Featured writer: Saúl Roll Vélez

Oct 15, 2013 Comments Off on Featured writer: Saúl Roll Vélez by

Saúl Roll VélezSaúl Roll Vélez was born in Medellín, Colombia, in 1961, moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1982 ‘without any plan in particular and driven more by tedium than any other motivation’, as his publisher’s page puts it. He worked there as a pizza deliveryman until finishing university, afterwards completing a master’s degree in Spanish literature under the supervision of poet Ángel González. Following this, he completed a doctorate in Spanish Golden Age literature at the University of Pennsylvania with a dissertation on Don Juan de Tassis, Conde de Villamediana. He taught at the university for several years, as well as at Villanova University and, later, several universities in Boston, where he has lived since 1999.

Eventually he abandoned the academic world to run a bookstore of rare books and manuscripts for five years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently he is a dealer of ancient Roman coins, and is the US representative for the Danish antiquarian bookstore Herman Lynge & Søn. However, he maintains strong links to both Madrid, a city to which he travels frequently, and Medellín, his birthplace. Co-author of a critical edition of de Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla’s Progne and Philomena, he has published articles, stories and verse in newspapers and magazines both large and small.

Roll Vélez’s first novel, Mal te perdonarán a ti las horas, was recently published by Sílaba Editores in Colombia. Set in the 1990s in ‘a city of eternal spring, surrounded by mountains’, it chronicles the attempts of one Sebastián de la Torre to untangle a chaotic mesh of memories, in order to make sense of the anarchic and seemingly senseless events around him. Absurd occurrences and an underlying sense of violence co-exist with scenes from daily life – conversations with friends, visits to the café and cinema – and throughout, literary devices such as temporal shifts are grounded in an engaging, earthy language.

Ventana Latina is pleased to offer an English translation of the first chapter (which, following the idiosyncratic numbering of the book, is chapter twenty-three).

— Jessica Sequeira

* * *

Chapter XXIII

A very unsettling street incident


All of a sudden, his left arm detached from the rest of his body at the moment it swung forward, flying nearly two metres in front him and breaking against the pavement as if it were made of porcelain, to be converted instantly into hundreds of solid dry pinkish-white little pieces mixed with a bit of brown dust.

–Shit. I told you so.

I think I tried to remember what it was he had told me, but I was too busy looking pale-faced at the remnants of the arm scattered on the ground, not quite sure whether I should begin to laugh, yell or faint.

–What did you tell me? –I asked, pronouncing each syllable automatically, without lifting my eyes from the ground, unavoidably disconcerted.

–What I told you, man, about my family –he said, making a face in which something like arrogant indifference was mixed with the certainty that his arm was now no longer there.


In the last few weeks he had begun to act somewhat strange, nearly always keeping his hands in his pockets and sporting a humour that had already begun to worry us. That bothered me quite a bit, because I was used to a Rodolfo who, even in the middle of an earthquake, would put on a look as if to say what’cha gonna do about it. Sometimes he pulled a dramatic face and said if you only knew…, and since we didn’t know, and it mattered little to us to know –because we were having a lot of fun at the time, or simply because we didn’t really care if it mattered–, it didn’t matter to us. He got drunk a couple of times in less than a week, which worried us too, because we hadn’t seen him drunk in a long time. On both occasions he looked at us and said, if you only knew…, all the while laughing loudly; and as he got very annoying, Alfonso took him from the room, gave him a little slap and put him to bed.

Before, when times were different, Alfonso had been the one in charge of dealing with us when we got drunk, since he didn’t drink himself. (I had only seen him drink two whiskies: the day his grandmother died, and the night he unsuccessfully sat in the garden waiting for the corpse of the space station Skylab to fall on his head, which I think ultimately ended up crashing in Australia.) In any case, it was quite convenient to go to parties or bars with Alfonso. He drove, ordered, paid, took care of us, calmed, interceded, explained, fought… in short, the man was a treasure. He even got us girls, because we were somewhat shy –a kind word that describes those idiots who see a woman and lose the capacity to articulate a sentence without their voice trembling– and normally we did nothing more than smile at the legs we saw strolling down the streets or dancing at parties. He, on the other hand, came up to them with his big green eyes and black hair, and was like a magnet. He didn’t say much, really. He just smiled, introduced himself and asked names, melted their hearts and returned to our table with three semiviscous masses with their tongues hanging out, which quickly recovered their original shape upon seeing us two with leg-inspired smiles and teeth chattering like cartoon characters. Sometimes it worked out well and all five of us and the semiviscous mass charmed by Alfonso ended up in some sunny location in the outskirts of the city, baking our bodies in the sun, fornicating, drinking (except Alfonso) and condemning ourselves in the most exquisite way possible to all the eternal punishments. Those weekends were an intense training for the flames of hell. We would lay down in the sun for long hours with no other protection than the ozone layer –which in those days was still strong and healthy and could be trusted– and draw up a list of the marvellous characters we would meet in the House of the Evil One.

–Vincent –said Alfonso, without thinking twice. Vincent will definitely be there. ’Cause he was nuts. I wanna see Vincent.

But that was years ago, when we were irresponsible adolescents and could do those things without worrying about what would happen the very next minute. Everything is different now that we are irresponsible adults. Okay, in reality, things aren’t so different at all, but it’s true that life then was less complicated. Or perhaps not less complicated, but just different. The fact is that Rodolfo had been complete in those days, and now there I was, frozen, staring at the remnants of the arm on the pavement, especially a nail that had remained whole and glittered in the sun.

The vague memory came to me of Rodolfo in fact mentioning that someday he would tell me a harrowing family story, but he had done so with a tone of voice and an expression in his eyes that had sent a rustling noise down my back, unsettling my most solid vertebrae, which is what happens to me when I’m on the edge of panic. Because if we’re going to talk about chickens, let’s start with me, and let’s use capital letters. If there were an international competition for cowardly chickens, they would declare me far and away above the competition, and give me a box seat of honour and a two week Caribbean cruise.

If I had been Alfonso, it would have been another story, because surely he, after giving him a little slap, would have let out some sarcastic remark and taken you out for a drink, so that then you could forget those old family legends that give you the face of an idiot and the eyes of an ostrich, which doesn’t become you, Rodolfo, and it’s too bad I don’t have ghosts or monsters in my family, and you can tell me the story whenever you want.

But I was not Alfonso, and when Rodolfo wanted to tell me the story I said no thanks, another time perhaps, during the day and over brandy or even whisky, but not now, and so I was spared from hearing the story and from a possible bad night for many nights. But (too many buts: it is, I think, the word that best defines the story of my days) Rodolfo had decided to lose his arm when he was with me. If he had lost it while walking with Alfonso, he would have carefully picked it up off the ground, brown dust and all, to show it to friends, otherwise they won’t believe it, Rodolfo, even if they see you without an arm.

And there I was, looking at the nail that glittered, feeling the noise starting to run down my back. Terrified, I tried to swallow the saliva that no longer existed in my mouth and managed to stammer a ‘don’t worry Rodolfo’ that, if I were him, would have made me tremble. And unworried-Rodolfo looked guilty at seeing me in that state of passive suicide in which I found myself: I wanted to stay there drying in the sun until I evaporated or fell struck down by a well-aimed mortar charge that would probably never fall, because mortars are prohibited in the city, Sebastián, and what’s more who is going to want to erase you from the map with a mortar, and even if they had wanted to, it’s unlikely they would hit you because you’re so skinny and that makes you a difficult target, all of it after having given me a very friendly open-handed slap of the kind only a good friend knows how to give and that he had learnt to execute well –though with a light excess of force– by virtue of having received so many during his formative years from our dear official slapper Alfonso. I thanked him from the bottom of my soul for that slap while he pulled me towards his apartment with his right arm, the only one remaining.

Not a word was spoken on the way, mainly because both of us knew that if I opened my mouth it would only be to let out a yell that, quicker than a cowardly chicken’s cock-a-doodle-do, would summon the entire police force of the city, accompanied by the Red Cross, firemen and special population control units required in cases of natural catastrophe and national emergency. And he didn’t speak because he knew that, if he did so, I would open my mouth. And so, in the middle of what one could call a precautionary silence, we arrived at his sofa, in which I settled myself to wait while Rodolfo prepared me a triple whisky, no water, with ice, drier than the dust of the arm we’d just left behind in the street, which would now be dispersed through half the city thanks to the abnormally chilly wind blowing that day and that, together with the incident of the arm and the possibility of having to hear that story, had converted the city into a rocky late-autumn Transylvanian village with wolves howling on the slopes of the shadows, which were mountains, with silhouettes of monsters stalking carnivorously, prepared to devour any living thing in general, and me in particular.

Trembling as if I had seen the arm of a friend come detached from his body to smash against the pavement, I managed to tuck away the whisky in the most appropriate place of my perturbed spirit. Immediately afterwards, Rodolfo offered me a cushion which I could bite at those moments when I was at greatest risk of shrieking. When I had finally achieved a relative state of calm and half the cushion filling covered part of the sofa and the rug, Rodolfo gave me a look somewhere between compassion and embarrassment, and asked my forgiveness for having lost his arm in my presence. I knew that Rodolfo really did feel bad, but I didn’t know how to answer. Finally, this came out:

–Man, if you can’t lose your extremities in the presence of friends, in front of whom are you going to lose them –with a naturalness that had nothing to do with the situation.

–        … –which was the only possible response to such a comment.

–        I really have to piss.

And I headed to the bathroom, staggering a bit because of the effect of the whisky on a heart already anyway on the point of bursting. The piss was long and resounding, the kind that makes one forget the world for a few seconds. A piss was ideal at that moment. When one pisses there is neither past nor future; the most crucial events lose all relevance and a limbo is created, a state of mental and physical peace in which being discovers itself, in itself, and enjoys a longed-for inner harmony, a communion with everything, something impossible in other situations, except perhaps in the mystic union: a good piss is heaven on earth. Like everything, however, pisses have lost something of their charm due to the technification (supposing that is a word) of our age. I say this because I experienced a mnemogenetic return to the primordial one day when I was pissing on a tree in the countryside, and felt that magnificent peace more intensely than at any other time. Because the invention of bathrooms, washrooms, rest rooms, toilets, latrines, privies or whatever else you want to call them, has caused us to lose that natural connection between being and world consummated through a piss: liquid umbilical cord, ephemeral, primeval link to our First Mother.


The sound of the last drop falling to the water (pliipppp), returned me to the uncomfortable reality of one arm less on my friend. I counterattacked: now I am going to go out and everything will be fine; all of that happened in the instant previous to the piss and in reality it didn’t actually happen at all, because I imagined it before going to piss in order to have something to forget while I pissed. There will be no arm absent anywhere, and I haven’t drunk a triple whisky drier than the arm that never came detached from my friend, and everything was going splendidly until I saw the trail of cushion filling in the hallway. I breathed deeply so as not to hear the noise in my vertebrae, and I contemplated the full absence of the arm on very-sad-Rodolfo. Pushing aside the rest of the cushion filling, I sat on the sofa. I breathed deeply once again to the beat of the noise in my vertebrae. There was Rodolfo, armless. I tried:

– You asshole, degenerate, sadist. This is the dirtiest trick you’ve ever pulled. You can’t treat friends like that, you imbecile, you have to respect others’ fears and feelings, especially if they’re friends, because to put up with shitty jokes like this one you need to be more than a simple friend, you have to be a true friend, like me, and I like and respect you a lot, and I understand that the temptation exists to scare someone to prove he’s more of a chicken than you, but this is the last straw, and I should stop talking to you for at least a year, but so that you see that I understand and forgive you, and that I owe you for these years of friendship, just show me your arm and we’ll end this joke here and now and forget all about it, okay? Take your arm out of your shirt or wherever it is and don’t play any dirty tricks like this again because I’m capable of ripping off your arm for real, you asshole, Rodolfo.

And asshole-Rodolfo took off his shirt and with great sadness showed me a stump, when what I had asked him was to show me an arm. Asshole.

Another silence, this time not precautionary, but simply inevitable. Except for the noise of my vertebrae.

–Sebastián –he said finally, as if sighing–, I am very sorry, really.

I nodded, accepting his apology. What could I do? Repeat the same nonsense of that’s what friends are for? Throw myself out the window was what I wanted to do: I hate this type of situation. (But, what type of situation was that?)

I knew the moment for an explanation had to arrive; Rodolfo would tell me the famous story I didn’t want to hear. I also knew that the thing I wanted least in life was to hear it. Who was the son of a bitch that had prohibited using mortars in the city? (No, I’m not exaggerating, you fucking piece of shit doctor).

–I tried to tell you guys something, but I knew you wouldn’t believe me. If I had told you about my family, you would have shit your pants in fear. Alfonso would have shit his pants laughing.

– So, on top of everything, the story is real?

–What do you think? –showing me the stump.

I could hear the noise in my vertebrae. This was too much. We’re in the twentieth century, nearly the twenty-first now, and Rodolfo comes out with this.

–We’re in the twentieth century, nearly the twenty-first now, and you come out with this. Stories of this type are from the nineteenth century and before, Rodolfo; today there are computers and space shuttles, there are Japanese and compact discs. I can’t accept that you say that kind of thing –my voice breaking a bit, as if at the edge of a sob– I refuse to hear any of those things unless they have a logical and rational explanation because my vertebrae can’t take it anymore.

–Sorry, man, but please understand. How do you think I feel? (showing me the stump).


The explanation had to begin. I settled in the best I could, sitting with my back against the one intact cushion to buffer the vibrations of my vertebrae. There was no alternative: I had to hear the story, though frankly I would have preferred for some pious assassin to have flagrantly transgressed the city’s anti-mortar laws.


VL English

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