A useful tool from within a writer’s box of tricks is to allow the emotion of a location or setting to spill over onto the page; even better, to transfer some of that emotion to a character and have them reflect their surroundings and react to the feelings that that place gives them. People, and therefore, characters, act differently according to their emotional state; they think differently, feel differently and speak differently. For example, if you want a character to feel down, depressed or simply show them low in spirits, it isn’t necessary to make something bad happen to them: try putting them in an atmosphere which can induce those feelings; it might help to make them think differently and ultimately act in a new or surprising way.
The potential that such a moment in time might have to change the way a character might feel and act occurred to me last week whilst enjoying a lunch in Buenos Aires.
La Biela is a popular and staunchly traditional cafetería in the well-healed area of the city called Recoleta. Home to designer labels, art galleries and the famous cemetery (famous mostly due to Eva Peròn’s ever-lasting presence) where former rich Porteños – as residents of Buenos Aires are known – lie in ornate family tombs, Recoleta remains a pleasant, if expensive, place to have lunch and while away the warmest hours of the day.
The cafetería is something of an institution, serving up an interesting mix of pastries for morning grazing (smeared with dulce de leche – thank you for that Argentina), snacks to nibble on with a refreshing cerveza, or more substantial meals – steak sandwiches, palm heart salads or plump, round omelettes – all of which may be enjoyed under a giant fig tree in the plaza outside (ten percent added for dining al fresco), or inside in the air conditioned, but slightly utilitarian dining room.
La Biela’s 10% extra terrace. (image: nytimes.com)
Having sat and contemplated my surroundings for a few minutes, I became aware of a general feeling of melancholy sweeping over me. It wasn’t instant; rather a gradual bleeding of pensiveness, seeping slowly from the buildings, dropping gently with the first curling leaves of late summer from the tree, oozing imperceptibly from the faces of the those around me.
Certainly the heat of the day played its part; but there was more. The waiters, always rather surly, certainly brusque, displayed a passive, world-weary acceptance of the run of things. These ageing professionals, waist-coated, aproned, go about their business as they no doubt have for decades; only now their smiles appear to be fading along with the grandeur of the art nouveau buildings around them.If they haven’t done it all, they have at least seen it all; people come, people go; good times come, just as certainly as good times go. Their faces bear the hallmarks of lives lived and love lost; it’s all served to the customer unknowingly as a side dish with his omelette and mixed salad.
Look beyond the confines of La Biela and its retinue of well-healed locals and dollar-rich tourists fresh from the cruise ships, and you catch a glimpse of a less fortunate city, a city down on its luck. A city which co-exists with its richer cousins. Frequently their paths cross.
The wealthy wander by, defiantly picking their way through pot-holed pavements, led by lapdogs on long leashes; or they sit at an adjacent cafe, idly tapping at laptops. Perhaps they are ordering lapdogs on their laptops. Channel-suited women clutch handbags with jewelled fingers; sharp-suited men clutch cigars with theirs, manicured to perfection. Meanwhile, unseen, lightening-quick fingers, snatch bags from shoulders, watches from wrists and dignity from the trusting. These are the desperate, the poor; the desperately poor. Feeding a habit? Perhaps. More likely a family.
There on the corner stands a lonely soul. He murmurs to passers by: “Change your dollars; best rates.” For this is also a city of markets: black market, blue market, free market in free fall. Money deals sealed with a whisper and a bunch of forged pesos.
A shoe-shine grabs at an already polished brogue: “No gracias!” Too late, he’s already started. “Five pesos for a clean windscreen señor?” “No gracias” “Too late; we already did it. Hand over the money.”
This might not be terminal, but, for the time being at least, the city’s in decline. And all played to the soundtrack of a lamenting accordion; its owner, a clown, squeezing what life is left in the dusty bellows.
Recoleta’s accordion-playing clown (in a lighter mood). (Image: tripadvisor.au)
Clowns, by their nature, are melancholy souls; tears dripping from mournful eyes. But Recoleta’s busking clown is a half-clown; half made up with a red nose and half a smear of face paint. And he plays with half an effort; the tune winding slowly from his instrument, catching on the afternoon breeze. It takes a moment to place it, like jazz muzak instrumentals which ruin forever a favourite song. ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina,’ he plays, ‘I kept my promise; don’t keep your distance.’
This clown, and his mournful accordion, personify more than anything else, Argentina’s current situation. The city’s Belle Époque heyday can be heard in those forlorn notes being squeezed out for a few pesos; but they are a mere echo of former times. Adiòs optimism and hola la tristeza. (Meanwhile the government, who, you might have thought had more pressing economic issues to deal with, threaten visiting cruise ships unless they lower their ensigns. Don’t make me laugh Argentina; the truth is, you’ve bigger problems.)
The city will survive; it has climbed higher mountains, and from deeper troughs. But for the time being it drugs its visitors with this melancholic air. Do they notice? Perhaps. Will it change them? It might. Will they act differently, make unexpected decisions because of it? Maybe. The point is, in writing terms, anything could happen. Drop a character in the midst of melancholy and who knows what they’ll do? It might, just might, change them forever, and with it, the course of your story.
If you find yourself wanting more in-depth information about Argentina’s current and historic economic fortunes (and I admit, this post is light on detail), you could do worse than read this piece from The Economist.
And here you can read about the recent cruise ship incident.