3 Books about Buenos Aires
Once upon a time, there was a city with over 734 bookshops…
Yep, Buenos Aires is officially a book lover’s paradise, with more bookshops per person than any other city in the world. You can rest assured that your literary needs will never be unsatisfied in a city where some bookshops stay open 24/7, and you can buy anything from the Twilight series to Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish…at a subway station.
But what about books about Buenos Aires itself? It’s always interesting to learn more about a city from another perspective, or gain a deeper understanding of its history. Here are my three recommended Buenos Aires reads, each with their own fascinating insight into this strange and wonderful place.
Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France
Don’t be put off by the title: it’s not all as bad as it sounds. Miranda France moved to Buenos Aires in 1993 and lived there for nearly three years, working as a journalist (as well as teaching a bit of English on the side, of course). She found a city still struggling, ten years on, with the legacy of the Dirty War, whilst trying to forge a place for itself in the world as a modern metropolis. France describes her numerous (hilarious) frustrations in the city- the newly privatised telephone system, for example, has some serious teething problems, with half the city receiving calls intended for someone else, leading to some exasperating conversations. The book is notable for France’s elegant writing style, with some truly perfect descriptions of the city; the National Library is ‘like a defecating monster…squatted on vast concrete haunches’ (anyone who has seen it will know exactly what she means). She paints a skilful portrait of the city and it’s idiosyncrasies – the porteño obsession with therapy, tango, cosmetic surgery, and medialunas – whilst weaving into the narrative reflections on its history, providing a well rounded view of the city. It sometimes feels as though she is trying to make too much of the melancholia associated with the capital to justify her provocative title, when really, this book is a celebration of the madly frustrating contradictions that make the city the exhaustingly exciting place that it is.
Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez
Perhaps the top must-see destination on any visitor’s trip to Buenos Aires is the tomb of Eva Peron, set in the hauntingly grand Recoleta cemetery. Yet few people know about the journey that took Evita’s corpse, after lying in state, into hiding for nineteen years, around Europe and all the way to her husband Peron’s new dining room in Madrid, shared with his second wife Isabel. The military was so desperate to keep Evita’s body away from the hands of the adoring Peronistas that they sent it off on its post-mortem peregrinations, along with four identical copies as deterrents. Martinez tells the whole magical tale in a dizzying novel that veers between fact and fiction, past and present, pieced together by anecdotes from a range of unlikely sources- including Evita’s hairdresser. This is magical realism in its element and what better topic for it than the larger than life, rumour riddled story of Argentina’s most legendary woman. You need to read it to believe it: and even then, will you have a firmer grasp on the truth? And what does ‘the truth’ really mean anyway, as Martinez himself has pondered, in a country where official records are too often destroyed, where history can be rewritten by its victors and opposing accounts silenced? This thought-provoking, one of a kind novel raises all these questions and more, and will change the way you think of Evita forever.
A State of Fear by Andrew Graham-Yooll
This memoir offers a glimpse into Argentina’s darkest moment: its Guerra Sucia, or Dirty War. It is a chapter in the country’s history which a lot of citizens would no doubt prefer to suppress, and yet whose memory still permeates the city. Graham-Yool’s journalistic account of these years reveals a city held hostage in a prolonged state of terror- in which even the journey home from the train station holds the threat of being kidnapped, or worse. It shows the danger of being involved in the press at this time (Graham-Yool was the editor for The Buenos Aires Herald), as journalists are specifically targeted for reporting events, by both the military right and left wing guerrillas. He describes chilling conferences held by the guerrillas, recounts kidnappings of friends and acquaintances, and writes of the thousands of people made to disappear. Finally, once the threat of danger becomes too much, he seeks exile in London. Here he suffers from a sense of displacement, pain at being away from his beloved country and guilt, too, for leaving. It is an insightful, often shocking memoir revealing what day to day life was really like during these terrible times.