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La Zona Fantasma: Get The Picture, Jerk?

La Zona Fantasma: Get The Picture, Jerk?

Javier Marías
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There I was, signing books in Barcelona on the day of St. Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia. On this day, when as tradition dictates, people give one another gifts of roses and books, I was in the middle of a book-signing session. The bookstore to whose stand I had been assigned had set things up in a particular way to handle the flow of customers: to avoid bottlenecks they had some seven authors (most of them far more popular than I) seated at a long table, and the customers were asked to approach us one at a time. Suddenly one of the booksellers walked over to me and handed me a rose: “This is from one of your readers,” he said. Why, what a lovely thing to do, I thought, and then put the rose to the side so that I could continue signing books. After a short while, however, the bookseller approached me again, with yet another message. “This is from the woman who gave you the rose; she wants you to look at the card.” Only then did I realize that, beneath the cellophane wrapping there was a rolled-up slip of paper stuck to the stem of the flower. I paused for a moment, opened it, and began to read an extremely insulting note. When I looked up, a woman sandwiched in among the crowd made an insolent gesture in my direction, as if to ask, “Get the picture, jerk?” The only thing missing in her silent statement was that other, very Spanish gesture which consists of making a fist and holding the arm horizontally in front of you, then executing a sharp hand movement with the exterior side of the fist, which is the physical equivalent of the comment “Take that!” Since I am not able to see myself, I cannot accurately describe the expression that crossed my face, but my intention was to respond with a silent “Oh, well, that’s the way it goes,” or perhaps “Oh, well, all part of a day’s work.” But in a flash the woman turned around and disappeared, her patient mission completed.

A couple of years ago I went to the city of Zaragoza to present a novel. A few days after returning home, I received a letter from someone in the aforementioned city who showered me with insults and vowed to prohibit me from setting foot there ever again. The writer went on to tell me that during my very recent and very short visit, he had actually spit on me though I hadn’t realized it. (He was right: had I realized, a fistfight would most certainly have ensued). At first, I thought—or wanted to think—that his blustering was a put-on, but when I saw that he had very clearly printed his initials and return address on the envelope, I couldn’t help but write a very terse note in response. I believe I still had enough of a sense of humor to start my missive with the greeting “Dear Spitting Coward.”

Not long ago a friend of mine who writes for El País Semanal, though for much less time than I have, and as such far less accustomed to this kind of verbal abuse, received a number of letters from some retired military officers who cursed him up and down for a simple parenthetical statement he had included in one of his articles. It seems that he had pointed out the fact that Hitler’s famous book, Mein Kampf, had first been published in Germany on July 18.“(What a day),” my friend had remarked in his article. He was so incensed by the avalanche of nasty mail that he received for this offhand remark that he confessed to me he felt very tempted to respond to every single letter, and not very gracefully, either.“Don’t stoop to their level,” I advised him.“You should always be polite.” In light of this, he decided not to respond, and perhaps that is indeed the best tactic for this type of situation. But I understood his reaction perfectly: when these boorish correspondents include a return name and address, it is absolutely infuriating because that name and address are their way of flaunting what they believe to be their a priori impunity, taking for granted that you will keep your mouth shut or swallow your pride.

On other occasions, of course, the letters bear neither a signature nor a return address. One of the finest specimens of this type came to me once from Valencia. The letter writer in question told me: “Your mother must have fucked a Red.” And believe me, this is the least of it. Most of you see only the letters that the newspapers select for publication, and newspapers, I imagine, cannot publish letters with serious accusations or obscene language. But don’t doubt it for a minute: all of us who write newspaper articles have to put up with this kind of thing all the time. Some of us more, some of us less, but I can promise you that no columnist is ever completely free from this kind of treatment.

About twelve years ago, a certain magazine decided I was the worst writer of all time, an idea that does not lack merit necessarily. However, not only did the editors of the magazine reiterate this comment relentlessly throughout the issue in question, but they actually mailed me a copy of their leaflet with remarkable tenacity, as well as letters from individuals who supported their thesis. I replied by saying that they were free to believe whatever they wished, but not to fill my mailbox with their broadsides. Wouldn’t you know they still regularly send me these leaflets, sometimes with a real return address, sometimes with an invented one— occasionally they put the name of some publishing house or an individual, and once they even put the name of the veteran director of a prominent literary supplement. I always know when a certain package or letter is of their doing, and it has been some eleven years since I’ve opened anything they send me. They once even wrote to my father, who at the time was quite elderly, and urged him to convince me to abandon writing once and for all.These days, there are those who telephone my very patient brothers (whose information, unlike my own, appears in the telephone book) in the hope that my brothers will relay their insults to me. (For my part, I generally compensate this nuisance with the occasional gift.)

I offer these stories as examples of what I think is, very probably,the most accurate indicator of hatred:some people are not satisfied with simply hurting someone; they have to watch them get the picture. The rose woman resorted to subterfuge and all sorts of tricks just to catch a glimpse of me reading her obnoxious note.The imbecile from Zaragoza, given that I hadn’t noticed him, went to great pains to make sure that I knew he had spit on me. And as for the idiots from that magazine, they aren’t satisfied with simply trashing my books and letting everyone in the world know how they feel; they will not rest easy until they know that I know what they are saying about me. So there you have it, an example that maybe you can apply to your own lives: fear not those who wish to harm you but rather those who cannot bear to be ignored by you. Because the latter group will always include the ones whose hatred runs the deepest.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

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