The Scent of Buenos Aires

The Scent of Buenos Aires


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From one of Argentina's greatest contemporary storytellers, The Scent of Buenos Aires gathers twenty-five of Hebe Uhart's most remarkable and incandescent short stories in English for the first time.

The Scent of Buenos Aires offers the first book-length English translation of Uhart's work, drawing together her best vignettes of quotidian life: moments at the zoo, the hair salon, or a cacophonous homeowners association meeting. She writes in unconventional, understated syntax, constructing a delightfully specific perspective on life in South America. These stories are marked by sharp humor and wit: discreet and subtle, yet filled with eccentric and insightful characters. Uhart's narrators pose endearing questions about their lives and environments - one asks "Bees - do you know how industrious they are?" while another inquires, "Are we perhaps going to hell in a hand basket?"

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781939810342
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 484
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Born in 1936 in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Hebe Uhart is one of Argentina's most celebrated modern writers. She published two novels, Camilo asciende (1987) and Mudanzas (1995), but is better known for her short stories, where she explores the lives of ordinary characters in small Argentine towns. Her Collected Stories won the Buenos Aires Book Fair Prize (2010), and she received Argentina's National Endowment of the Arts Prize (2015) for her overall oeuvre, as well as the Manuel Rojas Ibero-American Narrative Prize (2017).
About the translator: Maureen Shaughnessy's translations from Spanish include works by Hebe Uhart, Nora Lange, Margarita García Robayo, and Luis Nuño. She has also translated Guadalupe Urbina's Maya folktales, as well as several Cañari legends. Shaughnessy's translations have been published by Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, The Brooklyn Rail, and Asymptote. She lives in Bariloche, Argentina.

Read an Excerpt


Guiding the Ivy

HERE I am arranging the plants so they don't overcrowd one another, pulling off dead leaves, and getting rid of ants. I enjoy watching how they grow with so little. They're sensible, they adapt to their pots. If the pots are small the plants seem to shrink. If they have more space, they grow bigger. They're different from people: some people — small-minded people — acquire a stature that masks their true nature, while others — generous and open-hearted — can be trampled and confused by the weight of life. This is what I think about as I water and transplant, this and the different personalities of each plant: I have one that can withstand the sun. It's tough, like a desert plant, it's secured only the green it needs to survive. Then there's a big ivy, pretty and inconsequential, it doesn't have the slightest claim to originality because it looks like any old ivy you could buy anywhere, with its iridescent green. But I have another plain green ivy that has gotten smaller. It seems to say: Iridescence is not for me. It grows so slowly, shaded and assured by its own restraint. This is the plant I love most. Every now and then I guide it. I sense where it wants to go and it senses where I want to guide it. Sometimes I call the iridescent ivy "stupid" because it forms into pointless arabesques. And the desert plant I respect for its hardiness, but sometimes I think it's ugly. It seems ugly when I see it through the eyes of others, when someone comes over for a visit. In general I like them all. For example, there's a species of small wild daisy known as the red bug flower. I don't know what makes it any different from a regular daisy. Sometimes I look at my garden as if it were someone else's and I discover two flaws: one, that few plants hang gracefully, with the right verdure and sinuous movements. My plants are motionless, stumpy, lodged in their pots. The second flaw is that I have a lot of small flowerpots, in different sizes, instead of large solid pots that are well made, well designed. It's because I keep putting off the task of lightening my load. And there's something dreadful about the idea of "lightening my load" or tidying up — at least when it comes to my plants. For as long as I can remember I've put off using the hatred one needs to survive, ignoring it in myself and in others. 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, whether a stone is precious or worthless. I associate (or I used to associate) hatred with choosing to be disrespectful, according to some intentions that no longer surprise me: the way I treat people (lots of people), grudges, the way people and situations seem to repeat themselves. In the end, replacing wonder with an inquisitive temperament has tainted me with hatred, too. But some things still amaze me. About four or five years ago I prayed to God (or to the gods) not to let me become drastic, scornful. I would say: Dear Lord, don't let me become like the mother in that play Las de Barranco — that woman's life was in a perpetual state of disaster. She poked her nose into everyone's business. She lived her life through them vicariously, to the extent that her real wishes were unclear; shrewdness was her only pleasure. Before I started turning into the Barranco mother I was horrified by that archetype, but once it was part of me I felt more comfortable: the comfort of letting go and forgetting when there's so much to remember that you don't want to look back. Nowadays, I think one thing in the morning and something else in the afternoon. My decisions last no longer than an hour and they're missing the sense of euphoria they used to have. Now I make decisions out of necessity, when there's no other option. That's why I rarely even value my thoughts and decisions. I used to love my thoughts; whatever I was thinking about was something I wanted to happen. Now I think about what I want first — but that gets mixed up with my obligations and I can't cry anymore. I have to forget all about what I want and what I have to do, otherwise I just end up in a state of limbo, feeling distressed: setbacks (it's easy to foresee how they'll pan out), or minor frustrations (prone to being analyzed and compensated for). I've discovered the hint of fabrication that goes into needs and obligations, but I respect them — period, without much commitment, because they organize life. If I do cry, it's most likely against my will. I have to distract myself from what I want and from my obligations. I allow only a few tears to well up. My feelings toward people have changed, too. What used to be hatred — sometimes for very elaborate ideological reasons — is now only a bellyache. Boredom now translates into a headache. I've lost the immediacy that makes it easy to interact with children and even though I know I could get it back with some quick games and a couple of funny faces, I don't want to because I envy everything they do: run, swim, play; they want so many things and ask for them endlessly. Lately, I've spent a great deal of time criticizing the manners of young people in Buenos Aires — with whomever, especially with taxi drivers. In general we agree: the kids here are unquestionably rude. But it's such a sad consensus that no conversations can develop from there.

I've now decided that the reason for the witch hunts was not because they flew through the air on broomsticks, or because of their covens. No, it was because they chopped up bones, they ground up brains. They also soaked pigs' ears and then used the brew to polish the floors. You never know, someone might slip and fall — which is an extremely ulterior motive the witches didn't give much importance to. That's how witches would kill three birds with one stone, and that was their power. Thoughts they reconstructed by mulling them over, boiling them up. And they manipulated time, too, to get the same product in different forms. For example, the cat: a witch has no ancestors, or husband or children. The cat represents all of these for her, she uses the cat to invalidate death. A witch works like the Jivaros to reconstruct an order of the halfalive. That's why she soaks, boils, and mixes perfumes with vile substances: it's to rescue them from oblivion. She reminds those people who want to forget about vile substances in the name of charm, aesthetics and the living. No, those women weren't punished because they could cover great distances; they were punished because they schemed to alter the immediacy of the feelings, decisions, and creatures upheld by life according to its own rules. And a witch does not recoil before the cross, as the legend goes, because the cross is an inanimate object. She recoils from the Easter lamb.

Now that I am a bit of a witch I can see my rude streak. I eat directly from the pot, I gobble up my food. Or I do the opposite: I go to a restaurant where everyone painstakingly chews each bite six times in the name of health and I get a kick out of chewing, as if we were horses. I've taken a fancy to old slippers. I toss too much water on the plants after mopping the balcony, so that mud splatters from the pots onto the clean tiles — I invalidate time, since I have to clean up again. I cook a lot, because I delight in the raw becoming cooked. And I entirely dismiss ecological arguments, if the planet self-destructs in two hundred years I'd like to rise from the grave to watch the show. I swap stories with my witchy friends and our conversations are limited to fleeting words, tales of our various obsessions. We keep an eye on each others' witchcraft, to perfect it. For example, learning to kill three birds with one stone — not necessarily to do bad things, but to beat time at least, to pick our battles wisely. Who would go around flogging a dead horse when a dead horse can't even take you for a ride?

But it wasn't always like this, it wasn't like this. Before I thought about letting go and killing two birds with one stone, I spent two years suffering like never before. One morning I sobbed in equal measure for two entirely different reasons.

I realized what happens to people who die and people who leave. They come back in our dreams and say: "I'm here, but I'm not here. I'm here but I'm leaving," and I say back: "Stay a little while longer," but they don't explain themselves. If they do stay, it's as if they were withdrawn, somewhere else, and they look at me like distant visitors. In that realm of oblivion where they've gone they have other professions and they've become someone else. And all the times we argued, all our conversations, all the meals and laughter we've shared — they all become part of that oblivion and I don't want to meet new people or see my friends.

Whenever I start talking with someone it's me who sends them to the realm of oblivion, before it's even their time to leave or die.

I wake up and sense that I'm alive. Morning breaks. My mind is blank; nothing to do, nothing to think about. I'm not about to stay in bed smoking with no ideas in my head. Suddenly, I'm overcome with extremely good intentions unrelated to anything in particular: I shower, comb my hair, put the kettle on. As I perk up for the day my good intentions surge. It's a day in March and the sunlight shines evenly; the little birds toil, they flit from here to there. I am going to work, too. I know what I'll do: I'm going to guide the ivy — but not with ordinary string. I'll use tomato twine. There she is, clinging to the wall. I remove dead leaves from the ivy and from everything else in sight. You could call it a dead-leaf-removing fit, but that expression isn't quite right because I'm so calm; still, I wouldn't dare stop until I've removed the very last ant, the very last sickly leaf. I pile all those small flowerpots to one side; they'll go to other homes, maybe with other plants. An airplane flies by high above and suddenly I'm filled with such immense joy and peace from performing this task that I work even more slowly, so as not to finish. I'd like someone to come find me like this, in the morning. But everyone else is absorbed in their own worlds — maybe they're suffering or complaining or coming down with the flu — it doesn't matter, it'll pass and at some point they'll experience their own moment of happiness like I'm feeling now. I'm so humbled and so satisfied at the same time that I could thank someone, although I don't know who it would be. I inspect my garden and I'm hungry, I deserve a peach. I turn on the radio and hear them talking about the troy ounce. I don't know what it is, nor do I care. Time to get a move on, beautiful life.


It Was the Cat's Fault

ON a block full of apartment buildings with glass doors, shiny mirrors, and foyers with red rugs and orange walls, there was an old house with the door painted purple and green. Of course, these weren't bright shades of purple and green; they were muted and well matched. To be sure, the red rugs and orange walls of the other buildings were lovely, but their appeal came from the price tag, the kind of beauty that anyone with money can buy. But the people who lived in that old house — with a paint job that was so bizarre and yet so pretty at the same time, and a sign over the door that said "Dance School" — those people were, well ... let's just say there was something about them. The "Dance School" sign showed a dancer who was all hair, as if her tresses had tumbled loose from so much dancing. Studied in detail she caught your eye, but way up high she'd been drowned out by all the neon lights and business signs, and nobody noticed her.

It was seven o'clock in the morning. In wide exercise pants, Doris, the director of the dance school, was sweeping the hallway herself. She'd had to fire the cleaning lady because she'd come to realize the lady had been a real idiot. That said, she'd once been pleasantly surprised by her: the students were practicing the lotus flower position when the cleaning lady, from the hallway, had contorted her body into the position better than anyone else. They'd all admired her. Doris had used the cleaning lady as an example for her students, pointing out how well she bent her knees.

She'd asked her to assume the position several times, praising her briefly. But overall, she decided that the cleaning lady was a real idiot — or, more specifically, she was self-serving.

Until Doris found a replacement, she'd just have to sweep the place herself. So there she was, sweeping, when her ex-husband walked in. The only reason her ex-husband would show up at that time of day was because he was drunk, drunk as a skunk. Her face and movements reflected how she felt about his presence. Her loud sweeping was not a good sign. Neither was the look on her face. She said to him curtly:

"I've got class at eight o'clock."

In a conciliatory tone of voice, stemming from fear, he said:

"Alright Doris, but can I stay? I'll go sleep in the room upstairs."

"You can stay in the kitchen," she said without looking at him.

She didn't have to meet his gaze to know what his eyes looked like. She knew he'd been out all night, wandering around aimlessly.

He headed to the kitchen, trying to walk a straight line, which lent a certain ease to his step. Doris was extremely annoyed. The practice barre still hadn't been mounted to the wall and that meant she would have to play the drum during the rhythm exercises. Playing the drum wore her out. It was a big heavy drum with a thick heavy stick, and today was the day the women with no sense of rhythm had class. But she vowed to get them dancing in time with the drum. They would start slow and then pick up the pace.

When they arrived, the drum beat faster and faster, louder and louder. From the kitchen, her ex-husband Agustín, who was drinking wine straight from the bottle, shouted:

"Tambour! Tambour!"

The students didn't notice because they didn't know he was there. But Doris, feeling mortified and infuriated, said:

"Just a moment, please."

She was as dignified as a queen. She walked to the kitchen and asked him: "Why didn't you go to sleep, you fool?

"But Doris, you told me ..."

"Get the hell out of here."

But as he got up to leave, she realized just how inebriated he was: the students were bound to notice when he staggered by the studio. So instead she said:

"Go on, go sleep upstairs if you want."

"No, no," he said. "If you're kicking me out, then I'll leave."

He'd been struck by an attack of pride and she couldn't persuade him otherwise. She changed her tone.

"Alright, I'm sorry. I'd like you to stay and get some sleep, okay?" "I can't. I'd love to stay but I have important responsibilities to take care of."

Doris was on the verge of losing it, but she told him:

"I know. I know you have important responsibilities, but you'll just have to take care of them later."

Agustín hesitated as he walked up to her room, saying:

"I should go get some things done."

But he was exhausted. She walked him upstairs and he laid down. Once she was back with her students she shut the studio doors tightly; then she played the drum louder than ever.

Her current husband was going to mount the practice barre for her students to use. He didn't live with her because the daily grind deteriorates marital relations. He came and went as he pleased. Now, as she anxiously waited for him to mount the barre, she strived to ensure the circumstances would be conducive to him working with tenacity and perseverance. What would be better — to kick Agustín out when he finished sleeping off his bender, or invite him to join the ... What to call it? The "work team." Even if he could barely hold on to a nail. Her husband and ex-husband were good friends, having similar aesthetics. In Sweden, for example, everyone works together. No one is self-serving. In fact, anyone who doesn't pitch in is reported to the police. It wasn't that her husband had an uncooperative spirit, he just had aesthetic reservations. He thought modern dance was incomprehensible, on a par with coin collecting.

When he arrived, he realized now wasn't the time to get into any of his theories. Almost without greeting, Doris asked him:

"Did you bring the hammer?"

"Unbelievable! Of course I brought the hammer. Who would try to nail something into the wall without a hammer?"

From one coat pocket he removed a hammer, and from the other, a bottle of wine.

"So," he said, "How do you want me to mount it? With nails, bolts ...?"

"What are bolts?" asked Doris with profound contempt and suspicion.

"You surprise me, teacher," said Miguel. And from his upper pocket he took out a bolt and showed it to her.

"No, not with that," she replied. "It's thick and ugly. They'll show, and I want the barre to be smooth."

"Now, c'mon. Who would be crazy enough to think they're going to show?" he said, pouring himself a glass of wine.

Just then, Agustín came down and brightened when he saw the wine and the company.


Excerpted from "The Scent of Buenos Aires"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Adriana Hidalgo editora.
Excerpted by permission of archipelago books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Guiding the Ivy, 7,
It Was The Cat's Fault, 15,
The Cake,
The Stories Told By Cecilia's Friends,
The Scent of Buenos Aires,
Tourists and Travelers,
Christmas Eve in the Park,
At the Hair Salon,
Possibly An Old Husband,
Angelina & Pipotto,
Human Beings Are Radically Alone,
Sunday Afternoon Visit,
Miss Irma,
The Boy Who Couldn't Fall Asleep,
The Wandering Dutchman,
Quitting Smoking,
Impressions of a School Principal,
New Times,
Luisa's Friend,
Bees Are Industrious,
I Don't Have Wings,
Paso del Rey,
Hello Kids,
The Old Man,
My New Love,
Events Organization,
Boy in a Boarding House,
Mister Ludo,
The Light of a New Day,
Homeowners Association Meeting,
The Uncle and the Niece,
The Piano Recital,
Just Another Day,
Nothing but Shadows,
Dear Mama,

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