(Dante’s tomb in Ravenna – courtesy wikipedia.)
The new heaven and the new earth.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
Wandering like a specter through the huge city, his skeptical Tuscan self had suggested that Dante would be more receptive than he to the new times of coincidence and convenience … and to the celestial benefits of revisionism.
But how to escape the grip of the goals of his own life’s work? Renege on his dedication? The fault of academia! Culpa mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
Or was Matilda perhaps the underlying cause of his doubts?
Emergardo parted the still curtain and pressed his cheekbone against the cool windowpane. He could see a patch of blue-gray sky and across the narrow street three floors below the entrance to a restaurant. The rain had stopped. Calle Montevideo was quiet.
“Thanks be to God, the winter-in-June heavens are clearing … azure will soon envelop us like a circus tent,” he said.
“Then why not go out walking as usual,” Matilda suggested in the ironic tone she used when she wanted to be alone. “You’ve worked enough.”
He watched her frown at the piles of newspapers and clippings and bulletins and announcements and museum guides and street maps and assorted advertising handouts and his scribbled notes on White Nights and The Adelf creeping away from his laptop toward “her half” of the dining table.
“We’ve played our game,” she said. “You have the afternoon to kill.”
“All that has to be postponed now.”
Though the game was over, in his mind he still saw images of missed moves while the verses continued to churn—‘tenuous king, oblique bishop, merciless queen, straight castle, slavish pawn … they do not know that the famous hand of the player rules their destiny…. the player too is prisoner of another board … of black nights and white days. God moves the player; and he, the piece. What god behind God starts the plot of power and time and dream and agony?’
Oh, that man’s words! Those words migrating from one region to another of his own mind. Had he meant only the plot of the game? And what god did he mean anyway? Dante’s god? Or did he mean more? What stood behind the pieces and the turns of his own life? From pawn to king, from king to pawn. As if he were only a peon in the hands of plot makers. Some reward for a lifetime of dedication to truth! He had come to think that loyalty was the most stupid quality he had inherited from his stolid southern father who had wanted to name him Giuseppe, or even Angelo in the name of nation or conviction or faith.
He thought: It is enough to say “no” to the past to condemn it.
Maybe Matilda was right. But discipline was a stranger to her. Chess should have changed her but it hadn’t had any visible effect. If she were only aware of of the discipline it took not to abandon.
How he hated the evil little computer. And she thought he was free. If she only knew! How hard not to let life take over and finally let himself tip over the edge. Only the awareness that this same evening his doubts had to unravel, that ends would come together and understanding arrive, made his chained-to-the-table hours bearable.
“Rather odd, don’t you think, an elderly foreigner from Florence confined behind the windows of an apartment on Calle Montevideo,” she chided.
She, who never left their barrio. Or did she? Last Sunday he’d lured her toward Plaza San Martín. And what did she do? Just before exiting onto the plaza, she stopped in her tracks, closed her eyes and refused to go one step farther. Not even a glance toward his favorite spot. The center. The key to the city. All she had to do was take a look at it. What had happened? Disinterest? Sense of disorientation? Lost in the world? Or was it her Tuscan cynicism … just like his mother’s?
Spell-stopped, he had watched her walk away along Avenida Santa Fe … and then turn into an elegant apartment building near the great avenue.
The elevated center of the plaza had been flooded with huge multicolored hearts. He had gone back to count them. One hundred hearts. Open hearts. Were they a suggestion, a secret message, an omen. or perhaps a confirmation? And all she had to do was take one step forward, open her eyes and see the hearts … and save him and herself from committing their betrayals.
“Emergardo, you seem to have less curiosity about actually walking the streets and seeing the city than in recording your impressions of it. And your rejection of involvement in this intrigue of Nazi grandsons and a Dante building is even crazier. Magic realism, indeed! Your real life situation seems contrived to fit the story you want to write … the one you continue to write. While you retreat from the one you should write.”
“Curiosity is an old curse,” he muttered, in his mind beginning to digress. To ward off the temptation. Oh yes, she wanted him to live life rather than contemplate it. She dealt in generalizations when he needed details … to hold him fast. While marshalling the streets each day and breathing the polluted air he brooded over the equation. “The problem is that curiosity and the living of life on a big scale degenerates into conquest and dreams of empire. Now everything is known. European dreams of universal sovereignty are over.”
Eurocentrism was at fault. Academia too, the reason everyone except the Roman Church forgets the existence of South America. As if civilization existed only at home, and elsewhere barbarism reigned. No wonder the propensity to war between civilizations. Oh, sardonic Matilda! So young and so astute. As his mother had been, forever to the point. If he could only be like that. If he could stop this maddening habit of transforming people into symbols.
Even Matilda, the potential traitoress. During all this time here she had told him it was just another of his dreams. His fifty-five magic nights. The dark nights of a dreamer. The ancient past invading his life. History of another world.
Dante had nothing to do with it, she said, as if holding him back, him tottering on the edge of the black hole. The hole, black, the hole of madness and betrayal, always there, calling him. ‘Come in! Come in!’ What did his publisher care about forgotten people left behind in a town somewhere in the Andes? About probably non-existent Nazis?
Maybe it was a mad dream of black nights (knights) and white days (colorlessness). The restlessness of the dreamer. His restlessness. His dream. He didn’t know anything. Still, he believed, the future would reveal the truth.
The soft ring of the telephone startled them both. As each time. He looked at Matilda. Another journalist? Or another mysterious summons for her? She ignored the insistent ringing. They both watched it in its little black rack until it sputtered and fell silent.
When apropos of nothing Matilda proposed a glass of Malbeq he breathed a long sigh of relief, “aaah, yes,” and sat down at her half of the table. Still, he knew, that ring was emblematic of the fracture between them.
Each person in his own way is as loyal to his positive instincts as the totality of his strengths permits; and each is as capable of the most loathsome betrayals as his cleverness and hubris allow. Professor Emeritus Emergardo Da Molino had dedicated his intellectual life to unraveling the mysteries of La Divina Commedia. For the benefit of the poor reader, he had once thought … long before the arrival of beautiful, traitorous and too young Matilda.
The poor reader could never figure it out. The Comedy had to be explained and interpreted like the intricacies of Bible-Koran-Torah. Fantasy twists and spins, losing itself in dreams, before its mystery becomes comprehensible. Hardly any new academic work on Dante Alighieri was published without a reference to his interpretative studies (pure fantasies all, he knew) on the work of his fellow Tuscan.
But how far from real life he had wandered in the process. Borne on lamb’s clouds, drifting, drifting straying from the shore. Dante’s own fault. No, he didn’t need this at all.
“Para nada,” he translated.
The ex-professor and now editorial advisor to a Florentine publisher could live in economic ease on his lecture tours and learned articles. His dreamy versions of Dante’s imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and paradise held listeners of the world enthralled. Critics however charged that his views were pure fiction. (1)
But for Emergardo, the writer’s “expedition”—Dante’s nightmare—now related to her: Matilda, not Beatrice.
It had been both consolation and dilemma that during his hazardous journey Dante was guided by his constant love, diaphanous Beatrice. Oh, if Matilda had only looked at Plaza San Martín … and at the omnipotent hearts! Instead of wandering off down Santa Fe to God knows where. To only the stars knew whom. Just a glimpse would have sufficed to accompany Dante on his journey. On his trip too, Emergardo needed Matilda, her acumen, her down-to-earthiness, her guidance, her beauty.
But no! She didn’t even lift her eyes toward Plaza San Martín.
Now, in the seventh year of the III Millennium, Emergardo Da Molino, both fascinated and bewildered by the lunatic plan of relocating Dante’s ashes to the bizarre Palacio Barolo grasping for Buenos Aires heavens, had convinced her to accompany him on this months-long mission, financed by the once distinguished but today degenerating Florentine publishing house, de vulgari eloquentia, more interested in the mundane potentialities of his research than in Dante studies.
What did they expect from him anyway, a Dan-what’s-his-name novel? What did Matilda expect? Yes, he knew, they all expected the great novel from him. Not on your life! Not from him! It must have been that figlio di puttana, Gianpaolo Rossi, who spread the word that he, the Dante fantasist, was even in Argentina.
What was Da Molino up too anyway, the academic world wondered?
Was another Umberto Eco in the making, the literary world speculated?
Was Da Molino concerned with transferring Dante’s bones to Buenos Aires or was Emergardo writing a novel … or was he up to something more sinister? Hidden Nazi money!
Oh, Dante’s remains!
Journalists from La Nación and El Clarín and Página 12 had been hounding him, harassing him, late night phone calls and ringing his doorbell during chess hour … and, he suspected, secretly interviewing Matilda. Pictures of the Florentine beauty in the magazines at all the newsstands. Suspicions of an Italian-backed plot to recycle old dirty money, to convert Palacio Barolo into God knows what, and, to transfer Dante here as dreamers like the Italo-Argentineans Palanti and Barolo had once imagined … and that Professor Emergardo Da Molino was the investigator, negotiator and messenger.
And if so, whose messenger?
Maybe he should let the reporters in after all. And why not free himself from academia? Liberate himself with betrayal and hubris and write the novel de vulgari eloquentia needs to save its publishing realm … and that Matilda so needed to stay with him.
Would a novel by him again do the trick for Italian letters, as Umberto Eco once did? And what kind of a novel could it be? Murder in Hell and Sodomy in Paradise and the seven cardinal sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, Nazi hierarchs disembarking from U-boats in the night on the coast of Patagonia on the heels of tens of thousands of fleeing Jewish immigrants; Nazi settlements in the Andes promoted by deviant secret services; sons and grandsons born; illicit money flowing; Nazi Argentinean real estate tycoons working with Fourth Reich money. The novel of the decade, it would be.
“Dixit Dominus,” Emergardo muttered. “And escape from the demon of vanity Dante forgot to list.” Vanity, that terrifying blood-sucking demon. And no corporation did he detest more than his own academia. Its destructive gossiping, its rivalries dividing even brother and sister. His dilemma was how to defend himself from his own kind.
At first Emergardo had been outraged by the very suggestion. It was the encroachment of the evil of contemporary history into the Dantesque story of sin and redemption—his only hold on the world … until Matilda. Then, a journalist from Patagonia had revealed that offspring of escaped Nazis hidden in the Andean resort of Bariloche were bidding to buy Palacio Barolo … to buy Paradise, Purgatory and Hell … with recycled Fourth Reich money.
Dante’s bones or not, Nazis in Dante’s Paradise was too much.
Yet he knew that his mother the skeptic would have snorted, bah! It was only his tenacious loyalty vice at work.
The snobbism of you academics! Matilda had charged acidly.
Again his vanity, he knew.
Coincidence? Or convenience?
At the suggestion of doubt he felt himself levitate and go over the edge, again sinking, plummeting, falling headlong from Paradise to Inferno with no stop in Purgatory. And during his imaginary Dantesque flight, down, down, down from the Barolo tower past floor twenty to floor fourteen to floor nine—where, he recalled as he fell, one set of elevators ends and another begins—then down and down, lower and lower, in his fall from grace.
Falling, he heard Matilda’s skeptical snicker.
No wonder he detested and feared those crazy elevators in Palacio Barolo.
Nonetheless—sin embargo, he pronounced silently to switch his thinking from Italian to Spanish—Professor Da Molino sketched out the mathematics of the terrain in preparation for the scheduled nocturnal encounter in Purgatory. A useless and wasted exercise, it was. For not a moment passed that Dante’s divine scheme used in the construction of Palacio Barolo was not fixed in his mind. For Dante’s phantasmagoric images reflected also his own convictions of God’s retreat into nonexistence. Or into triviality. For a moment, the universe, Dante’s and his own, appeared like the useless invention of a malicious god.
“It was the number 3,” he would say at the very outset. Audiences everywhere snapped to attention when he pronounced the magic number. The sacred Trinity!
The perfect number, he regularly told listeners, was the superstructure, coherent, and reproduced over and again throughout the Divine Comedy: three canticles of thirty-three cantos each, plus one extra in the first, the Inferno, making a total of one hundred cantos. The three apostles, the three theological virtues, Peter, old Petrus the Rock (and traitor! he recalled: why oh why Petrus?), Petrus traipsing around Beatrice three times, then around Dante the narrator. Each canto composed of three-line tercets, the first and third lines rhyme, the second line rhymes with the beginning of the next tercet, establishing the overlap that had enraptured him since he was a boy.
“Dante’s perfect circular realms,” he now noted—as if the description too were not engraved in gold in his mind—“are subdivided: Inferno is composed of nine levels of the palacio, the vestibule makes a tenth. Purgatory has seven terraces, plus two ledges in a kind of ante-Purgatory. Adding these to the Earthly Paradise yields ten zones. Paradise is composed of nine heavens; Empyrean makes the tenth.”
So far, so good.
Nothing was simpler than the analogy with Palacio Barolo on Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires.
But he lost down-to-earth Matilda when he pronounced that his mission had to do with the stars. The mad flight of the dreamer, she said. She wanted a real novel. A modern novel. Forget the superstructures.
Admittedly the stellar symbol puzzled Emergardo, too. The “stars” at the end of each part of the Commedia and Dante’s fifty-five star citations mystified him. Maybe it was the star of the exile in the world, the star of the uprooted dreamer of home.
Now he knew it was not just coincidence that he was walking and corralling Buenos Aires in June, making it his. At this time of year and to the delight of astronomers and cartographers the axis of the downtown skyscraper and the whole Avenida de Mayo itself align exactly with the Southern Cross constellation.
The horizontal line to the Southern Cross was the key.
“A strange feeling, living in what at first seemed to be the last stop before the end of the earth … I’m heading south toward the Southern Cross,” he mused, backtracking to cut through the Duhau Hotel from Calle Posadas. Nods in response to the greetings of lackeys in black at the doors, buenas tardes on the marble stairs, an hola here and there in the terraced garden cafè. From all sides, Come le va, Professor.
Emergardo Da Molino was tall and thin, his gaunt and pale face and scalp showing through long but thinning gray hair now tanned from his urban hikes. He wore a dark raincoat over a blue jacket and blue shirt with a loosely tied striped cravat revealing a scrawny neck reflecting his sixty-four years.
I’m still as Eurocentric as I am egocentric, he admitted, exiting onto Avenida Alvear. ‘In Florence you forget the existence of places like Buenos Aires. You forget that people in those places feel they are at the center of the world, too. Why is that so? Why are we like that? Solipsists, each and every last one of us. Even in my village out in the country where the Arno River is shallow and dries up in the summer, I’m at the center of the world. Now after two months here I appreciate the feeling of being both in the culo al mundo but somehow also at a new mid-point. New views of old stars!
“Cartographers are such an orderly bunch,” he murmured, turning south on Calle Libertad, a pandemonium of ideas, convictions and confusion running amok in his mind. “Charting out empires in convenient straight lines. As if perfectly horizontal lines explained the world. Oh, the convenience of an axis. The plot of space. The sensational stuff of dreamers and novelists.”
It had required time and more time to transform transplanted Europeans into Argentineans. Time for the conquest of new spaces. Time for the absorption of new star systems. Time for the birth of a new language and a new world vision. Time and space for a new world center, national identity, the vanity of nationhood. Gustavo, Argentinean to the core, retains Europe only in the memory of his great-great-great Volga German grandfather and sees his city as ‘the Paris of South America’. Ah, the aura of the past and the melancholy in the art deco cafés and French buildings … as if this were no more than a faded and out-of-focus Europe. Magic realism. It must come from some small corner of their brain … not from their corazón. Imagining Buenos Aires. Imagining itself as a city of the northern hemisphere plopped down in the south by playful gods.
Psychogeography of walkers was nothing new for him, he mused, crossing Avenida Santa Fe. It had always been his system. Matilda who would not look at Plaza San Martín could not know that urban streets become a life. Beautiful Matilda! Traitorous Matilda! She would never grasp that he was not a flaneur, but an urban explorer in search of details, open to coincidence, walking for the reward of possession and for inspiration. Circular walking, along charted lines, with the goal of arriving back at the starting point. Walking the structure of a novel, he thought. Select a starting point and walk the lines and the circle the chosen area forms. The length of Avenida Callao, then another line to Puerto Madera, and back to the foot at the opposite end of Callao. The reward was the conquered territory within the circle. Captured space and time. The straight line from the Borges home near Plaza San Martín to the street named for him in the Palermo district and then a sweeping circle back to the original plaza, and Borges was his captive, inside his great circle. How to explain the sensation on stepping from the Belgrano commercial jungle straight into a church modeled on Rome’s Pantheon, and with a single step making all of it his? Circles and diagonals and rings, now intersecting, now diverging, lined now by apartment buildings with brass doors and red carpeting and concierges dressed in black, now by hospitals and clinics, now jewelry shops, now by antiques stores, cafés and churches and synagogues, French architecture, art nouveau, art deco, beggars and school girls and businessmen on cell phones, the life of the world of another hemisphere.
A new center. A new axis. A new form of representation … and perhaps the new novel. And all now his. The thrall of a new world giving him a second chance.
She doesn’t know about the other me. How could she guess that my Danteism is a mirrored simulacrum of the other me, a decoy, a diversion from me? I, too, a simulacrum of a mad idea of a potential creation. A simulacrum … or another nightmare. The simulacrum, with all the ugliness and imperfections and betrayals it implies.
Two images: one in the life of Dante and urban circles; the other in the creative chaos of himself tottering on the edge. The abyss opened before him; he grappled with a dark hold on the ledge; he opened his eyes and in the dark saw that the hold was Matilda … and it was the novel. Why not write it, then? Let my traitorous Doppelgänger write it. Why not?
“Hold on to both or go over the edge,” he whispered.
A stop to observe the Teatro Colón, distance glasses on, hand under his chin, one foot in front of the other, imagination rambling. Tickets more expensive than La Scala. Everyone in evening dress. A languid summer evening. Later, out to the Palermo parks. A copy of Europe? Not exactly. A negative of Europe, the dream of Europe … dreamed by nostalgic immigrants. Their illusions, their fantasy, phantasmagoric, still uncertain of their own image, and yet, yet, at the same time inimitable.
But what does Dante have to do with it, he asked himself again?
He crossed Avenida Córdoba, peered up at the façade of Libertad Synagogue and rang the bell. The same man, tall, thin, young, cracked the door and as each time said the museum was closed. Come back Jueves! Would he never see the museum? Security has its drawbacks. All that history down in the museum. Three hundred thousand Argentine Jews, the sixth Jewish population in the world. The more he had delved into the Nazis in Argentina and the saga of Argentine Jews, the more history assumed bizarre twists and turns as if it were truly conducted by the mad Mexican god Tezcatlipoca up there in the clouds, first putting ant-like humans in weird situations and then roaring with laughter as they struggle to overcome themselves … and to escape inferno. Nazi war criminals and Third Reich money, Fourth Reich dreams and Jewish immigrants.
No place for Dante and his Tuscan language. South of south, south of everything, bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, he thought, surrendering to instinct and making up his own verses.
Calles y calles, avenidas y avenidas
Y rios y rios,
Tell me where the center lies.
Two towers, twin towers,
One secret, one question,
One spirit, one enigma.
What do you see behind?
What do you see ahead?
We never know when it happens.
Walking backwards across the fields we see it backwards.
Like love after love.
No thing compares with the roar,
With the life far down there,
Where the skies can cry,
Where the suns can whisper
Of torrid nights to come.
Ahead … or behind.
The meeting was for the crazy hour of 10 p.m. You would think it was the Kremlin or the Rome Parliament. In a ninth floor conference room … high, though still in Purgatory. Stars and constellations high in the sky.
Emergardo was fearful of entering Palacio Barolo this evening. What if she were there with one of the Centaurs? Maybe she would walk in with a young one, tall, blond hair, elegant, just her type. How did she meet him? On the street? Asking directions? Was he one of the phone-callers? How did she meet any of them? In his world there was no horizontal society in which everyone knew everyone. His was a vertical world, rare in coincidences and unexplained meetings.
Would writing the novel change things? Would his being a famous novelist change her? Change their lives? Change her feelings? Or was it all her frivolity? Only one chance in a million that she was in the confitería. But what could he say were they to meet like that, in the confitería of Palacio Barolo. Anyway, he could not discard the remote possibility of her involvement. But unused to considering such human situations he concluded that too was absurd, just more of the inventive illusions she accused him of.
Filled with sensations of vertigo and desperation he stepped into Hell. After an eventless tea in the confitería, he wandered among the illuminated vaults reading the Latin inscriptions. How were they selected anyway? Transfixed under Corpus ánimun tegit et dètegit. Five words. What did they really mean? That the body both hid and revealed the soul? Loyalty to love and betrayal of instincts? Simultaneously? Or did they mean sometimes one, sometimes the other, as the inscription was translated into first Spanish, then English?
Who made such a vague claim anyway?
Surely it didn’t originate in the Bible … unless perhaps in Song of Solomon or Ecclesiastes. All his adult life he had considered it shameful to confuse physical beauty and goodness of the soul; yet how often the two seemed to go hand in hand.
In a trance on the top floor of Hell, the ground floor of the Palacio, he reminded himself that Dante’s sinners were organized by three vices—Incontinence, Violence and Fraud. (The latter was Dante’s point, Emergardo had told frivolous Matilda patiently.) Then subdivided by the seven deadly sins. Then, in Purgatory, penance is ordered on the basis of three kinds of earthly love. Paradise is organized on three types of Divine Love, details and insights, which would bore to tears the real estate tycoons as it bored Matilda … and in truth him, too.
It was not the hotel they wanted to put here that bothered him; it was the concatenation, the network of evil, Auschwitz, gold teeth into gold bars, Swiss banks, the Catholic Church, Nazi submarines, Fascist escapees in Patagonia, Perón, secret services, Odessa. Those things counted. They counted in Matilda’s idea of the lived life, and they counted in the novel she wanted him to write.
But confusedly he felt he couldn’t betray … that indefinite something.
Sin had always been the point. There was something troubling in the word “sin” and the resulting “constraint”. At this point Dante too troubled him. When he was younger he had tried to transform the poet’s negative-destructive connotation into something with a positive-constructive significance. But he gave up that line when he realized the transformation was impossible without making of sin, a non-sin … dangerous territory for any lecturer.
But for the novelist those instincts were not only permitted; they were necessary.
Ah, lived life! Ah, yes, Matilda! Life is long and many things occur. The stuff of the novelist.
Sin embargo, his Dante was also positive, ahead of his times. Emergardo adamantly refused to set out on a negative-destructive path; in his lectures he concentrated his attention on Dante’s solution to the problem of sin: love—and not constraint—in a world in which there was too little love. The love that saves us from the seven deadly sins.
Though he could express before five hundred listeners his conclusion that the same problems facing Dante were present in today’s world, sin embargo, in his most intimate self, Emergardo considered the whole academic to-do in the academic industry of Dantephiles and Dantelogues about the gifted but bitter writer— even though the best of all times—now dead and gone 685 years ago, a waste of time, paper and words. Dead, dead, dead. But they kept him alive again and again. Oh, the experts, the specialists, who know everything about their subject, their life’s field. Hah! We are so sure of ourselves. We are the wise ones. As if much knowledge about one thing were total knowledge. And we the critics miss things. We cannot give the entire picture. Our vision is static and limited in time. Poets do better … even if they omit. The genuine creators, we critics believe, are unable to see what they have created, the dialectics escape them, they cannot see their own transcendence in their creation. After a lifetime of study I do not understand what Dante means about the stars … or if it matters. Still, I wonder if he did himself. Or if he cared. No wonder my tendency to want to tip over the rim. To fall, fall, fall to the other side … and to create a new world.
The firmament bobbing around in his mind, he returned to the confitería and noted that the major constellations were the Big Dipper, Orion and the Southern Cross. Most certainly the Southern Cross had brought him to the southern hemisphere.
Last evening the Palacio administrator had escorted him to the lighthouse at the summit of Paradise … to see the Cross one more time. Conquer the dangerous elevators. The twisting narrow staircase. Hang onto the great lamp looking over the Rio de la Plata for equilibrium. And we went out to see the stars again. Looking to the north, his gaze lingered on Plaza San Martín … the site of her betrayal. Straight ahead, the Casa Rosada. Turn carefully, the city at his feet. The administrator’s pointing hand. The stars so near they do not seem like stars at all. And then, from his position high above city lights, there it was.
“Is it not glorious?” the administrator said.
Four of the firmament’s brightest stars formed a beautiful cross.
“I suppose it is.”
“A familiar sight here down below,” the administrator said, “a major role in the history of down here, reproduced on flags and stamps of Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Papua, New Guinea, and Chile and Argentina.”
“Overwhelming,” Emergardo admitted. “The hidden harmony the Greeks searched for. Music of the spheres. Depends on from where you view it.”
“What do you mean?” the administrator asked.
“It’s all the side effects that count.”
In his last lecture, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Emergardo had warned (oh so acidly) an audience composed of sixty-eight aspiring Dante scholars about the False Cross. If you first look towards the left and up a bit, you will see four stars forming a big cross tilting a bit left. But be careful! That is the False Cross. Acrux, he reminded them, the lowest and brightest star in the Southern Cross, is positioned at due south. Keep your eyes steadily there and look to your left a bit more and then down towards the horizon and you will find two bright stars flanked with two fainter ones forming a smaller cross. The Southern Cross. In the South you can see it year round. During the month of May you can see it at the first hour of the evening when it is perpendicular to the horizon. Christian almanacs celebrate that day as the Day of the Cross. Boys named Cruz, girls named Cruzita.
Crux became the scientific name of the Southern Cross constellation. Celebrations and rituals. The Day of the Cross on earth. Tension and wonder and sensations of mystery in the heavens.
But the constellation with the greatest number of visible stars is Centaurus, with one hundred and one stars. The majority. Overpowering. The natural container of human evil.
The largest constellation is Hydra or the Water Snake.
Was all this important, he wondered? And was Matilda choosing Centaurus and the False Cross?
In the confitería he thumbed through his own scribblings.
Southern Cross. Bright Acrux is really a double-star system of two stars orbiting around each other but which we see as one at the base of the cross. The second-brightest star is Becrux; the third-brightest is Gacrux. Finally, the Jewel Box, or Kappa Crucis, is a cluster of about one hundred stars. Together they form a kite-shaped Latin cross … surrounded by the threatening constellation Centaurus on three sides.
If you are a mariner and use the Southern Cross to find south, he warned his sedentary audiences, letting himself go over the edge, be careful to distinguish it from the False Cross which is diamond shaped and does not have a fifth star as does the true Southern Cross.
He had asked Matilda if she knew that Hitler’s aide, Martin Bormann and Swiss banks, the Roman Catholic Church and its Vatican and Argentine politicians had conspired to loot hundreds of millions of dollars and other assets once held by the Third Reich?
She, who would not even look at Plaza San Martín, knew.
Did she know that Nazi submarines unloaded a treasure of gold bars on the deserted beaches of Patagonia? All facilitated by a German banker who worked in Argentina’s Central Bank during the 1940’s. Though officially Herman Dörge committed suicide after destroying evidence of Nazi money transfers, he was probably assassinated by Perón’s shadowy SIDE, which Gustavo claimed now occupied the whole first floor of Palacio Barolo … the bottom floor of Purgatory and just over the confitería.
What if it was SIDE that wanted to buy Palacio Barolo?
Matilda had shrugged. “Legends! History is ridiculous.”
Did she know that on the heels of Jews escaping from Europe, also hordes of fugitive Nazis found their way to Argentina? The cradle of the Fourth Reich? Did she know President Juan D. Perón offered a haven for the profits of German companies that had been part of the Nazi war machine?
“Sixty years ago,” she said.
Oh, how the lawyer Gustavo had studied it. Journalists documented it. Journalists told the story of how the Perón dictatorship sponsored the transfer of Nazi wealth first to Argentina. And later, after Germany’s Armageddon, back to Germany it went. Then German-made cars, trucks, buses and factory machinery flowed into Argentina, paid for with the recycled Nazi dollars that then in turn financed the “German economic miracle”. No wonder Heinrich Böll and other brave German post-World War II writers were uncertain as to who had won and who had lost the war.
The Nazis financed New Germany themselves.
Perón took a nice cut.
Matilda, sell the Mercedes as soon as we’re back in Florence. Away with the Bosch dishwasher. A billion dollars laundered in Argentina in those years. One shipment of Mercedes automobiles to the president’s office. Perón kept four and used the others for corruption. The weak spot of every man.
They sat around a polished table, nine persons, in groups of three. Emergardo was more confused than he had expected to be. He could agree with everything said tonight and not volunteer one single word. But that way nothing would be decided about his role. Nothing about the elusive novel … nor about Matilda herself. On the other hand he could make absurd demands so that no decision on Dante’s tomb nor on his role was reached.
The Italo-Argentinean to his right dressed in a dark suit and flashy tie flicked his head toward him, an amused look in his unexpected blue eyes. Three bankers with Spanish names, three real estate men with Italian names—mentally he named them Acrux, Becrux and Gacrux—and three businessmen with Germanic names. The men of Centaurus, he decided. The Nazi sons and grandsons. Their blond hair combed backwards. Their pleasant love-me smiles.
Three and three and three. What was he, the tenth, doing here? He, Empyrean.
Though the interior lighting obliterated the stars, he felt their presence out there, down there, southwards, hanging over the confusion of the urban jungle toward San Telmo and Boca and the dangerous Constitución Station among city districts he would never see.
Palacio Barolo was to become a new hotel in the Buenos Aires firmament. It would be topped by lofts … in a modified Paradise. Who else but the renowned Professor Emergardo Da Molino to write the promotional book? Who else to christen it? Who else to name it? Who else to sponsor it?
“No, not Hotel Dante Alighieri! No one wants that,” Acrux says in Italian.
“Sounds like a language school,” adds Becrux.
“Or a cultural institute,” mutters Gacrux.
The Nazi grandsons of Centaurus exchange amused glances.
Everyone waits for Emergardo Da Molino.
“Beatrice,” he whispers, thinking all the time of Nazi gold buying Dante.
“Inferno!” he adds. “You can have Hades right here.”
“What?” exclaims Acrux.
“Mejor que Paraíso,” Centaurus II comments. “Which sounds like a Hamburg hotel chain.”
“No! Purgatory, no!” Emergardo says.
“Beatrice in Purgatory? Sounds suggestive and sexy,” Centaurus III shouts and claps his hands.
“Or Hotel Matilda Lofts,” one of the Centaurs mutters and stares at Emergardo triumphantly.
Acrux raises his hand and asks for the floor. “For the sake of clarity,” the Italo-Argentino says in Spanish, looking down at Professor Da Molino, “I want to review the building … let’s say, review it like a book. From the start this venture was pure real estate speculation. Please excuse my brutal commercial approach, Professor, but we are businessmen. There were two men, both dreamers, the architect Mario Palanti and financier Luis Barolo. In 1923, their dream became the tallest building in South America … and the most bizarre. For it was the fruit of the meeting of two eccentric minds and two burning desires: the architect’s consuming love for the Divine Comedy and the financier’s thirst for immortality.
“Palanti’s love for La Divina Commedia was so intense that he built two buildings … another just like this one where we meet tonight across the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo … the ‘Columns of Hercules of the River Plate’. Everyone here is aware that the building corresponds to the three parts of the Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven—Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The ground floor and the basements represent Hell. The next fourteen floors are Purgatory—we’re, well, we are all still in Purgatory right now. Hah! Hah! And the uppermost floors are Paradise. The one hundred meters height represents the one hundred cantos. Each floor has either eleven or twenty-two offices—soon to become luxurious rooms and suites—just as most of the poem’s cantos have eleven or twenty-two stanzas. We want to retain all that.”
“Luxury lofts in Paradise,” Centaurus I says, taking the floor.
As Centaurus I drones on about paradise lofts, Emergardo’s thoughts wander: Everything circular in the perfect figure of the novel. Twenty-two floors and seven elevators: 22 divided by 7=3.14 that is the ancient number Pi—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. But, he recalls, Pi is not precisely precise. It is unfathomable like a code. Like the building, like the city, like a poem or a novel. Transcendental. Inexpressible in finite terms. Elusive Pi slips away. Maybe it originated in Egypt in the Middle Kingdom scroll, The Entrance Into the Knowledge of All Existing Things. Physicists see it everywhere in nature, in rainbows and in the sun, as Dante and Palanti saw it in the stars. It is in the depths of our eyes. There was an article in an American magazine about Pi … claiming that some people feel Pi in death. Now that is indeed risky. But then, what if the perfect number were instead 4 or 5 or 7! Would it not change everything?
“These analogies are what we will exploit,” says Centaurus I.
“Divine temptation,” Emergardo mutters.
“What’s that?” Centaurus II asks.
“My temptation. Divine realization,” Emergardo says, entering the three-sided pseudo-dialogue, no interlocutor hearing the other … three canticles, three realms, three vices. “Divine speculation … by you wonderful corporate people. Poor poor Dante.”
“Who is this man?” Centaurus III asks the Italo-Argentinean, Acrux. “A poet? Do we need poets? Does the poet know who we are? Does he know this is a 100,000,000-dollar operation … to change the image of Avenida de Mayo? Our purpose now is to rid this place of all its offices … to get the lawyers and notaries and accountants and … and all of them out”
“And also SIDE, I suppose,” Emergardo interjects.
“What’s that?” Centaurus III rebuts, blushing fiery red.
“Secret services … out of the temple! Out!” Emergardo insists, his tone rising, losing all sense of control. “What you don’t know, young man, is that Palacio Barolo has instead a secret name that must be used.”
“We did think of a name change,” one the Centauruses says, smilingly indulgent. “Someone suggested Saint Beatrice … Saint Beatrice Palace Hotel.”
Emergardo snickers, aghast.
“Or Good Hope,” says another.
“What about Divine Temptation?”
“I personally will never support such shameless names,” Emergardo mutters. “Nor will Dante’s bones ever grace such … such a hell.”
He shrugs, disgusted, and continues in his Italian-accented Castilian Spanish: “And anyway there is the matter of the secret code in order to arrive at the name …”
“Who cares about secret codes and names,” interrupts Centaurus I.
“Ojo!” Emergardo says, his finger under his right eye. “According to the Palanti-Barolo testament, if the name of the Palacio is ever changed to any but the secret name, or if the orientation of the structure is ever shifted, the building will fall … fall to pieces. In pedazos,” he repeats. “Just let your secret service mull that over.”
“Secret testament?” Acrux echoes. “Secret code? Secret name? What is the secret name? Who knows about the secret name?”
“A few people know,” Emergardo says. “Very few. Perhaps only one today … me!”
What did these clerks and capitalists, bookkeepers and secret service agents think he had been doing here? Florentine mysteries, the cult of secrecy and hermetic doctrines are so much Old World nonsense to them. These pioneers have few secrets. They are men of action. Cowboys. Gold miners. Only after two years of reading among the Palanti-Barolo papers in the archives of the Architecture Faculty of the University of Florence—first plans and explications de text of the Comedy, sketches and character analyses, then Buenos Aires regulatory laws and Argentine politics, the earth rings of latitudes and the southern hemisphere, astronomy—had he encountered a reference to a secret code.
Barolo had written to Palanti of the importance to him the financier of the number “3”. Three what, Emergardo too had wondered? And a code for what?
Then, in another letter to Palanti, Barolo proposed selecting an alternative name for their building on Avenida de Mayo, a name to be deposited for posterity in Argentina.
Deposited in Argentina? Where in Argentina?
The secret name was to be a safeguard for the integrity of the Palacio for “as long as the Divine Comedy remains extant” … and a warranty of Barolo’s own immortality.
Both code and secret name emerged from the Commedia itself, from the eternal number 3: three times thirty-three, plus one. Empyrean Heaven. And a Buenos Aires address: Parque Lezama.
The code led him straight to the cellars of the Museo Histórico Nacional on Lezama Park. In its hell-like rooms days had turned into weeks. Days divided between boxes of dusty virgin files and his conquest of the city. Upturned files, strange tales, unexplored legends, unexpected avenues among immigrant hordes from Liguria, Piemonte, Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli. False directions, compulsive curiosity, Italians transforming into Argentineans.
Then, the paper trail—and fate, too—steady and inexorable, led him to a folder buried in the depths of inferno labeled “Number 3 and Legends of Palacio Barolo” and a list of words and quotations and names among which it was child’s play for Emergardo to pinpoint the cross referenced code … and finally the name.
“After months of study I have concluded that neither Barolo nor Palanti would object to moving with the times and converting to a hotel if only to rejuvenate the avenue down below because …”
He stopped, perplexed. Why had he not seen it clearly before? He was already writing the novel. The novel the publisher wanted, the novel Matilda must mean by living life. The novel and sensationalism of betrayal of his instincts and overcoming his vanity.
Smiles all around.
Centaurus I nods at his namesakes II and III.
Acrux slaps the table in accord.
“On the other hand I think it behooves us all to get rid of the despicable offices on the first floor and to … uh, clean up the recent past.”
Smiles fade. Silence falls.
“Impossible,” Centaurus I grunts. “We, er, they, control the flow of funds.”
“We? They?” Emergardo says. “Do they, you, think Dante’s Palacio Barolo is comparable with any other building in the world? Do they think this is Brezhnevian Moscow? Do you even imagine Palacio Barolo falls in the category of the old Rossiya near Red Square? Do any of you know that that juggernaut hotel fell to pieces, demolished by time and the divine?
“Those first floor offices go or I leave on the next plane for Italia … with Matilda. And you can forget Dante’s tomb forever.”
He realizes he had made his decision in the confitería. The indifferent stars had decided him. Those SIDE offices had to go if he were to lend his support. It was the same as reclaiming Matilda. If he was to betray and write the novel to re-conquer Matilda, then the least he could do was to sweep evil out of the temple. SIDE and Dante’s bones were incompatible. Protect Dante’s bones and get on with life.
He snickers to himself. As if the Ministry of Culture in Rome would ever agree to moving Dante’s tomb to a new hotel in Buenos Aires named Hotel Beatrice or Hotel Buena Esperanza. Or Matilda Lofts. But what did this band of Nazi German Argentineans know about that? They believed they could buy even the stars.
Laughingly, he would make the request for them. Then he would claim his fee and maybe write his novel and save Matilda from Centaurus.
And they could say goodbye to the indifferent stars … and to Matilda, too.
Though admittedly Dante might have agreed to participate in this Buenos Aires conspiracy, he, Emergardo Da Molino, would never permit Alighieri’s words to grace such cheap speculation.
Or would he? He alone?
“The secret name,” he pronounces in an impromptu theatrical voice no less phony than his impromptu thought, “the new name for the new hotel is … it is quite simple … it is none other than … The Southern Cross.
Should he add that it was also the title of the great Italian novel concealed in him?
But … but what novel? In reality he has remained a pedantic observer, just as Matilda charged. It would never be enough. Forever lost in details that cannot add up to reality. Academia forever at work, leaving him alone with the facts that slip quietly through his fingers like water.
He has only the urban streets and his mentally captured territory. Now, in the shadow of Matilda, he is no more than a collector of facts, a fallen professor living in the past. The impostor she sees in him. A novel by him the Dantelogue would be as farcical as the transfer of Dante’s tomb to the other end of the planet.
To himself, in his isolation in the top floor of Purgatory, he quotes the words of another before him that “with relief, with humiliation, with terror he understood that he was also an illusion.”
1. Leon Nicolas Hauteville-Smerdyakov, Professeur des études Dantesques et sectes esoteriques, “Carnets de notes pour une recherché sur Dante et la vraie vie”, Editions Pays Cathares, Carcassonne, 2002. “J’ai personnellement toujours pensé que Professeur Emergardo Da Molina choisit le chemin de vie erroné, celui d’académicien au lieu du romancier. Je trouve enfin qu’il pense trop à son art qu’a la verité. Son Dante esttellement riche en illusions et divination que le créateur même semble plutôt une création de l’historien. Sa verité paraît plus invraisemblable que les illusions même, jusque à point d’éveiller la méfiance du vrai rechercheur. De l’autre coté puisque il n’existe point une interprétation
définitive de la Divina Commedia, il se peut qu’il aie raison. Mais toujours la raison du créateur.”
Senior Editor Gaither Stewart serves as Cyrano’s Rome-based correspondent. His latest novel is The Fifth Sun. His widely acclaimed espionage novels, The Trojan Spy and Lily Pad Roll, focusing on America’s stealth efforts to encircle and dismember Russia, are part of the Europe Trilogy, to be completed in 2015 with the third volume, Time of Exile, currently in preparation by Punto Press.