- The Gaucho Sells Out:Thomas Pynchon and Argentina
Am turning into an Argentinophile, if not maniac. Never having been within a couple thousand miles of the place has still not kept me from developing a theory . . .—Pynchon, letter to Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale, Jun. 29, 1963.
Nationalism is the greatest evil of all. And of course the unequal distribution of material goods, that is wrong also, and the division of land in different countries. It makes for war, arbitrary distinctions. You see I'm really a student of Spencer, an old anarchist . . .—Jorge Luis Borges to Uki Goñi, Buenos Aires Herald, Feb. 6, 1981.
Pero ché, no sós argentino . . .—Gravity's Rainbow.1
In chapter seven of Pynchon's first novel—one of the "Stencilized" sections of the book in which the avatars and emanations of the mysterious V. are traced out through moments of historical crisis—we are taken on a lavish detour to Florence, circa 1899. Amidst the various and intricate plotlines here, rumours of a seditious figure known only [End Page 53] as "The Gaucho" are causing much consternation at the Venezuelan Consulate. A communiqué has arrived from Rome, "warning of an upswing in revolutionary activities"—a particular concern given the small but feisty colony of Venezuelan expatriates in the north-eastern part of the city. We learn that this "'ogre'" (as he is called by Vice-Consul Salazar), is himself a Venezuelan national, who may (or may not) be operating in line with an insurgent agenda in his homeland.2 It is the Gaucho who co-ordinates a group of rioting Venezuelans—ultimately met with lethal force by the army—during an attempt to steal Botticelli's Birth of Venus from the Uffizi gallery. A self-proclaimed "'man of action'" (161) with an enthusiasm for explosives, the Gaucho cites Machiavelli's "'final exhortation'" of the strength of the lion as his moral inspiration: "'an embodiment of power . . . as simple and honest as my own and my comrades' in South America'" (163). This peculiar interpretation of Machiavellian doctrine is embellished with plenty of Latin machismo and a flair for dramatic spectacle: the Gaucho "wear[s] a red shirt and a wide grin" as he leads his band of rioters to the Consulate on horseback (207). Before these events come to a head, Salazar attempts to calm his panicked chief by pouring water on the credibility of the hearsay: "'Gauchos are in Argentina . . . And the name might also be a corruption of the French gauche. Perhaps he is left-handed'" (176). Somewhat curiously, no connection is made to the fact that Venezuela has its own distinctive equivalent to the Argentine cowboy in the form of the llanero—herders from the tropical grasslands to the east of the Andes (or llanos), many of whom played an important role in the latter stages of the anti-Spanish uprisings led by Simón Bolívar.3 The possibility of a tangible link to Argentina is therefore blocked and left open at the same time; with the end of the chapter comes the end of the Florentine narrative and Pynchon's strange, inauthentic Gaucho is never mentioned again. The nine passing references to tango in V., the dance that spread into European high society from the Buenos Aires underworld, might faintly evoke images of Argentina (albeit of the urban sprawl against which the free-roaming life of the gaucho is defined), but that is as close as we get to a follow-up.4
If, however, Pynchon famously plays with the resonances of the letter V in the novel—Vheissu, Vesuvius, Victoria, Venezuela, Venus and so on—then the presence of the Gaucho figure, with the specifically Argentine meaning of that term in mind,5 at least means that we can add to this alliterative sequence: Why not V for Voseo, the most notable feature of the Ríoplatense Spanish spoken in Argentina, in which vos (the second person singular pronoun) is used instead of tú?6 And why not speculate as to some hidden logic behind Pynchon's depiction of the Gaucho given the complex historical ties between Argentina, neighbouring Uruguay and Italy (with his red...