Manuel Mujica Láinez

Selected stories
from Misteriosa Buenos Aires (1950)

Manuel Mujica Láinez
Manuel Mujica Láinez

For me, the beginning of Buenos Aires is but a tale. / I judge it as eternal as water or air.” (Jorge Luis Borges, “Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires”). It might seem curious to introduce the translations of these stories by Manuel Mujica Láinez with a quote from another author (even though it is no other than Borges); but I think there is no better description of the imaginary they transmitted me when I read them for the first time, so many years ago. Today —after discovering in astonishment that this work has not been translated into English—, I return to them to do their author justice, with this humble translation of a few stories. Let it be taken as a sign of gratitude from a reader to a writer, for having offered his stories and fantasies.

Misteriosa Buenos Aires

The Image-maker

Manuel Couto returned to Buenos Aires, captivated by a spirit-disrupting obsession. He had remained for five years in the dungeons of the Holy Office in Lima. Those were five terrible years, during which his reason, in itself prone to fantasy, became slowly lost. Accused by a mestiza and a negro, his servants, he had been sent to those cruel jails. The servants were secret lovers, and since the image-maker had begun to woo the girl, they decided to get rid of him by calling him a heretic. The Portuguese was defenceless. It was true that, in order to finish the sculpture of Our Lady of the Conception, he had sat on the carving and that, in response to the mestiza’s hypocritical reproaches, he had told her not to worry, that she was a loose woman like herself. Hitting the wood, he added: “This is nothing but a piece of lumber.” It was also true that on another occasion, while sick, he blasphemed the Virgin, for she would not soothe his pains. True and most true, unfortunately. The judges and Church officials in Buenos Aires refused to listen to him when he pleaded not guilty and swore his status as an old Christian. The sole circumstance of being Portuguese, born in San Miguel de Barreros, near Oporto, fostered the suspicion of his Judaism. His good friendship with Governor Don José Martínez de Salazar, who in 1671 had trusted him with making the Holy Christ donated to the Cathedral in Buenos Aires, was of no avail. His property was confiscated and he was sent to Perú, like a bundle. There he was questioned many times and finally subjected to torture, on the rack. Naturally, he confessed whatever they wished and he was taken to the streets, set astride on a donkey, wearing the yellow sanbenito and holding a green candle with his right hand. The tormentor gave him two hundred lashes. Then, he was sentenced to another four years of prison in Valdivia, but since he had spent many years in the City of the Kings, he managed to avoid that confinement and return to the River Plate.

The strange thing was that he held no desire for revenge against his accusers. Incidentally, they had disappeared. He was led by another concern which inflamed his mad gaze.

He is now at his workshop, surrounded by images. He goes from one to another, regarding them, placing his trembling fingers over their faces. Yesterday he presented before the authorities the statue of Saint Michael he had been commissioned for the Fort, and for which he was paid one hundred pesos. Two other finished sculptures, with their polychromy and their linen and velvet clothes, raise their imploring arms by the window. They are two apostles. Placed on a chest, there are saints’ heads, bearded, tragic, their cheeks traversed by tears and wrinkles. On another one, there is a sketched calvary. Stacked in one corner are trunks of cedar, of orange tree, of carob, of lapacho, of urunday, to be used for future works.

He is a pitiful view, so emaciated is he. He has brought from Lima the habit of talking to himself, in a low voice, due to his long solitude. He has also brought a very white, young woman, who serves him as a model, cooks and cleans the room. She is the only one who comes into the workshop. Every once in a while, she announces some Porteño lord coming for a commission.

The woman’s name is Rosario, and she is beautiful.

Miguel Couto’s obsession was born in his cell in Lima. For a lustrum, the sorrowful image-maker saw no living being other than the brothers of the Holy Office. They would come at absurd hours, stern, ruffed; the Dominicans, in black and white; preceded by a clattering of locks. They would ask him this and that and write it down carefully. Then, they began questioning. They weighed his declarations with zealous scales. They resorted to a thousand wiles to tear from him a Hebrew word, a Greek phrase. As if he knew anything besides Portuguese and a broken Spanish! And they would talk to him about the soul, becoming entangled in theological brambles: whether the soul had been infused by a breath of God; whether the soul is immortal, and so when we become a miserable corpse it comes back to the divine womb; whether it remains floating around, invisible, or travels to the absolute dwellings to be punished and rewarded; whether the soul does, or does not… The soul! The Portuguese sometimes believed, in his delirium, that his soul would slip from his lips. Thereupon he would seal them and clasp his hands together in anguished prayer. Or perhaps, in the middle of the darkest night, trembling on the hard ground, he would feel a slight flutter around him, like butterflies, like silent insects. Souls! The cell became full of intangible souls until dawn peeped through the bars.

He is to carve a new sculpture, but it will not be a Christ, nor a Saint John the Baptist, nor a Magdalen, nor a Sorrowful Mother. He shall keep this image for himself. If someone saw it, he would have to return to Lima, to torture, so he will hide it like a miser. Perhaps this work, unlike the rest, has a soul, one soul, his soul. Afterwards, the image-maker can die.

With the sharp knife, he takes to carving the soft wood. Nearby, squatting, Rosario embroiders. The artist needs her not yet. She does not even know what will come out of his inspiration. She believes the trunk, almost as white as her flesh, will be transformed into a Sorrowful Mother, a Mother of Peace… And he, with sparkling eyes, confidently drives the blade in.

After an hour, when she comes in after preparing the mate, Rosario notices that the sculpture has the shape of a standing woman, its arms hanging loosely by her body. Manuel Couto quickly sips twice through the bombilla and orders:

“Now, undress.”

The Peruvian blushes. The master has never required such a thing. It had been nothing but sitting among the waves of attires with geometric pleats, with a statue simulating the Infant Jesus on her knees; or letting her hair down and half-closing her eyelids, in the attitude of Mary Magdalen. But this! She blushes and hesitates.

Couto plunges the knife into the wood and repeats, in a tone which admits no reply:

“Undress, woman.”

Rosario obeys with a sigh and the presence of her skin, so smooth, traversed by light-blue veins, makes the holy Apostles’ heads gloomier, as if those painted eyelids could not resist the light emanating from her torso.

Eve? Perhaps the master wishes to carve the image of Eve, mother of the mortals?

Rosario is on her feet, naked, in the middle of the workshop. By her sides hang her harmonious arms. Her graceful breasts tremble.

Manuel Couto drives the knife into the elastic wood, its streaks like subtle rivers of blue blood.

The work proceeds feverishly. The sculptor rests not. At midnight, he wakes the girl up, lights some thick candles in the workshop and resumes the job. He is urged by the idea of not managing to finish it. Until then, he shall not sleep well. It has been a week of madness, but it is almost over. Now the figure of Rosario stands in the room, its mouth half-open, its arms drooping as in offering, its chest slender and sharp. Manuel has never dreamed of creating something so beautiful, so real.

The candles are flickering around. Now, with the utmost care, the artist lays the statue down. It is time to polychrome it. He mixes the colours and, minute by minute, the wooden fibres disappear under the pale rose, under the red enlivening breasts and lips, under the green illuminating the eyes. Rosario beholds the procedure, fascinated. Behind, among the crackling wicks, the bearded saints also seem to lean.

Manuel Couto has sat on the sculpture’s chest to paint the face.

Says Rosario:

“How can you sit like that on the body of our mother Eve? Is this not a great sin?”

“Eve? And who has told you this is Eve? This is nothing but a loose woman like yourself.”

The brush remains immobile in mid-air. Suddenly the madman’s memory is struck by a scene identical to the one he is living. It is that which threw him into the dungeons of Lima and made him suffer the torture of Inquisition. The other woman, the mestiza, had also reprimanded him for being disrespectful, careless, towards a carving…

The sculptor jumps to his feet. In his fist flashes the sharp knife with which he had torn the fragile chips. Does this female intend to send him into prison, just like the other one? But, why is he persecuted so, why will they not leave him alone, if he means no trouble to anyone?

Rosario steps back, afraid. In the room’s corner, the two great apostles block the way. She screams in pain, for she feels, between her breasts, the penetrating metal blade and the gushing blood. She pants, desperate, in the terror of agony.

The madman is still on his feet, his huge eyes popping out of their sockets. On one side lies the convulsing woman; on the other, the one he carved, serene, her drooping arms following the line of the body.

Manuel is not altered by his horrible crime. His old obsession takes hold of him. The soul! Rosario’s soul! He must not let it escape. He must hunt it in mid-air, as if it was a bird, before it flees. He drags the carved wood next to the girl, almost motionless. He rotates it slowly, holding it by the shoulders until the statue covers the moribund entirely and the living nakedness yields before the weight of that other nakedness, educed from the smooth trunk. The open mouths touch. Rosario’s flying soul cannot go any other way.

The Peruvian gives a hint of a dying rictus and shudders. The insane man gives a step back and wipes the cold sweat drenching his cheeks. Shaken by the blink of the candles, the truncated heads of the saints look at him, menacing, and the two apostles swing as if coming towards him, their vermillion clothes floating. He pushes the table to place it as a barricade between him and his wooden enemies, and he knocks down the candelabra, which fall with a loud crash. And his last work? Does it not also move on the ground?

The fire becomes attached to the red mantles and runs towards the window. Manuel Couto shouts and bumps into the walls. The sacred personages, furious, crackle around him.

In the morning, the neighbours found him, charred, under the ruins of his workshop. It was difficult to separate him from the fragments of a naked woman statue. She held him tight with her polished wooden arms; her curved, half-open, raised arms.

Eve -Tilman Riemenschneider
Eve, Tilman Riemenschneider

The King’s Bewitching


Excerpt of a letter sent from Buenos Aires to the Milanese dwarf Don Nicolasito Pertusato,

servant of the kings Phillip II and Charles II.

“…and undoubtedly your worship must be surprised to receive my letter, for you must have forgotten me after so long; I shall then aid your memory and remind you that I was honoured to meet you in Madrid twenty years ago, owing to a fortunate coincidence.

I found myself in the kitchens of the Real Alcázar, with my friend the English dwarf Bodson, whom the Duke of Villahermosa brought from Flanders and gave as a present to His Majesty, when your worship arrived looking for food, in the performance of your duties as Chamber Assistant. Immediately your worship and the Englishman began disputing some quails, and Bodson would have had a hard time, for your worship was about to stick the key of the royal chamber into his eye, had there not intervened to separate you two this curious visitor and Mari Bárbola, the Queen’s dwarf. For the purpose of making peace, the aforementioned suggested showing me, since I was a foreigner and had just arrived from Segovia, the picture of Infanta Margaret –the one married to the Emperor–, in which the painter Velázquez also included the figures of your worship and the dwarf. The idea was agreeable to everyone, and off we went.

I keep in my mind, as one of the most precious scenes of my vagabond life, having passed by so many rooms covered in tapestry and adorned with marvels, until reaching His Majesty’s lower chamber, the office room, where the painting left me speechless for quite a while. Oh, don Nicolasito, it is as though I was watching it right now, with that light emanating from the Infanta’s face and dress, and that bow of the Meninas, and on one side the painter, and on the other side Mari Bárbola, stout, robust, ugly, and your worship, so elegant, so delicate, so petite, your foot cheerfully placed on the back of a mastiff! Twenty years of dearth and relocating have passed since then, and none of it has become lost to me.

At that moment, we heard some footsteps and my heart beat uncontrollably, for I feared it might be the King coming to sit at that table in the office, laden with folders, papers, seals and quills. We broke into a run through the same empty, sonorous rooms, and the monkey dressed in yellow satin, perched on Mari Bárbola’s huge head, let out high-pitched shrieks, while the Englishman fended off his bumps against the chairs, forced by the cavorting of a black and rowdy harrier. Through one of the open doors at each side, your worship secretly disappeared, and I never saw you again in my life. This incident I relate in such detail because I know that, as much as I have kept it in my mind, your worship must have forgotten it, along with so many memorable episodes your vast palatial experience must have afforded.

I shall not elaborate for your worship on my wanderings since then. I have been in Mallorca, in Bruges and in the Duchy of Milan, always with bad fortune, trying everything, and sometimes as an acrobat, for I used to be adroit at performing pirouettes and acrobatic stunts, sometimes as a page to some poor noble, as a sailor, as a vihuelist and even as a tooth-drawer. While I was in Seville, with a bag full of holes as my sole property, I decided to tear myself into these accursed, praised Indies, motivated by the temptation of glory and gold. Neither gold nor glory rained upon me, but infinite dismay. I got to know the cities of Mexico, Panama and Brazil, where my boots wore out into fringes, and I practised so many professions that even myself would fail to list them, and at last my battered and worn bones (I am now fifty-six years) rolled into this wretched port of Santa María de los Buenos Aires, where neither the winds are fair, nor Mary relieves us with the sweetness of her smile.

Dire fate, if not the good fortune I dreamed of as a boy, has brought me some faithful friendships. One of these is the student Felipe Blasco, called the Lame, who is the one writing the letter herein, for such long affairs and the necessity of learning the science of life and of daily bread left me bereft of academic studies. Another one is the dog warden of the Cathedral, Marcelino Peje, whose duty lies in chasing the canines away from the temple, for some of them are always prowling around the altars. And another one, at last, is the negro Sebastián Milagros, a master in the art of curing the incurable. Together we have formed a brotherhood to help each other. Thereby, the letter your worship is holding with your noble hands is written in the name of the four of us.

Having outlined this exordium, I shall tell your worship don Nicolasito that my means of procuring daily sustenance, which I share with the aforementioned student, consists for now in the humble trade of goliard, that is, we go early in the morning to the convents of San Francisco and Santo Domingo and to the Company, both of us equipped with bowls, in search of the soup serving granted by the Fathers’ charity, with more water than other ingredients, to those who ask by the love of God and the Virgin. This year the serving has been reduced, for your worship surely knows that the Divine Majesty is testing our patience with a terrible drought due to lack of rain. Every now and then we alternate the conventual ration, insufficient for the demands of a restless stomach, with other honestly procured assistance. Thus, for instance, we guide the scant travellers through the city, taking them to the best pulperias, or work as postmen for gentlemen and ladies, when they are in need of especially discreet messengers.

Fate decreed yesterday that governor don Agustín de Robles should fête in the Fort many councillors and civil servants and that the Lame and I be summoned to serve them. Between courses (there were not many, and the dishes returned so clean that our hopes were dashed), we happened to listen to the dialogue of such illustrious people, conversing with authority. And so we came to know about His Majesty’s bewitching, may God help him.

His Honour don Agustín had received letters from the Court and in a whisper communicated to his doleful guests the news that, according to revelations made by a demon to Fray Antonio Álvarez de Argüelles, Dominican of the convent of Cangas and famous conjurer, His Majesty has been afflicted since the age of fourteen years by a spell cast upon a cup of chocolate, in which were dissolved among other ingredients I dare not cite, the brains of a man who perished in a bad death. You may well imagine, mister Pertusato, how the silver pots and jugs trembled in our hands when we heard such appalling details, and even more when we got to know that, by referral of the informant devil himself, it was all due to the ambition of Queen Mother doña Mariana of Austria, may she be in Heaven.

Once concluded the repast and taken the dishes, we gathered as per usual in the hut of Marcelino Peje, the Cathedral’s dog warden: the Lame, the negro Sebastián Milagros and this unworthy servant of your worship. We discussed, as seemed fair, what we had heard against our will at the Fort, and resolved by mutual agreement, considering the circumstance that your worship and I were acquainted transiently twenty years ago, to send you the letter I am now dictating and embellished with subtler grace by the Lame.

Its aim is to communicate your worship, mister Chamber Assistant, a formula applied by Sebastián Milagros in severe cases, the virtues of which have been infallible to date. It consists of a cooking of palm, rosemary and olive toasted in a clay pot, with which the bewitched’s bedroom is to be perfumed, sprinkling the corners with holy water too. He who performs the exorcism shall don a cloak and flutter with it, as if frightening something away, in the direction of the door. Therein must be previously buried a black cuí, with pins stuck into it. Perhaps your worship ignores that the cuí or cuy is a guinea pig found in warm regions.

Our wish, as good vassals, is that the tidings of this remedy, the efficacy of which could save the Empire from cruel damage, may come to our glorious Monarch’s attention. Whoever more entitled as envoy than your worship, don Nicolasito, privy as you are to His Majesty’s chamber? We therefore urge you to provide us with your assistance.

Marcelino Peje has set apart some savings after years of arduous labours and has determined that, if your worship assented to transmitting the royal Lord the aforementioned formula, he would be honoured to present you with a most beautiful green chamois doublet –which arrived in Buenos Aires by mysterious mistake–, with French-style coattails and wide gold-lace passementerie, and which would look to the ninety-nines on your worship’s figure.

Nothing do we ask in exchange for our will, since we are just fulfiling a duty and are inspired by the subject’s exalted loyalty to him who is lord of our lives by the grace of God. We would be thankful, perhaps, if we were considered for some small succour, since all of us are in need during these bitter times, both Marcelino Peje and the dark Sebastián Milagros, Felipe Blasco the Lame and this servant of Your Honour, who hopes not to close his eyes for the final slumber before being caressed by the sun of Madrid and before seeing once again, in His Majesty’s office room, the painting wherein the aposentador Velázquez painted Your Honour standing in a corner, just like a small Prince…”.

Las Meninas - Diego Velázquez
Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez

The Shepherd of the River

The South-eastern wind is mad. He comes galloping on the dust cloud, and the lashes of his crop flash in the dusk. He laughs to tears; slips in everywhere, with snorts and downpours; bends the trees and throws handfuls of leaves and branches; disperses the cattle; shakes the isolated houses on the plains; slams the doors; blows the hanging clothes away; crosses the city, where he gets riled, dizzying the weathercocks and frightening the bells; and he proceeds, towards the river. Then it seems as if a massive roundup of bulls had come into the water.

The Pampero is mad, but fits of madness like yesterday’s are unheard of. At the hour of prayers, his fury dragged even the buoys into the river. During the night, he ceased not to run and whistle. The people in Buenos Aires barely slept. The shutters had to be fastened, for even at the slightest imprudence he would appear around the rooms with candles burning before the images, and blow and plunge everything into darkness. The ladies lit the lamps again. They recited their Rosaries, imploring Saint Martin of Tours, the Patron, to intercede before the Lord and to soothe the Devil. And the wind, without repose, rolled around the courtyards; and the slim pillars of smoke escaping from the hearths, he took by their waists, to dance with him.

Today, Wednesday the 30th of May, Buenos Aires has been astonished since dawn, for wherein the river always spread his muddy mirror, therein the river is no longer. The mud broadens out as far as the eye can see. Only in the shoals has remained the reflection of captive water. The rest is a massive quagmire with emerging banks. At a distance meanders the Paraná channel, where the old mooring of the Spaniard ships used to be, and thereafter the marshy plains extend to the Uruguay channel and from there to Montevideo. No one can remember such an event as this. The boys seize the opportunity to go on foot towards the next sandbank. A few women arrived there, in spite of the wind, and took a stroll wearing large cloaks, plaited over their heads by the gusts, making them resemble puppets suspended in mid-air. Some people are said to have travelled by horse to Colonia, fording the channels. From within the mud emerged some very old, rusty anchors, like cetaceans’ bones, and the hull of a French ship which had burned the century before. There are capsized boats everywhere and, as is fair, not a fish, not a single fish. The fishermen, furious, argue with the washerwomen, on the slippery tufas. Today there will be neither fishing nor washing. Besides, it is so cold!… So cold that everyone has a blue nose, even the lord Viceroy don Nicolás de Arredondo, who regards the whole spectacle from the Fort, with his spyglass.

The morning passes amid great agitation and anxiety. What is this? Can the river go away like this? And when will it return? What if it does not return? Saint Martin, Saint Martin, when is the River Plate returning?

Saint Martin of Tours is in his heavenly hall, covered in tapestries of starry clouds. And he is not alone. He is surrounded by the other patrons of Buenos Aires, assembled due to the serious news. It is a most special visit they pay. Every now and then, they half-open the baroque cloud curtains and look down, towards the Earth, and search for the beloved city, the one whose river has been unfaithful to.

Saint Martin takes off the bishop’s ring he wears on the index finger; takes off the scarlet gloves, with beautiful topaz crosses embroidered on the side; casts off the gothic mitre; leaves aside the crosier, with a curved extreme like an ivory question mark.

Enquiries and excuses flutter all around the room, over the green palms, over the pilgrim’s staves.

“If this were not such a serious matter”, says Saint Lucy, “I would go. Yet I am no more than the secondary patron.”

“If this were about fighting against ants”, argue Saint Sabinus and Saint Boniface, “it would be our responsibility.”

“If this were about chasing mice away, we would be ready for the job”, add Saint Simon and Saint Judas.

And Saint Roch offers to go in case of smallpox and typhus, and Saint Ursula –on behalf of the regimented Eleven Thousand Virgins–, to fight against the crop-eating locusts.

“But it is not of our concern! Not of our concern!”, repeats the chorus.

Male and female saints, mixing the shining of their halos, lean out of the vast terrace with clouds of iridescent sendals for awning, and survey, at a sidereal distance, the tiny track of the missing river.

Saint Martin loosens his dalmatic, delicate as a miniature missal. He smooths his patriarchal beard and sighs.

And the saints –Saint Lucy and Saint Ursula– look through the contents of one of those scented chests which are in every room of Paradise, in which the blessed store the attributes of their blessedness.

“Here it is!”, they proclaim at once, and together they place on the shoulders of the bishop of Tours the other half of his famous cloak.

The Patron half wraps himself up in it, for the torn cloak is more like a shawl. A travelling cloud has already been brought to the divine rail. It is a Percheron cloud, with lips, back and mane. Saint Martin sat astride on it, placed his feet on the transparent stirrups, and descends, sliding among the exact music of the stars, towards the unhappy Earth. From the vaporous parapet, the saints wave at him with uneven gestures, as from the ribs of a great rose window. There he goes, for he is the Patron after all, and in 1580, when lots were drawn to choose Buenos Aires’s celestial protector, his name appeared thrice, much to the irk of the anti-French Spaniards. And Buenos Aires becomes nearer and nearer, with its domes, its willows, its walls and its melancholy roads, as it is seen in the pictures of Fernando Brambilla and the painters who came with the expedition of Alejandro Malaspina, the captain.

Saint Martin leaves the miraculous horse a league away from the city, lest it should be discovered, and rushes with rhythmical strides towards the silhouette of towers and houses, remembering he had been a soldier in his youth. The Pampero wanders around him, like a huge, cantankerous dog. He has grabbed the torn cloak and pulls, pulls, but the Saint prevails and comes in Buenos Aires, at dawn, with his mantellone fluttering like a pennant.

There is no time to lose, for up there he is being observed, and he imagines the apostles’ and the martyrs’ attention, and the barking of Saint Roch’s dog, who starts playing and disarranging the seraphic processions on any pretext. He leaves aside the sleepy pulperias, where the peasants sip the first mate with tiger-like moans. He proceeds to the estuary. He crosses the Main Square, comes down through the riverside bushes, and confirms that the dilated river is gone, collecting its flowing liquid as with a net.

Nearby, the boggy beach starts filling with shivering people and there happens what has been said: some venture into the mud, on foot or by horse, while others light bonfires for heating and perhaps hoping that the river, which must be missing, might recognise the place with the lights.

Saint Martin of Tours, invisible, penetrates deep into the bog. His gold sandals turn black, and his immaculate tunic becomes specked. He goes towards the river, dislocating his robust arms, yelling aloud.

Much he travelled. He found him around midday, almost in Montevideo. He was still withdrawing, sulky, fierce. And so, with a long jump that fanned out his clear vestments, the man of God fell on him, sprinkling water left, right and centre.

The Patron unties his cloak, twists it and uses it as a whip. He strikes the seditious waves, which make rough the little heads of short foam.

“To the city! To the city!”

And the River Plate roars around the thin figure, yet each time the blessed cloak touches him, the water submits and returns to its natural course.

Resembling a shepherd of marvellous flocks, Saint Martin returns to Buenos Aires, around four in the afternoon, with the tame river. The waves gambol around, like lambs with dirty fleece. The shepherd holds his clothes up with one hand, showing his sharp shinbones, and with the other one, he wields the improvised whip.

Viceroy don Nicolás de Arredondo aims with the spyglass and sees that the river is back and that the aground barges are already nodding. But the Saint he sees not, nor does he see how he wrings the water and the little fish from his drenched cloak, nor how he walks away, cheerful, getting lost among the scrublands on the plains.

Anthony Van Dyck - St. Martin and the Beggar
St. Martin and the Beggar, Anthony van Dyck
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