The Venetian Blinds

As he did every night, Marcelo arrived at his one-room apartment. He slowly began to unwind: on top of the little table he placed his key ring, ballpoint pen, glasses, wallet, a little box of condoms (he always carried one, just in case, although generally, it ended up broken or wrinkled from vegetating so long in the front pocket of his pants), his briefcase, comb, calendar watch, a plastic toothpick, the pepsin and pancreatin pills, a handkerchief, and his identity card displaying a face with very few friends.

There was a very dense, foul smell in the room so he switched the air conditioner on, not setting it to the highest cool setting (every time he switched it on he ended up feeling cold), but to the lowest and quietest setting. He removed his jacket and tie, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, and opened the window. Vaporous heat was emanating from outside. He looked toward the other section of apartments in the building. Almost all of the windows and Venetian blinds were closed. It was very difficult for him to close his Venetian blinds. “I’m going to have to replace the latch.”

Adding up the two sections, the building had sixty-four apartments. In reality, he had little or no interaction with the other residents. Sometimes, when he attended a meeting of the apartment owners, he conversed with one or the other for five minutes, long enough to offer or accept a cigarette or together mourn the calamitous condition of the pipes.

What he did know (he found out by chance) was that in an apartment in the other section, precisely the one that was located in front of his, lived a woman by herself, middle-aged but still very presentable. During the meetings she was addressed as “Mrs. Galván.” Since each section had its own elevator, they never came across each other in the same one, but on some rare occasion they had simultaneously carried out the ritual of opening or closing windows and Venetian blinds, and had greeted each other with a discrete movement of their heads: his semi-bald, hers red-haired.

Marcelo turned on the television set and started to switch through the channels. On the first channel a blond and almost heavenly couple was running gracefully through the springlike half of the forest, ending, at the end of the rigorous thirty seconds, with the promotion of a shampoo that is, without a doubt, marvelous. (He had seen the wintry half of the forest the night before while watching a commercial about high-top and low-cut boots). Another channel: The Pink Panther. A quick change of channels. Now there’s a chubby gentleman, with a falsetto voice, compellingly interviewing a tall and slim industrialist who pronounces his monosyllables like an illustrious citizen. It’s obvious that the chubby gentleman feels frustrated in the presence of that terseness that didn’t figure into his plans. In his desperation he formulates questions that are increasingly longer and more complex, but the industrialist continues to respond with monosyllables that, although they may sound foolish, are increasingly brief. A treacherous close-up shot shows the chubby gentleman’s forehead; what do the boxing reporters call it? Ah yes, “pearls of sweat.” Marcelo would like to feel pity but he can’t, and hopeful, switches to the next channel. Television theatre, finally. He consciously selects the offering. He could never avoid being fascinated by those sentimental struggles, to a greater extent jellylike. He has learned the secret. From March to October all the love affairs are unrequited, but at the beginning of November the majority of them start to become requited. And it’s logical, because the soap opera should end, before Christmas, with an enlightened outcome. Marcelo conducts a test, which on other evenings has obtained amusing results. He lowers the sound of the television set and starts to imagine the dialogues. The actor is a little stiff, leaning against the prop wall (perhaps his apparent stiffness is just fear of a possible collapse) and the expression of the actress, who is one-and-a-half meters away, is of great excitement. The words that, as a pastime, Marcelo places on the lips of the actors are persuasively seductive. The words that he then places in the mouth of the actress are distressing and increasingly respectful. What passion, damn! Hopeful, the young woman approaches the man who, confident, doesn’t even move his little finger; he only looks. ”That’s it,” Marcelo thinks, “now they’ll hug.” But no. The slap was so tremendous that, even without sound, Marcelo seemed to feel it. “At least one thing is clear: I would never be any good as a television scriptwriter.”

As a homeopathic treatment for alienation, it’s already sufficient, so he turns off the television set. The room now seems cooler without the combustion of blessed violence that the little screen was portraying. Marcelo undresses and showers in silence—years earlier he would have sung “The Last Organist,” ideal for accompanying the rinse—and returns like that, naked, to his single room, still drying himself with the checkered towel.

He faces the wardrobe mirror and, as always, the image of his own stomach disheartens him. He no longer knows what to stop eating or drinking: he eliminated bread, carbonated beverages, ravioli, salt, and desserts. All in vain. His waist barely decreased three centimeters in five months. Five months that were, in regards to nourishment, the most boring of his thirty-nine years. At that precise moment, he decides that the sacrifice isn’t worth it, and for tomorrow promises himself a lunch with pastas, red wine, and peach melba dessert. He realizes that the decision is cowardly but also stimulating.

He looks at himself in the mirror again and seems to notice a certain lump on his groin. He moves closer to the mirror but he is unable to determine its cause because the area is covered by soft hair. He puts on his glasses and then goes back to examining himself: “Eh, it’s like a boil that’s still soft.” He calms down.

He performs breathing exercises for five minutes in front of the closed window and then stops because he doesn’t want to sweat. He makes a move to put on his pajamas, but he ceases. With this heat it would be better to sleep naked. He turns on the portable radio and the old and beloved Troilo accordion sounds. As if mocking himself, he dances a few tango steps (what a disaster!), just the way he is, alone and naked, with cutting moves and everything.

But the accordion gives way to the Major News Report (what would a minor news report be?) and for now the news report isn’t danceable. It might be when Franco dies, but will he die? Then, he lies down, reads for a while, but the detective novel from the Seventh Circle series isn’t very entertaining. He quickly switches on his alarm clock, turns off the portable radio, and tries to sleep. Soon afterwards, he is seized with a very familiar cramp in his left foot. His toes contract, as if wanting to tickle the bed sheet. He curses a little, with the weak conviction of someone addressing no one in sight. There is no other choice but to turn on the light, get up, hop on one foot—absolutely ridiculous—and massage the cramped area for a long time until the five hooks become toes again.

He lies down again, and now in fact falls asleep immediately, as if evading the next cramp. The nightmare isn’t too terrible: he’s walking on a bridge that isn’t suspended over a river, but rather over land, and below, next to a reddish shrub, is Mabel, his old girlfriend from the province. He wants to scream at her, call her, but despite moving his lips to do so, his voice doesn’t sound. Meanwhile, she stubbornly looks in a different direction, as if searching for or awaiting someone who, of course, isn’t him.

The alarm clock doesn’t cause him to stir, in reality the light of the new day wakes him up. At first he thinks he’s waking up from a long siesta, but immediately realizes his mistake and is suddenly frightened when he sees what is causing so much light: the Venetian blinds are open, or rather, they opened after he closed them; “that shitty latch.” It’s worth mentioning—and here the gesture of disgust is significant—that all of his nonsense of the day before, or that is to say, the search for the boil, the tango steps, the breathing exercises, the little hops when the cramp seized him, all of that could have been seen by his front neighbor in the building opposite. Now he imagines Mrs. Galván telephoning all of her good friends at midday: “Would you believe that last night there was a guy stark naked in the front apartment? You can’t imagine all the things he did! He danced, hopped, and was scratching around down there in front…understand?” And the friend would reply: “Might it be an exhibitionist?” And Mrs. Galván would say no, that she knows him—only by sight, of course—and he’s a serious guy, a grown man. And the friend would tell her that those are the worst kind. Aha! But, what if Mrs. Galván says that she had not thought about it, but that he could very well be an exhibitionist, how is he going to face her from now on? Because stripping down and undressing a beautiful, young woman is one thing—like that it’s great—but that the same fool put on a stupid show with the Venetian blinds open, that simply seems like a revolting act.

He dresses quickly, then washes his face and brushes his teeth. During the summer he always likes to shower at night. Furthermore, he wants to leave as early as possible in order to avoid meeting Mrs. Galván in the hallway of the building. Before leaving, he almost closes the Venetian blinds. Why? After all, it’s too late now.

He descends in elevator number two, but when the door opens on the ground floor, he sees Mrs. Galván. Evidently, their meeting is a shock to her. As for Marcelo, he can’t look at her directly. He excuses himself and remains at the door to the street, waiting for no one. The woman remains next to the elevator door for a moment and looks at him. When she notices that Marcelo is also looking at her or is about to look at her, she averts her eyes. Finally, Marcelo senses that she is going to approach. He’s on the verge of running off, terrified, but opts to clear up the situation. One has to go right to the root of the problem.

Mrs. Galván stands next to him: “Sir, I want to tell you that I perfectly understand why you would be frightened, stunned, and not even look at me or hardly say hello.” “Me?” stammered Marcelo. “Yes, you. But I don’t want you to think badly of me. I’m absent-minded, I admit that, but nothing else, you know? I was secretly hoping that you hadn’t noticed, but your body language is quite eloquent, sir. And even though you have every right to think that I’m nervy or a liar, I assure you that last night I thought that I had closed my Venetian blinds.”

Bios

Mario Benedetti

Mario Benedetti was born on September 14, 1920 in Pasa de los Toros, Tacuarembó Province, Uruguay. When he was four years old, his family moved to Montevideo. Between 1938 and 1941, he lived in Buenos Aires almost continuously. When he returned to Montevideo in 1945, he published his first book, La Víspera Indelebe (Poems) and became the editor of Marcha. Although he was a trained accountant, he went on to publish Peripecia y Novela (Literary Criticism) in 1948, and a year later, Esta Mañana, his first book of stories. In 1953, he published his first novel, Quién de Nosotros, but it was with the publication of Montevideanos: Cuentos (Stories), in 1959, that the urban concept of his narrative style took shape. With the publication of La Tregua in 1960, Benedetti acquired international pre-eminence. This novel, written in the form of a diary, has been published in more than one hundred editions, translated into nineteen languages, and has been adapted for the stage, screen, radio, and television. In the late fifties and sixties, he traveled extensively in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. While in Cuba, he founded the world famous Centro de Investigaciones Literarias at Casa de las Americas, which he directed from 1969 to 1971. Returning to Uruguay in 1971, he opposed increasing government repression through his writing and participation in the leftist coalition known as the Frente Amplio, which he helped organize. Following the coup of June 1973, his work was banned by the Uruguayan military. Between 1973 and the return of the civilian government in 1985, he lived in exile in Argentina, Peru, Cuba, and Spain. Writing for an international audience, he denounced the tragic events occurring in Uruguay at the time. Since 1985, he has lived in Montevideo, where he devotes his full time to writing.

Benedetti is one of Latin America’s most highly renowned and beloved authors who writes (especially) about everyday life in Montevideo. Using well-balanced and appropriate doses of humor and colloquialisms, he shows a deep and poignant insight into his characters’ inner world and captures the problems of the city dwellers, who while trapped in an impersonal world, are building a shell to protect themselves from authentic feelings. As Jean Franco stated in The Modern Culture of Latin America, many of Uruguay’s problems stem from its high level of literacy and large middle class. “Modern Uruguay is a country of clerks and civil servants, and the hazards that face them are not those of violence and oppression, but of smugness and the excessive concern for security.” Consequently, Benedetti’s works are often set among office workers and members of the middle class, and in many, the characters’ low-key lives take on a tragic tinge simply because they are caught in the trap of routine.”

As a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, playwright, songwriter, and screenwriter, Benedetti’s vast body of work encompasses every genre and is known worldwide. He has written for magazines, newspapers, and various periodicals and journals in Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico. In addition, selections of his work are represented in anthologies published in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, England, Italy, the United States, Israel, Venezuela, and Spain. His poetic texts, some of them set to music and frequently performed at folk concerts, are familiar to the generations of Latin Americans who flock to hear him whenever he appears in public.

On thirteen occasions he has received prizes for literature, including the “Premio Ministerio de Instrucción Pública” for Peripecia y Novela, a book of literary criticism, in 1948, and again for the play, El Reportaje, in 1958; the “Premio Municipal de Literatura” for Montevideanos: Cuentos, a collection of stories, in 1959, La Tregua, his second novel, in 1960, and again in 1963, for Literatura Uruguaya Siglo XX, a book of literary criticism; and Third Prize in the “Simposio del Comisión del Teatro Municipal” for the play, Ida y Vuelta, in 1963, for which he was also awarded a drama fellowship by the American Council of Education to visit the U.S. That same year, when Gracias Por el Fuego, his third novel, was awarded Second Prize in the “Concurso Seix Barral” in Barcelona, he won the “Concurso Periodístico de SAS” for journalism, and was awarded the “Premio Cámara del Libro” and the “Medalla Félix Varela al Merito” for his first novel, Quién de Nosotros. In 1979, he was awarded the prize for “Mejor Obra Extranjera” in Mexico, the “Premio Llama de Oro Amnistía Internacional” for the play, Pedro y el Capitán, and again in 1987, for the novel, Primavera Con Una Esquina Rota. In 1986, he was awarded the “Premio Jristo Botev de Bulgaria” for his body of work in the poetry and essay genre. In 1989, he was decorated with the “Medalla Haydeé Santamaría” by the State Council of Cuba. In 1997, the Universidad de Alicante conferred upon him a Doctor Honoris Causa. In 1999, he was awarded the “VIII Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana” for his body of work in the poetry genre, and in 2000, he received the “Premio Iberoamericano José Martí.” In 2004, he was awarded the “Premio Etnosur,” and in June 2005, he received the “XIX Premio Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.”

Besides having written a full-length study of twentieth-century Uruguayan literature, he is the author of more than seventy-five books, including thirty-one books of poetry, seven novels, thirteen collections of stories, nine books of essays, eleven books of literary criticism, ten books of journalism, five plays, one children’s book, seven anthologies of stories, poetry, and journalism (as editor), and three books of music.His work has been translated into twenty-six languages: French, English, German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Bulgarian, Greek, Czech, Slovak, Danish, Polish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Japanese, Finnish, Ukrainian, Arabic, Romanian, Catalan, Galician, Flemish, and Braille.

Harry Morales

Harry Morales is the author of The Suit and Skirt Farm (Xlibris, 2002), a novel. He was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, in 1962, and was raised in New York City. He is a graduate of New York City Technical College and lives in Manhattan. He has studied literary translation under Gregory Rabassa and translated stories by the Uruguayan poet and novelist, Mario Benedetti, from various collections including Montevideanos: Cuentos, La Muerte y Otra Sorpresas: Cuentos, Esta Mañana: Cuentos, and Con y Sin Nostalgia: Cuentos, among others. He has translated the poetry of the late Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, and the work of Eugenio María de Hostos, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Cristina Peri Rossi, Julia de Burgos, and Ilan Stavans, among many other Latin American poets and writers. His translations from the Spanish of Mario Benedetti have appeared in The American Voice, Pequod, Fiction, Confrontation, Arshile, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Chicago Review, Sycamore Review, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mānoa, BOMB, Puerto del Sol, Michigan Quarterly Review, and World Literature Today, among others. His translations of work by Ilan Stavans have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories (University of New Mexico Press, Spring 1996), Prospero’s Mirror: A Translators’ Portfolio of Latin American Short Fiction (Curbstone Press, June 1998), The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (Oxford University Press, November 1998), Agni, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Stories (St. Martin’s Press, July 1999), The Essential Ilan Stavans (Routledge, October 2000), The Saint Ann’s Review, The Iowa Review, and MEXICO: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2005). Other work in translation appears in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays (Oxford University Press, October 1997), Contemporary Fiction from Cuba (Seven Stories Press, May 1999), and Worlds of Fiction: Second Edition (Prentice Hall, August 2001). His journalism and book reviews have appeared in Hopscotch: A Cultural Review, WorldView, and The Bloomsbury Review. He is the recipient of a Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry grant for his translations from the Spanish, and has completed a new English translation of Benedetti’s internationally-acclaimed, award-winning novel, La Tregua (The Diary of Martín Santomé: A Novel). His translation of two verse collections by Mario Benedetti, Sólo Mientras Tanto: Poemas: 1948-1950 (Only in the Meantime: Poems: 1948-1950) and Poemas de la Oficina: 1953-1956 (Office Poems: 1953-1956) is published by Host Publications.

"The Venetian Blinds" from Con y Sin Nostalgia Cuentos (and included in Cuentos Completos). Copyright (c) Seix Barral/Biblioteca Mayor Compañía Editora Espasa Calpe Argentina, 1994. English translation copyright (c) Harry Morales, 2007.