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from the April 2018 issue

Several Worlds Simultaneously: A Deeper Look at Argentina

He lives in several worlds simultaneously.

—Juan José Saer, La Grande

In the opening pages of La Grande, the final, unfinished novel by Juan José Saer, the writer from Santa Fe who lived most of his life—and died—in Paris, Willi Gutiérrez has returned to Argentina after thirty years abroad. His return is shrouded in mystery, and the observation above is both a reference to Gutiérrez’s past—which, rumor has it, constituted a double life—and a supposition about the man’s present. While the description of Gutiérrez is an assumption of fact and references an alleged duplicity, it might be applied in a much different context to the writers included in our April issue.  Their work and their characters occupy several spaces, several worlds, and ask us to reconsider what we think we know of our own. And like Gutiérrez’s return, their appearance here marks a return to a past about which we still have much to discover. 

Saer is here to lead us a little further along the way. Not via his own work (much of which has been translated into English by Steve Dolph for Open Letter Books), but in an homage to the deceased giant by contemporary writer Sergio Chejfec. In Chejfec’s story, a novelist, an essayist, and a theologian set off on a pilgrimage to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Saer’s final resting place. Their search for Saer and their musings on the ultimate importance of their pilgrimage mirror similar quests that permeate the writing in this issue. “They act like protagonists,” Chejfec’s narrator tells us of the Saer search party, “but what does it mean, exactly, to be a protagonist?” Not only are they frequently engaged in a search of some kind, but the protagonists who appear throughout this issue often find they exercise less control over their destinies than they would like to believe.

It is perhaps appropriate that Chejfec’s short story begins in Paris, for one of the many things that tie together the contributors here is their identity as Argentinean writers who have often considered their relation, and that of their country, to points abroad. What likewise unites the five writers presented here—much more than, and perhaps in place of, any sense of national identity—is a common commitment to searching and seeking out. Each of these writers seeks something different, but all of them grapple with myths. Myths of identity, myths of place, myths around our relationship to others. Each writer’s respective search leads English-language readers weaned on a steady diet of Borges, Bioy Casares, and porteño legend to do some searching of their own.

This search begins by inviting us to reconsider what we think we know of Argentina and Argentine letters. Following Chejfec, the appearance here of Norah Lange—who belonged to the same avant-garde generation as Borges, Girondo, and Silvina Ocampo, but whose work has languished unrecognized by English language audiences—continues recent undertakings begun with the publication of Ocampo’s poetry and prose. The publication of Lange’s fiction now in English gives us a broader understanding of the generation that marked the move away from the literature of the pampas to a literature whose references were international and whose work engaged not just with other Argentinean writers but with international literary movements at the time. Meanwhile, fierce literary and cultural critic—and Borges specialist—Beatriz Sarlo tackles the myths of Buenos Aires through a literary and historical exploration of the Argentine capital. Marcelo Cohen considers the linguistic implications of nationalism, exile, and nostalgia in the work of the writer and translator, with a cameo by his coeval Osvaldo Lamborghini. And Sara Gallardo’s story gives us a glimpse into the early short fiction of an important writer of the middle and late twentieth century who—like Di Benedetto before her—has enjoyed rediscovery in Argentina in the last few years, decades after her death.

If indeed Norah Lange registers at all on English readers’ radars, it’s likely for some mention of her part in the vanguard of the early and mid-century alongside Borges and her husband Oliverio Girondo. (Borges wrote the preface to her first poetry collection, La calle de la tarde, published in 1925. Girondo, however, beat out Borges for her affections, and it’s said Borges resented him for it for the rest of his life.) As her name suggests, Lange was born in 1905 to Norwegian parents who emigrated to Argentina. In the late 1920s, she would travel to Norway to visit her sister Ruth, and she and Girondo  would spend much of the 30s, 40s, and 50s traveling throughout Europe and Latin America, including a period in Brazil where they encountered modernist writers Mario de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade. Her work includes two memoirs, including Notes from Childhood, her first major success, and the novels People in the Room and The Two Portraits. The house she shared with Girondo—the scene of frequent literary gatherings—still stands at calle Suipacha 1444, in Buenos Aires’s Retiro neighborhood, and is presently part of the Museo Fernandez Blanco and marked by a plaque erected in the year 2000 to mark the spot.

In the excerpt presented here from her 1950 novel People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle and forthcoming later this year from And Other Stories, Lange’s seventeen-year-old narrator tries to decipher her mysterious neighbors, three unmarried sisters who refuse to give her their names or install a telephone in their home across the street from the narrator’s. In a burst of audacity, the young narrator seeks finally to cast a light onto the enigma of the three sisters’ identities and is sent fleeing the house, her search “to get closer to them, to force them to be precise and at least say who they were” thwarted but the thrill of the hunt attained.

Decades and sensibilities divide Lange and Gallardo, whose story “Things Happen” introduces us to a retiree whose garden is the envy of Lanús, a municipality just beyond the southern edge of the city of Buenos Aires. The history of Gallardo’s family is closely entwined with that of Argentina. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Bartolomé Mitre, the president of Argentina from 1862 to 1868 and founder of La Nación, one of the country’s leading newspapers. Her father was Argentina’s minister of foreign affairs and later president of the University of Buenos Aires. Gallardo herself worked as a journalist, and published her first novel Enero (January) in 1958. In the late 1970s, following the death of her second husband, the writer Héctor A. Murena, she moved with her children to Spain, later spending time in Switzerland and Italy. After returning to Buenos Aires, she died after an asthma attack at the age of fifty-seven, in 1988. Between 2001 and 2016, her entire oeuvre—including five novels, two story collections, and works of children’s literature—was reissued in new editions. During that time, her reputation among critics and readers has grown. Critic Leopoldo Brizuela (who, like contributor Marcelo Cohen, has translated the work of Clarice Lispector into Spanish) has compared her work to that of Bioy Casares, a comparison warranted by the story that appears in this issue.

In “Things Happen,” the protagonist looks on as his garden is engulfed by the sea. The man’s loss of control over his carefully plotted circumstances—and his descent from the owner of a carefully pruned garden and erstwhile retired civil servant to captain of a one-man ship—leads him to try to steady himself by recording details of his previous life as water and ice floes close in around his house.

Marcelo Cohen’s 2014 essay “New Battles for the Propriety of Language” evokes a different sense of at sea, recounting his flight from Argentina in the Dirty War era and his subsequent travails as an Argentinean translator working for Spanish publishers. Cohen, born in Buenos Aires in 1951, made his home in Barcelona for over twenty years, returning to Argentina only in 1996; his publications include more than fifteen books and translations of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Fitzgerald, Raymond Roussel, Fernando Pessoa, and others.

Moving between memoir, political history, quest narrative, and translation manifesto, Cohen examines the influence of our relationship to language, the demands for conformity in the publishing world, and the implications of these for the task of the translator. Cohen finds his search for a language—his own but also a voice for the writers he translates—leads him into often uncomfortable confrontation with the myths we maintain about ourselves, our private idiom, and the uses of language.

It would be difficult to overstate Beatriz Sarlo’s impact on Argentine culture in the last fifty years. Sarlo is no stranger to those in the academic world, having taught at Columbia, Maryland, Berkeley, and Cambridge. She has also been a Wilson Center and Guggenheim fellow. She is an authority on Borges, but also on Sarmiento and Cortázar. But while her training is literary, she has—as she signaled when, in 1978, she co-founded the important magazine Punto de vista focused on popular culture—never been afraid to set her sights on the culture at large. In her essay here, she returns to one of her favorite subjects, the social and cultural development of Buenos Aires. Tracing the city’s development throughout the twentieth century, she provides us a history of its intelligentsia.

Sarlo’s target—the mythos surrounding Buenos Aires that would have it the “Paris of South America”—also leads her toward a dismantling of, if not of language itself, the linguistic constructs employed to buttress an idealized Argentine capital. Not only is Buenos Aires not the Paris of South America, Sarlo asserts, its development has drawn inspiration from cities beyond Europe and its present-day incarnation is home to many of the hallmarks of other South American capitals from which it has sought so desperately to distance itself. “Those roaming the streets,” Sarlo tells us, “are not always flâneurs, the chic, dandies, or artists.” Drawing on literary observations of the city by writers from Borges to Arlt to Martínez Estrada, Sarlo seeks to give us a fundamentally new understanding of this dynamic city, and she succeeds. (Her book Una modernidad periférica, a remarkable work of literary and cultural criticism, treats this theme in greater detail,) By questioning age-old clichés about the capital city, she also strikes at the heart of long-held beliefs about what it means to be Argentinean.

Through their own interrogations of language, of style, of history, the writers here lead us to a much more nuanced understanding of twentieth-century Argentina and its writers, their work an antidote to the literary equivalent of tourist guides that, as Sarlo sneers, “inform [tourists] that Buenos Aires is America’s most European city.” Looking back on his exile with the benefit of hindsight, Cohen observes that “my life required of me a language that was on par with its multiplicity.” After reading the writers here, we should have no doubt that ours demand the same. 

© 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker

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