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Martín Kohan's Seconds Out is published in August by Serpent's Tail.

serpentstail.com

Makes no sense to me at all

"Gustav Mahler used to say something very interesting. Gustav Mahler, the bohemian musician. He used to say that instead of giving the most expressive parts of his music to the most sensitive instruments – the violins, for example – he would write them for the harshest, the brass section, a trumpet or trombone. That's interesting, isn't it? The most expressive parts of his compositions were played by the least expressive instruments. I think that's interesting."

"I really don't get it. Isn't that just plain stupid? Just imagine if, when he was going for a knockout, Firpo punched his opponent more softly rather than as hard as he could. What would you say about someone like that? That they're daft."

"Please, Verani, don't be so crass."

"But what you're saying is nonsense. It doesn't stand up."

"I'm not the one saying it. It was Gustav Mahler."

"You or whoever, Ledesma. Do me a favour. It's still stupid."

"I don't get it, really, I don't know why you're being so pigheaded. Why do you insist on comparing the two things?"

"But what you say makes no sense at all."

"A boxing match. Trying to knock another man down, to hurt him. And a symphony, in this case Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. You've no idea what I'm talking about, have you?"

"Yes I do. You say that the soft parts of his tune are played as loudly as possible. That doesn't make sense."

"We'll never get anywhere, Verani, because you still refuse to listen to even a fragment of the work."

"The thing is, Ledesma, I'd fall asleep, what more can I say?"

"I don't mean the whole symphony. Just listen to a bit, to hear what it sounds like."

"Why don't you ask Roque?"

"Roque, well, he's a possibility."

"There he is, why not ask him?"

"But what about you?"

"Please don't get me wasting my time. How long have we got before the deadline? I've barely started my article."

"We still have a fortnight or so. What date is it today? We've got twelve or fifteen days still, I reckon. Look: we've got more than a fortnight. Sixteen days left, to be exact."

"That's what I'm saying – don't make me waste time. Our friend Roque here looks really interested. Why not ask him?"

...

"Tell you what: why don't you sing a bit?"

"Me?"

"Just a bit, Ledesma, the bit you like best."

"You're asking me to sing?"

"Of course. Just to give me some idea, then you won't have to bother with the record player. What's up, can't you sing in tune?"

"It's not that I can't sing in tune, Verani, it's just that you obviously have no idea what you're talking about."

"Maybe I'm not expressing myself properly, but try to understand. OK, so perhaps I'm wrong to ask you to sing a bit, because it doesn't have words. But that doesn't mean you couldn't whistle the tune, or hum it, if you get me."

"What do you mean, Verani: what on earth do you think we're talking about? What do you think Mahler's music is like?"

"I don't think anything; that's why I'm asking you to sing me a bit."

"You've obviously got the idea it's like one of those cheap Rivero tangos, something you can launch into here in the bar and sing just like that."

"Well, isn't it? That's why I'm asking you."

"That's nonsense, Verani. Stuff and nonsense."

"Don't get me wrong: I wasn't asking you to actually sing. Just hum the tune, or whistle. I know they're not songs with words that you can actually sing."

"How on earth do you think anyone can sing anything in here, with all that racket going on outside? Besides, it's not so simple. Mahler has his symphonies, some better than others – it's a real shame you're so determined not to listen to them at least once in your life – but he also wrote songs."

"You don't say!"

"Yes."

"Songs with words?"

"Yes."

"So I was right then."

"No, not the kind of songs you mean. You think that if Edmundo Rivero or Nino Bravo pitched up here they could just launch into the songs. But it's not like that."

"Are they songs with words?"

"Yes, of course."

"And people sing them?"

"Look, Verani, why don't you come back to my place so you can listen to the records properly?"

"Can you sing them or not?"

"Of course you can sing them."

"Well, sing one then!"

"The problem is you think they can be sung like a tango. Just like that, here in the bar with all that maddening noise going on outside. But these songs need a different atmosphere, different surroundings. Besides, they're very hard to sing. No amateur could do it."

"No?"

"No."

"Not even you?"

"Not even me."

"But they do have words."

"Yes, they have words."

"What sort of words?"

"What d'you mean?"

"The words."

"The words?"

"Yes."

"Well, I don't know. They're in German."

"In German?"

"Yes, in German. But I can tell you something about them."

"Go on."

"Mahler composed a series of songs, and just listen to the title: Songs on the Death of Children."

"My God!"

"The music is terrifying. A shiver goes down your spine when you hear it. Just think, a topic like that. The thing is, some time later, I'm not sure how long, Mahler's eldest daughter died."

"You don't say!"

"Yes. A four-year-old girl called María. She fell ill, grew worse and then she died."

"Poor little thing."

"Just imagine what a devastating blow. Incredible grief. So then Mahler's wife Alma confronted him and said that in some way it was all his fault, that he shouldn't have set such terrible words to such tremendous music. She told him he was responsible for bringing the tragedy on them."

"What can I say? I reckon his wife was right."

"Whenever I tell that story I think of my poor Quelita."

"If you ask me, I reckon she was right. With all the nice things to write about in the world, why on earth did he have to choose a subject like that? Women can sense these things. What did you say her name was?"

"Mahler's wife?"

"Yes."

"Alma: the Latin for 'soul'."

"Alma. With a name like that, of course she was going to sense it."

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Nick Caistor.

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