Monday, July 30, 2007

Understanding Buenos Aires

Can one truly understand a city (or a country for that matter) without ever visiting it? Quite a few writers in the past have written about cities strictly from their imaginations. Kafka is just one example that comes to mind when he wrote about America despite never having visited the land of opportunity. In cinema, Lars von Trier has made two films out of his proposed American trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) much to the anger of many North American critics who think he has really tarnished the U.S. I find myself in a similar position with regards to Buenos Aires -- imagining a city without ever visiting it.

The book:

Jorge Luis Borges. The doors open. Face to face with a Labyrinth. A matador lurks around the corner with a knife waiting for a kill. A glass tiger. A shadow. Another labyrinth opens up. This is the world that Borges created. A tower of Babel built around a Labyrinth of mirrors housed in Buenos Aires.


Boca Juniors , a soccer team rooted in Buenos Aires' Italian Community.

River Plate , Boca's eternal rivals yet the most successful team in the local league (32 titles won against Boca's 23). Located in the Núñez barrio, the northern edge of the banks of Rio de la Plata.

Other teams based in Buenos Aires -- San Lorenzo (rooted in the city's Spanish community), Lanus, Velez Sarsfield, Nueva Chicago, Argentinos Juniors (famous for having Diego Maradona and Riquelme plied their trades here), Banfield, Quilmes.

Each team rooted in a neighborhood. A path can be charted via each team and the city.


The dirty past that won't just go away. The Official Story beautifully captured the emotional impact such disappearances had on its generation. The 2003 film Imagining Argentina (starring Antonio Banderas & Emma Thompson) also tackled the topic of people abducted from their homes by the military junta.


People get lost in a labyrinth and might vanish without a trace. The labyrinth does not have to be a physical structure but can be a mental state imposed by a government. The intelligent 1996 film, Moebius by R. Gustavo Mosquera tackled the issues of Labyrinth and disappearances in one smooth manner. The film focuses on a train that gets lost in the underground labyrinth of Buenos Aires train system. In fact, the ghost train isn't really lost -- it is just moving at a different speed on the Moebius like train tracks. The missing train also alludes to the issue of people who were kidnaped from their homes. The ghost train takes uses the same underground train tracks like the regular visible trains but can't be seen by anyone unless someone makes an effort to track it down. Likewise, the ghosts of the people who were lost in the streets of Buenos Aires lurk around the corner invisible from view. But the truth can be found if one hunts it down, a fact shown in Luis Puenzo's The Official Story.

The voice:

The well written novel The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez attempts to understand the complex labyrinth like structure of Buenos Aires that exists in reality and the one that Borges created. The main story revolves around the main character's (Bruno Cadogan) quest to find Julio Martel, the city's best known Jazz singer. No matter what corner Bruno takes, he seems to miss Martel's voice. He can't seem to understand the pattern that Martel is making in trying to pick the locations of his concerts. The novel is brilliant when Martínez describes the city's structure. The story seems to drag a bit when Martínez dives into the past story of Martel's life and even the city for that matter. But each side story that Martínez tackles opens another door of the labyrinth.

In the end, a city as rich with history and complexity as Buenos Aires needs a visit. Until that happens, it is refreshing to know authors, film-makers and even soccer can help provide glimpses of the complicated puzzle that is Buenos Aires!

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