Iosi Havilio


(an excerpt)

By Iosi Havilio
Translated from the Spanish by Beth Fowler
And Other Stories


Chapter Two

I had to imagine Jaime’s burial. It rained all night and the taxi wasn’t able to pick us up. Héctor phoned to let me know: The man says the road is impossible. Anyway, he added after a silence, a bit of interference or a drag on a cigarette: Why such a long send-off? Héctor sounded annoyed, angry, a far cry from the friendly, affectionate tone of the previous day. It must have been lack of sleep and the certainty that death, after the initial novelty, brought nothing but complications and desolation.

I imagined a small, hurried burial, the duty priest going through the motions of a quick prayer, not wanting to get wet. I imagined a sober tombstone, no epitaph. I imagined Jaime, his mouth stuck in that sarcastic smile for all eternity. I thought about all those things his eyes suggested when we were face to face, things that came out suddenly, all at once, not in words but in grunts or kicks, always clumsy. I also imagined that if he woke up, which they say happens once in a million burials, because he’d been taken for dead when he was just unconscious, Jaime wouldn’t go crazy, beating the coffin lid for someone to open it. Instead, he would calmly consume the air he had left, guessing at the grain of the wood in the darkness.

Earlier, in the middle of the night, I had nightmares, shivers and something that felt like fever but wasn’t. My stomach spasmed too, driving me blindly to the bathroom. I vomited three times in a row, everything I had eaten and more. Red, tomato-tinged vomit. As it was happening, I had the impossible feeling that I was bringing up small triangles, like mini portions of pizza that my intestines had taken the trouble to reshape before sending back to the surface.

Around midday, after spending all morning watching television – two news broadcasts, El Zorro, a cookery competition – I got out of bed when hunger started to make Simón grumpy. Aching bones, in my face and limbs, as if I had been stretched on the rack in my sleep. Leaving the room brought confirmation that it had been raining: pools of water in the corners and a small lake in the middle of the house. I put a pan of stew on to heat, left over in the fridge from two nights ago, Jaime’s last supper, and I picked up a tea towel to mop the floor.

At the end of the winter, Jaime had experienced a surge of uncharacteristic enthusiasm, finally ready to devote himself to a bit of home maintenance. After a great struggle, he had managed to retire, and now that he had he felt diminished. Fed up of doing odd jobs in faraway houses, repairing roofs, stopping drips, unblocking drains, he never took the step of fixing the leaks in our own home, although they multiplied after every rainfall, especially above the fireplace. He limited himself to putting out tubs, buckets or rags in the corners to catch the water. Until one cold morning he took out the big stepladder, the one for important jobs, and started cleaning out the gutters. He took out the earth, the dry leaves, all the accumulated mulch, and the task clearly spurred him on because that same night he announced: I’m going to raise the roof.

First he spent some time studying how to do it, whether to replace the broken tiles, remove the rotten struts or change a central, worm-ridden joist. He decided to go for a mixed approach: one part of the house, the kitchen, the bedrooms and the bathroom, would keep its original roof, and he would put corrugated iron over the other part. That’s what he said: I’ll rip off all this shit and put down corrugated iron. The job was half done: he had replaced the broken tiles with new ones and raised the roof, which he had covered with plastic sheeting, but the corrugated iron never arrived. On the night of the accident he was on his way to or back from buying it, I’ll never know which.

Clutching the tea towel, I stood distractedly for a while, my eyes fixed on that provisional, half-naked roof. When I had finished with the cloth, I leant into the bedroom to tell Simón the food was ready. I sat down and once again fixated on all the ornaments, lamps and oldfashioned junk that perhaps the time had come to start recycling. I realised that, somehow, this house belonged to me now, or at least it had ended up in my charge.

I pondered all this as Simón ate, playing at trying to squeeze his tiny elbows through the tines of the fork. I raised my eyes and fixed them on that plate hanging on the wall, with a blue border depicting a hunting scene. A plate Jaime had rescued not long ago, a reminder of his mother or grandmother that he had hung next to the window, the only decorative gesture I’d ever known him to make. In the middle, it read in cursive, sprawling writing:

Make a bigger door, Pa,
For I no longer fit,
You built it for the children;
I’ve grown, to my regret.

I realised that Simón was staring at me as intently as I was at the plate. The spoon, suspended dripping in the air, demanded my attention. When our eyes met, he smiled. An ambiguous smile, ironic yet kind, testing me, an adult smile, lips nearly sealed, identical to Jaime’s smirk in the coffin. I was about to say something to him, in fact I mentally rehearsed several phrases, but I failed in the attempt and kept quiet.

We had lived in this house for the last four years, moving less and less, going out only when necessary. No sudden shocks, obligations or big adventures. In fact, we had formed something that wasn’t far off a family. A family that was harmonious in its own way. We shared breakfasts, lunches and dinners. A frictionless family, each of us in our own little world. Now things had to change and my role was still to be determined.

We went out to the veranda. Simón started playing with some broken tiles, while I moved a few metres away from the house, my espadrilles sinking into the mud. I thought about the roof again. Corrugated iron, I thought, and said out loud: Corrugated iron. I couldn’t think of anyone who might take care of it. I remembered an old tarpaulin folded up under the mill. I set myself a challenge.

Manoeuvring the roll of canvas wasn’t easy. I dragged it as if it were a corpse, pulling it by the feet. Unbelievably, it was just about the right size. I climbed the ladder and lifted it, secured by a rope. I stretched out the plastic Jaime had put down and spread the canvas on top, nice and tight, pinning it in place at the edges with branches and stones, along the line of the crossbeams. I was exhausted and sweating heavily, a smell of burnt caramel rising from my armpits. It wasn’t the ideal solution but it would buy us some time.

The first week passed as if Jaime was still there. Prowling. Leaving at dawn and returning when we were already in bed. His presence was evident in every corner. In the dirty boots at the foot of the bed, in his clothes hanging in the wardrobe, in the shovel and the rake, covered in soil and dried grass. In the smells, too, in the room, the bed, the shed, the constant sweat, the dampness of the walls and that spicy tang impregnated in the sheets, which wasn’t exactly Jaime but which I always associated with him.

Naturally, Simón came to sleep with me, usurping the side made free by Jaime. The cot, which was actually getting too small for him, started to fill up with clothes, boxes and papers. Simón didn’t seem particularly bothered by his father’s absence. He didn’t look sad or quiet. Quite the opposite in fact; shedding his usual calm demeanour, he developed a series of skills, as if he were undergoing a sudden growth spurt: the tricycle he had previously used as a handcart or a seat from which to contemplate the horizon was now used for getting around. He was so excited by this novelty that he didn’t stop cycling back and forth from one end of the veranda to the other, pedalling as if possessed. Only once did he ask for Jaime, and after pausing for a long time to find a gentle but effective formula, I ended up saying: He had an accident, I don’t think he’ll be coming back. That’s how I put it: I don’t think. Simón listened to me with his brows furrowed, he stayed silent, sighed deeply as if commenting on the situation like an old village gossip, then returned to his pedalling. And that was it.

I, on the other hand, began to feel his absence more keenly as the days passed. I needed his hands to yank the water pump, to battle the rats and also, although he had barely done so recently, to touch me. It had been a long year since we had last made love, not even caresses; physical contact had been reduced to accidental brushes in bed, in the bathroom, going through a door. Now that he wasn’t here, it gripped me like a new kind of fever. A heat I could only calm with a lot of masturbation, every night, two or three times. Almost always thinking about the last Jaime, the one in the coffin; other times it was abstractions that turned me on in the darkness. Nervous rubbing, full of fury. Then it passed and I forgot about sex again, as before.

Without the pickup, we were more isolated than ever. Twice in one month we walked into Open Door, loaded up a taxi at the supermarket and came home. We hardly had any neighbours left. The few remaining shacks had disappeared the previous summer. Eloísa’s house too, the store-shed and the shop. We had witnessed machines razing the lot. I’d stopped seeing Eloísa before the demolitions. She’d moved to the capital and very occasionally came back to visit her parents. Only once did she approach the gate, and we had a short, awkward conversation, which Simón took it upon himself to interrupt with a tantrum. She hated Jaime, the baby; she liked me but not my life.

It was said that the Dutch people who had bought the club with the polo fields and stables were offering a lot of money for the surrounding land. The idea was to put together an immense country club with a golf course in the middle, right where we were. Everything together in one single complex, almost as big as the adjoining psychiatric hospital, but not quite. Jaime had laughed when he remarked on it: They’re going to end up throwing the loonies out in the dirt. But he never said anything about selling the farm, didn’t even mention it, he seemed determined to resist.

Six weeks after the burial, just when I was starting to wonder how long I could take care of the house alone, lacking the will to cut the grass, with the scrub growing and advancing, but above all unable to imagine a way to make money to pay the bills, a very tall man appeared, claiming to be a representative of the firm. He dragged us from sleep one heavy morning, the sky covered in storm clouds. Beeping his horn. First it woke Simón, who began to whimper and kick me. I opened the shutters slightly and peered through the slits, taking care not to be seen. On the far side of the gate, perpendicular to the track, a red car was parked. I spent a while trying to guess who it could be, I didn’t recognise the car or the man standing next to it, and all the hypotheses that occurred to me were discouraging. I left it for a while in the hope that he would get tired and go away. But the guy seemed determined, or else he knew we were there, because he persisted, blasting the horn ceaselessly. I got dressed in the first thing I found, a raincoat of Jaime’s, and went outside with Simón protesting in my arms. Inevitably, I kept guessing all the way to the gate. The man, sunglasses, lots of grey hair, formal but clearly a country type, reached into the car to take out a briefcase when he saw me approach. We made our greetings across the wire fence, not touching, with a nod of the head. Sorry to call so early, but I had to catch you at home, that was how he began. Then he shot out: Do you know who owns this land? Satisfied by my silence, the man started talking again: That was what we assumed, you have no idea about anything, do you? So much the better, why would you want to complicate things with other people’s stories, he said and handed me his card: Agent. While the man flicked through a sheaf of papers in the briefcase he had opened on the bonnet, I wondered what those stories might be and who these other people were. This is what it’s all about, he said, proffering a printed sheet that I took a few seconds to accept from him, Simón’s weight making it impossible for me to move my arm.

I tilt my neck to read the heading: Eviction Agreement. I raise my eyes in search of answers and the man rotates his finger for me to keep reading. I scan the text from top to bottom, right to left, and random words leap out at me: OPEN DOOR, The Occupier, The Owner, Camino de la Legua, cancellation, debt, reinstate, farm, single instalment. Several spelling or typing errors also catch my eye: peanal for penal, retension for retention, divergense for divergence. The man is clearly impatient because he takes the sheet from my hands and puts on a pair of magnetic self-assembling glasses: It says here thirty days, but we can talk about that, it could be forty-five, even sixty, and in respect of the rent owed, taxes, rates, etcetera, you’ll see that we’re offering you total debt relief. Look, he said, I suggest you get this sorted quickly, I’m saying that from my heart. It’s best for you; sign on time and don’t complicate things. If you make a decision, then we’ll get the parties together and talk money. I can assure you they’ll offer you a tidy sum. I thought about saying: There must be some mix-up, or even, Are you sure it’s this land, this house? I thought that someone else in my place would have told him where to go, would have screwed up the paper and thrown it in his face. Before taking his leave, he suddenly became very familiar with me, saying in a low voice, as if someone could hear us in the middle of the countryside: A word of friendly advice, think of something that makes you happy – here’s the means to do it. The guy got into the car, reversed and drove off, raising a cloud of dust.

That night, after giving the matter a lot of thought, I called Jaime’s brother. I told him about the agent, the eviction agreement, I mentioned the money. He wasn’t surprised. He sighed heavily. I warned him about this, he said, and launched into a monologue that sounded overacted to me, full of clichés and formulas that gave me the feeling that it was directed not just at me but also at whoever was standing near him: That’s life, sometimes nothing, then everything happens at once. It’s the same old rotten story, I wouldn’t get involved if I were you, and another thing, sooner or later they’ll make you crack. A pause and he continues: Things aren’t going that well for us either, it’s an uphill struggle. What do you want me to tell you? that’s what he says and I stay silent, with a But on my lips and the telephone in my hand. It was the last I heard of Héctor.


IOSI HAVILIO was born in Buenos Aires in 1974. Open Door (published by And Other Stories, 2011) was his first novel. He has become a cult author in Argentina after Open Door was highly praised by the outspoken and influential writer Rodolfo Fogwill and by the most influential Argentine critic, Beatriz Sarlo. Paradises (And Other Stories, 2013) is his third novel.


About the Translator:

BETH FOWLER was born in Inverness in 1980 and currently lives near
Glasgow. She has spent time in Chile as an English teacher and is now
a full-time translator from Spanish and Portuguese. In 2010 she won
the inaugural Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize and in 2011 her
translation of Iosi Havilio’s debut Open Door won praise from doyenne
of Spanish translators Margaret Jull Costa, among many others.