Happiness

Happiness
Felicitat_cover_30
Edicions 62: La felicitat
A novel by Lluís-Anton Baulenas

Extract translated from the Catalan (La felicitat, 2001) by Graham Thomson

This translation was enabled by the generous support of the Institut Ramón Llull


A woman and a seal. Every day, evening and night, a shapely young woman and a fat old seal with misty eyes.

Beauty and the beast, dancing together underwater inside a large fish tank in the middle of a stage.

A pianist below the stage emphasized with energetic chords the climactic moments of the performance, just as he did on the days when there was a film show.

The girl embraced the seal as if they were husband and wife. She opened her legs wide and wrapped her thighs around the animal, clinging to it. She might have been going to caress it or punch it, to make love to it or to fight with it. She took hold of its flipper and traced with her finger the circle of 'Round and round the garden'.

Then the pianist gave it all he had, and the audience, male for the most part, as if in response to a predetermined signal began to clap their hands and stamp their feet, whistling and shouting. And they screamed themselves hoarse when woman and animal came up for air and winsomely rested their chins on the edge of the fish tank.

There was no doubt it was a good act, one of the best on the Paral.lel. And the Barcelona audience, which was a discerning audience, filled the Soriano brothers' Pavilion every night because they knew how to appreciate it, especially as it featured a beautiful, virtually naked girl, wearing nothing but a fantasy bathing suit and sequins that stuck to her body like a second skin.

Among the audience on that chilly Friday the first of January 1909, half attentive as always, there was a young man with a fleeting feline glance like a cat's, tall and well built, with the air of someone who is used to getting what he wants. He applauded softly, out of time with the rest. He hadn't even taken off his green kid gloves. Deogràcies-Miquel Gambús was a fourth-generation thief, a thief by vocation, a thief from head to toe, a thief with clean hands and expensive clothes. A thief dripping with scent, but a thief all the same, dedicated body and soul to his trade, just like his mother, his mother's father and his mother's father's father before him.

What was more, he was a lawyer. That was how he knew that his family were thieves in the classic (and strict) sense of the word. And quite seriously, without irony or whimsy, he would explain to his intimates that the Latin word for thief was fur or latro, and that fur was related to the verb fero, one of the ten or twelve principal meanings of which was 'I take', 'I snatch', 'I grab' and even 'I plunder'. And he would add:

-And it really is like that; the Gambús family has been taking other people's things since time immemorial. Latro is related to lateo, which means 'I hide'. Clearer than water: I take things and I hide; I take, I remove objects (material or immaterial, with or without direct animus dolendi) that are not mine and then I melt into thin air or lie low for a while.

This was a fair description of the principal activities of the Gambús family over the previous hundred years.

The yelling of the crowd in the Sorianos' Pavilion swelled to a higher pitch than usual and the young Deogràcies-Miquel turned to focus his attention briefly on the show. He had been a regular here right from the start, five years earlier, when the present owners had bought over what had been the famous Trianon, cradle of art and springboard to triumph of the immortal Bella Chelito. Back then he hadn't had to keep himself half incognito, as he did now. He had had fewer preoccupations; he was younger, he fornicated with more abandon and studied Law. It was his mother who had made him take the course.

-The more thoroughly you know the laws, the more thoroughly you can get round them. Not always scot-free, it's true, but like anything else in life, it's a matter of weighing up pros and cons. A lawyer can rob and swindle more with a law than a gang of rogues can with a pistol. You'll catch on quick enough.

And she had added, playfully:
-Swindling comes naturally to you; it's in your blood. The morning after you were born, when you were only a day old, they should have come and taken you into preventive custody. But they didn't, and it's too late for them to do it now...

The truth was that she was very far from happy about Deogràcies-Miquel's visits to the Paral.lel. Not on moral grounds, far from it: it was just that, as the good professional criminal she was, she took questions of security very seriously. She had had two sons, and Deogràcies-Miquel was the only one still alive. She didn't want anything to happen to him. And she was afraid that some nonsense or other (a woman, an unexpected raid by the police, an anarchist bomb...) might jeopardize the family's future.

But her son, making light of her concern, explained that on the Paral.lel he learned invaluable lessons that would supplement his education:
-Listen here, mother, there's an artiste, a very fine girl, who sings a song about a flea. It seems there's a flea that hides in the innermost folds of the poor girl's clothes, especially her undergarments. The flea is biting her and driving her mad, and she scratches like crazy and tries to catch it. And of course she has to take off her clothes to do the job properly, and the audience, feeling sorry for her, helps her do it. And then when...

Smack! The impression of the five fingers of his mother's right hand glowed on his cheek.
-That's nothing but a vulgar dishabille number, and don't you come to me with your dirty stories. But maybe you've been up there, too, to look for the flea? the woman added dryly as she started to walk toward her own rooms. Massaging his cheek he answered her quietly, smiling:
-I won't say that I haven't.

The woman stopped, turned round, and drawled almost scornfully:
-So perhaps she's your piece, then, this... flea-bitten bitch?
-No, mother, the boy said, struck by the unaccustomed display of humour, weak though it was. But I've seen that famous flea pursued by high court judges, aristocrats, provincial deputies, lieutenant-colonels, captains of industry, landowners, even bishops, all more or less in disguise, all more or less drunk... Very important men who...
-I see what you're getting at! But let me tell you something: in this family blackmail has never been an end in itself, only a means. No blackmailer ever died of old age. They all end up with arteriosclerosis and die of a stroke (if somebody doesn't kill them first).

And she left Deogràcies-Miquel Gambús standing there, gaping open-mouthed like a fish out of water, a victim yet again of the confusion created by a response of his mother's.

The seal had just splashed the front row of the audience, which had parted almost like a wave. The animal amusingly imitated a sneeze, and the girl tried to blow its nose with an enormous handkerchief. The audience doubled up with laughter. The pianist, who also acted as master of ceremonies, walked over to the stalls and picked out a spectator at random - he immediately stopped laughing - and got the lucky man to take a fresh sardine from a basket. Then he had him, visibly nervous, climb onto on a stool, still with the sardine in his hand, and lean against the side of the fish tank with his arm stretched out high above it. Swimming up from the bottom, seal and woman suddenly shot out of the water to catch the fish in their mouths. If the animal got there first, the girl would try to snatch the fish the fish away with her teeth, giving the impression that the two were kissing. If she got the sardine first, then it was the seal that would attack. There was excitement in the air.

Back in the fish tank they returned to the fray. The girl came up for air for a second, then dived down to mount the seal's back and wrap an arm round its neck as if she were strangling it. The animal thrashed the water hard, once again splashing all of those in the front rows, this time including Deogràcies-Miquel; thus brought back to reality, he noticed with annoyance that his kid gloves had got wet. At that moment the seal had the girl trapped in one corner of the fish tank, preventing her from reaching the surface.

The spectators kept on whistling and stamping their feet on the wooden floor. A few even berated the seal with such wildly inapplicable imprecations as 'whore of a seal'. A seal can never be a whore, Deogràcies-Miquel Gambús thought. A chicken could, or so vox populi had it, but a seal? No case had yet been described.

The piano sounded as if it were about to explode. The girl was flapping her arms like a madwoman, bubbles streamed from her opening and closing mouth, her eyes were bulging... Her face was turning purple, she was drowning ... the crowd grew quieter and quieter until there was silence. Then suddenly she broke free of the animal's deadly embrace and came up, triumphant, to breathe amid an outburst of frenzied cheering from the stalls that could be heard in the street outside.

Every day, evening and night, a shapely young woman and a fat old seal with misty eyes.

The young Deogràcies-Miquel studied her for a moment, once again fixing his gaze on her long chestnut-coloured hair, billowing in the water in a thousand tresses that seemed wafted up by balloons. It was decidedly attractive. She was decidedly attractive. Where had he seen her before? She was a fine-looking woman. And with that hair... A recollection stirred vaguely in his memory, but he couldn't bring it to the surface. He let it go; what did it matter, he had enough to occupy him as it was.

Because the fact was that the young Deogràcies-Miquel Gambús, familiarly known by the short form Demi, had to decide on how he was to make his official of entry into the family business. His mother, the matriarch, Mistress Miquela, was ready to retire. A lifetime's dedication to thievery was coming to a fitting end, the best: no only had she never been caught in a career of criminal activities that spanned more than forty years, but she had also added to the family's wealth in the most startling, grandiose and spectacular manner: they were richer and, above all, far more respectable than the previous generation.

A difficult achievement to improve on, the young Deogràcies-Miquel Gambús told himself, sitting down just as they all got to their feet again to applaud...

* * * * *

The Gambús family had come to Catalonia in the early years of the last century with the return of Ferdinand VII from France. Some murky affair forced his great-grandfather, Miquel Gambús I, to install himself as a virtual exile in a hamlet called El Cagaire on the banks of the river Ebro between Mora and Tortosa, with plenty of money, but almost in hiding. In that anonymity, amid carob and almond trees, with the nickname of the gavatxo, the Frenchy, he set about creating a network of power that within a few years had grown spectacularly. He was unrivalled in the practice of bribery and the use of front men, and one of the first to see that stealing information was a lot more profitable than stealing gold.

He was mayor of the village when a crisis befell him that would have undone many another man once and for all. He was tried and sentenced during the Liberal Triennial for having remained loyal to the former king Ferdinand. But Miquel Gambús I, the gavatxo, came out of it. It cost him a load of money, but he came out of it. It was long recalled with admiration how, locked up in Lleida prison, not only did the warders have express orders to protect him and not molest him, but they also saw to it that he wanted for nothing. Don Miquel carried on controlling the life of his village and running his business from his prison cell.

When King Ferdinand regained the throne thanks to the troops of his European allies, the prestige and power of old Gambús reached unimaginable heights. He was carried out of prison on the warders' shoulders like a bullfighter, amid cheers of jubilation. He spent a whole day handing out special gratuities to members of the prison staff and bestowing dowries on the daughters of other prisoners. He founded a tuberculosis clinic in the capital of the judicial party and made a very generous donation to the local rector. Quite soon even the mayors of other towns and villages in the district started coming to him for advice. He went from being Miquel Gambús I, the gavatxo, to Miquel Gambús I, 'the king's man'. Back home in the village again, the first thing he did was to order the detention of the fool who had dared take his place as mayor during the year and half he had been in prison and have him bound, naked, on top of a table in the middle of the main square of the village. Then he calmly donned his white cotton gloves, finger by finger, and cut off the man's testicles. And he did so with a little pair of sewing scissors so as to make the torment last longer, and when he had finished, threw them to the dogs to eat, all in front of the assembled heads of the town's families. As for the poor castrato, nothing more was ever heard of him, but among the local people it was rumoured that he had been sold as a eunuch to some petty king on the far-off Slave Coast. It goes without saying that word of all this was never allowed to spread beyond the municipal boundary.

He was succeeded by his son, Miquel Gambús II, known as 'the shit' because of his tendency to give himself airs of grandeur. Mayor of El Cagaire for life, like his father, he lived until 1899, thoroughly respected by his fellow villagers. The little town changed a good deal thanks to him; indeed it even changed its name. The exclusive, traditional and official denomination of the place had always been El Cagaire, 'the shitter', for obvious reasons: the river, hemmed in by the mountain, curved in a fairly tight bend so that from the air it looked like the arse of someone squatting to defecate. Just like the caganer, the shitting man in the traditional Catalan Nativity scene. The second Gambús, wishing to inaugurate his rule with an action at once symbolic and spectacular, summoned the rector and questioned him about the name. The good man informed him that from the very earliest documents in which the village was referred to, back in the remote 9th century, it had always been so called. The dog-Latin Ille Caccariu had evolved placidly into the Catalan El Cagaire. Or placidly until the arrival of the second Gambús, of course, who was adamant that he was not going to live in a place with a name such as that. Miquel Gambús II 'the shit' brought a touch of imagination to bear. Wasn't there an Alguaire, an Albaida, an Alfara, an Alfàbia and so on? With a little falsification of a mediaeval text and a bribe to a provincial deputy he saw to it that the village known for a thousand years as El Cagaire came officially to be denominated Alcagaire de la Roca. And its inhabitants passed from being Cagarrins, or 'little shits', to Alcagairons.

At once daring and cold, cunning, violent if he had to be, always on the qui vive, with the second Gambús the village went from strength to strength, but everyone knew that he had robbed, swindled and murdered all he had wanted and needed to. Quite unashamedly, without hiding the fact. Blood-thirstier than his father, when something caught his interest no one had better get in his way, because he would get rid of them just as you might brush a crumb of bread off your sleeve, without giving a second thought to method or moment.

No court of justice ever managed to prove any charge against Miquel Gambús, 'the shit'. That was in the golden age of local power brokering, and the family's network of economic and above all political interests had rendered him all but invulnerable. He made his one and only miscalculation right at the end of his life, when he underestimated the temporal power of the Church, got into a clash over a matter of form and ended up being buried as an outcast.

And now we find ourselves in the final days of his daughter's reign. Mistress Miquela had come very close t





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