By SIMON ROMERO
BUENOS AIRES — It is not enough for this city to boast cavernous bookstores that stay open past midnight, broad avenues once roamed by literary giants like Jorge Luis Borges, cafes serving copious amounts of beef and red wine, or even a bizarre neo-Gothic skyscraper, thePalacio Barolo, inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
Now, writers have yet another reason to live here: pensions.
The city of Buenos Aires now gives pensions to published writers in a program that attempts to strengthen the “vertebral column of society,” as drafters of the law described their goal. Since its enactment recently, more than 80 writers have been awarded pensions, which can reach almost $900 a month, supplementing often meager retirement income.
“The program is magnificent, delivering some dignity to those of us who have toiled our entire life for literature,” said Alberto Laiseca, 71, one of the recipients, who has written more than a dozen books of horror fiction, including “The Garden of Talking Machines” and “The Adventures of Professor Eusebio Filigranati.”
The pensions reflect how Argentina has sought to bolster what is already one of the strongest literary traditions in the Spanish-speaking world; Borges, the acclaimed short-story writer and poet, easily comes to mind, but Argentina also boasts classics like “Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism,” a 19th century cornerstone of Latin American literature by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who went on to become Argentina’s president.
Argentina produced an array of other renowned writers in the 20th century, like the novelists Ernesto Sábato and Roberto Arlt, and in recent years Buenos Aires has enjoyed a resurgent literary scene (of the 22 authors recently chosen by the magazine Granta as the best young novelists writing in Spanish, 8 are Argentine). In addition to the pensions, the city offers subsidies to independent publishers and tax exemptions on book purchases.
The literary pensions underscore how Argentina — despite the European feel of its capital city, which evokes parts of London, Paris and Budapest in its leafier districts — currently feels like an alternate reality on some pivotal matters. As some European nations debate austerity measures aimed at curbing large budget deficits and reining in expansive welfare states, Argentina is deepening its own.
While European nations trim social benefits, Argentina has granted pensions in recent years to more than two million people who worked in the informal sector, in an effort to reduce inequality. Retirement benefits were also extended to Argentines living abroad, some of them outside the country for decades.
Under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, social spending has soared in other areas, including cash transfers to poor families and programs like “Soccer for Everybody,” in which the government covers the broadcasting fees of soccer matches so people can watch for free. But as economic growth slows amid galloping inflation and a crackdown on access to hard currency, concern is growing that the buildup in social spending may not be sustainable.
Many writers here, as well as some legislators, insist that it is. The law in Buenos Aires, approved at the end of 2009, received the backing of various political parties, with a notable exception. The party of Mauricio Macri, a right-of-center businessman who is mayor of Buenos Aires, abstained from the vote.
There are now plans to extend the literary pensions beyond Buenos Aires. Juan Carlos Junio, a lawmaker who supports Mrs. Kirchner,revived a bill in July that would make pensions available to writers nationwide, potentially offering some financial stability to hundreds of older writers in the provinces.
“I’m very optimistic about the approval of our bill,” Mr. Junio said. “There’s a general recognition of the transcendent role that writers have had in forging our society.”
Here in Buenos Aires, the requirements for obtaining the pension are fairly strict. A writer must be at least 60 and the author of at least five books released by known publishing houses, ruling out self-published writers. Authors of tomes on law, medicine or other technical matters need not apply, as the pensions are limited to writers of fiction, poetry, literary essays and plays.
In extraordinary cases in which an author has published fewer than five books, an evaluation committee, with its members drawn from organizations like the Argentine Writers Society and the literature department of the University of Buenos Aires, considers recognitions like literary prizes in determining the eligibility for a pension.
The pensions (aspiring English-speaking expatriate writers, take note) are open only to Argentines with at least 15 years of residency in the city of Buenos Aires; the works must be in Spanish or an indigenous language of Argentina. Each recipient’s pension is calculated in accordance with assets and other income, with the aim of bringing the retirement income of writers over 60 in the range of the base salary of municipal civil servants.
“We prefer not to call it a pension, but rather a subsidy in recognition of literary activity,” said Graciela Aráoz, a poet who is president of the Argentine Writers Society, which has more than 800 members. “In the end, this is about fortifying the pleasurable act of reading, which prevents us from turning into the equivalent of zombies.”
Still, zombie prevention is generally not a very profitable line of work.
Precedents exist in Argentina for offering state support of writers, including subsidies at the provincial level, and a select few have been given sinecures, such as the directorship of the National Library offered to Borges in the 1950s. But the pensions are a welcome innovation, according to some recipients.
“The life of the older writer is subjected to the help of his children,” said Bernardo Kleiner, 84, a novelist and short-story writer. Before receiving the pension, he said, he had to rely on financial assistance from his two grown daughters and delay retirement by staying on the job as a psychiatrist. He saw patients well into his 70s.
“Before there were cuts in pensions,” Mr. Kleiner said, referring to market-oriented reforms in the 1990s. “Now there are more rights for the worker.”
Despite a brighter future for some writers, not everyone here is sanguine about the future of the written word. At his apartment in the neighborhood of Flores, between sips from a bottle of Heineken and drags on an Imparciales cigarette, Mr. Laiseca, the horror-fiction writer, said he was writing a new novel in longhand about the Vietnam War.
But while such an endeavor might hold value in Argentina, he said, he was aware that other societies saw things in a different light, referring to a study he read about teenagers in another country who said they were proud of not having read a single book.
“What an assault on the imagination,” he said.
Charles Newbery contributed reporting.