Book by HEBE UHART
Translated from the Spanish by MAUREEN SHAUGHNESSY
Reviewed by JASMINE V. BAILEY
In Argentina, the short story is not what you write until you manage to write a novel; it is a lofty form made central by twentieth-century titans like Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo. The form has power and prestige in the broader region as well. Hebe Uhart was a product of that literary tradition and came of age as a writer when Cortázar and Borges were at the height of their fame and literary production. At the end of her life, Uhart was recognized by a lifetime achievement award from Argentina’s National Endowment for the Arts and by the international Manuel Rojas Iberian American Award for Literature. Though she produced many volumes, including two novels and several travelogues, she is known for her short stories. It is appropriate, then, that her first work to appear in English — The Scent of Buenos Aires — is a collection of short stories (translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy).
Critics writing about Uhart frequently insist upon her absolute uniqueness of voice and style, characterizations that might strike readers of English as somewhat surprising, since the matter-of-fact, straightforward style of her narration is not so uncommon in US fiction. Her style is primarily disruptive when contrasted with the styles of her male South American predecessors and contemporaries, and it is in part precisely because she works in the short story that the ways in which she differs from them shines forth so clearly. She is a writer firmly situated within a literary tradition, and she uses that perch, invites those comparisons, to refuse, boldly, to fit in. She intentionally entails some cognitive dissonance for the reader who brings a set of assumptions about South American fiction to the table, often unconsciously.
When most people think of the Argentine short story, they could be forgiven for thinking of narrators, settings, milieus, and even plots that are cosmopolitan, intellectual, high-minded, and frequently overtly European: the kind of story epitomized by Borges and Cortázar. Much of the uniqueness imputed to Uhart must come from her choice to focus in her stories on Argentina and Argentineans, and small-town, rural Argentina specifically. She does this not in an attempt to define or characterize the country and its people for another audience, but as fit subjects for someone from and of that world. Many of the stories are set in her hometown of Moreno, a town twenty-two miles west of Buenos Aires, and her characters often think of Buenos Aires as a nearly impossibly-distant, sophisticated, foreign place that must be approached with caution and where most people never dare to dream of going. The eponymous “Scent of Buenos Aires,” then, does not indicate the setting or environment it may seem from a perusal of the title. It is, instead, a metaphor for the draw that the stimuli of the outside world exert upon those who hear of it, dream of it, or visit it for the first time: both exciting and disturbing.
In one of the longest and most engrossing stories in the collection, “Leonor,” the title character’s son moves from Chaco to Buenos Aires for work and, later, she and her daughters save money to take a trip to “visit him.” Without her ever saying it, her husband and family understand they will not come back, and when they arrive at the son’s lodgings, he understands it too. His first question to them is, “Is that your only suitcase?” Only the reader, and the protagonist, seem to be late to understand the meaning of the journey. People don’t travel for its own sake; they emigrate. Her son lives on the outskirts of the city, and his lodgings are dismal, but Leonor still manages to be enchanted by them because, “All you had to do was light a match and the stove lit up. Hugo’s house was a marvel! There was a sponge, powdered soap, bunk beds with a little ladder to climb up top, a lamp, and a bicycle.” Her reaction to these modest material goods highlights the poverty she (and perhaps we as readers) had taken for granted until that moment. And yet that poverty is also foregrounded in the opening of the story:
When Leonor was a girl her mother made cassava flour balls, which are hard as lead, dry as sand, and viciously compact. If you eat them when you’re feeling sad it’s like ingesting a wasteland. But if you’re happy, those brown balls, without a trace of oil, are a well-deserved, nutritious food.
Such an opening, especially upon rereading, gives us what we need to understand something Uhart wants us to recognize about Leonor and human nature: most of life is disappointing, but only if you think about it. This is true for Leonor of material wealth (she doesn’t miss it until she has it) and of romantic relationships. She settles first for an arranged marriage to a man who merits very little description in her story, and then for a much younger man who refuses her and the child she bears any real commitment and eventually abandons them. In his absence, Leonor, who seemed placid through both relationships, is obsessed with getting him back. She seems to embody Uhart’s characterization of cassava flour balls: the less you can manage to think about them, the more they can seem a gift. This wisdom, though, is perspectival, and her characters often are not empowered to choose what they notice, accept, mourn or long for.
The one character in the collection who does travel for its own sake, and who in fact does nothing else, is not Argentine. “The Wandering Dutchman” (one of many examples of Uhart’s proclivity for titling her stories for the characters around which their events revolve) alights in a tiny rural town in Argentina after having travelled almost everywhere else in the world. The suggestion that Argentina is particularly remote, such that someone who’s travelled everywhere would still have not been there, is a detail that is richly significant within the story. It continues Uhart’s portrait of Argentines as ignored by and ignorant of the outside world, even parts of it that happen to fall within Argentina’s own borders.
This story is about communication and miscommunication. The Dutchman, first in Buenos Aires and then in the village, collects turns of phrase that he can’t understand and words used metaphorically such that their literal meanings are misleading. As is quintessential to her style, Uhart shows without explaining. Often, as in this story, she creates a dual bafflement shared by her reader and her observing protagonist. For example, she writes of the Dutchman, who spends his time in the village interviewing its residents about their idioms, day-to-day lives, and heritage, going to a house with magnificent pumpkins and “a young man who looked like he belonged in the city…washing the car.” That statement about the young man seems like Chekhov’s gun: surely we will discover this person is an outsider or is planning an escape in the car he’s tending to. But Uhart resists satisfying artistic resolution; instead, only strangeness piles on top of this image. An old woman and a dog mildly harass the Dutchman, and after a brief conversation that suggests nothing about the young man’s identity or plans, the Dutchman leaves. The young man “was still washing his car with gusto.”
In Uhart’s stories, time, observation, and action move forward, but they do not necessarily provide the meaning, or redemption, a reader might crave. Uhart is deft in making us notice this impulse within ourselves: that we felt, say, that the young man should want more out of life than this town. That he should be washing his car not solely to clean it, but because he means to go somewhere. Even with the emptiness and ennui of the restless Dutchman before our eyes, we still hanker after a disruption in the young man’s satisfaction with his place and his role. Uhart is very skilled at this subtle art of creating conflict within her reader instead of within or among her characters.
This story also highlights some shortcomings in Shaughnessy’s otherwise capable translations. She translates the Argentinean phrases that baffle the Dutchman as common English language idioms. Some of these work well enough, such as “pig-headed,” which the Dutchman baffles over in a number of conversations in which he asks villagers if the phrase can be used in one context or another to suss out its exact use. Other phrases, such as “cash cow” and “when pigs fly” similarly baffle the Dutchman, but seem too self-explanatory to elicit such general confusion in a worldly polyglot. Uhart’s intention seems to have been to highlight the incredibly idiosyncratic and colorful language that develops in a society like Argentina’s, especially in the provinces, but this is strongly mitigated by the impression a reader of the English gets that the Dutchman is just rather stupid and overly literal. Argentine Spanish is unique and colorful and the slang can be governed by rules that are hard to evaluate, memorize, or mimic; translators tend to do poorly when they attempt to convert them into English, and Shaughnessy gets the best results when she uses the Spanish itself, allowing the Dutchman’s thoughts and questions to give us the context we need.
Uhart’s stories can also be deeply personal, as “Impressions of a School Principal seems to be. She herself was at one time a rural schoolteacher, and the crushing sadness her narrator feels at the derisive way she sees children treated is reminiscent of Gabriela Mistral’s poetry concerning the plight of the poor rural children she educated. Uhart writes, “Lately, lots of teachers had gotten into the habit of yelling at the children, embarrassing them for their clothes or their hair. When that happens I hole up in the office and don’t come out…I am completely alone in that place.” The school principal’s implicit pity for the students’ poverty, and the callousness of the teachers towards that poverty reminds me specifically of Mistral’s poem, “Little Feet” (“Piecitos”) from her book Tenderness (Ternura) in which she writes:
Children’s little feet,
blue with cold, how can you be
seen and not protected,
The narrator’s response to the poverty and abuse she witnesses seems steeped with meaning: she retreats to her office to eat a cookie as slowly as she possibly can. This uncluttered and at first glance strange ending seems to suggest that she understands the students’ poverty because she herself was a poor child. Her irresistible urge for a cookie combined with her compulsive urge to make it last as long as possible seem to paint a picture of a child in need who’s grown up and even escaped her circumstances, but not escaped the trauma of that poverty. If there is anything that really distinguishes Uhart’s short fiction from that of better-known Argentine writers, it is that she is capable of noticing the embarrassment of children, and of letting their tragedy determine that story’s shape, sensibility, and outcome.
It is clear to me why Uhart is so loved by many Argentine readers. For all that she insists upon the insularity and myopia of Argentine society, she is interested in telling the stories of Argentines living in their country. Reading her fiction highlights the ways in which much of the discourse about Argentina and Argentine literature, and the discourses created within many famous Argentine texts, steps over Argentines and the place itself in an effort to get somewhere else. Uhart’s quiet insistence upon seeing and hearing the people around her affirms a place and people real and worthwhile in and of themselves.
Jasmine V. Bailey is the author of Alexandria, Disappeared and the chapbook Sleep and What Precedes It. Her honors include the Central New York Book Award, Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Laurence Goldstein Prize and Ruminate Magazine‘s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize. Her translation of Silvina Lopez Medin’s That Salt on the Tongue to Say Mangrove is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press.