For Christmas 2012, I received a very special present, a copy of Los Jardines de Salomón sent from Israel by Liliana Lara. I read the whole book in a day and instantly wanted to translate it. Liliana was kind enough to let me translate one of my favourite stories from that book, El Perro de Nina Hagen, and make it available here. You can read the original Spanish at TalCualDigital. Los Jardines de Salomón will soon be available to US readers via Sudaquia.
It was during the holidays of August 1985. My brother Guillermo and I raced in circles around the block, which had few houses and lots of greenery. We went around on bicycles, me on the red one, which was mine and the most beautiful. Him on the blue, which was Dad’s and about fifty years old. Not Dad, the bike. Dad, on the other hand, was young and thin – or at least that’s how I see him now in the orange-tinged photos in the family album – with a smile bigger than his face and very white teeth. He had bought that bike second hand, it was already old back then, but it was, in his words, a professional racing bike, an Ambrosio, an item for experts. That name didn’t mean much to us, beyond the obvious link with hunger. And when Guillermo’s green bike was stolen, Dad let him use his one, the Ambrosio, not even imagining that in that way the antique would meet its maker. So one hot afternoon in 1985 we raced the bikes around the block, in eternal circles, with no cars to get in our way and the neighbours’ dogs in unruly packs. It was that same afternoon when we heard the shot and I believe that in that very moment my brother made a decision.
Or perhaps he made the decision that night, after the shot, the ambulance and the crowds. The road suddenly filled with cars and sirens. The road which was in a leafy suburb, in the outskirts, in the middle of nowhere, far from the life and the noise of Maturín, which at that time was the most forgotten city in all of Venezuela, but for us it was the metropolis where the cinemas and ice-cream parlours were. But before the crowds arrived, the shot occurred. A shot that suddenly exploded and whose noise resounded in the mango bushes, ricocheted off the morichal trees, spread in waves across the savannah, fell on the dry leaves of the almond trees and spooked the bats that slept hidden in the treetops, but above all, shook my brother, who crashed to the floor, destroying the Ambrosio and sobbing with his mouth wide open. I, on the other hand, kept still, like a statue, and could see the sound, its waves in the air and my brother’s fall in slow motion. I think that afterwards there was a silence that settled above all the other noises, because I don’t remember my brother’s cry, only his wide-open mouth and his red face. I don’t remember Nicolás’ screams either, just how he came out of the Suárezes’ garden and ran to us and moved his arms like he was swatting flies. I thought my brother had died, but I didn’t see his blood. Then I thought “I must be the dead one”, but then I could move and hear the dogs’ silence.
That afternoon, Mum wasn’t in. She’d gone to visit our grandfather in the hospital and she didn’t want to take us. Later she would strongly regret not having been there, having returned so late, but that would be much later and more for “political” reasons, like that, in speech marks, than for sentimental or dramatic ones. Our grandmother, who had not wanted to visit her husband as she ought, thought that it was the first thunder of a sudden storm, so typical in Maturín. So she carried on as if nothing had happened, reading The Sky’s the Limit, as always. She was also very careful not to forget that that night they would broadcast Miss Venezuela, and she had made some notes that she had stuck on the fridge, on the bathroom mirror, next to the TV, on the cover of The Sky’s the Limit, that’s to say, on all of the places that made up her world. Some notes on fluorescent yellow paper with careful palmer calligraphy in black which read “Today, at 7, mis Venezuela”.
And it was precisely that night, a little after seven, on Miss Venezuela, that we saw her for the first time. The presenter – it must have been Gilberto Correa, I don’t remember – announced in an exaggerated voice a German rock opera singer who had come to tour Latin America and was kind enough to include Caracas in her itinerary. A singer with great international fame, a goddess of the latest bel canto: Miss Nina Hagen. Then out came a cloud of pink smoke first and then that woman. My brother and I stared at the TV screen, momentarily removed from the events of the afternoon, while Grandma looked intermittently at the TV and the window. More at the window than at the TV. She couldn’t believe it, finally something different had happened in this bloody place and she’d missed it!
And she was missing it: through the window you could see a parade of people dressed in black entering and leaving the Suárez house. There were so many cars, some were even parked on Dad’s beloved lawn. The ambulance and police of the afternoon were followed by the cars of family friends in the evening. The road, which was narrow and full of potholes, could barely cope with such an avalanche and reached its limit when, out of nowhere, a luxurious car appeared, as long as a limousine. At that point Grandma couldn’t take any more and went out slamming the door. Meanwhile, on the TV, in the midst of the toxic pink smoke some arms like white wax started to appear, and some legs which to us seemed unending.
Nicolás had heard the shot first, or at least that’s what he said, as if shots could be heard in different fragments of time and were not a dry sound with a sequence of echoes, but in essence one sole sound. Like someone who sees an apparition first, Nicolás had heard first because he was in the Suárezes’ garden at that exact moment, we will never know what for. He heard the explosion and ran to the scene of events. The door to the house was closed, but not locked. He went in, crossed the living room full of dark wood furniture. He knew where he had to go, as he had been to Angelina’s parents’ bedroom many times, when they weren’t at home, of course. The Suárezes were the only ones who had a video player and many times, together with Angelina, we had watched “forbidden” films like Blue Lagoon. It was during the time when we thought that Brooke Shields was the queen of porn and that we had already seen all that there was to see. We couldn’t even imagine Nina Hagen on Miss Venezuela.
That day my brother thought that he had been shot. Just as he told me I don’t know how many years later, when we found each other again, that day Guillermo felt the shot at a point in his chest – a boom exactly at his heart – and fell to the ground, destroying the Ambrosio, Dad’s pride and joy. He was convinced that he was dead, even though he could cry and his tears fell like raindrops on the tarmac. And he also heard the silence and couldn’t hear himself scream, and saw me from the ground, petrified. Nicolás came running, howling inaudible words, waving his hands, his eyes wide. Suddenly, sound returned and we could hear him. Call the police, call the police, but by then it was too late. Angelina, who had seen everything, was hiding among the cayenne pepper plants in her garden. She didn’t cry, she didn’t speak, and she never spoke again, but as Grandma used to say, Angelina had already had a “fuse” in her head for a long time, perhaps since she was born. And then she would start telling thousands of stories about the Suárezes – who were a family “with an ancient lineage” -, stories that she spiced up with some details from telenovelas. If Mum recognised some TV storyline mixed in with her “true” stories, Grandma excused herself by saying that television was a faithful reflection of reality and that wasn’t her fault. Television is a school, she would note authoritatively and then she would add sadly that if television had existed in her day, she would not have been the fool that she was. A sentence that was indecipherable for us in those days.
And following Grandma’s advice, Dad sat us down in front of the TV that day. Let them watch TV as late as they want, let them watch the telenovela if they feel like it, anything to avoid having to explain, talk, listen to the story of the bath full of blood, the pistol in Angelina’s mother’s hand, the naked and cold body on the aquamarine tiles. When Nicolás entered the Suárezes’ bathroom he saw a dark lake and Angelina’s mother floating on it. Leaving aside the scolding for the destruction of his beloved Ambrosio bicycle, Dad went to see what was happening in the neighbouring house. Then he saw the minister nearby, but didn’t say anything to him, to Mum’s eternal chagrin.
I can’t help associating Angelina’s mother with Nina Hagen. I didn’t see that gloomy bathroom, but Nicolás’ account ensured that the image took form in my memory with the strength of images I had actually seen. And with the same force Nina Hagen entered our heads on the same day as the shot, but differently for each person. Sometimes, if I look back, I see the German woman in that bathtub in the suburbs of Maturín, singing the same song that she sung at the Miss Venezuela contest, with the same dog’s head between her legs.
That day or that night on which my brother became aware of the closeness of death and the fragility of life, he made a decision that separated him from the family, but it wasn’t until ten years later that he decided to pack up his things and leave. That night they sat us down in front of the TV, while outside the world fell upon the Suárezes. Police, journalists, neighbours, even the minister, and that’s where Mum regrets having arrived too late to shake his hand and ask him for help for Dad or whatever.
That shot showed us that we hadn’t seen all there was to see and then the TV made sure to confirm it. I think it was Gilberto Correa who lavished praise upon the German goddess that he still hadn’t seen, or had he seen her? What’s for certain is that nobody was expecting her and the extremely slender misses were terrified when that smoke dissipated and they saw those eyes overloaded with black which looked at them with desire. Nina, the diva, wore her breasts covered only with white chiffon and at her crotch was a large dog’s head with its tongue poking out. Nina, white like the milk of the beloved mother, licked the slim waists of those pristine models with her dog’s tongue. Nina, the singer or the pornstar, rejoiced in scandalising her neighbour and me and my brother.
There is a before and an after Nina Hagen and her dog in our lives. In my life, in my brother’s, in Nicolás’, and even in Angelina’s. The next day, we didn’t stop talking about Nina Hagen’s dog. Nicolás didn’t believe us because he hadn’t seen it, so we made sure to feed the image with all kinds of details in the same way that he had done with the scene of the death in the bathtub. It was a type of competition to see who had seen more, in which Nicolás was winning, of course.
After three days we were banned from talking about the subject (the bathtub, not Nina’s dog) and we were made to enter that house to show our respects to Angelina. She was pale, as was to be expected, but to our surprise she had not shed a single tear. Grandma said that this wasn’t surprising either: Until she speaks, she is not going to cry. Sometimes Grandma was wise, but she said that she owed this wisdom to her book, The Sky’s the Limit. She read that book attentively for at least the two years that she lived with us, taking notes in a blue notebook, writing quotes on luminous post-its, forcing us to listen to whole chapters after dinner. All the while Grandpa was dying in a metallic hospital bed. The day she finished her exhaustive and meticulous reading of The Sky’s the Limit, after Grandpa’s death, she threw the book against the wall and started to cry inconsolably. If this book had existed in my day, I would have gotten divorced straight away, she said.
On the fourth day, Dad remembered the loss of his bicycle. The mudguard looked like an accordion and it was impossible to find another one in such a small city. Besides, they didn’t make them any more. A peddle had come away from its base and lodged itself in a wheel. The bike looked like a jumble of metal, no matter how much Dad, hammer in hand, struggled to straighten it out. My brother was told off, but not that severely because after all the destruction of the bike had been the result of the most shocking thing ever to have happened in the neighbourhood.
After a week Mr Suárez decided to take Angelina out of the city. He sent her to live with an aunt and uncle in Caracas. He would put the house up for sale, and the furniture, the video player, the ranch, and the cars. They erased themselves from our lives, but the bathtub remained, blue and smelling of chlorine, cold and gloomy. Angelina, who hadn’t seen Nina Hagen, but had seen her mother, had confined herself to obstinate silence. Nicolás strove to get a word out of her before she left and brought her to our house one day like someone would bring a plastic doll. A mannequin that he dragged to our garden and deposited on our lawn after a great effort. Angelina was a wordless shell. She sat and looked at us through the deep and indifferent blue of her eyes. So my brother, following the rules, told her about the Hagen episode. At other times, she would have been delighted by the story, would have asked to hear it again, or she would simply not believe it and would want proof. But none of this happened, her deeply sad look just settled on our eyes to somehow make us feel so out of place. It was Nicolás’ idea, I told her, I didn’t think that you would like to hear the story. And she suddenly closed her eyes and spoke. She said that she was ok, that from then on she felt that she too had seen Nina Hagen and not her mother. Not Mum. She said this and returned to her silence. We felt as if the sky had fallen on our backs, a great weight that crushed us like cockroaches, a great sorrow.
A month after we were still talking about Nina Hagen’s dog. Nicolás started high school and grew up all of a sudden. We no longer saw him often and when we did see him he treated us with a kind of contempt. He had started to smoke and he insisted on denying Hagen’s existence. And as none of her albums were on sale in Maturín and the TV station had made sure to erase this dark page from its history, we had no way to prove that it was true, that she wore a dog between her legs, that the dog was a stuffed toy and that it had a very long and red tongue. That Nina Hagen was as real as that shot, as the black blood, as Angelina mute beneath the cayenne pepper plants. But it was better not to remind him of that scene, Grandma had advised us. For him Nina Hagen didn’t exist, but the bathtub did. And by denying it so much, he made us search and search through the gossip magazines that Grandma collected for a clue or a sign that would prove the existence of the German diva, but they were issues from before Miss Venezuela, so we never found anything. One day I asked my brother if what Nicolás was saying could be true, perhaps we had dreamed it, if even Angelina had accepted this image as an invention so as to not remember her mother. Because of that, a thousand years later when we found each other again, Guillermo was happy to see me in that German bar where they worshipped her and showed me every possible image of the diva.
There is a before and an after Nina and her dog in our lives. Nicolás, without saying anything to us, tried to find somebody who knew her, to listen to a song, to see a video, and that was how he reached Luis. Hagen wasn’t played on the radio, at least not on provincial stations, but Luis – who knew everything there was to know because he studied sociology in Caracas – knew her and brought that famous video and his first joint to a grown-up Nicolás. That’s how he found Nina, but not Angelina. He, who prided himself on being the first at everything, remembers her in that first video (of his life, not Nina’s) poking a tongue out of an orange mane, moving herself and the tongue like a snake. Black lips, black eyes, black nails, contrasting with her incredibly white bare skin. The camera zoomed in on her face rapidly and then zoomed out just as fast, which gave a kind of psychedelic touch. Nicolás also looked for Angelina, in every, increasingly frequent, puff, in every telephone book, in every conversation with the neighbours, but he never heard anything more about her again. He never found her.
What happened to me after Nina Hagen? Apart from dreaming of her in that deadly bathtub, I think that what really had the most effect on me was what I saw later in my own house. A year later we finally stopped talking about Nina Hagen’s dog. Or rather, a year later Guillermo stopped talking about Nina Hagen’s dog. Or to say it in a clearer way: Nina Hagen’s dog was no longer in Guillermo’s mouth, but on his crotch. One hot and slow night Mum and Dad weren’t home – they had gone out dancing as they tended to do at that time -, Grandma was snoring loudly in front of the TV, and I had fallen asleep on the fake leather sofa, my face was sailing on a sea of sweat and drool. That night Guillermo shut himself in his room, got undressed, made himself up, put on Mum’s heels, put one of my teddy bears between his legs and danced. His body and his tongue like a snake. He sung and his voice was beautiful as always, that voice that broke Bohemian glass and misted our old piano teacher’s glasses. He danced and sung until he noticed my glance in the mirror. The heat had woken me up.
And once again that strange silence came over us. I remember him crying, this time with his mouth closed, but I don’t remember his sobbing because it was so silent. Then I realised that it wasn’t another one of his games, that this time it went a bit further than painting a black star over his eye like one of Kiss. I remember my static gaze in the mirror, once again still like a statue. I remember the fear and the enormity of the secret that I made myself keep. I remember the intensity of my brother’s newly debuted silence. From then on he remained as if covered by a transparent plastic raincoat that, although it let me see him, a little blurrily, didn’t let me get beyond the surface. All the connection between us suddenly broke, then he became another of those adult mysteries that we had always had to imagine or investigate. Turned into a mystery within himself, quiet and more and more distant, sometimes our looks would cross, over dinner or in the middle of one of Mum’s tellings-off that were becoming increasingly frequent as we grew up, and that something that we had always shared was still there. The day that Grandpa died, in the middle of the funeral parlour and with our eyes clouded with tears, we found each other and a silent agreement united us once again: I couldn’t ask him anything. He didn’t have to tell me or explain to me something that he himself couldn’t understand.
Years later, many years later, my brother left the house and we lost all contact with him. I then became the only child and the responsibility of suddenly aged parents fell to me. I always knew that his leaving had been decided on that day of the shot, the day he realised that death surrounds us and leaves us with permanent images. And just as you get used to absences, to death and to illness, the family carried on with life and with its gradual reduction. If at first Mum wondered about Guillermo’s whereabouts and even wanted to hire a detective with money that we didn’t have to uncover his path, after a while she started to say that he had gone to study abroad and believing her own lie, she could sleep peacefully. Mum’s lie spread through the family circle and the neighbours, so we lived without asking anything until a postcard, after more than a decade had passed, put his address into our hands: 18 Hauptstrasse, 10961 – Berlin. From then on, I was entrusted with the mission of travelling to look for him.
The family, now made up of only two people, unanimously decided to send its youngest member, being me, in search of the prodigal son or fugitive who had been roaming the world for more than ten years and ask him to return. To tell him that we love him, that Grandma and Mum had died in his absence. That Dad had remade the bicycle with parts that he had mail-ordered from Ambrosio’s headquarters in Italy, and though it doesn’t work it’s still a museum piece. That Nicolás exchanged his parents’ house for a few more lines of cocaine. That the earth swallowed Angelina for good. That Mr Suárez paid the people in the neighbourhood not to tell the bathtub story to the new occupants of his house and in that way he could finally sell it. Tell him about myself and a large etc. With this mission I left Venezuela for the first time. With this reasoning I turned up at the mythical address in a Berlin that scared me.
It wasn’t the address of a house, but a bar. They say that Nina Hagen often goes to this bar in Schoneberg, near the Heinrich Von Kleist Park, where they idolise her. The bar is full of her impersonators, men and women who get together every night to watch her videos and who dress like all the possible versions of Nina. They say that she also goes there from time to time, imitating herself. So among all the Ninas, reproduced as in millions of mirrors, there is one who is original, but nobody can tell her from her copies, so all the Ninas treat each other with respect and adore one another.
In this bar, my brother sings and sometimes repeats on stage that dance that he had practised with my teddy bear during the holidays of 1986, when nobody remembered the shot any more.