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Recommended Books

Book-lovers will rejoice at Argentina's rich body of literature. Jorge Luis Borges is considered the grandfather of Argentine writers, having combined symbolism, fantasy, and reality into metaphysical narratives that have been translated all over the world. Labyrinths and A Universal History of Iniquity are just two collections of short stories from his prolific career; he is also famous for his poetry and nonfiction essays. Julio Cortázar is another giant of letters who, like Borges, was very much influenced by European ideas and lived abroad for many years in Paris. His unconventional novel Hopscotch suggests two possible orders in which its chapters can be read, each resulting in a different version of the story. His short story "The Droolings of the Devil" was adapted into the famous art-house movie Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Another Borges-influenced writer is Ernesto Sábato, whose novel On Heroes and Tombs is one of the most thorough artistic expressions of Buenos Aires ever written. The Tunnel, also by Sábato, is the compelling narrative of an obsessed painter. Less lauded abroad but more indicative of Argentine rural life is the work of Horacio Quiroga. A tragic figure (he committed suicide in 1937), Quiroga set most of his work in the jungle frontier of Misiones and combined the supernatural and bizarre in stories that are enjoyed by both young and old and can be seen as a predecessor to magical realism. The Decapitated Chicken and The Exiles are his two short-story collections currently available in English. A seminal book in Argentine literature is the 19th-century gaucho poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández, a compulsory read for all Argentine students.

Popular modern writers include Manuel Puig, whose novel Kiss of the Spider Woman was adapted into a movie by the same name. It deals with sex and repression and frequently references movies and popular culture. Puig's background as a screenwriter can also be seen in his other novels, such as Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango. The biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, by academic Suzanne Jill Levine, provides excellent insight into Puig's life and work. Osvaldo Soriano's Shadows and A Funny Dirty Little War are popular critiques of Argentine society, while Federico Andahazi's novel The Anatomist is an entertaining and somewhat bawdy work of historical fiction.

For an outsider's take on Argentine culture, read In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, one of the most famous travelogues ever written. Chasing Che, by Patrick Symmes, is an eloquent description of the writer's attempt to retrace the road trip of the famous revolutionary. Miranda France's Bad Times in Buenos Aires is an excellent impression of an expat's frustrating experience of living in Argentina. For something a bit lighter, read Kiss and Tango by Marina Palmer: the confessions of a tango-dancing gringa. Women should take note that as exciting and romantic as tango men may seem in this book, when Palmer finally settled down, she married a man who couldn't dance.

Recommended Films

Despite limited funding and very little exposure, the Argentine movie industry has a prodigious output, from slick mainstream features to grim independent films, with the occasional award-winning gem in between. Themes such as the breakdown of society, the Dirty War, the Malvinas War, and the sex wars provide rich pickings for young creative directors with little money but lots of talent. Many actors move back and forth among TV, film, and theater production in Buenos Aires, often starring in the live shows in Corrientes theatres, so if you have a favorite Argentine actor, it might be easy to catch him or her live.

Maria Luisa Bemberg is probably the most famous of late-20th-century Argentine filmmakers. She specialized in period dramas. Her Camila (1984), which was Argentina's selection for the Oscars, and Miss Mary (1986) both deal with the feminine experience in Argentina, with Julie Christie starring in the latter. The Official Story (1985), directed by Luis Puenzo, and The Night of the Pencils (1986), directed by Hector Olivera, are two powerful dramas about the military dictatorship and how the repression affected the nation's children. Man Facing Southeast (1986) and The Dark Side of the Heart (1992) are two compelling movies directed by Eliseo Subiela, the former a sci-fi drama and the latter an intriguing love story.

The Italian neorealist style of filmmaking has a strong influence in Argentine cinema, and nowhere is it more evident than in the movies of Pablo Trapero. Crane World (1999) and El Bonaerense (2002) are two gritty working-class features, the former about a crane operator and the latter a stark portrait of police corruption. Another master of everyday themes and deadpan comedy is Carlos Sorin. Historias Mínimas (2003) and Bombon the Dog (2004) deal with love, life, and dogs. For something more mainstream but just as hilarious, Tiempo de Valientes (2008), directed by Dámian Szifron, concerns two favorite Argentine topics -- crime and psychoanalysis. Blessed by Fire (2004), directed by Tristán Bauer, is possibly one of the best movies ever made about the Falklands War, while grifter movie Nine Queens (2001), directed by Fabián Bielinsky, is so good it was remade in Hollywood.

One of the first Hollywood movies made about Buenos Aires is a lighthearted musical called Down Argentine Way (1940), directed by Irving Cummings and starring Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Robert Duvall's Assassination Tango (2002) is almost a personal project, and he stars in it along with his Argentine wife Luciana Pedraza. It is a slow movie but highlights his obsession with Argentina and the tango, letting the city serve as a backdrop. Christopher Hampton's Imagining Argentina (2003), based on the book by Lawrence Thornton, details the Dirty War, and stars Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas. More than likely, you've seen Alan Parker's Evita (1996), starring Madonna. While the film is often criticized and not completely accurate, its cinematography is fantastic. So is its use of real Buenos Aires sites, such as the balcony of the Casa Rosada where Evita once stood and entranced millions, as well as its use of Budapest as a stand-in in other scenes. For a more authentic depiction of Evita's life, however, see the Argentine film Eva Perón, starring Esther Goris, which was produced almost as a response to the Madonna film.

Music

When it comes to music in Argentina, it's all about the tango. The most famous tango crooner of all is Carlos Gardel. He performed and recorded dozens of songs, and you're likely to hear many of them while in Buenos Aires, even if you never step foot in a milonga or go to a tango show. Among his most memorable are "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" and "Por una Cabeza." One of the best known tango composers of all time is Astor Piazzolla, for whom the tango show Piazzolla Tango is named. The music of Gardel and Piazzolla is readily for sale throughout Buenos Aires. Today, Rock Nacional (Spanish-language rock by Argentine artists) is popular; the best-known musician of this genre is Charly Garcia, who has had a decades-long career and is regarded as a living treasure. Argentine-American Kevin Johansen is a popular performer on the Argentine scene, with a following among locals and expats alike, representing a new hybrid in Argentine music.

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