Short story from Fernando Sorrentino

Mabel’s Library
(La biblioteca de Mabel)


As the sufferer of a certain classificatory mania, from my adolescence I took the care of cataloguing the books in my library. By my fifth year of secondary school, I already possessed a reasonable, for my age, number of books: I was approaching six hundred volumes. I had a rubber stamp with the following legend:

Fernando Sorrentino’s Library
Volume nº ______
Registered on: ______

As soon as a new book arrived, I stamped it, always using black ink, on its first page. I gave it its corresponding number, always using blue ink, and wrote its date of acquisition. Then, imitating the old National Library’s catalogue, I entered its details on an index card which I filed by alphabetical order.

My sources of literary information were the editorial catalogues and the Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado. An example at random: in some collections from the various editors were Atala. René. The Adventures of the Last Abencerage. Sparked by such profusion and because Chateaubriand on the pages of the Larousse seemed to have a great importance, I acquired the book in the edition of Colección Austral from Espasa-Calpe. In spite of these precautions, those three stories turned out to be as unbearable to me as they were so evanescent.

In contrast with these failures, there were also total successes. In the Robin Hood collection, I was fascinated by David Copperfield and, in the Biblioteca Mundial Sopena, by Crime and Punishment.
Along the even-numbered side of Santa Fe Avenue, a short distance from Emilio Ravignani Street, was the half-hidden Muñoz bookshop. It was dark, deep, humid and moldy, with wooden creaking planks. Its owner was a Spanish man about sixty years old, very serious, and somewhat haggard.

The only sales assistant was the person who used to serve me. He was young, bold and prone to errors and without much knowledge of the books he was asked about nor where they were located. His name was Horacio. 

At the moment I entered the premises that afternoon, Horacio was rummaging around some shelves looking for heaven knows what title. I managed to learn that a tall and thin girl had enquired about it. She was, in the meantime, glancing at the wide table where the second hand books were exhibited.

From the depths of the shop, the owner’s voice was heard:

‘What are you looking for now, Horacio?’

The adverb now showed some bad mood.

‘I can’t find Don Segundo Sombra, Don Antonio. It is not on the Emecé shelves’.

‘It is a Losada book, not Emecé; look on the shelves of the Contemporánea’.

Horacio changed the location of his search and, after a great deal of exploration, he turned toward the girl and said to her:

‘No, I am sorry; we have no Don Segundo left’.

The girl lamented the fact, said she needed it for school and asked where she could find it. Horacio, embarrassed before of an unfathomable enigma, opened his eyes widely and raised his eyebrows. Luckily, don Antonio had overheard the question:

‘Around here’, he answered, ‘it is very hard. There are no good bookshops. You will have to go to the centre of town, to El Ateneo, or some other in Florida o Corrientes. Or perhaps near Cabildo and Juramento.’

Disappointment upset the girl’s face.

‘Forgive me for barging in’, I said to her. ‘If you promise to take care of it and return it to me, I can lend you Don Segundo Sombra.’

I felt as if I was blushing, as if I had been inconceivably audacious. At the same time, I felt annoyed with myself for having given way to an impulse that was contrary to my real feeling. I love my books and hate lending them. I don’t know what exactly the girl answered, but after some squeamishness she ended up accepting my offer.

‘I have to read it immediately for school’, she explained, as if to justify herself.

I then learnt that she was in the third year in the women’s college at Carranza Street. I suggested that she accompanied me home and I would let her have the book. I gave her my full name, and she gave me hers. She was called Mabel Mogaburu.

Before starting our journey, I accomplished what had taken me to the Muñoz bookshop. I bought The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I had already the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and, with much delight, decided to dwell once again on the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘I don’t like him at all’, Mabel said. ‘He is gruesome and full of effect, always with those stories of murders, of dead people, of coffins. Cadavers don’t appeal to me.’

While we walked along Carranza toward Costa Rica Street, Mabel spoke full of enthusiasm and honesty about her interest in or, rather, passion for literature. On that point, there was a deep affinity between us but, of course, she mentioned authors who converged in and diverged from our respective literary loves. Although I was two years older than her, it seemed to me that Mabel had read considerably more books than me.

She was a brunette, taller and thinner than what I had thought in the bookshop. A certain diffused elegance adorned her. The olive shade of her face seemed to mitigate some deeper paleness. The dark eyes were fixed straight on mine, and I found it hard to withstand the intensity of that steady stare. We arrived at my door in Costa Rica Street.

‘Wait for me on the pavement; I’ll bring you the book right away.’

And I did find the book instantly as, because of a question of homogeneity, I had (and still have) my books grouped by collection. Thus, Don Segundo Sombra (Biblioteca Contemporánea, Editorial Losada) was placed between Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown.

Back in the street, I noticed, although I know nothing about clothes, that Mabel was dressed in a somewhat, shall we say, old-fashioned style, with a greyish blouse and black skirt.

‘As you can see’, I told her, ‘this book looks brand new, as if I had just bought it a second ago in don Antonio’s bookshop. Please take care of it, put a cover on it, don’t fold the pages as a marker and, especially, don’t even think of writing a single comma on it.’

She took the book—with such long and beautiful hands—with what I thought was certain mocking respect. The volume, of an impeccable orange colour, looked as if it had just left the press. She turned the pages for a while.

‘But I see that you do write on books’, she said.

‘Certainly, but I use a pencil, with a small and very meticulous writing, those are notes and useful observations for enriching my reading. Besides’, I added, slightly irritated, ‘the book belongs to me and I give it any use I like’.

I immediately regretted my rude remark, as I saw mortification in Mabel’s face. 

‘Well, if you don’t trust me, I prefer not to borrow it.’ And she handed it back to me.

‘No, not at all, just take care of it, I trust your wisdom.’

Oh’, she was looking at the first page, ‘You have your books classified?’ And she read in loud voice, not jokingly: ‘Library of Fernando Sorrentino. Volume number 232. Registered on: 23/04/1957.’

‘That’s right, I bought it when I was in the second year of secondary. The teacher requested it for our work in Spanish Lit classes.’

‘I found the few short stories I’ve read by Güiraldes rather poor. That’s why I never thought of getting Don Segundo.’

‘I think you are going to like it, at least there are no coffins or cursed houses or people buried alive. When do you think you’ll be returning it?’

‘You’ll have it back within a fortnight, as radiant’—she emphasised—‘as you are giving it to me now. And to make you feel more relaxed, I am writing my address and telephone number.’

‘That’s not necessary,’ I said, out of decorum.

She took out a ballpoint pen and a school notebook from her purse and wrote something on the last page, she tore it out and I accepted it. To be surer, I gave her my telephone number, too.

‘Well, I am very grateful… I am going home now.’

She shook my hand (no kisses at that time as is the way now) and she walked toward the Bonpland corner. I felt some discomfort. Had I made a mistake by lending a book dear to me to a completely unknown person? The information she had given me, could it be apocryphal?

The page in the notebook was squared; the ink, green. I searched the phonebook for the name Mogaburu. I sighed with relief, a Mogaburu, Honorio was listed next to the address written by Mabel. 
I placed a card between The Metamorphosis and The Innocence of Father Brown with the legend Don Segundo Sombra, missing, lent to Mabel Mogaburu on Tuesday 7th of June 1960. she promised to return it, at the latest, on Wednesday 22nd of June. Under it, I added her address and phone number. Then, on the page of my agenda for the 22nd of June, I wrote: 

Mabel. Attn! Don Segundo. 


That week and the next went by. I continued with my usual, mostly unwanted, activities as a student in my last year of secondary.
We were on the afternoon of Thursday the 23rd. As it usually happens to me, even to this day, I make annotations on my agenda that I later forget to read. Mabel had not called me to return the book or, is that was the case, to ask me to extend the loan.

I dialed Honorio Mogaburu’s number. At the other end, the bell rang up to ten times but nobody answered. I hung up the phone but called again many times, at different times, with the same fruitless result. The process was repeated on Friday afternoon.

Saturday morning, I went to Mabel’s home, on Arévalo Street, between Guatemala and Paraguay. Before ringing the bell, I watched the house from across the street. A typical Palermo Viejo construction, the door in the middle of the facade and a window on each side. I could see some light through one of them. Would Mabel be in that, a room occupied with her reading…? A tall dark man opened the door. I imagined he must be Mabel’s grandfather.

‘What can I do for you…?

‘I beg your pardon. Is this Mabel Mogaburu’s home?’

‘Yes, but she is not here right now. I am her father. What did you want her for? Is it something urgent?’

‘No, it’s nothing urgent or very important. I had lent her a book and… well, I am needing it now for…’—I searched for a reason—‘a test I have on Monday.'

‘Come in, please.’

Beyond the hallway, there was a small living room that appeared poor and old-fashioned to me. A certain unpleasant smell of stale tomato sauce mixed with insecticide vapours floated in the air. On a small side table, I could see the newspaper La Prensa, and there was a copy of Mecánica Popular. The man moved extremely slowly. He had a strong resemblance to Mabel, he had the same olive skin and hard stare.

‘What book did you lend her?’

‘Don Segundo Sombra.’

‘Let’s go into Mabel’s room and see if we can find it’.

I felt a little ashamed for troubling this elderly man that I judged unfortunate and who lived in such sad house.

‘Don’t bother’, I told him. ‘I can return some other day when Mabel is here, there is no rush.’

‘But didn’t you say that you needed it for Monday…?’

He was right, so I chose not to add anything. Mabel’s bed was covered with an embroidered quilt of a mitigated shine. He took me to a tiny bookcase with only three shelves.

‘These are Mabel’s books. See if you can find the one you want’.

I don’t think there were one hundred books there. There were many from Editorial Tor among which I recognized, because I too had that edition from 1944, The Phantom of the Opera with its dreadful cover picture. And I identified other common titles, always in rather old editions. But Don Segundo wasn’t there.

‘I took you into the room so you could stay calm’, said the man. ‘But Mabel hasn’t brought books for many years to this library. You have seen that these are pretty old, right?’

‘Yes, I was surprised not to see more recent books…’

‘If you agree and have the time and the inclination’, he fixed his eyes on me and made me lower mine, ‘we can settle this matter right now. Let’s look for your book in Mabel’s library.’ He put on his glasses and shook a key ring.

‘In my car, we’ll be there in less than ten minutes.’

The car was a black and huge DeSoto that I imagined was a ’46 or ’47 model. Inside, it smelled of enclosure and stale tobacco. Mogaburu went around the corner and enter Dorrego. We soon reached Lacroze, Corrientes, Guzmán and we entered the inner roads of the Chacarita cemetery. 

We stepped down and started walking along cobbled paths. My blessed or cursed literary curiosity urged me to follow him now through the area of the crypts without asking any questions. In one of them with the name MOGABURU on its facade, he introduced a key and opened the black iron door.

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘don’t be afraid.’

Although I didn’t want to, I obeyed him, at the same time resenting his allusion to my supposed fear. I entered the crypt and descended a small metal ladder. I saw two coffins.

‘In this box,’ the man pointed to the lower lit, ‘María Rosa, my wife, who died the same day Frondizi was made president.’ He tapped the top several times with his knuckles.

‘And this one belongs to my daughter, Mabel. She died, the poor thing, so young. She was barely fifteen when God took her away in May of 1945. Last month, it was fifteen years since her death. She would be 30 now.’

He leaned slightly over the coffin and smiled, as someone who is sharing a fond memory. ‘Unfair Death couldn’t keep her away from her great passion, literature. She continued restlessly reading book after book. Can you see? Here is Mabel’s other library, more complete and up to date than the one at home.’

True, one wall of the crypt was covered almost from the floor to the ceiling, I assume because of lack of space, by hundreds of books, most of them in a horizontal position and in double rows.

‘She, methodical person that she was, filled the shelves from top to bottom and left to right. Therefore, your book, being a recent borrowing, must be on the half full shelf on the right’. A strange force lead me to that shelf, and there it was, my Don Segundo.

‘In general’, Mogaburu continued, ‘not many people have come to claim the borrowed books. I can see you love them very much.’
I had fixed my eyes on the first page of Don Segundo. A very large green X blotted out my stamp and my annotation. Under it, with the same ink and the same careful writing in print letters there were three lines:

Library of Mabel Mogaburu 
Volume 5328 
7th of June of 1960

‘The bitch!’ I thought, ‘Think how earnestly I asked her not to write even a comma.’
‘Well, that’s the way things go’, the father was saying. ‘Are you taking the book or leaving it as a donation to Mabel’s library?’

Angrily and rather abruptly, I replied: ‘Of course I am taking it with me, I don’t like getting rid of my books.’

‘You are doing right,’ he replied while we climbed the ladder. 

‘Anyway, Mabel will soon find another copy.’

[From: How to Defend Yourself against Scorpions, Liverpool, Red Rattle Books, 2013.
Translated from the Spanish by Gustavo Artiles

Other versions

Spanish (original text)

La biblioteca de Mabel (2013). Delicias al Día (dir.: Agustín Díez Ferreras), Valladolid (España), marzo 2013, págs. 8-9.

La biblioteca de Mabel (2013). Gramma (directora: Alicia Sisca), Universidad del Salvador; Facultad de Filosofía, Historia y Letras; Escuela de Letras, Buenos Aires, Nº 49, diciembre 2013, págs. 238-245. 

La biblioteca de Mabel (2013). En Fernando Sorrentino: Paraguas, supersticiones y cocodrilos (Verídicas historias improbables) (2013). Veracruz (México), Instituto Literario de Veracruz, El Rinoceronte de Beatriz, 2013, 140 págs.


La biblioteca di Mabel (2013). (translation of Inchiostro team). Inchiostro. Rivista di storie e racconti da leggere e da scrivere (direttore: Giampiero Dalle Molle), Anno 19, Nº 3-4, Verona (Italia), maggio-dicembre 2013, pagine. 11-14.


Die Bibliothek von Mabel (2014). (translation of Sandra Fuertes Romero y Jana Wahrendorff). In Fernando Sorrentino: Problema resuelto. Cuentos argentinos de Fernando Sorrentino / Problem gelöst. Argentinische Erzählungen von Fernando Sorrentino (2014), Düsseldorf, dup (düsseldorf university press), 250 Seiten.

Read Fernando’s bio HERE.

Fernando Sorrentino

Short story from Fernando Sorrentino

Problem Solved
(Problema resuelto)

     Who hasn’t heard of the Insignia Financial Group, a lending institution that underwrites vehicles, agricultural and industrial machinery and, generally, all types of manufacturing products?

     I spent three years working at the branch office over in the Parque Patricios neighborhood located on Avenida Caseros. After I was promoted to a higher position, the company transferred me to the Palermo branch on Avenida Santa Fe. Since I already lived over on Calle Costa Rica, just six blocks away, the change worked out very well for me.

     Although prohibited by regulations, every now and then we were visited by a few vendors and sales representatives who peddled a variety of articles. Our bosses tended to be lenient and let them in, and so it had become routine practice for the employees to buy things from these people.

     This is how I met Boitus, an exceptionally odd person. He was thin as a wire and balding, wore antique-style glasses, and always dressed in the same grimy, threadbare gray suit, all of which gave him the air of a man who had escaped from a silent film era movie. He had a speech defect, causing his “r” to sound like “d”.

     He sold encyclopedias and dictionaries in installments and took cash payments for other less costly books. I became one of Boitus’ clients because it proved to be a convenient arrangement: I would ask him for a certain book by a certain author and a few days later Boitus would show up, always reliable, with the book in question and at the same price as at the local book store.

     It didn’t take me long to figure out that Boitus was not only extravagant in the way he looked, but also in the way he moved and talked. The vocabulary he used was both peculiar and exclusive: when speaking of Juan Pérez, our nation’s president, he referred to Chief What’s-His-Name. He didn’t use the sidewalk, but rather the public walkway. He didn’t ride on the underground rail, microbuses or trains; instead he traveled on the public passenger transportation system. He never said, “I don’t know”; it was always, I’m unaware.

     One day, as I listened to a certain exchange, I could hardly believe my ears. While at my desk, concentrating on some work related matters, I heard Lucy, one of our most veteran employees on the verge of retiring, ask him, “Tell me, Boitus, have you ever thought about getting married?”

     My curiosity forced me to look up and glance over at Boitus. He broke into a smile that was considerate, perhaps even indulgent.

     “Why, my dear Ms. Lucy, there’s a simple answer to your question.” He paused for effect. “I can’t marry for three reasons: in the first place, I’m not in an economic position to do so; secondly, I lack the funds; and thirdly, I’m broke.”

Boitus’ answer and, especially, the bewildered look on Lucy’s face caused me to burst out laughing, although I tried my best to contain it. “Well, well,” I told myself, “this Boitus guy is quite the comedian.”

     I got used to Boitus’ periodic visits, during which, besides finalizing book purchases, I was entertained by his eccentricities, paradoxes, logic and outlandish ideas.

     He always showed up carrying a brown leather briefcase, so worn that it had become gray, in which he kept invoices, receipts, brochures on encyclopedias, business cards… anyway, a collection of business related papers which, God knows why, he generically termed his judgment tools. But besides the briefcase, he always carried five or six packages with him: cardboard boxes filled with books to be delivered.

     The day came when our branch manager, Mr. Gatti—an easy going and understanding guy—was promoted and transferred to the head office. His replacement, Mr. Linares, wasn’t really a bad person; however he had a baroque way of speaking, loved circumlocution and was a stickler for rules and regulations. The moment he took over, he laid down the law and from them on, neither Boitus nor any of the other salesmen were allowed over the threshold of the Palermo branch of the Insignia Financial Group.

     It was a minor problem, quickly resolved. Boitus and I exchanged phone numbers and thus, my purchases and his sales could continue, but with one difference: instead of delivering books to the office, Boitus brought them to my house.

     At some point I realized that I’d now been working at the Palermo branch office a full year and that, consequently, I’d known Boitus for a year and that I bought books from him at fairly regular intervals. But at no point did he ever refer to himself as a “bookseller”. He called himself a cultural disseminator.

     The cultural disseminator would arrive at my apartment weighted down by his dilapidated briefcase, packages and cardboard boxes to deliver my books, after which he would usually rattle off a string of surprising sophisms and, after about 15 minutes, would leave.

     I remember well his final visit. Boitus had unleashed an especially strange and extended monologue aimed at instructing me in the use of an absurd taxonomy of his own invention. According to his schema, coffee was a brew, tea was an infusion and boiled mate leaves, a tonic. However, I couldn’t get him to explain the grounds for these classifications.

     Then something weird happened: his ideas, which had seemed funny to me at first, suddenly started to irritate me, undoubtedly because of the visceral rejection I feel toward irrationality and error. And, despite suppressing my aggravation, I watched happily as Boitus finally departed with his shabby briefcase and his boxes and packages.

     Being that the ground level entrance was permanently locked, I had to follow him down and let him out of the building. Returning to my apartment, I realized Boitus had forgotten one of his parcels on a chair.

     It was a round cardboard container, very similar to the ones used to store men’s hats. Two green ribbons, originating along its edges but now fallen against each side, functioned as a way to carry the box comfortably.

     I removed the lid and, although he couldn’t possibly have arrived home yet, I immediately called to inform him of the forgotten merchandise. The phone rang five times before the answering machine picked up. I left a message, the tone of which—polite, yet urgent—left no room for doubt.

     That night, Boitus did not return my call. The next day, either. I tried calling and leaving messages for several days at different times.

     When I called a week later the phone rang I don’t know how many times but neither Boitus nor his answering machine picked up. “The phone must be disconnected,” I told myself.

     A few hours later my calls were answered by a female voice that recited: “The number you have dialed does not belong to any client within the Telecom network.” A while later, dialing Boitus’ number produced nothing but silence, as though both the number and the phone itself had disappeared.

At the office, I mentioned all this to Rossi, whose desk adjoins mine, and he offered to come over to my place.

“As long as it isn’t a bother,” he added.

“Quite the opposite,” I said, “I’d appreciate your help.”

     And so it happened that, having finished our workday, Rossi visited my apartment for the first and last time. Opening the box he drew back with a distasteful look on his face.

     “Oh man. Looks like this is going to be complicated.”
     “Definitely. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

     Then Rossi completely lost interest in the box and became distracted as he looked around. In a matter of seconds he had me feeling nervous. He’s a restless guy and started walking the length of the apartment offering different criticisms or suggestions which I had never asked for, such as, “This would be a good place to hang a mirror,” or “Aren’t your doors sealed against draughts? There seems to be air getting in.”

     He stopped in front of a framed picture of Cecilia Capelli, picked it up for a moment, put it back down in a slightly different location and then commented, “So this is your girlfriend? Cute girl, congratulations.”

     I told myself that he could have dispensed with both his remark and the congratulations: my love affair with Cecilia was in a state of deterioration and several times I had been tempted to get rid of the picture since its presence only served to upset me.

     He then inspected my library and seized the opportunity to ask to borrow A History of Argentinean Soccer. I detest lending books (or borrowing them, for that matter) but as he had been so kind as to come over and help me, I couldn’t say no.

     I had ascertained that Rossi was restless. A few days later I found out that, in addition, he tended to talk too much. Consequently, on Friday, Mr. Linares called me to his office and closed the door after I’d entered. Through the intercom he commanded, “Flavia, no calls until further notice.”

     He had me sit facing him over his desk and then, with a smile that was intended to look congenial but was obviously forced, he told me, “My dear Sainz, it’s not that I want to involve myself in something that’s none of my business, but in a certain way, you being a young man of 28, relatively new to the company, and seeing how…”

     “I’m about to be heaved down into the labyrinth of his meandering prose,” I thought.

“… I’m somewhat older, with more years under my belt, and your manager on top of that, a kind of father figure within the company you could say, I have a kind of—how should I put it?—moral obligation to help you. Am I right?”

     Since Mr. Linares was waiting for an answer, I immediately agreed, motivated by the desire to get him to stop talking as soon as humanly possible.

     “Well then,” he continued, “if it is acceptable to you, tomorrow, which is Saturday and will give us some free time, I’ll take a little jaunt over to your house to see what we can do…”

     I had no choice but to accept his offer. Back at my desk, Rossi avoided eye contact. However, a few minutes later he approached me and muttered in my ear, “Don’t think I’m the one who told him about it. He already knew. It’s hard to hide these things.”

     I wondered how Rossi knew that Linares had found out.

     On Saturday I had to get up early. I couldn’t have Mr. Linares over to a typical bachelor’s apartment that hadn’t been cleaned in at least two weeks. I spent most of my morning on detestable chores: vacuuming the floor, dusting the furniture, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen… Finally by 11 my house was in a presentable state for receiving Mr. Linares.

     When he showed up he wasn’t alone. With him were Araujo, our office errand boy who was fond of gambling, and another gentleman I had never met who wore a suit, tie and spectacles.

     “Dr. Venancio,” said Linares, introducing him. “He’s a legal representative, or, if you prefer, an attorney, who will certify the affidavit. As for Araujo,” he added affably, “he needs no introduction. Who doesn’t owe Araujo a favor or two, right?”

     Araujo, dressed in his office uniform, smiled shyly.

     “Araujo is only here as a witness, so that Dr. Venancio can get his signature on the affidavit.”

     “Fine,” I said. “Sounds good.”

     Mr. Linares took the lid off the box and, holding the lid in his right hand, carefully examined the contents. Dr. Venancio and Araujo immediately did the same.

     “Everything in order, Araujo?” Mr. Linares asked.

     “Yes, Sir, no problem.”

     Dr. Venancio spread the affidavit out on the dinning room table. It was three pages long. He signed his name in the margins of the first two and at the bottom of the third. Then he turned to Araujo and indicated he should do the same. Araujo signed slowly; it was obvious he was not very seasoned at working with papers and documents.

     “Should I sign?” I asked.

     “It’s not necessary,” replied the notary public, “but it isn’t prohibited, either. It’s up to you.”

     “I’m going to sign just in case.”

     I took a moment to read the affidavit and confirmed that it rigorously conformed to the truth. Then I signed it.

     “And you, Mr. Linares? Would you like to sign?”
     “No, Doctor, it doesn’t appear to be necessary. Or even prudent.”

     After exchanging a few platitudes about the weather, my visitors left.

     I had planned to go to the movies that night with Cecilia but around six in the evening she called to cancel the date.

     “The problem is my father,” she explained. “Well, that is, if you want to call it a problem. I don’t think there’s any reason for concern, but he does. He thinks that your situation might affect his chances of getting elected mayor.”

     I felt like telling her to go to hell, along with her distinguished father, a power hungry political schemer, but I held back and only said, “Fine, sounds good.”

     I thought, “It’s just as well, I’m fed up with her.”

     I looked up Boitus’ telephone number using a directory on the Internet and found out he lived on Calle Fraga, in the Chacarita neighborhood. Sunday morning I headed over to the house in question. There, I found a wooden barrier around the building with a sign that read: NOTICE: BUILDING TO BE COMPLETELY DEMOLISHED. NEW CONSTRUCTION OF ONE AND TWO BEDROOM APARTMENTS.

     With the exception of a few unexpected events, my life continued its normal path.

     It wasn’t long before I was given another promotion that entailed one advantage and one drawback. The former involved a substantial salary raise: suddenly I was earning practically double what I had been up to now (which already was no small sum). The drawback resided in that I had to carry out my new duties in the suburb of Béccar, quite a distance from my place on Calle Costa Rica.

     I added up the pros and cons and, after finally accepting the promotion, resigned myself to a long commute between Palermo and my new destination. The ideal situation would have been to buy a place in Béccar or in San Isidro, but to come up with the money I first would have had to sell the apartment on Calle Costa Rica.

     Without meaning to I had also gained a certain notoriety and I discovered that having it wasn’t all that bad. Photographers and feature writers showed up from the newspapers La Nación and Clarín and from the magazines Caras and Gente. I was subjected to interviews and was photographed—now smiling, now solemn—next to the round box. I was also invited to talk on television news programs, something I did with some degree of vanity. I didn’t even turn down invitations to appear on frivolous talk shows filled with gossip and tabloid stories.

     In the end, “Doctor” Ignacio Capelli didn’t succeed in being elected mayor of Tres de Febrero County, a fact that pleased me to no end. At this point I had had it with Cecilia, so a few days later I found a random excuse to break up with her.

     On the other hand, something wonderful had happened. I had gotten into the habit of having an afternoon snack after work at a café near Béccar station. At the same time of day, several teachers from a nearby school would come by after finishing with their classes. They were lovely girls who spoke loudly and always roared with laughter.

     I was attracted to one of them (I already knew her name, Guillermina) and, more than once, our eyes—hers a crystal blue—met across the tables. One day as I was leaving, I arranged for an “accidental” meeting out on the sidewalk and was able to strike up a conversation. Straight away I accompanied her home, first by train until we reached the Belgrano neighborhood, then by foot a few blocks. She was 25 years old, her name was Guillermina Grotz and she still lived with her parents.

     Things went well and it didn’t take me long to become her boyfriend and, a few weeks later, begin intimate relations.

     One afternoon, as we lay on a hotel bed, she asked me, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper for you to invite me to your apartment?”
Surprised, I looked her in the eyes. “Aren’t you aware of the problem I have…?”

     “How could I not know? Everybody knows about it. But it can’t be all that bad.”

     The generosity I saw in her eyes moved me. I felt a tear welling up, but quickly wiped it away.

     The following Saturday I took Guillermina out to a movie in Belgrano. Afterward, I treated her to dinner at a restaurant on Avenida Cabildo.

     “Well,” I told her, “now we’re going back to my place to end the night on a dignified note.”

     As we entered the apartment and I turned on the light, Guillermina cried out, “At last, I get to see Mr. Sainz’s mysterious bunker!”

     But before she had a chance to get to know the place, she stopped in front of the round box. She hesitated for a moment, and then lifted the lid. The expression on her face didn’t change one bit, but she said, “You were right. We should go back to what we were doing before…”

     I wanted her to define her terms, so I asked, “Should we go to the bedroom or do you want to leave?”

     “I hope I don’t offend you, but I prefer to leave.”

     “Why should I be offended? You’re completely within your rights…”

     Guillermina lived near the corner of Cuba and Mendoza. I stopped a taxi coming down the street and bid her farewell.

     But not for good. There was no reason we should break up. On the contrary—the experience had drawn us closer together.

     Three months later we were married and went to live in a tiny apartment we had rented outside the city, in San Isidro, a place that was soon crammed with all the belongings Guillermina and I had brought from our respective former homes. My dinning room set consisted of a table and four chairs, but I could only bring three of the four to San Isidro.

     At my workplace I was subjected to questions that were as naïve as they were predictable, and, as well, faced some slightly troublesome bureaucratic snags, none of which kept me from continuing to rise in the company.

     In fact, I’d say that in this regard I couldn’t complain. Each new success brought me a higher position and I continued to climb the hierarchical ladder and earn more money.

     One Friday afternoon (the best moment of the week) I was summoned to the head office. No less than the senior director himself offered congratulations and assured me that, without a shadow of a doubt, within the year I would be named manager of the Mar del Plata branch office.

     “So, Mr. Sainz, it would be best for you to begin getting your affairs in order ahead of time.”

     Mar del Plata is a magnificent assignment, although being so far down the coast, it will mean Guillermina has to resign her teaching position and the two of us will have to move. Once there, it won’t be hard for my wife to get a job at another school.

     Guillermina and I have become frugal to the point of greediness. We want to have enough money to buy a relatively spacious apartment in Mar del Plata, and I believe we will. The only possible way is to save and save and save, since we can’t count on the money we would get from the impossible sale of my former residence on Calle Costa Rica, which—by the way—had all its utilities cut off: electricity, telephone, gas, water… I also stopped paying the building maintenance fees and the municipal taxes.

     “They’re going to take you to court and foreclose on the apartment,” Guillermina often comments.

     Without fail I answer, “But they’ll never find a buyer.”

     “That’s true,” Guillermina always replies in turn, “but it’s not our problem.”

[From: El crimen de san Alberto, Buenos Aires, Editorial Losada, 2008. This short story was one of the finalists in the 23rd annual «Hucha de Oro» Competition (FUNCAS), Madrid, Spain.]
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Cole.

Read Fernando’s bio HERE.

Fernando Sorrentino

Short story from Fernando Sorrentino

Chastisement by the Lambs
(La Corrección de los Corderos)

     According to very diverse -- and always very reliable -- sources, the 'Chastisement by the Lambs' is becoming increasingly common in several parts of Buenos Aires and the surrounding area. 

     All reports agree in their description of the Chastisement: suddenly, fifty white lambs appear -- you could say 'out of the blue' -- and immediately charge towards their victim, obviously chosen beforehand. In a few short seconds they devour the person, leaving only a skeleton. As suddenly as they arrived, they then disperse -- and pity anyone who tries to block their escape! Many fatal cases were recorded early on, before prospective heroes learned from the fate of their predecessors. These days, no one dares oppose the Chastisement. 

     There is little point in going into the details of the phenomenon -- everybody is largely aware of the facts thanks to the media, and photographic and video documentation is widely available. Nevertheless, the majority of people are worried by the Chastisement and its consequences. The majority of people, however, are simple, they lack education and the power of reflection, and their concern is limited to a desire that the Chastisement did not exist. Of course, this desire does not put an end to the Chastisement and certainly does not help to determine its causes or raison d'être. 

     These people's basic mistake is that, as immersed as they are in the facts of the Chastisement itself, they have forgotten the victims. During, say, the first one hundred executions, what kept me awake at night was the irrefutable existence of lambs that were not only carnivores but predators -- and of human flesh at that. Later, however, I observed that by concentrating on those details I had been neglecting something essential: the victims' personality. 

     So I began investigating the lives of the deceased. Borrowing my methodology from sociologists, I started with the most elementary: the socio-economic data. Statistics turned out to be useless, the victims came from all social and economic strata. 

     I decided to change the focus of my investigation. I searched for friends and relatives and eventually managed to extract the pertinent information from them. Their statements were varied and sometimes contradictory, but gradually I began to hear a certain type of phrase more and more frequently: "Let the poor man rest in peace, but the truth is that ..." 

     I had a sudden and almost irresistible insight into the situation and was almost completely sure of my germinal hypothesis the day the Chastising Lambs devoured my prosperous neighbour, Dr. P.R.V., the same person in whose office ... but I will come to that. 

     In an absolutely natural way, P.R.V.'s case lead me to the definitive understanding of the enigma. 


     The truth is, I hated Nefario -- and while I would not want the base passion of my hate to pollute the cold objectivity of this report, nonetheless, in order to provide a full explanation of the phenomenon, I feel obliged to allow myself a digression of a personal nature. Although it may not interest anyone, this diversion is essential -- as long as I am believed -- for people to judge the veracity of my hypothesis concerning the conditions necessary to trigger the Chastisement by the Lambs. 

     Here is the digression: 

     The fact is, the climax of the Chastisement coincided with a lugubrious period in my life. Troubled by poverty, by disorientation, by grief, I felt I was at the bottom of a deep, dark well, and incapable of imagining any way out. That is how I felt. 

     Nefario meanwhile ... well, as they say, life smiled at him, and naturally so since the only objective of his wicked existence was money. That was his only concern -- earning money -- money for itself -- and toward this holy purpose he concentrated all his merciless energy without regard for others. Needless to say, he was overwhelmingly successful. Nefario truly was what you would call a 'winner'. 

     At that time -- I have already said this -- I found myself in a very needy situation. It is so easy to take advantage of anyone who is suffering! Nefario -- that greedy vulture who had never read a book -- was an editor. For want of better things to do, I used to undertake some translation and proofreading jobs for him. Nefario not only paid me a pittance but also took pleasure in humiliating me with excuses and delays. 

      (Suffering abuse and failure was already part of my persona, and I was resigned to them.) 

     When I delivered to him my latest batch of work -- an awkward and hideous translation -- Nefario, as on so many other occasions, said to me: 

     "Unfortunately, I am unable to pay you today. Haven't got a penny."

     He told me this while in his lavish office, well dressed, smelling of perfume and with a smile on his face. And of course, as a 'winner'. I thought of my cracked shoes, my worn clothes, my family's urgent needs, my burden of pain. With effort, I said: 
     "And when do you think ...?" 

     "Let's do this," his tone was optimistic and protective, as if he were trying to help me. "I can't do this Saturday, because I am taking a short break on the Rio beaches. But the following one, around eleven in the morning, come to my house and we will settle this little account." 

     He shook my hand cordially and gave me a friendly and encouraging pat on the shoulder. 

     A fortnight went by. The yearned-for Saturday arrived, and so did I at the beautiful 11 de Septiembre Street. The green of the trees, the smell of vegetation, the radiance of the sky and the beauty of the district all made me feel even more desolate. 

     At five past eleven I rang the bell.

     "The master is resting," I was told by a maid in uniform.
     I hesitated a moment and said:

     "And the lady of the house?"
     "Who is it, Rosa?" I heard someone ask.
     "It's me, madam." I raised my voice, clinging to the possibility: "Is mister Nefario at home?" 

     Rosa went inside and was replaced by the cosmetic-covered face of Nefario's wife. In a tone that reminded me of a heavy, cigar-smoking tycoon, she enquired: 

     "Haven't you been told that the master is taking his rest?" 

     "Yes, madam, but we had an appointment at eleven ..." 

     "Yes, but he is resting just now," she replied in an unappealable manner. 

     "Might he have left something for me?" I asked stupidly, as if I did not know Nefario! 


     "But we had an appointment at ..." 

     "I am telling you, he did not leave anything, sir. Please don't be annoying, sir." 

     At that moment I heard a jabbering, bleating sound and witnessed the arrival of the Chastisement by the Lambs. I moved to one side and, so as to be more secure, climbed the fence, although my conscience told me that the Chastisement was not searching for me. Like a tornado, the lambs burst into the front garden and, before the last ones could arrive, those in the lead were already inside the house. 

     In a few seconds, like a drain swallowing water from a sink, Nefario's door absorbed all the animals, leaving the garden trampled, the plants destroyed. 

     Through an exquisitely designed window, Mrs. Nefario appeared:

     "Come, sir, come!" she pleaded tearfully, her face congested. Please help us, sir! 

     Out of a certain sense of curiosity I went in. I saw the furniture overturned, mirrors broken. I could not see the lambs.
     "They are upstairs!" I was informed by Mrs. Nefario as she pulled me in the direction of the danger. "They are in our room! Do something, don't be a coward, behave like a man!" 

     I managed to resist, firmly. Nothing could be more against my principles than to oppose the Chastisement by the Lambs. A confused cacophony of hooves could be heard coming from upstairs. The round, woolly backs could be seen shaking happily, accompanied by some forceful movements aimed at an unseen object within the mass. For one fleeting moment, I perceived Nefario; it was only for a second: dishevelled and horrified, he shouted something and tried to attack the lambs with a chair. However, he soon sunk into the white, curly wools like someone violently swallowed by quicksand. There was another centrical commotion and the growing noise of jaws tearing and crushing, and every now and then the thin, sharp noise of a bone being cracked. Their first withdrawal manoeuvres told me that the lambs had accomplished their task and soon after the little animals started their swift descent of the stairs. I could see some bloodstains in the otherwise unpolluted whiteness of their wool. 

     Curiously, that blood -- to me a symbol of ethical affirmation -- caused Mrs. Nefario to loose all reason. Still addressing me with tearful insults and telling me that I was a coward, she irrupted in the living room with a large knife in her hands. As I knew very well the fate of those who attempted to obstruct the Chastisement by the Lambs, I respectfully remained in the background while observing the short and remarkable spectacle of the dismemberment and ingestion of Mrs. Nefario. Afterwards, the fifty lambs reached 11 de Septiembre Street and, as on many other occasions, they escaped by dispersing into the city. 

     Rosa -- I do not know why -- seemed a little impressed. I called out a few comforting words to her before, free of hate, saying good-bye to the girl with a smile. 

     It is true: I had not and would not manage to obtain from Nefario the payment for that awkward and hideous translation. Nevertheless, the green of the trees, the smell of vegetation, the radiance of the sky and the beauty of the district filled my heart with joy. I started to sing. 
     I knew then that the dark well into which I had sunk was beginning to be lit up with the first rays of hope. 

     Chastisement by the Lambs: I thank you. 

[From: En defensa propia, Buenos Aires, Editorial de Belgrano, 1982.]
Translated from the Spanish by Gustavo Artiles and Alex Patterson.

Read Fernando’s bio HERE.

Fernando Sorrentino