APRIL 14, 2021
ARGENTINE AUTHOR FEDERICO FALCO’S Un cementerio perfecto (A Perfect Cemetery) tells the story of Víctor Bagiardelli, a landscape engineer hired to design the first cemetery for the rural town of Colonel Isabeta in the Córdoba province of Argentina. Colonel Isabeta is the kind of small town, with only one hotel and few financial resources, where everyone knows everyone else and strangers are hugged on arrival — but it has no cemetery. For many of the town’s inhabitants, a cemetery seems unnecessary. The neighboring town of Deheza, home to one of the world’s largest edible oil processing plants, has a cemetery that has furnished their ancestors with a final resting place for centuries.
Colonel Isabeta’s Mayor Giraudo envisions a better future for the locals, however — not a more prosperous economy or a better infrastructure, but a symbolic demonstration of self-sufficiency to outsiders and the town’s residents, particularly his father Hipólito. At 104 years of age, Hipólito is in perpetually precarious health but remains acutely conscious that he has outlived his son’s patience by 25 years. And as the labor of construction carries on to meet Giraudo’s and Bagiardelli’s precise specifications and high expectations, the two are excited to see the first graves dug in their perfect cemetery.
The titular story of Falco’s 2016 collection (now available from Charco Press in a fine English translation by Jennifer Croft), “A Perfect Cemetery” exemplifies Falco’s unique blend of wry wit and intense mourning. The title alone encapsulates his morbid humor, leaving readers to wonder, who finds perfection in a cemetery? A Perfect Cemetery gathers five stories that feature protagonists navigating relationships with death, loss, and mourning in unorthodox ways. In “The Hares,” the king of the hares abandons civilization to live in a cave, which contains a monument constructed from the bones of the leverets that have been sacrificed for him to eat. “Silvi and Her Dark Night” spotlights a teenage girl who, tired of accompanying her mother to administer last rites to Catholics on their deathbeds, declares herself an atheist. No sooner has she done this than she becomes erotically obsessed with a Mormon missionary who reminds her of a beautiful dead boy she and her mother had visited years earlier.
A Perfect Cemetery is Federico Falco’s first work to be translated into English, despite an already robust oeuvre and a reputation as one of Argentina’s best young writers. His other works include a collection of poetry, a novella, and several books of short stories; his most recent publication, the novel Los Llanos (2020), was a finalist for the prestigious Herralde Prize. In 2010, Granta chose Falco as one of the best writers in Spanish under 35, publishing his story “In Utah There Are Mountains Too,” which has been edited and included in this collection as “Silvi and Her Dark Night.” As surprising as it is that it took so long for Falco’s work to be published in book form in English, it is unsurprising that he found an expert translator in International Booker Prize recipient Croft, who impeccably matches Falco’s style.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Falco’s writing is its depiction of the ecological variety of his home province of Córdoba, to the north of Buenos Aires. Most of Córdoba is covered by extensive plains (to the east) and mountain ranges (to the northwest); in between are foothills and pampas, rivers and lakes, valleys and lagunas. These landscapes shape his characters’ ways of living, of experiencing time, and even of dying. The clearest example comes in “Woodland Life,” an ode to the pines amid which Wutrich and his daughter Mabel live, both physically and socially distant from the nearest town. Wutrich had planted the pines years earlier, long before the now middle-aged Mabel was born, and the loggers who employed him to care for the saplings have now come to cut them down for tinder. Under threat of their cabin being razed, Mabel is pressured to marry a well-to-do Japanese immigrant from a colony that grows flowers in greenhouses on the plains, a day’s drive from the mountains where she and her father live. Her new husband Sakoiti can afford to place Wutrich in a nearby eldercare facility, where he longingly reminisces about the life and environment he has lost: “Four hundred and fifty thousand pines, he said. We transported them on horseback. And then, all these years. […] All those pines up there, he said, growing so slowly you wouldn’t even notice it.”
Falco’s stories unravel slowly, calmly, in a way that captivates the readers’ attention and never becomes monotonous. We experience each careful footstep as Wutrich struggles to walk in the mountainous terrain, through his beloved pines (or their stumps). We hold our breath as we witness the apprehensive drive down the mountains and over the flat plains. We feel Mabel’s discomfort and longing for home as she adjusts to the routine of her new life. The unhurried rhythm of the story has a serenity that contrasts with the internal turmoil of the characters; the reader feels as if there should be an emotional outburst to relieve the tension, but it never comes. Falco’s precise descriptions become even more emotionally compelling for his refusal to delve into the minds of his characters, instead using their actions and the surrounding environment to convey what they are experiencing internally.
Unlike many collections, A Perfect Cemetery maintains a true coherence. Although each of the five stories has its own discrete protagonist and plot, the diverse environment of Córdoba province provides a common ground. Bagiardelli’s cemetery is built in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas, toward the center of the province. Wutrich and Mabel are forced to abandon the pine forests in the center-west for the extensive plains to the east. In “The River,” Señora Kim lives alongside one of Córdoba’s many rivers, likely in the snowy Altas Cumbres near the provincial capital to the north. The king of hares lives in the hills near the lowlands. And Silvi lives in a town large enough to attract missionaries, near a lake. In each case, the environment is almost another protagonist, reflecting the characters’ movements and feelings, often highlighting tensions between conflicting desires. Even as the reader moves from story to story, and the geography shifts from mountains to pampas, the characters’ relationship to the environment remains a constant theme.
Each of Falco’s stories centers on a misanthropic protagonist vainly navigating an insular community, experiencing discomfort within — and beyond, if they manage to leave — their environment. As they try to understand their own desires, whether it be a perfect cemetery or a life beyond the pines, they must do so alone. Even if physically accompanied by others, they remain solitary figures, unable to establish meaningful connections, even if they want to.
Falco’s characters are agitated by painful longings and fears of death, sometimes to the point of absurdity. When Silvi becomes enamored with her Mormon boy, she stalks him on her bicycle as he goes from door to door around the town. When Señora Kim becomes convinced that she is receiving a sign from her late husband, she chases a naked woman in the middle of a snowstorm. And as Giraudo and Bagiardelli pitch the cemetery plan to Hipólito, they can’t help but reveal their excitement:
Stay strong, Hipólito, whispered Víctor Bagiardelli in the old man’s furry ear.
Stay strong, Hipólito, he repeated. At least until spring. I’m going to create the most beautiful cemetery you’ve ever laid eyes on. I’m going to build you a perfect cemetery.
From the other side of the bed the mayor nodded. His eyes were filled with tears.
After seeing his ailing father as a burden for 25 years, the mayor now wants him to hold on for a few more months so he can be buried in the “perfect cemetery,” a pleasure Hipólito will never actually experience himself, being dead. The coexistence of death and hope in Bagiardelli’s pleas is Falco in a nutshell. It is rare to find one story, let alone five, that manages to be moving, morbid, and humorous at the same time. Falco has struck the perfect balance in A Perfect Cemetery.