Tell me about Doctor Brodie’s Report by Borges.
Well, many of his books are very psychoanalytic and full of mirrors, labyrinths, tigers and alter egos. He always had a sense of being shadowed by another self. Borges is famous for his metaphors and conundrums but the stories in this book are much less allusive and somehow more complete than those in some of the other, better known, collections. These are all about Buenos Aires and feature duals, mythical figures, places with patios and grilled windows, and are full of a sense of his native Palermo. He sets ‘The Gospel According to St Mark’ out in the province – in the Pampas – another region he loved to imagine. Borges’s fiction amounts to a metaphorical universe and he evokes a place I dream of visiting when I’m homesick for Buenos Aires.
He was a strange man, Borges, a bookish man and an Anglophile and possibly a virgin for many years. When he was around in the 1930s and 40s he was the ugly, clever one in the city’s literary circles, and was not successful with women. He was not a typical Argentine man – anti-Peronist, Anglophile, an original in Buenos Aires. If you put him on the couch he’d probably…well, he’d probably tell his stories again.
They sound very Jungian with all the symbols.
Yes, he’d probably be the one for the Jungian couch, though Argentina is much more Freudian/Lacanian. In some ways the symbols are slightly crude and they do recur again and again and again. Lots of people have tried to copy him. In fact, I’m reading a Martin Amis book now [The Pregnant Widow] with a scene set in a bathroom with mirrors that reflect beauty back infinitely – it’s straight out of Borges, a fact I know Amis would readily admit. He’s a big Borges fan.
Infinity beguiled him and the metaphor of the labyrinth expresses that. Of course, that comes from Greek classical literature but I think it might also be a simple way of articulating the grid-like layout of Buenos Aires, a city surrounded by the infinity of the Pampas, an urban labyrinth. He doesn’t write strictly topographically about Buenos Aires but distils it into a metaphoric landscape.
Tell me about Esteban Echeverria’s The Slaughterhouse.
This is actually a short story and is usually published in collections. It was written in 1839 but was censored and not published until much later. I should say that this year, 2010, is Argentina’s bicentennial, but it wasn’t an easy road to peace for Argentina and this story was written in the middle of the struggle, by a liberal Argentinian educated in Europe and in opposition to the country’s first dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas. It’s an allegory of those times. An educated liberal is murdered by mixed-race gauchos and black women and some critics say that the visceral, physical terminology used to describe the murder is more like rape than murder.
Are you one of those people?
I think penetration is mentioned more than it needs to be and the atmosphere is almost festive, yes. You have to remember that Argentina is one of the biggest meatpacking nations in the world and the sense of that goes beyond cows to the humans too. It’s a carnal nation with a history based on slaughter – that’s why the theme is so important. The violence, butchery and slaughter as rape are metaphors for Argentina. There was a 1960s film called Carne and there is a character in it called Delicia who is raped by a fellow butcher in a slaughterhouse and, if I remember rightly, she is actually raped in a carcass and someone says; ‘Meat upon meat.’ This butchery as rape is something in Argentinian culture, the concept of meat as a woman’s body. Meat is more than meat there. If you were a psychoanalyst and your patient mentioned meat you’d be straight off to read meat histories. The English eat it on a Sunday and get on with it, but not in Argentina.
So death is a way of life. Slaughter a means of survival, of reproduction almost?
It was the most significant thing in terms of the development in Argentina. Barbed wire came later – and was how the new white European landowners controlled land – the people, the gauchos and the Pampas. All the processes were butchery – first murder the inhabitants and replace with cattle. Then pen up the gauchos, control nature, slaughter the cattle. It’s all murder, fencing, restriction. And lust: I mean, Argentinian for a tenderloin steak is lomo, the same word for a woman’s thighs. ‘Nice lomo.’
X-ray of the Pampa by Ezequiel Martínez Estrada.
Argentina has a strong history of historical essentialism, books that try to find the essence of a country. I suppose England is doing it a bit now too, with Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Marr. This one is about what we do with the infinite empty space that we have inherited as a country. Most of the population of Argentina is concentrated in Buenos Aires and the second city, Córdoba, and there is too much emptiness, wildness and emptiness, wilderness in a Biblical sense. It’s a place to go to question things, to return from. Estrada is thinking about roads, canals, railways – how do we penetrate the great interior. In South America there is a continuous plain of emptiness from the Pampas to Patagonia, and in Argentina this huge expanse failed to get populated and no great riches came from large expanses of it. Since the 1920s Argentina has gone from, I think, the eighth richest country in the world to the 22nd or 23rd, and that statistic hides all sorts of social divides and poverty. It has all this land but that raises the question – what do we do with it if we don’t exploit it? How will this nothingness, this nada affect us? It’s a beautiful word in Spanish, nada, nothingness. The great unknown, the great empty space. Abroad we think of Argentinians as gauchos but in Buenos Aires they’re always really keen to remind you that theirs is a world city. The mistake of Buenos Aires in a way is that it is an island in empty plains with no connection to its heartland. In an infinite horizon there is nowhere to put your goals. There aren’t even any trees in the Pampas. Someone said to me that the infinite horizon gives you an infinite reach and vision, but it hasn’t really done that in Argentina.
I suppose Melanie Klein would say that Argentinians have perhaps failed to internalise a good object and are projecting the potential of menacing emptiness, or an internalised bad object, on to the Pampas so that the Pampas represent a fear of annihilation, of not being held or fed by a loving parent.
That could be right. But don’t get me on to Argentinians and parents… and, of course, the irony is that the pampas do feed the city-dwellers. They just prefer to distance themselves from the wide-open horizon.
Your fourth book is about tango! Tango: The Art History of Love by Robert Farris Thompson.
I could have chosen thousands of books about tango. I’m not a dancer but I do have a passion for tango music and lyrics. This book traces the black, African history of tango. Argentina is famous for whitening its culture. Whereas Brazil still has a mixed-race community and so does Uruguay, in Argentina the blacks were used as cannon fodder in wars against the Indians, and many tango historians have tended to ignore the African influence in a music that is infused with African rhythms. The chances are that the word tango is African, perhaps Angolan, perhaps it was the name of the place or a kind of drum. It’s clearly not Spanish. There are early 19th-century sketches of African mourners at funerals moving in a tango-like way and one of them shows black people carrying a coffin and making these strange movements. It’s possible. Funerals might have been more festive than they are now and certainly people talk about tango as the dance of death. The book hints that it might have come from a ritual funeral dance. Of course, tango used to be part of the carnival culture that has more or less died out now in urban Argentina.
The book says that ‘if nostalgia is a country then tango is its capital’ and that tango is ‘a battle between gravity and space’. Tango in Argentina is a world of metaphor, an ideology, a way of life, a way of allowing the mind to open to cosmic thoughts. It’s very unfashionable with younger people, but even people who don’t like it or live it recognise that it’s the subtext of Argentina – you hear the music in taxis, you see it in the way people walk. Or is tango a reflection of the way they walk – it’s dialectic, I suppose.
The lyrics are very melancholy – it’s all about men being alone, men missing their mothers. Argentina was full of Polish whores in the 19th century. There was a lot of white trafficking for the Italian and Spanish workers there. There weren’t enough women. It’s often associated with the brothel culture of the early 20th century too but that is overstated. In fact, it is not a dance of the man and his whore, of a man and a woman, but it is very probably the music they would have listened to in the waiting-room, while waiting for the woman. It’s waiting-room music, a sort of sensual Muzak.
That’s so interesting. So it’s the fantasy of the act rather than the reflection of it.
Yes. Tango is about constraint and control, well the dance is. The lyrics are often about abandonment, betrayal, homesickness – these are the Argentinian neuroses. A longing for Europe and for mama. Not that it’s particularly a matriarchal culture, but the ‘mama’ is very much revered. There is another book called Tangoanálisis which makes the link between tango and psychoanalysis explicit, saying that tango has a hysterical pattern: seduction, rejection, confusion, longing. This book I’ve chosen is not so literal but just hints at the connections. I don’t think the connections have been fully explored – tango as a way of reading the society rather than a cultural product.
Do you explore them in your book?
I lived in Buenos Aires between 1991 and 2001 and my relationship with it was too intimate to write a travel book so I am trying to write something between a travel book and a memoir. I have to deal with the levels of the relationship I had with it as an ex-pat. The thing about being an ex-pat is that there is only a degree of difference between needing to leave your country because of economic or political pressures and needing to leave because you are unhappy there. The lure of Buenos Aires is that it is a new world city that feels like the old world, and it is so viscerally broken. It takes a long time to get past the wine, meat and women. Argentina has a very beautiful thin skin that one can easily get lost in.
I think people flee to the place that outwardly, concretely reflects their inner psychological turmoil. Last book: Freud in the Pampas by Mariano Plotkin.
I’m not normally a fan of academic books and this one is pretty dry. But there is always lots of amateur café/bar theorising about psychoanalysis in Argentina and how it’s because there are a lot of Jewish people around, but Plotkin goes for the straight facts. He talks about the arrival of psychoanalysis with immigration and how the language of it actually spread through the media, especially women’s magazines. Then the University in Buenos Aires began to teach it and in the 1960s the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association was formed. Then with the dictatorship in 1976 psychoanalysis came to be seen as quite subversive and a lot of psychoanalysts were tortured and killed. The regime appropriated some of the language and theories, though, and used them for their own ends of indoctrination.
Psychoanalysis is one of the ways urban Argentinians can feel different from other Latin Americans – I have never lived in a city where it is so ordinary to go for therapy. They love to talk and to confess and perhaps analysis is just a controlled environment for them to do what they would be doing anyway. I saw a Lacanian analyst in Buenos Aires and I remember looking out at the swimming pool and wondering if it might not be better value to just come over and use the pool every day.
They use the words histeria and histérica a lot to describe people and I thought of it like the English word, hysterical, which usually means laughing wildly. I know it comes from the word uterus but in Argentina it actually means a need to be popular and be praised, to make people like you. It makes sense because in nightclubs in Buenos Aires you see a sea of histeria, with everyone looking at each other so avidly, sort of gushing. They gush about everything but when it’s somebody else’s new boyfriend it starts seeming sort of inappropriate.
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