“Pegamequemegusta, I presume?” came the words of the Foreign Correspondent as we nestled drowsily in the long grass, “Whither thy pen?” The address was relayed to us by a translator, so long had we been without hearing our mother tongue. We rose, adjusted our once-robust loincloth and wiped the sleep from our eyes. Cocks, we replied, why do they crow? Fifteen months we’ve been out here, far from the net, and none the wiser. The dawn, it had soon become clear, had precious little to do with it. Unless they perceive some ultraviolet rays several hours before first light, many of the neighbourhood roosters were clearly taking the piss. Several hypotheses we developed: sometimes they sing when one of their hens lays an egg; sometimes they sing for joy, like good Nietzscheans. Further observation, study and dressing up in discarded feathers with a red sock on our head led us to float the idea sometimes they sing just to let other roosters know they’re there.
Yet what about cock fights? They seemed so peaceful day after day pecking, puffing out their macho chests, strutting and preening in their colourful get-ups like little Sergio Ramoses, yet nary a bout of gratuitous violence. Could the rooster really be such a temperamental fellow? It would explain its adoption as mascot by the fickle, impotent French, while simultaneously provoking the question as to why no-one had ever thrown a second cockerel onto the pitch at the Stade de France… No, those who tear at each other in the ring must be biffed about and egged on, or subjected to some kind of Ludovico treatment.
The Foreign Correspondent’s response was unequivocal: “thus is their nature. I am a foreign correspondent and can testify. Indeed, I must testify; ’tis my calling. No puff-piece will be my work. Ah begorrah the lip on those my dear subjects may be enough to make a round-bellied calf bleat wholesome country airs but I shall shine a thousand megawatt dental lamp on their rotten molars and wrench away with a force that’d make the yeller sun whimper. I shall perform a perfect plex on their psyche so severe their children’s children shall wince at the mere whisper of the grass that bends before my path, like Enda Kenny before an email from a third-class Finnish clerk: ‘thy suggestion is my obligation – we still have some people left, and they would be happy to gain the experience, free of charge, of course, of serving as gnomes in your doubtlessly magnificent winter garden, a buachaill.’ For I am a foreign correspondent.”
We here at Pegamequemegusta have our own thoughts on the matter, and we shall bring them to you by and by, oh hunchèd one. Nature, though, is more blind and inscrutable than that bowsy, Justice; and the esteemed correspondent would do well to turn his gaze thence where the cocks crow so he might temper with the heavens’ gentle rain earth’s all-consuming fire. Entropy is, after all, Nature’s mercy plea; yet all we ask for is a little empathy. Empathy, above, all, for the correspondent, whose lonely, coddled existence being ferried around to meet political leaders, social workers, priests, authors and the like, going on ride-arounds with the police if the country is regarded as being in the least bit insalubrious, it all contributes to frustration of epic proportions, a frustration that, in V. S. Naipaul’s articles on Argentina in the early 1970s, results in the blackest, most apocalyptic prose you’re likely to see outside the footnotes in Zlatan’s notorious On Baldness.
Indeed, while he was writing his series of extensive reports on Argentina in the mid-1970s, Naipaul wrote to his wife that he was having a recurring dream of an exploding head. Sent by the New York Review of Books to cover the increasingly desperate, incestuous and bloody disintegration of the grass desert by the port, the dispatches are among the most interesting examples of the Foreign Correspondent genre we’ve read. Published between 1972-’74, ‘The Corpse at the Iron Gate‘ and ‘Argentina: Brothels Behind the Graveyard‘ discuss the return of Perón after nearly 20 years in exile in Spain. Ousted in a bloody coup in 1955, any mention of Perón, peronist slogans or songs, not to mention Evita, was outlawed by the military government. Nevertheless, his benign national socialism exerted such an influence over the country that it has remained the basis of almost all political discourse in the country – even among those who despise Peronism. It’s as controversial as it is inescapable.
Back in the early 1970s, after almost 20 years in exile in Spain, everyone wanted a piece of Perón. He was seen as the saviour. Indeed, the religious comparison is not too out of place as the movement had far outgrown the man. Think Jesus coming back to interrupt the Council of Trent or Mohammed interrupting some young jihadi yapping into his webcam. (What, you mean you didn’t..?) It became a rather macabre case of why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. When thousands turned out at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires to welcome the general home, there was a bloody massacre. Left-wingers, right-wingers, everyone thought of themselves as peronista. That raised the question as to what the hell peronism was, then. Everything, apparently: “Another peronist day,” remarks one of the characters in Osvaldo Soriano’s novel No habrá más penas ni olvido as dawn breaks following the night of the Ezeiza massacre. After what has transpired it should be bitterly ironic. He is deadly serious, however.
The return of el General came to look a bit like Saturn eating his babies. According to Naipaul, however, Argentina has no real father figure, not even any patriarchal founding myth in which to seek solace in the recurring periods of strife. “Argentina has no history,” he says, just vague ‘stages’ that repeat themselves in a stunning, maddening, dull manner. No myth was found to replace that of the aristocratic colonial land exposed as baseless and cruel and overturned by Perón after just a few short years in power.
Hmm, that actually sounds intriguing and thought-provoking, considered, informed and radical. Moreover, in his carefully wrought text Naipaul is a human camera, a tracking shot from a taxi window shunting along the scream-ridden streets of the capital or rolling along a dirt road in the country’s portly belly, so fecund yet so famished. Unmediated, he beams back objective scenes of rape. And sodomy. Oh the sodomy. Like a wailing Dylan epic, there pile up scenes of utter degradation, waste, despairing reflections (“How many feet of topsoil does the pampa have? Eight? Or is it twelve?”), as well as paeans to British colony-building (if only they had got their mits on the Río de la Plata!), impossible now given the lamentable, superstitious immigrant hordes now hulking on the south bank of the Río de la Plata. He mixes in creditably-translated quotations like a sultry dee-jay, punctuating his ballad with the recurring refrain: And Perón at the Iron Gate (evoking the general’s exile at La Reja in Spain). How to disagree with the assertion that this is a Hardnosed Investigative Journalist who has read, observed and consulted and is not afraid of applying a couple of correctional knees-to-the-groin if he thinks they’re necessary? Chapeau, señor!
That exploding head, though. The black, viscous venom that pours from the pages; the superior, dismissive tone of the Only Man who can see beyond the tip of his own nose. If Naipaul keeps behind the camera, so to speak, his personal neuroses are a thick wad of grease over the lens. His account features some of the blackest scorn, the thickest vitriol and the most prudish guilt you’re likely to come across outside of the kebab wrapper-lined walls of a defrocked priest’s bed-sit.
Argentina is ‘spewing on itself’. Its society is a ‘diminished one’, he says, one characterised by mimicry. Here words which make sense in other lands – like “general, artist, journalist, historian, […] museum, zoo,” etc. – have to have to be placed in inverted commas, so little relation do they bear to their first-world archetypes. It is a hollow-chested fake, a sterile society so completely lost it mistakes form for content: “For men so diminished there exists only machismo.” (Re: Evita: “She was the macho‘s ideal victim-woman — don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio?”). However, straight sex does not interest the Argentine macho so much, says Naipaul: “His conquest of a woman is only complete when he has buggered her.” Like their hideous society, this ‘black mass’ of sex is but a parody. While poor Evita, overcome at the tender age of twenty-nine, “was dying from cancer of the uterus, and haemorrhaging through the vagina.” He really doesn’t hold back. No-one is undeserving of a swipe. This is a Paschal passion-level rage that oozes through the pores and erupts onto the page like an octopus whose just emptied its ink sack before cocking its smooth snout snootily and propelling itself back to healthier northern waters.
The South is a mess, in his view, not so much because of economics as the ignorance and backwardness of the people. The South is Bizzarroworld, where the cooly-formulated rock-institutions of the North wobble and shake zanily as if the laws of physics themselves have less sway, less purchase here, unable to grant the same sturdiness they do in the sane hemisphere.
Not even Borges, whom Naipaul interviews several times, is spared. Sure, he admits, Borges may have “about a dozen successful stories” after 50 years in the business, but for the most part these are mere ‘intellectual games’ – more parody. He sees him as a hypocrite, a fraud whose art hides the realities of the ‘hate-filled city’; he’s a crude, backwater oddity who tells tasteless jokes and mumbles incoherently with the gormless enthusiasm of an autodidact. The Nobel’s increasing exasperation with the old man’s ‘performances’ are unwittingly comic. Argentina is a barren mongrel bitch, incapable of raising bastards, even. It’s spiritually dead and no amount of phony, intellectual pussy-footing by a one-trick-pony like Borges is going to change a damn thing. Jorge Luis himself, who excelled at the snide put-down, would perhaps have envied the viciousness with which Naipaul remarks: “And Borges is Argentina’s greatest man.”
No, for Naipaul the ‘promise of ease’ alone attracted men to this vapid, insubstantial land where “intellectual resources are scant”. Goya’s fat, naked Fates could be the degenerate sudaka versions of the pristine, Hellenic Furies. If only Argentina had the cultural weight of, say, New Zealand, whose three million people, he says, have made more of a contribution to the world than Argentina’s twenty-three million (circa 1970, now fourty or so).
These intellectual and cultural shortcomings left the country susceptible to the empty rhetoric of Perón, according to Naipaul. All those speeches about the pueblo were an oral narcotic nobody really believed in; little more than demagogic bluster – exhilarating, sure, but classless. Pegamequemegusta doesn’t get the impression Naipaul would have appreciated much the despotic granting of holidays to the feckless ‘workers’ of the phantom republic, for example (and in a frivolous place like Mar del Plata!). While Evita’s ‘charity work’, bringing the state to the masses, was nothing more than “a child’s vision of power, justice and revenge.” For the New York Review of Books’ foreign correspondent, the rhetoric of peronism is a metaphor for an empty shadow country, yet it’s also the cause: it helps to create the vacuum that thereafter must be filled by magic and machismo.
Magic and machismo were also to the fore in a piece by ArgentinaFW’s Dan Colasimone a few years back. Colasimone is a rare case of a writing gringo (Australian in this case) in Argentina who knows what he’s talking about – someone who spent years in the country, travelled around it (much more than us), speaks the language more than competently, understands the place as much as a foreigner can, and cares for it. The piece centres on caudillos, the warlords of the pampas, if you will, how they emerged in Argentine history and how the influence of that tradition continues to this day. However, even in his article, one perceives a tendency to present the pueblo as dimwits taken in by razzledazzle, wowed by power. He speaks of “the population’s willingness to throw themselves at the feet of a figure postulating as an omnipotent redeemer”; talks of their “mercurial love-hate relationship with these arcane figures of power and passion”, and conjectures that Menem in the eyes of the Argentines was “a knight in shining armour”. The awesomely corrupt Carlos Menem was certainly popular enough to win two presidential elections – after all, he was in power during an economic bubble. Yet so was Bertie Ahern, and we’ve never heard the Irish psycho-analysed in quite the same way: such that Irish history is a tale of robbery, poverty, betrayal, epic drunkenness and emigration… hence Fine Gael.
We don’t think this reduction was a conscious one on Colasimone’s part. Rather, as so often in these kinds of pieces, in the Foreign Correspondent genre, the object of study – a people, a culture – is personified as a thinking, willing subject. The disinterested tone of hard History adds a veneer of scientific objectivity yet the operation is more akin to a psychologist’s divan, without the empathy and without the subject being allowed to speak. We have a little person to analyse, an autonomous subject who is oddly, catholically, liable to judgement, blame and guilt – and there are few more insidious myths than that which says people get the government they deserve.
The foreign correspondent is half-Odysseus, half-detective, a man entrusted with unmasking his subject, be it a person, a situation or a nation, with a word limit and travel expenses equal to his epic task. He travels, interviews and amasses items of local colour, the key to verisimilitude. Then, more often than not, when the sheet is pulled away from his subject, we are confronted by a new mask dripping with fresh paint.
Pegamequemegusta is fond of masks, of course, and we imagine having the space to develop ideas rather than being restricted by a five hundred-word limit, say, and getting to see a place with your own eyes, must be the ideal for many reporters. Perception is a tricky old business, however, and long essays about unknown lands often turn out rather cock-eyed. S. L. Price’s exercise in journalistic autism was one of the first pieces we turned our attention to in this vexing sub-genre; while over at The Financial Times, the oft-astute Simon Kuper has also got our heckles up on more than one occasion. One that passed us by at the time was laurel-laden Wright Thompson of ESPN’s trip to Rosario to investigate Messi’s origins. Now, Wright Thompson knows how to string sentences together. On Second Captains, the counter example to everything we dislike, they openly and frequently refer to his class. There is a consistent approach in his road pieces, however, that really sticks in our craw.
Thompson is given the assignment and studies up. He arrives in Rosario, most likely with a clear idea of what he wants to write, travels around for a few days accompanied by a paddy who has apparently been living there for a while and so can translate for him. His thesis sits up prim and appealing like a bibbed-up pincher in a baby-chair for a dog food advert: Messi’s desire to maintain contact with Rosario has more to do with nostalgia for his childhood than any real connection with what the place is really like; nostalgia that to some extent may have fuelled his determination (and angry determination, as opposed to grace, is one of the most mesmeric aspects of Messi in full flight) to so consistently exceed, and indeed, eclipse, himself.
What follows, however, is a farcical bout of door-stepping and slow drives by empty houses. When he reflects on the basic facts, he can be almost astute – as when he says: “Growing up in Rosario might not have shaped him, but leaving it certainly did.” (The first part of that sentence is questionable, but the second part seems spot on). Yet the rest of the time the trip seems to have been pointless. Thompson travels to the site of Messi’s origins, yet the distance between him and his surroundings is immense. His palette fills with glib globs of local colour: flags flapping in the wind, old women hawking produce, “gas station empanadas”; “it felt like Havana”, he tells us. Thompson has less balls and know-how than a third-rate backpacker. Days of logistical planning are spent “trying to find someone who could guarantee safe passage into Fiorito,” where Maradona grew up. He’s lost and lonely on the road. A beautiful city like Rosario is described as a “piece of dirt [….] an urban moonscape of Soviet-style apartment blocks and howling dogs,” an unkempt stable “that once produced greatness.” The rosarinos – the cattle and asses in this figure – he presents as a feckless bunch of pool hall assassins with dodgy orthodontists who smoke “off-brand” cigarettes. “They don’t understand how he plays or how he acts.”
Maradona, on the other hand, they get, for he has “an ultra-typical Argentine personality,” our foreign correspondent approvingly quotes a Spanish journalist as saying. Pegamequemegusta shudders at the thought of what this idea in Thompson’s head must entail: cheat, drug addict, loud-mouth megalomaniac, preternaturally gifted, massively flawed, hypocritical, demagogue, of scant intellectual resources, quite possibly a communist… “Maradona grew up poor and has spent his whole life running from the blue brick hovel, never looking back.” That just about contradicts everything we know about Maradona, everything he’s ever said and done. He has always seen, we venture, his origins as his strength, something he wouldn’t change for anything yet that must be overcome – not just in Fiorito or Buenos Aires, but in all of South America. The only factoid we get from Thompson’s trip to Fiorito is that el Diego’s house was blue.
The piece on Luis Suarez, published last Tuesday, reveals many of the same flaws in its conception and execution. He’s given an assignment on someone he clearly isn’t very familiar with, he has to travel to a place for the first time, he’s unable to speak the language and is saddled with an apparently unshakeable conviction that South America is a viper’s nest, somewhere to be pitied, a place populated by blokes with fistfuls of chest hair sticking out of their unbuttoned shirts, a place so unpalatable people would rather chomp through their opponents arms rather than be sent back there. The love story of redemption he uncovers about Suarez and his missus is enjoyable, true or not, but the segue from that to the archaeology of the striker’s mind, the identification of his deepest fears, is clunky and unconvincing – not to mention easily refuted by a passing comparison with, well, every other Uruguayan footballer. “Three points make a trend, but in a World Cup year, two points are good,” as the inestimable Brian Phillips put it on Grantland last November.
Perhaps it’s a question of editing, but all these travel pieces also exude embarrassing touches of the exotic – margins-porn. The titles alone are striking, with words like fury, anarchy, martyrdom, brutality. Thompson’s article on Pelé from last year, on the other hand, involved a couple of interviews on home soil and so focuses on the subject and the sports business in general. The difference in quality and accuracy is considerable.
The real problem here is not our somewhat sanctimonious complaints about the ignorance and prejudice of Thompson and others. Rather, it’s a question of style. ESPN’s man would have been as well off staying at home watching Messi’s goal against Getafe again and again on youtube. Even if he had ended up writing a similar gloss based on pieces like Price’s, at least his prose wouldn’t have been so grossly puffed up with the illusion of views grounded in empiric evidence, the lie of authority.
It’s a question of travel and lenses, motives and style. One thing is to travel in order to gather evidence, quite another how you analyse it. Don Carlos Darwin’s beaglings around Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1830s are far from being dry, naturalistic reports. Indeed, they’re remarkable for their freshness. The pampas deer, the snorting water hog, the gnawing tucutucu, the quarrelsome carrancho, the resourceful burrowing owl, the jaguar that roars when a storm is coming and is pestered at night by the foxes that yelp in its wake, it reads like the hit cast of a Pixar flick. What we were surprised by is that he pays as much attention to the people he comes across, and that the gaze remains the same, not trying to classify them but understand them. He sees the gauchos hunting by slinging these rounded bolas over their heads and decides to try it out himself. One of the bolas, though, strikes a bush, stops spinning and falls, wrapping itself around one of his horse’s legs: “The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.”
He’s independent, he’s curious, he’s clearly got a good enough buzz off him that despite being from a Different World these rudeboys reckon ‘This guy’s alright!’ That attitude is not reserved just for when he’s around the gauchos either. If he laughs at them for thinking dinosaur bones seen in the side of a cliff must mean the creature had buried its way in there, like a mole, he quotes them respectfully on the things they do know about. The following could be a description of Messi or Suarez in a one-on-one, Mascherano stealing the ball effortlessly at the right moment, or an extract from a Taoist text:
I recollect seeing a Gaucho riding a very stubborn horse, which three times successively reared so high as to fall backwards with great violence. The man judged with uncommon coolness the proper moment for slipping off, not an instant before or after the right time; […] The Gaucho never appears to exert any muscular force.
Far are we from Thompson’s Rosario. This isn’t condescending reverence, it’s not dead prose masquerading as objectivity, it’s not creeping pop psychology, gonzo demagoguery or apocalyptic fulmination. Rather, it’s characterised by – an impossible dream, perhaps – a kind of sober delight.
In the next few days, hundreds of journalists will descend on Brazil, ostensibly to talk about football. They will go to press conferences and training sessions. Otherwise, why travel, right? Many will have wi-fi problems at some point or other, maybe they will even have to wait for a bus. Some will also discover a long-suppressed need to comment on the host country’s budgetary policy. We hope they have a great time. A word to the wise, though – cocks probably crow due to combinations of all of the above, and not everyone down here is that big into sodomy, begorrah.