Death of a Quack

Theodoor Rombouts: The Quack Tooth-Puller, 1620. Museo del Prado.

With lazy delay I got news of the death of a quack. His story, even if meaningless, is indeed interesting, for it shows, once again, the pattern of self-inflicted insignificance and purposelessness that awaits (not invariably) a poseur. Facts become hazier as time looms over memory, but I shall try and be true to details, as the plot is thin enough to allow for modifications.

I shall call him Oscar (far from a Wildean flattery, but I wish his real name would remain cloaked in pity). I met him by mere chance over a decade ago, in New York, where he burst into a book presentation. He claimed he had been a sort of Borges protégé, and that Borges himself had affirmed he was, coupled with Alejandra Pizarnik, his most outstanding literary successor. I was, and still am, unaware that Borges had had any intellectual sympathy for Pizarnik (Bioy’s memoirs reveal nothing of that sort). Quacks can delve into one’s faithlessness: he recited a few lines from a Borges biography where his name lay as a mention. Unmoved, I brushed him off courteously, but he had been roused by my soft, stubborn incredulity and would not let his hunger for passing recognition subside. I left.

The next day he called on my hotel. I was aghast to find him at the lobby, leafing through table books, carrying a heavy stack of papers that were meant to be shown to literary agents. Today I would have simply, in the sternest manner, ordered him to leave. Barely in my thirties and struggling to appear kind without exception, I suffered him for lunch. Over the course of several hours and several courses he displayed his frail talent for seduction: he was an Argentinean writer who had been a political prisoner during the 1976 dictatorship, he had been unlawfully incarcerated, he had been tortured and his books had been banned; there had been an attempt to erase him from History. He had fled to the United States and made a career teaching at a Detroit university. He lived there. He had got into some judicial tangle with his academic employers. He was looking, rather feverishly, to get back to writing for a living. His hands dropped a thousand typed pages on my end of the table. I skimmed through them. I was horrified.

The afternoon almost over, I resolved to fight boldness with indifference: I stated, in a rather aloof mood, that I failed to see any way I could help him out of his plight: I was not connected to the New York literary establishment. As all great liars do, he did not trust my assurance; he invited me over to his place in Detroit to discuss matters further (the proposition, of course, meant I was to pay for everything but bed and breakfast). He acknowledged that he shared home with a room-mate, but asserted the good man would not interfere. He placed a book of poetry in the pocket of my jacket. I walked him to the street and rushed back into the relative safety of my lodgings. I glanced at the book Oscar had presented me with but more urgent matters put me off it. It would make a comeback.

About a year must have gone by. I was in Buenos Aires, a few months before another peronist coup d’état, when a phone call revealed a fadingly familiar voice: Oscar was in town and wished (like a madman who believes himself a deposed king) to see me. I met him at a Palermo restaurant, where he repeated his badly rehearsed script; he added a few minutiae here and there, so that boredom would turn a tad more unbearable. The restaurant door opened and a so-called much sought-after celebrity sauntered in. Oscar covered his face with one of his hands and begged the gods for that woman not to find him out. His act was insincere and almost imbecilic, but he went along with it for several minutes. I do not recall whether the woman sat far from us or just walked out after much warmth poured on her by admirers. It’s not important. Oscar let out a sigh and resumed his litany. I decided to interrupt:

You said you were kidnapped and tortured by the junta regime in Argentina. How did you survive that?

He blanched. Most victims who shared the same fate ended up either a corpse or never heard of again. His case was an anomaly, although certainly not an impossibility. I readied myself to listen to a long, convoluted story. Instead, he lowered his eyes, leaned forward, as if to whisper, and cautioned me: Do not tell anybody what I’m about to say to you. I was taken to a mass grave, beaten up, and left for dead. He stopped, out of breath; the revelation must have used up all his inner forces. I knew, unequivocally, that he was lying. He uttered not a word about how he ended up in the United States. One had to guess, on one’s own, that he had been born under a lucky star. He asked whether he could walk me home. I turned his offer down. As we parted, I asked another, deliberately malicious question: I checked a dictionary of Latin American authors, and did not come across your name. How is that possible? I had spoken in a deceivingly friendly manner, as if to elicit a quick, unapologetic confession. Not a feature moved in his face, nor his smirk washed off: People pay to put his name in those books. I won’t. As he talked, his look revealed a man who cannot hide the fact that he possesses perfect knowledge of his useless lying and that he staunchly believes he will never be exposed. Oscar was a sphinx without a secret, and all he needed was a movable audience. At the very last second, he asked whether I had read his book. I lied.

Oscar would keep calling, never losing either manners or nerve, for as long as I was in Buenos Aires. Caller identification devices were all the rage then; it was simple to know when to avoid picking up the receiver. Back in New York, I was inundated with emails. I consigned them all to the trash can.

Long years passed. From time to time I was reminded of Oscar’s existence when browsing through an Argentinean newspaper: he would be interviewed, infrequently, about his victim status in his country, in Spain, in the United States: always preyed upon, always conspired against, always resilient. He supported each and every populist regime in the galaxy; I would later learn he had little choice if he wanted to collect his rewards. His works had descended from insubstantial literature to mere pulp sleaze, but he maintained he was a thundering best-seller. I remembered the book.

It took me days to find it. When I finally unearthed it I was not surprised: the poems were horrendous, save for one that spoke about a woman who describes her future choice of clothes: she will wear purple when she grows old. Those lines had been read before, had been written before. A brief online search confirmed the hunch: Jenny Joseph had penned her poem Warning in 1961. Oscar had plagiarized the work, word by word, in a somewhat acceptable translation, in 1990. He would not copy an obscure, forsaken clump of verses, even if he could not predict the poem’s success: Joseph’s poem was voted the most popular postwar poem in the UK in a BBC poll in 1996, was included in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, was the inspiration for the Red Hat Society. Oscar’s performance as a plagiarist exceeded all expectations, included his own.

From literary stardom, overwhelming sales and uncontrollable fame Oscar settled for humbler objectives: a peronist supporter who campaigned online, an underground playwright with comedic outbursts, a street demonstrator that had grown morbidly obese. Whenever (occasionally) his comment was sought, his story on how he evaded death at Argentina’s concentration camps varied slightly or significantly: a friend had rescued him, or he had crossed the border undetected, or he had boarded a plane surreptitiously amidst American freshmen. The defeat of the peronist party in the 2015 presidential elections devastated him and most likely deprived him of funds generously available to propagandists and claque members. Oscar had a history of addiction and was proud of it; if we, mortals, did not share his passion for hallucinogens, it was our foolish loss. His end, as relayed by his inner circle, was blamed upon cardiac failure.

O.S. passed away in May 2016 well  before turning seventy, in muffled flamboyance and childish deception, as the whole of his life and the peronist regime had been.



Con pereza de arrabal me llegan noticias de la muerte de un farsante. Su historia, aun carente de cualquier importancia, es en verdad interesante: muestra, una vez más, el sendero de insignificancia y despropósito que aguarda (no invariablemente) al poseur. Los hechos son materia que el tiempo desintegra; trataré, no obstante, de ser fiel sólo a los detalles, ya que la trama es irrelevante y se complace en modificaciones.

Llamaré a este hombre Oscar (lejos está de ser un homenaje a Wilde, pero es mi voluntad que su verdadero nombre permanezca bajo un manto de lástima). El encuentro se produjo hace más de una década, por puro azar, en Nueva York; Oscar había irrumpido en una presentación de libros y se me acercó. Comenzó por aseverar que había sido una suerte de protégé de Borges, y que éste había afirmado que él era, junto a Alejandra Pizarnik, su más sobresaliente heredero literario. Yo ignoraba, y aún ignoro, que Borges hubiera expresado simpatía intelectual por la obra de Pizarnik (las memorias de Bioy callan sobre ese asunto). Los farsantes saben detectar nuestra falta de fe: Oscar recitó unas líneas tomadas de una biografía de Borges en donde su nombre era mencionado. Sin asombro, me aparté de él con cortesía, pero la voluntad de Oscar había sido acicateada por esa suave y terca incredulidad que le dispensé, y no permitiría que su pasión por el reconocimiento ajeno fuese apagada. Me fui.

Al siguiente día se presentó en mi hotel. Me fastidió hallarlo en la entrada, revisando libros de imágenes, cargando una horda de papeles que buscaban agente literario. Hoy, simplemente, de modo severo, le hubiera ordenado que se marchase. En mis jóvenes treinta y afanoso en parecer sin excepción un caballero, opté por soportarlo durante un almuerzo. En un par de horas y platos desplegó un flaco talento para la seducción: se trataba de un escritor argentino que había sido un preso político durante la dictadura de 1976, encarcelado ilegalmente, torturado, sus libros prohibidos; había sorteado un intento de ser borrado de la Historia. Había logrado huir a los Estados Unidos y convertirse en profesor en una universidad en Detroit. Vivía allí. Se había enredado en conflicto legal con sus empleadores académicos. Buscaba, fervientemente, regresar a la escritura como modo de vida. Desplomó sobre mí unas mil páginas de manuscritos. Los examiné al pasar. Me horroricé.

Casi al fin de la tarde decidí que debía oponer indiferencia a su osadía: observé, de modo desganado, que no veía la forma en que pudiera ayudarle; no conocía a nadie del mundillo literario de Nueva York. Como todos los excelentes mentirosos, no me creyó. Me invitó a proseguir la negociación en Detroit (el convite, por supuesto, sólo implicaba casa y comida). Aclaró que compartía su vivienda con otro hombre, pero que el buen señor no se opondría a mi presencia. Colocó un libro de poemas en un bolsillo de mi chaqueta. Lo acompañé hasta la calle y me apuré a regresar a la seguridad del hotel. Eché una mirada al libro, pero asuntos más urgentes me distrajeron. Ya regresaría a él.

Un año transcurrió. Yo estaba en Buenos Aires, unos pocos meses antes de otro golpe de Estado peronista, cuando una llamada reveló una voz lejanamente familiar: Oscar estaba en la ciudad y deseaba (como loco que se cree rey depuesto) verme. Nos encontramos en un restaurante de Palermo; repitió allí ese libreto mal ensayado y agregó alguna minucia, para hacer al tedio más insoportable. La puerta del restaurante se abrió y una supuesta celebridad entró triunfalmente. Oscar cubrió su rostro con una de sus manos y rogó a los dioses que aquella mujer no notara su presencia. Su actuación era pésima y aun estúpida, pero la continuó por largos minutos. No recuerdo si la mujer se sentó en un lugar apartado o sencillamente se retiró, lo mismo da. Oscar respiró con alivio y la letanía prosiguió. Lo interrumpí:

Usted dice que fue secuestrado y torturado por las juntas militares en Argentina. Cómo logró escapar?

Oscar empalideció. La mayoría de quienes padecieron ese destino no habían sobrevivido. Su caso era, si bien no imposible, muy improbable. Me preparé para escuchar una historia larga y compleja. No fue así: bajó la mirada, se estiró hacia adelante, como quien derrama un susurro, y me advirtió: No cuente a nadie lo que voy a decirle. Me llevaron a una fosa común, me golpearon, me dieron por muerto. Se detuvo, sin aliento; la revelación lo había dejado sin fuerzas. Supe que estaba mintiendo. Ni una palabra acerca de cómo había llegado a los Estados Unidos. Era menester confiar en su buena estrella. Me preguntó si podía acompañarme hasta mi casa. Me negué. Al despedirnos, disparé otra pregunta deliberadamente maliciosa: Tengo un diccionario de autores latinoamericanos, y no hallé su nombre en él. Por qué? Yo había hablado de modo afable, casi obligándolo a hacer una confesión veloz y jocosa. Ni un rasgo de su cara se movió, ni se borró su media sonrisa: la gente paga por figurar, yo no. Mientras hablaba, su mirada mostraba a un hombre que no puede ocultar su perfecta conciencia de mentir y que sabe ardientemente que no será descubierto. Oscar era una esfinge sin secreto, sólo le urgía disponer de una audiencia permanente. Me preguntó si había leído su libro de poemas. Mentí.

Oscar seguiría llamando, sin perder su cordialidad o su valor, en tanto yo permanecí en Buenos Aires. Los aparatos identificadores de llamada eran furor en esos tiempos, era fácil saber cuando esquivar el teléfono. De regreso en Nueva York, me inundó de mensajes electrónicos. Sin titubear, los borré.

Largos años se fueron. De cuando en cuando la existencia de Oscar asomaba a través de algún diario argentino: alguna entrevista (infrecuente) acerca de su orgullo de víctima en su país, en España, en los Estados Unidos: siempre perseguido, siempre blanco de alguna conspiración, siempre invencible. Apoyó a todo régimen populista de cualquier galaxia; más tarde yo sabría que era su única forma de ganar su salario. Su trabajo se había rebajado de la literatura de cordel a la pornografía menor, pero Oscar aseguraba ser éxito de ventas. Recordé el libro.

Me llevó días hallarlo. Cuando finalente di con él no me sorprendí: los poemas eran horrendos, excepto uno de ellos que hablaba de una mujer que describe su futura elección de atuendos; se vestirá de púrpura cuando envejezca. Esos versos habían sido leídos antes, habían sido escritos antes. Una breve búsqueda en las redes lo confirmó: Jenny Joseph había creado su poema Warning en 1961. Oscar había plagiado la obra, palabra por palabra, en aceptable traducción, en 1990. No iría a copiar un poema oscuro y olvidado, aun cuando no pudiera predecir su éxito: el de Jenny Joseph sería votado como el más popular de los poemas de la posguerra en Gran Bretaña en una encuesta de la BBC en 1996, había sido incluido en The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, fue inspiración para fundar la Red Hat Society. La habilidad de Oscar para el plagio superaba cualquier expectativa, incluyendo la suya propia.

Del estrellato literario, las ventas arrolladoras y la fama incontrolable Oscar se redujo a objetivos más humildes: un militante peronista en las redes sociales, un dramaturgo de circuitos sórdidos con destellos de comedia, un obeso agitador callejero. En las escasas ocasiones en las que su experiencia fue requerida, su historia de sufrimiento y evasión de los campos de concentración de Argentina variaba poco y mucho: un amigo que lo rescataba, un cruce de fronteras sigiloso, una huida en avión mezclado con grupos de estudiantes americanos. La derrota del peronismo en las elecciones presidenciales de 2015 lo arrasó; muy probablemente los fondos con los que alimentar partidarios rentados del clientelismo peronista se tornaron magros. Oscar era conocido y arrogante usuario de alucinógenos; despreciaba a los meros mortales que rehusaban esos placeres épicos. Su final, si hemos de creer a su círculo íntimo, se debió a una falla cardíaca.

O.S. murió en Mayo de 2016, mucho antes de cumplir setenta años, entre enmudecido esplendor y engaños de chiquillo, como lo fueron su vida entera y el peronismo.






Categories: Impurezas

Hadrian Bagration

Hadrian Bagration is a humble and avid reader and perhaps an author. He pleads guilty to a few titles. He is also an enthusiastic but somewhat negligent follower of such intellects as those of the early Sartre, Albert Camus, Harold Bloom, Jorge Luis Borges, the French encyclopaedists, epistemologist Mario Bunge, Richard Dawkins and the insufferable (in today's ludicrous politically correct view) paleontologist Peter Ward. Beyond the above, and besides a vague vital skepticism and abhorrence of the cult of zeal, he is known for being unremarkably collected.

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