YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The new Argentine wave

Emerging from the cultural debris of a battered nation, these writers connect with earthy themes reflecting their turbulent times.

June 22, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Pedro MAIRAL isn't your old college literature professor's idea of an Argentine novelist.

Laid-back and casually attired, the 37-year-old writer first made his mark with "Una noche con Sabrina Love" (A Night With Sabrina Love), the cyber-picaresque tale of a spirited 18-year-old boy whose fantasies get upended by fact after winning a night with the porn star of his dreams.

An online adventurer himself, Mairal operates his own blog and adopts various online personas, including women.

He enjoys testing out virtual identities as a way of conceiving new fictional characters, some of whom end up in his novels.

"It's very liberating, for the fact that one has a name, a social condition, a sex, an epoch. One is born very limited," says Mairal, nursing a beer at the Opera Bar on Corrientes Avenue in the downtown heart of this city's bookstore- and cafe-lined literary haunts.

Serious fiction in this country used to revolve around brain-teasing plots filled with jazz-like philosophical riffs. Today it's more likely to revolve around porn stars, Renaissance-era sexual intrigue and the emotional infidelities of married men. But don't get the wrong idea: Argentine fiction is still serious stuff, but it reflects changing times and values in a country that has long regarded itself as South America's most urbane, bookish and "European."

Ask a typical North American reader to name an Argentine writer and they may cough up Borges and, after a beat or two, Cortazar. Which is fine, except that Jorge Luis Borges, the baroque fabulist, died in 1986, and Julio Cortazar, the stream-of-consciousness Surrealist, transitioned into Paris' Montparnasse cemetery in 1984.

In the years since, Argentina has morphed from a military dictatorship into a functional, if flawed, democracy, and survived a disastrous 2001 peso crash that almost bankrupted the country. It also has experienced a cultural upheaval that has yielded a number of accomplished young fiction writers now in their late 30s and early 40s, complementing such older established writers as Tomas Eloy Martinez and Cesar Aira.

Yet few of their works can be found in translation in the U.S. Unlike the literary coterie behind the so-called "Latin American boom" of the 1950s and '60s (Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortazar et al.), the new generation of Argentine writers still hasn't penetrated popular awareness outside the Cono Sur.

Although one or two contemporary South American writers, such as the late Chilean Roberto Bolano lately have gained a wider following among Anglophone readers, the new generation of Southern Cone authors so far hasn't matched its elders' global influence.

That may be about to change a bit. At last, a handful of works by young and middle-age Argentine authors are finding their way into English-language editions.

Disappearance of magic realism

Although cognizant of their South American roots, these writers have largely moved beyond "magic realism," a style that dazzled readers 40 years ago in such masterpieces as Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" but in the hands of later, lesser talents sometimes congealed into a lumpy stew of folkloric cliches.

Mairal says that a French publisher initially rejected "Sabrina Love" because "it lacked magic realism and politics."

But the novel struck a chord with younger Argentine readers who came of age in a more open, permissive society than their parents and who view the dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983 and the disastrous Falklands War as ancient history.

Mairal's follow-up work also has grappled with Argentina's most au courant anxieties. The apocalyptic "El Ano del Desierto" (The Year of the Desert), published in 2005, was inspired by the panic triggered by the 2001 peso crash.

It envisions a wasteland in which electricity has stopped working, potable water is in short supply and Buenos Aires is overrun with desperate rural refugees.

One thing that unites many of Buenos Aires' young writers is their preoccupation with the city itself. Unlike the previous generation of Latin American writers that was forced into European exile by political turmoil and repression, many of today's writers are staying put in their homelands. Like their predecessor Borges, an inveterate traipser of the city's streets, young Argentine authors draw creative sustenance from their debonair, melancholy capital.

"I never felt I was a Latin American [writer]. I share the language of Latin America, but I'm a porteno [Buenos Aires dweller]," says Marcelo Birmajer, 41, who keeps a writing studio in the vibrant, ethnically diverse El Once neighborhood where he was born and raised.

Los Angeles Times Articles