Liliana Heer

Ficción crítica


Liliana Heer

Thorns in History
By Liliana Heer
Translated by Macarena Cordiviola

I am the son of the memory -prodigious Funes. My name does not belong to history; I am parentless and until today unknown. My father not only did not acknowledge me even several moons after he had fallen off that legendary horse, but also refused to meet me.

Once and again I walked past the street where he used to live, but in vain. In fact, I would not have learnt anything about him had it not been for a writer. Perhaps Funes, like Emperor Shih Huang Ti -who became known worldwide for two irreconcilable acts: building the great Wall and renouncing his past by burying every book, he wanted to get rid of only one memory. Omission is usually an excuse to justify what one refuses to live. I am his very fall; that young, taciturn man with an Indian-looking face had surrendered to temptation before falling off his horse: he could no resist possessing my mother.

Fray Bentos is a border town, like many others, where illiteracy is carefully hidden away. I could read only after I become an adult. And I owe Borges my initiation into literature; not Borges the man but his work. When I heard in the salting house the rumours about an Argentine writer that was about to receive the Nobel Prize that year, I was ashamed again. I could not take part, not even at a distance, in the life and glory of men. How could I possibly describe the bewilderment I fell when I heard: “The Chronometric Funes” was one of the texts chosen by the jury as an example to inform about the barbaric acts that had taken place during the Second World War.

Ever since that day I have always worshipped my father’s memory. That admiration kept me awake. I imagined his long nights reading the history of southern countries and feeling wonder at his mastery of Latin and many other languages. I must confess, however, that this passion was somewhat painful. When I reached page four, oppression on my chest made me stop: “Funes told me that before that rainy afternoon when he was knocked down by a tile, he had been like all other Christians: blind, deaf, dizzy”.
As from that moment, I was unable to go on reading because I was harassed with questions.

Was that extraordinary gift in his genes the evening he conceived me? Could have been sex -the plunge into sin- the event that brought about his memory? The illusion made me guess that if that were the case, I could -even asleep- eventually possess that gift too.

How should I know?
I would have liked to take after my father but he lacked outstanding features. I was plain and mediocre, even remote. In the salting house I only talked to Julian Torres. He had to be shot to death together with the foreman -his cheek slit open against the big basin- so that I felt the need to get closer to my mates. They used to meet after each working session to discuss politics. It was due to this that, since the beginning of the 80s, I became interested in reality to the extent that I started filing up whatever I got hold of: massacres, missing people, kidnappings, torture. In spite of this, I was all the same shocked when the Never Again documents came out to light some years later. The book did not only include detailed information but also evidence. It tidied up the chaos I had been unable to sort out due my fragmentary work.

Moved by the democratic enthusiasm in my country, I travelled to Buenos Aires. I planned to attend a lecture on “Time”.

It was an autumn day, Borges wandered through the centuries, came back through the thoughts of innumerable philosophers, scientists and writers. He spoke about Proust and the difference between reminiscences and recollections. He quoted Lezama Lima: “Nobody sees anything just because he is told to look in the direction of a forefinger but as the flakes on our eyelids fall and the eye of the refracting fish gives way to the eye pierced by a man’s ray”.

He also recalled Benjamin by affirming that mere information atrophies and excludes experience.

At a certain moment he confronted two theories; one Newton’s, about linear, absolute time, the time that flows across the universe uniformly. He regretted that was the time coined by historians.

On the second theory, the English metaphysician James Bradley’s, he seemed to agree. This is the theory about different times, about series that are neither previous nor subsequent or contemporary but simply different.

Although he was much too theoretical for my expectations, the lecture went on well. I was restless about personal matters but this didn’t prevent me from taking down a few notes. A lady sitting on my left, thinking I was a beginner, said that a French man whose name I can’t remember thought that “the sexual act is to time as a tiger is to space”. That interruption disturbed for a few moments my associations, however, I tried hard to go on listening, I eagerly waited for the lecturer to talk about my father. I had written the name “Funes” on a sheet of paper to make the bond that tied me to his character more familiar.

As the lecture continued I longed to get near that wise man.
My intention was to humbly explain to him that I was Funes’ son, a fundamental detail to complete the account of the fall with my previous conception. At that time I had a naive idea of the world, and that was the reason for such confusion when something absolutely unusual happened.

With the accuracy of a whiplash, I eventually heard Borges say: “It is not necessary to remember everything. Let’s not forget Funes. He had effortlessly learnt English, French, Portuguese, Latin. Nevertheless, he was aware of the fact that he was not really capable of thinking”.

I could only hear very little after that moment.
It was just my body that was there while I roamed in the vacuum. I remember a phrase towards the end of the evening; the lady who had mentioned the tiger a few moments before, talked to me again enthusiastically. As her voice was obscured by the applause in the room, she wrote in my notebook: “Chronos thinks he can swallow a God when he can only swallow a stone”.
I left the place feeling ashamed. Who was my father? A swindler or an idiot?
Overwhelmed by this doubt I walked to the bus-station to take the first bus to Fray Bentos. As soon as I arrived I opened “The Chronometric Funes” on the very page where Borges had left it:
 “Thinking means forgetting all differences, generalizing, abstracting. In Funes’s crowded world, there were only details, almost immediate”.

Then, my father’s words:
 “My dreams are like your vigil. My memory, Borges, is like a garbage dump”.

Neither an idiot nor a swindler. Somebody who piles up details without any hierarchy or order, immune to the wish to see the face of truth, he is a postmodernist. Idolatry, resent and ignorance had flaked my eyelids.
It is more than a decade since Borges died. Several times, I have come across one of his latest writings, perhaps the most argumentative one which was published in July 1986. It is about genocide. It does not add any information; it transmits his experience after attending the trial to the former chiefs of the Armed Forces, the day when Víctor Basterra gave evidence. This was a witness who had suffered the longest kidnapping during the dictatorship period. His evidence lasted five hours and was the key that opened the door to the structure of ESMA, the Navy School.

The next text by Borges enjoys his brilliant style and risky syntax. It narrates the expectations at the first and last oral trial he attended. He writes that he expected to hear complaints, insults, wrath of flesh being subdued to physical pain.

But he faced a different reality.
According to his own words, something even worse: “a version of the reprobate used to the routine of hell”.

Stevenson helped to adhere grandiloquently to one of the theories that created the greatest confusion and opportunism in Argentina: the theory of two devils: “Cruelty is the capital sin; exercising it or suffering it means reaching a sort of horrible insensitivity or innocence. The reprobates are mistaken for their devils, the martyr for the person who has ignited the pyre”.

The counterpoint between Borges’ remark and Basterra’s words made me doubt about the Master.

Borges, in his visit, had chosen a scene: “From the many things I heard that evening and which I would like to forget, I will refer to one that has left a mark, to get rid of it”. As if retelling were equivalent to forgetting, he described a Christmas meal with china plates, tablecloths and delicious dishes which the tortures offered prisoners and which they accepted even when they knew they would be tortured again the following day. If Borges had not been fascinated by the Great Gatsby and all the bourgeois paraphernalia, instead of focusing his ear on the Christmas dinner, he would have stopped at something more important, even though less spectacular. For example, I would have concentrates on how Basterra ordered in his mind the personal information about the murderers -using the Scarsdale diet book- and pinned out their names so as to report them, should he leave the prison alive. Apparently, class blindness does not belong to the senses. The risk is to swallow a stone, imitating Chronos. There are dead files like my father, neutral stores of inarticulate information and living files like Basterra, who -while pinning out the names- kept a distance to transmit an active version, demystified, of the knowledge about that horror.

Spanish version published in  Narrativa Argentina, Noveno Encuentro de Escritores, Dr. Roberto Noble (Coordinated by Liliana Lukin),  1996.