Magazine article The Spectator

Crying for Argentina

Magazine article The Spectator

Crying for Argentina

Article excerpt

Crying for Argentina

William Scammell


by Alberto Manguel

Bloomsbury, L15.99, pp. 272

Alberto Manguel, billed as `Canada's leading man of letters', won the Prix Medicis and plaudits from many critics for his last book, A History of Reading. As his name suggests, he is Canadian by adoption only, arriving there in 1982 via Italy, France, England, Tahiti and his native Argentina. Add his Jewish heritage, early friendships with Borges and other South American writers, familiarity with a wide range of classic and modern literature and you arrive at the slightly old-fashioned bookman who patrols the humanist lookouts in these engaging essays.

If he lacks Harold Bloom's synoptic passion (see The Western Canon) he lacks too the bombast and name-dropping of George Steiner, and the madder flights of French theoreticians. There are excursions here on the `ethic of reading', on naming, on being Jewish, on sex and pornography, on racism and homophobia, a denunciation of Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, and a good deal of informed comment on South American politics and literature.

The old-fashionedness is apparent in his enthusiasm for G. K. Chesterton and in using Lewis Carroll's Alice books as a frequent source of epigraphs and quotations. There is also an admirable common sense in his defence of orthodox wisdom, especially when he takes us into his own life and that of fellow writers such as Borges, Julio Cortazar, Maria Vargas Llosa, and their struggles with dictatorship.

For . . . fourteen years Argentina was flayed alive. Anyone living ... during those years had two choices: either to fight against the military dictatorship or allow it to flourish. My choice was that of a coward: I decided not to return [from Italy].

Borges had a more laconic comment to make on the tragedy:

Why do you think no one's noticed that General Galtieri and Mrs Thatcher are one and the same person?

Manguel was willingly conscripted to read to Borges when he was just 15. His account of the great man's fables, foibles and unhappy love life is one of the best things in the book. When Borges proposed marriage to Estelo Canto - a name, one imagines, Borges would have found irresistible - she told him she might.

`But Georgie, don't forget that I'm a disciple of Bernard Shaw. We can't get married unless we go to bed first.' To me, across the dinner table, she added, 'I knew he'd never dare.'

The idea of the sexless GBH as a roue is, at this distance, deliciously batty. Perhaps Shaw, Chesterton and company meant something more in Buenos Aires than they did in London, illustrating Borges's gnomic dictum, `The original is unfaithful to the translation. …

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