Biography as a literary genre is one in which the English are first rate. It is something at which they are superlative. Perhaps US writers of lives excel also (in fact I am sure they are given the number of good biographies out of America). But for reasons unclear, the British have made biography their strong point. It is uncertain if they are to be matched by any other.
Pardon the digression, one aimed to emphasise that good biography is not an easy line of work. This is said as an introduction to a good local biography of the late Argentine author María Esther de Miguel, who was born in the town of Larroque, Entre Ríos. Here the writer started life in November 1925 and she died of a recurring cancer in Buenos Aires in July 2003.
The praise of this “life” written by Entre Ríos schoolteacher, writer and library director Daniela Churruarín, is justified. A lot of research and writing has gone into this biography. More often here in Argentina, biography is presented as historical fiction: i.e. a sort of novel using a real life. Serious biography may be found in academic essays, not as an offering for general readership. The fictional biography is in greater demand. It has been especially since the late Felix Luna (1925-2009), historian, founder of the magazine Todo es Historia (as in, “Everything is History”), published his life of 19th-century military chief and politician, twice president, General Julio Argentino Roca (Soy Roca, first edition printed in the mid-1980s). Luna was the “inventor” of the popular historical novel, although others preceded him as biographers but not as successfully. Thus the general and president became a best-seller.
What ranks Daniela Churruarin’s life of the writer, Invitados al Paraíso de María Esther de Miguel (“Guests in the Paradise of María Esther de Miguel”), in a special class is that it is richly illustrated. There is an abundance of photos and reproductions of family papers and writings and an interesting range of information from private and public sources. Unfortunately there is no name index, which is not a frequent feature in Argentine publishing. The careful edition was produced by a family imprint in Martínez, in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires, Maizal Ediciones (firstname.lastname@example.org). Double-weight illustration paper has been used, a thing that assures clearly defined reproductions. The provincial government in Paraná put a bundle of cash into the edition, and the writer deserved it.
María Esther de Miguel, the daughter of a Spanish mechanic and a Jewish Ukrainian mother who settled in Colonia Leven, handin-hand with the Jewish Colonisation Association (JCA) that assisted many immigrants and exiles from Russia to settle in Entre Ríos at the end of the 19th century. It is interesting to learn just how many and different people came to Argentina at that time under the auspices of the JCA. The parents of María Esther appear to have moved soon after their marriage in 1924 to Larroque, a railway stop at one time used for passenger transport but mostly used (to this day, between two and four trains pass through the town each day, or night) by trains loading the grain harvest (this year called “a disaster” due to summer drought) or unloading farm machinery. It was a good place for a mechanic to settle to repair farm vehicles of all kind.
María Esther was a pretty woman, short, tidy, with a gentle look in her green eyes, which were framed by a soft skin that gave her a Central European appearance. And in the many photos of her in public events, book launches and writers gatherings, collected by biographer Daniela Churruarín, she manages to smile always in contrast with the more serious-looking male participants. I in fact met her in the last decade of her life, soon after my return to Argentina and the Buenos Aires Herald in 1994, and I was struck by her freshness. She said she liked the journalism of the Herald – I forgot to ask her if she read English, but the praise was welcome. I reciprocated with praise for her historical novels, mainly those recreating bits of the life of Justo José de Urquiza and that of his women said to have given him (Urquiza) dozens of children in Entre Ríos. He was the great caudillo and one-time president of the Confederation of Provinces, which he ruled from Paraná and preceded the setting up of the Republic under the leadership of Bartolomé Mitre in Buenos Aires.
At a count of 18 books, short stories, novels, good historic novels and memoirs that carried numerous awards, she deserves to be better known. But it is still the fate of women to play second in the promotion of writings. María Esther de Miguel gained some renown as a campaigner for women’s rights when it was not in fashion and beneficial for authors. From that point on, in some of the richest chapters the book is a gallery of names of writers, poets, academics and historians who peopled the old Writers’ Society (SADE) and the Arts Fund (Fondo Nacional de las Artes), where María Esther was active. Those sections span half a century of cultural life in Argentina, hence they become useful for social historians working in that field.
In 1997, she took part in a debate in Villa Gessell organised by the Pagina/12 newspaper at which San Luis writer Eduardo Belgrano Rawson vigorously argued: “The historical novel does not exist, that is a basic contradiction that must be countered. The historic novel is either fiction or history.” María Esther countered almost sweetly, asking: “If we try to break links between literary criticism and fiction, might we not be breaking ties with and the encouragement of readers?” Córdoba writer Andrés Rivera came to her support with the argument that Greco-Roman history had been conveyed through theatre and recreation. María Esther de Miguel was great at setting the stage with a small curious question and this is well captured in the quotes and interviews by Daniela Churruarín. The author of the biography has given her writer subject a prominent literary place in Entre Ríos.
From my first meeting (with María Esther) there followed others, mainly two visits to her town, Larroque, where she returned time and again. Hard to explain how, but eventually I came to live in Larroque (about 40 kilometres off Highway 14). What happens here? Very little. That’s its beauty.
Shortly before her death in 2003, María Esther donated her home and surrounding garden to the municipality of Larroque. She is in the cemetery just a few hundred metres away. It seemed right to keep her near.