“Are we shutting ourselves in, or are we shutting out other people so they can’t come in?”
I just finished the very impressive novel, Thursday Night Widows written by Argentinean novelist, Claudia Pineiro. The story is set in Cascade Heights, an exclusive gated country estate thirty miles from Buenos Aires. The novel begins in September 2001 with the discovery of three dead men at the bottom of a pool, and then the novel backtracks over the past decade. Ultimately, Thursday Night Widows is a scathing psychological analysis of a class and a country seen through the narrow vision of one group of families who enjoy bloated, materialistic lives while ignoring the collapse of their society.
Told partly through the eyes of real-estate agent Virginia Guevara, the novel explores life in Cascade Heights–a walled in estate which encompasses 500 acres and 300 homes, and the worth of those homes increases with proximity to the perfectly manicured golf course. Naturally only Argentina’s ‘best’ families live there with most of the wives becoming avid consumers at home while their husbands travel by luxury car to work in the city. Marooned in “The Cascades” the families are divorced from society and develop relationships with each other based on status and strict hierarchy. The high perimeter wall and dozens of guards keep out undesirables, crime and poverty, while creating a false world inside the estate. Lawns must ‘match,’ no fences or barriers are permitted, certain colours are ‘allowed,’ but these are all only external signalments of conformity. As the couples mingle and socialize, certain behaviour (excessive drinking, spousal abuse, subtle and not-so-subtle rascism) is largely ignored. Everyone adheres to the unspoken agreement of conformity and pack behaviour with El Tano Scagli, one of the estate’s most affluent men, and owner of one of the largest homes, dominating the other subordinate males.
Virginia Guevara, one of the rare Cascade wives to be employed, works to keep the family afloat, and notes the up-and-coming newcomers, along with the decline in fortunes of those forced to leave this fabricated, upscale Eden. The novel covers the affluence of the 90s and the rapid decline of Argentina’s economy through the ripple-out consequences felt in Cascade Heights. To the wives who live there, the outside world doesn’t exist, and while the perimeter wall and the guards manage to keep the poor and undesirables out of sight, nonetheless the social problems of Argentina still manage to creep through. In this fashion, the history of Cascade Heights becomes a reflection of Argentina’s problems, but with Argentina’s economy becoming a ‘reality’ only as it impacts the Cascades. At one point, Virginia mentions the “Antieri episode”–the suicide of a military man. Virginie and her husband, pick up the Antieri house “for next to nothing” when they move to The Cascades in the late 80s. Suicides, divorces, and bankruptcies all take their toll as the financial systems of Argentina wax and wane. Here’s Virginia talking about Argentina’s boom years:
“It was about two years later that I sold a plot of land to the Scaglias. This was a few days after the Minister for Foreign Affairs became the Finance Minister he had always been destined to be and persuaded Congress to pass the Convertibility Law. One peso would be worth one dollar: the famous ‘one for one’ that restored Argentines’ confidence and fuelled an exodus to places like Cascade Heights.”
Covering the late 80s until Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, Thursday Night Widows is a stunning analysis of a social class. The smug upper classes flock to The Cascades, creating a sleek, affluent Utopia in which the poor are only allowed in wearing uniforms; “as a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear, it’s a domestic servant or gardener.” Every ugly reality is either hidden, ignored or ejected from this well-heeled paradise. Couples move in and then sell out–usually due to some horrible misfortune, and the novel records it all from the cluelessness of most of the wives, to the rebelliousness of some of the children:
“The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned forever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, covered in soap, looking up at the showerhead, from which not a single drop of water falls anymore.”
The scenes which include interactions between the Cascade wives and their servants resonant with bitter cynicism. In one section of the novel, some of the bored wives decide to form a charity and call themselves “The Ladies of the Heights.” In one great scene the tanned, spoiled wives organize a jumble sale for charity, selling their cast off clothing and underwear. The jumble sale is “exclusively for the maids” and the maids are then expected to come and buy the discarded clothing they’d normally be given as handouts. You’d think the wives’ hypocrisy would stick in their throats but it doesn’t, and the wives consider they are better people for throwing crumbs to their maids and then making them pay for the privilege. But even though the wives are mostly clueless about their selfish, crass behaviour, the author still maintains sympathy for some of her characters–the wives are kept like exotic pets and then discarded as they age or deteriorate. Some of the Cascade wives have husbands who refuse to work, and so these women juggle the affluent lifestyle with debts and a lot of pretense.
I expected a crime novel, but Thursday Night Widows is much more than this–primarily a compelling tale, and at no point did the tale seem forced to fit an agenda or a point of view. Upscale, exclusive (and excluding) housing estates such as The Cascades don’t just exist in Argentina, and wherever they crop up, they tend to condition residents into conformity and homogenous pack behaviour. You couldn’t pay me to live in one of these sorts of communities, but I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen the sort of people who live in them. People of similar material circumstances prefer living with others who enjoy the same standard of living. It may be natural, but as the novel shows, add a wall, guards, and a few rules, and the result isn’t healthy.
Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Pineiro is translated by Miranda France. With any luck director Marcelo Pineyro’s film version, Las Viudas de los Jueves, should make DVD release soon.
For those interested in the subject of gated communities, I recommend a short documentary film call The Forbidden City by filmmaker Matt Ehling. It can be ordered directly from the website: www.prolefeedstudios.com