by Ron Kenner
February 27, 2011
WISDOM OF THE STREET
HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 26, 2011 -- Another great South American literary figure is gone, but his spirit informs every dedicated writer - and especially his friends.
The widely published author and humorist David Sanchez-Juliao, a Colombian ambassador in the early 1990s to India and to Egypt, had traveled in a string of countries and been friendly with notables as wide-ranging and disparate as Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Authority and Menachem Begin of Israel.
Yet Sanchez-Juliao left the glamorous embassy life some 15 years ago because he wanted to get back to his true calling as a writer of a long string of columns, essays, novels, plays, short stories, fables, children's books and recordings.
His books, widely published and well-loved in many countries, include the Latin American Literary Boom, which was translated into 12 languages and won seven Spanish literary awards, and his Pero Sigo Siendo El Rey [But I'm Still King], named the year's leading short novel.
His works have also appeared in important theatre productions. In Bogota, my wife Mary and I saw one of David's hilarious and popular plays, about a house of ill repute in Colombia and the story-telling cab driver who brought tourists back and forth. It was staged in a packed nightclub and enjoyed a raving audience. On television, his work included the original story for The King of Clubs, which was sold to Showtime.
When David last stayed with Mary and me in Los Angeles he was trying to cut down from two packs of cigarettes a day to one, yet smoking remained a continuing "bad habit," as he called it, and very likely contributed to his medical problems. Like the late writer Jerome Bixby, another dear friend who developed heart problems, his attitude was, "Hell, quitting smoking is easy. I've quit hundreds of times."
David died on the morning of February 9. 2011, at Shaio Clinic in Bogota, where he'd been taken several days before with heart problems. He was 65 and still young, yet he'd lived a purposeful and amazingly full, accomplished life.
In Latin America and elsewhere there just aren't enough talented writers and observers of the human comedy - and it keeps getting funnier - on the order of David Sanchez-Juliao. He was not merely a "writer" but an "escritor," one who loved language, words and the subtle meanings of words, and who wrote, as another writer friend once put it well, with sympathy and understanding.
David was the kind of master who could make even pain readable; like Arundhati Roy or Anton Chekov, he was a master of subtlety and culture, one who could produce a great work of art even if the subject was boredom.
It was a cultivated friendship. I valued that Chekov play, Three Sisters, and enjoyed telling David - who would stay up half the night exchanging stories with me - how after a hectic day I'd fallen asleep one evening at the Music Center in Los Angeles during a presumably wonderful production of Three Sisters, even with Maggie Smith, watching that play about a deadening boredom. He thought it was "fitting," somehow, to sleep through a play on boredom.
Along with the joy of punning, we both loved stories where things somehow seemed to fit or make sense in the messed-up world we lived in.
Visiting David in Bogota with Mary in the early '80s, in what was then the pickpocket capital of the world, David, a man of the world, taught us how to spot pickpockets and thus enjoy ourselves fearlessly as we walked along the downtown streets of Bogota.
I took that lesson back with me to the States and later told David how, one day, in the heart of Hollywood and amid a crowd of people, I saw two people approaching on the sidewalk. Suddenly there was only one, and the fellow in front of me came right up front with some question, gesticulating to distract me, and yet I'd sensed the presence of that other fellow who'd snuck around behind me.
With the perspicacity of a wised-up traveler, I reached around just in time to grab for my wallet and turned quickly to the young man behind me.
"You're not good enough for this," I told him. "You better get a new career."
"Whaddya mean?" he stammered, almost insulted, of course.
The man was clearly in denial. You'd almost think he believed his own protestations of innocence.
"Don't give me that crap," I said, and repeated myself. "I know what's going on, and you're just not good enough for this!"
Meanwhile, I told David, the other guy in front of me was starting to crack up, laughing; pretty soon, you'd think, hed be rolling on the sidewalk.
"Just get out of here," I said to the failed pickpocket, waving him away. "And if you're smart, you'll get yourself another career."
And so they took off, one embarrassed; the other laughing heartily. I made his day, even if they didn't score a wallet this time. I owed that small victory to David's lessons in Bogota.
And then I told David about the panhandler who stopped me one day nearby where Mary works and asked,
"Brother, can you spare a quarter? I'm trying to keep from committing a robbery. I'm not kidding you. I'm --
"Here," I obliged. "Take fifty cents."
But it wasn't easy to match David's stories.
As Ambassador to Egypt from Colombia, David had completed his monthly report, he explained; had it neatly typed up, stamped on every page with the official seal, the whole shebang right there on his desktop - just waiting to be packaged and sent out that day by special courier. I forgot to ask if the courier used handcuffs on such occasions.
As it turned out, before it got packaged and delivered, David's young son, 7 or 8 years old then, was visiting with him and liked to well, "borrow" the attaché's prayer rug. The man was quite religious, not only praying five times a day but always at exactly that moment when his alarm went off, no matter what.
So the bell rang. Ringgggg! The man didn't have his prayer rug handy and had to act fast, but he wasn't without resources. He snatched up David's official monthly report, which had been carefully and neatly laid on the desk. He then spread those pages out on the floor so he could kneel down and no doubt crumple them up - as if to suggest, perhaps, that the gods might not favor that particular report.
David wasn't thrilled with the pile of crumpled, disordered papers he left, but it was an incident with his official limousine that really got to him. The man always took too long to go to the market and run his errands, and David often wondered nervously what had happened. One day, he returned after a very long absence, walking up without the car and with a big grin on his face.
"He was smiling from ear to ear" when he finally arrived. "'Wonderful news,' he said."
David stared, waiting for an explanation, and finally heard what the man was so very pleased about. There had been a political demonstration, he said.
"God favored me," he insisted. He had been fated to be in a terrible accident, he explained, as credibly as he could. It banged up the car, enough that it was towed away, and yet he'd come out of it without a scratch.
"Because God favored me!" And he was still grinning.
"Wonderful," David said. "You're fired!"
Although David was indeed comfortable and got on famously with all sectors of society, rich and poor, religious and non-religious alike, he was nobody's fool.
Probably one reason he was appointed as Ambassador was the then-emerging pattern in various countries of refurbishing their images by appointing popular and well respected writers to diplomatic posts.
Yet he proved more than once that he was also a perfect diplomat. He had special insights and really knew the people he was dealt with. On one visit with us in Los Angeles, he brought me the perfect gift, recalling that I told him once that I'd finally come up with a perfect epitaph for my gravestone: "I've looked everywhere else."
He handed it me the gift, a little key chain with a small copper plaque. Engraved upon it was the inscription: "Here are the f-cking keys!"
As you might expect of a storyteller, David clearly had a great supply of stories, including that one about his attaché. Around the time he fired the guy, David sent an official proclamation appointing our handsome cat, Snapshot, as the new Ambassador's "cattaché." AR Correpondent Ron Kenner is a book editor who formerly worked on the Metro staff of the Los Angeles Times. Write him at email@example.com