MJD’s “Luis Briceno”

As a followup to last week’s “Turing Test” here’s one more repost of an old Mark-Jason Dominus story from the archives. Reading this Borges-inspired story is what first led me to discover the peculiar delights of Borges’ fables.

I saw in the Philadelphia Inquirer the other day that Luis Briceno y Confuerde de la Juemos died. Since his work is rather less well-known than it ought to be, I thought I would write a note, so that perhaps those of you who are interested will be able to find copies of his work before it disappears forever. 

Confuerde was the author of forty-four short stories and three novels, which were mostly ignored by critics and public alike, but which display a powerful depth of characterization which I feel more than makes up for their admittedly rather languid tone, and their sometimes didactic symbolism. Because the characters are the main attraction of the stories, I’ve felt free to spoil the plots, which in some sense are secondary, hoping to display some of Confuerde’s inventiveness and feel by doing so. For although Confuerde’s work varies in theme and in quality, his writings have one rather startling thing in common: The plot of each concerns a door which is bolted from both sides. 

For example, take Confuerde’s second novel, The Garden of Appolinarus. The story concerns two Roman patricians, Punctilius and Cano. They are close friends, and also happen to live next door to each other; their gardens abut and are divided by a high wall of stone and masonry. There is a door set in this wall, but at the beginning of the novel it is always open, and the slaves and the families of the two senators intermingle, the two households are run almost as one. Through their friendship the two become important senators, respected and a little feared. But then Punctilius begins trafficking with some rather shady political powers of whom the self-righteous Cano does not approve, and the two have a disagreement that festers and grows until finally Cano puts a bolt on the door in the garden wall, lest the notional taint that afflicts Punctilius’ friends be somehow transferred to Punctilius himself, and then to his family, and then to the morally clean household of Cano. Punctilius, arrogant and unforgiving, bolts his side of the door too, and that is the beginning of the downfall of the two men. Finally at the end of the novel the two rich houses have crumbled, the gardens have been overgrown by weeds, and only the stone wall remains standing, its door still firmly bolted from both sides. The ending is a little trite and moralistic for my taste, but the story is excellent and Punctilius and Cano ring true on every page; they have that trait that all characters in really well-written books have: They remind the reader of people he has met, and if the reader were to meet one on the street he would not be too surprised. 

One of Confuerde’s collections of short stories, The Demon Ensnared, is a collection of re-tellings of folk tales that involve evil powers sealed in tiny rooms. This type of story is common: the naïve young man weds a beautiful and wealthy magic princess, and receives his heart’s desires; but one thing, and one thing only is denied to him: He may not enter the little locked room in the cellar. Of course he does, and ruin befalls him and his wife. There are stories of this type in Chinese folklore and in the Thousand and One Nights; the English version is almost lost, and only the last half survives in common folklore as the story of Rumpelstiltskin. The Russian version involves Koschei the Undying. 

In Confuerde’s versions, the rooms are always locked from both sides, for various reasons which it would be pointless to divulge. In the most interesting story, Princess Marya Morevna has sealed the wicked and immortal sorcerer, Koschei the Undying, in a tiny room. Koschei has been ensorcelled into an illusory world in which he believes himself to be a mighty prince; in his dreams, he has everything he wishes, except he must not open the little bolted door in the basement. In reality, of course, he is in a dungeon, and when in his dreams he creeps down to the basement to unbolt the little door, it is because in the real world his passive body has stirred for a moment, he has awakened a tiny bit, and for a time he sees the door correctly; he reaches out and slips the real bolt in the tiny room. Of course he finds it bolted from the other side and, in his dreams, is ashamed that he gave in to his curiosity, and closes the bolt again.

One day Marya Morevna marries her naïve young man Ivan and requires that he stay away from the chamber where Koschei lies dreaming. Of course, Ivan unbolts the door, but he finds it still bolted from within, and is similarly ashamed—however, he does not bolt it again. Thus, when next Koschei stirs, he manages to open the door, and the spell is broken. Koschei is about to wreak havoc on the world, when he is destroyed by Ivan, who turns out to be an even more powerful and wicked sorcerer than Koschei himself, and who was similarly ensorcelled, and who discovers to his fury that his palace with the little room in the basement, his Marya Morevna, were all just magical dreams. The story ends as he paces back and forth between his own tiny room and Koschei’s, through the door with bolts on both sides.

The book of Confuerde’s that I like the best is The Wine Cellars of Don Avomagodo, a collection of short stories, in each of which a carpenter, Pedro Althazar, is hired by a rich man, Don Avomagodo, to put bolts on both sides of the door that seals the entrance to his wine cellars. Each of the thirteen stories is about a different Don and a different carpenter; in eleven, the carpenter is entombed alive in the cellars. I do not think that this indicates a morbidity on Confuerde’s part; it is simply a limitation of the form: When one has a cellar door that is barred from both sides, of course someone must remain within the cellar. 

In “Retribution” the carpenter escapes alive from the cellars: The plot, briefly, is that Don Avomagodo’s house is being slowly burgled away; each morning, a few knickknacks, a rug, a piece of furniture, are missing. The Don could go to the police; he could post watchmen; he could make an effort to have his doors and windows more carefully sealed. But he is a vengeful man, and after his prized “Heart of the Demon Toad” is stolen, the enraged Don traces the burglaries to a gang of clever amateur thieves, one of whom is the crooked carpenter, Althazar. Slyly, the Don hires the carpenter to put bolts on his wine-cellar door, intending to lock him in. But the carpenter is too clever for him: He locks the inner bolt and escapes through the sewer drain, which was precisely the means he and his gang used to gain entrance to the mansion in the first place. The thieves are thus shut off from the rest of the mansion, but now they can loot the rich wine cellar at leisure. 

“The Sleeping Troll” is perhaps the most fanciful and fantastic of the thirteen stories. This time the wine cellars are enormous, possibly infinite, a labyrinth of walls and crypts and tunnels, and the Don draws from a possibly infinite supply of remarkable and unknown wines. But then a monster wanders into the cellars, or into the part of the cellars near the Don’s house, from out of the blackness, and begins to devour the servants who are sent after the wine. All that is known about the monster is that it has huge, splayed feet, (from its footprints in the dirt on the floor) and that it is a messy eater. Finally, the Don himself encounters the monster, which he calls a troll, and is saved only by a lucky chance which I will not describe here. The Don decides that the cellars must be sealed, lest more monsters will come out of the blackness, and eventually be loosed upon the world. But simply bolting the door and digging a new cellar is insufficient; he fears that some curious servant will open the bolt, or that that house and bolt will stand until the memory of the monster is lost or at least disbelieved, and so, after carrying off some bottles of the most unusual wines, he has an ingenious mechanism designed. It is a bar that will go on the inside of the cellar door, and which can be dropped from the outside, but cannot be raised again. He hires the carpenter Althazar to install it, intending to drop the bar as soon as Althazar is safely out of the cellar. But the carpenter is set upon by the monster even as he finishes the work, and is so horrified by the monster that he drops the bar himself from the inside of the cellar, rather than escaping and risking that the monster escape with him. Don Avomagodo listens, shuddering in horror, to the muffled crunching and chewing sounds that penetrate the heavy door, and then sadly draws the bolt on his side and goes upstairs.

In “Joachim’s Tribute”, my favorite of the group, and one of the longest and in some ways the weakest, the story begins with Althazar’s boyhood; he is a lazy wastrel who never finishes anything he starts and who barely manages to keep body and soul together after his father dies. Through circumstances too complicated to expound upon here, he is inspired by the local carpenter, Joachim, and begs to be allowed to be Joachim’s apprentice. Finally Joachim gives in, on one condition: Althazar must swear an oath never to leave a job unfinished. Althazar swears, and, through a combination of perseverance, shame, and lucky circumstance, manages to fulfill his oath to Joachim until his old bad habits are outgrown. He becomes a successful carpenter, but nearly meets his doom in the form of the lovely Peregrina, ward of Don Avomagodo. The Don is wicked and jealous, and makes a show of friendship to the carpenter, while plotting to lock him in the abandoned wine cellar. Althazar realizes the plot too late only when he hears the bolt on Don Avomagodo’s side of the door slide into place, but, still bound by his honor, finishes the job of installing bolts on his own side. The story up to this point is rather trite in some ways (although as usual the characterizations are excellent, with Althazar and Joachim standing out) but the really notable feature is what happens next: Althazar pretends to have discovered a long-lost family treasure of Don Avomagodo’s in the cellar, and he taunts and tantalizes the wicked Don, in his ever-weakening voice, with the thought that he will never recover this treasure. Finally the Don offers to let Althazar free in exchange for the treasure. Althazar is about to agree, but then reflects that this is no time to leave a good job unfinished, so he declines, and The Don wastes away and dies from his own bile. Peregrina inherits the estate; she frees Althazar (who has been living on raw rat flesh, moss, and the water that trickles down the walls of the damp cellar) and the two are married. A story like this would be a complete flop, were not the personalities of the main characters so perfectly conceived; reduced to one sentence, the death of Don Avomagodo seems absurd, but in context it is entirely believable.

I did see a review once of “The Headsman’s Field” in The University of Michigan Literary Review. The reviewer compared the story to Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. I do not feel that the comparison is at all apt, despite a certain similarity of setting; I think it is this that deceived the reviewer. In this story, the Don is a crazy old man with a pathological kind of honor; he proudly boasts that he has never cheated anyone out of a single peseta. What is pathological is this: the Don unfailingly pays his bills, but then is like as not to murder and rob his ex-creditors, recovering his money and a little extra. Pedro Althazar, an itinerant handyman, arrives in town and hires on to install a bolt on Don Avomagodo’s cellar door later that week, but keeps hearing whispered stories from the villagers and regrets his bargain. If he tries to renege on the deal, the Don will kill him for the violation of ‘honor,’ yet he feels certain that if he does not, he will end up locked in the cellar to die. Finally he hatches a plan. He installs the bolts, and is locked in. The story ends:

”You have to pay me. I’ve finished the job.” 

There was a silence from the other side of 
the door. . . 

The carpenter shifted uneasily in the gloom. 
”You wouldn’t want to cheat me,” he called out 
weakly. He thought of how Don Avomagodo had 
treated the Portuguese wine merchant and prayed 
that his insight into the old man’s character 
was correct. 

“You must pay me the fifteen thousand pesetas,” 
he said.

There was a cough, ever so slight, from the 
pantry above, and the carpenter’s heart leapt 
at the sound of a fumbling at the bolt. But 
then, suddenly, the noise ceased, without any 
hint of that crescendo scraping that would 
indicate that the bolt had been withdrawn. There 
was a pause and then Don Avomagodo’s old, high 
voice. “I believe I will make use of the fourteen 
day grace granted me by His Majesty’s law.'”

The carpenter shakes with horror, but is determined to have his revenge; why not, after all? He takes up his tools once again and installs a bolt on the inside of the door, then slides it to. This way at least the wicked Don loses the use of his cellar. But when, a fortnight later, the Don tries to enter the cellar to pay the ‘debt’ and remove the corpse, he finds he cannot, and the thought of the eternally outstanding debt lingers in his deranged mind and eventually drives him mad. 

Sometimes it is only at the time of an author’s death that his work comes to public notice; it is my hope that Luis Confuerde’s death will bring his works the attention that they did not receive while he was alive. Take a look in your local used book store and see if you can turn up one of his works; I feel sure that if you do you will not be disappointed.

Footnote: ‘At this time in Spain there was a law allowing two weeks delay to be made in paying off a debt; only after this time could suit be brought by the creditor, or the debtor be cast into prison—MJD.

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