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from the February 2004 issue

from The Boundless River

“Literary fanaticism, in any of its forms, whether from the point of view of master or disciple, has always been incompatible with the intelligence and free spirit of Saer.”—José Saramago

Two or three friends are waiting at the airport when I arrive, and after the formalities of customs and greetings, we undertake the car ride from the airport into the city. My trips home almost always take place around the same time of year, and so the same clear spring morning, under a blue sky in which not a single cloud can be seen, sparkles in the deserted plain that extends from either edge of the road to the horizon. Many of the numerous travelers who have written about the Río de la Plata region coincide in two, apparently contradictory observations: the delicious clemency of its climate, and the frequent occurrence of storms. Both are absolutely true, as I have had the opportunity to confirm in a single sojourn, and even in a single afternoon. After half an hour on the road from the airport, we arrived in the lovely neighborhood of Caballito, an area that in the first decades of the last century was occupied by cooperatives, Socialists, and Utopians, at the house of my friends Juan Pablo Renzi and María Teresa Gramuglio. For years they have housed me during my stays in Buenos Aires. They are both from Rosario, but in 1975, repeated threats from paramilitary groups forced them to lose themselves in the capital, until they eventually found anchor in that magical house, now filled with the canvases of Renzi and other Argentine painters. Friends start to drop in, while the asado crackles on the grill in the patio. And the day goes by in polemics, jokes, stories, and games until the evening when, exhausted, Juan Pablo, María Teresa, and I sit down to watch a movie on television, a final touch of irresponsibility to supplement our fatigue and complete the abandonment of all critical self-control, which then allows us to give in to sleep.

I must note that, when I informed them of my project (to write a book about the Río de la Plata), many of my friends felt obligated to supply me with leads, information, and theories that, in their opinion, were "indispensable" to its success. The night before, in mid-flight, a friend who happened to be on the plane with me warned me darkly: "Did you know that the surface of the Río de la Plata is equal to that of Holland?" My friend perceived a challenge in the very size of the river, as if I were not about to write about the estuary, but rather to swim across it. In Buenos Aires, during the welcome party, several guests presented me with anecdotes, references, and theories, as one would present useful tools to a traveler who is about to set out on a long, difficult voyage. And in the same way that, masking his discouragement with good manners, the traveler observes the accumulation in his luggage of useless objects that he had decided to do without and which he will now have to lug with him during the entire voyage, I listened to this accumulation of pertinent details regarding my subject, and came to the realization that just as with every object in this world, and even with the world as an object, there are as many Ríos de la Plata as there are tales of the river itself. In this case, Heraclitus's notion that "You can never step into the same river twice," and the even more radical variant by one of his disciples, "You cannot step into the same river even once," might admit a more particular variation: as in a dream, each person tries, unsuccessfully, to step into his own river.

Yes; the Arabs call the young palm tree al-yatit, al-wadi, al-hira, al-fasil, al-asa, al-kafur, al-damd, and al-igrid; when the date appears they call it al-sayad, and when it turns green, before it becomes hard, they call it al yadal; when it grows large, they call it al-busr; when the skin becomes grooved they call it al mujattam; when its color changes from green to reddish, they call it suqja; when it turns completely red, it becomes al-zahw; when it begins to ripen and to be covered in spots it becomes busra muwakketa; when it is time to harvest it, it becomes al-inad; when the peduncle begins to darken it becomes mudanniba; when half of it is ripe, it has two names: al-mujarra and al-muyazza; when two thirds are ripe it becomes hulqana, and when it is completely ripe, it is called munsabita.

This is just a small sample, a single drop from our oceans, adds the poet Ibn Burd, compounding his boastfulness. Many words to name the same thing, or a specific word for each of the infinite aspects of the infinity of things—such are the difficulties that arise in the act of writing, difficulties which some, with unexpected childishness, like Ibn Burd, take pride in.

In this sense, the River, despite its geographical vastness, with its profusion of twists and events, is more vast and unapproachable than not only Holland, but the entire universe. Its history, dark and marginal in comparison with the great accomplishments of the Orient and the Occident, teems with heroes, wise men, and tyrants. In the abstract geography of the plain, in the infinite emptiness of the desert, certain human acts, individual or collective, certain fugitive presences, have acquired the massive permanence of the pyramids and the cathedrals of Europe. And if these acts seem to float, light in the transparent air of the plain, revealing its miragelike quality, we must not forget that, from a certain point of view, cathedrals and pyramids are no different.

Be that as it may, the day after my arrival, I began in earnest my campaign to gather the indispensable materials for my task. In accordance with one of the two invariable and contradictory observations of the many travelers who have come to this part of the world, it was a glorious morning, sunny, warm, and without a cloud in the entire sky, which, as is well known, is more visible in the plain than in areas with more varied terrain. In the taxi that bore me toward the city center, the morning clamor of Buenos Aires increased as we approached the downtown area, down long tree-lined avenues, with the windows open and the radio blaring, and I began to bask in a feeling of identity and belonging that little by little, as in every trip home, began to erode the intolerable memories and disappointments. The neighborhood of Caballito, half an hour from downtown, on the Avenida Rivadavia, the longest avenue in the world, as the Argentines never cease to remind us whenever they can, perhaps in order to console themselves with this record—which can be ascribed to chance rather than to the merit of any one person—for their many diffuse and tenacious doubts and frustrations.

The only urbanistic harmony of Buenos Aires lies in the fact that, like most of the cities in the Americas, it is set on a grid, and for this reason its straight streets, interrupted every hundred meters, carry on—even if sometimes their name changes at the intersection with an avenue—without any curves from where one stands until they are lost in the horizon. The rest of the urban cityscape is typified by variety and whim, and, why not say it, chaos. In its architecture, what attracts the eye is the surprising and the unexpected. The gray uniformity of Paris, on the other hand, offers up to the viewer structures that are balanced by a stylistic will, regulated by the coexistence of different periods of architecture. Even the more recent exceptions to this uniformity (I am not speaking of the marginal neighborhoods that resulted from the real estate speculation of the sixties and seventies) are calculated: the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Center, and the pyramid of the Louvre; they are the result of an intentional break that, however, bears a certain affinity, formal or conceptual, to the whole to which they stand in opposition. Thus, the pyramid evokes the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and the Egyptian collection in the museum itself; and the Pompidou Center, in spite of the iconoclasm of its materials, and the bright colors of its external surface, which stand out against the generalized gray, tamely acquiesces to the surrounding norms in its proportions. In Buenos Aires, incongruity is the norm. On each block heterogeneous structures, raised or maintained by the economic means, the manual dexterity, the aesthetics, and even the whimsy of their proprietors, coexist. A twenty-story building rises up, improbably stable, next to a modest house with a small front garden, which has been needing a paint job since the forties, and this house in turn shares a dividing wall with a two- or three-story house built at the turn of the century, judging from the niches, angels, and moldings that crowd its façade. Even in the middle of downtown, though to a lesser degree, architectural anarchy is the norm. The straightness of the streets is the only rigor that contains this vertiginous variety, as a square mold holds in an amorphous substance. And if, to be generous, the whole lacks interest, its details surprise, delight, and even dazzle at each step.

Because of this, the traveler, admiring the view from the back seat of a car or from a bus, cannot abandon himself to the peaceful contemplation of an urban landscape gliding by, but rather his attention is attracted by many sudden, isolated, successive, or even simultaneous appeals, and he is constantly forced to turn his head, shift from one window to another, or try to fix, in a last glance through the rear window, a fragmentary image—a figure, a façade, a garden—an apparition that, unforeseen and fleeting, the city has offered up and yanked away almost at the same moment.

That morning, my intention was to drive beyond the city center in order to inaugurate my stay with a visit to the river; descending the Avenida Belgrano, the taxi turned north onto the Avenida 9 de Julio. This avenue deserves a brief stop (metaphysical of course, because the taxi is held back only by the traffic lights and the occasional traffic jam) in order to consider it, not so much as an urban accomplishment, but as a symptom: just as the Avenida Rivadavia is the longest avenue in the world, the 9 de Julio is the widest avenue in the world. That it is wide is undeniable; that it is the widest in the world could, even without comparative points of reference, be accepted as plausible; but the fact that even the most resentful resident of the provinces, angry at the hegemony of Buenos Aires over the rest of the country, cannot name it without adding with provocative pride that it is the widest in the world, reveals a tendency to exalt the insignificant, which might be ascribable to an unconscious belief in the painful absence of the truly exalting. The giant cement obelisk that adorns the intersection of the 9 de Julio with the Avenida Corrientes is not to me its principal attraction, but rather the palos borrachos (choricia speciosa) with their swollen, spiny, pale-green trunks. This is a tree whose flowering pattern I have not yet been able to deduce from direct observation, as I have seen specimens blooming at different times of year, alongside their completely bare brethren, as if there were such a thing as individualism in the vegetable kingdom. This observation is confirmed by an earlier jotting in my notebook: "April 4th, Avenida 9 de Julio at 11:45. In a taxi. Palos borrachos in bloom (pink, white, ivory). Acacias or tipas still quite green."

In the cities of the littoral—the informed reader should bear with me in this pedagogical aside—in other words, in the provinces along the principal rivers that come together to form the Río de la Plata, three great trees compete for the aesthetic prize when spring rolls around, and they bloom in the following order: the lapacho, whose scientific name escapes me, the yellow acacia, common enough in Europe that its Latin name needn't be mentioned, and the jacarandá, or jacaranda mimosifolia. They successively fill the parks, squares, and avenues with deep pink, yellow, or lilac-colored flowers that cover not only their branches, which often do not even have leaves on them yet, but also and especially the ground beneath them, so that on some narrow, tree-lined streets one walks literally on a carpet of one of these colors, or sometimes of two colors combined, since the acacias and jacarandás bloom more or less simultaneously. In Caballito, the enormous acacias on the Calle Pedro Goyena—in my opinion, one of the most beautiful streets in Buenos Aires—lay down a bright yellow covering over the sidewalks and the street for a third of a mile, while the street that crosses it, Del Barco Centenera—the first poet to sing the glory of Argentina—opts, with equal abundance, for the lilac hue of the jacarandás. The beauty of this spectacle is so extreme that even the most insensitive beings can perceive it, and in the years of the military dictatorship, from 1975 to 1983—the bloodiest of any of the bloody dictatorships we have endured—the regime's propaganda tried to hide the horrendous crimes it committed every day behind a curtain, not of smoke, but of ephemeral pink, yellow, and lilac-colored flowers, a fact that should remind us that in authoritarian societies, everything can be subjugated. For that reason, an anonymous opposer of the tyranny invented two disparaging neologisms—lapachiento and jacarandoso—to describe the image of the country that the usurpers in power attempted to exhibit to the outside world.

From El Rio sin Orillas (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2003). © Juan José Saer. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2004 by Marina Harss. All rights reserved.

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