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from the February 2004 issue

from The Literature Conference

Part One: The Macuto Yarn

On a journey I recently had cause to make to Venezuela, I had the opportunity to admire the famous "Macuto Yarn," one of the Wonders of the New World. It is the legacy of nameless pirates, a tourist attraction, and an enigma without answer. It constitutes a strange moment of naivete that traversed the impenetrable centuries and in the process became one with a Nature that in these latitudes is as rich as every new growth it engenders. Macuto is one of those coastal resorts that lie at the foot of Caracas, close to Maiquetia, near the airport where I had first landed. At first I was temporarily placed in The Fifteen Letters, a modern hotel built facing the inn and restaurant of the same name, right on the coastline. My room overlooked the sea, the Caribbean that was at once so vast and intimately blue and brilliant. The "Yarn" was barely a hundred yards away from the hotel; I discovered it looking through the window, and went to take a look at it.

In my childhood, like any infant born in the Americas, I had occupied myself with vain speculations concerning the Macuto Yarn, in which the romantic world of piracy was made real, tangible--thanks to living evidence. Encyclopedias (mine was the Young Person's Treasury, none of whose pages deserved such a title) came with diagrams and photographs, which I faithfully reproduced in my drawings. And in my games I untied the knots, disentangled the secrets. Later on, I watched documentaries about the Yarn on television, then bought a book or two on the same subject, and kept stumbling across it in my studies of Venezuelan and Caribbean literature, where it's a running theme. I followed, like everyone else (but without any particular interest), the daily newspaper reports on new theories, theories intended to decipher the enigma . . . The fact that they were always new was sufficient indication of the failure of the preceding ones.

According to legend dating back to time immemorial, the Yarn was intended to haul up the treasure of the deep, a booty of incalculable worth abandoned there by pirates. One of the pirates (every single reference in chronicles and archives having signally failed to identify which one) must have been some kind of a scientific-artistic genius of the first order, a seafaring Leonardo, to invent the miraculous instrument that would serve at one and the same time to conceal and to recover the loot.

The apparatus was endowed with a simple genius. It was, as the name describes, a "yarn," just one, in truth a rope made of natural fibers, stretched across some three meters of the water surface over a subterranean hole in the seabed close to the coast at Macuto. One end of the rope was buried in the hole, which--more by good luck than judgment--went around a natural pulley wheel on a rock which broke the surface at some two hundred yards from the bank, with a somersault of successive knots around another natural obelisk, this time made of earth, and from there clambered up two humps of the coastal chain before returning to the "obelisk" in a kind of triangulation. The device survived intact through the passage of centuries, without need of repair or any special measures of protection--on the contrary, it was victorious against any and every intrusive and sometimes brutal attack by treasurehunters (which means any passerby), in the face of every pillage/depradation by the inquisitive, and of legions of tourists.

I was but another. The last, as you'll see. A faint ripple of emotion accompanied my first encounter with it. It doesn't matter how much you know about a famous subject: being in its presence is always another matter. It's necessary to confront the feeling of its reality, strip away the veil of dreams which is reality's very substance, and put it on the level of the moment, the Everest of the moment. No need to mention that I am incapable of such a feat, me more useless than anyone. Even so, there it was: so beautiful in its invincible fragility, tense and slender, bathing the ancient glow of navigation and adventure. I was now in a position to confirm what was said about it: that it has never been silenced. On stormy nights the wind made it sing, and those who listened to it during a hurricane, became obsessed with its howl--like that of a cosmic wolf--for the rest of their lives. All the sea breezes had played this lyre on a single note, with the evocative aid of the wind. But on this particular afternoon, with the air motionless (if a bird had shed a feather, it would have fallen in a straight line), its sound was stunning. It emerged in deep, sharp microtones, embedded in the silence.

My presence there before the monument had the weightiest of consequences, objectively and historically speaking, not only for me but for the entire world. My discreet, inadvertent, fleeting presence, almost akin to that of a tourist, yet--that very afternoon I resolved the enigma, I made the dormant contraption function, and rescued the treasure from the bottom of the ocean floor.

It's not that I'm either a genius or even exceptionally gifted; nothing of the kind. In fact, just the opposite. What happens (as I'll attempt to explain) is that every person acts according to their experiences, memories and knowledge, the sum total containing all of the highly personal data which makes them a person, which makes them unique. Each man is master of the mind possessed of powers that can be rendered either great or small but that are always unique, peculiar to himself. And these collectively render him capable of "an exploit," whether banal or grandiose, that he alone could perform. This was the point at which, hitherto, everyone had failed, because they all posited a simple quantitive progression of intelligence, and of ingenuity, whereas what was needed was an indeterminate quantity of each, but of the appropriate quality. My intelligence, as I had learned to my cost, was decidedly limited. It had barely kept me afloat on the tempestuous waters of life. But its quality is unique, not unique because I had proposed that it be so, but unique because that was the way it had to be.

This is, and was ever thus, always and everywhere, true of all men. Take just one example from the world of culture (and what other world would I take it from?) to make matters clearer. The unique quality of an intellectual can be easily verified by the combination of the books he reads. How many people can there possibly be in the world who have read the following two examples: On Philosophy and Vital Experience by A. Bogdanov and Faust by Estanislao del Campo? Let us now set aside the reflections that these works could have given rise to, the associations, the assimilations, which are necessarily personal and nontransferable. Let us address directly the brute fact of these two books. The coincidence of these two among the reading materials of a single reader is unlikely, in the sense that they belong to an esoteric realm of literature, since neither of them belong to the canon of universal classics. Even so, it is feasible that a dozen or two far-flung intelligences separated by space and time might have supped at the same source. Yet it is enough for us to throw in a third book, let's say La Poussiere de Soleils by Raymond Roussel, for the number to be drastically cut. If it's not cut to "one" (meaning myself), we're in by the skin of our teeth. Perhaps it'll be "two" and I'd be given good reason to call the other "mon semblable, mon frere." One more, a fourth book, and I can now have the security of being on my own. And I've not just read four books; there have been thousands that, through chance or curiosity, have passed through my hands. And in addition to books, even without going beyond the field of culture, records, pictures, films . . .

All of this, together with the texture of my days and nights since the moment of my birth, bestowed on me a mental formation different to that of anyone else. It gave rise to the chance capacity essential to resolving the problem of the Macuto Yarn; in order to solve it most simply, most naturally, as if adding two and two. In order to resolve it, I said, not to propound it; in no way am I intimating that the nameless pirate who created the thing was my intellectual equal. I have no twin, and this was why I was able to get to the source of the enigma, which hundreds of students and thousands of ambitious men had confronted over a period of four centuries, and with far richer resources, which in most recent times had included divers, soundings, computers and multidisciplinary teams. But I was unique, and in some sense predestined to succeed where all others had failed.

But, to be strictly literal, I have to admit that I was not the only one. Anyone could have had the same experiences as I did (that too: any of them, since it is impossible to determine a priori which might be most relevant) and behaved exactly as I did. That is to say, not even literally the "same" experiences, since we all know that at best experiences can only be equivalent.

Which means I just don't want to go over the top and boast about it. All credit is due to the hazard that brought me-just me-there, to the right place at the right time: there in The Fifteen Letters, one November afternoon, with nothing to do for several hours on end (I had missed my connecting flight, and had to wait another day before departing). On arrival, the Macuto Yarn was the last thing on my mind, I didn't even remember it existed. On the contrary, I was astonished to encounter it there, barely a few steps from the hotel, like a reminder of my childhood as an ardent admirer of pirate tales.

In passing, and merely in consequence of the wider laws of explanation, another related enigma was explained. This was figuring out how the yarn (the "mooring rope") had managed to resist the ravages of time for so long. Synthetic fiber can do this, but there was nothing at all synthetic about the Macuto Yarn, as exhaustive laboratory analyses, conducted upon a few millimeters of thread extracted with tweezers tipped with sharpened diamonds, had proven: it was exclusively woven of pineapple and palm, therefore entirely fabricated of natural fibers.

The solution to my principal problem didn't at first occur to me. For two or three hours, I was unsure what was formulating at the back of my mind, as I took a walk, went upstairs to my room to write for a while, and gazed out at the sea through the window, before going out again, bored with the tedium of waiting. During this interlude I had occasion to observe the behavior of a couple of kids, hurling themselves into the sea from the rocks some twenty meters off the coast. This is really my "little tale," and the truth of it is, there's little interest in it for anyone other than myself. Yet it is from these microscopic and disconnected pieces that the puzzle is composed. For the truth is there's no such thing as "meantime." For example, in my state of distraction, I found myself regarding the boys' game as a kind of humble production, composed of natural substances, one of which was the recognition of the kinetic pleasure of hurling oneself, the shock it gives to the muscular system, as swimming does to respiration. . . . How on earth did they manage to avoid the great stone outcrops concealed beneath the waves? How did they manage to pass within millimeters of the rock that could have annihilated them with one rigid Medusa embrace? Through habit. They must be used to spending every afternoon that way. Which gave their game the necessary material to become a legend. Those kids had the custom of the Macuto Coast, but the legend itself was a custom. And the time, that precise time, then and no other, in a tropical twilight already far advanced, and at the same time so delayed and majestic in its harmonies, time too played an integral part in that custom . . .

Suddenly, everything fell into place. I, who never comprehend anything except by a process of exhaustion and renunciation, suddenly I understood it all. I considered jotting down a note, perhaps for a novella, but-why not, for once, actually do the thing, rather than writing it down? Hurriedly I scurried over to the natural platform at a right angle to the Yarn . . . I barely touched the knots with the tips of my fingers, instead I grabbed the rope hard, without intending to untie anything . . . There erupted a roar that could be heard for kilometers around, and the Yarn began to unravel itself at a cosmic speed. The mountains to which it was attached appeared to tremble, but that had to be an illusion generated by the unraveling of the rope, rushing all the way down to where it was buried in the sea. Curious looks had already pursued me since my arrival, to be joined now by those of people leaning out of their windows in neighboring buildings, giving onto the high seas . . .

And there, with a prodigious eruption and an explosion of spray, the treasure chest leapt from the depths at the rope's end, so forcibly that that it rose eighty meters into the air, paused a split second, and then went in a straight line, still pulled by the retracting Yarn, until it fell intact upon the stone platform, no more than a meter away from where I awaited it.

Here and now I can't fill in the details of a blow-by-blow account, for that would go on for pages, and I've given myself a stipulated length for this entire text (of which this is barely the prologue), in respect for the amount of time at my reader's disposition.

What I would like to point out is that I did not limit myself merely to speculatively resolving the enigma, but that I also did so in practice. By which I mean: after I understood what it was necessary to undertake, I went and did it. And the subject responded. The Yarn, in an arc tautened by centuries, finally launched its arrow, and brought the hidden treasure to my feet, rendering me rich in an instant. Which was very practical, given that I'd always been poor, and most recently poorer than ever.

I had been through a year of straitened circumstances, and had in fact been interrogating myself on how I could escape from a situation that was getting worse by the day. My literary endeavors, couched in terms of unassailable artistic purity, never obtained material rewards. The same could be said, and with even greater emphasis, regarding my scientific labors, of which more will follow anon. From my earliest youth, I have lived from my profession as a translator. Over time, I had continued to hone my skills in this direction, gaining with it a certain prestige, and in recent years I even came to enjoy a measure of tranquility, although never a level of excess. Not that this ever bothered me, given as I am to a somewhat austere lifestyle.

By now, however, the economic crisis had come to seriously affect my publishing activities, paying for that brief period of euphoria. The euphoria had led to over-supply, the bookshops filled with books of purely national output, and when the public found itself obliged to tighten its belt, book purchases were the first things they abandoned. Thus the publishers found themselves with enormous stocks they were unable to shift, and the only apparent remedy was to reduce production. They reduced it to such a level that I spent a year without any employment at all, painfully eking out my savings and surveying the future with increasing anxiety. You can now see how opportune this sudden event was for me.

There was one more reason for my surprise, and it lay in imagining how wealth passed on from four hundred years ago could still retain value, and value of such enormous size. Particularly when you take into account the speed with which devaluations occur in these countries of ours, the currency changes and those on the macro economic planes. But I won't get into these subjects here. On the other hand, wealth has always something inexplicable about it, even more than poverty does. From that moment on I became rich, and that was that. From not being able to take off for Merida, because of some appointment I couldn't (nor wanted) to keep, I could now set off New York or Paris and flaunt my opulence.

That was how on the following day, pockets filled and preceded by a clamor of fame that filled headlines and front pages across the world, I boarded the plane that took me to the beautiful Andean city where the literature conference that is the subject of this tale was about to take place.

From El congreso de literatura (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1999). By arrangement with the author.

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