“El Viejo gathered them around the fire and told them that they were listening to the soul of a man.” (From el Tío Cuenta-cuentos)
I bought the notebook in Florence. One for him, and another for me. The golden band that enveloped the black leather binding announced that it was called Tacuino and was still manufactured in the same way it had been when the greats had used it, like Maupassant, Hemingway, and some of our other favorite authors.
The idea of giving him that notebook so that he could write his stories appealed to me immediately.
It had been quite a few years since my uncle and I had seen each other. He was in Argentina and I, where the wind blew me. In spite of the distance we had maintained some contact, first by mail and later by phone. E-mail, not at all, it wasn’t his style, and he had never been interested in computers. We spoke mostly about literature, ever since I was a kid.
I still remember, it all began with Platero and I, my first book, the book that he gave me before I knew how to read, and which he read and explained to me when he was about seventeen and I four or five. Together we would wake up to two symbiotic worlds: he to that of the storyteller and I to that of the reader, a world that marked my life from that moment on.
Then whenever el Tío visited us, I would bring out my most prized possession and the reading would begin: “Platero is small, furry, and smooth; so soft on the outside that he might be said to be entirely cotton, without bones. Only the jet-black mirrors of his eyes are hard like two scarabs*…” We read it all, cover to cover; or rather he read it, because I had not yet learned how to read.
From the beginning and always I was bewitched by the magic architecture of the stories, their timeless messages, their multiple universes, their mirrors and mirages of reality: the real, intoxicating power of fantasy.
I learned to read quickly because I wanted to explore those worlds that opened doors to unexpected and fantastic places, and so I developed this vice that’s followed me around like a stray dog ever since.
I remember the night when, after many hours of stringing syllables together, I constructed my first word: I said it first with apprehension and then repeated it again and again, each time with more confidence, at last savoring it. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t tear my face from the page. I had discovered a great secret and refused to let it escape. I was overwhelmed with joy. We were all in the kitchen and I couldn’t pull myself away from the book. I know how to read, I shouted. My parents looked at me with surprise, but suspecting the truth from my eyes, let me read an entire paragraph from that book, El Alfarero, which I still carry in my memory. I didn’t want to go to bed that night because I was afraid that when I stopped reading the enchantment would dissipate and I would lose the treasure I had scarcely found. My parents had to assure me with a great deal of conviction that now I would never forget. That night, when I finally slept, all sorts of words visited me, each one with its own aroma and melody. Some were made of wheat and sun, others were slippery like frogs in water, several seemed like baked clay, and a few were transparent like vaporous citadels. Although nothing had changed, when I awoke my house was no longer the same. From then on, everything was possible.
As time went by, my uncle gave me book after book that stimulated my imagination and my growing vocabulary. I identified so much with what I read that I literally was Robin Hood and even imagined new adventures that always ended with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s defeat. And in the last chapter I died of grief when Robin, conscious of his impending doom, with his last remaining strength, drew back his bow and shot an arrow aimed at the heart of Sherwood Forest, indicating in an unforgettable gesture that it was there, where his arrow would fall, that they must bury him. Perhaps like many other boys, I never resigned myself to Robin’s death and, maybe to compensate, I kept inventing adventures that always ended with the defeat of the infamous Sheriff. Looking back, to some extent those books affected my conduct over the years and the outcome of many battles that I lost in the belief that one could fight honorably.
Almost without realizing it, I waited for new books, and they arrived in abundance. My uncle always brought a book, and each book was a new leap, a new path. I looked forward to my birthday with anticipation, since everyone knew that I only wanted books. Thanks to Lobsang Rampa with his Third Eye, I traveled across the world from my little room, returning by morning to eat breakfast and go to school like other boys. But I knew that by night my spirit sailed around rising and contemplating, weaving new stories and participating in the story of the world. I also sailed, like many of my playmates, on the seas of Sandokan. I traveled to the moon with Jules Verne long before Armstrong would take his giant leap for mankind. And when I saw on TV what seemed impossible to others, I blissfully relived what I already knew was possible thanks to Jules Verne’s little book, where all had been imagined and which I read nonstop in the Mentruyt library in Lomas de Zamora, where a sole librarian knew everything and could mysteriously produce any book. With the same author, who was a sorcerer and talked with scientists, I explored the secrets of the sea long before seeing them on a television that did not then exist.
Later, with Bradbury, I discovered that Martians were more human than humans and, now considerably older, I shared with my uncle powerful story-tellers like Calvino, Cortazar, Marquez, and Borges, and with them a subtle and precise universe opened before my eyes. I felt nothing in the world could keep me from writing if only just one line like the ones I read from those masters, explorers of the human soul.
My uncle always wanted to have a special place to jot down his ideas, poems, and stories, and now, nearly seventy, he had enrolled as a student in a literary workshop where he taught more than learned, but, and more than anything, he had a blast.
“Today we had a vino literario,” he would say. “The girls read some of their stories, and I read some short poems. The prof told us she’s thinking of publishing a book with the best stuff we’ve written.”
It was nice to listen to so much bliss, although I suspected that his motivations for attending the course had more to do with the professor’s figure than with what she could teach him.
“You always learn,” he told me, “even when you teach.” He had fallen hopelessly in love with that woman who, unlike her female students, really was a girl, thirty years his junior. And she, like all enamored women, would have followed him to the ends of the earth, turned the universe inside out, and faced anything to remain by his side. But he, knowing what none of us could have guessed, severed the relation. He persuaded us that he had mentally erased the most sinuous hips and fragrant love so he could age in peace. His explanations never convinced me because they dismissed love for a tranquility that would have seemed absurd to him in the past. He had never cared about age difference or any difference for that matter, so long as the hallucination of love was present.
Time, with its patience to untie knots, confirmed my suspicion that something more serious and intimate was operating on his soul, something that I unfortunately didn’t discover until the end.
Four years ago.
He had been ill, one of those illnesses that no one could diagnose, and from which he miraculously recovered after already receiving his last sacraments.
More than a year passed before I could visit him in his little apartment in La Lucila. When I saw him, I could tell that his recovery process was sluggish; the illness had left its marks. He was emaciated, his voice tremulous and at times aphonic. Only his smile and his sprightly eyes betrayed my same uncle.
I never knew what to do in those situations so I veiled my anxiety as best I could and, as if wielding a great treasure, almost ceremoniously, proffered him the Tacuino.
“So you can write the things in life that really eat away at you,” I said as I gave him the notebook that said nothing on its own but would acquire a deeper and more intimate meaning than its appearance conveyed.
He was moved and gave me an eternal hug that returned me to my childhood and the difficult farewell of my exile. Despite the atmosphere of reunion, the undesirable anticipation of a new departure shifted our attention to the Tacuino.
“I knew that these notebooks existed, but I never saw one before,” he said assuredly. “Your aunt, who, you know, came from Florence, a great reader, and an inveterate fabulist, told me about them. She used to say that the deepest secrets of those who possessed them were guarded inside.”
I let him wander through memories and as soon as I had a chance I said, “Let’s make a deal. I bought one for myself. So every once in a while, whenever I travel to Buenos Aires, we’ll meet and read each other what we’ve written… Who knows, we might even achieve the chimerical dream of writing a book together.”
“This Tacuino,” he said with a formality unusual in him, forever the comedian “will allow me to distil the fundamental, the essential. Since I’m still recovering and drained, I’ll try to synthesize, to reflect in only one sentence or a few phrases the entire essence of a novel or story. Poets are great because they can create a world for you with only a verse. So I’ll give it a shot, even if only to keep myself in shape and avoid dying inside, so what I have to say doesn’t disappear with me. When I get better, I’ll still have my skill intact so I can continue where I left off.”
That night, with a tremulous hand, he inaugurated the Tacuino:
“Stories keep us perversely alive, preserving what we were, a reinvented past, while projecting toward a volatile but necessary future. Words keep our identity alive. And even if the future does not exist, the illusion is what counts.”
Three years ago.
The next year I visited him again. He had written a couple of poems, the beginning of a story, three paragraphs of a very defunct novel, and phrases from other authors.
“I know it seems strange but I jot down whatever I consider essential, important to me, no matter the author. Look, I have things from Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, our friend Pope, reflections on memory, things from Giardinelli, fragments from Borges stories, from that guy Funes who couldn’t forget anything.”
As for me, I read him “The kite-maker”, a little story that I had timidly published, and in which he was one of the main characters.
He listened attentively as if he were remembering. Smiling at moments, he seemed to enjoy the story. When I finished reading he said:
“Nephew, don’t waste any time. The time we’re born with is already too short and there’s so much to tell, there’s so much to understand.”
In his usual way he urged me to dedicate myself to what was important, to abandon what was adventitious and easy, for being a writer carried with it responsibility. And that responsibility existed now, yesterday, today.
“Who will interpret our dreams, our anguish and mistakes and our ghosts if not…?” he added with a smile that illuminated the room.
I had no answers to his questions, which for quite some time now had not been at all theoretical. But I left content, imagining that, although slowly, he was improving.
One year ago.
When I saw him again, I knew right away that he was a different person.
The man that I knew had disintegrated little by little, and although he hid his illness for a considerably long time, there was a moment in which he crossed that threshold from which there is no return. His door closed, leaving behind his identity, that set of subtle characteristics that define us as ourselves, and that, though they keep us within the category of human beings, also distinguish us, separate us from the rest and identify us as José, the storekeeper’s son or Carlos, the crazy Galician. In short, as ourselves.
Those attributes, which reside somewhere in the soul, and which at the same time are perhaps lodged in a bundle of neurons, and maybe in some other internal organ, define us and identify us, and are the reason that we are seen as what we are, or what we believe we are, and also result from the intimate collaboration between those that see us and those that we see.
Those attributes had dissipated. I found myself now with a photograph in negative, a rudimentary sketch of my uncle, a reproduction without the gleam of his eyes – which instantaneously tells us not only with whom we are, but also how we are. His eyes were lost, they sailed other seas and betrayed his absence from conversation and body language.
That uncle was not my uncle, he was now the generic uncle, an organism with all his functions but incapable of conveying his unique and particular humanity, and, perhaps because of that, possibly beyond feeling anguish or joy. There must have been a moment, however, in which he felt panic upon realizing that his memory had abandoned him. I imagine that it was like being in a tunnel or buried alive, but alone and divested of all aid, cold and without the possibility of returning, with an even greater terror from not knowing what would happen or what he would feel when things changed so much that there no longer remained a link with the recognizable world. What to do then? How to defend himself? Maybe by writing to remember, in an exercise that, though condemned, would lead him to read and reread, or rather, reread himself, because in the end it was about him.
Writing to write himself and remember himself and try to remember the things that allowed him to function more or less normally, or perhaps to ignore the fact that things were truly bad. Every moment he was less who he was, or who he supposed he was. Memory loss was turning him into stone, a mineral that still feels but that at every moment is more mineral and less human, from which he needed to be rescued in order not to forget. The best that others could do was remember, and come to visit, and tell him about things, above all things about him, and about his children and family and friends, about day-to-day things and the things that always made him feel unique.
I had him before me, and he looked at me as if he didn’t see me, completely rational, speaking with long pauses, measuring what he said, calculating where he might commit an error, a slip that would give him away. Perhaps thinking that no, it was not yet the moment to let us catch on. I am still myself, he might have said, and I will continue to function as myself until the end. But when will the end come? And he scrutinized, searching for an answer in order to know if he could continue and he had fooled us, we hadn’t caught on. For a few more days, perhaps, he would be safe.
He watched me as if through glass. It was the two of us, but we were no longer the two of us, because somehow the interaction wasn’t the same and was changing me through one of those perverse versatilities that adapt us to the worst circumstances as we pretend to ignore in order to proceed, as if proceeding would calm us, because proceeding was refusing to admit that we had already changed, it was forgetting, ignoring, or pretending to ignore that we were no longer the same. We both knew it but on a hidden level, a level where wisdom emerges from some niche of the soul and tells us where to go, like a whiff of knowledge, a primitive and effective tool that perhaps allowed us to recognize each other at the dawn of the species.
He looked at me as if from another sea, searching for me on the horizon, not in my eyes, on the horizon, insinuating an extemporary smile, caricatured, filling the depths of his memory with generic elements and generic phrases that gave a sense of unreality to what was occurring. I knew he was lost in that white, strange sea, free from fear and worry, except perhaps for a deliberate intention to conceal and avoid his bewilderment.
I gave him the clue of my name. Then, and now without dissimulation, he searched in his Tacuino for the notes that captured the essence of my identity:
“Son of la negrita, my sister. I taught you the art of kite-making and the magic of words… now I have to hurry so that you don’t forget what’s most important… before I forget myself.”
I froze. I never expected him to “jot me down”, I never suspected to what extent he was forgetting. I was angry that this was happening and that he had forgotten me, until now his favorite nephew.
On the flight home I couldn’t sleep, the loss was too great. And the last sentence was insistent. What had he forgotten?
In my apartment in Madrid a brown envelope awaited me with the little Tacuino inside and a letter without postage addressed to me. The writing, shaky, almost illegible, denoted the enormous effort with which he had written it.
The time has come to leave you this message before this illness prevents me from doing it. Soon we won’t be able to talk about anything, because I’ll have even forgotten language. Perhaps I’ll wander, prisoner of my own shadows, roaming the rugged paths of my own body without knowing where I am, who I am, to whom I belong.
I’m leaving you the Tacuino so you can continue what we started, because only a story can twist today into yesterday. I hope you tell my story, the stories I told you, all those you imagine, and the ones that create the story of the world and invented my life, as well as yours. Tell them without worrying about the precise facts, and when you tell them, have fun. The important thing is the story. If it also has a message, all the better. I don’t know if fiction can save us, but just in case, let’s keep going, and one of these days, who knows.
Your fabulist uncle
Translated from Spanish by Katherine Willcox in collaboration with the author
* From Platero and I, by Juan Ramón Jiménez
© R. Ariel Gómez
“I grew up in a small town South of Buenos Aires. As a child, I was convinced that nothing ever happened there and wished to be whisked away where real adventures occurred. Unable to persuade my parents to flee with me to some exotic place, I escaped by reading and imagining all kinds of stories that at some point I started to write. Now that I have traveled for real, I keep discovering my little town, everywhere I go.
I am a scientist and a pediatrician and I am fortunate to direct a team of very talented researchers at the University of Virginia where we study how cells know their identity. Although I am thrilled when we discover the wondrous inner workings of a cell, science is not enough, and I have this pervasive longing to understand whatever more is there to understand. It is then, when a story appears, irresistible, inevitably taking over, transporting me once again, saving my day. My stories have appeared in Street Light, Hospital drive, and Puro Cuento. I live in Charlottesville with wife and my three wonderful children."