I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Hyperbolic Lot No. 1
Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state. Yet, considering its antiquity, the overall condition is good; one might even say excellent. Significant flattening of the point leads to the supposition that the original owner, Mr. Plato, talked and ate continuously. He was five feet five inches tall and thirty-three and a half inches broad; he was of medium height but robust, with a fighter’s build. He had a long, cotton-woolly beard, light brown in color; thick hair of the same hue and texture. Mr. Plato flaunted the conventional fashions of the day and wore his toga loose, without a belt. Neither did he wear sandals.
Mr. Plato once made a comparison between the period of dentition and a man falling in love: “In this state, the soul enters into effervescence and irritation; and this soul, whose wings are just beginning to develop, can be compared to a child whose gums are inflamed and enervated by its first teeth.” Lovely, don’t you think?
I paused momentarily for greater effect. Wafts of cool morning air were beginning to enter the church through the high main door. I had the sense that a ray of light was falling from the sky, miraculously illuminating the pulpit. I raised my eyes and immediately noticed the altar boy Monge up in one of the galleries, throwing a spotlight onto me. It wasn’t divine light, but even so, it filled me with motivation. I took a breath: Ladies and gentlemen, who will open the bidding for the cavernous tooth of our first infamous man?
A hand was timidly raised at the back of the church: 1,000 pesos. It was followed by another, more eager hand: 1,500. And another, and another, and another. The lot went for 5,000 pesos. Not at all bad, for a warm-up. It was bought by a small, elderly, opulently dressed woman. Quintilian explains that “there is in all men a natural propensity to magnify or extenuate what comes before them, and no one is contented with the exact truth.” I believe that’s why the most worn-out tooth in my collection went for such a high price. I cleared my throat and continued with my infamy.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 2
The owner of this tooth, of North African origin, was of medium height, with spindly arms and smooth skin. There is some argument as to whether he was black or white. In my opinion, he was unambiguously black. His name was Augustine of Hippo, and on the top of his head was a bald patch bearing some resemblance to the mouth of a volcano. Had we been capable of looking into the bowels of that volcano, we would have discovered one of the most labyrinthine memories ever spawned by the union of Mother Nature and God the Father. That prodigious memory, the inferior hatchway of which was this very tooth we have before us today, was once compared by Mr. Augustine himself to an infinite stretch of open countryside, where all the copies of the impressions entering through the senses were stored, in addition to their many variations; there were all the things that had been entrusted to it; the abstract numbers of mathematics; his own earliest memories, both accurate and false; and even, in its furthest reaches, the things that seemed to be forgotten but, in fact, were not.
Do you see this hole on the crown of the piece? If we had been able to enter through that orifice and move upward through the labyrinth of channels that connect the mouth with the cranium in which the teeth nestle, in one of the most remote chambers of the brain we would find this memory: a young student of rhetoric—who is, of course, Augustine himself—is suffering the mortifying pain of a dreadful toothache. The young man is surrounded by family and friends, all of whom believe he will soon be dead since his pain is so severe that he cannot open his mouth to communicate his affliction. At a given moment, he gathers his strength and writes on a wax tablet: Pray for my health. The friends and family pray and the young lad is cured. A miracle. He then decides to dedicate his life to God by means of a book that he begins to write just a few years later, his famous Confessions. That’s right, this gentleman wrote the great Confessionsbecause of a toothache. Who will open the bidding for the memorious tooth of Augustine of Hippo?
Several parishioners showed interest. The first offered five hundred. The next wanted to offer less rather than more, appealing to my compassion by alleging a recently diagnosed dementia. But his companions on the pew quickly silenced him and forced him to sit down, arguing that his case was nothing special. At the end of the round of bidding, Saint Augustine’s tooth was bought by a lady poet with the face and body of an owl for three thousand pesos. I took the third piece from the table behind me and returned to the pulpit.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 3
The owner of this lot was an eminent man of harmonious proportions, with a notoriously beautiful face. He was christened Francesco Petracco, but went by the name of Petrarch, I believe because it sounded more patriarchal. He was a poet and songwriter. Slothful, as they all are; fickle and mellifluous, but skillful.
Some years ago, a group of scientists opened his tomb because the honorable Italian government wished to have an exact, definitive copy of his face made to commemorate the seven hundredth anniversary of his death. On reassembling the cranium, the scientists suspected that the bones very probably belonged to a woman. They had DNA tests done both on the ribs and an incisor. Several days later, Dr. Carameli, leader of the team, made a public declaration stating that the tests had confirmed their suspicions: the head was “apocryphal.” The loss of the original head was blamed on a certain Father Tomasso Martinelli, a poor, seventeenth-century priest who, in addition, was judged to be an alcoholic. Without further evidence, Martinelli was pronounced guilty of having sold Petrarch’s beautiful head to some punters in order to buy a few casks of wine. What didn’t occur to any Italian politician was that it was perhaps the corpse in the tomb that belonged to someone else, and that the head was Mr. Petrarch’s.
I can assure you that this is one of Petrarch’s teeth. One irrefutable proof is the fact that it is an exact reflection of his character. The teeth are the true windows to the soul; they are the tabula rasa on which all our vices and all our virtues are inscribed. Mr. Petrarch had a choleric nature, keen intelligence, and a weakness for sensual pleasures: he was hornier than a goat, and it’s easy to tell by just one look at the length of this incisor. It’s said that Petracco was once found at the doors of the church of Saint Clara, ogling the widowed, single, and married women who entered there to commend their souls to Our Lady of Saint Clara at all hours of the day. The gentleman was a veritable rake. He would make flirtatious comments, sing ribald lyrics of his own composition, leer at their ankles and necks. For years he plagued the wife of the prominent Count Hugues de Sade, the beautiful and discreet Laura de Noves. Naturally, he never gained the attention of the demure lady.
It is also known that this infamous man was in the habit of writing intimate letters to people who were, quite clearly, imaginary and, what’s worse, by anyone’s reckoning, dead. Mr. Petrarch termed the products of this demoniacal practice “familiar letters” and sometimes “senile letters.” To my mind, “senile” would be more appropriate than “familiar.” Senile or, I’d say, without wishing to offend those present, “demented”: he wrote demented letters to the dead. Petrarch collected all the letters he wrote. In total, he managed to compile 128 senile and 350 familiar letters. He was a daring collector, an idiotically annoying slacker—and brilliant. The depths of his infamy and genius are without equal, so in this case I’m obliged to set the reserve price high. Who will give me a 1,500 bid?
An almost totally bald man, with a scrawny neck and a chubby collection-box face raised the bidding by 100. I noticed when he opened his mouth to call out the amount that it didn’t contain a single tooth. No one else raised a hand. My incisor went for 1,600. Father Luigi, standing like a Cerberus by my line of collectibles, passed the fourth piece to me. He raised an eyebrow, encouraging me to continue.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 4
This lot has, for many years, been one of the most sought after in the market for portable oral collectibles. Its owner was a short man, broad in the beam, with a snub nose and a forehead like a pig’s backside. Megalomania had no limits in the soul of this infamous man of minute stature. On more than one occasion, he said, “I study myself more than any other subject; I am my physics and my metaphysics.” He was scarcely four feet ten inches tall. His hair was sparse and straggly, but his ideas were prolific and forceful.
Mr. Montaigne, the original owner of this tooth, had a serene, honest gaze. His face had an expression somewhere between melancholic and jovial. His ineptitude in everyday activities, however, reached the point of burlesque: the handwriting in his manuscripts was illegible; he was incapable of folding a letter properly; he couldn’t saddle a horse or carry a hawk and fly her; he had no authority at all over dogs; nor could he communicate with horses. A waste of space, it would seem. A waste of space, nonetheless, who enjoyed good oral health, with the exception of recurrent tonsillitis. He preferred his flesh almost raw, including fish. He didn’t like any fruit or vegetable, other than melons. That is perhaps the reason why the tooth is in such good condition. Moreover, the quality is sublime: it is fine, slender, slightly pointed. The secret of his long-lived teeth? Mr. Montaigne was given to saying: “J’ay aprins dés l’enfance à les froter de ma serviette, et le matin, et à l’entrée et issue de la table.” That is to say, from childhood he learned to rub them with a napkin every morning, and both before and after dinner. Who will open the bidding for Montaigne’s ultraclean tooth?
A sudden wave of enthusiasm welled up among the bidders. I sold my favorite lot for six thousand pesos. It was bought by an old woman with a forgettable face and a Mediterranean build—it’s a mystery why all female Mediterranean bodies look like eggplants after the age of fifty.
By the end of that round of bidding, I was beginning to feel like John Paul II. I imagined myself entering a packed stadium, greeting the vast crowd, hand raised high. I’d have been the envy of Mussolini, the envy of Madonna, Sting, Bono, Lennon, and Leroy Van Dyke himself. I finally caught sight of Siddhartha—he was sitting on a pew toward the back of the church. Emboldened, I began the next lot without a pause.
Hyperbollic Lot No. 5
Only one of Mr. Rousseau’s teeth remains in existence, but what a tooth! This adorable, infamous man had aristocratic features in which the slightest trace of facial expression was stifled by a vigilant, tyrannical conscience.
His eyes were expressive and mobile, but his gaze was not commanding. Despite his undeniable intelligence, his sense of humor was infantile. He fervently believed in man’s kindly nature, especially his own. This gentleman wore shoulder pads, as he was rather lacking in that part of his anatomy. This deficit, however, was compensated by a manly jaw—broad, square, with a slight cleft in the center—within which lay the teeth forever invisible to the world. They were so ugly that he never showed them, not even in private. He himself was conscious of the awful monstrosity of his teeth. He was an avid reader of Plutarch, from which he learned some virtues and many vices. In Parallel Lives, Plutarch writes that the courtesan Flora never left her lover without ensuring that she bore on her lips the marks of his teeth. After reading that, Jean-Jacques also acquired the habit of asking his lovers to bite him before leaving. But he didn’t once return the bite, since, as he said, his teeth were “épouvantables”; that is, horrifying. He wasn’t exaggerating.
The fact that only one piece of Rousseau’s has been preserved is not due to his hygienic practices, which were those of a decent man, but to his bad luck. Mr. Rousseau spent a good part of his life walking. The good-for-nothing rambler walked as if the welfare of mankind depended on his steps. One day, he went out for a stroll and was knocked over by a dog. Apparently, the animal approached him at great speed and got tangled up in his legs for an instant; our infamous man went flying toward the ditch bordering the road and lost an item, possibly the very one that we have here today. It is so horrible that it deserves a monument. This piece, in particular, is like a spiral staircase to a skylight once covered in plaque. Who will open the bidding for this solitary, furry tooth of Rousseau?
People are morbid and sordid, even when they don’t mean to be. I believe that it was only in order to be able to inspect the battered tooth that the bidders offered more than ever. After a heated round of bidding, the tooth was bought by a man with a foreign accent, a complete set of teeth, but a cryptic smile, for 7,500 pesos.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 6
There has never been a man with such a protruding lower jaw than Mr. Charles Lamb, who suffered from such a severe prognathous that he had to keep his lips slightly parted all the time. If he didn’t, one of his canine teeth rubbed against his tongue and upper lip, causing a collection of extremely painful sores and ulcers. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that everything Mr. Lamb wrote—which was a lot and very good—was the product of the tortuous disposition of his teeth. He had a schoolboy stammer, and his writing was equally stuttering. He once wrote a stuttering letter to his friend Wordsworth, saying, “I have just now a jagged end of a tooth pricking against my tongue, which meets it half way, in a wantonness of provocation; and there they go at it, the tongue pricking itself, like the viper against the file, and the tooth galling all the gum inside and out to torture; tongue and tooth, tooth and tongue, hard at it; and I to pay the reckoning, till all my mouth is as hot as brimstone.”
Eight hundred pesos for Lamb’s stuttering tooth! Who will open the bidding? Who will give me more?
Not a single hand was raised, so I continued with the next lot.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 7
We have before us here the tooth of the greatest of the ne’er-do-well sluggards, Mr. G. K. Chesterton: 5 feet 11 inches tall, 310 pounds. He was as broad as the barrels in which cheap wine is aged. The flesh at the nape of his neck hung over his collar, his cheeks were bulging, and his eyes hooded from an almost perpetual frown. He drank astonishing quantities of milk.
The tooth may be in a lamentable condition, but it is a truly charismatic one. It is thought that the damage to this tooth was caused by Mr. Chesterton’s self-confessed inclination for chewing marbles. I quote from memory: “We talk rightly of giving stones for bread: but there are in the Geological Museum certain rich crimson marbles, certain split stones of blue and green, that make me wish my teeth were stronger.”
There is one story about this gentleman that I like particularly. He left his house one day, possibly chewing a marble, with the single, firm intention of drawing with chalk on a sheet of brown paper. He put six very brightly colored sticks of chalk in his pockets, slipped a few sheets of brown paper under his arm, and went out—hat, stick, and jacket—to depict the world around him. At a given moment, when the hippopotamic idler had reached the gentle countryside of the downs, he was approached by a domestic cow—incidentally, the second-most imbecilic member of the animal kingdom, the first being, obviously, the giraffe, and the third the Australian kangaroo.
Mr. Chesterton made a couple of dispassionate attempts to sketch the cow in chalk, but he soon noticed that his talent came to an end where the hind legs of the quadruped began. After weighing the matter up for a moment, he resolved to draw, clenching the piece of chalk between his teeth, the soul of the mammal instead of its external appearance. He depicted it in purple with silver highlights. End of story. Who will open the bidding?
There was a long silence.
Who will open the bidding? I repeated.
The tooth of the ne’er-do-well layabout went for only 2,500 pesos.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 8
Some teeth are tormented. Such is the case of this one, the property of Mrs. Virginia Woolf. When she was just thirty years old, a psychiatrist posited the theory that her emotional ills were due to an excess of bacteria around the roots of her teeth. He decided to extract the three most seriously affected ones. Nothing changed. During the course of her life, several more teeth were extracted, but it made no difference. None at all, rien de rien. Mrs. Woolf died by her own hand, with many false teeth in her oral cavity. Her acquaintances only ever saw her smile at her funeral. It’s said that, lying dead in her half-open coffin in the center of the living room, her lips were spread in a smile that lit up her sharp, intelligent features. Who will offer 8,000 pesos for this tortured tooth? Anyone?
After a heavy silence, an elderly man, with a stubborn but respectable face, bought it for 8,900 pesos. As soon as I had called the final “gone,” letting the head of my gavel fall onto the inclined surface of the pulpit, I heard the squawking of a bird among the congregation.
Shut up, Jacinto, someone immediately yelled.
But the squawk repeated. I then noticed that a small man in the third row was standing on one of the pews. Taking off his hat, he looked at me from some distant interior place and slowly opened his mouth to utter another squawk. An indistinguishable murmur crackled from the mass of the audience.
Shut up and sit down, Jacinto, said the voice again.
A number of others seconded the command. But the gentleman ignored the attempts of his fellow pensioners to stop him, and I, with the authority conferred on me by the pulpit, ordered them to let him finish. He squawked again, this time more loudly and with greater aplomb. The murmuring died down. Then, with the grace of a professional ballet dancer, the man raised his arms to shoulder level and, without ceasing to squawk, began to slowly flap them. I’m not one of those people who cry easily, but a lump of sadness stuck in my throat. There was something sad and beautiful in the simulated flight of this elderly parishioner.
When the gentleman had finished, he sat down again in his pew and put his hat back on his head. I found it difficult to pick up the thread of the hyperbolics again. Something in the temporal suspension produced by the impossible flight of that old man in the pew of the parish church had touched me.
Hyperbollic Lot No. 9
Our penultimate lot, ladies and gentlemen, exudes an air of mystical melancholy. The tooth itself is crocodilian, but its aura is almost angelic. Note the curve; it is like a wing in ascent. Its owner, Mr. Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges, was a man of average height. His short, thin legs supported a torso, which was at once solid and svelte. His head was the size of a small coconut, and he had a slender, flexible neck. He was a pantheist. His eyes used to flit from side to side, useless, impenetrable to sunlight but ready to receive the light of beautiful, good ideas. He spoke slowly, as if searching for adjectives in the darkness. How much will you bid?
To my great disillusion, they offered just 2,500 pesos for Borges’s melancholy tooth.
Hyperbolic Lot No. 10
Our final collectible lot, ladies and gentlemen, is a molar. Its owner still walks this earth with the parsimony of a mythological animal and the ungrounded spirit of an eternal phantom. The tooth belonged to Mr. Enrique Vila-Matas, and before it existed, it was written. Let me explain. The aforementioned Mr. Vila-Matas once dreamed that one of his molars fell out while he was asleep and that a man named Raymond Roussel came into the bedroom, woke him up by shouting like a sergeant major, providing him with a series of unreasonable bits of advice related to his eating habits. Before going back out through the door, Raymond Roussel picked up the tooth lying among the sheets and put it in the pocket of his jacket.
The following morning, Mr. Vila-Matas felt his teeth to check if he had in fact lost one. They were all present and correct. Being a somewhat superstitious man, he then decided to write a story to avoid the possibility of this loss ever happening in real life.
Several years later, while eating king prawns with his friend Sergio Pitol, in the town of Potrero in Veracruz State, Mr. Vila-Matas told Pitol about the episode with the tooth. However, in the middle of his story, a molar did in fact come loose, and fell into his plate of king prawns. Mr. Sergio Pitol, who is a man of great wisdom and mysticism, asked Vila-Matas to give him the molar, as he knew a shaman in the town who buried the teeth of the best men and women, and with them conducted a white magic ritual that guaranteed they would be preserved for sweet eternity in human memory. Mr. Vila-Matas handed it to him with a degree of reluctance, but finally trusting that his friend would keep his word.
That Potrero shaman was my uncle, the illustrious Cadmus Sánchez, son of my paternal great aunt Telefasa Sánchez. When my uncle Cadmus died a few years ago, his son, my cousin, an idiot who deserves no further mention, rang to tell me that his father had left me something in his will and that if I wanted to claim my inheritance, I should come to Potrero at once. I boarded a bus that same night.
My uncle Cadmus, as you will have by now guessed, had left me the collection of infamous teeth that he had buried under a beautiful mango tree on the outskirts of Potrero. In a note, he explained that the ground was going to be expropriated by the government within a few months in order to build a power station. So he charged me with digging up the sacred teeth and seeking a brighter future for them. Here we find ourselves, dear parishioners, and here we find the final tooth of the collection. The respected Mr. Vila-Matas’s molar. Who will open the bidding?
The honest truth is that I don’t remember how much I got for it. I was at the very peak of the stupor brought on by the almost toxic atmosphere of an, up to that point, successful auction. Auctioning is, for me, a highly addictive activity, just as gambling, certain drugs, sex, or lying is for others. When I was young, I used to come out of public sales with the desire to sell off everything: the cars I saw in the street, the traffic lights, the buildings, the dogs, people, the insects that distractedly crossed my field of vision.
The parishioners were equally intoxicated by the stupefying humors of the auction. They wanted more. It was obvious: they wanted to go on buying. And I like to please people, not out of submissiveness and an excess of deference, but because I’m a considerate, affable sort. For want of more pieces, I decided, in a stroke of genius that can be attributed to the zeal that had taken hold of me, to auction off myself.
I am Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, I said. I am the peerless Highway. And I am my teeth. They may seem to you to be yellowed and a little worse for wear, but I can assure you: these teeth once belonged to none other than Marilyn Monroe, and she needs no introduction. If you want them, you will have to take me along too. I gave no further explanation.
Who will open the bidding? I asked in a quiet, calm tone, catching Siddhartha’s eyes, fixed on me.
Who will open the bidding for me and my teeth? I repeated to an undaunted audience. A hand went up. Exactly what I’d imagined occurred. For the price of 1,000 pesos, Siddhartha bought me.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney.
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City in 1983. Her writing has appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney’s. Her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and her collection of essays, Sidewalks, were both published by Coffee House Press in 2014. The passage above is excerpted from The Story of My Teeth, forthcoming in September 2015.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee