BOOK REVIEW / Versailles flummery in a brutal, desolate landscape: 'Estancias' - Maria Saenz Quesada: Abbeville Press, 40 pounds

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The Independent Online
ANGLO-ARGENTINES call it the 'camp'; in Spanish they use the term 'pampa', the Indian word for the flat, fertile grasslands that stretch more than 1,200 miles from Argentina's Atlantic coast to the Andes mountains. Thanks to military campaigns in the 1870s, which wiped out those same Indians in battles every bit as savage as the better-known campaigns of the American West, the pampas were made secure for settlement and agriculture.

The estates, or estancias, set up on this land were huge. The smallest tended to be more than seven square miles in area, while one of the largest described in this lavish paean to their way of life still covers almost 7,000 square miles. Their riches usually came from cattle, originally descendants of wild steers left to roam by the Spaniards and gradually improved through the 19th century by the introduction of purer breeds, usually from Britain.

The British also helped to transform the landscape of the pampas. They introduced eucalyptus trees from Australia and brought new grass seeds. Most importantly, they built and ran the railways, which took these cattle to the slaughterhouses in Buenos Aires and for many years carried the manufactured goods imported with the resulting profits. Some of the ingleses - who were more usually Scots, Irish, or Welsh - became the owners of estancias, and helped to create the strange, isolated way of life that still predominates in the 'camp'.

They sometimes provided the architectural models, too. The vernacular Spanish tradition usually proved too sober for the estancia owners, who behaved rather like the Hollywood studios, imposing their dreams on an empty landscape. They rifled the architectural catalogues of Europe, ending up with a heady cocktail of Home Counties posh, Versailles flummery, with more than a dash of mock Palladian.

A typical example of this mixture is described in the book: 'In its black-and-white tiled drawing-room are mirrors that once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt, a piece of iron grillwork from Venice, and hanging lamps in the style of Seville.' Or my own favourite, El Castillo, a mock Scottish castle inspired by the novels of Walter Scott and built at the turn of the century close to the Parana river, complete with ivy-clad turrets and battlements.

A couple of dozen of the richest of Argentina's estancias are described in this book, the chief glory of which resides in its superb colour photographs. The text concentrates on the families who own the ranches, but occasionally gives brief glimpses of the social history of Argentina which they encapsulate.

That history is one of violence, which is never far below the surface. For many years in the 19th century, as the Anglo-Argentine writer W H Hudson has memorably chronicled in his Far Away and Long Ago, the pampas were the scene of intermittent savagery which echoed the desolation of the landscape. One of these episodes is recalled in this volume, when Quesada describes the murder of a local caudillo, General Urquiza, in his mock Italianate palace at San Jose in Entre Rios province in 1870.

In this century, the estancias and their owners have become the traditional power base in Argentine society, always opposing change. The millions of peasant immigrants who flooded into Argentina in the early years of this century discovered there was no land for them to work, and found a society as full of privilege as the ones they had left.

Reform of land ownership is the most explosive unresolved issue in Argentina, as in almost all of Latin America. General Juan Peron came a cropper when he attempted reforms in the Fifties, and since then the power of the 'camp' has proved remarkably resilient. As Quesada puts it, disguising the social brutality of this unlikely squirearchy in treacly prose: 'The ideal of cattle management is to control the complete cycle of breeding and fattening, which leaves a rancher less vulnerable to price fluctuations. To achieve this, good land is needed for fattening. This is why La Biznaga acquired the two other estates. It also did away with its own dairies, and tenant farming was replaced by large-scale agriculture . . .'