The Dangerous Comma

Long ago I had resolved never again to have writers for friends. I suffered too much for them, and with them, when they could not write. But the fourteen years that I had spent away from writing, and writers, always felt more like exile than escape and, in that time, a new generation, writing in a new style, had grown up. I had seen their fathers write, and known them well, but I had also heard and read of the abuses that had become so widespread in this closely-knit world – the unscrupulous promoters who foisted immature stories of two thousand words, or less, on the readers; stories with so little substance that the writer had to resort to tricks of style to make anything of them. Such stories carried little danger and needed little skill in their despatch. And the public had grown up thinking that the clever circus tricks were what writing was all about.

But word had reached me in Cuba of the fierce rivalry that had grown between the two leading writers. Antonio Manchego and Miguel Cantera could handle the half-grown stories with their eyes closed but had also sometimes faced the real stories that had seemed to be a thing of days long past. So Mary and I decided to cross the ocean to see them for ourselves; if it was true that each was taking greater and greater risks in an effort to outshine the other, then it seemed likely that one or the other would be destroyed before the Fall, either by the stories or by their rival.

We sailed in May, had a pleasant spell in London, then drove a hire-car to Hay-on-Wye. Hay in fiesta week is really no place to take your wife, but Mary accepted the crazy wildness and we averaged about three hours’ sleep per night, drinking heavily with friends old and new.

The town was as rough as always. Though it was now overcrowded with tourists, there was still a hard core of all that was finest in writing. When we arrived, late at night, on the eve of the first day of the fiesta, the streets were full of young people, dancing and singing and drinking. Our room overlooked a narrow street that led to the arena and the carpenters were still hard at work, erecting the barricades.

We were woken early by the drums and by the singing that rose to a crescendo for the running of the stories. A tangled knot of enthusiasts sprinted through the streets, the stories at their heels, looking fit and fresh. Those who had not clambered over the barricades, their nerve deserting them, would face the stories in the ring, getting the chance to jot a few lines onto paper to impress their friends before the officials herded the stories into the pens to await the serious business of the afternoon. The would-be writers retired to the bars and cafes to boast of their literary prowess. Some ran every morning, others just the once. Some never ran but could tell their friends in Ketchum, Idaho that they were there.

I had arranged to have breakfast with Manchego whilst Mary trawled the book shops. When I had last seen Antonio he had been ten, plotting and punctuating his first stories under his brilliant father’s watchful guiding eyes that saw everything. He was now twenty-four and in his prime. We met in a little café frequented by aficionados. He looked fit and alert, smoking endless cigarettes and drinking cup after cup of strong black coffee in readiness for his writing that afternoon. His hand was bandaged from a bad paper cut sustained in the ring at Cheltenham the week before; a story had been difficult to plot to a conclusion and had caught him unawares. But he had not damaged any tendons and could still handle his pens.

Mary and I had good seats in the shade for that afternoon’s fight. As the writers paraded in their ceremonial corduroy jackets, Antonio saw us and waved. From the moment he flourished his paper at the first story you could tell that he was one of the greats. The story he had drawn was wary, uncertain in which direction it wanted to run. It was a women’s magazine story of a middle-aged mother going back to work. After the picadors had worked on it we could see all the elements – her regret at a stalled career; her husband’s isolation; the unending demands of her children – but it was hard to tell where it might lead. But Antonio dominated it from the start and built it up into something it wasn’t. Not one sentence was wasted and the whole performance was like the tide coming in. The whole ring held its breath as he steadied himself for the ending, going in with one quick sentence that sealed the story’s fate.

The other writers knew they couldn’t match Antonio. Young Alfredo Garcia looked ill at ease from the moment he unscrewed his pen. Three times he tried to finish his story and three times he screwed up his paper and threw it to the sand. Some of the crowd were whistling as he tried a fourth time, but the story, a wild, temperamental youngster about an extra-marital affair, was learning fast and seemed to sense that he couldn’t finish it. As it dashed at him he panicked, the story catching him with a vicious comma and it was clear that he was seriously blocked. Antonio was first over the barrera and took the story away with a few sweeps of description. The officials carried Garcia out of the ring and Antonio prepared to finish it. He showed the crowd what the novice should have done, preparing a climax where the cheating husband is trapped by his wife and his lover and left handcuffed and naked on a hotel bed. The crowd loved it.

Antonio’s second story looked the trickiest of the afternoon. It was an immature piece about four men in a bar discussing their lives. Antonio told the picadors to be sparing and they merely opened up a few lines of dialogue before Antonio went in and built the story up into an epic about lost youth and wasted opportunities. He could have left it there but the crowd wanted more, so he finished it with a trick, just to show he could do it, flashing forward twenty years to where the men, now old, sit in the corner while their sons laugh and joke at the bar. I didn’t like it but the crowd went wild and demanded that he was given two full stops and an exclamation mark! Antonio cut them and looked embarrassed as the crowd swarmed the ring and carried him out on their shoulders.

 

The next afternoon we were at the ring again as Cantera faced his first stories of the fiesta. When I had last been in Europe Miguel had been a promising novillero. But, even then, his repertoire had been full of tricks. In recent years he had been fighting very short stories – sometimes only a thousand words – on a theme provided by the promoters, or building on stories where the first lines had been written by the many celebrities with whom he spent his time. He had clearly become complacent, writing to a formula. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt – he looked tired and drawn after travelling through the night from the feria of San Edmundo in Suffolk, but his style just did not move me. He clinically dissected his first story, about an artist and two twin sisters in Provence, into thesis, antithesis and synthesis, but then he added a twist where the artist thinks he has slept with one of the girls only to find out that it was the other. With his second story he seemed intent on merely including as many tricks as he could – it was a pastiche of a classic detective story, but he built in erased answerphone messages, contrived meetings, mistaken identities and bogus alibis. It was a confused mess, but the tourists thought it looked good and Miguel was given a full stop.

I met him for lunch the next day when there was only a fight for women writers that didn’t interest me. I wanted to ask him why he had chosen to take the easy way when the aficionados knew that he could still fight the full-grown proper stories, but he said little, preferring to practice with the thesaurus.

 

On the last day of the fiesta you couldn’t move in Hay. The crowds swarmed the kiosks, demanding tickets for the mano a mano, a showdown between Manchego and Cantera, when they would each face three stories. Mary and I jostled our way through the crowds for the sorteo, when the six stories would be sorted into their fighting order. These stories looked the real thing; big and strong and completely intact. I met the writers as they looked down on them in their little pens, looking for any signs as to how they would behave in the ring. We had got to know both men well through the week, drinking with Manuel and visiting Antonio’s ranch in the high sierras above Ledbury, where his young stories grazed unconcernedly on the lush paddocks, and I was greatly honoured when they asked if I would be the sobresaliente that afternoon. Mary looked less than keen; the duty of the sobresaliente, or substitute writer, is to finish a story if both writers have been blocked and unable to write. I explained to her that it was unlikely I would have to do anything more than write a scene-setting description.

That afternoon I walked out between Antonio and Miguel across the hot sand of the arena in a mustard green corduroy jacket of Antonio’s that fitted me perfectly. It had smart leather elbow patches and ink stains that no amount of scrubbing could erase. I had my own pen, of course, and no-one could have guessed I wasn’t a real writer. They would have soon known the truth if I’d faced ending a story alone in the ring.

Antonio fought first, which gave him the advantage – anything he did, Miguel would have to match. Their first two stories were almost identical ; strongly-built, pacy thrillers that both needed a steady build up through to their denouements. Antonio wrote sparely, using few adjectives and presented an ambivalent ending, where the hero has saved the day, but at a terrible cost. Miguel wrote well, without any tricks, but he had trouble with his ending. At first he wanted his ‘hero’ to be unmasked as a double agent, but he could see that wasn’t working. The crowd gasped as his bandilleros took the story away in a flurry of description. Miguel set himself up again and went in for the kill. Literally. He had his hero die in a poignant gunfight. The crowd erupted and demanded two full stops, an exclamation mark and a semi-colon; excessive cutting was another abuse that had crept into the game.

Both writers’ second stories came as comic relief, but they were perfectly executed. Antonio presented a multiple viewpoint take on a middle-class dinner party, his brilliant descriptions of the mannered drama highlighting the tensions beneath the surface of the couples’ troubled marriages. He ended it with a sudden short sentence and the story was paraded around the sand behind the mules. Miguel told a multi-layered tale of stories within stories that was brilliantly constructed and could not have been one word shorter.

The heat of the afternoon was passing when Antonio faced his final story. It was a brute of a thing; a great rambling saga, spanning generations. It looked unpredictable in the early descriptive passes and a lesser writer would have told his picadors to open it up. But Antonio was determined to present a perfect story in a classical style. He entered the final phase solemnly and quietly and slowly showed the crowd what the story was all about, setting up an ending where the central character could reflect upon her life. It all looked neatly plotted out until a young man leapt over the barrera with a cheap biro and paper and taunted the story with a few lines of description of his own. Nothing can spoil a story for a writer so completely as the intrusion of an espontaneo. The story learns with every paragraph and a great writer does not script a single sentence without intending to lead towards the ending. But Antonio watched the boy write and told the guards to wait before they took him out of the ring. He saw what the boy had written and built it into his own penultimate paragraph before he ended it with a simple sentence.

The crowd applauded wildly. They could not believe what they had seen, but Miguel stood silent and self-absorbed, awaiting the last story of the day. It crashed into the ring; a brooding, Gothic epic. There would be no room for tricks or trite endings here. He fought it well, but without passion. His picadors had worked it hard and it became unpredictable. Miguel produced some brilliant descriptions but I slowly realised that he was going to struggle to end it in style. He had plotted his heroine into a perilous plight, with her lover set to rescue her, but he couldn’t end it. Twice he went in with the nib but the story was too strong and Miguel had to screw up the paper. Then, as he prepared a third ending, the story suddenly charged him. He couldn’t fend it off with a single word and the story caught him full in the chest, bowling him over into the sand. Antonio dashed into the ring and lured it away with a skilful piece of flashback. He glanced over as Miguel was carried from the ring. All he had to do now was write a simple, quick ending, but he asked the President for a five hundred word extension and turned the story around, restyling the ward’s monstrous guardian as a damaged man and the hero as a gold-digger. The story shuddered and rolled over in the sand and the crowd erupted.

 

Four hours later the streets and bars were still full of story-goers talking about the fight. Antonio was in his hotel room scrubbing the ink from his fingers and preparing to travel overnight for an exhibition bout at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I told him that Miguel had been rushed to hospital with severe paper cuts and major contusions to his creative ego. Antonio thought that the story might have caught him in his heart but I knew that, if he had a heart, he had never shown it in all his writing. He would never write again in a major arena. We wished Antonio good luck and said goodbye.