The Other Book by Luisa Valenzuela

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

God moves the player as the player the piece.
What God behind God opens this caprice of
dust and dreams and times and agonies?
     —Jorge Luis Borges, “Chess II,” from
     The Maker (translated by Robert Mezey)

My friend Liliana Heer managed to make a book materialize from the forbidden library. It’s impossible to know where the library is, or how—and when—Liliana managed such an unlikely feat. Time has finally attained its true dimension of imprecision between us—unlike space. But given that space is a homogenous entity, the forbidden library could be found anywhere in the universe, provided you achieve the exact but elusive focus of concentration. To some people it’s a miracle. We know it’s simply a matter of condensation, when your line of thought becomes a laser refined to a point of incandescence, which burns through the layer between us and the real like a cigarette through paper. The result is white hot knowledge.

I didn’t hold the book for long, hardly long enough for a cursory glance, but still it burned my hands. Even now I’m displaying the sinful stigmata, and being unable to erase or to hide them I’ve made up my mind to write down what I’ve read. And it’s with great pain, almost panic, that I write.

It was a book of short stories, and the stories seemed vaguely familiar, though something about them was disturbing, as if a sign had been changed. In the imprints on my hands the sign has been made flesh and I’m branded with the obligation to write, even though this brazen activity might cost me my life. The risk is huge, and I only dare undertake it in the dead of night, when all the other women in my block have gone back to their cells to abandon themselves to sleep—the only permitted form of abandon. There are seventeen of us women in each block. Liliana doesn’t belong in ours but I still try to meet her at nightfall, once the daily chores are over, when we can compare notes. Liliana is always a step ahead, I never know quite where; she managed to gain access to the forbidden library and lent me the book.

As I said before, I only had the book in my hands long enough for a quick glance—I musn’t run the risk of repeating myself and losing this secret opportunity to write, or allowing ideas to slip through my fingers like water. Though water is our element, we’re all women.

But I did have the book in my hands and now a terrible knowledge paralyzes me.

It seemed so harmless. The book, I mean.

But only superficially harmless, because bearing in mind where it came from, it was a time bomb (though as we said before, time is now controlled by parameters in which not even the word time is valid in the old sense).

I must hurry. What I’ve read terrifies me. And that terror is erasing my memory. I almost wish it could be erased completely, that something rather than someone (which is what will eventually happen) would tear from me the frightening memory of those writings in which our painstakingly constructed universe is transmogrified.

The Master finds mirrors abominable.

The reflective writing that I discovered in the book undermines the Master. And since the Master is eternal and immutable, it undermines all of us, merely for having glimpsed his other face.

A glance at the truth. First transformation.

The volume in question is in octavo, clothbound, printed in Madrid in 1882. Its pages were so brittle they crackled between my fingers and threatened to disintegrate completely. That’s perhaps what the henchmen of the forbidden library are hoping: that some day every single book will turn to dust, thus relieving them of the arduous task of keeping the books out of sight of everyone, away from the accessible world.

I held the book in my hands and now I know, and that knowledge is my downfall. The knowledge also enlightens me and justifies my days. For that reason I am writing, and because there is a faint hope that someone less fearful might read these few pages and continue the revelatory process that my writing has begun. I don’t hide my fear or my uncertainty. Nor do I claim to be brave. I’m no heroine, I’m just an ordinary woman; I don’t even know if the word heroine is complimentary in the new dictionary that we’re brooding over in the dark, in deadly secret, despite being cut off from access to the now forbidden library.

I think back to the book that Liliana found, but which only I steeled myself to leaf through so as to take my share of future punishment.

It was a simple book of very old tales that predated the coming of the Master. The book contained—unbelievable as it seems—all the stories.

I read them so hurriedly, and seized by such panic, that now I can only paraphrase the odd plot, foregoing their precise, parable-like style.

I can remember a few of the titles: The IntruderThe AlphaThe Sect of MedusaPetra Minardi, Author of the Sylvains.

Perhaps the simplest story is The Intruder, two sisters, isolated and embittered, are fighting over a man, almost an object, that the elder brought to live with her in the house and with whom the youngest falls in love. To say falls in love is a bit excessive; she becomes infatuated, thrilled and excited. They share him for as long as they can, but eventually rivalry and jealousy between the sisters becomes intolerable and drives them to an unexpected conclusion. The elder kills the man, and they both bury him, thereby eliminating the source of their discord.

The Sect of Medusa talks about the secret transmitted in olden days not from mother to daughter but from lower-class women—servants, prostitutes and wet nurses—to young girls starting out in life. Like everyone else, I know the secret, I know how the plot develops, a quick glance sufficed to confirm it.

Petra Minardi of course came as a surprise to me. How could a nineteenth-century courtesan reproduce certain lines written by a Jeromian nun in colonial Mexico without copying, memorizing or anything else? Could Petra Minardi be considered the Twelfth Muse?

The Alpha seemed to me the most successful story, the most disturbing in all senses. lt belongs to the ancient genre of the fantastic, which we now recognize as a significant precursor. The anonymous female author, unlucky in love, tells how she was led into the house of her dead lover to a cellar where, in the darkness, a small sphere, the Alpha, was revealed to her. The Alpha contains simultaneously all moments of the world, past and future, and in this sphere the protagonist finds her lover alive and also dead, the rival who is now lady of the house with the Alpha, the Alpha itself, the book that for a few terrifying moments l had in my hands and also the Master’s book, which a century later would reproduce the same stories with the sign changed.

In the lonely hours of the night I cannot get to sleep. Worse still, the very idea of dreaming terrifies me, the idea that in dreaming I might see the book again and remember the name of the woman who wrote it, the name I have forced myself to erase from my memory. I am contaminated by the sight of the book. I suspect that the whole vast library has been kept from our sight with one sole aim: the aim of hiding precisely that book. It’s no use my repeating in a somewhat twisted fashion the words of the Master:

“Which deity behind God opens the caprice…?”

Which Deity? I wonder.

The world is no longer the same for me since my rapid glance through that book.

People say you are nobody unless your reflection figures in a story. I’ve seen our reflection and my look has become feverish, affected by its glare. My female companions have taken to calling me Tiger’s Milk, without knowing why. When Julián comes to visitine, which happens with admirable regularity despite our feeble grasp of time, I will no longer be the woman he loves, nor the woman he loved. And not because of the branding on my hands, which will go unnoticed by him in the urgency of our embrace, always in the dark. Now I’m someone else because I know that I am included—that we women are all included—in the race of those who allow themselves to write, who begin the game, the game of rewriting the classics, not sacrificing the rival woman but the intruder, knowing the secret, having access to the simultaneous universe, playing at…

At not lowering my gaze at the merest mention of the Master’s name.

The stories were the same and yet somehow different, before the coming of the Master. So far only I know this; not even Liliana dared to open the book. The stories have become two-faced for me; I can throw them into the air and let them fall indiscriminately, heads or tails. A woman’s head, mostly.

It might be that Julián won’t stand for my departure from dogma. Or maybe hell understand and become caught up himself. Then we’ll both be different and no longer straitjacketed and at last we’ll see our naked bodies in the full light of day. And all thanks to the book, from whose source the Master drank. If there is always a before, it’s worth hoping that there is also an after. And then well really laugh, as they say the master used to laugh—and still does.

—From Escrito sobre Barges, 1999.

 

Translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh.

Fiona Mackintosh is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at The Queens University, Belfast. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis on Silvana Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik, whom she continues to research and translate.

 

—Luisa Valenzuela (born 1938) is one of Argentina’s most prominent contemporary writers; she has also achieved wide recognition in the United States, where she spent much of the eighties, teaching at Columbia and New York Universities. She has written six novels to date, of which the best known are Cola de lagartija (The Lizard’s Tail), and Novela negra con argentinos (Black Novel with Argentines). Her work is characterized by acerbic wit, irony and grotesque black humor, which she frequently uses as a way of dealing with the brutality of torture, repression and disappearances that were Argentina’s nightmare in the late seventies and early eighties. A declared feminist she also turns her piercing yet humorous gaze on social mores, whether within traditional fairy tales or in the rituals of the tango. In “B otro libro” (“The Other Book”), presented here, we see Valenzuela’s wit playful feminism and shrewd perception combined in a fictional transmutation of the Argentine legend that is Jorge Luis Borges.

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BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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