by Guido Eekhaut
At four in the
afternoon the Avenida Corrientes is the favorite dwelling place for
the idle clerks, pimps, pen-pushers and gamblers of Buenos Aires, a
city that only exists – as many whisper – by the grace of the Madonna
and in the imagination of an old, blind poet. The latter, filled with
a vision that his eyes could no longer behold, described her as a
collection of merely accidental and almost useless details: a blue
enamel tile veined with brown, a basalt spire to commemorate some
obscure mariner, a suburban villa lost between pines, a sword hanging
in a bar by way of a forgotten trophy.
He described her
thus, as if this city is no more than the sum of the most humble and
untraceable details, a mosaic of invisible temptations. His
description is the despair of those praising her for her broad
avenues, her majestic public buildings, her baroque colonnades, her
vast rampant gardens. Deliberately he remained ignorant of the
political storms of that early spring, of the strikes, inflation,
unrest and instability which the average citizen of this city had
learned to accept.
His description is
far from correct, neither is it complete, but at the same time it is
typical for the unique gift this city bestows on her most faithful
inhabitants: the gift to discern telling details in what would
otherwise have been an unwelcoming metropolis. Simultaneously the city
disavows this intention: she is unwelcoming for those who see
her as vast – the dusty boulevards where the trees give ample shadow,
and her chaotic public transport.
The poet cannot
change this vision. Whoever notices the details – the tile, the sword,
the villa, the basalt spire – may reach the pure level of the
esthetic, and becomes obsessed by the pure thought that transforms
Buenos Aires into the city of the tango, the Lunfardo, the
long-extinct Gaucho, the heroes from revolutionary times and the
longing for the incredible vast plain that waits only some mere miles
Carrientes is not nearly the grandest avenue, but as far as the inner
city is concerned it certainly is the most typical. It is often
compared, and not without good reason, with similar avenues in Berlin
and Paris. Every afternoon, irresistably, it attracts a swirling crowd
of people. Except on Sunday’s when it is almost deserted; even the
elderly people that frequent the city center avoid her on the Holy
Day. I have no explanation for this phenomenon, unless it can be
attributed to an irrationality that holds the life of this city and
its inhabitants in its power.
whole of the district around the Avenida Corrientes is the terrain of
choice of the petty gamblers and the corrupt officers of justice with
their silver badges. This specific terrain however is not solely
theirs; they are compelled to share it with invisible politicians and
financiers. The gamblers and officers are but the symbolic
representatives of a power that goes about elsewhere. The avenue
itself consists of a number of boutiques whose names echo these of
similar shops in Paris, London, New York. Bored wives, daughters and
mistresses of magistrates, oil-barons and financiers come here to play
the old game of seduction and money. Their victory in the game is only
certain when they return homeward with the most useless of consumption
between these boutiques one can find a small number of different
stores, in fact no more than run-down properties, where elderly men
sell objects seemingly originating from an altogether different and
forgotten age. They do not, in fact, sell these objects so much as
guard them jealously and suspiciously. Their squinting glare directed
at the passers-by is enough indication that they do not wish to sell
their possessions. The passers-by in their turn show not the least
interest in the exhibits behind the often dirty windows. They prefer
to exchange their hard-earned money for such treasures as dresses,
perfumes and scarves from Paris and London, Italian shoes, chocolate
from Belgium or Switzerland, German jewelry, Argentine leather.
objects in these small, dilapidated and dirty shops do not bask in the
patina commonly associated with luxury and wealth. On the contrary:
their patina constitutes of uselessness, because however antique they
may be, they seem to have foregone their function in this world. A
copper inkstand – while everyone uses fountain pens –, a mechanical
chronometer – while throw-away watches are in common use and tick away
time with easy an effort –, a bible-stand in wrought iron, a set of
military medals from the civil war, old maps, a copper oil-compass, a
sextant in a box of cedar-wood, a collection of silver coins. There is
much more, but all of it shares this unique characteristic: that of
that’s why the old men guard so carefully their possessions and refuse
to part with them – in full contradiction with the mercantile
intention of the neighborhood –: they comprehend how useless these
objects are, and have therefore no intention of seeing them going
lost, as orphans, in the modern world.
surprisingly all of these shops are doomed to disappear, as are there
proprietors. They simply have no future, there is even no succession.
The youth is not inclined to follow in the footsteps of the elder,
whom they consider without ambition. They turn out engineers, gamblers
of railway conductors, clerks, stevedores, architects or
estate-agents. None of them has the intention to take over the shop
whenever an owner disappears. Whatever happens with the stock no-one
seems to know, but in the imagined landscape of the blind poet surely
many of these objects surface in unexpected parts of the city – or so
the story goes.
In one of these
shops, admiring two brass-colored Breitling watches, I came across
señor Fronesis, whom I took to be a former military man, because of
his straight back and his cropped hair. I even assume British
descendance. Like myself he was the ultimate melancholic, scavenging
the interior of these dusty so-called antiquarian shops filled with
the smell of talcum, for the treasures his forebears once had to sell
on account of financial difficulties.
all these old and negligible objects I felt indeed at home, at least
more at home than in the terrible heath of the streets that – from the
vantage point of this shop – seemed banned to the surface of a
Fronesis had little to tell about himself. Nevertheless he seemed
prepared to share my thoughts on the passing of time and the quality
of those Breitling watches. Both had many characteristics in common,
of course. At once this remarkable man launched a curious theory that
didn’t seem to make sense at all.
“Precisely these watches are responsible for the deconstruction of
time, dear sir,” he admitted with a deep frown. At this he glanced
suspiciously at both the Breitlings, which were stubbornly and in
admirable harmony ticking away the same seconds. They were safe from
him, tucked away in a glass cabinet.
him I was skeptical about his theory.
“Precisely: ever more faster changes and the exponential growth of
knowledge are the characteristics of the speeding up of time. And all
this not by coincidence in a century where the measuring of time has
taken on such monstrous proportions and has received such attention.
This can surely be no coincidence!”
never given the matter much thought,” I said.
not,” he replied. “If you would have taken the time to ponder this
matter you surely would have been overtaken by time itself. God only
knows what would have happened to you then. Now already the ticking
and clicking of these watches destroys time. Devours it, as it were.
Till what remains? Timeless chaos.”
noticed he kept a distance from the direct influence of the watches
but continued to eye them suspiciously.
will tell us how much time there still remains, dear sir? Have you
ever given this matter any thought? One day we will see the end of
time. Nothing further will remain: no more occurrences, no more life,
no more consciousness, nothing. The laws of thermodynamics, you know?”
would be a true disaster,” I admitted. “But that moment surely lies
far ahead of us, I assume. The universe is infinite, or nearly so.
There will certainly be enough time.”
proposition didn’t seem to appease him. He had probably come to these
exact conclusions himself, but had repressed them all the same.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “we do not know how much time there is for
us to go along in this universe. A most painful conclusion, but
inevitable.” His mouth twitched at this.
“Watches do not exist that long yet. Only a few centuries. They can
not possibly have done too much damage.” Suddenly I was willing to
accept his delusion without any reservation. Yes, even play a part in
this macabre game, accepting the role of the advocate defending all
too eagerly the devil.
Severely, he stuck his finger in the air. “But there are so many of
them! Millions of clocks and watches that cruelly, hungrily tick away
whatever is still left of time.”
“Nevertheless I think you confuse timekeeping with time itself,” I
are not the first to express this objection, although others used more
. . . mathematical arguments. Even against them I firmly held my
instance rationality and logical deduction seemed to be at the most
distant. Still I had to admit to myself that his theory possessed some
attractive qualities, something magical, not without poetical beauty:
watches eating away time. The blind poet that roamed the National
Library could not possibly have come up with a better story.
could not follow señor Fronesis in his argument. For a moment I had
allowed myself to become involved in his able rhetoric, and by his
aristocratic countenance. My common sense however told me not to take
this theory to the limit. It was the sort of theory expressed by
charlatans and schizofrenes that usually appears in those newspapers
catering for the sensational tastes of some of our compatriots. If I
had been a journalist I would have taken señor Fronesis to a
confiteria and written down his story, and I would duly have
written an article about it. But I was no journalist.
best proof of my theory,” he said somewhat melancholously, “is the
undeniable fact that we lose so much of our past when growing older.
Irrevocably we lose whatever we have been and whatever happened to
mean to say that we simply can remember less and less of our past.”
“However you want to define it. This forgetfulness cannot point but
towards a degrading of the past.”
your opinion people were able to remember their past better when there
were no clocks or watches?”
course they could. Have you read your classics? Was is not Seneca, in
one of his letters to Lucillius, who left us with an almost perfect
reconstruction of his childhood? And was it not the Chinese
philosopher Hui Tzu – who repeated the paradox of Zeno and the turtle
in his own parable of the stick one cuts in half every day only to
find out that the stick is infinite – who was able to remember exactly
what he ate on every morning of the week of his sixth birthday? Even
the British explorer Richard Burton described possessing a formidable
memory, even in an age where watches and clocks were already in use.”
is commonly known as not to be peculiar about the truth.”
shrugged. “There are ample other examples. The past used to be more
persistent in the old days than now. Can you remember what you ate
during the week of your sixth birthday?”
reply will not disappoint you: I have no recollection of it
whatsoever. But what does this prove? Nothing more than that some
people have a good sense of memory and others don’t.”
he cast a suspicious glance at the displayed chronometers, then
outside where pedestrians passed the shop, indifferent in the hot
midday air. Inside I felt like a chrononaut lost in some other era.
wanted to formulated another objection to his theory, the owner of the
shop, a tall, gaunt man, closed in on us. His face bore the same
dismissing expression all the owners of these shops display. He wore
an old dark suit, a shirt without collar or tie and yellow shoes. His
eyes were dull and unfocused. He emitted a smell of cheap eau de
cologne. He had suffered us long enough, so it seemed.
just looking round a bit,” I said, although I had selected an ivory
letter opener from his collection. I had promised myself to have a
look in one of the nearby secondhand bookshops after this visit, but
the conversation with señor Fronesis had taken up much more time than
I had believed possible.
you well please,” the old man grumbled. He sounded a stranger, as if
he had spend his youth in a foreign land. He shuffled away, displacing
an object here, another there, disturbing the dust as he did.
Fronesis eyed him with contempt. “Why we have to submit ourselves to
the suspicion of this kind of people, I really wouldn’t know. Very
soon this lot will have vanished from the city. Serves them well.”
ignored the obvious anti-Semitic tone of his remark, which did not at
all honor him. It was the same sort of remark one hears all too often
from the bourgeoisie. “And with him all these attractive little shops
will disappear, to the regret of people like us. Where will we then
search for old objects and rare books?”
shook his head. “The true lover of books and objects will always find
what he looks for. And as always he will find it by coincidence, not
by purpose. But meanwhile we deviate from our original subject.”
wondering if the quantity of one’s recollections is a consequence of –
how shall I put it – one’s personal qualities?”
shrugged. “Some people will possess a better memory than others, no
doubt. But you cannot ignore the burden of proof in this matter. Time
and again feats of strong memory, clear and ruthless like those the
classic writers have witnessed, are a matter of the past, and will not
be encountered any more.”
ask: is this a theory considered over a long period of time, or just
“Improvised?” he said, incensed, as if this was an offense. “It is not
my habit – never has been – to make this sort of statements without a
lot of preparatory research.”
have considered this matter thoroughly.”
done what anyone of my generation did in his younger years: I read the
classics, the grand philosophers, the great minds of our past, from
Plato to Spinoza. My theory took root slowly. It took her several
years to ripen, to become a logical system. No mere coincidence I use
these terms – root, ripen – because to me it was a biological process.
Such a theory is not composed in just a day’s thought.”
famous writer, to whom this city is very close, would certainly be
interested to hear your theory, señor Fronesis. Have you contacted
meant to be a innocent question, but it really annoyed him. “You are
not referring, I hope, to the current director of the National
Library, señor Borges?” He seemed to have lost his stride, as well as
the broad landscape against which he had wanted to display his theory.
“I do not like the man. He knows only one ambition.”
write the history of eternity! It is a deeply disturbing ambition. Can
you possibly imagine such monstrosity? Mankind has lost its entire
past, but this man wants to describe eternity.”
only a literary project, nothing more. Literature cannot find truth.
It can only sum up so many beautiful lies.”
Exactly the sort of thing he wants us to see by the way of reality.
You do remember his many essays on imaginary writers, I presume? That
man is disturbing the true foundations of reality, that’s what he is
hardly suppress a smile. “Exactly why I thought you would have a thing
or two in common with him. You are doing exactly the same.”
clearly not like my light-aired approach to the matter, as could be
judged from the evil expression on his face. The antipathy was rooted
deep. I had, without knowing it, made a terrible faux pas.
is,” he whispered, as if he did not want the occasional passer-by to
hear his wrath, “no single affinity between this gentleman and myself.
I can not even stand to pronounce his name. The man is an incorrigible
liar. I, sir, permit myself to be associated with true scientific
the old shop-owner approached us, possibly alarmed by the high tone of
our voices, fearing trouble and wanting to safeguard his possession.
of you gentleman interested in acquiring a Breitling watch?” he asked.
A most remarkable and unlikely proposition. For the first time in my
life I was offered to buy merchandise in one of these shops.
Fronesis abruptly turned towards the man. “Can you remember what you
ate on the morning of your sixth birthday?” He could not manage to
keep the disdain out of his voice.
man frowned. He thought this a most remarkable question. But he did
not want to offend his already excited visitor. “On the morning of my
sixth birthday – and I can remember this as if it were yesterday – I
had goats cheese on rye, and a pint of milk along with it. That had to
do till evening. Two meals was all we had in those days. Hard work and
off to school, that was it. Can this satisfy your curiosity?”
long moment a painful silence filled the store, all the more
remarkable for the noisy pedestrians passing by outside. Then, and
with remarkable self-control, Señor Fronesis turned towards me and
grunted: “This is a conspiracy. I warn you: a conspiracy.” He would
have added something were it not for the presence of the proprietor.
He stiffly made a half-turn and left the store with the shocked
dignity only a real aristocrat could muster.
bizarre character,” the proprietor said. “Not a personal friend of
yours, I hope.”
knew his classics well,” I said, feeling some sort of obligation to
defend the erratic behavior of señor Fronesis against partly
seems,” the old man said. “Where you interested in acquiring a
Breitling? They date from before the war. Original models, but
glanced at the watches. A few moments ago they had shown remarkable
unity in displaying time. Now, one of them was slow by a full minute.
Was it a conspiracy after all?