Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce
Buenos Aires, 1894–Buenos Aires, 1993
At fifteen, Edelmira Thompson published her first book, To Daddy, which earned her a modest place in the vast gallery of lady poets active in Buenos Aires high society. From then on, she was a regular presence in the salons of Ximena San Diego and Susana Lezcano Lafinur, dictators of taste in poetry, and taste in general, on both banks of the Río de la Plata at the dawn of the twentieth century. Her first poems, as one might reasonably have guessed, were concerned with filial piety, religious meditation, and gardens. She flirted with the idea of taking the veil. She learned to ride.
In 1917 she met the rancher and entrepreneur Sebastian Mendiluce, twenty years her senior. Everyone was surprised when they announced their engagement, after only a few months. According to people who knew him at the time, Mendiluce thought little of literature in general and poetry in particular, had no artistic sensibility (although he did occasionally go to the opera), and his conversation was on a par with that of his farmhands and factory workers. He was tall and energetic, but not handsome by any standard. There was, however, no disputing his inexhaustible wealth.
Edelmira Thompson’s friends considered it a marriage of convenience, but in fact she married for love. A love that neither she nor Mendiluce was ever able to explain and that endured imperturbably all the days of her life.
Marriage, which ends the careers of so many promising women writers, quickened the pen of Edelmira Thompson. She established a salon in Buenos Aires to rival those of the redoubtable Ximena San Diego and Susana Lezcano Lafinur. She took young Argentinean painters under her wing, not only buying their work (in 1950 her personal collection of paintings and sculptures was, if not the best in the Republic, certainly one of the largest and most extravagant) but also inviting them to paint at her ranch in Azul, far from the madding crowd, all expenses paid. She founded a publishing house, The Lamp of the South, which brought out more than fifty books of poetry, many of which were dedicated to Edelmira herself, “the fairy godmother of Argentinean letters.”
In 1921 she published her first book of prose, All My Life, an idyllic and rather flat autobiography, devoid of gossip, full of landscapes and poetic meditations. Contrary to the author’s expectations, it disappeared from the bookshop windows in Buenos Aires without leaving so much as a ripple. Disappointed, Edelmira set off for Europe with her two small sons, two servants, and more than twenty suitcases.
She visited Lourdes and the great cathedrals. She had an audience with the pope. A yacht took her from island to island in the Aegean. She reached Crete one midday in spring. In 1922, in Paris, she published a book of children’s verse in French, and another in Spanish. Then she returned to Argentina.
But things had changed, and Edelmira did not feel at ease in her country. Her new book of poems European Hours (1923) was described in a local newspaper as “precious.” The nation’s most influential reviewer, Dr. Enrique Belmar, described her as “an idle, childish lady whose time and energy would be better spent on good works, such as educating all the ragged little rascals on the loose throughout this vast land of ours.” Edelmira’s elegant reply consisted of an invitation to attend her salon, addressed to Belmar and other critics, which was ignored by all but four half-starved accident-and-crime reporters. Humiliated, she retired to her ranch in Azul, accompanied by a faithful few. Soothed by rural calm and the conversations of simple, hardworking country folk, she set to work on the new book of poetry that was to be her vindication. Argentinean Hours (1925) sparked scandal and controversy from the day of its publication. In her new poems, Edelmira renounced contemplative vision in favor of pugnacious action. She attacked Argentina’s critics and literary ladies, the decadence besetting the nation’s cultural life. She argued for a return to the origins: agrarian labor and the still-wild southern frontier. Flirting and swooning were behind her now. Edelmira longed for the epic and its proportions, a literature unafraid to face the challenge of singing the fatherland. One way and another, the book was a great success, but, demonstrating her humility, Edelmira barely took the time to relish her triumph, and soon left for Europe once again. She was accompanied by her children, her servants, and the Buenos Aires philosopher Aldo Carozzone, who acted as her personal secretary.
She spent the year 1926 traveling in Italy with her numerous entourage. In 1927 she was joined by Mendiluce. In 1928, her first daughter, Luz, a bouncing, ten-pound baby, was born in Berlin. The German philosopher Haushofer was godfather to the child, and the baptismal ceremony, attended by the cream of the German and Argentinean intelligentsia, was followed by three days of nonstop festivities, which culminated in a little wood near Rathenow, where the Mendiluces treated Haushofer to a kettledrum solo composed and performed by maestro Tito Vásquez, who went on to become a sensation.
In 1929, the stock-market crash obliged Sebastian Mendiluce to return to Argentina. Meanwhile Edelmira and her children were presented to Adolf Hitler, who held Luz and said, “She certainly is a wonderful little girl.” Photos were taken. The future Führer of the Reich made a great impression on the Argentinean poet. Before leaving, she presented him with several of her own books and a deluxe edition of Martín Fierro. Hitler thanked her warmly, beseeching her to translate one of her poems into German on the spot, a task that, with the help of Carozzone, she managed to accomplish. Hitler was clearly delighted. The lines were resounding and looked to the future. In high spirits, Edelmira asked for the Führer’s advice: which would be the most appropriate school for her sons? He recommended a Swiss boarding school, but added that the best school was life itself. By the end of the audience, Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites.
Nineteen thirty was a year of voyages and adventures. Accompanied by Carozzone, her young daughter (the boys were boarding at an exclusive school in Berne), and her two Indian servants, Edelmira traveled up and down the Nile, visited Jerusalem (where she had a mystical experience or a nervous breakdown, which confined her to a hotel bed for three days), then Damascus, Baghdad . . .
Her head was buzzing with projects: she planned to launch a new publishing house back in Buenos Aires, which would specialize in translations of European thinkers and novelists; she dreamed of studying architecture and designing grandiose schools to be built in parts of the country as yet untouched by civilization; she wanted to set up a foundation in memory of her mother, with the mission of helping young women from poor backgrounds to fulfill their artistic aspirations. And little by little a new book began to take shape in her mind.
In 1931 she returned to the Argentinean capital and began to carry out her projects. She launched a magazine, Modern Argentina, edited by Carozzone, whose brief was to publish the latest in poetry and prose fiction, but also political commentary, philosophical essays, film reviews, and articles on social issues. Half of the first number was devoted to Edelmira’s book The New Spring, which came out simultaneously. Part travel narrative, part philosophical memoir, the book reflected on the state of the world, and the destinies of Europe and America in particular, while warning of the threat that communism posed to Christian civilization.
The following years were rich and productive: she wrote new books, made new friends, traveled to new places (touring the north of Argentina, she crossed the Bolivian border on horseback), launched new publishing ventures and diversified her artistic activity, writing the libretto for an opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed, 1935, whose premiere at the Teatro Colón divided the public and led to verbal and physical confrontations), painting a series of landscapes in the province of Buenos Aires, and collaborating in the production of three plays by the Uruguayan author Wenceslao Hassel.
When Sebastian Mendiluce died, in 1940, Edelmira was unable to travel to Europe, as she would have wished, because of the war. Deranged by sorrow, she composed a death notice that took up a whole two-column page in each of the nation’s major newspapers, and was signed: Edelmira, the widow Mendiluce. The text no doubt reflected her unstable mental state. It was widely mocked and derided among the Argentinean intelligentsia.
Once again, she withdrew to her ranch in Azul, accompanied only by her daughter, the faithful Carozzone, and a young painter named Atilio Franchetti. In the mornings she wrote or painted. Her afternoons were occupied by long solitary walks or hours of reading. Reading and a bent for interior design gave rise to her finest work, Poe’s Room (1944), which prefigured the nouveau roman and much subsequent avant-garde writing, and earned the widow Mendiluce an eminent place in the panorama of Argentinean and Hispanic letters.
This is how she came to write the book. Edelmira read Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Furniture.” She was excited. She felt that she had found a soul mate in Poe: their ideas about decoration coincided. She discussed the subject at length with Carozzone and Atilio Franchetti. Following Poe’s instructions to the letter, Franchetti painted a picture: an oblong room thirty-feet deep and twenty-five feet wide, with a door and two windows in the far wall. He reproduced Poe’s furniture, wallpaper, and curtains as exactly as possible. Pictorial exactitude, however, was insufficient for Edelmira, so she decided to have a replica of the room built in the garden of her ranch, in accordance with the directions given by Poe. She sent her delegates (antique dealers, cabinetmakers, carpenters) hunting for the items described in the essay. The desired but only partly attained result consisted of:
—Large windows reaching down to the floor, set in deep recesses.
—Windowpanes of crimson-tinted glass.
—More than usually massive rosewood framings.
—Inside the recesses, curtains of a thick silver tissue, adapted to the shape of the window and hanging loosely in small volumes.
—Outside the recesses, curtains of an exceedingly rich crimson silk, fringed with a deep network of gold, and lined with the same silver tissue used for the exterior blind.
—The folds of the curtain fabric issuing from beneath a broad entablature of rich gilt-work, encircling the room at the junction of the ceiling and walls.
—The drapery thrown open, or closed, by means of a thick rope of gold loosely enveloping it, and resolving itself readily into a knot; no pins or other such devices being apparent.
—The colors of the curtain and their fringe—the tints of crimson and gold—appearing everywhere in profusion, and determining the character of the room.
—The carpet—of Saxony material—half an inch think, of the same crimson weave, relieved simply by the appearance of a gold cord (like that festooning the curtains) raised slightly above the surface of the ground, and thrown upon it in such a manner as to form a succession of short irregular curves—one occasionally overlaying the other.
—The walls prepared with a glossy paper of a silver gray tint, spotted with small arabesque devices of a fainter hue of the prevalent crimson.
—Many paintings. Chiefly landscapes of an imaginative cast—such as the fairy grottoes of Stanfield, or Chapman’s Lake of the Dismal Swamp—but also three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty—portraits in the manner of Sully, each picture having a warm but dark tone.
—Not one of the paintings being of small size, since diminutive paintings give that spotty look to a room, which is the blemish of so many a fine work of art overtouched.
—The frames broad but not deep, and richly carved, without being dulled or filigreed.
—The paintings lying flat on the walls, not hanging off with cords.
—One mirror, not very large and nearly circular in shape, hung so that a reflection of a person in any of the ordinary sitting places of the room could not be obtained from it.
—The only seats being two large, low sofas of rosewood and crimson, gold-flowered silk, and two light conversation chairs, also of rosewood.
—A pianoforte made of the same wood, with no cover, and thrown open.
—An octagonal table—also without cover—formed altogether of the richest gold-threaded marble, placed near one of the sofas.
—A profusion of sweet and vivid flowers blooming in four large and gorgeous Sèvres vases, set in each of the slightly rounded angles of the room.
—A tall candelabrum, bearing a small antique lamp with highly perfumed oil, standing beside one of the sofas (occupied by Poe’s sleeping friend, the possessor of this ideal room).
—Some light and graceful hanging shelves, with golden edges and crimson silk cords with gold tassels, sustaining two or three hundred magnificently bound books.
—Beyond these things, no furniture, except for an Argand lamp, with a plain, crimson-tinted ground-glass shade, depending from the lofty vaulted ceiling by a single slender gold chain and throwing a tranquil but magical radiance over all.
The Argand lamp was not particularly difficult to procure. Nor were the curtains, the carpet, or the sofas. The wallpaper proved more problematic, but the widow Mendiluce dealt directly with a manufacturer, providing a pattern specially designed by Franchetti. Paintings by Stanfield or Chapman were not to be had, but the painter and his friend Arturo Velasco, himself a promising young artist, produced a number of works, which finally satisfied Edelmira’s desires. The rosewood piano also posed a number of problems, all of which were eventually solved.
When the reconstruction of the room was complete, Edelmira judged that the time to write had come. The first part of Poe’s Room is a detailed description of the same. The second part is a treatise on good taste and interior design, which develops a number of Poe’s precepts. The third part is devoted to the building of the room on a lawn in the garden of Edelmira’s ranch in Azul. The fourth part is a meticulous account of the search for the furniture. The fifth part is a description of the reconstructed room, similar to but also different from the room conceived by Poe, with a particular emphasis on the light, the color crimson, the origin and state of conservation of various pieces of furniture, the quality of the paintings (every one of which is described, without sparing the reader a single detail). The sixth, final, and probably briefest part is a portrait of Poe’s friend, the dozing man. Certain perhaps over-ingenious critics identified that figure as the recently deceased Sebastian Mendiluce.
The book made little impact at the time of its publication. On this occasion, however, Edelmira was so sure of what she had written that the general incomprehension hardly affected her.
According to her enemies, during 1945 and 1946, she made frequent visits to deserted beaches and little-known coves, where she welcomed the clandestine travelers arriving in what was left of Admiral Dönitz’s fleet of submarines. It has also been claimed that she financed the magazine The Fourth Reich in Argentina and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.
A revised and enlarged edition of Poe’s Room appeared in 1947. It included a reproduction of Franchetti’s painting, showing a view of the room from the doorway. The sleeping man is dimly visible in profile. It could, in fact, be Sebastian Mendiluce. It could also be any heavily built man.
In 1948, while continuing to publish Modern Argentina, Edelmira launched a new magazine, American Letters, giving her children, Juan and Luz, editorial control. Shortly afterward, she left for Europe, where she would remain until 1955. It has been suggested that an irreconcilable enmity between Edelmira and Eva Perón was the cause of this long exile. Nevertheless, many photographs from the period show the two women together at cocktail and birthday parties, receptions, opening nights, and sporting events. Evita, in all likelihood, could not get beyond page ten of Poe’s Room, and Edelmira would certainly have not approved of the first lady’s social background, but documents and letters written by third parties indicate that they had embarked upon shared projects, such as the creation of a major museum of contemporary Argentinean art (to be designed by Edelmira and the young architect Hugo Bossi), including residences for artists, with a full catering service, a feature quite unique among the great museums of the world, the aim being to facilitate the creative work—and daily life—of young and not-so-young exponents of modern painting, and consequently to prevent their emigration to Paris or New York. Some people claim to have seen a film script drafted by the pair, about the life and misfortunes of an innocent young Don Juan (to be played by Hugo del Carril), but like so many other things, the draft has been lost.
What we know for certain is that Edelmira did not return to Argentina until 1955, by which time the rising star in literary Buenos Aires was her daughter, Luz Mendiluce.
Edelmira’s later years were not prolific. Apart from her Collected Poems (the first volume appeared in 1962, the second in 1979), she was to publish only three more books: a volume of memoirs, The Century as I Have Lived It (1968), written with the help of the ever-faithful Carozzone, followed by a collection of very short stories, Churches and Cemeteries of Europe (1972), distinguished by the author’s abundant common sense, and, finally, a gathering of unpublished early poems, Fervor (1985).
In her roles as patroness of the arts and promoter of young talent, however, Edelmira remained as active as ever. Countless volumes included a foreword, a preface, or a postface by the widow Mendiluce; she personally financed the first editions of innumerable works. In the first category, two books deserve a special mention: Stale Hearts and Young Hearts, by Julián Rico Anaya, a novel that provoked a heated controversy both in Argentina and abroad on its publication in 1978, and The Invisible Adorers, by Carola Leyva, a collection of poems intended to put an end to the sterile debate about poetry that had been going on in certain Argentinean circles since the Second Surrealist Manifesto. The outstanding books in the second category were The Kids of Puerto Argentino, a perhaps somewhat exaggerated memoir of the Falklands War, which catapulted the ex-soldier Jorge Esteban Petrovich to literary prominence, and The Darts and the Wind, an anthology of work by young, well-bred poets whose aesthetic objectives included avoiding cacophony, ugly-sounding words, and vulgar expressions, and that, with its preface by Juan Mendiluce, sold unexpectedly well.
Edelmira spent the last three years of her life on her ranch in Azul, either in the Poe room, where she would doze and dream of the past, or out on the broad terrace of the main ranch house, absorbed in a book or contemplating the landscape.
She remained lucid (or “furious,” as she liked to say) to the end.
Luz Mendiluce Thompson
Berlin, 1928–Buenos Aires, 1976
Luz Mendiluce was a lively, pretty child, a pensive, plump adolescent, and a hapless, alcoholic adult. That said, of all the writers in her family, she was the most talented.
Throughout her life she treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms. Set in a richly worked silver frame, it had pride of place in each of her successive living rooms, along with portraits by Argentinean painters, showing her as a child or a teenager, generally accompanied by her mother. Some of those paintings were very fine works of art—yet had a fire broken out in her house, had there been time to save only one thing, it is conceivable that she would have left them to burn and chosen the photograph, even over unpublished manuscripts.
She had various stories for the guests who inquired about that remarkable snap. Sometimes she simply said that the baby was an orphan: the photo had been taken at an orphanage, during one of the visits that politicians frequently make to such institutions in a bid for votes and publicity. On other occasions she explained that it was one of Hitler’s nieces, a heroic and unfortunate girl who had died in combat at the age of seventeen, defending Berlin from the Communist hordes. And sometimes she frankly admitted that it was she: she had been dandled by the Führer. In dreams, she could still feel his strong arms and his warm breath on the top of her head. She said it had probably been one of the happiest moments of her life. And perhaps she was right.
Her talent bloomed early; she published a first collection of poems when she was still seventeen. By the age of eighteen, with three books to her name, she was living more or less on her own, and had decided to marry the Argentinean poet Julio César Lacouture. The marriage proceeded with the family’s blessing, in spite of her fiancé’s evident deficiencies. Lacouture was young, refined, and well presented, as well as remarkably handsome, but penniless and a mediocre poet. For their honeymoon the couple went to the United States and Mexico, and in Mexico City Luz Mendiluce gave a poetry reading. The problems had already begun. Lacouture was a jealous husband. He took revenge by cheating on his wife. One night in Acapulco, Luz went out to find him. Lacouture was at the house of the novelist Pedro de Medina. During the day, a barbecue had been held there in honor of the Argentinean poetess; by night, the house had been transformed into a brothel, in honor of her husband. Luz found Lacouture with two whores. At first she remained calm. She drank a couple of tequilas in the library with Pedro de Medina and the social realist poet Augusto Zamora, both of whom tried to calm her down. They talked about Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Claudel and Soviet poetry, Paul Valéry and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sor Juana was the straw that broke the camel’s back; Luz exploded. She grabbed the first thing she could find and returned to the bedroom in search of her husband. Lacouture was attempting to get dressed, in an advanced state of inebriation. The scantily clad whores looked on from a corner of the room. Unable to restrain herself, Luz struck her husband on the head with a bronze sculpture of Pallas Athena. Lacouture had to be hospitalized for fifteen days with severe concussion. They returned to Argentina together but separated after four months.
The failure of her marriage plunged Luz into despair. She took to drinking in dives and having affairs with some of the most unsavory individuals in Buenos Aires. Her well-known poem “I Was Happy with Hitler,” misunderstood by the right and the left alike, dates from this period. Her mother tried to send her to Europe, but Luz refused. At the time she weighed more than two hundred pounds (she was only five feet two inches tall) and was drinking a bottle of whiskey a day.
In 1953, the year in which Stalin and Dylan Thomas died, she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which contained, as well as a revised version of “I Was Happy with Hitler,” some of her finest poems: “Stalin,” a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; “Self Portrait,” one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; “Luz Mendiluce and Love,” in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and “Apocalypse at Fifty,” a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic: given her lifestyle, Luz Mendiluce would be lucky to reach the age of thirty.
Little by little there gathered about her a clique of writers too peculiar for her mother’s taste and too radical for her brother. American Letters, the journal bankrolled by her mother, became an essential reference for Nazis and the embittered, alcoholics and the sexually or economically marginal. Luz Mendiluce assumed the roles of mother figure and high priestess of a new Argentinean poetry, which a fearful literary community would thenceforth attempt to suppress.
In 1958 she fell in love again. This time the object of her affections was a twenty-five-year-old painter. He was blond, blue-eyed, and disarmingly stupid. The relationship lasted until 1960, when the painter went to Paris on a fellowship that Luz had obtained for him, through the good offices of her brother Juan. This new disappointment fueled the elaboration of another major poem, “Argentinean Painting,” in which Luz revisited the often stormy relationships into which she had entered with Argentinean painters in her various capacities as collector, wife, and (from an early age) model.
In 1961, having obtained the annulment of her first marriage, Luz took as her wedded husband the poet Mauricio Cáceres, a regular contributor to American Letters, and an exponent of what he himself called the “neo-gaucho” style. Having learned her lesson, this time Luz decided to become a model helpmeet and homemaker: she let her husband take control of American Letters (which led to numerous disputes with Juan Mendiluce, who accused Cáceres of appropriating funds), gave up writing, and dedicated herself body and soul to her wifely duties. With Cáceres in charge of the magazine, the Nazis, the embittered, and the sociopaths unanimously espoused the neo-gaucho style. Success went to Cáceres’s head. At one point he came to believe that he could do without Luz and the Mendiluce clan. He attacked Juan and Edelmira when he saw fit. He even allowed himself the pleasure of belittling his wife. New muses soon appeared on the scene: young female converts to the manly cause of neo-gaucho poetry who succeeded in catching the master’s eye. Until one day Luz, who had seemed completely unaware of her husband’s activities, suddenly exploded once again. The incident was extensively covered in the accident and crime reports of the Buenos Aires newspapers. Cáceres and an editor from American Letters ended up in hospital with bullet wounds. While the editor’s injuries were minor, Cáceres was not discharged for a month and a half. Luz did not fare much better. Having shot at her husband and her husband’s friend, she shut herself in the bathroom and swallowed the contents of the medicine chest. This time, there was nothing for it; she had to leave for Europe.
In 1964, after sojourns in various clinics, Luz surprised her scarce but faithful readers once again with a new a collection, titled Like a Hurricane: ten poems, one hundred and twenty pages, a preface by Susy D’Amato (who could hardly understand a line of Luz’s poetry but was one of her few remaining friends), brought out by feminist publishers in Mexico, who would soon come to regret having gambled on a “well-known far-right activist,” although, at the time, they had been unaware of Luz’s real allegiances, and the poems themselves were free of political allusions, except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as, “in my heart I am the last Nazi”), always in the context of personal relationships. The book was republished a year later in Argentina, where it garnered a number of favorable reviews.
In 1967, Luz returned to Buenos Aires, where she was to remain for the rest of her life. An aura of mystery enveloped her. In Paris, Jules Albert Ramis had translated practically all of her poetry. She was accompanied by a young Spanish poet, Pedro Barbero, who acted as her secretary and whom she called Pedrito. This Pedrito, as opposed to her Argentinean husbands and lovers, was helpful, attentive (although perhaps a little uncouth), and above all loyal. Luz took control of American Letters once again and set up a new publishing house, The Wounded Eagle. She was soon surrounded by a host of followers who laughed at all her jokes. She weighed two hundred and twenty pounds. Her hair came down to her waist. She rarely washed. Her clothes were old and often ragged.
Luz Mendiluce’s emotional life now entered a calmer phase. In other words, she ceased to suffer. She took lovers, drank to excess, and was prone to occasional cocaine abuse, but always maintained her spiritual balance. She was severe. Her reviews were feared, and eagerly anticipated by those who were not the targets of her venomous, barbed wit. She entered into bitter, public feuds with certain Argentinean poets (all male and famous), cruelly satirizing their homosexuality (a practice of which she disapproved in public, although many of her friends were gay), their humble social backgrounds, or their communist convictions. Many women writers in Argentina admired her and read her work, although not all of them would admit to it.
The struggle with her brother Juan over the control of American Letters (the magazine in which she had invested so much, the source of so many disappointments) took on epic proportions. She was defeated, but the young remained loyal. She divided her time between a large apartment in Buenos Aires and a ranch in Paraná, which became an artistic commune over which she could reign unopposed. There, by the river, artists conversed, took siestas, drank, and painted, unaffected by the political violence beginning to ravage the rest of the country.
But no one could remain safe from harm. One afternoon, Claudia Saldaña visited the ranch with a friend. She was young, she wrote poetry, and she was beautiful. For Luz it was love at first sight. Having arranged an introduction, the hostess lavished attention upon her visitor. Claudia Saldaña spent an afternoon and a night at the ranch, returning to Rosario, where she lived, the next morning. Luz recited poems, displayed the French translations of her books and the photo of herself as a baby with Hitler, encouraged the young woman to write, asked to read her poems (Claudia Saldaña said they were no good, she was just a beginner), insisted that her guest keep a little wooden figure she happened to pick up, and finally tried to get her drunk, hoping to make her too ill to leave, but Claudia Saldaña left anyway.
After two days spent in an utter daze, Luz realized that she was in love. She felt like a girl. She got hold of Claudia’s telephone number in Rosario and called her. She was almost sober; she could barely control her emotion. She asked if they could meet. Claudia agreed: they could meet in Rosario in three days’ time. Luz was beside herself; she wanted to see Claudia that night or the next day at the latest. Claudia stood firm: she had binding, prior engagements. What cannot be cannot be, besides which, it’s impossible. Luz accepted her conditions with a joyful resignation. That night she cried and danced and drank until she passed out. No doubt it was the first time that anyone had made her feel that way. True love, she confessed to Pedrito, who agreed with everything she said.
The meeting in Rosario was not as marvelous as Luz had hoped. Claudia clearly and frankly set out the reasons why a closer relationship between them was impossible: she was not a lesbian; there was a significant age difference (Luz being more than twenty-five years older); and, finally, their political convictions were deeply dissimilar if not diametrically opposed. “We are mortal enemies,” said Claudia sadly. This declaration seemed to interest Luz. (Sexual preference was a triviality, she felt, in a case of real love. And age was an illusion. But she was intrigued by the idea of being mortal enemies.) Why? Because I’m a Trotskyist and you’re a fascist shit, said Claudia. Luz ignored the insult and laughed. And there’s no way round that? she asked, desperately lovesick. No, there’s not, said Claudia. What about poetry? asked Luz. Poetry is pretty irrelevant these days, with what’s going on in Argentina. Maybe you’re right, Luz admitted, on the verge of tears, but maybe you’re wrong. It was a sad farewell. Luz had a sky blue Alfa Romeo sports car. Easing her rotund physique into the driver’s seat was no simple task, but she undertook it bravely, with a smile on her face. Claudia looked on from the doorway of the café where they had met, unmoving. Luz pulled away, with the image of Claudia fixed in the rear-vision mirror.
In her position anyone else would have given up, but Luz was not anyone. A torrent of creative activity swept her away. In the past, falling in or out of love had dried up the flow of her writing for long periods. Now she wrote like a madwoman, driven perhaps by a presentiment of what destiny had in store. Every night she called Claudia: they talked, argued, read poems to each other (Claudia’s were downright bad but Luz was very careful not to say so). Every night, without fail, she begged: when could they meet again? She made wild plans: they could leave Argentina together, go to Brazil, or Paris. At these suggestions the young poet burst out laughing, but there was nothing cruel in her laughter; if anything, it was tinged with sadness.
Suddenly Luz found the countryside and the artistic commune on the Paraná stifling. She decided to return to Buenos Aires. There she tried to resume her social life, see her friends, go to the movies or the theater. But she couldn’t. Nor did she have the courage to visit Claudia in Rosario without her permission. It was then that she wrote one of the strangest poems in Argentinean literature: My Girl, 750 lines full of love, regrets, and irony. She was still calling Claudia every night.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that a sincere, mutual friendship had developed in the course of all those conversations.
In September 1976, bursting with love, Luz leapt into her Alfa Romeo and sped off to Rosario. She wanted to tell Claudia that she was willing to change, that she was, in fact, already changing. She arrived to find Claudia’s parents in a desperate state. A group of strangers had kidnapped the young poet. Luz moved heaven and earth, mobilized her friends, used her connections, then those of her mother, her elder brother, and finally Juan’s connections too, all in vain. Claudia’s friends said the army had taken her. Luz refused to believe anything and waited. Two months later Claudia’s body was found in a garbage dump in the north of Rosario. The next day Luz set off for Buenos Aires in her Alfa Romeo. Halfway there she crashed into a gas station. The explosion was considerable.
ERNESTO PÉREZ MASÓN
Matanzas, 1908–New York, 1980
The reputation of Ernesto Pérez Masón, realist, naturalist, and expressionist novelist, exponent of the decadent style and social realism, rests on a series of twenty works, beginning with the splendid story “Heartless” (Havana, 1930), a nightmare with Kafkaesque echoes, written at a time when the work of Kafka was little known in the Caribbean, and ending with the abrasive, caustic, embittered prose of Don Juan in Havana (Miami, 1979).
A rather atypical member of the group that formed around the magazine Orígenes, he maintained a legendary feud with Lezama Lima. On three occasions, he challenged the author of Paradiso to a duel. The first time, in 1945, the affair was to be decided, so he declared, on the little field he owned outside Pinar del Río, which had inspired him to write numerous pages about the deep joy of land ownership, a condition he had come to see as the ontological equivalent of destiny. Naturally Lezama spurned his challenge.
On the second occasion, in 1954, the site chosen for the duel, to be fought with sabers, was the patio of a brothel in Havana. Once again, Lezama failed to appear.
The third and final challenge took place in 1963; the designated field of honor was the back garden of a house belonging to Dr. Antonio Nualart, in which a party attended by painters and poets was under way, and it was to be a fistfight, in the traditional Cuban manner. Lezama, who by pure chance happened to be at the party, managed to slip away again, with the help of Eliseo Diego and Cintio Vitier. But this time Pérez Masón’s show of bravado landed him in trouble. Half an hour later the police arrived and, after a short discussion, arrested him. The situation degenerated at the police station. According to the police, Pérez Masón hit an officer in the eye. According to Pérez Masón, the whole thing was an ambush cleverly contrived by Lezama and Castro’s regime, in an unholy alliance forged with the express purpose of destroying him. The upshot of the incident was a fifteen-day prison term.
That was not to be Pérez Masón’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related, in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokhov, the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him toward her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic: long live hitler. A major scandal broke out. Pérez Masón defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic: this place sucks. And those of the third paragraphs spelled: usa where are you. And the fourth paragraphs: kiss my cuban ass. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. “I screwed up,” Pérez Masón would say later. “They were too obvious, but if I’d made it harder, no one would have realized.”
In the end, he was sentenced to three years in prison, but served only two, during which his early novels came out in English and French. They include The Witches, a misogynistic book full of stories opening onto other stories, which in turn open onto yet others, and whose structure or lack of structure recalls certain works of Raymond Roussel; The Enterprise of the Masons, a paradigmatic and paradoxical work, saluted on its publication in 1940 by Virgilio Piñera (who saw it as a Cuban version of Gargantua and Pantagruel), in which it is never entirely clear whether Pérez Masón is talking about the business acumen of his ancestors or the members of a Masonic lodge who met, at the end of the nineteenth century, in a sugar refinery to plan the Cuban Revolution and the worldwide revolution to follow; and The Gallows Tree (1946), written in a dark, Caribbean gothic vein, unprecedented at the time, in which the author reveals his hatred of communists (although, oddly, he devotes a whole chapter, the third, to the military fortunes and misfortunes of Marshal Zhukov, the hero of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Berlin, and that chapter, taken on its own—it has, in fact, little to do with the rest of the book—is one of the strangest and most brilliant passages in Latin American literature between 1900 and 1950), as well as his hatred of homosexuals, Jews, and blacks, thus earning the enmity of Virgilio Piñera, who always admitted, nevertheless, that the novel, arguably the author’s best, had a disquieting power, like a sleeping crocodile.
Until the triumph of the revolution, that is, for almost all of his working life, Pérez Masón taught French Literature to graduate students. During the fifties he tried unsuccessfully to cultivate peanuts and yams in his inspiring little field near Pinar del Río, which was eventually expropriated by the new authorities. There are endless stories in circulation about his life in Havana after getting out of jail, most of them pure fiction. He is said to have been a police informer, to have written speeches and tirades for one of the regime’s well-known political figures, founded a secret society of fascist poets and assassins, practiced Afro-Cuban rituals, and visited all the island’s writers, painters, and musicians, asking them to plead his cause with the authorities. All I want is to work, he said, just work and live doing the only thing I know how to do. That is, writing.
At the time of his release from prison he had finished a 200-page novel, which no Cuban publisher dared to take on. The action took place in the sixties, during the early years of the literacy campaign. It was an impeccably accomplished book, and the censors sifted its pages searching for encrypted messages, in vain. Even so, it was unpublishable, and Pérez Masón finally burned the only three manuscript copies. Years later, in his memoirs, he would claim that the whole novel, from the first to the last page, was a handbook of cryptography, a “Super Enigma,” although of course he no longer had the text to prove it, and the exiled Cubans of Miami, who had not forgotten his early and somewhat hasty hagiographies of Fidel and Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara, received his assertion with indifference, if not disbelief. Pérez Masón answered them by publishing a curious novella under the pseudonym Abelard of Rotterdam: an erotic and fiercely anti-US fantasy, whose protagonists were General Eisenhower and General Patton.
In 1970, or so Pérez Masón claims in his memoirs, he managed to found a group called Artists and Writers of the Counterrevolution. The group consisted of the painter Alcides Urrutia and the poet Juan José Lasa Mardones, two entirely mysterious individuals, probably invented by Pérez Masón himself, unless they were pseudonyms used by never-identified pro-Castro writers who at some point went crazy or decided to play a double game. According to some critics, the acronym AWC secretly stood for the Aryan Writers of Cuba. In any case the Artists and Writers of the Counterrevolution or the Aryan Writers of Cuba (or the Caribbean?) remained entirely unknown until Pérez Masón, who by this stage was comfortably settled in New York, published his memoirs.
The years of his ostracism are shrouded in legend. Perhaps he was jailed again, perhaps not.
In 1975, after many failed attempts, he managed to get out of Cuba and settle in New York, where he devoted his time and energy—working more than ten hours a day—to writing and polemics. He died five years later. Surprisingly, his name figures in the Dictionary of Cuban Authors (Havana, 1978), which omits Guillermo Cabrera Infante.