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By Mario Vargas Llosa. “Bacon’s Man” appeared in the June 28, 1985, issue of Le Nouvel Observateur. Vargas Llosa is writing about Francis Bacon’s painting Head I. Translated from the Spanish by Elena Brunet. On October 7, Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature.
I lost the left ear to a bite, fighting with another human, I think. But, owing to the little opening that remains, I hear the world’s noises clearly. I also see things, although askew and with difficulty. Because, even if at first sight it doesn’t seem it, that bluish protuberance to the left of my mouth is an eye. That it should be there, functioning, capturing shapes and colors, is a miracle of medical science, evidence of the extraordinary progress that characterizes the age in which we live. I should have been condemned to eternal darkness from the great fire—I don’t remember whether it was begun by bombardment or by assault—in which all the other survivors lost their sight and hair, the result of oxidation. I had the good fortune to lose only one eye; the other was saved by the ophthalmologists after sixteen operations. It lacks a lid and waters frequently, but it allows me to entertain myself watching movies and, above all, to quickly detect the enemy.
This glass case is my house. I can see through the walls but no one can see me from outside: a very desirable system of security in this age of so much surveillance. The glass case is, of course, bulletproof, germ-proof, radiation-proof, and soundproof. It is always scented.
I have a highly developed sense of smell, and it is through the nose that I derive the greatest pleasure and the greatest suffering. Should I call it a nose—this immense membranous organ which picks up all smells, even the most private ones? I’m referring to the grayish lump, with white scabs, that starts out at my mouth and descends as far as my bull’s neck. No, it’s neither a goiter nor an Adam’s apple puffed up by acromegaly. It’s my nose. I know it’s not pretty, nor is it useful, since its excessive sensitivity becomes an indescribable torture when, for instance, a rat putrefies in the area or fetid matter passes through the pipes that run through my dwelling place. Even so, I worship it, and at times I think that my nose is the chamber of my soul (if the soul exists).
I have neither arms nor legs, but my four stumps are well healed and hardened, so that I’m able to move easily and even quickly if need be. My pursuers haven’t succeeded in overtaking me in any of the chases. How did I lose my hands and feet? An injury at work, perhaps; or by accident, before birth, while still in the womb, the fault of medication that my mother gulped down in order to have a benign pregnancy (science doesn’t guess correctly in all cases).
My penis is intact. I’m able to make love as long as I can find an understanding partner. I like to fornicate but I am not expert. Frequently I experience failure or the humiliation of premature ejaculation. I’m convinced that, more than love-making, humans enjoy defecation.
My greatest source of pride is my mouth. lt isn’t true that it’s wide open because I wail out of desperation. I hold it open to show off my lovely sharp white teeth. Wouldn’t anyone envy them? Scarcely two or three are missing. The others are intact and carnivorous. If necessary, they can grind stones. But they prefer to clench the breasts and rumps of calves, to embed themselves in the nipples and muscles of hens or the throats of small birds. To eat meat is a privilege of the gods.
I am not pitiful, and I do not want others to feel sympathy for me. I am what I am and that’s enough for me. To know that others are worse off is a great consolation.
It’s possible that God exists, but at this point in history, that doesn’t have the least importance. Could the world perhaps be better than it is? Yes, perhaps, but what’s the sense in asking oneself that? I have survived and, despite appearances, I am a member of the human race. Observe me well. Know yourselves.
More from Mario Vargas Llosa:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”