The following is a translated excerpt from the novel Antes que desaparezca by Sylvia Iparraguirre, published in 2021 by Alfaguara.
Unannounced, the past invades the Russian literature class one autumn morning in Buenos Aires. I’m facing one of the windows of the museum library, talking about Pushkin. It’s raining outside and I allow myself a few seconds’ pause—after all, I’m the one teaching the class—to linger on the beauty of the rain falling on the sculptures in the modern interior courtyard, the clear water sliding down the bronze.
I turn back around with the words lining up in formation in my head, but before I can say them, I’m overcome with surprise when I discover Clara sitting in the back row, and, as if accompanying her through a portal in time, I see the Sisters of Calvary boarding house, with its marble staircase and shiny floors, all of it in sharp focus and illuminated as if by a spotlight against the chiaroscuro backdrop of the birches where Pushkin, I continue to say, gallops along, sneaking into the villages under the cover of night to nail epigrams denouncing the corrupt bishop to the doors of the churches. The Clara attending my Classics of Russian Literature class immediately merged with the Clara of my memory, flooding my brain with images from the late sixties, so out of place among the talk of czars and poets. The pendulum swing of time was poised to launch me out of the class and into the past. How was that possible? Not only is it possible, that’s exactly how reality operates, I thought to myself several hours later in the backseat of the taxi on my way home, reflecting on the internal vertigo that seeing Clara had set off. Watching the plazas and buildings go by as they began to light up in the rainy twilight, I liked to think that there was some sort of hidden meaning in my encounter with Clara. But there wasn’t. If anything had been meaningful, it was the sudden lurch through time, because what really intrigued me was the disconcerting moment when Clara’s face, smiling at my surprise, came into focus and became submerged in the current of my thoughts, so to speak, and unexpectedly pierced my memory, unleashing a rush of flashbacks right at the very moment that Pushkin, twenty-six years old and living in exile in the remote countryside of Pskov, was writing to his brother, “I can’t stand Saint Russia anymore.” The frenzied gallop through the sleeping villages. The villagers murmuring, “It’s Pushkin!” There was something wild, yet worldly, about him. By age twenty, he was already a legend. And right when I said he was already a legend there was a flicker deep in my consciousness and time started to unravel. My eyes were fixed on Clara who was superimposed over the Russian poet, eclipsing him, as she emerged from a distant, delirious Buenos Aires that we had inhabited together while, in the Russia of 1830, censorship failed to obscure Pushkin’s Mozart-like virtuosity. Humiliation and exile gradually pulled the knot tight around his throat, slowly suffocating him, just as Clara returned my gaze with a look that was neutral yet determined, as if she wanted to tell me something, followed by a gesture, a quick back and forth sweep of the hand between her and me and then one finger pointing outside, telling me to meet up with her when the class let out.
Clara. The same luminous smile, the same bighearted disposition. We walked out of the room, me still reeling from the surprise, in disbelief that she was standing in front of me, that we were reunited, having a conversation, together again. It’s noon and it’s drizzling outside. We’re both walking under my enormous Chinese umbrella, which she compliments. We cross Figueroa Alcorta and leave the museum behind to find a place to sit. Without realizing it, we keep walking for blocks, several blocks, and I don’t know where we are. At some point I get out my phone and call home to say that I’ve met up with Clara and I’ll be back late. Street after street, we exhaust the classic exchange of you haven’t changed a bit, it’s so great to see you, why haven’t we gotten together sooner, and after a while we leave all that aside and I discover that it’s just like it’s always been with Clara, the same sense of ease, the same feeling, for both of us, that we can say whatever’s on our minds.
“I brought you a photo,” she says after we go into a bar in Palermo—El Imperial, I glimpse on the swinging door—one of those cavernous bars, like a wine cellar, that I’m especially fond of.
She opens her bag, rummages around inside, pulls out a photo, and lays it on the table. It occurs to me that this is the moment she’s been waiting for. “This is why I signed up for the course,” she says, laughing. “Just kidding. I also want to know all about the Russians.” I look at the photo: there we are, in a group pose. Sister Tina and some of the girls standing behind the big easy chair in the living room, and Victoria, Clara, Aline, and me in front, sitting on the black and white checkerboard tile floor, all gathered around the same center of orbit: Ma Mère. Like iron filings to a magnet, the photo attracts a swarm of memories, the ceramic tiles in the courtyard, the nightly escapades smoking and talking under the cover of the dining room table until the wee hours of the morning, Nacho, how young we were, how invincibly immature. Buenos Aires, unfurling itself and dazzling like a peacock. The years I shared with Clara. The world between Che Guevara’s death and man’s landing on the moon. Time, like Hokusai’s great wave, came crashing down on top of me, dragging me in its undertow toward the past.
“Years ago I went back to the boarding house,” I tell Clara, the photo lying on the table between us. “Coincidentally, in ’95 we moved to Yrigoyen, just three blocks away. I even went up on the roof. Do you remember when we used to go up to the roof to sunbathe? It was… a strange experience. That afternoon, when I got home, I sat down to write about us girls, about Ma Mère, about the university. I wrote a lot. Then I tucked it away in a folder and forgot about it.”
Clara neatly drapes her raincoat over the back of her chair, turns around, and subconsciously tosses her hair behind her neck, grabbing it between her index finger and thumb and flicking it back, first on one side and then the other, flip flip. It startles me. It’s a mannerism so particular to her, so specifically characteristic of Clara, that it brings her back to me among an avalanche of disjointed images.
“Wait, you’re telling me that you wrote about us girls, about that time?”
“Yes, but I’ll tell you about it later.”
Clara lifts her index finger.
“Let’s turn off our phones.”
We turn them off.
I look at the photo again. Its force pulls me in, and I wonder: had I ever really been so young? I contemplate the Clara back then and the Clara right now, who’s looking at me and talking to me from the opposite side of a table in a bar, wearing her hair down the same way, using the same mannerisms that I’m starting to recall. Time hasn’t treated us so badly, I think, but I don’t say it. I don’t say the other thing I’m thinking either, which is that we’re also two strangers. Two women that haven’t seen each other for far too long. But back then we were so close. We’re both meeting for the first time and getting to know each other again, I think, when suddenly the memory of Aurora surfaces in my mind, and I flee in that direction.
“Why wasn’t Aurora there?” I search Clara’s face.
“You went back!” she exclaims. “I was never able to, for one reason or another. I did go back once, but it was right after I left. I wanted to visit so badly! But I moved to Italy, then I came home and got married to Daniel, my husband, and then we moved to Colombia for a few years.” She looks at the photo. “You’re right, Aurora’s not there. What was it like? Were there any girls living there? What did our room look like?”
How do I explain to the Clara right now the feeling of melancholy, of loss, that had stopped me in my tracks in front of the door to what had been Ma Mère ‘s room?
“It was different. Darker. I don’t know.”
I look at us again. The past is like a flare beckoning to us.
The girl in the photo, the me back then whom I’ll call Lucía from now on, thinks: it’s like being at Mass. Sitting with upright posture next to her mother on one of the loveseats in the foyer, she follows the nun’s words attentively. The distant sound of utensils tinkling, maybe for dinner? But it’s so early, she thinks, alarmed. It’s the end of February, seven-thirty in the evening, according to the clock on the mantle. Chairs with carved wooden backs, the faint scent of flowers, and a floor so shiny it makes you want to lie down, press your cheek against it, and caress it with your palms.
Mother Superior, who received them and had not yet become Ma Mère, delivers a brief speech to welcome them and explains the mission of the Residencia Universitaria Sedes Sapientiae. Without further ado, she invites them to make themselves at home and take a look at the room (she points out the one at the end of the hallway). She says to take as much time as they need and that she’ll have tea waiting for them when they’re done, so they can talk some more. They go inside, both relieved to be able to tour the house alone but feeling a bit awkward. Her mother inspects the comforters, closets, and dressers and asks her daughter what she thinks of the place. Lucía says she loves it, but tells her mother not to forget to tell the nun she has a boyfriend and that they’ve known Nacho his whole life and she can go out with him whenever she wants.
She was only going to be there for a week, just long enough to get in some last-minute studying and sit for the university entrance exam; then she would go back to her hometown until the end of the summer. She would move there for good in March. “Does she have a boyfriend?” the nun asks, teacup in hand. “Yes,” her mother says. She goes above and beyond, singing Nacho’s praises, how he’s studying to be an architect, how long they’ve known him and his family. “Lucía is allowed to go out with him whenever she wants.”
“It’s a small group of girls here, fourteen in all,” continues the nun who will later become Ma Mère. “They’re from all over. Lucía’s sure to become good friends with them. We sisters watch over the girls and do our best to guide them. Buenos Aires is a city brimming with culture that they simply must experience…” Under the influence of the dim light and the hushed voices, her mother listens intently to the nun and nods as if she were sitting in a confessional. “This week she’ll share a room with Aurora, who arrived yesterday. They’re the only ones here right now, so they’ll keep each other company. In March she’ll meet her roommates, who will be…” She consults a piece of paper. “…Clara and Victoria. One is from the Buenos Aires province, the other is from Santa Fe, and this will also be their first year at university.” Soft rustling sounds, everything tidy and in its place. Something silky was surrounding them and transporting them like cherubs up to a rosy cloud, it occurs to Lucía. Giving herself over to the cloud and carried by the breeze of a life dedicated to the sublime, she felt an unexpected desire rising up within her: she wanted to be a nun. In the distance, a little bell rang: ting-a-ling. Her mother, distant and absorbed in her sincere display of maternal love, surely was satisfied by now. A little while later, they said goodbye at the front door. Watching her mother get into a taxi in a place that was so different from her usual surroundings, so far from her natural domain, to see her play a role that came so easily to her and that she performed without even realizing it, with joy and utter dedication, produced a lump in Lucía’s throat. She was on her own; anxiety shot through her entire body. She felt the impulse to yell out “Mamá,” to wait for her, that she wanted to go back with her. She lifted her hand to return her mother’s wave through the car window.
She stood there for a moment with her hand in the air, her figure framed by the threshold of the boarding house door. Then she looked from one side to the other. Buenos Aires seemed massive and ominous, and in that particular part of the city behind the congressional palace, ugly. Later, she would leave behind the cool, cavernous boarding house to go down to the pharmacy on the corner to buy a toothbrush. The street met her with a blast of warm air as the buses roared by on their way to places unknown. She shut the door of her new home behind her and slowly climbed the staircase, as if what was left of the day would be a steep path uphill. In her new room, she sat on the bed clutching her leather bag that was dark blue, almost black, to her chest. She almost didn’t notice when the door opened softly and a girl her age entered the room. They looked at each other but didn’t say anything. Lucía put her bag on the floor.
“Hi,” said the girl, who was also carrying a bag. “My name’s Aurora Pissano. Looks like we’ll be roommates this week. Can I help you get settled?”
“I can remember that dress you have on like it was yesterday,” Clara is saying, leaning in close to examine the photo.
“Me too. It was white cotton piqué and Vicky was always borrowing it. I think she wore it more than I did.”
“We used to love to borrow each other’s clothes,” says Clara, pleased with the effect her carefully planned surprise has had on me.
I feel overcome by the photo, by the magnetic force of those faces, that furniture, the bygone era that, like a ghostly plume of smoke, escapes its paper prison, rises up, surrounds us, and permeates the present.
At first, it rubbed her the wrong way when Ma Mère would address her with tú instead of vos and call her niña, but she would later learn that the head nun was originally from Portugal. She had taken her vows quite young with the Sisters of Calvary community in Toulouse, France, and a curious linguistic transmutation had occurred: all that remained of her native Portuguese was the recurring Você sabe, and the French language, which she had adopted along with the habit, tended to slip out when she was speaking Spanish. From this patchwork emerged a peculiar Portuguese accent, with which she sometimes started confidential conversations: Você sabe…? It wasn’t a pedantic affectation; it was genuine. Even putting aside the problem Lucía had with tú and niña, Ma Mère’s voice left a peculiar aftertaste, a note that rang a bit false. She felt it from the very start. As soon as she walked in the door, the nun cornered her like prey: Tell me, niña, what have you been up to? You know that it’s my duty to watch over you. A thick syrup spilled over the austere atmosphere, ruining it. Lucía would have given anything to have a place of her own like Mother Superior’s cozy personal retreat. A dark wooden arch divided the space into a bedroom and a study: on one side, a bed, and on the other, a desk. The window was something to behold. The diamond-shaped panes of beveled glass looked out onto the inner courtyard with its blue ceramic tiles, where a decorative well was covered by a jungle of ferns. Between the two windows hung a large crucifix, and under the crucifix, a kneeler. The desk lamp cast a circle of light on the white of the paper. Lucía felt seduced anew by that serene aura.
Without her veil, her silhouette backlit by the lamp, she lifted her shorn head with its soft, short bristles, reminiscent of a child from a destitute orphanage. She put down the pen that was in her hand and took off her glasses. The nun turned around, draped her arm across the back of the chair, and looked at her. In The 25th Hour, the female prisoners in the concentration camp would shave their heads to rid themselves of lice. Here it was mandatory, a requirement for modesty; it made you want to stroke the curve of her head down toward the nape of her neck with your palm. This scene had nothing to do with The 25th Hour, which she had read, horrified, back home. Ma Mère was a woman who was graceful, cultured (in her own way and among her fellow sisters), formed by the ashen heat of the convent, destined to be a teacher. Lucía adjusted to the disturbing false note in her voice. It wasn’t immediately evident but was still in plain view, like a body under a sheet. The nun used to make bland jokes that belong in the vestry, not the locker room, to be enjoyed in moderation, and she laughed when the girls laughed. But she was actually only pretending to laugh. Her eyes, always alert, betrayed her. She carried out the duties of a role that she was required to perform at all times. She received orders from the distant and omnipotent Superior General, the Magistratura, in Toulouse, whom she represented; she was an in-person proxy. Magistratura was the girls’ secret nickname for her.
“She used to pretend to laugh.”
“Who?” Clara asks.
“Magistratura. We would all laugh at her jokes, except Sister Tina. But it always seemed to me like Magistratura wasn’t really laughing, she was just going through the motions. Fulfilling her duty.”
“That was how Ma Mère was, the Magistratura in person,” Clara declares. “But there was another side to her, too.”
“True. Sadly I discovered it too late,” I confess.
Lucía, the girl I was back then, the one in the photo, walks along Callao one June afternoon. A university student, a mere eighteen years old, born and raised in a small provincial town, brought up by her parents and instructed in the prevailing social norms, easily distracted, an open book to anyone who came across her and wanted to look her over, examine her, man or woman, a bit scatterbrained, curious, absorbed in whatever happened to be going on at the moment, preternaturally cheerful: she feels free. She came to Buenos Aires three months earlier. She lives in the Sisters of Calvary boarding house, she’s studying letters at the College of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and at the moment she only has eyes for the city: plazas, monuments, people, bars, all the ways a yet undecipherable world manifests itself.
Above all, she’s drawn to the bars of Buenos Aires, bustling and genial in the light of day, mysterious and feverish when it’s dark out. She had only been to them during daylight hours, before their nocturnal illumination. The bars are like ports of call that she visits one by one, and the brief time alone with a book or her notes from class is her first palpable taste of freedom. That June afternoon, it’s at a bar in Rialto, a long and narrow, rundown little place on Callao near Corrientes, where she’s absentmindedly drinking a milk shake at a table in the back and where a man is exposing his genitals to her through a crack in the bathroom door. An amorphous spot appears in the lower part of the vertical sliver of darkness; it starts to come into focus. Following the line of sight upward, she makes out the shape of a face and an eye. Cautiously, the man closes the door. Moments later, he walks by her table, without looking at her, his suit a bit crumpled. He’s been in the bathroom stalking her wandering gaze. The shock and the fleeting nature of the scene prevent her from discerning what exactly had just happened. It wasn’t the man’s genitals that disturbed her so much as the act itself. What was the meaning of his behavior? What did the stranger get out of doing that? What most startled her was his eye, further above in the darkness, the white of his eye. The eye had more to say than the amorphous member. It was a sad, pleading, tear-glistened eye. She stiffened.
When she’s finally able to loosen up, Lucía picks up her handbag, leaves the bar, and walks along Callao toward Rivadavia. She’s wearing the standard uniform at the time. I remember it well: a plaid skirt, a black turtleneck, loafers or boots, and large bag filled with notebooks slung over one shoulder. Long hair down to the middle of her back. She walks along the sidewalk in front of the congressional palace and turns on Yrigoyen, walks one block. The key in the door, the marble staircase, the chapel outfitted with an altar, pews, and flowers, where they went to pray one Sunday when wise Brother Septimio was visiting, advisor to the nuns and godfather to the boarding house, the dark wood paneling, the windows with the diamond-shaped beveled glass panes. And prevailing over all of it, the silence. She walks diagonally through the kitchen and along the wide hallway that extends to the back of the petit-hotel that the former owners couldn’t keep up and sold to the religious order. The first door, on the right, is Ma Mère ‘s room, followed, one by one, by her fellow boarders’ rooms, ending, lastly, with her own shared room. The hallway widens at one end into the foyer, which is flanked by the dining room, the room shared by Sister Tina and Sister Ángeles, the enormous kitchen, Serafina’s room, and last of all, the access to the stairwell to the roof.
Before reaching her room, Lucía has to stop in front of Ma Mère ‘s door, which is always ajar, where the head nun’s voice, slightly saccharine and artificial, will say: Niña, come in here for a minute. It was a ritual.
What have you been up to today, dear? They both knew the drill. If Mother Superior were to confront her about anything, Lucía wouldn’t be able to come up with even a meager defense. Magistratura, on the other hand, had years under her belt of dealing with students like this one, standing there in the door with her long hair and short plaid skirt, clutching her books to her chest, young ladies that on the surface seemed like they wouldn’t hurt a fly but who turned out to be cunning and cynical, whose parents wanted them to just get married already, standing there, with God knows what strange, deviant, and surely impure thoughts in their heads. Magistratura felt that a bit of pointed questioning was within her rights, after all she invested a lot in these little rosebuds before they mercilessly abandoned the boarding house all too soon, without her having the chance to fully expose them to the arts as she had hoped, unaware of just how lucky they were. Times were changing and the girls who came to the boarding house were more drawn to danger than ever. But she was stronger than ever.
Outside the door, Lucía stands motionless waiting for the nun to speak. What she can’t figure out is the reason for the interrogation. The same unknowable mystery she faced with the man at the bar.
“If I remember correctly,” Clara continues, motioning to the waiter, “she kept a closer eye on you, because you were the only one who went to UBA, and to Philosophy and Letters, no less.”
That doesn’t quite explain it, I think, without being able to take my eyes off the photo. She interrogated the other girls, too, but in a different way. “That’s true, but it was different with me, and on top of that…”
“I can’t imagine that Ma Mère forgot to tell Aurora that we were going to have our picture taken, something bad must have happened… I don’t know,” Clara stumbles over her words. “I could tell something was going on. She wasn’t around that day.”
I sense a hint of discomfort in Clara’s words. I can’t figure out why. The first thing that comes to mind is maybe it’s because I pointed out that Aurora wasn’t in the photo. I’m on alert for any sign of conflict, but what conflict could there be between us when we haven’t seen each other for so many years? There’s only a long, empty space between us, a blank. I can’t seem to relax. A delayed effect of the class that I was teaching less than an hour ago, in which I invest an excessive amount of energy, a waste, a squandering. I have to leave the class behind, leave Pushkin behind, get out, clear my head, do everything I can now, in this moment, to recognize my Clara in this new Clara. I’m overflowing with enthusiasm:
“Did you know that it was Aurora who first turned me on to the Russians, to Gogol?”
“Let’s talk about Aurora later. Some unfortunate things happened to her. I’ll tell you a little later, we have all evening.”
It’s clear to me that Clara wants to go down another road, at least for now. I go back to what I was saying before.
“Magistratura would ask the other girls what they did and where they went, but the way she did it with me was different. There was something else behind it.”
“She was just fulfilling her duty to guide us, to watch over all of us, as she used to say, and you were always reading those so-called dangerous books,” Clara explains and smiles at the waiter. We order two cortados and a bottle of mineral water, while a myriad of words cross my mind. Scenes that float around freely in my head begin to clump together. None of it is my doing; it’s all because of my face in the photo.
A translated excerpt from the novel Antes que desaparezca by Sylvia Iparraguirre (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 2021). Translation copyright 2023 by Emily Hunsberger with permission from the author.
Sylvia Iparraguirre is a celebrated novelist, essayist, and literary figure in her native Argentina. She was co-director of the literary magazines El Escarabajo de Oro and El ornitorrinco, the latter in the face of censorship during the military dictatorship. In 1999, her historical novel La tierra del fuego was named Book of the Year at the Buenos Aires Book Fair and won the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize. Iparraguirre’s other books have won a number of awards, and the author was honored with the Esteban Echeverría National Prize in 2012 in recognition of her body of work. Antes que desaparezca is her sixth novel, and she is currently working with writer Liliana Heker on a book of her late husband Abelardo Castillo’s correspondence with Julio Cortázar.
Emily Hunsberger is a bilingual writer and translator. She translates fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by women writers from Spanish into English, with translations featured in Latin American Literature Today, The Southern Review, and PRISM international. She has also published original poetry, reporting, criticism, and research in English and Spanish, with work appearing in Anfibias Literarias, Spanglish Voces, Bello Collective, Latino Book Review, and Estudios del Observatorio / Observatorio Studies. Hunsberger comes to literary translation with a background in community-based work, international sustainable development, education, and immigrant rights. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.
Photo by Henrique Félix.