Carmen Boullosa

Cleopatra Dismounts

To Roberto Bolaño, Francisco Goldman, and Paul Berman,

to whom,

in one way or another, I owe this book.

“My heart, my heart, be whole and free: Love is thine only enemy.”

— George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra


Diomedes, the funny old fart, left behind a pile of documents, written in his own hand, but he gave me no clear idea what to do with them. “I’m leaving you things I want preserved and copied,” he said. “My eternal rest depends on them.”

With that, he lay down to sleep, for good. Without a word of goodbye! He breathed his last as if it were a matter of indifference.

His life went out like the flame of an exhausted oil lamp. Easier, because there was no guttering, no nervous flicker, no nothing. He gave up the ghost without a murmur. Imperturbably. Like a creature turned to stone. Exactly the way he’d lived, at least for as long as I’d known him. A man of stone, is precisely what he was. You know, I had never even heard the sound of his breathing.

“My eternal rest,” I ask you! Did he want more of the same, in death as in life? Wasn’t he sick of his stone-like state? Always perched there, motionless, immovable, petrified. Day and night, bent over his writing tablet, like he was nailed to the thing, like an old bone drying out in that cell of his, forever shut in, forever silent, doing nothing that amounted to anything, just scratch, scratch, scratch on his wax tablet, scribbling away all hours of the day and night. What did he want more peace for? Hadn’t he had more than his fill of it already?

Since the day I started as his assistant, he didn’t open his mouth to me. And what a mouth! Plagued by open sores. He didn’t seem to be aware how revolting his dying flesh was. He was so blind to his own condition and everything else he didn’t even notice the difference between day and night. The only thing he attended to was the rapid scribbling of his stylus on the wax. Mr. Scratch-his-wax! What a disgusting, dreary, old bore!

Three years I spent at his place, right up to his death. I never heard him utter a word of complaint. And I was there the whole time, listening, waiting for orders. He never gave me a single one. My job turned out to be the same as his, to wait for his death. Finally he let his life slip away, the same way he’d lived it, as if nothing were happening.

The total absence of drama, his desire not to rouse any desire, the will to reduce himself to absolute zero made him, I can tell you, as boring as hell! What could I have found interesting about him? That he was a record-breaking monument of dullness, maybe? Yes, they’d told me that he and Cleopatra, etc., etc. . But I wasn’t going to fall for that crap. No way. A sucker I am not.

Yet, when I thought about Cleopatra, the last words to come to mind were “boring, stupid, and decrepit.” The mere mention of her name was enough to set bells ringing, shadows dancing, and handsome lips seeking out a handsome body. The name Cleopatra wakens the world to life.

I never figured out why Diomedes had hired me. Why the hell did he need a scribe at his side? What was the point of it? Nothing that I could see. Nothing at all. But I was a poor student and needed the cash. So I kept my mouth shut, pocketed the money, and got on with my job, which, to the best of my understanding, consisted of doing nothing.

I got dreadfully bored while he scribbled away like a man possessed. At the end, on that last day, he did give me an order, if you can call it that. I mean the few words he muttered before he died. Or burned out, as would be the truer description. Some people die, others just run out of fuel. Diomedes did the latter.

Thus, to fulfil my contract, now that he is gone, I read what he’d been writing on those tablets during his last years. I read every single word. Then I started to copy them in my own hand, which is a lot firmer than the old man’s was, and a lot more legible, too, for that is the nature and beauty of ink. So far I’ve made two copies of his tablets. Once I’ve finished chatting with you, I’ll start on the third copy. After that, I’ll do the fourth, the fifth, and so on, till the end of my days. To my eyes, they are not well organized, but that’s the order in which he left the tablets. So of necessity, I’ve made my own choices, and they are as follows: first, Cleopatra does the talking. Then Diomedes. In his rambling fashion he explains who he is and why he is transcribing the words of Cleopatra. Then come two more times the voice of Cleopatra, plus three short interventions from the old boy.

I’ve referred to Diomedes as an old fart, who did nothing but scratch wax tablets instead of his fat belly and who really disgusted me. It took me a positive effort even to look at him, while he died there bit by bit, in silence, from his revolting disease. It was beyond my comprehension what I was doing there. But now I’ve seen another side to him. I’m not unsaying anything I’ve said. I’ll never rid my memory of his repulsive figure, but there is another way of seeing him. If I were to write his biography, I’d have to make two versions. In the first, he would be this boring, motionless bulk, with disease eating away at his face. In the second, there would be a young man trapped inside that rotting carcass. What sort of man? Well, a lively, sparky character, with burning appetites and smothering regrets, alert and vital, eager to get the best out of life. How do I reconcile him with that silent hulk? How do I decide which was the real Diomedes? Do I need to decide?

In those texts, Diomedes was trying to recapture Cleopatra’s voice, trying to get her to speak through him. Isn’t recapturing a sort of assimilating, eating, digesting? I’m reminded of the horses of the hero Diomedes, which Euripides talks about. They devoured human flesh. Maybe the old boy was devouring Cleopatra in his way, while I thought he was doing nothing whatsoever. And motionless as he was, working on his too difficult digestion, for she’s not an easy dish!

The old boy turned into a lively youngster. Now, look, he’s turned into a flesh-eating stallion. You can see why he ended up with three different portraits of the same Cleopatra. Each one appears at a different period of her life. I placed them in the order I personally liked best. First, Diomedes presents her talking, while she awaits death at the hands of the Romans, a Cleopatra in defeat. Then comes the girl Cleopatra, escaping from her father at the age of twelve and seeking out the alliances that will elevate her to the Egyptian throne. In the third version appears the young queen. Once again, she has momentarily lost the throne and once again she goes in search of military allies to restore what properly belongs to her. Why did I adopt this order? Because, as I read them, I began to see Cleopatra through the eyes of Diomedes. These texts are both hers and his. He shows us his Cleopatra, filtered through his feelings for her, her starry night sky glimpsed through his humble, squinting eyes. Between one voice of Cleopatra and another, I let Diomedes interject his views. Here and there, I must confess, I have even added silently an observation or two of my own. Why not? I have valid opinions, too, you know.

I am still unsettled by the difference between the Diomedes who so scrupulously reflected Cleopatra in his writings, and the blindly indifferent figure, careless of his own welfare, whom I myself saw each day. I believe he caught the genuine accents of some of Cleopatra’s voice in these texts, as surely as if he again heard her speaking before him. But speaking in his own voice, the old boy revealed just how lost he had become.

That’s all I have to say. I am going to copy out one more version of these words that you can now read for yourselves.

The Corpse

Your love has buried everything.

— Propertius

“I am dead, my king,” I wrote to you, meaning that defeat had overtaken me, even before the battle at Actium. “I am dead, my king. The word will not scorch your mouth because I have been dead to you for some time now. Follow the steps of Dionysus. Your god has abandoned Alexandria. Attended by an ostentatious procession, he left by the eastern gate late at night, awash with music, bearing our laughter with him.”

I can imagine how lost you must have felt, Mark Antony, on reading in that first sentence, penned by the living hand of Cleopatra: the details of my death. Around you, played your musicians, interpreting your sadness at the undeniable departure of your dear Dionysus. You read only the start of my letter, rashly jumping to erroneous conclusions and delivering yourself into the hands of your evil genius.

“I am a dead woman,” I should have told you in my message. “I have been a corpse from even before the time I bore you twins, while you were celebrating your marriage to the sister of the man who wishes to turn himself into our torturer. From that moment on, I have been a dead woman. From that moment on, I suffocate, and I return to life only in your presence, rolling like a barren sphere toward the grave, or soaring like a golden orange from the Garden of the Hesperides, tossed from the hand of the handsome hero — all as your caprices dictate. My willpower is stolen from me by yours, enslaved by your destiny since the time we conceived a woman and a man, a sun and a moon, when first you lived with me in Alexandria. You, Mark Antony, my guide and my destroyer, once again you have lost me and this time for ever.”

Defeat, Marcus Antonius Dionysus Osiris, befell us long before the events in the Gulf of Ambracia, south of Epirus, facing the promontory of Actium. There we planned to make our move as soon as the enemy fleet gave us an opening. To provoke this, we sent out Publicola, pretending to be a rowdy boor, to attack them. But then I released to the winds the sails of my squadron’s sixty ships and, loaded with the treasures of the Lagids, I fled the Peloponnesus to avoid a pointless sacrifice. With abrupt swiftness you followed me, chasing me in a quinquireme. You ordered the other 180 ships in your fleet to do the same. On board your ship you had Alexander of Syria and Artavasde, king of Armenia, the last of the Arsacids, son and heir of the great Tigranes.

When you and your men came aboard my vessel, the “Antony”—its purple sails aloft, swollen by a favorable wind — Artavasde witnessed your foolish outburst of rage at not having won the victory. You blamed the advice I gave you — to wage war at sea and not on land. It was wrong, I admit, but you could have ignored it, General, and relied on your own strategists.

After your show of fury came silence. For the three days it took us to reach Tenarus, you refused to speak. You broke silence only to answer (and then merely in the form of a question) the shouts of a cocky, strutting youth who wagged his spear at you. His chest bare, his sinews bronzed by the sun, he humiliated you, saved from our rage by our bad luck. In his light Liburnian ship he had overtaken us, his hair and beard unornamented but for sea-salt and sand. Seeing you hunched up and motionless, your face hidden in your hands, elbows on your knees, he plucked up enough courage to shout at you, all bravado, befouling you with ugly epithets.

“Who are you to be pursuing Antony?” was all you said. With a few astute commands you could have captured him and, if your frame of mind had not been so enfeebled, you would have had him strung up for far less an impertinence.

“I’m Eurycles, son of Lacares, blessed with the luck you so badly need. I am here to avenge the death of my father.”

You did not explain to me that Lacares had been convicted of theft and then beheaded on your orders. You were still refusing to speak a word to me. Somebody else had to explain things to me before I understood that outrageous scene.

With these words Eurycles, the son of a thief, turned his ship around and attacked another of our contingent, carrying off its load of silver, more out of greed than a sense of honor. It was typical of a man who dared no more than shout that he wanted to avenge the insult to his family’s name; his squalid inherited character proved how just had been the death sentence passed on his father. On the periphery of the battle, under the pretext of vengeance, the rascal stole from us; he sullied his hands with theft, like the vile devourers of carrion that stalk their prey in cowardly style only after the battle is over.

While the coward behaved this way, you did not stir an inch. You remained seated near the ship’s keel, elbows on knees, your face in the palms of your hands. I could not take the reins and avenge this humiliation because the shame you were inflicting on us had shattered my will to act.

As for those who witnessed your reproaches, your anger, your stony silence, I hereby give the order for their decapitation. I had been planning this ever since we disembarked at Tenerus. There I visited the shrines of Demeter and Aphrodite. Jupiter’s temple I avoided, for they say it contains the entrance to Hell. I want no record to remain of that degrading scene, where you were the acrostolium on the prow of my ship, the “Antony,” exposing us in your weakness to so much humiliation that even a common thief, without brains, honor, or money ventured to attack us.

Those witnesses have been silent for one year, but what guarantee is there that they will be so for two? Hence, I order their execution. From that order I except you, Diomedes, for your eyes are not eyes; you are the hand with which I write these words: Behead the witnesses! I especially want Artavasde dead.

And yes, it’s true, Mark Antony, you didn’t want to take me to the confrontation with Octavius. You wanted me to stay in Alexandria. But I bribed your general, Canidius, to convince you of the advantages of taking me to the battleground. I allowed him to export, tax-free, 10,000 sacks of wheat and to import 5,000 ceramic jars. Hence he found the means to make you see how much you needed to take your Cleopatra to the scene of the battle.

If Diomedes does not know this — and I can see by your eyes you don’t — it’s because it was his own secretary who presented Canidius with the terms I sealed with my own signature. I wasn’t thinking about war; I just couldn’t bear, Antony, for you to be far away from me, to see you stolen again from your Cleopatra by the charms of a Roman wife.

I came back to the “Antony” to make that notorious return crossing. All the while, you, Antony, bent over, almost kneeling, sunk deep inside yourself, you were humiliating us both, all because of that sickly, second-rate weakling who had pursued us. Meanwhile that nobody, Octavius, was crowing over a victory that neither he nor his clever Agrippa deserved credit for. Standing high on the stern, he relished the thought of the praises his poets would lavish on him in the near future.