Mauricio Montiel Figueiras: from “The Man in Tweed: The City,” a Twitter-constructed Novel in Progress (with a follow-up note on the process)
Translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine
On the other side of the street, as if it were on the other side of the ocean, there is a sign: “Café.” The man in tweed waits for the light to change.
While he crosses the street, the man in tweed remembers the first time he drank coffee. Another time, another world: a smell of jungle in the steam.
On the sidewalk in front of the café are two little tables. One of them is occupied by a vaguely familiar looking old man who stares at the man in tweed.
The old man smiles, a toothless gesture. The man in tweed swallows saliva and enters the place. A fan revolves on the ceiling like a wasp.
The only customer inside the establishment is sitting in front of a laptop. The man in tweed glimpses an internet page: Twitter.
The customer with the laptop writes at that moment something related to a man in tweed in a café. The man in tweed shivers.
“Good morning,” says the girl behind the counter, her dark hair tied at the back of her neck. The man in tweed takes a hesitant step toward her.
“I am lost and need directions,” mumbles the man in tweed. “We are all lost,” the girl says, “tomorrow is the first day of spring.”
“I know what you’re getting at,” says the man in tweed thinking of black pollen, “but right now I need to orient myself.” “You can’t find the north,” says the girl.
The idea of the north, the man in tweed remembers, and he agrees. “Will you help me?” “Yes,” the girl says, “but first you must buy something.”
Frantic, the man in tweed scrutinizes the chalkboard behind the counter. It’s filled with names that mean absolutely nothing to him: hieroglyphics.
An image emerges slowly from the memory of the man in tweed. A speeding train breaches the dark night like a bright zipper.
“Espresso,” whispers the man in tweed, and the express train vanishes into the tunnel in his mind. “See?” says the girl, smiling, “that wasn’t so hard.”
The smile that the man in tweed attempts to return ends up being an indescribable grimace. “You need a double,” the girl says, and turns around.
While the girl prepares the coffee, the man in tweed catches a glimpse of the back of her neck. There, among a few rebellious hairs, shines a ruby-colored butterfly.
The tattoo seems to flutter on the girl’s neck as if wanting to flee its prison of skin. The man in tweed imagines a milky sky.
In the midst of that whiteness, the man in tweed sees a trace of moving blood: butterflies. Beneath the whiteness, the gardens of the world boil.
The man in tweed observes thousands of chrysalises opening in the gardens. Nude girls emerge, their young bodies glowing like fire.
The girls rise up, throwing off the viscous threads that cling to them. The rite of spring, muses the man in tweed.
The blood butterflies come down from the sky to enmesh with the bodies of the girls. The man in tweed hears a voice: “Your coffee’s ready.”
The girl with the tattoo hands him the cup as if it were a chalice, from which arises fingers of steam. The man in tweed catches a crimson gleam in her eyes.
“You like butterflies?” the girl asks. “I don’t know. I don’t understand them,” says the man in tweed. “Soon you will,” says the girl.
The vanes of the fan cut the sudden silence. The man in tweed takes the coffee and turns around. The customer with the laptop has disappeared.
“Who was the man with the computer?” says the man in tweed. “I think he’s a writer. Strange guy. He often comes here,” the girl replies.
“And who is the man sitting out there?” the man in tweed points to the table on the sidewalk. “That’s not a man,” the girl answers.
Disturbed, the man in tweed looks at the girl. “Then what is he?” he says. “I don’t know, but he comes everyday,” says the girl. “He’s the old man.”
“You haven’t wanted to find out who he is?” the man in tweed says. “The name doesn’t matter,” says the girl. “He’s the old man and he’s one hundred years old. Or a thousand.”
The girl’s voice has begun to creak like papyrus paper. The man in tweed notices that her skin is getting whiter and whiter as if her blood were escaping.
“I’m sure the old man can give you the directions you need,” says the girl. “He seems familiar to me,” admits the man in tweed.
“Maybe you’ve seen him in a distant dream,” murmurs the girl. “I don’t usually dream,” says the man in tweed, and he thinks he hears the fluttering of the tattoo on her neck.
. . . . . . .
A Note on the Preceding
A Man of Tweets
I saw him on Monday, March 7, 2011, at midday. I noticed him because he was dressed in a manner more suited to winter than to spring, which was already proclaiming its sultry languor in bloom amid the jacarandas that were spreading their purple fire along the streets of Mexico City. He was about to cross an avenue near the apartment I rent in a neighborhood downtown, but for some inexplicable reason he had stopped in his tracks. It was as if someone — an inner voice rather than from the outside — had ordered him to stand perfectly still on the sidewalk, his eyes staring at an ambiguous zone in the distance. I paused next to him because I thought the traffic light was preventing us from moving, but that wasn’t it — and at that moment I was able to register his tweed jacket, the slightly disproportionate size of his eyeglasses, the fact that he wasn’t sweating despite the excess of his overcoat in the (almost) springtime heat, and especially the curious milky opalescence of his skin which made him look like a stranger in town, a man who was not where he belonged. I crossed the avenue and when I got to the other side I turned around: he was still standing in the same position or at his post, his eyes drawn by some unfathomable magnet. I continued walking home, thinking of two of my all-time favorite stories (“The Man of the Crowd” and “Bartleby”), the shadowy creatures of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, and a quotation from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the great novel by Haruki Murakami: “You turn a corner and find a world you had never seen before.”
Once in my apartment I connected to the Internet and got on Twitter, that virtual aviary where birds try to find their own voice amid a deafening hue and cry. I remembered the individual I had just bumped into and wrote: “A man with enormous eyeglasses and a tweed jacket stares engrossed at the horizon on a busy corner. The sun lends him an otherworldly glow.” And a little later: “I think I notice that the man in the enormous eyeglasses and the tweed jacket moves his lips. I think I hear him mutter: ‘Look at me carefully. I could be your character.’”
I hadn’t suspected that this would be the beginning of a serial novelette or noveletweet that would claim my attention for over a month — I finished it on Thursday, April 14, 2011 — and that it would generate what would be for me an unanticipated interest in a group of readers — I like to speak of readers and not simply followers — that would grow exponentially alongside a plot centered precisely on this character: a man assembled by tweets assuming that he is not where he should be and who therefore undertakes a sort of anti-Odyssey which tries to fuse fantasy and terror, classic adventure and metaphysical drift, the possibility of parallel universes and the uneasiness with the reality that surrounds us. Now that the man in tweed walks on his own feet thanks to the account I opened for him on Twitter (@); now that the series he stars in already has three episodes or parts exceeding three hundred pages (“The Man in Tweed: The City,” “The Man in Tweed: The Island,” and “The Man in Tweed: The Epidemic”), I can’t help thinking about the flesh and blood being that gave origin to him: is he stuck on another bustling corner of the big city, his eyes glued to the horizon where the mysteries of the everyday are brewing?
Mexico, D.F., Mexico