Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Don’t Hold Your Breath, Argentina |
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Don’t Hold Your Breath, Argentina

To have a selection of my essays published in Buenos Aires is more than flattering. It seems fitting, because the city has not only touched my heart, through the tango, but has helped to form my mind. Though I love to dance the tango, I will never be much good at it beyond a certain point. I found that out in Buenos Aires, when my teachers, the great tango couple Jorge and Aurora Firpo, would demonstrate what I had to do next. Even when I learned to do it, I knew that I would never look as graceful as they did. But I can live with that knowledge because there is something else I do better: the essay. Even with the essay, however, it helps to have a supply of role models if you want to find out how good you can get. I found many of my role models in Latin America.

When I started learning to read Spanish, about twenty years ago, the essayists were my way in. I would recommend that priority to any student who is making a beginning with a foreign literature: start with the essays. Especially if they are about politics or the arts, they are likely to have an international vocabulary that will help you keep the main thread while you are reaching for the dictionary to clarify a subsidiary point. My first great exemplar was Octavio Paz. I accumulated a row of his essay collections and read everything in them. I never did learn enough about Mexico, but his opinions on international subjects all got into my head, to reinforce my own opinions when they were similar, and make them more subtle when they were different. The same could be said for Mario Vargas Llosa, who emanated from the other end of the continent but talked about a world you recognized even if you had never been that far south. In fact he talked incomparably about Europe: nobody has ever described better the process of evolution by which the young intellectual gets out from underneath the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre, and starts to recognize the lasting humanist significance of Albert Camus. I had already been through that process myself when I read Vargas Llosa on the subject and realized, to my discomfort, that he could express it better. I resolved to try for the same clarity, and the same flexibility. (Young readers who doubt that latter quality in Vargas Llosa, and think he has moved irretrievably to the right, should read one of his recent essays on illegal immigration, and take in the implications of his being for it, not against it.) With both those essayists, I was always taking notes, always arguing.

The arguing grew heated when it came to the essayists from Argentina. Borges I already admired as a poet and a writer of short fiction. There was no alternative to admiration: trying not to admire him would have been a protest against the weather. But his essays and dialogues brought politics in, especially when he tried to leave politics out. Some of his Argentinian critics taught me a lesson there. They pointed out what I would not have seen: that Borges’s early silence on the subject of the Junta has been eloquent. His critics admired him too, but he had disappointed them. I tried not to get into a position where he could disappoint me, but there can be no question that my view of Borges was made much more nuanced by what he wrote, or failed to write, in his essays, and what his critics, in their essays, wrote about him.

The essay was the revealing form: even more so than the dialogue, which I soon found was practically a speciality of Argentina, if only because it was so often practised by Borges and Sábato, both separately and together. Borges has a way of retreating into the dialogue in order to avoid saying what he would have had to advance in an essay. Sábato, in both forms, was, it seemed to me, more likely to say what was really on his mind. I enjoyed the transcripts of his dialogues but his essays I more than enjoyed. I know that this opinion might seem strange to many literary people in Argentina who remember that Sábato, too, just like Borges, sat down to break bread with demons. Those people, brought up in the Spanish language as I am not, are apt to regard his style as a back-number. But eventually he saw the point about the men who wore dark glasses at night — to the extent of editing a book about their crimes — and the clarity of his prose is a gift to the foreign student. At this point I hasten to admit that what I hear as the simplicity of his style might be exactly what’s wrong with it: we characteristically over-praise, when reading in a second language, those writers that we can wolf down.

With all that said, however, Sábato, more than anyone else, is, for me, the most fascinating essayist of the recent Spanish world: the modern Unamuno, the Ortega of our time. One of the many reasons he qualified for those titles is that he so thoroughly took in the lesson of the philologist Pedro Henríquez Ureña. (It was literally a lesson, because they were master and pupil.) Ureña said that the one-time colonial countries were not on the edge of the Spanish world, but at the centre — the centre of its future. From the literary angle, Sábato was the living expression of everything that Ruben Darío had ever dreamed of, and for a younger would-be critic from an outpost of a different vanished empire, Australia, his style was a constant lesson in how to pack a complex argument into a natural-sounding sentence. ‘Mankind is conservative,’ said Sábato. ‘When this tendency weakens, however, revolutions devote themselves to its renewal.’ A mature and tragic historical view could scarcely be put better. (When young Spanish-speakers tell me that Sábato sounds no more natural than a cranky old man abusing the passing traffic, it makes me wonder: how bad is my Spanish?) One by one and two by two, I bought all of Sábato’s slim volumes of essays, and finally the big compendium called Ensayos, and over the years I made a point of reading them in the coffee-shop of the book-store where I first bought them, Gandhi in the Avenida Corrientes. I also read Bioy Casares there, and Cortazar, and wondered, as I read her memoirs, how Victoria Ocampo could ever have climbed into bed with Drieu la Rochelle. Even more thoroughly than when I tried to steer Aurora Firpo through a media luna while Jorge, with folded arms, frowned at me in despair, it was when I was reading in the Buenos Aires cafés that I felt tied to the city, to the country, to the continent, and beyond that to the miraculous unfolding new reality of an intellectual reconquista — the restoration of the Spanish world to the world itself, to the culture of the liberal, democratic, humanistic universe that Vargas Llosa, when praising Darío, hailed as cosmopolitanismo vital. We haven’t really got, in English, a term as unblushingly exultant as that. Reason enough, all on its own, to learn a language.

I hope some of the readers of this book might get the urge to start learning English, if only to find out what I really sound like. But finally I sound like the mentality underneath the prose. I hope that sounds like a liberal democratic mentality, of the type which, in the twentieth century, each of the two most virulent totalitarian forces thought was a worse threat than the other. The ideas constituting that mentality were hard won by people who paid a higher price to hold them than I ever did. All I ever did was learn to write them down. I’m proud of having worked hard at the intricacies of the English language, my means of expression, but the effort was wasted if the things I have expressed don’t translate into other languages as well. A language matters but it isn’t everything, whereas the liberal democratic idea very nearly is everything.

Let me end this short introduction — I can feel it already threatening to grow as long as the book — by mentioning another writer from Buenos Aires who affected the course of my life almost as much as the writers I have mentioned above. But he didn’t write in Spanish. He was the Polish exile Witold Gombrowicz, and most of his marvellous journals I read in French. Suspicious of all art forms, he nevertheless treated his journals — really they amount to a vast collection of essays — as an art form, and his ability to charge the merest paragraph with meaning was the final evidence I needed that my seemingly incidental prose might be at the heart of what I could hope to achieve. There was a Polish bookshop in the Boulevard Saint-Germain and I used to buy the latest volume of Gombrowicz every year and sit reading it at my unknown but welcoming café in the Rue de l’Université. Paris, like Buenos Aires, is a magic city, but only if the magic is in you. And finally, for me, the books are where the magic comes from. They don’t need a city. They are a universal city in themselves. In Dante’s time, the writers blessed their new book when it set off on its travels. If this book should be fortunate enough to travel through the Spanish world — if it should travel all the way to Spain — I hope it will bring its readers just a touch of the excitement that their beautiful language brought me when I began to learn it, when I was still a stranger among strangers.

(Previously unpublished)


The biggest publishing house in Buenos Aires flatteringly sent me a message announcing that they wished to publish a comprehensive selection of my essays, and asked me to write an introduction for it, which they would translate into Spanish. I wrote the above piece with some care and sent it off. I heard nothing for a year. Then they sent me a message announcing that they wished to publish a comprehensive selection of my essays, and asked me to write an introduction for it. I sent off the same piece again, and again heard nothing. Two more years have gone by and I have begun to understand why the potholes in the sidewalks of that beautiful city are never filled in, and why the missing tiles in the floor of the Ideal tango salon are never replaced. Last year the biggest publishing house in Shanghai sent a message announcing that they planned to publish a translation of Cultural Amnesia. I was relieved to note that they did not ask me to write an introduction.