Elena Knows (excerpt) — Claudia Piñeiro (Frances Riddle trans.)

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it. So Elena sits and waits. In her kitchen. She has to take the train into the city at ten o’clock; the one after that, the eleven o’clock, won’t do because she took the pill at nine, so she thinks, and she knows, that she has to take the ten o’clock train, right after the medication has managed to persuade her body to follow her brain’s orders. Soon. The eleven o’clock train won’t do because by then the medicine’s effect will have diminished and almost disappeared and she’ll be back to where she is now, but without any hope that the levodopa will take effect. Levodopa is the name for the chemical that will begin circulating in her body once the pill has dissolved; she has known that name for a while now. Levodopa. The doctor said it and she wrote it down for herself on a piece of paper because she knew she wasn’t going to understand the doctor’s handwriting. She knows that the levodopa is moving through her body. All she can do now is wait. She counts the streets. She recites the names from memory. From first to last and last to first. Lupo, Moreno, 25 de Mayo, Mitre, Roca. Roca, Mitre, 25 de Mayo, Moreno, Lupo. Levodopa. It’s only five blocks to the train station, it’s not that many, she thinks, and she continues reciting the street names, and continues waiting. Five. She can’t yet shuffle down those five blocks but she can silently repeat the street names. She hopes she doesn’t run into anyone she knows today. No one who will ask after her health or give her their belated condolences over the death of her daughter. Every day there’s some new person who couldn’t make it to the vigil or the burial. Or who didn’t dare to. Or didn’t want to.When someone like Rita dies, everyone feels invited to the funeral. That’s why ten o’clock is the worst time, she thinks, because to get to the station she has to pass by the bank and today’s the day the pensions are paid, so it’s very likely that she’ll run into some neighbour or other. Or several. Even though the bank doesn’t open until ten, just as her train should be arriving at the station and she’ll be there ready to board, ticket in hand, before that, Elena knows, she’s going to have to pass the pensioners lined up outside as if they’re afraid the money will run out so they have to get there early. She can avoid going past the bank if she walks round the block, but that’s something the Parkinson’s won’t allow. That’s its name. Elena knows she hasn’t been the one in charge of some parts of her body for a while now, her feet, for example. He’s in charge. Or she. And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he. If Herself will excuse my language. Dr Benegas explained it to her several times but she still doesn’t understand; she understands what she has because it’s inside her body, but not some of the words that the doctor uses. Rita was there when he first explained the disease. Rita, who’s now dead. He told them that Parkinson’s was a degradation of the cells of the nervous system. And both she and her daughter disliked that word. Degradation. And Dr Benegas must’ve noticed, because he quickly tried to explain. And he said, an illness of the central nervous system that degrades, or mutates, or changes, or modifies the nerve cells in such a way that they stop producing dopamine. And then Elena learned that when her brain orders her feet to move, for example, the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there. Like a messenger, she thought that day. So Parkinson’s is Herself and dopamine is the messenger. And her brain is nothing, she thinks, because her feet don’t listen to it. Like a dethroned king who doesn’t realise he’s not in charge anymore. Like the emperor with no clothes from the story she used to tell Rita when she was little.The dethroned king, the emperor with no clothes. And now there’s Herself, not Elena but her illness, the messenger, and the dethroned king. Elena repeats the names like she repeated the streets she has to pass to get to the station; the names keep her company while she waits. From first to last and last to first. She doesn’t like the emperor with no clothes because it means he’s naked. She prefers the dethroned king. She waits, she repeats, she breaks them into pairs: Herself and the messenger; the messenger and the king, the king and Herself. She tries again but her feet are still foreign to her, not merely disobedient, but deaf. Deaf feet. Elena would love to shout at them, Move, feet, hurry up! Dammit, she’d even shout, Move and hurry up, dammit, but she knows it would be useless, because her feet won’t listen to her voice either. So she doesn’t shout, she waits. She silently recites the streets, kings, streets again. She adds new words to her prayer: dopamine, levodopa. She makes the connection between the dopa of dopamine and of levodopa, they must be related, but she’s just guessing, she doesn’t know for sure, she recites the words, plays with them, she lets her tongue get twisted, she waits, and she doesn’t care, she only cares that the time passes, that the pill dissolves, that it moves through her body to her feet so that they will finally get the message that they have to start moving.

Claudia Piñeiro has won numerous national and international prizes, among them the renowned German LiBeraturpreis for Elena Knows and the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize for Las grietas de Jara (A crack in the wall). She is best known for her crime novels which are bestsellers in Argentina, Latin American and round the world. More recently, Piñeiro has become a very active figure in the fight for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina.

Frances Riddle lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina where she works as a translator, writer, and editor. She holds an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Buenos Aires and a BA in Spanish Literature. Her book-length publications include A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero (New Directions, 2017); Bodies of Summer by Martín Felipe Castagnet (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017) and The Life and Deaths of Ethel Jurado (Hispabooks, 2017).

Elena Knows is available from Charco Press.