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
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
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.
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. -
I.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.
II.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 gaucho—made 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.
III.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.
IV.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.
V.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.”
VI.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.
VII.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.
VIII.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.
IX.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.”
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