On a cold afternoon last month in Buenos Aires, in the middle of winter, Argentine workers gathered outside to “hug” the venerable National Library. They surrounded the iconic brutalist structure of one of the world’s most famous libraries, an institution at the heart of the fiery intellectual and cultural life of the country, and historically led by its greatest writers and thinkers – Jorge Luis Borges comes to mind. Today’s hug was a traditional show of union support for library workers who feared an upheaval of their ranks. They worried about mass layoffs after the deficit-focused federal government warned of widespread cuts to funding, but particularly after the surprise resignation of the library’s head.
Such displays aren’t uncommon for a country in the midst of an economic crisis. But for those who keep track of the endeavours of Canadians abroad, this particular demonstration marked an unceremonious end for one of this country’s brightest lights out in the world. Citing health reasons, Alberto Manguel, one of Canada’s most celebrated literary figures, had suddenly announced he would be stepping down from his native land’s most prestigious – and highly political – cultural appointment. He exited Aug. 1, his last official day.
At a news conference last month, Manguel (who declined requests from The Globe for further comment) emphasized his resignation was strictly personal. "My decision is exclusively medical, the doctor told me that I had to stop. This is not a farewell but a thank you. This experience was the most extraordinary of my life.”
What is of no surprise is that Manguel’s exit after two years at the helm would be debated just as closely as his arrival and the rest of his tenure. After all, the library was created in the aftermath of independence two centuries earlier, and how it’s run, and who is appointed to run it, is often viewed as a point of pride for ruling governments. Whichever way Argentina’s political winds are blowing, the library’s administration tails those gusts very closely.
In Canada, Manguel is an international darling of letters who made the country his home for two decades and became a citizen. He is known for such titles as A History of Reading and The Library at Night. Here, despite his laurels and his well-documented admiration for Borges and Borges’s work at the library, Manguel was viewed as an outsider on arrival. Not only was he an Argentine who had left ages ago, he was also the first library appointee of President Mauricio Macri’s neoliberal government, which had campaigned on cleaning up the economic excesses of the previous leftist administration that governed for more than a decade. Manguel had vowed to rise above the partisan fracas that usually coloured the role of library director. His supporters and critics would be able to point to his success and challenges. But what most can agree on is that his time at the library will be forever tied to the political and economic realities of Argentina he so steadfastly tried to transcend and, it seemed to some, avoid.
At the same news conference, alongside Manguel, Culture Minister Pablo Avelluto said that “we are very happy with the work he is doing with his team; we have had two brilliant years in this institution."
Those high-water marks include, in Avelluto’s estimation, the acquisition of 17,000 volumes that belonged to Adolfo Bioy Casares, friend and frequent collaborator of Borges, and Casares’s wife, the poet and short-story writer Silvina Ocampo; Microsoft’s donation of almost US$2-million in software and cloud services; collaborative agreements with other libraries around the world and the visits of international authors such as Margaret Atwood and the French historian Élisabeth Roudinesco. They were all achievements that were indicative of Manguel’s global stature, fully leveraged into his role as an ambassador and deal maker for Argentine literary culture.
Avelluto also said that “there is no intention of producing massive dismissals” at the library. Manguel added: “We understand the uncertainty, because this is an uncertain country, but I believe in the word of Pablo.”
For library workers, the tenor of the news conference proved markedly different from that of a recent meeting between Manguel and union leaders. Multiple union members confirmed to The Globe details of the meeting which were first reported in the newspaper Tiempo Argentino: in short, that Manguel said he would resign if the government decided to go on with dismissals at the library.
“He always spoke well of us as workers and at this point we saw him as an ally,” said Diego Martinez, a representative for the union board at the National Library, as he was preparing for the hug. But once Manguel announced he would resign due to health issues, many union members remained suspicious of his timing, so soon after news of further government austerity. "Then, we decided to act preventively,” Martinez said of the hug.
Manguel’s comments to union leaders about government influence at the library echoed his previous statements on the issue. “In Argentina, ever since the library was founded, the position of director of the library was seen as a political appointment, if not a political position,” he told The Globe’s Stephanie Nolen last year. “When I decided to accept, I accepted on condition that this would not be a political position.” Legally, the library “acts independently of any political decisions and I only answer directly to the Minister of Culture on the understanding that if I get any instruction that I don’t feel I can follow, I will resign.”
Controversy and skepticism have dogged Manguel since the beginning of his tenure, when 250 library workers were cut prior to his start date, which had already been delayed several months. Critics such as Valentina Viglieca, a workers representative attached to the culture ministry for the country’s largest public-sector union, had concerns about absences that stemmed from Manguel’s commitments abroad. She contends that they were also a way of disengaging himself from the layoffs. “He asked that if people had to be fired, the task should be done when he was not present," she said. "The same now, when he argues he has health reasons to leave when everything indicates that, again, he wants to detach himself from an eventual process of dismissals.” Manguel’s tenure ended with 870 people employed at the library, down from 1,048 when the current government took office in late 2015.
While Manguel’s boss was quick to point out his successes, those who worked under him can just as easily point to the challenges he faced as director. He "carried out a policy of adjustment in the community services the library provides,” Martinez said, such as the revamping of the Museum of Books and Language after staff cuts, the abandonment of public presentations in the library’s amphitheatre and the scaling back of book-related festivals.
Even those programs that survived, such as the library’s poetry courses and workshops, could not escape the effects of budget-tightening behind the scenes. “They are free and many people attend,” said one of the teachers, the writer and poet Eduardo Mileo. "But teachers are rotating because the salary paid to them has been frozen since the beginning of 2016 at 5,000 pesos a month.” (About $235. The minimum wage in Argentina is currently 10,000 pesos.)
The latest government cuts were announced earlier this year after a dramatic devaluation of the peso in May and an accelerated rate of inflation. It had been forecast at 15 per cent at the end of 2017 and is projected to exceed 30 per cent by the end of this year. To mitigate the blow, Macri recently closed a standby agreement for US$50-billion with the International Monetary Fund, an action which resulted in the need for drastic reductions of the national deficit.
In practice, Manguel was not immune to speaking on Argentine politics. Of the economic clawbacks and their effects on his work, he said “At the National Library we do not have a single peso to buy coffee,” during a talk at the Book Fair of Buenos Aires, where he also acknowledged the work of the library staff and said that, in many cases, they are paid “miserable wages.”
Officials at the Culture Ministry say the library’s budget for 2018 was set at 649-million pesos, compared with 400-million pesos a year during the previous administration; the 62-per-cent increase has not been enough to offset the alarming rate of inflation during Manguel’s time at the helm, at one point exceeding 40 per cent in 2016.
The writer Federico Andahazi, whose book The Anatomist was translated into English by Manguel, still believes his colleague to be the “perfect library director.”
“It is not mandatory that the director of the library must be a writer," he said, “But he does have to be a reader.”
Andahazi also noted that staffing and budget issues should not be attributed to Manguel, that he took charge “in a bad moment.” (Those problems now fall to Elsa Barber, Manguel’s deputy, who was announced as the new head.) He is a strong critic of previous director Horacio Gonzalez, who he says ran “a terrible administration” and “lacked suitability for that position.”
Andahazi believes Manguel was simply saddled with Gonzalez’s legacy: an overstaffed institution. And, he added, “no one likes to be an executioner."