In the 1950s, Gabriel García Márquez spent a rough few months in Paris at the Hôtel des 3 Collèges, starving, begging, working on a novella he would publish as No One Writes to the Colonel. A few years ago, I had the luck to pass a few idle days at the same establishment, where a glass cabinet of books in the lobby pays tribute to their esteemed guest.
Naturally, I rushed out to get the novella. Decades earlier, I’d spent a few awfully unhappy months in the same neighbourhood. The convergence of Márquez’ story, my past and present, compelled me to spend one long espresso-soaked afternoon at the Café Le Luxembourg, writing this story. It is humbly offered in homage to the magnificent achievements of a master who passed away this week.
No One Writes to the Professor
By Marianne Ackerman
c. Guernica Editions 2014, printed with permission
As he boarded the airport bus, Ramón was thinking of Véronique. How she had thrown the full force of her charm and intelligence behind his situation. Her efforts had come to naught, yet in his heart of hearts he knew she was not to blame for the collapse of his thesis, ending all hope of the university post that would have prevented this bumpy ride on a sweltering summer afternoon, a one-way ticket to Poland in his jacket pocket.
It was, however, Véronique’s fault that his thesis had never been written. She had failed abjectly as his muse.
A long, snaky line of travellers waited at security. He slipped off his shoes and belt, placed them in a plastic tray beside his laptop. The battered club bag went first, gliding along the conveyor belt, jerking to a stop under the x-ray camera. The image made him queasy. A tight jumble of toiletries, clothes, electronics and books, it reminded him of the ultrasound image his sister had sent of her soon-to-be born fourth child. They would be waiting for him in Warsaw, pregnant Inez, her husband Lech and three broad-faced pre-schoolers who spoke little if any Spanish. He sighed, thinking, I shall have to learn Polish.
Véronique, past and present. Bookends to his years in Montreal. Years ago he had failed to marry her, so she married someone else and flourished. Meanwhile, he stayed more or less where she left him: working and not working on his dissertation, teaching Spanish to a dwindling pool of Latinophiles in a freezing North American city that had grown more resolutely French-speaking every year. Two decades later, necessity was driving him from the scene of his life’s work.
Véronique, Inez. He thought of himself as a piece of luggage handed over from one woman to another. Last week, she had advised him to accept his sister’s offer. They were sitting in a window table at the Croissanterie. A silver fox cape draped over her shoulders, masses of dark hair swept up in a tight chignon, she was a vintage version of the bourgeois matrons they used to ridicule. Irony’s a fine accessory, but no inoculation against becoming the thing she had once detested. Watching her gently rotate a spoon in the latte, he thought, she’s glad to be rid of me. Their final rendez-vous had been a gesture he could have done without.
Glancing at his watch, he calculated two hours before the flight. A bar jammed with pre-boarders looked inviting, until he remembered he’d converted his cash into American dollars, thinking it would serve him well on the black market. Spending foreign currency in an airport he was leaving forever made no sense. He would lose in the transaction.
So he kept on walking, shoulder straining under the weight of his late father’s only bequest. A Doctor of Philosophy reduced by family obligations to a menial position with the Peruvian tourism bureau, Benicio Lopez had carried the leather bag between Lima and Montreal for years. In a final lunge against oblivion, he had sprung his only son out of the Pontificia Universidad Catatólica and got him into the Université de Montréal, undergraduate economics. He died convinced Ramón was on his way to a life of status and solvency, a dream that had made the burden of a steel-lined club bag bearable.
He put the bag down beside a seat in the departure lounge and took out The Twilight of Modern Economics, a collection of essays published a decade ago that included an article signed by Ramón Lopez. His only publication. Turning to the first page, he began to read.
♦ ♦ ♦
“I dreamed I got the Nobel Prize last night,” Ramón had confessed one morning as Véronique bustled around her kitchen making breakfast. “Is that what that was?” She laughed.
Terrified of plagiarism, he rarely talked about his thesis with anyone. But in the flush of intimacy surrounding those first nights together, he had slipped, told her the kernel of his big idea: that the models describing Western capitalist economies were flawed, therefore ineffective as a basis for governance, or even rudimentary financial management. They failed to take into account the unreported costs and undeclared profits of productivity, including crime, the black market, sickness, waste, unpaid labour. The theory of self-corrective capitalism was fatally flawed. Inevitably, reality would catch up. The system would crumble, unless theory expanded to include the true economy, on and off the table.
Looking back, he wondered if Véronique had ever really understood his fundamental contributions to the discipline. When he’d tried to explain in laywoman’s terms, she had looked at him quizzically and said his model sounded a lot like Peru.
“Are you saying the world would be better off imitating Peru? Would that be a good thing? I mean, even for Peru? Realistically?”
Before their break-up (more of a drifting apart), Ramón had been sure that a grasp of economics was something an immigrant should look for in a wife. Later he realized the only essential quality was a grasp of the situation, something he had had to gain on his own while living as a single man in a basement studio on rue Jeanne Mance, an immigrant neighbourhood with good bones.
In the beginning, it was possible for an intellectual to live there with dignity on incidental income streams. He bumped into her regularly on the street, in cafés and bars. Then for a time he didn’t. Years passed. He hardly ever thought of her until one day, there she was, standing on a street corner, hailing a taxi. She’d been away and had come back, married.
Ramón and Éric met. Ramón liked Éric, a professor at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales whose interest in radical economic theory seemed genuine. He soon slid into their circle of friends, poets, translators, academics; people who travelled constantly, took up musical instruments, suffered demanding pets, believed yoga was a world religion, quinoa a delicacy. In such an environment, Ramón found himself speaking freely about his thesis. He began to visualize the finished manuscript. Three, possibly four tightly-argued pages; unorthodox in its pointed brevity, yet potent enough to blast apart conventional theory and establish him as an international authority on a par with Keynes. Though there really was no one like Keynes. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the world needed nothing less than a new Keynes, a simple transformative idea to save the international economy from collapse.
Véronique and Éric’s dinner parties were always worthwhile. He rarely left their house without an important new contact, either intellectual or female. Carole Katz was both, a professor of entrepreneurship, recently divorced. After the cheese course, when the table had broken into intimate conversations, he mentioned the collapse of his doctorate, how he’d had to take a distance from his thesis advisor (an irritable mediocrity) and leave the programme.
Fortunately, his late father’s academic contacts had helped him to land on his feet at the Sorbonne under Professor X. Being French, X was prepared to let ideas marinate. He did not require the constant flow of meetings, drafts, updates and paperwork that had undermined his progress through the North American system.
Fifteen years on, X remained as enthusiastic as ever, which is to say, all but incommunicado. A professor emeritus with a holiday home in the Dordogne, he was rarely in Paris, hardly ever looked at his emails, never answered letters. As Ramón told all of this to Carole, he found himself confessing a hitherto unexpressed fear: “I sometimes wonder if Professor X is dead.”
The table went silent. He had not imagined anyone but Carole was listening. Everyone was listening.
Véronique was standing over him, bearing a large platter of fruit and chocolate. Before the plate made a complete round, the wheels began to turn: Éric had been invited to sit on the doctoral defence committee of a French student of economic history. They were going to Paris for the occasion. He would gladly meet with Professor X and find out where Ramón stood, whether his most recent communication had been received, how close he might be to setting a date for the defence.
Éric nodded. Carole Katz approved. Three degrees of separation, that’s how these things work in academe, she said. In fact, everywhere. “Let Éric light a fire. He’s good at that. Give him your thesis and he’ll find the missing Frenchman.” Applause, a toast to success.
Ramón went home that night in a buoyant mood. He saw now that dreams of glory were not the source of achievement. Great deeds sprang from community, beginning with one man’s desire to please the table. He was more determined than ever to write the thesis.
A few days later, Véronique summoned him to a strategy meeting at the Croissanterie. She had looked up Professor X on the web. He wasn’t dead, or even retired. He was active on a number of important committees and projects, a favourite contact among Parisian media whenever his specialty surfaced in the news. As she talked, she slid across the table a printed copy of the file Ramón had emailed to Eric. He was busy, but she had read it herself, resulting in a massacre of red ink, entire lines scratched out, paragraphs moved, caustic question marks peppering the margins. She opened her phone. A to-do list began to take shape.
Watching her, Ramón found himself wondering what it would be like to be with such a woman on a full-time basis. Whether he would be able to stand the pace. Looked at coldly, Éric had no choice but to succeed. He excused himself and fled to the washroom.
An art déco theme, grey wallpaper, soft lights, dried roses in an ornate vase, a large oval mirror. Studying his face, he feared it was not a classic portrait of success. Yet Véronique was confident. As he stepped aside to dry his hands, he saw the mirror from another angle. Without his image, it was an empty circle, a new moon. He existed simultaneously as the face of failure, the face of hope, and not at all.
♦ ♦ ♦
A snowstorm hit Montreal the day Véronique and Éric were to leave for Paris. He rang their bell at noon, bearing an envelope addressed to Professor X that would serve as a pretext for the emissary’s meeting. Éric met him at the door holding a large black plastic bag full of garbage. The handshake was awkward.
Véronique was in the bath. He instructed Ramón to leave his thesis on her suitcase, which was waiting by the door. Ramón had come prepared to brief Éric on the mercurial Frenchman whose enthusiasm tended to ebb and flow with the holidays. Post-Christmas, he might not be in a sociable mood. The situation was delicate. Sensing impatience, he offered to accompany the couple to the airport. That’s the way these things are done in Peru, he said. Éric declined, saying it made him sick to talk about ideas in a taxi.
As the door closed, Ramón fumed. How often was a man like Éric confronted by ideas? Judging from their lifestyle and friends, his academic salary was a calling card for lucrative consulting jobs. He was not a scholar; he was a corporate executive posing as a professor.
A gust of doubt welled up as a gust of snow lashed his face. How could a man be so blithely helpful to his wife’s former lover, one she had nearly married? What about jealousy? A normal husband would want to see him dead. That night, he set two clocks on the bookshelf at the end of his sofa bed, one on Montreal time, the other on Paris.
Sometime in the middle of his night, the ping of an incoming email woke him up. Arrived safely. Staying at Hotel 3 Collèges, rue Cujas. Guess what? GG Márquez stayed here in the Fifties!!! He wrote a great novel IN THIS HOTEL. XXOO Véronique. Márquez?
The name rankled. Surely Roberto Bolaño was the southern continent’s only true modern genius, a writer whose best work poured forth to the ticking clock of a fatal disease. Márquez’ reputation was built on exotic stereotypes. One masterpiece and a slew of industrious, long-winded books. Would his work last? It irked him to think of Véronique sleeping in Márquez’ bed, gushing over his success.
He lay awake all night, tossing, burning. The unfair advantage of fiction! Few Latinos have made their mark in economics; they’ve done better with novels, where the desperate chaos of an upside down continent comes off as colourful, poignant. Easy to dismiss. They’d coined a phrase: Magic Realism, a particular kind of hallucinatory despair that goes down well with a Mariachi band playing somewhere in the background. No one expects hard truths from a Latin American; nevertheless, only Latin America understands the future: because it is the future.
The next day passed in silence. Ramón stayed in bed, his laptop open on a mound of blankets. At dawn, the ping of an incoming message again woke him up. It was Véronique, relating details of the defence jury, which had preoccupied Éric all day and into the evening. He scanned her long, convoluted account of three jurists locking horns over whether the candidate even deserved a doctorate for a thesis on trade relations between two islands in the Pacific Ocean.
It had taken twenty years to complete, during which time the candidate had not shown a single page to her advisor, the author of a seminal two-volume general history of the same islands. She’d been afraid he would steal her ideas. The result was six hundred unreadable pages. At least the foreign jurors thought so. Their French counterpart was full of praise, insisted she deserved to pass with distinction.
Reading Véronique’s rambling account of who said what, he wondered if she was preparing him for bad news on his own position. He decided to take a walk. The wind had dropped. Neon streetlights bounced off fresh snow, giving the night air a surreal dazzle. His credit card balance permitted purchase of one Côte de Rhône red, the dregs of French overproduction shipped to Québec in tankers, bottled in a Montreal suburb. He went back to bed.
At midnight, he set the empty flask beside the clock tuned to Paris time and made a foggy vow to remember the difference. The following day passed without communication. By one a.m. Ramón was frantic. He emailed Éric advising him to make contact with Professor X immediately. Éric responded with a brisk reassurance.
Four hours later, a bubbly message came from Véronique. She had been to the Village Voice Bookstore and found a copy of No One Writes to the Colonel, the novella Márquez wrote while staying at their hotel. In his Nobel Prize speech, he had declared it his best work. (A veiled insult to established opinion, Ramón surmised. A point in Márquez’ favour.)
He had a copy on his bookshelf. He rarely read in Spanish. It made him sad, but the words had a tonic effect. The story seemed both new and oddly familiar. The Colonel, a desperately poor old man, lives in hope of receiving a state pension promised to him years earlier for service in a long-forgotten military uprising. Every Friday he goes to the post office in his small Colombian village, and is always disappointed. Page by page, all other strategies to feed himself and his ailing wife vanish. Finally he dies and she is left destitute.
Based on the life of the author’s grandfather, the story was written while the jobless Márquez lived at Hotel 3 Collèges, forced into exile by his writings against the Colombian regime. As his funds dwindled, he had written to one friend after another asking for help, but no one replied.
“Can’t you just feel the hunger in his prose?” Véronique gushed. The novella had affected her deeply. She said she would never again be able to appreciate writing unless it was inspired by lived experience. A blow to fiction! A foolish comment, unconvincing, yet it tickled Ramón.
The weekend passed. No news. No reason to worry. It wouldn’t do to bother an important scholar at home on le weekend. In North America, empty Sundays are nonexistent. The French are different.
Monday slid by silently. Tuesday morning (afternoon, Paris time), a cursory note came from Éric saying he had been in touch with Professor X by email. The response came after X had left for the Dordogne, advising him to slip the envelope containing Ramón’s documents under his office door, or send it by post. He would look at it upon his return, the following month. Classic brush-off. Mission aborted. And yet there was more.
Kept up by a binge of insomnia, Éric had read the package in its entirety. The ideas have merit, he said, but they are fragmentary, disorganized, would require considerable fleshing out before forming the basis for a PhD thesis. He attached a page of questions, a tentative outline of chapters. If Ramón were willing tackle the fleshing out, he would gladly have another go at meeting Professor X in Paris. Next year.
♦ ♦ ♦
Ramón had never flown on an airbus. As the line split into A and B, he wondered whether he was about to get on the wrong plane, but no, passengers were separated according to whether they were sitting upstairs or down. He could not decide whether the idea of five hundred people crossing the Atlantic together was consoling or frightening. Possibly terror and amazement cancelled each other out.
The video screen attached to the back of the seat in front of his lit up automatically, revealing an aircraft idling on a runway at dusk. As the plane in the picture began to move down the runway, the landscape outside the window moved too, and he realized a camera attached to the tail fin must be monitoring their takeoff. His stomach roiled. He turned away from the image.
A tiny, ancient French woman in the window seat beside him was staring at her Paris Match. She reminded him of his mother. His mother’s face was long and critical. She often stared at books in times of stress. He pictured her in Lima, sitting in a brocade armchair, thinking how good it was that Inez had married a man who could take care of poor, hapless Ramón. She had sent money to Inez, who had purchased his ticket in Warsaw and sent it by registered mail to Montreal, along with a money order and a shopping list of gifts for Inez and the children, almost his entire baggage allowance.
Winding up a life should have taken months. The appearance of a non-refundable ticket had reduced the chore to one hectic fortnight. All important files locked in a memory key no larger than a pack of chewing gum, worn on a chain around his neck. Papers and personal debris, treated to a bonfire on Mount Royal. He regretted leaving his landlady in the lurch. She had been patient. Dreading embarrassment, he left in the middle of the night.
He expected Inez would tell him how to live. She would cut his hair, dress him, send him into an unheated library with a fist-full of pencils and an order to finish his thesis, to finally sit down and write the thing. She would insist on nothing less than brilliance. Poland, she’d written, is the miracle of post-Communist Europe. “You will be surrounded by the future. Swimming in inspiration.”
Europe’s economy was crumbling. America, in denial. The ideas he had originated during boom years were fast becoming reality. The underground ecnomy was flourishing. Work that had never been recorded before would soon become the only work available to the masses, to intellectuals like him, who had existed for decades under the radar yet aware of the radar, its fragility, its falseness.
The meaning of debt would have to be revised. Debt itself was a new and powerful currency. Solvency leveraged, the ultimate bubble. Finally, the cost of progress would be tallied, all bills laid out on the table. The new world order would not resemble Peru, as Véronique had innocently chided him.
It would look exactly like Ramón Lopez, a man propelled by necessity, forced to act from desperation, without a muse. As the plane left ground, he closed his eyes and held tight to the armrests.
No One Writes to the Professor will be published by Guernica Editions next fall, as part of Holy Fools, a volume of stories by Marianne Ackerman. For an invitation to the launches in Toronto and Montréal, sign up to the Guernica newsletter here. Marianne Ackerman is Publisher of Rover. Visit marianneackerman.com.