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.

Savage, Hyper-Targeted Social Satire

I’ve discussed Pablo Mourier’s work here before.  His biting, funny stories lambast Argentine society with a a surgeon’s touch, applying the scalpel as opposed to the broad brush.

It might appear that this particular method is better suited to short fiction than to lengthier work, but Pablo’s novel, El silencio de los porteros (The Silence of the Doormen) is more of a good thing.

El Silencio de los Porteros - Pablo Mourier

This is a wonderful, laugh-out-loud-funny look at how, even in our alienated modern society, we still live in villages where everybody’s life is everybody else’s business.  The framing device is that the doormen of certain buildings in the best neighborhood in Buenos Aires are, unbeknownst to them, planning a huge extortion of the people who live in their buildings.

On the face of it, it makes sense, and everyone assumes it’s true.  After all, these are the people who know everything that goes on, who’s sleeping with whom and where all the bodies are buried.  It’s possible they buried a few themselves.

Of course, the conspiracy rumor takes on a life of its own and everyone gets dragged into the whirlwind and spat out the other side.

It’s both funny and timely, but I can’t really recommend it to most of my readers because, apart from it not being available in any language but Spanish, the book is also very much understandable only by Argentines.  Hell, the rest of you won’t even understand a lot of the expressions, much less figure out why they’re supposed to be humorous.

But for those with the tools to understand, a lot of this book is priceless.  Get a copy.  Laugh out loud.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you like a biting look at life, you can do a lot worse than his book Love and Death.  You can buy 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.

Impressive Youth

One thing we see quite a bit of are posts on social media and articles on supposedly reputable news sources that express horror over the terrible literacy and writing habits of teens and young adults.  Some sources blame text messaging (LOL) while others wring their hands over the terrible decline in the educational system under either the left or the right, depending on each individual or media outlet’s political leanings.

Of course, here at Classically Educated, not only do we believe that every political party has an unfair bias against the cultural elites (which is irrelevant in this context, but we like to remind everyone of it every chance we get), but we also believe int he scientific process.

Which means that we decided to put the theory to rigorous scientific examination* to find out if all the fuss was justified.

The first thing we did was to try to track down some modern writing from young adult, maybe someone younger than 22 or 23 years of age.  Fortunately, one of our editors works with a woman who fits the bill and also enjoys doing some creative writing.  So we asked her for a story.

After reading it, we were pretty depressed.  It needed a little polish, but, other than that, the story was not only competently written and well thought out, but it the ending was brilliant.  In fact some of our editors and contributors, who are also writers wept openly and are considering giving up their word processors because if the forthcoming generations are going to write that way, we’re all pretty much doomed anyway.

More importantly, the writing was grammatically correct with not a LOL or WTF to be seen.  It was even set in a culturally interesting milieu.

Of course, we still weren’t convinced,  A twenty-one-year-old might not have been affected by the full brunt of the texting-centric social culture, and therefore might have outgrown it.  What we really needed was something written by teens and pre-teens to figure it all out.

Impresiones 2011

Fortunately, we had something to hand, a small volume of prose and verse published by a school called Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires.  This is an institution very much in the spirit of those we listed among our World’s Most Awesome Schools.

The book in question is entitled Impresiones: A Bilingual Anthology (2011) and is perfect for our purposes because it has prose and verse in both English and Spanish.  It should give us a pretty good idea of whether the people immersed in the texting culture were having any literacy issues (we chose the 2011 edition because the authors are now adults, which means we’re not exposing teens to any particular scrutiny, but they were teens when this was written).

Well… while none of our editors decided they had to give up literature forever after reading this, the writing, on a sentence and grammar level, is all very good.  Even in those stories written in English (remember that these are students whose first language is Spanish) were well-written, and seemed to be thought out in English (one of the easy ways to tell when a story was written by a Spanish speaker is that the sentences, while grammatically correct, use a word order that is more typical of Spanish than English–dead giveaway that the writer was translating as he wrote, not thinking the story through in English).

It might be argued that these examples are no use because they’ve been curated.  The anthology was probably the best writing of the year at that particular school, and the woman’s story was an outlier: written by someone who is set on becoming a writer.

Infinite Monkeys With Typewriters

That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter.  You see, it’s always been like that.  Even twenty or fifty years ago, most people wrote like a drunk chimpanzee.  The joke above describes the literary efforts of any given 99% of the population in whichever era you choose to name.  But the fact that the good ones are still good puts any idea that texting obsessively is killing the language.

Which makes sense if you think about it.  There’s a good analogy for this which we don’t remember the source for (if it was you, drop us a comment and well give due credit): Text messaging is like playing catch.  It’s not a rigorous exercise in perfection, but it can’t do the person doing it any harm; after all, it’s still writing, and not everything is ROFL.

So everyone can stop panicking and go back to your political arguments.  We, by the way, are trying to clone Tiberius.  Now THAT was a leader (you can yell at us in the comments, that’s what they’re for).

 

*All right, we didn’t do a rigorous scientific examination.  We looked at a couple of isolated anecdotic cases.  So sue us.

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.