Editor Rebecca DeWald travelled to Argentina and took books of and about Argentine literature with her, a literature which is receiving more and more attention in English at the moment. In this thread, the Argentine Travelogue, which will continue over the next months, she offers travel accounts about books, Argentina and translation.
Carlos Gamerro, translated by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author
The Islands (And Other Stories, 2012 )
An Open Secret (Pushkin Press, 2011 )
The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón (And Other Stories, 2015 )
By Rebecca DeWald
San Carlos de Bariloche is a small town bordering the Nahuel Huapi National Park and one of the first stops after crossing the border from Chile into northern Patagonia. The town itself curls around Lago Nahuel Huapi and snuggles up to the Andes on one side, which, from this vantage point, have lost their looming fear in comparison with the high peaks around Mendoza further north. The popular town invites skiers in the winter and only marginally fewer summer holiday tourists make their way here from December to February to indulge in the famous kilo tubs of Italian ice-cream. Bariloche is as beautifully located as it is grotesque: Lago Nahuel Huapi and the mountain range behind it reflecting in the crystal clear lake create an atmosphere of the Swiss Alps, enhanced by many ski lifts and particularly the architecture the town is known for, with its wooden block houses and clock tower. Yet the St Bernard’s dogs and puppies sweat in the scourging heat and long for water while their owners wait for tourists to pay for snaps taken with the fluffy animals.
Bariloche is in many ways the place where the well-known Argentine pride — which the porteños of Buenos Aires wear on their sleeves — is most tangible. The town lives off tourism, yet politics are casually woven into the design of the place. The town square, on which the tango teachers advertise their classes with performances next to the St Bernard’s puppies, is covered in abstract icons of white head scarfs, just like in Buenos Aires, the symbol of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who have been protesting the disappearance of their children and grandchildren every Thursday since 1977. The small local museum provides an overview of the many different native tribes of Patagonia, many of them now extinct; it also explains the Patagonian border conflict between Argentina and Chile of the late 19th and early 20th century which aimed to determine once and for all whether the border between both countries should run along the highest peaks of the Andes dividing the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds or the tectonic plates. This issue was eventually settled through the invited mediation of King Edward VII.
Strolling along the shore, watching the swimmers dip into the freezing lake, the British king strikes me as an odd choice as peace-maker, since a sign on the beach reminds us of the most recent conflict between the UK and Argentina in its assertion that Las Islas Malvinas are “only” 1557km away from here. This is not the only sign of this kind I have encountered. A more prominent version decorates a central square in Córdoba and reads “Prohibido olvidarlas: No son negociables” (“We mustn’t forget: they are not negotiable”), and many more were strewn along the motorways en route. While the Falklands appear on few maps of the British Isles, the Malvinas are central to the Argentine map and are omnipresent on the mainland, even if it is just as a surface for graffiti to mark “I was here.”
From this point of view, it is not surprising that And Other Stories chose The Islands to be the first novel by Carlos Gamerro in their selection in 2012, in a translation by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author, thereby making one of the most Argentine subjects of recent history available in (British ) English. I read it quite a few months ago now, before the earlier An Open Secret (Pushkin Press, 2011) and this year’s The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón (And Other Stories), though have not had the courage to review it until now. How can I take a stance on this topic of a war which happened before I was even born? How can I — neither Argentine nor British — write about a war which was motivated by an urge to rally the public behind a dubious Argentine military junta but which, in contrast, resulted in renewed enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher’s government? Here is my attempt at making sense, if not of a war, then of a literature it inspired.
The Islands is set in 1992, ten years after the Malvinas/Falklands War, and opens like a mixture of a Sci-Fi novel and a political thriller: Felipe Félix is summoned to the office of Fausto Tamerlán by his henchmen because Tamerlán has a very special task for the hacker, just as in any Hollywood action thriller starring Denzel Washington, Matt Damon or [insert name here]. Yet, the supposed hero is the opposite of an assertive, confident saviour of humankind: we first encounter him pondering over a fly caught in a spider’s net and soon discover he suffers from a mental block which keeps him from getting up in the morning, every morning. But then, just before we encounter Tamerlán himself, the novel’s mood changes (for the first time). The magnate’s company is housed in two identical towers, though
From the distance the profusion of winter suns reflected in their mirrored panes confused them into a single block, a monolithic structure that, instead of a building erected by men, looked at times like a newborn mountain, unblemished by erosion, forced through the tender, green skin of the pampas by the subterranean agonies of some colossal cataclysm.
The two towers – one golden, one silver – mirror each other perfectly, and their interior is no less mysterious, with mirrors lining every ceiling, yet every ceiling is semi-transparent from above, creating a feeling of constant Foucauldian surveillance and terror, “the more so when you know there’s always someone behind them, behind what you see in them. The master looking at us through our own eyes.”
Félix was summoned to this semi-real dreamscape of the perfect, all-encompassing company to cover up a murder committed by Tamerlán’s son . His task is to discover all the witnesses’ names who watched the scenario from the other tower. What unfolds is a story which wavers between detective story and madness as Félix uncovers more and more about the 1982 war he fought in as a soldier on the islands. Some of the “facts”, however, are as mythical as they appear real to him and the parallelism and the mirroring of terror repeat continuously. One of his ex-comrades is convinced, for example, that the two islands which make up the Malvinas — Isla Gran Malvina and Isla Soledad — are “the same, but in reverse” and that, in the Argentine invasion, they “mistook the reflection for its object”: had they began the attack on Isla Gran Malvina instead, everything would have happened in reverse. The mirrors also serve to reflect the duality of Tamerlán’s sons, his preferred and his abhorred son, and eventually turn against the company boss as the mirrors forming the ceilings of subordinates offices, in a mythical, supernatural moment of total confusion, begin to turn around, making the superiors the object of surveillance. Yet, these metaphors of parallels always lead back to the Islas Malvinas, trying to explain the ex soldiers’ obsession with the bleak islands:
We’re madly in love, yet we hate them. Fetishists that we are, we worship a photo, a silhouette, an old boot… It isn’t true there were survivors. There are two bites torn out of the hearts of every one of us, and they’re the exact shape of the Islands.
While the task to hack the witnesses’ data sets the plot in motion, it regularly strays away from the cyber thriller by plunging the reader into shock and confusion, such as through bizarre and unnerving scenes of buggery and incest. These scenes are personally not my favourite part of any of Gamerro’s novels, since their main raison d’être in the novels seems to be their shock factor on the reader, which translator Ian Barnett seems to try to ease at least a little, such as in The Adventure, where he uses the PC term “sexual worker” for a prostitute one of the characters calls a “tranny”. The novel also shocks by casually referring to many other dark patches in Argentina’s past which are brooding under the surface of any story to be told about Argentina, like Tamerlán’s upbringing in the Austrian town of Braunau, which recalls the many Nazis which found asylum in Argentina after the war; and Félix’s love interest Gloria, who appears in An Open Secret as well, where the (same) main character investigates his home town’s involvement in a disappearance during the Dirty War. In the words of the British foreign correspondent Jimmy Burns, who wrote the foreword to The Islands, Gamerro’s novel encompasses “the schizophrenic mood and the moral vacuum of a peculiarly Argentine moment of dream-fused reality.” The book itself accounts for this mutability as well, as Gamerro attests in his Author’s Note that the English translation is not only shorter than its older Spanish precursor (to leave out explanations of internet, virtual reality, drugs and, maybe unfortunately, some elements which were judged uninteresting for readers outside Argentina ), but also includes corrections based on “Ian Barnett’s practised eye”, which have now informed the Spanish original, much like a play based on the novel which led to further scenes in the text. In Gamerro’s words: “what endures, in art as in life, is not what lasts but what lives on, not what achieves finality but what constantly transforms and renews itself” (loosely based on Borges’s ‘Las versiones homéricas’ in which he argues that there is no definitive text).
The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón, published this month, is can be read as a precursor to The Islands: it is set in 1975 during the Montoneros strikes and the beginnings of the Dirty War (Perón’s return from exile in 1973 triggered a bloody massacre at Ezeiza airport and let to the split of the Peronists into a left and a right wing). Ernesto Marroné is head of procurement at Tamerlán and Sons, whose head Fausto Tamerlán has been kidnapped. The kidnappers demand a bust of Eva Perón to be erected in every single company office and Marroné has been tasked with their procurement. The public school and Stanford University educated employee and nascent 80s yuppie ends up in a Montoneros occupation of the plasterworks providing the Evita busts and inadvertently becomes a strike leader, thanks to the leadership skills he acquired through text books and managerial self-help guides such as the ironically titled How to Win Friends and Influence People and Don Quixote: The Executive Errant. In his quest for the busts of Evita, Marroné has multiple epiphanies: He encounters an old school friend who has “proletarianized” himself in order to become a proper Maoist and able to lead a workers’ strike, and while Marroné is happy to be part of the workers’ strike, he sees his real achievement in having outdone his friend in “proletarianizing” himself to the extent that the other workers no longer recognize his real upbringing. Marroné thinks he has found his calling, but justifies his happiness through market-driven comparisons which see him as achieving his leadership goals. His admiration of Eva Perón, through a photo biography for the education of Peronists, leads him to think
why not write a book that would take her whole life and career as an example to be emulated? Eva Perón in Enterprise Management, for example, or perhaps something more metaphorical and less pedestrian, like The Sparrow and the Condor.
Another equally valid “calling” he experiences is his dream of being named head of the company thanks to his loyalty and outstanding achievement in providing the busts, against all odds — hence the polar opposite of his dream of becoming a subversive strike leader. Hence, this calling is equally as empty as that of being a Montoneros leader, and ultimately explains why he has been searching for the busts of Eva Perón all along, instead of striving for the real Evita. Marroné, as the book cover know all too well, “is a man both ahead of and behind his time: an ‘80s yuppie fighting his way through the revolutionary ‘70s, a ‘70s would-be rebel caught in the corporate rat-race and the lethargy of suburban life.” Gamerro ultimately mocks Marroné’s intentions as his actual goal is neither the equality of workers, or the triumph of capitalism, but the peace of mind and a body free of sexual adventures and particularly constipation (the sex scenes are as appallingly violent, outrageous and beyond-belief as in The Islands, in one instance a mass orgy à la Eyes Wide Shut with Evita impersonators. While being both ahead of and behind his time, Marroné is ultimately ordinary and the perfect example of the changing political landscape of the Argentine 20th century, which swayed from one extreme to the next, often with support from the masses. Without always having a clear opinion of which side to agree with, the ordinary person might well be like Marroné who is warned towards the end: “But do try to act with caution from now on. Just in case your efforts to save the company end up bringing down the capitalist system.”
An Open Secret is a bit of the odd one out of these three novels. Where the other two surprise with their twists of plot and genre, An Open Secret is very matter-of-fact to the point of being predictable. The novel follows the author Fefe who returns to the small town Malihuel up the Rio de la Plata where he used to spend his summers in order to investigate the disappearance of Darío Ezcurra, who was disappeared and murdered by the local chief of police. Fefe goes around asking questions about the events that led to his disappearance while friends and neighbours watched it silently happen. It is in the interviews with the villagers that the translator Ian Barnett, who translated all three novels with the author, really shows his skill, giving every interviewee their own, unmistakable, differently accented voice and experimenting with different colloquial and regional registers. The chapters are interspersed with ‘Interludes’ explaining the history of Malihuel, the village where the events take place, and are written in a pseudo-scientific way, representing the research a novelist would come across and do in order to write their novel. In one of these, the etymology of Malihuel is put under scrutiny, suggesting it means “a paltry collection of pathetic and / or contemptible individuals”. This postscript from 1993 within the Interlude could serve as prophetic forecast, yet comes fairly late in the novel after Fefe heard the various versions of why the villagers did not help Ezcurra, and is hence more of an angry afterthought than a prediction. Much like other contemporary novels about the Dirty War (see, for example, my review here), An Open Secret shows that there is a variety of truths (instead of the Truth), recounted in Barnett’s multiple voices.
It is not difficult to imagine these hidden voices whispering under the surface of Bariloche, which lets the tourist have a sneak peak here and there at Argentina’s convoluted history without encouraging them to take a stance or even forcing them to pick a side. These days are gone in the picturesque town. History is not just made in the big, internationally known cities like Buenos Aires or Córdoba but lived in the small towns, where everybody knows their neighbour. This makes it impossible to point the finger at each other since every neighbour, and every tourist, is equally guilty and innocent and this “schizophrenic mood” of a Patagonian town renowned for its Italian ice-cream, its German architecture and its Swiss St Bernard’s puppies might just be the result of decades of trying to get by.
1. The fact that The Islands’ content was adapted to readers outside Argentina in translation also begs the question whether the choice of these novels by Gamerro for translation over some of his other work has also been informed by their particularly Argentine topics.