Edgar Brau

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Edgar Brau

 

Casablanca
(excerpt)

Translated by Andrea G. Labinger

 

 

It happened toward the end of March, on the road to Mar del Plata. At the close of a very warm day, the sun was slowly setting. In the western sky, a blend of pinks and grays distracted me from the solitary route and the storm advancing from the south.  When the sun was swallowed by the horizon, followed by that inevitable, final burst of silence, I turned my attention once more to the road in front of me. Intensified by the darkness, the road plunged into the threatening, vaporous hollow of the storm, which a convulsive movement seemed to push closer, its foremost section already ahead of me. Alongside the road, the swaying green of the trees and shrubs was rapidly turning black, and a murky wind propelled flocks of birds forward. I slowed down a bit and glanced at my watch: a few minutes before eight. I had figured on reaching the coast by ten. But now I had to move very slowly; a pale blue haze, as swift as the storm, impeded my progress. I advanced a few hundred yards very gradually, fascinated by the silken wall, a perfect reflection —or detached piece— of the squall that was developing up above, feeling all the while as though I were traveling through a movie set. I considered the possibility of accelerating and plunging right into it, of passing through it as in a magic act.  A lightning bolt crashing into a cluster of eucalyptus trees and two or three raindrops bursting against my windshield made me abandon that notion.  I shifted into reverse, looking for a turnoff I had seen a few miles back, next to a billboard advertising a brand of coffee.  I felt the storm pursuing me.  But a side road leading west that I hadn’t noticed before caught my attention before I reached the turnoff.  On a sign placed almost at ground level, an arrow pointed the way; beneath the arrow, barely discernible through the rust, appeared the word Casablanca.

I made the turn; the commotion of wind and clouds compelled me to find refuge.  In the north, increasingly dim, the last clear outline of horizon disappeared. I advanced with my headlights on along a gravel path bordered by tall trees.  After about two miles, a tight curve once more turned me toward the south, facing a door whose brick columns stood partially in ruins. A tin cut-out hung from one of the columns (in spite of the layers of rust and the faded colors, I was able to identify it as the image of something like a Moorish guard).  In the middle of the arch that connected both columns, held in place by a couple of pieces of wire, dangled a sign whose letters repeated the word Casablanca.

At the end of the path (now there were trees only along the edge closest to the road; on the other side, just the empty prairie), a cluster of buildings hazily emerged from clouds of dust and leaves.

As I passed through the gate, an initial torrent of rain obliterated the path. I advanced blindly a few more yards, watching for the momentary breaks produced whenever the wind changed the direction of the rain or whenever the rain let up briefly. I leaned forward, pressing my forehead to the windshield. After a couple of minutes, a few flashes of lightning clearly defined the details of a house: I could also see a boy leaning against the wall beneath the porch cover, observing me. I cut the motor and started to get out, but the rain resumed with more intensity. To my right, the darkness was impenetrable; to the left was the fuzzy outline of some sort of shed.  Suddenly the rain abated, and at that point, the boy ran toward the shed. I opened the car door and could see that it was actually quite a sophisticated structure —or at least an unusual one for a place like that. It was probably about thirty-five feet long, and it was gray; in the middle, framed by two wooden rectangles with small, raised rings, was an iron double door in a darker shade of gray, with triangular moldings. Above the door was a sign with white fluorescent letters that, like the broken garland surrounding it, was unlit, and, rising from some weed-filled stone blocks on either side, a large white arch enclosed the whole thing.

I got out of the car, and, urged on by a gust of wind and water, ran to the half-opened door (I managed to read the word Rick or something like that on the sign). A very dim light blinked from inside. I pushed open the door, unsurprised by the squeaking hinges; even in my rush to get out of the rain, I’d noticed that the place looked practically abandoned. I walked in, but a stack of tables and chairs blocked my way; the light came from a kerosene lantern by the entrance.  Without taking another step, I clapped my hands, shouting out a greeting.  At first there was silence, and then I began to hear the sound of a piano. I recognized the tune immediately:  it was the theme song from the film Casablanca. Soon it was accompanied by the voice of the black man who sang it in the movie (Despite the clarity of the sound, I imagined it must be something like a gramophone with its heavy, metal disk).  Then, skirting around the tables and chairs, I found myself staring at a wide, deep room with white walls and arches, its central corridor surrounded by tables with lamps on top. The tables, chairs, and tablecloths all were in lighter or darker shades of gray; the lamps (fringes dangled from the lampshades) were white. The music came from the rear left, and it obviously wasn’t a record; seated at a piano, a black man played and sang the famous song perfectly —a perfect imitation, that is. Next to him, standing alongside a solitary cymbal from a percussion set, was the boy I had seen running. The man, in profile, performed the piece as if no one else were there; the boy stared at me suspiciously. I inched forward very slowly, impeded by a sense of unreality. The place smelled like burned kerosene and tobacco, and the sound of rain against the metal roof resounded from somewhere. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, but none of them was lit; the irregular light, flickering in the air currents, was provided by a few kerosene lanterns and some candles distributed throughout the room, always next to a mirror. Most of the upholstered chairs were threadbare, the floor tiles cracked; in the vases, silk flowers, perhaps charming once in an artificial way, now looked more like dried flowers that steeped the walls in gloom, the silhouette of their heads bobbing laboriously up and down in the flickering light like Chinese shadow puppets.  In the center of the room, to my right, its (black and white) chips scattered as though by a child, was a roulette table, completely gray. I felt –—as I took in and registered those props with astonishment— that even though everything in the place fit perfectly, the hint of silence behind the incidental music, the unoccupied chairs, the absence of those for whom each detail had been arranged, rendered them curiously incompatible: a warehouse full of antiques whose merchandise had been organized by a man in a blindfold.

I walked up to the piano player without feeling obliged to stop:  his concentration on singing and playing was complete —only the boy kept following me with his gaze. By the wall opposite the piano, a man in dark glasses (his face seemed familiar at first glance), a white jacket and black bow tie dozed, his chin resting on his chest. He was sitting at a table with a screen behind it; on the table there was a chess set, a full ashtray, and an ordinary drinking glass, now empty. In another chair lay an untidy pile of a dozen or so books. The bar, which occupied the entire rear section, stopped me in my tracks. Entirely gray and white, it was a semicircle bordered with smaller semicircles at both ends; farther back, a large mirror, soiled by dust and time, separated the shelves, which were lined with empty bottles; practically none of the round barstools was in good shape. At one end of the bar, almost directly parallel to the piano, a winding staircase led to the upper floor. Even without music, I thought, it was possible to recognize the set from Casablanca. Impressed by that display, I even imagined the very unlikely possibility that it had been filmed there; after all, stranger things have happened in our country. And yet, that replica of a black-and-white photo and that black man, playing an upright piano just like the one in the movie… I leaned against one of the barstools and turned toward the center of the room in order to get a complete picture. Condensed within that gray, dead tableau beneath that roof, all the years that had passed since the movie was made suddenly seemed to hang over my head, suffocating me. I stepped away, feeling faint, and turned again toward the bar, and, as though it were a vision in a dream, I stared at myself in the mirror for what now seems to have been a very long moment. Another reflection joined mine, and immediately a voice saved me.

“Good evening, sir.   Sir?”

I turned around. It was the piano player. He had finished his song and was now standing, his hands folded over at his waist. The boy had disappeared.

“Good evening, sir,” he repeated when I turned around to look at him, and then, nodding his head slightly, he inquired, “Alone?”

“Yes. Good evening. The rain… I…,” I replied, cutting my answer short with astonishment as I noted his resemblance to Sam, the black piano player in the movie. In fact, he was identical, although much older; his hair was completely white, and his belly kept his suit jacket unbuttoned —it was gray satin, just like in the film, only quite shabby and darned in more than one place. 

“Welcome to Casablanca,” he added, pointing to the room with a broad gesture, like a master of ceremonies. His voice sounded hoarse and somewhat disappointed now.

I glanced around the room, as did he, very soberly. Then, regaining his composure, he added, “Welcome to Rick’s American Café,” indicating, like an announcer, the man who was dozing at the table and whom I had until now taken for a waiter. 

I took a few steps forward; the piano player’s allusion confirmed (explained) the other man’s familiar appearance:  he reminded me of Bogart in Casablanca. I leaned over to see him better, and the other man laughed.

“Yes, sir, that’s Rick,” he corroborated with a certain pride when I turned toward him again. “A pretty old Rick, for sure, and a sickly one. The years, sir, who can escape them?”
I stood up, and the pianist violently stuck a chord. The man in glasses awoke with a start, then tilted his head to one side, listening. I shivered; in full face, even with glasses, he looked just like Humphrey Bogart. An eighty-something-year-old Bogart, with a bad dye job and plenty of wrinkles.

“Sam?” he asked gently, leaning forward. 

The black man smiled at me, as pleased as if a pet had responded to his command to be exhibited to a visitor. Then he played a few strident bars on the piano, went over to the other man, and said, “Yes, Rick, I’m here. And we have a guest. But he’s not a tourist. It’s raining hard out there.”

The man turned his head in various directions, trying to find me. I greeted him, but the piano player motioned me not to come any closer. 

“Good evening,” I repeated, drawing closer to the table.

The man responded with a nearly imperceptible nod of his head; then he adjusted his position, ran his hand through his hair, and rummaged in his pocket. He pulled out a half-smoked cigarette and lit it with a match. He took a few drags, grabbed the glass with his other hand, searching for the black man with his gaze (I noticed his movements were no longer so natural). The piano player had stepped behind the bar; he bent down for a second, reappearing with two glasses and a partially consumed bottle of cheap gin. The other man waited, partly afflicted and partly resigned, behind the cigarette smoke. When the piano player served him the gin, he took a sip, removed his glasses (his eyes looked normal and were watery blue, like Bogart’s), gripped the glass with both hands and stared off at a fixed point in the distance with the same tormented expression the actor used to have.  Immediately, the piano player handed me a glass of gin, showing me to a table by the piano, where we sat down.

“To what once was our Casablanca,” he said, raising his glass to clink it against mine. “And Rick’s Café,” he added, in a somewhat melancholy tone (which struck me as an affectation) and took a swig.

I waited a few seconds, about to ask what it all meant, but the other man interrupted.

“Ilsa, Ilsa,” he said, biting off the words and hanging his head, defeated; the cigarette fell to the floor. Then he rubbed his face violently, said a few words in English that I didn’t really understand, took another swig, put on his eyeglasses, and in a different, casual voice (as though neither the question nor my answer mattered very much), asked, “Where you from, mister?”

“Buenos Aires,” I replied, raising my voice.

“Everyone’s from Buenos Aires,” he remarked in the same neutral voice, twisting his mouth to one side.

The black man smiled wearily, still looking at me. I interpreted his silence as a way of telling me I should respond.

“And you?” I asked, just to ask something.

“Take a guess,” he challenged, removing his eyeglasses and offering me a crooked smile.

The name Humphrey Bogart flashed predictably through my mind.

“North America,” I answered without thinking.

The man laughed, with the famous actor’s measured laughter. The piano player joined in, and so did I, in my case because I didn’t understand what they were laughing about.

“Why North American?” the man persisted after another drink. The black man gave me a crafty look that I didn’t quite comprehend.

“Your face … and because you speak English,” I explained, all the while imagining how weak my explanation must have sounded.

The man stepped back with a sarcastic smile on his lips, raising his hand a few times as though weighing something.  Then he reacted.

“But mister,” he said, putting on his eyeglasses again, je ne parle pas anglais; yo no hablo inglés.” I speak French and Spanish.” And mockingly, in the same voice he had used to pronounce the English word mister (Bogart’s voice), he continued, “Tell me, how can you imagine I would even attempt to pronounce that salad of consonants some ancient Saxon tossed together at the edge of a swamp while he gathered acorns to eat? English? Please! That language is just a bunch of acorns rattling around in a leather bag. Believe me, mister, it’s a nutshell between the teeth of a crazy squirrel.”

I looked at the books piled up on the chair.

“Shakespeare was no acorn,” I taunted, leaning toward his table with my eyes on the piano player, who seemed to be enjoying this.

“Bah,” he snorted.  “Shakespeare, Shakespeare.  An acorn for exportation, mister. Listen: people should read him in French, like I do. You still get the idea, and at least the container is civilized. Read him in Spanish, if you like, or in Italian, you see my point.  But Shakespeare in English?  Bah!”

And he leaned forward to get my reaction.

The black man and I smiled silently. Then, unsure of the effect his speech had produced, he added, “Play it again, Sam. Tell me, don’t you think that sounds like someone spitting out a wad of tobacco?”

This time we laughed out loud, although my laughter wasn’t as natural as it might have been; that face, just like Bogart’s, talking about all those things, and in that place, brought back the feeling of unreality I had experienced a moment before, the uneasiness that assails us sometimes in dreams, or when we realize we’ve been dreaming. Meanwhile, the black man had gone off for more gin. The man stepped away, satisfied (he reminded me of a puppy getting a treat) and immediately asked Sam to bring him the books.

“Please, Sam, my Racine, my Baudelaire, my Balzac, my Flaubert, my Valéry, my Proust,” he said jokingly, as if trying to show me the quality of his reading material, while the piano player gathered up the volumes.
Sam placed the books next to the chess set and before withdrawing, whispered something in his ear; the man nodded slightly.

Then Sam went over to the piano and returned to our table with a portrait I hadn’t noticed before.  The other man had removed his eyeglasses and began leafing through some of the books.

“He can’t read them now; Fortunato, my godson, reads them to him. It’s gobbledy-gook, of course, because he doesn’t know French, and all the books are in that language.  But it’s okay because he knows them all by heart,” the piano player confided, leaning toward me with the portrait between his knees. “And that business about English is an old story; he speaks it just fine and he likes it, but he says those things because of an Englishwoman who left him many years ago and who he can’t forgive. Rick is Argentine, from Córdoba, but as a boy he moved to Buenos Aires, to the capital. There, he …” he stopped, as if he had been about to commit an act of disloyalty or betray a confidence whose moment hadn’t arrived. He took a sip of his gin and balanced the portrait on the table, turning it toward me. “The owner of Casablanca,” he announced by way of explanation, serving a bit more gin.
In the photograph was the actor who plays Ferrari in the movie, the owner of that café or whatever it was called the Blue Parrot, the guy Ilsa and Victor go to see to try to get a safe-conduct. His head was covered by a fez and his eyes were smiling.

“Ah, yes, Greenstreet, the one who plays Ferrari,” I remarked confidently.

“It seems you know the movie quite well,” Sam said, looking at me with interest.

“I’ve seen it four or five times. The last time was about three months ago.”

The black man smiled, shifted the portrait a little more in my direction, and replied, “But this time you’re mistaken, sir.  This man in the photo isn’t… the actor you said. It’s Señor Ferrari, of course, but that’s just what we call him because he looks a lot like the man in the movie and because he likes us to call him that. Señor Ferrari isn’t an actor; he was a ranch owner and he started this place.”

I took the portrait and looked at it more carefully. In effect, the resemblance to the actor was also remarkable in this case, but not as perfect as with the other two: Greenstreet was perhaps a bit younger and thinner. I placed it back on the table, allowing Sam to continue. I understood that I no longer needed to ask about this place or its meaning; he was there to be my guide.

 

From Casablanca and Other Stories
MSU Press, 2006

 

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