Stranded in Argentina at the outbreak of World War II, the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz records his blunt impressions of the country, its culture, and its writers.
Journey to Argentina's Far North
At six in the morning in Buenos Aires I board the long-distance train called El Tucumano—glittering, with an electric locomotive. I look around the carriage: it's sealed hermetically because of the desert dust that will accompany us in the last phase of our journey, at the press of a button armchairs turn into deck chairs, another button makes a small table appear . . . Luxurious comfort. We're on our way. It is still dark. The woman next to me, sitting or reclining—depending on which button—is a representative for a factory that makes electric heaters with automatic shutoffs, and she bores me with her production-line femininity and its automatic shutoff with such lightning speed after the first five minutes of our conversation that, sticking my face into the fleeing landscape outside the window, I switch her off in a most categorical manner.
For hundreds of square kilometers there are no human beings. It's afternoon-evening—we're somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Mar Chiquita, we're cutting into its salty desert—night falls, our express train, rolling rhythmically, races through names of places never heard of before, lost in this wilderness: Arrufó, Ceres, Malbrán . . . The province of Buenos Aires (the size of Poland) is now far behind us . . . And finally—Santiago.
Here I alight from the train.
Francisco Santucho, the editor of Dimensión, the local literary magazine, drives me to a hotel, we eat delicious chicken fricassee and wash it down with a heavy yet good red wine. "What? Sleep? Not on your life! Let's go out on the town!" First of all, do understand my excitement: I left Buenos Aires on a damp, wintry night, while here a hot night suddenly hit me, almost tropical, humming somehow, full of laughter and play, full of stars, waving with palm trees, flowers. It was Saturday evening. We sat on a bench in the square while the little folk of Santiago passed by. I was reminded of the south of France, near the Spanish border and the Mediterranean Sea, but here it was all darker—dark like the color of a ripe plum, dark like the inside of a sweet fruit. And silent with the remoteness of places lost, misplaced.
But there were other reasons for my excitement. In that procession under the palms I was struck by the splendid faces of girls, barely yet developed, delicate, colorful, nimble, their eyes and teeth fleetingly sparkling, the waviness of lines, the shining blackness of their hair, the shining whiteness of their smiles. I was dumbfounded! Each one would have been a hit in Paris! And I must add that the young men lost nothing by comparison. I wondered at the mixture of races that had contributed to this. The Indian tribe Huries—conquered in the sixteenth century—had once lived on these lands and had gradually merged with its Spanish conqueror. Some Italian and Arab blood arrived later, and this whole cocktail passed before me in happy chatter and cheerful laughter.
But my artist's rapture was suddenly, painfully turned off. There was nothing brilliant, interesting, or inspired emanating from these enchanting faces, no bewitching poetry, though they were sheer poetry themselves.
"This is the Indian's revenge," Santucho said, "he had to fight against domination, and now nothing here is willing to ascend or excel."
From Santiago to Córdoba
We leave Santiago for Córdoba by car: ten hours of a desperately boring road through the Santiago desert, consisting of sand, rachitic little trees, and cacti. Only closer to the city of Córdoba does the terrain puff up with the pre-cordillera, the underground breath of the huge mountain range, hundreds of kilometers away, letting itself be felt. A mountain road (it's 9 p.m.) . . . we float down in our Buick onto a plain, then to a magnificent residence belonging to one of those South American nouveaux riches who twenty years earlier arrived with twenty cents and now has two hundred million, a Rolls-Royce, a yacht, an airplane, and this property: soft lawns, fairyland bathrooms, and a three-story swimming pool, adapted to the sudden drop in the terrain.
Having rinsed away the dust in a majolica-mosaic bathroom, we go downstairs and sit at dinner with a bunch of other people. I don't fare well with riches, the brutal predominance of money usually offends me, I was ready for an inner distaste and rebellion. It turned out to be ill-timed. Here luxury was not offensive, totally lacking in excess and arrogance. It's a fact that in Argentina, and maybe in all of America, one is less aware of the weight of money than in Europe. It's lighter. More innocent. Unpretentious. It passes easily from hand to hand.
Early tomorrow morning further journey to San Rafael, and hence directly to Mendoza to see one of the biggest mountains in the world, Aconcagua, 7,800 meters above sea level.
From Córdoba to San Rafael
We leave Córdoba. Pampas again.
Because of the wretched pampas, the Argentinean is essentially a city dweller. Contact with nature is not worth his while—it's too scanty, too monotonous. Pampas are nauseatingly boring. A Pole revels in rusticity, while an Argentinean flees to the city. Our culture has through the ages been of the gentry or rustic, while here a city-dweller culture is evolving, which is, grosso modo, just as it is in Western Europe—and therefore Argentina, though an ocean away, is possibly closer to Paris or Rome than Poland is.
Argentina, so sparsely populated and still so wild—in an area only a bit smaller than half of Europe there are only twenty million inhabitants—is urban to the core. And that's why a Pole will be richer in inner life, more secretive, shy, often awkward, while an Argentinean will be more superficial, suave, better at communal living, lighter.
We come to San Rafael not because this place is on our way to Mendoza, but because a former sergeant, my companion's friend, is giving away his daughter in marriage. A first-rate asado is arranged. What is an asado? A fire is lit, big slabs of meat are roasted, veal for example, fat drips off onto a slow fire; next to it is a mound of bread, rows of bottles of red wine; then everyone hops up to the meat with a knife, cuts a tasty chunk onto a slice of bread, and eats it, washing it down with wine. Sometimes after the feast mate is served. What is mate? Almost unknown in Europe, it is an extract of herbs, I don't know what kind, something like strong tea, very tasty. The way of imbibing this drink is most interesting, though rather disgusting: it is served in a special dish, also called mate, shaped like an egg, one drinks it through a straw called bombilla; the disgusting thing is that the mate, with the bombiza, is passed from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth—everyone drinks a little. As I noted in my "Diary," Argentineans, although a rather cleanly nation, don't find many things disgusting, as the upper classes in Europe often do.
But it's boring here. Why? The world over, people don't know how to amuse themselves at bigger gatherings, but three things save them from yawning: dancing, alcohol, women. Here, in Argentina, people drink little, so dancing is not tipsy with alcohol, it is a pale, rhythmical movement to a record player . . . and since there is no drunkenness or dancing, flirtation is also put off to another, more intimate occasion. I know in advance that a false humor, a tossing about of cute stock phrases, and a pretense at cheerfulness will last till the very end, so without further illusions, I proceed to devour my piece of offal. At the same time I reflect with melancholy on the curse of Argentinean cuisine.
In Argentina, the vastness of the American continent as well as its power manifest themselves twice: first when you head up the Rivers Paraná and Uruguay that never end, that do not grow any smaller, they are like prehistoric reptiles, and secondly when you approach the cordillera.
A certain monotony hovers above the wall of the cordillera, which often reaches eight thousand meters, only an inch lower than the Himalayas.
Well, it's time to see the Andes that, from here, from Mendoza, are not visible because they are hidden by the smaller peaks of the "pre-cordillera."
We start at 8 a.m. We rush through the city, then along a beautiful highway, higher and higher. I'm stupefied and painfully disoriented, which every tourist complains about in the Andes: this is too huge, this can never be visually encompassed.
The air becomes more overpowering, I feel drunk. Every now and then I think that the worst has passed, but now and again I see above us an even more terrifying fragment of the serpentine road, totally unacceptable. Walls of rock, valleys, slopes, yet I see almost nothing, shackled as I am to the precipices and to fear. From time to time I remind myself that these are the Andes . . . The awesome freshness of something forever isolated. And the frozen motion. Mountains are always a frozen motion, and this immobility has worn me out in the Tatra Mountains, in the Alps, in the Pyrenees.
Suddenly our driver turns to us (madman!) and says with a smile: "Please close your eyes." Our car has stopped and we hear: "And now look!"
An amazing feeling of deep, intimate happiness. Here it is. The heart of the mountains! Here it is—Aconcagua, as if drowned among other peaks.
People emerged from the cars. What were these Argentineans feeling?
I suddenly realized—what would be happening with Poles. Emotion. Pride. Happiness. Religious contemplation. "It's ours." The Polishness of this sight would have been its greatest adornment.
Here—nothing like it. It doesn't enter their heads that this second-highest peak in the world is Argentinean. It's only under such circumstances that I realize how very imperialistic Argentineans are, and how aware they are of their destiny on an intercontinental scale. Here one is a citizen of the world. Argentinean sentiment is far-reaching, and has the breadth of these mountains, which by their magnitude break down the country's boundaries and become the property of the Americas.
Soon after conquering Aconcagua—with our eyes only—we made our way back to Buenos Aires. An acquaintance of ours invited me for a leisurely ride in a motorboat over Tigre. What is Tigre? Look at the map. Channels and islands. Five thousand small islands and as many channels, grown over with trees and luxuriant vegetation, like a tropical bouquet.
We sailed from a port in Tigre. Kayaks, motorboats, small passenger boats all around us on the water—something like the vaporetti in Venice—beautifully multicolored.
We plow the waves. Our company, comfortably settled on the bow, includes artists, a few writers, a painter—strange people! Not so long ago I was admiring the courageous, direct approach to life and the world of a handful of uneducated tourists gawking at Aconcagua—while now, listening to the discussion of my colleagues of the pen, I feel I'm again in that "inferior" South America, the one that is spoken of with a scornful smile as something second-rate and unimportant. These artists' chief concern is not the expression of their own pain or passion, the discovery of truth, the shaping of life, but merely writing a novel "on a European level" and becoming known in Paris. Art is treated here like an international sports competition.
We're talking about Borges, the leading Argentinean prose writer. I express myself with criticism: to my taste his fantastic metaphysics are convoluted, barren, boring, and, in fact, not very original.
They reply: "That may be so . . . But he is our only writer up to the mark. He had very good press in Paris—have you read it? Yes, of course, it's a pity he doesn't write in a different way. I too would have preferred him to be more connected with life, with reality, more sanguine. But in any case this is literature."
The hunger for names that will stand up against Europe is so great that this Borges is revered all over South America, although, I'm afraid, he has few real readers.
During so many years of my sojourn in Argentina I was often forced to compare the Polish world of literature with literature here. The spiritual secondariness that forces one to commune with reality not directly but through some authority and through other, more mature cultures, is also a nuisance in Poland—though not to such a degree. I think that Argentineans have one technical advantage over Poles: since their history is not as long, their literature young and scanty, they have more room in their heads for thought and world art. We're sick and tired of our three bards1 because studying these romanticisms takes up the time that we could devote to contemporary currents of art and philosophy with infinitely greater benefit. Consequently, an Argentinean is more familiar with world literature, and also with world history. As far as acquaintance with philosophy and the thought of the last decade is concerned, I think that neither the Polish nor the Argentinean writers have the foggiest idea about it. In principle, though, I think that Argentineans are more skilled intellectually.
Poles, however, undoubtedly surpass them in temperament, in poetry, and in a stronger sense of reality. In temperament—because an Argentinean doesn't like to act on his passions, perhaps doesn't even like life's excesses. In poetry—because there is a lack of lyricism here. In the sense of reality—because Argentinean art seems to be written on the moon.
Adventures on the Upper Paraná
Next day we landed in Iguazú. It is a many-storied port because of huge differences in the level of the river. We tied up at a dock on the second story. It was too late to rush to the waterfall, whose presence made itself felt in a subtle trembling of everything, even of the earth itself.
During supper I sat next to a so-called porteño, an inhabitant of Buenos Aires—a retired widower whose lifetime dream was to travel.
Suddenly this man pushed his plate away.
"I can't," he said. "I'd like to know what I'm doing here, what is the rationale for my being here?"
The question remained unanswered because quite unexpectedly I too felt it was futile.
I was told later that until the day of our departure from here, that is for six days, he never left his room. He did not see the waterfall. In this reaction there was perhaps something more than nerves and the Argentinean bourgeois attitude, something more well-founded; for one must admit that traveling just to see things begins to be tiresome in the long run. At first we feel hatred toward other tourists—but eventually we begin to hate the tourist in us.
Mar del Plata
Due to its size, this place is a world-class phenomenon. The various Ostends look like villages in comparison to this watering resort that has over half a million inhabitants during wintertime slumber—it is therefore a big town—and in the summer it swells by a million tourists, mostly from Buenos Aires. The view of the beaches from the hills is impressive. Down below, there are over a dozen beaches visited by crowds, bristling with huts, banners—many kilometers of beaches and beaches, cars, bars, bath and sports buildings, clubs, parking lots, beach umbrellas, small tables, chairs, an entire beach household—it is a second town that has grown at the feet of the first, reckless and sprayed by sea foam. Behind the beaches, on a high bank, on rocks and hills, hotels stand proudly, as good as the best in Buenos Aires, and entire avenues of pensions stand open. Cars, motorcycles, buses, helicopters, sports vehicles of all shapes and sizes, for example there is an amphibian omnibus that calmly drives into the water and swims about, also children's rides.
Everything moves, honks, speeds, and most of all crowds you in. Mar del Plata does not provide any rest. I came by car late in the evening and booked into one of the most luxurious hotels, not because I'm a millionaire, but because the owner was a good acquaintance of mine and adjusted the room to my pocketbook. I ran into a very distinguished atmosphere—the hotel was full of "oligarchy," that is to say, members of the Argentinean aristocracy, and this oligarchy was greatly excited because a certain condesa with an illustrious name had just flown in from Paris. And the papers were full of news that such and such Anczorema or Quintana is hosting today the Countess de La Rochefoucauld to breakfast. In the evening, in a large dining room, among heaps of meat and fish on mobile tables, nothing was talked about except who was invited to an especially aristocratic lunch tomorrow, and who was not.
An Argentinean woman friend of mine and I went to the beach, or actually to that part of it that was most distant from the water, where small tables were spread about under multicolored beach umbrellas—a colorful snake of cafés, bars, shops, trailing for half a kilometer. At this early afternoon hour one can meet here, with a bit of luck, many notables, and soon we saw a certain prominent Russian duchess. She was accompanied by Madame Victoria Ocampo, an old multimillionaire from the oligarchy, protector of artists, who—in her own words—"lost more money on literature than Bernard Shaw earned."
Both grand dames were sipping orangeade through straws. Suddenly a coffee-colored pibe,2 perhaps five years old, the son of the bar owner, ran up to them and slapped the prominent duchess on her behind. As she screamed and jumped to her feet, the pibe shouted that there was a phone call for her and, thinking that this was excuse enough, he ran away. The duchess started again, this time to the telephone, but for some unknown reason this did not please Mrs. Ocampo: she said something sharply in French, which we didn't hear clearly, and, as a result, the duchess wasn't allowed to go to the phone. We smiled, my Argentinean lady and I—this little scene was quite characteristic: the great duchess tossed between being terrorized by the brat and the old notable. There was so much freshness, simplicity, and American childlike behavior, common to both Americas, North and South, so very disarming.
Last year, during my stay in Santiago, I entered into a philosophical controversy during a presentation by a renowned South American writer. This writer, who belonged to a circle of philocommunist nationalists, spoke sharply against existentialism for the sake of dialectic materialism. I listened patiently to his hackneyed arguments, but when his wife spoke up in the discussion, I became irate at her tone, so irritating in Marxists, about the pretense of omniscience. So I stood up and said that existentialism is not a fashion, nor madness, nor decadence, but rather the most serious necessity for human development today, a creative and far-seeing movement, one of the most essential factors shaping the psyche if not of America then of Europe, and that Marxists must look, in their own interest, somewhat farther than the tip of their Marxist noses. After this discussion, rather combative, a Frenchman, an ex-priest, ex-professor of philosophy, ex-architect (America is rife with such exes), came up to me to express his surprise at a Pole standing up for existentialism because "Poles don't have it in their blood." Is that so?
We'll talk about that later.
Polish and American Practical Existentialism
Let us look for a moment at what forms of existentialism ripen under the South American sky. Is it only the States, England, Russia, and France that have anything to say to the world? The Latin countries in America, from Mexico to Argentina, are in many ways backward, but this does not mean that they do not have leading positions in other aspects.
A country where people take football to heart can equally be a country of great wisdom. The childishness of people who play football does not alarm me. I am more alarmed by the childishness of people who are fanatics, who have come to believe in something and, in the name of their theory, are willing to slaughter half of humankind. In my opinion, the American man, easygoing, adaptable, not subject to any doctrine, unable to absorb any theory (because even Catholicism is more a lifestyle here than a rigid formula), is actually the man of the future. And he is most certainly an existential man because, as we have said before, existentialism cannot stand schemata, abstraction, or theory.
Here I see some resemblance to Poland.
I spent the Argentinean summer on a pilgrimage to various secluded places, so that I could bring out of myself a new novel. The title?—you'll ask. I don't know. The content?—you'll ask. I don't know. So the book hasn't been started yet?—you'll ask. Yes, it's even half-born, but don't ask me about the content of my work, because I can't tell it "in my own words."
Besides that, I will of course continue to cook up my "Diary" in Kultura. I have just concluded a few entries devoted to considering today's three doctrines: Catholicism, existentialism, and Marxism. However, in the "Diary" I'm not so much interested in a theoretical hashing out of issues as in conveying myself to you—my life and my person—in the hope that the more you infiltrate me, the closer I'll be to you, and perhaps less disagreeable.
Thus organized on two fronts, my work has, in the past few years, brought some results. I used to be commonly considered a harmless madman. Today, and to many people, I am no longer a madman—instead, I have become someone harmful. Perhaps in the future you'll feel convinced that my literature is not just demolition—and that my notorious egotism will contribute to that little word, "I," when it is also on your lips, the power and determination capable of enduring the cataclysms of history.
1Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, Ignacy Krasinski. ↩
2A young boy.↩
Copyright © 1959 by Witold Gombrowicz, published with the permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc. Translation copyright © 2005 by Danuta Borchardt. All rights reserved.