March 17, 2010

Why Don Pedro Drinks

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Two statesmen drowning their cares, Tim Bobbin [i.e. John Collier], 1772

Why Don Pedro Drinks
by José Marín Cañas
Translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Nobody had any idea, until that night, what made Don Pedro drink. Don Pedro was a very picturesque gentleman who affected extravagant airs. He sported oversized collars and cravats in the absurdest of colors. But the truth about this grandiose fop was that he drank and, at times, in a manner immoderate and obstreperous.

Don Pedro’s flaw was an infantile and harmless conceit. The poor old sot had an atrociously fecund musical bent, and he composed waltzes, minuets, rigadoons, fox trots, marches, one steps, and other various popular pieces and, what is more, penned poetry in a calligraphic style reminiscent of Crispulo Elizondo: he delighted in exorbitantly cursive script, and he dashed off lyrical petitionary missives as accompaniments to his waltzes, polkas and other trifles – all dedicated to Senora de Fernandez, de Benitez, or de Oconitrillo, and delivered right under the noses of their husbands who stood there alongside them in their yellow shoes and ugly cashmere sweaters like big, dumb schoolboys dressed by their mothers.

That was how Don Pedro lived.

"I enrich the art of music," was all he would say in a fierce tone, when he overheard the wisecracks of some loudmouthed know-it-all, in an attempt to deflect further gibes and snipes. "There will come a day," said Don Pedro, "when my name will resound throughout the four corners of the globe along with those of Verdi, Wagner, Donizetti, and Cavallini." (Don Pedro had a queer mania for believing that Cavallini was the name of a composer, and no one pointed out to the poor man that this name belonged to a watchmaker.)

Then someone asked, "Why do you drink?"

"I am not a weakling like you," he retorted. "I drink because I want to. Yes, gentlemen. Are you listening? Because I want to. I hope my answer doesn’t disappoint you, but there are no sad stories to tell. I’m not shameless like you, you sorry riffraff! Any of you who thinks otherwise is scum! You hear me? That's why I drink. Yes, Perez! Because it cleans my kidneys. Have you got that, you assholes? Would you like me to tell why your girlfriend left you, or why your wife went with somebody else, or what kind of books they pollute themselves with? Assholes! I drink because I want to!"

In the face of such flaming oratory, no one dared interrupt.

"Alright, alright, Don Pedro, don’t get worked up."

The poor old man sat down and cooled off, thanks to the ministrations of one of the more compassionate regulars. Then, after awhile, he thrust his hand into his satchel and removed some sheets of music. Amongst all the other muck he dredged up from the unfathomable depths of his pockets, was a little photograph smudged and blotted by filth and age.

"Eh, Don Pedro, who is that?"

"My little boy, my son," he said quickly and guardedly.

"Eh, Don Pedro," Perez spouted, "This son of yours, where is he, anyway? How come we never heard about him before? Do we look like we just rode in on camels? This is a gag, right?"

"Where is he? Where is he, you imbecile? He's over there." And he pointed, ferociously, forbiddingly, his arm stiff, his eyes fixed.

* * *

Don Pedro's inexorable finger was outstretched towards the gloomy silhouette of the distant graveyard.

* * *

acf JOSE MARIN CAÑAS El infierno verde gc

About José Marín Cañas (1904 - 1980)

Costa Rican novelist, newspaperman, educator and essayist who, during his youth, held a variety of jobs including those of breadseller, stockboy at a market, and pitchman. As an adolescent, he learned to play the violin and gave serenades, performed at dances and theaters and provided musical accompaniment to silent films. He remained interested in the cinema throughout his life. A sensationalistic journalist and something of a literary experimentalist, Cañas was considered an avant-gardist in his day. His punctilious approach to composition has been likened to that of a watchmaker. He abandoned writing for thirty years, then resumed his profession during the late 1960s by contributing a regular column to a daily paper in the capitol. He served as director of the Institute of Hispanic Culture but was forced to step down from his chair in the School of Journalism at the University of Costa Rica because he lacked a diploma. He swore never again to set foot on its campus. He died at daybreak December 14, 1980, of emphysema. He never quit smoking. Among his noted books are Steel Tears and Green Hell. "Why Don Pedro Drinks" is from his 1929 collection of crepuscular tales about alcoholics, The Rum Bums (Los bigardos del ron). [Ed. note: J. M. Cañas has not previously appeared in English.]


Happy St. Patrick's Day from all of us here at A Journey Round My Skull

The top image is by John Collier, c. 1772, found at the LOC


Previously by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:

--Soap Opera Digest: A Candybox of History's Sappiest Literary Lovers
--Poets Ranked by Beard Weight
--Interview 1
--Taedium Vitae
--Snake-O-Rama: one, two

Lions of Literature:
Leon Bloy
Adelheid Duvanel
Christopher Spranger


  1. Great stuff again.

    It's a real pleasure to read a blog that has me reaching (so to speak) for an online dictionary so often.

  2. I must be the echo. What great pleasure reading your blog this morning after St.Patricks Day.