It’s hard to tell Argentina’s story without moments of despair. Even those who are fond of this country — like me — can struggle to identify the bright spots in its history. It’s been a tale of genocide, shrinking borders, pointless wars, hyper-inflation and vicious dictators. Even the end of the second world war brought little joy, given that Argentines had spent much of it egging on the Nazis.
Part of the problem has been one of grandiose expectations. A century ago, Argentina believed itself on the brink of greatness, its fortune built on meat. Immigrants arrived in their millions, and a few — like Aristotle Onassis — became unhealthily rich. Here was the new USA, and all sorts of people turned up to admire it (including Noël Coward, Corbusier and Albert Einstein). One ranch even laid out a mile of carpet for the visiting Prince of Wales. Meat money was always washing around. By 1927, British companies had covered Argentina with 16,300 miles of railway track, and it was the world’s biggest importer of American cars. Within 30 years, however, the country was bust.
Despite the disappointments, Argentines have never given up hope, or at least their sense of entitlement. With exuberant optimism they’ve made jets that didn’t work, and cars that sounded like tractors. Desperate for flattery, they’ve found some unpromising champions: a crooner (Gardel), a bully boy (Peron) and a B-rate actress (Evita). Even the seizure of the Falklands had hopes soaring. I was travelling in Corrientes then, and remember people talking about sun-drenched islands, and a glorious new future. How had the Argentine century gone so badly wrong?
Andrew Graham-Yooll has devised a brilliant way of telling this tale with Goodbye Buenos Aires. Although himself an editor (most famously — and courageously — on the Buenos Aires Herald) he’s avoided simply poring over the wreckage. Instead, he’s reassembled a 35-year chunk of it around the life of Douglas, his ‘lightly fictionalised’ father. Douglas was there — on the periphery — at every big moment in Argentine history; the royal visits, the boom, the gluts, and the rise of the thugs. Through him, the country’s failures attain a poignancy seldom conveyed by outsiders, with all the sounds and smells restored.
Here is Evita with foul breath, and a palace housekeeper with a laugh ‘like the slow striking of 100 matches’. These were years of cheap drink, sweat, and endless meat — with always the sinister swish of knives, keenly applied to both animal and man.
Arriving from Scotland in 1928, Douglas was a man of great hope but limited ambition. All he wanted from his adopted country was a little fruit farm and plenty of sex. The latter was easy, if unsettling. In the moral vacuum of the meat boom, there was always someone ripe for exploitation; Paraguayan orphans, skinny Polish immigrants or the whores (all slashed and scarred).
Sometimes it was Douglas being exploited, at the hands of British wives. They wore shapeless dresses ‘so as not to be seen tempting other women’s men’, but could be determinedly carnal (the wife of the embassy’s Number Two was particularly insistent with her fellatio). But, like the Argentines, Douglas never learned from these tawdry encounters, and always lived in hope that there was something better around the corner.
Finding the little fruit farm proved harder. Initially, there were adventures and plenty of jobs. Douglas became a tap-dancer, an antiques-forger, and then a salesman pedalling cattle cures. But things didn’t quite work out. His life would be dogged by the same ills that wasted Argentina: drink, debt, Peronistas and casual violence. He did, however, manage to cobble together enough for a home in the suburbs, with a garden of ferocious ants. It wasn’t quite what he’d dreamed of — a little house on the pampas — but it was happiness of sorts.
For years, Goodbye Buenos Aires went almost unnoticed in Britain but now, thankfully, Eland has given it new life. Argentina has often been misunderstood, even by its British settlers (‘intimate with the soil … alien to the people’) and the Americans that followed (with their ‘chummy superficiality’). With a book like this, that may change. Witty, brutal and beautifully crafted, there is probably no truer portrait of this remarkable country.