Once, I was asked to be on the organizing committee for the Buenos Aires Book Fair and to coordinate a roundtable discussion among writers. The topic had already been chosen: rural and urban literature. The invitation was printed on the letterhead of the Ongoing Commission for the Organization of the Book Fair, from Authors to Readers. It was a great honor but I was reluctant. I didn’t know anything about the subject, I don’t know the first thing about coordinating, and one of the writers invited to take part was a priest who talks on the radio and travels from province to province on an evangelical mission. He wants to do away with the antiquated stereotype of reactionary priests, so he tries to copy the way kids speak nowadays. He says, “Christ is crazy about you,” or, “When you hit a rough patch,” and sometimes he talks like he’s from the countryside, telling stories about animals—like that one about the parrot that doesn’t want to share. All his stories have a moral. It’s really just a bunch of mumbo jumbo with words like paranoia and identity mixed in. In my opinion, he’s a fraud who sells a ton of books and his breath smells like rotten eggs and he’s sneaky.
I hope he doesn’t show up, I thought.
Besides, I’ve never been able to coordinate anyone. If I’m with two people who start to argue or dig in their heels about something, I immediately come up with a third alternative to appease them both: I know how to mediate, but not how to coordinate. I’m not capable of cutting anyone off. I can’t look at my watch to let the other guy know his time is up, because I don’t wear a watch; and if someone tells me to do something, I do it.
We were gathered in a small conference room at the book fair. A lot of people were there. To my right, a very elderly writer was reading an excruciatingly long story. She kept pausing because she kept losing her place on the page. She had the voice of a convalescent—no, it was more like the voice of someone who had lived alone in a cave for a long time without speaking to a soul. I would have offered to read the story for her, but her handwriting was so cryptic that only she could make sense of it. The text was fraught with edits in the margins. Besides, I thought, taking the paper away from her would only make her seem even more defeated. She could break into tears right here in the middle of the roundtable discussion. The writer to my left—a man itching to get involved—said to me, “Cut her off. Tell her to stop reading, to wrap it up.”
I gently asked her to summarize the rest of the story and tell it from memory. A minute later the guy on my left tapped my shoulder again: “Cut her off. Her storytelling is worse than her reading.”
Luckily, she was interrupted by the woman sitting next to her—a lady who wrote stories about the countryside. It was one of those stories in which the sorrel gallops, the morning birds warble, and the farmhands drink yerba mate around the fire. Everything was as it should be. At one point she said, “Because he who possesses the countryside knows it best; it’s been passed down from generation to generation.”