Thursday, October 6, 2011

We have to strike straight inland - visionary Martín Fierro

The Gaucho Martín Fierro is a political book, a protest book.  The gaucho narrator is an oppressed minority; his unique way of life is threatened, or already destroyed; his contribution to the nation ignored. 

All of this may feel a little distant to the non-Argentinean reader.  It may well be opposed by a skeptical reader.  In the introduction to the 1974 translation, I am told that the gauchos had “performed a major role in the country’s independence from Spain” (good for them, vivan los gauchos!) and “had cleared the pampas of marauding Indian bands that plagued the pastoral development of the region” (good for - hang on there - vivan los indios!).

The outlaw gaucho Martín Fierro, at the end of his verse novel, flees across the desert to live with the Indians.  If his vision of a life of indolence (“you live lying belly-up / watching the sun go round”) and happiness is a fantasy, he may be right that “We’ll find safety over there / since we can’t have it here.”

Except that his decision is also an acceptance of death.  The canto begins with a section that is the closest thing this earthy poem has to a visionary interlude.  God gave beauty to flowers and birds, and strength to beasts and the wind, but he gave more valuable gifts to men – speech, intelligence, courage – balanced by the hardships from which Martín Fierro now longs to escape:

We have to strike straight inland
towards where the sun goes down –
one day we’ll get there, we’ll
find out where afterwards (2205-2209)

Martín Fierro takes a drink, smashes his guitar, steals some horses, and disappears across the frontier.   Who knows what happened to him, the narrator tells us, but everything you have heard is true, “EVILS THAT EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT / BUT NO ONE TOLD BEFORE” (2315-2316, the last lines of the poem, capitalization supplied by the poet).

I have switched here to the plainer, more accurate 1967 translation by C. E. Ward, revised by Frank Carrino and Alberto Carlos.  The latter two also did the “cowboy” version.

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