Argentina

Local Poetry: Boiling Waves

As someone who doesn’t read poetry all that often, I’m always amazed by how relaxing it can be to read bite-sized slices of life, full of emotion.

I received a reminder of this recently when I picked up María Evangelina Vazquez’s book Ese oleaje hirviente (translated — loosely — as Those Boiling Waves).

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the author as our guest blogger who educated us about Blake. Now, for those among you who can read Spanish, you’ll discover that she is a very talented poet, someone whose command of the language allows her to turn emotion into words much more effectively than mere prose writers–which is the point of poetry, after all.

I’m probably not the person best qualified to evaluate poetry (prose writers tend to think in terms of words to tell a story, with emotions present to bond the characters to the audience, but not necessarily as the central motor of the text), but I found Vázquez to be particularly strong when her poems give us a glance into a snippet of daily life particular to a social class and situation. Good examples of this can be found in the poems in the first third of the book that deal with her experiences in high school.

I also particularly enjoy the fact that her poetry is not opaque. The meaning is either right on the surface or buried under just one layer of metaphor… and that makes it much easier to connect to the emotion contained within each piece.

I recommend this one to lovers of poetry and to lovers of prose who want to take a break to read and savor something different.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His work spans every genre imaginable. Lovers of poetry will likely enjoy his book Love and Death, a series of very short stories, each standing alone, but which linked together for a single continuous narrative that not even the characters know about. It’s a secret between the writer and the reader. You can check it out here.

The National Book of Argentina

Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book.  England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth.  Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar.  Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote.  Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.

But what about Argentina, my own land?

Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture.  Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.

But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges.  It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).

Martin Fierro José Hernández

Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature.  Everyone else in the country can name it.  It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.

Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country.  Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.

I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true.  Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier.  It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).

Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good.  Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).

It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note.  The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters.  And that is timeless.

Finally, a technical note.  The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books.  If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.

Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different.  If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy.  You can have a look at it here.

Some Books are Just a Pain

I usually try to spare Argentine writers the worst reviews.  After all, a shared background and experience has to count for something, right?  When I don’t quite enjoy a book by one of my countrymen, I simply refrain from recommending it.  I don’t usually feel the need to go any further.

Siete Casas Vacías_Samantha Schweblin.jpg

Unfortunately, the latest book in this list that I’ve read is Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samantha Schweblin and I can’t in good conscience give this one an ambiguous review–you never know who might mistakenly buy the thing and then come after me with a fire axe.

First, let’s get some things clear.  It’s very, very evident that that author is both extremely talented and extremely well-versed in the craft of writing.  The fact that this is a bad book doesn’t mean that Schweblin is a bad writer.  She very clearly isn’t.  In fact, I’d say she is a very good writer.

The second thing I need to point out is that this book–a collection of seven short stories–has one some serious awards.  The main body of the collection won the Ribera del Duero Prize while the story not included in that prize won the Juan Rulfo Prize.  While I’m not as familiar with Spanish-language awards as those given in English, and can’t truly say how prestigious these two are, it’s clear that these stories were highly valued by the judges of two different international competitions in two different countries.

So, please keep the above under consideration while I tell you why I didn’t like this book at all.

The reason Schweblin’s undoubted talent couldn’t keep it from being a massively boring read is down to the subject matter she chose.  So let’s have a look at that.

The overall approach is similar to what I discussed in the O Henry Prize volume I read recently.  Schweblin goes tight into her narrator’s mind and looks at the world from that extremely limited perspective.  The key difference with a typical “woman goes to the laundromat and thinks deep thoughts about menstruation” story that we all love to laugh at is that Schweblin’s characters are mentally a bit off.

It sounds interesting, but in this particular case, it really isn’t.  These characters aren’t insane in ways that entertain, but each one has just a little bit of their personality exaggerated–an obsession taken a bit further than is healthy, a neurosis that comes to the fore and pushes normal behaviour aside.  It’s not enough to make the characters memorable… just enough to make the reader get depressed on their behalf.

Reading a book while alternately feeling depressed and embarrassed at the poor people populating its pages is not what I’d call an entertaining read.  As a writer I recognize that only an excellent writer can maintain a consistent, unbroken sense of depression and ennui through a hundred and twenty pages.  Shweblin is enormously talented; she did this on purpose.

It’s not a choice I would have made myself.  I understand that there is a certain amount of this sensibility in literary fiction but, even when writing in that genre, I try to keep the stories and characters more interesting.  I suppose that the difference is that I deviate just a little more from the everyday.

Speaking as a reader, I would love to be able to enjoy the characters, to find them interesting, likeable or entertaining as opposed to perfect recreations of my more annoying neighbours.  This book failed in that respect despite the fact that it would have gotten full marks in most creative writing classes–and despite all of its prizes.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given an objective review of the volume–you can decide for yourself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own book of literary short stories is entitled Love and Death, and you can buy it here.

 

 

The Attraction of the Local Writer

When you live in the English-speaking world, discovering a wonderful local writer must be a cool experience, as you can immediately go online and write about it knowing what most people will be able to read his work if they are so inclined.

In my case, it’s a bit of a bittersweet experience.  You see, the local writers I usually discover tend to be untranslated into English, no matte how wonderful their work is… which means that I can really only make most of my writerly friends aware of their existence, but I can’t share it.

Más sería vicio - Saurio

Almost a year and a half ago, as I was leaving the monthly gathering of Buenos Aires-based SFF writers (all but me Spanish-language writers), one of the writers followed me out the door and gifted me one of his books (a particularly touching gesture as most of the Argentines are also investors who have to sell books to make the projects worth their while).

The book went into my TBR pile and has now cycled through.

Más sería vicio (note that the title has caps only on the first letter, as that is the way it’s done in Spanish) by Saurio was a book that I literally had no idea about.  I’d never read anything by Saurio, and I hadn’t even heard of him until that same day he gave me the book.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I waded into this one, only to find that it’s one of those treats that you just don’t get in the English-Language world.  Essentially, it’s the voice of Argentina’s neighborhoods–not the literary elite, but the real, gritty people of an earlier age–expressed in a series of short stories that straddle the border between straight fantasy and magical realism.  Unlike most Argentine literature (and especially local film), which, at the drop of a hat, descend into a tango-like rending of the garments about the military dictatorship, or poverty or… or about just anything… this book is funny and irreverent as opposed to ponderous.

Yes, it’s dark.  But it’s dark in a take-no-prisoners, laugh-at-everything way with a proletarian voice you couldn’t mistake for anything but Argentine, and an utter disregard for social niceties.

Having said that, it must also be noted that Saurio follows the Shakespearian (or possibly Cervantine, in this case) tradition of keeping the masses (me…) entertained with his obscene references and painfully silly characters while, at the same time making references to everyone from Lovecraft to alternative (very alternative) rock group The Residents.  You have to be on your toes to catch all the intertextualities.

There are lots of these, and the author, when he actually remembers them, explains them in footnotes.

All in all, fun and cultural interest in a literary package that, for a couple of days, made me happy.  Recommended to anyone who reads Spanish.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most recent collection of short stories–Off the Beaten Path–doesn’t straddle any boundaries.  They’re either fantasy or science fiction… though some seem to be one and are really the other.  You can have a look at it here.

The Argentine Experience… Darkly

Venganzas Sutiles by Pablo Mourier

I read mainly in English but, being from Argentina, I’m perfectly capable of reading Spanish-language books when the occasion calls for it.  I strongly prefer to read books in the original language because there’s always something lost in translation, no matter how good the translator might be.

That is especially true of todays’s subject.  Venganzas Sutiles (Subtle Revenges) is a book by Pablo Mourier, an Argentine writer and humorist.  The book is a collection of short tales which, as one can imagine with a name like that, bring many of their protagonists to either sticky ends or uncomfortable resolutions.

The stories themselves are both entertaining and memorable but, more importantly, they convey a sense of the particular idiosyncrasy of the Argentine people.  Except, perhaps, in Uruguay (which is the country most similar to Argentina), these stories could only occur here.  In fact, many of them are very specific to Buenos Aires.

And yet (and the reason I’m writing about it here), the stories are, at the same time, perfectly accessible to non-native readers.  They’ll feel that the people are just slightly off from what they’re used to but not so far as to defy belief.  And they’ll soon realize that the stories are consistent with each other.

So, if you do read Spanish, and would like a window–albeit a very darkly humorous one–into the Argentine mind, this one is for you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His appreciation for dark humor is on full display in The Malakiad, which you can check out here.

The Byzantine Story of the Buenos Aires Zoo

On a cool evening in the autumn of 2016, I got home and my wife told me that there was an event being held in the neighborhood.  The idea was that one could visit various expositions and historic sites around Belgrano R and get a stamp at each.  Once one had all seven stamps, one could claim a prize.  The only catch was that we had to do it all before 8:30 PM… it was already 6:30.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

Her kids and I (she couldn’t join due to being seven months pregnant) took off at once.  We rushed around like maniacs and visited 3 churches (including the one in the photo), 2 schools, a social club and some other stuff I can’t remember, walked about three miles and earned our prize.  The kids chose a book.

On the face of it, this book was a natural choice, as it was about the Buenos Aires Zoo.  But delving a little deeper, it wasn’t really a good book for kids at all.  It was a collection of scholarly historical essays dealing with the creation of the zoo itself in all its historical and social significance, as well as a specific focus on a Byzantine Portico commissioned for the entrance to the park.  The book, quite naturally, is entitled El Pórtico Bizantino del Jardín Zoologico de Buenos Aires.

El Portico Bizantino del Zoologico de Buenos Aires

To understand the attraction of something like this, it must be noted that, when the zoo was being planned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buenos Aires was the capital of a world power which looked to Europe for its social cues.  Anyone visiting from fin de siècle Paris would have felt right at home, and did.  Transplanted victorian ladies would have been able to walk the park’s promenades without having to modify their dress–their Argentine peers would have looked exactly the same.

So the government had art experts scouring the markets in Europe and the Middle East for suitable antiquities.  Many arrived… some real, some not-so-real, and the analysis of whether the Portico’s columns are from classical antiquity or from a 19th century Italian workshop is both exhaustive and, to a modern reader, amusing.

Amusing in a sad way, though.  Firstly, because, despite having been in the zoo many, many times, I’d never really paid much attention to the semicircle of columns set on an island in a park lake.  It was just part of the background, and a difficult to see and not-very-imposing part at that.

Secondly, it’s sad because, due to unfortunate intervention of a small but vocal minority, the Buenos Aires zoo, a magnificent public space enjoyed by a city of fifteen million people, was forced to close at just about the same time as I was gaining possession of this particular volume.  It’s supposedly going to be reopened at some future date as an eco-park (the word “eco” in there should give a clue as to which special interest group needs to be appeased), but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s poignant that the Portico might disappear now.  Not because it was a major attraction–it wasn’t.  But it was part of the history of the city… To have it disappear as an unintended side effect of pressure from fanatics is a sad but accurate reflection of how the modern world works.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion was released by Severed Press in 2017.

A Bilingual Treat

Growing up in multiple cultures can, sometimes, be difficult, but it also has it’s joys.  I was recently gifted a book by a friend entitled Ramon Writes.  Now, this book can’t be understood by anyone who doesn’t meet the following criteria:  A) lived in Buenos Aires for at least a few years, B) speaks fluent English and understands the culture of the large British emigration to Argentina in the late 19th century and C) speak fluent idiomatic Spanish–particularly focused on Buenos Aires slang from the 20th century.

Ramon Writes_Buenos Aires Herald_Basil Thomson

A tiny group, surely?

Apparently not.  Item A is dispensed with reasonably easily, as 15 million, give or take the odd million people currently reside here.  B is the one that seems to be the stumbling block unless one realizes that like most third world countries, the good schools are mostly British, which means that many middle-class and upper-middle-class children grow up with at least a passing knowledge of the culture needed, as well as a high level of proficiency in English.  C is pretty much everyone, so no problem there, except that it excludes foreigners.

The analysis above isn’t necessary, though.  My edition of the book is a third edition from 2007, meaning the two earlier ones sold well enough to justify this.

So what IS Ramon Writes?  It’s a collection of pieces from the sorely missed Buenos Aires Herald newspaper, once a bastion of culture which was eventually destroyed by both the internet and an unfortunate change of ownership but which, for 140 years gave Argentina one of the few decent sources of actually objective news for intelligent humans in the country (along with the La Nación newspaper… and nothing else). Also, it was the only place that ran peanuts cartoons; enough said!

These pieces ran from 1949 to 1977 and tell the story of the scion of a traditional British / Argentine family who is essentially what we’d call a vago atorrante (it translates roughly as ne’er-do-well, but has much deeper cultural meaning in Argentina).  This is a personality type which is well suited for life in Buenos Aires in that era, but not so much to keep with the expectations of his respectable family.  Being a ne’er-do-well doesn’t disqualify one from society, you just have to take the barbed comments!

They’re funny and entertaining but more importantly they’re also a veiled critique of life and morals at street level but also among the high society, while not shying away from the occasional barbed comment aimed at the politicians of the day.  When you realize that those politicos included people such as Perón and the military dictators of the 1970s, men with a true lack of anything resembling a sense of humor, you also end up admiring the courage these took.  Basil Thomson, the man behind the columns, could easily have had serious trouble because of what he wrote.

Anyhow, this is a tiny piece of extremely local color that serendipity dropped on my doorstep, and I decided to share with you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest is a very silly fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.

Argentina’s 2014 Default: A Story of Evil Clowns

Queen of the Evil Clowns

 

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The above is almost always true.  Unless, of course, one is an incompetent clown.

Normally, when a government, even within the structures of a democracy, has complete control of the presidency and both houses of congress, one expects that the country will move vigorously to get large projects done, projects that need true political unity, and take huge forward strides.  This would be especially true in a case such as Argentina under the Kirchners, where the single-party domination has lasted for more than a decade.  

Unless, of course, one is an incompetent clown – or a circus full of incompetent clowns, as in this case.

OnJuly 30th, 2014, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s populist government has taken its reign to a new low mark by driving the country into an unnecessary, shortsighted default of the national debt.  It may be a disaster for the country, but it is a fitting exclamation point to Argentina’s lost decade.  There is no question: this, more than any of the other errors, are what will be remembered about the Kirchner era.

Argentina's Minister of the Economy, circa July 2014

Now how did we get here?

Well, if you ask the government today, they’ll probably shout something about having inherited the mess from the previous administrations… but ten years on, is anyone with a minimum of sense going to believe them?

I don’t think so, and therein lies a clue to the explanation.  You see, Kirchner’s government – mostly Cristina’s but her late husband, ex-president Néstor Kirchner was also guilty of this at times – has decided that, when reality doesn’t coincide with the party line, then reality is wrong.

Christina Kirchner's Government

The largest obvious indicator of this is the way the government has systematically lied about the real inflation that was measured in the country.  While various extremely trustworthy metrics exist, the “official” inflation was always about 10% of the independent metrics.  The reason this was so clownish was that anyone with a notebook and a calculator could go out into the street and measure the real price changes.  Of course, if you did that, the government would call you delusional.

So, if it was so obvious, why did they insist?  

Well, it has to do with what this government sees as success.  The model we all want to follow is Venezuela.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m shown an oil-rich country in which there isn’t enough toilet paper to go around because of the mismanagement of the economy, my first thought is: “look, more clowns!”  But that is the circus which Cristina is molding her fantasy clown world government on…

Well, the delusion has come around and bit them.  Sadly, it will also bite 40 million Argentines as well.  The people who voted for this populist government – generally, poorer folks, less able to actually analyze issues and make intelligent decisions – are going to be the hardest hit.  They aren’t educated enough to really deserve it, however.  They trusted a government to guide them, and that government defrauded that trust while trying to live in a utopia that died with the fall of the Berlin wall.  Their delusions are going to mean real hardships for people who mistakenly trusted them.

So, not just incompetent clowns.  Evil incompetent clowns.  Clowns who are so incompetent that, despite the billions of (ever-less-valuable) taxpayer pesos they’ve spent trying to make their citizens believe that reality is what it isn’t they can’t change the past… or the future.  If you listen to them, it’s clear they don’t even know what’s going on in the present.

Well, the only good thing about them is they haven’t started a war, unlike other clownish governments the world over.  Probably don’t have fuel for the tanks.