Time in its Ink

When Kike Esteras, the artist born in the neighborhood of Guinardó in Barcelona, began to inject me with ink following the sketch we had designed the day before, I thought with puerile relief that I was finally going to wear a skin the size of my dream, which is also my most frequent and cherished nightmare. And without having to shed it! I suppose it is a feeling of well-being and duty fulfilled, which is sometimes experienced by the bather when after winter he lies in the sun to tan his back or the underside of his thighs. Or by those smug girls who pass through the door of the Solarium one street away from my house, on the corner of Escorial and San Luis, and come out later, shining like jewels, and I see them pass by wielding their smartphones to which the dates were arriving while their bodies tanned under the false sun of pure ultraviolet, a neon with which to go out on their backs.

“What was it you were saying you wanted to get inked?” Kike had asked earlier, coming out of I don’t know where, while I explained myself without much success to the studio’s receptionist. I had probably just said in Russian the expression “сторожевая вышка,” a somewhat technical term for the security watchtowers that populated the perimeter of the labor camps on each of the islets of the Gulag archipelago. Kike didn’t ask me then why I wanted to get something like that tattooed, even though it was a design likely to arouse suspicion. Maybe because in tattoo parlors they keep the memory of when their art was a business of prison, whalers and gold diggers, of outlaws and outcasts, guys with harpoons and jackknives, of alleys and barracks. Something to keep quiet about. What he did was to conjure on his iPad a synthesis of the three or four images I carried on my phone to draw a watchtower that would be the distillation of the thousands that have encircled men deprived of freedom for centuries. A simple series of lines, shadows, a watchtower with graceful stature and weight in equilibrium, which a few hours later I would carry engraved on my skin like a life sentence.

When the drawing was concluded, the images refined and disciplined into a definitive figure, the artist asked me, “Shall we do it on the right or left side?” Surprising as it may seem, this is something I had not asked myself before. “And what is the exact relevance of that?” I asked. And he told me with the patience of a teacher, without a hint of smugness, “Well, Jorge: it all depends on the place you want this piece to occupy in the overall design of your body as a canvas for art.” Then I thought that it was already too late for me to find a spot in a museum because the other marks, scars, drawn on my body look like a Tanguy’s painting: unconnected little figures thrown here or there on a pinkish landscape.

I quickly went over them in my mind. Those visible marks in the flesh. Little paths, protruding edges around a hole. The tight fleshiness of the stitches of a time and a place where no one cared that the stitches became lasting scars. A little path goes at a listless angle up the lower part of my belly, on the right side. In a Soviet hospital they stuck a scalpel there to remove my appendix. They did it for no go reason, or so it was later believed. It’s a long path, which interferes with the beautiful curve of my paunch, creating a sort of a gully: wild orography beveled by the foam of beer and by lard. There are other marks, other holes. Stitches. I have two on my wrist, on the inside. On the right. I was about ten years old, maybe eleven. We were stealing plums in a house in Los quemados, in Marianao. The owner came out; I don’t know now if her rage was bourgeois or cederista. I was on top of the tree, plucking the bitter fruits and throwing them to my friends, whose surname, curiously, is Valiente, but they had stayed outside the fenced orchard. The woman came out, I don’t know if she was called Fifí or Fefa, I jumped from the tree and my arm got stuck in the arrow that crowned one of the iron bars of the fence. I bled and fainted. The father of the Valiente family helped me. There are two others: the cut of a switchblade on my right thumb. We were mowing grass for my grandfather’s rabbits in Bauta, I cut myself; the old man covered the wound with a handful of spider’s web. And yet another incision, the last one, the bite of a female dog when I was a child. She bit twice with great strength, but left only one mark, like those cruel loves that bite you for years and then leave only one mark, which is sometimes that of hatred and sometimes that of contempt.

“We’ll do it on the left arm,” I decided, unable to conceive of myself as a canvas where we would paint to cover every inch, like Ray Bradbury’s “illustrated man.”

Severo Sarduy, who I have said, and I would like to think I have even proved, is the writer to whom I owed the most in my early years dedicated to the art of imitation, that arduous form of literary creation, titled Escrito sobre un cuerpo a collection of notes, short essays, on the literature and painting that surrounded him. Lezama, mainly. The body as a literary corpus, but always the body, the flesh that throbs, sinks and splits. Not for nothing did Severo refer incessantly to the tattoo, the imprint, the stroke, and would end up painting with his own blood.

My body, my skin, my flesh, will bear from today the emblematic mark of the concentrationary universe. This memory was always with me before. Now I will exhibit it as well. And no, it is no coincidence that this happens at the end of the year in which the State has kept us locked up and under the watch of guards who keep us away from the plague with the medieval ways that preceded and still precede Jenner’s syringe party, in which the first bars are already beginning to be danced under the paper chains of cut little pieces of RNA.

Many years ago, when I was a young man in the Moscow that raised the Iron Curtain in whose shadow I was not tanning myself, I bought at a flea market some horn-rimmed glasses that would have been half a century old and worn by someone in the thirties and forties. I couldn’t tell if they were worn by a victim or an executioner. Or a passer-by. But in those years there were few passers-by who did not fall on one side or the other of the path of horror. I wore those glasses with prescription lenses for years and when someone would reproach me their ghastly ugliness I would explain that by wearing them I wanted to denounce a State that was incapable of selling me a pair that would please me.

Now, inked, I will walk around with the Gulag on my arm, a simple way of remembering and reminding myself that surveillance, repression, exclusion and unreason live on out there. That the huts on those towers of yesteryear, the exact reverse of the baskets of hot-air balloons, are panoptic devices that are reproduced in the surveillance cameras that watch us by the millions, in the police states that proliferate, in the avid collection of data by governments and corporations that already segment the public landscape with new barbed wire fences.

I had been told that it hurt. That it hurt to draw the pain on your skin. That too was a lie. In truth, what hurts is the first pain of which I will now always carry inscribed this memory that will feed the worms. Me first.

Jorge Ferrer. Translator, narrator, essayist and journalist. He has translated from Russian Vasili Grossman and Svetlana Aleksievich, Ivan Bunin and Zinaída Hippius, Aleksandr Herzen and Guzel Yájina. His diary of the last plague was published under the title Days of Coronavirus. An itinerary by Hypermedia publishing house. He lives in Barcelona.


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