Alejandro Neyra

                         TO SERVE A MAN

                                              Translation by Caroline Maricourt and A. Neyra

From above, I can see them all.

From above creatures look smaller and funnier than they are.

From above diplomats are also recognisable as a peculiar and unique species.

And I won’t talk about diplomats in meetings or cocktails – which constitutes their natural habitat. I mean generally. Manners. Jargon. Odour. Gazes. It is true that every single profession has its own characteristics and vocabulary, but in the case of diplomats, behaviour precedes them. You can smell them. They recognise each other as well, and conduct themselves accordingly. If they would lose their diplomatic attitude in a distracted moment of normality; if they would just recover their humanity for a while, they would immediately recover their diplomatness at the simple observation of another of their kind.

Diplomats are – worse, they feel like – legendary beings. Indeed, mythology considers Hermes, Zeus herald, as the first diplomat. Some dare to say that actually angels were the first diplomats since they were – are? – God’s envoys. But it’s clear that since civilisation started and peoples began to realise that cooperation was sometimes better than war, diplomacy started its own sacred history. As a famous saying goes, diplomacy started when first human societies decided that it was better to hear the message than to eat the messenger.

From my privileged position – the interpretation booths above those meeting rooms where the corps diplomatique takes shape – I see them all. And I am paid to interpret what they say. That is the correct word, yes. I have to interpret them, to rehearse and play their roles more than just changing the language in which they speak – even though that is what they believe. And they trust us. They don’t see us but they have faith in us. In that way we are also above them all.

I cannot tell precisely why I started to do this. But I remember that I was still almost an adolescent when I saw for the first time something that looked like the United Nations. It was strange to find it out on my favourite TV series. I loved The Twilight Zone and it was strange to see aliens arriving at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Probably you know that episode too.

The Kanamits, a friendly alien’s race, come to the earth. They make a presentation to the UN in order to deliver their message of peace offering their technology to help us. Representatives of Argentina, France, America and the Soviet Union (never knew why Argentina, when there are many other countries that speak a much better Spanish) speak to the Kanamit’s “Ambassador” and they got convinced of the good purposes and deeds promised by these extremely tall guys. They leave a book with what they offer but it is in their language and they leave the challenge to translate it. In the meantime, they transform arid lands into fertile fields, provide free food to the poor, and finally offer free tours to their planet. Probably then I realised the importance of translation and of the meaning of the words. Because the end of the story is that someone deciphers the name of the book “To serve man”. Everyone believed that it was a guide to assist the humankind, a book of knowledge… and by the end we acknowledge it is nothing else but…a cook book!

In The Twilight Zone series everyone spoke English of course but in the background of that episode you could hear some other languages: Spanish, Russian, and French. I was young and even though I had already started my biology studies, I suddenly realised that my future was about to be something different. I started with French and Spanish, and a few years later I was travelling to Geneva to start my internship as an interpreter in the International Labor Office. I did translation as well, of course, and many other small jobs, but afterwards I became one of the specialised interpreters for human rights and humanitarian issues.

At this times I must confess that work was a little bit easier. Fewer meetings, fewer countries and fewer diplomats, you know. And it was simpler to predict the statements in a bipolar world, even with the creation of the Non Aligned Movement – the guys that supposedly were neither pro Americans nor pro Russians. But then, even then my task was the same. I am not used to interpret ing languages; I interpret people…that is the great part of my job. How many people have passed by these rooms? I would not even dare to guess. Many. Probably too many. Of course, I remember some. Some leave and come back, sometimes with the same rank, sometimes with a higher rank, sometimes even as  High authorities. This is Geneva, the city where everything seems to change but everything is just the same.

From above, I could see everything. I mean, I was very interested not only in the speeches, which of course is the main part of the job, but also in the movements of the diplomats. Most of the negotiations occurs behind the scenes. You could see Americans lobbying most Latin Americans or Russians talking to Cubans (I am talking about good old Cold War times of course). They whisper and laugh, got serious and even shout. They behave interpreting the roles of their own countries. Tough big powers have tough – and normally also big – diplomats. Other smaller countries have more humble guys, but they always behave like one of their species. To serve man, you know.

Sometimes I could see diplomats flirting with others. That was the funniest part of my job, what I did in my breaks. Anyway, in English, you know, this phrase is innocuous, but in French or Spanish I would have to write the gender, because of course diplomats flirted regardless of sexual orientation. I saw many hidden couples behaving as if no one else would notice… anyone else but us, the Argos of hundred eyes, the interpreters of myriad-eyes.

We are the ones that serve men. Or at least the ones that serve diplomats – those who firmly believe they serve mankind. For me that is crystal clear. But I won’t continue with diplomatic stories. Because afterwards diplomats – as peculiar as they are – are just another branch of the homo sapiens, not kanamits. Rara avis, yes, but they are all part the Animal Kingdom as everybody. And I just wanted to tell you a little love story. A small diplomatic love story.

I will tell you about that guy. Small – not only from above – and shy he was. Peruvian – dark and eagle-nosed as those men you have probably seen in cards and pictures coming from that exotic country, just if you need more details. But just keep in mind that this is just a small tale and I am a diplomatic interpreter, a lier-teller in a world full of lies. The guy was always there in the meeting room, sitting, talking few times with some other colleagues (never when his Ambassador – another small although very old and grumpy guy- showed up, which occurred sporadically). Sometimes he talked to his Philippine, Portuguese and Paraguayan colleagues, and especially to his Dutch neighbours, but only if there wasn’t that particular pretty Dutch girl, because otherwise he would just remain quiet and silent, intrigued and defenceless. (Here probably I should just make a small explanation. Weird and bureaucratic United Nations rules – in French-speaking Geneva – make Pérou and Pays Bas sit together, otherwise they would be just slightly more far away Peru and Netherlands, which would have made this story impossible).

Small and shy, remember. I observed him for long. I don’t recall now, but it was more than just some weeks or months; probably a couple of years watching at him trying to find an urgent sense of courage. I started following him. He took the tramway to his little flat around Plainpalais. I don’t know whether it was luck or coincidence but it happened that I moved very close by. Sometimes in the mornings I could keep an eye on him. He was always reading French Literature. Camus, Sartre, Gide, Mauriac, but also more contemporary French writers like Vian and Perec –whom I suppose were among his favourites. Sometimes he read also poetry, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine. Mallarmé I think was his preferred poet. Literary guy. A vrais connaisseur.

You can imagine. Observing from above was different than observing him in the tram. He seemed more relaxed there. A l’aise. Always quiet but never worried, unless a beautiful girl would sit next to him or nearby. I repeat it: small and shy. Extremely shy.

And suddenly one day he appeared with a notebook in which he was writing something. I realised that it was not poetry. He was writing some ideas. October 1989 it was. The Berlin wall had gone down. Everybody talked about it. And here was my small friend scribbling some words over a typed page, just before going to the Palais des Nations where a special session of the Commission of Human Rights would be held to commemorate the historic moment. He never saw me and I sat just in front of him. Watching at him there, suddenly I thought that this guy had finally decided to take the floor and say something (and impress her platonic muse).

I was worried for him. Probably he would make many mistakes. Probably too many quoting – something that is always unbearable. Probably he would just collapse while taking the floor. I needed to do something, so I started writing a speech. In English, of course, since it is the language most people hear and the basis for my other colleagues’ interpretations. I would do everything at hand to interpret him and if something went wrong I could just start with my own speech. No one cares. Spanish speakers hear always in their language and my colleagues would not notice. I wrote a magnificent speech, I have to admit without humbleness. Short and concise. There is no one better to prepare a diplomatic speech than an interpreter, I can assure you. So there I was, doing my own notes while the guy did his own. And so we came to the meeting. And I waited and waited for Peru to take the floor. I convinced my colleagues that I was friend of the Peruvian guy in order to stay there just in case he would decide to talk about the wall. I was prepared. It was a matter of time…but it never happened.

The meeting was long and exhausting. Many took the floor. But Peru was not in the list of speakers. I thought the guy was just frightened, or simply that he was waiting for his old Ambassador to arrive. At the end of the session I saw him approaching to his Dutch neighbours, while the blond girl just smiled at him. And there it came. The small sheet of paper passed to her hands and she just kept smiling, as beautifully as I have never seen again. In fact, she never came back again (he must have known). And he just stood there, with a face full of happiness and innocence. He never came back again either. It was in that historic moment. The wall, Berlin, History. Everything was just an anecdote. He was worried about his insignificant personal History, to bring down his own wall, to find love…his own freedom.

I always think about that moment. There he was the small guy, smaller than ever, smiling while she was holding the sheet of paper, without daring to gaze her lips – that tender face that only myself could see from above, where things that matter are observed and interpreted. Here where I am now watching the same old meeting room. I came again and again, even though I retired long ago; just to see diplomats in action, just to see them moving around flirting and plotting. Just to see if some day the small guy appears in order to know what happened next. Did the wall really fell down? How the History ends?

And I just would ask him if I could have done anything to serve him… just to serve you, man.

Translation of “To serve a Man” Copyright Alejandro Neyra. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2013 by Caroline Maricourt. All rights reserved.


Alejandro Neyra. (Lima 1974) Writer and diplomat. BA in literature from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (2001) and in law from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru (1998). MA in Diplomacy from the Academia Diplomática del Peru (2000) and MA (Hons) en Internacional Relations (MIS) from the American University, Washington DC (2011-2012). Author of the book of short stories “Peruanos Ilustres” (Solar, 2005), considered one of this year’s outstanding publications. He is also the winner of the IV short novel prize 2012 at the Peruvian Chamber of Books with “CIA Peru, 1985”. And winner of Copé de Plata prize in the “short story” category, 2012.

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