, suffocating, they paused in the shade of an espartillo plant; they sat and quickened their rate of panting but went back out into the tortuous sun. As soon as they came near the house, they trotted faster.
It was just then that Old, who went ahead of the others, noticed Mr. Jones behind the farm’s wire fence. He was dressed in white and walking toward them. The puppy, suddenly remembering, turned to his owner and confronted him.
“Death, Death!” he cried.
The others had seen him too and barked, their hair bristling. They watched Mr. Jones go though the wire fence and for an instant believed he was going to take the wrong direction. But after proceeding five metres he stopped, looked at the group with his heavenly eyes, and went on.
“May the owner not step so lightly!” exclaimed Prince.
“He’s going to run into him!” they all cried.
In effect, the other had advanced after a moment’s hesitation, but not right above them, like before, but in an oblique line that appeared wrong but led right to Mr. Jones. The dogs understood that everything was over because their owner continued walking with an even step, like an automaton, without noticing anything. The other arrived. The dogs lowered their tails and ran from the side, howling. A second passed and what resulted from the encounter was that Mr. Jones spun around and collapsed.
The farmhands saw him fall and carried him with haste to the ranch. But all the water did no good; he died without coming to. Mr. Moore, his brother, arrived from Buenos Aires and spent an hour at the farm. He needed just four days to settle everything, returning at once to the south. The Indians shared responsibility for the dogs, which lived from then on thin and itching all over. Bearing a secret hunger, they went every night to steal ears of corn from other people’s farms.
As different on a narrative and other levels as they are, two of Paolo Sorrentino’s most well-known films, his Academy Award winning (for Best Foreign Language Picture) The Great Beauty (2013) and Il Divo (2008) comprise a complementary vision. Early in the first film 65-year-old Jeb Gambardella is seen living it up in style at a party held to commemorate his birthday. He is no stranger to this life, having embraced it since his arrival in Rome as a young man. He made up his mind then, we are told, to out bon vivant the best of Rome high society, to make or break parties according to his whim.
Were there a measure of world weariness in such a free wheeling, self-indulgent man it would hardly be surprising given the years that have passed. Thoughts and remembrances of what he has forsaken in life – most notably his writing ambitions and a lost love – compound Jeb’s ennui. The early promise he showed as a novelist has never been realised. He bankrolls his lavish lifestyle with cultural critiques for a magazine run by his friend and foil the dwarf Dadina.
But he is a man capable of genuine feeling. His sorrow is heartfelt when he learns of the death of the one who ought by rights to have been the love of his life. Further salt is rubbed in the wound on hearing, from her distraught widowed husband, that the deceased never stopped considering him her true love though she went on to wed another.
Death is pervasive throughout The Great Beauty. The film commences with the sudden death of a camera toting Japanese tourist. The maudlin son of one of Jeb’s closest friends meets an inevitable early end. The ageing stripper Ramona, a woman with whom he has a short-term affair, also dies in the course of the story. As to why Jeb watched his potential fade to nothing … he was, he says, searching for a beauty he never found. Ironically enough beauty surrounds him in the Eternal City though living there entails putting up with an existence in ‘provincial, shitty Italy.’ This is a pressing contradiction that blinds him to what might otherwise be seen.
Huge disappointment, with Rome, with Italy, informs many of the characters in the film. Jeb’s loyal friend Romano returns to his home town fed up. Another of his circle, the oft-published but opportunist Stefania, tries to put on a brave face. But she has little success. Jeb and others see through her and relish reminding her of latent inconsistencies in her life and compromised art.
The capital city and country depicted here is not far removed in time from the earlier incarnation focussed upon in the director’s Il Divo (The Divine). The film is based on the life of the enigmatic 7-time prime minister of Italy Guilio Andreotti, a political leader notorious for alleged ties to the Mafia. The narrative deals with his seventh election to the post, his failed bid for the presidency through to the Tangentopoli bribe scandal and his 1995 trial. Andreotti is implicated in the murders of journalists, bankers, police and his one-time colleague Aldo Moro, the former prime minister kidnapped by the Red Brigade in 1978 and executed after 55 days in captivity. It is a bloody legacy but Andreotti’s conviction is ultimately overturned.
The cynical derision toward Italy on display in The Great Beauty is not overtly politically motivated. But it is hard to divorce it from the tumultuous events that have scorched the land in the decades since the ignominious World War Two defeat. Jeb’s ‘who could bother to care less about anything’ attitude is more easily understood when one considers the broader context. Just as out of Guilio Andreotti arose the corrupt Silvio Berlusconi, the failed writer and his cohorts are the logical offspring of a nation where impunity has been allowed to run riot at the highest levels of government.
At least until he begins to show signs of a sort of coming to terms, Jeb’s hands are as tied as Andreotti’s, whose principal justification for his alleged condoning of murder and other misdeeds resides in the vagaries incumbent on high office. In their relentless quests for truth and nothing but, Moro and kindred were ingenuous, asserts the 7-time prime minister. A lasting, greater good, stability in a fractious nation, cannot be achieved without bloodshed.
Paolo Sorrentino is blessed with an astute cinematic eye and raises important issues in both films. They can be viewed as completely separate works and enjoyed in their own right. But taken together each helps to illuminate and add depth to the other. It is hard to imagine The Great Beauty without the equally accomplished, eye opening Il Divo.