NWR Issue 70

Buenos Aires Diary

‘Reality favours symmetries and slight anachronisms.’ J. L. Borges, The South.

In May of this year I was flying over the south Atlantic in an Air France 777, heading for Argentina and autumn. It was my first trip to that country and I liked the symmetry that my journey represented, as if by flying for thirteen hours I could eclipse the whole of one season, ending my voyage in the southern hemisphere at the tail-end of summer, having embarked upon it at the start.

I woke from a temazepam sleep over southern Brazil and looked down on the dark moss of the receding forest far below in the tangerine light of sunrise, then at the green-grey pampas and the huge serpentine channel of the Rio Plata down towards the sea. Buenos Aires sprawled immense below us as the plane banked and I turned up my CD player and closed my eyes. At the airport my niece, Nicky, was there to meet me as I came through Customs, looking tired after being up all night, but sweet and fine and happy. She was twenty-five, had found this new life and it was important to her, as if she’d also found some kind of resolution to her restlessness as a developing writer. In my hotel room I unpacked, showered and lay down on the crisp white sheets of my double bed. The television’s 64 channels proved too much of a challenge, so I opted for the familiar and watched the FA Cup final from the Millennium Stadium, a game whose outcome meant nothing to me at all. I flicked through a city guide. At some point, I decided, I must get out and walk the streets to check the light. Every new place delivers its first impression through the light. I ate lunch down in the hotel restaurant before taking my walk: alongside the fantastically tender, buttery steak were Andes potatoes – they elicit a peculiar sense of longing for a taste almost but not entirely forgotten: small, floury, sweet, mineral-rich. The texture of the earth from which they are grown.


I knew practically nothing about Buenos Aires when I arrived, other than what I had garnered from a newly-acquired Time Out guide to the city, and, of course, my longstanding fascination with the writing of Borges. Of all his stories, my favourite (and the author’s own) is ‘The South’. Of this story, Borges once said that it could be read in two ways: in one, all the events are presumed to have occurred as they are described in the text; in another, the second half of the story is the hallucination of the protagonist. The first half, which we can take as a literal reading, tells of a man named Dahlmann who suffers an accident and is taken to a hospital with a serious case of septicaemia. In the second half, he leaves hospital and takes a train to his family’s disused ranch in the South, the mythical ‘South’ of the title. On his arrival at a small railway station near his destination, he encounters a group of local toughs, with one of whom he fights, and he is killed.

When our lives are most likely to follow preordained patterns, following a timetable laid out for us by others, it often appears that there is another, darker, agenda at work, which does everything in its power to shift and sway, to unbalance the course of events that we had expected to take place. This result is what might best be compared to a series of hallucinations, or, as in the Borges story, a forking of paths, a multiplicity of outcomes. We are led to question whether Dahlmann ‘in fact’ dies under the surgeon’s knife – in which case the rest of the story is a prolonged hallucination experienced during his last moments – or if the development that Borges describes is only one of a series of possible outcomes, a tracking of the protagonist through just one of innumerable universes. My first night in Buenos Aires brought home to me the fact that such questions are not purely theroretical, but have the immediacy and force of terrifying reality.

After taking a stroll around the barrio, I returned to my hotel and sent some e-mails to family and friends in Wales. At 8.30 p.m. Nicky arrived at the hotel and we walked towards the famous cemetery of Recoleta. There was a chill in the air, and it was strange to see the signs of autumn, pavements dotted with fallen golden leaves. We found a place to eat. We had plenty to catch up on. It was good just to eat and chat, talk family, talk books: I wasn’t sure how much free time there would be in the week ahead. Nicky had recently been offered work as the BA Time Out tango correspondent. Dance was, for her, a lifelong love. As the evening wore on, Nicky seemed a little concerned about the time. I suspected she had a date and didn’t want to be a killjoy. Around midnight we left the restaurant and deliberated on whether or not to share a taxi, dropping me off at my hotel on her way back to San Telmo, where she lived in a hostel. There was a row of taxis across the road and Nicky got in the back of one. I said I would walk to the hotel: it would help me orient myself.

In Borges’ story I find these words at the start of the second paragraph: Blind to a fault, destiny can be ruthless at one’s slightest distraction. Why did I not know that I should have got into the taxi with her? Was my sense of intuition taking a break, or, as in the conceit of the soul travelling at the pace of a trotting camel, had my own soul simply not caught up with me, delayed, as it were, by the speed of my Boeing’s flight across the south Atlantic? Am I crazy to think like this? Would it have made any difference if we had taken the taxi together as far as my hotel? She would, after all, still have driven off with the taxi driver, but he would, perhaps, have been wary: I would have a full description of him and might well have taken the number of the cab (probably an irrelevance as it turned out). Worse still, the fact later haunted me that she would not have got into that particular taxi on that particular night had I not arrived in Buenos Aires on that particular day. But at this point the innumerable patterns of possibility and probability begin to kick in and you realise that this way madness lies. You can, if you are so disposed, trace such concatenations back to the moment of conception and beyond, to those of one’s parents and distant ancestors, to the primeval slime. There is no point in going there.

I thought maybe I’d stop off for a drink in one of the many bars that lined the streets along the way, but in the end decided to walk straight back to the hotel. It had been a long day, a long week in fact, and I wanted to sleep. My sense of direction, like my intuition, was not as brilliant as I had thought it was. I managed to find the street where my hotel was located, but started walking towards the wrong end and ended up going a mile or so out of my way. I finally arrived back an hour and a quarter later.

As I came into the hotel room, the telephone was ringing. I picked up and a doctor introduced herself. She spoke in English, faltering but competent. She asked me if I was Nicky’s uncle and told me that my niece had been involved in an ‘incident’. I asked her to continue in Spanish and got directions to the hospital. It was a public facility on the other side of town, called Hospital Argelich. She told me that my niece was injured but conscious, and was asking for me. I hurried downstairs and ordered a taxi from the hotel reception. Half an hour later I was at the hospital, a grim, labyrinthine building, and tracked Nicky down in a treatment room. A nurse was cleaning her face, which was caked with blood. I was told that probably both her ankles were broken, but that the staff were awaiting the X-ray results. Otherwise, Nicky appeared to be all right, though it was difficult to be sure, since shock can produce highly variable responses in different people. She told me her story.

Almost immediately after driving off, the taxi driver had begun to head in a direction that did not lead to San Telmo. Nicky, who knew the city well enough after three months, began to complain. The driver was taciturn. Nicky became suspicious, then frightened. As the car began to leave the city, she realised something was seriously wrong. He was speaking in a low voice into a mobile phone, and the cab radio was not switched on. She guessed later he must have been arranging a rendezvous with an accomplice. But for now she resumed her argument with the driver, more volubly. He told her to be quiet, and then, from the glove compartment, produced a pistol, which he waved in her direction, uttering threats. The car had reached the dual carriageway leading out of the city, and Nicky was very scared. She screamed at the driver, who grabbed her hair, attempting to force her head down, out of view from passing traffic, while still clutching the pistol and trying to steer the car. With the realisation that she was now the victim of an abduction, came the certainty that she must escape. Her actions from this point on took on an aspect of single-minded determination: to get out of that car and away from her captor in whatever way she could. The doors of the car were centrally locked, so while struggling with the driver, she worked down the rear window. The driver shouted at her, but despite pulling her hair, was unable to control her movements, and swerved across the road, coming close to colliding with a van. Taking advantage of his efforts to retain control of the vehicle, she pulled free and hurled herself headfirst through the rear passenger window. The car was travelling at speed. She must have twisted in mid-air to avoid landing on her head, because although she sustained head wounds, it was her feet that took the major impact of landing. She did not lose consciousness, but started running (on broken ankles, as it turned out) back towards the city, terrified that the taxi driver would re-capture her, or shoot her in an attempt to force her back into his car. There was not much traffic on the highway, and besides, she must have presented a pretty scary spectacle, her face streaming with blood as she tried to flag down vehicles. Someone stopped – the third or fourth car to pass, she thinks. She collapsed on the hard shoulder and the driver wrapped his coat over her shoulders and called an ambulance on his cell-phone. So it was that she arrived, stretchered, in a neck-brace, at the Hospital Argelich.

At certain points of crisis, everyday perceptions tend to be suspended in a state of exacerbated intensity. Borges again: In the obscurity, something brushed by his forehead: a bat, a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him he saw horror engraved, and the hand he wiped across his face came away red with blood. The edge of a recently painted door which someone had forgotten to close had caused this wound. Dahlmann was able to fall asleep, but from the moment he awoke at dawn the savour of all things was atrociously poignant. So it was in the Hospital Argelich. Every instant was pregnant with imminent, but frustrated lucidity. I knew about Argentina’s economic crisis, knew that public funding for health was not comparable to European levels, but this place was something else entirely. I leaned against a table in the treatment room only to notice that it was covered with dried blood. The floors and walls needed washing. A young medic passed by, and briefly discussed the finer points of an X-ray which he clearly did not understand. Someone applied plaster of Paris to Nicky’s legs from the knees down. It was like watching a child slapping wet clay into some shapeless monstrosity. I wondered if any of the staff had received anything other than the most basic training. Staff carried out their duties with the scantest regard to basic hygiene, only occasionally donning sterile gloves. The doctor who had phoned me could not be found. She had moved on to another emergency, or else had gone off duty. It dawned on me that this was a hospital without doctors. I felt the heavy burden of privilege, of coming from a rich country in which certain essentials are taken for granted, and with that sense of privilege came a peculiar sort of guilt. Who, after all, were we to demand anything of this country’s services, crippled as it was by debts brought on, at least to some degree, by the inequalities of the global economy directed by the world’s richest countries, from one of which I held a passport?

A cheerful young man stitched up the mess at the back of Nicky’s head, then applied himself to the bridge of the nose, where a couple more sutures were required. Bizarrely, I have a photo of this on my mobile. He was talkative and good at his job. Nicky was taken from room to room in an ancient wheelchair pushed by a lame midget in his seventies, and I trundled behind. At each corner and doorway he banged into an adjacent wall or door-jamb, knocking Nicky’s ankle. When I tried to push the chair myself, the lame one told me that this was his duty, and there was something so tragic about his earnestness and sense of dedication amid all the hospital’s random carnage that I let it pass, positioning myself between the ankle and any obstacles that the wheelchair expert might have to negotiate. As we passed down corridors, screams could be heard from behind shut doors. Everything seemed suspended in a state of reluctant animation. I spoke at length with a police sergeant called Segovia, who referred to me by the honorific ‘Caballero’, painstakingly filled out forms, and told me that in two days’ time I must report to Police Commissariat 16, which covered the zone of the city where the ‘incident’ had taken place, in order to procure a full report and ‘denunciation’. I was handed a prescription by one of the medics, and instructed that I had to give Nicky anti-tetanus injections in the buttocks. The prescription also detailed some analgesics and antibiotics that I was to give her. Then we left. That was it. Out into the autumnal morning.

The first tang of autumn, after the summer’s oppressiveness, seemed like a symbol in nature of (Dahlmann’s) rescue and release from fever and death. The city, at seven in the morning, had not lost that air of an old house lent it by the night; the streets seemed like long vestibules, the plazas were like patios…. a second before his eyes registered the phenomena themselves, he recalled the corners, the billboards, the modest variety of Buenos Aires. In the yellow light of the new day, all things returned to him.

This narrative of my niece’s abduction can, like Borges’ story, be read in two ways: in one, all the events are presumed to have occurred as they are described in the text; in another, the second half of the story is the hallucination of the protagonist. The first half, which we can take as a literal reading, tells of a girl called Nicky who is abducted by an armed desperado who has stolen a taxi: she escapes from the speeding car, ends up in hospital, has an operation, and returns to recuperate with her family in Wales. Even her fear that she would not dance again proves to be groundless. In the second, mercifully unscripted version, she is taken to an unknown destination and disappears from human history, from human life (although, in an interminable agony of irresolution that mirrors that of Argentina’s own desaparecidos, not from the memories of those who loved her). But the scope of the human tragedy implicit in this story is not limited to me, to my niece, or to our relatively comfortable and well-nourished lives. Even as I write, the epidemic of secuestros, of abductions, kidnappings, rape, enforced prostitution and murder is increasing, not only across Latin America (only this week the Venezuelan movie Secuestro was released in the UK) but in many countries across the ‘developing’ world.

My time in Buenos Aires turned into a sleepless week of taxi rides between police, governmental and health institutions, trying to secure the paperwork necessary for a ‘denunciation’ of the crime, while Nicky underwent surgery on both feet in another of the city’s hospitals. But I was able to spend one evening, my last, at a milonga (tango nightclub) with my fellow editors, in Palermo Viejo. Walking from a workers’ canteen, talking with the Turkish publisher Halil Beyta about the great poet Nazim Hikmet, I felt saddened that I had missed out on the week’s conference in this vibrant, fantastic city. But by the grilled window of the club’s entrance, with an almost gratuitous sense of occasion, sat a black cat. As if on cue, she arched her back for me to stroke her. I was aware, not for the first time, of the strange truth that events in life sometimes begin as fiction and are replicated only later in fact. Borges again: (He) thought, as he smoothed the cat’s black coat, that this contact was an illusion and that the two beings, man and cat, were as good as separated by a glass, for man lives in time, in succession, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.


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