Monday, October 1, 2012

If the reader is bored by these thoughts, I will tell him about some frightful crimes - some early Argentinean literary doom

Roberto Bolaño called the Argentinean literary tradition “the literature of doom,” and he was of course joking, but it is true, it is so strangely true.  I have never seen anything like it.  Bolaño was writing about twentieth century books, but in fact the founding texts are doom-laden, too:  Esteban Echeverría’s short story “The Slaughter House” (1838, pub. 1871) is a violent, nightmarish allegorical protest against the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas; José Hernández’s epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) is a violent, nightmarish protest against the destruction of gauchos and gaucho culture; Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845) is a violent, angry sociological treatise and political biography of the gaucho strongman Rosas (another gaucho strongman) defeated to become dictator.

Just to get the irony out of the way:  Sarmiento was later elected President of Argentina (1868-1874.  A democratic reformer and champion of public education, he was as responsible as any single person for the destruction of the gaucho way of life that he defined in Facundo, and is thus in the great enemy of Hernández and his outlawed gaucho Martín Fierro.  Argentinean literature is bloody but coherent.

Sarmiento, in exile in Chile, planned to write an Argentinean version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Tocqueville’s book was so packed with insights and ideas that it has become one of the fundamental texts of political science.  Sarmiento in this sense got nowhere near Tocqueville.  The author is too angry; the fate of his country is too personal; his ideas too simple and are easy to summarize:

Argentina is divided between civilization (Buenos Aires and a few outlying cities) and barbarism (the Pampas).  The owners of the gigantic ranches and their workers, the gauchos, are barbarians.  The barbarians, headed by Rosas, have sacked the country and are looting and destroying it.  Once civilization returns, a number of boring reforms will need to be made.

A confusing innovation of Sarmiento’s is that although the dictator Rosas is the current enemy, his book is mostly the biography of another charismatic gaucho leader, Juan Facundo Quiroga, who conquered a large chunk of western Argentina before his violent death.  Facundo is emblematic because he was the perfect gaucho, expert with horse and knife and rope, but more importantly it is Facundo who was the great innovator of terror, murder, and gangsterism.  It is Facundo who invents the modern dictator, who unlike the bad king rules without tradition but just by personality and force.  Rosas merely copies (and adapts and improves upon) Facundo’s innovations.  This, to me, was Facundo’s exemplary sentence:

If the reader is bored by these thoughts, I will tell him about some frightful crimes. (Ch. XI, 170)

And does he ever, over and over again.

I have little clue how Facundo functions as history but it is imaginatively rich – it is the foundation of the Latin American dictator novel, and of the related genre of the civil war novel – I do not know what these are actually called, but I am thinking of books like Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915) or the non-fiction Rebellion in the Backlands (1900) by Euclides de Cunha.  I suppose certain sections of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1968) are now the most famous examples, although by that point we are a long ways into the tradition.

I read the recent translation by Roberto González Echevarría, University of California Press, 2003.

All of this is a kickoff for the Caravanas de Recuerdos Argentinean Literature of Doom readalong adventure!  I figured I would start at the beginning, more or less.  But there are many other, perhaps better, places to join in the fun.


  1. Terrific post--the only "problem" being you may have set the bar too damn high for a slacker like me! I'll try to dialogue with a couple of points you make here in my own couple of posts on Facundo, but for now I have to say I'd be hard-pressed to find another more exemplary sentence than the one about "some frightful crimes" you pointed out here. Speaking of which, it was awful hard to read about Rosas' tyrannical rule without thinking that Sarmiento not only anticipated the dictator novel but the Dirty War in Argentina from 1976-1983. Terrifyingly prescient, no?

  2. That's why I let the other reader go first when its my Challenge - so they can have the best lines.

    Prescient, yes. It is as if the book provided not just a literary model, but a real-life model. This might be true - Rosas read and praised the book!

  3. Good of you to mention Euclides da Cunha; I was thinking of his book while I read your description.

  4. Even in my very limited expertise, examples multiply.

    Here is one that just came out in English 6 months ago: Doña Bárbara (1929) by Romulo Gallegos, first democratically elected president of Venezuela. The UofC Press is pushing it as early magical realism, but poking around I discover that it is a reworking or parody or something of Facundo! The barbarian is right there in the title!

  5. I just read Richard's ALoD post and your comment including the "...a certain stoic resignation to violent death, making it one of the misfortunes that are inseparable from life..." quote. Oy, I say, this is the literature for me. But there's no time, gentlemen, for me to read any of this right now. Damn and blast etc.

    Back when I had a literary agent who was shopping my first two novels around, American editors kept telling her, "Nobody wants to read tragedy these days." This is why nobody wants to read American fiction these days.

  6. Argentinean literature is something else. The writers seem to have created this self-reinforcing tradition that excludes anyone too normal. Or maybe, by chance or otherwise, there isn't anyone too normal. Maybe everybody normal immigrated to Chile or Mexico.

    Editors pick up some strange ideas.