Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Tenant (conclusion)

[Back to Part I]

11. I had begun cobbling together a story from raw materials that originally had nothing to do with each other. On the one hand were impressions of Borges and his circle derived from a slender memoir by Alberto Manguel; on the other was the vaguely remembered dream from which I had awakened the morning after reading the memoir.

12. After writing a few pages I found myself quickly losing interest, in part because I myself didn't find the story believable. After all, I knew little about the setting and not much more about the characters of my little conte à clef, except for some bits about Borges I had gleaned from reading Emir Rodríguez Monegal's biography years before. I wasn't going to go to the trouble of researching the background, for one thing because ultimately I knew it would all be fakery; I've never been to Argentina and anything I would learn from my researches would be superficial and unreliable. Plus the story had turned into a kind of drawing-room literary satire that requires an alertness to social nuances which I do not in fact possess.

13. Still, I had four characters (five, if you count the young woman observed entering the building across the street) whom I had left hanging, their teacups poised in mid-air. So, not to draw things out further, here is how the story would have gone had it been my story to write, or had I been the writer to tell it:

14. Once the possibility has been raised that the young woman they have been observing might be in league with a vampire, one of the characters must suggest that they break into the apartment and have a look around. Perhaps it's one of those things that gets started as a joke and develops its own unstoppable momentum, each of the four raising the stakes a bit until they have committed themselves beyond recall. Borges, of course, being blind and elderly, must naturally be depicted as being at least as game as any of the others; Manguel, as the youngest, would largely defer to the rest. So it is Ocampo and Bioy Casares who do most of the egging on.

15. The next problem was how to get them into the building opposite, once the young woman has left for the day. My first thought would be that the lock would be picked, but who would do it? Who would be revealed as the secret possessor of the skills of a break-in artist? Bioy, the slightly disreputable man-about-town (as I depicted him), with a soupçon of James Bond in his makeup? Manguel, who, newly sobered up, reveals himself as a handy and resourceful character suitable to a Hardy Boys novel? Borges? Or, after they had failed miserably to gain access, would Ocampo show them all up with a hatpin? In the end I settled on an alternate contrivance: Ocampo would have noticed that the young woman always slipped the key into a windowbox upon leaving, and they would simply dig it out from among the petunias and open the door.

16. Once inside they would find the building deserted, dark, and barely furnished, the few pieces covered with dropcloths and shoved to the side. They would climb first one flight of stairs, then another, and as they reach the third floor (but in Argentina, of course, it would be only the second piso) they would be struck by a sudden and unexpected illumination. As they step forward into a large central room they would see that the roof above was made of glass, and as they enter this brightly lit solarium they would approach a couch, its back turned to them, and reclining on the couch, its head projecting over the top, they discover a skeleton …

17. At this point the young woman unexpectedly comes up behind them. “How dare you,” she says, or something along those lines; “What is the meaning of this?” There will be a moment of embarrassed silence until at last Borges steps forward. “My dear,” he says meekly but with impeccable dignity, “I must apologize for our intrusion. I'm afraid we have let our imaginations get the better of our judgment.” Then, while his companions stand abashed, he tells her the whole story.

18. The young woman appears to be, to some extent, mollified by this. (And besides, she has recognized the old man, as any resident of Buenos Aires would.) She briefly explains that she is an artist, the skeleton her model, and she pulls aside some coverings and shows them easels on which are displayed some of the accomplished, intricate anatomical drawings with which she has been occupying her afternoons.

19. But she does not quite accept the old man's abject expressions of regret. “An apology is not sufficient,” she declares sternly; “I demand compensation.” There is another awkward silence as the intruders anxiously ponder what kind of retribution the young woman may require. Speaking directly to Borges she says, “You must return later in the week, after my day's work is done, and be my guest for tea.” And then, as an afterthought, she adds, “you may bring your friends, if you like.” Borges nods, gravely, and of course he accepts her terms. With a great sense of relief the four leave the building, escorted by the young woman.

20. On the appointed day, Borges and the others appear at the front door, dressed elegantly and bearing flowers and a small cake. They ring the bell but there is no answer. Reluctant to barge in a second time, they wait outside, then ring the bell again. When no one appears one of them tries the door handle and they see that it is unlocked. They step inside and and call up the stairs, but there is no answer. They climb up through the building until once again they come into the solarium. There is no sign of the young woman, nor of the skeleton. The easels are gone and every other trace of the tenant has been cleared out. There is no note. The four writers stand together in the late afternoon sunlight, lost in thought.

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