The Banquet by Julio Ribeyro

This is the third in a series of short stories I have translated from Spanish. Read the introductory post on Julio Ribeyro and this series.

After two months of anticipation, Don Fernando Pasamano had prepared the details for the grand event. First, his house needed to undergo an overall transformation. As one treats an old house, it was necessary to bring down the walls, enlarge the windows, change the wooden staircase and paint the walls afresh.

These alterations brought with it, as with other things – like those people who when they buy a pair of shoes, decide it’s necessary to try them out with a pair of new socks and then with a new shirt and then a new suit and so on until they buy new underwear to go with it – Don Fernando was obliged to renovate all the furniture, from the console in the salons to the last bench in the kitchen. Later came the carpets, the lamps, the curtains and the frames to cover the walls which, since they had been cleaned, appeared much larger than they actually were. Finally, since he planned to have a concert in the garden, it was necessary to construct a garden. Within fifteen days, a squad of Japanese gardeners had built, where before there had been a wildly overgrown vegetable garden, a marvelous rococo garden with carved (or sculpted) cypresses, alleys without exits, a lagoon with red fish, a cavern for the deities and a bridge made of rustic wood that crossed over to an imaginary waterfall.

The most serious task, no doubt, was preparing the menu. Don Fernando and his wife, like most of the gentry in the interior provinces, only had attended provincial feasts where one mixed the maize corn chicha with whisky and finished it up devouring guinea pigs with their fingers. For this reason, as they were planning a feast for the president, they were confused. The extended family, convened for soliciting special advice, had only increased its disconcert. Finally, Don Fernando decided to make an inquiry with the principal hotels and restaurants in the city, which allowed him to find out that there were delicacies fit for presidents and expensive wines that had to be brought by air from the vineyards of the south.

When all those details were finalized, Don Fernando confirmed with a certain anguish that in this banquet, which would be assisted by one hundred and fifty attendants, fifty young assistants, two orchestras, a ballet group and a cinema operator, he had invested his entire fortune. But, in the final account, all this wasteful expenditure appeared small compared to the enormous benefits that would be gained from the reception.

“With an ambassadorship in Europe and a railway line to my lands in the mountains, we shall remake our fortunes in in no time at all,” he told his wife, “I don’t ask for much, I am a modest man.”

“Except to know if the president would come,” replied his wife.

In effect, Don Fernando had until that moment left out sending his invitation out. It was enough for him to know that he was related to the president, in one of those relationships in the mountains so vague as to be indemonstrable and which, in general, no one ever explained for fear of discovering an adulterous origin, so as to be sure that it would be completely acceptable. Indeed, Don Fernando made sure to use his first visit to the presidential palace to take the president to a corner and humbly communicate his invitation.

“I would be delighted,” the president replied. “It appears to be a magnificent idea to me, though at this moment I find myself very busy. I will confirm my acceptance in writing.”

Don Fernando hopefully waited for the confirmation. To combat his impatience, he ordered some more complementary alterations that gave the mansion an aspect of a palace with a somewhat solemn appearance. His latest idea was to commission the portrait of the president, which, after being copied from a photograph by a painter, was placed in the most visible part of the salon.

At the end of four weeks, the confirmation arrived. Don Fernando, who had started to worry because of the delay, experienced the greatest happiness of his life. That was a day of celebration, a kind of anticipation of the festivity that was approaching. Before it arrived, he took his wife to the balcony to muse on his illuminated garden and close the memorable day with a bucolic dream. The landscape, no doubt, appeared to have lost its sensible properties; wherever he cast his eyes, Don Fernando saw only himself, wearing a coat, a mug in hand, smoking cigars with a background decoration where, like in certain tourist posters, one confuses the monuments of the four most important cities in Europe. Even farther, in a corner of his made-up world, he saw a train returning to the forests with wagons full of gold. And everywhere, moving and transparent like an allegory of sensuality, he saw the figure of a woman who had legs like a cocotte, the hat of a marquisa, the eyes of a Tahitian and looked absolutely nothing like his wife.

On the day of the banquet, the snitches were the first to arrive. From five pm, they were positioned in a corner, trying to make themselves unnoticeable but starkly betrayed by their hats, their exaggerated manners, and above all, their terrible air of delinquency that gave them the appearance of investigators, secret agents and, in general, everything that redeemed clandestine officials.

Then the automobiles started arriving. From them descended the ministers, parliamentarians, diplomats, businessmen, intelligent men. A porter opened the iron gates, an usher announced the guest, a valet took their coats and Don Fernando, at the center of the lobby, stretched his hand, murmuring short phrases as he shook hands.

After all the local bourgeois had crowded around inside the mansion and the residents of the tenements had a pompous unexpected celebration, the president arrived. Escorted by his aide-de-camp, he entered the house, and Don Fernando, forgetting the niceties of etiquette, moved by an impulse of camaraderie, embraced the president with such a show of affection that one of his epaulettes fell off.

Dividing themselves in salons, corridors, the terrace and the garden, the guests drank discreetly, between jokes and clever epigrams, the forty pegs of whisky. Afterwards, they accommodated themselves on the tables that had been reserved for them – the biggest – decorated with orchids was occupied by the president and exemplary men. They started to eat and chat noisily while the orchestra, at an angle of the salon, vainly tried to impose a Viennese air.

In the middle of the banquet, when the white wines of the Rhine had been honored and the reds of the Mediterranean started to fill their glasses, they started a round of discussions. The arrival of the pheasant interrupted it, and in the end, champagne was served, they returned to their eloquence and panegyrics that continued until the coffee, to drown finally in glasses of cognac.

Don Fernando, meanwhile, saw with disquiet that the banquet healthily followed its own laws, except that he did not have the occasion to take the president into confidence. Even though he sat down, in violation of the protocol, to the left of the guest, he did not find the right moment to speak. To top it off, the services ended, the diners got up to form drowsy and quiet groups to digest the meals and he, as the host, saw himself obligated to run from one group to another to keep them going with cups of mint, pats, cigars and polite chatting.

Finally, close to midnight, when the minister, inebriated, had seen himself forced to retire catastrophically, Don Fernando succeeded in conducting the president to the music room and there, seated on one of those canopies that in the court of Versailles had served to propose to a princess, or to thwart a coalition, he slipped a whisper of his modest demand.

“But there are none anymore,” replied the president, “There is an ambassadorship to Rome coming up soon. Tomorrow morning, on the advice of the ministers, I will propose your name, that is to say, impose your name. And as for the railway track, I know that there are the deputies of a commission that have been discussing this project for a few months. The day after tomorrow, I will cite in my dispatch to its members and yourself, to resolve this matter in an agreeable manner.”

An hour later, the president retired after reiterating his promises. His ministers, the congressmen and others followed as per the convention decreed by practice and custom. At two in the morning, there remained on the prowl at the bar only some courtiers who had no title to boast about and waited so they could uncork another bottle or stealthily bring another silver ashtray. At three in the morning, there remained only Don Fernando and his wife. Exchanging their impressions, making auspicious projections, they remained amid the ruins of their grand party until pre-dawn hours. Finally, they went to sleep, convinced that no gentleman in Lima had partied with more glory and ostentation in their home nor had anyone increased their fortune with such sagacity.

At ten in the morning, Don Fernando was awakened by the screams of his wife. When he opened his eyes, he saw her entering the room with an open newspaper in her hands. Snatching it away, he read the headlines and barely uttering an exclamation, he fainted on the bed. At dawn, taking advantage of the reception, a minister had carried out a coup and the president had been forced to relinquish his office.

Read more stories by Julio Ribeyro on this blog

Author: bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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