Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Gaucho Martín Fierro - classic 19th century knife fights

I need to slip across the border for a post or two, from Brazil to Argentina.  JenandthePen thought people should read some books from Argentina; I have made my opinions on that subject clear enough.

This time, rather than mess around with the howling lunatics and unassuming librarians of the 20th century, I went back to the root of Argentine literature, to The Gaucho Martín Fierro, the 1872 epic gaucho poem by José Hernández.

I will confess that I was expecting something – I don’t know – stiff, Longellowish.  Imitative Romantic twaddle.  What fun to discover that Martín Fierro is more of a Western. The English translators go so far as to turn it into a cousin of cowboy poetry.

When brandin’ time came
you got a warm feelin watchin’
all those gauchos ropin’
and throwin’ steers right and left.
ah, what times… there ain’t
ever been nothin’ to match it. (II.217-22)

The translators, I should say, are trying to match “substance and tone” and nothing else:

Cuando llegaban las yerras,
¡cosa que daba calor
tanto gaucho pialador
y tironiador sin yel!
¡Ah tiempos… pero si en él
Se ha visto tanto primor!

The poem is a lament for the lost life of the gaucho, destroyed by military conscription, war and settlement.  Martín Fierro narrates – actually sings – the poem to describe the loss of his home and family, his brutal treatment in the army, and his violent life as an outlaw.

When he rolled up his cuffs
I took off my spurs
since I suspected this guy
warn’t goin’ to be easy to handle.

There is nothin’ like danger
to sober up a drunk;
even your sight clears up,
no matter how much you’ve guzzled. (VII.1199-1206)

As any reader of Borges will guess, someone’s gonna get knifed.  I mean readers of Borges stories not about books, although the existence of Martín Fierro is a reminder that Borges’s stories about gauchos knifing each other are also about books.  Different books.  This book.

I have barely touched the Martín Fierro.  Maybe one more dusty, lonesome, bloody day.

SUNY Press published two editions of the poem.  The 1967 version has facing-page Spanish, extensive notes, and a longer sequel, The Return of Martín Fierro that I did not read.   The 1974 version, source of the English above, is smaller, lighter, and zippier.


  1. "warn't"? Really?

    Almost makes me look forward to a Borges parody entitled: "Martín Fierro: Author of the Quixote."

  2. What? "Warn't" is the standard translation for "no era." Check any Gaucho-to-Cowboy dictionary.

    The 1967 translation is more literal, and more "standard," the 1974 version adapted to Cowboy. The funny thing is, they're both by the same translators & editors!

    That Borges parody exists, and may not be a parody.

  3. I don't think I'd enjoy the cowboyization of this poetry in translation, but that's not why I'm writing you. Chilean novelist José Donoso has a great anecdote about Borges and Martín Fierro in his memoir The Boom in Spanish-American Literature: A Personal History. You should check it out for yourself, of course, but as I recall it Borges once attended some kind of a séance at the house of José Hernández's nieces in Buenos Aires where Borges recited bits of Martín Fierro in an effort to "communicate" with the dead gaucho poet. Can't remember whether Borges succeeded or not, I'm afraid, but what a juicy story anyway!

  4. You would like it well enough in Argentinean. And whether you do or not, all of this wild later literary history rests on it. Borges at a gaucho séance - it's like a scene in an Aira novel.

  5. "The Borges parody exists, and may not be a parody."

    Figures. What a world.

  6. I don't think much of the "Borges on Martín Fierro material has made it into English.

    Has anyone read Unamuno on Quixote? In English, Our Lord Don Quixote? I suspect that is the crucial intervening text.

  7. Haven't read that particular Unamuno, but I can recommend him in general based on the few things I've read by him. His 1914 Niebla [Mist] is a fine place for newcomers fond of Borges and Cervantes to start, highlighted as it is by a mid-novel argument between "Unamuno" and his title character over whether the author really has a right to kill off the character (the author argues that he's just a fictional entity, but the character understandably disagrees).

  8. Oops: that should be "main character" and not "title character" in that last comment of mine.

  9. I don't think Our Lord Don Quixote is the actual Spanish title, but it gives a good sense of U.'s outrages.

    Niebla and the exemplary novels are on my Unamuno someday list, along with the Quixote book.