Adam Thirlwell

Hispianola (Addendum)

Translations of works by Augusto Monterroso

An accompaniment to the essay Hispianola.

FLIES

There are only three subjects: love, death and flies. Ever since man was invented, this emotion, this fear and the presence of these insects have been his constant companions. Other people can take care of the first two subjects. Me, I just concern myself with flies—a much greater theme than men, though maybe not greater than women. A few years ago, I had the idea of compiling a universal anthology of flies. It still preoccupies me, this task. But very soon I realized that it was also endless. Flies have invaded every form of literature! Which I suppose isn’t so surprising since wherever you look you find a fly. It turns out that at some moment in their career every true writer has dedicated to a fly a poem, a page, a paragraph, a line; if you’re a writer and haven’t yet done it, I think you should follow my example and do it right now; flies are Eumenides, they are Erinyes; they punish you. They’re the avenging angels of some power we don’t quite know; but you—man, you know that they pursued you once and, since you know this, they’ll pursue you forever. They stake you out. They’re the vicars of an unnameable being, benevolent or malicious. They clamour for you. They follow you. They spy on you. And when you finally die, a single fly will probably be enough—which is pretty sad—to bear away your poor distracted soul, who could say where? Flies, passing on this task to each other indefinitely, transport the souls of our dead and of our ancestors and this is why, always close to us, they accompany us and persist in protecting us. Our small souls transmigrate through them and so accumulate wisdom, knowing everything we never dare to know. It’s possible that the last transmitter of our dying western culture may be the body of this species called a fly which, down the centuries, has reproduced without any self-enrichment. I think it was Milla (an author who I know you’ve never heard of but he was into flies, which is why you’re hearing his name today for the very first time) who said that the fly wasn’t as ugly as it looked at first sight. But at first sight, it doesn’t have an ugly appearance, precisely because no one sees a fly at first sight. Every fly has always been seen. Between the chicken and the egg, there’s still doubt about which came first. But no one’s had the idea of wondering if the fly came before or after. (It’s impossible to avoid here “in the beginning was the fly” or a phrase like that. We live on these phrases. Fly-phrases which, like fly-pains, mean nothing. These persecuting phrases of which our books are full.) Let’s move on to something else. It’s more likely that a fly will rest on the nose of a pope than that inversely the pope will rest on the nose of a fly. Moreover the pope, the king or the president (the president of the Republic, of course; the president of a financial or commercial company is in general so stupid that he thinks he’s above them) would never command their swiss guard or royal guard or presidential guard to exterminate a fly. On the contrary, these men are tolerant and, what’s more, they simply go on calmly picking their nose because they know, they know. They know that the fly also knows and has them under surveillance; they know that these flies which surround us are in reality guardian flies who constantly save us from our one great authentic sin, for which we’d need true guardian angels who, so often absent, have therefore become collaborators, like the guardian angel of Hitler, or LBJ. But let’s not think about that. Let’s return to the nose. The fly which today rested on your very own nose is a direct descendant of the one which paused on the nose of Cleopatra. And so voilà you fall back on prefabricated rhetorical allusions which everyone’s made before you. Despite yourself you write literature. The fly wants you to introduce it into this world of kings, of popes and of emperors. And it succeeds. It dominates you. You can’t talk about it without feeling inclined to grandeur. Oh Melville, you had to cross the oceans so that finally you could install that great white whale on your desk in Pittsfield, Mass, without realizing that Evil had been hovering for so long around your strawberry ice cream in the hot afternoons of your childhood and then, as the years went by, it used to settle on you in the twilight as you stroked your golden beard while reading Cervantes and polishing your style; and that it didn’t necessarily exist in that formless enormity of bone and sperm incapable of harming a single schmuck until someone interrupted his siesta, like that madman Ahab. And Poe and his raven? Ridiculous. You, regard the fly. Observe, reflect.

MAIDS

I love maids for their unreal aspect, because they always end up leaving, because they don’t like obeying anyone, because they incarnate the last vestiges of free work and voluntary contract, receiving neither health insurance, nor bonuses, nothing at all; because they arrive like the ghosts of an extinct race, enter our houses, sniff around, rummage, peer into the abysses of our petty secrets as they read the dregs of coffee cups or wine glasses or cigarette stubs or quite simply by insinuating their furtive glances and greedy hands into our wardrobes and under our pillows, or even when they gather up small pieces of torn-up paper and the echo of our quarrels, while they shake out and sweep away our perpetual miseries and the remains of our hatreds when they’re alone all morning, singing triumphantly; we receive them like annunciations the day they arrive with their luggage just a packet of Starbucks Via or value box of Pop-Tarts containing their linen, their hairpins and the tiny mirrors which preserve the powdery traces of the last unreality from which they were displaced; and at that moment they say yes to everything and it seems that their protecting hand will never fail us; and yet, finally, they decide to leave exactly as they came but with a more profound knowledge of human nature, an enlarged comprehension and solidarity; because they are the last representatives of Evil, and our wives, not knowing what to do without the presence of Evil, cling to them and beg them not to abandon this earth; because they are the only beings who avenge us for the affronts of these same wives by just leaving, gathering up their dresses in every color, their stuff, their pots of third-rate beauty cream filled with slightly dirty first-rate beauty cream, the fruit of their miniature maladroit thefts. I’m off, they say with vigor as they pack up their things in their cardboard luggage. But why? Just because. (O ineffable liberty.) And they’re off like sly angels in search of new adventures, a new house, a new bed, a new sink, a new employer who won’t be able to live without them and who will love them; they plan a new life, refusing to display any gratitude at all for the care they received when they fell ill nor for the aspirin they were given with love, out of anxiety that the next day they might not be well enough to wash the dishes, because I mean sure, the cooking, that’s OK, but the dishes, they’re the worst. I love seeing them arrive, knock at the door, smile, enter, say yes to everything; because it must always end in renunciation, even when they’ve found a Mary Poppins of an employer who will resolve all their problems, along with those of their parents, their brothers, younger and older, one of whom once raped them; who will teach them in the evenings to sing do-re-mi do-re-mi until they fall asleep, their sweet thoughts tending toward the next day’s pile of dirty plates, drowning in a fresh wave of fa-sol-la-si washing-up foam, who will caress their hair with tenderness, leave without making any noise, on tip-toe, and put out the light at the very last moment, before leaving the bedroom with its vaguely unreal outlines.

COMMUNAL LIVING

Someone who at every hour of the day bitterly complains about having to bear his cross (husband, wife, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, son, daughter, step-father, step-mother, nephew, niece, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law) is simultaneously the cross of another person who bitterly complains of having to bear at every hour of the day the cross which in this life they have been assigned (daughter-in-law, son-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law, niece, nephew, step-mother, step-father, daughter, son, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, wife, husband), and so it goes for everyone, each according to their ability, each according to their needs.

Adam Thirlwell is the author of two novels and a novella. He is the guest editor of McSweeney’s Quarterly issue 42—a compendium of multiple translations—to be published in the fall.

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