pueblo chico, infierno grande

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?

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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.

And yes, those are human bones in the display case.

And yes, those are human bones in the display case.

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raise your hand

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if you want one, multiple, or all of these Mexican exports, as featured in Santiago’s stamp collection. (Yes, there is a stamp collection, but it is, thankfully, not nearly as complicated to figure out as the rest of his things.)

the elderly brazilian

I was always greeted with extreme enthusiasm in the little town in the Brazilian countryside where Santiago’s books were being held. After a while, however, the extent of this enthusiasm began to perplex me. “Nossa, she’s so young!” was the eternal refrain, and finally I asked — almost rhetorically — what they were expecting, a senior citizen? The answer, it turned out, was yes. When Santiago’s friend told his neighbors and relatives that a researcher was coming from the United States to investigate Santiago’s life, without providing greater details, the general assumption had been that I was a distinguished lady, possibly quite old indeed if I was looking into the life of someone who would be 100 if he were still alive. When they did meet the researcher, who is rarely to be found outside jeans and Chucks, the shock was understandable.

A similar phenomenon was to take place with Santiago’s great-nieces and -nephews. The first time I called the niece, I was in Rio; I seem to recall explaining that I was a student at an American university, but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. In any case, the information passed on to the rest of the family was that I was a Brazilian academic. The majority expected a 40something mulata, while the niece was personally convinced that I was going to be skinny, with glasses and a mop of curly hair. In any case, although the discrepancy between imagination and reality was equally large, the Argentines were slightly better at disguising their surprise than the Brazilians.

At the close of a family dinner last night, I found myself facing an expectant row of great-nephews and -nieces as I tried to explain why the great-uncle who some of them vaguely remembered merited my having come all the way to Patagonia, why I thrilled with excitement when a typewritten sheet fell out of one of Santiago’s stamp albums, and what on earth I thought I was going to write about. The niece hovered, prompting me. “I’ve never heard anyone talk about Uncle Santiago that way,” she told them. That, to be frank, is what often worries me. I wonder if I’m not cherry-picking, gilding the lily, and any other horticultural figure of speech you might like. Most biographers don’t often have to ask themselves if what they’re doing is worth it; history has already vindicated their choices, crowning their characters as noteworthy or influential. I have no such certainty. But at a phrase, or an image, or a dash of what Santiago called his “sincere cynicism,” I’m newly convinced. If only it would last.

the curtain rises

When the niece got my phone call the next morning, her husband reported, she fairly hit the ceiling. “You’re where? In NEUQUEN?” Within an hour, they were at my hotel. I came to the lobby, dragging my suitcase, and smiled; the niece stepped forward and hugged me, her eyes filling with tears. There had been a number of family meetings about my arrival, apparently, coordination of which relatives were coming to the airport, they were going to make a little card with my name on it — but ah, the confusion that a flight arriving at midnight on the next calendar day can wreak. (In my more hopeful and charitable moments as I waited for a taxi at the airport, I’d speculated about this.) “I’ll never forgive myself,” the niece kept exclaiming.

Though they had expected me a day earlier, they were quick to bundle up papers and a couple books and strike out for the little town where they live, in the pre-cordillera region, just a couple dozen kilometers from the border with Chile. I was dying to talk with them, of course, and it was mutual — but I needed to record these interviews, because I already knew the limits of my note-taking ability (to say nothing of notes scribbled on a bumpy three-hour car ride). I tried to steer the conversation toward the history of the region, and soon found myself starting to nod off. The landscape was beautiful and endless, red rocks rising from a flat seabed-turned-desert, with tufts of pale green and yellow grasses softening jags into curves. “We might be able to catch a glimpse of the cordillera soon,” the niece’s husband explained. “But if there’s clouds, you won’t be able to see a thing.”

I nodded drowsily and held my camera. When it came, I gasped.

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“Look at that!” the niece exclaimed. “The cordillera is such a coquette, but today she’s lifted the curtain for you to see her.” They stopped the car on the side of the road and I got out, sinking into the soft powdery soil and feeling that I needed a lens the size of the universe to begin to take it in.

I was going to compare reading Santiago’s autobiography to photographing the cordillera, but the truth is that the frustrations aren’t remotely comparable. With every fresh interview or bundle of documents, a few truths or impressions are consolidated and a dozen more crumble, some apparently irreparably. I apologize for keeping my cards close to the vest at this point, but a) I can’t easily record my impressions when I’m not sure of what they are, and b) I have to keep something in reserve for the book, if I can manage to resolve all this into a book. The Santiago of 1955 who chose to set down his memories in a five-movement Scherzo is, of course, a world and four decades away from the Santiago of Rio. This one, I have yet to get to know.

in patagonia

Buenos Aires from the air

Buenos Aires from the air

From a Brazilian winter, replete with ripe mangoes and packed beaches, I flew into a Patagonian winter. As soon as the airplane doors opened I exhaled, feeling the novelty of seeing my breath for the first time in months. From above the city had borne a strange resemblance to the miniature wintry village my neighbors across the street used to put up every Christmas in their living room, complete with a toy train carrying Tootsie rolls. Of course there was no snow, and no lake with ice skaters, and the houses were less cottages and more low-slung little blocks, but something was the same. The streets looked whitish and dusty, illuminated by neat rows of streetlamps. Perhaps it was just that something about the scale of Neuquén seemed off; in spite of everything, it seemed miniature.

The airport was tiny, certainly; we walked from the tarmac straight into the room with the only baggage carousel, which had a partition running down one side separating the passengers from those waiting for them. The wall was semitransparent, and this ruffled my composure a little bit, as I couldn’t help stealing glances to see if I could make out Santiago’s niece and her husband. There were groups of relatives and young couples, no likely suspects. One silver-haired man was standing close to the partition and scanning the crowd. I stiffened slightly, trying to look writerly and professional as I waited for my suitcase. Even with my back to the wall, I couldn’t help turning to look at the silver-haired man. In the next stolen glance there was a woman with auburn hair by his side, looking to be his wife. “I thought it was you,” I rehearsed in my head, “but I wasn’t sure. So good to meet you!” The niece looked different than I’d imagined, but a few more hurried looks established a vague Badariotti resemblance.

My suitcase came and I shuffled through the security screening, meant to keep dairy and meat products from contaminating Patagonia. As I gathered my things, I exuded calm and grace. War and Peace in one hand, I walked over to the niece and her husband in a noncommittal way. They moved aside to let me go by. Still exuding calm and grace, I walked by and soon found myself at the other end of the little terminal, having been enthusiastically greeted by exactly nobody. I figured they must not have recognized me, and looped back. What a funny story this would be. I stood off to one side and watched the rest of the passengers be received. Suddenly, to my dismay, Santiago’s niece and her husband moved forward and hugged a woman with two children. The Badariotti resemblance vanished. They left the airport. Soon I was one of only a handful left, desperately trying to get a wifi signal so as to find the niece’s cell phone number in my Skype contacts. I had no cash, my Argentine cell phone was dead, and it was midnight in Patagonia.

Everything sounds worse, I discovered last night, when you tack “in Patagonia” on the end. Not as strong as Siberia, but it works in a pinch. Stood up… in Patagonia. No way of contacting anyone… in Patagonia. Stepping out to an empty taxi stand as security closes down the airport… in Patagonia. The fact of being able to see my breath no longer charmed me, and the cold seeped into my sneakers. I took out a few hundred pesos at an ATM and waited, but the chances of a taxi passing by the airport at midnight on a Sunday seemed increasingly remote. I alternately flirted with the ideas of sitting and reading War and Peace until dawn, hitchhiking, and kicking a car door until the alarm went off just so somebody would appear. Nothing stirred around me, except for the Argentine flag snapping in the wind. In Patagonia.

I assumed that there had been some sort of mistake, naturally, but as the cold sank into my toes, darker hypotheses followed it. Perhaps the niece had changed her mind and didn’t want to show me Santiago’s autobiography after all. Well, that was all right, I thought, I’d just stay at the hotel in Neuquén until my flight back on Thursday. No, shrieked another voice, which was probably right to be hysterical, how can you possibly leave without the manuscript? Both voices faded away as I contemplated the headlights on a road that seemed quite far away, feeling extremely sorry for myself.

After some time, in which the car-kicking plan started to gain support as a desperate measure, I saw headlights approaching. The niece! They’d just been late after all. It was only with bitter relief that I saw that the car was a taxi. “I was going to pass on by, but I saw you from the highway,” said the driver, wrestling my suitcase into the trunk. Even from the road, the city seemed miniature somehow, and eternally wintry. Cold white dust covered the yellow grass and spindly trees shared room with cacti along the streets. The driver left me at the hotel. “Suerte,” he said offhandedly. He couldn’t have known how much I’d need it.

next stop

“August will be for reflection,” I clacked out on Santiago’s typewriter. What youthful naïveté… If the rest of the journey is like this, I’ll just have to hang on by the seat of my pants and take as many notes as I can to reconstruct some sort of book afterwards. But I’ve got to hope that my time in Argentina — a month of which will be spent in a city of 18,000 people — will allow me to focus more on the task at hand instead of on the traffic getting to the IMS or the emails in my inbox requesting translations.

Even in the midst of this chaos, I’ve tried to carve out some space for reflection. The largest empty spaces in my day when I can’t be productive are, predictably, when I’m stuck on the bus. When I first came to Rio, the infernal traffic — practically seeping through the narrow streets of the neighborhood where I’m staying — might have given me an ulcer. But as the bus draws nearer and nearer to my apartment, I can treat the ride as a time machine. The seats in the creaky, decrepit buses that are currently being phased out are quite high off the ground, and the passenger looking out the window tends to notice the second stories of buildings rather than the ground level. Time and development have wrought a strange transformation on the architecture of these old neighborhoods.

As in Buenos Aires, where palatial, French-inspired buildings were carved up into tiny offices and laundromats and gyms — hermit crabs sharing apartments within a single, magnificent shell — the old buildings in Glória, Catete, and Laranjeiras, more often than not, have simple storefronts installed on the ground level. But a few meters above the displays of paint tins or cat food, beautiful and decaying façades have been left untouched, signs of the buildings’ former elegance. Flaking plaster on colonial arches, tall boarded-up windows, shields blazoned with the year of construction — 1909, 1911, 1897. These buildings were here to welcome Carmen Miranda when she was brought here as a baby, and as I nod off against the humming window of the bus I try to imagine not only that city, but the city where Santiago roamed and catalogued. Some of it is simply too distant. When Santiago and his family traveled to Italy in the early 1920s, their ship docked in Rio. The cariocas wore white linen and straw hats, Santiago recalled, with the ladies on the dock brandishing parasols and automobiles navigating amongst horse-drawn carts and trams.

The task for tomorrow, apart from making my connecting flight and surviving immigration bureaucracy in Rio, will be convincing the Argentina relatives that I am not a crazy person and that I should be trusted with Santiago’s things and his story. As part of this effort, I think I will pass on wearing my jersey (even though it’s another game day). And nobody tell them about the cat, please.