The Sixty-Five Years of Washington: Juan José Saer
Saer’s “Glosa” — to be published this fall by Open Letter as “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” — was first published in 1985, in the middle of what would become a thirty-year exile in France. It recalls an Argentina of twenty-five years previous, before guerrilla terrorism and millitary repression overwhelmed the country. But “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” isn’t mid-century cosmopolitan nostalgia—just the opposite. The novel is concerned with hearsay and memory, how they work to distort both the past and the future, how they shape and deform our sense of the so-called “real” world, how they simultaneously alienate and connect people. Over the course of the book we see the characters being slowly erased by the contradictions inherent in their recollections.
In the selection below, Leto and an engineer nicknamed The Mathematician have been walking downtown through the small city of Rosario, discussing the birthday party of a mutual friend, Washington Noriega, a party neither attended, before The Mathematician suddenly ducks into a building.
An Excerpt from “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington”
I’ll be right back, says, unexpectedly, the Mathematician, and taking from his pants pocket several pages folded in quarters, he enters the La Mañana building. Leto sees the tall, tanned body dressed in white cross, with elegant strides, the threshold of the morning paper. After tomorrow, the press release, soaked in oil, will be used to wrap up perch and catfish, he thinks bitterly. And then: He left suddenly to force me to stay. Accepting, passively, the inexplicable need for his company that the Mathematician seems to feel, Leto leans against the trunk of the last tree on the sidewalk. Beyond the bright cross street, at the opposite corner, the street, abruptly, widens, and trees no longer line the sidewalks. As they have approached the city center more people have appeared on the streets, and because the commercial district proper starts to concentrate after the next block, the passing cars, slow and humming, are mixed with bicycles, tricycles, and light delivery trucks painted with the names and addresses of businesses. Despite the conversation and the Mathematician’s story, Leto is submerged in his own memory, where Lopecito’s voice, with his Rosario accent, murmurs, melancholic and stunned. We built radios in a little workshop on Calle Rueda. And when people started talking about television, during the Second World War, your old man started studying English and ordered technical magazines from North America. You were two or three. Don’t you remember how on his own dime he started putting together a television in the garage you had in Arroyito? You should remember because you were older then. You remember? He remembers: he slept in the room next door. Every night, Isabel, in a nightgown, would get up three or four times and bang on the locked door to the garage. Can’t you answer? Can’t you answer? she would yell. He listened to the same insistent lament every night. Later, when the house was dark and silent, he would hear the garage door open and close, and breathing and footsteps moving, in the darkness, toward the bedroom. Isabel’s whiny, sleepy voice could be heard again, and Leto, holding his breath to hear better, waited for the response that never came: What can you do, it was a sexual thing, he thinks, his eyes fixed on the bright corner. Or something even worse. Lopecito, meanwhile, his eyes full of tears, muting his intensity with that whispered register used for wakes: Don’t you remember before the television came to Rosario we did a demonstration at the Sociedad Rural with a machine he’d built in the garage and there were write ups in La Capital? He’d order parts from Buenos Aires, from the U.S., and what he couldn’t find he made himself. Isabel would come in from time to time and hug them, crying. You’ll have to be very good to your mother now, Lopecito said and, so that Isabel wouldn’t hear, added in Leto’s ear: While I’m alive and can use my hands you won’t want for anything, I give you my word. And he was making good. But he, Leto, no? felt like he was on stage, and not that he didn’t have anything to say, or that Isabel and Lopecito and everyone else hadn’t learned their roles, but that they were all acting, on the same stage, but in different plays. Once in a while, something they said was so surprising that Leto could only stare, waiting for them to bust out laughing, because he thought that they had said what they said as a joke. But the laughter never came. The familiar faces became impenetrable, remote masks, and no matter how much he examined them he got nothing, nothing whatsoever, no? from anyone. They were like another species, like those invaders in science fiction movies who come from another planet and take on a human form to better facilitate their takeover. His father, for example, whom they had put in a casket, was he really dead or pretending? And the phrases from Isabel and Lopecito relative to his person—his father’s, I mean, no?—coincided so little with Leto’s empirical reality that he heard them as formulaic expressions memorized to further some conspiracy. For that good man, for that inventor who had ended up dedicating himself to the sale of electrical goods, Leto didn’t feel either love or hate, but rather a neutral anticipation similar to what we feel when, after smashing a housefly with a shoe, we wonder whether it still has the reflexes to keep twitching a little more over its ruined self. There was something in the man’s habits that no one seemed to perceive but which to Leto was the essential and all but singular characteristic emanating from his person—a kind of sardonic expression signifying something like: just wait and see, just wait for when I decide to, or when that, rather, that which he was on the verge of, and which others seemed to ignore, would be decided. That inner half-smile which, nonetheless, never once escaped Leto, announced to the world an approaching catastrophe whose unmistakable signs its bearer had seen from the beginning. It couldn’t have been only sexual, thinks Leto, feeling the tree trunk, hard and rough, on his back, through the thin fabric of his shirt. Even though César Rey argues that, looked at a certain way, even Billiken is a pornographic magazine. No, it was something separate and distinct from the sexual, he thinks, a constituent part of himself that stained everything and that poisoned him. All the afternoons, the mornings, the evenings that made up his life, had been corroded by that toxic substance which he secreted himself and which, whatever he did, whether he was still or tried to stifle it, never stopped flowing or leaving a pestilent smear on everything. And, Lopecito was saying, your old man was…he was a genius with…I owe him…etc. Leto remembers that in the garage where his father shut himself up there was a kind of large table, made of pine, screwed to the wall, and a giant heap of casings to radios, full, empty, or with the insides half out and spilling from the back opening of the appliance, bulbs, tubes, pins, knobs, loose plugs, colored cables, copper wire, technical books and magazines, pliers, screwdrivers, and even when he didn’t take part in the permanent squabble pitting Isabel against his father, that his father, although somewhat distant, was more or less friendly or indifferent, and that all of those mysterious and colorful things intertwined on the table in the garage never lost their appeal, though he kept from touching them, not out of fear of his father, whose reaction to his son’s interest would no doubt be pleased, but of that fluid which, possibly without realizing, his father secreted, and whose signs Leto could detect on everything, the way the earth shows, through indistinct but definitive markers, the clear presence of a snake or scorpion. Leto imagined him bent over the table, under lamp light, working a tiny screwdriver and, for some unknown reason, not responding when Isabel came each night to bang on the door. Open the door. I’m asking you to open it, Isabel would say, her tone desperate, until, surrendering, she’d finally go to bed, not without whimpering some before falling asleep, and, still, the next morning she would wake up radiant, and sing while she made breakfast, straightened up the house, or walked to the market. That sudden change intrigued Leto: was it faked, or was it the desperate tone at night and the whimpering in bed that she faked, or was it all faked, or none of it? And this morning when, turning from the glowing blue rings on the stove she said that unexpected He suffered so much, Leto thinks, And I started pointlessly scrutinizing her face, its impenetrability came, precisely, from the absence of faking. She doesn’t fake when she sings or when she talks or when she shuts up or even when she insists that she’s doing one thing when in fact she’s doing the opposite. She lives a plain life, in a single dimension—of her desire, the desire for nothing, or rather for the contradiction not to exist. And Lopecito, no? the night of the wake, as soon as they were alone: Everything came out right for him. When he started in sales he had so much work he called me to offer the whole north part of the province if I wanted it. Nothing would have stopped us from expanding, but he preferred freedom and, more than anything else, shutting himself up in the garage every night to work. He was in love with technology. He was so enthusiastic. Leto listened, silently, telling himself over and over that even poor Lopecito had been sucked into that aura of unreality with a conviction that exceeded all expectations. That plain universe which, for mysterious reasons, and without their suspecting it, Leto had been excluded from in a way that made the generalized vacuousness of their actions immediately recognizable, seemed impregnable less because of its solidness than because of its inconsistency—diffuse, irregular, and ubiquitous.
Absorbed, as we’re in the habit of saying, in his thoughts or, if you prefer, as always, in his memories, Leto steps away from the tree, walking slowly toward the intersection. He has just forgotten about the Mathematician. Like the stage actor who does a pirouette and then disappears into the darkness off stage or, better yet, like those sea creatures who, ignorant of the sun that makes them flash, reveal, periodically, a glistening spine that sinks and reappears at regular intervals, a few images, sharp and well formed, approach and abandon him. Distracted, he crosses the street and arrives at the opposite sidewalk—and his distraction is also what makes him go through with the paradoxical act of stopping on the bright sidewalk and turning back toward the corner he has just left, knowing unconsciously that he is waiting for someone or something, but not knowing exactly who or what, or better yet, and strictly speaking, his body is what turns and stops to wait—Leto’s body, no?—that unique and completely external thing that, independent from what, inside, yields control and continuity, now casts, over the gray pavement, a shadow slightly shorter than him—his body, I mean—plump and young, standing in the morning, on the central street, giving the world the illusion, or the abusive proof, maybe, of his existence.
In a hurry, the Mathematician walks out of the newspaper office. Seeing him, Leto for a fraction of a second thinks, What a coincidence, the Mathematician, until he remembers that they have been walking together for several blocks and that he’s been waiting for him on the sidewalk for a couple of minutes. The Mathematician walks straight to the middle of the sidewalk and noticing Leto’s absence stops suddenly, disconcerted, but, turning his head, spots him on the next sidewalk and resuming a normal stride and smiling apologetically, starts walking toward Leto, who also smiles. And the Mathematician thinks: Did he decide to leave? Maybe he crossed the street to put some distance between us and now he’s smiling back guiltily. The editor had sat reading the press release on his desk without making a move to touch it, as though it were a venomous snake. They probably have me blacklisted, the Mathematician thinks. But, like a magician who makes several plates at once dance at the edge of a table, his thoughts are occupied at the same time with Leto, and the Mathematician, to show his good will and that the delay wasn’t his fault, hurries a little without managing to get very far, as the traffic on the two-lane cross street is stopped on the corner because of the movement on the central street, forcing him to wait a moment at the cable guardrail, smiling at Leto over the cars advancing at a walking pace.
From the opposite sidewalk Leto returns his smile with a vague gesture: on the one hand he wants to show that he accepts the forgiving smile that discharges his responsibility and which in any case is already disappearing from the Mathematician’s face, but also he doesn’t want to exaggerate the display in order to highlight that, after all, the Mathematician was the one who whistled on the street and who insists on following him on his walk. But the signals his expression sends in the Mathematician’s direction are neutralized and his expression is incomprehensible or at least doesn’t seem to have any effect on the Mathematician’s. Leto looks at him: the Mathematician has finally managed to step over the cable into the street, but a car, brushing past, stops him, and when he moves around it the car stops at the corner, but when he gets to the middle of the street another car coming in the opposite direction forces him, again, to stop; the car paused on the corner starts up then and, just then, the Mathematician’s entire body, dressed completely in white, including his moccasins, emerges, as if through the opening made by the panels of an accordion door, from between the trunks of the two cars, the same model but different colors, separating in opposite directions. He is present, clearly visible. For some reason he ignores and which he of course is not thinking about, Leto’s thoughts and memories are interrupted and he sees the street, the trees, the newspaper building, the cars, the Mathematician, the sky, the air, and the morning as a clear and animate unity from which he is slightly separated but completely present to, in any case at a fixed and necessary point in space, or in time, or matter, a fluid or nameless but no doubt optimal location, where all contradictions, without his having asked or even wanted it are, benevolently, erased. It’s a novel and pleasant state, but its novelty doesn’t reside in the appearance of something that didn’t exist previously but in a build-up of evidence in the preexistent, and the pleasure, likewise, doesn’t reside in a gratified desire but in some unknown source. It’s hard to say whether the clarity comes from Leto or from the objects, but suddenly, seeing the Mathematician advance upright and white from between the trunks of two cars separating in opposite directions, Leto begins to see the group, the Mathematician included, not as cars or trees or houses or sky or human beings, but as a system of relations whose function is no doubt connected to the combination of disparate movements, the Mathematician forward, the cars each a different way, the motionless things changing aspect and location in relation to the moving things, everything no doubt in perfect and causal proportion so that living it or feeling it or however you’d call his state, but without thinking it, Leto experiences a sudden, blunt joy, in which he can’t distinguish the joy from what follows, sharpening his perception. The car driving away behind the Mathematician is white and the one in front of him driving in the opposite direction, a pale green—a rare pale green, with shades of gray, as though some white and black had combined in its composition, no?—and the Mathematician, who is emerging from between them, contrasts against the background of trees forming a luminous half-light, over the sidewalk, on the block they just left. What is happening is at the same time fast and very slow. Independent of his physical features, of his dress, even of his social origin or the posture he is assuming, nor owing to some affective projection of Leto’s, who shares Tomatis’s objections and knows him less, the Mathematician, as he crosses the street, is transformed into a beautiful object, with an abstract and absolute beauty having nothing to do with his preexisting attributes but rather with some cosmic coincidence that joins, for a few seconds, many different elements into an unstable composition which, mysteriously, when the Mathematician reaches the sidewalk and the two cars separate some in opposite directions, dissolves, having existed only for Leto.
(Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph. Published courtesy Open Letter Books.)