Shortly before leaving Peru for Europe in 1923, César Vallejo published Scales, a book of prose poems & short stories that forms part of his experimental works & can be read as a prose correlate to his unprecedented verse in Trilce.

“MURO DOBLEANCHO / DOUBLEWIDE WALL” comes from the first section of that book, “CUNEIFORMES / CUNEIFORMS” & situates us in the jail cell. The following text is drawn from my complete translation of Scales & will be added to a lengthy anthology of Selected Writings by César Vallejo that is currently in the works.


On this swelter of a night, one of my inmates tells me the story of his trial. He finishes the abstruse narration, stretches out on his soiled dais and hums a yaraví (1).

I now possess the truth of his conduct.

This man is a criminal. His mask of innocence transparent, the criminal has been arrested. Through the course of his prattle, my soul has followed him, step by step, through his illicit act. Between us we have festered through days and nights of idleness, garnished with arrogant alcohol, chuckling dentures, aching guitar strings, razor-blades on guard, drunken bouts of sweat and disgust. We have disputed with the defenseless companion who cries for her man to quit drinking, to work and earn some dough for the kids, so that God sees… And then, with our dried out guts thriving on booze, each dawn we would take the brutal plunge into the street, slamming the door on the groaning offspring’s own fat-lips.

I have suffered with him the fleeting calls to dignity and regeneration; I have faced both sides of the medallion, I have doubted and even felt the heel dig in, insinuating a one-eighty. One morning this barfly, in great pain, thought about going on the strait and narrow, left to look for a job, then ran into an old friend and took a turn for the worse. In the end, he stole out of necessity. And now, given what his legal representative is saying, his sentence is not far off.

This man is a thief.

But he is also a killer.

One night, during the most boisterous of benders, he strolls through bloody intersections of the ghetto, while at the same time, an old-timer, who then holding down an honest job, was on his way home from work. The drinker takes him by the arm, invites him in, gets him to share in his adventure, to which the upright man accepts, though much to his regret.

Fording the earth ten elbows deep (2), they return after midnight through black allies. The irreproachable man with alarming diphthongs brings the drinker to a halt; he takes him by the side, stands him up, and berates the shameless scum:

“Come on! This is what you like. You don’t have a choice anymore.”

And suddenly a sentence bursts forth in flames and emerges from the darkness:

“Hold it right there!…”

An assault of anonymous knives. Botched, the target of the attack: the blade doesn’t pierce the flesh of the drunkard, but mistakenly and fatally punctures the good worker.

Therefore, this man is also a killer. But the courts, naturally, do not, nor will they ever, suspect the third hand of the thief.

Meanwhile, he keeps doing pushups on that suspicious dais of his, while humming his sad yaraví.

Translated by Joseph Mulligan

* César Vallejo, portrait, acrylic on canvass, by Beatriz Sosa (2009).
(1) The Quechua word “yaraví” refers to a genre of song from the Andes. Rather than translating it as “blues”, which would have brought with it undesirable cultural references, I’ve preferred to leave it in Quechua.
(2)It is not clear what Vallejo means here by “Vadeando hasta diez codos de tierra”, and in view of this opacity, I have rendered a more intelligible phrase, aware that this could over-simplify the author’s complexity & interested in finding a better option.
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