Antes Del Fin - Before The EndSunday, May 01, 2011
cómo se pasa la vida,
cómo se viene la muerte
how life passes,
how death comes
Jorge Manrique, 1440-1479
Back in 1966 when I was a conscript in the Argentine Navy I would sometimes be dispatched to Electrónica Naval. This was a large building near one of the oldest and most beautiful parks in Buenos Aires. The park was called Parque Lezama. I was dispatched to Electrónica Naval with purchase orders and documents from the US Senior Naval Advisory Group (I was seconded to them, by the Argentine Navy, because of my English). The Argentine Naval department had the task of repairing and maintaining the elecronics (and avionics) of slightly old equipment that had been purchased from the US like the Douglas Skyhawk fighter jets. What my boss Captain USN Onfrio Salvia did not know (or knew but kept it to himself) is that the radar parts that were obtained for free from the US were used to build and assemble TV sets (carpenter sailors built beautiful cabinets) that where then sold to the public with greata profit to the upper hierarchy of the Argentine Navy.
I often lingered at Parque Lezama (I would always complain of the terrible Buenos Aires bus system to explain my delay) and I would sit, meditate on my existence and try to understand that I really had little of the free will we were supposed to be born with as the navy controlled my life and most of my actions.
I did not know then that if I might have lingered longer I might have spotted two men walking arm in arm perhaps meditating and discussing the very subject that kept me occupied.
The two men in question were Jorge Luís Borges and Ernesto Sabato. They are my two favourite Argentine writers and Sabato’s Sobre Héroes y Tumbas is in my opinion the definitive Argentine novel that defines who we Argentines are (or in my case as I am now a Canadian, what I was).
Central to Sobre Héroes y Tumbas is a church in Belgrano on Juramento Street in Buenos Aires that is affectionately called la Redonda (the Round One). It is a church I often went to Mass to. In this church, Padre Filippo (who was Eva Perón’s confessor) sermonized us that we should become Peronists if we wanted to be saved.
Some six years ago I returned to la Redonda with my granddaughter Rebecca and she and my godmother Inesita O’Reilly de Kuker sat for Mass and then for a breakfast of café con leche and medias lunas.
I don’t think I have ever seen a photograph of Ernesto Sabato smiling. The man was a genius physicist who lost his interest in pursuing his career in Paris because of what was being done with atomic weapons. He decided to write. Most of what he wrote was not full of alegría but definitely on the morose and depressing.
Sábato wrote a sort of memoirs called Antes del fin or Before the End. I bought the book when it was published in 1999. The book is a continuous jolt of the mind. It is a book I often read when I am happy as I sometimes feel guilty about being happy (perhaps this is very Argentine or Sabato-like). Just reading the initial essay you see here which I translated into English the best I could is enough to wipe the smile from my face.
Yesterday from my NY Times I found out that Ernesto Sabato died at age 99. I find it interesting and appropriate to the man that he may have written one of the most beautiful of postscripts to a life quite a few years before he actually died.
He sort of reminds me of my father who died on the street with enough money in his pocket with which I the Argentine Navy sailor without any money, was able to pay for a humble but decent burial.
I just woke up and it will soon be five in the morning; I try not to make a noise, I go to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea while I try to remember the fragments of my drowsy dreams, those drowsy dreams which now that I am 86 years old present themselves helter skelter mixed with remembrances of my childhood. I never had a good memory, I always suffered from that disadvantage; but perhaps it might be a form of only remembering what must be, what may have been the largest event that happened in my life, what has a deep significance, what has been decisive – for good and for bad – in this complex, contradictory and unexplainable voyage towards death which is everybody’s life. That is why my culture of understanding is so irregular and full of glaring holes, as if it were made up of the remains of beautiful temples of which only pieces were left scattered wih garbage and wild foliage. The books that I read, the theories I explored, happened because of my run ins with reality.
When I am stopped on the street, on a park or train and I am asked which books one must read, I always tell them: "Read what you have a passion, it will be the only thing that will help you tolerate existence."
That is why I eliminated the title Memoirs and also Memoirs of one without memories for this book as it seemed only a play on words, inadequate for this testament, which I have written in the saddest period of my life. In this period when I feel crippled in not being able to remember immortal poems about time and death that would console me in these final years.
In the country town where I was born, before we would retire to sleep, we had the custom of asking that we would be wakened up in the morning with: " Remember me at six." I always marveled at that relation that was made between memory and the continuation of one’s existence.
Memory was highly appreciated by great cultures, as a way of coping with time. It was not simply the remembering of ordinary every day happenings, nor that memory that serves to store information in today’s computers: I speak of the necessity of nurturing and transmitting to others the basic truths.
In archaic communities, while the father was out to find food, and women wove baskets or tended the crops, the little ones, sitting on the laps of their grandfathers, were educated in their wisdom; not in the sense that our scientific world defines that word, but in that type of wisdom that helps us to live and die; the advice of those counselors, who were mostly illiterate, but as one day the poet Denghor told me in Dakar: the death of one of those old men is what for you, now, would be the burning of a library of poets and thinkers. In those tribes, life had a sacred and profound meaning, and their rites were not only beautiful but also mysterious in their purpose, they consecrated the fundamental underpinnings of reality: birth, love, pain and death.
As I lie in the shadows, in the middle of my sorrows and tiredness, like one of those ancient old men, within the reach of the heat of the embers of a fire and remembered their ancient rites and legends, I resolve to tell some of the events of my life, mixed and diffuse which have been part of profound and contradictory tensions, of a live full of chaotic and messy wrong turns, in my desperate search for truth.
Antes del fin by Ernesto Sábato and translated by me.
|Photo uncredited in my copy of book|
Me acabo de levantar, pronto serán las cinco de la madrugada; trato de no hacer ruido, voy a la cocina y me hago una taza de té, mientras intento recordar fragmentos de mis semisueños, esos semisueños que, a estos ochenta y seis años, se me presentan intemporales, mezclados con recuerdos de la infancia. Nunca tuve buena memoria, siempre padecía de esa desventaja; pero tal vez sea una forma de recordar únicamente lo que debe ser, quizá lo más grande que nos ha sucedido en la vida, lo que tiene significado profundo, lo que ha sido decisivo – para bien y para mal – en este complejo, contradictorio e inexplicable viaje hacia la muerte que es la vida de cualquiera. Por eso mi cultura es tan irregular, colmada de enormes agujeros, como constituida por restos de bellísimos templos de los que quedan pedazos entre la basura y las plantas salvajes. Los libros que leí, las teorías que frecuenté, se debieron a mis propios tropiezos con la realidad.
Cuando me detienen por la calle, en una plaza o en el tren, para preguntarme qué libros hay que leer, les digo siempre<
Por eso descarté el título de Memorias y también de Memorias de un desmemoriado, porque me pareció casi un juego de palabras, inadecuado para esta especie de testamento, escrito en el período más triste de mi vida. En este tiempo en que me siento un desvalido, al no recordar poemas inmortales sobre el tiempo y la muerte que me consolarían en estos años finales.
En el pueblo del campo donde nací, antes de irnos a dormir, existía la costumbre de pedir que nos despertaran diciendo:>>Recuérdenme a las seis.>> Siempre me asombró aquella relación que se hacía entre la memoria y la continuación de la existencia.
La memoria fue muy valorada por las grandes culturas, como resistencia ante el devenir del tiempo. No el recuerdo de simples acontecimientos, tampoco esa memoria que sirve para almacenar información en las ahora computadoras: hablo de la necesidad de cuidar y transmitir las primigenias verdades.
En las comunidades arcaicas, mientras el padre iba en busca de alimento y las mujeres se dedicaban a la alfarería o el cuidado de los cultivos, los chiquitos, sentados sobre las rodillas de sus abuelos, eran educados en su sabiduría; no en el sentido que le otorga a esta palabra la civilización cientificista, sino aquella que nos ayuda a vivir y morir; la sabiduría de esos consejeros, que en general eran analfabeos, pero como un día me dijo el gran poeta Senghor, en Dakar: >>La muerte de uno de esos ancianos es lo que para ustedes sería el incendio de una biblioteca de pensadores y poetas.>> En aquellas tribus, la vida poseía un valor sagrado y profundo; y sus ritos, no solo hermosos sino misteriosamente significativos, consagraban los hechos fundamentales de la existencia: el nacimiento, el amor, el dolor y la muerte.
En torno a penumbras que avizoro, en el medio del abatimiento y la desdicha, como unos de esos ancianos de tribu que, acomodados junto al calor de la brasa, rememoraban sus antiguos mitos y leyendas, me dispongo a contar algunos acontecimientos, entremezclados, difusos, que han sido parte de tensiones profundas y contradictorias, de una vida llena de equivocaciones, desprolijas, caótica, en una desperada búsqueda de la verdad.
Rebecca & Inesita a La Redonda
Of Bats and Cockroaches
Captain USN Onofrio F. Salvia, Kapitän Langsdorff Shoots Himself & I Get A Haircut