This is my translation of the first two chapters of Mario Levrero’s novel The City. The protagonist lives in a perverse universe where nothing he does produces the outcome he expects and his choices keep leading him further and further from home. By his own admission, he doesn’t pay much attention to his environment, and so we, seeing things from his perspective, share his disorientation. I love the way Levrero renders his fussy point of view – his fixation on little details of furnishing and dress, his second thoughts piling up with the semicolons – and the slightly depressed calm with which he takes each strange new development.
The house, it seemed, had not been inhabited nor its doors and windows opened in many years.
The interior was in order, though to the taste and needs of the previous inhabitants – equivalent, for me, to disorder. But, I mean, there was nothing thrown on the floor, and the furniture, if not in the places I would have chosen for my comfort, didn’t get in the way, nor occupied positions without some logic (as often happens, finding a nightstand with the door turned to the wall, or a dresser located so close to another piece of furniture that it’s impossible to open its drawers).
Perhaps before entering, when I opened the door, I noticed the humidity; the walls and the ceiling dripped, everything was wet, as if covered in spit, the floor slippery. And the air saturated, with the smell of being closed and the long absence of human beings.
The weather didn’t help; the sun hadn’t been seen in several days, and a fine drizzle fell without pause and, once in a while, a heavy shower. The house had no heating; for the moment it was going to be impossible to drive out the moisture.
In the kitchen there was an old primus stove, but no fuel; only a few bottles, with the smell of kerosene, piled beneath the sink, behind a nylon curtain.
I remembered that, not far from there, there was a grocer; it seemed to me that the sensible first step would be to go out, though in the rain and despite my exhaustion, to buy kerosene to try to get the primus going.
But then I thought that perhaps it wasn’t worth it; I couldn’t dry out even the most necessary things, like the bedclothes and the clothes I had on; if it would serve me to make some hot drink, which I needed, that didn’t seem to compensate the walk.
I started by opening the windows and slowly fresh air began to circulate, though the closed smell would persist for some time; then I begin to put things in order – or disorder – so I could inhabit the house, however precariously.
I took off the mattresses, which were folded over the beds, and piled them on the ground; then, with some clothes that I brought in the suitcases, I improvised a place to lie, on the rusted springs of one of the beds.
Night was approaching and I had to find a way of spending it with a minimum of comfort; perhaps the sun would shine the next day, and everything would seem easier.
Finally I decided to go to the grocer. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring anything to eat, and I started to feel hungry; and when I tried to turn on the light – because it was hard to see inside the house, though night was still a while off – I found there was no electricity. I looked for a fuse box, or a box of plugs, but I found nothing; later it occurred to me that the electricity company had likely cut the supply, for lack of payment, maybe a long time ago. Finding neither candles nor a lamp, I put on, more out of habit than for real protection, the raincoat that I’d taken off on entering, and I left, leaving the doors and windows open, and began to walk.
I wasn’t sure of the grocer’s location; later I realised that I hadn’t the least idea of where to find it. I’d been only once, years ago, and in someone else’s company – without the need to pay especial attention to the route to fix it in the memory; and even if I had done so, probably I would have forgotten it.
Even so, I felt the impulse to walk to the right, and look around for some sign that would awaken the memory.
There were few houses, and they didn’t seem habitable. Walls that were peeling and even half-fallen; gardens invaded by high grass and wild plants, and a distressing absence of any sign of human life.
I felt disheartened and thought about returning; so much did the vacant lots that bordered the path, like the houses, and the forks or trails to the side, seem all the same, without any detail that invited me to hope. However I kept walking, partly from inertia, and also because I didn’t want to return, with an empty stomach, to spend an agonising night in that wet and dark house.
Night fell indeed; the outlines of things, already a little dissolved by the water, started losing all clarity. I thought that any moment, as the darkness deepened, a point of light would come on somewhere. There I would find a place to gather my strength.
But soon the darkness was total, and the light I hoped for did not come on.
The situation was getting worse.
The rain, which had already obliged me to take off my glasses, now fell in my eyes, after saturating my brows. My handkerchief dripped water, and there was no way to keep drying my eyes and forehead.
Often I left the path, or stepped in puddles. I decided to take off my shoes and socks, which, soaked, only served to hinder me. The raincoat was likewise useless; the water, with its persistence, seeped in everywhere, even inside the pockets.
Later I tried to go back, abandoning the idea of the grocer; the only fitting idea, in these conditions, was to find a refuge, to escape the rain as soon as possible. But the darkness, and the slips and falls – especially those I suffered when I left the path – left me disoriented, and I kept walking without knowing if I was getting closer to the house or further away.
I walked for a long time like this, I don’t know how long, tripping and cursing, moving only by the will of my legs, with the desire to lie down in the path and stay there, in desperate resignation. Suddenly, in the distance, I saw a pair of lights in movement.
Because of the distance, the rain, the undulations of the path, I wasn’t sure what direction the lights were moving in; at times they seemed to recede. But soon it became evident that they were approaching and finally the vehicle, which turned out to be an old truck, was only a few metres away. The light of the headlamps revealed that I was very much to the side of the path, and it was likely that the driver wouldn’t see me; I ran, moving my numb legs with difficulty, and waved my arms. The truck stopped.
I approached the driver’s window; I couldn’t see who I was speaking to because the cabin was dark, and at that moment the headlights went out.
“Please,” I cried, “Let me in, take me somewhere.”
There was no immediate answer; I thought I heard a discussion, although the noise of the motor – which the driver kept running – didn’t permit me to hear the words. Finally, a rough voice was heard:
It sounded like an order.
I had trouble reaching the other door; at first I thought about going around the back, but I was afraid the truck would start without giving me time to get in. I had another doubt, about whether I should travel in the cabin, where there was possibly no space, since beside the driver there was at least one other person. But without stopping to think I went around the front and looked for the door handle, which I found with some difficulty; no effort was made from inside to help me. At last I opened it and climbed laboriously into the seat, which was too high.
As in many trucks, there was no kind of running board and, to climb, it was necessary to rest a foot on the wheel.
The voice murmured something like we didn’t have all night and I could have got in faster; the driver set off before I’d even had a chance to close the door.
Inside the cabin, the scarce light that the headlights reflected back from the path permitted me to see something; I discovered that beside the driver there was a woman, though I couldn’t make out many of their features. The truck driver had a thick moustache, and quite a big nose; the woman’s face was more in shadow. I could barely see her hair, which fell over her face.
“You’re dripping wet!” the woman exclaimed without looking at me, after a brief silence which also seemed to me hostile. Then she spoke with the driver, in a different tone. “I told you we shouldn’t let him in.”
The man stayed mute; she, on the other hand, kept murmuring, though without directing her words to either of us in particular. I thought I ought to say something, and I made the most of a gap in her speech to explain that I didn’t know the area, that I’d gone out to do some shopping and the night had overtaken me without having found the grocer; but my story did not seem to awaken the least interest, and I let it die, the silence becoming more aggressive.
Soon my attention was drawn to a strange movement by the woman, slow and continuous. With surprise I had to recognise that she was sliding, patiently, towards me.
Meanwhile, she kept talking against me, describing all the damage that my wet clothes were causing the upholstery of the seat (which seemed to me in very bad condition, anyway; a spring poked me in the back and another in one buttock, and when I tried to shift position another spring always appeared to torment me).
And while she talked she put her naked leg next to mine and rubbed it lightly, even though my trousers were wet. I looked at her sideways, but her attitude appeared to remain aggressive, murmuring without looking my way.
Apart from the surprise, and a certain discomfort, this behaviour caused me an attitude of aversion to her; I wasn’t sure what to do. On one hand I thought that my response to her provocations (an approach, a caress) meant a lack of respect for the driver, who, according to her, had decided to allow me in the truck. On the other hand, a frank rejection might arouse her bad humour, pretended or not, to such a point that the man would be obliged to make me get out, to please her, or to not have to put up with her any more.
For a moment it occurred to me that the relation between them might not be, as one tended to suppose at first, romantic in nature; however, if not that – or a merely conjugal relationship – I couldn’t see why the truck would be their joint property – as it appeared to be, since the driver could decide my presence in it, and the woman protested the same (apart from her concern for the upholstery)–; I even thought about a working relationship, but that seemed to me a stupid idea.
She continued her manoeuvres; now, once in a while, she squeezed my knee with her hand, and insisted on pressing against my side. In other conditions, this would have awoken desire in me; at this moment, on the contrary, fear and anguish began to dominate me.
I looked for excuses to maintain my indifference; the idea occurred to me that the woman must be ugly, unattractive (her voice, however, sounded warm and young); I told myself that a beautiful woman would not need to resort to travelling in a truck to establish a relationship with a man; unless the driver – if he was in truth her husband – were so jealous that he didn’t leave her alone for a moment, and she was obliged to make the most of what opportunities came her way.
I resolved the conflict accidentally, or at least I deferred it, taking refuge in sleep. It gave me such good results – I mean that the provocations ceased, and the offences as well – that each time I woke I pretended to still be asleep, until I really slept again.
When I woke I paid attention, hoping to hear something of importance to me; but I think at no point did they part their lips.
The exhaustion, and nervous tension – present and past – made a disorder of thoughts and images mix in my mind; and this mixture which reigned in sleep continued, in confused form, when I woke.
I dreamed that I was at home; but it was much larger and had an infinite number of rooms, all inhabited by strangers. There was a great bustle, and an interminable coming and going in the corridors. They passed by me, ignoring me; I was convinced that I’d become invisible. Sometimes I put myself in someone’s way, but they didn’t run into me, but avoided me, although making the evasion seem accidental, or inattentive, without ever looking at me.
In parallel I kept thinking about the problem of the woman and the driver; it occurred to me that that feeling of respect, or gratitude, that prevented me from responding to the erotic attractions of the woman, was exaggerated, since if the driver had picked me up, even despite her opposition, this was his duty as a driver, and as a human being, and he had no right to treat me with brusqueness – like he’d done at the start, when I had trouble getting in –, nor ignore with such a lack of courtesy my explanation of why I was there, in the middle of the rain and the night, or to maintain this obstinate aggressive silence.
This reasoning, not as clear as I express it here, and filled with intense, slightly exaggerated emotions, was lost among the images of my dreams, which, separate, went another way, and suddenly rose to the surface, coming into closeup. I found myself once again at home, in one of the rooms, making love to the driver’s woman, lying on the ground. The room was empty, without any furniture, the walls nude. The dream didn’t please me; it was not accompanied by any erotic charge. My manner of making love was preoccupied, worried by my thoughts about them (and, curiously, I thought of her as she were another person, as if I were considering an abstract problem, despite the fact that, at the same time, I was fully aware that she was the woman with whom I was lying) and watching people pass along the corridor, in front of the door, in that constant coming and going.
Some craned their heads and kept going, others stayed observing us gravely for a few instants, but no one made any sign of lewdness, or disapproval; rather they examined us with curiosity and reserve, sometimes as if regarding a scientific phenomenon.