I first met William Henry Hudson in Havana many years ago. He was called Guillermo Enrique then, almost a namesake. It was Borges who introduced me to him. Borges praised him sky-high when he talked about Hudson’s novel: ‘The Purple Land is perhaps unexcelled by any work of gaucho literature,’ he said, looking at the horizon with his blank stare. ‘It is essentially criollo,’ he added, and then stopped short with some apprehension. Borges was afraid that I might translate criollo as creole, an Argentine anathema. ‘Native to South America’ – that’s what he meant. Then he went on to quote Ezequiel Estrada on the subject – namely Hudson: ‘Never before has there been a poet, a painter or an interpreter of things Argentine like Hudson. Nor will there be again.’ I am not misquoting either, I think. If Don Ezequiel sounds excessive it’s only because he was excessive. He always had been. He even died excessively.
Alastair Reid and E. R. Monegal were with Borges at the time, so the translation of his words is theirs. But all I remember about Estrada was when old Ezequiel saw the wheel on fire and the sun and the flaming stars as he fell from the top of the steps at the entrance of the Hotel Presidente in El Vedado, Havana. He then had an ugly gash in his forehead: blood was trickling from the invisible wound to daub his eyeglasses and his dark suit. I was in the lobby when the accident happened, talking to Baragano, the surrealist poet, who laughed the accident off, saying: ‘Argentines bleed easy.’ I became concerned for Don Ezequiel, a very old man even then. But he didn’t notice my concern, only Baragano’s scorn. It hurt him apparently more than the brass rail that had hit him. ‘You are a callous young man!’ yelled Estrada to Baragano. He was furious now and bled even more: ‘It’s not funny to be an old man. It should happen to you!’ It never did. Baragano died at twenty-nine from a cerebral aneurysm before Estrada was killed by chronic old age. Both Baragano and Ezequiel Estrada have been dead, together in death, for the past twenty years and all that is left of them is a book or two paving the road to the cold hell of oblivion. Only those slim or vast volumes are their password to posterity. That and the wake all ghosts leave behind: a sudden noise late at night that can easily be taken for the wind on the rafters. Or the unexplained rattling not of bones but of a lattice window – a pale face seen, unseen and obviously trying to sneak back from the grave – and bits and pieces of livid garment here and there. Rags, rags all.
But I was excitedly after the trail of Hudson, as hot then as the tropical day. A young sleuth, a tyro I was, a bookworm on my way to shedding all the books and being just a worm: a metamorphosis in reverse – first the butterfly. As if led by a bookhound, I crossed Belascoain Street and, still favoured by the traffic light about to become red, I passed through a portal to enter a second-hand bookshop. It was called then, ancien régime usage, a librería de viejo, missing by only an s being a library for old people – which in fact it was: librería de viejos.