Hello, everyone! I hope you enjoyed getting into South Korean books in January! Let us know in the comments what you read and if you liked it.
Now February is upon us and our country of the month is Argentina! We’ll explore Argentinian literature, one of the very best Latin America has to offer. You can choose one of the modern classics like Jorge Luis Borges or Julio Cortázar, or perhaps discover new and rule-breaking works in translation, many of which are by women.
Don’t know much about Argentina? It’s ok, we’ll start with a bit of info about the country, just enough to give you some context for your reading, then there’s a bunch of book recs for the month. As always, you can choose something out of the list. A huge thanks to the amazing, sweetest Argentinian walterwhiteh2o for co-writing the section about Argentina's history!
- Argentina is the second largest country in South America. Its neighbours are Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. Argentina can boast of having beautiful grassy plains (the pampas), mountains (the Andes), glaciers and deserts (in Patagonia), and yes, excellent wine-producing regions.
- Argentinian food is famous throughout the region, especially its delicious beef, parrillada, empanadas, choripán and dulce de leche. They invented* the tango (*this claim is disputed by Uruguayan sources), a kind of music/dance that took over the world in the early 20th century, and they have also won the World Cup 2 times (that’s 3 less than Brazil, just saying).
- Different indigenous people inhabited what we now know as Argentina before the Europeans arrived. The first human settlements on the southern tip of Patagonia date from around 13,000 years ago. The local peoples suffered persecutions by the Europeans and later the independent Argentine State, especially in Patagonia, where the Mapuche still reclaim their ancestral land today.
- In 1494, Spain and Portugal divided the New World between them through the Treaty of Tordesilhas. Argentina thus became, at least on paper, a Spanish domain even before the first Spanish colonizers actually set foot in the place, in 1516. In the early 19th century, Napoleon double-crossed Spain and put his brother on the Spanish throne. This event ended up triggering the independence of the South American countries, as the local elites, American-born descendants of the colonizers, decided that they’d like to run their own affairs after all, instead of obeying Napoleon's nobody brother or accepting Spanish domination again after the Restoration.
- Even after independence from Spain, Argentina wasn't a unified country. Different provinces and strongmen (caudillos) fought for either autonomy or domination over the others, and were involved in various local wars such as the one with Brazil, which ended with the disputed region becoming the new country of Uruguay. Buenos Aires, now the capital, only definitely became part of Argentina in the final years of the 19th century.
- Throughout much of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was a wealthy, modern and prosperous country, flush with foreign investments, especially from England. During this time, Buenos Aires became known as the Paris of South America. (The wealth and status are gone, but the superiority complex is harder to let go of, just saying!). A huge governmental drive for immigration also attracted millions of new inhabitants to the country, to work in factories and in farms, over half of them from Italy, and today the majority of the population is descended from Europeans.
- Politically, the 20th century in Argentina was extremely complicated. We'll focus here on the 1976 dictatorship and the Dirty War, which is considered the most painful part of Argentine modern history. 1976 was when Juán Perón's widow, Isabelita - was president. The country's situation was very unstable and there was a military coup (supported by some civilians). It was the sixth and last successful coup in Argentina, which began in 1930 and prevented democracy from being consolidated until the end of the 20th century.
- During this dictatorship, which lasted until 1983, 30,000 people were illegally arrested and killed in concentration camps. Government agents persecuted anyone they considered "subversive". They were tortured and some of them were thrown in the river. They've become to be known as "The Disappeared" (Los desaparecidos). In 1982, de facto military president Galtieri (a known alcoholic), decided to declare war on the UK over the Falkland Islands (known throughout Latin America as Islas Malvinas), to empower his government. But this backfired on him (you've seen The Crown) and ultimately weakened the dictatorship. On 1983, democracy was restored when President Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín was elected. During his presidency, another coup was attempted but it was fortunately squashed.
- There are three important human rights groups connected to the period which are still relevant. Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo), who march in the most important square of the country for their disappeared children. Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo), who also march and are still looking for the children of The Disappeared who were kidnapped by the military and never returned (many were adopted by the same people responsible for killing their parents, a historical fact that ended up being used by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale). A lot of them have been found, but there are still a lot of children whose identity is still unknown. The third group is HIJOS (Children), the children of The Disappeared.
- When the dictatorship ended, most of the military was tried and convicted, but to this date, there are still members who are free and haven't been tried. There are also people who deny that it was a dictatorship and call it a war against home terrorism. This period has influenced literature and every type of art form. "The Official Story", a movie about this subject, was the first Argentine movie to win an Academy Award.
Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar)
OP note: This book can be read in two ways: cover to cover, as usual, or starting in chapter 73 and jumping around as indicated by the author at the end of each chapter, like in a game of Hopscotch. Cortázar was a hugely important Argentinian author, and his works are marked by experimentalism, stream of consciousness, magical realism, existential issues, etc. It sounds complicated, but it is a great novel.
Horacio Oliveira is an Argentinian writer who lives in Paris with his mistress, La Maga, surrounded by a loose-knit circle of bohemian friends who call themselves "the Club." A child's death and La Maga's disappearance put an end to his life of empty pleasures and intellectual acrobatics, and prompt Oliveira to return to Buenos Aires, where he works by turns as a salesman, a keeper of a circus cat which can truly count, and an attendant in an insane asylum. Hopscotch is the dazzling, freewheeling account of Oliveira's astonishing adventures.
Optic Nerve (María Gainza)
OP note: This is a mix of memoir, fiction and art book. The author is an art critic. It was one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2019 and an editor’s choice.
The narrator of Optic Nerve is an Argentinian woman whose obsession is art. The story of her life is the story of the paintings, and painters, who matter to her. Her intimate, digressive voice guides us through a gallery of moments that have touched her.
In these pages, El Greco visits the Sistine Chapel and is appalled by Michelangelo’s bodies. The mystery of Rothko's refusal to finish murals for the Seagram Building in New York is blended with the story of a hospital in which a prostitute walks the halls while the narrator's husband receives chemotherapy. Alfred de Dreux visits Géricault's workshop; Gustave Courbet's devilish seascapes incite viewers “to have sex, or to eat an apple”; Picasso organizes a cruel banquet in Rousseau’s honor. . . . All of these fascinating episodes in art history interact with the narrator's life in Buenos Aires—her family and work; her loves and losses; her infatuations and disappointments. The effect is of a character refracted by environment, composed by the canvases she studies.
Seductive and capricious, Optic Nerve is a book that captures, like no other, the mysterious connections between a work of art and the person who perceives it.
Eartheater (Dolores Reyes)
Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.
Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.
Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)
OP note: Longlisted for the International Booker Prize
In a forgotten patch of French countryside, a woman is battling her demons embracing exclusion yet wanting to belong, craving freedom whilst feeling trapped, yearning for family life but at the same time wanting to burn the entire house down. Given surprising leeway by her family for her increasingly erratic behaviour, she nevertheless feels ever more stifled and repressed. Motherhood, womanhood, the banality of love, the terrors of desire, the inexplicable brutality of another person carrying your heart forever Die, My Love faces all this with a raw intensity. It's not a question of if a breaking point will be reached, but rather when and how violent a form will it take?
Comemadre (Roque Larraquy)
In the outskirts of Buenos Aires in 1907, a doctor becomes involved in a misguided experiment that investigates the threshold between life and death. One hundred years later, a celebrated artist goes to extremes in search of aesthetic transformation, turning himself into an art object. How far are we willing to go, Larraquy asks, in pursuit of transcendence? The world of Comemadre is full of vulgarity, excess, and discomfort: strange ants that form almost perfect circles, missing body parts, obsessive love affairs, and man-eating plants. Darkly funny, smart, and engrossing, here the monstrous is not alien, but the consquence of our relentless pursuit of collective and personal progress.
How I Became a Nun (César Aira)
A sinisterly funny modern-day Through the Looking Glass that begins with cyanide poisoning and ends in strawberry ice cream. Intense and perfect, this invented narrative of childhood experience bristles with dramatic humor at each stage of growing up: a first ice cream, school, reading, games, friendship. The novel begins in Aira's hometown, Coronel Pringles. As self-awareness grows, the story rushes forward in a torrent of anecdotes which transform a world of uneventful happiness into something else: the anecdote becomes adventure, and adventure, fable, and then legend. Between memory and oblivion, reality and fiction, Cesar Aira's How I Became a Nun retains childhood's main treasures: the reality of fable and the delirium of invention.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel Puig)
OP note: Written mostly as a dialogue between two prisoners, this experimental book was banned in Argentina until the redemocratization in 1983 - probably because of the LGBT and political themes. It became an Oscar winning movie.
Sometimes they talk all night long. In the still darkness of their cell, Molina re-weaves the glittering and fragile stories of the film he loves, and the cynical Valentin listens. Valentin believes in the just cause which makes all suffering bearable; Molina believes in the magic of love which makes all else endurable. Each has always been alone, and always - especially now - in danger of betrayal. But in cell 7 each surrenders to the other something of himself that he has never surrendered before.
The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares)
Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of The Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy’s novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious.
Inspired by Bioy Casares’s fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction’s now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad, it also changed the history of film.
Thursday Night Widows (Claudia Piñeiro)
OP note: Claudia Piñeiro is known as the Argentinian queen of crime. Book Riot has a glowing recommendation of her works here.
Three bodies lie at the bottom of a swimming pool in a gated country estate near Buenos Aires. Under the gaze of fifteen security guards, the pampered residents of Cascade Heights lead a charmed life of parties and tennis tournaments, ignoring the poverty outside the perimeter wall. Claudia Piñeiro's novel eerily foreshadowed a criminal case that generated a scandal in the Argentine media. But this is more than a tale about crime, it is a psychological portrait of a middle class living beyond its means and struggling to conceal deadly secrets. Set during the post-9/11 economic melt-down in Argentina, this story will resonate among credit-crunched readers of today.
The Secret in Their Eyes (Eduardo Sacheri)
OP note: This crime novel explores the terror of the Dirty War of the 1970s. It was made into an amazing Argentine film with Ricardo Darín, and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also remade into a mediocre English-language movie with Julia Roberts, because y'all don't read subtitles (your loss).
Benjamín Chaparro is a man haunted by his past—a retired detective, he remains obsessed with the decades-old case of the rape and murder of a young woman in her own bedroom. As he revisits the details of the investigation, he is reacquainted with his similarly long, unrequited love for Irene Hornos, then just an intern, now a respected judge. Absorbing and masterfully crafted, The Secret in Their Eyes is a meditation on the effects of the passage of time and unfulfilled desire.
Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was (Angélica Gorodischer)
OP note: This fantasy book was translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. Also try Trafalgar, by the same author, published in the Penguin Science Fiction series (Trafalgar might only be available in the UK though).
In eleven chapters, "Kalpa Imperial"'s multiple storytellers relate the story of a fabled nameless empire which has risen and fallen innumerable times. Fairy tales, oral histories and political commentaries are all woven tapestry-style into Kalpa Imperial: beggars become emperors, democracies become dictatorships, and history becomes legends and stories.
But this is much more than a simple political allegory or fable. It is also a celebration of the power of storytelling. Gorodischer and translator Ursula K. Le Guin are a well-matched, sly and delightful team of magician-storytellers. Rarely have author and translator been such an effortless pairing. "Kalpa Imperial" is a powerful introduction to the writing of Angelica Gorodischer, a novel which will enthrall readers already familiar with the worlds of Le Guin.
Fever Dream (Samanta Schweblin)
OP note: Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, this disturbing work is one of the most famous out of the new Argentinian works in translation.
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
Tender is the Flesh (Agustina Bazterrica)
Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans —though no one calls them that anymore.
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.
Fictions (Jorge Luis Borges)
OP note: Borges is one of the most important Argentinian authors, his works have influenced writers of many different countries and are an essential part of world literature. He is known for his imaginative and fantastical stories. He was extremely well-educated, and his immense breadth of knowledge is often reflected in his work.
ALSO TRY: Labyrinths; A Universal History of Iniquity
Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions introduced an entirely new voice into world literature. It is here we find the astonishing accounts of Funes, the man who can forget nothing; the French poet who recreated Don Quixote word for word; the fatal lottery in Babylon; the mysterious planet of Tlön; and the library containing every possible book in the whole universe. Here too are the philosophical detective stories and the haunting tales of Irish revolutionaries, gaucho knife fights and dreams within dreams which proved so influential (and yet impossible to imitate). This collection was eventually to bring Borges international fame; over fifty years later, it remains endlessly intriguing.
The Aleph and Other Stories (Jorge Luis Borges)
Full of philosophical puzzles and supernatural surprises, these stories contain some of Borges's most fully realized human characters. With uncanny insight, he takes us inside the minds of an unrepentant Nazi, an imprisoned Mayan priest, fanatical Christian theologians, a woman plotting vengeance on her father’s “killer,” and a man awaiting his assassin in a Buenos Aires guest house. This volume also contains the hauntingly brief vignettes about literary imagination and personal identity collected in The Maker, which Borges wrote as failing eyesight and public fame began to undermine his sense of self.
Bestiary: the Selected Stories of Julio Cortázar
OP note: I particularly like Cortázar's stories, ever since my Lit teacher in high school had us read the story 'House Taken Over', which is in this collection.
A collection of masterful short stories in Julio Cortazar's sophisticated, powerful and gripping style.
A grieving family home becomes the site of a terrifying invasion. A frustrated love triangle, brought together by a plundered Aztec idol, spills over into brutality. A lodger’s inability to stop vomiting bunny rabbits inspires a personal confession.
As dream melds into reality, and reality melts into nightmare, one constant remains throughout these thirty-five stories: the singular brilliance of Julio Cortazar’s imagination.
Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez)
OP note: Mariana Enríquez is one of the rising stars of contemporary Argentinian lit, one of the authors making art out of the horror of the dictatorship and the violence of female oppression in a country that is notoriously sexist.
Macabre, disturbing, and exhilarating, Things We Lost in the Fire is a collection of twelve short stories that use fear and horror to explore multiple dimensions of life in contemporary Argentina. From women who set themselves on fire in protest of domestic violence, to angst-ridden teenage girls, friends until death do they part, to street kids and social workers, young women bored of their husbands or boyfriends, to a nine-year-old serial killer of babies and a girl who pulls out her nails and eyelids in the classroom, to hikikomori, abandoned houses, black magic, northern Argentinean superstition, disappearances, crushes, heartbreak, regret, and compassion. This is a strange, surreal, and unforgettable collection by an astonishing new talent, asking vital questions of the world as we know it.
Thus Were Their Faces (Silvina Ocampo)
Silvina Ocampo is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great masters of the short story. Italo Calvino once said about her, “I don’t know another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us.” Thus Were Their Faces collects a wide range of Ocampo’s best short fiction and novella-length stories from her whole writing life. Stories about creepy doubles, a marble statue of a winged horse that speaks to a girl, a house of sugar that is the site of an eerie possession, children who lock their perverse mothers in a room and burn it, a lapdog who records the dreams of an old woman.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote that the cruelty of Ocampo’s stories was the result of her nobility of soul, a judgment as paradoxical as much of her own writing. For her whole life Ocampo avoided the public eye, though since her death in 1993 her reputation has only continued to grow, like a magical forest. Dark, gothic, fantastic, and grotesque, these haunting stories are among the world’s finest.
The Real Odessa: How Peron Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina (Uki Goñi)
OP note: It is pretty difficult to understand Latin American politics via American or European notions of left/right, liberalism/socialism, etc, so don't get your brain in a knot trying to. Perón is one of those politicians who are difficult to classify. He was at times supported by both far-right and far-left guerrillas (see the rec below). He was enormously popular with the working classes, as he granted many labour and social rights and benefits. But he was also an authoritarian and Nazi sympathizer. This book shows just how far his Nazi "sympathies" went and how so many prominent Nazis ended up half the world away in Argentina.
Drawing on American and European intelligence documents, Uki Goni shows how from 1946 onward a Nazi escape operation was based at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, harboring such war criminals as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele. Goni uncovers an elaborate network that relied on the complicity of the Vatican, the Argentine Catholic Church, and the Swiss authorities. The discoveries made in this meticulously researched book reveal the entangled web of the Nazi regime and its sympathizers and has prompted Argentine officials to demand closed files on the Nazi era from their current government.
The Rabbit House (Laura Alcoba)
OP note: This is a memoir by Laura Alcoba, written in French originally. During the 1976-83 dictatorship and the Dirty War, her parents were part of the Montoneros left-wing (a sort of peronist/socialist hybrid) guerrilla group. While her father was in prison, her mother took her to live in a Montonero base/underground printing press. Laura and her mother left Argentina when she was only 10, so this is a very early-childhood memoir. You can read more about her story here.
Laura was seven years old when her parents' political sympathies began to draw the attention of the dictator's regime. Before long, her father was imprisoned and Laura and her mother were forced to leave their apartment in the capital of Buenos Aires to go into hiding in a small, run-down house on the outskirts. This is the rabbit house where the resistance movement is building a secret printing press, and setting up a rabbit farm to conceal their activities. Laura now finds herself living a clandestine existence - crouching beneath a blanket in the car on her way to school, forbidden from talking to friends or neighbours, and only half understanding the conversations she overhears between the adults in the house. Intensely remembered and powerfully portrayed, this is a compelling account of growing up under a dictatorship, depicting a world hedged in by secrecy and the danger of discovery, where bonds of trust are forged and then violently betrayed.
The crime novels of Buenos Aires
More Argentinian crime fiction
An Introduction to Argentine Literature in 15 Books
Books set in Argentina (Please note, not all of this list is eligible for the challenge. But most of it is)
Memoirs of the Dirty War
Four of the Best Books from Argentina
Beyond Borges: 5 Argentinian Writers You Should Know
summaries - sources 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
what are you going to pick for this month, ONTD? and which Argentinian books would you recommend? :)