A City Honors Its Older Writers ; Argentine Capital Gives Pensions to Some Poets and Novelists at Age 60

Article excerpt

While other nations are cutting budgets, Buenos Aires has passed a law giving government pensions to published authors beginning at age 60.

It is not enough for this city to boast cavernous bookstores that stay open past midnight, broad avenues once roamed by literary giants like Jorge Luis Borges, cafes serving copious amounts of beef and red wine, or even a bizarre neo-Gothic skyscraper, the Palacio Barolo, inspired by Dante's "Divine Comedy."

Now, writers have yet another reason to live here: pensions.

The city of Buenos Aires now gives pensions to published writers in a program that attempts to strengthen the "vertebral column of society," as drafters of the law described their goal. Since its enactment recently, more than 80 writers have been awarded pensions, which can reach the equivalent of almost $900 a month, supplementing often meager retirement income.

"The program is magnificent, delivering some dignity to those of us who have toiled our entire life for literature," said Alberto Laiseca, 71, one of the recipients, who has written more than a dozen books of horror fiction, including "The Garden of Talking Machines" and "The Adventures of Professor Eusebio Filigranati."

The pensions reflect how Argentina has sought to bolster what is already one of the strongest literary traditions in the Spanish- speaking world; Borges, the acclaimed short-story writer and poet, easily comes to mind, but Argentina also boasts classics like "Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism," a 19th-century cornerstone of Latin American literature by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who went on to become president of Argentina.

The country produced an array of other renowned writers in the 20th century, like the novelists Ernesto Sabato and Roberto Arlt, and in recent years Buenos Aires has enjoyed a resurgent literary scene (of the 22 authors recently chosen by the magazine Granta as the best young novelists writing in Spanish, 8 are Argentine). In addition to the pensions, the city offers subsidies to independent publishers and tax exemptions on book purchases.

The literary pensions underscore how Argentina -- despite the European feel of its capital city, which evokes parts of London, Paris and Budapest in its leafier districts -- seems like an alternate reality on some pivotal matters. As some European nations debate austerity measures aimed at curbing large budget deficits and reining in expansive welfare states, Argentina is deepening its own.

While European nations trim social benefits, Argentina, in an effort to reduce inequality, has granted pensions in recent years to more than two million people who worked in the informal sector. Retirement benefits were also extended to Argentines living abroad, some of them outside the country for decades.

Under President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, social spending has soared in other areas, including cash transfers to poor families and programs like "Soccer for Everybody," in which the government covers the broadcasting fees of soccer matches so people can watch for free. But as economic growth slows amid galloping inflation and a crackdown on access to hard currency, concern is growing that the buildup in social spending may not be sustainable.

Many writers here, as well as some legislators, insist that it is. The literary pension law, approved at the end of 2009, received the backing of various political parties, with a notable exception. The party of Mauricio Macri, a right-of-center businessman who is mayor of Buenos Aires, abstained from the vote. …