Lather and Nothing Else, originally titled in Spanish as “Espuma y nada más” the widely read short story by Colombian journalist Hernando Tellez and published in 1950 chronicles the dilemma of a revolutionary living under the garb of a barber and thud hiding his inclination towards the ongoing rebellion in the nation. The conflict arises out of his inability to decide his course of action regarding his enemy i.e. Captain Torres’ life. The story powerfully exhibits the trap of responsibilities and adhering loyalties humans like the barber are confined to which often leads to situational complexities and indecisiveness.
Lather and Nothing Else | Summary
The story is set in a salon where a customer asks the barber in the shop for a clean shave. The customer turns out to be none other than Captain Torres, a man belonging to the military force and hence responsible for the innumerable deaths of rebels protesting against the contemporary regime. The plot moves ahead with conversations between the two about the punishments for the rebels and the political scenario of the town, revealing the barber’s hidden revolutionary ideas. Apart from the conversation between the two men, there is also a conversation between the barber with himself as he experiences a dilemma as to whether to kill the Captain or not as a rare opportunity knocking his door. The process and tools of shaving can allow an easy and clean death to the Captain and avenge the death of all the former’s fellow companions but at the same time also holds a possibility of denying any heroism and rather ascription of the tag of a coward to his name. Professional commitments hold precedence over social loyalty and hence he lets the Captain go alive. But the story culminates with a remarkable and ironic twist of revelation concerning the Captain’s knowledge of the barber’s revolutionary acts and the former’s meeting as a judgment ploy to test the barber’s skills as well as his courage to kill.
Lather and Nothing Else | Context
The story is presumably set in Columbia during the ten-year civil war that led to horrific violence prominently known as “La Violencia,” resulting in innumerable deaths and bloodshed due to the political conflict between Columbian Conservative Party and Columbian Liberal Party.
Lather and Nothing Else | Analysis
Tellez’s suspense-filled narrative is a compelling tale of human dilemma and inner conflict. The author opts for a first-person narrator and it is through him i.e. the barber that the readers view the exchange between him and the Captain in the salon. The in-media res opening of the story refuses to reflect on the contemporary political and social scenario but leaves the task on the gradual unfolding and progression of the plot. The contextual assumption of “La Violencia” sets in line with the unexplained background events in the story as well as the author’s biography.
At the outset, the narrative is simple and uncomplicated but systematically shapes into suspense keeping the readers hooked regarding the barber’s decision to kill Captain Torres. Both parties stand at the opposite end of the regime and also engage in violence at their own levels. However, the barber’s participation is debatable as he serves to be a rebel spy supplying information about the enemy’s movements to his group. But he nonetheless has been a witness to violence and brutal punishments for the rebels.
In an interesting juxtaposition of ideas, the author exposes how the barber is so careful while shaving the Captain’s beard to prevent even a drop of blood to ooze out from him but contrastingly the latter does not pay any consideration while taking the lives of the revolutionaries by hanging them and creating a spectacle out of it. But to turn the tables, the author provides scenic detailing of the razor’s precise movements on the Captain’s face and equates the shaving tool to a powerful weapon holding not only the fate of the Captain’s life but also the barber’s reputation. The barber is in a conundrum as to whether adhere to his professional ethics or step into the shoes of an assassinator. If he chooses to kill his enemy, what difference would it accord to him in relation to his enemy’s personality who also has been mercilessly killing people in order to penalize them for their actions? The barber’s predicament is highlighted by his distress:
“Confound the hour he entered my shop! I am a revolutionary but not a murderer. And it would be so easy to kill him. He deserves it. Or does he? No, damn it! No one deserves the sacrifice others make in becoming assassins. What is to be gained by it? Nothing. Others and still others keep coming, and the first kill the second, and then these kill the next, and so on until everything becomes a sea of blood. I could cut his throat, so, swish, swish! He would not even have time to moan, and with his eyes shut he would not even see the shine of the razor or the gleam in my eye.”
Ending the life of one enemy would not ensure the achievement of the group’s purpose because murderers are not born but made. The regime against which the barber and his group are fighting might find another person in command to fill in the Captain’s role and the cycle of violence would never terminate.
The anticipation to avenge the death of his men by killing the Captain and become a hero clashes with the possibility of the same act turning against him by attributing him the title of a coward killing an off-duty defenseless man:
“And so, which will it be? Murderer or hero? My fate hangs on the edge of this razor blade.”
However, he moves ahead with the moral viewpoint and lets the Captain go alive. Now this benevolent and sparing gesture may be deemed as moralistic and ethical as the barber stands up to his responsibility binding his profession. But a close reading suggests letting away the Captain as a display of an inherent lack of courage and firm resolution in the barber. Indecisiveness operates throughout the story and to avenge the death of his fellow fighters fails to hold precedence over his professional dictates.
Amidst the internal friction of ideas, the unforeseen twist of the Captain’s existing knowledge about the barber’s revolutionary support alters the viewpoint. ‘Knowledge is power’ as Sir Francis Bacon famously said and the power equation changes in favor of the Captain as soon as it is revealed that he purposely ventured into the salon to test the barber’s intentions:
“They told me you would kill me. I came to find out if it was true. But it’s not easy to kill. I know what I’m talking about.”
Up till the revelation, the power resided with the barber who is unable to decide his course of action but the Captain snatches that power with his knowledge. However, the Captain’s words are ambiguous, and in this vagueness lay the pun he plays with to baffle both the barber and the reader. His words can possibly mean the infamous opinions of men in the town about the barber’s skills at shaving or the other more plausible notion of the Captain’s inquiry.
Even though both didn’t kill each other despite possessing their own respective weapons- the razor and the pistol where one is in action and the other at rest, the situation’s complexity cannot be dismissed. The clarity of thought or its lack thereof at the culmination of the story paints the narrative in the colors of suspense and mystery, leaving it to the readers to decide on the agreeability of the barber’s moral impetus against the shrewdness of the Captain.
Lather and Nothing Else | Themes
Central to the story is a conflict that a man encounters against society and against his own self. Should he fulfill his social responsibility as a revolutionary and avenge the death of his people by murdering the murderer himself or should he adhere to the professional dictates that expect him to give out the best and safe service to his client? The onus of both acts is huge and it is excruciating to arrive at a decision where the consequences weigh equally on each side. To resolve a conflict of this nature requires a heavy reliance on the achievement and maximization of inner satisfaction which in the story, the barber finds it proceeding ahead with his moral instincts.
There are multiple power equations operating in the narrative— the power of violence, of weapons, of knowledge, of social position, and of the profession. Captain Torres’ with his military rank and pistol siding with the nation’s political regime upholds the dominating position over the barber who is a common man providing service at a salon with his razor blade but harbors revolutionary ideals secretly. While the otherwise unequal power equation transforms momentarily during the Captain’s shaving routine, it falls back to the conventional order after the revelation of the Captain’s intention plaguing his visit. The story in a way proposes the idea that certain thoughts require immediate actions to grab the opportunity for control and reformation.
Lather and Nothing Else | Characters
Barber – Serving as the narrator of the story, the barber is a conflicting character trapped in a dilemma dividing his intentions as loyal revolutionary fighting for the just cause and a professional barber known for delivering the best service in town. While his decision not to kill the Captain is popularly read as moralistic, it can also be analyzed as an exhibit of the lack of courage he possessed to send his enemy to the chambers of death. In this case, he can either be a man who values ethics over revenge or one of those men who preach action but fail to perform at the right time.
Captain Torres – Appearing to be a calm and composed customer in the beginning, he turns out to be a man belonging to the military ranks and thus a man from the opposition accountable for killing the rebels. His intolerance towards the revolution and pleasure in punishing the perpetrators of social order charts his character as a sadistic man of authority. But his revelation towards the end about the deliberateness of getting a shave from the barber to test him accords courage for risking his own life in the hands of an enemy. This exemplifies his spirit and alertness as a defense professional serving his nation.
Lather and Nothing Else | Literary Devices
“It’s hot as the devil.”
“The skin will yield like silk, like rubber, like the strop.”
“I was secretly a revolutionary, but at the same time I was a conscientious barber, proud of the way I did my job.”
“But the blood would go flowing, along the floor, warm, indelible, not to be stanched, until it reached the street, like a small scarlet river.”
The barber as well as the reader is unaware until the end of the story about Captain Torres’ knowledge of the barber as a revolutionary and thus an enemy.
Lather — The shaving foam signifies the soapy bubble of conflict and dilemma that the barber finds himself drenched in his hands in. The lather is a medium through which Captain Torres can get rid of his four-day beard growth but it can also be the way through which the barber can kill the Captain without any resistance.
Razor — A mundane and everyday tool, the razor in this short story symbolizes the power of the common man as it has the potential to translate into a weapon of revenge when the situation favors the oppressed.