The Wanderer by Luisa Valenzuela

*

Fleeing is a form of searching I read on page 98, but the phrase doesn’t resonate the way other parts of the novel echoed within me.

I am in Heathrow, I’ve arrived early against my inveterate custom of leaving everything for the last moment and I’m buried in reading while I sit waiting at the gate. One airport is all the airports in the world. I have a good book, I don’t need to go searching for the newsstand in order to settle for just anything. Magazines, for example, or those disposable books that have the advantage of not adding to your ballast because they get left, forgotten, right where we finish reading them, if we have the patience to finish reading them, if we haven’t just casually leafed through them, like someone who, between flights, wants to step into other worlds, but only with the tip of her toe.

Fleeing, what does it even mean?

The book I have in my hands seems to have an answer.

She misses the nights of dingy reddish and yellow lights, when a urine-like amber tints the streets, making them strange, turning them into swamps of mystery. Elisa misses the deep night, which is to say she feels its absence. She longs to go roaming, like a restless cat, as she used to do in other times. Although it’s a fact: she is different and the times are different and the streets are different and the restless cat vanished in the wind. And yet. And yet, as before, she mews and caterwauls and demands to mate between dried-out tins in some wasteland. It’s hardly an assignation, a tryst not for love but for words, a repetition of that which already is written.

For Elisa, the protagonist, neither words nor love serve for consolation. The willing tomcats that in the previous novel were rooting around in garbage bins, in those bins where only creatures related to us root around and one might almost say that we are those creatures, of course human. It isn’t the same; the fictional cats rooting around in the trash could kill with a single swipe of their claws (so said the novel), human beings seek to bring back to life that which was given up for dead. That’s called recycling. We are all recycled. So, Elisa, in search of some lost text, roots around with cat-like fury although she tries to hide the fury. And she needn’t go any further than the corner in order to find the right trash bin, and I think (this isn’t written) of dirty baskets of papers, where so many of the author’s writings might have gone, books with torn-out pages that fly through the air with the first strong wind, at the mercy of someone, for instance me, who might have the audacity to confront them.

I too feel like a lost text, tangled as I am in so much travel. Impossible to consider reading as repose or submission; rather it’s like diving in search of air if what one breathes in those paragraphs can be called air.

I look up. The seats around me have been filling with passengers waiting for delayed flights. I don’t want to distract myself with the unchanging landscape of an airport. Within one trip there is another trip. I want to stay with Elisa Cortés, the protagonist, with whom I feel an unsettling affinity. Because I too am drawn to dark paths. It’s enough for a light to go out–and as I pass many lights go out–for me to insist on pressing onward in the hope of discovering that nook where fear keeps itself hidden. Something more than simple identification impels me to read: this book is trying to tell me something.

A young man with a backpack settles down next to me. I don’t look up, I open the book again and try to concentrate.

“What are you reading?” he immediately asks because that’s what airports are, places where people connect and part.

He speaks to me in Portuguese and I answer him in Spanish and we understand each other well given the fleeting nature of our encounter.

“I’m reading a novel.”

“Interesting?

“Unsettling. At least for me.”

“That’s good. Who wrote it?”

I’ve been in this situation before. Many times. The dialogue is practically the same, the novel I’m reading now is different and the same, always the same and different. And so is the danger pulsing in its pages. Always.

The first scene took place years ago, in similar circumstances at a different gate. That time the man was very good looking, we exchanged a few words, and I went back to my book. Then he asked me what I was reading and I, as always, answered: a novel. He searched me out on the flight,

“What you mean, a novel?” I heard him say goodbye to his girlfriend, understood she was an anthropologist.

“Are you kidding me? A person who reads novels isn’t to be trusted.”

“You’re kidding yourself. Everything is a branch of anthropology. The study of man, remember and tremble. And now excuse me, I want to know what happens.”

“In our encounter…”

“In the novel.”

I am not usually so evasive, let alone with men as handsome as that one. But the book I had in my hands was calling out to me. A world of clues, hidden somewhere in those pages was the author and she was begging to be saved. Lucía Avalon. She never stopped using that name in spite of the disguises some said, disaparagingly, were pseudonyms, heteronyms, aliases, pen names, while all the while she was there, behind the scenes, begging to be saved from her own pages.

It was much more compelling than a guy who was flirting and highly seductive.

A book like a genuine trap.

There is always someone who spies over our shoulder while we read. Undercover spy, he’s a secret agent of alien forces that induce us to close the book and forget its contents. Very different from the ones who openly interrupt me, simple bores, looking for some easy amusement. The spy that Lucía Avalon puts before us is of another order, and he’s threatening her. He’s threatening her with death. He’s a character who appears in the background in all her novels, and who lets me know that it’s she who has written these particular books, as well as the scattered little notebooks I sometimes find after assiduous searching. The spy reads as we read, undercover, searching in every page for his own reflection and his reflection is there but it doesn’t satisfy him, on the contrary. It enrages him.

For this very reason, between the lines, the author asks for help without asking. Or maybe I’m the who without knowing should be asking for help, and that’s why I search for her, for the author. “What are you reading?”

Once again the perpetual question, but the one who was asking that time was Sergio and he’d spent enough time by my side to merit a more attentive answer. At least, that’s what I thought then.

“A novel by Lucía Avalon, do you know her? Actually, the truth is, no one knows her. She roams throught the world on her own, in flight, in hiding. I need to find her.

I mean it, I told him. Be patient, dim the light, hold my hand because I’m going to get lost in the story and I’m afraid. And I need to hurry because she’s in danger and she’s afraid. What she’s afraid of, I can’t figure out, but I can smell it, I’m infected with it, one might say I feel it because how could it be otherwise, how can she not be afraid. That’s why she writes. She’s in danger, I assure you. In times like these, one can’t play at Scheherazade.

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“That that’s what she’s playing at?”

“I think so. Yes, I’m sure of it. That’s what she’s playing.”

“How can you know what she’s playing? I’m asking how you know. By what method have you arrived at this knowledge, and who is she.”

I am reading a book that embodies a recurrent search, that’s to say I have a book in my hands and it isn’t even mine, neither written by me nor belonging to me, it’s a borrowed book and I let myself be caught up in the plot I let myself be caught up by that woman who invents erotic stories for her lover, the same one who asked or ordered her to go out in the street and live these stories but she finds it more convenient more healthy less contradictory to invent the stories and transmit them as if they were her own experiences and he believes them because believing is what it’s all about, and here I am reading ups and downs and all-arounds and also believing them. Not as though they’d been experienced or acted out by the novel’s protagonist, not as though they were true, although everything narrated…

“What woman? What danger are you talking about? You’re just talking about characters. Inventions.”

“No. What worries me is the book’s author, not its protagonist.”

Elisa conjured experiences that were very intense but left her feeling alienated, remote.

She was impelled to find the way back by a single word: sacred. She didn’t think she knew a man who had deserved such a towering description, she wasn’t even thinking about men. That file, overfull, she kept closed, even though Ken was there and she here–that was her geography of the moment–when in reality Ken should have been here and she therefore nowhere.

She also felt dislocated just thinking of him, even though there had been other times, other dreamings.

Elisa the protagonist, in Morocco, on empty roads, puts her foot to the pedal–leaving the camels behind, and perhaps an ox, or some mule bearing its burden. She takes detours very different from those I could have taken once. On her road there are flowers. Myriads of small flowers spread like sheets in tones of yellow and violet and mauve, so that this formerly barren earth is given a respite from being herself, from being so badly beaten down upon by the sun. Elisa goes on toward Rabat, a city I don’t know, where I’ve never been with any Ken. I like this protagonist, she’s seeped into my pores and overwhelms me when I least expect it, sounds sweet, but it’s like a kick in the stomach, like a storm of bullets. From up close. Not from a distance, distance is sweet. But I don’t stop reading because of this and the guy who’s secretly watching us spies over my shoulder, disgusted.

With Sergio things had been settling down. He’s a loyal man, he weathers my departures, he’s there when I return. I always bring him mementos of my trips, sometimes a real find. Once it was a new book by Lucía Avalon that I found in a stall at the Flea Market.

“You see, she keeps writing, compulsively,” I said as I gave it to him.

“I like the world of compulsives. Not obsessives,” that was Sergio.

“To me it’s the same. I only like those who make a world of their own, an eternal form of living.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, because I was talking Japanese? Okay, then: I’ll talk to you in Japanese: tokonama, teriyaki, karetka sumi-e, fujitsu kakemono; arigató, arigató. Like it? Not because I think the Japanese, etc., but given the circumstances…”

Sergio ordered another coffee, willing to listen. At that time I’d discovered that he believes, or intuits–because he knows me well–that I’m about to show him unexpected pathways, which, perhaps, he would like to explore.

The scene repeats itself. Now as before, over coffee, I have his ear and I elaborate, with reference to the actors in Buto. Sergio rejects the idea.

“They’re all creatures at the edge of the abyss, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t know what they could have to do with your author.”

“It has to do with constancy, with the breath of the spirit, a calling. But more than anything it has to do with passion, fervor. The belief that it’s this or nothing, and that you have to take ‘this’ to its ultimate consequences, even if it destroys you.”

“Okay. No need to exaggerate. We’re talking about literature, not a crusade.”

“They may be the same. Or maybe you’re right.”

“In any case, this Lucía Avalon intrigues and moves you,” Sergio was back on the attack, unwilling to give in to a pyrrhic victory.

I shrugged. Passion is beyond explanation, it gnaws at you from within, or abandons you to dull incomprehension. I find passion through the interposition of other people. Watching. Reading. I realize this now, at this very moment, for I have been madly observing myself, every time I find a book by Lucía Avalon, I set out in search of Lucía Avalon. Then afterwards, I forget. Because the author fades out between one’s fingers and is never where you think you’ll find her, where the clues indicate she could be, for it’s all been a mirage.

It could well be that Lucía Avalon is that women in dark glasses sitting at a table in the back of this café, laughing at us, delighted not to be.

A mirage, I insist.

Sergio doesn’t give an inch.

“Look, there are desaparecidos in this country, and you go looking for a woman who is exactly the opposite, who knows precisely where she is but doesn’t want to reveal the fact. That’s why she writes and publishes, though under a pseudonym, in order to mask and show herself at the same time.”

Searching for her I find myself, I could reply, but I know that’s not for sure, and now I’m the one who’s tired of the whole subject. I’m especially tired of exploring the subject with someone who has turned himself into my antagonist, into someone who doesn’t want to understand, who only wants to pursue me, pull me out of myself, take me to a different place where his argument will have more weight or at least some effect on me.

That isn’t why I disdain Sergio’s argument. His argument is valid, it’s just that I don’t want it here like a wedge in my so precariously constructed mental world. Arguments are scaffolds, like those I once saw in a village in Tepoztlán, scaffolds terraced with hammocks. The ones they use for sleeping in the tropics and that Mexican masons stretch across adobe walls so they can climb up to the ceiling. I’ve ascended into myself on woven hammocks, on precarious webs, and many times have forgotten my internal construction and fallen asleep in these hammocks at the mercy of the winds. Sergio doesn’t want to know anything about all this, Sergio is my lucid opponent and he insists I follow the path of his reasoning and let go of  hallucinations.

I am only interested in hallucinations.

“You’ve investigated the old girl’s pseudonym,” Sergio pointed out ages ago, when I was just beginning to get wrapped up in the subject.

As if I didn’t know. Avalon. She could be anywhere.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “My hopes are with Lucía.”

And I haven’t lost those hopes. And what’s more, maybe she’s not the one I’m looking for. Maybe the one who really interests me is the man who first appeared in The Wanderer, the first novel I read, which, while not extraordinary, was revelatory. In the novel the protagonist is called Fernando something-or-other, I don’t remember, and I always thought that plot was autobiographical. So very autobiographical that the author had to hide behind a pseudonym, because I doubt her real name was the one she used for the previous novel. No one can be named Laura Aura, not even she.

That Laura Aura of the cacophonous name didn’t seem to be the author of only one book. So I was disconcerted when I couldn’t find any other title of hers. The Wanderer hinted that it was the second volume of a saga. I wasn’t ready to leave the story hanging. I delayed in connecting with the publisher, at the time it didn’t seem so important, nothing more than pure curiosity, enough to go looking in bookstores–now and again when I remembered–for another book with her byline. Afterward it got too late to connect with the team at Ediciones Concordia. This was around 1979, there’d already been that bomb explosion, I couldn’t even find a copy of The Wanderer to replace the one that had fallen apart in my hands and that had lost a quite a few pages.

What I did keep was the memory of Fernando’s smell, so well described in one of the lost chapters, and the latent threat that was Fernando something-or-other I don’t remember, a last name she must have used to cover someone who still had to be out there alone, bearing the weight of all her perversity and maybe the guilt for a bomb.

A couple of years later, during a trip to Montevideo, the first book authored by Lucía Avalon fell into my hands. It was given to me by Teresa Porzekanski, who was interested in the novel from her dual perspective as a writer and anthropologist. A compatriot of yours, she said, do you know her? I had to say no, but…but I know the protagonist, I know Elisa Cortés, the rover. Sorry, I mean: the wanderer. With Teresa I could talk about Laura Aura and even my fascination for the character of Fernando. At the time it all felt clearer, afterwards things got blurry with my attempts to find the real Laura Aura or Lucía Avalon or whatever she calls herself. I got together with the folks at the Uruguayan publisher that had just issued the novel but they couldn’t give me any information at all. They said the manuscript came to them from Joanquín Díez Canedo in Mexico who recommended it highly. “This book belongs to the Río de la Plata,” he insisted in a letter attached to the diskette that had the book perfectly composed and laid out. That convinced them to publish it. A small print run, like all their books, no overwhelming sales expectations, but they were delighted to have another good novel in their catalogue.

“Yes, of course we tried to put you in contact with the author. But we couldn’t manage it. The question of rights was settled in Mexico, and you know what this work is like, no sooner does one book go out, then there are others, you have to handle new promotions, support other authors.

Teresa and I decided to investigate on our own. A good intention that never went any further, at least on her part, because she was soon buried in the novel she was writing, focused on her own protagonist and forgetting all others.

Fernando I-don’t-know-who didn’t appear in that other novel by Lucía-of-many-names. But his ghost was there, because it was doubtless he who impelled her to write that singular story of maniacal love where her own body was exposed.

It’s evident at the very beginning of The Wanderer, on one of the pages I still know by heart.

I told Sergio everything when I returned from Montevideo, putting in play our own relationship, when it was still possible to talk about our relationship, rather than the friendship which has us more loosely tied.

“Fascinating,” he acknowledged. “I think the story of this Fernando must be true, that’s how the old girl started to write, her pages overflow with eroticism. Her novels were surely created for him. To excite him.”

We agreed. That’s how it started, telling the truth of that Fernando who would later be doubled in various other characters. That’s how she started to write…and to escape.

“Her first novel was quite simple but very intense and already she was leaving clues,” I told Sergio.

“Don’t you escape?”

“I don’t. But she has revived my taste for travel.”

“Lend me the first book.”

“Unfortunately, from the first book there’s not much I can recover, the first chapter, a few loose pages.”

“What makes you think it’s the same author?”

“Everything. Déjà vu is implied in Fernando’s story. And that’s not all, the protagonist has the same name. It’s Elisa Cortés, the Wanderer.”

“She wanders because she’s on the wrong path?”

“Everything is possible.”

One night Lucho and Adela happened to be coming to dinner. I didn’t want to mention the subject, but Sergio insisted on reading them part of the last book we’d found by Lucía Avalon. Not because he was so enthusiastic, but I think because he wanted to enter into my enthusiasms, inhabit them. By inserting himself into my passions I think he could catch a glimpse of something, or better said, find a brazier where, with a great deal of luck, he might re-ignite his own suffocated passions (his years of militancia, when he had believed with all the fury in his heart).

“He embraces me,” Sergio began, but that made him uncomfortable so he passed the book to a surprised Adela who took it and felt its heft and shot me a look. Not that she’s in the habit of asking my permission, but in this regard Adela is delicate: inward and delicate. Maybe that’s why she never finished her degree. Sociology has sometimes seemed to me like rolling around in other people’s mud, once I even said so and she came back with, Look who’s talking, you, all involved with phantasms and poking around in that other “other people’s mud,” called literature.

So now Adela is asking permission to enter my territory because she finally recognizes that it is my territory, this book that holds unsuspected mysteries for me.

I made a gesture of resignation, a shrug of acquiescence and disappointment, not with her or with the reading but with poor Sergio who always goes looking for ways to escape a challenge. What would it cost him to put himself in another skin, speak in the feminine, offer an unexpected intonation to the voice of Lucía Avalon. Or that of Elisa Cortés. I no longer know which of the two matters to me more. The fact is Adela reads with a soft voice, and I being a little hard of hearing don’t make the effort to listen but it doesn’t matter, what matters to me is the cadence, the respiration of the aereal beings that sometimes populate my apartment. I nestle against Sergio and close my eyes to listen to the first chapter where Lucía Avalon expresses herself in the first person. That’s the way her writing works, as a game of facing mirrors that reflect the first and third person, the close and the distant, and whoever is reading suddenly gets trapped in the middle. Trapped too in a game of verb tenses. Past and present. Deep in the abyss.

“He embraces me,” repeats Adela, beginning to read. “At least I don’t have to tell any more intimate stories to F, I don’t need to expand on my sullied relationships to cancel a debt as unpayable as it is nonexistent. This is a story I’m telling for myself and here’s how it begins: he embraces me. I no longer need F, in order to tell stories, he does not need me. If only he were dead, although I know for a fact he is alive and looking for me. But not in order to embrace me.”

Good, thank you Adela, Sergio interrupts. It’s time to eat, he says. And he suddenly gets up, pushing me from his side, as though I might get burned by the bubbling stew. The cook in him has this tender side. Sergio’s stew is perfection; my own, within, still simmers on low heat, to me it seems underdone and I’m afraid the fire will be turned off, as though to protect a pot of milk, or something that could turn bitter, or hard, or some other unsuspected version of indigestible.

Years have passed between one and another of Lucía Avalon’s books. But as The Wanderer says, This story has not ended, but had various possible conclusions and I write hoping that it won’t end even if the writing does. I write only in order to exorcize dreams. Because I dream and dream and dream–at night, asleep–of anguished travels: missed trains, bags I can’t finish packing, friends that aren’t there when I arrive to visit them in faraway places, routes on which I lose my way. My destiny (my destination?): always setting off, leaving one place for another, voyages within voyages within voyages. But I also try to write, why not, and I try to be someone else. I am someone else. I am I, the actress. I play, I represent, all women. Like now when I want to move through as before I relocated myself in space. Quite sure of myself, quite arrogant. At times. When I’m writing all arrogance drains away, I’m assaulted by humility. Once more I make my way toward the unknown. Happy. And of course exhausted.

 

The unknown pleases me above all else. Stepping into the unknown, walking toward the void. Opening before me are unexpected paths, of whose mere existence I hadn’t known. And I keep reading.

It’s hard. Difficult. Hard in opposite ways: right side and wrong side, in itself and its mirror image. Everything that has already been said, been predicted, loses interest for me. Which is why I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish this page; a good part of the voyage has already been consumed. And yet this expression is its own enactment. And much remains. The unconfessable. The unconfessed. I’ll set off, trailing blood. What does it matter if I tear myself to pieces. I’ve died many times and from many causes. Among many other things I’ve been a prostitute who almost almost had her head cut off, on two different occasions they pumped me full of bullets, one bullet in particular doing its job, I’ve…

 

“Don’t read to me any more, don’t talk to me anymore about all that I don’t want to listen to any more stories, years and years of hearing the same thing over and over,” Sergio begs.

“Maybe you’re right. I had a dream, this will be the last story I tell you, I promise.”

“Fine, but make it short, we don’t have much time left.”

“Once again airplanes appear in my night of eyes tightly shut. This time I’m on the ground, there’s a swarm of them, maybe ten, very close together, swooping up and over and away from each other, but always in a pack, flying so low that from our observation point on the ground we can read the names of the aircraft companies. A few stop in mid-flight and I’m amazed to discover that airplanes can remain static in the air, like helicopters. Suddenly one plane is left isolated from the rest, it starts throwing off ballast and then we see the parachutes of people jumping, and watching we realize that the plane is about to take a nosedive. And in that very instant it falls, vertically, in the distance. I hope it doesn’t explode in a populated area, and that it doesn’t kill anyone when it finally explodes and the impact throws up a mountain of fire and we’re conscious of having been present at an unexpected spectacle which we never (or always) wanted to see.

And upon waking I knew without having to explain to myself why–I didn’t tell Sergio–that among the dead in that accident which occurred in a different register from reality were Lucía Avalon and her secret pursuer. I’m sure of it although I recognize that it seems imposible. It’s a relief, I admit, but also a loss. Something expected and at the same time terrifying, unwanted, like watching a plane crash in mid-flight. I know I will never revisit the subject. I no longer have any reason to keep poking around in the kingdom of words, which belonged to her.

“And your flight, what time does it take off?” Sergio asks again.

Fleeing is a form of searching.

Or of reading another book.

Bios

Luisa Valenzuela

Luisa Valenzuela, one of Argentina’s most prominent and inventive fiction writers, was born in Buenos Aires in 1938. The home in which she grew up was a gathering place for writers, artists, and publishers. Borges (whom she described in her Paris Review interview as “a walking system of thought”) came at least once a week, being a close friend of her mother, Luisa Mercedes Levinson (herself a well-known writer). The Luisa in question here wrote her first poem at six, and published her first story at twenty. The author of over twenty books–novels, short stories, and micro-fictions–Valenzuela has lived in France, Spain, Mexico, and New York, and taught at numerous universities, including Columbia and NYU. She has won a host of major prizes and awards (including a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, the Cervantes Prize, and at least one honorary doctorate). Her work has been widely translated. She left Argentina in the wake of the 1976 military coup, when one of her books was censored; in 1989 she returned to Buenos Aires and re-settled in her native neighborhood of Belgrano. Although fluent in French and English, she always held on to “the Argentine language [as] a home I don’t want to lose” [The Paris Review interview, No. 170]. Her writing has rightly been called “hallucinatory” (although in matters of craft, it is absolutely lucid), arising as it has from her country’s surreal and violent politics.

Marguerite Feitlowitz

Marguerite Feitlowitz's most recent book translation is Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography with Nineteen Erotic Sonnets, by Salvador Novo, Introduction by Carlos Monsivais (University of Texas Press, 2014). She has translated works by Griselda Gambaro, Luis Valenzuela, Angélica Gorodischer, and Liliane Atlan, among others. Her recent criticism has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, and she co-guest edited the Spring 2014 issue of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, whose theme is "Beyond Violence: Toward Justice," and which features contributions by Patricio Pron, Juan Gelman, Luisa Valenzuela, Laura Restrepo, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Yuri Herrera, Andrea Cote Botero, and Claudia Hernandez, among others.

Tres por cinco. Copyright (c) Luisa Valenzuela, 2008. English translation copyright (c) Marguerite Feitlowitz, 2014.