JR Carpenter - both a condensation of media history and a comment on the current environmental weight of clouds. This book reminds us that cloud computing is one of the backbones of contemporary culture.

JR Carpenter, The Gathering Cloud, Uniform Books, 2017.  

The Gathering Cloud aims to address the environmental impact of so-called 'cloud' computing by calling attention to the materiality of the clouds in the sky. Both are commonly perceived to be infinite resources, at once vast and immaterial; both, decidedly, are not. Fragments of text from Luke Howard's classic Essay on the Modifications of Clouds (1803) and other more recent online articles and books on media and the environment are pared down into hyptertextual hendecasyllabic verses. These are situated within surreal animated gif collages composed of images materially appropriated from publicly accessible cloud storage services. The cognitive dissonance between the cultural fantasy of cloud storage and the hard facts of its environmental impact is bridged, in part, through the constant evocation of animals: A cumulus cloud weighs one hundred elephants. A USB fish swims through a cloud of cables. Four million cute cat pics are shared each day. A small print iteration of The Gathering Cloud shared through gift, trade, mail art, and small press economies further confuses boundaries between physical and digital, scarcity and waste.
A print book based on The Gathering Cloud, featuring a foreword by Jussi Parikka and an afterword by Lisa Robertson, was published by Uniformbooks in May 2017. PURCHASE ONLINE HERE
The Gathering Cloud was commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts Festival, Dundee, UK, 9-13 November 2016. Many thanks to the curators Sarah Cook and Donna Holford-Lovell. Portions of this text were first performed during the South West Poetry Tour, 1-8 August 2016. Thanks and curses to Annabel Banks for suggesting the hendecasyllabic constraint. Thanks to Jerome Fletcher, Kay Lovelace, Michael Saunby, and the Informatics Lab at the Met Office for discussions on code and the weather. And thanks to everyone at if:book, New Media Writing Prize 2016, and Saboteur Awards 2017.

The Gathering Cloud makes slow reading. Let's start with the title. It trips off the tongue, doesn't it? Rolls around in the mind like a marble you've had since childhood. But there's something unfamiliar about it, too. 'The gathering cloud' evokes a threat – the gathering crowd, perhaps; words haunted by expectation; a riot just about to begin. The gathering cloud sounds material and immaterial at the same time. It could signal rain, or warmth, or happiness for shepherds and fishermen, if only you knew how to read it. Could the ancients interpret celestial data? Can Google analysts do it now?
Every sentence in JR Carpenter's literary artwork, The Gathering Cloud, is as resonant and expansive as its title. The work is so full of meaning, in fact, that it pushes beyond its own borders. Both a piece of digital literature commissioned by Neon Digital Arts Festival, and a book published by Uniform Press, The Gathering Cloud hovers, as an aesthetic experience, in between (it also exists as a printed A3 zine, distributed in more informal ways).
Its theme is climate change. Or, more precisely, the material effects of technologies euphemistically named 'cloud computing' on the health of the planet. Or the systems of knowledge that reveal and obscure our relationships to our world. Or the impossible responsibility of human actions that have a global impact. Or, in Carpenter's characteristically succinct language in the afterword ('Modifications on The Gathering Cloud'):
The Gathering Cloud aims to address the environmental impact of so-called 'cloud' computing and storage through the overtly oblique strategy of calling attention to the materiality of the clouds in the sky.
Online, The Gathering Cloud appears as a palimpsest of moving images, interacting as a series of animated gifs. To read this work is to move with it. Fragments of text respond to the hover of your mouse. Symbols march across the screen and align in multiple combinations. The experience, in other words, is just like using the internet. There is more here than you will ever be able to discover, and yet the format entices you to keep looking. The world of the browser is both (seemingly) infinite, and controlled by your gaze.

The first images you see are cloudscapes taken from Luke Howard's Essay on the Modifications of Clouds (1803). Howard was the first person to devise a popular and scientific naming system for the clouds in the sky. His process was based on natural history classifications, Latin naming principles and the fact that clouds are subject to endless change. His project was such a success that we still use his cloud nomenclature today. But, as Carpenter points out, 'The language of The Cloud is a barrier.' Here, she is talking of the language of cloud computing, and how its association with the mutable territory of the sky fails to communicate its dirty, real-world effects. But the language of the clouds is also, always, a reference to Howard's system and its structuring aim: a grand attempt to explain the (previously) unexplainable, to box in the search for knowledge, to capture what is not still there.
The illustrations that accompanied Howard's published text were minutely detailed etchings based on his own watercolours. In the book, Carpenter describes the journey of the images as technological as well as scientific artefacts, 'Translated into cross hatching,' she writes,
Howard's studies
lost subtlety, but gained fixity, moving
them toward the diagrammatic scientific.
Carpenter uses these pictures, then, to draw attention to how we understand the world as well as what we (try to) understand. Onscreen, she overlays them with photographs and illustrations of animals – elephants, birds, beetles – which echo metaphors evoked in fragments of her poetic text ('A cloud the weight of one hundred elephants', for example, 'How many more birds/ have been captured and tagged and stored in The Cloud?'). Like the etchings, these animal images bear the time-stamp of specific systems of thought. Some are scientific and precise, for example, and belong, stylistically, to a process of classification: illustration as pedagogic tool.

In a final conceptual twist, each of these interwoven, visual elements has been 'materially appropriated' (Carpenter writes), 'from publicly accessible cloud storage services.' These, then, are pictures of weather clouds, and of the ways we think about weather clouds, and of the technological border patrols that control the ways we think. These are images preserved in the hardware of server farms, which means they are also images of the billow of fossil fuels, the gasp of countless lives and minerals, ground into the earth over geological time, as unimaginable in scale as the size of the data stores themselves, or the climate change precipitated by the energy they need.
Tech giants Apple, Amazon and Microsoft
power their twenty-first century clouds with
dirty nineteenth-century coal energy.
And here is the context for Carpenter's words: lines of hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) verse arising inside, on top of or behind the images, borrowing and interpreting found texts from Howard's nomenclature and contemporary media studies. All of this, finally, is the context for you: the reader/user, dragging your finger across your mouse pad as you enact the dynamic complexity The Gathering Cloud represents:
To miniscule cumulus water droplets
air is an upwelling thermal below them
is as dense as honey is to a pebble
five thousandths of a millimetre across.
As a work of digital literature, then The Gathering Cloud is an extraordinary marriage of concept and content. By which I mean literally extra-ordinary: representing and exceeding the ordinary functions of its source images and texts. While the work is hosted online, however, its rhizomatic affect has less to do with technology than with attention. In an interview in 2010 Carpenter said, 'I imagine my target audience being people sitting at desks pretending to do other things. Like work, for example. Or writing. Because they are already pretending, their minds are wide open1.' The Gathering Cloud is a lucid dream space for people not entirely in charge of their dreams.
The most obvious difference between the printed and online versions of The Gathering Cloud is that the book feels primarily textual. Featuring an extended prologue, the book showcases Carpenter's writing on spacious pages, interspersed with occasional black and white 'plates' taken from the digital piece. Simply framed in this way, the power and precision of her words come to the fore. The hendecasyllable format produces a bare, pared down kind of language that sounds natural and restrained, like a conversation with someone who has much more to say. Describing the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius' theory of clouds, for example, Carpenter writes:
Nothing can be created out of nothing.
The whole earth exhales a vaporous steam. 
Meaning hangs like a lifetime between these lines. The gap between 'nothing' and the exhalations of the earth is as big and as small as a breath being held.
Like the skeleton of a bird's wing, each line in Carpenter's perfectly crafted, fragile text takes the body of the work in a new direction. And yet, the most thrilling element of the book is not textual, but visual.

In print, some of the words appear greyed out. Twenty-first century readers recognise this allusion, immediately, as a hyperlink; but of course, there is nothing to click on a printed page. A book is an emblem of past decisions in a way that online experiences pretend not to be. These un-links, then, are uncanny. They promise potential, in the same moment as they fatally disappoint. They wave to the future but they are, literally, pulped emulsions of the past. They call to a space beyond the page, ripe with forbidden fruit, humming with endless desire: more knowledge, more dreaming, more distraction.
An estimated 1.8 trillion
gigabytes of digital information
are created and stored globally each year
by ordinary consumers with no sense
that data is physical and storing it
has a direct impact on the environment.
These un-links represent everything you want and everything you can't have. They are the spaces for you to dream in and the alarm that stops you dreaming. They are the endless potential of the internet, and the finite resource that will shut it down. In other words, just as the online version of The Gathering Cloud performs the limits and aspirations of older systems of thought – the acid hatch of etchings, the earnest naivety of visual or linguistic classification – so the printed work performs the futile urgency of lives lived online. In each case, the performer on centre stage is the reader/viewer, forced to confront her own ambitions and her impotence as she navigates through mutable worlds.
This, in a nutshell, is our relationship with climate change: it is about us, but bigger than we can comprehend; we are compelled to act, but crave direction; we want to dream, but we are afraid to lose. Crucially, Carpenter asks us to inhabit this relationship, not the climate itself: her work is emotional, not didactic. Instead of explaining climate change, Carpenter explores the extent to which it can possibly be imagined. Then, gently but firmly, she pushes the borders of our thoughts, and gets us to imagine some more.
'Like a muzzled creature', Carpenter writes, 'the cloud strains to be/more than it is.' The same could be said for her work, of course, and for the people who move through it. In a perfect echo of the systems of weather and data that are its subject, different iterations of the The Gathering Cloud (whether real or imagined) are held, within the reader, as memory, as action, and as technology of thought. The Gathering Cloud could signal rain, or warmth, or happiness for idle browsers,if only you could trace your finger along each acid scratched line. Could the ancients sculpt the hubris of the searching gaze? Can the Google server farms do it now? - Mary Paterson

Gareth Twose - The poetry parodies political language, marketing spiel, and the mores of contemporary society; but it's overall feel is not one of anger, but of humanity and wit; the language resisting these political and commercial forces by its sheer effervescence.

Image result for Gareth Twose, Seven Types of Terrorism,
Gareth Twose, Sven Types of Terrorism, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2017.
sample (pdf)

In a recent interview in The Paris Review, J H Prynne, commenting on a poetry reading he had just attended, said "These poems we heard this evening, some of them were quite witty, some of them were adept. But they're all poems written by a poet, and I could do without that." Prynne continues, "To hear poems that were written by a poet is to find them trapped in the poetic habits from which they originate."
Gareth Twose's poetry, in this book, is not trapped in poetic habit. This is the opening of part 5 of Twose's sequence "Sven Types of Terrorism":
"Born irritated. Norman killer. Check top right, Bayeux Tapestry, the guy aiming syringe into eyeball of English Boeuf head. No way does this guy queue. I mean, slowing down, stopping. Every road a race track. The name on my vest: Discovery: deep blue, the patches of planet earth as seen from space, the figure-hugging lycra pants, thigh size."
This is not language which is pausing to consider itself, or to invite the reader to admire its lyricism; it's not consciously poetic. The whole sequence is compact and fast-moving, a mental dialogue of a manic cyclist, ending:
"All riders need a hero-shot: me scooting down the side of a row of cars stuck at lights, me slicing through, switching lanes, a seamless segue. Ride-by assasination."
I enjoyed Twose's earlier pamphlet, "Top Ten Tyres", but the density of its language made it, at times, an exhausting read. This book is looser, more accomplished; there's just enough breathing space for the reader to relax and enjoy the wit and zest of the language. The poetry parodies political language, marketing spiel, and the mores of contemporary society; but it's overall feel is not one of anger, but of humanity and wit; the language resisting these political and commercial forces by its sheer effervescence.
The collection is divided into three sections; the rationale for the first of these, "The Alexandr Technique",  gives us an idea of Twose's approach. He says in the notes:
"Inspired when I bought car insurance from comparethemarket.com - and got a free meerkat toy. I started getting email updates from the toy about its progress across Europe, as it journeyed to my
There are 89 "updates". The form provides a vehicle (excuse the pun) for Twose's wordplay and anarchic humour, which, while clearly arising from anger at the banalities of late capitalism, somehow always manage to be engaging and good-natured:
"73. Conspiracy theorist Dr. Shad State demands that the monument be smashed up into a million pieces and used to make some rather nice furry coasters. Or funky enamel ware.

76. A stategic pause.
87. On page 96, Aleksandr says he always remembers what his aunt, a one-time collector of Edwardian furniture and former presenter of Flog It, said on cold desert nights in the burrow: you have to warm your eye up, to look through it all."
The second section of the book, the title sequence "Sven Types of Terrorism" (yes, “Sven” not “Seven” – see later for the missing “e”) is a set of satirical prose pieces, with the 'terrorism' being, at one level, oppressive systems or ways of thinking. I've already mentioned the aggressive cyclist of no. 5. But there's also parody of brand marketing ("Just what was Victoria's secret?") and formula TV shows ("For the technical challenge they have to prepare a batch of English muffins before ending with their best loaves"), and no. 2 is a spoof Wikipedia Entry on Time, delivered in with wit and sparkle:
"'The Glasvedas', the earliest texts of Glaswegian philosophy, describe the universe going thourgh repeated cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth, with each cycle lasting a Friday night"
"Free Time
a). a shadowy continuation of labour.
b). something that involves DIY"
Type Seven is simply "The missing 'e'" (i.e. missing from "Sven"); this, presumably, is a nod to Georges Perec's novel "La Disparition", written without using the letter "e", and is a nice bit of playfulness, typical of this work.
The final section of the book, "Blobitechture" is a series of sonnet-like poems, reminiscent of the early work of Tony Lopez, but more anarchic. Each poem is named after a style of architecture, although the poems simply use that as a point of departure, and provide a vehicle for Twose's fast-moving parodies of language and life in the early twenty-first century. The opening lines of the first poem "Bahaustrasse" are:
"The soonologist had been fired for failing to predict
the next three minutes and government replaced
by a fixed odds betting terminal."
The poems satirize contemporary idiom, especially that of commerce; cultural references, both real (Poundstretcher) and parodied ("The Man Who Fell to Perth") crop up at frequent intervals. There is, of course, a certain level of satirical intent in these poems, but here, as in the rest of the book, there is a sense that the whole thing is driven more by Twose’s zest for language; the strength of the book is that he gives this impulse free rein. This final sequence is a pleasure to read because you sense that the writer enjoyed writing it, that he took pleasure in the puns, wordplay and linguistic associations which are, it could be said, the basis of poetry (even though this particular poetry is not written by a poet). - Litterbug

‘The Aleksandr Technique’, from Gareth Twose’s poetry collection Sven Types of Terrorism, was inspired by email updates “written” by a toy meerkat during its shipping to the poet’s home. The meerkat in question, named Aleksandr Orlov, is a recurring persona deployed across media platforms by the car insurance company comparethemarket.com. As one of the company’s marketing tactics, a toy meerkat is sent to every customer that buys car insurance online. In response, Twose’s sequence cannibalises the affective appeal of the company’s gimmick – its ‘Aleksandr Technique’. Turning the faux-update on its head, Twose appropriates the meerkat’s narrative for a bewilderingly Dadaist odyssey through consumer society on the levels of system and language:
  1. Landing at Dover, Aleksandr notices the slippery when
    wet quality of five day old English consonants. In the
    corporate hands.
Discussing Rimbaud, Sean Bonney has pondered the political upheavals of the 2011 riots: “How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous.” With some irony, Twose’s sequence of updates offers this monstrous self-recognition, deploying the persona of Aleksandr the meerkat as catalysis – as a proxy experiencer. Through the voice of Aleksandr and his imagined travels, Twose exposes a continent that is far from well:
[…] he describes noticing during his travels across
Europe how the skies are full of Farage balloons,
modelled on an antique dirigible.
[…] the word ‘businesskat’ is mentioned 2030
times, nearly as many times as the word ‘choice’ is
mentioned in the Health and Social Cattery Act 2012.
Twose’s world is beset by right-wing miseries and Aleksandr, the furry face of media-savvy capital, is perfectly placed to whistleblow. But Twose’s poem is more than an affirming litany of political grievances. Co-opting the marketing device as a poetic persona empowers an intelligent, focussed critique of capital on the linguistic and formal levels. Twose’s first update gives a clue towards this particular function of the text:
  1. The meerkat is not cited in any of the case studies that
    form part of the research used to justify the complete
    synthetic personalization of language.
“Synthetic personalization” here refers to an idea from the sociolinguist Norman Fairclough. A disingenuously “strategic” communicative technique, it gives “the impression of treating each of the people huddled en masse as an individual”. Twose’s experience of personal address delivered by an inanimate, inbound toy would certainly qualify Fairclough’s term; it is this disingenuous linguistic manipulation which is targeted for subversion by Twose. By de-familiarising and parodying the Aleksandr persona, Twose disrupts its ability to carry a disguised marketing agenda. The persona and the language it uses are liberated from domination by capital. This liberation is performed through the recuperative elevation of Aleksandr’s language as a specifically poetic language – a metamorphosis carried through by three poetic modes (all traditional enough in the field of “linguistically innovative” poetry): ironisation, what I will call “hyper-realisation” and the decoupling of narrative sequence.
Firstly, we see Twose inject a postmodern formal self-consciousness into the sequence:
  1. A strategic listening pause.
  1. Skip ad.
  2. Skip ad.
In turn, the formal artifice of expression is foregrounded against the core impulses of any marketing text (where unconscious ingestion of content is paramount).
Twose also ramps up the over-arching tone of the original Aleksandr advertisements to a ridiculous pitch, with the poet’s meerkat becoming a hyper-real parody of its original self:
  1. Fleeing Meerkovo as a result of some local ethnic
    cleansing and visiting Monaco for the first time rubbing
    fur with the riches and famous, Aleksandr’s smoking
    jacket bursts into flames of caustic love.
Framing Aleksandr’s adventure against a background of ethnic cleansing and migration adds moral gravity to the situation (Meerkovo = Kosovo?). This impinges upon the comic book adventure style utilised by the original advertisements, folding its appealing escapism back onto the political structures of the real world. Additionally, Twose pushes Aleksandr into ideological positions and forms of knowledge laughably at odds with the interests of a car insurance company. Aleksandr, for instance, becomes “leader of the Meerkovan Liberation Army”, and is imbued with a visionary sort of structural insight:
  1. I am a refugee from la langue, a linguistic
    migrant. You have a choice.
Twose cuts up and frustrates the smooth flow of narrative sequence. Between updates, Aleksandr continuously shifts location, context and company without any sense of firm trajectory or geography. The meerkat-as-marketing-tool has gone rogue.
Through these interventions the poem subverts capital’s instrumentalisation of language in favour of a language that runs free and causes problems. Passive ingestion is impossible – the interpretative problems of the text call upon the reader to become decidedly active. Aleksandr is appropriated by the poet and transformed into a trace liquid, exposing the topography of the flows of capitalist Europe in which it travels. Changing from an object to a perceiving subject, the persona becomes liberated enough to perform its symbolic exposé of capital and state.
That said, one obvious problem of Twose’s poem is that we are not entirely sure what is being critiqued. A right-dominated system, certainly, but how can we be more specific? Finance, politicians, austerity, neo-colonialism are all blurred together chaotically. Remembering Bonney, however, we understand this to be the experience of the capitalist simulacrum at ground level. In this, ‘The Aleksandr Technique’ takes an obviously modernist urban aesthetic – experiment and gyre – and applies it to the twenty-first century’s eminently virtual topography. This is the value of Twose’s text: the militation of “innovative” poetry’s trademark neo-modernism into a tool for focussed linguistic critique. In creating poetry from advertising-speak, language is seized from the jaws of domination. As a collection Sven Types of Terrorism carries this further, rattling off multiple poetic sequences, of which ‘The Aleksandr Technique’ is only the first. All find and disturb different areas of contemporary life drowned by capital.
Twose’s innovative and humorous subversion of comparethemarket.com’s email updates echoes other attempts to claim the forms of contemporary media as poetic forms. Roger Whitson’s intriguing work with Markov chain algorithms (which transform the tweet into a site for a unique form of poetry) comes to mind. The value of ‘The Aleksandr Technique’, then, is that it shows how poetry has a social role in making us conscious of contemporary language and its hidden ideologies. If “linguistically innovative” poetry is to avoid accusations of elitism and ludic irrelevance in the face of crisis then attention should be paid to this poem. With it we see how poetry can be put to work in a legitimate, socially useful way: as an interruption in the silent flows of nauseating capital. - Dylan Williams


Manuel Pérez Subirana - A moving, tragicomic novel about defeat, memory, and the seductive prospect of losing it all.

Image result for Manuel Pérez Subirana, Losing Is What Matters,
Manuel Pérez Subirana, Losing Is What Matters, Trans. by Allen Young, dalkey Archive Press, 2017.

When his marriage and career fall apart, a young lawyer sets out on a desperate mission to recapture the promise of his youth. His attempt leaves him stranded between a past he no longer recognizes and a life that’s no longer his—and he soon begins to suspect that the surest path to happiness lies in simply giving up. A moving, tragicomic novel about defeat, memory, and the seductive prospect of losing it all.

“Mature, free-flowing prose with Proustian comparisons and images—very rare for a first novel. An author endowed with a style in the tradition of the finest narrative, with a densely personal world.”
Joaquín Arnáiz

A Spanish lawyer’s life falls apart in the days after he’s dumped by his woman.
Spanish novelist Subirana plumbs the depths of despair in this philosophical portrait of a man whose life is becoming undone. We meet 33-year-old attorney Carlos Mestres Ruiz in the hours after his lover, Elisenda, has broken off their yearslong relationship, and he’s a mess. In alcohol-fueled waves, he wanders the streets of Barcelona, wondering where and when things went wrong. “Love is a promise that is never wholly kept,” he tells us. “Strangely, its failure hardly hurts at all. There’s no precise moment, for instance, when we confront disappointment, no precise moment when the illusions are shattered. We give up on love and barely realize it, like someone who grows tired of waiting for a letter and eventually forgets to check the mailbox each morning.” After Carlos misses a courtroom date in the midst of a hangover, his professional life starts to unravel as well. Ruiz’s companion in his mourning is Alberto Cisnerroso, a long-lost friend from university with whom he reconnects and whose nihilistic cynicism he eventually shares. Pulling on a slot machine in yet another bar, Alberto sets Carlos straight. “You pull here and set the universe in motion,” he says. “A simple, straightforward universe, with fixed rules. And you lose: of course you lose, you always lose. That’s the point. To play to lose, to give yourself over to defeat, to fulfill your destiny in a perfect, known, comprehensible microcosm free of lies and deception.” It’s a jaundiced and familiar tale of boy loses girl, but in Subirana’s talented grasp, the novel becomes a more serious and elegant cautionary tale about the importance of being true to one’s real self and the damage that reverberates around us when we try to be who we’re not.
A wonderfully written portrait of a man who must lose everything before he can be free.  - Kirkus Reviews

At thirty-three Carlos Mestres Ruiz, the narrator of Losing is What Matters, is a bit young to be going through a mid-life crisis, but that is essentially what is chronicled in this novel. He's puttering along comfortably enough, living with a woman in a long-term relationship and working, reasonably successfully, as a lawyer in small firm -- and then suddenly he's not: out of the blue Elisenda dumps him and clears her things out of the apartment they've shared for more than three years.
       It's a shock, and it hits him hard. Suddenly completely at sea, he looks for a hold in the past: he gets in touch with a former university friend whom he had lost touch with, Alberto Cisnerroso -- an indifferent student (and ultimately drop-out) who came from a wealthy family and offered, back in those days, a glimpse of an entirely different, carefree way of living:
a way of life that I myself had, of course, at one point judged misguided, but which now struck me as the only true and authentic way to live.
       Alberto's dissolute lifestyle had appealed to the young Carlos, and for three years he happily indulged -- but the course-correction, getting him back on track, came soon enough as Carlos did what parents and society expected from him: complete his studies, get a job, find a life-companion. Now, a decade or so later, Carlos sees and seeks escape there again: he doesn't turn to any of his contemporary friends -- and it's unclear that he actually has any -- but rather gets in touch with Alberto again. As it turns out, Alberto is still as aimless and debauched as ever, never having changed his ways, and so Carlos can almost seamlessly pick up where they left off. However, while the alcoholic excess and well-into-the-morning carousing maybe a return to the good old days (though times, and their old haunts, have changed ...), it's also kind of tired and old, providing some escape for Carlos but only in the moment.
       There are other consequences too: going on a bender means he misses an important hearing the next day, an unprofessional lapse that leads to a very upset client. His boss is quite understanding, but it's still a problem and seems likely to lead to the client making a complaint to the Bar Association -- probably only leading to a slap on the wrist, but still an annoyance.
       Carlos can't get his head back in the game, but at least the weekend is approaching. Another long night out with Alberto doesn't get him anywhere either, nor can he clarify matters with Elisenda -- and so he takes regression a step further, heading back to his hometown:
I was set on recovering my past. I wanted to reconnect with the boy who lived in that town years ago, and i had the feeling that if I succeeded, if I managed to rekindle inside me some of the happiness the town had given me as a child, I could face the future with renewed strength.
       Of course, it comes as little surprise that... you can't go home again. With no family still there, and staying at a hotel, it seemed an unlikely plan anyway, but Carlos gave it a shot.
       Increasingly battered and bruised, and indulging in rather too much alcohol, Carlos does find some clarity. It becomes clear to him that his relationship with Elisenda was doomed -- that he was fooling himself about their life together, and that the crash had to come sooner or later -- and also that he isn't really cut out to be a lawyer. He's fine at his job -- if little more than that --, but he doesn't find it very rewarding, and can't imagine he ever will.
       Carlos doesn't exactly bottom out, but he comes to realize he was aspiring to wrong heights. He followed the standard blueprint, but he realizes he's quite unremarkable and that even this traditional not-quite-fast-track wasn't his speed. Admirably, he's willing to throw it all overboard -- helped by Elisenda's push -- and let his life drift elsewhere. Where that will lead isn't entirely clear -- though he has been writing this story, and one can't help but see some similarities (age, profession) between protagonist and aithor ... -- but he's accepted mediocrity and found he doesn't need ambition.
       It's an interesting life-lesson novel, especially given where Carlos has made it in life -- not very far, and still far from the end. Capitulation-to-life novels usually involve younger protagonists -- university age -- or much older ones, who have been through it all. Carlos hasn't seen or done that much, but he also admits defeat -- and he's fine with it. (It's also not a generational thing -- Carlos is an odd man out in the 2003 novel, in a still vibrant Spain that hasn't been bludgeoned by the financial crisis yet.)
       Carlos' limited adventures -- generally in an alcohol-daze -- can get to be a bit much, and his bumbling can annoy, but Pérez Subirana has a fine writing-touch, and in Allen Young's smooth translation there's a controlled feel to the narrative that supports the otherwise potentially too full-of-abandon tale. There's some fine and well-put reflection here; Carlos may act immaturely -- and wallow in childish and youthful memories -- but the writing is entirely adult. Indeed, the writing is thoughtful -- as is, ultimately, Carlos (though certainly not always in the moment) -- and with its interesting antiheroic conclusions Losing is What Matters is an appealingly different (accepting and) finding-one's-way-in life novel. - M.A.Orthofer


Jan Křesadlo - A complex torrent of black humour mixed with rollicking slapstick clowning, of sexual exploitation mixed with warm family love, of sharp, pointed, observations mixed with bizarre and fantastic episodes reminiscent of Meyrink and Kafka

Image result for Jan Křesadlo, GraveLarks,

Jan Křesadlo, GraveLarks, Trans.by Václav Z J Pinkava, Jantar Publishing, 2016. [1984.]excerpt

Set in Stalinist-era Central Europe, GraveLarks is a triumphant intellectual thriller navigating the fragile ambiguity between sado-masochism, black humor, political satire, murder, and hope. Zderad, a noble misfit, investigates a powerful party figure in 1950s Czechoslovakia. His struggle against blackmail, starvation, and betrayal leaves him determined to succeed where others have failed and died. This extended edition includes critical texts and analyses with illustrations by Jan Pinkava, Oscar-winning animator. GraveLarks is a fictionalized account of the life of French troubadour poet Villon set in 1950s Stalinist Czechoslovakia. The vagabond and ""bohemian"" Villon is transposed into the vagabond intellectual and ""bohemian"" Zderad. Singing, drinking, deviant sex, and blackmail ensue. The author and publisher Josef Skvorecky described the text as ""the most original, shocking, truthful, and artistically very interesting works of contemporary Czech fiction.""

..."I consider [this book] to be one of the most original, shocking, truthful and artistically very interesting works of contemporary Czech fiction. It is profound, ironic, witty and - what is rare in today's writing - it betrays a learned author, who, in spite of the width and depth of his knowledge, has remained an acute observer of real life and real people. It is not often that one finds, in fiction of any nation, a portrayal of the Stalinist fifties that has been executed with so much freshness, incisiveness, charming cynicism, accuracy... it is also devoid of any sentimental seriousness and it makes excellent reading even for those who are not interested in the political background against which the macabre story is played out. I think that an English-language publication of this novel would be regarded by those who know what literature is all about as a discovery." - Josef Skvorecky

"GraveLarks successfully employs Menippean satire, characterized by a fragmented narrative, frequent shifts of stylistic register and point of view, and the wish to lampoon not so much an individual but a general state of mind (.....) In the bleak world of GraveLarks, criminality and creativity are intimately intertwined" - Andrei Rogatchevski  Andrei Rogatchevski, The Times Literary Supplement

A complex torrent of black humour mixed with rollicking slapstick clowning, of sexual exploitation mixed with warm family love, of sharp, pointed, observations mixed with bizarre and fantastic episodes reminiscent of Meyrink and Kafka.” — John Howard, Wormwood

Not many authors of fiction caution their readers in the narrative: ´...this book is somewhat disgusting in certain parts and this is about to happen now. If you wish you might easily skip this section with minimal damage to your understanding of the plot.....´. Jan Křesadlo does it twice in his masterpiece. In both cases what follows is a display of somewhat embarrassing behaviour of the main protagonists. Křesadlo´s honest and direct contact with his reader is one of the characteristic features of his writing. He wrote Mrchopěvci in Czech during his exile in England in the early 1980s and a doyen of the Czech literature Josef Škvorecký immediately snapped the manuscript up for his exile Czech and Slovak 68 Publishers in Toronto. It was a happy choice because Křesadlo received for Mrchopěvci the highly respected Egon Hostovský Prize in 1984, the same year in which the book came out.
Jan Křesadlo (the pen name for Václav Pinkava) was born in Prague in 1926 and died in Colchester a few months before his sixty-ninth birthday. In fiction he was a late starter, after a vexed as well as varied career in clinical psychology both in Prague and England. I knew him well as an enthusiastic leader of the London Sokol choir and I can say without hesitation that he was a man on the verge of genius in several fields. He had composed music and written essays in the field of logic as well as psychology long before he took up his pen or rather computer to try his luck in fiction. He was also an outstanding poet writing in Czech and classical Greek. Mrchopěvci is a partly biographical story set in Prague of the early 1950´s when Pinkava met his future wife in a church choir. Yet he would deny as he indeed did that he became a victim of politically motivated homosexual blackmail which is described in the book in some detail. The main protagonist, Zderad, is a gifted singer in a small male choir who sing at funerals - hence the title of the book. The behaviour of the individual members of the choir is selfish, materialistic and kafkaesque that when one of them (Tůma) dies, they could not care less where he was buried: ´.....what is certain that he couldn´t have afforded a funeral with singing and his life-long colleagues didn´t consider him worth losing the little money they could earn elsewhere at the time of this funeral....´.
The homosexual blackmail of which Zderad becomes a victim is the leitmotiv of the novel on which Křesadlo illustrates the essentially corrupting influence of Stalinism. It is often the case with the first work of a ´budding´ author that some themes become recurrent even in later works. Such theme in Mrchopěvci is sexual deviation which in fact was Václav Pinkava's specialisation in his field of clinical psychology. This theme reappears in several of Křesadlo´s dozen or so novels and books of short stories.
As a journalist but not a literary critic I can only declare my feelings about Křesadlo´s work and let others pass their professional judgement on it. I admire Mrchopěvci and his work in general immensely for its courage, honesty and mysticism, although I am well aware that Křesadlo has his detractors in print as well. When it comes to putting Křesadlo to some convenient artistic "box", or giving him some useful "label", then I can say that Křesadlo has been described as a "post-modernist" for instance by Karel Janovický, the Plzeň born musician and journalist living in London. Among other convenient labels is "neo-decadence" in the style of Ladislav Klíma. One thing is certain - whatever the "boxes" or "labels", Křesadlo is his own man which I believe could be shown as stemming from his virtual isolation in English exile at a time when he started writing fiction.
Mrchopěvci is the first of Křesadlo´s novels translated by his gifted family into English. The translation is superb, although I find the explanatory notes at the bottom of some pages often intrusive. It would probably be much better if they were placed at the end of the English version. The illustrations by Křesadlo´s Oscar-winning son Dr Jan Pinkava are superb. My favourite is a contour of Stalin´s face in the sky over the Žižkov mausoleum in Prague where the first Communist president Gottwald and one of the most dogmatic Stalinist leaders of all times was resting at the time of the story.
Křesadlo is a phenomenon which will survive many of us. And there can hardly be a better entry of his works into the new millennium than the English version of Mrchopěvci.
I sincerely hope that this is merely a start. - Milan Kocourek

Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak about an author whom I consider to be a literary figure of the 21st Century. His novels and collections of short stories could be concluded with the same words that Stendhal used in closing his The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme; 1839) TO THE HAPPY FEW. Jan Křesadlo could also have been sure that his work would be read a hundred years on. Today's happy few who have discovered Jan Křesadlo's comprehensive and exceptional work amid the proliferation of older and contemporary Czech authors, will enter a world which is both demanding and entertaining, a space which is both wise and playful, bizarre and cruel - in truth the very world of our own happiness and anxiety.
When the reader comes up against Křesadlo's works of literature he is beset by a suspicion that he has come up against a phenomenon which has gone beyond the humanly possible, something out of this world. Perhaps Fate has simply played a lighthearted trick by placing so much talent into the being of one man - talent which would have sufficed for a number of successful men, Václav Pinkava, for that is Křesadlo's real name could have been a significant philologist. He had mastered both the written and spoken word of classical Latin and middle Latin, classical Greek, German (which he learnt from infancy at home), and also English, French, Spanish, Italian, but also Hungarian, Romany. Slovak, Upper Lusatian, Russian and Pali. During his student days he enrolled to study Sanskrit under Prof. Lesný, the expert in Europe. For his own purposes he constructed the Urogal language (Fuga Trium) and the Sub-Tuřín dialect (Obětina). He was fascinated by various alphabets - for example he was able to use the difficult Old Slavonic Glagolitic script to write the Czech language. He loved to play on words and this has become a trade mark of his personal style. He could have been a succesful musician. He had the gifts of an absolute ear for music and a superb voice. When, after the purges of February 1948 he became a member of Prague's Catholic semi-underground, his "missa parodica" Spiritus Flat Per Deserta, on the theme of Ježek's Vítr vane pouští, became a popular hit. His novel Vara Guru includes a musical score - Postmaster Kodra's Requiem - his own composition which was performed at the office of the mass for the deceased Václav Pinkava in the old church od Sv. Mikuláš in Vršovice. All his life he was involved in various musical activities, one of these was his experience of the world of funeral singers or "Mrchopěvci", which he describes in such a superb way in his literary debut, the novel which was awarded the Egon Hostovský prize. He was an active musician both at home and abroad. He could also have been a professional logician and mathematician. he was often invited to lecture at international conferences of higher mathematics because of his discovery of a broad class of functionally complete multiple-valued logics, named Pinkava Logics. he was so proud of this feat that it was his wish that the four symbols of the basic functors be carved in the corners of his headstone. He could have been a philosopher - he began his studies at University with this subject. He could have been a professional caricaturist - one who was both biting and witty, pleasant and merciless. One only has to look through the pen and ink drawings which he published in his novels - this time in the guise of illustrator Kamil Troud. he could have been, and in truth he was, an excellent clinical psychologist - both in Prague and in Colchester, where he worked his way up to the position of Principal Psychologist and became an honorary member of King§s College. London University. I personally believe that he could have been a much better literary historian than I am myself - if, that is, he had wanted to spend time on such ephemeral activity.
In the end he went professional with the one talent which I consider his greatest - he became a Czech writer in exile. As an author he remained a personality which was always different, one which withstood outside pressures, one which was received positively or negatively, but hardly ever with indifference. This controversial individualist lived life as a Czech at a time which demanded collective totalitarian assent. In the Czech lands of his birth he chose to take up the position of a solitary outsider, constantly prosecuted but never broken. The first such incident was during the Nazi occupation when he was expelled in his fourth year at grammar school for ridiculing German language teaching. The second time he was expelled from Charles University during the winter semester of 1948/49. It was only by a miracle that he was freed in a trial, naturally a political trial, during which he had been accused of preparing an armed uprising. he only narrowly escaped being conscripted into the notorious "Black Baron" unit. Thanks to an absurd stroke of luck he was able to return to university to study psychology in the 50s - a former employee of his father's business who was grateful that his boss had once paid for his false teeth had become a nomenclature cadre with influence over admissions to higher education. As a graduate Pinkava was only able to take up a position which no one else wanted - in the clinic for sexual deviations. This became a significant experience in his life. As late as 1968 after earlier delays he defended his thesis for the Candidature (the equivalent of a PhD) - which, in line with the Soviet model, was the only "ticket" to a place among experts, a place almost impossible to aspire to from outside the communist ranks - and in the autumn of the same year he emigrated to England, complete with his family.
Pinkava's life is chracteristic of that section of his generation which had never identified itself with the communist vision of a brighter tomorrow. This is the source of Křesadlo's almost obsessive distaste for Milan Kundera's view that the "better half" of the nation enthusiastically joined in the Marxist-Leninist ideology (Kniha smíchu a zapomění) and this is the source of the evaluative expressions "Stalinist Nightingale". He quite justifiably considered himself and those like himself to be the "better half" and this is the point of departure for his works.
His life experience together with his creative inventiveness and extensive reading are the fertile soil from which such interesting work grew. Křesadlo's entry onto the literary scene is marked by a number of handicaps. He made his debut as a prose writer at the age of 58 when others of his generation were already well settled and entrenched in their literary positions. He was an educated traditionalist who felt the link between the wrod art and artisan (n. a skilleed workman; craftsman), he valued the craft of literature - and he was master of it. What is more, he had what I call " the talent to horrify": he saw things as they are, not the way they should be. He knew about strange behaviour in abnormal situations, he wrote of unbridled passions, of the loss of common inhibitions, he was provocative in creating an atmosphere of looseness and the fall of social standards. The World Order is refuted, it turns int grotesque" The apparently closely familiar world is suddenly unmasked as strange and dishonest, the existing sense of direction fails and the curtain rises on the bizarre theatre of reality. Among the motifs of the grotesque are madmen and individuals who are mentally disturbed, there are anthropomorphic monsters, fantastic animals, mutants, in whom the features of various real life creatures are combined.
I would also like to mention a problem which has sometimes caused Křesadlo to be excluded from the ranks of Czech literature - it is the frequent motif of overexposed sex. Tha majority of critics fail to notice that in Křesadlo's work these moments are always a method for parody and radical irony. perversions, ritual sex, the whole palette of sexual deviations are for the author a fundamental metaphor for the failing of tried and tested conservative values and social instinct, a metaphor for barbarism, upheaval and chaos. Křesadlo was a moralist in the best sense of the word. Unusual sexual practices - as he called them - were a tool for ridiculing the semantically empty segments, always the subject of bitter parody. His rejections of cheap sentimental optimism, his distanced sarcasm, his biterness over socierty's rejection of wisdom - these are the reasons why Křesadlo destroys, why he violates the accepted codes of communication with intentional non-conformism. Křesadlo's insane world of fanatics and demagogues is deviant and extreme. The grotesque smashes the universal image of communist progress.
Radical eclecticism is a frequent element in Křesadlo's texts: his own personal experience of life combines with his knowledge stemming from extensive and indepth reading. The result is a text similar to the palimpsest of the Middle Ages. When the scribe scraped the original text off the parchment and then wrote his new text over it, the old text could still be seen behind the new. Similarly, in Křesadlo's works it is impossible to distinguish clearly between the elements of other works of literature and the author's own. The author himself continually comments on this syncretic structure, thus forcing the reader to notice it. he makes him play with meaning, search for it, ponder. Frequently Křesadlo imagines how he himself might have written someone else's text - and sometimes he also does so. For example he had read Fischl's idyll Kuropění and he wrote his own version of the life of the country doctor in the novel Zámecký pán aneb Antikuro.
When the reader enters the bizarre world that is Křesadlo's prose (a total of thirteen books have been published in the period 1984 -1996) he may well at first feel himself buried under a mound of examples of strange behavious in abnormal situations. The deeper he delves into that world, however, the more it will fascinate him. he will be able to appreciate how the wonderful narrative diverges into numerous digressions, how the author both entertains and torments him, and how he tactfully educates him. It is unfortunate that the reader only has access to a small selection of Křesadlo's poetry and that the exceptional translation of Seifert's Věnec Sonetů into English is so difficult to come by.
In conclusion I would like to express my hope -which is supported by the interest shown by my students - that the band of the "happy few" fans of Křesadlo's work will continue to grow and that you will also find your way to enjoy his legacy.
- Dr. H. Kupcová

The literary cultural heritage of Central Europe in the 20th century tends to be associated with a few legendary names: Kafka, Werfel, Rilke, later Canetti or Milosz, and Milan Kundera, who is venerated more abroad than in his native country.
In truth, however, the world of Central European literature, encompassing the century as it draws to a close, is much richer than that and we witness many more inspirational authors, often denied the scope to publish during much of their lifetime, or, having lived and worked in exile, reaching their readership after an uncomfortable delay.
Such writers have paradoxically tended to enter the context of the domestic literary scene as latter-day novices, albeit swiftly acquiring the status of literary classics upon critical review.
In modern Czech literature, just such a living classic storyteller novelist was, until his premature demise, the author Jan Křesadlo (1926 - 1995), whose creative energy covered such areas as poetry, classical philology and music, as well as novel-writing.
He did not publish as a young man, was persecuted during the Nazi occupation of Prague and again after the Communist coup of 1948 and then spent years working at the Prague University Teaching Hospital outpatient clinic for sexual deviations.
After August 1968 Křesadlo opted for exile in Great Britain and settled with his immediate family in Colchester, where he worked as the Head of Psychology at Severalls Hospital. In Colchester, he was known under his own name of Dr. Václav Pinkava, and known for (among other things) his contributions to the theory of Multiple Valued Logics, and for being an active member of the Czechoslovak emigre community in London.
He started writing only in his retirement - whereupon his very first book, a biting political parody of the Czech situation under Stalinism - Mrchopěvci (the title is pejorative slang for Funeral Singers) won him the prestigious Egon Hostovský Literature-in-exile award in 1984.
Jan Křesadlo was more than a mere writer: thanks to his outlook on life and broad range of interests he fully represented The Renaissance Man. From his perspective, his books about the tragic absurdities of civilisation in Central Europe and beyond (in fictitious countries or on an invented planet mimicking Earth) are sarcastic moral tales, holding up a series of distorting mirrors to mankind.
That is not to say that Křesadlo's books are full of moralising lectures to his fellow man or monotonous pleading for moral rectitude: his world-view was, first and foremost, enlightened and knowing, and this artist and thinker harboured not the slightest doubt that this world is not reasonable or wise - that it can even fall prey to its own tendencies to entropy, and is capable of creating forms of society which are anti-life.
The period which Křesadlo experienced at first hand - life in Czechoslovakia during the time of the Soviet political protectorate, the time of political delusions and immense twisting of the moral fibre under power-struggle pressures - is an example of such an absurd social existence.
It was to this theme, this case-history of social co-existence, that the author constantly returned, linking it variously to a political form of sexual deviation, to the period of Satanism in Bohemia, to a time of lost faith and hope. His vantage point was his critical scepticism, his critical faculty, even more critical as more values were forsaken, in particular as mind-science and morality were reaching their nadir beyond Central Europe.
Jan Křesadlo's books are a body of fascinating postmodern parables of European and Czech social circumstances in the latter half of the 20th century, and his thematic excursions into other times and foreign space (something to which he devoted his monumental epic Astronautilia, written in parallel Czech and Ancient Greek verse!) are sarcastic metaphors, illustrating the loss of humanity in a period of history which seems to have entirely lost its sense of direction.
With this view of the world and Man's place within the scheme of things, Křesadlo makes a worthy successor to George Orwell as well as Graham Greene (in particular in his trilogy Fuga Trium) but by contrast we find in his work an incomparably broader palette of genres, ranging from anti-utopian sci-fi (Girgal) through surrealist poetry in prose (Dvacet snů), allegorical poetry satire (Vertikální spílání) right up to a party-piece discourse debunking the false legends of Czech exile (Obětina).
Even where Jan Křesadlo seems to be merely depicting those obscure and bizarre, albeit characteristic aspects of Czech provincial life (e.g. in the novel Vara Guru or in Království české a jiné polokatolické povídky), his effervescent, vivid storytelling is once again a metaphor for the inescapable issues of existence in the modern world.
At the same time he manages to combine a higher plane of universalistic discourse about the world at large with a remarkable empathy for all his figures, of whom he tends to speak with the hint of a smile, putting them in enlightened perspective, which, however, often ends in a wincing grimace.
This peerless creator is only gradually being discovered by Czech literature, but it is clear that literature's future beckons to this exceptional writer and polymath. For the world according to Křesadlo will not go away. Quite possibly, the world will increasingly become Křesadlo's world. - Vladimír Novotný

Czech émigré writer Jan Křesadlo (Vaclav Pinkava), an unexpected interlude in my reading – and another fascinating example of an Eastern European author emerging to prominence after the fall of the literary Iron Curtain - came to my attention by mention of him on a forum concerning literature that contributors wished to see translated into English. In fact, one of Křesadlo’s novels – Mrchopěvci (English title: Gravelarks) – has been translated, in a bilingual Czech-English edition by Mata Press of Prague with black and white illustrations by Křesadlo’s son, Oscar-winning animator Jan Pinkava (two items in this edition that fit my book publishing wish list: attention to binding, with quality paper and a ribbon bookmark, and the courtesy - understandably extendable only to short works - of including the original language version to accompany the translation). Reproduced in the book is a 1987 letter from Josef Škvorecký heaping praise upon the novel - which Škvorecký’s own publishing-house-in-exile, Sixty-Eight Publishers, issued in Czech in Toronto in 1984 - and soliciting interest for an English translation. Alas, it took another 12 years for one to appear, this 1999 Mata edition, which then apparently vanished like a comet. My search of on-line booksellers turned up zero available copies, not even from Mata in Prague, so I was happy to find it in my local library. Gravelarks, a wild, blackly funny work of biting protest and deceptively light-hearted sarcasm aimed at communist rule in Czechoslovakia - “after the year 1948, but still long before the period of the ‘thaw,’ as in so many other émigré novels” - takes its title from the occupation of its main character, an ordinary young nobody named Zderad who, having fallen out of favor with the dominant Stalinist political paradigm, must support his wife and infant son by singing dirges at funerals along with other “gravelarks.” It’s a gray existence, unleavened by the coffin-shaped apartment he inhabits with his family in a grimy part of the city and by the ostracism he experiences as an outcast from the state. But, as the narrator repeatedly observes with Candidean optimism, it still isn’t (quite) “the worst of all possible worlds.” One day after singing for a funeral, Zderad finds himself suddenly plunged into a greater, more nightmarish humiliation when confronted by a tall, pale stranger who produces a photocopy of an anti-Stalinist bit of doggeral Zderad wrote - in Greek - while still a grade school student. Under the oppressive paranoia of the time, however, even such an innocuous little poem would signify “practically a death certificate for its creator,” and the stranger is able to coerce Zderad into a crumbling tomb in the cemetery and subject him to sexual blackmail.
As the blackmailer demands new and increasingly florid encounters, Zderad’s situation is further complicated not only by his diverse attempts to uncover his exploiter’s identity but also by his awareness of a psychosexual power dynamic in which he obtains both profit (he’s paid for his “services”) and an embarrassing element of pleasure:
The cruel mental pleasure of unspeakably obscene power over the horrible blackmailer fused with the sepulchral lover’s revolting but effective caresses, spiced with his muffled sobs and grunts. The posterior of the stinking mandrill, which is incredibly obscene, offends the more sensitive visitor to the Zoo, yet it shines with a symphony of delicate and pronounced hues of greens, reds, blues and purples. Metallic shining flies for example of the genus Calliphora which revel in excrement and carrion, are of a similarly glorious coloration, as are many species of dung beetle. Thus the radiance and glory of Being permeate all its levels. Uninfluenced by the spectacle it was illuminating, the flame of the candle burned with a beautiful and glorious brightness, and, at the same time, Zderad’s lust also flared up in spite of himself. Pulsating, it glowed colourfully with ever greater strength until it finally exploded into a cosmic firework.
The novel follows Zderad’s various attempts to unyoke himself from this sordid exploitation, find inner courage and identity, and rediscover the moment of romantic tranquility and happiness he’d experienced years before when he first met his wife while swimming at a lake in the countryside. Křesadlo’s narrative takes the reader on a picaresque journey through the vicissitudes of Stalinist rule, recounted by a charming, lively, self-interrogating émigré narrator, acutely conscious of his role as storyteller and of his obligation to avoid falling into typical literary pitfalls such as those of the emerging genre of “Easterns,” which of necessity contain “secret policemen, blackmailers, whores and other typical characters” just as “Westerns” contain common elements of “guns, horseriding and the odd bit of cattle ranching.” What results is a freewheeling, anything goes narrative punctuated by bits of musical score and phrases in Greek, propelled with a rocketing narrative velocity that can nonetheless stop on a dime for the narrator to interject his own views or question his own narrative style, even shift gears entirely by suddenly inserting, as an “Intermezzo,” a brief parable in order to more thoroughly (and grotesquely) get across a point.

Křesadlo’s contempt for the communist regime infects the novel at every turn; it’s spiked with scathing references to dogma and institutionalized politics; to the “Youth Unions,” “Joyful Corrective Centers” and other statist institutions with Orwellian names; to the “consumers” who “got out” and turned their backs on those left behind; to acquiescent intellectuals in the West; and in general to the “radishes” (red on the outside, white on the inside) who constituted “most of the contemporary population of Czechoslovakia.” The narrator reserves special scorn for state-supporting intellectuals and for the dreadful state of Czech literature of the time (in a somewhat performative self-interview Křesadlo wrote in the 1990's, his distaste for Milan Kundera was apparent):
a desert…almost total…the better writers of the future were at that time still in a state of embryonic latency. Some, but not all of them, were writing and publishing true and honest byzantine odes to Stalin, only in the Czech and Slovak languages, of course…
Commenting further on the severity of the literary drought, the narrator notes that the only other books still to be found were those in antiquarian bookshops, “remnants of eliminated ethnic groups” to “be had for next to nothing, because, comrades, who’d want to read them?”
If there’s one element I found slightly bothersome in Gravelarks, it’s Křesadlo’s use of “sexual deviance” as a metaphor for communist corruption (Křesadlo held a degree in psychology and worked for years as a clinical psychologist at the mental hospital affiliated with Charles University, specializing in sexual aberrations). As though there are not already in literature enough homosexual characters portrayed as monsters, Křesadlo appears to go even one better by referring quite simply to Zderad’s exploiter as “the Monster.” But at the same time, the character is so utterly over the top – what starts as a altogether ordinary sexual act blossoms into an astoundingly baroque variety of sexual obsessions and pathologies, both homo-and hetero-sexual, and increasingly monstrous, incorporating even kidnapping and murder – that it’s next to impossible to take him seriously as anything other than metaphor. It’s abundantly clear that by rendering Stalinist communism as a grotesquerie of sordid sexual depravity, Křesadlo mocks the brightly polished, seamless moral certitude of the state’s self-congratulatory self-image. And to be fair, Křesadlo - who, during his lifetime, was instrumental in efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Czechoslovakia - provides another, far more sympathetic homosexual character as a foil. Still, while this may simply reflect a weariness of such depictions on my part, not to mention the American cultural lens through which I couldn't help but view the book, the device struck me as uncomfortably close to the manner in which, for example, religious fanatics expediently and routinely assign blame for all of a country’s woes to “sexual deviance " (of course, we've all seen what lies beneath that particular brand of polished, seamless moral certitude...).
In the end, though, Křesadlo’s evident talents trumped whatever slight misgivings I had regarding his choice of metaphors. I found myself frequently laughing out loud while swept along by his glittering, barbed, ebullient, acrobatic prose and delighted by the sheer dexterity and breadth of his language, his frequent use of outlandish, comical imagery, and the occasional descriptive gem (i.e. “The sky was as mild as a cow’s eye”). One can only hope that Gravelarks will return to print in English, and that more of Křesadlo’s works will be made available to allow English readers to explore further this remarkable novelist / poet / scholar / composer / linguist / activist. I would be especially interested to see a translation of what is purported to be his magnum opus: “Astronautilia,” an epic science fiction poem modeled after Homer’s “Odyssey,” running to more than 6,500 lines, and written entirely in classical Greek, with Czech translation on facing pages. - 

Seven Sparks: an anthology of seven short stories by Jan Křesadlo,selected and translated by VZJ Pinkava



Roberto Arlt - Brutal, uncouth, caustic, and brilliantly colored, The Seven Madmen takes its bearings from Dostoyevsky while looking forward to Thomas Pynchon and Marvel Comics

The Seven Madmen
Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen, Trans. by Nick Caistor. NYRB Classics, 2016.

A weird wonder of Argentine and modern literature and a crucial work for Julio Cortázar, The Seven Madmen begins when its hapless and hopeless hero, Erdosain, is dismissed from his job as a bill collector for embezzlement. Then his wife leaves him and things only go downhill after that. Erdosain wanders the crowded, confusing streets of Buenos Aires, thronging with immigrants almost as displaced and alienated as he is, and finds himself among a group of conspirators who are in thrall to a man known simply as the Astrologer. The Astrologer has the cure for everything that ails civilization. Unemployment will be cured by mass enslavement. (Mountains will be hollowed out and turned into factories.) Mass enslavement will be funded by industrial-scale prostitution. That scheme will be kicked off with murder. “D’you know you look like Lenin?” Erdosain asks the Astrologer. Meanwhile Erdosain struggles to determine the physical location and dimensions of the soul, this thing that is causing him so much pain.
Brutal, uncouth, caustic, and brilliantly colored, The Seven Madmen takes its bearings from Dostoyevsky while looking forward to Thomas Pynchon and Marvel Comics.by Roberto Arlt, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

An extraordinary portrait of 1920s Buenos Aires, with the existential angst of Sartre's Nausea, the spiritual drama of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and the apocalyptic cult appeal of Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Remo Erdosain's Buenos Aires is a dim, seething, paranoid hive of hustlers and whores, scoundrels and madmen, and Erdosain feels his soul is as polluted as anything in this dingy city. Possessed by the directionlessness of the society around him, trapped between spiritual anguish and madness, he clings to anything that can give his life meaning: small-time defrauding of his employers, hatred of his wife's cousin Gregorio Barsut, a part in the Astrologer's plans for a new world order... but is that enough? Or is the only appropriate response to reality - insanity?Written in 1929, The Seven Madmen depicts an Argentina on the edge of the precipice. This teeming world of dreamers, revolutionaries and scheming generals was Arlt's uncanny prophesy of the cycle of conflict which would scar his country's passage through the twentieth century, and even today it retains its power as one of the great apocalyptic works of modern literature.

If great means anything at all, then Arlt is surely a great writer ... he is Latin America's first truly urban novelist ... this is the power which inspired literature possesses
- Guardian

The reader is possessed almost demonically by these characters ... an indestructible force of great literature - Julio Cortázar
Let's say, modestly, that Arlt is Jesus Christ. Argentina, of course, is Israel and Buenos Aires is Jerusalem ... Arlt is quick, a risk taker, adaptable, a born survivor ... Arlt is a Russian, a character from Dostoyevsky, while Borges is an Englishman, a character from Chesterton or Shaw or Stevenson ...without doubt an important part of Argentinian and Latin American literature. - Roberto Bolaño
Arlt is, plain and simple, the father of the modern Argentinian novel ... he is the most important Argentinian novelist, the greatest. - Ricardo Piglia
If ever anyone from these shores could be called a literary genius, his name was Roberto Arlt ... I am talking about a novelist who will be famous in time ... and who, unbelievably, is almost unknown in the world today. - Juan Carlos Onetti
[Arlt] wryly memorialized the polyglot vitality of Buenos Aires as a menacing objective correlative of his own—and, by extension, modern man’s—alienation and psychic disintegration.
Kirkus Reviews

Arlt (1900-1942) was an Argentinian writer of the '20s and '30s whose work was unheralded during his lifetime. Now it is recognized as a seminal influence on Argentinian modernism. In translating Arlt's best-known novel, written in 1929, Caistor notes that he has retained the ""incoherencies"" of Arlt's hurried prose, but the power of Arlt's vision remains strong. The protagonist, Remo Erdosain, is an inventor and a crank. His search for 600 pesos to pay back the sugar company he swindled leads to the kidnapping and supposed murder of his wife's cousin, Gregorio Barsut. The most sinister of Erdosain's friends is the Astrologer, a messianic terrorist. One of the Astrologer's followers, a pimp known as ""The Melancholy Thug,"" gives Erdosain the money to pay back his employers, but the embezzlement suddenly seems like a minor problem compared to Erdosain's spiritual deterioration. When Erdosain's wife runs off with an army captain, he plots with the Astrologer to kidnap and kill Barsut. Erdosain wants revenge, and the Astrologer wants to use Barsut's money to buy a brothel. As Erdosian's fantasies blur into reality, we are treated to a world reminiscent of the intense Georg Grosz paintings of sex murderers. The Astrologer, with his enthusiasm for both the KKK and Bolshevism, is perhaps Arlt's most frightening creation, and a shocking prefiguration of Juan Peron, 15 years before anyone had heard of the dictator-to-be. Arlt's magnum opus will lure new readers into a keenly rendered dystopia where official facts and psychic fictions tend to change places. His dark imagination uncannily foretold the impending political milieu. —Publishers Weekly

One day someone will write a book explaining why settler societies produce such wonderful, ground-breaking fiction, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States - and Latin America - continuously contributing a stream of novels that far outpace the contemporary creations of Europe. My own hunch is that many of these countries still retain some of the elements of 19th- century European society and consequently provide a sympathetic culture in which the novel - that pre-eminently 19th-century European creation - can survive and thrive.
Argentina is a European settler society that has always lived about 50 years behind the rest of the world. So it is not surprising that Roberto Arlt's famous book Los Siete Locos, first published in Buenos Aires in 1929 and now available from Serpent's Tail as The Seven Madmen, in an excellent English translation by Nick Caistor, has long been compared with the writings of Dostoievsky. Yet any reader today would observe that the striking aspect of Arlt's book is not so much that it looks back to earlier European models, but that it casts a long shadow forward over the subsequent 50 years. So firmly rooted was Arlt in the explosive urban society and political culture of his time that his book is able to illuminate what was actually to happen during the first Peronist era in the 1940s and in the country's later descent into violence in the 1970s after Juan Peron had returned as President for the last time. It is one of the great books of the 20th century.
Roberto Arlt, born in 1900 in Buenos Aires with an immigrant father from the Polish-German borderlands, was a journalist who, in the relay-race of Argentinian fiction-writing, received the baton from Ricardo Guiraldes, author of Don Segundo Sombra, an iconic novel that idealised the old world, then passing, of the gaucho and the pampas. Arlt was briefly Guiraldes's secretary, but soon abandoned the old rural world to become one of the first to describe the angst of a new generation of settlers in the harsh environment of the ever-expanding and increasingly unfamiliar city. His depiction of the anguished lower middle class of Buenos Aires, their futurist fantasies endlessly coming to grief on the rocks of the sordid and hopeless present, provides the perfect guide to the development of fascismo criollo, the indigenous fascist culture that was later to provide General Peron with much of his popular support.
The anti-hero, Augusto Remo Erdosain, is a small-time swindler and brothel-frequenter with a rich fantasy life, a man who has been waiting forever for fortune to smile on him. Seeking to raise money to pay off his debts, he teams up with The Astrologer, the first of the seven madmen, who has a brilliant scheme to organise a Secret Society, financed by the profits from brothels, that will seek to overthrow the state. To this end, The Astrologer has joined forces with The Melancholy Thug, a wealthy and guilt-free pimp who will run the organisation's brothels. The Thug justifies his trade on the grounds that his exploitation of women is no worse than the capitalists' exploitation of workers. Other assistance comes from The Major, who will take care of the armed forces, and The Gold Prospector, who has already surveyed possible sites in the country where the secret society will set up its training camps.
The plotters need seedcorn of 20,000 pesos to set up the brothels and the training camps, and they plan to obtain this by murdering a rich cousin of Erdosain's wife. The murder itself is to be left in the hands of The Man Who Saw The Midwife. These fictional creations all have their own tales to tell, but it is the fantasies of The Astrologer and The Major that become transferred from fiction to fact and give Arlt's novel its transcendental charge. The Major's vision of a fictitious revolutionary force, specialising in terrorist attacks that would create a state of revolutionary agitation, was to become the model for a later Argentina. Arlt even foresaw what would happen next.
'We military people' will then step in, says The Major. 'We will say that in view of the government's evident inability to defend the institutions of the fatherland, business or the family, we are taking over the state, and declaring a temporary dictatorship.' The Argentine military did indeed 'step in' in 1930, the year after the novel was published, and they never ceased to do so over the following decades, their last and most vicious intervention occurring in 1976.
The Peron Novel, by Tomas Eloy Martinez, deals with the years immediately before that final apocalypse, and in doing so, it turns Roberto Arlt upside down. Fiction that became fact is now historical fact turned into surrealist fiction. The Peron Novel is an entertaining and largely accurate account of the extraordinary last years of the Argentinian caudillo before his death in 1974. Arlt's Astrologer has been transmogrified into the real life figure of Jose Lopez Rega, the secretary of Peron's wife Isabel, a man who believed that he was the reincarnation of the Prophet Daniel and succeeded in casting an evil spell over the entire country. Much of the novel revolves around the incident during Peron's famous return to the Buenos Aires airport at Ezeiza in 1973, when a fatal shoot-out occurs between the rival wings of his movement.
Although amusing, and fascinating for anyone caught up in the excitements of that time, the huge cast of characters in The Peron Novel will probably only make sense to those familiar with the real story. Martinez was a journalist at the time, and knew them all, including Peron, but his amorphous story does not really hold together as a novel.
His publisher had clearly hoped to capitalise on the success of an earlier book (actually written later), Santa Evita, which dealt in a similar way with the bizarre story of the wanderings of the corpse of Eva Peron. Yet in Latin America the truth is almost invariably stranger than fiction - witness the magic realism of a Chilean dictator languishing in the captive luxury of the Wentworth estate - and few novelists have been able to compete successfully with the real thing. - Richard Gott

We might look at Argentine literature as a breaking down into two camps. On the one hand there’s Borges: sophisticated, yet playfully ironic, and drawn to labyrinthine twists and turns. On the other there’s Julio Cortázar: a blend of Edgar Allen Poe and the French surrealists, with a bent for jazz-inspired improvisation. These writers are the big two in Argentine literature, celebrated on an international level, and yet both describe Argentina as outsiders looking in, having left their homeland for Europe. But then this dichotomy is disrupted by a third figure, not as well-known outside of Argentina: Roberto Arlt. A contemporary of Borges, Arlt is firmly part of the Argentine canon, having detailed life in Buenos Aires with an intimacy that neither Borges nor Cortázar ever achieved.
The son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Arlt grew up in an impoverished barrio of Buenos Aires, living in close quarters with the kinds of sketchy characters that would later appear in his novels. His formal education ended when we was only eight years old, at which point he quit school and began working a series of odd jobs around the city. He was a true autodidact, reading voraciously throughout his youth, and he eventually found his own language for tackling profound themes—a crude and colloquial language peppered with inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. Compared to the polished prose of Borges, Arlt’s writing comes off as the work of an incessant inventor, a welder and dock worker from a rough neighborhood who assembled his vocabulary from novels, manuals on engineering, and street slang. Naturally, this made him an easy target for critics who dismissed him as a bad writer.
Considered by most to be Arlt’s masterpiece, the 1929 novel Los siete locos is poetic, absurd, and sobering. At its center is Remo Erdosain, a petty thief working a dull job at the Sugar Company who is seduced by the ideas of a cult-like figure called the Astrologer. He becomes entangled in a plot to murder his wife’s cousin, Barsut, in order to fund the Astrologer’s tyrannical plans.
Arlt is the sort of writer who will cut pages upon pages of ideological jargon with a supple and sparse reflection like: “The Major fell silent. Everyone in the flowery summer-house burst into applause. A pigeon flew off.” His incredible, if uneven, style was derided throughout his lifetime, yet it is precisely what Julio Cortázar praises in his introduction to The Seven Madmen. After pointing out Arlt’s tendency toward the sentimental and the crude, he writes, “Once Arlt starts to write ‘well,’ little remains of the terrible strength of his ‘bad’ writing.”
Arlt’s imagery oscillates between cliché and ingenuity. Describing his protagonist’s anguish, he’ll often dole out flat lines like, “He felt he was deep inside a tomb, that he would never again see the light of day,” and “Erdosain walked on as disconsolate as a leper.” But these become scaffolds from which Arlt propels into startlingly lucid images: “His anguish was that of a man who carries a fearful cage inside him, where prowling, blood-stained tigers yawn among a heap of fish bones, their remorseless eyes poised for their next leap.” It is this subtle wavering between what Cortázar calls “good” and “bad” writing that makes Arlt less accessible than his better-faring contemporaries. And it definitely explains why it took so long for Arlt to be translated, a first translation of The Seven Madmen by Naomi Lindstrom only appearing in 1984. Nick Caistor’s remarkable re-translation of this idiosyncratic texture into the English language is immensely successful and must have been a painstaking process.
Beyond style, The Seven Madmen is an ideological experiment that tears open topics considered taboo for early 20th century novels, among them masturbation, abortion, and prostitution. Arlt daringly devotes an entire four pages to a description of the protagonist’s sexual fantasies under the symbolic section header “The Black House.” His protagonists are thieves, gamblers, prostitutes, and, yes, madmen of 1920s Buenos Aires, and yet they are our sole companions. We cling to them through the neighborhoods and outlying suburbs of the port city as they wrestle with desperation, alienation, and violence, always on the verge of madness.
It’s hard not to read the novel as a damning of society. The Astrologer’s speeches—he gives many—delve into politics and philosophy before spiraling into absurdity. He doesn’t hide his intentions: to manipulate the city’s disillusioned and miserable in order to create a violent uprising. The Astrologer’s vision recalls the fascist elements brewing throughout the world at the time that Arlt composed The Seven Madmen, while chillingly drawing on the Ku Klux Klan for inspiration (the Astrologer proffers maps of the Klan’s prominence throughout the United States to demonstrate the feasibility of his own violent takeover). The Astrologer doesn’t seem to care which ideology he uses to enslave humanity—communism, white supremacy, nationalism—in fact, he intends to use them all. The irony of reading this novel today, in light of the Second World War and Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, is the sobering thought that while these characters may verge on madness, their ideas are all rooted in frighteningly real premonitions.
Buenos Aires appears to be on the edge of something dangerous, but politics are only one element. Below the surface of the novel is Arlt’s interest in mass-production and its effects on humanity. Arlt considered himself an inventor, and he plays out his fascination with technology by making Erdosain an amateur inventor as well. Although this novel predates Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by seven years, there are definite parallels. Both Benjamin and Arlt connect the idea of an object’s loss of authenticity with a human’s loss of soul. Erdosain’s primary invention, copper roses, symbolizes what is at risk. What first seems like an absurdity drawn from a line of surrealist poetry comes to feel more and more sinister as it continues to crop up in the novel. To encase a rose in metal would be, in Benjamin’s words, “to pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura.” The rose would lose its smell, the delicate flowering and wilting of its petals, its transience. Its mechanical reproduction would immortalize it, yes, but at the cost of its soul.
Erdosain’s soul is similarly in jeopardy. Agonizing over his complicity in the hours before the planned murder of Barsut, Erdosain describes the wretched state of his soul, “detached for ever from any human emotion.”
Depending on how you read it, Arlt’s novel is full of soul or completely lacking in it. There are things to make the eyes roll here, among them the overly dramatic dialogue, or the stumbling over ideas lacking any real order. But this was Arlt’s mind, his language. And it epitomized Buenos Aires’s state of flux at that time, described not from a safe distance but rather from within the turmoil. As translator Nick Caistor notes in his afterword, only months after the publication of The Seven Madmen Argentina’s president Hipólito Yrigoyen was ousted by a military coup, and that same year the country fell into its Great Depression.
If you can see no further than a Latin Americanized pastiche of Dostoevsky, you’ve missed the point. While the murder plot is undoubtedly Dostoevskian, the spirit of The Seven Madmen cannot be divided from the aura of Buenos Aires, the feeling of its imminent destruction. At stake is not only Erdosain’s soul but the well-being of all of humanity. For Arlt, the two are one in the same. -

Before you read a single word of Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen­, you might see a quote attributed to Roberto Bolaño, on the back cover: “Let’s say, modestly, that Arlt is Jesus Christ.”
You can read this novel—just re-issued by NYRB Classics—without knowing what Bolaño meant by that, one of the many dozens of blurbs he’s left scattered throughout Spanish literature. You can ignore the blurb, and instead just open the book and read it; you can have an original relationship with the words on the page; it can be just you and this anxious, vexed, and splenetic novel about a man who embezzles from his boss, is fired, left by his wife, and turns to crime, murder, and millenarian fantasies. Maybe this is what you should do.
The Seven Madmen is a classic. Remi Erdosain is an unforgettable protagonist, as vulnerable and sympathetic as he is vicious and loathsome. While he might remind you of a character from Dostoyevsky (or Poe or Joyce), the psycho-geography he traverses is unique to this novel, and to its sequel (the still untranslated 1931 follow-up The Flame-Throwers). Arlt’s Buenos Aires is the underground exposed to the noonday sun, a mass of anxious confusion and everyday terrors in which everyone turns out to be the Lumpenproletariat. In Arlt’s Argentine capital, all are lost in the crowd and in their own confused fantasies.
When “like a caged beast” Erdosain “paces back and forth in his lair, surrounded by the indestructible bars of his incoherence,” he is a particular kind of horrifying everyman, the kind who—in their masses—make the city a playground for fascism. As Erdosain falls under the spell of character called “The Astrologer”—a cynical ideologue who wants to enslave the world for its own good, by telling lies the world wants to believe—Arlt dips into the well of hurt and fear and desire out of which one might build an empire. And yet for all its references to Mussolini and Lenin (or the fact that some have credited Arlt with “anticipating” the rise of Peronismo in Argentina), this book is not about the real world in any serious way. It’s not a political novel, but a philosophical one. Society is an illusion, the surface of an ocean of pain and longing that churns beneath, forever present, the only thing that never changes.
Can you have an original relationship with a “classic”?
In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained that “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face,” but that “we” could only seem to see “through their eyes.” And so, his plaintive lament: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
A great many white people in the Western hemisphere have been energized by this kind of fantasy, the “new world” in a nutshell: to cast aside the past and start again from scratch. When F. O. Matthiessen coined the term “American Renaissance”—in an influential book about “the Age of Emerson and Whitman”—the handful of writers that he canonized were all riffing variations on the same theme. Having no literary tradition themselves—no predecessors they cared to claim, and certainly no American classics—U.S. writers in the first half of the 19th century made that very lack into a virtue, praising themselves for their unmediated experience of raw, barbaric nature. The old world might bury itself in the tombs of its parents, but the new world’s novelty was that it didn’t build sepulchers for its fathers, didn’t get caught up in its own classics. Instead, as Emerson demanded: “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
Many took up the challenge. Walt Whitman most prominently declared that we could and would start anew, while others – Poe, Thoreau, Melville Hawthorne ­– were carried along by the vision but were much more skeptical that it could be realized, or should be. Others who found Emerson’s vision less compelling, who stuck closer to home—people like Emily Dickinson, “Fanny Fern,” Harriet Beecher Stowe—tended to find themselves left out of the pantheon of literary fathers. It will surprise absolutely nobody to discover that Matthiessen’s American renaissance was a very masculine one.
In Argentina, something similar happened, at more or less the same time. There, the founding father was José Hernández, whose epic poem Martín Fierro used the figure of the gaucho to describe Argentina’s original relationship with itself. The gaucho was the Argentine version of the cowboy (just as the cowboy was a version of the gaucho), and, as in the U.S., it was only in the first part of the 20th century that this figure was retroactively placed at the heart of the national literary tradition. The martinfierristas—associated with the short-lived but influential avant-garde journal named after the gauchomade Martín Fierro the voice of their own modernity, their originality:
“Martín Fierro knows that ‘everything is new under the sun,’ if seen with refreshed eyes and expressed with a contemporary accent…Martín Fierro has faith in our phonetics, our way of seeing, in our habits, in our own ears, in our own ability to digest and assimilate. Martín Fierro as artist rubs its eyes every moment in order to wipe away the cobwebs constantly tangling around them: habit and custom.”
But declarations of independence are never as novel as they must style themselves to be. They are all about proclaiming the origin point of a nation’s ascension to nationhood—just like all the other nations—and then vigorously insisting that no one notice the irony.
Fascists are not well known for their appreciation of irony, and more than a few of the martinfierristas turned out to be fascists, when the time came.
Italo Calvino has what I think is the best definition of a ‘classic’: “classics” are books that we can only re-read, because we’ve always “read” them already—secondhand—long before we have the chance to read them ourselves. “Classics come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours,” as he puts it, “bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.” A classic is essentially a social text, in other words, because it’s already been collectively absorbed and distributed and owned long before you get around to putting your own hands on it. And because our society has already read the classic, we too have already read it by osmosis. To “read” a classic, then, is not to discover something new, but to enter a long-running conversation that you’ve already been a part of, even before you became consciously aware of it.
Can you have an original relationship with a work that’s already a part of you, already half-digested and regurgitated, a meal fed to baby birds by their mothers? After all, you will have heard the thing about the windmills long before you ever read Don Quixote; Hamlet will feel like a play composed of quotations; Romeo and Juliet will seem like a patchwork of love story clichés; you will know many stories about shipwrecks before you get around to Robinson Crusoe; and because you’ll have read or watched dozens of imitators before you ever get around to reading 1984 or Brave New World, those dystopias will feel like anything but original. How could you read any of these books for the first time? Perhaps a better metaphor would be bacterial: when any of these literary germs enter your system for the first time, they will find that you’ve inherited a store of antibodies and immunities.
The strange thing about “classics,” then, is that they’ve become clichés long before you ever get near them.
In the same way that you might know what the “Kafkaesque” is, long before you ever read Kafka or even put a name to it, Roberto Arlt’s work has long become “Arltian.” If you are Argentine, Los siete locos might already be a classic to you, and you may have already read it; you may have seen the film version from 1973, or the new mini-series; you may have read people like Onetti or Cortázar or Piglia, or any of the other writers who chewed up Roberto Arlt and have been regurgitating him ever since; you may have read Arlt in school when you were too young to understand what you were reading, and yet had him stuck in your belly, slowly digesting; or you may simply know about him, knowledge absorbed out of the penumbra of other people’s knowledge. You may know him without knowing that you do.
If you are Argentine, in other words, your relationship with Arlt could be as intimate and unarticulated as it was for Julio Cortázar, the great Argentine novelist whose introspective 1981 reflection has been translated and used as an introduction to the new NYRB Classics reissue. In the piece, Cortázar describes how he removed himself to a remote spot on the Pacific coast and rapidly re-read the entirety of Roberto Arlt’s corpus, attempting to re-discover anew one of the great authors of his youth. He was nervous at what he would find. “Everyone is familiar with those hopeful exhumations we finally perform on certain books, movies, or music,” he writes, “and the almost always disappointing results.” But Arlt does not disappoint: “Almost forty years after I first read them, I discover, with an astonishment that so closely resembles awe, to what extent I am still the reader I was the first time around.”
Arlt seems unchanged, “spared the almost inevitable degradation or dissolution that this vertiginous century has wrought upon so many of its creatures.”
Are you Argentine? Did you read Arlt decades ago and forget about it?
That introduction is a lovely mini-essay about Cortázar and his relationship to the writers of the 1920s and 30s—and about the classic that Roberto Arlt’s book had become by 1981. But if you need Cortázar’s reflections to understand why Arlt is important, or if you must follow Bolaño’s guidance to find what books to read, or if you are reading Nick Caister’s translation of Los siete locos as The Seven Madmen (and, indeed, if you are reading my review), then you are probably not Argentine, and The Seven Madmen probably does not feel like a classic. To you, the Argentina of the 1920s may come like a revelation: instead of rediscovering what you had half-forgotten, you may find Arlt’s Buenos Aires to be fresh and strange, a place you’ve never known, and would never have expected. As Remi Erdosain wanders the dreamscape of his tortured imagination—as it is projected onto the streets and apartments of Buenos Aires in the 1920s—the novel can feel like discovering a map to an underground labyrinth, buried under a city that has long since filled it in and forgotten it existed.
Again, perhaps you should simply read it; perhaps you should skip the introduction (and my review) and just dig into the book itself.
But in the same year that Cortázar repaired to the desolate Pacific coast to contemplate his literary origins, another reader proposed that there was no such thing as an unmediated reading experience. “We never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself,” wrote Fredric Jameson.
“Rather, texts come before us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or – if the text is brand-new, through the sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions.” (The Political Unconscious)
It might please us gringos to imagine that we could simply pick up a book like The Seven Madmen and read it, that like a shipwrecked sailor cast ashore in the tropics, we could quickly become self-reliant masters of our domain. But to read Arlt and find him to be like nothing you’ve read before, even that experience would come against a backdrop of inherited categories and traditions. If you find Arlt to be strange and unsettling, after all, it is because you have expectations for Latin American fiction that Roberto Arlt does not meet, because you come to Arlt expecting magical realism, the kind of hyper-intellectual formal experimentation of the Boom, or the capital L that Roberto Bolaño puts in the word “literature.”
Or it’s something else: no one comes ashore without baggage. If this book reminds you of Dostoevsky, Joyce, Kafka, Conrad—if it feels like a work of interwar modernism, like a very European book whose animating devils are Lenin and Mussolini, and utterly haunted by the specter of fascism—then it might not seem particularly “Latin American,” precisely because of the Latin America you expect to find, and don’t.
Maybe you shouldn’t try to have an original relationship with a classic. Maybe the idea of an “original relationship” is a viciously ignorant and anti-social fiction. After all, if you peel away American mythologies about coming face to face with reality on new world frontiers, you usually find a violent palimpsest where there was supposed to have been a blank slate (and where genocidal violence was used to make it into what it was supposed to have been, but wasn’t). The romantic fantasy of an “original relationship” with the world that Ralph Waldo Emerson had in the 19th century—that strain of idealism that defined the literature of the “American Renaissance” in the 1850s, sending Melville to the sea, Dickinson to metaphysics, and Thoreau to the woods—was always just warmed-over (and re-branded) barbaric romanticism of the sort that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had beaten to death a century earlier (or that Humboldt found in South America long before North American protestants ever decided to relax their self-hatred enough to go for a walk and take in the scenery). And before you could have an original relationship with nature—before you could husband the virgin land—you first had to make the land a widow, by murdering all the people who used to live there.
If the new world is, in a nutshell, the dreamer with eyes closed (“counting itself the king of infinite space”), then the Arltian is the very bad dream that troubles its sleep. At its heart, The Seven Madmen is about weak and resentful men who dream of being powerful. Remo Erdosain is an Argentine Walter Mitty: as he works his dead-end and soul-deadening job collecting debts for a sugar company, he lives a fantasy life inspired by Hollywood films, his minor genius as a self-taught engineer and inventor, and by his own strangely unhinged id. Early on, he dreams of being plucked from obscurity by a “melancholy, taciturn millionaire,” a character who he daydreams will peer out onto the street, recognize his mechanical ingenuity, and pick him out from the crowd, adopting him and giving him the money he needs to build laboratories and factories. Or he dreams of being seen on the street by a beautiful millionairess—a pale, sad, intense girl “driving her Rolls Royce just for the sake of it”—and he fantasizes that she would fall in love with him, and that they would sail off to Brazil on her yacht, there to live together in a chaste and melodramatic happiness.
These are his happy dreams, his more socially benign fantasies. But he also dreams of much darker things. “Walter Mitty” is essentially a comic short story—since Mitty’s daydreams release him to live his life unchanged—but as the story of Remo Erdosain stretches across two novels, it becomes a tragic farce. As Erdosain begins to act on his dreams, he follows them into the night: first he steals from his employers; then he kidnaps a friend; then he plots and participates in a murder. When his wife leaves him, Erdosain falls in with a messianic would-be cult leader, The Astrologer, a man who collects broken, resentful souls like Erdosain, and who has hatched a plan for world domination (somehow) involving brothels, gold mines, electro-magnetic inventions, all pasted together with resentful despair.
It’s a ludicrous dream, and a pulp fiction. But then, the irony of calling The Seven Madmen a “classic” is that it’s a notoriously poorly-written book: if there is one thing everyone agrees on, when it comes to Roberto Arlt, it’s that he lacks style. Even Arlt admitted it; in the introduction to The Flame-Throwers, he wrote that style required “comforts, income, and an idle life.” But while he “ardently craved beauty,” and felt the desire to “work on a novel that, like those of Flaubert, would be composed of panoramic canvases,” he ultimately strove to write like a punch in the mouth. “Today, amidst the racket of a social structure that is inevitably collapsing,” he said, “it’s impossible to think about embroidery.”
I’m not really sure what it means to call Arlt a writer who lacks “style,” unless we would say the same thing of Ernest Hemingway, another pulp modernist who thought boxing was a good metaphor for literature. Of course, Hemingway was ultimately another cowboy-poet, even if he learned to deconstruct “style” in Gertrude Stein’s salons in Paris. And if there is one thing Arlt never was, it was a gaucho. Neither was he a voice of authenticity: when his use of Buenos Aires street language was criticized for its inaccuracy, he responded that being born into the streets, he never had time to learn the street language properly.
Roberto Arlt was always very attentive to this kind of irony. Remi Erdosain is a deeply Joycean flâneur, while Arlt’s previous novel, The Mad Toy, gives us a portrait of the artist as a young thug. But Arlt’s Joyce is always half-glimpsed, at best; though we can presume that he read Dámaso Alonso’s 1926 translation of The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Arlt died before Ulysses was ever translated into Spanish, and he famously railed against the way it had become a fetish object in Argentina’s lettered society. Arlt couldn’t read English, but the way Joyce was taken up in Argentina, in the 1920s, was remarkable: after Jorge Luis Borges reviewed Ulysses in 1925—and translated a handful of the final pages into Spanish—this book would become the vanguard of Argentine modernism almost before it arrived in France. Like a great many in the well-educated Argentine literary class, Borges spoke and read English as fluently as he did Spanish (and more generally, the libraries of European literature were open books to him, in their original languages).
If Borges read in the library, Arlt read in the street. And if Borges tells the story of Pierre Menard rewriting Don Quixote by immersing himself in everything Cervantes could have known or read or thought—an absurd ne plus ultra of scholarly rigor which ends up by re-creating the original, exactly—then the most interesting thing about Arlt’s Ulysses is that he decided to re-write it without ever reading the original. But Arlt was functionally (and bitterly) monolingual. His parents were Prussian and Italian immigrants, and he had spoken German at home, but his limited education and working class upbringing limited his literary horizons to Spanish and what was (badly) translated into it. And so he took his style from badly-written translations, and emulated books he had heard about, but never read.
Like the occasional pretenses that Anglophile norteamericanos make of not being European, Argentine intellectuals of the early 20th century had to work hard to insist on their own indigenous traditions, retroactively creating predecessors like Martín Fierro, because the nation had become so very, very European. If Argentina had been a sparsely populated backwater in the 19th century, a vast grassland emptied of its indigenous peoples and filled with gauchos and cattle, the 20th century saw this rural settler society become a country filled with urban immigrants. By the 1920s, most Argentines were foreign-born, especially in the cities. Argentina and Buenos Aires (like the United States) would be so utterly transformed by such an unparalleled wave of European immigration that it would become totally unrecognizable to its more nativist sense of itself. Thus, the gaucho: to give white ranchers a position of centrality to the culture did the same thing as placing the white cowboy at the center of U.S. culture in the same period: putting the emotive center of the national culture in the empty spaces of native genocide and white settlement, away from the disorienting babble of the immigrant cities.
Arlt’s parents came from Italy and Prussia, for example, and he grew up speaking German before he spoke Spanish. He is therefore “Argentine” in exactly the way he isn’t: unlike Jorge Luis Borges, say, whose ancestry is the Argentine equivalent of “came over on the Mayflower,” Arlt’s ancestors did not settle the pampas, and there is not a trace of the gaucho in him, or in his work. He grew up in working-class slums which he never romanticized: like most of the European émigrés who came to South America looking for land and freedom, his parents settled in the cities because the land had already been taken, because the vast cattle-country had already been concentrated in a very few hands and because the age of the gaucho (such as it had ever been) was over.
And so, Arlt’s Argentina has no trace of the open frontier to it, and is not a “new world” at all; his Buenos Aires is a polyglot and European metropolis, anything but a melting pot or a tabula rasa. It is a volatile witch’s cauldron of modernity, reflecting and refracting the convulsions of Europe itself, as a lumpen excess clogs the city’s streets and arteries, cut off from their roots but able to find no new ground in which to grow. It is therefore filled with and defined by the broken dreams, crushed spirits, and desperation of Europe’s great failure, the long and savage aftermath of the Great War.
This is a different story about Argentina than Argentine writers have tended to tell, before Arlt and long after. And this is what Bolaño meant in calling him “Jesus”: Arlt was the messiah of a different literary gospel, albeit a road mostly not taken. Arlt wrote one truly great work—the two-part novel of which The Seven Madmen is the first part—and then he died at the age of 42, in 1942; the same age as the still-young twentieth century. So much of the twentieth century had not yet happened when Arlt died of a sudden heart attack: when he published Los siete locos in 1929, the world economy had not yet crashed, the world had not yet been reshaped by World War II (and Argentina by the 1943 coup and the advent of Juan Peron); indeed, Arlt’s naturalist fabulism was written long before the “Boom” in Latin American literature would retroactively transform his work into a revered predecessor.
Arlt was the same age as Jorge Luis Borges when he died, but it would be Borges who would become the great Argentine writer. Arlt’s entire lifetime effectively corresponds to Borges’ “early” period. And though Borges was also the same age as the twentieth century, he kept growing, living and writing for another forty years, and he never stopped feeling contemporary, even now. Postmodern successors like Barthes and Foucault—and especially by the novelists and poets whose work became “Borgesian” whether they knew it or not—always seem to pull his work forward into the present. By contrast, to read Arlt, now, is be dragged back to turn-of-the-century Argentina, to a time when a global apocalypse was clearly on the horizon but when Mussolini had not yet become a joke, when Lenin had not yet been entombed, and when the word “fascism” had not yet become a catch-all term for political evil.
When Roberto Bolaño described Arlt as the messiah—in an essay collected in Between Parentheses—he means that Arlt was the martyr upon whose corpse a literary religion could be and was built. His death “wasn’t the end of everything,” Bolaño writes, “because like Jesus Christ, Arlt had his St. Paul. Arlt’s St. Paul, the founder of his church, is Ricardo Piglia.”
Cortázar remembers Arlt’s book as a classic; Piglia remembers it as everything but a classic, because his work is not dead:
“the biggest risk today is the work of Arlt’s canonization. So far it has saved his style from going to the museum: it is difficult to neutralize this writing, and there is no professor who can resist it. It is resolutely opposed to the petty standard of overcorrection that has served to define the medium style of our literature.”
The gospels of Piglia’s church are his novels Artificial Respiration, The Absent City, or his newly translated Target in the Night, though if you truly want to understand the Piglian heterodoxy, you need to go back to the first act of this apostle, his “Homage to Roberto Arlt.”
(Bolaño does not take communion at this church, of course; calling Arlt “Jesus” is a way of mocking Piglia’s devotion to his saint. “I often ask myself,” Bolaño continued, “what would have happened if Piglia, instead of falling in love with Arlt, had fallen in love with Gombrowicz? Why didn’t Piglia devote himself to spreading the Gombrowiczian good news?” As always with Bolaño’s quotes and generous blurbs, vacuous praise takes the place of the much more interesting story which is not being told.)
For critics like Ricardo Piglia, Arlt’s early death had made him perfect for canonization, a literary forefather who could be used to sidestep Borges and to chart an alternate and forward-looking path for Argentine and Latin American literature. As Piglia’s stand-in, Enzi, argues in Artificial Respiration, Borges was essentially a 19th-century author: he might have synthesized the antinomies of civilization and barbarism that defined Argentina as a 19th-century frontier, but his was still a literature suspended between gauchos and the lettered city, between Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo and José Hernández’s Martín Fierro. In Piglia’s account, Borges made it possible for Argentine literature to move beyond this suspension: after Borges, the structuring divide for Argentina would no longer be the country and the city, no longer gauchos on the pampas and libraries in the metropolis: as Argentina was flooded with European immigrants—like Arlt’s parents—the great antagonism would be class, the high and the stylish against the low and the vulgar. But like Moses, Borges would never enter the promised land himself.
For Piglia, then, Borges wrote in good Spanish—a precise and clear style that approached perfection—but the fact that Arlt wrote “badly” is what made him important. Because Arlt’s style was no style at all—an abrasively “bad” Spanish which Arlt blamed on the conditions in which he lived and wrote, the bedlam of the streets—his writing never became aesthetic, could never be placed in a museum. Piglia deeply distrusts style; if Borges’ writing was “preciso y claro, casi perfecto” it was because he was essentially estranged from his mother tongue, and this estrangement produced a desire for perfection. In the hands of the martinfierristas—and especially Argentine writers like Leopoldo Lugones or Leopoldo Marechal—stylistic perfection was an aestheticization of politics, frankly and unapologetically fascist. Theirs was the high style of those who would purify the dialect of the tribe, and cleanse the body politic of its unwanted excess and unsightly messes.
Borges himself was explicitly anti-fascist, of course. But Piglia was and is a great reader of the implicit and unspoken. For him, to write with style was to be a secret sharer with its enemy. And if there was one thing Arlt didn’t do—and there might only have been one thing—it was that. - Aaron Bady

Madness is synonymous with insanity, but to be “mad” one doesn’t necessarily go crazy. One might be mad at society, a world of socially imposed rules that stifle the imagination or measure people according to economic usefulness. Rage against a world in which a multicultural, mostly impoverished majority are controlled by a corrupt, wealthy minority could be defined as a type of “madness.” In such a state, the individual’s warped mind drives him to fantastical plans for revenge, deep wells of anguish or panic, brothel-filled nights, petty crimes, thoughts of suicide, kidnapping, and imagined love affairs.
This is the rage that drives Augusto Remo Erdosain, the central character of Roberto Arlt’s novel The Seven Madmen, to steal money from his employer, make plans to form a new secret society with a pseudo-intellectual known only as the Astrologer, and to finance those plans with money ransomed from his wife’s cousin. Set in Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century, Arlt’s novel depicts a Buenos Aires infected with madness. Streetwalkers earn money for abusive, jealous pimps; tax collectors (like Erdosain) embezzle money; lonely men commit suicide in public.
It’s a world Arlt knew well. He worked primarily as a journalist for the Argentine newspaper El Mundo, composing sketches of Buenos Aires’ citizens for his column Aguafuertes porteñas (“Etchings of Buenos Aires”). In addition to short stories and plays and The Seven Madmen (1929), he wrote two other novels, The Mad Toy (1926) and The Flamethrowers (1931) before dying of a heart attack July 26, 1942 at 42. He returns as a compelling voice for the contemporary reader in this new translation by Nick Caistor.
With his crime, Arlt’s protagonist Erdosain confronts the hypocrisy of his hope to find a happy (i.e. anguish-free) existence and/or to fall in love with a millionairess: “He went on to imagine the happiness that would purify his life if something impossible like this were to happen: yet he knew it was easier to stop the earth turning than for such an unlikely event to take place.”
Roberto Arlt
Roberto Arlt

After Erdosain’s employer confronts him about his theft, Erdosain goes to his friend the Astrologer to ask for money to pay back the stolen sum. At the Astrologer’s house, Erdosain also meets Arturo Haffner, a pimp known as “The Melancholy Thug,” who agrees to give Erdosain the money. The Astrologer is building a new society, which will stand on the pillars of obedience and industry and will be continually sourced by a system of brothels operated and managed by Haffner. Before they can begin society building, the Astrologer needs a starting investment. The Astrologer describes the theosophy of his society to Erdosain: “We need gold to capture men’s imaginations. Just as in the past there were the mysticisms of religion and chivalry, so now we have to make industry mystical.” The Astrologer invites Erdosain to be part of this new, secret society so that he can finally fulfill his potential and develop his inventions: weaponizing Asiatic cholera bacillae, adapting steam engines to run with electro-magnetics, building a dog salon where pet owners can dye their dogs wild colors, and copperplating roses.
Erdosain suggests that the Astrologer and Haffner could kidnap his wife’s cousin Barsut, a single man with an inherited fortune of 20,000 pesos, and hold him for ransom. Unsurprisingly, Barsut dislikes Erdosain and later admits that he anonymously reported Erdosain to his employer. Barsut wanted to humiliate Erdosain in front of Elsa, Erdosain’s wife, but Elsa leaves Erdosain for a captain in the Argentine army.
Humiliated and wife-less, filled with an anguish that permeates his soul, Erdosain brings Barsut to the Astrologer’s house on the pretext that Elsa may have fled to the same area. The Astrologer and another thug named Bromberg capture Barsut and force him to give them his money.
With their starting revenue secure, the Astrologer holds a meeting for all his officers which include Erdosain, Bromberg, Haffner, a major in the Argentine army (who later turns out to be a fake), and the Gold Prospector, who claims to have found a lake of gold near Campo Chileno. The Astrologer names Erdosain his Chief of Industry, Haffner Chief of Brothels, and assigns the Gold Prospector the task of setting up a training camp in the forest. But before the society can begin, they must kill Barsut and cash the check. Despite his hatred for Barsut, Erdosain is wracked with guilt. When he returns home, he meets Hipólita, the wife of his friend Ergueta, a gambling addict with a theory for winning roulette. The theory fails and bankrupts Ergueta, who goes mad (crazy) and is sent to an asylum. Hipólita asks for Erdosain’s help to free her husband. With no one else to console him, Erdosain tells Hipólita everything and realizes that she, a prior prostitute and housemaid, is the great love he has pined for all his life.
All this madness makes for a fairly straightforward plot. But with the many asides, bouts of insanity, commentator interruptions, footnotes, feigned deaths, and deceptions, Arlt creates a world crazily chuckling at itself. After Erdosain cashes the check, the Astrologer encourages him to stick with the plan (much like Jesus calling the tax collector Matthew to rise up and follow him): “We have to believe in ourselves. Our society can spring a whole lot of surprises. We’re discoverers who have only a vague idea of the direction we’re heading in. If that!” At times brilliant, subversive, or manic (at other times Christ-like and, alternatively, Lenin-esque), the Astrologer is the novel’s madhatter, proudly holding up his tea cup and shouting: “We’re all mad here!”
If you’re keeping count of the madmen, six candidates definitely include: Erdosain, Ergueta, the Astrologer, Haffner, Barsut, and Bromberg; however, the seventh madman is less easy to identify. This person could be any of the minor characters: the Gold Prospector, the “fake” Argentine major, Captain Belaúnde (who runs away with Erdosain’s wife), Elsa, Hipólita, or the Espilas (a once-wealthy family that devotes their time to Erdosain’s copperplating invention). But I think the last madman is the unidentified commentator, who periodically reminds the reader that he is listening to Erdosain: “I remember it well. During the three days he was holed up in my house, he told me everything.”
The commentator also interjects tidbits of information with footnotes: “Commentator’s note: This chapter in Erdosain’s confessions led me to wonder whether the idea of the crime he was going to commit did not already exist in his subconscious mind, which would serve to explain his passivity in the face of Barsut’s aggression.” In fact, we may even assume that the commentator is Arlt himself because, after all, isn’t an author a bit of a madman? Arlt grew up in the slums of Buenos Aires at the turn of the twentieth century. Like thousands of European immigrants, Arlt’s parents immigrated to Argentina hoping to acquire farmland. This land was tightly controlled by a wealthy minority and so many immigrants were forced into slums where they could only find work as minor tradesmen.
In the throes of such a boiling pot, the madness of Arlt’s characters seem more revolutionary than crazy. Anger at the current organization of society is shared by everyone, including the female characters, who Arlt describes as either virgins or whores. Suspend (for a moment) the idea that Arlt might be a misogynist and consider that perhaps Arlt makes this absurdist reduction as a pointed comment of the general treatment of women—both in the outside Argentine culture and the newly imagined brothel-only culture of the Astrologer’s society. For example, Arlt describes Erdosain’s nightmare of Elsa satisfying another man:
It was useless…Elsa…yes, Elsa, his lawfully wedded wife, was trying to caress the whole of the man’s sex with her tiny hand. Groaning with desire, the man clutched his head, covered his face with his forearm, but she leant forward to brand his ears with this burning iron: “You’re more beautiful with my husband! My God, how beautiful you are!”
But then later Arlt delves into Hipólita’s point of view, recalling the pathetic simplicity of all the men she had been with:
…so they all filed past her, all linked by that same, unquenchable desire: and all of them had at one time or another let their weary heads droop on to her bare knees; and all the time she put up with their clumsy hands, the fleeting desires that stiffened these sad dummies, she thought of life as having to go thirsty in the midst of a desert.
Toward the end of the book, the Astrologer gives his own definition of madness: “What’s known as madness is simply what most people aren’t accustomed to thinking.” This statement could, in fact, describe the world of the novel—a place where madness (both insanity and rage) is the norm and sanity is far more uncommon. Arlt’s Buenos Aires is filled with madmen and madwomen clamoring, aching, for something pure and free of anguish. Do these madpeople finally achieve their dreams? Arlt ends this novel with a twist and a note from the commentator: the adventure concludes in the next volume, The Flamethrowers. - Jacqueline Kharouf

A book written seventy years ago has just been translated into English, giving wider audience to Argentinean author Roberto Arlt’s work.
The Seven Madmen is set in Buenos Aires in the then-present-time of 1929 and opens with main character, Remo Erdosain, a self-described “hollow man, a shell moved simply by the force of habit” being accused of embezzling by his employer. That accusation sets loose a chain of events in his life, which ultimately lead him to a gathering of other discontents that make ruthless, detailed plans to set up a “bandit aristocracy.” Erdosain is an anguished, pained man whose diatribes portray him as one of the madmen of the title. Nothing goes right for him: his wife, Elsa, leaves him for another man and he’s a failed inventor. Darkness pervades his very being. In The Seven Madmen Erdosain is surrounded by various other characters, richly described by Arlt: Ergueta the pharmacist, a gambler with a religious side and his wife, Hipolita, a former prostitute; Gregorio Barsut, Elsa’s cousin, a boorish moneyed man who’s the focus of the madmen’s kidnap plot.
The madmen, headed by one called the Astrologer, believe it is “magnificent lies” that drive people on. As explained to Erdosain: “Men only respond to lies. (The Astrologer) gives lies the consistency of truth; people who never have so much as budged to get anything, guys who have become totally cynical and desperate, come to life again in the truth of his lies.” What happens to Erdosain and his cohorts is continued in Arlt’s third novel, The Flamethrowers (Los Lanzallamas), which followed in 1931.
Arlt, born in Buenos Aires in 1900 of European immigrant parents, grew up in the crowded rented tenement houses of that city—aptly described throughout the book. He worked as a journalist and his first novel was published in 1926 to little critical attention. The Seven Madmen (Los Siete Locos), published three years later, suffered the same results. Arlt died—in obscurity—of a heart attack in 1942. Nick Calstor, a senior producer at the BBC World service, has translated other Latin American works and also written several books of his own on the region. - Robin Farrell Edmunds

Intro to the Long Awaited Translation of Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers

[The translation, by Larry Riley, has just been finished, and the search for a publisher will begin this Spring.]
  1. The Flamethrowers, by Roberto Art, originally published in Buenos Aires in 1931, is without question the most important Spanish language novel unavailable in English translation.
  2. The Seven Madmen, considered by English language literary critics the most important novel written by Roberto Arlt (published originally in 1929 in Buenos Aires), has been translated twice.
  3. Neither book is a novel.
  4. The Seven Madmen is the first half of a novel and The Flamethrowers is its second half.
  5. Roberto Arlt knew this. And I have no doubt that Julio Cortazar and every other Spanish language reader inspired by Arlt knew this as well. And since Arlt is considered a precursor to the ‘Magic Realist’ boom in Latin American literature, some would say its godfather, this strange fact of its botched delivery into English is an obscenity not without charm.
  6. In fact, Arlt likely published the book in two acts as he did for financial reasons. And of course it is for financial reasons that no one has bothered to publish The Flamethrowers. (Our translator, Larry Riley, knows more about this, for in addition to the difficulty of selling obscure translations, it seems there was a difficult heir in the Arlt family.)
  7. Certainly the two translators of The Seven Madmen—Naomi Lindstrom and Nick Caistor—knew that they were not really translating a whole novel. Arlt said so at the end of The Seven Madmen. Lindstrom and Caistor had to translate this: ‘*Commentator’s note: The story of the characters in this novel will continue in a second volume, The Flamethrowers.’ If that seems ambiguous it is because the commentator is unfamiliar to you as a voice who is telling this singular and, if multi-splenetic, single novel. And then there is that most benignly adamantine voice among Arlt’s nephews, Cortazar’s, in his introduction to the latest publication of The Seven Madmen (in English), referring with casual authority to ‘…what is in truth one novel with two titles.’
  8. Arlt’s novel is unusual in that it is imbedded in time from which he deracinates his characters.
  9. The Great War provided urgent impetus to Arlt’s characters; they viewed the horrific episodes of World War Two with wry, sating curiosity despite Arlt’s grave.
  10. Born in 1900, Arlt died in 1942.
  11. The Enigmatic Visitor of The Flamethrowers was not surprised that atomic bombs did the work that a few dedicated madmen with phosgene could easily have accomplished.
  12. Early in The Mad Toy, Arlt’s first novel, a group of visionary urchins forms a club, at which the following, among other, proposals is made: “The club should have a library of scientific works in order for its associates to be certain that they are robbing and killing according to the most modern industrial procedures.” This proposal is made directly after a discussion regarding replacing a chicken egg’s natural contents with nitroglycerin.
  13. Circuitous routes are pioneered by admirers of Arlt to reach the point where they feel it is safe, finally, to say that his writing was, after all, human. Yet what separates Arlt from all writers of his time is his anguish that the human is finished, finishing, knocked off, an anguish that is expressed like no other anguish has ever been expressed in literature, in the character of Remo Erdosain, whose essential phenomenological disturbance is an obsessive leitmotif of The Seven Madmen, quicksand for the tender readers like myself who recognize the tin skies, cubical rooms, geometric incursions of light and thought, and, anguished, Arlt compelled again and again to describe Erdosain’s anguish, perhaps already knowing that one impending horror was the inevitable scrutiny of the actions of Erdosain by Giacommetti figures picking Beckettian through ruined literary landscapes.
  14. It is difficult to argue seminality, particularly in fiction, which lacks the immediacy of painting, and more—it assumes a lack of transfer between the arts. So when Roberto Arlt is credited with being the originator of magical realism, not only is the issue absurd, it serves to deflect the meaning of Arlt’s great work, The Seven Madmen and The Flamethowers. He may have preceded Guernica, but not Tzara, and not the city scapes and madmonsters of Grosz. What makes Arlt’s work great is to some degree indeed its originality, his private cubysmal canvass that combined the abysmal industrial architecture and working conditions of the most modern of human creatures with the existential madness this engendered, and awareness of historical defeat, and the other side of that, what lurked temporally beyond, the advanced cannibalism of technological weaponry and worse, the acceptance of it. The chapter The Enigmatic Visitor in The Flamethrowers in which a jaundiced, fully uniformed (gasmasked!) soldier appears to Erdosain at night, their subsequent, almost blase conversation about gasses, including the support for Erdosain’s belief in the efficacy of phosgene as a mass murdering agent, and worse, the final declaration of the visitor, places Arlt beyond the future in which he is accursed with being labeled progenitor. For Arlt, civilization is over. As he writes, it is dying a slow death, and still is. Witness the writer who perhaps best reflects the influence of Arlt, intentionally or not, Rodolfo Walsh, who in his astonishing work of investigative writing, Operation Massacre, refers to ‘…this cannibalistic time that we are living in…’, in a book that in retrospect seems to have ushered in a regime much like that of the United States, in which the faces change, but the cannibalism gathers strength, so much so for Argentina that some 20 years after the publication of that book Walsh published an open letter to the regime and left his home with a pistol knowing he was going to need it that very day—and indeed was murdered at five in the afternoon. This is Arlt’s greatness, a diagnosis not a prophecy, and an accurate diagnosis at that. In Arlt there is absurdity, surreality, some Kafka, some Beckett, some Joyce, but mostly there is what may be called hyper-reality, an umbrella term, which to Arlt was merely the horror of reality.
  1. In his own introduction to The Seven Madmen, Julio Cortazar, not a man to be trifled with, refers as if to a historical fact, to ‘The lack of a sense of humor in Arlt’s work’, attributing this to resentment regarding his circumstances in life (too much work to write freely, one gathers). Perhaps—I have no wish to quarrel with the master, Cortazar—it is something to do with the glimpses of optimism afforded Cortazar in the early 1980s when he wrote the introduction, but he is utterly mistaken. Arlt is extremely funny, even as he delivers the worst of all messages. Again Beckett comes up, and Kafka, both very funny men with very dark visions.
  2. Earlier in that same introduction, Cortazar referred to Arlt’s resentment—and again he got it wrong. Arlt was said to be a part of a cirlce, the more proletarian Boedos as opposed to Borges’ Floridans, each representing a part of town. To know Arlt, to know Erdosain, is to know that neither would have sought comfort in Florida (a neighborhood in Buenos Aires). And, further, to know Arlt is to know the themes that ran like wires through his life and work, his inventions, his very proletarian nature, his resentment, yes, but resentment at the state of the city, the state of the US, the condition of doomed humanity. Sure this is related to his working life—in such a condemned state, the wise man wishes to frolic.
  3. Cortazar’s errors are Argentine. He was born in Belgium, raised mostly in Buenos Aires in rather privileged settings. He is speculating. Besides, he shares a correspondence with Arlt that rises to rarefied spaces of affinity, that perhaps all readers find in a few authors, and he shares that affinity with me. I almost claim such affinity with Cortazar. I began his Hopscotch in 1984, read 70 some pages, leaving the bookmark in, returned to the same page ten years later and found myself immediately back in Paris with his lovers and their game of serendipity deferred. What is this affinity? Difficult to define, it is best rendered by example. I recently met a cultural and film critic living in Moscow by the name of Giuliano Vivaldi who read Arlt about the same time I first did, in the early 1990s. He was so taken with Arlt that he decided to try to translate him from the Italian, but needed to procure a copy of the rare book, so took the train from Trieste to Rome and photocopied it at the national library. Such fidelity and ambition has only been exceeded to my knowledge by Larry Riley, the translator of this copy of The Flamethrowers. Both Arlt and Cortazar would appreciate the story of Mr. Riley’s work. Not content to stop with reading The Seven Madmen, this veteran of the coast guard, at the time a postal worker, determined to translate this book from a language he did not know at all into English. He was advised by close literary friends that it was hopeless, that it would only lead to disappointment. Arlt could have told them otherwise. For such passion succeeds. And this translation is indeed a success. Mr. Riley finished the translation about 13 years ago, was told by a kind and indulgent Naomi Lindstrom, that it was good but ‘not quite there.’ Mr. Riley sat on it, put it away, one hopes with a feeling of great satisfaction, until recently I learned of his old project and asked to see his work. It arrived typed out with many errors, but was miraculously, unmistakably Arlt: I could feel that in the first two pages. I would finally be able to read The Flamethrowers. Subsequently, Mr. Riley and I decided to get the book typed on computer, which was not the first idea—wouldn’t Arlt have loved the story had we published the copy that was not quite there, that was riddled with typos…Yes, but as it turns out, the process of putting the book on computer revivified Mr. Riley, who dove back into the book and what was not quite there reached what is here, a fine translation of Roberto Arlt’s Flamethrowers.
  1. So who am I to write about Roberto Arlt? I plead that surfeitous affinity, combined with my own literary connection with Arlt. In my first three published novels I paid homage to Arlt by naming my characters as he so often did, by their descriptions. He had his Lame Whore, I had my Sneering Brunette; he had his Melancholy Ruffian, I had my Spleen (both I and II). Of course, Arlt is unreasonably obscure in the English speaking world and though my books received a number of perceptive reviews, none noticed the homage to Arlt. So who am I to write about Arlt? Someone with a second chance to pay him homage, someone with spleen. rickharsch.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/into-the-long-awaited-translation-of-roberto-arlts-the-flamethrowers/