Translated by Michael Cisco
The name of Alfonso Reyes reoccurs throughout any discussion of Latin American literature. In his native Mexico, he is considered a major 20th century author, and more than one street has been named for him there. Roberto Bolano referred to him in the short list of those writers he included in his own personal canon, Borges celebrated him as the greatest of all Spanish prose stylists. And yet, for all that, his work has gone virtually untranslated in English. As near as I can tell, “Major Aranda’s Hand,” published by Alberto Manguel in the second of his marvelous Black Water anthologies, is the only piece by Reyes in English.
After reading Bolano I became curious about Reyes and sought out his stories, largely in vain. So I decided to try translating some of his fiction myself, since I didn’t think it acceptable for me to remain wholly ignorant of him. The decision to translate “La Cena” was largely dictated by the preeminent place it occupies in Reyes’ corpus; “The Supper,” written when he was still a student and published in 1912, is a dreamlike story reminiscent in certain superficial ways to the work of some of the Continental decadents but, in its basic character, thoroughly original. Reading a later work, such as Carlos Fuentes’ beautiful novella Aura, echoes of “The Supper” return again and again. The ghostliness of Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Paramo likewise has a Reyes-like air to it. It may be that it was Reyes who made it possible for Mexican writers to adopt a less rigid idea of realism, and to escape the confines of a literary conservatism that endured well into Bolano’s time.
– Michael Cisco, Translator
Supper, which delights us and inspires love.
– San Juan de la Cruz
I was running through unfamiliar streets. My destination seemed to recede before my steps, and the appointed hour was already humming in the public clocks. The streets stood empty. Electric lights danced, streaking like snakes, before my eyes. Circular plazas were constantly springing up before me, their vegetation endowed with an unreal elegance in the night’s artificial light. I believe I passed an incalculable number of towers — I don’t know whether they were among the houses or the squares — flaunting to the four winds their four round clock faces, illuminated from within.
I hurried, egged on by a superstitious presentiment about the time. If the nine strokes of the bell, I told myself, surprise me before I get the door knocker in my hand, something bad will happen. And hurrying frantically, I remembered having hurried once before at this same hour to this place and with similar eagerness. When?
Finally the pleasures of this false memory absorbed me so completely that I slipped into my normal pace without noticing. And by and by, in the lapses of my thoughts, I saw that I was still travelling, and there unfolded before me new perspectives of electric lights, of small planted squares, of illuminated clocks … I don’t know how much time went by, it was as if I were asleep
and sick, struggling to breathe.
Suddenly, nine sonorous chimes slithered across my epidermis with a metallic chill. My eyes, even as my hopes failed, fell on the nearest door: this was my destination.
Then, pausing to compose my spirit, I reviewed my reasons for coming here. For yesterday, the postman had brought me a brief and suggestive invitation. In a corner of the paper there was written, by hand, the seal of a house. It was dated the previous day. The letter said only:
“Dona Magdalena and her daughter Amalia hope you shall dine with them tomorrow, at nine in the evening. Ah, if he does not fail us! …”
Not one letter more.
I always fall in with unexpected experiences. This case, besides, presented a singular attraction: the tone, familiar and respectful at once, with which this unnamed person was addressed by these unknown ladies; the morose “Ah, if he does not fail us! …”, so vague and so sentimental, that seemed suspended before an abyss of confessions, all combined to decide me. I went, anxious with an unnameable emotion. When, at times, in my nightmares, I evoke again that fantastic night (whose fantasy is assembled out of quotidian things and whose equivocal mystery grows from the humble root of what is possible), I seem to rush panting along avenues of clocks and towers, solemn as sphinxes lining the aisle of some Egyptian temple.
The door opened. I had been facing away, toward the street, when a square of light suddenly fell on the ground, and in it my shadow was joined by the shadow of an unknown woman.
I turned around: with the light shining behind her and into my dazzled eyes, to me this woman was nothing more than a silhouette, on which my imagination could paint various hypothetical physiognomies, without any one of them corresponding to her contour, and in this state I stammered some salutations and explanations.
– Enter please, Alfonso.
And I entered, astonished at hearing myself summoned as if into my own home. The vestibule disappointed me. Upon the romantic words of the invitation (at least, they seemed romantic to me), I had founded hopes of an encounter with an ancient house, full of tapestries, old portraits and huge armchairs; an ancient house, lacking in style, but full of respectability. But instead of this, I was confronted with a diminutive vestibule and with a flimsy, unelegant staircase; which foretold the cramped, modern dimensions I could expect in the rest of the house. The flooring was of polished wood; the few bits of furniture had the chill luxury of things from New York, and on the wall, covered in bright green paper, there grimaced, with unpardonable indications of impertinence, two or three Japanese masks. I even began to doubt … But then I raised my eyes and my calm returned: before me, dressed in black, slender, dignified, the woman who had come to guide me pointed to the door of the salon. Her silhouette had taken on a coloring of features; her face had no special significance for me, its only noteworthy aspect being a reverent expression; her chestnut locks, done up in a somewhat slack way, completed the formation of a strange conviction in my mind: it all seemed to knead and mold the suggestion of a name.
– Amalia? — I asked.
– Yes. — And it seemed as if I had answered my own question.
The salon, as I had imagined, was small. The decorations, which seemed to answer my previous expectations, clashed infamously with the decor of the vestibule. Here were the honorable tapestries and the massive armchairs, the bearskin on the floor, the mirror, the chimney, the vases; the piano complete with candlesticks and full of photographs and statuettes — the piano that no one ever touched –, and, beside it stood the prominent easel, with an enlarged and obviously retouched portrait; it showed a gentleman with a parted beard and a vulgar mouth.
Dona Magdalena, who was already waiting for me installed in a red armchair, was also dressed in black and bore on her bosom one of those colossal jewels of our ancestors’ time: a glass orb with a portrait inside, surrounded by a ring of gold. The mystery of the family resemblance took hold of me. My eyes shifted, unconsciously, from Dona Magdalena to Amalia, and from the portrait to Amalia. Dona Magdalena, noting this, abetted me in my investigations with some timely explanations.
It would have been more proper for me to have been awkward, expressing surprise, so as to prompt an explanation. But Dona Magdalena and her daughter Amalia hypnotized me, from the first moment, with their parallel gazes. Dona Magdalena was a woman of sixty; so she passed on to her daughter the bother of initiating me. Amalia conversed with me; Dona Magdalena watched me; I was completely exposed to the whims of chance.
It occurred to the mother — this was de rigeur — to remind us that it was already time for dinner. In the dining room the conversation became more general and topical. I ended by convincing myself that these ladies had wanted nothing more than to invite me to dine, and at the second glass of Chablis I felt myself overflow in the perfect egoism of a body charged with generous spirits. I conversed, I laughed and displayed all my ingenuity, inwardly trying to play down the strangeness of my situation. Up to that time the ladies had been making an effort to seem nice to me; from then on I felt I was striving to make myself agreeable to them.
The reverent aspect of Amalia’s face migrated, at moments, to her mother’s face. The entirely physiognomic look of satisfaction on Dona Magdalena’s face descended, at times, over her daughter’s face. It seemed that these two attitudes floated in the ambience, shifting from one face to the other.
I never could have anticipated the pleasures of this conversation. Although there were vague hints at I don’t know what evocations of Sudermann, with frequent recourse to the difficult terrain of domestic responsibilities and — as was natural with women of strong spirit — sudden flashes of Ibsen, I was enjoying myself as much as if I were visiting the home of some widowed aunt, in company with some friend of my early childhood, now becoming an old maid.
At first, the conversation concerned itself entirely with commerical matters, economics, in which the two women seemed to take pleasure. There is no better subject than this when one are invited to the table as an outsider in an unfamiliar house.
Later, things took on a different aspect. Everything we said seemed to fly away, like petitions dispatched into the distance. Everything moved toward an end that I could not foresee. In Amalia’s face there appeared, at last, a pointed, disturbed smile. She began visibly struggling against some inner temptation. Her mouth trembled, at times, so anxiously did she speak, and she ended her every phrase with a sigh. Her eyes widened suddenly, fixed with an expression of fright or abandon on the wall just over my shoulders, so that more than once, rattled, I turned my head to look myself. But Amalia did not seem aware of the alarm she caused me. She went on with her smiles, her frights and her sighs, while I shuddered every time she looked over my head.
Finally, between Amalia and Dona Magdalena, I was caught in a true colloquy of sighs. I was already getting tired of them. Near the center of the table, and, by the way, so low that it was a constant inconvenience, hung the lamp with two lights in it. And upon the walls it projected the faded shadows of the two women, in such distorted shapes that it was not possible to trace the correspondance between shadows and persons. A heavy depression invaded me, and a spirit of tedium was taking hold. Was that what drew from me this unexpected invitation:
– Let’s go into the garden.
The prospect of novelty revived my spirits. I was conducted across a patio whose cleanliness and sobriety put me in mind of a hospital. In the obscurity of the night I could make out a little garden plot, small and artificial, like those in cemeteries.
We sat beneath the arbor. The ladies began telling me the names of flowers that I could not see, relishing the cruel delight of quizzing me later about what they had told me. Ill-equipped to deal with such eccentric experiences as this, my imagination would not stop racing. They only permitted me to listen and gave me barely time enough to answer. The ladies were smiling (I guessed) and fully aware of the state I was in. I was beginning to confuse their words with my fantasy. Their botanical explanations, as I remember them now, seem as freakish as something out of a delirium: I believe I heard them telling me about flowers that bite and about flowers that kiss; of stems that uproot themselves and climb your body, like serpents, up to the throat.
The darkness, the boredom, the dinner, the Chablis, the mysterious conversation about flowers that I couldn’t see (and which I don’t believe they really had in that stunted garden), all conspired together to lull me to sleep; and so I fell asleep on the bench, beneath the vine.
– The poor captain! — I heard when I opened my eyes –. Full of illusions, going off to Europe. The light was taken from him.
Around me the same darkness still reigned. A warm breeze shook the arbor. Dona Magdalena and Amalia were still conversing with me, resigned to overlook my silence. It seemed to me that they had exchanged seats during my brief dream; that was how it seemed to me …
– He was a captain of artillery — Amalia told me –; young and handsome as they come.
Her voice trembled.
And at that moment, something happened that would have seemed natural to me under other circumstances, but which just then startled me and made my heart leap into my mouth. The ladies, until then, had only been perceptible to me by the murmur of their conversation and by their physical presence. At that instant someone in the house opened a window, and without warning the light fell on the faces of the women. And — oh heaven! — I saw them light up suddenly, automatically, suspended in the air — their black garments indistinguishable in the blackness of the garden — and with that reverent expression welded into their features. They were like the illuminated faces in the paintings of Echave the Elder, like stars, enormous and fantastic.
I jumped to my feet, unable to control myself any longer.
– Wait — Dona Magdalena cried then –; you have not yet heard the worst.
And immediately, speaking to Amalia: — My daughter, continue; this young man cannot go away and leave us now without hearing it all.
– All right — Amalia said –: the captain went to Europe. He bypassed Paris that night, for he was summoned to Berlin with the utmost urgency. But he yearned with all his heart to see Paris. In Germany he had to study something, I don’t know what, having to do with the manufacture of cannons … On the following day, a boiler exploded, and he lost his sight.
I was going crazy. I wanted to ask questions; what questions would you have asked? I wanted to speak; what would you have said? What was happening to me? Why had I been invited here?
The window was closed, and the faces of the women turned invisible again. The voice of the daughter resounded:
– Ay! Then, and only then, was he summoned to Paris. To Paris, that he had wanted with all his heart! Picture him passing beneath the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile: a blind man passing beneath the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile, guessing at everything around him … But you will tell him about Paris, won’t you? You will describe the Paris he could not see. It would do him so much good!
(“Ah, if he is not missing!” … “It would do him so much good!”)
And then they dragged me to the drawing room, carrying me by the arms like an invalid. My feet were tangled in vines and shoots from the garden; there were leaves in my hair.
– He is frozen here — they said, showing me a portrait. It was a soldier. He wore a helmet, a white cape, silver braid on the sleeves and cufflinks like three trumpet valves. His beautiful eyes, beneath the perfect wings of his eyebrows, held a singular pride. I looked at the ladies: the two of them smiled as if with relief at having completed a mission. I examined the portrait again; I looked at myself in the mirror; I verified the resemblance: I was like a caricature of this portrait. The portrait had an inscription and a signature. The handwriting was the same as the writing on the anonymous invitation I had received that morning.
The portrait fell from my hands, as the two ladies gazed upon me with a comical reverence. A noise sounded in my ears, something like a crystal chandelier shattering against the ground.
And I ran, crossing unknown streets. Rays of light danced before my eyes. The clocks in their towers spied on me, concatenations of light … Oh, heaven! When I reached, panting, the familiar boards of my door, nine sonorous chimes shook the night.
There were leaves in my hair; in my buttonhole, a modest little flower that I had not picked.