A Journey That Leaves No Trace
by Jessica Sequeira
At the place where I worked a few years ago, two large windows looked out onto the city. From one you could see Retiro station, where a train deposited us every morning after gathering us up from the provinces. That was the view from the room where the secretaries sat, answering the telephone with smooth practiced voices. Occasionally they got up to make coffee, adding milk heated and foamed just so, and delivered it to the bosses in their private offices.
The other window was in the room with the translators. Our view was of a giant billboard with a perfume advertisement. The figures in it moved, assuming different positions each day, even changing clothing. When I first saw this happening, I thought I was just tired after a long day of staring at the screen. Strange things happen when you look at a computer for too long. Your head swims, small floating dots appear, an afterglow remains even after you’ve shut the apparatus and gone home. But someone reassured me that a system of sensors really was making the figures move.
During the day I hardly ever left the office. There was no need to: the company provided us with coffee, tea, light snacks (rice cakes and instant soup), a substantial lunch. The faint, pleasant scent of some fresh flower wafted through the air, never overpowering.
In my dreams I visited the other levels. Floor 27 was like being in a satellite. The night I went there I watched a movie about a couple of Los Angeles hackers who initiated communication with U.S. space contractors from their garage. They painted a window on the wall to make it look like they were speaking from an office. Security breaches had been detected, they said. All they requested in exchange for sealing leaks was employment; the capitalist dream remained intact.
Floor 3 was a wooded grove. Floor 14 was completely underwater. If you didn’t like what was happening you could always get back in the elevator and go to a different level. The elevator only jammed once, sealing me in its metal walls with just a single other person for company.
When a few years ago it was announced that by official order all the world’s texts would be digitalized, and that all new written content must be uploaded online, some people were upset. Certain left-wing magazines presented their counterpoints in strongly worded editorials: a lack of privacy, a further consolidation of power of the company already controlling the government, etc. Other publications expressed cautious support but remained skeptical it could be done. In the end, none of these articles mattered. The project would move ahead regardless.
As for me, I had no firm opinions. I’d just been let go from another company and was thinking pragmatically. The new law opened up hundreds of jobs, including my current position at the Data Office. I’m hardly a political romantic, or any kind of romantic at all. At first I felt empty, like I was simply doing one thing after another without meaning. It was a certain strangeness I thought would pass. Then like everyone else I got used to it.
“Home”, the place I went when the day ended, was a room shared with two other girls who were always sleeping when I arrived. They spent almost their entire day in bed. At first I thought they went to sleep early because they were early risers, but when I left the house they were still there: two lumps occasionally rustling gently, finding warm refuge and peace in some world other than this rubble-filled corner in the south of the city.
A camera eye followed me as I left the house. I imagined the landlord sitting in his residence two blocks away, revising the footage. I didn’t waste much time in my own place. The anonymity of the office was preferable, where though I knew I was being watched just as closely, it at least seemed impersonal. The personal had begun to seem something sinister.
At the office my language pair was French and English, which may not seem intuitive for someone in a Spanish speaking country. But now that everything is virtual and invisibly connected, physical location matters little. “Translation” was a loose term for what we did there anyway. It would be more accurate to say monitoring, or revising. The mandate from above was clear: everything must have an English copy. The computer produced a rough version, which we edited; it didn’t have to be “literary”, but did have to read cleanly.
Most of the texts that came my way were legal or business-related. As I worked I felt myself becoming a machine, efficient at replacing phrases with their equivalents, rearranging where necessary, using the translation software installed on all computers in an economic but judicious way. The texts were delivered via a kind of inbox with just one button, “reply”. The only recipient was the company, which managed further delivery of texts to third parties and firms. Payment was the fifth of each month, through direct deposit to our bank accounts.
Only very rarely did a different kind of text come my way, one not merely informative like the others. Those were the materials that gave me the most pleasure. A new series began to arrive in my inbox one day, from a professor at a small American university writing a book on Céline. He needed all the author’s personal letters translated fast, in order to fulfill the terms of a book deal previously negotiated with an academic publisher.
These details about the requester never came to me officially, of course. The idea, as with the one-button inbox, was to preserve anonymity. But gossip still hadn’t been completely eradicated. I’m not sure how widespread what we did was, how porous the exchange of information. There were hundreds of these offices all over the world. If I weren’t afraid of being paranoid, I might even say the company encouraged it, to maintain translators’ interest in their work. Apathy was just as detrimental to final product quality as excess of interest, as careful studies paid for by the company demonstrated.
It was my colleague Luis who told me about the professor. Something had happened between Luis and I a few days before after the end-of-year party, and we were still nervous around each other. He was a database programmer, and that night he explained his work to me in general terms: how the idea of “disappearing” is increasingly antiquated, something ever more difficult to achieve given today’s modern informational networks; how ultra-modern computers can piece together anyone’s motives by connecting isolated phrases and offhand remarks across distinct social networks and data platforms, tracing them geographically; how a second-order contextual narrative of meaning is constructed.
While he teased out the implications, I finished off several glasses of champagne. Soon I was giggling and clinging to his arm as he threaded us through the crowd in the main office to his private workspace, in one of the rooms without windows. There he pulled up the database with unconcealed pride.
“Give me a name. Not someone famous, that’s no fun. Someone who isn’t too documented. An X.”
I named the professor.
“Single middle-aged male with a colorful past. Expatriate abroad in Paris for several years, where he lived à la bohème and fell in love with the French avant-garde novelists and poets. Now languishing at a backwater U.S. university with a literature department under strain. Classes consistently register low or even, once, no enrollment. Professional existence constantly self-questioned. He himself has lost faith in his books. Removed from their environment they become dead texts, just as absurd to him as his students. Calls to revolution shouted into a cornfield. In addition he perceives a certain contradiction in making them his subjects. Tying them up in neat packages, exposing them to analyses they themselves would reject. Isn’t it more interesting to keep things obscure? Isn’t that what attracted him to them in the first place? Some depth not quite penetrable, some siren call to a romantic utopia beyond the bounds of department-funded rational comprehension? He’s farmed out these translations, and the university, far from scandalized, praises his efficiency. If all goes well, come September he’ll be lying in a hammock in Maui, with a tropical cocktail in hand and a great angst.”
Luis rattled all this off imperturbably, his report peppered with phrases taken directly from the professor’s online correspondence. As I listened, I put my hand on his shoulder, the words filling me with both awe and indefinable fear.
I was glad I knew the professor’s story, which I kept in mind as I worked. At night I’d begun reading Céline’s work, underlining phrases: “tous ces pays-là qui brûlaient, devant soi et des deux côtés, avec des flammes qui montaient et léchaient les nuages.” I had come to the language through literature, not the avant-garde but those writers who saw clearly how human beings are, Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Zola.
Reading Céline made me feel strange, dizzy. The dots leading precisely nowhere, the idea of an unredeemable mankind, the rhythm and slang of vulgar speech, death on the installment plan, disdain, fascistic touches, invective… even though I read all his books on a screen, unlike the Balzac paperbacks I lovingly caressed as a teenager, they still filled me with a strange energy bordering on fury. It was impossible to read just a few pages then sleep.
Luis and I kept discussing the professor during breaks. Updates on his mood and movements, tracked through the database, were an excellent way to pass the time, and avoid talking about us. Luis told me the professor would soon be going to California to research the life of a ballerina, the woman Céline was obsessed (or in love?) with. Hearing the professor would be traveling gave me the idea.
I would find him and meet him in person; he’d become more than just a series of data fragments. By this point Céline has been consecrated by the academy, and his life journey is well-marked out for the tourist. But that’s just what attracted me to the professor. He was malleable and living; the vital current still flowed electric. Perhaps I could even intervene in his life or his book. I didn’t know how just yet, and it didn’t matter. I was tired of being a medium, of having words pass through me. Now I wanted to create.
That morning I stupidly told Luis what I was thinking, even asked him to accompany me. He looked at me without responding, not understanding. If I were to explain things well, I know he’d want to go; but I also knew he’d be too weak to ever actually leave. A contempt grew within me, perhaps a distorted form of the desire to really live.
When my day at the office finished, I came to a lacklustre bar, where at one of the tables I worked out my plan. Piles of notes lay stacked up around me: Céline’s novels, critical commentaries, biographies, maps of the western United States.
In the dream I’m dreaming now, which so far as I know no computer is registering, an airplane takes me from Ezeiza to LAX. Outside my window, the sky extends outward without limit. I lose myself in the transparent air, dissolve in the blue.
When I arrive at the professor’s house, there’s no answer. I call the university, whose representatives are just as much in the dark as I am. Where has he gone? The door before me is mute. I decide to enter. The knob turns without resistance. In the first room I set foot in, there is a computer, turned on and ejecting page after page of text. Unable to help myself, I pick up one sheet and read what is written. At first it confuses me, then I understand. It is a love letter.
What would I do if you were to leave this earth now? Remain quiet, likely. Join in the general mourning without drawing special attention to the nature of our friendship. At best they’d ask (if you, or I, were a little more famous) for a contribution to some volume, a tribute made not at the end of someone’s long and distinguished career in the German way, but posthumously. I would watch as your husband spoke, your family and friends.
I am connected to none of it, and even those that recognize my face wouldn’t think of asking me to speak about you. Perhaps they’d suspect some strange currents passed darkly under the surface, but consider it wiser to maintain the tranquility of things. Let sleeping secrets lie, stir no stick to muddy the waters.
Or perhaps they would have no idea of our past. Even I have my doubts at times. Viewed in retrospect, the shivering barely-there threads of imagined association, certain lines in emails and letters corresponding with one another beyond what is written, might evaporate, appear mere paranoia. Were they to vanish, giving way to the dominant narrative of your life, I would be negated absolutely.
Lola, I’m coming. While you’re still here I need to know if you care for me. If you ever did.
I stand holding the letter in my hand for a minute. Then I reach into my pocket, pull out my lighter and return ticket, flick the metal circle. The flames are gorgeous. The open country is waiting. The doors of the elevator spring open to take me there.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.