When I first came to Barcelona I did not encounter Catalonia or any of the nationalist passions I had anticipated. After roaming around for a while, I found an open space in the center of the city, created by the demolition of a whole quarter of buildings.
Stone pillars joined the sides of this packed dirt square to the rest of the city. It was like a small town plaza in the middle of a metropolis. It provided a good space for hanging out and for all kinds of encounters.
All the frequenters of the square were more interested in themselves, in their own livelihoods, than in the independence or coexistence of diverse cultures. The population of this part of town had been brought here by drugs, prostitution, and the most severe of crimes: poverty. I had entered Chino, the basement of society.
On the short stretch of Calle Sant Ramón that was one of the square ́s boundaries there were four bars: Las Marinas, Porto Pi, La Barra, and El Disco. They shared the street with a barber and a condom shop. Around the corner there was a restaurant, and in the vicinity there were a few small hotels or rooms for rent for brief encounters involving the spending or earning of what little money there was in circulation. The bars had a motley clientele. It did not take me long to join it.
Later on, the sandy scab became the site of two new ugly apartment buildings, so minimalist that one could think of them as their own freight crates.
The buildings have cut down the space, it is less inviting, but it still is an anteroom to lust. Most of the street action consists of the sale of human bodies. Different styles dominate their own sectors. This is a female sector, aimed at males.
In this part of Chino, dozens of women are selling their bodies in the street. This is not love for sale, not even brief joy; the joys are left to your own imagination. What ́s for sale here is coition, ”fucky- fucky”.
Business is most brisk while the evening ́s warmth lingers, slowing down as night falls. Then the prostitutes leave to mingle with the tourist stream in the hope of greater rewards. Almost anything looks prettier at night.
It took me a while to understand, among other things, this mode of prostitution and its great extent. According to one estimate, Barcelona has more than 50 000 active prostitutes. My personal knowledge of the phenomenon is minimal, since my radius was limited to the thirty yards between Las Marinas and La Barra. To this day, I hardly know the rest of the city.
Every environment creates its own ethics. The people of Sant Ramón do not know much about each other. It is not necessary to know names, or addresses, or even genders. When proximity gets to be too close, it changes into danger. The only necessity is to exist, and you can ́t exist without being somewhere.
Chino is part of a larger project involving humanity in diverse conditions and communities. I have paid eight visits to Barcelona ́s Chino, the last seven within the last eighteen months.
Translated from the Finnish by Anselm Hollo
EXTRACTIONS FROM THE DIARY
Itziar is dying of aids, tobacco is killing Miguel. Life has its prognosis, as does death. Itziar has attempted suicide several times. The only thing that keeps a person alive, even when they don’t want to be, is the dread of death.
I visited Miguel twice in the hospital. There is a red notice on the door of the room. Only those wearing surgical masks are permitted, his lungs are severely inflamed. He looks like death, his body shrivelled to a husk within hollowed hide. There is one night remaining of his life, a lunar landscape of pallid features.
His lips ask for a cigarette. I have none, let him smoke at home, cigarettes are available from any café. Miguel carries a gravestone on his breast. It’s tattooed with the initials of his dead parents, Miguel Ortiz and Josefa Santana.
August, and the room is still as hot. A dead butterfly on the window sill now flutters only with a breeze. The gaze of its wings is expressionless. I stare back at it solemnly.
Miguel got out of the hospital that same week. Or else he was thrown out, as he put it. Life doesn’t end according to expectations, it’s end is unexpected.
Mariluz has small breasts. As small as may be bought with a poor man’s money. She has had a sex change, but the mail still arrives in Francisco’s name.
The cockeyed cat meows in the stove. Mariluz shut it in there so it wouldn’t kill the white doves that are even more important to her than the cat. Luckily for the cat, the stove is slightly open; in addition to the cry, air circulates there.
Mariluz shows me photographs in which a miracle occurs. Un milagro, as she says. Something red floats above the saintly image. The film was exposed to something other than the mundane. A former stage performer is a Catholic witch.
We’re going today to the roof, where she has her third altar. The other two are in her apartment, in the front hall and on the little balcony. She must pray and converse with the Virgin Mary; Melill, Mariluz’s girlfriend, has husband problems.
We wait for the earth to move to that quarter in which the sun seems to be on the horizon. Everything must be perfect: ‘There is no almost,’ says Mariluz, quoting an Indian film, ‘No hay nada casi.’
The Porto Pi is closed. It’s being remodelled. Every Sant Ramón bar is being disinfected. The Porto Pi is the last of them. It too is now defunct. The shop provides the new bars with tiles and imitation wood. Nothing is done by hand. Not even accident gives them an interesting look.
The eyebrows are the speech of the eyes. I believe what she says with her eyes. Merche merely glances at me. My linguistic ability is in looks. We are made to smile. A girl in the final phase of pregnancy comes by and asks me: ‘No quieres fucky-fucky?’
Fernando passes in his wheelchair, stops, backs up, and waves. His greeting is martial, a mark of respect. I also want to show him respect. We like each other. He has his wheelchair and his streets, where he spends the nights, his own place in the world. I, a devil, am without.
He once became angry in the emergency ward when I began washing his wheelchair’s sticky handles, with which I would have to push him back again. He’d been hit by a car and was covered in blood. The chair was missing a wheel; still, he didn’t lack for rage at his injuries. I was amazed, and when he just ranted, I returned alone.
In the evening Paquita wept over her homelessness. And her dead mother, and her father, who had remarried and doesn’t even care to see his own daughter. Agonies sparked by profound inebriation. Antonio joins us and offers yet another round. ‘Me gusta el sangre,’ Antonio likes blood. In his youth, he always took part in fights. Now he’s three years short of sixty.
Mari José sleeps off her weariness in bed, and little Carmen does crosswords at the narrow table in the front hall, with only a reading lamp for light. Both await the arrival of the next incoming couples. It’s open house here; the women bring men here, pay for the room, take what they can get, and seek new men.
Mari José tidies up the rooms after use, empties the wastepaper baskets of discarded condoms, cleans, straightens the rumpled sheets. On the table are a couple of rolls of paper towels used to wipe up the life spilled on the bedclothes. The rooms have to be clean.
Four bars along a thirty-meter stretch. Solitary old men making people drunk, people who often speak to me without knowing what they’re saying. Words don ́t speak, they lie more than people do.
In two bars the coffee machines are broken, in the other two they still work. The selection has narrowed to the stronger liquors, wines and beers. Or soft drinks and water, if that’s what you want to drink. I go to the Porto Pi to drink cortado, for which Ramón pays.
The Guitar Player and his companion enter. Both are drunk. The player bows to me, and says whatever his drunkenness permits. At his speech my cheeks tremble and moisten.
He has never yielded himself up for sale, which I believe and greatly respect. He is a brilliant singer and a fine guitar player. He claims to know all languages, which I do not believe. And that he never lies, which I don’t believe either, because everyone lies, if not knowingly then at least unknowingly.
After a sleepless night, at six-thirty in the morning, someone wants to kill some Antonio unfamiliar to me. ‘Puta, puta madre! Tu eres muerto! Te mato! Antonio, te mato! Putaaaaa!’
I look down into the street. I can see from the troublemaker’s eyes that Antonio lives at the same height, in the next building, as I do. His hands make insulting gestures, his bellows at the top of his voice. The shouts continue for five minutes, and then another fifteen. Then they’re quieter. I try to sleep.
In a short dream I learn horse language. We get along quite well, the horse speaking of bread, me of the weather. We maintained our ordinary manners in the dream.
Nacha sells himself on one side of the city park, where the transvestites gather. Often in cars, and quickly. Sometimes customers come at night to Nacha’s little room in Chino. Yvonne lives in the same apartment.
Nacha’s room is simple and austere, almost merely a bed. On the wall is a lamp tinged blue by the dark night; the faint power of its enfeebled light provides a blurred, obscure frame for fantasies. The light of a dying moon, lovely and sorrowful.
During the Franco era Nacha was sentenced nine times to prison for homosexuality. Usually for two or three months, sometimes a year. In each case there was no telling in advance what sentence the judge would let fall from his lips.
Nacha complains Mariluz no longer talks to him even though they are best friends. Macha lives at the same address, one floor up. He says Mariluz would kill him if she could.
Mariluz went completely berserk today. With a heavy bag of oats in one hand, she threw grain at the sky with the other. Kneeling on the ground, occasionally stretching herself toward the sun like a ballerina, she launched forth incantations. On the street her movements were mimicked and there was amazement at the amount of grain she sowed the street with.
Of course the city’s pigeons were ecstatic. At last there was someone on the street who spoke their language. Their long and wing-borne prays had been heard. The little grey angels that shit on statues flew around their paradise well into the evening, and were happy.
A Portuguese woman offers her breasts to be photographed. ‘Soy portuguese.’ Large and firm. It sounds strange. I am nonplussed by an offer coming from a stranger. There is no time to think. I reject it in my mind, and I don’t reject it.
I’ve always been sceptical with regard to nude pictures, but this is my last day here. I live in accordance. We’re not admitted to the first hotel. I try and am about to give up, but the woman doesn’t relent.
We go elsewhere, pay a little something, and no one asks any questions. A man in a pale blue dress lets us in and takes a thousand pesetas from me. We now have a room and a bed. We hook the door shut.
My taste probably makes people wonder. The woman keeps praising her breasts all the time. She wants money from me: ‘Not much, five thousand pesetas. That isn’t much, I got paid twenty thousand when I was younger.’ It’s very little for so much.
I feel nothing but a strange fear at seeing her breasts. All I see is two open fields with a deep ditch running between them. From over the fields someone watches me and speaks of the countryside. I feel no admiration, but I listen politely.
I don’t focus on the breasts, they show anyway. She has put a shirt over her head. She doesn’t want her face displayed. And here I thought I’d come to take a portrait. The shirt looks like underpants growing from her neck.
She looks at me through the fabric. This is her suggestion. I’m no dumber than she is. I think we’re both just as dumb.
Higinio (Brigitte in the evenings) is out on parole. He now has a short beard because he needn’t look completely like a woman in the evenings. He got caught three times for renting the bed in his barbershop to prostitutes. He was fined half a million pesetas. He has no money, he pays by doing time on Calle Entenza. Four months as the prison barber, weekends off.
Miguel returned a grand of the eight thousand I lent him yesterday. I gave it to Yolanda, who promised to give it back the instant she found her next customer. I lent Adela two thousand yesterday for food, money I’ll probably never see again. Everybody’s strapped around here.
A women with a squint sits in place by the window like a pastry and looks out over her glass of sherry. One of her eyes is false. She glances at me. It’s difficult to avoid looking at her false eye. It stares at you like the real one.
Yolanda came by late to demand more money because she didn’t find any customers. I gave her another one thousand five hundred for rent and three hundred for a breadroll.
There is no horizon to the Sant Ramón landscape, the sky is a narrow strip above the buildings. There is nothing of nature but light staring from the sky, shifting shadows on the building walls, the heat of the day disappearing late at night, or the humidity of the air turning to rain. And the eternal flies flitting in heat between dog excrement and people.
Ramón considers ‘Maigel’ dangerous. Maigel twisted his name for me into the English form. He’s actually Miguel. Like his father, he’s called Chino. He earlier threatened me with a breadknife; the pictures I gave him lacked something.
The police later forced him up against a wall and took the knife. He’d already threatened others.
Whenever I see Chino on Sant Ramón, he’s walking as if searching for something, like an already wounded bull brought to the ring for killing. His halting step seeks something his eyes can’t. His angular body calls to mind a snowman lost in the heat.
He’s in the habit of preparing for difficulties. Occasionally he’s been laid up at home with wounds from a knife fight. Now, just before the final Christmas, he’s taken to the hospital for the same reason as the other Miguel: his lungs have given out. He’s in better condition, though, and Chino wants to run away from the hospital.
Day or night. A strange deserted zone. Like a village. La Barra. Most of the people drunk. Faces tormented by life. Can’t live anywhere else. Flowing like small currents of water into a great one. Many of these human currents.
I’ll need to observe the city at length before I know it. La Barra. Dice dandle almost continuously from the synthetic stone of the bar. A large fan adorns an otherwise bare wall. The only food visible in the bar is a dry length of sausage hanging from a fire extinguisher.
I chewed up a peanut and counted how many pieces in broke up into. After six they got so small that it was all the same whether there were eight, ten or eleven. We all go to pieces and then join again.
Two portraits hang on the back wall: one of a dog, the other of a horse. The dog lies on some steps, the horse is nowhere to be seen.
‘It was a fine night. We were in a luxurious hotel right on the beach. The sound of the waves was audible all night in the room, and we hardly slept at all.’ Maricarmen likes Antonio. He is a fijo, a steady customer, and a gentleman besides.
Maricarmen has a fourteen-year-old son, she herself is thirty-one. I think she looks ten years younger. I tell her this. It amuses her.
I briefly visited Chino during Easter week of 1997.
Choni (not Chino) had been killed in the Plaza Robador and only his clothing identified him. Mariluz had been permanently evicted from her apartment. On Sunday afternoon I met Miguel at his home, that evening he was arrested.
Thirty knife wounds throughout the body. An apartment fire. A robbery. In that order.
Translated from the Finnish by Tim Steffa