The young Roberto Bolaño
A new addition to the mass of Bolaño miscellanea being published in English appears on the New York Review of Books blog. In an entertaining essay, Scholars of Sodom, Bolaño takes a delightful swipe at V.S. Naipaul’s absurd and arrogant attack on Argentina, in which the choleric Trinidadian decided that Argentina’s woes, political and cultural, stem from a typically macho predilection for buggery.
Luckily, the NYRB blog allows the reader to link to Naipaul’s original essay, Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard, as well as two others; The Corpse at the Iron Gate and Comprehending Borges. Best to focus on the first of these, as this is where he first lays down his extraordinary theory. Naipaul starts from the premise that Argentina is a land founded on the principle of plunder – of the Indians, of the land itself – a theme which he establishes early on and which he develops, after a tortuous route, towards a startling conclusion. Considering the macho attitudes that dominate Argentinian society at the time of writing (the essay was published in 1974), and the prevalence of bordellos, Naipaul warns that “Every schoolgirl knows the brothels; from an early age she understands that she might have to go there one day to find love, among the colored lights and mirrors.” And then, his coup de grace:
The act of straight sex, easily bought, is of no great moment to the macho. His conquest of a woman is complete only when he has buggered her. This is what the woman has it in her power to deny; this is what the brothel game is about, the passionless Latin adventure that begins with talk of amor. La tuve en el culo, I’ve had her in the arse: this is how the macho reports victory to his circle, or dismisses a desertion. Contemporary sexologists give a general dispensation to buggery. But the buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries. The Church considers it a heavy sin, and prostitutes hold it in horror. By imposing on her what prostitutes reject, and what he knows to be a kind of sexual black mass, the Argentine macho, in the main of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonors his victim. So diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody.
Armed with this knowledge, Naipaul feels he has finally understood the Argentinians, with “their violence, their peasant cruelty, their belief in magic, and their fascination with death, celebrated every day in the newspapers with pictures of murdered people, often guerrilla victims, lying in their coffins.”
No holds barred here then. As Bolaño put it, in his imaginative response to the article, “Naipaul’s vision of Argentina could hardly have been less flattering. As the days went by, he came to find not only the city [Buenos Aires] but the country as a whole insufferably aggravating. His uneasy feeling about the place seemed to be intensified by every visit, every new acquaintance he made.”
A recent photo of VS Naipaul
Bolaño takes up the thread of Naipaul’s argument, and extemporises on the theme:
I remember, he writes, that when I read the paragraph in which Naipaul explains what he takes to be the origin of the Argentinean habit of sodomy, I was somewhat taken aback. As well as being logically flawed, the explanation has no basis in historical or social facts. What did Naipaul know about the sexual customs of Spanish and Italian rural laborers from 1850 to 1925? Maybe, while touring the bars on Corrientes late one night, he heard a sportswriter recounting the sexual exploits of his grandfather or great-grandfather, who, when night fell over Sicily or Asturias, used to go fuck the sheep. Maybe. In my story, Naipaul closes his eyes and imagines a Mediterranean shepherd boy fucking a sheep or a goat. Then the shepherd boy caresses the goat and falls asleep. The shepherd boy dreams in the moonlight: he sees himself many years later, many pounds heavier, many inches taller, in possession of a large mustache, married, with numerous children, the boys working on the farm, tending the flock that has multiplied (or dwindled), the girls busy in the house or the garden, subjected to his molestations or to those of their brothers, and finally his wife, queen and slave, sodomized nightly, taken up the ass—a picturesque vignette that owes more to the erotico-bucolic desires of a nineteenth-century French pornographer than to harsh reality, which has the face of a castrated dog. I’m not saying that the good peasant couples of Sicily and Valencia never practiced sodomy, but surely not with the regularity of a custom destined to flourish beyond the seas.
The danger in theorising outward from a single sexual act (one which seems to fill Naipaul with unspeakable horror) is that it creates a rather lopsided (and ultimately hilarious) simplification of Argentinian culture. It is a long time since I read Naipaul, and reading this quite demented essay, and Bolaño’s intelligent and witty response to it, reminded me why.
How interesting then, to read Ian Buruma’s review of Naipaul’s authorized biography (by Patrick French), also available on the NYRB website, and to discover that – when not beating her up – sodomising his Anglo-Argentinian mistress was Naipaul’s preferred occupation of an evening, while the cockatoos sang and the sun went down. Here is the passage summarizing their longstanding relationship, and the very special role of sodomy within it:
In Buenos Aires, at the apartment of Borges’s translator, Naipaul met Margaret Murray, a vivacious Anglo-Argentinian:
I wished to possess her as soon as I saw her…. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all. And somehow the need was so great that I did do it.
Margaret left her husband and children, and for the next twenty years would be at the beck and call of her master, who was finally able to do all the things that had horrified and fascinated him before . . .The more Naipaul abused Margaret, the more she came back for more. She wrote him letters, paraphrased by French, about worshiping at the shrine of the master’s penis, about “Vido” as a horrible black man with hideous powers over her. Her letters were often left unopened, and certainly unanswered, adding to her sense of submission. According to Naipaul, he beat her so severely on one occasion that his hand hurt, and her face was so badly disfigured that she couldn’t appear in public (the hurt hand seems to have been of greater concern). But Naipaul said, “She didn’t mind at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her.” And then there was the mutual passion for anal sex, or as Margaret put it (paraphrased by French), “visiting the very special place of love.”
Funny the way things come round.