The Bride from Odessa by Edgardo Cozarinsky, trs Nick Caistor

Welcome to the Paris of the pampas
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The Independent Culture

Buenos Aires, with its tree-lined plazas and statues of frock-coated 19th-century politicians, suggests a patrician Paris of the pampas. In reality, the Argentine capital is a vibrant immigrant community and cultural pot-pourri. Between 1857 and 1930, more than six million impoverished or persecuted Italians, Irish and Russians settled in the teeming metropolis. Open the Buenos Aires phone directory and the city reveals all nations: Diego MacFarlane, Israel Rosenbaum. Appropriately, this most international capital shows an architectural goulash of styles: Gothic, Baroque and Moorish are sometimes jumbled into one façade. The Buenos Aires zoo is an extraordinary hymn to ornamental unruliness, where the aviary is a miniature Russian Orthodox church, and the bear-house a Jacobean castle.

Edgardo Cozarinsky, the grandson of Russian immigrants to Buenos Aires, is a writer and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1974. Not surprisingly his fiction displays a cosmopolitan diversity of influences, from Nabokov to Henry James. The Bride from Odessa, a collection of Cozarinsky's short stories, is haunted throughout by the émigré's "ghostly existence", the plight of uprooted exiles and other victims of history. In the title story, a shtetl-born Odessa Jew is about to embark for a new life overseas, but is distracted at the dockside by a mysterious girl, who turns out to be a non-Jew. Guiltily he absconds with her to Buenos Aires, where he starts a family and is subsumed into the city's fabulous cultural intermingling.

The Argentine capital is the setting also of "Days of 1937", one of the best stories here. An émigré from Hitler's Berlin routinely plays piano in a Buenos Aires nightclub, only to find his recitals disturbed by an unknown German admirer, who sends him requests for music on slips of peach-coloured paper ("Please, maestro, play: 'Allein in einer grossen Stadt'"). Gradually the émigré finds himself drawn back to the world of 1937 Berlin, with its atmosphere of Marlene Dietrich and smoky Weimar cabaret, but is caught hopelessly between two cultures.

Elsewhere Cozarinsky has confessed his admiration for J L Borges, and indeed he has written on the Argentine fabulist's unlikely passion for Hitchcock's Psycho and Mae West movies. The Bride from Odessa is fraught with references to film, especially to the great Russian directors. Tarkovsky's religious eye is evident, I think, in the short story "Literature", set partly in the Russian Orthodox church of Buenos Aires, whose interior is irradiated with a "reddish light" and the "gold of the iconostasis". A quizzical, questioning spirit, Cozarinsky is interested above all in convulsions of history and their sorry aftermath. Hitler's destruction of European Jewry is at the heart of his fine story "Budapest", set in the present-day Hungarian capital but intercut with scenes of life under the Nazi occupation, when Jews were thrown live into the icy Danube or deported in their thousands to Auschwitz.

In the equally memorable "Émigré Hotel", an Argentine-American Jew travels to Lisbon to unravel the truth of his grandparents' affair there in 1940, only to expose a cat's-cradle of family secrets and shame. With his dark sense of the absurd and quietly incisive wit, Cozarinsky is drawn irresistibly to European capitals with a guilty past. Yet it is Buenos Aires, with its polyglot immigrant confusion and myriad cafés, bars, beer cellars, meat-packing plants and confiterías, that remains the real hero of this collection. Cozarinsky writes superbly of exile, love and death in the Argentine capital, and we are lucky to have him. He has been beautifully translated by Nick Caistor.

Ian Thomson's 'Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti' is re-issued in May with a new preface by J G Ballard

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