This isn’t autobiography.
All the World’s Men
Every Thursday, my father has lunch with la abuela at her house in Palma.
We bought a roast chicken and la abuela explained that they’d been feeding them fishmeal for a while now. That’s why they tasted that way, and why the eggs tasted fishy, too. And years before that they would deliver live chickens straight from the farm, from Felanitx.
Once, one of her children told la abuela about another animal in the basket, but she didn’t pay it any mind. She left the large crate in the walkway for two days until the stench became unbearable. Only then did she go look, and sure enough, there alongside the chicken was a dead rabbit swarmed by flies. They delivered them dead like that because if not, they’d piss all over. The household maintained a certain aversion to rabbits from that day on.
“Not only that, but you also had to boil it to make sure it was still good. Back then you boiled everything just in case,” my father said.
“In those days, entonses, they said it wasn’t good to eat the chicken skin, it’d give you some kind of sickness, a terrible stomachache or something like that,” la abuela explained.
And my father says: “They’d say you’d turn into a maricón.”
La abuela has a deep voice, hoarse, made brittle from tobacco, and a surprising ability to speak sin parar, threading one topic into another, repeating herself unawares, as if not wanting to forget the correct narrative form, avoiding any pause. And you didn’t know how, from the chicken skin and the dead rabbit, just how she had arrived at the four-day trip she took to Galicia with her husband: “In those days, entonses, it cost the same to go for four days as eight, as they say.” What had really left an impression on her were the hedges of hydrangea, reaching past her head, and that el abuelito had remarked on so short a trip: “And now we’re leaving, just when we’ve come to like this place so much?” He liked the carpeted hotel room because he could walk around barefoot.
How could we capture as precisely all the thousands of anecdotes she knew about the Steins, the Villangongas, the Alomars, or about our noble roots, those that only she remembered, and about which she would remind us from time to time, the sisters of Godknowswho, a certain Father Casasnovas who took confession with a dog at his feet—a dog he would later end up stuffing—and who one day had his own mother repent before him. Then who had married well or caught tuberculosis, or who had made amends; which last names were xuetes, descendants of Majorcan Jews, and which families were ruined by a certain grapevine pest: la filoxera. And countless other proverbs let loose from her tongue at the provocation of my father, like “mentida pura, pecat etern, qui diu mentides se’n va a l’infern.” A sin is eternal, lie and face the infernal, I suppose.
When you tell her about a break-up (and for my cousins and I, she’s just about the first person we tell), la abuela reminds us what her father taught her. After a particular case of heartbreak when she was still unmarried, her father took her out on the boat. In the open sea where drops of salty water imperceptibly mixed with those beading from her eyes, her father said a few words that have since become prayer in our house: “All the men in the world aren’t worth a woman’s single tear.”
Now la abuela says: “I can die peacefully knowing that I’ve done everything, el abuelo isn’t around and now no one needs me.”
And I answer her, laughing, “Nobody needs me either. I don’t have kids or a husband, not anything.”
So la abuela concludes: “Well then, you can die peacefully, too.”
La abuela had heard tell that when her father, a robust man with long legs, was a cadet he carried Franco’s backpack for him because Franco was too scrawny to haul it for himself. Born in Ferrol, on the Galician coast, Franco had wanted to enter the marines but they wouldn’t admit him. According to his official biographies, the Generalísimo was first in his class, but that’s not the truth. In my great-grandfather’s Infantry School directory—he was an officer in the same year—Franco is ranked in the hundred-somethings. Even my great-grandfather was ahead of him.
My father and la abuela argued a while over politics.
“Tus amigos,” my father says.
She says: “They aren’t my friends. When I was younger I thought politicians were missionaries fighting for the good of society, that they wanted to help us.”
“That’s their strategy,” my father said, “to soft-soap the Army and Church in order to make people like you think that they’re doing good. They have your head all worm-eaten. They’re worse than Franco.”
“And now what’s Franco got to do with it?”
I whisper: “Papá…”
“They’re bringing back the dictatorship, the oppression, like during the war. They’re a bunch of fascists!”
“Papá…if you say fascists you’ll discredit your argument that…
“Fascism is something else.”
“Germans, Italians, the Spanish, they were all a bunch of fascists. And they killed anyone who didn’t think like them.”
“Do know what they did to the nuns during the war?” la abuela says.
“And do you know what they did to anyone who had ideas of their own? Do you know what they did to the leftists?”
“But you’re always saying that lots of people first went one way and then the other without thinking anything about it because they were forced to. Plus, your father was with the Nationalists,” I say. “Are you saying he was a fascist?”
“Mumpare, he didn’t kill anyone.”
“You can’t reduce an entire civil war down to a clash between Good and Evil, there were good and bad people on both sides.”
“My father was twenty and my mother thirteen when the war started, they didn’t decide a thing. But there were responsible parties that launched a coup d’etat because they couldn’t bear that the Democratic Left had won. And those same sons-of-bitches are returning to power now because mother dearest voted for them.”
When he speaks about the left, he does it in first-person plural; when referring to the right, he does so in second-person, implicating both la abuela and me.
“Left and right are abstract concepts,” I attempt to argue.
“And els capitalistes like you, sweetheart, can’t see the difference between the left and right, that’s where we are at this point. That’s the problem, that we live in a society of ferocious consumption.”
“Because Franco was a huge capitalist, right?”
“He’s the only fascist that the Americans protected, and not for nothing.”
“And better a Stalin than a Bush?”
“Better a Lenin!”
“Papá, by saying that you’re against something I’m not saying you’re in favor of another! Even the socialists have blood on their hands.”
“And what’s worse? How many people are dying of hunger with the president we have now? At the moment, you don’t have a job either.”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
La abuela says: “That una al·lota as qualified as you, with all her studies, after so many years of work in Barcelona, has to return to home to live with her parents…”
Father says: “Mumareta, do me a favor and don’t fan the fire, it’s all your fault anyway.”
“My fault, and why is that?” la abuela asks.
“Because you voted.”
“And how do you know who I voted for anyway? Voting is anonymous!”
My father’s a believer. He still has faith in the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the PSOE, despite the fact that it’s no longer a socialist party, if it ever was to begin with. He thinks that grandmother’s “friends” are Evil, and so they go on like that for a while, provoking one another.
“Milagro!” cries la abuela when my father mentions Aznar, Matas, or the Partido Popular.
“What’s a miracle?”
“That we’ve been talking nearly an hour and you’ve yet to mention them by name, I was beginning to worry. I was worried something had come over you. Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Mumareta, I don’t know where all this is coming from. If you and your friends want to destroy Mallorca, it’s on you.”
“It’s awful, that conference center they built on us.”
“It’s just what we deserve: a mastodon to welcome everyone entering the city. We’d have to tear it down. Put a bomb inside, like in Corsica. We’d have to become terrorists.”
“But it must have cost a lot of money. They shouldn’t have built it in the first place. Now that it’s all there…”
“Now that it’s all built, we’ll have to keep paying until they run out of money to maintain it. Bombs everywhere!”
La abuela: “I don’t know why they would build a convention center so close to the sea. Not even in Mallorca. We don’t need so many people coming here. And I’m not quite sure but I thought I heard something about them bringing in trash from abroad to burn here.”
“Well of course, because it’s a giant landfill! Sometimes it seems like you have no memory of anything at all. Every time these mafia sons-of-bitches win, they destroy our island.”
“Sons-of-a-gun, huh? What a mouth on this one!”
“That’s what they are. Corrupt sons-of-bitches, criminals.”
“But they’re against abortion,” grandmother sighs.
“I can’t vote for a party that defends the murder of innocent children.”
Arguments in our house clear up like summer storms. Everything calms, there’s no undertow, the air cool and pleasant and the sky so bright that no one would guess it had rained minutes beforehand.
Since retiring, my father has spent a lot of time scanning old family photos, photos that his Uncle Joan had taken. After we had lunch, he showed me several while grandmother feel asleep on the couch with her mouth wide open.
We’ve been looking at black and white photos of places that no longer exist and of children who are no longer children. In one of them la abuela’s father appears, the man who carried Franco’s pack for him and the first person to own a car in Felanitx. He was a military man and would have liked to join the Calvary because he was a good horseman. He was an infantry lieutenant colonel and spent long periods in Africa with Franco’s troops. During the Republic he was in the reserves and re-enlisted with the Nationalists when the war broke out. His wife, strong and not the nurturing type—who once lived on the Almudaina port and with whom he had had many long conversations through the window when they were dating—had gone to see him a couple times. She traveled alone. She would have never shed a tear for a man.
La abuela’s older brother was a pilot. She always recounts how he went flying down by the water, at Felanitx port. She explains that one time he flew close to the balcony so he could wave at her. The harbor is called Portocolom, but for us it’s just Es Port. My father remembers when la abuela’s older brother guided the plane through the masts of several boats lurching at bay, and afterward threw candy to those at home, but I don’t believe him.
My father also remembers when a bolt of lightening entered through the garage and traveled through a hole in the stairs, turning into a ball of fire. It burned the walls and went through the kitchen window. He and his siblings got so scared that they hid under the bed; on top of it all, one of my uncles peed his pants. I don’t believe all of that either. The story of the lightening bolt, I mean; that my uncle pissed himself, yes.
La abuela’s older brother drove much like he flew his plane and died in a car crash. During the war, the Nationalists suspected that the Republicans would attack from the sea, and thought they would dock in Portocolom. And then something occurred to them: at night, the few people who owned vehicles would drive out to the lighthouse with their headlights on. Afterward they would make their way back with the headlights off only to return once more with the lights shining bright in an infinite procession. That way it seemed—from the sea—that they were many.
The Republicans landed at Porto Cristo.
Uncle Joan had a Fiat. The few people who owned cars in Felanitx had to take the others to the warfront at Manacor. The frontlines frightened Uncle Tomeu, Joan’s brother-in-law, and so he offered to accompany him on those trips instead. On the ride there he stood on the door railing so that no one would complain about him taking up a free seat; on the way back, he’d sit next to Uncle Joan, who drove. During one of the trips to Manacor, an airplane passed right over their heads. Uncle Tomeu got spooked and jumped off to take cover. He fell on top of some bushes. He was cloaked in blood and full of scratches. When he came back to Felantx, everyone asked whether he had been wounded at war.
We had our coffee. I said I had to get going and kissed them both goodbye. La abuela has sunken cheeks. She told me that, even though it was because of work-related problems, she was happy to have me back in Mallorca, that way she could feel my presence. And what good was it living among the Catalans, anyway?
And my father asked la abuela: “Tu te’n recordes quan cordàvem cadires de corda?”
Llucia Ramis Laloux (1977) was born in Majorca, and moved to Barcelona when she was eighteen to study journalism at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Since then she has worked in radio, as editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Quimera, and at the newspaper Diario de Mallorca. She also directed and presented Això no és Islàndia (This isn’t Iceland), a television program about books. She has shared an apartment with fourteen people—not all at once, but almost. Ramis is a columnist for El Mundo and El Periódico. She has published three novels, the first of which, Things that Happen to You in Barcelona When You’re Thirty (2008), is now available as an e-book in English. Her second novel, Egosurfing, won the Josep Pla Award in 2010. Her latest project, Tot allò que una tarda morí amb les bicicletes (2013), traces her own journey home and has received wide critical acclaim. Follow her on twitter @lluciaramis.
Megan Berkobien is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. She was named a 2014 ALTA Fellow and her translations from the Catalan and Spanish have been featured in Words without Borders, Palabras Errantes, and Asymptote, to name a few. Meg attempts to theorize publishing forms, both historical and emerging. Visit her website here.