by James Halford
James Halford is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the third of three essays by Halford to appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Ali Jane Smith and Ben Brooker. Read all the essays here.
Globalisation and the South in Santiago La Rosa’s Australia
Santiago La Rosa’s first novel, Australia, embodies many of the characteristics associated with ‘la nueva narrativa Argentina’ (the new Argentine narrative). The younger generation of Argentine prose writers have sought new forms and new language to narrate the lived experience of neo-liberal globalisation. Defining Argentine events of the post-war period such as Peronism, military dictatorship, and the Dirty War have not disappeared from the work of writers like Andres Neuman, Pola Oloixarac, Fabian Martínez Siccardi, and Lucía Puenzo – but they have become less central. Globalisation and its discontents have become a focus, especially since the 2001 Argentine financial crisis, which saw the country default on its foreign debt, drove thousands into poverty, and sparked serious social unrest. In the wave of recriminations and soul-searching that followed, Argentine economists and social commentators sometimes referred to their country as ‘la Australia trunca,’ the truncated or ruined Australia. Why wasn’t Argentina Australia? asked the title of one well-known 2006 monograph by two Argentine economists, Pablo Gerchunoff and Pablo Fajgelbaum. Peronism, has been the traditional answer of the Argentine elite. But Gerchunoff and Fajgelbaum’s explanation is more nuanced. They describe the convergence of the two countries’ agricultural export-driven economies between 1880 and 1930. Argentina’s relative stagnation across the twentieth century, they argue, can be attributed to a ‘distributive crisis’ that Australia, with its stable institutions inherited from Britain, advantageous geography, and system of wage arbitration, was better able to resolve.
La Rosa’s story about a young Argentine couple who migrate to Sydney after the 2001 crash is, on one level, an extended riff on the idea of Australia as the country Argentina could have been. Though it provides brief, fascinating glimpses of how our country might look through the eyes of recently arrived Latin American migrants, a detailed social portrait is not on the agenda. Rather, the book sets out to explore, in the words of its author: ‘The idea of Australia as a country in the imagination of a certain sector of Argentine society… a space without contradictions, better, well-deserved, a place of arrival, for the victors.’ Australia conceives of itself as a critique of the Argentine bourgeoisie who benefited from neoliberal economic policies throughout the 1990s, then fled for the ‘life raft’ of the first world when the economy crashed in the 2000s.
The novel mounts its attack on the Argentine upper classes through the story of the narrator Nicolas, an engineer, and his wife, Gabriella, a painter. Nick and Gabi are the beneficiaries of globalisation: university-educated, middle-class professionals whose youth and relative economic privilege position them to benefit from open borders and employment markets when the Argentine economy tanks. ‘We left because we couldn’t see a future through the tear gas,’ Nick explains. ‘…Buenos Aires exploded in protests and unrest. I quit my job and we left. A better place, she said, half a world away, while we set ourselves up. Better streets, better schools, jobs, salaries. Our own home. Better people’[my translation]. Though the couple do get ahead economically in Australia – even achieving a foothold in the Sydney property market – they struggle emotionally in the absence of family and community networks. Gabi battles depression when unable to fall pregnant, and Nick embarks on a series of affairs. We meet them a decade on, as their Australian dream is definitively unravelling. Having finally conceived, through a long, expensive, and traumatic course of IVF, they lose the baby in the 38th week of pregnancy.
The novel is most convincing and emotionally resonant early on, when exploring the couple’s grief. Like Krog, La Rosa finds effective ways to gesture at traumatic experiences that cannot be translated into language (especially a foreign language): ‘She needs to rest, said Dr Hughes without looking at me… He said it in English…. I gave the taxi driver directions in English. Gabi still said nothing in any language.’ Though somewhat overused, the device of weaving English phrases into the Spanish prose highlights the characters’ instrumental relationship with the language of global business and popular culture. While their English is more than sufficient for business and everyday interactions, they are often frustrated by their inability to express their feelings. Clumsiness in a foreign language becomes a figure for broken communication in a relationship. At moments of high stress, Nick invariably reverts from global to local language, from non-native English to earthy Argentine profanity.
Having already fled the economic crisis at home, Nick and Gabi both, in their respective ways, set about avoiding their personal crisis in Australia. Gabi insists she is still pregnant, and counts down the days to the birth. Nick avoids his wife and his job, wanders the city, and spends money recklessly on an affair with an Ecuadorian prostitute named Evelyn. The brothel scenes burn through the last of the reader’s sympathy for Nick in order to tell us something we already know: that the logic of the market reinforces similar patterns of racial, class, and gender inequality globally. While the bonds of a common language and culture establish a bogus solidarity between customer and prostitute – ‘What news, my Latin-American brother?’ she greets him – the situations of this white, male Argentine engineer and this mestiza Ecuadorian sex worker are not the same. Regardless of their countries’ respective positions on a map, or where they are living now, Nick lives in the North, Evelyn in the South. Here, Latin American regional inequalities are reproduced in a phantasmal Sydney that exists mainly as a projection of frustrated Argentine desire. ‘This country,’ Evelyn remarks to Nick, ‘is whatever you want it to be.’
In La Rosa’s Australia, the Southern landscape and its history of settler colonialism – so central in Falconer and Krog’s texts – is peripheral. Much of the action unfolds within interior spaces that could be anywhere. What is interesting, when the Australian landscape does briefly appear, is that it is described in Argentine terms. Nick and Evelyn fantasise briefly about escaping together into the ‘desierto’ (desert or wilderness). In another scene, as the due date of Gabi’s psychological pregnancy approaches, Dr Hughes drives Nick ‘through the suburbs, the fields, then into the wilderness’ (desierto). The unsubtle use of barren imagery being made here is less interesting than the transferal of this particular word between parallel Southern spaces. In nineteenth-century Argentine literature the ‘desierto’ has a mythical resonance something akin to the Australian outback or bush: Sydney or the bush; Buenos Aires or the desierto. It is the place to which the landless gaucho, Martin Fierro is exiled; the place that represents ‘barbarism’ in the writings of the liberal statesman, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento; the place from which indian raiders snatch their white prisoners in Esteban Echevarría’s The Captive, the founding work of Argentine and Latin American romanticism. Most significantly, the series of genocidal frontier campaigns throughout the 1870s and early 1880s that wiped out the last nomadic tribes on the Argentine pampa is called the ‘Conquest of the Desert’ – a name as self-serving and duplicitous, in its way, as the British ‘terra nullius.’ After all, why would an uninhabited wilderness need to be conquered? Both these phrases are examples of what Connell has called, the ‘grand erasure’ masking the colonial foundations of modernity. It is no coincidence that the moment of Australia and Argentina’s economic ‘convergence,’ the period of miraculous growth beginning in the 1880s, coincides with the closing of the frontier.
La Rosa’s Australia skirts these issues without developing them. It ultimately proves to be one of those books that is less interesting than its generative idea. A promising, imperfect debut, it leaves much territory still to be explored.