Felisberto: A Look2 Essay on Felisberto Hernández
In 1988, when I went to Uruguay for the first time, the country was emerging from a long military dictatorship, and the capital, Montevideo, was a quiet, gray city that reminded me of Central Europe. The arts have always been important in Uruguay. You feel their presence everywhere—from the striking modern architecture that invigorates the stately old nineteenth-century houses on the streets of Montevideo to the constructivist murals—on public buildings and in people’s backyards—in the style of Uruguay’s most famous painter, Torres García. There’s a strong literary tradition as well.
When I was first there, however, books were not abundant. Imports were prohibitively expensive, there were few public libraries, and Uruguay’s small, struggling publishing houses produced rudimentary editions on cheap, grainy paper—precariously bound paperbacks that were inevitably faded, dusty, crumbling from use or age, and stained by the omnipresent humidity that makes the climate of Uruguay such a challenge, especially in the wintertime. But the man I’d gone to visit, an architect I later married, had some books lying around—he’d had a first-rate education in the public schools, read, among other things, Poe and Melville in excellent translations. And his mother, a schoolteacher who, like most Uruguayans, was a diehard fan of Borges, had a decent collection of Uruguayan literature, some of which I tried to read while I was there. At the time, my Spanish was not good enough to catch the subtleties, but some things stuck: the loose, introspective plots; the fresh, modern tone; the underlying fatalism, alleviated by a dark and human humor.
Like Argentina, its larger, more populous neighbor to the west, Uruguay, whose 3 million or so inhabitants are mostly descended from Europeans, has a strong, vibrant culture, an unprecedented mix of European influences—Spanish, Italian, British, and French—and local references, most particularly the grassy, cow-speckled plains (known, in Argentina, as the pampas) and the Río de la Plata, the wide, ambling river that separates Montevideo from Buenos Aires. Rooted in the idiosyncrasies of human behavior—family and friends are paramount—the culture of the Río de la Plata has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for fiction. Argentina’s writers are better-known, especially Borges and Cortázar, but Uruguay has produced several writers whose importance to the Latin American canon is indisputable: Horacio Quiroga, an early-twentieth-century writer whose macabre stories are mostly set in the jungles of northern Argentina; Juan Carlos Onetti, a gloomy existentialist, who created, under the spell of Faulkner, the fictional port city of Santa María and populated it with lost and aimless characters; and then there’s Felisberto Hernández, an unusual writer, profoundly Uruguayan, who first caught my attention with “Ursula,” his slow, comically erotic story about a lonely man who becomes obsessed with a woman who looks like a cow.
In the stories, sketches, and novellas that constitute his modest oeuvre, Hernández creates worlds that are unexpected and unsettling—a troubled young woman is in love with her balcony; a wealthy wine importer, whose staff arranges elaborate nightly scenes with his collection of life-size dolls, slowly goes mad; a man who is working as an usher discovers that his eyes work like lamps in the dark. More frequently, Hernández creates ordinary protagonists who have an extraordinary ability to mine the mysteries of the simplest experiences. When he was young, Hernández made his living as a pianist, and many of his stories are narrated by solitary, young pianists who give concerts, play for private audiences, or travel through small provincial towns. In other stories, narrators who share biographical details with Hernández revisit their boyhood memories to see what they reveal. In Hernández’s world, objects, memories, and abstract concepts have a life of their own—secrets, desires, a sly sense of humor. A cigarette doesn’t want to be smoked; the silence in a theater at the beginning of a concert “liked to listen to the music, slowly taking it in and thinking it over before venturing an opinion”; “my sadness,” says one narrator who’s infatuated with a woman who’s not interested in him, “took a poet’s pride in itself and the sense of easy well-being it got from feeling unloved and misunderstood.” It’s odd, at first, to enter these worlds, although many of their elements are deeply familiar, but once you acclimate yourself, it’s difficult to leave. As a friend of mine says, Hernández’s stories move like dreams.
Like Kafka, with whom he has a close affinity, Hernández’s stories are often abstract—a man, a room, a bus; a woman, a story, a late afternoon—although his themes and tropes are clearly Uruguayan: memory and nostalgia; cigarettes, hotels, and madness; boredom and inertia; shadow and light; cafés, public parks, stray horses and carts (a staple, to this day, of Uruguayan life). And he often sets his stories in big, dilapidated houses in overgrown gardens, a metaphor, perhaps, for the fate of the European past on this strange, new continent. The ease with which Hernández moves between the past and the present, between memories, reality, and dreams connects him to magic realists like Borges, García Márquez, and Juan Rulfo, as well as Southerners like Faulkner, revered in Latin America, whose characters, like Hernández’s, have often lost something crucial that continues to haunt them.
But there’s something defiantly alive about Hernández’s stories, even when he’s tracking down the past—the exuberance of discovery; wry, forthright dialogue that feels surprisingly contemporary; a playful eroticism. A young boy feels up a statue as he waits for his piano teacher; a writer whose attention begins to drift at a reading runs his eyes—several times—through the “wavy” hair of a woman in the audience. Both “Ursula,” with its bovine longing, and “Mama’s Tree,” the story of a petulant young woman who punishes her lover for climbing up the wrong tree for a late-night tryst, exude a sexuality that is natural and robust, the kind of sexuality you sometimes find in the earliest nude photographs of women. The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti once said that Hernández “spent his life lifting the skirts of things, themes, souls,” and Hernández’s penchant for discovery sometimes gives his stories the feeling of philosophical or psychological investigations, one of the things that has made them difficult to categorize. In a story he wrote toward the end of his life, one of his writer-narrators ruminates on this, “Not only do I like to travel through different cities, but through arts and sciences. Maybe I’m like the duck that doesn’t fly or run or anything…”
Over the years, Hernández has been called a magic realist, a fabulist, a surrealist, and a naïf—other critics insist that he is none of these things. He’s been called a child, an “irregular,” a “vanguard eccentric,” and an animist, but the best way to categorize him might be to say, as Calvino does, that he is “a writer like no other: like no European, nor any Latin American.” García Márquez claimed him as an important influence, saying, “If I hadn’t read the stories of Felisberto Hernández in 1950, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today.” Cortázar, who tips his hat in “House Taken Over” to Hernández’s story “The Flooded House,” wrote an excellent analysis of Hernández’s work, as well as a poignant posthumous love letter based on his discovery that the two of them had once been in a small Argentinian city at the same time without knowing it. Roberto Bolaño, in “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” exhorts the reader, “You must read Quiroga, you must read Felisberto Hernández, you must read Borges.” On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, Hernández feels increasingly relevant. Vital, innovative, not dated like some of the Boom writers he influenced (which may have to do with the fact that, aside from one notable exception, Hernández eschewed politics), his work prefigures important elements in Post-Boom writers like Bolaño and César Aira.
Uruguay was a young country when Hernández was born in Montevideo in 1902, a peaceful time that was characterized by a welcome influx of immigrants, a growing shift from rural to urban life, and the beginnings of a strong welfare state. The slow pace of life and the tight-knit network of family and friends encouraged the idiosyncratic contemplation that characterizes many of his stories. When he was fourteen, Hernández began working as an accompanist for silent films to help support his family (his father, a plumber who immigrated from the Canary Islands, struggled financially), and he eventually eked out a meager living playing concerts and recitals in the smaller cities and towns of Uruguay and Argentina. His younger daughter tells the story of her mother, the painter Amalia Nieto, standing close to the old pianos Hernández sometimes played in order to surreptitiously unstick the swollen keys. He never went to college (a failing in the eyes of early critics), but he was a regular at the cultural gatherings hosted by his friend Carlos Vaz Ferreira, a prominent Uruguayan philosopher, and was clearly influenced by the psychological currents of the time, especially Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory. For most of his life, Hernández was an avid reader—he read Rilke, Kafka, Freud, and Proust, and had a fondness, like Bolaño, for American detective stories.
People who knew Hernández say that he was a great storyteller, and the stories he told friends or at the recitals he sometimes gave in conjunction with his concerts often appeared, reworked, in his fiction. As José Pedro Díaz, the Uruguayan critic, reminds us, Hernández meant his stories to be heard orally, like musical notes that are played, not read, which may account for their improvisational qualities and his periodic lapses in grammar and syntax. Timid and insecure, absorbed in his perceptions and reflections, Hernández also seems to have used storytelling to keep people at a distance. As one of his ex-wives says, “there was always a curtain between Felisberto and reality, this reality that he wanted to feel with his hands and his eyes.” But if, as she (and others) insists, he was often unreachable, he didn’t look it—when he was young, he had a shock of wiry hair, big, wide eyes, and a mischievous air. He grew stouter as he got older (he was a notorious glutton, especially fond of Spanish omelets with lots of eggs), but he was always handsome, and women played an important role in his life. He married four of them, including—most spectacularly (and unbeknownst to him)—a Soviet spy, and had serious relationships with several more, all of whom had interesting careers, unusual for women in Uruguay at the time, although not as unusual as it would have been for women in the United States. These women provided him with inspiration, intellectual companionship, and economic support, often in the form of a quiet place to work. Unfortunately, he could never sustain these relationships for very long, which had something to do with his chronic economic difficulties and his fluctuating need for privacy and companionship, but was most clearly related to his longstanding devotion to his mother, Calita, a domineering woman to whom he regularly returned.
Between 1925 and 1931, while he was working as a pianist, Hernández published four short collections, composed of sketches (in which he works out ideas, structures, and philosophical underpinnings) and more fully formed stories, like “The White Dress” where he first plays with the idea that objects—two window sashes, in this case—have desires of their own. In the decade that followed the publication of these early works, he made the difficult transition from pianist to writer. Considering the fact that his financial situation was so precarious, that he was hounded by the looming threat of middle age and a never-ending series of interpersonal complications, it’s remarkable that Hernández managed to change arts midstream, go, almost seamlessly, from being a well-regarded pianist to a promising writer. In 1942, when he published his first serious work Around the Time of Clemente Colling, a novella based on his memories of an eccentric Frenchman who had been his music teacher, the book was greeted enthusiastically by the Uruguayan press: “Bursting with humanity, rich in ideas and inner life, the book elevates Felisberto Hernández to a higher plane within the literary landscape of Uruguay, just as he was when he wanted to be one of our best pianists.” He’d taken a year to write it, mostly at his brother’s house in the sleepy little city of Treinta y Tres, and the sacrifice paid off immediately.
Clemente Colling is one of Hernández’s major works, the first of a trio of novellas that’s sometimes called the cycle of memory, all of which are driven by their narrators’ introspective interrogations of their memories of the past. The book captured the attention of Jules Supervielle, a French-Uruguayan poet who became an important influence—he helped Hernández edit his later work and promoted him in France where Hernández lived, thanks to a scholarship from the French government, from 1946 to 1948. Supervielle also put Hernández in touch with Victoria Ocampo, the influential editor of Sur, which led to the publication of his most successful book, a short story collection called No One Lit the Lamps, by Sudamericana, an important Argentinian publishing house. For whatever reason—the fragility of France’s postwar economy or Hernández’s inability to promote himself (the letters he wrote home from France, where he often holed up in his apartment, deeply homesick, are painful to read)—Supervielle’s attempts to publish a collection of Hernández’s stories in French didn’t pan out, and their relationship deteriorated when Hernández returned to Uruguay, his hopes dashed for an international audience and a more comfortable existence. Over the next twelve years, he published some of his most successful work, much of it begun in France, but he couldn’t support himself with his writing, and he had to go back to a demoralizing job with the government upon his return.
Luis Harss, Hernández’s first English translator, says Hernández “became ill-humored and reactionary” as he got older, and there’s a troubling violence in some of his later stories, especially “The Daisy Dolls,” whose protagonist, the wealthy wine importer who is obsessed with life-size dolls, comes to a bad end (in Hernández’s defense, the story—which repeatedly insists upon the French wine the protagonist drinks—could be read as Hernández’s revenge on France’s indifference to him). But the widespread notion that he was reactionary, based, it seems, on his affiliation with an anticommunist organization funded by the US government in the fifties, seems exaggerated. After the Second World War (and a bloody dictatorship in the thirties), Uruguayan intellectuals, especially the influential—and literary—Generation of ’45, were generally left-leaning, often communist—to think otherwise was to swim against the tide. But reading Hernández’s anticommunist speeches—an innocuous defense of individual liberty—and knowing what we now know about the Soviet Union, his ideas don’t look so bad. In any case, he was clearly going through a crisis: he quit his job, cycled through several more women, and spent a lot of time developing a mysterious system of shorthand to transcribe his thoughts.
Although he continued to publish, there were numerous frustrations, including the rejection of his story “Mama’s Tree” by a friend, the editor of a provincial Uruguayan magazine, who judged the story—terribly mild by today’s standards—to be too risqué. On a trip to Buenos Aires, Hernández visited the offices of Sudamericana with his fourth wife, and it is heartbreaking to read her account of the unsold copies of No One Lit the Lamps they found stacked in the basement—during his lifetime, Hernández’s audience was extremely small. I’m hesitant to read Hernández’s work autobiographically, as many of his critics do—his stories, including the ones that use autobiographical elements as a springboard, are highly elaborated—but his later writings are suffused with a sense of defeat that feels more personal. One narrator, a writer, says, “In spite of everything, I seem to be getting better all the time at writing about what happens to me. Too bad I’m also doing worse.” Another narrator sits in a café, dreading the fact that he has to go to work. When a horse with blinders goes by, he envies it: “maybe it’s thinking that it’s going to the place where they feed him. Oh! The same thing happens to me…” Toward the end of his life, Hernández lived in a modest rooming house with his mother. In 1964, at sixty-one, he died of leukemia.
Harss has said that Hernández is “a great minor writer,” and he may be right. His work is uneven, his relentless pursuit of memory can feel like a conceit, and he’s blind to the dramatic realities of his country and his continent. But he’s incredibly funny, with a prodigious talent for metaphor—a woman’s head is a “big, warm human hen”; in the tenement where a blind old music teacher lives, a “crowded building clamp[s] its dirty, crumbling black jaws down on the entryway”; pitchers at a dinner table “fill and empty their hips”—and the territory he covers, if narrow, runs deep. In Lands of Memory, a posthumously published novella based on memories of a trip Hernández made to Chile as an adolescent, the narrator thinks about the way music has affected him:
At times, without recalling the notes of a melody, I could remember the feeling it had given me and what I’d been looking at when I heard it. One evening as I was listening to a brilliant piece while staring out the window, my heart came out of my eyes and absorbed a house many stories tall that I saw across the way. Another night, in the penumbra of a concert hall, I heard a melody floating upon ocean waves that a great orchestra was making; in front of me, on a fat man’s bald pate, gleamed a little patch of light; I was irritated and wanted to look away, but since the only comfortable position for my eyes left my gaze resting on the gleam of that pate, I had no choice but to allow it to enter my memory along with the melody, and then what always happens happened: I forgot the notes of the melody—displaced by the gleaming pate—and the pleasure of that moment remains supported in my memory only by the bald pate.
Patiently waiting for memories, thoughts, and characters to reveal themselves, Hernández never stops reminding us that the simplest experiences, seen through the filters of time and consciousness, are infinitely complex. It is, perhaps, his greatest theme.
Although Hernández's work was respected in Uruguay, many early critics, echoing the formal standards of the time, didn’t find his style literary enough, and it’s painful to read some of the early critiques, especially those of Emir Rodríguez Monegal, an influential Uruguayan critic whose short-sighted, overly personal reviews were devastating to Hernández. Rodríguez Monegal, who went on to teach at Yale, eventually changed his opinion of Hernández’s work, even claimed to have discovered him, but Hernández’s supporters accused him of opportunism. Fortunately, Hernández had greater success in Argentina where the 1947 publication of No One Lit the Lamps gradually disseminated his work throughout Latin America, to writers like Cortázar and García Márquez who used to read Hernández out loud with his friends in the Barranquilla Group. This made Hernández an essential part of an exciting cross-pollination that was taking place in Latin American literature in the early 1950s. As José Donoso says in The Boom in Spanish American Literature, writers who had previously been isolated from one another by regional differences and a scarcity of publications, finally found—and identified with—each other, paving the way for the Boom.
In the 1970s and 1980s, thanks, in part, to tributes from Cortázar and Calvino, as well as academic conferences in Europe and the Americas, Hernández’s reputation grew. The Eridanos Library published fourteen stories—including No One Lit the Lamps in its entirety—as Piano Stories in the United States in 1993. In 2002, New Directions published six more stories, including two novellas, in Lands of Memory. Several important stories have yet to be translated. In 2013, New Directions Pearl, an imprint that publishes short works by writers as diverse as Robert Walser and Victor Pelevin, published Two Crocodiles, which pairs one of Hernández’s best-known stories “The Crocodile” (a pianist, turned stocking salesman, discovers he can cry on demand) with a little-known satire by Dostoyevsky. With New Directions’ reissue of Piano Stories last January, it’s safe to say that Hernández has entered the canon of singular writers we can’t live without.
In Montevideo, where he has been heartily embraced, a theater piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his death got rave reviews—scenes from several of his stories were simultaneously staged in the rooms of an old house, through which the audience was free to wander. There have been plays in Mexico, a novel based on Hernández’s relationship with the Soviet spy, and various films, including a Brazilian feature and a recent short by the Quay Brothers, Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. Numerous critical works have been published, mostly in Spanish, including important reminiscences by people who knew him well. His work has also been translated into Portuguese, French, Italian, Dutch, German, Swedish, Danish, Greek, Hungarian, and Japanese.
In addition to the influence he had on writers of the Boom, Hernández was important to the Post-Boom writers—Bolaño, in particular. Reading them side by side, it’s sometimes hard to tell who influenced whom. There are striking similarities in story, theme, and narrative technique—it’s as if they had breathed the same air, the primordial soup of Latin America, and come to similar conclusions. Hernández doesn’t do much with his Latin American identity—he barely mentions it—while Post-Boom writers like Bolaño clearly do, but we always know where we are with Hernández, and it might be useful to think of him as a writer who drew up some early blueprints in the canon, plans that later writers consulted before they built. And that’s not all—Hernández’s themes and techniques were farsighted. He may not have been an influence, but his interest in the complexity of experience and memory prefigures the density of late-twentieth-century writers like David Foster Wallace and W. G. Sebald. Think of Sebald’s long meandering sentences, steered by ghostly narrators who seamlessly move around in time, thought, and memory; and the obsessive attention Wallace pays to his characters’ thoughts and experiences.
Perhaps Hernández is a minor writer. Perhaps to write about life in a small, obscure place like Uruguay is to be obscure. But obscurity isn’t the same as it used to be. In the twenty-eight years since I first visited Uruguay, the country—as well as the region and the continent—has undergone an astonishing transformation. The so-called Pink Tide—the rise of democratically elected leftists, many of them ex-revolutionaries—has brought increased justice and stability, Latin American–style. Argentina’s Pope is shaking things up—in Rome and across the globe. Uruguay’s last president, a disarmingly pragmatic ex-revolutionary who’s taken a vow of poverty, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And underneath it all, the strong, rich culture of the Río de la Plata, so deftly celebrated by writers like Felisberto Hernández, survives and thrives. Casual, serious, intimate; a rare mix of chaos, freedom, and generosity, it’s a culture that forgives all sorts of contradictions, especially the troublesome contradictions of being alive. In Uruguay and Argentina, everyone refers to Hernández by his first name, a term of endearment I’ve been hesitant to use because the notion that he was childish, a literary naïf, was so detrimental to his early reception, but maybe I’m wrong. Felisberto is endearing—sweet, sensual, humorous—and aside from his many strengths and innovations as a writer, he takes us to a place that’s a real pleasure to visit, “this slow city,” as one of his characters, a struggling, young pianist, says, “that I must leave at all costs but where I would so much like to stay.”
To Lucila Fogliano López
Translated by Lisa Fetchko and Lucas Ríos Giordano
In addition to experiencing things and destiny in the same way as other people, I also experienced destiny in a very different way. When I felt the same way as other people did, things, people, ideas, and feelings associated with each other, they had to do with one another, and hovering over all of them was an imprecise, unknown destiny, cruel or benevolent, that had a purpose. This purpose was so capricious that no one was able to foresee it. This destiny was always in motion and above all had an extraordinary commentary. Motionless things entered into the motion and associated with it, and they were more human than object. There was a restless emotion in the commentary, and as the commentary progressed, the emotion grew: when I was a boy and I began to cry, the commentary about my sadness began, and I kept crying until it came to an end.
In this same destiny, I was also a little different from other people: when something sad or cheerful happened, it seemed as if the others, without realizing it, already had all their commentary ready; it immediately joined their emotion, and they immediately laughed or cried. My commentary was delayed, as if I had to start from scratch, and it took me a while to laugh or cry. Other times, that commentary didn’t come to me, and I began to experience things and destiny in the other way, in my special way: things, people, ideas, and feelings didn’t have anything to do with one another, and there was a concrete destiny over each one of them. This destiny was neither cruel nor benevolent nor did it have a purpose. There was a quiet emotion in everything, and the human things that were in motion were more object than human. The emotion of this way of experiencing destiny was in the nuance between something painful and something cheerful, something still and something in motion. And even though these things didn’t have anything to do with one another in associative thought, they were connected by a sensation that was dissociative, dislocated, and absurd. One idea next to another, a pain next to a pleasure, and something still next to something in motion didn’t provoke any commentary in me: I had an attitude of contemplation and quiet emotion before the nuances of all of these things.
My house was at the foot of a hill. What I liked most about it was a patio with tiles. This patio was so characteristic of my house that if I had seen another one like it in another place, I would have been annoyed by it, and I would never have found mine as beautiful. I often walked around the patio, but I never stepped on the cracks. I was so used to this that even if I was just crossing the patio, I didn’t step on the cracks.
At that time, I was six years old, and one morning a little girl who was eight came to my house. Her mother was a friend of my mother’s, and they hadn’t seen each other for a long time. After the initial greetings, our mothers left us alone, thinking we would soon become friends. But the girl cared nothing about me, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. Her name was Ana, and she was neither naughty nor annoying. But she had black eyes that were very wide, and she looked at everything with a free and shameless curiosity. I looked at her while she looked at everything, and she looked at everything as if I were not there. So I went to tell my mother that she was looking at everything. When I went back to the patio, Ana was doing the same thing I did: she was walking on the tiles without stepping on the cracks.
By dinnertime, we were friends, and they seated her next to me, but as she ate, she looked at me as if she thought I was an idiot. There was a strange silence because the people at the table still didn’t know each other very well. Ana started to look at them and to perceive the strange silence, but after a moment, she felt like breaking this silence: she looked at me to see if the same thing was occurring to me, and even though she didn’t find it had, she couldn’t hold in her laughter, and she let out a shameless guffaw. Her mother pinched her, but I began to feel tempted. When I looked at her again, she was crying, and when she looked at me again, the two of us burst out laughing.
A few days later, it was a holiday, and the morning was very nice. The people who were walking up the hill on the sidewalk in front of my house were very cheerful. But in my house, there was a lot of sadness: my grandfather had died. I found this out after I got up: they told me what my grandfather had been like before and what we would be like afterward without him. I made a great effort to picture what they were telling me, but my imagination wasn’t very concrete, and it didn’t cause me the pain it should have caused me.
When I saw him for the first time in the room where they were holding the wake, I had a strange impression but not of terror. I also remember that immediately afterward, I went with my father to his desk and saw for the first time the way letters were sealed with wax. Later, many more times, I went to the room where my grandfather was. One of these times, I met up with Ana’s look and her laughter, but I already knew how she laughed, how she liked to break my grandfather’s silence and the silence of the others. Another time, I experienced destiny in my special way: I was standing in the hallway; in the room to the right, my family cried and invoked the name of God—sometimes they stopped sobbing for a moment to let their commentary fly and then they went back to crying—in the room to the left was my grandfather, who cared nothing about the others; on the sidewalk, people went by very cheerfully, and they cared nothing about what was going on inside; and in some other place, Ana must have been laughing at the silence of the others and the silence of my grandfather because he was dead.
Then I experienced everything with a strange simultaneity: in one room, the movement of the commentaries and the sobs; in the other, the still silence of my grandfather and the candlesticks (with the exception of the little flames of the candles, which were the only things that moved in that room) and the noise and the cheerfulness on the sidewalk and the laugh I imagined Ana having somewhere. None of these things had anything to do with each other: it seemed to me that each one of them hit me in one sense as if they were notes, that I experienced them all together like a chord and that, as time passed, some kept sounding and others changed. I had no commentary about any of this, and the destiny of the others with their commentaries and feelings was one more part of my special destiny: all of these things came to my senses simultaneously and formed a rhythm among themselves; this rhythm gave me the sensation of destiny, and I kept still, without commentary about physical or human things.
At times, I did some things well: then the adults praised me in order to encourage me; I didn’t like this little game, and I stopped doing those things well. Something similar happened when they wanted to graft an idea or a feeling onto me, and this may have been one of the reasons my reasoning had subconsciously shut down, so I could realize that my grandfather had died.
During the first days of mourning in my house, there was a new life, agitated and uncomfortable, and the violence of that new reality kept anesthetizing my perception of what had happened. But after many days, when everything was calmer and more like before, I felt a great sadness about my grandfather: calmly, I began to realize that he wasn’t there and that he would never be there again; a part of me began to realize, a part that didn’t seem like thought but, at the same time, made me think. When it was almost dark, my anguish got worse, and I began to cry; Ana asked me why I was crying, and I was silly enough to tell her: she laughed for days. But another day, her commentary was delayed: we were playing in an empty lot; I took advantage of the fact that she had her back to me, and I hit her lightly on the head with a huge stick; without turning around, she complained, but when she turned around and saw the stick with which I had hit her, she began to cry: then I laughed.
A few days later, Ana and her mother left our house; my aunt and I went to see them off at the dock. I didn’t feel as if Ana was leaving even though I cried that afternoon, but I cried because of something else: because of the violence with which the steamboat whistle sounded; its shrillness always produced such a physical pain in me that I cried as decidedly as one laughs when one has more than enough reasons to. Later, I realized that while I was crying, all of my feelings had been at a standstill or exclusively dedicated to the crying, and that may be why I didn’t think Ana was leaving.
One afternoon, when I was fifteen, Ana’s mother came back to our house. It turned out that Ana had been, until recently, in a madhouse: the doctors had said that it was temporary, and they prescribed rest and fresh air; that’s why her mother came to ask my mother to let her stay with us for a while.
A few days later, when I went out to the vegetable garden on a sunny morning, I ran into Ana and her mother. Ana’s laughter was similar to the way it used to be; she laughed, waiting for me to be surprised, but she did it with more delicacy, and she seemed less wild; she was very tall, thin, and very pretty; then we both laughed because we couldn’t bring ourselves to greet each other with a kiss, but our mothers started reminiscing, and we did. After a while, I found it hard to believe that Ana had been crazy; she was much better behaved, more prudent, but I still felt like she had a tendency to get distracted and to look at everything with shameless curiosity; at the same time, it seemed as if she was afraid and regretted being so—they might have pinched her many times to correct her behavior—but I was expecting her to suddenly give in to curiosity.
One night, Ana carried the plates very quickly; she was very serious, and her face was very swollen. Soon after eating, they made her lie down, and then we lay down; my brother and I slept in a small room that you had to pass through to go to the bathroom; in the middle of the room was a very large coat rack. At two in the morning, Ana walked through our room in a nightshirt; she was going to the bathroom, and she carried a candle in her hand; when she returned, she stopped near my bed and stared at me; all of a sudden, she smiled, and her smile also stared; her crazy, insistent smile was joined by the shadows that the light from the candle cast on her face. As soon as I saw her, I had my commentary ready, and I experienced destiny like the others; I felt the blood rush to my head, I felt the need to respond to her smile, and I must have made a face similar to hers. A few moments passed; I had the sensation that I was striking a balance between being completely like her and being quietly like myself, but then I reacted: I began to think that I couldn’t share my tragic commentary about this with anyone at that moment, that I had to wait until the next day; then I would tell them all the details without forgetting about the light of the candle on her face, and I would laugh at the astonishment this would produce in them.
Suddenly these reflections left me—they came and went very quickly—and I began to experience destiny in my special way. Meanwhile, Ana didn’t move. In my way of experiencing destiny, it seemed that Ana with her laughter was watching the Earth turn, but it was just as natural that Ana, because of her physiology, would find herself like this as it was that the Earth turned. I then began to experience everything in the room and Ana’s smile with that strange simultaneity. There were four things that formed a chord: two standing figures—the coat rack and Ana—and two lying down, my brother and I. The coat rack seemed lost in thought, and it had nothing to do with us, even though it was there; Ana looked at me with her fixed madness, and it was impossible to know if she was thinking about anything; my brother slept, and the mystery of his sleep had nothing to do with the three of us; and I experienced my destiny with the strange simultaneity.
When Ana left and the room was dark, her face with the smile and the reflections of the light from the candle remained in my memory, but I didn’t feel like it was associated with the destiny of others nor with my own: the only sensation I had was that Ana’s face was pretty.
Lisa Fetchko has published fiction, essays, and reviews in a variety of publications including AGNI, Bookforum, and n + 1. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Orange Coast College and UCLA.
Lucas Ríos Giordano was born and raised in Uruguay. He is an architect who lives in Santa Monica, California.