On the pretense of a birthday present for my friend, I ordered a copy of Felisberto Hernandez’s (though no one ever calls him Hernandez, always just Felisberto) Lands of Memory. I think there have only been two books of Felisberto’s translated into English, though he didn’t write much so perhaps that’s a lot of his work. I’ll make this an entry about the man, because he intrigues me so much (the information gotten from the book’s ‘Prologue’).
In his life (1902-1964) Felisberto published ten books, averaging 68 pages each. He once set up a bookstore called El Burrito Blanco (Little White Burro) in the garage of his second wife’s family home, but it quickly failed because he spent all his days perfecting a system of shorthand he had invented. When he was 15 he was a ‘musical illustrator’ of silent movies, using a piano. Because of this occupation, for the rest of his life he sat in the front row of cinemas—it was a vantage point he’d become accustomed to, he wrote, ‘like drinking milk straight from the cow.’ Pages of his personal shorthand system, found after his death, have never been deciphered. When I set up my bookstore, I might call it Little White Burro.
Felisberto’s stories are bizarre and obey no rules, but neither do they disobey the rules in a way that we’re used to from most experimentalists. His experiments, if they are experimental, seem more to come from him never caring to learn the rules in the first place. His stories are often long reveries in the first person, in which the actions that exist are constantly interrupted by tangential memories and ideas. The prologue tells me: ‘He was immune to any literary school or established definition of what literature was or should be, any received idea of prefabricated phrase. His stories, he said, were like rare and mysterious plants that grew and blossomed within him.’ Italo Calvino said: ‘Felisberto is a writer like no other; like no European, nor any Latin American.’ The first in the collection, called ‘Around the time of Clement Colling’, is a story about an eccentric blind pianist the narrator learned from as a young man, but which begins with this passage:
I’m not sure why certain memories of mine want to come into Colling’s story. They don’t seem to have much to do with him. Descriptions of that period in my childhood and the family who introduced me to Colling aren’t important enough to the subject to justify their appearance here. The logic of the connecting thread would be very weak. Yet for some reason I don’t understand those memories keep turning up in this story. And they persist, so I’ve chosen to grant them my attention.I’ll also have to write many things I know very little about; it even strikes me that impenetrability is intrinsic to them … But I don’t believe I must write only what I know. I must also write the other things.
I quote at such length because I want to give an idea of how patiently Felisberto always handles himself. His stories are explorations. He indulges every memory that introduces itself to his head, and will follow them for ages. As a reader you must accommodate him, and ease your grip on the pages. It’s often after you have paid Felisberto’s leash out for a long time, followed him off the train where the story is set, into a childhood memory, into a reverie on the nose of a man he once met, that something really magical will happen. Felisberto is hard to quote, because of how he meanders, but I am sure whoever reads this will be so interested they won’t mind this liberal piece: it’s on music, one of Felisberto’s favourite subjects, and his narrator is in the bath:
Some pieces had an impassioned anguish to them, an anguish attained only in certain passages, yet as you listened to the piece a second time you waited for those passages and the anguish extended across the entire work; I would sense that sad substance in a turn or involuntary movement of the waist or a body of white sounds, and though the movement was slow, not all the senses could comprehend it and there was no full awareness of its pleasure: these waves revealed parts of a body without fulfilling the desire to see all of it. But the part that could be perceived was sweetly sorrowful, and although it seemed new, you discovered that it had been waiting to be awoken, hiding, full of warmth, in a secretly favoured place in your past. And while you were listening to it, your eyes repeatedly glanced at various parts of a single object; it could be a glass vase, whose burgundy colour extended to mingle with other objects. At times, without recalling the notes of a melody, I could remember the feeling it had given me and what I’d been looking at when I heard it. One evening as I was listening to a brilliant piece while staring out the window, my heart came out of my eyes and absorbed a house many stories tall that I saw across the way. Another night, in the penumbra of a concert hall, I heard a melody floating upon ocean waves that a great orchestra was making; in front of me, on a fat man’s bald pate, gleamed a little patch of light; I was irritated and wanted to look away, but since the only comfortable position for my eyes left my gaze resting on the gleam of that pate, I had no choice but to allow it to enter my memory along with the melody, and then what always happens happened: I forgot the notes of the melody—displaced by the gleaming pate—and the pleasure of that moment remains supported in my memory only by the bald pate. Then I decided always to look at the floor whenever I was listening to music. But once, when a lady behind me was with a very young child, I saw water appear between my own feet, gliding along like a viper, and then suddenly its head began to grow larger in a depression in the floor and eyes of foam came running along the liquid body to gather in the head.
Like Hemingway, I enjoy typing out the words of the writers I admire. It is the closest I can get to Felisberto. The length of this extract (and the length of his pieces) are their point, or their magic. He takes me, in his own sweet time, to places or states of mind I’ve never known in literature. From Felisberto I learn again the lesson that one must follow ideas to their conclusion, and that blind faith is valuable to the writer.
Felisberto is Uruguayan and Patricio (my flatmate) is also Uruguayan. Patricio and I see an advertisement about a cat in the supermarket. We have a mouse problem (too many), and a cat problem (none). The cat is free, and vaccinated. We arrange to meet the man. He doesn’t want us to come to his house, tells us to meet him in the skate park. It is raining lightly. The cat is in a box, and the man tells us his name is Sid (the cat’s). ‘Seed,’ says Patricio. He is seven months old. The man quickly leaves. I hold Seed in the backseat. We agree we don’t like his name very much. I ask Patricio if we could call him Felisberto, and Patricio laughs. He says Felisberto is an old name, that no one would name someone Felisberto. I look under Felisberto’s arm and there is a open wound, inflamed and oozing. When we call the man, he says it is only a wart. The next day, however, the wart is bigger.