The Desert and Its Seed  by  Jorge Barón Biza  tr.  Camilo Ramirez  (New Directions, April 2018)  Reviewed by  Sam Carter

The Desert and Its Seed
by Jorge Barón Biza
tr. Camilo Ramirez
(New Directions, April 2018)

Reviewed by Sam Carter

In his 1999 review of a Buenos Aires exhibition of Mexican art, the Argentine writer Jorge Baron Biza suggests of Frida Kahlo that “biography, pain and art form part of a deeper unity that goes beyond the gossipy books and the films. You have to go back to Van Gogh to find another example where these three aspects of life are so intimately intertwined.” If Baron Biza was willing to establish a kinship between Kahlo and Van Gogh, then he should have also included himself in such a family tree, as an heir not only to their artistic legacy of interwoven threads of suffering and personal circumstance but also to a familial history of tragedy and notoriety. Borges famously wrote a universal history of infamy partially comprised of adapted accounts of real events; Baron Biza, in contrast, lived out a personal history of it before fashioning a fictional work.

Of the three Kahlo paintings that lead him to this observation, only “Diego on My Mind” evokes a parallel to a well-known episode involving Baron Biza’s parents. In this self-portrait from 1943—the year after Baron Biza was born—the face of Diego Rivera occupies Frida’s forehead. Ostensibly etched on, his eyes nevertheless look away, a fitting figuration of the legendarily unfaithful artist twice married to Kahlo. Although Baron Biza makes no remark about such a likeness, one might consider the portrait a reflection of the relationship between his parents. A highly accomplished and fiercely independent woman who never let any distress define her, Clotilde Sabattini suffered, much as Kahlo had, because of her husband: Raúl Barón Biza, a relentlessly radical figure who wielded both wealth and influence. The pain began later in life for Sabattini—Frida had dealt with the effects of polio and a car accident before encountering Diego—but it too came with a highly visible, indelible manifestation that made facing her past an ineluctable, everyday occurrence.

On the August afternoon in 1964 when they had planned to finally sign the papers for a divorce more than two decades in the making, Raúl offered glasses of whiskey to some of the lawyers present in their apartment. He then proceeded to hurl the contents of another tumbler, filled with acid, onto his wife’s face. As she was rushed to the hospital while the chemical corroded her features, Raúl put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. Fourteen years later, in the same apartment, Clotilde took her own life. Decades after that, Jorge threw himself off a 12-story balcony, the second suicide among the couple’s three children.

A ghostwriter, proofreader, editor, journalist, critic, and translator of an early Proust text, Jorge Baron Biza did not leave behind a slew of well-known works in the wake of his death. Although he wrote nearly 1000 short pieces, only a selection of them appear in the sole collection of his nonfiction published posthumously in 2010—a volume that owes its existence to the impact of his only fictional work. In 1997, he submitted a version of that novel to a prestigious prize run by a Spanish publisher, but it failed even to be considered a finalist. He then paid for its publication in Buenos Aires the following year, garnering some recognition before his death in September 2001. In subsequent years, it has acquired a wide readership and been translated into Dutch, Italian, and French; it now appears in English thanks to New Directions and the adroit efforts of translator Camilo Ramirez.

The Desert and Its Seed dramatically begins on that fateful day that witnessed a failed divorce yet still marked the end of the marriage:

Moments after the attack, Eligia’s complexion was still symmetrical and possessed its rose glow, but, minute by minute, her facial lines began to curl; lines that had been smooth until that day, despite her forty-seven years and the plastic surgery that had shortened her nose. That small and voluntary cut—which for three decades had conferred on her an air of audacity—was becoming a symbol of resistance to the great metamorphosis of the acid. Her lips, her eyelids, the lines of her cheekbones were transforming to a malicious cadence: curves were materializing where none had been before, while the unmistakable features of her identity were vanishing forever.

Eligia unmistakably stands in for Clotilde—just as the narrator, Mario, does for Jorge and Aron substitutes for Raúl—but more notable than any swapping of names is the sinister process of erasure described in excruciating detail. From this initial image of disintegration, the narrative constructs a searing, searching reflection on what it means to face the consequences of another’s heinous act.

Rather than deny the novel’s obvious autobiographical content, Baron Biza consistently emphasized that it “seeks, more than to heal, to establish what happened in those years.” The Spanish word Baron Biza uses for heal, cicatrizar, is rooted in the one for scar, cicatriz. Some scars fade, reaching an ideal state of invisibility; others, however, remain, marking a recovery process that is simultaneously complete and yet somehow still unfinished. They embody a strange sort of temporal border that Eligia, whose injuries require the transplantation of new skin and consequently new sets of scars, begins to inhabit and understand all too well throughout this novel.

After escorting his mother to the hospital, Mario seeks respite in a nearby bar that serves as “a frontier where we are forced to confront the horrors of life that both took us there and which we have so doggedly cultivated for ourselves.” It becomes a pattern throughout Mario’s time as his mother’s caretaker and companion during a reconstruction process that begins in Argentina and entails a two-year stay at a plastic surgery clinic in Milan. But Mario aspires to accompany her in another way as well: “I was going to rebuild myself with the same tenacity that defined Eligia, I was going to contradict Aron’s designs. I was going to be the anti-Aron, and find my own way of being strong; my own way of challenging fate.” It is a resolution dear to Baron Biza: perhaps unsurprisingly, part of what he admired in the Kahlo paintings was the way “they work as perfect anti-Riveras.”

To become an anti-Rivera or an anti-Aron ends up having been, somewhat paradoxically, both deceivingly difficult and remarkably easy, on the one hand a project requiring serious self-examination and on the other a simple matter of rejecting outright the legacy of misogyny. What nags at Mario—and what makes this Argentine novel resonate so clearly in a cultural moment when men are finally being held accountable for their actions regardless of their art, influence, or politics—is the ultimately futile search for a single explanation capable of capturing both sides. “Between the man who built schools for children and monuments to those he loved and the one who threw acid at his beloved, there is a transformation that I cannot understand,” Mario reflects. “My inability to comprehend him is what binds us.” For Mario, the stakes of disentangling the good from the bad could not be higher since the victim is his mother and the perpetrator his father. Yet what matters most when answering this question of whether we can ever separate art from actions or public work from private behavior is not relatability but rather the possibility of a remorse paired with redeemability—qualities that Aron rarely exhibits.

Like Rivera, Raúl Barón Biza was larger-than-life, a millionaire born in the last year of the nineteenth century who spent his money funding attempts to topple dictators and his time authoring semi-pornographic works reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade’s. He was married to his first wife, Swiss-Argentine actress Myriam Stefford, for only a year before her untimely death in an aviation accident. Never one for small gestures, Raúl built her a nearly 260-foot-tall mausoleum. A few years later, he secretly married Clotilde, then the 17-year-old daughter of a soon-to-be former friend. An expert in education with a promising political career, she excelled in universities abroad and served in prominent posts at home.

Clotilde’s profile, in other words, was rising just as Raúl’s star was fading, but they found common cause in an anti-Peronist stance that extended to Eva Perón, Eligia’s truest counterpart throughout The Desert and Its Seed. Unlike Clotilde, Eva, born six months later, garnered widespread adoration and acclaim, yet, as the novel reminds us, they both ended up in Milan against their wishes. The military dictatorship that overthrew Perón in 1955 moved Eva’s body, four years after her death, out of Argentina to be buried under a fake name in the Italian city, where it would remain for many years—including the period Eligia spends at the clinic. With their different yet twinned trajectories, the two women embody the phrase “la otra cara de la moneda”—literally, the other face of the coin, or, more idiomatically, the other side of the story—with one face erased by an acid attack and subsequent suicide and the other now prominently enshrined on two façades of a building overlooking a main thoroughfare in Buenos Aires.

No grand monument honors Clotilde, but her son’s novel resembles one, a way of remembering his mother and their time together. Yet that period remains haunted by the specter of the paternal, for even as Mario accompanies Eligia he is beset by an attempt to understand the malicious gesture that ultimately sent mother and son across the Atlantic. His resolve to become Aron’s opposite dissolves as he escapes the claustrophobia of the clinic by getting drunk on cheap liquor and befriending a local prostitute who brings him along on house calls. It is a vicious circle that culminates in a minor act of cruelty that mirrors his father’s. In the end, what Jorge Baron Biza once said of Martín Fierro, the gaucho epic considered Argentina’s national work, holds true for his novel as well: “it’s not Argentine because it narrates the story of a gaucho but rather because it speaks to us about violence and its false solutions.”

For Mario, the problem is that Aron’s breed of evil resembles both “a desert with no boundaries” and “a narcissistic world that self-generates and lacerates all relations, all perspective, any reunification.” Both expansive and exclusive, it resists attempts to engage it. As Mario explains elsewhere, his experience with Aron plants “the idea that evil was beyond willpower, that, once it affected the mind (this happens less frequently than assumed), it operates as it does in nature: involuntarily, absolutely, in an absent manner, like in the desert.” Less concerned with taking on than with taking over, it wages wars of attrition rather than domination, insidiously eating away—like an acid—instead of swallowing up.

Often remembered only as the embodiment of excess, Raúl and his work had been largely forgotten by the time The Desert and Its Seed was published. Fragments from three of the elder Barón Biza’s works do, however, appear in his son’s novel, all of them cited not so much approvingly as somewhat mockingly as Mario assesses whether anything worthwhile can be located in this literary legacy. He decides there is little left to salvage, but in the 2000s a group of enthusiasts began a similar venture and instead ended up promoting Raúl Barón Biza’s novels by making available online texts that had long been out of print.

In weighing his literary merit against the history of his horrific actions, those devotees undertook a task familiar to those engaging the ideas of Paul de Man, who shares with Raúl some deeply problematic characteristics and who authored the epigraph for a late chapter of The Desert and Its Seed. Jorge Baron Biza was no doubt aware of the controversy that arose after de Man’s death regarding his collaborations with Nazi-run newspapers, which makes quoting the celebrated yet complicated Yale professor all too fitting when appraising an equally contradictory figure like his father.

The epigraph comes from de Man’s “Autobiography as De-Facement,” a piece that expands Wordsworth’s reflections on epitaphs to theorize that knotty genre. Glossing de Man in an essay of his own, Baron Biza highlights how the famous deconstructionist locates an inescapable tension in the surface where epitaphs are inscribed: the tombstone. Much like a scar, its visible part—the one with the writing—is inseparable from the buried, invisible one that represents death and the ineffable. The latter is the region where, as Baron Biza puts it, “we learn that we are basically contradiction,” and that sense of opposition lies at the heart of what de Man identifies as the dominant trope of autobiography: prosopopeia, the act of bestowing an absent or imaginary figure with the power of speech and whose etymology refers to the ability “to confer a mask or a face.”

The web of allusions that Baron Biza spins with the selection of this epigraph is therefore a dense one, and it becomes slippery in scenes where Mario reads epitaphs. Wandering around small Italian towns while Eligia takes a break from her treatments to visit Switzerland, he meets a pair of Australian undertakers who, hearing him speak Italian, ask if he might translate some inscriptions into English for them. He does so somewhat unfaithfully—his is a true case of traduttore, traditore—by inventing details and imaginatively combining Italian and Spanish to decipher the Latin used in some of the older epitaphs. It’s a creative operation that recalls something Baron Biza applauds in Kahlo’s work and that also describes his enthrallingly unorthodox style formed despite or perhaps because of the absence of any university degree: “From her lack of training the artist extracts a singular originality.”

Because any attempt at exculpation ultimately evaporates when forced to face the facts, what remains in The Desert and Its Seed is an excavation, a brushing away instead of a brushing off that seeks to uncover what Baron Biza once called “the difference between the exterior appearance of a tragedy and its interior view.” Conspicuously absent, however, is Eligia’s version. Although her silence for much of the novel partly explains an early title—Las leyes de un silencio (The Laws of a Silence)—it also echoes a feature Baron Biza notes with respect to Frida. “Kahlo’s silences,” he argues, “compel the icons around that expressionless and now famous face to take on meaning.” The same can be said of Eligia’s, which force others, including her son, to speak up without speaking for her. Her silences also assert the need for actions, no matter how small, that would render her husband’s act inconceivable and reduce the number of strange looks she receives even after years of reconstructive surgeries. As Mario ultimately realizes, surfaces only acquire meaning according to how one approaches them: “without love,” an elderly Italian woman informs him during his last night in Milan, “the face is just meat, something horrific.”

 

Sam Carter is an editor at Asymptote whose work has appeared online at Public Books, Full Stop, and The New Republic.

 

Banner photograph by Clementina Gades. She Instagrams @clementinagades. See more work: cargocollective.com/Clementina-Gades