“We Never Saw the Shooters” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel The Savage Detectives

A late passage from our favorite section of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives–

It was then, when there was nothing left to do, when we had already written and photographed everything imaginable, that someone proposed that a few of us take a trip to the interior. Most, of course, turned down the offer. A Frenchman from Paris Match accepted. So did an Italian from Reuters, and me. The trip was organized by one of the guys who worked in the kitchen at the Center and who, besides making a few bucks, wanted to have a look at his town, which he hadn’t been back to in six months, even though it was only fifteen or twenty miles from Monrovia. During the trip (we were in a dilapidated Chevy driven by a friend of the cook, armed with an assault rifle and two grenades) the cook told us that he was ethnic Mano and his wife was ethnic Gio, friends of the Mandingo (the driver was Mandingo) and enemies of the Krahn, whom he accused of being cannibals, and that he didn’t know whether his family was dead or alive. Shit, said the Frenchman, we should go back. But we were already halfway there and the Italian and I were happy, using up the last of our film.
And so, without crossing a single checkpoint, we passed through the town of Summers and the hamlet of Thomas Creek, the Saint Paul River occasionally appearing to our left and other times lost from sight. The road was bad. At times it ran through the forest, what may have been old rubber plantations, and at times along the plain. From the plain one could guess at more than see the gently sloping hills rising in the south. Only once did we cross a river, a tributary of the Saint Paul, over a wooden bridge in perfect condition, and the only thing presenting itself to the camera’s eye was nature, nothing I would call lush, or even exotic, so I don’t know why it reminded me of a trip I made as a boy to Corrientes, but I even said as much, I said to Luigi: this looks like Argentina, saying it in French, which was the language in which the three of us communicated, and the guy from Paris Match looked at me and said that he hoped it only looked like Argentina, which frankly disconcerted me, because I wasn’t even talking to him, was I? and what did he mean? that Argentina was even wilder and more dangerous than Liberia? that if the Liberians were Argentinians we would’ve been dead by now? I don’t know. In any case his remark completely broke the spell for me and I would have liked to have it out with him then and there, but I know from experience that kind of argument gets you nowhere, and anyway the Frenchman was already annoyed by our majority decision not to go back and he had to let off steam somehow, not being satisfied by his constant grumbling about the poor black guys who just wanted to make a few dollars and see their families again. So I pretended not to have heard him, although mentally I wished him a monkey fucking, and I kept talking to Luigi, explaining things that until that moment I thought I’d forgotten, I don’t know, the names of the trees, for example, which to me looked like the old Corrientes trees and had the same names as the Corrientes trees, although they obviously weren’t the Corrientes trees. And I guess my enthusiasm made me seem brilliant, or in any case much more brilliant than I am, and even funny, to judge by Luigi’s laughter and the occasional laughter of our companions, and it was in an atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie, excluding the Frenchman Jean-Pierre, of course, who was increasingly sulky, that we left behind those ever so Corrienteslike trees and entered a treeless stretch, only brush, bushes that were somehow sickly, and a silence split from time to time by the call of a solitary bird, a bird that called and called and received no answer, and then we started to get nervous, Luigi and I, but by then we were too close to our goal to turn back, and we kept going.
The shots began soon after the village came into sight. It all happened very fast. We never saw the shooters and the firing didn’t last longer than a minute, but by the time we came around the bend and were in Black Creek proper, my friend Luigi was dead and the arm of the guy who worked at the center was bleeding and he was whimpering quietly, crouched under the passenger seat.
We too had automatically dropped to the floor of the Chevy.
I remember perfectly well what I did: I tried to revive Luigi, I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and then CPR, until the Frenchman touched my shoulder and pointed with a trembling, dirty forefinger at the Italian’s left temple, where there was a hole the size of an olive. By the time I realized that Luigi was dead there were no shots to be heard and the silence was only broken by the air displaced by the Chevy as it drove and by the sound of the tires flattening the stones and pebbles on the road into town.
We stopped in what seemed to be Black Creek’s main square. Our guide turned and told us that he was going to look for his family. A bandage made of strips of his own shirt was tied around his wounded arm. I supposed that he had made it himself, or the driver had, but I could hardly imagine when, unless their perception of time had suddenly diverged from ours. Shortly after the guide left, four old men appeared, surely drawn by the noise of the Chevy. Without saying a word, they stood there looking at us, sheltered under the eaves of a house in ruins. They were thin and moved with the parsimony of the sick, one of them naked like some of Kensey and Roosevelt Johnson’s Krahn guerrillas, although it was clear that the old man was no guerrilla. Like us, they seemed to have just woken up. The driver saw them and remained sitting at the wheel, sweating and smoking and occasionally glancing at his watch. After a while he opened the door and made a sign to the old men, who responded without moving from under the protection of the eaves, and then he got out of the car and started to examine the engine. When he came back he launched into a series of incomprehensible explanations, as if the car were ours. Basically, what he was saying was that the front end was as full of holes as a sieve. The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and shifted Luigi so that he could sit beside him. I thought he was having an asthma attack, but otherwise he seemed calm. Mentally, I thanked him for it, because if there’s anything I hate it’s a hysterical Frenchman. Later an adolescent girl appeared, looked at us, and kept walking. We watched her disappear down one of the narrow little streets that ran into the square. When she was gone the silence was absolute and only by listening as hard as we could were we able to hear something like the glare of the sun on the roof of the car. There wasn’t the slightest breeze.
We’re fucked, said the Frenchman. He said it in a friendly way, so I pointed out that it had been a long time since the shooting had stopped and probably it was only a few people who had ambushed us, maybe a couple of bandits who were as scared as we were. That’s bullshit, said the Frenchman, this village is empty. Only then did I realize that there was no one else in the square and see that it wasn’t normal and that the Frenchman was probably right. Instead of being afraid, I was angry.
I got out of the car and urinated lengthily against the nearest wall. Then I went over to the Chevy, took a look at the engine, and didn’t see anything that would prevent us from getting out of there the same way we’d come. I took several pictures of poor Luigi. The Frenchman and the driver watched me without saying anything. Then Jean-Pierre, as if he’d considered it carefully, requested that I take a picture of him. I did as he asked without protest. I photographed him and the driver and then I asked the driver to photograph Jean-Pierre and me, and then I told Jean-Pierre to photograph me with Luigi, but he refused, saying he thought it was the height of morbidity, and the friendship that had begun to grow between us was shattered again. I think I swore at him. I think he swore at me. Then the two of us got back in the Chevy, Jean-Pierre next to the driver and me next to Luigi. We must have been there for more than an hour. During that time Jean-Pierre and I suggested more than once that we should forget the cook and hightail it out of there, but the driver refused to listen.
At some point during the wait, I think I fell into a brief, uneasy sleep, but it was sleep nonetheless, and I probably dreamed about Luigi and a terrible toothache. The pain was worse than the certainty that the Italian was dead. When I woke up, covered in sweat, I saw Jean-Pierre sleeping with his head on the driver’s shoulder while the driver smoked another cigarette, staring straight ahead at the funereal yellow of the deserted square, his rifle lying across his knees.
Finally our guide appeared.
Walking beside him was a thin woman whom we at first took for his mother but who turned out to be his wife, and a boy of about eight, dressed in a red shirt and blue shorts. We’re going to have to leave Luigi, said Jean-Pierre, there isn’t room for everybody. For a few minutes we argued. The guide and the driver were on Jean-Pierre’s side and in the end I had to give in. I hung Luigi’s cameras around my neck and emptied his pockets. Between the driver and me we lifted him out of the Chevy and laid him in the shade of a kind of thatch. The guide’s wife said something in her language. It was the first time she had spoken, and Jean-Pierre turned to look at her and asked the cook to translate. At first the cook was reluctant, but then he said that his wife had said that it would be better to put the body inside one of the houses on the square. Why? Jean-Pierre and I asked in unison. So silent and serene was the woman that although she was ravaged, she had a queenly air, or so it seemed to us at that moment. Because the dogs will eat it there, she said, pointing to where the body lay. Jean-Pierre and I looked at each other and laughed, of course, said the Frenchman, why didn’t we think of that, naturally. So we lifted Luigi’s body again and after the driver had kicked in the weakest-looking door, we carried the body into a room with a packed-earth floor. The room was piled with mats and empty cardboard boxes, and its smell was so unbearable that we left the Italian and got out as fast as we could.
When the driver started the Chevy we all jumped, except for the old men who were still watching us from under the eaves. Where are we going? said Jean-Pierre. The driver made a gesture as if to say that we shouldn’t bother him or that he didn’t know. We’re taking a different road, said the guide. Only then did I notice the boy: he had wrapped his arms around his father’s legs and was asleep. Let’s go where they say, I said to Jean-Pierre.
For a while we drove the deserted streets of the village. When we left the square we headed down a straight street, then we turned left and the Chevy inched forward, almost scraping the walls of the houses and the eaves of the thatch roofs, until we came out into an open space where there was a big, single-story zinc shed, as big as a warehouse. On its side we could read “CE-RE-PA, Ltd.,” in big red letters, and below that: “toy factory, Black Creek & Brownsville.” This shitty town is called Brownsville, not Black Creek, I heard Jean-Pierre say. The driver, the guide, and I corrected him without turning our gaze from the shed. The town was Black Creek, and Brownsville was probably a little farther east, but for no good reason Jean-Pierre kept saying that we were in Brownsville, not Black Creek, which had been the deal. The Chevy crossed the open space and started down a road that ran through dense forest. Now we really are in Africa, I said to Jean-Pierre, trying vainly to raise his spirits, but he only replied with some incoherent remark about the toy factory we had just passed.
The trip lasted only fifteen minutes. The Chevy stopped three times and the driver said that the engine, with luck, wouldn’t make it past Brownsville, and that was if we were lucky. Brownsville, as we would soon find out, was scarcely thirty houses in a clearing. We got there after driving over four bare hills. Like Black Creek, the town was half deserted. Our Chevy, with “press” written on the windshield, attracted the attention of the only inhabitants, who waved to us from the door of a wooden house, long like a factory shed, the biggest in the town. Two armed men appeared on the threshold and started to shout at us. The car stopped a few hundred feet away and the driver and guide got out to talk. As they moved toward the house I remember Jean-Pierre said to me that if we wanted to save ourselves we should run into the woods. I asked the woman who the men were. She said that they were Mandingo. The boy was asleep with his head in her lap, a little thread of saliva escaping from between his lips. I told Jean-Pierre that we were among friends, at least in theory. The Frenchman made a sarcastic reply, but physically I could see the calm (a liquid calm) spread over every wrinkle of his face. I remember it and it makes me feel bad, but at the time I was glad. The guide and the driver were laughing with the strangers. Then three more people came out of the long house, also armed to the teeth, and stood there staring at us as the guide and the driver came back to the car accompanied by the first two men. Shots sounded in the distance and Jean-Pierre and I ducked our heads. Then I rose, got out of the car, and greeted them, and one of the black men greeted me and the other hardly looked at me, busy as he was lifting the hood of the Chevy and checking the irreparably dead engine and then I thought that they weren’t going to kill us and I looked toward the long house and I saw six or seven armed men and among them I saw two white guys walking toward us. One of them had a beard and was carrying two cameras bandolier-style, a fellow photographer, that much was obvious, although at that moment, while he was still at a distance, I was unaware of the fame that preceded him everywhere he went, by which I mean that I knew his name and his work, like everyone in the business, but I had never seen him in person, not even in a photograph. The other was Arturo Belano.
I’m Jacobo Urenda, I said, trembling, I don’t know whether you remember me.
He remembered me. How could he not? But I was so far gone then that I wasn’t sure he would remember anything, let alone me. By that I don’t exactly mean he had changed. In fact, he hadn’t changed at all. He was the same guy I’d known in Luanda and Kigali. Maybe I was the one who had changed, I don’t know, but the point is it seemed to me that nothing could be the same as before, and that included Belano and his memory. For a moment my nerves almost betrayed me. I think Belano noticed and he clapped me on the back and said my name. Then we shook hands. Mine, I noticed with horror, were stained with blood. Belano’s, and this I also noticed with a sensation akin to horror, were immaculate.
I introduced him to Jean-Pierre and he introduced me to the photographer. It was Emilio López Lobo, the Magnum photographer from Madrid, one of the living legends of the profession. I don’t know whether Jean-Pierre had heard of him (Jean-Pierre Boisson, from Paris Match, said Jean-Pierre without turning a hair, which probably meant that he didn’t recognize the name or that under the circumstances he didn’t give a damn about meeting the great man), but I’d heard of him, I’m a photographer, and for us López Lobo was what Don DeLillo is to writers, a phenomenon, a chaser of front-page shots, an adventurer, a man who’d won every prize Europe had to offer and photographed every kind of human stupidity and recklessness. When it was my turn to shake his hand, I said: Jacobo Urenda, from La Luna, and López Lobo smiled. He was very thin, probably somewhere in his forties, like the rest of us, and he seemed drunk or exhausted or about to fall apart, or all three things at once.
Soldiers and civilians were gathered inside the house. At first glance, it was hard to tell them apart. The smell inside was bittersweet and damp, a smell of expectancy and fatigue. My first impulse was to go outside for a breath of fresh air, but Belano informed me that it was better not to show yourself too often, since there were Krahn snipers posted in the hills who’d blow your head off. Lucky for us, they got tired of keeping watch all day and they weren’t good shots either, though this I only learned later.
The house, two long rooms, was furnished only with three rows of uneven shelves, some metal and others wood, all empty. The floor was of packed dirt. Belano explained the situation we were in. According to the soldiers, the Krahn who were surrounding Brownsville and the men who’d attacked us at Black Creek were the advance troops of General Kensey’s force, and Kensey was positioning his people to attack Kakata and Harbel and then march toward the neighborhoods of Monrovia that Roosevelt Johnson still controlled. The soldiers were planning to leave the next morning for Thomas Creek, where, according to them, one of Taylor’s generals, Tim Early, was stationed. The soldiers’ plan, as Belano and I soon agreed, was desperate and would never work. If it was true that Kensey was regrouping his people in the area, the Mandingo soldiers wouldn’t have the slightest chance of making their way back to their own side. The civilians, who, unusually for Africa, seemed to be led by a woman, had come up with a much better plan. Some planned to stay in Brownsville to wait and see what happened. Others, the majority, planned to head northeast with the Mandingo woman, cross the Saint Paul, and reach the Brewerville road. The plan, the civilians’ plan, that is, wasn’t outrageous, although in Monrovia I’d heard talk about killings on the road between Brewerville and Bopolu. The lethal stretch, however, was farther east, closer to Bopolu than Brewerville. After listening to them, Belano, Jean-Pierre, and I decided to go with them. If we managed to reach Brewerville, we were saved, according to Belano. A ten-mile walk through old rubber plantations and tropical jungle lay ahead of us, not to mention the river crossing, but when we made it to the road we would only be five miles from Brewerville and then it was only fifteen miles to Monrovia along a road that was surely still in the hands of Taylor’s soldiers. We would leave the next morning, shortly after the Mandingo soldiers went off in the opposite direction to face certain death.
I didn’t sleep that night.
First I talked to Belano, then I spent a while talking to our guide, and then I talked to Arturo again, and López Lobo. This must have been between ten and eleven, and by that time it was difficult to move around the house, which was plunged into utter darkness, a darkness broken only by the glow of the cigarettes that some people were smoking to stave off fear and insomnia. In the doorway I saw the shadows of two soldiers squatting, keeping guard, who didn’t turn when I went up to them. I also saw the stars and the outline of the hills and once again I was reminded of my childhood. It must have been because I associate my childhood with the country. Then I moved back into the house, feeling my way along the shelves, but I couldn’t find my spot. It was probably twelve when I lit a cigarette and prepared to sleep. I know I was happy (or I know I thought I was happy) because the next day we would start back to Monrovia. I know I was happy because I was in the middle of an adventure and I felt alive. So I started to think about my wife and my home and then I started to think about Belano, how well he looked, what good shape he seemed to be in, better than in Angola, when he wanted to die, and better than in Kigali, when he didn’t want to die anymore but couldn’t get off this godforsaken continent, and when I’d finished the cigarette I pulled out another one, which really was the last, and to cheer myself up I even started to sing very softly to myself or in my head, a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui, my God, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and only then did I realize that I was extremely nervous and that if I wanted to sleep what I needed was to talk, and then I got up and took a few blind steps, first in deathly silence (for a fraction of a second I thought we were all dead, that the hope sustaining us was only an illusion, and I had the urge to go running out the door of that foul-smelling house), then I heard the sound of snoring, the barely audible whispering of those who were still awake and talking in the dark in Gio or Mano, Mandingo or Krahn, English, Spanish.
All languages seemed detestable to me just then.
To say that now is silly, I know. All those languages, all that whispering, simply a vicarious way of preserving our identity for an uncertain length of time. Ultimately, the truth is that I don’t know why they seemed detestable, maybe because in an absurd way I was lost somewhere in those two long rooms, lost in a region I didn’t know, a country I didn’t know, a continent I didn’t know, on a strange, elongated planet, or maybe because I knew I should get some sleep and I couldn’t. And then I felt for the wall and sat on the floor and opened my eyes extrawide trying and trying to see something, and then I curled up on the floor and closed my eyes and prayed to God (in whom I don’t believe) that I wouldn’t get sick, because there was a long walk ahead of me the next day, and then I fell asleep.
When I woke up it must have been close to four in the morning.
A few feet from me, Belano and López Lobo were talking. I saw the light of their cigarettes, and my first impulse was to get up and go to them. I wanted to share in the uncertainty of what the next day would bring, join the two shadows I glimpsed behind the cigarettes even if I had to crawl or go on my knees. But I didn’t. Something in the tone of their voices stopped me, something in the angle of their shadows, shadows sometimes dense, squat, warlike, and sometimes fragmented, dispersed, as if the bodies that cast them had already disappeared.
So I controlled myself and pretended to be asleep and listened.
López Lobo and Belano talked until just before dawn. To transcribe what they said is in some way to detract from what I felt as I listened to them.
First they talked about people’s names and they said incomprehensible things, their voices like the voices of two conspirators or two gladiators, speaking softly and agreeing on almost everything, although Belano’s voice dominated and his arguments (which I heard in bits and pieces, as if half of what they said was carried away by some sound current inside that long house, or blocked by randomly placed screens) were belligerent, raw, it was unforgivable to be called López Lobo, unforgivable to be called Belano, that sort of thing, although I might be wrong and the subject of the conversation might have been something else entirely. Then they talked about other things: the names of cities, the names of women, the titles of books. Belano said: we’re all afraid of going under. Then he was quiet and only then did I realize that López Lobo had hardly said anything and Belano had talked too much. For an instant I thought they were going to sleep, and I prepared to do the same. All my bones hurt. The day had been overwhelming. Just at that moment I heard their voices again.
At first I couldn’t understand anything, maybe because I had changed position or because they were speaking more softly. I turned over. One of them was smoking. I made out Belano’s voice again. He was saying that when he got to Africa, he too had wanted to be killed. He told stories about Angola and Rwanda that I already knew, that all of us here more or less know. Then López Lobo’s voice interrupted him. He asked (I could hear him perfectly clearly) why he’d wanted to die back then. I couldn’t hear Belano’s answer, but I guessed it, which isn’t so impressive, since in a way I already knew. He had lost something and he wanted to die, that was all. Then I heard Belano laugh and I imagined that he was laughing about what he’d lost, his great loss, laughing at himself and other things, things I knew nothing about and didn’t want to know anything about. López Lobo didn’t laugh. I think he said: well, for God’s sake, something like that. Then they were both silent.
Later, though how much later I can’t say, I heard López Lobo’s voice, maybe asking the time. What time is it? Someone moved beside me. Someone stirred restlessly in his sleep and López Lobo spoke a few guttural words, as if he were once again asking what time it was, but this time, I’m sure, he was asking something else.
Belano said it’s four in the morning. At that moment I accepted that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. Then López Lobo started to talk and his speech went on until dawn, only very occasionally interrupted by questions from Belano that I couldn’t hear.
He said that he’d had two children and a wife, like Belano, like everyone, and a house and books. Then he said something I didn’t catch. Maybe he talked about happiness. He mentioned streets, metro stops, telephone numbers. As if he were looking for someone. Then silence. Someone coughed. López Lobo repeated that he’d had a wife and two children. A generally satisfactory life. Something like that. Anti-Franco activism and a youth, in the seventies, in which there was no lack of sex or friendship. He became a photographer by chance. He didn’t take his fame or prestige or anything else very seriously. He was in love when he got married. His life was what is usually described as a happy life. One day, he and his wife happened to discover that their oldest son was sick. He was a very clever boy, said López Lobo. What he had was serious, a tropical disease, and of course López Lobo thought the boy must have caught it from him. Still, after performing the appropriate tests, the doctors couldn’t find even a trace of the disease in López Lobo’s blood. For a while, López Lobo pursued the possible carriers of the disease within the child’s limited circle and found nothing. Finally, he lost his mind.
He and his wife sold their house in Madrid and went to live in the United States, leaving with the sick child and the healthy child. The hospital where the boy was admitted was expensive and the treatment was long and López Lobo had to go back to work, so his wife stayed with the boys and he took on freelance assignments. He was in many places, he said, but he always returned to New York. Sometimes the boy would be better, as if he were beating the disease, and other times his health would plateau or decline. Sometimes López Lobo would sit in a chair in the sick boy’s room and dream about his two sons, seeing their faces close together, smiling and defenseless, and then, without knowing why, he knew that he, López Lobo, must cease to exist. His wife had rented an apartment on West Eighty-first Street, and the healthy child attended a nearby school. One day, while he was waiting in Paris for a visa to an Arab country, he got a call telling him that the sick boy had taken a turn for the worse. He dropped what he was doing and caught the first flight to New York. When he got to the hospital everything seemed submerged in a kind of hideous normality and that’s when he knew the end had come. Three days later the boy died. He dealt with the arrangements for the cremation himself, because his wife was devastated. Up until this point, López Lobo’s account was more or less intelligible. The rest is just one sentence, one scene after another. I’ll try to string them together.
The very day the boy died, or a day later, López Lobo’s wife’s parents arrived in New York. One afternoon they had an argument. They were in the bar of a hotel on Broadway, near Eighty-first Street, everyone together, López Lobo’s in-laws, his younger son, and his wife, and López Lobo started to cry and said that he loved his two sons and that it was his fault his older son had died. Although maybe he didn’t say anything and there was no argument and all of this only took place in López Lobo’s mind. Then López Lobo got drunk and left the boy’s ashes in a New York City subway car and then he went back to Paris without saying anything to anyone. A month later he learned that his wife had returned to Madrid and wanted a divorce. López Lobo signed the papers and thought it had all been a dream.
Much later I heard Belano’s voice asking when “the tragedy” had occurred. It sounded to me like the voice of a Chilean peasant. Two months ago, answered López Lobo. And then Belano asked him what had happened to the other boy, the healthy one. He lives with his mother, answered López Lobo.
By then I could make out their silhouettes where they sat leaning against the wall. Both of them were smoking and both looked tired, but I might have gotten that impression because I was tired myself. López Lobo wasn’t talking anymore. Only Belano was talking, as he had been at the beginning, and surprisingly, he was telling his own story, a story that made no sense, telling it over and over, with the difference that each time he told it he condensed it a little more, until at last all he was saying was: I wanted to die, but I realized it was better not to. Only then did I fully understand that López Lobo was going to go with the soldiers the next day, not the civilians, and that Belano wasn’t going to let him die alone.
I think I fell asleep.
At least, I think I slept for a few minutes. When I woke up, the light of the new day had begun to filter into the house. I heard snores, sighs, people talking in their sleep. Then I saw the soldiers getting ready to leave. López Lobo and Belano were with them. I got up and told Belano not to go. Belano shrugged his shoulders. López Lobo’s face was impassive. He knows he’s going to die and now he’s calm, I thought. Belano’s face, meanwhile, looked like the face of a madman: in a matter of seconds, terrible fear and fierce happiness coursed across it. I grabbed his arm and without thinking went walking outside with him.
It was a gorgeous morning, of an airy blueness that gave you goose bumps. López Lobo and the soldiers watched us go and didn’t say anything. Belano was smiling. I remember that we walked toward our useless Chevy and that I told him several times that what he planned to do was insane. I heard your conversation last night, I confessed, and everything makes me think your friend is crazy. Belano didn’t interrupt: he looked toward the forest and the hills that surrounded Brownsville and every so often he nodded. When we got to the Chevy I remembered the snipers and I felt a stirring of panic. It seemed absurd. I opened one of the doors and we got in the car. Belano noticed Luigi’s blood soaked into the fabric but he didn’t say anything, and I didn’t think it was the right moment to explain. For a while we sat there in silence. I had my face hidden in my hands. Then Belano asked me whether I’d realized how young the soldiers were. They’re all fucking kids, I answered, and they kill each other like they’re playing. Still, there’s something nice about it, said Belano, looking out the window at the forest trapped between the fog and the light. I asked him why he was going with López Lobo. So he won’t be alone, he answered. That much I already knew, I was hoping for a different answer, something conclusive, but I didn’t say anything. I felt very sad. I wanted to say something else and couldn’t find the words. Then we got out of the car and went back to the long house. Belano took his things and left with the soldiers and the Spanish photographer. I went with him to the door. Jean-Pierre was beside me and he looked at Belano in confusion. The soldiers were already beginning to head off and we said goodbye to him right there. Jean-Pierre shook his hand and I hugged him. López Lobo had gone on ahead and Jean-Pierre and I realized that he didn’t want to say goodbye to us. Then Belano started to run, as if at the last moment he thought the column would leave without him. He caught up with López Lobo, and it looked to me as if they started to talk, as if they were laughing, as if they were off on an excursion, and then they crossed the clearing and were lost in the underbrush.
Our own trip back to Monrovia was almost without incident. It was long and grueling, but we didn’t run into soldiers from either camp. We got to Brewerville at dusk. There we said goodbye to most of the people who’d come with us and the next morning a van from a humanitarian organization took us back to Monrovia. Jean-Pierre was out of Liberia in less than a day. I spent two more weeks there. The cook, his wife, and their son, with whom I became friendly, moved into the Center. The woman worked making beds and sweeping the floor and sometimes I would look out the window of my room and see the boy playing with other children or with the soldiers who were guarding the hotel. I never saw the driver again, but he made it to Monrovia alive, which is some consolation. It goes without saying that for the rest of my time there I tried to track down Belano, find out what had happened in the Brownsville–Black Creek–Thomas Creek area, but I couldn’t get any straight answers. According to some, the territory was now under the control of Kensey’s armed bands, and according to others, troops under a nineteen-year-old general, General Lebon I think was his name, had managed to reestablish Taylor’s control over all the territory between Kakata and Monrovia, which included Brownsville and Black Creek. But I never found out whether this was true or false. One day I went to hear a speech at a place near the American embassy. The speech was given by a General Wellman, and in his own way, he tried to explain the situation in the country. At the end, anyone could ask whatever they wanted. When everyone had left or gotten tired of asking questions that we somehow knew were pointless, I asked him about General Kensey, about General Lebon, about the situation in the towns of Brownsville and Black Creek, about the fates of photographer Emilio López Lobo, from Spain, and journalist Arturo Belano, from Chile. General Wellman gave me a long look before he answered (but he gave everyone the same look, maybe he was nearsighted and didn’t know where to get himself a pair of glasses). In as few words as possible, he said that according to his reports General Kensey had been dead for a week. Lebon’s troops had killed him. General Lebon, in turn, was also dead, in his case at the hands of a gang of highwaymen, in one of the eastern neighborhoods of Monrovia. So far as Black Creek was concerned, he said: “Peace reigns in Black Creek.” Literally. And he had never heard of the settlement of Brownsville, though he pretended otherwise.
Two days later I left Liberia and never went back.

1 thought on ““We Never Saw the Shooters” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel The Savage Detectives”

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