ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"You are now a Man, my Son", from a memoir by Ricardo Nirenberg

My life appears as having been chiefly occupied with the quest of connection or ultimately, of communion.  I have already written about my dependence on Father’s words and thoughts; and as for Mother, I do not doubt I was once connected to her by an umbilical cord, and no doubt it fell off or was severed, yet she was able to replace it with a much more lasting though less nourishing connection: yo te conozco, she would say; she would assure me that she knew me.  By which she meant that she knew the most secret recesses of my mind and of my gut, she knew them far better than I or anyone else, and she knew what was best for me.  She boasted that she could freeze me with one glance, and I must admit it was true.  Such was my childhood.  I’d say her empire ended the day she hit my head with her slipper, on my twelfth birthday, the same year my dependence on Father’s words ceased too. Years later, when her power was gone for good, she still couldn’t accept it.  In the summer of 1965, when Isabel and I were graduate students in New York City, Mother flew from Buenos Aires to New York, her first trip abroad. We drove her from Kennedy Airport to New Rochelle, where we were staying for a month in the house of one of our professors. My mother had never seen Isabel before nor, of course, our toddlers.  By her second day with us, we were in the kitchen and Mother said to Isabel, — “I know Ricardo, and I can tell that he doesn’t love you.  He’s staying with you only because of the children.”

I had warned Isabel (it had happened before, with my first serious girlfriend); anyway her disposition is so mild that instead of taking offense she tried to calm down her mother-in-law.  But Mother was in tears for much of her stay.

I hope this gives an idea of the connection that united me to my parents all through my childhood: for a long time afterwards I was torn by opposite urges: to find a friend to whom I could connect as strongly and intimately as I had to them, and then, after I had found the friend, to find a reason or a pretext to escape, to cut the bond.  It happened, for the first time, with Rodolfo Mattarollo when I was barely thirteen: it was reenacted many times since then.  With Rodolfo, our connection, based on music, led to an estrangement over Rachmaninoff.  Had it been a connection based on French cuisine, the estrangement would have been about bœuf bourguignon.

Connection, please keep in mind, need not be friendly: Rodolfo and I could have connected as enemies on the battlefield, I mean on the Colegio sports field where we had our duel.  I could have begun by telling him, sort of like Sarpedon tells Glaucus in the Iliad, that since fate, or the gods, had cut our friendship short, now we should show our mettle and fight bravely, till one or both fell to the ground with honor.  I should have said something like that and then go at him and try my best to connect a punch.  But no, I wasn’t able to connect like a man at all.  Nor was he, but that was no consolation.  For three years, until my fourth year at the Colegio in 1955, the memory of the ridiculous duel festered in my mind like a wound suppurating shame.  I wasn’t a man; I was still my mother’s boy.  To make it worse, I hadn’t yet connected sexually with a woman: definitely, I was still my mother’s boy.

With father the connection was that of teacher and disciple.  As a child, he taught me physics, math, and philosophy.  His physics was correct, as far as I remember: he’d start with Galileo and explain to me that if I was travelling on a train blindfolded so I couldn’t see through the windows and ear plugged so I couldn’t hear the noise of the tracks, and if the train was moving at a constant velocity in a straight line, I could not possibly tell if the train was moving or not.  Another day he would draw mirrors in motion and rays of light.  And finally he explained his favorite theoretical gem: the special theory of relativity.  Just as Spinoza was for Einstein the most godlike man, for Father it was Einstein.  But when it came to math, perhaps because here it is easier to touch logical bottom, Father became the champion of ancient, long discarded challenges, a sort of don Quixote.  The number zero, according to him, should not be accepted.  Why?  Because it is the symbol of nothingness, which is unimaginable.  Any sane person could have told him that zero is the symbol not of total, absolute nothingness, but only of a relative, specific nothingness, as when I go to the store and find there are zero artichokes: that doesn’t mean there is no store, no town or cosmos, no me nor anyone.  Or he would charge against imaginary numbers, claiming he had a way of avoiding them.  How?  By creating a new sign besides + and -, say #, so that #1 times #1 is equal to -1.  He didn’t realize that by doing so, he was reintroducing the imaginary numbers under a different name: his #1 was what everybody calls i.  But I was unable to detect those errors when I was seven or eight.

In his Quixotic iconoclasm he attacked calculus and the result that the derivative of the function f(x) = x2 is f’(x) = 2x.  He drew for me a square on a sheet of paper and called the side x, so that its area is x2, then he added a tiny bit of length to the sides, called h, so that the area of the slightly larger square is (x + h)2, and the increase in area is (x + h)2 – x2 = 2xh + h2, which he drew as a thin rectangle with sides x and h on top of at upper side and another thin rectangle adjacent to the right side, plus a tiny square of side h at the top right corner.  Finally, by some error in his concept of limit or in his calculation, Father concluded erroneously that the tiny square at the corner had been discarded, and agreed with Bishop Berkeley that Newton’s fluxions were based on “ghosts of departed quantities,” whereupon he embarked for a good while into Berkeleyan ultra-idealism based on Ockham’s razor, and finally into Dr. Johnson’s silent rejoinder of Berkeley by kicking a stone.  All things, all illustrious ancestors, were or seemed connected, though not by a pre-established harmony as in Leibniz, but by an inquiring mind, my father’s.

At some point, however, my father failed.  And then he failed and betrayed, and failed again and betrayed, until death saved him from still more failures and worse betrayals.  My main source of truth had become a noxious swamp.  In time, after his death on March 31st, 1969, Father became my main research project: I still want to find some truth about his soul, the way my youngest grandchild, Jared, works to determine, by the analysis of deep soil samples, the composition and temperature of the earth’s atmosphere millions of years ago.

As I may have said before, age twelve, my thirteenth year, was epochal for me, a big step toward independence.  The first time I was shocked by Father’s muddy side was when I was twelve and my trouvaille about orgasm was rudely dismissed.  I took that as hypocrisy on his part: he wasn’t practicing what he preached.  Father would intellectually dissect for me, truly or falsely, any subject he pleased to bring up, but when I came up with my own questions, he refused even to consider them.  Much later, I realized that he had acted not on logical or intellectual grounds, but out of shame.  Nothing new about that: in Genesis the fruit from the tree of knowledge is the trigger for the feeling of shame, sexual shame.  Still and all, having fathered two boys myself, it seems to me that in such situations a father ought to be able to restrain his shame and pull himself back calmly to an intellectual plane.  To my remark that if the human orgasm lasted much longer there would be not much of what we call human thought, no arts nor sciences, he could have referred me to William Blake, who wrote that Energy is Eternal Delight, which is Paradise, where arts and sciences are not needed, or he could have replied that I was implicitly admitting the absolute rule of Freud’s Pleasure Principle, which the master later relativized by adding the Death Drive.  But other that my father knew no Blake and was no friend of Freud, he was incapable of curbing his shame, and I couldn’t but feel that this contradicted his teachings.

With shame blocking your view, how can you dare to know?  To know yourself, the most important kind of knowledge according to the oracle.  Or how could you stand, naked, at the center?  My father had been teaching me precepts he wouldn’t or couldn’t follow: isn’t that called a hypocrite?  Can a hypocrite be a truth teller?

The hypocrisy hypothesis soon received unexpected support.  On a Sunday morning Dad asked me to play the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, one of his favorite pieces.  He sat on an armchair, I at the piano, I played and he listened.  Suddenly, there was a commotion from upstairs.  I heard Mother screaming “Filthy!  Disgusting!”  I stopped playing, turned around, and saw Mother coming down the stairs like a Fury, beside herself — or I should say, rather, being inside herself more than ever — heading straight for Father, grabbing him by the hair and shaking his head the way she shook pillows or a dust cover.  — “You filthy!” she screamed, and all the while my father was utterly passive, slack like a puppet.  “The rubbers!” she screamed, without letting go of Father’s hair, and that word allowed me later, in consultation under the dining-room table with my sister, who had been upstairs with mom, to unravel the mystery.  Readying Father’s suit for the dry cleaner, Mother had found condoms in the pockets, and as Olgui smartly deduced, — “Dad doesn’t use those things with mom.”

It is remarkable — I see it now — that neither my father nor my mother ever said a word to us about the “rubbers” episode.  My father must have been too ashamed to say anything, and my mother never felt there was anything to apologize for: the free venting of emotions, regardless of possible wounds to others, even to children, was in her view not blamable but on the contrary, clear proof of sincerity: only a hypocrite could have waited to be alone with her husband to demand an explanation for the condoms in his pocket.

After my father stopped being my teacher and connection with truth, for a long time Madame de la Barre remained my only teacher and provider; the professors at the Colegio, with the exception of Abilio Bassets, were unable to play that role, for it requires much more than the power to transmit information: there is a poetics of connection just as there is a poetics of love; my French teacher was a master at it.  She would begin anywhere, say with the legends about Berthe au grand pied (Bertha Broadfoot), wife of Pépin le Bref (Pippin the Short) and mother of Charlemagne.  She would continue with the cockamamie story told by a trouvère of the 13th century, Adenet le Roi, that Berthe had a young woman, Aliste, replace her on the royal bed the first night after the royal wedding, which kindled a long dispute about who was by rights the Queen.  — But why did Berthe do such a strange thing? I asked.

— Because she was afraid, said Madame, and left it at that.  But I couldn’t help asking myself what about Pippin the Short was scaring Berthe so, till a phrase came to mind, something the boys used to say in my seventh-grade class: “Short, but terrifically hung.”  By then, Madame was reciting from one of her favorite poets, François Villon, the place where he sings of Queen Berthe:

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,               Lily-white Queen Blanche,
Qui chantoit à voix de sirène;                      Who sang with a Siren’s voice;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys...          Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrix, Allys... 

The poem, my teacher told me, is titled, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” and I found this title enchantingly beautiful.  Was it because of the word “ballade,” dear to me since I had discovered the four by Chopin?  Or because of the many d’s, culminating in “jadis”, which I connected with the slightly archaic Spanish word otrora, both meaning days bygone?  Yes, but mainly because it was one of those ladies, une dame du temps jadis, who was now reciting Villon’s ballade to me, connecting me to her sisters.  Just as a philosopher can best connect you to previous philosophers, and a mathematician to previous mathematicians, so a lady of times gone by can best connect you to others such ladies and their poets.

I just said that no teacher except for Bassets could play the role of connector in the Colegio.  I should correct that somewhat.  In the third year, when we were supposed to learn Euclidean Geometry, the professor, whose name I haven’t retained, assigned a book written by an illustrious Italian mathematician and philosopher, Federigo Enriques, and his student Ugo Amaldi, where, right after the usual definition of circle, center, and radius, followed the proposition: “The center of a circle is unique,” meaning that a circle, any circle, has exactly one center, not two.  Indeed, the definition of a circle does logically preclude the possibility of two radii, but not the possibility that there might be two different centers, i.e., that all the points in the circle might be all equidistant from two different points.  My first reaction was: isn’t it obvious to the eyes, or intuitively clear, that there is only one center to a circle?  What more proof is needed?

No, it isn’t intuitively clear or obvious to the eyes.  That’s the lesson about mathematical truth, the glimpse I caught about intuition and imagination in Enriques’ book.  Nobody has ever seen a point; nobody knows what a point is, and if one hit you in the eye, you wouldn’t even notice.  The same goes for lines or planes: they are not things but first notions that cannot be defined in terms of other notions.  Euclid’s axioms or postulates tell us how we can play with those first notions, just as the rules of chess tell us how we can move knights, rooks, etc.  To prove that there cannot be two centers to a circle, one follows the rules of usual logic: we suppose there are two centers, we look at Euclid’s axioms, play around with them and with the circle, until we get a situation that logically contradicts the axioms, and it follows that there can’t be two different centers.  That blessed book opened my eyes to the nature of mathematical truth, just when I was struggling with the webs of truth and deception in human affairs and in my family life: how much simpler, math!  One agrees on the postulates, follows the rules of logic, and voilà!

In that same year, 1954, toward the end of August, after the winter vacation at the Army Works and my proud reply to Colonel Urruty, “Sir, I am a Jew!”, by some sort of sinister symmetry the words “truth” and “center” played a very different tune.  By now our family was used to court officers taking away rugs, crystal, and worst of all, the dear books: this time, early in the morning, they took Father away.  My recollections of the following week are very confused, a dust cloud with few clearings here and there clear enough to be described.

That night, or perhaps the next, Uncle Isaac showed up at home.  I have mentioned him in the previous chapter: the husband of Sarita, Mother’s younger sister, who lived in the same building as my grandparents Brodesky; behind his back he was also known as the putz, or the Litvak.  This visit was unusual: Isaac had never come alone, without Sarita and the children.  He brought an evening newspaper, which he opened to show us one of the crime items.  “Guillermo Nirenberg” in bold type, and it went on to report that he had sold his car, a Cadillac ’47, to two different persons.  Seeing my father’s name on the headline, I saw my father’s head on a pike.  My father’s name in bold at the beginning, the very meaning of ignominy.  Isaac the Litvak, meanwhile, showed no signs of commiseration, nor did he offer us his help; he had come only to convey the message.  I felt like strangling the messenger.

How could one actually sell the same car to two different persons, I found myself wondering, and this took me back to the proposition that had impressed me a few months before in the book by Enriques and Amaldi, that there cannot be two centers to a circle.  I tried to imitate the proof: I assumed that person A sells his Cadillac to two different persons, B and C.  It quite readily followed that either B or C, or both, had paid for the car well before they could drive away in it: why would anyone do such a thing?  I felt an urge to conclude that the charges against Father were without rational basis, absurd; yet on the other hand he had been taken to jail, and this was a hard fact.  What could a fifteen-year-old boy make of it?  Neither more nor less than what an eighty-three-old man like me can make of it now, and, as it happens, neither more nor less than what Heraclitus made of it more than two-and-a-half millennia ago, namely, that the logos of the psyche is bottomless, or, in other words, that it is vain to try to find some set of postulates as a basis for the workings of the psyche, as we can in mathematics.  There is no such thing, in spite of Freud’s Lustprinzip and his Todestrieb.

In my cloud of oblivion, I cannot distinguish any signs of Mother’s behavior during those trying days; I remember she went to the jail in Villa Devoto carrying food.  Whether my sister ever accompanied Mom to the jail I can’t recall, and I can’t ask her since she refuses to remember anything from our painful past.  “Father was a fraud,” she tells me, and for her that’s the end of it.  Perhaps hers is the better way, but it is closed to me: I feel I owe him the seeding and feeding of my spirit, I feel I resemble him in many ways, while she, in regard to her spirit, owes Father only vexations.  In any case, I never went to visit Father in jail.  I could have gone, but I didn’t want to.

One moment I remember clearly.  It was in the afternoon, on a Saturday toward the end of August, and I was lying in bed, listening to the radio: Claudia Muzio singing Bellini’s “Casta Diva.”  That evening there was a party next door, it was Emilita’s sixteenth birthday, and I ached to go.  On her previous birthday I had seen a classmate of hers, a girl called Marilú, whose image had stayed in my mind for a whole year: it seemed to me marvelously beautiful.  I hadn’t talked to her then, I hadn’t dared; but this time I was determined to ask her to dance.  Her name suggested to me Mary and luna (moon), which in turn suggested — with a bit of a stretch — that we would be dancing cheek-to-cheek in the moonlight, and that I would be whispering in her ear the refrain from Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which I had heard a little earlier in the same radio program:

Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna.
(A kissed mouth doesn’t lose its freshness, rather it is renewed like the moon).

I was trying to translate that into Spanish, to be sure that she understood my sweet intention.  But how could I possibly go to Emilita’s party, with Father in jail?  It would be an unforgivable impiety, and, most dreadful to contemplate, Emilita, her parents, and her guests might have gotten wind of what had happened to Father, and everyone would be pointing at me and whispering that I was the shameless son of a crook.

My memories of that evening are, again, extremely vague: I did go to Emilita’s party, and I don’t think anyone was whispering and pointing at me, but when Emilita said, “Come, I’ll introduce you to my friend Marilú,” and I saw again the girl I’d been dreaming of, I couldn’t believe how unattractive she was and how blind I had been.  Returning home, I silently repeated three lines from a tango my parents often sang, “Esta noche me emborracho” (“Tonight I get drunk”):

Que esto que hoy es un cascajo         This who now is just a wreck
Fue la dulce metedura                       was the sweet love dream
Donde yo perdí el honor.                   in which I lost my honor.

I felt that was exactly my case: I had lost my honor.  But I was too young to get drunk.

After seven or eight days in jail, Father was released.  “It was all a misunderstanding,” is all he said to us and refused to go into more details; I never found out what had really happened.

It was clear to me, at any rate, that Father had been hit very hard by the humiliating “misunderstanding.”  He found himself without a car, not only forced to wait for taxicabs, or worse, take public transportation, but to do so with an extra load of shame on his slumping shoulders.  My impression was that every time he met a new person or a new group, his first thought was, “What do they know about me?  Do they know about my days in jail?”  Father always kept his habit of doing card solitaires on the far end of the dining room table, where years before he used to teach me how to think eternal thoughts; but before his week-long ordeal at the penitentiary, he sang while he played — tangos or operatic arias like Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima” —; now his solitaires were silent.

That phrase, however, may be misleading.  Dad was silent when alone doing solitaires, but, paradoxically perhaps, as soon as he got wind of assembled people somewhere, he felt the urge to run there, climb on a bench and deliver a barn-burning oration, in the style of Donizetti’s Dulcamara: “Udite, udite, o rustici.”  One of those occasions merits a detailed account.  It happened two months after Perón was ousted from power by a military insurrection led by General Lonardi in September of 1955.

As had been the case in the previous military coup, June of 1943, the Army general who first declared himself President was toppled by a fellow general after a few days.  In November 1955 General Aramburu replaced Lonardi as President; the change was aligned with the traditional Argentine opposition of political forces: the Church of Rome versus the liberals.  Both had converged and collaborated in the toppling of Perón, but soon afterwards they returned to the old rancor, and Aramburu, the liberal, carried the day.  More than a half-century has passed since since his assassination by the Montoneros (the left-Peronist guerillas) in 1970; now Aramburu’s memory is vilified by the long-dominant Peronist discourse, but the students of my generation owe him the new flowering of the public universities, which had wilted under Perón.  Aramburu’s administration put some of the finest scholars in charge of renovating the national universities; in Buenos Aires (UBA) the historian José Luis Romero was named interim rector (temporary president), and was assisted by, among others, the philosopher Risieri Frondizi (younger brother of Arturo, who became President of Argentina in 1958), and José Babini, mathematician and historian of science.

One of the first resolutions of the interim UBA rector regarded my Colegio (CNBA), which depends on the University since 1911.  Romero dismissed the sitting rector — I think his name was Herrera, but I can’t recall his first name — and put Risieri Frondizi in charge.  The resolution, however, could not be implemented because a group of students had taken the building on Calle Bolívar, barring the access to the new authorities.  The newspapers reported the situation, adding that a committee of parents had been formed to oppose and try to reverse Romero’s resolution.  I had no information on who those parents were, but I suspected their sons were among those who had taken the Colegio; boys who, I was pretty sure, were of the Catholic-Nationalist sort, the ones who belonged to Acción Católica, and who'd never give me the time of day.

Father didn’t consult me; he read the news and immediately resolved to join the parents' committee, the right place, as he figured, to display his oratory.  I have no idea how he managed to get in, nor of the speeches he pronounced.  Most likely he sang the many glories of the Colegio, whose history is two centuries longer than that of the University.  He may have concluded a speech by stating that the University deciding on Herrera’s removal was like a son telling his father what to do or where to go.  That’s only speculation; the fact is, my father somehow became a prominent figure in the parents' committee, and he obviously enjoyed his prominence.  Yet one day, to my surprise, he told me he was changing sides.

What had happened?  Romero had invited my father to his office on Calle Viamonte.  The interim rector had written books on medieval and on Argentine history, and as a historian he was puzzled that a Jew like Father was on the side of the crusaders against the separation of Church and State, or in other words, those in the ranks of Pius XI’s Catholic Action.  Romero had heard that when the members of the parents committee were accused of religious sectarianism, they mentioned Father, the token Jew, as proof that it wasn’t so.  I don’t know what else transpired at that meeting (perhaps they met more than once) since I wasn’t there, and Father was not telling me the whole story, but taking what followed into account, it appears that a plan had been arrived at.

Indeed, Father instructed me to go one night at ten o’clock to Calle Perú, between Diagonal Sur and Moreno, and join a group of fellow students — a “detachment,” was the word he used.  We were going to take the Colegio by assault and liberate it from its occupiers.

Before I describe the action, I must give some idea of the terrain as it was back in 1955.  The buildings in question stood on ground shaped roughly like a pentagon: the Colegio was and is located to the Southeast, on the corner of Moreno and Bolívar; adjacent is the Church of St. Ignatius, to the Northeast, on the corner of Bolívar and Alsina; to the Northwest there was the School of Exact, Physical, and Natural Sciences of the UBA, which was to be my alma atque amatissima mater, and whose main entrance was on Calle Perú, number 222: henceforth I will call it by its shorter nickname, Exactas.  Finally, adjacent and on the Southwest corner of Perú and Moreno, there was the School of Architecture of the UBA.  The whole city block has been known, since 1821, as “the city block of lights” (La manzana de las luces) — “lights” in the sense of “Enlightenment,” Kant’s Erklärung.  You may find it odd that the “lights” moniker dates from 1821, when the European Enlightenment was officially over and done with, but you must keep in mind that there was a large cultural time lag between Europe and the River Plate.  You may find it odd, too, that words like “lights” or “Enlightenment” are here applied to a city block containing two Jesuitic institutions out of four, namely the Church of St. Ignatius and the Colegio.  The explanation is simple: as I said, the moniker was coined in 1821, the year Bernardino Rivadavia, after returning from a voyage to Europe, dazzled by the educational institutions he saw there, founded the University of Buenos Aires at that old colonial building on Perú 222.  That’s where the “lights” were kindled, and if we consider the fact that Rivadavia was a Mason, a liberal, we may reasonably conclude that the “city block of lights” was split into two enemy camps: the Jesuits to the East and the Masons to the West.  An enmity, incidentally, that has dominated the history of Argentina since the beginning until today, so that what I am about to narrate is no more than one small episode in a long saga.

When I arrived at the appointed spot, carrying a flashlight, as Father had told me to do, I was received by a group of students who, after checking my identity, gave me an arm band -to distinguish us from the enemy- and a fairly heavy stick, presumably to break the bones of said enemy.  I did not recognize any faces among the dozen or more boys around me: it was quite dark, and I knew only a small number of students.  Some years later, when we were both students at Exactas, I became friends with one boy from the assault troop, Gerardo Razumney,

That night, from Exactas, we launched our attack.  Later, this fact acquired magnificence in my mind as a symbol of the victory of science, of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton over the darkening forces which haven’t lost their grip over us even now.  The Ace of Clubs, as I mentally dubbed our leader, whose real name I never learned, took us through the entrance at Perú 222, then up three flights of stairs and onto the flat roof of Exactas, where we walked in the direction of the Colegio. We had to jump over a three-stories deep three-foot wide gap to get on to its roof.  After the Ace of Clubs and other nimble fellow warriors had jumped, it was my turn.  Those two or three seconds while I stood at the gap before I jumped have been enlarged and enriched in my mind along the years.  Back then, standing at the edge, I recalled the two alexandrines Madame de la Barre, my old, dear French teacher, recited so fiercely:

« Je suis jeune, il est vrai ; mais aux âmes bien nées

La valeur n’attend point le nombre des années. »
(I am young, that is true; but in the souls well born
Courage does not await till the body be grown.)

  The next day, in the peace of my desk, one elbow on the map of Paris and the other on Gabrielle d’Estrées, I was wondering on how Father, for all I could tell, did not hesitate to put his son’s life in danger.  It was then that I remembered that the two alexandrines are from “Le Cid” by Corneille, and that in the play don Rodrigue, the young Cid, is ordered by his father to go and challenge to a duel the Count of Gormas, the best sword of Castile.  Like my own father, who had ordered me to go and help retake the Colegio by force.  And what for?  The honor of don Diègue, the young Cid’s father, has been besmirched by the Count, but he is too old, or so he feels, to seek revenge on his own.  So he sends his son.  How remarkable, I thought, that in those two verses that came to mind before the ditch, I don’t know how, there was more significance and deeper connections than I was conscious of, as it often happens with dreams.

Still more.  Some twenty years later I ran into Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s „garstiger, breiter Graben, his horrible, wide ditch: it was the very ditch I faced as an adolescent!  The ditch separating two kinds of beliefs: historical on one side — Tarquin raped Lucretia, Jesus was raised from the dead —, and mathematical certainties such as 2 + 2 = 4 on the other.  Lessing, lighthouse of the Enlightenment and inspiration of Heine and Kierkegaard, saw that to go from one side to the other required a salto mortale.

The adolescent that I was jumped to the roof of his high school, then followed his comrades through a skylight into the building, and down the marble stairs brandishing the stick.  On the ground floor were a few boys of the occupying force, who were unprepared for an attack coming from upstairs and not from the entrance gate.  They were terrified and opposed no resistance: we merely opened the gate, and they fled out to Bolívar Street.

Which my father meanwhile had been pacing.  Risieri Frondizi must have been nearby too, since no sooner our victory was assured, he came in and assumed his interim rectorship.  Among the modernizing changes he introduced was to allow women professors, a change that met with some resistance, as I will tell in a following chapter.  A few months later, José Luis Romero, the interim rector of the UBA, published his report about “The Conflict at the CNBA” in the Revista de la Universidad de Buenos Aires, 5ª época, año 1, nº1, enero-marzo de 1956:

“There have been no clashes between the University authorities and the faculty and students. We must qualify the episode at the CNBA as one of those false problems that serve to distract the attention and create confusion about our decisions of an administrative and pedagogical nature.  The daily press reported on the incidents.  We have investigated and have determined and delimited responsibilities.”

I never heard of any actual, official “determination and delimitation of responsibilities” in the CNBA affair, to use the administrative lingo of the report, but I did suffer a direct, unofficial det-and-del in my own flesh, so to speak.  As I have mentioned before, Latin was my favorite subject in high school, and Abilio Bassets, ex-Jesuit and my Latin teacher in the first two years, was, of all my Colegio professors, the one for whom I felt, and feel, most affection.  In my third and fourth year I had another Latin teacher, named Fraboschi; I liked him well enough, though not with the affection that I felt for Bassets.  Once, after some ceremony or other at the Colegio, Fraboschi had told my father that I was a good Latinist, which made me proud but failed to impress Father, who didn’t think Latin was an important tool for a modern intellectual.  Anyway, not more than a week after the bloodless reconquest of the Colegio, I was standing on the platform at the Perú subway station, waiting for a train on my way home, as I did daily at noontime, when I noticed Professor Fraboschi about twenty yards away.  He had seen me too, and now he lifted a sharp finger at me and said loudly, “Your father is a traitor!”

What could I do, what could I say?  Challenge Fraboschi to a duel?  Out of the question.  Respond in Latin?  That would have been cool, but no clever sentence came to my agitated mind, so I responded in the vernacular, “Go tell that to my father, not me.”

If I wasn’t to be a good Latinist, at least I had passed my test of courage in the battlefield, a sine qua non for admittance into manhood, as everybody knows.  And I may add that I passed another test about the same time, when I was sixteen: I showed my mettle on the chessboard.  Ten years after Father taught me the rules, I was placed in the six-player team that represented the Colegio at intercollegiate tournaments.  This time Father was impressed.  — Would you be up to a blindfold game, he asked, challengingly.  I was willing to give it a try, so I lay on my bed, face up, eyes closed, while Father had the chessboard on his bed in the other room, and we called our moves.  I don’t remember ever having made such intense mental effort, but, just as for much of human history well-born boys emulated heroes and demigods, already by the 1950s a manly boy had to try to imitate the digital computer.

  There still was one test I had to pass before Father could pronounce, “You’re now a Man, my son.”  I had to show my prowess on the feather fields whereupon the love battles are usually fought.  I’m thankful to my dad for not interfering with that one.  After I became part of the Colegio chess team, I was spending less time with my classmates and more with boys a bit older, in the fifth or sixth year, especially with Luis Arditi Rocha, a good chess player with a nice tenor voice, who bragged that he could seduce any girl just by singing to her “Because of You.”  His face was extremely pale, he bit his nails, and was the son of the director of the municipal madhouse.  The way it happened, one evening Luis, a friend of his, and I went to Retiro Park, not to the infernal Babilonia Theater this time, but to the large dancing hall on whose door was written, “BRING IN HERE WITH YOU ALL YOUR HOPES.”  Luis, his friend, and I sat at a table, and looked around.  The air was thick with hormones, pheromones, sour sweat and cheap perfumes, and, given that there were about three-hundred people there, male and female, the space was as if electrified, crisscrossed by about ninety-thousand sizing-up glances.

Soon I noticed two women sitting at a table nearby.  One was visibly older than the other; the younger one, pretty and vivacious, returned and sustained my glance openly, and my heart, unused to such directness, went fluttering.  — “Go, go, Ricardo, she’s all yours,” said Arditi Rocha, who had noticed it, and his friend encouraged me too.  The problem, however, was that a chamamé was sounding from the loudspeakers, a kind of polka grafted with indigenous Guaraní music, and I had no notion how to dance it.  I waited until the next piece, got up and invited the younger woman.

We asked each other our names: hers was Angelina, but everybody called her Geli.  She had recently arrived from the northern province of Chaco, and the woman who was at the table with her was her aunt, she said.  From what I could judge, she must have been about twenty, and even though I am no anthropologist, I could see her descent from the tribe of the Tobas.  As for me, I exhibited then, as I do now, clear signs of descending from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.  I am convinced that there’s a special affinity between Indians and Jews, that they are especially likely to get along with each other.  And this is not only because of the atrocious persecutions both have suffered, or the marginal status they were pushed to; there is also the identity of the names, as philologists have pointed out.  Anyone familiar with cursive writing knows how easily the two letters u and n can be confused, and it is only a shift from n to u that transforms the Spanish word “indio” into “iudio”, which is to say, “judío,” Jew.

So well did we get along, Geli and I, that she invited me to her table.  Later, somehow, we managed to detach ourselves from the “aunt,” and we found ourselves out in the plaza, the two of us, sitting on a park bench.  — “It is only seldom,” I began, “one has the incredibly good fortune of finding the most precious object there is to find in this world, the delight of one’s heart.”

Geli looked at me as if I was speaking Urdu.  I was aware that the moment of truth had arrived, and I did not want to ruin my chances by behaving like a brute.  You can’t just say, “Let’s go fuck,” can you?  First you must create a climate.  — “You know the poet Rubén Darío,” I resumed, “has that beautiful line, ‘Manifold has been the celestial story of my heart’?  Well, mine, I mean the story of my heart, has not been manifold, no, it will not be manifold at all, since I’ve met you, who are so singular.”

Geli’s face became somber, her brow knitted, her lips pursed downward.  But I couldn’t stop and pointed to the sky.  — “Look at the moon!  This evening, I feel, everything shall bloom.  Immortal Nature is exhaling perfumes, love and whispers, like the joyfully expectant bed of a just-married couple.”

— “What are you trying to tell me?” Geli sounded like she had been insulted.

I tried to reassure her.  — “I am trying to tell you of my love for you.”

This didn’t seem to assuage her.  — “What the hell do you want?  Can’t you speak Christian?”

— “Okay,” I said.  “I want to go to bed with you.”

— “Why didn’t you say that to begin with,” she replied, and kissed me.

We ended up on a poor bed in a small room in a cheap hourly hotel on Avenida Leandro Alem.  If I remember truly, everything went well.  At that time, long gone, I did not have the problem of reluctant or remiss erections, and early ejaculations do not matter much if you can keep it going.  Unless I am mistaken, Geli was satisfied with my performance, and before we parted, she invited me to a barbecue at the house of a relative of hers, in Tapiales.  I had been there once, out of curiosity and moved by my old obsession with the mysterious Southwest: I had taken bus number 40 to its terminus there, in Tapiales, just outside the city limits, so I knew how to go.  The invitation was for the coming weekend, only two or three days after my initiation into the mysteries of the flesh.

I didn’t go, and I never saw Geli again.  Later I regretted it.  Perhaps her barbecue would have been a good antidote for what I was feeling about the rawness of the flesh. By that time, I had already read some Mallarmé: « La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres » — flesh is sad, alas, and I have read every book.  Was that true?  Is flesh sad?  Had he read every book?  French scholars seem to be of one mind when it comes to Mallarmé having read every book, but they have continued arguing, back and forth and ever since the 19th century, whether flesh is sad or not.  In my view, it is mostly a question of timing.  Had Geli invited me to get together with her a week or ten days hence, instead of a mere couple of days, perhaps I might have gone to the barbecue, for no doubt I would have been hungry again, and the affair would not have ended as a one-night stand.


Ricardo Nirenberg is an editor of Offcourse

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