People Who Fall in Love With Their Typewriters

Guillermo Cabrero Infante, with his cat, Offenbach, and his typewriter. In the background, the headless swordsman that the writer brought with him from Havana (Pinterest)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, March 26, 2023 – A trade or a profession leaves its marks on the body. A scar, a cut, bags under the eyes behind the spectacles or broken ribs. A language of pain, written into the skin and bones, and also into the memory. Many carpenters have damaged thumbs, a builder never gets the cement dust off his hands; so a writer finds himself bent over, sitting silently at his desk when he can’t find the right words.

Everything eventually becomes eclipsed, and decays, apart from the eyes, which remain undefeated — as Hemingway said of his fisherman — but not sight itself, to which blindness does come sooner or later. This slow transformation which comes from facing up to life, from overcoming it and owning it, does not come to one without some sense of pride. Along with the wounds and markings of any profession come experience, skill, and, finally, mastery of the job. If one is awake enough and not too clumsy, perhaps one can quit, having left behind — whether faintly or profoundly, it doesn’t matter — a footprint, a sign of having been there.

One notices one’s own wearing out, the tiredness and age of one’s own body, but rarely does one feel sorry for the machine that enabled the work. What one achieves is usually the result of a tension between man and instrument. The saw in the hand, the back under the bales, eye against the language. 

I’m interested in the ‘sentimental relationship’, shall we say, between machine and operator. The affection one can feel for the tools in a workshop or even a shaving razor. The esteem in which the soldier holds his rifle — which he oils, cleans and looks after — and the photographer his camera. This relationship surpasses the merely instrumental and reaches the point in which a ballpoint pen, a fishing net or a cobbler’s knife becomes the very requirement for success.

I remember how Carlos Fuentes’ fingers were completely crooked — later I discovered this trait in other novelists — through the pressure required to type on a typewriter. His joints, overworked over long sentences, looked like half moons, commas. The typing had deformed them — a fate which modern keyboards have saved us from.

Nevertheless, along with this sophistication we lose a universe of metaphors and mutual understandings. I think I read that Cabrera Infante hung on until the last moment to his diligent Smith-Corona. This fondness for the shiny tooth-levered machine had its equivalent in the plunging-necklined, seductive, Vivian Smith-Corona in Three Sad Tigers — the woman who was “the very embodiment of a typewriter — but one of those kept behind glass with a sign saying ‘do not touch’. It’s not for sale, no one’ll buy them, no one uses them. They’re just for show”.

The relationship that Reinaldo Arenas had with his typewriter was a turbulent one, almost erotic. “She was just an old iron Underwood but for me she was a magical instrument”. He describes how he would sit in front of her like a performer, a pianist who brought together “gigantic waves that covered pages and pages without a single full-stop, and which were very special”. He had to weld the machine to a desk to stop resentful spies and lovers from stealing it. Thanks to this he managed to maintain the rhythm of his writing over several years, although later he had to use notebooks and loose sheets of paper — written with difficulty, before night set in — which were later either confiscated or destroyed.

Far away from the roughness of Havana, where Arenas hid himself, and based in a Paris office, Severo Sarduy took his Olivetti Lettera 32 to get it modified: he desperately needed the letter “ñ”. Also, he bought the blackest ribbon he could find in the stationery shops – ones that left the most stains. “I have this obsession”, he said, “my hands end up looking like a motor mechanic’s – and I love it”. 

(Perhaps from off the roller of this very same  Olivetti came the letter which Sarduy sent to Arenas, on behalf of Editions du Seuil, to tell him that the publisher had no room for new works and that they were rejecting his manuscript for Celestine Monk Before the Dawn.)

For my part, although I have always liked the typewriter as an artifact, I only used a child’s one, a badly-oiled Royal, with a green case, on which my grandfather used to type his pharmacist’s prescriptions. I wrote my first short stories on it, almost by chance, like the proverbial chimpanzee. It delivered for me a fascination for the artifact and I learned its language — tab key, lever, bell, space bar, rods and frame — before it was condemned in the house as obsolete, and it disappeared. 

That sentiment, the pain of misplacing those distant objects that had fascinated me for the first time, the impossibility of forgetting images and conversations, are perhaps the hallmarks of my profession — hallmarks which time is leaving me, in order for me to work. Now I work with a smooth and bright keyboard, on what people call [in Spanish] an ordenador [computer] but which I, stubbornly, will always call a computadora – in feminine gender.

But nostalgia is unforgiving. A few weeks ago, in an antique shop, I stumbled upon a shiny Smith-Corona (chrome-plated and with a white cover). Whilst I counted my money I remembered the wonderful Vivian, and the jibe made by Caín: “Who falls in love with a typewriter?” Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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