Friday, July 16, 2010

Argentina and the Southern Cross

We arrived in Argentina June 21, a few hours after it turned winter there. While Bali is about 10 degrees south of the equator, Buenos Aires is 35 degrees south. One evening in San Antonio de Areco, where the gaucho picture above was taken (there were festivities going on and I was putting the dodge on dancing), several us went out far out away from the out buildings on the ranch and, standing next to the fence for a giant pasture, we looked up and scanned the sky to see if we could spot the Southern Cross. I didn’t know what proportion to look for. Would I have to sort of glue it together in my mind like I do the Big Dipper, or would it jump at me at a glance, like Orion’s belt. Well, it jumped at me. The Southern Cross hangs in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere like a crucifix on the wall at home when you were growing up. I know, not everybody's Catholic, but 92 percent of Argentina is. It is a beautiful, stately four star configuration (technically five star but the key cross figure is the four points you’d expect to form a t shape). It was not small but it was rather compact, so the entire effect of it hits the eye at once and with startling force. That was the evening of our first night in the country, after eleven days in the city, Buenos Aires.

Most of the people in our group knew cities, and Buenos Aires is beautiful and European in flavor, but it's a typical city in more ways than not. While Argentina is big in square miles, almost half of its 36 million people live in the city and province of Buenos Aires. Suffice it to say, it was good to get out of town.

Like Bali, probably like the US, too, if I think about it, in some sense Argentina has become an attraction, a tourist stop-off, and when you go there, there are, as they say, places to go, things to see, and like a good tourist, you check them off one by one. The result is seeing the Argentina someone has fashioned for you to see, like a photograph of it instead of the thing itself. In fact, progress has taken the country beyond gauchos and the tango, and, as in the US, the new generations are making their own new Argentina, but part of that new Argentina is that many people are employed to show these artifacts of Argentina's past to those who come visit and to represent them as Argentina. The Buenos Aires tourist literature tells you where to go for tango lessons and to see "real" gauchos. In Bali, you can read in similar literature where to go to see quaint villages, and when you get to them, there they are being professionally quaint and performing the Bali version of quaintness. It's okay. There is a real Bali, with amazingly beautiful people, but they know new money when they see it and are lithe enough to go for it. Somewhere there is a statistic about the money being made in Bali, and at the top of the list of activities that make it, you won't find rice farming. If that's how human beings worked, there would still be a lot of Americans interested in 4-H and running a hardware store in Kansas. No, there's a lot of money to be made on the story of America. There's a whole town in South Dakota that exists on the historical concept of Wild Bill Hickock, promoting the myth and selling U. S. Marshal's badges with a Colt .45 sized hole in them, nevermind Bill was shot in the back. Nevermind Argentina is past gauchos, the Balinese don’t love poverty more than they love tourists, and we in the new Americana are past cowboys and Indians. As Bali is willing to risk rapid deterioration of its beauty in order to sell its beauty to a withering stream of tourists, the US is willing to forgive the ruination of the gorgeous waters of the Gulf to keep the oil flowing in its veins. I digress again....

But do I? If I really went out into that pasture to see the Southern Cross for the first time, what was even more awesome than that constellation was the night sky itself. We’d been in Buenos Aires quite a while and the sky, as above all modern big cities, was dulled out and muted by ambient light in polluted air. Out in the country, away from lights, the sky was sparkling and pristine. I’d been terribly worked up by the Gulf oil spill, and I didn’t realize how much so. I think I began to believe nothing was clean and bright anymore. When was the last time you looked at the Milky Way, our galaxy? The pasture gave us a big flat gentle winter breeze, the great smell of the land, earth, like we remember it, a sky so vivid you could almost imagine we hadn’t yet ruined everything for ourselves. The irony. If word were to get out about the beauty of the sky at the edge of this beautiful pasture somewhere in Argentina, the inevitable would happen again – we’d go there in droves, stomp it, pave it, buy postcards of it.

I'd go back to Argentina. I'd try to find a writing place there, far enough from the city that ambient light wouldn't snuff my hope, close enough so I could get into town and see the art. The only way to get through the skrim of self-conscious promotion of an image of real Argentina (or anyplace) is to live there a while. I am curious and want to see Argentina's really real life, its day to day people and work and art and stories. You and I know there are great stories there -- in fact, though the lens will be different, we probably even know what those stories are. Half the fun is knowing they're half universal, half so specific to this beautiful country they could take place nowhere else.

I’ve been writing stories set in these places I’m visiting. As with the Bali story, I'm finding myself writing an ex-patriot fiction (I can’t get myself to presume to write from the point of view of a store-keeper in Ubud or a young person from the pampas now living in a suburb of Buenos Aires, so the ex-pat gambit is on again), and even so there's research to be done so that the story is organic to Argentina. Research. The core lesson of writing (for me) always elbows its way forward as I'm industriously making notecards and loving "information." It is: write the story while researching. The story can't be mulled and figured out in advance, and thus what well-targeted research is needed can't be predicted -- in novels this is, or could be, different. In stories, the story itself will arise from the writing of it. I'm sure there's a metaphor for this in the tango. In the metaphor, one of the dancing partners is the writer, the other is the writing on the page. And, you know, it switches back and forth. :-)


  1. I've been waiting for this post, and thanks for the liminal response, one foot in Argentina and one in Bali. I saw the Southern Cross from a sailboat in Far North Queensland and felt completely disoriented, having come to rely on Northern Hem stars. The alien sky caused me to reconsider my self, my corporeality and metaphysicality, if that makes sense. I wonder if that happened to you in Argentina and in Bali.

    Anyhow, glad you're back, professor. And glad you're at the page.

  2. Hi Phil

    Thanks for sharing your Argentina/Bali insights here -- makes me want to take a trip. I remember Bali from a few years ago and it's magic and yes, how they know 'new money,' and can smell it from afar.

    I like your metaphor of dancing partners -- I feel a poem in there -- and it's all yours (forthcoming in your next collection!)