Palabras Errantes Latin American Literature in Translation

The Well

By Santiago Roncagliolo. Translated by Charlotte Coombe.


‘You have to see it before you leave,’ said Wordsworth. ‘It’s certainly something not to be missed… That’s if you dare, of course.’

It was the early hours of the morning, the time when Wordsworth usually became pretty self-important; the time when it was just us bachelors and hardened alcoholics left propping up the bar of the Grand Hotel des Wagons Lits. To be honest, I couldn’t stand the guy. He irritated me; he was arrogant and had an air of superiority about him. But in Peking in 1937, there weren’t many other people you could have a drink with of an evening. The Japanese were camped just a few miles from the city, preparing for the invasion. The government had upped sticks and moved to the capital. The Westerners were leaving. The few of us who remained were living cooped up in the legation quarter. Going out at night was considered suicide. Nonetheless I replied, ‘Take me there. Let’s go now.’

‘Don’t make me bring the car around if you’re just going to chicken out,’ said Wordsworth from behind a screen of cigarette smoke.

‘Didn’t you hear what I said? I said let’s go.’

The Lotus Club was the talk of the town in those days. It was supposed to be the most exclusive club in Peking, but for that very reason, nobody would admit to being a member. The club was so legendary, in fact, that I did not believe it actually existed. But here we were, and loud-mouthed, drunken Wordsworth had just admitted as much, and had offered to take me there.

‘There’s just one condition,’ he warned. ‘You have to swear that you’ll never tell a soul what goes on there.’

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘What’s so important about what goes on there?’

‘I’ve sworn not to tell,’ replied Wordsworth mysteriously.

‘And what happens if a member breaks his word?’

‘Nobody would even think of doing it.’

I was leaving too. The following day. I had just sold all my family’s businesses in the city. My fiancée Mina was waiting for me in London; her family were considerably well off. I was preparing for a comfortable but dull life. I would miss the smokers of smuggled opium from Manchuria, the scorpion kebabs and the Korean hookers. So that particular night, I had no intention of sleeping. I wanted to savour every last second of my time in Peking. I wanted adventure. So I agreed to the condition.

‘Alright, I’ll take you,’ Wordsworth was saying, as he crushed his cigarette out in an ostentatious porcelain ashtray. ‘It’ll be your farewell gift. I suppose you’ve earned it.’

Riding in his white Voisin, we left the legation quarter and entered the real China, amid the red paper lanterns and military patrols. Wordsworth drove until we reached the hutongs closest to the Forbidden City. We parked up in one of them, in front of a silent, grey building.

‘Are you sure about this?’ he asked me, as he cut the engine.

I nodded.

We made our way along the twists and turns of a particularly seedy alleyway. That night, the moon light was so intense that it was easy to see where we were going. Beggars were slumped asleep on some of the street corners. One of them jolted violently as we drew near and I saw that he was a cripple. He did not try to get in our way. Although I could not see them, I could hear wild dogs barking, and the sound of their jaws clamping shut around something.

Wordsworth stopped in front of what appeared to be the seediest-looking door in the whole street. I was worried that the club would be a disaster, a sordid smoke-hole for bored millionaires. But I kept my concerns to myself. My companion rapped on the door five times, and we waited. Time seemed to stand still around us. After a brief eternity, somebody slid open a grille from the inside. The sounds of clinking glasses and faint laughter wafted out. Wordsworth said nothing, but made a sign with his hand, some sort of visual password. The door opened.

We were shown into the most opulent drawing room I had ever seen in my life. Crystal chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling, which was unexpectedly high, as if the house was deceptively larger inside than out.  The walls were clad in marble and hung with huge mirrors framed in gold leaf. In this fantastic setting, a cocktail party was in full swing. The gentlemen held champagne flutes, and the ladies sparkled, dripping in diamonds and furs. I recognised the French Ambassador, the Chief of Police, various generals of the Kuomintang, and a few wealthy White Russians. If Chang Kai Shek himself had thrown a party, this would be the guestlist.

Wordsworth and I mingled with the guests. Some were surprised to see me and greeted me with much gusto. But I was not that impressed by them. In a matter of twenty-four hours, they would no longer mean anything to me.

‘Is this all?’ I whispered in Wordsworth’s ear. ‘The great Lotus Club? There are better parties in our neighbourhood.’

‘You’re impatient, aren’t you?’ he replied and turned to a waiter who was holding a tray of whiskey. ‘My friend here would like to see the well. Could you take him?’

The waiter nodded. He set down the tray on a side table and ushered me towards the central courtyard, and then through another richly decorated drawing room filled with vases and porcelain dragons. Finally he stopped in front of a room and opened the door. He motioned for me to step inside.

There was no furniture inside the room, just a single red paper lantern hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Below it, there was a well.

I kneeled down on the floor so I could lean over the edge and look down. The well was about fifteen feet deep. At the bottom, a man was sitting with his hands and feet bound. I thought it might be a Japanese prisoner they were showing off out of sheer morbid decadence. The man was sobbing.

I called down to him.

‘Hey, who put you down there?’

The man suddenly seemed revived. He raised his hands and looked up, causing the chains to rattle.

‘Please get me out of here! Save me from these people! They’re insane!’

His voice had a London accent and sounded slightly familiar. My eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness inside the well. Only then did I see him clearly. And with absolute horror. It was me.

‘They’ll be coming any minute!’ he went on, begging. He was dressed in my clothes; he had my face and my hair. It was me, every inch of me, as if I were looking at my reflection in some hellish mirror.

‘Please, get me out! I can pay you.’

I did not want to hear any more. I fled from the room. I pelted back through the courtyard and through the party. I lost my way in the labyrinth of alleys until I found the way out. And I went on running, in the breaking dawn, until I arrived back at my hotel.

Two days later, the Japanese troops entered Peking.

I never returned to that city.



By Verfain, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Debería verlo antes de partir me dijo Wordsworth. Es algo que no se puede perder… Si se atreve, claro.

Wordsworth solía ponerse pedante a ciertas horas de la madrugada, cuando ya solo quedábamos los solteros y los decididamente alcohólicos en el bar del Grand Hotel des Wagons Lits. En realidad, yo detestaba a ese tipo. Me molestaban su arrogancia y sus aires de superioridad. Pero en el Pekín de 1937, no había mucha gente más con quien compartir una noche de copas. Los japoneses acampaban a pocas millas de la ciudad, preparando la invasión. El gobierno había trasladado la capital. Los occidentales se marchaban. Los pocos que quedábamos vivíamos encerrados en el barrio de las legaciones. Salir de noche se consideraba un suicidio. Aun así, le dije:

Lléveme. Vamos ahora.

No me haga sacar el coche si luego va a echarse atrás dijo Wordsworth, tras una pantalla de humo de cigarrillos.

¿No me ha oído? He dicho que nos vamos.

En esos tiempos, todo el mundo hablaba del club del Loto. Supuestamente era el más exclusivo de Pekín, pero por eso mismo, nadie admitía ser miembro. Era tal la leyenda del club que yo pensaba que no existía en realidad. Pero Wordsworth, con su enorme boca y su borrachera, acababa de admitir que era socio, y se había ofrecido a llevarme.

Solo hay una condición advirtió: debe jurar que no contará a nadie lo que ocurra ahí.

¿Por qué? preguntaba yo. ¿Qué pasa ahí que sea tan importante?

He jurado no contarlo respondía Wordsworth, enigmáticamente.

¿Y qué pasa si un socio traiciona el juramento?

A nadie se le ocurriría sonrió.

Yo también me marchaba. Al día siguiente. Acababa de vender todos los negocios de mi familia en la ciudad. En Londres me esperaba mi prometida Mina, cuya familia poseía un patrimonio considerable. Me preparaba para una vida cómoda pero aburrida. Echaría de menos los fumaderos de opio contrabandeado de Manchuria, las brochetas de alacranes y las prostitutas coreanas. Así que esa noche, no quería dormir. Quería saborear cada segundo en Pekín. Quería aventuras. Y acepté su condición.

Está bien, lo llevaré dijo Wordsworth ahora, aplastando su colilla contra un ostentoso cenicero de porcelana. Será un regalo de despedida. Supongo que se lo ha ganado.

Montados en su Voisin blanco, abandonamos el barrio de las legaciones y penetramos en la China real, entre lámparas rojas de papel y patrullas militares. Wordsworth condujo hasta los hutongs cercanos a la Ciudad Prohibida y se detuvo en uno de ellos, ante una construcción gris y silenciosa.

¿Está usted seguro? me dijo mientras apagaba el motor.

Yo asentí con la cabeza.

Nos internamos por un callejón miserable lleno de curvas y bifurcaciones. La luna brillaba intensamente esa noche, y avanzábamos sin dificultad. En algunas esquinas había mendigos durmiendo. Uno de ellos se sacudió bruscamente cuando nos acercamos, y descubrí que estaba lisiado, pero no trató de impedirnos el paso. También escuché el ladrido de algunos perros salvajes y el sonido de sus mandíbulas cerrándose sobre algo, aunque no conseguí verlos.

Wordsworth se detuvo frente a una puerta, que parecía la más miserable de todo el callejón. Temí que el club fuese un fiasco, un fumadero sórdido para millonarios aburridos. Pero no dije nada. Mi acompañante tocó cinco veces con los nudillos y esperamos mientras el tiempo se congelaba a nuestro alrededor. Tras una breve eternidad, alguien abrió una rejilla del otro lado. A mis oídos llegó un ruido de copas y risas apenas perceptibles. Wordsworth no dijo nada, pero hizo un gesto con la mano, una especie de contraseña visual. Y la puerta se abrió.

Entramos en la sala más lujosa que he visto en mi vida. Arañas de cristal colgaban de los techos, que contra todo pronóstico, eran muy altos, como si la casa fuera más grande por dentro que por fuera. Las paredes estaban cubiertas de mármol y espejos enmarcados en pan de oro. En ese escenario espectacular se celebraba un cóctel. Los caballeros presentes sostenían copas de champán y las damas relucían, forradas en diamantes y terciopelos. Reconocí al embajador francés, al director de la policía, a varios generales del Kuomintang y a algunos rusos blancos adinerados. Si el propio Chang Kai Shek hubiese dado una fiesta, los invitados serían los mismos.

Wordsworth y yo nos mezclamos entre los invitados. Algunos se sorprendían al verme y se alegraban de darme la bienvenida. Pero a mí no me impresionaban especialmente. En cuestión de veinticuatro horas, ellos ya no significarían nada para mí.

¿Esto es todo? le pregunté a Wordsworth al oído. ¿El gran club del Loto? Hay fiestas mejores en nuestro barrio.

Usted no tiene paciencia ¿verdad? me regañó. Y luego, volviéndose hacia un camarero con una bandeja de whisky, le preguntó. Mi amigo quiere ver el pozo ¿lo puedes llevar?

El camarero asintió. Dejó la bandeja en una mesa y me guió hacia un patio central, y luego a través de otro salón ricamente decorado con jarrones y dragones de porcelana. Finalmente se detuvo ante una habitación y abrió la puerta. Me invitó a pasar.

Adentro de la habitación, no había muebles. Solo una lámpara de papel roja colgaba en medio del techo. Y abajo de ella, un pozo.

Me arrodillé en el suelo para asomarme. El pozo tenía unos cinco metros de profundidad  y en el fondo, había un hombre, sentado con las manos y pies atados. Pensé que sería un japonés capturado, al que exhibían por morbo y por decadencia. Estaba sollozando. Lo llamé:

¡Eh! ¿Quién lo ha metido ahí?

El hombre pareció revivir. Alzó las manos y la cabeza, haciendo sonar las cadenas.

¡Por favor, sáqueme de aquí! ¡Sálveme de esta gente! ¡Están locos!

La voz tenía acento londinense, y de hecho me sonaba familiar. Mis ojos se fueron acostumbrando a la oscuridad del pozo. Y solo entonces lo vi con claridad. Y con horror.

Era yo.

¡Vendrán en cualquier momento! siguió rogando. Iba vestido con mi misma ropa, y tenía mi rostro y mi pelo. Era yo, cada centímetro de mí, como en un espejo infernal. ¡Por favor, sáqueme! Le pagaré.

No quise seguir escuchando. Salí corriendo de esa habitación. Atravesé de vuelta el patio, y la reunión. Me perdí en el laberinto hasta que encontré la salida. Y seguí corriendo, mientras amanecía, hasta llegar a mi hotel.

Dos días después, los japoneses entraron en Pekín.

Yo nunca volví a esa ciudad.


© Santiago Roncagliolo

English Translation © Charlotte Coombe 2016

Santiago Roncagliolo (Lima, Peru, 1975) is one of the most successful contemporary Latin American writers. In 2010 he was selected by *Granta* as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under 35. His novel *Abril Rojo* (Red April) he won the Alfaguara Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize; it has been translated into over 20 languages. He is also the author of the novels * El príncipe de los caimanes* (2002), *Pudor* (2004), *Memorias de una dama* (2009), *Tan cerca de la vida* (2010), *El amante uruguayo* (2012), *Óscar y las mujeres* (2013) and *La pena máxima* (2014). He is also the author of the collectionn of short stories, *Crecer es un oficio triste* (2003) and the essay collections *El arte nazi* (2004), *Jet Lag* (2005) and *La cuarta espada. La historia de Abimael Guzmán y Sendero Luminoso* (2007).

Charlotte Coombe is a British literary translator currently based in Salisbury, UK. After a decade translating creative texts in gastronomy, the arts, travel and tourism, lifestyle, fashion and advertising, her love of literature drew her to literary translation, with a particular focus on women’s writing. Her translation of Abnousse Shalmani’s Khomeini, Sade and Me (2016) won a PEN Translates award in 2015 and is her second title with World Editions (her translation of Traces of Sandalwood by Anna Soler-Pont and Asha Miró was also published in 2016). She likes the occasional tweet (@cmctranslations) and you can usually find her procrastinating on Facebook. For more info, visit her shiny new website and portfolio at www.cmctranslations.com

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