Lonely Avenidas

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People back home in Australia wondered if the streets of Buenos Aires were dangerous.

“Very dangerous,” I’d say. “Because on rainy days the cavities below the paving stones fill with water. If you step on a loose stone a jet of mud will splash over your shoes and your feet will be wet all day. You have to be on guard!”

Okay, they’d say with a roll of their eyes, stop being disingenuous. What about thieves?

Well, the most successful thieves were the corrupt elite who ran the country. But certainly times were tough. Nearly fifteen years after 2001, Argentina had not yet recovered from its devastating financial crisis. Many lives had been ruined. Now the main paranoia of the struggling middle class seemed to be a strike by a motochorro, a bandit on a motorbike who would swoop past to seize a handbag or, worse, stop the bike and pull out a handgun. This kind of thing, though rare, was hardly surprising when a large part of the population were forced to survive by scavenging the city’s garbage.

“Still,” I had to admit, “the only person who robbed me in Buenos Aires was my landlord.”

For me, the main danger of the streets of Buenos Aires was to be swallowed up in their enormity, to be reduced to just another lonely blur in the night. As a new porteño, I was a stranger to the people, to the language, to the culture. I was lucky, because Buenos Aires quickly became a city of new friends. Still, there were inevitable nights of solitude. I found the immensity of the city’s avenues–particularly Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world–eerily intimidating when the darkness closed in. I began to understand how this strange metropolis of the new world, always full of immigrants and exiles, had given birth to its beautiful poetry of loneliness and desire. Tango was the most famous manifestation. But inevitably these sentiments more frequently gave birth to despair. Sometimes I encountered it in the streets.

When I was at a loose end, I would vanish into book browsing. This pastime reliably replaced my present preoccupations with absorbed distraction. It was fortunate that Avenida Corrientes, between the obelisk and Avenida Pueyrredón, was probably the greatest book browsing street in the world. The bookshops were staggered between theatres, cinemas, restaurants and cafés. They stayed open late. They could be elegant or bluntly utilitarian, small boutiques or open warehouses. Many of the cheaper second-hand shops had concrete floors. Their wide entrances let in the wind and the dust and the traffic noise, and in winter people had to prowl the tables with their jackets zipped up. Some of the larger shops, with their seemingly limitless inventories of old books in numerous languages, functioned as a historical museum of the city, curated by accident. Almost every bookshop had a small English language selection full of unpredictable titles. Since it was almost impossible to have English books sent in from outside—the Argentinean postal system did not work—finding a battered mass-market paperback of Saul Bellow’s stories was thrilling. It was like running into an old friend.

Some nights I encountered strange lonely people in search of some obscure solace. I remember one man in a small restaurant on Calle Esmeralda in the Microcentro. The cheapest way to eat in the city was to visit one of the many take-away buffet restaurants, usually operated by Chinese immigrants, which advertised comida por kilo or comida por peso—food by weight. The customer could fill a thin plastic container with any combination of meat, fish, pasta salad, rice, hot baked potatoes or papas fritas, fresh tomatoes, warm empanadas, and vegetables from the can (lentils, chickpeas, beetroot). It usually only cost twenty-five or thirty pesos for a meal.

In that comida por kilo on Esmeralda the left side of the dining floor was full of plastic tables and chairs. To the right chafing dishes sat under hot lights. A stairway at the back led up to the bathroom. The fluorescent light rendered everything in cold white except the front counter, which glowed green beside a fish tank. I was the only customer. I paid for my food and sat down to eat and read.

A few minutes later a man came in from the street. His grey beard and longish hair were greasy and clotted. His overcoat was unbuttoned and his pilled black sweater was tight across his belly. He came over and insistently shook my hand. He pulled out the small plastic chair in front of me, sat down heavily, and began to talk. I broke in and told him I didn’t understand, that my Spanish was rudimentary. He kept talking anyway. It was a long story with periodic questions directed at me, who couldn’t answer. I said again I was sorry, but…. As time went on his voice rose in pitch. He was upset, although not with me. I guess I struck him as simpatico. He beat his fist against the plastic table and then began to cry out four syllables that were musical and infinitely expressive—“Ar-gen-ti-na!” He said it again with even more passion—“Ar-gen-ti-na!” The manager behind the cash register, a big guy who had been typing into his phone, began to yell in Spanish that he should shut the fuck up. The man ignored the manager and looked me in the eye. He was silent for half a minute.

Then he mumbled, in English, “I love you.”

His pained eyes convinced me that he was sincere, at least in that moment. Now he decisively got to his feet. Relieved of his weight, his tiny plastic chair toppled onto its side. Oblivious to the obstacle of chairs and tables, he tried to walk through them to embrace me. “No, señor!” I said with an embarassed smile. “Por favor!” I managed to scramble to my feet before the table edge wedged me into my chair. The manager yelled again, came out from behind his cash register, and began to argue. The man was distracted. Their argument was elaborate and inaccessible. It went on for several minutes while I stood there. I decided it was a good moment to go to the bathroom.

I left my food and went up the stairs at the back of the restaurant. I followed a dank-smelling, blue-walled corridor that ended at a bathroom where water was dripping and the light was buzzing. A minute later, coming back into the corridor, I saw the man again. He had followed me up the stairs and was now stumbling towards me. I found this outrageous and threatening. “Señor!” I said. “Basta!”—enough. But he didn’t seem to hear me. His eyes were on the ground, as if searching for a coin he had dropped. Then I saw the manager right behind him, grabbing the sleeve of the man’s overcoat, eager to resume their argument. I was able to squeeze past both of them and go downstairs. I left without finishing my food and walked out into the night.

I walked along Calle Lavalle with an occasional backwards glance. I turned left into the darkness of Suipacha until I was a little way south of the obelisk, then right until I reached the edge of 9 de Julio. The brightly lit chain of bus stops, running for blocks through the centre of the avenue, was far away across many lanes of empty grey road. Here, under a dim yellow streetlamp on the avenue’s periphery, the wide pedestrian footpath was deserted. All the shops had closed. The wind blew south and fluttered the leaves of the swaying jacaranda trees. Plastic rubbish rolled and scraped along the uneven pavement. Half-crumpled newspaper sheets swept past my shoes and were sucked into the darkness beyond the brief zone of lamplight. A block away towards San Telmo, under another streetlamp, I could see the backs of solitary, unknowable walkers before they also vanished into the shadows. I heard their shoes trotting away along the wobbly, mismatched patches of paving stones.

At that moment I was thankful I had friends in Buenos Aires.

 

Edinburgh, October 2017

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Sodom with Piña Coladas

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The Reef by Juan Villoro, translated by Yvette Siegert. 246 pp. George Braziller, 2017.

Juan Villoro is not only a leading Mexican novelist but also a popular football journalist with 328,363 followers on Twitter. That hasn’t mattered much in the doggedly provincial Anglosphere. Until recently he has suffered the usual fate of any writer outside that tiny elite whose work is comprehensively translated. Very few English readers had heard of him.

My own small evangelism for Juan Villoro was to commission the first translation of his short story ‘El silbido’ (‘The Whistle’) for the journal Contrappasso in 2013. After reading ‘Coyote’ in The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, I’d looked for other examples of Villoro’s work in English. The harvest was small, but Villoro had been lucky to attract two of the best contemporary Spanish-to-English translators. Chris Andrews, champion of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira, had optimistically published a few chapters from the novel El Testigo (2004), widely considered Villoro’s masterpiece (it still awaits a publisher). Lucas Lyndes’ exemplary translation of the story ‘Mariachi’ had turned up in the electronic literary journal The Portable Museum, a brave publishing endeavour initiated by American expatriates based in Lima.

‘Mariachi’ was one of seven stories from Villoro’s collection Los Culpables (2007). I didn’t consider it much of a gamble to invite Lucas to choose another one to translate for Contrappasso. ‘The Whistle’ is a football story about a hapless and recently-cuckolded player hired to play in the desert for the Mexicali Toucans. The team is owned by a pair of identical Chinese triplets. A terrorist bomb puts the hero in hospital, and later he winds up on another team playing against the Argentinean teammate who rescued him from the rubble. The punchline is a hilarious acknowledgement of the futility of our best efforts.

Two years later the entire story collection was published by George Braziller as The Guilty, translated (or in some cases retranslated) cover-to-cover by Kimi Traube. It is a wonderfully funny book. In lean and punchy sentences, Villoro creates a kind of over-cranked satirical realism full of tenderness for human failure amid the absurdities of contemporary Mexico.

The momentum continues to grow. In 2016 Restless Books published a collection of Villoro’s soccer writings, God is Round, translated by Thomas Bunstead. And now from George Braziller comes The Reef, originally published as Arrecife in 2012. It is Villoro’s first novel to appear in English, courtesy of yet another translator, Yvette Siegert.

The setting of The Reef is the fictional Kukulcán, the Mayan name for their plumed serpent deity, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán. It is a Cancún-like destination for gringo tourists and an ecological disaster thanks to oil rigs, bad city plumbing, and the garbage dumped by passing cruise ships. Rain is a constant. While the development had meant “jobs for people who used to suck mango seeds to curb their hunger,” the already decaying hotel rooms of Kukulcán will be eventually occupied only on paper by Gogolesque ‘Dead Tourists’, a scam for international money laundering.

The Pyramid is a hotel resort that has staved off closure by offering chronically bored Westerners the thrill of pseudo-dangerous pseudo-experiences of Mexico: encounters with fake guerrillas, staged kidnappings, jungle snakes pretending to be deadly, plastic machine guns, etc. It provides a kind of “recreational paranoia.” The Pyramid is now “a Sodom with piña coladas, a Disneyland with herpes, or a ‘Nam with room service.”

Tony Góngora is a typical Villoro hero, a passive and resigned middle-aged failure. His father was supposedly killed in the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. He is, in fact, overloaded with traumas and literally walking woundedwhen he was a child he had permanently damaged his leg in a car accident and later lost a finger to an exploding firecracker. The former bass player for a group called Los Extraditables, Tony idolises Jaco Pastorius, whose uninhibited indulgence shortened a brilliant career. Tony is also a drug addict. Los Extraditables had once been selected to support a reformed Velvet Underground, but Tony had blown their big chance. The Velvets had mandated “a tyrannical code of wholesomeness” but Tony had betrayed Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sun glasses”, with a spectacular binge. Another casualty of that relapse was his relationship with a woman from Guadalajara.

Tony’s post-addiction gig is to synthesize ambient music from the movements of the fish in the Pyramid’s aquarium. Nepotism landed Tony this ridiculous job. The resort is managed by a fellow former Extraditable, Marcus Müller, who fills in the gaps in Tony’s drug-destroyed memory, although the stories are rarely flattering. Müller has misguidedly encouraged ‘Maya Pride’ in his indigenous workers, installing a replica of an ancient tablet from Palenque in the lobby, but the workers really believe their ancestors came from outer space. Meanwhile the Pyramid’s major shareholder El Gringo Peterson, Tony’s unlikely confidante, regrets never fighting in Vietnam and is obsessed by his failure to save his infant son from drowning.

The plot is vaguely centred on a ludicrous murder mystery. An American diving instructor, Ginger Oldenville, is found murdered in the aquarium with a spear in his back. Almost simultaneously his lover, Roger Bacon, is found drowned. Each has a hammock rope tied in a knot around his penis. Some bizarre gay suicide pact? Bored with normal life, the dead men had been part of the Cruci/fiction group, a “risk club” for “ultra-sports” where “there are no injuries, just deaths.” Señor Roger also had a tattoo in Arabic. Was he a terrorist? Or is all of this just an intentional distraction from a greater conspiracy? For some reason the CCTV cameras were shut off during Ginger’s murder.

The discovery of Ginger’s corpse interrupts a drunken sexual encounter between Tony and Sandra, the hotel’s American instructor in “Ashtanga yoga, Tibetan kung fu and contact improv.” Her backstory is a dead boyfriend, alcohol, and cage-dancing. Nearly every character in this probably overpopulated novel is living life in the aftermath of bad decisions. Lacking the proper work visa, Sandra has been sexually blackmailed by the hotel’s detestable security officer. Her eventual one-off consummation with Tony is decidedly unsexy (“The lubricant smelled like window cleaner”). We never really learn Sandra’s fate because she vanishes from the narrative. Women in Villoro’s work tend to be assertive, alluring, but elusive. Villoro’s heroes take their female punishment with a shrug, as their due.

The short unnumbered chapters zip past in a flurry of blunt dialogue and manic characters. The murder mystery is solved but without much urgency. Tony’s unlikely acceptance of the role of an adoptive father to Müller’s illegitimate daughter, who lives in a shelter for battered women, offers hope for a purposeful future. Villoro makes wry observations about Mexico and the state of humanity in this nearly-plausible contemporary wasteland. The English-speaking world deserves more of his books.

Manchester and Edinburgh, October 2017