At the age of fourteen I was initiated into the thrilling literature of outlaws and bandits by an old Andalusian cobbler whose shoe repair shop stood next to a green-and-white-fronted hardware store in the entryway of an ancient house on Rivadavia Street between the corners of South America and Bolivia. (21)
The first sentence of Roberto Arlt’s Mad Toy (1926) tells the reader what he’s in for. It’s got literature, it’s got bandits from serialized adventure novels,, it’s got an immigrant and his work. Right away, it plunges you right into Buenos Aires – the colors of the stores, the ironically-deployed street names.
And it’s not just the first sentence, but the first paragraph. Mad Toy is like a punchy newspaper column. Like a serialized novel in four short chapters.
Arlt was a contemporary and pal of Borges. They were the young lions, tearing up Argentinean literature, disrespecting their elders and betters, running wild in Buenos Aires. Sounds like fun. Arlt unfortunately died young, though, age 42.
Mad Toy is an energetic mess, which fits its brilliant, restless teenaged hero. He wants to be, and could be, a famous thief, or an inventor, or a writer. He hops from job to job, like Lazarillo de Tormes. The used book store in the second chapter is particularly hellish (warm thoughts to actual used book store owner Colleen), all abuse and drudgery, completely unrelated to the books that drew him to the job.
The novel bounces from episode to episode and style to style, just as the hero roams the city. Charles Baudelaire, the great flaneur, is one of the book's presiding spirits. Here we have an acte gratuit:
Behind those doors was money. The shop owners would be sleeping peacefully in their luxurious bedrooms, and there I was like a dog, roaming the city by guess and by God.
Trembling with hatred, I lit a cigarette and maliciously threw the burning match on a human mass that was curled up asleep in a doorway. A small flame skimmed along the rags and tatters. In a trice the wretch was upright, formless as darkness, and threatening me with his enormous fist. I hit the road.
And then the next paragraph, after a break:
In a secondhand store on Ninth of July Avenue I bought a revolver and loaded it with five bullets, then caught a streetcar and headed for the docks. (110)
Is this a Cain or Hammett novel? This is only one mode of Mad Toy, though. The novel is a picaresque, a noir, a portrait of the young artist. It’s hardly a tightly wound perfect work of art, but it’s good enough that I want to read the other Arlt novel that has wandered into English.
Translations by Michelle McKay Aynesworth, 2002, Duke University Press.