“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
(Attributed to Sir Isaac Newton)
There’s a half-dozen photos from that time, where I appear sitting on the sand, together with my mother and my sister, next to a beach pail and a child’s shovel. My pompadoured hair is parted on the left, stiff with gel, my head drooped between my shoulders, my chest sunken, and my face expresses a precociously settled gloom, even though the sun is unoccluded, there are no teachers around, and my mom is right there to protect me. In one of those photos there is another girl in a frilly swimsuit, under a dainty wide-brimmed hat: Sandra, whose family rented a beach tent next to ours. Her father was a renowned dermatologist or radiologist, I don’t remember which, and her mother taught something at the university; a family, I sensed both directly and through my parents, well above mine, although I would have been hard put to explain in what way; I found that Sandra’s was a slightly haughty attitude as often occurs when a child condescends to play with a much younger one, even though we were, Sandra and I, both six.
I was never one to be gladly condescended to. When in March 1944 I was sent to kindergarten and the teacher, no doubt becoming a bit impatient, asked me not to be cabezón, a Spanish word colloquially used for “stubborn,” I took it as an insult. I had never heard the word before, but evidently it had to do with cabeza (head), and I didn’t like the suggestion that there might be something wrong inside my head. I refused to go back to that children’s garden, and thereafter I secretly wore my refusal as a badge of honor, a proof that I’m not someone to be tread upon.
In first grade I got into more serious troubles. My parents sent me to an Irish Catholic school, St. Ciaran’s. The reason for such mishigas I don’t know; they must have decided that the state schools were not good, and St. Ciaran’s was the only private school reasonably close to our home; plus, they taught English too. The school bus picked me up in the morning and returned me in the early afternoon. Every time the bus passed by a Catholic church, which was often, all the boys crossed themselves; I observed them carefully. When I thought I had mastered their gestures I proceeded to imitate them. Until a much older boy, who was in seventh grade, came over and told me that I shouldn’t do it because I was Jewish. When I got home the first thing, I asked my parents whether it was true that I was Jewish and was not supposed to go like this (I crossed myself). They admitted it, as it seemed to me, rather shamefacedly. In my eighty-two-year-old memory that episode is wrapped in a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. Parts of it are vivid and precise; for example, I remember the last name of the older boy, Taquini, which, as I realized much later, is probably a Spanish adaptation of the Italian surname Tacchini or Tacchino, meaning turkey, the bird, and which, as I knew back then because I was already reading the newspaper, was the name of a family of auctioneers of vast estancias in the pampas and countless herds and flocks, the wealth of the land where I was born. The Taquini boy didn’t look like a turkey, though. He was impressive, the best-looking boy at St. Ciaran’s. I remember most vividly his sturdy chest bulging in his school jacket, and the school’s Latin motto on the freshly ironed chest pocket: Veritas Prævalebit (The Truth Shall Prevail). It is at or around those words that my memories become shadows. I too wore that motto on my chest pocket, every day: did I know its meaning? Certainly, I didn’t know any Latin when I was six, and anyway, had I known Latin like Cicero himself, I could not have disentangled the meaning of that monstrously arrogant phrase which only the marshal of a murderous, ignorant army fanatically convinced of possessing all truth could have come up with.
Yet, there it was, the undeniable fact that I had learnt that I am Jewish and that I should not cross myself, at the sign and the under the Latin aura of “Veritas Prævalebit.” When it comes to my parents’ negligence, never telling me earlier about my filiation and theirs, that too is hidden in deep shadows; I mean, I never gave it a direct, searching look till now. The sweetest name ever given to me was my bobeh Rebeca’s “Rikushkele,” and I would listen to her talking to my mother for hours, so that by age five I knew many Yiddish expressions and not a few curses. How could I, who knew that cabezón and cabeza are kindred, not know that the word Yiddish means Jewish? There must have been some collaboration of my own, some complicity, in trying to hide all threatening differences and sink into a dull and perfect sameness with the others: someday I must give that some serious thought. As for my parents’ negligence and their mishigas of sending me to an Irish Catholic school, perhaps those can be explained by their anxiety to protect me from ever-threatening anti-Judaism. True, by early 1945, when I entered St. Ciaran’s, the mass murder of the Jews was about to be brought to a halt in Europe, but here, in far-away Argentina, one could not be sure; the government was pro-Axis, so much so that no public display or celebration of the German surrender was allowed. What else can I say? If that was my parent’s motivation, I must admit that it was quite stupid, since even a kid, nay a turkey, could tell that I was Jewish.
The other seriously troubling episode occurred on August 7, the day of my sixth birthday. At recess time I was in the yard, on the push carousel, when somebody, an older student or a teacher, told us the news: a new bomb, a super bomb, had incinerated a Japanese city whose name escaped me. A single bomb. For a while we kids looked at each other silently, with the wildest surmise, and then repeated like a fatidic incantation: la bomba atómica, la bomba atómica... Then we went on playing. With me up in the carousel was Turner, a kid in my classroom, who insisted on his name being said in English, instead of the way Argentines normally said it, Toorner. At some point I called, “Hey, Toorner,” and he pretended not to hear me; I repeated, “Toorner, don’t be a pain!” and he pushed me away. Prey of an insane fury, I pushed back with such force and bad luck that Turner fell off the carousel on the ground. As a result, even though Turner wasn’t badly hurt, I was sent to the Director’s office.
Mr. Healey was a man in his sixties who reminded me of Harry Truman (whose photo was all over the newspapers). He asked me how it happened that Turner had fallen off the carousel, and I said that I had pushed him, but that this was because he had pushed me first. I don’t remember that any more words were spoken. The Director took a hefty ruler from his desktop and said, “Your right palm.” I opened my right hand and he wacked it with the ruler so hard that it broke, whereupon, seeing half his ruler on the ground, he was seized by anger and started shouting at me: “Get out of here! Out! Out! Imigh!” It is a wonder that despite my disagreements with the administration I lasted at St. Ciaran’s for another year, after which my parents relented, and I was sent to the nearby public school to complete my elementary education, as those seven years of indoctrination were complacently called.
Now, with the benefit of Entfremdung and of old age, it seems to me that Mr. Healey’s problem was ethical and esthetical at once: it was a severe lack in his sense of proportion. He valued his puny canon of length and rod of justice more than his dignity and my own, and this made him ludicrous. In this respect, too, he resembled Harry Truman, who had just announced to the world, “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history–and won.” Those words putting a price tag on the design and construction of the atom bomb, and calling its completion a successful gambling move, the hundred-thousand civilian victims gone unmentioned, the absence of foreboding about what that vaunted scientific and industrial success might have brought upon humanity, all those things were ludicrous as well, and more momentous than Mr. Healey’s.
After the events of my first year of grammar school, I found myself at the seashore, free from the daily school chores, free from teachers, hysterical directors, and fellow students, and now tethered only to Sandra. A repertoire of smells, most of which remain hidden, unexamined, deep inside the brain, and occasionally, unexpectedly and suddenly, something, a trifle, brings one of them up, and then life feels like a pure marvel. That is no doubt why Heraclitus the Obscure said that souls smell as soon as they arrive at Hades (and because they can’t see a thing, since Hades, it seems, is very dark), and that must be also why the German naturalist Gustav Jäger maintained that in the sense of smell lies the origin of the soul. The pungent smells of the sea, naturally, are my most accessible seaside memories. But there are many others. The cacao-and-heliotrope scent of tanning lotions, especially the one Sandra’s mother slathered on her. Then, no less importantly, the food odors at the dining salon of the Grand Picayune Hotel, where six or eight waiters, formally dressed, like thurifers or choristers in some religious mystery, walked about carrying on the palm of one hand their trays and their tureens.
Our table was located by a window opening to the garden, so that I could see the privet behind which I liked to hide, and the other, the red-berried hedge, a hawthorn. It was a good location, and our waiter was nice enough, if a bit remote. Nevertheless, I used to wonder how it would have been, how it would have felt, being in a different section of the salon or in a distant set of tables, being served by another waiter, sitting by another window, under another chandelier. Belonging to a different family—more elegant, gracious, more at ease, more gentile—although I did not command those concepts yet. Near our table there sat a family of four, the parents and two children, a boy and a girl, about our age. The boy and the girl ordered dishes that smelled delicious. But it was unthinkable for my sister and me to ask the waiter—or heaven forefend, another guest—what was it that smelled so deliciously: my mother was too socially insecure for that. And anyway, I could not order what I wanted: it was always my mother who ordered the food for us; she always wanted to be in control of my gut. My powerless frustration whenever she ended up ordering for me a healthy but tasteless “panaché de legumbres” (mixed boiled vegetables arranged on the plate like a fan), is my one sad memory of that dining salon.
Well, no, there was also the sad fact that Sandra was not there: she and her parents stayed at another hotel, the Gran Pernambuco, half-way down the long slope from our hotel to the beach. I tried to imagine Sandra coming to dinner at the Grand Picayune and how she might be dressed. No doubt her formal dress would be as special and attractive as her beach attire, much more elegant than the dress of the girl who devoured deliciously smelling dishes, or than the dress of that other one with pink butterflies on her hair. I wondered, if Sandra and her parents stayed in our hotel and came to the salon for dinner, would they stop to say hello on their way to their table, or would they just wave at us, if that? When I looked through the window, I wondered if Sandra would play hide-and-seek with me and my sister, in which case we could hide together in the narrow space between the wall and the privet.
Sad thoughts were more frequent on weekdays when Father was in Buenos Aires for business. His absence made my mother sad, and her sadness was contagious. When my father was with us, usually over the weekends, my thoughts acquired a different hue; I had no time or room for melancholy; I had to concentrate, for my father’s chief occupation was to teach me. Since he endeavored, as much as possible, to reduce his physical activity to the vegetative level, we are not talking here about Father teaching me how to throw or catch a ball, how to run fast, or swim, or ride a bicycle: all things athletic he left to, or sent me to learn from, others. No, his aim was to teach me pure thought, to instill in me the love of logos. I remember him saying more than once, “I want you to be all I couldn’t be,” referring to the fact that he had to quit high-school at age fifteen to earn a living. Around that time he began to teach me things such as Galileo’s discovery that if you are inside a container and you don’t see the outside, you cannot tell whether you are at rest or travelling with uniform velocity, or about Bishop Berkeley’s doctrine that the outside world is merely a pleonastic, dispensable hypothesis.
During that early 1946 summer vacation, he had decided to teach me to play chess. It became my first contact with a fully self-enclosed symbolic world, conventional and independent from what we call the world of real things. Soccer, the predominant passion of Argentine males and my abomination, is also a game with conventional rules, to be sure, but it cannot do without certain elements from the material world, such as a field, grass, goalposts, and an inflated ball. Ordinary language games do have strong connections to the world of things: whenever I called, “Mom!” for instance, I connected that syllable to the dear, brown-eyed oval face with a curled tuft of hair on the right cheek. Even the 12-multiplication table, with my dreaded twelve times twelve is one hundred and forty-four, was connected to the world of things: dull as they may be, usual arithmetic and the multiplication tables have to do with the activities of selling, purchasing, finance and trade. And when it came to my favorite game of hide-and-seek, it is unthinkable without trees, bushes, vines, and all sorts of tangible objects suitable for hiding behind. But chess is insular and completely mental. True, it is usually played with pieces, which in my father’s set were wooden, brightly varnished, felt-shod, delightful to the touch and smelling like a joiner’s shop; but other than the fact that those pieces are not at all essential to chess – we can play the game without those physical objects – knights, pawns, etc., and even without a board –, I found very early on that wasting my attention on the crenellation of a rook, or on the little ball on a bishop’s head, was a sure way to go down to defeat at Father’s hands.
I did go down many times. On a couple of occasions I won, but it was clear that my father had let me win. Toward the end of February, he had to leave on a patriotic mission. Oh, nothing heroic: presidential elections were being held, and my father had to go to the capital to vote – not my mother, for women did not enjoy the franchise yet. Sandra’s father too had traveled to the capital to cast his vote, as she told me at the beach while we were playing collecting shells. “After she kissed dad goodbye, my mom said that if the coronel wins, you know, the fascist coronel, we better leave,” said Sandra, and I could tell she was affected. “You mean leave your hotel?” “No, silly, leave the country for good.”
Such an idea had never occurred to me. From every angle it seemed monstrous: changing one’s country was in my mind akin to changing one’s parents, or one’s brain. Yet I knew people who had changed country, since all my grandparents had arrived in Argentina from the Russian Empire, driven out by pogroms, Cossacks, and long conscription of Jewish young men in the army during the Russo-Japanese War, but I did not regard that as a change, or rather, I took it as a natural not a forced change, like Tuesday changing into Wednesday, or night into day. I told Sandra that neither my dad nor my mom had mentioned anything like leaving the country, but that my dad was certainly going to vote against the fascist coronel, just as her dad. This seemed to tranquilize her, and me too; we figured that since both dads were to vote against the coronel, the latter’s chances of winning were slim, and we could leave all worries aside and turn back to our game of picking shells.
When we finally emptied our buckets, the difference was clear at first sight: Sandra had won by far. I had gathered more shells, but hers far surpassed mine in beauty. Two- and three-colored scallop cockles, spiked conches, even a trumpet triton... mine were almost all plain gray clams or tiny cockles called berberechos, which are easy to find in the wet sand, and which long-billed sand pipers eat with relish. There was a piece of floatsam I had picked up which no one would have taken for a shell. Sandra looked at me and said, “Don’t make such a long face. Girls are much better than boys at finding pretty shells and, besides, my mother has taught me a few things about conchology.” I thought that was quite a generous and gracious way of soothing my defeat, but I felt the sting nevertheless.
When we had returned with our buckets to the tents, Sandra said, “I’ll give you a rematch. Let’s run from here to the flags, see who gets there first. How about that?” “I’m game,” I said with manly concision. “Ready? One, two, three, go!” I ran as if for my life; still, Sandra arrived at the flags a good five yards ahead of me. Then, to celebrate, she performed two rolls. I tried, but couldn’t lift my feet off the ground. I saw her turn her back and leave for the tents, with a dismissive wave of her hand that left me hands and knees on the sand, bereft and frozen.
A glorious morning. Father’s back with us. Perón has won. I remember what my father said on that occasion, and his tone of voice, unusually serious – I’d say, with all due respect, solemn: “In spite of the results, I have full confidence in the honor of our armed forces and in the prosperous future of our country.” With the years, I learned to interpret my father’s vigorously proclaimed faith and his unwittingly ridiculous tone of voice; on other occasions of uncertainty and peril, like during the outrageously frequent military coups, he would express similar sentiments with that same tone: it was as if he had mounted an inner pulpit and was preaching to himself; he, who had never set foot on another country, must have needed the sermon to give himself the pluck to go on. Having uttered it, he proposed a game of chess. We took the board and the box with the pieces to the hotel front yard, and we sat at a table.
That morning I beat Father at chess. He didn’t let me win, as he used to do at the very beginning and occasionally during my apprenticeship. I knew it, because I could tell he was stunned. I had tempted him with a pawn, he took it with his bishop, which allowed me to move my knight so as to threaten simultaneously his queen and a rook: after that, I avoided making serious errors and pressed my advantage to the end. Yes, Father was stunned, and I could also tell – at the time I didn’t register it as a possible contradiction – that he was proud, since I was flesh of his flesh, bones of his bones, and above all, brain of his brain. I don’t have to add that I felt proud too.
That afternoon, at siesta time, I was at the beach all by myself, recalling some of my brilliant moves, delighting in my fresh laurels. I tried to relive the moment when I hit on the possibility of setting a trap for my father by offering him that pawn. How did it happen? As it seemed to me, there were two, no, three distinct thoughts in my mind at about the same time: one, that it would be nice if I could move my knight to the square where both my father’s queen and rook would be threatened; two, that unfortunately that square was defended by my father’s bishop; and three, that if I advanced my pawn he might decide to take it, which would remove the bishop from its obstructing role – those three distinct thoughts came, as in a flash, together and were connected. The flash and the connection seemed to me a wondrous thing that made life worth living: it was divine, it was life in its most exalted mode. It must have been a similar experience for Newton to be lying on the lawn, thinking about the moon and to see, right then, an apple falling from an apple tree, as Father had told me it had occurred; then, in a flash, to connect both things. Newton, though, was lucky: he had the advantage that the moon and an apple are definitely two distinct thoughts, but as for me, I wasn’t sure about the number of my thoughts – perhaps they were three, but they might have been only two, or four, or, who knows, more – for I was unsure about how distinct they had been or how to divide them rightly.
It was hot, and suddenly I felt an animal urge. But there were no bathrooms at the beach, only in the hotels, and the Grand Picayune was at least two hundred yards of sand and stairs and burning sun away: now that I think of it, in that luxurious context it was a rather preposterous omission, but that’s the way it was. I started to walk back to the hotel, but the sun was beating down, and walking made my urge stronger, so I went back to our tent and tried to calm my gut by sitting again on the wicker chair. When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I got up and started out again, only to come back sweaty and defeated. There was nothing to do but discharge my gut right then and there, and there was no time to dig a hole inside the tent, behind the back curtain as I would have wished; I simply pulled down my swim pants, crouched and let go.
I was almost standing up, greatly relieved, starting to figure out how to bury or remove the feces and how to clean my ass, when I heard Sandra’s voice. “Oh, pardon me. I’m smelling something stinky, and I don’t know where it comes from.” Then, noticing the still unburied feces and me with my pants still down, she made a face that will be held in my brain until death dissolves or dementia disables it. I was left alone. My ego, five minutes before strong as a castle, now lay in ruins. A thought crossed my mind like a shrieking seagull: it was, after all, a good thing that the fascist coronel had won the election, because now Sandra would leave the country with her parents, and I would never see or hear from any of them again. No one here would remember my dishonor.
When I raised my eyes, I saw the ocean ablaze in all the glory of the post-meridian sun. At first, I saw in that glory but a cruel mockery of my discomfiture. Then, suddenly, I realized that it had never occurred to me to defecate in the water. How come I didn’t think of it? Going in search of far-away toilets when I had the vast ocean right there in front of my nose, where I could walk in until the water reached up to my waist, remove my pants, relieve myself, wash myself, and never be discovered! The fact that I had not thought of it, I keenly felt, was itself a mystery. I, who had connected my father’s greed for a pawn with the possibility of taking his rook, did not
connect my urgency to the glittering, resounding sea. My stubborn blindness was at least as amazing as the flash of connection between different thoughts. As shame yielded to marvel and curiosity, the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered inside me – inside me! – until the next shit shame wave.