June 2006

Piquetero Day Camp

Here I was sitting at the computer in my San Telmo apartment when I hear a helicopter flying around outside. That’s rather unusual for this area so I stepped onto the patio to see the helicopter hovering low over the apartment. Wondering what’s up, I slipped on my shoes and jacket to wander outside.

Didn’t see anything unusual at first, then I made my way down towards Constitución station. A few police on motorcycles were at the intersections on Av Montes de Oca. Curious, I headed down in that direction. Still nothing much happening.

Then I saw some banners of the MTD Aníbal Verón. There were about a couple hundred people camped out in front of the Hospital de Niños but it didn’t look like they’re demonstrating about anything. I kept walking down Montes de Oca to see if there was anything more interesting happening.

In my haste to leave the apartment I forgot that I was wearing my Tennessee Titans sweatshirt. Fortunately, I had put on a jacket also and thought it was wise to button my jacket, thereby hiding the starry red, white, and blue emblem that is the Titans logo. I figured that it was best not to walk through a pack of piqueteros wearing anything that even vaguely resembled a USA flag.

Most of the piqueteros were just hanging out, sitting around, having lunch. A couple of women were knitting. Actually, most of them were women of all ages and young children. None of them seemed quite to know why they were there. I felt like I had stumbled into some bizarre piquetero day camp. As I got close to the end of the group, a few of the guys starting telling others, “Arriba, arriba.” Evidently, lunch was over and it was time to get marching again.

Just downhill from the piqueteros (and yes this is one of the few areas in Buenos Aires that actually has a hill) were about fifty policemen gathered on the corner. In another block were the police riot squad and a water cannon truck, just in case things got out of hand. But they were staying far enough back and out of sight not to agitate anyone.

As I made my way back up the hill towards home, the piqueteros had moved off to wherever they were going. I went back home and checked Clarín to see if it had anything about it.

Joking aside: the group was on their way to Plaza de Mayo from estación Avellaneda, where they were protesting the 2002 murder of Maximiliano Kosteki y Darío Santillán at the hands of the police. The June 26 anniversary of that event is approaching, so there is likely to be more about Maxi and Darío soon. In my neighborhood, just about every other block has some type of stencil commemorating the two. For non-local readers not familiar with that disturbing event there is a well-written summary of the killings in English. The now famous photographs by a Clarín photographer capture the brutal actions of the police.

30 Days with Borges: Day 26, El Zahir

At first, “El Zahir” seems like another Borges story about Buenos Aires. There are a lot of specific locations mentioned. The Zahir is a coin that the narrator (who calls himself Borges) receives in a store at the corner of Tacuarí and Chile, which is on the edge of the barrios Monserrat and San Telmo.

A few days ago I walked up there and took this photo. It’s not a very good photo but it gives you an idea of the area. Most of the buildings that are there now were there sixty years ago when Borges wrote “El Zahir”. It’s a typical street corner in Buenos Aires.

But “El Zahir” is about much more than Buenos Aires. It’s really another one of Borges metaphysical stories where he explores the concept of God.

As I was re-reading “El Zahir” I couldn’t help but think that it has some similarities to “The Writing of the God” and that the two would make good stories to read in tandem. After finishing “El Zahir” the other day I turned the page and was surprised to see that “The Writing of the God” is the very next story in the El Aleph collection. You can bet that Borges wanted these two stories to be read together.

30 Days with Borges: Day 25, Immortality

Borges hands

“Every one of us is, in some way, all the people who have died before us.”

Twenty years ago today Jorge Luis Borges died in Geneva at age 86. His longtime companion María Kodama was by his side. Borges and Kodama had been married just three months prior, though they had known each other for almost twenty years. Borges knew the end was near and chose to die in Geneva, where he had lived in his teen years.

A few years before his death Borges gave a lecture at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires titled Immortality: “I don’t want to continue being Jorge Luis Borges; I want to be someone else. I hope that my death will be total; I hope to die in body and soul.” Regarding inmortality Borges said, “I myself do not desire it, and I fear it, for it would be frightening to know that I am going to continue, frightening to think that I am going to go on being Borges. I am tired of myself, of my name, and of my fame, and I want to free myself from all that.”

Despite those melancholy statements the lecture is not pessimistic. Borges went on to say that “Each time we repeat a line by Dante or Shakespeare, we are, in some way, that instant when Dante or Shakespeare created that line. Immortality is in the memory of others and in the work we leave behind.”

Borges graveBorges is buried in a simple grave at the Cimetière de Plainpalais in Geneva, a far cry from the opulent tombs of Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires where his mother and sister are buried. His tombstone in Geneva has Anglo-Saxon imagery and a quotation from the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon”: “and ne forhtedon ná”, and be not afraid.

30 Days with Borges: Day 24, “Yesterdays”

BorgesPublished in his 1981 poetry collection La Cifra, The Limit, when Borges was in his eighties. The actual title of this poem in the original Spanish version is also the English word Yesterdays. Here are some selected lines:

I am the hollow solitary dream
in which I lose or try to lose myself,
the bondage between two twilights,
the old mornings, the first
time I saw the sea or an ignorant moon,

I am every instant of my lengthy time,
every night of scrupulous insomnia,
every parting and every night before,
I am the faulty memory of an engraving
that’s still here in the room and that my eyes,
now darkened, once saw clearly:
The Knight, Death, and the Devil.
I am that other one who saw the desert
and in its eternity goes on watching it.
I am a mirror, an echo. The epitaph.

Soy el cóncavo sueño solitario
en que me pierdo o trato de perderme,
la servidumbre de los dos crepúsculos,
las antiguas mañanas, la primera
vez que vi el mar o una ignorante luna,

Soy cada instante de mi largo tiempo,
cada noche de insomnio escrupuloso,
cada separación y cada víspera.
Soy la errónea memoria de un grabado
que hay en la habitación y que mis ojos,
hoy apagados, vieron claramente:
El Jinete, la Muerte y el Demonio.
Soy aquel otro que miró el desierto
y que en su eternidad sigue mirándolo.
Soy un espejo, un eco. El epitafio.

Goal at the Coto

I just returned from my neighborhood Coto, the largest grocery store chain here in Argentina. The San Telmo store on Av Brasil has two TVs showing the Mundial, one back in the produce section and another in front of the cashiers .

As I was standing in line, all the other men in line suddenly turned their heads towards the TV. They were listening to play-by-play and turned just in time to see Togo scored a goal against South Korea. Smiles all around. Even the cashiers, who are mostly young women, seem to be enjoying it. I guess it makes ringing up groceries all day much more interesting. The whole thing was a rather funny sight, particularly since the game was South Korea v Togo.

I do have to admit that watching the Mundial is quite addictive. I’ll be a soccer fan before this is all over. Now I need to go finish watching Togo.

Mercedes Sosa sings Gracias a la vida

I’ve written before about the great voice of Mercedes Sosa. Now via youtube you can see and hear Mercedes Sosa performing the beautiful “Gracias a la vida”.

The performance must be about 25 or 30 years ago but her voice is still as good today as it was then. The quality of this video is very good. Also, for the Spanish impaired, there are subtitles to the lyrics. While the subtitles are in Spanish you should be able to figure out the meaning of the lyrics of “Gracias a la vida”. The song was written by the Chilean Violeta Parra, who committed suicide in 1967. National Geographic has a brief bio of Violeta Parra on its world music site.


30 Days with Borges: Day 23, “The Cyclical Night”

BorgesYesterday I wrote about an essay by Borges titled Feeling in Death. A good companion piece to that essay is the poem The Cyclical Night, La noche ciclica. The poem expresses many of the same sentiments as Feeling in Death:

Night after night sets me down in the world

On the outskirts of this city. A remote street
Which might be either north or west or south,
But always with a blue-washed wall, the shade
Of a fig tree, and a sidewalk of broken concrete.

This, here, is Buenos Aires. time, which brings
Either love or money to men, hands on to me
Only this withered rose, this empty tracery
Of streets with names recurring from the past

In my blood: Laprida, Cabrera, Soler, Suárez…

Squares weighed down by a night in no one’s care
Are the vast patios of an empty palace,
And the single-minded streets creating space
Are corridors for sleep and nameless fear.

In my human flesh, eternity keeps recurring.

Que es de los arrabales. Una esquina remota
Que puede ser del norte, del sur o del oeste,
Pero que tiene siempre una tapia celeste,
Una higuera sombría y una vereda rota.

Ahi está Buenos Aires. El tiempo que a los hombres
Trae el amor o el oro, a mí apenas me deja
Esta rosa apagada, esta vana madeja
De calles que repiten los pretéritos nombres

De mi sangre: Laprida, Cabrera, Soler, Suárez…

Las plazas agravadas por la noche sin dueño
Son los patios profundos de un árido palacio
Y las calles unánimes que engendran el espacio
Son corredores de vago miedo y de sueño.

Vuelve a mi carne humana la eternidad constante.

30 Days with Borges: Day 22, “Feeling in Death”

“life is too impoverished not to be immortal.”

In 1928 Borges wrote a short essay titled Sentirse en muerte, Feeling in Death. He would come back to this essay over the years, incorporating it into two later essays. The first was “A History of Eternity” published in 1936. The second was “A New Refutation of Time” written in the mid-1940s. While both of these essay are long, complicated, philosophical discussions, Feeling in Death is a lovely, meditative piece that should not be overlooked.

I think that Feeling in Death must have been a very important essay to Borges for it captures his wanderings among the streets of Buenos Aires, an activity that consumed many of his nights and days before he became blind. It’s unfortunate that Feeling in Death is buried in these other essays that are seldom read. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to include here most of Feeling in Death:

“I wish to record an experience I had a few nights ago….I remember it thus: On the afternoon before that night, I was in Barracas, an area I do not customarily visit, and whose distance from the places I later passed through had already given the day a strange savor. The night had no objective whatsoever; the weather was clear, and so, after dinner, I went out to walk and remember. I did no want to establish any particular direction for my stroll; I strove for a maximum latitude of possibility so as not to fatigue my expectant mind with the obligatory foresight of a particular path. I accomplished, to the unsatisfactory degree to which it is possible, what is called strolling at random, without other conscious resolve than to pass up the avenues and broad streets in favor of chance’s more obscure invitations. Yet a kind of familiar gravitation pushed me toward neighborhoods whose name I wish always to remember, places that fill my heart with reverence. I am not alluding to my own neighborhood, the precise circumference of my childhood, but to its still mysterious outskirts; a frontier region I have possessed fully in words and very little in reality, at once adjacent and mythical. These penultimate streets are, for me, the opposite of what is familiar, its other face, almost as unknown as the buried foundations of our house or own own invisible skeleton. The walk left me at a street corner. I took in the night, in perfect, serene respite from thought. The vision before me, not at all complex to begin with, seemed further simplified by my fatigue. Its very ordinariness made it unreal. It was a street of one-story houses, and though its first meaning was poverty, its second was certainly bliss. It was the poorest and most beautiful thing. The houses faced away from the street; a fig tree merged into shadow over the blunted streetcorner, and the narrow portals — higher than the extending lines of the walls — seemed wrought of the same infinite substance as the night. The sidewalk was embanked above a street of elemental dirt, the dirt of a still unconquered America. In the distance, the road, by then a country lane, crumbled into the Maldonado River. Against the muddy, chaotic earth, a low, rose-colored wall seemed not to harbor the moonlight but to shimmer with a gleam all of its own. Tenderness could have no better name than that rose color.

“I stood there looking at this simplicity. I thought, undoubtedly aloud: ‘This is the same as it was thirty years ago.’ I imagined that date: recent enough in other countries, but already remote on this ever-chaging side of the world. Perhaps a bird was singing and I felt for it a small, bird-sized fondness; but there was probably no other sound in the dizzying silence except for the equally timeless noise of crickets. The glib thought I am in the year eighteen hundred and something ceased to be a few approximate words and deepened into reality. I felt as the dead feel, I felt myself to be an abstract observer of the world; an indefinite fear imbued with knowledge that is the greater clarity of metaphysics. No, I did not believe I had made my way upstream on the presumptive waters of Time. Rather, I suspected myself to be in possession of the reticent or absent meaning of the inconceivable word eternity. Only later did I succedd in defining this figment of my imagination.

“I write it out now: This pure representation of homogenous facts — the serenity of the night, the translucent little wall, the small-town scent of honeysuckle, the fundamental dirt — is not merely identical to what existed on that corner many years ago; it is, without superficial resemblances or repetitions, the same. when we can feel this oneness, time is a delusion which the indifference and inseparability of a moment from its apparent yesterday and from its apparent today suffice to disintegrate.”

Ready for the World Cup

In Argentina people have been buying new TV sets for months. I was in a bookstore today that had brought in a TV set just to watch Argentina play in the Mundial. At the corner market, the guy who sells fresh vegetables had set up a little TV between the potatos and broccoli.

The first game is today, Saturday, but the second and third games that Argentina plays in the first round are on weekdays. But no concern, the schools will be allowing the kids to watch Argentina compete against the world, all with the blessing of the government.

The first round games featuring Argentina are being shown by no less than five TV channels, including all of the non-cables stations. There also always seem to be a half dozen cable channels showing football at anytime of the day or night. So, if you’re in Buenos Aires then you should be able to just turn the TV on and find the game.

This is my first time in Buenos Aires for the Mundial and it should be interesting. There’s an excitement in the air. While I plan on watching the games I also want to spend some time walking around town during one of the broadcasts just to see how focused everyone is on the games.

Unfortunately, Argentina is in a very competitive group for the first round and might not make it very far. (I feel almost unpatriotic writing that). Not that I know anything about this form of football but that’s just what I’ve read online; I hope that Argentina does well. It would make for a fun day in Buenos Aires.

If these games don’t go well, then Argentines can comfort themselves by remembering the goal of the century by Maradona against England in the 1986 World Cup game. Everyone talks about the infamous hand of God but the second goal by Maradona in that game impresses even me, someone who is not really a fan of soccer (uh, football, ahem, futból!).

Through the wonders of youtube one can relive the hand of God goal and the goal of the century, along with the exhilarating voice of the announcer praising God for futból and Maradona.

30 Days with Borges: Day 21, The Women of Borges

That could have been the subtitle of Williamson’s biography of Borges. The Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who knows Buenos Aires very well, explains the situation:

Borges, it is true, spent much of his life hanging out with women who would neither sleep with him nor marry him. The advantage for any biographer is that if you throw a stone in Buenos Aires you are likely to hit one of these women or their many descendants, or indeed their books of memoir. Since there is nothing much to do in the city, other than bang saucepans together as a protest against government policy, discussing Borges’s love life has become as popular as polo.

Of course, Tóibín is being facetious. There are a few more things to do in Buenos Aires.

The article by Tóibín in the London Review of Books is superb, providing a great overview of the life of Borges including the women in his life. Tóibín also talks about Borges’ friend the writer Bioy Casares, who was a notorious womanizer. As well as the women who were maids to Bioy and Borges. Interesting stuff.

If you think that you will never get around to actually reading the Williamson biography, then do read the Tóibín article which is much more than about the women of Borges. It’s the best single article on the life of Borges, written by one of the best contemporary writers today.

the fiction of Time destroyed,
free from love, from me.

desbaratada la ficción del Tiempo,
sin el amor, sin mi

…Borges, Anticipation of Love, Amorosa anticipación

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