I have emigrated three times in my life. In 1978, I emigrated from Argentina to come to France, because a military dictatorship had taken hold in my country. In 1999, I emigrated from France, where I’d lived for twenty years, in order to return to Argentina, because I missed it so much. And in 2002, I emigrated from Argentina to return to France, because a financial dictatorship had taken hold in my country. This triple experience of emigration from one side of the planet to the other permitted me to compare the two. The Argentines now leaving are not the same as those who left earlier. The earlier émigrés discussed matters as if they understood them. Today’s maintain only a perplexed silence.
Before them there had been, of course, others. It is not necessary to repeat here the cliché of the artist who traveled to make his mark in Paris at the turn of the last century, or that of the estate-owner who did much the same, but brought his cow along with him. I met successors to the first type in the 1960s and 1970s; unfortunately I did not meet any of the second type (had we managed to coincide I could, perhaps, have claimed a glass of milk for my sustenance), but they clearly did not constitute any kind of a mass movement. Nor did the exiles emigrating during the dictatorship-and yet the Argentine abroad became a more significant phenomenon during this period, both in quantity and in symbolic effect. Between 1976 and 1982, these Argentines became the representatives of a country of thinkers, intellectually respected throughout Europe.
The intellectual status so generously attributed to the exiles may have formed the basis of that generally ridiculous division into Those Who Left and Those Who Stayed Behind. It was as though the two groups belonged to two distinct peoples.
Whether openly or in private, each group regarded itself as more persecuted than the other, and one of them-the exiles-considered itself the more distinguished. They competed over their levels of suffering and conscience, running some kind of race at the end of which the prize consisted of determining who had the greater conscience and who had suffered the most. Only, at the time, the prestige attached to the journey was such that those who did not leave attempted to justify themselves by discrediting those who did-the long-suffering champagne-sippers who had found themselves obliged to swallow the salty caviar of exile. For their part, those who left adopted a faint, albeit heroic, air of superiority, at times no doubt justified, and at others in no way so, as if somehow those who had stayed had been really, really dumb. Without overlooking, of course, that among those who had stayed there were some thirty thousand corpses. But neither those who had left, nor the corpses, added up to a majority: Argentina as a whole, and I say this without intending criticism but as fresh evidence of my attempt to view things dispassionately on my return, was not in the same state of generalized loss as it feels today.
In 2002, the difference between those who left and those who stayed no longer attracted capital letters (for we live in a lowercase era, without great pretensions). We are no longer a people divided between those who, on the one hand, have a home and, on the other, a suitcase; or, in one instance, the hero persecuted for political reasons and on the other the meek lamb who did not protest. In a land where there’s no need to abandon one’s home in order to lose the roof over one’s head, everyone is on the road. It’s a journey everyone makes as best they can, according to what strengths they have. This renders us all more indulgent, or perhaps more mature, in cases where maturity is measured in sadness. Who would now dare to decide whether it was more courageous to remain in Argentina, or more cowardly to leave, or both at the same time?
From his arrival in the country in 1903 (at the very moment when a large part of his family was dying in the Kishinev pogrom), my Russian grandfather spent what was left of his lifetime in questioning whether suicide was a brave or a weak act. Some replied with how courageous it was, others how cowardly. Eventually he decided that the former were right, and opted for suicide. A tragedy I wasn’t around-he did it before I was born-or I could have informed him that every extreme decision, including that to emigrate or to commit suicide, belonged to a spectrum that indicated part courage, and part cowardice.
Thus my first recommendation for a list, which is neither exhaustive nor (still less, in fact) standardized, although it is certainly the fruit of the most extensive experience in matters of divorce and separation, could be this: since we all belong to the same country, assassinated by the same gangsters; since both leaving and remaining can equally be taken as signs of courage or of its opposite; and since each one of us, without exception, other than that gang of political criminals, has had the roof taken from over our heads; and since whether we leave or we stay, we in any case find ourselves obliged to seek the same thing: the means of survival. Let us thus cease from counting ourselves as alternately idiotic or patriotic for staying, and alive or culpable for having left. Who knows whether considering ourselves all as victims would not allow us, wherever we are, to muster sufficient ire to rebuild our material world with the bricks and mortar of collective enterprise? Meanwhile, our hymn of triumph would be allowed to lose something of its sense of solemnity-no longer announcing “long liiiiiiive” with seven i‘s , but, more modestly, “alive” with one–but nothing of its sense of honor. Getting on with living is, after all, no small matter.
From Al Que Se Va (Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal, 2002). By arrangement with Libros del Zorzal.