In the preface of Buenos Aires: A Cultural History by Jason Wilson, Wilson writes that “this guide, aimed at foreigners to Argentine history and culture, strives to be informative, and arbitrary” (Wilson, xi). I’m glad to say that the book delivers. Peppered with insightful quotes from argentine and non-argentine figures alike, Wilson carefully selects anecdotes and stories to give the reader a sense of a place while also grounding it in dates, facts and figures.
When he talks about Barrio Norte, my neighborhood, he treats the people who lived here (Borges, Guevara and Lugones to name a few) like characters rather than untouchable historical figures. About the revolutionary Guevara, which most writers I’ve encountered contribute at least a chapter to, Wilson writes one line: “while reluctantly in Buenos Aires (he was no porteño), the asthmatic Che played chess in the student Olympics for his university and graduated as a doctor in 1953, before setting off again on his travels, ending up in Guatemala, never to return” (Wilson, 83). No mention of his politics, no mention of his tempestuous legacy: only that he was a great chess player. Perhaps Wilson is drawing on the reader’s assumed pre-existing knowledge on Che but as a guide book, I still find the choice to write so little about him interesting. For someone with some knowledge about Che, I find the glossing over of his presence refreshing and the new random details (who knew he played chess?) humanising of a highly mythicised figure. For someone without any knowledge on Che, it might be a little annoying to know so little but that only serves to motivate the reader to learn more (Wilson also mentions in his preface: “let this guide be a starting point, a prompter” (xi)). When mentioning Borges, Wilson uses Willis Barnstone, a seemingly random character that Wilson includes without any context (a search revealed that he is an American poet), a stylistic choice which he uses often throughout the book, to recount an interaction between him and American poet Robert Lowell: “this cousin of Amy Lowell lay down on the floor, took off his trousers and, wearing nothing but his undershorts, began to scream. I don’t know what he said. I thought he was a madman. I assure you, he didn’t act like a gentleman.” (Wilson 83). This section on my neighbourhood gives Barrio Norte a sense that I’ve encountered myself but now I see is also supported by its own history and stories: this place where I live is uppity enough to claim Borges as a resident but try as hard as it might to keep up pretences, that ineradicable insanity that is at the heart of not just this city, but this country, sometimes seeps through.
The rest of the book follows the same style that I’ve identified here but this section on Barrio Norte definitely resonated the most with me just because of my personal geography. Wilson treats Buenos Aires well in this book, with the wonder it deserves at the things it has accomplished and the respect it has gained for the things it has survived underpinned by an honest gaze at a crazy city.