Friday, July 27, 2012

We wanted only to amuse ourselves with him, but he took things too seriously - the beginning of the Argentine Literature of Doom

I am writing later than usual on this Friday evening in order to minimize the number of people reading this post at work.  “El matadero (The Slaughter House)” (written circa 1838, published 1871), the famous short story by the Argentine writer and politician Esteban Echeverría, is not safe for work.  Or play, for that matter.  It’s grisly.

We are in Buenos Aires during Lent.  A flood has prevented cattle from reaching the slaughterhouse.  No one should be eating beef during Lent except those with special dispensation for their health, but that seems to cover everyone.  A “sort of intestinal war between stomachs and consciences began.”  The stomachs are likely to win; among other things “there existed a state of intestinal flatulence in the population, brought on by fish and beans and other somewhat indigestible fare.”

I will pause to consider all the other fiction written in 1838, or published in 1871, containing such a sentence.  That did not take long.

Once cattle arrive at the slaughter house, the real action of the story, nine of its thirteen pages, can begin.  First forty-nine steers are dismembered, to great celebration and scavenging.  Maybe this would be a good place not to include a quotation.  The fiftieth and final animal is, by accident, a bull, who takes three pages to subdue.  A child is accidentally killed in a vivid and repulsive passage.

Now the butchers are worked up.  What horrors will they commit in the final four pages?  It helps at this point to know that the story was written as a protest against a specific dictator.  A civilian wanders by, an opponent of the regime, identifiable by his dress and beard and English saddle.  He is abducted, bullied, and murdered, although he may have willed himself to death to avoid torture:

“Poor devil, we wanted only to amuse ourselves with him, but he took things too seriously,” exclaimed the Judge, scowling tiger-like.

I should give some sort of sample of the writing.  The description of the bull is good: “snorting, casting reddish phosphorescent glances right and left.”  The bull is always on fire somehow.  It has escaped the slaughter house and nearly collided with a group of women:

It is said that one of the women voided herself on the spot, that another prayed ten Hail Mary’s in a few seconds, and that two others promised San Benito never to return to the damned corrals and to quit offal-collecting forever and anon.  However, it is not known whether they kept their promises.

Echeverría’s story stands at the beginning of Argentina’s Literature of Doom.  César Aira seems less peculiar measured against this particular forebear.  Those Latin American specialties, the brutal dictator novel like the recently translated Tyrant Banderas (1926) by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, or the bloody civil war novel like Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915), seem like logical outgrowths of “The Slaughter House.”   But I suppose it is the reverse that is true, that the later turmoil of Latin American history made Echeverría look like a literary prophet.

I read “The Slaughter House” in the valuable Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories (1997), tr. Angel Flores.


  1. I do not think I have ever encountered any work of art about a slaughterhouse that has not been affecting in a deeply, deeply disturbing way (here in California we are somehow banning foie gras, produced with an intimacy that makes the beef industry appear barbaric in the extreme). Have you seen the work of artist Sue Coe? If not, you've clearly read enough already to know what it's about. I'm no vegetarian (yet), but I would imagine that the exigencies of upholding Argentina's reputation for fine beef produce horrors that Echeverria only began to imagine.

  2. I must have read this story, since I've read this collection of stories, but curiously it didn't stay in my mind.

  3. Wow, must read this. Love the intestinal war between stomachs and consciences (sort of like the glaucoma epidemic here in California, without the conscience part).

    La Regenta has a doctor that blamed everything on flatulence, but that was published in 1884.

  4. obooki - Given what follows in the book, I am not surprised you do not remember this one so well. Speaking for myself, there are real limits to what I remember from an anthology, and there are some mighty strong 20th stories in this book.

    The horrors in this story are very much what happens to the humans, although the bull has a pretty blatant allegorical function. A good place to go, the slaughter house, if you want to let the blood fly.

    Dwight - very much worth your time, especially if and when you are pursuing a Latin American theme.