Nicknamed “the Paris of South America”, Buenos Aires is a heady collision of South American and European culture. Football, food and fiesta pulse through the city’s arteries, while a tango “cannot be written” without the streets and dusks of Buenos Aires, according to Argentina’s most famous author Jorge Luis Borges. But beneath this technicoloured veneer lies a city with a less shiny but equally compelling reality. Here, the residue of a complicated political history still seeps through the cracks, neighbourhood quarrels spill over onto its leafy street corners and workers pack commuter trains like sardines. This tension, between glamour and grit, is what gives the city its literary allure.
One writer captivated by this tension is Ariana Harwicz, a contemporary Argentinian novelist whose debut novel Die, My Love was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Born in Buenos Aires, Harwicz grew up to the beat of the city and the writers who who shaped it: Borges, Cortázar, Aira. Today, she is at the forefront of Argentinian literature, and the psychological acuity of her works have earned her comparisons to both Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Through eight novels and short stories, Harwicz takes us on a tour of her Buenos Aires, reaching corners and crevices of the city and its literature, that would otherwise go unexplored.
“Borges says two things in this short story that always bring me back, in one way or another, to Buenos Aires. Or perhaps it’s actually three things, because in the story he also talks about the ‘modest difference of Buenos Aires’. He writes about a café on Brazil street, near President Yrigoyen’s house, where there was a cat that let people stroke it. It is a typical city scene: a café, a street, a political reference that is never too far, a cat – a divine entity for Borges – that lets itself be stroked. He also says that in Buenos Aires the rulebook dictates that the South begins on the other side of Rivadavia Avenue. Borges thus divides North and South. He is the literary cartographer of this literary city.”
“Literature is an outlandish family, with unthinkable relationships, some legitimate, some less so. How much does Cortázar’s Hopscotch owe to Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres? Plenty. Enough. Its conception, and the tone of its second part, no doubt. Marechal’s creation: an entire neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. And Cortázar’s literature is somehow a precursor of all things ‘neighbourhood’. Debts. Literature is an outlandish family where everybody is indebted to someone else, with a debt that shall never be repaid.”
“If you’ve never been to Buenos Aires and have never heard of Roberto Arlt – or if you think that Buenos Aires is a European-looking corner with a couple dancing tango on a cobbled street – then I recommend you make your way to Constitución train station. From here, take a train round 6 or 7pm heading south (or else, take a train at 7 or 8am from the outskirts of the city into town). While travelling on board one of these carriages you will realise how supple the human body can be. After that, read the first thirty pages of The Mad Toy and you’ll understand why for many porteños it seems more dignified, more just, to be a thief than to commute to work every day.”
“There is an area in Palermo, a central neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, known as Puente Pacífico (Pacific Bridge) where, according to Elvio E Gandolfo, there are two living beings. One is gigantic and rests and moves around underneath the city inciting imperceptible movements or incidents among its inhabitants. The other is small, made up of millions of tiny microorganisms, which also manufacture invisible fates. But no one knows about them, except those lucky enough to have read Gandolfo’s stories.”
“The Narration of History is one of the first stories about homosexual love to be published in Argentina (and of course censored in 1960). It is a text that also takes you on a promenade along Costanera Sur. After reading it, every time you take a stroll down Costanera Sur on the banks of the Río de la Plata, you will think of Correas but, above all, you’ll think about history, and its relentless repetition of injustices. Like not having read this story, or indeed anything, by Carlos Correas, one of the best Argentinian writers of the second half of the 20th century.”
“The title of this book is so good, and the novel is so brilliant that people tend to forget that it opens with a scene in the Buenos Aires Zoo, with someone looking at and drawing a panther. Since reading this novel, the zoo of Buenos Aires for me is always Manuel Puig, and that black panther, so threatening, so fabulously sensual.”
“When I think of Tabarovsky’s novel, I can’t help but recall its trees that stand like old guardians. They are plane trees, forty, fifty-year-old plane trees, maybe older. Their roots break through the paving stones and lift the pavement, like a force unleashing from the centre of the Earth. The Spanish plane tree, prevalent on Thames Street, is a hybrid, like most things in this city. Like this book – half essay half novel – set on a street that I’ve surely walked.”
“ ‘At what age is it permisible to torture a child?’ The main character, a conscript, grabs hold of a pencil and squeezes in a second ‘s’ after the ‘i’. You come out from watching a football match in the River Plate stadium and only 500 metres away is the ESMA, the Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy, one of the most violent detention centres in Argentina’s last military dictatorship. That is also my city. Every time I see the cafés near ESMA, I think of the torturers sipping on their coffees. On the cover of Kohan’s novel it reads, and I think it’s true, that fiction is the best type of language, perhaps even the only one, that can be used to narrate the truth.”