Monday, May 17, 2010

Roaming the city by guess and by God - Robert Arlt and Mad Toy

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.


  1. I read the first 100 pages of Arlt's Los siete locos (The Seven Madmen) a while back, Amateur Reader, and was so blown away by its beginning that I actually stopped reading it so I could go back and read all Arlt's major novels in chronological order. Complete lunacy, I know! Having read El juguete rabioso (Mad Toy) in February, I'm now ready to get back to Los siete locos in June...and will be saving Los lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers) for later in the year if I can exercise any will power. Your post on Arlt today def. got my Arltian juices flowing all over again (nice job!), but the funny thing from a Lat Am literary history perspective is that the guy who was once strongly attacked by the Argentinean literati of his day for being "a bad writer" is now hailed by many as Borges' equal in terms of the influence he wielded on Argentinean (and by extension, Latin American) letters as a whole. Arlt's short stories and non-fiction writing are also worth a gander, of course. In the meantime, thanks for this post!

  2. Wow, those words are on fire! The energy just jumps out of them. Sounds amazing.

  3. Marieke stole my comment! Voiced my thoughts exactly....

  4. Brian, I was thinking of your Henry Miller posts when I was writing this. Arlt is sometimes going for a little of that "anti-novel" feel. And I should say that the whole book is not written like that passage. The style bobs and weaves.

    And Arlt is employing, like Richard, says, the sort of "bad writing" that we barely even notice now, filtered through several generations of avant gardists and detective stories and so on. We know how to read this stuff. If that makes any sense.

    I hope to get to The Seven Madmen soon, myself. That seems to be it for Arlt-in-English.