For years my grandfather treated his cataracts with Cineraria maritime, a therapy recommended by his friend Chiunti, el Licenciado.
I don't know what cineraria is-most likely a plant. I admire, however, the prosodic beauty of its name. Cineraria maritime. The fact that I still remember it after all this time compels me to suppose that my savoring words dates back to those remote years of my childhood.
The cineraria ophthalmic drops came in a little amber vial with a rubber dropper. As my brother and I went at each other's throats in the back of the car, we would drive downtown with our father to buy the cineraria drops directly from the lab that made them, which was on the third floor of a modest building on Calle de Palma. The parcel of six little green boxes was sent on their way to Cosamaloapan by the express delivery service of the Autobuses de Oriente and the subject was not mentioned again until the following year.
I did not get to know my grandfather well. And I lack the tools to paint a true picture of of him. Even so, I know enough to say that he was a great man with a modest destiny. He was austere, upright, stern, impatient, and irascible. Intractable, for sure. His speech was rushed, a mere mumbling splattered with grunts, and suddenly giving way to furious sputters. Good luck understanding him! His discourse was turned inward, ill-disposed to dialogue; for several years he did not utter a single word to his wife.
As far as I know, he lived his entire life in the Papaloapan River Basin. I imagine his life was measured by the distant sirens announcing shifts at the sugar mill, by ardent tropical sunsets, by floods and suffocating hot days, by the croaking of toads measuring the darkness beyond his screen door as he slept. But these are only impressionistic images recovered by childhood nostalgia. In fact, we spent four or five days a year-if that-in Cosamaloapan, after Christmas.
My grandfather, whose name was Ernesto-like my father's-was proud of a mythical French origin, vague lineages that dissolved into smoke in the Franco-Mexican War. For his daughters' names, he borrowed the singular names of the heroines of the novels of Vargas Vila: Aura, Lucila, Elda, Idalia, Freya. He also enjoyed the truculent intrigues of Paul Féval and the virile rhymes of Díaz Mirón. An assiduous reader of the magazine Impacto!, he had his prejudices, but no more -or stronger-than those typical of the time.
Grandfather Ernesto was a carpenter (my father is also a creator of shapes, but more on this later). In his sawmill, I remember seeing ferocious circular saws, as tall as the child I was then; I remember the fruity fragrance of guanacaste1 wood shavings; the different Jack planes; the careful disorder; the wood dust covering every surface, working its way into the folds of sweaty skin; the dented aluminum helmet.
Coarse blocks and planks lay around the shop, and through his labor, the shapes they concealed within them were revealed: slender rocking chairs, chests, coffins, and folding-screens. These were strict, functional forms.
He created objects from another time, now only used as corny decorations: cartwheels in the hundreds. The carts carried the sugar cane harvest. Or they distributed door-to-door giant bottles of purified water. I remember the vivid story, told by my uncle, of how the wheels were coated in metal. The violent operation had to be completed in seconds, and required several men, who placed a red-hot belt of metal around each wheel. It had to be cooled down immediately, before it set fire to the wood, by splashing bucketfuls of water over it.
The story goes that Don Ernesto, an exceptional artisan with a talent for mechanics, conceived complicated mechanisms out of precious woods, with moving parts and leather transmission belts.
A carpenter's work is all about precision. When he began to lose his eyesight, he sold his saws and shut down the shop.
A cataract is when the crystalline lens of the eye becomes opaque. When the lens loses its transparency, the outlines of things lose definition and what causes even greater suffering yet is that colors lose their intensity and vibrancy.
With the passing of years, his eyesight diminished gradually, imperceptibly, insidiously. And his modest world bled into a turbid impressionist blur. Afflicted with partial blindness-the word, as far as I remember, was never uttered-he ended up wandering through a gloomy world of brownish, diffuse shadows: una terca neblina luminosa,2 to borrow a hendecasyllable from Borges. His memories had become clearer as the outline of objects grew dimmer.
In any case, the suspicious Cineraria maritime-two absinth-colored drops, morning and afternoon, in the tear ducts-had inhibited the maturation of the cataracts, or so I had heard people say over the years. An operation did not seem viable. The idea of immature cataracts-akin to unripe fruit-excited my imagination as a child; at that age, our imagination combines the literal and the metaphoric. The doubtful scientific basis for the whole matter seems crystal clear.
These days, cataracts no longer cause blindness. An experienced surgeon can perform half a dozen procedures in a single morning. Twenty-five years ago, in the Papaloapan river valley, for a man born in 1906, the idea of allowing a doctor to put a scalpel to his eye was an even more shocking, problematic notion.
For years, reports ebbed and flowed of a clinic run on a ship by some Dutch ophthalmologists who traveled from port to port treating people.
“Maybe with them I'd do it,” Don Ernesto declared. Yes, he thought, he would let the Dutch operate on him.
They were always about to arrive, but they never moored on the rusty docks of Alvarado.
Time passed. Without warning, perhaps through some subterfuge, a relative took grandfather to Tuxtepec. Caught with his guard down, he took off his hat, pursed his lips, and allowed the missionaries there to operate on him. And this exemplary artisan who had seen his trade yield to the onslaught of synthetic materials had a plastic lens implanted in each eye.
A car stuck in a sinuous line of trailers and buses. The tense, tedious climb towards the central plateau. It is difficult to gather the courage to pass with so many lights switching their high beams on and off in the fog.
An exchange of telephone calls has determined that grandfather will recuperate at my parent's house, and one of his sons-in-law drives him to Mexico City. His eyes are bandaged, and in the darkness, Don Ernesto experiences the centrifugal pull of the abrupt curves on the Mil Cumbres road. His regular breath keeps motion sickness at bay. With his hands intertwined on his lap, grandfather begins to nervously twiddle his thumbs. In one direction. Stop. In the other direction. A potpourri of arias sung by the three tenors-malinconia, ninfa gentile-seeps out of the radio.
When they reach the Puebla tollbooth, Don Ernesto pulls a bill out of his wallet, feels it, asks what its value is, and calls for a box of camotes envinados.3 The cassette rewinds and, for the millionth time, the tenors insist, eager to please: tra la-ra lera, tra la-ra lera, trala lalara lara la-lara. Never has the trip felt this long to him; never has a foreign language sounded so eloquent.
When they arrive, I clumsily take his forearm-he recognizes my voice-and together, we negotiate the front gate, the fragrant path that leads from it to the door, and the front steps.
The following afternoon, I assist in the nerve-wracking removal of the bandages. I remember the gauzes stained with iodine, the warm rinsing of the eyes with a chamomile infusion.
He opens his eyes.
He mumbles something, disappointed.
Soon after midday, his room becomes dark, and so he is led to the terrace. A glass half-filled with water shimmers on the table. Around it, glimmers of light sparkle, ardent, refracted. People and things, still moist, are imbued with a new brilliance. There are several pots of African violets on the table as well. After a while the velvety green, ochre, and violet recover their joyous smiles. A pair of special glasses will soon restore their sharp outlines.
An optometrist was consulted. Four or five days later my father and my grandfather returned from the íptica Lux, each with a new pair of glasses. My grandfather's glasses were massive, with heavy black frames and thick concave lenses. “Coke-bottle” lenses, as people used to say, like the ones worn by Mr. Magoo, whose extreme myopia could easily lead him to open his tent on the wing of an airplane.
I tried them on, and picked up a page of the newspaper. The words “a careless case,” and “Legislature” appeared all loopy. These special glasses are so concentrated that they eliminate all peripheral vision, forcing the wearer to turn his head completely from one side to the other. I took a few steps on the terrace. It was impossible to tame my vertigo as I stood on an obstinately convex floor.
Around those days, my tireless father was in the habit of making doves out of wire, elegant sketches fashioned out of a line in space, prodigious shapes which he glimpsed in his mind and which his hand, with no other tool but a pair of pliers and a piece of sanding paper-to bring out the shine-, created out of a roll of nickel-plated wire. Gradually, our house was filled with these weightless flocks, their flight suspended around our living room by invisible threads of fishing line.
Sometimes my grandfather would get caught in the tangle of wires that hung here and there along the path between his rocking chair and the window. Distinguishing this flock against the gray stone of the walls was too much to ask of his eyes, which, like mountain cataracts, had turned gray. The thick Mr. Magoo glasses allowed him to make a discovery: those bloody wires were forms without function, but filled with meaning.
“They're doves!” he said to himself, perplexed. He examined them, walking around them slowly.
“Bloody hell, this thing is well made!” was his somewhat technical appraisal.
It may seem like a small thing. It is not. From him, it is magnanimous praise.
Ants and their meticulous wandering. A suitable subject for digression. I owe to James Joyce-via the caustic courtesy of Jorge Luis Borges-the ability to perceive and name the modest epiphany from which, or towards which, these meanderings lead.
Borges was never too fond of the Joycean. Sometime in the past, under the allusive title Borges y Joyce I collected a good number of his pronouncements on the subject. Not yet blind-his sight began to decline gradually in the twenties and was completely gone by the mid fifties-Borges closed his “Brief Biography” of Joyce in the February 1937 issue of the magazine El Hogar on an expressively laconic note: “He's blind.”
He always wrote on the subject of Joyce with malicious ambivalence. He judges the novels to be “indecipherably chaotic,” but deems the delicate music of his prose to be “incomparable.” He praises his verbal gifts, the effective omnipotence of the word. He affirms that “like no other writer, Joyce is less a man of letters than a vast literature.” In a prologue to Whitman, however, he provokes, “To speak of literary experiments is to speak of experiments which have failed more or less brilliantly, like Góngora's Soledades or the writings of Joyce.”
The least brilliant of Joyce's failures, in Borges's view, was Finnegan's Wake. Already in his biographical note of 1937, he discredits the advance excerpts which had been published under the title Work in Progress as a “weaving together of languid word-games in an English cut through with German, Italian, and Latin.” In June 1939 he reviews, again for El Hogar, the eagerly anticipated novel. He considers it “a concatenation of word-games committed in an oneiric English, which it is difficult not to qualify as frustrated and incompetent.” And to prove his point, he offers an example of a frustrated, incompetent word game:
“I do not believe I am exaggerating. Ameise, in German, stands for 'ant.' Amazing, in English, means 'astonishing'. James Joyce mints the adjective 'ameising' to signify the astonishment provoked by an ant.”
I confess that even though I revere the Joyce of Epiphanies and Giacomo Joyce, and even though I re-read Ulysses every four or five years, I have never been able to make a dent in the demanding Finnegan's Wake. My hazy notion of German, I am sure, would have concealed the word ameising from my eyes as I read it. I was thankful to Borges for applying his acute etymological/entomological magnifying glass (I'll spare you the obvious word play) on my behalf and forcing me to assess its implications as a verbal object.
It seemed to me that this was, in fact, a forced term that sinned in its excess of precision; a fabricated term, ergo a superfluous one. Difficult to apply. Rather-and here, I ask your forgiveness for the inelegance of my language-pulled out of the air.
How would ameising translate into Spanish?
I thought about it for a moment and, judging in favor of Borges (and against Joyce), acerbic and sure of myself-and happy to beat a dead horse blindly at the tender age of seventeen-I concluded by pompously declaring: “the language does not require such a term; such games open the way to all sorts of philological excesses. One can very well, and more defensibly, form a phrase.”
We left my grandfather Ernesto in his discovery of the wire doves. A few days after that, I witnessed a modest epiphany which I have never recounted before. It was a messy series of events. I had to back one car out of the garage in order to park the other one, because we had decided to go out in the first car. The gate always threatens to close while one is still maneuvering the car, shearing off rearview mirrors and bumpers. So I asked my grandfather to hold it open for me.
During a pause between the two operations, my grandfather steps over to the ledge of a window. More than a window, it is the beginning of a wall made out of thick panels of pressed glass, behind which there is a terrace.
He stands there dumbfounded, mesmerized-I fumble for my words-in childish glee: a thin line of ants runs down the entire ledge and disappears in a crack in the tiles. The wet season is approaching and the ants are moving to their new refuge, inside the house.
Deus ex machina. With one finger, his index finger, my grandfather blocks their path. There is a moment of panic, intense teeming movement, frenetic exchanges of ant information.
A moment later, the threatening index finger returns to the sky, clearing the path once again, and the host of soldiers and explorers quickly reorganizes the intricate flow of the meticulous caravan.
I glimpse this scene briefly, keys in hand, while passing from one car to the other, perplexed, in turn, by my grandfather's childlike glee. He is a large man, almost ninety, who carries a Smith & Wesson 22-caliber revolver in his trouser pocket. The Mr. Magoo glasses limit his peripheral vision and, totally absorbed, he hardly notices that I'm watching him.
“Damn it all, grandson,” he exclaims once he is in the car, with the hint of a tear in the corner of his eye. “It's been twenty years since I've seen an ant! Didn't even remember they existed.”
With similar astonishment he would soon rediscover, as he looked up at the treetops-which had appeared to him as rough greenish clouds-the growing precision of the outlines of tree-branches.
Years have gone by. Don Ernesto died in 1995. The hot cemetery in Cosamaloapan de Carpio tends to become flooded during the rainy season. Irrelevant provincial family intrigues made it impossible-poetic injustice-to have him buried in the cedar coffin which, years earlier and with great foresight, he himself had fashioned to his measurements. His remains must now be tropical soil. Perhaps there are still some teeth, bone fragments, the buttons of his shirt and, limpid jewels in the opaque humus, two acrylic crystalline lenses.
As children we are fascinated by our discovery of ants. Friendly creatures, they follow us. They climb up our legs. Perhaps they bite us. They are relieved to see us age, leave them alone, forget about them. Then, for better or worse, life passes by. And old age slowly closes the doors of our perception.
As his vision worsened, grandfather's world had lost its outlines. The ants lost their proximity, their concrete reality. He did not forget the concept ant, which was well entrenched in his cerebral circumvolutions, but ants, like many other things I suppose, became mere abstractions, memories. At the most, on some occasion, during breakfast, he might have felt a light tickle on his forearm. With an almost unconscious sweep of the hand-as if removing crumbs from the table-he would have shaken it off his arm, and taken another sip of his coffee. The busy offender, the adventurous ant that had come down from the almond tree in search of a bit of sugar, had little connection, in my grandfather's dampened perception, with the slow tickling sensation he had felt. Outside, among the strewn leaves, the moist, dull, heavy hops of a toad would fall, and, red and precise, a minute retinue would advance: a row of ants carrying tiny translucent eggs behind their backs.
Forms have continued to emerge from my father's hands. These days-I'm thinking of the memorable sequence in Un Chien Andalou-they give birth to prodigious ants. The abdomen, thorax, and head are made out of river stones, lovingly smoothed with an electric sander in a screeching fountain of sparks. The antennas and legs are shaped out of iron. These are large, dense ants, monumental sculptures when compared in scale to their models; each one is different. 6
When, during a visit to my father's house in Mexico City after several years of absence, I discovered the metal and mineral caravan of ants and held one of the stone ants in my hands-in order to grasp their meaning, one must feel their materiality-, I remembered Joyce's ameising and, with great clarity, the moment at which this exquisite word came alive. My father's stone ants mark, in another medium, the miraculous rediscovery of meaningful trifles.
A river that meanders still advances.
My brother brought a few antulptures back with him to Paris, where we have ended up living for several years. They weighed down his luggage, and he was forced to give explanations at customs. One of them is much larger than the others: the ant queen. We placed them in the street window of our office, so they would be visible to passers-by. They stand at a child's eye-level. Every day, amazed, limpid children's eyes pause to stare at the giant ants made out of iron and Bola stone. Standing an inch from the glass, eyes glued to the object, the children pose questions in a pre-Socratic vein to their parents or nanny. Questions that, for better or worse, the adults ignore or make light of; they don't suspect that with words one can fully respond to the gifts of this world.
1. A Central American tree of the mimosa family
2. An obstinate, luminous fog
3. A sweet made out of sweet potato prepared in wine.
4. Asombroso (amazing) + hormiga (ant)
5. Pasmoso (amazing) + hormiga
6. Author's note: In a recorded talk, Borges, discussing the singularity of beings, argues that each ant is unique, and that by seeing each thing as unique, one sees as God does. “How God must like ants!” he concluded. “There are millions of ants!”