‘Lather and Nothing Else’, by Hernando Tellez
Read it here in less than 15 minutes.
In relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 2022 Winter Olympics, and everything else happening in the world today that shouldn’t be, thinking about how we can use literature to protest…
Tellez was a Colombian journalist and author, who lived though years of dictators and civil wars. His journalism, and fiction, sought to tell the truth about the realities such conditions create. This story depicts the narrow options available to people who oppose their leaders, but are not able to express this without the luxury of democracy.
An underlying threat of violence runs through the story, as two men do psychological battle in a barber’s shop: the protagonist’s razor, and its sharpness, is mentioned in the first paragraph; the antagonist’s pistol is also mentioned, and placed out of his reach by the antagonist himself; a sheet, to protect the antagonist from the shaving lather, is tied around his neck; the antagonist closes his eyes, and lies back; the protagonist holds his razor to the man’s throat… and begins to shave him.
The antagonist is unnamed on the first page, instead referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him’, suggesting his very name fills the protagonist with such horror that he cannot tell it to the reader in his narration; the man’s arrival even produces a physical reaction in our protagonist, causing him to shake and fumble. Slowly, it’s revealed who this man is: Captain Torres, who clearly leads a death squad. The antagonist, seeming to take it for granted that the barber supports the dictatorship, tells him about the men his squad have killed, and how more will be tortured and killed that very evening; he even invites our protagonist to watch this public spectacle. It’s then revealed to the reader that the protagonist is ‘secretly a revolutionary’. The tension!
Our protagonist tells us ‘with the enemy in my house I felt a certain responsibility’ – he has the opportunity, so feels compelled to take revenge, even though it will mean certain death because people will have seen Torres enter his barber’s shop. Towards the end of the story, he says ‘There is nothing more tender than a man’s skin, and the blood is always there, ready to burst forth. A razor like this cannot fail’ – it would be so easy, regardless of the consequences. But ultimately, he cannot go through with it, saying in his head to Torres ‘You are an executioner; I am only a barber.’ And that’s the point; there’s a line between good and evil, and only monsters like Torres can cross it.
We aren’t all built able to enact bloody revenge; for some of us, all we can do is tell stories about things that have happened, could happen, should never happen; or write about those stories.