by Jorge Icaza (1906-1978)
Translated from the Spanish by Richard Gabela
Several times a day Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo, the Chief-Director of the Bureau of Economic Investigation, abandoned his small office to monitor the attendance of the employees in his charge. Don Ernesto was a man of unbalanced character. Completely unbalanced. When he was in good spirits, he exaggerated his qualities of a Don Juan, slipping through the libidinous confidences of a vegetable-market chola or a chagra newly arrived from the countryside. With graphic and pornographic gesticulations of sexual possession, he would murmur into the ear of his next confidant: “What a night of revelry, my dear cholo. I had myself three women. Two turned out to be virgins.… Hee-hee-hee…All for free.” But if he had to publicly reprimand his henchmen—an epithet of intimate nature by which he referred to his subordinates —he swelled with omnipotence and meted out threats without concert or order. At such moments—when his domineering arrogance exploded—everything grotesque about his adipose face was underscored—his cheeks like rosy buttocks, his trembling clay lips, the bilious drool between his teeth, the diabolic flame in his pupils.
Towards late November, every year, evil thoughts germinated in the minds of the most delicate, ambitious staff members of that office, where Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores, by art of audacity and stroke of good fortune, had recently landed a job. Intrigue, gossip, and anonymous notes — full of veiled threats and sordid proposals — slithered around that office like reptiles on fallen leaves. The Chief-Director, Morejón Galindo, swallowing a sort of shameful envy, was then reviewing the list of delinquent taxpayers, the promissory notes, the accounting records, and the names of the gentlemen over whom he should have exercised control or coercion but had been unable to. He had never been able to do his job fully. A series of obstacles more powerful than his law-given authority — particularly the irremovability of certain officials and nepotism entangled in defalcations — kept him in fear of ending up like those who had remained halfway in their bureaucratic careers for having relied on the rectitude and legality of procedures. But he… He considered himself an honorable man. It was the henchmen. The guy or guys responsible for acting on his behalf who always complicated the tragedy.
That year, after a great deal of doubt and insomnia, Don Ernesto thought he had found the savior, the incorruptible judge he had been hoping for. So one morning, before entering his own private office, he appeared in the office of the employees at his command—his hat shoved down to his eyebrows, an arrogant attitude, a fiery glare.
“I thought about you,” he announced, advancing toward the desk of the chulla Romero y Flores. “About you for the annual audit. About you…”
“About me, sir?”
“About you, I said!”
“Who else? Who else can I trust? A job so difficult, so delicate. I want no excuses. You must obey. You’re an employee.”
“You will go alone. Alone! No more delays, no more allowing frauds to go unchecked, no more…Understood?”
“Of course. I will do what must be done.”
“That’s right! You…”
“I will bring to account everyone who has not complied with the law,” said Romero y Flores, abruptly regaining his habitual cynical tone, which served to cover up his ignorance and cholo vulgarity. Indeed, in a zealous effort to sound correct and proper, he perfectly rolled out each R and articulately pronounced each double L.
“Very good. There are certain sacred duties, my dear young man. Sacred… We must curb the corruption of payrolled scoundrels, powerful crooks, honored hypocrites, incompetents, cretins. Well… In short, you will go,” affirmed Don Ernesto, reluctantly suppressing a bout of anger and insults, a sign of morbid fear. On his juicy caucara lips boiled the names of prominent leaders and inaccessible officials. People who could ruin him at the slightest slip up. People before whom he had to smile gratefully when in public. People who upon rotating in the heights became embedded in them more and more. Interchanging their posts every year… The same faces. The same names. The same families. The same methods. And he? No… He had never been able to ascend to… To his goal, to his dream. A ministership… An ambassadorship… Why not, dammit? Ah! Because they clung to the tremendous inviolability of tradition, of custom, of pompous surnames, of bureaucratic heritage. It was impossible to throw these concepts to the ground. Impossible to betray them without anyone knowing, without anyone suspecting the sacrilege.
“I will go, I will go, sir” affirmed the chulla with the arrogance of a thug, while deep down inside him woke the perspective of a strange greedy desire. He had heard about the rich pickings to be gleaned in those jobs.
“Thank you, thank you…” managed to mumble the Chief-Director, dissolving in a sweet gesture and friendly smile.
“I am ready.”
“Ready for whatever it takes. I knew my heart could not deceive me. You will be… You are… Well… I understand myself… With an iron fist, eh? Of iron.”
“As you order, sir,” concluded Romero y Flores. But upon observing his colleagues—bureaucrats of all ages and conditions—he suddenly felt capsized in a wave of adverse looks, of whispers which emitted all the pestilence that is carried in the hearts of those who work at an insecure, liquidable and cancerous job. In a wave of silent outcries: “Why?” “Who crowned the chulla king?” “I … Twenty years … I spent my life working here….” “So my honesty doesn’t count, my beautiful handwriting….” “He’s an imbecile, an intruder … He knows nothing….” “A street dog, that’s what he is … I know him … People like him are just lucky….” “How will he handle the balance sheets? How will he handle the audits? I … I pretend to be stupid … Hee-hee-hee … My degree in accounting … If asked how much is one times one, he’ll answer: I cannot say for sure if it’s two or three….” “Ooh … The children’s pension fund will be ruined … The priests, the nuns, the good people … They’ll have to return to public schools… where cholos go….” “They’re messing with the wrong guy, dammit … I’ll use my influence and power … Anonymous letters to the Ministers, to the President of the Republic….” “I’ll squeal to the press … Since when did you have a press, you idiot? It’s theirs … Only money counts … Money … oh!”
Judging by appearances — eyes glistening with hatred, bitter dry lips, sickly colored skin, faces wrinkled in morbid mockery — no one seemed to be at peace with the Chief-Director’s orders. It was absolute insanity! Romero y Flores, using and abusing his attitude of “his honor, the big boss” — inherited from his father — responded to the troop’s outcry with an haughty and defiant glare, from which everyone could read: “What are you complaining about? Nobody better mess with me… I will crush you….”
But it was Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo, with his intuitive gift for divining the thoughts of his subordinates—identical destinies, similar experiences — who foiled the daring and cunning protest. With sarcasm and mockery not subject to appeal, he warned aloud:
“I hope everyone agrees with me. Who? Who can complain? Rise up. Speak up. I know what I am doing! And I will pulverize the first one who complains to me … I … You know me. When I’m nice, I’m nice … When I’m mean … Aaah! Oooh!”
Immediately, with the basic ductility with which rebellion can change to humility, or hatred to fellowship, for those who find themselves at the whim of a powerful, invisible and constrictive circle, the explosive threat disappeared from the face of the choir of bureaucrats, just as it was about to shoot out its poor venom. In its place surged the mask of the innocent, slobbering apology: “No… I am not annoyed, sir… On the contrary… Look at me… Look at how I’m smiling… Hee-hee-hee….” “There’s an understanding among whites… With me it’s different, dear boss… You yourself know… With you wherever, whatever….” “The decision is brilliant… Bril-li-ant… A real success….” “He came as a relative of the Big Boss. He’s our best leverage… We had no one like him before. So then?” “All of us… All of us are happy….” “There is no reason for you to get that way… Like that….” “Whatever you order….”
Upon the magical change — which he had expected — Don Ernesto let out a snort which sounded like a balloon bursting. And turning to the general accountant, he ordered:
“Yes. Listen to me well. Make sure there’s nothing Mr. Romero y Flores lacks for the year-end audit. Credentials, cadastres, lists, notices. Explain everything to him. He must act in conformity with the law.”
“Very well, sir.”
“He must act on my behalf. I will grant him special powers. Without special powers he can’t do anything.”
“Complete special powers,” concluded the Chief-Director, putting a friendly hand on the shoulder of the clerk chosen for such a delicate mission.
From the pedestal of a pride strange to his long-held ambition of becoming rich and powerful, the chulla Romero y Flores surveyed his colleagues. And when he watched them bent over their work like tiny question marks, viscous and insignificant, he was assailed by feverish chills as he oscillated between feelings of compassionate contempt and the fear of transforming into one of them forever. He recalled then (instinctive game) the sarcastic, defining monikers he had assigned to each one of his colleagues after he had gotten to know them better. Designations he kept secret to flatter his aristocratic reveries, his hopes of being the owner of a large estate through a woman’s inheritance, with money he thought he could fetch by marriage.
More coming soon…