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  • Mauricio Ruiz

A Literary Postcard from Buenos Aires

 

In her notebook she writes down the gestures, the pauses, the moments when the man across from her looks away or fumbles for words. On the table, the recorder is capturing everything that's been said, the silences. This is the third time the woman has been sitting on this chair in the past thirteen months. She's interviewed this person before. On her list today she has a question she asked the very first time they met. Argentinian writer Leila Guerriero often does that, repeat the question but with a different sentence structure. She knows the exercise could trigger a different response, another kind of reaction.


Maybe not that week or the one after. Maybe not even next month, but at some point she will find the time to transcribe the interview. She will do it herself, without the help of any software. Word for word. That's her process, the way she retrieves the memory of everything that happened during the conversation. “I try to find a zone of discomfort when I write,” said Guerriero on May 1st at the Buenos Aires Book Fair. Guerriero is known for her sparse prose and the sharp observation skills she displays in the profiles and narrative journalism pieces she publishes. “It's a discomfort created by the complexity I find in the people I write about. It involves moving away from stereotypes, finding as much nuance as possible. It's like doing sit-ups. You have to practice a lot before you see the results.” I had seen Guerriero before, several times on Zoom and once in person at the Guadalajara Book Fair, but this was the first occasion where I heard her talk about her personal life. “I wanted to marry Julio Cortázar. I was fascinated by him. There were, of course, many pieces where I tried to emulate his writing.”



Guerriero (pictured above) is one of hundreds of writers attending Buenos Aires Book Fair this year. For its 48th edition, the Book Fair ran from the 25th of April until the 13th of May on the grounds of La Rural or the Agricultural and Livestock Exhibition Halls and Pavilions. Located in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, La Rural was built by the Argentinian Rural Society at the end of the nineteenth century on a 45,000-m² plot granted by the State. The society was founded in 1866 with the aim to protect the interests of land owners and cattle ranchers from several regions in Argentina.


The Book Fair is organized by Fundación El Libro, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote reading and books. First held in 1975, the fair has become one of the most important cultural events in the country. According to the Book Foundation, it is the largest book fair in the Spanish-speaking world. More than one million readers and close to twelve thousand book professionals visit the event each year.


On May 1st, while introducing Leila Guerriero, the director of the Book Fair and the Fundación El Libro, Ezequiel Martínez, said something that caught my attention and that would reverberate in different ways throughout the many panel discussions. Martinez’s comment offered a glimpse at one of the current debates in Argentina. “In these halls we accept all kinds of speech and ideology except the denial of State terrorism.” Before my trip to Buenos Aires, I read about the new government's stance on the country's recent history, the attempts at revising and redefining what had happened during the 1976 – 1983 military dictatorship. On the 24th of March, 1976, a military coup overthrew the democratically elected government of María Estela Martínez de Perón. Before democracy was restored in 1983, thousands of people were tortured and killed. Many of the bodies have never been found or identified. They were victims of the military regime. 



Four days later and sitting in front of a large crowd, Mariana Enríquez spoke about how and why she thinks the current environment came to be. “For many years there was a discourse that was monolithic, people lived in microclimates, and I include myself among those people. Memory was being kept in an artificial way because it was a discourse that did not include ambiguities. Back in the 90s, yes, but later it was no longer the case.” Enriquez has become a world literary icon because of her powerful yet unrelenting desire to deploy horror in her work. Her novel, Our Share of Night, and plenty of her stories explore the psychological and sociological effects of the military dictatorship in Argentina. At the Book Fair she talked about the indemnity that was given by the State to the families of those gone missing, which happened in the late 80s with president Carlos Menem, when he offered collective pardons for what had happened during the dictatorship. She mentioned that for right wing politicians it is becoming easier to articulate a discourse of “denial” because the mothers of those who disappeared are getting older or are dying.


She also spoke about her relationship to fear. “I'm afraid of getting sick, of arriving late at the airport. But there are other fears I deliberately seek. For me it is vital, I need to feel them.” She listens to horror podcasts looking for the right story, the one that will make her stop whatever she's doing and write down what element is making her experience fright.


Lisbon was the guest of honor and I met authors whose work I found fascinating. “In nonfiction you already know what you're going to tell, the key is to determine how you're going to tell it,” said Susana Moreira Marques, who admires the work of writers such as Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, and like them, she has mastered the fragmentary form where compression and distilled meaning bring her one step closer to poetry. In her latest book, Terceiro andar sem elevador or Third Floor Without Elevator, she juxtaposes moments of her daily life, anecdotes with her daughters, memories, and short essays, to form a kaleidoscope that sheds light on what it is like to observe one's life through language. They form a collection of postcards from Lisbon.



I had the chance to meet Israeli author Paulina Tuchschneider (pictured above), who was born in 1987 in Poland and migrated to Israel in 1989. She is a video editor on Hamakor (The Source), an Israeli investigative series that talks about different topics. Tuchschneider came to the Book Fair to talk about her novel Girl Soldier, published both in Spain (Periférica) and Argentina (Cumulus Nimbus). The book, which is set during the 2006 Lebanon war in which Israel fought against Hezbollah, follows the life of a young Israeli woman who suffers from anxiety attacks as she must obey harsh orders from superiors with little or no time for empathy. The book shows in great detail the shared, sometimes suffocating spaces in the army, the stress of not knowing what could happen from one moment to the next. There is no glorification of country or patriotism. The novel explores how the protagonist's decision to leave the army both frees her and undoes her in the eyes of others.



Ecuadorian writer Maria Fernanda Ampuero (pictured above) presented Dantescas (Fera Ediciones), an anthology of horror stories written by women from different time periods. The pieces were curated and annotated by Ampuero. “There are flying women, wolf women, snake women, witches, virgins, martyrs, victims and victimizers,” Ampuero wrote of the book. “There are foreigners in their own city, prisoners, seers, murderers.” Some of the selected authors include Amparo Dávila, Mónica Ojeda, Clarice Lispector, Liliana Colanzi, Mariana Enríquez, among others.


The fair included a special event to offer tribute to the memory of Paul Auster, who passed away on April 30th. The author visited the fair on three occasions: in 2002, 2014 and 2018.


Attending the Book Fair offered me the opportunity to meet many writers, especially from Argentina and Portugal, and discover their work, sensibility, and artistic preoccupations. I had been to Buenos Aires once before but never to the Book Fair or La Rural. I not only learned about the publishing industry, but about the current socio political state of affairs in the country. It is a difficult moment for culture in Argentina. I left with several books in my backpack, wanting to come back again soon.



 


Mauricio Ruiz's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latin American Literature Today, The Masters Review, Words Without Borders, The Common, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Letras Libres, Nexos, among others. His second collection of stories, Silencios al sur, was published in 2017, and some of his stories have been translated into Dutch and French. He’s currently studying an MFA in creative writing at the University of Iowa.

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