Andrea G. Labinger: To What End?:Translating Liliana Heker’s El fin de la historia

Liliana Heker’s polemical novel, El fin de la historia (The End of the Story), published in Argentina in 1996, deals with betrayal, friendship, patriotism, relationships – all set against the background of the military dictatorships of the 1970s. Heker is a very well regarded prose fiction writer who remained in Argentina during the Dirty War and who was never a political prisoner, two facts that cause her novel to be looked upon with suspicion by a number of her peers. The controversial subject matter of the novel also contributes to the rather passionate reaction this work has generated in Argentina and among Argentine expatriates abroad. One of the novel’s protagonists is a political prisoner, Leonora Ordaz, a Montonera who, after being subjected to physical and psychological torture, defects and becomes not only an agent of the junta, but also the lover of one of her torturers. While this type of behavior strikes us as implausible and horrifying, it’s been documented that such things did occasionally take place at the time. Nevertheless, reading about them, even several decades later, leaves many readers angry and bewildered. But more perplexing than understanding why a political prisoner would collaborate with the enemy is why anyone – particularly an Argentine and self-proclaimed socialist – would want to write about it, and furthermore, why a North American would undertake translating something so potentially distasteful.

Adding to the complication is the fact that the novel is a piece of metafiction with three narrative voices, making it difficult for the reader to determine whose story is being told: that of Leonora Ordaz, the idealistic, young Montonera who becomes an agent of the junta; that of Diana Glass, Leonora’s childhood friend, an aspiring writer who tries to reconstruct her disappeared friend’s fate in novelistic form but who fails to make sense of a life that has dramatically diverged from its original path; or finally the third voice: that of Hertha Bechofen, an elderly writer and Austrian refugee whose own experiences as a survivor of totalitarian brutality make her view the entire situation with cynicism and moral detachment. Diana Glass is myopic, a fact that Heker emphasizes in order to explain the apparent haziness of the information presented in telling Leonora’s story. For as we discover, Diana is extremely reluctant to acknowledge certain facts that seem evident enough (Leonora has turned her back on her comrades and on the idealism that drove both her and her Diana, as students, to want to change the world; Leonora has prostituted her principles in order to save herself and her young daughter; Leonora has become an instrument of the military; Leonora has betrayed her murdered husband), but which are rendered implausible in the telling. Again and again, Diana begins to record her account –  on paper napkins, in yellow-paged ledger books, on the backs of receipts – only to destroy what she has written because the words are so intolerable. These ephemeral bits of paper become emblematic of a fractured friendship and a splintered society, at a point where historia and Historia – story and History – coincide.

I hope those who read The End of the Story will have some unanswered questions, as well. Among them: How should we as readers, translators, and citizens of the world, react to the voice of authority (authorial or otherwise) when we recognize that it can’t be trusted? Liliana Heker’s fin (finality or purpose) is to challenge us to re-examine our assumptions and, above all, to avoid facile conclusions.

A great many factors conspired to make the translation of this book not only an ethical dilemma for me, but also an artistic challenge. Beginning with the title itself, the novel presents linguistic and moral ambiguities. As more than one critic has pointed out,* historia means both “story” and “history,” while “fin” denotes “end,” in the sense of “conclusion” as well as “purpose”. Deciding whether to call it “The End of the Story,” “The End of History,” “The Purpose of History,” et cetera, was just the beginning of the confusion. Not incidentally, I was also compelled to think about the word fin as it applied both to the protagonist, Leonora, and to me. Does the end justify the means? There are two questions here, obviously: Did Leonora’s desire to save her daughter’s life and that of her aging parents justify her betrayal; and on the more personal level, did my embracing this translation because I found– and continue to find – it so compelling justify my associating my professional reputation with a text that I know has incensed people whose politics I respect?

The inconclusiveness of the text makes many people uncomfortable, especially when it deals with such a traumatic period in Argentine history. When I discussed this translation project with a couple of Argentine writers I know and with whom I’ve worked, I was astonished at their reactions. Both were critical of the novel, albeit for entirely different reasons. One of the writers, herself a former political prisoner of the junta, later released and forced into exile, was angry with me for undertaking a project that she felt portrayed her fellow revolutionaries in an unfavorable light. “Leshace el juego a los milicos” (She’s playing right into the military’s hands) washer comment about Heker, referring to the fact that Leonora’s defection occupies such a prominent place in the narrative. When I argued that the solidarity of the resisters is well represented by another character, an elderly gay man who is taken away and killed when he refuses to confess under torture, she replied (correctly) that the nobility of this minor character is insufficient to counteract the negative impression Leonora, a major character, gives of the Montoneros as opportunistic, self-serving, and cowardly, when the majority of the revolutionaries were righteous and should be depicted as such.

Conversely, another Argentine writer, one who, like Heker, continued to reside in Argentine throughout the 1970s and 1980s and still lives there, although a close family member was threatened by the junta and forced to flee the country, was disappointed in the novel for quite a different reason. According to her, Heker was unjustified in judging her protagonist so harshly when she (Heker) herself never experienced the anguish of imprisonment and torture. This writer, unlike the first one, didn’t suggest that didacticism should invariably be a part of the chronicles of this national nightmare.

Where did this leave me? I completed the translation, and I’ve thought about my role in doing so ever since. There are so many questions that go unanswered. I chose to translate this novel because I was attracted to its complexity as well as to the originality of Heker’s style. As a non-Argentine, I can’t expect my reaction to the book’s polemical nature to be the same as that of a native son or daughter. I don’t agree that the depiction of one fictional revolutionary as a sellout casts aspersions on the multitudes of others who upheld their principles to the end, nor do I think such an individual fictional portrayal reflects badly on the author. To me, as an outsider, a nuanced depiction of people on both sides of a political divide doesn’t detract from the esthetic quality of the prose or the ethical qualities of its author. Yet, at the same time, I strongly identify with the cause of the dissidents and wouldn’t want readers to think that my translation of what I consider to be a balanced, thoughtful text identifies me as a supporter or sympathizer with the monsters who terrorized a nation and destroyed an entire generation.

* See Robert L.Colvin, “Liliana Heker’s Vision of Post-War Argentina,”

Liliana Heker: The End of the Story

The following is the opening chapter to The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea Labinger

Anyone watching the olive-skinned woman walk along Montes de Oca that October afternoon would have thought that she had been born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. It had to be true. Even those who would disparage her years later would have noticed it somehow, seeing her advance towards Suárez like someone who has always known exactly where she was going. Diana Glass herself, who at that very moment was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her balcony – eyes closed, face upturned to the sun like an offering – must have thought so because sometime later she would jot down in her notebook with the yellow pages: She was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. Although a certain ironic expression (or was it just wisdom enough to soften the expression, to de-emphasize it) crossed her mind like a bolt of malice: Is that necessarily a virtue?

She was tormented by these distractions, which, from her very first notation on a paper napkin at Café Tiziano, kept diverting the course of the story. Not to mention the reality that, from that napkin to this haven on the balcony, had flung her – one might say – from hope to horror, and which (though neither one of them knew it), at that moment when the olive- skinned woman unhesitatingly turned off Suárez, heading towards Isabel La Católica, would once again begin to unravel her tale.

Strictly speaking, Diana Glass, who now opened her eyes and gazed admiringly at a bougainvillea blooming on the opposite balcony, hadn’t even decided where to begin: with the spring morning when a tree fell on her head and the two of them – or at least she – thought about death for the first time, or with a freezing, dusty July afternoon fourteen years later – when death had already begun to be a less remote eventuality, although it hadn’t yet become that chill on the back of the neck every time one turned the key in the lock to enter one’s house – as she waited nearly a half-hour for her at the entrance of the school, staring insistently towards the corner of Díaz Vélez and Cangallo so not to miss the elation – or the relief? – of seeing her arrive.

The name she was going to give her, on the other hand, was something she had decided right away. Leonora. Not because it had anything to do with her real name (less melodious), but rather because it went well with that face, with its high cheekbones and olive skin, still smiling at me from the last photo, and it suited that jaunty girl who, if Diana Glass had simply begun with that unpleasant July afternoon in 1971, would by now have burst out of Díaz Vélez onto the page, waving with such an old, familiar gesture that it would have made Diana forget her fear for a few seconds.

Later, it was different. The other woman had barely finished waving her arm, her features hazily coming into focus, when the relief would be replaced by a premonition of catastrophe. It should be pointed out that Diana Glass is nearsighted and that, at the time of that meeting with Leonora, she refused to wear glasses. Her explanation was that the few things worth seeing in detail usually end up moving closer to you (or you to them) and besides, a nearsighted person’s view doesn’t just have the advantage of being polysemic: it is also incomparably more beautiful than a normal person’s. “Just think about the sky after dark,” she once said. “I swear, the first night I went out on the balcony wearing glasses, I almost cried. The real moon has no resemblance to that enormous, mystical halo I see.” And, she added, the diffuse forms allow a limitless range of imagination, as if the world had been created by some over-the-top impressionist.

These are the sort of interruptions that disturbed her. (Absurdity has invaded the story, she wrote, though not in the notebook with yellow pages, which she reserved for episodes that were more or less relevant, but rather on the back of one of those printed ledger sheets that she haphazardly filled: papers with a predetermined function exempted her from assigning one to them herself and allowed her madness to spill out unrestrained. Absurdity has invaded the story, has invaded History. Nothing could be truer. She was plunging into History; perversely, doing so prevented her from dealing with the purely historical, despite her belief that history was the only thing that made any sense.) For example, she was unable to assess the exact quality of her fear at the school doorway (assuming, of course, that the fear was historical) without noting her surprise at the fact that the closer the woman got, the more unfamiliar she became, and how could she explain that phenomenon without mentioning her myopia? But if the beginning was hesitant, the ending was alarmingly blank. Nothing. Just a little faith and a few old photographs. And a very immediate fear lodging at the back of her head as she turned the key in the lock of her front door – and at this very moment – and didn’t go with the light of this October afternoon in 1976, a light that illuminated the bougainvillea, adorned Buenos Aires, and mercilessly enhanced the olive skin of the woman who has now turned off Suárez and is heading towards Isabel La Católica.

The trees on Plaza Colombia catch her by surprise. It’s as if something dangerously vital – more suitable to a jungle than to this grey street with its stone church – as if an unscrupulous thirst for life had forced them to overflow the plaza, invade the sidewalk of Isabel La Católica and bury the unfortunate Church of Santa Felícitas beneath an avalanche of joy.

She has one desire: not to go to the meeting at the house with the white door where Fernando, the Thrush, and two others must already be waiting for her, not suspecting the contents of one of the two letters she hides in the false bottom of her purse. To run away towards Plaza Colombia, that’s her precise desire. This, however, doesn’t disturb her, as the purple explosion of bougainvillea has disturbed Diana Glass to the point of forcing her to leave the balcony and walk to the library. Both of them loved the sun, she thinks, like someone who’s writing it down (or like someone making excuses for herself) – as she did so often in those days – and she takes out the box with the photos of the trip to Mendoza.

There they are, the two of them. Among vineyards, on top of a stone block, on the shoulders of a couple of drunks, on a suspension bridge, thumbing their noses, in wide-brimmed hats, always laughing and embracing and a bit outrageous among the group of brand-new – and slightly foolish – schoolteachers.

The woman who at this moment is walking through the imitation jungle that spills out of Plaza Colombia lifts her head for a moment, allowing the sun filtering through the leaves to flicker on her face without thinking: I was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

It might not displease her if someone else thought it for her. That’s true! she would exclaim if she knew about this assessment of her person that Diana Glass is about to make. She knows how to delight in other people’s words and put them at her service when necessary.

But she doesn’t need to define herself in order to confirm her existence. Accustomed to action and to charging headlong at everything in her way, she knows she exists because her body (and what’s a brain but a part of that body?) displaces the air as she moves, leaving an exact impression on the world. And if she hasn’t slowed her pace, if she hasn’t gone running towards Plaza Colombia, following her heart’s song, if she’s left the trees behind, guiltlessly abandoning this fleeting, intoxicating desire, if now, without a speck of desire, she’s about to head proudly and resolutely towards Wenceslao Villafañe, it’s because, even now when her world seems to be tumbling down, she’s still capable of brushing aside all trivialities in the name of what she’s convinced she needs to do.
But with Celina Blech’s arrival (when vacation ended, in the time of the tree), something began to change. Celina, too, had read Captains of the Sands and had sung “The Army of the Ebro,” but she possessed a quality Leonora and I lacked: she could unhesitatingly state who was a revolutionary and who was a counter-revolutionary. Heraclitus? She said. Heraclitus was a revolutionary, and Berkeley was, without a doubt, a reactionary. Listening to her was amazing: standing beside the bench, flanked by girls who crossed themselves before class and went to dances at the club with their mothers every Saturday, and by girls who neither crossed themselves nor took their mothers along to dances but who didn’t seem too impressed by Heraclitus’s revolutionary powers either, she had the guts, in front of the philosophy teacher, an active member of Catholic Action, to obliterate Berkeley with a swipe of her pen for his notorious inability to start a revolution. The daughter of a poetic Communist shoemaker of the old guard, she behaved with the confidence of someone who has always known where the world is going and who moves it. It was she who taught us to read Marx. How could anyone forget the leap of the heart, the jubilant certainty (for me, too) that the world was marching along a happy course, when reading for the first time that a spectre is haunting Europe ? And every week, concealed in an innocent-looking package, she brought us a copy of Communist Youth magazine.

She never flaunted her superiority before Leonora or me – she was good-natured, a comrade, and she had little patience for the rock and roll that, despite “The Army of the Ebro” with its rumbalabumbalabumbambá and its Ay, Carmela, Leonora and I kept dancing to frenetically during our Saturday assaults – but that latent superiority was there, nonetheless, and soon it would become apparent. In all other respects we were similar: all three of us loved the Romantic poet Esteban Echeverría and despised Cornelio Saavedra, the head of Argentina’s first junta; all three of us resonated to the verses of Nicolás Guillén; all three declared, with the élan of Spanish Republicans at the very moment of victory, that the invading troops rumbalabumbalabumbambá got a well-deserved trouncing, Ay, Carmela. So we sang and so we were that winter of 1958 when History invaded our peaceful Teachers’ Prep School in the Almagro District.

Later we would learn that it had been there all along, that, without realizing it, we had noticed it among the small events woven by our personal memories. Chaotically and without any sign – or with some fortuitous sign – I preserved the memory of that morning in grade two when they made us leave school early because some general had tried to oust Perón (whom I imagined as eternal and omnipresent, since he had been in the world when I was born and since my mother had forbidden me to pronounce his name in vain); the slogan Free the Rosenbergs, read on the walls of forgotten streets; the outrage of some older cousins at the phrase “Boots, Yes; Books, No”; the hoarse voice of a news hawker shouting War in Korea; and a secret, incommunicable envy when, in the movie newsreel children who weren’t me travelled through the Children’s City by bus like fortunate dwarves; a certain initial disbelief in the face of death the day the Air Force bombed the Plaza de Mayo; an almost literary emotion when a group of men, in a hidden place called Sierra Maestra, prepared to free Cuba – a remote country about which only “The Peanut Vendor” and Blanquita Amaro’s ebullient thighs were familiar to me; the bitter or dejected faces of some bricklayers one late September morning in 1955. Random fragments jumbled together in my memory, with the German acrobats around the Obelisk, with a butcher named Burgos who had scattered pieces of his girlfriend throughout Buenos Aires, with a nine-year-old girl who had drowned in Campana and who could be seen, brutally depicted at the moment she went under, on a page of La Razón. Scraps of something whose ultimate shape seemed – continues to seem – impossible.

And we would also come to know the dizzying sensation of imagining ourselves submerged in History. Because one day soon, reality would be shaped so that everything – I mean everything – that occurred on earth would be happening to us. The Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam would be ours; the antagonism between China and the Soviet Union and the distant echoes of men who, in the Americas or in Africa or in every oppressed corner of the planet, lifted their heads: all of it would be our business. We fleetingly attempted to figure out the meaning of our lives. And we would live with the startling revelation – and the strange reassurance – of understanding that the world could not do without our deeds.

But that was the end of the winter of 1958 when, as proper young students, we recited the lesson from Astolfi’s History and sang that bombs are powerless rumbalabumbalabumbambá if you just have heart, ay Carmela; that September of 1958 when History came to Mohammed. It awakened the universities, shook the entire nation, invaded classrooms for the first time, and at the peaceful Teachers’ Prep with its wisteria-covered patio, it left no stone unturned.

I wonder now if it might have been a gift, a blessing whose uniqueness we were unaware of: to be fifteen years old and to have a compelling cause. Everything seemed so clear that late winter and the following spring: on one side were the people, behind a goal as incontrovertible as universal education; on the other side, the government, allied with the power of the church in order to impose its dogmatic, elitist lesson. It didn’t matter if the motives of either side were less than transparent. At fifteen, beneath the budding wisteria and with a motto that seemed to condense all possible good and evil for the species – secular and free, we said, confident that we were encompassing the universe – we believed we could confirm forever those words we read as though they were anointed: the people’s cause is a righteous cause; all righteous causes lead to victory; we have a role to play in that road to victory.

The headiness of the struggle, combined with the golden wine of adolescence – wasn’t that our touchstone, the stamp that marked us? I look around me on this particularly dark night in 1976 and can see only death and ravaged flesh, and yet I keep on stubbornly typing these words, perhaps because I can’t tear hope from my heart. Because once you’ve tasted that early wine, you cannot, do not want to give it up.

I see I’ve gotten mired in melancholy, but that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about certain domestic problems.

We’ve already established that there were three of us muses, three of us in the vanguard, and that our task was nothing less than to rouse a group of nice, future schoolteachers who hadn’t asked to be roused and who, more than anything else, aspired to matrimony. It wasn’t easy. Personally, I can say that I killed myself haranguing those young hordes, prodding them to organize and strike. I closed the eyes of my soul and hurled myself headlong into the jumble of my prose. Only in this way could I fulfill my mission. Because if I stopped for one second to reflect, I risked reaching a conclusion that would render me silent: I had no faith that my words could change a single one of those heads turned towards me with detached curiosity. In other words, my political career was in doubt. Leonora, on the other hand . . . That September, dressed in her white school smock, she revealed herself to us like a Pasionaria. She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a new flower.

Not only did she defy the school authorities (they expelled her at the end of the year, despite her excellent average): her father, whom she loved (and whom I secretly wished was my own father), the brilliant Professor Ordaz, an old-school idealist, loquacious defender of public education and friend of writers, was a government official who therefore (and in other ways) betrayed the dreams of his constituency.
To oppose a government plan was to defy her father. But I was the only one who knew that. The others saw whatever they saw: a tall adolescent with a gypsy’s face. And perhaps they believed less in her words – acquired words that she effortlessly made her own – than in the uncompromising, vibrant voice that pronounced them.

So it was that Leonora became the architect of that unusual thing that was becoming apparent in the prep school of the wisterias. But the one who pulled the strings was Celina. In secret meetings with the few Communist youths at the school, she formulated policies that came (as we later learned) from a higher authority. We two were her allies in the field, her confidantes and friends. It wasn’t for nothing that she taught us a secret, last stanza that we sang quietly, savouring the nectar of rebellion: and if Franco doesn’t like the tricolour flag (rumbalabumbalabumbambá, ay, Carmela), we’ll give him a red one with a hammer and sickle (ay, Carmela). But we didn’t interfere in her decisions.

I can’t say that being left out bothered me. I’ve already stated that early on – and not without some conflict – I had accepted the fact that politics wasn’t my destiny. Besides, on the wall of my room I had a poster of Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” and in my soul was the melancholy of being “the grey beret and the peaceful heart.” I loved the rustic nobility of Maciste the blacksmith and Raúl González Tuñón’s verses; I was rocked in the cradle of Communism and didn’t mind having decisions made for me.

Leonora, on the other hand, wasn’t one to let herself be rocked. Shortly after that September, she told me she had a secret to share with me. It must have still been springtime because the memory of it blends with a certain perfume and with an almost painfully intense awareness of being alive.

She had slipped her arm around my shoulder and, as on so many other occasions, we started walking along Plaza Almagro. A habitual gesture, that embrace, clearly required by the four inches she had on me and by a certain matriarchal attitude she always assumed. We both liked – or now I think we both liked – to walk like that, as though feeling the other’s body made us strong enough to sustain the universal laws we invented right then and there as we walked along, which were designed to eradicate stupidity, injustice, and unhappiness from the earth. I was the lawmaker, quite adept at inventing theories for everything, though too shy or carried away to convince anyone who didn’t know me as well as Leonora did; so it was she, not I, who was in charge of using those arguments whenever the time came.

But that afternoon there were no arguments or theories. There was a revelation that shook me. I’ve thought a lot about her decision that spring. Maybe I still think about it, and maybe that’s the real reason I’m writing these words.

“I have to tell you a secret,” Leonora said as we walked arm in arm. “I’ve joined the Communist Youth.”

Her activism didn’t change things between us, at least not until she met Fernando. We told each other more secrets, and on our graduation trip (in spite of her expulsion, everyone, even her enemies, wanted her to come along), we scandalized the other newly credentialed teachers, as one can see in the photos. But without a doubt, something seemed to change in Celina Blech, whose knowledge of Berkeley now dazzled me somewhat less. Leonora had loaned me Politzer’s The Elementary Principles of Philosophy, and there they all were: Berkeley and Heraclitus and Locke and Aristotle and Descartes, fixing their positions definitively for or against the revolution.

I ran into Celina last year. She told me she had an important position in a multinational company – she’s a chemical engineer – and that she was about to go to Canada to work. I can’t stand this violence, she told me, and we talked about the violence of the Argentine Anti-Communist Association and about the madness that the rebel group, the Montoneros, was committing in their desperation. The worst part isn’t the fear of death, she said; the worst part is that now I don’t even know which side the bullet might hit me from. I asked her if she was still a Party member. She smiled condescendingly, like someone who had long ago forgiven the girl she once was. She asked me about Leonora. I told her I didn’t know where she was, and I wasn’t lying. How could I know her whereabouts that threatening winter of 1975?
She’s no longer thinking about trees. She’s walking along Wenceslao Villafañe, heading towards Montes de Oca. This might seem baffling to a spectator following behind her: why take such a roundabout route to go a single block? What the spectator wouldn’t understand is that, except for a deceptive interval containing an embrace that Diana Glass categorized as triumphant and belonging to the realm of hope, for some five years now the mere act of moving from one place to another has obliged her to undertake some disorienting manoeuvres. She knows – she is, or has been, a more than competent physicist – that in Euclidean terms, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but it isn’t always the safest. And a leader, above all, must always have her own security in mind, as Diana thought five years earlier, beneath a dusty sky.

She’s late because she couldn’t risk waiting for me. The thought doesn’t comfort Diana: for the last few minutes, she’s done nothing but gaze towards Díaz Vélez and towards Cangallo with little spastic turns. A waste of time, useless, since it’s unlikely she’ll be able to recognize her from so far away, as she used to do at the time the tree fell on her head. Not only because on this July afternoon, she’s much more nearsighted than she was that spring (a surprisingly early spring, or so it seemed to me because never before – and never since – did I feel so intensely the fragrance of the wisterias at the Prep School or the pleasure of walking down the street bare-armed. Everything was happening for the first time that spring when I was fourteen. Life, I said to myself, is something formidable that knocks you over like a wave and which not everyone can feel in its total splendour. “The two of us, you understand, we really do know how to feel life, the transformation of life, in our own bodies.” I liked those words: transformation, life, bodies; I loved words because they were capable of preserving each thing in its perfection. Leonora needed them less than I did because Leonora was her dark body, and she especially was her hair, long and coppery, heavily undulating to the rhythm of that body. And yet, during that spring of 1957, words and things were inseparable for me, as well. Wisteria was a melody and a perfume and a shade of blue, as if everything around me had conspired to make me happy), not only, as I say, because on this July day she’s more nearsighted than she was that spring, but also because she can’t even be very sure of recognizing her from a distance.

They’ve seen one another only three times in the last ten years, under precarious conditions: the first time, at the Ordaz home, among old pots and pans, dying of laughter at age nineteen because they understood – or cared – very little about such chores, but nostalgic in spite of their laughter, or at least Diana was nostalgic, watching, a bit mystified, as Leonora put together an outlandish trousseau because she was going to marry the most beautiful – and the purest, Diana would think one night at a party – militant Communist in the College of Sciences: Fernando Kosac, with his grey eyes and transparent gaze. They seemed like a lovely adolescent couple from some Russian film, she would think nine years later as she read the police reports in the paper. The second time was also at the Ordaz place – Fernando was on a trip, she explained without further clarification – when their daughter Violeta was born, and Leonora, always knowing her place in the world, was all bosom, milk, and opulence. The third time was during an encounter so fleeting that she didn’t even have time to look at her friend carefully. Diana walked through the Ordazes’ front door at the exact moment when Leonora was rushing out, so they bumped into each other. They exchanged a kiss, and Leonora, one second before shooting out the door, said, “They killed Vandor.”

It was surprising, but not so much the death itself. At that time, history still seemed logical to Diana, as did death. And a traitor was a traitor. Stumbling unmethodically, history marched irrevocably forward. That’s the way it was. Only she, always so speculative, didn’t have the time or the desire to stop and think that “forward” was as perfectly opaque an expression as “yonder” or “in the olden days,” capable of obscuring more than just history.

It was surprising because the tone didn’t match the meaning. As if she really had said Violeta has a fever. They killed Vandor: that’s why I have to leave in a hurry.

“We’ll talk another day, when there’s more time.”

But there was no time. Because, as always, ever since their return from the trip to Mendoza, life carried them along divergent paths.

And so they hadn’t met again since the day before that dusty afternoon, if you can call something that happened in the intersection of two incompatible dimensions a “meeting.” Diana, lying in bed, reading the paper and drinking mate, and Leonora fleeing to who knows where, from an announcement on the police report page.

What the report said:

That a highly dangerous terrorist cell had been uncovered. That the boldness of its constituents was immeasurable. That the subversives had been planning to blow up the official booth on July 9, when the Argentine and Uruguayan presidents and their entire retinues would be watching the parade. That to that end they had planned to use a fuel truck they had stolen in Nueva Pompeya, loaded with ten thousand litres of gasoline.

The question that crossed Diana’s mind (momentarily interrupting her reading): How do you steal a fuel truck? And this query generated what threatened to become an unending chain of thoughts, starting with the initial question: how do you steal a fuel truck? This chain led nowhere and was destined merely to chase its own tail, to spin meaninglessly around the woman lying in bed, thinking (there’s a sort of action that’s totally alien to someone accustomed to thinking in bed while drinking mate, she wrote, embarrassed or melancholic, that same afternoon on the back of a deposit slip) and indirectly wondering: Would I be capable of stealing one? And even more incisive: Do I have any right to speak of revolution, to want a revolution, when I can’t even steal a fuel truck? This precipitated a conflict that threatened to degenerate into another, indirect question leading to unforeseeable conclusions, specifically: If I were certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead unfailingly to revolution, would I steal it? This, in turn, seemed to hide the corollary: it isn’t certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead to revolution. Suddenly, a name, casually noticed on the newspaper page, yanked her abruptly from those Byzantine musings.

What was that name? Kosac.
What she did next: she turned back and read: It all began at dawn on Wednesday, when police personnel armed with rifles raided an apartment at the intersection of Juan B. Justo and San Martín. The police managed to collect a large quantity of subversive data and materials that led to further measures being taken. The place was vacant, but neighbours informed this newspaper that it had been occupied by a young couple named Kosac and their approximately five-year-old daughter. These two subjects were among those individuals most actively sought by the police. “They were very friendly,” affirmed a neighbour who refused to give her name. “Very nice; they always greeted me in the elevator.”

She didn’t steal a fuel truck, but she did take action in her own way: got up, got dressed, grabbed a taxi, and fifteen minutes later was standing before the Ordazes. I’m here for whatever Leonora needs, brave little soldier raised on the Maid of Orléans and Tacuari’s Drum. Which led her to receive an anonymous call the next day: My dad said you wanted to see me, and even before recognizing the caller’s voice, she recognized the turn of phrase, crystallized in her childhood like a school snapshot.

For which reason she’s been waiting for half an hour at the entrance of the school, looking first towards one corner and then another with a not altogether unwarranted fear, since something more suited to a morbid imagination than to the realm of possibilities was happening that winter of 1971. Not long before, a lawyer had disappeared, and just a few days earlier, they took away a young couple. The man’s bullet riddled body had been found in a ditch, but no one knew anything about the girl, and that was more terrible than the fear of torture or death; it was a black hole containing all possible horrors, something they hadn’t been prepared for, she thought, referring to herself and Leonora one specific summer night, singing their hearts out by the river, as though the joy of being adolescents and the need to change the world and the heroic ballad of a defeat were one and the same thing (Mother, don’t stop me for even one minute / for my life’s of no value if Franco is in it), not realizing, or not realizing entirely, that they were beginning to become impassioned with death.

No, not impassioned: familiar (as the olive-skinned woman who was about to reach Montes de Oca might have corrected her). And once you become familiar with death, nothing is ever the same.

But the one who waited for her at the entrance of the school five years earlier wouldn’t have understood her, since, even though she’s beginning to fear death, she’s hasn’t yet passed through a time of death that the one about to turn onto Montes de Oca knows quite well, since she’s seen death at close range, has planned deaths, and, with a firm hand and even firmer resolve, has killed a man.

The one who waits tries to forget about death. She thinks – has thought: she’s late because a leader must think about her own safety above all; she couldn’t risk waiting for me there. Which very feebly minimizes an unbearable idea: something has happened to Leonora, and another, even more miserable thought: the phone call was tapped; the man at the kiosk who hasn’t taken his eyes off me for a while now is there to take us both away, and what if Leonora doesn’t come? A thought that remains happily incomplete because in the distance, on Díaz Vélez, waving with her arm in the air just as she did during the spring of the fallen tree, Diana sees – or thinks she sees – that person who, now, five years later, with a haughty gait and a haphazard detour, is entering the same street she left ten minutes ago.
Only this time the detour proves useless: in the first place because the house with the white door is empty, and in the second because no one is following her: they’re waiting for her.

A certain breakdown in her contacts – something she paradoxically had noted in one of the two letters hidden in the false bottom of her purse – doesn’t allow her to know the first fact. And for five years she’s been accustomed to avoiding thinking about the possibility of the second: a warrior is obliged to take all precautions to avoid falling, as she teaches the novices; but once taken, she mustn’t think about danger: that would only weaken her in battle. For that reason, she’s concerned only about what she will say in the meeting of the Secretaries General. She knows it won’t be easy to justify what she wrote in the letter. Not in the one where she mentions the lack of contacts, which is strictly a technical problem that doesn’t require justification – the military government, carrying out kidnappings with impunity, is destroying the network of contacts, so that she cannot locate the Montonero presses in the capital, if, indeed, there are any left; in order to keep functioning as Press Liaison, she needs to make new connections in La Plata . . . (The prose is deplorable, Diana thinks, reading the back of a photo where Leonora appears by a window, radiant, rubbing her beatific eight-months-pregnant belly. Dear Friend: This letter is to inform you . . . What makes Leonora, a revolutionary from head to toe, write like an old Spanish teacher? She decides to omit the transcription of letters and dedications from her story; it would give the wrong impression.) It’s justifying the other letter that’s going to be difficult. And not because there haven’t been enough resignations in her life – from the Party to join the splinter group, from the splinter group to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces to join the Montoneros – but she always knew how to make those resignations seem like a leap forward. This one, on the other hand, doesn’t seem a leap in any direction; it’s not even exactly a resignation, but rather the rejection of an offer. What to call it?

(Existential problems, Fernando, the most implacable of the four, would say, bourgeois scruples.

She wouldn’t respond to the insult. With authority she would point out that so many desperate deaths were hardly political.

“They’re killing us,” Fernando might say. “Our response must be to kill them.”

Would she have the courage to say she didn’t like any of it, that the people were now rejecting them and she didn’t like that?

“It’s not a question of what you like,” Fernando would say at that point. “It’s a matter of following strategy, and strategy is decided at the Commander level” – pause, eloquent look – “and by the Secretaries General.” Without intending to, he would see her as he had seen her for the first time, with her flaming hair and her haughty expression, entering the College of Science, and then he would resort to the only method he knew of swaying her. “Accept the post of Secretary General we’re offering you, and
then you can discuss strategies with us. As an equal.”)

What would she reply to that? For the moment, she doesn’t care: she’s confident of finding the right response when the time comes. She’s not used to losing, and an unwary observer watching her walk along Montes de Oca would agree.

But the five men observing her are not unwary: they’ve been waiting for her for a half-hour, two of them from inside a car on the corner of Wenceslao Villafañe, and three others a few yards away, pretending to chat on the sidewalk. And it’s likely that at least four of them haven’t acquired the habit of reflecting on something like this: the rhythm of a gait can encode the secret of a man or a woman. One must love life, Diana will jot down days after this event, as the Bechofen woman observes her from another table, thinking: she has too much passion to give shape to what she’s writing. And yet, isn’t that where the seed of all creativity lies, in passion? One must revere life in order to form even an inkling of how much is sacred within a woman walking down the street.

Those four seem only to spy a possible prey that the fifth man, sitting next to the driver, hasn’t even noticed yet. Perhaps, against his will, he’s dazzled by the élan vital emanating from the woman who has burst into view on Montes de Oca. Or maybe a certain thread, about to break, still links him to that man who, intoxicated with the spirit of the times, once said that it was necessary to join the struggle, to become the struggle in the name of the dignity of the people. Who knows? (Diana Glass will ask herself one day). Who knows at what moment or under what circumstances a man becomes a life-hater? Or is he born that way? And she’ll ask herself this question, turning herself inside out to see if she can discover in herself how a chain of events, a singular combination of received words, can sculpt one in a unique, immutable way. Or is it that a saviour or a criminal or a traitor nests within each of us, just waiting for the right opportunity to leap out?

The man in the passenger seat still hasn’t made a move: he’s facing a new situation, and this, naturally, slows his action. It’s not that he’s the type to hesitate: two days before, he had no problem telling the Chief of Intelligence, known as the Falcon: “The meeting is going to be in a house with a white door on Montes de Oca and Wenceslao Villafañe.” But to point out a woman who, like the Pasionaria, addressed students at university assemblies – she was addressing him, an implacable and enthusiastic science student – to move his mouth or his hand and communicate, “That’s the one,” is something else entirely. He’s watching the woman walk along, confident, jaunty, self-assured, unaware that in a few seconds she will be subdued. And that power seduces him, but it also paralyzes him. For that reason he doesn’t speak: it’s the man sitting at the wheel who says:

“Is that the one?”

He just nods. Then he leans his head back against the headrest. It was easier than he thought: he simply let himself be, ceded gently in the name of life itself, barely confirming something that someone else like him would have confirmed sooner or later. He or someone else, what difference did it make? He closes his eyes for a moment, so that he doesn’t see the signal the man at the wheel makes to the ones waiting on the sidewalk. Nor does he see – someone has removed him from the car in order to carry out the task from a different place – how those men advance and, so swiftly that a pedestrian on sun-filled Montes de Oca Street couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) tell if this was happening in the real world or in a dream, force the olive-skinned woman’s arms behind her back.

The Thrush, thinks the woman, who knows the Thrush’s propensity for sick jokes. She feels fleetingly protected by that joke, as if by a bell that protects her in some ancient territory of camaraderie, so much so that she admits what she never would have otherwise admitted: that, in spite of her haughty gait, now that so many others around her are falling, in a certain part of her heart she feels afraid. Because she truly and intensely loves life. Even though there is no unwary observer of this scene to note that the hooded woman shouting, “They’re taking me away!” and yelling out a telephone number that no one remembers was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

Four Poems Translated by Steven Heighton

The following poems are translations by Steven Heighton. The first, "Like a Man", is from The Address Book.  The other three are from his collection Patient Frame.

Enough of this useless moping, Catullus,
it’s over, write it off.  Back then
when she was yours, the sun always shone
and you were on her like the sun,
insatiable, as she was, and she’ll
never have it so good again.
Always at her heels, her side, or
inside her, Catullus, and that was
fine, whatever you wanted she wanted
and the sun—there’s no denying it—
always shone.
                       Now she’s changed, gone cold,
and you’ll have to be the same—
not pitiful, like this, no whiner, idler,
sorry stalker, tavern fixture.
Take it like a man.  So here’s so long.
When Catullus makes up his mind, girl,
that’s it.  He won’t come haunting
your doorway, nights, like love’s hunched
beggar . . . but then again, who will?
Your nights will be as cold as his!
How will that suit you for a life?
Who’ll come to see you then?  Who
flatter you on your looks, give you
what he gave you all the time, and
take you around, kiss you,
be your fan?  And you, girl—
who are you going to kiss, 
yes, and bite. . .? 
                              Ah, Catullus,
enough, you know it’s over.
And you’re taking it like a man.

Jorge Luis Borges

I stand guilty of the worst sin any man
can commit.  I’ve failed to be happy. 
Let the glaciers of oblivion
bear me off and bury me—no pity.
My parents gave me breath so I could leap     
bare into life’s daring, gorgeous game, and savour
the earth: its rivers, winds and anthered fire.     
I’ve defrauded them.  I wasn’t happy.  The hopes
of their joining lie squandered, my mind given
to such sterile symmetries as these careful
lines—High Art, weaving trifles from trifles.
They bequeathed me courage.  I was craven.
Yet I’m not alone, for it’s always close by me,
this shadow of having been a man of sighs. 

J. E. Villalta

When I came
without Senna, her name
surprised me, surging from
my throat and tongue—

how I loved the shadows under Senna’s eyes.

And her thighs
clamped round my ears
so that her flesh, for an hour,
shut out the world, I

loved the shadows under Senna’s eyes.

And our mutely sung
duet of tongue
on tongue, not in staved
harmony but unison—how I loved

the shadows under Senna’s eyes!

Now with Senna gone, my mind feigns
calm, but body runs
in sleep to find her,
as if not yet resigned, nor ever—
how I loved the shadows under
Senna’s eyes!

Gale-borne toward new shorelines forever
in the harbourless night, without pause, washed away—
on this ocean of ages, why may we never
         drop anchor for a single day?

Now the crewmen sit to their oars in order and slip
the cable from the bollard hole and heave backwards
so their oarblades chop at the swell and churn up water
while over the captain sweet sleep irresistibly
falls so fathomless and sound it might almost be the sleep  
of death itself.  And the ship like a team of stallions
coursing to the crack of the lash with hoofs bounding
high and manes blown back foamlike off the summits of waves
lunges along stern up and plunging as the riven
rollers close up crashing together in her wake
and she surges on so unrelenting not even a bird
quick as the falcon could have stayed abreast. . . .
So she leaps on splitting the black combers bearing
a man who has suffered years of sorrow and turmoil
until his heart grew weary of scything a path home
through his enemies, or the furious ocean. . . .

A song I can shape you—           my story of sailing
and travel sing truly—           how often outlasting
struggle and hardship,             heart-straining days
I bitterly abided              and bore, in my sorrow,
full cargos of cares.              I’ve known my hull cumbered
while surf in its seizures            clawed at the ship’s prow
so I on the nightwatch           was often tormented.
As we pitched athwart cliffs             I, fettered by hoarfrost
and clamped to the deckboards,              my feet in ice shackles,
felt only my heart hot            with fear seething round it
while hunger gnawed outward            consuming both body
and seawearied soul.          
                                              Landsmen know little
of their luck not to sail here,             to rest on the shoreline,
while I, raked by sorrows           on the icewater sea,
must outweather winters            in regions of exile,
by kin uncompanioned,           where icicles dangle           
and hail drives like iron,           with nothing to hear except     
seas in their heaving              and the glacier wave.    
At times the swan’s wail
I hold to my heart now;             in lieu of men’s laughter
the clangour of gannets             and curlew for laughter;         
the mewing of seagulls          for the drinking of mead.

At sea, storms hallowed my night-watches with joy;
lighter than a cork I danced over waves known
as the unceasing rollers of drowned men, ten
nights, never missing the vapid eyes of the quay-

lanterns in port.  Sweet as the tart flesh of green
apples to a child, the salt water seeped through my
pinewood hull, rinsed splotches of vomit and cyan wine
clean off me, tore my anchor and rudder away.

And ever since that time I’ve bathed in the poem
of the sea, steeped and milky with stars, guzzling
the green azures, where at times the ecstatic flotsam
of a drowned man, pale and pensive, will be sinking. . . .

But those journeys had no harbours.  As time passed
my crewmen seemed to merge with the oars—pulsing
dip and heft of oarlocked oars—their iced
or sun-seared features seeming to mirror                    
the painted prow’s stern features, while the waking
sea, athwart and astern, riled up by rudder                 
and sea-trowelling blade, gave back their likeness
too.  Man by man my Argonauts slipped to slumber,
left the benches empty.  Each now rests ashore,
his final berth there marked by his oar.

And no one remembers their names.  Justice.   


1: Alphonse de Lamartine; 2: Homer, from The Odyssey, Book XIII; 3: from The Seafarer (anonymous Anglo-Saxon), 4: Arthur Rimbaud, from Le Bateau Ivre; 5: George Seferis, from “Argonauts”.