“When this note passes into your possession, your luck will change, create seven in its likeness.” In late 1960s Argentina a boy of seven or eight has just bought some chocolate and discovered these prophetical scribbles on his change. It is a message to be welcomed, yet the child is taken aback by the fact that the cash has spoken to him. “How strange it is to read money,” reflects the narrator of A History of Money, Alan Pauls’s chronicle of an increasingly fiscally conscious youth in the tumultuous Argentine economy of the late 20th century, “how frightening that your destiny might leap out of it.”
How frightening indeed to see one of the central truths about money made so clear, so literal. Money, it’s revealed, really is our fortune—in both senses of the word. The little bill tells the child protagonist of the opportunities that cash will make for him: it even gives him the basic entrepreneurial insight that having some money can make more money. It also hints at the bad luck that will attend its absence. But what’s so interesting is that the bill reveals these truths because it is an object, and a strange cultural practice has come to decorate it. The lessons the narrator learns come not from exchanging the bill for something of value, its intended purpose, but from the writing on it. Turning money into a social artifact like this is what A History of Money does, over and over, and the results are revelatory. Far from showing us money’s real value in financial terms, Pauls gives us an education in how we deal in promissory notes when we see past their promises.
We use our money in plenty of alternative practices in the course of making money, no doubt: some superstitious, others just personal and idiosyncratic. We throw it in fountains, we carry it in clips or special wallets, we only use new bills, we lock it away or keep it in jars, we stuff it into our mattresses, we fold it into designs, we make it rain. But the cultural meaning of money and the many personal touches we give to our exchanges of it can’t be overlooked. Indeed, 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.
Tracking money as a shifting signifier may not be good economic history, but it provides an invaluable human testimony about people’s resilience in hard times.
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.
Pauls brilliantly constructs his characters in just these terms, following his nameless protagonist’s coming-of-age and his family’s various fiscal adventures. His father, charming and flighty, is a travel agent, tourist guide, and gambler. He refuses to put his money in a bank, and litters his apartment with account books. “He doesn’t want to be controlled by money,” the protagonist remarks at one point, which says much more about his father’s attitudes toward control than about his finances. His youthful, anxious, superstitious mother divorces his father to marry the owner of a large factory. Money to her is disposable, even when it is scarce. When she runs out, she hoards cash, taking bills out of circulation not for a savings account, but to tie them in bundles and hide them around her apartment. We witness the family members’ fates unfold almost entirely through the monetary transactions they engage in, though never with an eye to the bottom line. Scenes of signing checks, looking over bank statements, signing insurance policies, balancing accounts, and selling estates abound; it sometimes feels like Pauls wants to make it the most authoritative catalogue ever written of everyday financial transactions. But the result is a striking psychological portrait of whoever handles the money object or one of its stand-ins.
The protagonist, for his part, is incredibly passive with his purse. He scrapes along, never too strapped for cash but never able to find some comfortable relationship with it, either. Sometimes it runs out, then miraculously returns in the form of a windfall or bailout. He doesn’t have many monetary quirks of his own: most of the time, he is simply reflecting on how other people handle money, in daydreams and reveries that can spin out to great length. Pauls transcribes them beautifully in his rococo prose, rendered crisply by Ellie Robins (who, like Pauls himself, ransacks nearly the entirety of the popular vocabulary in money matters). But, as the protagonist thinks upon receiving a wad of ten thousand dollars from his stepfather:
No, there’s no such thing as “his” money; “his mother’s husband’s money” doesn’t exist, nor “his father’s.” Money isn’t personal, it isn’t property, it doesn’t belong to anybody. Money is what’s always there before money. It’s a boundless ocean, nothing but horizon, into which millions of wads just like his flow every second, from every direction, losing their identities the moment they plunge in and surviving for months in a state of total formlessness and amnesia, every trace of their origin and even any quantity distinctions having been wiped out; in the best-case scenarios they return to being what they once were when a shore appears out of nowhere and, from it, someone remembers them and recognizes them and returns them to everyday circulation, enriched by the scars left by danger and adventure.
However much he may fondle it in his pocket, money as an object is still, on some level, hopelessly abstract to him.
It is by following his frustrated efforts to make money truly mean something for himself that the novel is properly historical. Documenting the past marks a change for Pauls himself, a novelist, critic, and professor of literary and film theory at the University of Buenos Aires. Until recently, his stylistic bravado and deep sensitivity found outlet only in more oblique forms of storytelling, in wry paradoxes and pastiches that Roberto Bolaño rightly called “curious.”1 El coloquio (1990) is a detective novel about the police refusing to investigate cases. In Wasabi (1994), the author is invited to answer a writing prompt and the novel is the result. His only other novel translated into English, 2003’s El pasado (The Past), which was made into a very moody, very repetitive, very satisfying 2007 film starring Gael García Bernal, is a romance that turns on the protagonist’s inability to love anybody. But A History of Money, the final installment of a loose trilogy set in Argentina around the 1970s that also includes 2007’s Historia del llanto (A History of Tears) and 2010’s Historia del pelo (A History of Hair), finds Pauls widening his scope to take in his country’s actual twisted past by producing object narratives. Like the recent work of Horacio Castellanos Moya, Pauls’s turn here is an attempt to make sense of Latin America’s history of political turmoil by exploring its everyday background. Writing in the manner of Barthes and Proust of rather bourgeois concerns, he nevertheless manages to show the context of the more widely known and outrageous incidents—of which we see very little in these pages, but witness vividly in their indirect effects.
For all his disappointment, the protagonist’s failure to make money mean something personal for him does not stem from indifference. His inability to develop a private relationship with it, even an odd one like his parents’, stems from his intuition that the leaders and keepers of the nation’s finances are ultimately indifferent to everything money comes to signify to the nation’s people. The larger financial systems and trends that make the object circulate, as impenetrable as they are, are at least clear about this as the novel progresses through history. It is no accident that money becomes most concrete to the protagonist only during the inflationary spiral of the 1970s, when, in a striking sequence, he must go out every day to withdraw money to pay workers renovating his apartment, even as its value will have dropped to virtually nothing by the time he returns and hands it over. The protagonist’s sensitivity to the way money enters our lives, and the indecisiveness about the ways it should enter his own, is a type of vigilance as much as a type of perceptiveness. It is actually a symptom of his suspicion that the peculiar uses of money he sees are the result not of this object’s independence from, but its complicity in, a larger, corrupt, and dysfunctional system that is much more malicious than what we call an economy, a spree and scramble as inhumane as it is human. After all, he sees people not just scribbling on the object he uses to buy chocolate, but corporations using it to pay off labor leaders (in a scene from the ’60s), the government using it to pay a ransom to guerrillas (in the ’70s), and illegal vendors readily replacing it with the more stable US currency (in the ’80s). These transactions are uses just as important to him as the more touching and quirky ones he observes in his family, and what they tell him about Argentine society is that it is crumbling.
In Argentina, seeing meaning in money beyond its narrow exchange value is a pastime.
Pauls suggests larger economic trends determine money’s meaning as an object, then, only in the sense that those in power or those who want it are very adept at using this object to bludgeon their enemies by playing upon the cachet of its financial value. Unlike John Lanchester in Capital, his brilliant retelling of the 2008 financial crisis (a book Pauls’s otherwise resembles), or, for that matter Marx, Pauls goes some ways towards suggesting that the human and social meanings of money are their only meaning. “Vertigo,” as Pauls puts it, strikes the protagonist when he asks what money is really for, beyond all our customs. But this is less because he is a social constructivist than because Argentina in the years covered by the novel is so corrupt and broken, so subject to the whims of people who precisely seem unable to give it any stable and transparent fiscal value. Towards the end of the novel he is led to beg, out of the depths of his inundation in fiscal superstitions, for some system that would make all our uses of this strange object make sense: “a system of economy. It doesn’t matter what it is. Something that gives some answer.” Were it that economies were systems.
These artifactual uses of money—the jangling of change in the pocket, the flipping of coins—remain merely alternatives, departures, and in some sense rebellions from our usual notion that money is for buying and selling. But they do matter, in the way that our protagonist’s confusion about them matters. Following money almost like a fashion, inquiring deeper and deeper into how our monetary habits reflect something about its nature, allows Pauls to suggest the way money’s uses silently protest and challenge economic developments. Tracking money as a shifting signifier may not be good economic history, then, but it provides an invaluable human testimony about people’s resilience in and resistance to hard times. By the end of the novel, Pauls’s strange record of, and guide to, nearly all the unorthodox and surprisingly intimate ways we deal in money leaves us with a sense that its value as a social object may never be able to be measured in pesos (or dollars). This is both a sadder and more hopeful thought than most can wring out of cold hard cash.
- “The Curious Mr. Alan Pauls,” a review collected in Between Parentheses, edited by Ignacio Echevarría and translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2011), pp. 223–5. ↩