Once, I was asked to be on the organizing committee for the Buenos Aires Book Fair and to coordinate a roundtable discussion among writers. The topic had already been chosen: rural and urban literature. The invitation was printed on the letterhead of the Ongoing Commission for the Organization of the Book Fair, from Authors to Readers. It was a great honor but I was reluctant. I didn’t know anything about the subject, I don’t know the first thing about coordinating, and one of the writers invited to take part was a priest who talks on the radio and travels from province to province on an evangelical mission. He wants to do away with the antiquated stereo­type of reactionary priests, so he tries to copy the way kids speak nowadays. He says, “Christ is crazy about you,” or, “When you hit a rough patch,” and sometimes he talks like he’s from the countryside, telling stories about animals—like that one about the parrot that doesn’t want to share. All his stories have a moral. It’s really just a bunch of mumbo jumbo with words like paranoia and identity mixed in. In my opinion, he’s a fraud who sells a ton of books and his breath smells like rotten eggs and he’s sneaky.

I hope he doesn’t show up, I thought.

Besides, I’ve never been able to coordinate anyone. If I’m with two people who start to argue or dig in their heels about something, I immediately come up with a third alternative to appease them both: I know how to mediate, but not how to coordinate. I’m not capable of cutting anyone off. I can’t look at my watch to let the other guy know his time is up, because I don’t wear a watch; and if someone tells me to do something, I do it.

We were gathered in a small conference room at the book fair. A lot of people were there. To my right, a very elderly writer was reading an excruciatingly long story. She kept pausing because she kept losing her place on the page. She had the voice of a convalescent—no, it was more like the voice of someone who had lived alone in a cave for a long time without speaking to a soul. I would have offered to read the story for her, but her handwriting was so cryptic that only she could make sense of it. The text was fraught with edits in the margins. Besides, I thought, taking the paper away from her would only make her seem even more defeated. She could break into tears right here in the middle of the roundtable discussion. The writer to my left—a man itching to get involved—said to me, “Cut her off. Tell her to stop reading, to wrap it up.”

I gently asked her to summarize the rest of the story and tell it from memory. A minute later the guy on my left tapped my shoulder again: “Cut her off. Her storytelling is worse than her reading.”

Luckily, she was interrupted by the woman sitting next to her—a lady who wrote stories about the countryside. It was one of those stories in which the sorrel gallops, the morning birds warble, and the farmhands drink yerba mate around the fire. Everything was as it should be. At one point she said, “Because he who possesses the countryside knows it best; it’s been passed down from generation to generation.”

You wouldn’t believe all the fuss! Enraged, a woman in the audience stood up and said, “What—you think only the landowners know how to love the land and write about it? You’ve got some explaining to do,” with a look like she’d shoot the writer lady dead if she didn’t explain herself. 

The writer did the best she could, but people were already on edge. I don’t know how we ended up talking about the Conquest of the Desert, which led to how poorly the lands had been divided up in the previous century, and the massacre of the natives. Then somebody pointed out that gauchos and natives were not the same thing, and somebody else said that actually, they were entirely related. By that point, I had completely given up on coordinating anything; I just sat there watching them all as if I were at the movies. I even ended up wishing the priest had shown—anything to unite all those people so it wouldn’t be all on me. I realized, levelheadedly, that I never should have accepted the honor. Still, I kept my cool—I didn’t blame myself or anything. 

From way in the back of the audience a man said, “Until now we’ve spoken only about the Buenos Aires countryside. Have you all forgotten the provinces? San Luis exists, too.” (Three people stood in solidarity to show they were from San Luis.) “We provincial writers are here, too, but the capital—­the bigheaded monster—feasts on everything.”

Fortunately, by that time they’d stopped fighting. It was as if each and every one of them wanted to voice their anger, but in isolation. The shit really hit the fan when a writer from the Pampas stood up and spoke of the drought, reminding us that the Pampas also exist. To pacify everyone, I came up with something amiable and flattering to say. I recited some lines from a famous tango:

Y la pampa es un verde pañuelo,
colgado del cielo,
tendido en el sol.

And the Pampas are a green mantle
Suspended from the sky,
Lying in the sun.

The writer from the Pampas looked at me grimly and said condescendingly, as if talking to the dullest student in his class, “But that song is about the Humid Pampas. The Dry Pampas have giant cacti.”

I said, “Of course, of course.”

And while he elaborated on the cardón cactus and its mythology, I was reminded of an obscene poem I’d read at the age of twelve about the Pampas and giant cacti.

I was never invited to coordinate—or do anything else—at the book fair again.

 

—Translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy