Argentine Adam

Malcolm Deas

  • Argentina 1516-1982: From Spanish Colonisation to the Falklands War by David Rock
    Tauris, 478 pp, £24.50, May 1986, ISBN 1 85043 013 6
  • A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare by Andrew Graham-Yooll
    Eland, 180 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 907871 51 8

Most recent books in English on Argentine history are on economic history. On looking them over, readers who are not economic historians will probably reach the same conclusion as did J.O.P. Bland (better-known as the unwitting partner of the forger Sir Edmund Backhouse, the ‘Hermit of Peking’) after conscientiously preparing himself for a visit to the River Plate in 1916: ‘From the library catalogue point of view, the subject might well seem to have been exhausted ... Yet how few there be amongst all these works (as some of us know to our cost) that properly and worthily inculcate the profitable exercise of travel ... Say what you will, the great majority of them are so dreadfully infected with stodgy commercialism, so monumentally useful, that their general effect upon the mind (unless it be the mind of a bagman) can only be compared to a surfeit of suet pudding.’

The surfeit was the result of ‘this modern obsession for encyclopedic information about trade and manufactures, the all-pervading blue-book stodginess of statistics which permeate the works compiled by laboriously travelling politicians, economists and globetrotters, concerning lands which (could they but discern them rightly) afford matter for philosophical speculation at every turn of the road or river.’ It affected not only ‘works written by hungry hacks to the order of South American politicians and financiers’, but even ‘the standard works of reputable men, even men of high degree, like Lord Bryce, who went there to learn, or M. Clemenceau, who went there to lecture, not to mention the lesser fry of honest journalists and bona fide travellers. All alike seem to revel in compiling soporific statistics of marketable products, in recording the increase of whizzing machinery and the building of railways and grain elevators, just as if the entire population of these delectable lands lived and had their being for the sole purpose of producing pabulum and raw materials to feed our feverish industrialism ... And yet man in South America, even though he descend not to the mental state of an Amalgamated Engineer, is just as worthy of study as he is elsewhere; to regard him solely as a wheat-producing, cattle-raising machine is merely to proclaim that we ourselves ... have lost the secret and the art of living.’

The decrease in whizzing machinery, the deficit-generating capacities of Argentine railways, the uncertain future of River Plate grain elevators and the less than feverish level of our present industrialism now produces a different sort of stodge. The reader of modern works will become all too familiar with the arguments for and against the Roca-Runciman treaty, the evolution of Argentina’s terms of trade, the patterns of domestic meat-consumption, the blocked sterling balances and their relation to railway nationalisation, the errors of Peronist argicultural policy, the ‘beef cycle’, breeders versus fatteners – in short, the swings and roundabouts of Latin America’s most mismanaged yet so far most indestructible economy. ‘As some of us know to our cost’, one is tempted to add, but there is nothing wrong with these works in their place, which is that of more or less satisfactory accounts of the evolution of the Argentine economy. What will not do is to pretend, in the light of recent Argentine history, that they answer what Professor Rock calls ‘the central compelling question about Argentina ... What went wrong?’ To expect a satisfactory answer to that question from an economic history is, in the old Spanish phrase, to expect pears from the elm.

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