A Cult Hit in Argentina, This Novel Evokes and Evades Malignant Machismo

A Cult Hit in Argentina, This Novel Evokes and Evades Malignant Machismo
The 2 Week Diet

It was decades before Biza crawled out from under his father’s shadow. After jobbing as an art critic and copy editor at various publications, he wrote “The Desert and Its Seed,” his only novel, in 1995. Rejected by publishers, it was ultimately self-published, in 1998 — three years before Biza, too, committed suicide. (His mother and sister also took their own lives.) The book, originally something of an underground hit, found a much wider audience when it was reissued in Argentina in 2013. It unfolds in the tragedy’s grim aftermath, hewing close to the facts (as Biza admitted in interviews). Nothing much happens on the level of plot. Over two years, Mario dutifully cares for Eligia, shepherding her through various hospitals where she undergoes several rounds of delicate reconstructive facial surgery. During this period, he expresses little outrage, shock or even sadness. On the contrary, he performs his duties with a sort of technocratic deadpan. “Tending to Eligia was tolerable because we both liked silence,” he blandly announces a few months in. “She went hours in complete silence, not giving the slightest indication of what she was thinking.”

Mario is being somewhat ironic. But the general logic of his observation holds. Though he spends much of “Desert” attending to Eligia’s body — washing her wounds, feeding her, helping with ablutions — he never once inquires into her state of mind. This disparity, which reaches absurd proportions, gives the novel its strange narrative tension: Mario’s caregiving drives the story forward even as his psychic denial holds readers back.

What accounts for the denial? It’s not so easily pinned down. Aron is such a legible — and boring — character because his crimes can be explained by his worldview. He’s a man of the old patriarchal society, for whom women are simply possessions. Mario, by contrast, is a child of the 1960s; he consciously models himself in exact opposition to Aron by devoting himself to Eligia’s care.

But no amount of good deeds can excuse you from inherited sins, especially if you’re unwilling to look them in the eye. Early in the novel, when analyzing Eligia’s burns, Mario reflects: “I performed my observation abstractly, focusing not on the hand that threw the acid … but in the spatial relations of Eligia’s face. … My eye would dissect the burnt skin down to fragments so minute, they lost the human implication of what had happened.” It’s telling that a pedantic euphemism, “human implication,” is as close as Mario will come to naming Aron’s crime. Anything more specific would call for a reckoning with machismo — a problem of which he is a part.

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