from One Year (Un Año)
by Juan Emar
translated by Daniel Borzutzky
Today I awoke in a hurry. I did everything in a dizzying hurry: I bathed, dressed, ate breakfast, everything in a hurry. And quickly, I finished reading Don Quixote and I began The Divine Comedy.
I attribute this urgency to the Quixote, and to the date.
Yesterday, the 31st of December, the last day of a year, should have been, to be fair, the day I finished the last page of a book. But I didn’t. I read:
A doughty gentleman lies here;
A stranger all his life to fear;
Nor in his death could Death prevail,
In that last hour, to make him quail.
He for the world but little cared;
And at his feats the world was scared;
A crazy man his life has passed,
But in his senses died at last.
I continued reading until a plump man sat across from me at my table. We looked at each other. Silence.
I lowered my eyes to read the first word of the following verse. The man pounded the table with his right hand, and I was forced to lift it.
This happened fourteen consecutive times.
I have a certain affinity or a certain superstition about the number fourteen. I stopped. I did not offer a fifteenth. I closed the book even though I felt a brutal anguish as I saw the hands of the clock ticking towards the next year.
Today I finished it:
….thanks to that of my true Don Quixote, are even now tottering, and doubtless doomed to fall for ever. Farewell.
The sense of hurry, now nested in me, kept pushing me. I picked up The Divine Comedy. As if under a spell of vertigo, I arrived at the following passage:
Entrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.
Now the sense of hurry forced me to leave the house.
I took the book with me. It’s a big, heavy, hard-back book with illustrations by Doré.
With my book and my shoes, I ran through the streets.
A plaza. On one side a sturdy grey-stone building dominated by a huge tower. At the bottom, a small door whose threshold gave way to a staircase of the same grey-stone.
An idea: climb this staircase to the top of the tower, and stare out at the city and the distant countryside.
I did this. That is, I began to do this. I began to climb. But at the twentieth stair, I stumbled (what a beautiful word!) and The Divine Comedy fell from under my arms and rolled.
It rolled down the stairs. It came to the door, crossed the threshold, and tumbled through the plaza. It came to a stop near the center of the plaza, landed open on its back, wide open: page 152, canto 23. On one page, the text; on the other, an illustration: between two steep and isolated cliffs, and on smooth ground, a man of the earth, naked, on his back, arms spread, spread wide, feet together, crucified, there on the ground, on the smooth ground, between the isolated cliffs.
Dante and Virgil stared at this man. Beneath the illustration, the words:
Attraversato e nudo é per la via,
Come tu vedi, ed é mestier ch’e’ senta
Qualunque passa com’ei pesa pria.
It began to rain. The water fell relentlessly. The Divine Comedy got wet, and oozed. The words melted onto the stones of the pavement. I climbed down the stairs, arrived at the book, bent over, reached out a hand and picked it up, hooking my index finger and thumb around the leather spine. I tossed it towards myself. Now, Attention!
Tenderly, slowly, I tossed it to myself. Arm, hand, and book began to shift with the slowness of a snail’s nightmare.
My arm folded across my body. My hand moved back, and closed in. Its prey, the book, was also open. And with the book came the cliffs, the smooth ground, the two figures: Dante and Virgil.
Attention! Two figures. Not three. Because the crucified man, eternally crucified, did not come with them. In spite of the three nails, he slid around the page, more accurately, the page slid, the entire book slid out from beneath him.
A moment later, his feet slipped out of the base. His legs, his back, his crossed arms, his nape, hit the pavement with a loud thump.
The three nails sunk into his legs.
I walked back towards the door with The Divine Comedy, which was soaking wet, and missing one of its characters.
I looked: the good man was now growing, taking shape. A strong, muscular man, with a black beard, and shaggy hair, naked, crucified, nailed to the ground in the middle of the plaza with rain pouring on him.
I returned to my house.
My sense of hurry disappeared. Now, as I write, I am calm. I am surrounded by an incomparable peace.
Today I have been mourning. A great old friend has died. He died sitting on the ground, his arms crossed over his contracted legs, in a pose between mummy and drinker of maté.
When I arrived at his house, he was still living. He sat in the aforementioned pose on the carpet of his living room. His entire family, his doctor, and various friends were with him, waiting. Everyone, naturally, was standing.
After a half hour of waiting, the doctor raised a hand, and whispered:
My good friend then began to shiver. The doctor whispered:
—The last breath.
The wife of the unfortunate man then appeared. She stood tall, calm, and impressive.
She gracefully lowered her head. Many tears fell from her eyes. They fell on the back of my unforgettable friend’s neck, trickled down and disappeared in his spinal column and into the pressed collar of his shirt.
The doctor whispered in my ear:
—Sit on all fours behind your friend. The moment he dies he will fall on his back. Collapsing on the carpet, plush as it is, must not be his first impression of death. Instead you must….Flesh upon flesh, my friend! Death with life! Jacket against jacket!
I was scared. It is not the same to see a man die in his bed as it is to receive him in your arms, to feel his jacket, beneath his jacket his sweater, beneath his sweater his shirt, beneath his shirt his skin that is no longer alive. Especially if you are perched on all fours, in the middle of a living room, surrounded by grieving relatives, still and silent like the sinister alhuaquerecas. It’s not the same. And so I fled.
As I crossed the threshold, I heard an anguished cry and a muted thump: the cry of my friend’s unfortunate wife, and the sound of the soft carpet receiving the noble back, the noble head of he who was always the purest of men.
Today I took part in my irreplaceable friend’s funeral. 1
As I sat in my room weeping, the first stratum of my brain, the one next to the cranium, thought of how life without my friend would be a perpetual disappointment; meanwhile, the interior stratum thought of how these tears, once dried and solidified, would, if ingested with wine, undoubtedly produce a substance that would make me think that the death of my unforgettable and exemplary friend was of little importance.
That’s what I was doing when I heard the somber chords of Chopin’s funeral march. I said:
—Here comes the funeral procession!
And I ran like a madman to join it. But I did not arrive at my destination. For the windows of my house, in the colonial fashion, have thick iron bars; I collided with one of them like a butterfly, like an insect with the radiator of a speeding car.
The door? Why did I not use the door?
My dear and old friends, you who are alive, if I knew why I ran to the window and not the door, you can be sure that at this moment I would not be writing, instead I would be relaxing, smoking in peace and not thinking about my dead friend, about you, or even about myself.
But I don’t know why I ran to the window.
From between the bars, I looked down at the procession.
At that moment, the cavalrymen passed by. Grandiose, enormous, impressive: the cavalrymen and horses. They blanketed the buildings; they blanketed the sky. They marched in perfect formation, each with a wiry smile 2 , slicked back hair, an astrakhan hat over the right ear. Each rode a big black horse.
But as they went past, they diminished in size.
I could now see the sky. I could now see the buildings across the street. I could see them in their entirety. Now I was forced to look down, at the pavement, to see the strapping cavalrymen.
Until the last one passed; he was as big as a mouse.
The hearse then appeared; it was small, tiny, balancing like a ship in a tempest each time it crossed the groove between two cobblestones. And his relatives who walked on both sides of the car were like ants, like teeny, weeny ants.
My unforgettable friend!
1 There is a strange reason why the funeral of my most cherished friend took place one month after his death, but this strangeness can be clarified by saying that his funeral did not take place one month, but rather two days after his last breath. There is a strange reason why I have dated the funeral April 1st instead of March 3rd, but this strangeness can be clarified by saying that I have dated it this way because this is what the organization and construction of my diary requires.
2 Originally, I wrote “a stereotypical smile.” Vicente Huidobro read it. He said:
—Don’t write that. It is the fatal phrase of those who try to be literary. Write…, write…, wait…, write “a wiry smile”. That’s what you should write.
I immediately changed stereotypical for wiry. I did the right thing. “A stereotypical smile” is one of those phrases that has not simply become commonplace (in the good sense of the term) as have —to use examples from this diary—“plump man”, “sinister alhuaquerecas”, “most cherished friend”, “colonial fashion,” etc…, and which, in practice, can be used like any common words in the language.. On the other hand, it is not a new image or an exact image, as is, to my ear, Huidobro’s sentence. It is, thus, exactly in that bland middle ground that astonishes the latest pot-bellies and attracts the authentic literati.
I here express my gratitude for the good piece of advice.