“BEFORE JUMPING feet first from the 16th floor, papa said goodbye to the Argentine working class.” With that irresistible sentence Martín Sivak begins “El Salto de papá” (“Papa’s Leap”), a book that has been a bestseller in Argentina since its publication last year. It is both a moving tribute to his father and an oblique but telling examination of Argentina’s lingering, pathological streak of self-destruction.
Jorge Sivak, the papa in question, was a man of contradictions: banker, property developer, communist. He dabbled in urban guerrilla warfare. His contacts included military men and politicians of many stripes. He took his life on December 5th 1990, with the authorities poised to take over the insolvent family finance company. It was the remnant of a business empire set up by Martín’s grandfather, Samuel Sivak, initially by investing funds from Argentina’s Communist Party. As Jorge jumped, he waved to horrified workers building what would become a Hyatt hotel. His leap came as global communism was crumbling.
Aged 15 at the time, the author has been haunted ever since. Whatever his faults, Jorge was a loving father, his son writes, and an exciting one. He took Martín to conspiratorial meetings and to watch Independiente, a football team. He introduced him to Independiente’s balding midfield genius, Ricardo Bochini, a friend and working-class hero in an era when footballers were swindled rather than pampered. The book is “first and foremost…the text of a son who has grieved for 25 years”, he writes at the end of it. What he calls “the big childish question—why did you abandon us?” yielded to an attempt “to understand why he had committed suicide and what his life had been like”.
To answer those questions the author, a journalist, sets out to interview those who knew his father (this being Argentina, they include his psychoanalyst and hairdresser). They conjure up a bizarre and tragic period, centred on the cold-war-era conflict among Peronists, guerrillas inspired by Che Guevara (an Argentine, after all) and the army and its allies. This continued, in the shadows, even after the military dictatorship of 1976-83 gave way to the elected government of Raúl Alfonsín.
Jorge Sivak’s elder brother, Osvaldo, groomed as Samuel’s successor, was kidnapped by anti-communist police officers in 1979 and again in 1985. They suspected that the Sivak company was laundering guerrilla money. The kidnappers pocketed a ransom of $1.1m and shot Osvaldo.
Jorge was a hopeless and reluctant businessman, operating in an Argentina in which business, politics and guns were entwined. He befriended army officers, especially the carapintadas (painted faces), far-right mutineers who repeatedly threatened Alfonsín’s government. In a quixotic way he was trying to unite Argentina, but around nationalism, not democracy. The finance company made loans to politicians that were not repaid; Jorge gave jobs to friends and political contacts. Proud of having been a political prisoner, he feared jail for financial crimes. That, together with survivor’s guilt, seems to have driven him to suicide.
According to his psychoanalyst, Jorge was “an almost neurological case of disorganisation”. That goes for Argentina in this period, too. There were guerrilla movements and dictatorial responses across Latin America. Leftist violence and its repression were extreme in Argentina, a country that has found it hard to recognise limits (that may explain why its middle class is addicted to psychoanalysis). Many doctoral theses are needed to explain this. Perhaps it has something to do with its past wealth, its limitless space (a population of 45m inhabits a country almost the size of India) or the mass immigration of Italian and Spanish anarchists (they included Martín’s maternal grandfather).
Despite its continuing difficulty in achieving economic stability, Argentina has overcome its penchant for political violence over the past 30 years and the army now has no role in politics. It is progress, perhaps, that on the eve of a G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on November 30th, the main news was merely that stone-throwing football hooligans prevented the playing of the final of the Copa Libertadores (Latin America’s club championship) between Boca Juniors and River Plate, Argentina’s biggest clubs. It is notable, too, that despite the country’s descent into recession and inflation, it is not impossible that the reformist, moderate government of Mauricio Macri will win an election next year. Just maybe, Argentina is maturing.