It is not enough for this city to boast cavernous bookstores that stay open past midnight, broad avenues once roamed by literary giants like Jorge Luis Borges, cafés serving copious amounts of beef and red wine, or even a bizarre neo-Gothic skyscraper, the Palacio Barolo, inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
Now, writers have yet another reason to live here: pensions.
The city of Buenos Aires now gives pensions to published writers in a programme that attempts to strengthen the “vertebral column of society,” as drafters of the law described their goal. Since its enactment recently, more than 80 writers have been awarded pensions, which can reach almost $900 a month, supplementing often meager retirement income.
“The programme is magnificent, delivering some dignity to those of us who have toiled our entire life for literature,” said Alberto Laiseca, 71, one of the recipients, who has written more than a dozen books of horror fiction, including “The Garden of Talking Machines” and “The Adventures of Professor Eusebio Filigranati.”
The pensions reflect how Argentina has sought to bolster what is already one of the strongest literary traditions in the Spanish-speaking world. Borges, the acclaimed short-story writer and poet, easily comes to mind, but Argentina also boasts classics like “Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism,” a 19th century cornerstone of Latin American literature by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who went on to become Argentina’s president.
While European nations trim social benefits, Argentina has granted pensions in recent years to more than 2 million people who worked in the informal sector, in an effort to reduce inequality. Retirement benefits were also extended to Argentines living abroad, some of them outside the country for decades.
Under President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, social spending has soared in other areas, including cash transfers to poor families and programs like “Soccer for Everybody,” in which the government covers the broadcasting fees of soccer matches so people can watch for free. But as economic growth slows amid galloping inflation and a crackdown on access to hard currency, concern is growing that the buildup in social spending may not be sustainable.
Many writers here, as well as some legislators, insist that it is. The law in Buenos Aires, approved at the end of 2009, received the backing of various political parties, with a notable exception. The party of Mauricio Macri, a right-of-centre businessman who is mayor of Buenos Aires, abstained from the vote.
There are now plans to extend the literary pensions beyond Buenos Aires. Juan Carlos Junio, a lawmaker who supports Kirchner, revived a bill in July that would make pensions available to writers nationwide, potentially offering some financial stability to hundreds of older writers in the provinces.
Here in Buenos Aires, the requirements for obtaining the pension are fairly strict. A writer must be at least 60 years old and the author of at least five books released by known publishing houses, ruling out self-published writers. Authors of tomes on law, medicine or other technical matters need not apply, as the pensions are limited to writers of fiction, poetry, literary essays and plays.
In extraordinary cases in which an author has published fewer than five books, an evaluation committee, with its members drawn from organizations like the Argentine Writers Society and the literature department of the University of Buenos Aires, considers recognitions like literary prizes in determining the eligibility for a pension.
The pensions (aspiring English-speaking expatriate writers, take note) are open only to Argentines with at least 15 years of residency in the city of Buenos Aires; the works must be in Spanish or an indigenous language of Argentina. Each recipient's pension is calculated in accordance with assets and other income, with the aim of bringing the retirement income of writers in the range of the base salary of municipal civil servants.
“We prefer not to call it a pension, but rather a subsidy in recognition of literary activity,” said Graciela Araoz, a poet who is president of the Argentine Writers Society, which has more than 800 members. “In the end, this is about fortifying the pleasurable act of reading, which prevents us from turning into the equivalent of zombies.”
Still, zombie prevention is generally not a very profitable line of work. Precedents exist in Argentina for offering state support of writers, including subsidies at the provincial level, and a select few have been given sinecures, such as the directorship of the National Library offered to Borges in the 1950s. But the pensions are a welcome innovation, according to some recipients.
“The life of the older writer is subjected to the help of his children,” said Bernardo Kleiner, 84, a novelist and short-story writer. Before receiving the pension, he said, he had to rely on financial assistance from his two grown daughters and delay retirement by staying on the job as a psychiatrist. He saw patients well into his 70s.
“Before, there were cuts in pensions,” Kleiner said, referring to market-oriented reforms in the 1990s. “Now there are more rights for the worker.”
Despite a brighter future for some writers, not everyone here is sanguine about the future of the written word. Laiseca, the horror-fiction writer, said he was writing a new novel in longhand about the Vietnam War.
But while such an endeavor might hold value in Argentina, he said, he was aware that other societies saw things in a different light, referring to a study he read about teenagers in another country who said they were proud of not having read a single book.
“What an assault,” he said, “on the imagination.”