This is basically the story: the only child of a divorced couple observes his parents’ lives over many decades, beginning when he is eight after his parents have already separated. He is given no name, nor are his parents. He tries to figure out the function of money, why it plays so much importance in everyone’s lives, but often—especially when he is still a child—he can make little sense of its value. And, yes, Alan Pauls’ A History of Money is a novel, a curious one at that: profound, unique, utterly compelling and unforgettable. Truly, I have never read anything quite like it, nor been so impressed by a story with such a narrow focus yet at the same time such universal enormity. Money demands a great price from all of us. We pay dearly—in our character, our work, and our relationships—to acquire it. It may be the most costly thing in our lives.
Two incidents are seared on the narrator’s memory, one of them when he is fourteen. In the first, a businessman whom he met through his divorced mother’s acquaintances is killed in a helicopter crash. The morning of the crash, the man had his briefcase with him (as he always did) and it “Vaporized, disappeared in a puff of smoke, along with everything that [was] believed to have been inside it, papers, documentation, pay stubs, checks, and, most important, the bundle of money entrusted to him that morning to be taken to [a] plant in Zárate, undeclared money, obviously given the rather underhand ends for which it’s destined, though its presence in the attaché case is confirmed in low voices by a couple of employees of the powerful iron-and-steel company he works for, which has been hit for more than three weeks by a union conflict and is now disrupted by sudden stoppages in production….” It’s all very confusing to our narrator, but he understands that something is wrong—especially when he learns that the amount was somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars, a sum he can’t quite fathom. At the funeral, he sees a dead person for the first time in his life.
Well before that incident—the helicopter crash, the missing money, the funeral, and the body—there’s a much more confusing attempt to understand the function of money. He lives with his mother (and her second husband) most of the time, but there’s a month in the summer when he’s with his father (whose official job is travel agent). His father always has money—never writes checks or uses credit cards. “Always a wad of notes. No matter where he is, whether on the street or playing tennis, or a layover in Dakar airport or getting up from his TV chair…he always seems to have his money within arm’s reach. All of his money, which of course includes the pounds, Swiss francs, dollars, and lire with which he usually impresses the delivery boy, holding the wad right under his nose to select the notes he’ll use to pay him. The question is how to tell, in light of this law of cash, the single, ironclad axiom that rules his economy from beginning to end, whether his father is rich or poor.” At night, usually a couple of times a week, his father leaves the apartment under the pretext that he’s collecting a debt. Perhaps he is, but he’s also gambling.
There’s a third curious incident when the narrator is a young man. His stepfather gives him $10,000 (in crisp, new one hundred dollar bills), which seems like a huge sum, but his father says he can improve on that—can triple the amount in three months. This is exactly what happens, but the thirty thousand dollars is not in new bills but “an assortment of piles, sizes, colors, currencies, and textures,” with no explanation of the method employed to triple the amount of the original “investment.” And the problem with this venture—in spite of the delight that the amount has been greatly increased? It doesn’t seem real, more like magic, more like the confusion he had about money when he was still a child.
Besides the businessman’s money that disappears after the helicopter crash, the narrator and his mother, as they both get older and his mother goes through a second divorce, discover that money not only multiplies but it also decreases. That’s where the dynamics between the young man and his aging mother become complicated, beginning with her lament, “I’m out of cash.” Thus, the money that once flowed from parent to child begins flowing in the opposite direction. Their roles have been reversed. His mother has always waited for money to rain down on her, and (in fact) that happened a number of times. Unexpected losses, of course, are much more likely than unexpected profits. The narrator himself gets married a couple of times (just like his mother) and those marriages also result in great fluctuations in his economic resources.
Worse—worst of all—since A History of Money is about affluent people who live in Argentina and what has happened to that country economically during the last fifty years, the novel is also about INFLATION, the biggest killer of money you/we/I will ever encounter. In an author’s note at the end of the story, Pauls states that in the forty years beginning in 1966—when his story begins—“Argentina had five currencies…. Each new currency was introduced because the last had been devalued by vertiginous inflation.” Dollars were always coveted and the black market thrived.
In the best scenario, in times of economic stability, your money grows or doesn’t lose value. In the worst, “in the centrifugal force of a so-called inflationary spiral, the money is lost and disappears forever, is swallowed by the common ocean and only reminds the world of its existence when it owner—who awaits it anxiously for the agreed period and then, once that’s over, carries on waiting in vain for weeks or months more, knocking on doors that never open, dialing disconnected phone numbers, hunting down employees who are stunned by this madman they’ve never seen before—realizes that he’s lost it all, leaves his jacket folded neatly on a bench at the station, and hurls himself onto the subway tracks.”
Try to remember that it’s only money.
Alan Pauls, A History of Money
Trans. By Ellie Robins
Melville House, 197 pp., $24.95