I re-read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘Emma Zunz’ last week. It’s a tale of revenge and I went back to it because I was writing my own tale of revenge. I couldn’t imitate Borges even if I wanted to, but I don’t find the comparisons daunting or depressing when I read the masters in this way.
On the contrary, it’s inspiring to be reminded of the heights that fiction can reach. ‘Emma Zunz’, as many have noted, is not a typical Borges story, in that it has a female protagonist and a straightforward crime plot. Still, some of the themes and motifs are typically Borgesian: the contrast between inner and outer reality, the blending of realism and symbolism, the mirrors on the Paseo de Julio in which Emma ‘perhaps’ sees herself multiplied. And there is the setting, which is Buenos Aires.
I’ve never been to Buenos Aires. I know it mostly as it’s portrayed in the stories of Borges, which is the Buenos Aires of the early twentieth century and of his imagination. It was Borges who gave me its poetry of tango halls and dockside bars, of guitars heard from a garden patio, and an estuary whose waters are the colour of a desert.
No doubt, this Buenos Aires has vanished, just as Dickens’ London and Balzac’s Paris have vanished. Yet, if it’s possible to be nostalgic for a place that is not one’s homeland and that one has never even visited, then I am nostalgic for this Buenos Aires. If I am ever fortunate enough to go there, I know I won’t find the city Borges knew. Still, I hope I might stumble on some traces of it, perhaps in an ancient face or an antique mirror.
I said I know the city ‘mostly’ from stories of Borges. The death of Diego Maradona just a few days after I’d returned to the story of Emma Zunz reminded me of the other Buenos Aires of my imagination, nurtured by football in general and Maradona in particular. All the great cities are complex and contradictory. Borges’s Buenos Aires is refined, literary, melancholy, albeit a place where criminality and violence might surface at any time. Maradona’s Buenos Aires is boisterous, earthy, working-class, joyous, and heartbroken. Though he wasn’t a native of the city, Maradona became famous playing for two of its football teams and returned to one of those, Boca Juniors, in the twilight of his career.
Borges died in 1986, four months older than the century, and two weeks before Argentina won their first World Cup. That tournament was Maradona’s finest hour, an astonishing example of how sustained individual brilliance can drive, inspire, and bully a team into being world champions. I don’t know if Borges and Maradona ever met, and they appear to have little other than a nationality and a city in common. Football and literature rarely cross-fertilize. But perhaps the animosity and ritualised violence of the Boca Juniors-River Plate rivalry isn’t so different from that enacted by Red Scharlach in ‘Death and the Compass’ or by the narrator of ‘Streetcorner Man’.
John Carlin, a British journalist who grew up in Buenos Aires, wrote a piece about Maradona’s death in the Times which made me realise that my undeserved nostalgia for the city, transmitted by Borges’s writing, was perhaps a pale reflection of a more profound yearning in the Argentinian psyche. Carlin wrote:
Argentinians are a people hungry for heroes, hungry for some glorious history, hungry for expiation of their sins. Possessed of a sharp sense of collective failure, they know that as a nation they blew it. The best-educated people in Latin America, living in a land outrageously rich in natural resources, they were three times richer than the Japanese a century ago; now they are many times poorer.
Argentina is the only country I know, and I have filed stories from 60, that is visibly tattier and more underfed than it was half a century ago, when I lived there as a child.
Nostalgia is the national characteristic, expressed in the tango and in a hopeless longing to recover the lost glory of a century ago, when a Polish or Italian immigrant was as likely to seek their fortune in Buenos Aires as in New York. There’s a hankering, too, for the Europe their ancestors left behind. Vivimos en el culo del mundo — “we live in the arsehole of the world” — is an expression you hear 10 times a day in Buenos Aires.
In another of his stories, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, Borges describes a man who sets out to recreate the great novel of Miguel de Cervantes. He produces a ‘fragmentary Quixote’, but Borges tells us: ‘Cervantes’s text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer’. Borges and Maradona lived in the same city, but each inhabited a different Buenos Aires with its own myths and associations. They maintain their improbable co-existence in the Buenos Aires of my imagination, and I will continue to yearn for a city I have never seen.
[All images in this post are public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The first image is a 1910 postcard showing the Plaza de Mayo illuminated at night to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Argentina’s May Revolution.]