Scholars of Sodom
Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
It’s 1972 and I can see V.S. Naipaul strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires. Well, sometimes he’s strolling, but sometimes, when he’s on his way to meetings or keeping appointments, his gait is quick and his eyes take in only what he needs to see in order to reach his destination with a minimum of bother, whether it’s a private dwelling or, more often, a restaurant or a café, since many of those who’ve agreed to meet him have chosen a public place, as if they were intimidated by this peculiar Englishman, or as if they’d been disconcerted by the author of Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas when they met him in the flesh and had thought: Well, I didn’t think it would be like this, or: This isn’t the man I’d imagined, or: Nobody told me.
So there he is, Naipaul, and it seems that all he can notice are outward movements, but in fact he’s noticing inward movements too, although he interprets them in his own way, sometimes arbitrarily, and he’s moving through Buenos Aires in the year 1972 and writing as he moves or perhaps only wanting to write as his legs move through that strange city, and he’s still young, forty years old, but he already has a considerable body of work behind him, a body of work that doesn’t weigh him down or prevent him from moving briskly through Buenos Aires when he has an appointment to keep—the weight of the work, that’s something to which we shall have to return, the weight and the pride that he takes in his work, the weight and the responsibility, which don’t prevent his legs from moving nimbly or his hand from rising to hail a taxi, as he acts in character, like the man he is, a man who keeps his appointments punctually—but he is weighed down by the work when he goes strolling through Buenos Aires without appointments to exercise his British punctuality, without any pressing obligations, just walking along those strange avenues and streets, through that city in the southern hemisphere, so like the cities of the northern hemisphere, and yet nothing like them at all, a hole, a void that someone has suddenly inflated, a show that is strictly for local consumption; that’s when he feels the weight of the work, and it’s tiring to carry that weight as he walks, it exhausts him, it’s irritating and shameful.
Many years ago, before V.S. Naipaul—a writer whom I hold in high regard, by the way—won the Nobel Prize, I tried to write a story about him, with the title “Scholars of Sodom.” The story began in Buenos Aires, where Naipaul had gone to write the long article on Eva Perón that was later included in a book published in Spain by Seix Barral in 1983. In the story, Naipaul arrived in Buenos Aires, I think it was his second visit to the city, and took a cab—and that’s where I got stuck, which doesn’t say much for my powers of imagination. I had some other scenes in mind that I didn’t get around to writing. Mainly meetings and visits. Naipaul at newspaper offices. Naipaul at the home of a writer and political activist. Naipaul at the home of an upper-class literary lady. Naipaul making phone calls, returning to his hotel late at night, staying up and diligently making notes. Naipaul observing people. Sitting at a table in a famous café trying not to miss a single word. Naipaul visiting Borges. Naipaul returning to England and going through his notes. A brief but engaging account of the following series of events: the election of Perón’s candidate, Perón’s return, the election of Péron, the first symptoms of conflict within the Peronist camp, the right-wing armed groups, the Montoneros, the death of Perón, his widow’s presidency, the indescribable López Rega, the army’s position, violence flaring up again between right- and left-wing Peronists, the coup, the dirty war, the killings. But I might be getting all mixed up. Maybe Naipaul’s article stopped before the coup; it probably came out before it was known how many had disappeared, before the scale of the atrocities was confirmed. In my story, Naipaul simply walked through the streets of Buenos Aires and somehow had a presentiment of the hell that would soon engulf the city. In that respect his article was prophetic, a modest, minor prophecy, nothing to match Sábato’s Abbadon the Exterminator, but with a modicum of good will it could be seen as a member of the same family, a family of nihilist works paralyzed by horror. When I say “paralyzed,” I mean it literally, not as a criticism. I’m thinking of the way some small boys freeze when suddenly confronted by an unforeseen horror, unable even to shut their eyes. I’m thinking of the way some girls have been known to die from a heart attack before the rapist has finished with them. Some literary artists are like those boys and girls. And that’s how Naipaul was in my story, in spite of himself. He kept his eyes open and maintained his customary lucidity. He had what the Spanish call bad milk, a kind of spleen that immunized him against appeals to vulgar sentimentality. But in his nights of wandering around Buenos Aires, he, or his antennae, also picked up the static of hell. The problem was that he didn’t know how to extract the messages from that noise, a predicament that certain writers, certain literary artists, find particularly unsettling.
Naipaul’s vision of Argentina could hardly have been less flattering. As the days went by, he came to find not only the city but the country as a whole insufferably aggravating. His uneasy feeling about the place seemed to be intensified by every visit, every new acquaintance he made. If I remember rightly, in my story Naipaul had arranged to meet Bioy Casares at a tennis club. Bioy didn’t play any more, but he still went there to drink vermouth and chat with his friends and sit in the sun. The writer and his friends at the tennis club struck Naipaul as monuments to feeblemindedness, living illustrations of how a whole country could sink into imbecility. His meetings with journalists and politicians and union leaders left him with the same impression. After those exhausting days, Naipaul dreamed of Buenos Aires and the pampas, of Argentina as a whole, and his dreams invariably turned into nightmares. Argentineans are not especially popular in the rest of Latin America, but I can assure you that no Latin American has written a critique as devastating as Naipaul’s. Not even a Chilean. Once, in a conversation with Rodrigo Fresán, I asked him what he thought of Naipaul’s essay. Fresán, whose knowledge of literature in English is encyclopedic, barely remembered it, even though Naipaul is one of his favorite authors. But to get back to the story: Naipaul listens and notes down his impressions but mostly he walks around Buenos Aires. And suddenly, without giving the reader any sort of warning, he starts talking about sodomy. Sodomy as an Argentinean custom. Not just among homosexuals—in fact, now that I come think of it, I can’t remember Naipaul mentioning homosexuality at all. He is talking about heterosexual relationships. You can imagine Naipaul, inconspicuously positioned in a bar (or a corner store—why not, since we’re imagining), listening to the conversations of journalists, who start off by talking about politics, how the country has merrily set its course toward the abyss, and then, to cheer themselves up, they move on to amorous encounters, sexual conquests and lovers. All of their faceless lovers have at some point, Naipaul reminds himself, been sodomized. I took her up the ass, he writes. It’s an act that in Europe, he reflects, would be regarded as shameful, or at least passed over in silence, but in the bars of Buenos Aires it’s something to brag about, a sign of virility, of ultimate possession, since if you haven’t fucked your lover or your girlfriend or your wife up the ass, you haven’t really taken possession of her. And just as Naipaul is appalled by violence and thoughtlessness in politics, the sexual custom of “taking her up the ass,” which he sees as a kind of violation, fills him ineluctably with disgust and contempt: a contempt of Argentineans that intensifies as the article proceeds. No one, it seems, is exempt from this pernicious custom. Well, no, there is one person quoted in the essay who rejects sodomy, though not with Naipaul’s vehemence. The others, to a greater or lesser degree, accept and practice it, or have done so at some point, which leads Naipaul to conclude that Argentina is an unrepentantly macho country (whose machismo is thinly disguised by a dramaturgy of death and blood) and that in this hell of unfettered masculinity, Perón is the supermacho and Evita is the woman possessed, totally possessed. Any civilized society, thinks Naipaul, would condemn this sexual practice as aberrant and degrading, but not Argentina.
In the article or perhaps in my story, Naipaul is seized by an escalating vertigo. His strolls become the endless wanderings of a sleepwalker. He begins to feel queasy. It’s as if, by their mere physical presence, the Argentineans he’s visiting and talking to are causing a feeling of nausea that threatens to overwhelm him. He tries to find an explanation for their pernicious habit. And it’s only logical, he thinks, to trace it back to the origins of the Argentinean people, descended from impoverished Spanish and Italian peasants. When those barbaric immigrants arrived on the pampas they brought their sexual practices along with their poverty. He seems to be satisfied with this explanation. In fact, it’s so obvious that he accepts it as valid without further consideration. I remember that when I read the paragraph in which Naipaul explains what he takes to be the origin of the Argentinean habit of sodomy, I was somewhat taken aback. As well as being logically flawed, the explanation has no basis in historical or social facts. What did Naipaul know about the sexual customs of Spanish and Italian rural laborers from 1850 to 1925? Maybe, while touring the bars on Corrientes late one night, he heard a sportswriter recounting the sexual exploits of his grandfather or great-grandfather, who, when night fell over Sicily or Asturias, used to go fuck the sheep. Maybe. In my story, Naipaul closes his eyes and imagines a Mediterranean shepherd boy fucking a sheep or a goat. Then the shepherd boy caresses the goat and falls asleep. The shepherd boy dreams in the moonlight: he sees himself many years later, many pounds heavier, many inches taller, in possession of a large mustache, married, with numerous children, the boys working on the farm, tending the flock that has multiplied (or dwindled), the girls busy in the house or the garden, subjected to his molestations or to those of their brothers, and finally his wife, queen and slave, sodomized nightly, taken up the ass—a picturesque vignette that owes more to the erotico-bucolic desires of a nineteenth-century French pornographer than to harsh reality, which has the face of a castrated dog. I’m not saying that the good peasant couples of Sicily and Valencia never practiced sodomy, but surely not with the regularity of a custom destined to flourish beyond the seas. Now if Naipaul’s immigrants had come from Greece, maybe the idea would merit consideration. Argentina might have been better off with a General Peronidis. Not much better off perhaps, but even so. Ah, if the Argentineans spoke Demotic. A Buenos Aires Demotic, combining the slangs of Piraeus and Salonica. With a gaucho Fierrescopulos, a faithful copy of Ulysses, and a Macedonio Hernandikis hammering the bed of Procrustes into shape. But, for better or for worse, Argentina is what it is and has the origins it has, which is to say, of this you may be sure, that it comes from everywhere but Paris.
This story is drawn from The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews, to be published by New Directions on April 17.
April 5, 2012, 9:05 a.m.