William Kentridge

Juan Villoro

Image © William Kentridge, 2016
Photography: Oficina de disseny

Juan Villoro

The Voice of the Enemy

Back when Mexico City was still around I used a lovely yellow helmet. High up a telephone pole I would listen to others’ conversations. The sky was a tangled mess of cables electricity hummed along, wrapped in soft plastics. Every now and then a thick blue spark would plummet to the ground. That was what gave me my reason for being up that pole. I had every tool you could imagine on my belt, but I preferred to use a set of short pliers with serrated teeth. To heal any wound I would clamp them down and the light would flow once again.

There was a movie theatre across the way, with a cardboard castle set on the marquee. Further off, a tall building kept its red spots on to warn passing airplanes. You could hear the planes’ engine noise, but there was no way to spot them in a sky so dense.

The Electric Supervisor made sure we kept our ears tuned in to what was coming over the wires. Our enemies were drawing nearer. I did not know who they were, just that they were getting closer, so we had to listen to calls and try to find something odd in what was being said. One rainy day I heard a strange voice. It was a woman talking as if she has something to hide, her soft voice enunciating the words ‘birdseed’, ‘glow’, ‘magnolia’ and ‘broken balcony’. I was there to keep track of these conversations and make sure nothing out of order was going on. This time I heard those random words, which rang out like some silly code. I was supposed to denounce what was being said, but I did not do a thing; I let someone, somewhere else, try to understand what I could not grasp at all.

A few days later I learnt about the palm trees that had been burnt to a crisp. The enemy had incinerated a neighbourhood where there were still plants left. Without moving from my post, I had no idea if the city was expanding or shrinking. Sometimes loyalist troops spoke on the wire, their voices mixed in with bugles and cornets; then you would hear a bomb go off, and the raspy voice of another militia would come through.

On the corner telephone pole across the way something very strange happened: the yellow helmet on that head did not move for hours. I tried to figure out if my buddy had died, my fingers bleeding from trying to call so many numbers, all busy. While I was looking at the completely still helmet, I began to hear those softly timorous words again: ‘bedchamber’, ‘cinnamon’, ‘statue’. I all too envyingly imagined that those words were a kind of message for someone else, while for me they were rather doleful. I did not speak to the Electrical Supervisor on that occasion either.

Once, in the middle of the night, an explosion rocked me. I opened the circuit box and an acrid line of smoke rose from the photoelectric sensors. I turned on my flashlight; I had enough battery power for a few weeks but there was something that made me think I would not spend that much more time up that pole.

The Supervisor would say it whenever he called: “Whoever controls the cables controls the city.” The enemy had cut the light, the theatre was a cloud of smoke enveloping a reddish hue, but the phones were still working. A woman’s voice came to me, this time saying ‘fragrance’, ‘planets’, ‘sweets’, ‘smooth stones’. I could not report her this time either. Slowly, fearfully, with exact cruelty, I had come to understand just how wonderful the voice of the enemy could be.

I must have fallen asleep when they took my buddy down from the post. Then it was my turn, when a gloved hand yanked at my back. I was so intoxicated from inhaling that malignant air that I had forgotten how to get out of the burning city.

It has been weeks, maybe months, that I have been living in a room with metallic walls. They showed me a terrible picture on the computer screen. It is called City of Palaces, and it shows the movie theatre with its cardboard castle, the high building opposite, the cables I once spent so much time taking care of. “There are 67 of them”, my captor’s voice told me. He was right. I had been in charge of 67 cables and was entrusted to protect them from our heedless enemies. For days (which just as well could have been nights) I had restored the light and kept protective track of the calls. Only once had I deliberately damaged a cable, just a few days before being taken down.

Now only photographs remain of the city that was. If they were to follow that damaged cable my keepers would be able to enter into the maze and follow the mess of wires until coming to another photograph, all the way to the house where that special voice lived. I have in front of me those 67 cables that marked my life. One of them could take us to that woman. I know which one it is, but I am not going to say.

William Kentridge


William Kentridge (Johannesburg, South Africa, 1955) is a multidisciplinary artist recognized for his highly expressionist animated cartooning and films exploring subjects such as time, the history of colonialism and the aspirations and failures of revolutionary politics. His work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world since 1990, including the Documenta in Kassel (1997, 2003, 2012), the Venice Biennale (1993, 1999, 2003, 2015), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1998, 2010), Barcelona's MACBA (1999), the Louvre in Paris (2010), the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, and the Whitechapel Gallery in London (2016). As a theatre and opera director he has presented productions in the most important theatres and festivals across the globe. His most recent opera, Alban Berg's Lulu (2015–2016), is a coproduction of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the English National Opera, London, and the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam. Triumphs and Laments is a recent, large-scale multidisciplinary project, presented in Rome in 2016.

Juan Villoro


Juan Villoro (Mexico City, 1956) has been a university professor at the UNAM, Yale, Princeton and the Pompeu Fabra University, as well as at the Fundación de Nuevo Periodismo, created by Gabriel García Márquez. He is a columnist for Reforma (Mexico), El País (Latin America edition) and El Mercurio (Chile). In 2012 he won the Premio Iberoamericano José Donoso in Chile for his life's work. In Spain he was awarded the Premio Herralde for his novel El testigo [The Witness], winning the Premio ACE in Argentina for his play Filosofía de vida [Philosophy of Life] and the Premio José María Arguedas in Cuba for his novel Arrecife. His journalism has been recognized with the Premio Rey de España, the City of Barcelona Prize and the Manuel Vázquez Montalbán Prize. His most recent books feature the collection of non-fictional stories ¿Hay vida en la Tierra? [Is there Life on Earth?], the theatre monologue Conferencia sobre la lluvia [Lecture on Rain] and the compilation of short stories entitled El Apocalipsis (todo incluido) [The Apocalypse (all Included)]. His theatrical play El filosofo declara [The Philosopher declares] premiered in October, 2016, at Barcelona's Teatre Romea
Photography: Oficina de disseny