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A Cultural Capital : Despite the 'Dirty War' of the '70s, Buenos Aires Is Still a Literary Haven

July 04, 1996|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — Recalling the magic of this city in 1962, Argentine author Tomas Eloy Martinez wrote recently about an evening when he found himself on a balcony in illustrious company: novelists Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Augusto Roa Bastos of Paraguay and Ernesto Sabato of Argentina.

Eloy Martinez described the "golden light of dusk, the spring breeze that caressed the city," as the young lions of literature, spellbound, watched a woman walk by in an elegant dress that revealed "the most beautiful back in the world." The moment seems suspended in time, Eloy Martinez wrote in a column in the Pagina 12 newspaper--a moment "in which we become what we once were or, mysteriously, what we could never be."

Three decades after Argentina's booksellers and writers helped launch the literary giants of Latin America's "Boom Generation," Buenos Aires remains a refuge of books and readers, a cultural capital. Its hustle-bustle boulevards are lined with big bookstores, small bookstores, cafe-bookstores, round-the-clock used-book emporiums that smell like dusty, yellowed pages, and historic palatial cafes where artists and intellectuals have held court since the 1920s.

And every spring, the Argentine president inaugurates a book fair of ostentatious dimensions: One million visitors crowd a convention hall to attend readings and buy books as if they were going out of style. An impressed Brazilian colleague told veteran bookseller Natalia Poblet: "You Argentines read books the way we Brazilians drink coffee--constantly."

Nonetheless, the rich literary tradition has suffered considerably in the past 30 years. Political repression and economic crisis have battered the once-mighty publishing industry and dampened the appetite for the printed word. Today, television, computers and other modern media are competing with books as they do the world over--despite appearances.

"You look at all those people at that book fair and you might think that in this country everyone reads," mused Paco Poblet, Natalia's brother and co-owner of Classic and Modern, a cafe-bookstore. "But the fact is that many of them never set foot in a bookstore the rest of the year."

A brick-lined sanctuary with the cafe-performance space in front and shelves in back, Classic and Modern is an institution, established in 1938. Its history parallels the rise, decline and renewal of literary life here.

The Poblets, a genial and bespectacled brother-sister team, were raised in the business. They were born in an apartment behind the store on stately Avenue Callao. Their Catalan grandfather arrived from Spain in 1914. Like other immigrant entrepreneurs, he started out sleeping on the counter of his shop. His son became part of a generation of transplanted Spanish booksellers, many of them refugees from Spain's devastating Civil War of 1936-1939. They built a publishing industry in Argentina that came to dominate the Spanish-speaking world.

"That was the golden age of the Argentine book," Paco Poblet recalled. "The Argentine publishers supplied the entire Latin American market, as well as Spain."

Argentina's agriculture-based prosperity had created an enlightened educational system and a flourishing literary, arts and music scene. Although authoritarian ruler Juan Peron was no godsend to the cultural world, his populist reign from 1946 to 1955 contributed to the rise of an unusually comfortable and well-educated working class. In the 1950s and '60s, clients at Classic and Modern bought novels and books of poetry 10 at a time.

Eloy Martinez, today a best-selling author and a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, came as a student to the cosmopolitan ferment of the capital from the sleepy province of Tucuman. He wrote in his column that he experienced Buenos Aires "in a perpetual state of stupor."

Besides producing titans such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, Argentina's publishers and literary community--along with their counterparts in Mexico City--propelled the careers of other Latin American writers. Editorial Sudamericana of Buenos Aires published Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in 1967--that classic introduced the world to the genre of "magical realism" and to Colombia's future Nobel laureate.

Eloy Martinez became editor of Primera Plana, an influential weekly magazine that showcased authors of the incipient boom, legends in the making. Primera Plana's correspondent in Lima was, for example, acclaimed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who, among other things, a quarter century later would run for president of Peru. And Eloy Martinez brought Garcia Marquez to Buenos Aires "before anyone had ever heard of him. It was a time of great cultural effervescence."

It was also a time of turbulence and intermittent military uprisings. "There was police repression," Eloy Martinez said in a telephone interview. "Argentina has always been authoritarian and with a tendency toward uniformity."

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