A conspiracy


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 from here.

The Avenida 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.

            The 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 articles.

            In 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.

            The 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 perfect uselessness.

            Maybe 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.

            Not 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.

            Amid of 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 different planet.

            Señor 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.

            I told 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!”

            “I have never given the matter much thought,” I said.

            “I hope 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.”

            I noticed he kept a distance from the direct influence of the watches but continued to eye them suspiciously.

            “Who 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?”

            “That 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.”

            My 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 ventured.

            “You are not the first to express this objection, although others used more . . . mathematical arguments. Even against them I firmly held my ground.”

            At that 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.

            But I 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.

            “The 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 us.”

            “You 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.”

            “So in your opinion people were able to remember their past better when there were no clocks or watches?”

            “But of 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.”

            “Burton is commonly known as not to be peculiar about the truth.”

            He 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?”

            “My 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.”

            Again 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.

            As I 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.

            “We’re 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.

            “Do as 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.”

            I 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?”

            He 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.”

            “I was wondering if the quantity of one’s recollections is a consequence of – how shall I put it – one’s personal qualities?”

            He 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.”

            “May I ask: is this a theory considered over a long period of time, or just now improvised?”

            “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.”

            “So you have considered this matter thoroughly.”

            “I have 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.”

            “A famous writer, to whom this city is very close, would certainly be interested to hear your theory, señor Fronesis. Have you contacted this man?”

            It was 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.”

            “And that is?”

            “To 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.”

            “It’s only a literary project, nothing more. Literature cannot find truth. It can only sum up so many beautiful lies.”

            “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 doing.”

            I could 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.”

            He did 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.

            “There 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 theories solely.”

            Again the old shop-owner approached us, possibly alarmed by the high tone of our voices, fearing trouble and wanting to safeguard his possession.

            “Is one 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.

            Señor 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.

            The old 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?”

            For a 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.

            “Such a bizarre character,” the proprietor said. “Not a personal friend of yours, I hope.”

            “He knew his classics well,” I said, feeling some sort of obligation to defend the erratic behavior of señor Fronesis against partly unmentioned attacks.

            “So it seems,” the old man said. “Where you interested in acquiring a Breitling? They date from before the war. Original models, but indestructible.”

            I 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?


© Guido Eekhaut




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