Saturday, 6 February 2010

Borges, Citizen of Buenos Aires

Though I didn’t make a special effort to find a rental there, I am now living in a stretch of calle Serrano (Serrano Street) that was, a number of years ago, renamed calle Jorge Luis Borges, in the old Buenos Aires barrio of Palermo. Borges was born on calle Serrano in 1899, but his childhood home was evenutally demolished (a disappearance that wouldn’t, I think, have surprised him). This part of Palermo, again, was renamed at some point Palermo Soho, either in honor of London or New York or both. Another part is called Palermo Chico, another, Palermo Viejo, and still another Palermo Hollywood. Actually, New Yorkers might conclude that P. Soho resembled Greenwich Village, an inexpensive neighborhood that became fashionable over time partly because it contained some interesting old architecture and partly because low rents enabled artists and bohemians to live there. (This feature of Palermor Soho has now been brushed aside.) The busy center of it all is Plazoleta Cortàzar (formerly Plaza Serrano), renamed in honor of the experimental Argentine novelist, who, along with Borges, ushered in the “boom” for Latin American fiction that began in the 1960s.

One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Buenos Aires was to see the environment that fostered one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Because of his many travels and the multinational references in his writing, we think of Borges as a supremely cosmopolitan author. He is, yes, but it must be remembered that JLB over and again affirmed his nationality and, even more, his home city. His first book of poems was titled Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion/Fervor of/for Buenos Aires), which, besides several poems with Palermo settings, contains the lines “siempre estaba (y estaré) a Buenos Aires.” (“I always was and always will be in Buenos Aires.”) The poem opening the volume is titled “La Recoleta” and describes the city’s most famous necropolis, situated in Recoleta, where rich porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) have lived since the 19th century. The poem’s final line describes it as “el luego de mi ceniza,” “the site of my ashes.” In the event, it didn’t turn out to be that because Borges is buried in a cemetery in Geneva, where he lived the last two years of his life.

I went to see the cemetery, which is enclosed by a wall, with an entrance bearing the motto REQUIESCANT IN PACE. The sentiment can’t be entirely true, considering how many visitors flock here, the great majority anxious, I suppose, to see the tomb of Eva Perón. What they don’t bargain for is the labyrinthine acreage of marble, granite and onyx they must pass through before finding her in the Duarte family vault--mausoleum after elaborate mausoleum, dating from the early 19th century up until the mid-20th. This must be the most resolute necropolis in the world, with no exposed earth and no grass, just a few arbor vitae trees planted in one or two places along the central avenue. In addition to the main grid of fairly wide streets, there are other diagonals cutting through the right angles, and it's easy to get lost, even with a map in hand. I was struck by the duplication of names on the mausoleums and the street names of Buenos Aires: Rivadavia, Saenz Peña, Sarmiento, Figueroa, Saavedra, etc. But I also wondered whether many visitors had the remotest idea who those figures were. As for the others, not eminent enough to have streets named after them, the bid for immortality was hopeless. Stone funereal monuments, designed to serve as a reminder to the living of the dead, all too soon become essentially anonymous once the descendants of the commemorated person themselves die.

I found the Casares family vault, where I believe Adolfo Bioy Casares is buried. He was of course Borges’s closest writer friend and indeed collaborator in several works published under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. As for Borges’s poem “La Recoleta,” it must finally be read figuratively; first poem in his first volume, it implies that the book itself is a kind of necropolis, each poem a tomb inscription, recording some important moment of feeling that has now ceased to live and breathe. In fact, the topic of two of the poems is a tomb inscription, and there is an elegy for his grandfather, plus a poem titled “Remordimiento por cualquier muerto” (“Remorse for an unknown dead man.”) Wordsworth stated a similar view of the, should we call it, mortuary relationship between poems and the occasions that inspired them in his “Essay on Epitaphs.” “Emotion recollected in tranquillity” is, truth to tell, emotion only in a secondary sense. Written with the lofty despair characteristic of twenty-somethings, Borges’s first book is filled with late afternoons and sunsets, with elegies, goodbyes, and terminations. There are a few wrenching poems about the end of a love affair about which we’re given no details. I sense the mystery of Borges’s personality but don’t know where to begin in trying to understand it. There are doors that close with complete finality, some of these being mausoleum doors.

As a footnote, I’ll mention coming upon—an event that doesn’t strike me as in any way inevitable—the granite final hermitage of someone named Alfred Cornu. I’d been noticing that the local custom here was for friends or institutions to attach bronze plaques to the tombs of the deceased person. Cornu’s had one saying: Querido Alfredito, vives en los corazones de tus amigos. ("Dear Alf, You live in the hearts of your friends.") Let’s hope the equivalent will be said when time comes (perhaps twenty years from now?) to say goodbye to "fervor for Planet Earth," even if the sentiments don’t get recorded in bronze.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The View from Down Here

A paradox about setting down experience in a diary or a blog is that during periods filled with events worth noting, you don’t have a lot of leisure to record what you are doing and seeing. Instead of constructing a carefully worked-out argument, here are just a few thoughts I’ve had during my first month in Buenos Aires.

Weather: I expected warm temperatures but nothing prepared me for the hottest January the city has experienced in the past half century. I made up my mind not to be bothered by it and have mostly managed. The light is strong and white, a danger to anyone not using sunblock. Since arriving I’ve seen that the concentration of skin melanin has intensified enough to make it possible for me to go out in relative safety. Buenos Aires is situated on the 34th Parallel South, equivalents in the Northern Hemisphere including Rabat, Morocco, and Los Angeles, U.S.A. I arrived less than a month after the Southern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. But of course other factors besides distance from the Equator and the seasons shape climate. Other spots on this parallel are hotter and still others colder. I was curious to have proved or disproved the old claim that water spinning down a drain in the Southern Hemisphere makes a counter-clockwise vortex as opposed to the Northern Hemisphere’s clockwise counterpart. More than half the time it seems to do so, though sometimes changing direction during the process. Again, other factors can affect what happens.

I also wanted to see the constellations down here, the most famous of these, the Southern Cross. That one, I definitely have seen, but others have been harder to locate because of competing urban nighttime illumination, as well as my unfamiliarity with the connect-the-dot patterns. Staring upward at the rearranged light sources, I imagined I could intuit sensations the early European explorers must have felt once they left behind the familiar zodiac and the fixed beacon of the North Star. What had always in the Northern Hemisphere seemed permanent simply dipped out of sight below the horizon, an event that can only have been deeply unsettling. I speculate, too, that our brains have some low-level grasp of the magnetic fields circling the planet. Anyway, on arriving here, I found that my usually infallible sense of direction deserted me. I have had to memorize where north is; I no longer sense the direction unconsciously. (A situation not helped by the reversal of north-south representation on some of the maps I’ve seen here.) North, when I locate it, no longer feels “up” to me; it feels “down.” Make of that what you will.

When I’ve visited Latin countries in the past, I’ve always been struck by the great social weight of Catholicism, a palpable force in the unfolding of each day and each year. In Mexico, bells ringing at the moment of consecration in the mass begin early in the day and conclude late. In Buenos Aires I haven’t, during the past month, heard a single bell. In the neighborhood where I am staying, I’ve come across only one church. The Church here doesn’t seem to have the overwhelming influence experienced elsewhere. It is taken more lightly. Just possibly there is (aside from historical forces particular to Argentina) a geographical/seasonal explanation for the prevailing secularism. The Catholic church calendar was devised in the Northern Hemisphere. In the depths of winter darkness a Holy Child appears, bringing light, his Epiphany revealed at the moment when the sun begins to climb on the horizon and days begin to lengthen again. There follows a long series of months (accompanied in earlier centuries by a shortage of food) that just somehow have to be slogged through, a time when discipline is urged on all the congregants. And then the dramatic finale in which the god is slain and green returns to the earth, along with spring flowers. After several months of heavenly weather and a bright sun ascending to its zenith in the sky, the season turns again and autumnal thoughts of darkness and eventual death return, as the cycle begins anew. All right: but down here, the cycle is reversed. Christmas falls in high summer, when you don’t need the birth of new light in order to continue to hope. Then Lent stretches through a couple of warm, abundant months until Eastertide, which arrives with autumn cold and the withering of foliage. Psychologically, these seasonal changes clash with the archetypal patterns established in the traditional calendar, the inevitable result being that its impact is much weakened. This strikes me as so apparent I’m surprised no one ever seems to have discussed it. I experienced the whole question in epitomized form one day shortly after arrival. In a public square they still hadn’t taken down a big artificial Christmas tree. A fake evergreen with golden tinsel decoration, it was absolutely broiling in the bright sunlight and looked as out of place as a Lapland reindeer in the Mojave desert.

I’ve begun with general geographic and climate considerations and will go one from here to talk about Argentinian history and culture, with a special focus on the “Ciudad Autónoma,” the capital of Buenos Aires.  Stay tuned.