Saturday, 18 June 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Accursed (Part 3 of 3)

The Accursed - A three-part story of the life of Raúl Barón Biza, Argentine bon-viveur, writer and tormented soul.

Part 3:  Crisis Point

The new job took up all of Clotilde's time and Raúl found this very difficult to cope with.  Her perceived neglect angered him intensely and he felt forgotten – even though they were more or less separated already.  Their fighting intensified, and there were weeks when they hardly spoke, and the rumours of a possible affair between her and Frondizi made his behaviour even more volatile.

A year later he still would not tolerate coming second to affairs of state.  He had never thought to be eclipsed by his own wife; she was the one who was now in the limelight and who had triumphed in a world where he had failed.    In May 1959 Raúl Barón Biza was found in his hotel room having taken an overdose after asking for paper and pencil, on which he wrote a farewell letter to his wife, with instructions that it be taken to her immediately, and before locking himself in his bedroom and taking the pills.  Someone read the note first and took him to hospital, where Clotilde found him sleeping it off.

Raúl Barón Biza

She stayed in her post for three years.  He was keenly aware that she was now a success in politics and he was a has-been.  His supporters had abandoned him and having his support was seen as being passed a poisoned chalice.

To keep him busy, Clotilde managed to obtain for him the concession for an underground shopping precinct in central Buenos Aires, to which he devoted himself for a number of years.  Shopkeepers remember that he would spend a lot of time drinking whisky at the bar and observing everyone – you had to get on the right side of him or you wouldn’t get on.  One shop owner remembered another colleague falling in arrears with the rent and being threatened by Biza with having his electric power cut off, to which the man replied that he would shoot him. 

Some days later Biza summoned him to his office and said to him “I hear you want to kill me.  I congratulate you,  I like brave people”.  He continued “and since you’re so brave” - he handed him a gun - “why don’t you kill me now?”  The man went pale and left the room.  No one could ever have doubted his courage.

His savage attitude to women was probably partly due to his resentment against his wife, and he discussed it freely in his books.  He despised them, yet he could not resist them.  As far as he was concerned women were merchandise who gave themselves to men they did not love in order to ensure their economic future.  This was why, he said, he preferred prostitutes, who at least charged in advance for their services.

Sex was an adventure, a challenge to convention.  He slept with many different types of women, but his particular weakness was adolescents.  His obsession with young and beautiful bodies became more marked as he got older.  The ageing process and the decay and decomposition of matter distressed him – he preferred those who died young.

In 1960 Clotilde’s father Amadeo Sabattini died aged 67 and Clotilde decided to abandon her ministerial job and go back to La Falda to live accompanied by their youngest child, Cristina.  While she went back to teaching history, her husband remained in Buenos Aires with their two sons aged 24 and 18.

For a time the boys remained with their father in his luxurious apartment in downtown Buenos Aires, but the eldest soon moved out to live in the apartment opposite.  Jorge remained on with his father, in what was at best an uneasy relationship from the boy’s point of view.  He watched his father gradually turn into a depressive and violent nihilist.  Society – Raúl said – was rotten to the core.

Jorge later became a highly respected journalist in his own right, and remained consistently silent about his past family life, until 1998 when he published his only book “El Desierto y su Semilla” (“The Desert and its Seed”) in which he explained with great dignity and pain what it had been like to be Raúl Barón Biza’s son, and in particular the experiences during the four years when he lived with his father, 1960-1964.  He admired his father’s courage and audacity, and the way he had thrown himself into the various adventures in his life.  On the other hand he rejected his extreme views and tried not to identify with him.  He noticed that Raúl’s writing was increasingly riddled with violence.

Jorge Barón Biza, writer and journalist,
Raúl's second son

Raúl was disgusted by the ageing process, and his own specifically, and by the time he reached 63 he clearly despised the sex act as well.  All was betrayal, disillusion, disappointment.  “To find the ideal woman is easy for a man, what is difficult is to keep her in this state of perfection.  It is an impossible situation because this quality of perfection is not up to the man, or the woman’s spirit, or her will ...."  It all depended, he thought, on her sex urge. (Todo Estaba Sucio – All was Dirty)

By August 1964 Jorge could no longer tolerate living with his father, and moved in with his brother close by.  Raúl was now truly alone with his anger and his memories.  On 9th August 1964 he wrote a letter to his wife, who was living in La Falda, Córdoba – herewith part of it:

"With every day that passes we continue to tear strips off of each other.  It’s unbelievable to realise that two people who have loved each other as we have, can come to hate each other so much.

Yesterday you all scored another victory.  I say “you all” because I know you were influenced by your family.  You would not have separated me from my children of your own free will, to deny me at my age all I had left. (...)"

He then reminds her that he went to see her at the house in La Falda in order to sell it as agreed, and to visit his daughter Cristina, whom he had not seen in 8 months.  He was not able - or allowed - to see either of them.  He continues –

"Upon my return to Buenos Aires the following day another surprise awaited me.  On remarking to Jorge, with whom I lived for years in such harmony and whom I guided and took care of, that you must have been crazed by hate to forbid me from seeing María Cristina, he replied violently that he was sick of hearing that he had a mad mother and a drunk father, and slammed the door of the apartment behind him.  I reacted by requesting his keys back from him and sending all his belongings over to his brother’s apartment.  Your visit to Buenos Aires while I was away has transformed him.  I can’t imagine what you could have said or done to him (...).

Carlos has taken his side and said things about me to him which are irreparable.  You have won the penultimate battle.  How satisfied your family be feeling! (...)"

He details the various financial arrangements he has made to take care of the children, with the exception of certain shares which he wished to retain for himself because he intended to keep on working, and the documents to their apartment in Montevideo, Uruguay.  The eldest son Carlos had possession of the shares, and the apartment had been put in the boys’ names years before for tax reasons.

"Yesterday, Saturday, Carlos was supposed to have kept his promise to return his shares.  Dr Martínez Sosa received him at his home for this purpose.  To his surprise, even more so to mine, he told him that he would need to consult his brother first.  What does this sick and bitter boy of 22 know about what should or shouldn’t be done?

The meeting we had planned for tomorrow cannot now take place.  The fight will resume with no quarter and no mercy being given, but before it does I want to appeal to you to remind you of who will carry the blame for what will happen.  The boys know that they have my fortune in their power and are surrounded by youngsters and crazy young girls.  They don’t know how much they will regret this action.  We must save them.

You must travel down to Buenos Aires, make one last effort to avoid the unfortunate conclusion to this dispute which is now continuing with the added crime of robbery by my son.

Perhaps it was for you a speedier solution than divorce, but the children are not responsible for what happened between us; we must avoid their feeling shame for carrying our names, the shame of having sullied and destroyed them – if indeed they don’t already feel it.  We must not continue to feed the fire, thirty years during which we have been stained by shame, dirt, public scandal and mud.  Enough!

We still have good friends who are willing to save us.  Let us not waste the opportunity .  We must speak with them, face to face, forgetting in those moments the hatred we feel.  Perhaps hatred is a form of loving.  In a few hours we could overcome problems which could destroy us.  We could forget them and in time convince ourselves that they never existed, that it was only a nightmare.

This will be my last direct communication with you in case you have still not understood that we must sort out our own problems with the help of our friends of many years standing who are decent and disinterested and in whom we can trust, instead of third parties who bear us ill will.  Come (to Buenos Aires), with them we will resolve our present and future, and separately we will forget the past.

If I don’t receive a reply from you within the week and you don’t write to our sons to advise them, I will understand that you wish to continue the fight, and my final forgiveness will go to you because you know not what you do, because you are merely an unwitting instrument of your family’s hatred towards me.

In which case may God have mercy on us all."

To the letter he attached a typed sheet detailing the split of his assets amongst his children, though it looked more like a final will and testament.


How could she refuse?  And so the trap was set.

The meeting was arranged for Sunday 16th August 1964.  He purchased what he would need for the meeting and sat alone in his study, drinking and waiting for Sunday to arrive.

She arrived at the apartment on the 8th floor on time at 11.30 a.m., accompanied by a solicitor who was an old friend of her father’s.  Her son Jorge had insisted that she did not go alone.  “He’s become dangerous” he warned her.

Raúl also had his own solicitor with him, a cousin and a personal friend.  They all joined forces to make the meeting as calm as possible between the couple, but their efforts were in vain and after some initial conflict they resolved to all go to lunch and meet back at the apartment at 5.30 p.m.

When they did so Raúl was calmer, Clotilde was relieved and hopeful that they would be able to conclude the separation paperwork.  As the meeting was coming to a close he served them all a drink.  Clotilde’s was poured from a silver jug, and he handed her the glass without speaking.   She stretched out an arm to receive it and he suddenly tossed it in her face. 

But it wasn’t a drink.  It was vitriol – sulphuric acid.  She instinctively used her hands to brush it off, and spread the damage there, and to her chest, as he watched the acid open her skin and burn the flesh underneath.  He had in fact aimed at her eyes – perhaps he had intended to blind her, thus ensuring that he was the last person she would ever see.  But she had managed to close them in time, damaging her eyelids terribly.  Furious that she no longer loved him he wanted to annihilate her, and the best way to do it was to leave her without a face.

He was partly successful.  She was rushed to hospital, her jacket left on the floor where she had pulled it off as she felt the acid burning through it, her blouse discarded on the washing machine where she had torn it off in agony.  As her body burned with the effects of the acid, she pulled her clothes off on the way to the car which took her to the hospital.

The armchair after the acid attack

When the police arrived some time later to examine the apartment they found the lifeless body of Raúl Barón Biza in the bedroom, lying on his back on the bed, on blood-soaked sheets.  There was a bullet wound in his temple and he was still holding the gun.

However there was also further evidence – signs of vomit and faecal matter on the carpet of the bedroom and on the sheets and soles of his feet.  On a small table nearby were little bottles of medication, and after sending all this evidence away for analysis, it was later possible to reconstruct the last few minutes of his life.  One of the little bottles contained strychnine, purchased a few days earlier.  He had clearly planned to end his life by swallowing the poison, but his body had quickly started to expel the strychnine and, unable to stand the pain, he lurched across the room to get the gun from a drawer, probably unaware that the poison had also made his bowels open.  Staggering back to the bed he used one bullet.  Thus there was no sign of the poison actually in his body at the time he shot himself, and no signs of it were found in subsequent forensic tests.  It is thought that he might have survived the poison if he hadn’t had a gun.

His remains rest under an olive tree next to the memorial to Myriam Stefford on his former farm in Córdoba.

For the next few years Clotilde lived in Milan where a burns specialist tried to reconstruct her face and see if at the very least she could have her eyelids restored.  There was some measure of success obtained and by the time she returned skin did cover her whole face and hands so that bones and muscles were not exposed.

When she returned to Argentina she settled – strangely – in her husband’s old apartment, the place where he had injured her.  Surprisingly she got involved in politics again, and on a few occasions she even made speeches at political gatherings, where the crowds greeted her with a mixture of admiration tinged with alarm.  Very sadly for her she could no longer visit educational establishments for children, where her interests really lay, because the patchwork that was now her face disturbed the children too much.

She gradually became more withdrawn, confining herself to running a farm and visiting friends as she struggled with depression and memories.  One afternoon fourteen years later in October 1978 she was looking at an album of old photographs and found some taken of her some weeks before Raúl had flung the acid at her.  

“What can I do about all this?” she asked her son Jorge, who had become her most faithful companion after the tragedy.  He didn’t know what to reply to her.

On the following day she threw herself off the balcony of the 8th floor. 

Later investigations revealed that Raúl’s clothes from years before were found still hanging in the cupboard in Clotilde’s room, mixed with her own, and his portrait was still on the wall.

This was all too great a burden for those who were left; inevitably their lives had been defined by their parents’ marriage problems, their father’s death and now their mother’s.  The ensuing publicity and their inability to escape it must have been a constant torment.

Twelve years later in 1990 the youngest daughter Cristina, who had always striven to remain in the background, committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of a high rise building.  She was 38, and had been 12 years old when she lost her father and her mother’s life had changed forever.

Eleven years after that in August 2001 Jorge Barón Biza, their second son, journalist and writer, flung himself from his 12th floor apartment in the city of Córdoba.

Jorge Barón Biza, probably at the time of the
publication of his book in 1998.

In 1998 he had published his first novel, “The Desert and its Seed”, to great critical acclaim.  This is one of its passages:

"I have reflected on the difference between the outer apparent aspect of a tragedy and its inner view, and the violence appears in our lives as an unwarranted surprise, and just as exceptional.  The story highlights the blood-soaked moments of my parents’ lives, the high drama of a tragedy, leaving between the lines the days where there was love but no history, the warm letters of the early years and later the extended efforts to recover the former happy times.  There’s a film by Truffaut with the slogan “Neither with you nor without you”.  This must have been the spirit that possessed Raúl and Clotilde in the final moments of their marriage.  Separation is an unthinkable act.  Saying there is only love is the easy way out when there is only hate.  It is however on a personal level a complex tearing apart when love and hate are one and the same, and confuse the passionate element in our hearts.

I have fought with my family history to find a way to reconcile the facts to enable me to carry on living.  I tried for many years to keep total silence on the matter.  Then I tried to lay the ghosts by examining the old episodes with magnifying glass and scalpel.  Now I understand that there is nothing to reconcile or conceal, or to show.  That each love affair has its own footprint embedded beyond words and feelings… that these are merely contradictory when words are assigned to them, but which remain firm, powerful and inexplicable long after our death."


My own final thoughts

When four members out of a family of five commit suicide, it is understandable that the tabloid press should assume that there is a curse on the family and be strongly tempted to link it to the legend of the Virgin of Mercy and the stolen diadem.  But there is no mystery, no coincidence here.  For example, there is no history of Raúl’s siblings having had similar problems.

If Raúl Barón Biza had ever expected to be remembered for his writing, any such ambition was squandered by his brutal and calculating attack on his wife.  He condemned himself forever to be identified with his crime and its long term effect on his family, despite the efforts by dedicated websites to redeem him and his works.  They are also hindered by the fact that his books are not widely available.

It would be interesting to know whether Raúl had a history of mental illness, but I don’t seek an easy explanation for his behaviour.  That he loved his children is beyond doubt but this does not vindicate his actions.  As he himself had identified, his ego was always going to put limits on his love for his children.  Most certainly the curse visited upon that family originated not from some old legend, but from the inner demons of the man himself.

*  All pictures are from the internet or from a named source.
*   Candelaria de la Sota:  El Escritor Maldito Raúl Barón Biza, Vergara, 2006.  ISBN 978-950-15-2385-0
This is a carefully researched book which seeks only to give all the known facts about Raúl Barón Biza.  In using Candelaria de la Sota’s work to build the story and tell it in my own words it has become biased, and far from her impeccable journalistic standards.  I have looked extensively on the internet for other sources, but except for the websites mentioned above, and odd details found elsewhere, this is the only reliable and comprehensive source I have been able to find.  The quotes and letters used in these posts have been translated by me, and as far as I am aware, are the only part of her book which I have copied.  There is no intention whatsoever to pass any of this off as my own or to infringe on her copyright, as I merely wished to tell the story to English speaking readers.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's photo archives

Photo Stew

Digital:  John as the policeman who's lot is not a happy
one in Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, 2008.

Non-digital:  Cheste, near Valencia


England vs All Blacks, Twickenham, early 1990s,
Rory Underwood in the background.
Photoshopped ...

Non-digital: Kite Festival, Bristol
(Thought - this image might have looked better
 if I had turned it upside down...?)

Non-digital:  Busker, opposite the Bath Pump Rooms

Non-digital:  Canal near Bath

Non-digital:  Bonfire Night in Downend, a Bristol suburb



Zanna said...

Goodness what an amazing story and how sad and tragic. Thanks so much for sharing with us, Now re my blog banner - it is in fact a real photo - not a Photoshop in sight! Taken last year at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. I was there with my friend and her daughter and we were taking all sorts of interesting photos to contrast the abaya and shayla with modern society talking on a mobile phone, pouting, putting on our lippy etc. complete with designer sunglasses! This was just one with the magnificent mosque in the background. Zxx

Lonicera said...

Thanks Zanna.
I'm impressed - it's a fabulous picture!
Anybody reding this, go over to Zanna's blog and take a look.........

Debi said...

As usual, an amazing post!!

Caroline, I have nominated you for The Adorable Blog Award!! Check out my latest Post! You deserve it!!

OneStonedCrow said...

Inner demons indeed! - an intruiging story Caroline - I was hoping for some sort of 'happy' ending but it was not to be ... well told.

I really like your picture of the busker too.

Lonicera said...

I know - the more I dug the more I realised what I was taking on. It's so much easier to write about someone you like even a little. Imagining a reader wincing is good provided you cheer him/her up somewhere along the line, but I couldn't with this subject.

Vagabonde said...

What a tragic story. I believe this man was mentally imbalanced for years and should have been treated. You know there are many people who are overbearing, not to this point of course, but still. His behavior was totally neurotic – self absorbed, abusive, controlling personality, etc. Many people have these types of traits, not that that extent, but still obsessive and toxic to their families. It is sad.

Lonicera said...

I agree with you - and why she stayed (even if it was only occasionally) with someone who was clearly mentally ill and had such a bad effect on their children is also a mystery.
Thanks for reading Vagabonde.

Ramón Minieri said...


Gracias por haberte tomado tanto trabajo para buscar y organizar esta historia! Has encontrado muchos datos valiosos que yo desconocía. Creo que apuntás a algo que está en un terreno difícil, entre lo psicológico y lo sociológico; de algún modo parece que en Raúl Barón Biza, como en otros hombres de su tiempo, hay contradicciones dramáticas que dan lugar a ese estigma de lo "maldito". Raúl parece tomado de una página de Roberto Arlt, que escribió sobre tantos malditos de su tiempo. Es muy sugestivo tu trabajo, nos hace pensar acerca de una época, y nos lleva a percibir que hay mucho que indagar y explicar. Ojalá sigas con estas búsquedas tan serias y originales!

Lonicera said...

Muchas gracias Ramón - aprecio mucho tu ponderado comentario. Me gustan las historias que provocan una reacción fuerte en mí. En La Modista fue lástima, en Camila dolor y en esta (en el título quise implicar "Los Malditos" en el plural pero no sale muy claro) impaciencia y hasta asco por el mimado niño rico primero y el egoísta y egocéntrico después, que hasta supo más allá de la muerte truncar el talento literario del hijo menor, que hubiera superado el suyo. Me interesan las motivaciones de todas estas personas, las respete o no.
...Y como la puentera que soy, ya sabrás que quisiera dar a angloparlantes un vistazo de un mundo que no conocen.
Me animás a que siga - gracias.

Joyful said...

What a terribly tragic story all around. It makes me think that there must have been some mental illness in the family to have so many of them commit suicide.

Lonicera said...

... or simply to have to see one's mother's face day after day, ruined by acid by one's father, and have to try to help her in her deep unhappiness, knowing their father had been to blame and hadn't the guts himself to live through the consequences. And they had seen their parents fighting violently for years. But I take your point, and for what it's worth I think they had his genes.

Thanks for reading Joyful.


Joyful said...

Oh yes, when I say "tragic" I meant the entire life story that each of them had to live through. Simply terrible. I meant to say also that I thought Jorge was quite the handsome one, esp. in his earlier years.

Lonicera said...

I know what you mean. What particularly horrified me was the violent mode of suicide chosen by the 4 of them, in an era where people with money could have got hold of sleeping pills fairly easily.

Kimberly said...

This stories are really catching my attention. I´m living in Argentina with my husband in one of those furnished apartments in buenos aires and I told him about your blog. We want to go to the Museum of HIstory to learn more and see if we find e details about Frondizi!

Lonicera said...

Thanks for your comment Kim!

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