Claudia De Bella
Argentine future persists in tracing itself
onto the present in such a way that
anticipation exercises are absolutely meritless.
Let┤s take a look at the future.
Only twenty years have passed, starting from today. Sometime in the year 2013, a line of people are waiting for their turn to get their pre-employment interview at one of the sophisticated personnel-searching agencies that, in this very close future which is much more complex than we can imagine, are still carrying out a task that has finally become more related to the slave market than to the performance of a service. Newspapers barely show any news; agencies are buying every advertising space, and every journalistic space as well, in their struggle to offer their new ultratechnological personnel-selection methods. The fact that the lack of employment is higher than twenty years ago doesn┤t stop them, since they get their main income from the subventions companies grant them in order to interview a thousand applicants for one single position. Their structure remains firm and growing; whether they get a job for anyone or not is just a mere detail.
But let┤s step into the scene. As we have said: year 2013, agency, people waiting, Argentine city.
At the desk that is not a desk anymore, but just a slim support for a fallaciously simplified computer terminal, with some horizontal extension to one side created to place or pile up CDs, sheets of paper and several other items (twenty years haven┤t been enough to banish ashtrays and coffee-cups), we can see the interviewer, who doesn┤t really interview but rather restricts himself to asking routine questions, the answers to which he then enters in the data bank. The machine is supposed to suggest the section where the applicant must be transferred to, according to whatever personnel searchs are going on. It┤s understood, of course, that if no personnel searchs are going on, as it too frequently happens, the applicant will be derived to some section with a confusing name, such as "Data Stock" 1 or the like (twenty years haven┤t been enough, either, to ban the idiotic habit of using a foreign language to suggest mystery or importance), where the unemployed will be buried forever in some memory device, behind the impressive fašade of a carpeted office filled with beautiful secretaries.
At this very moment, the interviewer is questioning a modern-looking young woman: shaved head, orange robe, tiny cymbals hanging from her right forefinger and thumb (it┤s summer and the Hare Krishna style is in fashion even though it was laughed at some years ago thanks to the recycling activity some representatives of the haute couture insist on calling "creation" in order to conceal the fact that they have run out of ideas). The interviewer is almost another office machine, speaking with a monotonous voice. A kind of prehistoric cyborg.
"Romina Vanessa Castilla."
"Well, I┤m specialized in accounting programs, but up to now... up to now... I┤ve only worked as an operator."
"Speciality: operator," the interviewer says as he enters the information.
The young woman can┤t hide her grudgy, frustrated look, while the machine displays a list (an excessively short list) of available positions.
"There are openings in three of our searchs, but women are not welcome in one of them." Our automaton gives the young woman a look of contempt, as if he had perpetrated the condition himself. Then he goes on, remembering his obligation to remain neutral. "As for the second, you must be willing to settle down in the underpopulated area... You know."
The young woman shakes her head energetically. Needing a job is one thing, but burying oneself alive in a miserable slum like those which have been burgeoning everywhere since the country was admitted into the First World is something completely different. Leaving the charming uncomforts of the megalopolis behind just like that is absolutely out of the question.
"The last one," continues the interviewer, "is a three-month replacement."
"All right... I could try that."
"Fine. Your application number is 428."
And the automaton proceeds, describing in full detail the steps to be taken for the arrangement of an interview at the illustrious company, as he has done with the previous 427 applicants, only one of whom, with favorable winds and the help of the Almighty, will get to enjoy the privilege of being part of the renowned company┤s staff during those scanty three months.
Once the explanation is over, he calls the next applicant to his desk.
"Maximiliano Rodrigo Carnatti."
"Er... After I finished elementary school I took a course on computer operation."
"Well, I don┤t know... I used to work at a workshop, taking care of the spare-part lists in the compu..."
"Operator," the automaton interrupts him, entering the data.
We won┤t report his conversation with this man or with the twelve men and women that follow. Let┤s just say they are people who┤ve had confidence in the future, who┤ve studied what had to be studied, who┤ve been eager to play an active role in the 21st. century and who are finding out now, during the very same 21st. century itself and in the worst possible way, that having learnt how to operate a machine is not enough. They are known by the thousands, not more essential for this future country than typists some years ago: there are too many of them, anyone can do their job, they are the lowest layer in the labor pyramid.
"Next," the autoviewer continues in his mono-tone.
"That┤s me," says a man whose age is difficult to guess. His undoubtfully aboriginal face features, his unwrinkled dark skin, his black hair, could belong to a thirty-odd-year-old adult.
"Name," says the interviewmaton.
"Otaz˙ AmoitÚ, that┤s my name," the man answers, as if that was an ordinary name, not to sound strange to anyone.
The prehistoric cyborg can┤t help glancing at him. What do we have here?
"Say what?" he asks, his voice classifying the applicant as a suspect of subversion.
"O-ta-z˙ A-moi-tÚ," the man explains.
"Are you a foreigner?" The inquisitor looks at him with great diffidence. His forehead creases, he squints just a little.
Otaz˙ smiles at him; he may feel sorry for him or he may be too naive.
"No, sir. I┤m from here. I┤m a GuaranÝ, that┤s why I have this name. AmoitÚ, my last name, means 'beyond what can be seen' and Otaz˙ means..."
"GuaranÝ? The indians?" The protocyborg┤s compulsory neutrality goes to hell. A whole life as a cosmopolitan citizen gives him the right to show disdain.
"Well, yes. But we┤d rather call ourselves aboriginals."
The interviewmaton decides to start questioning him. It may be funny to find out about the absurd programs this indian uses.
"Could you spell your name?" he asks.
Otaz˙ spells it slowly, emphasizing the "z" in his first name.
The inquiry continues:
"What do you mean?"
"It┤s only that my parents never trusted official education. Besides, after the campaign against public school in '98, you know, not many free-of-charge schools were left, and we couldn┤t afford the other ones... Well, what I know, I┤ve learnt by myself. Reading, you know."
"And what do you know?" The protocyborg┤s angry manners show he┤s willing to put an end to this ridiculous interview as soon as possible.
"History, GuaranÝ language, Spanish, Agriculture, a little Astronomy, Geography, Philoso"
"But you┤ve never attended school."
"No, not a school as the one you must have attended, but... All right, let┤s say I don┤t have an education, if you wish."
"Of course." The word NO appears on the corresponding line of the super-plus-max resolution screen. "Profession?"
"I┤m a potter."
"A potter. I make things out of clay. Pots. Plates. Jugs."
"Which programs do you use?"
"What do you mean, programs?"
"It┤s obvious. Do you create your own programs or just operate the terminal?"
"I don┤t think you understand. I don┤t use programs. I do it with my hands."
The interviewmaton has reached his limit.
"Listen to me, sir. This is a responsible agency. We┤re not going to put up with your bad-taste jokes. What have you come here for? Aren┤t you ashamed of making everybody here waste our time?" The last sentence comes with a wave that includes the rest of the staff and the line of applicants who are waiting behind Otaz˙ and paying a great deal of attention to this conversation.
"You may find it strange, but I┤ve come here to find a job." Otaz˙ doesn┤t look uspet.
"As a potter."
"You can┤t program or operate computers."
"No, I can┤t. I┤ve read quite a lot about it, though."
"If you don┤t know computers you can┤t work," says the interviewmaton. "If you don┤t know computers you can┤t work! If you don┤t know computers, can you work? If you don┤t know computers you can┤t"
At this stage, as we can see, the situation has reached the point where the efficient employee┤s capacities are exceeded. Something in him has blocked up.
"...work. If you don┤t know computers you can┤t wo..."
Otaz˙ is looking at him understandingly.
Fortunately, the agency manager, who is in her office and ready to take care of any disturbance or malfunction, detects the sudden interruption of the normal procedure at once. We shouldn┤t assume this is due to her extreme perception, but to the tell-tale device installed in the automaton┤s chair, which turns on a light in the manager┤s console every time the employee┤s adrenaline level goes up. It┤s essential to preserve the agency┤s good image.
Taking a glance through the translucent office divider, the manager notices (by direct observation, this time) the bored look in the interviewed man┤s face and the opressive stillness of the line of people. She goes out of her office and walks quickly but calmly to the spot. With a quick look, she evaluates the anomaly.
"It┤s all right, Ortega," she says to the autoviewer. "Don┤t worry. I┤ll take care of this gentleman."
Ortega that was his name emerges from his seizure, immensely relieved. He stirs, clears up his throat with an hysterical little cough and returns to the comfortable safety of his specific duties.
"Next," we can hear him request.
We┤ll let him continue with his work. In no more than two or three years, he will surely get the promotion he deserves.
Otaz˙ leaves the reception area and follows the formally dressed woman to an armchair in a smaller and more private room next to her office.
The woman takes a seat opposite him, the terminal on one side and the electronic notebook on the other.
"Good morning. My name is Carolina Lusket. I manage this branch of Best-Job 2. Please, tell me about your problem."
Otaz˙ explains: "To tell you the truth, I don┤t have any problem at all, except that... er, I haven┤t got a job. I┤m a potter, as I was telling to that man outside, and...
"A potter? Which programs do you use?"
"That┤s the point. I don┤t use programs. I don┤t do it with a computer. I do it... with my hands, the old-fashioned way."
Mrs. Lusket has seen more world than Ortega. She is a cultured person: she┤s read six novels in her life and has found out about the contents of another hundred through the literary summary she receives once a month together with her credit card report (an exclusive service for associates). She won┤t look surprised; she┤ll analize this eccentricity thoroughly.
That┤s how she gets to learn that Otaz˙ is aware of the policies applied by handicraft factories, that he knows museums are not interested in restoring objects anymore. Yet, he is pleased by the uniqueness of the pieces he makes and considers himself competent enough to give lectures in educational institutions or perhaps to be included in the staff of some anthropology college. But creation is what he likes best. At some point, he explains:
"My parents never thought I had to study computer science, really. They used to tell me that, in case I needed it, I could learn it any time. As far as they were concerned, the most important thing for me to do was to become familiar with my world, my ancestors, my history. To become an open-minded person who would be able to succeed no matter the situation. That┤s why..."
Whatever the indian is talking about, Mrs. Lusket understands absolutely nothing.
Mrs. Lusket got a degree in Business Management because her father had told her it was an easy and profitable career. She wasn┤t interested in it at all, but she was able to graduate just barely. The only thing she has enjoyed doing since her teenage years is being a social show-off, dressing the most pompous clothes and attending the most glamorous parties on a regular basis. She takes delight in making her acquaintances notice the badge from a traditional private school her children carry on their uniforms. As for her profession, she has chosen to adopt a sexy-and-seemingly-intellectual attitude which has given her excellent results when trying to persuade possible clients about the convenience of hiring Best-Job services. That┤s why she has come to be a manager, of course. It┤s needless to say that her college degree has had nothing to do with it. The poor traffic connections verified along her interneuronal avenues have had no influence in the matter, either.
Mrs. Lusket is a plastic woman.
She is also an art collector. Not because she appreciates art, of course, but because any manager earning such a salary must exhibit at least one or two valuable paintings on the living-room wall, or some avant-garde sculpture in their weekend house, or maybe a clock from the early 20th century hanging in their kitchen. She has contacts in the antique business, and many of them are famous members of the Brotherhood operating in San Telmo, the same group that caused the disappearance of Perˇn┤s hands and Menem┤s shirts some years ago (the diversity of unusual objects people may collect is surprising). This Brotherhood also controls the gloomy black market where antiques snatched from helpless old people by their own eager relatives who are willing to get hold of some money impossible to get by working are traded. In case the old people are vehemently resistant to part with their little treasures, the Brotherhood is said to supply the desperate relatives with all the elements they need to part with the old people.
As she hears Otaz˙┤s words without listening (now he┤s saying something about GuaranÝ dignity, talking nonsense), Mrs. Lusket thinks that a good way of getting rid of the indian could be sending him directly into the most important homosexual organization in the country. Even if he can┤t convince them of buying his junk, at least his wild manly looks will surely appeal to them; as soon as he gets the favors of a powerful Brother, life will turn into a bed of roses for him. (The lady┤s constant quest for excellence is the reason why she can┤t dismiss the indian right away. What if people start to gossip about the incompetent manager at Best-Job Downtown Branch? She won┤t risk that.)
"...as you can imagine, if we let ourselves forget our traditions," Otaz˙ is saying, "there wouldn┤t be much left to..."
"Look, Mr. AmotÚ," Mrs. Plastic finally says.
"Amo-i-tÚ," Otaz˙ corrects her.
"Sure, AmoitÚ. I don┤t think this agency will be able to get a job for you at the moment, but your application will be entered in 'Info Dump' 3 to be kept there until the opportunity turns up.
Otaz˙ nods. There┤s a trace of sarcasm in his eyes.
"Anyway," the manager goes on, "I would personally like to give you a couple of addresses. I know these people well; perhaps they can give you a hand."
"All right," Otaz˙ answers, not very enthusiastically.
The lady presses the appropriate keys and the electronic notebook spits out three cards with names and addresses printed on them, which she immediately hands over to Otaz˙, while she remembers she must attend an informational meeting at the AAIU (Argentine-American Industrial Union) in half an hour, and a cocktail party at the Personnel Selection League headquarters at 7 PM and after that a working dinner with her colleagues from the other branch offices in a luxury hotel downtown. She┤s terribly worried about the gray-blue suitcase. Will it match the gray shoes she is planning to wear tonight?
Otaz˙ is already standing, shaking her hand, when she suddenly puts her crucial problems aside for a while, and tells him:
"Oh, Mr. AmoitÚ. A piece of advice: you┤d better take a course on computer science as soon as you can, otherwise you┤ll never get a well-paid job."
Instead of thanking her for this, Otaz˙ stares at her for a long time, with that kind of look you would give a chimpanzee trying to withdraw its hand from the trap without dropping the bananas. Then he turns round and leaves the office without a word, walking swiftly into the elevator which will carry him away from Best-Job Downtown Branch, thank God.
Damn rude indian, Plastigirl thinks before going to the shops and buying herself a gray suitcase that will surely match the shoes.
Let┤s take a look at the past.
Which is every antiquarian┤s object of lust and anxiety.
There are two kinds of antiques: genuine and manufactured. Nobody ignores, given the existence of certain acids, that anyone can make a bronze lamp look much older than it really is. Ten minutes in acid, five years older. Two hours, maybe a century. It┤s a sort of reversed face-lifting, and most of the customers can never tell the difference. This procedure might be considered a deceit, but some people claim that, since most of the purchasers are stubbornly ignorant assholes, it┤s only fair that they get what they deserve. Would you feed pigs with flowers?
In the San Telmo district (Buenos Aires City, Argentina, South America, First World, Planet Earth, lower left), there are not only a lot of antique-shops but also many workshops devoted to the restoration, and mainly the manufacturing, of beautiful, plain or hideous objects of confirmed, dubious or nonexistent old age. Most of the shops and workshops are run by male homosexuals; nobody knows whether this is a matter of tradition or artistic sensitivity. All of them are members of the Brotherhood.
Otaz˙ is standing in a street of San Telmo, ringing the bell of a rejuvenated eighteenth-century house. He┤s got Mrs. Lusket┤s cards in his hand.
It┤s four in the afternoon and the neighbourhood swarms with activity. We can see many foreign tourists carrying parcels of all sizes: if you browse along these narrow streets you can find practically anything, from a dress of the 1900s to a tiny, rusted key that maybe opened a small trunk that used to belong to some unknown Spanish traveler from the colonial times (or the drawers in a fiber desk that used to belong to the shop-keeper┤s brother-in-law. How could you be sure?)
But let┤s go back to our hero, because the hinges of the imposing wooden door are creaking, and then a man┤s face appears from behind the door to say:
"Good afternoon," Otaz˙ replies.
The man looks at him with no particular expression. He is used to dealing with strange people, people who would sacrifice their own lives for a battered mildew-covered chest, a French rappee box or a letter written by Mirtha Legrand 4.
"May I help you?" he asks, uninterested.
Otaz˙ hands one of Mrs. Lusket┤s electrogenerated cards out to him.
"The manager at Best-Job, I think her name is Mrs. Lusket, has sent me to see this person."
The doorman looks at the cardboard parallelogram.
"Mrs. Lusket. I guess she┤s a client of yours."
The door-opener┤s black eyes look up thoughtfully at the ceiling. He┤s trying to remember. Ten seconds later:
"Yes, of course." Is there a sneering inflection in his voice? May the above mentioned client have been the purchaser of an exclusive antique manufactured out of an ugly department store ornament? "Come in."
Otaz˙ comes in. The man locks the door, and that means either that a lot of money is kept around here or that some of the antiques which are bought and sold are extremely valuable indeed.
"This way," he tells Otaz˙, who can now examine the man in detail: he┤s wearing a neat gray suit, a white shirt unbuttoned collar, no tie, short black hair. He┤s thin and small. He┤s got a painted Marilyn-style mole on his right cheek and his manners are extremely polite. "Sorry, but Mr. Augusto is busy at the moment. Please wait for him. Do take a seat. Would you please tell me who I shall announce?
"Otaz˙ AmoitÚ. Mr. Augusto doesn┤t know me. It┤s about a job."
The doorman writes down the information in the back of the card. He gives Otaz˙ another look, a not-so-uninterested look this time, and then walks away along a narrow corridor. Otaz˙ hears the sound of a door opening, then closing again.
Almost immediately, some soft music starts playing. It┤s a rag from the turn of the 20th century, a piano performance, which suits the decoration of the small sitting-room where Otaz˙ has been led to perfectly: on the walls, covered with red and white striped wallpaper, there are old photographs of jazz bands; the furniture also belongs to the same period, as well as the hat collection on the glass shelves. On a corner of the room, there┤s a magnificent gramophone which is not one of those modern things with a built-in holofax. It┤s a real one, and it appears to be in good working condition. Otaz˙ takes his time to examine the hats, the beautifully engraved gramophone horn, and an original photograph that seems to be of Scott Joplin himself, all of which is enough to justify Marilyn┤s locking of the door.
The door-opener reappears in the middle of the third rag Otaz˙ remembers it┤s the "Maple Leaf Rag", the first music piece in history to sell one million copies with no card in his hands.
"Sir," he says, "this way, please."
Otaz˙ follows his guide along the corridor. On both sides, the walls are packed with photographs and framed music scores, an extensive collection from the dixieland times.
Marilyn stops at the second door; he knocks and then opens it without waiting for an answer.
"Come in," he says.
The waiting room was just a prologue to Mr. Augusto┤s ample office. The red and white striped wallpaper is the same, but here the antique exhibition is even more impressive. For example, the piano on the right is a genuine 1904 Sears Roebuck, the posters behind the desk are from the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, and the car on the platform in the middle of the room is a Ford T, though Otaz˙ has no way of verifying it┤s not an imitation. Sitting in the car, on the driver┤s seat and dressed with the garments of his time, there┤s a plastic dummy with the face of Roque Sßenz Pe˝a 5.
Mr. Augusto is sitting at his desk, reading something. He is about sixty, quite chubby, and his hair is almost completely white. His clothes don┤t match the decoration: he┤s wearing a purple tie-dye tunic, in the 1960s hippie fashion, and has a colored wool bandana with Incan designs around his head. His beard reaches down to his chest.
"Come in, Mr. AmoitÚ," he says softly.
Otaz˙ walks to the chair by the desk. "Nice collection," he says.
"Oh... yes," Mr. Augusto replies, smiling with satisfaction. "Please, sit down. Do you like it?"
It┤s easy to realize Mr. Augusto can┤t conceal his pride. In any case, why should he exhibit such objects if not to be complimented?
"It┤s really fabulous," Otaz˙ answers sincerely.
Mr. Augusto picks up the card. "So you┤ve been sent by Mrs. Lusket."
"Are you a friend of hers?" The hippie antiquarian gives him a look of appraisal, as he mentally goes through the list of spurious antiques for sale. Otaz˙ notices he has a slight touch of green mascara in his eyelashes.
"No, no. I went to the agency for a job and she told me to come here."
"A job? Why should you go to an agency to find a job?"
"I┤ve just arrived from my native province, and since I don┤t know anybody here..."
"You don┤t have to. You wouldn┤t get anything even if you were Sßenz Pe˝a┤s great-grandson," Mr. Augusto says, pointing at the dummy. "There are more operators than computers."
At hearing this, Otaz˙ notices for the first time that he hasn┤t seen any of the precious machines since he came into the house; this is odd enough to shock anybody living in our ex-underdeveloped country of the future.
"It looks like there are neither of them in here," he comments.
"It┤s because I don┤t trust electricity," the hippiquarian snaps back.
"Excuse me?" Otaz˙ asks him with interest.
Mr. Augusto dwells upon the subject: "One day, fourteen or fifteen years ago, this terrible idea of what would happen if we were left without electricity forever came to me. No light, no television, no computers, no music... Mainly, no music." He opens a desk drawer and produces a cigarette; as soon as he lights it up with a match, a smell that┤s not of tobacco fills the air. Otaz˙ is watching him attentively. "I used to be a rock fan, as you might have imagined. First The Beatles, and then hard rock, symphonic rock, punk rock, heavy rock, thrash metal, funky metal, sympho rap, digital folk"
"I┤m fond of chamamÚ 6."
"Good for you. Because, you see, that day when the terrible idea came to me, I had a dream. I was in a Riff 7 concert, jumping and singing, and suddenly a little monster appeared next to Pappo 8. In the dream, we all thought it was some kind of special visual effect prepared for the show, but a moment later the little monster began to unplug everything until the musicians couldn┤t be heard at all. It was an extremely awful bug, and its face looked somewhat like my mother┤s." Mr. Augusto smiles. "To tell you the truth, it looked exactly like my mother┤s... the poor woman always thought rock & roll had been created by Satan." He takes a smoke. "Anyway, forget about psychoanalysis. When I woke up from that dream, my mind was enlightened. I understood that the only thing that entertained and esthetically pleased me depended on an invisible fluid that could be cut off any moment, so"
"Excuse me, Augusto," Marilyn interrupts. He had been standing next to the Ford T, but now he┤s walking to the desk and saying: "I must go see if Pedro has called."
"Sure. Go, and don┤t forget to ask him if old man Santillßn has decided whether to sell that chest of drawers to us."
The doorman goes near the hippiquarian, kisses his lips softly (for the visitor to become aware this man belongs to him) and leaves the office, closing the door behind him.
"What was I saying?" the talkative Mr. Augusto goes on. "Oh, yes. When I realized I was so highly dependant on electricity, I was terrified. I imagined the energy crisis finally took place and that my favorite music died in helpless agony, impossible to be performed anymore. The idea of running out of music was intolerable. So I painfully decided to leave rock behind and devote myself to some other musical style, one which didn┤t need to be amplified. I┤ve never been fond of folklore, let alone tango, and classical music depresses me, except for Bach... so, obviously, I chose jazz, and here I am. When the dams finally fall apart I won┤t worry at all. I┤ll play my dixieland recordings in the gramophone or I┤ll lite some candles and play the piano. You can┤t imagine how free you feel when you don┤t depend on plugs..." He picks up a leather-covered notebook. "Look at this. It┤s a notebook. To write on. With a matching pen. It┤s very useful when the company that supplies the electricity decides to cut it off for two or three days to make us pay our overdue bills and no computer is likely to work. I got it when the JosÚ Hernßndez Museum was sold in auction."
As we have noticed by now, Mr. Augusto is not only a hippie, an antiquarian, an ex-rock fan and a jazz supporter but also the paradigm of everything that┤s old-fashioned, reactionary, contrary to the General Improvement of Human Race, pesimistic and stubbornly primitive. To make matters worse, he┤s a faggot.
"I like you," Otaz˙ tells him.
Our aboriginal hero is dangerously ignoring the hippiquarian┤s evident tendencies and has uttered a comment which could be understood as a direct proposition, the outcome of which could make us fear for his masculine sexual identity or, to be more specific, for his anal virginity. Luckily, Mr. Augusto, a wise and experienced man, knows that Otaz˙ isn┤t meaning to say he really likes men. Since Mr. Augusto is not the kind of person who tries to persuade people of doing what they don┤t want to do (except when antiques are involved), and given the fact he is also truly in love with Marilyn, he answers with a humble "I┤m glad you understand," and then, after putting out what┤s left of his cigarette, he adds: "And now, what about you?"
We┤ll skip Otaz˙┤s explanation, as we already know about his expectations. His story provokes different reactions in Mr. Augusto, reactions we could define as surprise, concern, sympathy and condolence, in that order. The handicraft issue also reminds him of his past activity as a street-seller, when he used to trade copper bracelets handmade by himself. Otaz˙ is forced to listen to long stories about it, like that one when the future antiquarian and presently full-time hippie had to spend two days at the police station just because his hair was longer than ordinary people┤s, or when he had to run away from the dogs and tear-gas bombs brought by the City Hall officials who had come to punish him for not having a legal license enabling him to sell his merchandise in the streets.
This interesting conversation goes on for more than an hour, only interrputed by a couple of holofax calls which are answered by Mr. Augusto with short sentences including words such as "terminate", "overdose" or "life insurance", all of which causes Otaz˙ to start feeling a little uneasy, no matter how good his disposition towards some of Mr. Augusto┤s attitudes may be.
"All right, AmoitÚ, my friend," the hippiquarian finally tells him. "The fact is, antiques are my business. Handicraft does not fit in, even though it┤s a quite praiseworthy activity. Ours is a time when everything is done by machines, so the only handmade things people are interested in are the old ones.
"Sure," Otaz˙ answers, not very convinced.
"If I were you, I┤d buy a return ticket to my native province at once. I┤m sure you┤ll be able to sell your pots and plates back there, at least for everyday use. Didn┤t you do exactly that before coming to the city? Since only paper dishes are sold in the provinces..."
"Well, no, not really. I used to do something else."
"What, if you don┤t mind?
"Nothing steady. Occasional jobs."
"Oh," Mr. Augusto nods, "I see. Anyway, I┤d really like to help you. What about a job as a day laborer? We sometimes have to bring in or deliver very heavy things and need strong people like you. If you give me your address, I┤ll call you when such a job turns up."
Otaz˙ appreciates the hippiquarian┤s kindness, but he can┤t forget those mysterious holofax calls that have made him nervous, or the green mascara in Mr. Augusto┤s eyelashes, and he concludes that giving his address to him wouldn┤t be the most intelligent decision.
"Thank you very much," Otaz˙ answers, "but I┤d rather stick to what I do best."
"All right." Mr. Augusto stands up to reveal the denim shorts and leather sandals that complete his outfit. As he shakes hands with Otaz˙, he tells him: "Very pleased to meet you. Good luck."
Next, the hippiquarian walks Otaz˙ to the main door, where he wishes him good fortune and success once more. After saying goodbye to him, he locks the door and goes to Marilyn in order to comment on the exotic visitor he has just been with and also to be informed about old man Santillßn, who I┤m sorry to tell you has already become another member of the deceased club, thanks to the lethal dose of fake mineral water his nephew had been stuffing him with during the last two weeks, so as to be able to sell his chest of drawers and perhaps the bus-ticket collection his late uncle had been keeping since childhood.
On the other side of the door, Otaz˙ is looking at Plastigirl┤s other two cards. With firm resolution, he tears them to pieces, drops them on top of the meter-and-a-half high garbage pile he finds on the corner and walks away, making himself invisible in the crowd.
Let┤s take a look at the present.
Which has always been a fixed idea for the dwellers of this land. It seems that too many morning and evening newspapers, an excessive amount of information magazines, uncountable TV and radio talk-shows, hundreds of analysts, spokesmen and enlightened wiseguys of all kinds who intend to explain what nobody needs to be explained, and millions of ordinary men and women who give their so-called expert opinion about anything they feel like giving their opinion about (international politics, quantum mechanics or the safest way of transplanting a begonia) without having the minimum and essential knowledge required to ellaborate the most primitive theory on the subject in question have existed in this place since the beginning of time. In our future ex-underdeveloped country, this is called "keeping oneself informed".
This maniac interest in freshly reported news may have been inspired the authorities of Buenos Aires City (Argentina, South America, First World, etc., etc.) to turn one-third of the obelisk (the city┤s irreplaceable, distinctive primal monument) into a constant information supplier. Let┤s put it like this: divide the giant stake into three imaginary parts, take the middle part, wrap a super-plus resolution screen (they couldn┤t afford a super-plus-max) around it, run the texts or images of your choice in the screen... and you┤ll know the reason why there are so many people in the surrounding squares, looking up and starting to feel a sharp pain in their cervical vertebrae, or so many men and women walking hastily around the foundational totem in order to read the phrase more quickly and find out about whatever they care so much for as soon as possible (this is an annoying habit that has forced the authorities to build a sort of one-way balustered catwalk around the monument to keep the rate of collision accidents down to a reasonable minimum.)
What the authorities and their typical governmental unefficiency have not foreseen is that the 360o convex screen turns out to be an embarrassing failure at replaying soccer goals. In this case, if the observers are not willing to miss any detail, they can┤t do anything but run in all directions, following the movements of the players in the screen. A group of neighbours have requested the Mayor to show soccer games in slow-motion (which would, to a certain length, relieve the enterprising fans of this popular sport from their crazy racing around the vertical bulk), but the Mayor, with his usual arrogance, has claimed not to understand the reasons for such a complaint, considering that the City Hall under his administration has made it possible for every citizen to enjoy a new version of interactive soccer game which is undoubtfully the only one of its kind and will soon be copied by the rest of the First World countries, not being this the first time something like that happens with an Argentine invention, a circumstance that should fill the national hearts with pride and patriotism. In other words: he won┤t do a thing about it.
The opening of this informative attraction promoted the installation of an apalling number of filthy food-and-drink stands, not only in the area itself but also everywhere the screen can be seen from, which includes an important amount of blocks along Corrientes and 9 de Julio Avenues. Many of the stands have been illegally placed in the ruined, ignored paddle-tennis courts that had been built in the area many years ago to entertain office workers and shop-assistants during their lunchtime, as well as ordinary pedestrias whenever they had some free time (at present, the fashionable sport is virtual swimming because Argentina has won the World Championship).
At the moment, Otaz˙ is standing precisely at the entrance of what used to be the twin-court paddle-tennis club called Rainbow Paddle 9, which has been turned into the open-air restaurant called Rainbow Choripßn 10 (it was impossible to find an English word for the famous pork sausage sandwich), basically consisting of a quite greasy booth and a dozen metal tables, half white and half rusted, with matching chairs around them; the disencouraging view is completed by the litter (sticky paper napkins, broken bottles, half-chewed pieces of bread and trampled sausages) that covers the floor and that the customers on their way out are kicking along in the direction of the sidewalk which, for the same reason, is as littered as the inside of the restaurant.
Otaz˙ is looking around. The obelisk screen is showing a commercial: two successful-looking youngsters are praising a three-month course on computer science which is a basic curricular requirement everybody expecting to get a reasonable job must fulfil. Now the screen is showing a longshoreman, played by a blue-eyed, tanned-skinned, blond-haired strong beautiful man with a perfect hairdo, who is calculating, with the help of his personal computer, the maximum weight he┤ll be able to lift today according to his biorhythm curve. The two young winners appear once more and give the address, holofax number and hours of the South American Institute of Computer Studies Applied to Labor and Non-Labor Purposes (SAICSALNLP). With a smile on his face, Otaz˙ recalls one of Murphy┤s Laws, the one his father loved to repeat over and over again: Anyone can make a mistake, but if you want to confuse things properly you need a computer. Then he looks away and concentrates on examining the floor; after inspecting it for a moment, he uses his foot to sweep the garbage off a two-square-meter area of the sidewalk, and immediately after that he lays a rather frayed black blanket on the cleared spot. The pedestrians, indifferent but trained in obstacle avoidance, are now walking around the black rectangle on the floor, even though they don┤t seem to be seeing it, and Otaz˙ begins arranging his equipment without being disturbed.
That┤s right, Otaz˙ has brought his equipment with him, the simple paraphernalia of his art: clay, resin, stones, a heater that works with solar power, a metal plate, two wooden planks, a bottle of water.
He sits on the floor in the lotus position and the ceremony begins. First, he turns the heater on (in fact, he should have made a fire, but he knows that┤s not allowed in the city). Then, he puts the stones on the metal plate, and the metal plate on the heater. Next, he places one of the planks, the longest one, on the blanket, in front of him. He puts the other plank, the square one, on top of his crossed legs, in the way of a working table. He takes enough clay in his hands and begins kneading it. He uses the spiraling, an ancient technique: he makes long clay snakes that he puts aside on the plank, as if they were little corals waiting to attack; when he finishes shaping the number he needs, he takes one and starts to coil it to build the base of the pot, and then, placing each curl on top of the previous one, its body and finally its mouth. After that, he evens the outer surface with his hands and some diluted clay, and then varnishes it with resin. The stones are already getting warm enough. The next step is to place the newly-made pot on the long plank on the blanket. In half an hour, he┤ll put it upside down on the warm stones to dry it up. In the meantime, he makes three more pots of various sizes.
And he won┤t stop. The wet pots form a neat row on the plank. Eight, drying up in the heat of the steps, as it would be insane to ask for a little sunlight. Three, drying up upside down on the stones, all of them alike, but radically different thanks to the subtle touches of originality Otaz˙ knows how to give them.
An old lady wearing a ragged dress stops and watches him for a while, her eyes full of memories. After some hesitation, she drops a retirement bond worth a few cents on Otaz˙┤s table, as if it were some kind of present or alms (since it┤s been decided retirement pensions are too much of a heavy load for society, workers must buy, during their productive years, enough bonds to support themselves through old age), and then she walks away.
The tubular screen is showing the temperature (21 degrees), the time (14:45), the quotation of Argentine dollars in the world market, the latest news (seven hold-ups in the last half hour, an old man whose last name was Santillßn found dead and rotting in his own home, five winners of the 'Truco and Generala' 11 scratch lottery, the bankruptcy of another bookshop, the fire in yet another miserable slum, the new face the Minister of Justice has had the doctors make for him, and then the temperature again (21 degrees).
The pots are still standing in perfect arrangement on the plank, on the stones, the finished ones on the blanket, worthy, humble, ignored and expectant. Just like Otaz˙.
All right. We won┤t be as naive as to believe Otaz˙ continues to be ignored forever. It can┤t happen at all, for he is an unusual element sitting on the sidewalk with no apparent reason, which sooner or later has to be noticed, not because people may really grow an interest in whatever he┤s doing, but because he is the only one who┤s doing it in this whole street, in this whole neighborhood and in this whole city. The human eye, unlike the human ear, is known to be specially attracted by newness, by any stimulus that differs from the usual perceptions. And to confirm it, we only have to acknowledge the presence of that fellow who has stopped at the verge of the blanket and who seems to be wondering whether he should speak to the artisan or knock all of his pots over at once (however attracted the human eye might feel towards newness, there are certain human eyes who just get terribly angry at the sight of anything new). As he is one of those bullies who think of themselves as the owners of the street, one of those guys who push his fellow pedestrians with no consideration in order to make way for themselves, who don┤t have the slightest courtesy when they are driving, who make all sorts of dirty comments and sick proposals at the sight of a beautiful woman passing by, who never say 'please' or 'thank you', he chooses to take an intermediate action: namely, he slyly hits one of the finished pots with his shoe until it turns over and breaks into pieces (the brute, like all specimens of his kind, is also a coward and that┤s why he carries out his destructive operation so cunningly that nobody notices he has done it on purpose), and then he speaks to Otaz˙, on these terms:
"What the hell are those?"
Otaz˙, who hasn┤t even looked up at the sound of the breaking pot, now gazes calmly at the anthropoid. The guy is wearing all the ultramodern, state-of-the-art gadgetry any so-called First World Citizen must carry along wherever he goes: televirtual, audioradar, compuplate, memocard, diagnoband, electronotebook and, of course, the imperative mobiholofax, besides other four or five things the purpose of which could be only guessed by the most updated people. Some of these devices are hanging from his belt, others are attached to his bullet-proof jacket (an indispensable garment for anyone trying to walk around the city with so many covetable electronic articles on him); the audioradar is perched on his head and he┤s holding the mobiholofax in his right hand, not to mention the various antennas that stick out from different parts of his body, like the microsatellital (the latest fashion) he has fastened to his left forearm. Otaz˙ needs no more than a few seconds to make up a suitable answer:
"They are handformed containers, made of high-quality, wholly silicoaluminous argillaceus and detrital minerals containing hydrated iron oxides that give them their characteristic color."
"What? " the modernoid bully asks him, his eyes wide open.
"They are handformed containers, I┤m telling you, made of high-quality, wholly silicoaluminous argillaceus and detrital minerals containing hydrated iron ox"
"Silicoaluminous." Otaz˙ starts kneading another piece of clay.
"Silicon?" the man asks.
"Yes, something like that," Otaz˙ replies without looking at him.
The brute may not understand a thing, but he always keeps himself informed (see above) and therefore he has the vague idea that everything containing silicon is bound to be, by definition, an extremely advanced something that performs multiple and wonderful functions.
"And what can you use them for?" he inquires.
"Well...," Otaz˙ answers, leaving his work for a while to stare at him artfully. "What would you use a handformed silicoaluminous container for?"
"Oh," the modernbrute exhales in complicity. "I see... Of course."
This is when we realize that, although the anthropoid has not even the slightest notion of what the handformed silicoaluminous containers can be used for, he is getting so interested in them thanks to Otaz˙┤s skill that he┤s starting to feel sorry for having broken one of the artifacts he┤s now frankly willing to purchase (this specific type of human specimens might die of affliction at the evidence of not possessing every gadget available in the market). He crouches and asks, as he looks at the row of pots in fascination:
"And how much are they?"
Otaz˙ takes a look at the obelisk screen. It┤s showing a compilation of images from the wedding ceremony of a singer and a polo-player, both of whom entered the church riding on creole horses and then left for the wedding reception on a very elegant palanquin carried by the groom┤s father┤s most faithful employees in Egyptian costumes (the lucky ones who have a steady job would never turn up their noses at any of their employer┤s orders). According to the report, there were a hundred and seventy casserole sets among the presents received by the newly-married couple.
"A hundred and seventy Argentine dollars," Otaz˙ says.
The modernbrute, now standing again, can┤t believe his ears. The price is a bargain, considering how much he had to pay for the audioradar (one of the cheapest articles in the electronic market). Without delay, he asks:
"Do you accept memocards?"
"I┤m sorry," Otaz˙ replies. "Cash only."
The anthropomorphous doesn┤t look worried. His salary as the counsellor to the consultant to the advisor to the Congress comission for the quarterly increase of the Congressmen salaries allows him an immediate availability of the money. To be more precise, that is only a quarter of what he┤s got in his pocket, or better say was, because he has just given the requested amount to Otaz˙, and Otaz˙ has just handed out one of the handformed silicoaluminous containers (or clay pots) to his customer. Right now, the modernbrute is admiring the pot in ecstasy while pushing his way through the crowd, back on his walk to wherever he┤s going.
And now we┤ll think about this event for a while. It┤s obvious that a slightly intelligent, average cultured person (believe it or not, some of them can still be found in our future country) would have never been cheated by Otazu┤s trick. We should keep in mind that our surprising aboriginal hero had probably prepared an alternative presentation of his product to be used with this kind of customers, but the fact is that those slightly intelligent, average cultured people would have never bothered in asking what the pots were (they would have known) or in considering the possibility of buying them (given the feeble socioeconomic condition the country is in, only a few chosen ones would allow themselves to spend money unnecessarily), and all of this would have certainly turned the aboriginal┤s industrious efforts into a complete failure. But Otaz˙ and our story (which otherwise would have had a very depressing ending) have been lucky, for the absurd logic prevailing in every aspect of our First World nation has defeated reason and common sense again, as follows:
The modernoid bully tells his friends (who are as modernoid as himself) about the new device he has increased his multimedia stock with, and in the subsequent days his friends, no matter how unable to understand what the handformed containers might be used for (after all, they are also unable to understand what many of their own electronic gadgets might be used for), start parading in the direction of Otazu┤s stand and buy him more pots than we could have possibly imagined, paying the scrupulous price of one hundred and seventy Argentine dollars for each of them. At the same time, the regular clients of Rainbow Choripßn, who have already acknowledged Otaz˙┤s presence (our hero has had the good idea of placing his stand in the same area every day), curiously watch the negotiations being carried out by the black blanket, and some of them (the ones who have enough money and are also modernity fans) buy pots too. And they spread the word, attracting more customers.
Fads are like that. Nobody knows exactly when they start or who encourages them. Sometimes, someone tries to sell an efficient, cheap and nice-looking product and society refuses to buy it. Sometimes, a badly-made, stupidly-complicated and awful-looking product may become the craze of the season, the year or the decade. Let┤s agree that Otaz˙┤s pots have the intrinsical value of every folkloric, historical, simple thing, and that we are happy they have been such a big success, in spite of those who are buying them (who, of course, will never be able to appreciate those virtues or even imagine those virtues can really exist). Undoubtfully, as it always happens with fads, there are also people who reject Otaz˙┤s pots, but that┤s no problem, since the abundant number of gadgetry maniacs living in the city is more than enough for the business to prosper.
And it prospers all right. Six months later, we find Otaz˙, not in the street, on his ragged blanket, but in a downtown office he has been able to buy with his profit. He doesn┤t mass-produce the handformed silicoaluminous containers anymore; now they are custom-made (so their price has been increased to a thousand Argentine dollars each) for the most important personalities from the government, the sports world and the show-business. Many people are trying to develop a program which can reproduce the subtle touches of imperfection in Otaz˙┤s pots in order to manufacture them massively, but nobody has been able to do so yet.
A year later, we find Otaz˙ has moved into one of the most important office buildings in the city, as the occupant of three whole storeys. Many employees are working for him now, a computer on each desk, taking care of the company┤s routine affairs. On the wall behind Otaz˙┤s desk there┤s a holopicture of his father, a proud old man that majestically presides over the office. Below the holo, there┤s a sign where the following words can be read (if you know how to read GuaranÝ, as they are written in that language): 'In the land of operators, the artisan will reign.'
None of the two hundred and fifty keypressers working for Otaz˙ would dare to contradict that.
Let┤s take a look at truth.
Which doesn┤t have a past, a present or a future, but simply depends on the one who knows it and wants to keep it a secret, or on the one who doesn┤t know it and wants to find it.
The truth in this story is the following:
Otaz˙, as you probably have realized by now, is not only an artisan belonging to an almost extinct ethnic group, but also a widely educated, deeply intelligent man. If the First World country where he is living is quite annihilating for an eighty percent of the population, it┤s much more so for the few aboriginal people who have survived into the 21st. century, debating between centuries of humiliation, hunger and neglection on one hand, and thousands of years of tradition, customs and lifestyles on the other. Unfortunately, the only weapons to fight the system continue to be the weapons the system itself has created, which can be easily turned against it if you are talented enough. You may think this involves a treason to your ethic principles, but this way of fighting is the only one which has succeeded in introducing real changes in society so far.
Otaz˙ had talked to his people about that, but he hadn┤t been able to convince anybody. They had demanded some kind of proof. And he gave it to them. Possibly, the GuaranÝes will soon give the inhabitants of our future nation some more surprises. What will happen next? That┤s a truth that will remain unrevealed for the moment.
As for the relative well-being our country of the present seems to be enjoying, as compared to all of the above, let┤s take a look around. We┤ll probably get to the conclusion that, if Argentine future persists in tracing itself onto the present, altering the present is a necessity that looks quite urgent. Or something like that.
Perhaps, who knows, we can do things in such a way that, in a few years, the anticipation exercise we have just read may prove to be completely misleading and definitively meritless.
Which surely represents a true tragedy for a science-fiction writer (we won┤t deny that), but anyway... When the moment comes (if it comes), will it be possible for the author to take refuge in your connivance?
Let┤s take a look at vanity...
Original title: Amoité
(©) 1993, Claudia De Bella
Translated from Spanish by the author.
1 - Originally in English.
2 - Originally in English.
3 - Originally in English.
4 - Famous Argentine actress who starred in many films, mainly during the '40s and '50s, and now is a talk-show hostess on TV.
5 - President of Argentina between 1910 and 1914. He inspired the Electoral Law still in force and introduced several institutional improvements of invaluable relevance for the country.
6 - Argentine folkloric dance.
7 - Argentine heavy rock band which has been in the business for more than 15 years.
8 - Argentine heavy rock and blues guitarist, leader of Riff.
9 - Originally in English.
10 - "Choripßn" is a slang word for a pork sausage sandwich, as popular in Argentina as a hot-dog in the USA.
11 - "Truco" is a popular card game; "Generala" is played with dice.