AN INTRODUCTION BY LEE YEW LEONG
Sensuously reconstructed by Frances Riddle, Mario Levrero’s “The Abandoned House” pays tribute to the power of fiction. A former cruciverbalist and one-time “Best Untranslated Writer” according to Granta, the Uruguayan author wrote in order to “bring (his) brain to life and discover its secret passageways.” In this breathtaking short story, an abandoned house and its many secrets come alive for us via a masterfully detached narration rich in cinematic techniques (think point-of-view switches, match cuts) and truly bizarre flourishes. No ordinary house, Levrero’s fictional abode is one where little men “shimmy their bodies” out of pipes and little women, summoned by a faucet, climb up onto a plastic soap dish and “stretch out as if they were sunbathing.” A naked girl is discovered in the garden, her chest punctured by a unicorn during its annual visitation. An accountant, traumatized by a spider, disappears from his coat’s interior, the article of clothing hovering for an instant in the air, empty a la Magritte.
In a note accompanying the original publication in Asymptote(also Levrero’s debut in English), translator Frances Riddle states that Levrero’s writing has been labeled fantastical, delirious, bold, bizarre. His influences ranged from Kafka to Carroll to sci-fi, pulp fiction, surrealism, and psychoanalysis. Slippery and uncategorizable, read only by a small group of initiated readers when he was alive, Levrero once said: “I am the subject of my writing. I write to write myself; it’s an auto-construction.” In “The Abandoned House,” as the house’s select group of “fans” gather round to inspect the engineering marvel created by an ant, the last line of the story expresses Levrero’s philosophy on writing: “Everyone takes out magnifying glasses; they focus in on the details, applauding the complexity of the work and the symmetry of the sticks. I prefer to look at the structure as a whole. I think that it’s beautiful and that its shape resembles, in a way, an ant.”
Although it was written more than fifty years ago, Levrero’s story still feels very much relevant and alive, its form and poetics anticipating another gem from Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Steven Millhauser’s“Cathay.” “The Abandoned House” is finally a stark reminder that many treasures still await discovery in the greater canon of letters that is world literature.
Lee Yew Leong
The Abandoned House
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On a downtown street lined with modern buildings, we find an old, abandoned house. The front garden contains a white fountain decorated with angels. It’s separated from the sidewalk by a wrought-iron fence: a succession of rusted spears joined by two horizontal bars. The faded pink exterior is covered in dirt and greenish grime. The windows are hidden behind dark shutters. This unassuming house holds great interest for the few people, myself among them, who know its secrets and have fallen under its influence.
A piece of pipe sticks out a few centimeters from the wall in one of the rooms. With luck or patience you may be able to see the little men, around eleven centimeters tall, peek their tiny heads out of the pipe. They observe for a moment, like someone seeing the open ocean for the first time through a ship’s porthole. Then they begin to extract themselves from the pipe, with some difficulty. They must first lie face up, grab onto the top edge of the pipe, and use their arms and legs to shimmy their bodies out.
A little man hangs from the edge of the pipe. He gets nervous as he looks down and sees the huge hole in the floor directly below him. Evidently the little men’s repeated antics have damaged the already rotten floor. Soon the small round eyes of the next little man can be seen inside the pipe as he anxiously awaits his turn. He hangs on for as long as possible, then finally he takes a deep breath, as if preparing for a dive, releases his hands from the edge of the pipe, and falls and falls.
After about a second you may think that you hear something. But those accustomed to the spectacle know that you really can’t hear anything. Some imagine a soft sound, like the bounce of a rubber ball. Others, a dry crunch of bone. The more imaginative hear a small explosion (like the striking of a match, but without the subsequent flame). There are those who have talked of implosion; they think they hear the sound of a light bulb burning out. Others claim to have clearly perceived the breaking of glass.
We’ve checked the basement, but its perimeter doesn’t seem to match up exactly with the house. We haven’t found any hole in the ceiling that could correspond to the hole in the floor through which the little men disappear. We worry that there might be a growing pile of tiny cadavers somewhere and we are anxious to find it. I have my own theory, although there’s no evidence to support it. I don’t think that the little men die when they fall and also, I believe that there are just a few little men who endlessly repeat the jump from the pipe.
One of the things that seemed curious to the discoverers and first fans of the house was the absence of spiders. You have everything else you could want in an abandoned house, but the classic spiders seemed completely uninterested in such an appropriate place. This incorrect assumption was revised upon first visit to the pantry, a room attached to the kitchen. It’s full of spiders. There are all varieties of species, shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and habits. Their webs fill the entire room with a sponge-like stuffing. If you look closely you will see that there’s not a single web that respects its due distance from the web of a rival spider. It’s permitted (it seems to be an accepted norm) to use a neighboring web as the starting point for a new one.
Perfect tranquility reigns over the pantry. The bugs wait, some in the centers of their webs, others on the periphery, others scout the ceiling or walls. It’s not particularly interesting for the spectator. The biggest spiders don’t have webs but instead a kind of nest on the floor. They can only be seen on very hot days, or on certain nights, or at random times that we can’t find any explanation for. We think the spiders stay in the pantry because the conditions are extremely favorable; they seem to be opposed to leaving at all. We’ve observed some hesitating in the doorway. We’ve seen others step out, only to immediately rush back inside, as if pulled by an irresistible force or driven by panic. The group of webs is a lovely sight which becomes more beautiful with the changes in light from a small window as the day advances and dies. The humidity of the room affects the beauty of the webs, as does the mood of the spectator, and other inconceivable factors.
An insect falls into one of the many traps: everything vibrates. Sometimes we release flies from jars to initiate the spectacle, but in general we prefer to wait for the conditions to emerge by chance. First there’s a slight buzzing, almost imperceptible, produced by the insect in the web. The bug becomes more and more anxious and its attempts to free itself are increasingly violent. The movement is transmitted through the system of webs. A rhythmic motion radiates outward and then returns: it’s like throwing a rock into a pond but observing the effect in three dimensions.
The spiders react: first the owner of the web that has trapped the insect approaches the victim and begins the usual routine. The neighboring spiders watch closely. This quick and delicate movement, this chore, produces a pronounced effect in the group of webs. All the other spiders, who have felt their webs vibrate but haven’t located the victim, begin to search frantically, peering into other webs, furious when they find nothing there. Then the show really gets good. We are spellbound, in a kind of trance. Some of us dance (because there is a rhythm, increasingly insane), others cover their eyes because they can’t take it. I have personally had to stop someone who, hypnotized, tried to enter the pantry. I found out they committed suicide a while later, at night, in the sea. I’ve said that it’s hard for the spiders to leave the pantry and that they never go very far or for very long. There are exceptions, which we’ll see later.
We discovered by accident that underneath the pink wallpaper in the bedroom, there was another wallpaper pattern. Immediately a team formed, led by Ramirez. Over several nights of careful work the pink was totally removed and the next layer was exposed: greens predominate. It’s a beautiful rural landscape, impressively realistic: we can almost smell the fresh country air. The damaged parts of the wallpaper were expertly restored by Alfredo. He’s a quiet guy with a mustache and we didn’t suspect that he had any talent whatsoever.
Influenced by the uncovered wallpaper we felt the need to organize Sunday picnics. We got up early and brought baskets and folding chairs. Juancito, who works at a grocery store, got us a Coca-Cola ice chest. There was red wine, a battery-powered record player, kids with nets to catch butterflies, butterflies — provided by an entomologist friend on the condition that they be returned unharmed — brightly-colored dresses, couples, ants, a few small spiders (that we took from the pantry for a little while) and other things.
The main attraction was one of Chueco’s inventions. He’s a construction worker in his free time and was able to build us a gas grill that miraculously eliminates smoke. Although it serves no practical purpose, the tree that Alfredo fashioned from a synthetic material was also highly praised. I sat on the floor, in a corner, drinking mate. I don’t like picnics, but the show entertained me.
Something pulses, something grows in the attic.
It’s suspected to be green, it’s feared to have eyes.
It’s presumed to be strong, soft, translucent, evil.
We can’t, we shouldn’t, we mustn’t look at it.
To speak of it we use only adjectives and we don’t make eye contact.
We don’t climb the creaky stairway; we don’t stop to listen at the door; we don’t turn the doorknob; we don’t enter the attic.
To see the little men that jump from the pipe we have to wait and wait. On the other hand, all we have to do is fill up the bathroom sink with warm water, turn on the faucet, and in under a minute the little women start to flow out. They are very small and they are naked. They don’t cover themselves when they see us. They swim freely, play in the water. They climb up onto the plastic soap dish that we’ve placed there and they stretch out as if they were sunbathing. They are beautiful without exception; their bodies are magnificent and exciting. They dive into the water and swim and splash and climb back up on the soap dish to stretch out.
When they get bored they work together to pull up the sink stopper and they let themselves slide down the drain. There’s one with green eyes that’s always the last to go. She looks at me, almost with regret, before she plunges down the drain.
One afternoon we had been investigating the superimposed wallpapering in the big bedroom. It was Ramirez, accountant at a fairly important factory, who was able to make out the fifth layer. He correctly deduced the total number of layers, as we proved later upon uncovering five square centimeters of wallpaper. I won’t go into detail on the last layer (let me remind you that there are ladies among us) but I can assure you that it was an erotic scene, practically pornographic. This discovery leads us to believe that the abandoned house once functioned as a brothel.
On his way home that evening an elderly woman ran behind Ramirez for quite a while. She eventually caught up with him and explained, panting and upset, that he had a huge black spider on the back of his jacket, almost five centimeters in diameter. We phoned him repeatedly to invite him to the abandoned house but Ramirez made up excuses not to come. Finally, he explained what had happened and we understood. He says that when the old lady told him about the spider, he didn’t have the wherewithal to take off his jacket. He simply fled from the coat’s interior and the article of clothing hovered for an instant in the air, empty. Ramirez claims that a half block away he heard the soft sound that his jacket made when it fell heavily to the ground.
Much of what attracts me to the house is its serene and diligent collapse. I measure the cracks and confirm their advance. The blackish borders of the water stains extend. Pieces of plaster come loose from the walls and ceiling, and the entire structure has a slight, almost imperceptible, leftward slant. It is an inevitable and beautiful collapse.
We can’t come to an agreement on the size of the garden. We do agree that viewed from the street, or from the path that leads to the house, it appears to be about eighty square meters (8m x 10m). The trouble begins from the moment we step in among its weeds, its ivies, its flowerless plants, its insects, the lines of ants, the vines and giant ferns, the rays of sun that filter through the canopy of the tall eucalyptus trees, the bear tracks, the chatter of the parrots, the snakes coiled around the branches that raise their heads and whistle when we pass, the unbearable heat, the thirst, the darkness, the roar of the leopards, the falls of the machete that clears the way, the tall boots we wear, the humidity, our helmets, the luxurious vegetation, the night, the fear, the fact that we can’t find the way out, the fact that we can’t find the way out.
None of us are able to shake the suspicion that the house must hold an old and fabulous treasure, composed of precious stones and heavy gold coins. There are no maps, nor clues of any kind. I count myself among the most skeptical, although I have often allowed myself to daydream and I even imagine clever unsuspected corners where the treasure might be hidden. The fact that I don’t participate in the official treasure hunts sets me apart from the rest. I don’t even search when I’m alone (as I know many do).
I thoroughly enjoy these hunts. I lie in a lounge chair that I bring from my house especially for the occasion and I place it in an appropriate location, generally in the main living room. I watch, drinking mate and smoking cigarettes, as they spread out methodically — the women through the house, the men in the basement — and they search. The ladies in their happy dresses rummage in the rubble or dig inside the furniture coverings. I smile when I see them search the pieces of furniture that they know we brought in ourselves to feed the hurricanes. The men, in their blue uniforms, tap the walls of the basement looking for a sound that is hollow or different. But all the sounds are hollow, and different from one another. The tapping makes music; it reminds me of the sounds made from bottles filled with different levels of liquid. Soon it seems that everything fits together and the music becomes rhythmic and the women go up and down and it looks like they’re dancing and I think again of the musical bottles, now containing liquors of all different colors, all transparent and sweet.
It had to be a woman, Leonor, that neurotic old maid, who turned on the taps of the bidet. I don’t know why she joined our group (she’s afraid of the house). Everyone knows that there is no running water and that it’s dangerous to go around turning on faucets without warning. The little women come out of the sink. And then there’s the rubbery yellow thing in the bathtub. It blows up like a balloon and doesn’t stop getting bigger until you turn off the faucet. Then it comes loose and floats around us for a little while. Then it rises up and sticks to the ceiling and stays there until one day we come in and it’s gone. If you flush the toilet, by pulling the long chain with a wooden handle, you hear a tremendous, hair-raising scream. It’s so loud we worry about complaints from the neighbors.
We heard a scream and we confused it with the shriek of the toilet but no, it was Leonor, running and pointing toward the bathroom. We followed her and discovered a long thin earthworm crawling out of the bidet. More and more of the earthworm kept appearing; it seemed to go on forever. It was already a meter and a half long, easily. We waited to see when it would end but it kept getting longer and longer as it dragged itself across the floor, heading towards the other rooms.
We cut it into pieces but each new section remained fully alive; the new earthworms escaped in all directions. We had to sweep them up and throw them down the drain. The first worm kept coming out and soon new black spots began to peek out from other holes. We tried to turn off the faucet but it was stuck. No one was brave enough to change the washer, let alone call a plumber. We began to think that we’d have no other choice but to close up the bathroom and be forever deprived of the spectacular little women. Leonor was accused of having done it on purpose. Finally, someone had the idea (and the courage) to force each of the earthworm heads into the drain of the bidet itself. This seemed fine with the earthworms. They continued to crawl in and out of the bidet. They’re still at it now, a continuous and never-ending movement. Someone who doesn’t know the story of the bidet would look at it and see a strange horizontal rain of shiny black water.
There’s a shake of ashes and cigarette butts in the dining room fireplace. Then it’s best to leave, or lock yourself in the bedroom, or as a last resort, stay pressed into the corner with your head between your knees and your hands over your head.
Dirt, papers, objects begin to twirl slowly in the center of the room like autumn leaves. There is a brusque drop in temperature and the wind blows harder. Then everything lifts into the air and swirls towards the center. The furniture is pulled in and the walls shake, loosening the flakes of plaster. The dirt suffocates us and irritates our eyes and makes us thirsty. If the hurricane catches you by surprise you could become trapped in its funnel, twirling round and round, sometimes spit out against a wall, violently, only to bounce back to the center again and again until you die and even after you’re dead.
Once calm is restored, I leave the corner and I walk amongst the rubble, the broken vases, the overturned furniture. Everything is beautifully out of place. The dining room seems exhausted, as if after a fit of vomiting. It seems to breathe easier.
We think the grass attracts it but we’re not sure and our theories don’t have the slightest scientific basis. But it’s interesting to observe some facts. We have classified the grass (a job carried out by Angel, the vegetarian) as a variety of St. Augustine called Martynia louisiana, native to North America. It seems to grow only in this garden. It has large flowers, yellow with purple spots. It bears fruit once a year: a pointed capsule shaped like a horn. Hence its popular name, Unicorn Plant, and from there, according to us, the annual visit of the animal to our garden. Despite patient vigilance we’ve never actually seen it. But we have noticed the grass cut by teeth. We’ve discovered holes in the dirt, as if produced by the twisted point of an umbrella in the elevated bank of a mud puddle. We’ve seen hoof prints; we’ve found fresh manure. One night the sound of a soft whinny reached us. The next morning we found Luisa. She was sixteen years old and had joined our group only days prior. Her chest was punctured by an enormous uni-hole; she was naked, monstrously raped.
You are a door-to-door salesman. You peddle books or memberships to medical societies. You knock on all the doors. You try to get into all the houses. It’s late afternoon. You see a wrought-iron fence and you hesitate for an instant. But you are determined, and an unkempt garden does not dissuade you. You push open the gate. You walk up the path that divides the garden in two; you stop directly in front of the door and you look for the doorbell. You don’t find it, but you see a bronze doorknocker. It’s shaped like a hand, with long thin fingers. There’s a ring on the largest finger and the index finger is missing two phalanges. The finger did not break but was intentionally designed this way. You pause. But you remember your lessons from salesman school, and some previous experience of your own, and you pluck up your courage. You lift the knocker, making it turn on its hinge, and you let it fall: one, two, three times against its base, also bronze. The sound booms through the house.
You are confused. We know all too well from our sad experiments that the knocker causes many strange sounds to echo through the house. You will inevitably think you hear a dry, hoarse voice. It insists that you open the door and come in. Your confusion lasts a few seconds but in the end your hope gets the better of you and you make the grave mistake.
When we arrive we find only your briefcase, on a chair, or on the floor. We don’t need to open it to determine your line of work. We gather in the dining room for a moment of silence. Someone invariably sheds a tear. Someone always suggests that we report the case to the authorities. We convince them that we would gain nothing and we would surely lose the house. Then someone pipes up to suggest that we hang a warning sign on the front door. The older members of the group have to explain, once again, that this only increases the number of victims and that sooner or later the string of curious idiots will get us kicked out of the house.
We finally agree that these incidents are regrettable but we can do nothing to prevent them. Tired of the sorrow, guilty consciences, and useless arguing, we decide to take the issue a little more lightly. After all, we agree, there are too many door-to-door salesmen in the world anyway. Later, someone takes your briefcase and throws it unceremoniously into the well in the back yard.
In the garden there is, of course, a variety of ants. Periodically, we’re pleased to find a new ant bed where we plant a red flag. We’ve noticed that the ants march along the cracks towards a location under the house, in the foundation. We think this contributes to the slow collapse.
We take care of the most important plants, pruning them and giving the discarded leaves to the ants. The philosopher objects. He says that we are contributing to the weakening of the species by making their tasks easier and gradually reducing their capacity for work. There is one lady who thinks we should simply exterminate them with ant poison but we know this method doesn’t work.
What happens in the house is different. The few ants that live inside don’t seem to have any work to do. They wander around lost in thought, half-heartedly pacing a wall or floorboard. We’ve discovered that they live alone, in some isolated crack or corner, and they feed on small things that they find. We’ve never seen them gathering or storing food. Occasionally they are spotted in pairs, but the relationships appear to be unstable.
There’s one ant that we identify by a little bit of white paint on her backside. She spends several days gathering sticks and other small objects, never once stopping to rest as she completes her construction. We don’t know what it is but it’s not a nest and does not appear to serve any practical purpose for the ant. She crawls all over it in ecstasy for a while, then she forgets about it and returns to her contemplative state. If by accident or clumsiness the structure is destroyed, even partially, the ant becomes infuriated and walks around crazed for hours.
Archie, the engineer, who has done a detailed study of the ant’s construction, concludes that it’s a major feat of engineering. He says that it would be impossible to complete such a project without advanced knowledge of mathematics. He has taken some notes which he thinks will revolutionize modern bridge-building techniques. He believes that the ant is acting out of instinct, building bridges where they’re not needed.
I don’t think they’re bridges. I have my own ideas on the matter. Everyone takes out magnifying glasses; they focus in on the details, applauding the complexity of the work and the symmetry of the sticks. I prefer to look at the structure as a whole. I think that it’s beautiful and that its shape reflects, in a way, an ant.