Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Fall 1997, Volume 14.3

Fiction

 

Fernando Arrojo

Transmutation


Fernando Arrojo is Director of Comparative Literature Program at Oberlin College. His fiction and essays in Spanish or in English translation have appeared in a number of magazines including
High Plains Literary Review, The Florida Review, Portland Review, Papeles de Son Armadans (Palma de Mallorca), Insula (Madrid), and Azor (Barcelona).

 

Translated from the Spanish by Olga Markof-Belaeff and Elizabeth Ladd Glick

Autumn in Sweden is cold, dark and melancholy for a person brought up in southern lands. Late in the season the light of day is gone by early afternoon. The sun is rarely visible. Time passes slowly, exasperatingly, through days of pale brief light, through long interminable nights of dense darkness, nights that envelop and attack the spirit of the foreigner born in other, warmer latitudes. But there are also exquisite nights of steely beauty and numbing cold. Autumn merges into winter with no discernible transition, lengthening the vigil of the spirit, so it is not surprising that the senses long for the always late arrival of spring which will bring the light of longer days. In June light rules over darkness and the eagerly anticipated transmutation occurs: the long nights grow shorter, dissolve into the northern distance, and make way for summer which is soon vanquished by the eternally premature arrival of the next season as it returns once again with its unsettling darkness.

ONE

Autumn nightfall in Stockholm. The leaden clouds that hang over the city all day have dissolved now, or perhaps they're still suspended there, but the darkness hides them. Tomorrow they will keep their inevitable appointment again, become visible and scatter their gloom over the city. The hostile temperatures don't seem to bother people. There's great activity. Stores, brightly lit signs, traffic…lots of traffic. Human indifference.

A man walks down a seldom traveled street with his coat collar turned up high. His face is anonymous behind thick-rimmed glasses and a heavy blond beard. The rest of his head is hidden under a Russian-style fur hat. He walks fast, indifferent to his surroundings. His thoughts wander through the wasteland of time as his feet tread the pavements of the old city. He crosses a bridge, comes face to face with the symmetrical palace without really seeing it, and walks on towards Västerlånggatan.

Professor Gustaf Olofsson is not accustomed to walking the streets. He can't bear contact with other people. He thinks he already has enough contact in his classes. And if going for walks is unusual for him, walking aimlessly is absolutely unheard of for this methodical, solitary man, more given to thought than to speech.

Nearing fifty, Professor Olofsson looks the same as if he were nearing forty or sixty. A tireless worker, his life has slipped by in his professorship at the University of Stockholm, teaching art history (his students say with a more analytical than imaginative spirit) and writing a few lengthy books on painting, architecture and sculpture from Altamira to Carl Milles. Endless hours of research ooze from his books. They brim over with details, stupendous monuments to research. They are dismissed as exhausting by some, perhaps out of envy, disdained by those of artistic spirit who find them lacking any breath of inspiration, and rejected by the new generation who think that with historians like Olofsson art stagnates and stales within its own circles.

Västerlånggatan intersects with Järntorget.

Olofsson turns left, walks two blocks and turns into Svartmangatan.

His stubborn isolation has made him into a sullen man. His university colleagues find him tiresome because of artistic and philosophical disagreements. The few women who know him label him a confirmed misogynist, though their acquaintance goes no farther than English tea at five o'clock over an elegant polished silver tea service in which the well-born lady is convexly reflected, with her solicitous smile and rather more social than intellectual curiosity.

Olofsson's specialty is the Romanesque period. He has spent a lot of time in Catalonia, attracted by the well-preserved Romanesque frescoes, churches and monasteries. His foreign demeanor, blond beard and evasive look are familiar in the Barcelona Museum and the Institute of Catalan Studies. But no one has ventured beyond a courteous greeting or purely professional conversation. He is thought of as a cultivated person, not very outgoing. He is admired for his surprising mastery of the Spanish language and his knowledge of the Romanesque period.

Many years ago in Madrid, while on one of his many trips to Spain, Olofsson discovered…in all its profundity, as if he were a new Rubens…the painting of Velázquez. The Swede identified at once with the Sevillian painter. From the beginning he had had the feeling that there was a common bond between Velázquez and himself, an affinity he could not clearly explain.

Today, as he has been for months, Velázquez is absolute master of Professor Olofsson's mind. As he wanders the streets of Stockholm, thoughts crowd tumultuously in his head…names, facts, and a persistent hammering of forgotten chronicles about events that happened in another century. Light dominates color. A rich reality envelops him. Something warms him and produces an unfamiliar feeling of excitement. The Gordian knot that ties the present to the past, the shaft to the yoke, weighs on Gustaf Olofsson's spirit, and his thoughts reel like an impetuous whirlwind whose vortex seems to come alive.

He has no doubt that the paintbrushes that color his personality will in a not too distant future dip their worn bristles in different shades, that they will bring more brilliance and intensity to the faded landscape of his existence.

He longs to escape the stifling rhythm of his daily life, of spent years, of cold winters, of a frostbitten soul frequently thawed by a glass of schnapps, of an urban existence soured by traffic, of boring lectures, of the sheer annihilation of the individual.

Again, Västerlånggatan intersects with Järntorget.

TWO

There was understanding in the little rodent eyes of the old bookseller. His voice had an ironic edge.

"The Art of Painting? Pacheco? I'm sorry. No one is interested in that kind of book today. Well, the truth is that people here don't read much and they're interested in nothing. I had a copy a long time ago, and a foreigner like yourself bought it. The book must have lain on that shelf for longer than it took Pacheco to write it. Why don't you try the National Library? They'll have it. But now that I think of it…no, don't go to the Library, those people don't know what they've got. Go see Manuel Castro. Believe me, when it comes to old books, there is no one like him in all Madrid."

He gave him the address.

The summer heat of Madrid now at its height wore down the Scandinavian, but he had decided to begin a study of 16th and 17th century Spanish painting no matter what, and Francisco Pacheco's book, because of its thoroughness, would supply him with much of the information he needed. Olofsson didn't want to go to the National Library and have to cope with their usual annoying formalities. He would rather buy the book from an antiquarian, even if he had to pay a high price. So he was grateful for the old bookseller's recommendation.

Don Manuel Castro, an old man with a Jewish look, very hardened in buying and selling, in fact had the book by Pacheco. Castro proudly assured him that he had the best collection of old books, some of them so rare they had cost him their weight in gold. Olofsson, who hated conversation and detested bargaining even more, paid a handsome price for the Pacheco.

He went to his hotel.

In the intimacy of his room Olofsson unwrapped the package of brown paper and twine the bookseller had tied up. "A crude wrapping for something that proclaims the strength of the past," thought Olofsson. His hands caressed the leather binding, darkened by time. Now it was his, but who had owned it before him? Pacheco's book was in excellent condition, as if no one had ever sullied its virginal repose on the shelf of some anonymous library. Olofsson opened it and looked at the year of publication. The page read:

TO
HIS MAJESTIE OF THE SPAINS
PHILIP, FOURTH OF THIS GLORIOUS NAME
WITH PERMISSION
IN MADRID, by Diego Diaz de la Carrera, 1651
PUBLISHED AT HIS COST BY PEDRO COELLO, BOOK MERCHANT

As he leafed through the pages a musty odor arose which both repelled and attracted him. It was a smell that compressed the passage of centuries to a single moment. Olofsson thought of the pages of a calendar, torn out, fallen, lost. Two pages were stuck together. When he separated them a yellowed piece of paper, carefully folded in two, was revealed. It seemed odd that it was so tattered, for the book was well-preserved. It seemed to be a letter, or what was left of one, written in Spanish. Many words were blurred and illegible, but quite a few here and there could still be read. Noticing the signature, Olofsson was stunned. He read what was legible:

            I must thank Yr. Exc.
for having permitted me to savour
the first fruits of your pleasing lesson

and here is explai
whatever I can say
                         they also examined
its enigmas with a curious care
weighing it in the balance of the mind
so that they neither fall, nor waver

                          and they tell me that I 
have transcended the most hidden 
difficulties, as they who have attained full 
understanding of the
                         will be able to discern

                                      This canvas
            the excellent qualities and
size of my painting The Family which
our Lord the King so greatly praise
                                       the deftness
at the same time, the concepts of light
and color, and

with more zeal
this might be the best, most accomplished canvas 
which                              from my brush
God preser          Yr. Exc. for long and
happy years as I so wish and desire.
Madr    the 4. of January, 1658
                          Yr. Exc.'s servant
                          Don Diego de Silva Velázquez
                          His Majesties Chamberla

Olofsson's brain, after the first surprise, went carefully to work. Velázquez married Francisco Pacheco's daughter. Perhaps that explained the letter inside the book. Perhaps the letter was never sent. He studied the text. He tried to decipher, to guess the letters that mocking time had made indistinguishable. He could not. He read and reread until the words began to lose their meaning. Velázquez' letter fervently conceals its message. Certain passages almost seem to mock anyone trying to unravel their mysteries. "They also examined its enigmas with curious care…weighing it in the balance of the mind so that neither fall nor waver…as they who have attained full understanding of the…" Promises, hopes, secrets.

To what painting does Velázquez refer when he says "the most accomplished canvas?" Las Meninas is the most accomplished. Yet, what if there was…might have been…another, better one? Impossible. But why not? The letter impliesthey who have attained full understanding…"cabal concepto," cabal, cabalistic, a cabalistic conjuration? Could the letter be a forgery? A wicked joke? No, it mustn't be. It wasn't.

1651. The date of publication. The same year Velázquez returned to the Court after a long stay in Italy. He sailed from Genoa and reached Barcelona in June of 1651. The letter is dated 1658. Seven years had elapsed. Seven years to think, to compose, to create a masterpiece. Or, perhaps, two.

He thought of talking to Don Manuel Castro. Perhaps he could give him some information about the source of the book. But he soon discarded the idea. He didn't want to get drawn into some irritating conversation.

The next morning, tired and sleepy, Olofsson hurried off to the Prado Museum. He ran two at a time up the stone stairs of the entrance presided over by Goya, hurriedly greeted the guards, and rushed through the galleries toward the Velázquez rooms. When he reached the large Velázquez gallery, Olofsson experienced a profound feeling of humanity. The paintings breathed life, their colors were intense. He could have sworn that he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye a distinctly ironic smirk on the damaged face of Aesop. The Christ was so noble, so majestic. "It's the most elegant crucifixion of all," he said to himself. Then he thought that the coldness imputed to Velázquez was unfounded. He thought that the viewer had to live the painting of Velázquez, get inside it. The coldness came from the passive spectator, the merely analytical eye that never penetrated the barriers imposed by canvas and frame.

Philip IV was everywhere. He thought about the Poet King, the philandering King. His sad, downcast eyes, his Pekingese dog eyes, what did they signify? The fall of the Empire or fatigue produced by sexual excess?

At last Olofsson entered the room where the painting of Las Meninas was exhibited alone, apart from the rest.

The painting, the most famous of all, the one you admire almost liturgically, is here before you in its own Museum chapel, a chapel profaned daily by gaping crowds listening to a voice monotonously repeating the same thing in English, French, German. Depicted in the painting you have the studio of the Sevillian painter, said to be phlegmatic, open to tourism, today's road to Santiago for people of the Common Market, which opens the doors to the common merchants, the doors of Philip IV's palace, so they can camp there if necessary, profaning everything, vulgarizing everything. Out, out…a man is master of his own dwelling. You know you belong to the group in the painting, not to the world of the tourists, that family is your own, they will welcome you, you are of their epoch. Your familystable, silent, serene, with a cosmic tranquility…will accept you as you are.

An amalgam of languages took shape in the room. Olofsson half turned. He contemplated the painting, this time in the mirror that hung before him, to his left, in a corner of the room. The mirror gave him the illusion of depth, of entrance into the depicted scene. The voices grew louder. Disgusted by the intrusion, Olofsson hurried out.

The days passed and Olofsson forgot the primary reason for his trip to Madrid, drawn as if by magnetism to the letter and its possible implications.

Day and night he devoted to the search for facts that would confirm the idea taking shape with increasing clarity in his mind. He assured himself of the authenticity of the letter, comparing it to others in the author's own hand. The handwriting was identical. He obtained access to every sort of document and manuscript about the work of Velázquez. He pored over Palomino's El museo pictórico, hoping for some clue, some reference. He immersed himself in the life of Velázquez, an easy life, a life without great disappointments. What he already knew about the great painter was now broadened and deepened. Nothing indicated the possibility, however remote, of the existence of a painting like the one the painter mentioned in his letter. For Olofsson the reference in the letter was obvious. Protective of his work, Velázquez had been able to keep it secret.

He confided the secret of the letter to no one. At first, he thought of writing, of giving lectures about his discovery, but now he did not want to share it with anyone. It was his, his alone.

An idea which he found more and more probable grew clear in his mind: the canvas Velázquez was painting in Las Meninas was not, as many critics have suggested because of the size of the easel, Las Meninas itself (or The Family, as Olofsson preferred to call it, respecting the original title) nor was it some portrait of the King and Queen. It was the picture mentioned by Velázquez in the letter. The artist had painted both canvases between 1656 and 1657, a period when his pictorial experiments with the effects of light on color reached their peak.

His visits to the Museum became more and more frequent. As soon as the doors opened, Olofsson entered and went directly to the room where Velázquez' masterpiece, the known one, was exhibited. He fixed his eyes on the scene, now completely familiar, even its most minute details. Don José Nieto is leaving through the paneled door at the back of the room. This gentleman, who was the Queen's Chamberlain, seems to be leaving the scene and passing into other worlds which lack the intimacy of the group gathered in the painter's studio.

Olofsson recalled the words spoken by a character in one of Azorín's writings. Speaking of José Nieto, he says, "I don't know who he is, but to me his figure is so real, so alive, so eternal, like that of a hero or a genius." For Olofsson, the gentleman's identity is clear. He is the man who is perhaps leaving with his secret. The Infanta, little Nicolás, the ladies in waiting, the King, the Queenall those who compose this family group are eternal and will remain faithful to the roles the painter has assigned to them, which is to play themselves. But Don José Nieto is always escaping, without ever actually disappearing. Should he someday leave the room, Velázquez' secret, Olofsson's secret, might be breached and divulged, an intolerable action Olofsson could not permit. It's not that the Swede hated the Chamberlain. In fact he envied him, but he wanted to instill in him the desire to stay forever at his post, in the position assigned to him by the painter.

If only the Chamberlain's spirit were stable, like the others.

Once or several times a day, he visits the Museum, day after day, to make sure that Don José Nieto has not left the studio.

THREE

Olofsson has returned to Sweden, and in the solitude of his apartment he reads the mysterious letter again and again, and reviews the numerous notes accumulated during many hours of study and research. He always hopes to find something that might have passed unnoticed.

The group in Las Meninas is engraved in his mind. Now more than ever Olofsson is convinced that Velázquez' painting…the unknown one…will never appear. Yet it rests there on that easel in Las Meninas. All of them can see it. So why can't he? Because he is a displaced member of that eternal family? Why should Don José Nieto, a being in flight, rootless, have the eternal joy of gazing at the painting there, while he, Gustaf Olofsson, loyal and steadfast, must suffer on this side of the canvas, unable to cross the absurd barrier? The distance is really so small.

These thoughts, which he has had so many times while looking at the painting in the Museum, torture him now, now that he is really so far away from the painting and everyone in it. The uncertainty that tore at him in Madrid is more acute in Stockholm, since he cannot make his daily visits to the Museum to make sure the eternal scene continues unbetrayed on its course through the centuries.

He divides his time between the University and his apartment, without friends or interruptions. His work is centered right now around a series of lectures on Spanish painting. Today after a long, aimless walk through the old part of Stockholm, Olofsson goes home to relive his notes, his letter, his hopes. The world of his little apartment is restricted. The fireplace is its vital center. The fire, the flame, the heat, the smell, the drowsy comfort

It is almost midnight. Tired from the day's work, Olofsson dozes. His eyes feel heavy after so many nights shortened by sleeplessness and pregnant with vague hopes. He nods. There was a soft rapping at the door. Some had knocked. The doorbell is or was silent. The fire in the fireplace flares up inexplicably. The figure is or will be familiar. Shadows blend, that of the figure merges with the shadows of the objects in the room.

Olofsson looks at the man. He recognizes him.

"You recognize me, don't you? We've seen each other so many times, so close and yet so far."

"Yes, in the distance. You're leaving."

"To leave, always to leave, always forward, like an arrow. Never to straggle behind. We are captive, but many of us escape. I live and I will live. I think and I will think."

"To return. To leave in order to return. To turn toward the rising sun. I live and I did live. I think and I did think."

"I understand that your interpretation of time is that of seconds that turn into minutes, that end in hours, that close into days, that lose themselves in years, that vanish into centuries. Mine lies between what is permanent and the mystery of what is to come."

"No. I interpret time as the seconds that open into minutes, that project into hours, that pour into days, that grow into years, that dawn into centuries, into the distance, into the past, into what we already know."

"I had to come. The issue demands this confrontation. I have no desire to rummage in the attic of discarded things, but to live this moment, your moment, this epoch in which the old myths have been destroyed. I yearn for change. I want to abandon the studio, to leave the already known, immerse myself in the present which is my future. Trust me, I have no other purpose."

His suspicion that Don José Nieto would divulge the secret was fading. Olofsson feels he can confide in the Chamberlain.

"Tell me, is the painting beautiful? What does it represent? What pictorial enigmas does it hold?"

"I am forbidden to say. You must discover it. That painting is your destiny, and the letter you have is your safe conduct. In fact, it has already done its work and you need not keep it."

There is a silence. The conversation is finished. "Fare you well, Professor Olofsson."

"Goodbye, señor Nieto."

The figure is barely recognizable. The shadows of the man and the furniture intertwine. Olofsson nods. The fire in the fireplace has died down. Only a few tongues of flame still lick at the charred log, darting up behind it like hand puppets. Olofsson rises. The fire in the fireplace flares up for a few seconds. A piece of paper turns black then crumples, devoured by the flames.

Dawn breaks in Stockholm.

As the early hours of the day progress, the sun seems to be trying to impose its will on the nebulous burden that surrounds it. Olofsson walks toward the University. Today in his series of lectures on Spanish painting he will talk about Velázquez. It is one of those few days at the end of autumn, when the sun, however weakly, allows itself to be seen. Somehow, Olofsson's lectures have gained vitality. The lecture hall slowly fills up. There is an air of great anticipation, of various kinds…skepticism, curiosity, perhaps admiration. Today's audio-visual lecture is listed as a detailed examination of Velázquez' work.

From the lectern, with eloquence and insight, Olofsson imparts his knowledge and his feelings about the life of the Sevillian painter. Seville, Madrid, Rome. His teachers, his friends, his models. Pacheco, Góngora, the Conde-Duque, Rubens, the court jesters, maimed and wretched, but above everything and everyone, Philip IV, his King, his lifelong friend, his protector. Trips abroad. His life as a portrait painter to the royal family. His disciples. His mythological satires, so far removed from classicism. Now, more and more deeply, Olofsson delves into Velázquez' style. The listeners even acquire a tactile vision of the paintings. "Velázquez never rushed his artistic development," he explains. "Slowly, with his eyes half-closed, he penetrated intricate, luminous labyrinths and conquered light just as today we have tamed the atom."

One slide follows another.

A chaotic amalgam of absurd brushstrokes in wise combination produces a harmonious, silent, eternal whole.

Click. Next slide. Las Meninas. Full view.

The indirect light cast by the projector, combined with the weak lamplight of the lectern, creates a ghostly chiaroscuro on Olofsson's face.

The speaker reveals an unusually thorough knowledge of the painting.

Click. Next slide.

Detail: door in the background and a man leaving.

"If one could manage to penetrate that luminous space behind him."

A man leaving.

"If one could manage to penetrate"

A man leaving.

Incalculable time. Olofsson thinks he is falling into an abyss. Inexplicably, he stops in a dark space. He is totally paralyzed. Yet he can still think, perhaps see. He thinks of a faint light, of new smells, of more light, of a good position, of a complete view. He sees a cascade of golden hair. He thinks of the intimacy of a group. He sees that Queen Mariana seems to be in the back, and yes, no doubt about it, he can make out the sad, tired eyes of Philip IV.

A mirror placed in a corner to the left witnesses the scene from other worlds. And Olofsson reflects on his present and his future, on what is permanent and on the mystery of what is to come.

The eyes of Professor Gustaf Olofsson gaze at the back of Velazquez and at the easel the painter has before him.

The ambulance pulled away from the curb. The sound of its siren was lost in the distance. The groups of curious onlookers dispersed. The sun, pale, exhausted by its daily drama, died behind the somber rooftops to be reborn somewhere beyond.

 

Back to Top