By Alicia Steimberg
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
[Editor’s Note, June 20, 2012: Four days ago the wonderful Argentinian Jewish writer, Alicia Steimberg, died unexpectedly. During the preceding months, she and I were in touch a number of times because an excerpt from her novel, Innocent Spirit, had been accepted for the upcoming (August 2012) issue of Jewish Fiction .net. Steimberg was delighted. She was also delightful. Even in the short time we corresponded, it was obvious what an unusual person she was: full of warmth and completely unpretentious.
Under the circumstances, in order to honour Alicia Steimberg’s memory, we are publishing her fine novel excerpt here on its own. In addition, at the end of this excerpt you will find a tribute to her (”Remembering Alicia”) written by her translator, Andrea G. Labinger, whom Alicia identified to me as her “favourite translator”. May Alicia Steimberg’s memory be a blessing.]
High school is over. There are farewells, laughter, and tears. All my lies are still intact. I’m a student of unknown origin, with no religion, no important ancestors. I wear a serious, responsible expression, I shine my shoes regularly, I wash my hair with a shampoo whose fragrance I’ll never forget: it’s the scent of springtime, which invades me as I bathe under the shower that’s warmed by an alcohol burner, and sing Bing and Frankie tunes while getting ready to go to a party. I’m a klutzy dancer, but I dance till I drop. I have fleeting romances whose greatest attraction consists of describing them to Rosario on the phone.
But no, that came later, much later: right now I’m one of those girls who wear cotton anklets and low-heeled shoes and stare at Ana Cristina’s silk stockings and high heels out of the corner of their eyes. I go back and forth, whirling between lessons, recess bells, and B-plus grade point averages. My mind is full of holes where knowledge ought to be. I focus on Señorita Granate’s tits as she recites Alfonsina Storni’s verses for us in Literature class. Granate must have her bras made to order at the Venerable House of Porta. Another thing I’ll never forget is the day when Señorita Granate, who taught us algebra in senior year, came to class with a black eye. Matilde hid behind the abnormally large head of a student who enrolled in the school on the Minister’s recommendation.
“God punished her,” Matilde whispered, choking on her own laughter. “God punishes...”
Catholicism is the only decent religion. Judaism is ridiculous and embarrassing; Protestantism is trivial and foreign. Helen and Mary Brown, the two English Protestant girls in our class, are friendly. They smile at me endlessly, as if begging my pardon for their aberrant faith. When winter comes they start knitting sweaters that they never finish; when the real cold sets in, Mary shows up in a strange, green felt scarf with embroidered roses on it. We all watch her with the most uncompromising malice; finally, Matilde strikes the right note (no metaphor intended) and figures it out: the scarf is the Brown family’s piano keyboard cover. This incident demolishes my idea that all English people are rich. That, and the humbleness of the Browns’ house in Villa Devoto, the shadowy figures of the parents, two British phantoms that cross the decrepit dining room where we have tea.
In our group there are twenty-two more or less devout Catholics, two Protestants, and one Greek Orthodox girl. Isabelle (God knows why they gave her that French name; she’s Greek) does what she can to garner some prestige for her religion; to accomplish this, she insists on its great similarity to the Roman Apostolic Church. Isabelle’s Spanish is labored, as if all the syllables were accented. She says that in the rituals of her religion it’s not only the priest who drinks the consecrated wine, but also the faithful, all from the same chalice.
“And-it’s-not-dis-gus-ting,” she adds.
In any case there are very few truly religious girls, and among those I count as Catholics there is at least one freethinker and an agnostic. They’re atheists, in fact, but you can’t say that word at school. The Religion teacher holds out some hope of saving those who belong to other creeds if one day they come to embrace the True Faith, but for atheists there is no salvation.
Sometimes I’m a fervent Catholic. I believe that after I die, I’ll go to Heaven or Hell, or maybe Purgatory, but for sure I’ll go someplace. I believe that the Jesus of statues, religious stamps, and picture books exists, and that he spends all day watching me to see what I’m doing. And yet I sin. I sin and sin again; I strike my chest and say. “Oh my God I am heartily sorry.”
After graduation I land a substitute position in a convent school. I’m fascinated by the corridors of immaculate mosaic tiles, the stained glass doors leading to the chapel. Sometimes I arrive early and chat with the sister who acts as doorman. The girls at the school claim that she’s the soul of goodness: she lets the students escape at night to meet their boyfriends. Only two get pregnant and are returned to their parents. No one can explain this phenomenon because the girls would sooner kill themselves than denounce their Galician angel of mercy. The doorman sister was born in Galicia and has only one desire in life: to go back to her country before she dies. She tells this to me while placing a little package in my hands.
“It’s stale pan dulce,” she says. “But if you add milk and eggs to it, you can make a very tasty bread pudding, exquisite...” and she closes her eyes as if in ecstasy. “A very good, pious woman gave it to me. . .”
The students attend Mass in the chapel every morning at seven. I envy the students, the nuns – I envy their habits, the uniforms, the watery soup, the frigid mornings at Mass. . . that’s what being Catholic is! The crucified Christ smiles at them when I’m not looking; as soon as I turn my back, he changes his suffering expression to a companionable smile and offers them the Kingdom of Heaven.
I don’t know if the doorman sister ever returned to Galicia. But she surely ascended to Heaven after she died, and Saint Peter let her in without asking to see her papers, while he opened the package of stale pan dulce that Sister had just deposited into his hands.
Someone’s getting married, and we’re invited to the reception. It’s a Jewish wedding, but that doesn’t matter, as long as I don’t mention it at school. After the marriage ceremony we find ourselves seated at long tables, waiting for the food. They’ve put me next to a group of fancily dressed, heavily made-up young ladies. I have my illusions that later on somebody will ask me to dance, which doesn’t happen. As it’s a spring evening, I’ve arrived bare-legged (without those wretched anklets). My table mates are talking about guys, whether certain guys have phoned them or not.
“Hey,” says a coral-painted mouth to an ear adorned with a costume jewelry hoop. “Hey, guess what! He called me.”
I’m flabbergasted. I don’t understand why a girl would get so excited about someone named Moishe. But they pay no attention to me. It seems that Moishe has been playing hard-to-get and hasn’t called that girl for the past few days. She doesn’t call him, either, so he won’t get a swelled head, and the tactic seems to have been successful: at last he calls and asks her out. They keep on discussing similar situations between other girls and other guys. It looks like these people spend half their time sleeping and the other half phoning or not phoning one another.
At first I eavesdrop surreptitiously, looking down at my plate or at some bottle, but without realizing it, I’m gradually inching closer, and as I become more intrigued by the conversation, I tilt more and more in their direction, staring directly at the one who’s talking, shifting my eyes back and forth like at a tennis match.
“And then what?” asks the coral-colored lips.
A pair of gray eyes, corresponding to the vermilion mouth that was about to respond, glares at mine. My cheeks are burning; tears spill down my face. I want to disappear or explode like a bomb beneath the table and make all the horrible young ladies go flying through the air.
After a while, I watch them out of the corner of my eye. They keep on chatting brightly; they’ve forgotten me, just as you forget a fly that you’ve just shooed away a few seconds before.
When the dinner is over, I get up from the table and don’t approach anyone else. I don’t sit in the chairs that ring the dance floor, either. I just stand there, gazing at some random object as if it fascinated me. After a while I move to another spot and start thinking about another object; for example, the wedding cake, made of cardboard, or the huge Star of David formed by tiny light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
The following Monday at school I mention that I’ve been to a wedding, and they ask me in what church the religious ceremony was held.
“They didn’t get married in church,” I reply. “They’re agnostics.”
“It isn’t true.”
“It can’t be. It simply can’t be.”
“Yes, it’s a fact. Matilde leaves her used sanitary napkins under the dresser. The maid complains, and rightfully so.”
“But it can’t be.”
And yet something tells me that it can. I remember how Matilde carries around a cruddy piece of paper in her pocket, and when you ask her what she’s got there, she shows you the contents: face powder. And an equally cruddy piece of string, the kind you use for tying packages, sticks out of the collar of her school smock. I try to pull it off, thinking it got caught there by mistake. But it’s tied in a knot.
“What’s that, Matilde?”
Matilde smiles, pokes her hand around inside the neck of her smock, and shows me a medal of her favorite saint dangling from the string. I remember my visit to her house, the pile of empty bottles on the patio. Anything is possible.
Then I’m not the only one who’s miserable?
But we never discuss our respective misery. In our class there are at least two girls who are driven to school by a private chauffeur. It’s a sure bet they don’t leave used sanitary napkins under their dressers. And they don’t carry a thermos with hot coffee and milk into their bedrooms, either, in order to be able to get up in the icy mornings when it’s colder inside the house than out.
I never mentioned that business about the thermos, but it was a great invention. I used to place it on a chair beside my bed, and when the damn alarm clock went off, I’d stretch out one arm, trying to wake up as little as possible, and pour some coffee with boiling milk, already sweetened, into a cup I’d left on the chair for that purpose. Once the hot café con leche had run down my gullet, I would be alert and brave enough to climb back underneath the covers and remove my nightgown. Then I’d stick out my arm, grabbing and putting on, one by one, the items I’d laid out so carefully the night before, like the thermos and cup: my underpants; the garter belt – a hateful garment that served to hold up stockings and which was always missing some hook or fastener. Petticoat, shirt, skirt, sweater, stockings. Once my stockings were on, I’d poke my legs out from the warmth of the bed, exposing them to the frigid bedroom air, in order to put on my shoes. Overcoat, scarf, cap, and off I’d go to the bathroom. Crossing the patio in that temperature was no less complicated than crossing Avenida Nueve de Julio. I returned to my bedroom for the thermos, carried it into the kitchen, and consumed the rest of the café con leche, this time with bread and butter. I grabbed my book bag and headed for the street. It was as dark and freezing as midnight. Once, because I had set my alarm clock incorrectly, I arrived at school an hour early. I had to wait for them to open the doors, and then I entered the empty vestibule. At least I had a roof over my head, although inside it was even colder than it was outdoors. In the vestibule there was a group of reproductions of Impressionist paintings. I studied them in detail, one by one. They had a lot of foliage, but not a single human figure. Much later another student came along, and then many others. Some arrived without gloves, their hands swollen with chilblains, like Francisca, the one who danced the muñeira. Others had pretty, knitted Angora gloves. We all chatted until the head monitorarrived, a woman whose mere glare was sufficient to cause chills, even in summer. But it was early and school hadn’t officially started yet: she smiled. A bell rang and we filed out to the patio to sing the hymn. Then to our classrooms.
As she calls the roll, our monitor keeps her free hand in her pocket and hops around a little. She’s cold, too. This year our classroom faces the street. The window’s very high, so from our desks we can’t manage to see the people passing by. You might say this is a kind of jail, and we can only guess at the faces of the free people walking around out there. But it’s not true. This isn’t my prison: it’s my freedom. In here, I’m not who I am, but who I want to be, or rather, I’m the most presentable part of myself. I’ve left at home the Jew, the sinner, the girl who replaces the missing fastener on her garter belt with a safety pin, the one who prepares her thermos of café con leche to face the icy mornings, the one who thinks about penises, vaginas, and coituses. To school I bring the nice, lively girl, the one who knows how to make the others split their sides laughing, the one who says she’s Catholic, although nobody believes her, the one who invents lies about her ancestors, but who, on the whole, is acceptable and even envied, because now that the clouds of her earliest years have parted, she understands everything and can even explain it. I’m sixteen years old, seventeen. I’m split in two pieces that are, nonetheless, irreconcilable, and for a long period of my life I’ll go on that way: split in two.
Copyright © Alicia Steimberg 2012. Translation copyright © Andrea Labinger 2012.
Su espíritu inocente was published in a single volume together with Músicos y relojeros in 1992.
Alicia Steimberg (1933-2012), author, educator and translator, received numerous literary awards throughout her career. In 1983 she was awarded a Fulbright to join the International Writing program at the University of Iowa. She conducted frequent lectures and workshops at universities in the United States and Latin America. Several of her books have been translated into English and other languages. Her childhood and adolescence have been portrayed mainly in her first two books, Músicos y relojeros (Musicians & Watchmakers) and Su espíritu inocente (Innocent Spirit). Her bibliography can be consulted at www.aliciasteimberg.com.ar.
Andrea G. Labinger (the translator) has published numerous translations of Latin American prose fiction. Her most recent work includes Ana María Shua’s Death as a Side Effect (Nebraska, 2011); Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012); and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis, 2012). The University of Nebraska Press will publish her translation of Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation this fall.
By Andrea G. Labinger
The first time I saw Alicia Steimberg was in 1998. I had invited her to my university in order to participate in a series of lectures on “Latin American Literature of Displacement” sponsored by a James Irvine Foundation Grant. In a sense we already knew each other, though, thanks to a long, spirited email exchange and her winsome photo as it appears on the flyleaf of her first novel, Músicos y relojeros, which I was translating at the time. Although I didn’t yet realize it, the diminutive, smiling figure that burst through the gate at LAX would become an indelible figure in my life.
After that initial meeting many others followed: some in California, some in Buenos Aires, one in Guadalajara, at a Latin American Women Writers’ conference. In between, there was always conversation, usually electronic. For a while I kept hard copies of all our correspondence because Alicia’s emails, no matter how trivial the topic, were always amusing and supremely literary. The folder eventually became unmanageable, and I got rid of it. How I wish I had it now.
Of those years I retain a collection of images, seemingly random but still vivid, of some moments Alicia and I spent together, mental snapshots that illustrate more clearly than any curriculum vitae the essence of that formidable woman who was my friend Alicia. I recall, for example, a hellish car trip we made together from the University of California at Santa Barbara back to my house in Claremont, following Alicia’s presentation to a group of graduate students. The freeway was a blazing parking lot that afternoon, a diabolical snarl reminiscent of Cortázar’s short story “The Southern Thruway.” Half an hour passed, an hour, without any discernible progress. I sweated and swore, fearing we’d never get home. Just as I was beginning to fantasize about becoming the life partner of the driver of a neighboring vehicle, Alicia flashed me a mischievous smile and said, “Well, there’s nothing we can do. I’ll sing you some tangos, Andreíta.” And, rolling down the passenger window, Alicia Steimberg, novelist and short story writer extraordinaire, threw back her head and in a limpid voice belted out one tango after another. In that simple, spontaneous gesture it was possible to catch a glimpse of some of the qualities that so endeared Alicia to everyone who met her: her lack of affectation, her vast knowledge of popular music (because after exhausting her tango repertoire, she followed up with boleros and other popular songs for hours, as we inched our way down Highway 101), and a joie de vivre that excluded all bitterness or spite in favor of an overflowing enthusiasm for life and its absurdities.
Some years later, during yet another visit to the U.S., Alicia demonstrated her pedagogical talent by trying to teach our new dog, Sandy, to bark. It should be pointed out here that Alicia trained at a Teachers’ Institute and taught private writing classes until her death. She was a teacher to her marrow, as evinced by two recent publications of which she was very proud, Aprender a escribir (Learning to Write), Volumes I and II.When I confided that we were slightly worried about Sandy’s apparent lack of a bark mechanism, Alicia gladly accepted the charge of becoming his tutor. She sat him at her feet and patiently instructed: “Repeat after me, Sandy: Guau, guau” (Spanish for “woof, woof”), like the excellent language instructor she was, until she finally elicited the desired sound. Somehow it seemed like the most normal thing in the world for this prize-winning prose stylist to be giving lessons to a scrawny, adopted shelter dog in the art of communication. Like most great souls, Alicia didn’t take herself too seriously.
She wasn’t intimidated by other people’s fame, either. At the University of La Verne, Alicia met former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who had earned his reputation as a firebrand and iconoclast in the 1960s and 70s. By the time he and Alicia crossed paths, Cleaver was at the end of his life and noticeably subdued. But his reputation surrounded him like an aura, and most of us were somewhat in awe of him. Not Alicia. When Cleaver walked into the lecture room late, interrupting Alicia’s talk and riveting the audience’s attention on him, she simply smiled, waved, and said, “Oh, hello. It’s so nice to see you. Thank you for coming,” and went on with her discussion. I have a photo of the two of them together: the tall, regal-looking ex-militant and the petite Argentine novelist, both smiling, both revolutionaries in their own way.
But it was in Buenos Aires, her native city, where Alicia was most at ease, most relaxed. I’ve had the privilege of wandering along the streets of that great city in her company, while Alicia pointed out the churches, cafés, and parks that occupy the pages of her books. There, the allusions that had previously been just verbal icons for me suddenly became sounds, smells, vital experiences. Of course every three or four blocks we had to stop for an espresso, that potent Argentine libation that seemed to fuel her unflagging energy and which she described in The Rainforest as “one of life’s great pleasures.” Alicia never distinguished between the minutia of everyday life – the aroma of coffee, a recipe for pastel de papas, the intimate language of eroticism and the erotic intimacy of language – and her constant preoccupation with the “big,” transcendental questions. Cecilia, for example, the protagonist of The Rainforest, compares the incessant comings and goings of ants with the human condition: “I don’t admire or torture [ants] anymore, as I did when I was a kid, but sometimes, since I have nothing else to do with my time, I get the urge. To pick up an ant and place it way back at the end of the line, ever so carefully. How would I feel if an enormous hand were to lift me up and deposit me at the end of the line at the bank or the post office?” That enormous hand belongs, of course, to the Deity in whom Alicia sometimes believed and sometimes didn’t. It’s the elusive figure whose presence, called for or not, can be felt behind all her existential speculation, linguistic games, frank humor, and anguished, hopeful characters. It’s the stentorian voice that addresses the protagonist of Call Me Magdalena, asking: “Would you like to see my enormous Countenance outlined in the sky?” and to which she candidly replies, “I’d be scared shitless, immense God.” Moments later, when, despite Magdalena’s fears, the image of the Divine Face appears before her, they engage in a pleasant dialogue about the destiny of the Jews in the Hereafter, concluding that, although it’s “not mandatory” for Jews to go to Heaven, if they choose to go they’ll find no anti-Semitism there. In fact, adds the Lord reassuringly, “We’ve all learned a little Yiddish.” This perfect confluence of irreverence and seriousness is what I believe best synthesizes the essence of Alicia Steimberg’s work and characterizes the irrepressible ebullience of the woman. Querida Alicia, wherever you are, may the Divine Countenance smile upon you and may you sing on, not with some insipid heavenly choir, but to the accompaniment of the bandoneón, à duo with Gardel.