Feb 4 2013 5:00pm
Take a look inside Angélica Gorodischer's Trafalgar, translated by Amalia Gladhart, out now from Small Beer Press:
Don't rush Trafalgar Medrano when he starts telling you about his latest intergalactic sales trip. He likes to stretch things out over precisely seven coffees. No one knows whether he actually travels to the stars, but he tells the best tall tales in the city, so why doubt him? Trafalgar is Angélica Gorodischer's second novel to be translated into English. Her first, Kalpa Imperial, was selected for the New York Times summer reading list.
The Best Day of the Year
“Hey,” said Trafalgar Medrano. “You don’t greet your friends anymore?”
“And what are you doing here?” I asked him.
Since I’d had to go downtown, I had run to the public library to see if I might meet Francisco. Who wasn’t there.
“What does one come to a library for?” Trafalgar said. “Not to play cards, right?”
I just didn’t expect to meet Trafalgar in the library. And it’s not that he isn’t a good reader. He is, somewhat chaotically. Although he insists there is a logical rigor—implacable he says—in combinations like Sophocles-Chandler, K.-Eternauta, and Mansfield-Fray Mocho.
And when we left, of course, he invited me for coffee.
“Around the corner here,” I began.
“No,” said Trafalgar. “Let’s go to the Burgundy.”
We walked four blocks almost without speaking, hurrying amidst the hurrying people, and we went into the Burgundy. Marcos gave us a smile and came over.
“Coffee,” said Trafalgar, unnecessarily.
Marcos gave me a look between sorry and mocking: they don’t serve soft drinks at the Burgundy.
“Well,” I said, “coffee. But small and weak.”
Trafalgar sighed an indignant it is and it isn’t and set a packet of unfiltered cigarettes on the table.
“What were you reading at the library?” I asked.
He took a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and read: “Mulnö, Tres Ensayos sobre el Tiempo. Times Time, by Woods. And Realité et Irréalite du Temps, L’Ho.”
“Don’t tell me. What did you make of all that?”
“That nobody knows a damn thing about time.”
Marcos came over and left the cups, a big one for Trafalgar and a small one for me, on the table. And two glasses of cold water. I drank half my water because I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the prospect of the coffee.
“I don’t know what you want to go investigating time for. It seems to me the best one can do with time is fill it up and let it pass.”
“Yes, but what if time were a thing and not a dimension? And if in fact it didn’t pass?”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“So resign yourself and go to the public library to read the Greek lyrics, like Francisco. Anyway, doctors don’t understand why people get sick or why they get well and electricians don’t understand electricity and mathematicians don’t understand zero. Also, why do you want to understand time?”
“Just curiosity,” and he fell quiet but he didn’t fool me.
The Burgundy is a quiet place, thank goodness. And Trafalgar is a quiet guy. Through the door’s twelve beveled glass rectangles one could see people pass by and one wondered why they didn’t remain still. Marcos came over with another double coffee because Trafalgar had drunk the first in one swallow, hot as it was and bitter, the way he likes it.
“Marcos,” I said, “some day I am going to write a story with you and the Burgundy in it.”
“Please, ma’am, no. What if the bar gets fashionable on me and fills up with people?”
“Unlikely. At most, my friends and my aunts will start coming.”
“All right then, but, just in case, don’t publish it,” and he left.
“You could,” said Trafalgar, “write a story with each one of my trips.”
“Not even if I was crazy,” I answered. “In the first place, stories proposed by other people never work: stories choose one, one does not choose stories. And in the second place, your stories are always the same: a bunch of strange things happen to you, you throw yourself, generally successfully, at the prettiest one around there, you earn piles of dough, and what do you spend it on? On bitter coffee and black cigarettes and Pugliese records. Why don’t you buy yourself the latest model Mercedes or go to Europe to live large?”
“A remise taxi is more comfortable and you don’t have to pay for insurance or a garage. And I go to Europe from time to time. But it doesn’t interest me much.”
“Of course. Between Freiburg and Anandaha-A, you pick.”
“Freiburg,” he jumped in. “But if you ever get to see the cathedrals, they’re not exactly cathedrals, but anyway, made out of paper that isn’t exactly paper, on Tippanerwade III, the Gothic will seem like a caricature to you. And beside the builders of mausoleums.”
“Which are not exactly mausoleums.”
“They are. Beside the mausoleum builders of Edamsonallve-Dor, the Egyptians were a herd of subnormals, believe me.”
“Is that where you’ve been now?”
“No. It’s been three months or so since I’ve traveled. I came back from Karperp and I spent all this time being lazy.”
“What you might have sold on Karperp, I don’t even want to consider.”
“Musical instruments. Strings, no winds or percussion. And I bought tons of wood from them.”
“They’re not called Karperianos. They’re called Neyiomdavianos.”
I thought he was pulling my leg, but he said, “It’s a system of thirteen around a star called Neyiomdav, see? Each one of the thirteen has a different name, they’re not called Neyiomdav I, Neyiomdav II, and so on, but rather like here, each world has its name, but those who live there go by the name of the star.”
“Those of the thirteen worlds?”
“Only two are inhabited. Karperp, where I had an order for violins, lutes, guitars and zithers and violas and all that, and Uunu, which I didn’t know was inhabited.”
“How did you not know?”
“No one had told me anything. But after delivering the instruments and while loading the wood—remind me to give you a box made of estoa wood that will hold cigarettes or buttons or those things you women like to keep in boxes. Very fine, like a spider’s web, but you can’t break it even with an axe. And it doesn’t burn, either.”
“It won’t be wood, then. And thank you, I will certainly remind you.”
“It’s wood. You’re welcome. While loading the wood I spent a few days at the home of a friend who lives on the shores of a river in which one can swim, sail, and fish.”
“You neither swim nor sail nor fish.”
“I don’t dislike swimming. Fishing and sailing don’t interest me. But now and again, I do like to stretch out in the sun and do nothing. He was the one who mentioned Uunu, in passing. And I was intrigued because he didn’t seem to want to offer much explanation. He only told me that they didn’t go there because it was hard to recover afterwards. I asked him if it was insalubrious, and he told me that on the contrary, it was a very pleasant place, with a splendid climate, nice people, landscapes a piacere and comfortable lodging. I didn’t insist because discretion is a virtue everywhere and I assumed Karperp was no different.”
Marcos walked past our table because more people had come in, and he left Trafalgar another full cup. I made no move to order more coffee, though my cup was miserably empty.
“As you’ll imagine,” he continued, “right then I decided to go to Uunu and see what there was to buy. So a week later, with the clunker filled to the top (the Neyiomdavianos are laid-back, they don’t hurry even if someone’s about to slit their throats, and it took them ten days to load everything), I said good-bye and I went. Straight to Uunu.”
“You just like looking for trouble.”
“Yes, but at the beginning I thought I was going to have my desire thwarted and I even thought Rosdolleu didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Who was that, your friend from Karperp?”
“Uh-huh. He’s president of an institution, a combination ministry and chamber of commerce, and I suspected there might be a question of competition, because I assure you, Uunu was a jewel.”
“Later you discovered it was not.”
“It was still a jewel, in spite of everything. They acted like gentlemen, they facilitated everything, they found me a cool, sheltered spot where I could leave the clunker open so the wood would be ventilated without having to use the air conditioners, marvelous. They recommended a hotel neither very far away nor right downtown, and when they learned I was a merchant they got me an interview with a boss, Dravato dra Iratoni, who from the name seemed Japanese but wasn’t and who called me at the hotel and invited me to dine at his house that same evening. The hotel was gorgeous, comfortable, not very big, with rooms full of light and color and bathrooms with every possible treat.”
“Hey, couldn’t I go summer on Uunu?”
“I don’t advise it.”
He waved to someone who was leaving and smoked for a while without saying anything. Would there be coffee on Uunu?
“Was there coffee on Uunu?”
“Yes, there was. Well, relatively speaking.”
“Relatively, how? There was or there wasn’t.”
“There was and there wasn’t, you’ll see. What was I telling you?”
“That the hotel was splendid and that same night you were going to eat with the Japanese fellow.”
“Oh, yes. He had a house to make you laugh at Frank Lloyd Wright. The living room went into the woods, or rather, the woods came into the living room, and the dining room was suspended over the lake. On entering, I thought I would like to live there. Of course, after a short time I would have gotten bored, but for a few weeks, it wouldn’t be bad. And he had three delicious daughters and a nice son-in-law, also a merchant like him, and a great big, smiling wife, and he wasn’t so big but he was smiling. I had a very good time.”
“With which of the three daughters did you go to bed?”
“With none of them. What do you have in your gourd, anyway?”
“Same thing as everyone. And besides, I know you.”
“This time, you’re way off the mark. Although I confess it was not my virtue but the circumstances that obliged me to chastity. We ate a very tender, very spicy meat, with a kind of sweet potato purée and a flatbread made of different grains, and we drank wine. Afterwards dessert was served and that’s where everything started.”
“In the dessert?”
“With dessert. I have to tell you that the dishes were display-quality. The owner of the house may not have been Japanese but the plates and the glasses and the jars looked like the very finest Japanese porcelain, in a pale yellow color with a brown border. The dessert arrived served in wooden bowls the same color as the border on the plates, with a wooden spoon. I ate it with relish because it was delicious. I don’t know what it was: some fruits like loquats but without pits, a little sour, served in what looked like water but was very sweet, like syrup.”
“Big deal. I make better desserts.”
“I don’t disagree.”
That, from Trafalgar, is high praise.
“But this had a very special flavor, and when I finished the fruit I ate the syrup with the spoon. I passed the spoon over the polished wood and as the level of the liquid dropped I felt something very strange.”
“An evil spell,” I said.
He ignored me.
“I felt, gently at first and then like a kick in the stomach, I felt as if I had made that gesture before, that at some time I had scraped with a wooden spoon the polished bottom of a wooden bowl and that.”
“But listen, that happens to all of us.”
“Don’t I know it,” said Trafalgar, and he let Marcos remove the empty cup and leave another, full one, “with all the places I’ve been to and everything I’ve done. Generally it isn’t true, you never before did what you think you’re remembering. A few, very few times it’s true, and if you don’t remember at the moment, you remember later. But this was much more intense, so much so that I thought I was going to lose my composure. I didn’t hear what people were talking about, I didn’t see the table, or the faces, or the windows that opened onto the lake. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t my memory, it was my whole body that remembered the dish and the gesture and, looking at the wood, I recognized even the grain at the bottom,” he took out a pencil and drew the lines for me on the back of a card he fished out of his pocket. “See? And here they curved toward the bottom and then rising along the edge they became very, very fine and disappeared.”
I stood the card against the water glass. “And then what happened?”
“Nothing. I pulled myself together as best I could and kept talking. We drank liqueurs and coffee, yes, because there was coffee, and we smoked and listened to music and it was after midnight when dra Iratoni’s son-in-law drove me back to the hotel. When I was alone in the room, I remembered the thing with the wooden bowl and started to go over it like crazy because I was sure, I knew, sometime, somewhere I had eaten from that bowl. It was no use. I took off my clothes, I bathed, I lay down and I slept. No,” he said when I opened my mouth, “I did not dream about the bowl or about the daughters of dra Iratoni. I slept like a log until midday. I woke up hungry. But my hunger went away as soon as I sat up in bed. Speaking of which, don’t you want to eat a sandwich or something?”
“No. Go on.”
“My hunger and my sleepiness and everything went away, because I was not in the same room in which I had gone to bed. This one was smaller, comfortable but not as cheerful, it was not on the second floor but rather on the tenth or thereabouts, it didn’t overlook a park but rather another tall building, and the sunlight didn’t come in anywhere. Nor was the bathroom as luxurious as the one in the other hotel, which is to say, I thought I was in another hotel, but.”
I wanted to ask him what that meant, but I know when Trafalgar can be interrupted and when he can’t.
“It also had its comforts. I didn’t stop to bathe or shave. I washed, I went back to the room, and when I was going to the door the horrible idea occurred to me that I had been kidnapped and the door would be locked. It was locked, but the key was on the inside. I turned it with some apprehension and opened the door. It was a hotel, no question. There was a corridor and numbered doors on both sides. Mine was 1247. I looked for the elevator, found it, went down. Twelve floors. The lobby was smaller than the other, cheaper, as if they had wanted to take the fullest advantage of the space.”
Here he paused and drank coffee and smoked and I didn’t know whether to say something that had occurred to me or not say it, so I kept quiet.
“There was a hoity-toity concierge who asked me, ‘Sir?’ ‘Listen,’ I said to him, a little angry now, ‘I took a room yesterday in the Hotel Continental; can you tell me where the hell I am now?’ ‘In the Hotel Continental, sir,’ he answered. I was speechless. ‘It can’t be,’ I shouted. ‘The room is different and all this, too.’ The concierge was unruffled. ‘What day did the gentleman arrive?’ he asked. I told him the date, day, month, year, and added the hour. ‘Ah, that explains everything,’ he said. ‘How does it explain everything?’ I wanted to give him a good wallop while he looked over some papers. ‘Room 132 does not exist, sir, at least not at this moment, because the floor has been dedicated to the accounts department and various offices.’ And he went to attend to two guys who had just arrived. I thought seriously about jumping over the counter and bashing his face in, but in the first place that wasn’t going to accomplish anything and in the second place, what did he mean by saying at that moment at least room 132, which was the one I had occupied the day before, didn’t exist?”
I decided to drink another coffee and I called Marcos but when he came over I asked if he could make me an orange juice and he said yes.
“Then I went back to room 1247 and inspected my luggage. Everything was in order; it seemed to me that everything was in order. My belly reminded me that it was after midday and I had eaten nothing, so I postponed the problem, went down, went into the restaurant, and ordered the first thing I saw on the menu. And then I remembered the wooden bowl. Once again I felt an urgent physical sensation but I started eating a rather bland stewed fish that they brought me and I thought the best thing would be to go to dra Iratoni’s and ask him about what had happened to me. I finished eating, I didn’t order dessert, I had coffee, and I went out to the street and froze stiff as a statue. It was another city. It looked like New York. And the day before it had resembled Welwyn. Worse: the cars were different and the people dressed differently. Before I started to get scared at the possibility of not finding dra Iratoni, which was about to happen, I called a taxi that was passing, I climbed in and I told the driver, Paseo de las Agujas 225, and I bet you don’t know what I found.”
“Look, you could have found anything: a crocodile in the bathtub, or that Paseo de las Agujas didn’t exist, or that the driver was Count Dracula, what do I know?”
“The one who didn’t exist was the driver.”
Marcos brought me an orange juice the way I like it, not strained, without ice, and with very little sugar.
“Trafalgar,” I said, “sometimes you depress me. Couldn’t you go to Capilla del Monte or Bariloche like everyone else and afterward come tell me that it rained for three days and you lost in the casino and you ran into five guys from Rosario?”
“There are trips on which nothing happens, I assure you. Everything goes well, nothing strange happens, and people do and say what one expects. You don’t think I’m going to bring you to the Burgundy to tell you a silly thing like that, I imagine.”
“It would be very reassuring,” I said. “A while ago, I thought you were a quiet fellow, and you are. But you are not reassuring. At least not when you let fly with things like that. Go on, continue with the phantom taxi driver.”
“It was an automatic taxi, driven from a distance, or maybe a robot, I don’t know. It didn’t start, instead it informed me over a loudspeaker next to the odometer that the old Paseo de las Agujas was impassable for vehicles. I told it to take me as close as possible to the place. Only then did it start. It crossed the city, which was still a twin of New York and not of Welwyn, and stopped in the middle of the country. I tried to get out but the door was stuck. I paid, which is to say I put the money in a collection box, and then the door opened and I got out. It was a park, not very well tended, that extended to the shore of the lake. No woods. I walked along a little path full of stones and weeds as far as the place where I remembered dra Iratoni’s house was.”
“Which was no longer there,” I said.
“No, it wasn’t there and I had already begun to suspect that.”
“Tell me, hadn’t you slept for a couple of centuries like Rip van Winkle?”
“I thought that, too. It would have been an uncomfortable solution but, in the end, reassuring, as you say. I returned to the city on foot. When I arrived, it was almost night. In the suburbs, I took another taxi, also automatic, and I had it take me to the port and I looked for the clunker. And would you believe that I don’t know if I found it or no? In the place where it should have been there was a mountain of scrap metal,” he made the face Buonarroti would have made, or that I imagine Buonarroti would have made had he seen the Pietá smashed with hammers, “and it could have been in that heap. Sometimes it seemed to me it was, sometimes no. I was so depressed, I didn’t even know what to do. Meaning, I knew what I had to do but I didn’t know how: I had to find someone who would explain to me what had happened, but I also remembered how little importance the concierge had given to the part of my problem that he knew about—and that irritated me, yet at the same time suggested that everything was probably going to work out easily. I went to the bar in the port, I ate a few sandwiches that tasted like cardboard, I drank some very bad coffee and I pumped up my bad mood until it was pretty late at night. When I left the bar, instead of going to the taxi stand, I headed for the road and I started to walk feeling very sorry for myself. Around then it seemed to me the sun was rising, the sky turned an ugly gray and I had a sensation of unreality and even insecurity, as if I were about to lose my balance, but I didn’t pay any attention and I kept walking. It got dark again. I got tired. I sat down on the shoulder, I walked a couple of kilometers or maybe more. I didn’t pass a soul and that began to seem strange to me because I had seen earlier that it was a very busy road. When the sun came out for real, I saw the city far off and I had the hope that it had again become Welwyn. My fatigue passed and I picked up my pace. I saw the remains of a burnt truck on the side of the road that, although it had been smooth and new the day before, was quite damaged, full of cracks and potholes. I approached the city. Which, of course, was not Welwyn. Nor was it New York. It was a bombed-out city.”
“I know what was happening.”
“Not for nothing do you like Philip Dick. I’ll tell you, I do, too. But reading a novel or listening when someone tells you the story is one thing, and being thrust into the situation is quite another. I was in no mood that morning to be satisfied with explanations.”
The Burgundy was very busy. Almost as if I, no, not I, almost as if Philip Dick had made it fashionable, but Marcos didn’t forget about Trafalgar. I stuck to the orange juice.
“I started to see bunkers, trenches, the remains of more trucks and of tanks, too. And bodies. The country was burnt and not a tree remained and there were pieces of walls or some bit of tamped earth where perhaps there had been houses at some time. Someone called out from beyond the shoulder. I turned around and saw a tall, thin guy who was desperately making signs at me. ‘Careful! Duck!’ he yelled and he threw himself to the ground. I didn’t have time. Two military trucks appeared, braked beside me, and five armed soldiers got down and started to kick me around.”
“I retract that about wanting to spend the summer on Uunu,” I said.
“Many screwy things have happened to me,” said Trafalgar; I agreed silently, “but nothing like being knocked down with rifle butts at the side of a road after a sleepless night by some guys in scarlet uniforms appearing from who knows where and without you knowing why or having time to react and defend yourself.”
“Scarlet uniforms? What an anachronism.”
“The machine guns and bazookas they carried were no anachronism, I can assure you.”
“Then the question of defending yourself was purely rhetorical.”
“Well, yes. First they beat me to a pulp and then they asked who I was. I grabbed my documents but they stopped me short and the one giving the orders called over a soldier who searched me. They looked at everything, passport, identity card, even my driver’s license, and they halfway smiled and the head honcho said from up in the truck that they should execute me right then.”
“It must be the eighteenth time you escape execution.”
“According to my calculations, the third. Once on Veroboar, once on OlogämyiDäa, once on Uunu. I was saved because someone started shooting. And this time I threw myself to the ground and remained, as they say, in critical condition. The tall, thin guy who had yelled to me was coming at the soldiers leading a troop of savages. The soldiers entrenched themselves behind the trucks and started firing, too, and me in the middle. The savages came closer: they were dropping like flies, but they came closer. There were many more of them than of the redcoats and they finally beat them. They killed almost all of them and were left with a lieutenant and two sergeants, wounded but alive. And they lifted me up off the ground and took me with them.”
“I’m starting to wonder: from soldiers to savages, I’m not sure where you were going to be better off.”
“They looked like savages because they were so grubby and unshaven, but they weren’t. They kicked the dead off the road, they took away their weapons, tied up the prisoners—not me—we climbed into the truck and took off jolting like lunatics across the countryside, on the point of overturning every ten meters. We arrived in one piece, I don’t know how, at an almost-town or ex-town, and we stopped at a nearly ruined house. One of the sergeants died on the way. The lieutenant was badly wounded but he endured and the other sergeant was more or less all right. They put them in a cellar. To me they gave a foul stew to eat, but if it had been caviar I wouldn’t have put it away with more enthusiasm and the tall, thin one who was called ser Dividis sat down with me to ask me as well, but more gently, who I was. I told him. He smiled a little, like the concierge, only I didn’t want to hit this guy, and he told me, of course, these things could happen and not to worry, how about that? And that unfortunately they didn’t have rhythm charts to inform me with certainty. I didn’t know what the rhythm charts were but I wanted a cup of coffee and I asked if there was any. Other guys who were walking around, like they were keeping watch or out of curiosity, burst out laughing, and one who must be my soul mate sighed and closed his eyes. No, ser Dividis told me, it was a long time since there had been coffee. I took out my cigarettes and when I saw their startled, envious faces, I shared them around. They threw themselves on them like castaways: they left me only one, which I smoked while the thin guy explained, not my own case—unfortunately—but the general situation. For my case, there wasn’t time.”
He sipped coffee very slowly, contrary to his custom.
“They were maquisards, guerrillas, although they melodramatically called themselves Lords of Peace—I don’t want to think what the lords of war would be like—and their leaders took the title ser. They fought, as best they could, against the Captains. The Captains were a military caste that governed the world after its fashion. Moreover, nothing original. The Lords had been very hopeful lately because the Captains were dividing into groups that fought among themselves, nothing original there, either. Each faction of the Captains had an army with uniforms of a different color. The Reds had just defeated the Yellows and were patrolling the zone killing fugitives and, in passing, Lords. ‘Who’s winning?’ I asked. They had no idea. They were confident of bleeding them dry because the Captains were weakened by fighting each other for absolute power with that tendency people thrown about by death have to believe that absolute power is going to save them from something. And they attacked them using the old technique of appearing where the others least expected them. In addition, and in spite of the fact that the Captains paid well and punished better, there were many desertions and herds of soldiers crossed over to the ranks of the Lords. But I, who know a little history, was not so optimistic. They didn’t know anything for certain: there were no newspapers or radios or any kind of communications and land, water, and air transport were in the hands of the Captains, although they stole what they could. They would send spies or messengers to other zones and sometimes men arrived from far away with news that was no longer worth anything. Ser Dividis had been born when the dictatorship of the Captains began to grow powerful and he remembered a little, not a lot, of a world without war. He recounted atrocities, he got worked up, and after a speech that I think was not directed to me or to his men but rather to himself, he asked me what side I was on. I told him on their side, of course, was I going to start arguing?” He thought about it. “Besides, if I had to choose, I would have been with them. I sympathize with lost causes. Which tend to be those that win in the long run and come to power, they become strong, another lost cause appears and everything starts all over again. I was starting to ask ser Dividis why on Uunu I encountered a different world every day when the fight started up again. It was the Reds.”
He finished his coffee and pushed the cup away and put his arms on the table, with the cigarette between his joined hands.
“I’m not going to tell you about the battle. One can’t. When you have experienced one, the description, the memory, everything you can say, everything you read in the newspaper or saw in the cinema, doesn’t go beyond a kindergarten scene. This time they won, the Reds. I had a shotgun someone had put in my hands and I shot out of a window. That lasted quite a while, not as long as it seemed to me at the time, but a while. The Reds had us surrounded and they got closer all the time. I sympathize with lost causes, but I’m not stupid. When I saw the situation was getting ugly, I turned around to see if I could escape somehow, carrying the shotgun and the few bullets I had left. Ser Dividis was doing the same. He made signs to those of us who remained, they pushed aside a table, they raised the floor and we ran away through a subterranean tunnel that came out in the forest. Unfortunately, the Reds were waiting for us in the forest: evidently if the Lords had infiltrators in the armies, the others also had theirs among the Lords’ men. They took down almost everyone, including ser Dividis, and I was sorry because he seemed like a good guy; a nutcase, but a good guy. Four of us managed to escape by some miracle into the trees. At last they left us in peace. The other three said that in a half day’s march we could reach Irbali so long as there weren’t more soldiers on the road, as was very probable: they were crazy, too. I suppose Irbali must be another city, but I said no, I was staying there.”
“Doesn’t sound very prudent to me.”
“The whole world was at war, what did it matter where one was? And I wanted to be close to the port, if it existed, so they left and I remained alone in a forest, with a shotgun in my hand, a dozen bullets, and war all around.”
“Yes, of course, the best thing was for you to keep quiet and wait.”
“Which I did. Until that moment they hadn’t let me decide. But when they left and I could start thinking after a second of panic, I saw that it was best. I didn’t know what was going to happen that next day on Uunu, but why lose hope? I climbed a tree, I placed the shotgun in a hollow branch, I arranged myself as best I could in a fork and I waited. When night fell, I climbed down, I grabbed the shotgun and started walking in the direction of the city. I came very close, much sooner than I had imagined: something was burning there which didn’t surprise me. I decided to wait for dawn. According to my calculations, if each day I had found a different world, there was no reason the next should be an exception. We would see what happened. Granted, I hoped—or rather, desperately desired—that some day I would return to the world of dra Iratoni and I would be able to leave with my wood. I made the firm resolve, which I did not carry out, to return to Karperp, apologize to Rosdolleu for having thought he was lying to me, and then knock him out with a sucker punch for not having explained to me what was happening and just going on with his elegant evasions. I hid myself as I was able among the plants a good ways off the road, I put the shotgun to one side, I lay down, and I slept.”
“‘In a bed of silk and feathers / I put my mother and my dreams to sleep.’”
“As if it had been a bed of silk and feathers. I had passed a night without sleeping and a day as an unknown soldier. That was enough: I needed a rest.”
“I don’t want to rush you, but understand me: I am dying to know what you found the next day.”
“The wooden bowl,” said Trafalgar.
I had forgotten about the bowl and wasn’t expecting it. “The bowl?”
“Yes. Or, at least, a bowl. I woke up and the first thing I saw was that the shotgun had disappeared and it occurred to me that the Yellows or the Reds or the Purples were going to shoot me. The second thing was that I was hungry, incredibly hungry. Also, my unshaved beard made my face itch and my clothes were a mess and I was fed up, understand, fed up.”
“Don’t get mad,” said Marcos, arriving with more coffee and more orange juice. “That won’t get you anywhere.”
“True,” said Trafalgar. “One time I got mad on Indaburd V with the president of the corporation of veltra manufacturers and I lost a fantastic sale.”
“See?” said Marcos and he went away very satisfied.
“What’s that about veltra?” I said.
“If instead of glass you had veltra in the windows of your house, you wouldn’t need heating or air-conditioning, or bars or blinds or curtains.”
“I like curtains: they’re warm and decorative,” I said, and I remembered Uunu. “How was it that you found the bowl that day on Uunu?”
“And also, the president of the corporation of veltra manufacturers was an old idiot.”
“Trafalgar, I’m going to kill you.”
And he smiled. So I left him in peace while he drank the coffee that in Rosario, luckily, is not relative.
“All I wanted when it got light,” said Trafalgar, “and I saw that it was a horrible morning, cold and gray, was to eat. That the Reds or the Greens might shoot me, fine. I imagined the succulent last feasts of the condemned, with coffee, cigars, and cognac, and my guts twisted with indignation. So I walked toward the city determined that they should kill me, although I imagined, and I liked that but I didn’t like it, that the world would be a different one and possibly the Captains would not exist. I required very little, when I reached the city, to recognize that the Captains did not yet exist. Nor was there coffee.”
Just in case, he drank the one he had in front of him.
“It was no longer New York nor the bombed-out city but, lamentably, it wasn’t Welwyn either. It was a group of huts of coarse brick, possibly dried in the sun, without mortar, with thatch roofs and curtains of branches in the doorways and without windows. There were corrals for the animals and fire pits in a clear central area. They received me well: with great curiosity and a lot of chatter, but well. Men and women had leather loincloths and the kids ran around naked, in that cold. I, of course, fell like a bombshell, although they didn’t know what bombs were.”
“The war had ended and the world was left like that?”
“The war hadn’t started yet. It was centuries before the Captains’ war, are you getting this?”
“Damn, of course I get it,” I said, “but why didn’t anybody warn you?”
“That was more an error on my part than on theirs. But, as I said, they received me well. They approached me with curiosity but without suspicion, they touched me and sniffed at me, chatting and laughing. They were the perfect good savages: if brother Jean Jacques were to see them, he’d tear right up with emotion. I didn’t understand what they were saying, and they didn’t understand me. But as Raúl says, there are three gestures that work anywhere. They took me to one of the huts and they gave me something to eat. Leaving out the food at dra Iratoni’s, it was the best I ate on Uunu. Roast meat and grains cooked with little pieces of fat that were practically cracklings and some green, very juicy fruits. Coffee, of course, out of the question. I regretted having given the cigarettes to ser Dividis’ men at the moment when out of habit I put my hand in my pocket, and there was the pack, barely started. I don’t know how many I had in the ruined house of the Lords of Peace, but probably nine or ten. And I remembered that on returning that night, the first one, from dra Iratoni’s, I had put a full pack and another, just opened, in another pocket of the jacket and the next day, in the new hotel, I had dressed in that suit, which I was still wearing. I had smoked, it’s true, in New York and with the Lords, but I looked in a pocket and found the full pack, too, just as predicted. I smoked, something that really got their attention. I was surrounded by kids, by fairly young men and women, who suddenly stepped aside to allow a stooped old man to approach. The old man was completely covered in skins and he had, I suppose as an emblem of authority, rough-made boots also of leather. He came and sat in front of me and began to speak with the alphabet of the mute. He didn’t ask me who I was, which is a complicated question to ask with gestures, but he asked where I had come from. I told him the sky and it seemed very good to him. I thanked him for the food and the hospitality and I told him I was pleased. He thanked me for my gratitude and we were already great friends. I also told him I was tired and then, as I saw that the men had long hair but not beards, I told him I wanted to shave. What for? You can imagine they didn’t bring me a Phillips or even a Techmatic. They talked a little and a matron appeared bringing some stones that were shiny from so much use. I backed away, plenty scared, but it was too late.” He grew pensive. “I have been shaved in many parts of this world and of others. In London, for example, and in Venice and in Hong Kong; and also on Oen, on Enntenitre IV, on Niugsa and in the City of the Beings—some day I’ll have to tell you what that is. But no one ever shaved me so well, so softly or so close, so thoroughly, so maternally as that fat matron dressed in a loincloth, adorned with necklaces and bracelets made from the teeth of some animal, almost toothless, dying of laughter and with two stones as her only equipment. The others were also laughing because I was terrified she would cut my jugular or my nose or both of them, but by the time I finished explaining with signs that I had changed my mind and I no longer wanted to be shaved, I could have been dead and buried. I made the fat woman understand that the mustache, no, and that also surprised her and they laughed at that, too. She sharpened the small stone against the other, moistened my face with something that seemed like broth, and began. When she was halfway through, I was already calmer and when she finished, I grabbed her by both hands and I shook them up and down and I laughed, I let her go and I gave her a pat on the back and everyone was happy. You won’t believe me, but it was the most peaceful day I spent on Uunu. I ate, I slept, they took me around and I even got close to the place where the port should have been.”
“Which wasn’t there, nor the Japanese fellow’s house nor anything.”
“Nothing. Except the lake, which perhaps was bigger. And the woods, which was practically a forest. It was a fabulous day. You can’t say it was perfect because we had a visitor.”
“I would almost bet money it was a tyrannosaurus.”
“You just missed by a little. A saber-toothed tiger, so long as saber-toothed tigers were as I imagine them. It seems it had been roaming around eating people and animals, and in the early evening a party went out—as they had been doing for a good while, the old man explained in a conversation that gave us both quite a bit of trouble—they found it and they chased it into a trap they had prepared. But the fellow was well versed in traps and got loose. It didn’t attack, because it was well fed, but, surrounded on all sides, it escaped toward the village. It reached the edge of the land occupied by the huts and there was a big clamor and people scattered in all directions and then the men of the village that had been chasing it appeared and they killed it with lances and axe blows. It was a slaughter. All were left wounded and one dead. But with a sophistication unlooked for in noble savages, first came the celebration and afterward the grief. There was a feast with song and dance which the wounded and the dead attended as guests of honor. They skinned the tiger and we ate the meat: the main course was the entrails marinated in something like vinegar, and the heart, chopped up very fine, of which we each ate a piece.”
“Eating the vanquished enemy,” I said. “What would brother Jean Jacques think of that?”
“Who knows? The tiger was tough, imagine, newly dead meat of a cornered animal accustomed to running and climbing. It wasn’t exactly pheasant, or even close. Dark, fibrous meat, but not at all bland and without a bit of fat. Did I tell you they served the chopped heart in a wooden bowl?”
“No, you didn’t tell me. Was it the same bowl from which you’d eaten the seedless loquats at dra Iratoni’s?”
“No, it wasn’t the same.”
“But then where are we?”
“When I saw the bowl arrive I felt good, as if I no longer had any worries—and did I ever have them. It was like meeting an old, long-lost friend and I almost believed everything was solved, that if this was what I had remembered that night, all the rest of it was no longer important. Nonsense, of course, but I was celebrating the death of the tiger and eating its entrails and drinking the fermented juice of something and you know with all that, a certain irresponsibility gets into one. Especially after having seen how a saber-toothed tiger dies. As the bowl was full and I served myself my little bit but there was still a lot left, I watched as it passed from hand to hand until it was empty. They set it down and I stood up to get it. I cleaned it.”
“With a wooden spoon to complete the reminiscence.”
“Wooden spoons in the stone age, come on.”
“Well, yes,” I said, “spoons are almost as old as knives.”
“Let’s not exaggerate,” said Trafalgar.
“Neolithic,” I insisted, “in the Neolithic there were already spoons.”
“Could be. But not on Uunu of Neyiomdav. I cleaned it with my fingers. It wasn’t the same. It looked a lot like it, that’s true.”
“Of course it looked like it. All wooden bowls look like each other. You can’t make great modifications with something so simple.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t the same. It was made of different wood, it was deeper, it didn’t have the same grain. And in addition, I felt nothing: it wasn’t the same, I tell you.”
“I believe you. What I want to know, and right away, is if you ever found that other bowl.”
“I found it,” he said, “but not there. I kept the bowl in my hand and I even asked the old man if I might have it as a gift and he gave it to me with great courtesy. I lost it afterwards, of course, for the same reason I had lost the shotgun and recovered the cigarettes and the documents. And, speaking of which, I smoked the last one before lying down to sleep.”
“I am terrified,” I said. “What did you find the next day?”
“Cheer up, here comes the best part.”
What came was more coffee in the hand of Marcos. Trafalgar’s trips don’t interest Marcos. I suspect he doesn’t believe him. And he’s interested in other things: in the Burgundy, his kids, the first grandchild (due in the next three months), his wife, Clarisa, who was beauty queen in 1941 in Casilda, race horses and, something in common with Trafalgar, tango.
“I woke up in the Hotel Continental,” Trafalgar said with his nose deep in his cup.
“The first. Dirty, with my suit immaculate, well shaven and without the bowl or the shotgun but with my documents and a pack and a half of cigarettes in my jacket pockets. I got up, I looked out the window, and I was in the city that resembled Welwyn and my room was number 132 on the second floor and it overlooked a park. I ran my hand over my face and I felt an immense tenderness toward the fat woman. I bathed, I put on another suit and went down to have breakfast. Liters of coffee.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“And some crunchy fritters and more coffee and cigarettes. Afterward, I grabbed a phone and called dra Iratoni; I was scared, you wouldn’t believe, but I called. Only when I heard his voice did I know for sure that I was back on the Uunu to which I’d arrived. He invited me again to dine at his house and I said no thank you, I wanted to see him that very morning. Then he gave me the address of a club or businessmen’s circle and told me he’d meet me there. I took a taxi—with a driver—I went to the port, inspected the clunker and the wood and found everything was fine, I took another taxi and I went to the club. There I had to endure almost an hour of introductions and conversations with other merchants who were with dra Iratoni, until I managed to drag him to a little room and buttonhole him myself.”
“Last chapter,” I said, “and thank goodness, because it’s getting late.”
“Stay and eat downtown,” said Trafalgar.
“I can’t. Besides, if I stay you’re going to extend the story until we finish our dessert, whereas this way you have no alternative but to tell me everything now. And if they were to serve us dessert in wooden bowls, I’d have an attack. So go on.”
“I told dra Iratoni everything,” he said, “and he listened to me with great formality, like the concierge, like ser Dividis, but, like them, he wasn’t the least bit worried. He did say, at least, that he was sorry not to have said anything, but that he had assumed I was informed because if I had said on Karperp that I was going to Uunu, they would have already warned me. When I told him no, on Karperp they had insinuated something and had told me it wasn’t a good idea to go and for that very reason I had come, he was enormously surprised. He stood there with his mouth open and his jaw dropping. How? If a guy wants to go somewhere, why not say so? And if they tell him he shouldn’t go, why would he go? Or why not insist and ask for explanations and afterward decide whether to go or not? A Neyiomdaviano does not understand our give and take.”
“They must be great people.”
“I assure you, they are. A little unsettling. But I maintain that yes, they’re terrific. They say what they think, or they give you a subtle invitation, which to me sounded like reluctance, for you to say what you think, and they say what they are going to do and they do what they have said they are going to do. It’s not as easy as it seems.”
“Must not be much room for neurosis there.”
“You know there’s always room for neurosis, everywhere. But it seems to me we give it more consideration than the Neyiomdavianos. I made dra Iratoni understand some of this and then he explained to me what happens on Uunu and I am going to try to explain it to you but I don’t know if I’ll be able to.”
He finished his coffee and took a breath as if for a pole vault.
“Time is not successive,” he said. “It is concrete, constant, simultaneous, and not uniform.”
Then I was the one who took a breath.
“God, for instance,” said Trafalgar, “perceives it that way, and every religion allows that. And on Uunu it’s perceptible that way for everyone, although with a lesser immediacy, due to a quirk of its placement in space. Space which, of course, could not exist without its coexistant, time.”
“We’re not getting anywhere this way,” I said. “Give me the concrete examples because I don’t read Einstein or Langevin or Mulnö.”
“Imagine time,” said Trafalgar, “as an infinite and eternal—it’s the same thing—bar of a material that has different degrees of consistency both in its duration and in its length. With me?”
“Now, once a day, or rather once a night, Uunu experiences a chrono-synclastic infundibulum.”
“Oh, no,” I protested. “That’s from Vonnegut.”
“Yes. And dra Iratoni didn’t say it like that but in another way, much more descriptive but also more complicated, so much so that I don’t remember it well. But you know the chrono-synclastic infundibulum. When it occurs, it covers and envelops all of Uunu and then the parts of that temporal bar that at that moment have greatest consistency, surface—I can’t think of another way to say it—and so if today is today, tomorrow can be a hundred years from now or ten thousand five hundred years ago.”
“I understand now,” I said. “I think so, at least. But the people of each era, don’t they find themselves thrown from one to another and have to live a different moment of their history every day? Why did you not meet dra Iratoni the next day even though his house didn’t exist, or how come the concierge from the first Hotel Continental wasn’t in the second one?”
“No, no. Each continues with their life in the era they were born in and in which they live, thanks to their adaptation to the environment. A lousy environment, I’ll agree with you, but not worse than others. Eras don’t mix, one never invades another. They coexist. They are simultaneous. If you’re born on Uunu, you keep living your life day by day, very happy, unaffected and you know that at the same time other things are happening in other eras. With a little effort of the syncretic awareness of time—I don’t know what it is, but dra Iratoni takes it for granted that all of us have it—you can perceive on any given day of your life, the era which on that precise day has the greater consistency since the prior chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Something no one on Uunu bothers to do, or almost no one. They’re prevented by the very fact that all eras are there, as they say, within reach. Historians or philosophers or sociologists do it—or have done it—to demonstrate something, always discreetly and without bothering anyone or getting involved. Or a few crackpots or maniacs, which are almost nonexistent on Uunu so there aren’t problems on that side. I don’t know if the sensitivity of the Neyiomdavianos of Uunu doesn’t come from knowing the consistency of time and knowing they could avail themselves of it if they wished.”
“But wait,” I said, “then you were bouncing here and there, from the future to the Captains to the Neolithic, because you were a foreigner and weren’t adapted?”
“I was born in Rosario, not on Uunu. I don’t have a syncretic awareness of time or if I have it, it’s atrophied. And to top it off, I have the eagerness, the anguish of time. In me, time isn’t something natural, a part of me, it’s almost a saddlesore. In me and in all of us. I got to Uunu and I was defenseless for that reason—floating, let’s say. And when the chrono-synclastic infundibulum came along, there I went to the most consistent part of that eternal and infinite temporal unity.”
“I don’t want to think about the matter too much. It’s very simple and very complicated.”
“Very. And very unpleasant. Now notice that on the first night, when I went to bed in room 132 of the Hotel Continental and dra Iratoni and his family went to sleep in their house, for me, who am not an adapted native, there followed the morning of many years later and I woke up in a Hotel Continental that was going to exist, in a changed city, with robot taxis and skyscrapers. The next day, hundreds of years later, under the paranoid tyranny of the Captains, and the next, in the Stone Age. But the next, when I once again woke up in room 132, dra Iratoni and his family woke up on the morning after the night when I had been having dinner at their house.”
“But how? And those three days in which you were going from one side to the other of Uunu’s history?”
“For them, they didn’t exist or, better put, they didn’t elapse, because as far as existing, they always exist. For them the chrono-synclastic infundibulum of my first night on Uunu was an everyday event that their syncretic awareness of time can ignore. I was snatched away to a hundred or two hundred years later and there another chrono-synclastic infundibulum carried me various centuries later when there was another that carried me to thousands of years before and so on until I was returned to the world of dra Iratoni, luckily. He explained to me, furthermore, that sooner or later that was going to happen, and he showed me the rhythm charts that are something like logarithm tables but thicker than the Tokyo telephone book and that predict toward where and when the most consistent parts of time are moving every night.”
“I was mistaken,” I said. “It’s more complicated than I thought. But tell me—so they know both what has happened and what is going to happen?”
“Of course. From the point of view of knowledge, it’s very useful. And if you need something that has not been discovered, you get into a syncretic temporal trance or whatever it is and you find out, because the rhythm charts tell you when the time in which you believe whatever it is will be already known will be most consistent. Now, from the personal point of view, with the good sense and the calm they have about everything, it doesn’t occur to anyone to try to spy into the future to see when or how they’re going to die or anything like that. I think that would be frowned upon, I don’t mean as criminal but definitely as something that would discredit one.”
“No, what I mean is, if they know the dictatorship of the Captains, which from what I see looks pretty bad, is going to come along some day, why don’t they do something to change things now so it doesn’t happen?”
“Can you stand another turn of the screw?”
“Well, yes, what do you expect me to do?”
“I told you to imagine time as an infinite and eternal bar of varying consistency, right?”
“Well, it is possible that there are infinite eternal and infinite bars, et cetera.”
“Think about the arborescent universes.”
I said nothing: I thought about the arborescent universes.
“What in reality coexists isn’t time, a time, but the infinite variants of time. That’s why the Neyiomdavianos of Uunu do nothing to modify the future, because there isn’t a future, there isn’t anything to modify. Because on one of those bars, those variants, those branches, the Captains don’t come to power. In another, the one who comes to power is ser Dividis. In another Welwyn doesn’t become New York. In another dra Iratoni doesn’t exist, in another he exists but he’s a bachelor schoolteacher, in another he exists and he is what he is and as he is but he doesn’t have a house stuck out into the woods and the lake that would make Frank Lloyd Wright kill himself from envy if he saw it, in another I never come to Uunu, in another Uunu is uninhabited, in another.”
“All right,” I said. “Enough.”
Marcos came to bring coffee and I asked him for a small one for myself.
“Seriously?” Marcos said. “You don’t want another orange juice? Or grapefruit juice?”
“No, seriously, a coffee. I need something stronger than juice.”
Marcos laughed and told me he was going to bring me a double whiskey and I said if he did, I would never set foot in the Burgundy again and he laughed a little more.
“Something’s missing,” I said to Trafalgar. “What happened with the wooden bowl?”
“I’m going to tell you. When dra Iratoni finished, I told him I was leaving that very day and he answered that it seemed the safest course. But he invited me to lunch at his home and I accepted. I had flowers sent to Madame Iratoni and I went and found the whole family and I again had a very good time and dessert was served in a crystal dish and not in wooden bowls. I went to the hotel, I paid, I took out my luggage and I went to the port and readied the clunker. My friend Iratoni came to say good-bye along with two of those business cronies he had introduced me to that morning, he gave me some bottles of wine from Uunu and I cast off. I sold the wood on Anidir XXII, where they bargain like Bedouins, but, as wood is a luxury item there—as it is going to be here before long—I made them take the bit and pay what I wanted and I left.”
“And the bowl?”
“Oh, the bowl. Look, I planned to travel again a week later. But three days after I arrived, I ran into Cirito and Fina at a concert and they invited me to dinner the next day. You know I prefer going to Cirito’s when Fina isn’t there, but they insisted and I had to say yes. I went, we ate in the garden because it was quite hot, almost like today. Cirito gave himself the treat of doing a barbeque and he served the meat on those boards that come with a channel on the side and rustic utensils. So as not to clash, there were raffia rounds for placemats, and dessert came in wooden bowls. It wasn’t loquats without seeds but chocolate cream with meringue on top. And when I scraped, with that rustic, wooden spoon, the bottom of the bowl.”
“You guessed it. Then, only then, did I understand what dra Iratoni had told me and I guessed much more. I think that not only do all of us, everywhere, have a syncretic awareness of time, but also that everywhere infinite variants of what has happened and what is going to happen and what is happening coexist, and maybe at some points and at some instants they cross and you think you remember something you have never experienced or that you could have experienced or that you could experience and will not experience, or as in my case with the bowl, that you come to experience if there is the almost impossible juncture, I don’t want to call it chance, of two crossings in which you are present. It is a memory, because in one or in some variants of time you experienced it or you will experience it, which is the same. And it is not a memory, because most likely in your line of variants it has not happened nor is it ever going to happen.”
“Let’s go,” I said. “Pay and let’s go, because I’ve had enough for today.”
And while Marcos went to get the change, Trafalgar put out the next to last cigarette, looked at the card on which he had drawn the grain of the bowl for me, put it back in his pocket and said, “Don’t forget that every day is the best day of the year. I don’t know who said that, but it’s true.”
“I can imagine where this advice is leading,” I answered.
Marcos brought a pile of bills on a little plate, he left it on the table, waved his hand, and went back behind the bar.
On the street, it was still very hot.
“I’ll walk you to the bus stop,” Trafalgar said.
Angelica Gorodischer © Trafalgar 2013