Professor Julio Gamboa, the protagonist of Carlos Fonseca's latest novel, Austral, is summoned by post to the Humahuaca mountain valley in Argentina. Here, renowned writer and intimate from Julio's youth, Aliza Abravanel, retreated in her final days to complete a tetralogy on the elements. The landscape perfectly matches Abravanel's project: the sunbleached-rainbow striations of sedimentary rock give visual form to her book on earth, Strata, or, alternatively-titled, her Dictionary of Loss.
Julio mines the various deposits that Abravenel had mapped out—sociologist Karl Von Mühlfeld's deconstruction of racial purity; the failed Aryan colony in Paraguay that Von Mühlfeld traveled to investigate; the impossibility of a private language; Guatemalan genocide; recollected trauma; aphasia and the evanescence of even seemingly-durable memory. Julio's attempts to order the past oscillate between the dreamlike gauziness of Sebaldian narration and the intuitive leaps of a Tom McCarthy character.
Above all else, Austral is a novel of traces. In watching Julio excavate the trash heap of history, via Aliza Abravanel's 'dictionary', the reader accepts the inevitability of irretrievable loss and the disintegration of traces. Practically, reading Austral requires a relaxation of the narrowly rational gaze and an adoption of more dreamlike logic. As such, reading a long excerpt from late in the novel makes perfect sense.
Like Julio, who has “the ambition of one who seeks to bend straight lines,” Fonseca has profoundly bent the trajectory of the twenty-first century, metafictional novel.
On the base of the cupola that arched over the theatre’s central stage, he found an engraved quotation: “‘This is the account of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky’ – Popol Vuh.” The wood had been sculpted by a skilled hand. One by one, Julio followed the letters of that circular writing until, reaching the end, he ran into the beginning, and heard the tape recorder also rewind before starting its loop again, flooding the hall with the testimonies he had heard in the background just moments before. Voices like echoes tracing scenes that at first seemed anodyne, trying laboriously to recompose the spectral architecture that seemed to be hidden all around him.
He saw how Juan de Paz Raymundo had built the theatre based on Giulio Camillo’s ideas: seven symmetrical aisles divided the seven terraced stands where, instead of an audience, there were the photographs, drawings, newspaper clippings and other mementos that the theatre’s creator had gathered around the memory of the village. In addition to those objects, there were a number of animals drawn on the backdrop of the stage that, as far as he could tell, referenced the naguals that were symbols of the deep alliance between man and nature. He tried to remember what his nagual was, but he barely even remembered his zodiac sign. Then the voices distracted him again, returning him to the spectral logic of that space where Spanish and K’iche’ were perfectly blended. He let himself be carried along by the voices that rose up again as solitary whispers.
Damn, Juan de Paz, you really do ask dumb questions. No, we didn’t have a childhood. What kind of childhood could we have, when we were learning to set traps for the army at five years old? You call me up and ask me to remember. Memories of the village but not the violence, you say. But what can I tell you? We had no childhood. Unless childhood was that madness you’re calling history, and its sign was fi re. I do remember that. The nights when my uncle, trying to beat back the darkness, would come home exhausted with a bag full of firewood. The clarity of the fi re as it grew, devouring the pine little by little. I remember looking at the flickering flames and thinking that not even watching wood burn was an innocent act for us. Childhood memories? What memories can we have, when we were born into fire?
In the middle of the theatre, hanging from a line, a microphone cut the stage in half. The idea, he imagined, was that when the time came and a visitor felt the prickle of memory, they could go up and record their stories. And the recorded anecdotes were later poured into Spanish by Juan de Paz’s stammering voice, to then be incorporated into that tape where the K’iche’ voices played at disappearing into his translations. Closing his eyes, Julio tried to follow the resonances that marked the passage from one language to another, but he only managed to catch a faint reverberation of the original language, unintelligible but beautiful. Paradoxically, he felt it was a language that moved forward by retreating, and that what in his host’s speech could seem like a slight stutter was really nothing but a way of remaining faithful to the untranslatable language that now flooded the hall again, as if they were standing in a medieval church.
The acoustics of the space helped to produce the game of echoes he had been hearing over the course of the afternoon. The stories, emotional but hermetic, spread out through the space, awaking in Julio too the desire to remember. He thought of Juvenal Suárez’s voice, remote and incomprehensible, as Aliza must have heard it on her father’s tape recorder. He thought back to the diatribe that the last of the Nataibo, refusing to speak Spanish, had left as a will and testament, and, along with it, the dictum that had led Von Mühlfeld into madness: “In the passing from one culture to another, something always remains, even if no one alive can recognize it.” The conjunction of those two memories led him to wonder what the theatre would be like once no one inhabited it. He imagined the murmuring monologues ringing out over the empty stage, indifferently repeating themselves before the hundreds of mute objects that Juan de Paz Raymundo had set up on the stands.
The vision seemed ominously close to an image of oblivion.
Someone in his childhood had told him that to remember meant to bring something back to the heart, and that childish lesson made him feel that Von Mühlfeld was wrong: without witnesses there was no memory. Maybe that was what Aliza had understood when she’d left the manuscript to him. That story was asking for a new heir, a final witness.
Trying to shake off those ideas, worried the alcohol was turning him dramatic, Julio tried to distract himself by studying some of the newspaper clippings placed around the stands. They were everyday stories. Instead of dramatic articles centered on war, Juan de Paz Raymundo had featured a dozen articles about the most ordinary news stories that had occurred during the years of armed conflict: weather reports, soccer matches, local and international news, over which he had superimposed a collage of images of the village just as it looked now. Julio recognised the mountain where he had walked that same morning with his host, those fields where the dogs ran freely and the memory of violence seemed to recede with the incursion of nature. He had come there looking for an explanation, an ending for the story Aliza had set out before him like a jigsaw puzzle, only to find a clearing in the middle of the woods and the ghosts of that voice that now started over once again.
Remember us. Do not forget us. Do not sweep us away. You shall surely see your homes and your mountains where you will settle. Thus let it be so. Go therefore, go to see the place from whence we came.
Phrases from the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam were scattered in among the testimonies. Short quotations briefly punctuated the recording as epigraphs, to later disappear behind their anonymity.
Do you hear? Sometimes it’s as if the mountain wants to say something. I’m not surprised. This village is full of echoes. And even so, what I need most is the silence of the mountain. My father always told us that was what the soldiers had taken away. Nature wrapped us up like a mother does her children. And in that silence, birds sang and animals squealed. Then came the city and its suffocating commotion, as if they were trying to use noise to silence the turmoil of their dirty consciences. I can tell you: the morning they came to kill my father, the mountain took me in.
Two side windows, half open, let in the light that lit the space. There were no lamps in the whole theatre. Feeling slightly claustrophobic, Julio looked outside and thought of Aliza, of Humahuaca, and the unexpected correspondence that linked this mountain to the desert he had recently left. He remembered the map that Walesi and Escobar had built as a memorial on the plains of northern Argentina. He imagined them trying to reconstruct that work every year, only for the summer storms to destroy it, and the image brought him back to this theatre that Juan de Paz, like Sisyphus in his eternal endeavor, was tenaciously building to fight oblivion.
In front of him, five wooden models illustrated the advances of his titanic endeavor. Each bore a date of construction, the first from a year and a half ago, the latest just last month. Julio could see the progress. While the first mockup was just a rough depiction of a couple of generic houses, the latest representation became a detailed map of what the village had been. He saw the houses, labelled with the names of their old inhabitants; the small areas for playing and cooking; the entrance to the village; and even animals grazing in nearby fields. The inhabitants were represented by tiny soccer-player dolls that reminded him of childhood afternoons when, elbows on the floor, he had played imaginary games with a handful of figurines his father had brought him from Argentina. He wondered if he would be capable of reconstructing the neighborhood of his own infancy with the same precision as the village depicted here, but when he tried, he only managed to evoke the smell of earth on a rainy day. Then he understood the difficulty that besieged Juan de Paz’s project: given the plasticity of memory, the models would proliferate as more and more details were remembered.
In the three most recent models, marking off the boundary of the village, he recognised the contours of the river his host had shown him that afternoon. They had walked for a quarter of an hour, until, descending a slope, the dogs had heard the whisper of the water and taken off running. They had sat down to rest there awhile, while Juan de Paz explained the past of the village before the war.
Listening, Julio was reminded he was a late arrival to this story.
During the walk he had tried to avoid thinking of Aliza, instead concentrating on specific and pragmatic details, but his host’s tale had made him think of the shadow young Abravanel had cast over these lands more than thirty years ago. He imagined her, wearing a defiant expression and a camera around her neck as she travelled these settlements caught up in war.
He was a latecomer, but he had come, even if all that remained was the memory of what had been.
Listening to the water, he remembered the small river drawn alongside the photograph he had seen in San Antonio de los Cobres, an image that placed Aliza, smiling beside Raúl Sarapura and the greyhound, in the salt flats. “The trick, then, would be to learn to pass from one shore to the other without ceasing to speak.” He remembered the quote written at the margin of the drawing, a quotation that reappeared in the manuscript he was carrying stashed away in his backpack. He thought about taking it out and offering it to Juan de Paz. Acting as a mere messenger and setting off northwards again. Looking at the man, he knew that to do so would be to repeat the cowardly gesture that had separated him and Aliza years before. If he had come this far, it was in order to go deeper and find the end of the enigma that had been Aliza. To find her there where he had lost her before. His journey, he understood, was a journey of mourning, a private way of coming to terms with the memory that now, three hours later, seemed to well up along with those voices fighting back against oblivion.
When I was a little girl I used to go to the river with my mother. She and the other women went to collect jutes, and I played in the river’s current. I also played a game where I tried to grab hold of the fish that slipped away in the water. I’d forgotten that until today. I saw the image of the river in the stands, alongside my mother’s old earthenware pots, and suddenly I remembered her singing with her friends. We would get there early to avoid the afternoon rains, and by ten in the morning we’d be back. In those two hours I was always at my happiest. I’ve also remembered, now, that it was there by the river where the army entered. It was morning, almost dawn. . .
The tape continued, and he heard Juan de Paz’s voice interrupt to chastise the witness for that evocation of violence. Julio felt uncomfortable, as if he were unwittingly butting into an argument between strangers. It was odd to be there amid those intimate confessions, to meddle in experiences so far removed from his own life.
He tried to escape the unease by exploring the stands. Beneath the images and objects was an archive of small fi ling cabinets labelled with various subjects. He opened one that bore the word “Secret”, and inside found about fifty index cards similar to the ones featured in Aliza’s dictionary. He picked one up and read.
I remember one day, sometime in 1979, when two ladinos came through the village. They were lost, or maybe exploring. They asked my father for directions. He knew Spanish from the years he’d spent working at the plantation on the coast. I remember watching them in awe, thinking they were speaking a secret language I couldn’t understand. As if they were speaking a secret tongue that was the language of adulthood and power.
On the back of the card, a quotation accompanied the testimony:
We have revealed our secrets to those who are worthy. Only they should know the art of writing and no one else.
There were hundreds more like that. Cards stored in dozens of drawers built into the feet of the stands. Turning the one he held in his hand, Julio read the testimony again while behind him he heard the tape continue to turn, and what he read became confused with what he heard. He had the impression he’d seen this before. Ever since Olivia Walesi’s letter had arrived, he’d had the feeling he was living inside a Russian doll, slowly approaching a vast centre that he could now feel close at hand.
He shivered. To the right of the stage, a broken window had been partially covered with a couple of rubbish bags. Juan de Paz had told him hours earlier about the time when one of the witnesses, enraged, had thrown a clay pot at the window through which a cold wind now blew in.
“He called me crazy and went running out.”
He had a point, thought Julio. That space, with its jumble of whispers and sounds, functioned at the edge of schizophrenia. Even he felt his mind flickering. Unable to concentrate, he was starting to see patterns everywhere. When he’d entered the theatre he thought he’d glimpsed, among the hundreds of objects there, more and more traces of Aliza: a couple of newspaper articles that he thought he’d seen before among the pages of the dictionary; a letter torn in half; a way of putting together words and images that was very particular to her.
Now those coincidences seemed to be multiplying. First it was the familiarity of a couple of testimonies he thought he had read elsewhere, then those cards so like the ones Aliza had used in the dictionary, and he’d just noticed Wittgenstein’s eyes amid the stands. He thought he saw connections, vestiges that seemed to corroborate the intuition that had led him there, but it only made him feel penned in by delusion.
On his way there, Julio had thought of a thousand different ways to explain his visit to Juan de Paz Raymundo. He was worried he would be seen as an interloper. He planned to mention the trip Alicia Abravanel had taken through that region years before, and the manuscript that was forcing him to retrace her steps. He intended, even, if necessary, to tell the whole truth: that he was making the trip to free himself from the guilt of having left it unfinished three decades before. To his pleasant surprise, none of those excuses were necessary. Juan de Paz had welcomed him with the same professionalism with which he welcomed the handfuls of tourists who sometimes came to the theatre thinking it was a museum. Recently, the government had built a road that passed nearby on its way north, and the number of visitors had increased. He’d realised that that was his only method of survival: collecting eight hundred quetzales from every gringo who accidentally stumbled on the theatre. With that money he would be able to maintain the place, add some pieces, feed the dogs. That explained why, on seeing Julio arrive, Juan de Paz hadn’t asked any questions. And that was why, now that Julio was seeing small traces of Aliza everywhere, the normal thing would have been to feel happy. Without stating his intentions, without having to give explanations, he saw his suspicions corroborated.
But he didn’t feel happy.
He felt he was in a trap, like a detective who realises too late that the rigour of his own logic has led him straight into an ambush. Cornered in that world of unpredictable resonances, he felt he was becoming delirious. He tried to calm down by focusing in on the image of Wittgenstein he’d just caught sight of in the stands. There it was, identical to the one in the dictionary: the same face cut in half, the mouth turned to stone, the mute expression of someone fighting back a scream. He tried to remember the tranquil afternoons he had spent exploring the eccentric man’s life, but he only managed to call up the image of a few deer escaping through the snow.
You, Juan de Paz—have you turned that gadget on? Okay, let’s try. I don’t know if you’ll remember, or if you were too young, but it was in those days that we started to use the traps. Or we had always used them, but against the rats that ate our maize. It was around ’79 or ’80 when we started to use them against the army. I was just a kid, like you. Six or seven years old. I’m ashamed to say it, but the truth is I thought it was all a bit of fun. I liked the idea of those invisible traps that no one but us knew about. It was our secret. Soldier fishing, we called it, and I started to think that the whole business was a little like a game. A few months ago the tribunal summoned me to make a statement against Ríos Montt and I imagined myself there, facing all those men in ties, talking about the traps.
The voice faded and the witness started to laugh. A brittle and sincere laugh that bounced around the theatre to reach Julio where he sat in the middle of the stands. A playful but deep peal of laughter that made him think of how, in Aliza’s manuscript, Von Mühlfeld had cackled nervously as he destroyed the tapes with Juvenal Suárez’s recorded voice. He remembered how in that scene, a redheaded nurse witnessed the act, disconcerted, through a half-open door, and he started to feel just as uncomfortable, indiscreet, and impertinent as that young assistant. He again felt the disquiet he’d felt minutes earlier, the awareness of having meddled in a world he wouldn’t ever understand no matter how he tried. A world that wore the armour of a hermetic peal of laughter.
It was a similar disquiet, he seemed to remember now, that years ago had provoked the fight that would ultimately separate him and Aliza. He understood, then, his mistake. He saw the blind spot that had so far obscured the precise memory of what had happened in those days. He had come this far believing his own lie: it hadn’t been the timing of the impending semester that had forced him to abandon the trip, as he’d thought; it was something else. That was just the fiction he had told himself and the excuse he had given Aliza. Now, in the presence of those voices that seemed to reproach him for his apathy and impotence, he could distinguish the truth that had been hidden. Back in those days, too, something in him – she called it cynicism; he, timidity – had resisted the idea that it was possible ever to fully understand the pain of others. He was dismayed by the pretension of magnanimity and disinterest with which the young Brit threw herself into a reality that was terribly foreign to her. He had agreed to participate in the trip because he was seduced by its more artistic side, attracted by the resonances that would bring him close to Herzog’s long walks. But gradually, the more borders they crossed, he had started to feel that the reality exceeded him, and his good intentions amounted to nothing more than naivety and idealism. He pictured himself steering the Jeep toward the border, and he thought that at last he could reconstruct the contours of the scene he had forgotten until now. He could distinguish the way, with each new stop and each new country, the reason for his trip had grown fainter, until it seemed like pure juvenile foolishness. Aliza’s camera, in particular, had seemed unnecessary and senseless. What they were starting to see didn’t belong to them, not to them nor to the lens that unflinchingly collected the scenes.
“You were born old and cowardly,” Aliza had told him, and the words infuriated him.
Now, as the same feeling of unbelonging came over him, he thought she had actually been right. Maybe it was cowardice that had separated him from Aliza, and maybe it was cowardice that made him feel like an intruder now among the voices. It was time to leave behind the comfort of his own world and throw himself into the unfamiliar. Even so, a second thought, more visceral and genuine, made him feel that no matter how hard he tried, he would never be capable of shaking off that feeling of falsity and hypocrisy. Maybe it was the same feeling that had led Von Mühlfeld to destroy the tapes, and Aliza’s father to lock himself up in his fear. He wanted to be home, with Marie-Hélène and her dog, far away from this theatre that showed him his most cowardly side.
The desperate fluttering of a bird interrupted his reflections. It had entered by mistake through the broken window and now was battling to find a way out, terrified and anxious. The hall felt darker and colder than before and seemed enormous, and the poor bird flapped around, stuck in the palm cupola. It chased the faint rays of sun that filtered in through the cracks in the structure, but only managed to produce a shadow play that wasn’t out of place amid the theatre’s echoes.
Julio left the stands, walked to the nearest window, and opened it wide.
Outside, the afternoon was starting to fade, while in the distance a couple of clouds suggested the remote possibility of a downpour. The hours had passed without him noticing, wrapped in Juan de Paz’s stories and the hum of voices that at first he’d believed was perfectly cyclical, but in which now he started to notice certain fluctuations. With each loop, the order of the testimonies changed. Some of the monologues disappeared, and others entered the rotation. Like memory on shuffle, he thought, while he watched the bird flounder among the galleries until it finally found the window. A spiral of memory that at times carried new testimonies, like the one that now found its way to him, then floated out of the window and disappeared down the mountain, imitating the flight of the birds.
For a long time, I could only remember my childhood in dreams. People always talk about fortune tellers who dream the future. The Bible and other books are full of things like that. Prophesies and visions of the future that come in the middle of the night. Me, on the other hand, after the incident – I dreamed of enigmatic images that reached me from the past. Always the same dream, with minimal variations. Without distinguishing the details of the scene, I thought I saw myself in the fields around my village, playing with friends.
All normal up to there.
But the thing is, in the dream the toys weren’t toys, they were little disfigured dolls that didn’t seem to make sense. I’d get up in the middle of the night feeling like I’d been there, confused and unsettled by the enigmatic scene. In the dream it was simultaneously me and someone else living that experience. It repeated every two or three nights with the insistence of an idée fixe. I’d see us there again, lying on the damp earth, playing with those deformed little figurines. I’d get up in the middle of the night, open my notebook, and start writing.
I tried to reconstruct what I’d seen, incomprehensible as it seemed.
I was frustrated on the one hand at not being able to understand what was happening, and on the other by the feeling there was so much at stake. But we all know oracles speak in enigmas. They say something no one understands, but that seems to hide a truth. For a time, in the months leading up to the construction of this theatre, I thought that dream was the oracle that would bring me back to my lost childhood. I grew obsessed with it. I kept a diary where I recorded its variations and mutations.
One day I noticed something.
I realised my friends and I weren’t the only inhabitants of the dream. There was someone else moving around the space. A figure without a face. A silhouette that little by little took shape in the diary until it became a kind of white shadow over the margins of the scene. That’s what I called it – the white shadow – and with that name I tried to exorcise its memory. By then I had already started the initial phase of the theatre project, so I started asking questions of the oldest villagers.
At first they looked at me like I was crazy.
If they didn’t already think me mad, they were convinced when I came around asking about that shadow. They thought I was seeing ghosts. So I stopped asking, until finally I thought I saw more. There was one night when I saw, beside us kids, the outline of a woman walking along the river. Then I went back to asking around, and everyone again looked at me with concern, except for one woman who laughingly remembered that in those days, a young British woman had come through the village. Maybe she was the white shadow. Many people sleep trying to forget. I went toward sleep in search of memory.
At times the voice stopped and then there was another sound: a sort of scratch or scraping that repeated three or four times. A lighter lighting a cigarette, thought Julio, while he mentally tried to reconstruct the scene: the outline of a man smoking alone in that cavernous space that had much in common with a temple. He heard a deep inhale, and then the voice went on with its story. Inside the theatre, his voice lost the dissonance of his usual stammer and took on a new rhythm.
It’s him, Julio thought. They are all him, in a way, but this is him. These are his memories.
Julio pictured the man waving his hands before the empty theatre, his voice contending with his emotion. Though Juan de Paz had translated and read many of the testimonies, he thought he could distinguish the gleam of personal memory shining through his words. A certain biographical tinge became clear in the inflections of that voice, forcing Julio to remember the question Olivia Walesi had asked him in Humahuaca when she’d given him the manuscript of A Private Language.
“Fiction or memoir?” she had asked.
And Julio had wavered at first. He knew about his friend’s conceptual games, the mechanisms by which she sought to confuse the reader. But now, listening to that voice as it left off the cigarette and started speaking again, he thought he understood that if he’d made it this far it was in order to explore that invisible border where fiction blurred into memory. He got the sense that this man had set everything up – the stands, the photographs, the models, the crockery – just so he could bury, amid so much testimony, his true purpose. Juan de Paz had thrown himself into his project with the secret intention of camouflaging the confession Julio was now listening to. A story in which, transformed into a white shadow, he thought he recognised Aliza.
The old woman thought back, and then the memories of the other villagers were kindled. They started to remember things. Details that I collected even when they seemed contradictory. Some said she was British, others American. Some thought she’d been a missionary, and others swore she was some kind of diplomat, maybe from the United Nations. But no one seemed to remember her name. Sometimes they thought she was blond, other times brunette. They thought they could clearly picture her walking through the village during those dark days, but no one could give me a name.
Meanwhile, I went on recording my dreams.
It was in those days that I opened the theatre. I put a notice in the paper and waited. A month later, an old friend of my father’s called and asked to see me. He came the next week. Mostly he wanted to talk, find out about me, what had become of my uncle. Things like that. It was hard to convince him to go into the theatre, but I did. I told him to do it for my dad. Back then the theatre wasn’t what it is now, it was just a dozen drawings, newspaper clippings, an empty model in the middle as a reminder of why we were there. The old man went in without expecting much, but the truth is he got into the game. He recorded some memories of my father that were hard for me to listen to, and some other minor details: the names of old friends, the layouts of some houses, the laugh of an old love.
I took the opportunity to ask about the white shadow.
At first he thought I was talking about the soldiers, but then he seemed to remember. He recalled the British girl, her dark hair and white skin. The kid always had her camera around her neck, he said, and that memory shifted something in me.
I urged him to keep thinking.
He couldn’t recall her name, but he came up with one other detail: he said the girl had left her film in town. She’d given it to a distant cousin of hers who lived in the city. I let him talk. He told me again about the memories he still had of my father, but I kept thinking about the lead he’d just given me. Two days later I got the contact information for her cousin, whose name was Itzel, and set out for the city to meet her.
I told her about my dreams and the white shadow that moved at its edges.
I saw her laugh, and something about her laughter soothed me.
Itzel did remember the British girl perfectly well. It was the first time I’d heard of rock music, she told me. She also remembered her camera and photos. To my surprise, she still had the old film the girl had given her. I’m just obsessive, never throw anything out, she told me as she stood up, and, skirting piles of objects, dug through some old boxes until she found a bag with five rolls of film, which she handed to me. Inside the bag, on a slip of yellowed paper, there was a name and a date: Aliza Abravanel, May 19, 1982.
The voice paused again. To take another drag on the cigarette, thought Julio, and he felt that the ambush he had sensed was starting to play out before him. He recognised the date and the film rolls that Aliza had also mentioned in the dictionary. Those words were directed to him. Even so, a second impression made him feel that the voice wasn’t talking to anyone but its owner. No matter how much it told, even when the story seemed to bare itself the most and approach a truth, something in it withdrew. This isn’t about baring the secret, but about doing justice, Juan de Paz had said to him, and it was a declaration he also remembered reading in the manuscript. He didn’t know at what point he’d become trapped in this echo chamber, but he sensed it was too late to escape. There was no point in resisting. He decided to surrender to the correspondences being set up there, let himself be carried along on the currents of a monologue that, like a turbulent river, now pushed him onward as it dredged up forgotten memories.
For many months, that was all I had: a name, a dream, and a handful of film rolls. After some time I gathered up my courage and decided to develop them. Maybe they held the past I was looking for. But no. The years had destroyed them. All that remained was useless tape. So I was left with the name and the dream. I decided to investigate. To fi nd who was hiding behind that name.
So many a’s alternating in that strange name. I went back to asking among the villagers, but I didn’t come up with much. Until someone suggested the obvious solution: I didn’t have anything to lose by looking online. They were right: a quick search and her image was before me. She looked older and her name wasn’t Aliza, but Alicia Abravanel, but something in the play between her dark hair and white skin made me sure that it was her. I know it sounds strange, but something about that contrast made me sense I was finding the white shadow I had glimpsed in dreams.
I couldn’t track down any address, just a detail that gave me a destination.
I read how this woman, who was now a renowned author, lived in an artist commune on the outskirts of a small village in northern Argentina. So without thinking twice I wrote a letter, which I sent to the commune, thinking maybe once it was there, someone would know how to get it to her. In the letter I talked about the theatre, the film rolls, and the village. I told her about the white shadow that appeared in my dream and the strange toys that somehow condensed all the horror of what was to come. I mailed the letter without much hope, like someone sending a message into the future.
Not expecting a reply.
I tried to forget. I threw myself into the theatre’s activity, the construction of that project that was growing amid my own confusion. Two months later Jacinto called saying that a letter for me had arrived from Argentina. It was signed by a certain Raúl Sarapura, who said he was working with Abravanel on her final project. He told me she was not in good health, but that she’d received my letter with the utmost enthusiasm. She remembered the village well, Itzel’s smile, the rolls of film. Then, strangely, he proceeded to thank me. He told me about the project the writer was spending all her hours on, and the dead end they’d found themselves in. I remember his words exactly, as they struck me as odd and excessive: Your letter, he said, has given Aliza the hope of a solution. He closed that first message by talking about my dream. He mentioned a Russian novel in which the protagonist remembers a childhood game which consists of two parts. First there is a set of toys, a dozen absurd objects called nonnons. Shapeless, bulky objects, twisted or full of holes, somewhat like fossils or sea anemones. Objects that would make little sense on their own, except that an equally illogical and twisted mirror is sold along with them, and when you hold the objects up to it they finally take shape. Suddenly, there is the little elephant, the giraffe or the piglet that everyone has looked for unsuccessfully. I suspect, said Sarapura in the letter’s last line, that the toys in your dream work with a similar logic. He signed off with a hug from them both and promised to write again very soon.
After that letter came many more, but none made me feel what I did that first day. I finished reading beside the river and walked back to the theatre. I sat down in the chair where I am now and started to think about what I had read. I thought of the dream. I tried to imagine the crazy mirror Sarapura talked about, and suddenly I felt like I had it before me. On the wall, where there is now a photograph of a cloudless sky, back then there was a blue brushstroke painted in a short spiral. Some weeks before, I had woken up thinking of the sky of my youth, and suddenly the memory had led me toward a colour. A blue midway between sky and indigo, a colour it took me a week to find, but that I finally had. That brushstroke was there as testament to my seemingly useless memory. I remember how that afternoon, thinking of Abravanel’s letter, I sat looking at that blue brushstroke. And suddenly, without knowing exactly how, I felt that the shape of the stroke, that spiral that at first had seemed capricious and spontaneous, combined with the other objects there to evoke a complete memory, up to now forgotten. I remembered the gesture my father made when he finished telling me a story when I was a child. A minimal gesture, a sort of spiral that indicated the end of the tale, but that led me to think of the blue of celestial bodies.
That was the first memory.
One always has the feeling that life is hiding something, a secret cultivated with the patience of a gardener tending his garden. That day I had the sense that with my first memory, I was getting close to the secret I had cultivated for years. More memories came later. As if behind that gesture of my father’s was hidden the uncanny mirror the letter had mentioned. As if in the conjunction of that colour and that shape, that particular blue and that gesture, the lost memory could be found.
And thus I could remember.
I remembered my father’s taciturn, severe face, the cracks in the damp earth on rainy days, the sound of the Montezuma pine as it burned, the bare legs of the women wading into the river, a pair of old shoes stored in a corner like a novelty brought from far away, these mornings that I’ve now seen again, the incense scent of copal, the time I got lost for long minutes out on the mountainside, our joy as we played with our toy cars, the marbles my uncle brought from one of his trips to the plantation, the raccoons that besieged the milpas and the traps we set to protect the crops, the confusion and fear I felt the day I saw the first rifle, my parents curled up in bed in positions I didn’t understand, a couple of dogs gnawing corncobs while we heard the birds circling over the mountain, the catechism lessons, the useless pleasure I discovered the first time I took a branch and scratched a drawing into the river’s shore, the twinge I felt the first time I entered the capital, my uncle’s drunken face as he shouted, ironic in his suffering, Viva Guatemala, viva la Patria, a squirrel hanging from a branch and the impression that the branch would break at any moment . . .
The list went on, marking the rhythms of a litany in which the very precision and clarity of memory risked making it inscrutable, opaque and anonymous. Impossible to exhaust experience. Absolute memory is very much like forgetting, thought Julio, while he noticed how the light was gently fading, insinuating the arrival of evening. He thought he heard a bark, but couldn’t make out whether the sound came from the recording or reality. Overwhelmed by so much detail, fearful that night would find him there, he told himself it was time to leave this limbo where he had now found Aliza again, converted into a white shadow. He left behind the voice that went on with its enumeration of memories, and as he went out through the theatre’s main door, he saw Juan de Paz. His host seemed energised by the cup of coffee he was drinking, and had returned to the nervous, bustling state in which Julio had first found him.
“I’ll be right with you,” he heard him say.
On the table, the bottle of alcohol was right where they had left it. He poured a shot and downed it quickly, perhaps seeking to shake off the suffocating vision he thought he’d just had. He quietly picked up his backpack, excused himself by saying he needed a little air, and, patting the dogs, went out through one of the back doors.
Excerpted from AUSTRAL by Carlos Fonseca. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Carlos Fonseca. Copyright © 2022 by Editorial Anagrama, S. A. Translation copyright © 2023 by Megan McDowell. Illustrations copyright © 2022 by Ignacio Acosta. All rights reserved.