Literary Commentary on the Story “At the Tea Vendor’s”

Nel mezzo del cammin

After reading the finalists’ stories, I sat down to write my first impressions of them in order to determine which had exerted a greater impact on me. When I finished, I had a feeling that I had skipped one, and after rereading my reviews, I realized that one of the stories I had only hinted at in passing at the very beginning, mentioning that I hadn’t grasped its gist. It was the one called “At the Tea Vendor’s.” I suddenly latched onto the fact that the story had left me feeling the same way the main characters are described feeling in the story.

The characters are presented sitting in a square and availing themselves of just a few words to exchange thoughts. They aren’t exactly able to rock each others’ worlds with what they have to say to one another, but they seem to be able to successfully communicate or at least provide their respective interlocutors with a vague and fleeting impression of what they want to express, the kind of impression we might describe as resembling a footprint, a whistled melody, or that feeling of having misplaced something.

That is what brought me back to the text, the feeling that I had missed it. Thus, I read it again, driven by the same curiosity that gets us to write stories, to put into words what we conceive in our heads as raw and outlandish gems of thought that are designed to attach meaning to the parts of reality we feel drawn towards, but which we don’t understand quite yet.

Like the paintings that sometimes call us from the corners of big, fully-stacked rooms of huge museums—which don’t necessarily stand out for their size nor luminosity, but because they seem to guard a secret, which we, of course, are dying to find out—this story, for some reason, chose me, instead of the other way around, and as if I were sleepwalking, I couldn’t help but go to answer its call.

I believe that is the true purpose of all works of art and literature, to become a reality that can be verified by all those who are exposed to it, but at the same time is not owned by anyone, regardless of how zealously anyone tries to extract from it such conclusions that will validate only their own understanding of reality. Art shouldn’t be intended for anyone specifically, but be like those unattainable visions that seduce all those who are still looking to let the world surprise them.

Life has a rhythm that tells one when it’s the right time to step out of one’s comfort zone, to allow the unknown and unexpected to leaven the sphere of reality one has gotten used to, and thus shake one out of the dull and prosaic. That is, at least, a life with spark, with charm, the life you get a kick out of living, the life that impels you in unforeseen directions and prevails on you to turn your head over and over again, to persevere in making sense of your surroundings and savor every moment, each carrying a unique flavor. That thrust into the unknown, into finding common ground with the stranger that has irrupted into one’s world, is the secret to life. The story touches on the essential marrow of our humanness, which resides in the age-old custom we humans observe of holding endless conversations, of concatenating words to nauseating extremes, whose purpose is mainly that of keeping us entertained, distracted from the futility of our lives as human beings.

Although the message of the story may seem simple, it ascertains a universal and universally ignored fact, namely, that there is a divide between what one can perceive and what one can acknowledge openly as true, because there is something about life that is unfathomable and fraught with danger, that makes life alluring, crazy, worth living, the pursuit of which cannot be deemed as generally acceptable. One can only tune in to its music and follow its beat, each to their own pace, with nobody to keep one company but tea vendors, sibyls and Norns, who can foretell the future and are of the same substance fragrances are made of, but to whom nobody listens, however tired we might grow from their litany of “I told you so”s. History repeats itself over and over again: we suffer our losses but keep moving forward until the moment comes when we turn around and discover that we have been left alone. But tomorrow will be a new day and we will return to business, to selling smoke, which is what we do for a living.


Version translated from Spanish.

Written by Ricardo Tapia Villaamil.