Bending over to take a picture of a small blue-and-white porcelain box, I felt that sinking sensation that has overtaken me increasingly often on this trip. Yes, Santiago donated the snuffbox to the municipal museum in his hometown. Yes, he donated a fragment of a rosary. But I was used to seeing his possessions on their own, as their own museum; and to see these things presented alongside similar objects, donated by nobodies, was like a bucket of cold water. A pretty pink teacup, with matching saucer, of Portuguese make. What on earth did this have to do with anything? Why was I here?
The woman attending guests at the Sunchales museum, with startling blue eyes ringed by mascara and a simultaneously prickly and apologetic air, called me “hija” and “nena” — a tendency that only increased once she asked my age and I confessed. I think that nineteen felt older, somehow, than twenty-one. I’d called the museum about this time last year, in the desperate scramble to understand more about Santiago, and they were unable to help me. “We’re organizing the whole archive and we have to redo all the catalogue. Can you stop by sometime this week?” Being in Princeton, I demurred.
Now, walking through the doors of the Museo Municipal Basilio María Donato, I wasted no time and asked to see all the items donated by Santiago Badariotti Merlo. The woman led me around for a while, explaining that this was all there was on display, and there might be more, but it was all in storage and she absolutely did not have time to rummage through everything that Mr. Merlo might have given. I rattled off a list of items that I knew he’d donated — Aztec artifacts, Chinese porcelain, lithographs, records, 19th-century books — but she kept repeating that she could only show me what was on display. I thought of the hero’s welcome I’d received at the municipal museum in Aperibé and felt scorned.
More than anything, however, I felt an ever-stronger swell of admiration and gratitude to Santiago’s friend and heir, who’d evidently done a better job preserving his legacy than all the staff at his hometown museum. In the barn in Aperibé, the steamer trunk wasn’t just a period steamer trunk, donated by Mr. Merlo; it was Santiago’s trunk, and venerated as such. Sure, there were rats and woodpeckers in the barn, but these people in Sunchales had no idea of how to appreciate their native son. “He left a 25,000-page manuscript at the Instituto Moreira Salles, you know,” I said, almost indignantly, snapping a close-up photograph of a little Aztec figurine. “And he was a poet.” The woman took this in stride. Sometimes Argentines are so hard to impress. I photographed all the items on display, left my contact information, and was about to go when I saw a bookshelf full of old books. “Are those all the books you have?” I asked, and, upon confirmation, squatted down and began scanning the spines for familiar titles.