from issue #8: ‘Ester Primavera’ by Roberto Arlt


Translated from the Spanish by Lucas Lyndes

A previously untranslated classic Argentinean short story.


I AM OVERCOME by an inexorable emotion at the thought of Ester Primavera.

It’s as if a gust of hot wind had suddenly struck my face. And yet the mountain ridge is capped with snow. Velvety white icicles line the forks of a walnut tree beneath the garret I occupy on the third floor of the Pasteur Wing at the Santa Mónica Tuberculosis Sanatorium.

Ester Primavera!

Her name brings the past flooding back. My red fits grow paler with the beauty of each subsequent memory. To speak her name is to feel a hot wind suddenly strike my cold cheeks.

Stretched out on a long patio chair, covered to my chin with a dark blanket, I think of her constantly. I’ve spent seven hundred days thinking at all hours of Ester Primavera, the only living creature I have so atrociously offended. No, that’s not the word. It’s not that I’ve offended her. It’s worse than that: I’ve uprooted all hope of earthly kindness from inside her. Never more will she dare to dream, so crudely have I savaged her soul. And from that dishonor I derive a delicious sadness, which flares up under my skin. Now I know I am ready to die. I never suspected that remorse could reach such delectable depths; that sin might be such a frightfully soft pillow, where we recline forever with the anguish that ferments inside us.

I know she will never be able to forget me. The stare of that tall creature, moving her shoulders ever-so-slightly as she walks, is all the beauty that keeps me bolted to the world of the living I left behind for this hell.

I see her still. That long and delicate semblance, arranged in an expression of torment, as if always on approaching me she had just then freed herself from some enormous load she had been shouldering. It was this effort that kept her agility intact. As she walked, the frill of her black dress whirled about her knees, and a ringlet of her hair combed over her temple until just above her earlobe seemed to attend her gait, that rush to throw herself into the unknown. Sometimes her throat was wrapped in furs, and on seeing her pass you might mistake her for a stranger returning from far-off cities. And so it was that she approached me. Her twenty-three years, which had slipped through every possible plane of perpendicular existence, her twenty-three years bottled up in that graceful body strode toward me, as if I, in that present, constituted the definitive raison d’être of her entire past… Yes, this; she had lived twenty-three years for this: to stride along the broad sidewalk toward me with her tormented expression.

Santa Mónica Sanatorium.

How right they were to give to this red hell a name so synonymous with meekness, this place where death has tinged every semblance yellow, home to almost one thousand consumptives among its four wards: two for men and two for women.

Oh! And there are times when one might cry forever… And the circle of mountains there, that circle surpassed by mountain ridges more distant still, the circle where the gleaming rails disappear around a curve, where the trains glide past like toy caravans. The river, when there is sun, offers glints of light amidst the green; the cliffs colored violet in the dusk and red like embers at dawn; and higher up, Ucul, and down below, Cerro del Diablo, and along the tortuous horizontal slope, the blue methylene triangle of the reservoir behind the dam, forever advancing. And by night, by day, women coughing, men sitting up in bed, made rigid by fevered hallucinations or the taste of blood welling up on their palates from deep within. And God who reigns over all our souls gone taciturn with sin.


TO THE RIGHT of my patio chair, the half-breed Leiva. Profile like a beast rampant and brushstrokes of black mane over a hazel forehead.

To my left a red Jewish boy reposes, always silent, so as to slow the tuberculosis as it devours his larynx. Beyond him, in a long row that occupies the roofed patio, wooden chairs, and resting in them, children, men, adolescents, all wrapped in dark regulation blankets. Almost all of them have yellow skin stuck to the flat bones of their faces, their ears transparent, their eyes aflame or gone glassy, their nostrils palpitating as they slowly inhale the glacial air coming off the mountain.

Between the lashes of those half-open eyelids, there languish flashes of memory. Some of these eyes still hold fast to something seen recently; and then, in hiding, they glaze over with tears. All of us are like that, always remembering something in this mountaintop sanatorium. I think of her; for seven hundred days now, I have thought of Ester Primavera. When I speak her name aloud, my cheeks are struck by a gust of hot wind. And yet the gray snow covers the mountain peaks. Below them, all is black in the caverns.

The half-breed Leiva lights a cigarette.

“Want a puff, Seven?” he says to me.


We smoke with caution; it’s been forbidden to us. We blow the smoke out beneath the blankets, and suddenly the nicotine contracts our stomachs in a dizzy spell. From inside the room comes constant coughing. It’s Bed Three. A few concise words are crossed.

“Did you sleep last night?”

“Not much.”

“Still running a temperature?”


Or else:

“When are they putting in the chest tube?”


“You anxious?”

“What?… So I can keep on like this?”

A black man lies ecstatic in the patio chair, his coal gray head collapsed in infinite fatigue against the fabric. Leiva looks at him and says, “That one won’t make it past winter.”

From inside the room comes the sound of coughing. Now it’s Nine, Nine who just won’t finish dying, Nine who bet the ward medic a crate of beer bottles “that I won’t die this winter.” And he won’t die. He won’t die because his willpower is going to get him through until spring. And the doctor, a specialist, is sulking over this “case.” He says to him—the sick man is practically a friend and he knows his situation all too well—”But there’s no way you’ll make it. Can’t you see you haven’t even got this much lung tissue left in you?” And he turns his pinkie nail to the patient.

Nine, cornered into a whitewashed right angle of the room, laughs with a subterranean death rattle in his acrid fog of decomposition. “Forget about it ‘til spring, doctor. Don’t you go getting your hopes up.”

And the medic walks away from the bedside in exasperation, intrigued by this “case” whose very progress is the negation of all his knowledge. But before he goes, he says with a laugh, “Why don’t you just die? Do me a favor. Is it that much to ask?”

“No, it’s you who’s going to do me a favor by paying up with that crate of beer.”

The doctor has tuberculosis, too. “Just a corner of the left lung, that’s all.” The intern as well—”practically nothing, the right lung’s just a bit soft”—and so on. All of us moving about like specters in this hell named for a saint, all of us know we’re sentenced to death. Today, tomorrow, next year… one day…

Ester Primavera!

The fine damsel’s name strikes my cheeks like a gust of hot wind. Leiva coughs, the Jewish boy dreams of his father’s fur shop, where right this instant Mordecai and Levi are probably laughing by the samovar, and the chapel bell tolls. A toy-like train disappears around the gleaming bend of the tracks and pierces the black caverns. And Buenos Aires, so far away… so far away…

It’s enough to make you kill yourself, but kill yourself there, in Buenos Aires… On the threshold of her doorway.

I knew that I wanted her to be mine forever when, on the tram to Palermo, I answered Ester Primavera’s question with these words: “No, don’t even dream of it. I’ll never get married, and especially not to you.”

“No matter. We’ll be friends then. And when I have a suitor, I’ll stroll up to you with him so you can meet him. Although I won’t say a word to you, naturally.” With her eyelids lowered, she avoided me as if she’d just committed a wrongful deed.

“So you’re accustomed to these cynical games, then?”

“Yes. I once had a friend very like you…”

I laughed and said, “How strange!… Women who frequently change friends always seem to find another just like the one before him.”

“How delightful you are!… Well, as I was saying, when the situation became risky, I would take my distance so I could return when I felt stronger.”

“Do you realize just how deliciously shameless you are? I’m beginning to think you’re sizing me up.”

“What? Don’t you feel at peace by my side?”

“Look me in the eyes.”

A lock of hair left her temple uncovered, and despite her malicious smile there persisted in her an expression of fatigue that rent her pale little face with suffering.

“And your boyfriend? What was his opinion of that cynical game?”

“He wasn’t familiar with it.”

“You’re wicked.”

Suddenly she looked at me gravely. “Yes. I’m bored of so much stupidity. Do you know what it means to be a woman?”

“No. I can’t even imagine.”

“Then why do keep looking at me with that face? Don’t get angry, but you seem like a bit of a halfwit. Wait, what are you thinking?”

“Nothing… You can probably imagine what I’m thinking. But remember this: if you ever dare to play a dirty trick on me, I won’t let you forget me as long as you live.”

My insolence pleased her. Smiling malevolently, she said, “Tell me… Just out of curiosity… Don’t be angry… You’re not the kind of man who meets a girl, and then says to her after a week, with his puppy dog eyes, ‘Won’t you give me some proof of your affection, miss?,’ and asks for a kiss?”

I observed her dourly. “I may very well never ask you for or give you a thing.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I’m not interested in anything you might have to give.”

“And how do I interest you, then?”

“As entertainment… Nothing more. When I’m bored of putting up with your insolence, I’ll abandon you.”

“So you find my soul attractive, then?”

“Yes, but no one else is going to see things that way.”

“And why not?”

“It would be best not to talk of it.”

Now we walked amidst the green silence of the trees. With a childlike voice she told me of other climes, of outbreaks of suffering. In Rome she had visited a hospital for those mutilated in the war. She saw faces that looked as if they’d been sent through the rollers of a laminating machine, and craniums cut off at obtuse angles, as if trepanned with a drill. She had visited the lands of ice and cetaceans. She had loved a man who gambled away one night—on the tabletop in a ghastly tavern in Comodoro, among prospectors and murderers—his entire fortune. And he left her standing there in her bridal gown so he could continue living his lawless existence among the card sharks of Arroyo Pescado.

We conversed all morning long. The tip of her parasol alit on the sun dapples that covered the red gravel of the paths. I thought of the singular contrast between the substance of what she was narrating and the delicate tone of her voice, such that her charm was doubled by the overlapping persons I discovered in her: in her trusting intimacy she was a child, while in her acts she was a woman.

And we treated each other not as strangers, but as people who have known one another a long time now, between whom no secrets exist, for whom the nakedness of the soul has laid bare all possibilities.

As she delved into those events, careful not to complain out of deference to any lack of interest on my part, her voice became warmer and more refined, so that one involuntarily understood he was in the presence of a young lady. And these two words, so far as she was concerned, took on a sense of perfection, perfect and visible like a silver tuberose sprouting from an iron bar.

And then with sadness, we said goodbye. But before disappearing, she doubled back and said to me, “Thank you for looking upon me with eyes so free from desire. With you I shall always be able to talk about anything. Don’t think poorly of me.”

Then, moving her shoulders slightly, the skirt whirling round her agile legs, she disappeared.


OF THE FIVE OF US who gather each night in that room, who is the vilest?

Yes, always, two hours after dinner, we gather for a mate. The first to arrive is Sacco, with onion head and boxer’s body, paler than a votive candle, who was a hood back in Buenos Aires. He’s got a rap sheet longer than a thesis paper. Then comes the hunchback Febre, who steals flasks of morphine from the nurses’ station; then Paya, brawny, bow-legged, his milky face forever clean-shaven, with a spark of bitter light deep in his hazel eyes and the magnificent bearing of one used to relying on his physique.

They come to “our” room while the Jewish boy is asleep. Leiva the Eraser prepares the mate while Sacco tunes up the guitar, covering the instrument’s body with his broad chest.

We all drink mate from the same metal straw; we no longer fear contagion and one germ more or one less among us matters little. The conversation flags shortly after starting, and more often than not we sit in silence.

Oh, yes! We call Leiva “The Eraser.” He doesn’t like to talk about the people he’s rubbed out. He calls it “rubbing someone out” when he’s murdered them. But when he gets drunk at the dive bar next to the bus stop in Ucul, at the turnoff to the sanatorium, he starts to reminisce. This happens on Sundays, when the cockfights are held and even the highest-ranking politician in the department comes to town, every last slob in Ucul with a peso to bet. Leiva, his elbows propped on the table, looking somberly out at the rectangle of distant meadow framed by the doorway, evokes the good old days with certain euphemisms.

He was a cattle herder in Las Varillas. “Outside San Rafael,” he “rubbed out” his first person. Under the obtuse angle of the garret roof, the guitar strings tuned by Sacco leave diapasons hanging in the air turned white with smoke, as the notes gradually grow dim. The hunchback rests his jute sandals on the edge of the brazier, and with his marmoset’s face, rocking his head back and forth, he follows the rhythm of the dulcet tones.

Paya, his neck wrapped in a silk kerchief, takes refuge in sullen silence, occupying an angle of the room where the roof hangs lowest.

He thinks, remembering his furnished apartment on the corner of Corrientes and Talcahuano. He reminisces…

Who amongst the five is the vilest?

Each of us has led a wayward or tragic life.

One summer morning I was surprised by a terrible pain in my lung. Paya felt the blood rise to his lips like a water fountain one night while cutting cards, with a two thousand peso bet on a full house. Leiva was brought down by the flu, Sacco by his coughing, a cough so insistent that a fit tipped off a fellow bus passenger just as Sacco was lightening his pockets.

Bored and brooding, we sit around Leiva, who has now taken up the guitar. Our foreheads remain bowed, our faces set in a virile expression, an affirmation of our desire to live more cruelly still. The boy with laryngitis sleeps with his face to the wall, and his red hair leaves a copper stain on the pillow. Paya lets the cigarette butt smolder between his lips. He thinks of “the life,” the police lineups, the nights spent in the clink. He thinks of the radiant afternoons at the races, the black stands filled with porteños, the jockeys’ colored shirts slipping vertiginously around the track: green, red, yellow shirts swelled up in the wind as the working stiffs sucked on oranges by the dozen, shouting their heads off as their favorites ran by.

Leiva bleeds a tango onto the weeping strings of the guitar. Our cruel expressions crumble in a convulsive tremor of facial nerves. Like wild beasts in the forest, we catch the scent of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires so far away. Among the snowy mountains, Ester Primavera’s name strikes my cheeks like a gust of perfumed wind, and Leiva’s profile, turned leathery by sun and wind, remains bowed over the lute. His eyes, too, settle on a distant recollection, the green and violet pampa, the restless cattle in the mountain mist, the cup of cane liquor drunk at the counter, with one hand on his holster and the glass raised in a toast.

Sacco, on the edge of my bed, cleans his nails with the tip of a knife. He, too, reminisces. He’s back in Cell Block Three, with the thieves awaiting a visit the next morning from the woman who will bring them clothes, or news from their lawyers; then dusk, with their repugnant rations in the trash, still steaming, followed by the interminable card games; the excitement of reencounters, trips to court in the prison bus, tales of con jobs, the prolegomenon of the holding cells, the letter sent in an attempt to cheat some poor sap with tales of fraudulent bankruptcy… The exhilaration of freedom… The profound exhilaration of that jailer’s shout: “Sacco… Bring your stuff on up to the front.”

Like a gust of hot wind, Ester Primaver’s name strikes my cheeks.

The tango sounds out scenes of anguish, where the women wear purple shoes and the men’s faces are like maps made of gashes and knife scars.

Straightening up in pain, Sacco suddenly says, “The old bellows are killing me. Been killing me for three days.”

A twitch contracts his thin lips over his twisted teeth.

“Does it hurt?”

“Yeah. A lot…”

“Why don’t you have them cup and bleed you?”

“I’m sick to death of the incisions. My back looks like it’s been through the meat grinder…”


I SAW HER the day after our talk. What evil spirit suggested to me such a wicked experiment? I don’t know. Afterward I’ve often thought that my illness must have been growing inside of me already, and the malice evident in all of my actions was the consequence of a nervous imbalance brought on by the toxins secreted by the bacteria. I would later discover that there are a great number of depraved consumptives, inflamed by temperaments that have brought suffering upon their fellow man.

The evil hidden in each man is endowed with dark impulses when the blood becomes poisoned, in a kind of repressed hatred of which the sick man is well aware, though this doesn’t stop him from letting it seep into his personal relationships. The act is accompanied by a bitter pleasure, a sort of morbid desperation.

Oh, that’s right! I saw her the next night in the doorway of her home, which opens onto the garden. She could do nothing but stare at me. I had the presentiment that something was going to happen. I didn’t speak, my words held in by the anguish of the lie I was about to tell her. It was a madman’s test.

I said to her, “I’m married.”

Her head bent toward the back of her neck as if she had received a cross to the jaw. Her facial features went slack in an explosion of white heat. The skin of her jaw and her lips drew taught with a quiver. A thin wrinkle parted her forehead, and for an instant her eyelids trembled above her eyes, from which her soul seemed to be trying to escape. Then, for a moment, her gaze fell still behind the rigid lashes permeated by a dying spark.

Finally, she regained her intense passion.

“No, it isn’t possible… Say it’s not so.”

Instead of taking pity on her distress, a somber expectation held me steadfast. If Death had stood by her side and her life had depended on my saying the word, it was a word I would not have pronounced. Was this not, after all, the loveliest moment of our lives? Could we bottle up more anguish for the future than at that very moment? There, we were perfectly authentic; I, a man who gambled away a woman before her very eyes… Everything else was a lie… What was authentic was this, the pain of this girl who had forgotten her duties to herself according to convention, who had forgotten all appearances, thus transforming her into an eternal child; at that very moment, I was not worthy to kiss the dust trodden by her feet.

Suddenly, she moved away. She said, “No, this isn’t possible. We must see each other tomorrow.”

And we saw each other not just once, but many times. She prodded further at my lie, that lie that was someone else’s truth, and I couldn’t contradict my tale.

I strolled through the gardens with that lovely creature. With her gray parasol, she opened furrows in the sand, and under the delicate weave of her straw hat, she smiled like a convalescent. Having forgotten it all, we spoke of the mountains I had never seen, and the cliffs that sit by the sea’s edge (this I didn’t know), where the stench of the algae renders the icy atmosphere as penetrating as that of another planet.

She had seen the far-off lands of the South, the solitude of lighthouses, the sadness of violet sunsets, the awful tedium of the sand whipped up ceaselessly by the winds on the dunes. And as I listened to Ester Primavera, my fleeting happiness became more intense than suffering; mine was a hopeless love. And Ester Primavera understood what was taking place inside me, and so that I would never forget her, so that I might always remember those passing moments, she adorned them with her infinitely delicate words and her childish demeanor; that will to bring everything to a close, hidden under such a frail and sweet appearance, seemed inconceivable.

One day we said goodbye forever. Her eyes filled up with tears.


THE GUITAR rings out raucously in the half-breed Leiva’s hands. Sacco is brewing mate. The black mountain exhales a savage breeze like a monster slowly respiring. Outside, the windows of each ward are lit up. Making his way with a flashlight, a nurse walks along a sandy path, his white apron inflated by the wind. In his hand he carries a bag of oxygen.

Paya, seated on the edge of Leiva’s bed, smokes leisurely. No one speaks; we listen to the tango, a tango that plumbs the back alleys of death in the shape of a woman coming in from the streets.

Suddenly, the Jewish boy awakes in terror. Disheveled, with his back against the headboard, he coughs nonstop.

“There’s a lot of smoke in here,” says Leiva.

“Yeah, a lot.”

Paya opens the window and a gust of frozen air eddies for an instant in the foggy atmosphere. The Jewish boy coughs constantly, with his kerchief pressed against his lips. Then he looks at the kerchief and smiles joyously. The fabric is still white.

“There’s no blood?”

The redhead shakes his head no.

This is our obsession. And we always keep up on one another.

There’s not a single one of us who doesn’t know just where his lesion is situated, along with those of his roommates. We listen to each other’s insides. Some guys have a real keen ear. They pick up before the doctors do the sibilant sound of leaking air somewhere in the back or chest indicating a deadly crevice.

We talk of the disease’s progress with a sickly erudition. We even place bets—yes, bets—on the dying patients in our wings. Packs of cigarettes are gambled away to see who nails the time of death of the next to go. A complicated and ghastly game, since sometimes the dying man doesn’t die, instead “reacting,” entering into convalescence, curing himself of the disease and then mocking the gamblers, becoming so enthusiastic as to ironically search out another “candidate” on whom to place bets.

In life and death, there are moments that seem to us worth less than the butt of the cigarette we smoke so morosely.

If not for the memory of Ester Primavera, I reflect, I would have killed myself already. In the midst of all this misery, her name strikes my cheeks like a gust of hot wind.

She has ceased to be a woman who will one day grow old, with her white hair and her old woman’s smile, worn-out and sad. Bound to me by indignity, for seven hundred days now remorse has persisted inside of me like a splendid and perpetual metal shard. My joy lies in knowing that on my deathbed, as the nurses walk by without looking at me, the tattered image of that delicate creature will be there to accompany me until the end. Yet how to ask for her forgiveness? Even so, for seven hundred days now, I think of her at all hours.

Wrapped in an overcoat, I walk out to the gallery with a blanket on my back. In truth, this is forbidden, but I find a corner in the blackness and stretch out on a patio chair. It’s so dark out that the acrid odor of the espinillo trees seems like the voice of the earth. A dark mass juts up parallel to my face: the mountain. Far away, uncertain as stars, a cord of yellow lights reticulates the distance in a hypothetical plane. These are the streets of Ucul.

My flesh hardens on my bones. It’s so cold! Snowflakes fall. They look like feathers turning about themselves. And I think, “Why did I act so vilely with that child?”

And once again I fall back into that vulgar memory.

A month after everything had come to an end between us, I ran across her in the street in the company of an individual. He was puny, with an office manager’s mug, cat whiskers, and a mulatto face. She directed an ironic look at me, as if saying, “What do you think of this guy?” I stood for a quarter of an hour on the street corner, my mouth open… But what right had I to be incensed? Hadn’t she warned me already?

“I’ll get married to the first one who comes along and shows me he loves me just a little.”

Had that ironic look really appeared in those same eyes, once so teary? Was that possible? A cold rancor, one of those rages muted by the ferocity latent in every man, comprised solely of immediate action, took me to a café. I reflected that I needed to erase her from my life, to put her in a position that would make any further friendship between us impossible. She must abhor me so much that in the future, even were I to kneel before her as she passed, all such humiliation would be useless. I would be the only man she would hate with the patience of eternity.

So I asked for note paper and I wrote the most despicable letter that has ever left my hands. My ferocity and my desperation piled insult upon insult, distorting events she had narrated to me, exalting details of her life that would suggest to a third party with no knowledge of our relationship the idea of an intimacy that had never existed, and I refined each affront to make it more atrocious and unforgettable, not with coarse words, but by scorning her noble spirit, twisting her ideas, embarrassing her in such a way over her generosity that I suddenly thought, were she to read that letter right then, she would kneel before me and beg me not to send it. And yet, she was innocent.

Since I knew she was not at home at that very moment, but in the street conversing with another man, I sent it to her in the certainty that it would be received by her mother or her brother, who wouldn’t doubt what was written there because the references were to events that I could have only heard from her.

I called over a shoeshine boy and offered him a peso to deliver the letter. I instructed him to clap loudly so that the servant wouldn’t sequester it; the others in the house couldn’t help but ask who was in the doorway raising such a raucous. The boy, after abandoning his kit at the foot of the table, disappeared along the acacia-capped street, taking great bounds.

“It’s done now,” I thought to myself.

And yet I was unsure of what was happening inside me. A new serenity steeled my nerves. The shoeshine boy came back, and in the description he gave me of the man who had received the letter, I recognized her brother. I gave the boy his peso and he went away.

I set off down the street. I walked at peace, observing the sun dapples in the doorways, the green of the gardens, until I stopped to pick up a child who, running out of a passageway, had tripped and fallen. The child’s mother thanked me. I walked at peace, as if my personality were completely divorced from all wickedness. And yet there had occurred something as enormous and impossible to remedy as the progress of the sun or the passing of a planet. Only by impelling my mind was I able to imagine the arrival of the ragged child riotously clapping his hands, and the surprise of all those people at receiving, addressed to such a daughter…

I couldn’t help but laugh; sleep had trapped me in its gears. I imagined a gentleman brandishing the letter between interrupted attempts at domestic morals and Ciceronian invectives truncated by the mother’s fainting spell, the sisters crying over a possible catastrophe, the brother angrily interrogating the maid regarding my countenance so that he might pummel me, the frightened servant watching for the “girl’s” arrival and muttering between her teeth, “The things that happen, my Lord!” while the cook gloated among the pots and pans, delighting in the gossip that she would relate to her husband later that night, in the meantime praising the morals of the poor and saying with grotesque sufficiency, as she hung up a skillet: “Oh, no, better to be poor and principled…”

My chortling exploded so sonorously in the street that passersby stopped to look at me, convinced I had gone mad, and a watchman finally came over and asked me, “What’s going on, friend?…”

I looked at him insolently and responded that first of all, I was no friend of his, and then, “What? Is it forbidden to laugh at one’s own thoughts?”

“I meant no offense, sir.”

Then the delirium passed. Nothing could change what was done.

The night came, and I knew she was out there, suffering.


AS THE DAYS went by, I experienced every kind of remorse. I imagined Ester Primavera as the afternoon came to an end, alone in her bedroom. The pale creature, with her arms resting on the rectangular bronze headboard of her bed as she gazed at the pillows, would be thinking of me. And she would ask herself, “Is it possible I could have been so wrong? Is it possible for such a monster to be enclosed inside that man? Then all those words he said were lies, then all human words are lies? How could I have failed to see the falseness in his face and eyes? And how could I have told him about myself? How could I express so many sincere perspectives, give to him my purest self without moving him? He must be the vilest of all the men I’ve ever known. Why did it all happen?”

I never saw her as I did then, so sad in my memories. It seemed to me that all her dreams, floating like svelte parallelepipeds in the luminous morning air, were collapsing, covering her with the dust of the earth.

And as I reconstructed all the sorrows she must be suffering because of me, from afar I felt bound to her substance, and if in those instants Ester Primavera had come to kill me, I would not have moved.

How many times in those days I must have thought of the delight in dying by her hand. Because I had believed that through my terrible infamy I would scrub her from my conscience and that her pale face would dwell in me never more, but I was wrong. My cruel offense inserted her in my days, more immobile and fixed than a sword passed perpendicularly through my heart. And with each beat, the deep gash slowly expands.

For a time the fan blades of night and day revolved before my eyes as if I were drunk.

Many months later, I ran into her.

I was walking with my head down, when I instinctively lifted it. Ester Primavera crossed the street in my direction, coming toward me. I thought, “Oh, how happy I would be if she were to slap me.”

Could she have divined what was going on inside me?

Rapidly, with a slight movement of her shoulders, her semblance ragged, her gaze fixed, she advanced toward me. Her black dress whirled around her agile legs. A lock of hair left her temple uncovered, and her throat was wrapped in a short black fur.

Her steps became ever slower. She looked at me with stillness in her soul. I was the one who had made her suffer so… Suddenly she was only a step away… This was the same woman who had stood next to me one day, who talked of the mountains, the ocean, the cliffs… Our eyes were closer still; there was a lunar clarity in her face, the fine wrinkles of suffering crossed her forehead… Her lips twisted, and without saying a word, she disappeared…

For seven hundred days now, I have thought of her. Always of writing to her from this hell to ask her forgiveness.

The snow falls obliquely. In the darkness, a nurse advances. Suddenly, in his right hand, the bulb of the electric lantern flashes. He shines a white cone of light on me, and says drily, “Seven, go lay down.”

“I’m going.”

For seven hundred days now, I have thought of her. The snow falls obliquely. I get up from the patio chair and head to the ward. But before arriving, I skirt a railing with a view to the south. There, eight hundred kilometers away, lies Buenos Aires. The infinite night occupies a desolate space. And I think: “Ester Primavera…”




ROBERTO ARLT (1900–1942) was an Argentine writer. His novels El juguete rabioso (1926) and Los siete locos (1929) have been respectively translated as The Mad Toy and The Seven Madmen. The latter will be republished by NYRB Classics in December 2015.


LUCAS LYNDES is co-founder of Ox & Pigeon Electronic Books, a digital publisher of international literature in translation. His translation of the novel The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre was published by Frisch & Co. He lives in Lima, Peru.

‘Ester Primavera’ originally appeared in Spanish in La Nación, Buenos Aires (9 September, 1928). This English translation is copyright © 2015 Lucas Lyndes. All rights reserved.

Header photograph: ‘Eye’ by Hans Van Den Berg  @ Flickr. Republished under this Creative Commons licence.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Tony Page

Photo (CC) torbakhopper @ Flickr

Photo (CC) torbakhopper @ Flickr


King Agamemnon, Athens 2014

Who is this tramp stumbling among the coffee tables?
Dressed as if he’s been thrown off a movie set
clothes in tatters and gashes all over?
Now he’s on his knees,
mesmerized by someone drinking from a glass,
as if he’s never seen such a thing.
A waiter attempts to lift him to his feet
but the poor devil draws a sword

babbling gibberish: A-chi-le-us, Hek-tor, O-di-se-us.
His wailing dismays the diners
and children begin to cry.
When the police arrive he’s quietened down
gazing at the glass once again
as if it were an apparition.




Before the War

The air is torpid, trying to ignore history ─
that burden packed away for good.
How the birds sing! commenting on customs
but perched safely above. Gentlemen pause before
clinching their argument, planning which way they
might flee. Shadows across the tables, long late
afternoon with attendant breeze.
A still life on its last legs.




TONY PAGE is a Melbourne poet, whose third book, Gateway to the Sphinx (Five Islands) appeared in 2004. He has read his work at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, Venice Conference of Commonwealth Literature, Shakespeare & Co in Paris, plus venues in the USA and Malaysia. As a theatre director, he has mounted productions of Shakespeare, Beckett, Brecht, Pinter etc. plus several of his own collaborations with various student groups. For 20 years, he worked in Thailand and Malaysia, but now lives in Australia. He has also written for the stage, with Who Killed Caravaggio? completed in 2009. He has recently been published in Eureka Street, The Australian Poetry Journal, The Canberra Times, Peril, Plumwood Mountain and Otoliths and is now finalizing a fourth collection of poetry.

from issue #8: ‘Nirvana’ by Kent Harrington

An excerpt from Satellite Circus by KENT HARRINGTON

'Moon Gate' CC kansasphoto @Flickr. Used under a CC licence

‘Moon Gate’ by kansasphoto @Flickr. Used under a CC licence

STANLEY ASKED why they called it Elephant Beach. They’d been standing in the outdoor elevator with a view of the sea, he and the bellboy, riding in a mechanical fury up to his room. The horseshoe-shaped beach, ten stories below, spread out perfectly in that postcard way people dream of. No beer cans, or drunks, or bits of trash from up here, Stanley thought. He’d overheard someone in the lobby say it was at this beach where the Waters girl had last been seen. He’d heard it countless times on countless TV stations in Miami; read it on CNN’s crawl; heard it at Heathrow, while in a bar drinking Diet Coke, which he detested, waiting for his plane to the States. What had happened in that bar was strange. He’d gone in fully intending to get drunk, and sat down and ordered a Diet Coke as if he were being ordered to by remote control.

At his girlfriend’s flat near Green Park—the flat panel TV showing the Waters girl’s photo and then the now-famous beach—his girlfriend had complained about his drinking and the travails of their long-distance relationship in a tone of voice that said it was over between them. He’d thought of those filaments in a light bulb still glowing on stubbornly, the power cut; just their reddish electric ember left to slowly fade out.

He and the girl had taken bracing walks in Green Park during his visit to London to meet with his editors at the paper, her hopes of patching things up, “civilizing him,” gone now. Both of them just watching the end of it all. She’d finally given up. She was—as the psychiatrists say—emotionally unavailable now. Her eyes no longer on him, the way they had been before; he could sense that it was hopeless. She looked straight ahead in her chic raincoat, head slightly bent as she walked, her beautiful profile a reminder of the image he’d fallen in love with. The realization that it was over had hurt—there was a certain quality to the un-localized pain that made him long for a common toothache. Everyone wanted to be believed in. Seen.

She had driven him to the airport explaining everything quickly, how they needed to see other people with like interests. (What would his be, he wondered?) He’d stopped listening, letting her perform the script she must have practiced for days, budgeting emotions. So much for this syllable, so much for that glance. It was somehow tawdry. She should have just thrown something at him and called him an asshole; it would have sat better with both of them. After all, he had been an asshole.

He’d watched her Morris Minor pull away at Heathrow and join the line of cars, keeping his eyes on it until it disappeared into the grey rain, so different than in Los Angeles, where the newspaper preferred he live. Like any soldier from Lumley, he’d obeyed his orders and done his job—and she’d sacked him for it.


ELEPHANT BEACH,” Stanley said. The bellboy told him things about the beach, the story of how it had been named by the developer. Stanley stopped listening, wanting just to see it instead, get to know it from this singular high-up, elevator-traveling-soundlessly-through-space point of view. He had a bad habit of blocking out peoples’ droning conversation, and listening to his own silent monologue as if he were writing his thoughts down carefully on a notepad, the way he had when he interviewed someone while at the Times. The time of unrememerable being… truly young. Wordsworth. He smiled. Why did he remember Wordsworth? Wordsworth had felt it all, perhaps.

There had been a crack in his personality since he was a child. He’d lost something when he’d lost his sister, perhaps even before that. Some hidden defect, like a cleft palate or psychological clubfoot finally made itself noticeable after her death. He’d reached that point where he understood that it was true, it was, what she’d said to him, the girl near Green Park, while she’d dressed. She’d passed sentence on him. She’d told him that it wasn’t the murder of his sister that had made him drink and carouse, made him lose his job at the Times. She was certain of that. She was quick to say how horrible his sister’s murder was. But it would have been something else, she said, slipping on her mules, standing in her fabulous closet and looking at him, sure of herself. She was thirty and slim and pale with small breasts she kept in expensive see-through underwear. So sure of herself even when she made love, a veteran of doomed affairs like theirs—getting what she could out of them, even if it was just a good screw. Not an ounce of love left in her now. Was anything left to assay? Everything dry about her. The milk-of-human-kindness-store closed.

But she’d been right, he decided. The realization hit him again as it had while he’d towed his suitcase through Heathrow, the great circus of tourism and travel. She was a doctor, she’d seen the disease; he was clearly ill with a case of lifefuckedupness. And perhaps he’d become a vector for transmitting it to others.

“I’m not trying to be a bitch about your sister, Stanley. Can you understand what I’m trying to say to you? You have to look at the whole man, Stanley, not the event. Your ontology, do you understand? I want this to get through, Stanley. It’s your only hope, for god’s sake. Because I think you want to kill yourself really.” She was a Harley Street doctor and had grown up in a world of big words and big bank balances because her father had been a someone at Lloyds of London. She thought in biological terms—pattern recognition was her forte.

He’d watched the little plane cursor transition from Europe to America on his personal TV screen, following the icon and childishly thinking that his orientation was all wrong. If he could only be like the plane, guided by unseen hands, men who could see the larger picture and radio him when it looked dangerous up ahead. You’re going to lose your sister. You’re going to go slightly mad … over. Roger that, mate. He could understand that. It had been his fate since the moment he was conceived—like a star, the gases and liquids meeting to make him, Stanley Jones, to assert something that had never been asserted before; a biological novelty, as he supposed everyone had to be or the universe couldn’t survive: new stones, new trees, new people, fresh bright new strands of DNA even, or at the least, subtle changes, one from the other. The whole thrust of the universe was constant change. The little piece of grit that had coalesced into Stanley Jones, would glow and then die, but for now, still existed as the slightly underfed journalist with some real war experience. Had the grit come from the mines where his father worked, a little bit of carbon-sperm still traveling through time? The 33-year-old man who had been born in England, once worked at the Times of London, voted Tory for the hell of it, and went tabloid because his sister had died in the way she’d died and he couldn’t face it.

Some things in life are faced, some are not. Some things break you and some don’t. The day that he’d gotten the news in Iraq had broken him. It was quite simple. His underpinnings blown up. Something went wrong in his heart. Before he got that call he’d cared: afterwards he stopped like a clock. Not emotionally available for ticking, and certainly not for loving anyone. The doctor called Portia, a.k.a. his girlfriend, had felt for his emotional pulse; after several attempts, she gave up. Patient expired.



HE LOOKED DOWN, a bit of vertigo racing up his spine through the spotless pristine thick elevator glass: the smooth scimitar line of sand and blue sea Disneyesque, cloyingly beautiful, still growing below. He was seeing things as he hadn’t for years. The elevator was driven up to some mechanical hilt where it finally stopped with a feeling of unlocking—all of it felt in his feet. He took a last look: everything spread out under an empty, blue, exhausted slave-sky… all very what? Empty, he decided, all very empty here.

God, I’m sober. The idea frightened him. He cared again. He had no other word for it. But what was it he cared about? He didn’t know that, either. He would have to start from scratch. Point Zero. If he did, he knew that somehow he would not turn back from it, from that Big Thing.

He’d spent the last few years pretty much drunk all the time. For some reason, the girl in London had punched through. She’d bloody scared him. She’d literally shoved him in front of her closet mirror and he’d gotten a good long look at himself, towel on his naked shoulder. And now he was scared by the kind of suspended-madness he’d seen plastered on his face, clear to him like the beach below, or the sky very cerulean blue and fine outside.

He stepped out of the elevator into the totally bland hotel corridor, red-carpeted, bordello-ish; little poppy-painted flourishes on the anonymous numbered doors. Like the corridors in Hell, or a sybaritic Heaven. The clarity of his vision made it painful. Even just a week of vacation bliss here, and you might—if you sat down and took it all in, really pulled on that straw—go mad. You shouldn’t allow yourself to think this way. He heard his mother’s voice, the voice she would use to buck him up when he was away at school with the rich boys and couldn’t keep up.

Why don’t they give you a report to write when you’re thirty? “Sum it up for us, then,” God would say. University, job, dating, your sex life. He’d once had a girlfriend who’d said her orgasm had had an orgasm, and they’d laughed. It had felt like a clue to the nature of the universe, the silly profundity of language that got it right sometimes.

Your bank balances. Bad Decisions and the Good Ones (going to Oxford). Where you store your prestige. The Balance Of Pride. The whole ratty story, with a cosmic by-line. He’d love to read his; anyone’s, it would be good. Or perhaps as a stock report: “The board promises that the second part of Jones’ life will show a three percent increase in after-tax profits EBIDA… if the panties he pulls down are made in sweatshops in VietNam and the transnational orgasm reaches critical mass and she looks at him with adoring connubial eyes as she is transported to the Avenue of Multiple Sheet-Grabbing Bliss. And the Tories sweep the next elections.”

Sobriety was making his mind race in this strange volcanic magma-streaming way to his core. Why? Why. Did he have a core? He didn’t think so. He’d looked before and decided it had been blown up. That was his problem. He had no core. He’d had a core-ectomy. It was gone. Filled with tabloid ink now, officially coreless like so much of the world around him, from London to Beijing. No core. Plenty of freeways and witless coffee houses and scolding bankers who stole, and earnest politicians planning mass murder called “defensive” by the press, but no social core any more. Ask anyone, and all you got was Jesus or Rasputin.

“This is your room, sir,” the kid said, finally stopping. “It’s a smoking room, sir.”

“Right,” Stanley said, standing in the door. “Don’t take it up, young man; it’s bad for you. Smoking.” He smiled at the bellboy.

“Yes, sir.” The boy, all of sixteen, was very black and handsome. He looked remarkably healthy and cool in his white uniform with a dolphin on the lapel, as if nothing could possibly upset him.

“Did you see the famous Mary Waters, then?” Stanley asked as they barged into the room. She’d stayed at this hotel. Everyone in the whole wide world knew that, now.

“I don’t know, sir. I may have. They all look the same, if you know what I mean. The Yanks. Especially the white ones.” Stanley smiled back at him, and they shared the joke. “You stop looking after awhile.” The island had been a colony of “Old Blighty” and now, even today, their former slaves’ POV was still a British one: the Royals, fox hunting, James Bond, Mr. Bean, English humor. English churches. English tabloids.

“Ah, come on now… even the very pretty ones?” Stanley said.

“No, sir. You always look at the very pretty ones. Right you are!” The boy smiled and looked like all boys caught red-handed with their fantasies. He took the British pounds Stanley offered and went to the curtain at the bottom of the stale-smelling room and pulled it open, the dirty bills disappearing into his jacket pocket.

“Ice, sir?”


”Ice, sir? Would you like some?” the boy asked him.

He didn’t want to answer the question. It was loaded.

“Do you think she was murdered?” Stanley asked him instead.

“I haven’t a clue, sir,” the boy said, looking at him rather blankly. “Are you a policeman?”

“No. Worse. Journalista… No ice, thanks.” It took him a moment to get the words out, as if someone else were answering for him. He walked to the window and looked down on the beach.

He heard the door close softly behind him and leaned against it, trying to breathe deeply. He walked across the room—it seemed suddenly very small—to the mini bar. He didn’t like being alone, he realized. He touched the seal, a little gold cord. Break it? … He touched it the way you might if you were blind, testing. He yanked and it gave way quite easily. Just as quickly he stepped away, as if he’d knocked on the Devil’s front door and asked for him by name. Is Lucifer home? Can he come out and play?

“I can do this,” he said out loud. “I can do this.”



HE WALKED OUT to the famous beach fully dressed, sweating, but still in possession of his sobriety, an interloper amongst the half-naked college kids. He felt as if he were holding his sobriety like one of those dolls they give expectant mothers to look after. Twice he’d opened the Servibar and looked at the beers and small-drinks bottles, even counting them. He’d taken them to the bathroom and poured them all out, then almost panicked while watching the last bits of beer foam clinging to the sides of the wet sink.

He’d had to walk through a tunnel, a kind of snack-area-cum-bar leading from the bowels of the hotel, and then the sunlight and people coming in off the beach, sweaty and oily. The transition from dark to light was hard to take when he was seeing every detail. Like a car-park connected to a beach. Weird. The sand-caked-on legs, collapsed umbrellas, noise on noise, the sound of the surf itself, the feeling of walking on sand in his dress shoes, holding his crying “baby,” his “I’m sober” doll.

Thought/mind things coming and going, fairly normally: Sexual interest—the loin-pulling kind— he noticed that it had been missing for months. Seeing young women’s wet butts and how he might want to cup them with the palm of his hand as he waded out onto the soft sand. He stopped for a moment, realizing the girl on Green Park had, in part, left him because he’d been terrible in bed. But this new interest in sex would disappear soon, and fall through the 6pm hole with everything else—if he took a drink.

He’d lasted exactly two weeks on the Royal’s TV side, a show called “Celebrity Smack Down,” showing up once too often drunk. They’d sent him back to the print side, where it didn’t matter what he sounded like. Ironically he’d only gotten more successful, his bylines appearing at least once a week now all over the world. Alcohol seemed to fuel his style. And how sober did you have to be to cover gassed-up starlets or pathetic dowagers leaving fortunes to their cats?




ONE OF THE COLLEGE GIRLS looked at him. She was holding a beer. She had brown hair, a real hip-hop Lolita. She was looking at him specifically. Noticing him and his ridiculous linen suit, the expensive shoes he’d bought in Italy while covering the Cruise wedding.

“Are you looking at my ass?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” he said, stopping.

“My ass? ARE. YOU. LOOKING. AT. IT?” She giggled. She was drunk.

“Well, I may have been,” he said finally, taking her in. She had small breasts and a flat stomach and was slathered up like her partner lying on the sand near her. That alone would give her a fuck-me-now quality, all that cocoa butter on her legs and breasts like she was being served up to some Beach God for lunch. Could she blame him for looking? It was the ass of a 20-year-old, the kind they ran on Page Three of his newspaper. An ass hard enough to bounce quarters off of, a Marine had once said to him.

“You’re not supposed to stare. Didn’t you read the guide books?” she said.

“Sorry… didn’t pack one,” Stanley said.

”Funny. Are you English? You sound like Hugh Grant.”

“I think so,” he said. “Last time I checked… Welsh, actually. But I’m working on the accent.”

”Funny. This is my friend, Heather. We just met,” the girl said. Not much from Heather but a glance and a hair toss, and a look that was neither dismissive nor inclusive.

“How do you do,” Stanley said.

“I’m reading Grisham. What do you think of him? I brought Shakespeare, too. ‘What fools these mortals be.’ My kingdom for a Heineken.” The smaller one moved her hands expansively to take everyone in. “That kind of thing seems out of place. Can you quote Grisham? No one seems to be able to—I keep asking.”

“Authentically American,” Stanley said.

The girl smiled. She’d liked what he’d said.

”Why aren’t you wearing a bathing suit?” she asked.

He wanted to see her eyes. There was something familiar about her. Maybe it was her inebriated coyness. Her eyes were well guarded by some wicked silver sunglasses that belonged on a boy.

“I didn’t pack one. I didn’t expect a beach,” he said, smiling. He wanted to play along.

“I don’t understand. Doesn’t compute,” she said. “This is an island? Do you have an iPhone?”

“I do,” he lied.

“We’ll both fuck you then… just kidding. It’s just it’s the one item necessary for an electronic orgy—that and an iPod. Then we can have an i-fuck-you. You know they have docking stations here by the beds? Although they pump in Mariah Carey, too—or is it Beyonce?… Docking station, get it? Pump Mariah Carey. Got to love that.”


“WiFi. Docking station. Are you gay?” she asked. Her hand moved while she said it. She had a bit of gold-colored sand decorating her flank like a henna painting. She dusted it off and he was sorry. Her bathing suit looked brand new.

“No. I tried it but it didn’t seem natural,” he said. “And I have a bad back.”

“You are funny. Well, go buy some kind of electronic gadget that will awe us and come right back,” she said. “Then we can find out important things that are going on Right Now. In. Our. World! Something wireless. Text me.” She lowered her sunglasses looking over the top of the frame. She mouthed her number. “My cell number works here. I paid extra.” She rummaged in her beach bag for a moment. Then she reached up and took his hand and wrote her number on his palm in blue ink.

“Right,” he said, impressed, and he wandered off, waiting for the baby to slip out of his hand. He turned back once and looked at the girl. She was talking to her friend, but she turned and looked at him again and waved. He waved back like a dork. He thought she’d be passed-out before three, her head hanging over some perfumed hotel toilet, paying all her cleverness back.




THE NIRVANA’S grand atrium-style lobby had huge slabs of Brazilian yellow and brown marble with shocking patterns, made to delight idiots who, he supposed, would find secret meanings in their swirling colors once they’d smoked some of the island’s marijuana. Groups of middle-class singles in their thirties were preparing for day-trip adventures, determined to do more than just sit out on the beach with the kids. He heard someone ask a desk clerk for a map to “the slavery museum,” then they were off in a well-laundered herd. To look for the “Door Of No Return,” he heard one say.

He found a bar in the lobby called The Shack, with a view of the atrium-Hell waterfall. Who asked for waterfalls inside buildings—what genius came up with that? he wondered. He ordered a Diet Choke, as he jokingly called the drink, angry that he couldn’t order a real drink. He listened to the Muzak and drank, for a few moments alone at the bar, becoming something not quite human, a hulk of something, strangling itself quietly, with silent parched anger. Each pull on his drink tasted more and more like something one might use to clean furniture. He watched the black bartender, about his age, pretend to be busy, when there were no customers, his barman’s clothes impeccable.

He called his assistant in LA, who gave him all the latest updates on the story from various news sources. CNN was still leading the story; no other journalists had managed to wrestle it away from them. But they were running thin. And she’d heard they were desperate for new images. There was plenty he should be doing, but he was still trying to get his arms around the pain of his sobriety. The staggering clarity of life in the raw. It was hard to take.

“Is something wrong?” Stanley finally asked, putting his Blackberry down on the bar. The barman had been watching Stanley furtively. Stanley noticed the clock on his phone. 29.5 hours since his last drink. I’ll do thirty, and then surrender. White flag at 3 PM.

“I was just wondering… Are you here about the missing girl, then?” the bartender asked.

“Well, I’m not wearing a bathing suit, so that makes me a journo,” Stanley said. The anger in his voice surprised him.

“I could help. I saw her here that evening. The evening she disappeared. At the bar,” the man said. Stanley got the feeling this man had said exactly the same thing only moments before, and probably for days to any journalist who sat down in front of him.

“Of course you did… And of course you can,” Stanley said.

“I would need…” the man said.

Money?” Stanley said, warming up. Pulling on his unseen journo hat, and glad of it as he needed to pull something on to cover his nakedness. The nakedness he’d felt since landing in this bloody tanned-Hell. He made it sound like a question, but it wasn’t; more an affirmation. They all asked for money, even in Paris—one of the old hands had told him—at Lady Di’s tunnel. Even though they had nothing to sell, they asked just to say they’d seen the car drive by.

“Yes. Only fair, right?” the bartender said, less sheepishly than most did. The fact that he was trading on murder, probably, or worse, didn’t seem to matter.

Stanley looked at him carefully. The barman’s gold badge prominent on his starched shirt proclaimed him “Eddy.” Eddy smiled as he thought he had what in the business was called a “tidbit”—a little grubby jewel he’d palmed now for days. He wondered how many times Eddy had sold his girl since the furor had begun. Or at least trotted her out. Made her twirl, the sound of the dreadful waterfall behind him.

“Of course you would, Eddy. And I need a friend here, as I’ve heard they’re pirates. But you have to give me a peek inside the tent, Eddy. I mean, to see if I want to go in? Only fair.” He pushed his soft drink away. Eddy immediately grabbed it and filled it up from a special tap, Connected to the zebra that pissed out the stuff, Stanley thought.

“She was drunk… the girl, Mary. Very, very drunk when they left here. I refused to serve them any more,” Eddy said as he worked. Stanley’s glass disappeared, then reappeared filled to the brim, dancing with perfectly shaped balls of ice.


“Would you have any ID? I mean, so I know that you’re really from a newspaper or something,” Eddy said.

“The Royal,” Stanley said. “I work for the Royal.” Eddy had asked like a policeman. He wasn’t going to sell his little girl to just any guy. After all, Eddy wasn’t stupid! Stanley smiled back and dragged out his laminated press card, which he kept in the pocket of his linen jacket. He laid it flat on the bar, like a real-estate agent making an offer.

“The real thing, Eddy. I’ll get you a date with our Page Three Girl if you like.” They both laughed. It was an old line but it always worked with men, at least men familiar with the Royal’s naughty side.

He dug for his wallet. His editors had given him loads of dollars, and he could get loads more to buy any kind of tidbits from eager citizens like Eddy. “By the way, my name is Stanley, Stanley Jones. Did I say that?” Both looked at the greasy twenty-dollar bills; Stanley offered $200. They haggled, and Stanley let Eddy win. He always did; since Eddy was a bartender he would indeed be useful, though perhaps not in the way he thought. At that moment, perhaps—usually very late at night—when he’d made an ass of himself at the bar and was too drunk to stand. Most bartenders would stop it, the way they might stop an illegal dog fight if they could.

But maybe Eddy wouldn’t, Stanley thought. Maybe Eddy was what he’d gotten to call a “Pourer.” Some people were Pourers and some weren’t. Stanley smiled, paid the man his money.

“Wow,” the bartender said, taking the cash. “The Royal!

”Wow indeed,” Stanley said.

And then Eddy told the story that everyone on the planet with a TV already knew.

* * *


KENT HARRINGTON is a 4th generation San Franciscan, born to an Irish-Jewish father and Guatemalan mother. His early education was spent at the Palo Alto Military Academy, where he was sent at an early age. He attended San Francisco State University and received a degree in Spanish Literature. After living both in Spain and Latin America, he returned to the Bay Area and began his career as a novelist supporting himself as a teacher, carpenter, factory worker and life insurance salesman. His first published work was the well-received noir thriller Dark Ride published in 1997. Booklist’s review said: “This is as noir as it gets.” His follow-up noir thriller Dia De Los Muertos is considered a modern crime classic. Amazon’s editorial review says: “If ‘American noir’ were in the dictionary, you might find Kent Harrington’s picture in place of the definition.” Other works include Red Jungle, set in Guatemala, and The Good Physician. Red Jungle was selected as one of the “10 Best Crime Novels” of the year by Booklist. Kent lives in Northern California with his wife.

‘Nirvana’ is an excerpt from Satellite Circus. Copyright © 2009 by Kent Harrington. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Frank Russo

Photo (CC) Marion Doss @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Marion Doss @ Flickr


The parachutists, 1943

The night before the Americans came the villagers evacuated to the cave.
Six men carried the statue of their patron on their shoulders—
the Marseillaise saint upon his horse, trampling a Turk underfoot.

As the sky hummed with C-47s, they touched the saint’s hands and face
and watched as balloons fell from the sky. Americans swarmed like ants,
dropping to earth, shedding their skins in the branches
of olive trees and on the jagged timpone.

Someone called them paracadutisti—and soon everyone used the word,
repeating it—paracadutisti
as if they’d known it all along.

Just as quickly as they came, the Americans left, heading north in pursuit of a retreating army.
Then came the race—
……………………………the villagers came down from the cave in search of the nets,
the fabric like none they had seen before.

‘It’s perfect for collecting olives,’ one woman said,
…………………………………imagining her net stretched taut between thick trunks.

‘With this, I’ll make a shirt for my husband,’ said another,
…………………………………testing it for tear resistance.

‘I’m using this one to fly,’ said a boy of fifteen,
…………………………………too young to be afraid or enlisted—
……………………………………………………..imagining he’d fly like an American.

From a crag above the cave,
the boy’s parachute caught the wind,
billowing out to form a mushroom.

It floated before opening
like a handkerchief,
folding in on itself
as it fell,

tumbling down to earth
to form a shroud
for broken bones and battered skin.




From Earth, stone, water

I: Gravel road, Pisticci to Craco

A boot-trodden path cuts through wheat fields
to the remnants of a farmhouse. A chimney
standing sentinel takes on the proportions of a belltower;
an archway cut into loose brickwork forms
a poor-man’s nave. What’s left of the kitchen hearth,
now a tip for broken bowls, coat hangers,
shards of glass. A clean slab of granite
might’ve once formed a kitchen bench,
propped up with bricks, a kind of altar.

Here the hills erode to barren dunes
where only tufts grow, roads wedged
on the backs of ravines: a pilgrim’s landscape
through which the Apostle Thomas might have travelled.
Here a well, ploughed deeper in a drought year,
has gone to clay, a silent protest
against the profane.

In the distance, Pisticci, perched above a drop,
its houses whitewashed and symmetrical;
the town’s water tower glints in the afternoon light,
its reservoir full, waiting for a slide to spill its barrel.


III: At Laurenzana

A man reclining on a low stone wall recounts the allied
landing at Salerno like it were a week ago;
how the mountains crawled with soldiers.
In these mountains a thousand years
is like yesterday and the memory of yesterday erased.
Pointing to the church on a spur, he tells me how
archaeologists who excavated the abbey floor
found a woman’s mummified corpse—
he stretches his arms out to indicate a crucifix.

At Santa Maria della Assunta a young priest
points at his watch, gesturing the abbey closed at midday.
No, he shakes his head, there was no woman found
in the shape of Jesus; found here were medallions,
a bronze plate with a Madonna and child,
the remains of rosary beads, a fragment of animal jaw,
Bourbon-era coins, buttons—many of them, of wood and bronze,
a pair of women’s leather shoes in perfect state of preservation,
the remains of a woollen blanket that swathed a newborn infant,
and a woman’s corpse, hands folded across her solar plexus.




At home with Peggy


In the former dining room Peggy stands
beside the reproduction dining table,
watching visitors admire the sideboard
topped with reliquary carvings from Gabon.
Dressed for guests, though now visitors
stay no more than minutes,
moving to the drawing room
where the Kandinsky and Mondrian hang.



Peggy rolls her eyes
as she overhears a woman
discuss the Magritte—
I’ve finally worked out
what’s wrong with this painting—
how can it be night time
when the sky is still light?



In the library Peggy sits
on the white lounge, watching
art school grads frame shots of the canal
through the iron-latticed windows—
tourists more drawn to the view
than to Cornell’s Fortune Telling Parrot.

A woman poses like Peggy
in the photograph that hangs in the corner:
legs crossed, arm stretched over the lounge’s back.
She pouts, and so does Peggy,
parroting her parrot.



On the terrace, Peggy sunbathes,
amusing herself with the reactions of guests
to Marini’s sculpture of The Angel of the City
eyes delighted by the figure of the rider,
his arms stretched out in jubilation,
until they see the metal penis
Peggy has screwed in.
She hears an American tell his girlfriend,
You could give him a hat
or put a bucket around his arm
and turn it into an entirely different artwork.
Peggy turns to tan her breasts.



Peggy in the garden
beside the spot where her ashes are buried.
Peggy watching tourists take a break
in the garden’s cool shade.
Peggy listening to visitors discuss
whether it’s time for a coffee
or the special exhibition;
I want to check out the gift shop;
Are the toilets here safe to use?



Peggy in Pegeen’s room. Peggy studying
the photo of Pegeen sitting on the Byzantine throne.
Peggy observing her daughter’s paintings,
how they teem with happiness: scenes of sun and Riviera.
Pegeen’s paintings, primitive and naïve.

Peggy studies the long-limbed women standing naked,
the canals of Venice brown like oil slicks.
Peggy focuses on the brightness of the colours
and tells herself how happy her daughter was.
Peggy focuses on the colours and reassures herself
how untimely and mysterious
the whole thing was.




FRANK RUSSO’s writing has appeared in Contrappasso 6, The Weekend Australian, Southerly, Transnational Literature, Cactus Heart and in anthologies in Australia and overseas. His poetry collection, In The Museum of Creation, will be published by Five Islands Press in 2015. His writing has been short-listed for the Vogel/The Australian Literary Prize and other awards.

Sydney Book launch: Peter Doyle’s ‘The Big Whatever’


Contrappasso contributor Peter Doyle is launching his new crime novel The Big Whatever in Sydney on Sunday, September 13. Get along and grab a copy. Honours will be performed by special guest, artist-novelist Fiona McGregor, ceremonies will be mastered by the legendary outlaw James Scanlon, and the house will be rocked by hillbilly hardliners, Satellite V.

The Big Whatever, which contains an introduction by Luc Sante, is published by Dark Passage Books, an imprint of Verse Chorus Press. An earlier Billy Glasheen adventure, ‘Cold War, Hot Dogs’, appeared in Contrappasso issue #1.

If you can’t make the launch to buy a copy of the new novel, it’s now available as a Kindle ebook at or in epub format at Booktopia. For the paperback, try Gleebooks or Booktopia, or else

from Issue #8: Poetry by Page Sinclair

Photo (CC) laura.foto @ Flickr

Photo (CC) laura.foto @ Flickr


Grazie Italia

For the Roman sparrow who lent us his time
As we awed at the Pope’s palace in a crowd
Of two and for our moment by the Tiber
Green as the sycamore’s fresh summer rags.
For making us sticky in the heat as we fall away
Like ash into the noisy song lit twilight
And for the wine in worn out street corners
And marble foyers grand as an aging contessa
Slipping into the dark draped across the lanes
By the glamorous and impossible canals
Of my first time Venezia, where the night
Is an insistent daydream dressed for carnivale.

For the sun that razored the cooling Tuscan air
As Firenze stared down like a pantomine
Wizard casting a spell over its sleeping riches.
For the hidden church of gilded silence
That lost us all over again between the
Tourist party palazzos and wet diamond
Fountains busking for foreign coins.
For singing opera in gondolas steered
By poor boys in borrowed shirts.
For selling me enough glass beads
And Chianti to be dazzled by myself

Grazie Italia for being the best lover
I ever had the pleasure of leaving

And you make me wonder if we were
Ever sound in mind with our strong
Young bodies pulling us up the hill into
The arms of a legends appearing like a
Distant relative from the summer dust.
You make me want to sit in shade until
The money runs out and jump a train
Through fields of canola and sunflowers
And tiny churches blooming from the
Harvest, old as trees. You make me
And walk my streets in the rain
And falling churchbells, and sleep
Til Sunday noon in the spell of black
Silk and cobbled old women in the
Squares cleared in the stone forest
For the church, and wake to the rough
Hand of the artists in the piazza
Jewelled with their work, and breathe
Damp windowsill morning dreams.

I am a bird perched on a city
Lost in its own twistings and
The symphony of living on rooftops

And it’s all free

Italy you cheap whore
Soldering hearts together

I love your hairy upper lip
And swinging hips
And impatient loving
You big armed
Hold me together
So drunk and fed
That I forget to fall
To pieces under
The accordion light
And gypsy flowers
Worshipping in the
Dust of saint’s bones
And the grinning skulls
Strung with lace
And hot prayers.

Thank you for teaching a cold
White-bellied tourist how to burn
With the midnight candles.

Grazie for breeding greedy brave sparrows
To befriend the wanderers on a bridge.




An afternoon with Eliot, Dante and Steinbeck

There it is – your life – in a cage of rain. Impervious
As the clouds are to your wet feet. Too slow
Too slow the bird chimes from the bricked up
Chimney with the butchered shoots
Of the sage bush in its beak as the sun
Laughs at your turned up collar.
Galled by the world into the secrets
Under the dust and horse sweat,
Hiding with the mice in the haystack.
Lost somewhere in the powdered mist
Kicked up like a curtain hem
By the feet of the Hollow Men
There is darkness and a river –
Each the other’s nightmare –
And a journey into nowhere,
Through phantoms of the streets
And old frontier truths
To find the sky on a clear night;
To find the nothing in yourself
And your loves scattered like seeds
Onto the cool field of the stars.




PAGE SINCLAIR was born and raised in Sydney and completed a BA at the University of Cambridge in 2013. She is currently working on her first collections of poetry.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Alex Skovron

Photo (CC) Julien Boulin @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Julien Boulin @ Flickr


Door Soldier

The flabby bouncer outside Adriano’s
plucks a speck of street from his lapel,
……realigns his feet. He is thinking

About the wirehaired girl, she looked fifteen
though her ID seemed kosher. These days
……they get them forged, easy with Photoshop

And laser printers. He is remembering how
as a strapping punk he once king-hit a constable
……during the Globalization demos

Or was it Occupy? Nobody saw him do it,
but later he learnt the copper had laughed it off,
……which relieved and angered him.

He is wondering what his mum will say
when he creeps in after four again, or maybe
……he’ll sleep over at Lorraine’s, she’s

Always good for an ’im prompt you, she calls them;
mum’s really out of it nowadays,
……sometimes she doesn’t know what day it is –

But he’s deciding no, he’d better turn up at home
just in case she’s on the bedroom carpet,
……forgotten where she left her walking frame

And went for six. She never seems
to injure herself when she falls, although
……he knows it’s bound to happen eventually.

There’s that steelwool girl again, leaving already;
she’s young alright, but cute,
……where could she be off to now?

He fancies how he could follow her, for a lark,
if he wasn’t stuck standing out here
……in front of this shitty pub,

That’s all it is, despite its fancy title,
this dead end of a drinking hole, the haunt
……of try-hard aging poets and snooty chicks.

He hears his knuckles crack, catches himself
recalling a piece of advice his father shared
……in one of his angrier moods.




Open Slam

Just before he sauntered into the poetry reading
…………..he spotted the girl sitting in the gutter, her head down
as if in the midst of a distraught meditation or
…………..maybe about to vomit. Reluctant to approach her lest
he intrude, or she throw up at the very instant of his
…………..soft solicitous gambit, he stood off a while,
watching her like a jumpy guardian or dubious minder
…………..hoping her intentions, indeed her proper demeanour,
might swiftly clarify; but she simply sat there, not
………… the slightest mindful of the middlebrow semi-dandy
calibrating her every twitch, each microscopic shift
…………..and variance in her posture. As he was starting to feel
less fond of this fortuitous project he’d enlisted in,
…………..she suddenly jerked her head sideways and up and
directly into the sunlight behind him, so that her eyes
…………..must have construed a silhouetted figure, clearly male,
backlit in the late-afternoon dazzle of a sun’s
…………..Parthian emblazement before slippage under the slums
to the west of town. If not startled, she registered
…………..still something of surprise, but her kerbside station
refused to update itself. When an auto sizzled past,
…………..its whitewalls too close not to spray muddy droplets
over the basket he only now noticed flanking her,
…………..she arose at last, and he made out the young poet he had
encountered last Thursday in the Rotunda, that
…………..skinny one he’d led up to his shop and slept with.





Midnight dream. The bed swims below a roof awash
with the rid remains of hags and queasy clocks.

On the stead a pair of hungover jocks. The guests gather
all over again. The wedding canopy’s lid

is quilted with cartoons in black pen, pastels, and prints
of exotic family trees. Invitees lavishly grin, some of them weep.

A leering urchin passes, waltzing with a broom. Curtains
part, discreet. Soon the speeches will start, the blackening sky

and canopy refill, umbrellas are crisply arranged.
The marriage of pride and gloom. All manner of vows shall be

exchanged, while the un­invited clutter about in a forbidden room.
No tickets please. On the lawn, a slightly familiar singing

among contorted trees, a plinkle of glasses and a tlunk of plates.
Eyes crawl everywhere, looking for links. Sex and seduction

colonize the air, it’s a cocktail turn: he’s itching for some
fingerfood, she scans for drinks. Wait, is that the celebrant

pushing the gates, wearing her tinny sprinkle of professional joy?
Her golden tresses, the way she flings them, gorgeously. Oh boy!

(Among the rhododendrons, behind the drive, a churl wrestles
with a virgin’s brief, watches her arrive. Maybe now

the reception can begin.) But the celebrant isn’t: she’s merely
another guest; rumours fly. The sated couple from the bushes

remingle at the rotunda, offer each other the rosy eye.
On the balcony a tipsy-curvy secretary strips. The midnight dreamer,

disabused, notes how it really is clothes that naketh the woman.
She vanishes behind a vase. Everybody sips.




ALEX SKOVRON is the author of six collections of poetry and a prose novella; his most recent book is Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014). Many journals and anthologies in Australia and overseas have published his work, and his novella The Poet (Hybrid, 2005) was recently translated into Czech. The numerous public readings Alex has given have included appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, and on Norfolk Island. The Attic, a selection of his poetry translated into French, was published by PEN Melbourne in 2013. A collection of short stories is also in preparation.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Richard Berengarten 李道

Photo (CC) Papooga @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Papooga @ Flickr


Editor’s note: below is Richard Berengarten’s specially-written preface to the selection from his large sequence Changing, which appeared in Issue 8. The poems themselves are presented in a special PDF, to preserve their unique formatting. Click here to read them.


From Changing

Changing is a book-length poem composed between 1984 and 2014, whose structure is based on the I Ching. The patterning of this work is that of the spatio-temporal field (Olson). Its compositional strategies are those of correlative thinking or correlative cosmos-building (Granet and A. C. Graham). Its tissue is resonance: cosmic, magnetic, morphic (Sheldrake).

The two groups of poems published here are based on the third and fourth of the sixty-four hexagrams, Zhun, 屯 and Meng, 蒙. The first poem in each group corresponds to the hexagram itself, while the other six relate to each of the lines in the hexagram. The paratext in italics beneath the grey line at the end of each poem connects the text directly to the I Ching itself. The stanza divisions and mises-en-page suggest the stacked form of the hexagram.

The I Ching or Book of Changes is unique among the books of the world and its story is extraordinary. Its earliest known version, the Zhouyi, meaning the ‘Zhou Changes’, was probably compiled or composed during the last two decades of the ninth century BCE. As Edward Louis Shaughnessy wrote in his ground-breaking thesis (1983): “The Zhouji is incontestably the most important work of China’s long intellectual history.” It started its existence as a divination manual or fortune-telling handbook, a function it still fulfils today nearly three thousand years later.

The I Ching is comparable to the Bible for the huge number of commentaries and works of philosophy, literature and art that it has generated. My own fascination with this ancient book goes back fifty years to early 1962, when I was a nineteen-year old student at Cambridge. Over the years, Changing has grown, slowly but surely, out of that fascination.

RB, February 2015


Click here to read selections from Changing in a special PDF.




RICHARD BERENGARTEN was born in London in 1943 into a family of musicians. In 1975, he founded the international Cambridge Poetry Festival, which ran until 1985. He has lived in Italy, Greece, Serbia, Croatia and the USA, and has worked extensively in Eastern Europe and Russia. His poetry integrates English, European, Slavic, Jewish, Mediterranean, American and oriental traditions. His many books include For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000, In a Time of Drought, The Blue Butterfly, Under Balkan Light, Imagems 1, Manual and Notness. He is recipient of various literary awards in the UK, Serbia and Macedonia: The Blue Butterfly provided the Veliki školski čas memorial-oratorio for Nazi massacre-victims in Kragujevac (Serbia, 2007), and his poetry has been translated into more than ninety languages. A former Arts Council of Great Britain Writer-in-Residence at the Victoria Adult Education Centre, Gravesend, Visiting Professor at the University of Notre Dame, British Council Lector in Belgrade, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, he is currently a Preceptor at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, a Bye-Fellow at Downing College, an Academic Associate at Pembroke College, a Fellow of the English Association, and poetry editor of the Jewish Quarterly.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Paolo Totaro

Photo (CC) Alex Cheek @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Alex Cheek @ Flickr


The question

There was once a monkey who asked who am I?
The answer was not one that would satisfy.
Some time later he climbed down from her tree,
looked at the sky and asked pray, who am me?

If these four words were syntactically incorrect,
they posited a question that took time to reflect.
Later still, not the monkey but her descendants
reset the question: what is our why, our essence?

It was the moment He had waited for. He struck
the Lease, called the Quick Eviction Angels Truck
and both he and she had to leave all the trees

and grassy lawns and the tepid sea-breeze.
Yet, the questions kept on rising to the sky
and I for one still ask who the fuck am I?




 The architect’s gene

…………………………………………..In memoriam Harry Seidler

The house this mouse built, for herself, mate and brood
is a tunnel, complex, to you and me a pinhole in the ground.
Over there, clay, saliva, dung, the termites’ mound scrapes
their sky. Green tree-ants sew their home in a leaf, one design.

Weaverbirds’ aerial nests, of chewed grass and palm leaves,
pulse against the sunlight. Yes, living things all have innate
sense of roof, of eaves. They don’t boast. Don’t add
to the palimpsest, humbly react to what is internally told.

Humans, however, Pheidías to Seidler, improve on ancestors:
towers, domes, each add to the great predecessors,
build nests great as theatres and theatrical places to rest,

try to move one step, two steps higher on the originality
ladder. Their works may last longer. But all living creatures’
nests do not outlast time. Or man’s other gene. For war.




PAOLO TOTARO’s poetry in English and in Italian is published in anthologies by Oxford University Press (Mark O’Connor ed. 1992), Stanford UP (USA 2014), in a 2014 special issue on Australian poetry by ARC (Canada) and Cordite (Australia); in literary reviews including Other Modernities (Milan University 2014), Le Simplegadi (Udine University 2014), CreArta (UTS 1998), Quadrant (2012, 2013), Contrappasso (2013). His Collected Poems (1950-2011) was published in 2012. He won the First Prize at the 1992 Due Giugno literary competition with Storia Patria (Naples and Sydney, 2012). He was a contributor to The Bulletin and other magazines. He has presented his work in public libraries, the Dante Alighieri Society, The Italian Institute of Culture, Manning Clark House, SBS TV and radio, the ABC, and others. His current work explores the bond between poetry, science and myth. He had a role in the foundation of multiculturalism in Australia with his Report to Parliament Participation (1978) as Foundation Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission and his work thereafter. He has held many public positions and was honoured with the Order of Australia in 1988 and the Order of Italy in 2010. As a pianist, he presented the first Australian performance of the Suite op. 145 by Shostakovich (‘On Verses of Michelangelo’) for baritone and piano (Art Gallery of NSW, 1974). He lives on Pittwater, NSW, Australia, with his wife. Part of his papers are with the Mitchell Library.

from Issue #8: Poetry by J. Kates

Photo (CC) takomabibelot @ Flickr

Photo (CC) takomabibelot @ Flickr



My lady’s pet Agàpornis,
Who sang for us all summer long
Both night and day
has flown away.
But mockingbirds around the house
Still sing the love-bird’s song.



Don’t look for beauty everywhere.
Twisted concertina wire
May bring to mind a metaphor
………….Of vine and root,
But it will never bud and flower —
………….Much less fruit.



No one knows
Boswell chose




With the gift of a book

O lucky book, that witless lies
upon my lady’s open thighs!

Unlucky book — so unaware
what luck it is to linger there!



J. KATES is a poet and literary translator who lives in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.