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Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa


To José Maria Gutiérrez

II y a des hommes n’ayant pour mission parmi les autres que de servir d’intermédiaires; on les franchit comme des ponts, et Ton va plus loin.

L’éducation sentimentale


“Wake up, Panta!” Pochita is saying. “It’s eight o’clock already. Panta, Pantita.”

“Eight already? God, I’m tired,” yawns Pantita. “Did you sew on my new stripe?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, sir,” Pochita stands at attention. “Oh, excuse me, Captain, sir. Until I get used to it, honey, you’re going to continue being my little lieutenant. Yes, it looks just fine. But get up now—don’t you have an appointment?”

“Yes, at nine,” Pantita is lathering his face. “Where will they send us, Pocha? Hand me the towel, please. Hey, where do you think?”

“Here, in Lima,” Pochita is looking out at the gray sky, the terraces, the cars, the pedestrians. “Oh, it just makes my mouth water: Lima, Lima, Lima.”

“Don’t be a dreamer. It’ll never be Lima. What a pipe dream,” Panta looks at himself in the mirror, knots his tie. “If it’s only some city like Trujillo or Tacna I’ll be happy.”

“How funny this item in
El Comercio
is,” Pochita is making a face. “In Leticia some guy crucified himself to announce the end of the world. They put him in a nuthouse but people took him out by force because they think he’s a saint. Leticia’s in the Colombian part of the jungle, isn’t it?”

“How handsome you are dressed up as a captain, my son,” Mother Leonor puts the marmalade, bread and milk on the table.

“Now it’s Colombia; before it was Peru. They took it away from us,” Panta spreads butter on a piece of toast. “Give me a little more coffee, Mama.”

“I wish they’d send us to Chiclayo again,” Mother Leonor brushes the crumbs onto a plate and removes the tablecloth. “After all, we were so well off there, isn’t that so? To me, the main thing is that they don’t make us move too far from the coast. Get going, boy. Good luck. You have my blessing.”

“In the name of the Father and the Holy Ghost and the Son W
,” Brother Francisco raises his eyes to the night, lowers his eyes to the torches. “My hands are tied, the wood is an offering, make the sign of the cross for me.”

“Colonel López López is waiting for me, miss,” says Captain Pantaleón Pantoja.

“And also two generals,” she gives him a funny look. “Just go in, Captain. Yes, that one, the brown door.”

“Here’s our man,” Colonel López López stands up. “Come in, Pantoja. Congratulations on that new stripe.”

“The highest grade on your promotion exam and by unanimous decision of the judges,” General Victoria stretches out a hand, claps him on the shoulder. “Bravo, Captain. That’s how you serve career and country.”

“Sit down, Pantoja,” General Collazos is motioning to a sofa. “Make yourself comfortable and hold on tight, so you can hear what you’re about to hear.”

“Don’t scare him, Tiger,” General Victoria is waving his hands. “He’s going to think we’re sending him to the slaughterhouse.”

“The heads of the quartermaster unit have come in person to notify you of your new assignment. That should tell you it’s got its problems,” Colonel López López adopts a grave expression. “Yes, Pantoja, it’s a rather delicate matter.”

“The presence of these chiefs is an honor for me,” Captain Pantoja clicks his heels. “Hell, Colonel, you’re really intriguing me.”

“Want a cigarette?” Tiger Collazos takes out a cigarette, a lighter. “But don’t just stand there—sit down. What, you don’t smoke?”

“You see—for once the Intelligence Service was right,” Colonel López López pats a photocopy. “Just like it says: not a smoker, not a drinker, no wandering eye.”

“An officer without vices,” General Victoria marvels. “Now we have someone to represent the military in Paradise, next to Santa Rosa and San Martin de Porres.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Captain Pantoja blushes. “I’ve got to have some vices you don’t know about.”

“We know you better than you know yourself,” Tiger Collazos lifts a folder and puts it down on the table again. “Your eyes would pop if you knew the hours we’ve spent studying your life. We know what you did, what you didn’t do, and even what you will do, Captain.”

“We can recite your service record from memory,” General Victoria opens the folder, shuffles note cards and forms. “Not even one punishment as an officer and barely half a dozen demerits as a cadet. That’s why you’ve been selected, Pantoja.”

“From among almost eighty officers in the division—no fewer,” Colonel López López raises an eyebrow. “Now you can puff up like a peacock.”

“I’m grateful to you for the high opinion you have of me,” Captain Pantoja’s vision blurs. “I will do everything I can to live up to that confidence, Colonel.”

“Captain Pantaleón Pantoja?” General Scavino is shaking the telephone. “I can hardly hear you. You’re sending him to me for what, Tiger?”

“You made a fine record for yourself in Chiclayo,” General Victoria is leafing through a report. “Colonel Montes was desperate to hold on to you. It seems the district ran like a watch, thanks to you.”

“‘Born organizer, mathematical sense of order, executive capacity,’” Tiger Collazos reads. “‘He conducted the administration of the regiment with efficiency and real inspiration.’ My God, that half-breed Montes fell in love with you.”

“So much praise mixes me up,” Captain Pantoja lowers his head. “I’ve always tried to do my duty, nothing more.”

“What service?” General Scavino lets out a horse laugh. “Look, Tiger, neither you nor Victoria can pull my leg. I’m no fool.”

“O.K., let’s take the bull by the horns,” General Victoria seals his lips with a finger. “This business demands the utmost secrecy. I’m talking about the mission that’s going to be entrusted to you, Captain. All right, let the cat out of the bag, Tiger.”

“In brief, the troops in the jungle are screwing the local women,” Tiger Collazos takes a breath, blinks and coughs. “There are rapes all over the place and the courts can’t handle them all. The entire Amazon District is up in arms.”

“They bombard us daily with dispatches and accusations,” General Victoria is plucking at his beard. “And protest committees arrive from even the most out-of-the-way little towns.”

“Your soldiers are dishonoring our women,” Mayor Paiva Runhuí squeezes his hat and loses his voice. “Just a few months ago they molested my dear sister-in-law and last week they almost raped my own wife.”

“No, not my soldiers—the country’s soldiers,” General Victoria is making pacifying gestures. “Calm down, calm down, Mr. Mayor. The Army sincerely regrets your sister-in-law’s misfortune and will do what it can to compensate her.”

“And do they call rape a ‘misfortune’ nowadays?” Father Beltrán gets rattled. “Because that’s what it was: rape.”

“Two uniformed men grabbed Florcita as she was coming from the farm and they mounted her right there in the middle of the road,” Mayor Teófilo Morey bites his nails and hops up and down in place. “With such good aim that now she’s pregnant, General.”

“Miss Dorotea, you’re going to identify those criminals for me,” growls Colonel Peter Casahuanqui. “No crying, no crying; you’ll see how I’m going to fix this.”

“You think I’m going to go outside?” sobs Dorotea. “Me, all alone, in front of all those soldiers?”

“They’re going to march right by here, in front of the guardhouse,” Colonel Máximo Dávila is hiding behind the iron railing. “You’re going to peek out at them through the window and as soon as you spot the brutes, you’re going to point them out to me, Miss Jesús.”

“Brutes?” Father Beltrán spits. “Wretches, curs, imbeciles, I’d say. To subject Mrs. Asunta to such infamy! To tarnish the uniform that way!”

“My servant, Luisa Cánepa, was violated by a sergeant, and then by a corporal and later by a private,” Lieutenant Bacacorzo is cleaning his glasses. “She must have liked it or something, Commander, but one thing we can be sure of now is that she’s turned into a prostitute by the name of Knockers and has some queer they call Chameleon for a pimp.”

“Now point out to me, Miss Dolores, which of these men you want to marry,” Colonel Augusto Valdés is pacing in front of the three recruits. “And the chaplain will marry you this instant. Choose, choose. Which of these do you prefer as the father of your future baby?”

“They surprised my wife right in the church,” the carpenter Adriano Lharque is sitting stiffly on the edge of his chair. “Not the cathedral, but the Church of Santo Cristo de Bagazán, sir.”

“That’s how it is, dear listeners,” bellows Sinchi. “Neither fear of God nor respect for His sacred house nor the noble gray hairs of that dignified matron, who has already given two generations to Loreto, were able to restrain those sacrilegious, those lustful men.”

“They began to tug at me, oh, my God, they wanted to throw me on the ground,” cries Mrs. Cristina. “They were falling-down drunk and you should have heard the obscenities they were saying. In front of the main altar, I swear to you.”

“The most charitable soul in all Loreto, General,” thunders Father Beltrán. “They violated her five times!”

“And also her little daughter and her little niece and her little adopted daughter—I know it all already, Scavino,” Tiger Collazos is blowing the dandruff off his epaulets. “But that priest Beltrán, is he for us or against us? Is he or isn’t he the Army chaplain?”

“I protest, both as a priest and as a soldier, General,” Father Beltrán sucks in his stomach, sticks out his chest. “Because these abuses do as much damage to the Army as to the victims.”

“Of course, what the recruits tried to do to the lady is very wrong,” General Victoria hedges, smiles, salutes. “But her relatives almost beat them to death; don’t forget that. I have the medical report here: broken ribs, contusions, shredded ears. In this case it was a tie, my dear doctor.”

“To Iquitos?” Pochita stops sprinkling the shirt and holds up the iron. “Oh, how far away they’re sending us, Panta.”

“With wood you make the fire that cooks your food, with wood you build the house where you live, the bed where you sleep and the raft on which you cross the river,” Brother Francisco is suspended above the forest of unmoving heads, anxious faces and open arms. “With wood you make the harpoon that catches the fish, the spear that hunts the warthog and the coffin in which you bury the dead. Sisters! Brothers! Kneel down for me!”

“It’s one hell of a problem, Pantoja,” Colonel López López is shaking his head. “In Contamana the mayor issued an order telling the residents to lock their women up at home when the troops are on leave.”

“And especially so far away from the water,” Mother Leonor drops the needle, ties off the thread and cuts it with her teeth. “Are there many mosquitoes up there in the jungle? You know how they bother me.”

“Take a look at this list,” Tiger Collazos is scratching his forehead. “Forty-three pregnancies in less than a year. The chaplains under Father Beltrán married about twenty women, but of course, this depravity requires more radical measures than forced marriages. Up till now punishments and warnings have not changed the picture: a soldier arrives in the jungle and turns into a prick gone crazy.”

“But you’re the one who seems least excited about the place, dear,” Pochita goes around opening and dusting off suitcases. “Why, Panta?”

“It has to be the heat, the climate, don’t you think?” Tiger Collazos gets excited.

“Very likely, General,” stammers Captain Pantoja.

“The warm humidity, that excess of nature,” Tiger Collazos passes his tongue over his lips. “It always happens to me: I get to the jungle and I start breathing fire—I feel like my blood is boiling.”

“If your wife hears you”—General Victoria laughs—“watch out for her claws, Tiger.”

“At first we thought it was the diet,” General Collazos slaps his belly. “That the garrisons used a lot of spices, something that made the men’s sexual appetites worse.”

“We consulted specialists, even a Swiss doctor who cost a pile of money,” Colonel López López is rubbing two fingers together. “A dietitian loaded with titles.”

Pas d’inconvénient
,” notes Professor Bernard Lahoe in a little book. “We will prepare a diet that, without diminishing the necessary proteins, will weaken the libido of the soldiers by eighty-five percent.”

“Don’t go overboard,” mumbles Tiger Collazos. “We don’t want a troop of eunuchs either, Doctor.”

“Horcones to Iquitos, Horcones to Iquitos,” Second Lieutenant Santana is getting impatient. “Yes, very important, top priority. We have not obtained the expected results with Operation Swiss Ration. My men are dying of hunger, of tuberculosis. Today another two fainted during inspection, Commander.”

“No joking, Scavino,” Tiger Collazos is wedging the telephone between his ear and his shoulder while he lights a cigarette. “We’ve gone over and over it and this is the only solution. I’m sending Pantoja to you, with his mother and his wife. Have a good time.”

“Pochita and I already got used to the idea and we’re glad about going to Iquitos,” Mother Leonor is folding handkerchiefs, sorting skirts, packing shoes. “But you’re still down in the mouth. What’s the matter with you, son?”

“You’re the man, Pantoja,” Colonel López López stands up and grabs him by the arms. “You’re going to put an end to this headache.”

“After all, it
a city, Panta, and it seems nice,” Pochita is throwing rags into the garbage, tying knots, closing her pocketbooks. “Don’t make such a face. Wouldn’t the mountains be worse?”

“To tell you the truth, Colonel, I can’t see how,” Captain Pantoja swallows. “But sure, I’ll do what I’m ordered.”

“For the time being, you’ll go to the jungle,” Colonel López López grabs a pointer and marks a spot on the map. “Your center of operations will be Iquitos.”

“We’re going to get to the root of this problem and nip it in the bud,” General Victoria strikes his open hand with his fist. “Because, as you must’ve guessed, Pantoja, the problem isn’t just women being molested.”

“But also recruits condemned to living like monks in all that wicked heat,” clucks Tiger Collazos. “Serving in the jungle is very tough, Pantoja, very brave.”

“Every skirt is spoken for in the Amazon settlements,” Colonel López López is gesturing. “There’s no red-light district, no loose women or anything like that.”

“The men spend all week locked up, carrying out details in the mountains, dreaming about their day off,” General Victoria imagines. “They walk miles to the nearest town. And what happens when they get there?”

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