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A grand neoclassical edifice that once housed the Buenos Aires central post office was hastily inaugurated last year — in good time for the presidential election — as the Kirchner Cultural Centre. The name commemorates Néstor Kirchner, the late husband and predecessor of outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and was emblazoned in bold letters across the building, a few hundred metres from the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.
But this year the new government of Mauricio Macri added to the façade, in yellow neon lights, a quotation from the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: “Nadie es la patria, pero todos lo somos.” In part, the famous line, which means “No one is the fatherland, but we all are”, advertises a new exhibition about the giant of Latin American literature. But it also contrasts starkly — and intentionally — with the Kirchners’ divisive claim that their populist movement represented the patria. The line encapsulates what is being seen as a cultural shift, with the ideas of Borges at its forefront.
“Essentially what Borges is saying is that we should stop fighting,” says Maria Kodama, the widow of the man regarded as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. The couple married in 1986, just months before Borges died aged 86. Kodama, who is 79, says that Latin American politicians, such as the Kirchners, too often pursued the confrontational logic of “either you’re with me or you’re against me”. “Time and again we repeat the same mistake,” she says.
But Alberto Manguel, an Argentine writer and a renowned disciple of Borges, argues that “a fundamental Borgesian idea” is gaining ground in Argentina. Manguel, who as an adolescent read to the blind writer, cites an important 1930s essay in which Borges argued that Argentine writers have two options. “We can either rely on local colour and write about what is almost a caricature of Argentina — tango, the Pampas, maté and so on — or we can be universal,” explains Manguel, who returned to Argentina this year after living abroad for decades to become director of the national library — a position that Borges himself held in the 1950s.
“We are going from a populist demagogic nationalism to something more open and universal, and that is something that Borges would have approved of,” says Manguel. Borges, he adds, “despised” Juan Perón, who in the 1940s founded the political movement known as Peronism. The movement, which the Kirchners followed, has dominated Argentine politics ever since. “Borges thought Perón was a villain of Argentine history,” he says.
Pablo Avelluto, the culture minister, says the government is trying to “update the cultural agenda” with a more “contemporary” and “open-minded” approach. He regards the 12 years under the Kirchners as a period when “the state told you what to think”. “We were discussing things that we were discussing here 40 years ago.”
“It’s an old phenomenon in Argentina, that of opening up to new ideas, the dialogue with ideas from Europe and elsewhere,” says Avelluto, pointing to the waves of immigration to Argentina from Europe around the turn of the 20th century. “It was the role that Borges and Sur [the literary magazine founded by Victoria Ocampo] had in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Now, a so-called “de-Kirchnerisation” of culture is under way. Nowhere is the shift away from the personality cult of Kirchnerismo towards more universal Borgesian ideals more evident than in the displacement of the “Néstor Kirchner experience” at the very cultural centre that bears his name.
The display — “a place for the Néstor that we all carry within us”, according to one of its organisers — has been ousted in favour of the temporary exhibition celebrating Borges on the 30th anniversary of his death. Instead of a space adorned with huge posters glorifying the hook-nosed Patagonian leader, visitors are treated to a new look at Borges’ obsession with dreams, labyrinths, mirrors and infinity.
With more than 160 public spaces in the country named after Néstor Kirchner, this process of depoliticisation will take time. But a marble bust of the former president has already been moved from a prominent position in the entrance of the Casa Rosada to the side passage to join the busts of his predecessors. Posters of leftist icons such as revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez have been taken down from the palace walls. The Bicentenary Museum, beside the Casa Rosada, which tells Argentina’s history since independence in 1816, used to devote about half of its floorspace to the Kirchners; their part of the narrative now occupies a more proportionate space.
“It’s not about replacing that political-cultural narrative with its opposite in a kind of confrontational logic, but broadening it to multiple narratives and voices and discussions,” says Avelluto. “There isn’t one vision, nor are there two — there are multiple visions.” The Kirchners’ confrontationalism was “very characteristic of the 20th century”, he believes.
He compares this unfavourably with the PRO, Macri’s party, which was founded in the early years of the 21st century in response to the political, economic and social crisis that exploded in 2001. The party was aimed at a new generation of Argentines who had lived all their lives in democracy and sought a new kind of politics.
But Ricardo Forster, an Argentine philosopher designated by the previous government as “secretary of strategic co-ordination of national thought”, brands the new administration’s moves as “socio-economic revanchism”. “This government wants to pasteurise culture and memory, and reduce it to not even a museum piece, without depth or conflict,” he says, describing the new “market-worshipping” government’s approach to culture variously as “prejudiced”, “lightweight” and “without effervescence”. “They think they are fashionable, but they conceal a profound ignorance,” he says.
Forster, who describes himself as a “passionate reader of Borges”, and has even dedicated a book to him, admits that the writer’s work can be seen as elitist. “There has always been a complex relationship between the high culture of Borges and the emergence of popular culture and governments linked to the popular class, like Peronism,” he says.
But despite Borges’ sometimes “reactionary” political positions, Forster points out that he was fascinated by marginal cultures — evident, for example, in his penchant for stories about knife fights — making him both local and cosmopolitan, something that is “deeply ingrained” in Argentine culture. “He is profoundly Argentine and universal at the same time,” Forster argues.
Certainly, Borges is more alive in Argentine culture than ever. But the Kirchners’ place in history appears less firm, despite their best attempts at self-glorification. The pharaonic cultural centre took nearly a decade to complete and officials now say costs over-ran by 450 per cent. But even the plaque that commemorates those responsible for its construction contains an irony. In pride of place is the name of the now former public works secretary José López, who earlier this year was arrested trying to hide almost $9m in cash in a convent outside Buenos Aires. He is in jail pending his trial.
In a sense, though, Borges’ legacy is not unambiguously positive for all Argentines either. Avelluto says his towering literary presence can be “oppressive” for writers attempting to forge a new path. “Borges is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, it is a blessing to have had someone so great. But on the other hand, after Borges, where do you go from there?”
Victoria Ocampo was a wealthy intellectual and founder of Sur, the influential literary magazine that launched Borges. In 1929 Ocampo built a house in Buenos Aires inspired by Le Corbusier; the house is considered the first work of modernist architecture in Argentina. It languished during the Kirchner years, but this year the building was re-inaugurated as a cultural centre by the National Arts Council. Part of its collection of modern Argentine paintings is on show on the ground floor, in a space previously used as a car park.