At Public Books, Michael Duffy reviews the novel A History of Money by Alan Pauls, an Argentine novelist, critic, and professor of literary and film theory at the University of Buenos Aires. As Duffy writes, Pauls uses Argentina's volatile financial situation over the past few decades to explore the many non-financial values that people ascribe to money. Here's an excerpt:
Pauls’s masterful novel—his second to be translated into English and his first to be published in the US—suggests that our dealings in money have very little to do with the market, even if we make our fortunes there.
Pauls depicts his native Argentina as a place where seeing meaning in money beyond its exchange value is a pastime. The country has gone through a string of inflation crises and five new currencies since 1966, when the novel opens, as he bitterly notes in an afterward. For the entirety of the period covered by the novel, which runs almost to the end of the century, Argentina is a place with plenty of money but no stable monetary policy to speak of, where there is no way to link the accumulation of pesos to any clear function for them. Of course it was also the site of the brutal “Dirty War,” in which the government disappeared thousands of dissidents in the ’70s and ’80s. Telling a longer and more personal Argentine history than we are used to hearing, however, the novel tracks a longer timeline of social turmoil and notes subtler forms of ruination and destruction, starting with the nation’s ability to ground its perceptions of money in reality. The story of A History of Money is the tale of a country where getting and spending money has little to do with accumulating material wealth, where leaders have repeatedly failed to stabilize it and made it instead into a site where any and all fantasies about it can be projected. If this goes some way to explaining the anxiety behind this year’s dramatic election, in which all parties wonder whether the economic stability which has graced the nation since the ’00s will be undone, Pauls’s consideration of these fantasies recovers much that is meaningful (albeit imaginary) in Argentina’s history too. When money is transformed into an essentially fanciful object, the ways people handle it say everything about their dreams and very little about their bank statements.