Historia argentina is a book of stories, a formatting machine, a node of intersection, an artifact in action, a foundational text, an earthquake, a literary theory, a cultural study, and a collector’s item. Historia argentina is also a moment in history. A history that had a concrete beginning: an instant of transformation in which the singular capital-H “History” opened up into the possibilities of a lowercase-h plurality of “histories” or stories. That transmutation, understood as the crossing of the threshold of reality into fiction, took place at the beginning of the 1990s, when Latin American literature (and specifically Argentine literature) found itself at a crossroads that generated tension between the construction of the national identity, the future invention of the literary, and the disintegration of the lines between genres. It was in that moment that Rodrigo Fresán’s Historia argentina (1991) appeared, a book of stories that took its place in the historic evolution of literature as a machine that reformatted the system of representation for memory and writing, and that opened the doors to what would be the focal point of creation on the continent during the turn-of-millennium period that followed.
Thinking retrospectively about the centrality of Historia argentina in Latin American literature reveals that it was a node of intersection and opening: an intersection of the big questions and unknown quantities that were being stitched together in the so-called post-boom and an opening up of narrative possibilities that emerged and marked a trend in writing until the present day. We could also think of this book as an artifact that, more than telling stories, triggers a cycle of interaction between history and literature where the big fictional traditions converge; in a productive and multiple dialogue, both history and literature are mutually reformulated and adapted to new conceptions of what and how to write.
We could also think of Historia argentina’s own history, one that began to germinate twenty years earlier. In the seventies and eighties, there were already debates on the continent about the role of literature within political processes, having as possible derivatives the response to totalitarianism, a mourning of the repressive actions of the dictatorships, and a necessary reinvention of the fictions that were telling the story in the dictatorial aftermath. And yet, in the early nineties, these possibilities stalled out when they failed to find spaces of dialogue in their poetics between a recent history of open wounds and a neoliberal politics of a global stripe. For some literary groups at the time, these two spheres appeared irreconcilable, more so when by the late eighties the return of democracy had led to the election of leaders who were close to the politics of privatization and bureaucratic corruption. When there appeared to be no off-ramp, given the apparent opposition of these two spheres that plotted the cultural future, Fresán activated a fictional possibility that didn’t just allow him to use the elements of the new economic and cultural politics to make a severe critique of those same politics but also to show how a generation that had survived the dictatorship on foreign stories could narrate its own experience.
But let’s explain this activation better. From the perspective of the simulacrum, the narratives of the late eighties looked like empty shells that referred to a single point of the emptying of experience. The magical realism that had dominated literary aesthetic since the sixties had become an exotic formula bought up by North American academics, testimonial literature had lost its referential relationship to the truth as it multiplied into an automatized structure, audiovisual language was creating its own internal mythologies that were competing with national heroes, and literature was stripping away its high-culture veil to establish ties with popular culture. For people who were born in Argentina in the mid-sixties, testimonies about the dictatorship had been intermingled with childhood inventions, family stories, TV shows, and pop idol episodes. In the end, it all mixed together into stories: into literature. Instead of parting the waters to conserve some idea of purity among all those discourses that were sprouting fiction, Fresán leaned into contamination, into narrating from that blend of possibilities to construct a new History that dispensed with its singular status and gave way to a multiplicity of personal stories. In that process, neoliberal discourse was transformed into a generator of metaphors and parodies, the testimonial borrowed tools from the fantastic, and magical realism was inverted and turned into what Fresán called “logical irrealism.” The result was Historia argentina: a foundational text that not only opened up the literary field to a much broader vision of Latin American reality at the turn of the millennium, but also announced the subsequent disruptive movement known as “McOndo.”
We can also say that Historia argentina was an earthquake, a shifting of tectonic plates that jumbled the locations of fixed concepts that sustained the culture and created a new landscape. In that new horizontal panorama, history and literature were turned into ruins, into dust that was mixed and combined to be transformed into a new substance from which fiction was reborn. Fresán proposed that the landmarks of Argentine history should no longer be set on monolithic pedestals, instead putting stock in the malleability of popular icons. He wasn’t interested in giving new voice to characters legitimized by acknowledged History, but instead gave voice to secondary characters who constructed alternate and fantastic versions of events that marked the construction of a nation. It’s not gratuitous that the book opens (since its second edition) with a pair of Quixotesque founding fathers who contain within them the encoded history of Argentina and who traverse in a blink the Indian raids and Maradona, magical realism and the pampa; to end up sinking into the sea, their story told by a second-class cabin boy. Just as these characters construct peripheral paradigms of Argentine history, through the pages of the book we see pass Eva Perón, the soldiers of the Falklands War, the disappeared people of the Videla dictatorship, Borges, Sandro de América, the Montoneros guerillas, and torturers; from a point of view that doesn’t recenter them in that narrative of legitimation, but that positions them as the backdrop (blurry yet indispensable) of the individual stories of fiction.
In Historia argentina, the Falklands soldiers dream of Rolling Stones’ shows, the guerillas have otherworldly crises, the World Cup finals are played under the clandestine conditions of torture, books have second parts that don’t have first parts, and kidnappers take their hostages to watch soccer matches. There are characters from nonexistent books and writers who reflect on books that haven’t yet been written; writing consumes the substance of orality and the crossroads between pages, characters, and events are more common than we can imagine. And above all of these stories glides the ghost of a narrator who uses digression to connect and link the disparate points of a story that doesn’t advance in a linear fashion but in temporal and thematic leaps. For that reason, Fresán chooses not to narrate from the third-person of history (objective and omniscient) but to construct a solid and personal first-person, interested in reconstructing sensations and opinions rather than maintaining a clear and linear narrative thread. This structure of stories interspersed with constant digressions, metafictional references, quotations, and overlapping characters is a signature of Fresán’s writing throughout his entire body of work, but it’s already present here in its full dimension. The dismantled history doesn’t respond to the narration of verifiable facts, but to rumors and a self-legitimization of a hyperstitional stripe: veracity is replaced by an internal verisimilitude; the stories refer to one other to construct their own complex universe that, in the end, shows itself to be truer than History itself.
We can also read Historia argentina as a literary theory, as a critical statement that coincides with the big questions raised in academia and universities during the nineties. It’s a book that responds to a series of formulations that, starting with the historiography of the eighties, had established themselves as interpretive options of historical science and that were condensed in Hayden White’s conception of meta-history: literature can be understood as another form of historical narration (in many cases more real and accurate). It’s for this reason that we find popular and high culture, reality and fiction, myths and facts all on the same hierarchical level. If with White we understand History as a narrative device that allows for the creation of the fiction of the nation, we can find in Fresán a game of mirrors where national History is not simply defined by some “outside other” (omnipresent throughout the book) but can be understood as a modifiable, interpretable, and even erasable text. A character need only type the word “Argentina” and press the “delete” key in the system that contains the culture for an entire nation to disappear without a trace; if Argentina is also the result of its literature, then it’s possible to hack the narrative nuclei that have built it and thereby invert all of History.
Finally, Historia argentina can also be read as a study of the influence of mass culture and the ideological power that cultural objects like comics, science fiction, rock music, or movies have had in the construction of an imaginary of the nation. Fresán shows how the field of the popular (which had been pushed aside in favor of an anachronistic elitism) is the appropriate space for the reformulation of an idea of the country that reveals the national as just another fiction; the symbolic possibilities of market icons are turned into tools for the construction of the notions of identity that were in constant flux at the end of the twentieth century. The appearance of Mickey Mouse disguised as sorcerer’s apprentice to offer an alternate view of the Falklands War demonstrates the paradoxical power that the other has to construct notions of the self.
Because of all of this, the spectral narrator of the book (an “I” that insistently floats above all the stories) constantly reflects on the process of writing and his role as the one who allows, through the word, himself and a notion of the other to exist. It’s a voice that makes gestures of subtraction and addition to deconstruct the story as it is constructed; it’s a presence in which author, narrator, and character are synchronously combined as entities united by coincidence and fate, and, within that union, they shed light on the story and enrich literature as point of departure and of arrival.
Historia argentina is all of these readings and objectives, all of these actions and explorations, and many more. Its heart is tied to digression, to expansion, to the power of futures. Along its path, it has moved through different versions and publishers: from its planetary origin with Biblioteca del Sur, passing through multiple incarnations with Anagrama, Tusquets, and Random House (because it’s also a collector’s item that feeds our maniacal side); with each rebirth, Historia argentina opens the possibilities of reading and of interpretation. Each reappearance is the ratification of the centrality of a work that, without a doubt, has defined Latin American literature until the present day. On the last page of the book, the narrator says, “this is, I guess, the end of the story, the end of my Argentine history,” but we know that the beginning of something more is being marked there: the moment when the intersection of literature and history explodes into future possibilities.