Santiago Gamboa works as Colombia's cultural attaché in New Delhi. His novels and short stories have been published in ten languages.

Plastic tames the fear

To talk about money is to talk about fear. Fear of not having any, or losing it all, or not having enough at the end of the month; fear of what other people may think about you for money's sake, reduced to expressions such as "poor boy" or "nouveau riche".

The first banking card I had was in Madrid, in the mid-eighties, issued by the Caja de Ahorros y Monte de Piedad (The Mount of Mercy Savings Bank). I was a nineteen-year-old youth from the Colombian middle-class (as Bolaño wisely classified us). Keeping that card in my pocket gave me an air of reliability, which didn't match the truth at all but was pleasing. I caught my reflection in shop windows and I felt different, and each time I saw a Caja Madrid cash machine I'd stop to consult my balance. I'd divide the figure between the remaining days of the month and go on in my furtive labour to the next cashpoint. I never withdrew anything, as I already had in my pocket the money allocated for the day.

The monthly figure I used to live on (a grant from the Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana) was 75,000 pesetas, equivalent at the time to 535 dollars. After discounting 18,000 for accommodation I was left with more or less one thousand, five hundred pesetas per day, which was OK, as I could eat cheaply at the university restaurant and I had the libraries for my reading. It wasn't much but I felt rich, as it was money I didn't owe to anyone and it came to me without effort. My two best friends of that time weren't so lucky. They were both Argentine. One of them used to sell little leather masks on street markets, which usually meant either going to bed on an empty stomach or coming to my house to share a can of meat and peas. The other one studied with me at the Philology faculty and received a little money from his family. But each time he drank a coffee he choked with guilt, as he could have bought ten coffees at the price in Córdoba. Needless to say they were both extremely thin.

On one occasion I went very early to the Caja Madrid and, when I introduced the card and entered the PIN number, a message appeared on the screen: "Happy Birthday". I've never seen that in any other part of the world and, to be honest, I was touched. Next came the discovery of being able to pay by card in shopping centres, which was quite unusual at the time. I was used to making such trips with cash either hidden in the hem of my trousers or rolled into a strip inside my pants, and this was a revelation. The first time I bought something with the card, perhaps a book, I went immediately to check my account balance and was surprised to discover the figure had not changed. It only changed the following day. That time lapse led me to fantasize about a simple scam: I could spend all the money on the card, and immediately take the same amount from the bank before it closed. Fortunately I never tried it.

Some years later I moved to Paris, where things got worse. The figure Crédit Lyonnais gave when I checked my balance was considerably lower. There was no way to make that damn figure grow as I didn't have a grant or other funding. I worked for a living giving limp Spanish lessons in a school called Langues et Entreprises. The students were French executives of companies with branches in Latin America. I was paid 85 francs an hour, or about 12 dollars. Sometimes I had a student at seven or eight in the morning, and worst of all I was expected to dress smartly. How can you be well-dressed in Paris on 12 dollars an hour? Well, by working 40 hours a week, you may say. But the lessons had to be divided between other Latin American and Spanish teachers, all as hungry as I was, which didn't leave us many hours each per week. I remember a sixty-year-old Argentine author, a successful novelist and playwright in Buenos Aires (or so he told us). For a sense of shame I won't mention his name, but there he was, the old man, frequently breathing through an oxygen mask. A proper Buenos Airean, he dressed as if about to go for dinner at the embassy, topping off his formal attire with a hat. But at the end of the day we shared the same reality: we were both poor language teachers with little in our stomachs.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Javier Fernandez.



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