When asked what I was planning to do on a brief trip to Buenos Aires, my first visit, I said I was going to take the Borges tour. I thought I was joking but soon learned that in Argentina it isn't easy to be sure of such things. I am sitting in a café which already seems more like the sheer idea of a café than the real thing could quite be. Red velvet chairs and benches, marble-topped tables, excellent coffee, croissants which are literally called 'half-moons', medialunas, waiters who are curt but not surly, with the clothes and style of their French confrères but without the deeper commitment to bad manners. My friend asks me where I am staying. I say the place is called the Marriott Plaza but looks older and grander and a little more decaying than Marriott locations usually do. For example, you have to go up or down a flight of stairs to reach the lift, a sure sign that servants are supposed to carry not only bags but people where necessary. 'Oh it used to be called the Plaza,' my friend says. 'Borges calls it the Hotel du Nord. It's the hotel in the story "Death and the Compass".' I have scarcely unpacked and the Borges tour has started.
LRB 20 November 2003 | PDF Download