Blue-Eyed Muggers | Alejandro Zambra | Granta

Blue-Eyed Muggers

Alejandro Zambra

Translated by Megan McDowell

1

Once, I defended my father. Physically. It was a summer morning, and a mugger was about to kick him while he was down.

‘That was in 1990, right?’

‘Are you writing about me again? Enough is enough!’ says my father.

For some months now, my father has been calling my son every Saturday and Sunday morning. Now that my son is almost four years old, my father has, unexpectedly, become an attentive long-distance grandfather: him in Chile, us in Mexico, separated by too many kilometers and almost two years of pandemic.

My son waits for those calls. He wakes up as always between six and six-thirty, and he comes running into my room, which is his, because at some point during the night he woke up and called to me and climbed into our bed, which to him is his mother’s and his, and I went to his bed, which is also, as such, a little bit mine.

‘Dad, has Grandpa called yet?’ he asks me eagerly.

I yawn and pick up my phone, and when I check my messages there is always one from my father that says ‘I’m ready’. My dad gets up early, he’s gotten up early his whole life. I belong to the category of fathers who would always like to sleep in just one more hour. My dad belongs and has always belonged to the category of early-bird fathers. And on top of that, because of the time difference, in Chile he’s in the future: three hours in the future. Maybe it’s a good thing for fathers to live three hours in the future.

I open the curtains to let the daylight in, but the sun hasn’t risen yet. My son piles up his books and clambers up to reach the light switch while he chats enthusiastically with his grandfather. They venture plans, immediate and urgent ones; it’s going to be a long and intense call, it always is, they’ll talk for at least an hour.

During the week he gets dressed almost by himself, or we help him but favor the fiction that he dresses himself. On weekends, however, I dress him quickly, we go straight down to the living room and lean the phone against the wall, angling for a wide shot, like a security camera’s. I make coffee and try to get breakfast going while they talk, but sometimes the phone falls over or my son moves out of frame.

‘Alejandro, please, I can’t see the boy,’ my father complains instantly, like a diner who found a hair in his soup.

His tone harbors the same authority as always, but there’s a friendly shading: I suppose he knows I’m busy slicing a papaya or keeping an eye on the quesadillas. I go over to restore the communication, proceeding with efficient know-how, a little like a roadie mid-concert. Sometimes I take advantage of that break to say something, to tell him a little something.

‘I’m not writing about you, Dad,’ I lie.

‘Why don’t you write about the kid instead? He’s a lot more entertaining than me,’ he says, and it’s very true.

‘Well, I was thinking about that time we were assaulted. That was 1990, right?’

‘Right.’

I don’t use the informal ‘tú’ with my father, I never have. My sister does. For many years I didn’t notice that difference. But there’s an explanation. In my father’s family everyone uses ‘tú’ with each other, and my sister inherited that habit. I was closer to my mother’s side, and maybe that’s why I inherited her custom of using the formal ‘usted’. Sometimes, using the formal tense with my father or mother seems warmer to me. But it’s not. It’s colder, it marks a distance. A distance that exists.

‘You’re going to write about that assault? A whole novel?’

‘No, I couldn’t get a whole novel out of that.’

‘Make it a whole novel, embellish it a little. Is it my biography?’

‘No.’

‘I’m going to write your biography too, just you wait. I’ll tell the whole truth then.’

‘And what are you going to call that book?’

Ways of Losing a Son.’

2

The story from 1990 is simple, perhaps its only peculiarity is that I’ve never been able to tell it. That is, I’ve told it a thousand times, but only to friends, in the midst of those long gatherings when everyone riotously offers up their old anecdotes – the kind of party I miss so much now, in the pandemic. It’s an after-dinner story, to be told in the characteristic cheerful, good-humored tone in which such tales are told.

I was fifteen, and my father was . . .

I get out the calculator, let’s see: my father was born in 1948, so that morning in 1990 he must have been . . . 1990 – 1948 = 42 years old. Forty-one, because it was February, and he was born in August.

My father, at forty-one, would have considered it humiliating to need a calculator for such a simple operation. Even today, at seventy-three, my father would come up with the answer without hesitation, in less than a second. He wouldn’t give the impression of having solved a math problem at all.

Back then, when I was fifteen – no, fourteen, because it was in February and I was born in September.

Back then, at fourteen years old, that summer of 1990, I would have done the math in my head, too.

‘My dad was on the ground and he was shouting for them to please let him look for his contact lens, and the blue-eyed mugger was going to kick him while he was down, but I managed to kick him in the balls.’

That’s the story, in essence. I want to tell it slowly, like someone reviewing a polemical play frame by frame. Like someone figuring out whether the ball hit the defender’s hand or not. Like someone looking for a continuity mistake.

The times I tried to write this story before, I did it in the third person. I almost always try in first and third person. Sometimes also in second, like my favorite novel, A Man Asleep, by Georges Perec. In the end I choose the voice that sounds most natural, which is never the second person.

There’s something about this particular story, though, that made me try it only in third. Maybe because lately I have reconciled with the third person. Because everything that happens, happens for everyone. Unequally, but it happens. For everyone. And in spite of the asymmetries, in spite of those differences, I feel like everything that happens to me happens in the third person.

3

During those calls my father and I speak little, sometimes not at all. They are the ones who talk, my father and my son. If I interject, my son will eagerly include me in the game, but if he gets the sense that my intention is, so to speak, informative – if I want to check in, for example, regarding my father’s feelings about the pandemic – he gets mad, sometimes very mad.

My father and my son plan trips to Mars or to Chile, which for now seem equally improbable. They mix Spanish with an invented language that sounds like a kind of Russian with a German accent. Other times the game consists of improvising something that they call ‘a meeting’. Their conversations are fast, confused, funny, delirious. At times my father’s deep and hurried Chilean loses ground to my son’s pristine Mexican. But they understand each other, always. My son gathers a bunch of stuffed animals and my father does too, because over these years he has mitigated the distance by buying stuffed animals to give my son once they can finally see each other. My father becomes the supervisor of that small crowd of stuffed bears that look like dogs and dogs that look like bears. My son behaves rather like the charismatic leader of a squadron of space vagabonds.

‘You want to say hi to your grandma?’

‘Yeah.’

This only happens sometimes. Only sometimes does my mother participate in these calls. And for a few minutes, no more. My mother says tender words to my son at the wrong time. He listens to her with wavering curiosity. Hearing my mother’s voice, seeing her face out of the corner of my eye, moves me, though she spends only a moment in the limelight, her role is just a cameo, because she doesn’t want to play and the call consists of playing. She’ll get mad – pretend-mad, I assume – when she hears my son and my father inventing the dishes served up at Restaurant Gross: vomit puree, poop soup, pee lemonade, snot casserole, among many other options that my son celebrates passionately.

‘Horacio, please, stop it,’ my mother tells my father.

Sometimes my son turns his back on the call. He starts to draw, for example, while his grandfather talks. He doesn’t leave the game, drawing is part of the game, and maybe ignoring his grandfather is too. Even as my father grows tired of insisting, my son knows that the call hasn’t ended. I like that absurd and beautiful form of company, that silence filled with activity. During recent weeks, since I started writing this text, those are the moments I’ve used to ask my father about the details of this story, or even read him a few parts of it. He listens to me with a mixture of impatience and genuine interest.

4

When I was fourteen, my father was still taller than me. I understand we reach our definitive height at around twenty years old. In any case, I was a skinny, hunched-over, delicate kid who certainly didn’t look capable of defending a father who was stocky, brawny, athletic, with enormous hands. A goalie’s hands.

My father’s were and are the hands of someone who has worked with his hands. Real work, like loading crates of vegetables at the Renca market. At nine, ten, twelve years old, my father sold fruits and vegetables at the market in Renca. My father’s hands also served to block goals and interrupt penalties. My father’s entire body has been, in general, useful. And it would have been much more so if not for his weak eyes.

He wanted to do military service, he wanted to become a policeman, he almost became the third goalie in the Colo-Colo youth divisions, but none of that worked out, partly because of his sick eyes. In all the photos of him as a young man, he’s wearing some Coke-bottle glasses that give his face the appearance of a mask. I inherited a manageable myopia, reasonable and even operable, though I never seriously considered it (the very idea of lasers on my eyes is terrifying). At fourteen I’d already been prescribed glasses, but I never wore them; I still hadn’t reached the age where leaving the house without glasses would be suicide. An age I reached a while ago now. Even so, with my myopia and astigmatism and my recent nearsightedness, my eyesight is still better than my father’s at forty-two and my father’s at seventy-three years old.

When it’s said that someone works with their hands, no one thinks about writers. Rightly so. We have the hands of mediocre pianists. My father is not a writer, he never has been, never wanted to be. He was never interested in poetry. Although I do remember a day when he wrote a poem.

‘It can’t be that hard, Chile is a nation of poets,’ he said.

I don’t remember the chain of events or words that led to that phrase. But suddenly my father grabbed a napkin and the pen he only used for signing checks, and without hesitation he wrote a poem that he read aloud to us immediately. We applauded. We were his captive audience. A generous audience. Too generous, indulgent even.

5

So, that morning in 1990, we went downtown alone, my father and I. In the car, a Peugeot 504. Later that afternoon we would be leaving for a vacation in La Serena, and my father needed cash, more than he could take out from an ATM.

‘Why did you need so much cash?’

‘Because workers were going to paint the house while we were on vacation.’

‘And how come we went to the bank downtown and not to the Santander . . . ’

‘Santiago. Back then it was called Banco Santiago.’

‘But why didn’t we go to the Maipú branch of Banco Santiago?’

‘I wanted to go downtown, I wanted to buy something at a store on Bulnes. A fishing rod, something like that.’

‘Why didn’t you buy the fishing rod or take out money before the day we were leaving?’

‘I don’t remember! Maybe I wanted us to go downtown together. It was the first day of vacation, but I still wanted to go downtown, with you. I liked to go out with you.’

Ours was an unnecessary trip, then. My dad parked where he always does, on Agustinas and San Martín, near his office. We went straight to the bank, the branch on Bombero Ossa. While he waited in line, I sat reading in a corner. Suddenly I felt watched or inspected or threatened, and I looked up and caught a young man’s blue eyes. A second later, the man had disappeared. As my father walked toward me he was calmly, innocently counting the bills he had just received. I don’t know how much money it was.

‘Four hundred thousand pesos,’ he says, with certainty.

‘And how much was that, in today’s money?’

‘I have no idea. Figure it out online!’

I figure it out online, and it takes a long time: one-thousand-three-hundred dollars, more or less. In five-thousand-peso bills, that I remember.

‘Why in fives? I checked online and there were already tens in circulation in 1990.’

‘Really? Well, I don’t know, maybe they weren’t that common. Maybe they were too big, hard to change, the painters needed to buy materials.’

I didn’t think the blue-eyed man was dangerous. I didn’t believe in the existence of blue-eyed muggers. But I still made a strange movement to warn my dad. And I was annoyed that he was so unconcerned, that he would count the bills right out in the open like that. He handed half the money to me, just in case. He smiled at me first as though approving of my caution, my good judgment. Sometimes, when parents congratulate their children, they’re actually congratulating themselves; they applaud themselves for something they judge auspicious or positive, though its merit may be arguable. In this case my caution, maybe my paranoia or fear, seemed to my father like the product of his own virtue.

I remember the weight of the bills in my right pants pocket.

When we came out of the bank I asked him if he thought blue-eyed muggers existed. I was trying to make a joke, but he didn’t get it. He said something, I don’t remember what. He doesn’t remember either.


Alejandro Zambra

Alejandro Zambra was born in Santiago, Chile in 1975. He is the author of two books of poems, Bahía Inútil and Mudanza; a collection of essays, No leer; and three novels, Bonsái, which was awarded a Chilean Critics Award for best novel, The Private Lives of Trees, and Ways of Going Home, which was awarded the Altazor Prize, selected by The National Book Council as the best Chilean novel published during 2012, and won an English Pen Award. He was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá39 list.

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Translated by Megan McDowell

Megan McDowell has translated many of the most important Latin American writers working today, including Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enriquez, and Lina Meruane. Her translations have won the English PEN award, the Premio Valle-Inclán, and the Shirley Jackson Prize, and have been short- or long-listed four times for the International Booker Prize, and shortlisted once for the Kirkus Prize. In 2020 she won an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her short story translations have been featured in The New YorkerHarper'sThe Paris ReviewTin HouseMcSweeney’s, and Granta, among others. She lives in Santiago, Chile.

Photograph © Camila Valdés

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