Emma Zunz, a prototype for contemporary Argentine Literature

On May 23rd, 2017, I gave this speech at the Argentine Embassy in London and then conversed with John Carlin, who was a Literature teacher of mine in my teenage years.

“Emma Zunz,” was published on September of 1946 in the magazine Sur, then featured in an edition of El Aleph the following year. It was a rare Borges piece. It escapes the world of the edges of early twentieth century Buenos Aires and the tales of outlaws, duels, and fantastical stories with themes like the infinite library, labyrinths, and Kabbalah.

According to the Epilogue of El Aleph, the story did not occur to Borges himself. Instead, Cecilia Ingenieros was the one who, in the words of Borges, proposed this “wonderful plot.” He also stated that it was “as great as its fearful execution.” In saying that, Borges was showing a sign of humility so usual in him that entails the recognition that the story intimidated him, that Emma Zunz’s determination might have inhibited him.

His friend, Bioy Casares, even divulges in his Diario that Borges once said, “that story is not my own: Cecilia gave it to me. I wrote it because it seemed so strange and dramatic. It is based on revenge, something I don’t fully understand. If all my works disappeared one day and only ‘Emma Zunz’ was left, nothing of mine would have remained.”

Even so, none of this is must convince us. Borges loved gadgets, transpositions, and declaring that his stories never truly belonged to him, that they come to him from different sources. In this way, he overrules and undermines the authenticity of his creation, while also applying credibility to others through a mutual acceptance. This allows for him to set himself apart from the story and leave room for doubt and conjecture, like when he says: “It is my belief that it did occur to her once and that very moment endangered her desperate undertaking. She thought (she couldn’t not think so) that her father had done to her mother the hideous thing that was being done to her now.” Which leads to this first conclusion: Borges would not dare give women a voice unless he were doing so on behalf of what another woman had told him. He also once said that the ending of “La intrusa” (a woman fought over by two brothers), was given to him by his mother, Leonor Acevedo.

Emma Zunz is a woman too headstrong for her age. She is also Jewish. Perhaps, because he admired the Jewish culture and religion, especially Kabbalah, he imagined the young and headstrong Emma to be a Lilith, whom, according to the Zohar, furiously left from Eden because Adam tried to dominate her.

What is most important is that Emma declares that she will avenge her father’s death. She lives by her own sense of justice and honor which is a complete reversal of the social norms of the ‘40’s in Argentina, a society in which the man – father or husband – asserted his authority over the life and honor of the women in his care.

Emma comes to learn of her father’s accidental death via a letter. He had mistakenly ingested a high dosage of a common sedative of the time called “veronal,” and she declared that it was a suicide. Suddenly, she becomes sick to her stomach and weak in the knees, a very feminine way of being in shock. She feels guilt immediately after. The daughter feels guilty for the death of her father. She then picks up the card which had fallen on the floor and hides it away in a drawer along with a photo of a famous silent film actor, Milton Sills. She then does something else quite feminine: she locks herself away in the darkness to cry while she reminisces over her happy days as a child. She does not remember her mother very well. She recollects everything from back when she was 13 years old and her father, a cashier for the textile factory Tarbuch, had been accused of embezzlement. Also, that her father, the day he escaped to Brazil, had sworn to her that the true thief was actually the factory manager, Loewenthal. Emma believes her father, keeps the information a secret and that secret gives her a sense of power. Emma keeps the secret for six years and dismantles another stereotype of the time: only men can hold on to resentment and the action that results from it, revenge. She stays up all through the night, plotting revenge.

The morning after receiving the news of her father’s death, Emma had already planned everything out. It was a Friday, the day before what was to come, and every step that followed had been coldly calculated by her: she goes to the textile factory Tarbuch, where she works, in spite of her father’s suffered ignominy, and declares her opposition to the violence resulting from a rumored strike. She then undergoes a check-up so that she could join a women’s gym with her friends and listens quietly while the others talk of boyfriends, since she has a pathological fear of men. That Saturday she wakes up with impatience and relief now that the day of reparation had finally arrived. She feels no sense of worry for what she is about to do. She makes an appointment with Loewenthal to meet in the factory that evening under the premise that she will reveal information related to the strike. Her voice trembles, which is convenient for coming off as an informant. She then rests for her siesta and goes over her plan in her head, then suddenly remembers the letter she had received from Brazil and jumps out of her bed to rip up the paper.

Emma plots her revenge and executes every step as planned. What attenuates and justifies Loewenthal’s murder are the facets of the sense of justice that drives her: restoring her father’s honor, avenging his exile, and reasoning his suicide. If her father committed suicide over an embezzlement he did not commit, Loewenthal cannot live. A radical sentiment, typical of dogma, not representative of an 18 year old woman. Borges’ narrator reasons that her father’s death, “was the only thing that had happened in the world, and it would go on happening endlessly.” Emma works out all the details and decides that somehow “she was already who she would be,” that the payment for what she considers the affront of an unjust and untimely death had to be paid for over and over again. She has no escape. She faces a dilemma. If she follows through as planned, it is because she is following her destiny. The death of her father isn’t just one of many events in a chain of events, it is what compels one which, at its turn, will be critically decisive in her life. This realization snatches away her free will. Free will versus fate. Emma embodies a moral and religious dilemma that Borges always applied to his male characters: outlaws, bordermen, men of physical and moral courage who, when faced with an offense, would, like Emma, get at it with a knife.

Emma dumps the first sailor so that she would not develop a gentleness towards him and chooses one that is shorter than her and coarse (the exact opposite of Milton Sills) so as not to reduce the purity of the horror during the rape, which the narrator considers to be much more serious than Emma does. It is about a descent into hell necessary to ensure that her version of justice is accomplished.

Moreover: Emma chooses a foreign sailor not only so that she would be conscious of him being in another country the following day, when interrogated by the police, but also so that he would be a complete stranger, alien to her plan; like a natural disaster that functions without logic or reason. After her “martyring,” her body goes through sadness and utter disgust that saves her from the dread of having ripped up, on a Sabbath, the money the sailor left her on the nightstand. Her weariness gives her the strength to refocus on going through with her plan as she heads towards the factory to face her victim, a cowardly man who fears thieves and everyone knows he keeps a revolver in his desk. Then suddenly, when faced with Loewenthal, more than the urge to avenge her father’s death, she feels the need to punish the horrendous act that resulted from it. Because of her own dishonor, she can no longer not kill him.

This is another topic of the Borgean universe. Borges wrote his stories in a world governed by the sense of honor. His characters are never unfamiliar with it, on the contrary, they are driven by that value more than anything else. It is the reason behind the actions carried out by the outlaw, the borderman. It is the only law they live by. Therefore, Emma’s body, which should have served only as an instrument of justice, becomes the reason, the force from which her actions originate. She dramatizes feeling worried about snitching on the conspirators of the strike which gets the victim to find her a glass of water and allows her to take the gun out of the desk drawer. When Loewenthal returns, she shoots him twice and then a third time while he is laid out on the floor as to quiet his insults. Then, during a call with the police, Emma knows she will be needing to convince them of something unbelievable, that the old Mr. Loewenthal raped her so she killed him.

The realness in Emma’s tone, her modesty, her hatred towards Loewenthal, prevailed over the outrageousness of the story. But first and foremost, it is the shame and her own outrage that did it. She reached a point of no return: she has lost her virginity and has killed a man out of self defense. To defend a family whose honor should not have been tarnished. A girl from the ‘40’s of the last century that in modern times would have been an advocate for #NiUnaMenos (Not one woman less). A woman who, unlike Hamlet, does not doubt for even a second that she will avenge her father’s death. Since for her, more than for Hamlet, six years after her father had escaped to Brazil, there was only one voice in her head, the one that told her at the age of thirteen that the thief was Loewenthal and not him.

To give a short summary, we see that Emma Zunz goes from having a tranquil and routine present day life – in which by eighteen years old there is still much left to learn about what life has to give – into a future that was full of promise. However, at that young age, she enters a period of heightened anxiety and uncertainty when she learns of her father’s death. That event became the determinant of her remaining days, says Borges, because the extraordinary elude timeline. Emma’s premeditated plan to kill Loewenthal is a way of restoring the lost order. Everything was fine, more or less, until she received the letter from Brazil. Emma’s decision belongs to that of the women of this century: assuming the task of vindicating herself, defending her father, restoring the order of things in the face of an injustice.

Qualities assumed to be “fundamentally feminine” – sensitivity, feebleness, having inferior positions in the family, not having ownership over anything, passiveness – are completely absent in “Emma Zunz,” a fitting prototype of the future female protagonists.

Borges’ story is compact, but intense: everything happens quickly, as if Emma were behaving irrationally, a behavior which may have been done purposefully by the narrator. The phrase from the beginning of the story, “she was already who she would be,” not only anticipates her excessive action – killing Loewenthal within his own factory – it makes her the instrument of a devastating force of vengeance. There is no doubt or worry within Emma. She proceeds as though she is being propelled by a divine plan. In this way, the letter was the root cause of two premeditated crimes that happen over one day: the one she inflicted upon herself and the one against the manager.

Emma rejects, one to one, the fundamental qualities of what is “feminine.” One might even consider, at first, that she had already planned Loewenthal’s death before her father’s suicide. If not, why did she keep working at the same factory? Also that, after having submitted herself to the shamefulness of being deflowered by a crude sailor that was a total stranger, she had the opportunity to change her mind about killing the manager. Instead she holds strong to her decision. Neither passivity nor sensitivity (she could have felt some sympathy for Loewenthal, pitied him), nor feebleness or fear of confrontation, apart from pretending what she was not- an informant-, in the office of her future victim.

When the manager begins listening to her, Emma expresses hesitance when giving the information about the strike. Even though Loewenthal doesn’t believe her, he still goes and gets her a glass of water so that she would be able to speak calmly and clearly. Emma takes advantage of Loewenthal’s sensibility rooted in that time perception of women. He belittles her to the point in which he does not suspect that, despite knowing she is the daughter of Emmanuel Zunz, she would be capable of acting against him. He underestimates her, he underestimates what she is capable of saying and doing. The narrator says of the manager that he was, “unconvinced by such a fuss but indulgent.” He was a victim of his own prejudice, he dismissed what the daughter of the man he had once accused was about to do, that it was his fault her father had to leave the country. His prejudice betrayed him, how could he have ever thought that Zunz’s daughter would cooperate with him to betray her own co-workers?

I am interested in discussing Emma Zunz with you because she is ahead of her time, a herald, a prototype for the women I address in my work. Due to political, social, and economic reasons, Argentine women began to gain visibility in their culture in the 1940s. The literary world was at the forefront of this change, not only through the female characters found in fiction, but principally through the great number of female writers putting themselves on the national scene.

Those women, fictional or real, like Emma Zunz, understood the need to step forward, to be ahead of the man’s game; they needed to give their own gender the dignity that the conservative and sexist society of the time failed to respect. That field, the one in which women have to step into the ring to conquer the space in which they should rightfully belong, is where Juego de Mujeres takes place.

Paula is 14 years old in “Dios no está en los detalles” [There’s No God in the Details], and walks across the neighboring farm on her own to visit the boy she likes with the excuse of returning a cooler. Davalos, the boy’s father, who is alone on the farm because the family went to the town Carnaval, sees her. He is intimidated by the self-confidence and sensuality of the girl as well as the fact that her parents don’t “look after her.” The subtext speaks of Davalos’ lust for his son’s girlfriend, of the illicit affair with the mother, and that Paula wants him to suffer for it. Paula, like Emma, is aware of the power her body has, and, since the story is not being told by a man, she is also aware of the power of pleasure.

In the second story she is a protagonist of, “Adrenalina” [Adrenaline], Paula gets fed up with her husband being so dependent on her, forcing her to act as though she were Sheherezade; telling him a story that sounded like it related to her sister, Lucia, to later call him stubborn and prejudiced for not wanting to stop the car when he sees a truck in the road shoulder of the route. Even though her husband was right about the danger, Paula is a woman that prefers taking the risk and feeling the rush, perhaps carelessly, before belittling herself.

Lucia is the withdrawn one. She lost confidence due to her husband abandoning her and from losing her daughters during divorce proceedings. The early loss of her father, far from giving her courage, like it did for Emma, causes her to become a vulnerable woman that only feels complete in a man’s gaze. In “El hombre de la ventana” [The Man in the Window], she tries to get rid of the sorrow that consumes her while she lives in grief. Little by little she starts to fantasize about a man that lives outside of the window of her apartment. She believes him to be an intellectual – like her father – and imagines engaging in conversations with him in which they make fun of the delusions of life. With time, she begins imagining them having sex as well. When she finally meets the real man in the story, he ends up not being on par with the imaginary one. He rapes and makes fun of her. In “La mujer del colectivo” [The Woman on the Bus] she prepares herself to move forward and meet new men that her friend ends up offering to introduce her to, until a man with Down Syndrome travelling with his mother wakes her from her stupor. Lucia needs to try to learn how to feel complete, like Emma, because only that experience will help her regain the confidence she needs.

Luisa is a very confident professor that goes and gets what she wants. In “Carlotita,” she takes in Roca, a man from the north, from the province of Santiago del Estero, that lost his farm and is unemployed. In this story, thanks to Luisa’s curiosity, who seems to think that in every anecdote there is something to learn about herself, we learn some of Carlota’s story, Roca’s first girlfriend. In time she will also have her own story, which Luisa finds to be a story of sexual repression, something incomprehensible to her. In fact, in “Tres noches” [Three Nights], we see her behaving with self-confidence during sex, while sexual advances tend to be attributed to men, who supposedly know the difference between sex and love. In “Potencial” – another piece of the puzzle that helps to complete the picture -, a young Carlota falls in love with Roca after listening to him talk about how he succeeded in training an injured mare, a feat that, metaphorically spoke to her because, as we learn in “San Miguel,” she ran away from her farm as a teenager to prevent her father from, after her mother had died, raping her. Luisa and Carlota are two women that need to remove their restraints, break the mold, break past the social limits that deem certain things “acceptable” or “reasonable” for their gender and social condition.

Malena is the youngest of the three sisters. She is beautiful to the male eye, ditzy and languid, like how la Maga is in the novel Rayuela by Julio Cortázar. However, she is also an excellent artist and envied for it. She was orphaned since she was a child and this situation gives her – like it did for her sisters, Paula and Lucia – a strength and independence that enabled her to make her own decisions. Malena is the opposite of Lucia, far from being hesitant, she is grounded in her boldness and in boundless risk, but of course, it does not free her from the blow.

Ana is the most innocent out of all of them, but this does not make her weak. In “El fuego de tu amor” [The Fire of your Love] she is a catholic, virginal, teenager, that sings at mass with her boyfriend and teaches catechism classes at an institution for disabled children. However, when the medical director tries to seduce her, she is able to boldly reject him. In “La mujer del taxi” [The Woman in the Taxi], years later, after learning that she is sick with cancer and that she has a short time to live, she runs away from her family, in a taxi, to Mar de Plata, to be alone while she takes in what is happening. It is there that she finds one her former students from her classes at the institute, that recognizes her, and when he learns of what the doctors told her he recommends that she not think about it too much because, deep down, there is very little we can control in life, even if we think otherwise. Ana is the prototype of the woman that is stuck in between subjugation and liberation. She struggles, but internally; representing that well known and often trampled upon inner strength that women have and that men only appreciate during critical moments, like childbirth, for example.
Finally, la Juanchi, the only one with only one story about her. She migrates to the City of Buenos Aires as a teenager to get a job as a domestic worker, in “La idea fija” [The Fixed Idea] Juanchi is able to prove herself to be different from her mother whom she watched live a life of regret for having fallen in love with her father, who abandoned them. She successfully becomes independent thanks to her job, but she cannot stop herself from falling in love and getting abandoned, like her mother. Even so, she later achieves that “inner strength” that her mother never had, even though she is not in a relationship and charges for sex, like her mom did.

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