Manuel Mujica Lainez’s Mysterious Buenos Aires

By Rob Packer

Manuel Mujica Lainez’s “Mysterious Buenos Aires”. A strange choice of cover: the last story is set in 1904 well before cars were widespread anywhere in the world.

Mysterious Buenos Aires by Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Lainez came recommended with a wink from a bookshop owner in La Plata, who promised me beautiful prose and an unpleasant start. Both turned out to be true: this collection of 42 short stories is written in elaborate Spanish and is set over Buenos Aires’ early history, starting with starving Spanish soldiers under native attack resorting to cannibalism.

Compressing over forty stories into less than 300 pages is not an easy reading experience, but Mujica has a knack for interesting premises and most of the stories are inventive and enjoyable. One of my favourites, ‘El hechizo del rey’, is a letter sent to one of the dwarfs in Velázquez’s Las Meninas with homely, and futile, remedies of how to cure the “sorcery” afflicting the appallingly inbred Charles II. In another, ‘La hechizada’, a young boy recounts how a spell was cast on his sister. And in ‘Memorias de Pablo y Virginia’—a story that actually sounds rather dull—a book with little respect for its contents tells its fascinating life story. Others are the stories of Portuguese Jews hiding their religion from the Inquisition, slave traders for the South Sea Company, the hapless sweetheart of a French pirate, or an elderly patrician lady confined to the salon of her palatial home while her fortune disappears.

Mysterious Buenos Aires does not recount an official history of Buenos Aires, with a pompous emphasis on independence and 19th-century political battles: the book tells the stories of people and inanimate objects mostly on the edge of society, and the city comes across as a surprisingly cosmopolitan place (like it did at the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano). The book definitely isn’t for everyone and is only available in Spanish, but if you’re interested in Buenos Aires, it’s worth having a look at a few of the stories.

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