Boyd Tonkin: A bookish boom in Buenos Aires

The week in books

Friday 29 April 2011 00:00

What would a bibliophile's heaven look like? I think I have the answer now. April in Buenos Aires, and a gentle autumn morning in the lush and leafy neighbourhood of Palermo. Stroll, under the spreading tipa trees that kiss leaves across the avenues, from independent bookshop to independent bookshop - each one designed, stocked and staffed with the sort of passion for writing and reading (not to mention proper bars and cafés) that has all but vanished in many other cities.

Argentina's capital boasts at least 350 bookshops, apparently more than in the whole of Brazil. They range from showpieces such as El Ateneo Gran Splendid, housed in a converted theatre, to the wood-panelled charm of a Palermo gem such as Eterna Cadencia – also, and not uniquely, home to a feisty independent publishing house. At Libros del Pasaje on Calle Thames (a block away from Jorge-Luis Borges's house), owner José Nuñez - the son of booksellers - told me that, yes, he wants to stock and sell the best literature, but he won't act the finger-wagging missionary. Yet you suspect that the warm welcome offered by Buenos Aires bookstores would itself lift literary horizons.

"Sweet are the uses of adversity," says the Duke in As You Like It (and one of the many things I learned in Buenos Aires was that a leading Argentinian novelist, Marcelo Cohen, has also supervised a complete new set of Shakespeare translations). For the Noughties revival of non-corporate publishing and bookselling in Argentina grew not from merry boom but abject bust. In 2001, the country suffered what Britain missed – by hours - in October 2008: complete financial meltdown, and a rapid political collapse in its wake.

In the book world, the wounds inflicted on the major firms by a wrecked currency and frozen economy created what publisher Octavio Kulesz calls "a big space underneath" the damaged giants. With property cheap and exports easy, many independents could survive and even thrive in the ruins.

To visit a hands-on boutique publisher such as Daniel Divinsky, legendary founder of Ediciones de la Flor and director of a house whose bestsellers range from the pioneer "new journalist" Rodolfo Walsh (murdered by the military in 1977) to the brilliant cartoonist Quino, is to recover an ideal of small-scale but long-term literary endeavour we have almost lost. The chance to do so, by the way, came courtesy of a programme for overseas publishers and journalists organised with flair, imagination and efficiency by the arts trust Fundació* TyPA.

Inevitably, the news from beside the River Plate is not all bright. High inflation and the prohibitive cost of imported technology now hamper those same independents. If the number of titles published annually has rocketed (to 22,000), print-runs and authors' advances have both dropped. On the BA literary scene, you soon grasp that large Spanish publishers are seen as trying to maintain a semi-colonial grip over their Latin American cousins.

And then there's politics... The overt commitment of past decades may have faded. For critic Martí* Schifino, his country no longer produces a "firebrand kind of literature". The psychological novel, fantasy of every kind, and formal innovation may all appeal more. But the legacy of confrontation between writers and the state dies hard. The government and much of the print media remain bitterly at odds. Early coverage of the 37th Buenos Aires Book Fair was dominated not by literature as such but the row over Mario Vargas Llosa (see below).

I expected to come back from Buenos Aires lamenting that we can, in English, read so few of today's Argentinian writers. That's true enough, but the cupboard is not wholly bare. Granta's recent selection, The Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists, features eight Argentines out of 22: among them, rising stars such as Oliverio Coelho, Andrés Neuman and Lucía Puenzo. Marcelo Figueras's Kamchatka (part of a vast recent literature that explores the dictatorship of 1976-1983) appears on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist.

Ernesto Sábato's The Tunnel this week becomes a Penguin Modern Classic (see p.30). And look out in the autumn for Opendoor by the much-praised Iosi Havilio, one of the launch titles on the And Other Stories list. I would love to see UK editions of so many more: Hebe Uhart, Daniel Guebel, Marcelo Cohen, Pablo Ramos, Juan Martini, José Pablo Feinmann, Sylvia Molloy... Who knows? Any keen-eyed British publisher who cares to go browsing through Palermo may be able to mix worthwhile business with a lot of bookish pleasure.

Small wars and long aftermaths

Next year will see the 30th anniversary of the Falklands-Malvinas war that Borges called "two bald men fighting over a comb". How illuminating it might be to compare the conflict's long echoes in the fiction of Britain and Argentina. Rodolfo Fogwill wrote Los Pichiciegos (Malvinas Requiem) before the war's end; more recent versions include the fantastical Las Islas by Carlos Gamerro. Here, the war rumbles on behind Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (right). Its veterans stalk novels such as Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs. In Buenos Aires, I visited the Malvinas Memorial. Someone asked me where I was from. England. Next question: which football team do you support?

Mario: public enemy, local hero

"What a generous country!" ironised the angry posters plastered all around the streets near La Rural (originally built for agricultural shows), where Mario Vargas Llosa spoke at the Buenos Aires Book Fair. The posters showed Peru's Nobel Laureate in Literature smiling broadly while shaking the hand of Margaret Thatcher, leader of "the land of the pirates". A critic of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Vargas Llosa was first invited as guest of honour to the Feria del Libro, then disinvited, and then – after an intervention from "CFK" herself – asked again. In the event, he was virtually mobbed by fans. The defence of human rights and attack on censorship of every stripe by a writer labelled by his interviewer, Jorge Fernández Díaz, as a sort of "English liberal" passed off protest-free, only punctuated by bursts of applause. Politics aside, he also whetted the appetite for his latest novel, about Roger Casement: The Dream of the Celt. The British edition is due from Faber & Faber next year.

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