In March 2021 a group of writers from West Cork, who meet regularly in solidarity to read and to critique each other’s work, embarked on a project that was designed to to explore what collective authorship might look and feel like. The idea of being free from the tyranny of the ‘I’ and of unleashing a different kind of creativity was the purpose of the exercise.
Using the famous text by Borges; Funes The Memorious, they created an alternative story, a rhizomic version, a procedure, riffing off the original. It is an example of a collective imaginary that can be achieved through procedure. A swarm artefact, and experience of a creativity created and understood not by one, but by many.
Contributing editor: Mich Moroney & Jennifer Redmond
Read by: Matthew Geden, Nick Smith, Mich Moroney, & Jennifer Redmond.
Sound: Jennifer Redmond.
I recall him (though I have no right to speak that sacred verb – only one man on earth did, and that man is dead) holding a dark passionflower in his hand, seeing it as it had never been seen, even had it been stared at from the first light of dawn till the last light of evening for an entire lifetime. I recall him-his taciturn face, its Indian features, its extraordinary remoteness - behind the cigarette. I recall (I think) the slender, leather-braider's fingers. I recall near those hands a mate cup, with the coat of arms of the Banda Oriental. I recall, in the window of his house, a yellow straw blind with some vague painted lake .scene. I clearly recall - his voice-the slow, resentful, nasal voice of the toughs of those days, without the Italian sibilants one hears today. I saw him no more than three times, the last time in 1887 ....I applaud the idea that all of us who had dealings with the man should write something about him; my testimony will perhaps be the briefest (and certainly the slightest) account in the volume that you are "to publish, but it can hardly be the least impartial.
……Highbrow, dandy, city slicker - Funes did not utter those insulting - words, but I know with reasonable certainty that to him I represented those misfortunes. Pedro Leandro Ipuche has written that Funes was a· precursor of the race of supermen "a maverick and vernacular Zarathustra"- and I will not argue the point, but one must not forget that he was also a street tough from Fray Bentos, with certain incorrigible limitations.
I am Eduardo del Prominantes. A name you will recognise in conjunction with Funes. In the 1860's we ran several businesses in Fray, meat-processing, tanning, the like. We were young, impetuous. Everybody wanted Argentinian beef so we ran livestock, import-export across the river. Upstream. No, we were not a racket but back then people were not overly zealous and gave us the leeway we didn't merit. Too many scruples these days. We were together for over ten years. I knew him too well.
Funes! What a paradox. He was sensitive to the point of embarrassment. Fascinated and yet repulsed by butchery. I suppose this accounts for his incursion into the meat trade. I would see him weeping in the slaughterhouse. A mad exuberance always glittered in his eyes. I once saw him beat a ranchero almost unconscious for some misdemeanour then cry for forgiveness. There were many other similar episodes – I often wondered about his childhood. Had he always been like this?
In 1836 his father had fought in the bloody battle of Quebracho. Funes was born in 1837, the result of war-time passion. At the end of the conflict the old soldier returned home with child and mother; she a vagabond whom everyone said was trifling with him. It lasted three years. One day she went for a walk and never returned. Nobody looked for her and the child was consumed with rage and grief. He recounted this to me in a rare and unexpected moment of intimacy. It was clear he was still torn between extremes of feeling; if not given vent a depressive state of yearning would ensue, sometimes lasting for days. I often had to dig him out of some bordello – sober him up. It was in one such establishment that he met Alejandra.
Alejandra. Try to say her name without a rueful smile. She did not belong to Funes. She did not belong to anyone. She arrived with him out of the blue. The rest of us were soon in love with her. Something about the way she looked at you for longer than was comfortable. In turn she confided to me her obsession with Funes. In our business dealings we corresponded through intermediaries, or the occasional urgent telegram which always began “A pressing matter my dear Eduardo…”, and it was Alejandra who told me about the journal.
“When he visits me, afterwards, he sits on the little porch outside my house while I cook. I see him through the window, writing and gazing down to the river. Once I saw him weeping as he wrote.”
One day when I too sat where Funes would sit, looking through the trees at the river scything its way through the land, Alejandra surprised me. She dropped a heavy ledger onto the table beside me. “Here,” she said, “He left it last night.” At first it looked no more than a double entry accounts book. Incomings and outgoings.
I opened it. On the first page, as though it were a novel, I read the words Funes, His Memory. My interest piqued, I could not resist and I flicked through the pages. I stopped at random. The writing was strange. Hesitant. Not at all like memories, more like fiction.
“What does it say?” Alejandra was impatient.
I sipped at my maté and began to read aloud.
“La lumière méfiante de l'aube …”. I stopped. Scanning the rest I realised that the random page I had opened was written in French and my language skills were insufficient. There were tiny sketches around the page. The writing was heavily inked in some areas and light in others as if a snake or a number five slithered through the text. I turned the pages to see that although most of the journal was written in English there was French, Spanish, Portuguese and a few other languages unknown to me. There were sketches on each page. They varied — some were architectural, others diagrammatic and mechanical, with a few anatomical drawings — but every page contained a series of cloud formations.
I knew from my studies in mathematics that the number five hundred and fifty-five had just one repeated digit but that each time the digit meant something different. Depending on their placement on the page each cloud seemed to manifest a different symbol. Minute differences to each image resulted in a symbolic cycle that changed synchronously according to its position. Was it a record of a place, a time, a date? Maybe all three, or perhaps something more mysterious. It seemed naïve now to think that anything Funes would do could be random or comply with conventional wisdom or reason.
I decided to immerse myself in what was most accessible and found a page written in Spanish. I scanned through it briefly to a heavily marked section and noticed a loose sheet wedged into the spine of the ledger. I prised it out like a mother taking an eyelash from her baby's eye. A yellowed page with an ink diagram of pumps and pipes. "Alejandra" I called, "can you bring the magnifying glass?" I heard her heavy men’s boots on the flagstones behind me and she handed me the ivory-handled glass. I bent my head close to the drawing. A machine of some sort. Two little clouds in the top right corner. A bead of sweat hit the lens.
"Have you seen this before?"
she replied, turning the heavy paper towards her. Her next exhalation was long, like the soft tail of an Andean mountain cat brushing past my neck.
"This is my machine. It was the dream of Funes to produce it, to keep the meat cold and expand the business. The pastor in my father’s missionary school was an inventor and he taught my father the theories of refrigeration. They made a prototype before the endless humidity and malaria forced the cleric to return to America. In turn, my father taught me the wonders of vapour compression. The nuns instructed me in embroidery while my father tutored me in wiring. Unfortunately, neither embroidery nor electric circuits paid for food when Papa died. So Funes encountered me in the whiskeria. He loved first my body and then my soul. I trusted him. We built castles in the clouds. Uruguay would chill the beef that would feed the world.”
Funes was indeed correct when he described Alejandra as ever-changing. Before me stood no muse, no puta, but a mechanic in jodhpurs and waistcoat. She strode cross the thick grass, to the wooden shed under the cebio tree. Its waxy red flowers brushed her dusty brown skin.
“Funes never struck me as the mechanical type,” I said, stepping into the cool darkness. Alejandra pulled back a sheet to reveal an extravaganza of shining pipes, cogs, wheels, and springs.
“Funes wouldn’t know one end of a mercury switch from the other,” Alejandra replied, one eyebrow ironically raised, “even if the wires poked him in the eye. He was a magician. Our skills complemented each other. But even his emotion and passion could not convince the manager of the Banco de Republicà in his European top hat and velvet tails to loan money to a brown-skinned butcher. Funes was Indian, beneath them. It did not matter on which side his father had fought or how many Argentinian steaks he exported. Funes fought for our vision of a prosperous Uruguay, and in the end, it killed him.” I itched to return to the ledger.
A noise nearby caught our attention and we saw a horse nosing its way up the laneway through the trees towards the house. Slowly coming into view we saw Superintendent Santiago, the new civilian policeman. Alejandra turned to me in alarm. She grasped my arm, with strength in her fingers that I did not know she possessed. She motioned me to be silent and began to cover the machine with the sheet.
Santiago performed his policing role with vigour. He would call unannounced to houses at suppertime entering kitchens with his hands clasped behind his back. People fawned about him, knocking over cups on tables as he crossed the threshold.
Santiago despised Funes’ intellectual prowess and did whatever he could to undermine it. He would tease him by asking him to subtract two hours and seventeen minutes from the current time. Funes would happily oblige, intentionally blind to Santiago’s derision.
I looked to the house. Our half-empty maté cups sat on the table companionably. We had finished our slivers of corned beef but crusts of bread remained on the plates. Pages from the open ledger on the table fluttered in the breeze.
“Buenos Noches”, Santiago called out, his sing-song voice cutting through the whistle of the evening breeze. He swung his leg and gracefully dismounted, then tied the reins to the wooden rail. Nuzzling his horse he said, “I wonder where everybody is, Vito?”, gloved fingers running along the animal’s neck.
He walked to the door and pushed it open with his whip and, turning to the table, took a sip from one of the cups. He opened the ledger and read the name on the first page: Funes, His Memory, his face inscrutable. Alejandra’s silhouette appeared in the doorway behind him.
“Funes waiting for you at the jail.” He spat ”You must return there immediately with me.”
They left, two figures astride the same horse, galloping into the twilight. The pages of the journal flickered restlessly in the evening breeze.
There were only a few lighted windows to be seen when they reached the town. Stray dogs skulked through the vacant streets inspecting empty tins being kicked about by the evening wind. The jail was in complete darkness. Santiago descended from the saddle and assisted Alejandra, marshalling her adroitly towards the door. The room was quiet but in the gloom a small ring of flame indicated another presence.
There was no answer. She could just make out the bulk of a man outlined by the dusking window. Santiago lit a match and set it to the wick in the lantern – then she saw his face. Aged, thinner, vulpine – the old scar livid in the lamplight. She started to rush to his side but Santiago held her shoulders and pressed her into a chair. Slowly she understood that this was not the reunion of lovers but an interrogation and she was the accused. As they emerged from the shadows Funes was revealed, hunched in a rickety wheelchair. He met her gaze with eyes narrowed into mean slits; intense, accusatory, bent on retribution.
“You thought that I was gone — you were sure that the horse you had doctored would trample me to death and that you could sell the plans to for more money— you left me for dead Alejandra!”
“No Funes! It’s not like that!”
Santiago silenced her with his hand.
“I see things more clearly now — I can see you for the witch that you are — I wish you damned!”
Funes lurched out of the wheelchair towards her, only to fall in a frustrated, undignified and crumpled heap on the floor. Santiago moved to help him and Alejandra bolted for the door. She hurtled across the street and into the long grass like a hunted capybara. She was fast. There was only one place to go. Maria Abella would have everything ready. The shouts from the jail echoed across the quiet night and Funes’ scream was the last thing that Alejandra heard.
“Alejandra, estas robando concha.”
The gates to the old school were open and she ran the last half mile, barely taking time to draw breath. The password - five, five, five. She smiled and tapped a rapid tattoo.
Thank you Funes, an easy code for a distressed puta to remember.
The door opened and Maria Abella appeared, worried but resolute.
“Let us not cry, we knew this day would come. Quickly, you don’t have much time.”
A little later Alejandra left with her few belongings in a small bag and the papers from the pastor strapped to her body.
Funes, you fool, I have played mouse to your cat for too many years now. All those times you offered to calm my spirit: “Mi amor, relax, have a little drink with me.” I knew then what I had to do. You didn’t realise the full extent of my prowess.
Now my dear, dear Funes, I will reveal the real Alejandra.
The following week, as the fingers of dawn tickled the Fraybentinos to life, Funes recounted the showdown with the intense clarity befitting a savant. His gentle rocking on the back veranda echoed the rhythm of each movement — Alejandra in flight…policia in pursuit…Santiago…Maria Abella de Ramirez…Alejandra’s disappearance…
I listened with a mixture of respect, pity and credence. He missed her, of that I am sure. He hoped to see her again, it was clear. Not from what he said but from what he did not say. Funes had endured a lifetime of betrayals. The greatest of them all… Alejandra?... his body … or his ‘corpse’ as he had begun to refer to it? … his maimed body that generated an over-reliance on intellect.
We sipped our matés. His mind ever active, devouring and regurgitating minutiae, animated and consumed by detail. I listened to his plans enraptured, a previously unimagined life opening before me. I imbibed his vision and wisdom with the thirst of a desert mule.
“Eduardo, our union could generate a productive and profitable formula for refrigeration - are you with me?”
I could deny him nothing.
And so our days took on a new framework. Funes directed with precision and alacrity. We worked for long hours and were inseparable, the days slipping into the nights. The results of our passionate industry could surely have become an international phenomenon.
Then …. that day …. when I rounded the corner of his fenced property to where Funes’ wheelchair habitually sat – and found it empty – nothing, no one, not even tracks in the sand. I climbed the five creaky steps to the wood-chipped veranda. There was nobody. I was deafened by the silence and gripped with a fear as sharp as the humidity that soaked me. Then I saw, in a corner, wedged between the wooden rails. A letter to me in his great handwriting. It began:
“My dear Eduardo, please forgive me…”
I reached for the balustrade to steady myself amidst the gut-wrenching silence.
The realisation hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.
“…I can no longer continue like this. The pain is far too great. Please know that you did good, Eduardo. Un cariñoso saludo. Funes.”
A drop of sweat stained the letter. I searched helplessly around the property for further clues, scanning for any signs of life – or death. No weapon. No sight of a ledger. No bottle of maté. A cloudless, purple sky glowed overhead. From the lane outside, breaking the silence, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves reverberated against the wooden house.
I left soon after for New York.
Many years later I heard that a body had washed up from the river. Nothing was ever heard of Alejandra. The river and the village and those days are mostly lost to me though I still remember the two of them, ghostly now and mercurial as clouds. I recall him. Seeing her as she had never been seen. His dark passionflower. I recall her and I wonder …
The Collaborators in this work are: Matthew Geden, Nick Smith, Donal Hayes, Assumpta Gaffney, Janet Heeran, Mich Maroney, Jordan Mc Carthy, and Jennifer Redmond.
Readers: Nick Smith (Narrator1) Matthew Geden (Narrator2) Mich Moroney (Maria Abella) Jennifer Redmond (Alejandra)
Editors: Mich Maroney, and Jennifer Redmond.
Sound editing: Jennifer Redmond.
Moving Imagery: Jennifer Redmond.
Music: Baisers de Sonora, by Monplaisir.
© The Unbound 2021.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.