Undiscovered Country?

In response to:

Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard from the September 19, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

In “Argentina: The Brothels behind the Graveyard,” V.S. Naipaul [NYR, September 19] describes a “necrophiliac fantasy” which seems to reflect his own preoccupation more than objective reality. The odor of decay in Argentina is perhaps strong, but the essay presents a caricature of a complex if “stalemated” society. One can hardly accept Naipaul’s assertions that “intellectual resources are scant…” and that “New Zealand…[unlike Argentina] has made some real contributions to the world; more gifted men and women have come from its population of three million than from the twenty-three millions of Argentines.” The author seems to imply by the latter pronouncement that national contributions to world culture (whatever the terms may mean) should be proportional to a country’s share of world population—an untenable position when one gets down to cases. Yet even so, Argentina might not fare too badly. Readers of this review will be more familiar with the writings of Borges, Cortázar, and Puig than with works by New Zealanders, and it is worth noting that more Argentines have won Nobel Prizes than nationals of any other under-developed country (one each in chemistry, medicine, and peace). New Zealanders, incidentally, have yet to make an appearance in Stockholm or Oslo. Such observations prove nothing, but they might cast doubt on Naipaul’s assertions.

If repetition is any guide, Naipaul is even more categorical in alleging the absence of a meaningful historiography in Argentina: “…there is no art of historical analysis…. There is legend and antiquarian romance, but no real history”; “[Perón’s legend] will be all that people have to go by. It is how history is written in Argentina”; “In Argentina…without a history, still only with annals, there can be no feeling for a past….” Naipaul’s ignorance of the historical literature is so complete he turns to a television personality for a periodization of the Argentine past. Predictably, the essayist vanquishes his straw man.

In fact, the historiography, of Argentina is well developed. It ranges from Martinez Estrada’s brilliant essay X-Ray of the Pampa (1933), which anticipated contemporary theses on internal colonialism and dependency, to the recent studies of political recruitment, mass culture, and elite structures by Dario Canton and José Luis de Imaz. Foreign scholars have also made a not inconsiderable contribution. Far from having only a “legend” of Perón, Argentines can consult the studies of the social and economic bases of peronismo by Gino Germani, Torcuato di Tella, Carlos Diaz-Alejandro, Gilbert Merkx, and Peter H. Smith. Whether “the country has no idea of itself,” as Naipaul insists, may or may not be true; if so, the fault lies not in the lack of intelligent social and historical research, but in the inadequate diffusion of the results.

Joseph L. Love

Urbana, Illinois