Monday, July 27, 2009

"Decalogue of the Year Zero" by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is an author and photographer born in Havana in 1971. He graduated from the Centro de Formación Literaria Onelio Jorge Cardoso and is a member of UNEAC, a Cuban writer's union. He has been the editor of the literary magazines ExtramuroS (2001-2005), Cacharro(s) (2003-2004) and the e-zine The Revolution Evening Post (2007- ). He has published Collage Karaoke (Letras Cubanas, 2001), Empezar de Cero (Extramuros, 2001), Ipatrías (Unicornio, 2005) and Mi nombre es William Saroyan (Abril, 2006) in Cuba. His last book, Boring Home (Eds. Lawtonomar, 2009), was released digitally on the Cuban blogosphere. He is the author of the blogs LUNES DE POST-REVOLUCIÓN and BORING HOME UTOPICS and has collaborated with the websites CUBAENCUENTRO, FOGONERO EMERGENTE, y PENÚLTIMOS DÍAS.


Orlando has let his beard grow out, his hair too. Ipatria warned him that he was skinny and that the bags under his eyes, dark as they were, looked like black eyes. Orlando made a grimace of anguish. He crossed Linea Avenue and told her that he was in a crisis.

“I’m perfectly healthy, but every day Havana makes me sicker.”

Ipatria didn’t even try to suppress a smirk. It’s not that Orlando’s crazy, it’s just that sometimes he’s too Orlando, even for himself. Ipatria took him by the arm and pulled him. Or pushed him. Or both. And like this they escaped the Cuban sun, ducking into the shade of the cathedral on the corner of Linea and 16th. It was a convent in ruins, though nothing made one think it wasn’t inhabited by God. God’s always pretty late in noticing barbarism. Maybe that itself is what God is.

“Don’t laugh.” Orlando shook the girl’s proud shoulders; they clenched. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you’re the worst living writer of the millennium and the world.”

“I swear to you that this time I’m not. It’s La Habanada’s fault.” He drew the girl’s body toward him—“That’s what this new crisis is called: Habanada,”—and he kissed her lightly on the lips. “Thanks, Ipatria, for helping me name it.”


Orlando tries to explain to Ipatria that time is a retrovirus. He never manages to convince her, of course. He lacks the lexicon. He has no battle slang for stirring up the masses. He hasn’t yet mastered Shitspanish. Apparently, he’d still like to live. He drives himself crazy, but all the same he never finds a vocabulary.

“I’ve got no vo-cab-u-la-ry,” he complains, syll-a-ble by syll-a-ble, as if he were a baby.

Ipatria imagines Orlando imagining a Havana without history or histology. That Habanada between amnesia and anaesthesia which he tries in vain to describe. Even though maybe she’s useless, she’d like to make him happy. For Orlando she feels pity and a strong desire to throw him down on some church pew and right there, in the divine darkness, make love to him.

Then Ipatria reminds him of his own idea of taking photos of the city. Of giving himself a glimpse of weightlessness—the terrace roofs, gable roofs, rickety clotheslines, rusty tanks where mosquitoes breed, pigeons amongst robbery and ritual sacrifice, the million and one objects abandoned to the elements, that they both like to read like a crossword puzzle with no key.

So Ipatria extends the camera to Orlando and says: “Come up and see.”

And he lets himself move away from the bench, with the Canon now hanging by his neck like a sacrificial altar or a promise. As if Orlando were a tourist, staggering amongst the parishioners. As if everything weren’t so sad that it was almost upsetting to write or photograph.

With luck, Ipatria thinks now, the boy she loves will come up now onto the belfry, and from there he’ll invent his own observatory of photos: half private and half public, half bitter and half adorable, half Ipatria and half Orlando.

“Don’t kill yourself, honey,” she says in a low voice, so God doesn’t hear her and get excited about such a wonderful possibility.

“Better kill yourself instead,” whispers Ipatria to God.


Orlando kneeled. He focused the lens, a real half-meter telescope. The sun was wolfish—he thought he wouldn’t be able to take too much of it, but at least he didn’t have to use a tripod. The light was liquid and he almost didn’t need to shoot: the reflections would only slip through in the negatives, he smiled—light negative and hard as photons of unreal quartz.

Orlando saw the antiquated cars in high speed, passers-by in slow motion, an open sewer, and a tainted spring. He saw the bloodshot eye of a traffic light glancing through the canopy of flamboyants: trees much older and more alive than him. He saw the malecón and ten million splinters between the surf and the snow. He saw the claustrophobic line of the horizon, tidy clouds like mirrors although they reflected nothing, and he saw the sharp point of the monolith in the Plaza of the Revolution—its cosmic lightning rods always crowned with vultures. All of it an evil aleph that, after so much silent contemplation, in the end Orlando could never portray.

Orlando preferred not to. He felt once again like Bartleby, tired of such a weightless load. Photos, what for?

Now he just wants to get down. To sink towards Ipatria. But the freefall scares him. It’s impossible to reach the girl he loves by jumping. The spiral staircase frightens him more still. Even the word free terrifies him. My poor Orlando, lost in the jungle, he smiles at himself, and I can’t do anything to help you.

As a writer it will be a fiasco, thinks Orlando. But that fear is the only guarantee he’ll survive and not betray Ipatria. Words, what for?


Orlando stands. He throws a rock. Actually, he kicks it. At their backs chimed five or six strokes. The afternoon ends and the tedium begins. The echo of the metals accompanied him during his descent down the twisting rungs. Nausea and vertigo, spinning to the left—the boy arrived at the bottom dizzy, with pupils dilated by adrenaline and an excess of solar radiation. Almost blindly. Like someone looking for shelter in an atomic holocaust.

“Did you finish the roll?” Ipatria gave him a hug. “You took forever!”

Orlando answered that now they could set off. That is, he didn’t answer. He loved her too much to recount certain scenes that, day in and day out, occurred inside his thirty-six-year-old head. At the end of the day, she was only 23. All the same, Ipatria imagined a drama in there that was many times worse.

Orlando simply swung on his pack and returned the Canon to the girl’s outstretched neck—an out-of-style Modigliani.

“Where are we going?” asked Ipatria.

“To the green mountains,” and Orlando knew the expression opened between them the chasm of an entire generation shaped by television.


They walked. For him, the city had exhausted its batteries. Everything was there, but broken down. Emptied. Corrupted by its routine of heroism.

Until when would the magic between he and Ipatria last? Until when the resistance against the rhetorical substances of unreality? Until when their own cycles of untethered madness and paralyzing sanity? Would he ever again photograph the naked barbarism of a planet called Havana? And write in his diary about that carapace of concrete: first free exoskeleton of America, Kafkian arthropod that they loved and hated to the point of insults and tears? Habanized, mon amour—city with an h, a deaf letter. And Ipatria—would he ever again photograph the barbaric nakedness of her body as she complained, wide open beneath his own? Ipatrianized, mon amour—country with no h, that mordant letter.

They walked a bit further, up to 26th. They reached the top of the hill. The mid-afternoon sun extracted a lethal odor from the asphalt. A vapor. El Vedado shimmered like a posthumous tribute to the year 0 or 2000. The island was a long and lucid gas chamber.

Orlando contemplates Ipatria—a skinny, pale face that, in exchange for nothing, in a useful and unnecessary act, has decided to love him syll-a-ble by syll-a-ble. The girl stretches; she looks tired but isn’t, and her shadow suddenly transforms into an infinite tunnel, a black arrow sliding down the asphalt down to 26th, from the hill to the sea.

Then Orlando imagines that her silhouette is the fallen hand from a nonexistent clock—a Cuban-esque shadow, outside of time. It’s the hour zero. More or less like this, the novel that Orlando preferred never to write could begin. All taking care not to betray his beloved idle Bartleby. At least he isn’t going to write anything, though he isn’t leaving behind the bombardment of slogans and commercials that for decades have crowed about the year 0 and 2000. The girl, of course, isn’t unaware of the galling effect provoked within Orlando by the excessive repetition.

“I’m thirsty.” Ipatria’s voice is a hollow echo, like the exit of a dream that neither she nor he are dreaming.

And it’s true that it made her thirsty. Enough to wake up. Although no simultaneous dream would ever be able to satiate them there.


It’s hour zero. Orlando has let his beard grow, his hair too. He’s skinny and the bags under his eyes look like black eyes. Maybe he’ll kill himself or get himself killed by someone else, it’s not a matter of a crisis, rather one of an unnamed sickness. Orlando’s expression is anguished. He’s not crazy, he’s focused, and as he rips out the photos from an album, he cuts them up with a pair of scissors. He does it meticulously, syll-a-ble by syll-a-ble, autistic-style. They’re photos of Ipatria, naked. While Ipatria, still naked in the other corner of the room, lets him create. Cogitate. She’s a bubbly girl, capricious, free, beautiful, with a decade less in her memory and for that reason almost real—Ipatria is a state of coma. Orlando knows that, after cutting up the silhouette of the girl he loves so much, it will be impossible to pronounce her three syllables again. “Her name begins where the image ends”—more or less like this, the novel about Ipatria that Orlando preferred not to write could begin.


A patrol car stirred up a cloud of dust with the halting of its brakes. The driver side door opened. Behind a pair of police shades, the man greeted them and asked for their license.

“Hand me the camera, please.”

The car didn’t waste any time in taking off. With Ipatria and Orlando inside, rigid as two strangers in the back seat. He tried to lower the window pane, but she remarked to him that the handle was missing. The car felt like a fishbowl with limited oxygen. As soon as they arrived at Zapata Station, the girl was the first to speak.

“Please, can someone explain to us what’s going on.”

“You two blind or you don’t know how to read?” was the response of the plain-clothed man. “That whole zone on the hill is an military-economic target. The wall that says, ‘NO PICTURES / PROHIBIDO FOTOGRAFIAR’ couldn’t be any bigger.”

“But no one took any photos,” was the last protest from Ipatria that Orlando understood from start to finish.

The inquiries lasted past midnight. Finally they recovered the Canon and the zoom lenses, but not the still-virgin Konica roll that was inside. It was a long process until the experts verified the innocuousness of that commercial tape. No light had filtered through there. For the moment, the suspicion of economic, military or tourist espionage didn’t apply to them.

An officer with eyes of cold light assured them in a confidential tone that the fine imposed would be the “minimum fee stipulated by current legislation”: a few pesos in national currency.

Ipatria and Orlando appreciated the gesture and in return accompanied her to the staircase by which she left and entered the station—the premises had probably been a luxurious private residence. When they emerged on the sidewalk, they turned and saw that, from the last marble step, the women with the icy eyes was still saying goodbye. Waving her hand, in proud silence—she was around fifty, but against the light she seemed like an immortal being. Orlando was tempted to ask her to let him take a photo. But he didn’t.

They walked off. Outside, the universe was a scandal of stars, each one twinkling, flash-repetition-style. Concave landscape, cloudless and moonless—a nightless night that, having left behind all that horror or error, surely wouldn’t even be worth the trouble to describe.


At the bend of Zapata and 12 they caught a P-2 with astonishing ease. It was an omnibus imported as a donation from Basque Country or Catalan—at such heights in the story, why bother distinguishing between them? What was important wasn’t how much sense the signs that hung from the roof made, but rather the air conditioning that still worked—something like the world’s first miracle, an expression of underdevelopment that somehow had never appeared.

At that hour the P-2 was almost empty, traveling at the speed limit. They stayed on foot, in each other’s arms, the pack between them as if it was a baby—the camera and zoom lenses half dismantled inside, heavy objects that they would have abandoned beneath an empty seat with pleasure. For some strange reason, neither of them thought to sit down until many kilometers later, just as they were arriving at their neighborhood’s stop and had to get off.

Orlando felt that he didn’t recognize the scenery or his escort. Ipatria felt nothing unrecognizable to anyone—in any case, it saddened her that her love once again felt like killing himself or getting himself killed.


“I have a sensation that tonight I’m going to be sick for real,” was the first sentence from Orlando in hours.

Ipatria didn’t even try to suppress a smirk. They were in the living room, facing the television lit up with static. The girl took Orlando by the arm and went from one end of the house to the other until collapsing in his room—lying on the bed folded-up hours or centuries before.

“Definitely,” she shook the boy’s slumped shoulders, which clenched, “the worst living writer of the millennium and the world.”

Orlando caressed the skinny, pale face of that insomniac Modigliani of the Cuban dawn. Ipatria drew him to her and gave him a little kiss on the lips.

Orlando closed his eyes. The cold light that hung from the ceiling disappeared. Along with the vague idea of maybe writing the novel counterclockwise. And the unphotographable aleph of the city he had tried to cut up with scissors and dismantle an album of disappeared. And his beard disappeared too. And the bags under his eyes, like a pair of black eyes. And the rest of his battle slang, all used up without a roll of Kodak film or a Canon camera. And also, of course, so close and so far out there, on the feeble string of the horizon, the pruned point of the monolith of Revolution Plaza finally disappeared, into the always-deserted night or maybe left for the vultures.

Everything disappeared from the other side of his wide-shut eyes. Everything, except the icy arms of Ipatria, mute magician in whose shadow Orlando slept or pretended to sleep.


Orlando gets up and goes to the bathroom. The moon shines on his face and its image is dead ice in the mirror of the medicine cabinet. He searches in it, finally finds what he’s looking for—it’s an electric razor, no batteries. He smells the metal. It flashes so brightly in his eyes that an idea jumps, demented and perfectly hygienic, to his head. Orlando doesn’t even try to suppress a smirk. Something ends and nothing begins for him. But there’s no danger, it’s just a gesture—take the sharpened blade to his neck and think of Ipatria, lying on the folded-up bed for hours or centuries afterwards. Orlando grips the knife, helps himself with his other hand. Meticulously, syll-a-ble by syll-a-ble, autistic-style, he begins to transform into a weightless child, absent-minded, free, beautiful, with a decade more of latent memory and thus almost unreal—Orlando is another state of coma. He knows that, after radically cutting up his beard, the girl that he loves for free will never forgive him. “Her image begins where her name ends”—more or less like this, the Ipatria novel that Orlando preferred never to write could end. The hairs fall in the sink and a trickle of water erases them with a swirl against the hands of the clock—nausea and vertigo spinning to the left. Orlando shaves, dizzy, with pupils dilated by adrenaline and an excess of lunar radiation. Almost blind. The crossword puzzle, with its inverted image inside the mirror, slides down the drain too, and Orlando takes that loss as a good signal—“be less like myself”, he smiles. As always happens to him with photos and words, although still nothing’s happened, for Orlando it’s hour zero again.

- Excerpted from the novel "Boring Home", available here in Spanish. Translated by David Iaconangelo. Photo by author (self-portrait).

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