V.S. Naipaul first traveled to Argentina for The New York Review in 1972, and his essays written over the next five years were later published as The Return of Eva Perón. The article that follows was written after he recently returned to Argentina.
After fourteen years, I went again to Salta. I flew from Buenos Aires to La Rioja, and from there went on by bus, over two days, up and down the mountain passes through the wide sugar cane valleys.
In 1972 Borges, a man of Buenos Aires, had told me that when he was with Salta people he felt he was with foreigners. In the province of Buenos Aires, Borges said, a gaucho was a horseman of the flat pampas; in Salta a gaucho was a rider in the mountains (and Borges added, with his usual reflex of courtesy, “They were better horsemen, I suppose”). A different landscape, a different history: Buenos Aires lived by its Atlantic port, while Salta and all that northern part of Argentina had been colonized from Peru and the Pacific.
What distances—from Spain to the Caribbean, the portage to the Pacific, and from there to Peru and points south! Salta was at the end of an imperial route that Spain had protected and kept secure for more than two centuries. Spain felt unimaginably far away. Yet to be in the main square of Salta—laid out all at once, as the Spanish custom was, on a day in 1582—was to have a strong sense of Spain, the Spanish empire, the Spanish conquest. A government building was in the Paris style of Buenos Aires; the 1941 Hotel Salta, for holidaymakers, carefully “colonial,” spoke of the last days of old Argentina, just before Perón. But nearly everything else in that square, the great church, the bell-towers, the arcaded pavements, the tall and rich green garden, spoke of Spain. The monument that marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the city was not—as it might have been in Buenos Aires in its more confident days—a tribute to Argentina, but a bust of the Duke of Lerma who, all that distance away in Spain, had sent out orders for the founding of a city at that spot. Whatever course history had taken elsewhere, whatever the present condition of Spain itself, Spain here continued paramount.
It was Easter. Loudspeakers attached to poles in the central garden amplified the singing in the church, but not too loudly—a woman’s voice, alone, and pure, that seemed to add to the blessing of the green garden, a green so rich and deep it seemed to cast a cool green light all around. People sat on benches in that light, or walked, or sold or bought things. Some people stood on the steps of the church; some went and stood inside. The church, plain outside, glittered above the altar. You had to go quite far up, through the people standing, before you saw that the woman with the pure voice was a young Indian nun, short, her head covered, with the skirt of her modern habit falling not far below the knees of her bow legs. And with everything that one felt here about the wonder of Spain, and the Spanish civilities of Salta, from waiters and others, there came, at the sight of the young Indian nun, who had made peace with the world in her own way, a contrary judgment about the enduring cruelty of the Spanish conquest.
Of that cruelty of the sixteenth century, living on at the end of the twentieth, there was always an intimation in the north: in the sugar cane fields, the Indian faces, the Indian houses. Gold and slaves, encomiendas, “grants” of Indians from the Spanish crown—that was what drove the first Spaniards down from Peru.
And there was cruelty in the other Argentinas that came after. Cruelty is really the theme of the gaucho folk epic Martín Fierro (first part, 1872), which is the nearest thing Argentina has to a national poem. In Buenos Aires buckskin-covered editions of this book are sold as keepsakes. In the Argentine imagination the poem—by José Hernádez (1834–1886), known for nothing else—is a memorial of a better and purer time, when the gaucho, a free man, rode over the unfenced and limitless pampa, and the land was bright with possibility. But the Argentina of the poem, wild though it appears, is already corrupt, without justice. The gaucho hero is really a man on the run, caught between barbarisms, Indian and Argentine. He is in constant danger of being impressed—and robbed of his pay, and flogged for misdemeanors—to fight the Indians on the frontier, to win the land for others.
There is a similarity between Martín Fierro and a Russian novel of adventure, published just a few months later, Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer (1873). Leskov (1831–1894) is almost the coeval of José Hernández; his tale, coming at a time of Russian expansion, is of a simple Russian caught between Russian and Tartar barbarisms. Leskov is at his best when he has a strong story to tell; and his best stories are his most painful ones; his underlying subject, pointed up by his religious obsession, is Russian cruelty. Leskov’s enchanted wanderer, when he becomes a prisoner of the Tartars, is like the gaucho Martín Fierro as a prisoner of the pampas Indians: they are both men in hell, and they both have little to run back to.
The true conquest of the Desert—desierto, “Desert,” in the Argentine phrase la Conquista de Desierto, standing not for sand but for a green and rich wilderness—came immediately after the publication of the second part of Martín Fierro (1879). There was no valor in this conquest; with the help of the railways and the Remington rifle, President Roca, in six campaigns, wiped out the pampas Indians. A vast new territory, flat and fertile and treeless, never used for cultivation, was shared out among a handful of people. It was as though, as with the first Spanish conquest, people who had been poor for generations, never knowing that human needs were assuageable, had, with opportunity, discovered in themselves only a boundless greed. Immigrants were brought over from Europe to service, but not to settle, this conquered Desert; and the new Parisian city of Buenos Aires was built. The “Paris” was not for everyone. In the dark and minute and shaming “maid’s rooms” of the new apartment buildings may still be seen an important idea of the new Argentine wealth: other people had to be poor, nothing was to be shared. People who required nothing less than the sky and the horizon of the conquered Desert for themselves, and their sheep and cattle, offered very little, offered nothing, to everybody else.
In 1972 the rage about this still flowed. A journalist who grew up in a small pampas town said, “I saw them cheating the workers who worked by the hour—they turned the clocks backward.” That was hard to believe, but it was the kind of story people told. I heard that in the old days, before Perón, the maids who lived in those tiny rooms never had a day off; that some worked only for their keep. And there were stories that working people and Indians were not allowed to walk in the Barrio Norte, the upper-class area.
They sounded like stories, legends to keep the rage up. But then sometimes I wondered; when, for example, in an important provincial town, in an oily shed of a factory, where the floor was of earth, I saw this sign—in 1972, twenty years after the death of Eva Perón, and with the guerrillas campaigning for Perón’s return—“If you work for a man, work for him. Speak well of him on every suitable occasion. Remember: an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of intelligence.” This statement was attributed to San Martín, honored in Argentina as the Liberator, the winner of the country’s independence from Spain.
The attitude, the simple obedience required (with very little offered in return), seemed to take one back very far, beyond the frontier cruelties of Martín Fierro to the tyrannies of the warlords like Rosas (Borges said he used to have executed people’s heads spiked and displayed, “to give the others fair warning”); and even beyond that back to the Spanish conquest. In the tracing of Argentine attitudes, of rage and counterrage, action and reaction, you go back always to the Spanish conquest, as to original sin.
It was Perón’s gift or genius to tap all that rage, the rage not only of the European immigrants and their children, most of them workers, some of them educated people, a few of them entrepreneurs—not only that European rage, but the rage also of the dispossessed Indians in the north, the dispossessed in the regions that were not serviced by the new wealth: the cabecitas negras, the “black heads” he brought into Buenos Aires to march and demonstrate. That rage he scratched into a national sore; and it still festers, though Perón and his court (with no other example in Argentina of wealth and style) were as plundering as any of the old oligarchy, and by nationalizations, gifts, and rewards, made money and endeavor worthless.
I talked this year to a man of the Anglo-Argentine community whom I had talked to in 1972. He had then, in the midst of the movement for Perón’s recall, said, “I’m beginning to feel completely at sea. Perón destroyed all my feeling that he stood for anything. Anything could be changed at any moment. And then here you really have no say in deciding who’s going to rule. So in the end here you do become sheep. You lose confidence in politics, you lose confidence in the military, and there’s nothing left.” Now—when they were no longer a threat—this man spoke of the guerrillas with something like sympathy. He said, “Most normal people in this country have wanted to shoot the lot at the top. You see, nobody here gets punished; once you’re at the top you’re safe. It was very easy for the guerrillas to cash in on this frustration.”
It was the trap of the situation, the Trojan ending Borges had prophesied four years before the dirty war began: the educated guerrilla generation, grandchildren of immigrants, could hold on to the good abstract ideas they had been educated into—the development of the human spirit, the New Man confronting injustice—only by adding the old Argentine-Spanish idea of blood, the enemy.
There are some stanzas in Martín Fierro where the gaucho overhears the local judge scheming with another man to make money by pushing the Indian frontier back. Impressed soldiers will do the actual fighting; and the gaucho’s heart “grows small” as he listens to this talk of “settlements and roads and raking in thousands,” proyetos/de colonias y carriles / y tirar plata a miles. If things go on like this, the gaucho thinks, the pampas might soon become “a desert, with nothing but the whitening bones of dead men.”