Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Environment of Nation, City and Country in Roberto Bolaño's 'The Insufferable Gaucho.'

'The Insufferable Gaucho' is available to read online at the New Yorker

“The cemetery I’m talking about, said Pereda, is an exact copy of eternity.” (26)

The Patagonian Mara.

Manuel Pereda, the titular insufferable gaucho, is not a gaucho. He is a lawyer and an ex-judge, but also a wearer of environment; he breaks the borders between environs and wears their characteristic like a veneer. The environments at hand are simple; nation (Argentina), country (the Pampas) and city (Buenos Aires.) Pereda outlines the three accordingly:

Argentina’s like a novel, he said, a lie, or make-believe at best. Buenos Aires is full of Crooks and loudmouths, a hellish place, with nothing to recommend it except the women, and some of the writers, but only a few. Ah, but the Pampas- the Pampas are eternal. A limitless cemetery, that’s what they’re like. (26)

City and country are aliens to each other, but both share a bond with the nation; Pereda’s Buenos Aires is the hub of the political uprising of General Perón and the collapse of the Argentinian economy, while the country shoulders the image of nation, the hardened and skilled gaucho’s of an idyllic Argentinian widerness. Much to Pereda’s lament, images are static, while reality is transitional.
            The wasteland feel of the story has strong similarities with works of J.M Coetzee that are purposefully displaced, with certainties and realities kept well away from the reader, most notably in Waiting for the Barbarians and The Childhood of Jesus. But Bolaño’s story is set in a real place, in Argentina, but Bolaño lets the reader witness displacement and dislocation occur. All of the gauchos, and Pereda for that matter, are elderly, suggesting a decay, added to by the aimlessness and lack of skill the gauchos show. The train that reaches the wasteland sometimes doesn’t even come, “as if that part of Argentina had been erased from memory as well as from the map.” (28)
As a result of hardships, the gaucho’s of the Pampas have sold their cattle and horses for slaughter, giving up the action (ranching & horse-riding) that made them gauchos, leaving them with the image; everyone in Capitán Jourdan wears bombachas, the baggy trousers typical of a gaucho. Pereda adopts this style on arriving in the Pampas, and slowly builds up a ‘gauchoness’; he buys a horse that he rides everywhere, even into stores, and daydreams of riding into Buenos Aires on it. He eventually buys two cattle. As the hardships of the nation forced the country dwellers to give up their cattle and horses, the environment reacted, and, free of large herbivores, is now rampant with rabbits (more likely Patagonian mara) which add to the homogeneity that the country seems to suffer from. The food and work that this monocultural environment offers do not fit with Pereda’s image of the valiant gaucho, leading him much anguish (“Rabbit hunting! What sort of job is that for a gaucho?”) (24) Pereda thinks that “the shame of the nation or the continent had turned them into tame cats. That’s why the cattle have been replace by rabbits, he thought.”(35) Here he sees the environment as a reflection of people and nation, not something that can be viscerally imprinted upon by occurences from both forces. Pereda’s wearing of the environment veneers eventually leads to the ending farcical confrontation, wherein he, as the countryside gaucho, pricks the groin of an over-excited literary socialite in a café in Buenos Aires. Pereda’s affinity for and desire to use his knife and to start a fight is a residual machoism from gaucho culture, which is alien both to the people of the Pampas and the people of Buenos Aires, apparently to Pereda’s lament.

He is confronted with a final choice about his visit to Buenos Aires; “stay in Buenos Aires and become a champion of justice, or go back to the Pampas, where I don’t belong, and try to do something useful… [with the locals and the gauchos.]” (40-41) The fact that Pereda chooses the less appealing of the two, the Pampas, shows him heading back to an environment where he can live in fantasy as a macho countryside gaucho, instead of engaging with the reality of the times in Buenos Aires. The story ends in signature Bolaño style; a non-ending, a middle of a story, but understandable in some way. In some way, this is the end of Pereda’s story for his colleagues in Buenos Aires, as he returns to the Pampas, dislocated from national time & space, while a real political emergency emerges before them, widening the trifecta between city, country and nation out of view. Although, it is not clearly stated which path Pereda chooses; does he go ‘back’ to the Pampas, or ‘back’ to his life in Buenos Aires? The final line can be understood casually as the former, as a narrational direction; he is leaving Buenos Aires to go back to the Pampas; or deeper as the latter; he is in Buenos Aires, but is giving it up, this farce of being a swaggering gaucho, to resume his previous life in Buenos Aires.

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