The Surrealist Lett

“Palacios en Bria”

I owe my acquaintance with the work of Oscar Agustin Alejandro Schulz Solari (better known as Xul Solar) to Jorge Luis Borges. Now why would I accept the artistic judgment of a blind man? Fortunately, Xul Solar’s association with Borges goes back to the early 20th century, when the writer still had his sight. In fact, the painter is referenced by name in one of his greatest stories—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” On page 23 of the Grove Press edition, we find:

The moon rose over the sea would be written hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or, to put it in order: upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling. (Xul Solar translates it succinctly: upward, beyond the onstreaming it mooned.)

Also, Xul Solar illustrated three of Borges’s earlier works: El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), El idioma de los argentinos (1928), and Un modelo para la muerte (1946). The latter was co-authored by another mutual friend, Adolfo Bioy-Casares.

In Buenos Aires, on Laprida, there is a museum dedicated to Xul Solar, situated in his former home. On my last trip to Argentina, I had the good fortune to visit it. When next I go to Argentina—and I dearly hope I can—I intend to visit it again.

“Fiordo”

What I like most about Xul Solar’s work is its depiction of strangely beautiful and bizarre places. I do not recall many (if any) portraits, but I do remember his many landscapes and cityscapes.

Xul Solar is not widely known outside of Argentina, though I think he is one of the world’s greatest surrealist painters. The painter was born in Latvia in 1887 and died in 1963, just as his friend Jorge’s vision went into an irreparable decline.

You Can Start Celebrating Now!

Mark April 25 on Your Calendar!

I love penguins. So much so that I traveled over 6,000 miles to see them in Argentina. Oh, not the big Emperor Penguins of Antarctica—though they were only about 600 miles farther south. No, Martine and I visited with the Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) in two places the Isla Martillo in Tierra del Fuego, and Punta Tombo in the State of Chubut.

Why do I like penguins so much? They lead such strange lives. Months at a time in the icy waters of the South Atlantic, then return to the same old rookery to find a mate and try to raise a family of little penguins. As it happens, we were at Punta Tombo in November 2011, right when their eggs were hatching. We saw the penguins look on helplessly while ravenous gulls pushed them aside and devoured their progeny. Their wings were great for swimming, but helpless to defend their eggs against more aggressive shore birds.

Penguins on Isla Martillo in Tierro del Fuego’s Beagle Channel

In the above picture by Berkeley Breathed for World Penguin Day, the middle penguin is my hero, Opus. You can see his adventures by going to Breathed’s Facebook page at Bloom County.

Here are some facts about my friends, the Magellanic Penguins:

  • Magellanic Penguins can reach 24 to 28 inches in height and 9 to 11 pounds of weight.
  • They have black plumage on the back and white plumage with broad, black, horseshoe-like marking on the breast. They have a white band on the head that stretches from the eyes to the throat. Skin around the the eyes and bill become featherless and intensely pink during the breeding season.
  • The diet of Magellanic Penguins concentrates on small fish, crustaceans, and squid.
  • They are excellent swimmers. They can travel 620 miles from shore and dive to a depth of over 150 feet to find food. They usually hunt in groups.
  • Natural enemies of the Magellanic Penguin are sea lions, leopard seals, killer whales, and patagonian foxes.
  • Magellanic Penguins are monogamous birds. The male circles around the female and pats her with his flippers during the courtship. Formed couples last for a lifetime.

If you’re interested and want to read more, click here.

On the Beagle Channel

Looking Across the Beagle Channel Toward Isla Navarino

Looking Across the Beagle Channel Toward Isla Navarino

This is a picture I took a little more than ten years ago on November 15, 2006, the day I broke my shoulder at one of the ends of the earth. That day, I took a cruise on the Beagle Channel to Estancia Harberton, a place of great importance in the history of Tierra del Fuego. The channel was named after the ship that bore Charles Darwin on his five-year cruise around the world, sailing under Captain FitzRoy. It was here—and not the more northerly Straits of Magellan—that the HMS Beagle cut between what is now the Argentinean Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean Isla Navarino, where the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams, is situated.

The weather was starting to get bad, so bad that our motorized catamaran, the Moreno Jr., dropped us off at Harberton; and a bus was called for from Ushuaia to take us back. By the time we approached town, not only was it slowing heavily, but the waters of the channel were getting increasingly choppy. It was that snowstorm that iced the streets of Ushuaia and made me fall shoulder first into a high curb at the intersection of Magallanes and Rivadavia.

Now here’s the real story. This was the real beginning of my love for Argentina. Motorists stopped for me and called an ambulance on their cell phones. I was well taken care of at the local hospital; and the owner of the bed & breakfast where I was staying helped me in every possible way, to the detriment of her own business. Even as I left the country from Buenos Aires’s Ezeiza Airport, the security people didn’t make a big deal of signing my name on the forms, as my writing arm was in a sling.

On this grim day, I fell in love with a country and returned there twice. And, with luck, I will return again. Regardless of the weather.

Unfinished Business

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

I always say I have unfinished business with the people, places, and things that I love. Take Argentina, for instance. I have been there in 2006, 2011, and 2015. The first time, I broke my shoulder by slipping on the ice in Tierra Del Fuego; the second time (the best), I went with Martine and saw a good chunk of the Patagonia; the third time was mostly just fill-in, with visits to Iguazu Falls and Sar Carlos Bariloche. But I am by no means finished with Argentina, nor Argentina with me.

There is a broad stretch of the South Atlantic I’d love to see between Rio Gallegos and Carmen de Patagones. I would not mind taking long bus rides to God-forsaken ports like Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, Caleta Olivia, Comodoro Rivadavia, and Bahia Blanca. I don’t even care if there aren’t that many notable tourist sights. I could easily put up with some slow time, especially as I would have two Kindle readers with me, and some 3,000 different titles to read. At my side will be my pocket digital rangefinder camera to catch people and places in the process of being something special.

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Argentina isn’t the only place I’d like to see again. I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the English Bookshop in Quito, Ecuador. And Iceland will continue to be a lifelong love of mine. I only wish I could get Martine to come with me. She has some idea that she would have to dress like an Eskimo amid huge snowdrifts. Far from it! Iceland will be one of the few countries to benefit from global warming. My favorite destinations in Europe are on hold for now, because I suspect that mass immigration will change that continent forever. I also want to see more of the American Southwest, and Martine and I are planning one such trip right now that will take up large swaths of New Mexico, Colorado, and possibly Utah.

As Lao Tzu wrote, “From wonder, into wonder, existence opens.”

 

The Magnificent Seven

Table for Two at La Biela: Statues of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

Table for Two at La Biela: Statues of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

At Recoleta’s busy La Biela Café, a table is permanently reserved for those two lions of Argentine literature: Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. They naturally belong together, as they were lifelong friends and collaborated together on several books.

In my readings of the literature of Argentina, I have come upon seven writers whose works are equal (when they don’t actually surpass) the best of European and American literature. I will confine my comments only to those works written in the 20th century, as earlier works, such as Hernandez’s Martin Fierro and Guiraldes’s Don Segunda Sombra belong more to the Gaucho myth than to literature.

Here are the seven writers whose works I recommend:

JORGE LUIS BORGES is, to my mind, one of the giants of 20th century literature. Although he never wrote any novels, his poems, short stories, and essays are must reads. Start with his collections Ficciones, Labyrinths, and The Aleph.

ADOLFO BIOY CASARES is not only Borges’s friend and collaborator, but is the author of several novels including The Invention of Morel and The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. He was married to

SILVINA OCAMPO. Together, they were known as Los Bioy. Her Kafkaesque short stories are collected in a volume called Thus Were Their Faces. She is the sister of Victoria Ocampo, founder and editor of Sur, a magazine and a noted publishing house.

CÉSAR AIRA is a recent find for me. I have written several blog postings about him and his highly original narrative style (resembling a Roomba vacuum cleaner that always moves forward). I particularly liked The Hare and The Seamstress and the Wind (my favorite novel about Patagonia).

JULIO CORTÁZAR is known primarily for being the author of the short story which Michelangelo Antonioni adapted into his film Blow Up. I think his short stories are his best work.

THOMAS ELOY MARTÍNEZ has written novels about the Peróns. My favorite is about the long journey taken by the body of Evita Perón after her death by Cancer: Santa Evita. Today, Evita’s corpse is finally at rest at Recoleta Cemetery under her maiden name, Duarte.

JUAN JOSÉ SAER writes about El Litoral, the area along the River Paraná centered around Santa Fe. I think he may be up there with Borges and Bioy Casares. Currently, I am reading The Clouds. Another excellent title is The Witness.

If you feel your reading is in a rut, I highly recommend you turn your attention South—way South—and read one of these Argentinean classics.

 

 

I’m Not Finished with Argentina!

The South Atlantic Near Ushuaia

The South Atlantic Near Ushuaia

Even while I am planning my Ecuador trip, I am hinking of returning to Argentina. It is almost like another home to me, after three visits. This time, I am interested in traveling down RN 3 along the South Atlantic from Buenos Aires all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia (in Argentina) and Punta Arenas (in Chile). That is slightly over 3,000 kilometers. I may even fly to Puerto Williams in Chile, the absolute southernmost inhabited town in the world. Then I would fly back to Buenos Aires.

Along the way there would be the following stops:

  • Bahia Blanca with its famous Museo del Puerto de Ingeniero White.
  • The twin cities of Carmen de Patagones and Viedma, separated by the Rio Negro.
  • Puerto Madryn, which I visited with Martine in 2011 and perhaps some of the Welsh colonies around Trelew and Gaiman.
  • Comodoro Rivadavia, the industrial port from which Argentina launched the 1982 Falklands (Malvinas) war.
  • Puerto Deseado, visited by Magellan and Charles Darwin, called by naturalist Francisco Perito Moreno “the most picturesque place on the eastern Patagonian coast.”
  • Puerto San Julian, where both Magellan and Sir Francis Drake suppressed mutinies by executing the ringleaders.
  • Rio Gallegos, a key southern transportation hub and an old wool and petroleum shipment center. From here I can go to Punta Arenas (Chile) and see the Torres del Paine and the Fitzroy Massif. And from there, I could fly to Puerto Williams (a bit pricey, but comes with great bragging rights).
  • Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, where I’ve been twice and which I love. I’ll even stay at the same place, the Posada del Fin del Mundo owned by my friend Ana Bermudez.
The South Atlantic Is Not for Swimmers

The South Atlantic Is Not for Swimmers

Now that I’ve come to understand the long distance buses in Argentina, I know I’ll be able to travel in comfort and at a relatively low price. The longest stretches would be between Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia and between Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca.

Except for Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, and Ushuaia, most of the above cities are off the tourist route. I could live with that.

Serendipity: Documents of the Ultra-Terrain World

“Blue Harbor” by Xul Solar

“Blue Harbor” by Xul Solar

While in Buenos Aires last month, I visited the museum of painter Xul Solar, friend of Jorge Luis Borges. It was Borges who wrote the prologue to the museum’s catalog, which is reproduced here in its entirety:

Man versed in all disciplines, curious of all enigmas, father of writings, languages, utopias, mythologies, guest of hell and heavens, chessplayer author and astrologist, perfect in indulgent irony and friendly generosity, Xul Solar is one of the most outstanding events of our epoch. There are minds which profess the truth, others indiscriminate abundance: the large creativity of Xul Solar does not exclude the strict honesty. His paintings are documents of ultra-terrain world, of metaphysical world in which gods take the form of the imagination of the ones dreaming. The passionate architecture, the happy colours, the many circumstantial details, the labyrinths, the dwarves and angels unforgettably define this delicate and monumental art.

The taste of our time vacillates between the more lineal preference, the emotive transcription and the realism of wall painters: Xul Solar renews, in his ambitious way of being modest, the mystic painting of the ones who do not see with physical eyes in the sacred world of Blake, Swedenborg, yogis and bards.