Andrea G. Labinger is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Gesell Dome, by prolific Argentine novelist Guillermo Saccomanno. In this dark, gritty novel, Saccomanno views through a Faulknerian lens a bleak seaside resort tensely awaiting the arrival of the next tourist season. Winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize, Saccomanno’s novel is a brutally honest portrayal of the erosion of a town’s soul. Labinger’s translation pulls no punches in its sharp yet eloquent take. Read Labinger’s essay on translating Gesell Dome here.
Tonight, hypocrite reader, my double, as you’re about to start reading this book, novel, stories, chronicles, or whatever you prefer to call these bits of prose, pieces of nothing, on this freezing night, with the sea so close and so alien, right here in this Villa, May, June, July, August, September, what difference does it make, in any of the off-season months, here, in his chalet in Pinar del Norte, a center-left surveyor is fucking his kid, someone, a mechanic, in a tin-roofed house in La Virgencita, is beating his girlfriend, someone, a drunken laborer in a vacant lot, tries to break another drunken laborer’s neck during a game of truco, someone at the Terminal, a night watchman in canvas espadrilles, after the last bus has gone, drinks mate, the steak of the poor, someone, an AIDS victim, hangs himself in a shanty in the south, someone, a foreman at the cement plant, is burying his girlfriend’s body at a construction site, someone, a young officer, is applying an electric cattle prod to a juvie thug at the police station, someone, a loser wrapped in cardboard, dies of cold in the doorway of a building near the docks, someone, a radio-taxi driver, balls his sister-in-law while his brother works as a security guard in a warehouse, someone, a little hoodlum, runs through the poplar groves with a police car in pursuit, someone, a city councilman, does a line of coke while the poker game drags on, someone, a frightened old woman, lets her dogs out at night, someone, an FM operator, plays Pink Floyd and rolls a joint, someone, behind a temple, an evangelist in a mystic trance, splits his sinful fiancée’s skull open with an ax, someone, a cashier from Banco Provincia, emerges from bingo having lost not only his salary, but also a sum he won’t be able to justify, someone, the rotisserie owner from the next block, takes off his belt and walks into his son’s room, projecting his shadow, someone, your neighbor the builder, jerks off watching a porn flick, someone, one of the gunmen from El Monte, is selling crack to a bunch of kids, and those boys and girls, dressed in hoodies, have just finished poisoning your Rottweiler and in a minute will be pointing a gun at you, forcing your wife to suck them off, fucking your daughter, and you’d better spill where you keep your dough because you don’t know what they’re capable of doing with that iron you won with supermarket bonus points, that iron they’ve plugged in and which is starting to heat up.
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One morning the bus leaves the main road and turns into the roundabout. The entrance to the Villa. Alpine-style constructions. Tiled roofs. Real estate offices. Farther on is the tourist information cottage. Now that the bus has slowed down, you can take in the grove on both sides of the asphalt. For a moment you feel like you’re entering an enchanted forest. The wood and stone totem pole takes you by surprise. Some say it’s a reproduction of an Inca totem. It has the head of an eagle. Others claim that if you look carefully at the hieroglyphs, you can read a Tibetan message. At the tourist office they’ll tell you that the totem is a symbol of hospitality and advise travelers that they’ll find spiritual peace in this place. But the older residents, the pioneers, those who settled here toward the end of the Second World War, Germans and Central Europeans, offer another version; they interpret the symbols and hieroglyphs differently. But they haven’t got the nerve to translate them. The totem has a function: to protect the residents from foreigners. When the newcomer’s eye meets the eagle’s, he feels intimidated. It’s a Nazi symbol, say the Villa old-timers. And they say it in a low voice, fearfully. Some say there never were any Nazis here. And when they say it, you think it’s themselves they want to convince even more than the visitors. What matters is spiritual peace: everyone comes here, to our Villa, looking for that: spiritual peace.
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To me, who will never be a father, they come and say Father, like the male who gave them his blood along with his semen, the one they abhor, their vigilant shadow, a shadow those miserable cowards hope to free themselves from, but they wait, carefully counting the years, months, weeks, days, minutes the wretch has left to him so that they can lock him up in the back room or in the dank prison of a nursing home with his meals on a tin plate, and they wait, calculating their inheritance, whether a small fortune or a hovel, they wait, consulting the almanac, the clock, the second hand, for that night when they’ll have to come to the chapel looking for me so I can give the old man his last rites, and they’ll gaze at me with heads bowed, a grieving, bovine expression, just like when they meekly show up at the confessional, momentarily given over to submission and silence, convincing themselves of the fear projected onto a punishment which, whenever I command it, Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s, they know will be less of a punishment than a formality, the necessary purification required of an abstract god with the ability to grant them the freedom to continue exercising their baseness with impunity, a Rosary of abjection, always the same, because they always make the same mistakes, and when they softly stammer the reckoning of their nasty deeds, they imagine that a dozen prayers will rinse away the filth that defines them as a flock, because there’s no other way to be accepted in the flock than by sharing the dung, grime, fluids, and stench of this Villa, mired in its swamp, but then they’re cornered by guilt and come to me, deluding themselves into thinking they can overcome their instincts, make me their accomplice, and both of us, the absolver and the absolved, collude in a hypocritical pact, confession and forgiveness, a contract of fleeting purity, a consent required by the Sunday worshippers when I see in their faces, fragrant with fancy soap and shaving cream, that grimace of provincial kindliness that will last till the noontime binge of carne asada, savoring innards, free once more, their souls freshly prepared to screw over their neighbors. No, I would never touch their offspring. And if I did—may God free me of such temptation—I wouldn’t confess it.
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The scandal at Nuestra Señora del Mar, the eleven, because now there were eleven abused kindergartners, exploded the following Tuesday at noon. By Wednesday there were sixteen. On Thursday, nineteen. The pediatrician found irritation in one girl’s little vagina. As I anticipated, diminutives and euphemisms formed part of the rumor that spread throughout the entire Villa: heiny, wienie. And just as the diminutives helped emphasize the victims’ drama with manipulative tenderness, it also seemed to reduce the crime to a lesser category. But the capital letters pushed to the forefront in the flyer that the parents wrote; indignation was spelled out, just like in the title: THE RAPE OF INNOCENCE, all caps. There are no fewer than eleven physically abused little kids in the four-year-olds’ room and the two-year-olds’ room, as verified by professional psychologists and doctors, plus ten other little ones who may have witnessed the abuse and exhibitionism.
And so the abuse oscillated between diminutives and capitals. Dante noticed this detail. But it was no time for semiotics. Besides, the article left a great deal to be desired: exhibitionism is spelled with an “h,” observed Anita López de Campas, language teacher at Nuestra Señora as well as at the Middle School. Spelling is the least of our worries right now, a father bristled. A committee was formed and everyone took their 4×4’s over to the TV station. But the station owners, Salvatore of Hogarmar Appliances, Barbeito of Soles Department Store, and Rinaldi, the supermarket impresario, refused to broadcast the news that ignited the Villa’s fury. It’s not just that this incident will be bad for tourism, Salvatore said. It’s also a matter of the little boys and girls, Martínez explained. And Rinaldi, in a sensible tone: We have to act cautiously while the police investigate. By late afternoon the national media were also expected to get on board. In total, between the eleven original children and the other ten mentioned in the flyer, there were now twenty-one victims. At first rumors centered on the school’s kiosk owner. Then on a friend of his. Both of them had disappeared: the kiosk guy and his friend, vanished. By curfew two kindergarten teachers were also under suspicion. By nighttime the news was on every channel. On top of all this, in addition to the D.A. who was sent from Dolores to intervene, now a priest had been dispatched to the Villa by the Archbishopric to mediate. It was said: Father Fragassi, our parish priest, the principal of the school, had a history. Two years before, he had made advances to the kid who was filling his tank at the Shell station. If the rumor was false, that was yet to be proved. But there must have been some reason that this particular rumor, and no other, had spread. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
And what if our dear little priest is innocent, asked Carbone.
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It seemed like the late Fina had been reincarnated in her daughter. She’s as beautiful as her mother was when you stole her, said his compatriot to Pascual, who, as soon as he arrived, had gone to live in San Justo, at the home of some bricklayer uncles. That’s where he met Fina. The girl was fifteen. They fell in love at first sight. Pascual asked for her hand. Her parents laughed at his pretensions. Fina was studying to be a secretary. She had a future. She’d marry a doctor. Pascual had tried not to dishonor the family, but the family had dishonored him with their disdain because he was a simple bricklayer. Pascual and Fina eloped. They fled toward the sea.
Here in the Villa, Pascual was an important bricklayer and Fina was a dressmaker. Fina became pregnant in 1970. She died in childbirth. Later, in the mid-eighties, the Fina we all saw was her daughter. She had been reincarnated in her daughter. Seeing her with her father at Sunday Mass was like seeing a May-December couple. Evil tongues, as usual, said that they really were a couple.
Fina became pregnant. We thought it was by her father, but no. Some little Criollo from the lumber yard. It was tough to get Pascual to spit out the boy’s name. Hilario, his name was, a laborer from the sticks, a Criollo from Madariaga. He told Fina to bring him home. He wanted to talk to him.
Some stories are repeated. We all thought the same thing happened to Pascual as to his uncles. Hilario and Fina disappeared. No one had the nerve to ask Pascual about it. Hilario had stolen his daughter, just as he, Pascual, had stolen her mother.
Pascual concentrated on his garden. As lush as a cemetery, his garden was. Every Sunday instead of going to Mass he brought flowers to his dead wife. No Mass, though: he never went back. From the time he was left alone, he didn’t return. God, we thought, had disappointed him. He soon grew old. White hair, bent back, coughing more and more. He refused to see the doctor. He died of sadness, people said. In his will he left the house to some distant relatives in Italy. He asked that the money from the sale of his property be used to transport his remains back to the village. He wanted to be buried there, in his homeland.
Ramos Real Estate kept the house; they knocked it down. There were plans to build an inn. When Dobroslav Construction began excavating to put up an apartment house, they found the couple’s bones in the place where the garden had been.
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At the first hint of a Southeaster, the TV station issues a weather alert. Parents are cautioned to keep their children home from school. Businesses shut down. Those who live near the beach watch the sea with suspicion. Black clouds grow blacker. Gale winds begin shaking doors and windows. It’s a good idea to secure gates and shutters. Children indoors. Soon the Villa is leveled and deserted. Those who live in the woods shut themselves inside their houses, fearing that a eucalyptus might fall on the roof. And those who live where the Villa turns into countryside bring their animals indoors and themselves as well. Animals and country folk alike silently listen to the first whistling of the storm, peer out of the corners of their eyes like Don Argüello’s horses, and prepare for what’s about to come. We don’t know how long it will last. Because last year we had a whole spate of them. On Thursday it was punishing. With any luck, it seemed like it might abate on Tuesday. Even if a timid sun peeked out on Wednesday, it wasn’t wise to be too optimistic. At night the gusts resumed. Thursday dawned black again. By afternoon it was lashing us once more. If we consider the force of the storm that’s blowing now, it won’t be just a harbinger, but rather the confirmation that another series is on its way. It’s not so much the water we fear. What’s destructive is the wind. The Southeaster knocks down trees, posts, street lights. It lifts roofs, snaps tree limbs, whips the electric cables. Be careful opening the car door because it’ll shear off on you. A flying roof tile crushed somebody’s head. Nothing to do but huddle inside, and, in the warm intimacy of every house, apartment, pre-fab dwelling, every hut, wait and wait while listening to the echoes of a metal sheet flying, a trunk cracking apart, windows shattering, those temblors that seem to let up for a moment but then return with renewed force. It’s hard to sleep at night with that racket going on. The weather alert continues on TV for the four days of the Southeaster. Don’t let your children go outside, they recommend. As if they were in less danger at home. You just have to look at them when they go back to school: a black-and-blue mark, a bruise, a cast. My mom will get mad if I tell you, señor.
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I’m more than five months along, Father, Rosita whispers in the confessional. I’m burning up, but Dicky doesn’t want to do it. He says it’s not right. So then I have these dreams. Rosita goes around and around, she can’t find the words and when she does, she holds back. Penis, she says. Vagina, she says. Anus, she says. Sperm, she says. As she gets caught up in the telling, a flush of heat ignites her and she doesn’t care anymore, she can’t contain herself, and she utters cock, cunt, asshole, cum, he rubs it against her, she dreams, and he jerks himself off, she dreams that he likes to stick a finger in her ass when his cock is inside her cunt, then she dreams that another cock is entering her, she’s dripping, she says. I’m all wet, Father. Right now I’m all wet. From the other side, silence. Rosita thinks she can hear Father Joaquín breathing. The thing is, I love my husband, Father. I love him. I really love him. The silence inhibits her. There’s movement on the other side. The Father peeks out. He’s grabbing his hard-on. Rosita brings it to her mouth.
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When he’s not plagued with insomnia, Dante likes to fall asleep listening to the sea. But now the sound of the waves showers him with voices. Of children. A chorus. Again, he says to himself. They don’t leave him alone. He gropes for the blister pack of Valium, but Valium has no effect on him anymore. Just as his eyelids are about to close, he hears the chorus again, closer by. Them again. They’re singing as they approach. They’re coming for him. Dante wants to wake up. He knows it’s a dream and he struggles to awaken. He rolls over, tries with difficulty to rouse himself out of bed. When he falls, he detects murmurs on the other side of his apartment door. There’s light in the hallway. And the voices are the children’s. He can hear their laughter. They’re coming.
To be published by Open Letter Press.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.