Authors: César Aira
Translated by Katherine Silver
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
I no longer know if I ever fall asleep. If I do, I remain outside of sleep itself, in that constantly moving ring of icy asteroids that circles the dark and immobile hollow of oblivion. It is as if I never enter that shadowy vacuum. I toss and turn, literally, in the zone around it, which is as vast as a world, and actually is the world. I do not lose consciousness. I remain with myself. Thought accompanies me. I don’t know if this thought is different from that of full wakefulness; it is, at any rate, very similar.
This is how I spend my nights. To entertain myself, I remember conversations I’ve had with friends during the day: each night, those of the same day. Every day these conversations give me material for memory. Since I stopped working, I’ve had nothing better to do than get together with my friends and converse for entire afternoons. I’ve often wondered if my lack of employment is the reason for my sleep disturbance, because before, when I used to work, I slept normally, like everybody else.
It’s quite possible. Deep, restful sleep has always been considered the reward for a productive day. But what choice do I have? I stopped working when my earnings could guarantee me a decent livelihood. Now I have more than enough money to cover my modest necessities, and I have no desire to invent work for myself only to keep busy, as others do.
at recourse carries life into the terrain of the unreal, and I am a man of realities. Moreover, work accomplished without any genuine need would fail to fulfill the requirement of tiring me out and allowing me to sleep.
e situation would be more readily comprehensible if I were an old man who had given up all activities because of the natural burden of old age, with its ailments and frailties. When I retired early, I found myself at a halfway point; just like with sleep, I cannot ultimately decide whether I am inside or out.
In any case, I am not complaining. Perhaps I really do sleep. The following morning, it is difficult to make that determination. In any case, through the reconstruction of my daily conversations, I have discovered a nocturnal vein of mental activity that is intensely gratifying. At my age, fears of mental decline set in, so it helps to put oneself to the test, to exercise. And this exercise has reassured me that my memory and my ability to focus are still intact, as is my reason.
I am fortunate: throughout my life, I’ve formed a first-rate circle of friends. Though I myself am not, properly speaking, an intellectual, I’ve always been interested in and felt affinities for all things cultural; these affinities have translated themselves into close relationships with distinguished personages in the arts, the humanities, and the sciences. They, in turn, have apparently found my company not disagreeable, for the friendships that we’ve built over time remain strong, and we meet frequently — especially now that I am always available.
The level of our conversations is consistently high. There is no place for gossip, soccer, health issues, or food; our exchanges glide along the lines of history and philosophy. Hence, my nocturnal recollections are rich in sustenance that I can sink my teeth into. The topics we discuss lift them above mere mechanical memory and onto the level of reflection and learning.
In bed, I always focus on the conversations of that same day, though I could also turn my attention to those from years or even decades before. It might sound presumptuous to use the grandiloquent word “memory” for something that occurred no more than a few hours before. But that’s fine by me. It is often said that with age, our memory moves further away from the present and that old people are better able to remember what happened in childhood than the day before. I prefer to exercise my memory on what is immediate, closest at hand.
And, truly, my memory is a prodigious apparatus, one that amazes me night after night with its precision and reach. Not only do the topics — and the succession of topics — return, but so do the responses, one by one, and even the uncertainties, our mutterings when we are not able to find the right word, the digressions we allow ourselves. I would like to make clear that our conversations are neither academic nor planned; they are, rather, exchanges among friends (all highly cultured, for sure) with the endless shifts of direction typical of any conversation. Without much effort, I achieve an exact duplicate, though one that is even richer precisely because it is a duplicate. Memory allows me to go more deeply into ideas that pass by too quickly in the course of reality. I can stop wherever I want and contemplate a thought or its expression, analyze the mechanisms that articulate it, discover a defect in an argument, make a correction, retrace certain steps. I look at these conversations, which have become miniaturizations, through a magnifying glass, and my sleepless contemplations render them as beautiful and flawless as jewels. Their very disorder, redundancies, and lack of purpose are swathed in an artistic iridescent sheen because of and thanks to repetition.
Take, for example, my reconstruction last night of the conversation I had yesterday afternoon with one of my friends. We met, as he and I always do, in a café downtown, and while drinking our coffee, we began our dialogue by casually exchanging comments about a movie that had been shown on television the evening before and that we both had happened to see. It was a conventional movie, mere entertainment laced with a few pretensions that did not fool us in the least. My friend and I share the unobjectionable habit of watching banal shows on television at night in order to relax. We also share a distaste for those so-called “cultural” programs that are shown so widely on cable channels.
e fact is, the situation of a man of culture is symmetrically inverse to that of the common citizen, who — after a day of prosaic and practical activities — turns on the television set in search of some spiritual elevation. On the contrary, for those of us who have spent our day in the company of Hegel or Dostoyevsky, such “cultural” programs are a waste of time, and for this same reason, as well as their intrinsic worthlessness, we find them paltry and narrow-minded, if not downright ridiculous.
We’d both seen only fragments of this movie; due to tedium and channel surfing as well as domestic distractions, we’d seen different parts, one of us more at the beginning and the other more at the end. But that was enough; stereotypical Hollywood productions of this kind can be fully deduced from one or two scenes, the same way paleontologists can reconstruct an entire dinosaur out of a single vertebra. If one keeps watching, it is only to confirm what one already knows, a confirmation that, difficult as this may be to admit, brings its own satisfaction.
So, we understood each other’s comments. Something so trivial, of course, did not call for much commentary on our part, and none would have been made had I not mentioned, with a smile, a fairly gross error that the producers had made. It was as follows: the protagonist, a humble goatherd in the Ukraine . . . was wearing a Rolex
watch! I burst out laughing when I said it, and when remembering it in bed, a smile surely spread across my face. In the act of doing both things — laughing in reality and smiling upon remembering it — I realized that the blank expression on my friend’s face was of someone who doesn’t understand what he is hearing. Here it is appropriate to add an aside: a memory can be identical to what is being remembered; at the same time, it is different, without ceasing to be the same. My friend’s look of incomprehension, which I saw while sitting across from him at the small table in the café, was precisely that: a request for an explanation that was still unaware that it was requesting one. In my memory, on the other hand, his look was laden with everything that happened subsequently. By virtue of remembering, everything took place at the same time, even though the temporal sequence had been maintained.
I proceeded to explain: the protagonist, at the very moment when he finds one of his goats dead, and bends down to pick it up, precisely at that moment, as he places his hands under the animal’s dead body, the sleeve of his coarse, rawhide jacket gets pushed up, exposing his wrist, part of his forearm, and a large gold Rolex watch — clearly recognizable as such with its design and the company’s logo: the little crown.
My friend shook himself out of his stupor and asked me: What goat? What dead goat? He had seen no dead goat.
While remembering this, I knew that shortly thereafter we would realize that he had missed that scene. During the conversation itself, that possibility still had not occurred to me, so I tried to help him remember: it was the goat he finds dead when he descends from the mountaintop in the evening, and he carries it to his cabin . . . It was impossible that my friend hadn’t noticed this episode, because it was important to the storyline, for that night, as he was getting ready to roast the goat for dinner —
That’s when he interrupted me: Yes, he’d seen the scene in which he guts the goat, but not the one before that, when he finds it. At that moment, he’d probably gone to the kitchen to get himself something to drink and had missed it. With movies they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions, such gaps were the lesser of two evils and quite common. I surely had similar ones. Everyone does when they watch movies on television. Then the missing scenes return like ghosts: one has to supply them in the imagination in order to complete the story, and then reconstruction and reality — whatever minimal reality those scenes have — get all mixed up.
Once this point had been cleared up, my friend still did not understand what I meant by my observation. What was so weird about the movie’s protagonist wearing that watch or any other watch? Don’t we ourselves wear watches? he asked, pointing with his chin at the ones we, he and I, had on our left wrists. And we don’t wear them for decoration, he added with that smile of his I know so well. We need them so we could meet at the café on time, don’t we?
is was a self-referentially ironic allusion to his inveterate habit of always arriving late for our dates. I never reproached him. I was so used to it that when we planned to meet I simply added fifteen or twenty minutes to the appointed time; so, one could say that he is very punctual, in a certain sense.
I was obliged to tell him that I was not talking about the watch itself but rather the fact that it was such an elegant one and in possession of an illiterate goatherd, isolated in the mountains. I was also, though, talking about the watch itself. The fact that he had a wristwatch at all was anomalous. That community of goatherds lived in a subsistence economy, completely removed from consumer society. Even assuming that the goatherd would go down to a nearby town for a fair or a market and want to buy himself some object, he would not have chosen a watch, which would have been utterly useless to him. In the ancestral traditions of herdsmen, the only watch that mattered was the Sun. In their world, there were no dates to meet in cafés, no television sets, no trains or airplanes to catch, only the passing of the days and the nights and the seasons. And even in the case that a clever merchant had managed to squeeze a few coins out of this ignorant and innocent mountain dweller, it would have been in exchange for a cheap one, not a Rolex — not even a fake!
The subject had almost run out of steam, as far as I could tell at that moment, and my mind was already groping in other directions, toward the more habitual and usual subjects we discuss, reflections, which we like to delve into, on what we are reading or our thoughts about the world around us. At night, while remembering that point, the subjects that had presented themselves to me as possible, presented themselves again, in their same prenatal condition, without any defined form or content but with the same flavor which had trembled in their imminence — the flavor of philosophy, the intellectual delight of the elite. Perhaps memory enhanced this flavor because in the end these subjects never saw the light of day. What had seemed about to come to an end had, in fact, just barely begun. For a reason I was unable to comprehend, my explanation had not been sufficient; my friend remained perplexed.
Was he distracted, thinking about something else? Or, was it my fault? Had I rushed to my conclusion without allowing enough time for the premises? Had I considered something said that hadn’t been? I tried to take stock of the situation as quickly as possible because I felt that the insignificance of the issue called for only a few notes to be touched lightly, without leaning on them, like Arrau playing Schumann. By the same token, if they were too light, things might continue without clarification, and that would be worse. I decided to take one step back and approach the issue from a wider angle — almost as if I were thinking out loud, reviewing it for my own benefit — wanting to avoid that didactic tone that can sound offensive when used to discuss such a trifle.
In the same vein, I spoke about the mistakes that are often made during the making of a movie. They were difficult to avoid, I said, when reconstructing a specific era or environment. One famous example was in
, in a scene where Elizabeth Taylor, playing the Egyptian queen, wore a dress with a zipper.
at was a simple anachronism, not all that different from the aforementioned watch, though in “our” movie, set in the present day, it was a social or socio-cultural discrepancy rather than a temporal one.
With that, I assumed that our little quid pro quo had been resolved, but in order to eliminate any trace of a suspicion that I might have been giving him a lesson or trying to get in the last word, I continued to elaborate, by now in full-blown gratuitous thematic dissipation:
Because of how complicated it is to shoot a movie, the number of people who work on a set and the instructions that have to be given to the technicians and the actors, the director cannot possibly oversee every detail.
is is well known and has been for some time, which is why in commercial productions of a certain importance, there are people who specialize in this kind of problem, “continuity people,” whose role it is to make sure that the actors wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyle and the same amount of stubble from one day to the next of filming — that everything matches. Because scenes aren’t shot in sequence. If a character leaves his house after eating breakfast and saying goodbye to his wife (scene 1), and runs into a neighbor in the street and stops to chat with him (scene 2), those two scenes require different sets, different lighting, and might be filmed weeks apart. But for the character, for the action, only a few seconds have passed, and the clothes and make-up have to be identical . . .