Translation by Anna Heath
I easily recognised it was her Juan Ramón was talking to me about, because I’d noticed particular details from the beginning: the tailored suit, the old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames, the carefully-made bun.
‘You have to have seen her, Fernando. It was a week ago, last Tuesday.’
‘Yes, I did!’ I said, completely sure. At about seven, the light had been fading from the sky. I’d been watching her for at least ten minutes, and it wasn’t at all difficult to recall her once more, as if she was right in front of me.
She was a short, pale woman, and, looking at her properly, quite delicate, although it looked as though she made habitual attempts to appear otherwise. She had a severe, almost manlike expression. How old could she be? I would say thirty-one, thirty-two at most, but later Juan Ramón told me she was exactly twenty-seven. It was her, no doubt about it, and she was also with a boy, a child of about eight. She, the child, and I, and three other individuals whom I did not know, had been waiting in the little waiting room at Juan Ramón’s surgery. It was a fresh, well-ventilated place, on the twelfth floor of a modern building in Miraflores, with colourful plants, and comfortable armchairs.
Juan Ramón is an ear, nose, and throat specialist, but above all, he’s an old friend. His friendship allowed me to pretend I had a serious illness, and skip to the front of the queue. He immediately welcomed me in. Later, about twenty minutes later, he would summon in the woman in the tailored suit.
Some people are good at remembering images, I reflected. Others, situations. My memories come from everything: images, situations, even sounds, like in films. When it comes to this, what I always thought about was the mother’s relationship with the boy… she was looking out for the child, because from time to time he would lose his temper. The poor boy had such a bored face! And I can see that before me now, I can just see him.
The child was rushing around the little room from one side to the other, which gave rise to tellings-off from her, or he kept still, silent, absorbed, with his hands against the glass of a window, contemplating the night, scattered with little twinkling lights.
‘The curious thing is, Fernando, that same day I was talking to you about weird cases that come to the attention of ear, nose, and throat specialists. Do you remember?’
How could I not remember? I had been to see him that day for an examination of my ears. At some point, I had been afraid that my problem could also be classified as weird.
Juan Ramón cut straight to the point as soon as he ushered me in.
‘What’s wrong with you, Fernando?’
‘Nothing serious, I hope’, I said with the worry of every defenceless mortal who goes to the doctor, ‘but let’s say that when the television is on at home, the world might end, and I wouldn’t even realise.’
I was nurturing the hope that everything would come down to a piece of earwax, as a colleague from the newspaper had predicted.
‘Are you deaf, or just a bit deaf?’ he asked with a smile.
‘A teensy bit more than a bit deaf.’
‘Well, mate, let me examine you’, he said, and started to look me over with a little torch and a videoscope monitor.
Half a minute later, he concluded: ‘What you have is swimmer’s ear, Fernando. But not to worry, it’s just fine. It’s really very common.’
If his diagnosis required such a declaration, I would have preferred him to come out with something more like what I was actually feeling.
‘What about a change of metaphor,’ I answered. ‘I think I have more of a stone-cutter’s ear, or smelter’s ear, or of whatever the work of those poor guys with ear protectors is, the ones who go in front of the aeroplanes and can’t think straight because of the thundering of turbines.’
‘What do you mean?’
I think that, more than not hearing, I confuse sounds. For example, a car horn goes off in the street and I say to my wife, who is in another room: ‘Just coming, my love, wait for me a second.’ It’s a bit ridiculous, I know. Patricia comes up to me every so often to ask, ‘Who are you talking to?’
Juan Ramón burst out laughing.
‘Reassure her that you’re just a little deaf, not crazy,’ he said. And suddenly, going back to his professional tone, he added: ‘And with regards to what you say about metaphors, you’re making a mistake. I have not used a metaphor. I have simply described the condition of your ears, which is exactly the same as many people who do water sports or use a pool, as in your case. People who are exposed to or go through water with their ears, causing their cartilage to grow in size. It develops into a kind of wall of defence, stopping the flow of water towards the ear canal. It’s a natural defence. Now, the negative consequence of this is that you hear less.’
That was when our chat, as Juan Ramón would say, changed direction to the strange anomalies of other patients.
‘Although, in that patch of confusing sounds by thinking they’re voices, some people go beyond that. There are people who hear entire speeches.’
‘How many phrases?’
‘Two or three in a row.’
‘Extraordinary!’ I said. ‘That must have been what happened to Ginsberg.’
‘To Ginsberg? Who is Ginsberg?’
‘A poet… a poet I interviewed in New York. He told me that he was not the author of his poems. He said that he considered himself just a simple secretary, seeing as how he only heard voices, some voices that dictated verse to him. All of his work consisted of copying them down in a notebook. Naturally, I interpreted that as lyrical exaltation of an artistic fact, of literary creation. But perhaps I was wrong, right?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Juan Ramón with a smile. ‘To give you an answer, I’d have to examine the ears of the Ginsberg man’ – I refrained from telling him that would no longer be possible, since the poet had died just a few days earlier, and carried on listening to him increasingly attentively. ‘But, you can take for granted the fact that he, Ginsberg, is only one of a whole number of writers in those circumstances… What do you think happened to the unknown writers of the Bible? They also heard voices. To be more precise, they heard voices all the time, almost as if they were listening to the radio. In the stories of the Old Testament, the powerful voice of Jehovah resounded innumerable times speaking to the Jews from heaven, not to mention the infinity of angels and archangels with celestial recommendations appearing every two pages,’ – and suddenly excited, Juan Ramón got into pathological territory – ‘Oh, Fernando, we could talk about that topic for hours! You have no idea! A colleague of mine, who lives in Philadelphia and gives talks in North American universities, knows the most enormous range of cases. He’s met people who hear voices at certain times of the day, very specific times. He talked to me once about someone who hears them from nine o’clock to ten o’clock in the morning, and the rest of the day he lives normally.’
‘But who are these people? Mental patients on a schedule?’
‘Well, yes, it’s a type of schizophrenia. Although not all those who suffer know this, and that’s exactly why they end up in the ear, throat, and nose surgeries. They think their illness has a physical, auditory cause.’
‘And what do the specialists do in these cases?’
‘Theatre, a bit of theatre’, repeated Juan Ramón. ‘Look, mate, a lot of the modus operandi of various professions depend on a command of the stage. You need to observe the patient serenely, nod your head comprehensively, and smile to lift their mood. Bringing up a couple of specialised terms can be propitious, affected and ambiguous enough to not say anything, but communicating the sensation that you’re arriving at an essential point. With this theatre, in short, the doctor can gain time, and find an exit.
Nevertheless, to once and for all get to what interests us here, one thing is to say what people usually do, and another very different thing is to demonstrate it in facts.’
Juan Ramón’s theatrical theory found the rare opportunity to confront itself with practice immediately, and the truth is that, as the curtain went up, my friend stumbled. He lost his poise, his emotional control. They were certainly only a few seconds, but that was enough to send up his theory. The following appointment with the woman with the tailored suit and her child was to reveal this.
‘It was a unique appointment from the start,’ Juan Ramón was saying now on the terrace of his beach house, where he had invited me to have a drink. A week had passed now, in which we hadn’t seen each other, and, if he had overcome the embarrassing impression of the experience, something had roosted in his soul, like a remnant, like the side effect of a strange frustration. ‘To start off with, the child, who was obviously the one I had to examine, or she would have come alone, did not respond to any of my kindly, welcoming gestures, dodging them entirely, as if he could not trust smiles. I shouldn’t have been surprised at that. Children do not like doctors, and in that respect they are very transparent with their feelings. But I suspected something strange, without determining what it was. Later, I realised the mother’s worry, a logical worry, especially when one’s child is ill. But that, too, could have made me feel suspicious. More than a worry, she actually felt uncomfortable about her child’s attitude…
Juan Ramón decided to rebuild the scene of that consultation, exactly as if it were a theatre set. Or, at least, that’s what I imagined: the woman and child, formally attired, sitting opposite his fine mahogany desk; he, in an impeccable black coat, making notes in a new notebook.
‘I don’t know what to do with my son, doctor,’ she said. ‘But I hold onto the hope that you will help me put an end to his problem.’
‘Throat, or ear problem?’
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘He can’t hear well, doctor. That’s to say, he can hear some things and not others… To begin with, of course, I thought that he was behaving that way out of sheer rudeness. But now, I don’t know how to put it… I think there are things he really can’t hear.’
The child, silent and with his hands interlaced, looked askance at his mother.
Juan Ramón was going to proceed with his routine preliminary questioning, but he ran out of steam. Impulsively, he sat up from his seat and bent down to the child, trying to whisper something in his ear. Then he asked him: ‘Did you hear what I said?’
‘Yes,’ the child murmured.
‘What did I say?’
‘You said, “Kids have red feet”.’
Juan Ramón winked at him.
‘That’s right,’ he said, and, turning around for a second towards the mother, he vouched for it: ‘It’s not a problem with poor hearing.’
The boy seemed normal in his reactions to the conversation between the three of them, but at times, he found him hostile and even afraid. As if he thought that they wanted to annoy him, as if he didn’t like the world of adults. Whatever it was, he knew perfectly that the only way of forming an opinion demanded other tests: examining him with the otoscope, or taking an audiogram. That would take him a certain time. He immediately steered himself to a bend in the surgery, about to get his instruments ready. Meanwhile, he distractedly proceeded to his questioning, threshing out questions, collecting every kind of information about his young patient.
The woman very conscientiously provided the answers. The child didn’t suffer from chronic illnesses, he had never had inflammation of the ear, he didn’t listen to music on his Walkman, he didn’t use cotton buds in his bathroom routine, and there was no family history of deafness. At every answer, Juan Ramón eliminated possible causes. Until, at one of them, the woman blurted out something that had nothing to do with anything. She affirmed that the father of the child, from whom she was divorced and whom she hadn’t seen for two years, had flat feet, and that her son had inherited this unpleasant malformation.
Juan Ramón was on tenterhooks, as if this information was crammed with secrets, and noticed that the child was looking at his feet. Then, concentrating again, or pretending to concentrate on the place where the cable connected to his light, he suffered a light coughing fit.
‘There’s a question I haven’t asked you,’ he said, then, slowly, ‘Can you tell me what your son hears, and what he doesn’t hear?’
The woman looked up, and answered, ‘It’s not important what he hears, doctor. He hears the television perfectly, noises in the street, and you and me when we talk. What worries me more is what he doesn’t hear. He never obeys what my mother tells him, or what my father tells him either,’ and, facing the boy, she added, ‘Is it true what I’m saying, or not?’
‘Yes,’ the boy said sulkily.
‘And why don’t you?’ the woman insisted.
‘Because I don’t hear them,’ said the boy.
‘So you see, doctor. He says he doesn’t hear them.’
Juan Ramón felt obliged to intercede.
‘Why don’t you hear your grandparents?’ he asked. ‘Do they talk very quietly?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the child.
‘Don’t you get on well with them?’
‘I don’t know,’ he repeated. ‘I can’t hear them.’
The woman shook her head energetically, as if sending a signal that everything happening to her son was making her very nervous.
Managing to calm her down, Juan Ramón then turned to her.
‘And have you lived with your parents for a long time?’ he asked.
‘Yes, since I divorced,’ she said. ‘As soon as I got divorced, I moved back to my parents’ house. That must have been three months before the accident.’
‘Before what accident?’
‘My parents’ accident,’ the woman talked more quietly now; her son, who wasn’t looking at his feet any more, had put one of his little hands on his mother’s lap. ‘My parents died in that horrible accident, the one where the aeroplane fell down to the sea, a year ago.’
Juan Ramón observed her in silence, seized by a slight trembling, as if a window had suddenly opened on a freezing drought.
‘But I talk to them every day, doctor,’ she continued. ‘At breakfast time, before I go to work, and also at night, before I go to bed. At home we all watch TV together, and we have really long, animated conversations. My parents are very talkative. But this boy doesn´t even notice!’
Translation of “Voices” Copyright Fernando Ampuero. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2013 by Anna Heath. All rights reserved.
Fernando Ampuero was born in Lima in 1949. Studying at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, he works as a journalist and broadcaster. His fictional oeuvre includes the novels Caramelo verde (1992), Puta linda (2006) and Hasta que me orinen los perros (2008), works forming an urban trilogy centred on Lima. He has also written several collections of short stories: Deliremos juntos (1975), Malos modales (1994), Bicho raro (1996), Mujeres difíciles, hombres benditos (2005), and Fantasmas del azar (2010). Other books are the travel accounts Gato encerrado (1987) and El enano, historia de una enemistad (2001), and the play Arresto domiciliario, performed in 2003. His work, translated into various languages, features in well-known national and international anthologies.