The symptoms hit him suddenly, like a voracious wave sweeping a child off a quiet shore and dragging him into the depths of the sea: a lethal double blow to the stomach, numbness that turned his legs to jelly, a cold sweat on his palms and, above all, the searing pain, under his left nipple, which accompanied every single hunch he’d ever had.
As soon as the doors to the library slid open, the smell of old paper and hallowed places floating in that mind-blowing room overwhelmed him. In his far-off years as a police detective, Mario Conde had learnt to recognize the physical signs of his situation-saving hunches: he must have been wondering if he’d ever experienced such a powerful flood of sensations.
Initially he was all set to be ruthlessly logical, and tried to persuade himself that it was pure chance he’d come across that shadowy, decaying mansion in El Vedado: an unusual stroke of good fortune for once had deigned to come his way. But a few days later, when corpses old and new stirred in their graves, the Count began to think that no margin for coincidence existed, that it had all been dramatically prepared, like a stage set up for a performance that only his disruptive entrance could trigger.
Ever since he’d left his job as a criminal investigator, more than thirteen years ago, and devoted himself body and soul – at least as much as his battered body and increasingly enfeebled soul allowed – to the dicey business of buying and selling books, the Count had developed an almost canine ability to track down prey that would guarantee, sometimes in surprisingly generous quantities, his supply of food and alcohol. Whether for good or for evil – he couldn’t decide which – his departure from the police and forced entry into the world of commerce had coincided with the official declaration that Crisis had hit the island – a galloping Crisis that would soon dwarf all previous versions. The perennial, interminable periods of austerity the Count and his contemporaries had faced for decades now started to seem, in the course of inevitable comparisons and tricks of memory, like days of plenty or nameless mini-crises, with no right to awe-inspiring personification by capital letter.
As if the result of a malevolent wave of a wand, the shortage of everything imaginable quickly became a permanent state, attacking the most disparate of human needs. The value and nature of every object or service was artfully transmuted by insecurity into something different from what it used to be: be it a match or an aspirin, a pair of shoes or an avocado, sex, hopes or dreams. Meanwhile church confessionals and consultancies of voodoo priests, spiritualists, fortune-tellers, mediums and babalaos were crowded with new adepts, panting after a breath of spiritual consolation.
The shortages were so acute they even hit the venerable world of books. Within a year publishing went into freefall, and cobwebs covered the shelves in gloomy bookshops where sales assistants had stolen the last light bulbs with any life, that were next-to useless anyway, in those days of endless blackouts. Hundreds of private libraries ceased to be a source of enlightenment and bibliophilic pride, or a cornucopia of memories of possibly happy times, and swapped the scent of wisdom for the vulgar, acrid stench of a few life-saving banknotes. Priceless libraries created over generations and libraries knocked together by upstarts; libraries specializing in the most profound, unusual themes and libraries made from birthday presents and wedding anniversaries – were all cruelly sacrificed by their owners on the pagan altar of financial necessity suddenly felt by the inhabitants of a country where the shadow of death by starvation threatened almost every home.
That desperate act of offering a few, genuinely or would-be valuable volumes, or putting on sale boxes, yards, shelves, even entire collections assembled over one or more lifetimes, raised conflicting hopes in the dreams of buyers and sellers. The former always claimed they were offering bibliographical jewels and were eager to hear figures that might assuage the guilt the majority suffered when they off-loaded their closest travelling companions on the voyage through life. The latter revived a mercantile spirit they’d thought banned from their island, and tried to make a purchase they could later transform into a killing by arguing that the volumes in question had scant value or commercial potential.
In his early days in this new profession, Mario Conde had tried to turn a deaf ear to the stories behind the libraries that fell into his hands. His years as a detective had forced him to live surrounded by sordid files, but this hadn’t made him immune to the sorrows of the soul and, when he got his way and left the police force, he discovered painfully that the dark side of life still pursued him. Every library for sale was a romantic novel with an unhappy ending, the drama of which didn’t depend on the quantity or quality of books being sacrificed, but on the paths along which the volumes had reached that particular house and the terrible logic now sending them to be slaughtered in the marketplace. Nevertheless, the Count quickly learnt that listening was an essential part of the business, because the majority of owners felt the need to discuss the reasons behind their decisions, sometimes dolling them up, sometimes stripping them bare, as if that act of confession at least salvaged a shred of their dignity.
Once the scars had healed, Conde began to see the romantic side of his role as a listener – he liked to describe himself as such – and started to weigh up the literary potential in those stories, often taking them on board as material for his ever deferred aesthetic endeavours. As he sharpened his insights, so he felt able to distinguish when a narrator was genuine or a pathetic liar, spinning a yarn in order to be better reconciled with his conscience, or merely to showcase his merchandise.
The more he penetrated the mysteries of his trade, the more Mario Conde realized he preferred the exercise of buying to the subsequent selling of the tomes he acquired. The act of selling books in a doorway, on a park bench, on the bend of a promising pavement, fanned smouldering remains of ravaged pride but above all provoked frustration at having to get rid of an item he’d often have preferred to retain. Consequently, although his earnings plunged, he adopted the strategy of working only as a trawler, replenishing the stocks of other street-sellers. From then on, when prospecting for mines of books, like all his colleagues in the city, the Count employed three complimentary, occasionally conflicting techniques: firstly, the most traditional: visiting someone who’d asked him to pay a call, as a result of his well-established reputation as a fair buyer; then, the embarrassing, almost medieval procedure of hawking – “I buy old books”, “I’m the man to take those old books off your hands”; or the most in-your-face, knocking optimistically on doors and asking whoever opened up if they were interested in selling a few well-worn books. The second of those commercial approaches was the most productive in outlying, perpetually impoverished districts that were generally quite unfruitful – though there was the occasional surprise – and where the art of buying and selling the impossible had for years been the survival system for hundreds of thousands of people. On the other hand, the “truffle” method of sniffing out houses was necessary in once aristocratic districts like El Vedado, Miramar and Kohly, and in parts of Santos Suárez, El Casino Deportivo and El Cerro, where people, in the teeth of the poverty spreading across the nation, struggled to preserve increasingly obsolete ways of life.
What was extraordinary was that he’d not chosen that shadowy mansion in El Vedado, with its neo-classical pretensions and debilitated structure, as a result of any odour and much less as a result of his shouting in the street. In fact, Mario Conde was almost convinced he was suffering from a progressive loss of smell, and had already spent three hours on that sultry Cuban September afternoon banging on doors and getting no for an answer, on several occasions because a colleague had passed that way before him. Sweating like a pig, fed up, and fearful of the storm heralded by the rapid accumulation of black clouds on the nearby coast, Conde was preparing to sign off for the day, totting up his losses in the time-wasted column when, for no particular reason, he opted to go down a street parallel to the avenue where he’d thought he’d be able track down a minicab. Had the tree-lined pavement appealed, did he think it was a shortcut or was he simply, quite unawares, responding to a call from fate? When he turned the corner, the decrepit mansion came into view, shuttered, barred and swathed in an air of profound abandonment. His immediate reaction was that someone must have already beaten him to it, because that style of edifice was usually profitable: past grandeurs might include a library of leather-bound volumes; present penury would include hunger and despair, and that formula tended to be a winner for a buyer of second-hand goods. However, despite his bad run over recent weeks, the Count yielded to the almost irrational impulse driving him to open the wrought-iron gate, cross the subsistence plot of banana trees, rickety clumps of maize and rapacious sweet potato lianas and climb the five steps that led to the cool porch. Barely pausing to think, he lifted the greenish bronze knocker on the indestructible black mahogany door, that hadn’t seen a coat of varnish since the discovery of penicillin.
“Hello,” he greeted the person opening the door, and smiled politely, as etiquette dictated.
The woman, whom Mario Conde tried to place on a scale descending from seventy to sixty, didn’t deign to reply and eyed him severely, imagining her “visitor” was quite the opposite: a salesman. She wore a grey housecoat blotched with prehistoric grease stains and her hair was discoloured and flaked with dandruff. Furrowed by pale veins, her skin was almost transparent and her eyes seemed appallingly desolate.
“I’m sorry to bother you . . . I buy and sell second-hand books,” he went on, avoiding the word “old”, “and was wondering if you might know someone . . .”
This was the golden rule: you madam are never so down and out that you need to sell your library, or your father’s – once a doctor with a famous consultancy and a university chair – or your grandfather’s, who was perhaps even a government senator if not a veteran from the wars of independence. But you might know of someone?. . .
As if deadened to emotion, the woman showed no sign of surprise at the mission of the man on her doorstep. She stared at him impassively for a few lengthy, expectant moments, and Mario Conde felt himself on a knife-edge: his training told him a huge decision was being reached by the parched brain of that translucent woman, in desperate need of fats and proteins.
“Well,” she began, “the fact is I don’t . . . I mean, I don’t know if in the end . . . My brother and I had been thinking . . . Did Dionisio tell you to come?”
Conde glimpsed a ray of hope and tried to relate to the question, but felt he’d been left dangling in the air. Had he perhaps hit his target?
“No . . . who is Dionisio?”
“My brother,” the enfeebled woman went on. “We have a library. A very valuable one . . . Do come in . . . Sit down. Wait a moment . . .” and the Count thought he detected a determination in her voice that could see off life’s hardest knocks.
She vanished into the mansion, through a kind of portico erected on two Tuscan columns of shiny, green-striated black marble, and the Count regretted the poor state of his knowledge of the now scattered Creole aristocracy, an ignorance that meant he didn’t know, couldn’t even imagine, who’d originally owned that marmoreal edifice, and whether the present occupants were descendants or mere beneficiaries of a post-revolutionary stampede to safety. That reception room, with its damp patches, missing plaster and cracked walls, looked no better than the outside of the house, but retained an air of solemn elegance and vibrant memories of the huge wealth that had once slept between those now bereft walls. Flanked by dangerously crumbling cornices and faded coloured friezes, the high ceilings must have been the work of master craftsmen, as were the two large windows that preserved remarkably intact romantic stained-glass scenes of chivalry, no doubt designed in Europe and destined to attenuate and colour the strong light from a tropical summer. In eclectic rather than famous styles, and shabby rather than broken, the still sturdy furniture also exuded an odour of decrepitude, while the black-and-white marble tiled floors, patterned like an out-sized chessboard, gleamed cheerfully and looked freshly cleaned. On one side of the reception room, two very high doors mounted with square bevelled mirrors, set in dark wood marquetry, reflected the desolation between flowery quicksilver blotches. It was then that the Count grasped what was behind the oddness he’d experienced on entering the room: there wasn’t a single adornment or painting, a single visual prop to break the grim void on walls, tables, shelves or ceilings. He assumed that the noble bone china dinner services, repoussé silver, chandeliers, cut-glass and canvases with dark or elaborate still lives that once brought harmony to that scene, had been sent packing in advance of the books, to address food shortages – a fate that the library, already flagged as a very valuable asset, might similarly meet, if he were in luck.
The moment mentioned by the woman turned into a wait of several minutes which the Count spent smoking, knocking the ash out of the window, through which he saw the first drops of an evening shower. When his hostess returned, an older, more ancientlooking man followed in her wake, in urgent need of a shave and, like his companion, of three square meals a day.
“My brother,” she announced.
“Dionisio Ferrero,” responded the man in a voice that was younger than his body, as he held out a calloused hand with grimy fingernails.
“Mario Conde. I . . .”
“My sister has already explained,” he said in the curt tone of a man used to giving orders, rounding off his remarks with an order rather than a request: “Come this way.”