Wednesday, 11 April 2007

In The House of Tango

Well, ten days ago, I finally took the plunge and booked my flight to Buenos Aires as the start of an extended trip to Argentina. I arrived on Good Friday in surprisingly sprightly form after the long flight and checked into my hotel in the bohemian San Telmo district. The hotel is a charming period mansion - towering ceilings, beautiful cornices, murals, and sweeping staircases - and has a very strong tango theme. In fact there is a ballroom downstairs offering tango lessons so I really must go down and insert the rose between my teeth at some point. But for the first five days I've been doing nothing but record-breaking marathon walks across the city.

I've long wanted to come to Argentina, but there is also something of a mission behind the trip (honest). I'm currently writing a series about some of the world's great writers and I'm trying to make it truly global in scope. After my long years in Japan, and frequent jaunts around East Asia, writing about the literature of Japan, China and other countries of that region isn't too difficult. Europe and North America are also obviously no problem. Things get a bit more tricky with the Middle East and Africa - I have to do more homework on the history of various countries - but then even when I'm writing about an Islamic writer, perhaps it's thanks to my Catholic upbringing but I can usually quickly log on to the whole Jewish-Christian-Muslim background. No, the part of the world whose literature is most alien to me is that of Central and South America. It doesn't help of course that I don't read any Spanish, but it's probably more to do with unfamiliarity with the cultures of Latin America. So I'm having a bit of a push on that at the moment, and suitably loaded up with works by Borges and Paz, have finally made landfall in Argentina.

With my usual aplomb, I managed to arrive exactly at the time of the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War. I never quite realised what a source of intense nationalist sentiment the issue of Las Malvinas is to Argentina. There is a permanent shrine to the Argentinian soldiers who died in the conflict in one of the main squares, plaques to the war dead in churches, graffiti of Las Malvinas everywhere, and now on top of this there are two public exhibitions of photographs from the war in public spaces. I've always felt fairly bored/uninterested in the whole Falklands/Malvinas dispute, but in Argentina it is presented in such a one-sided and inflammatory way that it becomes irksome.

On my second day I was taking a tour of the Bombonera Stadium, home of Boca Juniors, Maradona's old club. There were about 100 people taking the tour and the guide announced that he would be conducting it in Spanish and English. Was there anyone who did not speak Spanish, he asked. I was standing at the front of the group and immediately lifted my hand. To my horror I turned round and saw that I was the only person who had done so. To the rich amusement of the rest of the group, the tour guide had to repeat everything in English just for my benefit.

When we were all seated in the stadium, the guide asked where everyone was from. I tried to avoid it, but it was inevitable he was going to ask the only non-Spanish speaker.

'And where are you from, sir?'

I could feel 99 pairs of Argentine eyes bearing down upon me. Las Malvinas! Las Malvinas son Argentinas! Would I ever get out of the stadium alive?

'Ireland', I lied, making an internal nod to my ancestors. Ah, my innate cowardice to the rescue again!

But anyway, back to literary matters. I must have browsed at least twenty bookshops since I have been here, including one extraordinary shop on Avenue Santa Fe that is an old theatre converted into a bookshop - the stage is a coffee shop and people sit reading books in the boxes. This is in stark contrast to my home town where I realised last week that there are now precisely two - count them, two - bookshops in the whole city centre area. Worse, both are outlets of the same Evil Empire (Waterstones) and neither of them is any good. I called in to find some plays by the Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka. Neither shop stocked a single play. The situation really is terrible. It's all Richard and Judy Book Club rubbish. Somebody should really write an exciting, provocative series introducing the fascination of world literature to the English-speaking world...

Choosing the writers to put in my project has in itself been an evolving process. I'm basically interested in writers who are 'world-class' but who for some reason or other are unknown to Richard and Judy and much of the rest of the English-speaking world. It's a bit like putting together a literary first eleven. Some names virtually wrote themselves on the team sheet - Soseki, Lu Xun, Mahfouz - but the rest of the places were all up for grabs. Along the way, I've had some really interesting discoveries - the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas for example. And I still have various African literature to get through (if I can ever get hold of the books, that is). But just for the moment, I'm concentrating on Latin America.

I rather think my pick of the Argentinians will be Julio Cortazar, who rather fits the bill of being incredibly well-known in his own country, but still not exactly world-famous. It all depends however on whether I feel sufficiently enthusiastic about him when I have finished reading Hopscotch...

In the meantime however I am just soaking myself in the literature of Borges. Incidentally, the other night I was strolling around the Palermo district and stood looking in an estate agency window. The next thing I knew an elderly gentleman started talking to me in Spanish. I told him I couldn't understand and he immediately switched to English. For a moment I thought he was the owner of the shop, but I gradually realised he was just a passer-by. He was immaculately dressed in jacket and tie and polished shoes, and had an air of cultured, elegant refinement. He was the type of man who could just meet someone on the street, switch to his language and engage him in long conversation. Eventually he shuffled off to his home nearby and as I watched him depart, I began to think that Borges in old age was probably a man very like him. In fact, just for a moment, I almost felt as if I had been visited by Borges' ghost...

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