Preface for Argentina

When I think of going anywhere, I think of going south. I associate the word “south” with freedom. 
—Paul Theroux, Nowhere Is a Place: Travels in Patagonia 

The motif of the south carries a myriad of connotations within the Latin American experience. In the context of Argentina, the south for some extends only as far as Buenos Aires, that city of eternal light whose iconic Obelisco along the sixteen-lane Avenida 9 de Julio, bears witness to the many facets of urban reality. For the more literal minded, the south extends beyond the Pampas and the Patagonia to Tierra del Fuego — a south once populated by indigenous cultures such as the Tehuelche, literally the “people of the south,” who were reputed to be giants according to Antonio Pigafetta’s 1520 account of Magellan’s voyage. And yet for the many who were forced into exile during the years of the dictatorship, the south denotes retorno, the return to homeland. 

Vuelvo al Sur
como se vuelve siempre al amor. 

I return to the South like one always returns to love. 

Argentina: A Traveler’s Literary Companion joins an exciting series whose aim is to invite travelers to experience a country through its literature, whether they travel in the conventional sense or from the comfort of an armchair. To this end, the anthology is organized into geographic regions: The Northern Region (El Gran Chaco), the Central Region (El Litoral), Buenos Aires (capital city and province), the Western Region (the Andes), and the Southern Region (Patagonia to Tierra del Fuego). The vastness of Argentina rings clear through these stories, and the urban stands in sharp contrast with the rural. The anthology also makes a quick foray into Uruguay in the section entitled Beyond the River Plate. 

The geography of the north is poignantly portrayed through Héctor Tizón’s story, “Old Horse,” as we watch the old horse traverse the rugged landscape for the last time. Set in El Litoral in central Argentina, Adolfo Bioy-Casares’s story “About the Shape of the World” leads us up river to Uruguay through the confluences of the River Plate, and the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers on a mystical journey that is at once surreal and sensual. Carlos Chernov’s story “The Tourist” has us climbing Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, on a decisive ascent toward destiny. Down south in the Patagonia, we find remnants of native cultures, ostrich-like rheas known as ñandúes and characters like Borges’ Juan Dahlman, for whom the South offered a romantic escape into the past, a past where gauchos still ruled, and dying in a knife fight was far more honorable than being saved by modern alternatives. 

Llevo el Sur,
como un destino del corazón.

I carry the South like a destiny of my heart. 

In Buenos Aires Marcelo Birmajer’s “The Last Happy Family” introduces us to the Jewish community of Barrio Once, Alicia Steimberg’s narrator is wary of “The Man with Blue Eyes,” Edgar Brau’s “The Blessing” has us dodging bullets outside the Pink House (Argentina’s equivalent to our White House), Ana María Shua tells us a tender “Bed Time Story,” and José Eduardo Totah reminds us of the importance of fútbol, Argentina’s national pastime. The tango is tacitly celebrated in Julio Cortázar’s “Return Trip Tango¨ by bringing us a romantic intrigue that echoes the themes of early tangos, and Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Place of Its Solitude” posits urban against rural in a story that foreshadows the tragic events of Argentina’s Dirty War (1976 – 1983) during which some 30,000 people were disappeared. 

Soy del Sur,
como los aires del bandoneón

I am from the South, like the sounds of the bandoneón

This volume consists of eighteen stories. That number could easily have been multiplied many hundreds of times over. To narrow the wealth of the Argentine narrative to such a finite number automatically begs the readers’ forgiveness. Even before Borges paved the way in the mid-20th century for the writers of the Latin American Boom — whose innovations in narrative structure and use of magic realism and the fantastic were to revolutionize Latin American literature forever — Argentina had established itself as having one of the richest literary traditions in all of Latin America. In fact, Argentina is credited with the first Latin American short story, “El matadero” (“The Slaughterhouse”), written by Esteban Echeverría in 1839 while living in exile in Uruguay and published posthumously in 1871 after the overthrow of Juan Manuel de Rosas. 

Literary production in Argentina began to soar in the first part of the 20th century thanks in part to a number of literary journals such as Proa and Martin Fierro. While both journals continued to publish foreign literature, the focus gradually shifted to the River Plate. The martinfierristas, in particular, were concerned with exploring questions of national identity: What did it mean to be Argentine? Is there a unique Argentine sensibility? In 1931, the literary journal Sur was founded by Victoria Ocampo with a list of distinguished collaborators that included Borges, Bioy Casares, and Ernesto Sabato. Two years later, a publishing house under the same name was established. Each contributed greatly to the expansion of literature, both national and Latin American, as well as world literature in translation. By 1940, Argentina had already established itself as a center of literary production thanks to the Spanish Civil War, which caused an exodus of some of the most important publishing houses from Spain to Argentina. After a period of “cultural darkness” during Juan Perón’s first presidency (1946 – 55), literary production rose sharply during the 1960s reaching its peak in 1974 with unprecedented numbers of editions printed and sold nationally. This was due to a growing middle-class readership, a marked increase in university matriculation, and an explosion of innovative literature by Argentine writers, in particular, and of Latin American, in general. Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), translated as Hopscotch, epitomized the writing of the Boom era by inviting the reader to actively participate by playing hopscotch with the text and thus creating a new order. 

This kind of democratic participation in the literary and hence cultural text was later squelched by the 1976 military coup that overthrew Isabel Peron, who had become president upon the death of her husband in 1974. During la Guerra Sucia, as it was called by the people, a new kind of censorship took place that was part of the military junta’s overall Plan for National Reorganization. The Proceso, as the military called it, propelled many of Argentina’s best writers into exile, including several who are included in this volume. Mempo Giardinelli and Héctor Tizón spent their years in exile in Mexico City, Luisa Valenzuela in New York, and Cristina Siscar in Paris. This volume celebrates their return to the South and remembers those who could not. 

Sueño el Sur,
Inmensa luna, su cielo al revés. 

I dream the South, Immense moon, its sky upside down. 

And like Piazzolla’s “Vuelvo al Sur,” I too have dreamed the South. The process of compiling this anthology has allowed me that journey, a journey that could not have been made successfully without the help of my traveling companions, my collaborators. In order to ensure that this journey went beyond Buenos Aires and did not get caught up in what Giardinelli calls obeliscocentrismo, I sought out contributions that portrayed the vastness of Argentina’s geography and the wealth of its literary resources. Like the early explorers, I tried to find the open veins of Argentina in order to tap into the diverseness of its literature by seeking out new voices while ensuring adequate representation of key figures, past and present. This search produced new writers such as Totah as well as a new kind of creative non-fiction epitomized by the work of Juan José Saer and Rodolfo Rabanal. The volume also reconizes the short, short story (micro-cuento or minficción) as an important genre within Argentine literature as seen in the epigraph, “Time Travel,” by Ana María Shua. 

I would like to acknowledge the work of my fellow travelers who brought along their new translations on this journey: Jennifer Croft, Alexandra Falek, Andrea Labinger, Suzanne Jill Levine, Darrell B. Lockhart, Mempo Giardinelli, Marcelo Birmajer, and Beth Pollack. I would also like to thank Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Marina Harss, Andrea Labinger, Suzanne Jill Levine, Gregory Rabassa, and Joanne M. Yates for graciously agreeing to have their translations republished for this “return trip tango.” These acknowledgements would be incomplete without a special thank you to the Museo Xul Solar for granting permission to use Solar’s Vuel Villa (1936) on the cover of this volume and to Dave Peattie for Whereabouts Press so that we can travel the world vicariously whenever we please. 

Quiero al Sur,
Su buena gente, su dignidad. 

I love the South, its wonderful people, its dignity. 

I have long loved Argentina for and through its literature, for the unique sounds of its River Plate Spanish called castellano with its soft “yeísmo” and use of the pronoun “vos,” for its musical traditions, and for the late Mercedes Sosa whose rendition of the above tango “Volver al sur” will make you long to return even if you have never been there before. As Bruce Chatwin proclaimed in his introduction to Nowhere Is a Place: Travels in Patagonia (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992): 

If we are travelers at all, we are literary travelers. A literary reference or connection is likely to excite us as much as a rare animal or plant; and so we touch on some of the instances in which Patagonia has affected the literary imagination. 

It can be said, therefore, that literature comes to life through travel, and travel comes alive when seen through the lens of great literature. Te quiero Sur. ¡Hasta pronto

Jill Gibian 

(Excerpt from “Vuelvo al sur,” written by Astor Piazzolla and Fernando “Pino” Solanas.)

Posted on 09 October 2010

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