Monday, October 23, 2006

A literary guide to Argentina

Benjamin Kunkel, the author of Indecision, a novel, and an editor of n+1 magazine, writes in Salon of Argentina as a "country [that] remains wealthy in comparison to its neighbors and as literate as our own, and its food, land and extraordinarily handsome people are nothing short of spectacular. But the feeling of what might have been hangs over Argentina. Each new effort at democracy, prosperity and hope seems threatened by a reversion to frontier lawlessness, poverty and emptiness."

He adds that the "pathos of Argentina, after all, is that it might have had everything."

Among the literary guides to Argentina that Kunkel cites are outsiders Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia, 1977) and V. S. Naipaul, author of "a half-insightful, half-prejudiced 90-page sketch of the country."

Home-grown Borges of course gets his due.

Kunkel also appreciates:
César Aira, one of the most interesting living Argentine writers, writes in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) of "expanses resonant with emptiness," and treats the theme in a new way. Aira recognizes at whose expense--the Indians'--the emptiness was created. As a parable of mere description in the service of colonization, this frightening novella is one that Edward Said might have admired.
And then there are the famous books:

The best-known Argentine novels are Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar (who died in exile in Paris), and Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig (who died in exile in New York). Hopscotch (1966) has not aged gracefully: With its rhapsodic conversations, allegedly jazzlike prose and bohemian cast of characters, it seems like the work of a sort of superior Kerouac. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1974) is something else. Two Argentine cellmates, the one guilty of homosexuality, the other of Marxism, talk about movies and revolution, and, between sessions of torture at the hands of the police, fall in love. In its combination of political commitment and pop-cultural dizziness, in the terrible pain that it describes and the great pleasure that it gives, this is the novel that half the writers living in Brooklyn, N.Y., today have always longed to write.

Juan José Saer (who died last year in Paris) is not as well-known as Cortázar or Puig, but he deserves to be mentioned in their company. His fine novel The Event (1988) concerns the efforts of an Italian immigrant -- a rancher and magician -- to do two things: make a fortune on the pampas, and prove the truth of his metaphysical conviction that mind can command matter, that the visible world is the least and flimsiest aspect of reality. The force of the novel is to show how this conviction is done in by obdurate Argentina, especially the implacable landscape of the pampas. In a magnificent passage, Saer describes "the precarious settlements that were forming on the flat surface of the oldest land in the world, covered by the sediment of continents and of extinct species and pulverized by time and harsh weather, that unreal and empty space that the conquistadors took special care to avoid but that, the Indians first, then later cows and horses, and shortly thereafter adventurers, soldiers and landowners, and then later still the disinherited of the whole world who had arrived in overcrowded ships, stubbornly persisted in crossing again and again, gray, hallucinated figures, leaving fleeting traces that the strong winds and the rain undertook almost immediately to efface."

I don't wholeheartedly agree with Kunkel's assessment that Hopscotch "has not aged gracefully," but I know what he means: it's an amazing book, and yet....

Related trivia: Asked, "What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?," Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead, replied:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar; this book dazzled me when I first read it in college and still does, any day of the week. I will read it again and again until I die. Its inventiveness and cunning taught me that anything is possible with prose, and its intellectual and aesthetic fierceness taught me that a writer should always have lofty goals for her work. Also, it's highly entertaining and deeply sexy.
I know what he means, too.

Click here to read Kunkel's article.

Also Argentina-related here on the blog: a brief review of The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez.

Other items in Salon's literary guide series include:
A literary guide to Afghanistan
A literary guide to Louisiana
A literary guide to Australia
A literary guide to Norway
A literary guide to Turkey
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami

--Marshal Zeringue