La Secta del Cuchillo y el Coraje

Photograph — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

¿Dónde estará (repito) el malevaje
 que fundó en polvorientos callejones
 de tierra o en perdidas poblaciones
 la secta del cuchillo y el coraje?
 El Tango — Jorge Luís Borges

The United States and Argentina in the 19thcentury both had fierce and warlike indigenous peoples. In both countries civilization had to spread west and those peoples were in the way. In both countries these natives were almost systematically killed to near extinction.

The epic work Martín Fierro by José Hernandez paints most of these indios in bad light. But then the white man does not fair any better.

I have been thinking about Martín Fierro since I returned from my two week trip to Buenos Aires in April. I have read a blow by blow analysis of Martín Fierro by Jorge Luís Borges.

When I recently saw that very good film version by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson I noticed two startling omissions in my comparison of the USA and Argentina.

In the film you hardly ever see a firearm in the hands of anybody (although we do know that Argentine Army used the rifle in its wars of the interior. And the Indians are armed with long lances. I never saw a bow and arrow. I did spot the boleadoara in the hands of a native. The natives would shape rocks into little balls and wrap them in rawhide. Three balls would be attached to three long leather thongs. One ball would be held in hand and the other two were twirled around and then thrown at the man, the man’s horse, or beast. On horseback the forward motion of the horse would add to the range of 80 or more yards according to Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle.

In short few Argentine Westerns have been made and the usual weapon of choice in those few has been the knife. Borges has written many poems and stories about the role of the knife in Argentina in the 19thcentury and the beginning of the 20th.

When I was around 10 I visited a large estancia in the Province of Corrientes. One of the workers (peones, peh-óh-nes, and this word is not deprecative in Spanish) had borrowed another’s mate (note no accent on the e even though Darwin insisted on using it). The mate is a gourd and with a silver straining straw to drink the herb also called mate is part of the necessary equipment of the gaucho and this is usually as important as his facón or knife. The two men decided to come to blows in a knife fight. I was not allowed to watch. I found out that one of them died (never knew which one) and the other had to leave for other parts to escape justice.

The concept of the knife as a manly weapon is in all Argentine literature.

In my life there have been three knives close to me. One of them, my mother’s Barrilito (a brand name) kitchen knife made in Mexico is currently being professionally sharpened.

Scan — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Displayed in my living room is the facón (a gaucho knife) given to me by my sailors friends when I ended my stint in the Argentine Navy in 1966. It is a beautiful weapon but it is a glorified bayonet. The other knife, the switch blade, also has an Argentine story to it.

During my conscription I would visit my Tía Sarita (who had been married to my mother’s brother Tony). I can never forget the address to her downtown apartment. It was Larrea 1234. We would sit and chat and talk of her son Jorge Wenceslao, my first cousin, who most of the time was in the Province of Corrientes in the city of Goya.

Before I left I went to see her to say goodbye. She was a serious woman and would always mention to me her communist leanings. She told me that in my trip back to Mexico in an Argentine Merchant Marine ship I would meet up with potential perils. She handed me a sevillana which is a switch blade made in Spain. With it she handed me a little bottle of whale oil so that the blade would open quickly. And for reading material she gave me a copy of Nicolás Guillen’s Sóngoro Cosongo.

Edmundo Rivero and Astor Piazzolla interpret Jorge Luis Borges’s poem El Tango from where I found those lines: La secta del cuchillo y el coraje or the sect of the knife and courage.

Addendum: For years in my youth I was given croquet sets for my birthday. I would immediately convert three of the wooden balls to Argentina boleadoras. In my early teens I remember getting one more croquet set. This time around we used the wooden balls and the mallets to play bicycle polo on the street.

Link to: La Secta del Cuchillo y el Coraje

Originally published at