The Cult of the Xylophonists
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THE CULT OF THE XYLOPHONISTS
This manuscript was found in the National Library of Argentina, rolled into a ball behind the HP-360L digital processor in what was once the smoking room for library personnel, in a corner which had housed a large wastepaper basket.
It was one of those short, swift April rainstorms in which the rain falls slowly, as it were, in huge, hail-sized drops. Outside my window which, protected by steep ceramic eaves, remained open, I could hear tuneful dings and dongs from the tin corrugated roof of the chicken shed on the other side of the narrow drive that debouched from the bottom of the courtyard and became a flowery lane that wended its way down to the banks of the Matanzas. Because, like snowflakes (or any other plurality of entities in this particular universe), no two raindrops were the same, and because each point of percussion on the chicken shed roof, according to the same principle, was different from its neighbor, not only in density and texture but, on that petrified billowed alloy sea, in the angle in which it related to the plane of the earth, the dings and dongs were fundamentally musical, and I could almost fancy that I was hearing a forgotten pachanga, as if played on an old, out-of-tune guitar that some urchins has just pulled out of the canal.
My enjoyment in trying to make musical sense out of the random tintinnabulation of the raindrops was eventually foiled by the regular drumbeats, in two-four time and crescendo, of heavy feet climbing the spiral staircase to my aerie. I knew whose feet they were and since neither the feet nor the rest of the man were heavy – ten stone at the most – I also knew in a general way what was the burden of my friend, Gadolfo Bioy-Casares, but could I deduce from the tread itself, and how it compared with that of Gadolfo’s many other ascents over the years, what books he was lugging up for my delight, or consternation, or (what was most usual) a combination of both? I could get no further than eliminating a couple of possibilities at the extremes of lading, to whit: five volumes of the Encyclopedia Hispaniola and the first published effort of any poet, when my friend pushed open the door with his toes and let cascade onto my desk from the haven of a large blue plastic bag, a small collection of books which, in the variety of their subject matter, it seemed, only ten thousand monkeys ranging the stacks of the Ashmolean or the Library of Congress (they were all in English) could have pulled from the shelves.
“Xylophonists,” said Gadolfo.
I allotted to my eyebrows the task of querying him.
“Does it ring a bell?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh. Gadolfo’s jokes are famously maladroit.
“Here,” he said, “take a look at this.” He opened a small, faded yellow paperback, which I had recognized as the first Tauchnitz edition of Hudson’s Tales of the Pampas, to a page which he had marked with a tram ticket, and pointed to the following sentence:
Antonio Banderas, called “Dandy,” emerged from Goppo’s hovel in
jonquil knee boots, looking much nattier (“purposefully quainter,”
remarked Sanpetro) than usual, vociferating while xylophonists
I was familiar with the passage, which is to be found only in this particular edition of Hudson’s somewhat romanticized log of his travels along the Vecini. There are two schools of thought regarding it, of which I favor the first: that it is just one of those anomalies of the writing process which escaped the attention of the author and the various editors and sub-editors who dealt with the work. This theory, of course, is marred by entailing that Tauchnitz was typesetting from manuscript. It has spawned some elaborate commentaries by Hudsonians of a Freudian or spiritual bent, but most of the exegesis on this peculiar sentence come from the other camp, which is convinced that the sentence had been carefully deliberated and enclosed a meaning just panting to be disrobed by some seductively subtle academician.
“Of course,” said Gadolfo, “we know all about that. But take a look at this.” He nudged before me a large, red, cloth-bound book entitled Advanced Motorcar Maintenance
“What drew you to this exotic tome,” I asked.
“Uncle Umberto’s Bentley wouldn’t start. He telephoned and asked me to come and fiddle with it. I couldn’t find anything wrong.”
“Did it have petrol,” I asked. I know next to nothing about automobiles so, like any amateur, I enjoy trumping an expert with a simpleton’s solution.
“The petrol was far from finished,” said Gadolfo, “in fact, the needle was smack on Enough. But that isn’t the point. Here, what do you think of this.” He opened the book to a page marked with a torn cinema ticket and pointed to the beginning of a paragraph.
Aluminum bolts can damage engine fascia gaskets hardened in
Jensen kilns – like many non-ferrous original parts, quantitatively
relegating strain to upper valves, while xylophonists yammer zealously.
Unwonted, the ten thousand monkeys, this time with their ten thousand typewriters, came to mind. I immediately dismissed them, and they scampered off. Might the author of Advanced Motorcar Maintenance have been an aficionado of W. H. Hudson and have embedded this inconsequential token of esteem in his text, either purposefully or inadvertently? That certainly seemed the most likely explanation. Any other implied an awesome degree of subversive textual infiltration. I turned to the title page and found that the author was one Charles Cook. The name meant nothing to me, nor had it to Gadolfo.
“You may be right or wrong about Charles Cook’s being familiar with the first Tauchnitz edition of Tales of the Pampas,” said Gadolfo, “but I fear it is the xylophonists who made use of Cook – or at least, of his book – and not the other way around.”
He pushed aside the first two books to make room for a large volume which, at first, because of its size, I assumed to be an atlas.
“Having reached the First World War in my Argentiniana,” (Gadolfo’s magnum opus – an historical epic in rhymed couplets) “I was looking into Lyddle-Hart’s seminal work, and found a reference to this, a collection of facsimile ephemera scavenged from the surface of the Atlantic after the sinking of the Lusitania. Since, as you probably know, Rita Jolivet, who starred in the first motion picture shown commercially in Buenos Aires, La Mano di Fatma, was aboard the ill-fated ocean liner, I obtained a copy, in hopes that perhaps some jotting of hers, some keepsake, an autographed photo, might be included. Alas, there was nothing. But I did happen on something else.”
Gadolfo showed me a page on which was printed the photograph of a ragged-edged sheet of notepaper headed by the words H. M. S. Lusitania and the image of a four-stack passenger steamer, and on which was written, in a careless, feminine hand, the following message:
Alonzo, beau cheri, don’t ever forget G-203, how in just kissing,
little manikin neglected ordinary proprieties, quite resplendently
spouting tumultuous unguents Veronicaward, while xylophonists
I looked up, a question on my lips which Gadolfo anticipated.
“I have examined the plan of the ship. G-203 was the number assigned to a large cupboard on A-deck where cushions for deck chairs were stowed.”
“It is possible,” I said lamely, “that there was a xylophonist on the Lusitania.”
“Certainly, quite possible. It is even possible that there were more than one and that they could be heard from a – presumably – closed cupboard on A-deck, but it is a possibility which diverges to such a degree from probability that I did not deem it necessary to consult the Lusitania’s manifest to see if the instruments played by the orchestra members were listed alongside their names. The identities of Alonzo and Veronica might also be extrapolated from the passenger list, but propriety enjoined me from further research, since either or both of them may have been plucked from the sea, just as this billet-doux was.
Then, placing a fourth book on my desk, William Dunning’s 1897 translation of Eutropius – a lottery ticket protruding from it as a page marker – Gadolfo prepared to take his leave. “I promised my uncle I would go out for a drive with him this morning, so you will have to ponder in solitude this last semaphore from our zealous percussionists.
“So you were able to repair the Bentley?
“ No. I devised a hitch and we go out in it pulled by Betsy, my old threshing mare. I just want to remind you,” he said, as he opened the door to leave, “of O’Caem’s remark on coincidence.”
“`Coincidence is a spar bobbing just out of reach beside a man who is so afraid of drowning that he has forgotten he knows how to swim,’” I quoted. “Thank you, my friend.”
Gadolfo’s now lissome footsteps descended the stairs. I opened the book, and read:
As Brutus’ cohorts drove energetically forward, Gaius, harbored
in Joppa, kept lookout, menacing naught, only patrolling quayside,
repelling seaborne thrusts until valiant, warlike xylophonists
There was no question in my mind now. Gadolfo had stumbled upon a conspiracy to draw attention to an otherwise neglected community which appeared to be that of xylophonists, but which well could be, considering the depths and intricacies of iniquity, some less innocent and less easily identifiable cadre. Possibly, the word “zealously” was of more significance than “xylophonists,” implying, as it did, the kind of devotion to a cause that could span a generation and infiltrate such diverse areas of endeavor. As for “yammering,” I did not, at first, know what to make of it. Yama, I knew, among Judaicized Swahili-speakers of the Upper Limpopo, identified Jehovah, but to draw any inferences from this was, at this point, too far-fetched.
The first practical step I took was to copy out the four passages, in order to more carefully compare them. As soon as I did so, one obvious fact emerged: each contained exactly twenty-six words.
In a strictly numerological context, the number 26 stands for the vagaries of chance – thirteen up and thirteen down or, according to Hoyle, “black pays and red is paid” – but there was little doubt that in this case I was dealing with a more complex interpretation. My first imperative was to discover how many wooden bars make up the standard xylophone and whether the number was divisible by twenty-six or, at least, thirteen. However, when I went to consult my beloved eleventh edition of the Britannica, I was dismayed to discover that Volume Twenty-Eight (not the last volume, of course; Volume Twenty-Nine contains the index) was missing. It was true that, the previous day, my housekeeper had asked to borrow Volume Twelve because her grand-daughter had been assigned to write an essay on “the giraffe” for her English class. But Volume Twelve was there. Perhaps it had been “the zebra.”
I made my way downstairs and across the courtyard, whose tiles still glimmered from the recent shower, but even as I knocked at the housekeeper’s apartment at the entrance to our compound I realized that, it being Thursday, she would be at the Plaza Armas buying the sea urchins which, prepared with garlic and rosemary, traditionally made our late-night Thursday supper.
I could have consulted any one of numerous reference works in my library which would have answered my question – the Oxford Guide to Musical Instruments, for example – but as I stood there under the portico, just inches away from the street, inches away from the real world, so to speak, I realized that not far off, just a few steps around the corner, was the Confiteria Non Ideal
Raoul Caspar’s Confiteria Non Ideal was one of a half dozen milongas in the neighborhood, but it was unusual – not only along Estero, but in all of Buenos Aires – in the composition of its orchestra which, led by the uxorious Caspar on the bandoleon, was otherwise made up of Caspar’s in-laws, who played a variety of instruments, few of which were to be heard in a traditional milonga band. One of this oddly assorted ensemble, Manuel Vargas, Isabella Caspar’s brother, was a xylophonist; all I needed to do was emerge from my book-lined cerebrum, walk around the corner, and count the number of blocks on Vargas’ xylophone, which I knew would be shoved against the wall at the back of the Confiteria’s small stage (it is not the kind of instrument one lugs back and forth on the tram). You might well smile, but in making this decision I felt as an anthropologist might feel as he steps off the sloping teak verandah of his relatively comfortable provincial hotel to join the mules and bearers waiting for him at the edge of the jungle.
The streets still retained that clayey smell that the sun brings out after a summer rain, and in the Confiteria Non Ideal the aroma combined nicely – just like garlic and rosemary – with the slightly sour and dusty fragrance of a tavern in the afternoon: empty, except for the one ubiquitous depressive hunched over his anodyne of choice, and the bartender – in this case, Isabella Caspar – who was wiping the surface of the bar with a rag, but was otherwise not conforming to the usual torpor of an off-hours drinking establishment by weeping copiously.
“Isabella,” I asked, “what is wrong?”
She was not surprised to see me. No one ever is. Since I descend from my den so seldom, the rarity of my appearance is taken for granted and therefore evinces no astonishment. “It’s my brother,” she said. “He’s taken against me, or against Raoul, or he’s gone mad – I don’t know. An hour or so ago, he came in, packed up his instrument, and walked out the door without saying a word.”
With a chill, I realized that this inexplicable (at least to Isabella) event had occurred at the same time that Gadolfo had been showing me the first of his discoveries concerning the conspiracy of the xylophonists.
With the pretense of concern, but aquiver with an anxiety of my own, I strolled to the back of the stage where Manuel’s xylophone had stood for more years than I could remember. It, and the small box on telescopic legs, in which he had kept his mallets, were gone. I did notice, though, leaning up against the baseboard, where it evidently had been overlooked, a warn paperback entitled Advanced Xylophony by someone whose name was purported to be Arnold Collins. I retrieved it and, congenitally unable to resist any reading matter that falls into my hands, opened it.
As with the practice of any discipline, the greatest pitfall
awaiting the xylophonist, is the mindless adherence to a particular
principle, without the understanding that principles, in and of
themselves, are abstractions which have their place only in the
Platonic universe which you and I will never experience (at least
while we live and breathe), and which lead only to disorder and
absurdity in the world of tones, timbres, rhythm and dynamics,
melody and passion in which the xylophonist exercises his skills.
My reading was suddenly interrupted by a strange noise, a clamor, as of a tower of wooden girders tumbling into a chaotic pile. I looked up through the dust motes which were suspended in the slanting, late afternoon sun, and out the plate glass window on which were embossed the letters LAEDI NON AIRETIFNOC.
A Bentley coasted down Estero, following Gadolfo's horse, imperturbably, judiciously, keeping left, manufacturing no offensive pollution, quietly, regally, sustaining Tio Umberto's vanity, while
(The manuscript ends here.)