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The Monkey in the Whirlpool

Selva Almada

Translated by Samuel Rutter

A poet's film diary from the set of Zama by Lucrecia Martel

The caranday palm sprouts from the swampy earth, drowned by the autumn rains. An autumn with temperatures of 95 degrees in Formosa. The caranday rises up. A long, thin trunk that gathers from its crown old leaves, dry leaves, layers upon layers of leaves: the skirts of the caranday.

This distinguishes it from other species. The skirts of the youngest palms are light, and the northerly winds pass through it from time to time making music: a dry, crackling sound.

The countryside in Formosa is full of caranday palms. The cows eat the fresh green shoots. But the little caranday is a stubborn thing. It sprouts again. Year by year it grows ever higher until it reaches a point the cows can no longer reach.

Despite the rainy season that just finished at the end of May, which is almost the end of autumn as well, the grass is yellowing. It’s misleading, because precisely where everything seems dry, down here where the grass ends—or begins—at its roots, everything is swamp.

To enter this field, one of the filming locations for Zama, you have to make the quarter or half-mile trek on a trailer pulled along by a tractor. A huge pit of mud in which a car would sink down to its door handles. You can enter on foot, too. You have to trudge across the road, which has been torn up by the comings and goings of the tractor that passes by a couple of times a day, as many times as necessary. You have to walk on the side of the path where there is still grass and water. And potholes that all of a sudden swallow up your foot. They might be empty warrens, dens where animals have their young in summer, when all this is dry.

The mud is rotting. It smells of insects. On the stretches where everything is just muddy water, seven to twelve inches of swamp, where your legs sink down to the shinbones, the mud sometimes seems to shift, little bubbles of air explode on its velvety surface. It’s a living, breathing creature.

The boy pops up from among the pastures. He’s ten or eleven years old, wearing barely anything more than a chiripá, a type of poncho cinched around the waist. Skinny, bony, brown skin, sparkling eyes. He looks from side to side, like an animal on the hunt. He squints to block out the midday sun. He raises the gourd he brought with him, hanging from his long, thin neck. It’s dry, and there are seeds inside. He shakes it, and it sounds in the peaceful quiet, snapping it like a branch.

Then the procession of adults begins to emerge from among the pastures: the men also wearing chiripás, with bags and baskets on their heads and backs. The women wear cloths that cover them like dresses, or like skirts, with their breasts on display. They carry things, too. Some of them carry long sticks and feel out the way with them. They follow the boy until a voice yells out, “Cut!”

The scene seemed too drawn out, and they’ll have to film it again.

The casting call in Campo del Cielo took place in the school. Verónica Souto rang the school bell and people emerged from their houses. The children came running. The adults followed behind, more slowly, but with the same nervous joy as the children.

I’m itchy. It’s hot and I’m itchy. I’m sweating and I’m itchy.

The girl is complaining. How old could she be? She looks like she might be fifteen or sixteen, but she isn’t.


Just turned twelve.

I’m itchy. This material is itching me.

She tugs at the neckline of her dress. The dress is a single cut of material that envelops her whole body. She won’t stop tugging at the neckline of the dress, pulling it up.

I’m scared it will slip down and everyone will see my breasts.

She looks at the other women for a moment, who listen to the markings made by the assistant director. It’s not her turn yet. She waits. Alone. She waits and scratches because the fabric is itchy and in the eleven a.m. sun it’s already ninety-five degrees and it’s itchy. Even if you were born here, even if you’re used to it.

She lowers her voice, as if to tell a secret or say something dirty. She gestures toward the others with her chin.

Some of them are going to show their breasts. You get paid more.

I’m bored. I’m itchy. You can’t leave until they say you can. I’m bored and I’d rather go to the cemetery. During the holidays I used to go every day. Now I go less, because of school. The principal gave me permission. If I don’t skip any classes. To go to the cemetery to see Uncle Chelo. He was such a pain. He was twenty-four years old. They killed him. I talk to him, I take him flowers, I clean his gravestone. In a fight, in a bar, it was some guy who had something against him. I think about him a lot, I miss him a lot, I talk to him. But I think that when he hears me best is in the cemetery. Even if I only talk to him softly, even if I only talk to him in my head. He didn’t die straight away. For days he lay there, in the hospital, between dead and not. Until in the end…

The girl goes silent. She raises a hand and runs it through her long, chestnut hair. She makes as if to pull it to one side, but then drops it immediately. In the morning, before she arrived on set, Wardrobe told her very clearly: parted in the middle, that’s how it has stay, nice and flat: you’re not a model.

The catering tents have been pitched about three hundred feet away from the set, shimmering in the sunlight, pegged into the mud. The crew spread dry straw on the ground, but the mud sucks it up straight away. There are several large tables and plastic chairs that sink slowly under the weight of those eating.

The majority of them are Qom. They don’t mix with the professional actors who have come from Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Brazil. They’re unfriendly. They eat with their eyes fixed on their plates. They barely even talk to each other.

The food is simple: stew and a sort of salad bar. Platters of lentils, shredded carrot, boiled beets, lettuce, tomato, and corn, which are a hit only among the crew, whom the Qom watch from afar with disinterest.

The sour smell of the straw and the mud ripens under the heat of the synthetic roof. Flies buzz over the food.

A few months before filming began, Verónica Souto travelled to Formosa to find the future actors of Zama. She arrived in January 2015 and went straight to the bus terminal from the airport. From there she would have had to take a bus to Las Lomitas, a town some 180 miles away, which they initially thought could be a location for the film. But the road was cut off by a picket line, and no buses were able to depart. She waited several hours. Every now and then she would approach the ticket booth and the attendant would say: maybe the seven o’clock will leave… maybe the nine o’clock… the midnight bus. At two in the morning, the man shook his head and said that until six a.m. there were unlikely to be any developments. She asked him to recommend a hotel, and the man suggested one that was just opposite the terminal. It’s the best one around here.

Verónica, who is an extremely slender woman, crossed the road with her bags and her camera. The hotel reception looked fine, a typical hotel for travelers, the kind that spring up just outside bus terminals in towns in the country’s interior.

But when she got into her room it was dirty and full of cockroaches. She locked the door and flopped down onto the bed in her clothes. She lay there like that, perfectly still and with her eyes open, until it began to grow light outside and she could call Capullo Medina, a folklorist from Formosa who was friends with Lucrecia Martel. Capullo was already up, drinking yerba maté. They sorted out the details, and Capullo came to pick her up in his truck right away. The picket line was still holding.

From Buenos Aires, Verónica had already made arrangements for the first casting call in the hotel at Los Lomitas, where she was meant to be staying. Staying in Formosa was a waste of time. So she convinced Capullo Medina to take her in his truck. They went by the back roads, avoiding the places where the highway was blocked.

The picket line lasted for three whole days.

The casting call in Campo del Cielo took place in the school. Verónica Souto rang the school bell and people emerged from their houses. The children came running. The adults followed behind, more slowly, but with the same nervous joy as the children.

The woman is more than eighty years old. She is a member of the Pilagá people and lives in Campo del Cielo. They sent a car service to pick her up, and she was accompanied by an interpreter, a point man for Governor Gildo Insfrán.

She is blind.

They go to fetch her from the area where the catering tents are. They sit her down in a plastic chair, and then two men carry her in a kind of improvised litter, lurching through the mud. She holds on tight to the armrests and cries. She’s afraid the men will drop her.

Only after she has calmed down can they film her scene: she has to speak in the Pilagá language to Don Diego de Zama, who is sleeping in a hammock. The old woman’s voice is so weak that the sound engineer has to do his very best to record her, to capture the thin, subtle thread of her voice, a thread almost as imperceptible as a spider’s web.

Lucrecia Martel wears light-colored clothing. A white shirt with long sleeves rolled up to the elbows, leaving her bony hands, her fine wrists, and her freckled arms visible. Cargo pants covered in mud and high-topped rubber boots. A straw hat casts shade over her face, over her sunglasses, over her loose hair, which is long and wavy and slightly auburn. She never raises her voice, but whenever she speaks, everyone listens.

From time to time she takes out a cigarette and lights it, exhaling a thin trail of smoke that takes its time leaving her mouth and dissipating in the air.

The Qom respect her. The crew and the actors love her. She moves across this arc of love and respect with care and delicacy. She looks like an explorer from the nineteenth century. Or a rare bird from the twenty-first century.

Most of the actors live in the neighborhood of Nam Qom, one of the poorest and most populated neighborhoods in the city of Formosa. Properly built houses sit next to shacks made from nylon, cardboard, metal sheeting… little houses erected in the backyards of relative’s homes.

In little houses like these live two young men in their twenties, brothers-in-law, fathers of young children, who came from the countryside two years ago. They are unemployed.

In the film they play two strong and handsome warriors. They had to shave their hair right down to the scalp: their bald white heads stand out amongst so much long, dark hair. They are ashamed to be seen like this, and so when they are not on set they hide themselves under caps with visors. Someone from the crew speaks to them while they wait to film their scenes.

But you don’t grow anything, you don’t even raise chickens! You can do that anywhere, any little patch of dirt you have, you can do a whole bunch of stuff and at least you’d have something to eat every day, am I right?

The young men look at each other, smile, and offer no response. The Qom are fishermen and gatherers. They do not know how to cultivate.

A determined old Qom woman came to the casting. There are hardly any old people in the neighborhood: people die young because of poor diet, poverty, and sickness.

She is one of the few survivors.

When she came into the community kitchen where the camera was set up for test takes, the woman was terrified. She found herself surrounded by strange white people. She was afraid they would kidnap her. It was a fear that harkened back to the time when her people were hunted down to be put on display, to be studied or simply to be exterminated. A time she never lived through, but which she had heard of over and over again from the mouths of the old folks when she was a girl.

She cried disconsolately. In her own tongue she tried to tell the other women to flee as well, before it was too late.

The old Pilagá woman’s interpreter has gray hair, although he couldn’t be much older than forty. He wanders listlessly through the hallways of the hotel where he is staying along with Zama’s crew. The spongy carpet that covers the floor absorbs the sound of his footsteps. The doors at the entrance are closed so that the air conditioning doesn’t escape. A bellhop stops him and gestures toward the scene unfolding in the hall: a girl celebrating her fifteenth birthday is posing for a photo in her party dress.

The interpreter and the bellhop stand there watching. Outside of the frame, the mother and an aunt also look on and give orders: smile more, look this way, raise your head a little more, honey.

The fifteen-year-old girl calmly follows every instruction. The dress is made of a fuchsia-colored satin, with an ample skirt. It is long behind but shorter in front in order to show off the high-heeled silver sandals on which she teeters, and then it finishes with a strapless décolletage. This young girl also tugs at her neckline, afraid that too much of her bust will be on display.

Don’t worry about it, take your hand away, nothing is going to happen, honey, says the aunt, clucking like a hen, full of excitement.

Relax, if you’re tense it’ll show up in the photo, says the photographer, a tiny dark-haired man in his forties.

From the hall they move along to the stairs at the hotel entrance. The photographer goes out first. Then it’s the birthday girl, hobbling along on her heels, and then it’s the mother and the aunt, preening and fixing her hair.

The girl stands on the second to last stair. The adults go down to the sidewalk. It’s a warm night, full of bugs. The faces of the mother and the aunt shimmer with sweat. They hold one another’s arms like teenagers.

One more, let’s see, lower one of your feet and turn a little. Show me your left profile that way you can see the skirt, says the lumpy little dark-haired man, and then fires off the flash a few times.

Last one, honey. Come on now, give me a smile. That’s my girl. All done.

The twins are from Corrientes and they made it into the film by pure chance. One of them was taking his daughter to the casting call. That day they were only casting children, but Verónica said that they also needed two men who looked very similar to each other for the role of the twin soldiers. If he knew of anyone, he should let her know.

He raised his hand and said that he had a twin brother, and that they had worked together on the film version of Doña Bárbara.

They look exactly the same, except one of them has a scar on his cheek. It’s a bullet wound, from a fight.

My name is Teresa Rivero. I was born in the countryside, near the Colorado River. My brothers were fishermen. My father died when we were young and my mother was left alone to raise us. My father’s name was Juan Rivero, but everybody called him Pará.

We used to collect our drinking water from the Colorado River. But when the river rose, the water would turn brown and you can’t drink it like that. So then we’d head up into the hills to look for a special weed, and we’d put the weed in a bucket and stir and stir and stir, and then leave it there to settle, for the mud to sink to the bottom and the water to clear. Then we could drink it.

When I was fifteen I came here to Formosa, to a paralytic aunt’s place. My father had said to me, You have an aunt in Formosa who can’t walk, and when you’re older you’ll go there to help her. And so I came for a few days, to get to know her. I was given permission to stay for a week, but I stayed for about a month. My mother came after me, and I didn’t want to go back to the countryside, but she took me with her, I was still a child. But I liked it here too much. I begged so much that my mother let me come back here to the neighborhood to live with my aunt. I lived with her for a long time. One day she said to me:, One of these days I’m going to die, I know I am going to die and I want you to marry my husband, so that no other woman can take my place. And I said, I will never, ever do that, because I don’t love your husband. I don’t love him, and I am never, ever going to want to take your place. He was much older and I was just a young girl, and I wanted to choose my own husband, no one was going to choose for me. When I came here, it was all shanties, we all lived in little shacks but then the government built the Ninety Houses project. My aunt died around that time, but I had already left her place.

I met a man who abandoned me after he got me pregnant. He just left, without saying where he was going. I looked for him, but I never found him. He was the love of my life. Just like that someone can walk out on you. What are you supposed to think? And what’s more, he left when I was already seven or eight months along. That’s when I met the man who would become my husband, Raúl. He took me in the way you take in a dog from the street: you see it abandoned there and it’s all filthy and then you take it home and look after it. Then little dog grows up all right, its coat turns bright and shiny. And that’s how things went. He said to me, Because you’re pregnant, I’m going to take you to my place, but I’m not going to try anything on, I won’t lay a finger on you until you’ve had your baby, and that baby will be my baby too, I have no problems with that. Someone who does that… who falls in love with a pregnant woman? My husband was a good man. In time the other guy came back, he started his own family here as well, but I never had anything to do with him again. Nor did my son. I never said anything to my son, but he found out, people told him. He doesn’t want to know anything about it, he doesn’t want to meet his real father. We all loved my husband very much. He was very hardworking. He was a builder: he put up houses, laid floors. He was full of energy. He worked all day, ate at noon, and then went off to work again, building, demolishing, the whole lot. He died at sixty-three, from a heart attack. He was made chief four times, everyone loved him. What made my husband so notable was his rapport with the people. He fixed people up with land, he struggled and fought for them. Fighting, seeking property title for all of them, for the land. He didn’t have disagreements, or take sides politically. This is what’s missing with today’s young people, they’re deep into politics. They use things like food boxes to divide the people: if you’re with me, I’ll give you one, if not, then no. The white man taught us how to divide people. The white man took politics and set it down in the middle of us. Right now there are ten women being tailed by the police. These women just want their land back, because it’s our culture, our kids were born here, on this sacred earth here in Formosa, in Nam Qom, and all we want is a little patch of land. But there’s a squad car tracking them day and night. And we have no leader to come and help us. If Raúl could rise from the dead, he could solve these problems. He’d fix it if he were here, but he’s not.

When the Qom finish their work on set, they head back to the Hugo Moyano Campground, where Wardrobe, Hair, and Makeup are based. There is an evangelical pastor waiting for them.

Without changing their clothes or removing their makeup, the actors sing and pray with the pastor. They give thanks to God and ask him to bless Zama. They are moved: they cry and embrace each other.

From afar, this could look like a Qom ritual: the women in their dresses made of canvas in a color somewhere between gray and purple, their faces painted, the men wearing chiripás that leave their buttocks exposed.

But a few years ago the Evangelicals arrived in Nam Qom. There are no more shamans, no one sings to the first star of the morning anymore. And the men and women are dressed like that because they were acting in a movie.

Months after the end of filming, one of the first women who answered the casting call will die, leaving two young children orphaned, along with an adolescent boy who acted in the film.

The young man, after his mother’s death, will be taken to jail for slitting his neighbor’s throat.

It’s raining plenty in Empedrado, a town nestled on the Paraná River, about forty miles from the city of Corrientes. Lazy rain showers that are intermittent but never quite go away. It is as if the river were spitting upwards.

The inhabitants of Empedrado are indifferent to the filming of Zama. Those who know about it, aren’t interested in it. Those who don’t know, once they do find out, remain unimpressed as well: A movie, oh yes, I heard something about that… Are there any famous people coming?

A huge cement archway marks the entrance to the town and welcomes visitors to “The Pearl of the Paraná.” This is where the main street begins, thirty blocks stretching to the banks of the river, the whole of Empedrado.

In the city center, around the square and the Nuestro Señor Hallado chapel, you can see the oldest buildings: the Dora Theater and the old mansions from the colonial era, with galleries held up by thick pillars, the bricks overrun with climbing weeds and thick cobwebs. Houses with sturdy doors and no locks, secured with heavy chains and padlocks to keep out intruders. Houses with wooden shutters; some with beautiful carvings outlining the crosspieces of the windows with garlands of flowers. The narrow, raised sidewalks of these two-hundred-year-old houses force you to step up and down as you encounter newer houses on the same block. These centuries-old houses are inhabited by poor people who cannot provide the life of historical patrimony the houses deserve. Some have For Sale signs. The day they are sold, they will surely be torn down to build modern houses or little hotels for tourists.

The sky is silhouetted perfectly, irregularly, against the hills. Not so the river, which comes and goes awkwardly, greedily, scraping the yellow sand of the coast. In this stretch of the Paraná the hills seem to be made of stone, because of all the colors, from muted yellow to light brown to orange… it’s ferrous soil, which explains the particular gamut of colors. The strange, varied rock formations are surprising, too. Peaks that seem on the point of collapsing. Ghostly-looking frontispieces. Deep ridges in the sand.

There are some men fishing on the shore, unaware of the ecstatic spectacle unfolding in the hills behind them. All their attention is focused on the fishing line that disappears in the distance, melding into the leaden gray of the river. They don’t speak among themselves. There’s no need to talk when you fish. At most they take their eyes off the line for a moment when they hear the sound of a boat approaching. They squint and furrow their brown, but they don’t open their mouths. It’s as if they’re cursing inwardly.

The man they call Kerosene was born and raised in Empedrado. He’s kind, likeable. He flirts with the women and talks with the men. He gets along well with everyone.

He worked on the film in Formosa, as one of the soldiers in Zama’s expedition. When he ate with the Qom, who don’t know how to use cutlery, he cut their meat up into little pieces like they were his children. He saved one of the twin’s lives. In the scene they were filming, one of the twins had to walk for a long stretch in the mud and he suffered an asthma attack. Kerosene was the first one to notice. He was on horseback and turned around to look for him. He yelled out for the filming to stop.

When the filming arrived at his town, his part was already over. Even so, sometimes he visits the set or eats in the hotel with the rest of the crew. But he seems flat somehow, more sullen or shy. Perhaps it is just nostalgia for those two weeks when he was an actor.

The scenes at the Soledo Rooming House are filmed in nearby Derqui, which is almost a ghost town. There’s a half-occupied farmhouse and a dirt road that leads to the river. The shiny, expensive trucks belonging to the fish wholesalers speed by on this road and more than once, a take is ruined. The few inhabitants of the town are poor and live from fishing, odd jobs, and welfare.

Opposite the set, on a crumbling house, there is a sign: Fried Pastries 3 x $10. It’s written on a scrap of cardboard and hangs from a wire on the electric pole.

In Derqui the film also fails to capture the attention of the locals. A few months prior a different film was shot in the old train station, by the Paraguayan director Paz Encina.

A large family lives in the train station. During those weeks of filming they went to live in a shed and rented the house out. The production team put glass panes in the windows and fixed up a few bedrooms in order to shoot.

Now the family has their home back.

Father, mother, children, and grandchildren, people of all ages and of the same blood. They sit in the gallery, build fires on the ground, heat water and spend hours and hours drinking yerba maté. They watch the Zama crew from afar, the exterior shots and all the bustling about on set as if it were the actual film itself, which in any case, they’re never going to see.

The only locals from Derqui who come and spend the whole day on set, who even join the crew for lunch sometimes, are a couple in their fifties from Santa Fe. They have two little pedigree dogs, poodles or some kind of cross, who ruin several takes with their sharp, penetrating yapping. The couple’s names are Miriam and Chiche, and they arrived in Derqui ten years ago with a plan to start a chicken ranch.

The backyards of the houses are full of weeds, as if the houses themselves are uninhabited. Some of them surely are. Among the weeds, you can make out tombstones. It is customary to bury the dead in the backyard of the house.

Tombstones dressed up with pottery. Huge cement crosses. Little bronze plates fixed to the graves: the name of the deceased or messages of love from the bereaved. Little funereal constructions, domestic cemeteries.

Some have fresh flowers. Or candelabras with melted candles.

The houses seem abandoned, but not the graves. It’s as if the only thing binding the living to these houses, the only thing that brings them back, is their dead.

Ever since their chicken ranch project failed, Chiche and Miriam have been trying to leave Derqui. Which is to say, almost from the very moment they arrived.

Nonetheless ten years have passed and everything has been left half-done. The house has not been plastered; half the floors are of poured concrete while the other half are dirt. There’s a bamboo grove by a little lake, planted with the idea of building a place for meditation and Reiki; fruit trees were planted to make homemade jams. They keep on bearing fruit that goes to waste, as no one bothers to gather it. The only firm idea the couple has is it to return to their native Santa Fe, set up a vineyard, and keep bees. But they never manage to sell their land. They never manage to leave.

Chiche remembers fondly the time he lived in Cipoletti, with his first wife. Things were good then, and he even came up with a recipe for nougat with grains and honey that became famous in the area around Río Negro. It became so famous that one day a representative came from the Arcor confectionery company with an offer: in exchange for the recipe, Chiche would receive one percent of the profits from the nougat sales, in perpetuity. Chiche and his then-wife rejected the offer: she thought one percent wasn’t enough. He still regrets it.

María is Guaraní, from the province of Misiones. She is thirty years old, has seven kids, a father who is a shaman, and a husband who represents their community before international organizations. She teaches literacy.

Dressed in jeans, leather ankle boots, and a sweater, speaking to her children on a cell phone in the hotel hall, her beauty goes unnoticed.

In the film she plays Diego de Zama’s mistress.

Barely covered by a stretch of purple canvas from beneath her armpits to her knees, her dark, loose hair cut through by a large streak shaved halfway up her scalp, and with her hands and arms painted green, María is disarmingly beautiful. Sitting in a hut with the other women, children, dogs, and chickens, María guts fish, sliding in her delicate green hand to pull out a handful of viscera, red as poppies. She does it without looking, her head straight, her eyes locked on the Paraná River.

The naked women splash about in the river. They laugh, splash water on each other, and amuse themselves. They are as happy as the schoolgirls in Picnic At Hanging Rock, but naked.

It’s no longer spring, but autumn. It’s a rainy day and filming can only take place in the brief interruptions between showers. It’s cold.

The props department constructed a little pool of warm water inside the river. The props supervisor, who, along with the sound engineer, is the only man on set, filled the tub with warm water so that the women are more comfortable.

When they finish filming the scene, the women, still naked, search for their cell phones among the piles of clothes, and then hand them to the girls from casting so they can take photos. Photos to stoke the fires of boyfriends, husbands and concubines.

The girl who plays the Woman with the Comb is named Rosa. She lives in Resistencia and studies theater. It’s the first time she has worked on a film. She’s happy to have landed the role. Even though she has no lines and all she has to do is go back and forth in front of Diego de Zama with her strange hairstyle, which gives the impression that she is wearing a huge, bizarre comb in her hair. Even though in this scene nothing more than her shadow against the wall will be seen. Even though she has never seen a film by Lucrecia Martel.

Almost at the end of Empedrado, by the boat moorings, you can find the Temple of Saint Death. There is no sign announcing it, you have to ask the way there. People go there because Miss Marina, the guardian of the saint and a witch doctor, is famous in the region. Everyone has consulted her at one point in life, and then come back with offerings to the saint once their wishes have been fulfilled.

Miss Marina is a young woman, about forty years old, her hair dyed a reddish blonde, and she is pregnant. She began to have visions at nine years old and she was so afraid that she didn’t dare tell anyone until quite some time afterward, when it happened again. She chose to confide her secret to her grandmother. The grandmother wasn’t surprised: she told her that her mother (Marina’s great-grandmother) also had visions, and that she had been surprised that none of the women in the family had inherited her gift. She explained that Marina had to choose a saint to guide her, and the young witch doctor chose Saint Death, maybe because the image terrified and fascinated her at the same time, just like what was happening to her. A few years ago, with the help of her current partner (she and her first husband separated because he could not accept her gift), she built the temple at the back of her house, a humble home erected at the end of a sandy path. The temple is a little room made of bricks and covered in plaster, with a mosaic floor and a metal door with yellow panes of glass that let a little light in.

Inside there is a golden chair, where Miss Marina sits when she takes consultations. Opposite this precarious throne sits a regular old chair, for those who wait their turn to consult her. Some days the line stretches all the way back to the moorings. Lately, Marina has been suffering from terrible headaches that keep her awake all night. The walls are covered with images of the saint and of Gauchito Gil. Although she is completely devoted to Saint Death, Marina also trusts in Gauchito Gil and asks favors of him. Each of the saints has their own space within the little temple, and there is no rivalry between them. On a shelf, a kind of bookcase made from cane, there are various plaster figurines of the Grim Reaper, as Saint Death is also known: a skeleton covered in the habit used by Franciscan monks, and a scythe in hand. They are different colors, according to what a person seeks: gold for money and business success, bone for the protection of the home, red for matters of love and passion, and black for total protection. Most of the shelves and some of the floor are piled up with offerings: each one of them represents a fulfilled wish. There are expensive bottles of whiskey, cigars, candles of various colors, plaques of gratitude, and a slice of cake slowly being eaten by ants. Miss Marina can’t touch any of this. She can’t drink the alcohol, smoke the tobacco or spend the money that devotees leave for the saints for anything other than candles or the maintenance of the temple.

Her most famous case concerned the paraplegic who walked again. One day a young man who had been paralyzed after an accident came to see her. In fact, he was dragged in by his mother, who wasn’t satisfied by the doctors and their diagnosis. They told her that the boy would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. For his part, the boy didn’t believe in any of Marina’s gifts. He was annoyed, full of rage over what had happened, Marina remembers. Over the course of several sessions she managed to soften him, open his eyes, and when he was ready she commended his soul to the saint. The boy believed. One afternoon a car pulled up on the sandy path outside Miss Marina’s house. The young man got out and walked toward her.

The sky is clearing in Tapiales. It’s seven a.m. on a winter’s morning in Buenos Aires.

Down below, the trucks parked in the central market glimmer in the first weak rays of sunshine. The grass at the farm is wet with dew. Steam rises from the coffee in the gloved hands of the crew. Cigarette smoke melds with the breath coming out of their mouths, transformed into little clouds of vapor.

Somewhere on this enormous property there is an empty pool. Its concrete floor is cracked, and an iron ladder leads down to its depths. The sky-blue paint on its walls is flaking off like dead skin.

Near the Los Tapiales homestead, built on a hill to the side of the Richieri highway, a good part of the Argentina’s history took place.

Its owner, Francisco Ramos Mejía, was a defender of the Pampas Indians, original inhabitants of the area. It is said that when Ramos Mejía died, at one point while the family wasn’t paying attention, the Pampas came into the house where the body was lying in state and took it. Nobody ever found out where they buried him.

Now the homestead is a location for films and commercials.

The central patio of the main house, with its fountain of carrara marble in the middle, is covered in shadows. The sun is beginning to beat down on one of the galleries. Stretched out on the ground like cats, a Senegalese boy dressed as a footman and two women from the crew are lying down, smoking. Standing nearby, a black man in his forties gives advice to his ten-year-old son, who is wrapped in a blanket while he waits to film his scene, because of the cold.

You can tell that the kid doesn’t want to be here, that he would rather be in school or at home. It’s the father who’s excited, as if he were the actor, not his son.

The father acted in many films and commercials, from the time he was a child and into his twenties.

We black people look good on camera while we’re young, he says. After that, they stop calling you.

The boy appears, walking stealthily through scrub. Several soldiers sleep in Paraguayan hammocks. The boy walks up to a certain point, stops, then shakes the seeds inside his gourd to call the others forward. From amongst the scrub and the weeds they begin to appear one by one, two by two, three by three. Men and women, some of them carrying woven baskets, others with large sticks for staffs. Except for the boy, all of them are blind.

The instructions are clear and simple: they must look straight ahead, they must not speak to each other, and they must enter the shot exactly when the girls from casting say so. There was no time for a rehearsal.

It seems simple, but it isn’t. If they have to go out two at a time, they bunch up too closely, one body tucked behind the other. If they have to go out one after the other, they do so mechanically. They do it without the winding anarchy of ants. They march out with the stiffness of a military formation.

During the casting process, Lucrecia Martel asked everyone reading for a part to recount a dream they’d had.

One man told her how he had been flying on a white horse, with no wings, and that he arrived at a distant world, another planet, a garden with trees all in a row, apple trees, pear trees, orange trees, a garden full of delicious fruits. Then the horse bucked and fell over.

That was the end of the dream. And then the man covered his face and began to cry, because he was reminded of his dead father, who once told him he had a gift.

Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne. His translations from the Spanish include The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade (Restless) and the forthcoming Magnetized: Conversations with a Serial Killer by Carlos Busqued (Catapult).


About the author

Selva Almada was born in Entre Rios, Argentina. Among her books to be translated into English are the novel The Wind That Lays Waste (Graywolf and Charco); and a book of journalistic fiction, Dead Girls, that will be published next year by Charco Press. This piece in this issue is excerpted from her film diary, El mono en el remolino, which was written on the set of Lucrecia Martel’s film Zama.

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