A touching story, and likely more common, in one variation or another, than it may at first seem. Among other things, I have in mind lives that come to be defined by one event which casts its spell, be it evil, enlightening, forgiving—over all the other years.
The story I am going to tell, or retell, comes from Windmills in Brooklyn, a novel-memoir by a now forgotten Spanish-American writer, Prudencio de Pereda (b. 1912). Before getting to all this, however, I will briefly tell another story, which might be thought of as a mirror image or inversion of de Pereda’s tale. This other story was told to me by a hairdresser, some years ago, while he was cutting my hair. It was the story of his life all in one moment.
When in high school, he was part of a winning, ambitious basketball team, though he himself was not a good player; his position was far down on the bench. The team made it to the state championship, but this game it was not winning because the other team had a star player. At some point the coach came to future hairdresser and told him he was going into the game. The coach gave one instruction: “Take him out.” That is, injure the star player.
This was done, the championship was won, and the boy’s life—which may, even before this game, have been shadowed by intimations of shame and weakness—was now and hereafter, for all intents and purposes, over. He went through the various motions—finding an occupation, setting up a salon, buying a house and maintaining it, getting married and raising a family—but all in the shadow of this one event which, even a half century later, he could not get out of his mind.
So now we come to de Pereda’s story, which is, in fact, his grandfather’s (or that of “el Abuelo”). It, too, becomes a one-event story. But, again, its structure and resonance does not duplicate my old hairdresser’s; rather, it may seem an inversion—a quite different kind of event with a quite different kind of result, casting its rays backward over the shadows that preceded it. (Again, too, I will not here be telling de Pereda’s story, but retelling it—not giving the same surfaces in the same order, but describing what a reader may, at the end, feel the story has been.)
In his youth, el Abuelo, an elegant, but hardly wealthy man, made the mistake of marrying a woman who was not only beautiful, but vain, completely taken by her beauty (as she herself comes to admit). For example, she marries her husband (the future grandfather) because he is very gentle and kind, and—
“No parecia que afeara mi bellezza, pero por otra parte tampoco parecía hacerla suya.”
“He didn’t seem to spoil my beauty, but then, he didn’t seem to make it his either.”
Shortly after giving birth to her first child, she comes down with smallpox. She is quarantined in a hospital away from her husband and daughter, and, this being the nineteenth century, she is in danger of dying, and there is the possibility of her husband and child being infected as well. None of this worries her so much as the possibility that—because of the disease and if she is unable to resist scratching her face, which itches terribly—she will lose her beauty. She would rather die.
She does not die, and subsequently she convinces her husband that they should move to the United States, New York—the land of opportunity. In fact, he is quite happy working as a waiter in a first-class Tangier hotel, but he is deferential; his wife has the power.
As with other Spanish immigrants of that time, the work he is able to get in New York is hustling Cuban cigars—“puros”—around the town. I recently read a review of a book about capitalism that, you might say, lightly outlined el Abuelo’s dilemma. Business people and corporations
exploit human weaknesses not necessarily because they are malicious or venal, but because the market make them do it. Those who fail to exploit people will lose out to those who do.
As regards Pereda’s grandfather, this means he is only going to make a decent income if what he sells high, he has bought low—i.e. cigars that are not Cuban; that are impuros labelled assiduously, improperly. But el Abuelo is elegant and attached to his elegance. He has principles that he does not enjoy giving up and is not good at giving up. This makes for an uneasy life at best—difficulties paying the rent while his wife keeps hounding him to sell more, make more money, be more like “Agapito.”
Agapito, one of the other major characters of the story, is the most successful teveriano (hustler of Cuban cigars) in New York. In contrast to el Abuelo, he has a taste for disguises and for cozying up to potential clients who he hopes soon to be able to cheat. His philosophy is a version of that of many a good salesperson or con man: If they believe they’re Cuban cigars and if when they smoke them they enjoy the pleasure of a good Cuban cigar, then they have gotten their money’s worth, and I have hardly played an unpleasant role. Rather, I have been well paid for bringing them pleasure.
A twist of the knife of the story is that Agapito is, in a sense, in love with la Abuela, the boy’s beautiful, vain grandmother. Not that Agapito is trying to steal her away, but, admiring her stature as he does, he wants to help her, her husband, and her grandson. He takes the husband, and occasionally the boy too, out on hustling adventures and splits the profits with them, even though their own role has been, at the most, to provide diversion. In addition, for example, when the boy has gone on to City College and one of his friends gets a girl pregnant, Agapito not only pays for the abortion, he meets the terrified girl at the doctor’s office and holds her hand, reassures her.
So we can imagine how the boy is torn, caught in this heart-rending mix of beauty, vanity, elegance, principles, money, savoir-faire, love, cheating, and generosity. And, from a literary point of view, we might say that there would not quite be a book, or not a good one, if this were “all” there was to the story, if the boy were simply torn, as many of us are, between conflicting values, forces, and personalities of our childhoods. A child, a person, could easily be trapped for life, and thus in a sense destroyed, by such pressures. But de Pereda has the saving grace of being a writer, of being able to make something of his experience, to describe the conflicts, turn them into entertainment for others, and thus, in a sense, to triumph over them.
Windmills is long out of print in the United States, and it’s not easy to get hold of the text in English. De Pereda has now been, or is being (until now?) forgotten. But in his day he was a reasonably successful writer. According to a biographical sketch prepared by the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, de Pereda
published his first story in 1936, and during the Spanish Civil War, met Hemingway. The two collaborated on the commentary for the films Spain in Flames and The Spanish Earth, espousing the Loyalist Republican viewpoint.
Along with many short stories (which, in 1937, earned him an O’Henry award), de Pereda had three novels published: All the Girls We Loved (1948), Fiesta (1953), and Windmills (1960). The Texas website says that Fiesta became his most popular, while the Spanish text I bought says that All the Girls sold half a million copies.
The only work of del Pereda’s I have read is Windmills and it in a Spanish translation, Molinos de viento en Brooklyn, that has recently been published by the Spanish publisher Hojo de Lata. On this limited basis, I would say that this book and perhaps this writer might be left forgotten were it not for “Part 2” of the novel-memoir, in which the story becomes, let’s say, as large as life. As a writer, I am interested in how, when the memoir rises to an extravagance, we are, finally, able to feel fully what the story is about. We can feel the excruciating pain of the grandfather’s long life, the cruelty of the grandmother’s self-centeredness, and the double-edged sword of Agapito’s generosity, and how the boy, the narrator, de Pereda in his youth—and as a sensitive youth—has absorbed all this so that he is overflowing, bursting with conflict and emotion. (Thus we describe many a writer; as with a raging river, the only way of avoiding destruction or dissipation lies in being able to channel the excess, letting it rush into computers, onto pages.)
In his old age, el Abuelo is named the president of the local Spanish social club, one of the key institutions of the Spanish immigrant community in “La España” (in what is now known only as Brooklyn Heights). It is not thought that el Abuelo has the necessary force to do such a job, but he has confidence in himself. And he conceives the grand, or grandiose, idea of inviting the most famous Spanish dancer in the world to perform at the club’s annual event. By then in his mid-twenties, the dancer, Manolín, is in semi-retirement in Buenos Aires and is accustomed to receiving vast sums to perform. But el Abuelo has only $250.
He and the boy, now a college student, take the old El (elevated trains) to go meet Manolín’s agent at his room at the Waldorf-Astoria. El Abuelo explains his situation, offers the man a Cuban cigar, etc., and the agent agrees: Manolín will dance at the club for $250.
When the boat from Argentina arrives, the whole community is at the dock to greet Manolín. But, it turns out, in his semi-retirement he has grown enormously fat. How is he going to dance? And without shaming el Abuelo, the community, and himself?
The agent offers to return the $250, but el Abuelo refuses. A contract is a contract, and, moreover, he believes that everything happens for a reason. Although he is not a churchgoer, he believes that his life has been and remains in God’s hands, not his own. It is not for him to refuse his fate.
And yet the two weeks leading up to the event are excruciating. He has made a terrible mistake. He has been and is going to be yet further publicly humiliated in front of his wife and everyone else. And this, again, at the very end of a life gone wrong.
The night finally comes. Manolín, fat as he is, comes out on stage. And, fat as he is, the crowd applauds enthusiastically. Manolín is, after all, a great star, the great Spanish star.
I will close this retelling by quoting from the original English text, with two of the passages introduced (and duplicated) using the Spanish translation (by Ignacio Gómez Calvo). To me the Spanish reads better than the English. De Pereda, for all he was born in the United States, was not a native English speaker, and his writing at times gives evidence of this. Moreover, the events he is describing were happening in Spanish, in an immigrant community which was then full of people who knew little or no English. Let me stress, too, the importance, given the story I have recounted above, of Manolín’s dancing alone and as if caught in an internal duel.
Manolín estuvo esplendido esa noche; . . . Lo cierto es que el baile español es una disciplina totalmente individual; una cuestión de orgullo intimo para el artista, es su medio de expresión y posee el mismo carácter desafiante que el español muestra ante la muerte en una corrida de toros y ante Dios en la vida. El baile es un duelo, y el artista esta tan absorto en su técnica porque considera que es un asunto solo le interesa a él. . . .
Manolín was great that night—as great as we had heard. For the truth is that Spanish dancing is a completely individual thing; a matter of intimate pride to the performer, it is his own instrument of expression, and it has the same defiance that the Spaniard shows against death in the bullfight and against God in life. The dance is a duel, and the performer is so engrossed in its technique only because he feels it is a matter of his concern and his alone. The true Spanish dancer can dance alone—often, he needs no music.
His fat could not deter Manolín. The fat was another element to conquer, this time with a dominated technique as the ally, not the foe. The inner genius that had made Manolín a great dancer at the age of fourteen was still strong and burning. It fought through to expression easily; the fat was disciplined.
He danced zapateados, flamencos, and many classical and folk dances. A quiet, effective guitar was his only accompaniment, and in one magnificent dance he used only the rhythm of his own fingers and heels to guide him. Between dances his big body slumped with growing exhaustion, and he stared coldly at the big enthusiastic audience that applauded with growing fervor every time. . . .
Era un gran artista, y único, y convertido la fiesta del Abuelo en el mayor triunfo que La España ha conocido jamás.
He was a great artist, and alone, and he made Grandfather’s fiesta the biggest triumph La España ever had.
It might be said that the stress and excitement so exhausts el Abuelo, it kills him. He dies shortly afterward. It might be said that Manolín’s performance allows him to finally die in peace.
— William Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo and a writer of essays and dialogues. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website.
Photographs above are of the contemporary New York modern dancer Lawrence Goldhuber. The top, straitjacket photograph is by Josh Gosfield. The second solo photograph is by Isabel Waterneaux. The duet is from a musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Goldhuber is shown dancing with Todd Buonopane.
Prudencio de Pereda’s Windmills in Brooklyn was the first book to be published by the then (June 1960) newly formed Atheneum Press. A used copy or two may be available from AbeBooks. The New York Public Library’s copy can be read at the Schwarzman Building of the library. Ignacio Gómez Calvo and Hoja de Lata have produced a handsome and highly readable Spanish text. The cover photo of the Spanish text is by Helen Levitt (1913-2009), a New York street photographer who was once called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.”
The biographical information about de Pereda was prepared by the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center where de Pereda’s papers have been deposited.
The “exploit human weaknesses” is from Cass R. Sunstein, “Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us,” New York Review of Books, October 22, 2015. This is a review of Phishing for Pfools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller (Princeton University Press, 2015).
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