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

XIV
The Image-maker
1679

Manuel Couto returned to Buenos Aires, captivated by a soul-disrupting obsession. He had spent 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 when the image-maker began to chase after the girl, they decided to get rid of him by accusing him of heresy. 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 make a fuss, because that was a loose woman like herself. Knocking 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 ease his pain. True and most true, unfortunately. The judges and Church officials in Buenos Aires refused to listen to him, when he pleaded innocence and swore his status as a lifelong 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 he 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 repeatedly questioned and finally subjected to torture, on the rack. Naturally, he confessed whatever they wanted and he was paraded through the streets, set astride on a donkey, wearing the yellow sanbenito and holding a green candle in his right hand. The tormentor gave him two hundred lashes. Then, he was sentenced to another four years in the Valdivia prison, but since he had spent many in the City of the Kings, he managed to avoid this 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 regards one after the other, studying them, touching their faces with his trembling fingers. Yesterday he presented the authorities with 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. Some saints’ heads are placed on a chest, bearded, tragic, their cheeks traversed by tears and wrinkles. Another one contains a sketched calvary. Stacked in one corner, there 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 extended solitude. He has also brought a young woman, very fair-skinned, who poses as a model, cooks and cleans his room. No one but she 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 myriad 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 has been infused in us by a breath of God; whether the soul is immortal, and so when we turn into a miserable corpse it returns 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. He would then seal them, clasping his hands together in anguished prayer. Or perhaps, in the darkest of night, trembling on the hard ground, he would feel a slight flutter around him, like butterflies, like silent insects. Souls! The cell became thronged with intangible souls until dawn peeped through the bars.

He is carving a new sculpture, but this will be neither a Christ nor a Saint John the Baptist, nor a Magdalen, nor a Sorrowful Mother. This image will be for himself. If anyone saw it, he would be forced back to Lima, to torture, so he shall hide it like a miser. Perhaps this work, unlike the rest, might have 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 does not need her yet. She does not even know what will come out of inspiration. She supposes 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.

An hour later, when she comes in with the mate, Rosario notes that the sculpture has the shape of a standing woman, with arms hanging loose by the body. Manuel Couto takes two quick sips through the bombilla and orders:

“Now, undress.”

The Peruvian blushes. The master has never required such a thing. All she had done was sit among waves of geometrically pleated attires, holding a statue that simulated the Infant Jesus on her knees; or let her hair down and half-close 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 that 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 that he might not finish it. Until then, he shall not sleep well. It has been a frantic week, but it is almost over. Now Rosario’s figure stands in the room, its mouth half-open, its arms drooping in offering, its chest slender and sharp. Manuel has never dreamed of creating something so beautiful, so lifelike.

The candles are flickering around. Now, with 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 that enlivens breasts and lips, under the green that illuminates the eyes. Rosario beholds the procedure, fascinated. Behind, amid the crackling wicks, the bearded saints also seem to lean.

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

Rosario says:

“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 still in mid-air. Suddenly the madman’s memory is struck by a scene identical to what he is living now, the scene that 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. The sharp knife that had torn the fragile chips flashes in his fist. Is this female intent on sending him into prison, just like the other one? But, why this persecution, 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 heinous 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, just like a bird, before it flees. He drags the carved wood next to the almost motionless girl. 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 hints 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 approaching him, their vermillion clothes floating. He pushes the table to barricade himself from his wooden enemies and knocks down the candelabra, which fall crashing into the ground. And his last work? Is it not moving as well, on the ground?

The fire becomes attached to the red mantles and runs towards the window. Manuel Couto screams 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 extricate him from the fragments of a naked woman statue. She was holding him tight with her polished wooden arms; her arms curved, half-open, raised.

Eve -Tilman Riemenschneider
Eve, Tilman Riemenschneider

XVI
The King’s Bewitching
1699

 

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 this letter of mine, 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 most 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 viands, 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 to make 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 regarding 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 have I lost.

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 she-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 a 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 dogged by misfortune, 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 for 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 as many professions as I myself would fail to list, and at last my battered and worn-out 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 lad, 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 daily bread have left me bereft of academic studies. Another one is the Cathedral’s dog warden, 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 of 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 us four.

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, going 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, more abundant in water than in other ingredients, to those who ask for 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 some 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.

Yesterday fate decreed that governor don Agustín de Robles should fête many councillors and civil servants in the Fort and that the Lame and me 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 famed conjuror, 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 had been acquainted transiently twenty years ago, to send you the letter I am now dictating, embellished with subtler grace by the Lame.

Its aim is to communicate your worship, Lord Chamber Assistant, a formula applied by Sebastián Milagros in serious cases, the virtues of which have been infallible to date. It consists in 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, should your worship assent to transmitting the royal Lord the aforementioned formula, he would be honoured to present you with a most beautiful green chamois doublet –which arrived at 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 fulfilling a duty and are inspired by the subject’s exalted loyalty to him who is lord of our lives by grace of God. We would be thankful, perhaps, if we were considered for some little 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

XXV
The Shepherd of the River
1792

The South-eastern wind is mad. It comes galloping on the dust cloud, the lashes of its crop flashing in the dusk. It laughs to tears; slips in everywhere, with snorts and downpours; bends the trees and hurls 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 rears up, dizzying the weathercocks and frightening the bells; and he proceeds, towards the river. Then it is as if a huge roundup of bulls had come into the water.

The Pampero is mad, but fits like yesterday’s are unheard of. At the hour of prayers, its fury dragged even the buoys into the river. During the night, it ceased not to whizz and whistle. The people in Buenos Aires could barely sleep. They had to fasten the shutters, for even at the slightest imprudence it would appear in the rooms with candles burning before the images, blowing and plunging 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 soothe the Devil. And the wind, without repose, rolled around the yards; and it girded the slim pillars of smoke escaping from the hearths by their waists, inviting them for a dance.

Today, Wednesday, May 30, Buenos Aires has been astonished since dawn, for wherein the river always spread its muddy mirror, therein the river is no more. The mud broadens out as far as the eye can see. The reflection of captive water has remained solely in the shoals. The rest is a massive quagmire with emerging banks. At a distance meanders the Paraná channel, the ancient mooring place of the Spaniard ships, and further on the marshy plains extend up to the Uruguay channel and thence to Montevideo. No one can remember an event such as this. The boys seize the opportunity to reach the next sandbank on foot. A few women arrived there, in spite of the wind, and took a stroll wearing some large cloaks which the gusts plaited over their heads, so that they resembled puppets suspended in mid-air. Some people are said to have travelled on horse to Colonia, fording the channels. From 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 very special visit they pay. Every now and then, they half-open the baroque curtain of clouds and look down, towards the Earth, in search for the dear city whose river has been unfaithful to.

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

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

“If it were not so serious a matter,” says Saint Lucy, “I would go. Yet I am merely the secondary patron.”

“If this had to do with fighting against ants,” argue Saint Sabinus and Saint Boniface, “it would be our responsibility.”

“If we had to chase mice away, we would be ready for the job,” add Saint Simon and Saint Judas.

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

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

Male and female saints, mixing their shining halos as they lean out of the vast terrace with clouds of iridescent sendals for awning, 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, present in every room of Paradise, wherein the blessed store the attributes of their blessedness.

“Here it is!” they proclaim at once, and together they place on the bishop of Tours’s shoulders 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 now descends, sliding through 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 large rose window. There he goes; 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 comes closer and closer, with its domes, its willows, its walls and its melancholy roads, as 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 at rhythmical strides towards the silhouette of towers and houses, recollecting his youth as a soldier. The Pampero wanders around him, like a huge, cantankerous dog. He has grabbed the torn cloak and pulls, pulls, but the Saint prevails and enters Buenos Aires, at dawn, with his mantellone fluttering like a pennant.

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

Nearby, the boggy beach becomes filled with shivering people, who act as previously told: some venture into the mud, on foot or on horseback, while others light bonfires for heating and perhaps hoping that the river, which must be missing, may find its way 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 is in search of the river, dislocating his robust arms, yelling aloud.

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

The Patron unties his cloak, twists it and uses it as a whip. He strikes the seditious waves that 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 it is touched by the blessed cloak, 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, bringing the tame river. The waves gambol around like dirty, fleecy lambs. The shepherd holds his clothes up with one hand, showing his sharp shinbones, and wields the improvised whip in his other hand.

Viceroy don Nicolás de Arredondo aims his spyglass and sees that the river is back and that the aground barges are nodding again. But the Saint he sees not, nor how he wrings water and 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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