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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the April 2018 issue

A Trip to the Cemetery

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.

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