At nine o’clock in the morning, while we were having breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Riviera in Havana, a terrifying wave appeared out of nowhere – the day was sunny and calm – and came crashing upon us. It lifted the cars that had been passing along the seafront, as well as several others that had been parked nearby, and tossed them into the air, smashing one into the side of our hotel. It was like an explosion of dynamite, spreading panic up and down the twenty floors of our building and transforming the lobby into a pile of broken glass, where many of the hotel guests were hurled through the air like the furniture. Several were wounded in the hail of glass shards. It must have been a tidal wave of monumental size: the hotel is protected from the sea by a wall and the wide two-way avenue that passes before it, but the wave had erupted with such force that it obliterated the glass lobby.
Cuban volunteers, with the help of the local fire brigade, set to sweeping up the damage, and in less than six hours, after closing off the hotel’s seafront entrance and opening up an alternative, everything was back to normal. Throughout the morning no one paid any attention to the car that had been smashed against the wall of the hotel, believing it had been among the vehicles parked along the avenue. But by the time it was eventually removed by a crane, the body of a woman was discovered inside, moored to the driving seat by her seat belt. The blow had been so great that there wasn’t a bone in her body which was left unbroken. Her face was messy and unrecognisable, her ankle boots had burst at the seams, her clothes were in tatters. But there was a ring, still worn on her finger, which remained intact: it was made in the shape of a serpent and had emeralds for eyes. The police established that she was the housekeeper for the new Portuguese ambassador and his wife. In fact she had arrived with them only fifteen days before and had that morning left for the market in their new car. Her name meant nothing to me when I read about the incident in the papers, but I was intrigued by that ring, made in the shape of a serpent with emeralds for its eyes. I was, unfortunately, unable to find out on which finger the ring had been worn.
It was an essential detail: I feared that this woman might be someone I knew and whom I would never forget, even though I never learned her real name. She, too, had a ring made in the shape of a serpent, with emeralds for its eyes, but she always wore it on the first finger of her right hand, which was unusual, especially then. I had met her forty-six years ago in Vienna, eating sausages and boiled potatoes and drinking beer straight from the barrel, in a tavern frequented by Latin American students. I had arrived from Rome that morning, and I still recall that first impression made by her ample opera-singer’s bosom, the drooping fox tails gathered round the collar of her coat and that Egyptian ring made in the shape of a serpent. She spoke a rudimentary Spanish, in a breathless shopkeeper’s accent, and I assumed that she must be Austrian, the only one at that long wooden table. I was wrong: she had been born in Colombia and between the wars had travelled to Austria to study music and singing. When I met her she must have been around thirty, and she had begun ageing before her time. Even so, she was magical: and, also, among the most fearsome people I’ve ever met.
At that time – the late forties – Vienna was nothing more than an ancient imperial city that history had reduced to a remote provincial capital, located between the two irreconcilable worlds left by the Second World War, a paradise for the black market and international espionage. I couldn’t imagine surroundings better suited to my fugitive compatriot, who went on eating in the students’ tavern on the corner only out of nostalgia for her roots, because she had more than enough money to buy the whole place, its diners included. She never told us her real name; we always referred to her by the German tongue-twister that the Latin American students in Vienna had invented for her: Frau Frida. No sooner had we been introduced than I committed the fortuitous imprudence of asking her how she came to find herself in a part of the world so distant and different from the windy heights of the Quindío region in Colombia. She replied matter-of-factly: ‘I hire myself out to dream.’
That was her profession. She was the third of eleven children of a prosperous shopkeeper from the old region of Caldas, and by the time she learned to speak, she had established the habit of telling all her dreams before breakfast, when, she said, her powers of premonition were at their most pure. At the age of seven, she dreamt that one of her brothers had been swept away by a raging torrent. The mother, simply out of a nervous superstitiousness, refused to allow her son to do what he most enjoyed, swimming in the local gorge. But Frau Frida had already developed her own system of interpreting her prophecies.
‘What the dream means,’ she explained, ‘is not that he is going to drown, but that he mustn’t eat sweets.’
The interpretation amounted to a terrible punishment, especially for a five-year-old boy who could not imagine life without his Sunday treats. But the mother, convinced of her daughter’s divinatory powers, ensured that her injunction was adhered to. Unfortunately, following a moment’s inattention, the son choked on a gobstopper that he had been eating in secret, and it proved impossible to save him.
Frau Frida had never thought that it would be possible to earn a living from her talent until life took her by the scruff of the neck and, during a harsh Viennese winter, she rang the bell of the first house where she wanted to live, and, when asked what she could do, offered the simple reply: ‘I dream.’ After only a brief explanation, the lady of the house took her on, at a wage that was little more than pocket money, but with a decent room and three meals a day. Above all, there was a breakfast, the time when the members of the family sat down to learn their immediate destinies: the father, a sophisticated rentier; the mother, a jolly woman with a passion for Romantic chamber music; and the two children, aged eleven and nine. All of them were religious and therefore susceptible to archaic superstitions, and they were delighted to welcome Frau Frida into their home, on the sole condition that every day she revealed the family’s destiny through her dreams.
She did well, especially during the war years that followed, when reality was more sinister than any nightmare. At the breakfast table every morning, she alone decided what each member of the family was to do that day, and how it was to be done, until eventually her prognostications became the house’s sole voice of authority. Her domination of the family was absolute: even the slightest sigh was made on her orders. The father had died just prior to my stay in Vienna, and he had had the good grace to leave Frau Frida a part of his fortune, again on the condition that she continued dreaming for the family until she was unable to dream any more.
I spent a month in Vienna, living the frugal life of a student while waiting for money which never arrived. The unexpected and generous visits that Frau Frida paid to our tavern were like fiestas in our otherwise penurious regime. One night, the powerful smell of beer about us, she whispered something in my ear with such conviction that I found it impossible to ignore.
‘I came here specially to tell you that last night I saw you in my dreams,’ she said. ‘You must leave Vienna at once and not come back here for at least five years.’
Such was her conviction that I was put, that same night, on the last train for Rome. I was so shaken that I have since come to believe that I survived a disaster I never encountered. To this day I have not set foot in Vienna again.
Before the incident in Havana I met up with Frau Frida once more, in Barcelona, in an encounter so unexpected that it seemed to me especially mysterious. It was the day that Pablo Neruda set foot on Spanish soil for the first time since the Civil War, during a stopover on a long sea journey to Valparaíso in Chile. He spent the morning with us, big-game hunting in the antiquarian bookshops, buying eventually a faded book with torn covers for which he paid what must have been the equivalent of two months’ salary for the Chilean consulate in Rangoon. He lumbered along like a rheumatic elephant, showing a childlike interest in the internal workings of every object he came across. The world always appeared to him as a giant clockwork toy.
I have never known anyone who approximated so closely the received idea of a Renaissance pope – that mixture of gluttony and refinement – who, even against his will, would dominate and preside over any table. Matilde, his wife, wrapped him in a bib which looked more like an apron from a barbershop than a napkin from a restaurant, but it was the only way to prevent him from being bathed in sauces. That day Neruda ate three lobsters in their entirety, dismembering them with the precision of a surgeon, while concurrently devouring everyone else’s dishes with his eyes, until he was unable to resist picking from each plate, with a relish and an appetite that everyone found contagious: clams from Galicia, barnacle geese from Cantabria, prawns from Alicante, swordfish from the Costa Brava. All the while he was talking, just like the French, about other culinary delights, especially the prehistoric shellfish of Chile that were his heart’s favourite. And then suddenly he stopped eating, pricked up his ears like the antennae of a lobster, and whispered to me: ‘There’s someone behind me who keeps staring at me.’
I looked over his shoulder. It was true. Behind him, three tables back, a woman, unabashed in an old-fashioned felt hat and a purple scarf, was slowly chewing her food with her eyes fixed on Neruda. I recognised her at once. She was older and bigger, but it was her, with the ring made in the form of a serpent on her first finger.
She had travelled from Naples on the same boat as the Nerudas, but they had not met on board. We asked her to join us for coffee, and I invited her to talk about her dreams, if only to entertain the poet. But the poet would have none of it, declaring outright that he did not believe in the divination of dreams.
‘Only poetry is clairvoyant,’ he said.
After lunch, and the inevitable walk along the Ramblas, I deliberately fell in with Frau Frida so that we could renew our acquaintance without the others hearing. She told me that she had sold her properties in Austria and, having retired to Porto, in Portugal, was now living in a house that she described as a fake castle perched on a cliff from where she could see the whole Atlantic as far as America. It was clear, although she didn’t say as much explicitly, that, from one dream to another, she had ended up in possession of the entire fortune of her once unlikely Viennese employers. Even so, I remained unimpressed, only because I had always thought that her dreams were no more than a contrivance to make ends meet. I told her as much.
She laughed her mocking laugh. ‘You’re as shameless as ever,’ she said. The rest of our group had now stopped to wait for Neruda who was speaking in Chilean slang to the parrots in the bird market. When we renewed our conversation, Frau Frida had changed the subject.
‘By the way,’ she said, ‘you can go back to Vienna if you like.’
I then realised that thirteen years had passed since we first met.
‘Even if your dreams aren’t true, I will never return,’ I told her, ‘just in case.’
At three o’clock we parted in order to accompany Neruda to his sacred siesta, which he took at our house, following a number of solemn preparatory rituals that, for some reason, reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony. Windows had to be opened, others closed – an exact temperature was essential – and only a certain kind of light from only a certain direction could be tolerated. And then: an absolute silence. Neruda fell asleep at once, waking ten minutes later, like children do, when we expected it least. He appeared in the living room, refreshed, the monogram of the pillowcase impressed on his cheek.
‘I dreamt of that woman who dreams,’ he said.
Matilde asked him to tell us about the dream.
‘I dreamt she was dreaming of me,’ he said.
‘That sounds like Borges,’ I said.
He looked at me, crestfallen. ‘Has he already written it?’
‘If he hasn’t, he’s bound to write it one day,’ I said. ‘It’ll be one of his labyrinths.’
As soon as Neruda was back on board ship at six that afternoon, he said his farewells to us, went to sit at an out-of-the-way table and began writing verses with the same pen of green ink that he had been using to draw flowers, fish and birds in the dedications he signed in his own books. With the first announcement to disembark, we sought out Frau Frida and found her finally on the tourist deck just as we were about to give up. She, too, had just woken from a siesta.
‘I dreamt of your poet,’ she told us.
Astonished, I asked her to tell me about the dream.
‘I dreamt he was dreaming about me,’ she said, and my look of disbelief confused her. ‘What do you expect? Sometimes among all the dreams there has to be one that bears no relation to real life.’
I never saw or thought about her again until I heard about the ring made in the form of a serpent on the finger of the woman who died in the sea disaster at the Hotel Riviera. I could not resist asking the Portuguese ambassador about it when we met up a few months later at a diplomatic reception.
The ambassador spoke of her with enthusiasm and tremendous admiration. ‘You can’t imagine how extraordinary she was,’ he said. ‘You would have been unable to resist wanting to write a story about her.’ And he continued in the same spirit, on and on, with some occasional, surprising details, but without an end in sight.
‘Tell me then,’ I said finally, interrupting him, ‘what exactly did she do?’
‘Nothing,’ he replied, with a shrug of resignation. ‘She was a dreamer.’
From Strange Pilgrims (Doce Cuentos Peregrinos) by Gabriel García Márquez, © Gabriel García Márquez, 1992, and Heirs of Gabriel García Márquez.Reprinted in North America by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC., and in the rest of the world by permission of Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, S.A. Translation © Nicholas Caistor, 1992.
Feature photograph © F. Emmanuel Bastien / Millennium Images UK
In-text photograph © Inge Morath / Magnum