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A Literary Critic

Today we celebrated (or should I say, “commemorated”?) the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. This brought about the inevitable reunion at church with my relatives, who were, as usual, so conceited – just like my father himself was, I suppose. The family reunion always renews his memory in my mind, and the memory of my adolescence.

My father, Pedro Francisco Montalbán de Narváez, was a famous columnist for the most prestigious newspaper in the city. In the heyday of his long career, he offered opinions on all kinds of subjects, among which were politics and national finance, of course, but also Art and even Theology. These won him the title on more than one occasion of “torch of our cavernous nation,” “lighthouse of national thought,” and other similar names.

Naturally, I was dazzled by that light which so many friends, relatives, and colleagues saw in my father. There grew in me an intense and irresistible desire to follow in his footsteps, so that when I was fourteen, I began to write my first poems in secret. Possessed by a riotous imagination, by an ineluctable determination that I would never know again, I filled hundreds of notebooks with poems, stories, and the beginnings of some novels and plays. I always worked in secret, until my father discovered my passion, despite all my efforts to hide it from him, five years later.

On that day, he praised my choice and asked me to show him something I had written. I asked him to let me make some corrections to a short poem that I had been working on for ages. My father understood my shyness, but demanded that I show it to him first thing the next morning.

At eight in the morning I went into his study room and lingered for a moment in the shadows; he was typing. He kept writing for five more minutes, then stopped and looked at me over the rim of his spectacles.
“Are you just going to stand there, coward?” he asked. “Come in and sit down, for crying out loud.”

I went all the way into the study room, with my head lowered but still feeling his gaze on me.
“Let’s see what you brought,” he said, and held out his hand.

I gave him a white paper which shook with the trembling of my hand.
“Now you’re shaking!” he observed, smiling derisively.

He positioned his spectacles on the end of his nose with his index finger and began to read. He spoke in a monotone, but still managed to give me the impression that he was condemning every word:

What is poetry? you say, as you nail...

“Let’s not pull any punches!” he declared, pounding the desk with his fists (and in the process, perhaps inadvertently, crumpling the paper). “How did it occur to you, Pedro Francisco, to put a word like ‘nail’ in a poem?” He paused to emphasize a gesture of dismay. “Apparently you’re talking about love? Maybe if you were talking about the passion of Christ... this has no fix!”

He ordered me to leave his study room.

When night fell, my father stuck his head into my room and told me he was going to give me another chance. He asked if I had any other sort of poetry; I told him yes, I had some sonnets; so he ordered me to present one the following day, before 9:00 am.

The next day, at seven in the morning, my father read the sonnet in a tone of voice that seemed (maybe because of the tension of the moment) inquisitorial. He seemed to like the first stanza. Then he began the second:

When most I want to bind her in snares,
And, seeing my sweat...

“Seeing my sweat, Pedro Francisco! Seeing my sweat!”

Then, if I remember correctly, he called me “vulgar,” “peasant,” and even “indian.”

That night, my father appeared at my bedroom door again, but this time he came inside. In a flattering tone that struck me as insincere, he said:
“Poetry’s not your thing, Pedro Francisco, but maybe prose...”

The next morning, my father read the following in a loud voice, grimacing with indignation:

Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal—” here he murmured a bit, but very soon resumed his habitual tone of voice, to continue reading: “I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain...

“Holy God, what horror!” he shouted, throwing the papers away from himself.

He poured himself a glass of water, drank it, and prepared to rebuke me.
“Father,” I interrupted, “let’s not waste time: I also have plays. Please, read what I bring you, but this time read it through to the end. I promise to accept your judgment.”

He agreed. I went to my room and came back holding a notebook.

“Read it, please, Father. I’m going to be in the living room, and I’ll come back when you call me,” I told him, and then I left him with the notebook.

About three hours later, my father called me. He was pale; his lips were livid and trembled with anger. He almost couldn’t speak.
“This is infamy, Pedro Francis...a man who...with his own mother!...and to kill...the father...and the children are...but...and then...he himself...he himself, Pedro Francisco! stab the eyes...” He put his head in his hands, and stayed that way for a long time; then he looked at me with intensity and told me in a calm, fatherly voice: “Pedro Francisco, my son, I forbid you to write any more.”

This is what I have remembered today of my father and of my youth. Recalling it, I still cannot understand how he presumed to be an intellectual, when he was not acquainted with Bécquer or Quevedo, much less with Poe, and when he did not even recognize the most famous tragedy of Sophocles. However that may be, if they drew this kind of criticism from him, I can’t imagine what he would have thought of the things I had actually written. Or maybe the problem is that I can imagine it all too well, and that’s why I’m not a writer today.

But what good is it to remember all this now, in a manner that lends itself so dangerously to recriminations, on this day so important for the nation? I shouldn’t blame the old man; despite his follies, he was a good man. He was, without a doubt. Moreover, it’s only fair to recall, I was never any good at it.

Andrew Bernal Trillos, USA, Colombia © 2009

Andrew Bernal Trillos was born in Newark (New Jersey, USA) in 1981, but he has lived in Bogotá (Colombia) almost all his life. In 2006 he was made Professor of Literature at Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Colombia), where he has worked on various academic research projects. In 2009 he published a book of narrative titled De nuevo, Esta Mujer (Libros en Red, 2008). He has also written two volumes of poetry, currently unedited. He works for an independent publishing and advertisement house.

Click here to see this story in Spanish [AQUI]

Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009

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