Cover image for Bad times in Buenos Aires : a writer's adventures in Argentina
Bad times in Buenos Aires : a writer's adventures in Argentina
France, Miranda, 1966-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
209 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
"First published in Great Britain in 1998 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson"--T.p. verso.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F3001.2 .F725 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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When Miranda France, a 26-year-old freelance journalist, arrives in Buenos Aires to live and work, she discovers a city in crisis. "People said the city was sinking," she writes. "Of the 300 brands of condoms in circulation, only eight were safe. The traffic was out of control . . . More than 2,000 bus drivers were found to be clinically depressed."

After securing a dilapidated apartment with a permanently crossed telephone line, Miranda France starts her life as a foreigner in Argentina. At night, she learns the tango ("danced properly it should be as passionate and loveless as a one-night stand"). By day, she tries to acquire the knack of viveza criolla (artful lying) to crack the bureaucracy of the local library and explores the legend of Evita Peron and her well-traveled corpse.

During her stay, France encounters first-hand the choas and deep melancholy of the Argentine capital. Buenos Aires is, after all, a city where elegant street cafes overlook local workmen grilling hunks of beef on the curb for lunch; where rats outnumber humans eight to one; where investigative television programs look closely at the trend of rising hemlines; where a nationwide shortage of coins causes trips to the supermarket to end in squabbles over small change; where almost everyone France meets is in therapy (Buenos Aires has three times as many analysts per person as New York).

Bad Times in Buenos Aires is a brilliant blend of humor, personal narrative, and rich historical background -- including a chilling interview with an army officer from the Dirty War. Winner of the prestigious Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing, Miranda France has written an insightful, vivid, and often laugh-out-loud account of daily life in the "Paris of the South."

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Ah, the tango! And juicy beefsteaks as thick as your arm. And gorgeous people sitting in cafes minding other peoples' beauty while cultivating their own. What an exotic image Buenos Aires conjures in travelers' minds--until they actually visit the place, according to British journalist France, who spent time living in the Argentine capital in the early 1990s and came away with a pretty good impression. She remembers the building where she lived as "permeated with an air of disappointment," and it seems the atmosphere of the whole city has that smell. The memory of Eva Peron meets the visitor at every turn; there is no escaping the Argentinians' obsession with psychoanalysis; and the dictatorship of the 1970s left sores in society that still fester and bleed. The infrastructure is falling apart, and the elegant buildings that in decades past earned Buenos Aires the sobriquet "Paris of South America" are crumbling. Read France's book, but if you still find the idea of Buenos Aires intriguing, by all means go and find out for yourself! --Brad Hooper

Library Journal Review

France, who moved to Buenos Aires in 1993 as a freelance journalist, entwines personal recollections with research and thoughtful descriptions to provide a fascinating glimpse into the Buenos Aires she experienced. For instance, we are introduced to Sylvia, who required English vocabulary to express her three main interests: food, love, and headaches. France also spent time floating with the Aymara Indians on their man-made island homes. Her narrative is fascinating, describing tragic historic events, the myths surrounding Evita Pern, obsessions with psychoanalysis, and Frances own inner debates as she explores a different culture. The article that was the foundation for this book won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. A wonderfully insightful journey into a city and its people; recommended for public libraries.Alison Hopkins, Queens Borough P.L., Briarwood, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Heat and Lust I arrived in a city that seemed fascinated by the possibility of its own collapse. `We are in crisis!' declared the headline on one of the first newspapers I picked up -- and it was true that an unspecified threat of chaos pervaded the city centre. The grand European architecture that had given Buenos Aires its cherished nickname, `the Paris of the south', was in places relaxing into a dilapidation from which it might never be roused. Some of its many splendid domes had crumbled into the shoulders of buildings that refused to support them any longer. On the Avenida de Mayo, a once lofty spire had toppled to one side, so that now it pointed an accusing finger at the government buildings on the other side of the Plaza del Congreso.     Following the line of the fallen spire, that first afternoon in Buenos Aires, I found that the monument directly in front of the Congress had more particular allegations to make. It stood in the middle of the plaza, a large, strangely menacing edifice of stone and bronze. At the front of it, accompanied by a grotesque band of lizards, vultures and rearing horses, a muscular god stepped out of a shell into what should have been a splendid spray of water, except that the fountains to provide such a scene were defunct. It was a shame because, without the drama of water, the horses reared pointlessly, the thighs of the god rippled to no good purpose and the whole mythic accompaniment seemed thwarted. Rising behind this redundant scene was a column to commemorate Argentina's Independence. At its base sat a pair of bare-breasted muses, one displaying her broken chains with an expression of astonishment, while her companion held a horn of plenty, describing the fertility of the new republic.     The monument might once have looked grand, perhaps it had even persuaded patriotic hearts to leap, but now it was covered with graffiti designed to abash those politicians who dared look down from their windows in Congress. `Traitors!', `Assassins!' proclaimed the unsteady black ink, and `Support the Pensioners!', `Justice for the Disappeared!' One that made me stop cold in the outrageous heat was `English out of the Malvinas!'     High above this summary of Argentine woes rose the third bronze muse, gazing thoughtfully from her column-top towards the sea, perhaps towards the Italian studio where she had been conceived. In one hand she held an olive branch that seemed to wilt in the heat. She had been made never to cast a backward glance, which was just as well, because she was most intimately defiled. Printed on her sloping buttocks were two words I was to see endlessly echoed on the walls of Buenos Aires, scrawled on monuments and in public lavatories, reproduced on leaflets and posters, until they came to embody a subtle tyranny. The words were `Evita lives'.     It was just after lunch. In a grand old café near the Congress, clusters of elegant elderly women were drinking coffee out of tiny cups. The ladies were well powdered and lacquered and each had made of her hair a teased and sugary confection that looked like golden candyfloss. Through the stained-glass windows I could see that waiters in white jackets were serving the ladies patisserie with silver tongs. On the other side of the plaza, at tables shaded by trees, young people were drinking Coca-Cola. The fashion that summer was for youths of both sexes to wear their hair very long and neat, a smarter gender confusion than might be seen on the streets of London or New York. Young porteños -- as the city's inhabitants were called -- made no overt sign of rebellion; they were not multifariously tattooed or pierced. In fact they looked as sleek and glossy as otters, and they were well dressed and even adorned with gold. Some of them carried mobile telephones. I could not imagine that such well-washed heads were vexed by the Malvinas, the disappeared, by whether Evita lived or not.     And yet the monument in front of the Congress was not alone in its grievances: as I walked around Buenos Aires in the following days, I noticed that many statues bore the same scribbled complaints -- they were an embittered lot, these sculpted heroes and heroines of Argentina's past. Three words appeared with particular regularity: Asesinos. Corruptos. Traidores. Who were these villains? What had they done? In Buenos Aires, each morning's newspapers proclaimed a new catastrophe. Apparently the city's air pollution was dangerously in excess of what was permitted by the World Health Organization. If you were reckless enough to leave your baby unattended on the pavement, it would asphyxiate within fifteen minutes. Noise levels were twice what they should be. Every hour a driver died on the roads and every two hours someone was catapulted to his death by a broken lift. `Not only does nothing work properly, but people can't breathe, they can't move and they can't hear,' said the head of the Argentine Ecological Movement on television. `Something has to be done or we're going to explode!'     There were two novel ways to die that summer: one was to succumb to `urban stress', a newly diagnosed killer which was causing sales of tranquillizers to soar. The other -- less common, but more dramatic -- was to fall into one of the deep holes that had opened up in pavements all over the city. These multiplying death-traps were the work of an army of low-paid immigrants engaged on a mission to tear out and replace the capital's guts from under its main roads. Stripped to the waist, they worked in pits alongside the pavements, chattering in a Paraguayan dialect that sounded like birdsong. In between drilling and digging, they were ideally placed to look up the passing women's skirts and to make suggestions, frustratingly unintelligible, about what they saw. At midday the men climbed out of their pits and slung huge cuts of meat on to a metal grid arranged over burning coals on the road. They ate the grilled meat with their hands, sitting on the kerb amid parked cars and traffic fumes, still laughing and chattering as they chewed.     People said the city was sinking. Of the 300 brands of condom in circulation, only eight were safe. The traffic was out of control: traffic lights failed. A newspaper poll revealed that `most Argentines believe a car accident is an act of God, and cannot be avoided'. More than 2,000 bus drivers were found to be clinically depressed. Then there were the rats, whose number had soared from three million to twenty-four million in just a few years. In the capital alone, they were said to be eating four tons of food a day. `For every one of us,' boasted a headline, `there are eight rats.'     This collage of impressions, of proliferating rats, asphyxiating babies and life brutally snuffed out in lifts, coloured the atmosphere of my first few days in Buenos Aires. It was March when I arrived, and fiercely hot, but the humidity was much more devastating than the heat. At its worst, say at 98 per cent humidity, there was a terrible tension in the atmosphere. The air became thick and bulky, and one moved through it with difficulty, cutting a swathe through the congested city streets. I could easily imagine asphyxiating in such heat. It was uncomfortable to be outside, but then it was also uncomfortable to be indoors, to lie down, to eat or to drink. It was uncomfortable to be alive.     At bus stops and on television, the talk was of a summer that refused to make way for autumn; if anything the heat seemed to be intensifying and everyone agreed that the mini-skirts were getting shorter. The more scandalous versions, barely covering the groin, were a source of national marvel. A voyeuristic exercise dressed up as television debate promised to look closely at the question of rising hem-lines. Meanwhile, women tottered their assets around the streets on dangerously high heels while the watching men huffed and sighed like steam engines. Deep in their pits, the Paraguayan road diggers looked up the passing skirts and sweated. The streets seemed to hum with a male murmuring, a low chorus of Dios Míos and Ay Madres .     The heat addled and inebriated. One evening two buses, filled to capacity with commuters, collided below our window and I watched as the drivers dutifully descended into the street to swing punches at one another. Hoicking up trousers and rolling up sleeves, the men staked out an arena between their buses and prepared to do battle. The traffic on both sides slowed down, appreciative of this impromptu entertainment, while the abandoned passengers crammed to the front of their buses for a better view. But it was far too hot to fight and, sodden and exhausted, the drivers gave up after a few clumsy movements. To the disappointment of the assembled crowd, they were soon returning to their buses and hoicking up their slippery trousers again, defeated by the weather.     At dusk a gust of fresh air sometimes signalled heat's momentary truce before the sweltering night. On the first evening I set off to investigate the streets around our block. Near to our house there was a rotisserie, inside which a vast-bellied man was piling chunks of meat and strings of sausages on to a grill with an expression of weary self-importance. I did not yet know that the asado , or barbecue, was an Argentine institution, nor that asadores , men who grilled meat, were heroes of the national folklore. Further down the street a patisserie offered a selection of heavy cakes that yearned to be French and, round the next corner, there was an art shop that had a special offer on plaster statuettes of Davids and Virgins, ranged in growing sizes, in the window. There was a bookshop specializing in self-help and inside it a young man, prematurely balding, chewing thoughtfully on his fingernails.     The number of cafés was extraordinary: there was one on the corner of most blocks, and more in between, and they were all full of people. Many of the cafés had very wide sash windows which were flung open to coax in the evening breeze. The customers sat at tables sideways to the windows, with their elbows outside, observing the street scene with a certain superiority. They looked like passengers in the old wooden train compartments, waiting to depart for Patagonia. The wide, open windows produced a strange convergence of street and café. A rich aroma of coffee mingled with the exhaust fumes and the roasting meat; snatches of conversations about family and friends collided with the screech and skid of traffic. Passing by one window I heard a woman say `Frankly, I'm traumatised.' She stretched the word over five enervated syllables -- trau-ma-ti-za-da -- and I was curious. But a glance at the woman suggested that she was more likely bored than anything else. She was expensively beautiful, and smoking with a languor that gave the lie to trauma.     Everywhere, there was a smell of roasting coffee beans and roasting beef. They were the smells of Buenos Aires. If you had no guarantor -- that is, someone who undertook to pay all your debts, should you abscond -- it was almost impossible to get rented accommodation in Buenos Aires. We spent most of the first month trawling through newspapers and meeting estate agents. One of them offered my companion a flat with a nymphomaniac living next door. What better arrangement than to have girlfriend and nymphomaniac under one roof?. Another winked and skirted the possibility of a bribe. However, with no guarantee on the table, not even nymphomaniacs and conmen could be persuaded to rent. One night, in desperation, we found ourselves accompanying a Peruvian middleman to the house of a Cuban who sold forged guarantees for 300 dollars apiece. Bearded and smoking a cigar, the man wore an array of badges in support of the Cuban revolution. `Better be sure you're not yankees,' he warned. `I have friends who see to it that yankees never have any luck in Buenos Aires.'     I felt sorry for the yankees, but at least we had some luck. Eventually, we managed to secure a flat, without resorting to the Cuban's services, through a complicated network of acquaintances which involved references being sent from London and Jerusalem. The flat was on the fifth and top floor of a slim, nineteenth-century building on the Avenida Córdoba. There was a small kitchen and a bathroom, but otherwise it consisted of one room which had been extended upwards to accommodate two more levels, reached by an industrial iron staircase. The first level was just big enough to support a double bed. The second, which was right inside the building's dome, was little more than a ledge, and a chest of drawers there served also as my desk. From this perch I had a vertiginous view of our sparsely furnished living area below, while through the dome's window I could monitor the encroachment of a new tower block, rising stealthily behind our building.     Our attic flat aspired to studio status, but the bare rafters spoke against such an ambition. For all the effortful rattling of our airconditioning, the flat baked in the hot weather and we would soon feel it freeze in winter. It was impossible to sleep through the tremendous storms which were periodically whipped up in Patagonia, like rioters, and hounded across the pampa to Buenos Aires. When it was heavy, the rain splashed straight through the roof on to my face as I lay in bed, waking me from jumbled dreams of babies, rats and lifts.     I could stand on a precarious balcony at the front of our building and, seeming to float above six lanes of traffic, feel myself almost obliterated by the noise. Sparkling in the distance to my left were the lights of the Avenida Nueve de Julio. Argentines were proud to call it the widest road in the world and it was murder to cross, sometimes literally. Four blocks away to my right, our avenue met another of the city's main arteries; traffic pushed and jammed its way through this intersection all day and night, to a continuous yowl of horns. Close to that junction was an office block which was undistinguished, except for the fact that the corpse of Eva Perón, `Evita', had been hidden in an attic there before it was smuggled out of the country in 1957. The man charged with protecting the body went mad with desire for it, and it was said that he had ended his days wandering the streets of Buenos Aires, raving about his lost love. Evita's body, perhaps the best-travelled corpse in history, was rumoured also to have been hidden in various private houses and, for some weeks, behind the screen of a cinema in Palermo. Sometimes I felt as if Argentina's `Spiritual Leader' had been hidden all over Buenos Aires; I would come to sense her presence in so many rooms.     The avenue we lived on was lined with apartment blocks and houses of many different styles and sizes, so there were frequent architectural anomalies. Next to our genteel old building towered a modern block that looked like a filing cabinet, out of which each apartment might be pulled by its balcony, its contents examined, then allowed to roll back into place. Further up the road was the magnificent Waterworks, every stone and tile of which had been imported from Britain and France. Flanked by a cordon of palm trees, the Waterworks was a Victorian vision of colonial life in the tropics, and therefore fantastically out of place in Buenos Aires. According to whispered history, Evita had also passed through here on her posthumous wanderings.     A few colonial one-storey houses survived among the city's tower-blocks and often the concrete side of an eighteen-storey building was left naked by its bungalow neighbour. These massive urban canvases were prime sites for political propaganda and pharmaceutical advertisements. Billboards were also dotted along the rooftops: further up our road, a gigantic girl modelling underwear was lit up against the night sky and, facing her, a grinning gaucho held forth a gourd of maté, the national tea: `It's the taste of Argentina.'     Another balcony at the back of our flat was much quieter, and it was perfect for eavesdropping, since it overlooked an interior space on to which all the other kitchens had windows. Often I sat there among the pot plants listening to shouted snatches of the lives being carried out in the flats below; at meal times the conversations were borne upwards on clouds of roasting beef.     We had four sets of neighbours. José, a retired bank clerk, lived on the first floor with his ninety-five-year-old mother and a mongrel bitch he had found abandoned outside a tango hall. He insulted them noisily and indiscriminately, calling them both `silly old woman'. He also shouted complaints -- about noise -- through the ceiling to Raquel, who lived on the second floor and could sometimes be heard shouting back.     In the mistaken belief that we were aristocratic -- he had spotted `Esq.' on an envelope -- José invited us to lunch soon after we moved in. He had made a sort of shepherd's pie in our honour and, as we ate it, he spoke knowledgeably about the history of the British Royal Family, quizzing us on aspects of heraldry and the minutiae of court life. He was evidently surprised that we did not know more and it was when he came to question us on the Knights of the Garter that we discovered his misunderstanding about our origins and tried to make up for it with embarrassed laughter. Sitting at the head of the table, José's tiny mother looked as if she were made of powder balls and might be undone by a gust of wind. She did not speak, except to ask for second helpings and I thought she must be senile. In a patronising way I asked if she was bothered by the noise of traffic, which was much greater on the first floor than at our level. `I wouldn't be without it now, dear,' she murmured. `Silence is so overrated.'     José had never fulfilled an ambition to travel beyond the boundaries of Argentina, but he was fascinated by Britain and had read translations of Shakespeare and Wilde. After lunch, as we sat drinking coffee, he described an imaginary walk through central Edinburgh, naming the different streets and monuments with complete accuracy. He even knew some of the paintings to be found in the National Gallery of Scotland, and all this information he gleaned from books. As we were leaving, waiting for the lift to make its rickety descent, José dived back into the sitting room, insisting that I borrow a book; he emerged again with a leather-bound copy of Wilde's La Importancia de Llamarse Ernesto . I was moved by José's interest in Britain, and by the courage with which he had faced his life's limitations. Afterwards I wondered if we had been wrong to set him straight on the misunderstanding about our nobility, his disappointment was so tangible, and he had gone to so much trouble with the shepherd's pie.     Raquel, on the second floor, was to become my closest friend. She was a psychoanalyst, twice divorced, with three grown-up daughters and an eight-year-old son, Santiago. Later I would give English lessons to both mother and son, but, while he progressed well, she was doomed never to master the rudiments. She was adamant that, when more than one person was being greeted, `hello' should be pluralised to `hellos'.     Raquel and I saw each other most days and I grew accustomed to her fits of despair about the state of the country. She felt the political scandals and the crises deeply. Sometimes, when the heat was punishing, I found her lying on her bed, the shutters closed and the overhead fan gently ruffling newspapers spread out around her. `Have you seen this?' she would ask, finding that day's headlined catastrophe without even opening her eyes. `It's going to get much worse.' At other times, she said, `If I could just arrange to go to Europe once a year, perhaps I could survive in Argentina.'     On the third floor lived Máximo, an unacknowledged composer who played the piano beautifully, all day and late into the night. His music was often the last thing I heard, clear against the hum of traffic, before I slept. Away from his piano, though, Másimo was invariably overcome with rage. `Leave this country! Flee!' he used to cry, whenever I came across him waiting for the lift or buying a newspaper from the vendor whose stall was outside our front door. `Get out of this inferno while you can!'     A homosexual who lived with his mother, Máximo led a life that was practically defined by his loathing of the female neighbours below and above him. He was obsessed by what he saw as their plot to unhinge him. Soon after we moved in he came to our front door to convey, in angry whispers, the importance of thwarting the women at every opportunity. As he catalogued their character defects -- they were prostitutes among other things -- the colour of Máximo's face rose to match his hair, which had been dyed with henna. His fury centred on the lift. Without consulting him, the neighbours had arranged to have it painted black, with gold touches to match the brass fittings. I liked the decor -- the effect was elegant and rather Parisian -- but Máximo had wanted the lift painted pale green (`vomit-green', Raquel confided).     Máximo read sinister motives into the women's chosen colour scheme: he thought they wanted to kill him. `It's oppressive, it's like being in a coffin,' he spluttered to me, whenever I was unfortunate enough to travel upwards with him. Perhaps he knew, as I did, of the statistics concerning fatal accidents in lifts. With a death occurring every two hours, it might be tempting fate to have a lift that already looked like a coffin.     The building's only subdued residents lived on the fourth floor. They were the last surviving relations of a man still widely held to have been the only honest president of the twentieth century. Honesty had rarely been the best policy in Argentina. When this hapless president was overthrown by a military coup, some of his family were murdered, the others went into exile. His nephew, my neighbour, had returned from Italy after the fall of the military junta in 1983. A strange silence reigned on the fourth floor, such that Máximo's piano crescendos cut straight through the space, apparently unmuffled by the presence of people or furniture. But I did sometimes see my neighbour's wife, and I even gave her a few English lessons. She was reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and spoke wistfully of European art galleries.     The whole building was permeated with an air of disappointment. These were bad times in Buenos Aires, but there had been much worse, and one left-wing newspaper existed to remind its readers of that fact. Most days, Página 12 published a black-and-white snapshot, sometimes several, of men and women. Most of the faces belonged to people in their twenties, neatly groomed and wearing the well-meaning smile people offer to photocabins when they need a passport or a student card. It occurred to me that they glowed with a particular idealism, but perhaps I was too susceptible to hindsight. The poor quality of the prints -- they had never been intended as commemorative portraits -- bestowed a grainy drama on the images. These smiling men and women were frozen in time. Their clothes, hairstyles and make-up attached them to an era and a sensibility as surely as those who drowned on the Titanic would always be associated with evening gowns and privilege. There was a dramatic name for them too, in fact a new noun had been invented for them. They were known all over the world as `the disappeared'. They had been tortured and executed by state forces for `subversive activity'.     Every morning I sat at my desk among the rafters and, distracted from the economy or the latest political scandal, I gazed at these mysterious, smiling youths with a fascination that partly shamed me. Many of them had died at my age, twenty-six, yet I had never felt moved to risk my life for a cause, nor could I imagine what it would be like to be imprisoned and tortured, to meet fear with courage. I scrutinised the gallery of faces for something I could identify as if, by examining them, I might understand something essential about Argentina, and perhaps also about myself.     At the end of the 1960s, a violence had erupted among young Argentines that went beyond the youthful uprisings taking place elsewhere in the world. What seemed at first to be a generational rebellion, directed at the military and moneyed ruling classes, found wider support in a country demoralised by two decades of dictatorship. The `Montoneros', named after a popular nineteenth-century rebel, were mostly the educated children of middle-class conservatives, but they had rejected their parents' values and turned social activists. Taking their inspiration from Eva Perón, they sought to enact her revolutionary message by blowing up elite country clubs and kidnapping executives, forcing multinationals to make charitable donations or hand out money in shanty towns. In 1970, a group of Montoneros abducted an ex-president, held him ransom for information concerning Evita's missing corpse and, when this was not forthcoming, executed him. From then on, the violence escalated, and soon the government found itself under siege from a number of guerilla groups with different political allegiances -- they were Catholics, Marxists and nationalists -- but united in one demand: they wanted an exiled leader to return and lead them in socialist revolution. General Perón, discredited and reviled by Argentina's middle classes, was rehabilitated by their children as a hero.     Wealthy on the proceeds of bank-robberies and ransoms, the guerillas were well organised, and motivated by a quasi-religious fanaticism. The forces of law could not contain their violence and finally the anarchy reached such a point that it seemed only one man was capable of restoring order. Yet when the elderly General Perón did return to govern the country in 1973, the violence among different Peronist factions continued, then worsened when he died nine months later, leaving the country in the hands of his inadequate wife, Isabel. A secret death squad was created to fight the guerillas on their own terms, and the monthly toll of murders soared; corpses were left where they fell in the street, or dumped in burning cars on the outskirts of town. By March 1976, one newspaper estimated that a political killing was taking place every five hours, and a bomb attack every three.     The coup, when it came weeks later, was widely welcomed. My newsagent described how, back from honeymoon that very morning, his wife and he had arrived in a city of unrecognisable calm. `We realised what had happened and thought, "Thank God".' General Videla, described by some as a `gentleman', was thought to be firm but fair. There would be some restrictions on liberty -- that was only to be expected in these desperate circumstances. But he invited the press to be frank, `not obsequious', and he announced the start of a `Process of National Reorganisation'. That sounded hopeful: he was going to get the country working again. Argentines welcomed his initiative and looked forward to a return to order after the years of anarchy.     However, Videla's sinister plan, which would become known simply as el proceso , was much more ambitious than anyone realised. He had a mission to rid society of its subversives, and a subversive, he explained, was `anyone who opposes the Argentine way of life'. Equally, a terrorist was `not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilisation'. These included liberal opinions on premarital sex, divorce and pornography. Under Videla, a new school book advised that women be obedient to their husbands, `otherwise, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact'.     There was no reason for Argentines to be taken unawares, for Videla had made plain his intentions at a press conference in Montevideo, months before the coup. `In order to guarantee the security of the state,' he had said, `all the necessary people will die.' Yet most of the population was unaware, for a long time, of the scale of his intent. Even a year after the coup, a poll showed that Argentines largely supported the government.     People started to disappear. They vanished from their homes or from the middle of busy streets. They were taken out of cinemas and shops and hustled into unmarked Ford Falcons in full view of passers-by. Everyone saw what was happening, yet most people found a way to ignore it, for the sake of the peace that had finally been restored to Argentina. The police claimed ignorance, suggesting with smiles to distraught parents that their missing sons and daughters had run away with lovers. The purge was silent and stealthy: there was no longer any evidence of corpses, but everyone saw the Ford Falcons cruising in convoys around the city, carrying gunmen in dark glasses. People justified the disappearance of their neighbours with a now infamous phrase: `There must be some reason for it.'     `We were sleepwalkers,' one man, shaking his head sadly, told me. `We did not want to know; perhaps we still do not want to know.'     Videla's `purification' of Argentina was to involve hundreds of servicemen, policemen and doctors in an act of mass abduction and murder. Public servants would learn to become torturers. Yet the supposed target of the proceso , the guerillas, accounted for only about 20 per cent of those who were killed. Some of them died in shootouts, or took cyanide to cheat the interrogators. Others were kept alive and later freed, and some of them ended up working for the government, or even for the sort of lucrative company they had once attacked. It was easy for them to dismiss their past activism as youthful excess: they had survived, after all.     But no one knew for sure how many people had died. The National Commission on the Disappeared, CONADEP, set up in 1983 by the new, democratically elected government to investigate and document the practices of el proceso , registered 8,960 cases. However, there were reckoned to be thousands more people who, through fear or shame, never came forward to denounce the murder of relations and loved ones. During the dictatorship it had been dangerous to confess that a member of your family had disappeared, and some parents had even disowned the children whose politics and behaviour they found troublesome. Where whole families had disappeared, there was no one to register the deaths with CONADEP. Human rights groups believed that the true number of disappeared was closer to 20,000 or even 30,000. It was ironic that, in a country where you could be arrested for not carrying an identity card, so many people were now unaccounted for, so many thousands of identities were in limbo.     The guerillas' vicious campaign, which had taken several hundred lives, provoked an extreme and disproportionate revenge. Among the disappeared were children, adolescents and pensioners, but the vast majority of the state's victims were educated, politically aware men and women between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. They were intellectuals, professionals and factory workers; they were doctors who worked in shanty towns, psychoanalysts and sociologists. Many were students of politics or literature, `café revolutionaries' who -- like their peers all over the world -- had posters of Che Guevara on their walls. Some of them were involved in community projects, some had written idealistic poetry, or espoused the freedoms claimed by French students rioting in 1968. Others had no interest in politics or ideals at all but were unfortunate enough to have the wrong friends or the wrong surname, or to be turning the wrong street corner when a Ford Falcon passed. Even intellectual curiosity was subversion enough to merit death. The Governor of Buenos Aires, General Ibérico St Jean, warned that it was not enough to stand on the sidelines if you wanted to save your life. `First we shall kill all the subversives,' he promised, `then we shall kill their collaborators; then ... their sympathisers, then ... those who remain indifferent; and finally we shall kill the timid.' One young doctor, tortured for months before he was allowed to go free, was told that he was being punished for his `goody-goody' work with the underprivileged.     For the span of a decade, Argentina must have been delirious with self-hatred. How else can one explain the fanatical persecution of people whose only crime, sometimes, was to have read the wrong books? They were murdered, these smiling men and women, not by a foreign army, but by the authority of their own country. Denied a trial, they were tortured to death, sometimes over many months. Thousands were dropped into the River Plata from planes or dumped in communal graves. Their families were rarely notified of their deaths, or even of their resting places. Some of the texts alongside the snapshots in Página 12 still demanded `Where is he?' or `Let her reappear alive.' There was a slogan that adorned most of these memorials: `We won't forgive or forget.' When General Galtieri took charge of the junta in 1981, the worst of the terror was over, and the dictatorship finally ended in humiliation, after the 1982 Falklands War. By the time I arrived in Argentina, the country had celebrated the tenth anniversary of its new democracy. There had been two free elections, Hyperinflation -- which had reached 5,000 per cent in the late 1980s -- had been brought under control by a plan to tag the local currency, the peso, to the dollar. The army had been trimmed and tamed to the point where it would never again be able to mount a successful coup.     Democracy was in place but, as the political analysts often said, a `democratic culture' had yet to be created. This was a problem common to all post-dictatorships: it would take at least a generation for people to understand their new freedom and responsibilities. But there was a particular sense of unease in Argentina. The worst excesses of el proceso were only fifteen years off, yet they were rarely mentioned. The country seemed to suffer like an amnesiac who knows that something terrible has happened, but cannot fathom the extent of the atrocity. The tragedies of the last two decades were over, but there was a widespread feeling that they had not properly been dealt with by the national conscience.     Trials for war crimes had been held, but in 1990, with a restless army threatening coups, President Menem had decreed a general amnesty for all the guerillas, torturers, army chiefs and the three dictators who had been imprisoned. Argentina should forget about the past, he had said, and reclaim the future.     If the amnesty was necessary to safeguard Argentina's democracy, many thought it meant that the damage done to the nation could not now be resolved. The upshot, they said, was a `culture of silence', which had robbed Argentina of its right to grieve and encouraged bitterness and anxiety. Knowing that one-time torturers and assassins were at large and unpunished terrified even those who had not experienced la represión at first hand. There was a continuing debate, periodically taken up by newspapers, television and cultural centres, about the best way to treat the past. Should it be left to slip away, as the president advised, or should it be confronted, however painful the consequences? Young Germans learned about the Holocaust. What would Argentine children be taught about their history?     The Buenos Aires I first encountered in 1993 was trying to resolve these painful dilemmas. It was a city that was beginning to rediscover the culture and sophistication that had once made it such a fashionable destination. New shopping malls were opening and the opera house was once more playing host to international stars. But it was also a city where some of the world's most evil men walked free. The tortured feared daily the possibility of meeting their torturers. The concentration camps where thousands had lost their lives still stood, not one of them marked by so much as a plaque. It was, in a sense, a country in a crucible. Argentina had been violated, but the violators were not going to be punished. The tragedy of what had happened seemed to swim in the afternoon heat. Copyright © 1998 Miranda France. All rights reserved.