Herewith an excerpt from Juan José Saer‘s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington translated by Steve Dolph and recently published by Open Letter Books. Two friends walk stroll an Argentine city, relishing tales of a wild party neither of them attended (one cannot escape the allegorical parallel with Latin American colonial self-deprecation). They reminisce about the past, expose their anxieties, jump proleptically into a future filled with repressive violence. (See Richard Farrell’s review here.) In this flashback scene, the main character, Angel Leto, has gone away to the countryside with his mother. Leto is returning home on a Sunday evening to discover his father’s body. In their absence, Leto’s father has committed suicide.
from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
By Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
They’ve left behind the wide, residential section of the street and are now walking down a narrow, treeless sidewalk where more and more frequently the windows and doors of businesses sit open. Bringing the stem of the unlit pipe to his lips, the Mathematician distractedly starts stroking them with the tip, its bowl hidden in his closed hand. He doesn’t say anything now. Above his eyebrows, on his smooth forehead, his skin wrinkles a little, into horizontal furrows, and be–tween the two little blonde brushes appear two oblique fissures, forming a vertex at the bridge of his nose. Leto, meanwhile, remembers: Isabel, the past year, Lopecito, the wake, the closed casket, etc.—and five days before all that, that is, before the wake, Lopecito, etc. no?—as we were, or rather I, yours truly, no?, was saying: green wheat, already so tall, from the bus window. He has left Rosario Norte an hour before, with his mother. They’re on their way to Andino, to his maternal grandparents’ house, to spend the weekend. It’s a Friday in late spring. They left Rosario at 1:00. When they leave behind the San Lorenzo industrial complex, the land fills with tall green wheat, fields of flax, and, sometimes, yellow sunflowers right up to the shoulders of the road. Every once in a while they pass a farmhouse, with its windmill and eucalyptus, which interrupts, as they say, the fields, the same way stations divide the scant towns in two like a river or a railroad would in other places in the world. A parallel dirt path separates, in the country, the geometrical grains from the road—and on that path, every once in a while, a solitary carriage travels, hardworking and unreal, which the bus, as slow as it is, leaves behind with ease. He, helpful and enthusiastic, went along to the station. That man who, ever since Leto has had use of his reason, has always been silent, distant, shut away with his unsuspected chimeras in his radio workshop, for the last month or so seems to have broken the bell jar that separated him from the outside world, and has come with them, seeming euphoric, close, warm, and open. Leto observes him at a distance, incredulous. At first the change was so sudden that, in his skepticism, he was sure it was some kind of joke, or a tactical transformation, but his persistence and his conviction to the role were so intense that Leto’s initial incredulity was replaced with doubt—is he? would he?—all that, no?, telling himself at the same time, but from then on without concrete ideas or words and almost without realizing it, though not only his mind but also his whole body are for some reason saturated with those senses that more and more resemble the shudder or the silent beating or the contraction of nerves, temples, veins, muscles, telling himself, he would say, but in that way, no?, that if it was a comedy the intended audience was Leto himself, because for Isabel, Lopecito, and the rest, who were convinced in advance, no persuasion was necessary—he, Leto no?—the only one who suspected that the man had something up his sleeve, that the man had realized—and decided I was the last obstacle to demolish before his magical circle could finally close, the straggler he had to force in before sealing, hermetically, from the inside, the capsule, and launching it into the interstellar space of his own delirium, Leto thinks, this time with clear and well-formed thoughts, walking, next to the Mathematician, always to the south, on the shady sidewalk, where, more and more frequently, the windows and doors of businesses are open. On a bright, warm, and calm November afternoon, the bus drives past rectangles of blue flax, of yellow sunflowers and green wheat, leaving behind, slow and regular, the repetitive uprights of the telegraph poles, while Leto, sitting next to the window, candidly observes Isabel who, in the seat ahead of him, calmly and serenely flips through the latest issue of Ms & Mrs. The comedy that Leto, after several weeks, has convinced himself is real, produces a tranquilizing and at the same time euphoric effect in Isabel, inasmuch as her old phantasms of marital bliss, upward mobility, sexual satisfaction, economic stability, familial harmony, religious tranquility, and physical well-being have seemed, in recent weeks, to have found their long-awaited substantiation, de–spite the resistance of a hostile world. Isabel’s attention, detached from the intense perfection of the land, is fixed on the page—a weight-loss plan? the horoscope? an interesting recipe? the opinions of a movie star? sentimental correspondence? Leto doesn’t wonder anymore, feeling nonetheless, indifferently, definitively perhaps, the abyss that separates them. The magazine, elevated almost to her chest, lets him see the belly which, under a modest skirt, ends at the vertex that the crossing muscles form with the pubis—he was in there, for nine months, and then funneled out, fell into the world. What should he feel? First of all, the ubiquitous mother, the amazing plain, fascinates him just then more than his own; the vast world, so indifferent, nevertheless seems more familiar than the one he was raised in at home. His coldness isn’t quite hatred—still, the censure he himself ignores, buried for a long time, feeling now that it’s too late to want them to have been different, makes him see his own feelings as though they were controlled remotely by others, an older and distinct species—not hatred, no, but instead a sort of quiet and curious outrage that makes him observe them constantly to see how far they’ll go, with the wild hope that, after so much time, with laughter and a shift in pose, they will finally say: Okay, that’s enough, show’s over, time to start being our real selves. He, the kind and helpful man, has gone with them to the bus station, in Rosario Norte, has given the impression, for the last month, of being something else, not his real self, but still very different—his concentrated detachment has become lightheartedness; his distracted indifference, friendly attention; his limp and depressive inertia regarding his family and work, enthusiasm and projects. The day before, he came out of the workshop with his eyes tired from connecting so many thin cables and adjusting so many tiny screws, and while he helped Isabel get dinner ready and set the table, he told Leto that next week, when they came back home, they would go fishing together; they would cross the river on a canoe with Lopecito and camp on the island for a couple of days. He even rang up Lopecito who, of course, sounded excited. And in Rosario Norte, just as they were getting on the bus, he, that man, reminded him: on Wednesday, at the latest, because Lopecito was busy Monday and Tuesday, they would row to the island. In fact, Leto has to put effort into showing that he finds the outing as attractive as Lopecito and his father seem to, but the slightly irked, wary curiosity these altered people inspire allows him to give himself over, to persist, with the same affected detachment one would use to observe the behavior of a colony of laboratory mushrooms, in acting out the different scenes of the comedy, hoping to finally unravel the heart of the plot and its characters. Many years later he will understand, from the overwhelming evidence, that the so-called human soul never had, or will ever have, what they call substance or essence, that what they call character, style, personality, are nothing but senseless replications, and that their own subject—the body where they manifest—is the one most starved of their nature, that what others call life is a series of a posteriori recognitions of the places where a blind, in–comprehensible, ceaseless drift deposits, in spite of themselves, the eminent individuals who, after having been dragged through it, begin to elaborate systems that pretend to explain it; but for now, having just turned twenty, he still believes that problems have solutions, situations outcomes, individuals personality, and actions logic. Leto observes, with some pleasure, the countryside through the window. Every ten or fifteen kilometers the bus stops at a station for a few minutes to drop off or pick up bags of mail, travelers, the ticket taker, the shopkeepers returning from their restocking trips to Rosario, the packets of newspapers and magazines, the passengers going from one town to another, few compared to those coming from Rosario, as though contact among those towns were prohibited and it was only possible for them to connect by way of the abstract and distant city, those towns on the plains, squared off like the country, regularly and strictly consisting of two rows of houses, most of unplastered brick, four blocks long, one on each side of the highway and separated—each row of houses, no?—from the bus station by a wire fence, a windmill, and a wide dirt street—and on the ends of the four blocks, two lateral streets that close the quadrilateral and rise slightly at the shoulder, towns that are, to put it one way, like a miserly concession from the plains to roughen, at brief and regular intervals, its simplistic, monotonous geometry. To Leto those towns are childhood—that is, in his case, the coming and going by train or by bus, the vacations, in winter or summer, at his grandparents’ house, his grandfather’s general store with its big, dark shelves, the colored fabrics, patterned with flowers, stripes, polka dots, blocks, or with little black and white flowers, stacked on top of each other and lined up diagonally in the cases, the carefully situated yellow bags of sod, the logo and the letters of the brand repeated on several rows, the pyramids of identical cans of preserves, piled up at the back of the store, the bins of caramels, the rows of cigarette packs organized by brand, the ones with blonde tobacco on the left side of the case, with black tobacco in the middle, toscanos, toscanitos, matches, loose tobacco, and rolling paper on the right, the big bins of sugar, of lentils, of garbanzos, of noodles, the rows of dried cod, stiff and covered with rock salt, the harvesting bags smelling of leather and oil, the bottles of wine, by type, by brand, by size, the glass cases with toiletries, the cooler, the scales, the wood countertop, smooth, dark, and weathered, the calendars and the cardboard advertisements with pictures of movie stars, of soccer teams, funny or artistic drawings, the shoeboxes, the kerosene cans and cooking alcohol in the storeroom, next to rows of detergent, flour, salt, oil, and above all, the boxes of Quaker Oats with the drawing of a man holding a smaller box of Quaker Oats with a smaller man holding an even smaller box of Quaker Oats with an even smaller man holding, no?, an even smaller, no?, to infinity, no?, like . . . no?, childhood, we were saying, or rather yours truly was saying, or rather, that is to say, no?, childhood: internal construction and external wandering, convalescence of nothing, corporeal truth versus social fiction, hope of pleasure versus generalized deception, just like that thing on Sundays, the pursuit, torture, and murder of grasshoppers and frogs between the trees in the back yard, the terrifying nights under the crucifix hanging on the headboard with dried olive branches from the last Palm Sunday, the white nightgowns of his aunts, cousins, grandmother, his uncles drinking cold beer under the trees, the afternoon, the whistles of the express passing through town and filling it with fear, the childhood Leto is already starting to tell himself, without words or concepts—not even with images or representations, no?—Isn’t what I had expected. It’s still not what I think it should be like. This can’t be all there is.
Ultimately, as they say, and to say it a second time, though it’s always the Same, no?, every thing. He even rang up the man he calls his best friend, Lopecito, to suggest going fishing on the island the following week. And Leto, on the bus, is willing to let himself be carried along, with a somewhat uneasy sense of calm, through those warm and beautiful spring days, to the following Wednesday, on the island near Rosario. That anticipation saturates the entire weekend: arriving in the town, crossing the streets and the bus station, passing the windmill, arriving at his grandparents’ house, the dinner, the evening walk through the town, the croaking of the frogs, the intermittent song of the crickets that has always attended, and no doubt preceded, the human night, the intermittent, phosphorescent glow of the fireflies, the smell of the paradise trees, the family gathering on Saturday with the relatives who have been arriving from nearby towns in cars or on the bus, the organized abundance, formed by identical objects repeated over and over in the store, the night spent under the crucifix, the mass, the cookout at noon on Sunday, the women’s flower-patterned dresses, the walk around the station with the cousins, and more than anything else, the perfect hour on the plains, the afternoon, and also, every once in a while, in little outbursts to someone in the family, Isabel’s foolish declarations of her marital bliss, her upward mobility, her sexual satisfaction, her economic stability, her familial harmony, her religious tranquility, her physical well-being, which he lets run on like background noise whose fictitiousness intrigues him less than its obstinate and emphatic repetition. That insistence betrays her uncertainty, the same way that, on Sunday night when the bus arrives at Rosario Norte, the thing she murmurs, slightly distracted, Hopefully he hasn’t made anything for dinner because I could pop after everything we ate in Andino, could be translated, Leto thinks, into a way of saying the opposite, because the fact of him waiting with a warm dinner would help dispel the uncertainty that’s working on her and which is of such a curious nature—when it manifests itself externally, it always appears to be the opposite.
The man is not at the station, It’s good he didn’t come, murmurs Isabel, after scrutinizing the walkway and the entrance. It’s good he didn’t come because anyway we don’t have suitcases and the train leaves us a block away. Leto, who after so many years has become an expert in the art of pretending he hasn’t heard anything, or of responding, almost inaudibly, with vague monosyllables, to every irrational, or, as he refers to them privately, false bottom argument laid out by Isabel, turns the conversation to fresh eggs, their bouquet of flowers, the greasy chorizos just made at the farm stand and plied on them in the town.
Slowly they leave the train, walking away from the palm trees lining the avenue to enter the dark, tree-lined block that separates them from their house. Isabel isn’t, Leto thinks, in any hurry to get there, as if through some physical inertia her body, contrary to her reason, were trying to express things more truthfully. Twice in a single block she stops for several minutes to talk with neighbors who, sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk near their front doors, or leaning out a window, have come out to enjoy the cool night, while Leto, keeping a polite distance, with the basket of eggs and chorizo in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other hand, asks himself if she isn’t trying to gain time so that he, who she supposes innocent of machinations and exempted from her intuition, will overtake her and get home first—and all of this in spite of the fact that, to the outside world, they are just a mother and son, a silent twenty-year-old young man, coming back, respectable, straightforward, and a little tired, from a weekend in the country, neighborhood people, apparently the husband is an electrician who works on televisions and doesn’t mix much with the neighbors, the boy studies accounting, and she’s still pretty even though she’s around forty, the men more or less silent and withdrawn, while she sometimes maybe has the habit of talking too much, like she can’t stop, or she’s trying to hide, to cover up, with words, deep dark fissures which her words, despite her intentions, open at their multiple, secret edges. But she doesn’t give up. Leto waits, patiently, or a little callously, rather, at every stop, and when they get to the house, which is dark, silent, and lifeless, and he slides the key in the lock, and turns it, he feels again, coming through the door, the trail of the snake, the indefinite but distinct presence of the scorpion, whose signs, weakened in the previous weeks, have returned, unequivocal and palpable. When he turns on the light, this presence draws him, sucks him, slowly, toward the bedroom, and when he sees the man sprawled on the floor, his skull shattered by the gunshot, the revolver still in his hand, the floor, walls, and furniture splattered with blood, with chunks of brain, hair, bone shards, he says to himself, calmly and coldly, So that’s what this was. Specifically, this meaning the days, the nights, the time, the body, the world, the thick beating life, how the man, in his little electrical workshop, had dismantled them, detaching and separating them into separate pieces, colored cables, copper wires, gold screws, spreading them over the table to inspect them one at a time, neutral and merciless, limiting himself to reaching what he no doubt considered objective conclusions, and later, during uniform and meticulous hours, putting everything back together according to the indisputable logic of his delirium. To achieve his goals he had to construct the comedy, setting a stage, the visible universe, and making all of his so-called loved ones take part, modifying the plot sometimes to convince the most reticent, as had been happening for the previous weeks with Leto, whose mistrust had forced him to make appearances outside his “workshop,” transforming his personality slightly and preparing, with Lopecito’s unconditional support, when he swallowed whole the supposed week of fishing on the island, for Leto, his reticence becoming hope, to fall, on his return from the country Sunday night, from an even higher rung. Put briefly, and by the man himself, no doubt to himself, and no doubt without words as well, more or less like this: When I say dance, everyone dances. No excuses.
Two or three days later the autopsy reveals that he shot himself on Friday at around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, meaning that he said goodbye with a grin at the station, reminding him before he left that on Wednesday they would cross to the island with Lopecito, then, still grinning, boarded the train back to their neighborhood, walked the block between the train stop and the house at a calm and regular pace, and no doubt without losing his grin entered the house, crossed the hallway, shut himself in the bedroom, and without hesitating or losing the fixed, vindictive grin, blew his brains out.
—I call that an insolent suicide, said César Rey, a few months later, at the bar Montecarlo, in the city, while they watched the sun, through the window, rising into a cold autumn dawn. And Rey can speak with authority because the day before, in fact, he had gotten a hotel room, intending to slit his wrists, but at the decisive moment he had suddenly changed his mind, and after leaving the hotel, he had run into Leto at the arcade’s bar, where they proceeded to go on a bender.
—The insolent suicide, says Leto, shaking his head. Isabel and Lo–pecito were left stupefied by the event—in the director’s absence they no longer knew exactly what role they played in the comedy—but Leto himself thinks he has known how to conserve enough cold blood to keep him from the path of the gunshot, though the suspicion of having been the primary target for the last few weeks could be, without his realizing it, proof of the opposite.
The insolent suicide, he thinks, discreetly watching the Mathematician, whose eyebrows indicate a laborious reflection that Leto cannot know, and is not interested in knowing, but which is more or less the following: Where does instinct come from? Does it belong to the individual or the species? Is there continuity between individuals? Does the latter individual take over the instinct from the point where the former left it or does he reconstruct, from zero, the whole process from the start? Is it substance, energy, reflex? What is our idea of instinct? How was it first formed? By whom? Where? As opposed to what? What, in a living thing, isn’t instinct? And then, forgetting Noca, Noca’s horse, instinct, the images he has built up thanks to Botón’s story on the ferry, the previous Saturday, on the upper deck, images of Washington’s birthday at Basso’s ranch, which he didn’t attend but will remember for the rest of his life, the other questions, always stirring, underground, and sometimes rising to the surface, suddenly, that follow us, form us, lead us, allow us to be, the old questions first brought up in the African dawn, heard in Babylon and asked again in Thebes, in Asia Minor, on the banks of the Yellow River, which sparkled in the Scandinavian snows, the solilo–quy in Arabia, in New Guinea, in Königsberg, in Mato Grosso, and in Tenochtitlán, questions whose response is exaltation, is death, suffering, insanity, and which stir in every blink, every heartbeat, every premonition—who planted the seed of the world? what are the internal and the external? what are birth and death? is there a single object or many? what is the I? what is the general and the particular? what is repetition? what am I doing here?—that is to say, no?—the Mathematician, or someone else, somewhere else or at some other time, again, though there is only one, only one, which is always the same Place, and always, as we were saying, once and for all, the same Time.
—Juan José Saer; translated by Steve Dolph