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Writer’s Top 5: The Masters Of Argentine Literature

By | [email protected] | August 23, 2016 10:01pm

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Argentina’s literary foundation started when a group of pen-wielding intellectuals decided to free themselves from Spain’s cultural legacy and focus instead on the French romantic literary movement, adopting it and going back to their rather neglected cultural roots: el campo (the field), el gaucho (the gaucho) and Argentina’s native people. The first literary piece of this kind, El Matadero (The Slaughterhouse), was written by Esteban Echeverria ushering in the beginnings of Literatura Gauchesca. Years later several related poetic movements started to take place. The avant garde happenings from Florida and Boedo, the Latin-American Boom, Sur Magazine, all helped Argentina consolidate itself as an authentic literary and intellectual hotspot. Not surprisingly, the country produced a wave of remarkable writers. While not an exhaustive list, the following text aims to give curious readers the initial information needed to dive head first into Argentina’s remarkable literary tradition.

Julio Cortázar

Julio Cortazar

The great innovator, legendary rebel, modern ace of the short story, and the man who was always ready to escape the temporal line: a true master. Bestowed with an almost other worldly writing ability, Cortázar was never afraid to break the mould. His short stories are the product of an immeasurably creative mind and his plot twists, the result of an impeccable command of language. As a truly unique literary entity, it is hard to put Cortázar into one specific realm, neither magic realism nor the more fantastical literary genres can neatly contain the scope of his work. His stories wander the limits of the fictional and the real world, merging existential questions together with an experimental narrative.

Never quite sure where to stand, the author allows himself to be dragged by unusual circumstances that conspire against the protagonist to always leave him at a complete loss. Among his most important pieces are a collection of short stories called Final del juego (End of the Game) which includes incredible stories like La continuidad de los parques (The Continuity of the Parks), Axolotl and La noche boca arriba (Night Face Up), and his masterpiece Rayuela (Hopscotch) whose characters La Maga and Rocamadour have become respectable citizens of the Argentinian idiosyncrasy.

“Before going back to sleep I imagined (I saw) a plastic universe, changeable, full of wondrous chance, an elastic sky, a sun that suddenly is missing or remains fixed or changes its shape.”  The worlds he created are captivating, nuanced and deeply human.

Jorge Luis Borges

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What could one expect from a person who first learns a second language (English) and later his mother tongue (Spanish)? Whose favorite books during childhood were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote and One Thousand and One Nights? A man who inherited a vast library from his father at an early age, only to go onto translate The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde at the age of 9? Borges seemed destined for a remarkable literary career and he didn’t disappoint. Understanding one of the greatest writers of the 20th century comes with some required reading though. Having a background in at least some of the classics (Paul Valery, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Italo Calvino, Kafka, ect) is a bit of a must, but will give you your bearings when you enter into his universe.

His writing style is marked by philosophical questions prompted by Spinoza, by his life in Switzerland, by his singular interpretation of time, space, reality and destiny, by the modern urban life of Buenos Aires, by the literary legacy left by England (including Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Samuel T. Coleridge, G.H Wells). His greatest achievement could arguably be that he succeeded in combining popular but divergent genres together with the existential. His work still serves as a bridge that connects thought and the collective voices of Europe, South America and North America. Among his most famous works are Fervor de Buenos Aires (Fervor of Buenos Aires), El Aleph (The Aleph), El informe de Brodie (Brodie’s Report) and Ficciones (Fictions). He worked as a librarian, teacher, writer, translator, copywriter and poet and once stated: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” So do we, Borges, so do we.

Rodolfo Walsh

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There is some controversy over whether writing in and of itself is a political act. There isn’t much question when it comes to the work of Rodolfo Walsh though. To many, he was an activist first and a writer and journalist later: a man whose questioning nature was seen explicitly dangerous in 1970’s Argentina. At a time when those whose ideas did not coincide with the narrative being promoted by the military government were forced to chose to abandon their homes or worse, remain silent, Rodolfo Walsh chose wield his pen like a sword and wrote Carta Abierta de un Escritor a la Junta Militar (An Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta). A piece in which he publicly accused the military of depriving Argentines their human rights, of torturing civilians and of having murdered 15 thousand people. A day after having published the Open Letter, Rodolfo Walsh was murdered by a group of soldiers. Some of Rodolfo Walsh’s political investigations include Operacion Masacre (Operation Massacre), published in 1956 which explains the events that took place at José León Suarez Massacre, ¿Quién mató a Rosendo? (Who Killed Rosendo?), a research paper which tells the way Rosendo García, a leader of Union Obrera Metalurgica, was murdered and El caso Satanowsky (The Satanowsky Case), in which the author details the events that led a renowned lawyer, Marcos Satanowsky, to be murdered. Rodolfo Walsh also wrote fiction: 12 crime stories which were written during his youth and which turned out to be clouded by his excellent political investigation. Making his quote “journalism should be free if not it turns into a farce” all the more poignant.

Alfonsina Storni

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Journalist, socialist, actress, teacher, poet, playwright, feminist: Alfonsina Storni is an emblem of Argentine culture. Haunted, brilliant and never one to back down from a good fight with Argentina’s patriarchy. There are two clear moments in her writing career: one truly loving, passionate and erotic, the other rather experimental, ironic and fiercely feminist. We can analyze both stages as a cyclic movement that always ends and starts at the very same place, the role of women in society. The great founder of feminist discourse in Latin America not only found an outlet through her poetry but also through theatre where her writing style achieved  great maturity. Influenced by her amateur acting career, her plays are tinted with her unyielding existential questionings but also with political issues that influenced female status at the time. Some of her most important pieces are Languidez (Languor), Mundo de 7 pozos (World of Even Wells) and Ocre (Ocre).

As the true protagonist of her very own tragic tale and troubled by a breast cancer diagnosis together with the death of her beloved Horacio Quiroga, Alfonsina committed suicide by jumping from a breakwater in Mar del Plata. Her thoughts can be read in a beautiful poem called Voy a dormir (I Am Going to Sleep). Alfonsina’s words can serve as a motivating reminder while we all fight our way through male dominant society:

Little little man, Little little man,
set free your canary that wants to fly,
I am that canary, little little man
leave me to fly.
(Little Little Man)

Manuel Puig

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He was a lonely boy who grew up in a small town in Buenos Aires province daydreaming about moving downtown, very much influenced by Hollywood movies and every single film he could get his hands and eyes on. The city presented itself as a violent, repressing and cruel place. His disillusion became the skeleton for his literary career: a protagonist who would abandon a small boring town just to follow the stars of a genuinely hectic city. Puig’s protagonist do always have the same single outlet: films or pop art and his style is very much cluttered with interior monologues and flashbacks.

Puig worked for television and films and his writings are usually filled with montage techniques and shifting points of view. Some of his most important books are La traición de Rita Hayworth (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), an almost autobiographical account, El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman), a political and sexual denunciation, and Boquitas Pintadas (Heartbreak Tango), two symbolic antagonist icons. a self-proclaimed leftist, Puig foresaw the events that would occur in Argentina in the late 70s. He flew to Mexico, Brazil, New York in search of the uncatchable dazzling lights, away from any possible restraining cell: “Your reality, isn’t restricted by this cell we live in. If you read something, if you study something, you transcend any cell you’re inside of.” We couldn’t agree more.