by Stephen Phelan

Shopping For Borges

June 9, 2012 | by Stephen Phelan

I moved to Buenos Aires the weekend before the 30th anniversary of the first day of the Falklands War. I knew enough not to call it that in Argentina, where those islands are known as Las Malvinas. To refer to them by their British name is a political statement if deliberate, and a dead giveaway if accidental. Only gringos and Anglo sympathisers talk about ‘the Falklands’ here. The majority of Bue-nos Aireans, or ‘porteños’, will say the same thing as the government, the graffiti, and the nationwide consensus: ‘Las Malvinas Son Argentinas’

I heard someone shouting it underneath my window on the morning of Malvinas Day – now a public holiday – even from 11 floors up. My apartment building overlooks the leafy northern barrio of Acassuso, and a rotunda inlaid with a small memorial to the local boys killed in the war. (Most of them were conscripts, few of them were older than 18.)

In the afternoon, a crowd gathered around it. A military band played the March of the Malvinas, and a high-ranking officer in dress uniform made a speech through a megaphone. Meanwhile, in the city centre, the hooded radicals of the far-left Movimento Quebracho were burning Union Jacks and skirmishing with riot police outside the British Embassy. Among my new friends and acquaintances, I couldn’t find anyone who felt that strongly about it, though they seemed to share the common historical perspective of middle-class porteños who were children during the conflict, or not even born at the time: the islands belong to Argentina, but the war was misjudged and mishandled by General Leopoldo Galtieri and the thuggish junta who then ruled the country. That regime is now known to have ‘disappeared’ as many as 30,000 of its own citizens, and the young troops sent to fight without proper training and equipment tend to be remembered as yet more of its victims. Ronaldo Quinn prefers not to think of himself as such. An English-speaking Argentine with a half-Irish father and a British mother, Quinn was nearly finished his national service in April 1982, when he was ‘invited to participate’ in the junta’s armed seizure of the Malvinas. ‘I was just a regular conscript,’ Quinn told me, at a restaurant he part-owns
in the Palermo district. ‘And probably one of the worst. I used to fall asleep on guard duty. I wasn’t made to be a soldier at all.’

Even so, he went willingly. ‘I believed what I was taught in school. The Malvinas were ours, the British took them by force, we were gonna get them back.’ I asked him what his mother had thought. ‘She understood,’ said Quinn. ‘I was doing my duty.’ His first surprise on arrival was the bleakness of the islands. ‘It was the ugliest place I have ever seen. I couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to live there.’ A bigger shock was the simple fact that he and his comrades weren’t welcome. ‘We thought we were liberating these people, but of course they were all against us.’

Drafted into the signal corps, Quinn spent most of his war stringing telephone cables across that inhospitable terrain, which the islanders would then set out to sabotage. There was also a lot of waiting around, freezing and hungry, for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to attack.

He remembered trying to watch Argentina’s World Cup match against Belgium on a portable TV during an RAF bombardment. But he couldn’t bring himself to say that his own forces had merely been hapless. ‘The majors were all pretty dumb,’ he admitted, ‘but we still managed to sink four British ships. There was a period of about 10 days when we were almost winning.’ After the defeat and surrender, his British captors asked Quinn why he had fought for the other side. By way of an answer, he drew a map on the ground to show the squaddies how close they were to the Argentine mainland. ‘They didn’t know,’ said Quinn. ‘I don’t think they really knew what they were doing down here.’

Thirty years later, local children are still taught that the islands rightfully belong to them. Invited to give a talk at his daughter’s school for Malvinas Day, Quinn said he found it difficult to articulate his ambivalence. ‘Now I’m older, I can see it was a silly war. The junta were crazy, and they wanted a fight to cover up their behaviour. But for good or bad, I’m still proud to have been a part of Argentina’s history.’

Quinn has just written a book about his experiences, entitled En Raro Privilegio (A Rare Privilege). This sounded ironic to me, but he said it wasn’t meant to. At present, it is only available in Spanish, though he hopes there will be an English edition. In the meantime, he opened up his laptop, and directed me to a translation of the Jorge Luis Borges poem ‘Juan Lopez And John Ward’, published three years after the conflict.

‘They would have been friends,’ wrote Borges, ‘but they saw each other face to face only once, on some too famous islands. They were buried together. The snow and the corruption know them. The events I am referring to happened in a time that we cannot understand.’
* * *
Borges, part-British himself, grew up in a house just a few blocks from Ronnie Quinn’s restaurant, on a street that was then called Serrano but has since been re-named after the great author. I am pleased to be able to say that I have walked along Jorge Luis Borges on a Sunday afternoon.

It seems agreeably Borgesian to think that a person could also be a place, and vice versa – to imagine that you might meet Dub-lin in a pub, or lose your bearings in Kafka, or get into a bitter, tearful screaming match with Stockholm at the top of a Ferris wheel. I had hoped to use Borges as my spirit guide to Buenos Aires, a city that he judged to be ‘as eternal as water and air’. But I couldn’t find any of his books in English.

Buenos Aires can and does boast of its many splendid bookshops, most notably El Ateneo, the gorgeous former theatre and cinema that was latterly refitted with stacks and shelves from the stalls to the gods. Even that vast, curving space contains no Borges in translation, nor any English works except for Stephen King and a few other bestsellers. I went to look in The Book Cellar, a secondhand stockist confusingly positioned on the third floor of a high-rise residential building in the Belgrano district. (For every section of this city named after a writer or scientist, there are ten more that honour some historical warmonger, though some would argue such a title better fits Margaret Thatcher than General Manuel Belgrano, who also gave his name to the Argentine naval cruiser so contentiously sunk in the Falklands/ Malvinas conflict.)

Owner Daniel Zachariah described his operation as a ‘clandestine bookshop’, run out of a rented apartment. He does most of his buying and selling online, and allows home visits by appointment only. Zachariah referred to himself as an ‘Essex boy’, and an ‘immigrant’, as opposed to an ‘ex-pat’.

‘People love to say they’re ‘ex-pats’,’ he told me, ‘just because they moved here from the UK or the States, not Mexico or Bolivia. If you came down for a new life, you’re a fuckin’ immigrant mate, like anyone else.’

Zachariah came for love of a local woman, who is now his wife. When she briefly threw him out a few years ago, along with all his books, he set himself up in this flat, and his small personal collection grew into a business. He now carries more English titles than most, and offers them at much saner prices than anyone else in Buenos Aires. The English language itself was forced out of favour here during the dictatorship, the war, and the long trade embargo that followed, explained Zachariah.

‘English books are only now coming back in style,’ he said, though the current centre-left government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as recently blocked imports from overseas publishers, on the spurious grounds that foreign ink may contain harmful concentrations of lead. (The actual reasons are more likely connected to the same new policy of economic protectionism that saw last month’s dramatic re-nationalisation of the oil company YPF.)

In the short term, a lack of supply can only increase the demand for Zachariah’s stock. ‘In the long term, it might not be so good,’ he said. In any case, he was all out of Borges. ‘The students snap him up, mate.’

Denied direct access to the spell of his words, and the secret knowledge that allowed Borges to locate the centre of the universe in a basement on Tacuarí street, I resigned myself to walking the well-marked tourist trail that the maestro left behind him. His childhood home in Palermo. The apartment where he lived for 40 years off the Plaza San Martín.

The Café Tortoni, where a waxwork Borges now sits at a corner table talking to an effigy of the great tango singer Carlos Gardel. And the Miguel Cané library, where the unhappy author worked a dull job cataloguing books in a small and windowless back room between 1938 and 1946. But this was also where he wrote his masterpiece ‘The Library of Babel’, a short story that indexed within itself every book ever written.

An assistant named Marcela led me up a narrow staircase to the room that was now preserved in his memory. Fittingly, we did not understand each other, and the library became a Babel of two, as she tried to explain in Spanish how Borges had occupied this space. I listened very carefully, enjoying the sound of the words. ‘Complicado.’ ‘Symbol-ico.’ ‘Solitario.’
* * *
Borges used to take the number 7 tram to that job in the Boedo district. The trams are now long gone, but a replacement bus still serves the same route, with the same number. Porteños, perhaps the proudest urban people in the world, claim to have invented public buses.

According to Daniel Tunnard, another British immigrant and self-made expert on the subject, this is not true. ‘I hate to give them credit for anything,’ he told me, ‘but it was actually the French.’ Buenos Aires did invent the ‘colectivo’, which began as a kind of group taxi service in the 1940s, and developed into a network of privately owned and beautifully decorated mass transit vehicles. Most of those are gone now too. The modern buses look boringly municipal, but the routes make for an impressive tangle – some 136 separate lines threading and looping through the city. Tunnard set out to ride them all and write about it for a combined blog, book, and documentary project called Colectevizashion. The night before he took his last few buses, I joined him on the
number 188 from Plaza Italia to the southern suburb of Popeya. ‘It does funny things to you,’ he said, of all this bus travel.

‘It makes you more patient, more stoical. But I get home and my head is spinning like I’ve been on a boat.’ It was now the evening rush hour. The bus was packed, and we had to stand. Tunnard pointed out landmarks as we passed – the Huricán football stadium, the Femsa Coca-Cola bottling plant. He said he had been partly inspired by AJ Jacobs’s book The Know It All, for which the author read every volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was also motivated by the fact that he had barely seen half of Buenos Aires after living here for over a decade.

‘I used to look at a map of the grid expanses south of Rivadavia [the avenue that bisects the city, named after Argentina’s first president], and wonder what was out there.’ Now he knows: a lot of slums and shantytowns. ‘When I first went out to these places I basically shit myself,’ said Tunnard. ‘But you see it’s not all drugs and gangs, it’s mostly normal people walking around. Families, and kids, and workers.’

Even so, he told me, there were areas he would rather not find himself at night. Like the far side of the Ria Chuelo, which is currently ranked the third most polluted river in the world. So we both had to laugh when we missed our stop in Pompeya, and the bus sailed on over the bridge.

This had never happened to Tunnard before. ‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘We’ll be okay if we don’t turn right.’ The driver duly turned right, and the city lights dropped away behind us. We were now off the map of the federal capital. We could hardly see into the darkness of the Villa Fiorito, the vast slum where Diego Maradonna was born. There were open fires in the distance, and the streets were lined with abandoned buildings.

‘We are not getting off here,’ said Tun-nard. ‘We’ll just have to stay on.’ The bus had mostly emptied by this point, and was not stopping anyway. We kept on going, deeper into the blank space of unofficial settlements that orbit Buenos Aires. ‘I don’t know where we are now,’ Tunnard admitted. ‘Are you nervous?’ I asked him. ‘I’m …curious,’ he said.

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