The Dogs of War, a short story by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar finds echoes in the assassination by Pablo Escobar of a Colombian justice minister in this new story by the author of The Sound of Things Falling
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: “the death of a great man has consequences, Señorita, it produces domestic fury and fierce civil strife, produces blood and destruction and havoc, and drags defenceless citizens along with it. And there’s nothing we can do to avoid it”
The same thing always happened: as the beginning of the semester approached, and with it the class on Julius Caesar, Osorio began to ask himself why he kept doing what he did. This course he himself had invented was just turning thirty-one; thirty-one identical years he’d been shouting himself hoarse about Shakespeare to law students, and he still hadn’t managed to get them to admire King Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech, or Iago’s effective malevolence, or the fearful metaphors with which Lady Macbeth attacks her husband’s weak points. At the beginning of 1984 – he remembered the year very well; so many things had happened then – Osorio had approached the dean of the university with a proposal: a class that would teach future lawyers the art of rhetoric using as a vehicle (that’s what he’d said, ‘vehicle’) the great works of the Bard (that’s what he’d said, ‘the Bard’). And here he was, thirty-one years later, repeating the same course in the same order, letting a scene from Hamlet lead to one from The Tempest, one of Richard’s speeches – he still found it moving to speak of graves, of worms and epitaphs – to those closing arguments of Portia’s that every self-respecting lawyer should commit to memory. Today, walking south along Seventh Avenue, covering the twenty blocks between his empty house and the lecture theatre on foot, Osorio felt the uneasiness again, and said to himself that this would be the last time: next year there’d be no more talk of Julius Caesar.
Osorio had discovered that the students were less interested in Antony’s rhetorical talent than in the story of the conspiracy and murder, and a few years earlier he’d decided that it was best to start with the sources. He devoted the whole first session to explaining how Shakespeare had practically copied Plutarch, and went through Julius Caesar’s story as it appears in the Parallel Lives. The students then found out that the evening before his assassination, Caesar had been dining at the house of a friend, Marcus Lepidus, and at one point the guests had begun to discuss what the best way to die would be. Caesar was the first to answer: ‘Unexpectedly.’ They also found out that, according to Plutarch, Caesar had a bad night’s sleep, not only because the bright moonlight shone into his bedroom, but also because Calpurnia was crying and moaning in her sleep, and at dawn confessed she’d been dreaming of him, of cradling his murdered body in her arms. Calpurnia asked Caesar to postpone his visit to the Senate, and he agreed; but someone asked him to think of what people would say if they knew that all-powerful Caesar postponed his commitments according to his wife’s dreams. Caesar then allowed himself to be taken by the arm and led to the Senate; before entering, a Greek teacher called Artemidorus, who was familiar with some of the conspirators, tried to give him a warning note; but Caesar, swept along by the crowd, forgot the note or thought it unimportant. As he entered the Capitol, he recalled the prophecy – ‘Beware the Ides of March’ – and believed he had managed to evade it.
He took his usual place – beneath the statue of Pompey, the man who in life had been his fiercest enemy – and then the conspirators surrounded him. But Caesar suspected nothing: he thought they were approaching with petitions, as had so often happened before sessions began, and that’s what they did at first, perhaps to conceal the threat. Then Metellus took hold of Caesar’s toga and his insolent hands pulled the folds away from Caesar’s neck, where a beating vein was bared. This was the sign. The conspirators advanced towards Caesar and unleashed the attack. Casca, whose sword fell on the back of the victim’s neck, but without causing a serious wound, struck the first blow. ‘O vile traitor, Casca, what doest thou?’ said Caesar, and then all the conspirators drew their daggers and plunged them into the defenceless body. The last to do so was Brutus, leader of the plot, whose dagger penetrated so deeply into Caesar’s groin that its blow alone could have caused his death.
Twenty-three stab wounds ended Caesar’s life. Plutarch relates that the pedestal of Pompey’s statue was running with blood; he also tells us that the rest of the senators fled in terror and that word of what had happened spread immediately, and the Romans shut their doors and windows and abandoned their shops. The conspirators also left, but they made a mistake: they left the body lying in the Capitol. The plan was to throw it in the Tiber, but in the clamour of the days that followed, levelled by fear, they never actually did. Antony, the friend who was most aggrieved by Caesar’s death, had it carried through the Forum while he read Caesar’s will, which left a generous amount of money to each Roman citizen, and the mutilated body, swollen and reeking, caused such an impression on the crowd that they surrounded it with tables and stools and burnt it right there. Then, taking firebrands, they went after the assassins with the intention of killing them and burning down their houses. They didn’t find them, but something rotten was left in that flaming Rome, and the assassination of Caesar caused chaos and conflagrations and was the beginning of years of civil wars. And all this Shakespeare had stolen and put into verse, and for the last thirty-one years Osorio had raised his voice like a fist to say that those were the most beautiful, most precise and most eloquent words ever written about what happens in the world when a great man is murdered. But each year in that very same instant he realised his mind was playing that trick on him, that his memory (obstinate and wilful, always doing whatever it fancied) had begun to remember another great man who’d been assassinated.
The night of his death, Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was crossing the difficult city towards his residence in the north end, a brick house in a neighbourhood with a pastoral name: ‘Recreo de los Frailes’, or ‘Friars’ Playground’. He was sitting in the back seat of his white Mercedes-Benz, behind the driver, with some documents in his hands; at his side, accompanying him like silent passengers, were two books – Life Sentence, one was called, and the other, with a black cover, Dictionary of the History of Colombia – although Lara wasn’t thinking about the books or the papers, but about what was happening to his family. Ever since the first threats, his wife had begun to run their lives the way people do when they are in danger. Their children had instructions not to answer the telephone, and if they did, not to say anything when asked if their father would be home soon or how many people he’d left with. Sometimes, when Lara answered, he heard a recording of a phone conversation he’d just had; other times, a voice gave him the exact address of his children’s school and reminded him what they’d been wearing on the previous Sunday. Lara told them they were no longer allowed to go to the park. He had to live with the uncomfortable feeling of depriving his children of a normal existence, and that made him delight in the rare normality of the occasional moment. That’s what he wanted to do when he got home: find a bit of lost normality or at least pretend not to know, as everyone knew, that right then in some part of Colombia a plan was being concocted to murder him.
That very morning a trusted colonel had told him: Pablo Escobar’s men were going to kill him during his next trip to Pereira. The intelligence was correct, but what no one knew was that Escobar himself had initiated the rumours of the attack, and his objective was precisely to get the minister to stay in Bogotá. For months, Escobar’s men in Bogotá had been following Lara relentlessly: they knew what time he left his house in the morning and what time he left the office in the evening, they knew his preferred route (the highway and 127th Street), and they also knew that two jeeps, each with four well-armed bodyguards, accompanied him, as well as another bodyguard in the front passenger seat of his car, on the driver’s right-hand side. It wasn’t an easy hit, but Escobar’s subordinates had recruited new people, given them bullet-proof vests and weapons and two trucks to get around in, and found them a safe place to hide in Bogotá. This time they weren’t going to fail.
The idea of assassinating Lara had been brewing for a long time, but not as long as the profound hatred Escobar had for the minister. It had all begun years before, when Lara expelled him from his political movement in spite of the fact that Escobar, a man of a mysterious fortune, was constructing an entire neighbourhood to provide housing for 400 poor families, had installed sewer systems in godforsaken shanty towns, and had even attended Felipe González’s inauguration in Madrid, invited by a Spanish business associate. For Escobar, the expulsion was an intolerable humiliation on the part of those scornful elites of Bogotá, those oligarchs in their suits and ties who’d managed the country’s destiny since the dawn of time. Lara was also denouncing in the Colombian Congress the infiltration of drug lords’ money into football, where teams served to launder the traffickers’ dollars, and into politics, where congressmen were bought, laws and decrees designed and entire campaigns financed right under judges’ noses. Lara uncovered the operation of that machinery of horror and gave the whole debate a resonant nickname: hot money. ‘I know what to expect for denouncing gangsters, but that doesn’t intimidate me,’ he told journalists one day. ‘If I have to pay for it with my life, so be it.’ And then he went after Escobar.
He denounced him as a criminal who dressed in sheep’s clothing to run for Congress. He accused him of starting a paramilitary movement called Death to Kidnappers. He calculated his fortune at five billion dollars and asked if it were possible, as Escobar claimed, that his money came from hard work and the luck of having won the lottery several times. Escobar then held his own press conference and, without looking at the camera, read a piece of paper demanding the minister present evidence of his accusations within twenty-four hours or he’d be sued for slander, and Lara not only repeated those accusations in Congress, but did so giving unknown details about the drug world, bringing reams of paper and wooden pointers into the oval chamber to explain, in his professorial voice while his indignant unruly hair fell over his forehead, the existence of drug laboratories the size of villages and flotillas of small planes exporting cocaine from the commercial runways of El Dorado Airport. Escobar was expelled from Congress; the United States government revoked his visa; in the Yarí River basin, the police raided labs and captured supplies, helicopters and 13.8 tons of high-grade cocaine. A few days later, Escobar called an urgent meeting at the Hacienda Nápoles. The heads of the cartels arrived at his house – passing by the hippopotami and patches of pink flamingos and the iron dinosaurs and the bullring – and they all ate well and drank aguardiente and put their agreed shares into a kitty of millions whose only objective was to organise, before this problem got out of hand, the assassination of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.
No, it wasn’t strange that Osorio should think of Lara Bonilla now, walking across Parque Santander and passing Café Pasaje. Lara had been dead as many years as he had been teaching his Shakespeare course: that July day in 1984, as Colombia wept and wondered when it had become possible for a gangster who fancied himself a politician to murder a government minister, he was preparing his lecture on Julius Caesar and the structure of the rest of the course. (Should he include Titus Andronicus? Should he put Macbeth before As You Like It? How much work it had been.) Today the students were waiting for him under the neon lights in the same methodical disarray as ever, hectic teenage activities in the corners, the sound of pages being readied for pens, but a solid silence filled the room as soon as Osorio stepped onto the wooden stage. He spoke, as he did every year, of three passages from the work: first, Mark Antony’s monologue in front of Caesar’s recently assassinated corpse; second, Brutus’s clumsy and prosaic speech, only saved from oblivion by a nice antithesis (‘not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more’); and third, Antony’s brilliant reply: those marvellous metonyms, those cutting epistrophes, that lethal irony. But today there was a curious interest, a rare spectacle of attentive eyes and raised hands. What was going on? It didn’t surprise him that Señorita Gómez, the best student he’d had in a long time, raised her long tanned arm and asked if they could go back for a moment to Antony’s prophecies before Caesar’s corpse. No, said Señorita Gómez, it wasn’t a simple prophecy, but a fully-fledged curse. And she read in Spanish with good diction and an attractive voice:
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy:
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war . . .
Listening to his words in his student’s voice, Osorio felt secretly proud of the translation. He’d been improving it over the years, and now it seemed like a lifetime ago when he began with borrowed translations: that of Astrana Marín, for example, although later he preferred García Calvo’s Macbeth and Tomás Segovia’s Hamlet. At the turn of the century, when a number of years had passed since the car bomb at the Centro 93 shopping mall (and he’d gradually grown used to solitude and better knew how to contend with sadness), Osorio began to fill his time with his own efforts. He discovered that in this hard-fought grappling with the Bard’s stubborn words hours would fly by unnoticed, and in those years that was exactly what he needed: for time to slip away and to forget about life. But he couldn’t talk about any of this with his students, of course, and he wasn’t even sure that these students would remember Centro 93, or any of the other bombs of that year either. So he rushed on with the class, and they spent quite a while talking about those lines and also, inevitably, the following ones:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war . . .
Of course it was a threat, Osorio said to Señorita Gómez, but was that not, Señorita, what tragedy had done since the beginning of time? All tragedy, Señorita, is built upon these foundations: that the death of a great man can drag everyone else over the precipice. The first to put it into words was Chaucer, said Osorio: tragedy is the story of a man fallen out of high degree. First he needs to arrive at the heights, by birth or virtue, that is, he needs to be a person whose fate matters to the people. That’s why, Señorita, men go to war to protect King Duncan, that’s why they risk their lives to protect Hamlet, and that’s why the results of Caesar’s assassination are what they are: the death of a great man has consequences, Señorita, it produces domestic fury and fierce civil strife, produces blood and destruction and havoc, and drags defenceless citizens along with it. And there’s nothing we can do to avoid it.
Escobar gave the job to two hitmen who had his utmost confidence, in spite of their youth and inexperience: Guizado and Velásquez. They were members of a gang known as Los Quesitos, and they’d learned to kill in the Sabaneta school, south of Medellín, where an Israeli mercenary taught teenagers with no future how to control a motorbike and how to shoot at moving targets from the awkward position on the rear rack. Fire in the shape of a cross, he advised his apprentices. You won’t miss if you fire in a cross. These instructions were in Guizado’s mind as he sat on the back of the red Yamaha, weaving in and out of the Bogotá traffic, holding onto Velásquez’s jacket with one hand and constantly watching, over his shoulder, the position of the jeeps escorting the Mercedes-Benz; the only white Mercedes-Benz in the tunnel at that moment, the white Mercedes-Benz with the licence plates FD5883, memorised by both Velásquez and Guizado, the white Mercedes-Benz with the justice minister in its back seat.
From the motorbike, Guizado or maybe Velásquez saw it make a sudden manoeuvre to get ahead of the heavy traffic. It was an unexpected movement that one of the escorting jeeps, the white Toyota, didn’t manage to follow; it was left behind, trapped in the traffic, while the minister’s Mercedes advanced west, followed only by the grey jeep. The hitmen saw their opportunity: Velásquez gave chase to the Mercedes and Guizado raised the Ingram submachine gun and the windows of the Mercedes shattered under the bullets, the side ones as well as the back. The bodyguards in the grey Toyota opened fire while Domingo, the minister’s driver, accelerated without turning around, ducking his head between his shoulders and looking out through the steering wheel, maybe thinking he’d managed to get away. He didn’t know that the murderers’ motorbike, chased by the bodyguards and harassed by gunfire, had skidded on a difficult curve: Lara’s murderer had turned suddenly to throw a grenade at the grey jeep and lost his balance; the wheels spun on the wet asphalt (it had been drizzling) and the bike took a violent tumble. Guizado died with his head smashed open on the road. Velásquez turned out to be an adolescent, almost a child; he was captured, handcuffed, and thrown into the back of a jeep, one of the bodyguards’ or maybe a police van, the way you’d throw a bag of manure, and there he stayed, curled up in the foetal position, tied hand and foot, crying cowardly tears and begging them please not to kill him.
Meanwhile, Domingo arrived at Lara’s house. The minister was unconscious in the back seat, and the bloodstain on the blue upholstery was dark in the night. The bodyguards had caught up by now and ascertained the gravity of the injuries. In the following days, the newspaper El Tiempo would publish a diagram to explain them, just a sketch with eyes and lines leading out to informative captions: ‘In this spot one bullet was found,’ you could read above an arrow pointing at part of the skull, just above the left eyebrow; other captions provided an inventory of the rest of the wounds: ‘1 bullet hole in the right arm, 1 bullet in the lung, 3 bullet holes in the cranium.’ Those wounds were already fatal, but his bodyguards didn’t know any of that yet when they pulled him out of the Mercedes and put him in the back of a van, nor could Lara’s wife and eldest son, who, alerted by the shouts and sounds of engines and car doors, had come out into the front garden. They wanted to accompany him. They climbed into the van and were driven to the Shaio clinic, thirty blocks away. Dr Augusto Galán, who was on duty, saw Rodrigo first, the minister’s eldest son, who arrived with his hair wet and his hands red with blood and a first aid kit clutched against his chest. The doctor’s brother, Luis Carlos Galán, was a friend and cofounder of the New Liberalism movement, and nobody had to tell him what had just happened, because he’d feared it for a long time.
That evening, after class, Osorio arrived home worn out, with a dull ache in his shoulders, and couldn’t resist pouring a dash of cognac into his coffee, as he used to do in the old days. He looked for the Arden edition on his desk, the one he’d been using lately, but soon set it aside, and took another three steps to find the sonnets. The well-worn little book opened at the usual place without Osorio having to run his fingers blindly over the edges of the pages. The day of his wedding, while the rest of the world flew about getting everything ready, Osorio had sat down in front of a dictionary and quickly translated those lines, and that improvised piece of poetry was his first gift to Antonia. Pablo Escobar had just put a bomb on an Avianca plane, killing more than a hundred people in an attempt to kill one politician, but the city had not yet accepted that years earlier, with the assassination of Lara, an all-out war between the cartels and the government had begun, and the city was its theatre. Even though bombs exploded everywhere, people carried on living. They carried on getting married, for example, as Osorio got married even though the DAS building, the police intelligence headquarters, was bombed, and carried on going out to parties and shopping and teaching classes about dead Englishmen even though other bombs exploded: the one at the Bulevar Niza shopping centre and the one at the Chamber of Commerce and especially the one at the Centro 93 mall, with its windows shattering into thousands of murderous splinters. ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds,’ Osorio translated, ‘admit impediments’, and presented his Spanish version of the sonnet to Antonia that evening on their wedding night. She smiled as no one had ever smiled, and in the three years they were together – three years, one month and seventeen days, to be precise – learned it by heart, though she knew no other line by the Bard nor had any interest in knowing any. She didn’t know, for example, a single line from Julius Caesar, not the one about the civil strife that is unleashed when a great man is assassinated, nor the one about Caesar’s spirit crying ‘havoc’ like Pablo Escobar in that recording that would later come to light, that police recording of one of his telephone calls, the words of which Osorio knew by heart. ‘We have to create real havoc,’ says Escobar, and also orders his hitmen to sow ‘civil strife’, and to Osorio it had always seemed a curious coincidence, that Escobar should say ‘havoc’ just like Caesar’s spirit, that Escobar should say ‘civil strife’ just like Mark Antony. On these coincidences or on his contemplation of them he has spent his time, and the truth is they’ve helped him not suffer so grievously for the woman who is no longer there, for the woman who will never come home, for the woman who went shopping at Centro 93 and found that someone had let slip the dogs of war.
This short story by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean, is from Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories After Cervantes and Shakespeare (And Other Stories, £10)