Since I was never bar mitzvahed, I didn’t learn the Hebrew words to bless the King of the All. My passage from childhood to adulthood was marked by more localized events, banal from any spiritual viewpoint. The falling out with Rodolfo had embittered me; the ideal of a musical friendship was as much a will-o’-the-wisp as the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, and now it appeared to me that such high aspirations were both silly and presumptuous. ¿Quién te creés que sos? — Who d’you think you are? I asked myself, just as my classmates at the school on Calle Varela had often asked me while they twisted my arm behind my back. They were right.
Páez, Noguera, Peralta, Gastaldi... those beasts were absolutely right when to Ishmael’s ridiculous admonishments — the pertinacious witnessing of consciousness and the respect due to all women — they responded by shamelessly, openly jerking off. Who did Ishmael, our teacher, think he was? Now that having finished grammar school those beasts were not threatening me any longer, I felt free to imitate them. The lumber room, my lab and workshop where I had wasted so many idle hours and so many bars of sulfur trying to make sulfuric acid, seemed the right place to carry out the new experiment.
Lying on the floor with my head propped up against the rickety door, I stroked and manipulated my penis just as I had seen those gross beasts do. Mine was a mere midget, not nearly as big and imposing as theirs, and it took a long, tedious time until it finally happened: my body shook, and I wetted myself — or soiled, or polluted myself, depending on your point of view. I wasn’t entirely stupid: I could already see that this was the first occurrence of a powerful experience, one which would, from now on and for quite a while, demand prevalence over any other thoughts.
It came to pass around that time that on a pleasant Saturday afternoon I went back into the house from my lab and workshop after a session of the one pleasurable activity involving my right hand that required nothing else: no pen or pencil, no piano; no instruments, no tools, nobody. Well, on second thought, there’s another such pleasurable activity, which for me has long ago replaced masturbation: scratching myself, my head, my back. I went into the house, as I said, and to my surprise, I found Father sitting in the jolcito, at my side of the desk (the opposite was my sister’s). I have no idea what he might have been doing there; perhaps inspecting the map of Paris and the portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées with her sister pinching her nipple, gifts from my beloved French teacher that I had put under the glass desktop. In any case, I grabbed the opportunity to approach Father about the problem as I perceived it. I said, — I’ve been thinking that if man’s orgasms lasted, oh I don’t know, let’s say two or three hours, instead of just a few seconds… Well, in that case we would have no art, no science, no philosophy: nothing.
I could see that my father was taken aback. He, who was never at a lack for words, lowered his head and was silent for a while. Finally, he looked at me and said, — Why don’t you just stop uttering stupidities.
I said nothing but was deeply hurt. That my father, who had so much to say about why Jews were hated, about the mathematical zero and the imaginary numbers, about light beams reflected back and forth on moving mirrors, about acceleration and gravity, about what philosophers had to say on the good life and on the nature of man; that Father, who wanted me to attain to the center of things from where all could be seen to make sense; that he, of all people, would have nothing at all to say about my shocking discovery of sex and orgasm, that I could not for the life of me understand. That frustrated dialogue at the jolcito marked me for life, a deeper mark by far than Mother’s high-heeled slipper landing on my head, and now there is nothing that exasperates me more than an insight of mine being received with evasion, outright rejection, or silence. I expect it to be examined and then judged, no matter how severely. Even then, at thirteen, I could see that my father had reacted the way he did not really to spite me but rather because he disliked the subject of sex intensely, and perhaps I could vaguely guess that not only he disliked it, but he feared it too. But I could not then, and cannot now, have any pity, sympathy, or respect for anyone who avoids hard truths or shirks the search for them, on account of weakness or self-protection. Perhaps this total lack of charity, rather than a desire to kill one’s father and lie with one’s mother, is what ought to be called the true Oedipus complex, and if so, mine crystallized the day my father told me to stop uttering stupidities, and not when, as a baby, I was evicted from my parents’ bed as soon as my father came back from his night shift.
And now the years-long quest for sulfuric acid, my ineffective struggle with the molecular forces, went the way of my quest for a true friendship. It appeared to me that both quests were ridiculously childish, although I didn’t realize the connection between them until years later, when I read Goethe’s novel, The Elective Affinities. There’s a big difference, though: we can’t go and purchase a true friend, but it was easy to purchase sulfuric acid: I looked in the yellow pages for droguerías, found one not far from home, put all my paltry savings in my pocket, went there, bought a bottle of 98% pure sulfuric acid, and walked back home with it. I had feared that they’d refuse to sell such a dangerous product to a boy still wearing short pants, but those fears were unfounded, and I placed the bottle on a corner of the lumber room shelf that contained my chemical equipment. There was in my feelings a part of satisfaction — now I would be able to perform previously impossible feats of chemical wizardry, like preparing nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, aqua regia... — yet there was, too, a bad taste of having betrayed myself, or, more precisely, the ideal, alchemical part of myself. The old Latin acronym for vitriol, a.k.a. sulfuric acid — “Visita interiora terrae rectificando invenies occultum lapidem” (Visit the entrails of the earth: purifying you’ll find the hidden stone) — recurred in my mind like a reproach.
At thirteen came the longed-for change from short pants to long pants which coincided with the beginning of my second year at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires in March 1953. It involved the purchase of a new suit at a time when my dad’s affairs had hit a new low and there was no money for new clothes. My mother would invariably say in her imperfect Yiddish every time the question of a new suit for me came up, “Nicht kein stuck’n geld” (we haven’t got a nickel). Her dad, my grandfather or sheishe Gregorio Brodesky, came to the rescue.
He took me to Sastrería García, haberdashers on Avenida de Mayo, where he revealed a side of his personality that I had never seen before. Once the material had been selected for a bespoke three-piece suit, as he heard the price, el sheishe exclaimed in feigned astonishment, — That must be a joke! — Then the tug of war began.
— Well, if you select a less expensive fabric, we can give you a lower price, said García.
— The boy has chosen this one, so this is it, said my grandpa.
— If we skip the vest, then it is possible…
— What? No vest? Is the boy going to go around in the winter with no vest and catch a cold?
At a crucial point, el sheishe grabbed my hand and said decisively, — Come, let’s go — and we headed towards the door.
Señor García ran after us. — No, no, don’t leave, we’ll come up with something.
Come up they did; it took some time until García came down by half the price of the suit. The following two years saw pretty much the same farce and the same result; only my measurements changed, predictably growing. Then, on September 2 of 1955 in the early afternoon, el sheishe died at his home, of sudden heart failure. Two weeks later a military insurrection toppled Perón.
Back to 1953 and to my second year at the Colegio, where I soon made new, long-panted friends. Chiefly Adolfo Urruty, who lived not far from me, eleven or twelve city blocks on Directorio Avenue, in a house severely fronted with black marble, with his father and his younger sister. The contrasts with Rodolfo Mattarollo didn’t escape my notice; actually, they were always present in the back of my mind. Rodolfo lived with his mother, no father was ever mentioned, whereas Adolfo lived with his father, and I never heard him mention his mother. Further, Rodolfo’s mother, whom I never met, was artistically and spiritually inclined, while Adolfo’s father was a colonel in the Argentine Army. With Rodolfo our conversation was mostly about music; with Adolfo it was mostly about sex and about World War II.
The sex part requires a little explanation. Among Argentine boys of my generation and social class, masturbation was a source of shame and fear; it was generally believed that an excess of paja, masturbation, caused idiocy. Indeed, in Spanish the word pajero means both a wanker and an idiot. The first thing we did when we met, Urruty and I, on school days at 7 in the morning at the subway terminal Primera Junta, was to look into each other’s eyes. Dark circles under the eyes indicated masturbatory activity the previous day, according to our vague and childish vademecum, and brought reproof and derision. When we were standing on the subway platform, waiting for the train that took us downtown to our Colegio, on most days we watched a pretty girl, like us headed for school, wearing the white smock of high-school girls impeccably ironed, her blond hair bright even under the dim yellowish light of the tunnel. We couldn’t take our eyes away from that Nordic beauty. Urruty and I started calling her “la rubia del subte”, the subway blonde, and formed a resolution to accost her. How wonderful it would be to talk with her every morning and perhaps once or twice in the park, at dusk. Yet we never, as far as I remember, agreed on the words we would use. We designated a certain day, say Tuesday, when we would finally go and talk to the subway blonde; we referred to it as D-day, our invasion of Normandy; but Tuesday came and passed, and we would agree that weather conditions were not right, and swear that the following Friday would be D-day, come what may, but always in vain.
We weren’t up to it; we were intimidated by her loveliness. Had we dared, we might have ended up like Jules and Jim, involved with the same femme fatale. Incidentally, Urruty and I were on opposing sides of WWII: his father the colonel was an Axis fan from the tip of his visor cap to the sole of his jackboots, as were many Argentine army officers — including Perón —, and the son parroted parental lines. I pointed out to my buddy the crimes committed by the Germans and the murder of millions of Jews, and he replied,
— Bah, the Russians were ten times worse. And don’t talk to me about the Yankees! Their soldiers raped all the German women they could lay their hands on. Imagine a huge, bestial negro attacking la rubia del subte!
Pulling it all together now, how Rodolfo’s disdain of Rachmaninoff’s music precipitated our separation, and yet how a year later I continued to be Adolfo’s friend even after I heard him vomiting his Weltanschauung, lets me take some measure of my spiritual decline. A bit of care is advisable, though: measurements do depend on historical space-time. Back in those days, less than a decade after the end of WWII, Adolfo’s racist and totalitarian opinions were common in Argentina: in each subway station there was a newsstand where Mi lucha (Mein Kampf) sold for a few pesos.
Adolfo’s racist vomit, however, had one immediate effect on my feelings. What was I doing, panting with erotic desire for the subway blonde’s Valkyrian beauty? What business did I have with a shiksa? Clearly the reason Adolfo had mentioned only Blacks, not Jews, was that he knew I’m Jewish, nevertheless his appeal to imagine a bestial Negro caused me to imagine a filthy Jew as well and was enough to douse my flame. “Internalized oppression,” I’ve seen it called in the “Advice” and “Ask the Experts” columns of The Washington Post, and I don’t mind it. Not as badly as Otto Weininger, but of course I suffer from internalized oppression: who doesn’t?
— She’s all yours, I told Adolfo when, after a couple of days, he noticed that I had lost my interest in the subway blonde. It sounded magnanimous, but I knew that we didn’t have the courage to seize the opportunity. Many years later I was told that Urruty had married a Jewish girl, but apparently the marriage hadn’t been long lasting.
In July of 1954, Urruty invited me and another classmate, Mariano Durand, to spend the winter school break at the newly installed Fábrica Militar de Río Tercero (Military Works of Río Tercero, a town in the province of Córdoba), where Colonel Urruty, Adolfo’s father, was the boss. At the time, only zinc obtained by electrolysis of zinc sulfate was produced there; that couldn’t fail to interest me, given my old childish obsession with sulfur, sulfuric acid, and its salts, and I had the chance to get an explanation of the process from one of the two chemical engineers who worked there. One thing I didn’t understand: what the army officers were doing there, what was their function in the process. Besides Colonel Urruty, the boss, there was a Major Aguilar and a Captain Berretta, plus some non-commissioned officers and a platoon of conscript soldiers. None of them, as far as I could gather, had anything to say about, or anything to do with, the electrolysis of zinc. Perhaps they were there to defend the Military Works against attack? Attack by whom? There were no actual or potential enemies in the horizon.
Leaving aside those and other unanswerable questions, Adolfo, Mariano, and I visited headquarters on the second day, invited by Captain Berretta. He greeted us and asked right away, — ¿Mojaron, muchachos? (Literally, Did you wet, boys?) We didn’t know what to make of it. First, we thought he asked, have you wetted yourself, that is, have you peed on your pants. But then it dawned on us that he meant, have you had sex. It still wasn’t clear whether he meant during those two days in Río Tercero or during our entire life on this earth. In any case, we said, No.
The captain barked an order to the corporal in the adjacent room and then proceeded to make a private phone call. — There you are, boys, he said when he reappeared. La Dalila will be there for you at 22 hours sharp at the corner of Tierra del Fuego and Jujuy.
Superfluous to describe our excitement. The three of us were still confined to hand-made sex, and the thought of placing our debut as men in experienced feminine hands filled us with joy and faith in the future. There was, of course, another, different side to us: that of our sentimental life. One thing was to execute some sort of mambo or rhumba, as we imagined, with a sex worker, and quite another to dance a bolero cheek-to-cheek with a nice girl. We were reflecting on how those two sides of our souls danced to different kinds of music, albeit both of Cuban origin, when Urruty suddenly recalled that Major Aguilar was the father of two girls about our age. — Cute? Durand asked. — Very cute, said Urruty.
That solved all our problems! For the rest of the day the three of us felt like we had come out of a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with an infallible strategy to conquer the road to a man’s happiness.
That night at a quarter to ten we were standing at a corner of Jujuy and Tierra del Fuego. There was nobody else around. A single lamp, rocked by the winter wind, hung from a cable across the intersection, throwing about us a tangle of light and shadows that moved like a danse macabre. Just to say something, I made a comment, — Isn’t it funny that here, in this very corner, the North and South ends of Argentina touch? It’s like the serpent that bites its tail, the ouroboros. In the beginning is my end.
It found no echo. My buddies were deaf to alchemical or mystical allusions. We were looking at our watches with increasing impatience and nervousness.
— Who goes first? asked Urruty at five to ten.
— I go, said Durand; d comes before n and u.
— No, we should go by our given names, said Adolfo; a comes before m and r, doesn’t it, so I go first.
I proposed that we should draw straws, but this was rejected on the grounds that the one who held the straws, knowing which was the shortest one, would have an unfair advantage, and that, anyhow, there seemed to be no straws around. The discussion stopped when we noticed that it was ten past ten and there was no sign of the whore. The wind blew and we felt cold, so we started running in place; soon that wasn’t enough, and we took turns to run a city block back and forth as fast as we could, even though for half the way we had to face the wind. We were exhausted, it was late, and we couldn’t help wondering if perhaps we had made a mistake. Had Captain Berretta said tonight, or tomorrow night? Had we misunderstood the coordinates, that is, the corner or the hour?
At eleven we walked back to our room in the Army Works. Crest-fallen, disgruntled, we recalled the captain’s words, “¿Mojaron, muchachos?” Did you wet, boys? now sounded to us like a cruel practical joke. In the following days he never asked us about our rendezvous, as if he had no business in the matter. The major’s daughters, if they existed, never became manifest: I tend to think that they were creatures of Adolfo’s imagination, for he was susceptible to seductive feminine ghosts.
We had occasion to watch Captain Berretta’s impressive masculinity on July 26, the second anniversary of the death of Eva Perón. Right after she died in 1952, Congress passed a law bestowing upon her the title of “The Nation’s Spiritual Chief”; since then, all radio stations had to announce at the indicated time, “It’s 20:25, the hour when Eva Perón passed into immortality.” The labor unions had been, from the beginning, Perón’s power base; now, free as a widower, he created a hitherto unheard-of Unión de Estudiantes Secundarios, with masculine and feminine branches, of which the second regularly met, in light sport clothes, at the presidential country house. With this new “labor union” in place, Perón fulfilled his old dream. Now he had a harem of adolescent girls aged between twelve and seventeen who tenderly called him Pocho, and he would present his favorite girls with brand-new Lambretta motor scooters; of one of those girls, Nelly Rivas, who was my age, he had quite openly made his concubine the year before, in 1953.
For those who enjoy collecting cases of synchronicity, I mention that at the same time, in 1953, and in Upstate New York, the region where I have lived for most of my life, Vladimir Nabokov finished his Lolita and was sending it to the chief publishing houses in the U.S., all of whom rejected it as too risqué.
Back in Argentina, everyone had heard about Perón’s Lolitas, but no one at the Army Works was talking about such things the day of the second anniversary of Eva Perón’s passage into immortality. It was too risky. No one, as far as I know, was talking about electrolytic zinc either. The matter of concern was one of etiquette: what should the military senior officers wear at the ceremony, shoes or boots? Captain Berretta had to wear boots, of course, since he was to lead his platoon at the parade; but what of Major Aguilar and Colonel Urruty, who were to stand at the official platform? I was present at part of their discussion: ceremonial precedents were adduced for both shoes and boots. Finally, the shoes won, which may have contributed to detach and fix in my memory the image of the captain leading the parade, the only officer wearing boots and the very model of martial masculinity.
After the national anthem was sung, with its final, solemn determination either to live crowned with glory or to die gloriously, Major Aguilar took the mike and read a heartfelt tribute to the Nation’s Spiritual Chief. Nobody could harbor any doubt, he said, that she was watching us and guiding us from above, and that as long as we in this blessed country faithfully followed her directions we would tread safely on the road to universal happiness. Among the spectators there was a large group of women holding high the banners of the local branch of the Peronist Party’s Feminine Section, and as soon as the major finished his piece, they broke into song:
Por Perón y por Evita
la vida queremos dar
con Evita capitana
y con Perón general
For Perón and for Evita
we want to offer our lives,
with Evita as our captain
and Perón our general.
When the choral clamor died down, a military march sounded, and we could see the soldiers marching in our direction, toward the official stand. At their head was Captain Berretta, holding his naked sword ceremonially high and ahead of himself, looking like a cross between a strutting peacock and a long-billed curlew. I wasn’t the only one to be impressed: the public was enthusiastic, especially the women of the Peronist Party, who seemed eager to offer their lives twice over to Berretta capitán.
The end of our winter vacation was impending. On the eve of our departure, the four of us — Adolfo, Mariano, Colonel Urruty, and I — were sitting at the dinner table when, I don’t remember precisely how, the subject of WWII came up. It was not a surprise: nine years after the Allied victory over the Axis, the war was for Argentines — whether liberal, communist, or pro Axis — a sore still open. The colonel gave us his diagnose in his capacity as a political and military expert:
— The main factor, the trigger so to speak, of the Second World War was the long-standing Jewish plan to dominate the world. Germany was caught in a vise. On one side, the Bolshevists, which is to say, the Jew. On the other side, the plutocracies, which is to say, the Jew. The Jew on both sides. That’s why the Germans were so insistent on their Lebensraum: they needed space to breathe freely, once it had been cleared of Jews.
— Sir, I said, I am a Jew.
I was sorry to see the colonel stunned, but I had no option. Had I hidden the fact that I’m a Jew, it would have been impossible for me to live under such a burden of guilt and shame. In retrospect, it was irresponsible of me to accept Adolfo’s invitation, knowing that, to judge from his clearly borrowed opinions, his father was a Nazi; on the other hand, who could imagine that my pudding-head buddy would fail to tell his father that one of the kids he was inviting to the Army Works was a Jew? And now he, Adolfo, was looking deep into his plate, and Mariano, stupefied, was looking at me. The waiter, a conscript soldier who had come to ask if we wanted seconds, and who had overheard my words, stood aghast. The colonel at last recovered and said:
— All my professional life I’ve been just. All my soldiers, whether Jews, or Muslims, or whatever, I have treated them all alike, with the strictest fairness. And turning towards the waiter, he asked, — Isn’t that the case, soldier?
The waiter stood at attention clicking his heels. — Yes, Sir!
The colonel turned to us, opening his hands, as if saying, — See?
The following morning, we took the bus back to Buenos Aires and to our regular duties and occupations. As we were arriving, driving through the suburbs, four lines from an old romance kept bouncing in my mind:
del río de mi lugar
una vez te pasé virgen
virgen te vuelvo a pasar
Little bridge, little bridge
on the river near my house
once as a virgin I crossed you
still a virgin I cross back.
Neither Adolfo Urruty nor Mariano Durand had said a word about the colonel’s anti-Semitic rant.
Colonel Urruty did not stay long in the Army. A little more than a year later, in September of 1955, a military insurrection against Perón broke out in the Province of Córdoba and in other places. The chief of the rebels, General Lonardi, called Urruty to find out whether the Army Works of Río Tercero would support the insurrection, Urruty replied (according to his son Adolfo) that he supported the Constitution, which was tantamount to supporting President Perón. Soon after, when Perón was ousted and Lonardi became de facto president, Colonel Urruty was forced to retire.
It was long until I heard of those Army Works again. After I left Argentina, one disastrous military coup followed another, until Perón returned to power in October 1973. Besides his decrepitude, he hadn’t changed much: always a slave of his testicles, he had married a taxi dancer he had met in Panama and now made her his vice-president, despite her total unsuitability: she hadn’t finished grammar school. Eight months later Perón died, and his wife became president. Chaos ensued. In 1976 the military grabbed power again, and chaos turned into horror. After the humiliating defeat at the Falklands in 1982, the military had to retreat, and civilian presidents were allowed back. Horror retreated too, pour mieux sauter.
Under President Carlos Menem, the 1990s saw a recrudescence of corruption and a series of mysterious, mortiferous explosions. The first one, in 1992, destroyed the Israeli embassy, killing 29 persons; the second occurred in 1994 and killed 85, at the headquarters of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association. After he left power, Menem was officially accused of obstructing justice by attempting to divert the investigation away from Hezbollah and the Iranian government, the main suspects. The third explosion, the one most directly concerned with my adolescent experiences, occurred a year later. In November 1995, I read in the newspapers that the town of Río Tercero had been shaken, and in no small measure destroyed, by a series of explosions at the Army Works.
There were several dead and lots of wounded, all town-dwelling civilians; remarkably, no military personnel were hurt. The director and the second in command of the Works, two colonels, were, lucky they, away in Buenos Aires at the time. President Menem discarded categorically any possibility of a criminal or terrorist attack: it had been an unfortunate accident, he reassured the nation. By then, my feelings about the winter vacation at the Army Works had lost their sharp edges and softened into a nostalgic cloud: three boys, not yet fifteen, waiting in vain for a whore under a streetlight, had been partly transfigured by time and by the art of Marlene Dietrich into three soldiers standing where a most lovely lady once stood:
Vor der Kaserne
Vor dem großen Tor,
Stand eine Laterne
Und steht sie noch davor.
So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n
Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n
Wie einst Lili Marleen.
Facing the Army Works
and the entrance gate,
there was a streetlight
and it is still there.
So we want to see each other again,
we want to stand by that streetlight
As once Lili Marleen.
After I read the awful news, I found myself wondering if the wind-rocked lamp that had illuminated our fiasco at the corner of Jujuy and Tierra del Fuego might be still there, still at the mercy of the winds. Steht sie noch davor? Probably not.
Back in Chapter 3 I mentioned the motto of the grammar school I attended for my first and second grades, “Veritas Praevalebit,” and if life has taught me a few things, chief among those is that the belief that “truth shall prevail” has no more basis in fact than the belief that after death we’ll meet in heaven with Moses, Plato, and our beloved dead pets and poets. A long life with some time spent on logic has taught me a paradoxical truth: “time flow is the master” is the only eternal truth; as time goes by no, not even the fundamental things apply; what before was a certified truth is now an obvious lie, and vice versa. As time goes by.
A small example. Sixteen years later, in 2016, when a non-Peronist, Macri, was president of Argentina, I read, perhaps in the same newspaper, that a long and thorough investigation had ascertained that the explosions at the Army Works had been purposedly set off. What had happened? President Menem and the military had an excellent relation; in fact, they were partners in crime: the president had pardoned the tyrants, the torturers, and all who had a role in the horrors of the period 1976-1982; the military had, for their part, collaborated with Menem in smuggling arms and munitions to Croatia, then at war with Serbia, and to Ecuador, at war with Perú over the Cenepa Valley. It was a smuggling asserted to be the source of Menem’s fortune. When those dealings came to light and threatened to become an international scandal, Menem ordered the destruction of the evidence, which meant destroying the Army Works at Río Tercero, where those arms and munition had been produced and stored.
Enough. If you, like me, can take accounts of cruelty and corruption only in small doses, let’s go back in time to my adolescent adventures in the company of Adolfo Urruty and Mariano Durand, to whom another classmate had been added as a partner, Carlos Fischbarg, one of three Jews in our classroom. Carlos lived in the same apartment building as my grandparents Brodesky, and my aunt Sarita and her husband Isaac: Calle Bolivia 35. Four young, intrepid musketeers, therefore, we programmed an excursion — not to fight a duel by the convent of the Carmes-Deschaux as in my beloved Dumas, or by the River Plate, where I had fought, or feigned to fight, with my ex-friend Rodolfo — but to the Retiro Amusement Park.
To gauge the slope of my spiritual decline of the mid-1950s, and, incidentally, touch on the national degradation, we must begin by locating the park. It was a stone-throw away from the train terminals connecting the capital to the northern, most mestizo provinces, where indigenous languages were still spoken, and quite close to the port, whence came sailors from all over the world. The park opened in 1939, the year of my birth, as Parque Japonés (Japanese Park) and changed its name to Parque Retiro in 1945, when Argentina was forced to declare war on the Axis. It faced Plaza Británica, now Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina, and the Torre de los Ingleses, a clock tower presented by the U.K. in 1916, now, officially, Torre Monumental. Those latter name changes, along with several others, were in retaliation for the defeat in the Falkland Islands in 1982. The park itself was finally closed in 1962 or perhaps 1963, the year I left for the U.S.
Thus, Retiro Park is coetaneous with my life in Argentina. And there is another, intimately related coetaneous event, which would be relegated to literary history by our college curricula. The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, born in 1904, found himself by chance in Argentina when Germany and the USSR invaded Poland in 1939, so he stayed there. Exactly the same thing happened to the Polish chess grandmaster Miguel Najdorf, who, as you may remember, visited our house in Chapter 5. Gombrowicz stayed in Argentina until 1963, when he became famous in Europe and was invited to Berlin and to Paris: he died in Vence in Provence, in 1969. His life in Argentina was often penurious, but Retiro Park was his inspiration, his Pierian spring; he mentions it early in his Diaries for 1955:
“Here in the Retiro I saw youth in itself, so to speak, youth independent of sex and I experienced the blossoming of the human form in its sharpest and most extremely —because it was marked by hopelessness— demonic form. What’s more, down, down, down! This pulled me down, to the lowest stratum, into the land of degradation.”
We four intrepid musketeers visited Retiro Park at about the time Gombrowicz was penning the above lines. There was a theater there, near the park entrance; what kind of theater we had no idea; there was a sign on the marquee: Babilonia. After some consultation, we bought our tickets and went in. The public was scarce. Prudently we sat in the middle, with no one nearby; a look around revealed that we were by far the youngest, that most men there were old, and that they occupied the first rows. There were no women. One after another, male actors would appear on stage, either holding in place a monster phallus, or telling salacious, insipid jokes. The real action began when a girl, dressed on a sort of bikini, appeared downstage on her knees, pretending she was washing clothes on a washboard, her tush to the public:
Se acabó el jabón...
qué le vamo’ a hacer...
We ran out of soap...
nothing we can do...
she sang, moving her tush to the rhumba rhythm. The old men were transfixed, like the monkeys around Kaa. Finally, the girl stood up, facing the public, and slipped a hand under her bikini bottom. The old men went wild; they knew what was coming, for they held high up their copy of the evening newspaper and waved it, calling for the girl’s attention and favor. Obligingly, she took her hand off her crotch and placed some pubic hair atop a few newspapers. While their owners drooled lecherous spittle, the other old men wailed for their share.
Durand, Fischbarg, Urruty, and I sat there, silent and impressed. At this remove, I imagine Gombrowicz must have seen in Retiro spectacles similar to this one and experienced an enactment of the main theme of his literary work, the theme of infantilization and of its pharmakon: form and the imitation of form. His 1937 novel Ferdydurke, translated into Spanish by 1947, with later translations into French, then German and English that made him famous, begins with a thirty-year-old writer, the narrator, who is kidnapped and taken back to school, as often happens in dreams. He’s infantilized, just as those old men at the Babilonia, who were at least twice his age. Now, one thing is to be infantilized at thirty or about midway in life (as I could tell you, for I know the feeling), and another to be infantilized at sixty or seventy, by which age it is hopeless. That’s why, I think, Gombrowicz called his experience at Retiro Park “demonic”: the sign at the entrance of Dante’s hell, “Abandon ye all hope,” was never far from his mind.
After the uproar over the washing girl’s wisp of pubic hair, the same male actors appeared on the stage, with more inane ditties and double-entendres; they were followed by an announcement: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the internationally celebrated vedette, the adorable Sombra Duval!” She approached downstage with a seductive undulation of the hips: her hair was dark, down to below her shoulders, naked except for her genitals and her nipples, which were covered with small pieces of shiny material. And best of all, she was wearing silvery high-heel slippers! She sang:
Los polvos son mi dicha y mi tormento...
por eso a los muchachos recomiendo,
¡polvo, polvo, polvo!
Screwing is my heaven and my craze...
that’s why to the boys I recommend,
screw, screw, screw!
When she had finished her song, she threw a kiss, turned around, and walked slowly away, back to upstage, showing her naked and substantial ass. It was a gift to all, young and old, unlike the pubic hair, which was meant just for the old men. A magnificent gift, so much so that my three buddies and I, independently yet simultaneously, exclaimed, “¡Qué culo!”
I cannot speak for the others; as for me, since my cousin Polo went to my parents with the lie that I had said “culo” and I received a spanking on the aforesaid, and then, later, the bullies at grammar school ran after me on Pedernera Street shouting they were going to break it — ¡te vamos a romper el culo! —, that word has had for me a semantic force no other common noun can hope to equal. For the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the French word “fleur” (flower), when said by him, was musical and something other than any real flower, but the Spanish word “culo,” when I say it, may have no musicality, yet it has all the beauty, and all the ugliness, laced with power, oppression, and violence, of a real ass. And now Sombra was deliciously swaying hers: what a gift! Besides, look at those silvery high-heel slippers! I was inundated by an erotic wave whose source was the portion of my brain that had been most affected by the impact of my mother’s slipper on my scalp on August 7, 1951, my twelfth birthday, as I told before.
Gombrowicz must have possessed a similar although stronger semantic sensitivity to his word for ass, the Polish pupa, a child’s ass. I look at Ferdydurke again and find that this word occurs no less than two-dozen times in the final ten pages. Pupa is the god of immaturity, the symbol of infantilization. At night (in the translation by Danuta Borchardt),
“the moon sailed from behind the clouds, yet it was not the moon, it was the pupa. A pupa of tremendous size atop the trees. A child’s pupa atop the world.”
During the day, “the huge, infernal pupa exulted in its glory and pierced from above like the universe’s ultimate portent, like the key to all riddles and the final denominator of all things.”
How the exiled Pole must have enjoyed the Babylonian shows! And let’s not forget that there were many other attractions at Retiro Park. The girls coming from the Northern provinces cannot have left Gombrowicz indifferent, and he enjoyed numerous one-night stands with sailors from distant shores, as his Argentine friends found out from his landlady after he left for Europe. But he never wrote about those details. Shortly before his death, he told the Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato that he regretted not having written about his nights at Retiro Park. Provided I don’t regret, on my death bed, having written here about those details!