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From The Critics[A] major undiscovered work...a novel about Buenos Aires which one night turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
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The setting of Final Exam is a surreal Buenos Aires, dark and eerie, where a strange fog has enveloped the city to everyone's bewilderment. Juan and Clara, two students at a college called "The House" (the Great Books are read aloud there by so-called Readers), meet up with their friends Andrés and Stella, as well as a journalist friend they call "the chronicler." Juan and Clara are getting ready to take their final exam, but instead of preparing, they wander the city with their friends, encounter strange happenings in the square, attend concerts, and discuss their lives in cafés.
Final Exam is a fascinating literary experiment: with stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, radical typographical innovations, and also shifts in rhythm and direction of its characters' thoughts and speech. Darkly funny—and riddled with unresolved ambiguities—Final Exam is translated ably here by Alfred MacAdam. It is one of Cortázar's best works—long overdue in English.
"IL Y A TERRIBLEMENT D'ANNÉES, JE M'EN ALLAIS chasser le gibier d'eau dans les marais de l'Ouest—et comme il n'y avait pas alors de chemins de fer dans le pays où il me fallait voyager, je prenais la diligence ..." You have a good time, and I hope you bag many, many partridges, thought Clara, walking away from the classroom door. She could no longer hear the voice of the Reader. How wonderfully isolated the rooms in the House were, all you had to do was step back a few yards to re-enter the mildly buzzing silence of the gallery. She walked toward the stairway, but, undecided, stopped when she came to another hallway. From there, she could hear clearly the Readers in Section A, Modern English Novel. But it was unlikely Juan would be in one of those classrooms. The annoying thing is that with him you just never know. Then she decided to go look and find out for sure, angrily squeezing her notebook. She turned left, though it didn't matter which way she went. "'Was there a husband?' `Yes. Husband died of anthrax.' `Anthrax?' `Yes, there were a lot of cheap shaving brushes on the market just then ...'"
Nothing wrong with stopping for a second to see if Juan—
"`some of them infected. There was a regular scandal about it.' `Convenient,' suggested Poirot."—but he wasn't there. 7:40, and Juan said he'd meet her at 7:30. The jerk! He was probably in one of the classrooms, mixed in with the parasites of the House—listening without hearing. Other times, they'd met on the ground floor next to the stairway, but Juan had probably gone upto the second floor. What a jerk! Unless, he's late, unless ... Maybe the other gallery, he's probably there someplace ...
"dans les mélodies nous l'avons vu, les emprunts et les échanges s'effectuent très souvent par- ..."
But no, he wasn't there. This Reader bas a good voice, she told herself, stopping near the door. The room was brightly lit, and she could see the little sign announcing the title of the book: Le Livre Des Chansons, ou Introduction à la Chanson Populaire Française (Henry Davenson). Chapter H. Reader: Mr. Roberto Chaves.
This must be the man who read La Bruyère last year, thought Clara. A light voice devoid of emphasis, well able to withstand the five-hour stretch of reading. Just then, the Reader paused, dropping a silence as if it were a spoonful of tapioca pudding. The length of the silence told the listeners if it was a full stop or a footnote. A footnote, thought Clara. The Reader went on: "Voir là-dessus la seconde partie de la thèse de C. Brouwer, Das Volklied in Deutschland, Frankreich ..." A good Reader, one of the best. I couldn't do it, I get distracted, and then I run on like a dog. And that nervous yawning after reading aloud for a while, she remembered that in fifth grade, Miss Capello made her read passages from Marianela. For the first few pages, everything went fine, but then came the yawning, the slow tightening slowly but surely taking control of her throat and mouth, and Miss Capello with her angelic face, listening in ecstasy. The forced pause to control the yawn—she seemed to feel it all over again, transferred it to the Reader, and regretted it for his sake, poor devil—and again reading until the next yawn, no, she most certainly was not suitable for the House. There's Juan! Here he comes, happy as a lark, his head in the clouds as usual.
But it wasn't Juan, only a fellow who looked like him. Clara was livid and stalked over to the other side of the gallery where there were no readings in progress, but she could smell Ramiro's coffee. I'll ask Ramiro for a cup to drown my rage. She was annoyed that she'd confused Juan with another man. That fatso Herlick would have said, "See? Tricks of the gestalt: three lines given, use your imagination to complete the picture. Given: a rather skinny body, chestnut-colored hair, and a certain way of walking—as if he were dragging a Buenos-Aires idleness along with him—and you see Juan." The gestalt could ... Ramiro, Ramiro, how I could go for a cup of his coffee, but it's only for the Readers and for Dr. Menta. The House: coffee and readings. And now it's 7:45.
Two young women left a classroom almost running. They exchanged phrases the way birds exchange pecks and didn't even see Clara in their haste to get to the stairs. The kind who run and listen to another chapter of another book, as if they were switching the dial from a tango to Lohengrin, to the stock-market report, ads for refrigerators, Ella Fitzgerald ... The House ought to prohibit that kind of promiscuity. One at a time, dear members of the radio audience, you don't take up Stendhal until you finish Zogoibi.
But it was Dr. Menta, slave to culture, who ruled the House. Read books and you'll find yourself. Believe in the printed word, in the voice of the Reader. Accept the spiritual bread. Those two are the kind who'd go up to listen to some Russian novel read by Menghi or Spanish poetry recited so nicely by Miss Rodríguez. They swallow everything without chewing, and when they leave they eat a sandwich in the House snack bar so they won't lose time---and then off they go to a film or a concert. They're so cultured, they're just divine. Never in my life have I seen pedantry raised to so high a degree of excellence ... Because it would have been useless to ask one of those girls what she thought about things going on in the city, the provinces, the country, the hemisphere, in the entire blessed world. Information? All you want: Archimedes, a famous mathematician, Lorenzo de' Medici; the son of Giovanni; "Puss 'n Boots," a charming tale by Perrault, and so on ... She was in the first gallery again. Some doors were closed, an annoying buzz, the Reader. Les Temps Modernes, Number 50, December, 1949. Reader: Mr. Osmán Caravazzi.
I should try out this idea of listening to magazines, thought Clara. It could be fun. First one subject and then another, like a continuous show at the movies: the reading begins whenever you arrive. She felt tired and walked over to where the gallery opened onto the patio below. There were stars and lights. Clara sat down on one of the cold benches and felt for her chocolate bar, a Dolca with almonds. From a window above, came a dry, clear voice. Moyano, or perhaps Dr. Bergmann, who'd read all of Balzac in three years. Unless it was Bustamante ... That was probably Dr. Wolff up on the fourth floor, all nasal with her Wolfnaselgang Goethenasal; and from somewhere else little Mary Robbins, Reader of Nigel Balchin.
Clara felt her compassion aroused by the chocolate, she was no longer angry with her husband. 8:00, and she wasn't annoyed by the bell tolling from the huge clock on the corner. After all, it was her fault for coming to the House; the readings didn't matter a bit to Juan, damn him. These days it was difficult to find interesting courses, or original lectures—the House served the purpose of keeping the spiritual bread hot. [Sic.] What it was really good for was to meet with some friend and chat in a low voice while the grand program of useful works created by Dr. Menta and the Dean of the Faculty was simultaneously put into practice.
She could just hear them: "Of course, doctor, but of course: young people are always young people, they never study at home. On the other hand, if you make them listen to the works, recited by our first-rate Readers." (Those horns of plenty were paid professorial salaries, you know.) "You'll find you can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar. Isn't that the case, Dr. Menta? Dr. Menta, ..." But if I keep on reconstructing each and every one of his crimes, thought Clara, I'll end up believing in the House. I'd rather bite right through my Dolca bar. The House wasn't so bad after all. Under the pretext of passing on world culture, Dr. Menta had given jobs to dozens of Readers; the Readers read and the girls (especially those who were always such good little students and so attentive to the grand program of useful works) listened. Something would remain of all that, even if nothing more than Nigel Balchin.
"Tomorrow night," explained Juan over the phone. "The final examination. Yes, but of course we're going to have lunch. And go to the concert, for sure. The exam's at night, there's time for everything."
When he hung up, furious that the telephone connection had been so bad and that he'd barely been able to hear his father-in-law, furious about how late it was, he saw Abel walking into the bar through the door on Carlos Pellegrini Street. Wearing blue, Abel was extremely pale and thin; as usual, he looked no one in the eye and made his way crabwise, avoiding faces even more than tables.
"Abelito," whispered Juan, leaning on the bar. "Abelito!"
But Abel settled into a corner and stared at the wall without seeing him or, more likely, without wanting to see him. Juan stirred his coffee, not wanting to drink it. He'd ordered it out of habit. He never liked making telephone calls from bars without first ordering something. Seen from the back, Abel seemed even thinner, his shoulders were stooped. How long it had been since they'd seen each other. In the old days, Abelito never wore anything as nice as that blue suit. He's got money, thought Juan. The most natural thing would have been for them to wave to each other even if from a distance, not to shake hands. They'd never had a falling out. How could you fight with Abel? He vaguely remembered the creeps who would sometimes appear in the bathroom of the house where they lived—he'd come back late in his student days. Poor Abelito, really, it was too much to compare him with ... He gulped down the tepid, overly sweet coffee, stared tenderly at his shopping bag with the cauliflower in it. (As soon as he came in, he'd put the bag near him on the bar near the telephone, so no one would put a hand or elbow, on it.) Now a blond man in shirt sleeves was shouting into the telephone. Juan glanced once more at Abel, who was sitting at the other end of the café, then paid, and walked out carrying the bag very carefully.
He walked along Cangallo, making his way through the scurrying passersby. The evening was hot; it was crowded, the cafés on the corners were overflowing. But what the fuck are all these people doing here at this hour? thought Juan. What lives, what deaths are they plotting? Well, how about me, what business do I have in the House? I would have been better off going up to Abel, asking him why he was walking around with a fresh-pressed face ... Seeing him in the café, he was beginning to suspect that perhaps Abelito ... But the fact was no one liked Abelito; which was more than sufficient reason to run into him in cafés. Poor Abel, so alone, so looking for something.
If he were really looking for us, he'd have found us by now, thought Juan.
He crossed Libertad, crossed Talcahuano. The House had turned on the extra lights for Thursdays. Not one classroom empty! Six thousand listeners they pack in in sections of a thousand each. How Menta must regret not having Kavanagh ... And he's probably in his office, wearing a dark blue or black suit, checking over forms, taking care of the public, filled with good intentions: We think the Dostoyevsky course should be given again, and the one on Ricardo Güiraldes. We waste too much time with Central American magazines. When will the cinematheque open? Dr. Menta is terribly sorry, but in classroom 31, they still have enough material for six more weeks with Pérez Galdós. It's not easy running the House, thought Juan. He went up the stairs two at a time and almost ran into pug-nose Gómez, who was running out.
"You should warn people if you're running away from the cops."
"Worse than that, Juan, I'm escaping from that pudgy Maers," said pug nose. "Every time she corners me, she starts explaining Darwin and anthropoid behavior."
"Holy Mother," said Juan.
"And her mother too, because she's always talking about her family and a sister she's got out in Ramos Mejía. See you later. Everything okay?"
"Yeah, everything's okay. What about you?"
"I'm in the Interest on Earnings course," said pug nose, and he went his lugubrious way.
Juan crossed the gallery and went to the patio, where with all certainty Clara was in a fury. He sneaked up behind her and tickled her.
"You're odious," said Clara, handing him the last of the Dolca bar.
"You smell like a birthday. You've got the air of the victim, of the laboratory subject. Dr. Menta regrets."
"And you receive me with the charm associated with fountains, with hills."
"Indeed it is. Time's marched on and passed us by.
Time, like a child
led by the hand
who looks back ... I wrote that haiku
two years ago, imagine ... Clara, in this bag you see here I
have a prodigious cauliflower."
"Eat it and, if you like, puke it. Besides, you're supposed to say `cauliflower' not `colleyflower.'"
"It isn't meant for eating," explained Juan. "This cauliflower is for carrying around in a bag to admire it from time to time. I think the present moment is propitious for the admiration of the cauliflower. So ..."
"I'd rather not see it," said Clara, proud of herself.
"Just for a second, so you get to know it. I cost me 1.90 in the Plata Market. I couldn't resist its beauty, so I went in and they wrapped it up for me. It was more beautiful than an early Flemish painting, and you know how I ... Just take a good look at it ..."
"It's pretty. I can see it just fine that way. No need to take it all the way out."
"There's something of an insect's eye to it magnified thousands of times," said Juan, allowing his finger to pass over the tightly bunched, grayish surface. "Just think: it's a flower, the enormous flower of the cabbage family—a cau-li-flower. But, you know, it's got something of a vegetable brain to it. O, cauliflower, what are you thinking about?"
"You were late because of that thing?"
"Yes. Also because I called your Dad, who's inviting us to lunch tomorrow; and I was looking at Abel."
"You certainly know how to waste time," said Clara. "Abel and Dad ... I'd opt for the cauliflower."
"Besides, I was counting on your forgiveness, dear," said Juan. "Moreover, we've still got time to listen to Moyano for a while. And I know how much you like Moyano's voice. The great acoustic fondler, the telephonic rapist."
"But he's just fine! The guy reads with such a degree of perfection, it doesn't matter what he's reading. And I like the three blondes who sit in the first row to drink it all in. The poor man, the superheterodyne lover! Hold on while I fix up the wrapping, someone could damage the colossus, the colossal cauliflower—the brilliant cauliflory, the caulicle."
From a room on the left, where the gallery began, came a psalmody muffled by the glass doors. They're reading Balmes, thought Clara, or it could be Javier de Viana ... A couple came running in and separated to read the little signs on the doors; they exchanged angry glances. Bam, headfirst, into the Ballad of the Wolves, Galiano Sifredi reader. A boy with huge eyeglasses was diligently reading the motto of the House written in gold letters on the wall:
L'art de la lecture doit laisser l'imagination de l'auditeur, sinon tout à fait libre, du moins pouvant croire à sa liberté.—Stendhal
(Everyone knew it was Gide who really said it, that Dr. Menta had swallowed the attribution to Stendhal.)
Just invent an apocryphal intellectual structure, thought Clara. Make a founding father say what he should have said and didn't; modify stupid temporality, render unto Caesar what should have been rendered unto him, but what was something actually said by Frederick II or President Yrigoyen ...
"Let's go," said Juan. "I hope there's a place to sit."
Halfway up the stairs, they paused to examine the bust of Caracalla. Clara liked the domineering gesture in his eyebrows, which closed over the eyes like drawbridges. She always caressed the bust as she passed, deploring the crack in the nose that made him look wicked.
"One of these days, he's going to bite your hand, Clara. Caracalla was like that."
"Caesars don't bite. And with a name as sweet as that, Caracalla, lord of the Romans."
"It's not a sweet name," said Juan. "It snaps like the whips of his charioteers."
"You're mixing him up with Caligula."
"No, he sounds like some bitter root. Two grains of caligula in a glass of honey. Or how about this: The sky is caligulated, who will discaligulate it? Oh, good-bye, Dr. Romero."
"Good night, youngsters," she said, firmly grasping the banister.
"Hurry up, Juan, Moyano probably started reading twenty minutes ago."
"You were the one who stopped to jerk off that poor Caesar."
"So what? He deserves it, he's good to me. And no one stops to look at him—he who was once so looked at."
"Caracalla's caracoles," said Juan. "The Romans were like that. Dr. Romero's turned into an elephant by the way. She turned around and contemplated my package. She smelled the cauliflower."
"Are you really going to carry that thing into the room?" asked Clara. "You're going to make noise rustling the paper bag and disturb everybody."
"If I could only put it in my buttonhole, how about that? A caracallesque caprice. But you do think it's pretty, right? You just can't get cauliflower like this anymore."
"It's okay. In my house, they bought bigger ones."
"Your famous house," said Juan.
The Reader made his end-of-chapter pause. Before beginning the next one, he allowed time for coughs, the manifestation of handkerchiefs, quick comments. Like a veteran pianist, he permitted a few seconds of relaxation, but not too many, so as not to lose that fluid yet tense substance adhering his voice to the people, his reading to attentions not always easily attracted.
Making a small bow:
Moise prenait de l'âge, mais aussi de l'apparence. Les banquiers ses contemporains, qu'il avait dépassés à trente ans en influence, à quarante en fortune ...
"Let me put the package between us," whispered Juan. "This fat guy on my left is fully capable of flattening the cauliflower."
"Give it to me," said Clara, grabbing the paper bag which rustled, causing Andrés Fava to turn his face toward them and grimace. In the finally ensuing silence, the Reader's voice dropped effortlessly from its preceding discrete volume. Clara suddenly remembered:
"What was he doing?"
"Abelito. What was he doing in the café?"
"I don't know. Looking for you, maybe."
"Hmm. But looking for me in the exact place I'm not."
"That might explain," said Juan, "why he's looking for you."
"Be quiet, both of you," grumbled Andrés. "You two walk in, and everything falls apart. I lose my concentration, see? Then I lose my mind."
Abelito, thought Clara, staring in a friendly way at Andrés' slightly skinny neck, examining critically the vulgar permanent ruining Stella's appearance—Stella, naturally, was sitting next to Andrés. Yes, he looks for me in the exact place I'm not, where I never was. Poor Abelito.
Stella slowly slipped her hand into Andrés' pocket. Slowly Stella slipped her hand. Stella, into Andrés' pocket, slipped her hand, slowly. It's no easy thing to slip a hand (your own, that is) into the trouser pocket of a seated man. Andrés played dumb and watched her out of the corner of his eye. The funny thing was that his handkerchief was in his other pocket.
"You're tickling me."
"Give me your handkerchief, I'm going to sneeze."
"Let's at least cry together, sweetheart, because I don't have one."
"You most certainly do have a handkerchief."
"Yes, I most certainly have a handkerchief, but not for you."
"You're the one demanding silence," whispered Juan, "and now you start a riot over a handkerchief. How about some respect for culture, buddy? Let the rest of us hear."
"That's right," said another fat man sitting to Stella's right. "Show a little respect."
"Right," said Juan. "That's just what I say, sir: more respect."
"That's right," said the fat guy.
Clara was listening to Eglantine:
Eglantine entrait, et redonnait subitement leur réalité, pour les yeux de Moise ému, au taupé et au Transvaal ...
And she was appreciating the Reader's talent for reading with a minimum of gestures. I'd be flapping my hands every which way, thought Clara. Juan is perfectly capable of falling over backwards in his chair just reading me some article in "Crítica." Completely distracted, incapable of focusing on Eglantine (she intended to read it on her own, as she did so many books she never ended up reading), she again stared at Andrés' back, at Stella's hair, at the Reader's indifferent face. She was surprised to find herself using her fingers to explore the contents of the package, moving along like an insect over the cold, wrinkled surface of the cauliflower. She brought her fingers up to her nose: they had a weak scent of moist bran, a rainy season in a room with a piano and furniture draped with slipcovers, of a set-aside copy of Para Ti.
Juan allowed her to keep holding the package. He took advantage of the next pause in the reading to move to Andrés left. Now they could talk without annoying the fat man—he was chatting with a lady who was probably retired, and wearing a violet dress.
"One day the true contents of a pocket will be revealed," said Juan, "and it will be seen they have very little to do with Charles Morgan."
"The introspection of you," said Andrés. "So what's happening, man?"
"Everything's the same, my friend. And you? Stella's as pretty as ever."
"You're always the same," said Stella. "All Andrés' friends are the same, a bunch of liars and scoundrels!"
"Charming young lady," said Juan to Andrés. "You've got a treasure in your own house and you probably don't even realize it."
"How wrong you are," said Andrés. "I'm the first to appreciate Stella's merits and delights. I've already filled several notebooks with praise, and posterity will one day know what the city with Stella in it meant to me."
"Do you write, young fellow?" asked Juan, initiating one of their pseudo interviews. "Amazing. How promising."
"And you, lad? Don't you write? It would be a sad thing if you didn't, believe me when I say it."
"Calm down, young man. I also write. All of us, all of us in our intelligent set write. As for you, I've heard rumors that you keep up a kind of day book I'd someday like to get a squint at, if that would be acceptable to you."
"You're asking for it," said Andrés. "But it isn't a day book, it's a night book."
"Did you hear that?" asked Stella. "It sounded like a siren."
"It was a siren," said Clara. "Loud enough to penetrate the insulated armor walls of our holy House."
"Rude reality ends up coinciding with mythology," said Andrés. "My personal opinion is that we should go somewhere where we can use our vocal cords to the full. Stella, darling, you won't be angry if we interrupt your intimate colloquy with literature, will you?"
"But there are only five minutes left," complained Stella, who easily confused attendance with time well spent.
"Five minutes, what nonsense," said Andrés. "Anyway, Clara doesn't even allow us to hear with all that rustling of paper. Man, the devotion some people have to fine writing is incredible. One night at the boxing matches I spotted a guy reading a couple of pages of Karl Jaspers between fights."
"I'm not bothering you with the paper in the slightest," said Clara. "He's the guilty party: he bought the cauliflower, and then handed it over to me for safekeeping."
"I don't want anyone to bruise it," said Juan. "As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, I wouldn't mind at all if you were to let me read your recent essays. I hold your prose in high esteem, and besides, I humbly respect my destiny, which consists of reading the lives and opinions of others. It was the same with Abelito. And with Clara it's even worse: she informs me orally—she's the factory, and I'm the consumer. Intimacy: just think of it. Her mother had four false teeth, her brother collects Frank Sinatra records ... Why did we come to the House? The best things to hear are outside."
"Five before nine," said Stella. "Gosh, today I was so inattentive ..."
"Don't take it so hard, sweety," said Andrés. "Next time, I'll take you to hear a reading of Vicki Baum."
"You're mean. You don't see that what I want to do is practice my French. It's because of all of you that I lose track of things. What a pain you all are."
Clara ran her hand through Stella's hair, moved by her words. Is she an idiot, or does she play at being one? she thought. Poor Andrés, but it seems he chose her. Stella's thick hair allowed itself to be invaded by fingers slipping smoothly through it. It made a kind of halo though which Clara saw the Reader close his book and get up. The chairs began to creak and squeak—as if they too had begun to comment on the reading. What the poor things must know, thought Clara. One book after another, week in, week out. The lights blinked twice, went out, then came on again: one of Dr. Menta's ideas to empty out the House rapidly at 9:00 P.M.
Andrés walked out next to Clara and felt the package.
"Nice vegetable you've got there," he said. "But you're looking a little thin."
"Guard duty. Tomorrow's the final exam," said Clara. "Why do you come here, Andrés?"
"Actually I bring Stella so she can practice phonetics. It's all the same to me whether I'm here or not. A habit I must have picked up when I studied at the University; and besides I always run into some friend or other. For instance tonight—I was lucky."
"The truth is we've been seeing very little of each other recently," said Clara. "What a stupid life."
"Please don't be redundant. Anyway, the House is amusing, and Stella thinks it does both of us good. Personally what I like most about it are the sandwiches in the café. Especially the pâté."
Clara glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. The unusual, habitual, elusive four-eyed roach. And he suddenly laughed, out of happiness.
"Poor you, so you're studying hard! Why are you wasting your time here?"
"It's the best thing to do. We couldn't study anymore," said Juan. "Light entertainment on the eve of battle. Clara's going to pass, for sure. As for me, I don't know. Sometimes they ask the damndest things ..."
"How right you are," said Stella. "It's like the quiz shows. I bite my nails and get so nervous ..."
"Now, miss, this question's worth fifty pesos. Will you take a chance?"
"Very well, miss. You're a brave young woman. Let's see now. Okay. Who discovered the principle of flotation in bodies?")
"You've got to resort to trickery," said Andrés. "A stupid question deserves an absolutely absurd answer. Then the three guys asking the questions are left wondering if you're teasing them or if you actually have a brain. Time runs out, they get bored, and they pass you."
"It looks easy to you," said Juan, "but a final exam is no joke. Especially for me, because I'm paying the price for my rather disorganized autodidactic methods. You'd have to be an idiot to think you learn something in the sacred halls of higher Argentine learning."
"Clara must know a lot," said Stella. "I bet she studied like mad."
"I knew the entire curriculum," said Clara with a sigh. "But it's like a well: I look down to the bottom and see only myself, with a washed face."
"She's scared out of her wits," Juan explained. "But she's going to pass. So where are you going now?"
"To watch the night pass and have a drink with Stella."
"And with us."
"We'll talk about black masks," said Clara.
"And the paintings of Antonio Berni," said Stella, who admired Antonio Berni.
Andrés and Juan brought up the rear. The women walked arm in arm, mixing in with the people coming out of the other lecture halls. They heard the voice of Lorenzo Wahrens, who was hurriedly finishing up a chapter. While many listeners clogged the door, walking out on tiptoe with a slightly mortified air.
"Poor author!" said Andrés. "Look at them running for it before Wahrens finishes."
"What do you expect, man? He's reading La Nouvelle Héloise," said Juan.
"Good point, but can you explain this anxiety people have about leaving places? It's the same at the movies; half an hour on line waiting to get in and then there's no time to lose at the end ... Superficial forms of anxiety, I suppose. I also suppose it's the same everywhere. I say that because around here we've got myriad pseudo sociologists who think they recognize specifically Argentine forms of behavior when they are only specific forms of behavior. All that crap people have been saying about our solitude, our escapism ..."
"The truth is people here are always anxious," said Juan. "Unfortunately, the things that cause their anxiety are usually things like the teakettle—`Go see if it's boiling, hurry up, I'm sure it's boiling, my God, you can't take your eye off it for a minute! ...'"
"Wait: if they're boiling water to make maté, then there's good reason," said Andrés.
"Or the fear of missing the train, even if there's another one in ten minutes. Look, once I subscribed to a series of string-quartet recitals. The woman who sat next to me left every concert before the last movement! Since we were already friends, she explained to me after the third time that she'd have to wait twenty minutes at Constitución Station if she missed the train to Lomas de Zamora. Imagine, missing the end of Ravel's Assez vif et rhythmé to save twenty minutes."
"Worse things have been exchanged for a bowl of pottage," said Andrés. "One way or another, people always repeat the same basic crimes. One day you're Ixion, and the next you're an office-model Macbeth. And to think, we have the nerve after all that to ask for a good-conduct award."
"Maybe that's why I'm always afraid when I go into a police station," said Juan. "Nobody's record is spotless."
"Who knows if the things we take to be disasters or sicknesses are simply penalties," said Andrés. "I imagine that old man Freud would say pretty much the same thing. Take baldness, for example. Doesn't it seem to you it might just be that bald men have fallen for a Delilah of the unconscious? Or arthritics turned to look at something they shouldn't have? Once I dreamt I was sentenced to capital punishment. By which, of course, I don't mean death: to the contrary. The punishment was capital because it consisted in living on the other side of the dream, constantly remembering that I'd forgotten it. The punishment was just that, having forgotten it."
"Abel talked like that sometimes," said Juan. "His own name put him in the club of `juicy victims'. Maybe that's why he's always turning over papers, plays the bad guy with mirrors."
Andrés said nothing. They began walking down Cangallo, feeling the heat on their faces.
"Be careful with the package," said Juan, moving ahead. "Even better, give it to me, Clarita, darling. When you walk down the street you turn into a calamity."
He dropped back next to Andrés. Stella suggested they walk through the market and eat something in a grill. So they walked up to take the 86 streetcar at Sarmiento Avenue. Clara wanted to call home, so they waited for her on the corner. Andrés was casting a calculating eye over Juan.
"You're quite a guy. Shouldn't you study a little?"
"I'd rather have some white wine and a chat with you. You know we see very little of each other, almost as if we were intimate friends."
"God save us from that, and may He save you from more bad paradoxes. Don't you feel there's something in the air?"
"Fog, dearest," said Stella. "Right around now the fog rolls in."
"Baloney, sweetheart. Right around now it's only whores and dancers that do that. But you're right, fog is what it is."
"It's humid downtown, too," said Juan uselessly.
"Your clothes stick to your skin," said Stella. "This morning when I woke up I thought the sheets were wet."
When you wake up, the alarm clock starts to bleed.
When you wake up, it's almost time to sup.
Love, moist sheets, when you wake up," said Andrés. "I offer these bolero lyrics to you as a gift, to console that immoral little heart of yours."
Stella pinched his ear and shook him to her heart's content.
"When I wake up," said Juan, "the first thing I think of as an emergency measure is to go back to sleep."
"What we would call turning your back on reality," said Andrés. "Now listen to this, this is important. You talk about going back to sleep, and you try to do it. But you're mistaken if you think that's how you're going to sink back into yourself, that you're going to take cover behind something that will protect you from your day. Sleeping is nothing more than getting lost. When you try to go back to sleep, you're trying to find an escape again."
"I know, I know, it's a light little death devoid of consequences," said Juan. "But, that's the great prestige, the perfection, of it. Vacation from your self—not seeing, and not seeing yourself. Perfect."
"Maybe. Anyway, we cling so much like barnacles to ourselves—even when we're half-asleep, it's hard to shake off. For instance, sometimes I get up at four in the morning to pee—inevitable consequence of having stayed up late drinking maté. When I get back into bed, I can tell that my body, on its own" ("I feel a warm spot!" shouted Stella) "exactly, sweetheart—it seeks out the warm spot, its copy, its living imprint. The feet in the toasty little corner, the man in his protected niche ... Nothing to be done about it, old man, not in vain do we believe that A is A."
"The only part that looks for a cool spot is the head," said Juan, "which proves it's the thinking part of the person. Here comes Clara, and I think that's the 86 pulling in."