For some reason, my husband and I have both ended up fascinated by narratives. He analyzes them. I try to create them. We talk about them a lot — much to the boredom of some people.
Why do you tell the stories you do? What do you put in? What do you leave out? What do you intend — and what simply slips through?
The two of us are never more rapt than when we’re in a new place, trying to figure it out. The day after we got to Buenos Aires, we went on a short tour of the city. A young woman showed us the neighborhoods, the government buildings, a cathedral, public squares, where the river was now, where the river used to be.
Right offhand, I have to say my husband and I are massively ignorant about the history of South America. Which made me wonder why most Americans go first, second and third to Europe and develop some familiarity with it — while we save the closer continent, part of our own new world, for later trips. Or maybe we never get there at all. Then, if we ever get there, we disagree about how to pronounce “Chile.” (Spare me chee-LAY, por favor.)
Anyway, on the tour, we heard a sanitized version of Argentina’s history — how the country never owned slaves, how it was the nefarious Spaniards who cleaned out the Indians. The Nazi immigration after World War II or the casita of Adolf Eichmann didn’t make the cut of stories our guide wanted to tell.
It’s the kind of narrative that could make you feel a bit culturally superior if you didn’t have a lurking awareness of the U.S.’s own tattered history of genocide against millions of Native Americans, slaveholding Founding Fathers, the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq, just to name a few historical shame pits. (As one-quarter native American, I used to court the whole victimhood rap. Then I learned that my tribe, the Chickasaws, had owned slaves. Show me a slaveowner’s descendant and I’ll show you a very unattractive candidate for victim status. Clean hands in this dirty, sins-of-the-father world are hard to come by. I need to be working on a new narrative of victimhood. Oh, that’s right! I’m a woman.)
The tour ended and we were dropped off in a shopping area of meat-laden restaurants and stores stocking furs, furs, furs for the upcoming cooler weather. In one area, some daring and troubled soul with a blue paint brush had written “PETA” over drawings of cattle.
PETA? Animal rights? Veganism? Will their narratives move from graffiti to the city tours and history books?
Who knows what the sanitized version of our own history will look like in the future? Maybe our descendants will come here someday — to the new, militantly vegan Argentina — and hear stories about how the Spaniards or Nazis were so evil they ate meat and wore furs with impunity. They’ll conveniently forget Hitler was a vegetarian and their vacationing grandparents bought leather and ate red meat every meal they were in Argentina in 2010.
That’s why this whole narrative business is so tricky and fleeting. You clean up a place or a narrative and it just gets dirty all over again. All I know is this: in life, in history books, in blogs, some of the best, most telling stories remain discreetly and deliberately untold.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Still confused about how to pronounce Chile? Read one of my favorite posts about never saying tomahto