Photo by Nacho Boullosa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Artillery Row

A roaring monster

Letters from the Falklands front: Trauma and machismo continue to define the Malvinas issue in Argentina

To mark 40 years since the Falklands War, two Critic contributors based in the Southern Hemisphere, A.S.H. Smyth in the Falklands, and Dominic Hilton in Argentina, are exchanging letters reflecting on the events of the war, and the differing perspectives on it in Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Have the two societies moved on? Do scars still run deep?

Querido Adam,

There really is no escape. Yesterday, in an effort to watch a clip from the 1980s film comedy Meatballs III: Summer Job, YouTube forced me to first endure a public service announcement from the Government of Buenos Aires. “We invite you to be a part of the different activities in commemoration of 40 years of the Malvinas War,” the ad began, directing me to a webpage headed #SiempreMalvinas. The page’s welcome message read: “We want to reaffirm our commitment to the claim for the full exercise of Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and the corresponding maritime and insular spaces.” Among the various carryings-on listed were theatre plays, art installations, panel discussions, podcasts, photography exhibitions, guided tours, light ceremonies, the unveiling of various plaques and, of course, protest marches.

I gave up on Meatballs III, and strolled across town to La Rural, the sprawling venue for the nation’s traditional farm and animal show, currently home to the 46th Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Anticipating chaotic scenes, I was surprised by the fair’s professional and upscale set-up, though to call it “International” might be pushing it — unless, that is, you count Las Malvinas.

Wherever one looked, there was mention of the Islands. The walls of the exhibition halls were plastered with patriotic slogans, as were dozens of the swanky booths, owned and run not by publishing houses, but by Argentina’s omnipresent trades unions. MALVINAS UNITE US. LAS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS. 40 AÑOS DE MALVINAS. What, I wondered, glancing around me, does any of this have to do with books?

A spot of browsing set me straight. Piles upon piles of books in every direction boasted titles like Blood and Fire, A Cry of Sovereignty, A Handful of Brave, The Builder of Dreams and The Hero of Eternity. I picked up a cute looking hardback called Juani and His Little Piece of Land, which a six-foot cardboard display sign advertised as “a book made for children, a novel that spreads in a different way, the story that many lived in 1982. The pages tell something more about the events that occurred in our little piece of land or, rather, in our Malvinas Islands, 40 years after their defence”.

Not quite Flat Stanley

Laying the book back down, I snapped a photo of it and turned away, only to be confronted by five haunting portraits of women described only as THE BRAVE ONES OF THE MALVINAS. Underneath the photos, three scarlet-lipped promo girls were whispering to each other as they pointed and stared at me like I was naked. I tried smiling neutrally at them, but this only caused them to snicker. It was only then that I realised I was carrying a rucksack advertising the Hospital Británico.

Actors were pretending to be shot in the face by Brits

Moving on, I passed a group of teenage girls flashing the peace sign as they struck poses in front of larger-than-life images of fallen Argentine soldiers, described as “An Homage to Our Heroes”. Across the way, on a wall-mounted screen, actors were pretending to be members of the invading forces in 1982 who’d been shot in the face by Brits. They screamed and writhed melodramatically on the hard, frosty ground as blood red corn syrup oozed from their eyes. I stood spellbound, before a real-life soldier in elaborate ceremonial dress uniform materialised silently at my elbow. I stiffened like one of those fainting goats, and he led me over to his stand, inviting me to write a message about the Malvinas on a Post-it note and stick it onto a map of the Islands. I politely declined, leaning close to read some of the colourful notes others had left. “MALVINAS FOREVER ARGENTINE!!!” said one, in the capitalised handwriting of a five-year-old. 

At which point, my good friend Carlo drifted over. “Look,” he said off the look on my face, “in Britain, nobody ever shuts up about World War II, right? There are like a million books published about it every year. Well, Argentina is the same, only with the Malvinas. Remember, it’s the only war this country has ever really had.”

“Yes,” I said, “but—”

“I know, I know. At least Britain won World War II. It’s weird, I admit. But, you know, it is the 40th anniversary and everything.”

“So, it’s different most other years?” I asked.

Carlo glanced around at the exhibition stands. “No,” he admitted, “not really.” 

On our way out, we stopped to view a small exhibition of photographs titled “In My Malvinas Eyes”. The photographer, Ruben Digilio, had travelled to the Islands to snap his pictures, describing Puerto Argentino (Port Stanley) as “filled with strange people”. He doesn’t know the half of it, I thought, remembering some of our conversations.

“I like this one,” Carlo said with a glint in his eye, pointing at a photo of two men taking a selfie with the iron bust of Margaret Thatcher. “That one’s not bad, either.”

I turned to see a photo of a baffled man inspecting a toilet seat from your local pub. Staring out from the loo was a portrait of General Galtieri over the words “ROT IN HELL YOU ARSEHOLE”.

My mind drifted back to an article I’d read a day earlier about Javier Milei, the outlandish rising star who many are predicting will be Argentina’s next president. On the subject of the war, Milei once wrote:

My old man slapped me around. I’ll never forget how he beat me up on April 2, 1982, when I was 11. We were watching on the telly the whole Malvinas thing and I had the bright idea of saying that it was insane and that they were going to kick our asses in. My old man went beserk and started hitting and kicking me all the way to the kitchen.

Just imagine Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss writing something similar. Or better yet, Prince Charles.

I told mummy that it was bonkers sending the Royal Fleet all the way down there for some piddling windswept penal colony and she went beserk, hitting and kicking me all the way to the Throne Room.

Speaking of which, last week, I attended the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Birthday Party at the British Ambassador’s Residence here in Buenos Aires. Ambassador Hayes did an admirable job, I thought, but the lavish event still had an air of “Don’t mention the war” about it. A man called Matt mentioned it once, but I think he got away with it. He was urging me to catch one of the final few performances of the play Minefield, which was still playing on the Avenida Corrientes, bringing Argentine and English veterans together to explore their memories of the war. “Sure,” I told him, “I’ll try to go this weekend.” But the truth was I’d had enough of the whole ugly business. It was already everywhere, all the time, so it seemed crazy to spend money to intentionally seek it out in my spare time. “Oh, splendid,” I imagined myself saying, settling into my seat at the San Martin theatre, “a show about the Malvinas. It’s been at least five minutes since I last heard about that boghole.”

At the Embassy after-party, my existence managed to start an argument

At the Embassy after-party, my existence managed to start an argument. A group of us, Argentine and British, were drinking on the balcony of a friend’s apartment opposite the National Library. Hanging from the library’s brutish façade was a gigantic poster promoting a new exhibition about — you guessed it again — Las Malvinas. I said something innocuous about the poster’s design, then someone mentioned our exchange of letters in The Critic, and a bearded Argentine writer took immediate offence. “What are you writing about?” he wanted to know, scowling at me.

I tried my best to explain — sort of — but it wasn’t enough. I made it clear to him that I wasn’t some Colonel Blimp type: that as far as I’m concerned, his country can have the sodding Islands. Apparently, though, that wasn’t at all the point. It was my mere mention of them that so angered him. After all, who the hell was I, some English writer-fool, to pass judgement of any kind on Las Malvinas? I agreed with that, too, but the damage was done.

A sharp English woman jumped in, eager to keep things civil. “Well,” she said in a crisp, no nonsense voice, “I had a taxi driver here say to me the other day, ‘Who cares about those islands? We have real problems in this country. Those stupid islands won’t solve them. This country has way too much land already. What it doesn’t have is money.’ I’ve never heard anyone talk like that before.”

“Neither have I,” I said. 

The bearded writer spat a shred of tobacco over the balcony ledge. Then he lowered his eyes and shook his head. “No, me neither.”

A couple of days later, Javier Figueroa, Argentina’s ambassador to the UK, gave an interview to the PA news agency, in which he described the Malvinas issue as a “monster in a room roaring”. As I read the interview, I thought back to that scene on the balcony opposite the library and how fresh the cool night air had felt on my face. 


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