Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Even so, it cannot have been good for his health - I marvel at Argentinean literature

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!


  1. Bolaño has a short story in which either he or the narrator claims that Argentina was responsible for the best literature of the 20th century. Possibly a provocation of sorts but maybe not that far off either. Fogwill's "Muchacha Punk" ("Punk Girl," available in translation online?) is indeed a hell of a story. Your reading challenge ideas are all great, Amateur Reader, but don't overlook Ricardo Piglia and Juan José Saer for the novel and Rodolfo Walsh for edgy new reporting nonfiction/journalism either. Will be reading much more Argentinean literature over the next year 'cause I went on a book buying spree the last time I visited there in March.

  2. Mad Toy sounds very interesting-I have recently posted on a new too me but evidently well known in the Argentine short story writer, Fernando Sorrentino -he has published 6 collections of short stories (born 1942)-he seems to be quite influenced by Borges-a number of his short stories (5 to 10 pages) can be read on line

  3. Forgot to mention that Piglia's Artificial Respiration, at least partly a meditation on Argentinean history written during the late '70s when the military dictatorship was disappearing Argentines left and right, includes a wild debate about the literary virtues of Arlt vs. Borges that you might appreciate. Great effin' novel, I tell you! Piglia has also written several wonderful critical pieces on Roberto Arlt and a crack novella, Homage to Roberto Arlt, that posed as a critical edition of a lost, unpublished Arlt short story but was in actuality a grand hoax of sorts crossed with some meta commentary on the value of plagiarism as a literary device. In the things I've read by him, he has shared a number of particularly valuable insights into the way the Arlt/Borges debate has helped shape the current state of Argentinean letters. Not that you asked me about any of all this, ha ha!

  4. Now, see, that is just what I'm talking about: a fake Arlt critical edition? I seethe with literary envy.

    You both show why someone else needs to organize this project. I'm too ignorant.

    My Googlin' ain't such hot stuff, but the only Fogwill-in-English I've found is the novel about the Falklands' War.

    Necesito practicar mi Español.

  5. Have you read any Macedonio Fernández? He's another Argentinian metafictionist who was a huge influence on Borges.

    That bit about immigration is interesting. I just read a British novel about about London in the 1950s that reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I had honestly thought the urban immigrant neighborhood of the early 20th century was a unique and special part of American history. I didn't know anything about Argentina.

    So I guess that's what Grossman might've meant when she said Americans are xenophobic . . . maybe she just meant ethnocentric.

  6. I had not heard of Macedonio Fernández until the little wave of publicity for The Museum of Eterna's Novel earlier this year.

    The giant late 19th century wave of immigration - the largest voluntary mass movement in human history - was a global phenomenon. Europeans from (primarily) Eatern Europe and the Mediterranean went to England, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and probably many more places than I know. The United States received the largest headcount of immigrants; Argentina had the highest proportional to population. The urban immigrants are a special part if US history, but not a unique part!

    If you want to see a part of the Argentinean migration I still barely believe, take a look at The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas by Alberto Gerchunoff, 1910.

    By xenophobic, Edith Grossman meant "dislikes furriners and books by furriners, except for Swedish crime novels."

  7. Mad Toy sounds wonderful, as does the Argentinean Reading Challenge (except that I already want to do a wider [and shallower] Latin American project this year). But I think Richard is a bit of a troublemaker—he's already put Artificial Respiration on my list. Far too many tempting suggestions here!

  8. nicole - Should I write a post about the Brazilian books I have not read, but want to? Would that be similarly helpful?

  9. I see that we already agree on the greatness of Machado de Assis, Amateur Reader. However, if your Brazilian list that you want to read also includes Euclides da Cunha's Rebellion in the Backlands, Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, and/or João Guimarães Rosa's The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, then I really like how you think! I already have two of these three titles bought and ready for an eventual read, so please publish that list you and Nicole have been discussing without worrying about causing a run on these titles in my neighborhood. Obrigado!

  10. Hey now, that's handy. That's more or less my less, except I plead ignorance regarding Lispector.

    nicole - for planning purposes, the Cunha book (which is not exactly a novel) and the Guimarães Rosa are big, dense bricks. The books of Machado de Assis are of more reasonable dimensions. The problem with Machado de Assis will be deciding where to stop.