Inheritance


Hebe Uhart. Photograph by Agustina Fernández.

Hebe Uhart had a unique way of looking—a power of observation that was streaked with humor, but which above all spoke to her tremendous curiosity. Uhart, a prolific Argentine writer of novels, short stories, and travel logs, died in 2018. “In the last years of her life, Hebe Uhart read as much fiction as nonfiction, but she preferred writing crónicas, she used to say, because she felt that what the world had to offer was more interesting than her own experience or imagination,” writes Mariana Enríquez in an introduction to a newly translated volume of these crónicas, which will be published in May by Archipelago Books. At the Review, where we published one of Uhart’s short stories posthumously in 2019, we will be publishing a series of these crónicas in the coming months. Read the first in the series here.

When I used to take walks along Bulnes Street and Santa Fe Avenue, a certain boutique would catch my eye. It always displayed the same series of colors: beige, dusty rose, baby blue—a small array of colors, and always the same ones on rotation, never a red or a yellow. Everything behind the display window was elegant but hidden in shadows; this included the owner, who seemed determined to fulfill her duties despite having so few customers. The owner’s silent manner and desire to pass incognito (as if showing one’s face were distasteful) led me, in one way or another, to this idea: she must have inherited her taste in clothing from her mother, and she was making sure to carry on its legacy. Well done, well done on that display window, but with so few customers, the shop was doomed.

On Corrientes Avenue, at the corner of Salguero, there is another window displaying sweaters paired with little vests (for when it gets chilly). Every week, the owners debut a new line of muted colors: grayish blue, blush, timid yellow. Delicate T-shirts that seem to say: This is the way things are. The garments are always the same shape and length; every week, the owners change the color scheme. It occurs to me that this taste is also inherited, passed down from a time when women dressed to please rather than to offend and when dialogues unfolded like this:

“Go ahead, dear.”

“You first—I insist.”

“How kind of you.”

“Let’s catch up, darling.”

As a friend of mine says, such women used to talk as if they had made a pact at birth. Nobody goes into that shop either; they go into the shop next door that sells skirts with studded red flowers, asymmetrical ones, others with ruffles. Because nobody cares about offending others these days; nobody cares much about anyone. Which is why the vendors at the shop with the muted colors don’t mind if their clothes sell or not; passersby call their sweaters “dainty little things.” One is inspired to buy those outfits and dress up in a different color every week, like the display window, to harmonize the soul, to have things change without really changing, to perform a ritual that ensures eternity.

Some dogs can be inherited, as can photos, promises, and schedules. The way one decorates one’s house is inherited, too. I once visited a house where everything was smooth and shiny as a bocce ball, not a painting or flower vase in sight. I hovered from room to room like a low-flying plane. This was because, in another house, the department of hygiene had come to get rid of some rats, bats, or kissing bugs. These problems no longer existed, but the fear survived.

In houses full of little folders from bygone days, the ancestors are present: they talk to each other, folder to folder, handkerchief to the doll on the bed. Certain ideologies are inherited as well. Some families are radicals, Peronists; others are communists. As much as they might deny the ideologies of their ancestors, many will inherit their customs and tastes. Families that come from the radical tradition tend to have good taste. They do not flaunt their wealth; they tend to be discreet about the real estate they own, critique mindless spending because it’s unbecoming, and if they are professionals, let’s say doctors or dentists, they have paintings of horses galloping in the office, but it’s always a discreet gallop, nothing out of control. In Peronist families, whims and desires are more permissible. If a member of the family has a craving for hot chocolate at four in the morning or spends all of their savings on meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland or shoots down loquats with a gun, the other family members will not openly disapprove, because they are not inclined to make value judgments—they are not constrained by the Platonic Form of the Good. The most curious houses belong to the descendants of communist resistance fighters. Even if these heirs no longer fight or say they don’t give a damn about politics, their homes contain the traces of revolutionary spirit. They cannot bear to dress sharp or get dolled up because that would mean assuming a privilege that is at odds with the proletariat. Their houses contain many old books, which were passed on to them by their grandfather; they don’t throw or give them away—it would be like throwing or giving away their grandfather. Nor do they use a feather duster to clean; it would be like feather-dusting grandfather.

They do not buy new chairs, because this would mean participating in consumerist culture—a frivolity that would distract them from their studies, from reading. It is permissible, of course, to buy new books, and radicals do so with a mischievous gesture, as if they have just ducked out of their grandfather’s lecture. They flaunt a new book as a Peronist would flaunt a new car.

Sometimes an inherited saying dances around in your head, one you have always hated. It is a reminder of the past, when young people would shed their coats in the first days of spring, and their elders would say, “Winter isn’t done with us yet.” And you were annoyed because that comment seemed to wish for, to beckon the cold. But now you find yourself saying, “Winter isn’t done with us yet.”

 

Anna Vilner’s translation of “Inheritance” will appear in a forthcoming collection of Hebe Uhart’s crónicas, A Question of Belonging, to be published by Archipelago Books in May 2024. The original Spanish version was collected in Uhart‘s Crónicas completas, published by Adriana Hidalgo.



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