:: Article

The Circular Church (or Books, Guns and the Report on the Blind)

Words by Des Barry.

Photography by Diego Vidart.

1. Books

The stairs of the sleeper bus are tilted. I stumble down them, half-asleep, behind Helen, my tall Australian girlfriend. We’ve travelled overnight from Villa Carlos Paz in the Sierras of Córdoba to Buenos Aires, and we step out into the heat of Retiro bus station. It’s January, and nine thirty in the morning. I dig into the pocket of my sweaty black Levis for two pesos and enter the melee of passengers who jostle and wave their tickets to reclaim their baggage.

Two porters drag the luggage out of the hold and onto the concrete platform. I pass my tip to one of them, pick up our bags and we struggle our way into the arrivals hall. A cacophony of voices in a language my sleep-deprived mind can’t quite process echoes from the high ceilings; and the anxiety of watching out for the inevitable predators who always hover around your elbows at chaotic traffic hubs gives me that delicious mix of confusion, exhilaration and fear I get every time I arrive in an unfamiliar city.

Miriam Brusa, who owns the Chemate Guest House where we’re going to stay, has warned us: ‘Whatever you do, don’t get into a cab recommended by a tout.’ Helen is already aware of this. In 2000, she taught English in Buenos Aires for three months. One of her teacher colleagues – a woman who had lived and worked in South America for years – got into an unknown cab close to her school and was forced at gunpoint to take money out of an automatic cash machine. Helen has been in Argentina twice before this trip, so Buenos Aires is relatively familiar to her.

We line up at the bus-authority-approved taxi rank. Our taxi driver is a middle-aged man with a heavy grey moustache. He drives the black and yellow cab down the ramp. It turns out of the bus station and immediately slows to a crawl. The Avenida Mejia in front of the concrete façade of Retiro railway station resembles a gigantic parking lot, the traffic just barely in motion. The sun reflects on the roofs of the cars. Beyond them, huge cranes unload containers from ships on the docks. Our driver edges the cab between buses and trucks and then we are moving down Avenida Leandro Alem.

I recognise street names that I’ve gleaned from a recent reading of a biography of Borges. I first read Borges when I was eighteen: The Aleph and Other Stories. Those fictions introduced other dimensions – outside of time and in parallel spaces – not only to my conception of Buenos Aires and South America but also to London, Cardiff, New York. According to the Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson, indigenista intellectuals like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre claim that Indo-American historical space-time is not, and will never be, the same as Europe’s. But the writers of the Far South of the Americas are a lot less fanciful than those on the shores of the Caribbean where Gabriel García Marquez set his work and where Isabel Allende began writing hers. Not that I disparage an openness to chance. I’d begun a voracious consumption of Latin American literature four months before setting out on this journey and chance had already played a significant part in the books that had fallen into my hands.

Diego Vidart is from Uruguay. He’d moved into an apartment next-door to ours in Cardiff. One grey day in the northern autumn, I happened to meet him on the two-carriage train that goes north to the Rhondda Valley. Diego was in his late twenties, tall, big-boned, with spiky, close-cropped hair. His skin was pale from the weak Welsh sun. He was on his way to shoot some pictures for his web-based photo-documentary linking Treorchy in Wales and Trevelin in Patagonia. I knew that Diego was a photographer, but on this short journey I discovered his passion for literature.

I told him that I’d decided to go to Chile and Argentina. ‘I want to read some things before I go,’ I said. ‘You have to recommend some Chilean and Argentine authors to me… authors I haven’t read.’

Diego leaned forward, full of enthusiasm, his big hands open in front of me.

‘You must read Cortázar,’ he said. ‘He’s written a novel, Rayuela (Diego pronounces it Ra-ju-ay-la in his Montevideo accent.) It means… that children’s game…Hopscotch – but his short stories are much better… Michelangelo Antonioni used one for Blow Up. And then there’s Roberto Arlt. Read him. He’s completely crazy… one of the best from Argentina.’

‘And Chilean authors?’

‘Donoso… José Donoso…El Obsceno Parajo de la NocheThe Obscene Bird of Night.’

That same grey September night, I came out of the railway station at Cardiff Queen Street, walked through the brightly lit pedestrian precinct to the Castle, and turned into a Victorian arcade with its wrought iron galleries and a curved glass roof. The sound of a faint aria came from beyond the glass of the Café Minuet with its pictures of Beniamo Gigli and Emma Kirkby. I pushed through the glass door of Troutmark, a second-hand bookshop. There on the shelf was a Harvill edition of Cortázar’s Hopscotch. I found no trace of José Donoso.

I hurried back home through the darkness of Sophia Gardens beside the brown and swollen River Taff, and when I got to my desk, I ordered a stack of books: The Obscene Bird of Night, Sacred Families and The Garden Next Door by José Donoso; Cortázar’s Blow Up and Other Stories; and Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen.

I began reading Hopscotch. Cortázar’s fragmented narration through the streets of Paris, Montevideo and Buenos Aires jumps from the front, to the back, to the middle of the book following its hopscotch structure fuelled by booze, mate, conversations, strong coffee and cigarettes, full of literary references, existential jazz, and tragic love.

Over the next few weeks, I awoke to the noise of packet after packet coming through the letterbox. One of the first to arrive was The Seven Madmen. In complete contrast to the cold detachment of Borges, and the intellectual intensity of Cortázar, Roberto Arlt, through the narration of the swindler Erdosain, sets off on an insane journey through the brothels, cheap lodging houses, and bourgeois suburban homes of Buenos Aires, in the company of a wife-beater, thieves, prostitutes and occultist fascists. It is full of paranoia, body odour and rank halitosis. I was desperately disappointed that I could only find one of Arlt’s books in translation. Not so with Donoso, though most of his books are out of print in English.

José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night is based on the Latin American legend of the imbunche, a creature whose every bodily orifice is sewn up so that it can be used by witches to divine the future. The novel reveals the life of Mudito who pretends to be deaf and dumb and is voluntarily imprisoned, even sewn up, in a convent which looks after senile old ladies. Mudito’s fantastically paranoid imagination takes us through the Chilean history of the second half of the twentieth century, in counterpoint with the story of a country estancia populated by corrupt dwarves, invalids and monsters. Cortázar’s Blow Up collection has a number of Borges-style stories, tales of transformations, of the dreamed dreaming the dreamer, but the best stories were the ones set in Buenos Aires, especially The End of the Game, and House Taken Over, an allegory of middle class fear of the Peronist poor; and, of course, the title story, which is far more powerful and subversive than the film it generated.

After this small literary preparation, my partner Helen and I left Cardiff on a cold wet day in December. I’d been in South America only once before… to Venezuela. I remember standing on a high mountain, looking south across the jungle and thinking, My God, there’s a whole continent down there.

2. Guns

Our bus tickets for Villa Carlos Paz cost only sixteen dollars each for a twenty-four hour journey across the Andes. We leave Santiago at ten thirty in the morning and in just three short hours, the bus climbs the wide, well metalled road that zigzags up the steep Chilean side of the Andes to the pass of Cristo Redentor. Beside the road, rope suspension bridges to small mountain settlements span the steep volcanic gorges. At about two thirty, the bus crosses to the Argentine side of the mountains. Just above the pass the 5000-metre peaks are capped with snow. We are not far from Aconcagua. We descend a few kilometres and then stop at the vast conch-shaped border post where the customs men x-ray the luggage from constantly arriving buses. There is a long wait for our turn for the luggage search.

We arrive in Villa Carlos Paz at six o’clock in the morning and at that hour the bus station is empty. By six thirty we are on a local bus to Tanti, a small village in the Sierras. We’re visiting an old friend, Glen Eddy, from the United States. He lives on a small plot of land along with some Argentine friends and a few other American exiles. The rounded hillsides are scattered with cypress and eucalyptus trees, which were introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. Great granite boulders rise up out of the shrubs and grass. The soil glitters with mica.

Glen is in his sixties, an ex-biker, inveterate traveller and a painter who grinds his own mineral pigments. He seems to have settled down in Argentina. I’ve known him for about eighteen years. We met in California. We share an interest in gun-lore and the American West. When Glen first moved to South America, he emailed me to tell me how he found himself in the town of San Vicente in Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were supposedly shot. Bruce Chatwin in his book In Patagonia records the legend that the two outlaws were not killed in Bolivia. Supposedly, only the Sundance Kid died in South America, on the border of Argentina and Chile; and Butch Cassidy survived until he was in his nineties. It’s true that some gringo desperadoes – possibly either the Sundance Kid or members of his gang – were known to have shot and killed Llwyd Ap Iwan, a Patagonian trader and cartographer of Welsh descent.

Glen, heavy-set, leans on a cane and waves. His long silver hair is pulled back in a ponytail. He has clean-shaven cheeks and a trimmed grey moustache. He invites us in for a mate. He sets a kettle on a camping stove to boil the water.

‘Let me take you round the house,’ he says.

Glen sleeps in the almost-finished bedroom. It’s also his studio at the moment. A canvas is stretched on a frame with the tracery of a new painting on it.

‘I’m working here until the room downstairs is finished,’ he says.

We go back down the steps and into the living room. The concrete floor is awash with water. There’d been a major thunderstorm during the night and Glen hadn’t got around to putting the skylight into the square hole in the roof yet. His huge picture window faces west across a wide green valley toward Los Gigantes, a formation of rocky mountains on the horizon. Back in the kitchen area, Glen pours water into the mate gourd, takes a sip through the silver straw and passes it to me. I suck down the bitter herbal brew and offer it to Helen. She doesn’t want any. Glen takes the gourd and waves the silver straw in the direction of the builders.

‘These guys are going to put bars on the windows,’ he says. ‘You gotta be careful around here. We haven’t had any trouble for a while now but the woman on the property over there…’ he points out a house through the picture window. ‘Three guys drove up one night… two of them had balaclava masks and the other guy had this lion-faced mask… they threatened to rape her and kill her if she didn’t give them any money. Lucky she had about a thousand pesos stashed away so she gave them that and they went away.’

‘Is she okay?’ Helen asks.

‘Yeah. She’s not here right now… then these same three guys… they tried it again just over the hill. Two gay guys live over there with one of them’s mother. These three show up with the balaclava masks and the lion mask and the guns and they grab one of the gay guys out in the garden and put a pistol to his head. So they shout, “Hey, open the door or we shoot him.” The other gay guy grabs this old shotgun and a box of shells that he has in the closet and he calls out, “I’m not opening the door.” So the guy with the lion mask… he’s got the gun pointing at the first guy’s head… he pulls the trigger and the hammer clicks but the gun doesn’t fire. He pulls back the hammer and tries again and click, it happens again. At this point the gay guy bolts. He wasn’t waiting for the third try. So the masked guys decide they’re going into the house. They start to kick down the door and the gay guy in the house starts firing. He hasn’t got a modern pump action gun or anything – it’s just a two-barrel shotgun and a lot of shells. The masked guys start shooting and get through the door and the gay guy shoots the guy with the lion mask. Got him right around the heart. Blew him clean back out through the door. Then the next guy tries to get in and the gay guy has to break the barrel to reload but he does and he shoots the guy and takes out one of his eyes and a piece off of his little finger. The wounded guy goes down and the other one runs off and the gay guy calls the cops. So they come around and because there’s a dead body the provincial police have to be called in. They find out that the robbers are local guys. The cops are around here all the time patrolling now. They’re really trying to protect us. But I’m still gonna put the bars on the window. I’m gonna get a Rottweiler, too.’

‘Not a gun?’ I say.

‘I can’t… I’m not officially resident in Argentina so I can’t get a permit. If I shot someone I could end up being tried for murder.’

I ask Glen about the political situation in Argentina.

‘This guy Kirchner is okay, I think. He kinda lisps and has got this homey way of talking. But he really seems to be honest. The other day Menem said he wanted to come back, so I don’t know. Everyone used to blame him for ripping the country off. The economy has recovered a little but the peso is still low against the dollar. There’s a lot of crime. Buenos Aires is like the kidnapping capital of South America. I saw on TV the other day that some banker used to send his kid to school in a taxi. The cab got stopped at a roadblock right in the middle of the city. These guys claimed to be cops and took the kid and said they had to take him to see his dad. So the kid disappeared and some guy called the family to demand a ransom. The family turned over the money but the kid was already dead. These guys had shot him right away. Somehow the investigating cops traced the money and caught the guys. It turns out that the kidnappers really were cops. Maybe they got good at it during the bad old days and thought, you know, why not?’

The TV story doesn’t leave me with a sense of personal danger but the shooting story does. The robbery and attempted robbery happened not at all far from where I am standing and it makes me acutely aware and alive inside my skin. I have to acknowledge a physical fear – a very real sense of mortality. But I know I’m going to stay around here. I’ve been infected by an empathetic curiosity about a society where the rule of law does break down; I have a sense of Argentina being a society that is trying to reweave the social fabric after the most appalling experience of the junta years.

Helen and I walk back down the rocky and overgrown hillside with its thick copses of pines and we keep an eye open in the long grasses for snakes. Hawks swoop high above the tops of the cypress and gum trees. Strange russet feathered birds with long curved bills, which I cannot name, strut along the paths in front of us. A brightly plumed woodpecker crawls around a telephone pole and taps at the wood for insects. We go down the dirt road toward the flat-roofed, nineteenth-century farmhouse and a row of ants scuttle through the dust, cut leaves like green sails, or whole flowers in their mandibles. A small black scorpion poises, still among crumbled stones. As we reach the gate of the Ponderosa, two mares and two foals graze on the opposite side of the stream that mark the boundary of the property. A stallion comes charging down the hillside towards us, wheels away at the fence, and the mares and foals race away from us across the meadow in the bright sunlight.

That night I dream that I’m in the Miners Institute in Treorchy, which has been converted into an arts centre. On the roof of the Institute a sculptor has created a diorama of one of the Falkland Islands — like a Jake and Dinos Chapman piece — with hundreds of toy soldiers swarming over the hills above a valley which is made of human flesh — a raw and open human wound that is the landscape — the British soldiers are attacking an Argentine machine gun post. I wake up with a sense of all the appalling damage that the Falkland War has done to the relations between British and Argentine people and how it still hasn’t been repaired.

Joseph Beuys maintained that it is possible to use art to heal. How far this is true I’m not certain but I’m drawn to the idea of a work that might help heal the open wound that divides the people of Britain and Argentina — some act of urban shamanism.

3. The Report on the Blind

Helen and I are with two tango dancers: Ana and Graciela. I’m walking up the Avenida Echeverria on January 9th, our last night in Buenos Aires, talking with Graciela, known as The Rat. The Rat is a native Porteña who, in her twenties, hitchhiked the length of South and North America and went to work as a cook in the oil fields of Alaska before returning to Buenos Aires. Now she’s fifty-four. She’s a redhead. Her skin is deeply tanned. She’s a tango dancer. She has danced tango since the boom in the eighties and the gazebo in the Barrancas de Belgrano is the only place in the city to dance tonight. We are walking together and we are both aware of the mild sexual tension that underlies our conversation that’s always present in every conversation between any man and any woman in Buenos Aires. Helen is walking about twenty yards behind us and talking with Ana, the Rat’s accomplice in the milongas.

‘It’s all done with eye contact,’ the Rat says to me. ‘A woman can never ask a man to dance in Buenos Aires. Absolutely can’t. We sit on the side and then someone looks at you, or you look at him, and then he either turns his head away, the bastard, or he just nods or lifts his chin and you nod and that’s it. It’s just done on looks. You understand, right? Of course, like me, we have to sit there longer now because even these old men, really great dancers, they tell you straight, they all want to dance with the young women – beautiful bodies – not some old boiled piece of meat.’

Graciela still looks very desirable. We reach Ana’s car, which is parked outside one of the high-rise apartment blocks typical of Belgrano. There are hairdressers’ salons, clothes shops and more than one clinic for plastic surgery. Ana’s car makes an electronic squeak-squeak as she unlocks it with her remote key and she pops the trunk. She’s about five foot three – the same height as the Rat and me. Ana holds onto Helen’s arm as she takes off her high-heels and Helen leans over her like a slim tree. Helen’s dark hair is down over her olive green, Thai silk shirt. Her narrow black trousers emphasise her long legs.

‘Did you hear him?’ the Rat says. ‘Ricardo? When he introduced us? Here is Ana and La Ratta. He gave me that name. Trouble comes in small packets. Like you. Are you trouble?’

‘Yeah, I’m trouble,’ I say.

‘Ricardo is always in trouble,’ Ana says. ‘He got stabbed once in a milonga. Someone bumped into him when he was dancing… and they exchanged a few words and then the next thing you know this other guy pulled a knife and stabbed him. I don’t know what he said to him.’

‘Another time a woman hit him with a radio,’ the Rat says.

I must have looked puzzled.

‘You know, a car radio. She had it in her handbag. She just swung it at him and hit him in the side of the head. There was blood everywhere. We had to take him to hospital.’

‘You know what,’ Ana says to the Rat. ‘I saw him talking to her again not a month ago and they were cosy as you like. Laughing and touching each other.’

The Rat takes my arm and leans into me. ‘Love is real close to hate, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know about you but when they talk that you shouldn’t be controlled by the passions… I mean… falling in love and then all the passion and then the heartache and the break-up, you know? I just want that in my life.’

‘Let’s go to the circular church,’ Ana says. ‘We can have a drink there.’

Ana is darker than the Rat. She has a small-featured face, framed by thick dark brown hair. Like all of us she has a few wrinkles. Just below the surface of that warm smile it’s easy to detect her Porteña melancholy and that deliciously dangerous air of sexuality. It is close to eleven thirty and a market on the green Plaza General Manuel Belgrano is only just closing up. On the north side of the market is the white marble Church of the Immaculate Conception, known as La Redonda, its steps and walls curved, with a shallow conical roof. Next to the church is an old stone building, which has been renovated and turned into a bar with round tables and umbrellas on a huge terrace outside. Some of the arches in the flat roofed structure have been filled with glass and inside the bright lights shine on chrome and black cast steel galleries. We sit outside and order gin and tonic.

‘Is it true,’ I say to Ana, ‘Argentine people don’t like Borges so much because of his support for the junta?’

‘Borges is great,’ Ana says. ‘He’s a great writer but the really great things he wrote in the forties.’

‘I’ve been reading Cortázar, too.’

‘Cortázar is brilliant… but have you read Sábato?’

‘No,’ I confessed.

‘Oh… You must read On Heroes and Tombs. That’s his best book. The others aren’t so good but On Heroes and Tombs is brilliant. It’s set right here; before the place was renovated.’

Ana waves her arm at the arched building.

‘This building is the entrance to a labyrinth beneath Buenos Aires that Sábato describes in a section of the book that’s called The Report on the Blind,’ she says.

‘When I taught English at Reuters,’ Helen says, ‘Sábato’s grandson was one of my pupils. We were doing an exercise. I asked him, “What are you going to do this weekend?” He said, “I’m going to my grandfather’s eighty-ninth birthday party. He is Ernesto Sábato.” When I told the head of the language school, he was in awe.’

For Ana and a lot of Argentines, Sábato is their Joyce.

Somehow, it’s become two a.m and we’ve only had a couple of gins. We get one of the many crowded buses across town. The bars and cafés are full everywhere we go. We don’t go into any because we have to take a flight the next morning. Miriam has arranged the remis for us.

It’s a slow journey home. We go back via Santiago. The plane flies directly over the Mendoza valley and I can clearly see the winding road we took by bus, the conch-shaped frontier post, and the Paso de los Libertadores. We have one night in Rita’s house in Santiago. After a few glasses of wine, I connect to the Internet and search for On Heroes and Tombs. It’s out of print but Adebooks has a second hand copy and I ordered it immediately through Amazon. The next day we go to the airport and decide to spend our last Chilean pesos on some tango CD’s. I choose one by Carlos Gardel; and Helen one by Astor Piazzola. Helen’s a great admirer of Piazzola and I’m curious about Gardel. We’ve never heard either CD but we figure we won’t be disappointed. We leave South America. We fly back to London via Madrid, take the train to Cardiff and arrive around midnight.

The following morning a packet thuds onto the doormat and it’s On Heroes and Tombs. I’m amazed by the speed of communication on the Internet and that I can get these great works of literature so quickly even if they are out of print. I begin reading and immediately I’m captivated by the foreword, which describes a parricide and suicide – father and daughter.

That evening Helen puts on the Astor Piazzola CD. Piazzola fuses tango with jazz and classical music. Ana had said that they never dance to Piazzola. On the third track, the bandoneon has a hint of Bach organ; the flute, guitar, piano and violin create an air of melancholy and madness, a rich baritone voice intones a poem in Spanish. Helen picks up the CD case to see who is reciting and what the poem is.

‘Hey,’ she says, ‘this is the voice of Ernesto Sábato. This says he’s reciting the introduction to On Heroes and Tombs.’

I get the book and look for the poem. I can’t find at the beginning of the book and then I open the section of the novel called The Report on the Blind, and the poem is the introduction to that. It’s translated in the English edition – published by David Godine of Boston – as:

 

O gods of night!

O gods of darkness, of incest, of crime,

Of melancholy and of suicide!

O gods of rats and caverns,

Of cockroaches and bats!

O violent, inscrutable gods

Of dreams and death!

 

I feel a terrible nostalgia for Buenos Aires as I hear Sábato’s voice. Unlike Borges, Sábato never compromised with the military junta. And he never left Argentina even while he continued to criticise the regime. With the fall of the junta he presided over the commission which investigated the fate of the desaparecidos during the Dirty War. He is a man of impeccable integrity who isn’t afraid to reveal his own human flaws and frailties throughout his literary work but especially in Abbadón el Exterminador which was published by Jonathan Cape under the title, The Fallen Angel. In Antes del Fin, his short autobiography which translates as Before the End, he tells how he gave up being a physicist at the Marie Curie Laboratories in Paris to become a novelist; and in Uno y El Universo he states the main reason: he felt that the novel can encapsulate the enormity and ineffability of the universe far better than theoretical physics because the novel deals with ‘what is most valuable to the human being: the emotions, our feelings for art and justice, our anxiety in the face of death.’

On Heroes and Tombs is perhaps his masterpiece: from the foreword which sketches the circumstance of that appalling parricide; to the unfolding of the story of the young Martín, unemployed and on the brink of starvation, and his love for the corrupt Alejandra; to the parallel story of the death of the liberator Lavalle; to the delirious, hilarious and paranoid virtuosity of The Report on the Blind; to the book’s stunning poetic ending. It’s a crime that this book is out of print in the English language. It is one of those books with a numinous quality that makes you pay attention to strange coincidences on trains and in airports. Its hallucinatory connections crack the veneer of that carefully constructed normality we constantly try to keep between our selves and our own corruption; the same veneer we keep between our selves and the unfathomable mystery that is always present in our daily life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His PhD thesis called The Escape of the Imaginary Author is about David Enrique Spellman and the multi-platform novel Far South. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta and in anthologies including Sea Stories andLondon Noir. His first novel, The Chivalry of Crime, won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

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ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Diego Vidart is director of the Department of Documentary Photography at the Faculty of Engineering, Catholic University of Montevideo. His work has been exhibited at the Wales Millennium Centre and at the Montevideo Biennale of Photography. He presents the television programme f22/Fotografía in Profundidad.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 13th, 2014.