The Buenos Aires Book Fair, as I found out when I visited it this April, repeats in microcosm the grandly geometrical city that hosts it. Endless bustling "streets" run through the exhibition halls in a vast grid pattern, as numbers on their thronged stalls climb to telephone-number heights. Yet outside the pavilions, in a cute paddock, horses happily canter. The whole site is called La Rural, after the annual festival of agricultural life for which it was built. That breeze from the wide open spaces of the pampas somehow still blows through the metropolis.
This dialogue, or dispute, between the country and the city has seeded much of the literature of Argentina ever since Jose Hernández's epic poem about the gaucho Martí* Fierro. It might offer readers here an entry-point into the nation's rich harvest of modern fiction. However, as I met the idealistic writers, booksellers and independent publishers of Buenos Aires, I did wonder how many of the books that thrilled them we would ever get the chance to read.
I'm pleased to report that my pessimism was misplaced. It's remarkable enough if, within a single season, a couple of novels from the same faraway country surface in English translation. By these sluggish standards, autumn 2011 will witness a thundering-hoofed stampede of new writing from Argentina. It encompasses novels by Carlos Gamerro and Iosi Havilio (see page 25), Claudia Piñeiro, Matías Néspolo and the late Tomás Eloy Martínez, as well as – a little earlier - the paperback of Marcelo Figueras's Kamchatka, which was shortlisted for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Why this sudden feast, when famine is the norm? These waves of international interest never roll in by accident, however robust the state of Argentina's fiction. (Argentinian writers made up seven of Granta magazine's 22-strong squad of the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.) The nation's role as "country of honour" at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair plays a part, as does the quietly effective promotion by my hosts, the arts trust Fundació* TyPA. It was, by the way, sad to learn that writers and readers in Buenos Aires feel that – when it comes to cultural flows the other way – the British Council has more or less given up on Argentina (even though Ian McEwan's Solar was topping the charts in some bookstores).
But great events drive literature, as much as institutions. After the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1983, Argentina's reborn democracy settled accounts with those seven years of hell in large part through the power of the written word: in fiction, reportage and history. Then, in 2001, came the calamitous default on national debts that now gives Greece and Europe nightmares. The murderous junta had suddenly plunged an educated, first-world middle-class culture into the political abyss; the financial meltdown did the same for its economic life. No wonder authors as sophisticated as any on the planet found themselves with plenty of stories to tell. And yet they they filtered these new conditions through the lenses of tradition: Figueras's Kamchatka, Gamerro's An Open Secret and Havilio's Open Door all send city folk out into the sticks in the aftermath of traumas both private and political.
Next spring will see the 30th anniversary of the Falklands-Malvinas war that killed more than 900 young men from Argentina and the UK. Two bald men fighting over a comb, said Jorge-Luis Borges - that Anglo-Saxon speaker from Calle Maipu, who had a Northumbrian granny. The comb, which remains contentious, teased out many state-of-the nation novels from both ends of the Atlantic: next year, an English translation of Gamerro's satire The Islands is due.
In Britain, Falklands fiction – from David Mitchell to Jon McGregor – directs its gaze at the Thatcher-era ruptures in the social contract that still sway politics and culture. In Argentina, the Malvinas novel joins a current of artistic reflection on dictatorship and its role in diverting or deforming identity. Writers from both sides would, I suspect, find a lot to say to each other; let's hope that, in 2012, they will meet. Such a summit would make far brisker bilateral progress than the diplomatic deadlock of the past three decades.
Kindling a new entry in the OED?
In the e-reader marketplace, competition still intensifies. Amazon has cut the price of its basic Kindle to £89; WH Smith has done a deal with the makers of the Kobo; Barnes & Noble in the US will unveil a new Nook on Monday. And the UK trade awaits Waterstone's own device. But has Amazon won the language war? To my ear at least, "Kindle" seems on the way to joining Biro, Hoover and Coke as a proprietary brand that serves as a general noun. That would mark a truly decisive victory for Amazon chief Jeff Bezos (above). Will we hear soon from the OED lexicographers? But they have a vested interest - since Kindles come preloaded with a shorter Oxford dictionary.
St Paul's row: Dean damns rich
I bring you news from St Paul's. The Dean has preached a sermon. It is a ferocious attack on the irresponsible rich and a militant defence of the powerless. The conservative press will thunder its outrage; the government will snarl; the City will call for the CofE to be brought to heel. This turbulent priest claims that "the poor are immediately in God's protection". "He who oppresses the poor, reproaches God." He weighs envy against the far greater sin of exploitation and insists that God's judgement "will be against this oppressor of the poor". For the poor "resemble Christ, who lived in continual poverty", while the rich man who refuses to relieve suffering is damned. He who "makes himself insensible of the cries and curses of the poor here in this world does but prepare himself for the bawlings and gnashings of teeth in the world to come". Arrest that rabble-rouser, City cops! Too late. The venue of the sermon? St Paul's Cathedral. The date? 23 November 1628. The Dean? Dr John Donne (Sermon CXXIII).