BAD TIMES IN BUENOS AIRES
By Miranda France
Ecco. 209 pp. $24
The tango is nothing if not Argentine: syncopated, sinuous, pointing. It is full of itself, arch and funny. All about sex and surrender. By turns sullen, ecstatic and anxious. Always best danced with a frown.
But the tango is hardly for everyone. It is adamantly not for beginners, as Argentina is not for every traveler. As Buenos Aires is not for this book.
Bad Times in Buenos Aires is a spirited rant at a difficult city, a study in self-absorption, a petulant stamp of the foot. Its author, Miranda France, is, according to the dustjacket, a journalist, thirtysomething and British. She carries a deft pen and a staggering sense of righteousness. For here is a book that despises its subject. Which is to say: It will find adherents. Hating Argentina is so easy to do.
From the moment Miranda France arrives, her frustration is palpable. She and her companion move into a fifth-floor flat in a 19th-century building on the Avenida Cordoba. It "aspired to studio status, but the bare rafters spoke against such ambition. For all the effortful rattling of our air-conditioning, the flat baked in the hot weather and we would soon feel it freeze in winter. It was impossible to sleep through the tremendous storms which were periodically whipped up in Patagonia, like rioters, and hounded across the pampa to Buenos Aires. When it was heavy, the rain splashed straight through the roof on to my face as I lay in bed, waking me from jumbled dreams of babies, rats and lifts."
She begins by describing el proceso in the '70s, a post-Peronist "purification" of the country carried out by the military, police, doctors -- a savage process in which as many as 30,000 people may have disappeared, presumably because they were vicious guerrillas and dangerous to the country, but more likely because they were liberals and outspoken, because they "opposed the Argentine way of life." People vanished from houses, were kidnapped from movie houses, "hustled into unmarked Ford Falcons in full view of passers-by." The terror was effectively over in 1981, 12 years before our cicerone set foot in Buenos Aires, but el proceso shapes this book as if death squads still marauded through the streets.
True enough, a malaise lingers in Argentina. Anyone old enough to remember the bad times still feels traumatizado; and a bronca, a seething fury, can overtake Buenos Aires from time to time -- in dyspeptic bank clerks, in creaky elevators, in cranky queues. Jorge Luis Borges put it better than anyone. "I come from a sad country," he wrote. It is a harsher, truer statement than anything in this book.
There is much that Miranda France might have done. Argentina actually has an air of transition as it approaches the millennium -- a generation that never knew el proceso is now coming of age. Young as Miranda France is, she fails to capture it.
Instead she dwells on the cliches: the porteno (Buenos Aires) addiction to Peron, the preening personal vanity (no, not every last Argentine has it), the obsessive drive for the Falklands, the fascination with anything across the Atlantic. Miranda France listens to old women daydream about Evita, young women fuss about their buttocks, old men rail about the Falklands, middle-aged men harass her, and everyone clamors to complain.
The long and short of it is that Bad Times is more a journey through the head of Miranda France than through the proud and benighted country of her travels. There's nothing wrong with that in theory. It often takes an outsider to give us the sharpest lens on a country. What Bruce Chatwin did so well (and France refers to him often) was to play the quintessential outsider, focusing on the passing details that throw light on a country and make the subtleties stark.
What we get instead is a pert version of a stale story. Can there be anything more trite in Argentina (or in the whole of South America, or in the whole Third World, for that matter) than the obligatory military greyhead with blood on his hands, or the oversized cucaracha with an eye for your bedspread? And yet Miranda France trots this very twosome out as her pieces de resistance. Here she is, discovering the truth about the rather genial-looking old man across the table: "It was then, with a thudding of the heart, that I realised Carlos was an `ex-repressor'. This charming man with the concertina-smile was one of the asesinos the graffiti spoke about. He had killed people, perhaps he had tortured them. Panic quickened my blood." Here she is, finding an unwelcome creature taking to her bed: "The cockroach reached the point where the cord touched the bed, and now it made a smooth transfer to the mattress. We watched, horrified, as the brown oval disappeared under the sheets."
Heavens. What next? A mass murderer in the guise of an old lady?
Why not. On the plane out of Buenos Aires, she is seated next to an elderly Argentine widow who, in the course of the flight, reveals that, when alive, her husband was a policeman. "I took my chance to study my neighbour. Sleep made her unattractive, her cheeks slackened and the drooping mouth amassed flesh under her chin. . . . As an experiment, I dared to concentrate a contempt into the way I was looking at the woman. Did she not bear some responsibility, as a policeman's wife, for la represion?" And there it is. A spin, a lunge, and a gross generalization.
If the tango is all about not tripping, this book is flat on the floor.
Marie Arana, a native of Peru, is deputy editor of Book World.She can be reached at email@example.com