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A Year in Rewind, and Five Centuries of Continuity: El año del desierto's Dialectical Image

From: MLN
Volume 128, Number 2, March 2013 (Hispanic Issue)
pp. 373-383 | 10.1353/mln.2013.0019

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In the decade since Argentina's default on its international debt (and the subsequent economic and political crisis birthed by that default), we have seen too big to fail become the United States' explicit economic policy (and the implicit assumption driving its international diplomacy), we have seen European nations default on their own debt, we have learned a new vocabulary of global dissent (los indignados, the 99%, etc.), and we have felt the fissures splitting apart the European Economic Community and its unitary currency, the Euro.

That is to say: in light of current developments, some very particular narratives from Argentina are newly capable of resonating with contemporary global experiences. That is not because any of these narratives sacrifice specificity or particularity, but rather because in embracing those things, each one paints a specific local engagement with the ubiquitous reality of global capital and its whims.

The events surrounding the December 20, 2001 resignation of Argentine president Fernando de la Rúa have taken many names: the crisis de diciembre, el Argentinazo, el 19 y 20 de diciembre, el corralito; it has become best known globally, perhaps, by its anthem of uncompromising populist dissent, ¡Que se vayan todos! (figuratively: "Kick all the bums out!"). After the IMF refused to renegotiate Argentina's foreign debt in November 2001, the Argentine government, led by finance minister Domingo Cavallo, imposed withdraw limits on all national bank accounts. These limits, called the corralito, infuriated the population and led to a series of massive protests across the country. The protests overwhelmed the capital on December 19, causing President De la Rúa to at first declare a state of emergency, and ultimately to resign the presidency. In the aftermath, Argentina defaulted on its foreign debt, devalued its currency, and experienced a series of political and economic leaders, each one rebuffed by popular dissent and direct action. Even today, the Argentinazo remains the primary reference point for the worst-case what if scenarios when discussing the possibility of default and currency devaluation in Europe.

It is not surprising, then, that the events of December 2001 and their aftermath have proved to be fertile imaginative ground for contemporary Argentine fiction. Some of those narratives, such as Claudia Piñeiro's 2005 Las viudas de los jueves, have even seen big-screen adaptations with international distribution. Yet none of these post-2001 works has adopted a broader historical canvas than Pedro Mairal's 2005 post-apocalyptic novel El año del desierto (The Year of the Desert). Mairal uses the events of 19-20 December as concrete references from which to depart, but his departure is dual, and the narrative spins out two distinct trajectories. The first is a reductio ad absurdum of the Argentinazo: the fictionalized events set into motion on December 19 cascade through ever-increasing levels of infernal disaster until the very fabric of Argentine society is torn asunder and all that remains is a post-apocalyptic scene of barbarism. As that narrative line advances, however, there is another temporal logic at work. María, the novel's twenty-three-year-old protagonist, lives through a sort of 'historical rewind' that condenses five centuries of events in the span of one year. In other words: the descent into post-apocalyptic barbarism is also a return journey through Argentina's history, told in reverse chronological order.

This narrative device does not, however improbably, appear heavy-handed; the rewind is an integral part of the novel and it is intimately connected to María's life and actions. Thus, if the historical rewind is the novel's backdrop, María's personal story—the most pressing aspect of the novel—becomes a rewound bildungsroman. Mairal, in turn, becomes an archeologist who begins his excavation too early, a coroner who starts the autopsy on a still-living body. It is precisely this anticipation—this untimeliness—that allows the author to reanimate the past and bring it to bear on the present.

The novel culminates in an image that can serve as an emblem not only for Argentina's 2001 economic and social crisis, but for our historical moment writ large (a moment that reads continuity between the 1997...

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