This city that I believed was my past,
is my future, my present;
the years I have spent in Europe are an illusion,
I always was (and will be) in Buenos Aires.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Arrabal”, from Fervor de Buenos Aires (1921)
There’s no shortage of literary works inspired by Argentina’s capital city, but no writer has written so passionately about it as Jorge Luis Borges. Though he was born in the heart of Buenos Aires, in 1898, it was the city’s humbler barrios that most captivated Borges’ imagination. His early childhood was spent in Palermo, now one of Buenos Aires’ more exclusive neighbourhoods, but a somewhat marginal barrio at the start of the twentieth century. Borges’ middle-class family inhabited one of the few two-storey houses on their street, Calle Serrano (now officially renamed Calle J. L. Borges), and, though his excursions were strictly controlled, from behind the garden wall Borges observed the colourful street life that was kept tantalizingly out of his reach. In particular, his attention was caught by the men who gathered to drink and play cards in the local almacén (a sort of store-cum-bar) at his street corner. With their tales of knife fights and air of lawlessness, these men appeared time and again in Borges’ early short stories, and, later, in Doctor Brodie’s Report, a collection published in 1970.
Borges’ writing talent surfaced at a precocious age: at 6 he wrote his first short story and when he was 11, the newspaper El País published his translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. However, it was not until he returned from Europe in 1921, where he had been stranded with his family during World War I, that Borges published his first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires, a collection of poems that attempted to capture the essence of the city. Enthused by his re-encounter with Buenos Aires at an age at which he was free to go where he wanted, Borges set out to explore the marginal corners of the city. His wanderings took him to the outlying barrios, where streets lined with simple one-storey buildings blended with the surrounding Pampas, or to the poorer areas of the city centre with their tenement buildings and bars frequented by prostitutes. With the notable exception of La Boca, which he appears to have regarded as too idiosyncratic – and perhaps, too obviously picturesque – Borges felt greatest affection for the south of Buenos Aires. His exploration of the area that he regarded as representing the heart of the city took in not only the traditional houses of San Telmo and Monserrat, with their patios and decorative facades, but also the humbler streets of Barracas, a largely industrial working-class neighbourhood, and Constitución, where, in a gloomy basement in Avenida Juan de Garay, he set one of his most famous short stories, El Aleph.
For a writer as sensitive to visual subtlety as Borges – many of his early poems focus on the city’s atmospheric evening light – it seems particularly tragic that he should have gone virtually blind in his 50s. Nonetheless, from 1955 to 1973, Borges was Director of the National Library, then located in Monserrat, where his pleasure at being surrounded by books – even if he could no longer read them – was heightened by the fact that his daily journey to work took him through one of his favourite parts of the city, from his apartment in Maipú along pedestrianized Florida. As Borges’ fame grew, he spent considerable periods of time away from Argentina, travelling to Europe, the US and other Latin American countries – though he claimed always to return to Buenos Aires in his dreams. Borges died in 1986 in Geneva, where he is buried in the Plainpalais cemetery. Borges pilgrims in Buenos Aires will find a commemorative plaque at no. 2108 on Calle Serrano, inscribed with a stanza from his Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires.