A writer, you want to be a writer, don’t make me laugh, that’s what all wasters think of doing. He’s not a waster, said mother, anything but that; look at him and tell me if he has the face of an idler. Father looked with pity and slight revulsion at his skinny, pale, unkempt son, with no tie and a suspiciously clean shirt collar above his grey cardigan. Bah, he’d look the same if he was shooting up. If he what…? Was shooting up, or can’t you speak English? Mother looked at me for support: that’s English, is it? I shrugged my shoulders. At least tell me what he’s trying to say. Taking drugs, mother, it’s slang. Ah! For a moment she was rooted to the spot spluttering as if she had a bone stuck in her throat. Her face went from red to violet. Taking drugs! How could a father dare say that about his son? Especially after defending him from what the people in the neighbourhood have been saying… Taking drugs! Just because he spends ten hours a day writing and lives in books… Fine, sighed father; it was a joke, but what do you expect, writing isn’t a career. Yes, of course you would prefer it to spending your life playing pool like all the other lads around here. Your cousins, without looking any further. But what has one thing got to do with the other? Playing pool is a hobby; the rest of the time Sara’s boys do practical things: one of them is about to get a degree in industrial engineering, and the other is going to be a vet.
I was looking at them without listening. Writing was my dream, nothing else in the world pleased me as much and I felt sorry for people who wasted their time doing other things. I couldn’t understand how they could be so unaware of the emptiness of their lives, which were so transient. I, on the other hand, had chosen the one career that guaranteed immortality. I would feature in encyclopedias, textbooks, I would see my name in print, students would carry my books under their arms, at nightfall, as they crossed the square, and in the faculty my work would be discussed with passion.
One day I went to speak to an author of verse. I called him to go and see him; he told me he was very busy, that I should call him back the following month; when I did, he had gone to Buenos Aires; I insisted, and eventually he granted me a meeting. He received me grumpily, looking at his watch, upset by my punctuality since it prevented him from saying that at this time he only had a few minutes to spare me. I brought him several poems in verse and prose, sixteen short stories, a novel, an article on Victor Hugo, and a series of studies on the work of Almafuerte, Rubén Dario and Fray Mamerto Esquiú, Don Benito Sepúlvede looked at me with horror. You’re want to give me all this? he whined. Not all of it, I stammered, but if you could just read some. He leaned over the pages and began to leaf through them without reading them… Aha, you have done a lot of work, my friend… yes, no doubt about it, and you must have a good library, you seem very well read. My library! Yes, it’s quite good, I said, beaming, I spend every penny I have on books.
Don Benito’s eyes left the typewritten pages for a moment and focused on me with a pitiable expression as if he was going to tell me my girlfriend had just died. Oh, you spend everything on books, you write all day long, you don’t leave the house or play sport, do you even have sex? I blushed… Well, i’m nineteen… At your age, I used to go to brothels. There aren’t any brothels any more. You’re all going to end up queers for sure. So what do you do, then? Write, that’s all? Well.. you don’t think that that is enough?
I was losing my aplomb. Was it possible that the most important writer in the province was talking about literature with the same disdain as my father? Of course it’s not enough! exclaimed Benito. What can some fool who hasn’t even slept with a woman expect to write about? I didn’t say that. Who isn’t even familiar with the atmosphere of a bar, who hasn’t seen anything of the world. Have you even been to Buenos Aires? As a kid. What do you hope to write about, then? You don’t think enough has been written on Victor Hugo and Sarmiento? You think they’ve all been waiting for you? What new can be written about them… what, that hasn’t been plagiarised from somebody else?
I was speechless: there was some truth in what he said. But, don Benito, one feels obliged to be a writer, you know that. He passed his hand over his brow. Yes, of course I do, it’s not something your auld one messes about with, one does feel obliged to be a writer. Then he became flushed: But what do you want, lad, (he was more personable now), to be famous, rich, to win women’s hands or the right to be a whore? I want to write. My composure calmed him down slightly. You want to write, he murmured, but for what? Fine, suppose you become famous. Famous! An Argentine, and a country boy to boot; do you really believe the world is anxiously looking towards our shores to discover an unknown genius? An Argentine can be a landowner, a farmer, a race-car driver or a football player, but the world has no need for Argentine writers. But, don Benito, say what you will, Argentine writers are translated into French, English… some cross borders and become renowned internationally. Sure… Sure… mumbled don Benito, a lost look on his face. There was a brief silence and then he shouted: Bastards! Yes, I said: how unfortunate! Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in Carthage there were two idiots like me and you? And what became of them? What were their names? I don’t know. Of course you don’t know and neither do I or anyone else. Because nothing remains of Carthage. Of the merchant towns nothing remains. And no matter how good your work will be nothing will remain of that either. Now get going as I have to finish my book… but you, who still have time…
I left dazed by the interview, brimming with don Benito’s words, inflamed now with the fervor of a martyr.
Don Benito, like all people who are angered easily, was profoundly good to me. He made out for me a recommendation for the local newspaper and a letter for the editor. I brought a number of poems with the letter to the newspaper. I took my novel to the editor. A few weeks passed, a few months. One day, almost illegible, the shortest of the poems appeared; none of the others ever appeared again. The editor told me that my book was very interesting but that it did not suit the line of his publishing house, and in any case his catalogue was closed out for this year and for the next eight years, but perhaps in nine years they might be able to publish something.
Talking about success smacks of vanity, but talking about failure bores the person who’s speaking as much as his listeners. In summary, then, I have to say that I did manage to get to Buenos Aires, I brought my creations to the most important dailies, obtained more recommendations for other editors, met a few writers: they always kept on eye on the clock. After three days, I went back to my province relieved of many original versions that never appeared in any newspaper, review or book. As it was very expensive for me to make so many copies by machine, I got myself a lovely girlfriend who copied out my writings with wonder.
At twenty-two years of age, cornered by reality, I resigned myself to working in the old man’s hardware store. At night I would meet up with la Chicha and dictate poems dedicated to her and our province. Time slipped by silently and treacherously as it does in stylish cities. The day I turned thirty I screamed out loud. No, it’s not possible… I’m going to grow old like this, without having published any more than two or three poems in the local paper, not even known in my own country… like some blacksmith, without having left any mark of his time on the earth, except sons of flesh that it occurred to him to produce. And one day I will die like all those who have published nothing. Death and immortality had their own place in my passionate literary religion: death was to be an unedited writer or someone that had never written anything; immortality was your name in print, published works, speeches over my grave, my bust in a square rusting beneath the trees. And above all my name towering above that of my contemporaries, my name cropping up at dinner-parties, on the radio, the television, on lists of invites to congresses, festivals and workshops: Sebastián Fuentes. Is Sebastián Fuentes going? I always go when Sebastián Fuentes goes. It’s an anthology Sebastián Fuentes features in. It’s a short course that Sebastián Fuentes will speak at. We are beginning the lectures with an address from Sebastián Fuentes. Could it be possible that no-one would ever say such things? La Chicha tried to console me, referring to Kafka and many geniuses that only knew posthumous glory, but I wanted success now, in my lifetime, one I could measure and experience with my senses.
A few days later chance offered me the opportunity I had been waiting for so many years. Fortune had finally shown a more generous side: my town would be the venue for a literary festival. I examined the list of guests: they were all there. All the people who had greeted me with an impatient smile, and those who had not received me, those who had been in Europe at the time of my trip to Buenos Aires; all those who shone like constellations in the contemporary literary firmament; men and women marked by grace, chosen by destiny, stars among whom only cruel injustice prevented me from shining with my own light.
I don’t know what happened to me. The truth is that I spent the three weeks before the festival imagining cordial scenes in which I got close to my favourite authors, recited to them, to their admiration, entire paragraphs from their works, the poems they had written as youths and even quotes they had made. We ate together; I would make them try the area’s famous sweet dishes and glazed lamb, a delicacy peculiar to San José de los Nardos. They would beg me for permission to read my works, insist on the necessity of publishing them, explain to me in convincing terms the usefulness for a writer to live in Buenos Aires, discuss the employment I could get in order to enable me to live there: as a librarian, a teacher, a lecturer, a radio-show host, on television, they would juggle the possibilities offered by official shows and channels (the others would not be influential enough), someone who adapts novels for the cinema… Meanwhile, we would drink red wine, stay up late, run through the silent streets of the slumbering city, “already on the hills, the sky was fading, allowing a glimpse of the approaching dawn”, as I say in my Poema magistral. We would be friends, colleagues, speak freely with one another; they would understand, at last, the profundity of my vocation, of my literary fervor: “I didn’t even marry so as to avoid creating obstacles that would distract me from my work,” I would tell them, and they would all feel sorry for poor Chicha, my girlfriend for the last ten years.
That is the truth. What happened remains a mystery, that which is hidden inside each one of us and comes to the surface even more to our amazement than anyone else’s.
All my idols were there, in the middle of the square. In their honour the city had organised a parade of floats, vehicles decked with flowers, on which the prettiest girls of San José stood in all their glory. They were to choose the Queen of Letters. The authors, men and women, examined with an ill-concealed irony the beauties of our town. I, who for my merits and unpublished talents deserved to be in the middle of their box, before one of the sky-blue bands of the Argentine flag, I had to sit on the grass with my cousin the vet and my other cousin the mechanic, next to Chicha who was a typist at the town hall and thus had managed to obtain these front-row passes. The less favoured were on the other side of the square, squashed together on the pavement watching the floats go by.
Suddenly, amongst the most important authors from Buenos Aires I saw don Benito, smiling, euphoric, as no-one from the town had ever seen him before. Don Benito… Traitor! So writing wasn’t worth it, really? Being an Argentine writer is like farming on the Place de la Concorde or planting radishes on the Piazza Navona? Yes, of course, but you’re happy here next to all these monstres sacrées, next to the governor who robbed you of five hours teaching time last year and who is codding you now with the promise of reinstating them.
Over a loudspeaker, silence was called for. The speeches began. They spoke a lot; I got the impression that the entire world had spoken except for me. Don Benito had his part, too; he used the verses by Almafuerte that I had mentioned in my article and an anecdote that I had invented; his voice choked with tears as he professed his admiration for Sarmiento and he even referred to Fray Mamerto Esquiú. Everything that a few years before had been too clichéd in his view.
Those from Buenos Aires spoke very apologetically, benevolently, patiently, below the implacable sun, searching out literary and historical precedents that would ennoble San José de los Nardos, in spite of its name, evidently forgotten by the hand of God. They quoted our official poet, recalled how San Martín had spent a night here once and that a niece of Miguel Caña, still alive despite her advanced age, resided amongst us. They had ransacked the archives in order to procure us some claims to honour: a poet, a novelist, a historical figure, even an abstract painter who was now doing very well in Paris. Everyone in the city seemed worthy of praise except me. I, the most resolute, the most passionate of writers, who had an innate vocation for fame, had a right to nothing, not even to hear my name mentioned in passing. Cretins! How dare they forget that I had spoken of almost all of their mediocre books in the columns of La voz de San José and in our review Castalia, which only ran for three editions but which cost me six months wages. Luckily father had picked up the last IOU.
Who made me do it? I don’t know. I only know that I got up and made my own speech to them. I said everything about them I could think of: I mocked their most famous books, their favourite passages, said their success was all down to bribes, corruption, and a string of other disgraceful acts… I spoke and spoke… and I don’t even know exactly what I said. As I didn’t have a microphone, those far away couldn’t hear me, but everyone knew some impertinence was transpiring next to the official box. The journalists were thanking me as if manna had just come down from heaven: because of me their articles would write themselves.
The official box began to be vacated as I spoke. Chicha had distanced herself prudently for fear of losing her job with the municipal government. And I was still speaking, making recriminations, dishing out insults, throwing in their faces Proust, Cervantes, Rubén Darío. What do you think about that, eh? Who are you compared with them?
Afterwards, unburdened by the weight of so many years’ anguish, like a ruddy sailor who after a long crossing can finally leave his seed in some port’s brothel, I felt weak, empty, I wanted to sleep.
To sleep. I had thirty years to sleep, but I had never wanted to before and now when all I wanted was to be alone and not wake up for days and days, everyone was surrounding me, congratulating me, hugging me. Bravo! I had dared to do what the others had only dreamed of, I who had dreamed the complete opposite. I had pulverised those blow-in wannabes from the capital. And all the venom, so well hidden that we didn’t even realise it existed in the hearts of so many people in the forgotten town, came flooding to the surface, gushing forth. These monstres sacrées were no more than puppets hyped up by Buenos Aires journalists. Were nothing. Less than nothing. A lie, I thought, they are something, they’re a great deal: THEY ARE.
But my fellow countrymen and the journalists relished the uproar of the brief triumph that gave an unusual shine to our obscurity, projected an unexpected shadow on their splendour. Thanks to me, the world of letters suffered an unprecedented eclipse.
Sebastián Fuentes. All the newspapers named me the following day. Chicha bought an album and made a scrapbook, assisted by my mother: she thus proved to me father that being a writer isn’t so silly after all. Sebastián Fuentes. The radio said my name. And the television. And what surprised me most was that some of the celebrities asked to meet me. They shook my hand, told me I was right, that they too were victims of a “conspiracy of silence”, of being “compromised”, and I noticed that they felt as out of place as I did.