The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt (tr. Nick Caistor). NYRB Classics. $15.95, 272pp.
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.
Sarah Coolidge is a Bay Area writer and editorial assistant at Two Lines Press. She writes primarily about photography and international literature.
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