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The Corpse at the Iron Gate

Buenos Aires, April-June 1972

Outline it like a story by Borges.

The dictator is overthrown and more than half the people rejoice. The dictator had filled the jails and emptied the treasury. Like many dictators, he hadn’t begun badly. He had wanted to make his country great. But he wasn’t himself a great man; and perhaps the country couldn’t be made great. Seventeen years pass. The country is still without great men; the treasury is still empty; and the people are on the verge of despair. They begin to remember that the dictator had a vision of the country’s greatness, and that he was a strong man; they begin to remember that he had given much to the poor. The dictator is in exile. The people begin to agitate for his return. The dictator is now very old. But the people also remember the dictator’s wife. She loved the poor and hated the rich, and she was young and beautiful. So she has remained, because she died young, in the middle of the dictatorship. And, miraculously, her body has not decomposed.

That,” Borges said, “is a story I could never write.”

But at seventy-six, and after seventeen years of proscription and exile, Juan Perón, from the Madrid suburb known as the Iron Gate, dictates peace terms to the military regime of Argentina. In 1943, as an army colonel preaching a fierce nationalism, Perón became a power in Argentina; and from 1946 to 1955, through two election victories, he ruled as dictator. His wife Eva held no official position, but she ruled with Perón until 1952. In that year she died. She was expensively embalmed, and now her corpse is with Perón at the Iron Gate.

In 1956, just one year after his overthrow by the army, Perón wrote from Panama, “My anxiety was that some clever man would have taken over.” Now, after eight presidents, six of them military men, Argentina is in a state of crisis that no Argentine can fully explain. The mighty country, as big as India and with a population of 23 million, rich in cattle and grain, Patagonian oil, and all the mineral wealth of the Andes, inexplicably drifts. Everyone is disaffected. And suddenly nearly everyone is Peronist. Not only the workers, on whom in the early days Perón showered largesse, but Marxists and even the middle-class young whose parents remember Perón as a tyrant, torturer, and thief.

The peso has gone to hell: from 5 to the dollar in 1947, to 16 in 1949, 250 in 1966, 400 in 1970, 420 in June last year, 960 in April this year, 1,100 in May. Inflation, which has been running at a steady 25 percent since the Perón days, has now jumped to 60 percent. Even the banks are offering 24 percent interest. Inflation, when it reaches this stage of take-off, is good only for the fire insurance business. Premiums rise and claims fall. When prices gallop away week by week fires somehow do not often get started.

For everyone else it is a nightmare. It is almost impossible to put together capital; and even then, if you are thinking of buying a flat, a delay of a week can cost you two or three hundred US dollars (many business people prefer to deal in dollars). Salaries, prices, the exchange rate: everyone talks money, everyone who can afford it buys dollars on the black market. And soon even the visitor is touched by the hysteria. In two months a hotel room rises from 7,000 pesos to 9,000, a tin of tobacco from 630 to 820. Money has to be changed in small amounts; the market has to be watched. The peso drops one day to 1,250 to the dollar. Is this a freak, or the beginning of a new decline? To hesitate that day was to lose: the peso bounced back to 1,100. “You begin to feel,” says Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the translator of Borges, who has come to the end of his three-year stint in Buenos Aires, “that you are spending the best years of your life at the money-changer’s. I go there some afternoons the way other people go shopping. Just to see what’s being offered.”

The blanket wage rises that the government decrees from time to time—15 percent in May, and another 15 percent promised soon—cannot keep pace with prices. “We’ve got to the stage,” the ambassador’s wife says, “when we can calculate the time between the increase in wages and the increase in prices.” People take a second job and sometimes a third. Everyone is obsessed with the need to make more money and at the same time to spend quickly. People gamble. Even in the conservative Andean town of Mendoza the casino is full; the patrons are mainly work-people, whose average monthly wage is the equivalent of $50. The queues that form all over Buenos Aires on a Thursday are of people waiting to hand in their foot-ball-pool coupons. The announcement of the pool results is a weekly national event.

A spectacular win of some 330 million pesos by a Paraguayan laborer dissipated a political crisis in mid-April. There had been riots in Mendoza, and the army had been put to flight. Then, in the following week, a guerrilla group in Buenos Aires killed the Fiat manager whom they had kidnapped ten days earlier. On the same day, in the nearby industrial town of Rosario, guerrillas ambushed and killed General Sánchez, commander of the Second Army Corps, who had some reputation as a torturer. Blood called for blood: there were elements in the armed forces that wanted then to break off the negotiations with Perón and scotch the elections promised next year. But the Paraguayan’s fortune lightened all conversation, revived optimism, and calmed nerves. The little crisis passed.

The guerrillas still raid and rob and blow up; they still occasionally kidnap and occasionally kill. The guerrillas are young and middle class. Some are Peronist, some are communist. After all the bank raids the various organizations are rich. In Córdoba last year, according to my information, a student who joined the Peronist Montoneros was paid the equivalent of $70 a month; lawyers were retained at $350. “You could detect the young Montoneros by their motocars, their aggressiveness, their flashiness. James Dean types. Very glamorous.” Another independent witness says of the guerrillas he has met in Buenos Aires: “They’re anti-American. But one of them held a high job in an American company. They have split personalities; some of them really don’t know who they are. They see themselves as a kind of comic-book hero. Clark Kent in the office by day, Superman at night, with a gun.”

Once you take a decision [the thirty-year-old woman says] you feel better. Most of my friends are for the revolution and they feel much better. But sometimes they are like children who can’t see too much of the future. The other day I went with my friend to the cinema. He is about thirty-three. We went to see Sacco and Vanzetti. At the end he said, “I feel ashamed not being a guerrillero. I feel I am an accomplice of this government, this way of life.” I said, “But you lack the violence. A guerrillero must be despejado—he mustn’t have too much imagination or sensibility. You have to do as you are told. If not, nothing comes out well. It is like a religion, a dogma.” And again he said, “Don’t you feel ashamed?”

The filmmaker says,

I think that after Marx people are very conscious of history. The decay of colonialism, the emergence of the Third World—they see themselves acting out some role in this process. This is as dangerous as having no view of history at all. It makes people very vain. They live in a kind of intellectual cocoon. Take away the jargon and the idea of revolution, and most of them would have nothing.

The guerrillas look for their inspiration to the north. From Paris of 1968 there is the dream of students and workers uniting to defeat the enemies of “the people.” The guerrillas have simplified the problems of Argentina. Like the campus and salon revolutionaries of the north, they have identified the enemy: the police. And so the social-intellectual diversions of the north are transformed, in the less intellectually stable south, into horrible reality. Dozens of policemen have been killed. And the police reply to terror with terror. They too kidnap and kill; they torture, concentrating on the genitals. A prisoner of the police jumps out of a window: La Prensa gives it a couple of inches. People are arrested and then, officially, “released”; sometimes they reappear, sometimes they don’t. A burned-out van is discovered in a street one morning. Inside there are two charred corpses: men who had been hustled out of their homes two days before. “In what kind of country are we living?” one of the widows asks. But the next day she is calmer; she retracts the accusation against the police. Someone has “visited” her.

Friends of friends bring me these stories of atrocities,” Norman di Giovanni says, “and it makes you sick. Yet no one here seems to be amazed by what’s going on.” “My wife’s cousin was a guerrillero,” the provincial businessman says at lunch. “He killed a policeman in Rosario. Then, eight months ago, he disappeared. Está muerto. He’s dead.” He has no more to say about it; and we talk of other matters.

On some evenings the jack-booted soldiers in black leather jackets patrol the pedestrian shopping street called Florida with their Alsatians: the dogs’ tails close to their legs, their shoulders hunched, their ears thrown back. The police Chevrolets prowl the neon-lit streets unceasingly. There are policemen with machine-guns everywhere. And there are the mounted police in slate-gray; and the blue-helmeted antiguerrilla motorcycle brigade; and those young men in well-cut suits who appear suddenly, plainclothesmen, jumping out of unmarked cars. Add the army’s AMX tanks and Alouette helicopters. It is an impressive apparatus, and it works.

It is as if all the energy of the state now goes into holding the state together. Law and order has become an end in itself: it is part of the Argentine sterility and waste. People are brave; they torture and are tortured; they die. But these are private events, scattered, muffled by the size of the city (Greater Buenos Aires has a population of eight million) and the size of the country, muffled by a free but inadequate press that seems incapable of detecting a pattern in the events it reports. And perhaps the press is right. Perhaps very little of what happens in Argentina is really news, because there is no movement forward; nothing is being resolved. The nation appears to be playing a game with itself; and Argentine political life is like the life of an ant community or an African forest tribe: full of events, full of crises and deaths, but life is only cyclical, and the year always ends as it begins. Even General Sánchez didn’t, by his death, provoke a crisis. He tortured in vain, he died in vain. He simply lived for fifty-three years and, high as he was, has left no trace. Events are bigger than the men. Only one man seems able to impose himself, to alter history now as he altered it in the past. And he waits 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.

She was illegitimate; she was poor; and she lived for the first ten years of her life in a one-room house, which still stands. When she was fifteen she went to Buenos Aires to become an actress. Her speech was bad; she had a country girl’s taste in clothes; her breasts were very small, her calves were heavy, and her ankles thickish. But within three months she had got her first job. And thereafter she charmed her way up. When she was twenty-five she met Perón; the following year they married.

Her commonness, her beauty, her success: they contribute to her sainthood. And her sexiness. “Todos me acosan sexualmente,” she once said with irritation, in her actress days. “Everybody makes a pass at me.” She was the macho‘s ideal victim-woman—don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio? But very soon she was beyond sex, and pure again. At twenty-nine she was dying from cancer of the uterus, and hemorrhaging through the vagina; and her plumpish body began to waste away. Toward the end she weighed 80 pounds. One day she looked at some old official photographs of herself and began to cry. Another day she saw herself in a long mirror and said, “When I think of the trouble I went to to keep my legs slim! Ahora que me veo estas piernitas me asusto. Now it frightens me to look at these matchsticks.”

But politically she never weakened. The Peronist revolution was going bad. Argentina’s accumulated wartime wealth was running low; the colonial economy, unregenerated, plundered, mismanaged, was beginning to founder; the peso was falling; the workers, to whom so much had been given, were not always loyal. But she still cherished her especial pain that “there were people who were rich.” Close to death, she told a gathering of provincial governors, “We mustn’t pay too much attention to people who talk to us of prudence. We must be fanatical.” The army was growing restive. She was willing to take them on. She wanted to arm the trade unions; and she did buy, through Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, 5,000 automatic pistols and 1,500 machine-guns, which, when they arrived, Perón, more prudent, gave to the police.

And all the time her private tragedy was being turned into the public passion play of the dictatorship. For her, who had turned Peronism into a religion, sainthood had long been decreed; and there is a story that for fifteen days before her death the man who was to embalm her was with her, to ensure that nothing was done that might damage the body. As soon as she died the embalming contract was signed. Was it for $100,000 or $300,000? The reports are confused. Dr. Ara, the Spanish embalmer—“a master,” Perón called him—had first to make the body ready for a fifteen-day lying-in-state. The actual embalming took six months. The process remains secret. Dr. Ara, according to a Buenos Aires newspaper, has devoted two chapters of his memoirs (which are to be published only after his death) to the embalming of Eva Perón; color pictures of the corpse are also promised. Reports suggest that the blood was first replaced by alcohol, and then by heated glycerine (Perón himself says “paraffin and other special matter”), which was pumped in through the heel and an ear.

I went three times to look at Evita,” Perón wrote in 1956, after his overthrow, and when the embalmed body had disappeared. “The doors…were like the gates of eternity.” He had the impression that she was only sleeping. The first time he went he wanted to touch her, but he feared that at the touch of his warm hand the body would turn to dust. Ara said, “Don’t worry. She’s as whole (intacta) now as when she was alive.”

And now, twenty years later, her embalmed wasted body, once lost, now found, and no bigger, they say, than that of a twelve-year-old girl, only the blonde hair as rich as in the time of health, waits with Perón at the Iron Gate.

It came as a surprise, this villa miseria or shantytown just beside the brown river in the Palermo district, not far from the great park, Buenos Aires’s equivalent of the Bois de Boulogne, where people go riding. A shantytown, with unpaved streets and black runnels of filth, but the buildings were of brick, with sometimes an upper story: a settled place, more than fifteen years old, with shops and signs. Seventy thousand people lived there, nearly all Indians, blank and slightly imbecilic in appearance, from the north and from Bolivia and Paraguay; so that suddenly you were reminded that you were not in Paris or Europe but South America. The priest in charge was one of the “Priests for the Third World.” He wore a black leather jacket and his little concrete shed of a church, oversimple, rocked with some amplified Argentine song. It had been whispered to me that the priest came of a very good family; and perhaps the change of company had made him vain. He was of course a Peronist, and he said that all his Indians were Peronist. “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism. I can talk to you for five years about Peronism, but you will never understand.”

But couldn’t we try? He said Peronism wasn’t concerned with economic growth; they rejected the consumer society. But hadn’t he just been complaining about the unemployment in the interior, the result of government folly, that was sending two Indians into his shantytown for every one that left? He said he wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano; some people were concerned only with GNP. And, leaving us, he bore down, all smiles, on some approaching Indians. The river wind was damp, the concrete shed unheated, and I wanted to leave. But the man with me was uneasy. He said we should at least wait and tell the father I wasn’t an American. We did so. And the father, abashed, explained that Peronism was really concerned with the development of the human spirit. Such a development had taken place in Cuba and China; in those countries they had turned their backs on the industrial society.

These lawyers had been represented to me as a group working for “civil rights.” They were young, stylishly dressed, and they were meeting that morning to draft a petition against torture. The top-floor flat was scruffy and bare; visitors were scrutinized through the peep-hole; everybody whispered; and there was a lot of cigarette smoke. Intrigue, danger. But one of the lawyers was diverted by my invitation to lunch, and at lunch—he was a hearty and expensive eater—he made it clear that the torture they were protesting against wasn’t to be confused with the torture in Perón’s time.

He said: “When justice is the justice of the people men sometimes commit excesses. But in the final analysis the important thing is that justice should be done in the name of the people.” Who were the enemies of the people? His response was tabulated and swift. “American imperialism. And its native allies. The oligarchy, the dependent bourgeoisie, Zionism, and the ‘sepoy’ left. By sepoys we mean the Communist Party and socialism in general.” It seemed a comprehensive list. Who were the Peronists? “Peronism is a revolutionary national movement. There is a great difference between a movement and a party. We are not Stalinists, and a Peronist is anyone who calls himself a Peronist and acts like a Peronist.”

The lawyer, for all his anti-Jewish feeling, was a Jew; and he came of an anti-Peronist middle-class family. In 1970 he had met Perón in Madrid, and he had been dazzled; his voice shook when he quoted Perón’s words. He had said to Perón, “General, why don’t you declare war on the regime and then put yourself at the head of all the true Peronists?” Perón replied: “I am the conductor of a national movement. I have to conduct the whole movement, in its totality.”

There are no internal enemies,” the trade union leader said, with a smile. But at the same time he thought that torture would continue in Argentina. “A world without torture is an ideal world.” And there was torture and torture. “Depende de quién sea torturado. It depends on who is tortured. An evildoer, that’s all right. But a man who’s trying to save the country—that’s something else. Torture isn’t only the electric prod, you know. Poverty is torture, frustration is torture.” He was urbane; I had been told he was the most intellectual of the Peronist trade union leaders. He had been punctual; his office was uncluttered and neat; on his desk, below glass, there was a large photograph of the young Perón.

The first Peronist revolution was based on the myth of wealth, of a land waiting to be plundered. Now the wealth has gone. And Peronism is like part of the poverty. It is protest, despair, faith, machismo, magic, espiritismo, revenge. It is everything and nothing. Remove Perón, and hysteria will be uncontrollable. Remove the armed forces, sterile guardians of law and order, and Peronism, triumphant, will disintegrate into a hundred scattered fights, every man identifying his own enemy.

Violence, in the hands of the people, isn’t violence: it is justice.” This statement of Perón’s was printed on the front page of a recent issue of Fe, a Peronist paper. So, in sinister mimicry, the south twists the revolutionary jargon of the north. Where jargon turns living issues into abstractions (“Torture will disappear in Argentina,” the Trotskyite said, “only with a workers’ government and the downfall of the bourgeoisie”), and where jargon ends by competing with jargon, people don’t have causes. They only have enemies; only the enemies are real. It has been the South American nightmare since the break-up of the Spanish Empire.

Was Eva Perón blonde or brunette? Was she born in 1919 or 1922? Was she born in the little town of Los Toldos, or in Junín, 40 kilometers away? Well, she was a brunette who dyed her hair blonde; she was born in 1919 but said 1922 (and had her birth record destroyed in 1945); she spent the first ten years of her life in Los Toldos but ever afterward disclaimed the town. No one will know why. Don’t go to her autobiography, La Razón de mi Vida, which used to be prescribed reading in Argentine schools. That doesn’t contain a fact or a date; and it was written by a Spaniard, who later complained that the book he wrote had been much altered by the Peronist authorities.

So the truth begins to disappear; it is not relevant to the legend. Masses are held in Eva Perón’s memory, and students now turn up in numbers; but her life is not the subject of inquiry. Unmarked, seldom visited (though a woman remembers that once some television people came), the one-room house in brown brick in Los Toldos crumbles. The elderly garage-owner next door (two vehicles in his garage, one an engineless Model T), to whom the house now belongs, uses it as a storeroom. Grass sprouts from the flat roof, and the corrugated-iron roof collapses over the patio at the back.

Only one biography of Eva Perón has been attempted in Argentina. It was to be in two volumes, but the publisher went bankrupt and the second volume hasn’t appeared. Had she lived, Eva Perón would now be only fifty-three. There are hundreds of people alive who knew her. But in two months I found it hard to get beyond what was well known. Memories have been edited; people deal in panegyric or hate, and the people who hate refuse to talk about her. The anguish of those early years at Los Toldos has been successfully suppressed. The Eva Perón story has been lost; there is now only the legend.

One evening, after his classes at the Catholic University, and while the police sirens screamed outside, Borges told me,

We had a sense that the whole thing should have been forgotten. Had the newspapers been silent there would have been no Peronism today—the Peronistas were at first ashamed of themselves. If I were facing a public audience I would never use his name. I would say el prófugo, the fugitive, el dictador. The way in poetry one avoids certain words—if I used his name in a poem the whole thing would fall to pieces.

It is the Argentine attitude: suppress, ignore. Many of the records of the Peronist era have been destroyed. If today the middle-class young are Peronists, and students sing the old song of the dictatorship—

Perón, Perón, qué grande sos!
Mi general, cuánto valés!

(Perón, Perón, how great you are! How good and strong, my general!)

—if the dictatorship, even in its excesses, is respectable again, it isn’t because the past has been investigated and the record modified. It is only that many people have revised their attitudes toward the established legend. They have changed their minds.

There is no history in Argentina. There are no archives, there are only graffiti and polemics and school lessons. Schoolchildren in white dustcoats are regularly taken round the Cabildo building in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to see the relics of the War of Independence. The event is glorious; it stands in isolation; it is not related, in the textbooks or in the popular mind, to what immediately followed: the loss of law, the seeking out of the enemy, endless civil wars, gangster rule.

Borges said on another evening, “The history of Argentina is the history of its separateness from Spain.” How did Perón fit into that? “Perón represented the scum of the earth.” But he surely also stood for something that was Argentine? “Unfortunately, I have to admit that he’s an Argentine—an Argentine of today.” Borges is a criollo, someone whose ancestors came to Argentina before the great immigrant rush, before the country became what it is; and for the contemplation of his country’s history Borges substitutes ancestor worship. Like many Argentines, he has an idea of Argentina; anything that doesn’t fit into this is to be rejected. And Borges is Argentina’s greatest man.

An attitude to history, an attitude to the land. Magic is important in Argentina; the country is full of witches and magicians and thaumaturges and mediums. But the visitor must ignore this side of Argentine life because, he is told, it isn’t real. The country is full of estancias; but the visitor musn’t go to that estancia because it isn’t typical. But it exists, it works. Yes, but it isn’t real. Nor is that real, nor that, nor that. So the whole country is talked away; and the visitor finds himself directed to the equivalent of a Gaucho curio shop. It isn’t the Argentina that anyone inhabits, least of all one’s guides; but that is real, that is Argentina. “Basically we all love the country,” an Anglo-Argentine said. “But we would like it to be in our own image. And many of us are now suffering for our fantasies.” A collective refusal to see, an absence of inquiry, an inability to come to terms with the land: an artificial, fragmented colonial society, made deficient and bogus by its myths.

To be Argentine was not to be South American. It was to be European; and many Argentines became European, of Europe. The land that was the source of their wealth became no more than their base. For these Argentine-Europeans Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata became resort towns, with a seasonal life. Between the wars there was a stable Argentine community of 100,000 in Paris; the peso was the peso then.

Many people think,” Borges said, “that quite the best thing that could have happened here would have been an English victory [in 1806-7, when the British twice raided Buenos Aires]. At the same time I wonder whether being a colony does any good—so provincial and dull.”

But to be European in Argentina was to be colonial in the most damaging way. It was to be parasitic. It was to claim—as the white communities of the Caribbean colonies claimed—the achievements and authority of Europe as one’s own. It was to ask less of oneself (in Trinidad, when I was a child, it was thought that the white and the rich needed no education). It was to accept, out of a false security, a second-rateness for one’s own society.

And there was the wealth of Argentina: the British railways taking the wheat and the meat from all the corners of the pampa to the port of Buenos Aires, for shipment to England. There was no pioneer or nationmaking myth of hard work and reward. The land was empty and very flat and very rich; it was inexhaustible; and it was infinitely forgiving. Dios arregla de noche la macana que los Argentinos hacen de día: God puts right at night the mess the Argentines make by day.

To be Argentine was to inhabit a magical, debilitating world. Wealth and Europeanness concealed the colonial realities of an agricultural society which had needed little talent and had produced little, which had needed no great men and had produced none. “Nothing happened here,” Norman di Giovanni said with irritation one day. And everyone, from Borges down, says, “Buenos Aires is a small town.” Eight million people: a monstrous plebeian sprawl, mean, repetitive, and meaningless: but only a small town, eaten up by colonial doubt and malice. When the real world is felt to be outside, everyone at home is inadequate and fraudulent. A waiter in Mendoza said, “Argentines don’t work. We can’t do anything big. Everything we do is small and petty.” An artist said, “There are very few professionals here. By that I mean people who know what to do with themselves. No one knows why he is doing any particular job. For that reason if you are doing what I do, then you are my enemy.”

Camelero, chanta: These are everyday Argentine words. A camelero is a line-shooter, a man who really has nothing to sell. The man who promised to take me to an estancia, and in his private airplane, was only doing camelo. The chanta is the man who will sell everything, the man without principles, the hollow man. Almost everybody, from the president down, is dismissed by somebody as a chanta.

The other word that recurs is mediocre. Argentines detest the mediocre and fear to be thought mediocre. It was one of Eva Perón’s words of abuse. For her the Argentine aristocracy was always mediocre. And she was right. In a few years she shattered the myth of Argentina as an aristocratic colonial land. And no other myth, no other idea of the land, has been found to take its place.

Letters

Is Argentina Doomed? November 30, 1972

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