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Ask Your Newstand Guy

PUPPETS, RUBBER NOSES, AND THE LITERARY HEROES OF ARGENTINE TELEVISION

Ask Your Newstand Guy

Gustavo Turner
15 Snaps

The first time I became aware of Borges it wasn’t Borges at all, but a TV comic who had a show in Argentina in the early 1980s (where and when I grew up), a humorist whose main shtick was to impersonate the voices of well-known politicians and other entertainers while wearing loads of rubber prosthetics on his face. I’m not sure how effective the disguise was. Even at the time, it looked slightly crude, but this was a time before Argentine televisual craft had caught up with the developed world. Explosions, for example, were signified by a loud sound and a shower of confetti falling from the studio rafters. The man in charge of these primitive FX went by the pseudonym “Trentuno” and many people my age still remember the confetti explosions and their mastermind fondly.

The comedian/impersonator under the thick rubber noses, jowls, ears, etc., was named Mario Sapag. The surname and his own swarthy features pretty much ensured he would be known, as he was, as “El Turco Sapag,” “Sapag the Turk,” though this imprecise appellation could refer to any Argentine of swarthish and more or less Middle Eastern descent, including the children and grandchildren of Syrians, Lebanese, North Africans, Sephardic Jews of different lands, Persians, Druzes, Muslims, and even actual Turks. Mario Sapag was probably the best known “Turco” in Argentina in the early 1980s, though he would eventually relinquish that claim to Carlos Menem, who was elected president in 1989 and ruled until the end of the millennium. I’m pretty sure Sapag impersonated Menem on his TV show, and I think he used fewer prosthetics than usual.

One evening I was having dinner with my parents and we were watching Sapag’s show, Sapag’s Thousand and One, I believe it was called, referring to his multiple transformations and disguises and only very tangentially to The Arabian Nights, Arabs being also considered, no doubt to their dismay, Turcos. The commercial break ended and the camera showed a dimly lit studio, while the soundtrack played classical music, or maybe something by Piazzolla—for a gimmicky show such as Sapag’s, this atmosphere was unusually culturosa, the pejorative term used among my relatives and other members of the lower-middle classes to refer to anything smacking of highbrow pretension. The TV then showed a well-known radio and television announcer, Antonio Carrizo, who often interviewed people in similar bare sets. There were several shows like that around the same time—dark stages, progressive instrumental theme music, a sober announcer—which I guess would be best described here and now as “the Charlie Rose format.”

Carrizo was a kind of bridge figure—my grandma would say he was “un hombre muy culto,” but his cultivation was redeemed from being culturosa by his championing of tango on his daily AM radio show, La Vida y el Canto, (“Life and Song”). Thus, Carrizo could be trusted by the TV-watching masses, and his interviews could deliver to them figures like Borges or Piazzolla, who were much more respected—and often revered—by everybody than actually appreciated or understood.

This particular evening, however, Carrizo was not helming his own show but being a willing accomplice in one of Sapag’s skits. El hombre muy culto who also loved tango was interviewing not Borges but Mario Sapag, El Turco of the thousand and one disguises, sitting there in front of him under several pounds of latex affixed to his face to make him look like Borges, or, to be more precise, like Borges would have looked like if he had been one the puppets from the British show Spitting Image.

A few years later, young Argentines would learn about the Spitting Image puppets thanks to the video for Genesis’s “Land of Confusion”—their “political” single from the mid-1980s. The video showed puppets of world leaders—including Thatcher and Reagan,the reviled villains of the Falklands War still fresh in everyone’s memories—that looked to us uncannily like Mario Sapag’s characterizations. By the end of the decade, a local producer tried to rip off the Spitting Image formula, but the show ran into trouble after they decided to feature a John Paul II puppet, humorlessness predictably being among the many sins of the Argentine Catholic church.

So there was Sapag-as-Borges, the latex almost entirely covering those faraway eyes of the blind writer, el Homero criollo, the creole Homer, the Homer of the former Spanish colonies and the gaucho past, who adored all epics but could never complete anything longer than a poem or a short story. Sapag sat holding the cane with both hands resting on its top at the height of or maybe slightly below the prosthetic chin, a somehow ill-fitting suit crumpled around the elbows and underarms by the odd posture. What Sapag was replicating was the legendary pose Borges adopted in his TV interviews—the lost eyes, the cane as prop, the voice almost disembodied, almost like the undead Mr. Valdemar in Poe’s chilling story, speaking from a place beyond our time and our space, beyond the stranger-than-any-fiction reality of early 1980s Buenos Aires.

Around the time I sat watching Sapag and Carrizo’s simulacrum of a literary interview, I had become aware of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” not through any wise mentor giving me a Poe anthology to expand my horizons, but through Tales of Terror, Roger Corman’s schlocky and oddly compelling omnibus B movie from the early 1960s, with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre chewing up fake nineteenth-century sets in glorious Technicolor—color TV being in the early 1980s a recent gift of the outgoing military regime. Tales of Terror was shown on a TV slot called Viaje a lo Inesperado (“Voyage to the Unexpected”) which broadcast old horror movies—AIP and Hammer in particular—on Saturdays around midnight. I was one of very few people in my grade who was allowed to watch this morbid program, and we few formed a kind of priesthood which would convene those with more sensible parents on Monday morning and fill them in on what we had learned over the weekend about premature burials,vampires struck by lightning, and barely averted (and barely clad) sacrifices to devils or revived Egyptian gods. I thought of Vincent Price while watching Sapag speak as Borges from under his mask—as I learned later, the comedian had gotten the guttural monotone spot-on.

The impersonator also sounded very much like Price as the undead Mr. Valdemar, or, at least, like the anonymous voice-over professional who had dubbed Tales of Terror into Spanish for its Viaje a lo Inesperado broadcast. The famous posture and delivery had been perfected by Borges over the years as a kind of performance, a vatic show that denied that this man from the cultural antipodes was bound to his roots and land by much more than inconvenient historical accident. Sapag was doing Borges as Borges did Borges and even without knowing this at the time, I remember being puzzled by what this strange, humorless segment was doing in a comedy show.

One can only guess—most likely, the producers were humoring Sapag the cheesy voice performer by allowing him to exorcize his own demons of respectability through some kind of personal tribute to Borges. There were really no jokes involved—Carrizo asked his questions and Sapag answered with well-known Borgesian (or pseudo-Borgesian) aphorisms.The closest to “funny” was when Carrizo asked “Borges” some question about the current coach of the national soccer team (the relative merits of the outgoing coach versus the incoming being a matter of national debate at the time).Sapag-Borges not only denied knowing anything about soccer (an act as perverse for an Argentine male as burning his passport) but wondered why twenty-two grown men had to fight over the same ball.“Can’t they all go buy one for themselves?” was the punch line.The terrible joke, I’m pretty sure, was not Sapag’s but Borges’s.

*

A couple of years later I was watching a Saturday afternoon show called Badía and Company. Juan Alberto Badía was another AM radio and TV announcer who bridged highbrow and lowbrow culture. Badía was younger than Carrizo, and his saving grace for those suspicious of all things culturoso was not his love of tango but his passion for the Beatles. It was said (by my aunt and others who followed such things) that Badía had cried on the air when he had to announce that the Beatles had broken up. La Viuda de los Beatles, the Beatles’ Widow, they called him.

Badía had convinced two young literary critics to have a short weekly segment on his long show during which they talked about literature. They sat on the set in a corner that had been made to look like one of the many coffee shops where the local intelligentsia gathered to discuss Lacan,Althusser, and other matters of aesthetic, political, and psychoanalytical import. (Many people outside those circles became aware of the name Lacan at the time because a daily newspaper strip featured a geeky sidekick character who often wore a LACAN T-shirt.) That weekend, the two young writers had convinced Borges to come to Badía’s show to be interviewed by him. Borges’s presence was announced from the opening of the show to build up anticipation.This was one of Badía’s usual strategies to retain viewership until the evening—on a different week he had booked the American singer Johnny Rivers (of “Secret Agent Man” fame) to close the show and he was hyped for several hours as the equivalent of Elvis. By the end of the decade big international stars had become commonplace on Argentine stages and Badía actually spoke to Paul McCartney. The Widow did look like he was about to cry.

Borges showed up halfway through the show. He was very, very old and now sounded like Mr. Valdemar after a week of being undead. I had tracked down the Poe story by that time, in translation, through a collection that was sold on newsstands—a new kind of huge newsstand that had appeared around Buenos Aires and that sold books, fascicles of encyclopedias and how-to manuals, and even tapes and records. Cheap access to this material resulted in these stands competing with my TV set as my own kind of haphazard cultural mentor.

Borges himself had jumped on the book-in-news-stands wagon, guided by his increasingly visible companion, an Argentine woman of Japanese descent named María Kodama, who went with him everywhere as secretary and amanuensis, acting as de facto business and social manager for the blind writer.A commercial started showing on popular TV for something called “Biblioteca Personal Borges,” a weekly release of books ostensibly selected by the great author with short prologues written by him (“Ask your newsstand guy for Biblioteca Personal Borges!” said a hawking voice over shots of Borges—possibly with Kodama—strolling around a garden or public park). The launches of these series were publicized around the clock and many people tended to buy a few volumes before moving on to the next series being pushed (“Ask your newsstand guy for Clasicos del Psicoanálisis!”). I’ve seen many personal libraries in Buenos Aires with a solitary, often pristine copy of an early Borges installment,Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.

*

Borges died shortly after that Badía appearance. He died, like Nabokov, in Switzerland—his enormous contribution to world literature having afforded him the bull’s-eye of the restless colonial in spite of himself: the very Mittel of Mitteleuropa. It was announced in Argentina either a day before or the same day that his final act in this world had been to marry María Kodama, bequeathing her his estate. This was at the time a huge media scandal. Animosity against “La Japonesa” ran high, and the name of John Lennon’s second wife was disgracefully invoked. The most influential political talk show then, Tiempo Nuevo (“New Time”), immediately organized a panel of the literati to discuss the significance of Borges’s passing and his surprising deathbed marriage. A famous woman writer who had known Borges since the 1950s showed up drunk to the round table, and the tribute, broadcast live, quickly degenerated into a shouting match with her proclaiming the marriage was probably invalid because she knew for a fact that Borges had been impotent since his youth. I had to look up impotente in the dictionary.

That week, my high-school literature teacher cried in class and made us read one of Borges’s stories. I think it was “El Aleph,”but I’m not sure.It was the first time I had ever read anything by him, though those kids in my class from families who lived in more fashionable (though not ritzy) parts of the city, who went to the psychoanalyst, who knew people who had disappeared, who had well-lit apartments on high floors with walls covered with fascinating books, who subscribed to the left-wing newspaper, those kids talked about Borges’s story as if they had been reading his Obras Completas since kindergarten. Me, I was glad to finally be able to say that I had read Borges and I remember thinking that that story, the first of many ahead, was pretty good, almost as good as Poe.

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