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What is Left in the World of Books:

Washington Cucurto and the Elosa Cartonera

Project in Argentina
Ksenija Bilbija
University of Wisconsin-Madison

I n 1975, a year after Juan Pern died and left the govemment in the inept hands
of his third wife, Isabel, one of the most prestigious publishers in Argentina,
Emec, printed The Book of Sand, which tumed out to be the last collection
of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges. In 2006, some four years after the explo-
sion of the Argentine economic crisis and currency devaluation that gave birth
to a whole new class of destitute urban poor, emblematically called cartoneros.
Planeta, a multinational publishing group that swallowed Emec and tumed it
into its subsidiary, brought to light El curandero de amor, a novel by Washington
Cucurto. One of the advertisements for this recent publication depicts a voluptuous
dark-skinned woman with shiny, abundant, black hair, a skimpy pink top and un-
zipped turquoise pants that look like they are just about to fall off. Her pushed up
breasts are barely covered by two books: in her right hand she is holding Borges'
collection of short stories portraying him as a young author in an elegant suit gaz-
ing inexpressively, while in her left hand she is gripping an image of a dynamic,
dark-skirmed man with an Afro, one earring and a brightly colored outfit. The
background of the book held in the left hand has the same colorful tones as her
minimal attire, thus connecting the two visually, while the letters in big print above
her head ask the readers a question: Guess which one I enjoyed more? While the
question is intentionally ambiguous, conflating sexual and reading pleasures, the
answer is quite obvious: her choice can only be Cucurto.
I contend that her left hand is holding Cucurto's novel not only because he
is closer to her heart (and breast) but also because in the past four years he has
become associated with socially engaged artistic practices. Together with other
artists interested in reconfiguring the conditions in which literary art is produced
and consumed, he came up with a progressive new publishing paradigm that
challenges and contests the neo-liberal political and economic hegemony. This
enterprise is called Eloisa Cartonera and has already spread to other Latin Ameri-
can cities, such as La Paz in Bolivia, Lima in Peru and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil,
as proof that there is an altemative to predatory forms of globalization. Thus,
while Cucurto's writing is about the aesthetic integration of the subaltem, the one
who seems to be speaking fluently despite Gayatri Spivak's well-known concem,
his economic practice is about making a difference in the lives of impoverished
and unemployed casualties of the neo-liberal tum in Latin America, mainly the
destitute cardboard collectors, called cartoneros.
86 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27

The publishing project Elosa Cartonera is one of the ways out of margin-
alization and into social and economic integration for some of those neo-liberal
casualties. Consistent with the rhetoric that characterizes Cucurto's writing,
as well as his heterogeneous readership, this project, in which he is one of the
main players, does not juxtapose the high and the low of the cultural spectrum.
Instead, it bypasses the binary model and offers a new de-centered specter of
socio-cultural relations.
The Argentine economy has been proverbially troubled. And yet, due to the
series of pacifying, manipulative and ultimately cormpt measures brought about
by the dictatorial and post-dictatorial govemments, it kept the middle class fairly
content with an artificial parity between the dollar and the peso. While the lower
classes had felt these governments' injustices for quite some time, the middle class
only woke up in early 2002 when the corralito was imposed and nobody could
take any of their life savings out of the banks. Eventually, all the dollars became
pesos and the general devaluation broke down the false parity between the two
currencies, reducing the value of the peso to one third of a dollar. Consequently,
the economic and social landscape was severely altered: while in 1998 6.2% of
Buenos Aires's population was below the poverty line and 1.6% below the indi-
gence (extreme poverty) level, official statistics for 2002 reveal that 19.8% were
impoverished, with 6.3% below indigence level. Small businesses collapsed,
workers lost their jobs and thousands of citizens were catapulted out of the sys-
tem of production. And so, the combination of nearly one-fifth of the citizens of
Buenos Aires below the poverty line with a staggering rise in the price of paper,
gave birth to a new occupation: cartoneros or cardboard pickers. Entire families
with small kids, some 100,000 of them according to statistics, descended upon the
streets of Buenos Aires every night and scavenged through the garbage in search
of recyclables, mainly newspapers, magazines and cardboard. It was a job that
could only be done at night when what was left of the middle class took out their
trash. Buenos Aires was never too keen on separating its trash and everything
was considered garbage, although according to statistics of the Buenos Aires city
govemment, 96% of it had a potential for recycling. In his study Nuevos rostros
de la marginalidad, Fortunato Mallimaci articulates this disastrous economic
process as follows: "estamos en una situacin de grave inestabilidad y vulnera-
bilidad que produce una desposesin material y simblica que transforma a miles
de ciudadanos en cosas, en no personas y en sectores desechables" (17). Humans
were literally tumed into trash, a disposable biological material for which the
society no longer had any use.
While the price of paper skyrocketed by 300% in just a few months in 2002
and opened up a prospect for a distressing livelihood that hardly existed in
previous centuries, many of the businesses whose production depended on paper,
such as the publishing industry, either collapsed or had to alter their production
methods. One of those who had to close his small publishing house in the wake
of economic collapse was Washington Cucurto, who had already gained some rec-
Ksenija Bilbija 87

ognition in the world of words by winning the 1998 competition organized by the
prestigious literary journal Diario de poesa. He achieved additional notoriety for
his poetry collection, Zelarayan, that was banned in one ofthe municipal libraries
and eventually publicly burned for obscenities, pornography and xenophobia by
library officials. And so, in 2003 Cucurto came up with the idea of making books
from recycled cardboard covers. Along with two other collaborators, Fernanda
Laguna and Javier Barilaro, the Elosa Cartonera publishing house was founded:
"Se lo podramos comprar a cartoneros y asi hacer algo ms que difiindir literatura
de calidad, tambin dar trabajo, incluir socialmente a un grupo que pese a ser
numeroso, es algo asi como 'fantasma': los cartoneros al no ser manifestantes,
ni revoltosos, al no pedir nada, al limitarse simplemente a hacer su trabajo, no
son clientes polticos de nadie. Asi surge nuestra editorial," Cucurto told Patxy
Irurzun in an interview the same year. By making the spectral phenomenon ofthe
cartoneros visible, Cucurto imagines himself in the role ofthe revolutionary who
is paraphrasing the opening lines of Karl Marx's Comunist Manifesto: the specter
ofthe cartoneros is haunting Argentina. But this revolutionary move is at the same
time paired with a small-scale entrepreneurial publishing venture both benefiting
the social underdog and aiding the dissemination of literature among the aspiring
readers who would not have been able to afford to buy books otherwise.
Elosa Cartonera is a non-profit, self-governing organization that buys
cardboard from street collectors (cartoneros) and uses it to make covers for the
photocopied pages of poetry and fiction books. Originally, the cartoneros were
paid 1.50 pesos for a kilogram of cardboard while the usual "market" price was
30 centavos. In addition, children who would otherwise collect cardboard from
the garbage around Buenos Aires were employed to cut and paint the book covers
for 3 (currently 6) pesos per work hour. Their books are now sold for 5 pesos a
copy (originally for 1 peso) in about 15 bookstores in Buenos Aires, as well as in
Cordoba, Rosario, and in other countries such as Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil,
among others. Books can also be ordered through the Elosa Cartonera website
and are sent to foreign countries for 5 euros a copy for members and 6 euros for
non-members with a minimum order of 10 copies. Initially, photocopied pages
were fixed to the hand-painted cardboard binding. Now, as a response to the fact
that previously only shorter texts could be produced, they are also printed off-set
and produced in standard binding. "Lo que nos importa no es el fetiche del cartn,
sino que los libros se vendan a precios bajos" (Sanchez), said one ofthe editors
ofthe new edition. De Napoli, to a journalist from the daily Clarn. Cardboard is
only a symbolic capital o Elosa Cartonera since in order to be solvent and pay
the rent and the fiill-time workers they need to sell around 400 books a month.
Therefore, the publishing activities are financed exclusively through book sales
and any charitable donation of cardboard is outright rejected because it would
compromise the economic sustainability ofthe project. They also never ask for
subventions or foreign investments in terms of grants.
At first, only unpublished writings by well-known progressive writers such as
Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27

Ricardo Piglia, Csar Aira and Fogwill were donated to and produced by Eloisa
Cartonera. They were followed by the publication of some quite experimental
texts by emerging authors and hard-to-find and out-of-print books by other Latin
Americans soon after. Nowadays, with over one hundred titles in the catalogue,
it is obvious that this innovative publisher is not just focused on Argentine writers
but is open to authors from Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica and Peru.
Cucurto claims that they will not stop until they have at least 999 titles (Sanchez).
Eloisa Cartonera has sold over 4000 copies, which in the era ofthe implosion of
the neo-liberal economic policies and the ensuing poverty is a remarkable achieve-
ment. Cucurto is not shy when he suggests that the Argentine govemment follow
in the steps of Elosa Cartonera and change Argentine culture: "Si nosotros que
somos tres locos y seis pibes cartoneros, lo hacemos, cmo el Estado no, que
somos todos, que tiene imprentas, y podra vender libros a la mitad del precio,
porque puede sacar veinte mil de un tirn? Inversin cero y cambias la cultura
argentina. Quin no va a comprar un libro a un peso y medio en la calle? Es tener
ganas no ms. Y cambias todo" (Guerrero).
The drastic changes in the economy have also affected established publishers
such as Emec, which were consequently bought by transnational companies or
went bankrupt. In the aftermath of corralito and devaluation, a city famous for
its literary cafs and bookstores mainly offered imported titles that no one could
afford to buy or mainstream literature that comfortably fit the pre-established
genre molds. Since multinational capital was now behind publishing projects,
publishers mainly put out fiction, mostly novels and very seldom short stories
that didn't pose a challenge to the pre-existing cultural hegemonies or subvert
the standard literary language. They narrowed the production line, targeted spe-
cific audiences, and gave too much power to the ever-larger publishers who were
less interested in taking risks associated with publishing new authors. Argentine
publishers, who in the fifties and sixties represented the avant-garde ofthe Span-
ish-speaking world by offerings titles catering to minority tastes and interests,
were now interested in pleasing a mass reading public.
But Buenos Aires was also well known for its second-hand bookstores. It
seems that its inhabitants didn't mind reading books that were already touched
by other eyes and hands, and that some of those copies were "recycled" more
than once. However, with Eloisa Cartonera the concept of recycling books was
taken to another level.
The material recycling of cardboard became a form of social and cultural
decontamination, transforming a spectral group of people from the very bottom
of a wasteful society into a labor force. Thus, Eloisa Cartonera tumed out to be
literally a "waste manager" that converts societal excess and detritus created by
a neo-liberal economy into new cultural and social tissue.
Neither Cucurto nor any other members ofthe Eloisa Cartonera publishing
project ever claimed that this process is having a major impact on the situation
ofthe Argentine poor. After all, the number of those cartoneros who profit from
Ksenija Bilbija 89

the amount of cardboard bought by Eloisa Cartonera, or those who work in their
space and consequently do not have to collect the cardboard from the garbage, is
quite limited. However, the point is to provide a horizon of possible identities for
those who feel helpless in the absence of gainful employment. Eloisa Cartonera's
contribution to the country's social welfare system is in empowering the poor and
allowing five or six children at a time to creatively imagine book covers and tum
them into reality while feeling like book designers. "El concepto artistico es que
ellos los hagan como les guste, no me propongo, como director, decidir qu es
lindo y que es feo" says Javier Barilaro, explaining the aesthetic credo o Eloisa
Cartonera (Irurzun). Books are produced and sold in a space that is truly public
and always open to all interested visitors. The process of production becomes
visible and the site is converted into an art workshop. Ramona a former prisoner
and one ofthe members ofthe collective in charge of sewing poses the ques-
tion: "Qu es un artista?" to Maria Eugenia Luduea, and, answering her own
query, replies: "Alguien que hace lo que le gusta." She is articulating a popular
aesthetic that could be called postmodernism from below, where each individual
artist develops his or her unique sense of what is art. On top ofthat, the category
of labor is transformed into an aesthetic experience, allowing each individual
to overcome Marx's notion ofthe alienated laborer. Books produced by Eloisa
Cartonera are a symbol of transformation in a moment of social crisis. The re-
cycling of authority is accomplished by sidestepping the publishing industry and
the embedded laws ofthe market. The brilliance behind Eloisa Cartonera is in
showing that the "garbage" cartoneros collect, technically the product from which
all the value has been used up, actually does have worth, just like the cartoneros
themselves, people who have value despite the fact that have been relegated to
the status of societal detritus.
In addition, Eloisa Cartonera challenges the established laws and politics of
the publishing industry, which in the context of a neo-liberal economy became
an even greater alienating force that did not bring profits to the author but in-
stead to a long line of intermediaries such as distributors, booksellers, printing
presses, promotional and advertising agents making up the market. It seems that
the use value of the book shifted from its content the words to be read to
its potential profit within the industry. Eloisa Cartonera produces cheap books in
order to disseminate works of a variety of writers who don't necessarily fall into
the profit-making molds and creates a labor force that otherwise wouldn't exist.
This is not to say that they are not using the laws ofthe market and the forces of
demand to their advantage. For example, the first titles that were published were
by well-known authors, but soon after that, some completely unknown names
entered their publishing program. In 2005, a tailoring section was added to Eloisa
Cartonera. They redesigned used clothing and made T-shirts with images of
the writers they publish. It is also worth mentioning that books produced out of
discarded packaging material do not fit every library. Their binding is not made
to last, they cannot be folded and they tend to leave stains on the reader's hands.
90 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27

But, they also leave the reader with the feeling of doing something worthwhile,
having a good read, and possibly an awakened social imagination.
In one of his recent interviews with Diego Erlan for the daily Clarin, Cu-
curto said: "Estara bueno que la literatura sea motor de cambio politico, [que]
intervenga," ("El escritor del pas"). Although lurking in the uncertain folds of
the subjunctive, his hope is already showing its transformative power. How else
could one explain the emergence of other cartonera publishers in Bolivia, Lima
and Rio de Janeiro? And furthermore, who is Washington Cucurto, the person
behind much of the originality of the Eloisa Cartonera project and the one whom
a voluptuous dark-skinned woman in a skimpy pink top and unzipped turquoise
pants is choosing over the icon of twentieth-century Argentine writing?
The image one can discem of this author is elusive, unstable and filled with
ambiguity. It is also self-constructed, and like any and all stories, it is fictional as
well as factual in a true Borgesian sense of the word. Such is the nature of the art
of discovery and interpretation, also known as literary and cultural criticism.
From the information provided by the publisher on the book jacket of his
poetry collection, Ld mquina de hacerparaguayitos, one leams that Washington
Cucurto is a pseudonym of Norberto Santiago Vega, bom in 1973 in Quilmes,
one of the surrounding, impoverished communities in the greater Buenos Aires
area. This data is supported by an official-looking photocopy of Santiago Vega's
entrance visa to Paraguay in 2000, which begins his book and appears even be-
fore the title page. In addition to being a pseudonym of the author, Washington
Cucurto appears as a name of a character in some of his publications, such as the
novels Cosa de negros and Las aventuras del Sr. Malz: el hroe atrapado entre
dos mundos, while Santiago Vega is featured as a character in others, like in the
short story "El hombre del casco azul." This is not to say that Santiago Vega
never tums up as an author of a text: for example, the earlier version of the novel
Cosa de negros (written in 1995, according to Tejerina's interview) appeared on
the Intemet site La idea fija in April 2000 under the title Cosas de negros and the
promise of three installments, which were consecutively published in September
2000 and April 2001.
According to the same official-looking data, as well as the biography provided
by his publisher. Interzona, Cucurto is of Argentine nationality. However, his
view of what the Argentine nation seems to be diverges from what has so far been
reflected in the literary mirror of the nation. One needs only to recall Borges'
rhetorical question "What is our Argentine tradition?" from the 1951 essay "The
Argentine Writer and Tradition." Borges offers a response to this question in his
statement that "our tradition is the whole of Westem culture, and I also believe
that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which the inhabitants
of one Westem nation or another might have" (426). Cucurto could not disagree
more as he repeatedly declares, in numerous interviews, that he feels like a Do-
minican, Pemvian, Bolivian and Paraguayan. One of his interviewers, Carola
Solari, described him as "an Argentine who looks Central American: dark skinned.
Ksenija Bilbija 91

with a stiff Afro hairdo, and wide nostrils," and "'Un negro', como l mismo
se llama, en una doble alusin: a lo popular y a la negrada, trmino con que los
cantantes de cumbia llaman a su pblico..." ("El sofocador de la cumbia"). He
is certainly using his image strategically in the media abundant Intemet and
newspaper photographs in addition to TV appearancesto show to his continually
growing audience that he looks "different" from the Borgesian European streak of
Argentines, thus denouncing their racial prejudice. Cucurto claims the evidence
of experience both in terms of his characters and the topographies of his stories;
he is not shy in pointing this fact out either. Nothing could be more distant from
Borges' desires, claims, aesthetics and writing practice. Thus, it is not surprising
that the ad for Cucurto's latest book is visually juxtaposing him with one of the
most influential Latin American writers of the twentieth century, who identified
himself with Eurocentrism and the "Argentinian elite's shame and distaste at hav-
ing to share the continent with Bolivians and Paraguayans" (Munck 189).
To confuse the identity issue even further, the previously mentioned book. La
mquina de hacer paraguay itos, the one that reproduced Santiago Vega's entrance
visa to Paraguay, closes with a biographical note about the author Washington
Cucurto. The writer of this note is a certain Santiago Vega, described in a foot-
note as "a cultural agitator who has been collecting the works of Washington
Cucurto" for years {La mquina 61). According to Vega, Cucurto was bom in
1942 in San Juan de la Maguana, a costal city in the Dominican Republic. He
moved to Buenos Aires at the beginning of the nineteen seventies and published
several collections of poems and a novel. Las miles de tramoyas de las truculen-
tas tragavergas, which inaugurated a new literary current: realismo atolondrado
or sloppy realism. The text imitates the erudite tone of the critical jargon while
establishing that Cucurto is a true Hispanic because his books are a real treasure
trove of popular slang from the interior of Argentina and the neighboring Peru
and Paraguay. He hails imitation and plagiarism as literary and cultural techniques
("Pern strived to be like Mussolini, Menem like Reagan, Cortzar like Michaux")
and questions the modemist desire for authenticity {La mquina 60). The only
original author, he exclaims ironically, is God. It is significant that in the late
seventies, the most atrocious years of the military dictatorship, this same Cucurto
abandons Argentina for Central America where he disappears without a trace. He
leaves some of his unedited collections to Vega, who has been working on them
ever since. The text also reveals that Cucurto occasionally uses the pseudonym
Humberto Anachuri (which, not surprisingly, appears as a name of a Paraguayan
character from the novel Cosa de negros).
Washington Cucurto is what postcolonial discourse would consider a subal-
tem subject. But, on the other hand, he complicates the subaltem epistemology
by simultaneously reaching towards the literary world and continuing to uphold
and live the values of his underprivileged community. Gayatri Spivak's famous
essay postulates that if the subaltem could speak and there was someone who
mattered and who could and would listen to him/her, then he/she would cease to
92 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27

be a subaltern. It presupposes belonging to a specific oppressed locality, which

in Cucurto's case would be Quilmes, in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It also
assumes a disadvantaged background: his father was a street vendor who sold
trinkets in the shanty towns of Fiorito and La Matanza while accompanied by his
sons. Most ofthe inhabitants and buyers were immigrants from Peru, Bolivia and
Uruguay. Cucurto never went to college but he did write poetry when he wasn't
stocking goods in a supermarket. According to his own words from a series of
interviews, he has a look that stands out when he is not in his own neighborhood,
andporteo cab drivers will pretend not to see him at night while middle- and up-
per-class ladies will avoid his gaze at any cost and only acknowledge his existence
by holding on to their purses more tightly. He started writing and making his
words known while still working in the supermarket and doing odd jobs. Maybe
Cucurto, both the character and the person who chose this pseudonym, cannot
speak as an authentic subaltern and maybe he is not completely self-transparent,
but he surely makes himself heard not only among the verbose, educated elite,
but also among those subalterns who will never speak or be heard.
Washington Cucurto tries to demystify the literary process and particularly
the desire to produce a great novel or a perfect poem. For him, those are all
inventions of highbrow culture: "Art should liberate and not make one suffer,"
he contends, in an interview with Silvina Friera, and continues, "[i]t is enough
to suffer through work, why should one have to suffer through art?" ("Cuando
voy por la calle"). It seems that Marx's idea ofthe possibility of a type of work
that is not alienated or alienating does not enter the sphere of possibilities for
the very strongly opinionated Cucurto. In his interview with Eva Rodriguez, he
asks, again rhetorically: "Nuestro ejemplo de formalidad y seriedad ms grande
es Borges y a dnde llegamos?" ("Yo prefiero escribir"), and states that he does
not aspire to write a literary masterpiece nor does he consider this a constructive
use of his time. Accordingly, literature is supposed to be light, fun and liberating
("El sofocador de la cumbia"). "One should not think about posterity...Why
would anyone do that if we are not going to exist?" asks Cucurto without really
expecting an answer. He also constantly contradicts himself, but in this he is not
different from other paradigmatic Argentine writers such as Borges. He declares:
"Soy el punto de partida de una literatura que se escribir maana, cuando los
hijos de los inmigrantes, esos dominicanitos o peruanitos que hoy tienen dos o
tres aos, tomen la palabra, cuando empiecen a escribir" ("Yo prefiero escribir").
Although not specified by Cucurto, one can imagine that some of those immi-
grant children that he is envisioning as producers of Argentina's literary fiiture
are actually the ones that the publishing project Elosa Cartonera employs to cut
recycled cardboard to the size of book covers and hand write or trace the names
ofthe contemporary authors on every single copy. Thus, he is quite conscious of
posterity, but a different kind of posterity than the one that Argentine literature
traditionally aspired to. "Esa ser la literatura argentina de maana, esa que todavia
no podemos ni soar. Yo me pregunto qu lugar tendrn Borges o Saer en esa
Ksenija Bilbija 93

literatura 'no literatura'. Gritero, puro gritero de una raza que toma la palabra"
("Yo prefiero escribir"). It seems that Jos Mart's 1893 call for racial integration
expressed in his famous essay "Mi raza" has found a more defiant, determinate
and vociferous expression in Cucurto's twenty-first century denouncement ofthe
abuse and exploitation of an underprivileged population.
In more literary terms, Cucurto is also talking about the disappearance of
master narratives advocated by the postmodem tum in cultural studies. The tran-
sitory and perishable nature of literature is characterized by micro narratives and
capillary social movements, according to Lyotard in his book The Postmodern
Condition. Just like the cardboard on which he prints his editions through the
Elosa Cartonera publishing house, literature is seen as a disposable and reusable
material that is not meant to last and etemalize its author or his words. Cucurto
questions the high modemist preoccupation with the tragedies of humanity since
for him and for his audience they are part of everyday life. Instead, literature is
imagined as a temporary relief from suffering for the subaltem, or, if one is to be
more precise, as a fieeting instant of pleasure in a sea of suffering.
Equally interesting is Cucurto's approach to the dissemination of literature.
It questions Westem concepts of modemization and rationality while at the same
time it uses technology to fiirther the building of a subaltem reading community.
For example, his 2005 project, called Hasta quitarle Panam a los Yanquis, was
based on the following premise: beginning with the first Friday of January, every
week by 7 PM and before going to dance cumbia at the dance halls Samber and
Bronco, Cucurto would post an installment of his bombastically entitled novel
Hasta quitarle Panam a los Yanquis on the Elosa Cartonera website. Readers
with access to the Intemet would have enough time to read the text, get ready to
dance and at midnight meet the author who would personally wait for his admir-
ers at the disco Mbarete Bronco.
It seems that Cucurto believes it is his civic and writerly duty to have a direct
relationship with his present and future readers. The concept of reading pleasure,
dancing euphoria, plus meeting the author at midnight intends to cut the publish-
ing industry out ofthe writer-reader sequence.
In order to further problematize Cucurto's reader response paradigm, I will
analyze his narrative techniques and strategies. Virtually all his texts invoke the
same kind of reader, one that is offered a proverbial equality with the writer:
"Cmo me gustara estar en sus cabecitas mientras van garabateando en la ma-
teria gris las cosas que les cuento! Es como si yo entrara en ustedes y de repente,
ustedes entraran tambin en mi vida. La lectura es una travesura cmplice, esta
pgina es el nacimiento de una hermandad de ustedes conmigo y con ellos y ojal
con el mundo!" says the panoptical narrator of "El hombre de casco azul," guid-
ing the reader immediately after this exclamation through a series of graphically
described sexual encounters. The universal brotherhood invoked by the narra-
tor is reminiscent of Benedict Anderson's definition of nationalism, where the
bond between the national subjects is formed through the process of inhabiting
94 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27

coextensive imaginary locations while at the same time not knowing each other
personally. This seems to be in line with Cucurto's attempt to reconstruct the
Argentine nation from below after the economic collapse.
On another narrative occasion from Hasta quitarle Panam a los Yanquis, a
similarly engaging narrative voice underlines the presence of the author within
the protagonist "Y ahi voy yo, adentro de l." This time, the bond between the
narrating "I" and the reading "you" is done so that the reader, anticipating an
after hours encounter with the writer, can be assured ofthe transparency between
speech and writing. In addition, Cucurto here solidifies Barthes's postmodern
vision of a textual scriptor who only exists here and now during the process of
comrriunication. Later in the same text the female reader will be specifically
invoked: "Bueno, despus de este desbande plazolesco, patumzesco y dems
continuamos mis queridas lectoras, que ustedes tambin han de tener algo tickesco
adentro, no me digan que no. Miren, les guio el ojo y queda entre nosotros."
She is guaranteed here that she will get the same kind of attention as the desired
women from the text, later on when they meet at the proverbial midnight hour.
Similar to the poster announcement for Cucurto's newest novel, reading and sex
are the conflated participatory activities from which the writer doesn't want to
exclude himself.
Although this sexualized and somewhat orgiastic version of the reader-re-
sponse paradigm invokes the active reader who will achieve the final enlighten-
ment in the encounter with the real physicality behind the initial textual entice-
ment, it is actually the writer who desires to be desired. Just like any other writer
just like his imaginary rival Borges! Cucurto does not allow the reader to
have sovereignty over his own text even though he describes the reading process
as "travesura cmplice." In spite of the constant highlighting of the receiver's
prominent role, the reader remains passive and not complicit at all since his
imaginary relationship with a text is constantly constrained by various seductive
and silencing maneuvers ofthe narrator. Thus, Cucurto's attempt to subvert the
concept of textual ownership and posit the reader as another consciousness on
equal footing with the writer ultimately falls short.
While Cucurto's call for the reader to play an active role ultimately fails, he
should be commended for employing the dialects, jargons and a variety of diver-
sified types of social speech in his writing. M.M. Bakhtin, whose identity as a
writer was obscured just like Cucurto's by Medvedev, introduced the term
heteroglossia in order to describe in writing this notion of layers of different types
of speech. This allowance for "another's speech in another's language, serving
to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (Bakhtin 324) points to the
fact that Cucurto intends to violate the literary discourse and reject the dominance
of any one discursive mode of a particular and potentially dominant linguistic
community. Thus, the cacophony of marginalized voices represents a potentially
democratizing force although there is always a risk of it overwhelming the reader
and turning into meaningless white noise.
Ksenija Bilbija 95

Although the laws of heteroglossia govem Cucurto's literary discourse,

structure and plot tend to be rather monotonous and clich. His style of writing is
always the same in its exuberant verbosity: his protagonists could all be reduced
to an anti-hero who migrates from one text to another getting ready to go dancing,
drinking, having lots of sex with men and women, and who is occasionally named
Washington Cucurto. His plots are ridiculously similar and unimaginative to the
point where one could honestly ask: doesn't he have another story to tell? And yet,
Cucurto's writing has touched the nerve of the Argentine intellectuals ever since
the readers of the cultural supplement of the progressive and Left-Wing Argentine
daily Pgina 12 voted him a 'discovery of 2003' while his novel Cosa de negros
was selected as the best book of fiction for that year. He was also recognized
in the category of 'unfairly ignored'. In addition. The Guardian, Rolling Stone,
BBC World, and Financial Times all had articles about Washington Cucurto's in-
novative writing. Are we witnessing a new cultural configuration in Argentina?
And how is it related to the change in politics?
Cucurto's writing is transnational and cosmopolitan in the sense that it ab-
sorbs the language of those who belong by birth to other territories. The speech
pattems he accesses transcend the unwelcoming boundaries of the nation states
and go beyond the totalizing language. They belong to the marginalized of other
nations but also to those in search of a better life from the interior of Argentina.
One reviewer from Montevideo, Gustavo Escanlar, called his work "literatura
villera" as if this kind of writing is already a norm and as if there were others
writing about and from the slums, villas miseria. This doesn't seem to be the case
since the kind of writing that Cucurto is producing, the creation of language that
is hospitable to othemess, is quite unique at this point. The expressions Cucurto
uses are those of a language spoken by the most marginalized immigrants and the
suppressed voices that constitute the reality of the urban poor in greater Buenos
Aires. It is the speech of those who have neither economic nor political power.
Cucurto's mimetic orality is produced under the emblem o cumbia, a Colombian
dance style that has been called a Latin American hip-hop or rap. "Y t, dominicana
del demonio, que lo nico que / haces es dejarme chupado como un higo. / Pasas
las maanas escuchando salsa, / merengue, chachach. Qu tu Willie Chirino! /
Qu tu Jerry Rivera! Si yo fuera Willie / Chirino te dara salsa de patadas, un /
merengue de escupidas" {La Mquina de hacer Paraguayitos 15). Transnation-
alism is also evident in the plots of his fiction and in the character of his novel
Cosa de negros. Washington Cucurto, the star of cumbia, is from the Dominican
Republic while the audience to which he performs is Paraguayan thus long
segments of the text are in guaran in spite of the fact that the plot takes place
in Buenos Aires. Throughout his novels and short stories the language maintains
a conversational tone so that the reader never feels abandoned or forgotten by the
narrator. It combines casual street talk, often vulgar and rarely sensual cumbia
rhetoric, slang more common to Caribbean Spanish with onomatopoeic expres-
sions, original neologisms such as tickis,yotibenco, superyotis, chiris, to mention
96 Studies in Latin American Popuiar Culture 27

just a few. Thus, he fabricates a language that could be called Latin American,
like no other Spanish since the continent's independence came to be.
Cucurto's writing is not double voiced in the sense ofjuxtaposing the norma-
tive and the "other speech" like the writing of Manuel Puig, Cabrera Infante or
Vargas Llosa does. Everything is 'other.' There is no confrontation, there is no
prism that protects and distances the reader. One of the most prominent Argentine
cultural critics, Beatriz Sarlo, named this particular type of narrator appearing in
Cucurto's prose an "immersed narrator, indistinguishable from his characters"
(Sarlo 4). No one disciplines the language. Particularly not the writer who
declared to Ana Porma that he doesn't narrate, but barely tells the story, if he
recalls correctly. Cucurto seems to take special pride in the fact that he does not
labor over rewriting or disciplining his texts. He talks condescendingly about all
those 'highbrow culture' writers who endlessly work on correcting their sentences
and creating serious literature. "What's the point if, ultimately, it stays the same
or gets worse" ("Cuando voy por la calle"). A common thread in his interviews
is a dmystification of the process of writing and the insistence on saying that
he writes for fiin. What matters is the act of speaking and Cucurto is not just
someone who will occasionally lend his ear for the sake of the production of his
magnum opus, but a participant who will engage in it as part of his everyday life.
For Cucurto writing is just another form of amusement, not much different from
dancing, playing soccer or watching TV. Good books, according to him, are those
that are short and not boring. There is neither aesthetic nor ethical glorification
of the process of writing.
I have already established that although Cucurto's writing is dynamic in ap-
pearance, it is also linear and requires a fairly passive reader who is easily amused
by screaming cartoon-like characters and a sexual overload. This leads me to
another question related to the dynamics of speech and response: who are the
readers of Cucurto's writing? It seems that he opened up a horizon within which
communication boundaries shifted and Argentines from different social strata
felt the need to voice their predicament. On the one hand, he is recognized by the
educated and sophisticated readers of literary joumals and supplements. There
are numerous blogs on the Intemet discussing the effectiveness of his discursive
power, cultural legitimacy, agency, self-referentiality and modes of narration. A
great majority of them is electrified by the persistence of hyperbolic language of
excess in Cucurto's writing and by his iconoclastic irreverence regarding moral,
sexual, racial and political taboos. They welcome his colloquial orality, with its
frenetic musicality and equally exorbitant and incoherent plots. On the other hand,
there are also those who are not managing the postmodem jargon at all, and find
enormous pleasure in reading Cucurto's spontaneous and suggestive writing. A
case in point is a blog posting in which a self-described clerk without literary
sophistication declares that one of Cucurto's stories set in the supermarket Coto,
is "much more real" than what his sophisticated audience may take as a stretch
of the imagination. He states that Cucurto's writing moves, mobilizes and makes
Ksenija Bilbija 97

all readers lumpen, bourgeois or just plain consumers feel uncomfortable.

What remains unsaid, yet clearly present in blogs, is the hope that the discomfort
that Cucurto's writing produces will change the perception ofthe public sphere
consisting of class and ethnic otherness.
Sophisticated readers and reviewers from the cultural establishment have
treated Cucurto from a distance, as a cultural phenomenon, whose performance of
the subaltern identity subsumes his literary skills. On the other hand the complicit
lumpen-reader finds his writing moving and veiled in a promise of change a
welcome and long-overdue representation ofthe general drudgery ofthe life of
supermarket clerks.
Cucurto's literary mirror reflects locations and choreographies that were
previously either only described by those whose imagination could take them
there or that were simply nonexistent. Tango gave way to cumbia, conventillo to
yotibenco, the library to a disco club, Borges' pseudo-realism to Cucurto's sloppy
realism, leather-bound volumes to stapled photocopies bound in recycled card-
board, erudition to ignorance. When Carola Solari asked him when he had made
the decision to write about the proletariat, Cucurto replied that "It was sudden. I
realized that if I didn't talk about it, nobody else would and it would have been
lost" ("El sofocador de la cumbia"). He is determined to undo the exclusion of
the immigrant, the marginal and the urban poor in general as well as decentralizing
and subverting the cultural hegemony of Eurocentric aspects in Latin American
culture. And he accomplishes this through laughter and a camivalesque style, while
actively and consciously changing the public sphere in his communal publishing
project Elosa Cartonera.
In a 2004 interview by Pedro Pablo Guerrero for the Chilean newspaper El
Mercurio, Cucurto declared that in order to defy the Argentine obsession with
Europe he 'parodies the parody' and thus, he invented a character that enjoyed life
and laughed at everything. But, there is more to his project. Just as the author
Washington Cucurto does not pass up the chance to establish a parallel between
himself and Borges and then brush aside this nationally as well as internation-
ally canonized literary figure with some derogatory comment, the homonymous
character Washington Cucurto in his role of an innocent, free spirited and sexually
promiscuous joker, does not miss a chance to go against Borges' cult; for example,
in the first version of Cosa de negros, the virtual one published in installments,
he discovers the assumed dead Borges manipulating the world from some remote
place in Paraguay. In the version published in print this part is substituted by an
ending in which the protagonist discovers the only legitimate daughter of Eva
Pern and has sex with her. One has to recall at this point Cucurto's muddying
ofthe authorial waters in his 2005 poetry collection La mquina de hacer para-
guayitos. In a pseudo-biographical text authored by Santiago Vega, he is mocking
the erudite critical discourse in general, and Borges' approach to writing fiction
in particular.
By setting up a doppelganger structure between Vega and Cucurto, the author
98 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27

vampirizes one of Borges' favorite strategies for complicating the relationship

between writing and reality and engages ironically with the concept of the role
ofthe writer in society. Borges is the perfect literary food for the subaltem vam-
pire in search of recognition and status in the post economic-collapse period of
Argentine culture. The parodie drawing of "old blood" from the elitist Anglo-
phile literary giant is the revenge of those who were excluded from his elaborate
pseudo-historical ycc/owe. The use of Borges is a marketing strategy enabling
him to overcome the anxiety of inuence associated with such a literary icon. At
the same time, the invocation of Borges provides new food for thought within
the current cultural establishment of Argentina. By "parodying the parody" he
successfully recycles Borgesian ambiguities regarding the scriptural origins of
history, giving them a different political direction. After all, one cannot forget that
Borges, who openly despised Pern's populism, did welcome the 1976 military
dictatorship as a gentleman's coup. Cucurto's appropriation of both the author
and his tropes allows him to simultaneously imagine himself as part ofthe literary
scene and its perennial outsider. In that sense his parody is historically specific
and socially conscious.
Cucurto's writing is not testimonial in the strict sense ofthe word although
his imagination is rooted in the immediate experience and reality of a subaltem
universe. He doesn't see himself as a martyr or idealist in any way. The moments of
political refiection are present and quite cmcial to his writing, but their function is
neither to directly agitate the oppressed nor to transform them into a revolutionary
force. For example, the title of his short story collection is quite explicit: Hasta
quitarle Panam a los Yanquis. In it, there are explicit moments of social criticism
such as this one in the story "Dos paraguayas," in which Cavallo's artificial parity
between the dollar and the peso is being denounced: "100 dlares man! Cunto
pueden vivir con ese dinero en sus paises de origen los paraguayos, peruanos y
dominicanos que llegaban sin parar al pais creyendo en la famosa Revolucin
Productiva que tena como arma principal la compra a crdito y el peso en igual-
dad con el dlar" {Hasta quitarle Panam a los Yanquis). The streetwise narrator
acts as a collective voice for those who have been hardest hit by the neo-liberal
policies of their govemments and the Big Brother in the North.
In "El barrio de las siervas" the same type of colloquial omniscient narrative
voice declares:

En estas calles abundan las mansiones de empresarios que se hicieron ricos

de la noche a la maana con las privatizaciones, la reforma laboral, la evasin
fiscal, o los contratos de las licitaciones de los mejores predios comerciales
de la ciudad. En manos del estado nada funciona, es el discurso del neolib-
eralismo, en manos privadas es explotacin sin control, sino miren hoy en
da las empresas telefnicas, los ferrocarriles, los subterrneos, la energa
elctrica, psimos servicios y los ms caros del mundo" {Hasta quitarle
Panam a los Yanquis).
Ksenija Bilbija

This inflammatory voice continues with the call to violent uprising, "Ja, ja, yo
tengo la solucin habra que quemarlos vivos, la misma plebe hambrienta tiene que
colgarlos, ajusticiarlos con mano propia, y llenar el Congreso con su sangre." It
looks like the only justice deserved by the newly rich and corrupt Latin American
is the one upheld by the law of the street, where blood is the only way to repair
age-old injustices ofthe continent.
However, the passionate and engaged voice soon gives way to another one,
in the first person, the voice that substitutes the call to arms with a call to de-
bauchery: "Soy incapaz de matar una mosca [...] yo miro el lado alegre de la
vida..." {Hasta quitarle Panam a los Yanquis). The narrator quickly replaces
the desire for revolutionary revenge with camivalesque sublimation, continuing
with his wanderings and sexual conquests along the streets ofthe Latin American
megalopolis. Eventually, the frenetic dancing cumbia style and partying long into
the night will purge the community from hopelessness and despair. There is no
superior truth to be revealed and there is no faith in a better tomorrow. What
kind of ideological agenda is being proposed against sociopolitical injustice and
towards the reconstruction ofthe subaltern identity? None, it seems, because social
injustice is perpetual and dying for any cause is not worth it. This ahistorically
based suspicion and hopelessness goes along with Cucurto's idea that the era of
big masterpieces of literature is over and that the only literature worth reading is,
as previously mentioned, the one that is short, light and fiin. The camivalesque
endings of most of Cucurto's texts are not sites of resistance, nor calls for rebellion
and dissolution ofthe existing order, or creations of a cohesive, just community.
The underlying idea is that any formal opposition is ineffectual and corrupt. In
his 2005 interview with Silvina Friera, Cucurto said: "Escribir un gran libro?
Para qu? La literatura no influye sobre la realidad ni puede cambiarla" ("Cuando
voy por la calle"). In a word, literature is not a centerpiece for hope. So, what is
one to do? Drink, dance, have sex and enjoy life as much as possible? Is there
a strategy for a change? A call for reform without a revolution?
And this brings me back to the year 1975, when Isabelita's govemment was
using the most barbaric means in order to remain in power, when Cucurto was only
two years old and when Emec published Borges' last collection of short stories.
Libro de arena. In the title story, a first-person narrator, uncannily resembling
the author ofthe story, retells an encounter with a foreign looking man who one
day appeared at his door selling Bibles. "Everything about him spoke of honest
poverty" (480), states the narrator, a former employee ofthe National Library,
himself a great connoisseur of sacred books and their multiple and rare editions.
The grayish foreigner offers to sell him a book whose spine was marked by the
words Holy Writ and Bombay. Upon leafing through its pages the protagonist
is stunned by the fact that they are discontinuous and that he can not find the
same page twice. Just like the other mystical and mythical objects from the vast
Borgesian tradition such as the Aleph, the library of Babel and the Zahir, this
one seems to be infinite, all encompassing and unmanageable in the hands of
100 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 2 7

a mortal. And so, the librarian buys the book and soon becomes obsessed with
figuring out its magic. However, the Book of Sand proves to be unconquerable
and in a moment of lucidity, Borges' protagonist decides to get rid of it by hiding
it on one of the basement shelves of the National Library in Buenos Aires. From
then on, he avoids even walking down Mexico Street where the library is. Such
was his fear of this book.
Some thirty years have passed since this imaginary book that Borges called
"impossible" was created and left to languish on the solemn shelves of the National
Library "in the shadows of the basement, where the maps and periodicals are kept"
(483). I like to imagine that this book is no longer hidden in a quiet library and
that instead it has found its way to readers quite different from Borges. I like to
imagine that it defies the logic of space, time, and late capitalism as well. I see
it with cardboard covers and stained pages, in the hands of a reader who listens
to cumbia and laughs her heart out.

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