“God the Shrink”
I was with Arturo Cuadrado. At a presentation Borges was involved in, by the way, at the Alberto Casares bookstore. Everyone approached Arturo to say hello. All the ladies, that is.
You see, Arturo was an erotic magnet, Eliseo told us.
He fought in the Spanish Civil War, went into exile in Buenos Aires, and while there, he headed up the publisher Botella al Mar. To think how many bottles he cast into the sea! He published a book about our captain of Planetarism, Ariel Canzani. Canzani had written the prologues to all their books, so they called it Prólogo de prólogos. What envy! I’ve never written a prologue, I’m better suited to afterwords. But I digress. We once took a trip to Tigre. We boarded the train at the Retiro Station—you know where that is, Garúa—and at one point, a nun sat down beside him. A Trinitarian, I think. She was wearing a white habit with a red and blue cross. I was reading the latest publications from Botella al Mar, with those Luís Seoane covers that would make any book seem first-rate. That day, it was the poems of Dora Melella and a peculiar butterfly, Viaje dentro del viaje, Journey Within the Journey, by Damián Bayón. As Bayón wrote, I, too, had been lost before I found Velintonia, the home of the Galicianist Vicente Aleixandre on the outskirts of University City in Madrid. The cold that bore down from the Guadarrama mountains out there was sharp as a knife. But all of my discomfort disappeared when I found the house, the piano master’s little home, Eliseo said, when I looked into Vicente’s cobalt blue eyes. So, I spent much of the ride with my mind on Velintonia, (, until the train stopped. When we arrived at Tigre, I noted a certain strangeness, a sacred disorder, but I couldn’t place it at the time. The miracle may be happening, but it doesn’t make itself evident. Everything was brighter. A gleeful glimmer in the passengers’ eyes. A festive gleam like lanterns hanging from the branches of trees. The joyful architecture of the wooden boats and quays. The scintillation of fleeting patterns as they slithered along the river. Oh hermosura que excedéis a todas las hermosuras! Oh, beauty that transcends all beauties! And so on, you know how Amancio Prada’s song goes. They were holding hands. The two of them. Arturo and the nun. And they continued to hold hands for the duration of the boat ride. Like a couple. At the helm of the ship. I saw it all with my own two eyes, and they never deceive.
No. Eliseo’s eyes didn’t deceive. Everything he told us was happening right then. Like how he was looking at Luís and Maruxa Seoane’s house in Ranelagh, thirty kilometers from Buenos Aires, after traveling on the Ferrocaril del Sud. There was a golf course. He found a ball in the grass and walked a few hundred meters to return it to the men who were playing.
I can see it! Garúa exclaimed, clutching my arm. My father did the same.
Garúa who yearns, who begs for reality. And Eliseo gives it to her. It’s the only thing he has to give. A deep place in the memory where only that which you want to happen will happen.
Yes, I can see it, Garúa said again, shaking me so that I would see it too. Che, you know what? My father picked up a golf ball too. In his innocence, he thought they’d lost it. Because it looked like something that must have been very valuable. To a worker, to a typographer with a golf ball in his hands, it seems like an exceptional object. The spherical consistency. I remember my father saying that. The spherical consistency.
I thought, then, that it must really have been a place, a place called Deep Memory. Because Garúa, with her fist clenched, seemed to be holding that consistent sphere as she spoke. Her father had passed it to her so she could feel its perfection. The ball had arrived there by way of a poor swing, a mistake. Finding it was a coincidence. Her father’s typographic gaze had a knack for noticing things that didn’t jump out at the eye. But now, the place where it belonged, the place the ball itself may have sought out, was his daughter’s hand.
My father was very proper, too proper, Garúa said, and he did as Eliseo had done. He walked across the course and found a group of players to return the ball to: Here you go, it was in the grass, hidden. A marvel. A spherical marvel!
Their pockets were overflowing with golf balls, and the players looked at him like a lunatic or a linyera, one of our words for a bum, lost in the immensity of that immaculate green.
At the time, I was sleeping at the library on Chacabuco 955, said Eliseo. At the Federation. It was a land of freedom for them in Buenos Aires—a dozen publishers that were the fruit of exile. The presses never stopped! So, Spain sent a group of thugs from the political police. Spain and Argentina always had a cozy relationship, too cozy, if you ask me. The Nazis, the fascists, and the apes always got along well. Your military took a great interest in Franco, isn’t that so, Garúa? The war in Spain was the war of wars. Of wars past and future. And if we had your thugs here, you can be sure Franco had his thugs in your country. It wasn’t so long ago that they orchestrated the bombing of the Ruedo Ibérico offices, right in the heart of Paris, on Rue de Latran! Bombs against books. I knew the place well. It was in those offices that I embraced the editor Pepe Martínez, who had done more for democracy in Spain than any single person. And yet not a soul, or only a rare few, knew of him.
When he spoke, Eliseo was like a squirrel in a walnut tree. He would leap from the trunk and proceed to hop from branch to branch as if he were never going to return to his initial story. But he always returned. Or almost always.
Yes, in Argentina, there was a group of agents whose lair was located at the embassy. They infiltrated, they spied, they got their hands dirty. They were hoping to worm their way into the Federation of Galician Societies. They’d dismantled everything in Spain and couldn’t stand those islands of freedom where people carried the Republic in their heads. The invisible country that traveled back and forth in people’s luggage. Sometimes the luggage bore soil. Actual soil. Like the soil that was brought for Castelao’s funeral rites. The burial of a diasporic prophet. He wanted to rest on Galician soil. But here, on his native ground, the murderers were in command, so we brought it with us to Buenos Aires.
Wait, were you at Castelao’s funeral? I asked, feigning surprise.
When was that?
They buried him in January of nineteen-fifty. I remember it clearly, but no, I wasn’t at the Chacarcita Cemetery.
One of my uncle’s characteristic mannerisms was a series of parabolic twists of the right hand, anticipating an adagio: Death is…a fatto to which I pay no heed!
He liked to use that Italian word, fatto, instead of event or happening. And I liked to hear him say it. A fatto! A roar that clears the air. He spent every moment of his life combating sadness. He said he was a militant in the Laughter Party. But this time, he turned gloomier as he continued his tale: The day of Castelao’s funeral, I was at an asylum called El Borda. I went to visit a poet friend of mine, Jacobo Fijman. He’d spent much of his life there. They’d tried to kill him, they shot at him, they threw him in prison. His life was a misery, one of brutal treatment and starvation, but he said that the nuthouse had saved his life. He wasn’t a madman who wrote poems, he was a poet fighting madness: God will come down to us in shrink’s clothing. He’s never looked better, God has.
He waved his hand like he was turning a page, then changed his tone.
No, I wasn’t at Castelao’s funeral. I was, however, at the Federation on the day they attempted to occupy it. We rebuffed the fascists with lead and steel!
You’ve never held a weapon in your life! said Comba, with a sudden harshness. She’d been silent up to then, as if she were elsewhere. She was never short with him. In fact, she was his best listener, always tilting her head in that slight, unconditional way that tends towards rapture. But that day, something, maybe the fatto, had made her snap.
What would you know? he said, in the same embittered tone. You think you know everything, which parts are tall tales and which parts are true. Well you don’t. I was there. I was. And I held a weapon!
Suddenly, I was afraid. Our lives at Terranova transpired in sacred disorder. And Eliseo was neither a lost island nor a solitary dolphin. He was a golden beam in that chaotic architecture. There were some shadowy areas, of course. Those hidden regions of life were part of the geography of Atlantis, 24. You could come and go without having to give explanations. Without a commotion. We were hand-axes, two-faced. All oddity was respected. Including the day that I decided—we decided?—not to speak to my father. The day I sent him a note, a cablegram, requesting that we communicate by letter from there on out:
Don’t see it as an act of hostility, Polytropos, because we can be amicable and write the words that we can’t, or don’t know how to say aloud.
Signed, Eumaeus, the prince of swine.
The thing with Eliseo was that he spent all day opening up passageways across the limits of reality. But not like a madman. He spoke of a happy penumbra. He said that he’d heard María Zambrano talk about it when he visited her in Italy to help her pack for a move to France with her cats. She did herself that favor, gave a name to that place, that portable country where she could feel happy. The Penumbra Tocada de Alegría, the Joy-Touched Penumbra.
This encounter with the philosopher Zambrano, Eliseo said, was a kind of baptism, a second life. Italy was the trip of trips. Asked where he’d come from, he answered: from the place one is born and unborn. And that first day, in the shadows of her apartment on the Piazza del Popolo, they spoke of Spinoza’s Ethics, of Plotinus and the universality of a religion of light. Out of discretion, she never said it, she never put it in writing, but it was Eliseo who wove the thread of García Lorca into their conversation: I go seeking a death full of light to consume me.
He’d been to Cuba, like her, but a few years earlier. Eliseo’s trip to Havana had been financed by some relatives who owned a hardware store on Calle Mercaderes. This gave him the opportunity to attend a lecture by Lorca, who had just flown in from New York, at which Eliseo also met Lezama Lima. Lorca was happy in Cuba, Eliseo said. He’d left the United States in disgust. The only place he’d felt good was Harlem, in particular the nightclub Small’s Paradise. It was the crib of jazz poetry. And it was a particular haunt of Langston Hughes, who would later spend time in Spain, defending the Republic.
All of a sudden, Eliseo vanished into the Labyrinth, careening towards the Transatlantic shelf. He came back in excitement and wonder, like someone discovering that the trout in a still life is still alive and flopping.
I Wonder as I Wander, by Langston Hughes. Published as Yo viajo por un mundo encantado, I Travel through a Charmed World, by Fabril Editora, in nineteen fifty-nine!
And that trout flopped its way into Garúa’s hands.
We should have stayed in Cuba, Eliseo said. He told us about the night he spent in Havana’s historic center with Lorca, Guillén, Hughes, and Lezama. We’re olive trees, ombú trees, Egyptian sycamores walking in the night. Who said that? Never mind, it’s not important.
You were in Rome, Uncle, I reminded him. You were with María Zambrano!
Right, with María and her sister Araceli. Poor Araceli. During that trip I arranged for her books to be transported to Spain, to introduce people to her work. Ignorance was rife back then. Besides, they needed to lighten their luggage. They already had quite a bit of weight to carry around the world with them. And it was María who suggested to her sister that I could adopt one of the kittens. They already had a dozen, and that was before another litter had been born. But it was easier said than done. Her sister
Araceli spent that day and the next scrutinizing me. María felt like she was a Siamese twin. One day she said to me, I call her Antigone in my head, because she’s taken no part in history but was nearly devoured by it anyway. Araceli wanted to know everything about me before she would commend one of the kittens into my care. In the end, I suppose, I passed inspection.
When I returned to Terranova, it was with the cat Antigone in tow.
That night, Comba wanted to take a walk with Garúa. Just the two of them. There was nothing noteworthy about her suggestion. They would take walks together sometimes, after dinner. A stroll around the Waterline up to Santo Antón Castle or the Abrigo Observation Dyke. On this occasion, they walked around the historic center. They sat down in the Praza das Bárbaras—Garúa had taken quite a liking to the spot. I had too. The first time we went there together, she said that there was something special about the acacias in the square, that they were backwards, their roots digging into the moon.
After her walk with Comba, she looked at me like I was a stranger.
Your mother told me about Eliseo. Okay.
Okay? It was really difficult for her to talk about. For me, too.
If I were trying to create a wonderful human being, I’d create it in his image.
Garúa was silent for a while.
I was surprised, it was the last thing I expected us to talk about. But Comba suddenly asked me what I think of Eliseo. And I told her what I just told you, that he’s a wonderful human being. And she said: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that! He’s my brother. She nearly burst into tears as she said that. And I had to encourage her to talk. I said: Comba, you came out here to tell me something, and now you’re all choked up. Go on, what is it?
He has a big imagination, she said. He does.
He’s a dreamer. He is.
He’s never been to the Americas.
Sure he has, he’s been in Buenos Aires! Parque del Retiro, Robert Arlt and the cabbie, Alberto Casares’ bookstore, Chacabuco 955, the golf ball in Ranelagh, his visit to Fijman in the nut-house in Barracas, Giribaldi’s Grimy Sonnets…I’d never even heard of that book before!
He’s never been. Not to Argentina, not to Mexico, not to Cuba. Aside from a trip to Barcelona at the invitation of the editor Janés, he’s never been farther than Portugal. Lisbon and Amarante, to be specific. Though it’s true that a crow followed him all the way back from Amarante. Has he told you the story about the crow? He came back and said: Comba, there’s a crow at the door. I thought it was one of his jokes, and I said: Go on then, invite it in! And he did. This crow, the Exile, could even talk a bit.
What about Ariel Canzani’s ship and the book cargo, is that real?
It’s all real. Everything he says is true. He just wasn’t there for any of it.
I was surprised, but not as choked up about it as Comba. This made Eliseo even more wonderful than before. He’d invented Buenos Aires, and Havana, and Rome, without ever having been there! And that was when Comba told me the less sunny side of things, the side I needed to hear. That Eliseo’s trips to the Americas, or elsewhere in Europe, were really time he’d spent at a mental institution. Not for insanity. She told me that he’d been caught up in the nets of the police several times for being gay. And going to these mental wards was a way to avoid prison, right?
She was asking me. Yes, that’s right, I said.
So why the silence? I’ve been sitting here listening to these half-baked stories as if they were true, and you just played along.
Now you know.
What were you trying to hide? That your uncle is gay?
I wasn’t trying to hide anything.
Well, I guess you’re not very expressive with your silence. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, I swear!
I was furious. Not at what Garúa was saying, or at Comba. I was furious at the world. I felt a metaphysical disgust towards the metaphysical mendacity of it all.
What I wanted, Garúa, was for you to get to know Eliseo as played by Eliseo. Not bound by history with all its bullshit. Not crushed by the onslaught of bigotry. Here, the violence and bigotry are in the law. Sodomites, flesh-peddlers, pimps…the legal code still refers to them that way. They lump them all together. They started with one called the “Vagrants and Miscreants” law, and then moved on to one that was far, far worse, the “Dangerous Social Elements” law. Not that long ago, people were still being sent to camps and special prisons. They came back in pieces. And the only way to avoid that was to have a doctor recommend that person be checked into a psychiatric facility before the courts got involved. Once you had the paper saying they had been checked into a facility, they would drop the case. All with the judge’s understanding, of course. And a bit of money to smooth things along.
But those places are terrible too, Garúa said. The main one in Buenos Aires, El Borda, is in my neighborhood, Barracas. It’s the same one where he said he visited the poet Fijman. I would avoid that street, Vieytes. That hospital was hell. And Eliseo knew it, don’t you see that? That poem about God in shrink’s clothing!
He didn’t exactly go to a mental institution, I explained. He went, and he didn’t. In Dr. Esquerdo’s facility, on the outskirts of Madrid, there were the wards for the mentally ill, but there was also an area with little dormitories for people like Eliseo. People who could afford it, of course. In some ways, it was a place to convalesce. They couldn’t leave, but they could go about their lives. Some reactionary doctors saw homosexuality as a disease, but there were also some who fought against that form of repression. Once when we went to visit him, he said: I’m reading a hundred books all at once! And it was true. There, with all that special company, he would hand us books that often ended up coming to rest in Terranova.
We were on our way to the Borrazás, in Orzán, a bar with a wall covered in bird cages containing canaries and goldfinches. The place was gloomy during the day, and the birds preferred to sing at night, surrounded by the neon lights. But we ended up at the inlet’s Buttress instead, listening to the roar of the sea.
The foam of the waves (ew over the walls, spraying salt in our faces.
We stayed firm, our hands clasped together.
The sea said everything I might have wanted to.
From The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas. Used with permission of the publisher, Archipelago Books. Copyright © 2022 by Manuel Rivas. Translation copyright © 2022 Jacob Rogers.