Listen to Hebe Uhart, Now That She’s Gone

Read Hebe Uhart’s short story “Coordination,” which appears in the Spring 2019 issue.

Hebe Uhart. Photo: Agustina Fernández.

In section 16, grave 34 of the Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires, pumpkins and tomatoes now grow. Pumpkins and tomatoes, just like that. A scene that could have been written by Hebe Uhart, who, since October 12, 2018, has lain in a grave there. An image worthy of her stories: reality interrupted by strangeness. “A story is a little plant that’s born,” Uhart used to say that Felisberto Hernández used to say. Hernández was one of her go-to authors, along with Natalia Ginzburg, Fray Mocho, and Simone Weil. Uhart starts her magnificent story “Guiding the Ivy” by announcing, “Here I am arranging the plants so they don’t overcrowd one another, pulling off dead leaves, and getting rid of ants.”

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Some time ago, at the launch party for one of her books, Hebe Uhart—born in 1936 in Moreno, Argentina, author of some fifteen volumes of stories, novels, and chronicles, winner of the 2017 Manuel Rojas Ibero-American Narrative Award, rural schoolteacher, philosophy professor in her youth and leader of literary workshops until the end of her days, curious in the extreme, chronic traveler, and admirer of the animal kingdom—confessed the following:

I follow Chekhov’s advice, which I believe in absolutely: forget about the content of what the characters say and pay attention to how they say it, look at how the characters move, how they walk, how they are silent. I’m interested in people’s specificity.

How we move, how we walk, how we keep quiet: that is what Uhart observes in each of us. But also how we pause, how we sneeze, what onomatopoeias we use, how our being is revealed through everyday gestures that at times can contradict the ideas we claim to hold. It’s through these minute observations, and her repudiation of generalities, that the writer unfurls her tentacles to construct her characters. And along the way she sets the coordinates for a wisdom of her own, old and at the same time very simple: one of permanent awe. In the pages of her books are the primordial questionings, the first attempts to understand the world—“the who-am-I’s and the what-am-I-like’s,” as the protagonist of one of her stories says. What are we? Where are we going? Where did we come from? The classic questions of philosophy are in her pages anchored to the most domestic of situations. Hebe Uhart trains her eye on the things we witness so often that eventually we stop seeing them.

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Hebe Uhart has been gone for more than six months, and I still can’t talk about her in the past tense, so alive and fresh is her memory. A few days before she died, when she’d been admitted to the hospital, she took out a pen and paper and described what she saw. Her humor, her enormous curiosity, her sense of the absurd, and her ability to see what the rest of us do not were more alive than ever. “I’m in an intensive care room, in a small clinic,” she writes. “The beds are against the wall and full of gadgets that make noise all day long, two of them in conversation: dum, dum, says one, and the other answers piff.” And further on: “A student I’ve been close with for many years came to visit me and I told her I was ashamed to be seen with my ass in the air, exposed. Sententiously, Coca told me, Hebe, we’ve all got asses. It’s a Socratic truth, one that corresponds to the moment when Socrates sought absolute consensus before continuing. Sure enough, Socrates, we’ve all got asses.” And toward the end she observes: “I spent the whole time I was in intensive care thinking about the bathroom, about where it was. I thought about the bathroom as if it were London or Paris, and now that they’ve moved me to intermediate care, there’s a sign nearby that says EXIT, and the bathroom’s right there, what a relief. I feel like I’ve been upgraded.”

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Seemingly naive but tremendously sharp, Hebe Uhart’s vision is one that could belong to a child, but a child who has up her sleeve the reflective tools of an adult. An adult with the gaze of a child who, in turn, has the gaze of an adult. And that cross between the supposed unformed perception of childhood and the supposed experience of adulthood generates a new language, as genuine as it is unpredictable. It’s a living, highly oral language that Uhart deploys. And this emphasis also supposes an exploration of specific words: their sounds, their origins, the associations they awaken, their possible music. And even the invention of her own lexicon, one that tends to be friendlier. Both trains and primitive instruments, for example, go tu-ru-tu. Or certain resorts where the beachgoers have money “stupidize” people. There’s the woman from the story “Impressions of a School Principal” who sees the teacher correct children who say earthwern instead of earthworm. And she concludes: “Like the children, I prefer earthwern to earthworm. It’s more humble, shadier, more intimate. Earthworm is a little dry.”

Thus Uhart’s narrators linger over expressions, refrains, commonplaces, or incorrect—according to purist parameters of language—articulations, but the point is not to highlight the defect, but rather to assimilate it and destabilize expressive inertia. A character from the short novel Memoirs of a Pygmy comments on an elderly man, for example, by saying: “He wears his years well.” And the protagonist then wonders: “How can one wear their years well, when years are immaterial?” And the reader can go on pulling at that thread of questioning: Where does that old man wear his years? From where has he brought them? What does he do with those years?

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Hebe Uhart’s writing is her way of looking and listening (one of her books of chronicles is called, precisely, Visto y oídoSeen and heard). Her stories follow an order that isn’t guided by the impact of events but rather by the desire to capture detail, to store the observed microcosmos in her memory and then to bring the stories back as if they were occurring now, in this world, and the reader were listening to them in real time. But what is really captured by the antennae of this writer—the most antisolemn author Argentina has ever seen, the most exquisitely colloquial—are those intangible, at times outrageous, shoots that sprout from the common, everyday beings she creates. It’s as if she brought them down straight from above, and as if once they were at home and well-secured, she extracted their speech—idioms and nonsense included. Perhaps I should mention that in these scenes, there are no revelations or knockouts, and the anecdotes are not nice and round, perfect as a circle.  And no one will perceive secret plots lurking in her countless stories; what is truly important here is Uhart’s exceptional gaze.

In that sense, it could be said that nothing happens in Uhart’s stories. And that’s probably true. But we would have to specify: nothing extraordinary. And specify as well that it’s not the kind of nothing that masks an everything, as in Carver or Hemingway. Because Uhart’s nothing is the strangeness of life: a philosophical position that arises from the ordinary. It’s not philosophy versus domestic life. Not elevated thought versus the trivial matters of the day-to-day. The depth of thought here is housed, rather, in the ordinariness of the banal situation. Because in these pages, thought and life cannot be separated. It is existential reflection starting from the preparation of a cake, for example. (“I wanted to make a cake that was light and fluffy. I didn’t want to make cookies because they don’t have that third dimension,” she notes at the beginning of the story “The Cake.”) Or it’s the image of an ivy vine that responds by growing very slowly, secure in its reserve. (“Sometimes I call the iridescent ivy ‘stupid’ because it forms into pointless arabesques,” she writes in “Guiding the Ivy.”) Or a patio “in a state of deliberation,” or a dress that seems to say “never again will you love me” (in the novel Camilo asciende, Camilo ascends). Or vines of pumpkins and tomatoes growing peacefully in a cemetery.

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Rural school principals, Italian immigrants, a crazy aunt, an experienced brother, an Ecuadoran in Rosario, a German in Buenos Aires, neighbors, pygmies, travelers, nieces, people who dance alone, who come or go to visit, people who are left behind, a dog named Milonga, people who long for the same life as always, the life of the everyday, chickens, a couple of horses named Sisobra and Comería (roughly translated, “if any’s leftover” and “I’d eat it”), people who ascend, people who resist ascending, people in conflict with modernity, untamed by the shoulds, young ladies practicing for ladies, people who learn “the art of saying one thing while thinking another.” People who ask metaphysical questions at inopportune moments, people who can’t look at their watches to show others that it’s late because they don’t wear watches: eccentrics. Enchanting and outrageous beings. Hebe Uhart’s characters are made of an almost palpable material. They are alive, and they seem to emerge from the page to tell us, “This one here is me, that one over there could be you.”

See them. See, for example, this man from the novel Mudanzas (roughly, Relocations):

Oftentimes the father didn’t know how he felt: he knew he wasn’t well, but he couldn’t calibrate how badly off he was. Accustomed to resisting fatigue, he kept tabs on himself by watching the expression on his dog Milonga’s face. The dog had several expressions. One: “Until death do us part” (this was the most disturbing). Another, at the slightest movement from his master: “Chin up, life goes on.” But if the master’s movements were doubtful or overly cautious, the dog’s expression was of a prognosis TBA.

Listen to them. Above all listen to her characters. Listen to the narrator of “Leonor,” one of the author’s best stories, when she describes the dance and song of a little girl imitating Raffaella Carrá. And see how the writer offers, in passing, her own conception of the story as a genre:

When she sings “Fiesta, qué fantástica es la fiesta,” her voice is pleasant enough, but it’s not dynamic. She’s too occupied by matching the lyrics with the steps. Besides, she has a frail little voice that sounds as if she hasn’t quite grasped the importance of exclamation points or whole phrases, which contain a beginning, middle, and ending.

Listen to Hebe Uhart while you read her. Listen to her now that she’s gone. And know that, if she were here, she would be the one to listen to us and observe the way we read, she would take note of how we move, how we walk, how we keep quiet. And she would extract, without our noticing, the small shoots that spring up from our gestures like little plants that sprout in the wild, and that only she, with her perennial perceptive capacity and her verbal intelligence, could ever detect.

—Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

 

Hebe Uhart’s short story “Coordination” appears in the Spring 2019 issue. The first collection of Uhart’s short stories to be translated into English, The Scent of Buenos Aires (translated by Maureen Shaughnessy), will be published by Archipelago Books this fall.

Alejandra Costamagna is a Chilean fiction writer who has published five story collections and five novels. Her most recent novel, El sistema del tacto, was a finalist for the 2018 Herralde Prize and will be published in English by Transit Books in 2020. In 2003, she received a grant from the Iowa International Writing Program, and in 2008, she won the Anna Seghers Literary Prize. She lives in Santiago, Chile.

Megan McDowell is an award-winning literary translator who has translated works by prominent Latin American writers, including Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. She is from Kentucky and lives in Santiago, Chile.

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