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Cuadernos de Infancia (Biblioteca Clasica y…

Cuadernos de Infancia (Biblioteca Clasica y Contemporanea) (Spanish…

by Norah Lange

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I often remind myself how lucky I am to have access to a top-knotch university library, because I can just walk up into the stacks and browse shelves upon shelves lined with books I'd otherwise have no chance of finding and reading. A few months ago I spent some time in the Argentina section (one of my favorites!) and ended up grabbing, among other books, Norah Lange's Cuadernos de infancia and Ricardo Güiraldes' Rosaura. I chose the former because Lange's name had popped up in a couple of different places, side by side with those of Oliverio Girondo (who eventually became her husband), Jorge Luis Borges (a fellow member of the "Grupo de Florida") and other literary luminaries of early 20th century Buenos Aires. I'm always looking to expand my horizons, narrow as they may be to begin with, and I judged her to be interesting in part because of the company she kept. I chose the latter because I've long admired Güiraldes' writing, and consider his Don Segundo Sombra one of my favorite books. The last book I'd read by him, Xaimaca, disappointed me because the protagonist of the book exhibited some rather racist attitudes toward Carribean black people. However, I was also impressed by his lush descriptions of a tropical world that brought to life the exotic flora and fauna he saw on his travels. I decided to give him another chance with this slim volume made up of a novella and seven short stories. In general, I find myself drawn to the Argentine literature of the first third of the 20th century because there's such excitement and creative exuberance in the works of writers like Girondo, Güiraldes and the young Jorge Luis Borges, as they bring their nation's literature into the modern era and present authentically Argentine expressions of the world that surrounds them, both at home (in Buenos Aires and the Argentine countryside) and abroad (Girondo and Güiraldes were both rather adventurous souls).

Lange's childhood memories begin with the family moving to Mendoza when she's five years old. They're pretty well-off: her father's a wealthy foreigner, and while Norah's recollections don't contain any information about her father's occupation, his work allows them to live on a nice farm and the children have an English governess along with a series of cooks. The book is divided into a series of short episodes, most between two and four pages and none longer than five. Each episode describes an occurrence, viewed through the lens of memory and elegantly recounted from the author's adult perspective. They feel quite authentic, as in, these are the kinds of things I would have remembered if they happened to me when I was a kid. A poor neighbor's wife dies, and he doesn't feel comfortable asking for anything more than a safety pin to pin his collar closed as he buries his wife alone. Young Norah knew that was poverty, and even as an adult, she looks back on it and realizes her adult conception of poverty remains tied to that event. Other stories are happier, with the five young girls of the Lange family inventing games and studying English and enjoying happy, stable family life in the countryside.

Then the family's circumstances suddenly and tragically change, and they have to move back to Buenos Aires, where they live under very different socioeconomic conditions. Now she remembers not quite having enough to eat, her mother's hair falling out, and the inevitable sale of the cherished family piano. It's jarring and unexpected, because the girls seemed so innocent and so very lucky as they lived in stable familial bliss in Mendoza. Now, as they're growing older and becoming more conscious of what adulthood will be, they're also struggling in ways they couldn't have expected a handful of years ago. I read a review of the Complete Works of Norah Lange that mentioned how these episodes came as a surprise to readers who saw her as a wealthy literary socialite, married to a famous playboy poet and reknowned for hosting a who's who of famous artists at her family's home. Her Cuadernos certainly clash with that image, giving evidence of a less affluent middle childhood than people might have imagined.

Lange wrote a series of volumes of poetry in the 1920s, and she's certainly got a nice way with words. The episodes were a joy to read, and the pages flew by. One thing I noticed was, in a lot of the stories, Lange introduces someone or something as "him," "her" or "it" at the beginning of an episode, but it´s only at the end of the episode that you're explicitly told what she's talking about. For a while, you read along without and slowly put things together, and the final recognition confirms what you've already figured out. I thought it was a nice way of helping me, the reader, paint my own picture of the events Ms. Lange recounts from her own childhood.

And on to Güiraldes...he explains at the beginning of Rosaura that he wrote this novella in response to a request from the young ladies in his family, who wanted him to write something they'd be allowed to read and enjoy. It takes place in the small rural community of Lobos, where every day the citizenry congregates on the train platform to watch the trains come and go, greeting any friends or family that might arrive that day. The young ladies of Lobos enjoy socializing on the platform, and dress up in their best clothes. They treat a trip to see the train pass like young people today might treat a trip to the mall. One day, a mysterious and cosmopolitan young man named Carlos is sitting in one of the cabins, and he locks eyes with Rosaura, one of the prettiest young ladies in Lobos. There's an obvious spark of romance between them, and as time passes, their encounters on the train platform lead to encounters in town and eventually a meeting at a community dance. Carlos is everything Rosaura has dreamt of: a man who's mysterious and dashing and has traveled the world, who could introduce her into a world that's bigger than the little town of Lobos with its train station and slow pace of life. Will it all turn out to be nothing more than a dream, though?

The story was once again a joy to read. The rising and falling emotions of Rosaura are reflected in the descriptions of the changing seasons in the Argentine countryside, and the subtle intrigues of rural courtship are related in a straightforward, amiable manner. Considering his initial motivation for writing thiis book, I imagine that Güiraldes had a good time as he wrote, thinking of the specific family members to whom it was initially destined and shaping Rosaura in their image, using the ups and downs of her romance to teach them about the emotions and dangers inherent to courthship in early 20th century Argentina.

The novella is followed by a series of seven short stories, again concerning life in rural Argentina. One was written for a compilation of Christmas stories, and recounts an unexpected intrusion into a family's Christmas celebration. The prologue mentioned that Güiraldes was the only contributor who chose to represent a hot, Southern Hemisphere Christmas rather than a snowy northern one. In another, none other than Don Segundo Sombra, title character of Güiraldes' most famous novel, makes a cameo appearance, suddenly appearing in the midst of a tense barroom situation to voice a witty retort to a perceived insult. That was exciting, seeing him pop up unexpectedly. I do enjoy intertextuality.

Both Lange and Güiraldes were considered among the most excellent Argentine writers of their time. It was very easy for me to read these books and say yes, these are good, they're fun to read and both authors tell simple stories quite poetically. The time I passed reading them was exceedingly pleasant. However, I feel that I lack the necessary knowledge to pinpoint exactly why their prose is so excellent. I can say that I liked them, but I can't necessarily explain why. I feel that way sometimes when I read poetry as well. The solution, I believe, is more reading, and maybe trying to translate some of these authors' works. I feel like I get a lot better idea of what an author's doing with each and every word as I try to find their English equivalents, and I usually enjoy the mental exercise. In the meantime, I'm happy to have read these two short books: one introduced me to a new and compelling voice in the Argentine crowd, and the other reminded me of how much I enjoy reading books about rural Argentina written by Ricardo Güiraldes. ( )
  msjohns615 | Jul 28, 2011 |
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