The following Hasidic story I found in a book by the Argentine writer H. A. Murena, and, in spite of my searches, nowhere else. On a Shabbat afternoon in an East European shtetl, a group of Jews play a game: each in turn must tell the others his fondest wish. One says that he would like to get enough money to renovate his parental house, another that he wishes to find good, studious husbands for his daughters; and so it goes round till everyone has spoken except for a small, frail old man who sits in a corner and who now, for the first time, is noticed by the others, and asked to speak.
The old man says, "I wish I had once been the happy king of a marvelous realm, where all things were kindly meant and newly minted, until one night my kingdom was invaded by merciless foes, and I was forced to escape in the dark, naked. Only the tallit was I able to throw upon my shoulders. I wish, then, that I had galloped through plains and mountains, sailed upon the sea, traversed cities and deserts, and finally arrived at this shtetl and sat here, where I am now."
The others are astonished, and the host asks, "And you call that a wish? What in the world would you get if it were fulfilled?"
The old man replies, "Why, the tallit."
Instead of a tallit, Murena has camisa, a shirt, surely to save himself the trouble, in those pre-internet days, of explaining to his readers the meaning of the Jewish prayer shawl. Either way, the meaning is clear: the old man's wish is for a tangible and incontrovertible proof that there had really been, early in his life, a godly kingdom. In a sonnet, Borges has an elderly Adam ask, "¿Hubo un Jardín o fue el Jardín un sueño?"—Was there a Garden, or was it only a dream? as if our first father wasn't positive, even though he had Eve by (and from) his side, to help corroborate and make Eden objective. Sure, in a seven- or eight-hundred-year-old person, to forget childhood is excusable; still, it is sad.
One of Kafka's aphorisms says that "The Expulsion from Paradise is eternal in its principal aspect: this makes it irrevocable, and our living in this world inevitable, but the eternal nature of the process (or expressed in terms of time: the eternal repetition of the Expulsion) has the effect that not only could we remain forever in Paradise, but that we are currently there, whether we know it or not." I'm not sure I understand Kafka's conclusion, or share his premises; what is certain is that I can't conceive myself deprived of childhood memories—what would my dream world be, every night? I'll tell you: it would be completely (rather than as now, sporadically) reduced to succubae, incubi, and scenes and images from Hieronymus Bosch's Hell. In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha says: "People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us."
That August day, for instance: it was my sixth birthday and I remember being at the school yard, standing on the roundabout, when an older kid—Turner perhaps, but it could have been someone else—announced that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. It was the first time any of us had heard those words, atomic bomb, but with that infallible intuition that (so it is said) belongs to young children, we were awed, without knowing why. In my life, it might have been the earliest occurrence of that feeling, for I had never been instructed in prayers or told about religious awe-inspiring symbols; as they used to say centuries ago, I had no divine knowledge nor fear; hearing from our neighbor Emilita about her child god (as was told in a previous chapter) did not elicit in me awe, but the sort of funny surprise one feels when a clown jumps out of a gift box. In those days I was innocent enough to believe either that babies are born from a watermelon, or that storks bring them, wrapped in diapers, from Paris; my second awful experience must have occurred very soon afterward, when older cousins told me the inter-urinas-et-faeces facts about human reproduction. O cousins, it is true: a un tempo stesso, Amore e Morte ingenerò la sorte—love and death are twins. Sex and the atomic bomb, in my case, as, I'm afraid, in the case of many of my generation and the succeeding ones, are the two powerful magnetic poles of our rolling souls.
As it happened, on the eve of my sixth birthday and right after the destruction of Hiroshima, Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the Manhattan project, took to the stage in Los Alamos and clasped his hands together like a prize-winning boxer, while the crowd cheered. Which brings to mind Celia, our housemaid circa 1951-2, that is, during my thirteenth year: the old woman told me that if you take orange peel and let it dry in the sun for several days, on applying a match to it there will be an explosion stronger than that of an atomic bomb. I tried it without success, but Celia said the peel wasn't dry enough, or the orange was not of the right kind; they had to be oranges from Gualeguay, the town where she was from; with those, I could be sure, the explosion would be stronger than an atomic bomb. You might be wondering if I'm not just letting my mind hop between 1945 and 1951, and what's the connection between Oppenheimer and our housemaid, or Los Alamos and Gualeguay. Well, the connection is clearly not sex but the atomic bomb, and my intention is to underscore how the latter has different yet similar effects on different souls. Oppenheimer was educated at Harvard and Cambridge, he knew an amazing lot of math, of physics, of English metaphysical poetry, and could even read the Gita in Sanskrit; Celia was an illiterate old woman; yet, in their different ways and from their different stations, both shared in the immense pride humanity as a whole feels about its crowning and most awesome achievement. We humans, remember, are sexual animals like millions of other species; our vaunted monopoly of language is a sham, for the tiny honey bee is able to communicate by means of its dances better than we are with all our blah-blah. But we are the only ones, absolutely the only ones, who can blow up the planet within a paternoster and a hail Mary, finish off all life, and Garden and Hell withal.
Still hopping between my seventh and my thirteenth year, another idea—far from new; rather obsessive through my life—comes to mind. In the former period, I acquired knowledge of many sorts, other than how babies are made, and the ever-present, suspended threat of the atomic bomb: my father taught me to play chess, and began introducing me to Thought, capital T, from Plato to Einstein; I have already said in chapter 8 that he impressed on me his madly hubristic ideal of contemplating the All from its center which, according to him, is nowhere else than the I—his or mine. The latter period, in contrast, was dominated by betrayal. We should perhaps reflect that after such superhuman ideal was laid down, nothing but betrayal could follow, and leave it at that. Yes, that would save us some work. But I keenly want to tell of my own shameful betrayal, since I have already mentioned my father's. Je veux me soulager, as Baudelaire excused himself.
Among the discoveries of my seventh year other than that first couple, the atomic bomb and sexual reproduction, late nineteenth-century elementary chemistry was next in importance. A sort of annex to the bookcase in my father's study, a box full of half-discarded books, lay in a corner of the bedroom I shared with my sister. It was a large box, more than three-foot tall, which had originally contained cartons of cigarettes: my guess is about fifty total. Given that Father smoked about two packs a day, he would have smoked through the whole box in less than a year. After the original contents were smoked, my parents used the box to bury those books they were sure never to have any need for, like a dieting book with the title, "Cómo adelgazar comiendo" (How to lose weight while eating), with simple and skillful line drawings—a bunch of radishes, a head of lettuce, an artichoke, each with its calorie count. I don't remember Father or Mother ever dieting; I do remember my father getting to look more and more like Falstaff. There was also "Los que teníamos doce años", the Spanish translation of Ernst Glaeser's pacifist novel "Jahrgang 1902," only one detail of which has stayed, imprecisely, in my mind: a twelve-year-old girl named Hilde and the same-age narrator boy ride their bikes, then they stop, lie on the grass, and the boy inspects by touch and sniff the girl's genitals. That page I read repeatedly, and thought what a fantastically sexy name Hilde was, so much more so than Heidi, the Swiss girl played in the movie by Shirley Temple. It is possible, however, that Glaeser's 1928 novel, which had its glorious share in the Nazi book burnings, has had a subtler and more extensive, yet unconscious, influence on me, since what I'm doing now—if I can only stick to it and not ramble about—is, like Glaeser, trying to tell about my thirteenth year.
My uncle Natalio, Mother's elder brother, born in the Ukraine in 1903, attended the Argentine high-school when French textbooks were still in use, that is, before the nefarious Ricardo Rojas—may his soul suffer in the hell reserved for nationalists of all stripes, where loudspeakers unbearably blare national anthems, bursting their damned Eustachian tubes—succeeded in having them replaced by local products, as I told in Chapter 6. One of uncle Natalio's textbooks, and my best discovery inside the box, was a Spanish translation of J. Langlebert's textbook Chimie. A terminus a quo for this particular edition (there were about fifty) is 1886, the year Henri Moissan isolated fluorine with a formidable-looking electric apparatus pictured in the book. Between the ages of seven and twelve, I must have spent more than a thousand hours poring into Langlebert, admiring the engravings, puzzling at the gas washing bottles with their stopper pierced by two or three glass tubes: one carried the gas into the water or some other liquid inside the bottle, then (I imagined) the gas, once washed, would bubble out and exit through a second tube not touching the water; a third tube, with a delightful cuplet on top, was for pouring more liquid, if needed. I would contemplate the glass retorts and fervently wish I had one in my shanty lab; they must have vaguely suggested to me a thigh and bent leg of crystal, feminine delicacy; and when the text indicated the presence of rutilant vapors detached from the liquid boiling inside the retort, my fantasy knew no bounds. I had no idea whether or where one could get retorts or gas washing bottles; all I had was a chemistry set my parents had given me as a Three Magic Kings gift, in which the only glassware was a few test tubes and an alcohol lamp.
All that reading into Langlebert persuaded me that every chemical mentioned there, and perhaps every chemical in the world, could be prepared, in the long or shorter run, if one had but one thing: sulfuric acid. The book mentioned Basilius Valentinus, a German alchemist, as the one who first prepared it, but did not say how. So, naturally, I decided to prepare sulfuric acid, and since oxygen is easily procured from the air, and hydrogen from water, one simply had to get some sulfur, which was easily available in sticks, bars, or powder. For three years, I burned sulfur under as many conditions as I was able to device, but the result, as everybody knows, was SO2, sulfur dioxide, which had a delightfully hellish smell, but did not yield sulfuric acid (H2SO4) when in contact with water, only the weak sulfurous acid. To add a third oxygen atom to SO2 and so get SO3: hoc opus, hic labor est, as Virgil puts it. But how? Langlebert had several options. One was to use platinum moss as a catalyst; however, the idea was as mythical as directing me to go search for the golden fleece. Another was to use nitrogen dioxide as a catalyst, which was, from my point of view, a fool's errand, because nitric acid was needed to prepare it, but to prepare nitric acid one needed sulfuric acid. And then there were the industrial lead chambers, so called because their walls were lined with lead, with their two flanking towers, named the one Glauber and the other Gay-Lussac; I wasn't crazy, and never considered the possibility of building a lead chamber, but I contemplated the engraving at length, and thought it was fantastic, more so than I piombi in Venice, the jail at the top of the Doge's palace that appeared in the cartoons I read, and more impressive, too, than the castle of Front-de-Boeuf in Ivanhoe, the one Ulrica set on fire.
To resume: all the charms and incantations by which I meant to attach one more oxygen atom to the sulfur dioxide molecule were as vain as prayers in hell, and nothing came out of my experiments. But when I turned twelve, no sooner the gash Mother's slipper had opened on my skull was healed, I collected my savings, and looked into the phone directory for droguerías, as the stores selling chemicals were called. I was afraid they wouldn't sell sulfuric acid to a kid, but no questions were asked, and I returned home with a one-kilogram bottle of the stuff, which I placed safely out of the way, on the shelf of my lab and workshop, a.k.a. the lumber room.
Talk of phallologocentrism! What do those ink-drunken clerks know about power! With that bottle of 98% sulfuric acid on my shelf, I felt infinitely more powerful than if I had possessed the legendary sexual prowess of Porfirio "Ever-Ready" Rubirosa, or an oratory more spectacular than Cicero at his best. I would put a bit of strontium nitrate in a test tube, add a couple of drops of acid, and watch the fireworks. My younger cousin Eduardo Granovsky still remembers the terror he felt at those chemical demonstrations; he must have believed I was Mephistopheles, or at least Dr. Faust. Not all my lab activities were as childish. I saved some more money by doing some chores and bought a distilling apparatus. Since Mother was away from home most of the weekdays (she was taking care of the factory in Lanús while Father was running about downtown), in the afternoons, back from school, I had full use of the gas stove in the kitchen. There I prepared nitric acid, using saltpeter from the hardware store and my newly acquired sulfuric acid. Another day, with bromide from the pharmacy, plus acetone or nail-polish remover, I made tear gas: when I heated the distillate, I shouted in triumph: the vapors made me cry! I prefer not to describe, one by one, the other experiments I tried, most though not all from Langlebert; enough to say that I was so meticulous in cleaning afterward, that Mother was never the wiser.
All that, however, went together with I a constant feeling of unease, a secret shame, which manifested itself as a consciousness that I was cheating, or that I had committed plagiarism. My thirteenth year, incidentally, was packed with shame. Long later, when in my early thirties, I bought a psychology book, "On Shame and the Search for Identity," by Helen Merrell Lynd, to see if it threw any light on my experience; now, from that book, I only remember a distinction made there between guilt and shame: the former is caused by the consciousness of having broken a taboo or transgressed a boundary, the latter by the feeling of not having measured up, the consciousness of a shortcoming. This strongly suggests I must have felt that my coming by sulfuric acid was not the way it should have been: I should have prepared it myself from scratch; going out and buying it was cheating, or rather, it was throwing the towel and declaring myself defeated. True, I had tried and tried for three years or so, but that didn't mean it was impossible, for Basil Valentine the alchemist had done it, and if he had done it, I could do it too. My purchase of the acid was a betrayal — of what? — of my own standards, which were the ones my father had instilled in me. I had to contemplate the cosmos from its center, which to my confused intellect meant, I'm afraid, that I had to know and dominate the cosmos from its center, and that center was me, not the chemical industry or the droguería.
That celebrated wit, the reverend Sydney Smith, once wrote in a letter, "What is childhood but a series of happy delusions?" To which, in my old age, I can reply: And what is adulthood but a series of unhappy ones? Wit aside, though, and returning to that year when shame settled like a pall on my young life, I cannot neglect the fact that it was the time when I masturbated for the first time, as I have told in chapter 8; as we know, with the notable exceptions of my mates at Señor Martínez's class and of Diogenes the Cynic, generally masturbation has long been seen as a shameful act. Nor can I neglect my father's own shame, and his brusque dismissal of my cry for help: shame upon shame. Those were, then, two shameful black holes that appeared for the first time during my thirteenth year: solitary sex and sulfuric acid.
It seems to me that, regardless of those events, I have a native talent for shame, a congenital taste for wallowing in mental mud and in humiliation. I can't avoid the feeling that I crave for glory and for dishonor, simultaneously or in sequence. Like the fabled Lancelot, of whom it is said in the old Spanish romance:
"Nunca fuera caballero
de damas tan bien servido
como fuera Lanzarote
cuando de Bretaña vino:
que dueñas cuidaban dél,
doncellas de su rocino.
Esa dueña Quintañona,
ésa le escanciaba el vino,
la linda reina Ginebra
se lo acostaba consigo."
(Never was knight/
So well attended by ladies/
As was Lancelot/
When he came from Brittany:/
Ladies took care of him,/
And damsels of his horse./
That lady Quintañona,/
She poured his wine,/
Beautiful queen Guinevere/
Took him to her bed.)
Yet, as told by Chrétien de Troyes in "Le chevalier de la charrette", this same Lancelot willingly submitted to the public humiliation of being carried across town as a criminal on the ignominious cart, for love of Guinevere. I say this about my double vocation not because I'm trying to pass for Lancelot, or for a p'tit Baudelaire, for whom every man, at any time, aspires simultaneously toward God and toward Satan, wishes at once to ascend to spirituality, and to feel the joys of plunging into animality — oh no, not because I would have liked to be a knight errant or a poète maudit, but because I don't know how to deal otherwise with certain memories I wish I were able to forget. One day I lay down on the lumber room floor, head and shoulders against the door, masturbated, and ejaculated into a test tube, after which I got up and poured several drops of sulfuric acid on the semen: the contents of the tube, at first milky and opaque, were clarified. Then I lay down again and brooded, with the sort of melancholy that always follows successful masturbation: how many human beings, blood of my blood, had I assassinated?
One of my aunts—it must have been Rosa Jadlli de Brodesky, the only one who had my tastes and wishes in mind—gave me a chemistry-flavored, illustrated booklet intended for readers my age. An American chemist, perhaps Calvin Fuller, but I can't remember for sure, is at his lab, waiting for his experiment to finish. The result would be crucial for the manufacture of synthetic rubber at the time of WWII. It is night, and the exhausted chemist falls asleep; then he dreams that a Hamburg alchemist, Hennig Brand (1630 – 1692), visits him, and the chemist shows and explains to the astounded old alchemist some of the well-founded miracles of modern science. Most interesting to me, though, was the story of Brand and his achievement. He was, needless to say, searching for the philosopher's stone, and he reasoned thus: the stone, supreme mineral in creation, could come from nothing other than the supreme created being, man. The argument held a strong attraction for me, and now, at this remove, I can see why. It must have found a resonance with my father's teaching, that one has to contemplate the cosmos from its center, and the center was he, or I, or rather, disregarding the individual, the human mind. Both my father and Brand put man and psyche at the center of the universe, a place I've always found most congenial.
But to continue: of all the material products of man's body, Brand decided to concentrate on urine; reasonably, in my opinion, for just think about the possible alternatives. Alchemists were supposed to search for the philosopher's stone by "rectifying," which meant repeated distillations—rectificando invenies occultum lapidem was their motto: by rectifying you shall find the hidden stone—and it is hard to imagine the old man from Hamburg was capable of providing enough of his semen, of his blood, or of his sputum, for repeated distillations. And so Brand started distilling and re-distilling his pee, until one evening, on the verge of giving it up, he saw, in his retort, a solid residue, a stone that glowed in the dark. With what mad hope he grabbed the shining stone and wished to be made young again! But nothing happened: his white beard was still long and white, his sinews had not become more elastic, and his lungs, tanned and corroded by so many questionable vapors, were not breathing more easily.
The old man had discovered phosphorus. According to my book, he made a small fortune by selling his glowing stone at town fairs, which was, again according to my book—obviously a Spanish translation from an American original—, no mean compensation and consolation for having failed to find the philosopher's stone.
How could I resist it? I decided to repeat Brand's experiment, and to that end, one afternoon, I brought my distilling apparatus to the kitchen, having previously peed into the boiling flask. When the urine started boiling, the vapors invaded the kitchen. The condenser was failing to condense sufficiently, and although I tried to adjust the rubber tubes and increase the flow of cold water, as well as turning the fire a notch lower, and even though I opened the window wide, the air soon became unbreathable. I resisted for a while, covering my face with a wet towel, but finally had to give up and turn off the gas. I had failed. And when Mother came back home from Lanús, ill humored and exhausted, went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea, and smelled the still-fetid air, her anger knew no limits: I fled up to the lumber room to avoid being hit on the head by something heavier than a slipper, perhaps a frying pan or a rolling pin.
That was, as far as I remember, my last home-made chemical experiment. Some of those books intended for young readers ought to be criminally prosecuted; my booklet never mentioned that Brand had used more than five thousand (5,000) liters of pee to produce a hundred grams of phosphorus. Anyway, that did not alter my plans to become a chemist, and it was full six years later, having already taken a couple of inorganic chemistry courses at the university, that I changed my mind in favor of physics and mathematics. But that does not belong to the present story, and now I must go back to my first year at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, beginning in March 1952, midway between my twelfth and my thirteenth birthday.
That education has to start at home is a widely accepted maxim. First year history was, therefore, Argentine history; first year geography was Argentine geography; first year Argentine literature was about— the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. Diego Luis Molinari was the Argentine history professor, and he was, too, a national senator of the ruling Peronist party. He had been, long before, a national senator for the Radicals, the party then in power and now in the opposition. During the thirties and early forties, Molinari had been the mastermind of several abortive military coups, often in cahoots with his similarly surnamed buddy Juan Bautista Molina, a military officer who vociferously demanded the immediate alliance of Argentina with Germany, Italy and Japan, all the while demanding the death of all Jews. Back then, in 1952, I wasn't aware of Professor Molinari's gruesome past, and my vague ideas of Argentine history, culled from elementary school, were woefully inadequate.
Molinari was clearly more adept at the game of parliamentary repartee than to the pedagogical arts. He never gave us a test, assigned homework, or called a student to answer a question; instead, he sat on the podium chair, to one side of the desk, and spouted off. On and on he went, mostly on the vast subject of Albion's perfidy, and at the end of the month he gave us arbitrary, though not random, grades. I remember him as a fat man in his sixties, pale complexioned, ham handed, and with warts on his eyelids; my most vivid memory is how he pronounced the name Popham: a spiteful, wet oral fart. Presidente Perón was one of Molinari's heroes, another was the tyrant Rosas; George Canning and Popham were his detested villains. This last, Sir Home Riggs Popham, was the British admiral who tried, unsuccessfully, to occupy Buenos Aires in 1806, during the Napoleonic wars. We must remember that England had been heavily invested in Argentina until Perón, about 1947, in a move much admired by the local nationalists, nationalized the railroads and the utilities companies. Molinari's world was the nationalists' world: Manichean, the theater of apocalyptic wars between the forces of greed, controlled by the USA, the UK, and the Jews, and the forces of chthonic sacrifice and Catholic tradition.
When the notorious French fascist, anti-Semite, novelist, and collaborationist-to-be Pierre Drieu La Rochelle visited Argentina in the 30s (he was the lover of Victoria Ocampo, la grande dame of Argentine literature, and it was then that he coined the famous phrase: "la pampa, c'est un vertige horizontal"), he encouraged Molinari to take up the task of uniting the various strands of the Argentine authoritarian, anti-liberal right. Now, sixty-six years after having sat at Molinari's feet, I reflect on the paradoxical fact that a teacher without any talent for, or interest in, teaching, a historian with little, if any, historical learning, did succeed in revealing to me the hard core and motor of Argentine political history: a twisted, defiant will to continue the work of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, and the policies of Phillip II and the Jesuits.
One day Molinari boasted that he had written several books on Christopher Columbus, and announced that he was going to ask a very simple historical question which, however, none of us would be able to answer. Harrumph. "What was the color of Columbus' socks (sic) when he discovered America?" He said "medias," an Argentine idiom for socks, which was an anachronism; he should have said "calzas," i.e. hose; but let that pass. There was complete silence in the classroom. "But of course, they were raw wool," he said triumphantly, "since back in those days there were no dyes."
No dyes: at this point, my double allegiance to glory and to shame (see previous chapter) sensed an opportunity that couldn't be refused. I raised my hand, got up, and said, "But Sir, in ancient times there was the murex, the Phoenician purple." I was remembering my Malet's History of the Orient with its striking illustration of the sea snail shell; I could have added, had I thought of it, tinctorial madder and woad for good measure; I could also have pointed out the many 15th-century European paintings showing men wearing hose of vivid colors, and often different colors on each leg; but what I said sufficed.
"What's your name?" asked Molinari. And after that day I got, for as long as it was in his power, i.e. my first year, failing marks. In December he flunked me in the final history exam, but in March 1953 I passed, since, by rule, he could not be among the examiners.
When Perón was ousted by a military coup in September 1955, Molinari sought refuge in the Panamanian embassy. He died in 1966; in 2007, with the country again under a Peronist, nationalist and populist government, an auditorium at the National Archives was named after the distinguished historian (sic) Diego Luis Molinari.
Argentine geography is not an easy subject: the country is large and varied, from the pampas' horizontal vertigo to the vertical one of the Andes. Federico Daus, the geography professor, was an unsmiling, sarcastic, beetle-browed character with hirsute fingers and long, manicured fingernails; he was almost as lazy as Molinari: never gave tests, or called a student to answer questions; but he gave a few assignments, all maps. The map I drew for him of the Province of Entre Ríos was a labor of love, done on a 30cm x 40cm sheet of Canson fine-grain paper, with inks of five different colors; to honor our housemaid, Celia, I gave Gualeguay and Gualeguaychú circles of the same size, although the latter town was much larger. Daus did not correct that or anything else, nor did he ever give us our assignment back; a pity, for I would have framed it.
With him, too, I had an early spat. It had something to do with coral reefs, but I don't remember precisely. I raised my hand and asked a question, no doubt silly or impertinent. Daus looked at me from his height up in the podium and said, "You think you're smart? Sit down and shut up." This unfortunate episode, it must be said in fairness, had no bearing on my grades. For independent reasons, I had invariably failing grades in that course, just like all my classmates with Jewish family names (we were four out of some thirty). Professor Daus's anti-Semitism was like Justice, blind; it bore no other grudges, it knew no distinctions or privileges.
Do not imagine that all the professors at the Colegio, or even a majority, were nationalists or anti-Semites. Castellano, or Castilian, was taught by José María Monner Sans, a man in his sixties whose father, Ricardo, had taught the same subject at the Colegio. Between the two of them, they embodied the eternal soul of the institution, or so Don José María felt. He was certainly no anti-Semite, but a long-time Socialist and anti-Peronist, and as a consequence, he was removed from his professorship the following year, 1953. Svelte, erect almost to stiffness, elegant, grey-haired, wearing each day a different bow tie, he had us boys thoroughly terrified—I have forgotten to say that no girls were admitted to the Colegio in those days, and that the first women professors appeared in 1956, my fifth year there. Unless he told us to write, we were expected to sit straight as rods, looking straight ahead; then, all of a sudden, Monner Sans would look fixedly at one of us, and point with his finger at another. I don't recall who of those two was supposed to stand up right away, but if the wrong one did, he was exposed to punishment that went from a shower of sarcasm to being sent to the Prefect of Discipline and be suspended. If any boy called to the front happened to be plump, when the questioning was finished he would be dismissed with, "Roll back to your desk, my rotund friend," rolling his r's and slowly, haughtily enunciating.
His course was organized around a memoir by Miguel Cané, published in 1884, about the author's years at the Colegio; it is an interesting book, right for boys of our age and condition; I could identify myself warmly with the narrator when he writes enthusiastically about Dumas père's novels and his character, Chicot the jester. But none of that concerned Monner Sans. Cané was a Francophile, and his Juvenilia was stuffed with expressions coming from the French, perfectly understandable to us, yet not recognized by the Spanish Royal Academy: the main object of the course was to unearth those expressions and expose them to public opprobrium. Monner Sans's obsession in this regard was so intense that a single Gallicism was enough to consign one to hell: unfortunate students would have their official class notebook or carpeta, the product of many months of deskbound labor, torn to shreds if they proved to be infected by the Gallic morbus. Let me show you just an échantillon. The expression "Give me a ring" was equivalent to the local "Dame un golpe de teléfono", which was clearly derived from the French "Donne-moi un coup de téléphone", and so was a Gallicism. Instead, one had to say, according to Monner Sans, "Dame un telefonema". A word that no one knows, no one uses, and no one cares for.
But sins against the purity of the Castilian language were not the only thing which triggered his destructive anger. Left-handed people did too. God or Nature had established one way of writing, and that was with your right hand; using your left for that purpose was sinister and perverse, and called for the severest measures. There was one kid in my class I remember particularly in this context: his last name was Gautier, so he was a living Gallicism, he had some kind of nervous disease, and he was left-handed. I cannot imagine how he must have suffered during those endless hours.
I did well in Monner Sans' class: I earned fairly good grades and, once, a congratulation from him; I don't remember having ever learned anything, though. One of the boys in the class, Ramón Ferrer, did, I think, learn a harder lesson. He seemed fascinated by Monner Sans' authoritarian manner, and developed a whole system of gestures and meaningless sounds to mimic it. He would stand rigidly, make a monstrous, idiotic face, extend his hand palm down, and move it up and down while uttering nasal sounds, something like "Gnhah, gnhah, gnhah." That made us laugh. One morning something happened which caused our laughter to be changed into anxiety and intimations of doom. As he did every day, Monner Sans first held his sight fixed on the class for a few moments, and as it happened every day, each of us felt he was being scrutinized to the very bottom of his heart; then, lowering his eyes, he peered into his class list, before choosing who to call, and while he pondered his choice, like a serpent facing a bunch of terrified frogs, he swayed slightly from side to side. Presently he called, "Ramón Ferrer," and Ramón, like a released spring, rose to his feet and said, "Here, Sir." But to the general stupefaction, he was holding his hard penis in his hand. It appeared he had been masturbating, and found no time to put the thing back into his pants. What saved Ramón from expulsion, it was rumored, was that his father was high up in the Federal Police.
I liked Ramón. I found his gesture, masturbating while Monner Sans was scrutinizing, congenially transgressive. If I had felt, only the year before, that Páez, Peralta, Gastaldi, and the others were beasts, it was because they were jerking off before Señor Martínez, who was a spiritual being, a good angel; Ramón, instead, was rebelling against a tyrant. Public masturbation is a shameful action, yes, and this is surely true in both cases, but as young Karl Marx once wrote to Ruge, "Shame can be a revolution in itself."
From chapter 7, you may remember my very first male friend, Rodolfo Mattarollo, with whom we talked of classical music. Now I had found another friend, Ramón Ferrer, of a very different kind. He couldn't have cared less for classical music; he strummed the guitar, though, to accompany his singing of romantic boleros. I had never been to Rodolfo's house, as I said before, but I visited Ramón on a couple of occasions: the two of us, plus one or two more kids, would sit on the floor and gamble—either craps, with dice, or seven and a half, with Spanish cards. Ramón's mother was not in the picture; she was never mentioned, just as Rodolfo's father never was.
Other than gambling for small change, with Ramón and other boys we played with an idea. While we were waiting for a tardy professor to show up, we drew plans for a complex, neo-Roman lupanar maximum, with hundreds of small rooms or cubicula, each with its languid or ferocious whore, around an atrium provided of course with an impluvium. Needless to say, it was the pubescent dream of a castle in the air: brothels, for which Buenos Aires was notorious in the first decades of the century, had been all closed by law before our time. As madam at the head of the lupanar maximum we put a mythical being named "Vaca Puta" or "Slutty Cow," a sort of cosmic cow who was at once whore and mother of the country. Indeed, were not cattle the source of the country's wealth? It is possible, too, that we were influenced by the two politically opposite views of Eva Perón: on one side, a vulgar whore; on the other, the mother of the country. Or, perhaps, it is one of those recurrent Jungian prototypes, for in Latin, too, lupa could mean a prostitute or a she-wolf, like the one who nursed Romulus and Remus, thus, the nurse or mother of Rome.
In any case, I would have forgotten all about that mythical being if it weren't for the role it played in shattering my friendship with Mattarollo. His dogmatic, haughty way of dismissing my insights into Rachmaninoff's concerto had disgruntled me, and now I began to find him dogmatic and haughty in other ways and occasions. Nothing is more annoying to me, who have always aspired, even as a boy, to megalopsychia, than someone who pretends to be my spiritual superior. One morning, not long after the Rachmaninoff episode, I stood facing Rodolfo, a ruler in my hand, and solemnly declared, raising my hand above his head and then, as if knighting him, touching each of his shoulders with the ruler: "In the name of St Michael and St George, and of the Holy Spirit, I proclaim thee Slutty Cow." Rodolfo's face turned Phoenician purple, and I knew at once that I had touched his inner sanctum. He challenged me to a duel; we fought with our fists perfunctorily, never hitting each other, and that was the last time we talked, until fifty-five years later—but that's another story.
With Ramón, things were smoother and lasted longer, beyond the timeframe of my thirteenth year; but of course we were not really friends, we just liked to fool around together on occasion. One such occasion was a dancing party at Lucy's, my sister's friend, who was turning thirteen and was quite pretty, although cross-eyed. As soon as Ramón saw Lucy, he could not keep his eyes away from her, tender eyes like those of a lamb beheaded by a coup de foudre; I couldn't but be embarrassed, since I had brought him to the party. There was a table with the usual snacks and something else rather unusual: a bottle of gin. At fifteen, I had never tried hard liquor; now, perhaps because I didn't know what else to do with my embarrassment, I poured myself a glass of the stuff; then another, and then a third. Wanting some air, I went out to the street, where I suddenly dropped like a dead body. It was the first time I got drunk, and I was carried home, some six city blocks away, by my sister, with the help of a few others, Ramón among them.
Lucy never gave Ramón the time of day; she found him creepy. He, on the other hand, would often strum on his guitar and hum a bolero: "Tus ojos se llegaron a recrear, aquí en mi boca…"—then he sighed his soul, "Ah, Lucy…" I saw him but seldom during our final two years at the Colegio; the last time was in 1956, when a woman professor, whose name I don't remember, was teaching psychology. She was a pioneer, a first, yet a duller class is hard to imagine. I remember the book we used, by L. J. Guerrero, which began pleasantly by quoting from Augustine's Confessions, and then quickly lost me by stating that consciousness is the same thing as memory. But how did our professor manage to make such stuff boring I can't recall or imagine. One day we were in her class and suddenly, through the transom, an object came flying, narrowly missed her, exploded against the blackboard, and splashed a liquid all over her. The object, it turned out, was a condom filled with water, or, as some maintained, pee; the author of the aggression was Ramón Ferrer. This time, he was expelled.
Years later, Rodolfo and Ramón were both fugitives. Everybody knew that Rodolfo had joined the Trotskyite-Guevarist guerilla (ERP) and fled to France when the military seized power in 1976; he returned in 1983, after the defeat at the Falklands and the return of democracy, and later became a cabinet member in the Kirchners's government. He died three years ago. Ramón's destiny was only rumored. The bodies of three women were found under his backyard; he had become a serial killer, a latter-day Landru. No one knows how or where he ended up. Often I reflect on how wrong I was to assume that his masturbation in class was in any way transgressive or defiant of absolute authority; no, watching Professor Monner Sans in action, Ramón couldn't help it: he was transfixed by the eros of terror.
(To be continued.)
RIcardo Nirenberg is the editor of this journal.