KITE

KITE by Xavier Queipo

Xavier Queipo’s novel Kite follows the life of Francis, a Galician-born emigrant in the United States, who lives in the city of San Rafael, north of San Francisco, and works as a freelance translator and editor. At a showing of Apocalypse Now in the cinema, he meets Rose, a liberal and career-minded Irishwoman, and they start a passionate relationship. But their carefree and hedonistic relationship is threatened when Francis, who has been asked by his publisher, Martin, to complete a translation into English of the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s Essay on Blindness in record time, owing to the predictions that Saramago might win the Nobel Prize, is himself diagnosed with the onset of blindness. How will Rose react? How will Francis cope with this descent into darkness? And will he be able to finish his translation of Saramago’s work in time? Kite takes us on a journey into the lives of emigrants in the United States whose traditional upbringing is often in conflict with the permissive, liberal society they inhabit. Then there is Andy, Francis’s ex-lover and a loyal friend, for whom he still harbours intense feelings, and a return to the Galicia of his birth, an experience Francis hopes will be balsamic, but which may prove catastrophic. We are left with the image of a Chinese boy on the beach in San Rafael, trying to fly his kite, the symbol of something (or someone) at the mercy of the wind. The boy is grateful for the help Francis offers, but unsure whether to accept. There is the gesture; we are left with the time and space to interpret it.

They had met in the cinema. In one of those enormous auditoriums you hardly ever see any more. It was a screening of Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s poignant parable based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. During the scene when the helicopters advance on the Vietcong to the rhythm of Wagner, the auditorium filled with light from the napalm explosions. That was the first time they saw one another, when the shadows gave way to light. That was when she said, instinctive and sincere, with the cool assurance of women who know themselves to be builders of dreams:

“Let me hold your hand. I feel kind of shaky.”

“Sure. Don’t worry. I will be here till the end of the film,” Francis replied with unexpected confidence.

They sat there holding hands, focused on the screen and glancing at each other only occasionally: looking at each other and feeling good. One beside the other. The other beside the one. Together. Hands entwined. Lives shot through by an invisible arrow. Presumably happy.

When they left the cinema, hands permanently entwined, kissing every now and again, stopping every few steps to gaze at one another, to make sure the earth wasn’t moving beneath their feet, to reassure themselves that reality was still there, just as they had dreamed and contemplated it, astonishing and close to perfection, a more intimate knowledge seemed to exist between them, more history and more harmony than between any of the couples who have ever lived. Some people have a name, a label for this kind of instant passion (or perhaps all passion is instant in some way, stopping time and marking out a before and an after). Rose spoke of infatuation. It could have been. Francis said apaixonamento, which means the same thing, but in his native Galician, something like fascination or a feeling of being bewitched by the other person, or perhaps uncontrolled passion, or some other form of agreed submission, of biocoenosis created from a ray of light. Perhaps it was. Perhaps, too, they were made for each other, like in the romantic novels sold by the sackload from quayside stalls, to be read by faraway sailors or girls awaiting the return of their salty princes, where the lovers seem to be predestined, where impossible love affairs exist between siblings separated by a grim childhood of alienation or migration. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence, fruit of the purest chance, the kind of thing anticipated only by enthusiasts, or those illuminated by the irrational stigma of belief, or even those sitting waiting for love in an enormous auditorium, the ones you hardly ever see any more.

There were no grand words or stereotypical declarations of mutual admiration. There were none because they were superfluous, because their bodies said what words dared not, or could not, or knew not how to express. After all, despite what the physicists or the most timorous rationalists might say, falling in love alters times and coordinates, in such a way that, imperceptibly, as if without realizing it, they began to walk towards the hotel where Rose was staying – the shortest of holidays, a long weekend – more from a studied politeness than a demonstration of the intentions both were nervously concealing beneath an epidermis burning with desire. Simultaneously they offered each other a cigarette, as if there was an astral conjunction or something magic between them, as if they had always known each other or they had powers of divination.

“See you tomorrow,” Francis had said with a casualness that came out aggressively and with too sudden a change of rhythm to be sincere.

“You really don’t want to come up to my room?” Rose had replied, not recognizing herself in this repeated seizing of the initiative, this laying herself bare to chance, this demolition of blocks and complexes.

“OK. Just for a cigarette and a chat. Tomorrow is Saturday so I do not have to work.”

They crossed the hotel threshold furtively, not greeting the receptionist, a Chinese man with a round, bald head who was cradling the bell on his desk, mesmerized by the images on a miniscule television set, where they were showing a repeat of a classic western (Lee Marvin drunk as a skunk, caterwauling the chorus of some ballad).

Up in the room it was all discoveries and revelations, caresses and tenderness. It took them some time to undress, as if they wanted to delay the act itself, but after a thousand kisses in the most accessible places, on lips and cheeks, shoulders and neck, they began to undress one another, slowly, so very slowly, with a burning desire that overflowed from every pore, that was evoked in every movement, that hung like a thick fog in eyes heavy with shared purpose. Francis played with the buttons on Rose’s camisole, playfully squeezing the mounds of her breasts while she slid her hand into the crevice that separated his trousers from a belly sculpted by thousands of crunches, where each muscle marked out a field, and there were no curves or discontinuities. Before long, their clothes were falling, piece by piece, to the floor. And now they were naked, San Diego Bay observing them in the distance, stars hanging in a magnificent sky, eyes illuminated by the light like those of a cat poised to pounce. They shifted to the horizontal position, tried out impossible angles and contortions in the gymnastic ecstasy of passion, until they found a position that suited them and that while classic – Rose squatting on her heels and penetrated from beneath – was no less satisfactory for that. Francis reached out in search of Rose’s breasts, and she gave herself up to him, arching her back in a contorted spasm. After the first orgasm – gazing hard at one another, sweating their passion, ascending with the sureness of many previous assignments, completely drenched – they went to shower together.

The bathroom was huge with a blinding excess of light. Beneath the stream of water, surrounded by a dense mist, they fell into the relaxed back-and-forth of a happy adult couple, serene in their affection and unhurried, as if certain tonight would last, as if they knew there were not, would never be, any demands or pressures at all.

“I have always liked bathrooms,” said Francis as he massaged Rose’s back, with a touch of serenity and a great deal of wheatgerm gel.

“I like them too, with all the light and the mirrors, the smell of lavender soap and tropical fruits; the combination is so impossible, but the idea is so exotic.”

“Does all that not light bother you?” asked Francis, his eyes half open beneath the curtain of water.

“Sometimes I like to make love in the dark as well, but I prefer the light. I don’t know why, but I prefer the light.”

“Me too, but not so much of it,” said Francis putting his hand in front of his face.

They changed places and then it was Rose who soaped Francis, sliding her lubricated hands over his most intimate areas, moving her palms in ever increasing circles, playfully prodding him with her fingers, scratching with her nails, inventing a relaxation technique or recreating a lesson learned on her own flesh. These massages awakened the desires weakened by the steam from the hot water. They carried out another assault perfumed by the scent of the shower gel and the fragrance of the rose petals that flooded everything, that attached itself to the inside of their noses so neither of them was able to think of anything that wasn’t roses and sex, an olfactory association, preconscious and happy. The steam had misted up the mirrors that now just reflected shadows, and it clung to them, making the light even dimmer. They felt the humid passion of the tectonic movement of their bodies – plates shifting over the heat of their internal magma – happy and natural in the perfect combination of senses and flavours, of tensions and the lightest of touches.

They dried themselves on immaculate white towels with the name of the hotel embroidered in relief. They put on the bathrobes, also white and with the hotel monogram on the left breast, and sat down, shooting off intimacies like darts, recovering from the tiredness of their bodies and reinforcing their mutual enchantment. They were soon comfortable, one in front of the other, stretched out in an arc, hips against the seat and leaning on the arms of the sofa, so their connected sexes were the only point of contact. Meanwhile, they gazed at each other like two prone, dead figures; eyes lost and empty, like in a Mantegna painting. Then Francis noticed the coffee maker on the side table, so characteristic of American hotels, and part of the standard equipment at the Hotel Radisson, where Rose had booked in for her weekend in San Diego.

“Coffee?” said Francis as he took a cigarette for himself and leaned forward to offer the pack to Rose.

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“Where is the coffee? I found the coffee maker, but not the coffee.”

“It’s all here, sweetheart, in the drawer underneath.”

“Oh yeah,” agreed Francis, rummaging through the drawer.

“Maybe it’d be better if you made something weak. I have to sleep.”

“Didn’t you say coffee?”

“Yes, but if there’s some decaf it’d be better. I’m tired. If it isn’t decaf it’ll take me ages to get to sleep. After an hour I’m not tired any more, and then I just can’t sleep, however tired I am.”

“OK. There is some here. I’ll get water from the bathroom,” said Francis disappearing and reappearing right away with the coffee jug full of water from the tap.

The conversation lasted through two coffees and four or five cigarettes. They told each other their life stories or, at least, a significant and colourful portion of their life stories. They spoke more of the present than the past, which at times like this always goes by the wayside a little, establishing a tacit silence about the extent of relationships and other commitments.

That had been their first encounter, which benefited from the balm of coincidence, from the complicit darkness of the auditorium, like a spark that had set light to two meandering souls, shipwrecked and rudderless in a vacationing San Diego. Now, in the morning, they continued the conversation in the gardens of Balboa Park, eating Alaska crab and chicken cooked with tofu, drinking Mexican beer and telling each other chapters of their life stories.

Rose had recently been in Ireland, visiting the numerous assorted relatives that any Irish expatriate has on the island. She spoke joyfully and repeatedly of Galway, the city of canals and islands, of the sharp, intermittent, but ever-present rain, of the hundreds of trout and carp ploughing along the river Corrib where there were always Dickensian ruffians, short of stature and skilful in their use of the rod, fishing for carp brought from the nurseries of Asia, where there were always vigorous men in tweed caps, unrestrained beer bellies and elastic-waisted trousers, setting hooks in flight to catch trout in the Eglinton Canal, and elderly retired gentlemen, with arthritic wrists and rhinophymic noses, struggling with the salmon in the currents around Ballyknow Quay. And on and on she talked, with that apparently Celtic passion for speaking of the island as if it were an Edenic paradise, while fleeing from it as if it were a hell of hunger and no prospects. Francis looked at Rose with the wonder of a child blinded by the light in the eyes of a virgin, the darling eyes of a fairy-tale princess, unblinking above a perfect, everlasting smile.

After listening to her – dumbstruck and somewhat disorientated by the lack of sleep – Francis told her anecdotes of his childhood on the outskirts of the Galician town of Padrón, when on summer evenings, which back then seemed infinite, and now so long ago and so sad, they went swimming in the Sar and sailed down the river, in a boat like the ones used for the extraction of sand, until they reached some wells that were called Os Fondóns, because they were so deep, where it was said (mysteries were quite the thing in those days) there lived a monster with seven heads and a dragon’s body, with iron scales and a steel sting on the end of his powerful tail. Whenever they went down there – he would never go alone, owing to a prudence that others might call fear – they had to flee the rising current, a maelstrom more imagined than real, dragging them towards the inside of a whirlpool where, it was said, lived the amphibious beast that was going to devour them, one by one, lazily chomping with sharpened, poisonous canines, which, according to another schoolbook mythology, are supposed to be characteristic of such antediluvian creatures. He couldn’t really explain why, but, despite the fear, he always went back to the same place, as if drawn there by the songs of the Nereids.

“But that can’t be true. You’re telling me fibs. You’re talking about a made-up world, it’s just a collection of tall tales, and not very well put together either,” said Rose exchanging her frank smile for a more ambiguous one, somewhere between indignant and amused.

“It might not be true now, but when it happened, when I was a melancholy, anxious child, inhibited and not much of a talker, then it was the only truth.”

“Truth? Don’t make me laugh”, retorted Rose in a tone that unleashed a torrent of fervour from Francis.

“As true as the blackness of the waters where the skeletons of shipwrecks ebbed and flowed with the tide; as true as the darkness of the steps where the water rats would scamper, those chimerical beings, half rat, half fish, who darted across the river, among the layers of leaves embedded in the riverbed, big as rabbits they were, and with sharp pointed teeth like sabres out of a chivalric romance.”

“Stop right there, Francis. I believe everything you’re saying, but don’t keep making things up. It really must have been a terrible childhood,” Rose smiled ironically.

“As true, I was saying, as the mussels in the milky sand of the river, the goblins who lived in the hazel trees or the tender, affectionate nymphs who would comb their silvery hair on magical spring nights, just as real as the fox who used to visit my grandfather’s fields or the potions the wise old woman of the mill used to make, or…”

“You’re a fantasist, the worst kind of pedant and a liar, but you’re funny. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling me the truth or making up stories of fairies and avenging knights, of champions or of mushroom-dwelling dwarves. I don’t want to know about your past. It doesn’t matter to me.”

“Doesn’t matter to you?” Francis was slightly annoyed, as if her admission was a highly-evolved form of treason.

“Don’t get me wrong. It amuses me, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve got other priorities. What I really want to know is what’s going through your mind now. At this moment. What are you thinking?”

“Now?” asked Francis surprised.

“Yes, now. What’s going through your mind now? Not when you were a boy, not a year ago, not even yesterday, but now,” said Rose with a hint of mystery and a great deal of conviction.

“Lots of sensations. I could not say how many. There’s the smell of the tofu mixed up in this chestnut sauce, there’s the chatter of those tourists on their way to the zoo, in that perpetual holiday uniform, brandishing their cameras like a battle standard, there’s those eyes of yours seeing my confusion and laughing, the feeling of touching the grass where I am sitting, that gentle breeze, like an imperceptible gust from San Diego Bay… What’s passing through is not important, Rose. What’s important is what stays, what will one day blossom into the archives of memory.”

“That’s a lot of sensations to process all at once,” said Rose getting up from the ground and gesturing towards the gates of the zoo, as if looking for a way out, tired of the conversation. “We could go and visit the zoo. I heard there are some really cute pandas.”

“Cute how?” Francis asked ironically.

“Cute like you, if that’s what you were hoping to hear. Come on. Let’s go.”

They got up reluctantly. Beyond the sheltering shade of the brambles where they had been sitting for their own special picnic, there was a sticky heat, a great deal of humidity and little possible respite. A stifling heat, like a slow grilling, constant sweating and heaviness in the legs and breath. They picked up the leftovers and drank the last drops of mango juice from the bottom of the carton.

 

Translated from Galician by Kirsty Hooper

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    KITE by Xavier Queipo, the sixteenth title in the series Small Stations Fiction devoted to the best of contemporary fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    This is quite a reading experience and I found myself affected by almost every word that seemed to be carefully chosen to take us through Francis’s life and experiences. In the back of mind I kept hearing T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock saying that “there will be time” while not believing that to be so. The philosophical question of the meaning of life is everywhere here but as a question and not an answer.

    Reviews by Amos Lassen

     

    ISBN: 978-954-384-088-5

    Publication Date: 13 July 2018

    Language: English

    Paperback: 224 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm