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Thursday
Feb062014

Simulacros

A short story ("Shams") by this Argentine, who died thirty years ago this month.  You can read the original here.

We are a strange lot.  In this country where things are done out of obligation or boastfulness, our family prefers unfettered activities, tasks just because they're tasks.  We shams are of no use for anything else.

We have one flaw: we lack originality.  Almost everything we decide to do is inspired – frankly speaking, copied – from celebrated models.  Any novelty we might contribute is actually inevitable: an anachronism, a surprise, a scandal.  My eldest uncle claims we are like carbon copies, identical to the original but of another color, another role, another purpose.  My third eldest sister likens herself to Andersen's nightingale, and her romanticism makes us nauseous.

There are many of us and we all live on Humboldt street.

We do things certainly, but relating them is difficult because we lack the most important element – the anxiety and expectation of doing things, the surprises more tantalizing than the results, the failures in which the whole family collapses on the floor like a house of cards and for days nothing can be heard other than guffaws and laments.  Relating all that we do is hardly a means of filling the inevitable holes because at times we are poor, or imprisoned, or ill, and at times one of us dies (it pains me to touch upon the matter), or one of us betrays, or resigns, or enters the Ministry of Taxation.  But from this it should not be deduced that we are melancholy or doing badly.  We live in the Pacífico neighborhood, and we do things every time we have the chance.  Many of us are brimming with ideas and eager to put them into practice.  The gallows, for example: until now no one has been able to agree on the origin of the idea.  My fifth sister says that it was one of my first cousins, who are all rather philosophical; but my eldest uncle insists that the idea occurred to him first, after he had read a cloak-and-dagger novel.  But in the end we care little either way.  The only thing that matters is doing things, and for that reason I tell these tales with little zeal, if only to distance myself from the rain this empty afternoon.

The garden is in front of the house, which is odd for Humboldt street.  It is no bigger than a patio, but with three steps higher than a sidewalk, which lends it the showy aspect of a platform, the ideal location for a scaffold.  As the railings are of masonry and iron, work can be done without having the passers-by, so to speak, in the house; they might lean up against the railings and stay there for hours but that doesn't bother us.  "We shall begin at the full moon," my father ordered.  During the day we would go look for wood and iron in the lumberyards on Juan Bautista Justo Avenue; yet my sisters remained in the living room practicing their wolf howls, after which my youngest aunt determined that scaffolds attract wolves and incite them to bay at the moon.  At my cousins' costs I acquired our provision of nails and tools; my eldest uncle sketched out the plans then argued over the variety and quality of the instruments of torture with my mother and my second uncle.  I recall the end of their discussion: they cruelly agreed on a rather elevated platform over which they mounted a scaffold and wheel with a bit of free space designed to inflict pain or decapitate according to how things stood.  My eldest uncle thought the whole contraption a much feebler version of his original concept, yet the dimensions of the garden in front and the cost of the materials always restricted our family's ambitions.       

We began construction one Sunday afternoon after ravioli.  Although we have never worried about what our neighbors think, it was clear that the few snoops we did have believed us to be mounting a couple of additions to the house.  The first one to be surprised was old Mr. Cresta from across the street, and he came over to ask why we were installing something akin to a platform.  My sisters retreated to a corner of the garden and emitted a few wolf howls.  A lot of people gathered but we kept working until nighttime, stopping only once we had finished the platform and the two gangways (for the priest and the condemned man, who must not go up together). 

On Monday some of our family members went to their respective jobs – since something has to die – and the rest of us began to raise the scaffold while my eldest uncle looked over some old plans for the wheel.  His idea involved placing the wheel as high as possible above a slightly irregular pole such as, for example, a burnished trunk of poplar.   To placate him, my second brother and my first cousins took the truck out to look for a poplar; meanwhile my eldest uncle and my mother fitted the spokes of the wheel into the hub and I prepared an iron hoop.  It was at times like these that we enjoyed ourselves immensely: everywhere you could hear hammering; my sisters were baying in the living room; the neighbors were gathering at the gates and exchanging their impressions about what was going on; and between the sulphur and mauve streaks of dusk ascended the profile of the scaffold with my youngest uncle sitting astride the crossbeam to fasten the hook and slipknot.

At this stage, the people in the street could not help but realize what we were doing, and a chorus of protests and threats pleasantly encouraged us to crown our day's work with the erection of the wheel.  A few hecklers had tried to impede my second brother and my cousins from entering the house with the magnificent poplar trunk from their truck.  A tug-of-war ensued; pulling in disciplined fashion our family gradually gained control of the trunk, placing it in the garden beside a baby only a few months old taken from its home.  My father personally returned the baby to its exasperated parents, handing it over politely through the railings.  And while attention was focused on these sentimental alternatives my eldest uncle, helped by my first cousins, placed the wheel on the end of the trunk and began to raise it.  The police arrived just as the whole family was gathered on the platform commenting favorably on the scaffold's great view.  Only my third sister remained near the door, and she ended up having to talk to the deputy commissioner in person.  It was not hard to convince him that we were working within the boundaries of our estate on a project that could only involve anti-constitutional power if used; the whisperings of the neighbors, we added, were but the product of hatred and the fruit of envy.  Nightfall saved us from further wastes of time.      

Under a carbide lamp we dined on the platform watched by a hundred-odd resentful neighbors.  Never did pickled suckling pig ever taste so exquisite, never did Nebbiolo seem so black and sweet.  A breeze from the north softly jostled the scaffold; once or twice the wheel squeaked as if the crows had already alighted to commence their feast.  Muttering vague threats the onlookers began to disperse; twenty or thirty remained glued to the gates apparently waiting for something to happen.  After we had coffee we turned off the lamp in favor of the moonlight rising over the balustrades of the terrace.  My sisters bayed and my cousins and uncles slowly walked around the platform making the foundations quake with their steps.  In the silence that followed the moon rose to the height of the slipknot and the wheel looked like it was lying in a silver-rimmed cloud.  At both the moon and the wheel we gazed, so happy that it became a pleasure, but still the neighbors were muttering at the gates as if disappointed.  They lit cigarettes and went to lie down, some of them in pyjamas and others more quietly.  The street remained, with the smoke of a watchman's cigarette in the distance and the 108 bus that passed every so often; and we had already gone to sleep dreaming of parties, elephants, and silken garb.     

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