In 1973 a small anthology was published in Argentina, its cover featuring the head—in kaleidoscopic quintuplicate—of a Victorian gentleman sporting a Vandyke beard. It was a collection of fantastic literature, a genre broadly defined as fiction that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, with a tendency toward metaphysical speculation, embraced with special fervor in Argentina in the mid-twentieth century.1 The anthology was edited by Alberto Manguel, a young bibliophile and writer who has gone on to edit many more volumes in the fifty years since. It is an eccentric object, with footnotes crawling up nearly every page and lengthy introductory sections preceding each story. The commentary is not just Manguel’s. Notes were solicited from each of the nine Argentine writers included, among them Borges (represented by the well-known story “The South”) and Julio Cortázar (with the equally well-known “House Taken Over”).

Included in this select company was Ángel Bonomini, a poet and art critic in his early forties who had just published his first story collection, Los novicios de Lerna (The Novices of Lerna). He is represented in Manguel’s anthology by the title story of that book, sandwiched between the contributions of Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares and taking up nearly as much space as the two of them together. (The story is almost a novella.) The placement is fitting, since nearly all the scanty critical appraisals of Bonomini over the last five decades begin by quoting a letter he received from Bioy Casares in 1972: “Borges came over [and] I proposed we read…‘The Novices of Lerna.’ We were dazzled.”

The same quote is printed on the back of Jordan Landsman’s translation of The Novices of Lerna, appearing now fifty-two years after its original publication in Spanish. Rediscovered writers, a motley group so labeled based solely on their checkered publication history, arrive with a veneer of dubious allure. Their very age is a mark of respectability, and chances are they’ve brushed coattails with the canonical writers of their own day. But doubts lurk: we wonder why they were forgotten in the first place and whether they’ve just been dug up in hopes that they’ll be celebrated by association or out of some scholarly zeal.

Bonomini, as it happens, had to wait longer for English translation than seven of the writers from Manguel’s anthology.2 (Bernardo Schiavetta, the only contributor who has never, to my knowledge, appeared in English, turned to poetry after his fiction debut.) Their various fates in English mark the tides of literary fortune and translation. Borges, Cortázar, and Bioy Casares are firmly ensconced in both Spanish and English. Three more of the anthology’s writers were fitfully introduced once, twice, or more in English but failed to stick: Manuel Mujica Laínez (Bomarzo and The Wandering Unicorn), Marco Denevi (Rosa at 10 O’Clock and two other volumes), and H.A. Murena (The Laws of the Night). Silvina Ocampo, the only woman in the anthology, arrived later in English, but interest in her work is still growing. A number of significant translations of Ocampo have appeared in the last fifteen years, including Daniel Balderston’s 2015 selected stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and Forgotten Journey (2019) and The Promise (2019), both translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, the former with Katie Lateef-Jan and the latter with Jessica Powell.3

In spirit, at least, Bonomini’s stories are timeless—deliberately and emphatically so. His own definition of fantastic literature was a narrative without particulars, essential acts unfolding in a featureless time and place. That sounds drab, but in fact his stories—even the darkest ones—have a distinct sweetness of tone, and a fair number are flower- and star-bedecked. He is the author of seven collections of short stories (six of them gathered in a single Spanish volume in 2017, Todos parecían soñar) and eight volumes of poetry. His second collection of poetry, Argumento del enamorado (Lover’s Story), was published in a single volume with Baladas con Ángel (Ballads with Ángel), an early effort by María Elena Walsh, his lover at the time, who later became a well-known children’s writer and singer-songwriter. It was a suitably romantic beginning for Bonomini.

He and Walsh were both contributors to Sur, the celebrated magazine founded by Silvina Ocampo’s sister Victoria that functioned as a meeting ground for European and Latin American writers. It was also a home for the writers who, clustering around Borges and Bioy Casares, made Argentina the capital of fantastic fiction. Bonomini dedicates his second collection of stories to Murena, another member of the Sur circle and a particular friend. (Murena later married his fellow Sur writer Sara Gallardo, recently rediscovered in English as well.) Though Bonomini’s contributions to Sur were restricted to poetry, the magazine and the community around it were important to him at the start of his career in the early 1950s, and the stories he began to publish twenty years later are indebted to writers like Murena, Borges, and Bioy Casares.


At the beginning of “The Novices of Lerna,” an undistinguished young man is invited to join an elite group. Ramón Beltra, a recent university graduate from Buenos Aires whose only professional accomplishment is an article published in his alumni magazine, is offered a six-month fellowship at the University of Lerna in Switzerland. The pay is good, the travel is free, and the only catch is that Beltra has to provide an exceedingly thorough physical profile of himself, including detailed measurements and many photographs. He accepts the offer, despite his scruples about his lack of qualifications and his suspicions about the bizarre application process.

On his way to Lerna he falls in love with Sandra, a flight attendant, and spends a thirty-eight-hour delay with her in Lisbon, carefully storing up memories in vague anticipation of trials to come. Those trials begin when he sees the person assigned to meet his train near Lerna. Though the man introduces himself as Gonçalves, an engineer from Portugal, his appearance and demeanor tell a different story. Beltra is struck dumb: “My own voice, my expressions, my face, were coming from another person and directed at the inanimate stone to which I had been converted.” Gonçalves informs him that they are not the only two look-alikes in Lerna: in fact, there are twenty-four fellows, all identical.

Once they arrive at Lerna, Beltra settles in and begins to get to know his doppelgängers, though “know” may not be the right word. Their conversations are superficial, rarely touching on the strange situation they find themselves in. The others are most interested in policing Beltra’s behavior, making sure he follows the rules they have agreed to. Among other things, they must wear matching blue jumpsuits, allow their hair to be cut once a month, and avoid introducing themselves—all presumably to make them as interchangeable as possible.

Beltra’s reaction to the rules is “an immediate feeling of offense, followed by a total lack of interest in the ‘project,’” though he continues to gather data, noting the circumference of the grounds (approximately two miles) and the circular arrangement of its buildings. Confronted with visions of himself at every turn, he is sometimes filled with hostility (“Seeing one’s own mouth smiling, one’s own eyes looking…I felt a wave of hatred”), other times with fascination (“I imagined we all formed part of a single being captured in each moment of a grotesque contortion”), and finally with affection (“If there was anything [the fellows] had in common (aside from their physical likeness), it was a transparent decency”).

One night at dinner Beltra notices that there seem to be fewer fellows than before. An announcement from the rector of Lerna reveals that one fellow has died and seven are seriously ill. This is alarming, but the rector’s main concern is that they refrain from speculating about which fellows have succumbed: “He claimed knowing the names meant nothing. That there was no such thing as friendship among the fellows. That knowing the names didn’t matter.” The fellows feel otherwise and protest, but they ultimately bow to the demands of the project and carry on stoically with the routines of Lerna. As more and more of them fall ill, Beltra finds himself increasingly preoccupied with solitude rather than solidarity.

Fantastic literature can seem to spring from an overheated fascination with logic and rationalism. In some cases this produces stories that tick like clockwork and spit out clever plot twists; in others, stories that dare the reader to reach for solutions and then drift beyond the grasp of reason. Bonomini experiments with both modes, but his most characteristic stories fit firmly in the latter category. “The Novices of Lerna” gestures in many directions: psychological, political, spiritual. Bonomini himself, in a rather startling footnote at the end of the story in the Manguel edition, opts for a religious reading, earnestly invoking man’s responsibility to answer for himself before God. But what impresses the reader most—and what crops up again in Bonomini’s later, more mature work—is the image of the self as a fickle, mutable thing.

Next to “The Novices of Lerna,” the other stories in Manguel’s 1973 anthology feel crabbed and dark. Bonomini’s imagination has a watercolor lightness that sets him apart from his contemporaries. It’s as much a moral element as an aesthetic one. He is fascinated by characters whose innate goodness wins out despite themselves. (In a delightful story from a later collection, the protagonist is allowed to choose between heaven and hell; his choice of hell involuntarily propels him into heaven.) They tend to be mild-mannered, too; their greatest sin is more likely to be petulance than belligerence or aggression. And they wander landscapes that are by turns airily abstract and cozy: Beltra walks under “ghostly pale blue trees” in the woods around Lerna and retreats to his comfortable quarters, where he can sit by the fireplace and listen to music with a bottle of wine.


“Novices” has retained its freshness over the years, but the same isn’t true for all the stories in The Novices of Lerna. The collection overall is hit or miss, a work of apprenticeship in which the writer tries on any number of styles. A few stories are transparently Borgesian (“The Report,” “The Last One,” and “Index Card”); “The Model,” with its elaborate setup and gothic love affair, is reminiscent of Bioy Casares. Like other practitioners of fantastic fiction, Bonomini experiments with genres (detective fiction, Victorian horror, gaucho tales). He tries more high-concept modes, too. One story, “The Singer,” consists of a single unpunctuated sentence. An effortful entry titled “The Bengal Tiger” free-associates floridly: “A woman is dancing and a scream is heard. A woman is cleaning and a tiger appears. A woman is screaming because a tiger appears. A tiger is walking and a woman appears.” These stories are outliers, but the leaps of logic in “The Bengal Tiger” do prefigure a more modest penchant for startling juxtapositions. Bonomini writes simply, for the most part, in a prosaic, droll tone, sowing his stories with elliptical insights that range from the suggestive to the hermetic. Landsman’s translation is smart and agile, and the plainness of his language matches Bonomini’s, though I sometimes found myself wanting him to accentuate the cadences of the prose to play up its gracefulness.

In subsequent collections Bonomini leans into his mystical inclinations, and the stories become increasingly stripped-down, luminous, and philosophical. The stories of his second collection, Libro de los casos (Book of Cases, 1975), are very short, often only a page or two long, and those of the following volume, Los lentos elefantes de Milán (The Slow Elephants of Milan, 1978), are much longer and more discursive, but they share a coherent, idiosyncratic vision built around themes of time, memory, art, chaste eroticism, modesty, goodness, and the divine. The charming “Theories” in The Novices of Lerna gives a preview of the conceptually elegant and quirkily humane tales from Libro de los casos. A boy can’t stop coming up with theories (about cats, a patch of dirt, the word “temptation”). He describes his theories to his cousin Jacinta, who pretends to be uninterested but clearly takes them seriously. The two children share a room and an intense connection, like other pairs of friends or relatives in Bonomini’s stories, and by the end it isn’t clear from which of their minds the theories truly spring.

In “Enemies” and “The Martyr,” two other stories in The Novices of Lerna, the protagonists are entranced by muse-like women. The narrator of “Enemies” is dazzled by the nudity of a woman whose name he can barely remember (he thinks it’s Vailda): “Vailda is more naked than any other being I’ve ever seen without clothes on. More naked than an animal.” On a starry night they wrap themselves in sheets like Roman statuary and strike poses around the narrator’s apartment; the story ends dramatically when Vailda offers him a loaded revolver, apparently in order for him to shoot her or himself or both, and he empties it instead into the sea from his balcony. “The Martyr” is set on another starry night in another apartment high above the city, where the narrator reflects on a past lover. Like Vailda, Malena is a commanding presence, and the narrator summons her up almost desperately to fill the emptiness he feels around him. “You dove into her like the sea,” he thinks.

The logic of these stories prefigures the more extended, leisurely tales of Los lentos elefantes de Milán, whose contours dissolve into dreamy, suggestive washes. In the meandering, memorable “Hay que ir a Laar” (You Must Go to Laar), the protagonist and his lover, Laura, wander through a forest and are directed to the city of Laar. They venture into an inn and sit at the bar, where they are surrounded by siren-like women, at first dressed and then naked. Intoxicated and confused, the narrator tries to behave naturally, engaging them in a surreal conversation that eventually leads him to a bridge out of Laar—though maybe also into the heart of it, and deeper into his love for Laura (whose name is a near homonym of Laar): “Where is Laar, do you know? I heard the voice of one of [the women] behind me, and she replied: It depends. Have you crossed the bridge?”

Los lentos elefantes de Milán includes some of Bonomini’s most autobiographical stories. In “Diario de mis retratos” (Diary of My Portraits), the narrator describes being painted and drawn by his partner, Moira, while a bird makes periodic visits to her studio. Bonomini’s second wife was the visual artist Vechy Logioio, and her paintings accompany Bonomini’s stories in a later volume, Zodíaco (1981); they also collaborated on a number of hybrid books of poetry and art. Bonomini was born in Buenos Aires in 1929, and the city looms large in his imagination, but Italy—where he and Logioio often traveled—is also a recurring presence. The title story of Los lentos elefantes de Milán muses on memory and its mysterious ways. Like stories (and elephants on the streets of Milan), Bonomini suggests, memories appear unbidden and can’t be ignored: “It’s healthiest not to question the inevitable, like writing about seeing elephants; it’s best to simply respond to the need to tell.”

The curation of memory is one of Bonomini’s central preoccupations. “El viaje” (The Journey) addresses this directly and beautifully, with the main character progressing down a long, verdant passageway through scenes from a life: “Everyone has a garden. We’re always looking for some garden, conjuring it up, catching scent of it. For everyone it’s different, but always the same.” So sweet is memory in Bonomini’s imagination that characters are often visited by an overriding desire to retreat all the way back to nothingness. “Figs and Jasmines,” from The Novices of Lerna, begins with a nostalgic evocation of a bygone Buenos Aires (“It was the age of wisteria, of coleus, of pinstripe pants and thick denim, the age of white berets and red berets”) and turns into a cautionary tale about the allure of death. Even Beltra, though he fears suffering the fate of his fellow novices, listens obsessively to a lover singing “of his wish to be left alone to die.” (The song is identified by Bonomini in a footnote in the Manguel edition as Monteverdi’s “Lasciatemi morire.”) The voices of five singers merge into one, “as if they were different layers of the same being, representing all human possibilities, and ending up integrated into a solitary lament.”

It is possible to read all of Bonomini’s stories as disappearing acts. Sometimes the vanishing is blissful and other times it’s painful, but it comes to seem an almost biological function for his characters. “By the Word,” one of the darkest and most enigmatic stories in The Novices of Lerna, appears to be about a man engulfed by his own heart, fending off its encroaching vessel-like branches by speaking “only…the words that formed the base of his memory…. He said the words ‘horse,’ ‘caress,’ ‘water,’ ‘friend,’ ‘ocean,’ ‘wine,’ ‘early,’ and ‘silence,’ because they were words he loved.” More often characters vanish into each other. In a lovely later story, “Autorretratos” (Self-Portraits), two artists—rivals and the best of friends, each drawing inspiration from the other’s work—paint each other and pass off the portraits as self-portraits. The story becomes a reflection on the slipperiness of artistic legacy and the collective nature of creation itself. “I don’t even know whether I was entirely the author of my own paintings,” the narrator remarks in the end.

In the 1970s Bonomini found his place among the fantastic writers of his day, if only for a moment. (He is scarcely better known now in Spanish than in English.) Today he appears among his contemporaries who are still in print, as well as their successors in the realm of the fantastic (Mario Levrero, César Aira, Samanta Schweblin) and at least one precursor only now being read in English (Juan Emar). To get a fair hearing, he would ideally be read in his entirety, or at least in a broader selection—I vote for a translation of Los lentos elefantes de Milán, which brings an intimate new dimension to the familiar canon of the fantastic—but his future in English is uncertain. Will he suffer the same fate as his friend H.A. Murena? Will he get a second or third chance, like his anthology-mate Marco Denevi? It could almost be a story by Bonomini, maybe even a companion piece to “The Novices of Lerna,” with an Agatha Christie–like plot and a metaphysical conundrum at its heart: nine writers are gathered in a room. Four walk out alive, one disappears, three slowly fade away, and one sits waiting as the clock ticks.