If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Could you describe the atmosphere of Buenos Aires as you feel/see it?
Though Buenos Aires, like all cities, modernized, my perception is of a Buenos Aires that has not changed. Since I was born, I have lived in the same neighborhood, Caballito, on a quiet street. A place that today is the same, or almost identical, to the one I remember from my childhood, to the one I conserve in my imagination. The movement of the city does not reach my Buenos Aires. My Buenos Aires is still and slow. I remember a dilapidated bus that was parked for more than twenty years in front of my house, without ever moving from that place. My memory of that street was born with that bus encrusted in the pavement. I never found out what was inside it, in part because it emanated an aura of respect, of “don’t come near,” and also because the windows were tinted. I looked through the front window a few times. I think it might have been used as an outdoor basement—there were folded and flattened mattresses, machine parts, filth, dust, and rust. Only the front seat was visible, the others had been removed. What did change with the years was the graffiti, the lighter hues of the sheet metal, the missing paint, the rust that found small round places to inhabit.
The bus was removed a few years ago, and for the first time I could see the missing piece of the street. All the rest remains the same—the smell of the linden trees, the low houses, the yellow leaves in the autumn, and the flowers on the trees in springtime. What moves in Buenos Aires is far away from me.
What memory of this city has impacted you most?
The memories of the marches on March 24, the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice for the more than 30,000 disappeared people in Argentina during the military dictatorship. I’m not thinking of a particular year. I remember every March 24 as one. The city center replete with people, the corporeal sensation of being united with thousands of people at the same time and place, the emotion of the collective struggle. I think of my parents being activists in secret, of my mother burying books in the garden. To this memory that encompasses March 24, I also add what comes after, the gaze from outside. The panoramic photos, the videos that show me the center full of little specks, the shouts of “Present!—Now—and always!—Now—and always!”
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The sky. Few people look at it, perhaps because of the smog or because it is the sky of the city and not a sky in which the sun sets upon the sea or hides behind a mountain. Maybe one should pay more attention. The sky of Buenos Aires has the same intensity from a balcony in the city center or the grass of a plaza. In that eruption of nature, the sky, with its infinite shades and distinct intensities of light, makes the city stand out like a shot of opaque gray.
I remember one day when I got off the 44 bus near Plaza Irlanda, in the Caballito neighborhood. It was about nine at night and there were hardly any people out walking. It was humid and hot. When I skirted along the edge of the plaza, I looked toward the end of the street, toward the sky, and found the moon very low and exaggerated in size. It seemed only a few miles away, that if I walked I could tranquilly cross it like a portal. I walked two blocks more and the effect was, obviously, different. The moon grew smaller and higher with each step. Then I had to turn at the block where my house is, where the trees covered the moon, and the trees made the sky look like small wavy fragments.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
There are many, so I will only name some of my favorite Argentine writers: Alejandra Pizarnik, Juan Gelman, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan José Saer, Enrique Molina, the poems and essays of María Negroni, the stories of Bruno Petroni.
Is there a place here you return to often?
The city center with friends at night—for the bookstores that remain open until all hours of the night and the pizza at Las Cuartetas. I also return to the National Library. It’s a beautiful place and I often study in its silent rooms. It has a stunning view of the river.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
That question makes me think of the emblematic literary cafés. Café Margot, for example, located in the Boedo neighborhood. That was one of those places where the Boedo group—whose members included writers like Roberto Arlt, Leónidas Barletta, and Elías Castelnuovo—got together. This literary group sprung up sometime during the 1920s.
Café Tortoni is the most known and perhaps the most emblematic of all. It was established in 1858 and figures from tango, literature, and painting passed through it. In the 1920s, la Peña del Tortoni, a group that promoted art and culture, was founded there. It was led by the painter Benito Quinquela Martín and by writers like Alfonsina Storni, Roberto Arlt, Jorge Luis Borges, and Baldomero Fernández Moreno, among others. Later, in the 1960s, Café Tortoni was the reunion place of another literary group, which included Abelardo Castillo, Humberto Costantini, Ricardo Piglia, and Isidoro Blaisten, among other writers.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
The bridge in Caballito is a place I always like to visit. This bridge crosses the railroad tracks and borders the field of the football club Ferro Carril Oeste. On one side, there are gigantic containers and buildings. On the other side, there are the playing fields. And on both sides are the tracks that disappear into the distance. There aren’t many people. The bridge is a bit desolate. There is an abandoned train car in the grass beside the tracks. Once in a while, from above, I see a dog prowling, a fire lit below. I feel it as a moment in which things are waning: as if from that bridge everything surrounding it were dimmed. More than voices, I notice the growth of plants upon the wire fence. The bridge forms a dry outline, a postcard from no one.
Where does passion live here?
In fútbol. Even I, who am not a fanatic, feel it everywhere. Shouts announcing goals, bars where people have a drink and watch games, people talking about football, buses with interiors decorated in honor of a team, graffiti in the streets, amateur football fields.
What is the title of one of your works about Buenos Aires and what inspired it exactly?
The book Catacumbas (Catacombs) is divided into three sections, each pertaining to a street. The first address is in the neighborhood of Palermo, the second in the neighborhood of Caballito. The poem “Palermo” makes reference to the Botanical Garden—found in that neighborhood—and to the cats that tend to wander about there:
Palermo is my father’s neighborhood
from an opal face shine
cats with gemstone eyes
the light dies in Palermo
gives in with the dying cats
in nocturnal fights
my father embraced Palermo destroyed my childhood
me and the starving cats of the botanic gardens
came up with the potion:
we would apply thick salt to their eyes
we would see them disintegrate
until they revealed
two shadowy cisterns
—that were mine—
the images rust
the neighborhood turns sepia
one day my father will not be Palermo will not be
I will be a reflection
of the twisted branches
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Buenos Aires does an outside exist?”
I have lived in and outside of Buenos Aires. I think about the sensation of returning after being in another country for various months. Upon returning, I see Buenos Aires like an outsider, like a new and resplendent city. Buenos Aires never loses its magic while it can be perceived as an outsider from within. And for this it is necessary to leave in order to return, which is not the same thing as leaving. As the tango by Troilo says: “Someone once said / that I left my neighborhood / When? . . . But, when? . . . / If I am always coming arriving.”
Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor.
Luciana Jazmín Coronado was born on April 3, 1991 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She studied literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. She has published two books of poetry: La insolación (Sunstroke, Viajero Insomne, 2014) and Catacumbas (Catacombs, Valparaíso Ediciones, 2016), winner of the San Salvador Hispano-American Poetry Prize. Her poems have been published in anthologies, journals, and blogs in Latin America and Europe. Some of her poems have been translated into Italian. She teaches language, literature, and English, and she translates poetry.
Eileen O’Connor’s writing has appeared in The Recorder: Journal of Irish American History, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, The Women’s Review of Books, and Hippocampus, among other publications. She has translated essays, stories, and poetry from the Spanish, including Pez/Fish, by Peruvian poet Mariela Dreyfus (Nirala Publications, 2014); the young adult novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín (Simon and Schuster, 2014), winner of the 2015 Pura Belpré Award and finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Award; and most recently a volume of poetry by Marjorie Agosín, Harbors of Light (White Pine Press, 2016), which World Literature Today chose as one of their 75 Notable Translations of 2016. A graduate of Harvard College and New York University, Eileen currently teaches writing and Spanish at Wellesley College.