Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Two Fat Men in a Very Thin Country (2002)

The country of Chile is so long and thin that it looks very odd on a map, and odd things tend to spark my imagination, so it was inevitable I would one day write a story about it. The result appeared in my collection THE LESS LONELY PLANET and also (slightly modified) in another of my books, TALLEST STORIES, in which it is revealed that the narrator is actually Napoleon Bonaparte. In this original version, he isn't.

My friend Pepito must always be believed, even when he is telling lies. Exactly why this should be so is beyond my powers of explanation. But it's a tradition which I'm reluctant to ignore, and thus I now place my hand over my heart and swear that the following tale is accurate in every fact. Pepito told it to me himself, while we rested under the orange tree which stands in the centre of my patio. Most of my body was in the shade, but my boots stuck out in the noonday sun, and the heat raised an odour from them which was not unlike soup.
         He often related anecdotes which had happened in distant lands. I suppose he'd travelled a lot in his youth. That must have been the case, for now he barely moved at all, except from house to house, kitchen to kitchen, with slow greed, as if he was trying to balance out or retract all his previous activity.
         He began by asking me what I knew of Chile, and I shrugged my shoulders. My ignorance seemed to offer him some mental relief, and he scratched himself lazily before announcing:
         "Well, it's a very long country.
          "¡Sí! a long and thin country, like a piece of string used to parcel up the globe when the world was made. But somehow it remained behind when the rest of the wrapping was discarded, stuck there on the western edge of the South American continent. That is Chile.
         "I would estimate -- and it's just a guess, mind you -- that it covers an area of 756,626 square kilometres, but all this territory must stretch some 4000 km from the tropics almost to the polar region, which means its average width is no more than 160 km. That's an unusual shape for a nation. Its capital is Santiago.
         "Its major natural resources are coal, oil, iron ore, precious metals and timber. It has some of the biggest copper mines on the planet. The scenery is dramatic, with deserts in the north and glaciers in the south. It has a history of relative democracy. Its worst myth is the Chonchón, which is a loose head with gigantic ears for wings. It often flies down chimneys. The Calchona is almost as bad. It is a kind of dog which snatches lunch baskets from mountain travellers, muttering sullen threats if anyone tries to follow.
         "Fortunately these monsters are quite rare now.
         "The sort of normal wildlife you might expect to find if you went there include guanacos, vicunas, coypus, pumas and condors. There are tamarugo trees, algarobas and monkey puzzles. Whether any of these latter have ever been solved is unknown to me at this time. Fish stocks off the coast are enormous, and fish stews on land also numerous, which brings me to the point, for I won't say meat, of my tale.
         "There were two brothers who were known as the Grady Twins. They were big eaters and famous for it. It is possible they were the fattest men in existence. One was named Tobias and the other Oliver. They decided to take a voyage to Chile. They applied for visas and arrived in Santiago on the first day of summer.
         "They had been growing rounder and rounder every year, and their girth had caused them many practical problems for as long as either could remember, though nothing too serious, for they were used to lumbering about in wide countries. They had never stayed in such a thin one before. They had plenty of money in their pockets. Total disaster was inevitable.
         "They found an outdoor restaurant and sat down to their first meal. And that is where they remained for the whole of their trip! They devoured everything the country had to offer. I'm not sure what that is, but doubtless it includes bread, potatoes, rice, apples, beef, mutton, sardines, anchovies and whatever else can be found on local plates -- but no chilli peppers, despite the aptness of the name. And they drank hundreds of bottles of wine.
         "The days and weeks passed and they kept calling for more food. Before the summer was finished, they were both fatter than they had ever been. ¡Ay, Señor! they were too fat to fit in the country! They were wider than Chile! Do you doubt it?
         "Well, this was an unexpected situation. They were facing east, and their stomachs grew and ripened over that chain of mountains called the Andes. The snows lay soft and thick on the tops of their bellies. But the brothers continued to stuff their mouths, and their digestions rumbled like thunder in the high passes, and some people thought an earth tremor had begun. But still they sat at their table and ordered more food, and entire harvests vanished into their gaping maws.
         "There is a country which borders Chile along the mountains. It is Argentina and it has different laws and customs and ideas. A visa that is valid for one is not necessarily accepted in the other. The Grady Twins had the correct paperwork for a stay in Chile, but now their stomachs crossed the frontier into a separate state. They passed over illegally. The authorities were alerted.
         "Right there, near the summit of Tupungato, the bellies of Tobias and Oliver were arrested and charged with unlawfully entering Argentina. A judge was sent for and a court was temporarily set up at the base of the mountain. The stomachs were found guilty and sentenced to an indefinite term of imprisonment.
         "The jails were constructed around the straining abdomens, but each cell only had three walls, because the side where the stomachs came from had to be left open. All the same, the miscreants were in prison, and even the immense power of their digestions could not burst the bricks and iron bars asunder. The authorities smiled to themselves and went home, leaving a few guards to watch over each navel and to prod their captives with bayonets at the first signs of further trouble.
         "Back in Santiago, the brothers were oblivious of what had occurred over the border. But they knew that they suddenly had stomach cramps. Further belly expansion was halted by the solid walls. As they continued to eat, the pressure increased. There might have been a detonation with unsavoury results if this anecdote was just a fictional tale, but I have embellished no detail and therefore must report that this did not happen. They still called for more food, for they were also gluttons for punishment.
         "It was the middle of autumn and between them they had nearly eaten Chile bare. The hot winds from the desert and the cold winds from the icecaps had always smelled hungry. Now all the other winds did too, even those from the temperate zones where the wheat ripples in fields and the fruit falls from branches. The country was like an empty cupboard. The only things left to eat were old boots. They are not tasty when boiled, basted, roasted, steamed or fried. But a boot sauce served on coils of its own laces can be sampled like a spaghetti dish. It may or may not be nourishing. A few men will walk far to try it, but rather more will hope it doesn't walk after them. Such now was the final item on every menu.
         "Everybody knows there are good and bad boots. The latter pinch and squeak. Tobias had the misfortune to be served one of those. He refused to finish it. He threw down his fork and glowered at Oliver, who was chewing a more comfortable sole. From this moment their fates diverged. Tobias started to lose weight. This shouldn't be too remarkable a thing to occur, and so it wasn't, in the locality of the restaurant. But in Argentina, the amazed guards watched as one of their prisoners escaped.
         "It was a slow escape, sure enough, and in many other parts of the world, action would have been taken immediately to apprehend the belly before it vanished, but down there events often move sluggishly, and every pant is a yawn, and by the time a decision had been made to prod the captive with a bayonet, it was gone. It had fled at glacier velocity out of the open side of the jail and back over the border. Eventually Tobias became just a very fat man again, rather than an international incident.
         "The authorities were determined to guard the remaining stomach more carefully. But the bother of keeping watch over it constantly, while there were more important matters to attend to elsewhere, such as barbecues and football matches, was too much to contemplate eternally, which was the span of time that the wobbling paunch had to serve before it became eligible for parole, on the recommendation of the judge. So a retrial was ordered and a new sentence was passed -- death by firing squad!
         "¡Ay! That was a sure way of eliminating the problem for all time. The cell was demolished to give the men with the rifles a clear aim. Then a runner was dispatched to inform the man far behind the belly of his impending doom. It was a tradition to ask the condemned prisoner if he had a final request. The runner applied for a visa, crossed the border into Chile and reached the restaurant in Santiago.
         "He whispered his message into the ear of Oliver, who absorbed it at his leisure while munching on the tongue of a boot, his own tongue curling around it as if he was kissing his dinner to adulterate its leathery taste with the flavour of passion, which has no eyes and is blind, of course. And coincidentally this was his millionth course. But after just a little more thought, he nodded to himself and gave the runner a message of his own to deliver to the firing squad. Then he resumed eating.
          "Oliver's stomach had been sentenced to be shot at sunrise. But he had asked if it could be shot at sunset instead, the sunset of the day previous to the ordained one. The authorities and guards scratched their heads at this, for it seemed their prisoner was hurrying them along, that he wished to die sooner rather than later. But they agreed to the proposal, partly because it was a final request and they were bound by honour to fulfil it, and partly because it meant they could leave work early.
         "The firing squad raised and aimed its rifles. Every man present waited for the moment of sunset. It never came. The sky went dark and filled with stars, but at no point did the sun actually go down. After a night of debate, the mystery was resolved. The vast stomach had created an eclipse, blotting out not only the sunset but much of the western horizon. Then they understood that their prisoner had cheated them, for they would never be able to execute the belly at the moment of sunset, for there was no longer such a time. They would be stuck here for the rest of Oliver's life, waiting in vain, and the barbecues would go cold and the football matches be won or lost, and forgotten, without them.
          "Another solution had to be found. If a condemned man survives or avoids his execution, he probably deserves to be pardoned and released. The same surely applies to bellies. It was decided to pardon this one, together with its contents and weather, for the interior was a cavern vast enough to contain clouds and other atmospheric phenomena. Now the guards could leave it to its own devices. It was as free as any other gorge in the Andes, though entirely different in all but word.
         "The unspoken worry of those who left was that it would now proceed on its voyage into Argentina unopposed, crushing everything in its path. But circumstances conspired against this, because a coup overthrew the legitimate government of Chile and a military dictatorship took over. The boots were recalled from Oliver's plate to serve the feet of the soldiers, and so he went hungry. His stomach retreated of its own accord. Remember that Chile only has a history of relative democracy, and this was one of those times when stupidity and cruelty marched over it, in boots originally collected for supper.
         "When Oliver was slim enough to move again, he stood and walked with his brother out of the restaurant. Both had a terrible stomach ache and awful wind. Soon after, they left Chile. Neither of the Grady Twins ever returned. They settled in a wider land where many people wore slippers instead of boots, far to the east. India it was, I believe. If they attempted such a feast again, it has not been recorded. I imagine that their breath, which smelled of leather, fell foul of some law and that their mouths were caged, which would prevent their stomachs from going anywhere alone. That would certainly be for the best..."
         Pepito halted his absurd story for two reasons. Firstly, the sun had moved the shadow of the orange tree over my feet, and my boots no longer smelled edible. Secondly, he had finished. We sat in the silence of the patio. Then he fell asleep. He has since promised to tell me similar tales about every country in the world. I have locked up my house with heavy chains and tomorrow I plan to leave the village forever. I don't know where I'm going, nor do I care, so long as it's far from him. He's my most inspirational friend.


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