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Jorge Barón Biza: El desierto y su semilla (The Desert and Its Seed)

Jorge Barón Biza’s father, Raúl (link in Spanish), threw a glass of sulphuric acid into the face of his wife, the historian Rosa Clotilde Sabattini. She was badly hurt. Raúl subsequently shot himself. Rosa, who did not make a full recovery, later killed herself. This novel is based on these events.

The Jorge character is called Mario Gageac, Raúl is called Aron and Rosa is called Eligia. The novel starts just as Aron has thrown the acid into the face of his wife. The lawyers and Mario are there, discussing the couple’s divorce. She is rushed to hospital. However, it does not look good for her. The police break into the apartment and find that Aron has shot himself.

Mario had been living with his father up to a month previously. The parents had drifted around, not least because, as we learn, Aron had been a fierce opponent of the military dictatorship in the 1930s and both were now opponents of the Perón government. Indeed, both had been in prison for a while because of this opposition. They had spent a lot of time abroad, both in Europe and in Uruguay but had returned after the fall of Perón.

Their marriage had not always been successful. They spent a lot of time apart. Rosa had been away from Buenos Aires, with the couple’s daughter, while Mario was living with his father. However, Aron had been violent and unpleasant, so Mario had moved out. He spent the nights drifting around Buenos Aires, till some relatives took him in. Because of this separation, he did not know his mother well.

Eligia was a feminist and though she was politically opposed to Eva Perón , she admired her for her success. She hoped to show that empowered with a rational education, the women of her country could rise to the challenges of the modern world.

After the attack, Mario moves back to his father’s apartment, with its acid marks on the carpet, but spends much time with his mother. The doctors have to spend four months removing the damaged tissue from her face before it can be reconstructed. It is eventually decided that the best doctors for this reconstruction are in Milan so Mario and his mother fly to Milan.

Much of the novel is about their time in Milan. Mario spends much of his time with his mother, even sleeping in the same room (often fully dressed and unwashed). The operations, which will essentially bankrupt them, take place over a period of two years and we follow every detail, as seen through the eyes of Mario.

When his mother is sleeping and he is not, Mario goes out drinking. Indeed, throughout the book, he drinks to excess, like his father. He spends much of his time in a specific bar, where he meets Dina, a prostitute. They get to know one another and he often accompanies her on her activities, with threesomes, foursomes and other sexual combinations taking place. As with Eligia’s operations, we are spared few details.

Eligia has over twenty operations which are all grim but Mario sticks with her, a devoted son. Eventually, she is given a break and she heads for Geneva, while Mario tours Italy, with his remark if you want to know an Italian city: the cathedral, the plaza, and the brothel; but if you want to know a village… the cemetery, the market, and a whore. He even gets offered a job as an undertaker’s assistant in Australia.

They both return to Milan for further operations but, as we know, Eligia is more or less cured and mother and son return to Buenos Aires, living in Aron’s apartment, with the acid marks still visible. Eligia goes into politics and international pedagogical research, while Mario takes up copy editing. His dry humour, which frequently appears in this book, can be seen in the critique of his copy editing of a cookery book.

We also know that, fourteen years after her husband’s suicide, Eligia kills herself. Mario comments on it but does not give any real motive for it. She had married Aron when she was sixteen and, of course, the marriage had not been a happy one.

Mario ruminates on his father: Between the man who built schools for children and monuments to those he loved and the man who threw acid at his beloved, there is a transformation that I cannot understand. My inability to comprehend him is what binds us. We also know that he will kill himself and while that is naturally not covered in this book, he does say At thirty-six I’m convinced that I have wasted everything. (In fact, he does not kill himself till twenty-three years after his mother’s death.)

While this is certainly a grim book, Barón Biza writes it very well. He is involved but, at the same time, tries to keep some form of identity for himself, though that only seems to be drinking and whoring. The doctor in Milan suggests he use his time profitably, by learning a language, for example, but he rejects the idea. There is clearly a certain amount of self-analysis but, at the end, he says If the time of metaphors ended for me twelve years ago, now the time for excuses is over. Sadly we know what the outcome will be.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones Simurg in 1998
First English translation by New Directions in 2018