Just Lather, That's All

by Hernando Téllez

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What is ironic about Hernando Tellez's short story Just Lather, That's All and what type of irony is it?

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Hernando Tellez’s short story Just Lather, That’s All is supremely ironic in the “situational” sense in which “irony” can be defined.  The reader expects the story to follow a certain path based upon what he or she has read so far, but the path diverges, sometimes radically, from that anticipated direction. Tellez’s story involves situational irony in two ways.  The first involves the narrator/barber’s internal thoughts, which diverge radically from the path one might expect – a path that crosses the line between drama and humor.  The barber is surprised (‘dismayed’ might be a better word) by the identity of the customer who enters his place of business.  The customer is the local military official for the province, town, village, whatever, during a time of revolutionary fervor across the country. As most people know, human rights are not particularly well-respected in many less-developed countries in which guerrilla factions are active – factions that might have emerged as a result of systemic government brutality.  Tellez, of course, is Colombian, a country with a long, rich history of bloody insurrection and government-sponsored brutality. He makes very clear that the barbershop into which the military commander, Captain Torres, has entered sits in the midst of such insurrection and brutality.  And, the barber, as he acknowledges, is a revolutionary. As such, the reader fully anticipates that the barber, tasked by Captain Torres to shave his four-day-old beard, will use his notably sharpened (“I was stropping my best razor”) straight razor to slit the captain’s throat.  As the barber notes, “ . . .with the enemy in my house, I felt a certain responsibility.”

Here is where the first instance of irony comes in:

“Yes.  I was secretly a revolutionary, but at the same time I was a conscientious barber, proud of  the way I did my job.”

Tellez’s protagonist may be a revolutionary sickened by the presence of this military commander, who boasts of torturing and executing rebel prisoners for entertainment, but he is a barber first. The following passage encapsulates this conundrum spendidly:

“The razor kept descending.  Now from the other sideburn downward. It was a blue beard, a thick one. He should let it grow, some poets, or some priests.   It would suit him well.  Many people would not recognize him.  And that would be a good thing for him, I thought, as I went gently over all the throat line.   At t his point, you really had to handle your blade skillfully, because the hair, while scantier, tended to fall into small whorls.  It was a curly beard.  The pores might open minutely in this area and let out a tiny drop of blood. A good barber like myself stakes his reputation on not permitting that to happen to any of his customers.”

And, then, for good measure, the barber boasts of his abilities, “. . .I am a good barber, the best in this town, and I say this in all modesty.”

He is not oblivious as to the irony in his situation (“I am a revolutionary, but not a murderer.”), reiterating to himself the blood of his companions that stains this customer’s hands.  He is adamant, however, that his pride in his professionalism will not compel him to change his nature: 

“I don’t want to stain my hands with blood. Just with lather, and nothing else.  You are an executioner; I am only a barber.  Each one to his job.  That’s it. Each one to his job.”

This is a fine example of situational irony, the commitment to his profession over the military and political imperative of killing Captain Torres.  The greater irony, though, is in the surprise delivered by Captain Torres in the story’s final sentences.  The captain’s parting comment – “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.” – strongly suggests that the captain is more situationally aware than the reader has been led to anticipate, and that he is cognizant of the moral boundaries on the far side of which he operates on a daily basis.

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