“Shibboleth”, first part

June 3, 2008 at 3:37 pm (Skrifa) ()

In 1923, I was fortunate enough to be one of five passengers on a private pleasure cruise destined to seek out unexplored tributaries of the Nahr Ad-dindar River in Christian Soudan. We were to depart during the river’s most swollen months, so as not to risk grounding our boat. The organiser of the trip, a man by the name of Alberto Olmedo Maraña,  with whom I had a passing familiarity, owned and maintained a beautiful little dahabeeyah in Khartoum. He habitually wore undyed linen sacque suits, and a Havana hat when it was sunny. He moved slowly, and seemed quite fragile, as is common with very tall men in their old age. He did not smoke, but took a full lowball of dark rum in the early evening, with a glass cocktail stick to swirl the ice and to punctuate his thoughts, which tended to follow his crossed right foot as it made easy circles over the floorboards. Maraña was by origin an Argentine; he had grown up “stuffed into Palermo” as he once told me. Argentines, he said, were Europeans at heart, and who was he to deny the conquering instinct? A man like this, who has no children, no interest in that sort of immortality, seeks to make his mark on the world personally; he is not interested in the praise bestowed on his family name after he is dead.

He might have been a selfish man, but he did not think that denying something to children he did not as yet have selfish. He was in fact, quite gentle, and spared no praise where it was due, but his name was too much his own to share.

I was chosen out of his memory specifically, plucked from the multitudes, to join the expedition, I suppose partly for my vague interest in river biology. I was that rare sort of person who can be vaguely and genuinely interested in such a specific topic without being an expert, and I suppose the definition of exploration is to seek discovery; a company of experts would not suit his purpose at all. The world is discovered afresh through each pair of eyes, as someone once said.

I am typing this in Switzerland in 1995, on a typewriter, because the physicality of the ink ribbon pleases me. It is close to 5 in the evening, and I am drinking a large bottle of Tsing Tao, which tastes like it used to taste when my father drank it. It is the same first bottle of Tsing Tao drunk in 1903. Beer is immortal. It makes us feel young, nostalgic, makes us think that time is a stagnant pool. We can swim here and there, revisiting events as we please. Wine ages, develops, erasing what came before. It is a mortal’s drink, and so I don’t drink wine.

Maraña’s family was sparse. They did not like each other, and did not behave like a Catholic family at all. The only relative he kept in touch with was his niece, a serious woman one year his senior, by the name of Elisabeta Olmedo Martínez. She had received an invitation to the expedition, but declined; her concern was sleeping sickness. “You are used to such climates, Alberto,” she said. “I would succumb to the heavy heat very swiftly.” She did however, accept for her son José María, who was “of a stronger constitution.” Maraña assured her that sleeping sickness would be no problem, as he had plenty of screens and nets on the boat to keep out flies and mosquitoes, but she insisted that Chema would be more suitable for the trip. She was a well-read and modern woman, from what I heard, and so I know of only one reason why she would have used such an excuse, knowing as she must have done the true origin of sleeping sickness.

I am convinced Elisabeta knew what Maraña was planning, and substituted her son purposefully; whether out of love or hatred, I have no idea. Chema was happy to be with us. He was a gentle man, nervous and cheerful, very awkward around women, thus unmarried and using his youthful nickname at the age of thirty. He kept his distance from me; when he saw me approaching a kind of discomfort clouded his brow and he hastily extinguished his cigarette, made an excuse to leave the conversation, and sought his room. Maraña assured me it was nerves; his relative was simply not used to the company of young women.

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