It’s 1966 in Buenos Aires, and CIA operative Vera Kelly has been tasked with infiltrating a group of leftist students at the local university. In this excerpt, Vera choreographs an introduction to man-of-interest Roman Orellanos, but quickly finds his girlfriend more captivating.
At the end of February the fall semester began at the Universidad Central. Having paid the foreign student fee, I spent the mornings hanging around the main university building on Reconquista, sweating more than normal, trying to look friendly and aloof at the same time. I attended survey lectures in psychology, which enrolled hundreds of students and were taught in huge, sloping halls. Psychology was the most popular course of study at the UC, each entering class bigger than the last; the syllabus was going through the Freudian stages of development in order, so that now, at the beginning of the year, my notes were heavily fixated on the anus. After my classes I would spend a while in the student café, doodling in my notebook and reading a huge volume of Erikson. The coffee was quite good in that cafeteria. The air was always full of smoke and there were rude things about the girls carved into all the tables and windowsills.
In that first week, I found the student directory in the library, a cheaply printed volume that was chained to a desk the way pens are chained up in banks, and looked up the phone number and address for Román Orellanos. I walked past the address on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a kerchief and glasses. It was a boardinghouse, a crumbling place with a PENSIÓN ESTUDIANTIL sign, a faint smell of frying eggs drifting out to the street. A battalion of bicycles was chained up in front.
I went across the street and had a cup of coffee in a café, sizing the place up. The café was full of law students, reading in the corners and burning their fingers on glasses of espresso. I came up with a plan. The pensión was only a few blocks from the UC law school. I bought a secondhand copy of a nicely bound Don Quijote and wrote “Orellanos” on the flyleaf in pencil. I waited until an hour after the last law lecture had let out at the facultad, and then I walked to the pensión with the heavy book. The front door was propped open; someone, apparently having forgotten their key, had wedged an umbrella in the doorframe. There was a lady custodian at a desk in the front hall.
“Hello, excuse me,” I said. “Could I speak to Román Orellanos?”
“He’ll have to come down,” she said. “Women are not allowed upstairs.”
“Of course,” I said.
She picked up a telephone at the desk and murmured into it. A few minutes later there were footsteps on the stairs, and then Román Orellanos appeared, looking as if he’d just been woken from a nap.
The main thing was to be vacant but responsive, to put up no resistance whatsoever to another personality.
He looked very young. He had a sharp face, nice eyes. His hair was just long enough to displease a priest. There were hundreds of young men like him at the UC.
“Is this book yours?” I said. “I found it in the facultad. I looked up ‘Orellanos’ in the directory and you were the only one.”
“Oh.” He looked confused, turned the book over in his hands. He gave me an appraising look, which I met with a bright smile. I showed him his last name on the flyleaf. “Oh, that’s not my writing,” he said, relaxing now that he had sorted the situation out. “It’s not mine. I’m sorry you came all the way over here.”
“It wasn’t far,” I said. “It just looked so expensive, I didn’t want to leave it.”
“Are you Brazilian?” he said.
“Oh! Your Spanish is very good.”
The custodian at the desk was beginning to project some diffuse form of disapproval, so I excused myself and left.
I could be charming if I wanted to. There were basic tricks. The main thing was to be vacant but responsive, to put up no resistance whatsoever to another personality. So in the grand halls of the Universidad Central I had the same temperament and enthusiasms as whomever I was talking to, and everyone I met had the openness of a student, and before long I was drinking narrow glasses of weak beer in the bar across the street from the main facultad with a revolving series of undergraduate girls and boys.
My manner shifted, but my story was always the same. I was taking a year abroad, a little adrift, and my parents were paying my school fees, hoping I would stay out of trouble long enough to get married. The leftist students were sometimes suspicious of me for being North American, in a coy, almost flirtatious way. Being Canadian instead of American made me a novelty, a fellow spectator of the United States. They liked to denounce capitalist imperialism over glasses of beer, and I would cheerfully denounce it also, and they would all be delighted.
Privately I thought they should be worrying about Soviet imperialism instead. There were reports coming in of KGB cells in mountain hideouts in Bolivia, safe houses for Stalinists in the high-rises of São Paulo, Communist agents seeded into the governments of Chile and Uruguay. The American objective in covert ops was to preserve democracy, while the Soviet objective was to nationalize and repress. I marveled privately that the students couldn’t see this. They seemed so intelligent otherwise.
Once I knew Román’s face, he was everywhere. His voice carried in the halls of the UC, and he seemed to be always surrounded by a group of laughing boys and girls. It was easy to approach the fringes of this group, which congregated in a bar called La Taberna. I befriended his friends: Juan José, twenty years old, also a law student, whose ambition was to open a law clinic for indígenas in the high desert to the west. He wanted land reform, he wanted the properties of the Catholic church broken up and distributed to the people, and one evening one of the other boys interrupted one of his speeches on this subject to say, “And the big ranches as well, yes? Break those up?” and Juan José left abruptly to buy cigarettes and refused to speak for the rest of the night, which was how I learned that his grandfather owned a ranch in La Pampa that covered fifty thousand acres.
Every time the boys of the facultad got drunk they would explain the injustice of it to me again, ardent and wounded, gripping my sleeve.
His girlfriend was Elena, and she was smarter than he was, a source of constant embarrassment to them both. She was small, neat, disappearing in a wool skirt and sweater, studying psychology. She lived with her parents in Palermo, and talked anxiously and intently about Simone de Beauvoir whenever the boys left the table. She dutifully suggested that women’s liberation came from a neurotic fixation on the phallus, as any psychology student would, but I don’t think she believed it.
And then there were Hernán and Rafa, muscular brothers who expressed most of their politics through soccer, moving smoothly back and forth between the two topics as if they were one. The character of other countries came out on the field, they said. The Brazilians presumed, the Uruguayans lacked heart, the more prosperous teams aped European styles, and the proletarian ones had the light footwork that you learn when you play on pitted dirt.
When they exhausted politics, they talked about music. They all loved the Beatles, despite declaring eternal enmity toward the English for stealing the Falkland Islands, two frigid inkblots in the south Atlantic. The islands were only a few hundred miles from the southern tip of Argentina, but the British had annexed them in the nineteenth century, and they were populated now by a few thousand English-speaking sheep farmers and fishermen and a great deal of penguins. Two small, book-matched islands, their fringed coastlines driving into the gray sea. In Spanish they were called the Malvinas, and their theft by the English, the daily affront of English imperialism so close to Patagonian shores, was the single point that all Argentines, in all parties, at all times could agree on. A Marxist in La Boca was just as likely as a navy captain in Bahía Blanca to have a banner on the living room wall with the slogan Las Malvinas son Argentinas embroidered over the flag. In bad times, Argentine politicians had traditionally raised this unifying specter before the public, and President Illia was no different. Every time the boys of the facultad got drunk they would explain the injustice of it to me again, ardent and wounded, gripping my sleeve.
In the midst of this froth of political chatter and school gossip, Román was often aloof, sitting at one end of the table, undercutting another person’s point with a joke, doing casual impressions of professors, rarely saying anything that would reveal his point of view. Perhaps it was this withholding that drew people in, kept this tight circle revolving around him night after night. Or perhaps it was Victoria.
Victoria was Román’s girlfriend. I met her on a Friday evening in the middle of March when I came into La Taberna with a book, hoping someone might be there to talk to. I had been alone in my room all day, switching between bugs in Perette’s office and the office of the deputy undersecretary of internal affairs. The deputy undersecretary of internal affairs had discussed a dispute over fishing rights on his family’s ranch in Corrientes all morning, and then spent the afternoon considering the strengths and weaknesses of the River Plate football club.
It had been a long, dull day, and the tedium of transcription was depressing me, as it sometimes did. I arrived at La Taberna at nine, after my politicians had gone home for the day, and sat at the end of a long table in the back, near the radiator. La Taberna was cheaply styled to look like an Alpine cabin, with unfinished bits of wood everywhere, the tables and chairs edged with crumbling bits of bark that put runs in girls’ stockings. Dark planks had been sunk in the plaster ceiling to give the impression of half-timbering, and there were plastic cuckoo clocks over the bar and the empty fireplace, where they competed for space with a needlepoint of a cluster of snowy firs. The students liked La Taberna because you could fit ten people at one of the long tables and no one would bother you if you spent the afternoon studying there instead of in your overheated apartment, even if all you ordered was an espresso. I asked for a beer and a dish of olives and opened my book.
Elena came in at nine thirty, unaccompanied, and sat at the bar. I whistled until she turned around and smiled. She carried her wet raincoat and beer from the bar and sat down at my table.
I had so far failed to find out anything about Román that suggested clandestine activity, or even clandestine sympathies. Perhaps his girlfriend would clarify things, or offer a new avenue of inquiry.
“I’m waiting for a friend,” she said. “Maybe you know her. She goes with Román.” I looked up, interested. I had so far failed to find out anything about Román that suggested clandestine activity, or even clandestine sympathies. Perhaps his girlfriend would clarify things, or offer a new avenue of inquiry. Elena looked at my book. “I can’t remember my English lessons,” she said, lifting it and squinting at the cover. It was a cops-and-robbers Harlequin called Cold as Death, with a girl in garters holding a gun on the corner, looking deeply shocked.
“It’s about what it looks like,” I said.
“It looks like pornography.”
I laughed. “Not quite.”
Elena ran her fingers over the back cover, sounding out the words in English. “‘She was cold—as cold as death.’” The door opened with a gust of rain, and Elena dropped the book and turned around. “There she is,” she said. “There’s Victoria.” She rose in her seat, impeded by the edge of the table, and waved with both hands. I took in her enthusiasm before turning to see the object of it. There was a ripple through the few patrons in the room as Victoria came in, bright and pink-faced from the warm night outside, pushing damp bangs back off her forehead, a small curvy figure.
I would find out later that Victoria was twenty-seven, two years older than I was. That came as a surprise. I guessed at the time, I think, that she was twenty-one. She was blonde and had a small round face, winged eyeliner. She sat down on the bench with a sigh and a roll of her eyes, dropped her bag on the table, collapsed against Elena.
“I’ve had the most terrible day,” she said. She clutched Elena’s sleeve, and then straightened and looked at me, as if she had just realized I was sitting there. I wasn’t usually taken in by this trick—unfolding an entrance in stages—but she was good at it. She widened her eyes and leaned over the table, giving me the customary kiss on the right side of my face as if dazzled and confused by my presence. “You are…?” she said.
“Anne,” I said.
“Oh, I’ve heard about you,” she said. “You’re from Toronto.”
“That’s me,” I said.
“Do you miss the snow?”
“Not really.” It hadn’t snowed in Buenos Aires in fifty years.
“I bet people ask you that over and over,” Victoria said, leaning in.
They did. I nodded.
“You know why?” she said.
I shook my head hesitantly, wondering if there was some trap here.
“In Buenos Aires people think snow is First World. Snow is for Paris, London, New York. In the movies, it’s always snowing.”
I said nothing. Elena nodded seriously. The bar was filling up. At the small tables pushed up to the front windows, a group of young men, none of them over twenty, were shouting their orders to the bar. Every one of them was wearing a shirt that was too small, cuffs stopping short of the knobs on their wrists. Students just come from the provinces. Still outgrowing their clothes. I felt an opaque sadness.
Victoria smelled like amaretto, I noticed, as she leaned across the table to take one of my olives. As if she had dabbed cooking extract behind her ears. She looked at the boys in the front window and then, confidingly, at me. “Isn’t it terrible, the condition of our young people?” she said. “None of these country boys know anybody in the city. They come in packs like that and live in flophouses. It’s disgusting.”
Elena nodded, also looking at me. “It’s such a shame,” she said.
“Of course,” I said.
“Such a shame,” Elena said again. She glanced at Victoria to gauge the effect her empathy was having, but Victoria was watching the boys in the window make obscene gestures at each other. I had seen Elena hectored on other nights for her tailored coat and patent shoes, her parents’ apartment on a pleasant side street in Palermo. Her father was a judge. Hernán and Rafa felt they were closer to the proletariat than she was, because their father was a country doctor who worked in a clinic on Thursdays and Fridays in a port town on the Río Paraná, where the Paraguayans who ran boats out of Asunción alighted for treatment of malaria and respiratory disease. I tried to read Victoria for money, but it was difficult. She had a good raincoat, but a button was missing and one cuff had worn down to loose threads. But that could easily be a bohemian affectation. Her hair was neatly done, freshly colored, no roots. The smell of amaretto was persistent, distracting.
“Do you like Argentina?” Victoria said.
The students often asked this question on meeting me, but they usually answered it themselves in the next beat. “Of course, the weather is terrible,” they would say, gesturing to the street outside where it was either too hot or raining, and I would say that the weather in Toronto was worse, and we would go on to something else. Or they would say, “We are very poor now,” meaning the exchange rates, the import market, the cost of food, the tomatoes being sold by the half kilo in stores because people blanched at the price of the kilo. And I would say it was criminal what the IMF was doing and a shame how little President Illia did about it, and someone would change the subject. Victoria didn’t do this. She made no move to answer her own question. She sat looking at me across the pitted surface of the table, and behind her on the wall a cuckoo burst through the wooden doors of its clock and began a palsied orbit of a cutout pine.
“Everybody’s father wants a coup,” Victoria said. “Why are there never any coups in the United States? It’s a very fascist country.”
“It’s a beautiful city,” I said. As I said it, I realized that I meant it. I was thinking of my balcony and how my street looked from it at five in the morning when I couldn’t sleep, the air blue, the city appearing to have sunk peacefully underwater overnight, the trees undulating softly, the birds muted and confused. At that hour I sometimes saw men walking arm in arm in the shadows of the buildings, brief clutches in bus shelters. All things flow in the end to a city like that. I almost felt that Victoria could see these thoughts, the fuzzy poetics of a person who would always see this place from a distance.
“We’re fascists, aren’t we?” Victoria said.
“I’m sorry?” I was startled.
“Do you think so, Elena?” she said, turning toward the other girl, who blushed.
“I don’t know why you say that,” Elena said.
“It’s true,” Victoria said. “The generals will take over soon, and my father can’t wait. He says Illia has no balls. I bet your father can’t wait, either.”
“My father is for the republic,” Elena said. “He doesn’t want a coup.”
“Everybody’s father wants a coup,” Victoria said. “Why are there never any coups in the United States? It’s a very fascist country. I’ve often wondered.”
She had sharper edges than Román. “There’s always a first time,” I said lightly.
“That’s very clever,” she said. “I like that. What a clever thing to say.” The waiter brought her a glass of beer. “What do you think will happen with Illia?” she said. She had turned her warmth on again, and it clashed with the subject. I found myself paddling backward, fighting the current she made.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t been here long. Your politics are very complicated.” I looked at my own beer and saw it was empty, as was my dish of olives. Her attention was scorching and suddenly I wanted to get away, to boil some ravioli in my apartment and watch television. “I should go,” I said. “I’m up early tomorrow.”
“Oh, I hope we’ll see you again soon,” Victoria said. “I need English practice. We could meet just like this and speak English the whole time. Do you have a telephone? Give me your number.”
I gave it to her, writing it on the back of a napkin. The two girls stood to kiss me good-bye. I had some trouble disentangling the strap of my pocketbook from the bench, and then I was out the door and into the street, remembering that it was raining. ●
Illustrations by Thomas Paterson for BuzzFeed News.
Excerpted from Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht, published by Tin House, copyright (c) 2018 by Rosalie Knecht.
Rosalie Knecht is a social worker in New York City and was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She is the translator of César Aira's The Seamstress and the Wind and has been a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow and a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Argentina. Her debut novel, Relief Map, was published by Tin House Books in 2016.
More information about Who Is Vera Kelly? here.