on the irony of being Argentine

“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.” Jorge Luis Borges.

Argentines think of themselves as being European. But they are not.

Certainly they are of European descent, and take some pride in their respective heritages: Italian, Spanish, German or French. And like our own melting pot, they have forged their own national identity.

This includes their own foods, for example, like mate and alfajores. And of course their own history—a revolution, a civil war, the conflict with the British over the Falklands (Malvinas). (Borges said the Falkland conflict was like two bald men fighting over a comb.)

But more than any other South American country they see themselves as European. For the most part they have not intermarried with indigenous peoples, as say the Columbians or Bolivians. And there is some pride in this.

You see this European sensitivity in touches of civility. Service in a restaurant is very continental, for example, with cloth napkins and flourishes of elegance. We were even served bottled water in glass goblets in a Shell station.

They have, however, failed to achieve the prosperity of their European cousins, or of their North American counterparts (that would be us). And so they often denigrate the thing they most desire, the standard of living they feel they deserve.

I had coffee with Ivonne one day, with Ivan translating. She writes essays for the local newspaper, mostly about sociology and psychology. Ivvone says her people have “ developed what we call ‘viveza criolla’ or ‘native Argentine’s smarts,” a manifest dishonesty of character somehow removed from basic dignity and self respect.”

She compares this cultural cunning to Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes, a form of “I want but can’t have that makes him resentful.” This tension, she believes, is at the core of both Argentine literature and politics.

And she’s right. A country that was once one of the ten wealthiest countries in the world is now just struggling to keep from becoming third world. The critique of the Spanish intellectual Jose Ortega y Gasset, who criticized Argentines for an excess of fantasy and a lack of tenacity, rankles them but defines them.

The cultural clash between pragmatism and idealism results in a crippling socialism. “Proper socialism would be a luxury beside our rendition,” Ivonne observes.

Paid demonstrators in the streets, a black market that dominates the economy, a crumbling infrastructure, corruption at every level of government, and endless regulations that stifle incentive, prevent efficiency and result in absurdity: a landlord has to provide squatters with a new home to get them off his property. No wonder Jorge Luis Borges, one of their greatest poets, wrote about the history of the night, “the mother of the unruffled Fates that spin our destiny.”

It’s a place where the light should flourish but the darkness is preferred, the tragic irony of a proud people.

For a poetic perspective, see Ron Slate’s Writing Off Argentina

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