María Sonia Cristoff returned to her native Patagonia to investigate parts of the region, once flush with profits from the oil industry, that have become, either from dirty politics or global commerce, ghost towns. She collected her reports in the book Falsa Calma. “State of Hypnosis” is one of several chapters focused on the ways in which the oil industry has long been intertwined with plans for national sovereignty and shattered illusions of progress in Argentina’s deep South.
You wind up a loner, that’s the problem with this job. A hermit even, in comparison to what he used to be. And to think he comes from a huge family, with seven siblings, plus cousins, plus friends. Growing up there was always noise, people talking, music. His father loved music, especially classical: Schubert, Wagner, he can’t remember the other names. He was never really interested in all that. He and his brothers loved to have people around, and sometimes his father would get fed up and just sit and listen with his headphones on. Sprawled out on the sofa while everyone went over, around him. And his father with that serene smile, immune, protected by the headphones that look like those earmuffs that American skiers wear, with their flashy colors and sleek outfits. He never understood how the simple act of listening to music could transform someone in that way. But there are so many things that you don’t understand about other people, especially your parents. And he’s thought about this—about his father, he means—walking around out there, through the countryside, on so many nights. About everything he didn’t understand and, at the same time, never thought to ask.
That’s the thing about this job, repeats Federico: you have to spend eight, sometimes ten hours checking the oil wells, alone—alone a lot, alone most of the time—and there are times in which everything goes perfectly, you’re doing exactly what you have to do, making sure everything is in order, that there’s no seepage, that the bolts are screwed on tight; but there are other times when your mind wanders, it refuses to see that a bolt is a bolt and instead starts up with these ideas. Why was it that his father could achieve this serenity only with music—why the whiskey?
It’s just that there are days, he tells me, when questions suddenly come to him, and since there’s no one to respond, circling among the wells, he ends up answering them himself. And so it is that later, when he does cross paths with someone, it doesn’t make sense to ask them again. This is what he means about being a loner. It's a job that requires you to figure things out alone, permanently, and then, when others do appear, you don’t have anything to say to them, or to ask them, or to tell them. You begin to realize, gradually, that you need them less and less.
Strange to think it was the first job he ever had and now it’s been something like ten years. Sometimes, when he remembers how he got here, he wonders if it might be a kind of revenge against his family that makes him continue; at other times he thinks that really there couldn’t be any job that would make him as happy as this one, where he’s out all day, all night, driving around in circles, surveying the countryside. Now everyone is used to it, but it caused a real commotion at first. The only one who never got upset was his father, but he’s dead now.
He still remembers the day he told him. In fact, it’s the only thing he remembers vividly: the reaction of the rest of his family is like a uniform squawking that he left behind a while ago; it doesn’t reappear even in his most remote nightmares. But the memory of his father is intact. It must be that on some level he was afraid of him. He didn’t fear him, but he feared disappointing him. That’s what it was. It was a summer day, he remembers, so the warm weather outside mixed with the heat of the kitchen where they were talking. It was around seven in the evening when his father always began cooking. For all of them, every night. He would come home from his office, take off his jacket and tie, put on an apron that he would very rarely allow to be washed, and begin to cook for everyone. He would pour himself a whiskey, too. On that day Federico offered to do it for him, he remembers. At this his father gave him a strange look. Even though he was well aware that Federico was the only one who didn’t get nervous when he walked around the house, glass in hand, with that exaggerated controlled posture that alcohol sometimes inspires, Federico had never offered to serve his whiskey before. But his father went on, as though nothing were out of the ordinary, chopping vegetables, pancetta, sausage. He thanked him and that was that. He was making a German stew, typical of the region where his family came from—or so he said. He liked repeating that he had been born in the Thüringer woods and that his family had decided to settle here in Patagonia when he was a little boy, but theories diverged on this point.
There was the heat, then, in the kitchen and, by some charitable conspiracy, not a sibling, cousin, or friend in sight. Not there in the kitchen with them, although Federico can remember clearly the background noise of their voices. His three younger brothers, the only ones who remained at home, the others away at college, in Buenos Aires, and his sister married to the richest man in town. Federico told his father as though it were fact, a plan already set into motion: next week he was going to Santa Cruz to become an oil worker. That two days ago they’d let him know they’d be taking him on. His father didn’t change a single one of his movements. Federico remembers the stew required very finely chopped vegetables, and that that day in particular he thought it was strange that neither the liquor nor his words were capable of shaking that steady hand. His father finished chopping and then tossed all the vegetables in the pot at once, which he didn’t usually do, and he took that moment, with his back to him, to say: “A good plan. Too bad there aren’t any trees in Santa Cruz.” That was it. And Federico left the following Monday, as he’d told him, except that in fact he had no contract, no guarantee of any kind. Later, as the years passed, each time he returned home his father never added much. He would ask him the usual questions, almost the same ones he asked the others who lived in Buenos Aires, who today are all doctors and lawyers. Federico believes, truly, this was all his father had to say.
In the beginning, he explains, this job used to be a collective one. When all this was part of the old YPF company that he never saw, someone like him would walk around the fields, just filling out his spreadsheet, and then he would send the information to the supervisor, who would send it on to the area boss. Now everything has changed. For example, if he sees a well that isn’t flowing like it should, he goes and makes the necessary adjustments in the rods, in the pump, wherever, and that’s it: problem solved. Now the companies, especially the American ones, what they do is train someone who can handle everything, above and beneath the well. Someone who can see that the rig’s bearings don’t make noise, that the valves are working right, but who can also deal with what happens underground—there, underneath the pump that he points out with his finger, might be a well up to 2,500 meters deep. Two thousand five hundred. More than twenty blocks below, where the long-awaited oil emerges. This way is more and more common. And, frankly, he thinks it’s fine. Less red tape, fewer broken-down telephones. But of course, then there’s the other thing that he mentioned earlier: having to handle everything alone. It has its pros and its cons.
The trips at night have always been his favorite, Federico says. Driving around the countryside in an F100, a gust of wind coming in through the windows. Entering the countryside is like entering another dimension. After a while you reach a dazed state, a stupor in the face of nothing in particular. A kind of beatitude—even if I think he’s exaggerating. Which doesn’t keep me from acknowledging that, while only two hours have passed since we began driving around the plateau, I can already feel how the things passing through my head acquire a certain remoteness. I remember I sometimes have this feeling when I’m travelling on Highway 60 in Buenos Aires, but this is different. As though I were encountering remoteness in its purest state, with no particular object affixed to it. It must have to do with circling around and around, observing pumps that rise and fall. Your head is slowly emptied of whatever it contained and gives itself over only to this, the coordination of circular and pendular movements. A kind of hypnosis takes effect.
Most of the owners don’t live here, in these houses. They rent out the land for a good amount and they live elsewhere, in Comodoro, or even Buenos Aires. They leave the caretakers in these country houses and go. Especially recently. It’s understandable: they spent years trying to survive in the wool-shearing business and all of a sudden, in the 90s, their livelihood got a lot better due to the percentages the oil companies gave them to drill on their lands. But these people, this particular family Federico is talking about now, never left their country house. They like it here. They came from Spain years ago, made money in Comodoro, and bought a few thousand acres in Santa Cruz. But their only daughter left as soon as she could. She went first to Buenos Aires and then to Europe, to France. When she went off to college her parents sold their stores and set up their home in the country; they had been there almost ten years when what happened happened.
It’s very unusual for the oil workers to come into contact with the owners of the leased land, but Federico’s case is unique in this way, too. At the beginning, when it was still necessary to have people around, he liked to stop by some of the houses. Especially that one. The owners were always there, and in a way they adopted him. When he would go out alone, traveling through the countryside, he would visit them and it wouldn’t matter what time he arrived, they were always happy to receive him. He was almost like the son they didn’t have. Once he even stayed overnight. They told him about Spain, how they had started up in Comodoro in the 50s, and he told them about the other oil workers, his family, his brothers and sister. It was a little like going back home, although quieter, of course. And in a way warmer, which was hard to admit. Through this couple, the nights that he stayed, talking with them, the image of the big, loving family he had always been sure of began to show its fissures. One night he remembers driving home from their house and thinking, without wanting to, about how his mother had always been so worried about her drooping breasts with the arrival of each new child and about his father, hidden behind his headphones or his whiskey glass or his self-absorbed recipes. He’s not trying to say, he clarifies, that he blames his parents for anything. What he wants to show me is the depth of his affection for this family.
Until that night when she appeared, back home for vacation. The daughter whom he’d only seen in photographs: shots of her prom, her graduation; shots of the jet bridge of a plane, of beaches with palm trees, of her skiing. He didn’t know she’d be there that night; it had been a month since he’d been through this part of the countryside and apparently she had shown up rather out of the blue. The young woman was pretty in person, but she didn’t smile like she did in the photographs. Her legs were very shapely, her hands long. But this isn’t why he approached her, not for anything like desire. He is convinced—and this has run most often through his mind over the years, during his long trips through the countryside—now he’s convinced that he approached her, in the beginning, to teach her a lesson, to put her in her place. To punish her, maybe. Because he wanted to punish her. What bothered him that first night was that her presence brought tension to the table, that what was usually a fluid and spontaneous family conversation suddenly seemed like a business meeting. She was an intruder.
A few nights later, Federico went back because he received a formal invitation to have dinner with them, something that had never happened. The sense of tension was the same as the first time, or even more pronounced. As though the passage of time, instead of making things more relaxed, had made them even denser. He saw it in the sense of relief with which the mother opened the door when he knocked. Because on that night he knocked, where before he would just clap and then walk on in. At one point he felt like someone hired to liven up a wake, to remove their burden of not knowing what to do, what to say, to mitigate the presence of the intruder. But he hadn’t thought about intervening in any way in what was happening there until he saw her gesture, the daughter’s. It was just a second, miniscule, so who knows why it bothered him so much. Years later, traveling through the countryside, he has often closed his eyes and come across this scene: vivid, intact, a speck of ash permanently caught in his eye. They had finished eating and the two women insisted upon having coffee in a kind of living room that he had never been in. He excused himself to go to the bathroom; when he returned, he saw them, mother and daughter, but they didn’t see him. The father wasn’t there, having stayed in the kitchen a bit longer to demonstrate in some way his resistance to this change in family ritual. As he went into the frozen living room, the mother was setting a tray with coffee cups on an end table and she, the daughter, was sitting on one of the sofas, barely giving her time to complete the action before taking out the teaspoons that her mother had placed inside the cups. She removed them, dried them with a napkin, and put them back, each on a saucer, next to a cup. She did it like it was yet another task, if you just paid attention to her hands, which were long and so pretty, but it was her eyes: they looked at her mother because of what she did with the teaspoons with clear contempt. Then she glanced to either side, as though at an invisible audience, and only then did she see him, watching her in astonishment. The mother stood quietly next to the tray like a child who had just been scolded, as though convinced her body was too coarse to move among those sofas and slender cups. Neither of the women spoke.
He left as soon as he could, thinking that he wouldn’t return for a while, when he was sure she was already far away. But he came back the next day and the next and then he thinks there were three more days, until what happened happened, and then he never went back. Not when she was still there nor once she had left. He lost those people who had treated him like a son, and all for someone like her. And this is another thing he’s asked himself so many times driving around—how he could have been attracted to someone so superficial, so petty. She was one of those types who leave town and return with a superiority complex; there are so many like her, there in the South.
It was a lot for him, maybe because he, in his own way, had also left his family, and who knows what they say about him and what it is that actually happens when he visits them. He visits them less and less now. It’s also in part due to the effects of this job. When he first started it seemed like he had so much to tell them. The news from the fields, the people he would meet. And then there was a family home to return to then, too. Before his father died.
So he prefers this: the countryside, the oil wells, the truck, the calmness of talking to himself, knowing he’s alone, without having to invent so many stories to cover it up. It’s not that people no longer interest him, not at all. He simply realizes, more and more, that he has less and less to say. He asks for what he needs, thanks them, provides information. Period. The rest he figures out in his head, driving around the countryside. That’s why he can tell me these things. Because I agreed to go along for the ride and because, really, in fact, it’s as though he were talking to himself, only this time out loud.
Sometimes he remembers with utter clarity the fight he had with that woman, the one with the long hands. After it happened they told each other exactly what they thought, and he took the opportunity to tell her what he had seen, that day with the coffee, to express in precise details how superficial and small she was. She told him he’d been seeing things and that it wasn’t his place to say it. And later, as the years went by, he’s had to admit there was something prophetic in her words. That, to this day, sometimes, he does see things and feels, often, completely out of place.
From Falsa calma (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral 2004). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Sarah Ann Wells. All rights reserved.