Montreal, Zero Hour by Alejandro Saravia, translated by María José Giménez

“You see,” Carmencita Liang said in English on a February evening in Montreal, drinking Spanish wine in her small apartment near Place-des-Arts metro station, “in China we keep our ancestors’ last name for generations. That’s how we know where we come from. We’re not like you. You only keep your father’s last name but don’t really know exactly where you’re from.”

“And where are you from?” Mateo Morales asked her.

She enjoyed the wines Mateo brought over, and liked hearing details about their vintage, the mineral qualities of the soil in their growing region, the history of the vineyards, which he’d surely invented—as her concerned mother would say over the phone from continental China, you can’t trust men in this world, and even less if they’re from South America. But the wines were good, especially because Mateo brought them. Being with him even for a few hours a week after work, she could forget about Beijing, or at least invent it from a distance, see it differently, as if it became a new city in the rain. Friends who had arrived in Vancouver with her were already married. They had Chinese husbands and Chinese children who spoke Mandarin with accents similar to the ones she thought she remembered hearing during her childhood, in the long winters of her city, Wuhan, in the Hubei province, in the country’s central region. The few times Carmencita visited them—when she traveled to British Columbia and sat in their living room sofas—she felt a sort of asphyxia and a terrible urge to cry. She felt trapped, as if deep inside she’d never left China. And then she would think of Mateo. She didn’t love him. Deep inside she didn’t even know what type of affection connected them, or what she was looking for in him. I’m so dumb, she chastised herself in Mandarin and English, thinking about how her parents would react. They could never accept her relationship with a gwailo, a foreigner, a barbarian.

“This Spanish wine is really good, better than some of the ones from the Okanagan,” Carmencita answered, tasting the wine and watching the snow fall, knowing she knew British Columbia wines better than Mateo did.

It was 10:00 PM. She thought of turning on the television and watch her boyfriend, Peter Mansbridge, deliver the latest news from the world of shadows that lay beyond her window, but she decided against it and lit a couple of candles instead.

That night they decided two things: He wanted to learn more about Comrade Mao and hear about Carmencita’s years in communist China, and she wanted to watch the movie The Doors again, with Val Kilmer in his tight leather pants playing Jim Morrison. She liked to make love watching it, seeing Mateo’s body gliding over hers, the sweat glistening on his back reflecting the glow of the muted television. Mateo asked her again, “Where are you from?” She thought for a while about how to answer that question so many people asked her in different contexts. This time Carmencita Liang opted for what she thought was the truth. In a slow whisper, as if talking to herself, she answered:

“I come from a defeated emperor, from a dynasty that crumbled in the 550s among betrayals, wars, bribes and massacres. But the slaves, we remained. The slaves. That’s why we survived, because we’d accepted that condition, because the world has always needed slaves, by any name.”

She looked out the window and saw the snow, the orange glow of the city streets in the nightscape. The brick walls of the building next door. She heard the distant murmur of conversations in neighbouring apartments, the muted crunch of cars driving over snow. They emptied their glasses and refilled them with wine. Mateo thought of telling her that she was in Canada now, that she wasn’t a slave, but he didn’t want to fall into Manichean positions and say that Communists were terrible or that capitalists were barbarians.

“I know Comrade Mao was a pig,” Mateo said, thinking of the histrionic and violent public trials of the Cultural Revolution, convicts carrying self-condemning signs hanging from their neck, walking on their knees with their hands tied, confessing imaginary bourgeois offences, begging forgiveness for not having demonstrated their revolutionary spirit with sufficient fervour and frenzy.

“If you say that in China they execute you, or at least declare you mentally ill. They lock you up in a hospital for two years until people forget about you, and if you get out, you’ll have changed so much even your mother won’t recognize you,” Carmencita explained.

“Well, what I mean is Mao was just a horny mammal who enjoyed frolicking naked with the young comrade women in the Party in rivers all over China.”

“Of course, that’s true,” Carmencita replied, “besides, who knows if the comrades could even refuse the little great leader access to their bodies? Did they have any other choice? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“And if Comrade Mao had asked you to swim with him in the river? What would you have done?” Mateo asked.

Her eyes widened in surprise at his question. After thinking for a moment, she replied:

“I would say yes, that I’d swim naked in the river with the great leader, but only if he can sing “A Thousand Kisses Deep” just like comrade Leonard Cohen. If he can’t sing just like that, he can go kiss comrade Stalin’s snout!” she laughed.

She searched for the song and started playing it on her computer. Leonard gave a knowing smile, ran his fingers along the edge of his fedora and tilted it down, grabbed the microphone and with eyes half-closed started singing for the couple that had called on him: The ponies run, the girls are young, the odds are there to beat... The horses run, the girls are naked in the river, avoiding Mao Zedong’s chubby hands lusting after them, forgetting the Great Leap Forward and the filthy imperialist rat Chiang Kai-shek, Mao splashing around, trying to grab the breasts of the comrades who dive down like mermaids and disappear into the river, trying in vain to dodge the weight of history.

“His name is Wang Weilin.”


“My husband. You asked me what his name was and where he was.”

“And where is he?”

“He’s with us.”

“Right here?”

“Right here in this bedroom.”

Mateo thought she was joking, that the wine was starting to put weird words in her mouth, or perhaps she really was starting to reminisce about that man who was like a ghost between them. They had just made love, and now they were naked on the sofa bed, leaning against the wall. Him, savouring the brief moment of surrendering their bodies to their world of synchrony, to its rules and intuitions. Her, immersed in that lucid state that follows having left your body for an instant. Perhaps it was because of that state of lightness, of absolute freedom, that she said her husband was in the apartment next to them.

“He was the man who stood in front of the tanks in June 1989 on Chang’An Avenue, the Eternal Peace Street in Beijing.”

She got up, walked from the bed to her desk, opened a drawer and took out a tin of Danish Maid cookies. She took the lid off, licked her index finger, dipped it inside the can and then drew an eye on Mateo’s chest with her finger. He was still sitting on the bed, watching her. The eye was made of ashes, which stuck to his skin upon contact with his sweat as if Carmencita’s finger was a charcoal stick.
“Now you are my Wang Weilin, you are my husband,” she said, kissing him on the mouth, lying on top of his body, pressing her moist breasts against the outline of the ash eye that was now sticking to her body.

They lay on their backs staring at the ceiling for a while, thinking, watching the lights of the night and the snow, still falling. He opened another bottle. This time, a red wine from the Inniskillin vineyards. He filled their glasses and sat next to Carmencita. Leonard had left a short while ago; Shigeru Umebayashi’s slow music had taken his place. Carmencita began to tell him the story by candlelight.

“He died in Vancouver, in 1992, a year after we arrived together. He died and I couldn’t tell anyone. Because we got married in secret, because it was easier to enter Canada that way, because they were looking for him everywhere, because Beijing has cowardly eyes all over the world. He died of septicaemia, like Bethune. He worked as a cook without papers at a restaurant and he cut his finger one day. He didn’t want to go to the hospital. He was afraid someone would find out he was in Canada. So he just wrapped his finger in gauze dipped it in hydrogen peroxide. That was it, but the next day when he woke up, his arm was so swollen it was as big as his leg. He spent the next three or four days sweating an awful fever. I cried and begged him to let me call a doctor, but he made me swear I wouldn’t. At the end, all he asked me to do was take his ashes back and spread them in Tiananmen Square. To toss them into the air, into the eyes of the soldiers, into Mao’s face, that like that, in his dusty disguise, they could never arrest him.”

Mateo looked down at the eye drawn on his chest again. He looked at the other eye rubbed between Carmencita’s breasts and took a long sip, listening to her cry almost in silence. He thought he’d fallen asleep, that he was dreaming the entire scene when he heard once again the voice of his grandfather, César Morales, coming home. As soon as he walked through the door, the old man dropped a tocuyo bag on the floor, making a noise like wooden boards, like tarkas hitting the floor of their small house on calle Los Incas, near the Puno train station. His face was tired and his beard was grey, and he smelled like coca, like smoke, like sweat, like grasslands on a rainy day. He’d been gone for three months. Before he began his trip, standing by the front door, he promised his daughter he would find her husband and bring him back. He had travelled the roads from Puno to Espinar. From there, he continued his search towards Santo Tomás, Abancay and Andahuaylas. He would eat his charque, his chuño, and sleep in travellers’ rooming houses. He wandered day after day along the streets of Ayacucho, asking in Quechua and in Spanish whether anyone had seen...., explaining he was looking for a young man with glasses in a blue denim jacket. He spent night after night listening to barflies’ stories in chinganas lit by weak lights that barely fought off darkness. They would buy him drinks. He would also treat them sometimes and pour some liquor on the ground to thank the Pachamama, until one night, after many glasses someone said something, someone remembered something, a place behind the university, gunfire echoing at dawn some time ago. He went up to Huanta, went down to Alpachaca. He wandered around Universidad San Cristóbal de Huamanga. It was the Manchay Tiempo, the Time of Fear. In those years, Mao’s texts—translated from Mandarin into Spanish, poorly digested by fervent Senderista comrades—travelled hidden in knapsacks, bags and bundles reeking of dynamite. With his head about to burst from altitude sickness, the soroche, comrade Mao climbed up and down mountains in the Andes, driven to madness by apachetas, by the silent gaze of the huacas, not understanding even a word of the sweet Quechua tongue, confined to living in constant imprisonment with the red flags, with the yellow hammer and sickle painted on a corner of the fabric. Mao wandered through the sinuous streams, coves and rocky rivers, thinking that deep down his true vocation was composing plays for Chinese opera. He thought his unhinged Peruvian followers were not fighting a revolution, but were instead performing an armed opera, a mechanically choreographed Chinese play that mimicked—even in the confinement of Lima’s jails, at the Canto Grande prison—marches, uniforms, berets, images on great murals, fiction posters proclaiming the new China with muscular peasants moving forward with the unstoppable course of history, fists raised high, with their caps, the red star, hammer, sickle, and the broad hyperbolic red flags flying high, with trust in history, spread across the horizon of all of humanity. In sweeping red brushstrokes, “Long live Gonzalo Thought!” was painted all over the dusty adobe walls in Ayacucho, Puno and Lima’s improvised fabric-and-cardboard slums.

His grandfather hired a local pickaxe-and-shovel man. That night, chewing coca for strength and patience, at times sipping liquor, they dug and dug together next to an adobe wall covered with the chipping red paint of a slogan in worship of presidente Gonzalo. They started digging around six or seven in the evening, when the sunlight was almost gone. If they didn’t find anything by one or two in the morning, they would cover the hole and leave. On the third day, the old man began to doubt the man who, in a moment of euphoric brotherly affection, reeking of pisco, had tipped him off on the existence of graves behind the garrison. At last on their fifth night of digging, they found something in the depths of the earth. Shining his pocket flashlight, the old man managed to recognize a few tatters of crumbling fabric, twisted eyeglasses next to a perforated skull, bones that looked like those of a curled up animal. He found a few shreds of rotten paper inside a pocket and knew at once he’d found what he was looking for, that he’d found what he hadn’t wanted to find. He cried like old men cry, leaving grudges aside and clinging to the warmth of their memories, family moments lived on different days under different suns. He wasn’t his son, but he cried as if he had been. He put the bones in a bag and headed back to Puno. When he walked into the house, the old man dropped the bag he was carrying and walked up to Mateo. He knelt down and held him for a long time. The child stretched out trying to hug him back, breathing in smoke, sheep smell, grasslands. He didn’t know he knew. He didn’t yet believe in intuition, or know the weight of death, but in that moment something told Mateo that his grandfather had brought his father back.

“See, I come from a dynasty of betrayals, wars, bribes and massacres? That’s what happened to the Liangs, to millions of Liangs. Only the slaves remain, only the slaves because the rest were slaughtered in the Square.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to take his ashes back to Beijing one day?”

“No, not me. But you can. You’re already taking them with you,” she said.

He’d met Carmencita at the Kam Sheng restaurant, in Montreal’s Chinatown, where she worked as a server.

“How come your name is Carmencita?” Mateo asked the Asian woman clad in white shirt and black skirt who brought him the menu.

“Oh, because in French school our teacher couldn’t pronounce my name, so he said to me, ‘You look like a Carmencita, so from now on your name will be Carmencita.’ ”

“Oh! I see.”

The first night they spent together she explained it again:

“I liked the name Carmencita. It reminded me of Carmela, who sang against the Franquistas during the Spanish Civil War. Bethune went there before he went to China, where he died. That’s how I know about Carmela and the war against fascism in Spain. We learned about it in school.”

In the end, they didn’t watch the Jim Morrison movie, and Mateo never asked again about Comrade Mao. They drank more wine, heard Cohen’s words again, ... and summoned now to deal with your invincible defeat..., made love again, without saying a word, and stayed lying on their backs, with those eyes drawn upon their chests, not yet completely erased by sweat and intimacy, eyes made of ash, wide open, waiting for dawn to arrive.
Alejandro Saravia (Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1962) has lived in Canada since 1986. He is a journalist in Montreal, Quebec, where he works as a journalist and participates in the collective Apostles Review, which has published poetry, narrative and essays by Latino-Canadian authors since 2004. His publications have appeared in publications across Canada and the United States, including Quiebre, Tinta y Sombra, Mapalé, Alter Vox, The Fourth River, and Cactus Heart. His novel Rojo, amarillo y verde was published in 2003. In addition to a short fiction volume on the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’état, Cuarenta momentos chilenos (2013), he has published seven collections of poems.

María José Giménez is a Venezuelan-Canadian poet and translator. Recipient of a 2016 Gabo Prize for Translation and fellowships from the NEA, The Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and the Katharine Bakeless Nason Endowment, María José is co-director of Montreal’s collective The Apostles Review and Assistant Translation Editor for Drunken Boat.