Cover image for The matter of desire
The matter of desire
Paz Soldán, Edmundo, 1967-
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Materia del deseo. English
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., [2003]

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214 pages ; 21 cm
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The Matter of Desire is the story of Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist who teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father's past. Trapped between two cultures, Pedro ultimately finds himself in an existential dilemma of tragic dimensions. The Matter of Desire combines elements of the political thriller and the family mystery with a torrid illicit love affair and brilliantly elucidates the complex relationship between Latin America and the United States.

Author Notes

Edmundo Paz Soldan is the author of six novels and two short story collections. He was awarded the 2002 Bolivian National Book Award for Turing's Delirium and a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship. He has won the National Book Award in Bolivia, the prestigious Juan Rulfo Award, and was a finalist for the Romulo Gallegos Award. He is an associate professor at Cornell University. One of the few McOndo writers who live in the United States, he is frequently called upon as the movement's spokesperson bythe American media.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A Bolivian professor probes the depths of his rebel father's past in this taut, gritty tale of two dramatically different Americas. When Pedro Zabalaga, a Latin American studies scholar, seeks a reprieve from his work--and troubled love life--he returns home to Bolivia and a flood of memories: his friends, family, and the politically charged climate of his fictional native city, Rio Fugitivo. He moves in with his uncle David, a quirky inventor and crossword-puzzle writer, and one of two survivors of a government bombing that killed Pedro's father some 30 years before. In conversations with David and in the pages of his father's cult novel, Berkeley, Pedro discovers disturbing truths about the charismatic man who loved his country to the death. Percolating with American pop-culture references, Bolivian National Book Award winner Paz Soldan's first novel published in English is a bristling alternative to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Blending history, existentialism, and romantic and political passion, it offers an edgy, urban vision that sizzles from the start. --Allison Block Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

South American politics meet Northeast academia in this uneven but affecting novel about untangling a family past. Pedro Zabalaga is-like the author himself-a Bolivia-born professor of Latin American Studies at an upstate New York university. Trapped in an affair with a flirtatious graduate student named Ashley, he flees back home to Rio Fugitivo, the fictitious Bolivian city that plays a recurring role in Paz Soldan's work. There, Pedro involves himself in something much more complicated than his affair-an attempt to unravel the romantic, intellectual and political betrayal that led to the death of his father, a famous revolutionary and novelist. With the help of his Uncle David, who was present at his father's death, Pedro reexamines his father's famous novel, Berkeley, a postmodern tour-de-force littered with secret messages. He also interviews Jaime Villa, his father's childhood friend, now a drug lord awaiting extradition. Paz gets mixed results from his weaving of two separate storylines. The affair between Pedro and Ashley, despite its heat, is a standard tale of star-crossed lovers. Less familiar, and more engaging, is the throbbing world of R!o Fugitivo, flooded with American culture but still haunted by years of oppression. Paz Soldan is perhaps Bolivia's most notable contemporary author, a winner of his country's National Book Award and the Juan Rulfo Prize, given to the best short story written in Spanish. This is the first of his six novels to be translated into English, and it provides an accessible introduction to his work. Carter's translation is smooth, though her tactic of only partly translating dialogue (a faithful effort to reproduce Paz Soldan's own bilingual leaps) can be distracting. Agent, Carol Mann. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Presenting a more literal, urban vision of political and cultural realities, the McOndo movement is Latin America's literary opponent to the magic realism of Garcia Marquez that has held sway there for the last four decades. Bolivian-born Paz Soldan (Latin American literature, Cornell Univ.) is its leading spokesman, and this is the first of his six novels to be translated into English. It tells the story of Pedro, a young professor at a university in New York State. Overwhelmed by an affair with a married graduate student back home, Pedro travels to Bolivia in order to research his father's past revolutionary heroics and thus learn more about himself. He nervously shuttles back and forth between the two hemispheres, inhaling suffocating quantities of American pop culture in both places. As he delves deeper into his research, the murky waters reveal disturbing truths and he is left in a grave dilemma. Especially insightful about the inexorable suffusion southwards of American pop culture and values, this novel is recommended for all collections.-Jack Shreve, Allegany Coll. of Maryland, Cumberland (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter oneI approach the window a few times and, surreptitiously, search the faces in vain, looking for Uncle David. There's still the possibility that he's waiting for me outside, reading the paper in the shade of a molle treeafter all, he's a bit of a misanthrope and avoids contact with people whenever he can. I can't help being annoyed that he might not be here: he said he'd come to meet me.This is my city, but I would still feel like a stranger if there were no familiar face to help me, a glance to save me from my frequent forays into the depths of solitude at the slightest blunder into reality.This is my city, but the airport is new, recently inaugurated, smelling of fresh paint and plastic covers, and the view outside changes and is ever more distant from me. This is the price you pay for leaving: objects don't stay where you left them, friends forget you as soon as you turn your back, relatives don't come to meet you because the fragile bonds have stretched with the distance and broken. The map of Treasure Island is lost. It happens to everyone because everyone, sooner or later, leaves for someplace else. It's happening to an espresso-skinned girl who looks at her watch every ten seconds, then lifts her eyes to the windows behind which people crowd, looks for someone and he's not there.The luggage arrives. I light a cigarette, wondering whether there'll be a shout to put my hands in the air, a shove that'll knock me to the ground, making the pack of Marlboros fall, an arrest and six months in a federal prison. Nothing happens. The act doesn't lead to hysteria here; you're free to damage your own lungs, change the color of your own teeth, and damage everyone else's lungs in the process. Secondhand smoke kills, so the magazines say. I'm not the only one smoking. There are a couple of young kids who look like brothers. The smell of their cigarettes is unmistakable; they're smoking marijuana, mara, bayer, what other names have been invented during my absence? Earrings, Bob Marley sweatshirts, Birkenstocks: they left wearing shirts and ties and this is how the North sends them back. We come back with full pockets, new knowledge, and old things forgotten, contaminating and willing to contaminate, so that what is disappears faster than it ordinarily tends to, so that the reign of the temporary sinks its claws into this world once and for all.The ash falls onto the cream-colored tile oor. And at that moment they knew in unison, once and for all and forever, that they would soon be that which they had been born for and which a thousand permutations had hidden: ash. Like in the Villa de Ash. Like Ashley.A wrinkled old skycap in a dark blue uniform approaches and asks if he can take my bag. There's only one and it's not heavy, but I recognize him and say yes. He's been working at the airport ever since I started to travel fteen years ago (when the airport was one barnlike terminal and the bathrooms smelled of urine; it should've been easy to forget, but it wasn't). He's very small and frail; I've often wondered how he does it, like an ant, capable of carrying twice his own weight. He leaves with my green canvas bag while I carry my briefcase containing a tangerine-colored iBook, magazines, and Berkeley, Dad's novel, which I'd reached out to again when my problems began (that sleepless semester I'd taught it and kept it close by, on my desk, but it's one thing to read in order to teach and another in order to escape from the world). It's a rst-edition paperback, full of coffee stains, notes in the margins, and phrases underlined. I bought it at a used-book stall near the post ofce a few return trips ago. On the cover, silvery tones and Ansel Adams lighting, there's a photo of the signpost of two streets that converge to form that mythical corner, Bancroft and Telegraph. The tele- graph: that marvelous invention for coding messages. It's a photo that manages to summarize the central themes. A masterful 132- page work through which Dad nally discovered that he could be more successful as a writer than as a politiciannot in the end, but, rather, at the same time. And then came the military attack on the Unzueta Street apartment, where the leadership of Dad's party clandestinely met, and his savage, bloody death, as well as that of Aunt Elsa, Uncle David's wife. His brother was the only survivor (apart from Ren Mrida, the traitor who informed on them and so didn't come to the meeting). Dad, who left me when I was young, and I, who strive to nd him in a novel.I walk on polished tiles toward the main exit, amid the rejoicing of my travel companions and those who receive them. Through the loudspeaker a woman's singsong voice announces ight delays, the escalators operate incessantly, the sounds reverberate sonorously on the high yellow walls with neon signs advertising Coca-Cola,McDonald's, Entelnet, and several hotels. There's a large photo of PresidentMontenegroaffable, triumphant, not at all dictatorialand a plaque saying the airport was opened during his administration. I stop at a kiosk bursting with Argentine and Chilean magazines, the covers featuring the sentimental crises of models and the salary gures for today's soccer players. I buy newspapersEl Posmo and Veintiunoand Mcially approved Jaime Villa's extradition to the United States. Villa, that legendary drug trafcker who thought himself a Robin Hood but was really more like Al Capone. In El Posmo, a full-color photo of an effusive Villa in a mariachi's sombrero and white suit, like Garca Mrquez when he accepted the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. In Veintiuno, a photo of the drug traf- cker with his cousin, that militaryMinister of the Interior who in 1980 planned the Unzueta Street massacre.Welcome to Bolivia. As soon as I leave the terminal I hear the voices of taxi drivers offering their services. I miss the kids looking for handouts. They must not let them come into the new terminal: the price of modernization, I suppose.I stop at the edge of the sidewalk, anxious. Am I to be punished by a migraine, one of those that force me to hole up in a room with the lights out and damn my fate? The restless trigeminal nerve, the neuropeptides, the pressure behind the right eye: the Migraine, that mythical animal I only just domesticate with Imitrex. No, it's not. Just a pang this time. I inhale the dirty air with relief, and now, seeing the cloud of dust oating over the city, the washed-out blue sky, feeling the aggressive heat of the sun, so far from the snow, I recognize Ro Fugitivo, smile faintly, and know, at last, once more, I'm home. Everything stops for a few seconds and I'm the child, the young man who never left, the one who planned on following in Dad's footsteps, the idealist who wanted to dedicate his life to politics in order to change the country once and for all and forever.The skycap asks where he should take my bag. End of the rapture."Leave it here," I say, and give him a dollar.Uncle David isn't anywhere in sight. Maybe he's running late. Or maybe notat least not here, where everything is so nearby. How often had I waited to hear the roar of a plane's engines before nally leaving for the airport? How long should I wait? Half an hour? Twenty minutes, no more. Or should I call him? No, I don't want to go back into the terminal.I sit down on my bag, take my glasses off, put them on again. I take out my Palm Pilot, turn it on, stare, not knowing what to do, and put it away again. I don't feel like playing blackjack, I'm tired of losing at chess, and I have to reorganize myself for a new game of DopeWars (where you head up a drug cartel, have to build your empire to ght against other cartels, and are chased by the DEA; true, its not at all educational).I quickly ip through the newspapers and then look in section two of El Posmo for one of the things I miss most about Ro Fugitivo: the Cryptogram, the crossword that Uncle David sets (they don't put it on the Internet version of the newspaperbig mistake; how many times have I had to have it sent to me from Bolivia?). Firmenich's nickname. While waiting for him I'll solve his verbal labyrinths, nd out about the latest things he's seen and read, discover the extravagant ramications of his education. Joined Hungary and Bulgaria. Horizontal and vertical phrases that intermingle, blank spaces that need to be lled in. Astronaut on Friendship VII, ve letters. Some were born to leave hieroglyphics behind them; others, to decipher them, to clarify the world another strives to make opaque. I belong to the latter, and I'm convinced that our work is no less honorable, no less deserving of recognition, than that of the creators. Without us, without our answer to their threatening, secretive challenge, they could not exist.Pioneer of French aviation. Defeated Spassky. Creator of Hermann Soergel. Coach of the Brazilian team defeated at the Maracanazo. Catalan painter mentioned in The Crying of Lot 49. So he's been reading Pynchon? How dare he use such a specic clue when so few of his followers even know who Pynchon is? But I guess it's not so bad, you don't have to know everything to do a crossword. It's a matter of having a nose for it, analytical and deductive abilities, and being generally knowledgeable. It's also a matter of good dictionaries and encyclopedias, having a talent for looking up information on the Internet, friends who share the fervor, and patience. Above all, that: patience. Half an hour goes by. My uncle doesn't arrive, nor do I nish his crossword. I get into a taxi.In the back seat of a white Toyota, being tortured by the sound of Enrique Iglesias and the smell of home-brewed chicha, I wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my T-shirt and tell myself again what I got tired of thinking on the plane, while dozing next to a gay Chilean reading Look Homeward, Angel: that I came to Ro Fugitivo with the excuse of looking for Dad when I really came to escape a woman. Ashley. Beautiful, sweet, cruel, wild Ashley.Finally, in the taxi, as we drive alongside the stagnant waters of the river that winds through the city, the pain of Ashley's absence overwhelms me. I miss Madison, its leaden sky in the heart of New York Statecentrally isolated, closer to Canada than to Manhattanthe intolerable snow, the cheap motels on Route 15, and the rooms with MTV on at full volume to drown out our boisterous lust.Catalan painter, four letters.I ask the taxi driver if he can turn off the radio. He replies with a simple no. Welcome to Ro Fugitivo, where the customer is not always right.Uncle David was waiting for me at the door of his house as if nothing had happened. His hands were stained with ink or grease. He greeted me wearing slippers and a threadbare blue-and-whitechecked robe, gave me a brief hug, and made no mention of our telephone conversation, no attempt to excuse his absence at the airport. It was as if the words spoken into the phone a few days ago, that booming voice, had been just another form of static, noises that disappear once emitted, invisible frequencies you swear exist but need complicated experiments, chemical or alchemical formulas, electromagnetic radiations, to prove."How was your trip? Come in, come in. So many hours stuck in a plane. There's no way you could make me get on one, even though I admire the Wright brothers and all those who followed.The Spirit of . . .where?""Saint Louis.""Well, well. The house is small, but the heart . . . This is your room; it's not very clean. I don't have a housekeeper.What for? So they can steal from me? You'd like a shower, I suppose.""I'm ne," I said, looking at the single bed in a corner, the paint peeling off the walls, the nondescript night table and narrow chest of drawers where blankets smelling of mothballs were piled. I put my bag on the oor and opened the light blue curtains, and light timidly entered the room from the interior patio. Nothing to write home about. In truth, I wasn't ne. I needed a desk and more life on the walls. But what could I say? I had brought all this upon myself.I'd lived here during my childhood, from time to time, but didn't remember much (or better: my memory's reconstruction of the house wasn't very helpful). I wanted to sniff around my new territory, like a dog, but felt that my uncle, his tall, thin gure in the doorway, wanted to be left alone.Maybe I had interrupted him in the nal stage of setting a crossword. Sure, he'd spent all night working, that was why he didn't go to the airport. That explained the bags under his eyes and the bloodshot left one. (His right eye was glass; he lost it when a paramilitary's bullet went through it that evening on Unzueta Street.)"Breakfast?""No, thanks. I had breakfast in La Paz, at the airport.""Then rest and I'll call you for lunch. You'll eat here, right? Nothing special, I cook myself, so don't expect miracles. A girl comes in on Mondays and leaves meals for a few days. The rest of the time, it's just whatever. You've gained a bit of weight.""Age," I said, patting my stomach. "I've started going to the gym, watching what I eatalthough this isn't the best place for that. One of the things I miss most about here is the food. Parrilladas are so much better than barbecues in the States. I tried to do your crossword. I'm almost done. They're increasingly difcult. Catalan painter . . . ?""Four letters.Who else? Remedios Varo. But don't ask me again because I don't like it, that's cheating.""I thought she was Mexican?""That's what most people think.""So, Pynchon.""In Spanish. It's too difcult in English.""For anyone. Even in Spanish it's commendable.""It's easier than his reputation suggests. And very entertaining. Vineland most of all.""I didn't read it. I loved The Crying of Lot 49. Read it a long time ago, in Berkeley. I should read it again.""So many things to read again."The conversation wasn't going anywhere. My uncle closed the door and left. I cleaned the accumulated dust off the night table, got rid of a spider web on the lamp, lay down on the bed. The day's warm air and the smell of the lemon tree in the patio drifted in through the windows.I'd called to ask if I could stay for a couple of weeks; I hoped to nd an apartment during that time. Mom wasn't here. She'd been traveling in Europe for the last few months with an Italian who had money to burn, looking for a love that was stable and selfdestructing at the same time. Maybe I should have imposed on Federico or Carlos, or even Carolina. Or I should have gone to a hotel. I wasn't a student any longer; I was now a professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Madison, someone who, because of an article on the political situation in the region, had become (to the fury of some older and more prestigious colleagues) a gure whose opinions were sought by NewTimes, Latin American Affairs, and other American magazines and newspapers interested in the topic (not many, it's true).What would my editors say? Surely they pictured me in some local version of the Hyatt or other international hotel chain. I was in a period of transition.My new life required more expenses, Italian silk ties and clothes that make the manlike those of my Chilean and Peruvian friends on Wall Streetbut I still hadn't lost my frugal student habits. My one small step up: from the Gap to Banana Republic, casual elegance at a relatively low price (sometimes I went to an outlet mall an hour outside Madison and bought awed Polo shirts and sweaters). My only weaknesses were colognes and electronic gadgetsPalm Pilots and MP3 players (Ashley's inuence, I should add).Who should I call? I wasn't anxious to call any one of my friends. Each of my previous visits had served to prove, painfully, how life was separating me from them. The only ties that bound us were common memories of a time shared during our youth and maybe a night or two of getting high during my vacations. Even those memories were fading. Sometimes I wondered how we had ever shared something as intimate as a case of gonorrhea, thanks to the same whore. Married, yuppies, divorced and living with their parents, winners big and small, nine-to-ve jobs and all the while searching for an easier way to get rich, at home in a world that I hadn't found yet, certain of their greatness and not knowing how small they really were. I wasn't the only one to wonder. Surely they, too, asked themselves what had bound them to someone so apparently similar but deep down so different (someone without much certainty, someone who at least knew how small he was).It was typical of me to think this way: starting at one extreme and then heading to the other before ending up in the schizophrenia of both extremes at once. Soon I'd be with them, drinking and helping to settle their lives between spouses and lovers, between Nokia and Motorola (Nokia, always). Cosmopolitan though I was, this was my truest world, and I had to admit that. If I'd stayed here I wouldn't have been out of placeI'd have a paunch and a couple of kids, be importing tampons from Brazil, deciding whether or not to open a video store, planning Friday night out, Saturday's parrillada and Sunday's Italian soccer game on cable while the wife sleeps and others confess their sins only to begin again that same afternoon (the motels full at any hour).To relieve my tension in a shower with lukewarm water and no pressure, I masturbated, thinking of Ashley naked on the carpet in my apartment, desire and tenderness in her eyes.The house was one story. At the entrance there was a well-kept garden with pretentious carnations and a creeper on the rusted bars of the wrought-iron grille. Was it true that as a boy I had caught butteries here? A hallway had old maps on the wallsthe Americas in several Renaissance versionsand photos of famous people with the background digitally altered: Sartre at the Palacio Quemado, Franco at the White House, Walt Disney in the Potos mines, Evita in the Caf DeuxMagots, Cantinas as director of the U.N. General Assembly, Pel playing soccer in the Chicago Bulls arena.My uncle certainly amused himself. To the right of my room was more hallway and then the living room.When I reached the door to the living room, I stopped and for an instant saw bouquets of owers scattered all over the oor and two cofns side by side: Dad's and Aunt Elsa's wake. But it hadn't been that way at all. There was no wake; their corpses were never found and are likely now cracked bones in some communal grave or under the Police Headquarters patio (where they play futsal every afternoon). Can you imagine something forcefully enough that you nally impose it on reality? Aren't we weaker than we believe, don't we yearn deep down to give in to our desires?The owers disappeared and then the cofns, replaced by a couch and a couple of chairs around a glass table weighed down by stacks of books, magazines, and dictionaries. In the corner an obscene forty-inch television demanded unconditional veneration.To my left was a wooden cart piled with bottles of whiskey and singani, glasses, a cocktail shaker, and an ice bucket. All around the room, against the walls, as if in a museum, were antiques on wooden pedestals: obsolete Smith Corona and Underwood typewriters, phonographs dating from the early twentieth century, a Sinclair Spectrum computer, a monstrous Blaupunkt radio from the forties (jealous of the TV's presence and yet condent that, sooner or later, this too would come to keep it company). When I came to Madison there was a Smith Corona factory nearby. The last time I drove past, a couple of months ago, the factory had closed. The sight of so much desolation in buildings once full of workers had moved me."What do you think?"my uncle said, looking at me proudly.He had a glass of Chivas in his hand, ceaselessly rattling the ice. "This room is too small. There's more,much more, in the storage room.""Chapter Thirty," I said.An idea stolen from or a tribute to Berkeley, I thought, remembering Bernard's Museum of Media. I admired the Underwood up close, touched its cold keys, the bulky case. Invented for the blind, it had been adopted by philosophers, secretaries, and writers. On one of those machines Dad had written the 132 pages of his novel, not counting the multiple revisions, the errors, the pages started anew. Exhausting just to think about. Quality of the work aside, all those who had sat down to compose their works key by key, without the ease of a word processor, were admirable and deserved recognition. To say nothing of those who had done it by hand, or those who still domore than one of today's writers would have felt at home in a medieval monastery."It's a bad habit of mine," he said. "I collect what others disdain. So much history in each one of these machines."He had an intimidating voice: he seemed to be shouting even when speaking quietly. They say Dad's could also be intimidating, gravelly like that of a chronic smoker. His was a captivating voice that elegantly ordered obedience. Or so they say. I remember hardly anything about him. He's just a blurry gure that rushed in and out of my childhood, him not paying much attention to me or me to him. An unknown stranger I saw so few times in person, someone I had to reconstructI'm still doing sothrough photos, his novel, the memories of others. The most salient image comes from one of my birthdays. There's going to be a big surprise, Mom had said, and I waited anxiously.When it was time for cake, someone in an old red leather mask and a feather headdress jumped out of the cupboard. I was frightened even though I knew who it was. He took off the mask, approached, and hugged me, and everyone clapped. Now I remember the mask, vividly, but little of the face behind it."It's a new hobby?""Uh-uh, I started a long time ago."Maybe it wasn't an idea taken from Berkeley. Perhaps, with the Museum of Media, Dad was paying homage to his brother, and that was why the room was a kind of return to the beginning. But I didn't remember it from my childhood."It's just that now I can apply myself more seriously."I wasn't surprised by his attraction to relics like these: he would've liked to have invented one. Apart from his verbal ability, he was very good with his hands. The doorbell, different tones from classical piecesfrom Bach to Stravinskywas his invention, as were the multiple speeds of a blender for preparing cocktails, a lawnmower whose motor was an extravagance of wires and screws, and the connections thanks to which he watched cable TV for free. "Poet and mathematician," he often said. He'd studied industrial engineering but hardly practiced his profession. He wanted to be an inventor despite the lack of funds and support for his crazy projects. Dad had made fun of him and called him a "conceptual inventor." There were more inventions left half-done than nished. They say that as a kid he spent his time taking radios apart and putting them back together, studying their wires and diodes, trying to improve on the original product. He and his wife had suffered many privations because of his multidirectional passion, constant in its inconstancy. He had the intelligence to succeed at any profession he chose, just not the discipline. He'd moved from job to job, failure to failure, and ended up, convinced by Dad and Aunt Elsa, involved in politics. He'd been fanatical about crosswords since adolescence, but his dedication to creating them came later in life. He's been doing it for ve years now, and I often ask myself when he'll abandon them. But he seems nally to have discovered something to hold on to. Sometimes it's bad to be good at everything; it's better to have a talent for just one thing, be it knitting alpaca sweaters or designing the Guggenheim in Bilbao. "Whose is this?" I said, pointing to the light green Smith Corona that occupied center stage."Your dad's. He wrote parts of Berkeley on it. A collector wanted to buy it from me for a lot of money. Did he think I was crazy?"I admired it in silence: a small machine, portable, more suited to a professional or a busy executive than a romanticized writer. "I saw your iBook," he said. "I don't like the color, prefer something more subtle. I have a Mac too. Until just a while ago I had a Commodore 64 that I'd made some adjustments to, to make it faster and run current programs. I nally got tired. It was too much work.""You don't collect any other type of antique. They all have something in common.""Yes. They allow communication at a distance. Because, you know, that's the best way to communicate. At a distance. The presence of people only blocks communication.""And what we're doing now?""Sometimes it can't be helped." He nished his whiskey in one long swallow and put the glass down on top of a dictionary on the table.I looked at him to see if he was joking. He wasn't. I felt the cold radiating off him. The prominent nose, the furrowed brow, the elongated, austere face, the wrinkles etched deeply into his cheeks, the immovable glass eye. He had given me puzzles and played chess with me when I was a kid. He also taught me to do acrostics and crosswords, revealed the secrets that all crossword setters invoke of the periodic table andMorse code.He knew how to do implausible tricks with coins and cards, but I never could learn them.Then a chasm opened up between us: at times I blamed him for having survived instead of Dad.We had become closer again in the last few years, but our relationship was purely intellectual, based on the crosswords. When I returned on vacation I saw him only rarely, contented myself with a few obligatory phone calls. That was enough for him as well. It had been a mistake to ask him to put me up."The chicken should be ready," he said, and headed into the kitchen.I followed. I was hungry.I check my e-mail on Yahoo. NewTimes asks if the latest peace accords in Colombia will last long. NOWAY, I reply, and then a conventional phrase, one of those I know by heart for each country, more for Colombia, civilized as few are and at the same time a tragic summary of the continent's greatest ills. A touching goodbye from Yasemin. One more of the sarcastic and petulant messages Clavijero sends to all the professors at the Institute. Ashley still hasn't written the incendiary e-mail I deserve. Maybe she hasn't yet heard that I left (I doubt that).I read the headlines from El Pas and the New York Times. Nothing grabs my attention.Carolina came to pick me up at four in the afternoon on a yellow Kawasaki racing bike. She'll never change. At fteen she raced in a rally as her dad's co-pilot, and since then her life has accumulated more risks than the lives of all my friends put together. She thrives on hang-gliding, mountain climbing, and river rafting. She was wearing a blue aviator jacket, parachute pants, earrings and gloves, purple lipstick, and mascara on her long lashes. A ring indented the skin above her right eyebrow. She looked radiant; the new haircut, almost to the scalp, attered her angular face.We hugged."You've gained weight," she said, smiling, not knowing how much she hurt my vanity. I took off my glasses to show her my best side."And you, so thin. You look younger all the time.""Appearances can be deceiving." A mischievous glance. "At least you're nally learning to combine colors. And got over your obsession with pinstripes. You dress better than before. Although formal, as always.""If Berkeley didn't change me,Madison isn't likely to. Can you picture me in tie-dye? Black on black, I'll stick with a sure thing. Doesn't that hurt?" I asked, pointing at her pierced eyebrow, reminded of Yasemin and her ve earrings."Sometimes. They say there's no pleasure without pain.""You're philosophical.""And you smell very nice.""Swiss Army. Fresh, for daytime, although you can also use it at night. I bought it at duty-free in Miami."I got on the bike, Carolina took off, and I clung to her. She was thirty years old. Five years ago we were together for a few months during one of my vacations. It was an intense relationship, full of trust and multiple ways of spending time together without getting bored, from losing ourselves in the country on weekends to inventing pornographic stories (we created a recurring character, Dick Top, a bisexual cop).What also united us was a certain emptiness in the relationships we had with our parents. Her mom had died of lung cancer when she was a kid; her dad lived in Buenos Aires and didn't try very hard to maintain a relationship with his daughter. (In that regard, I should say that my mother was perfect during my childhood and adolescence, but as soon as she felt she'd complied with her formative duties, she took me off her list of priorities and made time only for herself.) My return to the U.S. had cooled things off. On my next vacation we came to be very good friends who included, without any commitment, sex as one of our friendliest activities. Girls I dated were jealous of her. Not without good reason, because sometimes I spent more time with Carolina than I did with them. Even though I swore our relationship was platonic, they didn't believe me and said that she didn't look at me like a friend, that it was obvious she wanted much more. Could be. I chose to feign ignorance. Two years ago there was an unexpected jealous scene and tearful confession at her door. On my most recent trips I tried to create some distance, tried my hardest to avoid caresses and sex. I wasn't entirely successful.Now I'd wanted to call someone, and no one other than Carolina came to mind. I didn't want to stay at home and wallow in melancholy. I needed to forget about Ashley.We passed over Suicide Bridgenarrow, with low, rusted iron railingsand over the mouth of the river with soothing eucalyptus trees on the shores. I realized that this legendary place was Dad's inspiration for the fateful role bridges played in Berkeley: the entrance from one life to another, the preferred place for power, in its many incarnations, to get rid of its enemies, in their many incarnations. I exchanged dollars with an overweight moneychanger. Then we went to the Twenty-First Century Mall. There were lots of people, out more for a stroll than to shop; the Benetton sweaters and Polo shirts in store windows were admired and abandoned. I ran into a couple of acquaintances; we said hello and promised to call (we wouldn't). On the escalator I commented that the young girls of this new generation, milling around the stores, seemed more self-possessed than our generation had been."They go to the gym like you wouldn't believe," said Carolina."We didn't do that in our day. And they know everything. We picked our noses when we were their age."I kept looking at a girl who wasn't even fteen in a tight white tank top, stomach bared. Soft skin that perhaps hadn't yet been caressed or maybe only inexpert hands had touched, hands that didn't teach much but helped her to enter, bit by bit, the territory of restless skin and failed morals that I had entered a long time ago and found hard to leave.In the Mediterranean Caf, surrounded by photos of stars from Hollywood's golden eraabove all Bogart and Bacallwe ordered a latte for her, a cappuccino for me, and two cheese-lled cuaps. A Ricky Martin song could be heard from the music store next door. Two young people passed by us speaking Portuguese."There's not much new," she said. "I told you almost everything in that huge e-mail I sent about a month ago. The one you replied to with two lines, by the way.""E-mail isn't for long letters, it's for chatting back and forth.""We have a new airport. It's very nice. Late, but we got it.""To think that the decree for its urgent construction was signed in 1949 . . . No one can accuse us of rushing into things. And Montenegro took all the credit, as if he'd been ultimately responsible for its construction.""The mayor blew his own horn too. But in the end, that's how politicians are, right? There's a recession, a bad one. At my brother's optical store, for example, sales are forty percent lower than a year ago. You missed the trouble in April. Three weeks of campesino blockades, teacher strikes, shortages. Chaos. You couldn't go anywhere. A couple of people were killed at a demonstration in the main plaza. Of course, what happened here is nothing compared to Cochabamba. Truth is, a lot of people are tired; they say this country isn't viable and are applying for a visa to the North. I even have friends who've gone to Arica or Lima.""And it's going to get worse. The government has serious liquidity problems, exports have decreased considerably, and the balance of payments . . . The solutions have merely been patches, nothing long-term. The war on drug trafcking left us without a cushion of dollars to protect us. The hangover after too much outof- control neoliberalism.""You know more than I do about what's going on here."The waiter arrived with the coffees and cuaps."I told you I left my job at the government.""About time. I never could believe you worked for Montenegro.""I think you're the only one who remembers he was a dictator. Even the guerrillas who fought him are now his allies.""Not all of them.""Almost all. It's been three decades. Let him be. He's almost done with his term and it doesn't help to complain. We elected him now, didn't we?""You can't erase the past so easily.""In this country, everything can be erased. I'm amazed you don't know that."Carolina had worked for two years in the government's public relations ofce at the Ciudadela. She was in charge of general image, of making sure the government's work was broadcast via different media and received positive coverage. It was her job to do things like teach the Minister of Employment to smile at the precise moment he announced there would be no wage increases for the next ve years."As I was saying, I left my job. It's one thing to help them better their image and another to lie in order to achieve that. I lied for a long time, felt bad, and left it."She drank her coffee. Ricky Martin gave way to Shakira and Shakira to Matchbox Twenty."And now," she continued, "I help build Web sitespersonal pages, for companies, whatever you want. There's no recession in this business. Everyone wants a Web site. If you don't have one, you don't exist.""I didn't know you knew anything about computers.""I learned along the way. I have a business partner, Estela opened an ofce with her. My area is more graphic design. She's the expert in HTML, Java, all those. She writes programs to recover erased e-mails. Did you know that all the e-mails we erase are really stored in some secret corner of the computer? So you better not go around sending compromising messages."I thought about the e-mails Ashley and I had exchanged, erased as soon as we'd written or read them. If Patrick used Estela's services, he'd recover them and have proof of our correspondence. But what use would they be if he couldn't decipher the most compromising ones? Ashley and I had many secret codessimple substitutions, codes that led to other codesand Estela wouldn't get to those as easily as she could the messages."Also," continued Carolina, "I'm really involved in a magazine that's going to come out exclusively on the Internet. Sort of like Salon.""You know more about the States than I do.""You don't live on another planet. It's called Digitar. In the rst issue there's an exclusive interview with Jaime Villa. I got to meet him. Ricardo, the editor of the magazine, asked me to go with him, and we became friends.""With Ricardo or Villa?""Funny.With Villa.""He's probably irting with you. All prisoners are like that.""You pronounce the l and r worse all the time. You're becoming gringied.""The years take their toll.""Well, maybe "friends" isn't the right word. Let me know if you'd like to visit him. He has an incredible personality. You can feel the energy as soon as he enters the room."Carolina was given to psychics, personal energy elds, and changes in personality based on the position of the moon. She believed in the Christ who cries tears of blood in Cochabamba, said she'd had a couple of out-of-body experiences. Once she told me she wanted to contact her mother through a medium and that every once in a while her mom speaks to her in dreams and gives her advice. Now she was wearing a silver chain around her neck, a pendant engraved with the image of Cristina, the fteen-yearold who is said to have transcribed six books dictated by God in Latin and had become a phenomenon of popular devotion in Ro Fugitivo. I never understood that side of Carolina."Of course I'd like to," I said, thinking about the possibility of an article that might end my dry spell. "The more rsthand information I have, the better."The coffee was better than at Starbucks but not as good as at Common Ground. That's where I saw Ashley for the rst time. It was August, and she was sitting at a table with Patrick, the tall, blond Dutch man she was going to marry in December. As I was passing by the two of them, she stood up and asked if I was a professor at the Institute. I said I was, holding on to my copy of the New York Times. She had very long red hair, almost to her waist, and round, xed green eyes that made me nervous. "Nice to meet you," she said, extending her hand and smiling, showing her braces. "I'm Ashley, your future student. This is my rst semester here. I'm taking the "Politics and Dictatorship" class you're offering. I've heard very good things about you.""It's nice to meet you too. Don't believe everything you hear about me.""I read one of your articles in NewTimes.""I'm so sorry.""More professors should do that, write for newspapers and magazines. Otherwise the university will continue to be insulated from what happens in the real world. Who reads those boring journals they make us publish in anyhow?""The university is the real world too. And while I'm glad you think that way, you'd be better off thinking about twenty-page articles for those journals. Newspapers and magazines won't get you too far.""This is Patrick," she said. The Dutch man nodded his head and held out his hand without moving from his seat."You're very young to be a professor," said Patrick, in neutral, accent-free Spanish."Thanks for the compliment," I said, and smiled."Is something wrong?" Carolina interrupted."No. I was listening.""Didn't seem like it. You were somewhere else. Very serious.""You were talking about Jaime Villa.""He's the worst, but people are tired of their government doing what the gringos tell them to do. Wipe out coca crops, extradite Villa . . . Incredible. Even leftist politicians have come out in defense of Villa, not because of him but because of the fact of extradition. They say he should be tried here, which doesn't seem like such a bad idea to me. Although there's always the danger that in a ash he'd buy even the Supreme Court judges."I knew all that. It was my job to be up-to-date on things concerning Latin America. Newspapers, magazines, and television, continual searching on the Internet, and a vast network of friends kept me in touch with people's perceptions regarding their governments, future leaders, the economy. Just three years ago I was a bright political science doctoral student with a promising thesis on the role of the left during the dictatorships of the seventies. My professors and classmates had high expectations for me. But at some point I lost my way and let myself be seduced by the role of professional commentator in magazines and newspapers, with a ready response for any occasion ("If Argentina accepts the dollar, the country will sink" or "Zapatistas are papier-mch guerrillas, unexceptional and therefore supercial"). I had lost interest in my little academic world of paused, continuous reection, of exhaustive work on a very narrow subject area, and I quickly abandoned it. No wonder some of my colleaguesClavijero, Shawmistrusted me."The government has already approved extradition and the situation is unstable. Groups have called for the defense of national sovereignty. A bomb exploded last Friday at the post ofce," Carolina explained.Not one group had claimed responsibility for the bomb. It was strange to arrive and know more about the country than its inhabitants did, incapable as they were of suspecting the magnitude of the crisis that was coming. The government needed economic assistance from the U.S., so they had no recourse but to hand over Villa and continue eradicating coca crops. Carolina kept talking. I amused myself by making anagrams out of her name. Aanilorc: a planet in Star Wars. Oilancar: a brand of car oil.Carolina paid the bill. As we went down the escalator she commented that I was very quiet."And what's new about that?""Nothing, to be honest."I had perfected the art of listening, of letting others reveal themselves so that I wouldn't have to. This was one of the reasons I got along better with women than men: women like confessing, and one of the things they value most in a manor in another womanis the ability to listen to them hour after hour, or at least appear to listen, nodding the head at the right moment, a blink of the eye or a facial expression to give signs of life. But it was true that I was more introverted than usual. Ashley swirled around and in me all the time, her mole-speckled back arching under my tongue's soft caresses. Her absence hurt, her ab- sence was anguish, and at times I asked myself whether I had done the right thing by leaving Madison in order to calm the waters and let everything return to its normal course. The most intelligent plan of action is not necessarily the best."How long are you here? The usual three months?""This time until the end of the year. Eight months. I got a research scholarship." I had my answer prepared. "I want to write a book about my dad. About the novel, the armed struggle . . .""Interesting," she said, and looked at me with delight, maybe happy to know she had more time than she'd thought. Three months wasn't enough, eight might be.Copyright 2001 by Edmundo Paz Soldn Translation copyright 2003 by Lisa Carter. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Excerpted from The Matter of Desire: A Novel by Edmundo Paz Soldan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.