Saudade (Editorial Franz, 2017) is a collection of short fiction, unified by the concept of untranslatable words. While every story stands on its own, each is inspired by a word unique to a particular language, never using or defining the word, but rather playing upon the meaning in often surprising ways. The stories vary in length, tone, and setting, but they do share a precise, poetic style, and many are touched with a certain melancholy reflected in the title. Here are a few stories from Saudade that have been translated from the original Spanish.
~Loving something or someone that you have lost and will perhaps never regain~
It is considered the southern-most in the world, a fruitful little orphan from Tierra del Fuego which flits among around thirty-two thousand words, more expressive in some mouths than all-powerful, overwhelming English or Spanish.
How tragic to think that in the final report, from the year 2013, there is only a single speaker of this language, Yaghan: the octogenarian Cristina Calderón, who is (was?) responsible for compiling the words of her language — hers, hers alone — in a dictionary which is a cemetery.
~A person who asks too many questions~
Has it ever occurred to you that you’ll never be able to see your own face? Never.
Can you conceive of the length of never?
You never realized you’ll never see your face? Never? Never. Think about it: you’ll only see your face in the mirror, in a photograph, in a video, or in a river, like Narcissus. Do you know that where you see it most often, in the mirror, it’s reversed? That is, you’ll never, ever see your face, and the closest you’ll get is a clumsy imitation, in real time, but reversed. Always reversed.
You’ve never thought that everyone else will see your true face? That is, you will never see your face, which, after all, belongs to you, but the whole world will. Doesn’t it seem unjust, grave, even insulting?
Has it ever struck you that nobody will ever see their own face? While your eyes can possess other faces, recognize their expressions and tics, their etched wrinkles, their beautiful imperfections, in some kind of reciprocal revenge?
You are the only person who can fully see your inner being, and the only one who never will be able to see your full exterior.
You’d never thought of it?
~An ingenious retort thought of when it’s already too late~
In the end, they met only when his lover chose to, even if Marc had front row tickets for the hottest show in town. They had been together since the Mesozoic, with all the asteroids that entailed, and the man demanded Marc’s time to suit his whims; he hurled asteroids at his whim.
Marc responded with adolescent petulance and scant imagination: you started it, how could you have.
His lover always brought up the past: what Marc had done (wrong) in the past; what could have been infinitely better in the past, what never should have happened in the painful past: you started it, how could you have.
The words of his lover ran endlessly through Marc’s head — well, you, you; you, you — and hammered mercilessly, made him childish, made him small: you started it, how could you have.
And the echo — how could you have, have, ave — hurt his eardrums, his eyelashes, his gait. The final time he reproached him about the past like an expulsion of phlegm, achoo and adieu: and he vanished among the bushes with an air of finality, branding Marc as hysterical.
Marc died and returned to life and I’d rather be hysterical than historical like you, but the hands of the clock caught the words in his throat, never to reach the loveless cochlea of his lover.
~Gaze into the distance without thinking of anything in particular~
I had plenty of time, so I arrived late. It’s always been like that with me: if I’m running late, the stress renders me quick and nimble, but when there’s no hurry, I lapse into complacency and end up unpunctual. And, to make matters worse, I had a hard time finding the room, because the building was strange, because there were no signs, and because I’d never been there before, god dammit.
I went in. I was the third person in the class: a middle-aged student with the face of a pervert whom I always ran into at cheap yoga classes around the city — we were cut from the same cloth, it seemed —, the instructor, and I. There were large windows, but it was dark.
[INT. CLOUDY – CULTURAL CENTER IN BERLIN – 4 PM IN OCTOBER.]
I don’t know which was darker, the antique parquet panels in the dim light filtered through lurking clouds or the expressions of the student and instructor at my hasty and muddled arrival, but everything became a little darker — and much blurrier — when I took off my glasses.
I joined in with the downward-facing dog, following the precise, apathetic instructions of the ancient teacher. Hold Adho Mukha Svanasana for five breaths. I couldn’t see her face well, but her severe chignon, her cracked, quavering voice, and her stiffness inspired a tender pity — for how many millenia had this little old lady been doing yoga? Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana. She was, without a doubt, the worst yoga instructor I’d come across, and I felt like leaving immediately, but I remained, out of sheer embarrassment. Ardha Bhujangasana. In the five years I had been doing yoga, it was the first time thoughts raced inescapably through my head and I found myself unable to clear my mind. Hold Virabhadrasana for five breaths. I had so much work, and so many visits, and so much flux that I needed a good yoga class, not one led by an inflexible crone, with a student who, within the hour, would stalk me on the internet and send a leering message. Garudasana. Relax, relax: negative thoughts be gone: be gone, be gone. Parivrtta Trikonasana. A single part of me did relax, and I was unable to avoid loosing three farts. Tadasana. When the instructor came to correct my pose, her frail grip could barely budge me. Paschimottanasana. Nothing was much of a challenge. Vrksasana. In the tree pose, I stood gazing at a tree outside the window and managed to think of nothing, until the tree looked me straight in the eyes and told me I was doing it wrong, without knowing that I was a different kind of tree. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. A weeping willow, perhaps.
Savasana. In a good yoga class, the final pose is the most beautiful experience in the world — without the slightest exaggeration — but in this class, I couldn’t care less. Savasana. Savasana. OK, then, I’ll lie down. Savasana. The instructor did not resort to her aged voice to guide our relaxation, remaining silent, and she gave us feeble massages with her wasted hands, possibly struggling against unbearable arthritis pain.
She brought the relaxation to a close as ineptly as she had started it. Finally, it would end. I put my glasses on, and the instructor asked me my name. I answered staring at her face: the world I had been immersed in for the last hour was false — but the force of my conviction had transformed it into reality, and it would have continued as such if I hadn’t donned my frames — the ancient instructor was barely 20 years old.
~The opposite of what is expected~
As if coincidences existed — on the final day of the Chess Olympiad in the South American country, World War II broke out. Twenty-four of the greatest chess players in the world remained, filled with fear and with dreams dashed and far from the bombs and with empanadas made of chunks of meat and nightmares.
And Argentina was transformed for years into a bag full of bishops and pawns and kings and rooks and queens and knights.
~The subtle art of gauging the moods of other people~
She wouldn’t cross the park to get home. She was alone, midnight was approaching, and there was almost no light because it was a park and because Berlin and, most of all, because she was a woman.
No, no: she wouldn’t cross the park. Nope. You must be joking. No way. Are you kidding? Never. Not a chance in hell.
She crossed the park. She crossed the park by mistake. When she passed the parking lot, she thought she’d reached the edge, but she was inside, WAY inside – endless trees looming from the shadows without a person in sight. A horn beeped, and the car’s occupants yelled something crude in German at her, calling her over with hand gestures. She ignored it and quickened her pace.
It was dark, and she was buried under Arctic layers — shit, how did they know she was a woman? As if that weren’t enough, her phone was dead, so she wouldn’t be able to speed-dial someone, like she usually did in situations like this — she was utterly alone.
A vast expanse of park still remained to cross, and there was no turning back, or she’d run into the guys from the car and the horn and the yelling.
On one side
on the other side.
And who doesn’t fear?
Those who haven’t had it hammered into them.
Men don’t fear:
and especially not men with their hood up.
So I’ll raise the hood of my coat.
Men don’t fear:
and they usually don’t have long hair.
So I’ll hide my hair.
Men don’t fear:
and they walk confidently.
So I’ll walk like them.
She became a tough guy, even hamming it up a bit, because it was night-time, and she was crossing a park, and she had her hood up, and she had a vagina, and she wanted to conquer her fear.
Her stride became looser, cockier, the product of exaggerated masculinity and slightly-raised arms, like a bird’s courtship display, but, even more, of the pain of her bunion, which gave her a limp and credibility. She avoided the eyes of the few people she passed, because she was wearing large glasses with flowers which hurt the plausibility of her character – she would buy glasses with tigers, fire, and dragons for next time (the next times). It itched between her legs, and she scratched her balls – yes, her balls: she felt them. Something hindered her breathing and she extracted a chunk of snot from deep in her nostril – just like that, without subterfuge. She spit. She burped. She scratched her balls again. She crossed the park fearlessly: without anybody calling to her, without anyone invading her personal space.
She emerged into the light – the dim light – and lowered her hood and took out her hair and returned to her normal gait and saw from afar that she was missing the bus.
At the bus stop, she looked at the schedule, but she didn’t know what time it was because her phone was dead (and nobody wears a watch nowadays), and she asked a man the time, and the guy gave it to her and asked for her telephone number in return, and she said she didn’t speak German, she didn’t speak English, she didn’t speak Swahili, she didn’t speak. She waited for the man to leave and then ventured home on foot, because no more buses were going that way.
From Hans-Otto-Straße to Andreasstraße
pass 28 minutes and not a single street with a woman’s name:
the streets belong to men.
Hood up, hair hidden, and a man’s gait:
because the streets belong to men.