Translation by Ruth Clarke
“So, Armando, tell us, what are you writing now?” There it was: the dreaded question.
They had finished their dinner and were sitting in the living room of Armando’s cliff-top villa, drinking coffee. The half-open window looked out over the streetlamps lining the seafront and the winter fog as it rose up from the cliffs.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t hear”, Oscar insisted. “I know writers don’t like to talk about what they’re working on sometimes. But you can trust us. Give us a preview.”
Armando cleared his throat, looked at Berta as if to say ‘our friends are so annoying’, and finally lit himself a cigarette and decided to reply.
“I’m writing a story about infidelity. As you can tell, it’s not a very original subject – so much has been written about infidelity! Think back to The Red and The Black, Madame Bovary, Ana Karenina, to name just the masterpieces… But actually, I feel drawn to things that aren’t original, the ordinary, the well-used… On that note, I’ve put my own spin on something Claude Monet said: the subject matter, for me, is irrelevant. What matters are the relationships between me and the subject matter… Berta, why don’t you close the window? The fog’s getting in!”
“As an introduction, that’s not bad”, Carlos said. “Now let’s get to what it’s really about.”
“I’m coming to that. It’s about a man who suspects his wife is cheating on him. I should say, first of all, that in twenty years of marriage, or more, this thought had never entered his head. The man, let’s call him Pedro, or Juan, whatever you like, had always trusted his wife implicitly and, as he was also a liberal, modern man, he let her have what they call “a life of her own”, and never made her account for anything.”
“The perfect husband”, Irma said. “Are you listening to me, Oscar?”
“In a way, yes”, Armando went on. “The perfect husband…
Anyway, as I was saying, Pedro, let’s call him that, starts to doubt his wife’s fidelity. I won’t go into details about where these doubts come from, but what we do know is when it happens he feels like his whole world is crashing down around him. Not only because he was deeply in love with his wife. Not with the passion of youth, of course, but perhaps in a more lasting way, with understanding, respect, tolerance, all those little kindnesses and concessions that come from having a routine, and which form the basis of your married life together.”
“I don’t like routine”, Carlos said. “Routine is the denial of love”.
“Possibly”, Armando said, “Although that just seems like something to say. But, let me go on. As I was saying, Pedro suspects his wife is cheating on him. But because this is just a suspicion – all the more distressing for it’s not definite – he decides to look for proof, and while he’s looking for proof of this affair, he discovers a second affair, which is even more serious because it’s been going on for longer and is more passionate.”
“What proof was there?” Carlos asked. “When it comes to infidelity, proof is hard to come by.”
“Let’s say letters, or photos, or accounts from people he can completely trust. But that’s not the important thing at this point. What we know is that Pedro sinks even deeper into despair, because now he’s dealing with not one but two lovers: the most recent one, who he suspects he knows, and the older one, of whom he thinks he has proof. But it doesn’t stop there. As he continues to investigate the frequency, severity and circumstances of this betrayal, he discovers the presence of a third lover, and when he tries to find out more about this third, he uncovers a fourth… “
“A real Messaline, you mean”, Carlos cut in. “How many did she have, in the end?”
“For the purposes of the story, I’ll make do with four. It’s the right number. I could have made it more, but that would have given me some compositional problems. So, Pedro’s wife had four lovers. And all at the same time, too, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as all four of them were very different from each other (one quite a bit younger than her, another older, one very cultured and polite, another more ignorant, and so on and so forth) which meant they could satisfy the different appetites of her body and mind.”
“And what does Pedro do?” Amalia asked.
“I’m coming to that. You can imagine the terrible state of anguish, rage, and jealousy he must be in in this situation. Many pages of the story will be dedicated to the analysis and description of his state of mind. But I’ll spare you that. I will just say that, thanks to his tremendous willpower and above all his exacerbated sense of propriety, he doesn’t let his feelings show and resolves, alone, without confiding in anyone, to find the solution to his problem.”
“That’s what we want to know”, Oscar said. “What the hell does he do?”
“To be honest, I don’t know either. The story isn’t finished. I think Pedro contemplates a series of alternatives, but I still don’t know which one he’s going to choose … Berta, can you pour me another coffee, please?
In any case, he tells himself that when life presents us with an obstacle we have to eliminate it, to get back to the original situation.
But of course, there isn’t one obstacle here, but four! If there were only the one lover, he wouldn’t hesitate in killing him…”
“A crime?” Irma asked. “Would Pedro be capable of that?”
“A crime, yes, but a crime of passion. As you know, criminal laws all around the world contain provisions that mitigate the punishment in cases where there is a crime of passion. Especially if a good lawyer shows that the perpetrator committed the crime in a violent state of passion. Let’s say Pedro was prepared to run the risk of a murder, knowing that given the circumstances the punishment wouldn’t be too bad. As you can see, killing one of the lovers wouldn’t actually solve anything, as he would still be left with the other three. And killing all four would be a very serious crime, a massacre really, which would earn him capital punishment. So Pedro dismisses the idea of a crime.”
“Of crimes”, Irma corrected.
“Right, of crimes. But then he has a brilliant idea: to set the lovers against each other, so they eliminate themselves. He imagines the idea like this: since there are four of them – and now you understand why that number worked for me – I’ll have a kind of knock-out, like in a sports tournament. Setting two against two and then the two winners, that way at least three of them will be eliminated…”
“Now it’s sounding like a novel”, Carlos said. “What the hell does he do? In practice, I don’t think it works.”
“But we’re in the world of literature, that is to say the world of possibility. Everything rests on the reader believing what I’m telling them. And that’s for me to worry about. So, Pedro divides the lovers into One and Two, and Three and Four. By anonymous letters or phone calls or some other means, he reveals to One the existence of Two, and to Three the existence of Four; all using a gradual strategy and treacherous technique that let him provoke in his chosen killer not only the most terrible jealousy, but a passionate desire to annihilate his rival. I forgot to tell you that Rosa’s lovers – let’s make that the wife’s name – were fiercely in love with her, thinking that only they were the keepers of her heart, and that’s why the revelation that they have competition hits them just as hard as it hits Pedro.”
“That is possible” Carlos said. “A lover must be more jealous of another lover than of the husband.”
“To sum it up”, Armando went on, “Pedro carries the whole thing off so well that lover number One kills Two, and Three kills Four. So that leaves just two. And with these two he goes through the same process, so that lover One kills Three. And then the survivor of this bloodbath is killed by Pedro, which means he personally commits a single crime, and as it’s just the one and motivated by passion, he gets a lenient sentence. At the same time, he achieves what he set out to do, which is remove the obstacles in the way of his love.”
“I think it’s ingenious”, Oscar said, “But I still say that in practice it just wouldn’t work. Suppose lover One doesn’t actually kill Two, he just injures him. Or lover Three, however much he loves Rosa, is incapable of committing a crime.”
“You’re right”, Armando said, “and that’s why Pedro rejects this solution. Setting the lovers against one another so they take themselves out of the equation isn’t viable, in reality or in literature.”
“What does he do, then?” Berta asked.
“Well, I don’t know, myself… like I told you, the story’s not finished. That’s why I’m telling it to you. Can’t you come up with anything?”
“Yes”, Berta said. “Get divorced. Nothing simpler!”
“I’d thought of that. But what would divorce solve? It would be a pointless scandal, because one way or another, a divorce is always scandalous, even more so in a city like this, which, in many ways, is still quite provincial. No, divorce would leave the problem of the lovers and Pedro’s suffering exactly how it was. And it wouldn’t even satisfy his desire for revenge. Divorce wouldn’t be the right solution. I was actually thinking of another one: Pedro throws Rosa out of the house, after he’s shown her the proof of her betrayal and given her a piece of his mind. He brutally throws her out onto the street with all her belongings, or without them. That would be a manly and morally justified solution.”
“I think so, too”, Oscar said, “A real man’s solution. You cheated on me, it serves you right! Now you’re on your own.”
“It’s not that simple”, Armando went on. “I don’t think Pedro would go for that solution either. Mainly because throwing his wife out would be almost unbearable, when what he really wants is to keep her. Throwing her out would make her even more dependent on her lovers, drive her into their arms and further away from him. No, throwing her out of the house, although it’s possible, doesn’t solve anything. Pedro thinks the most sensible thing to do would be the opposite.”
“What do you mean the opposite?” Irma asked.
“Leave home, disappear. Without a trace. Leaving just a letter, or not leaving anything. His wife would understand the reasons for this disappearance. Leave and head for a far-off country to start a new life, a different life, new job, new friends, new wife, and never have to account for anything. And even supposing Pedro and Rosa have children – although it would be better if they didn’t, that would make the story too complicated – but Pedro would leave, abandoning everything, including his supposed children, because romantic passion comes before paternal passion.”
“So Pedro leaves. Then what?” Berta asked.
“Pedro doesn’t leave, Berta. He doesn’t leave. Because leaving isn’t the right solution either. What would he gain by leaving? Nothing. In fact, he’d lose everything. It would be a good solution if Rosa were financially dependent on Pedro, as she would at least have that reason to suffer his absence, but I’d forgotten to tell you that she had a personal fortune (rich parents, family wealth, whatever), that means she could get by perfectly well without him. Besides, Pedro’s not a kid anymore, and it would be hard for him to start a new life in a new country. Obviously, him running away would only benefit his wife, who, once she was rid of Pedro, would give more attention to her relationships with her lovers and could have as many as she liked. But the main reason is that while Pedro would successfully settle and prosper in a far-off city, and as they say “start his life over”, he would always be tormented by the memory of his unfaithful wife, and by the pleasure she was still deriving from this deal with her lovers.”
“It’s true”, Amalia said. “Disappearing is just crazy.”
“But this option of running away has a variation”, Armando piped up. “A variation I quite like. Let’s say Pedro doesn’t disappear without a trace, but simply moves into another house after a calm explanation to his wife and an amicable separation. What could happen then? I think something is possible, at least in theory. But that requires some expansion – if I may? I think lovers are rarely better than husbands, not intellectually, or morally, or as human beings, not even in bed. What happens is that the relationship between a husband and wife gets contaminated, corrupted and devalued by day-to-day life. It’s disrupted by hundreds of problems, that come from living together and cause constant disagreements, from how to raise children, if there are any, to unpaid bills, what furniture needs to be replaced, what to have for dinner…”
“Who you need to visit or invite over”, Oscar chipped in.
“Exactly. These problems don’t exist in the relationship between wife and lover, because their relationship operates exclusively on a sexual level. The wife and lover only meet to make love, leaving all their other concerns aside. The husband and wife, on the other hand, take home and constantly face the burden of their life together, which makes it impossible, or difficult, to be romantic. This is why I’m saying that if the husband leaves home, the barriers that get imposed between him and his wife would disappear, which would leave the way free for a pleasant relationship. In short, what I mean is that an amicable separation would have the advantage for Pedro of lumbering the lovers with the day-to-day problems, and all the trouble and destruction they cause for romantic passion. Pedro, in distancing himself from his wife, would actually get closer to her, as the lovers would end up taking on the role of the husband, and he that of the lover. Living in closer proximity to her lovers, thanks to Pedro leaving, and only seeing him occasionally, the situation would be reversed, and from then on the lovers would get the thorns and the husband the roses. Or in Pedro’s case, the Rosa.”
“That all seems very eloquent and well set out”, Oscar interrupted. “Reversing the roles with a strategic withdrawal. Not bad! What do you all think? If you ask me, it’s the best option.”
“But it’s not.” Armando said. “And believe me, I’m sad that it’s not. An author, however cold and objective he might want to be, always has his preferences. Oh, it would be wonderful if things could work like that! Preserving his status as husband and being her lover at the same time. But this solution has at least one flaw. The main one, in any case, is that Rosa is probably already sick of Pedro and can’t stand to have him near or far, as her husband or her lover. Anything related to him is tainted by the life they shared, which means that, even though they’re not living together, she would only need to look at him for the ghosts of their domestic experience to be resurrected in her mind. The husband carries with him the burden of their past marriage – which would always prevent him from approaching his wife as a stranger.”
“All in all”, Carlos said, “it looks like Pedro’s running out of options.”
“No, there are still other options. Just to do nothing, accept the situation and carry on with his life with Rosa as though nothing had happened. This solution seems intelligent and elegant. It would show understanding, realism, a sense of cohabitation, and even a certain nobility, a certain wisdom. I mean, Pedro would accept that he had a pair, or rather four pairs of magnificent horns and resign himself to the fact that was now part of the corporation of cuckolds which, as we all know, has no membership limit.”
“Hmmm!” Carlos said. “I don’t agree with that. Of course, it would show a broadness of mind, absence of prejudices, as you say, but I think it would be rather undignified, humiliating. At least, I wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Me neither”, Oscar added. “So you listen, Amalia. When we get home, let this be a lesson to you.”
“Oh, our husbands!” Amalia said, “What a bunch of chauvinist pigs!”
“But this alternative has its advantages”, Armando insisted. “The main one is that, by accepting his situation, Pedro would keep his wife by his side. A wife who’s cheating on him, of course, and who physically and spiritually belongs to other men, but who is there, at the end of the day, within reach, and who might offer him the occasional random gesture of affection. He wouldn’t get to keep her body or her soul, but he would keep her presence. And I think that seems like a marvellous proof of love, on his part. Proof we should all take our hats off to.”
“A hat which Pedro would never get on his well-decorated head”, Oscar said. “No, clearly I don’t think it’s a good idea to accept the situation. Going along with it, in this case, makes him less of a man, less of a husband.”
“Possibly”, Armando said, “but I still think it’s a considered solution that would require a certain magnanimity. Perhaps it’s better to be unhappy beside the woman you love, than happy away from her… But still, let’s say this isn’t a good option either.”
“He can’t kill the lovers…” Carlos said. “He can’t throw his wife out of the house, and he can’t disappear, or divorce, or get used to the situation. So what’s he left with? I must say your character’s got himself in quite a mess.”
“There’s still another way”, Armando said. “A clean, straightforward way: suicide.”
Irma, Amalia and Berta protested in unison.
“Oh, no!” Irma said. “No suicides! Poor Pedro! To be honest, I think he seems like a nice man. What about you Berta? You have influence over Armando, persuade him not to kill him.”
“I don’t think he’ll kill him”, Berta said. “The story would turn into a vulgar melodrama. And anyway, Pedro’s too clever to commit suicide.”
“I don’t know whether he’s clever or not”, Oscar said. “After all, that’s your assumption, but the situation is so messed up that he’d be better off shooting himself. Don’t you think, Armando?”
“Shooting himself?” Armando repeated. “Yes, shooting himself… But what would that solve? Nothing. No, no, I don’t think suicide is the right way to go. And not because it’s a melodramatic ending, as Berta says. I love melodrama; I think our lives are made up of a series of melodramas. The thing is that this solution would be just as bad as disappearing without a trace. With the aggravating factor that it would be a disappearance with no chance of coming back. If Pedro leaves home, he still has some hope of a return, and even a reconciliation. But if he commits suicide!”
“True.” Carlos said. “I’d always rather have a return ticket in my pocket. Although, it’s not a ridiculous solution. If Pedro commits suicide, he erases himself from the world, he also erases Rosa, and her lovers, and that means he erases his problem. Which is one way of resolving it.”
“You’re not wrong”, Armando said. “And I’m going to reconsider that hypothesis. Although there’s a big difference between resolving a problem and avoiding it. And anyway, who knows! Maybe Pedro’s pain is so bad that it would follow him beyond the grave!”
“Your character is in real trouble”, Oscar yawned. “I can see you haven’t found a solution to your story. But our story is that it’s after midnight and we have to work tomorrow. And we do have a solution: leaving without any further ado.”
“Wait”, Armando said. “I’d forgotten another option…”
“There’s another one?” Berta asked.
“And one of the most important. Actually, I should really have mentioned it at the start. It’s also possible that Pedro could come to the conclusion that Rosa isn’t being unfaithful to him, that all the evidence he’s gathered is false. As you all know, in matters like this, the only proof is flagrante delicto. All the rest of it – letters, photos, accounts – can be discounted. Maybe he misinterpreted it, maybe there are fake or inauthentic documents, or malicious witnesses, anyhow, circumstances that lend themselves to an unfounded accusation. And the truth is, Pedro hasn’t got all the evidence.”
“That’s it!” Oscar said. “You should have started there. You’ve had us going round in circles over a problem that didn’t really exist. Shall we get going, Irma?
“Wouldn’t you like a cognac, or a mint?” Berta asked.
“Thank you”, Carlos said. “Armando’s story has kept us entertained, but Oscar’s right, it’s getting late. Anyway, Armando, I hope next time we meet you’ll have finished your story and you can read it to us.”
“Ah!” Armando said. “The most interesting stories are generally the ones we can’t find an ending for… but this time I’ll do what I can to finish it. And with the right solution.”
“Would you fetch us our things, Berta?” Amalia said.
“I’ll fetch them”, Armando said. “You and Berta make arrangements for the next meeting.”
Armando went inside, while Berta and the two couples said their goodbyes. Where will the next dinner be? At Carlos’ place? In a fortnight? In a month? An urgent bang came from the back of the house. They stood, paralysed.
“You’d say that was a gunshot”, Oscar said.
Berta was the first to run down the corridor, just as Armando reappeared carrying a bag, a scarf and a coat. He was pale.
“Strange!” he said. “That kind of coincidence could be quite disconcerting. While I was looking for a tablet on my bedside table, I moved my revolver and I don’t know how, but a shot went off. It went through the table drawer and ricocheted off the wall.”
“You gave us quite a fright!” Oscar said. “That’s how accidents happen. That’s why I never carry weapons. Be more careful next time.”
“Pah!” Armando said. “There’s no need to exaggerate, either. After all, nothing happened. I’ll see you out.”
The seafront was still shrouded in mist. Armando hoped the cars would start, slid the latch on on his way into the house, and went back to the living room. Berta was taking the dirty ashtrays to the kitchen.
“The girl will tidy up in here in the morning. I’m really tired now.”
“I, on the other hand, am not at all sleepy. That conversation gave me some new ideas. I’m going to work on my story for a while. You haven’t told me what you made of it…”
“Please, Armando, I told you, I’m really tired. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Berta went to bed and Armando headed off to his study.
He spent a long time revising his manuscript, crossing words out, adding words in, making corrections. Eventually he switched off the light and went into the bedroom. Berta was asleep on her side; her bedside lamp still on. Armando looked at her blonde hair spread out across the pillow, her profile, her delicate neck, the way her body moved as she breathed under the eiderdown. Opening the drawer in his bedside table, he took out his revolver and, stretching out his arm, shot her in the back of the head.
Translation of “The Solution” Copyright Julio Ramón Ribeyro. Translation copyright 2014 by Ruth Clarke. All rights reserved. A special thank you to Ribeyro’s family and author Gunter Silva for making this happen.
Julio Ramón Ribeyro (Lima, 1929-94) is considered one of the greatest Latin American short-story writers. Born and raised in Peru, he spent much of his adult life in Paris. He published dozens of books, including novels, plays, journals, and essays. His best-known collection of short stories is Los gallinazos sin plumas (Featherless Buzzards, 1955). In the year of his death, he was awarded the prestigious Premio Juan Rulfo de literatura latinoamericana y del Caribe. His work has been translated into numerous languages.