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My friend Josh makes an incredible magazine called Habitus. It’s a quarterly journal that explores the concept of diaspora, from inside, outside, above and below. The emphasis is on the Jewish experience, but it expands far beyond that. Each issue takes a different city for its subject. The latest is about Buenos Aires. It includes interviews with composer Osvaldo Golijov and photographer Marcelo Brodsky, fiction from Rodrigo Fresan, Anna Maria Shua, and Marcelo Birmajer, poetry from Alejandra Pizarnik, Tal Nitzan, and Mirta Rosenberg…and a rare interview with Jorge Luis Borges. An excerpt from it will be featured in the “Readings” section of April issue of Harper’s Magazine. (!)

I don’t actually have it yet (LOL), but the issues before it, Budapest and Sarajevo, were both eye opening and mind expanding. So Josh, hook that up.

To learn more and order, check the habitus site.

Here’s Josh’s introduction to the issue:

It’s winter in Buenos Aires, one of the coldest ever. This is a port city in the southern hemisphere—low and humid—and the winds here have a raw, sudden sting. People look restless. If they are outdoors, their heads are down. Most activity has been driven inside. All the life that usually takes place on the street has been corralled into narrow spaces. Noise floods out through the openings in every border or barrier.

The city is always moving, almost compulsively, but it’s also breathlessly studying its own reflection, taking its own pulse. The very existence of the city seems to depend on the psychic exertion—urgent, anxious, and loving—of the people who live here. As if the whole metropolis might vanish if their attention flagged, even briefly. The city has to be conjured anew every day through sheer resolve.

Trying to understand Buenos Aires feels like trying to master the human heart. This is not a place that can be learned in the usual ways: it’s too fragile, too volatile, cobbled together from too many unlike parts. The journalist Jacobo Timerman writes, “Argentina…does not yet exist. It must be created.” Over the generations, Argentines have shaped the city out of desire and discomfort, and these heavy emotions seem as real as all the towers and avenues and parks.

In Palermo, the neighborhood of the writer Jorge Luis Borges, what was once a seedy immigrant district is now one of the most fashionable. A section has been renamed Palermo Hollywood, another SoHo. The area is awash in foreign money and luxury goods.

Some of the old buildings have been rehabilitated; others were torn down and replaced by glass and steel high-rises. But walking down the street that’s been renamed for the author, you can still see some of the old worldliness. When Borges imagined, in his famous story “The Aleph,” a mystical point in space that contains all other points, it’s not hard to picture him wandering the alleys of Palermo. In Borges’s youth, this was a place where foreigners and outsiders from all over the world had gathered. It’s still tinged with that fantastical image of the Aleph: “The only place on earth where all places are.”

Buenos Aires gives you just that feeling of being both everywhere and nowhere: on a lonely island and, at the same time, at the crossroads of the universe. Its scale is enormous. Its edges are vague. The avenues are wide and chaotic. Alberto Manguel writes that this is “a city that foreshadows all others.” Every block seems to recall another part of the world, though it seems less planned than deeply willed. Here Paris or London, there Rome. The city describes itself in foreign forms: always elsewhere, never at home.

Not quite European, and not fully of the New World, either. “Our patrimony is the universe,” Borges insists. Like Jews in Europe, or the Irish in England, Borges believed, his national experience gave him the outsider’s special ability to approach Western tradition without sentiment or inhibition. Still, this society struggles to define a relationship to the world and, therefore, to describe exactly what it means to be Argentine. Rodrigo Fresan, a contributor to this issue, once said that, for other Latin Americans, “their roots are in the ground. Our roots are on the walls…of our libraries.”

On the Avenida Santa Fe, as the once-elegant avenue winds through the Barrio Norte, you can tell that the written word enjoys a kind of exalted status here. The street is lined with bookstores. El Ateneo, in a converted theater, feels more like a cathedral. Even in the subway station, you can buy a Spanish translation of Nietzsche at the newsstand.

Books here seem less read than consumed, hoarded, clung to. They offer admission to unreachable worlds that, nevertheless, still resonate deeply within the souls of many Argentines. Like the buildings and public squares that evoke old Europe and beyond, books help narrow the distance between margin and center. The uncertainties of the past—which are also the enigmas of the self—are stirred with language and imagination. It brings to mind something Walter Benjamin wrote about his own library: “The collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

Buenos Aires is a haunted city. Everything feels somehow tempered by what isn’t there.

During the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983, as many as 30,000 Argentines were kidnapped, tortured, and killed, vanished—all but erased. Like their counterparts throughout Latin America, they are called los desaparecidos, the disappeared. They are a kind of spectral presence that shares the streets and homes of Buenos Aires with the living. Because they are without graves, the desaparecidos feel ubiquitous here.

The so-called Dirty War targeted the family, the body, the mind: the very foundations of identity itself. People here still carry that with them. It’s nearly impossible to be sure of yourself, to be secure and at peace, when you live with the awareness of how swiftly order can become mayhem. Or how shaky the line is between here and gone, how quickly the routine of daily living can be upturned. You go about your business, but certain breaches can’t be repaired.

Here in Buenos Aires, that sense of rupture is palpable, and so is the feverish urge to create wholeness. People reach for every available tool of transformation: from plastic surgery to expensive psychoanalysis (Argentina has more analysts per capita than any other country on Earth). Still, in a place so dense with words and self-reflection, you get the impression that most people haven’t scratched the surface of their own anxiety.

What happens to memory that is submerged too deeply? Something corrosive begins to undermine, slowly, a person’s notions of reality, their experience of truth, their solidity within the world. The seams of the self begin to show signs of wear and stress. Much of the writing in this issue of Habitus reflects the psychological strains of living with insecurity and ambiguity.

These writers speak mostly from the intimate domains of family, love, sex, death, and secrets. Again and again, we read about people trying to make meaning from the past: they struggle against self-doubt and often give in to self-deception; they also adapt and even, occasionally, progress.

Most of these texts are also rooted in the thoughts and feelings of Jewish Argentines, who have their own variations on the national habits of remembering and forgetting. Jewish lives are entwined with those of their fellow Argentines. But they have also been strangers, marginalized, even in this country of outsiders.

The composer Osvaldo Golijov, in a conversation included in this volume, implies that Jews are precariously positioned between two versions of Argentine self-understanding. One is open and cosmopolitan—the world of art, music, and culture—and the other is a more closed, nativist identification that closely guards its own borders. The Jews have been especially vulnerable to the shifting tides of politics and mood.

The 1994 bombing of the country’s central Jewish institution, the AMIA [Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina], was a sharp reminder of the Jews’ uneasy footing in this society. The case was never officially solved, but it’s believed that the culprits were acting with Iranian sponsorship, and with the tacit support of the Argentine government.

The site, in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Once, has since been rebuilt. Marcelo Birmajer, a Habitus contributor who was born nearby, took me to see the new compound: a heavily fortified, unwelcoming structure, surrounded by guards, concrete barriers, and high walls. We stood across the busy street, where trees had been planted and marked with the names of victims. Marcelo pointed out the plaques that are set into the dirt near the roots. They are easy to miss under the grime and garbage of the sidewalk. A few monuments have been built, but they are in the courtyard and can’t be seen from outside. The public sees a more informal-looking tribute. Names of the dead are scrawled in white on the wall facing the street, like chalk on a blackboard. You can’t take photographs of any of this. I snapped a picture from a distance, nearly a block away, and a uniformed guard charged in my direction, arms waving.

There are other spaces of memory in Buenos Aires, places that have been carved out to start the process of learning to live with the past and among the dead. On a bank of the River La Plata, where the wind whips through a flat and exposed field, a park dedicated to the victims of the Dirty War, the Parque de la Memoria, has just been created. During the dictatorship, many of the desaparecidos were drowned in this river. Now the La Plata, which is the reason a city was built here in the first place, delimits the outer edge of the consecrated land.

This is the very brink of Buenos Aires, of Argentina: on the margin, but still a gateway between this place and the rest of the world. A monument has been built on the grassy expanse. From above, it looks like a jagged line, strikingly similar to the cracked-open Star of David that was designed by Daniel Libeskind for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. A strange choice, but also fitting for a city already filled with borrowed signs and symbols.

This is one of those places where somewhere meets nowhere. From the city, the silent river looks infinite and empty. Behind you is the steady roar of traffic, all the endless talking, and blaring music. And inside all the noise you can sometimes hear a peculiar tone, almost like a long, loud sigh. Something that starts out small but gradually picks up strength. A human sound.

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