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.

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.

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