Tag Archive | "borges"

Top 5 Literary Cafés

Buenos Aires is a thoroughly literary city, and if you find yourself wanting to chase after the literary ghosts of our Beyond Borges series, or maybe come across one of the writers profiled in our contemporary author spotlights, there’s no better place to start than the capital’s cafés.

So, what makes a good literary café? Not only must it have a literary past, it should also be a place where you could pen your own masterpiece, or somewhere you can sit with a good book and nurse a cortado for over an hour without drawing disapproving glares from the waiters.

Some writers enjoy sitting by a window watching beautiful ladies turn heads, others want a lively café with arguing couples and clattering cutlery, and many just want peace and quiet. Buenos Aires caters for them all.

Closures of historic cafés have been common in recent times. I was disappointed to find the Richmond Café closed down to make way for a Nike store and the Café Dante replaced by a Tupperware shop, so it’s understandable that owners want to make the most of their literary heritage to attract customers.

That said, you can fall victim to your own success. Café Tortoni, in spite of its beautiful interior and catalogue of illustrious regulars, does not make the list; there is a limit to the amount of shepherded tourists a place can take before it loses its appeal. This week’s Top 5 brings you five cafés that still charm and inspire literary minds.

La Biela

Creyó por la primera vez entender porqué se decía que la vida es sueño: si uno vive bastante, los hechos de su vida, como los de un sueño, su vuelven incomunicables porque a nadie interesan.
Adolfo Bioy Casares – Diario de la Guerra del Cerdo

Recoleta's La Biela café (Photo: Robin Minchom)

Located opposite the famous Recoleta cemetery in the shade of a 200-year-old gum tree, La Biela café has long been a favourite of the Buenos Aires intellectual elite.

The Argentine writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, went so regularly that he had his own table – number 20 – that was never offered to anyone else. His friend Jorge Luis Borges also frequented the café along with other writers, artists, intellectuals and politicians.

It still has a simple charm and is filled with locals and tourists. Old car parts and black and white photos deck the walls and the throng of fans whirring on the ceiling adds to the sense of endless activity.

You can sit by the long windows and watch the well-heeled residents of Recoleta strut past or turn inwards to observe the bustling café. A writer caught furiously scribbling at a nearby table told me he goes to La Biela everyday and has done for the past 12 years. Why? It has a great atmosphere and every table has its own energy.

The tables are far enough apart that you can enjoy the hubbub of conversations “like the murmuring of the sea”, without the contents of the chatter intruding on your space. Although apparently, if you strain your ears, you can hear corrupt politicians and businessmen discussing dirty dealings over coffee.

For more information, click here.

Esquina Homero Manzi

San Juan y Boedo Antigua, y todo el cielo
Pompeya y más allá la inundación
Tu melena de novia en recuerdo
y tu nombre florando en el adios
La esquina del herrero, barro y pampa
tu casa, tu vereda y el zanjón
y un perfume de yuyus y de alfalfa
que me llena de nuevo el corazón
Homero Manzi – Sur

Interior of Esquina Homero Manzi (Photo: Robin Minchom)

At the busy intersection between San Juan and Boedo you can take refuge at Esquina Homero Manzi, a well-known tanguera and favoured haunt of the eponymous tango lyricist, Homero Manzi.

Born in 1907, Manzi was a writer who penned the words for some of the country’s most famous tangos. He is said to have transformed the art of tango writing into poetry and it is thought that he wrote the lyrics for ‘Sur’ on this very corner.

The café has changed its name a few times and has also undergone refurbishment, but it remains a wonderful place to sit and drink a coffee. It has a black and white chequered floor and tables spread throughout the huge, box-shaped room.

There is little wall space, so the management has clustered most of their paintings and photos in one corner giving the place a higgledy piggledy feel that contrasts nicely with the polished look of the rest of the establishment.

Making the most of my fondness for eavesdropping, I discovered that the man a couple of tables away was the well-known cartoonist Mario Filipini. Whether he goes for the soft tango music, the long curtained windows or just for a place to sit, the café still entices Boedo’s movers and shakers.

For more information, click here.

Las Violetas

Y quiero amarlo ahora. Está la tarde
Blanda y tranquila como espeso musgo,
Tiembla mi boca y mis dedos finos,
Se deshacen mis trenzas poco a poco
Alfonsina Storni – Esta Tarde

Coffee and deserts at Las Violetas (Photo: Robin Minchom)

A beautiful, ornate café, Las Violetas offers a tasty slice of luxury along Avenida Rivadavia, one of Almagro’s main arteries.

The feminist poet Alfonsina Storni, best known for her enchanting love poems, is said to have enjoyed coming to Las Violetas in the early part of the 20th century. Roberto Arlt, the novelist, was another of their regular customers.

People looking for a sophisticated place to enjoy a cake and coffee in Buenos Aires will be hard pressed to do better than here. First opened in 1884, the café features an art nouveau interior with curved stained glass windows, marble columns and golden cornices –  a truly Parisian experience in the heart of Buenos Aires.

And it’s not just the design that has an antique charm, but the people do too. Expect to see genteel, aristocratic-looking ladies and reverential waiters with well-worn faces. It’s certainly more Proust than Hemingway.

Although at $12, the coffee was the same price as most other cafes I visited, it came with a small square of delicious chocolate cake.

For more information, click here.

Confitería London City

“Como primera medida podríamos tomarnos un copetín” dijo López. “Sana idea,” dijo Paula, que tenía sed. El chofer, un muchacho sonriente, se volvió a la espera de la orden. “Y bueno,” dijo López, “vamos al London, che. Perú y Avenida.”
Julio Cortázar – Los Premios

Cortazar's favorite table at London City (Photo: Carolyn Scorpio)

This famous café on the corner of Avenida de Mayo opened its doors in 1954 and has etched itself into the capital’s literary landscape.

Known for being the place where the boom novelist Julio Cortázar wrote part of his first book, ‘Los Premios’ in 1960, London City has also received passing mentions in several of his other books.

You’ll find a lot of Cortázar memorabilia and a few posters of his enigmatic face stare at you from the walls. The owners have cordoned off the table where he supposedly wrote, that boasts a mock pen, pad and ashtray.

It is a lovely place to sit, due in no small part to the huge, expansive windows that stretch along two sides of the café. Situated on a very busy junction, it’s the perfect place for people watching.

The noise from the outside world barely reaches through the windows and it’s actually rather quiet inside, apart from the chatter of the customers and the occasional mechanics of the coffee machine.

Renaming the toilets ‘toilettes’ hasn’t made them any more inspiring, but in general this café is a great place to sit and watch the world, imagining you’re writing the next ‘Rayuela’.

For more information, click here.

Confitería del Hotel Castelar 

La tristeza que tuvo tu valiente alegría.
Tardará mucho tiempo en nacer, si es que nace,
un andaluz tan claro, tan rico de aventura.
Yo canto su elegancia con palabras que gimen
y recuerdo una brisa triste por los olivos.
Federico García Lorca, Alma Ausente

Hotel Castelar (Photo: Robin Minchom)

The café at Hotel Castelar is a quiet idyll away from the noises of the city; great for sitting and thinking, reading or writing.

The celebrated Spanish poet Federico García Lorca came to visit Buenos Aires in 1933 to give a few talks. He intended to stay for a couple of weeks but was charmed by the city and ended up staying another six months, lodged at the Hotel Castelar.

In its heyday in the 30s, the likes of Oliverio Girondo and other exponents of the Argentine avant-garde gathered for ‘El violin de Ingres’, in which famous visual artists shared sonnets they had composed while poets and authors showed off paintings.

Nowadays the café is an altogether quieter place. It does feel like a hotel, with its blue tablecloths and the aroma from the adjoining spa, but it’s a charming place to sit.

The sophisticated, wooden bar in the centre of the room is manned by an old gentle waiter and immediately draws the eye, quietly alluding to the literary glory days of the mid 20th century.

For more information, click here

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Digging Up the Archives: Ávila Bookstore

An old style bar is set up in the basement of Ávila bookstore. (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Priding itself on being the first ever bookstore to have opened in Buenos Aires, La Librería de Ávila bookstore should be a stop on any literary itinerary of city centre attractions.

Specialising in antique books and old magazines, as well as underground literary works, it was honoured by the government earlier this year as a cultural heritage site and is considered the place for digging up the archives.

Inside, mahogany shelves line the walls and an antique staircase leads to a basement that comes filled with the smell of musky old books and steeped in history.

In the 18th century, this basement was once home to a gaucho bar where both alcohol and literary goods were sold, but slowly, and “as always with books”, the volume of literary items expanded until all the shelves were filled and more were needed. It was at this time, explains the bookstore’s current owner Miguel Ávila, that official records date the opening of a bookstore named Librería del Colegio to 1785.

“The bookstore was called the Librería del Colegio because it was on the same street as the renowned Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires,” explains Ávila. “Anything on this street at the time was labelled after the college, if there was a hairdressers, it would be called the Peluquería del Colegio.”

The central location of Ávila bookstore, only one block from the famous Plaza de Mayo, as well as the treasure chest of content it housed, resulted in the store becoming a hangout for some of the most respected intellectuals in town.

From the 1900s onwards, its clientele included literary legend Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo, as well as Presidents Bartolomé Mitre, Domingo Sarmiento and Nicolás Avellaneda.

There’s even photographic evidence, proudly displayed inside the store, of a visit by the iconic Eva Perón. “It was a time when presidents actually read,” jokes Ávila.

Joking aside, Avila is responsible for having saved the bookstore from an inevitable fate some twenty years earlier, when multinational burger company McDonald’s had plans to link the abandoned store into their chain.

“I didn’t want it to become a burger house when it was so important for our history, so I reconstructed it to become a centre for cultural history,” he explained with a sudden seriousness.

Ávila bookstore sits at the corner of Alsina and Belgrano, just steps away from the 'Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires'. (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Though none of the interior you see today is original, care has been taken to construct it to appear authentic, using wood from the 18th century to replicate the early design of the store.

Describing its service as one of “a humanities centre rather than a trade”, Ávila’s aspirations continue to be about reflecting history and expanding knowledge.

Serving as a reminder of the rapid urbanisation of Buenos Aires, the bookstore prides itself on being the only commercial vendor of that period to have remained in its original location and is considered by many to be a cornerstone of cultural development in Argentina.

“You have to see it,” says Ávila excitedly. “It’s the oldest bookstore in Latin America, spanning all the way back to the era of the Spanish.”

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Macedonio Fernández: A Museum of Possible Literatures

One in a collection of under-appreciated Argentine authors known as “los escritores malditos”, the name Macedonio Fernández remains surprisingly unknown outside Argentina.

For many, however, the mention of his unusual first name is enough to conjure up images of an iconoclastic author who was at once Argentina’s first metaphysician, an authentic philosopher, and a legendary mentor for a generation of avant-garde writers, including Jorge Luis Borges.

The Argentina Independent continues its Beyond Borges series with a look at the innovative author and influential thinker who made up one half of the most pivotal friendship in 20th century Argentine writing.

Macedonio Fernández (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Unravelling the Man from the Myth

Born in Buenos Aires in 1874, Macedonio’s life comes coloured with elaborate rumours and exaggerated eccentricities: a deathly fear of tramcars and dogs, a failed attempt to establish a socialist colony in Paraguay, and two assaults on the Argentine presidency through such unorthodox campaign methods as leaving only his first name written inside folded pieces of paper on café tables throughout the city.

As his son, Adolfo de Obieta, once said: “More will always be unknown than known,” but what we do know is that the early part of Macedonio’s life is almost unrecognisable from the perpetual myth that descriptions, such as those penned by Borges himself, have helped to create.

Although he learned to read in French, German, Spanish and English, Macedonio’s primary academic pursuit was law, which he studied alongside Borges’ father before being admitted to the bar in 1889.

Whilst his interests in psychology and philosophy were evident in a thesis entitled ‘Sobre las personas’, he maintained both the lifestyle and appearance of a professional family man until 1920, when the sudden death of his wife caused him to abandon his career and withdraw from public life. Retreating to live in boarding houses, he pored over philosophy and metaphysics in an effort to either understand or deny his loss.

That same year, wrapped up in unconventional ideas and burgeoning idiosyncrasies, he would be waiting on the dock to welcome the Borges’ family on their return from Europe and embarked upon a friendship that continues to be the subject of great debate.

A Museum of Possible Literatures

More of a great thinker than a great writer, Macedonio wrote unconcerned by the notion of publishing. Besides a compendium of speculative philosophy ‘No toda es vigilia la de los ojos abiertos’ in 1928, a collection of humorous writing ‘Papeles de recienvenido’ in 1929, and a brief meta-novel ‘Una novela que comienza’, published in 1941, the majority of his writing has been published posthumously.

His best-known work, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’, was published for the first time 25 years after his death, and despite having been laboured over for a period of 27 years, remains famously open ended.

Cover of 'The museum of Eterna's novel' published by Open Letter Books in 2010

Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.

Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.

Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.

Rejecting the concept of either a beginning or an end, Macedonio’s attempt at redefining the novel challenges in terms of both content and form. Containing as many as 57 prologues to its 20 chapters, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ describes the perfect execution of a novel wrought with paradoxical humour, whilst ironically and deliberately failing to execute it.

Never intended to be easily followed, Macedonio’s artistic intent was to create a fragmented and disjointed narrative that brought about sufficient confusion and frustration to shake the reader from their passive reading tendencies.

Acknowledged today for anticipating many of the ideas that emerged during the famous “boom” in Latin American literature, Macedonio’s novel preceded Julio Cortázar’s ‘Rayuela’ in the construction of an anti-novel. Though it was published several years earlier, ‘Rayuela’ directly honoured Macedonio by featuring him in the novel as the character of Morelli- the literary hero of the book’s protagonists.

An Accidental Icon

Described as someone “who would rather scatter his ideas in conversation than define them on a page”, Macedonio became an important source of inspiration for a generation of avant-garde writers known as the ‘martinfierristas‘.

Making infrequent but invaluable contributions to the group’s all night gatherings, Borges recalled how Macedonio would speak only four or five times a night, but admitted that never had someone who said so little impressed upon anyone so much.

Modest and courteous, and often crediting his thoughts to someone else, Macedonio’s writing, like his thinking, was often only a sketch of an undeveloped idea, thrown out for completion by someone else.

This technique, of leaving things unfinished, heralded in a new phase in experimental writing that led younger generations to regard Macedonio as the most authentic forerunner to the Argentine avant-garde and a prototype of postmodernism.

Jorge Luis Borges: A Product of Macedonio?

Adopted as a mentor by young writers looking to construct literature in direct opposition to the modernism of the previous generation, Macedonio is controversially described as “the man who made Borges”.

Whilst Borges himself acknowledged Macedonio as a mentor as early as 1921, later confessing that a failure to imitate his metaphysical canon would have represented an “incredible negligence”, he later downplayed the extent of Macedonio’s influence, famously denouncing both the avant-garde and ultraism in 1926.

Whether Borges was a product of Macedonio, or whether the relationship was one of more mutual and reciprocal influence, remains undecided, and the relationship that is regarded by some as hugely instrumental continues to be rejected by others as largely coincidental.

Even with both authors calling on a common handful of themes, it’s not possible to determine whether these sprang from Macedonio’s idea bank, and if they did, Borges’ flawless execution of them remains unparalleled, whilst Macedonio’s comes a little rougher around the edges.

However, many readers arrive to Macedonio’s writing having come in search of an author who makes Borges’ appearance more explanatory. And with Borges as Macedonio’s main source of encouragement as a writer, some argue that “Macedonio the literary man” was as much a product of Borges’ invention, as “Borges the metaphysician” was Macedonio’s.

Regardless of who made whom, Macedonio remains an obscure but fondly remembered writer, long admired for his ingenuity and his original approach to literature. His radical aesthetic and heady influence exploded the mould of modernist writing, forever altering the course of Argentine literature.

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Top 5 Libraries

Libraries have been recognised as a cornerstone of social development and knowledge since the recovered temples of ancient civilisations revealed some of the earliest methods of archiving history.

It’s hardly surprising then, that here in Buenos Aires, there also resides a bountiful selection of libraries – perfect for getting yourself out of the heat and into a book.

Whilst some are better to sit in, others are better to borrow from, so we thought we’d start with the prettiest and work our way down.

Biblioteca Nacional Del Maestros (Photo: Wikipedia)

Biblioteca Nacional Del Maestros

It’s hard to believe that the interior of Biblioteca Nacional Del Maestros could possibly equal its outer glitziness. But prepare yourself – this library is breathtakingly beautiful.

Though its 70,000 pedagogical volumes of educational information may fail to serve you, it’s a perfect place to sit down with your own work.

Opened in 1870, and made public in 1884 in accordance with constitutional laws of public education, you’ll find it clean, spacious and surprisingly colourful.

Beige, green, pink and mahogany combine classically in the Sala de Lectura, whilst high ceilings, large windows and bookshelves ascending to similarly majestic heights impress upon you the importance of education.

A second room, Sala Americana, was inaugurated in 1998 and, accessible via a spiral staircase from the main room, contains hundreds of books on the history and political sciences of Latin America.

Less crowded, its curtained windows and ambient antique lighting lends a sense of importance to whatever it is you’re there to do.

Several private rooms can be viewed on request, one of which is Laboratorio de Conservacion, a historian’s wet dream containing specialist equipment for the viewing and restoration of old texts. A map of the building can be browsed at the entrance.

Biblioteca Nacional Del Maestros, Pizzurno 953, Monday to Friday 8.30am – 9pm, Saturday 9am – 2pm, www.bnm.me.gov.ar

Military Library in Plaza San Martin (Photo: Blanka Hay)

Biblioteca Nacional Militar

Hidden within the historic Círculo Militar and facing Plaza San Martin, this impressive palace serves as a perfect reminder of Buenos Aires’ ever-present military power.

Rich in design, plentiful in materials, and screaming aristocracy, this library feels too fancy to be public. But even if you’re not a military fanatic, it’s an unexpected treasure not to be missed.

With desks upholstered in leather, mirrored walls, a marble fireplace and a gold plated door, the reading-room is nothing short of a spectacle. There’s even a throne-like chair thrown in.

But appearances aside, Biblioteca Nacional Militar is not just a beautiful building. Its collection contains some 60,000 volumes of magazines, books and military reports on topics including war tactics, military history and political science, as well as foreign military publications from countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Brazil and the United States.

The collection began in 1923, when the ministry of war donated its entire library along with $20,000 towards the development of a library that brought together a necessary variety of resources to improve military knowledge among officials and sub officials.

Drawing inspiration from Paris’ Palais du Louvre, French architect Luis Sortais was commissioned to design the military palace that currently houses the library in 1938. Now open to the public, it accommodates up to only 15 people at one time, making it a perfect place to enjoy some tranquil alone time.

And if you don’t have the urge to read, the building alone is worth a visit.

Biblioteca Nacional Militar, Santa Fe 750, Monday to Friday, 12.30pm – 6.30pm, www.circulomilitar.org

Biblioteca Nacional Argentina (Photo: Gustavo Márquez Villegas)

Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina

As the oldest and the most extensive library in the country, The National Library of Argentina is not only Argentina’s most significant store of knowledge, but also one of the most important in all of Latin America.

The institution itself has existed for over 200 years, but not always in the same place.

Founded by Mariano Moreno, it was originally situated in the Microcentro of Buenos Aires, and later in Montserrat, until an incredible unravelling of history allowed for the construction of the current building in Recoleta.

The land, originally occupied by the privately owned Unzué Palace, was usurped by the government in 1937 and appointed an official presidential residence of Juan Domingo Perón. His wife, Eva Perón, died in the eastern wing of the palace facing the sea.

Following the military coup that overthrew Perón in 1955, everything relating to the couple was destroyed, including the palace. Less than a decade later, permission was granted to the library director, Jorge Luis Borges, to erect a new home for the library in the current location.

Today, its post-war architecture represents an amalgamation of its entire history – the mature trees that surround it serving as the only hint of the palace that once stood in its place.

The building itself is a maze, with 13 floors unconventionally arranged horizontally and vertically, rather than lying on top of each other.

Many rooms are restricted to authorised researchers, another is dedicated for use by the visually impaired, and the National Association of Journalists permanently reserve an area for meetings.

The reading rooms that are open to the public are studious and spacious. The basement houses catalogues, magazines and newspapers dating from colonial times, as well as current daily editions of every newspaper in the country, for the public to read.

The largest room, Sala Moreno, resides on the fifth floor, where a stunning set of one hundred year-old seats and desks remain continuously occupied by students who rarely look up to the Buenos Aires skyline, or the view of the Atlantic sea in the distance.

Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina, Agüero 2502, Monday to Friday 9am – 9pm, Saturdays and Sundays 12pm – 7pm, www.bn.gov.ar 

Microfilms in 1967 (Photo: Queen's University Library)

Biblioteca del Congreso de la Nación

This monumental library resides beside Congress and has been providing ‘information, documentation and advice’ to members of the public for more than 150 years.

As you surrender your possessions to security and enter the high ceilinged foyer, the marble and bronze torsos of Rivadavia and San Martin welcome you to a library that proves more spacious and less busy than the others, though with the same mix of students and older, wiser, researchers.

If, like me, you sometimes find that libraries can be overwhelming, rest assured this library is easy to figure out.

An impressive 3 million bibliographic pieces are all located on one floor, almost all within the framework of one large foyer and divided into sections such as multimedia, reading, magazine archives, reference and microfilm.

And to make life easier, employees will happily retrieve titles for you, so all you have to do is whiz through the online catalogue and make a note of the codes – you’ll even find some English language titles.

A personal highlight was the microfilm room, where, taken aback by humungous ancient screens that bore the semblance of modern technology, an obliging assistant showed me they were in fact readers, capable of projecting newspapers from as early as 1810 that had been transferred on to rolls of film.

Opting for the Eva Perón period, I sat mesmerised by advertisements and random news stories from news publications such as La Gaceta, La Nación, El País and La Razón whose editions are carried from the 19th century until almost the present day.

Biblioteca del Congreso de la Nación, Hipólito Yrigoyen 1750, Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm, www.bcnbib.gov.ar

Pop Art Borges (Photo: Gisela Giardino)

Biblioteca Municipal Miguel Cané

This library differs from the rest in that, whilst the library itself is nothing to shout about, it has the invaluable asset of being at one time, the work place of the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Above the main reading room lies the room once continuously occupied by the author, and which still preserves his original desk along with various bibliographic artefacts. Visited by Mauricio Macri, current mayor of Buenos Aires, along with many national and international writers and journalists and now me, the renowned Spanish writer Juan Cruz Ruiz describes it as “a mark of homage to Borges, retaining something that should never be taken away.”

Definitely worth taking a peak, the process of doing so is interesting in its own right. Once inside the rusty public library you’ll be escorted by a librarian up some narrow stairs and through a room that seems to have no direct association with the library, before reaching a small doorway leading to Borges room.

Like a blast from the past, first editions of his books are presented in a glass case, whilst a pile of his translations lie on the table and a version of the Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Europe and Latin America, which no longer exists as a joint encyclopaedia, is displayed along with his portrait and an acknowledgement printed over 30 years before his death. Whoever said you had to die before you became famous?

Biblioteca Municipal Miguel Cané, Carlos Calvo 4319 with access through the main door at 4321, tel. 4922-0020 beforehand. Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am – 8pm. For more information visit their website

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Beyond Borges: Names to Know in Argentine Literature

Along with Buenos Aires’ nomination as UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2011 came a symbolic acknowledgement of Argentina’s commitment to the countrywide promotion of literature and reading.

Inside Argentina's iconic National Library (Photo: Tanoka)

Between last April and the coming April then, when Armenia’s capital Yereven will take over the title, we might reasonably expect to see some well-deserved promotion of home-grown authors, a hopeful boom in translation and a peaked interest in the country’s national literature. But with the exception of a few big-name cards, Argentina keeps her hand close to her chest with remarkable modesty.

Launching this Thursday, The Argentina Independent’s new ‘Beyond Borges’ series brings you a selection of the best known poets, essayists, short story writers and novelists whose writing has influenced and shaped the course of Argentine and Latin American literature.

In bi-weekly installments, we’ll introduce you to some of Argentina’s most-loved writers and landmark texts; beginning with the romantic writers and gauchesque poets of the 19th century and continuing through the heavyweights of 20th century literature, right up to some award-winning present day writers and those tipped as ones to watch.

Our ‘Beyond Borges’ series not only offers the opportunity to discover new authors and even genres you might not have read before, but also promises an enjoyable and more subconscious insight into the historical events and cultures that have shaped present day Argentina– without picking up a single history book!

So feel free to dip in and out of this new series, exploring our collection of Argentina’s most interesting and influential writers. For those of you who find yourselves with a budding interest in local literature but don’t know beyond Borges – this one’s for you.

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Argentina Commemorates Twenty Fifth Anniversary of Borges’ Death

Today cities throughout Argentina have been paying tribute to Jorge Luiz Borges. The philosopher and writer, arguably Argentina’s most famous, died 25 years ago today in Geneva.

Festivities kicked off in Plaza San Martín today at 1pm, with a tribute to the author being made alongside the artist Marta Minujín’s installation ‘Torre de Babel de Libros’, a metal structure made of 30,000 books. Notable Argentinian personalities such as Mike Amigorena, Jorge d’Elia, Betty Elizalde and Julieta Cardinali were there to read out some of the writer’s most prominent poetry.

In Mendoza, celebrations went underway at a maze constructed in his honour. His widow, María Kodama, told a Buenos Aires paper this morning that she is hoping to construct another three, at locations of personal significance to the writer around the world.

Indeed, Borges’ works were translated into many different languages, and his philosophical and scientific ideas are still deeply rooted in European thought. As a result, the Cervantes Institute, a global organisation promoting hispanic culture, announced that special events would be taking place in over 40 different countries worldwide.

Kodama was in Milan this morning to attend the launch of the ‘El Atlas de Borges’ exhibition at the Biblioteca Sormani. Hernán Lombardi, culture minister of Buenos Aires was also present at the opening. Venice, too, unveiled a maze identical to that of Mendoza.

In Spain the film ‘Invasión’, whose script was written by Borges and his friend Bioy Casares, was projected for the first time. Celebrations are also underway in Madrid and Valencia.

Daniel Molina, professor and member of the Centro Cultural Rojas told La Nación this morning that that the writer’s lasting influence resulted from his versatility: “Many believe him to be an author of another era, and expect to read a classic, but actually discover an extraordinary modern artist.” Although politically conservative and cautious in matters of sexuality he is modern “in his perception of our relationship with time and day to day experience”, he added.

A survey conducted by the national paper however found that only a few university level students had actually read his work. The majority confirmed they had not, while others had only heard of him. Clarín reported that the many people buying special supplements being sold in kiosks around the country today admit to never having read his work, regarding it as ‘too difficult’ to understand.

At the end of the month the Biblioteca Nacional, to which Borges was appointed director in 1955, is putting on an exhibition displaying books that he left behind on leaving this post.

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Introducing the Literary Section

Book Store on Corrientes (Photo: GuillermoTomoyose)

Buenos Aires is a book town. Choose a street and walk: you’re bound to pass a book store. If you’ve chosen Corrientes, you may pass 30. They say there are something near 350 bookstores in town, each one catering to who knows how many readers. The vibrancy of the literary culture, however, does not end at the city’s borders, but is fed by Argentina’s vast interior, where stories of gauchos and farmers, immigrants and indigenous peoples have inspired a long and varied literary tradition spanning back nearly two hundred years and including writers of international renown and consequence – the most emblematic and celebrated being Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.

This year, in recognition of the importance of literary culture to Buenos Aires – and to Argentina as a whole – UNESCO has chosen to honour it with the title World Book Capital City. The honour took effect last week at the 37th annual Buenos Aires Book Fair (Feria del Libro de Buenos Aires) and will be celebrated all year long with special readings, events, publications and programming. Here, at the Argentina Independent, we’ve decided to use the honour as inspiration to launch an initiative of our own: a Literary Section.

From our vantage within Buenos Aires, but on the English speaking periphery, we’re excited by what we see as an increased profile for Argentine writing abroad: ‘Granta’ magazine naming eight Argentines among their 22 ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’ (the most of any one nation); Dalkey Archive Press reissuing the work of Manuel Puig in English; Cesar Aira, Juan Jose Saer, Alan Pauls and Sergio Chejfec gaining international exposure through a number of new translations.

We hope to further stoke these flames of interest by offering, every month, a new piece of writing in translation, selecting both work by overlooked Argentine writers of the past and those younger writers telling the Argentine story of today. Alongside these short fictions, poems and excerpts from novels and plays, we will run reviews of Argentine books in translation, interviews with authors, critics and literary figures and coverage of literary events in Buenos Aires and around Argentina.

We hope to offer a lively mix of educational and entertaining, original and historic; to create a stable English-language outlet for Argentine writing; to take part in the contemporary conversation Argentine literature is having within itself and with the literature of the world.  We hope to share work that is little known outside of the Spanish language as well as to provide exposure for authors who ought not to be.

Ernesto Sábato, 1964

Last week, when Argentina lost one of its great humanist voices and authors, Ernesto Sábato, who died at 99, many spoke of him as the last of a generation of writers who typified a literary rigor and cultural standing unmatched by Argentine writers before or since. We hope to honor Sábato’s legacy not by mourning a lost generation of literary greatness, but by celebrating, proliferating, translating and discussing those who have inherited it.

If you’re a writer, translator or publisher and are interested in being involved, please get in touch. If you’re a reader, visit next week for our first installment: an original translation of the short story ‘The Train Robber’, written by Angela Pradelli and translated by Andrea Labinger.

It will be our first dispatch from the nation of Sábato and Borges, Martín Fierro and the gaucho epic, the beginning of our celebration of the World Book Capital City of 2011 and of Argentine writing as a whole. We hope you’ll join us.


Joey Rubin

Literary Section Editor

Featured authors:

Ángela Pradelli: novel excerpt ‘The Train Robber

Inés Fernández Moreno: short fiction ‘Argentine Beef

Carlos Gamerro: short fiction ‘Bad Burgers

Marcelo Pitrola: theatre excerpt ‘The Peronist Princess

Carlos Chernov: novel excerpt ‘Soulless

Ana María Shua: short fiction ‘Microfictions

Guillermo Martínez: novel excerpt ‘I Also Had a Bisexual Girlfriend

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Vargas Llosa Visits the Country

Peruvian literature Nobel Mario Vargas Llosa, arrived in the country to attend a meeting of liberal leaders from all over the world and, mainly, to give an opening conference in Buenos Aires’ 37th Book Fair. Last year, when his participation in the event was announced, a group of intellectuals questioned his coming to Buenos Aires because of his opposition to the Kirchners.

The writer first visited Jorge Luis Borges International Fundation –a museum directed by the Argentine writer’s widow María Kodama- in the neighbourhood of Recoleta. The literature Nobel toured the old house where the Foundation is based, not only accompanied by his wife Patricia Llosa, but also by Kodama herself, the city’s mayor Mauricio Macri and his wife Juliana Awada. Later, the city’s culture minister Hernán Lombardi also joined the retinue.

Kodama showed Vargas Llosa a replica of Borges’ bedroom, his personal library and an extensive yet incomplete collection of Sur magazine, a traditional publication in the country.  “To me, it was nice to meet Vargas Llosa and his wife again. I had once been in their home with Borges, but that was long ago. It was also a very gratifying meeting because Vargas Llosa valued the effort I do to keep Borges’ memoirs alive”, said Kodama to daily La Nación. “Vargas Llosa was also impressed with Borges’ drawings and with his scrawling in some books. It was a nice and relaxed meeting and we only talked about Borges and literature”.

Around 2pm, the Peruvian writer and his entourage headed to Proa Foundation –a museum in La Boca home to Maman, a 9-metre tall spider by artist Louise Bourgeois.  The foundation’s director, Adriana Rosenberg, greeted the writer and alongside his son Alvaro Llosa, joined the literature Nobel for lunch.

Then, Vargas Llosa expressed his reluctant preference for candidate Ollanta Humala in detriment of Keiko Fujimori in the presidential second ballot in Peru. Buenos Aires’ being the world’s book capital for 2011 and, yet again, Borges, were the topics of discussion.

The Peruvian writer donated his complete works to library Miguel Cané –where Borges worked- with a brief prologue about his relationship with the city of Buenos Aires. Vargas Llosa also agreed in inaugurating exhibition El atlas de Borges, portraits of Borges and Kodama’s travelling.

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Art on Asphalt: 1000 Metres of Poetry in La Boca

Photo by Diego Forlano/Hecho en Bs As

“When one writes with one’s hand, the writing becomes corporal, transformed into a material thing.” So reads one of the many poems painstakingly etched in blue lettering onto the façades of the Boquense buildings lining Garibaldi and Olavarria streets. It is precisely what sculptor Américo Gadben had in mind nine years ago when he conceived the idea for inscribing 1000 metres of poetry onto Buenos Aires: to give life to words by injecting them with “the energy of the street”.

Gadben, a stereotypical eccentric artist with a carefully cultivated Dali-style moustache, is a Buenos Aires-based sculptor. The project is his creative brainchild, executed in association with socially conscious publication ‘Hecho en Buenos Aires’, for which he regularly conducts artistic workshops. Gadben enthuses “it is extremely enriching to work with this sort of people, who have other concerns and a unique perspective as a result of having lived on the streets.”

Thus the 1000 metres of poetry occupies the nexus between art and social work, combining creative credibility with engaging otherwise marginalised individuals in fulfilling tasks. Over the course of its lengthy development, the project has evolved from an artistic whim into a standard-bearer for economically sustainable tourism, thanks to a collaboration with Turismo Sostenible de La Boca-Barracas.

The organisation is a subsidiary of the Italian NGO Institute for International Economic Cooperation (ICEI), which promotes what it terms “responsible tourism”, focusing on “sustainable projects in an urban context”. In this case the emphasis is economic rather than environmental and it complements ICEI’s alternative tours through La Boca and Barracas. These eschew the beaten track, aiming to do justice to the colourful history scored through the neighbourhood’s grid of streets.

Photo by Diego Forlano/Hecho en Bs As

The paintings were undertaken by 20 volunteers, comprising staff and homeless vendors of Hecho, artists and La Boca residents. The volunteers were required to complete a series of ten intensive workshops in order to ensure that the same calligraphic style was reproduced in every line of poetry. The painting took an official five days, after which Gadben spent a couple of weeks adding the finishing touches. He recounts a carnivalesque atmosphere and affirms: “we had a lot of fun.”

The experience has resulted in a unique fusion of art and the urban landscape. All painting was executed with the residents’ permission, some of whom volunteered their walls. Even schoolboys were so enchanted by the project that they copied poems into notebooks. When explaining how much of the poetry inscribed on the train tracks has already been rubbed away by passing vehicles, Gadben’s features light up with child-like wonder at the idea that “the train travelled on poetry.”

The finished walls are adorned with fragments of poems mostly by Argentine authors of varying degrees of celebrity. Big names such as Borges and Cortázar are present, democratically sharing wall space with tango lyrics as well as two poems written by homeless people. Indeed, reading a poem written by a man who beds down for the night in a train station alongside Argentina’s literary giants is one of the project’s most affecting features.

Gadben is adamant that art should be an egalitarian affair, available for all to both create and appreciate. A stylised ‘X’ flanked on either side by two smaller ‘p’s  represents “poesía por el público”. This is a personal passion of Gadben’s, who insisted upon a collective signature “so there’s no author”. Although he works in the visual arts, Gadben is fascinated by their relationship with words, letters and language. Much of his work revolves around sculptures of alphabet blocks piled into various conceptual constructions of elusive meaning.

Photo by Ellen Knuti

Gadben punctuates every day with a haiku and opines “it’s not necessary to write a whole page to be understood. With 24 syllables you can get the same thing across.” Similarly, he believes in the power of the fragments to light up a kilometre of the drab asphalt jungle. An enigmatic improvisation of his own, intended to convey the emotions at the end of the experience, is emblazoned on a wall: “a voyage, words, a rose, everything in the suitcase, my shadow, the wind, the water which carries the wind far away.”

The poetry in fact extends beyond the eponymous thousand metres, although it zigzags over an area considerably shorter than a kilometre. A variety of setbacks scrapped the initial plan for a linear presentation, including the threat posed by breaching what Américo describes as the “safety limit” beyond the 1000 metres. The positioning of the poetry within La Boca is no accident. Its intention is to lure tourists from Caminito’s confines, to become acquainted with the real Boca and contribute to the socio-economic reinvigoration of one of Buenos Aires’ more disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

People who work in Caminito generally have very little to do with the Boquense community, according to ICEI member Sabrina Carlini. They live in other parts of the city and commute daily to prise open foreign purses, sidelining locals from the profits and locking the community in a vicious cycle of deprivation and marginalisation. ICEI’s vision of economic sustainability entails the integration of more residents into the tourist industry in the hope that instead of regarding foreigners with hostility, they will view them as an economic and social opportunity.

“Caminito is not representative of La Boca’s rich culture and history,” laments Carlini. Yet for many tourists, it is an iconic image of old Buenos Aires which encapsulates both city and neighbourhood. Gadben is equally adamant that although San Telmo is marketed at tourists as the epicentre of porteña bohemia, La Boca has a vibrant artistic reputation. He insists that Caminito is surrounded by studios occupied by myriad talented artists. Even his own relationship with La Boca is artistic. It is the site of the escuela de bellas artes he attended, and filled with memories of lazy afternoons whiled away as a student.

Photo by Diego Forlano/Hecho en Bs As

La Boca is a neighbourhood of contrasts. Caminito is Buenos Aires caricatured, a tourist paradise of overpriced leather goods, tango dancers and a glamourised representation of times past. It sits awkwardly in a barrio which remains largely an exclusion zone for non-residents. Guidebooks highlight the potential threat the area poses to tourists and although it is not unusual for intrepid travellers to escape unscathed after strolling around La Boca’s crumbling buildings and ramshackle shops, warnings from locals either concerned or aggressive are a common occurrence.

The Argentina Independent was given a guided tour of the 1000 metres of poetry by Carlini. Although a matter of metres from Caminito, we were stopped twice and instructed to turn on our heels, clasping our cameras tightly. Embarrassed by the intervention, her explanation was the locals’ “contradictory attitude” towards tourists. Theirs’ is a complex relationship in which they are both fascinated and repelled by foreigners, proud and ashamed of their surroundings. Poetry may not be able to regenerate a neighbourhood overnight, but in opening up La Boca to visitors perhaps the only right path to take is a step in the wrong direction.

The 1000 metres of poetry are located in La Boca along Olavarria and Garibaldi, passing by Aráoz de Lamadrid, Magallanes, Rocha and Quinquela Martín.

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Labyrinths of Antiquity in Adrogue

Photo by Jason Lang

“In whatever part of the world I find myself, when I sense the smell of eucalyptus, I am in Adrogue. Adrogue was just that: a large quiet labyrinth of tree-lined streets, of gates and country houses; a labyrinth of vast peaceful nights that my parents liked to past through.”

Jorge Luis Borges was right, in walking down the streets the first thing that hit me was the smell of flowers and vegetation, pungent in the autumn as the leaves fell off the trees to stain the cobblestones in geometrical patterns of brown and red. I walked past period houses from the nineteenth century as a horse trotted past – in Adrogue the cartoneros ride horse driven carts – and the sound of the clacking hooves contributed to the pervading sense of antiquity.

Esteban Adrogue founded the town in the later half of the nineteenth century with the idea of creating a summer resort for rich porteño families wishing to escape the bustle of Buenos Aires. He designed the tree-lined streets and a system of squares whose layout was based on the naval fleet of Argentine war hero Almirante Brown. He converted his own house into a hotel for rich families intending to build country houses in the area and named it ‘Hotel Las Delicias’. A statue built in his honour rests in a square bearing his name, perhaps one of the statues Borges describes as being “of such bad taste and so tacky that they result in beauty, a false ruin”.

Photo by Jason Lang
Statue of Founder Esteban Adrogue

The population grew quickly, following a trend that began in 1871 when rich families began to move out of the city centre to the surrounding countryside fleeing a yellow fever epidemic. In the early twentieth century, Borges spent many summers of his childhood in Adrogue, and often describes it as the place that inspired many of his works, including the volume of poetry bearing the town’s name. “Whenever I speak of gardens, whenever I speak of trees, I am in Adrogue; I have thought in this city, it is unnecessary to name it.”

Although the place has gone through some degree of modernisation since the time of Borges, a municipal beautification decree to ensure the preservation of the older buildings is now in effect. As a result, his nostalgic reminiscence still rings accurate as I admire turn of the century houses, mansions and even castles shaded by the eucalyptus, oak and maples that line the streets. Many of the roads are still cobblestone and the relaxed pace of life of the suburbs is highlighted by the slow rumble of traffic.

Adrogue lies in the suburbs of Buenos Aires in the Almirante Brown district, lying 23km south of the capital. The centre is filled with cafes, ice cream shops and trendy stores, and the first place I stopped was Trote, a café sprawling through a network of awnings and shady sidewalks – it is one of Adrogue’s oldest establishments. After a hot mate cocido alongside a complex of vine covered lattices, I wandered into the Casa de Cultura when a lady at the door accosted me in an effort to sign me up for free tango lessons. Inside, I admired a few paintings and lithographs before going behind the building to see a statue that used to sit on top of a fountain in Hotel Las Delicias – it is the only thing that still remains of the founding establishment. I took a walk past the Castelforte nearby then ended up coming back to the Casa de Cultura a few hours later to see a folklore performance due to the door lady’s insistent marketing.

Photo by Jason Lang

Fortunately for the younger generation, the tree-lined tranquillity ends after dark as the centre is literally overflowing with bars and nightclubs. Dinner in the picturesque period house turned popular restaurant Maria Bonita led to wine by the lush, fountain adorned patio of Sur A, another old house converted into a bar/nightclub. After a few drinks at the latter, I passed through the cosy, alpine chalet atmosphere of La Maja before heading back to the capital. As the train pulled away from the platform, I couldn’t help remembering another quote by Borges concerning his beloved summer town:

“In some sense I was always here, I am always here. Places are carried with you, places are within you. I am still among the eucalyptus and the labyrinth, a place where one can lose himself. I suppose that one could also lose themselves in paradise.”

The centre of Adrogue is a short half hour train ride from Constitución station – you may not notice the stop since someone has scratched out the letters to leave only the word ‘droge’. Read more about Adrogue at: www.todoadrogue.com.ar/historia/historia.html

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