By Juan José Saer

Translated by Steve Dolph

from Issue 20: Landmarks


Tomatis continues: Mario Brando considered himself an experimentalist, but he was a barefaced bourgeoisie. According to Tomatis, he lived and thought like a bourgeoisie. He married the daughter of an ultra-Catholic conservative general, as opportunistic as himself, who changed his political position with every changing government or circumstance. Brando claimed he had combined poetry and science, but his values and his lifestyle were as traditional bourgeois as they come: he raised his daughters Catholic, and when they grew up he married them to navy officers. According to Tomatis, he never went to mass more than his social obligations demanded, but his wife and daughter attended the chic eleven o’clock mass every Sunday. His brother-in-law, according to Tomatis, was also in the military, and, like his father, gained the rank of general. Starting in the sixties, he’d often visited North American instructors in Panama, in Washington, at the School of the Americas. Because his entire career transpired in the shadow of General Negri, the celebrated torturer, he’d been given the nickname, even in certain military circles, of secondary anticommunist, in reference likewise to his subdued personality, a possible side effect of his alcoholism. And, Tomatis says, precisely because of all of this, he’d once been forced to ask Brando for a favor. Tomatis is quiet for a few seconds, remembering, reflecting maybe. Soldi’s, Violeta’s, and the others’ expressions have also turned solemn. Gabriela lowers her head, possibly so as not to have to look anyone in the eyes, or possibly in order to listen better to what she’s actually heard many times already, from Tomatis, from her parents, or old friends that Tomatis and her parents had in common: the story of the disappearance of El Gato Garay—Tomatis’s friend and Pichón’s twin brother—and Elisa, his lover for several years. She was more or less separated from her husband, who knew about the affair. And though she didn’t live with Gato all the time, she would spend her weekends with him, and sometimes, when she wasn’t busy with the children, whole weeks. El Gato spent practically all his time at the beach house in Rincón that had once been the Garay family’s weekend retreat. El Gato lived on almost nothing, odd jobs from friends mostly, enough for food, for drinks, and for tobacco. He left the town less and less frequently; it was extremely strange to see him in the city. When Elisa visited him, her black car would be parked for days without moving, gathering sandy dust. Every so often they’d walk through the town on their way to the grocery or to the butcher shop, otherwise they were always in the white house, which was starting to fall apart, or in the rear courtyard, which could have been cleaned more regularly. They were an unusual couple, polite but not very demonstrative, and at that time being even slightly different from the people around you who put you in danger for your life. (Someone once joked that they were kidnapped because they didn’t have a television.)

Simone, a friend of Gato’s who ran an ad agency from which he gave him some work from home every so often, started to worry because Gato, who was usually punctual, was late handing in a small job he was doing, and he decided to go to Rincón (the house didn’t have a phone) to see what was up. Simone says that when he arrived everything seemed normal. Elisa’s black car, covered in sandy dust, was parked out front, the house was quiet, and the gate was shut. Simone opened the gate, clapped several times, crossed the rear courtyard, the hall, and, opening the screen door to the kitchen, knocked on the door itself. No one answered, and he was about to leave but he tried the handle and the door opened. When he was inside, a nauseating odor stopped him, and he was about to turn around when he saw a piece of raw meat rotting on a wooden cutting board on the stove. Next to the cutting board there was a large kitchen knife and an unopened packet of salt. The kitchen was clean and neat. Simone opened the fridge, in which he found a few bottles of white wine, some seltzer, and several tomatoes. Simone squeezed a tomato to see if it was rotten too, but though it felt a bit soft, he couldn’t tell how long it had been there. Then Simone walked through the house, room by room, inspected the bathroom, and, closing the double kitchen door behind him, walked doubtfully through the rear courtyard until, suddenly, he realized what might have happened. He walked out to the street and after checking that it was empty got in his car and returned to the city. He shut himself in his house for several hours without knowing what to do, and when he returned to the agency he called Tomatis.

Ten minutes later, Tomatis was at the office. At the back, Simone had a small closet where he prepared coffee and stored various things, cardboard sheets, old panels, cleaning supplies. After closing the door, he told Tomatis what he’d seen, and Tomatis was about to bolt out to find Héctor, Elisa’s husband, but Simone told him to stay a while because such a brief and agitated visit might awaken the suspicions of the guys that worked with him. So they drank a coffee and then walked out, still talking, to the main room, and after a few more minutes, Tomatis left. It was a difficult time for him: his marriage was falling apart, his mother was dying, Washington had died the year before, the whole world was collapsing around him, and he got drunk almost every night (soon enough, it would be every day, too).

Héctor and Tomatis drove to the house in Rincón and inspected everything: the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, the courtyard, without finding a single sign of violence, of alarm, of sudden flight, nothing. All the clothes were in the closets and the bed was made. In the kitchen they found an uneaten loaf of homemade bread wrapped in a plastic bag. Except for the dust that had gathered over the past few days, the house was clean, in order. The paper basket next to the table where El Gato usually worked was empty, and they found the advertising copy that Simone had given him to correct in two short stacks on the table: a taller one, on the right, with the pages already corrected in red pen, and the other, shorter, on the left, which proved, according to Simone, that Gato had been working on them, except that all the red pens he used were in the white ceramic jar where he usually kept them. Because El Gato was very organized, there was nothing mysterious about any of that. The rotten piece of meat—it must’ve been on the board, on the stove, for five or six days—suggested that if something out of the ordinary had happened, it must’ve been around dinner time: often, when they were together, Elisa and Gato skipped lunch and cooked something for dinner, which was always around nine. Tomatis and Héctor guessed that as she was preparing to cook, sometime around eight, Elisa had taken the meat from the fridge, planning to use the knife to remove the fat, while El Gato kept working a while longer on the ad copy, and suddenly, at some point, something happened—probably just as Elisa was putting the cutting board on the stove—that caused him to put the pen back in the ceramic jar, and, leaving the two piles of paper on the table, he got up and went through the kitchen to the rear courtyard, where visitors and strangers usually entered, clapping their hands to announce themselves, as Simone had done when he went to check on him. In all likelihood, El Gato got up calmly because the chair was in its usual position against the table, though someone else might have put it back later. It was difficult to imagine what might have happened; no matter how much they tried, Héctor and Tomatis couldn’t reach a single conclusion. They’d passed the time of spectacular kidnappings, meant to terrorize the neighborhood, when they’d arrive at dawn, seal off several blocks with sirens, police cars, military trucks, heavy weapons, and sometimes even helicopters, and they’d take not only the whole family or a good part of it, sometimes leaving one person shot dead in the same bed he’d been sleeping in when they found him, but also taking the furniture, the television, the fridge, every object of value they could find, and destroying anything they didn’t find useful. Now, the operatives, as they were called, were much more discreet. One morning, someone had watched from their balcony as they kidnapped a young man who was walking calmly down the sidewalk, not far from the center: a car had pulled up to the curb with the engine still running and three hooded men jumped out onto the sidewalk, pushing and hitting him, and shoved him into back seat, on the floor; two got in the back with him and the third got in the front, next to the driver. The car accelerated, pulled away quickly, and after few meters turned at the first corner and disappeared forever. Because there was no one in the street, the witness thinks that if he hadn’t been on his balcony, no one would have seen what had happened. Of course this witness wouldn’t be crazy enough to report it to the police: just as the kidnapped boy (who was a more or less familiar face in the neighborhood) was never heard from again, no one would ever again see the witness were he to report the kidnapping.

Maybe she’d heard someone clapping in the rear courtyard, and Elisa, leaving the knife and the meat on the stove, had gone outside to see who it was. It was highly unusual for anyone, especially in winter, to show up at that time—or, in fact, at any time: they lived in their own world, self-sufficient and unaware, a shadowy, inexplicable place that almost no one, not even their best friends, approached. And El Gato would’ve heard the clapping, and, probably surprised, would have waited a moment for Elisa to come tell him who it was. Elisa would have turned on the outside light in the hall, and, opening the doors to the kitchen, the door itself and the metal screen beyond, would have walked outside to the courtyard, toward the gate. El Gato, worried that she was taking so long, would have placed the red pen back in the ceramic jar and walked out to the rear courtyard. All of this Héctor and Tomatis could easily imagine; the rest, just out of reach, escaped them. Something had happened in the darkness of the street, alongside the beach, that would deprive them of Elisa and Gato forever.

In town, nobody knew anything; nobody had seen or heard anything, no disturbance, no suspicious movement, no shouting, nothing. At the station they listened to them politely, even diligently; the new captain—the previous one had been killed a few years before, and the station was no longer such a dangerous place—took their report seriously and started making inquiries, but after forty-eight hours the investigation hadn’t turned up a single lead or a single witness or achieved a single result. Héctor and Tomatis decided to go to police headquarters, to the courthouse, and to the federal police offices in the city. But they didn’t learn anything definitive there either. In the best cases they received evasive responses, and in the worst, veiled threats. They knew that if Elisa and El Gato had in fact been kidnapped they had to act quickly; the longer they delayed the less chance there was that they’d ever be seen again. Ultimately, a kidnapping was the only plausible theory, because it was more than obvious that they hadn’t fled, that there hadn’t been an accident—the car was still parked out front when Simone discovered their disappearance, and Héctor, who had another key, drove it back to the city—not a car accident or any other kind: they never went canoeing or walking through town, where they were never seen except when they were out shopping. So Héctor and Tomatis decided to file a report at the federal police station knowing that the people who took the report were convinced from the beginning that it was a waste of time, that if Elisa and El Gato had really been kidnapped by the army or the police their simulacra of legal action wouldn’t produce a single result. They did everything they could, and because Héctor had a verbal altercation with an army official, fearing that he’d get arrested or worse—at that time, anything was possible—Tomatis calmed him down, took him home, and asked him not to get involved any more. Another possibility had occurred to him, a way to find out something and, if they had been kidnapped by the military, to get them released. Héctor accepted: in the end, there wasn’t anything left to do.

The possibility that Tomatis was thinking of was to speak to Mario Brando, who he knew was married to the daughter of a general and whose brother-in-law was General Ponce, the right arm of General Negri, captain of the military district, who everyone knew was directly responsible for all clandestine activity in the area, every kidnapping, every assassination, every raid, and every seizure. It was said that Negri liked to participate, personally, in the bloodiest and most sordid activities, in solidarity with the troops, a rumor that he often bragged about. He’d said publicly several times that, to uproot the tree of subversion one has to dig broadly and deeply, and be prepared to clear every square inch of ground down to the last blade of grass in order to complete his task.

Brando and Tomatis had detested each other for years, but their interactions maintained a veneer of civility. Brando hated Washington and all his friends, among whom Tomatis was one of the closest. Tomatis was a longtime editor of La Región’s literary supplement, where neither he nor his friends hardly ever published, and Brando, who was an assiduous contributor, couldn’t afford to make an enemy of him. Tomatis was obligated to read his submissions before sending them to the print shop, and sometimes even when the proofs arrived, if there wasn’t anyone else there to read them, and he felt a malevolent glee publishing them because they seemed to make plain their author’s mediocrity, not realizing that the public to which they were directed may not have had the capacity to perceive this. Ever since he’d first heard of him, when he was seventeen or eighteen, Tomatis had considered Brando an impostor: to him, his bourgeois lifestyle and his avant-garde pretensions seemed irreconcilable, not to mention the happy accident, that his beloved precisionism attempted to combine poetry with science, the only intellectual activity that the comfortable bourgeoisie respected, because it was a way to make money, to increase their longevity, and to substitute a salaried worker for a cheaper machine. Tomatis and Brando lived in different worlds: they had different readers, different relationships with institutions, with enemies, and with allies, both literary and political. And while they moved in different circles and their ways of conceiving and practicing the literary profession were mutually opposed, there were a series of common spaces—the literary supplement of La Región, for instance—where inevitably, however much they ignored each other the rest of the time, like fragments of expanding material, their trajectories pushing them always farther apart, sometimes, in the relative and the immediate, trying to avoid a collision, trying as much as possible, with icy deference, to disregard the other, their paths crossed.

And so Tomatis, playing, as they say, his last card, decided to go and see him. The possibility was dubious and, Tomatis thought, possibly dangerous. He was in the midst of the most miserable years of his life: the world was falling apart around him, his marriage was a shipwreck, and, every night, he tried to swim away from the wreckage, the misery, and the fury. He still had the strength to go to the paper, but soon he would stop that too, first for a short while, and eventually forever. And so he went to the publisher’s office and, without explaining his reasons, asked him to arrange a meeting with Brando, and when the publisher didn’t act surprised he figured he already knew what they were but chose to ignore them, less from politeness than from a sense of caution. Soon enough, the publisher called him over the internal system and told him that Brando would be waiting for him at his house in Guadalupe at eight. The speed of the response intrigued him. Had Brando also guessed what would make Tomatis put aside his reticence and decide to speak with him, or had the publisher, with his talent for finding a compromise even in the most irreconcilably contradictory situations, mistakenly let something slip about the reasons for Tomatis’s visit, maybe suggesting, without specifying anything, that the paper was preparing a special supplement and that Tomatis wanted to ask him personally for a submission? For years, with the hatred and humiliation as poignant as ever (and even now, as he’s telling the story in the Amigos del Vino bar), Tomatis wondered how he could have been crazy enough to speak to Brando, but he would immediately reconcile himself to the certainty that, because it was the last chance they had to see Elisa and Gato again, not trying to see him would have been even worse. And so at eight on the dot he was ringing the doorbell at the house of Brando.

It was his father’s house, built in the twenties from the wealth of the pasta factory, two or three blocks from the beach. The well-kept house was on a corner, but withdrawn behind a garden that occupied at least a quarter of a block. After his father’s death, Brando had moved in. A light came on in the threshold and a uniformed servant opened the door, but rather than take him inside the house guided him through the trees to a sort of cubical pavilion topped with a semispherical cupola, constructed in an open space in the garden, and whose function Tomatis guessed immediately. It was Brando’s office, in which he’d built his amateur observatory: every so often La Región published an article or an interview in which Brando described his astronomical observations with such insight that Tomatis once commented that Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo—not a festive, happy bunch in the least—must have been doubled over with laughter in their graves.

The servant knocked, and immediately after hearing Brando’s voice, which was delayed a few seconds before reaching them, opened the door and lead him through. Brando was dressed in a wool dressing gown, but with an immaculate shirt and tie underneath. Tomatis had the sensation that he’d walked into a theater to see a play that was being performed just for him. Brando was leaning toward the telescope and maneuvering it with a single hand to find an optimum view, or a more exact framing, or adjusting it with slight movements to follow, at every moment, the regular path of the bodies that he was pretending to observe, so that with his free hand he could hold the edge of the dressing gown closed at his thighs to prevent it from opening too much because of the angle of his body, despite the fact that he had on excellent quality, carefully ironed pants beneath. He lingered a while in that position, not finding the perfect angle, or in all likelihood pretending not to, thereby forcing Tomatis to wait for him, whatever his reason for visiting, to pay back, in this way, the first portion of the debt that each thought the other owed him, the accumulation of interests that their antipathy, suspicion, aesthetic and political differences, behavior, or the circles in which they respectively moved, the tradition of accumulated gossip, slander, satire, and rancor, on top of what each had written, and so on, transformed into legend by the passage of time. Seeing him with his eye glued to the telescope sight, Tomatis felt a violent sense of obscenity, of a slithering, contented perversion, as if Brando were spying on a naked woman, although that understandable perversion would’ve inevitably produced less revulsion than seeing him intrude, with his indecent gaze, upon the intimacy of the stars. Finally, Brando straightened up, walked over to him, and invited him to sit down, while he himself sat down at a desk chair, behind a desk that, Tomatis observed, was built a few centimeters above the visitors’ chairs, allowing him to look down on them and keep them in an imperceptible position of inferiority. For three or four minutes they exchanged pleasantries: it was obvious they didn’t have anything to say to each other. And then, at a certain point, in an overly abrupt way, Brando stopped talking and, widening his eyes, looked at Tomatis inquisitively, but when Tomatis started to talk, tripping over his words at first, Brando leaned back in his chair and stared at some vague spot in the room above them, frozen in that position except for his hands, which, held in front of his mouth, met silently at the fingertips, with the fingers extended, as he must have done at the law firm when he met a new client for the first time. Overcoming the revulsion, the shame, the humiliation—after leaving he practically ran to the first bar he found and drank his first gin, and though it was barely eight thirty, he spent the rest of the night, till the morning, going from bar to bar, drinking—Tomatis started telling him what had happened to Elisa and El Gato, all their fruitless inquiries and the official reports they’d made, adding that Elisa and Gato were completely inoffensive and apolitical and lived in their own world, which could have seemed strange from the outside and might be interpreted mistakenly by someone with dogmatic and suspicious inclinations. After they’d exhausted all the possibilities, and though their family and friends’ doubts were as strong as ever, Tomatis remembered that Brando had family in the military, and it occurred to him that they might obtain, though him, some help or information—Tomatis had thought, for instance, of General Ponce, his brother-in-law, which was why he’d called the publisher to ask for a meeting. You should have called me directly, Brando said with an icy friendliness that carried a vague hint of reproach. But he fell silent again and sat waiting. In reality, Tomatis had already said everything.

—A normal person, Tomatis says now, to the people listening to him at the table in the Amigos del Vino bar, though at least three of his five listeners, having heard the story many times and having thought about it often, know what he’s saying by heart. A normal person would have reacted from the first words, asking for details, making some gesture or showing some emotion, but he just sat there with his impassive, conventional posture of polite attention and good breeding.

And when he finished speaking and the other’s attitude remained friendly and attentive the silence became so oppressive that Tomatis started over and stumbled through the story again, but rearranged, fragmented and rushed, knowing already that Brando not only would do nothing, but that he had introduced between himself and his visitor a kind of invisible wall against which his words were ricocheting. Tomatis’s agitation was a mixture of incredulity and fury, but his story, although incongruent and superfluous, had to continue till the end because he also knew that the visit had to maintain a semblance of normalcy and that the slightest incident could be dangerous: if things went south, Brando wouldn’t hesitate to call his brother-in-law to tell him what had happened. And so, when he finished, and the unbearable silence that met the first version of his story had returned and Brando continued to sit for long seconds, frozen in his conventional pose, staring at a vague point somewhere near the ceiling, Tomatis froze too, waiting, and though he was boiling inside, he attempted a calm and patient demeanor. After an interminable interval, and after giving him a strange look, severe yet momentary, that betrayed what, below his formality and stuffy bourgeois appearance, he was really thinking, Brando stood up. Suddenly, in a mundane and conventional tone, as though he hadn’t heard a single word that Tomatis had just said, he asked:

—Do you want to see the moon through the telescope? It’s very beautiful tonight.

Trying to keep his voice from trembling, in the same tone, Tomatis responded:

—Some other time. It’s getting late.

—I’ll walk you out, then, Brando said.

—No, no, Tomatis said. I know the way. Good-bye.

Brando didn’t respond, but as he was walking toward the door Tomatis could feel his gaze burning a hole in neck. When he was in the courtyard, in the translucent, frozen, winter night, he realized that, despite the cold air, he was sweating. The round and brilliant moon that was rising from the river illuminated the shadows between the trees and reflected off the grass around Brando’s observatory. In the street, he stood a moment on the corner, hesitating, and finally decided to walk toward the beach, hoping that one of the summer bars would still be open at this time of year. As he walked away, the interview with Brando seemed more and more incredible, more unreal, as though it had never happened, or as though he’d dreamed it, because in the normal world, where he’d been living up till that moment, it never could have; it had happened somewhere else, controlled by the laws of nightmares. And so, because of the absurdity of the meeting, its reality, as he left Brando’s house in search of a bar near the beach, faded away. The only thing that remained, troubling him, was the strange look, severe yet momentary, that Brando had given him before he stood up from his chair.

Brando died of cancer three years after that meeting, although tonight, as he’s recalling in the wine bar, though more than fifteen years have passed since the moment he saw, sparking darkly, across Brando’s eyes, the flashing look continues, in his memory, to transmit the concealed, violent meaning that emerged suddenly from the most carefully protected corners of the external world, where, nevertheless, everyone’s singularity is made and unmade, turning him a stranger to others. That look, intact in the memory of the one who received it, though the eyes it came from have been irrecoverable dust for years, still says, You dare to come here trying to convince me that your disappeared friends are innocent, but I know you and I know every one of your associates, so I know in advance that they’re subversives, and furthermore, that all of you, with all your false modesty, which can’t hide the arrogance of your behavior and your opinions, are the very seeds of subversion. I have work, I’ve run magazines, I’ve been a diplomat and a minister, and on top of that I have one of the most powerful law firms in the province, and all of you, I’m sure of it, ignore my poetry and ridicule it when you’re together, I know you do, getting drunk with your divorcees and raising someone else’s children. Free verse is your pretext for hiding the fact that you’re incapable of measuring a hendecasyllable or using rhyme correctly. If your friends were taken, there was a reason for it, so don’t come here with some story about their innocence. If I were you, I’d watch my step: I still haven’t decided anything, but it wouldn’t take much for me to pick up the phone and describe this unspeakable visit to certain people who wouldn’t have any problem coming to find you at home one of these nights to give you once and for all what you deserve.

Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, is widely acknowledged as the leading Argentine writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short story collections, Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.

Steve Dolph is the translator of Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Cicatrices, and La Grande. Glosa and Cicatrices were published by Open Letter Press as, respectively, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Scars. La Grande is forthcoming from Open Letter Press.

Original text: Juan José Saer, La grande. Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2005.

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