The earliest memory I have of my father is of him riding the bicycle he used for getting all around town, even to its farthest limits, carrying a very long ladder on his shoulder. I don’t think this scene would have stuck in my mind without its most salient feature: the ladder. It was a wooden ladder, at least four yards long (I don’t want to exaggerate), and balancing such a cumbersome piece of equipment while riding a bike must have required a certain skill, or at least regular practice. If my father ever fell off, or had an accident, he didn’t mention it at home.
I discovered all this much later actually, after the demise of Peronism, when my family, along with so many others, had fallen back to its fated place. I found out almost by guesswork, starting from those dubious memories of early childhood. Are they memories or inventions? You can never really know. I had to guess because at home we never spoke of the past. The Revolución Libertadora brought down an impenetrable curtain, woven from threads of the shameful dream of becoming middle class, a dream that turned out, on waking, to be as indecent as a sexual fantasy. Also, it would have been awkward to talk about that past because the word Perón had been prohibited by decree, and the prohibition was respected even in the privacy of the home. My parents never spoke that word again. No one did, and I wonder how I even knew it existed. Naturally I had often heard it during the first six years of my life, and its subsequent elimination (I didn’t speak it either, not even mentally) gave it a special place. The elimination was so complete that I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, many years later, when I was finishing primary school: a girl from my class said, “Perón” . . . I felt as if an abyss had opened and was swallowing up my whole life. It’s inexplicable, although there must be some explanation. Of course it was possible to go on talking without using that word. Its absence was not an obstacle to communication in daily life because it wasn’t the name of something we might have needed to mention: it was a proper name, belonging to just one thing in the universe.
Although this elimination took place in every home in the country, in mine it had a precedent that made it more logical, or perhaps overdetermined it. This was something that happened before the Revolución Libertadora, so for me it is even farther back in the mists of early childhood. When I began to find out about it, much later on, it came as a surprise, and I couldn’t retrieve any memory to confirm the events in question. It turned out that in his youth my father had been a fervent Catholic. More than that, actually: he was fanatical, daily mass and daily communion, a true believer, a soldier in the legions of Our Lady . . . but after the events of 1954, when Perón broke with the clergy, never, not once in the rest of his days, did my father set foot in a church again. Strange as it may seem, in the conflict of loyalties between Christianity and Peronism, the second won out. If churches had been burned in Pringles as they were in Buenos Aires, he would have been there with a torch. Nine out of ten people would condemn this as retrospective hypocrisy, but I think I understand it, insofar as something so deeply strange can be understood. You have to bear in mind that in Argentina, as opposed to other Latin American countries, Catholicism never took root in the working class. It was always the prerogative of “respectable” people and fundamentally, I would say, of the highest strata of society; the agnostic middle class participated in the rituals out of respect for the patricians, or out of snobbery, to distinguish themselves from the dark and decidedly atheist masses, which meant that my father’s devout faith had been a complete anomaly and could only have been sincere. But he was a Peronist first: he had to choose and he chose Peronism. And the fact that he chose, rather than seeking a compromise or turning a blind eye, is irrefutable proof of his sincerity.
Perhaps I can make this clearer by explaining how I found out. It was, as I said, many years later; I must have been a teenager. One day, by chance, I overheard two ladies from the neighbourhood who were sitting in a parked truck having a conversation. This might seem odd, but a lot of truck drivers lived in that part of town, and they left their vehicles parked in the street in front of their houses; in the afternoon, the women would often adjourn to the cabins to knit and chat. It was one of the local customs. Those cabins were fine observation posts—elevated, warm, protected by glass—and the ladies made the most of them while their husbands or sons were asleep, having driven through the night. I had climbed up into the back of the truck, as I often did, and that’s how I heard them. I wasn’t really paying attention; I was trying not to make a noise and give myself away as I played my solitary games, fantasizing about voyages and wars. I was listening just enough to make sure they hadn’t noticed the presence of an intruder. “Black scum!” said one to the other. “Once, I saw him in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception . . . He went to all the churches, he was always in one or another . . . I was at the back and I saw him from behind, kneeling in front of a saint, praying and praying, hanging his head, then he lit a candle, prayed some more, beat his breast, went to another saint, did the same thing, and kissed the foot of the statue. Then he went to a Virgin, and then to another, kissed the hem of her robe, knelt down again, touched the floor with his forehead . . . I was thinking, Who is this? Where did this guy come from? Until he turned around and I saw his face . . . It was him! What a creep!” The other one chimed in: “They’re the worst.” And the first lady, remembering another detail: “Ah yes, and every time he stepped into the aisle he crossed himself, not with a simple sign of the cross, but the complete works, making a little cross on his forehead . . .” “Oh yes, like that,” said the other, disgusted not by the sign but by my father’s fanatical, meticulous piety. “What an incense-sniffer . . .”
I imagine my father in that dark, empty chapel, thinking that he was alone and unobserved, in a paroxysm of faith. Or I try to but can’t. I mean: I can see him, like a cut-out figure, a puppet on a string, performing his liturgical dance, but I simply can’t imagine what was going through his mind at that moment, what he was asking of the saints and the Virgins, why it was so important to him . . . Although it should be possible to get some idea, now. I was less struck by the ladies’ derogatory comments than by the scene one of them had evoked. Spite was nothing new to me; it was almost a way of life. My mother’s tongue was sharp enough . . . I felt I could translate what they had said into political terms. “They’re the worst” meant “the Peronists.” What they objected to was a poor electrician, and especially one with “connections,” taking on the attributes of a mystic. Those ladies would not have been overly shocked, if at all, when the Peronists started burning churches later on. But the mere idea of a Peronist being a disgusting incense-sniffer . . . I contented myself with that explanation and sought no further. Nevertheless, there was something that didn’t quite fit, a loose end that bothered me: that affected piety, those gesticulations before the altar, the candles, the novenas to Our Lady—there was something inescapably feminine about it all. And my father was very virile: if there was one quality he possessed beyond all doubt, that was it. So there remained the shadow of a contradiction, which could only be resolved by a synthetic term at a higher level, which for the moment eluded me . . . But it must have been lying dormant somewhere in my brain, preparing me for future revelations.
“They’re the worst”: that little sentence said it all, and simply by hearing it that afternoon, I had, at some level, understood everything. The processes of my life and intellectual maturation continued, and it would be impossible for me to specify the precise moment at which I grasped the knowledge in a concrete way, but this impossibility stems not so much from the difficulty of reconstructing history in detail as from the nature of knowledge itself. At what point do we understand that two and two make four? Although we might pinpoint the first time someone told us this, or the first time we verified it by counting on our fingers, that would not give us the date. Because from much earlier on, from the beginning of life, we have seen two things here and another two there, or one thing and another, or two and one, or three and one, or one and one and one, or any number of other combinations, which, although they produced different results, were demonstrating the same mechanism. The consciously formulated proposition “two plus two equals four” does no more than gather up all these preparatory, isolated instances and tie them into a mnemonic knot.
“They’re the worst” means adultery. Spoken by two ladies knitting in a parked truck, there’s nothing else it can mean. I discovered this later, but I knew it all along. I don’t think it ever felt like a revelation. Even if I had never heard the word adultery, or the word bigamy, I must have been aware of the thing. Words, in fact, are incidental; they are formulas for remembering things. We manipulate them in combinations that give us an illusion of power, but the things were there first, intractably.
Anyway, the story, or rather the legend (because it was never verified), was that my father had another woman on the other side of town. More than that: another family, children, a house . . . This is a difficult subject for me, but I have to admit that things could have been worse because in small towns every story is surrounded by a constellation of causes and plausible explanations, unlike big-city stories, which are abrupt and often inexplicable. But here I can only give a cursory sketch of that constellation.
I should begin by pointing out two of my father’s attributes, one positive and the other negative, from the town’s point of view. The negative attribute was that his skin and hair were dark: he was “black,” as they said back then; he probably had some Indian ancestry, but since the Indians in Argentina have always been seen as remote in time and space, that colour was associated instead with poverty, servitude, ignorance, and the ranches. He never mentioned his background; I don’t even know the names of my grandparents, or uncles and aunts, if I had any. In any case, history was superfluous: his appearance said it all. The positive attribute was that he was an extremely handsome and well-built man. Although it was very obvious, this physical beauty was completely cancelled out by the social stigma of his colour. It was perfectly possible for “blacks” to be more or less handsome, more or less ugly, but it was like saying that some dwarves were taller or shorter than others: they were still dwarves.
This duality might help to explain his marriage. My mother was white; she came from a respectable, middle-class family, and if she had acquiesced to an alliance with the “black” populace, it was because her physical deformity made it impossible for her to marry at her own level. The alternative would have been to remain unmarried, and as far back as I can remember, she was always expressing her horror at the condition of the “spinster.” In fact, she conducted a permanent campaign, a one-woman cold war, against all spinsters: it was as if she saw them as a crime against humanity, and in the end, humanity incorporated blacks as well as whites.
My father found himself in an unstable position: he had a legitimate, upwardly mobile family, with a single child—a nicely dressed boy, attending school—and a wife whose parents were European immigrants . . . but he was “black.” The blackness was irremediable, and it was intensified by the enigma of his beauty. There is something I should clarify here: it’s inconceivable to me that the ladies in our social milieu could have appreciated his beauty, which was subsumed by the social misfortune of blackness, and yet they can’t have failed to see it, if only as a mystery. In that other, alien world, where everyone was black, the differences must have been noticeable; they must have produced effects. So they were obliged to imagine that he had an escape valve, in the form of another woman, one from his own milieu, with whom he could have an indefinite number of children (as many as Nature ordained) and live in a manner befitting his condition. (There, in the other house, he didn’t suffer from nervous tension; he was the very soul of serenity.)
As I said, I’m not sure whether this story belongs to the domain of logical constructions or to that of reality. But reality itself is a logical construction, the model for all the others, so it doesn’t make much difference. My mother must have suffered greatly. Over the years, little by little, she shut herself into her suffering, withdrawing to a world apart, with its own peculiar laws. But she was not aware of this, and since she was a very sociable and curious woman, she went on interacting with the neighbours. The situation was made even stranger by her straightforwardness: she didn’t have trouble with her nerves, or with anything, actually. She didn’t seem to have secrets: she said whatever crossed her mind, however hurtful or embarrassing it might be for her interlocutors. My father used to warn me: “Your mother can’t hold her tongue.” And it was true, although in my innocence I didn’t see it that way.
It’s clear my father had an institutionally structured mind: he was devoted to the Catholic Church and the Peronist regime. Outside of the institutions, he was neither one thing nor the other. I never saw him pray at home or even look at a religious image. As soon as he stopped going to church, he stopped being a Catholic, and maybe he stopped believing as well. As soon as the regime fell, he forgot about politics forever.
A kind of fable, just the one, survived from his time as official electrician. It wasn’t nostalgia for economic prosperity but something much more poetic: the strange and slightly magical honour of having been responsible for switching on the lights in all the streets of the town. I always knew this; he didn’t have to tell me. And I was not backward in telling my friends: “Before,” my father had been the one who switched on the street lights, all of them, even the farthest, the ones we never saw . . . “Before.” I didn’t go into details about when this had been. In a way it suited me that the privilege belonged to another time: it added mystery. As night was beginning to fall, we would see the lights come on at the street corners, on their own, it seemed, as if a benevolent deity had said from afar, “It is time,” but it was always a different time because there in the south the seasonal differences are vast. The switches must have been in the town hall, or at the plant, and to me it was a wonder they could send the blessing of light, by remote control, all through the town.
People didn’t take electricity for granted back then in Pringles, not as they do now, anyway. The town depended on the countryside, and in the country most people lived without electricity. All our neighbours in town were country people, more or less, and they could appreciate that miracle for what it was truly worth. You didn’t have to go far to see the difference: the electricity supply covered only the built-up area; it didn’t extend to the dirt roads of the outskirts. The street where we lived was right on the edge of the grid: the people who lived behind us didn’t have access to that privilege of civilization; that’s how limited it was. In fact, we all had lamps from the pre-electricity days. The queen of those devices was the famous Petromax or Night Sun, which many people still preferred to electric light. They were used on patios, in sheds, or extensions that hadn’t been wired. Also, there wasn’t nearly as much electrical equipment as today. So-called “domestic appliances” were rare. Even a fridge was an exotic luxury: we never had one, for example, nor did anyone in the neighbourhood, as far as I know. The only practical benefit of electricity was light, and that’s what we called it: “the light.”
After 1955, my father went on practising his trade as an electrician privately. He must have had his clients; he kept going out on his bicycle, though hardly ever with the ladder. No doubt there was a stressful transition while he worked out how to get by without the salary. But I didn’t notice: at the age of six, I would have been too preoccupied with my first year of school and I don’t think I was deprived of anything. Still, my parents must have felt they had been wise not to have more children.
A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. More than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. A kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know. It’s hardly surprising that some parts don’t fit and the whole turns out to be rather mysterious. The father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are our instructions for living. What about people who don’t have a father? somebody might ask. But to that I can reply: Everyone has a father.
This leads to what has been, for me, one of the most haunting mysteries: Was my father a good electrician? Or was he simply incompetent? The maximal hypothesis, which I have entertained at length, is that he knew nothing of the trade, not even the basics. This would have meant that his whole existence was a perilous kind of play-acting. Faced with a plug, a cable, a bulb, he would have wondered, What’s this? And, obliged to do something with that unknown quantity in order to justify his role, he would have done some random thing, to see what happened . . . But no, it’s impossible. I can’t really believe it, whatever blandishments a teasing demon deploys to lure me in that direction. No one could stake their destiny on such a complete negation. And anyway, it would have been unsustainable: in all those years of plying the trade, he must have learned something.
It’s a fantasy; that’s all it could be. Although there are cases in which the best way to find an explanation is to begin by considering the most extreme hypothesis and then pull back to reach the “happy medium” that so often corresponds to reality. Like everybody else, my father must have got it right on some occasions and wrong on others. But various convergent signs, as well as an ineffable but unerring intuition, lead me to suppose that the second case was more frequent than the first. Clients came back with complaints; problems became chronic; he refused to work for certain people or kept putting them off. He always seemed very confident, which in itself, as a blanket policy, is a sure sign of his doubts. But the surest indication of all, the infallible test, is the way things worked out in the end. Taking the long view, it’s clear my father never got beyond the level of the neighbourhood handyman, doing odd jobs for poor people: he didn’t progress from repairs and tinkering to installing built-in electrical systems. His glory days were behind him, and I have to concede that there may have been some truth to what the anti-Peronist “gorillas” supposed, hateful though it is: that he had got his official job because of his Peronism (not his skill as an electrician). If so, if he was a bungler, making it up as he went along, it was all the more heroic, and had he—unimaginably—confessed, I would have loved him more.
The mysteries and secrets of the Electricity Fairy. Enigmatic, hence dangerous. People were said to have died from her treacherous caresses. The strangest thing about her was the way she could act at a distance. My father’s continual trips all over town on his bicycle were a kind of allegory of Electricity’s invisible flight to the farthest corners, and the most intimate . . . But if you think about it, everything is allegory. One thing signifies another, even the fact that I have ended up becoming a writer and composing this true account. To follow the prompts of allegory, which also works by remote control, I too could be practising a trade for which I am quite unqualified, manipulating objects—memories, for example—of which I know and understand nothing, in a state of utter puzzlement. But that doesn’t alter the reality of the facts: my father was an electrician and I am a writer. These are real allegories.
The problem for my father was that after 1955, the march of History began and he was left behind. Everyone remembered the good old days. What else could they do? Those good old days were all they had. But while they were remembering, things continued to happen, and next time they looked, everything had changed. Life grew richer; novelties came to Pringles; the twentieth century finally arrived. Science spilled its horn of plenty over that far-flung corner of the nation, nourishing the snobbery of the barbarians. It all seemed like make-believe, as frivolous and insubstantial as a topic of idle conversation, and yet, as in a magic trick, it became reality.
I absorbed everything. My curiosity had no limits; it was as if an intellectual spell had broken the frames that normally structure a child’s education. Modernity poured into me like a wild torrent, and I mixed everything up.
César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949, and has lived in Buenos Aires since 1967. He has translated and edited books from France, England, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela. Aira has published more than eighty books to date. His latest book, The Linden Tree comes out in April 2018.