I’ve been struggling all day with “Zapatos.” I find it very difficult to write about short stories—which frustrates me even more because I really like the form. But I will not capitulate; I will do my work. (I swear, I will give up on the work jokes soon.)
T.C. Boyle opens the story with the enigmatic sentence, “There is, essentially, one city in our country.” The country is never specified explicitly, but it’s pretty clearly Chile.
The point about this country, regardless, is that the people there really like to wear Italian leather shoes. “Oh, you can get by with a pair of domestically made pumps or cordovans of the supplest sheepskin, or even, in the languid days of summer, with huaraches or Chinese slippers made of silk or even nylon,” the narrator admits. “But the truth is, what everyone wants—for the status, the cachet, the charm and refinement—are the Italian loafers and ankle boots, hand-stitched and wtih a grain as soft and rich as, well—is this the place to talk of the private parts of girls still in school?” Let me just take a moment to say, I want these shoes.
Anyway, the narrator’s uncle sells them, or tries to. The margins are not good—imported shoes are heavily taxed, along with most other imported consumer goods. People are always walking by the uncle’s shoe store in their fine Italian footwear that he knows fell off the back of a truck, or whatever happens in China (we do find out). And he is determined to compete.
So we learn that the country has two free ports, where you can buy things duty-free—but to get them back into the city, you have to pay duty, “the same stultifying duty merchants like Uncle Dagoberto were obliged to pay.”
And why then had the government set up the free ports in the first place? In order to make digital audio tape and microwaves available to themselves, of course, and to set up discreet banking enterprises for foreigners, by way of generating cash flow—and ultimately, I think, to frustrate the citizenry. To keep us in our place. To remind us that government is unfriendly.
But Uncle Dagoberto does what businessmen everywhere do, when they can: he finds a way to thwart that unfriendly government and get his hands on some duty-free shoes. Or at least, ones that are almost duty-free. And he needs his nephew’s help to do it.
So the narrator, a student of hermeneutics and deconstruction who takes his Derrida on a business trip, heads to Freeport. And he has to become a businessman, his uncle telling him about a lot of shoes going up for auction the next morning, and that he must “[b]uy them or die.” He does, and Uncle Dagoberto has pulled off a magnificent trick, too good to spoil in a blog post.
That was two years ago.
Today, Uncle Dagoberto is the undisputed shoe king of our city. He made such a killing on that one deal that he was able to buy his way into the cartel that “advises” the government. He has a title now—Undersecretary for International Trade—and a vast, brightly lit office in the President’s palace.
I’ve changed too, though I still live with my mother on La Calle Verdad and I still attend the university. …I no longer study semantics, hermeneutics, and the deconstruction of deconstruction, but have instead been pursuing a degree in business. It only makes sense. After all, the government doesn’t seem half so unfriendly these days.
So where’s the work, you ask? It happens fast; you could almost miss it if you blinked. Two customs-house auctions and the work is done—although, of course, Uncle Dagoberto does have 30,000 pairs of Italian shoes to sell at the end of it, and presumably keeps selling more, at least for a while. But I find the example very interesting: Dagoberto’s work is thwarted (his real work, of simple shoe-selling), so he comes up with a clever plan to get ahead. He’s a businessman, and the only way to expand his business is to get out from under these restrictions (which, of course, don’t apply to everyone). But once he does this, those same restrictions are what enable him to stop working. Now he has his big bright office, dispensing “advice.” For a price, the price of just a bit of work, Dagoberto ensures himself the luxury of not working forever after.