It’s Not Every Day That a God Is Born

By Álvaro Enrigue
Translated by Brendan Riley

Augustus, Caesar Augustus, knows that Jupiter is not watching him when he pauses at the foot of the steps leading to the Senate chamber to count each one; there are seven, one for each hill. A wind, still cold and damp after blowing through the Forum, lashes his calves. The gardens have already thickened with flowers although the heavy heat of late spring is many weeks away. He rubs a shoulder, more to recover his confidence than to ward off the chill shivering through him as he pauses within the ominous shadow cast by the Senate. Despite it being already midday, the square is deserted and silent. It is the sort of peace he most enjoys: the artificial kind, peace imposed.

In Nazareth, at the very edge of the Empire, Mary is spinning thread.

The prince holds his breath and ascends the steps as quickly as his imperial dignity will allow. A group of people awaiting him in the corridor begins to applaud. He knows that they are bureaucrats planted there expressly for the purpose; even so, the spot is an uncomfortable one. He turns his head to take in his whole entourage with a single glance. On the fourth step he sees that all the doorways into the chamber are properly manned. He raises a hand in greeting and, as he does so, verifies the number of praetors guarding him: four above, five below, and two posted at each one of the building’s corners; there is also a group of five in each doorway; a total of 32 soldiers. Those who cheer him barely number six. He releases the pent-up air in his lungs and nods his head in a sign of gratitude. The acclamations do not stop, however, they grow in volume; two particularly unpleasant old men proclaim his divinity. He gestures with one of his hands and all the guards at his back gather in a tight circle around him. Those above form a glaringly powerful barrier to hold back the bureaucrats that have perhaps not made a particularly lavish show of enthusiasm. Just before crossing the threshold of the curia he turns and says: I am only your prince.

Judea is drier than ever during the first weeks of spring. The evenings are truly warm. Walking to his workshop after talking with a customer, Joseph remembers his father. He runs his tongue over his lips, strokes his face. He stops and looks into the distance for a moment, then turns and walks over to the fountain, thirsty for a drink of water before returning to work. He walks slowly, as if in pain, then, before crouching down to pick up the drinking gourd, runs his hand over his face again; he can almost feel Yahweh staring at the back of his neck. The day before, he decided to formalize his relationship with Mary.

Inside the basilica Augustus feels at ease. The hue and cry remind him of the days when nobody knew how many wars were being waged, and he walked among the people without fear. Some of the senators — especially those from the most distant provinces — keep a respectful silence when he enters. A few acclaim him. He counts those present as he advances. The majority, old Romans, continue their own conversations, directing him a cordial gesture as he passes before them.

Mary continues spinning. She never knew her father-in-law, Jacob: he died before she was born. Joseph had often talked about him. After the Council required him to take her as his wife — no one else wanted her, a poor orphan when she came to be consecrated at the temple — he did so obsessively, as if in service to some crazed urge.

Many years before — almost thirty — when Joseph, with great difficulty, announced to Jacob his first wedding, the old man replied: You already know what I think, it would be better if you followed in your brother’s footsteps and retreated to one of the brotherhoods in the desert: it would be better for our seed to die out. They were in the carpentry shop. The old man wiped the sweat from his brow and kept sawing a piece of wood, his son turned back to his own work. After a while Joseph got up the nerve to insist: I have no vocation for that. Think it over well, you’re no longer a child and you know the auguries; it’s simply not the same for us to have descendants. I’ve already thought it over. Then why are you asking me. A few months later, on his deathbed, Jacob returned to the matter when he was alone with Joseph: Promise me that under no circumstance will you allow your wife to give birth in the city of David. For generations the descendants of the Jewish king had preferred to not call Bethlehem by its proper name.

The prince ascends the two steps of the shrine from where he presides over the sessions, and surveys the assembly before slowly sitting down. Shall we begin? asks a patrician. He raises his eyebrows and responds: How strange, the southerners are late. Loud laughter throughout the chamber indicates that everyone is now listening to him. He waits a little and then imposes silence with a gesture. Mary keeps spinning. Augustus says: The Empire has grown beyond what we suspected and now we do not even know from whom to collect taxes. Joseph dips the gourd into the basin. Another god, a new one, neither the carpenter’s nor the distant prince’s, ties a knot. Joseph feels a chill as the icy water drips onto the crown of his head. Augustus asks: Why don’t we take a census? Mary’s distaff clatters to the floor.

Álvaro Enrigue (born 1969) is the award winning author of four novels and two books of short stories. He has been translated into multiple languages, including German, English, and French. He lives in New York and is married to the writer Valeria Luiselli. In 2007, he was selected as one of the most influential contemporary writers in Spanish by the Hay Festival’s Bogotá 39. In 2009, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Residence Fellowship at the Bellagio Centre to finish the manuscript of his novel, Decencia (Decency). In 2011 he became a fellow at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars of the New York Public Library, where he began working on his fifth novel, Muerte súbita (Sudden Death). Muerte súbita was awarded both the Herralde Novel Prize in Spain, and the Elena Poniatowska Iberoamerican Novel Prize in Mexico. It is due to be published in the United States in 2015 by Riverhead Books.

Brendan Riley (born 1966) has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His reviews and translations have appeared in Numéro Cinq, Three Percent, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, New California Writing 2013, Bookslut, Asymptote, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco Moreno, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue, which was named a TLS Best Book 0f 2013. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.