Mother Tongue (El idioma materno: Sexto Piso, 2014) is a compilation of eighty-four short texts or hybrid pieces which resemble prose poems because of their rich musical quality; or fables because of some subtle concluding moral; or personal anecdotes that provide insight into a speaker who has spent much of his life living outside his native country, speaking a second language; or mini-treatises on literature, language or reading in which the speaker considers the significance of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa for the future of modern literature, or the need for all of us to embrace the foreignness of our accents to save our soul, or the obligation one has to read a text as well as possible because of the sacredness of language.
This book collects the results of a monthly column the author wrote over the course of two years for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín. Morábito’s Mother Tongue is less a book about one theme or subject and more a demonstration of style and the view of a broad discerning gaze cast over almost every imaginable subject. Instead of pontificating or pushing some moralistic message, these texts provide a critical view of literature, literary professionalism, and imprecise language, and the author does not shy away from critiquing such themes as creative writing pedagogy, translation and the reading practices of academics, three spaces or roles he inhabits. Morábito is a writer who believes in the substantive, in the complex idea and in the rhythms of long, complex phrases; quirky details, of course, are the hallmarks of his work.
So Many Books
There are trees that a forest depends upon. Could be that they’re not the oldest trees, or the tallest; could be that they can’t be distinguished from all the other trees, but for some reason they are the plants that took that decisive step into the subsoil, that leaned their trunks in the right direction at the appropriate time and opened the way for its congeners to transform a simple copse into a forest. The same happens with books. Our library depends on a few of them. Could be that they’re neither the oldest, nor the ones we love the most, nor the ones we’ve read the most, but for some reason they have determined the orientation and personality of the whole. In my case, one of these books is The Stranger, by Albert Camus, a book that made its mark on me when I was a teen, and every time I reread it I like it less. However, I recognize its superiority over the other books in my library, which seems impossible to imagine without its presence. Another mainstay on my shelves is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The opposite of The Stranger, every time I reread it I like it more. Upon these two pillars of Hercules my library stands. But the comparison is an exaggeration, since my library has nothing Herculean about it, if I’m being completely modest, as much in quantity of books as in eccentricities. When a rare book comes into my hands, one of those that delights collectors, I give it away immediately. I don’t have the slightest bit of bibliophilic pride, and I’m terrified of those grand libraries that, when their owner dies, are acquired by some foundation or university. Writers of prose or poetry who own more than a thousand books begin to be suspect. Why do they write, I wonder. One should only write to palliate some scarcity of reading material. There where we notice something missing in our library, the absence of a certain book in particular, we can justify picking up the pen to, in the most decent way possible, write it ourselves. Writing, then, as a corrective. To write in order to continue reading.
The Thief And The Sentinel
When I started to write I imposed a strict schedule upon myself: wake every morning at 5:30 and write for at least three hours, except on Sundays. Through highs and lows, I’ve maintained this schedule for more than thirty years. I wash my face, prepare coffee and I sit down to write. I don’t know what came first, if it was my taste for writing or for being awake when everyone else still sleeps. As a child, when I went to school with my brother, he always walked several meters in front of me. Younger than him, I had to make an effort to keep pace with him. The day my mother gave me permission to go by myself I woke up extra early so I could get to school before him, and I got there so early I was the first one at school; it was still dark. My brother was still sleeping, everyone was still sleeping. Those mistimed departures became a habit. Maybe I went to school so early as a way to make up for my poor scholastic performance. Witnessing the first lit windows made me feel like a sentinel, and I think that in the long run it stimulated my writerly leanings, judging by the fact that I always write at that time of cautious patrol, while everyone else is asleep. People begin to wake while I write, and it’s as if I had been a caretaker of their sleep. There’s something of a sentinel in writing so early, or of a thief, or of both things. The stealthy thief cares about the slumber of his victims and the sentinel, for his part, doesn’t he usurp something of those in his care? Doesn’t he hold on to something of theirs inappropriately? By keeping watch, both sentinel and thief end up looking alike, and from afar it’s difficult to know who is who? The writer, in a way, fuses them together, because he protects and robs, takes away and allocates simultaneously. I write while everyone else sleeps; therefore, I write so no one wakes up, so they continue to sleep. I’m the one who protects, but also the one who lies in wait, the one who watches others’ backs and the one who writes behind their backs, my head always inclined over my writing, just as only writing is capable of inclining a head.
A peculiar pedagogical experiment was conducted in a school in Germany. Students in one group were supplied, throughout their primary school courses, notebooks used by students from previous years, and were told that they should be prepared to use them for all their exercises and homework. They should take full advantage of the smallest open space to copy their dictation exercises, mathematics calculations and drawings, because at no point could they ask for a new notebook. The youngsters became skilled at adjusting their own symbols and strokes to fit on each sheet, no minor task in that it forced them to create complex charts in the midst of what was already there. In particular, when it came to drawing, they were required to create a whole series of bridges and patches to complete, across several pages, a drawing that would normally fit on a single sheet, which made them develop a peculiar ability of abstraction to “retain” the entire image of the drawing in the midst of leaps from one page to another. Thus, throughout their primary school education they were instilled with an extraordinary capacity for planning and problem-solving in adverse conditions. Where other students gave up in the face of problematic situations, they succeeded in getting around these obstacles, even thrived. Tenacity, aplomb and the ability to take advantage of the least favorable opportunity were some of the most outstanding penchants the students of the used notebooks possessed. However, they eventually turned out to be deficient in other areas, particularly in their capacity for compassion and identification with their fellow students. Their talent for empathy proved to be somewhat lower than that of the users of new notebooks. But the deciding factor in not repeating the experiment was the little or no musical talent they exhibited, a talent for which it seems essential to experience a whiteness, a purity and some deep silence from a very early age, elements that only a new notebook provides.
The Vanity Of Underlining
A friend of mine, one I no longer see, couldn’t open a book without having a pencil in his hand to underline something he liked. Regardless of the book’s genre: poetry, novels, history, political or scientific essays. Reading and underlining for him were almost synonymous. It took me a while to understand why his eagerness to leave some visible mark on the pages of his books made me so uncomfortable. He aspired to write, he had an evident talent for it, but something hidden kept him from doing it. Much older than me, he hadn’t published even one line. Now I think his obsession with underlining was one of the causes of his sterility. First off, it was the perfect excuse to never have a loaned book because it is assumed one shouldn’t underline a book you have to return. So, in his vast library there was not one book owned by someone else; all of them were his, and because they were his, he could underline them freely. I soon understood that he had fallen into a vicious cycle, and that he didn’t underline because they were his, but that being his, he had to underline them. In part, they weren’t really his until they had some line in them. He admitted that he could have recognized one of his underlinings from thousands of others, not only because of the kind of lines he made, which to me seemed perfectly normal, but for the kinds of things he liked to emphasize. But when I asked him what these peculiar things were, he responded with a vague gesture and I sensed that this man, various years older than me, would never publish anything. He underlined compulsively, as if it were a substitute for writing itself. By underlining to such an extent he defended himself from the books, which he kept in line with his lines. That’s why he never felt like writing his own. He wouldn’t have been able to bear someone underlining a book he’d written because he aspired to write a perfect book, one underlineable from the first to last word, and finding some reader who could only find a few parts worthy of underlining would have plunged him into the depths of suffering.
Write With Your Head Down
I had a teacher who would read us stories while walking around the classroom. He held the open book in his right hand and kept his left in his pants pocket, removing it only to turn the page and, taking advantage of that gesture, whacking the head of those who were talking or looking out the window. If the transgression was more serious he interrupted his reading, changed the book to his other hand and dealt a mighty blow to the head of the poor, deserving wretch with his right hand. I can still see him in his everyday gray suit, worn out from so much use, walking between the desks. His way of holding the opened volume with one hand, hiding the other in the pocket of his pants, made me understand the true meaning of what a book is. The beating hand, hidden in his pocket, was the same he used to turn the pages so delicately. This man who held such tremendous authority over us, with a book in his hand, suffered a metamorphosis and a softening that transformed his gestures and voice. In this way, we came to understand the influence a book, that relatively simple object, can have on a person. We were not as captivated by the story as we were by the transformation of our teacher. But none of us could consider ourselves safe, and when he removed his hand from his pocket to turn the page we started to tremble again. The hand waited a few seconds, prepared to unleash a blow on some unsuspecting fool. This pause, momentary if the story had captivated our tormentor, became dangerously drawn out if the story wasn’t very good. In a way this embodied an enduring lesson of what good writing is, because I have no doubt that a good story and sometimes only one good line saved us from some unerring blows to the nape of the neck and head. So it would be necessary to always write like this: under a constant physical threat, in an uncomfortable desk, with one’s head lowered, pleading for the effectiveness of every phrase. But in most writing workshops today, unfortunately, students are taught to write without fear and with their head held high.
When he wakes, transformed into a monstrous insect, Gregor Samsa understands that in the condition he finds himself, with those little legs that have emerged from his sides and are wriggling endlessly, he’ll be late for work. It’s the only thing that worries him. The fact that he’s been transformed into a repulsive insect doesn’t bother him, just the anxiety of being unable to get out of bed so he can show up punctually for his job. It’s one of those brilliant moments in literature. Kafka delays Gregor Samsa’s horrific reaction, he saves it in order to reveal it later, at the perfect moment, and when he discovers that he doesn’t need it, that’s when he truly becomes Kafka. In the humble Prague room where the story takes place Kafka has just opened a life-saving door for literature, one we can call the suppression of the scream. He has dismantled an old fortress and won new terrain for the subjectivity of characters. This subjectivity freed from the scream unfolds now in ramifications that had before then remained unexplored. Gregor Samsa, the man who does not scream, renounces every bond he has with others, because the scream is the final tie that unites us with our fellow humans. Therefore, it can be said that Samsa becomes an insect because he doesn’t scream; had he screamed, it’s quite possible that the atrocious hallucination that attacks him in the early hours of the morning would have evaporated. Instead, Samsa prefers to rationalize. Each new line of reasoning solidifies his metamorphosis until it becomes irreversible. He separates himself from others based on his reasoning. And this is why, in one sense, the underlying theme of this fable is the transformation of someone into a writer. The acceptance of the servitude that comes with words, the atrocious immobility of those who choose to convert the scream into speculation, which is, in essence, the fate of the writer, since every story comes out of the suspension of an exclamation of horror or marvel, and there, in the lull momentarily opened by the absence of the scream or weeping, one slips in a few words before the general excitement dies down.
When I was fourteen years old my family and I spent our first vacation in a big hotel. While we were on the road to Acapulco I looked over the brochure of the establishment, which contained the phrase “Welcome Cocktail,” and I imagined a lavish reception prepared in one of the lounges or beside the pool in celebration of our arrival. Although the implausibility of the matter wasn’t lost on me, reviewing the photos of the hotel, with its grandiose spaces and gardens, its boundless height, its aseptic setting and its futuristic elevators, I decided that in that place things obeyed a new and surprising logic. It wasn’t that I thought some detachment of employees, upon our arrival, would rush to open the first floor lounge, with its terrace overlooking the sea, to unfurl abundant tablecloths over the tables, while another detachment would knock on each room’s door to invite the other guests to the cocktail organized in honor of my parents, my brother and me; rather I imagined a continuous cocktail event going on in the lounge with its terrace overlooking the sea, and that on our arrival we would be announced to the people gathered there, that they would create a festive circle around us, clinking their glasses with ours, asking us a thousand questions. Perhaps, who knows, the first welcome cocktails were indeed like this and then were reduced to something onerous since a perpetual party made it necessary to offer free drinks or drinks at a very low price to the guests responsible for welcoming others. Perhaps these banquets were replaced at first by a circle comprised solely of the Reception staff, the bellhop who carries suitcases to the guest rooms, and two or three workers, all of whom offered a rushed toast in honor of the newly arrived guest, before returning to their work; until they became what they are now: a solitary drink that awaits us in our room, a sad concoction that we sip poolside, beside the other guests who are broiling in the sun, bored and, like us, secretly expecting something else.