3442 by Á. D. Canareira

Clare Gaunt


I always enjoy saying I’m a professional portrait artist, like the narrator of the most moving tale I ever read. These days, you have to be published to consider yourself an artist or writer, just like you seem to have to prove having had sex in order to claim you had a partner... All other situations are seen as ‘ambiguous’.

Anyway, I met the star of this story just over three years ago on September 13th, in a memorable class on Art in Children’s Literature at Pontevedra University, an option designed mainly for students of both Fine Arts and Teaching. His parents had emigrated to the States at the end of the 1990s and returned to Spain just in time for the 2008 financial crash. The fallout meant they never really managed to re-establish themselves, so they decided to return stateside only four years later. However, having only just matriculated, Arthur convinced them to allow him to stay on, on condition he would go back to the States and rejoin them after graduation. I fell for his New York accent, although many of my family members will cynically proclaim that I have never in all my life had what is known as a ‘good ear’. So, to disprove their entirely unjustified slander, (I admit I may have been a little condescending to previous suitors,) I will now relate our final encounter. I always felt our relationship was both moving and awful.

First let me add that having married, he recently had a little boy named Alexander. I don’t feel like revealing much more, apart from the fact that, as I leafed through the US newspaper interview he sent by recorded delivery a few days ago, I found a clipping from an older article entitled Reading is Fun-damental... about how he’d won the Newark Public Library’s Summer Reading Challenge by getting through 530 books in one summer, some 19 years ago.

One last comment and heartfelt tribute before we start. (Naturally, in my opinion, it’s also a good foundation for this tale.) A couple of lines from a splendid script by my uncle, the author of Ode to James, which in all honesty, I don’t have permission to publish:

THE SHOT WHISTLES before IT BANGS. The wagon leaps forward. The journey begins:

I like to arrive in good time for my meetings. It gives me a moment to calm down for important dates. On this occasion I sat at a table on the second floor of the historic café in the Plaza de Ourense. I don’t remember what I was thinking. However, I do know that shortly after arriving and without a moment’s thought, I reached into my inside jacket pocket and pulled out a letter dated almost a year earlier. How time flies. I usually sign up for art courses in England or France over the summer break. Last year, I managed to convince Arthur to skip America and sign up for an intensive course on Shakespeare in London while I studied Turner in Oxford.

                                                                       Flat A, 19 Glazbury Road
                                                                       London Saturday August 8, 2022
Congratulations Marta! I know how much you wanted to teach art so close to home at SEK, although it did mean going back to Spain a little early. I’ve missed you terribly. It’s not the same knowing you’re just over an hour’s train ride away from me in Oxford, as knowing that you’re in Spain. But at last, I’m coming home. It’s 5.30 a.m. here, just seven hours before I catch my flight, and the sun’s rising over West Kensington. If everything goes to plan, I’ll drop this letter in the collection box on the Gwendwr Road intersection, before arriving at the lovely park built in memory of the area’s suffering in World War II. If I remember rightly, a plaque informs passers-by of the terrible night of February 21, 1944, when bombs rained down.

I remember resting my head on the window of the bus one of the first times I caught one home. When that juggernaut braked to a standstill, the engine shook so hard vibrations rippled out over the entire structure, like some kind of continuous metal wave. The buzz spread right through my head, as I looked up to observe London’s shop signs. I’d only just seen Lost in Translation in a Sofia Coppola retrospective, and this colorful lettering and context reminded me of the film. I strongly recommend watching it if you haven’t already. It’s the best filmed mood I’ve ever seen, practically a work of Impressionism. Forgive me if I’m making no sense. You know how shy I get talking to you about paintings, despite your generosity towards the gaping holes in my art history. I always learn so much from your passionately meticulous dissections of a painting. In truth, I’m curious to discover your opinion of Coppola’s film and if you think my comments absurd. I went to see it on the big screen in Leicester Square. Funny, I just read it used to be a popular spot for duels. Thank God times have changed, we’ve become a bit more civilized, in some places at least.

I’m a regular visitor to both the British Museum and the National Gallery now. Can you believe it? I often run into police officers busily fining anyone feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Their shit is doing Nelson more damage than the French navy, so I’ve been told...

I followed your recommendation and went to the library to look for a copy of 84, Charing Cross Road. They didn’t have one! Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I leafed through a book or two and ended up borrowing Fury by Salman Rushdie. Several critics described it as ‘disappointing’ and I have to agree. It’s too literal, and way too all over the place. That said, the first hundred pages especially contain great gusts of talent. I also read an old book from the classic El Barco de Vapor prizewinning children’s books collection I remembered fondly from when I was a kid. It was originally written in French as Un métier de fantôme, by Hubert Monteilhet. I re-read it out of nostalgia and despite his lack of style, I’m not sorry I did. It has a very conventional structure but his feeling for comedy made me laugh out loud more than once! The young hero is a penniless Scot who spends one week pretending to be a castle ghost to terrify the laird’s guests at the family’s insistence. One evening, he’s to get himself photographed by an expert in the occult who keeps a camera in the bedroom. But when the great moment arrives, the guest is so frightened the kid has to find a way to photograph himself! London’s morning papers reviewed the book under headlines like Leftie Ghost the day after it was published.

Right now, I’m reading The End of the Affair to pass the official language school exams certifying me to teach English in Spain. So far, so great. And The Kindness of Women, by Ballard, who’s been adapted by Spielberg and Cronenberg. Perhaps you’ve read some of his work? It starts brilliantly in 1937 Saigon, with the Napoleonic figure of a boy waiting impatiently for war between China and Japan to begin. But it gets lost halfway through and becomes so unimaginative I’d like to take it back without finishing the story.

I’ve also just watched the second Sam Raimi Spiderman on TV. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though The New Yorker compares Peter Parker to Hamlet... I don’t want to argue with your brother, especially as he’s always giving us free copies, but it would be so much better if the editor could tell their film critic he doesn’t have to be too clever (I mean really, “To Swing or not To Swing” ???), or perhaps he could just get rid of the film section altogether.

Darling Marta, I guess this isn’t the kind of letter you were expecting from a traveler, which obviously makes me happy. Despite my questionable talents as a writer, I hope to God I haven’t written you a letter describing the Coliseum from Rome. Well, it’s no good being extreme about the classics, or anything else. It’s hard to mention Hamlet without referring to the existential monologue, if only in passing. But anyone who does so runs the risk of being known as ‘original’ with ineffable irony in literary circles.

Love and kisses – I know this sounds affected and impersonal, but I’m doing my best,


P.S. I forgot to mention that, as you very well know, Covent Garden is always home to incredible street performers, and especially musicians. I think it was yesterday when I saw a middle-aged Asian man playing the Sheng. Apparently, it’s one of the world’s oldest instruments. If what he said is right, it dates back some 3000 years and inspired the creation of the accordion and the organ.

P. P. S. Apologies for all the postscripts. It looks like it’s true that all couples--even friends!--end up alike. Whenever I gaze at the London horizon, I always see a plane crossing the heavens. It’s so weird. It feels as if there’s always one plane overhead, when actually there must be hundreds.

After reading the letter for at least the twenty-sixth time, I spotted Arthur climbing the stairs. He was late. But it didn’t matter. Anyone who ever loved, even if blinded by a selfish desire to be duped, knows that all problems fly out of the window when your beloved enters through the bar door. He crossed the second floor, skimmed around the bar, and headed over to the table, my table. When his destination became clear, I unfurled a triumphant smile and turned my head a full 180 degrees, covering the entire area of the bar. He leaned over my chair, and I proffered my cheeks. He kissed me. The wall clock read nearly a quarter to seven. As I mentioned earlier, our friendship had begun in class. It’s not easy to summarise our relationship, except in a prosaic and excessively literal manner. Anyway, I need to point out that I had declared my feelings in a long letter a few months after we met. I sent him four handwritten pages of light blue paper, with two of my paintings: a still life and a self-portrait, thus beginning an epistolary relationship that on some occasions gave rise to daily installments.

Back in the bar, neither of us knew what to say. As words aren’t the only way to show affection, and I say this as a painter, I gave him such a smile that, if I were able to reproduce it here, would be so bright I’d be able to achieve that chrome yellow Van Gogh used with such intensity. Although predictable, his wonderful response was no less moving: he smiled back. A smile is enough to engender a similar response in anyone to whom it is directed, like a gestural echo.

“It’s so lovely to see you.” I added. On this occasion, the traditional response was purely, simply and frankly the truth.

“Lucky for me, you know you don’t need to say that.” He gave my hand an affectionate squeeze. “You know, I read Marta Pazos just directed a play about Sappho in the papers. Is your Mum involved?”

“No, she helped as much as she could, but didn’t get involved in the performance.”

“I bet she’d have loved to see it.”

“Hasn’t been yet.” My practically imperceptible gesture asked him to please stop pursuing this line of inquiry.

“How’s your friend Carmen? It’s been a while since I heard from her.”

“All over the place, as usual. I saw her yesterday, but she didn’t seem particularly happy. Her relationships always turn into high-stakes chess games, in which the best the opponents can do is keep moving the rooks. She even said she’d vote for any of the parties offering all single Galician women a decent boyfriend in the next elections.”

“Ha, ha. That’s actually an electoral promise somebody made decades ago.”

“You must be kidding!”“Sorry Marta, not this time.”

“What kind of party puts that in its manifesto? Although if it were nowadays, I’d understand if it were announced by those stone-age...”

“It was actually the National Socialists, not some ancient Stonehenge find.”

I looked at him a little disconcerted.

“The Nazis?”

He nodded and we laughed.

“One of my friends from that course you made me take in London last summer made a few pretty cutting remarks about ‘the Germans’ over a few pints in Soho. I had to explain Hitler was never legally German. That’s what happens when you open your mouth before bothering to read any of the thousands of books written on the subject. Anyway, it’s just another one of the thousands of ‘fake facts’ about World War II, like the one in which the Nazis came to power as the result of the economic crisis caused by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the stock market crash of 1929, which led thousands of unemployed Germans to vote for Hitler, when actually the proletariat voted Social Democrat and Communist. Hitler, Goebbels et al scored their highest shares of the vote among university students.”

“How did he react?”

“He didn’t get angry. He just kept on drinking, happy as Larry. I remember thinking it wasn’t an appropriate reaction, given the recurrent, notable connections between beer and Nazism, including the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in that famous Munich brewery. To our generation, born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would have made more sense if the coup had taken place in the Reichstag parliament.

We kept talking, stepping out onto the terrace to smoke like chimneys at regular intervals. I remember telling Arthur an anecdote he hadn’t heard about a young man who applied to study at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts but got rejected along with Hitler. That man went on to become the Academy’s Director.

“Your brother wrote me a couple of letters, recently.”

“Yes, I know. He mentioned it. You’re both great correspondents.”

“Well truthfully, he’s a much better writer, he’s got a lot more talent than me... He said you told him that you’d been like Dos Passos to Carmen’s Fitzgerald, and recommended she spend less time less navel-gazing. He saw it as proof you visit his library much more than you let on. He swears you got the reference from his copy of The Crack-Up.”

“Actually, it’s not his copy. It belonged to my father.” The mention of my father made us swiftly change subject. “I have to go to the bathroom, Arthur.”

I returned to find him reading one of my letters. Tacitly, we had agreed to always carry one of the other’s letters so that we’d feel the other’s company even when we were apart, and be less alone. On this occasion, we swapped our letters and re-read what we each had written. The following is my transcription of what I remember of the letter Arthur carried so carefully folded inside his ultramarine coat.

                                                                       Avenida A Barca, 22 Poio (Pontevedra)
                                                                        Wednesday, May 12, 2021

One, four, three. I suppose it’s not a very original way to start a letter (and maybe the substance isn’t that original either, because, especially these days, an anonymous letter always has the benefit of arousing inevitable curiosity). I realise it must also make you suspect the girl writing it is in urgent need of private tuition. However, although the assertion comes from me (and it shouldn’t), neither of these things is true. Especially not the first. Last summer, I studied English landscape painting at the Cambridge University Art History Summer School. And I used the weekend to visit Oxford and go into Waterfield’s, an old bookshop located right in the city centre. I bought one of the first English editions of The Portrait of a Lady, and a book entitled Elizabeth Ham by Herself that used to be in Vivien Greene’s library. Graham Greene’s widow refused to divorce him even though he left her in the 1940s. Although I have read much of her husband’s work, I don’t know much about him beyond the biographical details printed in The New Yorker. Their articles included beautiful, fascinating details such as his promise to marry Vivien (who was a devout catholic and actually one of his first girlfriends) without her having to fulfill the usual, irritating matrimonial obligations. Anyway, once back in my university room, I looked up the catalogue for Vivien’s library and discovered 143 was the secret numerical code Graham and Vivien used to confess “I (one) LOVE (four) YOU (three)”.

Now we’ve got this far, and having abandoned my anonymity, among other things, I suppose I should add: there’s no need to panic. In truth, especially after everything that happened, I confess that the thought of what you must be thinking right now isn’t very reassuring. In my defence, I need to clarify that immature people aren’t able to bear some of the things that happen in life, so they try to get rid of them without realising that the way in which they do so may be cruel. So, expanding on what I just said, you won’t find it strange that even in letters, I like portraying myself in an expressionistic manner, as if I were a member of the London or New York School of Art, at least as far as this permits me a little existential exorcism. I like to think that although my professionalability and my emotional stability can be questioned, the honest origins of my most intimate motives are beyond any reasonable doubt. Which is why in a letter I never sent, and will never lose (even now), I expressed the hope that we might become engaged. I wrote “You must admit, we know each other well enough to be sure of the kind of things we will agree on if the conversation were in person rather than in writing. I think and state that the only aim of this letter is to heal my wounds, because I can’t get over the fact that you only want us to be friends.”

It is hard to express my feelings. I don’t feel particularly proud of them. I can tell you I love you, write long letters, try to kiss you. I can lurk after class, on the way home, to catch you and tell you what I feel. I could even come up to you while we’re working on something, run into you on the first floor of the faculty building, or simply in a bar, to tell you again that I love you and try to convince you my love is sincere. (I felt a sharp pain in my chest and was tempted to do so on reading these words.) I could try and do all this, and I’d still be incapable of sharing my feelings correctly. Anyway, even if destined to fail, I have no other choice but to pursue this path. Otherwise, life would be hell. But the truth is I shouldn’t. If you were to start seeing someone (regardless of whether you already have), it should be someone more emotionally stable. Writing this makes me want to cry, but it’s true. I’m a bit of a modern-day princess, and it doesn’t matter how many mattresses I lie on, I always feel the discomfort of a tiny, perhaps even imaginary, pea. It’s ironic given many aspects of our modern world, but although I believe I should just be grateful, the mere thought of cruelty brings on a panic attack. Which is why I feel that the only thing I can and must do is tell you that I love you, then run away. Perhaps I should also thank you, although seeing how you reacted the other day, you’ll surely ask me why.

I hope at least that you like this letter. My love of literature is less ambitious than Keats who, as my brother says, left poems

                    Of such a dear delight,
                    That maidens will sing them on their bridal night.

P. S. One day I know I’ll send you this message: “I love NY” because as TNY tells me, “Ny” means “YOU” in Chinese. May 14th. Evening.

P. P. S. Please be patient with me. I know I must be giving you the impression that I’m all alone, but the opposite is true. I’m actually just obsessed with the idea I could be hit by lightning or something of the kind tomorrow, without having explicitly told you how I feel. I know I’m not very optimistic. Anyway, I try to remain philosophical about things. The main reason for this letter is to achieve the closest spiritual state possible to the feeling that “now I can die easy.” May 15th.

So, ignoring these elements, which I hope are more melodramatic than my tale, the conversation moved on, unsurprisingly, to literature:

“Isn’t it funny how we hardly ever talk poetry, Marta. Do you have a favorite poet?”


“That’s right, you did mention something...” He coughed. “Sorry, I’m not very catholic. I mentioned it because someone recommended me a volume by Neruda. The title is something like Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Anyway, one of the poems WS Merwin translated starts: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines...” It’s so embarrassing. You know what Holden would say? Phoney, phoney, phoney. I think the only other time I felt so embarrassed for someone was when I read one of the characters in Tolstoy’s Resurrection claim he was happier to see the beam in his own eye than the mote in someone else’s. Have you read any Rilke?”

“Yes, but only the Duino Elegies, because it’s my mother’s favourite collection of poetry, then I read a few of his other poems as a grown up.”

“Like him, I enjoy the feeling of shared solitude.”

That night, reading one of Rilke’s works and a story by my parents, I thought I understood what he meant. In a letter, the Austrian author praised love built combatively and laboriously, the love in which two individual souls work out their edges and pay tribute to each other, as well as achieving mutual understanding.

“Other than Rimbaud, who was purely my mother’s influence, I also love Sappho. This is a wonderful fragment. I’d be surprised if I haven’t mentioned it. It’s her favourite poem. I kept my eyes on the page as I recited Julia Dubnoff’s translation:

As a wind in the mountains assaults an oak, Love shook my breast.

Outside, the wind had become a gale, and it was raining. A middle-aged woman walked into the bar; her hair barely tied back. Tousled would have been a euphemism.

“I don’t know how to say this, Marta. I would have written, but it didn’t feel right, even if it would have saved us both a violent encounter.”

He tried to calm himself by taking a sip of water, averting his gaze. Then he carried on, voice interrupted by agitated breathing.

“I’m going back to the States after our exams. You know, even though I was born here, I’ve spent all my life over there. Almost my entire family lives in New Jersey.”

I’d sensed what was about to happen before he started to speak. It was like being left bloodless, lethargic, unable to move or even think.

“In the end, our relationship will barely change. We’ll just keep on writing. God Marta, say something. Don’t just sit there.”

He was lucky I was so shocked. Months later, when I was finally able to think back over our conversation without becoming totally paralysed, I regretted not having thrown the glass of water over him as soon as he plucked up the courage to demand I speak.

“I know you’re not leaving for your family, Arthur. And I can’t say the news takes me by surprise. You’ve been getting more and more distant ever since you came back from America last Christmas. But you’ve taken too long to tell me. Our exams finish next week. Carmen was right...

This last comment offended him, but he said nothing. He just stared moodily, magnanimously at me, as if to say, “I’m not going to bother arguing with your silly friend.”

“I have sent you a lot of letters, but really my brother’s the writer. To be able to love someone, I need to give them a fucking hug once in a while.” He hung his head. In truth, I felt a bit sorry for him; he was usually so proud. “I always imagined that anyone else in your situation would have given me Cattleya orchids. I’ve always regretted not telling you they’re...” (I’d never dared mention this subject. As Arthur was perfectly aware, a pair of Proust’s characters used Cattleya orchids as a metaphor for making love. But now everything was lost, I was no longer ashamed of raising the issue.

He blushed. And the way in which he looked at me bothered me for several weeks after I started getting over the trauma of his departure. After a long silence, he pulled a parcel from his canvas tote bag.

“I brought you one of my favorite books. It’s a gift. I know it’s not your birthday...” He immediately realised just how inappropriate his comment was and winced. Then he pushed it over towards me as if afraid I’d reject it. He’d even wrapped it up. It was R i l k e ’ s Letters to a Young Poet.

“As you can see, it isn’t new. It’s my copy. My most valuable possession. I love it more than my left kidney.” He said with a laugh. “Capote once recalled how Colette spotted his reticence about accepting one of her favourite possessions. She assured him ‘there really is no point in giving a gift unless one also treasures it oneself.’”

There were a few moments silence. I think he used them to sip a little more water. His voice still sounded extremely nervous, but he regained his composure with an awareness of his own merits. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, looked right at me for emphasis, and added:
“And as Rilke wrote Kappus in one of his wonderful letters: I know my books like being with you.”

It wasn’t his first present. He had sent me a framed photograph all the way from America. Nina Leen took it for Time magazine in the 1940s. It showed The Irascibles, fifteen of North America’s greatest artists, all men except Hedda Sterne, whom Leen posed standing head and shoulders above the rest, despite the fact the group included titans like Rothko and Pollock.

Months after returning to America forever, Arthur sent me my version of When They Were Gone, by Joan Mitchell, that he re-named YOU (three) DON’T (four) LOVE (four) ME (two).

“I bet you’ve already packed? When do you fly?”

“First thing, Wednesday.” He answered, his voice hoarse once more.

“I won’t be able to come and say goodbye at the airport.”

We both knew what that meant. I wanted him to stop being attractive, I didn’t want any spurious reasons for some unknown woman on the other side of the pond to love him, and I wanted him to be able to love me in the same way she would love him. Such thoughts made me feel unfeminine, and I’d never believed myself attractive. I’d been fighting the urge to cry with all my strength for some time, but now I couldn’t help bursting into tears. At least I had enough dignity to do so in silence, without it being any kind of emotional blackmail.

He stood up, and as I believed he felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave as soon as possible, I got up to say farewell too. Then he came over and hugged me. I let him, although it would have been less painful if he’d attacked me with a hammer. He released me as soon as he felt it had been enough, and we separated.

“I often don’t know who I really am, Arthur. It worries me. But there’s one thing I do know. I know I’m your friend.”

Á. D. Canareira has published several stories in magazines like "Espacio Fronterizo", "El Coloquio de los Perros" and "Hispanic Culture Review". Likewise, he has translated into Spanish "A Dog's Tale", by Mark Twain, whose translation he also has published, as well as an essay on the story by the aforementioned North American author, in the book "Semblanza de un perro" and in "Gambito de Papel". Clare Gaunt has translated several of his stories into English. The first of which was published last year, along with the original in Spanish, in the Canadian magazine "The Nelligan Review", and over the next few months she will publish new translations in the literary magazines "Bull", "Does It Have Pockets?" and "The Argyle Literary Magazine".
Back to Issue
Also in this thread
This thread has no other posts

More from

No items found.

More from

No items found.