The woman in the bookstore in Rosario, Argentina, could tell I wasn’t a native. She asked me what I was doing in the city. I told her I was trying my luck as a freelance writer. Writing about what?
“About Argentine soccer leagues,” I told her.
“Ok. Fontanarrosa’s books are over there,” she said.
“Fontanarrosa’s. El Negro.”
She was surprised I had never heard of the man. You can call him, she told me. Why would I call him? “You’ll see,” she said, as she gave me El Negro’s phone number.
I had been traveling across Argentina for several months before happening upon Rosario, a city four hours away from Buenos Aires on bus, where the tourist traffic was so incidental that I was the sole guest at the town hostel the nights I stayed there. Though Rosario had been billed as one of the country’s loveliest cities, it was unappealing. Its river is dirty, and its prized flag museum grandiose. And yet, in the days I spent there, I became attached to the city—not because of anything it offered, but because, quite by accident, I found myself in a gratifying daily routine. I’d bicycle along the river, eat ice cream in the late afternoon, and go to the local dance hall at night. The theme at the hall would change (tango on Monday nights, salsa on Tuesdays, student bands on Wednesdays), but the crowd hardly did. During that stint in Rosario, I matured as a traveler. I learned how satisfying it is, in the middle of a long trip, to drop your pack in an unassuming place, commit to it, commit to routine and to not seeing much at all. But undoubtedly the memories of Rosario abide because of my having met El Negro.
I soon discovered that everyone in Argentina knew who El Negro was; he was a soccer journalist, novelist, short story writer, and, above all, the country’s comedian: a cartoonist famous for his “Inodoro Pereyra” comic strips about a gaucho, his talking dog, and his fat, petulant wife, Eulogia. He was also something of a local hero in Rosario, where he had grown up and had pledged his very public, very immoderate loyalty to a local soccer team. I was able to reach El Negro by telephone the day after meeting the woman in the bookstore, and he agreed to let me interview him several days later.
In anticipation of my meeting with El Negro, I bought a tape recorder. I had not done much interviewing before then. I spent a long time drafting questions. I remember my nervousness as the hour before our encounter approached; I found his house and sat outside for the remaining minutes testing and re-testing the recorder. And then I rang the bell; his wife, Gaby, ushered me in, and I found El Negro, bearded, sharp-eyed, gaunt… and immobile. For three years, he had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle weakness and eventually results in loss of control of voluntary muscle movements. Because of his illness, El Negro had finally been forced to stop drawing his own cartoons, and had now resorted to dictating his writings.
Our conversation began. He was excited to learn that I was originally from Colombia; he had just returned from the Hay Festival in Cartagena (a literature festival once described by Bill Clinton as a “Woodstock of the mind”) where he had received the annual grand award given to a Latin American author. As it is a prize ordinarily given to “serious” writers, Fontanarrosa’s selection had come as a surprise. The applause from the crowd of fellow writers lasted three minutes, and his recognition speech, “In Defense of Vulgar Words,” was emblematic. (“I want to take note of the word mierda [shit],” he said, “which is a word that is irreplaceable, whose secret is in the letter r, which the Cubans pronounce much more weakly… and there lies the fundamental problem with the Cuban Revolution, in that it is limited by its expressive possibilities…”) We talked about Cartagena, and about my travels in Argentina, for a bit. Then, I opened my notebook and began to scan through my list of questions that I wanted to ask him, and then—I closed the book and invited him to just tell me stories about soccer.
“Yyyyyyyyyyyy, que sé yo?” [What do I know?] he said, in that typical Argentine expression of feigned ignorance. And then without pause, the storytelling started. He talked about the rivalry between Buenos Aires’ two famous soccer franchises: Boca Juniors, long associated with the city’s poorest neighborhood, and River Plate, founded by wealthy Englishmen and linked to the city’s aristocracy. At La Bombonera, Boca’s home stadium, fans sing elaborate, profanity-laced chants about the murdering the “rich chickens” from River. At River Plate Stadium, River fans mock the “second-class” citizens that constitute Boca’s fan base by unveiling large banners that read “Welcome to Argentina.”
El Negro, however, is most famous for his allegiance to his home soccer team, Rosario Central. In Rosario, the most jingoistic city in an already proud country, hordes of townspeople gather in the local stadium every December 19 to commemorate and re-enact a legendary goal by Rosario Central that had occurred on that date more than thirty years ago. One of Fontanarrosa’s most celebrated fictional stories, titled “19 de diciembre de 1971,” is about the effort of young fans to force an old man to come to the stadium during the game, because the team had never lost with the old man present. He went on to describe the rivalry between Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys. In the 1920s, Newell’s offered to play Rosario Central in a no-stakes charity match in which the proceeds would benefit a local leprosy hospital. Rosario Central refused the offer and branded Newell’s fans “lepers,” as if sympathy for and contraction of the disease were indivisible. In exchange, Newell’s fans referred to Rosario’s as “canallas” (scoundrels). The names have endured. Men holler leproso and canalla at each other in the city’s streets, and a Rosario café is host to regular meetings of a secret, black-clad group named O.C.A.L. (Organización Canalla Anti-Leprosa).
The hour I spent listening to Fontanarrosa’s soccer stories is a treasured memory. At the end, we talked with Gaby, we exchanged e-mail addresses, and he prepared me for another upcoming interview, this time with Daniel Passarella, the River Plate coach. Afterwards, during the rest of my travels, one Argentine after another would tell me about their own fascination with El Negro. No one, it seems, could better articulate how Argentines see themselves than he could with his irreverent jabs. No one was funnier. (A man goes hunting for hares with Inodoro, the central character in Fontanarrosa’s comic strip. Inodoro cautions him that hares are guided by their sense of smell, so it’s necessary to coat oneself with cow manure to cover human scent. “But it’s disgusting,” says the hunter. Inodoro responds, “That’s why we cover it with cow manure.” “And you don’t wear any?” says the hunter. “Con uno alcanza,” replies Inodoro. [If one of us wears it, it’s enough.])
I watched a performance of Les Luthiers, an ingenious Buenos Aires-based comic troupe, for whom Fontanarrosa is a chief scriptwriter. In April 2006, the Argentine Senate honored him for his contribution to the country’s culture. When I returned to Argentina months later, this time during the 2006 World Cup, he was writing soccer-related humor articles for Clarín, Argentina’s largest newspaper, just as he had done in previous World Cups.
With the bewitching, salacious Hermana Rosa as his clairvoyant protagonist, the articles were rich in knowledge and passion for soccer, unfailingly droll, and sometimes, somehow, also profound. In one article, he claims to have found an epic poem, “Veintisiete toques y una flor” (twenty-seven touches and a flower), about Argentina’s sensational goal in the second game of the World Cup (he even gives us the final verses of this fictive poem).
El Negro’s health worsened. I had remained in touch with Gaby, who publishes a wedding magazine in Rosario, and when I called to wish them a happy new year in 2007, she sounded discouraged, even as she informed me that they were trying new treatments. But El Negro spoke of his disease as “este quilombo de mi salud” (this mess with my health), as if it were principally an aggravation. I didn’t know enough to gauge how well he was coping, but I do know the line every reader of Inodoro Pereyra knows. Each new storyline in the comic strip unfolds with a character asking Inodoro how he’s doing, to which Inodoro responds, “Mal, pero acostumbrau.” (“Bad, but used to it.”)
Roberto “El Negro” Fontanarrosa passed away in July 2007 from respiratory failure. He was 62.