El vuelo de la reina
College of Staten Island, City University of New York
On May 14, 2003, former president Carlos Menem withdrew his candidacy from a run-off election scheduled for the following weekend. After serving as Argentina’s leader for a decade (1989-1999), Menem re-entered the political fray in 2003 and won the most votes, but failed to garner the required 40 percent needed to avoid a second round. As the election grew closer, his checkered past – an economic trajectory of historical highs and lows, pillaging of democratic institutions and state-owned industries, and, above all, unprecedented and shockingly blatant corruption – caught up with him and he sensed imminent defeat. His withdrawal spelled certain political destruction, an ignominious ending for someone who had never lost an election.
Menem’s spectacular public fall can be directly traced to his arrogant and autocratic governing style. Disregarding democratic processes and the rule of law, he ran an extravagant and openly corrupt administration that subjected the nation to a harsh economic plan consisting of privatizing state-owned enterprises, laying off hundreds of thousands of workers, dividing his party’s traditional union constituency, and engaging in such venal activities as facilitating arms trafficking and allowing his cronies in government to demand kickbacks for state transactions. Above all, Menem misused his public office for personal gain – blurring the distinction between his official duties and private greed. In the end, this violation of the public trust precipitated his political demise.
Tomás Eloy Martínez’s El vuelo de la reina takes place in Menem-era Argentina. It explores the consequences not only of the period’s political corruption, but also of the many-layered forms of other illicit actions that occupied the nebulous space between the public and private spheres. The novel smudges this distinction, crisscrossing the boundaries between fiction and reality and the personal and political, all the while questioning the ethics that shape societies in the neoliberal era. It further zigzags through time and among narrative points of view, occasionally relying on journalistic accounts. As boundaries are blurred among these realms, the contested space among them becomes a locus for insecurity, tension, and struggles for power – phenomena that characterize both the novel’s plot and its characters, as well as contemporary Argentine politics.
This essay first examines these dichotomies and the way they are shaped and colored by the many forms of venality articulated in Eloy Martínez’s work. I contend that is the nature of Argentine power relations, ranging from presidential authority to sexual politics on the job, that has contributed to the nation’s political and economic dysfunction, as well as a breakdown in trust between the government and society. These interactions – depicted both explicitly and implicitly in the novel – have been exacerbated in recent decades by the radical shifts in public policies, and by the actions of those who administered them.
The essay then turns to the corruption of the relationship between the protagonist, newspaper editor Gregorio Magno Camargo, and his employee, reporter Reina Remis. Although their encounters are initially private, the affair involves a professional and generational power imbalance. When the younger woman rejects the advances of her employer, their affair crosses from the private realm to become public, and her professional survival is jeopardized by their personal interaction. Camargo’s abuse of his power in the relationship – ultimately leading to his downfall and her rape and murder – illustrates the destruction inherent in the merging of this distinction.
Finally, I explore Eloy Martínez’s figurative and literal use of twins to represent the work’s dichotomies, which serves to counterbalance and interrogate his indictment of Argentine politics and society. For although the work paints a bleak picture of the dark side of human interactions, it also highlights the ambiguity of actors and events, demonstrating that the distinction between immorality and morality cannot be viewed as static. In the end, I discuss the role of this novel in narrating and critiquing political discourse, as the fictional re-telling of Argentina’s recent history simultaneously clarifies and challenges our understanding of its contemporary reality.
The Public/Private Distinction: A Ruptured Dichotomy
Before turning to the narrative of the novel, I begin by questioning the premise of the public/private distinction. Tracing this divide to its classical Greek roots – following the tradition of philosopher Hannah Arendt – the two realms form a clearly delineated binary. The public realm, the polis, is the site of political action, while the private encompasses the household and property ownership. Arendt exalts the former as the space that binds people together and exposes them: "It means, first, that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity" (Human Condition, 50). As a political space, it is a site of action, contestation, and transparency. In contrast, the private realm is the space of necessity, a hiding place for things that should be hidden. In the Greek private realm, individuals are concerned with the everyday requirements for survival, such as work and household chores.
Arendt deplores the blurring of these boundaries, lamenting the gradual incursion of the state into private affairs, as it became involved in the administration of private property and the household. But in ancient Greece, the polis was a highly exclusionary realm – women and slaves belonged to the private world, where they were sequestered at home with no rights to participate. It was only when the limited space of the public was challenged that the binary began to crumble, and the consequent dynamic tension created the potential for liberating social and political action. Centuries later, feminists further ruptured the walls that divided these worlds, bringing private concerns to the public arena and vice versa. What has become clear, though, is that there have always been activities that take place on the boundary: people have always used public power and access to resources for their personal gain, just as they have always exploited their private interactions for public benefits. This dynamism produces a great opportunity for democratic exchange and exposure and eradication of "hidden" inequities, but, as El vuelo de la reina illustrates, also creates conditions propitious for illegal and illicit actions.
Arendt’s views regarding the public/private distinction were shaped by her memories of the Nazi regime’s brutal violations of the German citizenry’s lives. Her work suggests an apt parallel to the Argentine experience, as that nation, too, passed through a comparable period of state terrorism. Both emerged with a profound distrust of public authority, a sentiment that contributed to the ease with which the 1990s neoliberal "rollback" of the public sector was accomplished. Combined with its violent past, the so-called "welfare" state was viewed as bloated and corrupt, and certainly not serving the best interests of the Argentine people. In the post-Cold War era, the dominant ideology held that the private sector was kept honest through competition and the fallacious notion that "market forces" would prevent abuses of the system, and attempts were made to discredit and dismantle the state. But, as the Menem case demonstrates, the privatization of the state’s functions involved a heavy dose of corruption, and recent revelations from the business world – most notably scandals from U.S.-based companies – prove that illicit activities are amply available in both the public and private spheres.
For its part, the market operates in both worlds. It forms part of the private sector because it is seen as a space for individual interests and competition, as opposed to the collective "common good" of the polis, but is in many ways more open to scrutiny and visible than many government bureaucracies (Weintraub 35-37). And one industry bridges the public/private divide more than any other: the media, as Eloy Martínez’s novel demonstrates.
How the Mass Media Democratize and Corrupt
Since its return to civilian rule in 1983, Argentina has experienced a surge of growth in its media outlets, which are privately-run and autonomous. The novel’s protagonist, Camargo, who is the head of a large national newspaper, illustrates the dual public and private role of the press in democratic society, both through his words and actions. In reality, as in the work, the media have been the primary source of political information for the public; it is they who have exposed the venality of government officials. In fact, it is probable that levels of corruption in Argentina (and in the rest of the world) may have declined as a result of negative publicity. Menem’s political defeat, as well as his indictment, can be directly linked to the public opinion generated and manipulated in large part by the press.
Benedict Anderson addresses the newspaper’s dual function, as it unites citizens collectively as they simultaneously perform the private ritual of reading it:
Throughout the book Camargo "plays God" with the political power that his position affords him. He alone decides how information is to be conveyed, when, and about whom. Throughout the book he is presented with damaging information about public officials, and he uses the knowledge for the newspaper’s (and his own) enrichment. Although the cases of corruption are blatant examples of abuses of power, Camargo’s arrogant behavior mirrors that of the politicians. Thus, while newspapers monitor the excesses of elected officials, their own actions go unchecked.
In a similar vein, as the novel navigates the lines between the public and private spheres, it simultaneously moves between fiction and reality. Valenti’s self-inflicted shooting echoes the famous case of Argentine billionaire and political operative, Alfredo Yabrán. In 1978, when faced with arrest for his involvement in a scandal surrounding the murder of a photographer, Yabrán killed himself in exactly the same manner. Like the novel’s senator, the businessman had ties to the president and his illegal activities reflected negatively on the administration. Valenti’s arms trafficking also mirrors the prosecution of Menem and others in his inner circle, who were implicated for their roles in selling arms to several countries when such transactions were proscribed by international law. When Camargo describes the fictional president’s eventual death by suicide, the date of his report takes place after the novel’s publication. By setting the imaginary event in the future, after having established credible links between truth and fiction throughout the work, the text establishes an expectation that the imaginary president’s death (as well as his guilt) may mirror that of the real president. The newspaper report further links the ill-fated fictional leader to Menem by listing characteristics common to both, such as the Chilean second wife who had been an actress. (Menem’s second wife is a Chilean former Miss Universe). And Camargo writes about the contents of the fictional president’s will, which reveals the existence of a fortune of nearly four hundred million dollars. He leaves a small portion of his estate to his son and second wife, with the rest dedicated to soccer clubs, the creation of a race track, a sports cable channel, and an enormous fund to build a monument to him on the side of a mountain, bearing his face like those on Mount Rushmore. Camargo observes wryly, "Como el suicidio, esas decisiones póstumas eran un dedo del medio alzado contra la opinión del mundo" (171). The allusion to Menem is inescapable, for the accusations of personal enrichment that have long surrounded him, for the jab at his passion for sports and anti-intellectual pursuits, and for his enormous (and classless) ego. Just as Camargo "plays God" by manipulating the dissemination of information in the press, El vuelo de la reina serves a similar political role in reality – it omnipotently asserts the guilt of public figures and, in some cases, predicts the time, place, and nature of their demise.
"Pride Goeth Before the Fall"
El vuelo de la reina opens with a cautionary epigraph: "«La soberbia es, por así decirlo, la abeja reina de todos los vicios y pecados.»" (9). This warning establishes the moral theme that runs throughout the novel – that soberbia (roughly translated as arrogant pride) is the original and most destructive sin. Ironically, it is the work’s protagonist who identifies this sin in others, but who also embodies it. Camargo is the queen bee of pride, as his observations about himself and his workers (whom he refers to as "zánganos") reflect when he walks through the newsroom (his "reino"): "Cuánto mejor sería el diario si pudiera escribirlo él solo. Cuánto mejor sería el mundo si él lo escribiera (20). Camargo, named after the medieval pope who originally identified the seven deadly sins, Gregory the Great (Gregorio Magno Pontífice), is consumed by his pride, and it eventually destroys him.
Stanford Lyman observes the following of Camargo’s namesake:
Eloy Martínez draws the link between soberbia and corruption throughout the novel. When Reina writes Robert Mitchum’s obituary, she mentions the agnostic evangelical teaching that assert the existence of Jesus’ twin brother, who had committed "el atroz pecado de soberbia al fingir una divinidad para la que no lo habían elegido" (42). This act of arrogance is mirrored in politics, when the president – to distract public attention from rumors of corruption – claims to have seen an image of Jesus appear before him. Reina notes that the vision could not have taken place: "«No pudo haber tal visión... Se cae de maduro. Si el presidente hubiera dicho que vio a la virgen María o a cualquier santo o un arcángel, la aparición sería dudosa pero verosímil. Con Jesucristo se pasó de ambicioso, o de ignorante....»" (90). Although Camargo identifies and condemns excessive pride in others, he fails to acknowledge his own commission of the sin. Even in writing about Brazilian journalist Antonio Marcos Pimenta Neves, who is the protagonist’s friend in the novel and his mirror image in real life, Camargo states: "[S]e hizo notorio por su altivez y por su extremo orgullo…Su carácter se había agriado entonces. La soledad o el poder –o acaso una combinación de esos sentimientos – lo tornaron despótico y arrogante. Creía que todo era possible, y creía también que nada le debía ser negado" (50-51).
During and after his affair with Reina, Camargo dominates and manipulates her privately and publicly. Once he invades her home and drugs her, he omnisciently observes her every move and feels that he owns her: "Por fin ahora la mujer le pertenece por completo, la docilidad es otra señal de su poder, podría hacer lo que quisiera con ella... cuántas veces podría volver si le diera la gana para contemplarla como lo que es, un objeto" (99). He inserts himself into her private life first by seducing her, and while they are together their intimate affair translates into professional success for her – she is promoted and earns public recognition for her work. But when she rejects Camargo, he begins to read her private correspondence and monitor her movements. In the public realm, he discredits her work and eventually fires her. He then calls the major media outlets and convinces them that she is dishonest and should not be hired to work anywhere. His wounded pride drives him to hire a homeless man – one whose private life takes place in the public sphere – to enter her home and rape her. He forces her to ingest poisonous narcotics, has her violently raped while he watches, and eventually kills her, because he cannot dominate her emotionally and brute force becomes the only power he can wield in her life.
The Mirrored Faces of Corruption
Camargo’s personal and professional moral corruption mirror the political venality he condemns in elected officials. The novel presents many such faces of corruption: personal and political, in the public and private sectors, in fiction and in reality, and even in physical sickness and in health.
By "twinning" events and characters, Eloy Martínez effectively adds complexity and ambiguity to the novel. First implying that there are those who believe that Jesus Christ had a twin brother who was a demon, the text then proceeds to partner the Argentine president with Carlos Salinas de Gortari , the Mexican leader who was removed from office for corruption. According to the newspaper account, upon seeing Salinas’ downfall, "el presidente argentino lloró... Sintió que en este mundo de desgracias hay siempre un alma gemela" (86). As discussed, the book also draws parallels between the fictional president and Carlos Menem, creating the impression of guilt by association in both worlds.
There are numerous twins in El vuelo de la reina, including Camargo’s daughters, Ángela and Diana. Throughout the narrative, the former is dying of leukemia, literally a corruption of the blood. Their father is so blinded by his obsession with Reina that he confuses the twins when he speaks with Diana, and refuses to visit Ángela, even as she nears death. Once she dies, instead of traveling to be with the family, he is immobilized by his need to maintain his vigil of Reina: "Hasta que la mujer no se despertara no podía moverse de allí" (248). His inattention to his two girls, one healthy and the other sick, further enmeshes Camargo in his web of immorality and corruption of the soul.
But perhaps the most intriguing and convincing pairing in the novel is that of Camargo and his counterpart, Pimenta Neves. The reader meets the Brazilian journalist when he calls Camargo to inform him of the illegal activities of the Argentine president’s son. It is later revealed that Pimenta Neves, (who is called by his last name, like Camargo), is a sixty-ish newspaper editor who became romantically involved with an employee in her thirties. Both men had U.S.-born wives, and twin daughters, and both quickly promoted the young women who became their girlfriends. Both discovered their lovers’ indiscretions by reading their e-mail messages, and both cold-bloodedly shot them at horse farms. But while Camargo lives in the fictional world of Eloy Martínez’s work, Pimenta Neves was actually a renowned journalist and editor of O Estado de Sao Paulo. On August 20, 2000, he shot his young paramour, journalist Sandra Gomides, and then tried to take his own life.
By inserting the parallel case of Pimenta Neves, (who was in real life a friend of Eloy Martínez, himself a former newspaper editor), the author once again conflates the moral and the immoral, the real and fictional, as well as public and private spheres. For although Pimenta Neves and Camargo both destroy themselves by their arrogant pride, they both serve the public by revealing and denouncing cases of political corruption. As I discuss above, newspapers in democracies play a crucial role in informing citizens of their elected officials’ activities. But at the same time, they remain self-interested private entities that are in the business of making money. Thus, their decisions about how, what, and when to report are shaped and colored by their own personal and professional interests.
In the same vein, the newspaper itself plays the dual role of a fictional and non-fictional artifact, as Anderson observes:
La Reina del Plata
The most disturbing mirror images in the novel pair the characters’ corruption with the afflictions suffered by contemporary Argentina. In many ways, it is a nation that has suffered the consequences of excessive pride. And in 1923, tango lyricist identified the city of Buenos Aires as the queen of the Plata River, "Reina del Plata," writing:
Buenos Aires la Reina del Plata,
Buenos Aires mi tierra querida;
escuchá mi canción
que con ella va mi vida…
Buenos Aires, cual a una querida
si estás lejos mejor hay que amarte,
y decir toda la vida antes morir que olvidarte.
By the 1940s, with the rise of Peronism, Argentines found another symbol to embody their national pride: Evita Perón. Juan and Evita Perón administered the economy as if it were their personal bank account, handing out state resources to their followers. Evita especially broke down barriers between the government and the people, involving herself in the personal affairs and resolving domestic ills of her devotees, and effectively collapsing together the nation’s public and private domains. A personalistic movement in place of an institutionalized political party, Peronism established a pattern of state-societal relations in which the government served as a patron and the citizenry its clients. It continues to dominate the Argentine political arena to this day – and Eloy Martínez subtly associates the novel’s corrupt president with Peronism by having him take refuge in the birthplace and spiritual home of Evita Perón (94).
For their part, frequent military interventions of the twentieth century further ruptured the public/private domains. The praetorian regimes invaded citizens’ homes – as Camargo violated Reina’s – ripping apart families, and terrorizing Argentines with rape, torture, and mass disappearances. They governed, like the Peróns, with a great amount of hubris, seeing no need to respect human rights or the democratic rule of law. Echoing the fate of the novel’s characters, the military government’s arrogance eventually led to its self-destruction. In 1982 the junta carried out the ultimate act of soberbia – the invasion of the British-controlled Falklands/Malvinas islands in the South Atlantic. Enacting Arendt’s worst fears about the blending of violence and excessive nationalism, the government forced thousands of young soldiers to fight a bloody and pointless war, where they were woefully out-gunned. After the mercifully short war, the military leaders were forced to concede their defeat and return to the barracks. Argentina restored civilian rule, but at a tremendous financial and human cost.
By the 1990s Argentina had experienced decades of economic and political turmoil. Enter Carlos Menem, a Peronist who campaigned on the promise that he would restore the legacy of his party’s founder by creating jobs, increasing wages, and guaranteeing workers the dignity and privileged position they had occupied a half-century earlier. Showing a blatant disregard for the will of his constituents, or his party, upon assuming office Menem did a radical about-face. He imposed a harsh neoliberal plan that, although initially beneficial in stabilizing inflation and restoring foreign investors’ confidence, eventually racked up an unprecedented external debt and drove millions of Argentines into abject poverty. He was then indicted for corruption, as this essay notes at the beginning, and had the audacity to return to the political arena in 2003. Like Camargo and his fictional counterpart in the novel, Menem’s power has finally collapsed, an event that bodes well for his nation’s moral and political future.
To end on a positive note, I conclude by addressing the political role of the novel itself. The work ends by noting the soberbia of writing fiction:
El vuelo de la reina condemns corruption, and presents a sharp commentary on Argentine politics. It is a public denunciation of both private and public acts, while its reading takes place (in Anderson’s words) in the "realm of the skull." If, conscious of the imagined community created by its reading, citizens concerned about Argentina’s future translate its message into actions, perhaps the queen of the Plata will once again take flight.
(1). Quoted in Lyman from Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job (Oxford: J.H. Parker; London: F. and J. Rivington, 1845), III, 489-490; and Gregory the Great, Moralia, XXIV:48.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1991.
Eloy Martínez, Tomás. El vuelo de la reina. Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales, 2002.
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Lyman, Stanford M. The Seven Deadly Sins: Society and Evil. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978
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