When asked what I was planning to do on a brief trip to Buenos Aires, my first visit, I said I was going to take the Borges tour. I thought I was joking but soon learned that in Argentina it isn’t easy to be sure of such things. I am sitting in a café which already seems more like the sheer idea of a café than the real thing could quite be. Red velvet chairs and benches, marble-topped tables, excellent coffee, croissants which are literally called ‘half-moons’, medialunas, waiters who are curt but not surly, with the clothes and style of their French confrères but without the deeper commitment to bad manners. My friend asks me where I am staying. I say the place is called the Marriott Plaza but looks older and grander and a little more decaying than Marriott locations usually do. For example, you have to go up or down a flight of stairs to reach the lift, a sure sign that servants are supposed to carry not only bags but people where necessary. ‘Oh it used to be called the Plaza,’ my friend says. ‘Borges calls it the Hotel du Nord. It’s the hotel in the story “Death and the Compass”.’ I have scarcely unpacked and the Borges tour has started.
Actually I’m not sure it is the hotel in the story, since the description (a ‘high prism dominating the estuary’) doesn’t quite match the place, but perhaps the architecture has changed around it, and of course the mere suspicion is enough to unsettle the city for me. This is not like visiting the real home of the real Emily Brontë or the real home of the imaginary Leopold Bloom, it’s like stumbling into a fiction you feel you may not be able to get out of.
‘Argentinians don’t believe in circumstances,’ Borges once wrote. The context is a rather flimsy essay called ‘Our Poor Individualism’, in which he argues for a form of nationalism which refuses the nation in its instrumental form, and pleads for a party that would ‘promise us . . . a strict minimum of government’. History has been all too kind to this idea, and it wasn’t any less blinkered in 1946. But not believing in the state – Hegel’s idea of the state seems ‘a sinister joke’ to Argentinians, Borges says – is more conventional and far less radical than not believing in circumstances, and this second notion takes us back to the Hotel du Nord. A guest is murdered, and the local flatfoot, borrowed from Poe and Conan Doyle, thinks he knows why. The killer was after some jewels, but got the wrong room. This lamentably uninteresting explanation turns out to be correct, but of course neither the reasoning private sleuth nor the plot-minded reader can want to know this. ‘You will say,’ the detective comments to the policeman, ‘that reality does not have the least obligation to be interesting. I shall reply that reality may refuse this obligation but hypotheses cannot.’ The detective constructs an elaborate hypothesis, which turns out merely to follow a trail an old enemy has laid, and so the mystery he solves, and which leads him to his death, is only a mystery designed for him to solve. When he has cracked this trick plot, though, we are told that ‘mere circumstances’ don’t interest him – where circumstances are glossed as ‘names, arrests, faces, judicial and penitentiary proceedings’. The detective dies, we might say, of his appetite for what’s conceptually interesting and his indifference to contingency and detail.
So not believing in circumstances – a modest political programme in one case and a fatal blindness in the other – might be something of a national habit after all. Not a value or a flaw in itself, and not a straightforward fact or a practice but a working myth: part of the way Argentinians see themselves and their relation to reality, the equivalent of North American optimism or British phlegm. There is plenty of evidence for this view. The first European settlers made their home in a smelly coastal swamp and called it La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María de Buen Aire, or the City of Our Lady Saint Mary of Good Air. It is just possible that the final Spanish phrase means ‘of good aspect’, but that would still be quite a splash of bravura. Almost everyone in Buenos Aires tells you that this is an Italian city, in spite of the fact that it speaks the wrong language and finds itself on the wrong side of a large ocean. Legend has it that the Argentinian province of Santa Fé, shaped like a boot, is full of Italians who duplicate the regional stereotypes and prejudices of the old country: industrious northerners, feckless southerners, and the rest. This can hardly be true, but the pleasure and affection with which people tell the story is real. An inscription on the tomb of Eva Perón says she is neither lost nor distant – it also says we are not to cry for her, a line I thought had been written by Tim Rice. A newish monument to Evita has on it a sentence taken from a novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez, supposedly her first words on meeting Perón: ‘Colonel, thank you for existing.’ When Eloy Martínez pointed out that the phrase was not historical, that he (and his wife) had made it up, the general in charge of the monument said the novelist was lying. Less folklorically, we are sitting in a room in the University of Buenos Aires, in a hopelessly run-down building which was once a tobacco factory, amid signs of plentiful intellectual activity and an almost complete absence of furniture, and an administrator explains to us that economically the university is now very strong, that they have overcome the financial problems of the last two years – well, the last two decades, she adds. In Golpes Bajos (‘Low Blows’), Alicia Borinsky’s brilliant collection of fictions and epigrams published in 1999, we read sentences like these: ‘In this city the old women dress like adolescents and the young women like old women, because this way they get each other’s jobs’; ‘I was very happy in his arms, especially when I thought of all the films we would see together.’
The thing would be to distinguish this posture, if we can, from simple denial of the facts or a too warm embrace of magical realism. André Malraux said ‘Buenos Aires is like the capital of an empire that never existed,’ and this is true in a sense that takes us well beyond the way the city looks, with its banks and monuments, boulevards and grand spaces. Buenos Aires was never a great imperial centre like Lima or Mexico City. Argentina itself was just the outlands of the viceroyalty of Peru until a viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was established in 1776. By 1820 the country was independent, and on the way to being immensely rich. The money came from exports of meat and grain, and there were huge British investments in railways. The question economists always ask is how a country so rich at the start of the 20th century could be so broke by the end of it, but they know the answer: an economy depending on rural monopolies, a polity marked by fast growing city populations, and a series of varied failures to get economics and politics to match. Vast prosperity exists, or has come and gone, and the feeling of empire is the feeling of a vast empty world flowing towards the city, the way empire congregates in London in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The question the casual visitor asks is different, of course: how can people so broke look so easy and contented, and seem to be living so well? Restaurants are full, bookstores are amazing, people sun themselves in parks, take taxis, buy expensive wines. Ragged old (and young) fellows gather and drink on street corners, but not more than in Soho Square. Or in a grimmer register we ask: how can the citizens of a country where some 20,000 to 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ in the late 1970s and early 1980s seem so genuinely lighthearted now? The answer you get to the first question is that 37 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, but not in Buenos Aires. This doesn’t quite deal with the fact that it was the urban middle classes who were so broke two years ago. But then the casual visitor needs to remember (at least) two things. That casual visitors don’t see much anywhere, and still less in a place so filtered through fantasy as Buenos Aires. And that almost everyone you talk to lost a friend or a relative during the Dirty War. Every Thursday a set of women who call themselves the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo demonstrate in memory of the atrocities, and what looks like lightheartedness in others is likely to be a form of courage, not a form of forgetting.
We are at the Teatro Colón, a luxurious many-tiered hemi-circle, like an Italian opera house. I have a flickering thought of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo wanting to build his opera house in the jungle, then I remember we are nowhere near the jungle – just a long way, as Argentinians keep saying, from everywhere else. The theatre is beautifully kept, a fine period piece. The concert is called ‘Tangos en el Colón’, and it is given by Gerardo Gandini, a composer and pianist who studied with Ginastera and played in Astor Piazzolla’s last combo, a sextet. Piazzolla said the best thing about this sextet was working with Gandini, who brought a new range of improvisational talent to the group. Gandini is the inventor of a genre he calls the postango, which brings all kinds of classical and jazz-based echoes to this so traditional (and often kitschy) national form. Critics speak of Bill Evans’s waltzes, and of ‘exploded tangos’. I had heard Gandini before, in the US, and had liked the work but found it a little fussy and over-fragmented. This time either he was different or I was. What I heard was a deeply melancholy lyricism, wonderfully clear lines stretched out against a heavy bass or against hectic syncopation all over the keyboard. Gandini talked charmingly but incomprehensibly between pieces, introducing them or saying a word after playing them – as if he were in a café rather than a grand theatre. Are these tangos for people who don’t like tangos? Not quite. Gandini says his music is based on ‘tangos whose names I do not know’. He knows the names now because they figure among the credits of his CDs, but he means the songs come back to him with the feeling of what he thought he had forgotten. ‘It was my old man who listened to that music which . . . I whistle in a square in Brussels or when looking for an open supermarket in Westwood . . . That is when I whistle the music I used to hate.’ Extrapolating a little, we could say Gandini finds the real musical melancholy lurking in what he (and we) may have thought were old fakes.
The attractive mode of not believing in circumstances is refusing to be defeated by them, and for this you need not so much willpower or hope as a certain moral and mental dexterity: an ability to remember the truth while telling the fiction, for example. One of the epigraphs to Eloy Martínez’s novel about Perón cites a letter to the author from the General himself: ‘We Argentinians, as you know, typically believe that we always possess the truth. Many Argentinians come to this house wanting to sell me different truths as if each one was the only one. What do you expect me to do? I believe them all.’ There could be (there was) a deeply cynical practice associated with such a stance. But there is also a generous understanding of the same principle: find the fragments of truth in the lies, the feeling in the falsehood.
In an introduction to a remarkable recent graphic version of his novel Absent City, Ricardo Piglia says the real is not (or doesn’t have to be) the object of a representation ‘but the space where a fantastic world takes place’. He is describing the case of a man living in Buenos Aires who has in his house a finely detailed model of the city. The man is mad because he thinks the life of the real city depends on what happens in the model, but this is only to say that he has misunderstood a relation, not that the model has nothing to say to us. Climbing the stairs to look at the miniature city, Piglia says – thinking of the graphic version of his own book as itself a model, and by implication of many other kinds of replication and revision – ‘Then I understood what I already knew: what we can imagine already exists, in another scale, in another time, distinct and distant, like a dream.’ It’s not only in Buenos Aires that you can take the Borges tour.