The Butcher’s Portrait
by Gustavo Valitutti
Translated by Carmen Ruggero
Amsel, a cartoonist, arrived at the military prison at six in the morning, as planned. His visit was on that day’s priority list.
“Third floor — someone will take you there,” the guard at the door spit out his words while another guard pointed to the white marble stairs leading to the cells.
Amsel followed the soldier in silence; his gaze downcast, his shoulders heavy. His seemed not to be thinking, but his fists were tight as rocks. He walked through very long, gray corridors, before coming to a solid iron door, which the guards opened to let him enter.
Behind thick iron bars, a portly man sat behind a heavy wood table. His back was broad; his shoulders carried an air of arrogance. He smiled. His mouth was extremely small, and his expression, frightful.
“Are you Amsel?” asked the prisoner, running his tongue between his lips. “I’ve heard good things about you, and of course, I have taken the trouble to look at your work carefully. But did I say ‘trouble’? I apologize: it has been a pleasure.”
“I’ve also heard about you,” Amsel responded. He was a man advanced in years, but his air was jovial. “So one could say that I know your ‘work’ quite well,” he said, drawing quotation marks with his fingers, “but I cannot say it has been a pleasure. If any kind of justice comes out of this war,” he added, feeling his heartbeat in his throat, “you ought to be shot soon.”
Amsel removed his dark overcoat and hung it on a coat hanger near the door.
“Don’t get your hopes up about that,” said the prisoner with a vile sneer. “The trial has not taken place yet.” The Butcher, as he was nicknamed during the war, spread his heavy arms over his head, pretending to stretch without losing sight of the cartoonist, who watched him intently.
“The trial?” Amsel asked, ironically. “And how do you think that can change things?” He removed the sketch pad from his portfolio, noting the Butcher’s avidity.
“By God, that changes everything. I only followed orders,” the Butcher spoke without taking his eyes away from the artist’s hands. “I thought the Germans would bring order to Europe, yes, but does that make me guilty of something?”
“Well, that is exactly what each and every one of the inhabitants of the city has said,” Ansel affirmed.
“They are resentful. They don’t want to admit that I protected them the best way I could,” the Butcher responded with touch of sadness. “Somebody had to negotiate with the Nazis; they wanted everything, and I gave them... “
“What they needed.” Amsel raised his voice and drew the first line of his illustration.
The Butcher made himself comfortable in the chair, careful not to make obvious what he actually made obvious by raising his head trying to catch a glimpse of the drawing. “They told me you have sketched hundreds of convicts and assassins, many of whom were condemned to death. I saw your rendition of that assassin in Ostrava, about ten years ago.”
“Eleven, to be exact,” Amsel, already immersed in his work, corrected him.
“Yes, I remember that angular face breaking through the shadows, the crucifix behind him because he had been thrown out of a seminary some years earlier, but I don’t remember why.”
“He had killed a cat and gutted it for no reason. Its ears had disappeared.”
“He had devoured them.”
“Yes, that’s what he said.”
“And how will you portray me? Will I also break from the shadows, or will I perhaps walk on the snow-covered streets of Prague wearing my uniform, as on one of my famous rounds?”
The artist kept silent. He observed the prisoner at great length, penciled some strokes on the sketch pad, and looked up at him, again.
“Come on, what do you say? I can give you my opinion. We can do this together. It’s not as if I wanted to give you professional advice, but who could blame you for wanting a little help? I am a very complex character.”
A very long silence came between both men.
“Do you know who the political cartoonist was?” Amsel asked without raising his eyes. “The politicians’ caricatures, and all that.”
“The political jokes?” the Butcher asked, glad to have reestablished conversation. “Are you talking about the offensive cartoons that your newspaper published before the war? Don’t misunderstand me, I agree with political dissent, including Communism, as was the case, but I believe it must be done with respect. Yes, if there is a lesson we have — should have — learned from the war, it is indeed respect. Is that not the truth?”
“Don’t you know what happened to that cartoonist?” Amsel pressed, while drawing on his sketch pad.
“No,” the Butcher answered dryly.
Amsel moved his hand quickly to put the final touches on his drawing.
“Why is that so important, what happened to one person in particular? Besides, I dare say that he is easily replaceable. Unlike you,” said the Butcher, thinking his compliment would be valued.
“Perhaps... perhaps many wouldn’t notice the difference,” said Amsel.
“I am not one of them. Your work is different, superior, if you allow my opinion. I think you are an artist. Your friend, however, was a simple illustrator. Is he dead?”
Amsel penciled one last stroke, took a couple of steps back, and smiled.
“That’s exactly the expression I wanted to capture,” he announced almost joyous, and noticed the Butcher also seemed cheerful.
“Let me see it. I will see it in the morning paper, anyway; right?
“He did not die,” said Amsel. “You still don’t understand, do you?
“Who did not die? what are you talking about?” the Butcher asked, holding on to the black iron bars, suspecting something was very twisted.
“The cartoonist did not die,” Amsel raised his eyes and nailed his gaze on the Butcher. “I am he. Regrettably, our political cartoonist did die. The man you would have wanted to immortalize you. He really helped us sell newspapers. But do not worry; although I doubt I can walk in my colleague’s shoes, I believe I can do you justice.”
“You are lying, I know you are lying,” said the Butcher. His face was flushed, and his eyes moistened. He squeezed the iron bars in his hands as if trying to break them.
“No, I am not lying to you, but don’t concern yourself. I believe that I have managed to capture your expression perfectly.” He distanced himself from the drawing, and then looked at the Butcher, mocking him. “Yes, you, with a weeping boy’s face, your dull eyes, and dense eyebrows, remind me of that poor chimpanzee I saw in the zoo years before the war.”
“I warn you!” the Butcher roared, but he did not continue.
“Yes, I’m listening to you,” said Amsel. “You know, I have a great memory and I have seen too many photographs of you, through the years. So... accept my gift,” and he offered the piece of paper to the Butcher.
The Butcher snatched it and looked at it — furious. “You would not dare publish this!”
“What? Don’t you like it?”
“I am going to kill you!”
“Perhaps... in your dreams. But don’t forget to look at the morning paper.”