Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor.
I have never seen any difference between personal experience and fiction. We never invent as much as when we are recounting what has happened to us. What is ‘lived experience’ if not debatable traces, fantasies, false memories, lacunae we fill with realism or fables?
Strictly speaking, my project of a trilogy about the 70s in Argentina (A History of Weeping, A History of Hair, and A History of Money) started out from the idea that ‘the personal’ is as historical as ‘the historical’, except that it appears in a more shapeless and evasive manner, one that resists any attempt at historiographical classification. I wrote the three books asking myself how far what we call intimacy (and which in a somewhat mechanical way we confuse with a private world, confining it within the four walls of ‘individualism’) might be shot through, imprinted or contaminated by historical forces, and how far what we call History (which we usually put in capital letters, as though it only happened in public squares, parliaments, ministries, etc.) might be composed of sensibility, imagination, spectres; in other words: of singularities. In this sense, weeping, hair and money (the three fossils around which these Histories circle) are the condensation of intimacy, history, and fiction: they are absurd fetishes, historical lenses and the nuclei of imaginary worlds.
I imagined the narrator of these novels as a kind of mad but extremely stubborn archaeologist or paleontologist who exhumed these three remains and set himself the task of reconstructing through them, in them, that weird Argentine civilization that was (we ought to say: is) the 70s, both so remote and yet so close to us still. To read the imaginary of political militancy in a few tears, the violence of history in a lock of hair, and the ecstasy of revolution in a currency that is constantly changing, devaluing: doubtless these are not ‘correct readings’, and the quality controls of historiography would probably reject them. But this stubborn error, similar to that of a crazy scientist who reads the whole world in the head of a pin, contains, I believe, all the fictional power of three novels that might well be called historical.
Very late on – as all important things are discovered – I realized that what money has in common with tears and hair is very simple: a tendency to be lost. In A History of Money (which is the economic history of a country seen through the demented use of money by a middle-class Argentine family) the economic logic is not that of accumulation but of dispersal, spending, waste. And since it is always threatened by loss, money – once again, exactly like tears and hair – can be faked. Everything that can be lost has to have a substitute, a prosthesis capable of replacing it. We describe fake weeping as ‘crocodile tears’. There are wigs (there is a famous one that was key to the most significant political kidnapping in the history of Argentina and which has an important role in A History of Hair). And there are fake banknotes. The history of fake things is the B-side of the most valuable objects.
But what most interested me about money was cash. In Argentina, that is the only sort of money that does not arouse suspicion. Every other kind (cheques, credit cards, electronic money) demands trust and patience, two virtues that have no place in Argentina’s world of the instant. In A History of Money, liquid money has the same insistent, monothematic presence that sex has in pornography. It is a novel of explicit money, but instead of ‘sex scenes’ there are ‘money scenes’: paying, lending, spending, losing, buying… If we consider it carefully, money is the constant star in our daily lives. A ridiculous, deadly star, as can be seen not only from the erratic economic destiny of a ‘barbarous’ country like Argentina, plagued with hyperinflation, devaluations, currency changes, adjustments, defaults etc., but also the spectacular bankruptcies of ‘civilized’ countries like Spain, Ireland, Portugal or Greece.
A History of Money is a family novel, and there can be no family novel without enigmas. Strictly speaking, if we believe Freud, the family novel is the story that children concoct to explain to themselves certain blind spots or things that are hard to bear in the Oedipal theatre. It is a sophisticated and often extremely tortuous story-theory, which not only goes to show how contemporary children are, but also to what extent I have never in fact left that childhood paradise where to look at the world was to interpret it. To the child, everything is an enigma: the parents of course, who hide everything even when they don’t mean to, but money as well. I don’t know about you, but when I pay or am paid, I still feel that quiver of bewilderment I felt as a child when I witnessed the completely inexplicable scene where something – a possession, a thing, a service – was exchanged for a scrap of printed paper. Nothing in the world will ever convince us there isn’t something magical about that.