© Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
© Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

A Straightforward Oral Perversion

Tablet Fiction in Translation

Margo Glantz
May 05, 2023
© Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
© Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

For Benny, my on-call dentist.

For my grandchildren, so they learn to take care of their teeth.

Today I, Nora García, have taken a taxi from my home, which is situated in a southern neighborhood of Mexico City, to a dental office located in an elegant northern district, on a street lined with palm trees and crowded with cars, where they will fix my lower jaw, my inferior smile, and my gums, unguarded save by a handful of tooth-soldiers. After taking an X-ray of my mouth, my on-call dentist concludes that I ought to have two fangs extracted, even though they’re still in good shape, so they can be replaced with the lamppost-like implants required to support a dental bridge; he might have been able to save the healthy pieces, if only an impertinent nerve hadn’t spread its tendrils through gum and bone. The lampposts, fastened to the jaw with a millimetric drill, will fill out the perforations left behind by my teeth.

Does my mouth stink?

Pascal had rotten teeth.

As did Van Gogh, says David Markson, the American novelist, in his book Vanishing Point, which I read in the waiting room of my on-call dentist, a maxillofacial surgeon.

(On that day’s newspaper, which I also browse in the waiting room, I learn that, while researchers have unearthed two femurs, a clavicle, a humerus, and six vertebrae that once belonged to Francisco de Quevedo, the poet’s teeth are yet to be found.)

And Cervantes? What about Cervantes? Didn’t he offer a self-portrait in the prologue to his Exemplary Novels? There he announced: This one you see here, this one with aquiline features, chestnut hair and forehead smooth and unencumbered; this one with merry eyes, nose well-proportioned though crooked, and a silver beard that not 20 years ago was golden; this one with a large mustache and a small mouth and teeth neither fierce nor meek, for he retains but six, all in poor condition and worse arrangement, for they do not correspond to one another; this one whose body hangs between two extremes, neither large nor small; this one of lively complexion, closer to pallor than to suntan, somewhat back-bent and not particularly light-footed ...

I’ve just returned from a trip, and now here I am, reclining on my on-call dentist’s late-model chair, trying to let go, relax, trying not to think of anything; because I don’t want to get nervous, as I often do when I go to the hospital lab for my biannual bloodwork, where I first walk up to a little machine that spits out little pieces of paper, printed with numbers, to get the one that corresponds to me; there’s a lot of people, women and men on the first, second, third, and fourth stages of life, almost all accompanied by their families. I, on the other hand, am alone, in the midst of this multitude of patients waiting patiently: Each time I come here I understand better why people who visit a physician or a hospital are called patients—how else to call them? I try to find a place to sit, so I may read the book I brought along to lull the waiting, which happens to be This Is Not a Novel, by David Markson, who in his youth found great success writing detective novels that critics compared to Raymond Chandler; the last time I came to the lab I was reading Vanishing Point, a book where David Markson, as he also does in The Last Novel and This Is Not a Novel, completely annihilates novelesque conventions, imposing new ones in their place. At this very moment I think about reading a phrase in his book that declares: Pascal (or was it Spinoza?) had rotten teeth.

As did Van Gogh ...

... and then, at that very moment, as it always happens in the waiting rooms of hospitals, medical laboratories, or dentists’ offices, I hear someone call my name, though here I’m known by my assigned number, which is 353; when I arrived, at half-past 7 in the morning, they were calling on 232, now it’s already 9. Since the screen that used to automatically display the numbers has been broken for more than six months, the task of announcing the next patient has fallen to an employee. I’ve been sitting next to a very old lady (she and I are probably the same age), so I get up and proceed to stand in line along with nine other people, close to a desk behind which three women (functionaries? nurses?) are sitting, their faces tense with ill-humor (who wouldn’t be in a bad mood after spending hours and hours saying the same things, handing out the same forms, receiving sempiternal urine samples, attending to this sea of people?).

I’m assigned to the middle functionary, who takes my details, hands me a form, and sends me to the cashier; I pay for the bloodwork and head to one of the eight doors that open around the room; inside there’s an army of nurses who specialize in drawing blood; I sit down, again, by the door that fate has chosen for me, and return to my reading, and while I wait (again) for them to call my name out loud, I’m struck by a phrase in the Markson: When Freud was 9 years old, he pissed himself in his parents’ bedroom (the translation I’m reading is autochthonous, made in Mexico, published by Verdehalago).

I read on, sitting in the building that houses the labs of the National Nutrition Hospital, where I’m an outpatient, and then the sound of my name interrupts my reading once again, this time at the very moment when Markson points out that Georg Trakl was a pharmacist and that E.T.A. Hoffman was a lawyer; the man who’s called my name wears his trade’s characteristic white coat and holds a file in his hand; I follow him into another room and watch a group of nurses examine the contents of the folder; they point me to a seat, I make myself comfortable, stretch out my right arm over a table; the nurse brushes the whole surface with a piece of cotton soaked in alcohol, palpates me, places a rubber band around my wrist; I open and close my hand, over and over, over a long time, while he again palpates my veins, brushes the length of my arm, and so on, several times. He examines me, looking disheartened—or so I think, though in truth I’m even more disheartened than him—searching for a vein to pierce; mine are small but visible: each time they slide a needle into them it hurts a lot, it stings, and I always worry that my blood will refuse to flow and they won’t be able to collect enough to run all the tests, all the necessary tests, to verify whether I have something serious—here we go again with the palpating!—tests for cholesterol and triglycerides, tests for creatinine, lipid and hepatic profiles, etc.; and in that moment I quite literally seize the alcohol-soaked cotton with which the nurse disinfected (?) my arm and bring it to my nose: I’m starting to get pale, I’m getting shivers; calm down already, Señora García, the nurse says to me, it’s not such a big deal; he makes me sit down on the other side of the table and begins the operation anew, brushes another piece of cotton soaked in alcohol all over my left arm, places a rubber band on my wrist, I open and close my hand, he palpates my veins but can’t find them; and so the nurse in the boot across the room intervenes, in a very serious tone: Don’t worry, señora, this nurse is a rookie, he just started today, it’s his first day, he’s learning, but don’t be scared; the nurse in question—my nurse, or the one that fate has chosen for me—is called Luis Octavio Fernández, the other guy is also called Luis, but his last name is Osorio; he laughs and repeats: Don’t worry, señora, it doesn’t really matter if it hurts, what truly matters is that we collect a full sample; he then turns to the other Luis—my Luis: Luis the Cruel or rather Luis the Newbie, Luis the Clutz—and goes on: Use the big needle, it hurts more but it’s also more effective. By that point my veins have collapsed, even though I know perfectly well that they’re joking. My Luis prepares the needle and the little tube that will hold my blood, and all at once he inserts the needle into my forearm; I barely feel it, the blood flows slowly, the little tube fills up, I try not to look, it makes me nauseated; Luis Octavio removes the needle, places the alcohol-soaked cotton over the spot where he poked my vein, and wraps an elastic bandage over it. By the way, I say once the operation is complete, could you tell me my blood type? You’d need a doctor’s prescription for that, he replies, and you’d have to come back another day to get another test.

When I peel off the surgical tape later that afternoon, the only sign of the operation is a diminutive bruise: When less dextrous nurses poke me, they leave my arm or hand all purple.

The truth, however, is that I’m not in fact at the waiting room at the Nutrition Hospital; I’m still reclined on my on-call dentist’s ultramodern chair, holding my mouth open, even though the nurses aren’t here and the doctor has yet to arrive. I grow distracted, let my thoughts drift, and it occurs to me that a woman from certain parts of the Muslim world—a woman from Iran, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, or else from some regions of India or Africa—probably wouldn’t be able to go to the dentist as I have. I imagine that a woman who’s expected to wear a veil probably isn’t allowed to consult a dentist, though perhaps if there were women dentists the story would be different—but no, there are parts of the world where women aren’t allowed to go to elementary school, so how could there be women dentists? And everything I just said applies even more to gynecologists: An ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, or a woman from a part of the world where fundamentalist Islam is the law of the land, cannot be intimately examined by a man, even if she’s sick: The veil cancels the body, and, along the way, femininity.

If I lift my face a bit I can see the top of my feet, down there, on the edge of my field of vision: light green satin shoes with tiny heels, curved and slightly bent, the square tips adorned with little metal studs that form the shape of a glittering silver star, a Hindu design (but I better not discriminate: India is also home to Muslims, Jains, Parsis, Catholics, Hebrews, and many other cultures and religions, hence the design is more accurately called Indian, not Hindu). I first wore the shoes when I consulted this dentist for the first time, and now I put them on whenever I face an uncommon event that could alter my life.

I close the book: The nurse is calling.

The mouth opens, revealing the teeth; in humans, this happens when one smiles, or laughs, or sings opera, or when the dentist or some other kind of doctor, for instance an otorhinolaryngologist, commands us to open wide enough to see our uvula. By contrast, animals—such as my dog, Hilaria, or the dearly departed Lolita and Groucho—live most of their lives with open mouths, as if they had just finished an onerous exercise routine, such that they habitually show their teeth. Dogs and wolves sink their teeth into their food, as do some people without manners.

My friend Tadeo, an expert on dogs, is teaching Hilaria to bare her teeth, as if she were just about to bite you; he just needs to greet her and say: Bad girl! Despite the fact that Hilaria is my dog, and despite the fact that dogs supposedly know not to bite their owners, seeing her grimace like that startles me: What if her instincts fail and she bites me, like one of my other dogs, the black chow chow with a purple tongue, did many years ago? My current dog has teeth sharper than knives, which I know is a tired metaphor, but alas, none others come to mind right now. I’ve bought a book about dogs; it explains the character traits of the various breeds; but what should one do when one’s dogs are rescued mutts and the book one has bought makes no reference to them? Will my dogs bite me, even though I care for them, feed them, bathe them, take them on strolls, caress them? I ask my friend Tadeo, who unlike me is an expert on dogs, and he immediately launches on a lecture about the salukis, the only dogs that Prophet Muhammad declined to banish, and about the basenji, which do not bark but emit a horse and inarticulate sound (can dogs be articulate? The main character of my friend Menchu Gutiérrez’s novel, El faro, is a basenji dog).

Tadeo’s lecture makes me think of Columbus, who reports that, when he first landed on this continent—which wound up being called “America” rather than “Colombia,” even though he christened it as “India”—he discovered that the dogs of the New World didn’t bark.

My mouth’s still open. A Pavlovian reflex?

In the event that my on-call dentist comes across some dental disorder too complicated for him to treat, he’ll send me to see the implantologist. In this latter doctor’s waiting room, as I wait patiently (anxiously) for the nurse to call me, I distract myself (as always) with my favorite occupation, which is reading: The glossy pages of Hola! show photographs of the weddings of the heirs of the various royal houses of Europe; Cosmopolitan’s outline several weight-loss methods and the best positions to achieve orgasm: The models are all smiling, their teeth are perfect.

I once consulted a dentist in Boston who defined his profession as a branch not of medicine, but of architecture or urban planning, a civil engineering of the mouth, a matter of fixing plumbing, drains, garbage grinders: a discipline with many specialties, where some practitioners kill nerves and drill into teeth, tunneling underground, while others (periodontists) work on gums, a bloody if necessary business (healthy gums=healthy teeth), and others still focus on finishings, bleaching teeth as if plastering walls; the rest make adjustments on removable bridges, and on permanent ones too, shining the machinery: Not a cure, he insists, but a question of cosmetics. Regardless of the specialty, it’s complicated work, hairsplitting even, not unlike that of a carpenter or a sculptor, which calls to mind the techniques of the Swiss Robert Walser, another writer I read in this waiting room, where I patiently wait for attention, and where, yes, I imagine Walser in the act of writing, the movements of his hands repetitive, monotonous, millimetric like his microscripts: pages crowded with diminutive handwriting, found after his death, barely legible under a microscope not unlike the one my dentist places over his glasses to get a better look at me, to get a better look inside my mouth (here free association inevitably—pleonastically—leads me to the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, this despite the fact that I no longer grow tender at the first simmer). I often read Walser in the waiting room; I’m obsessed with his brief, insistent prose, especially that of his short stories and microscripts, inscribed as they are in a singular territory, the territory of the pencil, whose signification and trace are very different from those of the territories of print; reading him, I come to understand the meaning of the instruments inserted into my open mouth, of their constant, hallucinatory tinkling, which always induces nausea (Walser is but a craftsman, Walser says of Walser, during a conversation with Carl Seelig, as the two wander through the frozen Swiss meadows, not far from the Herisau Sanatorium, where the writer was once a patient. Many other writers harbored a similar aspiration to be simple craftsmen: Walter Benjamin, Juan José Arreola and, undoubtedly, Georges Perec ...).

(And the same can be said of dentists: prodigious artisans who trace their ancestry to the barbers of old.)

A thought occurs to me: When it comes to literature, the order of factors in an equation most certainly alters the result.

In another book of mine, Saña, I also remember Walser, that great poet and narrator, so beset by misfortune and lack of attention. I read one of his briefest texts, “Kleist in Thonon,” where he reveals the anguish of a writer who decides to sequester himself in some lonesome place, hoping to write alone, only to discover the impossibility of writing: The beauty of the landscape overwhelms him; describing it proves impossible. Walser himself winds up becoming part of the story: His anguish mirrors Kleist’s; he knows how to explain his sister’s incomprehension of him, how she’s perfectly adapted to a Germanic society that the poet simply cannot bear.

Why don’t you write anymore? they asked Walser one day at the Herisau Sanatorium, where he’d been committed by his sister, and where he later died. I came to this place to be insane, Walser replied. Not to write.

The nightmare goes on: Once again I’m sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, where besides waiting (as always) I read (as always). There, in the back of the room, very softly, sounds a tango. The timbre of the accordion moves me. Perhaps my love for the tango has grown more intense in recent years. Firstly, because I’ve grown soft: I was, I am, I will always be that chocolate cookie, soaked in liquor and made to shine by the pleonastic red of a candied cherry that I associate, inevitably, with my girlhood, but also with the tango, especially if the singer’s voice (male or female) retains the metallic tone and the nasal whimper of primeval times.

Secondly, because tango isn’t just music, but also dance, and because each day I love Buenos Aires more. In Buenos Aires one walks, whereas in my city, Mexico City, feet no longer exist. I long for the bare feet of the barefoot Carmelite friars, who reformed their order simply by taking off their shoes; I long for the seraphic Franciscans, who in the infancy of my country walked across the land, wearing dusty sandals filled with rock shards, shielded by their millenarian ferocity, pushing the poor in spirit, plunging them, face-first and shoeless, as Saint Joachim of Fiore would have wanted, into the millenium, which is to say into paradise, or else into the mouth of hell, which is also the title of a novel by Victor Hugo (or perhaps Dumas, I no longer remember), a novel whose lascivious title used to remit me to an ambiguous sexual equivocation that tasted like chocolate—a straightforward oral perversion—whenever I hummed along to the lyrics of my favorite tangos.

Thirdly, because the tango takes me back to the time when I was a 15-year-old with messy hair (my hair used to grow sideways rather than down) who remained seated for the duration of those dance-and-tea parties, long obsolete, waiting for a prince who refused to materialize when the band played the blues or a bolero, and who I feared would appear when the music stopped abruptly, only to begin again with some milonga. From my earliest childhood, coward that I was, I’ve never known how to let myself go when I dance: One time in Venezuela, when I danced with Severo Sarduy, I felt compelled to lead him, which proved difficult, because the tune in question was a merengue and Severo was well on his way to becoming spherical, such that his waist had nothing of the (already withered) narrowness of mine. And while I know that the tango can be diabetic (for your heart tastes of honey) or topographic (I found your heart in a corner) or meteorological (the melancholy street, it rained, it rained, it rained over the gray afternoon, it rained, it rained over my heart) or geological (your rum-tears lead me to the depths, the lower regions where clay rebels) or clinical (my heart is broken into pieces, today my emotions break) or even cosmetic (you who, timid and fatale, fix up your pain with makeup, after you’re done done crying) or any number of other things, I still love it, in spite of all.

Oh well. Enough digressions. Let’s go back to the dance-and-tea parties, to the time when the prospect of actually dancing a tango struck me as every bit as impossible as the hope that my hair would start growing properly and fall over my shoulders, all the way to my feet, endowing them with the grace, the gift that would allow them to keep the rhythm and perform the sort of twirls that the women of the old Argentine brothels once performed in the arms of their beaus. I never managed to dodge my companion’s thick-soled loafers, which were often bicolor, even when I wore beautiful shoes, gray with a narrow thread of gorgeous green, the high heels sharp like needles: My feet, incapable of transmitting their voluptuousness to the rest of my body, not even to my ankles, disappointed my companion, as did my hair. Hence my love for the tango, a love that seizes on the tongue, the roof of the mouth, the teeth (particularly the fangs), as well as on high heels, and especially on hair, cutting it midair.

I come back to reality, to this place where fate has brought me countless times, the waiting room of my on-call dentist, where I wait for one of the secretaries to call my name, forcing me to interrupt my reading of the book I’ve chosen to patiently withstand the torture of being a patient, and ask me to step into one of the multiple rooms where patients are asked to wait patiently, yet again, for eternity to run its course, at which point a dental technician will appear, carrying a paper bib, not unlike a baby’s, which she will fasten around my neck with two little pincers, not unlike clothespins, and who will then (orderly, methodically) arrange, on a small portable table next to the late-model chair on which I sit, the various instruments that my on-call dentist will use when he finally, if other patients don’t require his attention, steps into the room, ready to intervene in my mouth. Just to be safe, just in case the wait grows long and I impatient, I keep the book—the book I’m reading at this very moment—on my lap.

This story first appeared in Spanish under the title “Una simple perversión oral” (2014).

Translated from the Spanish by Nicolás Medina Mora.

Margo Glantz is a Mexican writer, a member of the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua, and the 2010 recipient of the FIL Literary Award. Her novels The Wake and The Family Tree have been translated into English.

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