A couple of years ago perhaps (I have lost the letter), Gannon wrote from Gualeguaychú and announced he would be sending me a version, maybe the first Spanish version, of the poem The Past, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a postscript he added that Don Pedro Damián, of whom I would retain some memory, had died the other night from pulmonary congestion. Devastated by fever, the man had relived in his delirium the day-long bloodbath of Masoller. This news seemed predictable, almost conventional, to me, since Don Pedro, when he was about nineteen or twenty, had fallen into the ranks of Aparicio Saravia. The Revolution of 1904 led him to sojourn in Río Negro or Paysandú where he labored on a farm. Pedro Damián was from Entre Ríos, an entrerriano, from Gualeguay to be exact, but went where his chums were, fully participating in their excitement and their ignorance. He fought in a skirmish and then in the final battle. Repatriated in 1905, he reassumed his field laborer duties with humble tenacity. As far as I know, he never again abandoned his native province. He would spend the last thirty years of his life in a very isolated place a league or two from Ñancay.
Around 1942 or so, amidst this state of neglect, I chatted with him one evening; I should say, I tried to chat with him. He was a taciturn fellow of feeble intellect. The Masoller sound and fury had swallowed up all his other narratives, and it did not surprise me that he relived those memories at the moment of his death. Knowing I would never see Damián again, I wished to remember him. So poor is my visual memory that I only recalled a photograph of him which Gannon had taken. There is nothing strange about this fact if we consider that I saw the man only once, in early 1942, and then many times in effigy. Gannon sent me this photograph. I lost it and have not looked for it. I would be afraid to find it again.
A second episode took place months later in Montevideo. The entrerriano's fever and agony gave me the idea of writing a fantasy tale about Masoller's defeat; Emir Rodríguez Monegal, to whom I recounted such a plot, provided me with a few lines for Colonel Dionisio Tabares, who had taken part in this campaign. The colonel received me for an after-dinner talk. From a rocking chair on his patio, he recalled with little structure but great affection the days that once had been. He spoke of munitions that never arrived, exhausted horses, sleeping, earth-colored men weaving in their labyrinthine marches; he spoke of Saravia, who could have entered Montevideo and who turned off route, "because that gaucho was scared of the city"; of men whose throats were cut all the way around their necks; of a civil war that to me seemed less like a collision of two armies than a crafty gaucho's dream. He talked about Illescas, about Tupambaé, about Masoller. He did so with passages so dignified and in so lively a manner that I understood that he had mentioned these same things many times, and I feared that behind his words almost no memories remained. During a respite I managed to interject Damián's name.
"Damián? Pedro Damián?" said the colonel. "He served with me. A pansy whom the boys called Daymán." He let out a loud laugh, then stopped just as suddenly, either out of feigned or genuine discomfort.
In another voice he said that war was like a woman: it served as a test for men. And before entering into battle no one knows who he is. Someone could think himself a coward and turn out to be valiant; by the same token, the opposite could occur, which was what happened with poor Damián, who went prancing around the local stores with his white insignia and then lost heart at Masoller. In some shootouts with the zumacos, he comported himself like a man; but it was another matter when the armies drew up, the cannonade began, and every man felt like five thousand men had united to kill him. Poor lad, who had spent his days bathing sheep and who was quickly dragged off by that jingoistic lot.
Absurdly, Tabares's account embarrassed me. I would have preferred that the events had not happened this way. With old Damián as I had glimpsed him one evening many years ago, I had fabricated, without intending to do so, a sort of idol; Tabares's account destroyed it. All of a sudden I understood Damián's reserve and obstinate solitude: these actions had been dictated not by modesty, but by embarrassment. In vain I repeated to myself that a man hounded by an act of cowardice was more complete and more interesting than a man who was merely spirited. The gaucho Martín Fierro, I thought, was less memorable than Lord Jim or Razumov. Yet if Damián, as a gaucho, were obliged to be Martín Fierro – above all, before eastern gauchos. In what Tabares said and did not say I perceived the rugged flavor of what was called Artiguism: the (perhaps incontrovertible) awareness that Uruguay was more fundamental than our country and, in the end, more brave ... That night, I remember, we bid farewell with exaggerated effusiveness.
In the winter, one or two details for my fantasy tale (which stupidly was not assuming the needed shape) still eluded me, engendering a return to the house of Colonel Tabares. I found him with another gentleman of his age, Doctor Juan Francisco Amaro of Paysandú, who had likewise taken up arms in Saravia's revolution. Predictably, they had been talking about Masoller. Amaro recounted a few anecdotes and then added, slowly like someone thinking aloud:
"I remember we spent the night in Santa Irene, where some others were incorporated into our ranks: a French veterinarian who died on the eve of the action, and a young skier from Entre Ríos, a certain Pedro Damián."
I interrupted him acrimoniously.
"I already know that," I told him. "The Argentine who lost heart before the bullets."
I stopped; the two were gazing at me perplexed.
"You're wrong, my dear sir," said Amaro finally. "Pedro Damián died as any man would have wanted to die. It was probably four o'clock in the afternoon. At the top of the mountain range the Colorado infantry had made themselves very strong; our troops charged them with spears. Damián was at the head of the attack, yelling, and a bullet hit him in the chest. He stopped his stirrups, concluded his yelling, rolled to the ground, and remained between the horses' legs. He was dead and the last charge of Masoller passed right over him. So brave and yet not even twenty years old.
He was speaking, doubtless, of another Damián, yet something made me ask what the lad was yelling.
"Bad words," said the colonel. "Which is what one yells during a charge."
"That may be," said Amaro. "But he also screamed, 'Viva Urquiza!'"
We remained silent. At length, the colonel mumbled:
"It might be a signal were he not fighting in Masoller, but at Cagancha or at India Muerta."
Sincerely perplexed, he added:
"I commanded these troops, and I would swear this was the first time I heard anyone talk of a Damián."
We could not manage to make him remember.
In Buenos Aires, the stupor engendered by his forgetfulness was repeated. One afternoon, in front of eleven delightful volumes of Emerson in the basement of Mitchell's English library, I met Patricio Gannon. I asked him for the translation of The Past. He said he did not intend to translate it and that Spanish literature was so tedious as to make Emerson unnecessary. I reminded him that he had promised me that version in the same letter in which he had written about Damián's death. I told him this, all in vain. In horror I noticed that he was listening to me with surprise; consequently, I sought refuge in a literary discussion on Emerson's detractors, on that poet more complete, more skillful, and undoubtedly more singular than unhappy Poe.
A few facts should be noted. In April I received a letter from Colonel Dionisio Tabares. He was now no longer uncertain or obscure and remembered very well the little entrerriano who had headed the charge of Masoller and who, that same night, had buried his men at the foot of the mountain range. In July I passed through Gualeguaychú; I did not pass by Damián's hut, and no one remembered him. I wanted to ask the rancher Diego Abaroa, who had seen him die; but he too had died before the winter. I wanted to etch Damián's features into my memory. Months later, while leafing through some albums, I realized that the gloomy face that I had managed to evoke was that of the celebrated tenor Tamberlinck, in the role of Othello.
Now I shall run through the conjectures. The most simple, yet also the least satisfactory, holds that there exist two Damiáns: the coward who died in Entre Ríos around 1946, and the hero who died in Masoller in 1904. The flaw in this conjecture resides in the fact that it does not explain the truly enigmatic component: to wit, the curious swings in memory on the part of Colonel Tabares, the oblivion which annuls in little time the image and the name of the person who had returned. (I do not accept, I do not wish to accept a conjecture that is too simple: that I had been dreaming all along.) More curious is the supernatural theory posited by Ulrike von Kuhlmann. Pedro Damián, said Ulrike, perished in the battle, and at the moment of his death he begged God to return him to Entre Ríos. God hesitated for a second before granting this wish, and he who had made this wish was already dead, and several men had seen him fall. God, who cannot change the past, but can change the images of the past, changed the image of death into that of a faint, and the shade of the entrerriano returned to his native land. He returned, but we must remember the shade's condition. He lived in solitude, without a wife, without friends; he loved and possessed everything, but from far off, as if from the other side of a crystal. He "died," and his image was lost like water within water.
This theory is erroneous, but to me it must have suggested the truth (that which I believe to be the truth), which is at once the simplest and most unprecedented. In an almost magical way, I discovered the truth in Peter Damian's treatise De Omnipotentia, the study of which I owe to two verses in Canto XXI of Paradiso, presenting exactly the problem of identity. In the fifth chapter of this treatise, St. Damian claims, against Aristotle and against Fridugisus, that God can make what once was into something that has never been. I read these old theological discussions and began to understand the tragic history of Don Pedro Damián.
I divine the truth as follows. Damián behaved like a coward on the battlefield of Masoller and dedicated his life to correcting this embarrassing weakness. He returned to Entre Ríos; he did not lift his hand to any man, he did not mark anyone, he did not seek out a hero's fame. Yet in the fields of Ñancay he became hard, struggling with the mountain and the untamed estate. He was preparing, doubtless without knowing it, the miracle. He thought most deeply: if destiny brings me into another battle, I will know how to be worthy of it. For forty years he maintained this battle with dark hope, and in the end fate brought him a battle, at the moment of his death. It brought it to him in the form of a delirium, but as the Greeks already knew, we are the shadows of a dream. In his death-throes he relived his battle and he comported himself like a man, and he headed the final charge and a bullet hit him in the middle of his chest. In this way, in 1946, owing to a long-held passion, Pedro Damián died in the defeat of Masoller, which occurred between the winter and the spring of 1904.
In the Summa Theologica, it is refuted that God can make the past into something that has never been, but nothing is said about the intricate concatenation of causes and effects, a chain so vast and intimate that perhaps it would not be possible to annul a single distant fact, as insignificant as it may be, without invalidating the present. Modification is not the modification of a single fact; it is the annulment of its consequences, which have to be infinite. To say this in other words: it is the creation of two universal histories. In the first one (let us say), Pedro Damián died in Entre Ríos in 1946; in the second, in Masoller, in 1904. The latter is what we are now living, but the suppression of the former was not immediate and produced the incoherencies which I have mentioned. In Colonel Dionisio Tabares all the different stages were gathered: in the beginning he remembered that Damián acted like a coward; later, he forgot him entirely; then, he remembered his impetuous death. No less corroborative is the case of the ranch farmer Abaroa; he died, as I understand, because he had too many memories of Don Pedro Damián.
As far as I'm concerned, I do not believe I am running a similar risk. I have guessed and recorded a process not accessible to man, something akin to a scandal of reason; yet certain circumstances mitigate this fearsome privilege. For the moment, I am not sure I have always written the truth. I suspect that in my narrative there are false memories. I suspect that Pedro Damián (if he existed) was not called Pedro Damián, and that I remember him by this name so as someday to create his story as suggested to me by the arguments of St. Peter Damian. Something similar takes place with the poem mentioned in the first paragraph that versifies on the irrevocability of the past. Until 1951, I believed I had created a fantasy tale and had recorded a real event for posterity. So then did the innocent Virgil, two thousand years ago or so, believe he was announcing the birth of a man and foretold the birth of God.
Poor Damián! Death took him at the age of twenty in a domestic battle in a sad, obscure war, and yet he achieved what his heart yearned for, and took a long time to achieve it, and perhaps there is no greater happiness than this.