he Ministry of Firing Squads, Subsecretariat of Tortures and Satires,
Vice-Ministry of Medieval Chambers... None of the signs above the doors in
that hallway corresponded to the office for which I searched: the office
in charge of attending to foreign visitors. Next were the Plenipotentiary
Ministry and the Secretary of Interrogations (horrible screams were heard
from behind that door), and then a small ladder that led to a cellar, with
a sign on which could be read: Office of Necrophiliac Affairs. Finally I
came upon a desk situated at a turn in the hallway where an orderly with
dark glasses and a crooked mustache, upon learning of my distant origins,
asked: "Have you come to declare war on us?"
"No, no," I replied, confused.
"Have we declared it on you, then?"
"You misunderstand. The fact is, I am an explorer," I said.
"An explorer..." he responded, and a strange smile appeared on his face.
"Come with me," he mumbled. A chill ran down my spine.
We went through mahogany double doors, which he pushed open forcefully.
He remained on the threshold while indicating that I should enter. I
penetrated into the room's shadows and felt the door close behind me, and
for a moment I feared the worst. The darkness was solid and absolute, but
I sensed the presence of someone else. I managed to distinguish a large
silhouette, from which came a rustling of papers and a voice that said:
"Come in, Mister..."
"Plumanegra," I responded, "Acutangulo Plumanegra."
"Yes, yes, that's it. The explorer, I suppose. Please take a seat,
"I imagine that you will ask how it is that I know your name. Well, I
will tell you something: during your stay in Macabria, many things will
remain unexplained. Suffice to say that my men have examined your bags at
"They have gone through my bags?"
"Yes, but don't worry, Mister..."
"That's it. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Gregorio Sunday and
I am the chief of police of Macabria. Nothing happens here without my
consent. No-thing. Especially crimes. As I told you, my men examined
your luggage and nothing was found which would lead us to think that you
are not who you say you are. Do you follow my reasoning?"
"Excellent. Furthermore, the investigators have found among your
possessions a book, this book," he said, dropping a volume loudly on the
table, "which I am exceedingly interested in. You see," he went on, his
indiscernible face nearing mine from across the table, "we are not
accustomed to receiving explorers in Macabria, understand? Nevertheless, I
am disposed to make an exception for you, in exchange for possession of
this book, of course. Not every day does the distinguished theory of
Malthus come to us in such a superb edition."
The chief of police rose and indicated that I should follow him. A side
door took us to a spacious room with many desks. Although a pale light
filtered through some small skylights, Sunday only moved through the zones
of shadow. Weak lamps illuminated the desks, where some cadaverous-looking
clerks filled out forms and stamped edicts. We crossed the room in
silence. Beyond extended a library of gigantic proportions, which did not
fail to amaze me. Sunday clapped his hands and moments later from amid a
heap of dusty books emerged an old, moldy man, with pupils that were
completely white and a cane with an ivory hilt. The chief of police held
out the book and the librarian began to feel it, to smell it, and finally,
to lick it with pleasure. An expression of extreme joy distorted his face
and yellowish tears flowed from his eyes as he said: "Essay on the Principle of Population. Thomas Malthus. Edition in Spanish from 1899, translated by Alfonso Varela. Bound in leather. Exquisite, definitively exquisite..."
"As you see, in Macabria we have one of the most expert bibliophiles in
the world," noted Sunday. Then he added in a whisper to me, "For
centuries, the labyrinth of books which you see here has been managed by
blind librarians. The idea is that the texts are not profaned by the human
eye, thus conserving their virginal purity."
"But that makes no sense..." I argued.
"You see, my dear explorer," he said in a paternal tone, placing a hand on
my shoulder, "the fact is that all reading is misunderstanding."
Without further explanation the book remained to be archived and Sunday
pushed me toward a staircase. He saw me out with these words:
"May you enjoy your stay in Macabria. Although I would not advise that
you stay for long..."
I walked away without being able to say a word, trying to picture his face
and thinking that not even the worst nightmares succeed in being original.
Arcadia, the island of Barataria, the lost kingdom of Prester John,
Cibola, El Dorado, Hyperborea, Atlantis, Mu, the Civitas Solem, Celestial
Jerusalem, the Amazonian Tierra Sin Mal... Perhaps this enumeration of
fantastic geographies is not the best way to continue with my chronicles of
Macabria. Better for us to say that from time immemorial, the longing to
be nowhere (the utopian will) has driven man beyond the real or imaginary
confines of the world, pushing explorers and travelers to abandon that
habit of voices and forms that we call home.
The journey in some cases requires physical movement, in others, spiritual
(sometimes both). In any case, it is always an attempt to go beyond one's
self, to transcend our personal boundaries. For that reason the journey
also presupposes the dissolution of the traveler or of his identity in a
vortex of centripetal forces, his dislocation in a space where the
coordinates are inverted and where all cartography becomes hallucinatory.
The journey is, in the end, an initiation, and involves the emergence of a
new personality, of an alter ego.
All of this is insufficient, however, to explain what I felt that night
with what Macabria offered to me, under the moon and in the alleys, its
exultant baptism of blood.
In my desk, a dagger slept a sleep not free of nightmares. A brief gleam
like a tremor passed over it, like the slight shiver of a sleeper. It
preserves, perhaps better than my memory, the terrible circumstances and
marvels of that night.
My stay in Macabria ended up prolonging itself beyond my predictions.
Month after month, in payment I was depositing into the hands of the blind
librarian a series of books that were of interest to Chief Sunday: that
dubious history of witchcraft entitled Malleus Maleficarum; Leviathan
by Hobbes; On Heroes and Hero Worship by Carlyle; Dangerous Liaisons by Laclos; a biography of Gilles de Rays; The Misfortunes of Virtue by the Marquis de Sade...
They say here that in some distant age two theologians were discussing
the existence of Hell. One of them argued vehemently for its
impossibility, alleging the insuperable contradiction between a god of
goodness and such extreme punishment. The other, who had come down from
the mountain to attend the discussion, listened to his arguments in
silence, but a strange spark glinted in his eyes. His sole response was to
turn his back, departing for a neighboring country. There he armed a
military which, over many years of bloody fighting, succeeded in conquering
the other land, converting it to a belief in Hell. While the soldiers
celebrated their victory, he left with a small patrol to go through his
dominions, until he found his contradictor hidden in the false bottom of a
wardrobe in the house of a blacksmith.
At sword-point, he took the man out to a field and ordered that he be
mutilated slowly. And so passed thirty-three days of agony, after which
his opponent murmured, horrified, with his last breath: "I have seen Hell."
The prophet of Macabria forgot his empire then and, smiling, returned to
the mountain, reminded of how much he enjoyed convincing his enemies.
The most recent census of Macabria sheds light upon the occupations of its
population and, therefore, upon its particular idiosyncrasies. The
hodge-podge list confirms the existence of 120,000 executioners, 480,000
gravediggers, 90,000 employees of funeral parlors, 70,000 forensic doctors,
300,000 convicts, 900,000 soldiers, 180,000 clerks, 85,000 lawyers, 450,000
advisers, delegates and senators.
Macabria sunt. This maxim can be read on the frontispiece of each of
the city's gallows. The Latin saying alludes to the minimal importance
attributed here to the individual's existence--a ragged bouquet of
confused illusions--in the face of the unimpeachable majesty conferred on
the collective, to the omnipresent national spirit. "Macabria is conceived
of as one organic whole," one of its wise men explained to me,
"distinguished, perfect, one and indivisible" (profuse adjectivization is
one of the characteristics of the place) "unaltered by time, legacy of the
ancients and inheritance of our seed," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I
spare the reader from the ample list of virtues that Macabrians are
accustomed to attribute to their kingdom, epithets that don't so much paint
a portrait of the country as perhaps reveal something profound about the
psychology of its inhabitants. I do wish to relate, however, the
investigations to which this curious cult drove me. Seized by a nagging
suspicion, I prepared an expedition to the outskirts of the city, hiring
guides and gathering various victuals and provisions. Four common
Macabrian pack animals (which appeared to me identical to the yaks that
Tibetans use and which my guides called 'Burgundians') functioned as our
mode of transport.
We crossed the squares of the city in the cold frost of dawn and went
forward in a northwesterly direction, following the track of an old, nearly
invisible road. After a short while I began to note unique characteristics
of the terrain. The ground suffered from a doughy lack of firmness,
sinking one or two centimeters under the hooves of our mounts. Here and
there drops of a transparent liquid welled up from the ground, forming
bubbles that, when they burst, let out a fetid odor. The vegetation was
rather sparse, made up of some tubular, black shrubs without branches,
which swayed violently to the rhythm of the wind. At that stage of the
journey, I began to take notice of a certain agitation in my guides, who
shared fearful words in an incomprehensible dialect. A heavy buzz, that
perhaps could have been confused with a growl, stopped the Burgundians dead
in their tracks. It was useless to spur them to continue. With their eyes
bugging out our mounts turned and began to run (a thing that did not appear
to bother my guides too much, who appeared no less terrified).
I managed to jump down from my mount before it could throw me off onto the
In a few moments my expedition vanished over the horizon and I prepared to
continue the journey on foot. I advanced up a slope that all the while
became steeper, to the point that I ended up scaling it. During these
difficulties, I was surprised once more by the same sound, which now
clearly seemed to be the roar of a wild beast. I was not intimidated and
continued scaling until I arrived at the peak, where I found a broad valley
opening out before my eyes. There I contemplated a dome of titanic
dimensions, of a yellowish white and pearled with bloodshot lines. In its
center there spread a dark circle, which in its turn contained another,
smaller and bright. I was located in the deepest part of the valley, not
very far from a long fissure that crossed the ground from one end of the
depression to the other. I confess that I was fascinated by that vision,
but my wonder turned to terror when the circle moved across the dome until
it was in front of me (I managed to see my silhouette reflected in it).
That movement was followed by another--some sort of folds that had
remained unnoticed until that moment covered the dome for a brief instant,
and then moved back to reveal it once more. I understood then, on the
verge of insanity, that I was being observed by a gigantic eye. The
fissure opened and from it rose a gust of fetid air and inhuman words that
shook the valley. "La, la, n'gtun ftah, la p'nglui nothep b'nzer!" I
believe that I slid down the slope and then began to run without any
definite direction, delirious. A horrible lucidity united the images of my
journey, confirming my fearful hypothesis: the city was erected in ancient
times on some gigantic creature, the demon whose eye I saw (and saw me) in
the valley. The soft ground in which the hooves of our mounts sank is its
flesh, the shrubs its hair, the bubbles its monstrous perspiration. I
don't know how long I ran, nor how I arrived back at the city. Since then
I have taken refuge in the highest tower, where I write down these
grotesque memories. Acutangulo Plumanegra or Abdul Alhazred, it little
matters now what my real name is. But I fully understand the meaning of
that phrase resounding terribly like a hammer pounding, joined with the
voice of the monster that shouts its invocations: Macabria sunt!
Macabria sunt! Macabria sunt!
(translated by Josh Hockensmith)
Emilio Martinez is a journalist and writer living in Santa Cruz de la
Sierra, Bolivia. His books include Noticias de Burgundia (Editorial
Nuevo Milenio, 1999) and Macabria y otros cuentos (Nuevo Milenio, 2002).
He has received the Premio Municipal from Santa Cruz for both poetry and
prose, and this year was awarded the Premio Nacional for his play "El
Banquete." Excerpts from News from Burgundia (also translated by Josh Hockensmith) appeared in
Issue #8 of The Cafe Irreal,
as well as in the Bolivian Studies Journal and in PEN Bolivia's 2003
annual. This is the first appearance of translations from Macabria y
Josh Hockensmith is a writer, translator, and book artist living in Chapel
Hill, NC. His work has appeared in South by Southeast: Haiku
& Haiku Arts and Oyster Boy Review, among others. His short story,
"Three--Possibly Four--Houses on Main Street," appeared in Issue #10 of
The Cafe Irreal.
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story copyright by author 2004 all rights reserved
translation copyright by translator 2004 all rights reserved