Argentina's Self-Confident Capital Buenos Aires, Metropolis of the Zeitgeist

It's no coincidence that Argentina is the guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Its capital, Buenos Aires, is currently considered the world's most exciting city. It's a place where nothing is quite as it seems and the past constantly intermingles with the future.

Marcos López pulls out yet another packet of the bitter brown maté tea he's been sipping all day, and points to the picture on the front. And suddenly we are immersed in the wonderful game of charades that is Buenos Aires.

"Senor López, why does this man -- this gaucho, this tough guy -- have such a soft, feminine face? If he didn't have a mustache, you'd think it was a woman."

"That's not a woman."

"It is a woman. What does it mean?"

"Find out for yourself." He smiles and takes another sip from his small, brown maté cup.

'The Opposite of What I See'

Nothing is as it seems. That's the first lesson you learn in Buenos Aires, the city of gauchos, machos and psychos, of homosexuals and beautiful women, the city of tango, dogs and carnivores, of 15 million smokers, of broad streets and narrow alleys -- and all under a sky so harsh and clear as if it wants to assure the people below that, yes, yes, everything really is exactly as it seems.

"The secret of Buenos Aires? Is that what you are looking for?" Marcos López had asked, right at the very beginning. Then he had shown us his photographs. There are bright, angry, psychedelic, political photos, as if Andy Warhol had recreated agitprop with Playmobil figures. They show plastic worlds eroded by American capitalism, as if the revolutionary murals of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera had been transposed into a faraway present. "Pop Latino," López calls it.

"I always start by imagining the opposite of what I see," he says. Take, for instance, this photo of a male mermaid. The inspiration for the image is the statue of the Little Mermaid that sits in Copenhagen harbor, looking pensively into the water. López has placed his male version on a trash-filled beach. The man has a hairy chest and markedly protruding ears, and stares directly into the camera. The picture is a study in fury and pride. Its message: We are like you, and yet not like you.

"I try to confront the developed world with the underdeveloped world and vice versa, the south with the north and vice versa," he says. "I take European images and force them down your throat."

That is why Rembrandt meets Che Guevara in his pictures. It is why Marcos López considers his country to be symbolized by a woman with a knife through her hand and a chain of sausages around her neck. It is why the horror, violence and tragedy of Argentine history can coexist side by side with a sense of humor that resists the constant pull of the past.

City of Ghosts

Buenos Aires is a city of shadows, spirits and the dead. That description may not immediately sound much like the exhilarating global city that gets hipsters in Brooklyn or Berlin excited. It also belies Buenos Aires's position as the zeitgeist's chosen metropolis, the place where the zeitgeist has found its current home -- a zeitgeist that is constantly on the move, from New York to Berlin to Shanghai, going ever further in the eternal search for itself.

It is therefore appropriate that Argentina is the guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair , which begins Wednesday. The world's attention is currently focused on Buenos Aires' art scene, on its literature, but most of all on the city itself, which is itself a work of literature. Buenos Aires helps us understand the present precisely because here the future has a face that bears an astonishing resemblance to our past. Buenos Aires is a city of European restlessness, capitalist rumblings and magnificent defeat. Buenos Aires is foreign and yet familiar, something that here is not contradictory, but rather two sides of a complementary reality.

Buenos Aires is a city of the Belle Époque and the smart modernity of the 1950s, both periods when European immigrants, primarily from Italy, Spain and Germany, came in search of the future that their old continent could no longer give them. In the meantime, this future has also grown old. Now, the decline of the West is no longer a rumor but reality, and the crisis has become the symbol of a new generation.

Crisis is something the people of Buenos Aires know well. The city is marked by a melancholic sense of loss, which has, however, overcome apathy and discovered a new energy. If Mumbai represents the 21st century because it has liberated itself from the West, then Buenos Aires embodies a 21st century that remains rooted in a Western past. The city tells, on a grand scale, the story of how we became who we are.

Bigger, Crasser, Richer

Much of Buenos Aires -- which is celebrating, albeit in a somewhat restrained fashion, the 200th anniversary of the May Revolution this year -- represents the old Old Europe, only bigger, crasser and richer. The boulevards and parks of the Recoleta district, for example, are a testament to the oligarch-driven prosperity that still reigned 100 years ago, when Argentina was one of the world's 10 richest states. In the meantime, the country has slid down to 49th place, between Latvia and Uruguay. Nevertheless, Recoleta's 10-story private palaces continue to reach into the sky as if in a maniacally overblown Paris.

A little further on, the city's Palermo neighborhood resembles Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Berlin's fashionable Mitte district. The streets are full of mop-haired hipsters carrying tote bags or plucking guitars. On every corner there's a fusion restaurant offering Peruvian-Japanese or Scandinavian-Argentine cuisine, with black vodka and ceviche with mango on the menu. In the "Olsen" restaurant, located in a former warehouse, an onion-shaped chimney rises toward the roof, while the customers at the bar of "Osaka" are still ordering raw fish at half past midnight. Music is everywhere. It sounds like the Brazilian singer Seu Jorge, famous for his cover versions of David Bowie songs.

"Glocal" is what cultural observers the world over are calling this melting pot, this creative ideal. It's a buzzword that attempts to capture this elusive hybrid reality. Glocal is a portmanteau word combining "global" and "local." Anyone who wants to witness at first hand how it works, has to visit Buenos Aires -- the capital of glocalization.

Borges and the Game of Identity

"Glocal," says Valentina Liernur with a smile, shaking her head. Valentina is thin and short and somehow seems to have a punk attitude, even if she doesn't have any tattoos, or at least none that are visible. She is sitting in a café on the outskirts of the Palermo neighborhood. Her eyes are sparkling.

"This place is empty," she says. "There's so much to do. Things are constantly being created -- even if it's only copies that are being made. We're so far removed from the rest of the world. Ours is a teenage country. We are raw, we are immature. We have so many different versions of reality. We are postmodern."

Liernur, 32, is a painter with an achingly up-to-the-minute sense of cool. She says she reinvents her style every season, and claims that art should be like fashion. In 2007, she painted garish oversized panels, while in 2008 she did a series of smart portraits for an exhibition at a school. In 2009 she focused on spindly experimental abstract works, while in 2010 she has switched to painting abstract striped pictures. She is a child of an age in which reality has replaced itself with a copy of itself.

The proto-postmodernist writer Jorge Luis Borges is dead. "I seek nobler realities," the great intellectual and lover of labyrinths wrote in 1930. What Liernur and Borges have in common are that they are both perfectly at ease in ever more complex and interconnected worlds. And that is precisely the Argentine principle. It's partly because in this land of immigrants even beginnings are fluid. Sometimes a border official misspelled a word and inadvertently gave an entire family a new name. Sometimes people completely fabricated their pasts. In Argentina, identity was always a game -- although it's also one that you can lose.

Mistrust of Reality

History is a tomb in Argentina. In the cemetery in the Recoleta district, marble mausoleums form an entire necropolis. An American writer once lost his mind here. The realm of the dead extends underground, creating a world beneath this world.

In this country, history is mainly a battleground, however. It's a place where neighbors disappear, like in the years of the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983; where money disappears from bank accounts, like in the financial crisis of December 2001; and where sometimes people also reappear, as has recently been the case. When the military junta went on a killing spree in the 1970s, the children of the dead were given away for adoption. Today, the grandparents of these children are looking for them -- and finding 30-somethings who aren't looking to blame anyone, but are searching instead for their own identity. Large posters in Buenos Aires currently advertise an event in which these lost children come up on stage and tell their life stories -- ghost stories.

Exactly what all this means in relation to the general mistrust of reality is hard to say. It's equally difficult to measure exactly what kind of profound influence those things can have on a country. It has been claimed that there are more psychoanalysts in Buenos Aires than anywhere else in the world. Reality has holes in it -- that's something people here learn at a very early age. Behind each truth there is a lie; that's common sense. Behind each wall there is a torturer, a poet or a guitar-player. Nothing is as it seems. The world has been turned on its head.

The latter is also true in a literal sense. After all, this is the southern hemisphere. Children in the north think the people in the south must surely fall off the Earth. Even the Argentines seem to be not entirely convinced that isn't the case. Their unease is partly due to the fact that they are constantly forced to look upward.

At the same time, the South as the symbol of a world that is in the process of transformation, and which is becoming organized into cultural archipelagos, is one of the leitmotifs of the coming decades. It also generates self-confidence. Cities like Johannesburg, Lagos and Buenos Aires are becoming the focus of sociological, aesthetic and cultural research -- as well as a source of inspiration.

The Fire in One's Head

"Megalomania and fickleness," is how writer César Aira describes the dichotomy of the Argentine psyche. He is standing in the center of Buenos Aires, in front of one of the huge palaces that embody the almost hysterical promises of wealth that lured so many oppressed Europeans to the city around 1900. Aira explains that the Paz family, which built the palace, preferred to live in the hotel opposite whenever they were in town. Their palace was simply too big.

César Aira likes stories like this. He is the master of the short form, specializing in novella-length works that are both full of philosophy and at times disconcertingly beautiful. "The longer a book is, the less it is literature," he says.

But more than that, Aira is mainly a storyteller, one who knows where Che Guevara liked to eat in the 1950s, when he was still interested in fast cars. He also knows the tragedy or amusing incident associated with every building in this neighborhood.

Directly behind the Paz family palace lies the former apartment of Jorge Luis Borges, a man Aira too considers a brilliant writer and thinker, whose importance extends far beyond Argentina. Once, when part of the palace caught fire and the streets were full of fire trucks, Borges' mother spent hours on her balcony watching the attempts to douse the flames. Meanwhile, Borges himself lay on his bed, reading. That, in a nutshell, is the idea of literature that also influences Borges' spiritual grandchildren.

It is not a literature that rejects the world. Rather, it is a literature that is addicted to the world but which distrusts the way the world presents itself. Why, for example, should the fire in the outside world be more real than the fire in my head? Realism, Aira says, is therefore only one of many options, even if it can be deceptive at times. Reality meets illusion.

The Eternal Party

And so it is a bewildering wealth of works that await discovery at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair. There is Martin Kohan and his almost psychological stories ("Ciencias Morales"). There is the somewhat epic Alan Pauls, whose "Historia del llanto" is at once personal and political. There is Ricardo Piglia ("Blanco Nocturno"), a magician of intertextuality. There is Ariel Magnus, whose novel "A Chinese Man on a Bike" is an inverted anti-Semitic fantasy in which Argentine Jews accuse members of Argentina's Chinese community of conspiring against them, whereupon a Jew who isn't a Jew is kidnapped, and a Chinese woman who isn't Chinese appears.

Aira, 61, is possibly Argentina's most experimental contemporary writer. His ideas are more along the lines of Borges than those of the surrealist storyteller Julio Cortázar or the socially critical writings of Roberto Arlt. And yet, as Aira readily admits, he is not really a novelist, but more a kind of visual artist. He sets out to writes novels that are like a picture. The French artist Marcel Duchamp is his hero.

Visual power and clarity also determine what is perhaps his best novel, "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter," published in 2000, in which he tells the story of an itinerant 19th-century German painter. In it, the author not only brilliantly depicts the hallucinatory effect of the Andes and the Argentine pampas landscape, but also examines the question of where our perception of the world comes from.

Aira writes slowly but steadily, and has produced some 70 books to date. It's a fascinating oeuvre, only a small fraction of which has appeared in English or German. Sometimes he takes the Argentine game of deception so far that two 100 peso notes grow into a monument to avant-garde poetry, as in "Varamo." At other times an almost classic case of middle-class crisis is transformed into a surreal gender-based farce ("Las Noches de Flores"). Time and again, he adopts the Borges tradition of combining essay with storytelling.

His novel "Ghosts," which has just been published in German, is really an old one; it was originally published in 1990. In it, Aira employs a similar aesthetic principle, based on reversal, as the photographer Marcos López. "I was trying to create the opposite of the classic ghost story," Aira explains. "It takes place not in a ruined house, but on a building site. And not at night, but in the glaring sunlight." The ghosts that gather in hazy Buenos Aires dance naked through the air and in the end lead a young girl to her death. Or possibly -- the book doesn't make it clear -- to an eternal party.

'We Love Patagonia'

It's 5 o'clock on a recent Saturday morning. Martin Boerr stands at the edge of the dancefloor, a gin-and-tonic in his hand, and looks out at a swaying sea of hedonism. Next to him stands his boyfriend, Agustin Yarde Buller. Both men are 21. They are the children of all the insanity. They have a good response: "We're taking revenge on the trash by transforming it into something beautiful."

Both men are studying fashion. They are members of a generation who take globalization for granted, and who consider "glocal" a word used by old men in glasses. They create their own reality. They are currently working on the latest edition of their brashly stylish online magazine, Libertarian . The theme is: Create your own adventure.

"We're searching," Agustin shouts over the electro beats. "You know, we're constantly searching. We're very spiritual. We love Patagonia, and we're fascinated by Machu Pichu, that ruined city in Peru. Do you want another gin and tonic?"

Martin and Agustin wear tight pants and comb their bangs forward over their foreheads. They always have a couple of very pretty girls hanging around them, complaining that all the nice boys in Buenos Aires are gay. When they aren't drinking, dancing or smoking whatever is going around, they talk about the French Revolution, libertines or Sofia Coppola. "If you don't feel anything, that's a feeling too," Martin says.

Agustin comes back with the drinks. He says something to the girls. One of them is wearing a big pair of glasses. The other has a great smile. The magic continues for a while, and then they lose themselves in the music. They know they won't fall off the Earth.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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