on starting over

It was raining this morning, and I turned up the collar of my coat and hopped around cold puddles on the way to the airport. It is raining tonight in Rio, a godsent summer rain after a blazing and sticky day, and I want to open all the windows. These were two different days, if I think about it, but sleepless tossing on planes and heavy, irresistible naps upon arrival have pressed them into one, a single double-wide day spanning the Americas on the eve of the new year.

Over the past few months, Santiago has been slipping away from me. Not only in the sense that I’ve accumulated so much material that my eyes (or my mind’s eye) simply can’t bring it all into focus without immense concentration, but also in the ways in which I’ve been living this project. It was my “obsession” with the Argentine butler’s life that won me the time and money to follow in his footsteps; but I feel as though, on this journey, I’ve been drawn into talking more about my obsession than about the original subject himself. This, when I catch it happening, makes the whole undertaking seem foolish, and not a story I’d be interested in reading. It was agonizing to be the sole adventurer into a contradictory labyrinth, unsure if a treasure or the Minotaur of banality awaited, but I far prefer that to giving quick, polished snippets of a story that has long since ceased to convince me.

The warm rain and the quiet, and the blank page, may help bring me back. After a makeshift dinner (I still need to learn how to cook like a real Brazilian) in this too-big apartment, I slapped the table in a decisive way and started drawing up a list: of names, of loose threads, of telephone numbers now doubly or triply out of date. I opened up new letters from Santiago, dated during Carnaval 1990, in which he describes the city and his decades in it as “a grandiose trash can,” he having long since become accustomed and become one with this realm of sucia materia. Here’s to diving in.

glitches in memory

It’s a snow day for much of Washington. Snow days were one of the main events of my childhood — even now, on a wintry morning, I’ve caught myself reaching for the phone to dial the local weather hotline and hear the raspy voice of the elementary-school secretary, although the status of the Charlottesville City Schools no longer affects my daily routine in the slightest. This year, of course, I have neither snow days nor weekends, so every day has the potential to be a full shift or something less rigorous.

Still, the snow has closed federal offices, which means I can’t consult the Archives or the IRS (did Santiago file tax returns as a resident alien?), so I’m at home mulling over my documents and freeing up space on my hard drive. The latter has involved coming face to face with many past selves, all lurking in my massively disorganized file tree. In my junior year of high school, a contingent from the Spanish Club took a spring trip to Italy. (Nobody questioned this.) I had a silver Samsung point-and-shoot, I was on yearbook staff, and I took pictures constantly. That was what I’d remembered, and it was confirmed by finding a nearly 4GB folder with all the photos from that week. A look at the file names confirmed that I hadn’t deleted a single one. I took fewer pictures then than I do now, enabled by the almost limitless capacity of my memory card, but I also deleted fewer.

Looking through this stream of snapshots and culling over half has been an interesting exercise in memory and interpretation. It wasn’t that long ago, of course, and I still remember the boredom of the bus rides, my irritation in Assisi, buying fresh bread and lemon soda in Florence. But the pictures remind me of the crush around the Trevi Fountain and the tour guides’ bobbing flags, sometimes poking up into the corner of the pictures, and I see more clearly how my photos themselves changed the dynamics of the group, how people guarded themselves or grew quieter or more animated. And when there are three or four nearly identical shots in sequence, I can see what I was looking for, and how my eye has changed: often I prefer the landscape with the man crossing the road in Turin, where in 2008 I waited for him to leave the frame and took another one. Stranger, at times as I scanned through the photos I couldn’t turn off my Santiago-vision; I found myself looking for clues in my pictures of Rome as if I expected to see the mysterious Mr. Accarini appear in a crowd. Continue reading

getting sidetracked by j. edgar hoover

I’ll say this for the files I’ve found so far: they are almost never what I’m looking for, but they are rarely uninteresting. Yesterday afternoon I killed a few hours requesting files on White House personnel, on the trail of a friend who Santiago referred to as the resident Spanish teacher (Eisenhower’s Spanish teacher? Your guess is as good as mine).

The Archives has a hulking new site out in College Park, Maryland, with a complicated obstacle course of security checkpoints, a sea of reading tables, and a window onto the suburban forest. There was only one file that seemed directly relevant — an FBI dossier on White House employees, which seemed to be from around Santiago’s period. Thinking in post-9/11 terms, I assumed that these would be background checks on new hires, perhaps to make sure that the Spanish teacher wasn’t a Red spy. What I wasn’t expecting was to open the slim folder and see it stamped with TOP SECRET and OBSCENE. Continue reading

stoking the fire

The theme of the past two weeks has been extraordinarily depressing: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I was looking for the personal papers of Ambassador Walter Thurston; he ordered them burned in his will. I was looking for personnel records at the Brazilian embassy in Washington; at the time, they burned the old documents. It was the procedure, they say. The man who told me about Ambassador Thurston — a student of history, who inherited the ambassador’s library — was quick to reassure me that there was no hint of scandal in the injunction to burn the correspondence. The ambassador was a punctilious man, a career diplomat, who wouldn’t have left many personal traces in any case. The archivist at the Brazilian embassy, who seemed to be half-asleep as she droned into the phone on this icy morning, told me wearily that it was just too long ago for them to have anything.

Continue reading

keeping my distance

image

An update after a brief pause to eat some turkey: I told the Dale supervisors what I’d been up to for the past four months or so, and they approved the second half of this year’s funding! Now I can put an end to this farce, admit that I’ve been holed up in a studio apartment in central Jersey ordering Indian food in and concocting stories about Latin America, and finally buy my dream car. Thought you all should be the first to know.

In all seriousness, I’ve had a week (and change) of sleeping in, leaving messages, and answering lots of questions about what I’ve been up to, and hopefully now I can embark in a serious way on information-gathering in Washington. So far I’ve confirmed a few losses: the ambassador’s personal papers were burned, and the bust of Lorenzo de Medici that hypnotized Santiago is not on display (thanks, Obama). But I have spent a few afternoons in the National Gallery, in the East Gallery that Santiago visited some 200 times, wandering dazed through the Medioevo and the Renaissance. I ran into one of the four Madonnas that adorned a corner in the apartment in Leblon, and found it unnerving — Giotto’s Madonna and Child are slit-eyed and sneering, and as I leaned in I saw the cracks cleaving their pale skin. I might have been light-headed from a walk in the cold rain, but this first room sent me weaving towards a couch. The Madonna and Child to one side looked chinless and prematurely old. In a thirteenth-century painting from a Franciscan monastery, the Virgin’s skin is green and her fingers are thin, their joints swollen.

I thought of coming here over and over, in winter and summer, and contemplating these static faces. Santiago came so often that he began to compile a hefty catalogue of the works in the gallery, from the Italian Masters to Chinese carvings. I stuck to Italy on these first visits. Continue reading