Archives - Foreign Language: Page 2
Author: paul carson (Wed May 02, 2007 1:44 pm)
Title: Foreign Language
By PAMELA DRUCKERMAN
WHEN Mario Vargas Llosa right-jabbed Gabriel García Márquez in the face 31 years ago, a Spanish news service surmised that the brawl between the two literary titans could only have been about one thing: skirts. That’s what Latin men fight about.
Part of the story behind that famous punch is finally emerging, and apparently “skirts” it was. According to new accounts, while Mr. Vargas Llosa was away his good friend Mr. García Márquez “consoled” his lonely wife, Patricia. It’s still unclear just what kind of consoling went on, though shortly after the thumping Mr. Vargas Llosa apparently mentioned “what you did to Patricia in Barcelona.”
Latin Americans aren’t unique in getting worked up about cheating, real or imagined. Everyone does. That mythical country where people fool around and their spouses don’t mind doesn’t exist. Even the French aren’t laissez-faire about affairs. Though they expect their presidents to philander, in their own lives they’re just as faithful as Americans; in both countries, about 4 percent of married men say they’ve had more than one sex partner in the last year. In this era of love matches, monogamy is the preferred arrangement practically everywhere, and cheating is carried out in secret. The big differences are in how people in different countries redress the wrong.
In Russia, cheating is more of a relational problem than a moral violation. Nearly 40 percent of Russians said in a 1998 survey that cheating is “not at all” wrong or “only sometimes” wrong, compared with 6 percent of Americans. Psychologists in Moscow told me that if you live in a two-room apartment with your in-laws, as many Russians do, an affair is practically obligatory just to get relief from the constant bickering.
There hasn’t been a national sex survey, but in a 1996 poll in St. Petersburg, about half of men and a quarter of women said they’d cheated during their current marriage. When an infidelity is discovered, money can remove some of the emotional sting. Women said the classic guilt offering to a sulking wife is a fur coat or a Turkish beach holiday.
In Japan the real crime isn’t sexual betrayal, it’s indiscretion. A 40-year-old woman in Tokyo was furious when she discovered a gift her husband had received from another woman. “He broke the rules, because if you have an affair you’re not supposed to let the other person know,” she said.
Many Russians relish dramatic confrontations, but not the Japanese I met. A businessman who frequented sex clubs — part of Japan’s 2.37 trillion yen ($1.8 billion) live sex industry — told me he never questioned his wife when she’d handed him divorce papers one day, after two years of what he had thought was a happy marriage. “I was afraid to ask the reason,” he said. “I was afraid that my personality might be destroyed.”
Americans cherish monogamy, but they value honesty even more. In the 1970s and 1980s, as it became easier to divorce and couples counseling emerged as the forum for resolving marital spats, Americans decided marriage ought to be a transparent zone without any secrets. They developed a unique mantra about affairs: It’s not the sex, it’s the lying.
One popular American remedy for cheating is now extreme truth-telling. Couples and their therapists can spend dozens of hours and thousands of dollars retracing every sordid detail of the affair, complete with times and dates. (Note to unfaithful Americans: save your motel receipts to make this easier).
Even after a private confession, the moral stain often sticks. America’s founders thought that the character of their new state hinged on the values and even the private behavior of voters, so they stressed monogamous marriage and warned that anything else threatened the state. The United States is the only country I found where high-profile people who had strayed are thought to be capable of any manner of corruption and lying, and apologize to their employees or constituents for their private behavior.
American confessions baffle the French. Many of them could die comfortably with their marital secrets. Though they prefer monogamy, when the French do cheat they typically aren’t saddled with guilt. Couples give each other privacy so that they don’t trip over unwanted information.
Latin Americans are especially practiced at handling infidelity. After sub-Saharan Africans (led by Togo, where 37 percent of married or cohabitating men said they’d had more than one sex partner in the last year alone; one can only guess at the lifetime levels), Latin American men are the most adulterous on record. Dominicans are particularly ardent: about a fifth of married or cohabiting men said they’d been unfaithful in the last year. (Australian men, at 2.5 percent, are among the world’s most faithful. There aren’t reliable sex statistics for most of the Middle East, Japan and many other countries.)
In Mr. Vargas Llosa’s native Peru, 13.5 percent of married or cohabiting men said they’d cheated in the previous year. Indeed, according to a new biography, Mr. García Márquez got his chance at consolation because Mr. Vargas Llosa himself had gone to Stockholm in pursuit of a stewardess.
Until recently, some laws in the region sympathized with the cuckold’s rage. It was only in 1991 that Brazil’s Supreme Court declared that a husband could no longer murder his adulterous wife and her lover.
It’s hard to advocate punches as a remedy for adultery, even though Mr. Vargas Llosa and his wife reconciled. But American methods don’t seem to bring much relief either. I met American couples who were still obsessing about their affairs years later, haunted by detailed images of the act of betrayal. Perhaps the French have found the formula: discretion is the better part of love.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of the forthcoming “Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity From Toyko to Tennessee.”
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