A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.
My first time came one faraway day in December 1917. I was seventeen and worked at The Voice of Industry, a newspaper that had seen better days and now languished in a barn of a building that had once housed a sulfuric acid factory. The walls still oozed the corrosive vapor that ate away at furniture and clothes, sapping the spirits, consuming even the soles of shoes. The newspapers headquarters rose behind the forest of angels and crosses of the Pueblo Nuevo cemetery; from afar, its outline merged with the mausoleums silhouetted against the horizon - a skyline stabbed by hundreds of chimneys and factories that wove a perpetual twilight of scarlet and black above Barcelona.
On the night that was about to change the course of my life, the newspapers deputy editor, Don Basilio Moragas, saw fit to summon me, just before closing time, to the dark cubicle at the far end of the editorial staff room that doubled as his office and cigar den. Don Basilio was a forbidding- looking man with a bushy moustache who did not suffer fools and who subscribed to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency. Any journalist prone to florid prose would be sent off to write funeral notices for three weeks. If, after this penance, the culprit relapsed, Don Basilio would ship him off permanently to the "House and Home" pages. We were all terrified of him, and he knew it.
"Did you call me, Don Basilio?" I ventured timidly.
The deputy editor looked at me askance. I entered the office, which smelled of sweat and tobacco in that order. Ignoring my presence, Don Basilio continued to read through one of the articles lying on his table, a red pencil in hand. For a couple of minutes, he machine- gunned the text with corrections and amputations, muttering sharp comments as if I werent there. Not knowing what to do, and noticing a chair placed against the wall, I slid toward it.
"Who said you could sit down?" muttered Don Basilio without raising his eyes from the text. I quickly stood up and held my breath. The deputy editor sighed, let his red pencil fall, and leaned back in his armchair, eyeing me as if I were some useless piece of junk.
"Ive been told that you write, Martin."
I gulped. When I opened my mouth only a ridiculous, reedy voice emerged.
"A little, well, I dont know, I mean, yes, I do write..."
"I hope you write better than you speak. And what do you write - if thats not too much to ask?"
"Crime stories. I mean..."
"I get the idea."
The look Don Basilio gave me was priceless. If Id said I devoted my time to sculpting figures for Nativity scenes out of fresh dung I would have drawn three times as much enthusiasm from him. He sighed again and shrugged his shoulders.
"Vidal says youre not altogether bad. He says you stand out."
"Of course, with the sort of competition in this neck of the woods, one doesnt have to run very fast. Still, if Vidal says so."
Pedro Vidal was the star writer at The Voice of Industry. He penned a weekly column on crime and lurid events - the only thing worth reading in the whole paper. He was also the author of a dozen modestly successful thrillers about gangsters in the Raval quarter carrying out bedroom intrigues with ladies of high society. Invariably dressed in impeccable silk suits and shiny Italian moccasins, Vidal had the looks and the manner of a matinee idol: fair hair always well combed, a pencil moustache, and the easy, generous smile of someone who feels comfortable in his own skin and at ease with the world. He belonged to a family whose forebears had made their pile in the Americas in the sugar business and, on their return to Barcelona, had bitten off a large chunk of the citys electricity grid. His father, the patriarch of the clan, was one of the newspapers main shareholders, and Don Pedro used its offices as a playground to kill the tedium of never having worked out of necessity a single day in his life. It mattered little to him that the newspaper was losing money as quickly as the new automobiles that were beginning to circulate around Barcelona leaked oil: with its abundance of nobility, the Vidal dynasty was now busy collecting banks and plots of land the size of small principalities in the new part of town known as the Ensanche.
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