Roberto Arlt’s Mad Toy is a short book – 130 pages or so – that packs in a lot of different pieces. They do not all mesh so well, but they all contribute to the messy energy of the novel. The tour of Buenos Aires, circa 1910, was as interesting to me as anything else. The markets, the shops, and the immigrants, all of those immigrants, Italians, mostly, but also Spaniards, Eastern European Jews, Turks, and who knows who else. The novel is drizzled with Italian and even a bit of Yiddish, as well as Argentinean slang.
Buenos Aires was a rapidly growing city of immigrants. Some potted facts, which I should probably look up, so don’t trust me: at the end of the 19th century, Argentina had a higher proportion of immigrants than the United States. The per capita income was close to that of the U.S., too. It was right around then that a mismanaged financial crisis (which also affected the U.S. and Australia, but less severely) led to the divergence of income that we still see today. If the economic problems are mentioned in Mad Toy, I missed it.
To an American, by which I mean a norteamericano, by which I mean a yanqui, Argentinean history is unusually interesting. It parallels the history of my own country in key ways – the immigrants, the frontier, the cowboys, the wars with indigenous people – that help me understand U.S. history better. I want to learn more about it.
Argentinean literature has become best known for its fabulists and metafictionists – Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar and so on – which makes the instrumental use of literature as substitute history or sociology even trickier than usual. I’ve read a couple of the tiny novels of César Aira – Ghosts (1990) and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000). The latter is a historical novel, set in the 19th century pampas, featuring a “real” German painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas. But Aira is a surrealist, so even the apparently accurate map of Argentina that New Directions put in front of Chris Andrews’s 2006 translation of the novel is open to suspicion.
Part of my favorite section of that novel:
The horse began to turn beneath him. It was till turning when a lightning bolt struck him on the head. Like a nickel statue, man and beast were lit up with electricity. For one horrific moment, regrettably to be repeated, Rugendas witnessed the spectacle of his body shining. The horse’s mane was standing on end, like the dorsal fin of a swordfish. From that moment on, like all victims of personalized catastrophes, he saw himself as if from outside, wondering, Why did it have to happen to me? The sensation of having electrified blood was horrible but very brief. Evidently the charge flowed out as fast as it had flowed into his body. Even so, it cannot have been good for his health. (32-3)
And then later an Indian pretends to make out with a giant pink salmon (p. 71).
So what I’m saying is, I want someone to organize an Argentinean Reading Challenge Readalong, starting with Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), moving on to the gaucho epic Martín Fierro (1872/1879) of José Hernández, and continuing with Leopold Lugones, Roberto Arlt, and then on to Adolfo Bioy Casares and Fogwill and so on. There’s an Argentinean writer who just uses his surname, which is “Fogwill.” Curious thing, Argentinean literature.
So, to whomever sets this up, thanks in advance!