Walrus Books, a used bookstore in San Telmo. (Credit: Chelsea Lebron)
By: Chelsea Lebron
Argentina was once named the bookstore capital of the world. With 25 bookstores for every 100,000 inhabitants, it was hard to cross a street and not peek at the windows of book-spine candy shops, or locals reselling browned copies, or outdoor markets by subway stations. With broken Spanish I skimmed lines and logged titles to revisit, sweeping my thumb over paperback pages so that dust particles fed the air.
Buenos Aires was the first stop on my six-week trip through South America listening to ghost stories and tracking the divide between skeptic and believer. In between interviews with locals, I wandered the oldest barrio of San Telmo from Mercado de San Telmo to Puerto Madero and spoke to bystanders over provoletas. I wondered what it had been like when Jorge Luis Borges roamed, finding stories in street cracks and placing magical realism into el sur, or as he called it: the secret center of the city.
I spent my days this way, cradled by the home of writers like Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and Mariana Enriquez. I marveled at the painted ceiling of El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a bookstore within a renovated old theater, and was charmed by Walrus Books, a cozy English bookstore down the street. After browsing its attic, I spoke about my research with the store owner and although he claimed to be a rigid realist, he offered me the contact of a friend who could help. Under the glint of a glass mirror is where I bought a copy of House of Spirits, Isabel Allende’s novel about visits from ghosts and a girl who predicts an accidental death, to prepare for my trip to Santiago. I had traveled with the hope that visiting Argentina, Chile, and Peru would forge a connection to authors I had never met, and while at times it did, I found the connections I made with strangers to be what gave these cities their color.
The attic of Walrus Books, San Telmo. (Credit: Chelsea Lebron)
One of the first interviews I had was with Cecilia, a fifty-one-year-old woman who wrote in her free time and owned the house I was staying in, and Catalina who was twenty and studying to be a translator. It was the only interview where I saw two different generations of women sit side-by-side sharing their thoughts on ghosts. It was also the only one with both a witness and a non-believer.
Cecilia had been raised by a Catholic woman who believed in healing and had grown up on tales of teleportation. Through her, I saw the figure of a headless man at the doorway of her old apartment, the suspected ghost of the building’s original owner, and watched her hands squeeze her cheeks as she tried to remember. It’s more fun to believe that life has a lot of things we don’t know, she told me, I love the mysteries—the mystery part of life.
Catalina, on the other hand, was firm in her disbelief in specters. I wondered if this was a product of her youth. Newer generations were challenging the beliefs in spirits and the afterlife with which they were raised. I wondered if she had always felt this way, even as her mother told her to pray, even after experiencing loss.
Catalina (00:14:22): I feel like everyone at some point believed in ghosts, especially when you're a kid, because every kid is afraid of darkness mostly.
Catalina (00:14:39): But then when you grow up and you're like, okay, darkness is just darkness, and that's it.
I held Catalina’s words throughout the rest of my trip when I was warily treading foreign streets in Buenos Aires, being convinced my things were stolen by duendes in Santiago and receiving a magical bracelet from a stranger in Lima. I tried to remind myself that perhaps darkness is just darkness. But I would always think back to Cecelia’s headless landlord, the unexplained shadow of a dog seen by a local artist, and the spirit of a man’s unborn son visiting him in the jungles of Peru.
In the capital of stories for sale, I searched for the line between fiction and perception. I had experienced sites around the city that felt purposeful and creative and haunted, but had I read them right? When it came to interpretation, what was darkness and what was just darkness? As a writer, I wanted to believe there was truth in every story, even the most absurd, and as a reader, I wanted to believe that if I had ever enjoyed a story, it was probably because I could see it happening, somewhere, somehow.
At the end of our interview, the three of us spoke about my and Cecilia’s writing; her pieces surrounded her family and life. Catalina, someone who believed more in energies than hauntings, smiled as we breached literature and magical histories. Her favorite book, she said, was House of Spirits.
Chelsea Lebron (@clebronwrites) is a second-year MFA student and 2022 Alan Cheuse International Writers Center fellow who visited South America to research ghost stories and their relationship to religion, memory, and enculturation. Working on a ghost story of her own, her novel surrounds a bodega cashier who finds a ghost inside his head in the days following a natural disaster. She writes stories about Latino people, for Latino people, and they happen to be a little spooky.
A very inconspicuous photo of the inside of Walrus Books (and Chelsea) in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. (Credit: Chelsea Lebron)