Costumbrismo — Laurence Gough, Mario Vargas Llosa & Jorge Luís Borges
“It’s a small ice-cream parlor which has been there for many years. It’s on Bolognesi Street, a street I know very well because when I was a kid I knew a beautiful girl who lived there. She had the improbable name of Flora Flores. I’m sure the ice-cream parlor was there then and I went in with the beautiful Flora Flores to have a sundae.”
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta — Mario Vargas Llosa
“El roce de las personas en la calle Florida corroe sutilmente las mangas de los abrigos, el dorso de los guantes”.
Texto en una libreta — Julio Cortázar
“Donde San Juan y Chacabuco se cruzan
vi las casas azules…”
“…colores de aventura”.
“Es una pena altiva
la que azula la esquina”.
Casa con ángeles — Jorge Luís Borges
“Beach View Towers was on Beach Avenue, naturally enough. The building overlooked False Creek was three long blocks from the closest actual beach, and was a little too close to the noise and dirt of the Granville Street Bridge to command top dollar.
Heartbreaker (1995) — Laurence Gough
In the beginning of 1990, Books in Canada dispatched me to Lima, Perú to photograph and interview novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. He was running for president of the country and fortunately for those who read his novels (me!) he lost so he has been writing since. But this was unfortunate for me as Condé Nast Traveler was interested in my proposed story of featuring photographs of the locations mentioned in two of his Lima-based novels, Conversación en la Catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral), Historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta) plus the military school in Callao, Leoncio Prado which Vargas Llosa attended and became the scene of his first novel, 1963) La Ciudad y los Perros (The Time of the Hero). I did get to all the places including an ice cream shop from Alejandro Mayta. I wrote about it here. And for Books in Canada here.
But there was one location that I found that resulted in me getting a real fright. This was the Castillo Rospigliosi which play an important part in an invasion by the United States (novel!) in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.
I arrived at the scene of this authentic looking castle looking out of place in urban Lima. I took some preliminary photographs and when I got close some men on the parapet signalled me to stop. I ignored them. Lost in my picture taking, I suddenly heard automatic rifles (they were AK-47s I noticed later) cocked. I turned around to find four soldiers who signalled me to follow them (two were behind me). Inside the castle I was met by an officer who asked me to explain myself. I was worried. But somehow when I mentioned my purpose, and uttered Mario Vargas Llosa, I was able to discern a smile and I was let go.
Birds may be modern dinosaurs but I also believe we humans have birds in us.
Consider the idea of a Vancouver street corner. For me there are two. One is Robson at Granville where the Farmer Building used to be. My studio was on the upper floor. The other corner in my memory is Davie at Richards. That is where for many years my assignments for Vancouver Magazine came from. Both buildings are long gone. But when I approach those corners something in me makes me recall that the place is the place and of my involvement with it.
Birds use landmarks for migration and I believe that they may have some human in them (or simply it is the other way around) as with landmarks gone they must instinctively know their way.
In my native Argentina we have something called “costumbrismo”. It could be translated to customism even though that word does not exist. The concept is mostly a literary one. In Argentina Jorge Luís Borges wrote mostly about his city of Buenos Aires. He wrote about the zoo and its tigers, of street corners and landmarks and how other writers had written of his city. Rarely did he leave the city into the provinces.
Argentine Tango (while some say it originated in Uruguay) is the music of one city, Buenos Aires. The lyrics rarely mention other places in Argentina. Folkloric music is the music of the interior of Argentina and it has no connection with the tango. The same can be said of Astor Piazzolla’s “Nuevo Tango”. The music oozes Buenos Aires.
I have attempted to find writers and composers who represented the confines of one city and have not found any that had the determination of Borges, Piazzolla and the composers and lyricists of the Argentine Tango.
Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti exiled himself for some years to Buenos Aires and he, too wrote about the city.
Perhaps Vancouver (my city now) is a young city. As my friend Ian McGuffie often says, “Vancouver was born with a photograph of its tent city hall in the 19th century. Vancouver was born with photography.”
Every time I return to Buenos Aires the city is mostly the same. A 1930’s ornate French style building, on Florida and Corrientes now houses a Burger King, but the building is still there and recognizable.
But not so in Vancouver where buildings disappear or facades hide the fact that what is behind is not what once was behind. While strolling with Rosemary on Plaza de Mayo I told Rosemary that we were not far from Alsina and Defensa and that there was supposed to be a café, La Puerto Rico, mentioned in Leon Tenenmbaum’s Los Olores de Buenos Aires. Tenenbaum also wrote Buenos Aires — Tiempo de Borges which is all about Borges’s city with a luxury of detail.
Then there is the slow deconstruction of buildings until the idea of the structure as conceived by its architect is gone. That was the fate of the hated (but the architect was the renowned Argentine Cesar Pelli) Eaton/Sears building opposite my studio on Robson and Granville. The current iteration Nordstroms’s has nothing of its original design.
For some years the main post office attempted to hide its soaring ceilings with cloth tents. What will happen to the building when Amazon takes over is not something that makes me feel optimistic.
Our city then seems to be a constant progression into the future that hides the past. Will the twisted pseudo-skyscrapers of our near future survive or will, they, too, remain in the memory of a few?
Costumbrismo is not always something that writers in Latin America will acknowledge. When I told Vargas Llosa that I had found the ice-cream shop where Alejandro Mayta had worked in his novel he was visibly bothered. I found out quickly that some novelists do not like to admit autobiographical material in their books.
But in the middle of the night a few weeks ago when I was concocting the idea for this blog I remember that in 1993 I photographed Vancouver writer Laurence Gough who was writing a series of crime novels (13 in all) featuring Vancouver detectives Jack Willows and Claire Parker. I read two of the novels and liked them but in the end I thought (stupidly!), “Why would I want to read about crime novels set in Vancouver when I can read those set in Venice or London.”
It was 7 years before I came to realize that nostalgia is a shifting feeling of longing that happens only when you long for the place you are currently not in. And so while in Buenos Aires this past September I had nostalgia for my now adopted city of Vancouver.
Perhaps another reason for this lack of costumbrismo with Gough’s extraordinary exception in that many of the street corners in Buenos Aires (like many in Paris) do not end on a point. They are trapezoidal and are called ochavas.
The original purpose was to help horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century to note in advance what was coming from the other street. Because of that flat “corner” there are many restaurants, cafés, etc on the ochavas. And it was in these corner “boliches” that writers like Borges, Cortázar and others congregated and then wrote about them. The book I cite below has a whole chapter noting all those corners that Borges mentioned in his stories and poems.
When I finally talked to Gough on the phone he promised to send me a few locations from his novels. I took out 7 of his books from the Vancouver Public Library and in short order found many street names and places mentioned.
Of the Vancouver Public Library Gough writes in Memory Lane (1996):
Digesting Ross walked briskly east on Georgia for two to three blocks and then veered towards the new downtown library, which to his untutored eye looked like a big sand castle artfully crossbred with a fragment of a Roman Coliseum. Sort of like a leftover Star Trek set. One of those not-quite-parallel-univoerse situations. He strolled across a forecourt of interlocking concrete paving blocks, subtly guided by the architecture towards a wall of plate-glass doors.
But there is another extraordinary fact about these locations. I called up our first Canadian Poet Laureate, George Bowering, and asked him about costumbrismo and about Gough. He told me, “I have read all of Gough’s books and there is one in particular that mentions a Chevron gas station on Broadway that burns to the ground. I went to look for it and sure enough it had not burned to the ground!”
Since Gough has been living in the last 25 years on the Westside I believe that the gas station was (it is gone!) the one on Alma and West Broadway.
Finally Gough sent me this email:
A couple of locations… I found, poking around, that fairly often I was deliberately vague, probably trying to avoid abandoning my desk, or taking the time to unfold a map. I remember sometimes my deadlines were pretty ferocious — publish or die. Anyway, hope this is the sort of thing you wanted, and is helpful. If not, gimme a shout.
“Carlos drove to Denny’s on Broadway, where they stayed long enough to gobble an early breakfast and undertip the waitress.” Chapter 37, 2nd page, ‘Funny Money’
When Jan and I saw that the Denny’s was doomed, we vowed to stop by an dig in. But then, suddenly, it was too late. A life lesson learned — not for the first time, or the last.
“The City Morgue is situated in an old orange brick and mullioned-window building located on a Cordova Street, just around the corner from 312 Main.” Chapter 5, 3rd paragraph, ‘Serious Crimes’
I don’t remember when the morgue left Cordova Street. I believe it was long before the series was first published. If memory serves, I liked it where it was, so left it there.
And I cannot finish this without concurring with Gough about that Cordova Street morgue. Read here.
I have some Vancouver costumbrismo to catch up on thanks to Laurence Gough.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.