Cuban writer José Lezama Lima once remarked that he began to grow old the day his mother died. A similar sentiment haunts the pages of Tomb Song, the novel by Mexican writer Julián Herbert, which is both a visceral lament about his mother’s death from leukemia and a scathing portrayal of the author’s home country.
Born in Acapulco in 1971, Herbert was already known in Mexico for his poetry, his essays, and a well-received collection of short stories. Tomb Song, first published in 2011 to much critical acclaim, cemented his reputation as one of the country’s most original writers. It won the prestigious Jaén prize in Spain and the Elena Poniatowska novel prize in Mexico.
The book’s title plays on the Spanish expression for a lullaby—a cradle song. Except that here the narrator—also named Julián Herbert—is keeping vigil over his dying mother in a hospital room in the northeastern Mexican city of Saltillo and writing the book as a way of finding comfort while coming to terms with her life.
And what a life it was. Guadalupe Chávez, we learn, had been a prostitute, dragging a young Julián and his hapless siblings from town to town, changing her identity as she went from one brothel to the next. The result of this itinerant upbringing was, for Julián, utter disorientation: “It was Mamá’s fault. We traveled so much that, for me, the earth was a wickerwork polygon limited in every direction by railway lines.”
From its pathos-filled prologue to its poignant closing lines, Herbert’s novel is shot through with fury and filial love. This sounds bleak—it isn’t. Indeed, it is one of the novel’s characteristics that it is able to swing from heartbreak to grisly humor within a few lines.
Herbert the author (as well as Julián the narrator) has taken on board the essential lesson from Laurence Sterne: that digressions are the soul of reading. The bedside vigil is interrupted by long descriptions of a trip to Berlin with his pregnant wife and a surreal escapade in Havana in the company of a fictional character called Bobo Lafragua. Beyond offering relief from the unflinching observation of his mother’s disease, these meanderings also allow the author to ponder the purpose of authorship.
Critics have made much of the explicitly autobiographical nature of the novel—Tomb Song has been described as “autofiction,” “self-fiction,” or even (as French literary critics would prefer) “ego-fiction.” It has been compared to similarly autobiographical novels by other Latin American authors, including fellow Mexican Guadalupe Nettel and Chile’s Alejandro Zambra.
Herbert himself seems to relish the deliberate blurring of the line between fact and fiction, mischievously declaring in a recent interview that he has simply written “a nonfictional novel” or produced an autobiography “using a novelist’s tools.”
Among the novel’s many fruitful digressions are the author/narrator’s musings on the no-man’s-land between remembered experience and fictional representation:
When you write in the present [tense] . . . you’re generating a fiction, an involuntary suspension of grammatical disbelief. That’s why this book (if this does become a book, if my mother survives or dies in some syntactical fold that restores the meaning of my digressions) will be eventually found in bookstores, standing upright on the dustiest shelf of "novels."
Elsewhere, Herbert justifies his creative license as a result of illness: “So, from inside fever or psychosis, it’s relatively valid to write an autobiographical novel in which fantasy has set up camp. What’s important is not that events are true: what’s important is that the illness or the madness is.”
Literary sleuths aiming to tease out the correspondences between the author’s life and the author’s work may be wasting their time. It is obvious where Herbert’s loyalty lies: “In contrast to Wilde, who believed that real-life testimonies are inane and that to transcend this inanity we must embellish our perception of the real by filling our surroundings with sublime objects, I find ornamentation . . . a form of nouveaurichism, of obscenity. Transforming a collection of anecdotes into structure, on the other hand, offers the challenge of conquering a certain level of beauty.”
But transforming his mother’s agony into art brings its own moral challenges: “What I’m writing is a work of suspense. Not in its technique: in its poetics. Not for you, but for me. What will become of these pages if my mother doesn’t die?”
This authorial self-awareness hangs heavily on the narrator. Toward the end of the novel, he remembers arriving in Acapulco for a literary conference, only to be told that his father has just died in the very same city. “A muffled inner voice . . . said ‘This is good material for the ending of your novel.’ I cursed Paul Auster and his poetic feeling for chance.”
Beyond Auster, Herbert mines a varied seam of influences—from Pedro Páramo to Pulp Fiction, from The Magic Mountain to The Matrix. The cinematic canon is as conspicuous as the literary canon: “Forget it . . . it’s Chinatown,” says the fictitious Bobo Lafragua, as he and Julián traipse across the Havana night.
This potent brew of semifictions, rich in references and infused with Mexico’s vernacular Spanish, would cause even the most experienced translator to break out into a cold sweat. Christina MacSweeney has produced a version that radiates with Herbert’s original rage and raw energy, only occasionally missing the point—one of the novel’s best gags, involving a giraffe built out of Lego but also punning on an author’s giraffe-sized ego, is lost in translation.
“I always narrate in the present in the hope of finding velocity,” says the novel’s protagonist. “This time I’m doing it in the hope of finding consolation.” At heart, Tomb Song is the author’s knotty attempt to redeem his own mother and, in doing so, redeem himself.
One senses that, for Herbert, redemption may be harder to imagine for his country: “The whole of Mexico is the territory of the cruel . . . I’m a waiter in a country of waiters . . . here, all of us waiters uphold the civil code of spitting in your soup. First we waste your time with our proverbial courtesy; then we waste it with criminal stupidity. Welcome to the Sweet Nation. Tip, please.”
© Ángel Gurría Quintana. All rights reserved.
This story by Estonian writer Maimu Berg tracks a mercurial Stalin and his cowed entourage on a spontaneous trip to Tallinn.
After the film ended and the lights came on, J. V. Stalin gradually turned his face toward his companions, narrowed his eyes, and made a vague expression, so that one couldn’t understand what mood he was in. The comrades tried in every way to hide their boredom, tedium and simply their sleepiness—it was way past midnight, how far past they didn’t know. In the room where the films were shown there was no clock, and it was dangerous to peep at one’s watch: Stalin didn’t like it. Anastas Ivanovich valiantly stifled an incipient yawn. He had The Great Waltz memorized. As he did Stalin’s next remark, which was repeated every time as a conscious taunt. “A woman like that, a real little kabanikha, big face, little cunning wild-boar eyes. But her voice . . .”
“Her voice was genuine crystal, liquid crystal, Comrade Stalin,” Malenkov rushed to affirm. “A marvelous voice.”
“You, Maksimilianovich, are no expert—what do you know about singers or their voices?” Stalin eyed Malenkov’s chubby feminine face, which reminded him of old village women, with a grin. Once, at a nighttime party, Stalin had given an order to fetch a Russian scarf with a rose pattern. After a bit of searching, one was actually found, hanging from Olga the cleaner’s peg. Stalin handed the scarf to Malenkov and commanded him to tie it around his own face. “How do you want it, Josif Vissarionovich—shall I tie it under the chin or do it up or put it in a bow on top of my head? Shall I leave it inside or outside of my brow?”
“What are you babbling about, Maksimilianovich?” Stalin pronounced Malenkov’s genteel patronymic with ironic relish. “Don’t you know how to put a scarf on your head? Just put the scarf on, then we’ll have a look at how it suits you best.” Malenkov put on the scarf with trembling hands, tying a knot under the chin. The scarf was pretty, with a fringe, with pink roses on a black background and bright blue forget-me-nots and yellow daisies. It suited Malenkov’s porky red cheeks, small eyes flashing under dark eyebrows, and dainty girlish mouth very well. Everyone burst out laughing, whereupon Malenkov blushed demurely. “Baba, what a baba,” laughed the father and the sun of the Soviet people, and then he suddenly turned serious, furrowing his brow. “We’ve had a laugh, that’s enough! To bed!”
Within a few minutes the room was empty. Malenkov stood perplexed in the corridor, not daring to take off the shameful scarf. He listened for a while at the door, hearing Stalin’s coughing from inside, then everything went quiet; but before Malenkov had time to hurry away, Josif Vissarionovich opened the door. Seeing Malenkov wearing the scarf, Stalin roared: “Georgi, are you thinking of keeping the scarf on? You like it, do you?”
“Not at all, Comrade Stalin,” stammered Malenkov.
“But why not?” exclaimed Stalin. “It suits you—go and look in the mirror!”
“Of course it does, Comrade Stalin.”
“Take a look,” threatened Stalin with his finger. Malenkov vanished silently, in a flash, down the long dim corridor.
But tonight he was again in his place and this time Stalin didn’t start taunting him about wearing the scarf. The Great Waltz, which the party had had to watch to the point of boredom for several evenings, finally reached its end, the last scene, in which Kabanikha appears to Strauss in his mind’s eye in close-up, trilling her highest notes, and on the screen the words The End, Konets appeared on the screen, much anticipated by the company. “Well, Potyokhin,” said Stalin, addressing Molotov by his former code name. “What are you thinking about?”
“The film, of course. Impressive, magnificent, as always,” Molotov hurried to say.
“And you, Kliment?” Stalin looked Voroshilov in the eyes. “You’re an expert on that area.”
“Oh, what expert? Budapest isn’t Vienna! And it’s been three years since I was in Hungary.”
“Austria-Hungary,” said Stalin, almost dreamily. “Nice that we have Vienna—we should visit it again. It will soon be nearly forty years since Stavros Papadopoulos’s one and only visit there.”
“Stavros Papa . . . ?”
“Ah!” Stalin clapped his hands together.
“Stalin went there under a code name, as a Greek man,” whispered Mikoyan. Stalin looked at him severely. Mikoyan fell silent and huddled up instinctively. But soon he felt ashamed of his own timidity and straightened himself up to more than his full height.
Stalin grinned. The thought of visiting Vienna had turned his mood to melancholy. He remembered the great city from before the First World War, the parks, the squares, the Opernring and the uplifting military parade on the Ringstrasse, the manly, rhythmic quiver of the cockades on the helmets, the unsheathed swords, flags, and at the top, the enthroned Austrian eagle. It was the heyday of the Vienna Jugendstil. Stalin, too, had been pleased by Hans Kalmsteiner’s simple colorful postcards, and he had bought himself a complete set. Where had they got to afterward? Somewhere there at this time poor old Hitler was hanging around, maybe even imitating Kalmsteiner with his feeble postcards, maybe even forging them, and the pictures that he, Stalin, had got might actually be the botchings of that failed architect and politician. Well, in that case their value would be a thousand times more now!
Stalin wasn’t sure that he actually wanted to visit Vienna once again, as it had obviously changed and not for the better. At least they would no longer be holding the grand military parades with the Austrian eagle there. Why would such a shabby little country, filled with Soviet bases, have such a splendid capital, magnificent castles, churches, theaters, and parks? Like a hydrocephalic head on the scrawny neck of a deformed child. Why do those submissive beggars have Schönbrunn or the “beautiful blue Danube”? If he could have gone back in time, to the Vienna where people waltzed in the streets, where the mad Johann Strauss played his violin, and women, feminine to the core, tiptoed around in wide crinolines and large hats, raising the trains of their dresses, then perhaps Vienna might have appealed to him. That town of contrasts, where between the grand buildings there mingled with the scent of fine perfume the pleasantly soothing stink of horse manure, as it had when he visited it.
Stalin glanced at the men sitting in the cinema, who were ready, on a signal from him, to raise their bottoms from the soft armchairs to fall exhausted into bed. Into a bed where a fat woman with a creamed face was snuffling, having pulled with difficulty from puffy fingers gold rings studded with dazzling diamonds by the dimly glowing light of a dull lamp and lined them up on the bedside table. Why hurry into such chambers of horrors, stinking of dust, women’s farts, and sickly creams? The men should be thankful that he offered them more reasonable activities at night.
There sat Shvernik, continually tense, like a hunting dog ready to spring, but actually a cunning tomcat who always falls on his feet. Frowning, with his eternal little mustache under his nose. His wife has already gone to fat, and lately he himself has been putting on weight. No need to be so full of yourself, Nikolay Mikhailovich, just because you were born in St. Petersburg.
Or Nikita. Pretends to be a simple-minded and good-hearted Ukrainian, though actually he was born in Kursk Governorate and he’s really the biggest bully. He won’t go home, although Nina Petrovna is already snuffling under the orange silk eiderdown. But why orange? Nikita’s actually a dangerous chap, not to be trusted. Well, let’s see, let’s see.
And what are you grinning about, Skryabin? Want to go home? To Polina Semyonovna? You didn’t want to know when I recommended you get divorced. You did right—without your smart Jewish missus you’d be a mere nothing. Your Little Pearl is starting to get old. All right, a wrinkled face, and not much sense. Friend Potyokhin, your bright star won’t shine forever—surely you’ve learned enough from life, that it’s like the sea, with peaks and troughs valleys, always with highs and lows . . .
Anastas—erect and strong, as if he were sitting at a desk. Always in the Politburo, and there you will stay, my friend. You want to get higher? You can’t, you just can’t. You must fear, you Armenian, you must live in constant terror of a Georgian. You were the one who spread the rumor about my Jewish origins, about my father. David? Mother Keke hasn’t said anything to me—but see, Anastas knows better than me, better than my mother. Maybe he knows the truth?
So who’s that nodding off and dozing in the corner? Lazar! You’ve gone slack, brother. Where have your splendid curls gone? Good old Kogan, Kaganovich, a master cobbler like Papa Vissarion. I don’t trust cobblers—they all pound spikes into heels just as dully as they do under grubby fingernails. But they’re always money-grubbing.
Lavrenti? It was he who should have had a scarf tied around his head, a real old Merkheuli woman, a Megrelian. A secretive bastard, a careerist. During the last parade I noticed how many orders and medals the esteemed Lavrenti Pavlovich had hung on his chest. Who knows what for? Well, all right, let him have a bit of a career; we’ll get his fingers jammed in the drawer if we need to. The main thing is not to let him get too full of himself, or power will go to his head. I don’t know why, but that man makes me weepy.
Stalin got up abruptly from his armchair, and so did all the others after him. “Let’s go to Tallinn!” announced Josif Vissarionovich briskly, unexpected even to himself. The men, who had been hoping to get away easily, stared at him in astonishment. “Well, what are you looking at—so what did I say? Isn’t Tallinn the capital of one of our little constituent republics? Our own Estonian SSR?” Stalin looked from one to another. They were all silent, eyes downcast, unable to understand whether the great leader and teacher was making a bad joke or whether he meant it. Or was there something wrong with his mind? The first one to recover was Mikoyan. “Isn’t that Miliza Korjus, that Kabanikha, from Tallinn? She must be an Estonian.”
“Estonian? She’s half-Jewish,” said Stalin drily. Mikoyan blushed.
“But she hasn’t lived in Tallinn for ages,” stated Malenkov naively.
“So what?” Stalin raised an eyebrow and tapped his pipe empty on the edge of the desk. “Thinking of visiting her, were you? That’s enough for today. Off to bed! We’re not going to Tallinn today. Tomorrow we’ll have to arrange the trip. Anastas, Lavrenti, that’ll be your job!”
Mikoyan jumped up: “Comrade Stalin, do you want to go there officially, as national leader? Then there’ll have to be preparations, otherwise Karotamm will hang himself out of shock!”
“Karotamm’s already hung himself,” smirked the well-informed Beria. “They have that Kebin there now.”
“Is Karotamm dead? Such a young man . . .”
“You could say that—removed from his post, nothing more. Some die, some are relieved.”
“So when did this happen?”
“What kind of a question is that? Short memory, or are you mixing it up with Latvia? In March.”
“By the way, this Karotamm of yours has been in Moscow since the spring.” “All the rubbish ends up getting a place in Moscow.” “What’s he doing here?” “At the academy. Writing a thesis.” “Well, I’ll be! A scholar!”
“Stop the empty chatter. The trip to Tallinn is tomorrow. Arrange it as you think fit, but without fuss. Incognito. Is that clear? You’ll report in the morning, then we’ll see.”
“But Comrade Stalin, who’s coming along?” inquired Malenkov excitedly. “Volunteers,” smirked Josif Vissarionovich. “You and Lavrenti, of course . . .”
“But Comrade Stalin, who will—well—stand in for you in the Kremlin?”
“Heh-heh, what do you think? Or who will stand in for me in Tallinn?”
“In the Kremlin, I thought, this time it could be Aleksandr Simonovich.”
“Why him? Is it because one of his grandfathers was Estonian?” interjected Shvernik, who was particular about details.
“No, Nikolay Mikhailovich, it’s because of his pockmarks,” Stalin burst out with a chuckle. “Isn’t that what you were thinking, Anastas? Aleksandr Simonovich’s pockmarks are genuine!”
“Come on now, Comrade Stalin—he came to mind mainly because of his Estonian grandfather.”
The morning was gray and drab. Stalin was standing under the window, his hair still damp from washing, but the air was damp, too. “Let’s see what those blockheads have cooked up,” murmured Stalin, feeling a pleasant anxious tingling in his palms. Olga the cleaner was hurrying across the yard, with the same kind of pink-flecked black scarf on her head as Malenkov had amused the company with, a decisive, slightly scornful look on her angular face. Stalin grinned. “Tough old woman. She’d make a good camp commander. Sure to be a harder man than that fat-face Malenkov. Now where have our trip planners got to?” Straight away, as if Stalin’s thoughts had been read from behind the door, there was a knock, announcing the arrival of Mikoyan and Beria. “Well boys, is the trip going ahead?”
“The trip is going ahead, Comrade Stalin,” they replied in chorus.
“And how, then—by air? By train?”
“By the evening train to Tallinn. Aleksandr Simonovich is already here too, awaiting arrangements.”
“What arrangements is he awaiting? He’s already in charge of arrangements. Better that he stay in the office—he can sleep here for a few nights. Better to leave out consultations. We don’t need anything unexpected.”
“Very good, Comrade Stalin.”
“Is the luxury train car all ready?”
“The luxury car? But you ordered for everything to be in secret, no special measures.”
“How do you plan to keep me out of the public eye without special measures? The Estonian forests are full of bandits; enemies of the people are hiding underground in the towns.”
“Everything’s been taken care of, Comrade Stalin, trust us. Besides . . .”
“Besides, the Estonian forests have been cleared of bandits, the kulaks have been sent to Siberia, honest farmers are running the kolkhozes. Narva is now populated only by our own people.”
“Our own people?”
“Russians, Comrade Stalin.”
“Remember, in the Land of the Soviets there are no ‘ours’ and ‘theirs,’ Russians or Estonians. Everyone is our own people, Soviet people. And if they aren’t, they’re in detention centers, camps, prisons, or six feet under.”
“Of course, Comrade Stalin.”
“Good, good, go and let the secretary in.”
In the afternoon a twenty-strong team left the Kremlin with worn suitcases in their hands, broad flat Caucasian caps on their heads, wearing long black thick woolen coats with the collars raised. They moved close together, side by side, toward the Metro like a flock of crows who had lost the power of flight. In the Metro they all pressed together on the escalator, first helping on an old man with glasses, also wearing a large cap and a raised collar. Inside the station they tramped in a troop onto the platform, shoving aside the people ahead of them. A couple of old ladies crossed themselves on sight of them; one drunken man protested loudly: “They come here from God knows where, with their flat caps on. Too many aliens in Moscow! No wonder our people got slaughtered in the war, but they just sat by the fire at home chomping on mandarins.”
The train had already been announced, but boarding hadn’t begun yet. The men in caps pressed around the door of a passenger car, roughly shoved aside the old ladies and sack-carriers on their way to board, and as soon as the guard came and opened the door, they pushed her aside as they rushed inside, still helping and protecting the bespectacled old man between them, and when the last of them had climbed aboard, they slammed the door on the remaining passengers. When the guard tried to protest, one of the men, a thin, shriveled Caucasian, flashed some document under her nose. “Listen, comrade, don’t wave your papers around, show me properly, so I can check who the hell you are and why I should do what you want.” The scrawny man held the document a long time under the guard’s nose. The shocked woman read it carefully, looked straight at the man, and realized with horror that there was something very familiar about his face, somehow menacingly familiar. At this the woman just nodded and stammered: “Of course, of course, understandable, everything’s in order. Would you like some tea? Shall I bring mattresses and linen and make your beds up?”
“Tea wouldn’t be bad,” said a youngish man with a fresh chubby face, separated from the party, waving his hands.
“And anything to go with the tea?”
One could hear people rattling the latch of the locked passenger car door, cursing and screaming. The guard, ignoring the rattlers, drew the curtains on all the windows and rushed to fetch the tea. The men took off their caps and coats, Stalin his spectacles, too. They smoothed their hair and bald heads. They opened their suitcases and took out their provisions: jars of caviar, fried chickens, onions and genuine baked Georgian tonis puri bread, lavash flatbread, and mandarins. They uncorked bottles of Khvanchkara and five-star Georgian cognac. The guard knocked at the door, bringing tea and sugar. A tall lively man went to the door, grabbed the tray of tea-glasses, and hissed: “Don’t come in here—only if you’re invited. Knock. And the toilet had better be as clean as a whistle. Is that clear?”
“All right. Shall I heat the car?”
Gradually the train started moving. Stalin was silent, taking little sips of the deep red sparkling wine. Beria took rapid slurps of black caviar and broke pieces of lavash with it. “Armenian bread,” he mumbled with his mouth full, “isn’t that ours?”
Stalin silently handed him some puri.
“Thank you, Comrade Stalin!”
“Gratitude is a disease of dogs,” said Stalin, emptying his glass and beckoning the tall man who had received the glasses of tea from the guard. They moved to the corridor of the train car. For a moment everyone in the compartment felt relief; conversation broke out, and was again buttoned up as soon as Stalin and his companion came back. Two men separated from the company and returned with bed linen. The tall man went to fetch mattresses. There weren’t enough for all of them. Stalin was silent as he most often was, just sipping wine, but the drinking made him ever gloomier and he stretched out in the place made ready for him. Gradually the others also lay down to sleep.
In the night, as the train was jerking away from some station, Stalin sat up. He felt suffocated. His side was hurting. But he was pleased that he had got this herd of nincompoops moving, doing something at least. He pulled the curtain aside, pressed his brow against the window and smiled at the night. It was pitch dark; only now and then did the sparks rising from the engine’s stack whiz past the window. Stalin drew his head instinctively between his shoulders, shifted to the edge of his mattress, and looked around the compartment. His eyes, used to the darkness, started to make out a tall male shape standing by the door. On the other side of the corridor sat his most trustworthy bodyguard, Kolessov, looking straight at Stalin. Muffled whispering could be heard from the entrance to the corridor. Stalin recognized Beria’s and Malenkov’s voices. He beckoned to Kolessov, who got up and went to the door to listen. “They’re hatching a plot,” thought Stalin indolently, and then snapped wide awake. “But what if they are plotting, what if they do throw me out of this train car, in some unknown place? Out Tver way, now Kalinin.” Mikhail Kalinin’s toadying, goateed face appeared before his eyes. “Kalinin. Wasn’t he a Chukhna? Or was his wife a Chukhna—the one he left to rot in prison camp? Silly little man, with the heart of a lamb.” And Stalin thought back to when he had last tasted lamb’s heart. The entrance door clicked, Beria and Malenkov returned into the compartment, and Kolessov, who hadn’t tried to hide the fact that he was eavesdropping, sat down beside Stalin without waiting to be told.
“They were making a bet, Comrade Stalin, on whether it was you here or Aleksandr Simonovich.”
“If they knew,” said Stalin, instinctively withdrawing his damaged hand. “What about?”
“I didn’t hear, Comrade Stalin.”
“A pity.” Stalin stretched himself out again. The train was moving steadily and calmly. Gradually sleep came over him and Josif Vissarionovich started quietly snoring.
Some light snow had fallen in the night, but the morning was sunny. At the moment, they were traveling over a river; the train was slowing down. In the distance appeared two fortresses. Beria had been quietly approaching Stalin via the corridor by the window. “Ivangorod and Hermann,” he said importantly.
Stalin was startled: “You, Lavrenti, don’t creep around like that!”
“But how else am I to do it, Comrade Stalin—that is my job.”
“As if that’s a job,” snorted Stalin scornfully, eyeing the slowly passing, somehow unreal scene. The train was stopping at Narva; Stalin stepped quickly back from the window.
“Tea, Comrade Stalin?” asked one of the tall bodyguards. Stalin didn’t reply. Tea was brought; they drank it in silence. The train started moving again, and Stalin opened the curtain slightly. Flat, peaceful countryside, covered with a delicate crust of snow like a bridal veil. Stalin recalled Kato, his first wife, in her dark dress, on her shoulders the same kind of transparent white shawl as this thin layer of snow on the dark ground. Kato amid the flowers in her wooden coffin, beside it her weeping mother and sisters, beyond it her bearded father, and he himself standing at the end, angry with death and fate, his heart hardened. He slipped his hand over his face. Had his eyes really become moist?
Stalin didn’t like this Estonia that he saw from the car window. Featureless, sad scenery, no hills or lakes, plain and glum. Little color. Clumps of forest, dark, snow-flecked muddy fields, highways. Showy little wooden houses, mostly yellow. Boring and empty. Here and there some horse was pulling a cart, old women wrapped in scarves cowered in the carts, one old guy on a grubby bicycle, two ugly red-faced girls by the roadside waving energetically at the train. And one man quite openly and unashamedly shaking his fist, as if he knew who was in this train with the others, rolling toward Tallinn.
The Tallinn station building, built of gray limestone, just as depressing and colorless as the rest of Estonia. And gray, also of limestone, was a great fortress opposite the station, the only splash of color being the red flag fluttering on the high tower. “What would they be without us? A poor little scraggy country. Miserable. Now they’re the mightiest in the world.”
The party was preparing to disembark. Caps were pressed onto heads, coats donned, Stalin put his glasses on and raised the checkered homespun woolen scarf to his chin. No one could be trusted, not even oneself. How could one trust a person who would take on such an adventure with one thing in front of him, another behind? “There are difficulties with the hotel, Comrade Stalin. Since you’re traveling incognito, so to speak, we couldn’t get places in the only decent guesthouse in the city. But we have an agreement with a local military unit . . .”
“We’ll go back this evening.” Stalin furrowed his brow and recalled Ivan Vassilievich, the great ruler Groznyy the Terrible, who had encircled the German crows’ nest somewhere around here. “I don’t see any point in spending more time in Reval. There’s nothing to do here, nothing to look at. Flat countryside, gray and muddy. A town of ruins, oh what a town, more like a village. Ugly German churches with pointed towers . . .”
“They have an Orthodox church too, Comrade Stalin.”
“You think we came here to look at churches? We’ve got more than enough of those ourselves.”
“There’s a theater here too, the Estonia, they’ve just been restoring it, it got hit during the war.”
“Are you planning to take us to the theater in the evening? Interesting—how did you get that arranged?”
“I wasn’t thinking of that exactly—we could just pop into the building.”
“And where will we have lunch?”
“We thought we’d have it at the army unit.”
“That’s enough! No army units. We’ll catch the evening train back to Moscow. Kolessov”—Stalin turned to his tall bodyguard—“arrange a passenger car for this evening and get dinner.”
“Very good, Comrade Stalin.”
“Well, let’s go and look at this theater of yours then. Anastas, you’re the smart one— what sort of institution is it?”
“An opera and ballet theater. Miliza sang there.”
“Korjus hasn’t sung there,” interjected Beria. “I checked the facts: Miliza has performed in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad and elsewhere, but she didn’t get to sing at the Estonia.”
“What are you saying? Why not?”
“She wasn’t talented enough. And her appearance left something to be desired.”
“Kabanikha. But she was good enough for Hollywood.”
“And for the Berlin Staatsoper.”
“Well, German women are horrible anyway,” Beria summarized. Stalin took no further part in the conversation and for the rest of the way they walked in silence. Stalin was regretting this adventure. The idea he had been nurturing for a while, of adding an initial S- to the name Tallinn, didn’t seem so attractive any more. This town wasn’t worthy of such an honor.
The Estonia theater was freshly plastered and painted, it was quite a fine sight from outside, and Stalin’s mood improved a bit, although, trudging along in the middle of this squad of men, he felt a bit short of breath and his legs were quietly throbbing a little. Now the men in caps shoved their way through the only open door and stopped in the foyer by the ticket office. Immediately a security guard appeared from somewhere, an angry crease between his brows. “Citizens, where are you heading—what are you after?”
“We’re looking at your theater.”
“The theater can be viewed in the evening. Put some decent clothes on, buy tickets, and come to the performance. No need to come tramping in here and muddy the floor.”
“Look what a worker we have here!” Mikoyan took his identification from his breast pocket and jabbed it under the guard’s nose. The latter wanted to snatch it away, but Mikoyan didn’t let him. So, the guard took his glasses with deliberation from his pocket, put them on, read it and stared Mikoyan in the face.
“A real genuine paper, is it?” he asked suspiciously.
“Of course. So then—”
“Yes, but you gentlemen should take your caps off, it would be polite,” the guard ventured to state. Strangely enough, everyone except Stalin took their caps off. The guard shambled closer.
“Why have these Estonians built themselves all these—fortresses and churches and opera houses,” wondered Malenkov aloud.
“The Estonians didn’t build them—it was the Germans. The Estonians were slaves,” piped up Shvernik, who had been silent until now.
“Aren’t you, Shvernik, a German yourself, with a doubtful name like yours? And you’re from Petersburg, too. Look, if the Estonians are slaves, wasn’t it the slaves who built these churches and fortresses? Why would the Germans bother to put the stones together and pile up the walls?” declared Malenkov.
“But the Germans laid the plans. And the money came from them too,” Shvernik insisted.
“And why would those slaves need operas?” asked Malenkov sincerely.
“It must have been so that they could hear slaves’ choruses,” said Mikoyan instructively.
“What slaves’ choruses?”
“There’s an opera, Nabucco, and in it there’s a chorus of Hebrew slaves,” Mikoyan explained importantly.
“What have Hebrew slaves got to do with this place?” said Malenkov, shrugging.
From some back room, with a clacking of heels, came a ravishingly pretty girl, straight toward the party arguing about slaves. She was wearing an airy bright pink dress, her dark luxuriant hair framed a lightly glowing little face, her pretty legs in black high-heeled shoes stepped femininely but energetically. Beria’s mouth dropped open and he felt his whole body trembling. The girl was coming ever closer, and before the party had time to recover, she stepped up to Stalin and ripped the cap off his head. Immediately two bodyguards grabbed the girl by the delicate wrists and twisted her arms behind her back, so that the girl only moaned. She didn’t struggle or scream, but kept her frozen stare on Stalin, who, with a smile, took off his glasses and made an awkward bow. “Stalin,” murmured the girl. “Are you Stalin?”
Stalin remembered that there was an interpreter among them, and although he guessed what the girl was saying, he still turned to the interpreter: “What’s she saying?”
“She’s asking if you’re Comrade Stalin.”
“What’s the Estonian for tovarishch?”
“Seltsimees,” responded the interpreter rapidly.
“What’s your first name and patronymic?” Stalin inquired.
“Anton. Anton Nikolayevich.”
“Look, Anton Nikolayevich, I don’t speak Estonian at all, but Comrade is not what that girl called me.”
“Well, yeah, she didn’t,” agreed Anton swiftly. “She didn’t.”
“Let her go,” Stalin told the bodyguard. They released the girl’s arms, she looked downward and began cautiously massaging her wrists. “Ask her who she is, what she’s doing here, and why she took off my cap,” Stalin told the interpreter.
“I work at the Estonia,” said the girl, without waiting for the interpreter. “I’m a dancer, a ballerina. It’s a custom with us here, in the theater, or actually anywhere indoors, for men to take their caps off. I’m sorry, Comrade Stalin, I …”
“I’m not who you think I am,” replied Stalin drily, “but I understand you—I’ve been mistaken for Stalin before, we look somewhat alike. I don’t know exactly, I’ve only seen Stalin in pictures.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “Can I go now?”
“No!” shrieked Beria, “you’d better come with us, come with us to Moscow, I’ll guarantee to you—”
“Lavrenti Pavlovich,” Mikoyan interrupted him sharply, realizing too late that the unusual combination of name and patronymic might seem familiar to the girl.
“Out,” said Stalin quietly.
“Who—out?” said the bodyguard, uncomprehending; “Lavrenti Pavlovich?”
“No, take the girl away.”
“Am I supposed to tell you that? Take her to the security people here, the militia—I don’t care where, just take her away!”
That girl who was taken away from the foyer of the Estonia theater in the late fall of 1950 was my aunt. She only returned to Estonia in 1956. Until she retired she worked at the Kalev confectionery factory in Tallinn in the personnel department, she married, but she remained childless. She told me about her meeting with Stalin only a couple of years before she died. My aunt died in Tallinn in 1999, a few weeks before her sixty-ninth birthday. She was glad to have witnessed the return of the blue, black, and white flag and the Republic of Estonia. But my aunt would have liked to survive into the new millennium—we often chatted about that. She had never told anyone about her meeting with Stalin before, afraid that she wouldn’t be believed anyway. Looking back, she thought she recognized Beria and Mikoyan straight away.
From the collection Hitler Mustjalas (Hitler in Mustjala). © 2016 by Maimu Berg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Christopher Moseley. All rights reserved.
I’m greedy everything’s got to be mine—
truth and pain and all the coconut yogurts
I hold onto everything with a hundred claws
as if I’d lived in the Soviet era too
you’ve no idea
what it means to stand in a sausage line!
a bread line! a milk line! an egg line!
standing in a sausage line was probably just like it is today
still women’s work mostly because only women
have criticized me for
my lack of experience standing in a sausage line
under a totalitarian regime
it makes you wonder what the hell
those women fought so hard for then
was it so that in the future they could
rub it in young people’s faces
look we had to live in a society like that
none of you know a thing about it you’re like shit on a silver spoon
whereas one time a saleslady in a cellar shop a blonde beauty
said you know things were good in the Soviet Union
everybody had a single uniform to wear to school
everyone was equal
course I was maybe seven at the time she told me that
but even then I didn’t like
the idea of a uniform I’d just gotten stylish new jeans
and didn’t even think of displaying myself like
I might see me as others’ equal
because we weren’t
not my stylish jeans
nor that cellar-shop saleslady with her fading beauty
in a childhood of identical pioneer uniforms
somebody’s always more equal
even if you paint them all red
© Sveta Grigorjeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
In these two stories by Estonian author Urmas Vadi, Roman declares war on Putin and Gérard Depardieu, and Margo receives a peculiar order from the king of Ground Beef Land.
Roman wanted, unconditionally, to be present during the delivery; he wanted to deliver the child himself so no stranger’s hands would come between him and the baby. There had already been too many other people ahead of him in life, preventing him from reaching something of importance. Now, Roman wanted to be the first; he wanted to be the one to cut the child’s umbilical cord. Roman wasn’t sure if Sigrid even wanted him to come along to the hospital. Seeing how distant Sigrid could sometimes be, Roman reckoned she probably didn’t want him there at all. But he also supposed that when the time was at hand, Sigrid would certainly need him, and would call. Roman kept his phone on 24/7.
The first thing Roman did in the morning was check his phone. Nothing. It was a disappointment that swelled into trepidation and anger. But his face showed no expression; was seemingly frozen up—that happened. After a certain family gathering, Roman discovered that his facial muscles no longer flexed well, that he lacked facial expressions, and was thus unable to convey his emotions. He might, for example, feel joy, and laugh, but a moment later he stiffened up and only an odd, painful grimace lingered on his countenance. Because of this, he frequently checked his cheeks, jaw, forehead, and lips. Roman was deeply bothered by the fact that he had a defective physiognomy, because now it was even harder for him to connect with others and make himself understood. Would he ever connect with Sigrid? Would Roman be capable of manifesting in the way that he personally feels and sees himself?
Maybe this immobility will even be to my advantage sometime in the future, Roman considers, because that’s how things are these days. I could use it in poker, but also anywhere else you need to either bluff or refrain from betraying secrets, like in war or espionage. I don’t know what the future will bring. What’ll become of Sigrid, and what’ll become of Estonia’s national security? Could he promise his child that the Republic of Estonia would still exist in a year? There were absolutely no guarantees: Russia was making a show of might; the war machine had been put into motion. Roman felt he couldn’t just sit around and witness it anymore! Crimea was gone, Ukraine’s military was simply watching it happen, all of Europe, the entire world was just watching a country be steamrolled.
Online, Roman alternated between reading child-rearing forums and foreign policy. Syria and everything else, but primarily Ukraine, of course. Every day, even frequently at night, he would look up conflict maps on news sites and watch the front line in Eastern Ukraine ooze outward like a bloodstain. After Crimea, there was Donetsk, Sverdlovsk, Lugansk . . . Soon, they’ll be all the way to Kiev. Europe, with its feeble sanctions against Russia, is just as powerless as my face.
Roman felt he needed to take action before it was already too late—before we’re gambled off to the Germans or the Russians again! Much as he didn’t like Putin, he also wasn’t fond of Merkel, who was against the formation of new and bigger NATO military bases in Estonia. Europe as a whole with Merkel at the lead is either dumb or blind, but definitely too polite. You don’t need to play the diplomat here anymore: once Putin is wielding his battle ax, he won’t just stop with Ukraine—he wants to restore the Soviet Union in its entirety! Will it really turn out that we can’t manage to stay independent for longer than the first Estonian Republic, just twenty years?
The more Roman followed the news, the more rage and desperation he felt, and he asked himself: what can I do from here? He was also at war and no longer bought anything produced in Russia: not beer, vodka, nor even dairy products with Russian-language labels. Neither did he read Russian literature anymore, or watch films that starred Russian actors or were made in coproductions with Russia. Roman likewise boycotted Western films that featured defectors. He pulled all the films with Putin-sympathizers Steven Seagal and Gérard Depardieu from his collection. Some of the movies were on videocassette, others on DVD.
He went into the garage and, one after another, he crushed the tapes and discs in a vise. It gave him childish joy and momentary satisfaction. But he had to start somewhere. And he started with Depardieu. He spun the vise on The Man in the Iron Mask to the point where it started to crack. Then he took an electric planer, regulated the blade to cut at a quarter inch, as deep as it possibly went, and simply planed the cassette to shavings. He did the same with the Asterix DVD. Roman was, for some reason, especially repulsed by Napoleon, which he had once thoroughly enjoyed: Napoleon, Depardieu, Putin; they all fused together. This in both the figurative and the literal sense. Roman lit a blowtorch and heated the DVD until the plastic crinkled. Finally, it ignited. Roman let it incinerate completely. Next was Seagal’s turn. Roman didn’t even bother to open the vise, because as an actor, Seagal was considerably more monotonous than Depardieu; a mere mountain of meat. Disc by disc, cassette by cassette, Roman stacked the films on an anvil and bashed Seagal with a sledgehammer. Marked for Death. “You got that right,” Roman commented, and the shards flew. Hard to Kill. “Well, not that hard!” The hammer fell, the plastic screeched and crunched. Above the Law, A Dangerous Man, Against the Dark. They all got what was coming to them: you had to confront the darkness somehow! On top of that, Roman had always liked Stallone and Schwarzenegger more—and even Van Damme; not Seagal, whose fragments were now scattered across the iron work bench and the cold concrete floor with the remains of another traitor. Such is the betrayer’s fate! Still, Roman felt this wasn’t enough.
In fact, he almost always felt like something wasn’t enough; that he had been left out of everything important throughout his life. It had started in childhood and only intensified with time. Roman’s older brother was a great deal bigger than him, was capable of and accomplished more of everything, received more attention, and on top of that, he ate more. Not that Roman was ever left feeling hungry, but that’s what it felt like—a sense of being deprived. That he was merely bypassed and dealt only the crumbs, his brother’s hand-me-downs. Mom and Dad justified it by saying Aleks was bigger: “If you were older, then your clothes would have gone to him.” Roman knew that would never have happened. And all the clothes Roman would have wanted from his brother, such as the acid-washed jeans and the denim jacket with the big Iron Maiden patch on the back, were so tattered by the time he’d have gotten them that only the buttons remained. Aleks had ripped the Iron Maiden patch off and stitched it onto a new jacket.
By now, Roman’s interaction with his brother was nearly nonexistent. They never called each other just to talk or met up or had a couple beers. They saw each other only when obligated, such as on their parents’ birthdays. And on those occasions, Roman once again felt like his brother ate more and talked more and was generally dealt much more attention. When Roman spoke, he was certainly listened to a little, but was soon interrupted because Aleks had something much more interesting to say. In general, Roman had a hunch that the most important topics were discussed only after he left the room. Or else they talked about him behind his back and laughed.
Roman swept the fragments of Seagal and Depardieu into a dustpan, locked the garage door, and went inside. Sigrid had told Roman she wasn’t coming over today; that she wanted to sleep. Roman accepted Sigrid’s wishes unconditionally. So, what to do? Roman’s heart was pounding, a blood vessel throbbed at his temple. He decided to take an important step and join the Elva Unit of the Estonian Defense League. Many people had joined the voluntary Defense League recently. Roman was prepared to do so, also. He took a shower, stepped out of the tub, toweled off, and felt the floor was cold. Summer was ending. Before leaving, Roman ducked into the utility room and switched on the gas boiler.
Ground Beef Land
After Margo left his mother’s apartment and had gotten back from the cemetery, he stood in the kitchen of his summer cabin and tried to soothe his nerves. He’d sweated through his shirt and even his pullover, was slouching in front of the window, staring off into space, and slid into a state of lethargy. The whole world drifted further and further away, he was bothered less and less by the apples thudding onto the lawn, by the overgrown grass; everything was so distant, so alien and meaningless. The only things Margo had left were his appetite and ground beef. Every morning, he took a packet from the deep freezer and set it on the counter to thaw. Ground beef couldn’t betray or abandon you, nor could it kick you in the balls. When thawed, it’s so soft that you can do whatever you like with it: it doesn’t resist, doesn’t protest, doesn’t accuse.
Even though the deep freezer was fully stocked, he always picked up fresh ground beef whenever he was in the city. He’d gone into town today—today, he felt he was ready to try boeuf à la tartar. Margo dropped the meat into a bowl, ground salt onto it with a satisfying crunch, added a dash of pepper, and kneaded the mixture. A minced garlic clove and some chopped onion went in as well. The recipe recommended adding pickled cucumbers and capers. Margo felt those would be excessive, and would already come between him and the ground beef. He shaped the mass into a patty, set it on a plate, and made a hollow in the middle, which was where the raw egg should go. Margo wasn’t quite ready for that part yet—eggs were to be either fried or boiled—so he left it out, leaving the indent where it was in the middle of the ground beef, as if waiting for something to enter it. We all have hollows and holes in us: in our hearts; in our souls. It’s rare for us to know how and with what to fill them.
Margo set the plate on the table in front of him and sniffed at it. The smell of freshly ground pepper and garlic and onion and ground beef filled his nostrils, overwhelming every one of his senses. It looked so perfect. For whatever reason, he wanted to eat it with a spoon. He ate slowly, savoring each mouthful. Soon, he’d already finished and felt full to just the right point. The flavor he’d relished in every spoonful lasted on and on and on, so much as carrying him forth. Margo felt like he was somewhere in a film. Movies themselves are nice, downright pleasurable, and this film wasn’t cliché, but unique: his and only his; he plays himself in it and watches himself, likewise. And he’s not just some slouching, run-of-the-mill oaf who’s consigned to oblivion at his cabin, but is bound to something important and great—he realized what it’s all about!
He was no longer in the kitchen but walking across a wondrous meadow. The ground beneath him was so soft, the grass was just the right height, and there wasn’t a single rotten apple in sight. His tread was so light. In the distance, he glimpsed a city with walls and towers, flags fluttering upon them. The main gate was open, Margo walked onward, the townspeople halted, stared at him, and hushed. Margo arrived at the town square and stopped. He was guided to the king’s castle. It all pleased him—certainly—everything was so light and amazing, but he was still troubled by several questions: What city is this? What people are these? Why am I here? The king, whose face was somehow so familiar, received Margo and sat him at his side. They were silent at first, then the king greeted him:
“Welcome to Ground Beef Land!”
“Thank you for inviting me as your guest,” Margo replied gratefully but without overdoing it.
Even in dreams, Margo was incapable of feeling at ease with himself or saying the right things at the right time. He wrote and rewrote his lectures for work several times over, memorized them—no improvisation!—and even wrote the jokes in. Yet sitting here next to the king, he suddenly felt incredibly light and pleasant:
“I feel as if I’ve arrived home after many long years of travels.”
The king nodded and waited a few moments before speaking again: there was time aplenty, nowhere to rush.
“But even now, you still have not arrived; you still must embark upon more travels and journeys. There are paths yet untread and lands yet undiscovered!”
Margo nodded, no matter that he didn’t know what to think of the fact that he still had more journeying to do. The king could tell what Margo was thinking, and added:
“Here in this world, or there in that one, each of us has our own task. And none of us has arrived before that task is complete.”
“Good King—what, then, is my task? What is the journey, to which my path leads?”
Margo’s frankness didn’t bother the king, not in the least. Rather, he nodded as a sign of goodwill.
“I am the ruler of Ground Beef Land: everything you see in this country is made of ground beef, even you and I.” This came as a surprise to Margo. “Yes, yes, even you and I—we are all made of ground beef; I have made you all of ground beef. But that’s not what is important. What’s important is the path itself, though even that is made of ground beef.”
Again, Margo wondered whether the king was just speaking in metaphor:
“Good King, is all of this just one big allegory?”
“It may be, it may not; what is true is that everything here is made of ground beef. Ground beef is best for creation. But the meat must be filled with meaning and purpose! Only then does ground beef start to live and blossom. Only then, without ulterior motives or self-interest, is it capable of being happy; of enjoying the moment; of seizing the day; of using the day. Have you felt selfless submission? Have you yourself offered it?"
The king turned to look at Margo, and Margo recognized the man as his father:
“Dad, it’s you!"
“Yes, yes, it is I—now, answer my question. Have you offered anyone selfless pleasure?”
Margo was silent for a moment, thinking.
“Suppose I haven’t,” he finally answered, and a sadness came over him.
“You see!” the king added. “You’ve been neglecting your garden!”
“That’s true.” Margo recalled his garden, the grass turning to hay, the apples.
“But what must I do then, Dad?” Margo pleaded in despair. “Should I mow first, or gather up all the apples?”
“Not one nor the other!” Still, the king seemed indifferent. “The garden you have left fallow is not of this land.”
“What’s it of, then? Where’s the garden I must tend to?” The king didn’t reply. Why doesn’t he reply? “Dad, help me, I can’t seem to understand, just tell me what I have to do! Tell me what can fill this hole in my ground-beef soul!”
“Why wouldn’t I tell you? Of course I’ll tell you. That’s why I summoned you here.”
Margo waited; waited with bated breath. The king’s old and gray ground-beef eyes, eyes that had seen everything, stared straight into Margo’s, straight through the back of them, and he spoke:
“You don’t know how to treat women!”
“Oh-ho!” Margo exclaimed, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Precisely that! You haven’t offered them satisfaction!"
Margo felt just miserable, unsure of what to do, and the king wasn’t helping, either—he was being downright ornery.
“Your path and your task is to return to your own land and give back all those orgasms to all those women with whom you’ve had intercourse, and whom you’ve left without satisfaction!”
Margo sagged: there was no way he could have expected something like that! The king nodded:
“Until you have completed your task, you are no more than the pack of ground beef put on the kitchen counter to thaw this morning!”
“But I went to the market today!”
“As if! You don’t see hallucinations like this with fresh ground beef, now do you?! Fine, it is what it is. You must go.”
Margo realized that everything the king had said was true, but nevertheless: where was he to begin?
“Go now, you’re awaited!”
The king’s audience had ended and his envoys, who had been standing at a polite distance throughout the whole conversation, now stepped closer. Margo rose to his feet, overcome with confusion:
“Who’s awaiting me? Where am I supposed to go?”
“Why, back to the maidens of my land, who certainly aren’t quite maidens anymore! They will instruct you.”
“I don’t know, I probably don’t need instruction.” The thought seemed so disagreeable to Margo at first.
“Come, now—of course you do! You, sir, don’t even know where the G-spot is!”
“Yes, I do!” Margo lied, and at that moment, he realized the king could see straight through him, just as he had seen everything without bothering to respond. The king’s envoys guided Margo through torchlit hallways to the maidens of Ground Beef Land, who first and foremost tore his dumb oversized band T-shirt to shreds.
From Neverland. © 2016 by Urmas Vadi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
Humans are, in essence, not much more than highly developed mammals. We are scientifically classifiable by Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature, just like the pine tree and the bark beetle. Human intelligence has led our species to marvelous zeniths of technology and an ability to survive in the most punishing habitats imaginable. Yet, just as crucial as respiration and physical endurance are the tasks of reproduction and cooperation. Humans are a social species, but the question of compatibility with genetic fellows remains one of our greatest challenges, one that no gadget can facilitate or perform for us in a failsafe manner. Understanding and managing our own psyches is a gargantuan task in itself, but coordinating and harmonizing our lives with those of others?! Few convincingly master the art. More often than not, modern-day technology seems to actually inhibit our ability to truly interconnect with peers, even though connectivity has reached a dazzling pinnacle. Alienation draws us into a vicious cycle: an insatiable hunger for emotional connection and understanding leads us to ever more pious attempts at communication. We feel lonely in the vastness of the social cosmos, overwhelmed by the many possibilities for interaction; nevertheless, these sensations are nothing new—it’s not as if we humans have ever been flawlessly adept at coexistence in any era!
Estonian authors have not failed to notice and address this quandary, and over the last few decades, several writers in the snowy crown of the Baltic States have delved eagerly into the complexities of human communication and interaction. Frank social critique and a fascination with relationships have been central tropes of classic and contemporary Estonian literature, in spite of—or thanks to—the common perception of Estonians being an emotionally chilly and withdrawn people.
Estonia celebrates its centenary this year, but the birth of Estonian literature came with the period of national awakening in the late nineteenth century. Prior to early Estonian writers such as Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–22), Lydia Koidula (1843–86), and Juhan Liiv (1864–1913), the oral tradition was the sole vehicle for preserving folklore. In 1861, the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, similar to the Finnish Kalevala, was published bilingually in German and Estonian by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald as a conclusion of work done originally by Friedrich Robert Faehlmann. However, Estonian literature truly began to flourish in the early twentieth century with the literary group Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) and the Siuru movement, the name of which was taken from that of a mythical character in Kalevipoeg. The latter of these in particular, the members of which probed the limits of cultural expression under the motto “The joy of creation—may it be our sole driving force,” fostered the popularity of burgeoning Estonian-language literature in the years leading up to the country’s independence, and has had a lasting impact on the local literary tradition. Estonian writers strained to express themselves genuinely under the censorship of Soviet occupation (subsequently perfecting the craft of “writing between the lines,” especially the authors Mati Unt [1944–2005] and Mihkel Mutt ) and struggled to find both footing and funding in the tumultuous years immediately following the restoration of independence. Nevertheless, Estonian literature has since regained its confidence and the status of a bold, vibrant, intellectually stimulating force. Although a mere million or so people claim Estonian as their native language, the list of contemporary Estonian authors who have penned remarkable works well worthy of translation is long.
The authors featured here—Maimu Berg (1945), Urmas Vadi (1977), and Sveta Grigorjeva (1988)—represent three distinct generations of contemporary Estonian writers, and the distinctive qualities their writing possesses are wonderful indicators of the diversity Estonian literature has to offer.
Berg’s collection of short stories Hitler in Mustjala (Hitler Mustjalas, 2016) was a nominee for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Prize for Literature. Though Berg published her debut in 1987 at the seasoned age of forty-three, she dove straight into the tense and tangled issues of interethnic relationships in a society that was still steadying itself after momentous political and social transformations. The reimagined histories that constitute roughly half of her latest collection feature a cast of globally recognizable characters such as Hitler, Vladimir Putin, and Angela Merkel. “Stalin in Tallinn” boldly puts readers behind the eyes of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin sometime after the end of World War II, when the persistently paranoid dictator is troubled by growing ennui. Irony has traditionally been a favored instrument of Estonian authors and Berg employs it with a surgeon’s steady hand. Deftly, she exposes the childishly eccentric mental wanderings of a man responsible for the forced relocation and deaths of millions, humorously drawing forth the wholly human fears and nervous reactions of those subject to his everyday whims while still not failing to emphasize the atrocious consequences in which such seemingly innocent actions can result.
Urmas Vadi’s novel Neverland (2016) is his seventh work of prose to date, and arguably his most successful. A playwright, Vadi has likewise published several collections of his original theater works. This background in particular has endowed him with a sharp eye and a keen ability to conjure evocative, complex humanist characters onto both paper and the stage. As the author remarked in an interview with the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp, the title of Neverland (which is in English in its original) provides for “an intellectual space with room for the four protagonists.” In the same interview, Vadi expands upon the statement that is printed on the book’s front cover, “a novel about interhuman relationships”: “I often feel like people are some kinds of social deviants who are unable to communicate, and I feel like I myself am that way, too. It might be one of the reasons why I write. By writing, I’m able to elaborate and precisely word all those life situations where I felt inadequate or scattered. [ . . . ] At some point, the problem of communication becomes outright existential: How much are we actually capable of understanding another human being in the first place? How close can we get to those who are dearest to us? Is it even possible to truly help someone else?”
The untitled poem by Sveta Grigorjeva presented here in translation was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of the Estonian cultural youth journal Värske Rõhk (Fresh Pressure, which is only one letter removed from translating as “Fresh Air”). Grigorjeva is a poet, a choreographer, a modern dancer, and an artist. She is known as one of the “angry young women” of Estonian poetry, an unaffiliated chorus of active, brazen, and uncompromising contemporary female voices. Reviewing her 2013 debut collection, Who’s Afraid of Sveta Grigorjeva? (Kes kardab Sveta Grigorjevat?), the “avant-poet” and literary critic Jürgen Rooste wrote: “What we have here are the inner workings of a woman who seeks and wanders, a Russian-Estonian identity, a young bud, a prefab apartment block resident, someone who mercilessly tears down the curtains and the set.” Speaking not only of Grigorjeva, but of these forceful “angry young women” on the whole, he continues: “This passion is spectacular and amazing: this dangerous passion which blurs art and ’real life’; i.e. which sets new demands and poses a new challenge to the latter.”
Although their observations and interactions unfold in a small society where little can go unnoticed—in a unique, sensitively self-conscious linguistic and cultural environment—Estonian authors do not shy from probing societal scrapes and cuts; from using their writing as a disinfectant that stings and jerks attention to the issues we would more readily ignore, but which must be addressed for healing and understanding to gain ground. At the heart of this lie the most fundamental intentions that define humanity: to express, to understand, and to be understood. In short: to make human contact. With generously applied, balanced doses of irony and critique of modern-day society, many Estonian authors such as the three featured here manage to fluidly draw attention to issues while simultaneously recognizing we are inherently flawed, ultimately encouraging us to practice that most human of acts in regard to ourselves and to others: forgiveness.
© 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
He lives in several worlds simultaneously.
—Juan José Saer, La Grande
In the opening pages of La Grande, the final, unfinished novel by Juan José Saer, the writer from Santa Fe who lived most of his life—and died—in Paris, Willi Gutiérrez has returned to Argentina after thirty years abroad. His return is shrouded in mystery, and the observation above is both a reference to Gutiérrez’s past—which, rumor has it, constituted a double life—and a supposition about the man’s present. While the description of Gutiérrez is an assumption of fact and references an alleged duplicity, it might be applied in a much different context to the writers included in our April issue. Their work and their characters occupy several spaces, several worlds, and ask us to reconsider what we think we know of our own. And like Gutiérrez’s return, their appearance here marks a return to a past about which we still have much to discover.
Saer is here to lead us a little further along the way. Not via his own work (much of which has been translated into English by Steve Dolph for Open Letter Books), but in an homage to the deceased giant by contemporary writer Sergio Chejfec. In Chejfec’s story, a novelist, an essayist, and a theologian set off on a pilgrimage to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Saer’s final resting place. Their search for Saer and their musings on the ultimate importance of their pilgrimage mirror similar quests that permeate the writing in this issue. “They act like protagonists,” Chejfec’s narrator tells us of the Saer search party, “but what does it mean, exactly, to be a protagonist?” Not only are they frequently engaged in a search of some kind, but the protagonists who appear throughout this issue often find they exercise less control over their destinies than they would like to believe.
It is perhaps appropriate that Chejfec’s short story begins in Paris, for one of the many things that tie together the contributors here is their identity as Argentinean writers who have often considered their relation, and that of their country, to points abroad. What likewise unites the five writers presented here—much more than, and perhaps in place of, any sense of national identity—is a common commitment to searching and seeking out. Each of these writers seeks something different, but all of them grapple with myths. Myths of identity, myths of place, myths around our relationship to others. Each writer’s respective search leads English-language readers weaned on a steady diet of Borges, Bioy Casares, and porteño legend to do some searching of their own.
This search begins by inviting us to reconsider what we think we know of Argentina and Argentine letters. Following Chejfec, the appearance here of Norah Lange—who belonged to the same avant-garde generation as Borges, Girondo, and Silvina Ocampo, but whose work has languished unrecognized by English language audiences—continues recent undertakings begun with the publication of Ocampo’s poetry and prose. The publication of Lange’s fiction now in English gives us a broader understanding of the generation that marked the move away from the literature of the pampas to a literature whose references were international and whose work engaged not just with other Argentinean writers but with international literary movements at the time. Meanwhile, fierce literary and cultural critic—and Borges specialist—Beatriz Sarlo tackles the myths of Buenos Aires through a literary and historical exploration of the Argentine capital. Marcelo Cohen considers the linguistic implications of nationalism, exile, and nostalgia in the work of the writer and translator, with a cameo by his coeval Osvaldo Lamborghini. And Sara Gallardo’s story gives us a glimpse into the early short fiction of an important writer of the middle and late twentieth century who—like Di Benedetto before her—has enjoyed rediscovery in Argentina in the last few years, decades after her death.
If indeed Norah Lange registers at all on English readers’ radars, it’s likely for some mention of her part in the vanguard of the early and mid-century alongside Borges and her husband Oliverio Girondo. (Borges wrote the preface to her first poetry collection, La calle de la tarde, published in 1925. Girondo, however, beat out Borges for her affections, and it’s said Borges resented him for it for the rest of his life.) As her name suggests, Lange was born in 1905 to Norwegian parents who emigrated to Argentina. In the late 1920s, she would travel to Norway to visit her sister Ruth, and she and Girondo would spend much of the 30s, 40s, and 50s traveling throughout Europe and Latin America, including a period in Brazil where they encountered modernist writers Mario de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade. Her work includes two memoirs, including Notes from Childhood, her first major success, and the novels People in the Room and The Two Portraits. The house she shared with Girondo—the scene of frequent literary gatherings—still stands at calle Suipacha 1444, in Buenos Aires’s Retiro neighborhood, and is presently part of the Museo Fernandez Blanco and marked by a plaque erected in the year 2000 to mark the spot.
In the excerpt presented here from her 1950 novel People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle and forthcoming later this year from And Other Stories, Lange’s seventeen-year-old narrator tries to decipher her mysterious neighbors, three unmarried sisters who refuse to give her their names or install a telephone in their home across the street from the narrator’s. In a burst of audacity, the young narrator seeks finally to cast a light onto the enigma of the three sisters’ identities and is sent fleeing the house, her search “to get closer to them, to force them to be precise and at least say who they were” thwarted but the thrill of the hunt attained.
Decades and sensibilities divide Lange and Gallardo, whose story “Things Happen” introduces us to a retiree whose garden is the envy of Lanús, a municipality just beyond the southern edge of the city of Buenos Aires. The history of Gallardo’s family is closely entwined with that of Argentina. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Bartolomé Mitre, the president of Argentina from 1862 to 1868 and founder of La Nación, one of the country’s leading newspapers. Her father was Argentina’s minister of foreign affairs and later president of the University of Buenos Aires. Gallardo herself worked as a journalist, and published her first novel Enero (January) in 1958. In the late 1970s, following the death of her second husband, the writer Héctor A. Murena, she moved with her children to Spain, later spending time in Switzerland and Italy. After returning to Buenos Aires, she died after an asthma attack at the age of fifty-seven, in 1988. Between 2001 and 2016, her entire oeuvre—including five novels, two story collections, and works of children’s literature—was reissued in new editions. During that time, her reputation among critics and readers has grown. Critic Leopoldo Brizuela (who, like contributor Marcelo Cohen, has translated the work of Clarice Lispector into Spanish) has compared her work to that of Bioy Casares, a comparison warranted by the story that appears in this issue.
In “Things Happen,” the protagonist looks on as his garden is engulfed by the sea. The man’s loss of control over his carefully plotted circumstances—and his descent from the owner of a carefully pruned garden and erstwhile retired civil servant to captain of a one-man ship—leads him to try to steady himself by recording details of his previous life as water and ice floes close in around his house.
Marcelo Cohen’s 2014 essay “New Battles for the Propriety of Language” evokes a different sense of at sea, recounting his flight from Argentina in the Dirty War era and his subsequent travails as an Argentinean translator working for Spanish publishers. Cohen, born in Buenos Aires in 1951, made his home in Barcelona for over twenty years, returning to Argentina only in 1996; his publications include more than fifteen books and translations of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Fitzgerald, Raymond Roussel, Fernando Pessoa, and others.
Moving between memoir, political history, quest narrative, and translation manifesto, Cohen examines the influence of our relationship to language, the demands for conformity in the publishing world, and the implications of these for the task of the translator. Cohen finds his search for a language—his own but also a voice for the writers he translates—leads him into often uncomfortable confrontation with the myths we maintain about ourselves, our private idiom, and the uses of language.
It would be difficult to overstate Beatriz Sarlo’s impact on Argentine culture in the last fifty years. Sarlo is no stranger to those in the academic world, having taught at Columbia, Maryland, Berkeley, and Cambridge. She has also been a Wilson Center and Guggenheim fellow. She is an authority on Borges, but also on Sarmiento and Cortázar. But while her training is literary, she has—as she signaled when, in 1978, she co-founded the important magazine Punto de vista focused on popular culture—never been afraid to set her sights on the culture at large. In her essay here, she returns to one of her favorite subjects, the social and cultural development of Buenos Aires. Tracing the city’s development throughout the twentieth century, she provides us a history of its intelligentsia.
Sarlo’s target—the mythos surrounding Buenos Aires that would have it the “Paris of South America”—also leads her toward a dismantling of, if not of language itself, the linguistic constructs employed to buttress an idealized Argentine capital. Not only is Buenos Aires not the Paris of South America, Sarlo asserts, its development has drawn inspiration from cities beyond Europe and its present-day incarnation is home to many of the hallmarks of other South American capitals from which it has sought so desperately to distance itself. “Those roaming the streets,” Sarlo tells us, “are not always flâneurs, the chic, dandies, or artists.” Drawing on literary observations of the city by writers from Borges to Arlt to Martínez Estrada, Sarlo seeks to give us a fundamentally new understanding of this dynamic city, and she succeeds. (Her book Una modernidad periférica, a remarkable work of literary and cultural criticism, treats this theme in greater detail,) By questioning age-old clichés about the capital city, she also strikes at the heart of long-held beliefs about what it means to be Argentinean.
Through their own interrogations of language, of style, of history, the writers here lead us to a much more nuanced understanding of twentieth-century Argentina and its writers, their work an antidote to the literary equivalent of tourist guides that, as Sarlo sneers, “inform [tourists] that Buenos Aires is America’s most European city.” Looking back on his exile with the benefit of hindsight, Cohen observes that “my life required of me a language that was on par with its multiplicity.” After reading the writers here, we should have no doubt that ours demand the same.
© 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker
In this homage to Juan José Saer, Sergio Chejfec sends a novelist, an essayist, and a theologian on a pilgrimage to the great writer’s final resting place in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Three Argentineans are in Paris one Sunday in spring. They walk through its empty streets as if they had nothing else to do that morning. They think of their families, of the people they’ve momentarily left behind, and of their imminent return to routine: each will begin the journey back in just a few hours. The city seems to have been abandoned; in its stillness, it also seems to have taken on a deliberate and scenic artifice, perhaps the result of a last-minute agreement among the residents to show off its neglected buildings, businesses, and streets. All this is subject to the most profound silence, a constant kind that manifests most clearly when some noise breaks it and is gone, leaving an air of desolation in its wake.
The group is composed of a theologian, a novelist, and an essayist. A musician will join them later. They walk slowly, indifferently, somewhat grudgingly: they did not expect a Sunday in Paris to seem so much like a Sunday in their respective cities. The idiom “Sunday morning” easily captures the moment, because Sunday mornings are the same everywhere. Perhaps because they are in a foreign country, or because they imagine themselves to be the sole actors in a piece they can’t quite identify yet somehow know is profound, one of those with a certain psychological depth, they sink into a more tangible indolence, a more eloquent silence.
They have known each other for years, though they will soon part ways and may not see one another again for a long time. They act like protagonists . . . but what does it mean, exactly, to be a protagonist? They move like a gang, and maybe feel they form a collective subject, assigning roles they adopt but do not own. Each body is an extension or arm of the one walking beside it. They advance as if they were interested in everything and nothing at all; anyone who saw them might imagine a well-oiled set of gears made of mistrusting characters in decline.
The novelist has gone to pick up the essayist and the theologian; in order to do so, he ate breakfast, packed, and checked out of his hotel room early, since he is returning to his country that same afternoon. The essayist and the novelist have had a few stilted exchanges—stilted but somehow natural, as if their friendship consisted of that kind of communication, of stringing together snippets of conversations—during the brief daytime coexistence to which they’ve subjected themselves as part of a two-day symposium on literary studies. Breakfast was a recurring theme of these dialogues. The novelist and the essayist tend to develop, over time, conversations of varying degrees of significance. On this occasion, they have taken advantage of coffee breaks, the time spent walking from one building to the next or waiting in hallways, and especially the long commutes to off-site events: these are all opportunities to deepen their complicity, and as a result they can discuss nothing even remotely serious or conclusive without endangering their mundane yet abiding friendship.
Each time they meet they pick up at least one topic where they left off. Both men feel that this topic, whatever it may be, asserts itself completely according to chance yet always at just the right moment to rescue them from indifference. The essayist is staying at an expensive hotel, the novelist in a cheap one: this has given rise to jokes and a comparison of breakfasts. The novelist must resign himself to the crumbs offered him in the damp catacombs passed off as a cafeteria, while the essayist can choose from a wide array of options presented in a spacious dining room with tablecloths and windows overlooking the boulevard. They spoke of these disparities one day without reaching any valid conclusions.
Prior to that Sunday, the novelist had seen the theologian only once. It was in Rosario, around fifteen years earlier, at the wedding of a mutual friend (of the essayist and the theologian), a philosopher by trade. The novelist had attended the wedding as the essayist’s guest. Though his memory of the theologian is vague, the novelist knows he would have recognized him in any city or climate, at any hour or day of the week, even if he weren’t in the essayist’s company.
The essayist and the theologian are staying at the same hotel. They are childhood friends and are using the symposium that the essayist is attending as an excuse to get together, since the theologian lives in a city near there and has not been able to make it back to Argentina in recent years. The theologian and the essayist are from the same neighborhood, and the narrator imagines they even lived on the same block. The novelist is jealous of their Rosario connection; above all, of something that could form between them or, rather, something he believes has already formed and takes on an almost physical quality when he walks alongside them.
He believes there is a complicity between them from which he is excluded. His biggest worry is that, after their Sunday excursion, the essayist and the theologian will look back on the day, listing each time the novelist made a weak or untenable point. The novelist feels as if he’s being tested by the theologian and the essayist, which leads to a proliferation of long silences and his double-guessing everything he wants to say. Now and then he is overcome by the idea of one of them grabbing a book at random later that night, reading a phrase out loud, and the two of them doubling over with laughter, without shame or need of any explanations.
The essayist is the only one among them with a camera. His daughter has charged him with a task. She has given him her teddy bear, named Colita, to photograph in different places and situations during his trip; the essayist often interrupts their walk to set Colita on the roof of a car, for example, or beside a famous or otherwise impressive shop window. Then he takes a few steps back and captures the image. Colita’s fur is white with a black stripe around the neck, like a sailor’s shirt, and two thin rings where the bear’s wrists would be. Later, the essayist will ask the theologian and the novelist to stand near the stuffed animal, saying that it will make his daughter happy. The novelist doesn’t know what to do when posing with Colita, unlike the theologian who always looks good in photographs, whatever the situation.
The three walk a long way down the middle of the street until they arrive where they’ll meet the musician. It is a bar or a brasserie and seems to be the only place open for blocks. Once there, they stand silently at the curb, observing streetside activities that merit no comment. The musician, who has lived in Paris for years, had suggested that the novelist meet him there. The novelist, who had already planned to meet the essayist and the theologian that same morning, asked if anyone minded meeting the others. And since no one did, there they all are when a few minutes later the musician walks up to them, a smile on his face. The musician is the youngest of the four. The novelist doesn’t know whether to attribute the essayist’s and the theologian’s cold greeting to this fact or to their defensiveness upon realizing that the musician, who is also from Buenos Aires, has canceled out Rosario’s numerical advantage.
A short while later they are seated at a table, ready to eat. Each has ordered a beer. When asked by the musician what he does, the theologian explains that one of his neighbors is a former machine operator in a textile factory. He did this work his whole life, making his way up the ranks, overseeing intricate processes, and operating remarkably complex machinery. Because the building is small and all the mailboxes are joined together, the theologian is always coming across letters addressed to this neighbor; no matter what the nature of the correspondence, the envelopes always include his title with his name. The letters are addressed to a “Mr. so-and-so, Textile Machinist.” The theologian laments that the correspondence he receives addresses him by his name alone, not, as consistency would dictate, “Mr. Theologian” or even just “Theologian.”
The comment seems clever, but it strikes them all as something to reflect on rather than to laugh about. The novelist is inspired and is on the verge of sharing his hypothesis about honorifics and special forms of address, unionization, the images surrounding artisans, professional identities, and so on but remains silent because he senses that he will regret whatever he might manage to say. The essayist, apparently used to the theologian’s humor, which was elliptical at first and then somewhat sly, looks down and smiles faintly, enigmatically, as if he were already aware of the theologian’s concern but had not expected to hear it in that context.
The musician has no opinion; he probably doesn’t see it as a joke, either. The musician has an abstract notion of humor: to him, it is not about contradictory or anticlimactic situations, or moments inflected with irony or paradox. To him, it is a question of slippage. Every event has the potential to be humorous, but this aspect is not always revealed. As such, he believes that nothing can be inherently funnier than anything else and that everything depends on the syntax of the situation and the information accumulated. He secretly knows this is why he chose music: he feels he can juxtapose dramatic and comedic versions, or offer something that has neither of those qualities, without being obvious about it.
In the brasserie, they feel sheltered by the company and by the conversation in a shared language spoken with the same intonation. Given this, and influenced by the theologian’s comment, they start telling jokes. For all four of them, jokes are the cords that bind them to their past and their community. But also to the present or, in any case, to the past that still echoes in the present. They will proceed by category—jokes about Jews, about little Jaimito, about morons and bumpkins—and then amuse themselves with a brief round of “world’s worst.” They even reflect for a moment on the idea of the “world’s worst” anything and try to apply it to their own professions: world’s worst essayist, musician, novelist, theologian. Then, as if they’d planned it from the start, they wrap up with the most ubiquitous category of all, but also the hardest to pin down: bad jokes.
At a key moment in their animated conversation, the essayist leans forward to extract Colita from under his chair and places the stuffed animal on the table beside two beer glasses. True to kind, Colita is an affable, round-faced little bear. He is wearing a miniature backpack that looks gray from a distance but up close is a tiny checkerboard pattern in black and white. The essayist makes sure the stuffed animal is steady, adjusts the straps on the so-called backpack to straighten it out, and waits for their server to appear so he can ask him to take a photo of the four Argentineans with Colita.
While he waits for their server to appear, the essayist shows them other images of Colita saved to his camera. A brief list of noteworthy situations: “Colita on a bridge over the Seine,” “Colita on the theologian’s bald spot,” “Colita in the Metro,” “Colita in Notre Dame,” “Colita in the Galerie Vivienne,” and so on. The essayist remarks that his daughter cares more about Colita’s grand tour than his own. The musician interrupts him to say that he’s remembered a great Jewish joke and would like to tell it, if no one minds returning to the topic. The others agree. As a result, however, the essayist will forget to ask the server to take their picture. Colita will remain on the table, a silent witness to the musician’s joke.
Moments before, the musician had mentioned an anecdote about Witold Gombrowicz: he said that, back when Gombrowicz used to work at the Polish Bank in Buenos Aires, he would take off his pants on hot days and attend to customers in his underwear. In those days, the tellers stood behind tall, imposing counters and only their upper body was visible. Gombrowicz took advantage of this fact to stay cool and, according to the musician, to laugh at the bank’s patrons as if they were the other kind, the patrons he himself lacked at the time.
Just as the musician is about to launch into his joke, the theologian thinks about the small but obvious injustice in the fact that his neighbor, the former textile worker, is addressed formally by the post office and other people and institutions, as befits his status, while he, an accomplished theologian, is anonymous as far as the world of correspondence is concerned. He thinks about how titles often confer identity more than names do. How anyone can have a name, but it’s the title that makes the name stand out.
Sitting across from him, the novelist realizes that he, too, knows a Jewish joke he forgot to tell in the appropriate round. It’s the best joke he’s ever heard, of any genre, and he deeply regrets wasting his chance to share it. He keeps his eyes fixed on Colita as the musician begins and is relieved as it becomes clear that, contrary to his fears, it’s not the same joke.
By now, the essayist has taken one of the teddy bear’s paws in his hand and has no intention of letting go until the musician has finished his story, as if the anecdote might upset the animal. The gesture has revealed the watch he wears on his right arm. A black watch with a white face that would be completely unremarkable were it not for the fact that, instead of numbers, the hours are marked by twelve distinct and fairly exotic chairs. Though he has memorized its features over the years, the theologian always gives in to the temptation to stare at the essayist’s watch, especially when it is exposed by accident, as it is now. The essayist, who has forgotten he is holding Colita’s paw, pays close attention to the musician’s story; the theologian listens while staring at the essayist’s watch, that is, while his eyes drift between the folds of the musician’s gray turtleneck, which the theologian thinks is much too warm for the day, and the essayist’s watch, which has become a mute emblem in the middle of the table. The theologian knows every last detail of the watch, such as—and this knowledge confirms the closeness of their friendship—the hour assigned to several of the famed chairs. Frank Gehry’s celebrated cardboard chair sits at nine o’clock, across from Marcel Breuer’s model B3 where the two would be; Saarinen’s Tulip chair marks seven o’clock.
No detail of that watch is unknown to him: once, he even managed to decipher the tiny engraved initials that indicate its provenance. If he cannot stop staring at it, then, this is because, though it holds no secrets, it does retain a remainder as inscrutable as a talisman and more complicated than that of any other watch. The theologian’s thoughts about the watch are just that nebulous, practically null, a brief chain of minutiae. He is aware, for example, that the essayist pays no attention to it, but a pact between timepiece and owner will keep the watch on his wrist. He also knows that every time someone discovers the trick—when those intricate figures reveal themselves to be not numbers but chairs—and reacts with a combination of delight and defiance, the essayist always responds with what the theologian likes to describe as discreet aristocratic aplomb. His reaction is, above all, restrained, because the last thing the essayist wants to do is draw attention to himself; and yet, he is not inclined to give up the useless—for its brevity and triviality—distinction he gains from wearing the watch.
The musician has been praised enthusiastically and unanimously for his great joke. He will remember this as he walks back to the apartment he rents a few blocks from the brasserie after lunch. It is a joke that has always gone over well; he believes this is due in part to the story itself and in part to his notion of comedy as slippage. The novelist, the essayist, and the theologian definitely seemed perplexed by the fact that they couldn’t identify the genre of the story as he was telling it, then burst out laughing at the end, and finally seemed a bit surprised to realize they didn’t know why they were laughing, whether it was the mishaps of the plot, the vivid language used to tell it, or the cynical moral that emerged if one chose to interpret the story as a joke.
The musician believes he managed to hold the three men in suspense with a well-timed pause, which pleases him immensely because that is what he tries to do with his music: keep the audience in the palm of his hand, caught between excitement and shock. He has lived in this city for a long time but in all those years he has never gotten over the feeling, when walking down certain streets, that the buildings that pitch forward alarmingly above him might come crashing down at any moment. Not on him, but instead benevolently in his wake. On those occasions, he imagines the staggered collapses—which are limited to the buildings’ façades—accompanied by Wagnerian music. Then he imagines walking back the same way in the silence that always follows a disaster, advancing along the stretch of frontless buildings and peering into their exposed interiors as if he were looking at a sketch or a design for the scenery of his next piece.
After lunch, the essayist, the theologian, and the novelist told the musician they were thinking of going to the cemetery and asked if he wanted to join them. It was the novelist who took the initiative, saying that since it was their last day in Paris for who knows how long, they planned to visit the remains of Juan José Saer. He had proposed the idea earlier to the theologian and the essayist during their walk that morning; now, based on a series of flimsy but well-meaning impressions, he sensed that the musician’s absence might jeopardize their funerary excursion. To the novelist’s mind, they have formed a group, a kind of plural individual, and anything they might do will have greater effect and repercussion if they do it together. Especially in the case of an urban pilgrimage to visit Saer.
The novelist has many memories of the writer, which occasionally merge into a kind of overarching religious memory; religious, in the sense that he experiences the feeling as vaguely devotional. In this memory, readings, impressions, and facts from the past fuse with situations of a far less precise nature that, for lack of a better word, he has taken to calling intuitions. These intuitions might be precarious thoughts or the tentative inclinations of his will, or even convictions that had been internalized but not yet formulated. These intuitions, unlike demonstrable facts, prior readings, or lasting impressions, do not come from the past, yet they nonetheless play a definitive role in his memory because according to the narrator they determine, in this case, the devotional nature of his feeling. A firm belief in the memory of someone no longer with us, the novelist might say.
He knows, however, that the schema of his devotion is not derived from a system of arguments, because he could apply these same arguments in praise of other writers and the result would always be different. Instead, the novelist supposes he should justify this devotional memory by its effects, rather than its causes; along these lines, it occurs to him that Saer is the only writer whose diffuse presence, or memory—or the triad of circumstances mentioned above—produces a tremor in him that he would not hesitate to describe as spiritual. In this way, the affection he feels toward this writer and his works is sometimes stirred by material objects like images, signatures, books, or papers in general. In this sense, the possibility of visiting his physical remains, for lack of a better phrase, contains the promise of an encounter with the ultimate “place” or “object,” the definitive emblem. Moreover, the religious memory leads the novelist to get ahead of himself; he imagines himself taking a photo at Saer’s tomb and later carrying the image with him wherever he goes as yet another manifestation of the mysterious and sometimes elusive writer.
The musician declined the invitation as directly as he could. He had a deadline to meet, but didn’t want to seem like he was belittling his friends by offering them such a common excuse. Instead, he regaled them with an ornate and intermittently confusing explanation that occasionally seemed like a joke about being invited somewhere and also not, last-minute additions, the regret or anxiety that might follow from not being part of the original group, some price that must be paid due to the intervention of chance, and so on.
The theologian took the musician’s words to mean that he wasn’t prepared for the excursion. The essayist imagined that the invitation had caught him off guard and, in his surprise, the musician had preferred to decline as elegantly as possible. The novelist thought the musician had been living in Paris for a long time, and that it must have seemed ridiculous to be invited to a cemetery in his own city by people who were just passing through. He thought that he should have been more tactful, that perhaps if he hadn’t mentioned the search for Saer, the musician might have joined them. After all, the novelist thought, when you say it like that, who would go looking for a grave marker in that enormous cemetery without any idea of where it might be. It would be enough to discourage anyone, but especially a local.
They part ways at the brasserie and head in different directions; the musician goes back the way he came, and the other three set out uncertainly, debating whether to go to one metro station or another. No train will take them directly to the cemetery, so they stand for a long time in front of an enormous map of the metro system, debating the best route. If someone were to see them from a distance, the theologian muses, he would think each of them was speaking directly to the map, hoping for a reply he could then transmit to the others. It isn’t easy to memorize the route, either, since it requires several transfers and because the names of the lines and the stations mean nothing to them. Its orientation and geography are a mystery to them; as a result, they are under the impression, even if they realize it is erroneous, that the metro system connects pairs of points, an origin and a destination, and that all the other dots on the map and the lines marking possible transfers exist on a second plane and only make an appearance as needed when one of them identifies it as a possible solution to the route, which by this point has turned into a riddle.
At one point, as they reach the platform just in time to miss a train, the novelist sees the theologian and the essayist take off like a shot toward the closing doors; he is struck by how they move, how they avoid the movements of other people, as if they came from a city where subway travel was common. According to the novelist, who has been left behind, this simultaneous impulse is further proof of the bond between the theologian and the essayist, from which he is repeatedly excluded.
As he watches them return with a defeated air after they failed to catch the train, his inability to explain what just happened leads the novelist to focus on their clothes, because, for some reason he can’t explain, either, he feels as if he were looking at them for the first time. The essayist is wearing all black: tight pants and a crew neck sweatshirt. The garments are so similar it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He has on a white long-sleeved T-shirt and its cuffs stick out from under his sweatshirt.
The novelist had stopped in his tracks when he saw them both sprint toward the train; now, as he observes them among the crowd as if they were not a part of his known world, he notices a faint message being given off by the essayist’s attire. It seems both familiar and extravagant, though nothing specific catches his eye. The essayist is wearing his customary gray backpack; in it, Colita travels beside an umbrella, the camera, and a few books. Because he never, ever goes anywhere without at least two books. For his part, the theologian is wearing faded jeans, a pale oxford shirt, and a brown sweater. He also has on a light jacket, which is brown, too, but more of a beige—unlike his sweater, which is dark. The novelist watches them approach and is struck, for a moment, by the impression that they are at once quite different and very much alike.
He sees them murmuring between themselves and thinks that either could say what the other is saying and it wouldn’t change the meaning of their conversation. This sort of equivalence between the theologian and the essayist leads the novelist to formulate an outrageous hypothesis, a combination of empirical observation and abstract thought. An impression made possible by his own extravagant nature. The novelist thinks that the theologian and the essayist are always splashed with the same water. This is what occurs to him as he watches them approach the spot where he stands motionless. He does not know what the metaphor means, really, and though he can imagine several possibilities, the only one he could accept as true is the most extreme or impossible, that is, the idea of two beings in complete harmony throughout time.
But this combination of unexpected revelation and empirical observation sets off an alarm in the novelist’s mind: he knows he is about to have an unusual intuition, and he fears becoming so irrational he can’t understand the meaning of his own ideas. Not their ethical or psychological meaning, he couldn’t care less, but rather their literal meaning: he does not know what he is saying to himself. Yet he senses that this idea, the idea that the essayist and the theologian are splashed with the same water, though surprisingly visceral, is truer than any rational description.
They are, in the end, tourists, and have a harder time than expected with the transfers on their way to the cemetery. The theologian feels the Sunday afternoon compress while they are in the subway. In the half-empty train car, they converse about topics ranging from politics to books, by way of daily schedules, forgotten habits, mutual friends, and people in the cities where they live. As the subway leaves a station, the essayist pulls Colita from his backpack. The moment he sees the stuffed animal, the novelist discovers the reason behind the strange sense of familiarity that pushed its way to the surface, before. Colita and the essayist are dressed alike, but as opposites: Colita is white where the essayist wears black, and vice versa. The novelist wants to say something but worries it might be a gaffe if the essayist hadn’t dressed that way on purpose. He wouldn’t want to put him on the spot, in any sense of the word.
The essayist takes the animal out to photograph it riding the subway. The three debate whether the teddy bear should be alone or accompanied, but the essayist is ultimately in charge of the images, and in the end he determines it will be alone in one and he’ll pose with it in another. He sets Colita on an empty seat and takes a few steps back; after several failed attempts, he snaps the photo. Meanwhile, an older woman who had been watching the essayist’s movements with the bear walks over and asks, smiling, if he would like her to take a photo of the four of them together. The essayist accepts her offer, on the condition that they not be asked to sit; she laughs heartily and says, “Of course, of course.” The theologian, not paying attention, had started explaining that many of his students had signed up for his class expecting a course in aesthetics, and that, though he did indeed teach aesthetics at one point, theology had been his focus for a long time already; or both things at once, but definitely not just aesthetics, though his interest in theology had begun in that field. The essayist interrupts him, asking him to stand and pose with the others. So the three crowd together as if they were capturing an important moment. In the photo, the essayist will appear holding Colita up to his chest, with the novelist to his left and the theologian on the other side.
Weeks later, the essayist will look back over his photos from the trip. When he gets to the one in the subway, the one with all four of them in it, the first thing he’ll notice will be the sartorial detail the narrator decided not to mention. But what will really catch his eye is the stuffed animal’s demeanor: perhaps influenced by the ceremonious dedication of the three friends, Colita is making a real effort to look alive, too, keeping his eyes fixed on the camera and his legs slightly raised, as if he were trying to find a flattering position. Of all the pictures of Colita, this one interests his daughter least. Yet, the essayist manages to note, it is the best one: the one in which the stuffed animal is most present and has invested the most, perhaps because he was trying to distinguish himself in the eyes of his owner from the trio of adults transporting him.
The novelist and the theologian will also receive the photo as part of a selection prepared by the essayist. The theologian thinks it is a good photo, but prefers not to look at it too closely because it reminds him of the interruption to which he was subjected. For his part, the novelist is also struck by Colita’s demeanor, as if a halo of life had formed around him. He also thinks the coordinated clothing is fundamentally important because the precise contrast with the man holding him makes it seem as if Colita, being the smaller of the two, adjusted his wardrobe to look like the essayist’s favorite pet—a living being, close yet at the antipodes.
Among the others, one photo taken in the cemetery stands out. Colita on a tomb from long ago, which had lost any inscriptions or embellishments it might once have had and is covered in a moss found only in humid, vegetal places. It is a horizontal two-tiered structure, the original materials of which are no longer discernable; had Colita not been posing on its edge and looking straight at the camera, he might have seemed like a solitary offering left moments before. At first, the essayist had pedagogical qualms about including their funereal stroll in Colita’s photographic travels, but the theologian’s comments convinced him indirectly, particularly his praise of quiet, tree-lined spaces like cemeteries—the only places, according to him, where clichés were permitted.
He listed Argentinean cemeteries and Italian ones; German, North American, Brazilian, Mexican, and Portuguese ones; and then went on to mention a few more. He clarified, however, that cemeteries belong less to countries than they do to cities. So he started listing cities and said that the cemetery they were walking through had its origins in a macabre endeavor: to resemble the city that surrounded it. A tidy, funereal city with streets along which next of kin can stroll as they visit those who are no longer there to walk with them. Finally, he praised cemeteries as more peaceful, welcoming miniature cities and, most importantly in his view, places where physical ruin was most unequivocally accepted.
Of this sweeping praise, only the word “miniature” convinces the essayist that it would be acceptable to pose Colita for a picture. Miniature, to the extent that it is a word associated with childhood, and because Colita is a miniature. The late afternoon, the natural silence, the humidity in the air, and the approaching dusk turns the cemetery into an acquiescently welcoming place.
Later, after Colita has been returned to the essayist’s backpack, the novelist brings up Saer, who is, when all is said and done, the reason for their excursion. The essayist knows what he is going to say. Anticipating the words and ideas of others is a gift he gradually developed without ever meaning to. The essayist associates this gift with his vocation, which consists, in a way, of restating arguments. So, he knows what the novelist is going to say. Because he has known him for a long time, because he knows Saer, and because he has noted the influence of their immediate surroundings, the so-called “city of the dead.”
The theologian’s attitude, on the other hand, is better suited to the circumstance. He wouldn’t mind walking down those narrow streets for hours, as long as no one asked him to speak. He thinks that, fewer than two meals from that moment, he will see his retired neighbor and maybe a letter addressed to him, and that this Sunday stroll will begin to seem chimerical, ambiguously transcendental. He, who has dedicated himself to that most transcendental of sciences, feels authorized to question the transcendental nature of their stroll. The old worker will greet him with the same friendly remark as always, confident in having found, in the title of former machinist stamped on his correspondence, a reconciliation with the world he always thought would elude him. On his side of the wall, the theologian would plan future readings of antiquated manuscripts with the aim of discovering aesthetic considerations dressed up as theological arguments.
The day before, the novelist had gotten some fairly vague instructions for finding Saer. His informant—as he describes this person to the theologian and the essayist—had told him only that he had a niche in the crematorium, on the second level down. Now they are walking in that direction, orienting themselves by the signs made of painted wood that appear every so often where two streets intersect. The novelist feels an excitement that very few things provide in their fulfillment. Something like paying off a debt or closing a circle. He could try to explain the feeling to the essayist and the theologian, but he doesn’t know if it can be expressed clearly, for one thing; for another, he isn’t sure it will be understood. He prefers to summarize his motivations by saying that he is curious and wants to see Saer’s place. He understands that the phrase “Saer’s place” might come across as sardonic, but he is not inclined to specify the kind of place, since under those circumstances it would be obvious to anyone that he is talking about a so-called final resting place. Few people demand proof that this resting place is, in fact, final, but everyone knows what is meant: where the individual’s remains are kept.
And so, after having avoided the cliché for decades, the novelist realizes he is condemned—then and there, at least—to fall into the trap, or rather make use of it, in order to express his impressions. He has learned from the theologian that anything goes in a cemetery, especially when it comes to certain types of formulations, but his issue with the cliché is not a moral one, though he wouldn’t hazard a guess, either, about what kind it really is. By way of a simple explanation, he might say that it was an emotional issue or, perhaps, even a psychological one.
At the end of an elevated street they stumble upon the crematorium, which looks at first glance like a large monument: not particularly old, but definitely imposing. Going two levels underground at that hour of the day means sinking into the shadows. There is almost no direct light: only a few surfaces are illuminated at all by light reflected off polished moldings, cornices, or panels, which survives in the half-light among faint glimmers as if it belonged in a scene by Tanizaki.
The sections on this level are organized into rooms and hallways; the walls shared by more than one room end up being endless expanses populated by plaques consistent in size and shape, while the hallways end up seeming like inhabitable tunnels. Without discussing it, the essayist, the theologian, and the novelist spread out to make the search more efficient. The essayist decides to begin in a section set apart from the rest. He could read vertically or horizontally, but due to his lack of linguistic experience, he succumbs to what he sees as the iron uniformity of the surnames and is surprised every time he comes across an Italian, Spanish, or otherwise foreign name. Oddly enough, whenever this happens, he feels as if history were trying to speak to him through individual cases. For a moment, he forgets about searching for Saer and imagines the lives of émigrés, the violence and affirmation inscribed in each.
The novelist has the sense he doesn’t know where to begin, even after choosing a section on which to focus his investigation. Closely tied to the feeling of anticipation is that of failure. He sees himself in the near future, walking empty-handed with his two friends down the street that slopes toward the exit, overwhelmed by the weight of not having closed the circle, as he refers in his private language to finding Saer’s niche. The pressure he feels is making it hard for him to read the plaques. So he throws himself into an exercise in peripheral observation, hoping that something like the graphic figure “Saer,” that is, the miniscule group of four letters without the expected French b, c, n, l, or d, or the sequences au, eau, ou, or ai, would appear as a shape more readily than as a signifying chain. He gets to thinking and muses that, in a sense, one shouldn’t expect more from novelists than disjointed emanations without guaranteed outcomes.
For his part, the theologian has an unexpected advantage. Determined to make an exhaustive search, he has begun in the darkest corner, perhaps with the idea, a professional hazard, that distant or challenging domains are best at preserving the treasures they conceal, or, better yet, those they create. He hopes, then, that Saer might appear as a result of the darkness and wields a weapon suited to the task, his unexpected advantage. The theologian has with him his cellular telephone and has thought to set it to “flashlight mode.” He sees the walls covered in marble plaques from floor to ceiling, as if he had sunk into a mass crypt; he sees the white beam in movement and it seems to him both meticulous and abstract. He had never encountered a more fitting occasion for the phrase “awash in light” than the one in which he finds himself now, as the beam emanating from the telephone seeps into spaces like an insatiable tide consuming the darkness as it advances.
He thinks of ghost stories, tales of archaeological digs, thrillers, and movies about criminals or captives. He is tempted to pursue some far-reaching concept and then brandish it at the essayist and the novelist as a notion both deep and droll. It should be something about the light, he thinks, about light as a symbol of faith—he is a theologian, after all—of a faith that produces signs and illuminates miracles, a light that enhances intuition and casts a shadow on doubt, and so on. He knows that he is building a dreamscape, and that, in a moment, his recitation of the names carved into the veined marble plaques, first then last, with a set of dates underneath, will begin to look like faces staring out from the penetrating depths; and he knows that when this happens, he will have no rebuttal.
A voice rescues him from his delirium. It is the novelist, who, with a shout of “I found him! I found him! Over here!” suspends all other actions in progress. The essayist, who was closer but still relied on the sound of the novelist’s voice to guide him, is the first to arrive. The novelist almost doesn’t recognize him: because of his dark clothes, only the cuffs and collar of his shirt are visible, as if he were a ghost in disguise. The theologian is a bit slower: he prefers to shut off his cell phone and stick it in his pocket, so it doesn’t seem as if he’d been using it.
The novelist was about to move on to another room when, as he scanned the niches nearest the floor, he caught a glimpse of something shaped like “Saer” in the second row from the bottom. A black marble plaque with gold lettering. It could have been gray, he thinks, like so many others in that building, but someone chose black and gold, and the choice strikes the novelist as being the right one. While the theologian and the essayist make their way to his place, the novelist dedicates a few moments to solitary contemplation. He crouches down in front of the niche and his intuitions are confirmed. He doesn’t know what is behind it, but the plaque is the point, object, and abstraction he had wanted to see before the day was done. He arrives at an obvious, but for him sufficient, observation: that the plaque is the visible surface. He cannot believe “that,” whatever it may be, is on the other side, manifested by this thing that covers it.
When the essayist arrives, the novelist asks to borrow his camera; he wants to be sure to capture an image of the niche, one more element in the still-shapeless altar he is building. Meanwhile, the theologian has also arrived and silently witnesses the loan before leaning forward to peer at the plaque. The essayist explains to the novelist how to use the camera. The theologian makes out the golden letters and reads: Juan-José SAER; underneath, the numbers 1937–2005. His mind is blank; he has a vague sense of what he saw in the darker parts of the hall and would say that his thoughts are still there, but he knows there is nothing worth remembering in that other place and quickly steps aside so the novelist can take the photo.
The essayist reflects on the chain of events leading up to that moment, above all the fact that he did not bring the camera along simply to capture images. He has the camera with him for documentary purposes. His daughter, using different words, had asked precisely that of him when she handed over Colita, and it is precisely that which the novelist seeks now. He thinks of a topic for a future essay: the document as a concept that precedes experience, and the tremendous implications of this shift with regard to our idea of history, and even that of literature.
The novelist steps back from the niche; while he determines the best distance for the photo, he reads the names of Saer’s neighbors: to his right is Claude Monteil and to his left is someone named Serge Mansard. It is almost impossible to see anything, but he is certain of those two names. He reflects on the unimaginable string of coincidences that led to this eternal cohabitation two levels underground, and concludes that this is the real lesson death teaches us.
Moments later, there is a setback. The camera’s flash is not responding. The novelist and the essayist try several times; the essayist checks its settings to make sure the flash is activated, but it still refuses to work. The theologian, who appears completely disinterested, is the one who ultimately has the solution. He tells the novelist not to worry, he can use his phone as a flashlight. He stands beside Saer’s niche and holds out his arm as if the beam were a liquid that could flow down its surface. And maybe it is precisely that, thinks the essayist as he watches the theologian dutifully illuminate something parched for light.
"Una visita al cementerio" © Sergio Chejfec. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Heather Cleary. All rights reserved.
In this 2014 essay, Marcelo Cohen reflects back on decades as a translator in Spain and the complex relationship between translation, exile, and identity.
This text takes as its starting point another that I wrote once for a talk on exile and Argentine literature. But don’t think I’m simply trying to make things easier on myself. Remembering Joyce’s famous motto, “silence, exile, and cunning,” I briefly considered as a title for this chronicle: "On the Translator’s Exile as Arduous Passage to Freedom." But then I remembered Cabrera Infante, a very sad case of forced loss of one’s beloved language and nation, and I decided to be more prudent. If I’ve mulled over these ideas previously, it’s because I write and translate and because sometimes I think that, maybe even more than writing, translation inspires bitter and sweet and always interesting perplexities on language, perception, politics, exile as a generalized existential condition, and the truths and fallacies of identity. But I’ve never reflected on these issues for a very long stretch, much less developed a theory. I think that the best way to get to the point is to charge into the repeated occurrence of certain dilemmas.
I arrived in Spain in December of 1975. I hadn’t left Argentina out of fear, nor was I in any greater danger than your average political activist. I had the feeling I was suffocating, the product of something more than the ascension of López Rega and the Triple A, and, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself, I simply wanted to travel for a year or two. I was full of Hemingway and of Blaise Cendrars. Three months after I’d left, in March of 1976, there was a military coup in Argentina. I lived in Barcelona until January of 1996. It’s a lie to say that twenty years is nothing. In those twenty years I fell in love and formed relationships that later fell apart, I learned three new languages, I made friends and sometimes lost them, I lived in eight different neighborhoods, read the majority of the writers that I return to most often now and saw the movies and listened to the music that I prefer today; I had paying jobs and received unemployment benefits; I played in neighborhood soccer tournaments, wrote for the press, and participated in an athenaeum of free thinking; I translated over sixty books, half of them very good, and I wrote twelve. Those two decades transformed the young middle-class Jewish Argentinean maximalist into a shape-shifting aggregate of nutrients gleaned from people, books, and experiences. I arrived in Spain on December 12, 1975. Three weeks prior, on November 20, Francisco Franco had died. I’m not going to rack my memory to extract a distillation of everything I saw gush forth after the lid of the dictatorship was ripped off. Today almost all the resulting frenzy has simmered down, leaving a society of immediate satisfactions and digestible discomforts, just as in any society that knows moderate abundance. But I remember that in the beginning, one afternoon, I watched from a corner as a march for Catalan independence converged with a protest to free the caged birds sold on the Ramblas, which in turn intersected with a demonstration of the Workers’ Commissions, and that same night, on the Ramblas, I was swept up by a horde of transvestites who paraded among the dealers, Red Brigade posters, and illicit card games. I remember that a cultural magazine I wrote for, El viejo topo, shifted focus four times in half a year, from workers’ rights to gender equality to surrealist anarchy to Foucauldian ethics. I remember that every week new translations were published of books that had been banned for years, from Dylan Thomas to Alfred Döblin, Gérard de Nerval to Guy Debord. I remember the air of sensuality that made any publishing initiative, whether mundane, journalistic, or political, feel like a rock concert. The joy that this carnival provoked in me was multiplied by the fact that, based on the common law of the geographical transplant, I foolishly believed that I had virtually no responsibilities. This involuntary self-delusion consisted in believing that my true responsibilities lay somewhere else, in the place I’d left behind, and in the horrifying stories of my country that reached Spain. One night a childhood friend who I hadn’t seen for at least ten years called me on the phone. He was at the airport with his wife; two days prior they’d killed his sister, who like him was active in the Peronist Youth Party, and he didn’t know where to go and he didn’t have the slightest idea what Catalonia was. I remember the couple spent a week without leaving the room I got for them. I hosted many refugees from my country, most of whom had been married and living clandestinely almost since adolescence, never having learned anything about the streets, and they recalled with tears a Rosario or a Buenos Aires that I didn’t know. Apart from the rage and the grief of defeat, there was desperation, pain, longing for the protection of family or even for this lack of protection to become familiar. But all this was absorbed into the effervescent broth of a Spain in transition, which dissolved it, tempered it, transformed it. It was a situation of irritating, sometimes ridiculous uncertainty. It didn’t last much more than two years—three, maybe—until democracy was established, Spain accepted its geopolitical role, and began the slow path to liberalism. I followed this process with some apathy as well; but not too much, because many of us had learned from Argentina’s failures. The libertine climate of Spain at the end of the seventies fostered an almost automatic criticism of ideology, which in my case included a rejection of Leninism, all real Socialisms, and the philosophy of power, but also the local Spanish varieties of Buenos Aires fundamentalism, family machismo, military-like hierarchy, sexual violence, nostalgia, unbridled passion, and widespread petit bourgeois repression. All this fed into an expansion of consciousness, an urge to destroy paradigms that was as pressing as the need for independence. The endeavor was consolidated by disparate slogans. The notion, for example, that we weren’t trying to change reality in order to continue being who we’d been before but changing ourselves in order to create a new reality. Or later on: the realization that change implied accepting that one doesn’t belong, that every life story or biography is an impermanent and changeable version of what has happened to a person, what has made them who they are and who they aren’t, that we are the product of an extemporal, indifferent sequence of events whose other possible versions should be respected. What I had not yet accepted was that the condition of exile forces us to face up to our responsibilities. Irresponsibly, to be sure, after holding various jobs more or less typical of a young exile, I accepted a book translation through a friend. Translating seemed dignified, it meant playing at man of letters rather than adventurous narrator, and in general it seemed like a mentally absorbing activity. I believed I’d cut my teeth translating Beat poets and science fiction stories for Argentine literary magazines and I knew enough Latin to put on an air of annoying smugness. I was dealt a blow. The book they gave me was a biography of Indira Gandhi, and when it was reviewed the critic declared that it was translated using “a Spanish as messy as the dickens.” I was annoyed that that cruel accusation of barbarism hinged on the phrase “as the dickens,” which my mother used and which I thought was an Argentinean turn of phrase, and it annoyed me even more that in the future, if I wanted to survive, I’d have to worry about what constituted messy Spanish and what didn’t. I understood immediately, almost overwhelmingly, that no one who thinks about language regularly and in depth can avoid running into politics. And I began to understand why some visionaries, such as William S. Burroughs, affirmed that language is the most efficient instrument of behavioral and societal control; but not only control applied externally, through political, advertising, and educational slogans, but also from within; through the delimitation of illusions, the projection of who we are from the time we’re born and the fear of failing to meet expectations, the neural networks of ideology. Unfortunately, my first reaction was to take refuge in a devotion for my uterine language. But I found myself in an irremediable predicament: I needed to earn a living as a professional translator in Spain.
Meanwhile, just as I was getting over my aversion to fanatical leftism, I struck up a conversation at the bar on the corner of my street with an Argentinean who turned out to be Osvaldo Lamborghini. I’d like to pay homage to this intimidating writer. Around that time, I read La causa justa, in which, the story goes, a Japanese man who lives in Argentina ends up committing hara kiri because he can’t stand that Argentineans have no word of honor, and I realized that Lamborghini’s aberrant literature—comparable only maybe to Puig’s—shined a light on the pornographic nature of Argentine politics, which in turn was the manifestation of the Argentinean mindset. He was a cantankerous and very impolite man. One morning in 1983 he came up to my house, rang the doorbell, walked in, and, without asking for permission, snuck a look at my typewriter, which held a translation of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. “You’re not going to translate it using Castilian, are you?” he said, and discussed ways we could sneak subversive shards of our peripheral dialect into the thriving and arrogant Spanish publishing industry. He ordered me to read Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, by Deleuze and Guattari, and to reread more carefully some of Borges’s essays, especially “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights.” In this psychopathic yet effective way, he struck the heart of the exile’s dilemma: language. From there on out, my sights would be set on language, all other concerns disappearing with the stroke of a pen. This would unwittingly help me in the long run, as well. Because by then, although my reverential fear kept me from fully thinking it through, I felt that there was a contradiction in Borges’s objection to the dominance of identity, which he calls “the nothingness of personality,” and his fierce support of local dialects, translations irreverent about Western laws of language. Regional variations in language perhaps contribute to the individuality of bordering nations; but as would become evident over time, the emphasis on national, religious, or linguistic identity is catastrophic. But Borges, it would be foolish not to acknowledge, wasn’t advocating an anticolonial message but rather the continuous renovation of literature, breaking the confines of this deceptive world through localization of inherited expressions.
As for me, I had a very insistent urge to break all restraints, perhaps as a way to march in step with the unusual freedom I had crashed up against. The typical agents of guidance had disappeared: I didn’t have any family, political affiliation, university studies, nor did I have a steady job or relationship, I just had friends, elective interests, and no aims beyond literature. As a still-undocumented exile of little means and an incipient libertarian, I toyed with a modest amorality. The fantasy of breaking my restraints culminated in a myriad of heterogeneous shards that would shred my personality and lead to a loss of myself, casting my identity beyond the limits of perception, possession, imitation, and fear of the passage of time. Unfortunately, my internal agents of guidance, entrenched in the superego, had become fixated on an insidious defense of my Argentinean identity, and I became riddled with guilt at the slightest provocation. Deep down, I submitted and this manifested in a maniacal rejection of everything Spanish. It was something like a campaign for health. I wanted to disintegrate, yes, but while preserving my voice. It’s a known fact that the Voice, with an uppercase V, is the metaphysical absolute, the intangible, immaterial fact that language is a place. But the voice that I wanted to preserve wasn’t that pure desire for expression that separates culture from nature, but that second voice, unique and fine-tuned which, I supposed at the time, ties us to the source of the self by way of our biographical origin; a kind of shared fingerprint. I didn’t know it, but from there to the worship of one’s roots, so harmful to someone who wants to depersonalize himself, there was no more than a step. All I knew was that my voice railed against the oppressiveness of peninsular Spanish. I was a foreigner in a mother tongue that was not my mother’s tongue. A mother tongue with a long tradition of imperial centrality and theology, restored by Francoism, its illogical polished by the Academy and its hatred of the technocracy. It was the Latin Americans who “spoke poorly;” the Argentines, especially, used the vos and, as I already said, oozed certain Argentineanisms that in the Spanish publishing industry were considered blasphemous. Editors and proofreaders treated us with a polite smugness. I was plagued by the constant chafe of misunderstanding, distress over living in a language that hadn’t developed a culture of suspicion, that didn’t interpret; that, as we said, “lacked a subconscious.” The Spanish uttered refrains as if they could only mean one thing, what the refrain said, but they implanted them into an unending variety of situations. They confused the present perfect with the preterite indefinite—they said “Last year I’ve been in London”—and they didn’t distinguish between the direct and indirect object; they considered their way of speaking straightforward but their thoughts were imprecise. They crucified what could have been delicate expressions of emotion through sentences that were highly styled yet stiff as boards. The Spanish and I said very different things using almost the same words. Instead of examining these misunderstandings from both sides (weighing, for example, the presumptuous and gaudy tendency of Argentines to emulate great poets they have not read), I converted each misunderstanding into distrust and, eventually, disdain. I once photocopied an article by María Moliner which explained that the pronoun “lo” was the correct choice for replacing the direct object and “le” was only a tolerated exception. I gave it to one of my Spanish editors. Imperiously, and quite rightly, she explained to me the notion of usage and never called me again. These and other confrontations were where my exiled superego had gotten me, and by that time my identity as an exile had precluded any possibility of opening myself to new experiences, or more like new feelings. It’s a known fact that ideas function like fences. The most widespread notion of exile gives birth to and nourishes an obsession with returning to one’s country with one’s national identity as intact as possible, as the desired end to all migration (in this sense, it completely supplanted the idea of revolution), and as a way of recovering the self. This dominant self-narrative, which dictates one’s development and level of achievement, aims to foster an estrangement from reality that doesn’t aid understanding in the slightest; it’s a deceptive estrangement, fraught with constant comparison. There was, of course, a hint of political rebelliousness in my discontent. My Spanish surroundings alienated me from my culture, my language was a tool of possible emancipation; peninsular Spanish sullied me, it drowned out my voice, it obliterated me as a vehicle of exceptionalism. As you can see, I was engaged in a battle for the propriety of language, in both senses of the word propriety. It wasn’t only about settling who could lay claim to the language but also who employed it to greater effect. I was ultimately echoing Sarmiento’s bitterness (“the Spanish translate little, translate badly, and they don’t know how to choose”) and Borges’s sarcasm over Américo Castro. The battle was hard-fought, crude, astringent, more work than was needed to sustain the notion of a homeland and the emblems of the past, but it was a way to ensure that my exile’s narrative wouldn’t disintegrate into disjointed memories. I felt oppressed, not by the might of an empire but some residue left behind by the newspapers, dubbed movies, politicians’ anacoluthons, advertising slogans, and the increasingly depressing tendency of large publishing houses to simplify translations—sanding away stylistic relief, shortening and segmenting all sentences with more than one subordinate clause—in order to facilitate consumer access. (I’d like to take a moment, if you’ll allow me, to examine this process. The Spanish custom of dubbing all foreign movies instead of subtitling them had given birth to a strain of “translated Spanish” that the public could easily understand even though no one spoke in such a way. In the eighties many translators adopted these expressions, which offered quick and recognizable solutions, and eventually some publishing houses began to require them. The series of maneuvers that wiped out all stylistic uniqueness was referred to as “ironing out” the original. The not infrequent consequence was that in the majority of Spanish translations in the eighties, especially the ones paid for by publishing conglomerates, Michael Ondaatje’s prose showed an ominous kinship to Stephen King’s. The most varied characters of the two were capable of saying, for example, Six of one and half a dozen of the other, Well aren’t you a hayseed? or, Whatever are you thinking? Then this mix of false colloquialism and trite stylistics began to appear—and this was the truly savage part—in the writing of several young novelists who read translations extensively and little of their own national literature.)
These myriad motives for strife provoked in me an outbreak of Argentinean fundamentalism. My work would have benefitted, as it eventually did in the end, if I hadn’t taken the tension between a loyalty to my roots and the obligation to translate using the dialect of the Iberian Peninsula as a declaration of cold war. The irritating second-person plurals and the different names for the same things weren’t hard to accept, because my day-to-day speech was in fact already a kind of Catalanized half-Spanish. But it was the peninsular way of organizing sentences, the cadence of questions, and various other elements that signaled a major, agonizing rift between the diction, intonation, and prosody, that is to say the temperament of this language, compared to mine. But this difference consoled me. It was an abstract difference, treacherous, but grounded in the correct assumption that the main contrasts between Iberian Spanish and the South American dialects weren’t lexical but related to sentence organization and its implications for intonation, rhythm, the preference for certain verb tenses and the respective adherence to or defiance of rules and norms, for example the use or omission of certain prepositions. Ezra Pound reminds us that there is no language that contains the sum of all human knowledge; no tongue capable of expressing all forms and levels of comprehension. Instead of reflecting on this adage, I submitted every word that seemed like a possible Argentineanism to a quality control process that had each translation awash in a daily tide of delirious inebriation. Behind my superego’s back, from time to time, I’d enjoy the subtlety of great Spanish translations, such as those by Miguel Sáenz or Javier Marías, and I envied them the richness that, I knew, could only come from an intimate relationship with the more recent additions to the dominant dialect. My tradition included Quevedo, but it also included the Argentinean gauchesca style and the Latin American translations of North American literature.
Given that this was the way I experienced translation, as an asphyxiating space where everyone begrudged the existence of the Other, I tried to soothe my irritation through smuggling and linguistic insurgence. I thought that if I could graft, divert, and upset the language that was imposed on me, perhaps I could create small islands of alternate reality, makeshift shelters where readers could avoid their now inevitable condition as consumers, the new gold standard of oppression, and something from which Latin America could still escape. I insisted on using the preterite indefinite, rigorously avoided the use of le; the characters in my translations exclaimed What a lie! like my grandma, maybe What a whopper! but never Such a fabrication! like my Spanish tobacco seller, and instead of OK, I used Agreed. I obsessively strained my ears to find the strangest colloquial expressions the closest to “ours” that the publishers would tolerate, and I treasured terms from the Golden Age that modern-day Spanish varnished over but which had survived in the more flexible South American dialect or words miraculously shared by the Madridleñan Cheli and the Lunfardo of Buenos Aires. Does it have to be said that I refused to use the verb coger, which in Spain is used in a variety of mundane situations, but in Latin America means only one thing: to fuck? My objective, when the original allowed it, was an elegant omission, sophisticated, playful and inviting, conscious that all writing involves a mutilation of meaning, an incessant, fatal loss of the idea you aim to capture, the erasure of what is named, and in translation the problem is made double. This solution, which gave my projects a slightly whimsical texture, didn’t elicit any major reactions. Some publishers continued to call me, others discreetly got rid of me, and I ended up doing most of my work for two presses, Minotauro and Muchnik, which were run by Argentineans, or for independent houses such as Anagrama, Icaria, Lumen. By then I’d had the privilege of translating Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, even William Burroughs, Henry James, no less, and as my self-pity began to wane my sense of responsibility began to grow. My next subterfuge redirected my ire toward the standard literary Spanish that privileged plot-driven narratives and the supposed balance of form, something book reviews at the time praised as “fluid language.” The balance of form! These people had never read Gombrowicz. The exaltation of fluid language was the black beast of my writer self, and I railed against the purging of my intimate language in a public explosion of rage against the contaminating factors: a very long article in two parts under the title “Some Questions on the Propriety of Language,” which I published—and this should’ve made me think twice—in La Vanguardia. The first part was called “On the Writer as Shoe Softener,” in a biting, melancholy homage to a job—softening the new shoes of the rich—that some eccentric poor people in 1950s Buenos Aires had done for work. To put it briefly, the article said that when we’re born, we fall into a language like a pair of shoes assigned to us at random; discomfort first emerges when we try to say one thing and people understand something different; that nevertheless it’s not easy to avoid language as an essential element of belonging, so in the end one forgets that the shoes hurt their feet and they adapt to common usage because it allows them to build ties more easily. Then I accused Spanish writers of having settled for a fixed set of tools to shield themselves against walking barefoot, that is to say protecting themselves in literature the way they do in life. The Spanish wore their inherited shoes as if they were comfortable; they made do with functional words, relied on the illusion of transparency. What set Latin American literature apart, on the other hand, was the awareness of an unavoidable discomfort, the incessant worry over correct usage, a constant insolence, impertinence, and suspicion of the word and the speaker; the acknowledgment that every voice is filtered through a mask, recognizing the arduousness and impurity of literature, which is born from dissatisfaction, so that the only correct word is the one that challenges the fallacy of the familiar. My obvious bitterness, the product of a not entirely unwarranted resentment over my position as a member of the cultural proletariat on the payroll of the literary industry, was distilled in a passage dedicated to the diffuse but sustained campaign that at the time—a period when the Spanish publishing industry was establishing and affirming itself—was being waged against the South American translations from the forties, fifties, and sixties that had nourished readers during the lean years under Franco but were now classified as crude and unbearable. I don’t want to get into the minute details of what we discussed at translator conferences. What mattered for me at the time was that Spanish writers not only attacked South American translations full of terms such as cuadra (a city block) or durazno (peach); they also refused to consider that millions of Latin American readers didn’t know the meaning of the Spanish equivalents melocotón or chaval.
And so on. If secretly I hoped for some response, what’s certain is that none came. All I received in recompense was a morbid swelling of pride. A few weeks went by and the swelling became a contusion, a hemorrhage, and I felt silly. Some years later, amid the hype of the five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, there would be an attempt to prove that the official neutral Latin American Spanish, a language no one speaks, could heal the wounds left in the language by local dialects. Translation was the ideal way to shatter that farce of homogeneity through a multiverse of voices that were simulated yet unique. The fact is that after publishing my manifesto I slowly began to let go. It wasn’t what I’d wanted. It was the breakdown of my romance with conflict which had dictated my behavior. I understood that my experience of exile was something superimposed, projected onto my consciousness, curiosity, and daily evolution, fabricated a priori through my culture and background. This thing or object fit the mold of a long list of documented exiles, fortified by tradition and history, and working daily to reproduce itself. Many theories throughout history have argued the moral superiority of the individual who is capable of self-examination by creating a coherent narrative about themselves. For me, not only my feelings but also my memory tended toward the erratic; sometimes I missed my country, but in general, to be honest, I didn’t miss it that much. My present didn’t allow for time to miss it, and instead I felt only a slight nostalgia. The food, the accents of my friends and lovers, reading the newspaper, song lyrics, smells on the street or those drifting in through the window, emotions connected to a particular hour, a time of day, and a precise corner of the city: I was an actor playing a part in these memories of an adolescence spent in Buenos Aires. I was an assembly of representatives from many different parties who recounted anecdotes of varied times and settings, put forth contradictory motions and argued over unrelated events; and the worst part was that sometimes an entire faction abandoned the meeting. The bewildered silence I observed deep within belied a lack of control, the absence of an commanding officer, an empty control center. Against a hazy background contrasting elements emerged: the typewriter and the computer, the large Spanish croissant and the small Argentine medialuna—member of a category of pastries called facturas—the greasy, torn seats of the number 60 bus and the cushioned cabin of a high-speed train, the Mediterranean Sea and the Luján River, a vine called Santa Rita and at the same time bougainvillea, President Menem’s sideburns and the gray heads of the Spanish Social-Democratic rulers. In my most intimate of exile narratives, if I ever had such a thing, the urge to return had lost its pull. To be clear, my life required of me a language that was on par with its multiplicity, with the temporal and spatial millefleur that was each moment. Beckett proposed poking holes in the hopes that, maybe, after much patience, some truth would finally seep out. According to Deleuze, writing was like inventing a foreign language that blew through the writer’s language like a gust of wind to shake it up and whip it into a frenzy. And for Walter Benjamin, after Babel, after the dispersion, each language was doomed to live out its underlying defect, its incompleteness. Armed with this battery of arguments, I proceeded to carry out my daily duty as an exercise in self-annihilation and the breaking down of my constraints. Break them down! Break them down!, was my motto, just like that, said two times. Exaltation. Surrender. The illusion of ego emulsified and fused with another’s voice, et cetera. I was totally convinced of the plan. Especially when I translated contemporary authors. Such was the daily pleasure of offering up my language to the diversifying pressure of Alasdair Gray, Kathy Acker, or whoever, that I formulated the theory that fidelity in translation meant creating a new theory of translation for each book. It was a strange period in which I only cared about sentences, then paragraphs, and I made feverish safaris to the Spanish Royal Academy’s official dictionary, fact-finding missions through Quevedo, Larra, Sarmiento, Mansilla, Lezama Lima, tango lyrics, Madrileñan coplas, Onetti, Juan Benet, Arguedas, the translations of Lino Novás Calvo and Consuelo Berges. I paid great attention to the voices of others and revised my grammar to come as close as possible to parataxis. But I hadn’t learned my lesson. And, as if to corroborate it, just then my translation of La vida de Jesus by Toby Olson was reviewed in an Argentinean newspaper and according to the critic the novel was very well translated, she said, “by the ultra-Spanish Marcelo Cohen.” All aspects of the review left me enormously satisfied, from the praise to the sarcasm to the Argentinean ignorance that led the journalist to mistake my personalized blend of dialects for traditional Spanish. More or less around that time, I also translated the memoirs of Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish man who learned the saxophone in the reformatory, played with Armstrong, and ended up selling marijuana in Harlem, and nothing could have pleased me more than the observation that the conglomerate of slangs I’d contrived was hard to understand but in the end had a unique sound. What I want to say is this: the self, who we are at our core, supposedly, that blazing symbol of identity and a term some feel obligated to translate as ego, is truly obstinate in its narcissism and attachment to anything that resembles it or references it, even if it does so through the voices of others. Its deepest, most ardent desire is, of course, style. And I wanted a writing style and a translating style, and I was very ambitious: I wanted my writing to have an imperceptible Argentineness and, let’s say, a sophisticated hybridity.
There I was then, caught once again in flagrante. The Spanish would say discovered, not caught. My discomfort with contemporary Spanish, the language of the househusband, castrator of understanding, had incited a political liberation. But with all my River Plate genealogy and my Joycean desires for a sexual anarchy of words, I’d fallen victim to the desire for distinction, one of the vices that can lead the exile, like a lamb, to an intolerance equal to the intolerance that marginalizes them. If the self’s greatest desire is style, and the creation of objects as symbols of understanding is a means of control, the self is the bourgeois object par excellence. The self is a fallacy a posteriori; exactly like commodity fetishism. “The self is the landlord’s salary and savings.” This Carl Einstein tells us. And that’s why Einstein thought that the “destruction of the object” practiced by the cubist painters and by Malévich was not a purely formal issue but implied destruction of the social and systemic order, the bourgeois order rooted in possession, individualism, and the fiction of the permanence of objects and subjects. This wasn’t my case. Instead of letting communication flow out through the wounds of exile, I allowed them to scar over and form armor, as if I could somehow capitalize on the long quarrel between my adopted country and my country of origin, as if exile weren’t forever. No good for translation, as you might imagine.
Everything was out of my control, it was nothing more than a chain of causes that led to the present. The laborious task of understanding this, even halfway, began as I took a step toward opening up, caught a glimpse of freedom. Just a glimpse.
But some people never learn. I returned to Argentina and once again fell victim to the spontaneous whims of my linguistic motor which entertained itself by asking for Argentine zapatillas at the shoe store or Spanish calabacines at the greengrocer; I cultivated eccentric insults, such as the antiquated Argentinean Go boil yourself or the charming Andalusian Get fucked by a fish. I’d lack a degree of discernment in my translations, but because I conceived of them as transitory spaces I could host a great quantity of nuances and accents. Of course, I immediately noticed that the pleasure of using Argentine localisms, Lunfardo, eventually the voseo, was obscured by the fact that often the best solution, and even the most enjoyable, was a Spanishism; and this dialectical schizophrenia destroyed any illusion I held of fully belonging. If it’s true that you can never go home, the excess of expressive possibilities that I’d acquired only served to underscore the fact that I was out of step, this time with my own country. I didn’t take long to become embroiled in new misunderstandings. It goes without saying that the language of Argentina today is not the language of Mansilla, not even the language of Walsh. It’s an index of samplings from journalism, advertising, political commentary, psychoanalysis, and the scraps of street slang “ironed out” by the middle class, where Spanish translations and Central American subtitles and voiceovers play not even a minor role. Today Argentines swim in Spanish piscinas instead of Argentine piletas, in a restaurant we don’t call the mozo but the camarero, who will utter buen apetito instead of buen provecho, receptionists and concierges say aguarde instead of espere (because they think it sounds more refined), but the general vocabulary is distressingly limited. There are comparatively few who can handle subordinate clauses. Literary professionals who are fairly good writers are oblivious to certain rules of temporal sequence, such as the preterite indefinite and the past perfect, resulting in strained memories and a cramped present. And while I might try to accept the idiosyncrasy of these usages, adopt them with a grudging respect, I’m sure that my translations don’t sound less strange than they did in Spain. I do it on purpose, of course. It’s not merely a whim. It’s once again an attempt to turn translation into a place, a synthetic space where the self might become lost among the multitude of possibilities, the understanding of identity as an aggregate. But this place should not be isolated, protected, preserved; because if there’s anything I’ve learned from so many scuffles, it’s that this hypothetical space must provide an atmosphere of community, of feasting; it must generate fresh tissue in the huge body to which we all belong. I believe that in a place like this, a translation or fiction that is more or less unique is also a convergence of voices, of multiple voices, and a gathering place, local but always provisional, shaking up the language of stereotype, now increasingly international, more tolerant of polymorphic expression.
It’s surprising how easily we’ve accepted that hate and violence contribute more than love and peace to the structuring of social relationships. But more surprising still is the widespread denial that the climate of stress, terror, and threat that enshrouds our world relates directly to the closed-minded defense of identity, of the individual or the group, and the disproportionate exaltation of memory. Identity, erroneously considered an innate component and not a chosen one, determines the direction of one’s life and must be defended from anything that might erode it, hamper it, unsettle or modify it, consume and digest it, or stamp it out. Identity as ethnicity, tradition, nationality, religion, or exclusive political affiliation, for starters. Because at present you don’t see any major groups or too many individuals who have accepted that deep down, they are—as is said of the dead—nothing. Some of the wiser voices the planet listens to, for example the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, suggest we accept that the identity of any human or group, far from being singular and inescapable, is always an aggregate—some would say a construct—and that many of its components are born of random choices or affiliations. Identity can change over time, against a person’s will, and without his or her knowledge, and it changes as a result of premeditated decisions; the composition becomes more diverse. In the merely social plane, for example, we carry a portfolio of identities that we draw upon depending on the context (gender, class, profession, job, race, political opinions, among others), and the weight that we give to one over another determines our behavior. Sen maintains that the refusal to accept the internal diversity of our identities is an error shared by experts on the clash of civilizations, communitarians, religious fundamentalists and cultural theorists, and that the illusion of a unique identity, which gives birth to the sensation of destiny, fatality, and impotence, feeds rage and violence toward “the Other.”
I don’t cite Sen because I want to get into an issue that has been dealt with at length by many artists and academics, namely that translation allows for the comparison and rejuvenation of our own ideas through the language of the other. But the observation that I and the Other are each in reality a miniature multitude strikes at the heart of translation, the work of the translator, and I think that, while the notion magnifies some problems, responsibilities, and complications, it also offers a glimpse of freedom.
Let’s take the much-discussed quandary between translation as hypothetically neutral and a localist translation—idiosyncratic, or, to put it another way, extreme. Argentine readers’ regular displays of contempt for Spanish translations, the angry accusations of clumsiness and colonialization through the stubborn and, some say, malevolent use of Iberian words or peninsular expressions which impede their enjoyment of a text, reflect the ignorant and longstanding refusal of Spanish book professionals to accept the inherent diversity of their language. But these angry Argentine readers overlook the fact that the invasion of our bookstores by leftovers from the prolific Spanish publishing industry is an issue of capitalism and geopolitics, caused by a decline in local publishing houses for which some measure of blame, dictatorship and economics aside, must go to the publishers. In addition to all this, these complaints ignore a point that, if it’s worth getting into, could be a political aesthetic of translation for these times.
Within the despotic global prose of the State that continuously produces advertising and political slogans as well as myths perpetuated by the entertainment industry, and the fictions that, passed off as information to condition us, our society of spectacle has incorporated, with unbridled enthusiasm and as a way to deal with human themes such as pain, beauty, death, et cetera, what critics call “international literature,” the basic condition of these works being that they are eminently translatable. I think that as a reaction to this attempt at subjugation, today the naturally resistant writer makes an effort to create independent literature, which is to say just literature, rejecting texts created with translation in mind. The poetics of the untranslatable lead to acknowledgment of the fact that very local expressions and slang, very personalized styles, demand localized equivalences.
So as not to get tangled up, I’ll present the problem using two examples.
First, let’s suppose that a group of my neighbors, sick with atavistic racism, are infuriated by a family of Nigerian immigrants, the Ababós, because they raise in their little yard some bushes bearing a nourishing but stinky fruit. The family is from a culture in their country that has historically lived off the cultivation of this plant and they were mistreated by a local mafia, etc. Let’s say that I know of a moving Nigerian novel that tells a story similar to the Ababós’ and allows us to understand them. I think that it will help my neighbors change their minds. But the translation of the novel is from Spain and the translator chose to use the Madrileñan Spanish of the Lavapiés neighborhood for the language of the Ababós and the Nigerian mafiosos. What should I do? Hope that my neighbors can see through the veil of a dialect that is foreign to them? Risk the chance that their interior social demons will take advantage of the confusion to accuse the Ababós of being Spanish bastards? Propose that some humble but valiant independent publishing house apply for a subsidy from UNESCO to buy the rights and translate the book using the local Buenos Aires dialect?
Another way of approaching the dilemma:
A few years ago the Argentine poet Leónidas Lamborghini published the narrative poem Look to Domsaar. An old man who was lecherous and perhaps powerful named Pigj lay dying on a scorched plain where nothing grew. He’s lying in a bed on wheels and accompanied by two women and a few others, and the poem narrates the bed’s laborious journey, facilitated by its very practical wheels, sometimes traveling in a straight line, sometimes zigzagging on its way to who knows where: like our country, like the progress of civilization. Burial of Pampan lyricism and sarcastic disregard for common usage, shadowy Beckettian skill and sacramental Peronist sketch comedy, monstrosity, lewd vaudeville act and highbrow commentary, story in verse, also serious drama on death, this superlative poem should not have implied any more risk than what Lamborghini had assumed from the outset, when he decided to employ a unique tone to express his vision. Lamborghini needn’t have had any goal in mind save that of projecting his voice, freeing, let’s say, his vision and shaping it. The search for answers or conclusions is abandoned in the face of needing to write well what is written, risk fades away and what remains is the poem’s best interest; for us, a kind of pain that is relieved, that is to say: aesthetics. He doesn’t know what kind of reach it will have. Lamborghini probably wasn’t worried about foreign distribution. Translating this text would be very tricky, overflowing as it is with localness. And if I choose this example it’s because it seems to me indicative, but I could just as easily have chosen something by Russell Hoban, an American who settled in England and wrote the masterpiece Riddley Walker. Hoban’s is a coming-of-age story set in a postnuclear world, written in a delightful neo-primitive style, and Hoban refuses to sell translation rights for other languages (as if he were afraid of denaturalization). Faithful to its extremist impulse, stubbornly rooted in its world of reductive circulation, literature employs the local dialect and enriches it; is renewed through diaspora, destroys the synthetic language which separates us by way of what is supposed to connect us. Not a few think that if literature has a future, it will be thanks to a large stock of untranslatable books, or of course for us translators, seemingly untranslatable.
Even in less extreme cases, it’s hard to imagine that a neutral language like the one dreamed up by the Spanish version of Life magazine could increase the translator’s commitment to his or her work. Equal opportunity among various groups of readers is a fantasy, because there are very few works that the publishing industry is going to translate for any given country, and because identity exercises an insane power of reduction: from the nation down to the region, state, county, race, city, neighborhood, family, self. Apart from the fact that the alleged “Argentine” language already incorporates expressions from the entire Spanish-speaking world, and from other worlds, an inevitable consequence of the global extravaganza. We’ve adopted the Spanishisms porro, cachondo, piscina, the erroneous and disgraceful use of the vosotros, the Mexicanism lucir and even the Brazilian todo bien, and make easy use of pinches bueyes, quiubos, pantaletas, and cabrones, all terms that have made their inflexible Lunfardo predecessors bray but haven’t weakened the undeniable legacy of Argentine vernacular accomplishments such as che, viste, mina, or many others. This is just one example. The same thing is happening with the national dialects in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, everywhere, and, with the approval of the Royal Spanish Academy, it’s begun to happen in Spain.
In this climate, the enduring battle between the translation of a work to a language that is believable for the particular reader or a language that causes estrangement could be resolved by a new alternative. It would be a provisional solution, and would announce that from here on out all solutions will be provisional. In reality, my hope is that it foretells of a future in which every book will demand of the translator, as writing demands, not only a partial solution, but an ad hoc theory, as if translation could become a branch of pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. The translator, when not yoked to his or her daily pages, dreams of an ocean filled with plankton of dissolved identities. Let’s not forget that an ocean is a medium. Instead of creating twenty localized versions of an original, each translation will make use of all the language’s dialects and slangs, taking, for starters, the ones that best facilitate imitation or interpretative execution. It would be a rebellious usage: maximum strangeness obtained through the artifice of global familiarity. I don’t ask myself if this dream is contradictory or even harmful. In the seventeenth century, the version of El Quijote in English caused a literary earthquake from which rose mountains such as Tristram Shandy. The novels of Onetti would not exist without the versions of Faulkner translated in the forties in Havana and Buenos Aires. Some might say that commerce revives languages and that at each step a literature must decide, if it wishes to survive, which branch of its tradition is still vital and which it would be better to prune. Of course, if the decision is left to the industry—which loves the public, which in turn loves to be deceived—the only thing generated is profit, as they trample the world under the pretense of aesthetics. But this should be what we mean when we say we’re worried about language: not that we’re concerned about the beauty of its attire, but about usage, about its power to burst in on our consciousness and whip it into a frenzy.
"Nuevas batallas por la propiedad de la lengua" © Marcelo Cohen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Frances Riddle. All rights reserved.
In this essay, literary and cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo takes on the longstanding myth that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America.
Among the many commonplaces about Buenos Aires, I’ll mention but two. The first panders to the Argentinean ego and is especially inaccurate: Buenos Aires resembles Paris. The second was a criticism that could be heard for decades from the mouths of these same Argentineans who would drive themselves into a frenzy imagining themselves heirs of a certain Frenchness. Differently from that which purported a similarity to Paris, the second observation is right on the mark: Buenos Aires is a redundant and monotonous city. What’s curious is that Argentineans adhere to both verdicts, despite the fact they contradict one another. Let’s start with the first.
Buenos Aires is not like Paris because, commonplaces aside, the projects that have shaped it since the first third of the nineteenth century fused models from distinct European origins. Naturally, it was desirable to have large avenues (which are not Paris’s private domain, by the way); some of these strongly recall those of Madrid and Barcelona. But the grand public edifices (which form veritable landmarks) are not invariably of French inspiration: their façades are neoclassical, Italianate, eclectic, art deco, even expressionist and modernist. In the thirties, the famed obelisk was built, the urban landmark that represents Buenos Aires on all the postcards.1 It is a discreetly modernist object, full of right angles, white, and devoid of even a passing resemblance to the triumphal obelisks of the French capital.
Paris was never the sole European model for Buenos Aires, though Beaux Arts architecture set the tone for the elegant mansions constructed by the elite during the waning years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Several ideas of what a city should be, among them the American metropolis par excellence, New York, served as models for the city on the Rio de la Plata. As modernization advances, the comparison with New York becomes an influential perspective: beneath the European imagination lies an American popular imagination. But both New York and Paris are, at their core, urban myths, in the sense that Georges Sorel used the term, which is to say, “systems of images” more than blueprints.
Le Corbusier emphasized among Buenos Aires’s unique characteristics the tiny houses erected by Italian artisans, simple little houses, that can easily be reduced to basic geometric forms. He also pointed out that, in contrast to the European cities bisected by their emblematic waterways (Rome, London, Florence, Paris, Budapest, Prague, etc.), Buenos Aires had been built such that it was nearly impossible to access the river as early as the end of the 1920s.
In reality, Buenos Aires doesn’t recall any of the cities of Europe, but rather, it is composed of fragments taken from several of them. There abound, in the richest quarters, the French-style petits-hotels, with their slate rooftiles, but these do not set the tone of the city anymore than do the Italianate Casa de Gobierno, the eclectic Teatro Colón or the Congress building, the disciplined modern style of her first skyscrapers, or the English-style flourishes found at several suburban train stations. The Buenos Aires Zoo is a miniature city that evokes the stylistic mélange of the city that hosts it: Norman pavilions, pagodas, serpentariums that take their inspiration from industrial architecture or the world fairs.
Image: Buenos Aires's Teatro Colón in 1908, Wikimedia Commons.
Nor was the culture of the Argentinean elite entirely “made in France.” Even Victoria Ocampo, who was considered the ultimate Francophone, was the translator of Virginia Woolf, and editor of Huxley, Nabokov, T. E. Lawrence, and Tagore. She founded her magazine Sur, for decades the most prestigious on the continent, at the urging of her American friend Waldo Frank and after experiencing the shock of the New York cultural scene. No one can seriously claim that Borges was a Francophile; on the contrary, he saved his most irreverent passages for icons of French culture, such as Proust. Argentine popular culture during the twenties looked to the United States, both as a model for its large daily papers and for the development of radio and cinema.
Buenos Aires was built according to European models applied to solving problems that were not the same as those in Europe.
Argentine culture has an inextricable relationship with translations of European work, but not just French work. The mixing of cultures is, by definitions, the mixing of diverse origins. The comparison of Buenos Aires to Paris (which, by the way, would never occur to any Frenchman, et pour cause) is an image of desire. This resulted from the political and cultural will of the elites who shaped the modern city starting in 1880. If someone had asked these men, they probably would have told him that Paris was the city they admired above all. But this practically inevitable fidelity (Paris was then the city the entire world admired) met with material limitations. Initiatives sprang forth that could not easily be reduced to copying a single model but the creation of a city that could function as a modern metropolitan center.
The profile of the Buenos Aires imagined by the elites and which they managed, in part, to build, has its originality in the combination of different technological, urban, and aesthetic models. As with Argentine culture, originality is to be found in the diverse elements that come together to form a mixture—seized, transformed, and then deformed by an enormous mechanism of translation. Buenos Aires is a translation of Europe, of many conflicting languages and urban narratives, refracted by the inescapable fact of its location in America. There is as much imitation as there is bricolage and recycling.
Buenos Aires was built according to European models applied to solving problems that were not the same as those in Europe. In the first place, because, in contrast to European cities, in Buenos Aires, things began nearly from scratch. There is the immense Río de la Plata, unchanging, and, on occasion, menacing when it overflows its banks to flood nearby neighborhoods. As Le Corbusier was quick to note, the city’s relationship to the river is one of progressive estrangement. When Le Corbusier visited Buenos Aires in 1929, one could no longer see the river no matter where one stood. Facing the river, a stretch of plains with an equally unchanging and unattractive landscape. Above these plains, a handful of old buildings, lacking a strong identity or great aesthetic value: the colonial customs house, since demolished, the old market, also demolished, the viceregal hall, now missing one of its wings, a few leftover colonial houses which stood out more for their spacious courtyards than their architectural refinement, two or three churches, the considerable English warehouses of the port, the iron architecture of a few train stations.
It was in this land poor in historical buildings that Buenos Aires was invented. This lack of urban history was for years an obsession of the elite. It was discussed at length whether the primitive pyramid erected in honor of the May 1810 Revolution, the first act in the fight for independence from Spain, ought to be preserved; it was discussed whether a city that was new and lacked an identity ought to permit one of its few monuments to be dedicated to a foreign hero such as Garibaldi; it was discussed whether it was worth preserving the so-called House of the Vicereine, an old colonial structure in complete ruin in the city’s southern region. These controversies, which occupied the elite from 1890 to 1920, are not secondary matters. At a symbolic level, they indicate the historical void the city felt to be its original shortcoming.
To this historical void was added the symbolic void of the plains, which were soon to take on a geometric form according to the city’s prevailing design. European travelers and the Argentinean intellectuals who had traveled throughout Europe opined that Buenos Aires was a monotonous city. When the novelist Manuel Gálvez returned from Europe, in the second decade of the twentieth century, he felt despair at re-encountering a Buenos Aires that wanted for the picturesque urban landscapes that defined the cities and villages of Spain that he had recently visited. The modernity of Buenos Aires, a city that had been deliberately planned, seemed to him plain and featureless. His disillusionment with the city when compared with Europe proved an obstacle to recognizing that the monotonous city of the pampas was technically more European than many of those he had visited in Spain and Italy.
In fact, Buenos Aires already had by then a line of subway trains (opened in 1913), a modern port, paved streets, parks designed by landscape architects, grand public buildings, a sewer system, telephone and electric lines. Moreover, what was peculiar about Buenos Aires was that these services were distributed in a relatively equitable manner, reaching both the richest neighborhoods and the poorest.2 The layout of the streets was exasperatingly geometric; the elite had decided to preserve the checkerboard pattern from colonial times and expand it, in lieu of opting for more interesting urban designs that were less rigid and more charming.
Streets, Streets, Streets
Each neighborhood repeats a pattern of square blocks that are formally identical to those of the city center. The one hundred-meter-long block is the platonic ideal of the modern city: the monotony of its geometry provides an abrupt separation of the city from nature. At the same time it lacks an erratic and varied landscape, the city also fails to replace it with a more attractive design that would distinguish it from the surrounding pampas. Buenos Aires begins to take form. Above the plains that surround it and reach into it, the city imposes a simple form that mirrors the meridians that stretch across the infinite landscapes. In theory, Buenos Aires is complete even though many of her streets only connect one empty lot to another. It is the geometrical orilla, or edge, of the pampas, the threshold and margin where the countryside sometimes stretches into the city, and where the city sometimes reaches the countryside. Its status as orilla (whose adjective form orillera in the Spanish of the Rio de la Plata can also mean untamed, on the margins, even criminal) can be thought of as a reflection of the Argentina built since the mid-nineteenth century, in the most remote part of America, finis terrae where European immigrants set off in search of an El Dorado that the Spanish failed to find centuries before. Buenos Aires, at the edge of Europe.
Near the end of the forties, Héctor A. Murena wrote a book where he lays out this idea of finis terrae. Its title is El pecado original de América (America’s Original Sin). Its argument is simple, like that of a tragedy. In Europe, men live in a land where several layers of history lie atop one another. When the plow sinks into the soil, the earth remembers its having been plowed for centuries. After generations and generations, the history of the land mingled with human history: “At my childhood home, in Asturias,” an immigrant once said to me, “is the table where my great-grandparents once ate.” For Murena, the American experience is the deprivation of this past: America is a continent cast outside history. The Europeans who arrived in America abandoned a land where it was possible to find meaning and established themselves in a void. They neither could nor wanted to construct there a community where time accumulated as history and memory. They built cities and societies overnight, dedicated entirely to the future. For this reason, the American condition is, forever, that condition of being cast out from the world.
Though they never butted heads, it’s clear that Borges did not share Murena’s radically pessimistic perspective. His idea of Buenos Aires is less tragic but more troublesome than Murena’s. It captures the contradiction between different cultural dimensions, an unresolved contradiction, and not simply a case of deprivation. For Borges, Buenos Aires is—materially and symbolically—the orilla, which is to say a space that never belongs to one side or the other, a frontier and also a margin.
But let us return to the construction of Buenos Aires. For centuries, the occupation of the plains bordering the river was a gradual process. But following the conclusion of civil wars and a genocidal operation through which the last pre-Hispanic inhabitants were cornered, eliminated, and displaced, after the defeat of traditionalist factions in the provinces and the bloody unification of national territory in the final third of the nineteenth century, Buenos Aires embarked on a period of accelerated growth theretofore unseen.
In a 1929 newspaper piece, Roberto Arlt describes the city that is taking shape:
As with theater scenery after the lights have gone out and only the backstage curtain remains, one sees homes cut in half, rooms where, by a miracle, the wrecking ball has spared a bit of goldleaf or a stamp reading “La Vie Parisienne.” Skeletons of reinforced concrete structures more beautiful than any woman. Drainpipes. Arc lamps twinkling in basements of yellow earth as the chain of the electric crane creaks. . .3
Arlt compares the city under construction with theatrical scenery because Buenos Aires was remaking itself at a furious pace, almost too quickly to erase the signs of what had been only a short time before, as with the houses cut in half, because their façade ran along one of the grand avenues. As with the theater, work was performed day and night, beneath the light of the electric arcs, this technological icon of modern illumination. The city was built in a sort of paradoxically methodical frenzy, as though everything had to be in working condition the very next day. Buenos Aires was in constant change, almost overnight, to the extent that its streets are widened or entire blocks of buildings demolished to give way to the diagonal street plans of modernist city fathers. This was the scene that was to represent the modern metropolis, as an act of urbanist zeal.
Our literature, especially that of Arlt and Oliverio Girondo, portrays this new city through use of the avant-garde collage: the city, more than a space-time continuum, is a montage of fragmented images. Between 1920 and 1930, the rupture in our experience of time, the effect of technology and modern communication systems, creates the impression that the city had no preservable past, that everything that had come before could be axed and that there was nothing but only the construction of the new would profit the city. The metropolis (that Buenos Aires longed to be) is a historical eruption.
Fifty years before the night that Arlt discovered this stagelike city, Buenos Aires was occupied by buildings only along the old south central zone, next to the customs house, the port, the Casa de Gobierno, and calle Florida. The rest was splotches of isolated houses dotting muddy expansions. But in 1929, these enormous empty spaces shrank. The city, which earlier merged with the plains that encompassed it, was already quite fully a city, and to such an extent that much of what had been built only recently was demolished to make way for streets and avenues worthy of a grand capital.
But there was precedent for the acceleration that took place in 1929. In 1918, Katherine Dreier, an American traveler who was a friend of Marcel Duchamp, discovered that in this city that so desired to be cosmopolitan, not even the best hotels rented rooms to women traveling alone. The city and the condition of women in it appeared to her the product of a conservative and traditional Hispanic culture. Buenos Aires doesn’t capture her attention as the “Paris of the South” she had heard of, for two reasons: the monotony of the rectangular grid on the one hand, and the absence of a rich and active social life in its public spaces, on the other. More than Paris, Buenos Aires reminds her of Brooklyn. Most likely, Dreier was not far off:
One beautiful avenue, called the Avenida de Mayo, extends just more than a mile long and might easily recall a Parisian boulevard, with its trees and the many cafés whose tables and chairs occupy the sidewalk. But how unlike Paris in reality! Here one rarely sees a woman and, unlike Paris, only men frequent the cafés (. . .) Buenos Aires was constantly reminding me of Brooklyn. There was only a small section that was interesting and amusing, and the rest was endless, endless vistas of streets. Sometimes with good pavement, sometimes with bad, but just streets, streets, streets.4
Also in 1918, a traveler who was already well known in Parisian and New York artistic circles, Marcel Duchamp, disembarks with the idea of spending a period in Buenos Aires. He knows no one and his visit is practically a secret, he leaves no traces nor does his stay elicit the notice of a single Argentinean. Bored by a city that he sees as nothing more than a village, Duchamp returns in 1919 to the United States. In letters he wrote during his stay, his judgments are often harsh and full of disdain. To him, Buenos Aires is nothing more than a provincial town, devoid of culture, where no one knows anything about contemporary art and where the elite lack refinement.5 Dreier forms the same impression about the artistic tastes of this same elite, who—according to her—choose to decorate their palaces with art pompier and haven’t a clue about modern architecture.
Neither Dreier nor Duchamp were in a position to capture what lay behind and beneath this checkerboard of arrow-straight streets whose rigid pattern is, without a doubt, singularly anti-picturesque. These straight streets, “only streets,” stretching into infinity, are the geometric machine of modern Buenos Aires, which allow it to grow at an unheard-of pace and multiply its suburbs in a few short decades. Beneath these straight streets are wastewater pipes and the tunnels of the first subway line; and on the surface, following the lines of the grid, the tramway rails, the electric and telephone lines. This, which naturally was hardly impressive to visitors from New York, was the foundation of the urban modernization upon which, a few short years later, the processes of cultural modernization were built.
The tapestry of subterranean and aerial public services and transport, which Dreier and Duchamp overlooked, formed one of the most dynamic layers of the city. They overlooked not only these technical advances but the urbanist will to design a city that was orderly, harmonious. Without a doubt, less illustrious visitors who arrived to stay, European immigrants, encountered material conditions unknown to them in their native villages.
The Urban Vision and Immigration
Buenos Aires was a city of immigrants. The first thing that must be said is that in the cities of Latin America, people were always arriving from somewhere else: these cities are the product of enormous demographic shifts. During the Spanish colonial period, using methods that were often bloody, several thousand Spanish settlers established a colony on the lands belonging to the original Americans. Thus was founded a hispano-criollo society, with varying degrees of miscegenation. In the Rio de la Plata, the Spanish colony was poor and knew nothing like the baroque ornamentation of the great viceregal capitals of Mexico City, Lima, and Bogotá. The colonial structures that survive in Buenos Aires are inconspicuous examples of neoclassical architecture or else simple white churches. There has never been anything befitting a viceregal court or even mestizo art because there were also few great indigenous cultures in the Rio de la Plata prior to the Spanish conquest.
Until the final third of the nineteenth century, the main characteristic of the rural economy was a social structure composed of wealthy landowners and gauchos coerced by the job market and the police to become farmhands. Buenos Aires was a muddy village, free of large buildings, lacking parks or public works, decimated from time to time by a plague that spread via the open sewers, makeshift buildings, and the slaughterhouses near the city center. Only after 1870 did the city begin to exercise cultural influence and begin to think of itself as a future cosmopolitan center. The formula devised by the modernizing elite could be summed up as urban growth plus immigration.
The idea of the city and the idea of an enormous population shift had been intertwined since Sarmiento, for whom the sprawling plains where rural culture thrives were the ideal setting for despotism, and the port cities, hospitable to foreigners, presented an ideal space for a modern republic. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was an admirer of the yeomen farmers’ republic of the United States, believed in the civilizing power of the city, where civic virtues could triumph over resistant traditionalists to civilize the pampa (yeomen farmers, schools left and right, and a strong city from which the central government would rule). For him, as for many nineteenth-century men, the city was a pedagogical entity in itself. The urban setting imparts practical lessons and ought to function as an edifying teaching mechanism. City life is etymologically and symbolically a civilizing act. Immigrants were a central piece of this project.
Between 1880 and the First World War, tens of thousands of immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires. Most were Spanish and Italians, but also Germans, Russians, Central European Jews, and Asians. The Spanish and Italian majorities did not entirely correspond to the ideal immigrant of the elite’s dreams (they had hoped for artisans and Nordic peasants who, for their part, quite sensibly chose to immigrate to the United States).
At any rate, in the early years of the twentieth century, Buenos Aires was a city of foreigners (half of its inhabitants came from somewhere else). Newspapers were published in Italian, German, Yiddish; in 1910, as the nation celebrated the centenary of its independence from Spain and underwent all the rites of national reaffirmation, in the streets of Buenos Aires could be heard these exotic languages or a Spanish with a certain Iberian accent.
In addition to the hispano-criollo population, there was now a foreign population whose members were younger and whose women gave birth to more children. In mere decades, these immigrants and their children born in Argentina outnumber those of the hispano-criollo base dating back to the viceregal court. These Europeans arrived from their tiny villages to a city that seems immense because of its swaths of surviving pampa. They were not cosmopolitan, they simply came from abroad. One Italian immigrant told of the shock produced by Buenos Aires. He’d come from a rural village perched naturally against a hill, encompassed by the work of centuries in a landscape whose rocks formed the walls of the church and of the houses. His village amounted to nothing, it was the size of a neighborhood in Buenos Aires. This immigrant, like the thousands who arrived before him, had to leave the village behind to set down roots in this city. Even though they would never lose their status as foreigners, they realized complex negotiations through which they’d begun to think that their home might be found on this edge of America.
In Buenos Aires, it was not only the elite who fused urban models: immigration led to a large-scale fusion of cultural identities. At the end of this process (and only for the children of these immigrants) political citizenship and the right to call the city their own awaited.
This overlap of cultural identities brings with it disillusionment and conflict. The hispano-criollo city did not recognize itself in the city of immigrants; the city, which before was the public domain of the elites, was converted into a space where everyone begins to circulate. The network of direct relations that characterized village life was destroyed. Buenos Aires is occupied by “strangers,” the recently arrived who don’t answer (and would not answer in any part of America) to the standard which the elite had defined as “desirable” foreigners for the consolidation of civil society and the job market. Europe’s poor, as illiterate as the gauchos, but who supposedly were to disembark bringing their customs of order and industry, crammed into the port of Buenos Aires.
In 1910, an important historian and critic, Ricardo Rojas, rendered an alarming diagnosis of the presence of foreigners in Buenos Aires.6 He is petrified at seeing the posters in shop windows, written in Yiddish, in Polish, in Italian; the various societies founded by the Italians, who display the photo of King Umberto or of Mazzini; the daily newspapers and the patriotic celebrations of these groups; the Jews with their long coats and hats occupying certain regions of Buenos Aires and erecting there their temples. Rojas has no desire to get rid of the recently arrived, but he is worried about establishing them under a sort of guardianship of the hispano-criollo elite. He does not want them to remain in their ghettos, but quite the contrary, to force them to mix. Education, it seems to him, is the key to this assimilation. And, in fact, it was. The children of these immigrants were alphabetized and nationalized in schools that were public, secular, free, and mandatory for girls and boys, and where all cultural divisions were stamped out. The public school taught—by force—what it was to be Argentinean.
Image credit: Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library.
The Jews fascinated for their more extreme foreignness and incurred the very first waves of anti-Semitism. Even those who were not anti-Semitic describe them as exotic children:
Men who speak a language drier and rougher than desert sand (. . .) Their words crackle and pop or else grovel—guttural, nasal, and unintelligible. Sometimes these burly men play like children, pushing each other’s shoulders, run into the middle of the street, scream like dogs, and soon, once again, recover their stealth beat and carry on talking.7
This ethnic mix changes the colors and sounds of the city. Twenty years after Ricardo Rojas and his fearful warnings, the process had imposed itself by force and had profoundly remade the public imagination, daily life, and politics. Immigrants brought with them trade unions and anarchism, too; it is these foreigners who foster the earliest socialist movements, movements whose leaders belong, on the other hand, to the university-going middle class. Political ideologies, forms of labor organization, strategies of struggle and mobilization, via unions and strikes, provide the elite still more cause for alarm. The Babel of foreign languages, changes in customs, strikes and workers movements, and the appearance of intellectuals of immigrant origin (very different phenomena nonetheless imagined to be related) are felt as threats to the nation’s cultural unity.
Public debate during the first three decades of the twentieth century revolve around the European origins of the Argentine racial mix and whether the cultural preeminence of the hispano-criollo elite ought to be preserved in the face of so much immigrant-induced disorder. What does it mean to be Argentinean? Who has the right to define the limits of this cultural field where everything is beginning to blur? Ricardo Güiraldes, Francophile and friend to Valéry Larbaud, a dandy and wealthy rural landowner, sensed the veiled threat in these questions. On the one hand, the gaucho, as national figure, had been transformed into a day laborer on large estates; the criollo virtues that had been conferred upon him were disappearing along with these mythological torch-bearers of Argentine nationality who, in reality, were used as cannon fodder during civil wars or pawns in political disputes between oligarchs. But, once the gaucho had disappeared, the foreigner could offer nothing but his foreignness. This defect formed the base upon which the future of Argentina had to be imagined.
Güiraldes writes the final novel of the “rural cycle.” His unique mark is that he writes about the gaucho theme with “the metaphors of the then current literary circles of Montmartre,” as Borges ironically pointed out. This wildly successful novel, Don Segundo Sombra, published in 1927, takes as its characters the last literary gauchos, the final protagonists to perform rural work with the cheerful disinterest of Homeric combatants. But the novel fails almost entirely to account for the presence of those immigrants who were already extending their houses across the plain. And when a foreigner is mentioned, it’s to say that he’s sold his daughter into prostitution.
Flaneurs and Tramps
The heirs of the hispano-criollo elite felt that the nation’s racial, cultural, and linguistic “authenticity” was under fire. “Our city is called Babel,” Borges wrote in Inquisiciones (Inquisitions). Others, such as Oliverio Girondo, a fellow traveler of Borges and Güiraldes in their avant-garde crusade, took this loss of “authenticity” and molded it into a style. In the twenties, Girondo travels throughout Europe and compiles a book of poems about his stops along the way. To these European postcard-cities (Venice, Seville, Douarnez) he adds others from Buenos Aires, in which he laments not the loss of organicism or the absence of the past but rather looks to shed light on the fragmentation of the individual and his experience in the urban setting. Girondo’s solution to the question of foreignness consists of raising the bet: Europe is every bit as fragmentary, as dull as Buenos Aires; even when some corner of Europe appears excessively weighed down by history, Girondo introduces an ironic cue: in a Duchampian gesture, he situates a Spanish virgin next to a bidet.
Arlt—a child of immigrants and hardly a member of the hispano-criollo elite—also took note of the foreignness that, anyway, was inscribed in his very name, which he himself knew to be unpronounceable according to Spanish phonetics. Arlt writes:
Buenos Aires has four recovas,8 four recovas that are refuges from misery, a display window onto vagrancy, the museum of poverty; four recovas that are like the four cardinal points of human misery; four recovas that are the cauldron of filth, the avenue of grime, the boulevard of squalor, the valley of the ragged, the Cosmopolitan Court of Miracles for the Lice-Stricken; four recovas but a singular sadness: that of empty pockets, that of women who’d lost their way, that of immigrants without hope, that of the defeated without any refuge.9
Arlt had a keen understanding of the contradictions of the cosmopolitan city: the fragmentation of subjectivities produced by the metropolitan shock, the experiences that resist translation, the collapse of any illusion of organicism. The city, which is literally full of people as never before, is not only the flâneur’s paradise, the shop window full of goods, the voyeur or the exhibitionist’s refuge of anonymity, but also a desert: a desolate place, where the abstract relations of a triumphant capitalism impose themselves upon the most archaic forms of community. One lives in “a desert embedded in the heart of the city.”10
Those roaming the streets are not always flâneurs, the chic, dandies, or artists; in the Buenos Aires of the thirties, the unemployed, the immigrants whose dreams went unfulfilled, their children, and the new migrants that begin to arrive not from Europe but from the countryside provinces also roam the streets. In Buenos Aires, it’s possible to feel not only fascination at this shock but also the solitude of the big cities where there are flâneurs, of course, who dominate the urban cultural landscape. But there are also those who roam the streets and experience ostracism and solitude because they are marginal figures within the great urban machine whose workings are ever more abstract. Pulsing, the market embraces to later cast out. It also reshapes popular culture.
In these same decades, the twenties and—above all—the thirties, there occur three fundamental events in modern popular culture: the spread of football as the national sport, which is rapidly professionalized; the implantation of radio and major dailies, the morning tabloids, sensationalist evening papers, full of illustrations; and the apogee of tango, which produces not only a repertoire of songs but also films and grand theatrical spectacles. All this speaks of the new masses that materially and symbolically begin to occupy urban space.
The subject of the masses (a topic first addressed by Ortega y Gasset in Spain, then introduced in Argentina in a great success) would become an obsession in pessimistic essays about the city. Ezequiel Martínez Estrada wrote two fundamental works about modern Argentina: Radiografía de la pampa (1933) and La cabeza de Goliat (1940). The first is an essay about the country’s historic formation since the Spanish conquest; the second deals with urban culture in Río de la Plata.
Martínez Estrada argued that Buenos Aires was the byproduct of the humus of the plains that surrounded it, that even the skyscrapers were successive layers of this clay and damp earth. As it grew, Buenos Aires disguised, through buildings that acted as masks, the pampa that was its origin and would be its destiny. Buenos Aires had swelled by superimposing, by addition, by metastasis, by filling in the empty spaces that, nonetheless, never quite fulfill their potential. A passage from Radiografía de la pampa reads:
Along the length of a single block, each building speaks a unique temporal language, of different economic cycles, different styles, which allow one to see, as in the earth’s strata, the cataclysms that it has experienced. (. . .) Next to the one-story houses, others of two stories; and between these, empty lots and skyscrapers twenty, thirty stories high that stretch skyward like the dominant ambition (. . .) A skyscraper on one block of low-rise buildings, next to lots that still retain their unspoiled grassland, is a sign of this very ambition and its opposite, a certain wreckage : the fracture in a stretch of land that is entirely developed. (. . .) Above the structure of one floor, which formed the earlier city, another city appears to have begun to be built. (. . .) In the beginning, the city was built atop the earth; today, one takes the ground floor as a foundation, and one-story homes become the empty lots for homes of two or more floors. For this reason, Buenos Aires maintains the structure of the pampa: it is the plains over which yet another plain is superimposed, as with sand or loess, over and over again.11
On these chaotic plains, the Spanish colony had been nothing more than an extended enterprise dedicated to plunder. And immigration, Martínez Estrada averred, brought its desire for profit, its unbridled ambition, its immediatist impulse, the malevolent heterogeneity of those who had lost their roots.
Stylistically and culturally, the heterogeneous city is viewed as undesirable disorder. Victoria Ocampo claimed for Buenos Aires no longer the whimsical, picturesque landscapes of European villages that other intellectuals pined for but a pattern to its houses that alternated between the same set of stylistic features. In this heterogeneous city without the historical powers to contain and give order to its diverse elements, the masses soon become even more threatening. They consist not only of European immigrants but their children, and other migrants, the criollos and mestizos arriving from the countryside provinces to settle down on the edge of the city. Whoever they are, they are always unfamiliar multitudes who put their difference on parade.
By the 1940s, Buenos Aires, which believed itself a metropolis before it actually became one, had assumed the attributes intellectuals had learned to fear in modern societies: the masses live in the city, the city is the scene of the masses, this amorphous entity, ungovernable and unsubject to rules of reason or of morality; they give a glimpse of what, just a few years later, would become the Peronist multitudes.
The city, the stage for Peronism, has all the hallmarks of its metropolitan modernity and none of the political vicissitudes of the fifties and sixties could change this. Buenos Aires the city is already predominately white, surrounded by prosperous suburbs, working-class neighborhoods, and shantytowns. Modernity has made good on some of its promises while revealing its inequities and inherent conflicts.
End of an Era
The end of this era arrives in 1976 with the military dictatorship. During these terrible years, the military promotes a vision for Buenos Aires that is technocratic, an authoritarian modernization, which begins with the expulsion of the poor and of migrants to the outer edges of the city center and reinforcement of material inequalities that divided the rich and poor areas of the city as never before. It is at this time that the highways that practically arrived at the city center are built, leaving deep wounds in the fabric of historical neighborhoods. The technification of the city is a powerful trend that continues to gain steam; some regions of Buenos Aires have been practically rebuilt according to the model of the urban, communication, and telecommunications advances of major metropoles of the end of the century.
Nevertheless, in the cultural and artistic imagination, the city is frequently viewed as a landscape of decay. The optimism of the elites at the end of the nineteenth century has given way to market forces in an urban space converted into the scene of big business. The elites near the end of the nineteenth century sought to shape a modern city for a population that was to arrive from Europe. Their project had contributed to inclusiveness, even if their modernization came from on high, buoyed by the rationale that these immigrant masses would receive an education that would transform them into citizens.
Capitalism, in its current form, lacks protagonists with this level of political and cultural consciousness that melds reformist impulse with authoritarianism. The urban market is not a public square. Capital doesn’t defend cities, it defends business interests in those cities.
In the face of such changes, the city that sought a homogeneous and European identity does not recognize itself in the masses of the poor—be they Argentineans or citizens of neighboring countries—who occupy the neighborhoods along its periphery and the decaying streets of the city center. Buenos Aires has been fractured in a way that reveals itself much more easily than the divide between a rich north and a poor southern region. In a memorable short story, Borges wrote that to cross into the city’s southern region was to enter another dimension in time. Today, the city’s southern region is Buenos Aires’s other face, the one shown to tourists, where locals take their foreign visitors.
On the other hand, Borges’s never-ending orillas, which soon became shantytowns or were transformed into working-class neighborhoods, are today a no man’s land of violence and unemployment. Buenos Aires, the proud city that mixed European models, has arrived at its “South American destiny,” with gated communities that serve as refuge to the affluent, millionaire ghettoes, and a historic center that is part slum.
The city is a historic map. Atop the optimistic blueprint of the nineteenth century, atop the monuments and public buildings of its glory days, there now appears a new system of highways and digital information networks. The new foreigners in this city are the poor—Asian immigrants, the rural dwellers expelled from their hometowns by unemployment. The Buenos Aires of the nineties is going through evident transformations: the greatest of these is the exodus from the city to the suburbs by the economic elites and those from the middle rungs who have managed to adapt to the city’s neoliberal transformation; secondly, the transformation of the city center into tourist attraction (where major international hotels now stand), the “museumification” of parts of the city chosen for their picturesque visuals, their prior inhabitants evicted by beautification projects, and areas of total decay where street vendors abound alongside the homeless and those excluded from the job market.
The city is the recipient of large-scale international investments that make use of the city’s past as decoration; along with these capitalist enterprises, the expansion of decaying regions, where urban technification and architectural postmodernism have yet to arrive. Some of the traditionally vibrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires have entered decline: there we find hotels serving migrants from the provinces or other corners of Latin America, old houses in ruins yet to be discovered by some developer interested in recycling them, second-class city services, a lack of security.
What has brought this cycle to a definitive end is the very idea of the city as a cruel and seductive place stimulating to all sorts of innovation. The city is no longer viewed a desirable scene. The imagination is captured by a sort of country kitsch, according to which gated communities carry names that evoke the hispano-criollo past in modest lots of two hundred square yards, or become deterritorialized amid enormous suburban shopping centers peppered along major highways. Between the country kitsch neighborhoods and the globalized camp of the shopping malls, Buenos Aires is host to a continuum of eight million inhabitants.
But no one can any longer accuse the city of imitating Paris, a city that jealously guards its status as such, in the same way Manhattan and Berlin do. The European exile has come to an end. Now, in all likelihood, the image of paradise is some American suburb. And the foreigners here today are split between Latin America’s poor and tourists crisscrossing the northern part of the city, their handy guides at the ready to inform them that Buenos Aires is America’s most European city.
1. See Adrián Gorelik and Graciela Silvestri, “El pasado como futuro. Una utopía reactiva en Buenos Aires,” in Punto de Vista #41, April 1992.↩
2. See Adrián Gorelik, La grilla y el parque, Bernal, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 1998; and Miradas sobre Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, 2004.↩
3. Roberto Arlt, “Corrientes, por la noche," El Mundo, 26 de mayo de 1929, found in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana (selection and prologue by Sylvia Saítta), Buenos Aires, Alianza, 1993, p. 33.↩
4. Katherine S. Dreier, Five Months in the Argentine from a Woman’s Point of View; 1918 to 1919, New York, Fredric Fairchild Sherman, 1920, p. 13.↩
5. See Gonzalo Aguilar, Buenos Aires ready-made (Marcel Duchamp en Argentina, 1918-1919), Buenos Aires, Ediciones del Pirata, 1996; and Marcel Duchamp, Milan, Bompiani, 1993 (Exhibition Catalog from Venice, 1993).↩
6. Ricardo Rojas, La restauración nacionalista, Buenos Aires, Imprenta de la Penitenciaría, 1910.↩
7. Roberto Arlt, “Sirio libaneses en el centro,” El Mundo, July 23, 1933, in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana, op. cit., pp. 89-90.↩
8. Recovas are covered markets or storefronts situated beneath arcade walkways. They once dotted the landscape of Buenos Aires and are considered emblems of the city.↩
9. Roberto Arlt, “Las cuatro recovas,” El Mundo, January 17, 1929, in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana, op. cit., p. 12.↩
10. Roberto Arlt, “El desierto en la ciudad,” El Mundo, January 26, 1929, in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana, op. cit., p. 16.↩
11. Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Radiografía de la pampa (ed. Leo Pollmann), Madrid, Colección Archivos, 1991 , pp. 149-150.↩
"Buenos Aires: Exílio de Europa" © 2007 by Beatriz Sarlo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker and Julia Tomasini. All rights reserved.
A retiree from one of Argentina’s state-owned companies finds his garden engulfed by the sea one day in this story from recently rediscovered mid-century writer Sara Gallardo.
Once upon a time there was a pensioner with a garden in Lanús. He had been head of personnel at a state-owned company.
His garden was the admiration and envy of all Lanús. That’s a zone that, as everyone knows, lacks water two days out of three. The neighborhood writes notes of protest, and the first to sign them has always been the pensioner with the garden.
The usual way was this: the neighbor who most liked complaining would arrive with his document in hand. He would find the pensioner kneeling under the rose bushes, or covering the paths with white pebbles, or passing a rake over a circle of lawn which looked like, let’s say, an emerald. Ant poisons, fertilizers, and tools could be seen in the green shed through a sheet of fiberglass. And there, standing up, almost without taking off his straw hat or wiping the mud from his fingers, the pensioner would add his signature, a single flourish, just as he had signed so often in his days as a director.
One morning he woke up. The smell of his garden was missing. Was it raining? The pleasant drip-drip of water wasn’t sounding against his window either. Uneasy, he went outside. He found himself in the middle of the sea.
A green wave rocked the garden. A strong wind had knocked down the scarecrow.
He fell to the ground. When he regained his strength, he lifted his face. Again, he saw himself navigating in the sea. Once again he fell prostrate to the ground.
He noticed, one of the times he stood up, that foam was sprinkling the jasmines on his fence, neatly painted white. In desperation, he looked for a tarp he kept in case of hail and tried to cover them. It was difficult. He barged ahead, clinging to the small fence not meant to serve as a railing. He tied the tarp to the rail and to some wooden pickets stuck in the earth. He worked with dedication, with rage.
Dizzy, soaked, he thought of taking a warm shower. But he realized the water in his tank was limited. He would need it for his plants, to drink.
Nonsense. He was dreaming. He threw himself on the bed and closed his eyes.
He dreamed he was in his office, a frequent dream of his. An employee was asking for leave: his wife was dying. Forty-eight hours, he would tell him. The employee left, tears of frustration splashing the lenses of his glasses. Those tears were falling on the face of the personnel director.
No, they weren’t tears. The wind had changed, and there was condensation on the open glass of the window, falling on him in drops.
He sat up. Was it true then? The scene before him seemed to be dancing. Clinging to the walls, he went out.
It was true.
The garden, veering slowly, was changing course. Its prow pointed toward a vast expanse identical to the one surrounding him on all sides.
The rose bushes leaned their chubby cheeks toward him, as if asking for help. He rinsed them with fresh water, sobbing in their ears.
But he was hungry. He went to the pantry. There was instant coffee and several cans of tongue, mackerel, milk powder. He hated all that. They were gifts from his sister, who was married to an employee of a meat-packing firm.
Because, as he had clearly stated the morning she arrived—loaded, breathless, the marks of the bag handles on her hands—before making gifts one should enquire about the tastes of others. He followed the principles of veganism, with occasional exceptions for yogurt and cheese without salt. Yet his sister had left that packet.
Cans. And how helpful they were now. With a groan, he opened one.
How long would this last?
Or maybe he was crazy. Maybe he only thought he was in the sea, while his neighbors were looking over the fence at him with pity. It was easy to imagine their conjectures: so many hours in the sun, dedicated to his plants . . . Or maybe he was in an insane asylum now, hallucinating? Maybe the drops he believed were falling on him were injections?
Whatever the case, there he was. He saw the sea through the windows, green and sparkling now that the sun was up.
The sun! He got up to look at his grass. Bright emerald still, and fresh. But for how long?
Desperation made him burst out in shrieks.
At sunset he took up the newspaper he had been reading the day before. Football, movies, comic strips. How far away everything seemed now. He checked the date. He made an almanac on the last page of a seed catalog.
The only thing left now was to sleep. Night had fallen.
Outside, that murmur. Inside, the rocking motion.
Days, night, mornings followed.
The first to die were the carnations. They trembled, dried up, brown. The roses saw their petals fly over the desert. Then their stalks twisted into spirals. The grass died in patches. All that was left was a bare circle of earth with bits of straw. They eventually flew away too.
The fence, tarp, and jasmines fell heavily in the sea with a crash.
The pensioner attempted to distract himself. He turned on the television. But it transmitted wavy lines that reminded him too much of the surrounding undulations. He went on noting down each day in his almanac. He examined the water tank. He cursed heaven that he lived in West Lanús. The usual lack of water was reflected in the tank three-quarters empty. The terror of thirst started to obsess him.
Looking for some positive side to his situation, he told himself that the weather was steady, and that the waves would lead him somewhere. But then the calm came.
The anxieties of the calm have already been written about too well. The loss of hope for a port, provisions and water running out, the glowing of strange presences, the agony.
Sweat trickled down the pensioner’s bald head in his destroyed garden. He had gathered the white pebbles in two flowerpots, which he kept in the kitchen, but outside, the flowerbed’s design now appeared to him like a laugh without teeth.
On the tenth day of the calm, a loud racket set the garden in motion. The sea rushed forward. There was a collapse.
The end! he thought, clinging to the dry trunk of a shrub. As in a fit, he recalled a television program. The winner, a prodigy of a boy, had said that the ancients believed in a flat world with a waterfall at the edge. The conductor handed him a prize, and everyone laughed at the ancients.
“Here we are!” he thought in despair, dragged with the house and garden into the depths. A circular current held them while the entire sea made the sound of regurgitation.
A monster appeared. It had dripping scales and looked extremely content. Its head brushed the low storm clouds. Limp vegetation hung from its mouth.
The fear was unimaginable. Of the fear he felt, I will only say: it was like being dead: no pulse, on the ground. An image crossed his mind. He had once seen a photo of two trains crashing on the Lanús line. One of them stood vertical.
Tall as a hundred trains, the sea serpent lifted her body into the air, and enjoyed the view of infinite sea. That view made her feel like moving. She didn’t see the chalet, too close and slightly behind: she was sated, too.
Parts of her body rose from the water as she moved away, while others sank into the waves, and the pensioner, his garden, and his house spun in the whirlpools, until he felt the atoms of his self starting to split.
This happened on the thirtieth day of navigation.
By that time he had decided to protect the glass of the windows. Any cracks would be serious. The house was his refuge. He closed the shutters and got used to walking around in the dark inside. It was a relief.
Outside the sun bludgeoned the garden. Dressed from head to toe, in a hat and gardening gloves so as not to see his flesh reduced to shreds, he tried to fish. Without a fence, it was a dangerous task. He tied himself to the grass tap and used tinned food as bait. He spent days making hooks.
He discovered that sometimes he did catch something. He promised himself he would eat that, no matter what it was. If a whole day passed without a catch he would open a can. It must be said that all sorts of beings crawled and throbbed in the garden, tossed into it by the waves or arriving by personal initiative. They spared him the effort of fishing. He flung them into a cooking pot. Some gave him terrible skin rashes. Others gave him dyspepsia. Still others had no effect. Fearing for his fuel supply, he cooked several dishes at a time in the oven. He got used to cold soup. But seafood makes you thirsty. What made him most anxious was the decreasing water supply.
One day two seabirds landed on the television antenna. Out of habit he insulted them, waving his arms. Go away from my fields. In the middle of the gesture he stopped. A bird means land.
“Land!” he shouted, sinking to his knees, his voice cracking in a thousand tones.
There was no land in sight. The birds were of an unknown dark-red color. But he didn’t notice it. Seeing that his fuss had scared them off he begged, “Stay!”
He had to watch them move slowly toward the east. He kept his eyes fixed in that direction. A waste of a morning. Better to lack hope than to gain and lose it. He made it into the house, threw himself into bed, and cried. In the afternoon he looked again. He thought he was dying. He wet his head. He saw something like a mountain.
And what if he passed it, in this aimless navigation beyond his control? But it was coming nearer.
At sundown the light grazed until it hit a blackish-red crag, like a blood clot. Foam tossed against the shoals.
No gesture, no human sound came from it. If carefully observed, it seemed to move, like a dead rat covered in flies. Seabirds covered it. Their caws seemed like the voice of that stone.
The pensioner fell on his knees, stretched his arms toward the crag, cried out. He looked for a bed sheet and waved it frantically, begging for help. Nothing.
But, actually, yes. With the sinking of the sun, the crag seemed to be made of enormous faces, just like those he had seen in movies, some of America’s national heroes carved in a mountain. In the movie they had seemed magnificent. But not here. Maybe because of the birds’ droppings or because of the reef fog, those men’s and women’s faces looked as if they had a cold, with runny noses, teary, or dribbling. He screamed until he almost lost his voice, his strength, his life.
When the sun set, he got terrified. Despite his fear of the reef, he shut himself in the house.
What to do now? Not sleep. He looked for some magazines he kept under the bed.
His neighbor on the left in Lanús, a poor thing contented with geraniums in flowerpots, belonged to a Protestant sect. He often chatted him up over the fence, praising his garden, though his real intention was to convert him. Once a month, he would produce a publication from under his arm as he took his leave and say, "Maybe this will keep you entertained."
That was enough to irritate him. But since those who work with fertilizers and phosphates need to have papers at hand, he kept the magazines. He would use them when he had to wrap up waste, satisfied that the neighbor could sometimes see his pages in the rubbish bin.
What to do, tonight? He tried to focus on the humor section. A healthy humor. Nothing about alcoholism or adultery. Almost always something about dogs or cats. Impossible to understand, with that crag the color of a blood clot, those reefs, birds, and faces so close in the night.
He looked out. He tried to see something, to hear the noise from the cliffs. Nothing.
The inconvenience of bad journalism is that while reading it, you think of something else. He had suffered when he retired. What a personnel director he had been! The employee called in sick. I hope you get better, he would say in an unforgettable way. He would send the company doctor. What a doctor he was. They had an agreement. Forty-eight hours. Get better. Or die.
He always liked asking his employees their political affiliation. They swallowed bile. The official badge on the dissidents’ lapels provided him with great entertainment for a while.
The effect of bad journalism: he fell asleep in the armchair.
A heavy wind began to blow at that hour. The house shook. The sea became a field of waves at play, tossing house, garden, and pensioner about, tumbling them from bed to table, from armchair to door.
He heard the antenna of the television as it tore away, bounced off the roof with a metallic good-bye, disappeared into the air.
A shutter’s corroded hinges collapsed. The windowpane was uncovered. Light entered through it, and he saw the waves, transparent, covering the sky, licking the sides of the house, filtering through the joints of the windows.
He crawled. He looked for a can of insect glue. He smeared it on the window joints, but water entered anyway, stretching the glue into icicles, dripping down their tips.
Five days of wind. Five days without eating, without making notes in his calendar, clinging to a leg of the bed.
He didn’t have the strength to open the door. Trembling, he unsealed a can of sardines. Somehow recovered, he started to make his way outside. He gave a shout.
The garden was a palm underwater. The only part jutting out was on the other side, the part that used to border the Protestant neighbor, a slightly raised section made of brick, where he used to keep clay pots with flowers and flowerbeds. Between the house and that section, the garden looked like a pool crossed by silvery schools of fish.
All around, bare sea stretching toward the horizon. He didn’t have a single tear left. Not a hair remained on his head to yank out. A beard he did have, long and tangled. His electric razor had broken during the first days of navigation.
Does God exist? he wondered. It’s true he had prayed at moments of excessive horror, like the night of the crag. His mother had once taught him how. And in a pamphlet he had read the story of the lost man in the Himalayas who had survived thanks to meat extract and prayers. But what prayers were those? And what meat extract?
Let’s see, what kind of a situation was this? How could a human being ever anticipate a risk like that? He could prove it: no insurance company would have this in its program.
He had never insured his life. He didn’t think it fair for his sister and brother-in-law to benefit from his death. But if a clause about a similar situation did exist, when he returned, he would . . .
Would he return?
He covered his ears with his hands and yelled for a long time.
To calm himself he made a plan of action. First of all, he would have to fish through the window. Then, he would write down his story. Good, but he lacked white paper. He looked around the house. Brown paper lined the cupboard drawers and shelves. That was something. With tiny handwriting . . . After all, all this might end one day . . . No. Illusions do harm.
He sat down to write. He wrote the date. “An impeccable employee, Category J4, in the General Direction of Automotive Personnel and Statistics at the Ministry of Internal Revenue between the years 1928 and 1962, with only two absences for family grief in all my years of service, I retired on 24 March of . . .”
A voice spoke hoarsely behind his back.
His pencil fell onto the paper. A stiffness immobilized him from the back of his neck to his heels.
He heard it again, panting, a splash. It said, “My refuge . . .”
He forced himself to turn around. Clinging to the brick border of the raised part of the garden was a man dripping with water, his face transfigured by hope, his hat squashed. His eyes were fixed on the name of the house, written with cursive letters on a sign on the roof. All of a sudden the pensioner remembered it: My Refuge.
Standing on his doorstep unmoving, not a sound in his throat, he looked at him.
The man saw him. His happiness grew. He panted, as if he had arrived swimming. Grabbing hold of the bricks, he hoisted himself up.
With a crunch of putrefaction, the garden yielded under his weight like a moist biscuit. The brick part went down first, dragging the man along with it. Half the garden followed, tipping vertically as it capsized, disappearing into the vortex.
The pensioner sat down on his doorstep. He pulled his knees to his chest, pressed his face against his fists. He sobbed. As he himself defined it afterward, it was a nervous breakdown. Once it was over, he opened his eyes little by little. The garden ended in the middle of what had once been a circle of lawn. Maybe because the brick part was gone, it no longer held water. It emerged sloping toward the house.
That man . . . There was no land, no ship, no lifeboat or log in sight. Where had he come from?
For days and nights, that face transformed by hope, the crunch of the garden as it broke, the disappearance into bubbles remained before his eyes.
He couldn’t eat, fish, or move. He spent his time lying in bed, staring at the roof that mirrored the reflections of the sea.
And the thirst began. He held it off for a time thanks to the melted ice cubes in the refrigerator. He followed these with the toilet water tank. Later he found himself licking the inside of the refrigerator. Later he found himself licking the toilet bowl.
Later, like a madman, dry tongue hanging out like a hide, he found himself running in circles, sticking his lips to a humid bar of iron covered in salt, wiping them with horror, trying to drink seawater and vomiting, slashing an arm to suck his own blood.
Not a single memory or dream or idea in him except that of fresh water to drink. He looked at the clouds like a calf looks at an udder for the morning milking, something set aside for another purpose. What about him? Oh, clouds.
At last it rained. It was night. He burned with fever on the floor of his bedroom. He heard the drops. He thought he was delirious but he crawled outside.
It was raining! Crying, laughing, naked, he let himself get soaked, mouth open. Water ran over his ears, filled his eyes. He licked himself; he squeezed his beard into his mouth. He brought out jars, pans, pots, cans, bottles.
When morning came it was raining, and it carried on raining. The sloping garden let a bittersweet cascade run toward the house, which he didn’t take for granted either. Oh, water. Oh, rain.
There followed a period during which he tried to write down his experiences. It wasn’t easy, but a kind of serenity filled him as he gave those events form. In the beginning he struggled with the words. No sea, serpent, wind, red crag or thirst had ever appeared in the writings he had read or written in his life.
That word, life, stopped him. Was he alive?
He tried to remember ideas he had heard about death. Nothing similar to this. Whereas concerning life . . . It’s true that some days, for instance when he had caught a beautiful fleshy fish after waiting seven or ten hours, he had felt more alive than he had ever been. And when the rain running into his eyes and mouth ended his long thirst, didn’t that feel different from the glass of mineral water a clerk brought to his office every day at 11:10?
Yes, but enough. Enough. Alive or dead, he demanded an explanation. He wanted peace. He needed certainty. Silence. Rest.
The sea in those days was the color of mustard. He had heard about plankton. He hoped it wasn’t plankton, since many said it’s what whales eat.
The color of mustard. A roasted turkey on a white tablecloth. Sauce steaming in the sauceboat. Chestnuts and plums and pine nuts in the filling. Walnuts and almonds in a plate. A cake with a silk ribbon. Cider. It was Christmas. Who, at that table? A woman in a long dress, a girl with braids. In the courtyard the neighbors toasted. He had the right to eat. He reached out his hand, pushing the girl. Something hit his fingers. He had collided against the fiberglass panel that had once sheltered his ant poisons, which had fallen after the great wind.
So they are hallucinations, he told himself. Let’s write. “Between the years 1928 and 1962, only two absences for family mourning, that is, in thirty-four years. The first period of mourning was motivated by the passing of my mother, and the second by that of my wife, fifteen months after our marriage, which had been celebrated during the days of leave in 1935 when the building was closed to clear out rats.”
Looked at attentively, it was the only mistake in his life. A life of order. She . . . to be honest, he didn’t remember her face. On the other side, committing suicide is an infraction of the marital contract. No one had known, luckily.
He went outside to clear his mind.
A line like a streak of tar divided sky from sea on the horizon. It was like the lines that cross accounting books, but with a slight inclination.
Tripping on everything, he thought about turning on the television. No image. But a voice, perhaps female, interrupted by electrical discharges, said incomprehensible things.
“Land!” he yelled for the second time on his trip. “Land!”
His own yelp frightened him. He waited, eyes fixed on the line. It managed to turn into a stripe; the inclination began to seem like a mountain range. He didn’t like the mass of material, shiny as lacquer. He couldn’t wait any longer.
He took a bedsheet and alcohol, went to the roof, and waved a fiery flag until the flames singed his beard. He let it go. A breeze carried it spinning into the sea. He lost his balance and fell in the water. Several tiles fell near him.
He came up, gasping. He couldn’t swim. He paddled madly toward the house. He remembered the man. “My Refuge,” he read between two splashes.
He managed to get a grip, climb up, stretch himself on the pavement. He allowed no time to rest. On his knees, he looked toward the coast.
It was moving away.
It was them moving away. The house. The garden.
He roared, hitting the walls, cursed, stamped his feet.
The coast disappeared.
Decisions surface in the morning.
Sitting on a chair in front of the garden, his heart stripped of illusions, he whistled an old tango. He would navigate until the end of time. Without getting upset.
But the flesh is weak. “End of time” made him think, hopeful, of the bad news of the days previous to his voyage. Each country had its own atomic bomb now. It was therefore possible the planet would explode. Oh, let it explode!
But—was he even on the planet? If not, where was he? If so, on which part of it?
He would not get upset now. He went into the house.
He picked up the television. He threw it into the sea.
For a moment he could make it out, recognizable.
Big decisions. During his fall in the water he had seen the house from the outside. He should have imagined it, but never thought about it. A heavy mustache of mollusks and algae surrounded it. Little fish and worms stirred underneath. If that kept growing it would end up sinking him. He got his pruning shears but understood the task was impossible. To prune the edges he would have to get in the water. The lower part was beyond reach anyway. And he didn’t dare to step on the garden, in case it detached.
Very well then. He put the pruning shears away.
Fishing and biography, he decided.
Fishing and Navigation, he smiled bitterly. It was the name of a club at Lake Chascomús. He had gone with other bosses in the company to eat silverside fish there in ’52. He didn’t like silverside, he had said. He didn’t like silverside! He was a vegetarian. A vegetarian! The only thing worse would have been to say he didn’t like fishing or navigation.
So, here we are, for now. He drummed his fingers on the table, as was his habit at the office. Profession: navigator. He smiled, the corners of his mouth pointing down behind the beard. He had got used to running his hands through it, like a patriarch. It was a highly agreeable sensation. He had untangled it, a task difficult to forget, and now combed it every day. Whereas he trimmed the hair on the back of his neck.
He didn’t smell very good, it has to be said. What smell could surprise in that house where washing was abolished from the first day, where fish entered through the window and jumped on the floor, leaving scales? No smell or color could come as a surprise now. Nothing could.
One invigorating exercise for the navigator’s imagination is to mentally paint the abyss below, the depths sheltering mountain ranges; black surroundings, eternal cold. Compared to them, the splashing, the transparency and the light of the surface become pleasant. The precariousness of our suspension is underlined. The disparity of fate becomes obvious when you think of the many bones resting on the sea floor. You begin to meditate on providence, chance, fate.
When watering his garden, how many times had he enjoyed watching the ants struggling in the currents from his hose? Now he thought of them differently. Supposing for a moment a sea god actually existed, the Neptune of the ancients the boy joked about on television, wouldn’t he get the same pleasure directing men and their boats as he had spinning the insects, occasionally saving some because of their beauty or harmlessness, in a momentary good mood? Harmless or beautiful from whose point of view? The gardener’s. But doubtless there were others.
Philosophy germinates from loneliness. And from fear.
Another habit born of solitude is picking one’s nose. He had been prevented from doing it during the years he called normal by the height of the fence, too low to isolate him, and by the fact that his office had been open to anyone with a question. The truly isolated man has all the acts of privacy at his disposal. That is why he elicits mistrust. Since what acts cannot be imagined by fantasy?
They are always the same. Maybe that employee who had broken the onyx inkwell on his desk, hurling the lid to the ceiling—the mark had stayed there forever—or the one who had sent him to hell, apoplectic, and wanted to crush a stamp on his face—luckily there was a bell or that man thrown out on the street with four children to take care of—etcetera—well, maybe when calm in his house he picked his nose every day. Or the young lady who’d called him a worm, a very nervous young lady it’s true, maybe when she was at home she studied her navel just like he did, now that he lived naked . . . Maybe she also counted her toes, individual entities if ever there were any.
While fishing he once saw something like the shadow of a cloud. The sky was clear. What giant had glided through the waters?
Leaving his fishing, he went out to the pavement. He gazed at the caps of foam repeating like meringues on a confectioner’s sheet. He raised his arms and praised the god of the sea.
Thinking about it, he told himself his mother’s God might also allow a god of the sea. A delegate, to express it in trade union terms. Be it what it may, he praised it.
So many things were taken for granted when he lived in West Lanús. So many. Everything, that is.
When the cold comes, water moves to the category of minor things.
Which sea was this he was entering now?
First the fog. Moving across in puffs that made one feel nostalgia for the horizon. It left behind shapes that the wind twirled.
The clouds came down to the water, soup-colored bellies joined to the sea by the falling snow. Snowflakes, snowflakes.
Then ice covered the whole garden. It shone, reflecting the rusty front of the house in its slope.
Hugged by blankets wrapped around his neck, waist and legs, looking for warmth in the bed, stretching his hands toward the fire of his chairs burning on the pavement, he saw his reserves of water turn to ice. Since tiles were missing after he went up on the roof, it was impossible for him to make a shelter. He lined his body with the Salvation Army magazines and adjusted the blankets above him.
He looked like a chrysalis, waiting in its dark shroud to wake as a butterfly in a neighbor’s garden.
When he slept he certainly didn’t count on waking up as a butterfly. If you can call that sleeping.
He had stuck his head inside a cover his sister had crocheted for a cushion. His breath gave him the illusion of heat. He saw through the pattern of colors.
The worst began with the ice floes. Animals floated by, frozen like cherries in aspic, watching him from inside the crags that slowly cruised near him, colliding with one another, sometimes with a sound.
He sensed he would not last much longer if nothing changed. The idea of rest seemed appropriate. Even welcome.
He noticed that the water outside now reached up to just beneath the windows. It must be the weight of the ice, he reckoned. The house creaked.
With a noise stranger than any other, the remains of the garden broke off, maybe because of the weight of the ice. The pensioner felt the vertigo of the whirlpools before his feet as the garden sunk, floated up again and between two waters went away rocking, like a flat floe.
From then on the door was separated from the sea by the mere pavement.
Countless screeches disturbed him one day. Nose blue with cold, he abandoned himself to what he believed was his final illusion. He lifted the crochet cover. It was a flight of swallows. They were exhausted. They covered the roof. He went out to look at them.
A blow on his shoulder almost knocked him out. The rusty letters had not held the weight of the birds. "My Refuge" bounced over the pavement, could be read one last time between two waves, then disappeared.
The pain, the hanging arm almost dragged him to the bathroom. Something in his shoulder had broken. The clavicle? He knew little about this. He tied his shoulder in strips of pajama.
The swallows had followed him in. Screeching with relief, eyes closed with pleasure, they settled on the wardrobe, on the headboard, in the kitchen.
Only one fish was left. Holding the knife with his left hand, he minced two fillets and placed them on a newspaper. The swallows jumped on it.
He melted ice. They drank.
“Eat. Drink,” he told them. “You are the owners of the house now.”
It brought him joy to see their feathers, their beaks, their little eyes. To save them the unpleasantness of traveling with a corpse, he went outside to die on the pavement.
A wall like a cliff seemed to block the light. A ship next to his house. A battleship with no windows.
Rather, it had windows. A row of portholes as high up as the third floor of a building.
Well, he said. If they want to find me they will. Standing up, he had no more chairs. Stroking his beard, he contemplated the panorama. The ice floes drifted away in flocks. The water had turned light blue. His arm in a sling was numb.
When the swallows woke up, one group fluttered around the house with pirouettes of happiness, went back in again and busied themselves pecking at what was left of the food in the kitchen and in the pots.
The pensioner lifted his eyes to the wall. It irritated him to see it there. Why didn’t it go away? He remembered the flowerpots where he kept the pebbles. He took aim at one of the portholes. At that height, with his left arm and in such pain, impossible.
He got carried away. The pebbles, white as popcorn, bounced off the metal and fell in the water or on the roof of his house. He forgot his concern about the glass in his windows. He squinted. His aim improved.
He laughed. He remembered a day in his early years when, helped by his father, he hit the bull’s eye at an amusement park.
Bull’s-eye. He had hit the center of a porthole. It was a special noise.
A face appeared.
He returned. He did not look back at the house handed over to the passing swallows.
He slept. For hours. He opened his eyes, changed his position, closed his eyes again. They brought him a plate of soup and a spoon. The soup was black, the spoon heavy. Steam would get into his nose. The soup would get down. He worked on his reconstruction.
Wrapped in his beard, he dreamed. Sometimes he dreamed that his house creaked in the ice. Sometimes that his garden brimmed over with gardenias and daisies, and that a neighbor was coming to make him sign a petition addressed to the mayor. Sometimes that the rocking rolled him from door to table.
Then he would open his eyes and notice the sea was moving more than usual. But he was in a cabin with a small lamp in one corner. He closed his eyes again. He went back to sleep.
Later on, curled up on the deck, he looked at the stars.
Once he made out the Southern Cross. He cried.
One day he saw the city of Buenos Aires, wrapped in fog. Chimneys as tall as young girls scattered their smoke messages zigzagging into the fog. A smell of putrefaction, and the city with lit-up buildings was waking, coated in shades of pink.
Of course he cried.
From the dock to Constitución he went on foot. He didn’t have a cent.
As for the return by train, it goes without saying: he upset the passengers with his appearance and smell.
There was no water on his street once again.
There was his house; or rather, the plot where it once stood. Nettles. Very tidy-looking neighbors shut the door on his beard.
The Protestant instead shared with him his potatoes and his tin of sardines. He only ate the potatoes. Issues of the magazine were lined up on the table.
“I’m in charge of the humor section,” the neighbor said.
A torrent of tears flooded the face and beard he had in front of him. He had never seen a face so strange, with wrinkles like those.
He found the pensioner a job in the dining rooms of the Salvation Army. There he had his daily bowl of soup. He still does.
"Things Happen" from Land of Smoke © The Heirs of Sara Gallardo. By arrangement with Pushkin Press. Translation © 2018 by Jessica Sequeira. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from her first-ever book-length translation into English, Borges contemporary Norah Lange seeks to cast a light onto the enigma of her three mysterious neighbors’ identities.
Despite their excuses, I tried many times to convince them of how easy and convenient it would be for them to communicate, and even call for help, if they had a telephone.
“The afternoon I saw you at the post office, it was reassuring to know I could call home and ask someone to come and get me. What if one of you happened to be alone one night, and needed something? . . . You need only call me, or call someone else . . .”
“None of us is ever alone,” they would answer, but when I noticed the second showing enough interest to persuade the others, I persisted. Except for the lack of calls, and perhaps its dubious usefulness since few families in that part of Belgrano had a telephone, I hardly suspected the reason behind their resistance and misgivings. Since no one ever visited them, the chances of anyone calling were so slim that perhaps they preferred to shield themselves from this new way of being forgotten. Someone might, on seeing their names in the directory, discard what was left of an old memory, and return, puzzled, to the habit of forgetting them.
I knew my efforts came only from wanting to telephone them myself, to get closer to them, to force them to be precise and at least say who they were; but so as to hide my intentions, I offered my own experience, explained how for us the telephone had been a novelty, and described how keenly we’d tried to guess at the owner of the still-courteous voice uttering the words in a careful tone, as if fearing, as it passed through houses, courtyards, and side streets, that a stranger might listen in on what it didn’t quite dare say. I also told them that at first the telephone was so entertaining that one of us would call our house from a local store, to make sure the crucial voice was still in its place at the other end of the line, traversing wires, accepting its movement through the air, grazing the treetops, saying, “Who is it?” It was almost like opening a letter, except the voice would disappear, and afterward one was left with the pleasure of the voice and the way it changed.
Perhaps my eagerness made her reflect on remembered streets, where her first call might ring out, and return her to familiar places, even if she only asked to be put through, and didn’t say a word. That afternoon, though, the second made up her mind, and, with a serious look, as if I were experienced in the matter and could give her advice, she asked, “Will our last name have to be in the directory?”
I don’t know why it occurred to me that I should take this chance to provoke her, to compel her, for once, to be precise.
“You could give your maiden name,” I suggested, hoping any answer she gave might bring me closer to her past, explain her stubborn, unchanging evenings.
“I can’t,” she murmured quickly. “I can’t,” she said again, as if she had to live in hiding, or hesitated to use her name, because in fact she was married, or because some burning resentment or some strange sense of shame prevented her from confessing her widowhood. The eldest turned toward her, unsurprised. I thought I’d been left with another chance in ruins, confronting another mystery I’d never be able to solve, but I didn’t dare persist. I also thought her answer couldn’t have been meant for me, since she never told me anything about her life. Unwilling to write a name on the usual applications, she seemed to me to be looking, through a half-open door, at a house she used to visit in company, since she was loved by many, sure she would return to its long table, where on Sunday nights they played cards, promising, as they said their good-byes, that there would be other such Sundays, as she felt the hand of a man on her arm for the walk home, waiting for him to open the front door, and she, later, would turn on the bedroom light, perhaps pulling aside the mosquito net from the wide bed, her eyes falling briefly on the cushions with white covers—she had always been fond of those square, slightly stiff cushions—with their halting conversations in the safe and peaceful bedroom, where she might lie awake a while longer, since she liked to hear his breath so close before turning over in the dark, and not to pray, since it was late, and she loved him, and she couldn’t pray that she loved him.
And as my mind wandered, wishing to find her alone, free at last from the destiny I forced her to share with her sisters, she looked at the eldest and declared, “Tomorrow we’ll go to the telephone company. We don’t have to answer it, anyway . . .”
She stared at her evenly, without any sign of annoyance, and I had the impression that something just like a sudden sigh of relief had been set free, though not for long, since it would surely return to its place as soon as I left.
A week passed and I visited them twice, without daring to mention the telephone. One afternoon she said, while the two younger sisters stared at me as if it was all my fault, “Tomorrow they’re coming to install the telephone,” and murmured two numbers, which I collected carefully, taking my leave earlier than on other days, to allow them a final evening alone before the change, leaving each to her suspicions, to her way of preparing to turn a deaf ear to the telephone as soon as its shrillness startled the house, determined not to answer, even though they were convinced that no one knew their number.
The next day, after the telephone installers had left, I observed the faces from my window. There was nothing to suggest they were afraid, that the telephone was there in the vestibule, irrelevant and useless, imbued with voices that were strange or sweet, insolent or intrusive. I looked at them many times before deciding to hear their voices, to confirm their variations, their timorousness, as if someone was watching them, forcing them to speak to people they didn’t know, and perhaps hated.
I went to my telephone, picked up the receiver, and recited the numbers after two zeros, not preparing my words, since, in fact, I didn’t know what to tell them. It seemed intrusive to call without having asked them first. I shouldn’t have been so cruel. It wasn’t my place to be cruel. Nor could I ask, “Is that you?” since even if one of them confirmed that it was—without my knowing to which of them I was speaking—it would be absurd to tell them that I lived across the street, the only proof of my existence during the moments they couldn’t see me.
I listened to the telephone’s low hum, which stretched out monotonously, until the operator said, “There’s no answer,” and I replaced the receiver, as if I’d lost them again. I went back to the drawing room to watch them, thinking they ought to answer, and get used to being brave. None of them had moved. I decided to cross the street and tell them I was going to call them, and that they should answer, even if only so they could get used to the telephone.
“All you have to do is lift the receiver and ask, ‘Who is it?’” I explained to the eldest, hoping she would be the one to answer. It was too much to tell her to say “Hello,” since I knew she would never dare to utter it. The “Who is it?” might, on the other hand, bear a likeness to many things that could wound them, but in a familiar way. When I begged her to answer, she accepted, sadly, as if I was demanding a sacrifice.
Before asking to be put through, I stood by the telephone for a while, so my voice would sound as it always did. Then, determined to face her, to tell her my name and all the clear, inessential things I’d never said in her house, I murmured the number to the operator. I thought I could beg her to let me speak to one of her sisters so she’d have to ask me which one, and then tell me her name. The hum lasted a moment, then suddenly stopped. Someone had lifted the receiver. There was a silence, which began to expand. A few seconds passed. My silence mingled with hers, wrapped around it, seemed almost to touch it, as if an unexpected hand had brushed against another in the dark, unable to say precisely to whom it belonged.
I would have preferred to feel the silence less; I would have preferred to be brave enough to ask, “Is that you?” or to ease her fear by murmuring, “It’s me,” but then the “It’s me” might sound like a different voice coming from a happy summer, and she might make a mistake, forget it was really me and not some presence emerging from a fated evening to tell her again that it loved her, or to say, simply, that life had forced them apart.
When the silence had almost swelled to a sob suspended in the air, gently, taking care not to hurt her, trying not to let her believe I was abandoning her, I replaced the receiver and returned, slowly, to my window, my silence unbroken, tender, while she too returned to her place.
The next day I waited for her to mention it, but she said nothing of our silence; we spoke of other things, and only when she showed me out, as if she’d reached a conclusion after much deliberation, did she say, “Sad people are almost always well-behaved.”
Even though I didn’t like the way she looked at me, I said hurriedly, “Your sisters are sad and perfect . . . like you.”
“They started too late,” she answered, and, after a look that soon seemed to grow weary, she said just what I’d hoped, and would always be grateful for, even though I was scared to death, even though it forced me to flee and not visit them for days on end, because I didn’t want to be like them.
“Perhaps if you were to start now . . .”
I never called her again.
I know I was wrong to turn on the light, startling them with its unaccustomed glare, though no one else would have thought it such a terrible thing to do. From the moment I decided to do it, though, something told me I shouldn’t. But everything, in their presence, acquired gravity, a sense of parting, of bitter oblivion, of mysterious, ineffable ways. To make myself feel better, I thought of how some people can be wounded forever by the slightest look. Others, though, may have their hearts touched, their most hidden pains revealed, be reminded of a name they were once called, and simply smile, as if it would take much more to hurt them. But not them. Whenever I stood up suddenly, or one of them said, “It’s Monday,” it was as if something fled in fright from the scraping of my chair, or as if we had to meditate for a while on it being Monday, placing it among important days with promised candles, because it came from far away, laden with red, foreboding signs, so they could claim it as a premonition.
I also knew that rather than visiting them, having them within reach of my hand and my voice, what interested me most was to watch them. To watch them uninterrupted, even if they sat in the same place all night, smoking incessantly. There was always a chance of a subtle change; one of them would stop watching the smoke, another might say something about a mirror or a marble staircase, and I could collect those words as if they were the secret key to other episodes they hadn’t yet revealed to me.
I shouldn’t have done it, though, and later it was useless to tell myself so, useless to try to explain myself, in the hope someone might ask me why I had acted that way, only for me to remain silent, since no one else knew that house, or their faces lined up in a row. Of course, a stranger, someone with no attachment to them—not to the way I might describe them, nor to a certain kind of sadness, someone who, at the very least, had some respect for the vague outline of a wish, for a favorite flower, for a yearning for rain—might consider it all to be useless and farfetched, my suspicions excessive. But I was consumed.
Sometimes, back at my house, I would toss a book onto my bed, have a drink of water, or laugh just as I used to, and I felt the three faces crossing the street to admonish me, or to tell me I was making gains. I knew if the faces crossed too often, I could always escape. I needed only to expose them, and perhaps smile, as if their faces had come to an end. But that was a long way ahead. The mere thought of smiling after telling someone about them saddened me, as if I’d been asked to describe the face of someone who’d died.
One evening, I decided it wasn’t enough; it didn’t suffice to spy on them, to sit with them so I could watch them. Nor was it possible for me to visit them more often. And at that moment I had a thought of which I’d never believed myself capable, as if I hated them, as if I’d wanted to humiliate them, to throw them into disarray forever, force them to banish me, and for their hatred to pursue me for the rest of their lives, when in fact I loved them so much that at that precise moment I would have done anything they’d asked.
We were in the drawing room. It was almost time to go home. The lamp they always used scarcely lit the room’s corners, but its dim light fell on the three faces, and was magnified by them. One of them recalled a blue dress stored away in a trunk. She seemed to be enjoying the memory, as night drew on. I thought the blue dress must have suited her well, much better than those dark, charcoal grays they’d worn ever since I met them. I thought their dresses might be to blame for many things they said, or that they at least were a change of topic. Because even if they said words like “street,” or “station,” those words always gained a new meaning in their mouths. When other people spoke of such things, everything stayed calm; too calm. But when I heard her mention the blue dress, I sensed the difference at once. I believe the idea began in that moment, on some breezy boulevard she must have walked along, on some balcony she had looked out from—free from the weight of her mahogany wardrobe, burdened by such dark colors—her arms adorned with bracelets, as someone came around a corner. I wanted to see her more clearly, to see how she looked when she said “blue dress,” beneath the overhead light.
Unnoticed by them, and in the silence they seemed to let fall and be filled with a sad, mothless dust, I looked around me, to see if I could find the switch. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling had four lights. I had never seen it lit. I thought I could say my good-byes, and press the switch as if by mistake, distracted. The blue dress floated in the distance, beckoning me from above their faces, shouting at me, laughing, descending a marble staircase, hiding behind a column, leaning over to tend damp ferns, giving me the strength to look at them squarely. Then, almost automatically, since I’d already decided, I got up and walked toward the door. I remember murmuring, “See you tomorrow,” and my voice seemed to say it as if many things should be resolved by the time I saw them again, and when they answered, “See you tomorrow, God willing,” I stepped away, toward the door, pretended to have forgotten something, and, leaning on the wall with one hand, I pressed the switch.
The drawing room lit up with a glare that startled me, too. I managed to force myself to murmur, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” But it was too late to forget. I would never be able to forget it, because the room seemed to fill with blue dresses, with uncovered arms, bare necks, but most of all, with something cool, endlessly cool, and when I looked at them, one by one, it was as if, in a dark room, their three white faces—waxen, framed with lightly starched lace, and gathered in a beautiful vigil—had been cast by a spotlight onto a screen.
She flinched and lifted a hand to her throat, as if to clutch at a necklace, then she cried:
“Turn the light off! You should be ashamed!”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured again, and, without touching the switch, I fled from the room, determined not to come back, since it would be impossible for their faces to have a more beautiful ending.
From Personas en la sala. © The Estate of Norah Lange. By arrangement with And Other Stories. Translation © 2018 by Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.
Ulf Stark and Linda Bondestam’s sweetly eccentric picture book My Little Small opens itself to many layered interpretations. On the surface, it’s a story of finding a small friend to care for. Dig a little deeper and Stark’s philosophical ruminations come through.
“In a mountain, deep in a cave
In the dark, there lives a Creature.
The sun hurts her eyes and her skin, too.”
Like her mountain cave, the Creature is “gray, gray, gray.” Bondestam’s whimsical illustrations produce a Creature with large, expressive eyes, an oblong body, and pointy teeth.
Hidden away during daylight to escape the harmful rays of the sun, the Creature leads a solitary life, yet she craves companionship. “She dreams of the moon and of having someone small to sing to and care for.” Her yearning turns to anger at times, and she grinds the rocks of her cave between her teeth. When night falls, she emerges from her cave, marveling in the soft colors of the sunset, the lake, and the distant city.
Young readers will relate to the Creature’s many emotions as she wrestles with her loneliness, longing, and frustration.
The lonely Creature explores her nighttime environment, looking for something small to care for. The Creature does not just want to find companionship; she wants to become a caregiver, providing love and protection. Although readers do not know why she seeks this out, they will relate to the feeling of wanting something small to love and protect. After all, this is one reason why young children like to play with small stuffed animals and baby dolls.
She tries swimming out to the reflection of the full moon, but the moon shatters “into a thousand gleams.” She tries stacking boulders on top of the highest mountain so she can reach the moon, but the rocks always tumble over.
“One morning, something bright comes flying into her cave.
A sun spark!
It hovers before plummeting
straight to the ground.”
Terrified that it’s so dark, the little Spark squeals in alarm. The startled Creature asks, “Will you be my very own Little Small?” But the Spark isn’t sure—what could this strange creature be?
“‘Leave me be!’ the Spark squeals again. ‘Are you going to damp me down or snuff me out?’
‘Oh, no,” says the Creature. ‘I’m going to care for you for a thousand million years.”
‘But I can only live for a single day.’
The Creature wants to hug the Spark, but it would hurt her. So she lifts the Spark up in her hand instead.”
And thus begins a sweet, brief friendship. The little Spark tells the Creature of the sun and the sun’s colors. She describes the “vast, blue ocean” and the “hot, yellow, empty desert.” The Creature tells her new friend stories of the adventures they’ll have. Even though they only have one day together, their friendship sparkles and shines. After sending her beloved Little Small back to the sun, the Creature closes her eyes so she can “see all the colors the Spark lit up inside of her.”
Young readers may see this as a simple story of friendship. On a deeper level, this existential story is a rumination on savoring the moment, making connections, and reaching beyond borders. Even though the Spark only lives for one day, the Creature reaches out to make friends. Both of them seize the moment and live it fully. When it is time to send the Spark off to return to the sun, the Creature does not hesitate. Young readers are left with the sense that the Creature has grown from this experience, is happier and more satisfied. Perhaps the ultimate message is that caring for others is what brings our lives satisfaction and meaning.
Stark, who died in 2017, was a leading Swedish author and screenwriter who wrote more than one hundred books for children of all ages, ranging from picture books to poetry to young adult fiction. (See this reflection on his life and work excerpted from Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature.) Finnish artist Linda Bondestam, for her part, has been nominated for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. (Readers may enjoy seeing this short video of her drawing and creating picture book illustrations in 2012.) My Little Small is not Stark and Bondestam's first collaboration. Together, they have written and illustrated several picture books, winning the 2017 Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for their picture book Djur som ingen sett utom vi (Animals Nobody Has Seen Except Us). They also won the 2016 Snöbollen (Snowball Prize), awarded each year in Sweden to the best picture book, for the same title. Min egen lilla liten (the original version of My Little Small), was nominated for the Finlandia Junior Prize in 2014.
© 2018 Mary Ann Scheuer.
I don’t have children. The youngest “children” I’ve taught were adults in their first years of college. I have, however, eluded the stress, responsibility, and possible heartbreak that raising children entails by escaping into books—I’m no stranger to fantasy. When I started writing and editing for a living, experimental literature, with its promises of a cerebral experience, replaced the tall tales of my youth; the books I read as a child—such as Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox—have become a fondly remembered part of an increasingly inaccessible past, a past that seems less real to me as time goes on.
That past was momentarily illuminated as I read Tonke Dragt’s 1967 The Song of Seven (Pushkin Press, 2018). The tale follows Frans van der Steg, a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher who woos his students with stories about his heroic alter ego Frans the Red. The division between the teacher and his adventuring alias disappears when a mysterious count summons Frans to a nearby castle. Frans, thrown into a quest to save an imprisoned young boy, watches his own reality begin to resemble the world in which his stories unfold: “Frans didn’t ask any more questions. It seemed that he’d ended up in a part of the world where antique cannons were as easy to find as buttons and marbles—a place where magicians could use their powers to send a person to sleep and eccentric counts lived in castles filled with staircases and hidden treasures.” Frans’s journey resembles the lives of children likewise coming to terms with their relationship to the supposedly real world; it also offers adult readers like myself the opportunity to reconsider the frustrations we encountered during our own passage to adulthood.
The Song of Seven stands apart from contemporary children’s stories because it comes from a different time and different place: English readers will receive a glimpse of a now bygone culture through Laura Watkinson’s skilled translation. Watkinson brings the linguistic play present in the Dutch original into her English rendering. Our first introduction to the antagonist Gradus Grisenstein, for example, is limited to the sounds “Gr . . . Gr” because a handwritten letter obscures his name. As its title suggests, much of the lore within The Song of Seven is conveyed by sing-songy lyrics: “Do you know the Seven, the Seven, / Do you know the Seven Ways?” Like many tales meant for young people, the book presents a series of erudite lessons in the form of amusing exchanges. The wizard Thomtidon, for example, annoys Frans with his whimsical logic on several occasions, but as Frans admits, “With that kind of thinking, you could undermine our entire system of arithmetic.” We’re also reminded that Thomtidon, silly as the name sounds, is pronounced exactly as it is spelled—the book doesn’t take itself too seriously.
At certain points in the narrative I wondered how parents would react. While the book’s key moral concern with deceptive appearances has stood the test of time, the culture under which the text was produced has since changed values; in fact, part of what gives the The Song of Seven its fairytale mien are the bygone customs it conveys. One scene shows Frans entering a bar filled with smoking patrons; several show Frans referring to his landlady Miss Bakker as Aunt Wilhemina—she also cooks his meals; and yet another describes Wilhemina’s sister, Miss Rosemary, as wrapped in a “colorful flowery scarf elegantly around her head” while a “snow-white curl had slipped out from under it.” If I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to send the book to friends with young children after the bar scene, I became concerned when the book repeatedly described Miss Rosemary through the clothes she wears and the color of her hair: “She’d taken off her coat and was wearing a grey silk dress with a large white lace collar. Her age was hard to guess; she was much younger than her sister Wilhemina, but her hair was as white as snow.” I leave it to other readers to decide if this classic European mythologizing constitutes a barrier for reading or cause for concern. The book, in the proper hands, could lend itself toward a study of stories we use to prepare children for society’s demands; others, namely children, will be able to ignore the historical minutia and absorb the fanfare undisturbed.
Without children of my own to consider, I can only speculate where and how others might react. But, as a somewhat experienced reader, I understand fantasy as a genre concerned with the means and devices of storytelling. The Song of Seven follows this trend by positioning Frans as both the hero and narrator in his own tale. For adult readers, this gesture and its implications may seem obvious: a story is always first and foremost a fiction. Whether or not this statement can be applied to children—thousands if not millions of which await letters from a magical school called Hogwarts each year—remains unknowable. But maybe times have changed and these children have new hopes, dreams, fantasies, and obsessions. The conventions of yesteryear stand out against the stark background of the present when we consider that Dragt was born in a time when Jakarta was called The Dutch East Indies and spent three years in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. If the literary phenomenon that united an international audience less than a decade ago seems to be losing hold, I can only imagine the lesser-known stories of which we’ve already lost sight. What does it mean to suddenly have access to these stories and the worlds, real and fictional, they contain? And how are we—as readers charged with passing information between generations—to acquaint young people with these texts and the contexts from which they originate?
A document of injustice, memorializing the names, professions, and ages of those who perished—many who were buried in unmarked graves. A celebrated modernist novel about a neurasthenic elevator operator, detailing the refugee experience in mid-century Manhattan. And a four-volume chronicle about the lives of the slachta, the Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, impeccably researched by an historian, narrated in ornate, Baroque style. This issue of Words without Borders thus introduces the Anglophone reader to three monuments of Lithuanian literature and history.
Shadows on the Tundra, written by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (1927–87), first appeared in print in the late 1980s, when the Lithuanian independence movement Sajūdis began to openly discuss previously censored topics and texts. Among these, the 1941 and 1944 Soviet deportations to Siberia of tens of thousands of Lithuanian men, women, and children, who, without due process, were arrested in their homes, transported in freight cars and barges to the inhospitable territories of the Soviet North and Far East, and exploited as slave labor. Among those arrested was fourteen-year-old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, who ended up in Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle in the Altaj Peninsula with her mother and little brother. Their crime, like that of many other families, was that by virtue of their education, profession, wealth, or political activities, they posed a threat to the new Soviet government. Grinkevičiūtė, understanding the injustices she was witnessing and determined to document every detail while events were still fresh in her memory, wrote her memoir several times, secretly, piecemeal, on scraps of paper, hiding them under her mattress and inside her clothing. She wrote the first version in 1949 when she illegally brought her ailing mother home to die in Kaunas, Lithuania. She buried the memoir in a peony patch in her family garden. Fearing that this version was lost (this “peony patch” version was discovered in 1991 after the author’s death and published in the Lithuanian literary review Metai in 1997), Grinkevičiūtė wrote the memoir a second time. A third version was written in Russian and published in 1979 in Moscow. In 1950, the KGB arrested Grinkevičiūtė in Kaunas and sent her to prison, shortly afterward returning her to exile in Jakutsk, Sakha Republic, USSR, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle. She was released from exile and allowed to return to Lithuania in 1956.
Lietuviai prie Laptevų jūros (Lithuanians by the Laptev Sea) stunned the nation: this was the first time many learned about what had happened to their parents, grandparents, and neighbors. Many could not believe that this taboo subject was being discussed openly; others were simply amazed by Grinkevičiūtė’s fierce determination to survive in the face of unspeakable dehumanization and suffering.
Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir reads almost like a screenplay; each episode is meticulously constructed, evoking anger, empathy and awe. The story is realistic, although some details are so gruesome that they feel like they must have been invented. Despite the horror, however, the text (and Delija Valiukėnas’s skillful translation) cannot but inspire admiration for the protagonist’s tremendous mind and spirit.
White Shroud by Antanas Škėma (1910–61) presents another key theme of twentieth-century Lithuanian history: the frustrated talent and potential of the refugee, traumatized by World War II, living in a foreign environment and unable to practice his profession on account of language or the fact that his degrees are not recognized in his adopted land. Škėma, like thousands of his compatriots, fled Soviet occupation and eventually ended up in the United States. Like his protagonist Antanas Garšva, Škėma worked as a hotel elevator operator.
In this modernist gem, Škėma converts the tragedy of the refugee into a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition. The elevator operator transports wealthy hotel guests up and down, down and up, day in and day out. Škėma’s commanding stream-of-consciousness narrative, perceptively translated by Karla Gruodis, incorporates elements of folk songs and stories and religious and mystical imagery in the broken, accented English of the protagonist and allows readers to meander between the very specific life of the twentieth-century refugee and universal human experience.
The third text is an excerpt from Silva Rerum, an epic four-volume historical novel set in the waning years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1659–1795 and written by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (1974- ). These volumes were published between 2008 and 2017 to tremendous acclaim in Lithuania, as well as Poland and Latvia, where the novel has already been translated and similarly celebrated. (The phenomenal success of Silva Rerum has even inspired a “historical turn” in Lithuanian literature more generally. Some of the most widely read novels of the past two years, including works by Alvydas Šlepikas, Rasa Aškinytė, Sigitas Parulskis, and Saulius Šaltenis, have taken on historical topics.) As the author herself explains in a history of the Lithuanian historical novel, this work could only have been written under very specific circumstances: during Soviet rule, the experience of the aristocracy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not conform to the dictates of socialist realism’s focus on the workers and their class struggle. Prior to Soviet occupation and immediately afterward, the construction of Lithuanian national identity based on the use of the Lithuanian language precluded this experience of Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen from national discussions. One might add that this novel could not have been written by anyone other than Sabaliauskaitė, an art historian as well as a writer. Written in the Baroque style of the time in which the novel is set, it reflects her extensive and painstakingly accurate archival research, its extremely complex and ornate sentences here expertly translated by Romas Kinka.
This is an exciting time for Lithuanian literature, which is finally finding an international readership thanks in large part to the energy and generosity of the Lithuanian Cultural Institute and the emergence of a new generation of talented translators. It is our hope that this Lithuanian issue will inspire Anglophone readers to seek out more work by Lithuanian writers.
© 2018 by Jura Avizienis. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from her memoir, Dalia Grinkevičiūtė recalls the 1941 Soviet deportation to Siberia of thousands of Lithuanians and their harsh lives as slave laborers.
I am sitting in the dock along with the five others on trial for stealing boards from the storeroom. Across from us, at a table with five lighted candles and covered with red felt, sits the magistrate, an eighteen-year-old Yakut. An inspector by profession, he was ordered to preside by the Party. It must have seemed inappropriate to have an insider as judge. The magistrate is flanked on either side by two secretaries taking notes. One of them—Novikova from Leningrad, a teacher of draftsmanship at the school and a member of the Communist Youth. The other—Mironova, a higher-ranking member of the Communist Youth. This one spends her days and nights entertaining supervisors. The trial chamber is just an empty barracks next door that serves as a sewing workshop by day. The two cast-iron stoves are red hot, spreading warmth. My head is in a shambles; images, faces, a blur, my eyelids droop. I just want to sleep. I hear the voice of Riekus as in a dream:
“No, that’s not true, citizen magistrate, I did not steal. I had been making a coffin that day and took home only the leftover scraps of wood.”
Idiot, why defend yourself? What’s the point of lying? What difference does it make where we die—in prison or in this majestic factory of death called Trofimovsk? My head drops to my chest, I’m overwhelmed by sleep, the room is filled with spectators, I hear a buzzing in the room, the drone of voices.
“That’s not true, judge, I didn’t take that stick of wood. I did pick it up, but when I ran into Sventicki, I dropped it as soon as he yelled at me. I didn’t bring home so much as a sliver.”
I tear open my eyes. It’s the old Finn, who is about seventy years old, with the deeply sunken eyes of an abused dog. The face an artist might draw of famine. He had been in Leningrad during the blockade, where the daily ration had been 125 g of bread made of chaff and clay. Then he was upgraded to Trofimovsk’s factory of death (600 g of bread, frigid weather, scurvy, typhus, lice, and a polar winter). A felon, obviously. He’s undermined the state. How dare he bring back some firewood to light the stove in his ghastly barracks—just to thaw his face and eyes, dry his icy clothes, which are as hard as armor.
Nothing but lies. Markevičienė is lying. The brigade is lying. The entire Soviet State tells lies and will continue to lie in perpetuity. It stole, it steals and will steal. All four plaintiffs deny the charges. Behind me, I can hear the crowd murmuring in approval. It will soon be my turn.
A week ago, I had just come home from school. I found Mama too weak to get up. She was begging everyone for water, but no one had a drop. I fished around in the dark and found the bucket, which still had several bits of ice sticking to the bottom from the snow we melted yesterday. By now almost everyone was bedridden. So Žukienė lit her stick of kindling and said to me:
“Light the stove, Dalia. Bring back some boards. We’ll melt some water for your mother, you’ll feel warmer yourself, and I want some soup. No one has lighted the stove today. The sick haven’t had any water. There is no one else to do it.”
I slide out of the barracks. It’s quiet outside, profoundly quiet, even eerie. Not only is there no blizzard, there’s not even a breeze, just an immobilizing cold that has turned everything to ice—the mouth of the river, the tundra, the barracks, and us. The Northern Lights have illuminated the sky; it’s bright out, which is a bad thing. Stealing is going to be tough tonight. I sneak over to the depot, slip through the fence, and grab three marvelously thick boards. The snow crunches underfoot. Alerted by my footsteps, a guard wrapped in dog pelts heads in my direction. I drop the boards, drop face down in the snow and press myself flat against the tundra. I raise my head. Long pelts has turned back. I give him or her the finger and thrust the boards through the fence. In the blink of an eye, I’m on the other side, crawling with one end of each board tucked firmly under my armpits and the other end dragging in the snow. The minutes seem like hours. Faster, faster! Ah, here we are, our king of barracks—I’ve reached the first corner of the red brick building. But my energy is gone. I feel dizzy and ravenously hungry. I suck, I bite my lips, stuff my mouth with snow, chew, but my hunger does not go away.
Yet what splendor above. The Northern Lights are a magnificent web of color. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea; the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, hundred-meter pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the Aurora Borealis. Against a background of such majesty, we are the pitiful things here—starved and infested like dogs and nearly done rotting in our befouled and stinking ice caves.
Here we are—our barracks. Quick as lightning, I fling the boards inside. I chop them up and get the stove going. It turns red-hot in no time. We melt some snow, give it to the sick, they salt it, and drink. I spoon hot tea into my mother’s mouth. She doesn’t have the strength to speak. Male and female have become indistinguishable, just bones, bones, and more bones. Suddenly, Sventicki appears. He lights his candle. The construction boards are crackling in the fire, and the rest lie chopped up in a pile.
“Who stole the boards?”
“Who chopped up these boards?” The always proper but cunning Pole inquires pleasantly.
I pull the covers over my mother and slide off the berth.
“Will the accused citizen rise.”
I stand up. The magistrate observes my hideously wrapped feet, my tattered, padded pants, the jacket quilted out of a bathrobe, my thick braids, and raising his narrow piercing eyes, he looks directly into mine. The room suddenly falls silent. I see the school principal, Guliayev; the factory manager, Mavrin; and the food king, Travkin. They’re on the side bench whispering to each other. It is strangely quiet. I look the judge squarely in the eye. For about thirty seconds.
“How old are you?”
He reads the charges. He reads a long time. The candles on the red table flicker, and shadows writhe on the red brick walls. My legs tremble, as though they had weights on them. If only they’d let me sit down soon. Mama has probably died. They’ll also be charging Juozas. He began cramming cans of food into his mouth during the unloading in the fall right under the supervisors’ noses. He suffers terribly from hunger, it’s a lot harder for him than it is for me. Yesterday, he tried to get up and inch his way to the stove on his heels—he can’t walk since he got frostbite of the toes—but he crashed full length on the floor and fainted. His handsome face looked very white against the darkness, his slender body practically weightless. Mother is dead, Juozas will also die. He already has dysentery, and that’s usually a ticket to the pile of cadavers outside. Suddenly, Mother’s face appears before my eyes, as I remember it from childhood. Beautiful, gentle, eyes large, curls on her forehead, a smile on her face. “Mama, Mummy, you’re gone, you’re growing cold even as I stand here. I should be there to close your eyes. Juozas, who is lying by your side, will weep helplessly when he realizes that you’ve grown cold. Why did you have to starve yourself for us, just to let us starve a little longer, die a lingering death, become a laughingstock in prison, which is where we’ll be headed tomorrow? But I don’t care. You’re gone, and what happens tomorrow doesn’t matter anymore.” I hear someone talking to me.
“I’m asking you a question, which you’re obliged to answer.” A voice breaks through my fog, and I, finally, comprehend what’s being said. “Do you agree to the charges and acknowledge that they are truthful?”
“Do you understand Russian well?”
“Do you admit your guilt?”
The magistrate looks confused. There is a din in the room. “Stupid girl.” “A child.” “Defend yourself.”
“Will the defendant, please, answer the question thoughtfully. Do you admit that you stole boards from the storehouse?”
“And chopped them up?”
“Who put you up to it?”
Žukienė shuts her eyes and turns white as a sheet.
“Did you know that the boards are state property?”
“Were you aware that there’s a penalty for stealing . . . ”
“I was aware.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying?”
“Where do you work?”
“I haul logs.”
“I’m told you attend school.”
“Yes, I also attend school.”
“What grade are you in?”
“Aren’t you ashamed, you, a schoolgirl, to be sitting here on this bench?”
I feel the prying eyes of the room on me. They stare intently. Am I ashamed? Ashamed of what?! Of giving my dying mother a drink of water? What is it you want to see, you Travkins, Mavrins, and Sventickis? You gluttons, you. Is it remorse? Shame? But it’s you that should be ashamed, you’re the murderers, not me! I can hear the question being repeated.
“No, I am not at all ashamed.”
The court leaves to deliberate. It deliberates a long time. I’m tormented by sleep, by exhaustion, by weakness. All I want to do is put my head down and sleep. I’m awakened by a sharp jab in my side:
“Get up, damn it!”
Riekus, Kobra, and one other Lithuanian, I seem to remember, get two years apiece. As a minor who admitted her guilt, I am acquitted. I probably have my teacher Novikova to thank. What a blessing. To think that such good fortune has befallen me. Lialė kisses me and weeps, but this time with happiness. You have a beautiful soul, Lialė. But not for long. Life will prove a hard taskmaster, and in time you will become less discriminating in choosing between good and evil, especially where others are concerned.
Extract from Peirene No. 26, Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, published by Peirene Press, London. http://www.peirenepress.com
Lithuanian author Kristina Sabaliauskaitė portrays how the traumatic destruction of his family leads bedridden and mute Jan Kirdey Biront to a crisis of faith.
To have called him a devil would have been a rhetorical exaggeration, but, to put it mildly, Bachelor of Philosophy Jan Kirdey Biront had some personal accounts to settle with God, and the fact that he would gladly have met Him on some dark evening in a narrow Vilnius alleyway and used his fists to come to an understanding as regards his relationship with the Lord was in spite of everything the surest proof of his faith. First and foremost he would have looked that all-seeing scoundrel in three persons, without whose knowledge not a single hair falls from anyone’s head and who proclaims that He is the arbiter of retribution and righteous vengeance, straight in the eye and asked where He was and in general what He was doing when a Cossack, called Bohdan by his accomplices, took his five-year-old brother and threw him with such force against the wall of the Biront family children’s room, on which Noah’s ark had been painted with all kinds of birds and animals climbing aboard it, that Antoni Hieronim’s brains were splattered all over the fresco in an instant. He would remind God, if He no longer remembered, where he, Jan Kirdey, was at that moment—in a hiding place in another wall behind a door hidden by wallpaper across which his father and mother had hurriedly pushed the heaviest Danzig armoire one could imagine; in a narrow stone-dark hiding place where he spent five days and nights, upright, where, petrified, he had emptied his bladder and bowels for the first two days listening to the screams of his mother being raped and his father tortured by the Cossacks from Muscovy, and later to the sound of blows, of furniture and dishes breaking, of wallpaper and wall hangings being torn down, then someone, who had emptied out the wardrobe that had been pulled across his hiding place, not content with that, had pierced the wall with his yatagan so that the tip was just a couple of finger spans from his face, then everything calmed down and after a little while all that was heard was the frighteningly quiet sound of the floorboards under the feet of the marauders who would just come by to have a look since, to tell the truth, everything had been carried out, torn out, or pulled down from the home of the Biront family on Horses Street. It was there that his uncle, Teodor Biront, found him five days later. Ignoring the Cossacks running rampant in the city, he had come to his older brother’s house to pay his last respects to the bodies of his family members and furtively had decided just to be sure to check out the hiding place known to him in which, in addition to his older brother’s savings and valuables, his last will and testament, as well as documents relating to the Biront family’s property, lands, and estates were kept; and when he pulled aside the damaged armoire, he found his twelve-year-old nephew Jan Kirdey, with his extremities numb and deprived of speech, the only barrier to him, Teodor Biront, inheriting the wealth of his Biront relatives; a sickly being, annoyingly alive only in the eyes of the law. Teodor Biront was a God-fearing Christian and so he dismissed the sinful thought that had fleetingly crossed his mind not to find his nephew alive who could have disappeared in the heat of the attack or who knows how, and so he took the half-dead boy to his home, but, to tell the truth, it would be a lie to say that he tried particularly hard to have his nephew nursed back to full health, believing the good Lord would find a way for his honor to be protected in the eyes of others and the inheritance to come to him of its own accord. Jan Kirdey lay for, it must have been, half a year on a bed in the servants’ quarters, visited only by his uncle’s housekeeper and a refractory servant woman who, if she did not forget, would bring him some broth once a day and, muttering under her breath, change his sheets and turn him so that he would not develop bedsores. All of that time he lay half-dead or, as the doctor, who had come to visit him, put it, adflictus, paralyticus hypnopompicus. However, he did not lie there completely alone, since he tried for days on end to speak with the Christ at the foot of his bed, in the picture of the Resurrection on the wall. He most often put questions to Him and the questions he most frequently put to Him began with “why?”, “what for?” Why his parents? Why his brother? Why him? Why were his hands and legs not moving? Had the two most hateful persons in his life, Bohdan, the Cossack, and Teodor, his uncle, been sent to him by Him, by God, on purpose, and if so, what did He wish to say by sending them? Why? However, Christ, seen dressed in pink between the clouds, had His eyes directed solemnly to the top of the picture frame and had not the least intention of answering any of Jan Kirdey’s questions, and for this reason when the doctor, who as usual would nod his head to say that his condition was unchanged, only now one could add with full confidence atrophia muscularis progresiva to the diagnosis, and that was undoubtedly the beginning of the end, it was his uncle Teodor who would answer those questions with: “What can one do? If that is how things are, may God’s will be done . . .” It was then that the speechless boy lying there like a wet rag became deadly angry and made the decision that he, Jan Kirdey Biront, whatever happened, would not become the instrument of the will of that heartless man, and may the devil take him, but he would get up from the bed—not because he particularly wanted to live but only to challenge God; out of anger with Him and anger with his uncle Teodor.
From Silva Rerum. © 2008 by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Romas Kinka. All rights reserved.
In this modernist classic from Lithuanian author Antanas Škėma, the tragedy of the refugee is a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition.
The elevator goes up, the elevator goes down. Not all of his memories return. A partial amnesia remains. The polyphonies and the nightingale have traveled to the depths of his unconscious. The spring snow has melted. No more footprints in the steaming earth. But a new craving to retrieve the damp fragrance of the acacias, the nightingale, the ancient signs. I am like a scientist who has lost his formulae. And I don’t want to write a popular pamphlet. I must start again. Wait for a winter consciousness, for snow.
I want to go back to that evening in Aukštoji Panemunė, to the veranda. I need geometric mercy. Mysticism. Judgment.
We gather in the Valley of Josaphat. I arrive in a blue bus. It’s good that it’s blue. That’s a sign of hope. The driver won’t answer my questions but I don’t mind, it’s best not to speak to bus drivers. I’m not being shown the passing sights. The windows of the bus are opaque. And the driver is blocked off by black fabric. Finally, we stop. I get off. The bus drives away.
The Valley of Josaphat is paved in cement and enclosed by a stone wall. It is the size of a room. A gate opens in the wall and three judges enter the valley. They are wearing judges’ robes, their parchment faces set off by white wing collars. The middle one opens a thick book and begins.
“Poet and unsuccessful earthling.”
“What was the worldview you were born into?”
“Formally, the believers’ one, but . . .”
“No comments, please,” interrupts the judge.
“Did you follow the commandments?”
“It’s possible that I didn’t follow them in strict terms, but . . .”
“Comments are unnecessary,” the judge interrupts again.
“Did you follow the commandments as you were taught them?”
“It appears not.”
“Very well. According to paragraph eight you are slated for liquidation. Thank you for your replies.”
“Could you please tell me what it says in paragraph eight?”
“It’s a rather long paragraph. In short: anyone who failed to follow the commandments is liquidated. For example. The faithful—those for the faithful, atheists—those for atheists, liars—those for liars, murderers—those for murderers, cowards—those for cowards, moralizers—those for moralizers. And those who followed the commandments are transferred to Heaven.”
“I followed the commandments for seekers.”
Now the three judges laugh rhythmically. Like members of an opera chorus.
“There is no such category in the Valley of Josaphat.”
“Forgive me. One more question. Why was I brought here in a blue bus? That color inspires hope.”
But the judges can’t answer in time. Antanas Garšva is already at the bottom, the door opens, and there is the starter.
“Listen, Tony,” he says sternly. “What did you do to the chinchillas?”
An elderly man and woman stand to the side. The cross-eyed old man holds a small wooden cage. One of the slats is broken and a pointy-nosed chinchilla sticks its head out, greedily sniffing the old man’s fingers, while its mate sleeps rolled up in a little ball, perfectly calm. The old lady stares at Garšva as though he had tried to murder her grandchildren.
“They say that up on the eighteenth you slammed the door shut too quickly, shattered the cage, and almost killed the chinchillas!”
“That's right, O’Casey, I damaged the cage, because this gentleman entered the elevator and then, inexplicably, turned around and tried to exit. At that moment the door closed and the cage suffered some damage. The chinchillas, I believe, are fine, though the fellow got a little spooked. But his beloved is sleeping quite peacefully. It seems that, like most men, he’s the more anxious one.”
The starter smiled faintly. “OK, Tony. Go around the corner, and come back after these people have cleared out.”
Walking away, Garšva hears the starter’s words:
“He’ll present himself to the manager and will be punished. What a criminal! The poor little creatures!”
Garšva comes back and the starter says:
“Bloody chinchillas! They belong in hell. Be careful, Tony.”
“Thanks, O’Casey. I will.”
The express from the tenth to the eighteenth. Your floor, here we are, please, thank you, button, hand to handle, going up. I'm not angry that the old people lodged a complaint. I was inattentive. Who told me to dream about the Valley of Josaphat? Poor, sweet old people. They’re probably childless and will raise those chinchillas like their dearest darlings. Maybe I should follow their example, maybe that would save me?
Elena and I—together. Domestic bliss. A little house somewhere in Jamaica. We have a whole floor to ourselves. We hang some reproductions. We arrange our books. The art books and poets look serious. A separate little shelf for our own people. In the evenings we listen to music, read and argue mildly, savoring it. The lamp shines, and it has a green glass shade. We find Station C, it doesn't have marble columns, but its vestibule offers peace. And on the coffee table—fresh flowers. And our faces always contain the possibility of smiles. And our dreams—a sense of awakening. And our embraces—the first trip to Jones Beach. And our emblem is the dead noblemen’s heads. We play at leisure. We stack blocks, build castles, dream about life and death. And the books offer us some help. Not only Homer or Dante. Our own authors, too. We drink sparkling wine and a flamingo flares up on the expensive ebony table; we sail on Lake Lucerne, and, in that other land, a dead boy plays a tune on the guitar that has never been heard on this earth. And the rising sun once again awakens our world, and we live in the cool, endless North with field, path, meadow, cross. Palms, my beloved palms, sing slender in this windy oasis.
Zoori, zoori, magical word, magical key, magical desire, magical conventionality, magical nostalgia, nostalgia for an unbreakable cage.
And then one day, in our little cage, a child is born.
First published in 1958 as Balta drobulė. © The heirs of Antanas Škėma. Translation copyright © 2018 by Vagabond Voices. From White Shroud, forthcoming from Vagabond Voices. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
“[T]o be humanly would be to be charged with humanity comma, with humanity humans and animals, proliferating oneself while exceeding one’s limits, moving out in front and anticipating us. It would be or It will be? […] For me, to find oneself human in Humanity has been forever, before any knowledge and any reading, to find oneself a rather lame dog, mole, shrew, eagle, girl, brother, lover, simultaneously, born at the same time, born several and several times. I had already died and been born more than once when I discovered, while making my way, other strollers, naturally poetic ones who had already signed, countersigned, the books of the Humanities of Humanity.”
The voice above is of a reader honoring a debt to writers by writing across their works, volleying words toward them on a sheet of paper coincidentally placed between two cats, working toward a literature that will be comparable to a work of justice — a literature of, and for, humanimal beings. This writer/reader happens to be female; the spectral presences whom she engages in conversation in, and by, writing herself into literature and into volleys of beings, happen to be mostly men—Rimbaud, Derrida, Jaurès, Joyce, Primo Levi; no mention is made of the two cats’ gender. The arcs of Hélène Cixous’s 2009 Volleys of Humanity (trans. Peggy Kamuf) stretch not only toward the absent writers she addresses, but also toward players volleying the words of their language—always in the plural, as Cixous reminds us—towards a different set of literary predecessors and from different positions and spaces, including the ever more shadowy regions of Eastern and Central Europe. These fellow players have also found themselves brothers, girls, tramps, witnesses of disasters, laboratory or zoo animals, different figures of death before and in order to find themselves human; similarly to Cixous, they have remained faithful to this debt by remaining open to indecision and to the possibility of disagreement.
Coming in the wake of the so-called postmodern prose turn, an important slice of recent Hungarian writing is indebted, in the sense spoken of by Cixous, to the literature of the 1980s and ’90s that subverts, with jocoserious thoroughness, the ideological remainders entrenched in language (best illustrated by the opening sentence of Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis, "It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth,” trans. Judith Sollosy), and has the invisible, silenced, and unacknowledged part of history as its watermark. Honoring this debt, Hungarian literature has continued since the turn of the millennum to seek out the invisible and unsayable in the recent past, showing how private and public pathologies are interlocked; the history that oozes into it is singular, sensorial, unexpected, often suppressed, and derails self-knowledge almost by default. Or, to quote one of the writers selected here, Zsófia Bán, all the “nohoo” that schoolbook history, geography, and physical education impart is the endless recycling of nationalist and masculinist clichés, beneath which lurks the violence of a shared past and present.
In questioning the foundation of so-called reality, the dominant literary discourse of the recent past seems to have given up all aspiration to engage referential reality "out there,” let alone act upon it. What in the 1990s seemed a valiant and jocose reflection on the nature of language with its bricolage of received ideas and tropes, and its inbuilt biases and blindness to certain types of experience, in today’s context, when so-called "reality” is washed out and supplanted by layers of virtuality from the most banal everyday situations to media mongering "alternative facts,” the framing techniques of postmodern extraction seem a surrender, no longer suitable to contest the forms of representation assimilated by the global entertainment industry.
It is in this context that recent Hungarian literature has turned increasingly toward the previously unacknowledged, or downright uncharted territories of the domain of the sensible—first and foremost, in an attempt to address the egregious gaps, ideological silencings and amnesia in the fabric of cultural memory, that form the underpinnings of endlessly recycled historical mythologems. At least as emphatically, it is concerned with the creation of a space for the un- and underrepresented: for the vulnerable, the socially marginal, those short of world and of words for the abject, ill, or traumatized body; for a more empathetic voicing of the experience of women, of sexual minorities, and lastly, the nonhuman. Among the writers Ágnes Orzóy and I have selected here, two have created a space in their earlier writing for the voices of the ultimately unacknowledged, the animal other—laboratory animal, pet, game: Bán rewrites tongue-in-cheek, in the style of a school reader, the experiment of sending up the dog Laika into space, while Zsuzsa Selyem has some of the bleakest episodes of Communist-era history retold by a host of detached, wry animal narrators. The most pervasive questions their fiction asks are: who wields language, from what position, to what end, claiming what prerogatives, and what voices are suppressed by their voiceover. This increased concern with ethical questions in writing is inevitably accompanied by a pervasive sense of unease and of darkening, behind which it is not difficult to see a response to the country’s slide into far-right authoritarianism, the hijacking of the institutions of democracy, and the quick evaporation of whatever hopes were built up in the nearly three decades since the regime change.
The (inevitably incomplete) selection of writers presented here can be framed in many ways—the most obvious would be that in a literary field still overwhelmingly dominated by a male canon, they are routinely hedged in as women writers, at a time when such distinctions ought to have been long superseded. Three of the six started writing in the 1990s, three in the 2010s; today they rank among the most critically acclaimed of the younger and midcareer generations of Hungarian writers. Two of them (Krisztina Tóth and Kinga Tóth) are primarily poets; two (Bán and Selyem) are academics and critics by profession; two come from a background in some other field of art (visual arts in the case of Krisztina Tóth, music in that of Edina Szvoren), while two also work with other media (Bán in film, whereas Kinga Tóth is a multimedia artist); two (Selyem and Krisztina Tóth) are also distinguished literary translators. Traffic between languages is a constitutive experience for nearly all of them: Bán was brought up between Brazil and Hungary; Selyem and Mán-Várhegyi come from multiethnic Transylvania, Romania; Krisztina Tóth spent a formative period of her life in Paris; Kinga Tóth writes and performs in both Hungarian and German. To differing degrees and in divergent forms, the writing of all of them reflects an interface between fiction and literary or cultural theories, between the language of literature and that of the other arts, a critical probing into various discourses, including that of the literary tradition, as well as a self-conscious harnessing of the ethical potential of literature. Finally, the preferred prose form of all six is short fiction, a compact form that still comes second in the symbolic hierarchy of genres.
Two of the stories presented here rewrite narratives or texts of cognitive and artistic mastery over women’s bodies. Zsófia Bán’s “Frau Röntgen’s Hand” scrutinizes the first X-ray image, of the hand of Röntgen’s wife, and writes around it a ghostly domestic narrative, showing an intimate codependence of the language of science and the absence of a language that could do justice to its object. Bán’s stories, located between essay, cultural theory, and prose narrative, stray far abroad in space and time and tend to revolve around still or moving images, performing on them a veritable archeology of knowledge and amnesia, showing how their ellipses speak about the silencings at work in cultural memory. Her approach is predominantly ironic and invariably undermines the authority of learning.
Zsuzsa Selyem’s “That Little Strip of Sunshine” rewrites one of the iconic poems of the recent past, by György Petri (first published in 1990, reproduced here in Owen Good’s translation), which, with its unflinching depiction of sexual abjection and liminal poverty, flew in the face of the aestheticized rhetoric and confessional mode of the Hungarian poetic tradition, while also holding up the cracked looking glass to the alleged humanism of Communist-era culture. Selyem’s story gives voice to the poem’s object, a decrepit homeless prostitute, exposing the limits and gaps of the dissident poet’s male-gendered, de-romanticizing poetics of cruelty. One of the leading experimental writers and critics of her generation, Selyem writes a taut, dialogic short prose that moves among various voices to shed painful light on the continuity and complicity of dominant discourses, including that of literary traditions, with the ongoing violence at the basis of putatively universalist humanism and anthropocentrism, whose ethics she recently summed up in an essay as "the cold indifference toward the other and inside me, smarmy self-pity.” Importantly, the story’s topography is suggestive of some of the most traumatic sites of Hungarian history: the town of Nagykálló was among the region’s prewar centers of Hasidic culture, while Városmajor Street housed the headquarters of the Arrow Cross militia.
Krisztina Tóth ranks among the best-known contemporary Hungarian writers, who works in both prose and poetry, including children’s books. The present story is taken from Pixel, a collection of loosely interconnected short stories corresponding to various bodily parts, which together amount to a necessarily incomplete, pixelated tableau, as well as a diagnosis of mentalities prevalent in Hungarian society. “The Tongue’s Story,” having at its core the organ of speech and of taste, recounts a failed encounter between people from different cultures—a group of refugees from the Greek civil war around 1950, and the inhabitants of a rural Hungarian area where these are taken for shelter. Tóth’s sparse, economic prose presents small vignettes of banality, beneath which lurks the symptomatology of a history never fully confronted, a choice bound to reproduce old biases at every step. Her mapping of contemporary Hungarian paralysis shows the inevitable interconnectedness of private and public self-delusions.
Edina Szvoren burst onto the Hungarian literary scene with a volume of short stories in which everyday banality, presented in a detached, bare prose, reveals an uncanny underside, the absurd and monstrous growing into banality itself: In one of her stories, living next door to the country’s best executioner is narrated with a Kafkaesque matter-of-factness. The texts reveal only gradually and at the cost of the reader’s painstaking detective work the past events and traumas that have produced the present situation’s derailment. The laconic story presented here, balancing uneasily between fiction and reality, shows a warped family encounter with a well-rehearsed set of silencings.
The last two authors of this selection are millenials whose writing practice reflects different sensibilities. Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s buoyant new realism tends to take up stereotypes that might have been cut out from lifestyle magazines and psychological counseling books, giving them an unexpected twist, as happens in the short story reproduced here, in which a grotesque dream becomes the basis of a married woman’s metamorphosis into the world’s greatest football player. Written with a wry gaze, these stories encapsulate whole life histories of an indomitable, clichéd search for happiness.
To complete the selection is a sample of Kinga Tóth’s short prose. A crossover artist and performer working in the medium of sound and visual poetry, illustration, and music, Tóth writes in both Hungarian and German. The texts from her first prose volume, Moonlight Faces (2017), accompanied by the artist’s illustrations, write the imprints of illness on bodies: the premise of these brief descriptions of the intimate experience of illness is that the human body is a machine, so that the incurable illnesses that populate these texts become part of the bodies’ clockwork routine.
These dissimilar, divergent texts can perhaps give a sense to an international audience of ongoing explorings, side alleys, tentative re-beginnings: of writing on the lookout for a literature that is wry, irreverent; vulnerable like the hedgehog crossing a highway in Derrida’s metaphor, and yet capable of withstanding the subjection of language; undisciplined, curious, multiple, playful, thorough; You before it is I.
© 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa. All rights reserved.
In this tale of fortune and fame by Réka Mán-Várhegyi, we learn it's never too late to upset the world of competitive sports. But at what personal cost?
One sweltering summer morning I wake up to find I’m Lionel Messi, the FC Barcelona player. The sun’s coming up, everything in the room is orange. My husband and I lie beside one another naked. I climb out of bed and stand in front of the mirror. I’m not shocked, even though his face is staring back at me. My sweaty brown hair is stuck to my forehead, I’ve got a receding chin and a pug-nose. For a minute, I look at myself with my little beady eyes, suspicious, but then, what can I do, I lie back down. I hope my husband will accept me like this, my last thought as I drift off.
The clock says eight when I come around again. My husband groans, he can’t take the heat. Me neither. We go naked to the kitchen and lie down on the cool kitchen tiles. That’s when I remember my experience at dawn. I turn to my husband, the first sentence I utter today is that I dreamed I was that soccer player, Messi, that he was staring back at me and smiling. This makes my husband happy. He feels like I’d dreamed something about him.
Later that day, in the early evening, we stroll to the city park. He’s playing soccer with his pals, I plan to sit on the edge of the pitch reading a book, glancing up every now and again and watching as he dashes about, as he winks at me when he scores a goal. That’s the usual routine. But now when I see the ball, it’s as though I’ve been bewitched, I can’t take my eyes off it. There’s no trying to get into my book, it doesn’t work, all I can think about is the ball. When one of the guys kicks the ball out, I spring up and run after it. In those seconds I imagine picking it up in my hands, I’m even a little worried whether or not I can throw it that far.
But when I catch it up, my feet do the work for me. With a foreign mastery my right foot controls it and my left boots it back. The ball soars in a perfect arc and there’s something elegant about it—I can’t believe it was me who did it. I look on, shocked, at which point my husband and his pals laugh. I’d put it back on the pitch from at least a hundred and fifty feet.
When I sit down beside my book, someone asks why I don’t come play. I shrug my shoulders, I’ve never played soccer, I’m scared I’ll get hurt. My husband gives a wave of his hand not to worry, they’ll go easy, it’s pretty relaxed, nobody here’s as sprightly as they used to be fifteen years ago, don’t worry.
“I promise I’ll pass,” sniggers one of his pals.
“Come on, a bit of running around will do you good,” says my husband.
So I put down my book and step onto the pitch.
From the very first minute the ball sticks to me. Soon I’m running rings around my own teammates on my way to the goal. The city park crowd has seldom seen goals like these. I’m honestly dancing with the ball, I tap it this way, I tap it that way, and it’s like I have complete peripheral vision, I’m passing backward. Nine out of ten shots go in. It’s unbelievable.
An hour later we pack it in. I feel like I could easily play on, but the boys are already dying for a beer. We laugh our heads off about the stuff I pulled off on the pitch.
“If you’d started ten years ago, you know where you’d be now?” sighs my husband. Soon he starts feeling sorry that I’m a woman. “If you’d been born a boy, you would’ve known at six years old what an incredible gift you have."
I’m scared that he’s wrong. Up until now, I’d never shown any sign of feeling for any sort of ball. I’ve always been clumsy and timid. Back in the day, school gym classes positively wore me out if we had to play basketball or volleyball. I found team games too fast and nerve-racking. I was kicked out of ballet class at sixteen, and from then on I was suspicious toward all forms of exercise. Ballet was the one thing I had any ability for, and even then it wasn’t enough.
Thank god that’s all in the past, I dealt with failure, I enjoyed university, and settled into public administration. I got married during university and I’ve been doing yoga for years to ready my body for pregnancy. I keep my body in perfect shape, time doesn’t bother me, or only a bit. I long for an air-conditioned, three-bedroom flat with a rooftop terrace, a spacious fitted wardrobe in the hallway, and a dishwasher in the kitchen, and I want a spine-friendly coir mattress.
“This whole soccer thing is obviously something you wanted on some level. Ask yourself why you didn’t dream you had a three-bedroom flat,” my best friend says and shrugs as we sit on a café terrace. We leave it at that.
The next day my husband persuades me to go out and have a kick around. When I get home from work I’m already tired as usual, but him I’ve never seen so enthusiastic. He wants to teach me tricks, but it turns out I already know them all. At home he shows me videos of the best goals in football history, and most of them I feel like I could do myself anytime. We soon get used to my newfound skills. We join others’ games too, and I realize that sometimes it’s better to hold back. Some people take it badly when I crush them. They get aggressive, they boot the ball at me or tell me to get back in the kitchen where I belong.
In the park it’s mostly boys playing on the pitches, there aren’t many girls. When I do meet those few, they tell me they’ve been coming for years and they practice a lot to teach themselves the moves that come so naturally for the boys. Boys have been doing it since they were kids, it’s no wonder the moves have soaked in. I only meet one girl who’s as good as the boys.
We’ve been kicking it about for an hour when she arrives. She’s short, wiry, bull-necked, her hair’s cut short and gelled back. She’s wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts, and black trainers. She expertly spits pumpkin seed shells as she sizes up the game. I’m standing goal, mostly out of sight. After a couple of minutes, she asks with a grin if she can join, after taking a few steps to warm up, she jogs onto the pitch. She’s not just talented, she’s smart, she looks around her while she’s dribbling for someone to pass to, she uses the wall to pass back to herself. She shoots a goal practically from the halfway line. Afterward she cracks her neck and punches the air. She looks like a boxer, too. It’s as though that’s the price for playing well. I feel bad for her, for her illusions, for her sad toughness, so I tie my laces, come out of goal, and show her what I can do. I avoid her gaze at the end of the game, but she comes over and introduces herself. She says I’m pretty good and invites me to come to the club where she plays, maybe they’ll let me in.
It never even crossed my mind to join a club, what a ridiculous idea! My husband persuades me, it seems he has a dream that I’ll be a professional soccer player. You’re crazy, I tell him, no way! The last thing I need after work is to go to practice! Before falling asleep that night, I think about fate, when I close my eyes, all I see is the ball.
After this things happen rapidly. I get accepted into the club, I go to practices and matches, I score a huge number of goals, and a few months later I realize I’m playing for the Hungarian women’s national team. After the Swedish Euros—where we get silver—well-known clubs want to buy me. That’s when I hand in my notice at work. The international press writes about me more and more, I’m considered a genius of my time, my technique is compared to Messi’s.
I’m signed by the Danish team Fortuna Hjørring. My husband and I move into a sunny house where the most amazing spine-friendly mattress is waiting for us. The following year my team wins the Champions League and the experts unanimously attribute the victory to me. They say I play twice as well as the best. That I play like a man. It might be because of this, but I start being attacked more and more, people try to expose me, like I was some sort of fraud. A student in Copenhagen writes a thesis about me. Soon the FIFA leadership is wondering what to make of my situation. In the end, they make a revolutionary decision: the division between men and women’s football disappears. An hour later I get a call from Real Madrid, and they imply they’d be willing to pay a large sum for me.
We’re in Spain by August. Woman plays Cristiano Ronaldo’s position, write the papers. I’m a bit nervous. I honestly don’t want to disappoint the Madrid fans. In my first match, which we play against a Valencia in very good shape, I turn two stunning setups into goals, but they’re playing at their best as well, by the end of the second half it’s two-two. Then in the ninety-third minute I score a beautiful free kick, the crowd goes wild, they cheer me like a hero. Even though the majority of my teammates are a few years younger than me, because of my short height and my youngish looks they treat me like everyone’s little sister. When someone scores a goal, I’m the one they put on their shoulders, whom they run around the pitch with, whom they toss in the air. The following February I dress up as a koala bear for a costume party, it turns out so well they immediately pick a koala to be the team mascot.
Regardless of every goal and win, it bothers a lot of people that despite being a woman I play for Real and earn almost as much as Cristiano did before me. FIFA receives a huge number of complaints, many would like experts to examine what sort of effect my presence at Real Madrid has on football. But thanks to some influential names, nothing comes of this. Adidas approaches me, then Gucci, to promote their shoes. That’s when the fashion industry discovers me. I work for the biggest brands. The only things I’m not willing to advertise are Louis Vuitton bags, I state this several times. When a reporter asks why, all I say is: they’re rank. It’s as though the fashion magazines are released from a decades-long burden, they’re so keen on those two words: they are rank, they write in massive letters about the mopey-brown Louis Vuitton bags. Elle names me Woman of the Decade.
Many are amazed, but my husband feels great in our new life. My parents and gossip magazines both predict that our relationship won’t be able to take the burden, all the attention I’m getting, but luckily they’re wrong. The truth is without him I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, never mind go onto the pitch. He’s not just my partner, he’s my manager, too. He sets up a charity in my name for children in the developing world, and after a while he’s making frequent visits to Africa as a UNICEF ambassador.
We play El Clásico against Barcelona and I meet Lionel Messi for the first time. I could have forgotten that dream ages ago, but it’s still clear in my memory. Now, looking at his nose or his chin, his neck or his hands, I feel as though they’re part of my body, they belong to me, I’m controlling them. The match kicks off, the two teams tear into one another and he scores a goal, then I score a goal. It’s impossible to say which of us is better, more unpredictable.
A couple of days later, we meet at a gala where I arrive dressed head to toe in Dior. We present awards and receive awards, we laugh in front of the cameras, but when they disappear, he doesn’t laugh, he just stares at me like a dog. I don’t get what he wants. Maybe he’s in love with me. I swear, I’ll crush him next time.
My husband comes home from one of his UNICEF tours, and I feel horrible seeing the photos with scrawny African children hugging his legs.
“I want to have children,” I burst out crying. “I always did!”
“We will,” my husband consoles me. “It’s just not time yet.”
“But I’m thirty-five!” I howl.
I have to go to practice, I’ve no time to take a break, but I’m not well. I cry, I scream, I swear to my husband, I’ll leave Madrid, I’ll leave everything and I’ll become a professional mom. Of course I can’t do that—after all, my contract in which I promised not to get pregnant doesn’t expire for a while.
We’ve no other choice than adoption. A few months pass and children arrive to our sunny home one after the other. I don’t want a rainbow family like Angelina Jolie, my kids are pale, sour-faced Eastern Europeans. Regardless, people compare our big brood to hers.
For a long time the Hungarian political elite don’t know what to make of me. An album about Hungarian football legends is published with government funding, but I don’t even get a mention. I’m not invited onto the Hungarian national team either, even though on several occasions I state that I’d be happy to join. A few journalists compare my situation to the legendary Ferenc Puskás’s.
I spend another three fantastic years at Real. During the last winter my game gets sloppy, the club hesitates to extend my contract and little birds are chirping about my retirement. They’re sorry I only got a few years. But what years they were! I reckon I’ve still got a bit of spark in me, but I admit that I really wasn’t convincing during the recent stretch. That’s when Manchester United approaches me and I tell them I’m tired but they insist, they say I just need a new challenge. They show me footage that they believe proves I’m in better shape than ever. That’s how I join United.
I play so well, the world has never seen such a second wind. It’s largely thanks to me that we win the Premier League and the Champions League, where in the semifinal we beat Real, but I don’t celebrate my goals against my former team.
I like living in England, initially I enjoy the cooler weather. We have a traditional house and a well-kept garden. By this point I have to commute in a bulletproof car, as do my family. I’m on the cover of the Sun at least once a week, millions follow my posts on the Internet. I’m forty years old, but I don’t even look twenty-eight. I’m asked to advertise anti-wrinkle creams, but I turn down the offers. I plan to write a book on natural beauty care. I’m a legend.
Everything has to come to an end sometime. It doesn’t show on the outside, but I can feel it. I say good-bye to MU and announce my retirement, but I get an irresistible offer from Saudi Arabia and I decide to play one last round. My husband and I joke that with the money I’m earning here I could pay off Hungary’s national debt. My children are school-aged and they study at home with a private tutor. I don’t want to send them to a local school, these Arabs are weird. I’m homesick for Europe, the game’s not enough anymore, I can’t take it for long. After two years I hang up my spikes.
Finished, done, it’s over.
It’s hard to be home. My mind is blank, I just lie about on the couch. There are countless things ahead of me, says my husband, I could be a coach, I could write an autobiography, I could design clothes. I could go back to public administration, I say, and at least that one makes us laugh.
We need to settle down somewhere, but it’s not easy with the fame. What sort of life are we going to live?
“I don’t want my kids to be little Paris Hiltons,” I say.
My husband sits down beside me, he takes my hand. He has to tell me something, he says. It strikes me that I’ve been waiting for this conversation for a long time. He had an affair with the nanny, he says, and tears come into his eyes. It’s OK, I say, I slept with the club manager, but it means nothing, it really means nothing.
“Let’s move home and live like we used to,” he says.
“I never got the Ballon d’Or,” I say.
“You can’t have everything, love,” he answers, “You can’t have everything.”
We look at one another.
"A csatárnő bal lába életveszélyes" © Réka Mán-Várhegyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.
In these short texts, Hungarian writer and visual artist Kinga Tóth writes about the distress wrought by the effects of illness on the body and the uncertainty of a cure.
Listen to Kinga Tóth read "Moonlight Faces" in the original Hungarian:
it’s always now, sitting in that room with the window. we have two types, they know what one of them will be, but they won’t say, the other is a secret, we will find out. (my pulse is ticking, i’m here, we’re here. the moonlight doesn’t show on my face, but don’t come any closer.) there are different diagnoses, they can be ordered by mood, like places of residence, two or more registered addresses, residing either there (at home) or somewhere between (unknown to the authorities). we think we are in control of the situation. things only rarely slip from our grasp, we learn to examine and to assess. to pay attention to medication, there are papers, when we believe them, we are ill, we are tired and do not want to work, we are ill, when we are angry, we are ill.
mariann has to, she’s told, she pulls it on over her pajamas, and asks in the snack bar if they’re showing, because then she’s not ladylike. wear it as long as possible, as long as your feet are all right, no stitches. i buy a velvet-buttoned miniskirt in the summer, when i'm fine, and some high-heeled sandals, i'm not even sick. but tights are a must, otherwise i catch a chill, wherever i sit, and that’s it. i buy paper toilet seats, there’s a ten-pack in my handbag, and hand sanitizer, paper tissues, so everything is safe, proper ladies are prepared, they hope for the best and are ready for the worst.
icicles pierced my eyes, icicles, police come and take blood. they cut your hair, constantly checking everything for you, this one wasn’t noticed. we broke one from the windowsill, it's like a vagina welder, cold, but it disappears.
the children in the movie say be brave like a lion. be strong, in the drawing the lion is the biggest, it overcomes all obstacles, its hair is huge too, that's its crown, my hair's big too. there are a lot in africa, my name means brave. there's a lion there too, a white one. but it's called kimba. anyway, you're brave too, you're the white lion.
TO THE END
it can end whenever, wherever. the course of the illness and the cure is unknown. there are various diagnoses, they can be ordered by mood. when feeling down, no improvement, healthy in the summer, warm and dry. after rain, the humidity, ill again. i am ill. the illness is me. the illness is writing this. i have a lot of time. i have little time. i am impatient. tricks, vitamins, tonics, products, cures, treatments, magicians.
writing reminders for myself, one on each tissue. drawing frowny faces above the messages, the rest of the paper i leave for beards. no gluten, no flour, no milk, a little cheese, bread none. no sugar, no cake, no pears and grapes, fruit juice only mornings. no preservatives, no conserves. no cans. no gas, no animal, no fat. so i’ll always see them and it’ll never cross my mind to break, because then there are consequences, then i have to face them again. for each rule a frowny face, the bathroom is full of nos, these are the new principles, this is the new life, where every rule is just a good intention.
© Kinga Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.
Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán rewrites the history of the X-ray in this short story that zeroes in on the domestic cost of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s journey toward discovery.
Listen to Zsófia Bán read "Frau Röntgen's Hand" in the original Hungarian:
Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm.
Oh God. The woman has vaporized. So thought Wilhelm bitterly. She does not obey the laws of physics. And the laws of physics, c’est moi. Ich.
The laws of physics obey me.
But Anna Bertha refuses to obey. When I look at her, her image slowly fades, then disappears. If I take hold of her, the flesh, the bone, all slip from my hands and evaporate. Whoosh. Anna Bertha—now you see her, now you don’t.
That would be my wife, my better half—fifty percent of me, in other words. I have no idea what fifty percent of me does for most of the day, or even where to find it. Is this not negligence? Am I not irresponsible? It eludes my attention like a slippery-scaled fish. Anna Bertha’s body is not slippery. Anna Bertha’s body is . . . well, let’s see. What, exactly? Anna Bertha’s body exists independently of me, lives its own life, observes, touches, holds, reads, eats, and licks the corner of its mouth, though the tongue darts out for a mere instant, like a lizard sucking in a bug, then vanishes back into that soft, moist, dark mouth that manages so to stick to a non-negligible area of my body (let’s say 98.9%) that it refutes all the laws of physics, and then my body knows no gravity, and in fact ceases to be altogether. Then I find myself floating in the universe without any boundaries at all, as if suspended in some thin liquid, all of me suddenly fluid, mingling without regard to contours or borders. Then this unified cosmic suspension suddenly yields to some primal seismic undulation, a slow, building, approaching swell, hurling down a vast mass whose substance, scope, and size I cannot fathom. Once its Herculean mass towers over me like a monstrous flood and shakes my every fiber, a big bang splitting me into my constituent elements and—still defying the laws of physics—I split apart and off into space, yet all the while, there is someone nearby, still in one piece, witness to it all. It is akin to experiencing my own death, a thing otherwise granted to no one, the sole experience that is ours alone, yet not part of our lives, ours though we cannot possess it, ours though always the property of someone else, the one who observes it, knows it, tells it, writes it down, who registers it, files it away.
Despite the sense of annihilation that Anna Bertha imparts with her soft, slick mouth and sticky, burning fingers something that is mine, so deeply mine, indeed mine beyond all measure, I must be on guard lest she suck me in and digest me into nothingness, which would be the end of any thinking on my part—now my every sinew is focused on when this something will all happen again, and again, and again, until the end of time, because next to this all else is nothing but a cooled, petrified, sooty lava flow that kills and buries all living things—and that is the end of science, nay, the end of all worldly knowledge, and Wilhelm, I said one morning to myself, since after, oh, I don’t know, hours of contemplation, I managed to somehow gather up and reconstitute all of my parts, now scattered all over the room, Wilhelm, you can’t afford to do that because you have taken an oath to science that no oath to any woman can annul.
It was on that cool October morning that I decided—without retracting the oath I had made to my woman—to do everything in my power to keep that feeling at bay in the future, but at that same moment I also realized that this would mean keeping Anna Bertha away, that we would be living together, yes, yet still somehow apart, in separate worlds, and if this meant that I would never have an heir, then so be it, because if I allowed this overwhelming radiation emanating from her to sweep me off, then I would be the master neither of myself nor of my wife, and would be expelled by the scientific community, left to scratch at the gate then slammed shut with a thud, like some dog tossed out on the street, forever bearing the stigma of the disparaging gaze of Professor Zehnder and his posse, meaning I would have no way to support my family, my wife, and myself, and must die sick and alone, nameless, penniless, without ever discovering the secret of this mysterious emission that moves from one body to the next before any touch, the secret nature of this penetrating, permeating force, or gaze rather, before which I stand like one whose flesh has been flayed from his body, my skeleton laid bare, shifting from one leg to another in the chill. This is it, this not-knowing is what truly rends me asunder, humiliating and destroying me, because wherever this radiation shows its power there must be some physical explanation for it that I have, alas, been thus far unable to divine, though we have been married twenty-two years and I have kept my distance (in the hope of an uncluttered perspective) for at least fifteen of those, but all the same it saddens me to say that any explanation of this radiation, or of its nature, has remained an X to me, that is, an unknown.
Now I must speak to her at once, conjure her up, even from below ground if necessary because—and I say this with great hesitation—our shared project of separation may finally have borne fruit: I have lately become aware of something in the laboratory, a sort of fluorescent presence appearing at the emission of cathode rays, leaving its image on a piece of cardboard, and then once, when I tried to capture it with any number of materials, to cage the rays as it were—O here do not forsake me, sweet Lord!—I think I recognized my own glowing skeleton in the projected image, though for the time being I shall keep mum about it, since if it proves to be nothing but my imagination playing tricks on me, my scientific reputation will surely be destroyed, together with the general assumption that I am sound of mind. Given that the origin or nature of this ray, or radiation, is yet unknown to me, I have simply marked it in my notebook with an X. The instant I jotted down this X, my legs gave out under me, the blood drained from my head, and I daresay I lost consciousness for a few minutes. I had discovered something that I can never describe in any scientific journal, indeed never so much as put on paper or discuss, without losing whatever remaining professional status I yet enjoy, given that the source of this X, this unknown radiation, is likely Anna Bertha herself, who over the years and by dint of assiduous effort has worked her way through the walls of the countless rooms of which our residence, hardly to be considered modest, consists, from the bedroom to the bath, from there to the salon, the guest rooms, the library, the music room, the kitchen, the laundry, the servants’ quarters, and then to the pantry, finally penetrating the furthest corner of the building, where I had set up my home laboratory and where, when I first became aware of this unknown ray in the earliest days of November of this year 1895, I shut myself up for weeks, and where Anna Bertha, as expected, eventually found me.
She must have sniffed out my trail, if she had had any use for her nose, since it seems that she used this radiation (X), from which I had spent the earliest years of our marriage seeking refuge, and the thought of which gave me not a single day or night of peace, left with no choice but to wonder when it would happen again, when the event I simultaneously desired and feared because it was not of this world, or at least of the world marked out for me, where it makes my flesh decay and drop from my body leaving nothing but a clanking tumulus of bones, so it was this fatal radiation, beyond the merest doubt, that found me in the laboratory, which if I had wished to be faithful to reality I would have named the Anna Bertha Ray, but for this, anyone even tangentially part of the scientific community would have expected a great belly-laugh at me, and my name to be permanently expunged from the Great Ledger of Science. And so it continued to bear the name of X in my notebooks (since at least the capital letter would make it resemble a name), but I still knew that I must get to the bottom of this matter, at least for my own sake, and there was no other way to do this than to investigate the supposed source, and by this I mean Anna Bertha, and for this I really must be quick, as Christmas is here in two days, and I am not allowed to work over the holidays, so let us make haste, the holidays are upon us like a real, final death.
By now Wilhelm knew what he must do. He knew that if he were to irradiate some part of Anna Bertha’s body, getting a look into his wife, such crafty subterfuge might allow him to seize that unknown something that had held him captive for five years, incapacitating him from all work, the something that now, suddenly, seemed on the verge of crowning his scientific career, assuming he would ever dare to publish his findings. Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm.
Willi isn’t here. This was Anna Bertha’s thought upon waking on the unusually cold morning of December 22, 1895. This was not so much a thought as a feeling she got from the cool vapor leaving her skin, the barren patch of empty space at her side, and the stark bewilderment that had slipped through the sheets’ pores. It was this same feeling that had repeated itself practically every morning for the past fifteen years. And each morning, to somehow rouse her cool body to life, to gather, from somewhere, the strength to rise from her bed and begin another seemingly endless day among countless others like it, overfull with errands to be done in the real world, yet still ultimately empty beyond measure, and now, summoning all of her imaginative power to focus on the moment when Willi’s body last intertwined with hers, when they last awoke like a fresh-baked loaf of braided bread, like two snails stuck together or fatefully fused twins, when they had taken possession of each other’s body like one walking the grounds of his leafy woodland estate, where every last bud and blade comes to life under the other’s gaze, at the other’s touch the juices begin to flow, where the other’s breath conjures up oxygen and warmth, the steam of morning and the afternoon’s buzz, and where all this was once conjured up by the sheer force of her imagination, now her hand that had always worn—even at night—her engagement ring from Willi and her wedding ring, reached for her lap, and then, with a slow, circling motion on that spot, that world of the past that had perhaps never been, but which must have existed because otherwise she would have been long dead, as this contained the invisible seed of her reality, kept her alive, indeed you could say this was her life itself, and when the first waves of her solitary pleasure came as she recalled their shared delight, she cried out his name, first quietly, then ever louder, that he should return, for her life was nothing but a fluorescing presence that quickly flickered out, and then she felt a kind of force, magnetic you could say, radiating from within herself, which she was certain would sooner or later find its mark. And for precisely this reason, as well as to get herself out of bed, she repeated this every morning, and every morning absolutely nothing happened, and by the time Anna Bertha had made her way to the kitchen, the servants were scurrying about with eyes lowered, having heard Anna Bertha’s cries, and the only one not to hear them was Willi, for whom they were intended.
But then one day, as time passed, on the morning of December 22, 1895, two days before Christmas, as Anna Bertha’s final scream still resonated in the air, her attention was caught by a voice, first far off, then closer, louder, and once it was only a few rooms off, she seemed to recognize the voice as Willi’s, calling out Anna Bertha’s name, and then the very figure of Willi himself burst into the room and breathlessly requested Anna Bertha to dress and come with him to the laboratory, the place that had always been off limits to Anna Bertha, and then Anna Bertha realized that this radiation had indeed found its mark, had brought her what she wanted: drawn Willi to her, and now it was Willi who was about to lead her into a secret corner of his life never seen by her, and while Anna Bertha, her heart pounding, scurried into her clothes, she knew now that this Christmas would be very different from the others, and somehow even felt, though at a loss to explain it, this Christmas would be memorable, not just for her and Willi, but for the entire world, and so as they reached the laboratory, where Willi hurriedly directed her in and shut the door behind him, with a solemn expression, Anna Bertha was as animated as if Jesus himself were preparing to be reborn that Christmas, right there in their house in Würzburg, and certainly there was something of the incomparable sense of rebirth when Willy took Anna Bertha’s ringed hand saying, in a quavering voice, May I have your hand, which Anna Bertha took to mean in marriage and thus explained why he was squeezing it, adorned with the rings she had received from him, and then Willi placed her hand on some kind of plate, then messed about with his instruments, and then, pale as death itself, informed her that it was done. The picture was done.
What kind of picture, asked Anna Bertha, at which Willi showed Anna Bertha the first image created with X-Rays (actually Anna Bertha Rays), showing the skeletal outline of Anna Bertha’s hand, stripped of its flesh, but all the more highlighting the engagement and wedding rings that tied them, Willi and Anna Bertha, together.
Seeing the picture Anna Bertha cried out, I have seen my own death!, but even this did not concern her at the moment since Willy, his joy infinite, threw his arms about her, and his hot tobacco breath filled Anna Bertha with such happiness that she wouldn’t have minded if she had truly collapsed dead on the cold floor of the laboratory. Then Willi, sensing the familiar, suffocating effects of the Anna Bertha Ray, but before it had weakened him beyond all help, quickly grabbed a pen and in his flowing, spiral cursive, wrote across the top margin of the picture: Hand mit Ringen, 1895.
The rest is X.
"Frau Röntgen keze" © Zsófia Bán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.
An arduous journey of Greek migrants leads to an absurd culinary miscommunication in this story by Hungarian author Krisztina Tóth.
Listen to Krisztina Tóth read "The Tongue's Story" in the original Hungarian:
Dimitrios hadn’t said a single word for the entire journey. He held the enormous pack between his legs and slept with his eyes open. His wife and two children had remained at home with family, but Dimitrios had been promised that they’d be brought later within a month. Nakis, who was dozing beside him, had no family of his own yet, though he’d gone twenty-five. He’d left his three sisters and his old parents in Kastoria. All together, there were eight of them sitting on the back of the truck, they’d crossed the border in four black trucks, then the trucks lost one another again. There were no children on any of them, they’d said farewell to the little ones two weeks earlier, back at Lake Prespa.
They were dirty, lice-ridden, sweaty, their packs filthy from the long journey. Their food had run out, they had to ration their tobacco. By night they tried to sleep, by day they watched the fields. The land wasn’t bad, the corn grew tall and there was good yield on the grapes.
During the last couple of days the rain had started up, it pattered endlessly on the canvas. The canvas protected them to some extent, but their clothes were soaked through. Nakis turned his coat inside out and picked the lice out of the creases in the fabric. Old Mihalis watched and shook his head as though he were absorbing the rhythm of the Tatra pickup.
After the rain came a fierce stifling heat, the drying clothes and steaming bodies began to reek on the truck bed. They were approaching their unknown destination. The sly sun caught them from one side, they jerked wildly at each bend. Everyone’s head had grown drowsy with hunger, lack of sleep, and exhaust fumes.
It was around midday when they pulled into the main square of a small town. They passed by strange signs in an unfamiliar language. The Greek men looked at the butcher’s, they saw the tall, baroque church and the completely identical-seeming, impassive women. The locals crossing the square stopped in their tracks, sizing up the Czechoslovak truck with suspicion: it was the third that day. Exhausted men blinked from behind the canvas, nobody had given them any sign they ought to get off.
Eventually a man in a green jacket appeared and loudly conferred for some time with the driver. Neither of them spoke Russian well, so the conversation was supplemented with gestures and volume. They came round the side of the steaming truck and waved, Come on, let’s go, everybody off.
The passengers clambered down, stood with their packs, then set off uncertainly after the man in the green coat. They crossed the square, passed the women watching from the shop window, and were herded into a gravel courtyard. A dog at the back barked wildly at the newcomers, until a gangly teenager coming out of the stairwell shouted it down. From then on it just whined in defeat. It was a mystery as to what the mongrel was doing in a schoolyard and where the actual schoolchildren were. And anyone for that matter, the whole town seemed dead, while the dawdling residents seemed so confused it was as though they weren’t even from there.
“What day’s it today?” Joannis asked suddenly.
“Wednesday. Wednesday noon,” answered Marku, who hadn’t opened his mouth for days but had kept watch with knitted brow, ready to leap. He counted the days, counted the border-crossings, then moving his lips he counted the cornfields and the remaining tobacco. In his head he counted how many cousins he had, including those who’d died as children.
“It’s Wednesday noon,” he repeated somberly.
Nakis ran back to the gate, he wanted to see whether the truck had left or not, but the man in the puffer jacket shouted, ordering him to go back to the rest. They left their packs in the yard and filed into a gym hall. There were Greeks lying everywhere on the floor, mostly strangers. Mihalis recognized a man with a gray beard who was from their area and was even older than he was. He was called Zeys, he’d arrived that morning. He said they hadn’t been able to wash yet, but they’d been given water, and he wasn’t sure whether they could stay or if they’d have to keep traveling. Most of them tried to get settled so that they’d be comfortable for the night, but soon a narrow-eyed man came in and started speaking to them in Hungarian. The parka had disappeared.
Nobody could understand what he wanted, they listened to the forty-something, broad-faced fellow completely at a loss. His voice was a shade firm, but the starved travelers couldn’t hear the veiled confusion, all they could hear was the irritation. He spoke at them for a long time in a clipped tone, then pointed for them to stand in a line. They got to their feet from their various spots, thinking to themselves, Good, now the newcomers will get their water, the whole group was standing.
The man led them through to a long concrete hall whose wall was painted with schoolgirls dancing in skirts and happy peasants at work in the fields. In the middle stood long wooden tables pushed together into one long row but with nothing on them.
They sat on the benches and took off their caps.
Then nothing happened. They sat, holding their caps, glancing now and again toward the kitchen. At times an alarmed woman in a white apron peeked out from behind the frosted glass but never came out. When they’d been sitting like that for maybe thirty minutes and there still wasn’t any water, Marku stood up and made for the door. His manner wasn’t threatening, but Dimitrios grabbed his arm and looked him in the eyes. Marku took his seat in silence, everyone gazed at the door.
Soon a short, freckled woman appeared and set out plastic pitchers of some red liquid all along the table. She didn’t return with any glasses. Mihalis dipped the tip of his tongue into it and said something. The murmur ran quietly along the two rows of men:
Then the glasses arrived and they awkwardly sipped on the sugary fruit juice.
It was weak and tasted odd, but it did provide some relief for their thirst. Many added water from the sink on the wall. Another painful fifteen minutes went by, then a woman in a headscarf appeared and slammed down plastic plates and forks along the table. She didn’t look up, she didn’t speak to anyone, if there was no space she set the cutlery in the middle with the napkin. Soon after, the freckled lady appeared again with a kitchen hand, a stout older woman; they shuffled out with an enormous aluminium pot between them. And then another. The two pots were set at opposite ends of the table.
The men began to stir, waiting for their portion. But the two women didn’t serve them, they went back behind the white door and waited to see what the guests would do from there. The guests waited a while, then Nakis got up and looked into the pots.
Two men dished it out at either end. First to the older men, then to the rest, one by one.
They were about to dig in when once again the bony woman in a headscarf who’d brought the plates appeared. In each hand she held a heaped bowl, she banged them down at opposite ends of the table and then clomped out again. She wore clogs and white socks like a nurse. In the bowls were mounds of gray dust, there was no way of telling what for.
A few started eating the pasta, others were waiting for the meat. Nakis examined the bowl. He sprinkled a little dust between his fingers.
“Must have to wash up with that after,” said Marku.
At the other end Dimitrios leaned over the bowl and gave it a whiff.
“Dirt,” he assured them sternly.
Joannis had almost wolfed down all his pasta when the freckled woman and the one in the headscarf came out. The freckled one marked time with a red face, while the taller one raised her voice and started giving orders in a foreign, rapid tongue as though she were cross. She pointed at the bowls and repeated a single incomprehensible word, then made broad gestures with one arm, as though she meant to clear the guests out. The men listened confused, looking to one another, at a loss. The woman shook her head, then moved suddenly and before they could cover their plates with their hands, she began soiling their pasta with the dust. On the other side the freckled one did the same, soon they had done it to them all. They glanced back as though they’d completed their order, then withdrew again. For a few seconds there was silence, then Dimitrios spoke:
“They’ve covered it in dirt!”
“They’ve covered it in dirt, so we can’t eat it,” the word spread along the table.
Marku slammed down his fork, staring ahead furiously, while the others gaped at their food disappointedly.
“They don’t want us here,” declared Joannis. “It’s because we don’t speak their language. That’s why they’re defiling our food.”
Dimitrios was so hungry he would have eaten the pasta, dirt and all, but he restrained himself and waited to see what the others would decide upon.
“We should stand up and leave!” Nakis slapped his cap on the table.
Support for the idea wasn’t unanimous, they hadn’t seen hot food for days.
Eventually the old man Zeys stood up, took his plate, and in a dignified manner, with his head held high, started over to the wall. Everyone thought he was going to pour it all out or simply bring it back to the women.
But no. He stopped at the enamel sink on the wall, and covering the plate with his big, wrinkled hands, he started washing the pasta. The black dirt was rinsed away and soon only the wet pasta was left. With that, the rest of the Greek men stood up and made their way single-file toward the faucet to wash their food. The dinner ladies whispered as they watched, nobody dared step forward.
The Greek men ate, then discussed. As their hunger abated, their bitterness grew. They stood up and filed through to the gym hall in solemn silence. By the time the lad in the green parka had arrived, they were already lined up in the yard, threatening, kitted up. One of the fat dinner ladies dashed out, dragged the lad in the jacket inside, and showed him in alarm the sink in the dining hall.
The sink was full of stray pasta pieces, while the drain, as though it were full of greasy ash, was completely clogged with sweet, ground poppy seed.
"Tizenharmadik fejezet, avagy a nyelv története" © 2016 by Krisztina Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.
Listen to Zsuzsa Selyem read "That Little Strip of Sunshine" in the original Hungarian
Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Selyem’s short story rewrites an iconic poem by György Petri in this tale of sexual abjection and poverty.
I ordered a rum and beer. When he walked in, I felt I would melt into the sky. Good God, what I must look like. I’d long given up the thought of ever seeing him again. He left me ages ago. Impossible to count the years. For me there are no years, months, days anymore, I’ve given up on myself. Seasons I still keep track of, or maybe just guess at. In the summer I’m hot in all these rags, in winter I’m cold, spring and fall are the same. He was a nice boy, loved me like no one ever did. They’re all dead now, Mother, Father, everyone. All my relatives. My little brother and I were taken off to Auntie Mari’s. There it turned out that we were Jews and if anyone found out they’d kill us.
I was thirteen when I found out. I wanted to kill myself, but who’d have taken care of my brother? He wasn’t even seven. Auntie Mari died too, her heart gave out. We were put in state care, Áronka screamed and kicked like hell, but we got separated all the same. Haven’t seen him since. In the institute they beat me for everything, fight or obey, it made no difference. Take that, you stupid Jewish bitch, and with that they got down to business. Somehow I got hold of a razorblade and slashed my veins, but there was nowhere to hide with informers all over the place. They dragged me off before I was completely out. At the hospital they never stopped screaming at me, Don’t cut across, stupid, the nurse hissed, Cut lengthwise, so next time I cut lengthwise and she was right, I almost did it, they pumped an IV into me for days while I was far away, out beyond the dim, scattered lights, beyond the thundering voices, beyond the strip of sunshine beating down on the bathroom floor mired in my blood. I heard Áronka pleading, but something drew me on toward our house in Nagykálló, Buksi wagging his tail, Cili looking at me through the slits in her green eyes, the hens toddling in the yard and me in the middle, Mother is laughing and I don’t know why the fuck they took me back to the hospital bed. I looked around, the informers were all asleep. Outside only darkness. Run, I thought, which was easier said than done, as I could barely lift myself off the bed and the moment I got on my feet I felt dizzy. No, Teri, no falling back, I reminded myself of the instructor who would cover my mouth with his palm and schlep me out of bed by my hair every other week when he was on the night shift. This gave me the strength to bumble out of the ward, carefully down the corridor, down the stairs, out onto Városmajor Street. There was a park across the way. I plopped down on the first bench I saw and looked up through the branches at the dark sky. My entire body was trembling. This is what my life had become.
He smiled and raised a thick eyebrow and his thin shoulders in disbelief then turned to the barman. A rum and beer for the lady, and a vodka over here.
Was I confusing him for someone else? I didn’t dare ask him, You’re János Hell aren’t you? My heart was thumping like crazy, I could hardly breathe. I wasn’t really afraid to ask, but for some reason I didn’t want to do it right away. Besides, what would be the point of talking? I’d sooner have just hugged him on the spot, burying my head in his neck. Then he would have recognized me for sure.
I gulped down the sticky drink, which hit me immediately. He tossed back his vodka. We sat side by side, he facing slightly outward. Just like in the old days. My goodness, I wouldn’t have guessed he’d still be alive, or that I would for that matter. But back then I didn’t shake when I drank, this I learned quickly enough. Also that you have to pay for it. At first, of course, I would be bought rounds just like that, by the others. I used to be their little Teri, up until Kacor tried to mount me and I started screaming. With this I’d broken something, I now realize. Stupid cow, do you want to bring on the cops, this was the mildest I got, so I cleared out. Hit the road if you’re so squeamish, they’d shouted after me and laughed, Prince Charming is waiting!
At night I’d sit in a pub as long as I could. Sometimes they paid me in advance, sometimes afterward, it no longer hurt, I wasn’t afraid, I felt nothing, only the comforting warmth of alcohol. I slept through the day most of the time on some bench until I was chased off. This is how Hell found me. I can’t remember it all exactly, but I woke up feeling my head was in someone’s lap. I looked up, squinting at the sun in my eyes, and just above me a dark pair of eyes glistened at me from a much greater height than I expected, like the eyes of someone who understands everything. Hello, I said, but he didn’t answer. What’s the matter, you deaf, I growled and wanted to jump up, for who knows what crank I’d come across this time, but he elbowed me back down and asked my name. And how I got there. What had happened with my parents. With my little brother. The instructor.
By the time I’d answered all his questions I recognized him: János Hell. His parents were alive, pushing on, groveling their way up, harassing one another, and Jancsi until he fled from home. They’d never tell the truth, not even by accident. He has a few buddies who can take him in, and if not it’s no tragedy, he’ll take on some temporary job and get a bunk at the workers’ dorm, he’s planning to get his certificate from night school and apply to study philosophy, because he wants to understand what he’s landed in, so he said, and all the while he was stroking my hair, my face, darkness fell and he invited me to his place because he happened to have a place to stay, I went. He made tea with rum. We sat smoking, ringed by the walls covered with books. At a certain point I thought I heard Mother laughing, but it was only me.
“You getting me something?” I asked once I gathered the strength to use my voice. A hoarse one at that, it’d been a long time since I last spoke to anyone. He didn’t recognize me. But then I didn’t recognize anything either anymore. When we were together my body had been supple, I was nimble, and he said I was hot, not that I cared much, but the way he said it, with a wink, made me feel immortal, or how to put it. So there came a moment when I didn’t want to die.
Jancsi Hell or not, he wasn’t very talkative either. “I’ll go with you for a twenty,” I heard myself say. Nothing extraordinary, after all, I long ago learned not to be picky. When there’s no money, you must make some somehow. But right there I was more inclined to think, what you cannot speak about you must pass over in silence. Or, if all there is is nothing, you must drink. Whatever. The rum and beer threw open the gates: Come on, I want to, I’d really love to, the words poured out of me once I saw it was not him but a stranger. In a second he’ll stand up and leave without paying, or hit me. But if he ends up coming with me he’ll recognize me for sure.
As soon as we got out into Frankel Leó Street I snuggled up to him and he put his arm around me. I had waited in the park for days, weeks, months on end for him to return, I scribbled notes for him in the dust, on the leaves. Only in my head, of course. If I needed a drink, and I did because I was all shaky and afraid, I took a turn on Rákóczi Square, but had to drink even more afterward, and of course I ended up with the girls Sunka was running. He needed the money for poker. He’d beat me up, though he used to be a ward of the state too. When the drinking got him in a sentimental mood he’d tearfully recount how he was beaten and raped by the instructor. A different one, but the system was the same. Then, after a couple more of rums, he’d start yelling and slapping me around, saying that I was lying to him and hiding the money, though he was the one who scraped me up out of the dirt. I was covered in bruises, my face swollen, and one time he even knocked out two of my teeth. One drink and I felt nothing. I wonder what happened to you in the meantime, did they lock you up, did they put you in a lunatic asylum or did they just beat you up? But then you would surely have come back, I’d been waiting for you on that bench. Perhaps you had someone who was not such a repulsive wreck as me and you returned to her, but why did you wake me up then, why don’t you speak to me, and why did you tell me I was hot, why are you hugging me so unwillingly, why did you make me believe for a moment that I. Never mind, it’s almost morning, my den’s in this basement.
Sometimes he wouldn’t say a word to me for days on end, I didn’t undress, dark objects floated about in the early morning semi-dimness. Who do you think you are, I shouted at him, I pushed my trousers down, the felt of matted wadding rustled. He said nothing, which made me even more furious, this is how I do it when I screw in a park, the strip of sunshine beating down on the blood kept haunting me, chopping my heart into pebbles. At least the others didn’t deceive me. They might have hated me or tried to put me down, but they never told me I love you, Teri, I screeched, and he calmly took off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. You’re filthier than the floor, screamed the objects around me. Well now, lyric self, do you look down on me like I couldn’t hold my own at this, or at anything ever anywhere? Kiss me, I asked him, hoping that with this I could shut up the yawning dark objects for good. In the old days, though, and now the flood of boneworn words burst from my mouth, his saliva soothed my bruised tastebuds, knives, chainsaws, gadgets with razorblades started toward me to cut me to bits. You’ve never loved me, I muttered, gathering my strength for the next assault, and he laughed. Grinning, the blades drew closer. There’s no love, János, you only invented it to feel superior, I snarled at him, he was laughing and his tears poured onto my face. I tried to concentrate on how hard I wanted him, but the dark objects were sucking me up, in all directions, to bits. He jerked as if gutpunched, margarine helps on such occasions, I thought mercilessly, I scrunched up into my cunt and sucked the boy in, and the objects went on whining but didn’t get me. He gave me the same look he had on that bench, his bony hip ramming against my thigh, and a darkness so thick descended on us that the object-demons couldn’t find me. At that same moment I understood he was about to leave. I cringed for him to stay, but I couldn’t find words anymore, can I wash myself off somewhere, he asked, and the searchlights scanned the basement. I didn’t say forgive me, the water spurt out and soaked his trousers through, the sharp lights cut me to bits.
He wanted to leave me the fifty. You’re an idiot, I tried to clamber back into the reasonable world. If I could give change for a fifty I wouldn’t need your twenty, I said, but the spirit was already pouring out of me.
He went up the broken steps like a self-possessed god. He didn’t look back. It was dawn, summer. Before the universe took me in, before I got mixed into all the raw, useless, rotting matter, I caught a dim glimpse of him stepping across that little strip of sunshine.
"Az a napverte sáv" © Zsuzsa Selyem. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa and Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming
By György Petri (1943–2000)
Translated from the Hungarian by Owen Good
It started as a routine summer night.
I wandered from pub to pub.
Perhaps I was drinking at The Polythene,
a booth beside the station at Margit Bridge
(or had it been demolished already?). I don't know,
maybe I was on Boráros Square.
This wandering would always
last until the morning or go on another day,
and led me anywhere.
In any case, I was sitting somewhere, drinking.
(Back then I drank anything—the sampling of youth.)
I didn't read in pubs yet,
no no, I didn't bury myself
in books and papers or gawk at the tabletop.
I wasn’t irritated when someone spoke to me.
"You getting me something?" asked the smoke-etched
voice of a woman behind me. A young voice.
"Go on then." I said turning. Fifty
she was perhaps, standing behind me. Matted,
crusty, once light-brown hair;
gums collapsing in, chapped lips, bloodshot
whites, aquamarine eyes,1
a yellowed, white synthetic sweater,
brown trousers, white sandals lifted from a bin.
She ordered a cheap rum and a small beer. I did not dispute her taste.
"I'll go with you for a twenty," she said. This surprised me.
The price—as prices go—was absurdly low (even then).
I knew the rate of the District. Twenty forints was no price.
Besides the woman would not have held her own
on Rákóczi Square, or any square for that matter.
If she was keen, the sensible thing would have been for her to pay.
But much more. And she was keen. "Come on,
I want to," she said "I'd really love to."
I never could hurt a woman in her womanhood
(unless it was my express intention).
But this . . . ! I went; I felt I had no choice.
Why, I was restless and muddled
like stirred-up sludge back then, and
only in these Espresso bars and Bistros
could I feel the slightest false superiority
among the true, miserable victims of hardship and homelessness.
She pulled me along a lengthy street, snuggling up.
Awkward, but a true part of contrition. I put my arm around her,
and we landed in a basement, countless steps
led downward, lit by some unexplained half-light.
The bed. A clawed-up felt strip of matted wadding.
She didn't undress, just undid herself and pushed her trousers down.
"This is how I do it when I screw in the park."
she said quite casually. I did not object,
I, too, only undid what was necessary,
and dropped my jacket—I'd rather it dirty than crumpled.
"Kiss me." Well. I guess that's unavoidable.
Her mouth smelled stale, her lips were scaly, her tongue,
the roof of her mouth dry, like an empty sardine tin,
my tongue prodding around inside—the sharp edge drawing blood any second.
I was terrified I'd presently throw up in her mouth,
yet at the thought I felt the urge to laugh,
my tears poured on to her rough skin, while
I got the better of my esophagus. Between her legs
it was tight and dry. It hardly relaxed or grew moist.
"Hang on," she said, and gouged her fingers
into some half-eaten margarine, massaging it into herself,
then took some more.
Is she going to EAT from that?
"Can I wash myself off somewhere?" I asked later.
She pointed to a pipe-end. The water spurt out and pure
soaked my trousers through, as though I had pissed myself.
"I suppose that's part of it too," I muttered. A fifty
was all I had. She shook her head, "I said a
twenty, but it's not a price. It was me who wanted to. The twenty,
I just need one is all." "So give me change," I said,
"you see, I don't have a twenty." "You're an idiot,"
she said, "If I could give change for a fifty
I wouldn't need the twenty." A reasonable point.
And the next second she’s asleep mouth =agape.
I shrugged (well if you're so proud),
I stuffed the fifty in my pocket, found my jacket,
then groped my way up the steps.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming,
to emerge, clothes of beige and shirt all-white shining,
on up these broken steps toward some purity,
to where wind blows and white foam spatters,
grimly absolving, coldly threatening,
stairs of nausea, unremitting downward ascent,
a summer dawn, nineteen sixty-one.
1. Rubbish. You have aquamarine eyes.
The woman? What do I know.
Like copper sulphate in a trough of water?
I just want to offer that poor creature something,
perhaps, your eye color and a rare word,
so she wouldn’t be such a repulsive wreck,
and myself somewhat more understandable
In this short story by Hungarian author Edina Szvoren, a young writer’s troubled relationship with her parents is told through the everyday objects their struggles imbue with weight and new meaning.
My face today is Gothic. I twirl a turquoise bracelet around my fingers. My Brigitte Bardot glasses, their lenses translucent, create the effect of swollen cheekbones. The grease spots on them are weeks old, months. When I wipe them off, my head aches from their absence. My gray incisors are a pile of roof tiles. I turn from the café mirror and, scissoring my legs, lift the empty chair opposite me, again and again, until I wear out. I put up my feet. A waiter sizes me up from behind a raised shoulder. There are amorphous white spots on my nails. You could, or should, tell the future from them. Take the ring finger, for example: my son’s life. (He won a recitation contest with an Ágnes Nemes Nagy poem.) The index finger is my literary career, and the middle one is the school principal who is sweet on me. I look up. Here comes Mother and her burning bones, like someone battered daily. But, in fact, she’s only proud.
A tall woman, exuding the smell of pomade, she sits down. Like one with sea legs, she can only lean, not bend over. Her hair quivers in strong but flexible curlicues as she shakes her head in disapproval. She props her bag against the chair leg; its long shoulder straps remain upright, stiff in the air, imperiously, for several minutes. Her shoes, as is her way, form part of the Mercedes logo under the table. The shoes are a gift from Papa. The Indian bag: a gift from Papa. Her gold-plated eyeglass chain: a gift from Papa. My mother and I have met in cafés ever since Papa disowned me for one of my writings.
A hard-breasted case officer for the National Health, she carried me in her womb for nine months. Now she pulls out her yellow plastic case, sixteen years old, a cloverleaf pattern embossed on its lower left corner. She offers me her open palm with a selection of pens. Her skin glows hot, but her promo pens are cold. (Back in the day, thermometers would freeze in her armpits.) She’s got a political pen, one with cholesterol, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses. I pick one out and tighten my upper lip over my teeth. My mother slides the lottery ticket over to me and taps on Papa’s numbers with a bent index finger. Her bones are like the steel inserts in work boots. Seventeen and eleven. I’ve been taking part in this nonsense for sixteen years now. I only get paid if it’s a winner. So I take Mother’s pen (cholesterol) and mark my X’s in the second square, far from Papa’s. Twenty-six and twenty-eight. Me, I have no regular numbers. Papa always goes first, then me, and my mother last, since she’s happy with one sole X. I look at the lotto ticket, and swing my legs. The plastic tips on my laces clack together. Papa’s scratchy two X’s protrude from the box; my mother’s looks like a twirled mustache. Your grandson, I say. Just to get us talking. (My parents know more about the Qahatika Indians than about my son.) He’s won a recitation contest; it’s on YouTube. My mother holds her waist erect like a first violinist in the orchestra. Her response: Like you at that age. Well, of course, at that age I was building trains on the bed out of father’s size 10 shoes, stuffing them full of plush rabbits and dogs, the passengers. If I can’t remember the trains, I can’t be the same person (working name).
Mother, whose regular number is eighty, signals for the check and leaves. She pays even if we win. It would never occur to me to push the matter. I’m perfectly satisfied that we’ve managed, over sixteen years, two three-number winners and six pairs, perhaps seven. My mother, out of the blue, slides an official bank envelope over to my cup, her stare a windowsill, polished to a mirror finish. Last week we hit a Pick Three. You can finally have your teeth done, she remarks, every inch a moral creature. (I like to avoid mentioning the fact that light-year is her favorite word.) She swings her Indian bag up over her shoulder and goes, always moving toward something better, more expansive, like undersea methane bubbles breaking out of ice-prison.
Today my face is Gothic, my calves Romanesque. I push my sunglasses up onto my brow and take a look in the envelope. I riffle through the banknotes. Must be more than nine hundred thousand forints. I pull my lips taut over my teeth, and make a little pucker. The waiters whisper behind a shield of nickel trays. My purse sits in the middle of the round marble table, its zipper teeth broken off in spots. Its mouth has a twisted—human—smile. The drinks menu has a crumple in it, the trace of my mother’s hand. Her will presses the shapes of ancient ferns into stone.
"Munkanéven ember" © Edina Szvoren. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.
The Emissary, a slim and bitingly smart dystopia from Japanese writer Yoko Tawada, takes its readers in a distressing incursion into the future, but begins by pointing back to a book published more than half a century ago: Kenzaburō Ōe’s A Personal Matter. Ōe’s story of a young man abandoning his severely disabled newborn child is a classic of modern Japanese literature and helped earn Ōe the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. In Tawada’s novel, the unfortunate infant of Ōe’s story has grown up into a happy, albeit highly diseased child named Mumei, who is the picture of innocence and bearer of his father’s sins. He has a large head on a tiny neck, like a baby bird, and his legs turn inward below the knees. He can digest only a few foods and frequently falls into faints and dissociative trances. When overexcited, he will throw his hands up in the air and shout, “Paradise!”
Mumei lives with his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, who is condemned to grow stronger day by day while his great-grandson grows weaker. Yoshiro takes care of Mumei, wheeling him around in a cart like a spaceship with padded sides, feeding him delicate mush, and telling him stories about the old Japan, when people still wrote out all the characters, and read the news, and planned trips abroad, and so on. Alternating between these two halves of the pair throughout the book, Tawada builds a play of contrasts between their perspectives, bringing out generational and stylistic differences in their voices.
The Emissary takes place in a Japan that has once again closed its borders to the outside world. No specific disaster or timeline is mentioned, but a nuclear fallout seems likely. The outskirts of Japan—Hokkaido, Kyuushuu, and Osaka—have become the most desirable places to live, while Tokyo is increasingly abandoned due to its radioactive soil and unattractive architecture.
As is often the case with dystopias, Tawada’s grim rendering of the future reads as a satire of current tendencies of the society it depicts. For example, nearly all the important positions in Tawada’s Japan are staffed by the elderly, who become all the more spry and capable as they age past ninety, and then 100, and then 110, reflecting the trend in contemporary Japan to an older and older working population. (According to a recent estimate by the Japanese government, people over the age of sixty-five will account for sixty percent of Japan’s population by 2060.) A town in Okinawa prohibits people younger than fifty-five from moving there in order to prevent population growth, so young men and women dye their hair and wrinkle their skin in an effort to look older, only to betray their youth by failing to identify trends we would associate with the youth of modern Japan—knowing English, for example, or understanding technology. A certain amount of political doublespeak is also mocked, with “Labor Day”, for instance, becoming “Being Alive is Enough Day.”
But there is a darker side still to Tawada’s fictional portrait of Japan. Unfortunately, the idea that Japan may once again close its borders is no less reflective of contemporary attitudes than the idea of an octogenarian working class. Although Tawada finished the novel in 2014, before surges of populism were to spread through the United States, France, Britain, and elsewhere, by that time Japan was already experiencing its own quiet form of renewed nationalism in the policies of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. While not exactly isolationist, many items on Abe’s agenda emphasize a more patriotic view of Japan’s role in World War II. When coupled with heightened militarization, as well as a more aggressive approach to disputes in the East China Sea, these had the effect of producing strong objections in favor of a return to pre-war policies of noninvolvement. As Yoshiro explains to Mumei in the novel: “Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself.”
Contrasted against the indicting societal critique in The Emissary is the warm relationship between Yoshiro and Mumei, as well as the elegant and often poetic language used to describe Japan’s future. Like the fish-creatures of Vonnegut’s Galápagos, the citizens of Tawada’s Japan are described obliquely, their faintly suggested features blooming wildly in the reader’s mind. Children with “eyes like grapes moist with dew” sit eagerly on a classroom floor, waiting for words from their teacher about the outside world. Yoshiro sees Mumei’s teeth “drop out one after another like pomegranate pulp, leaving his mouth smeared with blood.” Of everything, the character that prompts the most speculation is Mumei: given only hints about his physical appearance, we construct a vision of him according to whatever fragments we may have in our mind of nuclear fallout, apocalyptic disfigurement, or human disabilities. (While the Japanese edition features a lovely watercolor of a birdlike creature on its cover, the New Directions design is slightly more abstract: a child teetering on the edge of a fruit.)
The emphasis on language in this work is not a coincidence. As an expatriate writer living in Berlin, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese, often in ways that reflect a deep awareness of the differing constraints of each language and alphabet. The Japanese title of The Emissary refers to the traditional name used for Japanese emissaries to China, and accordingly the idea that young Mumei may someday become an emissary to the world outside Japan. (If you are a highly optimistic reader, then this is exactly what happens to Mumei; otherwise you may find yourself reflecting on more abstract applications of the term.) However, Tawada uses different characters to spell this word kentoushi, adding the additional meaning of “bearer of light” in a subtle change that mirrors the shared linguistic history between China and Japan.
Characteristics of the Japanese language are toyed with throughout The Emissary, something translator Margaret Mitsutani does an admirable job of uncovering to an English audience. This is important, as many of Tawada’s tricks go deeper than mere linguistic play. For instance, when the young people of Tawada’s Japan, now wholly ignorant of the English language, interpret labels that say “made in Japan” phonetically, transforming “made” into the Japanese word “ma-de” or “to/until,” they are reflecting the much larger theme that all things in a country with closed borders must direct back into that country—even remnants of foreign words left behind.
Japan’s literature has changed quite a bit since A Personal Matter was published in 1964. A postwar era characterized by the themes of intense alienation and psychological strangeness in writers like Mishima, Kawabata, and Ōe has become increasingly identified with the light surrealism of Haruki Murakami, as well as numerous popular manga in translation. Tawada is a superb writer, to be sure, and with more interesting vision than Murakami, but it is clear that The Emissary describes a future with a similarly light tone. While the young father of A Personal Matter agonizes over his decision to keep his child alive, scraping at the heels of a once-strong Japanese moral sensibility to find anything that may have endured, the love between Yoshiro and Mumei is almost taken for granted. Mumei’s classmates are ecstatic, joyfully wriggling over one another’s disfigured bodies, and their happiness is wise, as if they know something that Yoshiro and the reader cannot. And yet to take heart in this seems strange; perhaps it is something that cannot be translated or carried away.