The Blue Bouquet
by Octavio Paz (1949), translated by Eliot Weinberger
IWOKE COVERED with sweat. Hot steam rose from the newly sprayed, red-brick pavement. A gray-winged butterfly, dazzled, circled the yellow light. I jumped from my hammock and crossed the room barefoot, careful not to step on some scorpion leaving his hideout for a bit of fresh air. I went to the little window and inhaled the country air. One could hear the breathing of the night, feminine, enormous. I returned to the center of the room, emptied water from a jar into a pewter basin, and wet my towel. I rubbed my chest and legs with the soaked cloth, dried myself a little, and, making sure that no bugs were hidden in the folds of my clothes, got dressed. I ran down the green stairway. At the door of the boardinghouse I bumped into the owner, a one-eyed taciturn fellow. Sitting on a wicker stool, he smoked, his eye half closed. In a hoarse voice, he asked:
“Where are you going?”
“To take a walk. It’s too hot.”
“Hmmm—everything’s closed. And no streetlights around here. You’d better stay put.”
I shrugged my shoulders, muttered “back soon,” and plunged into the darkness. At first I couldn’t see anything. I fumbled along the cobblestone street. I lit a cigarette. Suddenly the moon appeared from behind a black cloud, lighting a white wall that was crumbled in places. I stopped, blinded by such whiteness. Wind whistled slightly. I breathed the air of the tamarinds. The night hummed, full of leaves and insects. Crickets bivouacked in the tall grass. I raised my head: up there the stars too had set up camp. I thought that the universe was a vast system of signs, a conversation between giant beings. My actions, the cricket’s saw, the star’s blink, were nothing but pauses and syllables, scattered phrases from that dialogue. What word could it be, of which I was only a syllable? Who speaks the word? To whom is it spoken? I threw my cigarette down on the sidewalk. Falling, it drew a shining curve, shooting out brief sparks like a tiny comet.
I walked a long time, slowly. I felt free, secure between the lips that were at that moment speaking me with such happiness. The night was a garden of eyes. As I crossed the street, I heard someone come out of a doorway. I turned around, but could not distinguish anything. I hurried on. A few moments later I heard the dull shuffle of sandals on the hot stone. I didn’t want to turn around, although I felt the shadow getting closer with every step. I tried to run. I couldn’t. Suddenly I stopped short. Before I could defend myself, I felt the point of a knife in my back, and a sweet voice:
“Don’t move, mister, or I’ll stick it in.”
Without turning, I asked:
“What do you want?”
“Your eyes, mister,” answered the soft, almost painful voice.
“My eyes? What do you want with my eyes? Look, I’ve got some money. Not much, but it’s something. I’ll give you everything I have if you let me go. Don’t kill me.”
“Don’t be afraid, mister. I won’t kill you. I’m only going to take your eyes.”
“But why do you want my eyes?” I asked again.
“My girlfriend has this whim. She wants a bouquet of blue eyes. And around here they’re hard to find.”
“My eyes won’t help you. They’re brown, not blue.”
“Don’t try to fool me, mister. I know very well that yours are blue.”
“Don’t take the eyes of a fellow man. I’ll give you something else.”
“Don’t play saint with me,” he said harshly. “Turn around.”
I turned. He was small and fragile. His palm sombrero covered half his face. In his right hand he held a country machete that shone in the moonlight.
“Let me see your face.”
I struck a match and put it close to my face. The brightness made me squint. He opened my eyelids with a firm hand. He couldn’t see very well. Standing on tiptoe, he stared at me intensely. The flame burned my fingers. I dropped it. A silent moment passed.
“Are you convinced now? They’re not blue.”
“Pretty clever, aren’t you?” he answered. “Let’s see. Light another one.”
I struck another match, and put it near my eyes. Grabbing my sleeve, he ordered:
I knelt. With one hand he grabbed me by the hair, pulling my head back. He bent over me, curious and tense, while his matchete slowly dropped until it grazed my eyelids. I closed my eyes.
“Keep them open,” he ordered.
I opened my eyes. The flame burned my lashes. All of a sudden he let me go.
“All right, they’re not blue. Beat it.”
He vanished. I leaned against the wall, my head in my hands. I pulled myself together. Stumbling, falling, trying to get up again. I ran for an hour through the deserted town. When I got to the plaza, I saw the owner of the boardinghouse, still sitting in the front of the door. I went in without saying a word. The next day I left town.
"My Life With the Wave (6 pages, 1968) and "The Blue Bouquet" (3 pages, 1965) both by Octavio Paz (translated by Eliot Weinberger)
Octavio Paz (1914 to 1998-Mexico City) is one of Mexico's most highly regarded writers. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. For many years he was a career diplomat for Mexico. His highest and last appointment was as Mexico's ambassador to India. He was a very prolific writer. He wrote many novels, poems and short stories. I think his most read work outside of Mexico is his non-fiction work The Labyrinth of Solitude, which attempts to explain the basic nature of Mexican culture. Paz was very into the reading life.
In 2009 I read Roberto Bolano's great novel, Savage Detectives. The novel is partially set in Mexico city and many of the characters are poets of varying degrees of success. They all seem to have one thing in common, a dislike boarding on hatred for Octavio Paz. In the mind of the poets, Paz stood for the literary establishment. His acceptance of awards from the Mexican government and his work at places like Harvard University marked him, in their minds, as a supporter of the very repressive Mexican government and the USA. Bolano himself expressed his personal contempt and near hatred for Paz and gave his status as a Mexican national icon as showing his support for fascism. This is in spite of Paz's very well known record as a strong supporter of human rights causes world wide. Bolano also expressed a very similar attitude toward Gabriel Marquez. One has to wonder if some of this was not jealousy or a revolt against very dominating literary influences. I have noticed writers often tend to have a low regard for the generation of writers who are dominant in their youth.
Both "My Life With the Waves" and "The Blue Bouquet" are about the violence of the big city, the capricious ways in which life happens and can be lost, and are tales of the near absurd. Both look at a very dangerous world.
"The Blue Bouquet" (it can be read HERE) is a very frightening story. It is about an insane act of violence that almost took place. A woman had asked her lover to collect for a her a basket of blue eyes. What is so powerful in this story to me is what is left out. We never learn why the woman wants this and we are given no insight into why the man feels obligated to attempt to honor her request. You can read it in just a few minutes.
"My Life With the Wave" is a very interesting story. (It can be read HERE). It is about a man who ends up in jail for a year because someone sees him put salt in his water while on a train and jumps from this to the conclusion he is trying to poison others on the train. The water is never tested. He is never given any kind of real trial. He is simply accused of being a potential poisoner and placed in prison. He gets out in a year and is advised not to do it again. It is also a story of a complicated and passionate love affair.
I liked both stories. Of the two I preferred "The Blue Bouquet". In truth, it would not be out of place as an episode in 2666.