Buenos Aires: A Literary City by Diana Ferraro

Where the world’s map almost ends, as an afterthought of the Spanish conquistadors, Buenos Aires stands up as one of the great city capitals. Leaning on the Rio de la Plata, the widest river on earth, the city's primeval spirit comes from its port-"--Y fue por este rio de sueñera y de barro/ que las proas vinieron a fundarme la patria?" “Was it then, by this sleepy and muddy river, that bows came in to found my homeland?" says Jorge Luis Borges, the most famous of porteño, that is, Buenos Aires’ writers. Since the beginning, the port represented the opening to the world beyond the river and the Atlantic Ocean and, by the end of the 19th century and beginnings of the 20th, it became the key to the amazing Argentine wealth. Founded twice, in 1516 with no luck, for the Indians killed the Spaniards and in 1536, with a more endurable success, Buenos Aires wouldn’t accomplish the initial promise, to delivering silver, that imperial dream which gave its name to the river and to Argentina, but would still prosper. The city’s fate was signed by the land barons, the estancieros when they became commercial partners of the British Empire, selling grain and meat, and building over the remainders of the poor, modest colonial town, the European city that has lasted until now.

Buenos Aires is seen as the different, exclusive city in Latin America, with its French and Italian imprint, as well as the British touch and a distinguished Madrid-Spanish style, peeking here and there, and where the European literary tradition, whether Hispanic, French or British and later Italian, has always been part of the city’s heritage. The universality of its rich literary landscape comes from these deep Western roots rather than from any native primitive culture and the character of its production is specific and personal, and more related to its location, far away from the civilized world and inserted as an anomaly on the large, void flatlands of the pampa.

Buenos Aires’s first name was Santa Mara del Buen Aire, the virgin patroness of sailors, who relied on the “good air," that is, the wind that would allow a fast and secure journey. Four centuries of colonial rule did little or nothing for the city, which even as the capital of the Virreynato del R1o de la Plata, kept its muddy and neglected profile, once it was clear that there were no silver mines around and before the extraordinary wealth of the pampas found its way. Under the double sign of air and mud, Buenos Aires, self-perceived as the last post of Western Civilization in a void, meaningless land, became a place fertile in writers. Distance and emptiness have marked this fate: where other cities in the world have represented a better metaphor of the writer, one who's always on the margins of whichever society by temper, and prone to fill any void with fantasies and the works of imagination? Far away from the great cultural capitals of the world but still craving for the civilized “best" which seemed so out of reach, local writers have always looked from the port onto the river, and further, to the sea and up to the sky, crawling distances and time, and making of the invisible world of inherited diverse cultures the substratum for their own creations. Faithful to the Spanish cultural roots or breaking away toward French and British influences and whether coming from the high educated classes, like Borges or from the middle class like Roberto Arlt, the porteño writers have a unique identity in the literature of the world. Wistful and spiritual, megalomaniac and universal, romantic and passionate, often pushing pathos into bathos and making of the grotesque a local style, Buenos Aires writers have created a literary class across centuries. No matter where their own family comes from, they represent the city’s particularity which, in a not quite federalized country, is still seen as the most precious Argentine jewel, that so often quoted “Reina del Plata," Queen of the Plata.

The universal city has created an equally universal library. The early writings of Sarmiento and his founding stone of Argentine culture, the essay “Civilization and Barbarism,2 the brilliant chronicles of Lucio
V. Mansilla and Eduardo Wilde, the avant- lettre existentialist novel of Eugenio Cambaceres, the patriotic consciousness of Leopoldo Lugones, the metaphysical cultural maze of Borges, the graceful world of the novelist Manuel Mujica L¡inez, the grown-up harsh city and its dreamers in the novels of Roberto Arlt, the eternal battle of faith and truth, in the never enough acknowledged extraordinary work of Leopoldo Marechal, the ethereal magic of Julio Cortazar, the dreams of distance and love in Manuel Puig inform, among the work of many other writers, the local prose. Poetry has also found powerful voices, but it’s in the tango lyrics that the highest poetical quality and most distinct local spirit can be traced. If poets such as Alfonsina Storni can be aligned in the modernist ranks and even though in her “Litany of Dead Land" she dares to create a farther beyond than the Western civilization"va dystopian view on the end of all life on earth" it’s in the poetry of Alfredo Le Pera, Homero Manzi, Catulo Castillo and Enrique Cadicamo, among others tango lyricists, where the sweet, melancholy and graceful intimate spirit of the city perspires.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s there was a literary split among the writers: the Florida writers named after the, at that time, elegant street, and the Martin Fierro group, named after the gaucho invented by José Hernandez, a porteño poet devoted to give a voice to the lonely, neglected inland gauchos. Florida was supposed to represent the high-class intellectual endeavors, so inclined to dream upon the invisible or abstract heritages, and Martin Fierro, to report the social changes and the lives of the poor. Needless to say that both currents melted later in the newest generations: writers like Osvaldo Soriano, Ricardo Piglia and César Aira, to name just the three best known abroad, are metaphysical as well as realist writers, and their creations have metamorphosed the literary legacy from the first part of the 20th century into original and equally universal pieces of art reaching the 21st century with a recognizable voice across centuries.

A main actor in the bumpy country’s history, Buenos Aires as a city has provided the artistic witnesses that accounted for it. Greatness as well as the extremes of violence and civil war can be traced in its literature which, as the city and country itself, has always been reborn from ashes after its periodical self-inflicted fires. “No nos une el amor sino el espanto: sera por eso que la quiero tanto," “It’s not love that brings us close but terror: that may explain why I love her so much." as Borges has pointed out, with his wit but also his irreductible endearment to his native place.

As a literary city, Buenos Aires has not only a wonderful international annual book fair, but thriving small publishing houses in quest to renew the city’s well-earned prestige in the world’s publishing industry, somehow tarnished by the country’s financial mishaps of past decades. Borges would maybe repeat now: “A mi se me hace cuento que empezó Buenos Aires: La juzgo tan eterna como el agua y el aire," -- “I don’t believe the tall tale that Buenos Aires ever started: I see this city as eternal as the water and the air," -- to remind us that Buenos Aires literature cannot be but as eternal as the city.


por Leopoldo Lugones

Primogénita ilustre del Plata,

En solar apertura hacia el Este.

Donde atado a tu cinta celeste

Va el gran rio color de león;

Bella sangre de prósperas razas

Esclarece tu altivo salvaje

Pinta su nombre sazón

Arca fuerte de nuestra esperanza.

Fuste insigne de nuestro derecho.

Como el bronce leal sobre el pecho

Asegura al pais tu honra fiel.

La genial Libertad, en tu cielo

Fino manto a la patria blasona,

Y eres tú quien le porta en corona

El decoro natal del laurel.

En tu frente, magnifica torre

De la estirpe, tranquila campea
como amable paloma la idea

De ser grata a los hombres de paz...
esperanza la impulsa y, parece

Cuando asi su remonte acaudalas.

Que de cielo le empluma las alas

Aquel soplo pujante y audaz

Joya humana del mundo dichoso

Que te exalta a su bien venidero.

Como el alba anticipa al lucero

Aun dormida en su pqlido tul,

Cada vez que otro dia dorado

Te aproxima a la nueva ventura.

Se diria que el sol te inaugura

Sobre abismos mis hondos de azul.

Certidumbre de dias mejores

La igualdad de los hombres te inicia

En un vasto esplendor de justicia

Sin iglesia, sin sable y sin ley

Gajo vil de ignorancia y miseria

Todavia espinando retoña

Sobre la espera Cruz de Borgoña

Que trozaste en los tiempos del rey.


Música: Carlos Gardel
Letra: Alfredo Le Pera

Mi Buenos Aires querido

cuando yo te vuelva a ver,

no habra mas pena ni olvido.

El farolito de la calle en que naci

fue el centinela de mis promesas de amor,

bajo su quieta lucecita yo la vi

a mi pebeta, luminosa como un sol.

Hoy que la suerte quiere que te vuelva a ver,

ciudad porteña de mi único querer,

y oigo la queja

de un bandoneón,

dentro del pecho pide rienda el corazón.

Mi Buenos Aires

tierra florida

donde mi vida


Bajo tu amparo

no hay desengaños,

vuelan los años,

se olvida el dolor.

En caravana

los recuerdos pasan,

con una estela

dulce de emoción.

Quiero que sepas

que al evocarte,

se van las penas

de mi corazón.

La ventanita de mi calle de arrabal.

donde sonrie una muchachita en flor,

quiero de nuevo yo volver a contemplar

aquellos ojos que acarician al mirar.

En la cortada mas maleva una canción

dice su ruego de coraje y de pasión,

una promesa

y un suspirar,

borró una lagrima de pena aquel cantar

Mi Buenos Aires querido,

cuando yo te vuelva a ver,

no habra mas pena ni olvido.

Evaristo Carriego

Has vuelto, organillo. En la acera

hay risas. Has vuelto llorón y cansado

como antes.

El ciego te espera

las mas de las noches sentado

a la puerta. Calla y escucha. Borrosas

memorias de cosas lejanas

evoca en silencio, de cosas

de cuando sus ojos tenian mañanas,

de cuando era joven... la novia... ¡quién sabe

Alegrias, penas,

vividas en horas distantes. ¡Qué suave

se le pone el rostro cada vez que suenas

algún aire antiguo! ¡Recuerda y suspiro!

Has vuelto, organillo. La gente

modesta te mira

pasar, melancólicamente.

Pianito que cruzas la calle cansado

moliendo el eterno

familiar motivo que el año pasado

gemia a la luna de invierno:

con tu voz gangosa diras en la esquina

la canción ingenua, la de siempre, acaso

esa preferida de nuestra vecina

la costurerita que dio aquel mal paso.

Y luego de un valse te iras como una

tristeza que cruza la calle desierta,

y habra quien se quede mirando la luna

desde alguna puerta.

¡Adiós, alma nuestra! parece

que dicen las gentes en cuanto te alejas.

¡Pianito del dulce motivo que mece

memorias queridas y viejas!

Anoche, después que te fuiste,

cuando todo el barrio volvia al sosiego

--qué triste--

lloraban los ojos del ciego.

Baldomero Fernandez Moreno

Setenta balcones hay en esta casa,

setenta balcones y ninguna flor.

A sus habitantes, Señor, qué les pasa?

Odian el perfume, odian el color?

La piedra desnuda de tristeza

¡dan una tristeza los negros balcones!

No hay en esta casa una niña novia?

No hay algún poeta lleno de ilusiones?

Ninguno desea ver tras los cristales

una diminuta copia de jardin?

En la piedra blanca trepar los rosales,

en los hierros negros abrirse un jazmin?

Si no aman las plantas no amaran el ave,

no sabran de música, de rimas, de amor.

Nunca se oira un beso, jamas se oira una clave...

¡Setenta balcones y ninguna flor!

por Julio Cortazar
(Titulo original en inglés)

Olvidada pureza, cómo quisiera rescatar

ese dolor de Buenos Aires, esa espera sin pausas ni esperanza.

Solo en mi casa abierta sobre el puerto

otra vez empezar a quererte,

otra vez encontrarte en el café de la mañana

sin que tanta cosa irrenunciable

hubiera sucedido.

Alfonsina Storni

Llegara un dia en que la raza humana
Se habra secado como planta vana,

Y el viejo sol en el espacio sea
Carbón inútil de apagada tea.

Llegara un dia en que el enfriado mundo
Sera un silencio lúgubre y profundo:

Una gran sombra rodeara la esfera
Donde no volvera la primavera;

La tierra muerta, como un ojo ciego,
Seguira andando siempre sin sosiego,

Pero en la sombra, a tientas, solitaria,
Sin un canto, ni un ¡ay!, ni una plegaria.

Sola, con sus criaturas preferidas
En el seno cansadas y dormidas.

(Madre que marcha aún con el veneno
de los hijos ya muertos en el seno.)

Ni una ciudad de pie... Ruinas y escombros
Soportara sobre los muertos hombros.

Desde alli arriba, negra la montaña
La mirara con expresión huraña.

Acaso el mar no sera mas que un duro
Bloque de hielo, como todo oscuro.

Y asi, angustiado en su dureza, a solas
Soñara con sus buques y sus olas,

Y pasara los años en acecho
De un solo barco que le surque el pecho.

Y alla, donde la tierra se le aduna,
Ensoñara la playa con la luna,

Y ya nada tendra mas que el deseo,
Pues la luna sera otro mausoleo.

En vano querra el bloque mover bocas
Para tragar los hombres, y las rocas

Oir sobre ellas el horrendo grito
Del naufrago clamando al infinito:

Ya nada quedara; de polo a polo
Lo habra barrido todo un viento solo:

Voluptuosas moradas de latinos
Y miseros refugios de beduinos;

Oscuras cuevas de los esquimales
Y finas y lujosas catedrales;

Y negros, y amarillos y cobrizos,
Y blancos y malayos y mestizos

Se miraran entonces bajo tierra
Pidiéndose perdón por tanta guerra.

De las manos tomados, la redonda
Tierra, circundaran en una ronda.

Y gemiran en coro de lamentos:
¡Oh cuantos vanos, torpes sufrimientos!

(Editor's Note
For now: some of the spanish vowel markings are missing -- on the a and i in particular -- please allow for this in your reading. Thanks)

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