“Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms . . . The first cool breath of autumn, after the oppression of the summer, was like a natural symbol of his life brought back from fever and the brink of death. The city, at that seven o’clock in the morning, had not lost that look of a ramshackle old house that cities take on at night; the streets were like long porches and corridors, the plazas like interior courtyards.” —Jorge Luis Borges, “The South” (trans. Andrew Hurley)
In Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The South,” Johannes Dahlmann steps off a boat in Buenos Aires in 1871, and, sixty-eight years later, Juan Dahlmann may or may not take the train south from Buenos Aires into the countryside. At daybreak, the city from which Dahlmann is so compelled to leave still holds the decrepitude brought on by the night. The romance that whisks him away—a fantasy inextricably tied to the purity of the past, the pastoral, the south—surges in his final confrontation with the gaucho. For Dahlmann the gaucho, the symbol of the south, is a fetish. Both gaucho and the south embody the purity of an ideal space in time: “He also thought he recognized trees and crops that he couldn’t have told one the name of – his direct knowledge of the country was considerably inferior to his nostalgic, literary knowledge . . . Dahlmann almost suspected that he was traveling not only into the South but into the past.” Only in the South, and through the gaucho, can he find a more perfect (or less humiliating) death. An anonymous gaucho, who’d subjected him, a stranger, an “accidental face,” to mockery challenges the unarmed Dahlmann to a knife fight. Though unarmed, a “motionless old gaucho in whom Dahlmann had seen a symbol of the South . . . tossed him a naked dagger,” and Dahlmann steps out into the plains to meet his death. Here one might identify the crux of Borges’ narrative. The anonymous face holds no currency for recognition, it is an empty, vague vessel. A dead signifier, all faces are interchangeable, always occupying a space of alterity. No vessel can bear the weight of the truth, be it one’s personhood or the purity of the South; there is only the play of symmetry and anachronism. The persistence of the gaucho as a idea (as an archetype and not a face), the surrounding romance spurning Dahlmann’s journey, and essentially ending it, tethers both the events of Borges’ story as one of its own taut symmetries, as well as Daniel Galera’s debut novel, Blood-Drenched Beard.
In Galera’s novel, the unnamed protagonist’s father confides in his son his plans for suicide, requesting he arrange for his old dog to be put down after his death. The protagonist does not honor his father’s wish, but instead takes the dog with him from Porto Alegre, the bustling capital of Rio Grande do Sul, to a beach town five hours up the Brazilian coast in Garopaba. He tracks the ghost of his grandfather, known only as Gaudério (a term nearly synonymous with gaucho) throughout the novel. In his final meeting with his father, the latter mixed evocations not only of the family’s gaucho patriarch, but Borges himself: “I remember thinking that if he ended up dying in a knife fight in some shithole, like the character in that Borges story, ‘The South,’ nothing could be more appropriate.” He is known only as Gaudério, indeed a name, but only insofar as its tied to an individual. The real effect of such a name is less to designate identity than to further shroud his grandfather with anonymity in the literary and pastoral connotations of the gaucho.
The protagonist, a mild-mannered personal trainer and PE teacher, is quite unlike his grandfather. He does not live the romantic life conducive to myth and anonymity. Still, he lives with the myth of Gaudério, whom he resembles, the myth of a purer life by the beach. He lives intimately with anonymity, too, because he suffers from prosopagnosia; he cannot remember faces. In this way, one of many congruencies is established between the nameless protagonist and the grandfather known not by name, but by character stock: “No I don’t know what [Gaudério’s] smile was like. I don’t know what mine’s like either. I forget.” Through his propagnosia, he finds himself in a way liberated from a dead metaphor for personhood: the face.
Perhaps this is the central concern for Galera in Blood-Drenched Beard, the economy of symbols, identity, and time. The face, an ever-fluid symbol, has typically been a referent for the subject behind it. For everyone but the protagonist, that particular symbol itself grows roots in one’s mind. But the protagonist’s prosopagnosia makes clear that personhood is just as fluid and tied to the currents of change in time as one’s aging skin. This might very well be the consequence of what Clarice Lispector in Near to the Wild Heart identifies as a search for the “word that has its own light . . . the symbol of the thing in the thing itself.” The order and tone of one’s face is commonly transformed into a bodily grammar for the language of the subject, and though it is left fleeting and (visually) unintelligible for our protagonist, he finds himself closer to a more essential unity of the word and the world, how the former in fact constitutes the latter.
Instead, he locates the essence of others outside of the usual patterns of recognition, by character, physicality, or the narratives orbiting that individual. Take, for example, the protagonist awakening next to a lover in the morning:
He wakes up without opening his eyes. There is the heat, the smell, and a clear memory of all things for which a face, and even sight itself, is unnecessary. Weight is one of his favorite sensations. He’d be able to identify her at once if she lay on him the next morning or in a year’s time. It wouldn’t matter. And the way a body moves. If it is in intimate contact with his, if he can hold it firmly with both hands at its diverse points of articulation and in this manner read its voluntary and involuntary movements, soft and brusque, repeated or not, he can forever retain a tactile image that can tell him much more than any visual stimuli about how the person draws back and lets go, asks and refuses, approaches and retreats.
The stimuli on which he relies is much more tactile, at times even spiritual. Galera’s prose may seem relatively straightforward in its storytelling, but there are subtleties that betray a more nuanced text, biases towards qualifiers that are kinetic (“If their feet shake, they’re a gaucho”), aural, and even existential (“The body is its own time capsule, and its journey is always somewhat public”) throughout. Jogging, swimming, training, bleeding, buying fruit, a banana spider wrestling its prey, the weight of a lover. Non-visual description maintains a greater empathetic value, at least temporarily.
But the anonymity of everyone around him is only tentatively abated by his other senses’ compensatory enhancement. Every day brings new puzzles, the necessity of scanning his memory for little hints—a tattoo, a certain swagger, or bleach-blonde hair—as to who might stand before him at any given moment in time. As a defense, he permits himself to affect nonchalance towards others: “Instead of explaining his problem, he prefers to let people think he is forgetful, strange, absent-minded. Some think he is a misanthrope.” This gets him by most of the time, though existential deficiencies abound. Occasionally he feels compelled to “memorize for all time the faces of certain people who don’t mean anything to him and who he will probably never see again in his life,” though he inevitably forgets everyone he’s ever met, despite any seemingly vital importance at the time. People, he thinks, are “made not to be remembered or even imagined.”
In a beautiful coincidence, Alison Entrekin translated both Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard and Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart into English. While Lispector’s language is a raw, frenzied kind of formalism pouring from the mind, Galera’s is, most of the time, straightforward, slow, with lapses into meditation. However both share a fundamental concern with language and its tether to reality, and Entrekin is no stranger to this kind of ontological questioning. For Galera, the closeness one might encounter to the aforementioned “essential unity” is inherently destabilizing, paradoxical even. His protagonist suffers essentially because his condition affords him a unique proximity to the reunification of the thing and its symbol; character, people, always other, are radically fluid, shuttling forever between the familiar and the unsettlingly foreign, this fluidity embodied in his experience of the elusive face.
Perhaps the face as a symbol of character is fundamentally an anachronism to which we’ve become desensitized. It’s a common shorthand for a person, though our recognition of one’s face is firmly rooted in a specific point in time, allowing only for slow change over the years, but it persists as a constant signifying thread. The protagonist is in a way operating from a more enlightened vantage point, at least in his relationship to visual language and the essential self. Like his friend Bonobo says, a “person is a dynamic agglomeration of states of mind,” in a constant state of reinvention not so easily condensed into facial composition. Bonobo is for all intents and purposes his best friend throughout the book, but for someone whose relationship to familiarity is so inherently strained, he find the “unexpected and slightly disturbing familiarity” of Bonobo’s initial friendliness somewhat unsettling. This kind of “enlightenment” is already in practice for the protagonist but unfortunately at the expense of a life easily lived as he’s forced to bypass the illusion of identity and reckon with the latent alterity of each and every social animal.
This is Galera’s first novel. It is ambitious, thoughtful, although the story can move quite slowly at times—especially in the subplots involving the protagonist’s romances with various women. However, the text’s propensity for meandering could very well be part and parcel of its project. By being dilated, time loses its character, like for one of his lovers, Jasmim, who aged as the years “lost the unique personality that they’d had when she was younger and become nothing more than vague references to the passing of time,” like the protagonist’s growing beard, or Gaudério’s weathered face.
The protagonist’s confrontation with Gaudério is inevitable. As he grows out his beard he resembles his grandfather more and more, much to the dismay of the townsfolk, to whom Gaudério is a vile ghost, and the protagonist threatens his resurrection. Through him the gaucho moves from myth into material, from days past decades into the present, a living anachronism. This is violence against the normative passing of time, or at least our conception of it. But this is the brutal nature of reality: even the most foreign or unpleasant myths fade away but still manage to distill themselves into the world before our eyes. The very presence of our protagonist is a confrontation with this truth, and both the townsfolk and, eventually, his grandfather treat this as actionable behavior.
The gaucho ideal is a pastoral longing, and pastoral convention, as de Man once posited, is “the eternal separation between the mind that distinguishes, negates, legislates, and the originary simplicity of the natural.” Both Dahlmann and Galera’s characters search for the gaucho in an endeavor to revive a sense of the pastoral, but this itself leads only to anachronism. Their longing is the mourning of the thing, hidden by the symbol of it. Though their textual tactics may not cohere, that ambition shared by both Lispector and Galera is inherently pastoral, personal, spiritual. This “pastoralism” is not in the adherence to a genre or fetishization of the wilderness. No, the question of knowing a world beyond its corruption by symbols is not one of style or form but the fundamental question of writing itself.
No matter how close we find ourselves to the membranes between the various of states of mind that constitute our experience, the sinew that holds together a thing and its symbol inevitably dies, elusive, slipping off into limbo. The unnamed protagonist, who eventually relents to the world of tales and shorthand that merely veils the harsh truth of anonymity, becomes obscured by myth, as told by his nephew in the first pages of the novel. Like Galera’s character, a shred of that truth, of the thing behind its symbol, might be preserved by stories, stories that refuse to die like Dahlmann in some shithole. Perhaps, then, that perpetual symbol of “the South” and the gaucho, Gaudério was always a testament to the yearning for that originary experience: perhaps, instead of winding up dead out in the plains, he tossed Dahlmann a knife.
Tyler Curtis is a writer and US Editor for The White Review. He lives and works in New York.