Argentina

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.

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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.