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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The Painter

Ernesto Cachihuango read the news in La Revista Publica three days after he had learned of it himself. Carlos Sandoval, Bolivia's greatest artist and a national hero, was gravely ill. Ernesto smiled as he picked up the review and saw Sandoval's aged face on the front page, flipped to the story two pages further in. For twenty years, he had been Sandoval's assistant; for the last ten the hand that moved his brush. Age did not abstain for art, and as his hands and eyes weathered, the elder artist had found it too difficult to capture his visions himself. Some of the best murals that bore Sandoval's name, works that drew international attention and acclaim had been put together by Ernesto.

Not that he was bitter. At least, not very. To work with such a man, such a legend, was a privilege that few could attest to. Sandoval was eighty-seven this year. His hands were now as gnarled with arthritis as those from some of his greatest works. He had lived a long time, seen many things, many revolutions of the people, and the tyranny of many a power not of Bolivia. All of this he had recorded through manipulations of paint and clay, each piece chronicling the anguish of an age.

Ernesto's own hands were strong, nimble, vital. His paintings featuring bold lines, hard landscapes, defiant figures, had received some recognition. This was, of course, how Sandoval had found him. Working with the legend Sandoval, Ernesto began to feel his own work was limited. While Sandoval's works portrayed an artistic voice that rumbled like thunder, Ernesto's own was but a whispered wind winding through the narrow streets of old La Paz.

Ernesto read the article while eating a light breakfast prepared for him by his wife; a soft-boiled egg, some bread, coffee. His own team, or rather the team of Sandoval, would be at the Palacio de Gobierno to continue the last work of the nation's aged treasure. They could wait a while longer. On this day, Ernesto knew he had to see his mentor. Carlos Sandoval was listed as resting in seclusion, but Ernesto knew him to be at his home not far outside the city. With saludos for his wife and daughter, he left his home for the teeming streets of La Paz.

The drive was long, winding up and out of the deep bowl of urbanity where the heart of the city lay, and up through the poverty of El Alto. The famous peak El Diente del Diablo, the Devil's Tooth, stood over the bowl a dark angel. Once, Sandoval had painted a mouth of Devil's Teeth, the teeth of capitalism, reaching down to consume La Paz. The man had such vision, such expression. Ernesto passed the military complex with its watchful guards mounted high on towers and then was beyond the city on country roads, where green plains and open skies stretched themselves out before him. In the distance, purple mountains touched with snow sat in a murky haze, silent. Ernesto passed an old bus, a small shanty town where bare-footed campesinos bartered over foodstuffs. He turned onto a side road and headed to the edge of the Valle de la Luna.

The Valley of the Moon was a startling landscape, barren and alien. The valley bed far below was dry and bleached of all colour by the sun. Narrow spires of hardened earth reached up jagged like a city of termite mounds. Harsh sunlight cast deep shadows between the sharp peaks, obscuring the floor from which they thrust up towards the sky. It was a monument of nature; while Ernesto himself felt intimidated by the brutal landscape, it was an ideal setting for a man such as Sandoval.

At the door to the mansion he was greeted by the butler. Ernesto was escorted through the living room, up the grand staircase and down the hall to the bedroom. Sandoval had hung some of his own, preferred works in that hall. Ernesto admired the subtly of the pieces hanging there. It was a collection called Pies y piernas, Feet and Legs, that Sandoval had produced in his younger years; one that had never gained the attention his work on hands had. It was still an impressive compilation; one that would no doubt gain much fame once the artist himself was dead. They also served as a symbol of beliefs of the man from once upon a time. As an artist, he was servant to the people, lower than they. For this reason, the pieces in the collection always looked up to their subject.

The two pieces that Ernesto favoured were entitled "Peasant" and "Foreigner." The Peasant stood on dry earth, the bare feet merely skin pulled tightly over the bones that held the form together. The legs were partially covered in ragged off-white material, were bent slightly at the knees as though a great weight were upon their owner's back. Of course, there was no face; that was part of the point of the collection. By showing the legs, the foundation of the body and the source of its movement, Sandoval suggested a class with each painting, a uniform body with no individual face. It had quite an effect.

"Foreigner" was like several other paintings in the series, most notably Político and Banquero in that the legs were draped in luxurious cloth, the utmost in comfort. Beneath the material was a hint of form, a leg that was sustained by decent food and a not-too-hard life. Unlike "Politician" or "Banker", which stood upon polished floors, "Foreigner" was placed on the same dry earth as was "Peasant." Beside the right foot, which was laced tightly in a boot of military proportions, was a small puddle in which was partially reflected a blue face wearing sunglasses. The effect, of course, was intended.

At the end of the hall and to the left was the door to Sandoval's bedroom. Ernesto and the butler approached quietly and looked at each other. Ernesto nodded, and the butler knocked softly. Some foot steps sounded within, then Sandoval's doctor opened the door a crack.

"Is he well?" asked the butler.

"He has not improved, no, but he is not overly bad."

"He has a visitor."

"Not from the press, I hope."

"No, not from the press."

"Nor a politician?"

"It is Ernesto."

"Ah. Then he may enter." Ernesto nodded to the doctor and thanked the butler, bowed slightly as he entered the room. The air was heavy, like still water. Two steps brought him closer to the mahogany four-poster bed which held court at the back of the room, near the window. Out the half-parted curtains the barren valle could be seen.

"Doctor, who has come to see me in my state?" Came the chiselled voice from the bed. Though flecked with the touches of a throat twisted with age, there was still force, still passion driving it.

"It is I, señor," responded Ernesto in quiet tones. "You are famous again today. I thought I would come congratulate you." A dry chuckle from the voice, followed by a stifled cough.

"The Revista?"

"Of course."

"Leave us, doctor."

"It is best that you not talk for long, señor."

"Perhaps, but for now I will talk a little." The doctor nodded grudgingly, backed out of the room and closed the door.

"There should still be a chair by the table over there, Ernesto. Come sit by me." Ernesto went and fetched the chair, an antique in poor condition, and pulled it up beside the bed. With his sheets resting lightly on his chest, his face worn but bright, Carlos Sandoval lay gravely. Of late he had come to be known by the public as Carlitos out of affection. It was a name once reserved for those few who could call him friend. They who held such privilege were among the greatest personages in both Bolivian and world affairs of the last half-century. Many had already been swallowed up by time.

"I will see them soon."

"Lo siento, señor? I do not understand."

"Forgive an old man his wandering thoughts. How goes the work, Ernesto?"

"It goes well, señor. No quicker than expected, but the men weigh each detail with caution."

"No doubt thinking themselves part of the last work of a legend, eh?" The sparkle of his revolutionary youth was still there. "Everyone fancies themselves taking root in history." Sandoval looked at his hands, the knuckles swollen to twice their former size.

"These hands have painted many ideas, Ernesto. Many faces as well. So many visions of how things were, how they could have been." He paused, took in a shallow breath.

"Have I ever told you which was my own favourite work, Ernesto?"

"You have not, señor."

"Favourite that I have done, I mean."

"Not that either."

"It is the portrait of El Burro. The one thing I did which was great." And it was.

"El Burro" was the name by which a former philosophy student, one Jorge Manuel Larratia had been called in the last years of his life. He was known as The Mule because he held so stubbornly to his ideals, his vision of what Bolivia could be. He held those views right to the point of a gun, that day near La Higuera with Che. Not a red revolutionary of great renown, there had still been something about him, a raw energy which reached beyond his body like a halo. When Sandoval had first met the man, he knew instantly that his was a face, a personality that he must capture with his brush.

That meeting was a very clear memory for the artist, a memory from the time when he was just one more man caught up in the prospect of change for the better, the chance at hope for the future. He had gone to the jungle to capture Che's image, had never gotten close enough. And then there was El Burro, so he had painted him. In the painting, the jungle is ferociously present. The clothes on the man look heavy, even overbearing. El Burro's frame is small, pinched and lost under the thick material done in earth tones, but the presence of the man shines through like a candle in the dark. There was a luminescence in the face, in the stubborn smile, in the dark and determined eyes. Sandoval had strained to capture the presence of the man, and months later, when he heard El Burro was dead, knew that nothing else would be left to commemorate his life. But the painting now hung on Sandoval's own wall, in that very same bedroom. Some memories, Ernesto guessed, were too great to share.

"El Burro once sat in that very same chair, Ernesto. He sat there while I painted him. He gave it to me. Somehow, I think he knew his time was short. I brought it with me from his place in the jungle. It has been near me ever since." Ernesto suddenly felt like he was surrounded by spirits, and perhaps he was. He took a moment to compose himself.

"I thought, señor, you may which to pass on words to the men. Surely they will have read the paper today."

"What? Sorry, I was in the past."

"The workers? Shall I relay a message?"

"Ah yes, of course. Tell them I am greatly amused that the periodistas are so anxious to write of me. They will have to wait a while longer for a story of worth. Tell them I shall see them soon in the palacio, that I look forward to seeing my latest vision unfold before me. Tell them—tell them that we are all tools of God, carrying His message. And tell them, thank you." It was a good message. All of the men were concerned for Sandoval, but they also knew they would not be remembered for their work. They were being paid more than enough to ease their minds, as was Ernesto, but for Sandoval that was not enough.

"Tell me, Ernesto. The men. How do they feel?"

"The men? They are well."

"No, Ernesto. About the work, their place."

"They are honoured to construct your vision. God's message, as you say."

"I would not want them to feel. . . resentful."

"They do not, señor."

"Carlos, Ernesto. Carlitos. We've been together too long, you and I." Ernesto bowed his head.

"I could not." Sandoval paused over a difficult breath, sighed with the effort.

"Tell me, Ernesto. How do you feel, about the work? About all the work?" Ernesto slid forward off the chair onto one knee, resting his hands on the sheets as he did so.

"It has been an honour, sir, to work with you."

"No regrets?"

"None." Sandoval took and patted his protégé's hand.

"Ah, Ernesto. You have been my hands, my little bird for so long. Now you must fly, stretch your own wings. All this time you have kept my visions, but what of your own?"

"Compared to yours, they would have been nothing. Through you I have known greatness, something beyond me."

"My boy, you are too modest. Please, do an old man a favour. On my desk are two letters, one for the Revista and one for my friend the president. Have my butler send them."

"It will be done, señor."

The door opened and the doctor entered. The butler stepped up beside Ernesto.

"I'm sorry, señor. He must rest now." Without turning his head, Ernesto nodded. He grasped Sandoval's hand, then stood to leave.


"Yes, señor?"

"Que vaya con dios."

Ernesto left the mansion, got back in his car and drove to the palacio. When he arrived, the men were already there, at work. Ernesto passed on Sandoval's words to them. Predictably, they laughed, touched by the sentiments. "What an honour we have had," they said. "What a great man, our Carlitos."

"Yes," Ernesto said. "Yes."

A month later, the front page of the Revista reported that Sandoval had entered hospital. His condition was listed as poor. By coincidence, that same day was the Grand Re-opening of the palacio.

During the ceremony, the president read a statement noting the importance of Sandoval in the history of Bolivia. "As this mural pays tribute to the traditions of our past," he said, "so shall we honour the visionary who created it. Carlitos did not only record the character of our country with his brush. He has given us his spirit. May we all pray for him."

To commemorate Sandoval's greatness, a portrait was commissioned. At Sandoval's request, it would be painted by a relatively unknown artist, one Ernesto Cachihuango.

The work came fast to Ernesto; it was no surprise to those who followed art in Bolivia, as no one knew the subject better than he. Shortly after it was done, Ernesto picked up his brush anew, and began his first independent painting in years; he would paint a landscape, the Valle de la Luna.

A week later, Sandoval was dead.

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