A few days ago I was walking along the street, pondering what vegetables I would buy for the evening’s dinner, whether or not I should rent a film, and especially the strange fact that no-one had remarked on Lionel Messi’s moment of sublime simplicity in the run up to the goal that sealed Argentina’s passage to the World Cup.
The newspapers were of course filled with Maradona’s absurdist post-match grotesqueries, and if they mentioned Messi’s performance it was only to once more bemoan the fact that he didn’t play as well as he tends to for Barcelona. Whilst I recognise absurdist tendencies of my own in feeling sorry for a much younger man who has already earned more money than I ever will and looks set to square this figure over the course of his career, but I worried nonetheless. To my mind he has not received due credit for the simple intelligence of choosing to square a pass to a Juan Sebastian Veron in space instead of lumping a cross into the six-yard box as almost everyone expected him to do. That Veron (whose standing amongst Argentina fans has actually risen over the past few games, from being booed during Argentina’s first competitive match under Maradona to being seen as a sort of grand old man of the game, even as Messi’s has fallen) scuffed the shot turned out not to matter as the ball came to the six-yard box in an unexpected manner and thus found an Argentinian toe to poke it home. In the same way that a good editor can make a good book into a great one but remain unacclaimed, or even attacked, for doing so (in Argentina, I discover, they acknowledge editorial authorship in the prelims), Messi’s contribution had gone unfairly unremarked.
As my trail of thought reached this point, I was surprised to discover three things: one, that I was thinking out loud, two, that I had reached the my first destination, the greengrocers, and three, that I was being regarded curiously. Greengrocers in Buenos Aires are often just small rooms packed high with boxes of fruits and vegetables. My local one is fairly typical in this way, although I noticed the other day that what I had always taken to be a small room was actually a much larger warehouse or workshop, only given the appearance of smallness by the low entrance and back ‘wall’ of stacked boxes of different varieties of apples and pears. It is run by four people from Bolivia. There is a man and woman in their thirties who may or may not be a couple/married and have the bearing of owners. They are usually only around at midday; the man is always friendly but not very talkative, the woman finds my being English absolutely hilarious. Whenever we meet she points out my nationality to anyone else who happens to be there, especially to children for some reason, and follows this with a great belly laugh whose jollyness is enhanced by the fact that the belly is really quite large. Mostly I am attended by a younger woman (late teens/early twenties?) or a slightly older woman (forties?) The younger woman is there most of the time and is the most talkative of the four, she greets her customers brightly, knows and remembers things about them, listens to the elderly tell their stories and is generally very open and helpful. After a nervous start, the ice between us was properly broken by my asking whether she knew of anyone in the neighbourhood who had recently lost a parrot (another story) although I have to admit that our conversations have not really progressed beyond my telling her how I plan to cook the vegetables, and the fact that the English, like the Bolivians apparently, eat a lot of turnips. The slightly older woman is the most recent arrival to the shop and, at first, seemed to take acute offence at my strange pronunciation, scowling at me in clarifying askance. In recent weeks, however, that scowl has been evolving into a smirk so I am hoping that she, like her colleague/boss, is beginning to find my foreignness more amusing than irritating.
It was she who was now looking at me, scowl forming quickly with no hint of smirk in the offing. Realising that I had very likely uttered the words ‘unfairly unremarked’ to someone who was, perfectly understandably, expecting something more along the lines of ‘Hello!’ or ‘Good day’ followed by something concerning the purchase of vegetables and in Spanish rather than English (if ‘unremarked’ is English), I grew rather flustered. I immediately forgot about fleet-footed millionaires and tried to address the business at hand, eventually filling my 2008 Waitrose bag-for-life with other, plastic, bags filled with assorted greens and half a pound of turnips (my struggle in BA to limit the amount of plastic bags given to me has only been partially successful; re-usable shopping bags are still very much a yuppyish fad here.)
I moved on, so dazed and embarrassed by having been caught talking to myself that I was in the film rental shop, aptly named El Extranjero (The Foreigner) before I had decided whether I wanted to be there or not. I often rent films. This is primarily because Argentinian terrestrial TV is pretty terrible most evenings, consisting mostly of weird variety shows or hysterical soap operas. The variety shows are exclusively fronted by ebullient gentlemen and are only distinguishable from channel to channel by the number of scantily clad models featured and the way they are employed. One on Sunday nights, for instance, has them ten-pin bowling. On weeknights, Channel Thirteen features large casts of dancers clad in tassels and little else who ‘compete’ in a Strictly Come Dancing style competition. This was most disturbing during its children’s season, which was on a level that might well have attracted serious scrutiny from the Metropolitan Police. Channel Eleven runs an interminably long game show, involving lots of silly games with callers-in and studio contestants who can win big prizes like cars and apartments but mostly only win useful ones, like a thousand pesos. Channel Nine has a guy who makes jokes about the gossip of the day, and then follows him with a soap featuring scantily-clad-twenty-five-year-olds-pretending-to-be-catholic-school-girls. Channel Seven, the state broadcaster, sometimes has a good documentary or imports a half-decent TV series but the government has recently nationalised domestic football so it is now often taken up with the games (the nationalization was trumpeted as an investment but so far the advertisements broadcast – on the bottom of the screen during matches – are solely messages from the state. The effect is very much how I imagine watching football was in the Soviet Union. Apparently the company the government set up to manage it all and sell rights has so far run up an $80,000,000 deficit and not yet opened its offices.) Channels Two and Four are mere myths in our house as our aerial doesn’t pick them up. If this all sounds old-fashioned, the effect is accentuated by the fact that a few months ago the self-same aerial started refusing to pick up colour. Cable is widely available, and I will get it one day, but the government has recently brought a controversial law into effect that will supposedly break up some of the media monopolies and mean greater choice of provider. This seems unlikely, but potential disruption and change does not. Anyway, canalla that I am, I’m waiting to see what will happen. So I rent a lot of films. In the interests of fairness towards our aerial I should further mention that our DVD player, perhaps in solidarity, only plays in black and white. So I rent a lot of classic films. The Extranjero also sells new and used books. There are many bookshops in Buenos Aires, (The city’s minister of culture claims that Buenos Aires alone has more bookshops than the whole of Mexico) and this is far from being the biggest or best but the selection is nevertheless usually pretty good, and I always spend a little time browsing . This time, not having decided whether I wanted to rent a film or not, I browsed a little longer than usual and went to an unusual section as I had just read an article in the New Yorker about Michel de Montaigne and wanted to see if they had anything by him. They didn’t. What they did have was a pile of Surs down at the bottom, on the right. I picked up the first one to hand; and stone me if it wasn’t Issue: 235, the 1955 July/August edition containing Jorge Luis Borges’ review of The Dream of Heros by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated below:
Flying in the face of the concept of original sin, it is generally agreed that evil comes from outside: that foreign interests are corrupting (or better said, are on the point of corrupting) the inherent nobility of peoples across the world. Said peoples can however, through a special concession of Providence, count on a certain class of man whose mission it is to preserve this nobility. Paradoxically, far from being the most cultured they are amongst the most obscure and anonymous of men. Woodsmen, shepherds, fishermen and even farmers fulfil this purpose in Europe; they may as individuals be mere nobodies, but somehow within them they harbour the essential virtues of the breed. To criticize them is considered blasphemous; after a defeat it is possible to claim that the generals are traitorous or incompetent but not that the troops have been cowardly. The Jewish myth about the 36 pure men of each generation who justify humanity before God may be a cosmic extension of this idea, given its assertion that these secret pillars of the universe are beggars or vagabonds.
Here, the man possessed of the secret is the gaucho. History might suggest cavalry charges or vast enterprises, but the figure in which the Argentinian finds his symbol is that of the lone, brave man, who chances his life in a knife-fight on the plains or outskirts of the city. Sarmiento, Hernández, Ascabusi, Del Campo, Gutiérrez and Carriego have all helped to construct this myth of the solitary fighter.
In the nineteen-twenties, Güiraldes could still write (and we could still ingenuously read) his Don Segundo Sombra with evident mythological intent. Güiraldes’ work is what is called in Germany a Bildrungsroman, a novel whose central theme is the formation of a character; don Segundo teaches the protagonist about courage and solitude. There may not be a single vacillation to be found in his exceedingly clear book, but its general tone is nostalgic and even elegiac. The essential events have happened before the story begins: don Segundo’s presumed acts of heroism are in the irredeemable past. The fable plays out in the north of the province of Buenos Aires at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth; farms and gringos had already arrived but Güiraldes ignores them.
El Sueno de los Héroes, by Bioy Casares, offers the latest version of the secular myth. Thirty years and many things have happened since Don Segundo was published, and no-one could honestly be surprised by the fact that our fervour for it has declined. The story is repeated on another stage and with different actors. It is set a long way from Güiraldes’ pampas and Carriego’s criollo neighbourhood; Emilio Gauna is a young man who works in a garage and Sebastián Valerga – a murky but flamboyant character who goes by the name of doctor Valerga – embodies this brutal history, which for him is a beautiful tradition of bravery. It is revealed at the end that this mentor is a sinister man; the revelation surprises and even hurts us, because we identify with Gauna and it confirms the fleeting suspicions that unsettled our reading. Gauna and Valerga get embroiled in a knife-duel in which the master kills the pupil. Then comes the second revelation, even more surprising than the first; we discover that Valerga is abominable, but also that he is brave. The effect is overwhelming. Bioy has, instinctively, saved the myth. What would happen if, on the final page of the Quijote, don Quijote were felled by the lance of a genuine Paladin, in the magical kingdom of Bretaña or on the remote beaches of Ariosto?
Much has and will be written about this admirable novel; about the casual excellence of its oral style, its oneiric plot, its skilled use of the carnival to precipitate the fantastic. I have preferred to highlight its symbolic value. It is enough to suspect that we Argentinians are only capable of conceiving a single story; the bitter and lucid version created by Adolfo Bioy Casares corresponds tragically well to the years we are currently living.’ JORGE LUIS BORGES