APRIL 20, 2019
A MAN STRUGGLES to operate one of the two remaining stores in a small town — it was his father’s store, and the town was a company town, but the oil dried up and now buses won’t stop when they’re scheduled to.
A gang of bandits in the borderlands preys on travelers and merchants; they steal what they please, kill their victims, eat their hearts for strength, and save the penises for protection.
A spate of suicides strikes the local school in a small town that sits at the end of the line, where the railroad ran out of money.
And in another town, in the same rural area, every television set plays the exact same channel — the one selected by the development commissioner or his family — because the town’s inhabitants cannot pay for cable individually.
These stories might well be rooted in the history and remote regions of the American West. But for María Sonia Cristoff, a prominent writer in Buenos Aires, inspiration springs from the Argentine South, where she was born and raised. In the opening pages of False Calm (Transit Books, 2018), which first appeared in Spanish in 2005, she homes in on the one trait all the people and places she covers have in common: “[I]solation is present in everything I have ever read about Patagonia. […] I returned to write an account of this eminently Patagonian characteristic.”
False Calm is the record of this return, a journalistic travelogue in which the people Cristoff meets and interviews soon overwhelm the work. “I turned into a kind of lightning rod,” she admits. “The atmosphere used me as a ventriloquist. Thus arose the two-voiced narrative that follows.” In Katherine Silver’s melodic translation, these doubled voices are rendered with total control. The stories of priests, abandoned housewives, and others are filtered through the dispassionate prose of Cristoff, the narrator. She ventures across the vast plains — “where I could walk and walk and still remain in the same place” — to visit coastal villages, hamlets in the Andean foothills, and towns with more dogs than people, whose every street can be traversed within an hour. These are places, like many in the American West, “that for one reason or another — not based solely on census data — could be called ghost towns.”
This ghostliness is partly a matter of isolation, but Cristoff doesn’t shy away from other forms of haunting. The men and women she meets are often unmoored from both the past and future, as well as from each other and other places in their country. In one chapter, Cristoff speaks with an indigenous Mapuche woman who recalls how her “father didn’t want anything to do with the past, all that stuff that today some people — especially people from the city, who don’t suffer and don’t see what people suffer here — want to reclaim in some great re-encounter with their roots.” The woman’s husband, a shepherd, makes an annual caminata, or trek, across 50 kilometers of desert to visit the shrine of a murdered local boy named Maruchito.
Such struggles to find home in time and space are a common theme — the challenge amplified by the expansive Patagonian landscape. How, for instance, to overcome the psychological effect produced by living “where the last house surrenders to desert”? Cristoff tells the story of another man who leaves his family to work in the oil fields, a job he describes as one that “forces you to permanently make do on your own, and then, when others show up, you no longer have anything to say to them or ask them or tell them, and you gradually start realizing that there’s less and less you need from them.” This oilman stands miles apart from the heroic, self-reliant man of the American West, as much myth as anything, who sits stoically astride his horse and goes months herding cattle alone before returning to town. Nor is he the confident gaucho. His sense of alienation is closer to that described in the findings of a government report from 1997 on the tiny Argentine town of Las Heras, which was attempting to grapple with a string of youth suicides: “Apathy and malaise had become a generalized attitude, mostly in the young people, who saw their lives as lacking horizons.”
In a rare moment of authorial interjection, Cristoff asks readers how we might reconcile this lack with the “limitless horizons constantly mentioned in Patagonian travel brochures.” It’s a good point, which calls to mind the American West’s own booster-heavy past. It is also the type of engagement the reader may want more of. Cristoff recounts the lives of her interlocutors with an admirable lack of judgment — hoping, perhaps, for the calmness of her account to highlight, or betray, whatever she may wish to criticize — but her frequent absence from the narrative makes her stories feel somewhat empty or disjointed, which is to say: isolated.
Asleep in another nondescript town, Cristoff receives advice from Hannibal Lecter in a dream: “I am just like he is, he tells me. That what I’m doing — sticking my nose into the lives, the stories, and the minds of other people — is the same as what he does. That what I call a two-voiced narrative is in fact cannibalism.” The comparison makes us shudder. How can the writer avoid simply consuming and spitting up her subjects? Cristoff fears she has gone too far, that by devouring her characters — or turning real people into characters — she may have lost her self. And the reader may miss her too.
This authorial ghostliness notwithstanding, False Calm is an artful, atmospheric, thought-provoking depiction of life between silence and open space. For readers versed in the American West, the book picks up where Wallace Stegner left off. “Ghost towns and dust bowls, like motels, are western inventions,” he wrote. “All are reflections of transience, and transience in most of the West has hampered the development of stable, rooted communities.” Cristoff would differ on the source of these inventions, but her stories of Patagonian ghost towns reach the same conclusions. Returning to the region of her birth, she is forced to face that “quality of remoteness in its pure state, applied to nothing or nobody in particular.”
Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona. He edits Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands.