Julio Cortázar’s All Fires the Fire

By Rob Packer

Cortázar's "Todos los fuegos el fuego"

Julio Cortázar’s reputation precedes him and the blurb for his collected short stories says no less than: “You must read Cortázar. Always. (Hay que leer Cortázar. Siempre.)” Now, this is the kind of praise you end up reading a lot of on book covers, but it’s hard not to agree with this hyperbole after reading any one of the stories in All Fires the Fire (Todos los fuegos el fuego). Each of these eight stories is pretty much perfect.

The premises of these stories sometimes seem so familiar; after all, who hasn’t been transfixed by a particularly beautiful island seen from a plane (‘La isla a mediodía’), or thought of hiding some shocking piece of news from a sick relative (‘La salud de los enfermos’)? What Cortázar does is to take the situation to its logical conclusion and beyond, as the family ties itself up in increasingly horrific and grotesque lies to hide the original untruth. It’s this combination of familiarity and the uncanny that makes these stories genuinely affecting.

My two favourite stories, though, are the two that bookend the collection: ‘Autopista del sur’ and ‘El otro cielo’. In the first, Cortázar describes a traffic jam on the autoroute into Paris that climaxes at almost apocalyptic proportions, while a recognizable society forms itself and the drivers’ identities are completely subsumed into their vehicles. In the last, ‘El otro cielo’ (reminiscent of Hopscotch (Rayuela), Cortázar’s most famous novel), the narrator mixes flâneur-like walks through a snowy Paris with escapism, nostalgia and Buenos Aires (no spoilers).

In English, Cortázar is often thought of as the writer of the story that inspired Antonioni’s 1966 film of Swinging London, Blow-Up—check the meagre selection of works available in English translation if you don’t believe me. For an author as complex, influential and enjoyable as Cortázar, this doesn’t even begin to do him justice and I’d recommend looking up anything of his you can find.


Córdoba, City of Doctors

By Rob Packer

While I was in Argentina last month, I took some time out from Buenos Aires to visit Córdoba and Mendoza, the second and fourth-largest cities of this enormous country.

The centre of Córdoba: Plaza San Martín

The ornate interior of Córdoba's cathedral.

Springtime in Córdoba

One of Argentina’s oldest cities and nicknamed La Docta (The Learned One), Córdoba is home to the country’s oldest university (founded 1613) and today has evolved into a centre of arts festivals, especially for theatre. The friends I stayed with, Victoria and Manuel took me to a unique experience: the opening of the Festival Clandestino de Teatro Independiente. As the name suggests, the venue was secret (phone to find out), on a semi-residential street and basically a bedroom. We sat on stools in the corner, along the walls, or on the floor, and the actresses reached between audience members to get clothes out of a wardrobe. For a play about the intimate secrets of two sisters, the space was incredibly effective, and this aesthetic set-up is apparently common in the city. Read more of this post

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.

Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

By Rob Packer

Ernesto Sabato's "The Tunnel"

Buenos Aires has countless beautiful bookshops every few blocks, as well as a second-hand (and apparently pirated) book market in Palermo. For someone with a weakness for books after studying literature at university, this was an enormous temptation that I partially justified as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Argentina’s incredible literature.

I often feel that Ernesto Sabato, who died in May this year a few weeks from his 100th birthday, comes in as third-most-famous Argentine writer after Borges and Cortázar—especially internationally. Indeed, a quick look through European Amazon sites shows that the only book widely available in translation is his existentialist masterpiece, The Tunnel. His other two novels, Sobre héroes y tumbas and Abbadón el exterminador, and his essays (none of which I’ve read) seem much harder to come by.

I first read The Tunnel years ago and was immediately struck by the acerbic and pessimistic immediacy of Sabato’s prose, as the misanthropic artist (and likely psychopath) Juan Pablo Castel recounts what led him to murder María Iribarne, the “one person who could understand me”. The title and opening quotation refer to a “lonely and dark” tunnel that seals Castel off hermetically from everyone else in society.

Despite the general gloom, some moments of the novel seem comic, when Castel tells someone come to pick him up that he’s not Castel, or has a pang of regret and tries to retrieve a letter he’s already sent from the post office. Others seem eerily familiar as Castel over-analyses a smile or a single word, but then overdoes it drawing pseudo-logical conclusions about his girlfriend’s behaviour based on coincidence or circumstance. The motivation is sometimes understandable: the obsessive and violent results completely incomprehensible.

Prior to becoming a writer, Sabato was a promising physicist, studying atomic radiation at the Curie Institute in Paris after gaining his PhD, and was there when nuclear fission was discovered. The idea terrified Sabato and this, and the contacts he made with surrealists while in Paris, meant that he left the potentially apocalyptic world of science to shut himself in the Córdoba sierras and concentrate on writing. One of the results, The Tunnel, is an incredible and chilling first novel that I can’t recommend enough.

* You can also check out this documentary in Spanish on his life from Radio Nacional de España.

Still lost

By Rob Packer

Wally (or Waldo if you have the North American edition) is still lost somewhere in Buenos Aires:


Buenos Aires Cultural Battles

By Rob Packer

Three blocks from Buenos Aires’ Retiro station, and round the corner from a couturier for polo, lies a beautiful colonial-style palace that immediately stands out from other buildings in the city that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris. Today the Palacio Noel houses the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco” with its collection of Spanish colonial art, seen from the context of a fin de siècle intellectual debate for Argentina’s culture.

Buenos Aires' neo-colonial Palacio Noel, now the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco”

The museum’s introduction paints a picture of a 19th-century Buenos Aires dominated by French-influenced eclecticism and immigration from Europe that was Europeanizing the city’s Spanish colonial cultural influences and by 1914 made up half of the capital’s population, forming a large part of the poorer classes. In the face of these changing circumstances, the creole elite “tried to put a brake on this subjugation”; the museum calls this Hispanicism the “first nationalist movement” and mentions a group of intellectuals around Ricardo Rojas, Rubén Darío and Manuel Ugarte, forming “a counterpoint to the imperialist advance of Europe and the United States”. I am unsure, however, how European immigrants could have been both poor and imperialists. Read more of this post

Navigating in Argentina

By Rob Packer

There are just twelve days to go until Argentina’s 2011 presidential elections and there is little doubt that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will be re-elected. She won Argentina’s primary in August with more than 50% of the vote—unlike in the US or France, Argentina’s first-ever primary was more like a dry run for the real election. The press has read the writing on the wall: today’s edition of Clarín, Argentina’s most-widely read daily and no friend of the Kirchners, seemed more concerned with who will be the Finance Minister when Cristina wins and Amado Boudou, the current minister becomes vice-president.

On the other hand, I have yet to find an Argentine with a nice word to say about their president and have been variously told about the lack of a credible opposition, a government more interested in settling old scores than keeping the country self-sufficient in meat, or authoritarian inclinations that many thought had died with her late husband and presidential predecessor.

If the press and the Argentines themselves (I haven’t watched much television) are ambivalent or indifferent to their president—elections are compulsory in Argentina—a look at any street or highway in the country might have you believe that the country is in election fever because there are posters everywhere. The vast majority of these are for Cristina, showing the president with her candidate for governor and for mayor if there’s space on the wall. All this has a surprise advantage: navigation.

For example, I was recently in Mendoza and wanted to go to Maipú, where some of that region’s vineyards are. I knew that the bus routes either went through the municipalities of Guaymallén or Godoy Cruz, so all I needed to do was to count the mayors: this really isn’t that hard as there are posters at least every block. When I arrived at the third one, I knew it was time to get off the bus.

Turn left at the third mayor.

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