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 …