From The Death of Jesus, which will be published this month by Viking. The book tells the story of Simón and Inés, the legal guardians of a young boy, David, who suffers from an unknown illness that has left him bedridden in a hospital in the fictional city of Estrella.
The drugs David is given with his evening meal, meant to suppress the seizures, send him into a deep sleep. In the dead hours of the night he will sometimes wake and give a drowsy smile.
Now and again there is a lucid interval in which they can talk.
“Why do I have to be that boy, Simón? I never wanted to be that boy with that name.”
Simón waits for more, but the boy is asleep again. Laying his head on his arms, he falls into a light sleep himself. Then all of a sudden there is birdsong and the first glow of dawn. He goes to the toilet. When he returns, the boy is wide awake, lying with his knees drawn up tight to his chest. “Simón,” he says, “am I going to be recognized?”
“Recognized? Recognized as a hero? Of course. But you will first have to do deeds, the kind of deeds that people will remember you for, and those deeds will have to be good ones. Then someone will have to write a book about you describing your many deeds. That is how it usually happens. That is how your favorite, Don Quixote, was recognized. If Señor Benengeli had not come along and written a book about his deeds, Don Quixote would just have been a crazy old man riding his horse around the countryside, unrecognized.”
“But who is going to write a book about my deeds? Will you?”
“Yes, I will do so if you want me to. I am not much of a writer but I will do my best.”
“But then you must promise not to understand me. When you try to understand me it spoils everything. Do you promise?”
“All right, I promise. I will simply tell your story, as far as I know it, without trying to understand it, from the day I met you. I will tell about the boat that brought us here, and how you and I went looking for Inés and found her. I will tell of how you went to school in Novilla, and how you were transferred to the school for delinquent children, and how you escaped, and how we all then came to Estrella. I will tell of how you went to the academy and were the best of all dancers. And then, of course, I will tell of all the deeds you did after you left the hospital, after you were cured. There are sure to be many of those.”
“But I haven’t done very many good deeds in my life, have I? Not as many good deeds as a proper hero.”
“Of course you have! You have saved people, many people. You saved Inés. You saved me. Where would we be without you? Some of your good deeds you did on your own, some you did with the aid of Don Quixote. You lived through the Don’s adventures. Don Quixote was you. You were Don Quixote. But, I agree, most of your good deeds are still to come. You will do them after you are cured and come home.”
“In the book it says that when he knew he was dying Don Quixote resolved to confesarse?”
“Confessing was a custom people used to follow in the old days. I am afraid I know nothing more about it.”
“Do I need to confess?”
“You? Of course not. You are a blameless child.”
“And what does abominar mean? It says that Don Quixote abomino his stories.”
“It means he rejected them. He no longer believed in them. He changed his mind and decided they were bad. Why are you asking me these questions?”
The boy is silent.
“David, Don Quixote lived in olden times, when people were very strict about the kind of stories that were allowed to be told. They divided them into good ones and bad ones. Bad stories were stories you were not supposed to listen to, because they took you off the path of virtue. You were supposed to abominate them, as Don Quixote did with his stories before he died. But before you decide you are going to abominate your own stories, if that is what you are hinting at, there are three things you should bear in mind. The first is that in our world, which is not as strict as the old world used to be, none of your stories of Don Quixote will count as bad stories. That is my opinion, and I am sure your friends will agree. The second thing is that Don Quixote chose to abominate his stories because he was on his deathbed. You are not on your deathbed. On the contrary, you have a long and stirring life before you. And the third thing is that Don Quixote did not really mean it when he said he abominated his stories. He was just saying so to round off his book, the book about himself. If he had really abominated his stories, he would not have encouraged people to write them down in the first place. He would have stayed at home with his horse and his dog, watching the clouds cross the sky, hoping for rain, eating coarse bread and onions for supper. He would never have been recognized, let alone become famous. Whereas you—you have every opportunity to become famous. That is all. I apologize for making such a long speech so early in
the day. Thank you for listening to
me. I will shut up now.”
The next night, they continue their conversation. The boy is visibly drowsy, but he fights against the drugs, fights to stay awake.
“Simón, what is it like to die?”
“I will answer you, but only on one condition. The condition is that we agree we are not talking about you. You are not going to die. If we talk about dying, we are talking about dying in the abstract. Do you accept my condition?”
“You only say I am not going to die because that is what fathers are supposed to say. But I am not really going to get better, am I?”
“Of course you are! Now: Do you accept my condition?”
“Very well. What is it like to die? As I picture it, you lie looking up into the blue of the sky, feeling sleepier and sleepier. A great peace descends upon you. You close your eyes and are gone. When you wake, you are on a boat skimming across the ocean, with the wind in your face and gulls screaming overhead. Everything feels fresh and new. It is as if you have been born again at that very moment. You have no recollection of any past, no recollection of dying. The world is new, you are new, there is new strength in your limbs. That is what it is like.”
“Will I see Don Quixote in the new life?”
“Of course: Don Quixote will be waiting at the quayside to greet you. When the men in uniform try to stop you and pin a card to your shirt with a new name and a new date of birth, he will say, ‘Let him pass, caballeros. This is David el famoso, the famous David, in whom I am well pleased.’ He will lift you up behind him onto Rocinante, and the pair of you will ride off to do your good deeds. You will have a chance to tell him some of your stories, and he will tell you some of his.”
“Do you know what I think? I think Don Quixote should come here; we should do good deeds here.”
“That would be nice. It would certainly give Estrella a shake-up to have Don Quixote in its midst. Unfortunately I do not think it is allowed. It is against the rules to summon people from the next life back into this one.”
“But how do you know? How do you know what is allowed and not allowed?”
“I do not know how I know, just as you do not know how you know those funny songs you sing. But that is how I believe the rules work, the rules under which we live.”
“But why is Don Quixote not allowed to come here?”
“Don Quixote is allowed to cross the seas and come here, but he has to do so in a book, like the book he arrived in when he came to you. He cannot appear to us as flesh and blood.”
“Do you know what I am going to do, Simón? Just before I die I am going to write down everything about myself on a piece of paper and fold it up small and hold it tight in my hand. Then when I wake up in the next life I can read the paper and find out who I am.”
“That is an excellent idea—the best idea I have heard in a long while. Cling to it, do not let it escape. When you are an old, old man, many years from now, and the time comes for you to die, remember to write down your story and carry it with you into the next life. Then in the next life you will know who you are and everyone who reads your story will also know who you are. Truly an excellent idea! Just make sure the hand holding the paper does not trail in the water, because, remember, water washes everything away, including writing.
“Now it really is time to sleep, my boy. Close your eyes. Give me your hand.”