Issue #70

Spring 2019

Selected Texts from Canon of the Chamber

by Tununa Mercado;
translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan

[From the "Dreams" Section]
Painting*

Fire engulfs the Hassidic school in the burg of Aizen. Red billows from the windows, nothing left but windows, little castles of flames and smoke. We watch it burn for what seems an eternity, without collapsing or glowing. Its existence is terrifying because the scene can repeat itself infinitely. I gaze at it for hours, it hangs here, suspended like a screen of fire over me, gravestone, veil of passion, litany of pain. Flames or smoke? Sky, what color? Burnt red, all red, like the walls. Its lines tremble, fed by fire, lacerations, permanent wounds that harbor death, oblivion, and the memory of an artist in his home in the south.

*Roberto Aizenberg (1928-1996) Argentine painter and sculptor; "Fire at the Minsk Hassidic School in 1713", Oil painting, 1954.

***

Flight

The guests have announced they'll be arriving soon, barring any delays or unexpected problems. I've received their messages and get ready to welcome them, opening windows, airing rooms, anticipating what's beyond my control. I'll host them, but actually I'm my own guest. I'm that invisible presence accompanying them on their journey, seated with them inside a bus traveling past fields and forests. Evening falls and the light grows dim, transforming the mountains into silhouettes at dusk. On the right side of the road, two steep peaks come into view, cradling a sharp jagged boulder between them. The two largest crags are joined by a nearly triangular form that allows the sky to appear above and below, outlining the shape. I explain to them that those conjoined peaks are called The Kiss, and that soon we'll reach the seashore. From there, we'll have to cross the bay, surrounded by hills and cliffs, to reach the other coast.

The sea emerges before our eyes in all its melancholic splendor. Everyone gets off the bus: father, children, brothers and sisters, and a little girl. We don life jackets because we're going to fly over the bay. We take off, the flight becomes real once we spread our wings. Suddenly, we realize, my guests and I, that the girl wasn't able to lift off. We forgot to put wings on her, we say, and return to the beach to get her. But from above, we watch as she walks along the cliff toward the sea and then falls into the calm waves of the shore. We return to the coast at the precise moment the doorbell of my house rings, persistently, announcing the arrival of my guests.

***

Dream of the First Exile

A city exalted by the unconscious, flooded by a dark, lead-blue twilight. We go down to the plaza in a round about way, clambering up streets with the feeling we've walked them before. The real city crumbles in our memory, leaving only an engraving hammered and chiseled for the dream, sketchy, timeworn, laden with the heavy air that precedes a storm and erodes monuments and stone facades.

Elusive city, perhaps once teeming with life, but more vital in the dream in which silhouettes of ethereal bodies stand out against the somber gray of walls and cobblestones.

The dream consoles reality. Transfers, platform changes, lost connections, trains missed or delayed until tomorrow, leaving the city to us, silent, deserted at night, alone, intricate web of the unconscious.

The river flows more tumultuously than ever beneath the bridge. Foam splashes and drenches the railings, piers vanish beneath the waves. It's the same small city, but why does it reappear? What old scores must it settle, what allegations does it hurl, what bitter reproaches does it harbor? The dream is also that: a reminder of what was not lived, of what tried to make a lasting impression on us, but failed. Foreign city, it surrendered, offering itself, but then the gaze slipped over its rocks and trees without looking, blinded by the last irrefutable and enduring nostalgia for another space.

On the hills, the fortress towers over the pools of blue settling on the plaza. Bands of color are clearly separated by a row of houses circling the hill like a ring, with their roofs leaning, almost vertically, toward the city by the river.

We're there, but where are we going? Couldn't we stay here watching the woods slowly disappear, up there, in the darkness? The door to a memory holds us in that moment, keeping us from leaving that space of pure restless silence, now tinged in that opaque blue color.

Who else was in that city, with us, awake? Who were those restless strangers? Whom did we arrange to meet on the corners?

All of them have disappeared. They've abandoned us. We feel more and more like outsiders, foreigners searching aimlessly for a window open to the air, for a ledge to grasp on the face of the stone wall.

A name emerges in the midst of the dream. Where is Bernard L'Homme, beneath the shade of what cypress tree does he rest, where can one hear the bursting of his heart that resonated in the arena before he collapsed? The city belongs to him now, almost completely his in the realm of the dream. On the 13th of May of 1968, he pronounced the first and last words of his speech: "Il est bien evident que . . . ," and then fell down the tiers of the amphitheater, struck down by imagination and power. What motive, what evidence killed him?

The darkened tin ceiling gleamed in the Beer Palace, facing the plaza. A Spanish waiter brightened the day with olives and chorizo, a complicit gesture to the locals, blacks, Latin Americans, Italians, and Algerians killing time while "rivers of beer," as the poet used to say, flowed inside us. An almost German city, a tip of the axis that descends from Strasbourg and leads to Dijon, passing through Colmar. An eastern French city, governed by clocks, confused now in the midst of the dream, untouched by time until the bitter end.

That palace has no glass panes. Nothing inside can be seen. The display windows are shuttered tight with no cracks through which to peer. The Museum will remain closed for renovations, as always. The theater is an enormous pantheon. All that's missing are the tombstones of those who died there, inscriptions to record the names of those Spaniards who in 1936 were "concentrated" in box seats, balconies, and the main floor.

Little city, jewel of the Orient. It wasn't ours, but it opened its doors to us.

***

[From the Illusions Section]
III.

The doors to the metro hadn't quite closed when the tall man squeezed through and pried them open. No one knows what his face looked like or what clothes he was wearing; perhaps a dark shirt unbuttoned a bit to reveal a chest with no remarkable feature except a sunken sternum, like a deep narrow channel resembling the cleavage between a woman's breasts. Further down, except for a pair of tight pants, nothing was particularly noticeable, not the color or texture, nor the give of the fabric, or how tightly it stretched over his lower extremities. He took a seat on the side, one of those facing the rear of the car that leaves passengers quite vulnerable to muggings, jostling, or falls. From the seat facing him, at a prudent distance a few feet away, one could observe the way the man swayed with the motion of the car whose rhythm, while not excessive, was still quite pronounced between Observatorio and Tacubaya, between Tacubaya and Juanacatlán. In his right hand, which was relaxed and steady, showing no sign of urgency, trepidation, or nervousness over the speed, or any concern for the fixed stare that traversed the aisle of the car at an even more intense and dizzying pace, he held, as one holds the hand of a child, a book, or the handle of an umbrella, in front of his fly, a penis, obviously his own, very smooth, and firmly situated between his legs. He didn't squeeze it, his hand simply covered the base of the penis and just two fingers reached its head, leaving it nearly exposed, shining, its eye perfectly centered. More than a cocky head, what peeked out between his fingers was the very object of acquiescence, a willingness on the part of that man to present his penis to the world. This is what I am, it seemed to say, that fundamental yet exaggerated attribute that didn't conceal itself, but nor did it offer its services. The penis exercised such a powerful attraction that it was impossible not to stare or avoid looking at its head peering between those fingers. It would have been interesting to study other aspects of the man, discover something special about him, perhaps a fantasy, which, most certainly couldn't be revealed because of the overwhelming presence of that sex of his, so blatantly displayed. To grasp, for example, how much of an effort it took for this man on the metro to make the decision to expose himself, how much pleasure he enjoyed and how much suffering he endured because of his audacity, and in what other regions of his body or soul that act of freedom resonated. Had he rehearsed perhaps revealing his penis, which seemed so much more naked precisely because of the partial exposure? In his mind, had he invented a plan to the smallest detail of how he'd exhibit his penis, how he'd transform it into an object of collective admiration, even though, in this case and along these stations, only one person would see how his fingers allowed it to emerge from his cupped hand? That head had an intrinsic aura that glistened like anointed skin, and its throbbing was barely discernible, confused with the marked sway produced by each shudder of the speeding train. An exposed penis in the metro didn't alter the hands of time, nor did it shake the foundations of the city, which in that tunnel remained exactly where they belonged. With its form, weight, and radiance welcomed by that gaze, it didn't need to be flaunted. The acknowledgment of its existence sufficed: its image penetrated softly, leaving a resounding trace on the retina, the slightest quiver stirred that continent, separated by an aisle, where it had been received with no qualms. Between that marvelous penis and the gaze that enveloped and absorbed it there was a bond as strong as the one that could unite, unexpectedly, two kindred souls who find each other. When the metro arrived at Cuauhtémoc, without anyone disturbing the bond that had been established, the man raised the pear that he had held between his fingers up to his nose and sniffed it, exposing nothing more than the dimple from which its stem had once protruded, then stuck it in the pocket of his pants, and hurried off the subway car, into the station.

Author Bio

a scene


Tununa Mercado was born in Córdoba in 1939, and with a career spanning more than fifty years, she has earned a reputation as one of Argentina's most acclaimed contemporary writers. Her novel Yo nunca te prometí la eternidad, published in 2005, received the Sor Juana Inés Prize at the 2007 International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico. She published her first collection of short stories, Celebrar a la mujer como a una pascua, in 1967, shortly before the military takeover of General Onganía. During the dictatorship of 1967-1970, Mercado lived in exile in France, and after returning to Argentina, her family spent a second exile in Mexico City from 1974 to 1987. Canon de alcoba was published in 1988 and received the 1988 Premio Boris Vian, a literary prize established by a group of Argentine writers during the dictatorship, and awarded to the best book of the year for its departure from "official" cultural discourse. The collection is comprised of twenty-nine texts, arranged in seven sections, beginning with "Anti-Eros" and ending with "Final Point," with five sections in between entitled "Illusions," "Dreams," "Realities," "Eros," and "Udrí Love." For this issue of The Cafe Irreal, Rhonda Dahl Buchanan shares texts from the "Illusions" and "Dreams" sections.

Rhonda Dahl Buchanan is a Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Louisville. Her many translations include, Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction by Ana María Shua and novels by Alberto Ruy Sánchez and Perla Suez.