The Spanish translation of Marcia Luyten’s book Moederland, about the young years of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, was recently published, translated by Marcela Cazau. At the invitation of the Argentinian publisher Planeta, the author made a promotional trip to Buenos Aires, supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Marcia Luyten wrote a report about her experiences.
I’d been in Buenos Aires for less than half a day when I found myself sitting in the midst of the monstrous contrast that I try to describe in such detail in Moederland. De jonge jaren van Máxima Zorreguieta. After landing in the early morning, I was scouring a supermarket for breakfast when Pablo rang to ask if I’d like to join him for lunch at the Círculo de Armas. When I was doing research for my biography of Máxima Zorreguieta, I’d have liked nothing better than to catch a glimpse inside that private gentleman’s club, the very bosom of the immensely rich landowners’ omnipotence. The club was set up in the late nineteenth century as a society for the most important army officers and generals, businesspeople and politicians – functions quite often united in one and the same person. Here the elite pooled its interests; here it hatched its plans. The successive coups of the twentieth century, most recently by the junta of Jorge Videla, were devised here.
De Círculo has more than 250 members. Everyone who is anyone in Buenos Aires has an ardent desire to be admitted, but access is reserved for only a few. Pablo grins as he shows me the 100-year-old ballot box. Members plunge their hands deep into it to deposit unseen a white or black ball on the left (opposed to membership) or the right (in favour). White counts as one vote, black is weightier and counts for three. Pablo was admitted three years ago.
Women cannot be members. They are allowed inside on invitation but have access only to the first two floors. Above are gymnasia, libraries and a corridor with hotel rooms, where members can spend the night. (Women are tolerated on that floor.) All the same, they can be seen everywhere in Círculo; throughout the building, paintings show naked women, and in the high entrance hall is a woman in marble who stands several metres tall, her arms spread wide in welcome. Whether living women are welcome is highly questionable. When an elderly man walks past and I politely wish him Buenos Dias, he gives me a dark look.
In Círculo de Armas every guest signs the visitors’ book.
‘Formal attire’, Pablo apped just in time. ‘No trousers’. I ran all over the Airbnb in search of an ironing board; the orange dress for the book launch came out of my wheeled suitcase a crushed square. Ordering an Uber as I did so, I ironed the creases out of the dress and polished the sleep from my face. The taxi was half an hour late. I must have grumbled, because Sergio picked up quite a speed, ignoring every red light. Until we became completely stuck. Everything was at a standstill. There was no sign of a blockage but the noise mounted. Shouts from in front. Horn blasts from behind. I left Sergio and continued on foot, running again, and found myself in a sea of demonstrators who were crossing the Avenida 9 de Julio.
Two hundred metres from the nineteenth-century glory of the Círculo, today’s Argentina howled. Inflation is still rising, predicted to touch 100% by December. The small group of super-rich have moved all their capital to the safety of America and Europe. The vast majority, the middle classes and the poor, are watching their salaries evaporate month by month as prices rise. Currency depreciation in three figures means revolution.
Financial and political instability is driving more and more rich Argentinians out of the country, to the far side of the Rio de la Plata, to Uruguay. The poor are trapped. So they keep voting for the populism of the Peronists. And occupying the streets.
This morning I got onto the plane in Salvador de Bahia, where I’m researching a new book. A befriended colleague warned me: you’d better pray that Argentina beats Poland this evening, otherwise you’d better not go to Argentina. The country will be depressed and riots will break out. To me that seemed a bit of an exaggeration, but the man, who lived in Buenos Aires for a long time, was convinced that early elimination from the World Cup might have disastrous consequences.
In the afternoon I set out for Plaza de Seeber, for a national service of worship: Argentina versus Australia. A city in white and light blue. Flags everywhere, some with the head of the sainted Messi in the centre in place of the sun. More than twenty thousand people were watching screens as higher than the trees. (No drums – on passing a small square I saw that the big drum and the chanting of the Orange fans were attracting a lot of attention during the Netherlands-US match.) The game was a collective orgasm for a nation that’s continually threatening to tear itself apart.
Supporters during the match Argentinia–Australia.
The next day Argentina couldn’t get enough of it. Several sports channels broadcast Messi for hours on end. Messi at his debut, Messi against Brazil, Messi at Barcelona, Messi singing the national anthem, Messi with Maradona, again and again with that caption underneath: ‘El día que Messi…’ The day that Messi… Everything on repeat, in slow motion and from every camera angle. It must be the fear of his departure, and the pleasure of shared bliss.
This weekend I’m seeing the people who were important for my book. Last night I went out for dinner with Carola Iudjvidin, who worked on it with me as a fixer and researcher. Nobody knows ‘the making of’ better than Carola: the search for Máxima’s family, friends, classmates and fellow students, former colleagues on the internet and in social media; we were detectives, and as soon as we’d found someone the persuasion began, the seduction. She knows all the blunders I made – the victories I occasionally notched up too.
This evening I’m seeing Pablo and Carolina, the friends who opened up for me a fairly closed upper class and took me with them to Pergamino, where Máxima spent weekends in her youth. In that city on the pampas, Carolina had prepared an interview with Máxima’s aunt. Fatima Gobi and Maria Laura Tramezzani, Máxima’s colleague and her boss at Bank Boston in Buenos Aires, are arriving soon too. Their stories were important in giving me a picture of Máxima in her first real job. We meet in a vegan restaurant (in meat-eating Argentina!) inside a palace in Recoleta, the expensive district on the edge of which Máxima grew up.
Monday, the first interviews. It’s certainly exciting; I can’t predict what will spark the interest of Argentinian readers or journalists, how the passages about Jorge Zorreguieta will be read. When the second interviewer says that he found my book ‘muy valiente’, very brave, I start to get slightly worried. He believed I had broached ‘such sensitive issues’. But he didn’t reveal whether I’d done so to his satisfaction.
With Belén Merinone of Infobae.
The interviewer for Marie-Claire has picked up something quite different… A book like this elicits poisonous gossip. Such as: the author is not independent; just look at how she had herself driven around Buenos Aires in the ambassador’s car. I’m shocked for a moment, but then I explain in detail where this slanderous story comes from.
With friends I was a guest at a ranch on the pampas. It was an essential part of my research, enabling me to understand how the elite of Buenos Aires spent weekends on the estancias and farms of the major landowners. On the second day we went out onto the pampas on horseback and after that there was an asado, the typical Argentinian barbecue.
Twenty people had been invited to the asado, including the Dutch ambassador. At the end of the Sunday afternoon I had to get back to the city, but my friends were driving to their country house. I looked for a lift; the ambassador and his wife offered to drop me. That chance ride was the breeding ground for a whole theory about the biographer’s lack of independence.
Now I’m spending the evening with Marcela Cazau, the Spanish translator of Moederland. We drink a glass of wine on one of the many terraces hung with lights that fill the pavements of Palermo. Marcela worked at the translation conscientiously and with devotion, looking up the originals of all the quotes I’d used in the original Argentinian books and media (a mammoth task) and, being Argentinian, smoothed out a few bumps. I’m grateful to her for that precision and we’re both dismayed when we see that her name isn’t mentioned anywhere on the title page. We have to search hard to find it in 6-point font on the copyright page, despite the fact that translators are increasingly getting the credit they deserve. The latest Dutch edition of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth mentions on the cover that it’s a new translation by Els Snick — and rightly so, because it’s a wonderful version. We consider how to do justice to Marcela, preferably before a second edition.
I was supposed to go to a dinner this evening at the residence of the Dutch ambassador (the successor to the one who gave me a lift) to celebrate the book’s publication, but he has Covid. Infection rates are rising in Buenos Aires.
Time and again it seems as if the book launch is hanging by a silken thread. First the national team had to get through to the quarter finals. Now, just a few hours before the launch, a court ruling is due in the interminable case against Vice-President Cristina Kirschner. She led the Peronist party for many years, then succeeded her husband Nestor Kirschner as president, held the highest office from 2007 to 2015 and has been vice-president for the past three years. Should she be convicted, the fear is that her followers will go out on the streets and riot. Marcela, the translator, joked last night: with a bit of bad luck there’ll be just the four of us there.
At precisely the moment the verdict is expected, we come together in bookshop and cultural café Dain, where the launch begins in one hour. I thought we could do the launch in English, but it seems that’s not the convention. Mariela of Planeta publishing house will provide a simultaneous interpretation, so we practice how to do it. My microphone is turned down and I keep talking while Mariela talks over me, more loudly, in Spanish. It is as if, in a radio studio, I have a permanent echo in my headphones. But we manage!
With Mariela Wladimirsky of Planeta.
At half past six the audience starts to arrive: relatives of Marcela, my Argentinian friends, Dutch people who live in Buenos Aires. Those I interviewed and invited – friends and acquaintances of the central character — stay away, as do those who invited themselves and those who said they’d definitely come. Even my friends tell me they hesitated. First they waited at home for the verdict. Cristina Kirschner has been found guilty of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison. She’s banned from public office for good. Seeing that it was still quiet outside, they took their chances. There was very little commotion on the streets.
I don’t know what persuaded the rest to stay away. Was it fear of the Peronists? Or is there a different fear? Perhaps they were asked not to come because their presence might be explained as royal approval of the biography. That Máxima’s mother politely declined the invitation was only to be expected, but the fellow students described in the prologue to the book would have lapped up the conversation about the scene in which Máxima challenges a conservative priest.
The book launch goes the way book launches go: talk, debate, a well-disposed audience, kisses and warm words as arranged.
Mariela of Planeta interprets the conversation with Marcela Cazau.
It’s not until the next day that we notice the consequences of Kirschner’s conviction. The inner city filled up with her followers and there was no way for Mariela to leave the Planeta office. There was no transport any longer in the Palermo district where, in Dain, I met the next of the journalists.
I thought I was prepared for conversations with journalists of the right-wing, conservative media, Clarín and La Nación, mouthpieces of the big landowners and the army. But while I was expecting old hawks, nice, easy-going journalists arrived. I don’t know whether much remained of the caution I’d intended.
With journalist Marcos Teijero of Noticias.
Marcela the translator, and several journalists, said they found it challenging and interesting to see Argentinian history though the eyes of an outsider. What’s challenging about that? I asked them. They sighed. The tragedy. The immense tragedy of a country that a hundred years ago was the great promise. This city that was meant to become the new New York – and it was well on the way to being so. The city was built with its eye on glory; everything just a little bigger and grander than in European capitals, with 80,000 trees planted that now cloak the avenidas in green with yellow and purple flowers – in early December the city is at its most beautiful. But that glorious future shattered to pieces because the small upper class refused to share with the masses. The rich are still rich. The country has been skirting the abyss for decades. Its fate was perhaps already contained in the tango, which sings the praises of the first smile after you’ve crossed an ocean of tears.
This article was originally written in Dutch and translated into English by Liz Waters.