At four in the afternoon the Avenida Corrientes is the favorite dwelling place for the idle clerks, pimps, pen-pushers and gamblers of Buenos Aires, a city that only exists — as many whisper — by the grace of the Madonna and in the imagination of an old, blind poet. The latter, filled with a vision that his eyes could no longer behold, described the city as a collection of merely accidental and almost useless details: a blue enamel tile veined with brown, a basalt spire to commemorate some obscure mariner, a suburban villa lost between pines, a sword hanging in a bar by way of a forgotten trophy.
He described her thus, as if this city is no more than the sum of the most humble and untraceable details, a mosaic of invisible temptations. His description is the despair of those praising her for her broad avenues, her majestic public buildings, her baroque colonnades, her vast rampant gardens. Deliberately he remained ignorant of the political storms of that early spring, the strikes, inflation, unrest and instability, all of which the average citizen of this city had learned to accept.
His description is far from correct, neither is it complete, but at the same time it is typical of the unique gift this city bestows on her most faithful inhabitants: the gift to discern telling details in what would otherwise have been an unwelcoming metropolis. Simultaneously the city disavows this intention: she is unwelcoming for those who see her as vast — the dusty boulevards where the trees give ample shadow, and her chaotic public transport.
The poet cannot change this vision. Whoever notices the details — the tile, the sword, the villa, the basalt spire — may reach the level of the aesthetic, and can become obsessed by the pure thought that transforms Buenos Aires into the city of the tango, the Lunfardo, the long-extinct Gaucho, the heroes from revolutionary times, and a longing for the incredible vast plains that wait only some mere miles from the city limits.
The Avenida Carrientes is not nearly the grandest avenue, but as far as the inner city is concerned it certainly is the most typical. It is often compared, and not without good reason, with similar avenues in Berlin and Paris. Every afternoon — except on Sundays when it is almost deserted, and even the elderly people that frequent the city center avoid her on the Holy Day — the avenue irresistibly attracts a swirling crowd of people. I have no explanation for this phenomenon, unless it can be attributed to an irrationality that holds the life of this city and its inhabitants in its power.
The whole of the district around the Avenida Corrientes is the terrain of choice of the petty gamblers, and the corrupt officers of justice with their silver badges. This specific terrain however is not solely theirs; they are compelled to share it with invisible politicians and financiers. The gamblers and officers are but the symbolic representatives of a power that goes about elsewhere.
Boutiques whose names echo these of similar shops in Paris, London, New York line the avenue, while bored wives, daughters and mistresses of magistrates, oil-barons and financiers come here to play the old game of seduction and money. Their victory in the game is only certain when they return homeward with the most useless of consumerist articles.
In between these boutiques one can find a small number of alternative stores, often little more than run-down properties, where elderly men sell objects seemingly originating from an altogether different and forgotten age. They do not, in fact, sell these objects so much as guard them jealously and suspiciously. Their squinting glare directed at the passers-by is enough indication that they do not wish to sell their possessions. The passers-by in their turn show not the least interest in the exhibits behind the often dirty windows. They prefer to exchange their hard-earned money for such treasures as dresses, perfumes and scarves from Paris and London, Italian shoes, chocolate from Belgium or Switzerland, German jewelry, Argentine leather.
The objects in these small, dilapidated and dirty shops do not bask in the patina commonly associated with luxury and wealth. On the contrary: their patina constitutes of uselessness, because however antique they may be, they seem to have foregone their function in this world. A copper inkstand when everyone uses fountain pens, a mechanical chronometer when throw-away watches are in common use and tick away time effortlessly, a bible-stand in wrought iron, a set of military medals from the civil war, old maps, a copper oil-compass, a sextant in a box of cedar-wood, a collection of silver coins. There is much more, but all of it shares this unique characteristic: that of perfect uselessness.
Perhaps this is why the old men guard so carefully their possessions and refuse to part with them, in full contradiction with the mercantile intention of the neighborhood. They seem to comprehend how useless these objects are and, therefore, have no intention of seeing them going lost to the modern world, as orphans.
Not surprisingly all of these shops are doomed to disappear, as are there proprietors. They simply have no future; there isn't even a hope of succession. The youth is not inclined to follow in the footsteps of the elder, whom they consider without ambition. Instead, they become engineers, gamblers or railway conductors, clerks, stevedores, architects or estate agents. None of them has the intention to take over the shop whenever an owner disappears. Whatever happens with the stock no one seems to know, but in the imagined landscape of the blind poet, many of these objects surface in unexpected parts of the city — or so the story goes.
Admiring two brass-coloured Breitling watches in one of these shops, I one day came upon Señor Fronesis, whom I took to be a former military man, because of his straight back and cropped hair. I even suspected British heritage. Like myself, he appeared to be a melancholic, scavenging the interiors of these dusty so-called antiquarian shops, filled with the smell of talcum, for the treasures his forebears once had to sell on account of financial difficulties.
Amid of all these old and negligible objects I felt at home, or at least more at home than in the terrible heat of the streets that, from inside the shop, seemed like an alien planet's inhospitable landscape.
Señor Fronesis had little to say about himself but seemed to share my thoughts on both the passing of time, and the quality of those Breitling watches, the two of which had many characteristics in common, of course. At once this remarkable man launched into a curious theory, which didn't seem to make sense at all.
"Precisely these watches are responsible for the deconstruction of time, dear sir," he stated, a deep frown crossing his forehead. The man glanced suspiciously at the Breitlings, which were stubbornly ticking away in admirable synchronous harmony. For the moment they appeared safe from him, locked away in a glass cabinet.
I told him I was skeptical about his theory.
"Ever faster changes in the world and the exponential growth of knowledge are both characteristics of time speeding up. Time running away with us is not a coincidence in a century when the measuring of time has taken on such monstrous importance, and has received so much attention."
"I have never given the matter much thought," I said.
"I hope not," he replied. "If you had taken the time to ponder this matter, you surely would have been overtaken by time itself. God only knows what would have happened to you then. The ticking and clicking of these watches is already destroying time — devouring it, as it were. Till what remains, I wonder? Timeless chaos must be the answer."
I noticed he kept his distance from the direct influence of the watches, but continued to eye them suspiciously.
"Who will tell us how much time remains, dear sir? Have you ever given it any thought? One day we will witness the end of time. Nothing will remain: no more occurrences, no more life, no more consciousness, nothing. The laws of thermodynamics, you know?"
"It would be a true disaster," I admitted. "But that moment surely lies far ahead of us. The universe is infinite, or nearly so. There will certainly be enough time."
My suggestion didn't seem to appease him. He had probably himself come to similar conclusions at some point, but kept them hidden all the same, preferring his wild ideas.
"Unfortunately," he said, "we do not know how much time there is left for us in this universe. It's a most painful conclusion, but inevitable." His mouth twitched at this.
"Watches have not existed that long, only a few centuries. They cannot possibly have done too much damage." I suddenly felt willing to play along with his delusion, play a part in this macabre game, the role of an eager devil's advocate.
He thrust a finger in the air. "But there are so many of them! Millions of clocks and watches that cruelly, hungrily tick away at whatever's still left of time."
"Nevertheless I think you're confusing timekeeping with time itself," I ventured.
"You are not the first to express this objection, although others used more... mathematical arguments. Even against them I firmly held my ground."
At that instance rationality and logical deduction seemed most distant. Still, I had to admit that his theory possessed some attractive qualities, something magical, not without poetical beauty: watches eating away time. The blind poet that roamed the National Library could not possibly have come up with a better story.
For a moment I had allowed myself to fall for his rhetoric and his aristocratic countenance. My common sense, however, warned me not to take this theory to the limit. It was the sort of theory expressed by charlatans and schizophrenics, which usually appears in those newspapers catering to sensationalists. If I had been a journalist I would have taken Señor Fronesis to a confiteria and gotten the story. But I was no journalist.
"The best proof of my theory," he said, "is the undeniable fact that we lose so much of our past when growing older. Irrevocably, we lose what we were and what happened to us."
"You mean to say that we simply remember less and less of our past."
"However you want to define it. This forgetfulness points towards a degrading of the past."
"So in your opinion people were able to remember their past better when there were no clocks or watches?"
"But of course. Have you read your classics? Was it not Seneca in one of his letters to Lucillius who left us with an almost perfect reconstruction of his childhood? And was it not the Chinese philosopher Hui Tzu who was able to remember exactly what he ate every morning in the week of his sixth birthday? Even the British explorer Richard Burton described his own formidable memory in an age when watches and clocks were already in use."
"Burton is commonly known for not being particularly truthful."
The aristocrat shrugged. "There are a number of other examples. The past used to be more persistent in the old days than now. Can you remember what you ate in the week of your sixth birthday?"
"My reply will not disappoint you: I have no recollection of it whatsoever. But what does this prove? Nothing more than that some people have a good memory, and others don't."
Again the man cast a suspicious glance at the displayed chronometers, before looking outside, where pedestrians were passing the shop, indifferent in the hot midday air. Inside I felt like a chrononaut, lost in some other era.
As I began to formulate another objection to his theory, the owner of the shop, a tall, gaunt man, approached us. His face bore the same dismissive expression all the owners of these shops had. He wore an old dark suit, a shirt without collar or tie, and yellow shoes. His eyes were dull and unfocused. He emitted a smell of cheap cologne. It seemed the shopkeeper had suffered our presence long enough.
"We're just looking round a bit." I selected an ivory letter opener from his collection. I had planned to browse in one of the nearby second-hand bookshops after this visit, but the conversation with Señor Fronesis had taken up much more time than I had believed possible.
"Do as you well please," the old man grumbled. He sounded like a foreigner, as if he had spent his youth in a distant land. He shuffled away, displacing an object here, another there, disturbing the dust.
Fronesis eyed him with contempt. "Why we have to submit ourselves to the suspicion of these kinds of people, I really don't know. Pretty soon this lot will have vanished from the city. Serves them well, too."
I ignored the obvious anti-Semitic remark. It was the sort of thing one heard all too often from the bourgeoisie. "And with him will disappear all these attractive little shops, to the regret of people like us. Where will we then search for old objects and rare books when they are all gone?"
He shook his head. "The true lover of books and objects will always find what he is looking for, and will always find it by coincidence, not by purpose. Meanwhile, we deviate from our original subject."
"I was wondering if the quantity of one's recollections is a consequence of — how shall I put it — one's personal qualities?"
He shrugged. "Some people will, no doubt, possess a better memory than others, but you cannot deny the burden of proof in this matter. Feats of strong memory, like those of the classic writers, are a matter of the past, and will never be encountered again."
"May I ask: is this a theory considered over a long period of time, or newly improvised?"
"Improvised?" he blurted angrily said, as if this was an offense. "It is not my habit — never has been — to make this sort of statements without a great deal of preparatory research."
"So you have considered the matter thoroughly."
"I have done what anyone of my generation did in his younger years: I read the classics, the grand philosophers, the great minds of our past, from Plato to Spinoza. My theory took root slowly. It took several years to ripen, to become a logical system. It's no coincidence that I use these terms, root and ripen, because to me it was a biological process. Such a theory is not created in just one day."
"A famous writer, on intimate terms with this city, would certainly be interested to hear your theory, Señor Fronesis. Have you contacted this man?"
It was meant to be an innocent question, but it annoyed him. "You are not referring, I hope, to the current director of the National Library, Señor Borges?" He seemed taken aback. "I do not like the man. He has only one ambition."
"And that is?"
"To write the history of eternity! It is a deeply disturbing ambition. Can you possibly imagine such a monstrosity? Mankind has lost its entire past, but this man wants to describe eternity."
"It's only a literary project, nothing more. Literature cannot find truth. It can only sum up so many beautiful lies."
"Lies. Exactly the sort of thing he wants us to see by the way of reality. You remember his many essays on imaginary writers, I presume? That man is disturbing the true foundations of reality, that's what he is doing."
I could hardly suppress a smile. "That's exactly why I thought you would have a thing or two in common. You are doing exactly the same."
He clearly did not like my flippant approach, judging by the evil look he shot me. I had, without knowing it, made a terrible faux pas.
"There is," he whispered, as if he didn't want anyone to hear his wrath, "not a single thing this gentleman and I have in common. I cannot stand to pronounce his name. The man is an incorrigible liar. I, sir, only permit myself to be associated with true scientific theories."
Again the old shop-owner approached us, possibly alarmed by the high tone of our voices, fearing trouble and wanting to safeguard his possession.
"Is one of you gentleman interested in acquiring a Breitling watch?" he asked. It was a most remarkable and unlikely proposition. For the first time in my life I was offered merchandise in one of these shops.
Señor Fronesis abruptly turned towards the man. "Can you remember what you ate on the morning of your sixth birthday?" He could not keep the disdain out of his voice.
The old man frowned. He thought this a most remarkable question, but he did not want to offend his already agitated visitor. "On the morning of my sixth birthday — and I can remember this as if it were yesterday — I had goat cheese on rye, and a pint of milk. It had to do till supper came. Two meals were all we had in those days. Hard work and school, that was it. Can this satisfy your curiosity?"
For a long moment a painful silence filled the store, made all the more noticeable by the noisy pedestrians passing by outside. Then, and with pointed self-control, Señor Fronesis turned towards me and grunted, "This is a conspiracy. I warn you: a conspiracy."
He might have added something else, were it not for the presence of the proprietor. Stiffly, he made a half-turn and left the store with the shocked dignity only a real aristocrat could muster.
"What a bizarre character," the proprietor said. "Not a personal friend of yours, I hope."
"He knew his classics well." I felt obliged to defend Señor Fronesis' erratic behaviour.
"So it seems," the old man said. "Where you interested in acquiring a Breitling? They predate the war. Original models, indestructible."
I glanced at the watches. A few moments ago they had shown remarkable unity in displaying time. Now, one of them was slow by a full minute.
Was it a conspiracy after all?
Guido Eekhaut has published more than forty books in Belgium and Holland, including half a dozen concerning the imaginary city of Orsenna. He has also written crime novels, which were nominated for major awards and the first of which, Absint, won the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 (and was translated into German). His stories have been anthologised many times, and several of them have appeared in Germany, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Argentina and China. He has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of newspapers and magazines. He also publishes essays on literature, geopolitics, history and philosophy, while working as a futurist. His story "Just Words" appeared in Issue #19 of The Cafe Irreal (as well as in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader); "Time Machine" appeared in Issue #21; and "The Unicorn in the Park" in Issue #60.