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Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard

The prophecy—according to some old Argentine book of prophecies, which I often heard about but never saw—was that Perón would be hanged by his followers in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in downtown Buenos Aires. But Perón died with his legend intact. MURIO, he is dead: the headline filled half the front page of Crónica, a popular Buenos Aires newspaper; and there was no need to give the name.

He was in his seventy-ninth year and in the ninth month of his third presidency; and his legend had lasted for nearly thirty years. He was the army man who had moved out of the code of his caste and shaken up the old colonial agricultural society of Argentina; he had identified the enemies of the poor; he had created the trade unions. He had given a brutal face to the brutish land of estancias and polo and brothels and very cheap servants. And his legend, as the unique revolutionary, survived the incompetence and plunder of his early rule; it survived his overthrow in 1955 and the seventeen years of exile that followed; it survived the mob-killings that attended his triumphant return last year; and it survived the failure of his last months in office.

The failure was obvious. Perón could not control the Argentina he had called into being twenty years before. He had identified the cruelties of the society, and yet he had made that necessary task seem irresponsible: he had not been able to reorganize the society he had undermined. And perhaps that task of reorganization was beyond the capacities of any leader, however creative. Politics reflects a society and a land. Argentina is a land of plunder, a new land, virtually peopled in this century. It remains a land to be plundered; and its politics can only be the politics of plunder.

Everyone in Argentina understands and accepts this, and in the end Perón could only offer himself as a guarantee of his government’s purpose, could only offer his words. In the end he had become his name alone, a presence above it all, above the people who acted in his name, above the inflation and the shortages and the further steep decline of the peso, the faction fights, the daily kidnapings and the guerrilla shoot-outs, the strong rumors of plunder in high places: above the Argentina whose brutality and frenzies he had divined and exploited, the Argentina he had returned to save, and which he now leaves behind him.

He was very old, and perhaps his cause had become more personal than he knew: to return to his homeland and to be rehabilitated. He made his peace with the armed forces, which had previously stripped him of his rank. He made his peace with the Church, against which, in his second presidency, he had warred: he was to die holding the rosary given him by Pope Paul. He came back from exile a softened man, even philosophical, with ideas about ecology and the environment and the unity of Latin America (“By 2000 we shall be united or dominated”). But these ideas were remote from the anxieties of his followers and the power conflicts of the country. And toward the end he seemed to recognize that the country was beyond his control.

Two years ago, when the military still ruled, everyone was a Peronist, even Maoist priests and Trotskyist guerrillas. Perón, or his name, united all who wanted to see an end to military rule. But inevitably, when Perón began to rule, it became necessary to distinguish the true Peronists from the “infiltrators.” And the man who had returned as a national leader, as the “conductor” of all the warring elements of the movement that carried his name, began once again, like the old Perón, to detect enemies. There were enemies on the left, among the guerrilla groups who had helped to bring him back to power. There were enemies on the right. So many people were seen, as the months passed, “sabotaging the current political process.” Week by week the semi-official El Caudillo identified new enemies. So many enemies: toward the end it was possible to detect in Perón’s words the helpless, aggrieved tone of his writings after his overthrow in 1955.

On June 10 Perón’s wife, the vice president, in a speech printed the next day in full-page advertisements in the newspapers, spoke of the speculators and hoarders and other “executioners of the nation” who were responsible for the shortages and the high prices. Perón couldn’t do it all, she said: and she wondered whether the country wasn’t failing Perón. On June 11 Perón’s former secretary, companion, and soothsayer, López Rega, now minister for social welfare, spoke more clearly. He told a group of provincial governors: “If General Perón leaves the country before his mission is accomplished, he won’t be going alone. His wife will go with him, and your humble servant (este servidor).”

Perón, Rega said, couldn’t do it all, and he shouldn’t be expected to. “The philosophy of Justicialism isn’t only a matter of shouting Viva Perón. It means taking to heart the meaning of this philosophy, which is simply that we should all, without question, comply with the objectives of greatness and fulfillment so that we might have a happy nation.” Meaningless words—the translation is the best I can do; but after the identification of enemies it was perhaps the only way Peronism could be defined.

The wife had spoken, the secretary had spoken. The next day Perón spoke himself. Abruptly, at a meeting where he had been expected to talk of other things, he announced that he was fed up and disheartened, and that if he didn’t get more cooperation he was willing to hand over the government to people who thought they could do better.

The trade unions responded immediately. They asked their members to stop work. In the Córdoba hills, where I was, the bus drivers didn’t even know what it was all about or where the action was; they only knew, strikehardened union men, that the buses weren’t going to run after midday. The action, as it turned out, was confined to Buenos Aires, where in the Plaza de Mayo a great union rally was swiftly conjured up. Perón addressed the rally and received their applause; he pronounced himself satisfied, and it was assumed that he wasn’t after all going to leave the country to stew in its own juice. The whole cabinet resigned that evening: one or two ministers gave grave interviews. It seemed at least that some treachery was going to be exposed and that some heads were going to roll. But no heads rolled: the whole cabinet was reappointed.

It was a curious event: so well prepared, so dramatic in its effect, and then entirely without sequel. The newspapers, full of crisis one day, reporting the entire republic in a state of tension, the next day forgot about it. Newspapers are like that in Argentina. It was Perón’s last demagogic act, his last political flourish. And no one will know what, if anything, lay behind it, whether illness and death put an end to some new development, something that was going to make clear the purpose and plans of the new government. It was what people were waiting for. No one knew what was happening in Argentina; and some people were beginning to feel that there might be nothing to know.

The mystery isn’t the mystery of Perón alone, but of Argentina, where the political realities, of plunder and the animosities engendered by plunder, have for so long been clouded by rhetoric. The rhetoric fools no one. But in a country where government has never been open and intellectual resources are scant, the rhetoric of a regime is usually all that survives to explain it. Argentina has the apparatus of an educated, open society. There are newspapers and magazines and universities and publishing houses; there is even a film industry. But the country has as yet no idea of itself. Streets and avenues are named after presidents and generals, but there is no art of historical analysis; there is no art of biography. There is legend and antiquarian romance, but no real history. There are only annals, lists of rulers, chronicles of events.

The sharpest political commentator in Argentina is Mariano Grondona. He appears on television, and is also said to be of a good Argentine family. At the end of May Gente, a popular illustrated weekly, interviewed Grondona and asked him to analyze the events of the past year: the year of the disintegration of Peronism as a national movement, the year of the detection and casting-out of enemies. Gente considered Grondona’s views important enough to be spread over five pages.

To understand Argentine history, Grondona said, it was necessary to break it up into epochs, épocas. Since independence in 1810 there had been seven epochs. Seven republics, almost: Argentina had to be seen as having a French-style history, a Latin history. The Latin mentality worked from principles; it exhausted one set of principles and moved through upheaval to a new set. Anglo-Saxons, more pragmatic, didn’t define their principles. They were therefore spared periods of chaos; but at the same time they didn’t “enjoy those magnificent moments in which everything is remade,” esos instantes magnificos en que todo recomienza.

The fifth epoch of Argentina history, from 1945 to 1955, was the epoch of Peronism. The sixth epoch, from 1955 to 1973, was the military epoch, the epoch of the exclusion of Peronism. The seventh epoch, beginning in 1973, was the epoch of revived institutions, the epoch of the return of Peronism. This last epoch, though only a year old, had been confusing: but it would be less so if it were divided into etapas, stages. Perón, like Mao, lived “in stages.” Peronism had first to pass through a “smiling” stage, when it was looking for power, then an embattled stage, when it was fighting for power, and then an apparently establishment stage, when it had achieved power. A number of Peronists had remained stuck at the second, embattled stage; that was why they had to be got rid of.

There is no question, in Grondona’s analysis, of people either acting badly or being badly treated. The people who had come to grief during the Peronist year simply hadn’t understood this Argentine business of épocas and etapas. Some of them had got their etapas badly mixed up—like the dentist who had become president as Perón’s nominee, but had then been deemed a traitor and dismissed.

Other difficult events of the year became clearer once it was understood that an etapa itself consisted of great days, jornadas; and there were jornadas, apparently chaotic, that could be broken up into phases, fases. “We are accustomed to this pattern of épocas and jornadas…. There will be other epochs and other great days. I am convinced of that. All that we can ask of this one is that it should fulfill its historical duty.”

This is how Grondona ends, fitting a sentence of Argentine rhetoric to an account of a year’s murderous power struggle. To the outsider, Grondona, with his nimbleness and zest, is curiously detached: he might be speaking of a country far away. It is hard to imagine, from his account, that people are still being killed and kidnaped in the streets, or that in June the army was fighting guerrillas in Tucumán, or that newspapers, under the general heading of Guerrillerismo, carry reports of the previous day’s guerrilla happenings. There is detachment and an unconscious cynicism in Grondona’s chronicle. The political life of the country is seen as little more than a struggle for political power. There seems to be no higher good. And—what is more alarming, more revealing of Argentina—the chronicle is offered to the readers of Gente as to people who know no higher good.

So Perón and his legend pass into the annals. The legend is admired now; in time it will almost certainly be reviled. But the legend itself will not alter: it will be all that people will have to go by. It is how history is written in Argentina. And perhaps a people who had learned to read their history in another way, who had ceased to accept the politics of plunller, might have spared themselves the futility of the last year of Perón.

But the history, as it is written, is of a piece with the politics. And the politics reflects the people and the land. There are Argentines who feel that their country deserved better than Perón. They feel that their country was ridiculed and diminished by the Peronist court-rule of the last year: Perón the derelict macho, Isabelita his consort and vice president, López Rega the powerful secretary-soothsayer: sultan, sultana, and grand vizier.

But Perón was what he was because he touched Argentina so closely. He intuited the needs of his followers: where he appeared to violate, there he usually triumphed. He went too far when he made war on the Church in his second presidency; but that was his only error as a people’s leader. He brought out and made strident the immigrant proletarian reality of a country where, in the women’s magazines, the myth still reigns of “old” families and polo and romance down at the estancia. He showed the country its unacknowledged half-Indian face. And by imposing his women on Argentina, first Evita and then Isabelita, one an actress, the other a cabaret dancer, both provincials, by turning women branded as the macho’s easy victims into the macho’s rulers, he did the roughest kind of justice on a society still ruled by degenerate machismo, which decrees that a woman’s place is essentially in the brothel.

Still, it remains odd about Perón: he spoke so much about the greatness of the country, but in himself, and in his movement, he expressed so many of his country’s weaknesses and revealed them as irremediable.

The airplane, coming down to land at Ezeiza airport outside Buenos Aires, flies over the green land of Uruguay, once so rich and now, like Argentina, a land of disorder and sorrow; and then over the wide, chocolate-colored estuary of the River Plate. Quite abruptly, on the tawny flat land south of the estuary, the white and gray buildings of Buenos Aires are seen to arise: a city of inexplicable size that seems arbitrarily sited at the very edge of an empty continent, along that expanse of muddy water. The airplane shows it all: the great estuary, the sudden city of eight million, the outer rim of the vast, flat, empty hinterland: the simple geography of a remote southern land with a simple history of Indian genocide and European takeover. Not resettlement: resettlement would have created a smaller city, might have peopled and humanized the Indian hinterland.

There is as yet in Argentina no myth of the noble Indian. The memory of the genocide is too close; it is still something to be dismissed in a line or two in the annals. In Argentina the detestation of the vanished pampa Indian is instinctive and total: the Argentine terror is that people in other countries might think of Argentina as an Indian country. Borges, who is very old, has often told his foreign interviewers that the Indians of Argentina couldn’t count. And to a forty-year-old artist of my acquaintance, the pampa Indians were “like grass.”

From the great town highways push out in all directions through the once-Indian hinterland. The town dies hard; low, boxlike brick houses straggle beside the highways for miles. At last the land is clear; and very quickly, then, the flatness of the pampa, the height of the sky, the distances and the emptiness numb response. No trees grew here. But in the unused rich soil trees grow fast, and occasionally tall eucalyptus trees screen a park and a big house. The land is full of military names, the names of generals who took the land away from the Indians and, with a rapacity that still outrages the imagination, awarded themselves great portions of the earth’s surface, estates, estancias, as large as counties.

It was the time of the great imperialist push in many continents. While President Roca was systematically exterminating the Indians, the Belgians were opening up their brand-new Congo. Joseph Conrad saw the Belgians at work, and in Heart of Darkness he catches their frenzy. “Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.” The words fit the Argentine frenzy; they contain the mood and the moral nullity of that Argentine enterprise which have worked down through the generations to the failure of today.

The great private domains have split, but the estancias are still very big. The scale is still superhuman. The estancias are mechanized and require little labor; the landscape remains empty and unhumanized. There are little towns, sitting fragilely on the pampa, but they provide only the bare necessities: the stupefying night club that enables people, who have said everything already, to be together for hours without saying anything; the brothel that simplifies the world even further; the garage. Away from the highways there is a sense of desolation. The dirt roads are wide and straight; trees are few; and the flat land stretches uninterrupted to the horizon. The sense of distance is distorted: things miles away seem close: an estancia workman on horseback, a clump of trees, a junction of dirt roads. The desolation would be complete without the birds; and they, numerous, unusually big, and gaudily colored, emphasize the alienness of the land and the newness of men. Every morning on the pampa highways there are dead brown owls.

The land here is something to be worked. It is not a thing of beauty; it has not been hallowed by the cinema, literature, or art, or by the life of rooted communities. Land in Argentina, as I heard a South American banker from another country say, is still only a commodity. It is an investment, a hedge against inflation. It can be alienated without heartache. Argentina’s wealth is in the land; this land explains the great city on the estuary. But the land has become no one’s home. Home is elsewhere: Buenos Aires, England, Italy, Spain. You can live in Argentina, many Argentines say, only if you can leave.

The Argentina created by the railways and President Roca’s Remingtons still has the structure and purpose of a colony. And, oddly, in the manner of its founding and in its implied articles of association, it is like a sixteenth-century colony of the Spanish empire, with the same greed and internal weaknesses, the same potential for dissension, the cynicism and sterility. Obedezco pero no cumplo, I obey but I don’t comply: it was the attitude of the sixteenth-century conquistador or official, who had a contract with the king of Spain alone, and not with the king’s other subjects. In Argentina the contract is not with other Argentines, but with the rich land, the precious commodity. This is how it was in the beginning and how, inevitably, it continues to be.

There is no king (though Perón was that, the man in whose name everyone acted). But there is a flag (the colors, blue and white, honor a saint, but the Argentines are taught that they are the colors of their sky). And people who feel that the land has failed them wave the flag: the workers in the cities, the young men in new suits, immigrants’ sons who have become doctors or lawyers. But this patriotism is less than it appears. In Argentina, unmade, flawed from its conception, without a history, still only with annals, there can be no feeling for a past, for a heritage, for shared ideals, for a community of all Argentines. Every Argentine wants to ratify his own contract with the God-given land, miraculously cleansed of Indians and still empty.

There are many Argentinas, and they all exist within that idea of the richness of the land. In the northwest there is an older Argentina, settled by Spaniards spreading down south from Peru. At the foot of the Cordillera is the city of La Rioja, founded nearly 400 years ago by a Spaniard looking for gold. It is distinctive; its people are of the land, and half Indian. It has a completeness not found in the cities of the newer Argentina, from which it is separated by the waterless flat wilderness of the llanos, bisected to the very horizon, as it seems to the passenger in a bus, by the straight black road, whose edges are blurred by drifting sand.

But at the end of that road, and among the Córdoba hills, where imported cypress and willow create irregular little Mediterranean patches on the barren hillsides, there is an English-style boarding school, recently founded. It is successful and well equipped; the headmaster, when I saw him, had just stocked the library with an expensive uniform set of the world’s best books.

The school might seem an anachronism, the headmaster says; but the aim isn’t to create English gentlemen; it is to create gentlemen for Argentina. There is rugger on Sunday morning. A school from Córdoba is visiting, and the school servants are grilling thick thongs of red meat over an enormous barbecue pit. “Just like Anglo-Saxons to make up a game like rugger,” says the young teacher, fresh from the constrictions of London, and flourishing in the atmosphere of freedom and fantasy which the emptiness of Argentina can so agreeably suggest to people who have just arrived.

At the local church the elderly British residents, retired people, had that morning prayed for both Perón and the Queen. The previous evening they had gathered at a hotel to see the film of Princess Anne’s wedding.

Half an hour away by bus there is an Italo-Spanish peasant town: low houses, cracked plaster, exposed red bricks, pollarded trees, dust, Mediterranean colors, women in black, girls and children in doorways. Water is scarce. There is a big dam, but it was breached two years ago. The people grow cotton and olives and consider their town rich.

The ten-hour bus drive from the industrial town of Córdoba, where they make motorcars, to the city of La Rioja is like a drive through many countries, many ears, many fading ancestral cultures. The ancestral culture fades, and Argentina offers no substitute. It offers only the land, the cheap food and the cheap wine. To all those people on the road from Córdoba to La Rioja it offers accommodation, and what had once seemed a glorious freedom. To none does it offer a country. They are, by an unlikely irony, among the last victims of imperialism, and not just in the way Perón said.

Argentina is a simple materialist society, a simple colonial society created in the most rapacious and decadent phase of imperialism. It has diminished and stultified the men whom it attracted by the promise of ease and to whom it offered no other ideals and no new idea of human association. New Zealand, equally colonial, also with a past of native dispossession, but founded at an earlier imperial period and on different principles, has had a different history. It has made some contribution to the world; more gifted men and women have come from its population of three million than from the twenty-three millions of Argentines.

Two years ago, when I was new to Argentina, an academic said to me during the Buenos Aires rush hour: “You would think you were in a developed country.” It wasn’t easy then to understand his irony and bitterness. Buenos Aires is such an overwhelming metropolis that it takes time to understand that it is new and has been imported almost whole; that its metropolitan life is an illusion, a colonial mimicry; that it feeds on other countries and is itself sterile. The great city was intended as the servant of its hinterland and it was set down, complete, on the edge of the continent. Its size was not dictated by its own needs and did not reflect its own excellence.

Buenos Aires, from the nature of its creation, has never required excellence: that has always been one of its attractions. Within the imported metropolis there is the structure of a developed society. But men can often appear to be mimicking their functions. So many words have acquired lesser meanings in Argentina: general, artist, journalist, historian, professor, university, director, executive, industrialist, aristocrat, library, museum, zoo: so many words seem to need inverted commas. To write realistically about this society has peculiar difficulties; to render it accurately in fiction might be impossible.

For men so diminished there remains only machismo. There is the machismo of the football field or the racing track. And there is machismo as simple stylishness: the police motorcyclist, for instance, goggled and gloved, weaving about at speed, siren going, clearing a path for the official car. But machismo is really about the conquest and humiliation of women. In the sterile society it is the victimization, by the simple, of the simpler. Women in Argentina are uneducated and have few rights; they are reared either for early marriage or for domestic service. Very few have money or the means of earning money. They are meant to be victims; and they accept their victim role.

Machismo makes no man stand out, because every man is assumed to be a macho. Sexual conquest is a duty. It has little to do with passion or even attraction; and conquests are not achieved through virility or any special skills. In a society so ruled by the idea of plunder, the macho’s attractions, from the top to the bottom of the money scale, are essentially economic. Clothes, reflecting the macho’s wealth or “class,” are an important sexual signal. So is the wallet. And the macho’s keys, symbols of property, have to be displayed. The symbolism is crude; but the society isn’t subtle. The bus driver, a small-time macho, hangs his two keys from his belt over his right hip; the right hip of the “executive” can be positively encased in metal, with the keys hanging from the belt by heavy metal loops. Money makes the macho. Machismo requires, and imposes, a widespread amateur prostitution; it is a society spewing on itself.

The thing has been institutionalized; and the institution is served by a gigantic brothel industry. There are brothels everywhere, open night and day. Enormous new buildings, their function proclaimed by neon signs and a general garishness, are strung along the Pan American Highway. In the heart of the city, behind the Recoleta Cemetery, where the illustrious are buried, there is an avenue of tall brothels. The brothels charge by the hour. In the dim lobby of such a place a red spotlight might play on a crude bronze-colored woman’s bust: the bad art of Argentina. Every schoolgirl knows the brothels; from an early age she understands that she might have to go there one day to find love, among the colored lights and mirrors.

The act of straight sex, easily bought, is of no great moment to the macho. His conquest of a woman is complete only when he has buggered her. This is what the woman has it in her power to deny; this is what the brothel game is about, the passionless Latin adventure that begins with talk of amor. La tuve en el culo, I’ve had her in the arse: this is how the macho reports victory to his circle, or dismisses a desertion. Contemporary sexologists give a general dispensation to buggery. But the buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries. The Church considers it a heavy sin, and prostitutes hold it in horror. By imposing on her what prostitutes reject, and what he knows to be a kind of sexual black mass, the Argentine macho, in the main of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonors his victim. So diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody.

The cartoonist Sábat, in some of his Grosz-like drawings, has hinted at the diseased, half-castrated nature of machismo. In Buenos Aires the other day a new film opened and was a great success: Boquitas Pintadas, “Little Painted Mouths,” made by Argentina’s most famous director and based on a novel by an Argentine writer, Manuel Puig. The film—clumsy and overacted and without polish—is the story of the life and death of a tubercular small-town macho. An aimless film, it seemed, a real-life chronicle on which no pattern had been imposed. But the Argentine audience wept: for them the tragedy lay in the foreseeable death of the macho, the poor boy of humble family who made his conquests the hard way, by his beauty.

To the outsider the tragedy lay elsewhere, in the apparent motivelessness of so much of the action. No relationship was hinted at, and no comment seemed to be offered by writer or director: it was as though, in the society of machismo, the very knowledge of the possibility of deeper relationships had been lost. After the macho’s death one of his women had a dream: in bleached color, and in very slow motion, the macho rose from his grave, in his pretty macho clothes, lifted her in his arms, flew with her through a bedroom window, and placed her on a bed. On this necrophiliac fantasy the film ended. And the audience was in tears.

To go outside after this, to walk past the long queues for the film, to see the lights of packed cafés and bars, the young people in flared jeans, was to have the sharpest sense of the mimicry and alienness of the great city. It was to have a sense of the incompleteness and degeneracy of these transplanted people who seemed so whole, to begin to understand and fear their violence, their peasant cruelty, their belief in magic, and their fascination with death, celebrated every day in the newspapers with pictures of murdered people, often guerrilla victims, lying in their coffins.

After the genocide, a great part of our earth is being turned into a wasteland. The failure of Argentina, so rich, so underpopulated, twenty-three million people in a million square miles, is one of the mysteries of our time. Commentators like Mariano Grondona, unraveling chaos, tying themselves up in etapas, will try to make sense of irrational acts and inconsequential events by talking of Argentina’s French-style history. Others will offer political explanations and suggest political remedies. But politics have to do with the nature of human association, the contract of men with men. The politics of a country can only be an extension of its ideas of human relationships.

Perón, in himself, as folk leader, expressed many of his country’s weaknesses. And it is necessary to look where he, the greatest macho of them all (childless and reportedly impotent), pointed: to the center of Buenos Aires and to those tall brothels, obscenely shuttered, that stand, suitably, behind the graveyard.

Letters

Undiscovered Country? February 20, 1975

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