Friday, March 23, 2018

Poet of the Underworld

Peter Lennon

Jean-Pierre Melville said it himself: "I have a bloody awful character." In 1972, towards the end of his career, glowering at the world through smoked glasses under a Texan ten-gallon hat, the man whom some consider to be the "father of the nouvelle vague" listed the collaborators for whom he still felt gratitude after 25 years in the business. None of his stars stars got a mention; neither Belmondo, Delon, Lino Ventura nor François Perrier. Nor, outrageously, did his his great director of photography, Henri Decaë. Melville told the journalist Rui Nogueira, author of The Cinema According to Jean-Pierre Melville (1996) that he only felt gratitude to Pierre Charron and René Albouze. Charron chose the furniture for his films; Albouze was a prop man.

This is as good a clue as any to the character of this provocative, morose, secretive, private and perverse man, whose life was a running battle with collaborators, former admirers and critics. He once said he was "a solitary to the power of five - myself, my wife and three cats."

It was of course this sacré caractère which drove Melville to employ the independent methods of a "new wave" director well before the nouvelle vague. Melville made his first feature in 1947; the nouvelle vague proper did not appear until 1959. Frustrated by the film establishment, which regarded him as an amateur, and angered by what he saw as the "communist dictatorship" of the unions, he built his own Studio Jenner, in 1947, the only director to have one. It was destroyed by fire in 1967.

His first film, an adaptation of "Le Silence de la Mer by "Vercors" (pseudonym of Jean Bruller, a celebrated Resistance hero) was shot in Vercors's own home. It is the story of a German officer billeted with a French family who maintain a total silence throughout his cultured monologues. It was one of three Occupation stories Melville filmed.

Melville then had a quarrelsome relationship with Jean Cocteau making "Les Enfants Terribles" (1950), Cocteau's tale of covert incest, before getting to the film which gave him real nouvelle vague credentials, Bob le Flambeur (1955). Bob starred Roger Duchesne as a compulsive gambler who, in that stalwart cliche, plans a final heist intended to guarantee a comfortable retirement. He tries to clean out the Deauville casino, but in an ironic twist wins a fortune legally while his raid is in progress.

It was not the plot but the freshess of treatment which distinguished this work. Shooting on the streets of Pigalle, in the clubs and bars of pimps and lowlifes, Melville brought style and humanity to this grotty territory. But he wasn't starry-eyed about gangsters. He expressed this in a rather nicely chosen phrase: "The underworld is as rotten as the bourgeois world." Not that Melville was a lefty. A former member of the Gaullist resistance during the war, one of his problems for the Cahiers critics who first revered and then loathed him, was that politically he was unacceptably rightwing.

Melville has both a contradictory and complementary relationship with the philosophy behind the nouvelle vague. American cinema was its inspiration and when working as critics, Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, et al, were intolerant of the French approach to film-making. But when it came to making their own films they turned out work that was quintessentially French. Someone had to be left minding the store. Melville was the man. He became France's "American" director, noted for the lengths to which he went to model his gangster output on American classics.

The gangster's office in "Le Doulos" (The Finger Man), made in 1961, is an exact copy of the office in Mamoulian's City Streets (1931), reconstructed from an old photo in a film magazine. Melville liked to plant American two-piece phones in French cabaret scenes, and preferred Anglo-Saxon sash windows to the French shuttered variety. Even his name was borrowed from America - from Herman Melville. His real surname was Grumbach. Curiously, although he was a most notable producer of garlic gangsters he disapproved of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. "They killed the western," he complained.  

But Melville was certainly not acting in isolation. France already had its ersatz American thrillers, notably the creaky "Lemmy Caution" 1950s secret agent series featuring Eddie Constantine, France's tame American tough guy. Before the war, Jean Gabin holed up in Algiers in "Pépé le Moko" and in an attic room in "Le Jour se Lève." Jules Dassin, American-born but exiled to Europe, made the Paris-set heist movie Rififi in 1955. And, as London's French Institute demonstrates with a parallel season of French films noirs, when the nouvelle vague actually got going, Truffaut offered an adaption of David Goodis's downbeat novel, Shoot the Pianist, and Louis Malle affected noir stylistics in Lift to the Scaffold (1958).

But Melville's films at least had a personal style which soon went beyond simple imitation. It reached its most iconic resolution in 1967 with "Le Samourai." Following a quarrel - routine for Melville - he had to swap Belmondo for Alain Delon, and dress the pretty boy up in Melville's regulation trench coat and snap-brimmed hat. He would break out the gangster uniforms twice more, in "Le Cercle Rouge" (1970), and his last film, "Un Flic" (1972).

Melville's hardboiled world is really that of the film buff, but a skilled one. He involved himself in every aspect of film-making; set design, writing the script, running the camera, and designing his heroes' fetching gangster gear. Here we come to a puzzling contradiction. Alongside his seemingly obsessive gangster pastiches, Melville was perfectly capable of producing work that was restrained, precise and sensitive with no reaching for decorative symbolism.

A mid-period work, "Léon Morin, Priest" (1961) was the best example, notable for the risky but successful casting of Jean-Paul Belmondo (the vagabond charmer of A Bout de Souffle) as a priest. It is essentially a two hander with Belmondo, priest in a small town in occupied France, and a young communist (Emmanuelle Riva). He converts her to Catholicism, to which she submits with expectations of an erotic reward on earth rather than any gratification in heaven. There was plenty of scope for pretentiousness here but Melville made a perfectly straightforward, intelligent and quite moving film. "L'Armée des Ombres" (The Army in the Shadows) a Resistance story taken from a Joseph Kessel novel, was also thoroughly straightforward and effective.

Melville's films have not had a smooth ride critically. Ginette Vincendeau, professor of film studies at the University of Warwick, is the author of the first major study of Melville in English: Melville: An American in Paris. She sums up Melville's rollercoaster career. "In the 1950s, after Bob the Gambler, he was appreciated by Cahiers du Cinema. That changed dramatically in the late 1960s when he became an object of their hatred. The critical agenda had become very politicised. They thought Melville was rightwing and therefore abandonded him aesthetically. He himself said: 'I live like a rightwing person.'

"This was the point when Melville was making films that were very beautiful cinematographically. They saw him as Americanised and they were very anti-American in the 60s. But at the same time the quality press was still very pro-Melville. Also he turned against the 'new wave'. He became a member of the French censorship commission and he was against subsidies, having himself started purely independently. He was also an extremely provocative person. But what is often overlooked is that he became a hugely successful director. 'The Red Circle' (1970) had four million spectators in France, which is huge."

"The change," she continues, "dates from 1996 when the Cahiers du Cinéma had a change of heart - for the second time - and devoted an entire issue to Melville." Quentin Tarantino joined in the praise, naming "Le Samourai" and "Le Doulos" in his 1995 selection of favourites for a programme of screenings at the National Film Theatre in London. Recently John Woo, the Hong Kong director claimed he wanted to do a remake of "The Red Circle."

Melville died in 1973 of a heart attack while having lunch with the French journalist, Philippe Labro. The story goes that his father and grandfather both died of heart attacks aged 55 and that Melville approached that same age with increasing apprehension. So how old was he? You guessed it - he was 55.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in The Guardian in 2003.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Interview with Author Kim Adrian

TLY: We are delighted to have award-winning writer Kim Adrian with us today. Kim has published fiction and non-fiction, and she is the author of Sock (Bloomsbury, 2017) and The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet (U of Nebraska, Sept. 2018). She graduated from Barnard College with a degree in cultural anthropology. She holds a M.F.A. in literature and creative writing from Bennington College. Kim lives in the Boston area with her family.

Kim is also the editor of The Shell Game (U of Nebraska, April 2019), an anthology of essays that makes use of borrowed forms.

Again, Kim, thank you for speaking with us. We here at TLY are always interested in trips and experiences away from home. When did you first leave home?

KIM: I was sixteen when my parents sent me to France for the summer to live with a host family in Cadillac as part of a language-learning program. I spent six weeks there. Every day was quietly mind-blowing. In a weird way, France seemed more real to me than America. Maybe this was just the novelty factor, but I think it also had something to do with the way culture is so deeply rooted there. In ordinary, everyday contexts, you can see history stretching back for hundreds of years. It’s in the architecture, in the layout of the streets, in the food, it’s in everything. That trip opened my eyes and gave me new perspectives, just as they always say travel does. I remain a devoted Francophile.

TLY: Do you find yourself gravitating to certain cities? Regions?

KIM: As an adult I’ve lived in New York, San Francisco, and Boston. I sometimes wonder if I would have lived in other places if I hadn’t been with my husband from such an early age (we started living together when I was eighteen). The places I like aren’t always the same ones that pull him. But if all the logistics could be magically settled, and my husband were on board, I’d move to Sweden today. I’ve always been drawn to the Scandinavian countries, in part because my grandfather was Swedish, on my mother’s side, and so was my great-grandmother, on my father’s side. So Swedish is the biggest slice of my mutt pie chart.

TLY: What inspired you to major in cultural anthropology?

KIM: My husband, James. As I just mentioned, we got together when we were very young. He was at Columbia. I was at Barnard. I was kind of a lost puppy—I’d just come out of a crazy home life, with alcoholism, violence, drug addiction, psychological abuse. I had no bearings to speak of and hardly any boundaries. James was (and remains) very smart, very kind, very centered. I listened to him about practically everything. One great piece of advice he gave me back then was to take Introduction to Cultural Anthropology with a wonderful professor named Robert Murphy. That class was like France had been: totally mind-expanding. One day Murphy said that there are two kinds of anthropologists, two kinds of people: those that see and emphasize the differences between people and cultures, and those that see and emphasize the similarities. I immediately understood that I was in the latter camp. Murphy was great like that. He helped me understand that I couldn’t possibly hope to understand another culture—or anything at all—without also studying my own mind, my own cultural and intellectual biases. After that class, I was hooked.

TLY: In an interview, you said: “I love working in the essay form because of the way it allows for lateral movement of thought—a kind of wandering. Yet, at the center of every good essay is a still point, and there stands the essayist—or, rather, the essayist’s sensibility.” Would you share with us some more of your thoughts on the relation between the essay form and the writer's sensibility?

KIM: One of the reasons the essay appeals to me is that it can be both extremely personal—actually intimate—but at the same time almost clinical in its engagement with facts. The personal part of the equation has to do with the writer’s sensibility. The facts are largely what that sensibility engages with. More than any other prose form, the essay uses the author’s sensibility to shape and energize the work. It’s similar to poetry in this sense. A big part of what’s going on with both forms is simply a presentation of the writer’s mind at work. Part of the thrill of a good essay (as with a good poem) lies in watching that mind make connections between unexpected, sometimes wildly incongruent thoughts, images, feelings, and facts. This is how we all respond to the world around us, mentally and emotionally, but both the poem and the essay make it their business to track that process in an especially lucid way. Sometimes when I’m working on a complex piece, I feel like there’s something actually physical going on inside my head. It’s almost acrobatic: sensibility grappling with subject. So yes, in one sense, the writer’s sensibility is a still point, because it’s located inside the writer—but it’s also extremely dynamic.

TLY: In the lovely work, “I Wish I Could Write Like Russell Edson,” you finish in part with the following: “… I wish I could write the way Harpo Marx talked.” Can you describe Harpo’s manner of speaking and why it appeals to you?

KIM: Well, as you know, Harpo doesn’t talk at all. And yet he communicates more perfectly, with more subtlety and beauty than either of his brothers (and they’re pretty great communicators!). I guess what I meant by that line—what I meant by the whole piece—is that I wish I could write better, more clearly, more honestly, and in that way better reflect the complexities of the world around me. I suppose I also was talking about how language always falls a little short. It can only point at things. Never be them. Harpo got that, and bypassed it. I think that accounts for his Buddha-clown appeal.

TLY: You write with great passion about craft. What is the role, if any, of politics in craft-oriented work?

KIM: Ooh—good question! This is something I think about a lot, though I’ve never settled on a very clear answer. I’d say first of all that all work is craft-oriented in the sense that craft is required to create a finished piece of writing. But if you’re paying some kind of extra-special attention to craft, if, for instance, you’re looking very closely at the relationship of form to content, or rejecting conventional forms in favor of something more idiosyncratic or experimental, your work tends to bring craft to the forefront, where people notice it more readily. There’s an assumption that conventional work—work steeped in American Realism, for instance, or any of its offshoots—is less crafted, but this isn’t the case. It’s just harder to see, because realist modes of literature are so ingrained and so popular. Yet even conventional forms take tremendous efforts on the craft front. I know because I’ve tried to do them and I can’t. As much as I’ve wanted, in the past, to write more conventionally, at the same time something in me resists writing this way. It makes me feel very ill at ease. Not to sound dramatic, but it can make me feel physically sick. Yet for ages I bought into the idea that the conventionally structured novel, and the conventionally structured short story, and the conventionally structured memoir, et cetera, were all somehow natural formations: the right way to write. It took me years to accept that I’m simply not wired that way -- that the things I want to write about simply don’t fit into those forms. It’s strange it took me so long because the work I love most is almost always more formally inventive. Now, I understand realism to be a mirage. A materialist fantasy. A very seductive one, sometimes a very comforting one, but it’s important to recognize that it’s limited. I think it’s also important to recognize that conventional forms can only hold certain kinds of stories—stories that fit comfortably into that specific kind of container, stories that can accommodate those particular restrictions. But there are a lot of other stories out there that don’t fit those restrictions. And if you don’t struggle to find the right way to tell them—if you don’t work your ass off crafting something different—they just won’t get told. So yes, I think there really is a political element embedded in form—both conventional and unconventional forms.

TLY: Apart from writing, what is your favorite mode of expression?

KIM: Hm. Probably cooking. I love baking especially. I’ve always baked a lot—cookies, pies, cakes, bread. There was even a time in my twenties when I trained to be a professional baker, but I quickly realized I was happier as a home baker, which is a completely different animal. But actually I like to cook everything—not just baked goods. It’s creative and sensuous, but it’s also a way of expressing love, not only for those you cook for, but also for the ingredients. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years, daily for the last ten or so, and along the way I’ve studied a bit of Ayurveda, yoga’s “sister science.” One of Ayurveda’s basic tenants is that food should be prepared with great care, ideally with love, because when we eat we are not only imbibing nutrients and calories, we’re also taking in energy—the energy with which the food was grown, raised, harvested, and prepared. This principle holds true for everything, actually, because energy is in everything, is transferred through everything. I think that’s important to think about, as a writer.

TLY: Kim, we can’t thank you enough for the interview. Your work is something to be treasured. Before you go, would you mind telling us about any projects on which you are currently working?

KIM: Thank you! It’s been fun. And thank you for your kind words about my work. Right now I’m working on novel about the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It’s a fictional biography, but of course it plays with form a little more than that.

More About the Author

Kim Adrian is the author of the forthcoming memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet (University of Nebraska Press, October 2018) and Sock, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. She the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. Her award-winning stories and essays have appeared in O Magazine, Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Brevity, and many other places. She has taught at Boston and Brown Universities.

She may be found at the following sites:

author site ——

reading blog ——

twitter ——

For purchase Sock

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Case Study

Kathryn A. Kopple

            My ancestors came the Lombard town of Mortara. The Romans called it Pulchra Silva. With the coming of Charlemagne, it became known as Mortara. Roughly translated, Mortara means “place of death."  These days, people go there for risotto and goose sausage.  In the late '70s, I made the trip with Sofia.  I put on so much weight that she teased me, saying I looked like a goose-stuffed sausage.  Now, my hair is white. There is hardly enough meat on my bones for the hyenas to make a decent meal of me. And yet, even in this decrepit state, I am fond of this body. I am not at all eager to part with it.              
Often I think of Edgardo. I wonder if I haven’t walked in his footsteps my entire life.  I don’t mean to say I have attained Edgardo’s transcendence. I mean only to say I have also suffered. 
 Edgardo was removed from his parents’ home as a young boy and adopted by Pope Pius IX.  I too was adopted as an infant. We share this early separation from our birth parents. At the time he was taken, Edgardo's parents fought to have him returned.  They pleaded with the authorities.  They contacted powerful leaders. The Rothschilds came to their aid. The French government tried to broker Edgardo’s release.  Across Europe, people took to the streets in protest. Steadfastly, Edgardo refused to return to his mother and father.
Edgardo possessed rare courage. In sermon after sermon, he spoke of his miraculous conversion.  He asserted under oath that demons tortured him day and night.  He blamed his mother, claiming that she was possessed.  Only his faith could protect him from her.   
I learned I was adopted when a group of boys spied on me in latrine at school one day.  Mortified, I vowed I would tell no one.  Noticing my pensive mood and poor appetite, my mother devised a simple scheme to get me to tell her my troubles.  She set out a bowl of cherry ice, handed me a spoon, and sat—smiling, patient—until I broke down. How I managed to communicate the details through my shame and blubbering I will never know.  Worse yet, by the time I had finished spilling the sordid details, she could scarcely look me in the eye.  She lived her faith so genuinely; the slightest stain on her spiritual life was a source of affliction.
            Her piety, humility—the twin pillars of her faith.  I did my best to follow her example, filling my hours with devotion and liturgy, the smell of chapel incense clinging to me wherever I went.  I reminded myself daily that I lived in a loving home.  My father was a simple but good man.  My mother was caring.  Of course, there were moments when I was plagued by curiosity. I considered confronting my mother.  On second thought, confront is too strong a word. I only wanted to hear the truth--told to me simply and directly.  The essence of who I was came from another place, in the history of another people.  What did I know of those people? 
When my mother passed away, I confess I felt liberated.  The time had come for me to leave home and pursue my studies.  I decided to become a history major, not an unusual choice for someone with an uncertain sense of his own past.  In the middle of a rather dull class on the Battle of Lepanto, a young woman sitting next to me passed me a note.  She wished to get to know me better.
Her name was Sofia.  She was the daughter of a prominent family, several of her kin high-standing members in business and politics.  Over coffee and  pastries, she told me that she was drawn to me because I had a kind face.  I returned the compliment, adding that I thought her very pretty.  When she reached for my hand across the table, the touch of her skin against mine reminded me of how little physical contact I had experienced.  I was a stranger to the most basic expressions of human affection.  For more years than I could count, I had held myself back, unable to touch or be touched, frozen inside. 
          We married and moved into a house with a sunny kitchen. Pots of marjoram decorated the windowsill. The extra bedroom became my study.  With Sofia at my side, I felt I could do anything.  I graduated from college and attended law school. I earned accolades and stellar grades, as well as some undeserved notoriety for a paper I published on Edgardo’s case.  What can I say?  The legality of the case intrigued me.  I remember spending a hot and muted summer in the library buried in scholarly tomes.  My article was accepted by a prestigious journal. I received reviews—not all of them flattering; some will always take pains to go that extra step. I was vilified by a prominent newsletter on religious affairs.  Looking back, I realize that it is not an easy thing to review the catalogue of human suffering and maintain one's objectivity.  I felt for the boy's family.  I suppose with a slight twist of the facts I might have argued in their favor.  And yet I never doubted that authorities had scrupulously observed the law.
            I graduated and found myself out of work.  Many years would pass before I was able to set up my own firm.  Sofia never complained, although the same can't be said about her family.  They opposed our marriage from the start, and when their objections failed, they tried to use money to get what they wanted.  My poor wife.  The family pressured her mercilessly, and there came a point when she threatened to break with them entirely.  I tried to act as a mediator (after all, isn't that what lawyers do?). I believed she would regret turning her back on her mother and father because of me.  Never--no matter how much I cared for her--did I wish to be the person who came between Sofia and her family.  
          Regardless of my in-laws, ours was the happiest of partnerships.  Sofia was a modern woman and insisted on working and raising our children.  We had three of them.  I couldn't have imagined that our marriage would end as it did:  my lovely Sofia murdered and I, a condemned man.
             Wrongly condemned, I insist.  Although I can’t name the man who killed Sofia, he exists.  I would recognize him immediately; you can’t say that of everyone; that, a man you met once occupies your mind, not as mere memory, but as a fixture.
What do I recall?  I recall that, the night of the murder, I stayed past five at the office tying up this and that—the sorts of chores that keep us lawyers with our shoulder to the grindstone.  By the time I was able to get away, the streets were quiet. Such a gloomy evening, cold and damp, and as I walked home I recall in sharp detail the branches of the trees scraping in the wind and the spires of the Cathedral dark masts against the sky.  These sights added to my gloom.  A man hurrying in my direction asked me the time.  He was tall and gaunt, with a woolly black beard and long hair that gave him a prophetic air.  An odd bird if there ever was one. I glanced at my watch.  It read 11:00 pm. 
I made it home without further incident. Not wishing to disturb Sofia, I ate a ham sandwich for supper, got a fire started and settled in a chair with a good cognac for company.   I closed my eyes and drowsed.  A loud bang, a shot, woke me.  I ran up the stairs.  Immediately, I recognized him—the same man who stopped me in the street.  He dropped the gun and rushed for me.  Why he dropped the gun I can only guess.  I had the impression that he wanted to get his hands on me.  He was tall, tough as shoe leather, and his bony fingers dug into my neck.  My trachea buckled, the blackness of his eyes grew wider.   I was disappearing into that blackness when he lost his grip and the light rushed back in.  I grabbed at him and we stood, locked in each other's arms, imprisoned there. What a monster!  And then, he pulled back his head and spat at me, the saliva stinging my eyes.  I let out a cry of rage, broke loose and lunged for him.  We tumbled, first he over me, then I over him, our bodies landing hard at the bottom of the steps.  I never doubted that he wanted to kill me.
            The next thing I remember is the bright sunlight through the window.  I didn’t know it at the time but Sofia lay dead in the upstairs bedroom.  The intruder was nowhere to be seen.   
­­­­­­­­­            I have been convicted of killing my wife.  How is such a thing possible? I loved my wife.  No one believes me when I say that she was murdered. From start to finish, the case brought against me is preposterous. Men do not kill their wives on a whim.  If the police had done their job and searched the house for the murder weapon, they would know that I am telling the truth.  The beard was discovered; it achieved a certain mythic status, a prop in a drama staged for the jury's entertainment.  It was said that I had worn it the night of the murder to disguise my features.  Absurd!  Even if I had tried to disguise myself a beard is not the first thing that comes to mind. 
            To be wrongly accused is a terrible thing.  I suppose it is my innocence that causes me to think so often of Edgardo.  Few people take his side of the story—would defend him as I have, and not for purely legal reasons:  only love explains his refusal to return to the arms of his grieving mother—just as love proves that I could not have killed Sofia.  Edgardo and I differ simply in our devotion to God.  When I step into the execution chamber, I will die as Stefan Mortara. It is terrifying. I wish had Edgardo’s faith but I am human, made of skin and bones, in need of air to survive.  And yet, even at this dark hour, I have no taste for miracles.  I do not need the water to turn into wine.  Instead, I ask myself:  if man solved every mystery related to his physical reality, would he still yearn for transcendence?  If God is the ultimate mystery, he must be the solution to all mysteries.  Like most men, I am a mystery.  I would like to live in this condition of ignorance a bit longer.  Forever, if you must know the truth.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Xul Solar: Utopia, Unlimited

Jonathan Kandell

The museum dedicated to Argentina’s foremost painter, Xul Solar (1887–1963), evokes a cabinet of curiosities befitting the eccentricities of this talented artist and polymath. Besides his paintings, often whimsical and occultist, Xul Solar invented a language he called neo-criollo that he hoped would replace Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America; he concocted an elaborate chess game and a new deck of Tarot cards; and he built a three-keyboard piano that linked musical notes to colors. All these creations are on display at the museum that occupies his former home and studio.

The Museo Xul Solar is in the upper-middle class Palermo district of Buenos Aires, on a quiet street of multi-story dwellings mostly from the second half of the 20th century. The museum was inaugurated in 1993 after a thoroughly contemporary redesign. But its façade dates back to the early part of the century and preserves its lengthy wooden window shutters and balconies with wrought-iron railing that were typical of the French-Spanish hybrid architecture of the period.

Inside, I’m greeted by several watercolors from the early 1950s of half-human, half-animal faces of zodiac figures that remind me of characters created by Maurice Sendak 40 years later. At the suggestion of my guide, Teresa Tedin Uriburu, the museum’s communication director, we view the 84-work collection in chronological order. But first, she offers a brief summary of Xul Solar’s early years.

Xul Solar 

He was born Oscar Schulz Solari on December 14, 1887, in the small town of San Fernando, now a northwest suburb of Buenos Aires. His mother, a housewife, was Italian, and his father, an immigrant from Estonia, worked in an Argentine penitentiary giving technical job training to the inmates. Their son studied architecture, painting and classical music, but never received a degree. In 1912, he set off for Europe on what would prove to be a dozen-year sojourn in France, Italy and Germany during World War I and the bitter peace that followed.

It wasn’t until 1918, while living in Florence, that he changed his name to Xul Solar: Xul is the pronunciation of the father’s last name, minus the z, and spells “light” in Latin backwards; Solar is the mother’s last name, minus the i, and means “of the sun.” Already enamored of symbols and hidden meanings, the artist became “Light of the Sun.”

In Paris during wartime, he socialized with Picasso and other cubists and in Italy with futurists. But Xul Solar’s early postwar years in Germany proved to have the most lasting influence. He was spellbound by the German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter, especially works from this period by Paul Klee. Like the Swiss-born artist, Xul Solar often included deceptively child-like figures along with letters, numbers and other symbols in his paintings.

The first room at the museum contains art works, many of them watercolors on cardboard, that Xul Solar painted during his time in Europe. A repeated motif is reincarnation. His 1915 El Entierro (The Burial) depicts a funeral procession in which the fetus-shaped soul of the deceased levitates and returns to a womb-like cave.

Many of his works contain snakes, representing forbidden knowledge. The sun appears frequently in his paintings, as might be expected from the artist’s assumed name. Humor is another element in Xul Solar’s repertoire. The 1922 watercolor Las Cuatro is a playful jab at Cubism—four cartoon-like faces, with eyes attached to nose and an orifice for the mouth, glance in different directions. Ña Diáfana (Lady Diaphanous, in the neo-criollo language invented by the artist) is a 1923 semi-abstract watercolor in the style of Klee. The woman, her organs exposed, grasps a serpent that encircles her.

In 1924, Xul Solar moved back to Argentina with a missionary zeal to shake up its sleepy art scene. He joined the Martín Fierro movement. Linked to an eponymous short-lived magazine (1924-27), the movement was named after a rebellious mythical gaucho and called for cultural change in a country still heavily influenced by formalistic 19th century European notions of art and literature. Martín Fierro members included Jorge Luís Borges, the phantasmagorical novelist, who became a close friend of Xul Solar.

Perhaps the most important Xul Solar work to come out of his involvement with the movement was the 1927 pencil and watercolor, Drago (neo-criollo for Dragon). It depicts a powerful, united Latin America transformed into a giant serpent swimming across the ocean to rescue a Europe impoverished by World War I. In the reptile’s wake are the flags of the former colonial powers—Spain and Portugal—as well as the Stars and Stripes of the neo-colonial pretender. But Drago was one of the few overtly political works among Xul Solar’s varied creations. More typical of the same period is the 1925 San Dansa (neo-criollo for Saint Dances), writhing stick-like figures that invite comparison to Keith Haring’s paintings from 60 years later.

By the 1930s, the Martín Fierro movement was a dim memory. Xul Solar’s works took on an increasingly narrative and mystic quality. In the 1936 Vuel Villa (Flying Village in neo-criollo), clumsy ships carrying exotic residences and other buildings are lifted by balloons high above an earthbound village of more conventional homes. Another notable work, Santos y Guardianes (Saints and Guardians, 1942), depicts holy men of Western and Eastern faiths climbing heavenwards on shaky columns and ladders.

Some of Xul Solar’s largest paintings are from the 1940s and ’50s. He became enthralled by the links between art and music. In the 1948 Barreras Melódicas, peaks and valleys represent high and low musical notes. And he returns to the theme with a similar landscape in Cinco Melodías (1959). In between, he created his famed three-keyboard piano, which is on display on the museum’s mezzanine.

Above the mezzanine, up a winding staircase, are the modest living quarters of Xul Solar and his wife, Lita Cadenas. The apartment opens into a library of 3,000 volumes, arranged eccentrically by size rather than subject; in a corner is a wood-and-wire skeleton fashioned by the artist. This was the room where Xul Solar and Borges met frequently for hours to discuss art, literature and astrology, and to play pan-ajedrez, an expanded chess game in which each opponent had 30 pieces that not only moved across the board, but also bore alphabet letters to be shaped into words.

Earning little income from art, Xul Solar made a living as a translator of books in English, French, German and Italian, and by renting out two apartments in his Buenos Aires residence. In his last decade, he spent much of his time in Tigre, the isle-dotted delta of the River Plate a few miles north of Buenos Aires. And in the years after his death in 1963, he became an almost forgotten figure.

There was a brief spike in interest in Xul Solar when the Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art, known as MALBA, staged a retrospective of 130 of his art works in 2005. The exhibition traveled to São Paulo and to Houston. But Xul Solar remains largely ignored even in Argentina. His museum has tried since 2010 to fund and publish a catalogue raisonnée of his works, but the project isn’t yet nearing completion.

Perhaps his friend Borges phrased the lack of interest most poignantly when he wrote a dozen years after the artist’s death: “Xul Solar’s utopias failed, but that failure is ours, not his. We have not known how to deserve them.”

Credits:  This article originally appeared in Arts and Antiques.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Interview with historical fiction writer Lisa J. Yarde

TLY: Today, we welcome author Lisa J. Yarde. She is a historical fiction writer whose stories are inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe.

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa! Growing up, did you hear a lot of stories about your own family history?

LISA: Thank you so much for hosting me, Kathryn. Both of my grandmothers, my aunts and uncles, even older cousins told me a lot about family history in Barbados. Enough to inspire me to do some research and purchase an Ancestry DNA kit. As I had assumed, my history includes West African origins, but I also had confirmation of an Irish heritage, which the family has long suspected based on stories of my maternal great-grandmother.

TLY: You live in Brooklyn, New York. What might a tourist find in Brooklyn that is of historical interest?

LISA: I’m fascinated by New York’s role in history from the colonial period on. I’m fortunate to live 10 minutes’ drive away from Wyckoff House, which exists as a museum now, but had been a Dutch colonial home since the 17th century. Then there’s the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve walked the span of it many times and always marveled at the ability to construct this bridge with 19th-century technology. Brooklyn was also home to Jackie Robinson for two years during his start with the Dodgers.

TLY: Six out of your eight novels are set in Moorish Spain. What is Moorish Spain?

LISA: Moorish Spain is not only an epoch of history where architecture, literature and medical knowledge thrived. It was a fascinating period in which Arabic became the courtly language and Islam, the dominant religion, not Christianity. Moorish Spain introduced innovative ideas, farming techniques, and trade goods into the Iberian Peninsula. Although the Christian Reconquista eliminated Moorish rule after 700 years, the influence of Moorish Spain remains in the language – especially any word beginning with ‘al’ that derives from an Arabic term - and the foods. The country’s turbulent history, revolving around a civil war between people who differed in their religious beliefs, provided the perfect inspiration for my 'Sultana"series about the last Moorish rulers, the Nasrid dynasty of Granada.

TLY: As someone who has spent time in Spain, what is it you enjoy most about the country?

LISA: The people. I’ve always found Spaniards to be welcoming and incredibly tolerant of my vain attempts to speak their language. In my travels, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the setting of my novels, Granada’s Alhambra. There’s something so special about walking in the places where the real-life personages who’ve inspired me once did more than 500 years ago. Among the tourists at the site, I’ve always found Spaniards who have a deep appreciation for their cultural heritage. Those with whom I’ve engaged, once they find out I’ve written about the Moorish period, are always receptive and encouraging.

TLY: The poet Federico Garcia Lorca is quoted as saying: "In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world. What do you think he means?"

LISA: It’s true. Beyond their fervent veneration of Catholic saints, there is this sense of history deeply embedded in the Spanish psyche and culture. The experiences of centuries past still influence the outlook of the Spanish on their country and the world today.

TLY: Some people consider the term “historical fiction” a kind of lie—that by fictionalizing history you are being unfaithful to the past. Thoughts?

LISA: As novelists, if we’re lucky, we get the ‘who, when, where and how’ of history, but we rarely get ‘why’ something occurred. I view it as my responsibility as a writer of historical fiction to pursue accuracy and authenticity, but it’s impossible to know everything. In the case of the characters I’ve written about in the Sultana series, I amassed a wealth of detail about their lives, but often, viewed through the biases of the victors, Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand of Aragón. Historical records themselves are often unfaithful to the truth, hence the adage, ‘history is written by the victors.’ In adopting major Moorish historical figures as my main characters, I hoped to give them a voice, to portray the possible reasons for their motivations in the two centuries of warfare and détente between Moorish and Christian Spain. In 20 years of research, I’ve learned many earlier assumptions of historians aren’t necessarily accurate and that the losers of history found means to tell their side of the story, too.

TLY: Authors may love or hate their characters. Can you tell us which of your characters you like or dislike?

LISA: Oh, Lord! That first part is like asking me to choose a favorite family member. But I’d have to say among the female figures, it would be Sultana Fatima, the heroine of the first and second books in my series who emerges as the character I’ve liked the most. The real Fatima was a fascinating woman, impacted by political events in her youth, who later exerted major influence during the reigns of her grandsons after their father’s murder. I did not doubt the ruthlessness of the Nasrids, but I was surprised an element of that existed in Fatima’s personality, too. She apparently arranged the stabbing of her eldest grandson’s chief minister in her home because of his heavy influence over the young Sultan. Surprisingly for me, the villainess Maryam of the third and fourth novels is a close favorite behind Fatima. I knew less of Maryam’s life than her more powerful predecessor in the harem, but I don’t doubt she was a survivor primarily. For a woman who entered the harem as a slave, became the mother of seven of a Sultan’s children and successfully schemed to remove her eldest son’s rival from the throne, Maryam had to have been a remarkable person in life.

As to characters I dislike, it should be clear to readers of the fifth and sixth novels in the series that Queen Isabella is a personage whom I do not favor. She was not only partly responsible for unleashing the Inquisition, one of Spain’s darkest periods, but she was an extremely dishonest broker in her final agreement with the Moors. As I’ve said, religion was truly the sole difference between the Moorish and Christian peoples of Spain. Isabella exploited that contrast to gain papal support for her war when really, she was just as interested in gaining a foothold in Africa to stave off her Portuguese rivals AND gain wealth through trade. I’ll grudgingly admit she preserved Granada’s Alhambra as most visitors see it today; her descendant Carlos is responsible for the significant alterations that occurred later.

TLY: Lisa, it has been great talking historical fiction with someone who really has devoted her life to writing the past. Can you tell us about any current projects you are working on?

LISA: Now that the "Sultana" series is complete, I’ve moved on to 15th century Romania with a trilogy about the father and two brothers of the real Prince Dracula. The first of the novels, "Order of the Dragon" explores the difficult choices Vlad Dracul II made to maintain his power base and keep his family safe from the Turks, as they appeared poised to seize Constantinople. The second and third books, "Sons of the Dragon" recount the turbulent lives of the respective eldest and youngest sons of Vlad; Mircea and Radu, who each faced their own difficult circumstances against the Turks in a struggle for survival. Because some of the events across the series overlap, I’ve had to write some chapters of each book concurrently. I hope to have all three novels available at the end of the year.

Thanks again for this opportunity to share my publication journey with your readers, Kathryn!

More about Lisa:

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of the six-part "Sultana" series set in Moorish Spain, of which the first title is available in five languages. Lisa has also published two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy. Born in Barbados, Lisa lives in New York City. Learn more about her writing at the website

Monday, March 5, 2018

Where Do Words Come From?

Luisa Futoransky
(trans. Daniel Balderston and Mary Schwartz)

Marc Chagall

The language of speech, writing, and thought sometimes reflect in a simple way, as in the latest astronomical discoveries of the "brown dwarves" (dark stars that constitute a large share of the universe), the strong power of absent language.  That is to say, what permits and yet impedes the acquisition of what the expatriate finds most difficult to access:  internal residence.

On June 11, 1938, Freud wrote to the Swiss psychoanalyst Raymond de Saussure that emigrants suffer most from the loss of the language in which they lived and though, which is irreplaceable.  Freud took refuge not in German or English, but in a dead tongue, Latin, to define the irreversible: FINIS AUSTRIAE, two words that came to summarize the drama of emigration from one circle of hell to another.

Transterrado:  landless, expatriated, in asylum, exiled, distanced, absent, colonized, in flight, because almost always, at the beginning, emigration is a swallow, a river overflowering its banks, without accounting for the missing pieces that go beyond the surface.  Missing pieces that spring up in the first unspoken evocation.  Eclipses that reappear in dreams that we quickly wipe away.

Many  travelers take on the painful process of translation, to decant, to transfer one human landscape to another.  Above all to build a bridge.  Each person will establish with what means he or she has available, with flimsy ropes or with sophisticated works of engineering, to carry appropriate words across successfully, words that reveal the inner landscape, that since childhood traces with its peculiar tastes and bitterness the common denominator of that other shore, a transaction that is no doubt complicated by memory's lapses and falsified accounts.  But almost always the transmutation has occurred by the time one suffers through the ravages of winter, both internal and external.

Exiles and refugees are stripped of their characteristics and all that is left to them sometimes for self-defense is to shield themselves with armor, a callus against otherness made of clumsy or painful irony and sometimes to wound those that they consider barbarians.  That is to say, they begin to translate.

But what is translation and exile if not taking a random block of words, a planetary system of old ideas, phonemes, and illusions and transporting them into a new and unknown planetary system.  Frequently the orbits are disrupted and many words and laws, generally the most important ones, the deepest and most secret are left floating like enert particles out of orbit.  Translation and exile are always synonyms of loss.

To come from one language and write in another, sometimes thinking in a third and living in whichever one you can, has become a large part of the literary experience of the contemporary novel.

The answers vary, and the rules, sometimes pushed to their limists, establish excessive ties to things far away and the filigrees of nostalgia are revealed in the undercurrent of hatred and resentment.  Finnegans Wake would be in this sense the great text of exile, but there are other alliances and negotiations that are almost as dramatic with language:  Primo Levi, Kundera, Condrad, Singer, Nabokov, Kosinski, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Kafka, Cortázar. Or for example closer to mine:  Dujovne, Bianciotti.  The relation of the country of origin where you no longer live emerges from the mere listing of their names, the dense jungle that exile has produced.

Each author in some way, in his or her own way, is a kind of traveling library, an atlas, which refers to and sends us back to the libraries where the unwritten and uncharted multiply endlessly.

We all participate in this great leap of communication, negotiating sometimes in an extreme way with language because the inalienable weapon in the hands of the exile is sarcasm.  Irony is capable of absorbing hatred and pity without poisoning its user too much.  Out of this dispossession the world may become a chaos inhabited only by barbarians.

As I translate my theme of exile as it traverses and grows, almost like a Bermuda Triangle, translation being a synonym of marginalization and remainder, an image sticks in my mind: a detail from a painting by Bacon.  From a chaotic circle of green lines emerges a massive tree, uprooted, defenseless.  Without anesthesia.  Like a wisdom tooth.  Roots lying on the earth, disproportionate to the hapless trunk.  I foresee that from there will be some sprouts while others will perish.  Over this shape there is a glow, something like a yellow point clearly tracing a path.  Perhaps a man's head.  An easel perhaps.  The title of Bacon's painting announces:  Portrait of Van Gogh.

Credits:  This essay was originally published in 2002 in the anthology Voice-Overs: Translation and Latin American Literature (Daniel Balderston and Marcy E. Schwartz, Editors).

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Game of Chess

Ezra Pound

Gosia Herba

Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens,
Striking the board, falling in strong ‘L's of
Reaching and striking in angles,
holding lines in one colour.
This board is alive with light;
these pieces are living in form,
Their moves break and reform the pattern:
luminous green from the rooks,
Clashing with ‘X's of queens,
looped with the knight-leaps.

‘Y' pawns, cleaving, embanking!
Whirl ! Centripetal ! Mate ! King down in the
Clash, leaping of bands, straight strips of hard
Blocked lights working in. Escapes. Renewal of

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Woman Like Me

Felisberto Hernández
(trans. Kathryn A. Kopple)

A few summers ago the idea I had been a horse occurred to me. As night arrived the thought came to me like a tarp over a house. As soon as I would lay myself down in my man's body my memory of being a horse started its walk.

On one of the nights I walked a dirt road and stepped on the smudges made by the shadows of the trees. On one side the moon followed me; on the opposite side my shadow dragged along; at the same time clods that were lifted and dropped were covered in darkness. In the opposite direction the trees came at me with great force, and my shadow grew longer as I got closer to them.

I was wrapped in my tired flesh and my joints hurt from the harness. Sometimes I forgot how to coordinate my hands with my hind legs, stumbled and nearly fell.

Suddenly I smelled water but it was a putrid water from a nearby lagoon. My eyes were also like lagoons, and on their tearful, sloping surfaces, large and small things, near and far, were simultaneously reflected. My only task was to distinguish bad shadows and threats from animals and men; and when lowering my head to the ground to eat the grass sheltered near the trees also avoid bad weeds. If thorns stuck me I had to move my lips until they came off.

In the early hours of night and despite hunger I never stopped. I had discovered in the horse something very similar to what had recently been lost to man: a great laziness; in it memories could work at ease. Besides, I had discovered that for memories to proceed, I had to wind them up by walking. With that illusion I could still be happy.  A bag covered my eyes. I was attached to a swing attached to a rod that moved a handle like those used for the big wheels, but which he used for the kneading machine. I would go around for hours moving the handle, which rotated like a minute hand. And so, without stumbling, and to noise of my steps and the gears, my memories went round.

We worked late into the night; then he fed me, and to the noise made by the corn between my teeth my thoughts slid along.

(At this moment, being a horse, I am thinking about what happened to me a short time ago when I was still a man. One night when I couldn't sleep because I felt hungry, I remembered that I had a packet of mints in the cupboard, and that they made a noise similar to corn.)

Now, suddenly, reality makes me present to my current state as a horse. My steps have a deep echo. I'm making a big wooden bridge boom.

Along paths that went in different directions I have always had the same memories. Day and night they are like the rivers of a country. Sometimes I contemplate them, and other times they overflow.

In my adolescence I had a great hatred for the stable boy that took care of me. He was also a teenager. The sun had just come out when that wretch hit me on the snout. Fire quickly ran through my blood and I went mad with fury. I stood up and knocked down the stable boy while I bit his head.  Then I crushed a thigh and someone saw how my mane flew when I turned and finished him with my hind legs.

The next day many people left the funeral in order to see me when the men came to avenge that death. They killed the colt and left me as a horse. Shortly after that I had a very long night. I still had some "tricks" from my previous life, and that night I used them to jump over a fence along a road. I could barely manage it and I got hurt. I started living a sad freedom. My body had not only become heavy but all its parts wanted to live an independent life and not make any effort. They acted like servants who resisted their owner and did everything reluctantly. When I was lying down and wanted to get up, I had to convince each of the parties. And at the last moment there were always protests and unforeseen complaints. Hunger was very clever in bringing them together, but what brought all to agreement most quickly was the fear of persecution. When a bad owner beat one of the parties, they all became supportive and tried to avoid greater evils to the unfortunates; besides, none was safe. I tried to choose owners of low fences, and after the first beating I left, and the hunger and persecution began.

Once I had a very cruel master. At first he only hit me when I was carrying him and we passed in front of his fiance's house. Then he began to place the cargo load too far back; I was stuck and couldn't find the strength, and he, furious, hit me in the belly, in the legs and in the head. I left one afternoon but I had to run a lot before I could hide in the night. I crossed the edge of a town and stopped for a moment near a hut; there was fire burning and through the smoke and from a small inconstant flame I could see inside a man with his hat on. It was night then but I continued.

As soon as I started walking again I felt lighter. I had the impression that some parts of my body would stay or be lost in the night. Then, I tried to hurry my steps.

There were distant trees that had moving lights between the branches. Suddenly, I realized that on the road in the distance there was a light. I was hungry, but I decided not to eat until I reached the shore of that glow. It turned out to be a town. I was going along the road more and more slowly and never reached the glow in the distance. Little by little I began to realize that none of my parties had deserted. They were arriving one by one; the one who was not hungry was tired, but those who had pains had arrived first. I didn't know anymore how to manipulate them. I showed them the memory of the owner that time he undid the saddle; his short, flat shadow moved slowly around my entire body. It was that man who I should have killed when I was a colt, when my parts were not divided, when I, my fury and my will, were one.

I started eating some grass around the nearest houses. I was an easy thing to find because my skin had large black and white spots, but now it was late at night and there was no one about. My constant snorting stirred up the dust. I didn't see it, but it got into my eyes. I entered a paved street where there was a large gate. As soon as I went through the gate I saw white spots moving in the darkness. They were children's smocks. They scared me and I climbed a ladder that had only a few rungs. Then I was frightened by others who were upstairs. I threw my harness down on the wooden floor and suddenly I found myself in an illuminated area that opened up on an audience. There was an explosion of screams and laughter. Children dressed in evening clothes came running out, and from the deafening public, where there were also many children, there were voices that said: "A horse, a horse ..." And a boy whose ears looked as if they were folded in the shape of a hat, shouted: "It's Mendez's tobiano. " At last the teacher appeared on the stage. She also laughed, but asked for silence. She said that it was not long before the end of the piece and began to explain how it ended. But she was interrupted again. I was very tired. I lied down on the carpet and the audience again applauded and with such enthusiasm. The show was finished and some took the stage. A girl about three years old escaped her mother, came towards me and put her hand, open like a star, on my back wet with sweat. When the mother took her away, she raised her little open hand and said: "Mamita, the horse is wet".

A gentleman, pointing his index finger in the teacher's direction as if he were going to ring a bell, said to her with suspicion: "You won't deny that you had planned the horse as a surprise and it entered earlier than you thought. Horses are very difficult to teach. I had one…".

The boy whose ears were folded back felt around my upper belly and looked at my teeth. He said, "This horse is old."

The teacher let them believe that she had planned the horse as a surprise. A childhood friend came to greet her. The friend remembered a quarrel they had had when they went to school, and the teacher reminded her that, at that time, she told her that she had the face of a horse. I was surprised, because the teacher looked like me. But, in any case,  there it was: a lack of respect for humble beings. The teacher should not have said that in my presence.

When the congratulations and the ovations faded away, a young man appeared in the hallway to the orchestra, interrupted the teacher, who was speaking to the childhood friend and the man who motioned with his index finger as if pressing a bell and yelled, "Tomasa, don Santiago says that it would be more convenient for us to talk at the bakery, that a lot of light is being wasted here.

"And the horse?"

"But, my dear, you're not going to stay there with him all night."

"Alejandro is coming now with a rope and we will take him home."

The young man got up on stage, continued talking to all three and working against me. "It seems to me that Tomasa exposes herself too much by taking that horse to her house.  And some of the Zubirías were saying that a woman alone in her house with a horse she doesn't intend to use at all makes no sense; and mama also said that horse is going to bring her many difficulties."

But Tomasa said, "First of all, I'm not alone in my house because Candelaria helps me. And secondly, I could buy a carriage if those spinsters let me."

 Afterwards Alejandro showed up with the rope. He was the little boy with the folded ears. He tied the rope around my neck, and when they wanted me to get up I couldn't move.

 The man with the index finger said, 'This animal has its legs stuck; they're going to have to do a bloodletting."

I was very scared. I made a great effort and I managed to move. I walked as if I were a wooden horse. They made me leave by the backstairs, and when we were in the yard, Alejandro made me a rope halter. He climbed on top of me and started hitting me with his heels and with the end of the rope. I went around the theater suffering intensely, but as soon as she saw us the teacher got Alejandro off me.

While we were crossing the town and despite the fatigue and the monotony of my steps, I could not sleep. I was forced, like a broken and out of tune organ, to repeat the same repertoire of my ailments. The pain made me pay attention to each part of the body, as they went into the movement of the steps. Every once in a while, and out of this rhythm, I would get a chill on my back, but other times I felt passing by, like a happy breeze, ​​the idea of what would happen next, when I was resting. I would have a new supply of things to remember.

The bakery was more like a bar; it had billiards on one side and a room for families on the other. These two divisions were separated by a railing of wide wooden columns. Above the railing were two pots lined with yellow crepe paper; one of them had an almost dry plant and the other had no plant. In the middle of the two there was a large fish tank with only one fish. The teacher's boyfriend was still arguing almost certainly because of me. By the time we had arrived, the people in the bar and in the family room--many of them had been at the theater--laughed and my success was restored some. After a while the waiter came with a bucket of water; the bucket had a smell of soap and grease, but the water was clean. I drank savagely and the smell of the bucket brought back memories of a familiar house where I had been happy. Alejandro had not wanted to tie me up or go inside with the others. While I was drinking water, he had me on the rope and tapped his feet if he were tapping to the beat of music. Then they brought me dry grass.

The boy said, "I know this tobiano."

And Alejandro, laughing, set him straight.  "I also thought it was the Mendez's tobiano."

 "No, not that one," said the boy right away. "I mean the other that is not from here."

The three-year-old girl who had played on stage appeared holding the hand of another older girl; and with her free hand she brought a handful of green grass that she wanted to add to the pile where I sank my teeth, but she threw it on my head and inside an ear.

That night they took me to the teacher's house and locked me in a barn. She went in first.  She shielded the light of the candle with her hand. 

The next day I could not get up. They opened a window that  faced the sky and the gentleman with the index finger did a bloodletting. Then Alejandro came, put a stool near me, sat down and started playing a harmonica. When I could I went to the window facing down in the direction of some trees. Through their trunks, I saw a river that ran without stopping. From there they brought me water, and they also gave me corn and oats. That day I had no desire to remember anything. In the afternoon the teacher's boyfriend came. He was better disposed toward me.  He stroked my neck and I realized from the way he patted me that he was a nice boy. She also caressed me, but she hurt me.  She had no idea how to caress a horse. She ran her hands across me too lightly and it produced unpleasant tickling. On one of the times she touched the front of my head I said to myself: Have you figured out that is where we look alike?" Then the boyfriend went outside and took a picture of her and me at the window. She had put an arm around my neck and rested her head on mine.

That night I had a very big scare. I was leaning out the window, looking at the sky and listening to the river, when I felt dragging slow steps and saw a crouching figure. She was a white-haired woman. After a while she went back in the opposite direction. And so on every night I lived in that house. Seeing her from behind with her square hips, her legs bent and so crouched she looked like a table that had gotten up to walk. The first day I went out I saw her sitting in the yard peeling potatoes with a silver-handled knife. She was black. At first it seemed to me that her white hair, with her head bent over the potatoes, moved in a strange way, but later I realized that, besides the hair, there was smoke from a small pipe sticking out from the side of her mouth.

That morning Alejandro asked her, "Candelaria, do you like the tobiano?

And she answered, "The owner will come looking for it."

I followed along without wanting to remember.

One day Alejandro took me to school. The children made a big fuss. But there was one who stared at me and said nothing. He had big ears, so far apart that they looked like wings at the moment of flight; his glasses were also very large; but the eyes, cross-eyed, were close to his nose. When Alejandro wandered off, squinty eyes gave me a tremendous kick in the belly. Alejandro went running to tell the teacher, When he came back, a girl with a red ink bottle had painted my belly with the stopper in a place where I had a white spot. Alejandro went again to the teacher, saying, "And this girl painted a heart on its belly."

At recess time another girl brought a big doll and said that when they left school they would baptize her. When classes were over, Alejandro and I left immediately, but Alejandro took me down another street and when he reached the church, he made me stop in the sacristy.  He called the priest and asked him, "Father, how much will it cost me to baptize the horse?"

"But, my child!  Horses aren't baptized." And he gave a great big belly laugh.

Alejandro insisted. "Do you remember the little holy card of the Virgin riding the donkey?"


"So, if they baptized the donkey, they can also baptize a horse."

"But the donkey wasn't baptized."

"And the Virgin would go about riding a donkey that wasn't baptized?"

The priest wanted to speak but kept laughing.

Alejandro continued:  "You blessed the holy card and on the holy card is the donkey."

We left there very sad.

A few days later we met a little black man and Alejandro asked him: "What name will we give the horse?

The black man made an effort to remember something. Finally he said, "What did the teacher teach us to say when something was cute?"

"Oh, I know," Alejandro said. "It's an ajective."

In the evening Alejandro was sitting on the bench near me, playing the harmonica, and the teacher came.

"Alejandro, go to your house. They are expecting you."

Señorita, do you know what name we gave the tobiano? Ajective."

"In the first place, it is pronounced 'adjective,' and secondly, adjective is not a name. It's... adjective," said the teacher after a moment of hesitation.

One afternoon when we got home I was pleased because I had heard behind the Venetian blinds, "There goes the teacher and the horse".

Shortly after I found myself in the barn. It was one of the days that Alejandro was not there.  The teacher came, took me out and with an astonishment that I never had before saw that she was taking me to her bedroom. Then she tickled me unpleasantly and said, "Please, don't whinny." I don't know why it just came out. I, alone in that bedroom, kept asking myself, But what does this woman want from me? There were torn clothes on the chairs and on the bed. Suddenly I raised my head and saw myself--with my forgotten head of a miserable horse. The mirror also showed parts of my body; my black and white spots also looked like untidy clothes. But what struck me most was my own head; every time I lifted it more, I was so dazzled that I had to lower my eyelids and take a moment to consider myself, my very own idea of ​​myself as horse ignored by my eyes.

I received other surprises. At the foot of the mirror were the two of us, Tomasa and me, leaning out of the window in the photo that the boyfriend took of us. And suddenly my legs buckled; it seemed that they understood, before me, whose voice it was coming from outside. I could not understand what "he" was saying, but I understood Tomasa's voice when she answered: "The same he left home, he also left mine. This morning they brought him his feed and the barn was empty as it is now."

Then the voices drifted away. As soon as I was alone, the thoughts I had moments before came to me and I didn't dare look at myself in the mirror. It seemed a lie! One could be a horse and have those illusions! After a long time the teacher returned. She tickled me unpleasantly, but her innocence did me even greater harm.

A few days later Alejandro was playing the harmonica near me. Suddenly he remembered something. He put away the harmonica, got up from the bench and took from his pocket the photo of Tomasa and me together. At first, he put it up to one eye and seeing nothing happen, pulled it farther back, and then did the same with the other eye and ended up putting it in front of me about a meter away.  My guilty thoughts made me bitter. One night I was absorbed listening to the river, I mistook the steps of Candelaria. I got scared and kicked the bucket of water. When the colored woman went by, she said, "Don't be scared. Your owner will come back".

The next day Alejandro took me to swim in the river. He was on top of me and very happy in his hot boat. My heart began to feel heavy and almost at once I heard a whistle that froze my blood. I  turned my ears as if they were periscopes. And finally came the voice of "him" shouting: "That horse is mine." Alejandro took me to the shore and without saying anything he galloped me to the teacher's house. The owner was running behind and there was no time to hide. I couldn't move my body; it was as if I were stuck in a closet. The teacher offered to buy me. He replied, "When I get sixty pesos, which is what it cost me, come get it." Alejandro took off the rope halter he made. The owner used the one he brought. The teacher went to her bedroom and I caught a glimpse of the square Alejandro made with his mouth before he burst into tears. My legs trembled, but the owner stuck me with the whip and I started walking. I barely had time to remember that I hadn't cost him sixty pesos. He had traded me for a lousy blue bicycle without rubber or a pump. Now he began to vent his rage by hitting me often and with all his might. I was suffocating because I was very fat.  Alejandro!  how well he took care of me. And also, I was invited into that house because of a success I now wanted to remember, and had known happiness until the moment when she brought me guilty thoughts. Now there began to rise from my bowels an unbearably bad sensation. I was very thirsty and remembered that I would cross a stream where a tree stretched a dry branch nearly to the center of the road. That night there was moonlight, and from a distance I saw the stones of the stream shine as if they were scales. Nearly to the stream I began to stop. He understood and he started hitting me again. For a few moments I felt invaded by sensations that were locked in struggle as enemies in the dark that before getting into it quickly sniff one another. And then I threw myself on the side of the stream where the tree's dry branch was. He didn't have time except to grab onto the branch leaving me free, but the dry branch broke and the two fell into the water fighting among the stones. I turned around and ran towards him as he, too, turned and came out from under the branch. I went to stamp on him while he was on his side.  My leg slipped off his back, but with my teeth I bit a part of his throat and another part of his neck. I pressed down with all my fury and decided to wait, without moving. Soon after, and after waving an arm, he also stopped moving. I felt acid flesh in my mouth and his beard was rough against my tongue. I had now begun to have a taste for blood when I saw that the water and stones were stained.

I crossed the stream several times from one place to another without knowing what to do with my freedom. At last I decided to go to the teacher's, but after a few steps I turned and drank water near the dead man.

I proceeded slowly because I was very tired, but I felt free and without fear. How happy Alejandro would be! And she? When Alejandro showed me that portrait I had remorse. But now, how much I wanted to have it!

I arrived at the house going at my slow pace. I was thinking of entering the barn, but I heard an argument coming from Tomasa's bedroom. I heard the boyfriend's voice talking about the sixty pesos. Without a doubt, those that were needed to buy me. I was on the verge of feeling happy thinking that it would not cost them anything when I understood that he was talking about marriage, and finally, already out of his mind and determined to leave, he said, "Or the horse or me".

At first, my head was pressed against the red window to her bedroom. But then, in a couple of instants, I made a momentous decision. I would leave. I had begun to be noble and didn't want to live in an atmosphere that would become dirtier day by day. If I stayed, I would become an undesirable horse. She herself would have moments of hesitation towards me after all.

I don't know how it is that I left. But what I most regretted about not being a man was I didn't have a pocket in which to carry the photo.

Credits:  The original story in Spanish can be found at La mujer parecida a mí by Felisberto Hernández

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