Saturday, 28 April 2007

The Road to Santiago

Oh, boys and girls, where have you been? I've been having such adventures in Argentina.

In Buenos Aires, everyone advised me not to hire a car. Given the way the portenos drive, they said, it was an accident waiting to happen. Somewhat nervously, I ignored the good advice and set off to the wilds of the pampa with no road map or Spanish dictionary, though for obscure reasons several out-of-date Japanese newspapers and a book in Japanese on Borges. On my first day, after various wrong turnings and Spanish-English non-conversations on directions with tollgate wardens, I eventually got on the right highway and found my way to San Antonio del Areco, a famous gaucho town.

Delighted to have safely reached my destination, I pulled into an estancia in the dark, went over a very narrow bridge and put the tyre onto a small side wall. Crunch! For a moment I thought I'd wrecked the whole car. It was too dark to inspect the damage so I trundled bumpily along to a cheap hotel imagining the horrors that awaited. The tyre was indeed truly massacred - it looked as if it had been butchered with a knife and then hit with a large hammer. The next day I had it changed.

I spent the next night on an estancia having done the usual tourist palaver of horse riding on the pampa. The other guests were a group of Poles on an Argentine excursion heading for a science conference in Rio, which made for interesting company. Their tour leader had laid on three musicians and four dancers to come out from town and entertain them. We were however visited that night by a spectacular storm. I was suddenly summoned from my room by one of the servants and asked to drive the car through lashing rain off the estancia and down a 4 mile dirt track back onto the paved road. The estate workers correctly surmised that the dirt road was about to be turned into an impassable mud quagmire. I swerved along as it turned into bog in front of my eyes, frogs hopping all over it. I was driven back in a 4 by 4 and then towards the end of dinner, amidst the thunder and lightning, the power went out and we were in the dark. I could hardly believe that the musicians and dancers would show up to entertain the Poles in these conditions, but to my amazement they did. We sang and drank by candlelight in a swirl of Tango melodies and Polish toasts.

The next day, leaving the Poles behind, I set off again and at one point got completely lost on the pampa and drove for an hour without knowing where I was going, eventually navigating by the position of the sun in the sky. When I reached a petrol station, I couldn´t communicate with the attendant, apart from to work out that he didn't have any maps. The roads were terrible, full of potholes several feet wide.

Uncannily, the old tune Have You Ever Seen The Rain? is the one that I have heard played constantly on Argentine radio as I have driven along. It´s almost a kind of Argentinian anthem (though they do seem to have a great fondness for Tina Turner as well). The week before I had taken a boat over to Uruguay and spent the night in the town of Colonia before taking the bus to Montevideo. However the heavens opened there too and I was caught in flash floods. Soaked to the skin, I retreated to the indoor market down by the harbour area and discovered that by mid-afternoon the bars were already alive with singing and drinking and the most friendly people - it really had the feel of the west of Ireland.

I must say that I like the Uruguayans and the Argentines. I've met nothing but charming and pleasant people here the whole time. There are some verbal tics they have which quite amuse me. I don't know if it's the same in Spain, but here they all say 'Perfecto'. This seems to mean 'Sure', 'Got you', 'Understood'. However when they try and speak English they always directly translate this. So I find I'm having conversations where I ring the Hotel Reception and say,

'I'm sorry but I'll be checking out a day early as I've decided to go to Uruguay.'


'And while I'm on, can I also tell you that the shower isn't working?'


It almost sounds as if they are laying on the irony, but they say it with a straight face, entirely sincere.

I've now arrived in Mendoza Province, the centre of the wine country and so - greatly against my will, of course - must force myself on a tour of the local bodegas to imbibe a few choice Malbec. While I was in Buenos Aires, I was reading and writing about Borges; since then it was all Paz and I've enormously enjoyed The Labyrinth of Solitude, a stimulating book, which while mainly being about Mexico has illuminated a lot of interesting aspects of Latin American history.

Now however I'm back to Cortazar's Hopscotch. Here's my favourite sentence so far, one which surely would have made even D. H. Lawrence blush:

He turned her into Pasiphae, he bent her over and used her as if she were a young boy, he knew her and he demanded the slavishness of the most abject whore, he magnified her into a constellation, he held her in his arms smelling of blood, he made her drink the semen which ran into her mouth like a challenge to the Logos, he sucked out the shadow from her womb and her rump and raised himself to her face to anoint her with herself in that ultimate work of knowledge which only a man can give to a woman, he wore her out with skin and hair and drool and moans, he drained her completely of her magnificent strength, he threw her against a pillow and sheet and felt her crying with happiness against his face which another cigarette was returning to the night from the room and from the hotel.

Well, I don't know who 'Pasiphae' is, but it sounds like they had a pretty good shag.

You may have worked out by now that I haven't done too much planning for this trip - in fact I didn't open a guidebook until I arrived. I've never known where my ultimate destination was going to be. I toyed with the idea of Patagonia, but that's really a 3-week trip on its own. I also thought of Iguazu in the far north, but that's more an add-on to a future Brazilian excursion. No, there was only one sensible destination - Santiago, waiting for me there on the other side of the Andes. So that was meant to be the final leg of the tour, but two days ago, after driving deep into the Andes and finally reaching the border at dusk, I was dismayed to discover that I couldn´t cross with my rental car.

It may all be for the best. Santiago is after all 24 hours of driving from Buenos Aires so I decided to unwind with some whitewater rafting here in San Rafael instead. Now all that faces me is a 1000km drive back across the pampa...

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...