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« La noche boca arriba (part 2) | Main | The English Patient »

La noche boca arriba (part 1)

A translation of the first part of a famous story ("The night face up") by this Argentine writer. You can read the original here.

And in certain epochs they would go to hunt enemies; they called this the war of flowers.

It had to be late, he thought in the middle of the hotel’s long corridor, and hurried onto the street to the motorcycle in the corner where the concierge next door had allowed him to park.  In the corner jeweler’s he saw that it was 8:50; he’d arrive where he was going in more than enough time.  The sun filtered through the tall buildings downtown and, because he needed no name to think, he got on the machine savoring the excursion.  The bike purred between his legs and his pants succumbed to the whips of fresh wind.

The ministries in pink and white went by, then a series of stores on Central street with brilliant shop windows.  Now he entered the most pleasurable part of the commute, the true journey: a long street lined with trees with little traffic and huge villas which let their gardens come up to the pavements, hardly marked by low hedges. Somewhat distracted by perhaps, but keeping to the right side as was proper, he let himself go to the smoothness, to the light tension of that day hardly begun.  Perhaps his involuntary relaxation prevented him from avoiding the accident.  When he saw that the woman standing at the corner was rushing onto the road despite the green lights, it was already too late for simple solutions.  Straying to the left, he braked with his foot and hand; he heard the woman’s shouts, and with the collision lost his vision.  It was as if he had suddenly fallen asleep.

Having fainted, he woke violently.  Four or five young men were pulling out him from beneath his cycle.  He felt the taste of salt, the taste of blood, his knee hurt, and he shouted once they lifted him out because the pressure on his right arm was unbearable.  Voices that didn’t seem to belong to the faces suspended above him tried to encourage him with jokes and assurances.  His only consolation was hearing someone confirm that he had had the right of way crossing that corner.  Trying to control the nausea stirring in his throat, he asked about the woman.  While they were taking him face up to a nearby pharmacy, he learned that the reason for the accident didn’t have anything more than scratches on her legs.  “You hardly grazed her, but the collision made your bike jump sideways.”  Opinions, memories: lay him down slowly; yes, like that; and someone in a workcoat gave him a drink which relieved him in the shade of a small neighborhood pharmacy.

The police ambulance arrived within five minutes.  They put him onto a white stretcher where he could lie comfortably.  In all lucidity, but knowing that he was still under the effects of a terrible collision, he gave his address to the policeman accompanying him.  His arm, he said, almost didn’t hurt him any more.  Blood was pouring out onto his whole face from a cut in his brow.  He licked his lips once or twice to drink some.  He felt good: it was an accident; bad luck.  A few weeks not moving and that’d be that.  The guard told him that his motorcycle didn’t seem to be too damaged.  “Naturally,” he said, “since the whole thing landed on top of me.”   They both laughed.  Then the guard shook his hand as they arrived at the hospital and wished him good luck. His nausea was already coming back bit by bit.  They took him by gurney to the back building, passing under trees full of birds.  He closed his eyes and wished he were asleep or chloroformed.  But they kept him for a long time in a room with that hospital smell filling out a form, taking off his clothes and putting on a grayish, stiff shirt.  They moved his arm carefully without causing him any pain.  All the while, the nurses were telling jokes.   And if it hadn’t been for the contractions in his stomach, he would have felt very well indeed.  Almost happy.

They took him to radiography.  Twenty minutes later, with his wet sheets still clinging to his breast like a black gravestone, he went on to the operation room.  Someone tall, slim and dressed in white came up to him and began examining the charts.  A woman’s hands made his head more comfortable, and he felt that he was moving from one gurney to another.  Smiling, the man in white approached him again with something shiny in his right hand.  He placed his hand on his cheek and signaled to someone standing behind him.

A strange dream, this, because it was full of smells and he had never dreamt of smells.  First, there was the smell of a swamp, there on the left side of the road where the marshes began, those moving bogs from which no one ever came back.  But this smell ceased.  It was exchanged for a fragrance both composite and dark like the night in which he moved, fleeing the Aztecs.  And all of this was so natural: he had to flee the Aztecs because they were hunting man, and his only chance was to hide in the thickest part of the jungle and to try not to budge from that narrow road of which only they, the Motecas, knew.

But nothing tortured him more than the smell.  It was as if, in absolute acceptance of the dream, something unusual had been revealed that contradicted that dream that then later had not been part of the game.  “Smells like war,“ he thought, instinctively touching the stone dagger across his sash of woven wool.  An unexpected sound made him duck and keep still, apart from a slight shiver.  There was nothing odd about being afraid: his nightscapes teemed with fear. He waited, covered by the branches of a shrub and the night without stars.  Very far off, probably on the other side of the great lake, there seemed to be campfires; a resplendent reddish tint filled that part of the sky.  The sound did not occur again.  Something like a snapped branch.  Perhaps an animal who, like he, was escaping the smell of war.  Smelling the air around him, he straightened slowly.  He didn’t hear a thing.  But fear persisted there like a smell, that sickly sweet incense that belonged to the war of flowers.  He had to keep on; he had to reach the heart of the jungle while evading the marshes.  Feeling his way forward, crouching at every opportunity to touch the hard ground of the road, he took some steps.  He would have liked to take off running, but quivering sensations beat at his side.  In the path in darkness, he found the course.  And then he got a whiff of the smell he feared most.  And desperate, he leapt forward.

“He's going to fall off the bed,” said the patient in the next bed.  “Don’t hop about so much, buddy.”

He opened his eyes and it was evening.  The sun was already low in the large windows of the long hall.  While he tried smiling at his neighbor, he almost physically peeled himself away from the nightmare’s last vision.  His arm, in a plaster cast, was hanging from a device with weights and pulleys.  He was thirsty, as if he had run for miles, but they didn’t want to give him much water, hardly enough to wet his lips and take a mouthful.  His fever was rising slowly and he could have fallen asleep again, but he savored the pleasure of remaining awake, his eyes half−closed, listening to the conversation of the other patients, responding now and then to a question.  He saw them bring in a small white trolley and place it at the side of his bed.  A blonde nurse then wiped the front part of his thigh with alcohol and stuck him with a thick needle connected to a tube that reached up to a bottle filled with an opaline liquid.  Then a young doctor came over with an apparatus made of metal and leather and adjusted it to his good arm to check on something.  Night fell, and his fever dragged him blandly into a state where things began to assume forms one might find on the other end of opera glasses: they were real and sweet and at the same time slightly repugnant, as if watching a boring film and thinking that it was even worse outside, and then staying put in the theater.

Reader Comments (19)

this story is so unique and AMAZING!!! me lo encanta!

November 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMel09

I have to agree. Thanks, Mel!

November 16, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

does the main character die in the end? I still can not really understand that bad for asking a lot of questions! it's a confusing story for me..

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAW

The most analytically productive reading suggests that the main character is to be sacrificed by the Aztecs and imagines himself in a future Mexico City on a motorcycle. But in the end he returns to his reality and is disemboweled and thrown from the top of the temple.

February 10, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

You could also, perhaps, say that the main character is, in fact, from present-day Mexico City and suffers a concussion from his accident, thus dreaming of the entire Aztec incident; however, his concussion causes him to die anyway.

I say this because it is incredibly improbable that someone fleeing capture and death would suddenly hallucinate an alternate reality and still be able to function--for example, from his first foray into the jungle to the second, he has traveled considerable distance. How could he have gotten that far, imagining himself in a hospital bed?

It is much more likely that the event is a continued dream that coincides with his fatal brain damage and medication.

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

Thanks for your comments, Katie! As mentioned in the comments to the second part of the story, both possibilities have some textual support. But I wouldn't rule things out in Cortazar on the basis of improbability.

October 28, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Could you translate La Puerta Condenada

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTy

Ty, thanks for the suggestion! As I am always game for working with Cortazar, I will see what I can do.

April 25, 2011 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Hi Deeblog. Thanks so much for sharing your talent for language and literature with the rest of the world through your translations!! They are so helpful for college students like me. If you have the time, I was wondering if you'd be able to do the translation of "No oyes ladrar los perros"? Thanks for reading :)

June 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoot18

You're very welcome, Root, and thanks so much for your kind comments! I have received a few requests for a translation of this work, so we know there is a need! I'll see what can be done.

June 26, 2011 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Thanks for the translation. It helped a lot!

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterp09

You got it, po9! Thanks for your feedback.

November 30, 2011 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Does anyone know what light is meant to represent in this story? Give an example from the text to support your view. I was thinking along the lines of warmth and safety...?

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterneedspanishhelp

Such an amazing story! Although i did have a dream where i was in a hospital, which was very scary after reading part 1 and 2!

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCereal Guy!

Thanks for your comments, CG!

May 30, 2012 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Thank you so much! We are reading this is Spanish and I had a lot of trouble with it. This is very helpful!

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStudent

You got it, estudiante, thanks for your comments!

January 15, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Good translation! Helped out a lot!! Arriba el America

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClub America

You're very welcome, Club A, and thanks for your kind words!

January 24, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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