“I’m interested in people’s specificity,” Hebe Uhart once remarked. The Argentine writer, who died in 2018, wrote with what Alejandra Costamagna terms “a philosophical position that arises from the ordinary.” Animals, a new collection of Uhart’s writing on creatures, critters, and companions, offers countless examples of her keen powers of observation. In the below excerpt, Uhart visits Plaza Almagro in Buenos Aires and interviews an eccentric collection of dog owners.
Here we are in winter, but the winter has made a mistake: it’s a spring day. The plaza is full of dogs, alone and accompanied; they’ve been set loose to enjoy the lovely day. Beside me sits a very circumspect lady with a dog on A+ behavior, not even sparing a look at the dogs in the pen as they bark wildly. She says to me:
“I’ve always protected animals. Back when I worked at a logistics warehouse I used to pick up all the ones that people dumped there.”
“Señora, what do they store at a logistics warehouse?”
“What does that matter? I have great memories of Torolo and Negrita, who’d made a hole in the concrete to hide their puppies, and Torolo used to slip away and come back later, always right at mealtime.”
When she says Torolo’s name, her voice makes it sound as though he were some famous singer.
A girl walks by with a slightly frenzied dog, and the lady says, “To have contact with a dog, you need to be balanced, and if the dog has a lot of energy, you keep yours low. That girl is adding to her dog’s energy.”
I am afraid I won’t pass the energy or aptitude test and go off to another bench, whistling softly to myself. There sits María Cristina, with her little dog Sharka. The dog is wearing a jacket on which it says PLAYBOY. María Cristina has something birdlike and nocturnal about her, with her lips in a shade of blue; her hair is golden, and she wears tinted glasses. She says:
“They gave her to me with the name Sharka. She came from a house with an abusive man, he’d beat the people and the dogs. My sister feeds her on pork chops and roast chicken, and we give her apples, that’s right. She’s the first dog I’ve ever had. At home we had canaries, finches, parakeets. In my family, we’re the kind to be around animals. In our house the birds would fly loose around the kitchen and then voluntarily get into their cages on their own.”
At one end of the plaza, a dog is running beside his owner, big blockheads the pair of them. The dog doesn’t know whether to play with the ball his owner is throwing, chase the pigeons, or go after the other dogs. The owner has a similar appearance, and, as though exaggerating his feeling of heat, he has on a sleeveless T-shirt; he seems to be sweating profusely, and he gives me the impression that he’s pursuing several careers or taking on various jobs but never sticking to any, always being drawn to something new. It’s like Torolo’s owner said: if our energies are overlapping, we don’t do well.
But it’s spring … On another bench sits Victoria, but she has to go. She says:
“He goes by Luis, but his real name is Luis Alberto, after Spinetta.”
Farther along sits Mariela, age somewhere around twenty. She seems as fragile as her clothing, which is in varying colors but looks as if it’s been washed with bleach or some corrosive liquid that has left all of the colors completely faded. For the same reason her skirt has a hole in it and is made of wool as fine as a strand of spittle.
“Is that your dog?”
“No, he’s my friend’s. I feel like he’s free inside the plaza.”
“And what’s his name?”
“Why should he have just one name? He goes by Teo or Cielo. No, I don’t want to own a dog, because pets are possessions—we decide when they can go out or how much they eat. I don’t want to enslave a living being. People even determine where they can sleep, they have to sleep wherever others decide.”
“And is there a reason for that austere outfit you’re wearing?”
“No, just for the ensemble of colors.”
“Ah. And where would you like to live?”
“In the country. I’d like to be a rural teacher, but I also like trades like carpentry, cooking … ”
“Would you keep animals in the country?”
“I’d like to have a dog without a leash, free. I’d let him be with other animals … ”
“And if your dog ran away, would you go looking for him?”
“I’d go looking for him, but I’m not convinced that he’d ever come back.”
I leave the realm of freedom and go over to the pen, which is the realm of barking. I go in and dogs of all sizes come over, leaping up on me; a dog walker energetically gets them in line, though I don’t know if Mariela would have approved of this exercising of authority. The walker’s name is Ramón, and he’s short on temper and few on words. He doesn’t feel like talking about the dogs; one is called Vicky, another Néstor. Named for Kirchner. (A girl I once asked for directions had named her dogs Fidel and Sandino.) Ramón says:
“I’ve always had a pepé, because purebred dogs are very choosy about their food.”
“What’s a pepé?”
“It’s a mutt,” he says, and pays me no more mind. He doesn’t feel like talking.
Walking along the gravel path, I come across Iván, from Corrientes, a chamamé singer. He knows a lot about dogs; his is Juanita. He says:
“She inherited the personality of a bloodhound from her father, and her mother comes from a bulldog and terrier mix. We’ve committed barbarities with animals by turning them into spectacles, like in bullfighting or cockfights.”
“Does your dog know when she’s misbehaving?”
“Yes, when she makes a mess, she gets onto the futon and doesn’t move. She’s five months old. Sometimes she’ll tear a pillowcase. And she resents it when I leave, like a cat. Yesterday I had to run an errand and it took a while, and when I came back, she gave me the cold shoulder.”
“What kind of thing do you sing?”
“I’m a chamamé musician, I write poetry; poetry seeks you out, just like dogs.”
I go back to the pen once more, and there’s a completely new line-up of dogs, and here’s Nicolás, a walker. He studied to be a park ranger in Buenos Aires; he’s from Lobos and in the future aspires to become a ranger in a protected area and study the fauna.
“What about dogs drew your attention when you started working?”
“My attention was drawn to the way they communicated with the posture of their bodies and the energy they transmit. The energy thing stands out. I have a friend who’s a walker, and the dog that leads her pack is the tiniest one. They express things with their bodies that we can’t. I think they’re more honest than we are.”
I don’t want to get myself into those complex depths, so I ask:
“Why do tiny dogs confront much larger dogs? Can’t they perceive their size?”
“Little dogs want to demonstrate their energy. I think they perceive energy more than size.”
“What do you remember from your first days as a dog walker?”
“The pack concept: I would end up being the alpha, but some packs have an alpha and a beta, that is, not just a first but also a second, though not all packs do. I come from Lobos, and I’ve seen a street dog curled up from the cold, and when another dog nearby growls, the curled up one will stretch out in a show of submission, all without physical contact. One thing that alarms lots of dogs is a hat with earflaps (if a man is wearing one). They can’t understand it, maybe because the ears are hidden, and they’re also disturbed by fluorescent colors, but they always look at what people have on their heads.”
“And what surprises them the most?”
“They’re shocked if someone hits them because that behavior doesn’t happen among them; they bite each other, they don’t hit.”
“And what’s your dog’s name?”
“My dog comes from Lobos. His name is Lennon.”
Then he tells me how European hares and starlings are threatening the local species, but that comes from his knowledge as a park ranger.
And I go off to take a look at someone on a bench; I’m puzzled by her mater dolorosa bearing. She has a puppy on her skirt who is very comfortable in that spot but wears a mournful and expectant expression.
“Is he yours?”
“No, he got lost here in the plaza. They say he belongs to some people who come here often.”
“What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t have a name. I don’t know.”
“So you aren’t going to keep him?”
“I wish I could, but I live in a hotel.”
And the girl comes to the plaza every day, in case the owner turns up.
Born in 1936 in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Hebe Uhart is one of Argentina’s most celebrated modern writers, and a teacher to fiction writers like Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enríquez, and Samanta Schweblin. Sam Carter wrote that her work “helped shape a generation of writers in Argentina as both a teacher and a writer, her influence both diffuse and impossible to ignore.” During her lifetime she published two novels, Camilo asciende (1987) and Mudanzas (1995). She is best known for her short stories and crónicas, where she explores the lives of ordinary characters in small Argentine towns. Her Collected Stories won the Buenos Aires Book Fair Prize (2010), and she received Argentina’s National Endowment of the Arts Prize (2015) for her body of work, as well as the Manuel Rojas Ibero-American Narrative Prize (2017).
Excerpted from Animals, by Hebe Uhart, translated from the Spanish by Robert Croll. Excerpted with the permission of Archipelago Books. Translation copyright © 2021 by Robert Croll.
Read Hebe Uhart’s short story “Coordination” (translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy), which appeared in the Spring 2019 issue.