In 2001, Jorge Barón Biza committed suicide, like his mother, by jumping out a window of his apartment. His younger sister, María Cristina Barón, had killed herself thirteen years before, with an overdose of barbiturates. (Their brother, Carlos, apparently leads a private existence.) “The Desert and Its Seed” was Barón Biza’s only published novel. A recovering alcoholic, he had a small group of close friends, and spent his last years somewhat reclusively, in Córdoba, writing poorly paid pieces for a newspaper called La Voz del Interior.
Thematically and stylistically, “The Desert and Its Seed” stands apart from most of the literary currents in the region. (“In November we received a few novels of the Latin American Boom,” Mario says at one point, rather neutrally, when he gets a parcel with some reading material to entertain his mother. It’s the book’s only reference to the local canon.) The novel has a willful messiness, as though it were constantly trying to sabotage itself; the italicized passages dissolve any possible unity or symmetry as soon as it threatens to appear on the page. The effect is often frustrating, and one senses that this is intentional—that Barón Biza wants the reader to understand that no fine literary form can be given to such violence. But this can also feel like a cop-out, an acceptance of defeat, and the father’s bad writing is still bad writing, even if surrounded by the son’s better work.
Most reviews of the novel tended to ignore these imperfections, focussing on the tragic backstory and praising the work without much elaboration—somewhat confirming Barón Biza’s fear that the book’s autobiographical aspects would overtake any literary discussion. In a thoughtful, admiring essay about the author, from 2012, the Argentine writer Alan Pauls suggests that perhaps this was inevitable: the novel is a “tragic object,” he writes, its literary appreciation always overburdened with the lurid nature of its source material.
But, reading the novel now, one finds that, despite its flaws, it does not seem like a curiosity. It feels strikingly of the moment, as a resurgent feminist movement draws attention to the wide scope of misogyny. In the story of Aron and Eligia, misogyny is a force that cuts across ideological lines. Mario struggles to reconcile what seems like different aspects of his father—the ostentatious scion, the leftist revolutionary—but it’s clear that, above all, Aron is a man who pines for an abstract, dominating masculine ideal, whatever form it might take. His contradictions seem less the product of a deep, tormented nature than of a shallow megalomania.
Barón Biza draws poignant parallels between Aron’s flamboyant machismo and the strongman ethos that ruled Argentina in the decades during which the novel takes place, a time of coups and counter-coups. “These were days when history was systematically making clowns of us all,” Mario says. “There was political instability, and the news consisted of an endless parade of soldiers and civilians with political paraphernalia, promising rewards or punishments left and right. After a few years or even months, these parades would disappear having accomplished nothing. Some of the ‘saviors’ would reemerge after their fall from power; and we would see them in the flesh, at a bar or nightclub, their dull eyes lighting up only when they got a chance to reminisce about their glory days.”
Throughout the novel, Eligia is juxtaposed with a more famous figure from Argentine politics: Eva Perón. Perón and Rosa Clotilde Sabattini were born six months apart, and became political adversaries. At one point, Mario asks his mother, who had once been incarcerated by the Peronist regime, if she and the country’s First Lady truly hated each other. “Yes,” Eligia replies curtly, after pondering the question for a long time. Peronism radically redrew the political landscape in Argentina from the nineteen-forties onward, taking over many of the progressive platforms of the U.C.R. and other smaller parties. Eligia embodies values that neither her megalomaniac husband nor her country seem interested in: a faith in slow, rational progress; deep skepticism toward the cult of personality; a refusal to rely on grand emotional gestures. She is the anti-Evita.
What the two women share is the experience of being used and punished by men. After Evita’s death, in 1952, President Juan Domingo Perón ordered the embalming of her body so that it could be kept at a mausoleum. But, in 1955, a military junta ousted Perón and kidnapped Evita’s body, to prevent the possibility of its symbolic usage. The body’s whereabouts remained secret until 1971, when the military revealed that it was in a crypt in Milan (at the same time Eligia is being treated there for the damage done to her by her husband). The body was exhumed, but it continued to be moved from place to place for years, first to Spain, where Perón, who lived in exile there, kept it in his residence, and then later, after his third Presidency and death, to Argentina. There were rumors that, much like Eligia’s face, Evita’s body had been disfigured.
Late in “The Desert and Its Seed,” Eligia, having endured years of surgeries, returns to the campaign trail, this time for a small party that is allied with her former foes, the Peronists. It’s 1973. In the run-up to a local election, she goes to a village in the mountains, and her son watches as she tries to work the crowd. “The public was only interested in the courage of the speaker in the face of adversity, which was regarded as a much more important virtue than the analysis of educational statistics,” he says. The crowd keeps listening to his mother, waiting for some mention of her disfigured face, while she goes on about the increased grade-repetition rate in primary schools. Some people in the crowd sigh, others nod sleepily. “Had she made even an indirect reference to her suffering, she would have won the fervor of the people.” Mario says. “But she never did.” ♦