THE ARGENTINE WRITER
Translation by Ruth Clarke
The Argentine writer is at the hairdresser’s. He flicks through a style magazine while the hairdresser, a young man they call Flying Hands, follows his instructions. The Argentine writer is as particular about his haircut as he is when it comes to choosing an adjective. He stops at a page where another writer, a long-haired Spaniard – good looking despite a squint in one eye, or perhaps thanks to that strange beauty which stems from the unusual – is describing his favourite winter clothes. The Argentine Writer knows him and envies his squint. He has, in the bathroom at home, hidden away from his wife, taken photos of himself in front of the mirror, crossing his eyes; but he’s never managed to achieve the effect of looking seductive, distracted and insane all at the same time – like this luminary of Spanish literature – because the Spanish writer is also revered by his peers, and for the Argentine Writer there is no greater glory than being the head of your generation.
Flying Hands tells him his wife is pregnant, but his client isn’t paying attention, he hasn’t even realised that he’s cut off one of the tips he’d been asked not to touch; he’s as engrossed as when he’s daydreaming that his books are top of the best seller list in Germany. He can’t believe it: there they are right before his eyes, hugging and smiling; him with his perfect teeth gleaming out from his dark face with its rounded features, and her, ashamed to look so happy. He doesn’t know how much longer he can put up with this: that his ex-girlfriend and someone who was one of his first friends in Madrid carry on parading themselves around at literary parties, bookshops and cinemas. He lingers over the photo on the society page like an entomologist admiring an insect he’d like to squash because the fame accompanying its discovery belongs to one of his colleagues. He brings the magazine as close as he can to his glasses. The photo is the biggest of all, and underneath it says it was taken at the opening of a new art gallery. His Ex has changed her hairstyle; it’s longer but uneven, a younger look, a nod to her punk years without getting ridiculous. The Traitor, as he often refers, secretly, in his head, to the man who used to be his friend, is looking younger. The couple pose so tightly embraced, so together, that they seem to share the same skin. Flying Hands, quite the nosy parker, remarks that these two in the photo make the perfect couple. So the Argentine Writer closes the magazine and throws it down on the counter.
“Ecuadorian prick, maybe you should go back to your own country”, the Argentine Writer curses at Flying Hands, under his breath, unaware that the hairdresser is actually Peruvian, just like the Traitor.
The truth, which the Argentine writer keeps hidden when he’s ranting about the Traitor, his Peruvian friends and all other Peruvians, is that he was the one who left his Ex. He left her for the girl who is now his Wife, whose house he moved into the morning after he broke up with his Ex. But nowhere did his plan feature the part where his Ex fell in love with the Traitor, who, politely, sent him an email to ask whether it would be ok with him if he started dating her. It all happened like one of the stories the Argentine Writer tends to write, where everything appears normal, the characters mind their manners, and don’t let themselves succumb to fits of rage or disappointment. They’re like icebergs, preferring to melt drop by drop rather than crack in half.
However, much to the Argentine Writer’s discomfort, the story turned into one of those teen dramas where the plot goes beyond the tangled knot of romances and break-ups, and the tragedy is technicolour. The plot: his Wife had been the lover of a Peruvian journalist, who left her for a young Swedish girl and, as they were all part of the same circle of up-and-coming literary stars and editors with badly shaven beards, the Wife secretly fell in love with the Traitor, who arranged to meet her one day to tell her that another friend wanted to go out with her. “No, you’re the one I like”, the Wife confessed, and even though, at that time the Traitor had gone several weeks without sleeping with anyone, he put his loyalty to his dearest friend first. This was how the Wife ended up in the arms of the Argentine Writer, rejected by two Peruvians who looked like streetball players, with their sweat-coated muscles glistening in the sunlight, unlike the Argentine Writer, who was pale and jumpy like a laboratory rat.
The Argentine Writer is still in a state of shock when he leaves the hairdresser’s; he wants to call someone and tell them what he’s just seen in the style magazine, shout about how unfair it is – although he can’t explain why – but he doesn’t know whose number to call. When he got married he asked the Omnipresent Journalist (who he used to make fun of with the Traitor and his old friends, passing comment on his columns) to be his best man. Since then there have been no more jokes about his omnipresence, just praise for his interviews with writers he hasn’t read and the fact that he never misses a single literary soiree. He would call him, because he always turns to him when he reads a positive review of a book by one of his contemporaries, and needs someone to listen to his crushing arguments against his competitor; but the Omnipresent Journalist will be busy, and the phone would surely be answered by one of the interns who write his weekly columns, do the majority of his interviews, and, they say, even act as his representatives at the wakes of artists whose memory he insults by writing obituaries riddled with clichés and affectation. The Argentine Writer walks down calle Valverde and recites from memory the catalogue of the publishing house that puts out his books. Which of them could he call? When he got married he invited all the authors from the catalogue who lived in Spain, although he barely knew them, and added the number of his bank account so they could deposit a gift which he dreamed he could use to travel to China. In the end he had to make do with a honeymoon in Tunisia. When the Argentine Writer and the Traitor were friends, they would laugh about the fact that their greatest fear wasn’t dying young, but that the Omnipresent Journalist would write their obituary. On some, very rare, occasions, the Argentine Writer misses these conversations and smiles secretly to himself when he walks down the streets of Malasaña or Chamberí. After he smiles, he turns around and retraces his steps, taking a good look around to check whether anyone has noticed this sudden burst of nostalgia.
When he reaches the flat his Wife bought, he finds the fridge full of fruit, yoghurts, and all kinds of drinks. He remembers a time when he didn’t care that there was only food in the freezer, which his Ex had brought back from her parents’ house. Then he would cook rice and fry an egg to go with his lunch, drink water and meditate like a zen master: if only hecould transfer that austerity to his writing, if he were able to use minimalist language to reflect the horrors of Nazism, an obsession cultivated in his years as a PhD student in Cologne, where he met his Ex. In Cologne eating fruit was like biting into a plastic doll. Maybe there was real fruit, but they didn’t have the money to buy it. As poor students in a foreign country whose language had worn them down so much it had hardened their hearts as much as their accents, they believed that their future depended on the knowledge they could accumulate and their talent for putting it into practice.
When they moved to Madrid they spent some time living with his Ex’s parents, until she passed her exams to be a language teacher. They rented an interior flat in Vallecas, near the school where she taught. The Argentine Writer didn’t like the neighbourhood, but then he hadn’t liked any of the neighbourhoods in Cologne, or the one where he grew up in Rosario either. They had all been interior flats, which he only left to go to the library. Before they met and while they were together, the Argentine Writer always stayed on the margins of literary society, he said he didn’t need anyone to like him for him to contribute to magazines or get picked up by a major publishing house. During the same period, no magazine which paid its contributors accepted his book reviews, and he only just managed to put out a book of short stories with a publishing house in the provinces called “Exile”.
His Ex respected the Argentine Writer’s politics, but she was the only one who took any responsibility for the bills, since they weren’t in Cologne anymore, and her boyfriend had no grant to put any funds into their savings account. Money: that’s what the Argentine Writer reduced all his relationship problems to. But that was barely even the start of the collapse, an image he liked to visualise when he remembered those days. Standing up, facing one another, their legs start to crumble like blocks of cement that can no longer hold the weight of their torsos; they hold on to each other, but it’s too late. The Argentine Writer likes to recall the images he invented in his mind at that time: goodbyes in airports with planes taking off and someone burying their hands in their pockets; couples doing their shopping in the supermarket, their eyes welling up with tears; men trying to write while their wives are sobbing in the bathroom. They were part of the tragic stories he told himself to make the break-up less painful when the day came. When the end did come it was because his Ex wasn’t strong enough to support him; this is what he told himself day in, day out. A writer is a long distance runner, and she had abandoned him in the middle of the race.
The Argentine Writer is sitting on the sofa in the lounge, with his arms relaxed, like a plasticine doll, trying to clear his mind, as if that way he could erase his Ex’s happiness in that photo in the style magazine which had printed good reviews of his books. Since the split, his literary career had taken off, and that should have meant he could forget her. Why can’t he do it? Perhaps he thought she would be miserable forever because he left her? Or was he dreaming she would beg him for a reconciliation? No. No. No!
He curls up on the sofa for a few minutes, hugging himself. He looks for his mobile and calls his Wife. She answers, but he says nothing. She’s used to these phone calls which he says are panic attacks brought on by doubts about his next novel, and she waits, whispering a song to him until he reacts. The Argentine Writer stammers until he finds the right words and asks her if she’d like to have dinner at Casa Granada, his Ex’s favourite restaurant; he also mentions the possible advance they might pay him for his next novel, which they could use to take a trip to Samarkand on holiday, a trip he’d promised himself he would take with his Ex when he won a literary prize; and to end with he adds that when he was at the hairdresser’s he saw a model in a magazine who looked a lot like her with a punky haircut.
“I think you’d look great like that.”
Translation of “The Argentine Writer” Copyright Sergio Galarza. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2013 by Ruth Clarke. All rights reserved.
Sergio Galarza Puente (1976)Studied Law at the University of Lima. He has published four collections of short stories. The first was Matacabros [Dirty Work] (Asma, 1996) and the latest La soledad de los aviones [The Loneliness of Aeroplanes] (estruendomudo, 2005). In 2006 he won second prize in the Cope Short Story Competition. He won the first Competition for Peruvian Migrant Narratives in Spain for his short story Teleoperadores [Telephone operators]. The same year, his first novel Paseador de Perros [Dog Walker], was published in Peru. It was republished in Spain in 2009 by Candaya, and won the FNAC New Talent Award. Dog Walker is the first part of his Madrid Trilogy, which continues with JFK.