Books: Argie-bargy

Life in Buenos Aires is enraging. Frank McLynn explains why: Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 18.99
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Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, who rails at the horrors and frustrations of modern life, should try living in Buenos Aires. Ogden Nash's Dr Fell - the sort of person ahead of you in the queue who is forever buying a season ticket to Inverness when you have seconds to catch your train - has clearly been cloned and put in all positions of authority, both great and petty, in Argentina. When I lived there in the 1970s, I constantly marvelled at the way everything seemed to have been arranged as if it were deliberately contrary to reason. I learn from Miranda France's book that nothing much has changed.

Portenos, as the inhabitants of BA are called, suffer from severe internalised rage or bronca which goes way beyond our "road rage" and accounts for the fact that the city has three times as many psychoanalysts per capita as New York. As we can deduce from the more thoughtful tangos, portenos have a severe identity problem, which seems to have three main strands.

One is racial or cultural: as the old saying goes, an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks he's French but would like to be English. The second is economic: Argentines cannot understand why their potentially rich country is not as prosperous as Canada or Australia, since all three nations had roughly the same economic take-off point.

The third is geographical: despising all their Latin American neighbours, especially Brazil, they are oppressed by the thought that they should not be stuck in the southern hemisphere, so far from Europe, which is where they should "really" be. The phrase "stranded at the end of the world" recurs in Miranda France's narrative.

Despite having a shaky grasp of Argentine history, Miranda France conveys very well the perplexity the average gringo is likely to feel when faced with porteno neurosis. She does not exaggerate when she describes the wilful obstructionism of Argentine officialdom - reader, I too, like Tiresias (and Miranda France) have suffered all. The bureaucrats of Buenos Aires make the inhabitants of Dickens's Circumlocution Office look like rank amateurs. Deja vu was my sensation when she described the battle of wills involved to get a library assistant to perform a simple photocopying task.

The book begins brilliantly with the author's comic experience of the Buenos Aires telephone system, where half the calls received were wrong numbers, usually dialled by effervescent psychotics refusing to accept the reality of the misconnection. Sadly, France cannot maintain the inspiration of the early pages of black comedy, so that the later chapters - on Eva Peron, the Malvinas, the "dirty war" and the "disappeared" - are a letdown; we have been there before, too many times. In writing it is a mistake to serve all the good wine first, but for all that I will be back when Miranda France uncorks her next bottle.

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