Jorge Luis Borges in Mythic Buenos Aires

by Michael Warren

Knife fights and backdoor Tango joints used to dot the cobblestone barrio where Jorge Luis Borges once lived. Now known as Palermo Viejo, this former Italian neighborhood in northern Buenos Aires was once overrun by hoodlums, gauchos and easy women who lived their lives like the lyrics of a Rubinstein Tango song:

The woman who came back without honour, disguised as a thug,
and the neighbors in each door gossiped non stop,
about her shameless costume, her jet black eyes,
and her lack of modesty, that she doesn’t know how to hide.
The Italian grocer seated on the sidewalk,
chews on his pipe tired of smoking
and in its bitter smile a nostalgia tangles;
Back in Italy, he too lived his carnival

Borges considered Buenos Aires to be a city as “eternal as air and water” and as I walk the streets of Palermo Viejo, I begin to understand. Despite the change in character of this area, a sense of curiosity and mystery remains along each stone archway and narrow hallway that disappears inside these architectural antiques. Most of the old buildings are now squeezed between new apartments that stand much taller than their dilapidated, but solid neighbors.

Shadows cast along the carved-stone exteriors and long wood-shuttered windows offer a sense of wonder to those who look beyond the new structures. A cat darts behind a corner, startled by my aimless footsteps, and then scurries under a ten-foot oak door with scrolling iron bars and an amber stained-glass headpiece. Like Alice, I follow. When I peak inside, I see the cat disappear up an uneven wooden staircase of chipped blue and white paint that twists up and under the stained glass shadow before disappearing around a corner. The home is abandoned like many others in this neighborhood. Construction is constant and gentrification has become commonplace. Still, when looking through one of the iron-spear gates or into a gutted two-story home with black and white chessboard tiles, one cannot help but feel a sense of curiosity as to what wild nights these aged walls once housed.

A hundred years after Borges first lived here; Palermo Viejo is no longer a place of romantic decadence as it once had been. The violence described in Borges’ early tales like “Streetcorner Man” has faded along with the facades of those once colorful buildings that still stand along the oak-canopied streets of Palermo Viejo. The cobblestone streets are now worn down like the teeth of a Gaucho and often times bandaged with asphalt. Even on those streets almost entirely paved, a cobblestone reminder of a few inches of exposed colored stone holds the memory of those high-heeled women and spur-swaggering men that used to walk, dance and gamble through this neighborhood. The Tango no longer weeps from back alley gin joints, but instead it blares from music store speakers and through clothing boutique windows. This area known as Palermo Viejo (or “old” Palermo) has become a hip neighborhood full of youth and espresso. Street vendors and Italian style cafes have long since replaced the violent Compraditos and brothels that colored much of Borges’ work. As for knife fights, the only one you are bound to find in this barrio is the one between you and the thick cut of Argentine steak sizzling on your plate.

Borges once commented that Buenos Aires had “no ghosts” but with his written word he has welcomed the fantastic into his neighborhood and throughout this city that “never left his dreams.”

Before visiting Buenos Aires, I knew many of the “ghosts” that Borges had imagined. They come from his stories and are founded on real locations throughout Buenos Aires. Borges himself was an aimless wanderer, and he enjoyed the pace of Buenos Aires and its sights and sounds offered a ripe source of inspiration. Many of the locations in Buenos Aires have become fantastic in light of the stories he built upon them. In the story “The Elderly Lady” Borges places ghosts all around the city. He describes the old Buenos Aires life; “the oxen of the oxcarts must have stood at rest in Plaza del Once” and “dead violets must have perfumed the country houses of Barracas.”

When visiting Plaza Once, you will see a bustling crowd waiting for the endless flow of buses and listening to the lively street preacher who jumps and shouts. Carts are no longer pulled by oxen, but instead vendors wheel coffee carts and ice cream through the talkative crowds. The barrio of Barracas is considered a “working-class” district where country houses remain only in memory and old photographs in cafes along this busy neighborhood.

In the Constitution barrio, Borges describes a “point in space that contains all other points” located in a cellar in one of the random buildings near the always populated Plaza Constitution. His story “The Aleph” is where this point, this ghost of Borges’ imagination, was described. The people sitting in the plaza may be unaware of the significance, but those who are aware will feel a twinge of excitement at having spotted another phantom of Borges’ creation.

Borges was a writer of harsh realism and imaginative fiction. In tracing Borges’ footsteps through the details of his stories, I realize that his fiction and realism are seamless. He used the real and the imaginary in tandem just in the way they were first intertwined in his childhood home. It is a style that defined him later in life and it was first influenced by the northern Buenos Aires barrio of Palermo Viejo.

The most important ghost that Borges created was one located on a single block in Palermo Viejo. It is an area that Borges referred to as “the mythic foundation of Buenos Aires” and it is a stone’s throw away from his childhood home on Serrano, a street that has since been renamed in his honor. Borges immortalized this block in his poem “Buenos Aires”:

It was really a city block in my district Palermo
A whole square block, but set down in open country,
attended by dawns and rains and hard southeasters,
identical to that block which still stands in my neighbourhood:
Guatemala – Serrano – Paraguay – Gurruchaga.

In any great tale, the location is inseparable from the action. The lively tales of lust and violence that existed in this neighborhood were intimately tied to the buildings in Old Palermo that Borges’ walked among as a child. His own daily experience coupled with the stories he heard inspired his quiet and bookish personality to run wild with colorful creations based on his surroundings:

A general store pink as the back of a playing card
shone bright; in the back there was poker talk.
The corner bar flowered into life as a local bully,
already cock of his walk, resentful, tough.

At the corner of Guatemala and Serrano the general store still stands. It is as solid and poker-deck pink as ever. Most everything else in this neighborhood has changed. Palermo had initially been an Italian barrio known for its violence and seedy locales that catered to the influx of rowdy immigrants. When Borges was in his childhood, the scale of violence had dramatically decreased; however, the stories and legends of the recent past lived on. For each drop of truth Borges encountered, whether in observation or conversation, an Armada of ideas swirled through his young imagination. Tales of Gaucho heroism and knife-hoodlum vengeance were carried with Borges his entire life. He siphoned many of these images of his surroundings into works of fiction that possessed pieces of his reality. In his short story “The Story from Rosendo Juarez” he alludes to his real life neighbor Evaristo Carriego known for his style of dress:

a kid in black who wrote poems about tenement houses and riffraff–

Borges takes this image from his reality and builds upon it with one gleaned from a tale undoubtedly spun in Palermo by someone like Carriego. He refers to a gaucho turned celebrity outlaw, similar to Billy the Kid, named Juan Moreira:

I pretended to be some kind of Moreira–who in his day was probably imitating some other stage show gaucho. I played a lot of cards and drank a lot of absinthe….

By combining both fact and fiction in such a way that neither is more or less important than the other, Borges created a unique worldview. His friendship with Carriego, who Borges described as “our neighbor, a poet whose songs glorified those neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city” presented the curious youth with the keyhole view to the street-life excitement he could not experience firsthand. When confronted by a fellow Palermo resident regarding what Borges could have known about “the knife fighters and thugs and underworld types” he replied; “I’ve read up on the subject.” The stories fueled Borges’ imagination and offered a lapse of reality that would later be explained:

For years I said I was brought up in Palermo. It was, I know now, mere literary braggadocio, because the fact is, I grew up within the precincts of a long fence made of spear-tipped iron lances, in a house with a garden and my father’s and grandfather’s library. The Palermo of knife fights and guitars was to be found (I have been given to understand) on the street corners and in the bars and tenement houses.

Borges spent the first fourteen years of his life among his father’s library that he so dearly loved. His family lived in Palermo Viejo before moving temporarily to Geneva in 1914 so they could pursue medical treatment for his father’s failing eyesight. Although Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and would spend the majority of his life there, many Argentines still consider Borges to be somewhat of a lesser countryman because of his absence and his European ancestry. Although Borges has been branded an “elitist” writer, his own humble sentiments place him firmly as an Argentine writer, nothing more or less.

In Palermo Viejo, the Borges family home still stands at 2135 Serrano. It is an oddly shaped two-story home with a staggering-brick triangular shaped entrance. Outside the doorway is an easy-to-miss plaque of blue and white signifying that it was once Borges’ residence. It is now occupied by a hair salon and is dwarfed by milk-carton shaped apartment buildings on either side. When I pause to take a picture, shampooed-heads inside the hair salon turn toward the windows and give me a puzzled look. It is clear that they are unaware of the significance of where they sit.

It is in this house that Borges began to understand the significance of cultivating his imagination. His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was a lawyer and a psychology teacher who encouraged his son to pursue knowledge both in Spanish and English. Both of his parents read and spoke English and encouraged the pursuit of literature in both traditions. Heroes like Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn filled the young boy’s world with excitement and possibilities. At the age of nine, Borges was fluent enough in English to translate one of his favorite stories; Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince into Spanish. The translation was published in the local newspaper El Pais and it was the first of many translations Borges would complete during his life.

Along with his literary encouragement, Borges mother; Leonor Acevedo de Borges, encouraged her son to be proud of his ancestry. Leonor was a descendent of freedom fighters and Argentine soldiers and she decorated their Palermo Viejo home with portraits of these non-fictional heroes. Stories were told by his mother and father and Borges was enamored by the real life military figures of his family. His paternal grandfather was a colonel who had been killed in battle in 1874. He had married an Englishwoman named Francis Haslam who became one of Borges’ most cited influences because of her sharp wit. Borges’ grandma “Fanny” would tell her grandson colorful tales of the wild frontier days, some true and others exaggerated. The concise style of Borges’ writing has been credited to his English grandmother’s sharp wit as well as his ability to craft an imaginative story.

The abundance of influence in Borges’ home and outside on the streets of Palermo Viejo offered a creative reservoir that Borges drew upon throughout his entire life. His imagination was his greatest asset as an artist. In the wake of his legacy, each one of the “ghosts” he invented or retold will remain for those who wish to experience them, first hand, in Buenos Aires.

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