5 Great Books Set in Argentina That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Argentina That We Love

Monday, 4 September, 2023

Argentina’s culture and natural beauty inspire adjectives like ‘dramatic,’ ‘passionate,’ and ‘breathtaking.’ And for good reason! There are the soaring peaks of the Andes mountains, the vast pampas populated with gauchos, fantastical waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanoes. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, the streets thrum with the rhythm of the tango and cafés buzz with conversation fueled by gourds of yerba maté.

These five novels make the most of Argentina’s history, landscape, and culture to tell compelling stories with characters who’ll stay with you long after you read the last page. Get lost in a spy novel with feelings, a noir thriller set in 1950 Buenos Aires, an eerie short story collection, a historical novel set in the world of tango, and a modern crime novel about the Buenos Aires elite.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Argentina: Tango to the End of the World.


Who Is Vera Kelly? - Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly?
> Rosalie Knecht

This gripping tale combines a gritty espionage story — rich with shifting alliances and trust issues — with a coming-of-age story about a young woman wrestling with her sexuality during the rocky 1960s.

The book opens with a bang. Our heroine Vera almost overdoses on tranquilizers, and in the aftermath, we meet her terribly unsympathetic mother. At once, we are on Vera’s side. This wry, intelligent, troubled young girl has got us.

In the next chapter, we follow Vera as she begins spy work in Buenos Aires. It’s 1966, and President Illia is in danger of losing his job to General Juan Carlos Ongania — in part because Ongania has tanks he’s not afraid to use. Historically, that bit is accurate. As we learn about Vera, we also learn about Argentina’s turbulent history.

We travel alongside Vera and learn more about her internal conflicts. She’s young, capable, and a lesbian trying to make sense of her life in the everything-is-changing era of the ’60s.

The two threads of the book — the reality-grounded spy story and Vera’s struggles to be herself (while hiding herself as an active spy) — interact with each other in glorious fashion. Author Rosalie Knecht does an excellent job of exploring the idea that being a closeted gay person with a horrible mother might be the perfect qualification for espionage. {more}

As Gerry had said, if things went bad, I could be killed. And yet, in the place where my fear should have been, there was a blank space. I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway. Back home, I had known that if I was arrested at a dyke bar I would lose my job, and if I lost my job I would end up in a flophouse or worse. I went out anyway, because living was a dry waste if I didn’t. When I started working for Gerry and made enough money to keep some in the bank, I knew that if Gerry found out I went with girls, I would be fired twice over—the CIA did not pay out to homosexuals, because they were too easy to compromise. — Rosalie Knecht


A Quiet Flame - Philip Kerr

A Quiet Flame
> Philip Kerr

This hard-boiled noir thriller is set in 1950 Buenos Aires with flashbacks to 1932 Berlin, and it stars one of the all-time great antiheroes: Bernie Gunther. He’s a decent man in dire circumstances. He falls in love with the wrong girl on the regular. And he does nothing to hide his contempt for Nazis, even when that POV puts him in mortal danger. As a police detective in Berlin, and later as a private eye, he has an exemplary close rate on his cases — and a long record of ticking off the wrong people.

The series spans the years leading up to WWII, the war, and the post-war period; no need to read them in order. In this installment, Bernie has been falsely identified as a war criminal, so he’s taking advantage of the open arms offered by Argentina. He’s off to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic.

Although he’s traveled under a false identity, it’s not long before the local police realize they have a star detective in their midst. Bernie is pressured into investigating two cases — a gruesome murder and a kidnapping — that seem to be connected to one of his unsolved files from Berlin in 1932.

In real life, Argentina was officially neutral during the war but kept close ties to Germany because its high population of German immigrants. After the war, President Juan Perón secretly set up what are called ‘ratlines’ to smuggle high-ranking Nazis out of Europe.

As Bernie investigates the new cases and revisits his memories of the old one, his suspect pool is a who’s who of Nazis in hiding. Terrible truths are revealed, justice is meted out, and Bernie carries on, although with new scars and a darker shade of jaded. {more}

Buenos Aires looked and smelled like any European capital city before the war. As we drove through the busy streets, I wound down the window and took a deep, euphoric breath of exhaust fumes, cigar smoke, coffee, expensive cologne, cooked meat, fresh fruit, flowers, and money. It was like returning to earth after a journey into space. Germany, with its rationing and war damage and guilt and Allied tribunals, seemed a million miles away. In Buenos Aires there was lots of traffic because there was lots of petrol. The carefree people were well dressed and well fed, because the shops were full of clothes and food. Far from being a remote backwater, Buenos Aires was almost a Belle Époque throwback. Almost. — Philip Kerr


Seven Empty Houses - Samanta Schweblin, Megan McDonell (translator)

Seven Empty Houses
> Samanta Schweblin, Megan McDonell

This collection of short stories is described as ‘literary horror.’ We’ll take it a step further and say, in the most complimentary way, this book could be the thesis for a Master’s degree in creepy.

You know that feeling when you’re drifting off to sleep, maybe thinking about your to-do list, then things get weird? Details are amplified. People start doing things they wouldn’t normally do. And before you know it, you’re jolted awake, thinking, ‘What was that?!’ This book is that experience on the page.

All of the stories begin as domestic tales about people who seem to be just on the other side of a breakdown — and then go to uncomfortable and rewarding places.

The most impactful story is ‘Breath from the Depths.’ It tells of an older woman named Lola who starts in a bad position and goes downhill from there:

The list was part of a plan: Lola suspected that her life had been too long, so simple and light that now it lacked the weight needed to disappear. After studying the experiences of some acquaintances, she had concluded that even in old age, death needed a final push. An emotional nudge, or a physical one. And she couldn’t give that to her body. She wanted to die, but every morning, inevitably, she woke up again.

As her story unfolds, she slowly spirals into dementia. She forgets things. She grows paranoid. She realizes something is wrong but can’t quite put her finger on it. Lola writes lists to help herself manage, but then is surprised by the list when she sees it again. Again, Schweblin draws the reader into the story, so we experience the unsettling stages of decline as Lola does. What’s real? What’s fabricated? When did we write that note? Is the kid next door conspiring with the husband?

This book might not be a ride that everyone will want to take. But this immersion into the lives of Argentinian women is a darkly compelling journey. {more}

My mother-in-law put up a Christmas tree over the fireplace. It’s a gas fireplace with artificial rocks, and she insists on bringing it along every time she moves to a new apartment. The Christmas tree is pint-sized, skinny, and a light, artificial green. It has round red ornaments, two gold garlands, and six Santa Claus figures dangling from the branches like a club of hanged men… the Santa Clauses’ eyes are not painted exactly over the ocular depressions where they should be. — Samanta Schweblin


The Gods of Tango: A Novel - Carolina De Robertis

The Gods of Tango
> Carolina De Robertis

In real life, there was a massive wave of immigration of Italian and Spanish immigrants to Argentina in the late 19th century.

In this book, it’s 1913. Our heroine Leda leaves her Italian village to join her husband in Buenos Aires. She’s just 17 years old with a small trunk and one family heirloom: her father’s violin. On the upside, she knows her husband. He’s a lifelong friend from the village. Their plan to escape their small, claustrophobic lives has come to fruition — a fresh start in the Americas awaits.

But when Leda arrives at the dock in Buenos Aires, she’s met by a stranger. Her husband Dante has been killed by the police at a labor protest. She makes her way to the conventillo, the tenement, that was supposed to be their home.

The conventillo could not be less like her Italian village. A warren of single rooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom, the conventillo buzzes with activity. Whole families live in a tiny room, and groups of bachelors — six or eight of them — share a single room, sleeping in shifts. Grateful to have a place to lay her head, but afraid, Leda has few options. She’s a widowed, single girl — still a teenager — with no family and no opportunities. Her only saving grace is that she loves music and has a natural gift for playing the violin. But women can’t play music. Frowned upon in private, it’s impossible in public.

Then Leda gets a diabolically good idea. She chops off her hair, binds her breasts, dresses in men’s clothing, and takes her husband’s name. Leda becomes Dante.

This story explores the whole arc of Leda-Dante’s life from immigrant girl to male musician, and it has everything: There are brawls and heartfelt conversations. Smokey bars and elegant dance halls filled with the sensuous sounds of the tango. Moments of genuine camaraderie among Dante’s found family and heart-breaking betrayal. {more}

He counted to four. And then it happened. Music. It surged out of string and finger in harsh communion, weeping from the terrible pleasure of the bow. Guitar strings shook and deepened the well of sorrow. Carlo sang. Something about the night clutching his heart, something about a woman… The sound ensnared her. It invaded her bones, urged her blood. She didn’t know herself; it now occurred to her that she knew nothing about the world, could not have known a thing when she didn’t know the world contained this sensation, such sound, such wakefulness, a melody as rich as night. — Carolina De Robertis


Betty Boo - Claudia Piñeiro, Miranda France (translator)

Betty Boo
> Claudia Piñeiro, Miranda France

Welcome to modern Buenos Aires and the posh gated community of La Maravillosa (aka, ‘The Wonderful). It’s a place for the rich to live outside the dirty fray of city life — until violence invades this privileged enclave.

The story opens on a Monday morning outside the security gates of La Maravillosa. A line of domestic workers — housekeepers, gardeners, plumbers, carpenters, electricians — snakes along the road, waiting to show their credentials and begin their work day. IDs are checked, bags are searched, an inventory of valuables is made to head-off accusations of theft at the end of the day. Nothing escapes the notice of the security guards.

So it’s doubly shocking when a housemaid reports to work and finds her employer sitting in his favorite chair, not with his morning coffee, but with a slit throat.

After this scene-setting start, the book delves into the who and why of the murder, but rather than following a detective through the evidence, we walk alongside three reporters associated with the El Tribuno newspaper: veteran Jaime Brena, newbie Crime Boy, and Nurit Iscar, also known as Betty Boo. A novelist-turned-ghost-writer, Betty Boo is also the former lover of El Tribuno’s editor.

Soon, she’s temporarily moved into La Maravillosa to live among the moneyed set and write color pieces for the newspaper — while Crime Boy handles the straight reporting. When Jaime, Crime Boy, and Betty Boo team up to investigate, what they find is much darker and more complicated than they ever suspected. {more}

Mondays are the days it takes the longest to get into the Maravillosa Country Club… Gladys Varela knows this all too well, and that’s why she’s swearing to herself as she stands facing the barrier, from which a sign reading ‘Personnel and Suppliers’ hangs, behind another fifteen or twenty people who are waiting, like her, to go in. She curses herself for not having charged up the electronic card that would grant her automatic entry. The problem is that the card expires every two months, and the times at which you can make an appointment to reactive it clash with the hours she works for Señor Chazarreta. And Señor Chazarreta isn’t a very nice man… he’s the reason she hasn’t yet dared to ask if she can leave early or have a break to go to the gatehouse and renew her entry card. Because of that way he looks at her. Or doesn’t look at her, because in actual fact, Señor Chazarreta rarely looks right at her, rarely looks her in the eye. He just generally looks, looks around, looks into the garden or looks at the bare wall. Always with a long, unsmiling face, as though he were cross about something. — Claudia Piñeiro

Top image courtesy of Ivo Antonie de Rooij/Shutterstock.

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