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The Corpse at the Iron Gate

Passion blinded our enemies [Perón wrote in 1956] and destroyed them…. The revolution [that overthrew me] is without a cause, because it is only a reaction…. The military people rule, but no one really obeys. Political chaos draws near. The economy, left to the management of clerks, gets worse day by day and…anarchy threatens the social order…. These dictators who don’t know too much and don’t even know where they are going, who move from crisis to crisis, will end by losing their way on a road that leads nowhere.

The return of Perón, or the triumph of Peronism, is anticipated. It has been estimated that already between six and eight thousand million dollars have been shipped out of the country by Argentines. “People are not involved,” the ambassador’s wife says. “And you must remember that anybody who has money is not an Argentine. Only people who don’t have money are Argentines.”

But even at the level of wealth and security, even when escape plans have been drawn up, even, for instance, at this elegant dinner party in the Barrio Norte, passion breaks in. “I’m dying,” the lady says abruptly, clenching her fists. “I’m dying—I’m dying—I’m dying. It isn’t a life any longer. Everybody clinging on by their fingertips. This place is dead. Sometimes I just go to bed after lunch and stay there.” The elderly butler wears white gloves; all the paneling in the room was imported from France at the turn of the century. (How easy and quick this Argentine aristocracy, how brief its settled life.) “The streets are dug up, the lights are dim, the telephones don’t answer.” The marijuana ($45 for the last half-kilo) passes; the mood does not alter. “This used to be a great city and a great port. Twenty years ago. Now it’s fucked up, baby.”

For intellectuals and artists as well, the better ones, who are not afraid of the outside world, there is this great anxiety of being imprisoned in Argentina and not being able to get out, of having one’s creative years wasted by a revolution in which one can have no stake, or by a bloody-minded dictatorship, or just by chaos. Inflation and the crash of the peso have already trapped many. Menchi Sábat, the country’s most brilliant cartoonist, says, “It is easier for us to be on the moon by TV. But we don’t know Bolivia or Chile or even Uruguay. The reason? Money. What we are seeing now is a kind of collective frenzy. Because before it was always easy here to get money. Now we are isolated. It isn’t easy for people outside to understand what this means.”

The winter season still begins in May with the opera at the Colón Theater; and orchestra seats at $21 are quickly sold out. But the land has been despoiled of its most precious myth, the myth of wealth, wealth once so great, Argentines tell you, that you killed a cow and ate only the tongue, and the traveler on the pampa was free to kill and eat any cow, providing only that he left the skin for the landowner. Is it eight feet of topsoil that the humid pampa has? Or it it twelve? So rich, Argentina; such luck, with the land.

In 1850 there were fewer than a million Argentines; and Indian territory began 100 miles west and south of Buenos Aires. Then, less than a hundred years ago, in a six-year carnage, the Indians were sought out and destroyed; and the pampa began to yield its treasure. Vast estancias on the stolen, bloody land: a sudden and jealous colonial aristocracy. Add immigrants, a labor force: in 1914 there were eight million Argentines. The immigrants, mainly from Northern Spain and Southern Italy, came not to be smallholders or pioneers but to service the estancias and the port, Buenos Aires, that served the estancias. A vast and flourishing colonial economy, based on cattle and wheat, and attached to the British Empire; an urban proletariat as sudden as the estancia aristocracy; a whole and sudden artificial society imposed on the flat, desolate land.

Borges, in his 1929 poem, “The Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires,” remembers the proletarian spread of the city:

Una cigarrería sahumó como una rosa
el desierto. La tarde se había ahondado en ayeres,
los hombres compartieron un pa- sado ilusorio.
Sólo faltó una cosa: la vereda de enfrente.

Which in Alastair Reid’s translation becomes:

A cigar store perfumed the desert
   like a rose.
The afternoon had established its
   yesterdays,
And men took on together an
   illusory past.
Only one thing was missing—the
   street had no other side.

A mí se me hace cuento que empezó Buenos Aires:
La juzgo tan eterna como el agua y el aire.

Hard to believe Buenos Aires had
   any beginning.
I feel it to be as eternal as air and
   water.

The half-made city is within Borges’s memory. Now, already, there is decay. The British Empire has withdrawn ordenadamente, in good order; and the colonial agricultural economy, attempting haphazardly to industrialize, to become balanced and autonomous, is in ruins. The artificiality of the society shows: that absence of links between men and men, between immigrant and immigrant, aristocrat and artisan, city dweller and cabecita negra, the “blackhead,” the man from the interior; that absence of a link between men and the meaningless flat land. And the poor, who are Argentines, the sons and grandsons of those recent immigrants, will now have to stay.

They have always had their curanderos and brujas, thaumaturges and witches; they know how to protect themselves against the ghosts and poltergeists with which they have peopled the alien land. But now a larger faith is needed, some knowledge of a sheltering divinity. Without faith these abandoned Spaniards and Italians will go mad.

At the end of May a Buenos Aires church advertised a special mass against the evil eye, el mal de ojo. “If you’ve been damaged, or if you think you are being damaged, don’t fail to come.” Five thousand city people turned up, many in motorcars. There were half a dozen stalls selling holy or beneficent objects; there were cubicles for religious-medical consultations, from thirty cents to a dollar a time. It was a little like a Saturday morning market. The officiating priest said, “Every individual is an individual source of power and is subject to imperceptible mental waves which can bring about ill-health or distress. This is the visible sign of the evil spirit.”

I can never believe we are in 1972,” the publisher-bookseller says. “It seems to me we are still in the year zero.” He isn’t complaining; he himself trades in the occult and mystical, and his business is booming. Argentine middle-class mimicry of Europe and the United States, perhaps. But at a lower level the country is being swept by the new enthusiastic cult of espiritismo, a purely native affair of mediums and mass trances and miraculous cures, which claims the patronage of Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi. The espiritistas don’t talk of mental waves; their mediums heal by passing on intangible beneficent “fluids.” The espiritistas say they have given up politics; and they revere Gandhi for his nonviolence. They believe in reincarnation and the perfectibility of the spirit. They say that purgatory and hell exist now, on earth, and that man’s only hope is to be born on a more evolved planet. Their goal is that life, in a “definitive” disembodied world, where only superior spirits congregate.

Despair: a rejection of the land, a dream of nullity. But someone holds out hope; someone seeks to resanctify the land. With Perón at the Iron Gate is José López Rega, who has been his companion and private secretary for the last thirty years. Rega is known to have mystical leanings and to be interested in astrology and espiritismo; and he is said to be a man of great power now. An interview with him fills ten pages of a recent issue of Las Bases, the new Peronist fortnightly. Argentines are of many races, Rega says; but they all have native ancestors. The Argentine racial mixture has been “enriched by Indian blood” and “Mother Earth has purified it all…. I fight for liberty,” Rega goes on, “because that’s how I am made and because I feel stirring within me the blood of the Indian, whose land this is.” Now, for all its vagueness and unconscious irony, this is an astonishing statement, because, until this crisis, it was the Argentine’s pride that his country was not “niggered-up” like Brazil or mestizo like Bolivia, but European; and it was his special anxiety that outsiders might think of Argentines as Indians. Now the Indian ghost is invoked, and a mystical, purifying claim is made on the blighted land.

Other people offer, as they have always offered, political and economic programs. Perón and Peronism offer faith.

And they have a saint: Eva Perón. “I remember I was very sad for many days,” she wrote in 1952 in La Razón de mi Vida (“My Life’s Cause”), “when I discovered that in the world there were poor people and rich people; and the strange thing is that the existence of the poor didn’t cause me as much pain as the knowledge that at the same time there were people who were rich.” It was the basis of her political action. She preached a simple hate and a simple love. Hate for the rich: “Shall we burn down the Barrio Norte?” she would say to the crowds. “Shall I give you fire?” And love for “the common people,” el pueblo: she used that word again and again and made it part of the Peronist vocabulary. She levied tribute from everyone for her Eva Perón Foundation; and she sat until three or four or five in the morning in the Ministry of Labor, giving away Foundation money to suppliants, dispensing a personal justice. This was her “work”: a child’s vision of power, justice, and revenge.

She died in 1952, when she was thirty-three. And now in Argentina, after the proscribed years, the attempt to extirpate her name, she is a presence again. Her pictures are everywhere, touched up, seldom sharp, and often they seem deliberately garish, like religious pictures meant for the poor: a young woman of great beauty, with blonde hair, a very white skin, and the very red lips of the 1940s.

She was of the people and of the land. She was born in 1919 in Los Toldos, the dreariest of pampa small towns, built on the site of an Indian encampment, 150 flat miles west of Buenos Aires. The town gives an impression of flatness, of total exposure below the high sky. The dusty brick houses, red or white, are low, flat-fronted, and flat-roofed, with an occasional balustrade; the paraíso trees have whitewashed trunks and are severely pollarded; the wide streets, away from the center, are still of dirt.

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