Here in Argentina people tell me, often enough that it’s a kind of refrain, that there’s no future for them in this country. Sometimes this takes the form of the plans they’re making – the qualification they’re working towards, the money they’re saving – to live in the exterior; sometimes it’s frustration and a sense of hopelessness because their earnings don’t cover their expenses and will never permit them to buy a house, a car or even the devices that are particularly expensive here. The pandemic has made things worse for nearly everyone – more than forty percent of the population is now living in poverty – but even beforehand I heard this sentiment more often in Argentina than in other parts of the continent. Partly I think it’s a matter of expectations. It’s often said that Argentines are Americans who think themselves European: it’s not just the cultural ties resulting from the millions of immigrants from (especially) Spain and Italy, but also the existence of a middle class that expects to live like the European bourgeoisie.
The Buenos Aires papers have latched onto the luxe version of this dilemma, crafting the narrative of an “exodus” of rich Argentines to Uruguay, where the coronavirus is mostly under control; the new conservative president has offered residency to anyone with $380,000 to drop on an apartment on the other side of the river. My favourite story of this type concerned Susana Gimenez, a fixture of Argentine TV (a sort of Kerri-Anne Kennerley), who flew to Punta del Este in a private jet in the early days of the quarantine, comparing Argentina under its new Peronist government to Venezuela; karma acted quickly and she fell on the stairs of her mansion, dislocating her elbow. But this preoccupation with escape is not just cosa de ricos, and there’s sadness as well as privilege in the conviction that in your own country all that awaits you is disappointment.
I was startled to find this discourse repeated almost verbatim in Jorge Riestra’s story “El fluir del tiempo”, published in his collection A vuelo de pájaro in 1972. Riestra was a Rosario writer best known for his affectionate portraits of the masculine spaces of the city’s cafes, bars and pensions, often reproducing their argot. The final story in the collection, “El fluir del tiempo” (“The Passing of Time”) is quite different in diction and tone; it’s an interesting, somewhat disjointed story, bold in the way it preserves the breaks in its construction. It begins as an erotic daydream and then morphs into a reflection (which I’ve translated a portion of below) on the narrator’s alienation from the city. It reads more like a personal essay than fiction; Riestra’s prose, with its surfeit of commas and dashes, its sentences that run on and on, determined to be comprehensive (I can relate), seems built to make an argument, not to evoke a character.
But then, in the final third of the story, with the simple words “One night,” Riestra locates the narrator in time, and he begins to act. He walks into the centre of the city, where he encounters the barricades of a student protest, quiet for the moment after a long clash with the police. The violence exhilarates him and makes him feel old, that his generation’s moment has passed; he mingles with the youths, impressed by their battle-hardened air, and shyly offers his cigarettes to a young blonde in a red jumper, who comes to personify the moment for him. Excited by this contact, by the possibility of breaking with his ennui, he goes home and the next day, in a meta touch, he writes the long reflection that opens the story. “The only thing left to clarify was how the story ended… the destiny of that almost autobiographical character that debated between hope and exclusion. Must he resist? Must he be born again? Must he die?” That night the narrator returns to the barricades to find out.
* * *
Something similar appeared to be happening to him with his city. With the force of a sentence being handed down, the impression had begun to overpower him – this time, yes, it was painful – that his city was ending for him. That which had been for him a living organism that sprouted pseudopods in every direction, with a rich and profound interior, warm to the point of laughter or tears, had become a scrawny body with a marked tendency to aridity. The city had grown, not in the sense of a suggestive, vital richness but as a mere agglomeration of people and houses. What remained to him, after having walked so much, were four or five streets in which he could still find that alternation of daytime slog and nighttime murmur that had been – since he was a boy – one of the roots of his love for the city (and the river, obviously, but the river was not truly part of the city; it was more seen than contemplated, more contemplated than lived); the rest, which presented itself permanently wrapped in a grey atmosphere that made all alike even the most obvious diversities, did not only leave him indifferent but provoked in him the frankest rejection, a rejection that began with something like unease and ended up combining hostility and horror. Sometimes, driven by the need to prove he was wrong and that what lay behind this wretched error was an enormous clumsiness and a blindness it seemed there was no hope of curing, he set out walking along streets whose choice he left to pure chance – as he had done in the past. He was not long in turning around, pursued by images of frustration, of desolation, of sterility, of death. Only a few leafy sectors – those long rows of plane trees that were like streams of silence in the unflagging coming and going of the city – or some palm or old gum, emerging over the roofs like miraculous apparitions from another world, broke the tremendous monotony, the total lack of expression, the impotent muteness of blocks and blocks emptied of any refuge for the soul, true inhabited deserts – inhabited but not made human – by rushing pedestrians and automobiles. It was not an impression of decline that he gleaned from those streets – because decline would have implied, at least, a history with its conflicts and fluctuations –; what struck him there was a mediocrity without age, stonily closed to any possibility of change and fearful even of shadow and doubt. Still, on the outskirts, some simple barrios saved themselves with their warm embers of suffering humanity and the wafting fragrance of the last jasmines, but on those streets that were the province of the middle class of two incomes and the portfolio under one arm, what but the small lives of small employees, small landlords, small whatever sheltered behind that infinite succession of grey facades? Who, of those that lived there, could overcome that impassive mask? What enormous spiritual force, what impatience, what bear’s tenacity did they have to possess to not end up robing themselves, at thirty, at thirty-five or at forty, hands, face, glance, soul, in that same grey as the grey facades? What defences had to be raised to keep the question what for? – that insidious poison that threatens to ruin many of the best – from infiltrating the veins until it paralysed the arms and mind? What sort of madness was necessary to not end up surrendering in resignation and silence? He knew some who fought and suffered, but how alone they were, how lost, how anguished!
It was these images that led him to turn and go back as if fleeing to one of those four or five streets where, taking refuge in some café, foul-smelling and soon to disappear – because hygiene, pharmacies, repression, things made of plastic and supermarkets were the way of progress – he could find a few of these stupendous outsiders, those great wasters of time that the grinding machine of commercialised, bureaucratic society did not take the trouble to reach, considering them useless and on their way to inevitable extinction. They were what the grey men – and conspicuously the police and the serious newspapers – called the social dregs, rubbish whose final destination was the broom of the well-oiled and constantly renewed competitive set of gears. But there, at least, and accompanied by a few glasses that they never ceased draining, it was possible to hear and emit some healthy and resonant guffaw, and listen to and participate in conversations that did not inexorably lay anchor in buying and selling, in money or success, in status or in rating, or the blind alley – intellectually interesting – of out-of-date politics. Sometimes it occurred to him that from those dives, from those that could resist – underground and negligible, but miraculously surviving – the aligning swell of the cosmopolis would arise – within forty, fifty or still more years, when the convulsive clamour of the currents and trends in art, literature, philosophy, anthropology, all that immense waste of intelligence, play and erudition demonstrated its perfect and worn out uselessness – the damned poets of the future, who would not be the bestsellers with the cranky shout and the summer house in whichever Riviera, pampered and made rich by the same minority crowds that amuse themselves and dance to the beat of their own cat of nine tails, but true and coherent subversives, the carriers of a new language born of silence, and for that condemned to ostracism and hunger. A vision that no doubt was comforting like a good swallow of gin and a cigarette in the cold afternoon, but did not lighten even by a gram the truth that told him that the city was ending for him, and that the existence of those four of five streets was the irrefutable proof that he had been locked in a cell, cleverly disguised but a cell all the same. Although he had no illusions about human nature, he toyed with the idea of a departure, a clean leap in the void that ended provisionally in any unknown city – because it would be a city, given that he was one of those possessed by the love and the curse of the big city – where his old habits, which were in fact cracked, could survive and even blossom in contact with the new – other people, other streets, another river, another language. For a long time he had refused stubbornly the temptation of uprooting himself; and though he could leave, he had chosen to stay – believing it to be richer and more genuine, more in accordance with what he had pompously called his mission, than the fireworks of the wandering life, thirsty for frontiers and the myths of other cultures –; at most he had practiced a fleeting pilgrimage, that nomadic passage through that which is strange because it is distant, that paradoxically is ignited and defined – and enriched – by the promise of a return to one’s sources – to a house in his city, to a street in his barrios, to a seat in his cafe, to a night in his nights. He had to recognise that that conviction, jealously defended for more than twenty-five years, began to show cracks as wide as a fist – a phase, but not just any phase, that would end with the unmistakeable qualities of a small death. He felt more and more attracted by the emphatic simplicity of a gesture: leave without even saying goodbye and disappear, throw himself naked in the anonymous torrent of a great foreign city – foreign in everything: in its history, in its speech, in its customs, in its tastes – lose himself as just one more, but much more, just because his going astray was voluntary, and thus prepare himself for the rebirth, made of memory and forgetfulness, of pain and astonishment, of stillness and anxiety. And once uprooted, to never again put down roots; flee from every blueprint, not only mentally but physically as well; not to anchor but to dock; not to stay but to pass through; to be a dour shadow over the earth.
The chimerical – and suicidal, as well – side of that crazy project did not escape him – that at bottom he knew he would never realise, and not for the lack of strength nor of interior freedom but because of stubbornness, an obstinance (obscurely inspired by love) that perhaps was more suicidal that the most hare-brained act of daring –; his mocked and mocking operetta romanticism did not go so far. But on the other hand, in the expertly oppressive society in which he lived, what search for a profound solution to any existential problem – any gesture that involved a rebellion against an established order, that everyday one for each individual or the political order, with all that went with it, for everyone – did not have it in equal or even greater measure? And leaving aside as anecdotal what his city was or had ceased to be for him, what if not inviting him to expatriate had the country done since he had begun to contemplate it with the attentive eyes of a twenty-year-old? What fabulous weight of stupid violence and deceived fanaticism, of frustrations and disagreements, of rapacious exploitation and scarcity, of refined complicities and Machiavellian manoeuvres, of persecutions and patriotic blows, of scepticism and defeat would the scales of the last twenty-five years of the country’s history exhibit? How not to make sense of the perplexity and the discouragement of so many who ended up taking shelter – but failed, failed and knowing it – in the meagre goal of a lifestyle that permitted a new car every second year, the summer by the sea, the private school for the children and the jet flight to the United States or to Europe? Or the aggression and confusion of the young, who inherited – and who to blame, then, but the parents and the elders, with whom to break but them? – a destroyed country in a world that threatened every day to destroy itself. Or the resentment and the bitterness of the poor, invited to sit in the stalls to see the sumptuous colour film of industrial civilisation, and meanwhile subject to the permanent threat – of course, with the most altruistic and elevated motives – of unemployment, internal migration and even greater exploitation? Considered coldly – and he had never been able to do it, perhaps because of a weakness for egotism which had characterised him in other areas – it was a country that expelled. It was not hard to imagine it saying almost paternally: “But what are you doing here? What are you waiting for? That your youth and life disappear while you try to guide me? Fools! If I have at the ready my cheap warlords and my distinguished well-paid lawyers, my generals on duty and my waiting civilians, my foreign interests and my obliging consultants, my orders and counterorders equally obeyed, my pretended respect for the Federation and my steel Unitarianism of cudgel and disciplinary action! What are you waiting on, then, to leave? Go, go now! It’s a big world. Don’t fool yourselves: you won’t find peace. You’ll find art, and science, and technique, and status, recognition and prestige, or indifference and a silent death, but you won’t find peace. But it doesn’t matter. Here you won’t even manage to fail: you will be frustrated softly, uselessly, miserably, pursued by fear, insecurity, desperation, impotence. Let’s go, depart and save yourselves! There’s no more effective drug than a well-timed exile. You will never forget me entirely. I will pursue you – and at times I will torture you – with my mountains and my rivers, with my plains and my forests, with my sunny plazas and my barrio corners, with the images of what I could have been and am not – what are you going to do, boys, you say it like me – with my chats over coffee, with my music and the looks, the gestures and the laughter of those who have stayed – even those of the dead. More than one morning you will open the door believing that what unfurls outside is not the eighth arrondissement, or the Via San Gallo, or the West End, but the streets of Flores or Almagro, or those of Saladillos or Barrio Clinicas, or that that which gurgles is not a poorly turned off tap, but a clear canal in the siesta of a Mendoza summer. You will find yourselves talking alone and hearing as if in dreams the voices of my language: you will search for someone to speak it with, you will move heaven and earth to find someone who speaks it. You will set out to get books, papers and magazines that place you even for an instant face to face with my big problems, my small triumphs, my shrugged shoulders and my jokester’s smile, with everything that will be far away, but now no longer far; and it will squeeze your heart every time you read words like crisis, coup, general strike, layoffs, poverty, death toll. And you will cry, be absolutely certain that you will cry. For this reason too you will never have peace. But leave anyway, without delay. Nostalgia is a haze that doesn’t kill anyone, and life is short.”
It was a strange country, yes, commanding a territory immense and rich like few others and inhabited by people of good quality – at least no worse than those that history and the present show frankly – and nevertheless apparently condemned to writhe blindly like the wounded fish – and with the approval of many, sudden worshippers of the sharp knife that enters and tears their own flesh. To look at it was to begin to ask yourself: one could turn grey inquiring how, why, since when; many even said to leave to try and understand from a more serene distance. But what could have been the ferment of valuable creative activity – in politics, in the economy, in art, in literature, in whatever branch that a new thought shook like a strong rain shakes the drowsiness of summer – turned out to a factor that paralysed, sterilized, demoralized. After so many and such tremendous ups and down, after so much coming and going, so many jolts and hopes and falls, what remained was a repetition without goals, a servile imitation, a poverty. Politics oscillated between liberals, Peronists and bloodless and messianic uprisings, one waited in line in the well-carpeted lobbies of the international bank, the sculptors left for Paris, the best literature was produced by an emigrant, the press made one laugh or made one furious, the greatest passion bloomed on the soccer fields, the country exported intelligence and imported fashion, ghosts were shaken to stifle any possible renewal in the first cry of the newborn, plans were made in the air, the bureaucracy was condemned and the bureaucrats polished, money was skimped on education while they bought tanks and aircraft carriers, there was no medicines or swabs in the hospitals and the police were reinforced, one made speeches about the country and thought about one’s bank account and yields, activity ended in inaction, there was pursuit, siege and drowning, behind the colossal buzzing there was an unbelievable void, one declaimed and forgot, declaimed and forgot. To speak to someone about the country meant being the victim – and perpetrator – of a kind of scam; there was a general atmosphere of fraud, a bitter grimace of distrust and disappointment, an incessant cheerless mumble. The State claimed to be cheated by the taxpayers and the taxpayers by the wasteful State; the importers by the obstacles in customs; agriculture by the withholding of crops and the prices set by politicians; the industrialists by bad distribution and the scarcity of credit; the interior of the country by the capital, which managed the national economy to suit itself, and the capital by the interior, always waiting on handouts from the big city and its port; the armed forces by their outdated equipment; the working class by the incessant increase in the cost of living and by the stingy avarice of the bosses, and the bosses by the worker’s lack of productivity; the politicians by a fickle and faithless citizenry, and the people by the politicians whose only ambition was to enrich themselves through their use of public functions; the small businesses by the big and the big business by the instability of a country that did not guarantee an orderly and fruitful expansion; the consumers by retail, retail by wholesale and wholes by the pressure of taxes and the general conditions of the market; the doctors by the mutual associations that turned them into the proletariat and the mutual associations by the legalised privileges of the doctors; the property owners by the unfair advantage of frozen rents and the tenants by the inexistence of affordable loans, an inexistence that made illusory the purchase of one’s own home; the hotel owners by the shortening of the school holidays; the lovers of football by the new techniques that limited the old criollo cunning; the musicians by the lack of protection of native music from the invasion of the foreign; twenty-year-olds by forty-year-olds, forty-year-olds by sixty-year-olds, and sixty-year-olds by life; the… What a tower of Babel! What a mess! And at a handspan from the half-closed eyes, the rigid blinkers of papier mache.