British writer Miranda France has achieved something with her memoir Bad Times in Buenos Aires that I have often aspired to, but never quite managed. In approximately 200 pages she captured the essence of a city and its people. Specifically, Buenos Aires and its denizens, los porteños.
The book is an account of the years, in the middle 90s, when France left her home in the United Kingdom to work as a free-lance journalist in Buenos Aires. France's Buenos Aires is a city of maddening frustrations. Nothing works. Los porteños stand in line for hours to pay bills, endure leaky roofs in cockroach-infested top-floor apartments that lack functioning lifts. Rents are high. Streets are cratered. Telephone wires are crossed.
Buenos Aires is a city tortured by its recent past, and given no respite from a bleak present and an unhopeful future. The complicated Argentine psyche is bedeviled by bronca, a manifestation of the disappointment and frustration of unrealized potential. Everyone in the city is on edge. The people are haunted by the recent Dirty War, addicted to psychoanalysis, afraid to confront the past, confused at how the promise of Argentina's great populist heroes, Juan and Evita Peron failed to come to fruition.
France relates it all as she experienced it: angst-weighted conversations with friends and acquaintances, pretensions and snobbery from Argentine blue-bloods, hollow machismo from Argentine men emasculated by the national humiliation suffered in the Falklands War. The ghost of Evita Peron still rules the city, grown all the more seductive since her death 40 years earlier. And everywhere, the phantoms of los desaparecidos, the Disappeared, the victims of the Dirty War, haunt the streets, demanding acknowledgment. France's encounters include a perplexing conversation with a genial military officer named Carlos, whom she learns may have been a torturer and a murderer during the Dirty War.
France writes with subtle, dry humor (very British, I thought) and with undeniable skill. My mom, recently back from a visit to Buenos Aires, recommended this book to me and I'm very glad to have read it. Buenos Aires has been very high on my list of places to visit for several years now. After reading this book, I'm all the more eager to see it.