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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002) 169-193



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"A Country Dying On Its Feet":
Naipaul, Argentina, and Britain

Kevin Foster


Between 1972 and 1979, V. S. Naipaul made a number of trips (at least four) to Argentina and Uruguay. He wrote five essays for the New York Review of Books reflecting on these journeys, two in 1972, two in 1974, and one more in 1979. 1 The essays anatomized the political and social chaos that preceded and was then exacerbated by Juan Domingo Perón's return to Argentina from exile; they surveyed his political achievements, examined the consequences of his death, the ensuing "civil war," the military coup of 1976 and the reign of terror it initiated. In 1980, these articles were collected, along with other pieces on the West Indies, Africa, and an essay on Conrad, and reissued in a single volume, The Return of Eva Perón. Judging by the frequency with which Naipaul's pronouncements on Argentina have been proffered, and accepted, as authoritative opinions on the nation's history, politics, and culture--indeed the uncanny regularity with which The Return of Eva Perón has furnished epigraphs for and been cited in popular and scholarly accounts of the country--and its conceptual influence invoked and acknowledged, it is clear that since the Second World War, no writer and no single text have exercised a greater influence over British and American perceptions of Argentina. 2 While it is surprising that one writer and a handful [End Page 169] of essays should exercise such dominance over English language understandings of and responses to a whole nation, that it should be this book is positively alarming. Argentina may provide the grounds for Naipaul's analysis, but it is not his primary subject. In fact Argentina serves only as a vehicle for the advancement of theories that he has already propounded elsewhere and that are more immediately concerned with the history, politics, and cultures of other countries--the West Indies, Africa, and most pervasively India. The text that has most deeply influenced a generation of English language responses to Argentina, then, is not fundamentally about Argentina.

Indeed, throughout The Return of Eva Perón, Naipaul insistently questions the very existence of Argentina as it is perceived or imagined by the great majority of its people. Ortega y Gasset saw Argentina as the product of its peoples' fantasies of fulfillment, fantasies solicited by the emptiness of the land and the potential it embodied:

Everyone arriving on these shores sees, first of all, the "afterwards": wealth, if he be homo oeconomicus; successful love, if he be sentimental; social advancement, if he be ambitious. The pampa promises, promises, promises. The horizon is forever making gestures of abundance and concession. Here everyone lives on distances. Scarcely anyone is where he is, but in advance of himself. And from there he governs and executes his life here, his real, present life. Everyone lives as though his dreams of the future were already reality (Ortega y Gasset 154).

Naipaul concurs, up to a point: the Argentines, he argues in The Return of Eva Perón, have long occupied an entirely imaginary cultural space. The Argentina they believe they inhabit bears little relation to the nation's actual political, economic, social and cultural circumstances. The keystone of this imaginary Argentina and the basis of the people's continuing faith in it lie in their belief in the inexhaustible bounty of the land. Its wealth was "once so great, Argentines tell you, that you killed a cow and ate only the tongue, and the traveler on the pampa was free to kill and eat any cow, providing only that he left the skin for the landowner. Is it eight feet of topsoil that the humid pampa has? Or is it twelve? So rich, Argentina; such luck with the land" (102).

Fuelled by the bounty of the pampa, the wheat and cattle shipped through Buenos Aires to the markets of the world, Argentine society [End Page 170] came instantly and unexpectedly into being. The laureate...

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