Nota al pie
1 I am sorry for not finishing the translation commissioned
2 to me by the House. You will find the original on the table as well as a hundred and thirty pages already translated.
3 The rest presents no difficulty and I hope that the House finds someone to finish it. Unfortunately, I have had to overlook your last corrections.
4 I could not rescue the typewriter and that text, like the previous one, will be a manuscript. I wrote it as clearly as possible and I hope, considering the circumstances, that you do not get too enraged with me.
5 Do you remember the sinusitis I contracted two months ago?
It seemed as if it was nothing, but at the end the pain would not let me sleep.
I had to call the doctor, and so, between medicines and treatments, the few pesos I had left me.
6 That is why I pawned the typewriter.
I think I already told you, but in the twelve years I have been working to mutual satisfaction for the House, I always tried to deliver, with the exceptions I will refer to later. This is the first job I leave unfinished, I mean, incomplete.
I am very sorry, but I cannot go any further.
7 A hundred and thirty pages, a hundred pesos per page, equals thirty thousand pesos. Would you be so kind as to give them to Mrs. Berta? Ten thousand covers my rent until the end of the month. I am afraid the rest will not be enough to cover the expenses that will proceed thereafter. Maybe by rescuing the typewriter and selling it, some more can be obtained.
It is a very good writing machine, I loved it dearly.
8 Its only flaw is the plastic keyboard, which wears out, but in general I think typewriters like the 1954 Remington are no longer manufactured.
I am also leaving some books, although I do not believe a lot can be made out from them.
There are other things, a radio, a heater.
I beg you to sort out the details with Mrs. Berta. As you know, I have no family or friends, not outside of the House.
9 It hurts me to take advantage of you in this way, to come and modify at the last moment such a friendly, such a fruitful, relationship.
With the typewriter issue, for example, I thought that if I asked for some money in advance, the House would not have refused.
Yet, in twelve years I had not done so.
I imagined that you might have looked at me in a particular way, that something would have changed between us, and at the end I did not make up my mind.
10 I wish you could keep the Appleton.
It is kind of an old edition, and it is well used, but I have no other thing to serve as testimony of my feelings towards you.
It is funny how a singular intimacy is established with everyday objects.
I think that recently I knew it from memory, yet I did not stop consulting it, even though I knew, beforehand, what I was going to find and the words which were useless to look for.
Maybe you will smile if I confess to you that, literally, I spoke with Mr. Appleton.
11 For instance, I said:
--Mr. Appleton, what is the meaning of aranata?
--Aham. And of cangrejo de río?
--The same as cangrejo.
--Ok, but what does cangrejo mean?
--Oh, don’t get offended.
You can translate it as spiny lobster too.
--Now we are talking. Thanks.
12 Funny, isn’t it?
One was able to know how something is said in two languages, and even ways of saying it differently on each language, but did not know what the thing was.
In the fields of zoology and botany, entire flocks of mysterious animals and spectral flowers have passed through my pages.
What would an amia calva be?,
I asked myself before releasing it into the Mississippi, imagining it with big antennas, a light on each end, sliding on the subaquatic mist.
How would a robin americano sing? and I listened to the crystal notes uncontainably climbing the silence of a millinery forest.
13 I have never forgotten that I owe you for all that new world.
It is probably lost in your memory; but that afternoon on which I descended the House’s staircase, holding against my chest the first novel you asked me to translate, appears in my mind always with a gleaming pink.
I remember I was afraid to lose the book, I even hung onto it with both hands.
Tram 48 advanced down Independence street on twilight was for me the slowest of rides:
I was eager to get into the new subject of my life as soon as possible. Even that neighborhood of two-story houses and long-pebbled streets seemed to me beautiful for the first time.
14 I went up running to my room, opened the hardcover book with those smelly paper pages which on the edges looked like a very white paste, a solid cream.
Do you remember that book?
No, it is unlikely, but the first phrase got engraved on me forever: “This, said Dan O’Hangit, is the case of a guy who was taken for a walk. He was on the front seat of any given type of car and someone sitting in the back seat shot him in the neck and threw him into Morningside Park.”
Yes, I admit that today it sounds stupid.
The very same novel (the one about the movie actor who kills a woman who discovers his impotence) seems quite bad after so many years.
15 Truth is that from then onmy life changed.
Without thinking it further, I left the tire repair shop and burned all the bridges.
The boss, who knew me since childhood, refused to believe it.
I told them I was going into the provinces, it was difficult to explain to them that I was no longer a blue collar worker, that I was no longer going to adhere rubber rectangles over brush-strokes of glue. I never, never had told them about the nights I spent in the Pitman, month after month, year after year.
Why did I choose English and not stenography or accounting? Destiny, perhaps.
When I think about all the effort it took me to learn, I conclude I have no ability for languages, and this gives me a dull satisfaction.
It means I built it all up myself, with the help of the House, of course.
16 I never saw them again.
Even today, when I pass by Rioja street, I take a detour not to find them, as if I needed to justify that lie.
Sometimes I feel sorry for don Lautaro, who was like a real father to me, which doesn’t mean he paid me well, but rather that he liked me and almost never shouted at me.
Getting out of there was progress in all levels.
Should I write about the zeal, the fanaticism, with which I translated that book?
I woke up very early and did not stop working until I was called for lunch. In the mornings I worked with the draft, appeasing myself at every step with the idea that, if needed, I could do two, three, ten drafts; no word was definitive.
On the margins I noted down possible variants of each questionable passage. In the afternoons I made corrections and wrote out the final copy.
17 My relationship with the dictionary, which in those times was brand-new with its clean wood paper cover, began back then:
-- Mr. Appleton, what is the meaning of vástago?
-- And crúor?
-- Crúor means cruor!
What can I say, if I consulted him the most simple words, even when I was sure of their meaning.
I was so afraid of making a mistake…
That Dorothy Pritchett novel, that awful little novel --to be honest-- was sold for a nickel at the kiosks:
I translated it word by word.
I clarify that back then it didn’t seem awful to me, on the contrary: at every instant I found in it new depths of meaning, greater action subtleties.
18 I was convinced that Mrs. Pritchett was a great writer, not as great as Ellery Queen or Dickson Carr (because I was then furiously reading the best crime fiction you recommended me) but well, she was on her way.
When the translation was finished, I corrected and wrote it out again for the second time.
That mechanism explains how it took me forty days to finish, even when I worked twelve hours a day, and more than that, because even in my sleep I woke up to catch someone who inside my head tried out for tense or consistency, joined two phrases in one, pleased himself with mocking cacophonies, alliterations, meaning variations.
All my capacities were in that task, which was more than a simple translation.
It was -- I saw it way later -- the change of a man for another man.
19 Is it odd that the job finally turned out to be faulty, pretentious, fossilized by the ambition of taking accuracy to the very core of each word?
I couldn’t see it, I was enchanted and even knew some paragraphs by heart.
I was shaking and sweating the day I brought you the manuscript. My future was in your hands.
If you rejected the job, the tire-repair shop awaited me. In my nimiety I fantasized you would read the novel right there, as I waited by all the time that was needed. But you just had a look and put it away.
--Come back in a week --you said.
What an atrocious week!
I passed steadily from the most crazy hope to the most miserable of moods.
--Mr. Appleton, what is the meaning of desaliento absoluto?
--Melancholy, depression, distress.
20 I went back. From your desk, you slowly looked through the manuscript.
I spied, with a fright, the many corrections in green ink.
You did not talk. I must have been pale because suddenly, you smiled.
--Don’t be scared --you said, handing me the pile of papers that you had once again organized--.
You have a table right there.
I studied the corrections. Almost all of them were fair, some were not substantious, I would have liked to discuss a few.
With a rush of blood to my face, I learned that actual doesn't mean actual, but true. (Disculpe, Mr. Appleton).
But what filled me with shame was the ruthless crossing-out of half a hundred footnotes with which my anxiety had butchered the text. It was then when I gave up that atrocious resource.
After all, you saw in me abilities that no one would have guessed. That is why I complied, without resentment, to that final admonishment which, in other circumstances, would have made me cry:
--You have to work more.
21 You signed the pay order: two hundred twenty pages pages, two pesos a page. Less than what I made after forty days of work at the tire-repair shop, but it was the first fruit of an intellectual job, the symbol of my transformation.
I left with my second book below the arm.
--¿Inexplicable alegría, Mr. Appleton?
--The joy that you feel.
Three-hundred pesos went to pay rent.
Another hundred towards the Remington’s second-payment.
I immersed myself fiercely in Fort Whacks, that story about the old lady that gets whacked by axe blows at the beach.
Do you remember it? I was happy when I guessed on page sixty who the killer was.
I never read in advance the book I was translating: thus I participated in the tension that was being created, I assumed a part of the author and in that way my job could have a bit of, lets say, inspiration. It took me five days less and you should have admitted I took in your lessons.
Of course, the craft is only acquired after years, years of daily work. One progresses without noticing it, as a plant grows from the cotyledon to the Christmas Tree.
22 You cannot tell the difference when comparing one of today’s pages with one from a month ago, but if you compare it with one from last year, then you can exclaim:
How far have I come!
There were more important changes, of course.
My hands, for example, they lost their roughness, becoming smaller and cleaner. I mean, it was easier to wash them, there was no need to fight against the trace of tools and scabs and the remnant of acids.
I have always been slim, yet I became slender, more delicate.
With my fifth book The Bloody Missal, I skipped the second draft and gained another five days.
You started to be happy with me, even though you disguised it with that sort of discretion that arises from the best of friendships, delicacy I always admired on you.
For my part, I still did not match my salary at the shop, but I was getting close.
Meanwhile, that extraordinary incident happened.
One morning, you were waiting for me with a special smile and the clarity that entered through surrounded you, it gave you a paternal aura.
--I have something for you --you said.
23 I then knew what it was.
As you placed your hand inside the desk’s drawer and with three movements --which almost felt rehearsed-- you put in front of my eyes the shiny red hardcover of Deadly Moon, I pretended I did not feel, or was not going to feel, that very excitement. It was my first work, my first translation I mean.
I took it as one receives something sacred.
--Look inside --you said.
--And inside, the lightning.
who was me, abridged and in font-size 6, but me, León de Sanctis, whose name the linotype machine had stamped once and the printer had repeated ten thousand times as ten thousand times the bells ring on a day of open joy, me, me…
I went down to the saleroom.
I paid 15 pesos for five copies, discount included: I needed to show, give away, dedicate.
One was for you.
That night I bought a bottle of Cubana brandy and for the first time in my life I got drunk as I read outloud the most dramatic chapters of Deadly Moon. The next morning, I could not remember the moment I dedicated one copy “to my mom”.
24 Little by little my situation improved.
From a three-bed room I moved to a two-bed one. However, I was not trouble-free.
The others were bothered by the noise of the typewriter, especially at night. They were, and they are, as you might confirm, mainly blue collar workers.
I never befriended them: they reminded me of my past and I suppose they envied me.
In May, 1956, I managed to translate in fifteen days a 300-page novel. The price had increased to six pesos per page. Unfortunately, rent had also tripled.
The House’s good intentions were always nullified by inflation, demagoguery, and revolutions. But I was young and still full of enthusiasm.
Every month one of my books came out and my name as a translator was fully printed.
When I was mentioned for the first time in a section of La Prensa, I was overjoyed. I still have that piece of newspaper and the many others that followed.
According to those testimonies, my versions have been correct, good, faithful, excellent and once, magnificent.
It is also true that other times they forgot about me, or considered me sloppy, inconsistent, licentious, all these depending on the temporary swings of the critics.
25 Should I confess I entered into a vanity game?
I compared myself to other translators, I read them with sleepless eyes. I found out their age, the number of their works.
I remember their names: Mario Calé, M. Alinari, Aurora Bernárdez.
If they were worse than me, I disdained them forever.
I promised myself that with time and patience I would surpass the others. Sometimes my fantasy took me far away: I dreamt of emulating Ricardo Baeza, even when we worked on different genres. At the end I gave up and left him alone in his long-established glory. I started to read other stuff. I discovered Coleridge, Keats, Shakespeare.
Perhaps I never quite got them, but some lines remained forever engraved:
The blood is hot that must be cooled for this.
The very music of the name has gone.
When I asked you to try me on other collections in the House, you refused: it is harder to translate crime-fiction than historic or scientific works, even when they pay less.
The compliment implicit to that reflection cheered me up for a while. The change during those four years was already spectacular, definitive.
Strong headaches took me to the optometrist.
When I saw myself with glasses, I thought again and again in Don Lautaro’s workshop.
26 Nevertheless, the biggest transformation was an inner one. Apathy and negligence insidiously took over.
I was not noticing them: from one day to the next they passed, as the boredom with which sand falls in an hourglass.
Aren’t we dreadful clocks that suffer with time?
No one around me could understand the true nature behind my work. I had already acquired the necessary ability to translate five pages an hour; four hours a day were enough for me to survive.
Those who handle cranes and kneaders and lathes, they thought of me as privileged, idle.
They ignored what it feels like to be inhabited by another who is often an idiot: I dare to think of that word just now.
To lend your head to a stranger and get it back when it is worn-out, empty, without ideas, useless for the rest of the day.
They lended their hands, I rented my soul.
The Chinese have a curious expression for a servant.
They call him Yung-jen, a used man.
Am I complaining?
You always assisted me with your help, the House never committed the smallest injustice towards me.
The fault had to be inside me, in that unhealthy tendency for loneliness that I have had since childhood, perhaps favored by the fact that I never met my parents, or by my ugliness, or my shyness. Here I touch on a painful spot, my relationship with women.
27 I believe they think I am hideous and I fear their rejection. I never approach them, so months and years of abstinence pass by, years of desire and hate for them. I am capable of following a girl for blocks while gathering the courage to say something to her, but when I am by her side I go past her and lower my head.
I once made up my mind, I was desperate. She turned around (I have not forgotten her face) and simply said “Idiot”, to me. She was not even beautiful, she was nobody, but she could call me an idiot. Three years ago I met Celia. A rainy night united us below a porch. She was the one who spoke first. It is silly, but it took me five minutes to fall in love. When the rain stopped I brought her to my room and the next day I made arrangements for her to stay. For one week everything went well. Later she got bored, she cheated on me with everyone in the building. One day she left without a word. That is the closest thing to love I can remember.
I argued with you frequently whether or not the fall of Peronism was what finished with the zeal for crime-fiction novels. So many good collections! Rastros, Evasión, Naranja: all of them vanished by science-fiction. The House, as always, was foresighted and created the Andromeda Series. Sturgeon, Clark, Bradbury were the names of our new gods. At the beginning my interest was revived. Afterwards it was all the same. Strolling around the landscapes of Ganimedes or tuning in to Jupiter’s Red Spot, all I saw was my room’s colorless spectrum.
I cannot tell the moment I began to get distracted, to skip words and then phrases. I solved any difficulty by omitting it. One day I lost half of an Asimov novel. Guess what I did. I invented it from start to finish. No one caught it. As a result, I fantasized about becoming a writer myself. You talked me out of it, with good reason. I did the math, the time it would have taken me to write a novel and how much I would have gotten paid for it: I was better off as a translator. I then cheated deliberately, my pages began to have more blank spaces, less lines, I did not go to the trouble of correcting them anymore. Mr. Appleton looked at me gloomily from a corner. I almost never consulted him.
--¿Cuál es la métrica del diccionario?
--That is not a question.
Perhaps now you expect a spectacular revelation, an explanation for what I am going to do when I finish this letter. Well, this is it. I am alone, I feel tired, I am good for nobody and what I do is useless, too. I have lived to perpetuate in Spanish the essential lineage of idiots, the specific chromosome for foolishness. In more than one way, I am worse than when I started. I have a suit and a pair of shoes as I did back then, but I am twelve years older. In these years, I have translated for the House one-hundred-and-thirty books, 80,000 words each, an average of six letters per word. That’s sixty-million keystrokes. I now understand why the keyboard is worn-out, each key sunken, each letter erased. Sixty-million strokes are too many, even for a good Remington. I look at my fingers in awe.
translated by Enrique Aureng Silva
In Memoriam Alfredo de León † circa 1954
Undoubtedly, León has wanted Otero to come find him, naked and dead under the sheet. That’s why he wrote his name on the envelope and put in it the letter that might explain everything.
Otero has come and silently looks at the oval covered face as if it were a silly riddle. Yet, he has not opened the letter. He wants to imagine the version that the dead would have pronounced if he could sit in front of him, by his desk, and talk as they did so many times before.
A calm sadness purifies the face of the tall gray-haired man who does not want to stay, does not want to leave, does not want to admit he feels betrayed. But that is exactly how he feels. All of a sudden, it seems to him as if they had never met, as if he never did anything for León, as if he was never – and they both admitted to this once – a kind of father, needless to say a friend.
He has come, anyway. And it is him, and none other, who says:
--Who would have said it,
and who hears the voice of Mrs. Berta, looking at him with those dry pale-blue eyes inserted on the wide and patient face that has no sex nor memory, muttering the inspector is on his way and why don’t you open the letter. But he does not open it, even when he imagines its general tone of somber apology, its first phrase of moan and farewell.1
None of them makes from this a crumb of what both would have made talking, and he has the dark, sudden feeling that all of this is stacked against him, that the last days of Leon’s life made him a perplexed witness of his death. Why, León?
It is not a pleasure to be here, in a room he does not know, next to the window which filters a slighted, dusty light. On the desk he recognizes Ballard’s most recent novel, Cuyas’ dictionary edited by Appleton, the half handwritten page in which the last syllable trembles and grows impatient until it bursts into an ink splatter. It is clear that León thought he had already finished, and there is no doubt that the sad gray-haired man who looks at him has not come to rebuke the incomplete job nor to think who will complete it. I came, León, to accept the idea of your unexpected death and to be at peace with my conscience.
Suddenly, the other has become mysterious for him as he has become mysterious for the other, and there is a bit of irony in the fact that he even ignores the way the other chose to kill himself.
-- Poison -- answers the old woman, who continues to sit still, wrapped in her black and gray wools.2
She crosses her arms and prays in a low voice, without crying, not even suffering, except for that general and abstract way in which so many things sadden her: the passing of time, the dampened walls, the holes on the sheets and the superfluous habits that make up her life.
There is a rectangle of sunlight and clothes hanging in the patio. Under the perspective of floors and iron handrails from where a feather duster emerges moving alone in a small cloud of dust -- as in a bad joke --, a lost turban marches and an old man appears and looks out and spits.
Otero watches all of this as in a snapshot, but the image which he wants to make up in his mind is different: the elusive face, the character of the man who for more than ten years worked for him and for the House. No one can live with the dead, that is why it is essential to kill them inside oneself, reduce them to an innocuous image, forever secured in neutral memory. A spring moves, a curtain closes and we have passed judgement and sentence on them and a soft ointment of oversight and forgiveness.
It seems that the old woman cradles the space between her hands.
--He always paid on time,3
and the memory of the deceased emerges in meager anecdotes: his terrible eating habits and the noise he made at night while writing and how he got sick, becoming a sad hermit, not wanting to get out of his room.
--Then he went mad.
Otero almost smiles when he hears the word. It is easy to say that León ended up in madness, and even the case file might state it as such. But no one was going to know what made him go mad, even when his eccentricities were visible to everyone. And so, during the last months, he insisted on writing by hand, claiming that his typewriter had vague issues. Otero allowed this, even after complaints from the printing house, just as he let other things pass because he felt they were not directed against him; they were just a portion of the struggle between the suicidal man and an indecipherable something. The single page which appeared inserted in Leon’s last job should still be inside one of his desk’s drawers. It did not have but a single word --shit-- repeated from start to end with the handwriting of a sleepwalker. The woman asks who is going to pay the burial expenses and the man answers:
which must be the business where León worked.
Having clarified this, she feels liberated and brings a handkerchief to her eyes to wipe off a scarce weeping -- partially for León, who at the end was poor but not a nuisance, and partially for herself, for everything that has died inside her during so many years of loneliness and hard work among harsh and miserable men. Otero’s gaze roams among an oasis of grey palm-trees where camels drink. But it is only one palm-tree, repeated infinitely on the wallpaper; only one camel, only on puddle, the face of the deceased lying in ambush between the arcs of the foliage, looking at him with the eyes of the thirsty animal, finally dissolving while leaving him the aftertaste of a wink, the grudge of mockery. Otero shakes his head in order to avoid distraction, to bring back Leon’s real face, his enormous mouth, his eyes -- black eyes? -- while from the hall he listens to the officer’s voice calling on the phone and saying “Courthouse”. He hangs up, and dials and asks: “Courthouse?” and hangs up and strolls with the hands behind his back, among gloomy coat racks and bronze flower pots.5
Leon might have meant with this gesture that his life was a tough one, and it is not easy to deny this when looking at the bare walls of his room, the winter and summer flannel suit hung from the closet mirror, the men in t-shirts standing in line by the bathroom door. But whose life is not tough, and who but himself chose that ugliness which explained nothing and which he probably did not see. Maybe it is not the right time to think about these things, but which excuse would Otero give if in the presence of death he is not as sincere as he always has been. Was the suicidal man sincere with him? Otero suspects that he was not. From the very beginning, behind Leon's appearance of cheerfulness, he detected that melancholic vein which arose as his essential trait. He talked a lot and laughed too much, but his was a bitter laugh, a sour joy, and often Otero asked himself if in the middle of it all, deep under the surface, unnoticed even to León, there was not a trace of a wicked trick, a subtle satisfaction amid the disgrace. -- He had no friends -- says the old woman --. That is exhausting.6
The visitor no longer listens. He penetrates roads of ancient memory looking for Leon’s lost image. And he finds him, always bent over, frail, resembling a bird, pecking words on long pages, cursing proof-readers, rejecting academies, inventing grammar. Yet it is still a smiling face, the face of those times when he loved his craft. Some cleverness was needed to foresee a potential translator in that young man who came out of a gas station -- was it a repair shop? -- with his acceptable Spanish and his laborious English figured out by correspondence. He discovered, little by little, that translating was different from knowing two languages: a third dominion, new agency. And then the toughest secret of all, the real sign of the art: to delete his personality, go unseen, write as someone else so that nobody notices.
--Do not come in-- says the old lady.
Otero stops, receives the mug that the little woman gives him, sits and drinks the coffee.7
Another lovely burst of memory lights up his face: Leon’s amazed expression that morning when he saw the first novel he had translated. The next day León showed up with a new tie and gave him a signed copy as a gift: the testimony of some inherent loyalty.
Others passed by the House, learned the few or the many things they knew and left looking for more money. But during some moments, maybe during many moments, León was able to suspect the House’s mission, he somberly grasped the sacrifice of editing books, feeding the dreams of the people, and building them a culture, even against their own selves. On the side table the alarm clock has started to beep, shaking on its nickel legs. By its side, a photo trembles in its frame, the shameless, vulgar picture of a young woman shaken by laughter, and so the flower dress and the wide hips dance too. --Women?
--Not anymore -- and the clock has another alarm attack, the photo has another fit of laughter and dance.8
Lost in time, Otero owns up to the day in which León began to be someone else: the Scarlet Series period, the Andromeda Collection (lined up on the only shelf like a secret calendar) to which this man said no, even forgetting the childlike pride he got from his works:
--Would you guess how many cards I have at the National Library?-- the almost bald head buried between the suit’s lapels.
-- How many, León?
-- Sixty. More than Manuel Galvez.
-- Psh, half of them are missing.
-- This translation is unique. A thousand words less than the original.
-- Have you counted them?
The teasing laugh:
-- One by one.9
Afterwards -- but when? -- a hidden spring sprang. It would be accurate to admit that in the last visits Otero did not welcome León with pleasure. León filled his office with problems, with questions and laments that sometimes had nothing to do with him but rather with the general state of affairs, the bombings in Vietnam or the southern blacks, topics he did not want to discuss, even when he had strong opinions. León ended up agreeing with those opinions, of course, but it was easy to tell that deep down he disagreed, and such slyness was jointly borne but not without mutual aggressions.
He felt the need to sweep with a broom all that slag of excuses and grief whenever he had left. What’s going on, León?
-- I don’t know -- the sobbing voice --. It’s just that the world is full of injustice.
The very last time, Otero asked his secretary to handle León.10
It is useless, anyway, to remember that minimal episode and oppose it to the constant interest he showed for Leon’s stuff, even for the banal details:
--This month you translated two books. Why don’t you change suits?
It would have been like asking him to shed his skin, and Otero forgot about the secret project to someday invite him for dinner, introduce him to the manager, and offer him a stable job at the House. He gave up and left him to his apathy, to his vague daydreams, to the idleness that engender morbid ideas, growing to envy León because he could get up at any time, take a holiday, while he had to stay awake due to the remote plans of the House. Perhaps his kindness was misplaced, perhaps he should not have allowed León to face alone the fantasies of his -- to be fair-- not too sparkling intelligence.11
But it is difficult to determine the limits of our obligations towards others, to invade their freedom for their own good. And what excuse to call on? Once or twice a month, León came, handed over a pile of pages, got paid and left. Could he have stopped him, told him that his life was wrong? In that case, shouldn’t he do the same with the other fifty House employees?
Otero stands up, walks, leans out of the hall door to the patio’s blinding light and listens to the noises that the dead might have listened to: metallic bangs, trickling drops, sweeping brooms. It is as if León had never existed, because nothing ever stops. The soup in the pot, the goldfinch in its cage -- that undaunted singing inside a forest of badges --and the voice of the old lady warning that it is eleven and hopefully the inspector is about to arrive.12
For a moment the visitor wishes the same because many things await him at the office, budgets to solve, letters to answer and even a long distance call, not counting lunch with Laura, his wife, to whom he will have to explain what happened. But before that, he must know what León was and why he killed himself: before the inspector arrives to uncover the sheets and asks him if that was León.
The mystery could be in his childhood, in old memories of poverty and humiliation. Did Leon once mention that he did not know his parents? Perhaps that is why he felt deprived and could not love the world’s order. But except for that accident, which he undoubtedly exaggerated, no one had ever deprived him.13
The House was always fair to him, sometimes even generous. When two years ago, without any obligation, the House decided to give half a year’s bonus to only one among its ten translators, that was León.
It is true that in recent times he showed an odd aversion, a phobia, for a certain kind of works -- the very ones he liked at the beginning -- and even a secret (and laughable) wish to influence the editorial policy of the House. But even that last whim was about to be fulfilled: to go from science-fiction to the Time Landmark Series. Without a doubt a risky step for a man of a middle-sized culture, one acquired by chance, randomly, full of omissions and prejudice.14
Nothing was enough, it was clear. León never comprehended his true status in the House: the best-paid, most highly-regarded crime fiction translator, the one who was never skimped on work, not even during the most difficult times when some thought that the whole publishing industry was crumbling. Otero has not seen the two men dressed in white chatting outside with two residents, the stretcher leaning against the ocher wall of the patio, spurted by rain and sunlight and laundry hung out to dry.
The officer with the hands on his back sticks his nose in the room and announces, as in a low-voiced confidence:
-- He is coming,
which is the verb used when referring to the inspector.
Confronted by such immediacy, all of a sudden Otero sees things more clearly. Leon’s suicide was not an act of greatness nor an unconscious outburst. It was the escape of a mediocre, a symbol of times of unrest. Resentment, lack of responsibility dwell on all of us, but only a weak man exerted them like this. Others stopped, ripped, attacked the order of things, threw values into doubt. The destructive force León turned against himself was the metaphysical disease corroding the country, too difficult to be faced by the very same men who were supposed to be building it.15
Confronted by such immediacy, all of a sudden Otero sees things more clearly. Leon’s suicide was not an act of greatness nor an unconscious outburst. It was the escape of a mediocre, a symbol of times of unrest. Resentment, lack of responsibility dwell on all of us, but only a weak man exerted them like this. Others stopped, ripped, attacked the order of things, threw values into doubt. The destructive force León turned against himself was the metaphysical disease corroding the country, too difficult to be faced by the very same men who were supposed to be building it.16
It is useless that Otero keeps looking. He does not want to be guilty of any omission, indifference, negligence. Nevertheless he is guilty, in the worst possible terms, the same that Laura always reproaches to him: too good, too soft.
Finally trapped, he twists, defends himself, reacts. It is not that he is good, but rather that he did not need to wait for human relations to be invented to treat workers as they deserve, as the men responsible for creating whatever is great in this country, and in the House.17
But did you fail with León, Otero? Yes, I failed with León, I should have intervened, reprimanded him on time, I should not have allowed him to continue down that path. The admission explodes in a final sigh and Otero stops moving between the paper palm-trees, the evidence of his earthly craft, his saturated memory circuits. All in all, is time to feel some pity for him, to remember how slim he was and his humble origins, and so the astonished lady hears him say:
-- Too much.18
When the inspector arrived, it was not necessary for him to look at the things in the room. They seemed to look at him in that fraction of a second in which everything got covered, catalogued, understood. He didn’t need to introduce himself either, the blue overcoat, the grey hat, the wide face and wide mustache. He simply opened the hand by his hips and Otero opened his.
-- Did you wait for long?19
--No --Otero replied.
The inspector was freshly shaved and just out of bed. Under his dark skin, a healthy pink showed through, and even though the three steps he took towards the bed and the deacesed were quick and precise, a trail of fatigue, boredom, of stuff already seen and known was left in the stagnant air of the room.20
The hand of the inspector took an end of the sheet and pulled it, uncovering the little, blueish and naked body. Mrs. Berta did not avert her eyes, perhaps because she had already seen him like that when she came to wake him up in the summer days, or maybe because her hopeless and sexless world was beyond such slight embarrassment.21
Finally Otero found what he had been waiting for and tried to stand firm. When he wanted to look away, his gaze bumped into the inspector’s face.
--Did you know him?
Otero swallowed hard.
--Yes --he said.22
The inspector covered the dead body and paved the way for unpracticed and empty compliments, already uttered consolations, gestures of superfluous memory.23
León had stopped moving. The spring had triggered, the curtain was closed, the picture was ready for the archives. It was a sad image, but he had the serenity which he lacked in life.24
Otero said good-bye and started to leave. At the last moment, he remembered the envelope in his pocket. --There is a letter --he said--. Perhaps you...25
But for the inspector, the one that the late León wrote and signed for the judge was enough.26
--That is yours --he said.27
This original version of this short story appears in Walsh, Rodolfo J. 1987. Un kilo de oro. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor.