Seeing as we can’t write anything of own these days we bring you a translation we banged out today of a story by contemporary Argentine author Alejandro Dolina. It’s from his rather decent 2005 collection Bar del infierno. – pegamequemegusta
Everyone in the city is very proud of our underground railroad.
When I was young the teachers would tell me that it was the largest network in the world. That statement is true, even if nowadays the precise extent of our underground is unknown. The authorities deny all access to the plans and blueprints, citing security reasons.
No-one knows when the first tunnels were excavated but everyone remembers Ivan Lanski, the mad mayor, who allocated the city’s entire budget for the construction of the underground. According to legend, the first tunnel crossed the city from east to west and had but two stations, located in distant suburbs.
Some say that the next line was built parallel to the first at a remove of 100m. The fact is, however, that no traces remain of this tunnel, or rather, there’s no longer any means of identifying it, now that there are more tunnels than streets.
I have been told many stories about Lanski. Almost all of them are false. His enemies speak of chain-gangs of political prisoners burrowing through the earth with their bare hands. The more conventional engineers, scoffing with contempt, point out some of the absurd features of the works carried out: galleries that open out onto rivers; sewers that flow onto the tracks; stations whose only entrance is found in the vestibules of party leaders’ homes.
It is said that corruption was rampant. Each official would take their share and therefore neither the work practices nor the materials employed were of the requisite standard.
In one of the northern lines, the carriages were wider than the tunnel. Many stations lacked lighting, tiles and, according to some exaggerated accounts, even stairs. As we well know, Ivan Lanski has been accused of having private tunnels built, which he would travel about in with his lady friends. None of this is true, though it is probable that the mayor was involved in the emission of fake tickets, which in 1948 outnumbered legitimate fares by more than two to one.
An unfathomable law from 1950 required every line to have two tunnels covering exactly the same route but built at different depths. It was said that the government wanted to offer the citizens the choice between a superficial journey and a more profound one.
In 1952 there began another phase which would see trains travelling at depths of 200m below the surface. The impractical stairways, or perhaps the lack of air, led to its being rapidly abandoned.
Nevertheless, officialdom’s enthusiasm for the project was on the rise.
In all probability Lanski was no longer mayor, but his successors kept digging. Completely devoid of resources, the government opted to sell several public buildings in order to continue the works. The cheerleading poets of the administration sang of the ten thousand hidden trains that were shaking the very foundations of our world. In the university they explained the theory of Drummond’s Ladder, which passes through the Earth without interruption allowing one to progress directly from descent to ascent. The secret was in the rung at the centre of the Earth. There the vertical plane became horizontal. Amongst my papers I still have the sketch the late Professor Kopa did for me shortly before falling into disgrace.
In 1960, when all the lines were finally interconnected in an inextricable mesh, two decisive measures were taken. Firstly, the destination of and route taken by the trains would henceforth be undisclosed. Not even the drivers would know. As a corollary to this law it was resolved to abolish the names of all the stations and eradicate any elements that might allow one to be distinguished from another. The connection between the surface and the underground was severed. The government explained that the obsession with knowing one’s destination was a western vice that must be done away with. The youth responded enthusiastically to these changes. On the walls of the university one student wrote: “The underground is not a means of transport.”
Of course there had always been homeless and beggars in the underground. However, with the passing of time the subterranean population kept increasing. Some of the traders who sold their wares in little stands in the stations simply decided to stay there. Certain civil servants earned huge sums selling permits to establish temporary dwellings in the passageways, alcoves and stairwells. The resulting structures caused great inconveniences since they occupied spaces designated for the free circulation of passengers and, in some cases, sprawled out onto the tracks. I myself rented one in the mezzanine level of a station. The aforementioned difficulty in telling one stop from another led to a change in my habits. Since moving there I no longer leave my home. I learned that certain fringe groups have secret marks that allow them to determine their location. I do not dare to learn them, however. I prefer to be lost but safe.
The years of crisis and drought deeply affected our republic. The struggle between factions in the army and the party ended up impoverishing us all.
The historic quarter of the city was burned to the ground by nationalist officers. The university was closed. A few years ago I ventured to the surface in search of the National Library. It wasn’t there anymore.
Thousands of factories closed their doors and the plague of 1971 reduced the population dramatically.
Yet the underground continues to grow.
It’s true that these days there are hardly any trains. Due to the shortage of electricity, many of them are powered by truck engines that poison the air in the passageways. None of the carriages have seats and in some of them the walls have disappeared completely. They say that in one of the more distant lines horses are used. In one of those godforsaken places, almost beyond the pale of the underground’s reach, the people dig their own tunnels. They are simple holes gaping in the earth, and collapse continually. Many children who have been born in the galleries of the underground have never seen the city. When I tell them of the grandeur of the dance halls or the grace of the birds in the main square they look at me with a mixture of wonder and incredulity.
Sonia, the beautiful girl who sells the tickets not far from my room, swore not long ago that the city no longer exists. She said – perhaps just to make herself more interesting – that all that was left were ruins and that now all the official agencies were located underground. She also assured me that our station was located directly below el Parque de las Grullas, which was now no more than an isolated wasteland were wolves roamed. We agreed to make the journey up the stairs in order to confirm or deny the story as soon as we had time. But later we forgot. Now we plan to live together. A secretary offered to rent me a spacious living area that had previously functioned as an escalator. In our free time we paint the four walls lovingly, one after another, the solid, slanted walls.