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The biggest cinephile in my social circle came up to me and asked if I’ve ever read the work of Isidoro Blaisten. I didn’t even know who he was. He names two other friends, both great readers, who held him up as an idol. I found this frustrating, because the only thing I associated that name with was the place where I bought some plumbing once.
So I did what any person does when confronted with a blind spot in their knowledge: I went looking for my Encarta 98 CD, placed it in my disc tray, and learned all I could about the man. He was born in Concordia (Entre Rios), but lived his whole life in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Boedo. There he alternated his trade as a bookseller with his vocation as a writer. He won several international awards… okay, this is embarrassing. I didn’t know him, but I had to immediately check out his work.
So I headed out to the bookstore and asked what they had in stock by the author. Turns out, only Anticonferencias. The title immediately captured my interest, as well as the cover featuring a mustachioed bald man with his leg behind his head. I decided to purchase it. As soon as I started reading this hard-to-describe book, I realized it was a different type of writing. I cursed myself for missing it, but I found comfort in having arrived at it eventually. The famous Lacanian fallacy of the reader where we always emphasize how much we have left to read instead of feeling happy about everything we have already read. I don’t know if that’s what Lacan actually said, but that’s my interpretation.
The first few entries are fantastic. With humor and wit he recalls his years as a high school student. I must admit that I love it when writers talk about literature. And when they poke fun at the immaculate places that some knowledge occupies, even more. It is perhaps the most difficult place to get to, where humor is combined with impeccable prose and elicits quiet smiles. The world feels a little less unfair. Humor is the biggest defense mechanism we have. Without a sense of humor, you have nothing.
I am interested in defending the work of people who find it easy to make people laugh. Of course, the task is not actually easy at all. We can all see how comedy actors are undervalued compared to dramatic actors. An example of this: it is very rare for an actor to win the Oscar for best actor for his work in a comedy. I don’t remember it ever happening. The same happens with writers; great writers are pigeonholed and cataloged as low-brow or minor literature. From this humble column, I propose that humor is the greatest weapon we have to move forward. To be less unhappy: read the works of Fontanarosa, Groucho, Kurt Vonnegut or Isidore Blaisten himself.
Here’s his stance on humor:
“I would not like to be pigeonholed as a humorist. I do not intend to amuse anyone. I am but a humble storyteller. I do think that humor is an aristocracy of the soul. For me, a sense of humor is inherent in writing. My friend Boris says that a tragedy that lasts more than five acts becomes a comedy. I think that the sense of humor is an individual matter. There are different senses of humor. There are people who do not have a sense of humor, and there are people who have no sense at all. (…) I also said that humor is a form of piety, that a humorist is a writer who laughs nervously and that humor is the penultimate stage of despair.”
Then I started thinking about Buenos Aires, because a part of the book delves into his research for an article that he had been commissioned to write about the city, in observance of its 400 years. He realizes that he was tasked with writing the article because he is a man who has stayed all his life in Buenos Aires. Then a friend remarked “Look, I have boarded a hundred planes, I have gone around the world, I think I no longer have a country to visit. I can only tell you one thing: no country, no trip, no plane is going to give you anything that you don’t already have inside.”
I mean, there’s a lot to unpack here. The first is the scenes where he is in cafes and they begin to philosophize about life are so funny, so Buenos Aires it hurts. Then, I must admit that as someone who loves to travel and see the world, that sentiment hurts me. It also contains a universal truth and that is that you can go to the farthest place in the world, but you won’t find anything if you’re not okay with yourself. I’m going to talk to my psychologist about this on Monday.
So, I kept reading about Buenos Aires and about the letter to the Mayor that the ghost of Roberto Arlt recommended that he write (since you always have to petition the authorities). With humor and with respect. He writes: “Your Excellency, Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires. On the advice of Roberto Godofredo Christophersen Arlt and with all due respect, I would like to petition. Mr. Intendant, that you, forbid. Forbid the destruction of the Molino Confectionery, the Las Violetas confectionery, the steps of Guido and Agote, the Tortoni, the house of Celedonio Flores, the house of Carriego. And please, do your best so that no one touches this corner of San Juan and Boedo. Let nobody turn it into nothing. So that these ‘old skies’ don’t turn into ‘lost skies.’ Thank you”
Luckily, almost all these landmarks are still standing and the renewed Confitería del Molino is about to reopen. But as is often the case with these articles, it led to some self-reflection. I wasn’t born here, but I certainly perceive myself as a porteño. And I started to think about the magazine, because isn’t this supposed to be a guide to Buenos Aires and its culture? Actually, I don’t quite know what La La Lista is and maybe that’s what I like the most about writing here.
In any case, Buenos Aires is a great city, La La Lista is a great magazine and Isidoro Blaisten is a great writer whose work we must all read in our lives.