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Foreigners discover BA through Cortázar

100 for Cortázar. The entire world joins Argentina today in celebrating the 100th birthday of its leading storyteller Julio Cortázar. From art exhibits throughout Buenos Aires to special TV broadcasts and everyday debates on the lingering Cortázar effect, the writer’s centennial has brought together artists, top intellectuals and avid readers in their shared passion for Hopscotch’s author.
By Veronica Stewart
For the Herald

Buenos Aires’ expats say Argentine writer’s books made them feel at home

“I have a confession to make,” says Anne Herrberg, a 33-year old journalist from Germany. “In a trip through the North of Argentina, at a hotel, I committed a theft. I didn’t have any books with me, and the hotel library had all the books by Cortázar. They had two Todos los fuegos el fuego (All the Fires the Fire), and so I took one,” she says laughing. There is no repentance on her face, just the kind of tight grin and spark in her eyes that comes from reminiscing.

Julio Cortázar makes people do all kinds of weird things. His short story Continuidad de los parques (Continuity of Parks) made Daniel Tunnard, a 38-year-old English author, speak in translated whispers with his best non-Spanish-speaking friend in the library; such was his urge to share what he had just read. The book Los autonautas de la cosmopista (The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute) inspired him to write Colectivaizeishon, a novel where Tunnard retells his adventures taking all the buses in the city of Buenos Aires.

The intimacy of Cortázar’s work makes Pablo Crespo, a 26-year old psychology student from Ecuador, call a man who died before he was even born “Julio,” as if they were the closest of friends.

Because Cortázar is considered one of the greatest Argentine authors of the last century, it is easy to forget that he was technically a foreigner. Although both his parents were Argentine and he was nationalized as such, he was born in Brussels, Belgium one hundred years ago today. Cortázar, the man, was a giant who spoke a bizarre blend of languages, whose accent danced between French and porteño but can be pinned down as neither. Cortázar, the writer, was as Argentine as he was universal, and although this statement can seem contradicting in itself, it is foreigners themselves who pick up on it. After all, there is no one better to pay attention to the essence of a city than someone who wasn’t born in it, who doesn’t take whatever is at the corner of the street for granted.

Alejandra Aponte, a 22-year old writer from the US, says “I believe he captures the essence of Buenos Aires perfectly: everything smoky and dark and wrapped up in Parisian trench coat dreams and this weird broken elegance that’s a little dusty, a little sad.” Ivonne Grimaldi, a 53-year old Italian translator, describes having read Rayuela (Hopscotch) before getting to Buenos Aires as “a luxury. When I got to this city, I knew it already. I knew the names of the avenues and the atmosphere of the place as a whole. I didn’t know exactly what it was like, but it was like having an alien memory of it”, she explains.

For Daniel, however, the key isn’t in the way Cortázar spoke of his beloved Buenos Aires, but rather in how he depicted its inhabitants. “It’s more in the language, the way people talk, than any kind of descriptions of the city,” he says. Pablo agrees and says that Cortázar “captures the essence of Argentines, their passions, their fears, their ways of interacting with each other and their ways of expressing love to one another.” For Edgar, a 21 year old psychology student from Mexico, what is most admirable about Cortázar’s work is how “he has such a porteño way of writing, but at the same time, if he sets his mind to it, he can be Bolivian, Mexican, French or Russian.”

But whether he was capturing the essence of Buenos Aires or giving foreigners the key to understand the complexity of its fauna, what everybody likes about Cortázar is how simple yet complicated he can be to grasp. Understanding his instructions to go up a flight of stairs is no rocket science, and feels closer to us playing a game with him than actually making an effort to process his words. And yet truly comprehending how, in this simplicity, his work manages to feel both Argentine and universal can be rather tricky. Whatever the answer to this question is, what is unquestionable is his ability to make even foreigners — especially foreigners, perhaps — feel at home. There is something in his style that feels intimate, close to us. It is what makes us want to repeat his words in translated whispers in an English library. It is what makes us want to call him “Julio.”

@VeroStewart

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