With those exact words Mother would rest her case, each time I visited at her one-bedroom apartment in Buenos Aires after she was widowed; we would sit there listening to the Todo Tango radio station, drinking maté and eating alfajores, and she would bitterly summarize for me her married life, still again.
Father sang tangos too, but of a different kind, and only when he was playing card solitaires on the dining-room table. His lyrics dealt mostly with flashing knives, the gaucho duels and folkloric orillero and malevo epics Borges also favored. “El Ciruja” is one of those tangos I admired as a child. The title denotes a person who makes a living by rummaging in the garbage and salvaging saleable stuff. In
my frequent bike rides towards the Southwest, I would sometimes first go South on Calle Lafuente, to a place in the Bajo Flores with neither houses nor trees, and ride by the fields for burning garbage, la quema, where the cirujas lived in caves dug out in the garbage mounds; the sight of whole families living so, children included, impressed me the way Darwin was impressed by the natives of Tierra del Fuego. Once I saw a ciruja girl staring at me and my bike, and I spent the rest of the trip imagining how she would be as a friend. Very different from Emilita, for sure. Or perhaps not, who knows. And I kept pedaling, wondering if I shouldn’t stop, turn around, go back to her mound, and see if I could talk with her. The word “ciruja” is, by the way, derived from “cirujano”, that is, surgeon. Those words are all ultimately derived from the Greek for handwork, and one can easily see how both cirujas and surgeons perform work requiring great manual dexterity: surgeons for removing sick or threatening parts from a living body, and cirujas for removing valuable stuff from trash. The memory of those caves, those mounds, and of the smell, a mix of rot and smoke, have persisted with me through the years, and later in life those cirujas remind me of the work of avant-garde poets and artists in our time, when even the oceans and outer space are being filled with garbage, and the artists’ work seems to be to salvage from the trash something valuable: a urinal, a bicycle wheel.
Sorry I got detoured somehow to Calle Lafuente. I should go back to music, to the tango my father used to sing, “El Ciruja”, the slangiest in the whole repertoire, so that even my father, with all his street wisdom, couldn’t explain the meaning of some words. The story is rather trite. El ciruja and el cafiolo (the pimp) were involved with the same pretty woman who worked in la quema — perhaps on Calle Lafuente! That kind of situation could only end with a duel and, indeed, the ciruja kills the cafiolo with his knife. In the end, when the ciruja is freed from jail, he goes back to his old haunts and walks, alone and destitute, “campaneando un cacho'e sol en la vereda”. That phrase, which enchanted me when Father sang it, requires an explanation. “Campana” (bell) was, in thieving argot, the one who stayed behind to sound the alarm if the cops were in sight, i.e., the lookout; so “campanear” meant to look out for, and, finally, my enchanting phrase meant “looking out for a little patch of sun on the sidewalk.”
Besides tangos, there was a completely different repertoire which belonged to Father, that of belcanto — La donna è mobile, Una furtiva lacrima, etc., or he would belt out Tosti’s Mattinata or Marechiaro. There, he tried to imitate Beniamino Gigli or Carlo Buti, and he did it with great feeling and gusto. Again, I don’t know where or how Father picked up the bits of Italian lore he passed on to me — although, to be sure, in Buenos Aires at the time when almost half of the population were Italian immigrants, there was ample opportunity for him to learn not only songs but little phrases like, “Vedere Napoli e dopo morire” (To see Naples and then one can die), or riddles such as, “Ci sono tre città nella Lombardia: l’una è Milano, l’altra è Pavia. Più te lo dico, meno lo sai: come si chiama l’altra città?” (There are three cities in Lombardy: one is Milan, another is Pavia. The more I say it, the less you know it: how is the third city called?) Answer: “Como”.
Not all my early musical experience originated in my parents’ voices. At the grand hotel on the beach, when I was six, the same year I learned how to play chess, I made momentous musical discoveries. There was a victrola and some shellac 78 rpm records in the salon, and no one objected to my playing them again and again when no one else was around. I remember three of those records that at one sitting enlarged my world of sound and voice several fold and marvelously. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and “Begin the Beguine” were on one record; on another, the Brazilian Zequinha de Abreu’s “Tico tico no fubá” and the national dance of Mexico, “Jarabe tapatío” — those enigmatic titles I deciphered only much later. The third record contained Charles Trenet’s “Douce France” and “Que reste-t-il de nos amours”. Those were musical domains my parents never visited.
Back in Buenos Aires about the same time, when I was five or six, and Father was at the all-too-brief zenith of his entrepreneurial career, he had a secretary named María Luisa, like Napoléon’s second wife, a beautiful young blonde. At least she seemed outstandingly beautiful to me. One day Father must have taken me to the lingerie shop on Carlos Calvo Street, and it happened to be my mother’s birthday, or else my parents’ wedding anniversary. Father sent María Luisa out to buy some flowers for Mother, and she took me along. At that time, I was about to start taking piano lessons, and so all the way to the flower shop and back, she instructed me on music fundamentals. I have retained only two elements of that excursion, one of which is a feeling of malaise, of guilt almost, having to do with holding María Luisa’s hand instead of my father’s. It was Father — such was my vague ethical idea — who should have gone out with me to buy flowers for Mother. Equally vague in my mind was the notion that María Luisa was in some way my mother’s rival. Her nails wore a perfect sheen, her clustering locks seemed fashioned by a goldsmith, and her skirt graciously fluttered as she walked. Unlike Mother, she had no tuft of hair on her cheek The second thing I have retained is the pair of Spanish words, “fusa” and “semifusa” — demisemiquaver and hemi demisemiquaver respectively. Actually, not so much the words in themselves, as María Luisa pronouncing them: her glistening lips pursing into a susurrus orifice for the “fu” then just a bit of teeth showing for the “sa.”
From that time, too, is the beginning of Father’s collection of 78rpm recordings. He had opened a large silk fabrics store on Rivadavia Avenue, six blocks from our house, and half a block from Plaza Flores, and he named it Diams, a made-up word appropriately luxurious and seductive: he might have had the word diamantes (diamonds) in mind. Father had become a member of the local merchants’ association, the Asociación Comerciantes Zona Flores, where he befriended a Señor Vega, the owner of a music store, Casa Vega, on Calle Membrillar, close to Rivadavia Avenue. As always, whenever Father entered a new group, he captured everybody’s good will — what transpired later was something else altogether. In this case, Señor Vega became my father’s classical musical adviser: Father must have told him, for example, that Beethoven and Chopin were his favorite composers, so Vega recommended certain recordings — Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin’s Mazurkas, the Nocturnes, and the Preludes, which were, indeed, superb interpretations — and Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Felix Weingartner conducting the Third, and Thomas Beecham the Second.
Those records Father bought at Casa Vega, where I imagine he got a big discount as a fellow merchant and prominent member of the confraternity, and Señor Vega, I also imagine, got a big discount when he bought fabrics at Diams. On occasion, Vega did his best, I could tell, to lead Father into some appreciation of other great composers; once Father came home with an album of J. S. Bach’s Magnificat, but it was useless, he didn’t enjoy it at all. While it played, standing next to the record player in the living room, Father would ask us, “What can they possibly find in this boring piece of junk?” Father was deaf to the voices vom Himmel hoch, deaf to the celestial choir; his ears were more attuned to the earth, to the flesh, and to nostalgia. But if Vega’s recommendations were often of no use to my father, they were all of great profit to me, and while I don’t remember Father ever playing his recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, I often did listen to them when I was eleven or twelve.
Later in life I have tried to replace all those 78 rpm records with reissues on CDs: every time I listen to one of those, my experience of recovery is somewhat like that of Proust with his madeleine and his lime-flower tea. A more solid remnant of my early musical life is the piece of furniture in which all those 78 rpm record albums were kept. We called it el trinchante, meaning a wooden sideboard or carving board where, as far as I know, nothing was ever carved, although it was placed in our dining room, close to the double arch, the column, and the winged angel, and flanking the table at the end where we dined. When Mother was widowed and moved to her small apartment on Directorio Avenue, she didn’t take the large dining table; she took most of the chairs, the trinchante, and a matching cabinet where she kept the crystal and china. The trinchante, long emptied of record albums, now stands at one end of the grand dining room at the IAS Director’s house in Princeton, New Jersey, close to the piano and some other furniture which belonged to Einstein.
Two new, important gadgets were added to my musical daily experience about the ages of six or seven. A radio receiver was placed in the bedroom I shared with my sister on a night table between the two beds. Just as with old books, on top of the intellectual pleasures it was built to offer, this old receiver provided a surplus bounty: the smell. Perhaps it was the heated varnish of the power transformer. Or the heated dust settled on the hot vacuum tubes and capacitors. Or the wax capacitors themselves, or the wire insulation used in those days, or the devil knows what — in any case, the smell, if only for a short while, transported me to a special heavenly shack. Tucked in bed at 9 PM, in a program sponsored by Cirulaxia, a gentle laxative containing prune juice, I enjoyed for the first time Johann Strauss’s and Waldteufel’s waltzes. I remember that a lot of them were interpreted by an ensemble named Los Bohemios Vieneses. I was captivated by the rhythm, to the point that I felt I could compose similar waltzes in my head, and so I would, sitting at the top of our outside stairs, facing Emilita’s terrace and moving my arms as if I was conducting an orchestra. I also listened to regularly — I think it was on the state radio station— to a program of arias from Italian opera; the names of Ebe Stignani, Claudia Muzio, and Renata Tebaldi are still alive in my brain, and perhaps I could evoke their voices too.
The other newcomer was a Gaveau vertical piano, which was placed in the living room. Early piano lessons are more associated in my mind with exercises for the fingers than with music. I had to repeat the exercises in Hanon, Heller, Bertini et aridi alii, without any regard for the delights of song. I didn’t have a good piano teacher until I was fifteen. But that event requires its story, and that story requires a change of tonality, of tempo, and of locale.
The early 1950s were difficult for us, as it often appears in these memories. Since there was no money for my family to vacation as they used to, at the seashore, when I was fourteen my parents sent me to the YMCA summer camp in Sierra de la Ventana. As to why they didn’t send my sister to some summer camp too, it is quite simple if painful to recall: as an unmarried girl, the wholeness of her hymen was, in the eyes of my father, more sacred than, say, my circumcision. When, eight or nine years later, Olgui spent a night elsewhere, my father went berserk and screamed at her, “Just as I gave you life, I have the right to take it away too!” You may say he was a true troglodyte.
The boys at the camp and its director, Raúl Staude, were also genuine troglodytes, and the location of the camp was perfect for them, for Sierra de la Ventana boasts an abundance of caves. The younger and the weaker boys were at the mercy of the older ones; the director seemed to approve and to consider this natural, for he never moved a finger to stop it. My problem was always the same: I was a nullity at softball, a sport I had never played before; on the other hand, I was unbeatable at the game of questions and answers, which made the other boys dislike me even more. The nights were cold in the Sierras and deformed by fear. In those desolate mountains that the great Darwin had visited in 1833 and where, as he wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle, he had slept better than ever in his life, six score years later we, the weaker campers, couldn’t sleep for half an hour before an inner alarm awakened us: “What was that noise! Are they coming for me?”
“They” were the self-styled Night Sweeteners. They came by night, masked, into a tent, grabbed a kid and carried him out to a nearby pole, to which they tied their victim after stripping him of his clothes. Then they spread all over you honey that they had stolen from the kitchen, and as a parting gift they cut off hair either from your head or your pubis or both and stuck it on the honey all over you. Then they let you go. There was no alternative but to take a meticulous, gelid shower, and hope not to catch pneumonia or freeze to death.
I had been named “postmaster,” and my duty was to go every morning, right after breakfast, to the main office, which was some three-hundred yards distant from the boys’ camp, close to the family camp compound (there was no camp just for girls). There I picked up the mail addressed to the boys in my camp and there I left the outgoing mail. Finally, I went back and distributed what had arrived. On one of my first trips to the main office I had met a girl my age who was staying at the YMCA family camp with her parents. Susana Agrest was a budding pianist with a head of curly hair; she and I would walk about halfway toward the boys’ camp and stop at a wooden bridge over a stream, where we talked music. In one of my father’s 78 rpm albums, Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” played by Walter Gieseking with conductor Bruno Walter, there was a spare face on which Gieseking played the two Minuets and the Gigue of Bach’s Partita number 1: I told this to Susana, and how much I enjoyed those pieces. She became enthusiastic, she had been recently playing the whole Partita and proceeded to demonstrate with her fingers on the wooden handrail of the bridge, how to cross hands when playing the lively Gigue. Many other pieces she played for me on that handrail, like those of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which were new to me, though I had been playing some pieces from his easier Album für die Jugend. When I told Susana about my father’s infatuation with Chopin, she said that Schumann could compose music like Chopin, only better, and then she played on the handrail the section of Carnaval, composed by Robert when he was 23, titled “Chopin.”
Did I hear on the radio a recording of Myra Hess playing Schumann’s piano concerto before or after meeting Susana in Sierra de la Ventana? It made a strong and lasting impression, made me feel that Schumann’s concerto was, if less caressing, more in resonance with my inner strain and strife than Chopin’s piano concerto number 2, a recording that my father cherished and frequently played. Whichever the case, I owe to Susana Agrest and to Myra Hess the opening of my ears and my heart to Schumann’s music.
Those musical talks at the bridge with Susana made my stay at the camp bearable, but they were not without danger. Towards the end of the season, the rumor began to spread that I had a girlfriend in the family camp. A couple of boys made fun of me, asking, “Hey, your sweetheart down at families' camp, what’s her name?” I was really worried, for nothing would provoke more the envy and hatred of the Night Sweeteners and of other, non-affiliated bullies. Something happened, however, that removed the immediate peril, just as today’s news remove yesterday’s to the shades of the recycle bin. Sokolinsky, an older boy, maybe nineteen, with some traces of a foreign accent, had a swagger that, I imagine, offended not a few others. He had never bullied me, and I never saw him bullying anyone, but he was a braggart who was always pleased and proud to show you his Hitler-Jugend belt and buckle. I don’t remember or I never knew for what specific reason Director Staude, who regularly regaled us boys with Christian sermonizing, got angry with Sokolinsky and decided to give him a lesson.
To that purpose, Sokolinsky was caught by Staude with the help of a couple of guys from the kitchen and the assistance of some of the older campers; the captive was placed on one of the long dining tables face down, his pants and underpants were pulled down, his Hitler-Jugend belt was pulled off his pants, and we boys were instructed to stand in line and wait for our turn to slap Sokolinsky’s buttocks with his belt, real hard. One lash per camper. We all did as we were told. While I was waiting for my turn, I kept thinking that all things considered, Sokolinsky deserved it. When my turn came, I didn’t skimp on energy, as I would have put myself at risk for doing so. The sight of those bloody buttocks and of the young man groaning and squirming did not easily leave the minds of my fellow campers, I’d bet. It hasn’t left mine.
Back in Buenos Aires, in the sweet month of April Susana invited me to a series of talks by Ernesto Epstein, her piano teacher, at his house in the Palermo district, on Calle Serrano. Epstein was born in 1910 in Buenos Aires but grew up in Germany and got a doctorate in musicology from the University of Berlin; right after that, since he was a Jew, he escaped from the Nazis back to Argentina just in time. In those weekly talks he analyzed from his piano, and with his record player, Schubert’s Winterreise. It was my introduction to a new world of music and poetry where the two are intimately related, something that very seldom happens in the many popular songs I had been listening to, and moreover those Schubert songs had a personal quality that I had not found previously, not even in the operatic arias I listened to on the radio: I could sing, or try to sing those previously known songs, only by donning a mask, be it that of a knife-wielding ciruja or of a debauched duke of Mantua, but I could sing the Schubert’s songs barefaced, out of my own feelings, even though the songs are in German, a language I began trying to learn at about that age, and then with ups and downs throughout my life.
About that time, I also happened on a cheap Colección Austral paperback, "Enrique Heine, Cuadros de Viaje," a Spanish translation of Heine’s Reisebilder, and from the first paragraph I was enchanted:
“The city of Göttingen, famous for its sausages and its university ... The town itself is pretty and pleases one most when one leaves and looks at it by turning one’s head.”
Naturally, I associated Heine’s Reisebilder with Schubert’s Winterreise — both are pictures or rather short takes of a trip, eine Reise, undertaken by a young German man — but there is so much more to that happy association! How much more there is to it I’ve been learning gradually over the years and am today still far, far from finished. I mean the nature and significance of German Romanticism. When my sister gave me for my seventeenth birthday my first LP record, the first to join the 78rpms in the trinchante, I had another revelation: Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), on poems by Heine, sung by Lotte Lehmann with Bruno Walter at the piano (Frauenliebe und Leben, A Woman’s Love and Life, was on the other side). The sky of German Lieder has many stars.
After those weekly talks on Calle Serrano, I stopped seeing Susana — I mean “seeing” literally, for we never touched each other — and I began taking piano lessons with Epstein. He taught me, among other things, an approach to interpretation that seems right to me, as far as it goes. For example, when I was playing Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, he observed how the first theme of the Adagio imitates human breath and sighing, and how the second theme is like a lover pleading with his beloved, “I love you; I love you...” Epstein was keenly aware that music involves the nerves, sinews, and muscles of the human body, that it is not only cosa mentale, as Leonardo said of painting.
A couple of years later I quit the piano lessons. It had become clear to me that I didn’t have what it takes to be a musician — my nerves, sinews, and muscles couldn’t or wouldn’t work together so as to attend to every nuance of rhythmic changes, and I found it almost impossible to memorize a score — but I continued to be a music lover. And when seven or eight years later, as I was waiting at the lobby of the New York Infirmary for Women in Gramercy Park, I was told by Dr. Sochet that Isabel had been delivered of twin boys, one of my first thoughts was, “We’ll have a piano trio.” And so it was: in due course, Sergio played the violin, and David the cello; we played many pieces for piano trio until they left for college.
Let us now make an even bigger jump in time, all the way to 1990 or 1991. I am in Buenos Aires, visiting my mother in her small apartment, as I do every year. As usual, we are drinking maté. This time we’re listening to the classical radio station, and to my astonishment they announce that tonight there’s going to be a concert at the Centro Cultural Recoleta: Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet will be played by Susana Agrest, piano, then three names I don’t recognize, and finally Edgardo Zollhofer, cello. Ernesto Epstein, the illustrious musicologist, is going to introduce Schubert’s Quintet. I almost jump in my chair. Buby Zollhofer (no one calls him Edgardo) I’ve known for a long time: both of us entered the University in 1957 to study chemistry, he was my partner in first-year chemistry lab work, where we forged a strong, chemical bond, and a year later we were together at the campamento químico (chemistry students camp) in Patagonia, on Lago Verde. By then I had abandoned chemistry for physics (a little later, I switched to math), and Buby had left chemistry for music. It will be so good to see him again. And, of course, it’ll be good to see Susana again.
Crestfallen, I suddenly remember that I cannot go to that concert because Epstein is going to be there, and I’d be too embarrassed. We didn’t pay him the last two months of lessons, and when he phoned our house repeatedly, one time I told him I wasn’t home, and another my mother told him that we had no money, which was true enough. I ask Mother if she remembers that. “I don’t remember the guy,” she says, after a moment reflection. “And anyway, back in those days d’you know how many people I had to tell we couldn’t pay them? The grocer, the chimney sweep, the seltzer man, even the shikse, and you ask me to remember a piano teacher?”
My desire to see Susana and Buby again, however, is too strong to be dissuaded by the likelihood of being put to shame, as I reckon this likelihood is small, that many years have passed and that Epstein, who must be at least eighty by now, will not recognize me.
And so it happens. The whimsical “Trout” and all five fishermen please me greatly, Epstein somehow has disappeared at the end, and I am able to hug Susana and Buby safely and warmly. We decide to get something to eat, and end up at a pizzeria. Susana, her hair as curly as I remember it, is with her mother. There’s something about her that seems changed, though. Buby seems unchanged, as buoyant as ever: not even at the camp on Lago Verde when he was blinded for weeks because he had climbed Cerro Torrecillas with its glacier and had neglected to wear dark goggles: not even then was he down. But my impression is that Susana is sad. There is no way I can ask her about the events in her life, of the years between the age of fifteen or so, when we were in the Sierra, playing music on that wooden bridge, and now, when we are fiftyish, eating pizza. I can’t ask, and she is not forthcoming.
That night in my mother’s apartment, sleepless inside my sleeping bag on the floor close to the trinchante with the old records, Schubert’s music runs and reruns in my head. Not from “The Trout,” to my surprise, but “Der Leiermann”, The Organ Grinder, the final song of the Winterreise.