It’s well-known that Argentina has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America. One admirable way that reading is encouraged is through low-cost editions published by the newspapers. Both of the main daily papers in Buenos Aires, Clarín & La Nacion, regularly re-release classic works by Argentine writers. Currently, La Nacion is honoring the close friendship between Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)and Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999) with a special edition of twenty books, a separate one every Wednesday. The price of each volume is only $4.90 with the purchase of La Nacion. That’s basically $1.70 US for a high quality piece of literature. What’s more remarkable about the price is that these same titles run about $35 pesos new in the bookstores. While Buenos Aires abounds with used bookstores I’ve seldom seen works by either of these writers in the second-hand shops.
When I came to Buenos Aires I knew that a major part of my time here would be spent reading Borges and Bioy Casares. So, I’m delighted to supplement my existing collection with these titles from La Nacion. The two writers are very different. While Borges now enjoys an immense international reputation, Bioy is probably a more enjoyable read for most people. While Bioy was not as experimental as Borges, Bioy is certainly a major 20th century writer though he is not particularly well-known outside of Argentina. Bioy wrote innovative narratives with intriguing, sometimes fantastical plots, in a clean and crisp prose. Bioy also is fortunate to have a very good English translator in the form of Suzanne Jill Irvine.
In other postings I’m going to discuss each of the works by Borges and Bioy being re-issued by La Nacion. First, though, I want to talk some about their friendship.
Bioy, who came from a very wealthy family, was 18 when he first met the 32 year old Borges. At that time Borges still was a struggling writer, decades from the international fame that he would later achieve. Their friendship would develop over a number of years and last through the rest of their lives, often resulting in collaborative works.
Another person who figures prominently in this friendship is Bioy’s wife Silvina Ocampo, sister of the Argentine cultural matriach Victoria Ocampo. A writer of haunting stories about childhood, Silvinia Ocampo is one of the most underrated writers to come out of mid-twentieth century Argentina. She always was in the shadow of her husband and Borges. Unfortunately, very little of her works have been translated into English.
For many years Borges would spend almost every evening with the Bioys. First at their Recoleta apartment on Ave Santa Fe and then later when the Bioys moved to a larger, more posh apartment on Posadas. On Thursday nights the Bioys often would invite a few guests over to dinner. One of Borges’ biographers described the Bioy’s home as a “congenial haven for Borges at a time when he was acutely unhappy.”
Look for more on Bioy and Borges in the coming weeks.