If you walked past Señor Alberto Manguel in the street in London, you could mistake him for the most English of gentlemen. A handsome, distinguished man in his late sixties – he exudes the air of an Oxford Don, but not without the warmth and friendliness of your most worldly uncle. His professorial stature is a dead giveaway for his prestigious job; Alberto is the new Director of the Biblioteca Nacional de Argentina, the National Library – the emissary for the country’s intelligentsia.
Despite his quintessentially Argentine name, he gives off an international aura. Born a native Porteño, he left Buenos Aires aged just a month old. His father was appointed an ambassador in 1947, as the Peróns moved into Casa Rosada, the Presidential palace. Alberto grew up abroad, speaking English and German as his first languages – travelling extensively before finally returning at the most troubling of times. It was 1955, the start of two decades of unending power exchanges, revolutions and coups d’état. The struggles and inhumanity associated with this, what locals call the “dark times” cause many Argentines to hang their heads in shame should the subject be brought up.
Yet he is nostalgic about that time. It was when he first learnt Spanish. He also vehemently attributes his secondary education as fundamental in creating his intellectual landscape. I watch him drift back in time as he tells me this, reminiscing fondly about a bookshop near his old school, downtown in Monserrat – today La Librería De Avila, once known as the Librería Del Colegio – a labyrinth of old books, musky smells and for him, memories. It’s a romantic notion, a wide-eyed, impressionable young lad discovering his love for literature in a city; a country; where the written word has always held so much prestige. He snaps out of the daydream suddenly, so much so I almost hear a thud, to tell me that Buenos Aires today overlays a city of ghosts, as there are so many places where sadly, his memories are of friends who were killed, tortured or made to disappear.
In 1969, he left Argentina. Over the next 40 years, he got married, fathered three children and divorced, before meeting his current partner of 30 years, Craig. With his now husband, he has lived in Canada, the UK, the USA and in France, where they owned a beautiful Presbytery with a treasured library of 35,000 books. After they were both offered work in New York City, Alberto reflected on his approaching septuagenarian status, coming to a practical decision to sell-up the idyllic French lifestyle, put the books into storage and move to the Big Apple. So there he was, sitting comfortable and happy in what he thought were the final chapters of his being; without realising that there was a second volume in the making, back in his birthplace.
Returning to Buenos Aires wasn’t the easiest of decisions. He describes Argentina affectionately as a “crazy country” – equating it to Alice in Wonderland – in that its grip on reality is sweaty-palmed. He explains that there is an absurd but ongoing dialogue, a curious idea of civic and social responsibilities that owes much more to friendships and family loyalty than political authority. For Argentines rules were made as options. If you have ever tried to navigate a pedestrian crossing in the country, you’ll see that drivers feel that they have the option of stopping. Alberto believes that this is actually rooted in religion, in that there is a substantial difference between the Protestant mindset that we have in Britain and one that is Catholic.
“In the Reformation, the idea was to go to the heart of things – express oneself clearly, follow the rules and have a certain work ethic. In contrast, the Counter-Reformation, the renaissance of Catholicism, is all about smoke and mirrors. This manifests itself in the Baroque style for example, where reality is covered up and decorated with frills. Its core is still there, but it is defined less by what it is and more by what surrounds it. Apply that mindset to social structure in Argentina and it is understandable that on the surface what seems like a carefree society, is also one that takes far less responsibility in its own existence.”
Alberto doesn’t believe in the concept of nationality and cultural identity. He is adamant that the place that our mothers decided to drop us shouldn’t determine who we are and that passports are a bureaucratic convention.
“Labels are the most dangerous thing that the human mind has invented. It leads to lazy thinking,” he adds. He explains that while his cultural geography is composed in part by Argentina (instantly correcting himself to say Buenos Aires) it doesn’t mean that he wears a poncho, drinks Mate and dances the tango. As I nod in agreement, I glance over to his desk. It is flanked by a rather large Argentinian flag and a Mate cup sits proudly on its leather blotter. He catches my eye immediately to qualify that the cup was a cherished, but unused gift and quickly points out a toy Alberta-saurus that his son had given him, in a measure to assure me that Canada also runs deep in his DNA.
“Borges was confronted by this idea that he wasn’t Argentinian because he was interested in the Arabian Nights,” Alberto volunteers. I had been waiting for Borges to come up in conversation; Argentines consider him as their greatest philosopher. A little essay he penned, the Argentinian Writer and Traditions, is a fundamental read to understand what ‘national identity’ means. Borges argues that to be Argentine is either a question of fate, or one of faith; Borges himself has proved that you can be Argentina’s most important writer, yet universal at the same time.
I’ve often applied the same questions about sexuality. Because I’m gay, does that mean I’m supposed to act in a certain way? Yet I’m against the mainstreaming of ‘gay culture’ – the colour and history that makes it so interesting to be part of this community. But I agree with Alberto, particularly in fighting labelling – if we can consciously do away with it, it is much harder to be prejudiced. Alberto tells me that living as a gay man in Buenos Aires is no different to New York. But he adds that at 68 years of age, he is part of a generation that has an ingrained fear of public displays of affection – be that in Argentina or even the more liberal places in the world. His sense is that if he were to hold hands with or kiss his partner in public, it wouldn’t really be an intimate act, but a political statement.
He acknowledged that times have changed, applauding young Argentines both straight and gay for their attitudes towards homosexuality. He tells me of a Trans* librarian in one of Buenos Aires’ most notorious slums, who is well respected by the local community. But still, perhaps some of that Counter-Reformative Argentine spirit has rubbed o¢ – the ‘no-labels’ thing is a somewhat convenient explanation for men who love men, without ever needing to even utter the word “gay”, for so long viewed as a weakness.
We move on to the gay landscape in literature – something Alberto claimed he wasn’t familiar with, again because he won’t label. Yet, this is the man who with his husband compiled an anthology of gay fiction, Meanwhile in Another Part of the Forest, 20 years ago. He argued that things were different in the case of the book, that they went beyond ‘gay writers’ to showcase gay themes, making fiction with a gay context accessible to the mainstream.
Undeterred, I pushed a little harder on the subject of gay plots in ‘Argentine culture’ (another red flag on the no-label front). Alberto humours me and tells me that there is a long history of gay subject matter, since the early 19th century in fact. In one of the most important classics, El Matadero, a short story by Esteban Echeverría denouncing the dictatorship of Juan Manuel Rosas, the protagonist is a strong, young intellectual who is quite obviously gay. We also discuss the epic poem by José Hernández, Martin Fierro. The hero is a gaucho who is conscripted by the army and loses everything he holds dear. He deserts and is pursued by a colonel whom becomes inspired by Fierro’s valour and turns against his own men to fight by Fierro’s side; a tale not without its homoerotic undertones.
In a society that has long defined males and females by strict characteristics, it’s inevitable that some of it will be tinged with homoeroticism. When Tango first came from Paris into the brothels of Buenos Aires, it was danced between men. The excuse was that to dance with a woman was effeminate, but when something so passionate stems from male-male interactions, you’ve got to wonder.
Learning all of this from Alberto, I start to understand how homosexuality is viewed here. The last administration under Christina Kirchner is held up as one that opened Argentines to the concept of gay rights and marriage. But perhaps the acceptance was already there. Yes, prejudices still run deep, particularly in the interiors, but if you’re part of a society, a fabric, its culture, politics and history – that has for so long battled oppression and injustice, it’s no wonder that freedoms are not taken for granted.
The Biblioteca Nacional is set to open a centre of LGBT culture, on the discovery of an interesting cache of very early gay literature in Argentina and the unearthing of works from the country’s first gay publisher. Alberto claims no influence in this but I sense he is immensely proud that this will happen during his directorship. In the brief time I spent with Alberto, I got to know someone who isn’t at all defined by his sexuality – he’s human first, the rest is open. He approaches the subject much more intellectually, or academically – genuinely excited and interested in the enrichment that diversity and difference brings.
He goes about his everyday work in the same way. His vision for the library is to make it the very best it can be and to ensure that it is not just one that serves Buenos Aires, but all of the country and also the world. While the previous administration took the library as a cultural centre and a place of social activities, he views it as a technical institution. He spends much of his efforts cataloguing and digitising its holdings and travels the country to connect with provincial libraries and create them where they don’t exist.
For me, Argentina’s National Library is emblematic of the state of the country today, in its work, but also in its very physicality and what it stands for. The brutalist building in which it is housed, is designed upon the idea of a ‘tree of knowledge’. It grows tall and strong, but is deeply rooted in its foundations – the country’s past, on the site where the Unzué Palace, the Peróns’ offcial residence, used to stand. The library’s archives and the bulk of its collection are in the building’s basement, again suggesting that historical lessons must be learnt and filtered upwards. At the very top, it branches out into a canopy-esque reading room, rising tall above Buenos Aires with views that reach out to the rest of the country and the world beyond it.
Its head botanist brings with him a world of experience and a watering can of fresh ideas to help this tree grow to its greatest potential. He may hate labels, but I have a feeling that one day, not too far from now, we’ll look back in history and consider Alberto Manguel to be an outstanding, gay, Argentinian man of distinction.