Viedma (photo from Google Images)
Viedma is the provincial capital, an attractive city by the río Negro, with a thriving cultural life and a magnificent government building, the library of which provided the venue for our presentation on Mollie Robertson’s book.
I like its pretty riverbank houses, its shady streets and cafés, the combination of culture and quirkiness – such as this one.
This originally nude statue (a homage to the labourer) situated on the riverbank opposite the Centro Cultural, was considered too racy for some when it was made, and the male figure was subsequently given a modest pair of underpants/shorts to wear. The temptation to ‘set him free’ by the use of paint proved too great to resist for some of the younger members of the community, and a tussle developed between them and the council workers, the latter who hurriedly removed their overnight daubs and the former who regularly painted over the top, as is evident from some close scrutiny. (Notice also how he's holding his tummy in - ch!)
I was in Patagonia to give a series of talks about a book I’ve been translating over the past few years in my spare time, written by an Englishwoman in the 60’s about her memories of her childhood on British-owned sheep farms in Patagonia at the end of World War I. Viedma was our largest audience, and I found myself thrust into my 15 minutes of fame.
Carlos Espinosa, the journalist who organised my “appearances” (hark at she, ‘oo does she think she is??) was a wonderful host, whisking us from hotel to radio station to newspaper offices by way of exhibitions and sightseeing tours, invitations to asados and back again.
It was such a whirl that I hardly had time to feel nervous – though I must admit my heart was racing when I was asked to do a *live*, *telephone* interview with a radio station, from my hotel bedroom. I was told the programme was from 4.30 to 5.00 p.m., and to be available, so from just after 4 p.m. onwards, and to the incessant rattle of the powerful wind against the ill-fitting windows, I was pacing up and down the tiny room, waving my arms about, declaiming (in Spanish) to the walls how Mollie was born in….she went to Patagonia and then… and I’m from Argentina but left in 1973 and….it’s a wonderful book because… it’s of interest to all people living in Patagonia who want to understand their heritage and… and on and on till I was hoarse – because I wasn’t phoned until 3 minutes to 5, and apologetically told that they were running late and I would only have a minute to speak. Great. Just what a self-conscious gringa wants to hear.
My way of coping with these interviews in the coming fortnight (10 on radio, 2 TV) was to speak slowly, and thankfully I only saw myself on one TV appearance, because it made me quite ill just watching myself – too serious, too deliberately slow, and I should have stood up straight. Oh, and been a stick insect of course. Sigh. Should fame ever beckon again I’ll definitely be taking lessons in this area…
The flurry of interest was because not much is known about the social history of the area at the time Mollie Robertson lived there (1916-1921) particularly as it was seen through the eyes of a child, and the British companies who owned vast tracts of land and farmed in that part of Patagonia had a decisive influence on its development between the 1880’s and the 1950’s or so.
The radio broadcasts and the articles in local papers prompted several people to come forward and ask to speak to me, because they had once worked for the British, and had stories they wanted to tell. Their memories were of being treated well, paid on time, and generally looked after. In order to strike a balance however, it has to be said that the land was obtained in the late 1800’s by less than conventional means, to which the Argentine government conveniently turned a blind eye because there were international interests at stake. The powerful shareholder businessmen in London wielded considerable power and knew how to use it to the advantage of the company’s interests. When it eventually waned in the recent past and they sold their properties, the new buyers came up against the native populations who have since been claiming back the land they feel to be theirs originally, and with some success.
At local manager level the British seem to have been reasonably popular as employers, if patronising to the local population, as was common at that time. They may have treated them well, but this didn’t stop them feeling superior to them, and letting it show. While this is predictable behaviour by colonial powers generally and therefore should be seen in context, it can be difficult to explain when asked at a presentation by an audience. No matter how I phrased the reply, my (modern) explanation seemed also to sound patronising. The book was written in the 60’s but her memories are of empire and power, and there are therefore passages that I felt uncomfortable translating. But I felt it was important as a social document and that she should be left to speak for herself.
This is a picture of Mollie when the book was published in 1964.
The most interesting thing that happened that evening was that a man in his 40’s approached me to tell me he was the grandson of the foreman of one of the farms where she had lived, a man for whom she and her parents clearly had a great deal of respect. Any bit of proof which demonstrates that the story she tells is not just the work of an overactive imagination is very exciting, and there were several characters and incidents in the book which I was able to corroborate as I went along.
There were pictures of me in Viedma on the Legislature’s website, and I foolishly didn’t save them. They clearly leave them on for a couple of weeks before removing. All there is, is an audio of my TV interview, and that makes me cringe. So apologies for fewer pics this post. There’ll be more next time as Carlos, (the journalist) Ramón (the writer who co-presented) and myself travelled west the 600 km to Ingeniero Jacobacci, in the foothills of the Andes.
Bandwise, I think I was right to have an unfill of 1.5ml, because I always seemed to be eating ‘in public’, or being a guest at someone’s house where they were proud to remind me of the wonderful dishes I could no longer enjoy in Britain. In fact, because the custom when serving you a classic asado or barbecue is to provide light salads as an accompaniment with no carbohydrate, and I feel that potato in some form is essential when eating meat, I actually didn’t over indulge, and was hardly aware of it. It was delicious and tasty, but I was soon satisfied (except on one occasion when potato was provided…).
However those kilos that got piled on weren’t thin air: the ice-cream was the problem, and I’ve already enthused about that too much already in a previous post. There was virtually no restriction, which was necessary at the time, but once home I was only too keen to have a fill and get down to business again. This is too important to me, I can’t stop now.