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Posts from Apr 2023:

2023-04-16 14:47


With Justifiable Pride

I wouldn't usually, or would I, but this story warrants posting the whole thing. I promise, if anyone with an interest in the copyright is reading, that I am doing so for the purpose of commentary/analysis.

This story appears in the excellent collection (with what could be my favorite title of all) Around the Day in Eighty Worlds.

"With Justifiable Pride"
by Julio Cortázar

None of us recalls the text of the law that obliges us to collect the dead leaves, but we are convinced that it would not occur to anyone to leave them uncollected; it's one of those things that goes way back, to the first lessons of childhood, and now there is no great difference between the elementary acts of lacing your shoes or opening your umbrella and what we do in collecting the dead leaves on the second of November at nine in the morning.

Nor would it occur to anyone to question the appropriateness of that date, it's part of the customs of the country and needs no justification. The day before is reserved for visiting the cemetery, where we simply tend the family tombs, sweeping away the dead leaves that hide them and make it hard to read the names, although on this day the leaves have no official importance, so to speak, at most they are a nuisance that we have to get out of the way before changing the water in the flower vases and cleaning the snail tracks off the tombstones. Occasionally someone has insinuated that the campaign against the dead leaves could be moved up two or three days so that on the first of November the cemetery would already be clean and the families could gather around the tombs without the troublesome sweeping that always provokes disagreeable scenes and distracts us from our duties on this day of remembrance. But we have never accepted these suggestions, just as we have never believed that the expeditions to the northern forests can be halted, no matter what they cost us. These are traditions that have their reasons for existing, and we have often heard our grandparents respond sharply to these anarchic voices that the accumulation of dead leaves on the tombs is a vivid illustration to us all of the problems the leaves present each autumn and thus movtivates us to participate more enthusiastically in the work to be done the next day.

Each of us has a specific task to be done in this campaign. The next day, when we return to the cemetery, we see that the municipality has already installed a white kiosk in the middle of the plaza, and as we arrive we line up and wait our turn. Since the line is interminable, most of us don't get home until late, but we have the satisfaction of having received our card from the hands of a city employee. Thereafter our participation is recorded each day in the little boxes on the card, which a special machine perforates as we carry the sacks of leaves or the cages of mongooses, according to the task we have been assigned. The children enjoy themselves the most because they are given very large cards that they love to show their mothers, cards that assign them to various light tasks, especially observing the behavior of the mongooses. We adults have the hardest job, since in addition to directing the mongooses we have to fill the bags with the leaves that the mongooses collect, and then carry them on our shoulders to the municipal trucks. To the elders are assigned the compressed air pistols used to cover the leaves with powdered snake essence. But it is the work of the adults that carries the greatest responsibility, because the mongooses often get distracted and don't do what we want; when that happens our cards soon reflect the inadequacy of our work and the likelihood increases of our being sent to the northern forests. As you might expect, we do everything possible to avoid that, but if it happens we realize that it's just a custom that is every bit as natural as the present campaign; still, it's just human nature to apply ourselves as much as possible to the task of making the mongooses work in order to get as many points as possible on our cards, and therefore we are strict with the mongooses, the elders, and the children, all essential to the success of the campaign.

We have sometimes wondered where the idea came from to powder the leaves with snake essence, but after some fruitless speculation we have eventually concluded that the origin of customs, especially when they are useful and successful, is lost in the mists of time. One fine day the city must have realized that its population was inadequate for the collection of each year's leaf fall and that the only intelligent utilization of the mongooses, which abound in the country, could overcome this deficiency. Some functionary from the towns bordering the forests must have noticed that the mongooses, completely indifferent to dead leaves, would become ravenous for them if they smelled of snake. It must have taken a long time to reach this conclusion, to study the reaction of the mongooses to the dead leaves, to powder the leaves so the mongooses would go after them with a vengeance. We have grown up in an era when this was already established and codified, the mongoose raisers have the necessary personnel for training them, and the expeditions to the forests bring back an adequate supply of snakes each summer. So these things seem so natural to us that it is only rarely and with great effort that we can ask the questions our parents answered so sharply when we were children, thereby teaching us how to answer the questions our own children would someday ask us. It is curious that this desire to question only occurs, and then very rarely, before or after the campaign. On the second of November, when we have received our cards and reported for our assigned tasks, the justification for all these activities seems so obvious that only a madman could doubt the utility of the campaign and the manner in which it is completed. Nevertheless, our authorities must have foreseen that possibility because the text of the law printed on the back of the cards details the penalties to be administered in such cases, but no one remembers it ever having been necessary to apply them.

We have always admired the way the city distributes our work so that the life of the state and the country is unaffected by the campaign. Adults dedicate five hours a day to the collection of dead leaves, before or after our regular work in government or trade. Children continue to attend gymnastics classes and civic and military training, and the elders take advantage of the daylight hours to leave their rest homes and assume their respective places. After two or three days the campaign has accomplished its first objective and the streets and plaza of the central district are free of dead leaves. Then those of us in charge of the mongooses have to redouble our precautions, for as the campaign progresses the mongooses show less zeal for their work and it's our grave responsibility to inform the municipal inspector from our district of this fact, so he can order replacement supplies of powder. The inspector only gives this order after making sure that we have done everything possible to get the mongooses to collect the leaves, and if he concludes that we have requested new supplies frivolously we run the risk of being mobilized immediately and sent to the forests. But when we say risk we obviously exaggerate, since the expeditions to the forests form part of the customs of the state just as much as the campaign itself and nobody would think of protesting something that is just a duty like any other.

It has sometimes been whispered that it is a mistake to assign the powder guns to the elders. Since this is an ancient custom it cannot be a mistake, but it does sometimes happen that they get distracted and squander a good part of the snake essence in a small section of street or plaza, forgetting that they should be distributing it in the widest area possible. Then the mongooses savagely attack a heap of dead leaves, collect them in a few minutes, and bring them to where we are waiting with our sacks; but afterwards, when we confidently assume that things are going to proceed with the same dispatch, we see them pause, sniff among themselves as if confused, and give up their task with obvivous signs of fatigue and even disgust. In such cases the leader uses his whistle and for a few moments the mongooses gather a few leaves, but it doesn't take long for us to realize that the powder has been used up and the mongooses naturally resist a task that has lost all interest for them. If we could count on an adequate supply of snake essence, we wouldn't have these tension-filled siutations in which the elders, the adults, and the city inspector are all called to task and suffer greatly; but from time immemorial it has been the case that the supply of snake essence has barely covered the needs of the campaign, and that the expeditions to the forest have in some cases not accomplished their objective, requiring the city to call upon its scanty reserves for the new campaign. This situation intensifies our fear that a greater number of recruits will be called up during the next mobilization, although fear is obviously too strong a word, since the increase in the number of recruits is just as much a part of the customs of the state as is the campaign proper, and no one would think of protesting something that constitutes a duty like any other. We seldom speak among ourselves of the expeditions to the forests, and those who return from them are required to remain silent by a law we hardly notice. We are convinced that the authorities wish to spare us all concern about the expeditions to the forests of the north, but, sadly, no one can overlook the losses. We try not to draw conclusions, but the deaths of so many friends and acquaintances in each expedition leads us to believe that the searchers for snakes in the forests must constantly face fierce resistance from the inhabitants of the border country, sometimes with heavy losses and rumors of viciousness and cruelty. Although we don't say so openly, we are all indignant that a nation that does not collect its dead leaves should oppose our gathering snakes from the forests. We have never doubted for a moment that our authorities are prepared to guarantee that our expeditions enter their territory with no other intention and that the resistance they encounter can only be attributed to a stupid and senseless foreign pride.

The generosity of our authorities is boundless, even in matters that could disturb the public peace of mind. Therefore we will never know—nor do we wish to know, it goes without saying—what becomes of our glorious wounded. As if to save us from unnecessary suffering, they only publish a list of the expeditioners who are unhurt and another naming those who have died, their coffins arriving in the same military train that carries the expeditioners and the snakes. Two days later, authorities and citizens alike gather at the cemetery for the burial of the casualties. Rejecting the vulgar expedient of mass burial, our authorities want each expeditioner to have his own tomb, easily identifiable by its gravestone and any inscriptions the family wishes to have carved there; but since the number of the fallen has grown larger each year lately, the city has appropriated the adjoining lands for the enlargement of the cemetery. So you can imagine the size of the crowd that gathers there on the morning of November first to honor the fallen. Unfortunately, autumn is already well along by this time and dead leaves cover the paths and tombs, so it is very difficult to orient ourselves; often we become completely confused and spend many hours wandering around and asking directions before locating the tombs we are looking for. We almost all carry rakes, and often we remove the leaves from a tomb thinking that it is the one we have been looking for, only to discover that we were mistaken. But we eventually locate the tombs, and by the middle of the afternoon we can sit down and rest. In a way we are glad to have had so much trouble locating the graves because this seems to justify the campaign that will begin the next day, as if our dead themselves were urging us to collect the dead leaves, even though we don't have the mongooses yet: they will be brought the following day, when the authorities distribute this year's ration of snake essence, carried back by the expeditioners along with the coffins of the dead, and then will the elders powder the dead leaves, which the mongooses will gather.

Now I have to comment. My first observation is that I like his use of the phrase "grave responsibility".

Updated: 2023-04-16 14:49