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Street of Human Animals

Julia Kornberg
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In 2013, during the last decade of her long life, the writer Hebe Uhart sat for a rare interview, with Mariana Enríquez, a rising figure in literary Buenos Aires. Until that point, there had been few biographical or anecdotal records of Uhart’s life. Although you couldn’t really call her a recluse—writers in isolation are frequently victims of their own self-importance—she wasn’t a fan of polite, literary society. When she did speak to reporters, she did it with tact but indifference: lips pursed, shoulders half-shrugged. She tended to avoid laudatory or generalizing statements; she evaded the idiosyncrasies of taste. At the beginning of the interview, Enríquez asked Uhart about her place in Latin American letters. Some years earlier, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill had declared Hebe the greatest living Argentine writer—an empty designation with unfortunate durability, in Uhart’s view. “Bah,” she replied. “What does that mean? Nothing.” To her, writing wasn’t some charming, mystical, marketable, competitive activity—what mattered was the putting together of sentences, syntagma after syntagma, word after word.  

Today, Hebe Uhart is one of the best-selling authors in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and is revered by a new generation of novelists in the southern hemisphere, including Alejandra Costamagna and Alejandro Zambra, who described her books as “full of small revelations.” Enríquez called this quality her “perfect pitch,” a capacity for understanding that is more attuned to music than to conventional literature. It is as if Uhart had quietly been teaching a generation of Spanish-speaking writers—not through direct influence over topic or style, since they are all dissimilar authors, but through the generous attention present in all her stories—a kind of deep care for form that would make any reader a better writer. Uhart wrote sharp responses to the question of what is literary, what is truly estranged. Her writing is, at its root, a kind of outsider literature, simultaneously humane and observant.

Hebe Uhart was born in 1936 in the quiet Buenos Aires suburb of Moreno, a rural corridor where you might see commuting businessmen alongside farm animals on the dirt roads. Raised in a middle-class immigrant family that was typical of that era (her mother was Italian and her father was Basque), she moved to the capital in her early twenties. She studied philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, taking classes in a building that, twenty years later, the Argentine dictatorship would deem subversive, closing it down. (Anti-government activity, although heroic, was not an inaccurate charge: students and professors, for quite some time, had been erecting barricades inside the main hall.) After graduating, Uhart took jobs in education. She worked as a rural schoolteacher, a university professor, and a primary school principal. She also led creative writing workshops, initially teaching her students in a psychology center. During these years as a teacher, and until her death, in Buenos Aires, in 2018, she steadily published dozens of books—novels, story collections, crónicas. Her stories, recently translated into English by Maureen Shaughnessy in The Scent of Buenos Aires, and her chronicles, translated by Robert Croll in Animals, grapple with the most mundane aspects of life with exceptional attention. In these two books, Uhart singles out different characters, ideas, and places, training her curious and sidelong gaze everywhere and on just about everyone. 

Including over five decades of stories, The Scent of Buenos Aires presents a motley cast of protagonists: a cowardly principal, an irritable dance teacher, an out-of-work actress, an affable drunk. (Young people are also regularly featured.) “We aren’t going to go where everyone else goes,” explains the narrator of “Tourists and Travelers,” a line that could double as a mission statement for Uhart. “We are going to explore those little streets that wind around in circles. And if we get lost, even better.” 

These are stories in which getting a little—or more than a little—lost features prominently. In “Human Beings Are Radically Alone,” a sensitive, distractible, slightly dim young man named Franco frequents a café where he daydreams of a transformative encounter with royalty: “The King would say, ‘Son, take care of the Queen while I’m away.’ Franco would take care of the Queen until the King came back. He would go wherever they led him.” Never mind that he’s in modern-day Argentina; Franco listens carefully, taking notes. “They used Sweetheart and Darling like proper nouns,” he observes of two seemingly regal patrons. (They, in turn, find Franco boring.) After a small part in a play leads him to a quietly humiliating experience, he lashes out, smashing a chair over the head of another patron at the café. “That fight earned Franco an ambiguous reputation. On the one hand, [everyone there] laughed at his outburst, on the other, they were somewhat afraid.” The story is both very funny and deeply sad. But throughout, Uhart maintains a light touch. The incident with the chair is remarked upon, and then life continues: Franco gets an office job, becomes involved (and then uninvolved) with an older coworker. One day he runs into the guy he’d gotten into a fight with—the man greets Franco cheerfully, no hard feelings, then introduces him to a friend, whom Franco finds interesting, until he finds someone more interesting. And so it goes. Throughout, readers aren’t made to feel superior to these comic and tragicomic figures, with their various foibles and fantasies; rather, they are given odd—and oddly tender—details that make the characters not only sympathetic but endearing, even dignified in their quirks and minor flouting of societal conventions. By the story’s end, Franco has returned to the café, where he attracts the company of an itinerant bible salesman. The man, Franco observes, “wore the same clothes in winter and summer, and in winter he didn’t wear socks. He was still enthusiastic—socks or no socks—going from table to table.” And Uhart also goes—from subject to subject, persistently engaged, illuminating these fine textures of the human condition.

Animals shifts the focus to the nonhuman creatures of the world. Written in her later years, these charming crónicas—a Latin American literary form that’s often about the simultaneously overlooked and the mundane—describe polyamorous wrens, street dogs that resemble ragged rock stars, or domestic cats learning sign language. I thought of the Spanish term bicho de ciudad, literally “city bug,” or a city person. Uhart, an exquisitely urban subject, approaches the other, the animal, through the sources at hand: notes from eighteenth-century German geographer Alexander von Humboldt, off-the-cuff interviews with naturalists, shows on Animal Planet. In one story, she wanders around the Ecopark, an urban wildlife refuge that Uhart describes alternately as a “Zoo Museum” and a “half-zoo.” “[The park] doesn’t open until ten, and so I go out for breakfast; the street is full of human animals,” she remarks. Uhart is an anthropologist whatever the time; no animal and no source is too small to be carefully examined (although birds, monkeys, and animal experts remain favorite subjects). While speaking to an ornithologist, she compares the scientist to his subject: “The birds travel to lay their eggs in other lands, and the ornithologists lay down a few eggs of their own in different places while following routes of a species.” Then, with humorous distractibility, she adds, “I asked for his email: It’s raptorchaser@ and so on.” 

Her chronicles and stories, in this sense, belong to a same stylized viewpoint: an idiosyncratic way of looking at and listening to the world. The opening story of The Scent of Buenos Aires, “Guiding the Ivy,” has been read by critics as representative of this method. “Here I am arranging the plants so they don’t overcrowd one another, pulling off dead leaves, and getting rid of ants,” Uhart writes. “I enjoy watching how they grow with so little.” She then catalogs the plants’ qualities (“like a desert plant, it’s secured only the green it needs to survive”), personalities (“I call the iridescent ivy ‘stupid’ because it forms into pointless arabesques”), and flaws (“[the big ivy] doesn’t have the slightest claim to originality”). The gesture is simple: starting with a chaotic mess of leaves, Uhart’s narrator methodically arranges the plants and separates them, revealing to us a mode of looking that is open yet discerning, sweeping yet skeptical (“I associate hatred with the mundane, with the ability to discern in an instant whether a plant is a red bug flower or a daisy”). From within this text, a singular voice emerges. “In the end,” she writes, “replacing wonder with an inquisitive temperament has tainted me with hatred, too. But some things still amaze me.” The notion of hatred arising from characterization—or, perhaps, from one’s critical faculties—might seem to be a rash, even anti-intellectual position. Yet it’s through Uhart’s patient amazement, and the careful syntax that conveys it, that the mundane, the nonliterary, becomes rarefied. 

Predictably, Uhart’s rejection of a marketable literary persona did not benefit the reception of her work. For decades, she was supported only by small presses with devoted (if severely limited) readerships and critics. Her books circulated in independent bookstores to a niche audience composed mostly of her colleagues and friends. It wasn’t until she was in her late sixties, with the publication of Del cielo a casa (From heaven to home), in 2003, that she found her first major success. Working as the Max Brod to Uhart’s prose, the editor Fabián Lebenglik reorganized her texts and provided critical funding for her to continue writing her famous travelogues. A good editor understands a book of stories or chronicles like a symphony, with highs and lows, crescendos and climaxes. Lebenglik and his press, Adriana Hidalgo, helped Uhart’s books come into being by arranging them by topic and idea, providing them with the critical pacing and rhythm that had been elided from her earlier works. 

A few months ago I took a call from Lebenglik, who, from his house in Buenos Aires, discussed his relationship with Uhart. In an elegiac, proud tone, he told me how Hidalgo’s two most important accomplishments were organizing her texts and enabling her to travel. In her later years, Lebenglik told me, Uhart dedicated herself to writing only chronicles. Tired of novels and stories, she found interesting subjects in her trips to other regions of Argentina and Latin America. Lebenglik emphasized how she was never too interested in cities, preferring small towns and distant neighborhoods like the one she grew up in. Upon returning from these publisher-funded trips, she would test out her stories in long conversations with her editors before committing them to paper. “She wouldn’t tell us that, but we realized over time what she was doing,” Lebenglik explained. “She would come with a story about a new town, a friend of hers, an ex-boyfriend, and see what our reaction was. If we reacted positively, she would come back with a story afterward.” Her unlikely and often marginal characters come alive from the moment they start to speak in an unmistakable, individual dialect—this interest in the spoken dimension of her texts is paired with the urgency of conveying what she saw. “If she couldn’t communicate it,” said Lebenglik, “then it was not worth writing.”

This conversational element, then, as well as her ability to convey her characters’ estrangement and her own authorial fascination, is key to what is anti-literary about Uhart’s work, which retains its poetic quality despite the potentially distorting influences of the marketplace. Though I suspect Uhart would have raspberried at these words, we can learn from her not only in terms of technique but also in how we relate to our existence, and how we approach the self in the act of writing. Her work is thorough yet surprising, humble yet humorous, intelligent without intellectual posturing. The result is a defamiliarization, a casting aside of the automatic and assumed in order to see the world—plants, animals, humans—anew. After Uhart, things are in agreement. For all their differences, they hang together. They have form.

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