“The Contest” by Liliana Heker

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The contest, said the woman from the bank, would be open only to local bank employees and their families; he would certainly discover, she assured him, some shoo-ins among them. Remus’ mind lingered on the word “shoo-in.” When he was a boy, his parents bought him shoes that were too big for him, and he had to use inserts until his feet grew into them, sorry? I was saying that you will find Professor Lusarreta of invaluable assistance, said the woman. Ah, yes, he said, and thought melancholically of how old and worn his shoes got by the time they did fit him. It will be most inspiring for the writers at the bank, said the woman. Remus figured that in the world of the living, there couldn’t be more than fifteen short story writers worth reading; it was improbable that the banking sector of a seaside town—family included—would harbor even one of them, but given the state of depression he found himself in lately, the woman’s offer didn’t seem all that bad: roundtrip deluxe bus service, his honorarium and a three-day hotel stay. The idea of looking out to sea for hours, getting drunk off the pendular roar of the breakers until his soul dissolved and the tribulations of heartbreak and failure were reduced to what they really were—a drop in the universe—made a few days of reading bad writing seem worthwhile, and so he said yes, he’d accept.

St Ives

St. Ives, Herbert Barnard John Everett, 1935. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The box arrived two weeks later. It was bigger than he had imagined, and so for days he couldn’t work himself up to opening it. He glanced at the package as if it were an object of guilt, and promised himself that any day now he would call the woman from the bank and tell her, under some pretext, that it was impossible for him to judge the contest. He knew he would never actually do it, but the mere possibility offered relief. Professor Lusarreta’s call caught him off guard. She was loquacious and expressed her enormous confidence in his criteria; in fact, it had been she herself who insisted that she shouldn’t serve as co-judge, but rather as an auxiliary genius (tee hee) to the sage; after all, what could she, a simple professor, contribute to the opinion of someone of his stature? He found her disarming and was soon agreeing with the professor that the submitted material showed some highly promising signs; what diversity, what uncharted worlds could be revealed by a writer of no renown, what crap was he saying? Was he so starved for faith, even if borrowed from someone else, that he was capable of acting contemptibly in order to keep it alive? When he hung up, it was clear there was no turning back. He walked over to the box as if he were inflicting some form of self-punishment, but he didn’t open it right away. He looked at it, afraid, waiting for some cataclysmic event to free him of the commitment. Finally, cursing himself under his breath, he got some scissors and cut the packing twine.

This was no small feat. For the past several years, he required colossal effort even for the smallest of actions. He lived with drawers stuffed with papers that he didn’t have the energy to go through, clothes in jumbled piles made the mere act of dressing himself a nightmare, the bookcase was invaded by books he didn’t want but couldn’t bring himself to throw away, along with misplaced beloved books he was incapable of returning to their proper place. Now this is a big problem, he said to himself on several occasions, paralyzed in the act of searching for a certain book, looking at the disordered mess like a mountain that he would never dare climb: when chaos interferes with the only thing one cares about, it’s time to hang up the gloves. But that wasn’t an option. He didn’t even have gloves to hang up, or a towel to throw in. He only had this thing languishing inside him, dying so gradually as to be invisible to others, and so women from banks and Lusarretas of all stripes continued calling on him in the name of who-knows-what past glory, and he didn’t even have the energy to say no.

Reading the stories is worse than I had anticipated, he wrote on the back of one form, a poison of stupefying effect that I can only neutralize by plunging myself up to my nuts in Stendhal (he had taken to doing that in recent years: immersing himself in the re-reading of certain authors as if looking for some solid footing while the world collapsed under his feet). What motivates them to take the trouble? Do any of them really think they can write a page of something worthwhile? He thought that it would be possible to come up with a story based on characters like these contestants: puerile and devoid of charm, but fully believing in themselves. He suspected mischievously, however, that it wouldn’t be he who would write it—not that story or any other—because, coincidentally, he had lost all confidence in his own way with words. Had he ever really had it in the first place, or was it all a dream? Or was it one of the many excesses of his greener years?

He read with care and grief, sloshing for days through insipid episodes and trite adventures, taking the phone calls of Professor Lusarreta, anxious to exchange impressions with him, and the woman from the bank, desperate to print the award certificates. And he prepared them for the idea that maybe the material didn’t lend itself to honorable mentions … or even to a runner up; that in order to add prestige to the contest, only excellence should be recognized, didn’t they agree? And they agreed with whatever he thought was best, of course, as long as he made his decision in time for the certificates to be printed; there was a lot of excitement about the contest in town, did Remus realize it? Remus said he did and promised that yes, he’d have a decision in time. He certainly didn’t lack motivation: he needed to liberate himself of that nightmare—he felt that for the past week, he’d done nothing but read hogwash—and, above all else, he needed to find a passable story submission to justify his trip to the sea. Without a winning story, there would be no trip, he understood, and he needed the sea; the more the task of reading wore him down, the more he hung his hopes on that trip to the sea. Perhaps, in that peaceful place, away from everything that tormented him, that something which seemed dead inside him could come alive again.

Maybe it was that desire for the sea or a passing attack of benevolence, or maybe it was that the virtues, modest though they were, were real. Whatever the case, with only three or four stories to go, he came across one that he deemed acceptable. It was nothing out of this world, but at least it had a plot, the rough framework of a structure and a premise less uninteresting than the others. He quickly verified that the remaining stories didn’t offer anything better and called Professor Lusarreta. He explained, with an eloquence that was impossible to refute (that was one thing he still did very well), the distance that existed between this story and the others, and a short while later, he felt he had earned the pleasure of curling up in bed with The Red and the Black.

Two days later, after a pleasant trip on a bus with fully reclining seats, he arrived at the sea. He was only able to give it a quick look, however, because he had just enough time to get to his hotel, shower and dress for the awards ceremony. He had worked out the agenda with the woman from the bank the day before. Won’t the ceremony be a bit poor with just one award? asked the woman. By no means, replied Remus, and he thought that it didn’t much matter; he couldn’t imagine more than twenty people, if even that many, showing up for what the woman called the “ceremony.” He promised to first make brief introductory remarks explaining the contest’s rules, and then announce the winner, pointing out the story’s virtues; after that, the author would be invited on stage, handed the first prize certificate and … (he dithered, realizing that the event really was quite poor; fortunately, however, ever since he had finished reading through the entries, he had been feeling inspired) … and then the winning author would be asked to read his story, he concluded brightly. The plan seemed to comfort the woman from the bank and now Remus walked toward the Association building, promising himself that as soon as the event was over (it couldn’t last more than an hour), he’d go for a walk along the coast before sitting down to dinner. He thought his game plan—wrap up the event, walk by the sea, dinner—quite delightful. He felt light and jovial.

He arrived punctually at the Association. In the lobby, the woman from the bank, Professor Lusarreta and other bank officials were there to greet him. He was unusually friendly; he realized he was in a good mood for the first time in ages.

It wasn’t until the woman from the bank said they should go inside that he noticed all the people; they were pouring inside the building, the men wearing ties and the women dressed as if for a gala. There must be some sort of special performance, he thought, but as soon as he was led through a curtain, he realized he was on the stage of an auditorium and that the people in their Sunday best were filing into the seats. He was seated between the woman from the bank and Professor Lusarreta. By the time the bank manager began to speak, there wasn’t an empty seat. The manager’s tone was formal and moving. Remus easily fazed out the words (it was a well-practiced skill of his) and busied his mind with speculations about what could have brought such a large audience to such an insipid event. Perhaps the prize-winner was a very popular guy, he thought, although he didn’t find the possibility very convincing. Now Professor Lusarreta was speaking. Of the honor it was for her to assist someone as blah blah blah as he, and that she was like an ant helping—an elephant crossed Remus’ mind, and he wanted to laugh wildly and also write about all this because suddenly the world became an absurd and surprising place, set before his eyes so that he might tell others about it; how long had it been since he had felt that wonderful sensation?—and that, with a figure as celebrated and blah blah blah as his, what could she possibly add. It was best if she put an end to the great suspense and handed the microphone over to Remus for him to announce the results of this laudable contest that had far surpassed the expectations of their dear banking family. Applause.

Remus started off diplomatically; he spoke of the ponderable number of entries, of the effort that that must have implied for every contestant, and of what a good sign it was for such a small community to have so many people who wrote. Then he explained why, although the original rules said otherwise, the judges (he felt like the Sun King) had decided to award a single prize. He spoke of Maupassant, of Poe, of Quiroga, of epiphanies and loaded guns, of the terror or beauty that any minor incident can convey. And something that exceeded the vicissitudes of that contest began to grow inside him, something like passion which he, at that very moment, swore to nurture so that it would not die but instead grow and multiply, and. He abruptly came down from these inspired heights and named the winner. The applause was less enthusiastic than expected. The winning author walked up on stage (he was a rather young man), the bank manager handed him the first place certificate and an envelope, and Remus invited him to read his story. It was a bit tiresome for him to hear it recited in full, but he found comfort in thinking of it as the final act of his obligations.

When the prize winner finished reading his story, Remus’ applause was genuinely enthusiastic. That impeded him from recalling, a moment later, if the audience had also applauded. He was rising up from his seat when a man from the audience said stiffly:

“I demand an explanation.”

“Excuse me … ?” said Remus.

“I said I demand an explanation as to why that story won first prize.”

“Well,” said Remus with a short laugh, “it’s clear that if it won first prize, it’s because it was the best, right?”

“That remains to be seen,” said another voice from the audience. It wasn’t the same man who had spoken previously.

“Excuse me,” Remus said again, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“If you don’t understand,” said a woman with a high-pitched voice, “I’d like to know what makes you think you’re qualified to judge this contest.”

Remus sat down in his chair again. He saw the prize-winning author discreetly leave the stage.

“Ma’am, let me inform you that it’s not that one thinks he or she is qualified to judge,” said Remus, taking great pains not to lose his patience. “One is invited to judge.” With a sweep of his arm, he indicated the woman from the bank. But she looked at him anxiously, as if pinning her hopes on Remus to resolve this unexpected turn of events.

“Well, how about that. So the gentleman was invited,” said the man who first spoke up; he was standing now. He turned around with his arm extended, appealing to the audience for support. “But, you know what? If it were me,” he continued, pounding his chest, “if I were invited to a crocodile breeding congress, you know what I’d say?” Pause, dramatic effect. “I’d say no!”

An enthusiastic round of applause. A good number of other audience members now stood up. Some shouted.

Remus felt an unbearable desire to wrap his hands around the man’s neck and squeeze and squeeze until no sound could be heard coming out of his mouth. Instead, he asked:

“Would someone care to tell me what the problem is?”

“The problem, sir,” said a man whose voice was heard over the crowd and who lifted an admonishing finger (Why don’t you stick that finger up your ass? thought Remus), “is that I’m not leaving without an explanation that validates why that story that was read aloud is better than mine.”

Same here! Same here! was heard from all corners of the auditorium.

Finally Remus understood what was happening and why so many people had come to the event: all the contestants had been invited without being told who the winner was, and each one of them had come, with their supporters, certain that they had won.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a tone that he felt was persuasive, “it just so happens that literature is not an exact science; there are various imponderables that make … ”

“Imponderables my ass!” said a woman. “Tell me this instant why my story didn’t win.”

Remus looked around desperately for the woman from the bank, but she was no longer on stage and nowhere to be seen in the audience. Professor Lusarreta, on the other hand, was still there, looking out into space with a catatonic expression on her face.

“You must realize, ma’am, that I can’t possibly have the slightest idea of which story was yours.”

“It’s the one about the woman who is fed up with her husband’s … ”

“Ma’am, there were one hundred and forty three submissions; you must see that I couldn’t possibly recall the details of all of them.”

“Then I’ll read it to you; I have it here with me,” she said, holding up some sheets of paper.

“I want to read mine, too!” said a very short man.

Other voices were raised. Among them was heard the voice of the man with the admonishing finger.

“I have the solution!” he said. An expectant silence fell over the crowd. “Let’s all read our stories aloud and decide publicly which is best.”

The auditorium howled in approval: Yes! Right on!

These people are crazy, thought Remus. Right then, Professor Lusarreta whispered timidly in his ear:

“I don’t believe there’s any other option.”

“You’re as crazy as they are,” said Remus. He slammed his fist on the table. “I don’t have to explain myself to anyone!” he shouted. “I’m the judge and the judge’s decision is final!”

“A perfect fool,” said a teenager. “That’s what you are.”

It felt as if a dagger had stabbed him in the heart. That teenager was now making her way out of the auditorium and she would always harbor the memory of that clownish declaration of his.

“Don’t leave,” he said. “Please, don’t leave without hearing what I have to say.”

And he explained blindly, almost as if he were confessing, that he didn’t feel, he had never felt, that he had the right to judge anyone but himself, and it was that, that fierceness with which he judged himself when it came to something he considered noble and beautiful, and the fastidiousness he felt when too many words were written for nothing, that had impeded him from writing a single page, and perhaps authorized him to be implacable with his fellow writers.

But the teenager was no longer there. Only the enraged crowd, shouting: He feels he has no right to judge anyone but he judges us! He’s a failure! Let’s read our stories under his nose so that the truth can finally be known!

A woman stood up with the intent of reading. Various others shouted: Me next! And waved their pages in the air.

My God, I don’t deserve this, thought Remus. And at the same time he thought that maybe he did, because of his arrogance and his pride, because he thought he had the right to speak in the name of a noble and beautiful art form that he could never achieve.

He looked over and saw that Professor Lusarreta had gone. Let them read to the devil, he murmured, as for me, I’m not putting up with this. And with surprising agility, he jumped off the stage intending to escape.

He didn’t get very far. Someone seized him by the lapels and prevented him from fleeing; someone else punched him in the solar plexus. As he fell, he saw an infuriated horde of authors, all thinking highly of themselves, pounce on him, hungry for fame and glory.

La muerte de dios by liliana heker

Translated by Dario Bard from “El concurso” as printed in La muerte de Dios, published by Alfaguara, 2011, available from Amazon.  

Liliana Heker is a novelist, short story writer and essayist from the City of Buenos Aires. Her distinguished professional writing career began at the age of 17. She has won several awards and was a founding member of two of Argentina’s most influential literary magazines, El Escarabajo de Oro (1961-1974) and Ornitorrinco (1977-1986). Heker is also well known for her literary workshops, which have been attended by several critically acclaimed writers.

Practically all of her short stories have been translated into English by Alberto Manguel. The Stolen Party and Other Stories, a short story collection translated by Manguel, is available at Amazon. “The Stolen Party,” a translation of Heker’s short story, “La fiesta ajena,” is available online from the Syracuse City School District. The End of the Story, a translation of her novel Fin de la historia, is also available from Amazon. Yale University Press is presently planning an English-language collection of Heker’s short stories.

Liliana Heker was interviewed on the Argentine public television program, Los 7 locos, on November 24, 2011. Watch the interview (in Spanish) below: