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from the February 2004 issue

from Before the End


I walk along the Avenida Costanera Sur,1 contemplating the portentous river, traversed just over a century ago by thousands of Spaniards, Italians, Jews, Poles, Albanians, Russians, and Germans, driven from their own countries by hunger and poverty. The great visionaries who governed the country at the time offered the Pampas, this metaphor of nothingness, to "all those men who are willing and able," all those who needed a home, a ground in which to lay their roots. After all, it is not possible to live without a fatherland, or "matria,"2 as Miguel de Unamuno preferred to call it, given that mothers are the real basis of our existence. But most of those men found a different kind of poverty here, brought on by solitude and nostalgia; as the boat that carried them here steamed out of the harbor, they saw, their faces streaked with tears, their mothers, children, brothers, and sisters retreat toward death, knowing they would never see them again.

Out of that incurable sorrow was born the strange melody called the tango. The virtuoso Enrique Santos Discépolo, the greatest composer of tangos, once defined the tango as a melancholy thought that is danced. Without realizing it, these unpretentious musicians, using whatever instruments they had around-a violin here, a flute there, a guitar-wrote a crucial part of our history. What sailor, from what German port-town, brought over the instrument that would mark this music most deeply and dramatically-the bandoneón? That humble instrument, which was created in order to serve God in the streets intoning Lutheran melodies, found its destiny thousands of leagues away. With the bandoneón, somber and sacred, man was able to express his deepest emotions.

How many of those immigrants continued to gaze longingly toward their own mountains and rivers, through the distance of sadness and years, from this huge, chaotic factory, this city constructed on a port, which by then had become a desert of accumulated solitudes?

As I walk through this terrible Leviathan, along the shoreline which was first beheld by thousands of immigrants, I can almost hear the melancholy plaint of Aníbal Troilo's bandoneón.

When the gloom and tumult of Buenos Aires, Make me feel even more alone, I go to the outskirts at nightfall, and Through the murky landscape of A half century, enriched and destroyed By love and disillusionment, I look back at the boy I once was. Ruefully, I recall Hearing the first drops of rain On the dried-out streets, on the Zinc roofs, "Que llueva, que llueva, la vieja está en la cueva,"3 Until the birds would begin to sing, and We ran, barefoot, To play with our boats made out of paper. That was the time of Tom Mix, Of colored playing chips, Of Tesorieri, Mutis, and Bidoglio, The time of carousels with horses, Of warm peanuts on winter afternoons, Of the toy train and its whistle. A world we can catch sight of When we are very alone, In this chaos of noise and cement, That has no place for courtyards filled with Honeysuckle and carnations.

Among that multitude of colonizers, my parents arrived on these shores with the hope of sowing their seed in this "Promised Land" that extended beyond their tears.

My father descended from a family from the mountains in Italy, people accustomed to the asperities of life. But my mother, who came from an old, established Albanian family, was forced to tolerate the deprivations of her life with dignity.

They settled down in Rojas, which, like many of the old towns on the Pampas, had been one of the many forts built by the Spaniards to mark the borderline of Christian civilization.

In this town in the Pampas my father eventually ran a small flour mill, which became the locus of my daydreams when, on Sundays, he would work in the shop, and my brother Arturo and I would climb up on the sacks of wheat, and secretly, as if committing some mysterious act, spend the afternoon eating biscuits.

My father was the absolute authority in my family; power diminished hierarchically from the eldest brother to the youngest. I still remember looking with fear upon his face, marked simultaneously by candor and hardness. His incontestable decisions were the basis of an ironclad system of commands and punishments that regulated all of us, including my mother. Reserved and stoic, she surely suffered from the effects of that energetic and severe character, but I never heard her complain, and she managed to raise eleven sons under these trying circumstances.

The education we received left deep, unhappy marks on my spirit. But this often harsh upbringing taught us to fulfill our duties, to be consistent, and to finish every task we had begun. And if we have accomplished something in life, it has been as a result of these attributes that we were so brutally forced to acquire.

My father's severity, which could be terrible, formed my character, which tends toward sadness and melancholy. And it was the main cause of the rebellion of two of my brothers, who ran away from home: Humberto and Pepe, who was known in our town as "that crazy Sábato," and who ended up running off with the circus, to the great shame of my bourgeois family. This decision greatly upset my mother, but she bore it with the stoicism she displayed throughout her long life; after a protracted illness, she died serenely in her bed in Matilde's arms at the age of ninety.

My brother Pepe was passionate about the theatre, and he used to act in the town shows, which were known as "Thirty Friends United." When on occasion they put on criollo4 farces at the Perla movie theater, he always played a part, no matter how small. In his room he had the complete collection of Bambalinas, edited in Buenos Aires, with colorful covers; in addition to these farces, the series included works by Ibsen, and on one memorable occasion, by Tolstoy. I had read the entire collection before turning twelve, and it marked my life deeply; I have always been passionate about the theater, and though I have written several plays, they have never seen the light of day.

Beneath his harshness, my father hid a more vulnerable side, a candid and generous heart. He had an amazing esthetic sense, and when the family moved to La Plata, he designed our house. Late in life, I became aware of his passion for plants, which he cared for with a tenderness that I had not seen before in his dealings with people. I have never known him to go back on his word, and with age, I was able to admire his fidelity to his friends. As in the case of Don Santiago, the town tailor who became ill with tuberculosis. When Doctor Helguera informed him that his only hope was to move to the mountains in Córdoba, my father accompanied him there in one of those tiny railway cabins in which contagion seemed guaranteed.

I always remember this attitude. It was an expression of his devotion for friendship, which I was only able to appreciate years after his death. Life can sometimes appear to be a long series of missed opportunities. One day, it was too late to tell him that we loved him despite everything and to thank him for his efforts to warn us of the inevitable misfortunes of life; these misfortunes teach us important lessons.

Not all my memories of my father are terrible; I remember with nostalgia some joys, like the evenings when I would sit on his knees and he would sing the songs from his home, or when, in the afternoon, after his card game at the Social Club, he would bring me a box of Mentolina, the mints that we all liked so much.

Unfortunately, he is gone now, and some fundamental things between us have remained unsaid. When love can no longer be expressed, and the old wounds are left untended, we discover the ultimate solitude: that of the lover without his beloved, the child without his parents, the father without his children.

Many years ago I went to that town, Paola de San Francesco, where my father fell in love with my mother. I caught a glimpse of his childhood in that eternally longed-for place, facing the Mediterranean, and my eyes clouded over.

1Avenue that runs along the side of the Río de la Plata. 2The feminine form of "patria," fatherland, which does not exist in Spanish. 3Children's nonsense rhyme sung when it rains. Literally, it means: "Let it rain, let it rain, the old lady's in her cave." 4Criollo refers to people and things in the New World that are culturally Spanish. A person of Spanish ancestors who is born in the New World is a criollo, as is a work of literature in Spanish, but set in and referring to themes of the New World.

From Antes del fin (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 1999). By arrangement with the author.

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