Portrait of a Nobleman with His Hand on His Chest
Derelict buildings−ornate with ads, air cons and exposed pipes−as having a life of their own; flashy new towers; busy pedestrians crossing in every direction; trams rattling across Des Voeux Road; the city roar; the streets of Central set the stage for the strolling and conversations with my best friend, Guillermo. There was a time we felt as protagonists. Later, age sent us to the side lines. He was transferred to Shanghai and my office moved to Causeway Bay.
Guillermo has everything I miss, above all self-confidence. He is debonair, tall, dresses like a dandy, and even at a distance he is a paragon of good manners. Undulate silver-gray hair, straight nose, sparkling eyes in chestnut colour and a naughty expression, he has undeniable good looks. Already 50 and the damsels turn their heads, what he never fails to reward with a smile. It is not rare to stop to greet a girl, or not so young now. “She is an ex”. “Another ex?”
We have been friends for 17 years, since I came to Hong Kong. Born the same year in the same place, we share a similar background. Same values, rooted in a traditional education with a liberal and libertarian outlook, both comfortable in the contradictions of our cultural mindset, one of our favourite topics. Above all we share a passion for life, for a superior life of wide horizons and curiosity, of concern for fellow human beings, the love of art, the devotion for girls as the most extraordinary creatures…, and we are united by our unique football team.
He has become a family man. And he is a very gifted man. His French is still flawless, as though he were using it daily, which is not the case, while I can only barely read it. And about music? He was impressed when I discovered to him the Gramophone Guide and Diapason magazine, supposedly the epitome of classical music criticism. Proud of my CD collection from Mozart to Stravinsky, however, I am not able to understand as Guillermo does his smaller repertoire. He goes to the core and can articulate in words the marvels and the experience of a timeless masterpiece. Because of his extraordinary ability to see clearly when all is blurred I recur to him once and again. He is my best counselor and the greatest source of encouragement.
To one of my latest questions he was reticent to reply.
“Do you think George Orwell was right? That our war was a war between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’?”
“Whenever you ask me something I feel startled and become apprehensive about what you are going to ask, propose, suggest… You are an intellectual because you want and you can. I am not an intellectual because I cannot… It all goes with its compensation−not to be one, I mean−but also its wants…”
“Guillermo, you are an authority for me, this is why I ask you.”
We would only say this over email, and just sparingly. We cannot pronounce flattery or sugary remarks face to face. Besides this natural modesty, most of the time we will be teasing, wittingly, or talking on the trivial, prosaic, the hilarious. But it is true I don’t know of other person with a gift to sharply deduct a solution from very few facts. His wise advice has saved me in terrible personal anxiety and serious professional troubles, a prudence in detail, what to say, what to avoid. He has also survived to turbulent times and two takeovers. “In the bank you just count sheep”, he says. “One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…”
Partly for his obvious proverbial intelligence, I secretly reproach he is wasting his talents reading novels and biographies and popular history, books usually devoid of serious scholarly foundation. He is struck at my readings and perplexed with my erratic interests, from West African textiles to Song ceramics.
Guillermo also paints. He is an amateur. He resents I never hanged the portrait he made for me after El Greco’s Portrait of a Nobleman with His hand on His Chest. In older times a symbol of every young Spaniard with a zest for becoming an intellectual, the gentleman looks ahead, high minded, spiritual aspirations dominating over material concerns. We wanted to emulate the ancestral mores. The elaborate sword’s hilt missing, and instead of a black doublet and white ruff I was wearing a morning coat, for Guillermo took as a model my wedding photograph. He achieved a properly diffused black background but the portrait was made in a rush. I appreciated the gesture, but he did not take much effort. My hand was not on my chest. He even insisted stubbornly to buy the cheapest canvas, over cardboard, while I had offered to pay a wooden frame canvas. I still remember quarreling in the art supplies shop in Wellington Street, his nonchalant way of even painting your portrait. After moving house so many times I have lost trace of it, but I am sure it is still at home. It may have gained some patina by now. I shall look for it.