Juan José Delaney

Escritor argentino contemporáneo

Volver


Short Stories


Back

Home

Biography

Ediciones
El gato negro

Profile

Comments

Links

Spanish

Photo Gallery

Contact


  Read 
The Real Life      Short Stories       Essay
Papeles del desierto    Tréboles del Sur (definite edition)        Moira Sullivan     Marco Denevi
 Memoria de Theophilus Flynn 


 

I APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE

     Even his name has been lost. In his time he drew no interest, nor does he concern us now. We know he lived in a time when men and things were extremely numerous and important.

     Son of a pastoral freedom, at a young age he arrived in the city where on rare occasions one could hear him speak. “I apologize for the inconvenience”, he used to say before entering into a conversation or any other matter. It would not be surprising if no one remembered him now. Like so many, he ignored many things: the sense of life, his own destiny, and also that his history was everyone’s.

     He died mysteriously while drinking a soda at a bar in the capital. As he lost consciousness, the glass fell from his hand. Some claim that it broke; others categorically deny it.

Translated by Rubén Gallo


 

TITANIC 

                                                                                                                                        Nuestras vidas son los ríos
                                                                                                                                    que van a dar en la mar,
                                                                                                                          que es el morir; (...)

                                                                                                                                                              Jorge Manrique

     Everyone knows the story, but let us briefly review it as an introduction to what follows. White Star Line, the prestigious English ocean-liner company, had forecast the inaugural voyage of its pride flagship, the Titanic, for the 10th of April in the now-distant year of 1912. Edward J. Smith, who at one time had boasted of not having experienced either shipwrecks or accidents in almost 40 years of maritime activity, and who was the best-known seaman of the line, would be the one to captain it.
     After it left the docks, the huge vessel anchored at Cherbourg to take on new passengers, and again at Queenstown (now Cobh), where Irishmen in search of work embarked on the voyage to America. The powerful ship then faced the open ocean, detination New York. Thus, that gathering of festive and hopeful people began the simple trip from one shore to another, from life to death. More than two thousand souls were on board and it wouldn’t have ocurred to any of them to compare the ship to the enormous coffin it surely was.

The Titanic, elder sister of the ambitious trio that included the Olympic and the Britannic as well, had come to symbolize an entire era of wealth and privilege that made “progress” into something like a religion. The blow dealt to the “unsinkable” ship meant, then, much more than the death of 1,502 people. Like other historic calamities, it initiated, in a generation that had learned very little from the past, a complete reassessment of values.

Captain Edward Smith took charge of that microcosm of civilization as a farewell voyage, since, at 59, he was planning to retire. He supposed that it would be his last command, and he wasn’t wrong.

It was Sunday the 14th of April, a little before midnight, when they saw the iceberg whose fatal contact they could not avoid. Desperate radio messages were to no avail, and then there was the stupidity of the crew of the Californian, the ship that was following the Titanic’s route from London to Boston very closely, and which could have intervened: everything seemed to be ranged against them.The insufficient lifeboats, as if doled out by fate, permitted 705 of the passengers to escape death. They were the ones who heard the last measures of the band playing “Autumn”, though later generations, hungry for high drama, embroidered the story, insisting that the swan song was “Nearer My God to Thee”. A few hours later, April 15 now, waves covered the enormous ocean tomb.

The comparison of this disaster to classic Greek tragedy is inevitable: on the one hand, men confident of themselves and their future, egotism and cowardice (the man who disguised himself as a woman to get on a lifeboat), but also bravery, mixed though it was with hubris and defiance of the gods (“God Himself could not sink this ship”); on the other hand, those forces, perhaps irrational, that we as humans cannot know and whose mission it is to restore some sort of order. Like an enormous, divine chessboard, we are pieces of a game that, like man, is always the same and always diferent. It’s impossible not to invoke another struggle that’s similar and yet fantastic: the story that Herman Melville told in Moby Dick.

A variety of people and personalities were assembled for that ill-fated voyage. Among the notables were Mayor Archibald Butt (adviser to President William Howard Taft), the artist Frank Millet, the philanthropist Isidor Strauss and hiw wife Ida; also the industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim (who in the final minutes ran to his room to put on his finest clothes in order not to die like a beast and to greet death as a gentleman should); the oustanding newspaperman William T. Stead (who awaited his fate in the Smoking Room, reading), and the writer Jacques Frutelle, who was travelling with his wife.

Despite his name, Frutelle was a North American, born in Georgia, into a family of Huguenot ancestry. He had worked as a reporter in Richmond, Virginia, then briefly in theater, and finally settled in Boston, where he joined the staff of the Boston American, the local Hearst paper.

His brief life lasted long enough for him to produce a respectable body of work, in which he leaned both toward popular tastes and toward a literature greater depth, philosophic even, as we shall see when we get to the real point behind these pages. His bibliography includes The Simple Case of Susan (1908), a novel about the confusion of identities; The Diamond Master (1909), a novel combining mystery and science fiction; Elusive Isabel (1909), a crime novel; The High Hand (1911), a political novel; and two posthumous books, My Lady’s Garter (1912) and Blind Man’s Buff (1916), both with some elements of crime. But Jacques Frutelle will be remembered principally for his contribution to the detective story genre. In this field he wrote numerous short narratives, introducing detectives Fred Boyd, Dr. Spence, Garron, and Louis Harding; almost all of these stories were scattered in newspapers and journals, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some have been lost. In spite of this body of work, we need to say that Frutelle’s name is inevitably associated  with The Thinking Machine (otherwise known as Dr. Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, the unforgettable and astute detective). In the tale entitled “The Problem of Cell 13” (probably the most famous), we are informed that Van Dusen became known as The Thinking Machine when someone baptized him with the name after he completed an incredible exhibition of chess and showed that, through logic, a newcomer to the game could defeat a master.

At the time of his death, Jacques Frutelle was regarded as a skillful and ingenious writer not only in Europe but also in the United Sates, capable of writing texts that could be read on various levels. The stories about The Thinking Machine are based on the notion of insoluble or impossible problems, which Professor Van Dusen would then unravel. In his last hours Frutelle had wanted, as we shall see, to apply the same approach to existencial and philosophical questions, but in a genre seemingly remote from crime fiction. This –along with the short-lived and ill-fated character of the undertaking– should suggest two important points: as with many writers who seriously attempt the mystery and detective genres, Frutelle’s work contains a special preoccupation with the dialectics of good and evil, life and death, and, second, an unswerving search for a timeless and inescapable truth.

Stories about The Thinking Machine are collected in The Thinking Machine (1906) and in The Thinking Machine on the Case (1907). Others are scattered in newspapers and literary reviews. Some will probably be lost forever, but that’s not what matters now. It should be added that Professor Van Dusen is also the protagonist of a novel published in 1906, The Chase of the Golden Plate, a weak narrative that might interest some because, according to Mrs. May Frutelle, it was the first story that her husband wrote about Van Dusen. The widow never said a word about any unpublished stories that presumably would have been swallowed by the ocean when the ship sank. At one point, it is true, she did offer up an odd document, and that is what constitutes the center of this report.

The widow of Frutelle (née Peel) was also a writer who shared many of her husband’s concerns. One time she wrote a whimsical fantasy; he then wrote a story of his own, deconstructing hers. But this is anecdotal. What she liked to remember were the brief but recurring conversations in which they exchanged opinions about books and authors, and in which he confided in her about his literary projects. They say that in those recollections, tinged with nostalgia, the woman never stopped repeating that she had always urged him to undertake work that would tap his gifts more fully. It may well be in response to this that, the night before the disaster, the writer gave her seven pages of an incomplete manuscript, of which Mrs Frutelle, in the frantic exodus, was only able to rescue three: the missing four were the opening pages. She claimed that the other pages were a drawn-out presentation of the protagonist/narrator: a young woman who was expecting a child. She didn’t remember anything more, though she certainly agreed that it would have been interesting to know the rest of the story, the part that Jacques Frutelle took with him to the bottom of the sea.

Strangely enough, this kind of document always ends up in the hands of some professor at some North American University. The pages with the White Star Line letterhead were no exception. This chronicler can only say that he received copies via fax from a professor at Michigan State University. Who is this professor? How did the papers come into his hands? When and by whom were they delivered? How much did he pay for them? Not only did the person writing this promise to destroy the copies but his informant also insisted on his perpetuating the mystery.

What matters, at any rate, is the manuscript.

Let’s just say that it is almost too short for us to discern the Frutelle we know. In truth, if it weren’t for the handwriting, the letterhead, and the source, we would doubt its authenticity. Only a scholar of Frutelle’s work could catch in that fragment the faint fragance of the Edwardian world, the pared-down style that it inherited from pulp novels, and the concentration on action rather than character. But what’s certain, beyond the provisional nature of the writing, is that it’s impossible not to glimpse, or at least intuit, Frutelle’s predilection for the search of ideas, which gives rise to a story that explores modes of consciousness. It seems, then, that a modern Prometheus is hidden behind the words that follow, one who shares the hero’s aspirations and his fate.

It’s almost unnecessary topoint out that the translation is literal.

 “... or perhaps because of the shocking fact that I was pregnant. The most startling thing was the color of the sky. Violet. Or violaceous. In some places, multicolored, although yellow predominated. I realized that I was on the coast, tossed on some sort of boat. It was so small thay my body stuck out of it. On my bare feet I still felt the sand that I’d been walking on a little while ago, in my long journey over the desert. Sand, infinite like time. Are these waters also infinite? The rocking of my boat made me feel the sea’s restlessness. I didn’t want to set forth, but I couldn’t do anything to prevent it. For I should say that all the while I knew that I was embarking on a voyage. In reality, I had always been traveling. There was nobody else around, yet even though no one seemed to be there, it was a if some invisible presence had loosed the morings, and then my vessel, without a rudder or motor, began a voyage that I knew I was not prepared for. Neither was I prepared for the strange transformation of my belly, which began to shrink until I realized that I no longer sheltered another life inside me. The continuing trnasformation of my body, which was becoming young again, kept me from dwelling on each stage of the process. Regression is the word for it. My body went back to what it once had been. Even though I was lying down, I realized that my hands were returning their virginal state; these same hands told me that the wrinkels had disappeared from my face. Little by little my new proportions let me arrange myself more comfortably. The swell of the waves revealed that other tiny vessels were accompanying me. They weren’t boats, they weren’t canoes. Rather they looked like cradles –and surely mine too was a cradle–, cradles that were sailing in waters that now were reddish. And it was a new yellow sky, overarching and brilliant, that permitted me to confirm this. This strange-colored light helped me discover that I had changed into a girl lost in voluminous clothing. Everything left me except for the ability to comprehend, at least in part, what was happening to me. The sky returned gradually to its original color. This transformation coincided with a desire to sit down, which I did without effort even though I was changing into a baby. I then witnessed the most hair-raising scene of the whole vision. From far off, canoes appeared, and they were as numerous as the cradles that followed in my wake, which I now saw, were occupied by tiny children. The boats that soon crossed our path were also inhabited by human beings, although they were old, emaciated, and very near death. It wasn’t this that most horrified me, but rather that these weren’t canoes but coffins, dark coffins. One of these biers was sailing toward me. An old woman was lying down inside, wearing a disintegrating nightgown. Soon the old woman came to, and though her face had been ruined by time and pain, I recognized my own features, the anguished questioning gaze that had been mine since adolescence. The woman gestured with her arms as if she wanted to come and merge with me. I felt the same compulsion to come together. The darkening sky and reddish waters, now very agitated, accompanied the final moment, in which, without words, I reached the first and the last: the cry that comes before tears.”

The text breaks off here. He who can, let him understand it.

What follows is additional information based on comments ostensibly prepared by Frutelle’s widow for the recipient (whether direct or indirect) of the papers.

May Frutelle explains that her husband had been able to snatch a few words with Mr William Stead, writer, editor, and head of the Review of Reviews, who, as has been stated, also died in the shipwreck. Those few words, which could have formed the beginning of a friendship, now take on a greater significance.

The night of the catastrophe, Stead, who by now was familiar with parts of the text, and who had probably also heard the general thrust of the whole project, was invited by Jacques Frutelle to share supper. According to May, she could never forget the strange way Mr. Stead greeted her husband when he approached the table. “My dear vates!” he exclaimed. Later, the menu –Saucisson de Milan, Salade à la Russe, Consommé pâtés d’Italie...–, the wine that gladdens and sometimes makes one see things better, and the band’s ragtime tunes leesened the discomfort of a conversation shot through with silence.

Not long before the disaster, and by himself now –continued May– Jacques, who had never before demonstrated any special interest in etymology, set himself to analyzing the word vates. We both agreed that the latin word that Mr Stead used (which is retained in Spanish in the noun vate and the verb vaticinar) meant and means poet, but also prophet, seer. Do you understand? the clever woman would ask, without expecting an answer.

Her last comments were whimsical and unexpected: “I don’t know about him, but I never believed in reincarnation.” For our part, we won’t take time to reflect on this statement.

The mission of literature isn’t to modify reality or even attempt to do so. But the monk, the mystic, the prophet, like the poet, are always waiting for truth. The habit of constantly writing signals a disposition open to revelations. The word is the door through which we will occasionally catch glimpses, and then the imagination becomes a potent tool for investigation and knowledge.

In relation to this, one can include the curious case of the North American novelist Morgan Robertson. On the face of it a precursor of Jacques Frutelle and inadvertant rival of Jules Verne, Morgan Robertson wrote, fourteen years before the Titanic, a novel that went almost unnoticed. Published in 1898, The Wreck of the Titan tells the story of a powerful steamer that, in April, collides with an ice floe and sinks. Other coincidences also justify our calling Morgan Robertson a vates: the similar number of people on board, the speed, the technical specifications of the ship... In addition, builders of both ships –the real and the imaginary– were possessed by a fatal defiance toward those invisible and ever-triumphant forces.

But Jacques Frutelle’s text is the truly enigmatic and moving one. Let us stress, the break does not appear to be accidental. It was one more thing that was bound to be destroyed by the tragedy. As in Shakespeare, silence is master over what is hidden by words. As the old Taoist says, “They who speak, don’t know; they who know, don’t speak.”

As in religion, though in different ways, we suspect that there has to be something that makes so many entrust their searches to the word and that makes those who have encountered, or at least glimpsed, the object of their search take refuge afterward in a wise and suggestive silence.

(From Papers of the Desert)

 Translated by Fred Redekop

 


Volver

  Read 
The Real Life       Short Stories       Essay
Papeles del desierto    Tréboles del Sur (definite edition)        Moira Sullivan     Marco Denevi
  Memoria de Theophilus Flynn 



Up


Back

Home

Biography

Ediciones
El gato negro

Profile

Comments

Links

Spanish

Photo Gallery

Contact