At Berkeley, circa 1980, renowned Argentine writer Julio Cortázar presented a series of eight talks. These classes were reproduced and translated by Katherine Silver and were published under the title “Literature Class” by New Directions in 2017. At some stage I may review that book itself, however I bring it up here as in his “First Class” Julio Cortázar said;
…the books published by someone like Jorge Luis Borges signified to me and my friends a kind of literary heaven, the greatest contemporary potential of our language, but at the same time I had become aware of other writers, only one of whom I will mention, a novelist named Roberto Arlt, who is much less well known than Borges because he died very young and his work is very difficult to translate and is circumscribed within the very closed world of Buenos Aires.
References to Roberto Arlt occur again and again throughout Julio Cortázar’s talks, and as my deeper literary reading is currently Leopoldo Marechal’s “Adam Buenosayres” (translated by Norman Cheadle), billed as the Argentine “Ulysses”, and a “primal Argentine novel” (“The Complete Review”) then I jumped at the chance to read Roberto Arlt.
“The Seven Madmen” is only one of two books by Roberto Arlt that have been translated into English, the other being “The Mad Toy” (translated by James Womack), this novel was translated by Nick Caistor, a translator I have come across many times, primarily through his work with Argentine Andrés Neuman and more recently his translation of Julián Ríos’ “The House of Ulysses”.
First published as “Los siete locos” in 1929, “The Seven Madmen” opens with Remo Erdosain, our anti-hero, protagonist, being called into his employer’s Director’s office and being accused of swindling six-hundred pesos and seven cents. He is given a few days to get the funds and pay them back, needless to say his job is lost. The work immediately launches into a tale of despair;
The name Erdosain gave to this mood of dreams and disquiet that led him to roam like a sleepwalker through the days was “the anguish zone”.
He imagined this zone floating above cities, about two metres in the air, and pictured it graphically like an area of salt flats or deserts that are shown on maps by tiny dots, as dense as herring roe.
This anguish zone was the product of mankind’s suffering. It slid from one place to the next like a cloud of poison gas, seeping through walls, passing straight through buildings, without ever losing its flat horizontal shape; a two-dimensional anguish that left an after-taste of tears in throats it sliced like a guillotine. (p6)
Written during a politically unstable period of Argentine history and released a year prior to the September 1930 pro-fascist military coup lead by general José Félix Uriburu, the instability and economic volatility is reflected throughout, with our protagonist moving between a hovel where he resides or walking along grand boulevards observing, or dreaming of the lives behind the walls. The threat of revolution is never far away;
Who is going to make the social revolution if it’s not the swindlers, the wretched, the murderers, the cheats, all the scum that suffer here below without the slightest sign of hope? Or do you reckon it’s the penpushers and the shopkeepers who are going to make the revolution? (p18)
A work that contains all the lowlifes of Buenos Aires, the pimps, the criminals, the crackpots, it is also a wandering tale of despair. Not only does Erdosain lose his job, his wife leaves him and he becomes embroiled in an elaborate plot to set up a secret society, funded by prostitution and based on lies. Through meeting a range of characters with names such as ‘The Astrologer’, and ‘The Thug’ Ersosain moves deeper and deeper into the mire.
A work that initially reminded me of the anguish of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” published in 1890 and then moving towards the despair and philosophical angst, confusion and bleakness of Dostoyevsky.
“On the face of it, I am a coward, Ergueta is a madman, the Thug is a miser, you a man obsessed. On the face of it, that’s what we are, but deep down inside, somewhere beneath our own awareness and conscious thoughts, there’s another life that’s far more powerful and vaster…so that if we put up with everything it’s because we believe that by hanging on, by doing so we’ll finally get at the truth…I mean, the truth about ourselves.” (p94)
However, the physical hopelessness is never far away, our protagonist slipping further and further into the mire;
Erdosain could not have been more rigid if someone had split his spine with an axe. His throat became as parched as if he had swallowed a mouthful of fire. His heart had almost ceased to beat, and a fog poured from his brain and out of his eyes. He was falling through silence and darkness, floating slowly down into the void while the paralysed block of his flesh only continued to exist in order to register still more deeply imprint of pain. He did not say a word, though he would have liked to burst out in sobs, to have knelt in front of someone, to get up at that very instant, get dressed, leave the house and go and sleep in some doorway, or on the outskirts of some unknown city. (p115)
Not an easy read, with hopelessness all around, a dark brooding tale where men and there motivations are reduced to base animal instincts, this is a work ahead of the literature of the times, in 1929, for example, Scotland Yard seized 13 paintings of male and female nudes by D. H. Lawrence on the grounds of indecency.
The political agitation, although pertinent to the times, also shows that not a lot has changed in world politics in the last 90 years…
“…I’ve no idea if the same happens in more civilized countries, but that’s the way it is here. In our congress and senate there are members accused of usury and murder, rogues in the pay of foreign companies – people of such crass ignorance that the parliamentary system here is the most grotesque farce ever to have sullied the life of a nation. The presidential elections are funded by United States capital, on the basis of promises to grant concessions to firms which want to exploit our national riches. I am not exaggerating when I say that in this country of ours, the contest between the political parties is no more than a squabble between salesmen vying to sell the nation to the highest bidder.” (pp 173-4)
A dark tale of the seedier elements of Argentina, the narrative implies numerous potential endings, especially through the ‘Commentator’ notes, where the writer explains things such as how he can be writing in the third person when only Erdosain is in the room. If you like neat tidy endings then this is probably a book to be avoided as there is a second volume, further exploring the story of the characters, called “The Flamethrowers” (yet to be translated into English). Roberto Arlt deserves wider recognition in the English-speaking world and as I further explore the works of Argentinian literature I will certainly read “The Mad Toy”, thanks Serpent’s Tail for publishing this fringe work and of course thanks to Julio Cortázar for pointing me in Roberto Arlt’s direction.
For readers of Latin American fiction the paperback edition of 2015 also includes an essay by Roberto Bolaño, ‘The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom’, translated by Natasha Wimmer, a short piece, however one that points to even more literary resources to hunt down.