Vertical music

In many of the letters that Horacio Quiroga wrote to Martínez Estrada, he told him about a couple of violins he had commissioned from a luthier named Escalera. Quiroga had a certain obsession with the matter: he wanted his friend to receive a delicate gift, in line with his sensitivity. After all, Martínez Estrada was a decent amateur musician, and in fact, one of his last writings is dedicated to Paganini. What worried the storyteller the most was the proper choice of wood to make the instruments. Not all woods resonate the same way, of course. It’s easy to imagine that the selection of materials must be done with prolonged meticulousness, that the chosen tree must be felled at the right time – summer is not the same as winter – and that the wood has to be stored for a certain time. Both Quiroga and the luthier from Misiones seemed to be unaware of these steps with noticeable precision. Once, in a town near Angers, France, a Chilean luthier who had exiled himself in the ’70s, after the coup, explained to me that he chose the wood to make cellos based on the client’s voice. He didn’t go into details, or at least, I don’t remember them. How to measure the effectiveness of such a procedure? I suppose it’s by its poetic thickness, nothing more (after all, when we were kids, we were convinced that with a new pair of sneakers, we could jump higher, run farther). What’s truly interesting about Quiroga’s luthier is that he couldn’t play the violin and apparently, nor other instruments. But, in the balance of things, from this other side, we have a Martínez Estrada dedicating three hundred pages to Paganini as a performer (not as a composer), without ever having heard him. Quiroga’s obsession and care for the construction of those instruments are inversely proportional to their quality, as one might have guessed. Martínez Estrada received one of those violins, apparently made of timbo, which is a highly inadvisable tree for this purpose. The sound was hypnotic and horrifying, he writes. Distant, resembling the mewling of a newborn cat. The last letters that Quiroga sent him before committing suicide spoke of the violins.

In his powerful short story “Nadar de noche” (Swimming at Night), Juan Forn recounts the encounter of a middle-aged man with his father, who passed away a few years ago, at the edge of the pool in a summer house. With the title of the story, the father describes to him what death is, what lies beyond. In one of Daniel Besoytaorube’s silent paintings, a group of swimmers is seen moving vertically, as if ascending in search of the surface. The painting has something of a silent film; it seems like a frame from those magical shorts with which Joseph Cornell crafted his brief films. A fragment, as one tends to see life while contemplating to end it. Fragments without continuity, nothing with much meaning. So death must be like for a suicide, Besoytaorube seems to tell us: like swimming at night; swimming in black and white. But not in an immense pool imagined by Forn: the movements are upward, in search of air, of the relief that didn’t arrive in time. However, it’s not a punishment; there’s no sensation of perpetual suffocation, and no one gets tired there: we must have a compassionate imagination for those who have taken their own lives. It’s one of the forms of solace: swimming with a purpose, with hope, somehow staying alive; an eternal vertical peace, without stars and without effort.

And on this side, when the ceremonies have concluded, the bodies retract, silence themselves, Besoytaorube points out. There is a retreating into something akin to a fetal position. As a counterpoint to the movement of the dead in the liquid, on this side prevails a barren immobility, with sparse colors without a horizon.

Quiroga’s letter to Estrada is printed in negative. It truly becomes difficult to decipher the handwriting. There is something of an electrocardiogram in it, a nervous neatness. The violins continue to be his concern. And yes, the handwriting sounds like how Martínez Estrada heard the violin his friend gave him. Something distant, like a small frightened animal. Nothing else is produced by strings on a box made of tropical wood. A bothersome and obsessive music that is nothing but the soundtrack of when things have ceased to make much sense.

Underwater, sound waves travel faster than outside, but they attenuate sooner due to the density of the medium. An incessant music of renewed violins. Shouldn’t we imagine that underwater the music of those violins must sound wonderful to someone swimming in search of solace?


Luis Sagasti