Thursday, February 23, 2012

Revision: "Labyrinths"



Set in a grid, the streets of San Telmo should have been easy to navigate, but the symmetry meant all intersections looked the same. All corners were rightangled. Inside the maze, it was hard to remember which direction was north. The streets were named after countries in the Americas, and so we wandered up and down Venezuela, Perú and Chile, or did we wander east and west? The world map was useless. Here, in Buenos Aires, Estados Unidos was south of México.

Where was the oldstyled parilla al carbón we liked? What was its name? On our last afternoon we stumbled on La Poesia Café and sat beside Victoria Ocampo at the bar.


Friday afternoon milonga at the Confitería Ideal. The mazy footwork of tango crisscrossed the palatial dance hall. The light was the color of dust. After a set of songs, the dancing couples released each other and returned to their own tables. The women sat along one wall like a gallery of yellowing photographs. The men hardly touched their beer. A short elderly woman threaded her way through the small tables and asked me to dance. Shaking my head, I smiled hard so that she would not be too offended by the rejection. She retreated like a small animal from a baited trap. I could not look her way again.


We searched desultorily for Eva Peron’s final resting place at La Recoleta. The sun was burning. The champion of women’s suffrage was locked in the Duarte family vault. Music, music, please!


The Rochester Concept Hotel, where we stayed, did not have a gym. To get to the gym, you had to go around the block to the Rochester Classic Hotel. To change hotels, you had to pay US$30.00 more for each night. The leg of our bed flew out one night. We made the change. The new room was bigger, it had a bath, but now you missed the private balcony and said so. There was no winning with you on this trip.

A hotel is a labyrinth with your own room key.


So many Caucasian porteños. Blond hair, skin. Where are the Indians?

Back in New York City, I made the observation to a colleague who asked about my vacation. My friend, who teaches history, explained that the European immigrants killed the Indians off to clear the pampas for rearing cattle. Charles Darwin wrote about a Spanish governor putting out the eyes of an Indian with his thumbs.


We were used to seeing old Chinese women rummage through trash for recyclable bottles and cans on the streets of New York City. In Buenos Aires boys did the same, looking for paper, sitting on the sidewalks amidst the spilling garbage.

Downtown Buenos Aires celebrated New Year's Eve by throwing confetti, made from shredded office documents, down to the streets. Somebody had to pick up the bits of paper the next day. Send in the boys, now mutated into ashy men hanging off the municipal dump trucks.


In the nearly lifesized painting Manifestación by Antonio Berni, the demonstrators pressing towards you look in every direction. You are relieved to find a pair of eyes looking straight at you, as if to say this is the way out.


This Japanese woman, short hair, in a white suit, came this way before me. She looks nothing like Virgil in the photograph, or what I imagine Virgil to look like. Of her journey she wrote,

            I travel through city streets where right turns are prohibited
            Turning endlessly to the left, heading toward the center of the labyrinth
            Led by the blinking stoplights, turning left and left again
            (This is the direction of death)


Men and women, they walked through the train cars and left whatever they were selling on the thighs of the seated commuters: lottery ticket, pocket guidebook, page of stickers. Then they retreaded their steps and retrieved their wares. It was a kind of contact, rhythmic, fleeting, closer than the oratory of a pious plea or the seduction of a folk guitar on the New York subway.

Our longest train ride was our daytrip to Tigre, a town built on the Paraná Delta. The only way to explore the web of rivers and streams was by boat. But the vintage mahogany commuter launches would not ferry you up and down every waterway; they plied a certain route.

"Tigre" means jaguar, Panthera onca, which used to roam the area. Once in a while the news reports a sighting. Then people brace themselves for a train wreck.


I read Borges’s Labyrinths in the labyrinths of Buenos Aires. Afterwards I wrote on my weblog, “There are marvels in Borges's mazes, but there are no monsters, or, more precisely, the monster is the maze.” The entry was dated Saturday, January 07, 2012.

Three days before the train crash at Once Station that killed 49 passengers and drove one car nearly 20 feet into another, a black jaguar was sighted swimming in the Paraná Delta. A coincidence? The difference between onca and Once is only one letter.


The monster is the marvel too.

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