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One of the most discussed books of the Buenos Aires independent press last year was ‘El desierto y su semilla’, by Jorge Barón Biza. Originally printed in 1998, and published in a re-edition by Eterna Cadencia, it is about a woman recovering after a glass of sulphuric acid is thrown in her face, told from the perspective of her son. Although names are changed, the story is based on real events – Raúl Barón Biza, the author’s father, took a 17-year-old girl named Rosa Clotilde Sabattini as his second wife, and in 1964 Rosa fled with her sons, asking for divorce. It was during a meeting to arrange the details of the split that Barón Biza threw the acid. Afterwards he shot himself; later, his wife Rosa, his daughter María Cristina, and his son Jorge – the author – would also commit suicide.
Despite what one might expect, however, ‘El desierto y su semilla’ is neither a biographical tell-all nor an indictment by Jorge of his very complicated father. Although long extracts are included in the book from his own father’s novels – the elder Barón Biza published a few works too, including ‘El derecho de matar’ and ‘Por qué me hice revolucionario’, which have been described as violent literary pornography in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade – it is a work of fiction that can be read separately from any background knowledge of the family drama.
Precise prose and short, clear sentences draw the reader in. (Nearly the entire book is written in cocoliche, a kind of Spanish heavily influenced by Italian immigrants.) The narrator takes his mother to Milan for specialist treatment, and while some descriptions of the reconstructive work done on her face there can make for painful reading – his mother’s melted face looks so foreign that the author describes it like a system of signs, entrancing until one remembers what they refer to – the book also contains a great deal of irony and black humor.
Alongside life in the hospital, the narrator engages in brief and perverse relationships with various women; on the aeroplane there’s plenty of time for him to drink whisky and admire a Catherine Spaak look-alike, and once he’s in Italy he meets someone who invites him back to her apartment for a variety of sexual exploits. Travelling around Italy also lets him meet a cast of bizarre characters, including a travelling Australian couple.
And yet evil remains a constant, disturbing theme. To the younger Barón Biza, it is something “involuntary, all-encompassing and distant, as in a desert of stones”. Near the end of the book, back in Buenos Aires, his mother commits suicide by jumping out the window, realising that her previous life as an political educator and historian has no meaning.
Since ‘El desierto y su semilla’ is an artistic rendering of the aftermath of the elder Barón Biza’s disastrous second marriage, it leads one to question if the first marriage had a dramatic story behind it too – and indeed there was.
The young Jorge Barón Biza lived a life much different from his father’s. He worked as a cultural journalist and translated European literature (including an early work of Proust’s, rendered in Spanish ‘El indiferente’). He lived his life mostly in Córdoba rather than travelling around Europe. And he was very frugal. “Nobody believes me when I say I don’t have a peso,” he was often heard to complain; his father had managed to squander the family inheritance.
With his novels Jorge hoped to achieve some distance from the horror of events – not writing dark fantasies in a lyrical tone as his father had done, or avoiding upsetting topics altogether, but rather describing them in a detached voice incapable or perhaps unwilling to attach easy meanings.
As the narrator of ‘El desierto y su semilla’ reads his father’s last novel, he tries to reflect on why things happened as they did. Giving up, he says: “The explanation doesn’t convince me very much; any other would have seemed to me equally inadequate. Between the man who built schools and 70-metre high monuments to love, and the man who threw acid at his lover, there is an evolution I cannot understand. That failure to understand him is what ties me to him.”
* * *
When she was 23 years old, the Swiss actress Myriam Stefford met Raúl Barón Biza in Vienna. She was trying to gain a foothold in the artistic world in small theatre productions and minor German films (‘Poker Aces’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘The Duchess of Chicago’) and make a life of her own far away from her birthplace in Berne. She’d left home at age 15 when she saw her own country had little in the way of bohemian life, offering only beautiful scenery and an existence as smooth as the surface of a mountain lake, as well as the love of her kind but unambitious Italian immigrant parents. (Her father was a worker in a chocolate factory, her mother a housewife.) At some point while trying her luck in a new city, she also changed her name – Rosa Margarita Rossi Hoffman didn’t sound quite Hollywood enough.
For his part, Barón Biza had travelled to Vienna to take a break from business in Argentina. He was looking for a taste of café life – he had the idea he’d write something while there – as well as diversion at the theatre; certainly he had enough money to set up a pleasant existence abroad for a while. He was attracted by the young woman with the big dark eyes, and the two were married in the Catedral de San Marcos in 1930. Stefford abandoned her artistic career to move to Buenos Aires, settling into the house Barón Biza had bought facing the Plaza Francia.
Both of them quickly grew restless with the city. They passed long periods in Alta Gracia, in Córdoba, at the estancia Barón Biza had named after his wife. But even earthbound travel began to feel insufficient, so the two developed an interest in aviation. Stefford’s dream was to become the first woman to fly from Argentina to the United States, and Barón Biza was happy enough to purchase her a civil pilot licence and a small two-seat, 80-horsepower monoplane made of pine wood, which Stefford named the ‘Chingolo I’.
Stefford decided to start with a flight around Argentina. On 18th August 1931 she embarked on a trip with her instructor around 14 provincial capitals, leaving from the Morón aerodrome. The first step of the trip went off without a hitch, ending in Corrientes. The next day, they flew on to Santiago del Estero. From there they were to arrive at Jujuy, but while attempting to land they crashed against a barbed-wire fence that destroyed the airplane completely. Undeterred, Stefford decided to keep flying with a borrowed craft. But on 26th August, while above Marayes and flying to San Juan, this new monoplane too suffered technical complications. Myriam Stefford and her instructor did not survive.
In the 2011 documentary ‘Chingolo: el vuelo de Myriam Stefford’, certain conspiracy theories are discussed. Barón Biza might have suspected a romance between his wife and her instructor Luis Fuch, and arranged for the motor of the borrowed plane to be altered. But nothing was ever proven.
What is certain is that after Stefford’s death, Barón Biza paid for the construction of a giant mausoleum for Stefford – still the largest in Argentina. Made of reinforced concrete, granite, and marble, over a hundred workers were needed to complete it. It was inaugurated in 1935, and his wife and her jewels buried underground in the crypt. If you drive down Route 5 in the Paraje Los Cerrillos between Alta Gracia and Córdoba, you can still see the mausoleum today, an 82-metre high construction on a 15-metre base, on which an epitaph is engraved: ‘Traveller, pay homage with your silence to the woman who, in her boldness, wanted to fly as high as the eagles.’
El Desierto y su Semilla, Eterna Cadencia. 222 pages, $110.