Antonio Benitez-Rojo







Woman in Battle Dress



(City Lights Books, 2015)















We entered Smolensk after bivouacking against the rampart. Napoleon and the Royal Guard were already there, and this time the city looked like a replica of Moscow, but on a smaller scale. Like Moscow, it had been burned and evacuated by the Russians before being sacked by our own troops, and was now swarming with vendors and buyers conducting their business in improvised markets. Since it had been chosen as a hub for communications between Moscow and Vilna, I knew that it would be heavily fortified, with convalescent hospitals, and large stores of ammunition and provisions. Although it was now much more crowded, its appearance was every bit as lamentable as a few months before. Its colors were the black of charred ruins, the gray of stone walls, and the white of snow that blanketed its streets and rooftops.

It all happened very quickly. I was on my way to the General Staff Headquarters when a mob of foot soldiers wielding battle axes and fixed bayonets streamed into a side street and began assaulting a provisions depot with such violence and clamor it was as through they were attacking an enemy position. Cheval spooked, I tried to bring him under control, he reared up, slipped on the ice and that’s where my memory goes blank. I came to in a hospital ward, lying on a straw-stuffed pallet situated between a wall and a Russian with compresses over his eyes. My astrakhan coat had disappeared and I was covered by a green cloth which, once upon a time, had lined a billiard table. My head hurt horribly and I could barely move my left arm. I was also cold and nauseated, but above all I could feel a growing panic rising within me: had the doctor who had attended to me discovered my secret?

Uneasy, I nevertheless drifted back to sleep, awaking in the middle of the night with a terrible need to urinate. I raised myself up on my good elbow and lifted my head, which still hurt terribly. I noted that it was bandaged and I could feel a large swollen place above my ear. The ward was poorly lit, but I could make out various women attending to the patients. I called out several times and one of them hurried over to me, almost at a run. She helped me to stand and took me to the latrine. Walking brought on such dizziness that, without her help, I would never have managed even a single step. She asked me my name and to which regiment I belonged. I didn’t answer. At that moment I could remember only that my name was Henriette Faber-Cavent and that I shouldn’t say so. She continued talking without pause, speaking in a classical, old-fashioned French. She wore a faded ball gown, very outdated, with a chestnut-colored velvet bodice, and over that, nothing to keep her warm but a silk shawl wrapped about her head and neck. Her name was Nadezhda and she told me that my arm was not broken; the worst of my injuries was the contusion on my head, although I was fortunate that the skin had not been broken. I guessed that my hat had cushioned the blow, and I asked after my coat and horse. She claimed to know nothing. They had brought me in along with two others who’d been wounded and, like them, all I had been wearing were the clothes currently on my back.

“Did they, by any chance, leave a painting, a portrait of a woman wearing a shako?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Those who brought you here left nothing.”

I remembered that my fictitious name was Enrique Fuenmayor, from Havana.

“My name is Enrique Fuenmayor, from Havana, on the island of Cuba. I’m with the General Staff. I’m an assistant to Baron Larrey.”

“We shall sort everything out tomorrow. I’ll see to making the proper inquiries,” she said, smiling tenderly, then gave me a sip of water and a spoonful of cognac.

I awoke before dawn. The Russian was also awake. He was humming the same song over and over again. He didn’t seem to feel the cold. He was a sergeant with an Uhlan regiment. My head and arm still hurt and, although I wasn’t hungry, I felt a dull ache in my stomach. Trusting that the day would bring good news, I sank lazily into a torpor, quite placid, despite the delirious cries of someone in the center of the ward who carried on a conversation, almost at a shout, with his wife and children.

I saw him come in with Nadezhda, navigating the rows of pallets, and I thought I might weep with happiness.

“Henriette . . . dear girl! Thank God you’re alive!” he exclaimed. Abruptly, he dropped a large bundle to the floor, held out his arms in his customary gesture of resignation, and squatted down next to me. He was wearing an enormous bearskin coat and a hat with earflaps. He looked well.

“Oh, Uncle!” I whispered and, unable to control myself, I began to cry.

“I’ve found you at last, my child! Oh, thank goodness!” he said, clearly moved.

“Here I am,” I said, trying to smile through the tears. “I fell off my horse.”

“I’ve already spoken with the doctor who attended to you. It could have been worse,” he said, beginning to remove my bandages. “A contusion. Are you nauseated? How is your vision?”

“It’s not serious. I was able to get up last night. My arm hurts too.”

“I’ll bleed you a bit. Then we’ll have a look at your arm. I’ll be right back.”

With Nadezhda’s assistance, he let blood from a vein in my wounded arm. Afterwards, he gave me wine from his canteen and we talked awhile, catching up. Petit was alive. He had managed to join with the General Staff and was now traveling with Larrey, transferring wounded Guardsmen to hospitals. Doubtlessly, we would soon see them arrive here. The campaign was going from bad to worse. Vitebsk had been lost and it was no longer possible to stay in Smolensk.

“We are only waiting for Prince Eugène to return before we be- gin our retreat,” he explained. He was surprised to learn that Alfred was with the Vistula Legion and he asked me if I wanted to see him. I said no. I preferred to go see him myself, once I had recovered. I begged him not to send for him. I didn’t want him to see me like that.

“When will I be better? Tomorrow, the day after?” I asked.

“You don’t appear to have broken anything, but the blow to your head was powerful. We shall see, child. We shall see. You should stay warm. I’ve brought you my cloak and a wool blanket,” he said, indicating the bundle he’d brought with him.

“One more thing, Uncle,” I said, feigning nonchalance. “Has my secret been discovered?”

“That’s not important now. The important thing is that you recover.”

“Tell me, Uncle. Please.”

“The doctor said nothing to me about it. As you know, it’s not that unusual to see women dressed as soldiers. If a problem arises, I’ll speak with him. The woman who came to find me, the one who helped with the bloodletting . . . she knows. But I’ll pay her to stay quiet.”

“What will become of me?” I said, dejected, ignoring his words. “They’ll throw me out of the army. I won’t be able to finish my studies. This is a disaster!” I wailed.

“I already told you,” he insisted. “Everything will be all right. I’ll have Larrey put me in charge of this hospital. You must calm down. The most important thing is that you recover quickly,” he added. Then he folded the green cloth several times, placed it under my head, and covered me with the blanket and cloak.

But after he had gone I couldn’t stop thinking of the consequences my unmasking could bring. If only the Uhlan would stop humming that same song!

Nadezhda came at noon with a cup of horse broth and a small piece of sweet bread.

“This is all you should eat for now. Doctor Cavent gave me wine, caviar, and peach compote for you. . . . Perhaps tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow I’ll be leaving here,” I muttered, scarcely looking at her.

“Very well. We shall celebrate the occasion,” she said in a low, soft voice, a voice that Enrique Fuenmayor would have liked to have. “The doctor will be by to see you in a little while, Henriette,” she added, raising her eyebrows in a signal that it was useless to go on pretending. “Doctor Muret.”

“I suppose he knows everything.”

“Doctor Cavent has already spoken with him. You have nothing to fear from him.”

“And from you?”

“Of course not. Consider me your friend, an old friend. I know what difficulties you’ve had to overcome. . . . But here comes Doctor Muret.”

Suddenly, upon seeing her face from a different angle, I rec- ognized the woman from my painting. The same Byzantine nose, though the green of her eyes was not quite as intense and maybe the corner of her lip. . . .

“Enrique Fuenmayor. Am I correct?” said the surgeon, stopping at the foot of my pallet. “How do you feel?”

“I feel fine,” I said, grateful for his tact. “Although my head still hurts . . . and my arm.”

“I have some tobacco. It helps with the pain.”

“No, thank you.”


“Cognac is fine. But I’d sell my soul to the devil for a bit of laudanum.”

“So would I,” he smiled. His outfit made him look like a buffoon in a theater company: Russian boots made of black felt, a Dutch lancer’s red culottes, a sheepskin jacket and a white cape like the ones worn by our cuirassiers, except with an insignia from a corps I didn’t recognize. He laid his hand across my forehead and said, “You don’t have a fever. Eat sparingly and stay bundled up. The arm is nothing. Tonight I’ll bleed it and massage it with arnica.”

“When do you think—”

“Three or four days if all goes well,” he said, abruptly concluding his exam, crouching now over the Uhlan.

“Ask him if he remembers his name yet,” he said to Nadezhda, who immediately began speaking in Russian.

The man shook his head no. Then he said a few words.

“He has remembered another song.”

The Uhlan began humming the same tune I had been hearing for hours on end. A sad and monotonous melody, in a minor key.

“It’s a lullaby,” said Nadezhda, surprised. “A Siberian song that I know well,” and she began to sing it quietly in her beautiful voice.

“Well, something’s better than nothing. That’s six songs, counting this one. I’d appreciate it if you’d translate the words and record them in my notebook. Perhaps they’ll provide us with a clue,” said Doctor Muret. “Now, bring me some fresh compresses.”

While Nadezhda went to carry out the order, the doctor delicately uncovered the man’s eyes. I expected to see empty eye-sockets or a scar from burns or shrapnel, but no, his grayish-brown eyes appeared healthy. When he turned his head toward me, I saw his pupils slide across mine and fix upon the wall beside me. His Asiatic face became animated and he whispered something.

“What is he saying?” Muret asked Nadezhda, who had just returned.

“More or less the same as always.”

“Tell me exactly.”

Nadezhda looked at me and raised her eyebrows, warning me of something.

“He says he has just greeted a French Hussar, a handsome young man, and a tall, plump woman with gray hair. It’s the first time he’s seen them and he assumes that they are new on the ward.”

I was startled.

“Are these people you know?” Muret asked me, anxiously. “Answer me, please!”

“Two loved ones I’ve lost forever,” I said, trembling. Muret returned his gaze to the wall and shrugged his shoulders. Then he poured a musk-scented oil onto the new compresses and placed them over the Uhlan’s eyes. He stood up and said to me: “A fascinating case. I am keeping this man under my protection. He complains of pain in his eyes. He says it’s from seeing. . . . In any case, do not be afraid. He won’t bother you. Try to sleep,” he advised me, and continued making his rounds with Nadezhda.

After the bloodletting and the warm prickle of the arnica, already deep into the night, I felt a body at my side. I turned. It was Nadezhda. I was happy to have her near me, lying next to me; I couldn’t sleep and now at least I’d have someone to talk to.

“I need to rest for a while,” she said. “I feel a bit weak at night.”

I propped myself up on one elbow. “It doesn’t surprise me. It must be late, although I’ve slept so much that I’m not tired.” The clairvoyant Uhlan had stopped humming. No one was ranting, snoring, or coughing, and an icy silence floated around us.

“Do you feel any better? “ she asked me.

“I think so.”

“You loved the Hussar, didn’t you?”

“Very much. He was my husband. How is it possible for this man to know?”

“There is nothing physically wrong with him, but his vision reaches into the world of the dead. He doesn’t know who he is. He has no memories. Only songs. He was already here in the hospital when Doctor Muret and I arrived. He complains of pain in his eyes. He says it’s from seeing the dead. It’s not so rare a case as you might think. I have met people with similar gifts. Usually it’s poor people, monks and peasants. Although sometimes. . . . These things have always happened in Russia. They will go on happening.”

“What are you doing here, among the French?”

“I learned French as a child. Almost my entire family died in Smolensk. I wanted to come see them before they died. The youngest died at the other end of this ward. I have remained here because I am waiting for something. Something is coming. Something that will arrive accompanied by wind and light. It will arrive after you have already left. You would understand me better had you been born in my country. . . . I’ve always wanted to go to Paris. Hopefully I’ll go one day yet. Have you been to Paris?”

I nodded. I was cold. I couldn’t understand how the Uhlan could sleep uncovered. I touched Nadezhda’s cheek. It was frozen.

“Aren’t you cold?”

“Why did you look at me so strangely, you know, this morning? Do I remind you of someone?”

“You look like the woman in my painting. It’s of a woman wearing an officer’s shako. But I’ve lost it. Someone stole it from me. That painting meant a great deal to me. I liked the title the painter had given it.”

Woman in Battle Dress,” she whispered.

I felt a chill run down my spine. I felt my arm hairs stand on end. I looked away from her and lay my head back against the pallet. It occurred to me that I was dreaming, that Nadezhda didn’t really exist, and that the Uhlan who had seen Robert and Aunt Margot was part of the dream as well.

“I have frightened you,” she said, brushing my forehead with an icy finger. “Do not be afraid. If I am here beside you it is because it is meant to be this way.”

“Are you the woman in my painting?”

“I am Nadezhda Ivánova. I come from far away. I have nothing to do with the woman in your painting,” she said, in a teasing tone. “They are selling your painting in the square, right here, in front of the hospital.”

“Is that true?” I said, sitting up again.

“I’ll buy it tomorrow. Your uncle gave me some money. It’s a beautiful painting. Very striking. Do you really think that I look like her?”

The Uhlan sergeant took up his tune again. But this time it was all right. Now everything about the night was just fine.

“Your hands are very cold,” I said. “If you want, you may put them under my cloak.”


I felt her frigid fingers above my heart. I felt them skillfully un- button my vest and seek out my nipples through my shirt. I felt my nipples swell. I moved closer to her, face to face. Her breath caressed me. I kissed her.



Woman in Battle Dress was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Translation Award.










Bio about Antonio Benitez-Rojo


Antonio Benítez Rojo (March 14, 1931 – January 5, 2005) was a Cuban novelist, essayist and short-story writer. He was widely regarded as the most significant Cuban author of his generation. His work has been translated into nine languages and collected in more than 50 anthologies.

Born in Havana, he lived in Cuba with his mother and stepfather from the age of seven. In the mid-1950s, backed by United Nations grants, Benítez-Rojo studied statistics at the United States Department of Labor and Commerce, and later studied in Mexico. Turning down offers to work in Chile or Geneva, he returned to Cuba in 1958 and became head of the Statistics Bureau at Cuba’s Labor Ministry.

Benítez-Rojo began working at the Ministry of Culture in 1965 and won the Premio Casa de las Américas for the short story collection Tute de reyes in 1967. The following year, he won a writers’ union prize of a trip to a socialist country; however, the government did not permit him to leave Cuba.

By 1975, Benítez-Rojo had been made head of Casa de las Américas, the publishing house run by the Cuban government. Sea of Lentils, the English translation of his novel El mar de las lentejas, was selected by The New York Times as one of the Notable Books of 1992 in 1980, he was given permission to attend a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris. He traveled from Paris to Berlin, obtained a US tourist visa, and came to the United States, where he became a professor of Spanish at Amherst. The Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College holds a collection of his papers.

One of his most influential publications, La Isla que se Repite, was published in 1989 by Ediciones del Norte. He died in 2005.



Work :


Tute de Reyes, 1967

El escudo de hojas secas, 1969

Los inquilinos 1976

Heroica, 1977

El mar de las lentejas (The Sea of Lentils), 1979

« La isla que se repite: El Caribe y la perspectiva posmoderna », 1989 (first introduced in English as an essay, translated by James Maraniss and published as « The Repeating Island » (New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, v. VII, n. 4, Summer 1985) then republished in book form as The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (Duke University Press, 1992; second edition 1996).

Antología Personal (Personal Anthology), 1997

Mujer en traje de batalla (Women in Battle Dress), 2001

Woman in Battle Dress—Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell (City Lights, 2015)


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Jessica Powell has translated numerous Latin American authors, including works by César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Cardenal, Maria Moreno, Ana Lidia Vega Serova and Edmundo Paz Soldán. Her translation (with Suzanne Jill Levine) of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, was published by Melville House in 2013. She is the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in support of her translation of Antonio Benítez- Rojo’s novel Woman in Battle Dress, which was also a finalist for the 2016 PEN Center Literary Award for Translation.  Her most recent translation, of Pedro Cabiya’s novel, Wicked Weeds, was published in 2016 by Mandel Vilar Press. She is currently translating Pablo Neruda’s Venture of the Infinite Man, forthcoming from City Lights Books in 2017. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA.


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