The dream of Icarus

By Mario Vargas LLosa


Patrolling the invisible borderline that separates Bolivia from Chile, in such frozen solitudes, is very boring duty.   There is almost nothing to do but try to keep warm in your khaki uniform, stick your hands in your pockets, and remember what a blessing your life was back there in your village, before the accursed draft plucked you out of your life as an ordinary citizen and dragged you off to the barracks, to fulfill your military service.


After a very hasty training period, and not a few kicks and knocking about from the corporal of your section, they sent you here to protect the frontier, this icy, barren plateau where the cold has cracked your lips, turned your skin blue, and streaked your ears and feet with chilblains. With your head shaved like that, and barely protected by a thin knit cap, you have the sensation that at any moment this polar cold could split your skull open like a pomegranate. But maybe even worse than the whistling, knifeblade wind, worse than the blazing morning sun and ice of night, is this interminable loneliness that clamps onto you and numbs you the minute you open the door of the barracks—its white walls not much better protection–and step outside to report for guard duty.


At least you have a partner on your watch. If you were alone you would go out of your mind from the emptiness and silence. You would hallucinate, maybe, see an army of spine-chilling extraterrestrials blast out of the snowstorm mounted on balls of fire. Or the devil might spring up before you, or God knows what. Thank goodness you drew Pedrito to stand guard with you today, Pedrito, the camba, the Indian from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. You have become good friends because he’s a regular guy; he has a good sense of humor, and he tells jokes that make you laugh out loud, and even though he’s eighteen years old, the same age as you, he still has the soul of a mischievous and playful kid. Again, just like you. So one day Pedrito got the idea for a game that would help the time pass faster on your shift: the game of the birds. And that’s what you play, roaring with laughter, when there’s no officer or corporal or sergeant nosing around. It’s a simple game, maybe a little silly, but it’s really fun. What you do is climb up on a rock, and from up there you le-e-e-eap off with your arms held wide, yelling and screaming. You feel that at any minute you might take off, lift up and fly. Maybe that will happen one day. Because in this weird place, you have the impression that anything could happen—even a man turning into a bird!