Today, April 15th, marks the 73rd anniversary of César Vallejo’s death. While the early days in Trujillo & Lima resulted in some of his best and most well-known works, the final months of his life stand out as one of the, if not the, most intense periods of literary production in the Peruvian’s life.
Aside from writing half of Poemas humanos / Human Poems, the entire suite España, aparta de mí este cáliz, Vallejo completed (or nearly completed) the full length tragedy, La piedra cansada / The Tired Stone, which today stands as irrefutable proof of his desire to work seriously in genres other than poetry.
To commemorate the life of “the greatest of the great South American poets”, to say it with Jerome Rothenberg, I’d like to share a draft of my translation of this remarkable & too frequently ignored play. The following scene is the opening of the play. Since the setting of the drama is in the Incan Empire, during the construction of the great temples and fortresses, Vallejo incorporate a great deal of Quechua into the dialogue, often creating permutations & translations of those lines within the text itself.
THE TIRED STONE
ACT ONE: Scene One
The scene displays several megalithic walls, forming part of a bastion being constructed at the Sajsawaman fortress. Porticos, corridors, stairways. Some trapezoidal windows already finished, others incomplete. At the base of the walls, loose blocks of different sizes, thick pikes, large handbarrows and other materials and tools of the stone-masons. Cyclopean atmosphere.
Before the program begins, the curtain of the scene is raised, and the decoration, therefore, is visible to the audience.
When the bell rings, all the lights of the theater are turned off and complete darkness and silence dominate therein. Dawn slowly descends onto the largest of the blocks that are loose at the base of the walls, leaving the rest of the stage in the darkness still. When the brightness of day floods the scene, Tolpor appears seated at the base of the aforementioned block, with his elbows resting on his knees and his face in his hands, immersed in deliberation. Converging footsteps of a crowd echo around the scene. Out of the rhythmic and tumultuous noise of these footsteps, the overture of Hymn to the Sun is born without interruptions. At different places in the scene, stonecutters and masons come hastily to work, with their tools for work in hand. Gathered in the scene, they sing the hymn in chorus, immobile, inscrutable, while the sun rises behind the walls of the bastion. Tolpor raises his head and rubs his eyes.
THE QUECHUAS, finishing the song they greet each other.
Ama sua! Ama Llulla! Ama Kella!… (They circle around the giant stone and try to move it with ropes and levers)
QUECHUA 1, from high on one of the walls.
Mama roca! Beautiful stone! Another day illuminates your tiredness! Another day we’re going to raise you. Will you arise? Will you finally give in to our pikes and champis?… (They all remain still, anxiously staring at the fatigued block).
QUECHUA 2, from high on one of the walls.
It’s useless. The Pissaj quarries have bloated innards, like those of sterile women.
QUECHUA 3, down below.
The stones of Pissaj have the bad breast, their earthly gaze distorted. From the time they leap up from the quarry, to when they are incorporated into the fortresses, they leave in search for it extermination, blood, tears, many lives deceased, smashed by its implacable and fateful heaviness.
QUECHUA 4, down below.
The stones of Pissaj are the most beautiful in the kingdom!
QUECHUA 5, from high on the walls, at once.
Telluric block, arise!
QUECHUA 6, from high on the walls, at once.
Wretched basalt, you will get up!
QUECHUA 7, from high on the walls, at once.
QUECHUA 8, from high on the walls, at once.
Whole stone, proud as you are! Stone stone! Basalt choice grain for the great spokes of simple agglutinations! Give in! Give in!
QUECHUA 9, from high on another wall.
What’s wrong, Mama Roca? What’s come over you? Perhaps you’re sleeping? In pain? Who know? Are you achy? Dreaming?… (everyone again awaits the stone’s response). Answer!… (Pause).
TOLPOR, from atop the highest wall.
Workers of the stone! Builders of the temples, palaces and citadels! Two mysterious birds have sung, tonight, in the branches of my pepper tree: the one-winged bird and the…
A VOICE, anxiously interrupting.
And the apterous bird?
Yes. The bird with no wings. (Surprised voices and movements). When the stars took leave, the pepper tree, unmoving as it was, began to tremble and twist, as if the tips of its leaves were in pain.
That’s what all plants do when they’re sprouting.
I arose from bed, saw through the keyhole of the door…
Evil! A tree’s secrets are sacred!
Seated on a lower branch…
The bird with no wings? The apterous bird?
No. The bird with only one wing. A delicate little creature, but at the same time, god-awful ugly! Its neck was arched toward my cabin, as if it were spying on me. A shudder ran through my body. I stifled a scream and returned to bed, horrified.
Misfortune! Military setbacks! Evil wars!
But, alas, no sooner had I left the doorway when I heard that mangy bird launch a sustained, deep and gruff caw… (Murmurs. Excitement).
Before the Inca Pachacútec died, they heard the same bird cawing from the rooftop of the palace of Kassana.
May Viracocha protect his people.
The pepper tree then started to bellow, as if it were announcing a storm. Then I felt the bird was abandoning the branches…
The flight of those birds can’t be heard: it is so quiet, so imperceptible, like the flight of the soul, when it passed from the branch of life to the branch of death.
Shortly thereafter, a song—this time it was a song and no longer a caw—a song wandered into the night. Where did that song go off to?
The song of the apterous bird is the voice of fetuses in their mothers’ wombs.
It’s the voice of the accursed pumas.
It’s the voice of the plants that weep for humans.
Good workers of the stone, architects of the greatest fortresses in the Tahuantinsuyo! There is no sweeter or sadder tune than the tune of the wingless bird!
Enough! To work! The designs of fate don’t depend on man, and neither does the song of the birds.
TOLPOR comes down from the wall and, with a mysterious air, looking firmly at the tired stone.
It got lost along with her. What has happened?… I don’t know. (The others let him be, intrigued. Tolpor turns around to face the stone, as if looking for something). It came directly from the pepper tree and stopped here, there is no doubt…
What stopped here, next to the stone?
TOLPOR, with exaltation.
The wingless bird is here! Under the fatigued stone! (Laughter. Tolpor raises his voice and invokes the block). Weary pebble! Where is it? Did it leave?… Are you hiding it? Could it be hiding beneath your mass?… (With both hands he pushes the stone and shouts, infuriated). Say Jusca! Mama Roca! Where is it? Have you swallowed it?… (He pushes against it again with all his might).
ALL, with sudden astonishment.
Oh! Oh! Oh!… It has moved! It has moved! (An infinitely sad song, words, crosses over the wall. The Quechuas stop to listen).
TOLPOR, with his dazzled upward gaze.
There it is!… There it is!… (The singing comes closer and becomes clearer: it’s the architect, foreman of the workers at the fortress, who comes singing. Tolpor and the other workers, when they see him, hurry up and try to move the block, in a vast and collective maneuver).
ALL, daunted, to the architect who descends a stairway between two walls.
It has moved! The tired stone has moved!…
No killing! No lying! No being lazy!
The fatigued stone has moved!
Good. The Inca had expressed his desire to attend the lifting. Before that, I wish to see it move, for myself. Let’s go. Champis! Pikes! Picks!… (The curtain has begun to drop amid the bustle of the Quechuas, who set out to move the block).