Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France
Borges wrote that “You never leave [Buenos Aires] entirely, you keep rebuilding it through the faded snapshots that your memory throws up."
Buenos Aires is, in some ways, the ultimate city. It was built as a port, but over time the river has silted up. The original grand frontage of the city is now well inland and even the more modern port facilities are hardly used: big ships simply can't get into them any more.
|Building in the old port area|
The poor, discovering that their dream of Buenos Aires does not exist, live in vast shanty-towns or sleep on the streets in shelters that appear like piles of rubbish, The shelters and their inhabitants are, in turn, invisible in the alternative dream of the Argentine bourgeoisie hurrying between shopping malls and coffee shops.
|Street dwellers in front of the Congress building|
Buenos Aires is a city of fantasy. Everywhere you go – not even just the tourist areas – you hear tango, often thought of as the soul of Argentina, but – though it is taught in schools – not that many people actually dance
Every resident, every visitor, every passing tourist sees a different Buenos Aires and every travel book written about the place describes a different city. Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires is no exception. Living there in the 1990s, Ms France inhabits a city defined by the Dirty War. I almost wrote “the after-effects of the Dirty War” but she argues powerfully that the War was unfinished business. The murderers still walked the streets; parents still searched for their lost children; the country was still cloaked in a pervasive gloom. The Buenos Aires that France lived in was an unhappy place and she describes an unhappy stay, but she does so with flashes of real understanding and an easy writing style.
|Memorial to some of the victims of the Dirty War|
I first visited Buenos Aires soon after she was there and I recognise the city she describes. But I also recognise the city of the tango (a dance she admits to struggling with, and which she never comes close to understanding), a friendly, chaotic, vibrant and exciting city where I have always felt immediately at home. Although I have rented an apartment and coped, as she did, with the electrical blackouts, the water that fails to come from the shower or refill toilets, the pickpockets, the dirt, the inability of airlines to get passenger and baggage to the same destination, and the general messiness of life in this sprawling metropolis, I have not lived there for any length of time and I have, inevitably, seen a different place. For example, I have always taken care to visit Buenos Aires in the spring and have avoided the horrors of the long, hot, humid summers. Ms France dwells a lot on weather, yet most of her descriptions are of the summer. Her memory of Buenos Aires is, in its way, as selective as mine.
Bad Times in Buenos Aires is one view of the city. Long After Midnight at the NinoBien (surely almost a definition of good times in Buenos Aires) is another book by a journalist who spent some time there and he (Brian Winter, if you want to buy a copy) describes a different city. Winter’s book is flawed and partial too. All books about Buenos Aires ultimately fail to capture the place. If I had to recommend just one it would be The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez. His Buenos Aires is a fictional city in which his hero moves about an almost magical capital, searching for an elusive tango singer. On one visit, we used it as a guidebook. To our astonishment, it took us to some amazing places, for in Buenos Aires, a work of fiction is as good a guide to the city as anything else.