Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How do you think it’s going? In Chile! And on foot! - Sarmiento's anatomy of the gaucho

I am leafing through Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1972, Twayne Publishers) by Frances G. Crowley, looking for curiosities and insights.  How about this one, in the chapter specifically about Facundo:

The work itself ran several installments in El Progreso from May 2 to July 28, 1945.  The purpose was not literary, but political.  For this reason, Manuel Gálvez has chosen to consider Facundo an historical novel.  (61)

To repeat: it is not literary, and therefore a novel.  He goes farther, “consider[ing] it comparable to Balzac’s Human Comedy” (75), which is superbly crackpot.  Gálvez seems to deserve an entry in the real-life version of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (his “hero worship of Rosas led him to pen a series of five novels set during his rule” says Sr. Wikipedia – talk about the literature of doom!), so I should be wary of his opinion.

If Facundo is a novel, it is a mess, but it has other literary virtues.  Sarmiento has a knack for types.  If I am skeptical of his insistence that the types define the Argentinean national character, I still admire his eye for detail and anecdote.

The Rastreador is the tracker extraordinaire; the Cantor is the wandering troubadour, “singing of his heroes of the Pampas pursued by the law” (70); the Baqueano knows every inch of his section of the Pampas:

[I]f he finds himself in the Pampas and the darkness is impenetrable, then he pulls up grass from different spots, smells the roots and the soil, chews them, and after repeating this procedure various times confirms the proximity of some lake, or fresh or saltwater stream, and goes to look for it so as to firmly orient himself.  General Rosas, they say, knows by its taste the grass of every estancia [ranch, roughly] in southern Buenos Aires province.  (67)

Perhaps.  Possibly.  At the bottom, or at the top, is the bad gaucho, “this epithet not totally disfavoring him…  He dwells in the Pampas, fields of thistle for his lodging, living on partridges and armadillos” (68).  He is an expert with the horse and the knife, both in constant use.  Although every gaucho depends on his horsemanship:

In 1841, El Chacho, a caudillo of the plains, emigrated to Chile.  “How’s it going, friend?” someone asked him.  “How do you think it’s going?” he answered, with a pained melancholy tone.  “In Chile! And on foot!”  (73)

The central story of the book, the history of the strongman Facundo, is the story of the bad gaucho who makes it big, who is better with his knife, stronger, meaner, who is the perfect Argentinean barbarian.

Any serious reader of Latin American fiction should vaguely considering someday reading, or at borrowing from the library with the intent to read it, Sarmiento’s Facundo.  It dispels some shadows from Argentinean literature.  Even less serious readers should take a look at the first two or three chapters.  I think all of the stuff César Aira steals from Facundo in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) is in the first chapter.

More Facundo is forthcoming soon at La Caravana de Recuerdos.


  1. Ha ha, I'd forgotten that nugget about "In Chile! And on foot!" What a card that ranting & raving Sarmiento could be in between all the angry bits... Also love that bit you dug up on Manuel Gálvez and his five pro-Rosas novels. Gálvez should definitely become a candidate for a Nazi Literature in the Americas II should Bolaño, like Elvis and Tupac, have an unlimited supply of new material to release from the other world. Or something.

  2. Someone should read Gálvez for the Argentinean Challenge. I will bet those books have some surprises in them. He also wrote (I am poking around a university library catalog) a series of novels under the general title "Escenas de la guerra del Paraguay," which is certainly an ace subject.

    I risk making Sarmiento sound too funny, or too interested in tall tales. But it is one of his many rhetorical modes.

  3. I read this last year for my degree, alongside Echeverría's El Matadero. The paper was on nature/brutality vs civilisation (more or less), I seem to recall.

    Interesting stuff!

  4. It is interesting, isn't it? Sarmiento makes the brutal side, the barbarism, seem - not appealing, that's not right - vital and energetic, while the civilization he champions is pallid and helpless.

    Nice Vallejo translation, by the way!

  5. Tom, would you kindly complete the thought in It dispels some shadows from ... ? Thanks!

    Aira's The Hare also had this amazing lightning scene. And Rosas was right there in the first chapter, his character was a bit un-dictator-like there, and that was troubling, I think.

  6. Hmm, what did I want to say? I should have a contest - complete the fragment.

    I have anti-climatically added the phrase "Argentinean literature," although the illuminating effect is larger than that.

    It was not unlike when I read Carpentier's The Lost Steps. Suddenly García Márquez and the Boom looked a little different, like a stronger light was shining on it, like Carpentier was a 60 watt bulb replacing the 40 watt bulb I had always used before.

    If it's not troubling, it's not Aira! It's his watermark.