Roy Kesey is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for The Cousins (Las primas), a novel that propelled its author, Aurora Venturini, to literary stardom at the age of 85. The Cousins, which has drawn praise from prominent novelists Enrique Vila-Matas and Alan Pauls, tells the story of a dysfunctional lower-middle-class family in La Plata, Argentina, with dark humor and psychological acuity. Read Kesey’s essay on translating The Cousins here.
Betina has a psychic disorder
That was the psychologist’s diagnosis. I don’t know if I’ve got it right. My sister was afflicted with a twisted spinal column, and sitting down she looked like a hunchbacked bug with short little legs and amazing arms. The old lady who came to darn our socks thought that someone had hurt our mom during her pregnancies, the most horrific injury coming while she was carrying Betina.
I asked the psychologist, an unmarried woman with a mustache and a unibrow, what “psychic” meant.
She answered that it was something that had to do with the soul, that I wouldn’t be able to understand until I got older. But I figured out that the soul was like a white sheet inside the body, and when it got stained, that made you dimwitted like Betina, and a little like me.
As Betina wheeled herself in vroom-vrooming circles around the table, I noticed that dragging behind her was a little tail that stuck out through the opening in the back of the wheelchair, and I said to myself, That must be her soul slipping out of her.
I interrogated the psychologist once again, this time asking if the soul had anything to do with being alive, and she said it did, even added that when it went missing, that meant the person had died and the soul had gone to heaven if it had been good or to hell if it had been bad.
Vroom, vroom, vroom. Betina kept dragging her soul around, and I noticed that each day it got a little longer, had a few more gray stains, and I deduced that pretty soon it would fall off and Betina would die. But I didn’t care because she made me sick.
Whenever mealtime arrived, I had to feed my sister, and I would pick the wrong orifice on purpose, poke the spoon in her eye, her ear, her nose, before arriving at her big fat mouth. The miserable wretch would moan and moan.
I would grab her by the hair and push her face into her bowl and finally she’d shut up. Why should I be blamed for my parents’ mistakes. I considered stepping on the tail that was her soul. The story about hell stopped me.
During communion I always read the catechism and “Thou Shalt Not Kill” had been burned right into me. But a poke here, a poke there, and the tail no one else could see kept growing. I was the only one who saw it and it brought me joy.
Institutes for special students
I wheeled Betina to her institute. Then I walked to the one where I was enrolled. At Betina’s they dealt with the grimmest cases. The pig-boy, blubber-lipped, big fat face and little pig ears, he ate off a plate of gold and drank his broth from a golden bowl. He grabbed the bowl with his fat little ungulate hooves, and slurped with the sound of water pouring down into a well; when he ate solid foods, his jaws and his ears both moved, and he couldn’t quite bite down with the tusks that stuck out like those of a wild boar. One time he looked at me. His tiny eyes, two inexpressive little marbles, hidden in all that fat, but they stayed on me and I stuck out my tongue and he grunted and threw his tray on the floor. The caregivers came and had to calm him down by tying him up like an animal, which is exactly what he was.
While I waited for Betina’s class to end, I walked up and down the din-filled hallways. I saw a priest come in accompanied by an acolyte. Someone had handed in their sheet, their soul. The priest said, If you have a soul, may God take it to his bosom.
To whom or what had he said it?
I went closer, and saw that he was with a prominent couple from Adrogué. On the table was a cannelloni sitting on a silk cloth. Except it wasn’t a cannelloni, it was something expelled from a human womb, otherwise the priest wouldn’t be baptizing it.
I asked around, and a nurse told me that every year this distinguished couple brought in a cannelloni to be baptized. That the doctor had advised them to stop procreating because there was no cure for the wife’s condition. And that they’d said that they couldn’t stop on account of being extremely Catholic. Even with my disability I knew how disgusting the whole thing was, but I couldn’t say that to the nurse. That night I was so repulsed I couldn’t even eat.
And my sister’s soul kept growing. I was glad Dad had left.
Betina was 11 and I was 12. Rufina said, You’re at the age where you start developing. I thought something would emerge from inside of me and I prayed to sweet Saint Theresa that it wouldn’t be a cannelloni. I asked the psychologist what developing meant and she went red and suggested I ask my mom.
My mom also went red, and said that at a certain age girls stopped being girls and became young ladies. After that she fell quiet, leaving me in suspense.
As I’ve said, I was attending an institute for people who were disabled but not as disabled as Betina. A girl there said she’d already developed. I didn’t see anything different. She told me that when it happens, your crotch bleeds for several days and you shouldn’t take a bath and you need to use a rag to keep from staining your clothes and you have to be careful with boys because you can end up pregnant.
That night I couldn’t sleep, and I felt around the area in question. It wasn’t moist, so I could still talk to boys. When I developed, I wouldn’t go anywhere near them, to keep from getting pregnant and having a cannelloni or anything like that.
Betina talked a lot, or mumbled in a way you could understand. One night during a family gathering that she and I weren’t allowed to attend because of our lack of manners especially at the table, she shouted in a voice like a trombone, “Mom, my pussy’s bleeding!” We were in the room right next to where the banquet was happening.
A grandmother and two cousins came in.
I told the cousins not to go anywhere near the bleeding because they could end up pregnant. Everyone got offended and left and Mom hit us both with her pointer.
I went to my institute and told everyone that Betina had developed in spite of being a year younger than me. The teacher lectured me about how we shouldn’t say such immoral things in the classroom, and gave me an F in Civic and Moral Education. Instead of being a class we were now just a bunch of worried students, especially the girls, who were touching themselves every so often to check for possible moistness.
Just to be sure, I never hung out with boys again.
One afternoon Margarita came in glowing. She said, I got it, and we all knew what that was about.
My sister left school in the third grade. That was as far as she could go. Actually, neither of us was going far, and I left in the sixth grade. Yes, I learned to read, and to write but with spelling mistakes, especially words with a silent h—if it isn’t pronounced, what’s it good for?
I was reading dyslalically, is what the psychologist said. She suggested that I’d get better with practice, and she made me recite tongue-twisters like, If two witches were watching two watches, which witch would watch which watch?
Mom watched, and when I couldn’t untwist the sentence she smacked me in the head with her pointer. The psychologist banned her from the room during tongue-twisters and I started untwisting better, because when Mom was there I tried to finish the witches quickly, but I was so afraid of getting smacked with the pointer that I made mistakes.
Betina rolled vrooming around us, opened her mouth and pointed inside because she was hungry.
I didn’t like eating at the table with Betina. She made me sick. She drank her soup straight out of the bowl without even using a spoon, and grabbed solid foods with her hands and wolfed them down. She cried if I insisted on sticking the spoon in every orifice in her face.
They bought Betina a feeding chair that had a little table attached to it, and a hole in the seat so that she could defecate and pee. Halfway through meals she would always feel the need. The smell made me vomit. Mom said not to pretend I was some delicate flower or she’d lock me up in the nuthouse. I knew all about the nuthouse, and from then on I ate, shall we say, perfumed with the stink of my sister’s poop and raining piss. When she farted, I pinched her.
After eating, I went out in the yard.
Rufina sanitized Betina and sat her in her wheelchair. The dope napped with her head down on her bosom, or actually on her bosoms, because her clothes now revealed two nice round provocative bulges because she’d developed before me so even though she was gross she became a young lady before I did, which meant Rufina had to change Betina’s rag every month and wash her crotch.
I made do on my own, and observed that my little boobies weren’t growing, that I was still thin as a broomstick, or Mom’s pointer. Our birthdays came and went year after year, but I started drawing and painting classes at the Fine Arts High School, and the art teacher said that I’d become an important artist because thanks to being half crazy I could draw and paint just like the most notorious artists of recent times.
The exhibition at Fine Arts
The professor said to me, Yuna—that’s what everyone calls me—your artwork is worthy of being included in an exhibition. Some of it just might even sell.
I was so overwhelmed with happiness that I jumped on top of him with my whole body and stayed clinging to his body with all four of my limbs, my arms and legs, and we fell down together.
The professor said that I was very pretty, and that when I grew up we’d start dating and he would teach me things as beautiful as drawing or painting but that I shouldn’t tell anyone the news of our project which in reality was all his idea and I imagined that it would involve bigger and bigger exhibitions and I jumped on him again and kissed him. And he kissed me back, blue-tinted kisses that had repercussions in places I won’t name because that would be wrong and then I found a big canvas and without sketching anything first I painted two red mouths pressed together, interlocked, united, inseparable, song-filled, and two eyes above, blue, the kind out of which slip crystal tears. The professor, on his knees, he kissed the painting and there he stayed, in the shadows, and I went home.
I told Mom about the exhibition; not knowing anything about art, she answered that my shapeless monstrosities would make all the other Fine Arts students laugh, but if that’s what the professor wanted, it didn’t make any difference whatsoever to her.
At the exhibition my work was up alongside the work of other students, and two of my pieces sold. Too bad that one of them was the one with the kisses. The professor had baptized it “Primer Amor.” That seemed fine to me. But I didn’t completely understand the meaning.
Yuna has promise, said the professor, and I liked that so much that every time he said it I stayed after class to jump on him. He never scolded me for it. But when my boobies started to grow, he said that I had to quit, because man is fire and woman straw. I didn’t understand. But I didn’t jump on him anymore.
So I graduated from Fine Arts when I was 17, but because of my dyslalia I would never be able to teach there, or even give private lessons. All the same I painted whenever I could afford the paper and the professor, who often came to visit us, gave me paints.
Betina rolled her vroom chair in circles around the professor until he got dizzy, but Mom would never let the two of us be alone together and once she slapped me maybe because she saw us kissing each other even though it was just on the cheek, not on the mouth the way movie actors do.
I was always afraid she wouldn’t let the professor come inside. But she always did as long as we hadn’t been kissing each other because if the devil sticks in his tail and the professor sticks in a certain part of his masculine anatomy I could get pregnant and the professor would never marry a disabled student.
Betina rolled in more circles than ever when the professor came to give me private lessons and look at the paintings and drawings that were piling up against the wall with a view toward an exhibition in Buenos Aires.
One time, night fell and Mom invited the professor to stay for dinner and he accepted. I was shaking at the thought of the disgusting sounds, rains, and smells that came from Betina’s carcass. But when the captain’s aboard, a sailor has no sway.
Rufina had made cannelloni, which on top of everything else made me remember the madhouse cannelloni. I suddenly wanted to paint in order to burn off some energy. I painted something that only I could understand: a cannelloni with eyes, and above it a hand that was giving it a blessing. In my mind I whispered, If you have a soul, may God take it to his bosom…
Aurora Venturini was born in 1922 in La Plata, Argentina. In 1948, Jorge Luis Borges awarded her the Premio Iniciación for El Solitario. Following the Revolución Libertadora, she spent 25 years in exile in Paris; the French government awarded her an Iron Cross for her translations of Villon and Rimbaud. Her novel Las primas won the Premio Nueva Novela in 2008 and the Premio Otras Voces, Otros Ámbitos in 2009. Since then she has published five more books, each to wider critical acclaim than the last.
Roy Kesey‘s latest books are the short story collection Any Deadly Thing (Dzanc Books 2013) and the novel Pacazo (Dzanc Books 2011/Jonathan Cape 2012). He is the winner of an NEA grant for fiction and a PEN/Heim grant for translation. His short stories, essays, translations, and poems have appeared in about a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and New Sudden Fiction.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
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