The bronze bells of Los Jeronimos tolled the noon hour.
We were hungry.
We headed for the Basilica restaurant, which was the closest, and sat down at a table.
My wife ordered:
Blood pudding with mashed potatoes.
Lucuma fruit with cream.
Seaweed with onion.
Picarones in sugar sauce.
Afterwards we both coincided in a coffee.
“Did you pay?” she asked.
“I paid.” I replied.
“Are we off, then?”
And we left.
We walked laboriously, startled by the silhouettes of streetlights. Where to go? For a while we followed pedestrians whom we chose at random, until a bus or tram would stop us, putting too much mist between us and him, and we would lose him. Then we would turn, alternating right and left, after something, anything. But, nothing. Where to go?
When suddenly, an idea: we should go to see our friend, the painter Rubén de Loa, on Immaculate Conception Street.
And there we headed.
Rubén de Loa’s studio is located in the second yard, bottom floor, of a somber-looking building. Its large window filters light through climbing vines with leaves that are always moving. The leaves turn the light green. The frosted glass turns the green aquatic.
And we went in.
Ruben de Loa painted. What is more, for twenty-four years Ruben de Loa had painted without stopping. When he saw us from behind his canvas, he approached us. We, out of courtesy, approached him. And the three of us performed the motions as if we were swimming, smoothly lifting off from the floor and floating slowly back down.
He offered us seats. He sat there; my wife here; I sat across from them, in the middle. I said:
“Your studio is too green, Rubén de Loa.”
“Greenish,” he corrected me.
“Aquatic,” my wife emphasized.
We fell silent, the three of us smoking.
Then, among the rings of smoke, I began to examine my dear old friend.
Because of the reflection of the vines, his long black hair looked like neglected autumn grass. His jaguar features remained unchanged. His skin was still firm. To be sure, he is still young. He is thirty-one years old, given that he has painted for twenty-four years, and that he has painted since he was seven. His gaze was ninety percent inward. The remaining ten percent, as it poured out of him, was a bit empty and very kindhearted. He smoked a pipe, as a painter should. He did not sneeze or cough. Only every quarter of an hour he would say:
“Well, well, well.”
To which I would respond:
And my wife:
“That’s how it goes.”
After an hour, Ruben de Loa began to look at she who is my better half. I followed suit. She looked transparent, like a small tomb. Her brown hair—brown in the streets of San Agustín de Tango—mixed with the green in the studio, made me feel almost nauseous. But such was not the case for my old and dear friend, who had always looked at her, and who longed for her.
Then I looked at my hands, wanting to see some part of me that was alive in that studio. They were likewise suffering the window’s effects, which plunged me into a deep meditation on death.
My meditation was not interrupted by anything except, very infrequently, the “well, well, well” of my friend and the “That’s how it goes” of my wife. Until, partially returning to life, I wondered:
“What is this it that goes?”
I thought that it could be nothing other than Ruben de Loa’s sinful desire. Then I thought a change of subject would be wise. I started right in on the art of good painting, saying to my friend:
“You’re headed in the wrong direction, Rubén de Loa.” (In speaking this way, not for an instant, not even deep inside, in my heart of hearts, was I referring to his sinful desire. It was a sincere statement directed solely at his art, or more accurately at the atmosphere in which it came to be, since, in all honesty, he had shown us nothing yet of his work and the last canvas I had seen of his was from five years earlier. I was speaking, then, of the atmosphere, may that be perfectly clear.)
“You’re headed in the wrong direction, Rubén de Loa, you live and work in an artificial atmosphere. Work created exclusively under the influence of the color green cannot turn out well. This is less a studio than the depths of the jungle, or—even worse!—it’s how we imagine the depths of the jungle when we are children. I’ve spent this whole long hour surprised by the silence in here, since at every moment I expected to hear the cry of a macaw, the bark of a white-eared possum, the whistle of an anteater. Is it possible to paint like this?”
“There is no danger at all,” answered Ruben de Loa. “Of course, this color is not green and has nothing to do with the jungle. This is a grey-green, better yet a greenish grey, and as for the jungle, this room has nothing more than the hue of a young eucalyptus, scarcely green at all, hardly, hardly. And this hue, upon analysis, has just as much right to live as bronze, the color of sunny days, or the violet of thunderstorms."
“Let us compromise, my friend,” I continued. “Your greenish grey, I cannot accept. Let us compromise with a grayish green, with the caveat that I have reservations about this latter term in particular. But, you must admit, I’m compromising. Why don’t you compromise a bit as well?”
“In what way?” He asked indifferently.
“By cutting away those leaves that cover the window.”
Ruben de Loa let out a scornful laugh and asked me:
“Have you gone mad?”
He waited a minute and then, in a confidential tone, he told us, his gaze alternating between my wife and me.
“I am a lonely person. I have no wife or children or relatives or friends. I have no vices. If I smoke, it’s out of habit and not for pleasure. I don’t go to the theatre or cinema. I don’t have affairs with women or men or beasts or objects. And work is hard for me, working makes me suffer. And so, I have no pleasure. I exaggerate. I have no more than one, one and only one. And this is given to me by precisely those leaves that you are asking me to cut. Sit here." (Then to my wife.) "Madam, please sit here." (Then to both of us). "Let us look at the leaves. You will see that their shapes and their shadows, when they move in the breeze, stop being leaves and become an infinite variety of fish swimming silently in a great green aquarium. You see how they pass by, approach, move away, return, touch the glass, turn, disappear, reappear. Then I feel as though the water of the aquarium filters in through the window and, flooding everything, floods me as well. And I, in turn, am a fish. I swim smoothly through the air, getting caught up in the smoke of my pipe. It is my only pleasure. You two forget that I am not a happy man.”
“Rubén de Loa,” I said, affectionately reaching out my hands to him, “Please accept our apologies. In truth, my wife and I are happy, we have relatives and friends, and much pleasure beneath our sheets. My wife frequents the cinema; I, the athletic fields. Rubén de Loa, in our name and from the bottom of our hearts, we beg you never to cut even one of these leaves, and to always find delight swimming through the air of your studio."
Our good friend then embraced us tenderheartedly and, taking our hands, led us in a slow, slow, slow aquatic pirouette that shortened our breath not a little, and we were filled with pleasure when we saw our feet making contact once again, little by little, with the studio’s floor.
We sat down once again. I said:
“Let us leave aside the subject of the leaves. They belong to your private life and they don’t bother us. But aesthetics belong to us all, and so I must insist. Greenish grey, grayish green, jungle or young eucalyptus, say it how you like, but it has an effect on you. You will see, my friend, that the day must come when you see blue as green, yellow as green, orange as green, and black and white and any color in existence will be green to you . Such a thing cannot last; from seeing so much green, you will stop seeing that very green. You can argue that it’s better to know one thing to its core than to glide over the surface of a thousand. But, I tell you, this is not what knowing is, you have not gotten inside your green. This is reductive, believe me, Rubén de Loa. At this rate the day will come when you even see red as green.”
“That’s enough!” exclaimed Ruben de Loa. “That’s enough! Not one word more!”
“Why?” I asked, surprised.
As he had done a moment earlier, our good friend waited a minute and then, looking at each of us in turn, he spoke to us in his confidential tone, to which he added a touch of sadness.
“Obviously you two are ignorant of the role that red has in relation to green! You must realize: red is the complement of green, and this law of complements is the most important thing in this world.”
I murmured: “Huuuuuum!”
My wife widened her eyes a bit, then returned them to their normal state.
"Yes,” continued Ruben de Loa, “it is incredibly important. Red, in being the complement of green, complements it in all of life’s circumstances. No, don’t laugh! I’ll explain. Whatever complements, balances; whatever balances, stabilizes—very important, this making stable!—because whatever stabilizes, makes viable. Makes what viable? You will ask. Fair enough. I will explain. Makes viable the circulation of life through. Nothing more: through, t-h-r-o-u-g-h. Let us think about it for a moment, shake up the mind a bit. Life circulates through, it can circulate, thanks to its having something through which to circulate. This is elementary. And it has this something thanks to the fact that there is, in that through which it circulates, a stability, and that stability is only possible thanks to a constant, or almost constant, balance, and for there to be a balance there must be at least two to balance. Only one—with what, with whom, will it balance? And for the balance of the two to continue, those two must create between them a complement, let us say it straight out: they must complement each other. Otherwise, all is chaos, total extinction, a return to the day before the first day of creation. And in that case, not you or your distinguished little woman, not I or my paintings or anything else. On the other hand, as things stand now, as they are today, life circulates in a great balanced complement and I, poor Ruben de Loa, in the image of the Creator himself, can bestow total life, one more point, one more conduit, let us say, for it to circulate happily through. That is what I do with my paintings here in my studio, my friends."
And saying this, he darted about into several corners of the room, and from under various pieces of furniture he took twelve paintings and lined them up along the foot of the wall opposite the window.
My wife and I were plunged into a mute contemplation. Ruben de Loa stood behind us, lifted both arms so that one of his hands came to rest on each of our heads and in that pose, without moving, without blinking, he kept watch over our mute contemplation.
Ruben de Loa’s paintings were green.
Ruben de Loa’s paintings contained every possible green. Those of all the hours of the day and of the night; those of all the years of history. They contained all the greens the Earth has left behind in her advance, all those that are with her now, all that will come to cinch themselves to her in her future turning. Those of the four elements. Those of ether. Those of the gestation of life in an ovum, those of birth and growth, those of plenitude, those that are created by eating away at the air inside of coffins. The green of silence, the green of murmurings, the green of pandemonium. The green of God. The green of Satan. All, all of them! Why go on? In their simple enumeration I would fill ten volumes and then, if I wanted to enumerate the relation of every green enumeration with every other one, a hundred volumes would not be enough. Moreover, is not the word “all” sufficient? Let us fix that word firmly in our heads: all. All the greens. It is enough to say it like this. However, I don’t know why, something like compunction drives me to continue with green examples, as if, by not continuing, it would be a lack of honor for my friend’s magnificent green talent. Yes, but, where would I start the first line of the first page of the first volume? Let it suffice for me to say that in that place was my own green, which up until then I had not known existed. There was my wife’s green. And the green of our friend. And the green of the relationship between my wife and I. And that of the relationship between my wife and him. And of him and I. And that of the three of us at that point since, if we move, it is another green (which could also be found in the paintings), the green of that exact place and time, and, just as no clock ever stops, the greens of Ruben de Loa’s paintings, etc., a thousand times etc. My God! Isn’t the one word enough: ALL?
And I still fear I don’t do enough justice to his talent. So, since there is no way to go for the enumeration of them all, let us go, at least, as a tribute to him, to an anecdote which will demonstrate to what point our friend’s greens affected all that fell beneath them.
Here it is:
While my wife and I were there contemplating the paintings, with our friend behind us, his hands lifted, a toucan belonging to an elderly neighbor lady let out its wild song. It should be mentioned that, having seen the bird on several previous occasions, I can attest that it belonged to the genus Caliptocephalus gayi, that is to say, a multicolored toucan with not a single green feather.
Well, its screeching song of exploding colors reached the studio through the high window, crossed through it at the normal speed, and came to rest above our heads. Then, from there, it inflated roundly like a ball of soap, exploded in a wind that ruffled our hair and loosed a greenish drizzle over us; entering first through our ears, it then harmonized our eyes with the twelve paintings, to give us the feeling all through our bodies of being submerged in a calm swamp of algae and still waters.
This should suffice, but I see that until now I have not gone beyond the world of the senses, the greens that for better or worse can be perceived by the senses. And so, allow me one more word.
There were as well the greens imperceptible to the senses. I should explain. Rubén de Loa´s theory on complements is, undoubtedly, very true, that is to say, that in order for balance to be maintained and, as a result, for what exists to exist, there must be—limiting ourselves to the case in point—for every amount of green produced, an equal amount of red and vice versa, for every amount of red, an equal amount of green. And so on for all the domains of nature and the universe, since if it were otherwise, as we have said, all would be chaos. But let us keep within the limits we have set.
Very well, I (or anyone else), think of a jungle. Green, green and more green! Scarcely one or two little red flowers. How, then, does creation not explode before such an imbalance? Another thing: the sea. It is blue, ink-blue. A group of clouds comes and suddenly we have miles and miles of green, just like that, all at once. What red? Where is the balance? Or, there are hundreds of houses of brown wood. Suddenly: Fire! And immense red flames rise up into the sky, twinkling and changeful, which a second before did not exist. Where do greens rise up simultaneously, twinkling as well, correspondingly changeful—since every shade of one demands the exact shade of the other—so that balance can be maintained?
To these questions Rubén de Loa replied without hesitation:
Then he added nervously (the former he had said solemnly):
“That we may not see them is another story. But, from the moment they exist, they can never stop existing, since if they stopped existing the sudden spark of a match would be enough for . . .”
“Yes!” interrupted my wife and I. “Chaos! We know already.”
“Exactly right—chaos. So they exist, even though we don’t see them, they exist. And if they exist, even though we don’t see them, they must be reflected on a canvas, since the art of painting knows no obstacles.”
A return to our mute contemplation of the paintings.
And yes, there were the invisible greens.
My wife, with her great, transcendental and generalizing spirit, immediately saw, floating in our friend’s paintings, all the greens that accompany, somewhere, the fiery twilights that bleed every evening into the skies of the earth. She was on the verge of ecstasy.
I, with my spirit not so vast, remained within my own possibilities. I saw only some small, fleeting greens, fatuous fires that mischievously wander the streets of this city and all cities. I will try to explain them.
Like most of my fellow citizens, I enjoy, in the mornings a little before lunch, to walk along our beautiful avenue Benedict XX, from one end to the other. Like so many of my fellow citizens, and many of the fairer citizens of the city who enjoy, at that same hour, to walk along that same avenue. And some of these latter like to dress in red. In general, they are slender, tall, graceful; they smile, they lower their lids, they lift their breasts when they breathe. I look at them then, I follow them with my gaze, I see them disappear around corners or among the crowds and I delight in those magnificent forms drenched in red. And I feel, why deny it, a strong disquiet.
For a long time I searched for the cause of my disquiet, but with no success. I wasn’t content to attribute it exclusively to sexuality. There was something more that at last, yesterday, in my friend’s studio, I found.
I recognized those reds, sexual and burning, among all the others because they held within them the shapes of tender young girls, and there was no perception of the corresponding greens that would calm them, that would place them within a placid equilibrium. That was it. And because of this, when I saw them disappear, I felt imbalanced, like I was falling into the abyss.
Never again! Starting yesterday, I can walk serenely along the Avenue Benedict XX. I’ll be able to, because starting yesterday I have, recorded within me, thanks to Rubén de Loa’s paintings, the perception of the fleeting and fatuous greens that, invisible, out there somewhere, follow every young girl who disappears from sight, moving in a small stream of blood.
I turned back to Rubén de Loa.
“You have an enormous amount of talent.” I told him.
“You think so?” he asked, intrigued.
“Definitely, my friend! It’s a magnificent thing to have painted the invisible greens that accompany the reds that, it seems, roam alone throughout the world.
And I turned back to the canvases.
Upon turning, I almost fell to my knees. There was a green there that I had forgotten, completely forgotten, and that now, looking suddenly again at the paintings, appeared to me all of a sudden. Lucrecia’s green, the beautiful Lucrecia! There it was, there it lived. That lazy green of dawn, when her body in the bed took on a greenish hue, damp from so much love!
I sat there looking for a long time.
Then the green of Lucretia, the beautiful Lucrecia, began to vacillate, to move away little by little, so little by so little that I scarcely seemed to hear very far away a peal of bells coming from the convent of Los Jeronimos.
I pricked up my ears. Maybe yes—I don’t know—Los Jeronimos were ringing. In any case, Lucrecia’s body oscillated, vanished.
Lucrecia’s body went away into its green. And in its place the greens of the friars who rang the bells appeared, the long greens of the towers that sheltered them, of the stone walls that sustained them and those greens given off by the metal, clanging through the air, when the friars rang them, cord in hand, swinging the clapper.
And this, I believe, is sufficient to pay the respect that my friend deserves. It is enough, certainly, in regard to the greens, but in Rubén de Loa’s canvases there was something more:
In each canvas there was a red, just one.
Anyone who knows the theories held by the painter regarding complements, will understand that every one of those reds was the exact, meticulously exact, exacerbatedly exact, complement of its group of greens. As such, it is not worthwhile to insist on it. Let it be known, quite simply, that if it had not been so none of the previously mentioned greens could have appeared, since . . . finally, this theory end up pulling us out into the universe itself. I will only say, to aid the better understanding of the canvases, that each red leaned, according to necessity, toward a blackish maroon on one side, toward a garish vermillion on the other; it gave in submissively, faithfully, with a love so great for the multitude of greens that surrounded it, that even its very shape took part in that perfect bipolarity. At times the red was long and sinuous, coiled like a snake; at others, it was a blotch torn into pieces; others, a little point of spicy red pepper; others, beautiful branches of an advanced cancer; in sum—perfection, what the hell!
Well, before such perfection, a question suddenly took hold of me. I scratched my head and furrowed my brow. I lit a cigarette.
“My friend,” I said. “This is going badly.”
The man was left open-mouthed.
“Easy, my friend,” I continued. “Let me explain.”
“I should say that more accurately, this could go badly. I have just noticed—I don’t know how, just like that, suddenly—that every one of the reds and all of them together do not just complement the greens of their respective canvases, but they have a much greater role.”
“Listen to me. The greens of your canvases are greens of your studio, of your atmosphere, of this wide hole in which you live and work. As a result, the reds that complement the greens, complement not only them but also your entire studio. Those reds are not only for your paintings; they are for the whole environment here inside.”
“Yes, better, as long as everyone, men and canvases, stay here inside. But, what happens if you take the canvases and go out into the streets, to a gallery show, for example?”
“Rubén de Loa, be careful, be careful! If you take your paintings out of here a large part of the reds will have nothing more to do, they will lose their objective, the environment that envelops them will be different. Then, lacking most of the points that hold them up, that keep them stuck and held there on the canvas, they will come loose, they will fall to the earth and spatter onto your shoes. And that would not be good, Rubén de Loa. Believe me, for the love of God!"
He fell into a silent meditation. Then he said:
“There is no danger. I’ve tested them and they don’t fall. I’ve carried them to the patio there, I’ve taken them to the door, I’ve aired them a while in the very street itself, and they don’t fall. I’ve done even more: I’ve taken the twelve canvases to the apartment of my old neighbor lady and, one by one, I’ve put them in front of the multi-colored toucan. Not even its lack of green feathers, nor its scarlet feathers, have managed to make the reds waver in the least little bit. I repeat, there is no danger.”
“If the experiment has been done, there’s nothing more to discuss. They don’t fall; we agree. But that does not mean that part of the reds, when they are taken from here, aren’t left idle. You will say a small part; I, a large part. However it may be, we agree on the existence of this part. And this idle part, when the canvases are hung on the wall of a gallery, will start to seek an objective, to loiter about, to try to find a use for itself, to mortify whatever eyes may alight on them, to create fault, to sow misunderstanding, to spread a veil of disquiet between the viewers and the twelve canvases. And it will come to pass, my good friend, that no one will understand a thing and that everyone will leave the place with a heavy sensation of senselessness.”
Here I noticed that Rubén de Loa was staring at me and his face was slightly altered. I fell silent. Then he asked me:
“Man, nothing! Just that. The viewers will leave with their pupils full of senselessness. Nothing more.”
“Man! Those of the show, the supposed show.”
He raised his gaze almost threateningly and he asked once again:
“What viewers? Answer!”
I began to experience a certain uneasiness.
“The supposed viewers of a supposed showing of your works. A thing of little importance, moreover. Why are you so upset?”
“Because you won’t answer with the exact word. For the third time, what viewers?”
My uneasiness began to turn to fear. Rubén de Loa was getting very agitated. His eyes flashed lightning.
“The exact word?” I asked in turn. “My dear friend, I don’t know it. If it isn’t viewers, let us say aficionados or critics or simply men off the street.”
“Fine,” he said, and threw himself onto a chair. Three drops of sweat appeared on his forehead. “Fine. Since you won’t say it, the exact word, I’ll say it myself. You mean to say that those who will leave with their eyes popping out from senselessness . . . do you know who?”
I waited. Rubén de Loa exclaimed:
A long silence. Finally I said in a low voice:
“All right. Good for the bourgeois.”
“But, do you think,” he continued, “that the bourgeois has been born that can manage to faze me? Listen well, nail it to your forehead if you have to, nail it on so that there are no pliers in the world that can get it off: if those bourgeois show up and get confused by the errant reds of my paintings, if they show up, I repeat . . . well, look over there!”
Fearfully, I turned to look towards the corner to which his index finger was pointing. My wife did the same. And we both turned pale.
There, in said corner, hung an enormous butcher’s knife.
“Understand?” My friend asked. “If they show up, one by one I will grab them by the neck with my left hand and, with that machete in the right, I’ll stir their guts until they fall down dead, dead, dead! Anger? Spite? revenge? None of those! I will crush them, grind them up, tear their insides to pieces to extract and expel all the reds of their blood. Then, with those reds, I will make any that are still missing in creation, any that God has planned to make during the days yet to come, reds of fire, of ruby, of flowers and meat, of menstruations and wounds, of shames and glories. I will make them all with the bloody and macerated bellies of those men: ruby, maroon, vermillion, scarlet, purple, carmine, coral, pink, cardinal, cherry, pomegranate, lacquer, flame, amaranth, tomato, cinnamon, brick, salmon, ember, spark, fire, cooked lobsters, melted sealing wax, iron chains, revolutions, flags, arteries, and innards!”
Our good friend was shouting like a wild boar. I felt my legs giving out. My wife was one fine thread away from fainting. And nothing could keep me from thinking to myself: “This animal is going to go crazy and chop us up like rats.”
I threw a look at my wife that was full of questions. My look asked:
“Are we, to our friend, classified among the bourgeois?”
And my better half looked in turn at me and answered:
“It’s just possible we are classified there.”
Without waiting for one more drop of red, I approached Rubén de Loa resolutely. I reached both hands to him effusively, saying in an excited voice:
“My good and dear friend, we have had the deepest pleasure in making this agreeable and interesting visit to you. As soon as life offers us another occasion, we will be delighted to come again. But, for now, other errands call us. My dear friend, until next time then, very soon.”
And my wife:
“Sir Rubén de Loa, it has been for me an indescribable pleasure to appreciate your magnificent talent and to hear your charming conversation. Until next time then, very soon.”
“Very soon, very soon.”
And we escaped in a hurry.
Outside the studio, I said to my wife:
“My dear child, it’s good we got away. It was enough already of greens, of reds, of painters and aquatic environments. So hurry, let’s go! Let’s go!"
“Yes,” she answered. “It was enough already. Let’s go! Let’s go!”
The translator acknowledges the assistance of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre at The Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, Canada.
From Ayer. Copyright Juan Emar. By arrangement with the estate of Juan Emar. Translation copyright 2010 by Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.