NORTHWESTERN WALL – Vallejo – Cuneiforms

“Notherwestern Wall” by César Vallejo, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan.

This text is drawn from Cuneiforms, a collection of tales & prose poems published in 1923 as the first section of Scales. Composed at the same that Trilce was, these writings correspond to Vallejo’s experimental phase. Some editions have erroneously titled the book Escalas melografiadas, when on the cover it actually reads Escalas and then below it “melografiadas por César Vallejo”. This translation forms part of a complete English translation of that work.



The only cell-mate left now sits down to eat, in front of the horizontal window in our dungeon, a barred little opening in the upper half of the cell-door, where he takes refuge in the orange anguish of evening’s full bloom (1).

I turn towards him.

“Shall we?”

“Let’s. Please be served, señor”, he replies with a smile.

While looking at his bullish profile thrown against the folded bright-red leaf of the open window, my gaze locks onto an almost aerial spider, seemingly made of smoke, emerging in absolute stillness on the wood, a half meter above the man’s head. The westerly wind wafts an ocher glitter upon the tranquil weaver, as if to bring her into focus. She has undoubtedly felt the warm solar breeze, as she stretches out some of her limbs with drowsy and lackadaisical languor, and then starts taking fitful steps downward, until stopping flush with the man’s beard, so that, while he chews, it appears as if he were gobbling up the tiny beast.

And as he finally finishes eating, the animal flanks out in a sprint for the door-hinges, just as the man swings the door shut. Something has happened. I go up and reopen the door, examine the hinges and find the body of the poor wanderer, mashed and transformed into scattered filaments.

“You, señor, have killed a spider,” I say to him with evident enthusiasm.

“Have I?” asks he with indifference, “All the better: this place is roach motel anyway.”

And as if nothing had happened, he begins to pace the length of the cell, picking food from his teeth and spiting it out profusely.

Justice! This idea comes to mind.

I know that this man has just harmed an anonymous, yet existing and real being. And the spider, on the other hand, has unawares pushed the poor and innocent man to the point of murder. Don’t both, then, deserve to be judged for their actions? Or is such a means of justice foreign to the human spirit? When is man the judge of man? (2)

He who is unaware of the temperature, the sufficiency with which he finishes something or begins something else; who is unaware of the nuance by which what’s white is white and the degree to which it’s white; who is and will be unaware of the moment when we begin to live, the moment when we begin to die, when we cry, when we laugh, when sound limits with form the lips that say: I… he will not figure out, nor can he, the degree of truth to which a fact qualified as criminal IS criminal. He who is unaware of the instant when 1 stops being 1 and starts being 2, who even within mathematical exactitude lacks wisdom’s unconquerable plenitude—how could he ever manage to establish the fundamental and criminal moment of any action, through the warp of fate’s whims, within the great powered gears that move beings and things in front of things and beings?

Justice is not a human function. Nor can it be. Justice operates tacitly, deeper inside than all insides, in the courts and the prisoners. Justice—hear ye, men of all latitudes!—is carried out in subterranean harmony, on the flip side of the senses and in the cerebral swings of street-fairs. Hone finer thine hearts! Justice passes beneath every surface, behind everyone’s backs. Lend subtler an ear to its fatal drum-roll, and you will perceive its only vigrant (3) cymbal that by the power of love is smashed in two; its cymbal as vague and uncertain as the traces of the crime itself or of what is generally called crime.

Only in this way is justice infallible: when it is not seen through the tinted enticements of the judges, when it’s not written in the codes, when there’s no longer a need for jails or guards.

Justice, then, is not, cannot be carried out by men, not even before the eyes of men.

No one is ever a criminal. Or we all are always criminals.

—César Vallejo

Notes on the Translation:
(1) The prison cell as the “escenario del drama” cross-cuts Scales (Northwestern Wall, Doublewide Wall, Window Sill, Eastern Wall) & Trilce (II, XVIII, XX, XXII, L, LVIII).
(2) Notice the thematic rhyme between this depiction of justice & that in “Individual and Society” where Vallejo writes: “When the interrogation began, the murderer gave his first answer, staring at the members of the Tribunal. One of these, Milad the substitute, gave off an astonishing likeness to the defendant. The same age, the same mutilated right eye, the cut and color of the mustache, the line and thickness of his chest, the shape of his head, the hair cut. An absolutely identical double” (Against Professional Secrets). In the presence of his double, the man on trial is a helpless culprit: “When the bailiffs took him away, amid the clamor and murmuring of the dismayed crowd, he only fixed his gaze on the face of Milad, his double, the substitute. To that extent the individual conscience is social and collective” (ibidem).
(3) Meo Zilio suggests that the word “vagoroso” is a neologism that stems from “vago” (vagrant) with the ending “-oso”. It also appears in Trilce XXX, with regards to which the Italian linguist examines the phrase “picadura de ají vagoroso” & classifies “vagoroso” as a “lexical neologism of nominal derivation, with a de-adjectival suffix. He says that “‘vago’ + ‘-roso’ is based on an analogical pattern with ‘vaporoso’ [vaporous] and a psychological impulse of ‘vagaroso’ [vagrant] + ‘vigoroso’ [vigorous] (‘vigor’ + ‘-oso’). And while it is found in archaic Spanish, today it can be considered a neologism” (276). Neale-Silva, for his part, sees the psychological impulse in the forefront (153). While we surely need to take those interpretations with caution, since they pertain to Vallejo’s use of the word in another context, they do seem to be relevant here. In the present translation, “vigrant” has been a viable option, since it fuses “vagrant” with “vigorous” & also with “vibrant”.
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