by José Simián
BY JOSÉ ANDRÉS MURILLO
It was January of 2004, and my high-school friend José Manuel Simián and I were traveling through Perú. The trip had been organized just a few days before our departure, as a transient solution for the petit-turmoils that ruled our respective lives: escape from emotional commitments, trying to figure out our careers, turning 30.
Besides seeing the Amazon, one of the reasons that had taken us to Iquitos was our love for the movie Fitzcarraldo (1982), by Werner Herzog. On our last day, we asked our friendly moto-driver (and de facto guide to the secret corners of the city) if it was true that the rusting cask of the ship that stars in the film was still around to be seen. “Of course!” he said, stepping on the start pedal of his motorcycle. A few minutes later, glancing over his shoulder, he asked us if we would be interested in meeting Huerequeque, the actor that had played the loyal cook in the movie. Bumping along in the back seat, we hastily said yes, incredulous that we might have the chance to meet a character from one of the most legendary events in moviemaking. (See Herzog’s notebook, and the documentaries My Best Fiend and Burden of Dreams.)
“We just need to buy a few bottles of beer to knock on his door,” our driver said as he drove us towards the Port of Iquitos. “He is my friend.”
Huerequeque opened the door, greeting us like old friends. Inside, he led us to the living room, which resembled the salesroom of a flea market. Among other absurd treasures, Huerequeque had a gigantic cement fish tank, built out of a car windshield. Inside, different types of Amazonic fish buzzed around.
The motor driver promised to pick us later, leaving the three of us sitting around large bottles of beer.
Huerequeque never bothered to ask us how we had arrived at his house, what we were looking for, or even if we liked Fitzcarraldo. It seemed evident that there were plenty of reasons for us to be there, sit at his table, and get drunk in front of the silent eyes of his fish.
José Manuel and I toasted for being there, and let Huerequeque speak at ease.
He seemed to be resuming a conversation interrupted long ago.
To clear the way, he first addressed some of the legends built around Fitzcarraldo: no, no natives had died during the shooting; yes, the natives had offered to shoot the unbearable Klaus Kinski for Herzog; yes, Mick Jagger had participated in the beginning of the shooting, “f—ing anything with two legs, until his girlfriend came and took him out of here.”
He had never acted before. His involvement in Fitzcarraldo happened by chance: the stage actor hired to play the cook had quit after realizing he would need to spend months in the jungle. Huerequeque had a bar where they were shooting. They auditioned him for the part in a scene with Kinski.
“They wanted someone who could pass as a cook and a drunk,” Huerequeque said. “I am no cook and didn’t look drunk. I was a drunk!”
The first scene, with Huerequeque sober, didn’t go well. A few drinks later, Kinski approved of his acting.
Following the movies’ success at Cannes, where it won the award for best director, Huerequeque traveled all over Europe in a promotion tour. Wherever he went, he learned one word: the equivalent of “Cheers!”
Turned into a cult actor after Fitzcarraldo, Huerequeque was still being called for indie films that morning we met him. But now he focused most of his energies on writing stories and poems, based on adventures from his youth: he had been in the Army and then lived in absolute isolation in the jungle.
A few hours went by under the spell of his narrations, which blended fiction and truth in equal parts. The happiest had him interrupting his jog to accept a glass of beer, only to have his jogging shoes stolen by his “friends;” the saddest one, in verse, involved and Indian princess being killed by a lover in a boat on the Amazon river.
“There are only four important things in life,” he said right before we had to leave.
“Friendship, sports, sex, and beer. If one of them is lacking, you will rot inside.”
We returned to the city in silence —the humid Amazonian wind hitting our faces on the moto-taxi—, perhaps trying to memorize Huerequeque’s four pillars of wisdom.
I thought then, and I think again now: I need to work out more.
* * *
José Andrés Murillo is a Chilean philosopher. He is currently studying for his PhD in Paris.
This text has been translated and adapted from a version in Portuguese, available at Futepoca.com.br.