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OP-ED | 06-05-2023 06:21

The Book Fair as today’s Aleph

There is a case for saying that the Buenos Aires International Book Fair itself is an Aleph of Argentine today.

The 47th International Book Fair now unfolding in Palermo also marks the centenary of the first publication of Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps best defined by his most representative work El Aleph wherein a cellar in the Constitución neighbourhood becomes the universe containing all space and time (a masterpiece to which this year’s Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once may have been an incoherent homage) – there is a case for saying that the Book Fair itself is an Aleph of Argentine today. The Aleph of Borges may also be considered an anticipation of modern technology whereby the entire world of millions or even billions of individuals is condensed into one smartphone and the Book Fair now adds a more traditional angle to that reality – the literary showcase can be presented as the latest form of escapism from Argentina’s longer-term socio-economic problems, alongside full restaurants and weekend tourism.

And yet while the fiction of a genius might tell us that the entire universe can be encapsulated into a single point, the reality is that Argentina’s current mood cannot be so easily summarised by the single word of “escapism” – the situation is too complex for any simplistic interpretation. To the cultural universe of the Book Fair there might be added another example from the sports world as a metaphor for Argentina today – the football club Independiente is hopelessly in debt like this country and yet the influencer Santiago Maratea has been effortlessly raising millions for his salvage fund.

Returning to the Book Fair, a strong demand for such escapist forms of literature as science fiction and poetry has been detected but the best seller thus far remains an analysis of Greater Buenos Aires, a sociology which lies absolutely at the heart of this year’s general elections supposedly facing a mass indifference. The two provincial elections so far have indeed seen a reduced turnout (around two-thirds in Neuquén and over 60 percent in Río Negro where the election was less contested) but not dramatically down – it will be interesting to see what percentages of the electorate cast their ballots in tomorrow’s voting in three provinces. There is indeed a widespread rejection of politics and polarisation among a saturated general public but there must be very few countries in the world where a sophisticated understanding of exchange rates or a knowledge of the names of the top brass of the International Monetary Fund and of professional economic consultants extends way beyond the elites. Nor are we seeing politicians being held in awe elsewhere in today’s world.

There are those who might argue that the massive disenchantment with politics would run much deeper if it were not for the Javier Milei phenomenon, which boils down to another form of escapism as a leap into the unknown with his dollarisation a supreme flight from reality. It certainly suits the two main coalitions to demonise the libertarian as a far-right populist demagogue and Milei’s cynically extravagant showmanship certainly contributes to that image, but again reality might not be so simple. Behind his television antics the man is a serious student of economics which he has studied for decades. He might well have a far more structured plan than he presents – like Carlos Menem (whose 1989 campaign was based on “blood” to regain the Malvinas and a “massive wage hike,” but who ended up pioneering privatisation and deregulation) his presidency might drastically differ from his campaign or reality might end up imposing pragmatism as so often. But nor should we rule out with Milei that what you see is what you get and that he is indeed a threat to democratic culture – the only conclusion at this stage should be that nothing is simple.

Lastly, the ultimate form of escapism is to move elsewhere – a desire expressed by an absolute majority of 54 percent of the population, according to at least one opinion poll. Yet the reality is that while millions want to leave, only thousands actually depart because this is also a leap into the unknown – other countries are also beset with crises and uncertainty while in much of the world a far more rapid technological progress is imposing far severer adjustments than one of the planet’s most protected economies. So reality points to staying put and working to improve things here, confining escapism to the Book Fair.  

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