The Walled Society by Jorge Majfud, translated by Bruce Campbell

With the passing of the years, and thanks to attentive observation of his clients, Doctor Salvador Uriburu had discovered that the majority of the population of Calataid lacked the European origin of which it boasted. In its eyes, in its hands, persisted the African slaves who repaired the walls in the nineteenth century, and surely the older slaves who built the wells in the times of Garama.

In its ritual gestures persisted the followers of Kahina, the priestess of the African desert who converted to Judaism before the arrival of Islam. Within the white minority, diversity was also noteworthy, but this had been suspended while they were busy considering themselves the representative (and founding) class of the town. The same blue eyes could be found behind Russian eyelids or behind other Irish ones; the same blonde hair could cover a German cranium or another, Gallegan one. How is it possible, Salvador Uriburu had written, that such a diverse town could be so racist and, at the same time, so overflowing with patriotism, with so much fanatical love for one and the same flag? How can the whole be worshiped and at the same time the parts that comprise it disdained? It can’t. Unless patriotic reverence is nothing more than the necessary lie nourished by one part in order to use the other parts for its own benefit.

In one of his final public appearances, in May of 1967 in the hall of notables of the Liberty Club, Doctor Uriburu had attempted an exercise that bothered the new traditionalists, once they were able to decipher how it questioned things. Salvador Uriburu had drawn, on a blackboard, a series of at least fifteen triangles, circles and squares. When he asked those present how many kinds of drawings they saw there, everyone agreed that they saw three. When he asked that they select one of those three types, everyone chose the group of triangles and the doctor asked them again how many groups they saw in the group of triangles. Everyone said that there were at least two groups: a group of isosceles triangles and a group of right triangles.

“More or less isosceles and more or less right-angled” said one discerningly, noticing that the drawings were not perfect.

“The figures aren’t perfect,” confirmed Salvador Uriburu, “just like human beings.” And like human beings everyone saw first the differences, those that made the figures different, before seeing what they had in common.

“That’s not true,” said someone, “the triangles have something in common among themselves. Each one has three sides, three angles.”

“The circles and the squares also have something in common: they are all geometrical figures. But nobody observed that there was also one unique group of drawings, the group of geometrical figures.”

Salvador Uriburu neither made accusations nor clarified the example, as was his custom. But after months of arguing about the strange and pedantic exposition of the doctor’s little figures, the pastor George Ruth Guerrero arrived at the conclusion that this kind of thinking came to the little doctor from the sect of humanists and, most certainly, the Illuminati.

“The group of geometrical figures,” concluded the pastor with his index finger in the air, “represented humanity and each group of figures represented a race, a religion, a deviation and so on and so forth. The humanists would like to make us believe that the truth does not exist; that the faith of the Moors and of the Jews is the same as the true faith of the Christians, the race of the chosen ones and the race of the sinners, the morality of our fathers and the sodomy of the moderns, the garments of our women and the indecent nudity of the Nigerians.”

They accused the doctor of being a gnostic. It was known, by rumors and magazines from France, that the Heterodox one had conquered the rest of Europe with an extraordinary belief: the truth did not exist; any heresy could be taken as a substitute for the true faith and logical reason. And it was said that someone was trying to introduce all of that in Calatid.

The allusion was direct, but Doctor Uriburu did not respond. The last time he entered the hall of notables, in August of 1967, it was expected that he would say that he was for or against this superstition, that he would define, once and for all, which side he was on. Instead, he came out with another of his figures that had nothing to do with his profession as a scientist, much less as a believer, which demonstrated his irremediable descent into mysticism, into the sect of the Illuminati who, it was said, assembled every Thursday in an unknown chamber of the old cisterns.

“Once there was a man who climbed a mountain of sand,” he said, “and upon arriving at the peak he decided it was the only mountain in the desert. Nevertheless, right away he realized that others had done the same, from other peaks. Then he said that his mountain, the one beneath his feet, was the true one. Then the man, or perhaps it was a woman, decided to come down from his dune and he climbed another one and then another, until he understood (perhaps from atop the highest dune) that there were many dunes, an infinite number relative to his strength. Then, tired, he said that the desert was not one sand dune in particular, but all of the dunes together. He said that there were some tall dunes and other smaller ones, and that just one fistful of sand from any of them didn’t represent one dune in particular but the entire desert, and that nobody, like none of the dunes, was the desert, completely. He also said that the dunes moved, that the true dune which allowed the unique perspective of the desert and of itself changed again and again in size and place, and that to ignore that was to deny an inseparable part of any unique truth.

“Unlike another exhausted traveler, this discovery did not lead him to deny the existence of all of the dunes, only the arbitrary pretense that there was just one in the immensity of the desert. He denied that a handful of sand had less value and less permanence than that arbitrary and pretentious dune. That is to say, he denied some ideas and affirmed others; he was not indifferent to the eternal search for truth. And for that reason he was equally persecuted in the name of the desert, until a sand storm put an end to the dispute.”

An indescribable silence followed the doctor’s new enigma. Then a repressed murmur filled the hall. Someone stood to announce the end of the meeting and reminded everyone of the date of the next one. The bell sounded; everyone rose and left without acknowledging him. He knew that they were also bothered that he would doubt the tolerance and freedom of Calataid, making use of metaphors as if he were a victim of the inquisition or living in the times of the barbarous Nero.

Uriburu remained seated, watching through the window the old men and young lads who rode by on their bicycles and could not see him, with his hands in the pockets of his suit coat, playing with a handful of sand. He lost his mind twenty days later. A strange diagnosis, written in his own hand, concluded that Calataid suffered from “social autism.” Autism, according to the books, is a product of the accelerated growth of the brain which, instead of increasing intelligence reduces it or renders it useless due to the pressure of the encephalic mass against the walls of the craneum. For Doctor Uriburu, who was more concerned with architecture than with biology, the walls of Calataid had provoked the same effect with the growth in the population’s pride. Therefore, it was useless to pretend to cure individuals if the society was sick. In fact, to suppose that society and individuals are two different things is an artifice of the view and of the medicine that identifies bodies, not spirits. And Calataid was incapable of relating two different facts with a common explanation. Even more: it was incapable of recognizing its own memory, engraved scandalously on the stones, in the dank voids of its interiors, and denied or covered over by the most recent invention of a tradition.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and who currently teaches at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. His essays, story collections, and several novels have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian, and Greek. His latest novel is The City of the Moon (Baile del Sol, 2008).