Borges Blues in Manhattan

Vargas Llosa: “Latin Literature is now born here.”

Even though it is less clean now with Bloomberg as the mayor than it used to be with Giuliani, New York continues to be a very fascinating city–the Babylon of the 21st century, a modern Babel Tower, the capital of today’s world. I have been here, in Manhattan, on a few occasions, but almost always only for a few days–the time given to participate in a few conferences. This last time, after 30 years, I stayed for a couple of months, which was sufficient time to feel the pulse of the city, to live it, and to discover it. In terms of numbers and statistics, New York is small. However, like Borges’ Aleph, it encompasses everything and everything crosses it: the countries, the races, the religions, and the languages. Everything is integrated into the city, rapidly loosing its own “foreign” connotation in order to be given another one: the “New Yorker.”

New York is everybody’s and nobody’s city; it is a city that has no identity of its own, because it unites all. The Hispanic world–or Latin, as they define it here–is omnipresent in its streets, bars, retail stores, and restaurants. After English, Spanish is the most spoken language in all of its Latin-American variants and in the local one as well, “Spanglish,” which started to give life to a new form of literature. To this we owe the vivacious role that institutions such as the Spanish Theater or the Cervantes Institute bring into New York life. I happened to watch a wonderful theatrical adaptation of the Brazilian Jorge Amado’s “Donna Flor and her two husbands.” The Cervantes collaborated with the International Pen Center for congress in a very important way last April, attracting hundreds of writers from around the world. It is common to consider New York the business and cultural city if only you take a look in Time Out magazine or in the New York Times cultural supplements.

The truth is that, culturally speaking, there is no other city in the world like the Big Apple, able to offer so many possibilities in every art field and sector. Painting, sculpture, classical and modern music, dance, theater, lyrical opera, cinema, literature, conferences, museums, art schools, and academies make up an immense dimension of life in the city that nobody can entirely embrace. At the most, by dedicating a lot of time, one can discover only the tip of it, just like with an iceberg. For those, such as myself, who love working in libraries, the New York Public Library is a little paradise. Located on Fifth Avenue, between 41st and 42nd, this immense building, dating from the 19th Century, has strong columns, large marble steps, and high and bright reading rooms. The library rests on a truly subterranean city made of a few levels on which live millions of books electronically categorized and arranged in air conditioned rooms to protect them from the heat, insects and humidity.

It is one of the richest libraries in the United States, after the Congress Library and Harvard Library. It is one of the most functional in which I have ever happened to work. Among its treasures there is the Ber Collection, a gift given by two Jewish doctors and brothers of Hungarian descent, thanks to whom this institution can boast, along with other marvels, the first edition of Don Chisciotte, of Dickens, of Henry James and Whitman manuscripts, and also all of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and novels. It includes the dactylic “The Desolated Earth” by Eliot with comments and corrections made by Ezra Pound. This is also the noisiest library in the world, because tourists invade its rooms, take multiple photographs and talk aloud with nonchalance. But in the end one can get used to this noise, as if it were background music.

Even though one can count on the workers for assistance, the Public Library, just like the other cultural institutions in the United States, operates through the voluntary work of retired people. These are mostly women who give out information and help to orient people in this labyrinth made of shelves. I feel emotional in front of these women, mostly elderly, who are available, smiling and ready to serve the public. Volunteering is an Anglo-Saxon institution, without which England and the United States would not be what they are now. The rich cultural life of New York would not exist without civil society’s contribution, which is what finances and promotes it. Even the state has input, but in a more limited way, and sometimes, more modestly as well.

It is true that both companies and citizens take advantage of the tax cut given when making donations or sponsoring cultural activities. But even before this comes the true motive that explains why each year foundations, business companies, businessmen, and even individuals invest astronomical amounts in museums, shows, exhibitions, libraries and universities. The root of this lie within a culture made of a civic conscience according to which, if a society wants an intellectual and artistic life, free and liberal, all citizens, with no exceptions, have the duty to take charge of and support it. This differs from other states where the government, with a philanthropic attitude, transforms culture into an official product used for self promotion and bureaucratic manipulation. In countries such as England and the United States, the culture has an independent and plural face, which guarantees its freedom, its innovation and its constant experimentation.

During the two months that I spent in New York, I have seen the way the Barrio Museum welcomed contributions for its restoration. The museum, located in the Latin side of Harlem, exposes South American and Central American art pieces. For the moment, it has already rebuilt its magnificent auditorium, a Belle Epoque jewel. During the fund raising gala, around 4 million dollars were donated. It is true that cultural life, which has few state subsidies and for which foundations exist mostly in the civil society, is expensive. The New York cultural life is expensive–some shows, such as the Opera and concerts, have high prices. However, everything that is worth being seen in New York is full of people: the two major museums, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), record more visitors each year than the Yankee Stadium and the Madison Square Garden.

In many aspects the city has become what Paris was for many generations–the landing place for young people and creative artists convinced that if they become successful here, they will be successful anywhere in the world. It does not only happen to musicians, painters, dancers, actors and directors. It also happens to writers. I was surprised by the large number of young poets, novelists, and dramatizers coming from many Latin American countries to New York who have written and tried to make their way in the skyscraper city. Some are affiliated with organizations and universities; others have survived as they can, by working in libraries, in publishing houses or playing the guitar in bars and even on street corners. They publicize magazines, do theater, and in almost all of New York’s libraries there are sections dedicated exclusively to books written in Spanish. I spent two intense and thrilling months in this effervescent city.

I was living near Union Square, a very nice neighborhood full of life, with European-like coffee shops where one can sit and read a newspaper or take some notes while drinking a cappuccino. This is where the Strand is, the biggest library in the world which sells ancient books. I have seen magnificent exhibitions and also some theatrical representations–a Beckett one with John Turturro–all prepared very well. I have also seen many movies, mostly due to the Tribeca Film Festival which, for ten days, shows movies from around the world. However, I have always had a feeling that this marvelous city was missing something in order for me to feel at home. What is missing? Years, history, tradition, antiquity. Elements which constitute the soul of any European city, even the smallest and most remote village, the invisible presence that establishes a relationship between yesterday and today, those centuries filled with adventures, wars, art masterpieces and historical, religious and cultural movements from which was born the civilization that we live in. In New York everything is so recent and transmits the idea that the past has never existed; that life is only in the future and in the making. It could also be that I am no longer young, but the feeling that there is almost no past life, only the future one, provokes in me a sad emotion and a sense of solitude.

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