(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
One morning, the bus leaves the main road and turns into the roundabout. The entrance to the Villa. Alpine-style constructions. Tiled roofs. Real-estate offices. Farther on is the tourist information cottage. Now that the bus has slowed down, you can take in the grove on both sides of the road. For a moment you feel like you’re entering an enchanted forest. The wood and stone totem pole takes you by surprise. Some say it’s a reproduction of an Inca totem. It has the head of an eagle. Others claim that if you look carefully at the hieroglyphs, you can read a Tibetan message. At the tourist office they’ll tell you that the totem is a symbol of hospitality and advise travelers that they’ll find spiritual peace in this place. The older residents, the pioneers, those who settled here toward the end of the Second World War, Germans and Central Europeans, offer another version; they interpret the symbols and hieroglyphs differently. But they haven’t got the nerve to translate them. The totem has a function: to protect the residents from foreigners. When the newcomer’s eye meets the eagle’s, he feels intimidated. It’s a Nazi symbol, say the Villa old-timers. And they say it in a low voice, fearfully. Some say there never were any Nazis here. And when they say it, you think it’s themselves they want to convince even more than the visitors. What matters is spiritual peace. Everyone comes here, to our Villa, looking for that: spiritual peace.
The photos are in black and white, turned sepia by time, enclosure, humidity, saltpeter. Women walk clinging to their husbands’ arms, holding their children by the hand. All of them wear that armband with the star. Up close one can see the sign of a train station, platforms, railroad cars. Everywhere, uniformed soldiers with dogs. In other photos, some of those uniformed soldiers stand at attention while the prisoners clamber off the trains. There’s a building that looks like a factory, a smoking chimney. By way of contrast, some festive pictures, officers and women dancing, an orchestra, an officer sitting at a table raises his glass in a toast, and in another he sings, his arm around a woman’s waist. In another photo, skeletal corpses in a mass grave. In yet another, the same officer who was toasting and singing now fires at the head of a fallen boy. The photos are in a box in the basement of Don Manfred’s chalet. Don Manfred, that skinny, angular officer who’s firing his gun against the boy’s skull, almost unrecognizable if you compare him to the pale, fat guy he’s become. Gout, he suffers from gout. And never stops complaining. It troubles him that his gout keeps him from maintaining the chalet as he’d like: if only he could keep it as splendid as on the day he moved in and store the past in the basement. One of these days he’s going to burn all that stuff that gives the Jews so much to talk about, always going on about being persecuted. Who would’ve thought that the Moishes would become his bread and butter? Because when the season arrives and he has to rent out the place, the majority of renters are always the same, Moishes. The Libermans, a well-known psychiatrist’s family. The Feldmans, furriers. The Kleins, clothing manufacturers from the Once District. Every summer he rents to Moishes. Who can understand what pleasure the Moishes take in coming to this Villa, where the history of the Nazis and submarines during the war was no fairy tale.
In those days, as the Allies were winning the war, the three or four measly cabins started to multiply. Soon there were a dozen; the settlement grew, taking the shape of a Villa that was recommended by one friend to another among the Buenos Aires German community. During that same period the Hotel Wagner was built, with a movie theater, which, according to the old timers, showed The Triumph of the Will. It had a radio and a transmitter, which, they say, communicated with submarines along the Huns’ route. Here, at night, a twinkling of light could sometimes be seen where the sea met the sky. Nazi bigwigs disembarked, bringing with them the Führers’ gold; they carried passports, like I said, allowing them to return to Hamburg and come back again with more fugitives. Odessa, let’s call it. Everyone knows. No one tells.
The Villa guaranteed a healthy, natural life. The German women bathed naked in the sea. And the natives jerked off spying on the bare-ass Valkyries. The men were devoted to the hunt. The wild pigs ran away toward Mar de las Pampas. There, with nothing but a Luger and a knife, you could liquidate them.
But how about the attack Old Lady Schwartz had, the mother of Sergio the optometrist whose store is opposite Plaza 9 de Julio? The first summer she was here, she went to buy a strudel for her daughter-in-law, who was eight months along and had a craving. She went into the Viena Bakery. Just as Fat Frida was about to wait on her, Old Lady Schwartz ran out of the place. She returned home with her heart in her throat: she had a coronary and went mute. Dr. Cohan took care of her at the hospital. As he was examining her, he saw the brand from the concentration camp, the number. Since Cohan is a Landsman, he was able to translate what Old Lady Schwartz was saying. She had recognized the Kapo from Buchenwald. The next day the bakery was closed. And it didn’t open again till recently, when Tuquita, the lifeguard who came back from Ibiza with a Swedish chick and lots of cash, bought it. Nobody heard another word about Frida. A real shame. Because the strudel was delicious.
Every day there are more vagrants who sleep wherever night catches them: in an abandoned construction site, at the back of a warehouse, on a bench at the bus terminal. We know what winter nights are like here on the coast: sleet, frost, a cold that breaks your heart. Arno is different. Not only because of the way he’s put up with it through the years. Because he’s of a different race. Superior. He must be around eighty. Speaks a thick, fluent German. And around here everything German still means something. We’re not saying it’s like a family crest or something, but people look at you differently if you have German ancestry. That’s why Arno’s different from so many other homeless folks or vagrants who wander around town. Sometimes they pick on him. Out of pure spite. Fucking half-breeds.
Arno was a sailor on the Graf Spee. And yet nobody remembers a different Arno from the one we see on the main drag, looking for a place to lounge in the sunshine and spend hours there with a bottle, greeting everyone who goes by. Because Arno’s got class. He still keeps his dignity in spite of his poverty. He begs with refinement, as if doing you the favor of letting you demonstrate your kindness.
Because Arno knows that we treat him differently from the other tramps, like that pair of drunken half-breeds, him and her, who come at you with attitude. Violence, practically. If we toss them a coin, it’s more out of fear than pity. We give alms to many others out of disgust, to get them away from us. They stink with their filth, the stench of their wounds. It’s not like Arno doesn’t smell or that he lacks infected cuts and scrapes. It’s enough to see him close up: the scab she has on his face! More like from a beating than a fall. The half-breed kids, those pieces of shit. They can tell he’s different. And they beat him up. Regardless, even though he’s crippled, Arno smiles when he comes up to you, extending an open hand. A grimy, wounded hand. You can appreciate that class of his. Not like the half-breeds. It’s with them that the Villa started to decay. And later with the Moishes.
We spent several summer vacations here. We’ve always enjoyed it. The scenery, the forest, the dunes, the beach, and the sea. Edith and I always said that someday, when I retired, when we had enough saved up, we’d come here to live. But that day never came. Till we had no choice but to move. We were pressured by circumstances. Adapting, I mean really adapting, was very hard for us. It’s true we didn’t arrive at the Villa under the best conditions. And it’s also true that no one arrives here a winner, to take over the town, but rather in ruins, looking for a truce if not a getaway. We had a boy with Down Syndrome, Felipito. And Edith was getting over cancer. I quit the Bank. We sold the house we had in Almagro. And so we settled in the Villa. We rented a small chalet and I converted the car into a private taxi, while Edith set up a kiosk on 3rd. Felipito lent a hand as best he could. But nobody bought from us. Felipito spooked them.
We would get up early, drink some mates, and leave the house. After I dropped Edith off at the kiosk with Felipito, I would pick up my first passengers: school kids. Starting my morning off with the kids didn’t exactly make for a happy day. Why wasn’t Felipito like them, normal, I’d wonder. Why did this misfortune happen to us? Why, God? But it did me no good to think about that.
My co-workers at the limo rental agency kept their distance. You’re not suited for this, Sergio, the owner, told me one day. Why don’t you go find something else, he asked. He didn’t offer any other explanations. Things weren’t going much better for Edith. She couldn’t even make one friend on the block. Our savings were dwindling. Too many kiosks, a cookie vendor told her. You guys are new. And people prefer what’s familiar. Besides, you’ve got the boy with that problem. You should take him to one of those special places.
The neighbors made us feel the same indifference. Our greetings were returned with a grumble or a nod, avoiding us.
Till that morning when the swastika appeared on the side wall. Get out dirty Jews, the painted letters said. That night Edith asked if we could move somewhere else. I was opposed. We’re going to fit in here, no matter what it takes. I went to the police station to file a complaint. Pérez is spelled with a “z,” the cop behind the counter told me. My last name has no “z.” It’s an “s.” Then you’re a Jew. No, I’m not a Jew, I lied. And I challenged him: If you want, I’ll show you, bringing my hands to my fly. The cop laughed. It’s not necessary, amigo. I believe you.
The following Sunday we went to church. They stared at us. As if they knew what had happened at the police station. But they stared at Felipito even more. Christian piety. That Sunday our relationship with the people began to change. They even started to like Felipito; they gave him gifts all the time.
Exclusive interview with The Skinheads:
We Skinheads don’t just shave our heads. We also shave off consumerism. What we do is a fusion of reggae with a kind of dark country. Which is what the soundtrack of the Villa would be if it was a film. Reggae and dark country, darker than anything else, is what you feel here in the off-season. The lyrics are Melanie’s, they’re all Melanie’s. Melanie’s our muse. “Blood in Your Eye” is the number we get asked to play the most because it’s a love song and a song of rage. And it talks about what’s happening to us. We’re bald as a tribute to Luca: your society turns our stomachs. Because we’re skinheads they say we’re Nazis: prejudice, like everything else. What we believe is that Hitler had his positive vibe; he wanted to do away with borders and for all of us to be superior. We say the same thing in “Phoenicians,” which has our most social lyrics. But basically what matters to us is that the group sounds supercool and the lyrics stick. One that’s very popular is “Superior Feelings,” which is our opening number. People criticize the swastika on our drums because they don’t understand what we’re all about: the Gammadion is a symbol of energy that comes from India. That’s why our dream is to play in Katmandu. In the seventies, when our parents were into the counterculture, we would’ve picked up a submachine gun. But the weapon of our generation is music. Let the guitar sound like an Uzi.
The Cultural Encounter, also known as the Festival of Cultural Diversity, as the traditional Día de la Raza is called nowadays, will take on a new dynamic this year. The announcement was made by a spokesman for the city, declaring that the celebration, as usual, will count on the support of the Villa’s various communities: the German Club, the Spanish Club, the Unione e Benevolenza Society, among the most prominent groups in the community. Our mayor, Alberto Cachito Calderón, our dear Cachito, also announced some news that affects us all: the traditional festivities will enjoy a significant contribution from the Lebanese community, which will sponsor the appearance of popular music figures. The Lebanese community plans to settle among us and also generate financing for public works through a contract with Dobroslav Construction. On the one hand, this act is in recognition of our hospitality, and on the other it means a capital investment in projects that are being discussed in the highest municipal circles. Although Engineer Dobroslav refused to provide details about the scope of the project, he let slip that the investment will surprise our Villa. The city Financial Department likewise said it should be emphasized that the Lebanese community’s support and investment will help defray the loss suffered this year by the cancellation of the traditional Maccabean Festival.
Mimí Borowicz, like all of them when they’re kind of cute, thought she was too good for us. And she hooked up with Norbert Brandsen, the one from La Marea theater group, from Casa de la Cultura. Or rather, the one who hooked her up was Brandsen. Every afternoon, when he passed Mimí’s Fashion World on the way to his classes and rehearsals, he eyeballed Mimí and Mimí eyeballed him. They started exchanging hellos. Brandsen didn’t waste time. He walked into the place and came directly to the point. He asked her if she was planning to spend her whole life waiting on customers in a third-rate boutique, or if she’d rather aim for a more secure future in the dramatic arts. With a single glance, Brandsen knew how to recognize a temperament suited for the art of the stage. And Mimí dreamed of making her debut in a theater on Avenida Corrientes.
It didn’t take Brandsen even two classes to get into her pants.
We’ve all got contradictions, Mimí explained to Norbert. You know I’m a Yid—only you and no one else. I tell everyone I come from a Polish Catholic family. And since Jere’s father’s name was Ramírez, I was able to register him at Nuestra Señora. You’re a real bohemian, and as an atheist you won’t understand. Besides, Jere needs a father. And you’ll never leave your wife to commit to a serious relationship and all that. You might think I’m the one who needs a father for him: think whatever you want, Norbert. What’s so terrible if they teach him religion? After all, like it or not, religion teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong. I want the boy to turn out right. And no matter how much I love the theater, I admit I’d rather have him be a doctor or a lawyer than a failed actor directing a little bunch of clowns in a small-town theater. And I’m telling you nicely, straight out. Because I adore you and I know I can’t be this direct with anyone else. I adore you.
Right there, in Madariaga, Dante says, there was a metal-can company that had unusual technology for its time. They say that’s where they packed the food rations that the submarines came to this beach for. They also came for passports for officials on the run. And when some people tell you they’ve heard stories about radio transmitters and lights on the sea, they’re not lying. Nor are they lying—though it might be an exaggeration—when they talk about Strauss’s house, in whose basement documentation of the camps was found. It’s no coincidence that, after the sinking of the Graf Spee in the Battle of Río de la Plata, at the end of the war, two German submarines surrendered, not very far from here, at the port of Mar del Plata. And when the German set up his Parque Idaho, a summer sports colony, one might well ask why he promoted it among the German community and so many Osram employees came here. Sure, Idaho is a name with North American associations and he gave that name to his territories because an uncle of his, the painter, had lived there. Let’s think: what better alibi than that name. Our dear and honorable Villa formed part of the Ratlines. You won’t find proof, Dante affirms. Not one bit. No one will risk giving you any. They assume. Here everyone assumes. Of course: they assume and it’s assumed. They report and it’s reported. But no one saw a thing here. Same as what’s happening with the abused kids at Nuestra Señora. If you’re looking for threads to connect the creation of a Nazi town with los abusaditos, all right, there is a connection: silence.
Who told me, you want to know. You know I keep my mouth shut. Don’t ask me how, but I know, and it’s more than just a rumor . . . It’s a bummer, because they filled the hotels and restaurants and dropped a pile of dough in the Villa. This year, no fucking way. I’m not a racist. I’ve got nothing against them. Especially if you consider the dough, because they spent lots of it on the festival.
And now, you know whose fault it is they’re not coming back, ’cause the ragheads, the Arabs, aren’t dumb. The Arabs kept them from coming. I don’t mean because of that attack on the AMIA. I mean because since everyone is racist here and hates the Moishes even though they spend good money, the people from City Hall preferred to deal with the Arabs instead of playing it safe. So we’re going to have a festival for the Arab community. I don’t know what it’ll be like, belly dancing contests, turban competitions, camel races in the dunes, go figure. And so the fucking Israeli assholes aren’t gonna come. So now tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do with a closed hotel in November.
And let’s hope the Arabs and the Yids won’t think this is the Middle East and blow each other up. And since we’ve got no shortage of sand here, maybe they’ll confuse the dunes with the desert and start launching missiles. Cachito tried to resolve the mess between them, but he couldn’t. The festival has to be for everyone, he said. Regardless of skin color. Money has no flag or homeland. And besides, this festival is a tourist opportunity, said Fernández of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. We’ve got to be inclusive. Because inclusivity means invoices.
Imagine that tomorrow there’s a nuclear disaster; a radioactive blast wipes out the Villa. Not even a parrot is left standing. Centuries go by. Centuries. Until life begins to regenerate once more. A young goatherd tending his goats discovers a cave. The cave is deep. Lighting his way with a torch, he goes inside to see what’s up. Till he trips over some piles of newspapers. Like I told you, the world has been reborn. And it was reborn illiterate, as is all new life. The boy looks at the letters with a blank face: they’re hieroglyphs to him. Though maybe he doesn’t even get what those marks are. But he can see the photos. And we’re in them. It’s a collection of El Vocero. The kid doesn’t understand the headlines: Abuses at a kindergarten. Scandal at Nuestra Señora. And he wonders who the men and women in that photo could be, serious types, one of them with a mustache, suit, and tie. It’s Cachito Calderón. Beside him is Alejo Quirós, so respectable. Our little goatherd, whose only garment is a loincloth made of animal hide, is curious about the clothing those anonymous dudes in the paper are wearing, though he has no idea what a newspaper is. Suddenly he gets a pressing urge to take a shit. And when it’s time for him to wipe his ass, he grabs the newspaper. With any luck, that will be the destiny of all we’ve done and do, our spontaneous scummy deeds and our belated redemptions, the memory of our presumed grandeur and the guilt buried in every conscience, what will remain of our shamelessness in the name of violated purity. And with luck, that too will be the fate of the articles I write in this newspaper, Dante says. Amen. If God exists. What do you think, he asks: Does He exist?