It smells of sweat, chili and onions, urine and accumulated garbage and the music from the jukebox mingles with the collective voice, the growl of motors and horns, and it comes to one’s ears deformed and thick. Singed faces, prominent cheekbones, eyes made drowsy by routine or indolence wander among the tables, form clusters at the bar, block the entrance. Ambrosio accepts the cigarette that Santiago offers him, smokes, throws the butt on the floor and buries it under his foot. He slurps the soup noisily, nibbles on the pieces of fish, picks up the bones and sucks them, leaves them all shiny, listening or answering or asking a question, and he swallows pieces of bread, takes long swigs of beer and wipes the sweat off with his hand: time swallows a person up before he realizes it, child. He thinks, why don’t I leave? He thinks: I have to go and he orders more beer. He fills the glasses, clutches his and while he talks, remembers, dreams, or thinks he watches the circle of foam sprinkled with craters, mouths that silently open up, vomiting golden bubbles and disappearing into the yellow liquid that his hand warms. He drinks without closing his eyes, belches, takes out cigarettes and lights them, leans over to pet Rowdy: the things that have happened, Jesus. He talks and Ambrosio talks, the pouches on his eyelids are bluish, the openings in his nose vibrate as if he’d been running, as if he were drowning, and after each sip he spits, looks nostalgically at the flies, listens, smiles, or grows sad or confused, and his eyes seem to grow furious sometimes or frightened or go away, on top of his overalls he wears a jacket that must have been blue once too and had buttons, and a shirt with a high collar that is wrapped around his neck like a rope. Santiago looks at his enormous shoes: muddy, twisted, fucked up by the weather. His voice comes to him in a stammer, fearful, is lost, cautious, imploring, returns, respectful or anxious or constrained, always defeated: not thirty, forty, a hundred, more. Not only had he fallen apart, grown old, become brutalized; he probably was tubercular as well. A thousand times more fucked up than Carlitos or you, Zavalita. He was leaving, he had to go and he orders more beer. You’re drunk, Zavalita, you were about to cry. Life doesn’t treat people well in this country, son, since he’d left their house he’d gone through a thousand movie adventures. Life hadn’t treated him well either, Ambrosio, and he orders more beer. Was he going to throw up? The smell of frying, feet and armpits swirls about, biting and enveloping, over the straight-haired or bushy heads, over the gummy crests and the flat necks with mange and brillantine, the music on the jukebox grows quiet and revives, grows quiet and revives, and now, more intense and irrevocable than the sated faces and square mouths and dark beardless cheeks, the abject images of memory are also there: more beer. Wasn’t this country a can of worms, boy, wasn’t Peru a brain-twister?

Mario Vargas Llosa Conversation in the Cathedral, translation Gregory Rabassa October 1, 2008
Posted on October 1, 2008