Argentina as a Land Expecting the Undelivered Epic
Andrew Milligan sumo: Buenos Aires, 2016 (CC)
by Arturo Desimone
Greeks who have met Argentines, and Argentines who travel to Greece, often wax on strange parallels — on the discovery of inexplicable and unexpected similarities between peoples, like stumbling upon an enchanted mirror that mocks.
“Brothers! We are brothers” old Greek and Cypriot men in suspenders shudder, standing in their shops, their fingers interlock before hugging me as they’d embrace an image of their youth — a lost friend from their military service; the fading energy in their brains is jolted by the twilight of remembrance before Hades’ dusk enters the deep creases of their faces. “We are brothers, brothers…” Never would I rob my elders of sentimental illusions.
In some important ways, Greeks and Riverplateans (ríoplatenses) mirror each other — partly the result of the immigrant cultures that populated the La Plata river basin at the close of the 19th century (the botched healing of that salted wound of a century, whose influence continues bleeding surreptitiously into Argentinian culture today.) Many first-generation immigrant Argentines came as workers and exiles from Mediterranean Europe, from Black Sea and Asia Minor — and many were deported back to those places by authorities, only to repeat the journey. Not a small number of those were anarchists, or affiliated to other radical movements, deemed doubly unwanted by the elites in Europe. Much of this anarchist past of the 19th and early 20th centuries stands chronicled in novelesque histories by such figures as the recently deceased Osvaldo Bayer — for example, in his untranslated biography of Giovanni di Severino, the young anarchist poet who resorted to terrorism and bombings in the struggle to prevent Argentina becoming an overseas Fascist colony of the rising Axis empire. Bayer’s emblematic biography reproduces Di Severino’s letters, visionary articles, his campaigns and endless love notes to his young companion América Scarfó, whilst showing how the unruly pyromaniac poet-couple became scapegoats, expelled by an increasingly conservative, defeatist anarchist community in the Pampas.
Possibly the last public intellectual of Argentinian anarchism, Bayer remained one of the few widely-beloved figures of the Argentinian literary left who resolutely, unfalteringly refused to identify with Peronism.
Ideological divisions, and anarchist firebrands, also played a significant role in the tumults of 20th century Greece — permitting, once again, a hasty yet resonant transatlantic comparison.
And perhaps most relevant in making the case for comparing these faraway lands: the musical melancholia in Argentinian tango bears some resonance to its very distant Greek cousin, the rivaling rembetiko. Both musical forms hatched in the immigrant underworlds — often performed by orchestras in brothels, with code words referring to the police, warning of raids. These forms — tango and rembetiko — mirror one another. They speak of longing, and of the fantasies and frustrations of immigrants, of sentimental men and ribald women; the moments of departure on ocean liners; the vow to return home, the weight of unanswered, unanswerable or unsent letters. Yet, often the Greek distant relative (or is he an impostering grifter, a charlatan claiming relation?) wins in poesis: in poetry, rembetiko induces more of a trance-like state in its sound-world, beyond the merely sentimental, a little less carnal than tango. Take the poem “Dry Islands of Sorrow” written by Nikos Gatsos during his prison sentence on arid islands. The opening lines, speaking of “four swords” more openly refer to a Tarot-like magic than most tangos:
Where to find four swords?
And a torch at the hand,
to set it on fire today
and burn it entirely—
The world that I loved so much,
abandoned me, and let me rot
I woke up to the bitterness,
I shared my tears
in life’s prison
where there is no Lord’s Day
I have never forgotten
loneliness, the murderess
Yet the accusation levelled at the whole world, and seeing loneliness and lovelessness as injustices; the melancholy, the popular antithesis of all self-help wisdom, inevitably recall tango songwriters — like the infamously sad Argentine Catulo Castillo, rumoured to have turned tears into wine, and back again.
That near-mythical idea, popular in on the streets of Athens, that we Argentines and Greeks are somehow brethren — is it born of a subjective calculation? Has science presented proof? All assertions in our technical-managerial age, after all, require the expert community’s verifications. Have devices been put to use, measuring temperaments, by a hysterometer? Have the census-takers counted the distinctive noses wandering the streets of our cities, have they clocked our nocturnal ways that bite at kleptomaniac clockhands in our capitals?
But these comparisons always suffer glaring omissions, to glaze over sweetly their fraudulent symmetry.
For Greece is sane. And that’s a big difference.
Giuseppe Milo: Sunrise on the rock – Crete, Greece, 2019 (CC)
Contemporary Greek culture is nourished, and its wounds cauterised, by the light upon the Aegean. The bay of Delos is the single brightest coastal site on earth — “Hellas” has no equals.)
The sea caresses Sounio, old temple of Poseidon — I stole a rock from there.
(“Thief” in Greek is kleptis — there’s a trick to learning Greek, our intellectual and even medical words are quite often their most mundane: everyone speaks of thanatos; eros; anthropos; psyche and so forth.)
Greek culture preserves a Byzantine sense of harmony reigning over different aspects of life. A Greek home, especially on the inside, has that element called kalos kosmos, a sense of harmony. A surprising simplicity governs a tiled Neo-Byzantine room — its turquoises softly striking — undermining conventional North Atlantic stereotypes about this being a pompous people.
Over in Argentina, by contrast, there hangs the architecture of stress — a towering superstructure of stress. Monoliths built by dictators or by demagogues, popped up from blueprints imagined inside brains on amphetamines. Nothing Borgesian to them. A Greek cannot imagine a residential building without balconies — cruel as a face with its nose and lips ripped out.
So trap-like are the edifices erected by the junta regimes that they contrast with the less cruel towers that sprung up under Peronism, fitted with workers’ apartments with small hanging gardens and, yes, that human right: the balcony (also an essential pre-telephone medium for communication by shouts between loud-lunged residents.)
Sprawling towers overshadow those older art nouveau structures of haunted, bygone Buenos Aires, monuments that fed that much-derided legend of a “Paris of Latin America” once envisioned by secret societies within the Jockey’s Club who hoped — as did many third world elites — of imitating France far from Europe. Our conspiratorial snobs believed in the beauty of a copy, presuming only the lower castes capable of counterfeit. The autumned presences of that Francophile experiment, including some once beautiful art nouveau embellishments, have all eroded in neglect: a poetry written in faded ink that did not survive acid rains, financial crises and indifference.
Architecture, in theory, remains always amenable to doing away with the old, remains indifferent to conservation. (So goes the profession’s wisdom, at least as told to the ears of amateurs and dilettantes like yours truly.) Architects expect the styles they execute to expire, to fall away, inviting the New to demolish the staccato, without judging it as vandalism by the philistines against the “time-honoured” — like the humane slaughter of old bulls in the corral.
Novel styles supposedly deliver generous, sweeping change to cityscapes: happy bursts of Zeitgeist, waking a land and its citizenry from any mosquito-gnawed slumber, leaving no doubt as to the era and its rejuvenated values.
But in Argentina, the blanks left by erosion, and by countless self-mutilations compelled by our hostile self-regard (conventionally attributed to narcissistic torment about our being neither real Europeans nor resembling our neighbours), are not replaced with new inventions, but are rather filled with stress, with cortisol (to medicalise the stressor). The capital city is like an elephantine grey brain on Alzheimers, full of blanched patches. “And what of the architects?” you might ask, “where is the rejuvenating force of an artistic vanguard?”
Argentinian architects mostly retain the dream of going to Spain. Not out of any stereotypical colonial nostalgia — rather, because they know their profession will be valued, recognised, taken seriously in Spanish capitals. So our architects often move to Barcelona, San Sebastian or Madrid, and usually never return. Typically, in the capital Buenos Aires (nicknamed the bodiless “Head of Goliath” by cultural critic and essayist Ezequiel Martínez Estrada), the clerks and civil engineers a builder employs will blow their snouts on the architects, seeing the latter as dreamy decorators whose advice may be tuned out or interpreted as liberally — liberal the key word here, as in economic liberalism — as deemed convenient, meaning not at all. As a result, one may find few and faded vestiges of that glorious past. And many ugly buildings.
So much for tango, that supposed food of hungry dreamers!
One may still find the designs of that lost bullet-holed belle epoch of European vanguards, preserved and respected in North African cities of former French colonies — art nouveau exteriors hiding indigenous Moroccan or Tunisian interiors, a perhaps perfect metaphor for the resilience, the playful tenacity of former colonies.
But in Argentina we do not know what we are, or who is freed — as in paroled.
What is Argentina? A landmass with diverse climates? An Andes-length sequence of absences? Or a naturalness about economic crises, which is the same as the aforesaid.
In his infinite jest, the anglophile Jorge Luis Borges said “the Argentines are Italians who think in English, and speak Spanish” — while his compatriots, whose Eurocentrism supplies the butt-end of jokes spanning the Latin American continent in all its languages, spoke piping of “Paris of Latin America”.
So, who’s former colony are we? Historians say “Spain”. The Perons, Juan Domingo and Eva, spoke with wrath of a noontide uprising against British usurpers’ colonialism (meaning the servitude of the landed creole elites to overseas English stockholders). If the Perons’ accusation held any water, then we remain the sole former British colony not to have acquired English as lingua franca (Borges, the Anglophile, and yours truly being exceptions). For all of Borges’ quipping Henry James or talking about cradling with Coleridge in his pajamas, no other South American culture seems as resolutely monolingual as that of urban Argentina. This is not to say that Argentines lack love for the study of languages — “Dante Alighieri Societies” remain popular amongst pensioners, ever since their founding by the megalomaniacal general Bartolomeo Mitre (a mediocre translator); courses in the indigenous languages Guaraní and Mapudungun have grown popular on public university campuses, as they undergo a revival in their heartlands.
Yet, a tenacity in the language-processing area of the brain remains: a proud Argentinian neuron, tougher to uproot than a notion, or than the kelp sargasso forest that engulfs the windy straits and tundra of the Malvinas Islands — renamed Falklands by their captors, aging colonists who, packing all their bodies together, formed a single pair of hands to weave an immense island-sized noose from kelp: the last monument between old frozen plane-wrecks nearly as twisted as the regimes that sent them.
About the Author
Arturo Desimone (1984) is an Aruban-Argentinean writer and visual artist, born and raised on the island Aruba, at 22 he emigrated to the Netherlands. He later relocated to Argentina while working on projects related to his Argentinean family background. Desimone’s articles, poetry and fiction pieces previously appeared in Nueva York Poetry Review, Círculo de Poesía (Spanish,) Island (Tasmania), the Drunken Boat, Anomaly and in the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019). He performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana and has exhibited drawings in galleries in Amsterdam and Ciudad la Plata (Argentina). This essay is related to Desimone’s longer project “Notes on a Journey to the Ever-Dying Lands”, a series on lesser known movements in recent and contemporary Latin American poetry.
 Jokes about Argentine pretentiousness versus reality are told in Spanish, Portuguese, Papiamento and Guaraní, to name a few.