Aurora Venturini, Then and Now [Month of a Thousand Forests]
First up today is Aurora Venturini, who kicks off the whole anthology, and who published her first book in 1942 and her most recent book in 2013. That’s longevity!
I think of the Golden Age playwrights and the surprising formal hybridity they managed. Lope de Vega, for example (along with many others), used the tragicomedy to convey his characters’ development. I had those authors as a point of reference for this first chapter of my novel, Las primas. I explain what the family of the protagonist, Yuna, was like: what her mother did, what her cousins were like, her sister, her aunt Nené, and the art professor, whose role in the development of the story is crucial. Yuna’s mother feels a profound detachment from her family in particular because her husband abandoned her with two very strange daughters. One is a handicapped girl, Betina, who’s in a wheelchair. The other is Yuna, the narrator, who loves to paint. In this first part I tried to describe not only this girl’s talent when she attends a fine arts school in La Plata, where she wins prizes at exhibitions, but also the astuteness of the professor. Yuna has trouble speaking, and since she can hardly read or write, she expresses herself through painting. She meets a professor who values her very highly and who tells her they’re going to show her work first in Buenos Aires and then in Europe. He tells her they’re going to travel and she jumps on the professor to kiss him and they fall over together. “No, Yuna, that’s not done. Because men are fire and women straw and the devil comes along and blows.”
Before leaving for Paris, you received a prize from Borges’s own hands, and later, when you were eighty-five, you won another award from young Argentine writers who considered you one of their own. Narratively, Paris was like an intermezzo between Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires.
I began writing here but I love Paris very much. It was the happiest time of my life, amazing to be in Paris at the height of existentialism. I entered university in 1942 and ended up with a doctorate in Philosophy and Education. Afterward, with the Revolución Libertadora in ’55, I had to leave, and in Paris I specialized in psychology. The French authorities were good enough to give me citizenship and I was able to work. Nothing like what happened to me in Argentina after the fall of Perón, where I was attacked over and over. But no one remembers that and no one talks about it. Because people who went to war don’t talk, the ones who talk are inventing, because if someone told what actually happened no one would think it was possible. But I went to Paris and that influenced me because I was with the greatest writers. I was with poets like Quasimodo, I took courses with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I was very close friends with Violette Leduc. We had such beautiful experiences, the nights we’d get together in the Latin Quarter. And now, here, the “youth” prize for Las primas opened the door to many opportunities, the novel has been adapted for the theater several times and has been translated into many languages.
My mom carried a pointer when she taught and wore a white dustcoat and she was very strict but she was a good teacher in a suburban school for not the brightest kids from middle class families on downward. The best one was the grocer’s son Ruben Fiorlandi. My mom rapped the ones that acted up on their heads and sent them to the corner wearing the colored cardboard donkey ears. The misbehavior was rarely repeated. In my mom’s opinion a little blood makes any lesson stick. The third graders called her the third grade miss but she was married to my father who left her and never performed the obligations of a pater familiae. She worked as a teacher in the mornings and came home at two in the afternoon where dinner would be waiting because our small dark housemaid Rufina did the cooking. I was sick of stew every day. A chicken coop clucked behind the house and in the yard squash sprouted miraculously and unruly golden sunflowers stretched from the earth to the heavens next to violets and stunted roses that gave that miserable heap its perfume and that’s how we ate.
I never admitted that I learned to read time when I was twenty. That confession embarrasses and surprises me. It embarrasses and surprises me for reasons that you’ll find out later and lots of questions come to mind. One I remember especially: What time is it? Honest truth I couldn’t tell time and clocks frightened me just like the sound of my sister’s wheelchair.
She was even more of an idiot than me but she could read the face of a clock even though she couldn’t read a book. We weren’t typical, never mind normal.
Vroom . . . vroom . . . vroom . . . murmured Betina my sister wheeling her misfortune around the garden and the stone courtyards. The vroom was usually wet with the idiot’s drool. Poor Betina. Freak of nature. Poor me, another freak, and my mom weighed down by abandonment and by monsters even more so.
But everything in this awful world passes. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to dwell too much on anything or anyone.
Sometimes I think we’re a dream or a nightmare relived day after day that at any second will stop that won’t appear on the screen of the soul to torture us any more.
That was the psychologist’s diagnosis. I don’t know if that’s all it was. My sister had a crooked spine, from behind in her chair she looked like a tiny hunchback with puny legs and massive arms. The old lady who came to darn the socks said that someone had done something to my mom during her pregnancies, the worst during the one with Betina.
I asked the unibrowed mustachioed lady psychologist what a mental disorder was.
She said it was related to the soul but that I wouldn’t understand till I was older. But I supposed that the soul was something like a white sheet inside the body and that when it got stained people became idiots, Betina a lot and me a little.
I started noticing when Betina wheeled around the table with her vroom that she was dragging a little tail that stuck out through the back of the wheelchair seat and I told myself it had to be her soul coming untucked.
When I asked the psychologist this time if the soul had anything to do with being alive she said it did and even added that when it was missing people died and the soul went to heaven if it had been good and to hell if it had been bad.
Vroom . . . vroom . . . vroom her soul dragged more and had more gray stains every day and I decided that it wouldn’t be long before it fell out and Betina would be dead which didn’t matter to me because she made me sick.
When it was time to eat, I had to feed my sister and on purpose I’d mistake the orifice and I’d put the spoon in her eye, in her ear, in her nose, before finally her cakehole. Ah . . . ah . . . ah . . . moaned the filthy creature.
I would grab her hair and put her face in her food and then she’d be quiet. Why did I have to pay for my parents’ mistakes? I thought about stepping on the tail of her soul. The thing about hell stopped me.
Reading the catechism had burned the “thou shalt not kill” into me. But with every little bump today and again tomorrow, the tail grew and no one else saw. Only I did and I rejoiced.
(Translated by Steve Dolph)