MY UNCLE JACINTO

ANDRES LASZLO SR.

My Uncle Jacinto was not only a paper book that sold very well but also became a blockbuster movie, featuring Pablito Calvo and Antonio Sica. It is a book for children of all ages and depicts a special day in the lives of down-and-nearly-out ex-bullfighter Jacinto and his streetwise nephew, Pepote. Honour is one antagonist, crime is another, booze a third and separation the fourth (and sort of the common denominator). For a long time things look pretty bleak: Jacinto is down and out, he is broke, he has been ridiculed in front of what we feel is the half of Madrid, and he has lost his main reason to live, his honour, in front of the boy who is the only important person in his life, and who is about to be taken from him. Don’t be daft, of course, it has a happy ending, sort of, maybe, if you choose to read it that way. Buy the book or Buy the movie.    VIDEO

The story was first published in Spanish 1956 (Mi Tio Jacinto) and has since been published in nine languages. A major French newspaper wrote something like "Nothing like this has been written since ‎Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince." Starring Pablito Calvo and Antonio Cica it became a blockbuster movie. Andres Laszlo Sr.’s close friend Ladislao Vajda did the directing, and the movie allegedly was in the discussion for nomination to “Best Foreign Film” at the 1956 Oscars and it won Silver Bears in Berlin. It is often ranked among the five best Spanish movies in festivals. The old book cover was designed by Eduardo Vicente and the new by Arturo Samaniego (the painting is titled “Torero”).

This adaptation by Andres Laszlo Jr. (the writer’s son) is 20% longer than the first English text (that was published by Random House, but is now out of print) and has been made on the basis of a translation made by Andres Laszlo Jr. and Cymbeline Nunez. The adaptation has been inspired by The Challenge: a much more radical adaptation (also by Andres Laszlo Jr.) where bullfighting becomes boxing, Madrid becomes Cape Town, La Quinta becomes Mandela Park, the 1940s becomes the 2010s, and 19,000 words becomes 75,000. Buy The Challenge.

MY UNCLE JACINTO

Andres Laszlo Sr.

Adaptation by Andres Laszlo, Jr.

Part I

The rumble of a plane approaching the landing strip at the nearby airfield of Barajas Airport awoke Pepote. As he sat up, still sleepy, he swept his unkempt hair out of his forehead, rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, and got up from the narrow bench that served him as a bed.

The daylight that penetrated through the cracks of the shack's walls told him that it was morning. He reached for the alarm clock that was standing on the shelf. The old clock hadn't made a sound for many years unless violently shaken, and its single hand pointed at a time long passed.

The boy looked in the direction where the roar of the engines was gradually dying away; he moved the thin metal hand of the alarm clock so as to point at nine. Then he pulled on his trousers, slipped into his shoes, and started to go about his daily chores.

He took the milk pitcher off its hook on the wall, removed the lid and sniffed suspiciously. He immediately regretted his curiosity and, with a grimace, he put the lid back on.

He was just about to leave when he realized that he had no money. Deftly but without success, he searched the pockets of his uncle’s jacket and trousers that lay on a chair in the back of the room. He peered around in the darkness and – after having run his hands under the rolled-up horse blanket that served as his uncle’s pillow – he had the sad look of somebody acknowledging defeat.

Again he removed the milk pitcher from its hook and opened the door. It was starting to rain, and his face lit up. Pepote loved rain, and it was all the more welcome as rain this time of the year was almost unheard of.

Soon he could hear the water starting to move along the ditch up on the high ground above the back of the shack. The ditch served as an invisible border between their little lot and the high ground above that in some distant past was said to have served as a warehouse for construction material.

He cleaned the pitcher and was just about to clean himself when suddenly he noticed a little rivulet that had started to pour through the wall of the dike and down towards the lot; a memory of Pepote’s previous venture into hydro-engineering.

Pepote started gathering stones and rubble and, though often and severely warned not to, he began to block the water’s flow and instead enlarging the opening of his diversion. His engineering efforts immediately paid off, and the “rivulet” swiftly swelled and gathered momentum, pouring down onto the small piece of land that surrounded their little shack.

Then he ran back into the house from which he emerged a few moments later, holding an old and wicked looking kitchen knife, two pieces of board that had once formed part of the walls, and a wooden spoon. In no time at all, he transformed these items into a waterwheel that started spinning gaily as soon as his deft hands had fixated the wheel's axis between some stones on each side of the rapidly growing redirected stream.

But then the rain started pouring down even heavier than before, much heavier, and he could spend no more time admiring his work. Instead, he gathered up the pitcher, and he quickly set off for the row of houses that were located a hundred yards or so away; towards the bakery, the dairy, and the challenging and unpleasant tasks that he knew now lay ahead of him.

*

The Baker was sitting in the back of his shop, deeply engrossed in reading the morning papers while his wife was watching how the rain lashed into the front window of the store, creating streams of water that coursed down the glass. As soon as she saw the boy, she turned towards her husband and cried out in anger, “Would you believe it! That fellow really has a gall! He has the nerve to send the kid out in the pouring rain!”

“Whom are you talking about?”

“Whom do you think? That dirty old drunkard, of course! Look how the little wretch runs!”

The Baker searched with his toes for his slippers, but something in the news must have caught his attention because instead, he carried on reading.

*

Pepote ran as if chased by the devil because the rain had by now turned into a streaming downpour and his thin jacket gave no protection at all.

The baker’s wife squashed a fat fly with the tip of her shawl and took up position behind the counter.

The boy burst into the bakery, out of breath, and called out, “Good morning!” He sniffled up the drips of water running down his face and, a little embarrassed - as he became aware that the water dripping from his clothes was creating a small puddle at his feet – continued, “Two buns, please.”

“Is that all?” the woman asked, her motionless arms hanging slackly along her sides.

“That is all,” the boy, as if a little surprised, said, but then, after a short pause, he corrected himself, “well, maybe only one.”

Then the arm of the baker’s wife started moving, and she spread the palm of her hand in front of the boy; there was no doubt as to the significance of the gesture.

Her husband, noticing what was going on, quickly disappeared into the back of the shop.

“I don’t have any money. I’ll pay you tomorrow,” the boy said, embarrassed.

“So, you’ll pay me tomorrow! Eh?” roared the baker’s wife. “I’m afraid that will simply not be good enough! Tell your uncle, that lazy bum, that indecent scoundrel of a man, that there is a limit to everything. If it weren’t because I always mind my own business, I would have reported him long ago.”

The boy bowed his head. Then, terrified, he discovered that an enormous puddle had formed at his feet. What on earth will happen when she sees this? He sorrowfully wondered, as he slowly backed towards the entrance.

“I should have talked to my brother-in-law a long time ago,” the baker’s wife went on, “he’s a policeman, and…”

“I'm afraid I have to do other errands. Goodbye, Ma’am,” he called out from the door before he ran off; clinging to the walls, he slunk along towards the next shop, which was the dairy.

The owner, old and with a big mustache, was pushing a tank full of milk from one corner of the shop to another, and he didn’t even answer the greeting from the soaking wet customer that had quite abruptly entered his store. Slowly and deliberately he finished what he was doing, then he cleaned his hands on his apron, before going behind his counter. “And, what can I do for you, Señor?”

“A small bottle of milk, please,” the boy answered, as he placed the open jug on the counter.

The old man hesitated for a moment, but then he took up the jug and, after examining it, poured milk into it. “One-sixty,” he said in a low voice, while he adjusted the lid of the jug.

The boy seemed to be expecting that reply, because he quickly answered, “I will bring the money tomorrow. You see I haven’t got any on me right now at the moment.”

“I accept checks, treasure-bills, foreign currency, and even precious metals or stones as payment,” the milkman said, without showing any sign of not being dead serious.

The child, who hadn’t understood a word of all this, stood there questioningly, looking at the center of the big mustache.

The milkman then asked the question that both had known would be coming, “Who’s the milk for?”

“Me,” answered the boy, “it’s for me.”

“Well now, then it’s different. Drink it up.”

“I would rather drink it at home.”

“And why would that be?” the milkman inquired.

“It’s just that I…” the boy started, “I…”

“It’s just that you want to bring him his breakfast! That scoundrel! That loser! Eh?” exclaimed the man. “No, and this time I really mean it! I too have a few glasses of wine now and then, but I’m still capable of earning my living. Early in the morning I’m here cleaning out the shop while your uncle is still rumbling down the streets, stumbling all over the place and stinking drunk.”

“You see, he gets ill at night if he doesn’t drink, it’s his rheumatism.”

“Ha! That's a good one! Rheumatism! Let the devil take him! In the end, we all know that's precisely what will happen.”

The boy said nothing.

“Now, I don’t like milk myself, but I do try to make my living from selling it… nor do I like water,” he added as an afterthought, talking with his head almost inside the milk fridge that he had opened to pour more milk inside it. “But if you want to have breakfast, you can drink the entire container. Besides, there’s the cash box: help yourself to some money for bread too.”

“No. I want to have the milk at home,” the boy replied, apparently without losing hope, “I left the money there.”

“That is not true.”

“It is,” the boy said, not very convincingly, “I’m not lying.”

“Well then, go back and get it. The rain is easing off, and the milk won’t sour before you get back.”

“All right…” the boy said, looking mournfully at the jug on the counter, “I will be right back.”

Meanwhile, it had indeed nearly stopped raining, and the mailman, soaking wet, came through the doorway. He shook the rainwater off his cape, dropped off a letter, waved amicably at the boy, and went on his way.

A chicken peered out from behind a bush, gazed at the mailman as if angry or insulted and, as if distracted, pecked at a nail, presumably mistaking it for a worm.

Pepote started wandering: he didn’t really know what to do. He was in a foul mood because the day had begun quite poorly.

Then suddenly the voices of boys reached him from a large vacant lot between two run-down shacks. They were all older than him, and since he didn’t really feel like playing, Pepote just kept on walking.

He had reached the furthest house in the row when one of the boys called out after him, “Hey, you! Wanna make some money?”

“Sure,” he answered, his hopes rising, “how?”

“With horns,” said one of the boys, one with big ears and lots of freckles, coming up towards him. “We have a bullfight, and nobody wants to be the torro.”

“How much do you pay?”

“More than anyone else: twenty-five centimos.”

“Per what?” asked Pepote.

“Per kill.”

“Have you got riders?”                                     

“No, only banderilleros.”

“Two pairs?” asked Pepote.

“Three.”

“Okay.”

The boys put a wicker-works bull’s head with two horns attached over Pepote’s head and shoulders. He then received his payment for ten kills in advance, put the money into his pocket, and took up an aggressive stance; he leaned forward, and the bullfight began.

Soon the sun came out, and Pepote started to feel the discomfort caused by running around with the heavy bull-head in a bent-over posture; his back began to ache, and he was getting uncomfortably warm. Then, as he considered resting a little, he realized he had already earned more than what the milk would cost. He removed the bull’s head and handed it over to the smallest of the boys while pointing at the wooden sword wrapped in a red rag.

“Now I want to be the bullfighter.”

“Okay,” the other boy said, “and how much are you paying?”

“Twenty-five. Just like you paid me.”

“You must be joking.”

“Well, thirty then.”

“Tut-tut,” replied the boy, shaking his head.

“Forty.”

“No.”

“How much then?”

“One peseta.”

“That’s not fair; you only paid me twenty-five centimos.”

“That’s because you are small,” the boy explained.

“And… and so what?”

“Do you know the difference in price between a calf and a bull?”

“No…” Pepote had to admit.

“I guessed that much. You ask your uncle and come back tomorrow; then we’ll talk it over.”

Pepote would have preferred to continue the discussion, but he had suddenly remembered about the milk waiting for him in the dairy. He didn’t know whether the boy was right about the price or not, but it irked him that he hadn’t been given the opportunity to kill a single bull. When I grow up, it will be different.

Thinking along these lines, his steps took him past another vacant lot where two donkeys grazed peacefully. He stopped and watched them; of lately he’d been paying them a lot more attention than he normally would. Then he decided to act on an idea that he had been carrying around for a while, and he went across to one of the animals.

He took off his jacket and shook it like a bullfighter’s cape, keeping a respectful distance between himself and the donkey’s imaginary, yet deadly horns. “Hey! Hey!” he cried out at the animal as if it were a bull and he a Torero. “Hey! Hey!” he cried, shaking his outstretched jacket. The donkey seemed to pay no attention whatsoever, and however much Pepote would shake his cape it would stubbornly refuse to be provoked into action; it didn't even raise its head. The boy then went over to see if he could squeeze some response out of the other donkey; first from a distance, but then ever closer. This donkey was as unresponsive as the first and Pepote, in a final act of desperation, was just about to get down on his knees in front of the beast in a death-defying posture when the rumble of another airplane could be heard, approaching the airport and getting ready to land. Pepote immediately recognized the “Air France” Douglas plane, and he realized it had to be well past ten o'clock. He slipped his jacket back on and ran towards the dairy, but as he barged into the shop, he found it empty. He counted out the money noisily so as to be noticed if anyone was close enough to hear, grabbed the pitcher and ran back towards home.

When he turned the last corner, thus getting into view of the shack, he stopped dead at the horrifying sight. The small lot that made a slight dip in the ground was entirely covered in water. Pepote, overwhelmed by guilt, ran over to the diversion he had created earlier in the morning; the waterwheel was nowhere to be seen. He climbed up to the ditch where he quickly removed the stones and rubble he had used to redirect the stream's flow, now instead using the material to seal off his diversion. He then took off his shoes and went over to the shack.

It took a lot of effort to force the door open, and as it finally gave way, it did so only by violently snapping off its hinges. The collapsing door nearly hit Pepote and as the milk pitcher slipped from his grasp, the white liquid mingled with the muddy waters.

Once inside the shack, he could hear the uniform, serene and peaceful snoring of his uncle. Floating around in the water, which rose about ten inches off the ground, were a variety of objects; many of them he had never seen before, and much of what he did recognize, he had given up as lost a long time ago. First, he recovered the old alarm clock; he moved the minute hand back to its proper position, shook it violently and even got it to make some ring-like sounds. Then he focused on the horse blanket that covered his uncle’s ears, pulling and pushing it in the hope that his uncle would wake up.

The only result was that his uncle turned around and that the rest of him disappeared under the blanket. A few disgruntled sounds could be heard, but they soon faded back into nothing but more snoring.

Eventually, after some more pushing and pulling, Pepote got his uncle to wake up.

As Jacinto sat up, he dropped his legs over the edge of the bed, and the moment his rheumatic feet made contact with the water, he roared as if had he stepped on white-hot iron. Jacinto bounced back up into his bed, and from up there he looked around in amazement and horror.

“Where... Where did all this come from?”

“It rained a lot… you know…”

“When?” asked Jacinto.

“Oh, a while ago.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Well, that’s because you were sleeping.”

“And what did you expect me to do at this time? Can’t a man even get some rest in this house?”

“The fact is… the truth is…”

“The fact is that you built another dam,” Jacinto filled in.

“I had to do something.”

“You had to do something…” Jacinto repeated. “And, you didn’t for a moment consider that you could have drowned me?”

Just then, one of his uncle’s shoes came floating past, drifting off with the tide that now had turned, slowly making its way towards the open door.

Jacinto burst out angrily; “Don’t you realize that bad things happen when you do the first thing that comes into your head? I’ve told you a hundred times that water is dangerous! Very dangerous! Haven’t I? It is hard to believe that a boy as big as you can be so foolish! If you don’t mend your ways, you’re never going to grow up into an honorable man… What you really deserve is for me to leave you in the street and stop worrying about you.”

During the tirade Pepote had located the other shoe and, after emptying the water out of the pair of them, he sadly and quietly handed them to his uncle, who shrugged his shoulders wearily.

While his uncle, still standing on top of the bed, started to get dressed, Pepote began to prepare his uncle a dry retreat. He overturned a big table and pushed the now floating wooden structure towards the bed. It took a while but eventually, the peseta dropped, and his uncle realized what he was up to. When so finally, after some hesitations and protests, Jacinto settled down into the improvised boat, he didn’t even try to hide his fears.

The boy handed him an old faded umbrella with a sharpened tip that served his uncle as a barge pole during the precarious passage across the straights that separated them from dry land. When they so finally reached the shore, Jacinto leaped out of the makeshift boat with much more agility than he had shown on embarking, and as swiftly as his legs would carry him, he put some distance between himself and the danger zone.

While his uncle was wringing out the water from the lower part of his jacket, Pepote went off to put on his own shoes that he had left next to the now swiftly receding dam.

*

Jacinto's eyes suddenly fell on a letter that had gotten nailed to the trunk of a tree right in front of him under a big branch: their letterbox. He went a little closer, removed the letter that he found indeed was addressed to him, and with narrowed eyes, he started to decipher its content.

The letter was dated three days earlier, and in it, the organizer of a comic bullfight confirmed what the man said they had verbally agreed upon: that Jacinto would take part in the bullfight that was to be held that very same evening as the Torero for a purse of one thousand five hundred pesetas. He was asked to arrive no later than nine p.m. Under it all there was a signature that Jacinto recognized. He put the letter back into its envelope, meditated a moment and then, in a single movement, crunched it up and tossed it over his shoulder.

Pepote, who had now reached his uncle’s side, was delighted to find that something in the letter seemed to have distracted his uncle’s thoughts from what had just happened. “From the social services?”

“No.”

“Did it have a stamp?”

“How should I know!”

“What do they want?”

“To make a fool out of me,” answered Jacinto sombrely, as he started walking.

The boy bowed down to pick up the letter, smoothed it out, slipped it into his pocket, and with a short sprint he caught up with his uncle.

After a considerable detour, so as to avoid the local shop-owners, they reached the tram stop. Pepote didn’t pay any attention to the people around them and didn’t greet any of his many acquaintances and friends. He was afraid he wouldn’t be greeted back, being accompanied by his uncle; they reached the tram stop without uttering a single word. There they had to wait a good while before a tram arrived with enough people hanging from its side to guarantee them a free ride all the way to Ventas.

The open area that surrounded the bullring was deserted, but a single glance was enough to tell them that they had found a goldmine. The previous day there had been a well-attended bullfight, and the audience had left a generous and undisturbed selection of cigarette butts. They swiftly set to work.

The boy gathered the cigarette butts with his hands, whereas Jacinto, with incredible precision, used the sharpened tip of his old umbrella to spear them. Their pockets bulged before they’d covered a quarter of the square.

During their work, the boy lost sight of his uncle, and as he eventually found him, Jacinto was standing in front of a bullfighting poster next to the bullring’s main entrance. His uncle, apparently greatly distressed, was staring at the poster.

The poster, illustrated with a full-color drawing, specified the program of that evening. In it, in large capital letters, Jacinto's name was spelled out as the Torero of the event. “What are they up to?” was the question that finally made their way out of his mouth. At least a dozen times he re-read his name, all while he rolled a couple of cigarette butts into a piece of a newspaper, without even glancing at the boy. Next, he unsuccessfully rubbed a few matches against the matchbox; not realizing it was damp from having been in the pocket of his wet trousers.

The boy, who still felt remorseful about what had happened earlier, pointed silently at the breast pocket of his uncle’s jacket: from his search for milk-money earlier in the morning he knew that in it there were some dry matches.

Without a word, Jacinto rummaged around in the breast pocket, pulled out a match and rubbed it against the brick wall. He lit his cigarette, inhaled, then looked at it accusingly before exhaling.

Pepote would have gotten back to work had his uncle’s voice not stopped him, “Let’s go.”

Tags: adventures, laszlo sr, My Uncle Jacinto,, Ladislao Vajda,, Cape Town,, children's book,, Pabli Calvo,, La Quinta,, Madrid,, 1940s,, Antonio Sica,