José Hernández - a masterpiece of world literature. Those interested in the Martin Fierro as literature, as social protest, as anthropology, or as an example of the annihilation of a minority group--and its very identity--have joined in making it the most widely read, analyzed, and discussed literary work produced in Argentina.
José Hernández, The Gaucho Martin Fierro, Trans. by Catherine E. Ward, State University of New York Press, 1974.
Introduction by the translator
Martin Fierro the Gaucho
The Return of Martin Fierro
The Epic of the Gaucho (Americas Magazine, 1965)
This is a poem of protest drawn from the life of the gaucho, who was forced to yield his freedom and individuality to the social and material changes that invaded his beloved pampas--a protest which arose from years of abuse and neglect suffered from landowners, militarists, and the Argentine political establishment.
This poem, composed and first published more than a century ago, could have been written today by spokesmen for other oppressed groups in other parts of the world. For this reason, perhaps, the poem has such universal appeal that it has been translated into nineteen languages, making it available to more than half of the world's people.
Hernandez's poem was an attempt to alert the government, and particularly the city dwellers, to the problems faced by the gaucho minority in adjusting to the new, unfamiliar culture imposed on them by the Central Government soon after the fall of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, under the slogan "Politics of Progress." Moreover, the poem supplied a historical link to the gauchos' contribution to the national development of Argentina, for the gaucho had performed a major role in the country's independence from Spain. They had also fought in the civil wars of Argentina and had cleared the pampas of marauding Indian bands that plagued the pastoral development of the region. According to Hernandes they had been by turns abused, neglected, and finally dispersed, ultimately losing their identity as a social group.
Those interested in the Martin Fierro as literature, as social protest, as anthropology, or as an example of the annihilation of a minority group--and its very identity--have joined in making it the most widely read, analyzed, and discussed literary work produced in Argentina. Now, after several hundred editions in Spanish and other languages, Martin Fierro is recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.
The aim of this English version has been to achieve a line-by-line rendition faithful to the original in substance and tone, but without attempting to recreate Hernandez's meter or rhyme. The translators present it here as a catalyst for enjoyment, provocation, and insight.
The Indy’s ‘Beyond Borges’ series has so far introduced five of Argentina’s influential authors. Among them, romantic prose writers Esteban Echeverría and José Mármol, controversial essayist Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and two significant poets of the gauchesque genre, Bartolomé Hidalgo and Estanislao del Campo.
The sixth in the series brings us to the most celebrated poet in the gauchesque canon, and the best-known name in 19th century Argentine writing. José Hernández, the author behind Argentina’s national poem ‘Martin Fierro’, is credited with the immaculate consolidation of the gauchesque genre in a single, yet hugely impacting work.
One of few gauchesque poets to have lived for any time as a gaucho, Hernández was born in 1834 and raised on a farm in the Buenos Aires province. He lived a large portion of his life in rural Argentina and fought on the federal side of several civil conflicts and border wars.
His epic poem ‘Martin Fierro’ assumes the voice of an Argentine gaucho conscripted to serve at a border fort in defense of the national frontier.
Originally written in two parts, ‘El gaucho Martin Fierro’ in 1872 and ‘La vuelta de Martin Fierro’ in 1879, the poem follows Fierro as he deserts military service and returns home to find his farm abandoned and his family gone. Together the two parts chart the downfall of an individual who grows rebellious against the laws that have not served to protect him, and descends into a life of crime and immorality.
‘Martin Fierro’ as a Product of its Time
Hernández’s poem is celebrated for having its feet firmly in social conflicts. Twenty years earlier, the Argentine provinces had joined in a confederation that Buenos Aires was not to join until 1862. The four years of provincial revolt that followed were some of Argentina’s most conflictive, and a crucial period in both the process of state formation and the destruction of the gaucho way of life.
New laws of vagrancy and conscription saw Argentina fall under a dual justice system that differentiated between urban and rural, and prioritised one above the other. The passing of a ‘Rural Code’ in 1865 further discriminated against the gaucho by imposing stringent regulations on rural life and labour.
In ‘Martin Fierro’ Hernández returned to the pro-gaucho sentiment and themes of conflict that had traditionally provided the content for populist gauchesque poetry. The poem serves as both a lament for the loss of a romanticised lifestyle, and a protest against the persecution of the gaucho at the hands of a centralised government. In this respect, Hernández revived the element of protest that had faded from gauchesque poetry soon after Bartolomé Hidalgo had given birth to it.
The appearance of ‘El gaucho Martin Fierro’ in 1872 turned the tables on then president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. In his political essay ‘Facundo’, Sarmiento had presented the gaucho as an enemy of civilisation and his barbarism as a product of his rural existence. In ‘Martin Fierro’, Hernández presents Fierro’s behaviour as responsive to the actions of a government that sought to destroy him.
The Success and Legacy of ‘Martin Fierro’
Hernandez’s ‘Martin Fierro’ was an unprecedented and immediate success. ‘El gaucho de Martin Fierro’ had 48,000 copies in circulation throughout Argentina and Uruguay by the time that ‘La vuelta de Martin Fierro’ was published seven years later.
The poem met with similarly positive reactions from critics, who admired the work for its aesthetic merit rather than its protagonist. So convincing was Fierro’s character that many believed him to be a real person, who in spite of his immoral actions, was taken in to the hearts of the Argentine gauchos as someone who fairly depicted their circumstances and their plight.
The success of ‘Martin Fierro’ might be attributed to the fact that it appeared to many to be an example of genuine gaucho literature. Whilst critics take care to differentiate between the poetry of the gaucho and the poetry of the gauchesque, some position Hernández’s poem at the confluence of these two important literary traditions.
By brightening the eight-syllable lines of rural ballads with language, imagery and a local colour that wouldn’t normally have been found in solemn payadas, the gauchesque cultivated a popular style. But in an attempt to imitate a vocabulary and a way of speaking, it had succeeded in creating something forced and false.
Although many poets before him had made use of this same eight-syllable line, none had done so with the same level of authenticity. In the scenes of the poem where payadas are sung, Hernández writes unfalteringly within the discipline of the form. When writing about abstract themes, his language bears the closest resemblance of all the gauchesque poets to the language of a payador singer.
Some interpretations have incurred the wrath of the poem’s supporters by contesting the Argentine nature of the work – annexing it to Spanish literature, or even European. Regardless, the poem is one of few works to have shaped the course of Argentine literature so significantly, drawing inescapable comparisons with the importance of Cervante’s ‘Don Quixote’ in Spanish literature.
Its infamous protagonist has since lent his name to more plazas, avenues, pizza restaurants, literary reviews, films and television awards than the author himself.
Often imitated but never matched, Hernández is credited with the neat consolidation of Argentina’s most important literary genre in a perfect example of gauchesque writing. Whilst Argentine authors continued to experiment with gauchesque writing, some argue that the 1810-1821 wars of independence and the 1880 constitution of the Argentine state marked the opening and closure of the genre – making Hernández not only the greatest writer of the genre but also one of the last.
English language translations of ‘Martin Fierro The Gaucho’ and ‘The return of Martin Fierro’ are available for download at sparrowthorn.com - Kate Bowen
José Hernández (1834-1886) is the author of the book that Leopoldo Lugones claimed was the national book of Argentina: Martín Fierro. It shows the stereotype of the gaucho, who lives in the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and is a poem describing the independence and freedom of these people.
Following the new independence from Spain, many of the new republics that emerged in America started to look for their own national identity, and the gaucho Martín Fierro became a symbol of that of Argentina. The book has many examples of their way of speaking, how they used vos instead of tú and changed letters (juego for fuego, etc.), which Hernández was criticised for by many intellectuals at the time.
Published in 1872, the main story of the first part of the work centres around the recruitment of Martín Fierro to the army, in order to defend a fort against the onslaught of the Indians. Martín Fierro becomes a fugitive hunted by the police, and in his escape meets the sergeant Cruz, who joins him. Together they escape to go live with the Indians because a native life is better for them than what awaits them in civilization.
In 1879, José Hernández published “The Return of Martín Fierro”. In this second part he changed the plot of the play and the idyllic setting of freedom with the Indians is discouraged, and instead shows him looking to adapt to the civilization that was rejected in the first part of the work.
It is thought that many of the characters of Martín Fierro were inspired by real people. In the area where José Hernández grew up, Lobería Grande (Mar del Plata), there was a rebel gaucho with the same name, however names and surnames such as these were fairly common. The most likely thing is that Martín Fierro was a paradigmatic character of the Argentine gaucho of 1880.
The two books of Martín Fierro have had a significant influence on Latin American literature in general, and Argentina literature in particular. This is as much for the topics treated as the way in which they are treated, especially through language, another symbol of the Argentine nation.