Alberto Manguel's latest novel, All Men Are Liars, is published in September by Alma Books.

Chasing after father's hounds

Nothing. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I feel nothing. I advance through a thick fog, earth-coloured, like dirty water. But I'm not even sure that this fog is real. If I raise a hand (that is, if I believe myself to be raising a hand), I cannot actually see it. If I try to touch my face with my fingers, there is nothing to let me know that I've achieved this aim. I can't feel my fingers, I can't feel my face. At the moment, for example, I believe myself to be speaking aloud, but I can't make out any sound. I pull my hair, I bite my tongue, I scratch my forehead: no pain, no discomfort. I walk, I lie down, I sleep, I talk to myself, all the while sensing absolutely nothing. Nothing.

I thought someone asked me something.

Impossible. There are no voices here and never were.

There are, and were. I don't even know what is happening to me and what happened before.

Before what?

Before this nothingness. I thought that voice spoke again, the one I can't hear.

I carry on.

Backwards, sideways, in circles, it's all the same.

And always through this fog, the colour of dried blood.

Now I remember.

Something like this happened to me when, as a boy, I suddenly found myself in a sandstorm. Everything disappeared in a great cloud that stung the eyes, face and hands, invading the mouth and nose. One could not see, speak or hear. The world became sand and one feared becoming sand too. Then my father came out to look for me and forced me into the house. Even the bitches know not to go outside when the wind gets up, he said. I was always disappointing him.

Once, lost in the storm, I stumbled on some animal bones gradually being polished by the sand. I am going to end up like that, I thought. Whitening bones, ever more transparent. And then, nothing.

I have a measured, smooth voice. I've been told that it's a delightful voice. My father, on the other hand, had a voice evoking something between thunder and barking.

My father's voice resounds, now, in my head. I don't hear it, in the silence that surrounds me, I don't hear anything, but I still have the impression of someone talking to me. It's a hoarse voice, malicious, sarcastic and accustomed to being obeyed. His military training endowed him with a certainty that was absent from other voices in my village, even the priest's. Our prestige depended on that voice.

I touch (but my fingers don't feel it) something metallic, something cold and embossed. His sabre's sheath. My skin remembers it.

The other boys showed off their lead toy soldiers, their bicycles. We showed my father's sabre, which we took down secretly in the dark sitting-room among the furniture covered in dustsheets. Compared to his sabre, the security guard's machete was a mere penknife. This (my unfeeling hand slides over the surface, divested of weight and consistency) was our town's most precious emblem. Colonel Gorostiza's sabre, say the voices I cannot hear. Has he ever cut a man's throat? asks one. He must have done, of course, answers another. They say that if you use a special light, you can see the blood stains on the blade. At night, we children told each other, the blood on the sabre cries out in a very sharp, high-pitched shriek that only the bitches can hear.

My leg brushes against the shaggy coat of one of my father's bitches, all of which are a mix of German Shepherd and Russian Greyhound and of something else undefinable, like those great prehistoric wolves that I found once in a magazine. With the right hand that I can't see, I try to stroke one of them, but it is like stroking the wind. I call them: Anunciation! Visitation! Nativity! Presentation! Finding! None of them replies.

My father was a mason and an ardent anti-cleric. He used to say that the notion of a god demanding praise at intervals filled him with contempt. Your God needs more pampering than a French whore, he lambasted the poor priest. What sort of an Almighty can he be, if he needs people to tell him day and night: You're mighty! You're strong! You're awesome! Cut the crap!

My mother had tearfully begged him not to name his puppies after the Five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. He didn't deign to reply. My mother never dared call them by these sacred names. Fearful of blaspheming, she would say, here, here, when she wanted them to come. Now I feel that it is her voice echoing mine.

Come along with us! bark the bitches through this cotton-wool air. They must be running the way they used to run then, in a long-haired pack, raising red dust. Only my father's voice restrained them.

My father liked to put on his uniform in the morning, the boots shining like ebony bowls, the belt pulled tight under his stomach, and then to go and sit at the door onto the street, drinking maté , the dogs sprawled at his feet. A smell of corn chowder filled the house (I am smelling it now) and my siblings and I, in starched smocks, took our leave of him with a brief reverence as we set off for school. The red dust clung to every part of us, even when there was no wind. But not to him, as though out of respect. Not even one grain dared to touch him.

As a young man, he had worked for an Irish landowner who had wanted him to rid her land of Indians. A black plait, a memento of this work, hung in the dining room next to the sabre and a flag. Apparently, before I was born, a pair of Indian ears hung there too, but my mother refused to enter the house until he took them down. She had shown such uncharacteristic resolve in this matter that my father shrugged his shoulder and threw the ears out of the window. The plait's staying, was all he said.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Miranda France.



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