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

Helado argentino

By Rob Packer

Ice cream in Argentina is one of the areas where the country’s Italian influence is strongest: in the parts of the country I know, it feels like there’s a heladería every couple of blocks selling sambayón (zabaglione), frutilla (strawberry), an obligatory plethora of dulce de leche flavours, and many more.

Dulce de leche is too sweet for me, so the best flavours are often the ones involving wine. In Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital, Ferruccio Soppelsa was recommended to me as the city’s best heladería for its wine-based flavours that use Argentina’s two most famous varietals: Malbec and Torrontés. The combination of strawberry and Torrontés in a sorbet fell slightly flat for me, probably because of its relatively delicate flavour. Their vanilla and malbec ice cream, on the other hand, was a dream. But my favourite has to be the Malbec and Fruits of the Forest flavour that two friends and I decided was the clear winner on a recent trip to a branch of Freddo in Buenos Aires.

Frutilla al Torrontés on top; vainilla al Malbec underneath.

Geeky cool

By Rob Packer 

It’s not every day you find the subject of your university dissertation stencil-graffitied on a wall in Palermo.

My guess is that this is related to this blogger, who wrote about the books he read—until the final enigmatic and pained entry that heads the page.

Update: I messaged Librero Humanoide over Facebook: it turns out that this is the graffiti-equivalent of fan fiction, created by a blog follower.

The Pleasure of Saying Yes

By Rob Packer

Disagreement is unpleasant: you have to change your plans, you get in an argument, and you don’t get what you want. Far simpler is just to avoid all the unpleasantness and go out of your way to avoid a negative answer: the British and the Japanese are just two nationalities of many stereotyped for doing this. After all, it’s far easier to call an idea interesting, than saying “No, are you mad? Of course not!” Compared to this, the affirmative is easy.

I’ve now been in Argentina for a week and this, of course, means speaking Spanish to shop assistants, baristas and the like—rather than just with my better half, as happens in Brazil. Apart from the odd moment of narcissistic bliss when someone inexplicably asks me if I’m Argentine, this has also made me realize that there’s something I’ve missed during these months in Portuguese-speaking Brazil: the pleasure of saying yes.

This isn’t to say that you can’t agree in Portuguese, but when you first learn Brazilian Portuguese* , most people will tell you that the word for yes is sim. This isn’t strictly true. What they save for the advanced class is that you really only say sim when you could never say yes in English. You actually say something along the lines of “it is”, “I am”, “lets”, “I do”, etc. (according to Wikipedia, this is similar to Chinese, Welsh or Latin). This means paying attention to the exact words being spoken to you: I know I use the wrong word a lot of the time.

On the other hand, Spanish does have a word for yes; it’s . You can use it all the time or repeat it as many times as you like. And the best bit is that—so far—it’s instinctive: unfortunately, that can’t be said for the other mistakes that the similarities between Portuguese and Spanish have had me making over the past week.

 *I’m unsure if this is also the case in European or African Portuguese.

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