One literature differs from another, either before or after it, not so much because of the text as for the manner in which it is read. - Jorge Luis Borges
Argentina is country so literary that its name is said to be derived from a Latin poem, and it has had a vibrant literary culture since the first co-mingling of Spanish culture with native oral traditions more than four hundred years ago. So, where is a person to start on the task of unraveling a complex literary culture?
It can be a daunting task to attempt to grasp the literature of a country other than one’s own, especially because a nation’s body of work almost never appears the same to outsiders. Case in point, a recent survey at Lithub sought to find what writers and scholars from around the world thought the most essential works of American literature were: while there were plenty of intuitive choices from Melville and Faulkner to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, there were more than a few choices that an American reader might not have picked out for herself or even necessarily have heard of. While Yiyun Li and Walker Percy might not be household (or syllabus) names everywhere stateside, there is something in their writing that compels those with outside perspectives to hold them up alongside writers like Twain and Hawthorne.
That outsider’s perspective makes it by turns easier and more difficult to get a handle on the tremendous literary bounty that comprises Argentine literature.
Jorge Luis Borges, whose Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949) where among the earliest works to blend fantasy and magical realism with the emerging traits of modernism and postmodernism, may seem like an overly obvious place to start. He is, after all, certainly a household name. But like many looming presences in world letters, he is an obvious starting point for a reason. South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee said of Borges, "He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists." And his is not a niche viewpoint. Borges is widely considered to be one of the 20th century’s most important artists, helping to reshape the more than 60 years of writing that have followed his groundbreaking works.
Beyond Borges, it’s hard to go wrong with Julio Cortazar. The author of Hopsotch (1963) and A Manual for Manuel (1973) is one of the undisputed masters of the modern Latin American short story, crafting fictions that are at once clever and dense with feeling. His impact on writers like Carlos Fuentes and Roberto Bolaño is hard to miss, and his blend of modernism and surrealism leaves a lingering impact on his readers. Along the same plane in the Argentine canon, one might turn toward Manuel Puig, author of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), whose early novels showcase a postmodern, pop art sensibility that speaks volumes about the global culture of his era.
Though the likes of Borges, Cortzar, and Puig make for edifying inroads into the world of Argentine letters, of course they are hardly the be-all-and-end-all. Authors like Cesar Aira, Ernesto Sabato, Juan Jose Saer, and countless others represent a treasure trove of literary possibilities for the inquisitive reader. If you want to make a case for the importance of Argentine literature, proof positive abounds.