Short Story – Montessori (with apologies to Roberto Bolaño)

I wrote this all the way back in 2013, when I was firmly in the throes of my Bolaño obsession.  I post this story here because I don’t really think it needs a home anywhere else.  I’ve cleaned up some spelling and grammar but otherwise it’s entirely untouched.  I offer up zero apologies for how closely it hews to Bolaño’s themes, plotting, conceits – he was everything to me then and this provides a snapshot into my own book-drunk thinking from the time.

It could be supposed that the life of Sebastian Montessori offers an example of the downtrodden, poor, virtually talentless and all but forgotten writer whose mark on the literary world, however desperately he may wished to have placed his mark upon it, was virtually nil.  Montessori spent his twenties locked up in a small apartment sufficiently distant from the city centre of Brisbane to command a meagre rent, writing, reading, and thinking about literature and the small opportunities – miniscule, really, or so he told me – available to a young writer following in the wake of Borges, Kafka, and Proust.  There’s nothing left to write!, he would declare each morning while we shared breakfast together in the communal kitchen that had been placed inside the tiny house in such a manner as to ensure the smells of cooking would penetrate into my rooms as soon as someone began preparing a meal.  Later, after eating, he would gather the loose folds of the soft blue dressing gown he always and only wore during breakfast, and ascend to his room.  Invariably while I began washing the dishes the tap-tap of his typewriter would begin, and the sounds would last until evening.

At that time I was as poor as Montessori, but I don’t think I was as unhappy.  For much of the morning I would walk along the windy beaches of Redcliffe, thinking, thinking about my life and its twist and turns, and thinking about literature.  I always carried a book with me, though I hardly opened it.  Later, protected from the sun by a gazebo installed near the sea, or under the shade of a spreading tree, I would write to the rhythm of the waves as they gently pushed up against the sand castles of children and the crudely formed words of idle teenagers.  I wished to combine the calm tranquility of Thomas Mann with the endless expanse of Robert Musil, and for some reason had convinced myself that writing by the sea was the best way in which to achieve this goal.  But the hours would go by and, tired, slightly sunburned (it is as impossible to protect one-self from the vicissitudes of nature as that of men), and anxious at another day passed without writing, I would return home by train, despondent, my knees knocking against the knees of men returning home from a day spent profitably at the office (I saw everything in terms of dollars in those days, because I had no money, and also in terms of bread).  Always, always I returned home to the tap-tap of Montessori’s white Olivetti.

While I may have wanted to be a writer, Montessori knew he was one.  His energy and capacity for production was prodigious.  For eight hours each day – each day without fail, no matter the temperature, his mood, the state of world politics or the grumbling of his stomach – Montessori wrote.  He wrote plays in the style of Dario Fo, and essays aping Joseph Epstein’s casual erudition.  He wrote short stories, with each weekday devoted to imitating the style and theme of one of the five authors he considered “world permanent” (Today is Tuesday which means that, if he were still alive (I assume – I have no other information – that Montessori is dead, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate), Montessori would be writing something along the lines of “Details of a Sunset” or “The Visit to the Museum”).  He attempted novellas on occasion, but admitted he didn’t quite have the knack for them.  The final four hours of writing each day he devoted to the “Total Novel”, as yet untitled, which was, he knew, to be his major contribution to literature.  He wouldn’t allow me to read any portion of the Total Novel, but the short stories weren’t bad (though they were, it’s true, essentially unpublishable by any but the laziest of editors as they were basically exact copies of his World Permanent authors).  What little poetry he wrote reminded me of Neruda’s love poems, and I remember telling him once that his rather lengthy short story, X, bore a striking resemblance to The Death of Ivan Ilyich, though I hastened to add that it offered a new and interesting variation on this well-known work by Leo Tolstoy.  It was, I told him, his best and most accomplished piece.  Upon hearing these words Montessori became red-faced and angry.  It was clear he was offended, but why?  Montessori made me promise not to say such things again, and as he spoke he became, perhaps for the first time in his life, menacing.  It was the first time I became afraid of him. 

For various reasons, a few weeks later I accepted a job as a security guard at a natural history museum in a small town by the sea, several hours from Brisbane (from anywhere, really), and I didn’t see Montessori again for a long time.  I moved away because I couldn’t stand the city, because I loved the water and wanted to be closer to it, and because I was unwell and thought that the clear, salty air from the ocean would assist in my recuperation.  I don’t know.  None of the reasons seemed good enough on their own, and taken together I still couldn’t quite persuade my friends that I was making the right choice, but I made the decision anyway, and after several rounds of goodbyes and well wishings, I left.  After a few months I didn’t hear from anyone anyway.

At night I read.  Officially, I was supposed to remain vigilant and patrol the perimeter of the small museum (tiny, really, perhaps the smallest museum I have ever seen, before or since), but really the job was something of a farce.  My boss told me that the job had been initially created by one of the local members for parliament as a reward to a businessman who had become selling cardboard boxes, plastic sleeves and containers, and other packaging materials, up and down the Eastern Coast to post offices, businesses, small freighting companies and municipal councils.  The businessman’s son had been something of a dreamer, lazy and shiftless and prone, so my boss told me, to smoking marijuana in his room above his father’s offices, where the smell could be detected by clients.  Something had to be done, and thus strings were pulled and promises were made, and suddenly there was sufficient fat found in the city budget to approve the expense of a security guard’s position, full-time, five nights a week, with excellent superannuation and annual leave provisions, and just as suddenly the businessman’s son was pushed into the job, given a night-stick, and told to remain vigilant.  That was five years ago, and for whatever reason now the job was vacant and needed to be filled by someone who could withstand the crushing boredom of what was essentially an utterly unnecessary job.  You could sleep, the boss said to me on the first day as he handed me my own night-stick, a set of heavy keys, and a slightly worn uniform, nobody will care if you sleep and you’ll still get paid.  Or you could bring a girlfriend over.  Just don’t leave the premises and don’t do anything stupid.  So at night, huddled in the guard office of the museum, with the trees swinging and the faraway breaking of the ocean barely audible, I read.  Mostly the authors I should read (the only truth I really knew at the time was that I was woefully ignorant when it came to literature.  I hadn’t read anything, and wanted to read everything.), but sometimes also those semi-obscure, somewhat eccentric and slightly avant-garde authors whose discovery gives a young writer (and I was very young then – perhaps twenty-two, or maybe twenty-one.  I don’t exactly remember and I guess it doesn’t matter now) cause for being.  I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and dutifully felt sympathy toward the boorish Karenin and the sensitive Levin, but I devoured everythingI could get my hands on by Don DeLillo.  I admired Coetzee without ever feeling any emotion toward his works (Coetzee’s novels are like hard pieces of tin – sharp and useful, but impossible to love), but I felt with all my heart toward the melancholic wanderers and isolates in Tabucchi’s ephemeral fictions.  My reading was undisciplined, wide-ranging, shallowly conceived but honest, and I worked hard.  I begged my friends back in the city to send me national and international magazines via COD, and was forever handing money I couldn’t afford to the clerk of the tiny and only post office in the town, an older man with enormous eyebrows and the red, veined nose of the drunkard.  Each time he would invariably say to me as I came into the story, well look, it’s the reader!

At night I read.  Sometimes I sat and thought with the book closed and held on my lap, and at least once a night I walked through the natural history museum to look at the displays.  I rarely wrote, but when I did I soon stopped because I thought I could hear the tap-tap of Montessori’s white Olivetti, and invariably I became too distracted and had to stop.  After I tried to write, I would walk through the museum, the sounds of the Olivetti still in my mind as I browsed the shelves and display cases of the museum.  The most fragile items were behind glass, tiny bones of strange creatures, iridescent shells, fossilised wood and plant-life.  The major set-piece of the museum was an enormous piece of light pink coral, easily as tall as a full-grown man, and about as wide as an automobile.  From a main trunk spread the crooked fingers of coral, some broken, most not.  The coral, long dead, at night seemed somehow to pulse and sway.  At times the coral looked like the branching veins of an enormous heart, at other times the fractured brains of a mad men, a killer perhaps, or a prophet from an obscure religious sect.  Scattered around the coral were small glass cases containing the delicate skeletons of the fish most likely to have made their home around the coral when it was alive and submerged far below the surface of the ocean about twenty kilometres from the museum, where it had been found a few years earlier.

Two years after I moved to the coastal town I received a small package in the mail.  By this stage most of my friends had forgotten me, and the ones who still remembered sent sporadic postcards of letters (the magazines had long since stopped arriving).  These postcards came not from Brisbane but all over the world, their origins increasingly exotic as time went by – Hanoi, Tokyo, Beijing – and the tone of the writing shifted increasingly toward despondency and melancholy.  It seemed that of all my friends who could possibly have succeeded – postcards from Rome, Bogota, Valleta – the ones who did were unhappy with it, dissatisfied as though they had expected something of significance would have occurred by now, and disappointed that it hadn’t.  They were all convinced that seeing their names in print (they were all published by now, and some of them were very good) would somehow cause a key to turn in an invisible (though rusted and made from bronze) lock, and happiness would be theirs.  But it wasn’t, and the further away they travelled from Australia – postcards from Madrid, Reykjavík, Mare Serenitatis – and the more they were published, the greater the discontent in the letters.  This package came not from any of those friends however but from Montessori, who I had not heard from at all, and had in fact heard conflicting rumours about.  One friend was convinced he had died from hepatitis, another that he had married and become an accountant for a mid-tier firm.  They all agreed that no matter what had actually happened to him, he was no longer a writer.  But none of these, it soon became clear, were true.  He was a translator, and inside the package was a magazine which contained his first published piece.  The magazine, called Straight Lines, came with a note stapled to the front cover, which read:


Let me know what you think.  You were always my first reader.


And below that was an address.  JB was, of course, me, and SM, I quickly realised, was Montessori.  He wasn’t dead.

From the outset it was clear to me that Montessori had put a lot himself into the translation.  I could hear the white Olivetti in every sentence.  Translation is an art, but I wondered whether there was too much of Montessori in the short story.

And then I completed the story, and I knew.

The story, written by a Honduran writer by the name of José Cardoso Gebler (a name unknown to me and which, even before I read the story, seemed wrong, put together, artificial), was called Irrational Objections and was set in the capital of Honduras.  In the story Cardoso Gebler recounted the hours and days before three men, all about the same age, all desperate, and none of them given names or defining physical features, entered the estate of a wealthy banker known to all three via shady and ill-described means, robbed the house, tied up the occupants (the banker of course, but also his wife, a maid which the story leaves open as to whether she the banker’s mistress as suspected by two of the three men, and two children, both very young), and accidentally – at least, I think it was accidental, as very little of the story was written clearly, as though the prose itself was confused about the murky nature of the evening – killed one of the young children, the boy.  The whole story was in fact written as though it were some kind of remembered nightmare.  All three men suffered from nightmares after that horrible evening, and these were described in exhaustive detail.  Often the violence was sexualised, and blood dripped constantly.  By the end of the story it was unclear to the reader whether the break and enter, the thefts, and the subsequent murder were real or in fact another layer of nightmare presented to hide the true, and much more horrible, crime that had been committed.

What was clear, however, was that Cardoso Gebler, whoever he was,  hadn’t written the story at all. It was Montessori’s.

I didn’t have a computer at the time but I was in possession of the second volume of the Encyclopedia of Latin American Writers in the Twentieth Century, which I had bought second hand for five dollars on a whim toward gradual self-improvement which never eventuated.  As luck would have it the volume was devoted to the letters C – G, which would, I reasoned, include Cardoso Gebler.  I flicked through the pages, unable to find any trace of him whatsoever, though I admit my confidence in the encyclopedia’s accuracy was shaken upon seeing the brothers Goytisolo listed and their achievements duly described.  The article itself was excellently researched and thoroughly engaging, but what the encyclopedia failed to take note of was that the Goytisolos were not Latin American writers but Spanish.  Nonetheless I remained unsure as to Cardoso Gebler’s existence, though deep down I knew I was right.  The story was very good, it was stylistically challenging while remaining readable, and thematically it was strong.  Some of the details of Honduran life seemed off, as though they had been learned about from the pages of a Lonely Traveller guidebook and not truly lived, but I was hardly an expert on the country.

Time passed and I didn’t write back.  I would like to say it was because I was busy, but that was hardly the truth.  I had been convinced that my lot in life was to be a writer, and that my best work would be done by the sea, but now I wasn’t sure.  The words never came, and though at first I stayed at my writing post from low tide until high (I wrote in a natural alcove built into a network of huge slate-blue rocks, twenty steps from the water’s edge.  Very early in the morning, and very late at night, I could hear the snapping claws of tiny crabs hidden in the crevices of the alcove, but by and large I was left alone), but after a while I only stayed for a couple of hours, and then an hour, and then, if I went there at all, it was simply to read.  I had replaced Thomas Mann with David Markson, and Musil with Italo Calvino, and I couldn’t lie and say that I missed either of the writers.  I no longer had it in me to attempt to build baroque cathedrals, and instead became content with the production of others.  For a time I became involved with a newly opened cafe-cum-art gallery, but after a short while I was told by the owner, a young, preternaturally beautiful woman who evinced a propensity for sensitivity over business acumen (though I send that there was a silent partner involved, perhaps a local businessman or politician, who was fronting the money for the cafe, which never had any employees and seemed to be a money pit), that I could no longer work there for reasons I never understood, and in fact that marked the beginning of my bad luck as, perhaps a week later, I received notice that the number of hours required of me at the museum were to be halved, and that a number of the sundry allowances attached to the position (which were, I admitted, purely gravy off the top and in no way needed to properly function in the role) were to be cut effective immediately.  I was still doing okay financially but without a doubt cracks began to appear in the fabric of my life, and for the first time since I had moved away from the city I began to experience genuine material discomfort.  And then Montessori came back into my life.

He was not how I remembered him.  I suppose neither was I, but he had aged a lot more than eight or nine years would suggest.  His face was lined and his hair, previously so thick, had become sparse and unkempt.  His clothes were old and threadbare, and if I hadn’t known better I would have said he was either homeless or had been on the road for some time, perhaps months.  But the worst part were his eyes, which had changed from a brilliant, clear blue to muddied and bloodshot.  He looked as though he had been caught staring into an abyss, a very dark red, almost purple abyss.  

He made small talk over a hastily put together meal of bread, olives, ham and oil, or rather I talked rapidly while Montessori wolfed down everything as fast as I could prepare it and put it on the table.  The only thing he declined was liquor, mumbling something about a problem with his liver and requesting water or, if I had it, soda water.  But nothing more.  I am sorry to do this, he said, I don’t want to be a burden.  No burden, I told him, and then I began to make the required noises about how he could never be a burden when Montessori interrupted me.  So I suppose you have realised by now that all of the stories were mine.  After this surprising admission Montessori ate the last piece of bread on the plate (I had eaten nothing and couldn’t imagine eating anything at all tonight), That José Cardoso Gebler doesn’t exist.  That Pablo Recama doesn’t exist.  That Juan Garcia Cantante doesn’t exist.  That Paco Jardin doesn’t exist.  That Isabelle Hacienda doesn’t exist.  I said nothing; I sensed that Montessori simply wanted to talk.  But who were some of these names?  I had heard of only a few, and my understanding had been that he had sent me everything he had published.  What started as a lark became an obsession, he continued, the worst part about being a writer is that after a while you can’t quite recall if all the characters you keep writing about are real, or based on people you know, or composite creations with pieces taken from a dozen sources, or perhaps even made entirely from whole cloth, and very soon everything is a mess and you realise that you won’t ever untangle it because you can’t remember and you don’t know the answers, and if I don’t know the answers, Joseph, then who does?  And it’s much worse when you have pretended to be the author as well, because then you have to keep in your mind whether these characters are from Recama’s fiction, or those themes are part of Cantante’s oeuvre.  So you can imagine my confusion when I received this letter, he said, pushing a brown recycled envelope across the table to me.  With a trembling hand Montessori extracted the remnant of a cigarette from the breast pocket of his shirt, lit it, and took a drag that was so deep that as his chest expanded and expanded I thought for a crazy second, remembering Cardoso Gebler’s violent nightmare stories, that Montessori might explode right there at my table, his blood, guts and skin splattering all over the herbs I had recently planted.  But then he finally exhaled.  Go ahead, he said.  Read it.

Inside the envelope was not one letter but three, all short.  Two were from José Cardoso Gebler, and the other from a name I did not recognise (yet another of Montessori’s authors?).  The first letter from Cardoso Gebler was polite, thanking Montessori for his efforts in his translation, but admonishing him to ask for permission first next time.  The tone of the letter was that of a genial but slightly peevish schoolteacher.  It ended with Cardoso Gebler magnanimously providing Montessori with the retroactive right to publish his story in English, on the condition that any royalties were to be shared 60-40, in Cardoso Gebler’s favour.  The second letter was somewhat incoherent, though in it Cardoso Gebler seemed to be asking for money, and there was a vague reference to his ongoing persecution at the hand of the Albanian secret service, who were pursuing him on orders from Hoxha, of all people.  The third letter came not from another writer but a lawyer, though from the language used it was clear he was not a very good one.  The letter demanded all of the royalties paid to Montessori for Cardoso Gebler’s fiction, and threatened immediate and serious legal action if this did not occur.  What will you do, I asked.  If you created Cardoso Gebler then clearly this is a hoax, some conman in search of cash trying to shake you out for a couple of dollars… I pointed at several spelling mistakes in the lawyer’s letter and noted also that he had not provided a return address with which Montessori could respond.  He nodded and, as he gathered the letters together, he spoke once more, his eyes looking not at me but off into the distance, as though he could see the abyss wherever he looked, as though it followed him and taunted him.  That’s hardly the least of it, he said.  There are hundreds of letters like this, some from writers, some from lawyers.  But almost all are angry.  And – I met Cardoso Gebler a few weeks ago, and I know he is serious.  He made that very clear.  And it’s not just him, they are all making appearances now, every one of them, even the writers I never published, the ones I didn’t give last names to, or first names.  I see them everywhere, I hear from them.  They stop me in the street or writer me letters or call me very late at night.  And I don’t know, Montessori said, perhaps I deserve the harassment.  Perhaps it’s only right they wish to contact me.  I did create them after all.  I did do that, and I’m sorry.

Several minutes passed before I realised Montessori had fallen asleep while he spoke.  His head titled forward and, though his hand holding the cigarette titled downward, he didn’t drop it and for a long time I watched the ash slowly lengthen on the tip of the cigarette while Montessori snored.

I put him to bed in my room and I slept outside.  I think I dreamt, but my dreams were confusing, and when I woke, I couldn’t at first remember who I was, why I was sleeping in the hammock and not in my bed, or what had happened last night.  But then I remembered.  Montessori was gone.  He had made the bed, and on the sheets he had placed several thick manuscripts and an enormous pile of loose leaf papers.  Beside those lay a pile of perhaps thirty letters addressed to Montessori (though none of the letters had an address beyond his name, and none of them had stamps).  The thick manuscripts were all named The Total Novel, and were marked by volume.  My heart stopped when I saw a small clear net pouch filled with yellowing teeth – Montessori’s teeth! – but then I realised that they were not teeth but the keys from a white Olivetti typewriter, all of the letters of the alphabet except, oddly, the vowels, and all of the numbers except five, eight, and three.  There was no note.

About six months later I moved away from the seaside town.  I never heard from Montessori again.  The papers were drafts of stories in various phases of completion, and most of them were, I thought, very good.  I didn’t know what to do with them, but I couldn’t throw them away, either.  After a while they became tangled up in my own papers, and though I am sure I still have them somewhere, I couldn’t say where.  Last week, in the newspaper, I read an advertisement concerning a lecture that was to be held later this evening at one of the local universities as part of their “World Dialogues” series.  José Cardoso Gebler is speaking as the guest of honour.  A few minutes ago I bought a ticket and I really have to get ready else I will miss out on hearing him speak.  I don’t know who I’m going to see up on stage.


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