Stories of people in faraway places

The Scent of Buenos Aires
By Hebe Uhart
477 pp. Archipelago Books. $24.

It struck me, at some point while reading this, how many incredible works of literature must go unread because the majority of people can’t read them. I’m talking, of course, about international literature, the vast majority of which never gets translated. 

Take the author of this collection of short stories, for example. Hebe Uhart is apparently rather well known inside her native Argentina where she’s been publishing books for decades. But I, for one, had never even heard of her. 

This is, if the write-up on my book jacket is to be believed, only the first collection of Uhart’s to be published in English. I’m not sure what inspired this daring publisher to take her work to a wider audience, perhaps it was Uhart’s death in 2018 — death does have a history of making a writer’s work more popular — but whatever the reason, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge the importance of the independent publishers who take chances on little-known works such as these. 

Archipelago, the publisher of this collection, relies heavily on art grants from the State of New York, where it’s based. That’s why funding for the arts is so important. It really does, as cheesy as it might sound, give voice to the voiceless and teach a wider audience about cultures many of us will never have the good fortune of experiencing first hand. 

But I suppose if you’re here, reading this, you don’t need to be convinced of that.

There are 38 stories in this collection and regular readers of short story collections will likely find them quite peculiar in that none of these stories are actually about anything. 

This will greatly impact your feelings for these stories. If you like your stories to be about something, in the sense that there is some shared moral or, at least, some basic semblance of plot, you should probably steer clear of this. This collection bears little resemblance to the sitcom “Seinfeld”, a personal favorite of mine, except that it, too, is about nothing.

But Uhart is a wonderful writer, and like every wonderful writer, she’s a keen and thoughtful observer of human behavior. Take your favorite writer, have them go down to the pub or the cafe on the corner to observe people for an afternoon, and then write about it. That’s essentially what these stories are — little slice-of-life moments peopled with compelling characters in inspired settings, written by a woman who really knows how to string a sentence together.

With that in mind, I’d be remiss if I failed to applaud the translator of these stories, Maureen Shaughnessy, who really does a fantastic job here. Translators are too often ignored for the hard, often thankless task of bringing great stories to the rest of us. I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t say for sure, but the Argentine parables and anecdotes that appear here feel perfectly rendered. 

No, this isn’t Nobel Prize winning stuff, it’s not speaking to serious moments in Argentine history like the military junta or the war over the Falkland/Malvinas islands, but it’s soothing in its honest depiction of ordinary people living ordinary lives. 

“The Scent of Buenos Aires” gets to the essence of good storytelling by allowing us to glimpse the lives of people living outside of our own. 

In a world increasingly divided, to the heightened stress of us all, I can’t think of anything lovelier than that.

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