Prologue Prologue 1.
There is a question mark, almost lost in a sea of names on the walls of an old synagogue in Prague. Visitors hush children as they pass through each chamber of the Pinkas memorial. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the dizzying display of black and red letters. They memorialize 77,297 individuals. Each was a resident of the Czech districts of Bohemia and Moravia during the war. All were victims of the Nazis.
Next to every name is stenciled the date of birth, and next to each date of birth neatly sits the date of death.
One entry bears the name of my father, Hanus Stanislav Neumann, born on February 9, 1921. It is different. Unlike the others on that wall, it has no date of death.
Instead, carefully calligraphed, there is an incongruous and bold black question mark.
I visited the memorial in 1997 as a tourist, unaware of any link with the synagogue. Scanning across the top wall to my right as I descended the steps into the first chamber, I was astounded to see my father’s name. He was then very much alive, settled and working in Caracas. And yet the bold question mark was there, both jarring and oddly apposite.
This was the first time I had seen the query inked on the wall, but questions about my father had emerged long before. My quest for answers started when I was just a little girl, living across an ocean and a sea in a very different world.
My father’s name with the question mark, tenth line from the top, in the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague
The questions began with a photograph. They started with a picture that was kept hidden but was then found. A memento left behind by accident or on purpose, perhaps subconsciously, that engendered doubt. An image that was out of sorts with reality, as I saw it, forcing the present into an unfamiliar focus. It prompted questions. It demanded answers of the past.
My childhood memories hum with the songs of troupials, crickets, and frogs. My recollections are cradled by tranquil breezes; they sway to the rhythm of tall palm trees and are lit by the reds and oranges of bird-of-paradise. Yet in all their warmth, color, and chaos, they are punctuated by the crisp metal rotors, wheels, pivots, and mainsprings of mechanical watches, of beautifully intricate movements with complications. Among enormous sculptures, my mother recites verses from Rubén Darío and Andrés Eloy Blanco, and my father dances as he sings “Yellow Submarine.” In most of my early memories, there are people moving around the open rooms, terraces, and gardens—politicians, diplomats, industrialists, writers, filmmakers, ballet dancers—gesticulating, chatting, laughing, sitting, or standing, invariably surrounding my parents. There is the noise of success, the prattle of happiness, but in some of the memories, the hubbub fades and there is just enough silence to hear the watches tick, click, whir, and chime.
Embedded in my memory is the image of a particular watch. It is a round silver pocket watch, perfectly polished, lying facedown, with its cover off and the gold insides visible.
It is an odd piece—different from the others in my father’s collection. The watch has four cases. It is rendered in an easily tarnished silver. Most of the others are gold and ornately decorated with precious stones. It is large and heavy, and the first case is indelicate, with a braided burgundy cord attaching a key. It has a thick relief motif that would perhaps be more familiar if it were carved in wood.
Press a button on the side, and the first case pops open to reveal a much finer silver face, surrounded by tortoiseshell and silver screws. You can then see the dial, the curved gold hands, and the face of light and darkened silver ringed with symbols for numbers; the letters in the center spell the maker’s name.
Inside this second cover is an aged piece of paper trimmed to fit roundly inside the back of the case. In beautiful black script, it reads: Thomas Stivers, London, England. Made in 1732 at the Old Watch Street Shop for Export Trade India.
Inside this is a smaller plain polished silver case.
Within this third unremarkable metal shell sits another polished silver case that houses the device itself. Eyes are drawn to the beauty of the hands and face, and without the outer cases, the watch now seems rather small and delicate, fragile, even. As you lift the glass and inspect the piece closely, additional hinges are revealed within, and if you examine the face, at the six o’clock mark there is a tiny, almost invisible lever. If you move the lever lightly—being careful not to damage the enamel—toward the center, the back of this case clicks open, disclosing a magnificent movement with ornate wheels of interwoven filigree that resemble flowers and feathers of silver and gold.
Most people never look at the movement. They rarely open the mechanism to understand what is behind the meticulous timekeeping. For the majority, observing the dial and knowing that the watch functions within a beautiful case is marvel enough. Yet when you examine this beguiling mechanism, you find it is not functioning—the thin silver thread that forms the spring is torn, and the watch cannot keep time.
When my memories pan back from the watch, my father is hunched over, his back cocooned by a white chair. He is wearing a black plastic visor with two rectangular magnifying lenses in front of his eyes. His thick white hair is tousled around the adjustable band. He is unaware of the world outside, oblivious to me, as I tilt my head through the crack of the door and stare at him. He sits at a purpose-built wooden table, his slim fingers grasping pointed tweezers. He is trying to tease out a thin silver thread from a part of the watch that looks to me like a spool made of gold. He is moving very gently, with absolute precision and fathomless patience. If his fingers were not playing over the watch, just a millimeter here and there, his stillness would suggest that time had stopped.
He is trying to repair the mechanism. He needs his watches to be accurate to the second. It seems a necessity rather than a want. He keeps most of them in his bedroom: some on stands in a Louis XV vitrine, some carefully laid in the drawers of a nineteenth-century tulipwood chest that have been specially lined with thick burgundy velvet. He opens and checks a few at least once a week, the winding mechanisms, the springs, the levers, the chimes. If they need to be regulated, he will take them to his workshop, the long windowless room in my memory, the one off a long corridor by the kitchen. The room that is narrow and resembles the carriage of a train. The room that unfailingly remains locked, its key kept in my father’s pocket, attached to a gold chain clipped to a belt loop in his trousers. There, he will sit at the table upon which his minuscule tools are arrayed. He will don one of the black magnifying visors that hang on hooks aligned on the wall. Depending on the watch, he will push the lever or pry the case open and examine the movement. The first thing he will do is ascertain that the escapement and the train are functioning. The train should be in constant motion; that is crucial to provide energy for the mechanism to run for many hours. Usually, trains are made up of four wheels, one each for hours, minutes, and seconds, and a fourth connected to the escapement. The latter consists of tiny pallets, a lever, and two further wheels, one for escape and another for balance. It allows just the right amount of power from the train to escape at precise intervals, sufficient to allow the correct movement of the hands. It makes the ticking sound and ensures exactness. Both train and escapement are critical components. They must work together faultlessly, or time will not be kept.
The workshop drawers are filled with lights, magnifying glasses, and tools. He owns 297 pocket watches. Sometimes, if he spots me nearby, he calls me to his side and winds the one I love. Not the one he tries to fix but the one with complications, the one that works perfectly, which plays a song in chimes and has two cherubs with moving arms knocking little golden hammers against a bell.
My father wakes every morning by six-thirty. Every morning, regardless of how much he has slept, he dons a navy cotton robe and walks to his study, where a tray is neatly laid out on a small table. Every weekday by six thirty-five a.m., with the dark thorny green leaves from the bromeliads coming through the cast-iron bars of the window, he is sitting on the edge of the daybed to eat half a grapefruit and read a newspaper. He pours a third of a sachet of sweetener into a small cup of black coffee and drinks it in one gulp. He showers, opens his mirrored cupboard, picks one from his dozens of suits, straightens his tie, grabs a perfectly pressed handkerchief, chooses his wristwatch, and is headed to the office by seven a.m. sharp.
At the end of the day, the drive home from the office takes him between nine and thirteen minutes, depending on the day of the week. He times his departure accordingly and arrives at the house promptly at six-thirty every night. If he is not going out, he leaves his briefcase in his study, mixes himself a Campari and soda stirred with a long, curled silver spoon, and sits in an armchair on the terrace. Every night that my father is home, the curled spoon leaves a pink mark on the crisp white linen napkin on the drinks cabinet. Dinner is at exactly seven-thirty p.m.
If the Campari spoon is untouched when I walk past the library after my piano practice, I know that my parents are dressing to go out. Then I rush to my mother’s room and watch her put on her makeup in front of the illuminated swivel mirror. I sit on the floor and chat about my day as she carefully applies makeup, puts on a gown, and chooses her jewelry. My father usually walks in wearing immaculate black tie or a crisp dark suit and says impatiently that they are going to be late. They kiss me good night and head down the long corridor, my father straight and tall in his suit, my mother mesmerizing in her flowing gown, with her fiery-speckled brown hair dancing as they disappear from view.
Unlike most houses in our neighborhood, ours did not have a name. There was, however, a sign on the green metal gates with two words printed in copperplate: Perros Furibundos. There is no precise English word for furibundo. Roughly translated, the sign meant frenziedly furious dogs. To our visitors, the house was known as the House of the Frenziedly Furious Dogs. The dogs spent more time lazing in the sunshine than they did in frenzied fury, but the name stuck. Perros Furibundos was an oasis protected from the bustle and chaos of 1970s Caracas by tall mango trees, high white walls, and two guards who, though placid, were methodical in their alternating patrol of the perimeter.
The garden of my childhood had an imposing ceiba tree, dozens of different palms, mango, guava, acacia, and eucalyptus trees, and bushes covered in orchids, flores de mayo, frangipanis, all surrounding a sky-blue pool. My mother had played in the house as a small girl, when it had belonged to family friends. When my parents started their life together, my father bought it for them to live in.
A bright and sprawling single-story house, it was full of high-ceilinged rooms and airy terraces. It had been designed in 1944 by Clifford Wendehack, an American architect who built grand houses and designed the colonial villa that forms the main building of the Caracas Country Club. Our single-story home stood amid the seemingly boundless sea of garden in the neighborhood of Los Chorros in the eastern part of Caracas. It was close to El Avila, the regal mountain that towers above the city and separates the capital from the coast.
The country that I grew up in was filled with promise. There were serious problems—social disparity, corruption, and poverty—but there was also a sense that such issues were being addressed. Social and educational programs were being implemented; government housing, schools, and hospitals were being built. The Venezuela of the 1970s and ’80s was seen as a model for Latin America. It had a stable democracy, a rising literacy rate, a flourishing art scene, and thanks to oil, a well-funded government intent on developing further industries, infrastructure, and education. It was alive with potential. Businesses, both local and international, were keen to invest. Migrants were attracted by the quality of life, relative safety, climate, and opportunities. Most of the country benefited from clement weather and fertile land, and the nature that surrounded the cities, the beaches, the jungles, the biodiversity, was without equal in variety and beauty. As I was growing up, new buildings, museums, and theaters were being constructed all around the capital. It was a hustling, modern metropolis. There were daily flights from Caracas to New York, Miami, London, Frankfurt, Rome, and Madrid. Even the Concorde made regular flights from Paris to the Maiquetía airport.
The tremendous energy of the place was the harvest of a crop sown several decades before. In 1946 Venezuela decided to welcome and support displaced Europeans who could not return to their homes after the war. Tens of thousands of refugees, mostly from southern and central Europe, arrived in Venezuela, to be followed in later decades by many more escaping the political turmoil of countries on the continent.
As a child, I was aware that my father, together with his older brother, Lotar, had migrated to Venezuela because their country had been broken by war. I am not sure how I knew this, as it was certainly not something my father discussed. His focus was always on life now, not that which had gone before. By the time I came along over two decades later, any vestige of refugee hardship had entirely vanished. On the surface, all that was incongruous about him was his pale skin, his heavy Eastern European accent, and his obsession with timekeeping and punctuality.
On arrival in Venezuela, he had started a paint factory with Lotar. My father had prospered in Venezuela. His drive, knowledge of chemicals, and wide-spanning interests had led him to seize the opportunities that the country offered. By the time I was born, he was a leading industrialist and intellectual. Billboards around the city advertised his businesses: paints, building supplies, juices, yogurts. People read his newspapers. Every hardware shop bore the logo of his paint factory, Montana. He also headed charitable institutions, spearheaded educational programs and was a patron of the arts. My mother came from a European family who had migrated to Venezuela in 1611, and their marriage firmly ensconced my father in Venezuelan society. In 1965 a writer named Bernard Taper wrote a lengthy article entitled “Dispatches from Caracas” in The New Yorker:
The Neumanns are considered prime examples of a breed of industrialist new to the Venezuelan scene for they simultaneously exhibit technical competence, entrepreneurial drive and a sense of social responsibility—an almost unknown combination here.
He then described my father:
A vigorous, well-built man of forty-three, Hans has close cropped gray hair, alert green eyes, a bent nose (it was broken in a youthful boxing match), and a mouth rather more sensitive and expressive than one might expect to accompany a broken nose and a decisive personality. He is a lover of art and has a splendid collection of modern paintings and sculpture. In addition, he is the president of the Museo de Bellas Artes, and has done much to foster the development of Art in this country…
Hans Neumann and Maria Cristina Anzola in Caracas, c. 1980
My father had filled every part of our house with art. Every wall in every room opened up his collection to visitors; even the large garden was dotted with sculptures. There were beautiful artworks by well-known European masters alongside some lesser-known young Latin American artists. Peppered among the gentler pieces was disturbing surrealist and expressionist art, pictures of fragmented bodies, deconstructed landscapes, and even one of warring body parts. There were sculptures, small and huge, of naked women. I remember the shocked silence of a particularly pious mother of a friend from my Catholic school who had come to my birthday party. She shielded her daughter’s eyes with a blue balloon as she led her toward the door, past an immense bronze of a nude woman with legs apart that leaned against a hammock in the entrance hall. I do not remember that girl ever coming to play at my house again.
When I was very young, I wanted to be a detective or, even better, a spy. I often said I wanted to be a doctor, but I think I was just trying to sound clever, as the sight of blood has always made me feel faint. The reality is that I wanted to solve mysteries. To further this ambition, at age eight, I started a spy club with my maternal cousins and a few friends. We had read and been inspired by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. We were unfazed by the fact that we lived in the tropics and not in rainy England. We called it the Mysterious Boot Club. My friend Carolina and I had chosen the name carefully. Carolina, a year older than I, was one of the best students in her class at the British School. We had known each other and got along not because our families were friends but because she understood, like I did, the gravity of our investigative endeavors. We had initially thought of naming it the Mysterious Footprint, but that seemed too bookish and obvious for a club of young detectives. We did not want our enterprise to be dismissed as childish—we needed to be taken seriously by the other children and, more important, by the adults. Too many pages in books with mystery stories were filled with enigmatic footprints in the mud. So we decided to call it after the boot that had made the puzzling footprints—it seemed better somehow, less silly: both more cryptic and more worldly.
Nestled along the garden’s northernmost wall, surrounded by trees cackling with parrots and the odd wild monkey or sloth, sat a large disused kennel: the official clubhouse of the Mysterious Boot Club. I had asked my father to give us a tin of white paint and some thick brushes so we could make it look the part. He had obliged and we duly decorated the kennel. Carolina had the best handwriting and she fastidiously inked the letters CBM (Club Bota Misteriosa) in bold black permanent marker on a part of the outside wall that was protected from the rain. Every Saturday before the meetings, we would crawl through the low doorway next to the letters. Equipped with a small broom and a box of tissues that we had borrowed from the supply cupboard, we swept the cement floor, cleared the cobwebs, and attempted to shoo away the caterpillars, ants, and bugs that had sought shelter in its tin walls. Wooden crates served as bookshelves, stools, and a table. The place was stuffed with mystery books and notepads half-filled with our attempts at finding enigmas to spice up our mundane and protected lives.
In the absence of substantive mysteries with which to wrestle, I had occupied myself in composing bylaws that set out the hierarchy and objectives of the club. Given that role, I was unsurprisingly appointed president. The two most sensible and organized members of our group, Carolina and my cousin Rodrigo, were the vice presidents. We had decided that all prospective members should undertake IQ and physical agility tests. The intelligence test I had torn from a Reader’s Digest left lying around the kitchen, and the agility test consisted mostly of running ahead of the not very furious dogs with pockets full of kibble before climbing a tree. We had to bend the rules a little sometimes to ensure that anyone invited could belong. A disappointed aunt heard about our bylaws and coerced us into accepting my youngest cousin, Patricia, who tended to bite when angry and was too young to read, let alone pass, any written test. My parents were adamant that I behave in a kind and inclusive manner, so the entrance requirements were malleable and existed principally to give the members a certain aura of prestige.
On those Saturday mornings, we would swap books and collect pocket money in a washed-out mayonnaise jar with a slit on the lid, for club supplies and to help an old people’s home down the road. We would all bring notebooks and spy on the people who lived, visited, or worked in my house. We would set one another tasks in half-hour slots and then gather at the clubhouse to drink mango or watermelon juice and read out our reports in serious tones.
The bulletins were mostly tedious. We all, of course, pretended that they were riveting. Oftentimes, we had to spy while taking turns guarding the tiny biting cousin. Carolina observed that the gardener repeatedly picked up leaves from the same patch in the garden, over and over, week after week. It was clear to her, she solemnly reported, toying with a dark curl of her long hair, that he was simply killing time. My older cousin Eloy, who had big blue eyes and a musical voice, read in great detail his notes about a cleaner whom he had watched dusting and who had suspiciously moved books from one library shelf to another. He had also seen her as she switched around LPs in my father’s color-coded collection. Rock and roll (alphabetically arranged by band with red tape on the spine) had been exchanged with opera (alphabetically arranged by composer with yellow tape). Eloy could not detect whether this had been an act of playfulness, defiance, or absentmindedness. He said what we all knew: when my father spotted the displacement, he would be irate. My father’s constant desire for organization was mystifying and slightly unnerving to all the members of the Mysterious Boot Club.
We would ask everyone who visited or worked in the house if they had seen anything out of the ordinary. Months would pass and our gatherings continued, in the main, identical. We diligently monitored the activity in the house and patiently recorded every mundane detail. We would encounter small puzzles, gather, and whisper excitedly only to realize with abject disappointment that, after a few queries, all was too easily explained.
I remember once feeling exhilarated, during school holidays, when we found a red waxy rind in the rubbish after the worried cook had complained that an entire ball of Edam cheese was missing. We ineffectively dusted the rind for fingerprints and patrolled with an ink pad that I had borrowed from my father’s desk, demanding that everyone at the house cooperate and be fingerprinted. It turned out that Maria, the Galician lady who was missing two fingers and came to do the daily ironing, had skipped breakfast and lunch that day, was famished, and had a passion for the imported yellow cheese. She confessed wearily just as Carolina and I asked to press her remaining fingers against the ink pad. There always seemed to be a straightforward explanation for such puzzles. All of us children yearned desperately for a real conundrum against which to test our skills.
Then one day my cousin, after what seemed like hundreds of unmemorable reports, the gentle and pragmatic Rodrigo, relayed that my father had moved a strange gray box from a locked drawer in the watch workshop to a cupboard in the library.
Quite why that particular bulletin caught my attention, I cannot say. Perhaps it was because Rodrigo told us that my father had been acting awkwardly and seemed to move more slowly than he should, considering he was just carrying a cardboard box. He reported that it seemed to contain something heavy or precious. After my father left the library, Rodrigo had opened the cupboard but had not dared touch the box.
I did not disclose the slightest interest in the incident to my fellow spies. I am not sure why. Perhaps it was because it involved my father.
That afternoon, as soon as the spies left after their lunch and swim, I went to look for the box. I found it easily enough. It was dark gray and made of board and cloth. It sat below the shelf where the checkers board and the wooden chess set were kept. It was not concealed, it just lay there inside a cupboard in which it did not belong. I remember thinking at the time that it may be filled with broken watches. I moved it and, contrary to Rodrigo’s intelligence, was struck by how very light it was.
I sat on the carpet in front of the bookcase and lifted the lid with the tips of trembling fingers. I sensed that this was the mystery we had been waiting for. The box contained only five or six papers and cards. On the top was a long-expired Venezuelan passport, much smaller than the ones I had seen. It was dated 1956 and bore a picture of my father as I knew him, smiling and already wrinkled, with glasses balanced on a boxer’s nose. Underneath the passport lay other documents, thin and fading.
They were printed in a foreign language. The paper seemed delicate and old. I lifted each sheet with my two hands and placed it on the lid of the open box. Then, at the bottom of the box, I saw it. A picture of my father’s face on a pink card. He was much younger than I had ever seen him, with no broken nose, no wrinkles or white hair. Still I had no doubt that it was him—I recognized the eyes. His lips seemed to be about to smile, but his eyes stared out at me with an acute and questioning intensity.
At the bottom of his picture, below his chin, almost covering his tie, was a stamp. I was too young to know much history, but I recognized the man on the stamp. I had no doubt he represented evil, and the sight of my father’s face above it made no sense. I tried to find more clues.
I could see that it was some form of identification. I looked for my father’s name, but it was not there. Instead, the card seemed to belong to someone called Jan Šebesta. It was dated October 1943 and was valid until October 1946. On the reverse, the bearer’s date of birth was recorded as March 11, 1921. I knew my father’s birthday was February 9, 1921.
The identity card I found as a girl in Caracas
I do not remember much else from that moment other than being terrified. I had to find my mother. My father was not called Hans. He was lying about his name and about his date of birth. The evidence was undeniable, printed on an official looking document. I ran down the long checkered granite terrace, past the sofas and armchairs and the enormous bronze and limestone sculptures. I flew through the white hallway, thinking then that the eyes of the Botero portrait of my father watched me as I ran.
I prayed I would not see my father before I found my mother. I could hear music in my parents’ bedroom. My mother was sitting on the daybed in their room, holding the libretto from a cassette box and mouthing the words to a loud Rigoletto. I threw myself at her. I sobbed and shook. I remember that she held me and then carried me to the stereo to lower the volume. Her hair brushed my cheek as she asked if I had hurt myself again, playing with the dogs.
“No. No. Mami, no. He is not who he says he is. It is not him.”
“Papi,” I said. “He is pretending, I have proof. He is not Hans, his real name is Jan, Mami. He wasn’t born on February ninth, he is lying. He is an impostor.”
I don’t remember anything else from that day.
The identity card, with the stamp of Hitler and its photograph of my father, jolted me to a sharp and unexpected focus. It brought to the fore every other tiny fissure in my understanding, all the minuscule silences and unanswered questions that had been invisible before. It was then that I first sensed that hidden beneath my father’s strength and triumphs were shadows cast by nameless horrors so terrible they had to remain unuttered.
The averted eyes, the pauses a second too long, the eschewing of reminiscence had until then passed mostly unnoticed. Finding that photograph in the box was the pivot. It marked the exact moment when the unfilled spaces, the cracks in the narrative, emerged.
And slowly, very, very slowly, I realized that in those gaps, buried and interwoven within the silences and minute instances of discomposure, lay the real story.
The next time I looked, the box had been moved from the library. I never discovered where it was kept. Much later, my mother told me that she never, in her many years of living with my father, saw that box. Decades would pass before I found it again.
There were hints before. Peppered across my memories were moments that jarred, instances of disquiet. The cracks had been there all along. I remember when I was about seven, after a nightmare, going down the corridor to find refuge in my parents’ bed. It was something I rarely did, not because I did not have nightmares, but because my father slept naked and seemed irritated to have to put pajamas on under his dressing gown when I showed up. So I remember quite distinctly the few times when I did sneak in.
That night, after some comforting, I dozed off wedged between him and my mother. I woke to hear my father screaming, desperate, in a language that I did not understand. My mother reached out to him over me and hugged us both. She stroked his arm, his white hair, and murmured: “Handa, it’s okay, you are home in Caracas. You are here with us. It’s a nightmare.”
My father sat up nervous and sweaty and left the room, almost at a run. He had seemed in so much pain. My mother whispered, “Don’t worry, little mouse. He too has nightmares.”
“What about?” I asked.
“He had a hard time during the war in Europe. But that was a long time ago.” And then she left to go after him.
I curled up on my father’s side of the bed, put my head on my hands, and stared at the velvet fabric that covered the walls. I recall thinking at the time that if he was having nightmares, whatever was causing them could not have taken place so long ago. And why did my mother have to remind him that he was in Caracas? Where else could he be?
My eyes rested on the picture in the faded leather frame that sat alone on my father’s mirrored bedside table. The picture was dark and faded; it was hard to tell exactly what was there. It was the only picture of them in a house filled with photographs: my father’s parents seated at a table, not really looking at the camera or at each other. The table was covered with a white cloth, and on it was a newspaper, some glasses, and a bottle of wine. My grandmother was looking down at something in her hands, almost smiling at it. Perhaps she was knitting. My grandfather was also looking down, a cigarette held in between the long fingers of his right hand. On his left, he was holding something that looked like a pencil. I remember thinking that despite my grandmother’s expression, they both looked sad. Sad and old. Distant from each other and from the photographer. In the graying picture, they seemed far removed from my life too, certainly from our life that was filled with sunlight and bright colors. I remember that night I felt scared. Scared by them, scared by what I did not know about them, and scared for my father.
The only photograph of my grandparents kept in our home in Caracas
When I was a child, my father seemed ancient and inaccessible. He was busy, always in meetings, unfailingly doing something important. I was desperate to be close to him, to find ways of connecting. We solved word and logic puzzles together. He talked to me about politics and the social inequalities of the society we lived in. He enjoyed debate and intellectual discussion. I remember when I was nine, he had been watching the BBC dramatization of I, Claudius. Keen to discuss it with him, I read the first in the series of Robert Graves’s books, which I found on a shelf in our library. It was, I can now see, an unusual choice for a young girl who liked Enid Blyton. I felt so proud as my father tugged at one of my plaits and looked down approvingly when I told him I had finished the book. I recall the moment he announced to my mother at dinner that night that I was clearly very clever and that I had just been discussing I, Claudius with him. I am not sure that I made head or tail of the book and can certainly not recall any part of the story now, but I had read it furiously from cover to cover. I just remember the joy of having impressed him.
My father and me in his study, c. 1978
When I had first told him I was setting up the spy club, he was enthralled. He suggested I prepare a diagram of how we would divide responsibilities. He particularly liked it when I said that we would give everyone a voice but have a structure that would assure clear leadership in case of an impasse. I had heard him discuss the management structure of one of his companies when we had been spying. I repeated what I had heard to give the impression that I had a precocious aptitude for business and management.
“Your father is so brilliant,” “A true Renaissance man,” “You are so lucky,” people would say without exception. I often wished he were a little less brilliant and spent a bit more time watching football matches on television like other fathers. When you are a child, you do not want to be different. You do not want to have a family who stands out or parents whom your friends talk about. I already had an impossibly beautiful mother, the kind of beautiful that people would stop in the street and stare at. People spoke about her beauty, and that was bad enough.
Then there was my father.
People consistently spoke about my father in hushed tones. Twenty years older than my mother, he was almost fifty when I was born and utterly unlike the fathers of my friends. He seemed so much busier, so much more complicated. As I grew older, I had to call his secretary to ask for a meeting if I wanted to have a proper chat during the week. He was so much more serious than my friends’ parents. So much more wrinkled, with that pale skin and those deep circles under his eyes. And then there was that day when he picked me up from school and all the other girls in my fourth-grade class sniggered when one announced, “Ariana—your grandfather is here.”
I remember my disappointment when people said I looked like him. I desperately wanted to be petite with a turned-up nose, to be delicately exquisite, like my mother. I did not want the pallor, the under-eye circles, and the round, enormous green eyes.
It was clear that there were things that my father could not talk about. This was evident from the nightmares, the reticence. These boundaries made him even less accessible. His Spanish was thickly accented. Whenever he addressed his brother, Lotar, his first wife, Míla, or my half brother Miguel, who was twenty-three years my senior, my father would inevitably speak in effortless Czech. Languages came easily to me and I wanted to learn it. I coveted both the challenge and the bond it might forge between us. “No, no. It would be a waste of time. Czech is a useless language,” he said the only time I asked, in a tone so firm and hostile that it was obvious that I should not ask again.
Yet there were moments when, speaking Spanish, he was endearing and vulnerable. He repeatedly used the wrong word. Sometimes he would say a phrase that would make sense but sound odd. I remember him apologizing once when he had a cold: “My nose is jogging,” he said, his expression stern as he produced his handkerchief.
My father in 1993, with his portrait by Colombian artist Fernando Botero
The last time I saw my father, then very frail and infirm, he had a runny nose. “It’s that jogging nose of yours again,” I mumbled through tears, his and mine. I had locked my green eyes on his, and with the hand he could still use, he squeezed mine because he could not speak clearly. Despite everything, we both laughed. I was living in London and was five months pregnant with my first child. I had answered a late-night call from his doctor in Caracas saying that I must come at once. My husband and I boarded a plane that same day.
In 1996, Corimon, the international conglomerate that had grown from my father and his brother’s paint factory, Montana, almost completely disintegrated. My father had retired from the business five years earlier but had kept all his shares as a vote of confidence in the management. After the collapse, caused by economic headwinds and strategic errors, only a shell was left, which had been taken over by banks. My father had worked for four decades to build an empire that encompassed many industries across the Americas. He felt immensely proud of the publicly traded company and personally responsible to its hundreds of employees and shareholders. The distress at watching his life’s work disappear was enormous but it had not stopped him. His spirit remained undaunted though the blow on his body was severe; the stress probably brought on his first massive stroke a few months after the debacle. My father had then defied all odds by living for a further five years. Although wheelchair-bound, he stayed active enough to continue to work, write, marry for a third time, divorce again, and establish a new daily newspaper in opposition to the Chavez regime. Regardless of the initial dire prognosis and for the years that followed, every morning at six forty-five my father ground through vocal exercises, swam laps aided with a float, and then traipsed up and down the checkered corridor with a walking frame three times a day.
In 2001, my father suffered a series of further strokes that weakened him and paralyzed his legs completely. Despite the setback, after we arrived in Caracas following the late-night summons, he rallied once more. We spent a week together in June that year at Perros Furibundos mostly chatting about politics and technology. We watched spy films as well as Cabaret on DVDs. I remember his nurse, a stern and spindly woman, poking her head through the door, bewildered as the three of us sang along to “Willkommen.” It was not until my husband and I were back in London a few months later, on the morning of Sunday, September 9, three weeks before I was due to give birth to my first child, that I received another call. Through the crackly static I heard the voice of Alba, my father’s trusted assistant of over twenty years.
“He had more strokes last night. We brought him to the hospital, he is alive, but there is nothing to be done. The doctor wants to speak to you.”
I remember being struck by the doctor’s firm and unfussy tone. As next of kin, I had to decide when to disconnect the machines. He explained that the strokes had been so damaging that the doctors were keeping my father’s heart beating artificially. The scans showed there was no brain stem function left. Total brain death, he called it. He used the medical terminology, unvarnished and brutal, that flows easily from those for whom the cessation of life is commonplace. The doctor knew I could not travel. He explained that he wanted me to take some time to think and let him know when I had reached my decision. Aware that I was absorbing few of his words, I agreed to call him back.
I dialed my mother in New York, who had remained close to my father even though they had divorced decades before. She reminded me that my father had never wanted to be dependent on machines. Losing the use of his arm and legs six years before had been arduous enough. Yet, with his capacity to think intact, he had battled on. If he could not use his brain, he would not want to go on. I had just needed to hear my mother say it. I made the call to the doctor in Caracas. “It might not be immediate,” he warned. “His instinct throughout has been to survive.”
Half an hour later came a sobbing phone call from Alba to say that he was gone.
My father was cremated on September 11, 2001. As I watched the tragedy of the attacks unfold, I grieved more privately too. I could not attend my father’s funeral. My pregnancy meant that I had to wait until my son was born before flying. It was some months later that I traveled to our house in Caracas.
We held a memorial service late one January morning under the shade of the ceiba tree. My husband addressed the gathered group and read Dylan Thomas’s famous poem that ends with the stanza:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
That afternoon, when friends, family, and colleagues had left, I walked into my father’s study. Everything looked immaculate, exactly as it had months before. My father’s computer was on his desk, and to its left, still on its stand, was his pipe.
The last moments I had spent with him in this room were on the day I had flown back to London. He had been in a wheelchair, smoking that pipe, held with his only mobile hand; a glass of Coca-Cola and ice with a blue and pink paper straw before him on the desk. His desk had been covered in books, papers, and letters, and every drawer had been bursting with files. My father had compulsively collected things. He was a collector of watches and clocks, books, medieval objects, paintings, sculptures. He cataloged everything. Every single thing he had ever bought was listed in files by category, with the pertinent receipts and history arranged chronologically. Every paper that anyone had sent him, every note or memo, personal or professional, no matter how trivial, was filed either under the person’s name or by subject, within a range of dates. There were entire rooms in his office dedicated to his files. A long wall in his study was also packed with filing cupboards. I expected to spend days going through all his papers, sorting out what to keep and what to throw away.
Now, in the silence of this study, I pulled open the top drawer of his desk to start the task of sorting his papers. There was nothing in it. I opened drawer after drawer in the room only to find them entirely empty. I walked to the terrace to ask Alba where she had placed his files and I found her talking to Eric, our sage family lawyer.
“Your father made me throw them all away after you visited in June,” she said, her eyes full of tears. “He asked me to clear everything but a few of the files. He didn’t want you to be overwhelmed with his things.”
As we entered the study, she pointed to a cupboard in the corner behind his leather chair. It housed the only drawer in the room that was still full. On the top lay a yellowing folder holding every note that I had ever written to him. It contained an embarrassingly bad poem I had composed for him as a teenager that began with I have your eyes. There were various notes and cards, most of them from my years at boarding school. Beneath this was another thick folder with dozens of letters and notes from my mother. Everything she had ever written to him, during their romance, their marriage, and even after their divorce, was there. He had asked that all other personal files and romantic notes be shredded, Alba explained. She then hugged me and she left me to look through the papers.
There would have been many folders filled with notes and letters, as my father had through the years been involved with many women. He knew that I would be the one to sort through his papers once he was gone. Erasing entire aspects of his past made his departure more real, but I was grateful for this gesture of kindness.
Underneath the pale yellow file of love letters, my father had left the box with his identity card from the war. It was the same box that I had found as a child detective, with that photograph of my father as a young man with intense and hopeful eyes and that enigmatic name, Jan Šebesta.
Only this time, the box was crammed with papers.