The Witness

Sergio Chejfec

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

for Graciela Montaldo

Our first protagonist is Julio Cortázar. He's been in Buenos Aires for a while now. Two years before, he was living in Bolívar, from where, in a letter, he wrote, "life here makes me picture a man getting crushed by a steam roller." Within eight months he'll be teaching in Chivilcoy; he'll miss Bolívar and will feel like an exile. But for now, in the capital, he's unsure where his life is taking him—this is what stands out from his correspondence. It's January, 1939, but he hasn't left on vacation (though he doesn't specify what it is that stops him). Actually, a vacation wouldn't interest him. Cortázar wants another life, an abrupt and unexpected transformation: what he'd like is to literally hop on board a cargo ship for Mexico. His anxiety comes through in the next letter, written that same month, in which he regrets postponing the trip, at least for now: there aren't any ships in Buenos Aires bound for Mexico. The nearest port besides is Valparaíso, so he puts off the trip for the following year and commits to saving money. Cortázar admires Mexico, wants to see the Aztec pyramids and hear the local music.

January in Buenos Aires, we can picture this. The drawn-out swelter in the neighborhoods, a constant summer barely suppressed on the streets sheltered by plane trees. It's 1939. (In a few months, while Cortázar is exiled in Chivilcoy, an indifferent Gombrowicz will come ashore. Six years before, Novo, the Mexican, disembarked from another ship. We can picture this too, since everyone knows that the city is an extension of the river. The summer, the cicadas, and the steamrolling heat. Novo finds García Lorca, also issued from the waters, in the Hotel Castelar, but he can't remember the address of the conscript he knows in Diagonal Norte.) Cortázar writes the letters in the heat, most likely in the courtyard of his house, far from the city center, at the same time in the afternoon as he takes his mate. He asks a friend in Bolívar whether he might visit Buenos Aires that summer. He adds that, if he does, remember that his number is in the phone book, and that he'd like it very much if they could meet up and talk.

At this point there's a jump in the story. Our new protagonist lives in another hemisphere and is named Samich. Since he left the country, this person has suffered from a fatal geographical disconnect. The effect of this disconnect is that the world seems divided into two disparate hemispheres. The first is his own, the second the other. Even after living for decades in the same place abroad, or abroad in general, Samich still thinks that he lives in the other hemisphere. He doesn't call the one he lives in this, but rather that, since it doesn't contain the country he comes from. Samich lives in a hot city with thick light, made so by the nearness of a green mountain that constantly reflects the shifting sunlight, and which is associated with the temperature in such a way that the citizens imagine they can see the heat in the grainy air, a white and incandescent mist that tempers the brightness of the colors, which are strong by default.

We can picture Samich looking up from the book he's reading: just now he sees this display of tense atmosphere, the confusion of tones fading to white, the vibration of the heat itself, distorting the shapes of things in his line of sight. Samich has just started the book comprising Cortázar's famous letters. He assumes that a passing or rather accidental interest has led him to poke around in stories that don't concern him, but in fact what's happened is that so-called normal books haven't interested him for a while, and he's been looking for books where life presents itself without intrusion. We can guess what this means. Samich feels like he's reading someone named Julio Cortázar for the first time—his memory of Cortázar's great novels and perfect stories is vivid, but, he has to admit, indifferent.

Samich remembers reading this author, but not a consistent impact this reading may have had, which, paradoxically, helps to read him now, in the early afternoon, when the heat is about to peak, because he realizes that at twenty-five this Cortázar still wasn't that other Cortázar. Asking his friend to call him up if he's in Buenos Aires is like saying: I'll be here, I'll be here till something happens to me. Cortázar is obviously thinking about the ship that will casually pluck him from the city and carry him to Mexico, an illusion possibly inspired by Raymond Roussel, his enduring precursor, and which he will realize with visits to other places and with other stories.

The Event

For now things are more or less fine, we assume we're attending a calm moment: Samich has sat down to read in the tropical place where he decided to spend the best years of his life. As usual, the light expands and contracts periodically, resembling some continuous physical process. But when Samich stumbles across this line by Cortázar, telling his friend in Bolívar that his number is in the phone book and that all he has to do is find him there and call him up so they can see each other when this man, surname Gagliardi, passes through Buenos Aires, something inside him, something that's kept him in a slumber, bursts. Samich suffers a devastating attack of nostalgia and a seizing jolt of his mortality.

This takes place in the year 2000. Samich realizes that more than six decades have passed since that January letter. And still the straightforward phrase, the appeal to the phone book as a means at hand for two people to meet up, fills him with a sense of coexistence, or continuity, at once urban and domestic, of juxtaposition, which he'd buried but finds intact despite the time that's passed. We can guess the sorts of things that occur to Samich. First off, he wants to know Cortázar's address. Not just the phone number—an expired, mute signifier, for sure—but also the address, the alphanumeric key to the place where this Cortázar, the author of the letter, endured the long summer months. It's as though Samich had assumed, though incompletely, the role of Gagliardi. Or, better yet, as though Cortázar's request had, in effect, reached him by way of Gagliardi.

In the year 2000 the country has not yet suffered from the infamous social crisis that plunged it even further into ruin, but the signs of a vast and multifaceted collapse, which he's been receiving for some time, in light of this signal of coexistence with the past, causes a surge of emotion in Samich. From his tropical overlook, in the granular light, he's able to imagine the instinct for self-preservation nested in any exchange, and he can also sense how desperation, as it rises, turns any old acquaintance into a treasured one.

Now the story jumps again. Samich has decided to take a trip to Buenos Aires. Despite his years living in the other hemisphere, he's returned to the country only a few times. He's yet to come across the quote by the famed Leonardo Sciascia. Sciascia, reporting the misadventures of a nineteenth-century Sicilian emigrant, put words in the Sicilian's mouth that Samich will soon adopt as a slogan, a consolatory defense. They say, more or less, that anyone who's made the mistake of leaving can't make the mistake of returning. Samich will shudder when he reads this, because in its phrasing he'll see the synthetic stamp of his destiny, without appeal and without possible prerogatives. Not his practical future, but his moral design. He'll dwell on the phrase for a long time, turn it over, trying, always successfully, to adapt it to different situations. He will imagine, for example, that someone who's made the mistake of leaving a party he was invited to probably can't make the mistake of returning. The mistake is made manifest when it's repeated, with the second action, which points to the correction; but at the same time, you can't have the second action without the first. Samich has yet to come across this phrase, and so his exile, as Cortázar liked to say of Bolívar, still lacks the depth of abstraction. This quote will teach him that the mistake is singular and yet assumes distinct forms. It will also teach him the strange, cunning use of this "can't"—not to be able.

By now the plane has landed. Samich travels along the elevated highway that takes him from the airport, contemplating the irregular mix of grays on the houses and buildings. The opaque light and the gray blurs remind him, by contrast, of the overlook where he lives, but, surprisingly, no insight or conclusion suggests itself. His plan is to take care of some practical matters and then visit the National Library as soon as he can. With this in mind, the first thing he does when he reaches his destination is to call his mother, who's been waiting by the phone since before the plane took off. Then he calls his sister, and they agree to meet up at his mother's house. On his way there he gets the first strange feeling of the trip, a feeling he hasn't known before. It's a creeping sense of not-belonging, of distance, of desolation, he's not sure what to call it. He feels like a foreigner, and realizes that he doesn't know anything about the other passengers on the bus. This, we can imagine, isn't what worries Samich, for whom being a stranger is normal no matter the situation. Instead, he feels like the ribbon connecting him to the place has frayed, has been snipped at its weakest point. It's a sudden, slightly bitter, and unexplainable feeling. He can't tell where the people on the bus are coming from or where they're going—or, if we can picture this, he can't comprehend the chain of events that these people follow, or is generally ignorant of the significance or deeper meaning of those things. He senses, meanwhile, that something has happened to the everyday words, those few dozen words thanks to which people make connections and understand each other.

His mother receives him in silence, her mate and the gourd and straw at her arm, a plate of water crackers next to the kettle. As in the past, Samich is sure he'll find things in the same place he last saw them, several years before. He's not thinking of the things that don't move or change, but rather papers and pens, envelopes, magazines, coins. What if things didn't move when you weren't there? he thinks. Then he thinks about parallel and overlapping dimensions, about tunnels and hidden connections, about alternative theories of reality. Soon, his sister arrives. She seems tired, and after a brief hello mimics her mother's silence.

Just to say something, Samich tells them that as soon as he can he's going to the National Library, for some research he's working on. They're not interested, but they ask which bus will take him there. It depends, says Samich. Depends on where you're coming from. Samich doesn't realize that he's answered wrongly—the question referred to which buses stopped at the library. And Samich's mistaken response confirms the mother and sister's complicity. They both notice the misstep but neither mentions it. For both of them, the library is an abstraction, iconic and yet as inconceivable in practical terms as the capitol building or the race track. What they know are cinemas, cafes, hospitals, and supermarkets, a limited number of each of these. Sometimes they'll stop in front of a bookstore; sometimes they'll walk down the street carrying oversized nylon bags. What this means: as they talk, the National Library is to them just an annex of the overlook where Samich lives, and the improbable buses that pass nearby are just like that granular, tropical light.

Samich, for his part, prefers to allude to the research as vaguely as possible, because he'd feel ashamed to admit the truth were his mother to ask for it. He's sure his sister will never ask him a thing, either about the research or anything else (his sister stopped asking him questions a long time ago), but he'd be even more mortified if she knew what it was he was doing. It's hard for him to count back the years since his last visit to the country. He'll start and then something will stop him, as though it were some abstract, byzantine operation. Meanwhile, his mother offers him a mate. Samich guesses that it's already cold. His mother's been drinking mate her whole life and she's never known how to make one. If he says it's cold, she'll tell him to make it himself. She found this back door a long time ago, her way to make one of her children put the water on and watch it. But since she knows her weakness for making mate, if no one says anything she'll brew it carelessly, as a way of dismissing its importance. For Samich, it's just the opposite; for him the strict obedience to the mate, to its temperature, method, and schedule, is one of the premises the world relies on, and one that he's enslaved himself to. (We can assume that this world is held together best when imagined from the other hemisphere, since the hemisphere called Buenos Aires obeys the same laws that apply to Samich.)

On the street, the asphalt softens during the summer months. Samich remembers that Cortázar mentions the phenomenon, and he wonders if by that January in 1939 he'd already experienced the trance produced by stepping onto the pavement in the afternoon sun. The sound of buses enters from the avenue, and, by chance, the slightly bitter smell of tar that a foursome of workers is heating to patch up the street. He'd seen them while he waited for his mother to come down and open the door; they use shovels to fill the potholes, and even out the asphalt with rakes, which they scrape over the road, tips up. Then another worker comes along driving a steam roller, making a deafening noise. The buses are loud too, and make the walls shake. But his mother and sister don't seem to notice them, and probably don't, being accustomed to it. His sister doesn't drink mate, which is probably why she's picked up a sudoku. She always has a few booklets in her purse, and, in the past, before the game caught on in the country, she would ask him to find as many as he could for her in the other hemisphere. Samich would go to markets and bookstores, but he wouldn't find many because back then sudoku hadn't caught on there either. Samich notices his sister's distraction and thinks, optimistically, that if his mother asked him right then about the research that's brought him to Buenos Aires his sister might not hear what he says. But this doesn't happen, his mother doesn't ask. His mother's indifference is disappointing, it turns out; there's a sort of disaffection in her lack of interest in the research that's brought him back to Buenos Aires.

In a few days, Samich is all but situated in Buenos Aires, as though he weren't a newcomer. He feels ready to begin his library study. He's had opportunity to explore the most salient places in the city, at least those most salient to him. The avenida Corrientes and the city center, calle Alem, the Congreso and San Cristóbal neighborhoods, Villa Crespo and Parque Patricios. One afternoon he boarded the old Sarmiento train, got off first in Haedo and then in Morón, where he walked through the plaza. From within the city his images of the past were precise, living memories, concerning someone, himself, and yet their continuity in Samich's somewhat external consciousness somehow ran up against the edges of those very memories, producing a dissonance. This was how he experienced the altogether common sensation that his own memories belonged to someone else. He tried putting himself in someone else's skin, someone completely unfamiliar with the city who was seeing everything for the first time. But he didn't do this to deceive himself with a different life, nor did he mean to be another person: he was trying to avoid the tow of the past, which despite the physical differences and changed aspects of the visible world constantly signaled to Samich that he was from there, that, simply put, the things around him had a better memory than he did.

He'd always disdained the reverence for places, the idealization of familiar landscapes seeming loathsome in general, and worse still the tender, backward-looking gaze. And nothing was causing this opinion to change, in fact the city had been miserable on several counts, it was still just as tortuous as ever, and now he could tell that in everything bad it was worse still and infinitely more so. He started to think that the only things salvaging his connection to the city were the buses, those mobile capsules.


Since he could remember (that specific category of remembrance that is the urban memory) Samich had been attracted to the episodic nature of the bus, this floating presence of sporadic apparitions. And his enthusiasm manifested paradoxically, on the afternoon when he literally witnessed the extinction of a line after a drawn-out affliction. The line crossed through Villa Crespo from Retiro, and its increasingly common delays were like lapses of time, liable to resolve themselves in the most unforeseen ways. Samich never minded waiting—he'd always thought that others, or the other in general, were basically intended to dispose of the time that happened to have been allotted to him. One day he waited three hours at the stop. Not long afterward, the afternoon of its departure, he waited five hours. Samich was just stepping out of his childhood at this time, and his grandmother had instructed him to arrive punctually for the mate. When he'd been waiting for three and a half hours, he saw the bus pass in the opposite direction, which suggested that before long his bus would come (the buses also brought on this kind of magical thinking), or that, in any case, that same bus would be making the return trip soon enough. But it didn't turn out that way, it never appeared and Samich realized that he would never cross paths with that line again. (He also realized that this outcome was natural to buses, that things not anchored to a specific place had to disappear eventually. To him, their terminals were the least interesting features, the essential thing happened the first moment they appeared, when the buses asserted their dominion: in a dark and empty street, or a crowded and busy one, that mobile capsule would suddenly take shape, propelled like a robot, busy connecting arbitrarily determined places with episodic, recurrent apparitions.)

We can guess what Samich might say about cities in general and Buenos Aires in particular: that he despises maps and only trusts the bus routes. Maps are at once redundant and inadequate. And the buses were like these amphibian creatures to him, both abstract and tangible, arranged within mental dioramas that took their shape from each route's trajectory. And they were like displays of color combinations. Because Samich also believed that the bus lines were the disinterested benefactors of the only chromatic education he ever received. The bus as colored module, traveling the streets. One line's red wasn't the same as another's, nor were the blues, grays, or greens of different companies alike. On top of that, the borders of the colors added variation, which depending on the design of the bus turned out in distinct ways, in addition to the trim that edged the surfaces, and so on. All of this identified the buses at first sight, making their numbers unnecessary.

These mental dioramas therefore took shape as abstract designs, the connections the routes made between points in the city, described or illustrated, also imaginarily, as colored vehicles in miniature approaching and departing within the fixed design of the streets. And at the top were the numbers, inconstant and unpredictable, purely nominal, without reference to anything concrete. The trinity of color, number, and route is what gave shape to the dioramas. Samich disliked the extra ornamentation. The beveled mirrors, the tasseled velvet curtains, and especially the iconography were aspects that had always seemed superfluous, and, likewise, altogether commonplace gestures. He admired each company's simple distinctiveness, each with its own profile and combination of colors, which made the icons and general ornamentation threaten to homogenize what to him was remarkable diversity.

To Samich, those sorts of invisible connections between distant points in the city, like shifting channels only reliable to those who knew them or could sense them, seemed extraordinary inasmuch as they overcame the configuration of the streets, or, more so, sometimes contradicted or perfected it. This was the transcendent thing about buses, with each diorama being the only physical representation possible. Between the chaotic picture that formed when he combined two lines, and among the bizarre trajectories of the active lines, Samich preferred the simplest choices, for example the consistent habits a pair of lines, linked by their inverse routes and the diluted, almost pinkish red, unimaginative and undecorated color on the chassis of the buses known at that time as the 311 and 312. These were lines with circular, interdependent routes, each number compelled to a permanent departure. Later they became the 61 and 62. And with that change in number, as with those of other companies, Samich realized the curious power contained in every name, made all the more manifest in cases like these, because the numbers, whatever they were, translated into an intermittent series of points over the physical surface of the city, which otherwise, if that bus line didn't exist, couldn't have been drawn.

The numbers represented connections. We can picture Samich occupied for some interval in walking the route of a bus line, with no other purpose or intention than experiencing the route from a different height and at a different velocity. But the paradox of bus routes was that they were best manifested in the mind: trajectories and collaged images appeared in Samich's head with the clarity of a schematic. It fascinated him to connect places in the city by those pathways; they were something like postulations of simultaneity, the raw material of the urban fiction, the synchronic life, the infinite contortions of chance. Sometimes he'd compete with others at finding the trip, the simplest connection between several points. And he loved the buses most during the summers, when they transformed into mobile observatories through the hushed city, also mostly empty because of the heat and the lack of people, and when visible and invisible things both took on an abstract feel, saturated with slowness and exhausted by the drawn-out light of the long days.

Still, for Samich these memories are sketchy: given his hopeless ignorance of the landmarks in the current landscape, his memory is practically the only thing that connects him to the living city. In any case, he thinks that if he were going from the National Library's old building, on calle México, to the new building, near the Avenida del Libertador, he'd have several options. There's the 130, taking México to Paseo Colón. Another option would be to walk in the opposite direction, to Bernardo de Irigoyen, and wait for the 59. He knows there's no perfect connection between the two places. From his mother's house there's the 92, in his opinion a wonderful, almost sublime bus with a diverse and tireless route, which Samich admires for its coloring too.


He's just about to reach the edge of the Plaza Francia. We can imagine what he feels. He sees the library approach, solid and gray like a bunker, and senses that the long trip from the tropics will soon be justified. The bus he picked went down Avenida Las Heras, and because of this he's now walking across the building's rear esplanade, from which he can see the mass of the library, enclosed in silence, its face open toward the congruous slope of the old river.

And we can imagine what Samich feels when he goes inside. At that moment there's no information more worth protecting and treasuring than Cortázar's old address. He fills out the visitor's register and starts wandering through the entrance hall. He acts like everything interests him: the posters and newsletters on the walls, the display cases with pamphlets and brochures, the notices, signboards, and so on. This is his chance to act like a foreigner; at some point the library turned into an improbable place for him too, although for different reasons, and now it's become just an approximate likeness. Still—Samich glimpses this in a line of thought—doesn't the same thing happen with the city as a whole? Isn't all of Buenos Aires, meaning the people, the objects, and the geography, in its perpetual and synchronic motion, just a sign for something else, a life that moves forward simply because everyone believes in the contradictory symbols it produces? Samich acts like everything in the entrance hall interests him, but in fact nothing does. He plays the sightseer only from habit. He's confused: the same anxiety that made him hide his research from his mother is again urging him to conceal it. But eventually he'll have to admit what it is he's come looking for.

Dragged along by his embarrassment he ends up at the coat check, where a silent employee passes the time. Almost all of the lockers are empty, and Samich is able to choose where he stores what little he has. As he finishes putting his things away, something unexpected occurs to him, which he won't be able to explain afterward. He's unsure whether it's to make conversation or to avoid the decisive moment, but he asks the employee where he can find the phone books. Samich is about to tell her everything, starting with the letter from 1939, then on to Cortázar's desire to travel, and ending with what he himself felt at the astonishing mention of the phone book. The employee looks at him a moment and then down at some charts she has on the counter, which are just copies of the same diagrams pasted to the numbered lockers at the coat check. She has on a gray-looking work coat that might also be beige. Her eyes are a very light color, almost white. After thinking it over a second she says they're in the reference library, the phone books are found in the reference library. We can picture this: she's rarely asked about specific material and so she takes advantage of Samich's hopelessly distracted curiosity to respond with conviction.

Samich, for his part, is a man defeated by circumstance. In this case he's forfeited thinking. He takes her answer at face value and heads toward the reference library. What he's looking for isn't in the card catalogue. So he asks another employee, who first looks at him sideways and then wants to know why he's looking for the phone books there. Samich realizes that an insidious sort of plot is taking shape, with the predictable outcome of concealing Cortázar's address. He responds that another employee told him they were there. He's told to wait. This employee is wearing a work coat just like the woman's, and when he speaks it's like he's thinking of something else. Samich doesn't really believe that he's thinking of something else, but that his expression is meant to communicate extreme concentration, as if he found it impossible to put down his last thought or settle on the meaning of what he'd been doing, and so on. He returns immediately and tells Samich to go to the supervisor, who is waiting for him in a sort of glass-walled foyer, surrounded by several desks occupied by other employees.

The supervisor doesn't take her eyes off of him, as though he, Samich, were a curious specimen. The first thing she asks is what he's looking for. Samich replies that he wants to read the phone books from the thirties. He's about to tell her how he found Cortázar's letter and everything else, but he realizes the word read sounded off and clarifies that he'd like to consult them. But the correction actually intensifies the ambiguity, since anyone would know that read in this case means to consult, making his clarification suspicious by virtue of its redundancy. Does Samich really think anyone would want to read the phone book? Just then something uncanny happens: it's as though the supervisor realizes that she has more than enough reason to get impatient and wash her hands of this absurd situation, but still she doesn't; she takes Samich's ignorance as a simple misunderstanding and Samich himself as someone capable of reforming himself. She asks if he's been to the periodicals archive. Here a sort of controlled cataclysm takes place. Only just now woken up after having left his overlook several days before, it's as though Samich were hearing the word periodicals for the first time after having forgotten it. Samich realizes that he should have thought of it earlier, but to hide his mistake he says yes, that they sent him to the reference library from the periodicals. He briefly considered whether to confess that he'd asked at the coat check, but being, as he thought, a marginal person in this city, a witness issued from the geography of the past, he sensed that he was in no position to confront any disruption that might isolate him further still.

The supervisor asks who it was. Not so much to find the responsible party, Samich assumes, but to make use of the situation and pass the corrective work on to someone else. Samich tries to describe the woman at the coat check. Her pale eyes, how short she is. And just as he's about to say something about her hair he realizes the uncanny resemblance that woman has to the famous widow, the most famous widow of the most famous Argentine writer. It's an unhappy coincidence, which actually benefits Samich because now both people are blended together in his memory and he can't tell which aspects correspond to whom. Seeing him struggle with a description, the supervisor decides to pick up the phone. While she waits for an answer she calms Samich under her breath: she just wants to confirm the availability of the material in question. Samich is grateful for her discretion: in the library every page is, by definition, material.

Samich is now at the periodicals archive, is sitting at a long table, waiting for this request to be brought up. Half an hour later he's consulting, or reading, an old Buenos Aires phone book. He thinks he must be the first person to open it in more than sixty years, and so he can't understand why it looks so worn. The reading room is almost empty; at the opposite end another reader labors at his lectern over large volumes containing issues of an old newspaper. They bring Samich one phone book at a time. The employee suggests that he request every year he needs, so they're ready for him. They'll bring them up as soon he returns the one he's working on.

We can guess Samich's state of mind when he approached the archive. As he neared the counter, in that air, surrounded by emptiness, he realized that they were waiting for him. The supervisor had called, he supposed, mostly to check whether anyone had been there asking for the phone books. And they all must have been confused when they heard that Samich had said he had, when in fact it seemed this wasn't the case. Why insist on something that wasn't true? They weren't able to come up with an answer. In any case, the supervisor had let them know that the man looking for the phone books, or the phone book guy, as Samich assumes they've started calling him, was on his way.

The phone books provide the information he's after, and in this sense, Samich thinks, they're beyond question. But at the same time they form a collective picture: mute as they are, they tell him more about the city than is apparent. He thinks of almost nothing, with them at hand, apart from his own curiosity as a casual reader. He senses that he's got a sort of ambiguous material at hand, illustrative and mysterious, so much so that he can't tell if it seems a little useless too. Apparently, this is what Samich has decided to read, this is the practical consequence of looking for books where life presents itself without intrusion. Some years are missing or entirely lost; the first that he requested, from 1939, the year of the letter, is one of these. In any case, Cortázar showed up in the 1938 edition. Among the things Samich asks himself: When were the phone books printed? Because if the letter was written in January, Cortázar must of course have been referring to the one from '38. Samich pictures the 146 and the 105. Cortázar would have taken one of these two lines to get downtown, to the Pasaje Güemes, for example. His address was 3246 Artigas, and the phone number was 50 Villa Devoto 4765.

At that time the phone numbers included the switchboard name. Days later Samich will take one of those buses to a spot that at first resembles an enclave of dwellings abutting the broad avenue. A few isolated blocks with short, semicircular streets, and like at a vacation colony there's a certain communal feeling among the houses, with everything in miniature. One of these streets, which intersects Artigas a short distance from the grounds of the Club Comunicaciones, has taken the name, Samich doesn't know since when, of the author of the letter. He thinks: Now you could say "Artigas and Cortázar." Unlike the other cross streets that intersect this area of diagonals and vast expanses, Artigas hasn't had much luck, despite actually coming from the Plaza Flores. This far up it's interrupted repeatedly by dead ends, cutoffs, and railroad tracks.

We could assume that Samich is tempted to find some essential or definitive key in the alphanumeric combinations of  Cortázar's phone number. Numbers and words, numbers and places, do better to activate his imagination. But he doesn't. Maybe it seems like an overly simplistic game, an instruction manual that would probably just end up justifying itself. All Samich can think of are other numbers, the ones belonging to the buses. That week, as he used them to cross Buenos Aires, he'd felt a particular weakness for the ethnic neighborhoods. He passed through the Korean neighborhood into the Bolivian area. He'd be in the Chinese and then the Peruvian neighborhoods. He was already familiar with the remains of the Jewish neighborhood. And a curious happiness or fullness drew him to these places, feeling that only there could his curiosity be activated. It wasn't that things seemed more authentic, but that they appeared more relevant. Buenos Aires agonized between uniformity and delay, and only the so-called foreigner could rescue it.


Samich thinks this with the phone books at hand. He realizes that the narrative formed by the numbers, names, and addresses inspires a different sort of curiosity. The indifferent kind, in this case. Samich, indifferently curious. He's just solved the mystery that had compelled him since he'd read the great writer's letters, and now that he finds himself empty handed, to put it one way, because of the quickness, brevity, and above all the muteness of the resolution, just an address and an old phone number, he thinks he may as well keep examining that city, arranged as a code of street names and telephone switchboards.

He decides to take on a larger project. To expand his subject, he uses his memory, the uneven memory of a casual reader, to take a census. In any case these are the same words he'll use to justify his new trips to the library, not so much to inspire his mother's curiosity, but rather to force the notion that he's involved in matters of special importance to take root. Samich improvises a list of names, authors, the first that come to mind, starting with the letter A. He doesn't find Roberto Arlt, but in the 1937 edition he finds a Pablo H. Arlt living at 1556 Posadas and answering the phone at 41 Plaza 8409.

The letter B is more productive. He looks up Enrique Banchs, Leónidas Barletta, Francisco Luis Bernárdez, José Bianco, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and, of course, Borges. In 1932, Banchs lived in the Colegiales neighborhood (835 Delgado). Under Barletta there's a woman (Amelia O. Barletta)—Samich, in his eagerness for connections, assumes it's his wife—living at 1228 Cangallo in 1937, curiously, Samich thinks, the same place where thirty years later a large publishing house will be headquartered. Bernárdez is just as unavailing: in 1937 there's only a "Bernárdez family" at 1214 Centenera. Moving on, there's a José Bianco at 984 Paysandú, but given that this is a pretty common name, Samich can't tell whether to take the information at face value. He hadn't imagined Bianco living in La Paternal, but if he thinks about it some, he supposes that it could've been possible. With Bioy Casares things pick up: number 174 on Quintana has to be his, but it's strange that between 1932 and 1937 he changed phone numbers (44 Juncal 2310 to 44 Juncal 2046) but kept that same address. He didn't find Borges, but his devoted mother instead: Leonor Acevedo de Borges moved from 2190 Pueyrredón in 1938 to 1670 Anchorena in 1940, somehow managing to keep the same phone number, 41 Plaza 5384. In this manner, Samich looked up other names, numbers, and addresses.

We can picture Samich, absorbed in the silence of the library. Every so often he stands up, like a sleepwalker, to hand in the phone book he's finished with and check out the next one. He can't believe this is what research looks like. And he thinks something else: he's mortified to imagine what the supervisor would say about his investigation. Samich thinks this over and gives in to the old saying, hidden in the depths of his language, To each his own... A second later he goes on. In 1938, Arturo Cerretani lived on calle General Eugenio Garzón, a block from the Parque Avellaneda—or, as he liked to call it in his books, the Quinta Olivera. And, according to the phone book, in 1932 you might have run into Atilio Chiáppori on the Avenida Las Heras, not far from the Rivadavia Hospital. Those places are far from each other, but Samich thinks, instinctively, that the 92, that amazing bus, could, foreseeably, bring them very close together. Samich learns that in 1932, Enrique Santos Discépolo and Manuel Gálvez lived near each other, close to the capitol, the former at 1757 Cangallo (five blocks from Barletta's conjectural wife), and the latter at 360 Callao. But in 1937, Gálvez moved to the Avenida Santa Fe, in Palermo. Samich turns to the letter G and immediately the map of Buenos Aires amplifies significantly. The man commonly known as Álvaro Yunqe lives, in 1932, at 965 Sarandí, while Alberto Gerchunoff is at 569 San Martín. He'll still be in the neighborhood in 1937, though relocated to 212 Sarmiento, both places, curiously, just two blocks from the place where, some time afterward, death will find him.

In 1933, Oliverio Girondo lived on Corrientes, number 915, and by '37 and '38 he'd moved, because of the construction of the Obelisco, to 1440 Suipacha, close to Libertador. The González Tuñóns (the phone books says "González Tuñón family") occupied 578 Yapeyú in 1932, and by 1937 it was 709 Pueyrredón. A hypothetical trip between the two places today, Samich thinks, could be handled by the 115. From what he can tell, Roberto Giusti is the first writer to appear in the province of Buenos Aires in 1932, at 2236 calle José Manuel Estrada, a block from Martínez Station. Samich also learns that, in 1932, the "Ingenieros family" lives at 1544 Cangallo, that is, three blocks from Barletta's wife and two from the Gálvez house. Leopoldo Lugones is close by, at 676 Callao in 1932, although in 1937, doing some sort of last-minute relocation, he shows up at 1391 Santa Fe. Predictably, Leopoldo Marechal lives on his legendary calle Monte Egmont in 1932, across from the erstwhile mythical tannery, but by 1938 he's moved to 2341 Rivadavia, between Congreso and Once. Samich connects these two places: the 19 is a good option, or better yet the 105. Roberto Mariani moves too, from 4260 Potosí in 1932, to a few blocks from the Parque Centenario and across from the Hospital Italiano, at 282 Boulogne Sur Mer, near the wholesale market. Ezequiel Martínez Estrada doesn't move, but like Bioy Casares he mysteriously changes phone numbers: in 1932, at 166 Lavalle, it's 31 Retiro 0304, and in 1937 he answers at 31 Retiro 1457.

We can imagine what Samich imagines: individuals in solidarity with Cortázar, rushing to verify reality in the phone books so that visitors to the city can call them, if they want to. Samich also imagines every writer in Buenos Aires rehearsing the same script, where a measure of intimacy and accessibility combines with a dose of the prosaic, and which more or less says, look me up in the phone book, where others have published my information for me. The case of Gustavo Martínez Zuviría in 1932 strikes Samich as odd, because he apparently resides in the National Library (which he runs), at that time headquartered at 564 México. The number listed as his own is 33 Avenida 0824.

Samich soon goes back to the National Library, needing to complete the phone book circuit. He moves quickly through the Ocampo sisters. (Silvina lives at 1650 Posadas, and stays there for good, while Victoria is decidedly established in the famous house at 2829 Rufino de Elizalde in 1932, and 2847 in 1938, keeping the same phone number, 71 Palermo 3671. And Samich asks himself about this short move down the street, whether it implies something significant, or if, instead, it doesn't mean much at all.) Soon he'll locate María Rosa Oliver at 1521 Guido, not far from her friend Silvina, and will come across Nicolás Olivari living in the middle of Once, at 2610 Valentín Gómez. Samich thinks the 124 could take Olivari to see Oliver. Aníbal Ponce, meanwhile, occupies number 705 Suipacha in 1932, and Bernardo Verbitsky lives at 3971 calle Quito in 1940, two blocks from the spot where, years before, the González Tuñón family had been.


Here the story takes another jump, albeit a short one. Samich is involved in a period of empirical verification. Carrying a list of addresses, he goes from one place to another in the city. When two places are nearby he walks; when they're far apart he takes a bus. Seeing him, you'd think of someone occupied with some kind of bureaucratic task, or at least some task he feels compelled to. In fact, you imagine that Samich is trying to reconstruct a world delimited by a foregone populace. Here he is, leaving the isolated blocks where Cortázar lived, on his way to 3528 Navarro, the old home of Lorenzo Stanchina, dearly beloved. As near as Samich can tell, he's the closest writer, some nine blocks off if he takes the Avenida San Martín at a diagonal. He realizes it's not worth getting on a bus. These addresses, like in some sort of writing exercise, are the only surviving traces of the past, requiring the phone books in order to appear documented in Samich's mind. In his mind, the phone books would substantiate the addresses and the physical places would validate the phone books. But it turns out that almost none of this remains.

At this point we can assume that Samich decides to stop thinking and submit to the indifferent progression of the Buenos Aires landscape. The Pasaje Güemes appears in Stanchina's novels too, identified with the same brothelesque inclination as in Cortázar. Samich pictures Buenos Aires as a vast colony of writers, the territory for theme, where they exchange phone numbers, meals, photographs, and conversations. The city would be the setting, and as such would be at once a central and incidental element. We can imagine that Samich feels he's arrived late to the colony, or senses that the sources he's consulted are obsolete.

He'll soon return to his tropical overlook. Once there, he'll make out the creamy light and it'll hardly seem possible that in his absence some distant community of urban creatures uses buses and telephones to communicate. As though they mimicked old customs while pretending to postpone what they're really doing until the witness returns again. Something which, with no better options at hand, he is thankful for.

translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph

We are publishing an excerpt of Sergio Chefjec's "El Testigo" in Spanish, and not the story in its entirety, in compliance with the wishes of the publisher and author.