Gabriel García Márquez
The Triumph of Balthazar
One of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez reinvigorated Latin literature and popularised the literary genre known as Magical Realism. Known for his novels ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ (1967), ‘Chronical of Death Foretold’ (1981) and ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ (1985), he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. This short story, translated by James Kerr, was featured in the February/March 1974 issue of The London Magazine.
The cage was finished. Balthazar hung it in the eaves from force of habit, and when he had finished his lunch it was generally agreed that it was the most beautiful cage in the world. So many people came to see it that a disorderly crowd formed outside the house and Balthazar had to unhook it and shut up at the carpentry shop.
‘You need a shave,’ Ursula his wife said. ‘You look like a monk.’
‘It’s bad to shave before lunch,’ said Balthazar. He had a two weeks’ beard, hair that was short, stiff and standing on end like a mule’s and a general expression of boyish surprise. But it was a misleading expression. In February he had reached thirty, he had lived with Ursula for the last four years without getting married and without having any children and life had given him plenty of reasons for keeping alert but none for being surprised. He didn’t even know that for some the cage which he had just made was the most beautiful in the world. For him, accustomed to making cages from childhood, it had been a task hardly more laborious than usual.
‘Then rest for a bit,’ said his wife. ‘With a beard like that you can’t show your face anywhere.’
While he was resting, he had to get out of the hammock several times to show the cage to the neighbours. Ursula had paid him no attention till then. She was annoyed because her husband had neglected his business in the carpenter’s shop to dedicate himself entirely to the cage and for the last two weeks he had slept badly, tossing and turning and talking nonsense and had forgotten all about shaving. But her annoyance melted away in front of the finished cage. When Balthazar awoke from his siesta, she had ironed his trousers and a shirt and had put them on a seat beside the hammock and had carried the cage to the dining-room table.
She looked at it in silence.
‘How much are you trying to get for it?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Balthazar. ‘I’m going to ask for thirty pesos and see if they give me twenty.’
‘Ask for fifty,’ said Ursula. ‘You’ve stayed up late plenty of nights these last two weeks. In any case it’s pretty big. I think it’s the biggest cage I’ve ever seen.’
Balthazar began to shave.
‘Do you think they’ll give me fifty pesos?’
‘That’s nothing for Don Chepe Montiel and the cage is worth that much,’ said Ursula. ‘You should ask for sixty.’
The house lay in suffocating darkness. It was the first week in April and the heat seemed all the more unbearable because of the shrilling of the crickets. When he had finished dressing, Balthazar opened the patio door to make the house cooler and a bunch of children came into the dining-room.
The news had travelled. Old Dr Octavio Giraldo, contented with life but tired of his profession, was thinking about Balthazar’s cage while he had lunch with his invalid wife. On the inner verandah where they usually put the table in hot weather, there were numerous pots of flowers and two cages of canaries. His wife liked birds, indeed so much so that she loathed cats because they were always likely to eat them. Thinking about her, Dr Giraldo went that afternoon to visit a patient and on his way home he went past Balthazar’s house to have a look at the cage. Exhibited on the table the enormous wire dome, with three inner levels, runaways and special compartments for eating and sleeping and trapezes in the space reserved for the birds’ recreation, seemed like a miniature version of a gigantic ice factory. The doctor examined it carefully, thinking that the cage was even finer than it was reputed to be and much more beautiful than he had ever dreamed of for his wife.
‘This is an adventure for the imagination,’ he said. He sought out Balthazar in the group and added, gazing at him with his maternal eyes, ‘You would have made an extraordinary architect.’
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘It’s true,’ said the doctor. He was soft and plumply tender, like a woman who has been a beauty in her youth, and had delicate hands. His voice was like a priest speaking Latin. ‘You wouldn’t even need to put birds in it,’ he said, turning the cage before the eyes of the public as if he were selling it. ‘You would only need to hang it among the trees and it would start singing of its own accord.’ He put it back again on the table, thought for a moment, looking at the cage, and said:
‘All right, I’ll take it.’
‘It’s already sold,’ said Ursula.
‘It’s for the son of Don Chepe Montiel,’ said Balthazar. ‘He ordered it specially.’
The doctor adopted a respectful air.
‘He gave you the design?’
‘No,’ said Balthazar. ‘He said he wanted a big cage like this, for a pair of turtle doves.’
The doctor looked at the cage.
‘But this isn’t for doves.’
‘Of course, it is,’ said Balthazar going up to the table while the children crowded round. ‘The measurements are all worked out,’ he said, pointing with his finger to the different compartments. Then he banged the dome with his knuckles and the cage resounded with deep cords.
‘It’s the strongest wire you can get and every joint is soldered outside and inside,’ he said.
‘It would even do for a parrot,’ volunteered one of the children.
‘Exactly,’ said Balthazar.
The doctor nodded.
‘All right, but he didn’t give you the design,’ he said. ‘He didn’t give a specific order apart from it being a big cage for doves. That’s right, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right,’ said Balthazar.
‘Then there’s no problem,’ said the doctor. ‘A big cage for doves is one thing and this cage is another. There’s no proof that this is the cage that was ordered.’
‘This is the one,’ said Balthazar, nettled. ‘That’s why I made it.’
The doctor made an impatient gesture.
‘You could make another,’ said Ursula, looking at her husband. And then, to the doctor: ‘You’re not in any hurry.’
‘I promised it to my wife for this very afternoon,’ said the doctor.
‘I’m very sorry, doctor,’ said Balthazar, ‘but you can’t sell something that’s already been sold.’
The doctor shrugged. Mopping the sweat round his collar with a handkerchief, he looked at the cage in silence, without altering his gaze from one indefinite spot, as if looking at a disappearing ship.
‘How much did they give you for it?’
Balthazar turned to Ursula without answering.
‘Sixty pesos,’ she said.
The doctor went on lookin at the cage.
‘It’s very pretty,’ he sighed. ‘Exceptionally pretty.’ Then moving towards the door he began to fan himself energetically, smiling, and the recollection of the whole episode disappeared from him memory for ever.
‘Montiel is very rich,’ he said.
In reality José Montiel was not as rich as he seemed but he had gone to extraordinary lengths to reach that position. A few blocks away in a house stuffed with trapping and reeking of wealth, he remained quite indifferent to the novelty of the cage. His wife, tortured by an obsession with death, shut the doors and windows after lunch and lay for two hours in the dark of the room with her eyes open, while José Montiel was having his siesta. In this condition she was surprised by a hubbub of many voices. Then she opened the door of the sittingroom and saw a throng of people in front of the house and Balthazar with the cage in the middle of the throng, dressed in white and newly shaved, wearing that expression of candid decorum with which the poor approach the houses of the rich.
‘What a marvelous thing!’ exclaimed José Montiel’s wife with a radiant expression as she led Balthazar inside. ‘I’ve never in my life seen anything like it,’ she said and added, indignant at the horde that was battering at the door, ‘but take it inside or they’ll turn the place into a cockpit.’
Balthazar was no stranger to the house of José Montiel. On different occasions because he was capable and reliable he had been summoned to carry out various minor carpentry jobs. But he never felt at ease among the rich. He used to think about them, about their ugly and quarrelsome wives and their fearsome surgical operations and would always detect in himself a feeling of pity. Whenever he entered their houses he was unable to move without dragging his feet.
‘Is Pepe in?’ he asked.
He had placed the cage on the dining-room table.
‘He’s at school,’ said José Montiel’s wife. ‘But he won’t be much longer now.’ And she added: ‘Montiel’s having a bath.’
Actually José Montiel hadn’t had time to have bath. He was rapidly giving himself a friction with a camphorated alcohol before coming out to see what was going on. He was so cautious by nature that he had slept without the electric fan so as to keep guard in his sleep over noises in his household.
‘Adelaida!’ he shouted. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Come and see what a marvelous thing,’ cried his wife.
José Montiel, corpulent and hairy, with the towel hanging round his neck, leaned out of the bedroom window.
‘It’s Pepe’s cage,’ said Balthazar.
The woman looked at it in puzzlement.
‘Pepe’s,’ confirmed Balthazar. And then, addressing José Montiel, ‘Pepe’s ordered it from me.’
Nothing happened at that precise moment but Balthazar felt as if they had opened the bathroom door on him. José Montiel came out from the bedroom in his underpants.
‘Pepe,’ he shouted.
‘He hasn’t come back yet,’ murmured his wife, keeping perfectly still.
Pepe appeared in the doorway. He was twelve years old and had the same curling eyelashes and quiet pathos as his mother.
‘Come here,’ said José Montiel. ‘Did you order this?’ The boy hung his head. Seizing him by the hair, José Montiel forced him to look him in the eye.
The child bit his lips without replying.
‘Montiel,’ whispered his wife. José Montiel let go of the boy and turned to Balthazar, his face worked up.
‘I’m very sorry Balthazar,’ he said, ‘but you should have consulted me before you started. Only you would have thought of taking orders from a minor.’ As he was speaking, his face regained its serenity. He picked up the cage without looking at it and gave it to Balthazar. ‘Take it right away and try to sell it to whoever you can,’ he said. ‘Above all I want no arguments.’ He gave him a pat on the back and explained, ‘The doctor’s forbidden me to get in a rage.’
The boy had stayed quite still, without blinking, until Balthazar looked at him in perplexity with the cage in hand. Then he let out a guttural sound like a growling dog and threw himself on the floor yelling.
José Montiel looked at him impassively while his mother tried to quieten him.
‘Don’t pick him up,’ he said. ‘Let him batter his head on the floor and then give him some salt and lemon so that he can rage to his heart’s content.’
The child screamed without shedding tears, while his mother held him by the wrists.
‘Leave him,’ insisted José Montiel.
Balthazar observed the child as he would have observed the agonies of a contagious animal. It was almost four. At this hour in her own house, Ursula was singing an ancient song as she sliced onions.
‘Pepe,’ said Balthazar. He approached the boy smiling and held out the cage. The boy jumped to his feet, embraced the cage, which was nearly as big as he was, and stood looking at Balthazar through the mesh of metal without knowing what to say. He hadn’t shed a single tear.
‘Balthazar,’ said Montiel gently. ‘I told you to take it away.’
‘Give it back,’ ordered his mother.
‘You can keep it,’ said Balthazar. And then to José Montiel, ‘After all I made it for him.’
José Montiel pursued him to the sitting-room. ‘Don’t be silly Balthazar,’ he said, blocking his way. ‘Take your rattletrap home and don’t let’s have any more nonsense. I don’t intend to pay you a cent.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Balthazar. ‘I made it specially as a present for Pepe. I wasn’t meaning to charge anything.’
When Balthazar pushed his way through the curious bystanders who were blocking the doorway, José Montiel was yelling in the middle of the middle of the room. He was very pale and his eyes were beginning to turn red. ‘You stupid idiot!’ he was shouting. ‘Get your junk out of here. When a mere nobody starts giving orders in my house that’s the last straw!’
In the billiard saloon Balthazar received an ovation. Till that moment it was thought that he had made a cage that was well above average, that he’d had to give it to José Montiel’s son to stop him from crying but that neither of these facts had any special significance. But then it was realised that all this had a certain importance for a good many people and everyone felt exhilarated.
‘So they gave you fifty pesos for the cage.’
‘Sixty,’ said Balthazar.
‘We should make a cross in the sky,’ someone said. ‘You’re the only one who’s managed to get Don Chepe Montiel to fork out a sum like that. We have to celebrate!’
They stood him a beer and Balthazar responded with a round for everybody. As it was the first time he’d touched liquor, by nightfall he was completely drunk and was talking of a magnificent scheme of a thousand cages at sixty pesos each and then of a million cages which would produce sixty million pesos.
‘You have to make lots of things to sell to the rich before they die on you,’ he was saying, blind with drink. ‘They’re all sick and they’ll all die. How shagged out they must be if they can’t even lose their temper!’
For two hours the juke-box played non-stop at his expense. Everyone drank to Balthazar’s health, to his future and his fortune and the death of the rich; but at suppertime they left him all alone in the saloon.
Ursula had waited for him till eight o’clock with a plate of fried meat covered with sliced onion. Someone told her that her husband was in the billiard saloon, mad with happiness, toasting everyone in beer but she didn’t believe it because Balthazar had never got drunk before. When she went to bed, almost at midnight, Balthazar was in the brightly-lit saloon, with its tables for four with chairs round them and an open-air dance floor, where the cranes stopped to and fro. He had his face plastered with rouge since he was incapable of taking another step, he was thinking how nice it would be to sleep with two women in the same bed.
He’d spent so much that he had to leave his watch as a guarantee with promise to pay the next day. A moment later, with his legs splayed all over the street, he understood his shoes were being removed but he had no wish to surrender the happiest dream of his life. The women who went to five o’clock mass didn’t dare look at him, thinking he was dead.
translated by James Kerr.
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