The Art of Time Travel Through Friendship
“An Involuntary Biography of Love,” a story by Portuguese author João Tordo, translated by Hugo Dos Santos
AN INTRODUCTION BY HUGO DOS SANTOS
I was at a bookstore in downtown Lisbon when I discovered João Tordo’s Biografia Involuntária dos Amantes. It wasn’t a personal shopping trip. I was looking for picture books in Portuguese, books with bright colors that might capture my toddler’s attention; an underhanded way of teaching him my native tongue. But the children’s section was in the back of the bookstore, and I had to walk its full length, so naturally my eyes wandered. The book with the faded gray cover caught my attention and I stopped to inspect it more closely. I recognized the author’s name, had met Tordo a few years earlier at a reading not too far from this bookstore, and the title made me smile. I translated it under my breath — a habit of those who navigate two languages, exist in a hyphenated space that is neither one nor the other — literally and without concern for grammar: An Involuntary Biography of Lovers. No, I corrected myself: An Involuntary Biography of Love. Better, I thought. I guess I was translating the book before I even opened the first page.
Later I would wonder: what is an involuntary biography, anyway? And what is an involuntary biography of lovers? Of love? At that time, I was working on another translation project so my interest was genuinely that of a reader. Part of the fun of translating is having access to the author to help answer questions like these.
The plot of this novel, from which the following excerpt comes, focuses on the friendship between the narrator and his friend, the poet Miguel Saldaña Paris, who makes an impossible request that sends the narrator off on his quest.
Tordo’s writing is often filled with the kind of tension that pushes against the comfort of the reader’s expectations, and Biography is no different. On the trail of love and desire, Tordo’s characters flirt with the dark side of obsession. Their discomfort is our discomfort, at times unsettling. In translating this novel, I’ve learned much about sustaining tension without sacrificing other aspects of the reader’s experience. To accomplish this feat, Tordo breaks from traditional linear narrative structure. In Biography there are instances where sequence succumbs to memory, which is a beautiful and demanding style to recreate in English. I confess that I’m still figuring out how to do that.
Hugo Dos Santos
The Art of Time Travel Through Friendship
An Involuntary Biography of Love
by João Tordo, translated by Hugo Dos Santos
The first time I saw him, he was sitting on a bench, in the middle of the street, playing a brown, four-string guitar, old and in poor shape. There were two people standing in front of his bench; to our left, the circular plaza, where girls sculpted of stone, in their perpetual youth, played with a metal hoop, next to a boy, also sculpted of stone, who drank from a waterspout. It was late April or early May (I can’t recall exactly), but Winter seemed reluctant to leave us. The passersby headed toward downtown Pontevedra wore coats, because a piercing cold cut through and up toward the threatening clouds above the city.
A man who listened with us sighed and said: “What a mess. Why don’t you go learn how to play.”
I stayed listening to him, along with a young girl wearing a knit hat and a book bag. Then she also left, while he went on fiddling with the instrument. The music was unpleasant and dissonant; watching his wan profile, his furrowed brow, despite his young age, his glasses at the end of his small nose and his lower lip hanging, it occurred to me that the instrument wasn’t meant to play music, but rather to soothe some unseen pain. He stopped and looked at me, surprised, as if I were not supposed to be there — nor the street nor the plaza nor the girls eternally playing with their hoop.
I tried to smile, but I must have made a strange face; I left. Because I was distracted, I didn’t pay attention to where I was going and the waterspout wet my shoes and the bottom of my pants. The next day I saw him again, but I didn’t approach: it was Sunday, I was tired and had come downtown strictly to pick up groceries — just enough to keep in the fridge for a couple of days, so that I would have to go out again on Tuesday, because I liked to get outside after all the hours spent at the university. I glimpsed him from a distance. This time he wasn’t playing: a light rain was coming down and the man with the boyish face sat next to his guitar and seemed to be reading a book, very concentrated, absorbed, shaking his right leg, seemingly unaware he was doing so.
I wanted to go talk to him, but I didn’t do it. I hesitated a few seconds, went as far as taking a step in his direction before retreating, asking myself why I would possibly want to talk to a stranger — even if in Pontevedra a stranger spotted more than once in the same place becomes a resident or, at the very least, a local attraction. Discouraged, I made my way home. I crossed the street and, without meaning to, ended up taking a route longer than usual, crossing Praça da Ferrería, decorated by the flowering camellias, the tables outside the coffee shop half-filled with tourists and old locals, and going up Benito Corbal in the direction opposite to that which I would have taken if I had wanted to go directly home. The grocery bags weighed heavier now. I ended up wandering, reflecting on that character sitting on the bench and on my life, taking my time on the sidewalks without noticing the people or shop windows or the late afternoon that slowly unveiled the evening. Lost in my thoughts and unaware of exactly how, I crossed Rua de Castelao. I imagined the writer who lent the street its name leaning over the railing on a balcony, a sunny second floor apartment facing a type of plaza; I imagined Castelao observing his own likeness sculpted in shale (in a style I considered questionable and rather somber — it was not uncommon to find myself meeting Castelao in a nightmare, his figure curved beneath the weight of Francoist Spain, spitting truths into my ear), the sculpture refusing to return his stare: one of those stares a real flesh and blood version, with a cornea and iris, the other version cold stone.
I made my way and, finally, nearing Joaquín Costa, I thought again of the man with the guitar. I thought also of Andrea, probably sitting on the couch reading a magazine or watching tv in that lethargic daze she always watched tv with — one leg over the arm of the couch, one arm hanging limply to the side — in her characteristic slouch. I remember that I walked through the front door after three flights of stairs and I remember that I called her name; no response. I crossed the foyer and, in the hallway, instead of turning right to go into the living room, I cut left toward the kitchen and, before resting my bags, whose handles had drawn deep grooves in the palms of my hands, I smelled cigarettes. In four or five decided steps I was at the door to Andrea’s room. I knocked; a few seconds later, she opened. Her eyes were bloodshot and she had her hair up, a pencil across the bun. She wore dirty overalls and held, in her right hand, a paintbrush. Her room was a mess. In the center, a white canvas looking like it had been smeared by a child, and a cigarette burning on an ashtray near the window.
“What have I told you about smoking,” I asked her.
Andrea shrugged her shoulders. Under her overalls, her chest quivered.
“Smoked. And you’re just sixteen.”
“Almost seventeen. Going on fifty.”
We eyed one another for a long moment. This often happened to us; while I searched for the right words, she searched for conflict. This was a challenge I had already lost. I thought of telling her about the figure of a man residing in the plaza where the stone girls played with a hoop and I thought of telling her that I wanted to invite him to come on my radio show, but I saw, through my daughter’s furrowed brow, that it would be in vain; that all my words would be little more than air exiting my mouth, swallowed by indifference.
“At least smoke outside, then,” I asked her.
I went into the living room and stood contemplating the moon, squeezed between the clouds, looking every now and then at my reflection in the window. I was starting to slouch, I thought; my shoulders slumped and my stomach protruded, despite my thinness. In other times, when I met Andrea’s mother, for instance, women had told me I was an attractive man. Now, I was sure I would pass unnoticed in a room full of people. From Andrea’s room I heard traces of the strange music she’d recently started listening to, melancholy songs in foreign tongues, and I wished what a father should never wish for — that the next day would come already, the day her mother was scheduled to pick her up, and then I wouldn’t have to see her for another week. It had become a source of stress in my life. Until she became a teenager she had been a sweet, if reticent, child, quiet, a conscientious student. She’d attended a Catholic school, to which I’d been opposed from the start without great effect: the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Pontevedra had been Andrea’s school during her early and later years, because Paula insisted. Maybe in response to that education, Andrea had come home one day with a tattoo, a crow on a wire that circled her ankle. I was at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, and I saw it at once: it was Summer, my daughter wore a school skirt and the tattoo was fresh, the skin around it purplish and inflamed.
“What is that?” I asked.
“A cheese sandwich,” she said, and slipped into her room.
It was the first time Andrea spoke to me in that tone. Many would follow, of course; yet, in that instant, I understood that I had lost not only my marriage but also my daughter. Some time later, her mother called me and, in a voice heavy with spite — as if I were personally to blame for my daughter’s metamorphosis — announced to me that Andrea had a boyfriend (whom she described as a delinquent), that she had become cynical and keen to talk back and that she had decided she wouldn’t be going to college because she’d announced that, after high school, she intended to travel instead of studying. To undercut those notions, I tried to ensnare my daughter in long conversations, which turned into monologues. I took her to dinner at her favorite Chinese restaurant, Long Fon, and, when that trick failed, I took her to Alameda, where I soon understood my mistake: if Andrea had distanced herself, crossed over the invisible threshold to that limbo preceding adult life, it wouldn’t be in a fancy restaurant, with waiters in bowties and napkins folded in creative shapes, that I would find a way of reuniting us.
It had been three years since I’d started my radio show. It was a weekly program with virtually no audience; the station was called Rádio Pontevedra and the program was titled Happy Days, despite airing at night, between one and two-thirty a.m., and having very little to do with happiness. While I had majored in Literature, I had wanted to be a journalist — I had, at the age of twenty four, completed an internship at El País, in Madrid, which led to a brief and demeaning career in small-town journalism; through a friend, I later received an invitation to teach in Compostela. Since 1990, every Fall, I took in third-year students and spoke to them about Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Joyce, Woolf, Byatt and, depending on the current literary trends and my personal disposition, McEwan or Ishiguro or Amis. The university wore on me, however; the repeated readings bored me and my students seemed, with each passing semester, ever less interested in literature and ever more distracted by the banalities of a world tinged in monotony — or, who knows, maybe my own monotony had tinged everything in a neutral tone. It was possible that I had contaminated them. As such, the radio show offered the only outlet I knew of to escape the swamp of my existence and breathe for an hour and a half, far from the paperwork routines of the university and the vicissitudes of my life as a divorced man.
It was because of Happy Days that I formally met Saldaña Paris. Rather: I was thinking about my radio show when I saw him again. I don’t remember exactly how long it had been since the weekend when I had first seen him; I know that, on a morning when the weather had finally turned and the shy Spring sun had finally broken over the streets, I was walking through the old part of the city. It was Wednesday, a day I didn’t teach any classes, and, crossing the street to Praça Méndez Núñez, I was late to glance at the building for Café Universo, whose facade, painted in a purplish hue, contrasted elegantly with the sky. Those colors soothed me. Then I saw him. He stood next to the statue of Valle-Inclán, hovering over it, observing the most minor details of the writer’s face: the diamond-shaped beard, the metallic eyeglasses, the hat, the pointed nose. Rámon Mária del Valle-Inclán, the poet and romantic who lost his arm at the age of thirty-three: the statue carved of basalt in that stone plaza of Pontevedra was chiseled in his likeness, a short man, with a cane, an old and round pair of eyeglasses. Saldaña Paris was a little taller than the statue — if the statue was accurate, Valle-Inclán had been a very short man. I watched him touch the statue’s left arm, the sleeve of his basalt coat, thinner than the other sleeve, empty of flesh, disappearing inside his coat pocket. He stroked the sculpture with tenderness. He took a step back, pulled out a notepad from his back pocket and scribbled something. I approached, unable to contain my curiosity any longer or further delay the meeting that now felt inevitable, I introduced myself. He extended his hand, which felt small in mine. I had begun to tell him some banalities concerning Valle-Inclán when he interrupted me.
“Mr. Valle-Inclán lived in my country almost one hundred twenty years ago. According to some reports, he traveled from Galicia and established himself there as a translator and correspondent. He lived in Veracruz, where my maternal grandfather was born, whose name was Miguel, like me. Except his name was Miguel Agapito, a name he wasn’t particularly fond of.” He returned the notepad to his back pocket; he seemed to be trying to grow a moustache that was no more than some light fuzz. His eyes were blue: very blue and very sad. “Apparently,” he continued, “Valle-Inclán participated in a duel with a conservative or anti-liberal journalist and took a serious beating in Veracruz, which was not uncommon in those days.”
“That’s how he lost his left arm,” I continued. “In a similar argument with a journalist, an argument that turned violent.”
“Manuel Bengoechea, in the lobby of Hotel Paris, in Madrid. He hit Valle-Inclán with a cane, fracturing several bones. The left forearm acquired gangrene and they had to amputate it,” he added. He had a soft accent and frail voice, almost feminine. “Journalists bothered him and Valle-Inclán did not tolerate fools. Or anyone who argued without, as he deemed it, sound reasoning or logical grounds. I empathize. If our world were different, I’d do the same. Today is trickier because, if you live in Mexico, where at night clubs every Saturday night heads can be decapitated, arguing with someone can lead to, simply, the drawing of a gun and you taking a bullet to the head. And let’s agree that while it might be bad enough to lose an arm in an argument, it’s certainly not worth losing your life.”
I invited him for a drink. We crossed, slowly, Praça de La Leña and descended down Figueroa toward Praça Peregrina. He walked in silence, his hands behind his back, observing everything in his path with fluttering eyes, two colorful and restless fire-flies. I told him the story of the city and its buildings; Saldaña Paris agreed by nodding his head, stopping now and then to note something in his rumpled notepad. At last, we arrived at the newer part of Pontevedra. As soon as we were inside Café Moderno, he became very interested in the life-size statues of six men sitting around a table — in truth, the statues were replicas of replicas: in the plaza outside the cafe, the same men existed in a similar formation, chatting, sculpted in bronze and led, in the center, by violinist Carlos Quiroga (the others were Valentín Paz-Andrade, Castelao, Carlos Casares, Alexandre Bóveda, and Ramón Cabanillas, all of them Galician writers and intellectuals). Inside the cafe, the statues were in color, not bronze, and wore red, blue, and green ties; one of them had a bowtie, the other one a hat.
“What a bunch,” said Saldaña Paris. “They look like a Lego set imagined by Kafka.”
I showed him around the cafe. He didn’t seem interested in the gaudy paintings on the walls, but he seemed specifically drawn to one by Laxeiro titled El Manantial de la Vida. “Good title for a book,” he commented.
We sat next to an old couple and ordered beers. We continued talking about Valle-Inclán — he insisted that the Galician became a writer in Mexico, during his first trip across the Atlantic. I later asked my Mexican acquaintance what he was doing in these parts. He avoided my question.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m Spanish. My parents are from Rosal de la Frontera.”
“Where is that?”
“In Andalusia. Near the border with Portugal.”
“So you’re almost Portuguese.”
“I just made it,” I joked. “During Franco, my father used to say that, despite everything, the Spanish were actually lucky: at least, they weren’t Portuguese.”
“I like the Portuguese,” he objected.
“My father said a lot of dumb things.”
“This cafe is already familiar to me,” he said, after the waiter brought over our beers. I paid; he didn’t budge. “It’s as if I have been here before, even as I’m sure I’ve never set foot in this place.”
“Lots of people feel that,” I replied, taking a sip of my beer. “This was a movie theater once. On the first day it opened they projected sixty one films.”
“In Mexico, they would have set fire to this place during the revolution.”
“You have a low opinion of your country.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” he countered, picking up his beer.
He then started to explain how he felt about his countrymen: they were all bandits, caciques, drunks, losers, and assassins, terrified and insignificant; who, once the world was finally and decidedly swept clean to mark the end of times, the only surviving creatures would be mariachis, with their ridiculous costumes and their homemade musical instruments, singing their songs for the rest of eternity.
“Beautiful image,” I said. “Are you a musician?”
“I am above all a poet,” he answered. “Or maybe I’m a musician, and what I write are song lyrics. Except my songs are pretty shitty. When I was eighteen I wanted to be a lawyer, but then I read Bioy Casares and decided I wanted to be a writer. Then I read Borges and understood that I would never succeed in writing fiction, or that the son of a bitch had already written everything there was to be written, and so I decided again to become a lawyer. I enrolled in law school in Mexico City for two years. I spent the entire time walking up and down Insurgentes Sur, finding ways to skip class, until my parents told me — or rather, my father told me, because my mother had by that point already left for Tijuana with her boyfriend — that, if I wanted to keep living at home, I had to either study or work.”
“And so what did you do?”
“I left. Have you read Bolaño?”
“Well I didn’t know him at the time. Maybe he hadn’t even published yet. But when I read his work, much later, I learned that he had been writing my story over and over again. Our story: that of Mexicans lost in Mexico, as he called us. Instead of staying in school, I traveled. Once and for all, I left behind the notion of becoming a lawyer. I walked through the desert, I saw the cities of the interior, I visited Tehuantepec and Matamoros. I had my uncle’s inheritance money: it wasn’t much, but I also didn’t need much. I started writing. That is: I stopped scribbling and I started writing. I sent out a poetry manuscript that I’d assembled in cafes to a literary contest in Guadalajara, a contest for new writers, and I won. On the first try. It was unexpected: I, who had never published anything, anywhere, had suddenly won real money with fifty measly pages.”
The sadness had evaporated from him: he spoke with pleasure, as if he had, for months, been coerced into reticence, and had now finally found his chance at freedom. We drank our beers. I wanted to invite him to appear as a guest in my show, like I had been meaning to for several days, but I hadn’t yet found the right moment.
“And what did you do with the money?”
“What a question. I returned to Mexico City after learning me about the congratulatory letter from Guadalajara. It was the only time I heard him falter: that is, the only time he folded, let himself be overtaken by emotion. He could care less about my writing, of course. But his son had won something, had emerged among winners. When I arrived home, I picked up the check, packed a bag, and took off with aims of spending it all in Las Vegas. I couldn’t think of anything better to do with it. And, in Las Vegas, in another unexpected turn of luck, I won tons of money, which allowed me to travel to Europe. I landed in Madrid on a September morning in 1993, barely awake, and ten years would go by before I set foot in Mexico again.”
“Wait,” I interrupted, leaning forward. His eyes were bulging out of his head, as if he suffered from exophthalmos. “I would like you to tell me this entire story, but not here. And not now, tomorrow, between midnight and two in the morning.”
On the following day I returned from Santiago at 10 p.m. I had dinner at home, alone, the television on mute. While I ate, I imagined Paula in bed with her boyfriend — she reading a magazine, he reading the sports pages — and I felt satisfied in being alone. It was true that, on the days of my show, I felt happier or less defeated — but it was also true that, on that particular Thursday, the anticipation of that special guest gave me an added sense of excitement. I admit that I am not sure what I saw in him. At first glance, Saldaña Paris was a bland man, without much refinement in his dress, with features stressed with an excessive anxiety; a short and awkward creature who would go unnoticed in any part of the world. Much later I understood — after it was too late, after I’d become far too involved — that it was precisely those features that fascinated me.
I was mesmerized by his melancholy, a melancholy he had no interest in abating; a long and persistent melancholy, that he kept like a companion. That unhealthy condition that presents itself in the form of ghosts and can weaken even the sturdiest of convictions. So opposed to my own condition, which I could not label as melancholy — maybe disappointment or a broken spirit. Saldaña Paris was truly melancholic: a man from another era, trapped in ours; a man from a time where happiness was not a requirement, merely the fortune of some lucky fools.
When I reached the entrance of Radio Pontevedra he was already waiting for me, leaning against the wall. It was eleven thirty. He had brought with him a guitar in a black case and that notepad in his back pocket. Spring had arrived, and the smells of camellias and of the Lérez River permeated the air. We said hello and walked in together; he didn’t seem nervous, rather intrigued. He asked several questions about the show, which I answered while we walked inside the radio station and settled in around the round table equipped with headphones and microphones. Over in the corner, the news played on a television screen.
“Every week I invite a guest,” I explained. “The idea is for the guest to be someone unknown. The concept of the program, actually, is to be the opposite of daytime radio shows where guests are, usually, either famous or relatively well-known people.”
“In that case you can rest assured. No one knows me. Neither here nor in Mexico. Even the woman from whom I rent a room calls me Eighteen.”
“It’s my room number. She’s very old. I think she witnessed the fall of Rome, but I can’t be sure.”
Saldaña Paris rested his guitar and placed his notepad on the table. He fiddled with a pair of headphones, tried them on. On the other side of the glass I watched Julia Montel, who slid with elegance across the production room to the mixing table, where she adjusted a few of the controls. We heard her Andalusian accent echoing through the speakers:
“And a happy day to the two of you,” she said.
The Mexican poet raised his head, seemingly confused. Julia’s slim figure came into the room. She was beautiful, a realization that always arrested me when I first laid eyes on her every Thursday night and observed, askew, the way she picked up her brown hair with various clips, while the show unfolded and I allowed my interviewees to run on and on about whatever they felt like talking about. Every week, by the time the show came to an end, her long hair had transformed into an abstract sculpture, a wire frame, some loose threads here and there; her freckles more pronounced, her translucent green eyes. She had the advantage of both youth and beauty: Julia was twenty years younger than me and she had recently finished her degree in Vigo, where I still held out hope that Andrea would disappear for a few years. I had the disadvantage of feeling far too anxious and timid around her to ever tell her how much I liked her.
“I am the overnight producer,” she announced, as her introduction to Saldaña Paris.
I noticed for the first time the poet’s visceral and strange behavior. He stood up too quickly and grabbed Julia’s hand with far more intensity than was to be expected, leading it to his lips; he planted a kiss on the back of her hand, without ever ceasing to eye her over the frame of his glasses, and didn’t retake his seat until she had left the room in mild shock.
The lights dimmed and, eleven minutes later, we were on the air.