Whenever people ask why I came to Argentina, I have one answer – Jorge Luis Borges. The reason I stayed is wine. But gradually I begin to feel that actually the reason I am still here is more linked to the famous Argentine scribe. His fantastical writings describe precisely the magical realism that is life in Argentina.
Jorge Borges’s enchanting tales of never-ending libraries and minds with inexplicable catalogues seem fantastical at first and you will always find this important Argentine writer under the Magical Realism section. Some critics argue that his style is actually a predecessor to the now famous literary genre but there is no doubting he is a major influence. Much of his writing documents the chaotic city of Buenos Aires with characters and surreal incidents a foreign reader can only assume are completely unreal. Borges’ tales have hints of the absurd peppered into reality.
Indeed life in South America and particularly in Argentina has moments that completely suspend disbelief and take you to a very abnormal reality. Geographically and climatically this continent is pretty extraordinary. In Mendoza, a hot summer’s day can be interrupted by a sudden ice storm throwing down hail stones the size of a magician’s crystal ball. The Sahara style Zonda wind then blows into town and whips up a burning sand storm. Temperatures of up to 45 degrees are followed by a Narnia-esque deep cold for days. The locals suddenly disappear and crawl into the woodwork. The swaying sea legs caused by the low pressure of a Zonda, feels like something right out of a magical realism novel. The fact that plants grow at supersonic speeds is also good proof that Jack and the Giant Beanstalk was actually based in Lujan. And lets not talk about the communal sleeping sickness that keeps up entire families until the early hours in summer.
Another character of Magical Realism is political critique. Borges wrote in a journalistic capacity and had close proximity with the politics of his country. He wrote during a time of a quasi-dictatorship under Peron, arguably not too dissimilar to the current administration. He spoke out against Peron on many occasions, deeply opposing his actions and outlandish behavior, once commenting: “I resented Perón’s making Argentina look ridiculous to the world… as in 1951, when he announced control over thermonuclear fusion, which still hasn’t happened anywhere but in the sun and the stars.”
It’s not hard to see some parallels with the current political regime, which makes all sorts of ridiculous statements and can at times seem pretty surreal too. A political system that values your vote with a free hotdog, bans foreign currencies unless you are of course part f the goverment, offers free breast implants to the ladies and football for the boys is ripe for poetic ridicule and Borgesian musing.
In a bookish anecdote of this country’s peculiar politics, the President and her government recently decided to ban the import of all foreign books – saying that the amount of lead they contained was too poisonous. This attack on what has to be one of the most literature crazy countries in the World resulted in a mass protest and the government eventually relented and lifted the ban.
Crisis and ludicrousness breeds creativity though. And it is perhaps because of Argentina’s completely surreal reality that its authors are outstanding in the magical realist genre. It definitely doesn’t make it a boring place to live either. It can actually be quite magical.
Reality is not always probable, or likely.
Jorge Luis Borges
Borges and his Books
If you haven’t read anything by Borges, you really should. Here’s a peek into some of his most fantastical creations:
Poor old Funes
If you curse yourself every time you lose your keys then you need to read Funes the Memorious. Forgetting things may be painful, but remembering every single thing is undoubtedly worse. Ireneo is a boy who remembers every single detail, movement, light, colour, numbers and all the information of life at every moment. Storing the unending catalogues of information in his head is so painful that the poor guy ends up living in a dark room. This wonderful short story reminds you that sometimes it is better to forget.
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
This short story will bend your mind over concepts of authorship and ownership. Pierre Menard gets so involved in translating the 17th century novel Don Quixote that he ends up re-creating it line for line. His interpretation is word for word exactly the same as the original, but he is convinced it is all his own work. Don’t try this at home, and certainly don’t try and publish one.
The Library of Babel
The ultimate bookworm’s tale: the entire universe exists within one library. There are infinite books of every single book ever written, in all its formats, and with a translation into every language. It makes the librarians’ lives hell and creates great divisions between them. A philosophical microcosm of the world.
Borges created a place where all the ends meet and you can see everything happening in the world, and you can happen to find it in Buenos Aires. This immortal spot is the junction at Avenida Garay and Calle Tacuari which you can still visit today although you’ll have to use your imagination a bit to see everything and every angle in the universe simultaneously as Borges described it.
The Book of Sand
Every author’s nightmare – a book that never ends. Borges wrote about how he came across this diabolical never-ending book that completely absorbs the owner. Wanting to get his own life back from this consuming book he considers burning it, but is concerned it will never stop smoking and will choke the world to death. So, instead, he sneaks it into the Argentine National Library where it is still hidden among an infinity of lost books today.