Thursdays at La Giralda
An excerpt from the novel La Grande efore the central market was torn down, the alley behind it was full of cheap restaurants and boarding houses. In one of these, La Giralda, on August 6, 1945, precisionism was born. There was no broadside, no Battle of Hernani, no exquisite corpse. Mario Brando, its creator, had his sights elsewhere: precisionism should take its place not among the avant-garde, in opposition to the times, but rather as its most faithful representation. According to Brando, newspapers, radio stations, universities, and large-circulation magazines should be the natural media for the expression and expansion of the movement. Scientific magazines not only weren't excluded but in fact were, in a certain sense, the immediate precursors of the precisionist aesthetic. A proto-precisionism could be found precisely in the latest scientific treatises and the reviews of these in popular magazines.
At the time, for the writers of the city, it was a sign of good taste to be seen, every so often, at one of the precisionists' Thursday dinners. Only the post- modernista old guard refused to yield, but it's important to note that, from Belisario Roldán onward, they'd labeled every new literary movement as wayward, prosaic, and incomprehensible. Anyone still left over in 1960 was still making the same joke about modern art, namely that everything represented by abstract painting was a fried egg.
The rest of the opposition, which is to say the neoclassicists and the regionalists, was much more elastic, if not opportunistic. The regionalists, who met on Fridays at the San Lorenzo grill house, would individually attend the dinners every so often, and would invite this or that precisionist to their cookouts. But they didn't suffer from any illusions: they knew that Nexos, the official organ of Mario Brando's movement, would never welcome a regionalist text. The neoclassicists, whose magazine, Espiga, had been published triannually since 1943, had some official exchanges with the precisionists, inasmuch as Brando and his clique thought that certain neoclassical subjects, like Christian mysticism, for instance, could yield to the precisionist aesthetic. And the neoclassicists, meanwhile, appreciated the precisionist inclination for traditional forms. In private, the regionalists referred to the neoclassicists as sanctimonious Bible thumpers and to the precisionists as outdated futurists and fascists; the neoclassicists said that the regionalists, with every one of their criollo cookouts, were slowly devouring the subjects of their literature, and that the precisionists, with their absurd scientism, were the medical school pages; and the precisionists,
BJuan José Saer
who weren't satisfied with the occasional slander and in fact launched fully clandestine smear campaigns, referred to several members of Espiga's editorial committee as Curia spies, to their writing as an intentional amalgamation of mysticism and faggotry, and said that the interest of the regionalist group's leader for the countryside could be explained by the fact that he was actually a horse.
Brando was born in 1920. In 1900, his father, an Italian immigrant, arrived in Buenos Aires with the certainty that every one of his compatriots huddled alongside him in the boat, along with everyone who'd come over in the last thirty or forty years, crowded in other boats, and still crowding in Buenos Aires slums until they got the chance to finally own a farm or a business, that every one of those compatriots, who came from everywhere in Italy, still shared the same weakness, pasta, and that he would be the one to supply them with it. After three or four years of adventures, he finally landed in the city and started to manufacture, in small, artisanal quantities, fresh pastas that he distributed to a fixed clientele in wicker boxes, carefully wrapped in immaculate napkins cut from bags of grain. Two years later, the customers would be coming to buy their pasta at the Brando family delicatessen, in the center of the city, and if by 1918 their dry spaghetti, wrapped in cellophane or in twenty-kilo bags, was sold in numerous shops in the north of the province, by 1925, Pastas Brando was one of the top businesses in the province, and Atilio Brando was the president of the Círculo Italiano. (In 1928, one black ball thrown in the vote would keep him out of the Club del Orden.)
To the annoyance of many local patricians, Atilio Brando's Spanish was flawless. Five or six years after having come to the country, all that was left of his Italian accent was a slight aspiration. His family was full of lieutenants to Cavour, to Pellico, and to Garibaldi. In the sixties, Taine had eaten with one of his relatives in Rome. And when the manufacture of pastas had achieved a regular pace, when the complex, futuristic harmony of the factory was producing an uninterrupted chain of identical packages of fragile, yellow pastas ready to be circulated by a perfectly oiled and efficient distribution network, the elder Brando handed over the factory to a loyal manager with a share in the profits and started spending long periods in Italy or writing novels and memoirs in his house in Guadalupe.
It was said that, without a doubt, the Brandos had come to this world to demolish stereotypes. The delicate Romans who conversed with Taine in French and supported unification ended up forgotten and scattered, while the visionary who, to reconstruct his patrimony, had only a couple of secret recipes for tagliatelle and rigatoni, could boast a virtuously nonchalant attitude with regard to his children's education and to the destiny of Pastas Brando after the death of its founder. Memoirs and realist novels were the polestars of his life.
In contrast to every gringo imagined by the Argentine theater, Atilio Brando wasn't a slave trader, work wasn't his religion, and he didn't demand a law or a medical degree from his son as the first step toward an advantageous marriage with a patrician young lady. In contrast, to Mario Brando, social status had true value and wasn't the tenuous and somewhat degenerate simulacrum that the
old pasta maker described in his realist novels. To him, urbanity was an extreme form of historicism, and materialists, if they were consistent, should venerate snobs. But Mario Brando wasn't a snob, inasmuch as, every time he used the word, he knew what he was referring to. His poetic vocation was authentic, and his historicism was in fact manifested in his romantic life and in the tenets of precisionism, of which he was the primary author. The relationship to his father was original for reasons diametrically opposed to those that literature has accustomed us to think of as typical of generational conflict. Of the two Brandos, the father was the romantic and the son the pragmatist; the father was generous and the son miserly; the father, indifferent to social conventions, and the son, utterly dependent on public opinion. The father walked around shabbily dressed, lost in daydreams, while the son never left the house without a vest or a gold cigarette case. Like a millionaire father who tries to hide from his board members the vagrancies of his heir that might endanger the business, Mario hid his father's flirtations with realism from landowners and his disciples, considering them a mockery of precisionism's scientific exactitude. Luckily, Atilio Brando wrote in the language of Dante, as he proudly declared, and apart from a few articles in La Región from the thirties, his books ( Against Hermetism, for instance), published in Italy, did not circulate beyond a few members of Unione e Benevolenza. The old man was bothered by worldliness because it distracted him from literature; for the son, literature was the pinnacle of worldliness, in the noble sense of the word, and he told himself that it was the only noble thing he could boast of.
For several reasons: first, because precisionist mechanics were essentially worldly, which is to say historicist ( historicizing might be the most appropriate word). The idea of translating a traditional poetic vocabulary into rigorously contemporary scientific and technical language demonstrated a blind faith in the knowledge of the age and in an exact correspondence between its terminology and reality. The heart in “El corazón, viejo, tan mentado,” in “El alma que canta”— Brando would often say at the dinners— isn’t a forced rhyme, it’s a muscle. And he would stare at his interlocutor, his eyes wide, with the hint of a slightly defiant smile, taking in the effect that his words had produced.
Second, Brando and his underlings were convinced that the mass media, like newspapers, radio, and later television, along with traditional cultural institutions, should play a dominant role in the dissemination of precisionist tenets. It wasn't simply exhibitionism: Brando was convinced that precisionism's social function was to purge the language of the masses, modernizing it and making it correspond with scientific terminology. It’s very simple, Brando would insist, it’s about speaking with precision. That simplifies things very much. Look at the etymology of the word “precision,” from the Latin “praecisus,” cut off, abbreviated. Every word that the precisionist poet uses should correspond to a verifiable thing. In this way, all misunderstandings in the social exchange of concepts and emotions disappear. The precisionist movement hoped to occupy the totality of the social field, acting on each of its articulations in order to transform it completely. Was
Juan José Saer
this optimism or extremism? the neoclassicists asked themselves, somewhat lost, pretending, with their perplexed tone, that despite every good intention and everything they knew about them, they couldn't find any conceptual coherence in the movement. And yet, when those echoes of bewilderment reached his ears, Brando said that the answer had already been given in the first sentence of the first manifesto, published on the first page of the first issue of the first volume of Nexos (December, 1945): To preserve the economy of ideas, in the field of verbal commerce we are protectionists.
By 1945, Brando was already finishing law school. He'd done it rigorously and swiftly, on his own initiative, inasmuch as the elder Brando was not subject, as mentioned above, to the fetish of the diploma. Furthermore: by 1940, he'd already turned the factory over to his manager, an honest, hardworking criollo with more luck and more ethics than those described by Gutiérrez (Eduardo), among others; he'd transformed his capital into real estate and property (land, houses, farms) and lived peacefully from the rent, contemplating the implicit worldview in I Malavoglia. Pasta, he supposedly confessed once to Washington Noriega during casual conversation on a corner downtown, sometime around 1937, a dalliance of youth. He'd already married off his three daughters and had determined that his youngest son was not one to be disarmed by life. At twentyone, he was already dating the daughter of a general. At twenty-six, four months after the appearance of the first issue of Nexos, and with the second soon to be published, a story in the society section of La Región announced the wedding of Señorita Lydia Ponce Navarro to Dr. Mario Brando. The elder Brando shook his head deep down (to put it one way), mystified. Mario's social success impressed him less than the painstaking and efficacious way in which he passed from one stage to the next, and the almost mathematical exactitude that ruled over the realization of his projects. In short, at twenty-six, Mario Brando was one of the most cultured and elegant men in the city, he worked at an important law firm, he received a portion of his father's estate, he'd married the daughter of a general, had turned down an assistant professorship in Civil Law, and he was the undisputed head of the precisionist movement, whose magazine, Nexos, had been warmly received in the Sunday supplement of La Nación.
An article with a photo in the next day's edition of La Región had described the first precisionist dinner. Behind the apparent objectivity, the post- modernista resentment was clearly visible. Brando learned his lesson. After that day, he wrote the newspaper and radio stories for them himself. What would strictly speaking be called the group's creative labor was soon supplemented with conferences, newspaper articles, and radio interviews. The appearance of the magazine was of fundamental strategic importance: in the articles, the seminars, the interviews, and the conferences, they had to make terminological and theoretical concessions, which generated numerous misunderstandings; but the pages of Nexos, meanwhile, maintained, from start to finish, a consistent exactitude. Its precisionist manifestos, texts, and engravings formed a coherent and persuasive compendium. The first issue, for the city and for the time, was luxurious, so
much so that the neoclassicists, who'd been producing the modest Espiga at great personal cost for almost three years, started to spread venomous rumors about the source of their funding. Brando's legendary cheapness immediately ruled out the possibility that the issue was paid for out of his own pocket. There was, in fact, no mystery: the new owner of Pastas Brando, who'd known Marito all his life, the lawyers at his firm, who through Brando had contacts in the industrial and military sectors, and the bookstore-press that Brando convinced of the possibility of an exclusive series of single-author editions from precisionist poets as soon as the movement was funded, were more than enough to finance the first four issues of Nexos, which comprised the first volume.
The Thursday menu was invariable: alphabet soup (that was Brando's idea), Spanish-style stew, cheese and dessert, and red or white house wine. Cuello, the most famous regionalist, after attending one of these dinners, said to a friend, Instead of trying to reform literature, they should start by reforming their wine list. Brando had made a deal with Obregón, the owner: after fourteen guests, the price of the menu was reduced. The first group of precisionists consisted of seven people, to which four or five girlfriends were added, and because there were always a few other guests that varied from week to week, the number that Brando and the owner had agreed upon was always easily met. It was said that, with fourteen people, Brando not only got a price reduction, but he himself ate for free. In any case, whenever the dinner finished, he always took charge of gathering the contribution of each guest, and was always the one to settle at the counter with the owner. One night, the number of guests reached twenty-one, not counting a table of regionalist and neoclassicists who, apparently by chance, as though they didn't know that the precisionists got together at that restaurant every Thursday, had decided to eat there that night. When he walked in and saw them sitting at a table near the one that the owner usually prepared for them, Brando told one of his lieutenants, with great discretion, to avoid provoking them at all cost. But the others were celebrating a municipal prize, and when they started drinking champagne with dessert, two or three of the precisionists started to fraternize with them at the next table.
Someone who never missed a dinner was First Lieutenant Ponce, which is to say, Brando's brother-in-law and Lydia's younger brother. Though he'd studied at the military college in Buenos Aires, his father had obtained a post for him in one of the regiments in the city. He was shy and tanned and all of those intellectuals made him somewhat uncomfortable. He admired his brother-inlaw very much, and wouldn't say a word during the whole meal. But because he would arrive before anyone, and would drink three or four Hesperidinas at the bar before the meal, sometimes, afterward, he would start to recite Joaquín Castellanos's “El temulento,” which, along with “Si hay un hueco en tu vida, llénalo de amor” was the only poetry he knew. Brando's underlings, sensing that the founder of precisionism grew impatient with the first lieutenant's poetic inclinations, started to say, behind Brando's back, when describing the episodes, that the post- modernista fifth column was trying to undermine the movement from within.
Juan José Saer
For several years, precisionism dominated the literary world in the city, with a strong advantage over the other schools. It was the only original literary movement to have appeared there, inasmuch as the neoclassicists weren't in fact anything more than a branch of a movement that had circulated throughout the country, and the regionalists weren't a group strictly speaking because the only thing they had in common was their taste for cookouts and their systematic employment of barbarisms. Among the regionalists, only Cuello was known outside the province. His books were regularly reviewed in La Prensa and La Nación, and yet the invariable praise they received repeatedly affirmed that the books constituted an invaluable testimony of his native region and that their author was a profound student of the ways of the countryside. Precisionism, meanwhile, had been recognized from the beginning as something more than a simple literary movement, as a true Weltanschauung. More than as a poet, despite the many merits in that regard that even his detractors recognized, Brando was seen as a philosopher, as a man of science, and even as a reformer. Despite the jealousy that his increasing fame provoked, more than a few regionalists, and more than a few neoclassicists in particular, admitted privately that, had he abandoned his avant-garde pretensions, he might have transformed himself into a more than respectable representative of their respective schools. Higinio Gómez and Jorge Washington Noriega, who kept themselves on the margin on the literary world, referred to him, sarcastically, as “Il Duce stil novo of scientistic debris,” and refused to be impressed by the fact that Buenos Aires was looking favorably on the work of a local agitator. Brando, meanwhile, took that acceptance as objective proof, and the rival groups validated his position. A sonnet of Brando's, “Chemistry of the passions,” appeared in mid-1946 in the supplement to La Nación, and it should be said that, if the existence of God had been announced in that Sunday rotogravure, the regionalists and the neoclassicists, as of that moment, would have done without the miracles or the ontological proof.
As often happens with avant-garde movements, the leaders sacrifice themselves to the arduous creative labor, leaving the administrative work to their seconds in order not to overwhelm them with responsibility. Tardi, Brando's lieutenant, was charged, during the first volume, with the trips to the press, with typing up the maestro's poems, along with the correspondence with their advisers and with the radio stations and the papers. He was slightly older than Brando, and because he'd started out publishing in Espiga, the neoclassicists called him a traitor, and because he was Brando's first disciple and his name was Pedro, they often said, in reference to his somewhat feeble intelligence, Upon that Rock he will edify his church. It's well-known that a conflict between Brando and Tardi caused the first rupture.
The groundswell that opened between the members of the group came to light with the fourth precisionist manifesto, which appeared in the fourth and last issue of the first volume of Nexos. Its title— A precisionist sonnet is like no other sonnet— gave legal force to an aesthetic position that Brando adopted in
order to critique a triptych by Tardi, whose publication had been postponed since the second issue. Needless to say, everything published in the magazine was discussed at the editorial committee's periodic meetings, and Brando's decisions were always final. The publication of the triptych had been delayed a third time, and for the same reason: residue of pre- precisionist lexicon. The unspoken distress among the ranks of the movement was revealed less in the passion of their discussions than in their disillusioned conversations as they were leaving, when Brando wasn't around. If he can’t win, he calls it a draw, Tardi muttered in the ear of the person who followed him out. Even without Brando's psychological refinement, the discontent would have been obvious. For the purpose of a radical break, the fourth manifesto spelled out their doctrine and outlined, one by one, the deviations. Poetry, it concluded, will be precisionist or not. Precisionism is conscious of the unease that its crusade generates. But its most lucid representatives know how to recognize its enemies, whether inside or outside the movement.
To make it any clearer it would have had to be written in water. Now he’ll know what it’s like to spend entire days at the printer, Tardi said malevolently as he left the last meeting, which resolved upon the dissolution of the movement. In order to finish the preparations for the fourth issue of Nexos, Brando had to accept the collaboration of two kids who were still imitating Espronceda and the Río Seco romances and who hadn't even finished high school. Tardi's triptych appeared in the fall issue of Espiga, after a cleansing, demanded by the neoclassicists, of all traces of precisionist vocabulary.
One less piece of bullshit, said General Ponce Navarro, who didn't approve of the dinners that his eldest daughter had been attending even before she was married, or of the literary scandals that his son-in-law was caught up in. My dear General, Brando would retort, cheerful and patient, although somewhat scalded, if the troops understand their orders it’s thanks to the work of poets, who purify the language. And because he had nerves of steel and a temperament that refracted all bitterness, he didn't allow himself to be distracted by the defection of his collaborators, and had already begun to prepare a limited hardcover edition of his poems. Doubt had no place in the repertoire of his states of being. Like any good realist, the elder Brando attributed that character trait to his wife's family, and it produced a sort of ironical aversion in him. On the other hand, his literary sensibility was closer to the regionalists than to the precisionists. Not only was he friends with Cuello, but he also went native, as they say. Cuello, who was a meticulous student of the flora and fauna in the province, aroused his admiration. He'd saved enough to buy a motorboat, and on the weekends he'd often explore the islands in it. Sometimes, the elder Brando would accompany him. They slept along the coast, in a small tent, and ate whatever they caught. On Sunday nights they'd come home dirty, tired, and unshaven, and before they said goodbye they would drink one last beer at the counter of some bar. Out of mutual discretion, the topic of precisionism was never brought up.
One Sunday in April, 1947, Brando was shaking his head in disbelief over
Juan José Saer
the ineptitude of the most recent issue of Espiga when he received a visit from the general and his bother-in-law, the first lieutenant. Lydia and her mother were at Mass, and the general wanted to take the opportunity to speak to Brando. In short, it concerned the following: there was a possibility of obtaining a post for Brando as cultural attaché in Rome, but because Lydia had always been very close to her mother he hadn't wanted to speak of the matter in front of the women, given that Brando wouldn't have been the one making the decision. The general, for his part, recommended that he accept. A new era had begun in the country, and new blood was needed in every field. The general added that, when he brought up Brando's name at the ministry, the acceptance was immediate and practically enthusiastic. And that, no doubt, owing to what you call bullshit, Brando responded thoughtfully, smiling condescendingly. Although he'd decided on the spot to accept, he asked for forty-eight hours to think it over, arguing that this sort of decision shouldn't be taken lightly, something which increased the general's respect, but also his anxiety, given that he'd already given his word at the ministry that his son-in-law would accept.
The news caused considerable commotion in the literary media. Gamarra, the head editor of Espiga, repeated the same joke everywhere he went, namely that Brando, who took himself for avant-garde, was arriving twenty years late to the march on Rome. But La Región published a very long piece that Brando practically dictated to the journalist, in which it said that the nomination recognized less the value of a man than of an aesthetic and philosophical doctrine. In the three or four weeks leading up to his departure, Brando made himself visible often, on San Martín and at parties, as though he wanted the density of his person, highly polished and neatly combed, to be engraved on everyone's memory during his absence. His elegance was sober, not that of a dandy, as may have been expected from his avant-garde tendency, but rather that of a tasteful bourgeoisie, who isn't trying to call attention to himself with extravagances, but who always dresses in the manner that his station both obliges and permits him to be seen in the street, adding two or three personal touches to show that a bourgeois fits naturally into his social class while at the same time being a welldifferentiated individual. Some golden accessory, whether it was cufflinks or a tie clip or a ring that stood out when juxtaposed with his wedding band, always gave him an additional glow. Cuello said sarcastically that he always looked like he was on his way to or from a wedding.
With Brando's departure, the rest of the precisionists scattered: Tardi and two others, Carreras and Benvenuto, fell in with the neoclassicists. Benvenuto started to specialize in German Romanticism and Eastern philosophy. Tardi and Carreras ended up on the editorial committee for Espiga, which was last published in 1950. Among the other four, two abandoned literature completely, and of the two that were left, one moved to Buenos Aires and the other one committed suicide sometime later (it was rumored that he was a pedophile). There was less activity in the literary world, and politics seemed to be the main topic of conversation. Members of the opposition spoke in low voices, like
conspirators, and those that had joined the government or the official party pontificated openly, demonstrating their enthusiasm. Gamarra, who refused to join the party, arguing that he was apolitical, lost his post at the university, and thanks to his relationships at the Alianza Francesa, went to live in France. The regionalists were also divided. One, who had been an anarchist, ended up joining the communist party after Cuello joined the official party. Among the neoclassicists, two or three radical Catholics joined the government, but the rest, who'd joined the opposition, claimed that El Gran Conductor had a brain tumor—in the sella turcica of the sphenoid bone, to be precise—and didn't have long to live. Somehow, everyone kept publishing chapbooks and hardcover editions and individual poems in literary supplements. But the era of the precisionist dinners and the Friday cookouts at the San Lorenzo grill house had come to an end.
—translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph