THE PEOPLE OF PAPER is an astonishing debut novel about the anguish of lost love. Author Salvador Plascencia, a "once-in-a-generation talent" (George Saunders), weaves together the stories of a large cast of colorful characters, including: a disgruntled monk, a father and daughter, a gang of carnation pickers, and a woman made of paper.
Federico de la Fe discovered a cure for remorse. A remorse that started by the river of Las Tortugas.
Every Tuesday Federico de la Fe and Merced carried their conjugal mattress past the citrus orchard and laid it down at the edge of the river. Federico de la Fe would take out his sickle and split open the mattress at the seams while Merced sucked on the limes she plucked from the orchard.
Merced sent Federico de la Fe across the river to cut fresh straw and mint leaves while she pulled straw, wet with urine, from the open mattress.
For the first five years of their marriage Merced felt no shame in having a husband who wet his
bed. She got used to the smell of piss and mint in
the morning. And she could not imagine making
love without the fermenting stench of wet hay
When Little Merced was born, Merced joked about Federico de la Fe giving up his cotton under-briefs in exchange for cloth diapers like the ones their daughter wore. But instead both child and husband slept in the nude, curled around Merced. The ratio of mint leaves to hay was increased; and although Merced feared chafing, she spread white sand on
the bed to absorb the moisture.
But Merced grew impatient when Little Merced learned to use the chamber pot and Federico de la Fe’s penis continued to drip on the sheets. “This is the last straw I’m putting into this mattress,” she told Federico de la Fe at the river. “A wife can only take
so many years of being pissed on.”
Federico de la Fe went to the botanica to find a remedy, because he could not think of anything sadder than losing Merced. The curandero behind the counter gave him a green ointment to rub on his groin and two boiled turtle eggs to chew, a prescription designed to cure his enuresis.
As Federico de la Fe chewed on the shells and meat of the eggs and spread the salve, he felt the weight of a distant force looking down on him.
The medication failed. My mother got up from the bed and wiped the wet sand from her back. She left my father as he slept and I stared at her long and tangled hair.
When my father awoke and discovered that my mother was not in the house or in the river washing herself, his sadness began.
“Merced, it is just you and me,” he said with a voice that was sore and full
My mother was gone and my father chased goats and sheep to bring me milk. At night, instead of sleeping nestled between my mother’s breasts, I slept next to my father and felt the wet warmth that had driven her away.
It was not until I turned eleven that my father discovered a cure for his decade of sadness, a cure that he never revealed to me. With his sadness the cure also took away his need for washed sheets and fresh straw and mint leaves.
“If only I had stopped when you were a little girl and your mother was still here,” he said, but his sore voice had healed.
Two weeks after losing his sadness, my father told me to put my things in the pillowcases that my mother had stitched. He said that we were going to Los Angeles—where he could work in a dress factory
and I could go to school and learn about
a world that was built on cement and
Half an hour before the Guadalajara Tag Team title match began, I went into Satoru “Tiger Mask” Sayama’s dressing room to review our strategy. His mask hung on the side of the mirror while he sat on the couch shuffling his flashcards.
“Burro,” he read from one side of a flash card and then flipped it to read the hiragana writing. Satoru Sayama had mastered Brazilian jiujutsu, aikido, and kendo, and was now working on the ancient romantic art of Spanish.
I went over the setups for the flying cross chop and the diving plancha attack.
“Hai, hai,” Satoru nodded and continued with his flash cards.
As I left Tiger Mask’s dressing room
I heard a voice coming from a crack in the brick hallway that had grown into a hole.
I looked through the hole and saw a man with a young girl behind him holding two pillowcases.
“We are going to Los Angeles, but before we go I want my daughter to see the last of the Mexican heroes.” He lifted his daughter so I could see her and then put her down and walked away.
From the top rope, as Tiger Mask held down La Abeja Negra—so I could deliver my diving plancha—I saw the girl and her father eating roasted peanuts. I delivered the plancha and then tagged Tiger Mask, making him the legal man in. Tiger Mask executed his Japanese tirabuzon submission hold and the peanut shells fell from the girl’s lap onto the adobe floor where her pillowcases rested.
I thought that perhaps I could follow the girl after the match. But she had come too late in my life; I was an old man and she was just a young girl with flowered underwear. Instead, I tagged, so someone else could watch over her.
When Merced left, Federico de la Fe fell into a depression that was not cured until ten years later. An itch had developed on the back of Federico de la Fe’s hand and no amount of scratching could relieve it. He resorted to hand-feeding opossums and sticking his bare fingers and fist into beehives. The bites from
the opossums and the stings from the honeybees
temporarily relieved the severe itching. But it was
not until Federico de la Fe resolved to stick his hand into the wood stove—where Merced used to cook tortillas and boil goat’s milk—that the itch completely disappeared.
Federico de la Fe put his hand in the embers until it hurt so much that he could not feel his sadness and instead smelled only his singed flesh. After he wrapped his hand with an old scarf and rubbed on the green ointment that the curandero had given him, he wrote down all the things the fire had cured:
Federico de la Fe’s only regret was that he had not discovered fire ten years earlier. Every night, when the sun hid underneath the flat earth and Little Merced slept on the dry straw bed, Federico de la Fe went into the kitchen and lit the stove so his remorse would not return.
My father said that before we could go to Los Angeles we had to see the last of the Jaliscon wrestling heroes and partake in the long tradition of lotería. I dragged the two pillowcases as I followed my father to Don Clemente’s arena. I walked through the hallways, while blood from the morning’s cockfights seeped into the cloth of thepillowcases.
I remember my father lifting me and making me look at a man who wore a silver sequined mask. Through his eyeholes
I could tell that he was a very handsome man, but a sad one with a lonely life.
In the arena we watched the match from the third row. My father bought me a bag of roasted peanuts and I asked for limes to squeeze into the bag.
“Your mother used to eat limes all the time,” my father said. “They started rotting her teeth.” I promised not to eat too many. “Just this time,” I said, and he conceded two limes from his brown travel bag.
I ate the roasted peanuts soaked in lime juice and watched Santos tag Tiger Mask and step out of the ring. Perhaps it was my imagination—or the stench of the dead roosters underneath the seats—but
I felt Santos’s sad eyes staring at me.
After Santos and Tiger Mask defeated the Abejas Negras, we left the arena and followed a group of old ladies to the lotería tables in the cobblestone park at the center of the city.
Copyright © 2005 Salvador Plascencia
PRAISE FOR THE PEOPLE OF PAPER
"Salvador Plascencia's surrealistic metanovel, styled a la García Márquez, is a charming meditation on the relationship between reader, author, and story line, filled with mythic imagery . . . and unforgettable personalities . . . Readers will find it hard to turn away from The People of Paper. A."--Entertainment Weekly
"A nervy new voice . . . Finally, beyond all the experimental devices, fairy-tale antics and fabulist inclination, Plascencia's novel is a story of lost love."--San Francisco Chronicle
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