Argentine Literature and its Monsters (Part 1/2)

Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here. Tomorrow we’ll publish part 2, which includes a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.

The quality of Argentine literature has always depended on the quality of its monsters. This might help explain why Argentine literature was off to a good start and a bad start almost simultaneously, and both at the hands of the same writer: Esteban Echeverría.

In La cautiva, a long narrative poem published in 1837, the enemies are the native inhabitants, “the indian” as they were invariably called, and the heroine, a white woman abducted by them—a topic later to recur in William Henry Hudson’s “Marta Riquelme” and in Borges’ “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva”. Echeverría’s poem is wordy, bathetic, unsufferably Romantic, and one would be tempted to set it forth as an example that a justification—however oblique—of genocide can never aspire to aesthetic greatness, if the second part of Martín Fierro, as we will see, would later offer much of the same fare but this time in powerful and authentic verse.

El matadero, on the other hand, is perhaps—even by today’s standards—one of the best pieces Argentine short prose has to show. The setting is as Argentinian as can be: a slaughterhosue for cattle in our first period of bloody tyranny, that of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruled the country from 1829 to 1852. The slaughter of the animals metaphorically stands (as later in Eisenstein’s Strike!) for that of political dissenters, one of which, a young unitario, is eventually dragged to the slaughterhouse and publicly tortured, and is only spared from further humiliation (rape, if not mentioned, is implied) by what seems to be a timely heart attack.

Why is La cautiva so bad and El matadero, written more or less at the same time, so good? In part because “the indian”, seen as a terrible menace by the white men of the time, was really a victim, and a doomed victim at that. Rosas and his gangs of killers, known as the Mazorca, were on the other hand a formidable and terrifying enemy—and for twenty years writing was the only effective weapon to be mobilized against them. For his opposers, Rosas’ dictatorship represented the triumph of the primitive, barbaric and rural America of the past over the modern and cosmopolitan civilization they heralded. For this reason, artists and intellectuals were, as a block, united against him. One could say that Rosas scared the Argentine intelligentsia into art, thus inaugurating two lasting traditions: that of turning to literature when politics offers no outlet, and that of the artist-or-intellectual-in-exile. Rosas also supplied our cultural unconscious with one of its first icons of horror: that of the severed heads of the opposers lined upon the cart of a melon vendor—throat-cutting and beheading were emblematic of Rosas’ reign of terror just as ‘the disappeared’ have been emblematic of that of the recent military juntas. The anti-Rosas sentiment fuelled the birth of the Argentine novel (Amalia, by José Mármol) and, more significantly (since Amalia, as a novel, is rather bad), of a mixed genre we could term the narrative essay, noticeably in the writings of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

His Facundo: civilización y barbarie is a biographical interpretation of the figure of the rural caudillo (a semi-feudal type of warlord) Facundo Quiroga. In Sarmiento’s view there were two Argentinas: one represented by cities and written culture, which was modern, civilized, cosmopolitan; the other represented by the rural hinterland: backward, savage, cruel. All the enemies of civilization—Rosas, the gaucho and the indian – are conflated by Sarmiento into one (notwithstanding the fact that Rosas conducted the first large-scale campaign against the natives, and the gauchos were its executors). In Sarmiento’s view the two Argentinas cannot be united or reconciled: one must triumph over the other and absorb it. This helps to understand why the civil war that raged before, during and after Rosas’ rule was basically a war between Buenos Aires and the provinces.

The conflict described by Sarmiento became a crux for discussions about identity and nationalism. For later nationalists, Sarmiento’s Argentina was enlightened but inauthentic, and even a writer as free of any vestige of nationalism as Borges will have the bookish Laprida, hero of his “Poema conjetural” say, while hunted down and killed by the brutal gauchos, “an inexplicable joy /swells divine in my breast / at last I am meeting, face to face /my South American destiny.”

The writers of Rosas’ time saw themselves as victims, and we all know that believing you are the victim is, once you’ve reached power, one of the best alibis for committing atrocities without feeling any guilt. Very soon, after Rosas’ overthrow, they turned from persecuted to persecutors and forgot all about writing (historically, if not individually, losers often make better writers than winners). The gaucho became the enemy of progress, the symbol of what should be overcome. In their collective mode, the montoneras, they were persecuted and exterminated, noticeably by Sarmiento himself, who conducted the campaign against the last great rural leader of the montoneras, Chacho Peñaloza. Sarmiento, extending his gift for irony from prose into fact, had him beheaded after defeating him in 1863, a practical joke he rounded off three years later by publishing a life of Chacho (El Chacho, último caudillo de la montonera en los llanos de La Rioja) he himself wrote.

But if the gauchos couldn’t be upheld in the collective mode, as a group, the gaucho as individual, the loner, now become the victim of economic exploitation and the more or less unwilling executor of the genocide of the natives, was ripe for defense.

José Hernández wrote El gaucho Martín Fierro in 1872 as a pamphlet denouncing the misery and oppression of the rural population, forced into a semi-nomadic existence by the impossibility of owning land, wholly in the hand of the large estancieros or landowners, and forced into serving in the fortines or forts separating the areas occupied by white men from the realms of the indomitable indios. For the first time, but certainly not for the last, the monster of Argentine literature was the modern state, the legal system, the army, the police—what not so long ago Sarmiento had grouped under the pole of “civilization.” In a memorable page titled “Nuestro pobre individualismo” Borges names the most famous night in Argentine literature, that in which police sergeant Cruz turns against his own men and joins the persecuted gaucho Martín Fierro. We Argentinians, Borges explains, see ourselves as individuals, never as citizens: we cannot conceive of any abstract relationship, and for us personal friendship will always be more important than duty to state and country. At the close of Martín Fierro the hero and his newly found friend cross the border and “go over to the indians”—another twist in our time-honoured topic of exile, whether political, as in the distant and not so distant past, or economic, as today.

Seven years later Hernández publishes the second part (La vuelta de Martín Fierro), in which, as Thomas Pynchon in a memorable chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow, put it, “even the freest of Gauchos end up selling out”. The indians that offered a safe haven are now monsters unfit to live, and the gaucho preaches obedience and respect for authority. What has changed? A lot. The long civil war has come to its close, its last, residual battle fought in 1880: The Argentine bourgeoisie, urban and rural, has formed a united front against the common enemy, the indian, still holding more than half of the richest arable land in the world. The Return of Martín Fierro is published in the same year in which a modern and well planned military campaign sweeps the pampas from Buenos Aires to Patagonia and not only defeats the natives but expels them from those rich territories forever.

Martín Fierro, its few predecessors and a veritable deluge of successors configure the first wholly Argentine literary genre, the gauchesca. A feature singles out the gauchesca from much of the rural literature of Latin America: its complete disregard for superstition, the fantastic, the supernatural: closer in this to their authors than to their real life models, the gauchos of the gauchesca are wholly secular and live in a wasteland of unbelief. Thus magic realism could never achieve a strong foothold in Argentine literature, except, perhaps, in the feverish imagination of pseudo-Argentine novelists such as Lawrence Thornton, author of Imagining Argentina.

From 1880 to around 1910 (the Centennial) our literature is written by aristocratic gentlemen. Argentina is an oligarchy, as the first truly democratic elections would be held only in 1914. A veritable flood of European immigrants (only comparable to that which at the same time was pouring into the U.S.) was seemingly making Sarmiento’s dream of a modern and civilized Argentina finally come true. But the immigrants weren’t all as docile as these gentlemen expected. Many of them were highly cultured, and thus not dazzled by the local celebrities. Many were Anarchists or Socialists, and the Argentine ruling classes saw with horror the first organized labour movements and the first mass strikes. Their writers saw this menace in terms of a threat to Argentine values and way of life: our identity was about to be swamped in a deluge of foreigness. Argentine identity had to be invented before it was too late, and the intellectuals took the first ready-made model thay had at hand: the gaucho. The Centennial saw the canonization of the gaucho as an archetype of national identity, the formerly disregarded gauchesca as the quintessentially Argentinian literary genre, and Martín Fierro as our national epic. Ricardo Rojas in his History of Argentine Literature, and specially the Modernist poet Leopoldo Lugones (“Modernist” in the Latin American sense of the school led by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) in a series of lectures titled El payador, furthered this view. The ferocity of this defense of the gaucho and his spent socio-economical force can only be explained as a reaction against the new monster: the radical politics and the radical ideas of the European immigrants. Ricardo Güiraldes’ novel Don Segundo Sombra is perhaps the last great work of the gauchesca: a novel combining the topics of gaucho literature with the poetics of French Symbolism, it is a long goodbye to the genre.

Because this revival of the gaucho spirit was essentially a Romantic and nostalgic gesture that only proved the inevitability of change. Argentine society at the turn of the century had become cosmopolitan, with its population composed of almost 35% foreigners, mostly of European origin (which in the decisive province of Buenos Aires reached 55%). Writers and writing also changed. The first generation of the 20th Century saw the emergence of the professional writers—that is, those who didn’t posses large personal or family fortunes, didn’t pursue writing as an adjunct to political activity and made, or at least attempted to make, a living through their pens, and who belonged in the main to the middle classes, many of immigrant descent. The most representative is undoubtedly Roberto Arlt, the father of the Argentine novel as we know it. Arlt came from the lower middle class, had a very basic education and was monolingual (in one of his prologues he frets and fumes against those who could read Joyce’s Ulysses, as yet untranslated). Arlt’s first novel, El juguete rabioso, is a semi-autobiographical picaresque: its hero, Silvio Astier, has access to culture through the books he steals. Towards the end he is tempted into joining a gang of professional thieves whom he, reversing Cruz’s magnificent gesture in Martín Fierro, betrays to the police. A similar gesture of betrayal is effected by the protagonist of “El indigno,” Borges’ unacknowledged homage to Arlt. Arlt’s masterpiece is the saga composed by the two novels Los siete locos and Los lanzallamas, which follow its hero Remo Erdosain from embezzlement, through a failed career as inventor and revolutionary conspirator, into suicide. The plot centers on a revolutionary organization in the manner of Dostoevsky’s Demons: a loose amalgam of Lenin’s bolshevism, Italian fascism and the Ku-Klux Klan, led by an astrologist and financed by a chain of brothels. (Those who smile at the possibility might remember the last days of Perón’s goverment, wholly managed by our local Rasputin, the infamous López Rega, who was said to control presidents Juan and Isabel Perón through Brazilian umbanda rites practiced on the embalmed mummy of Eva Perón—as fictionally depicted in Luis Valenzuela’s Cola de lagartija). The two novels were published in 1929 and 1931, immediately before and after the first of a long series of military coups, and one of undoubtedly fascist inspiration at that. Arlt captured the whole gamut of social and political phantasmagoria of the Argentine 20th Century: all the phantoms brewing in the paranoid minds of the military and the ruling classes, all the high ideals and not-so-high methods of conspirators meet in his hallucinated world. His influence on essential writers like Rodolfo Walsh, Juan José Saer and the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti is unmistakable, and Arlt’s novels are still the most powerful our literature has to offer. In his latter years (he lived to be 42) he switched to the theatre, with works like Saverio el Cruel (where a travelling salesman is asked to play the part of a dictator) and Trescientos millones (which takes place in the vengeful dream-world of a molested house-maid) both of which anticipate in spirit and tone Jean Genet’s plays The Balcony or The Maids. One of Arlt’s most appealing features is his unsentimental portrayal of the failed and the impoverished: all his “poor people” are mean and evil, their souls warped by envy, jealousy and frustration. In this he is miles apart from the critical but ultimately benevolent realism of those contemporaries he is sometimes yoked together with, the “social” writers of the Boedo Tradition.

A contemporary of Arlt, and another great novelist, is Leopoldo Marechal, whose Adán Buenosayres inaugurates in Argentina the time-honored tradition of rewriting Joyce’s Ulysses in a local format (as Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in Germany or Martin-Santos’ Tiempo de silencio in Spain)—Argentine literature has shown itself very porous to the influence of Joyce, perhaps because Joyce offered a formula for standing neo-colonial impotence on its head, showing how political and economic submission could be inverted in the realm of culture. In this regard I should mention that the first—and in my opinion still the best—translation of Ulysses into Spanish was published in Buenos Aires in 1945. Marechal’s massive novel is marred by its last 2 (out of a total of 7), parts by the rather pedestrian application of Dante’s method of taking revenge on friends and foes by placing them in the circles of hell. Adán Buenosayres was published in 1948, during the first government of Perón, of whom the author was a confessed supporter. As the Argentine writers and intellectuals rallied against Perón (and were antagonized by him) with the same zest their predecessors had rallied against Rosas (Borges, as many of them, always spoke of Perón’s government as “The Second Tyranny”) Marechal’s novel was either ridiculed or ignored – its first edition took 17 years to sell. Only a young and unknown reviewer hailed it as a major landmark in Argentine literature: his name was Julio Cortázar.

If Dostoevsky (read in the awful style of the Spanish translations of his day) was the formative inflence on Arlt’s powerful but rather messy style, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe were the shaping force behind those of Horacio Quiroga, born in Uruguay but living and writing mostly in Argentina, and on Argentine topics. Argentine narrative has always been stronger on the short story than on the novel form, which makes it very puzzling when Argentine editors, today, systematically answer the authors’ submissions with “no short stories please.” Horacio Quiroga is the master of the Argentine horror story: whether of a pampered little girl slaughtered by her four idiotic brothers (imagine Caddy Compson murdered by four Benjys, and you get the picture), as in “La gallina degollada” or a bedridden bride sucked dry by a monstrous louse lurking in her feather pillow, as in “El almohadón de plumas,” or a young man paralized by wild honey and eaten alive by jungle ants in “La miel silvestre”. Quiroga eventually moved to the jungles of Misiones, where he led the life of a pioneer. The jungle operated on him as Tahiti on Gaugin and Tangiers on Paul Bowles, and his stories set in this wild frontier are arguably his best, recovering the old 19th Century angst over the horrors of unbridled nature. His stories for children, collected in the book Cuentos de la selva, are still the most popular in our literature.

But of course, if we say that Argentine Literature is based on the short story, it is because this was the form favoured by Jorge Luis Borges, without any doubt the greatest Argentine writer of all times. It would be preposterous to try and sum up Borges’ significance in the few paragraphs I can devote to him: the most I can attempt is to place him in the context of a literature he contains and transcends. Two main lines can be traced in Borges’ literature: the maternal line is derived from his personal family history, linked by blood ties to all the great names of our national history: these texts have an oral slant in language and syntax and deal mostly with local topics and settings. These include his first books of poetry, the biographical essay Evaristo Carriego and all the stories set in the pampas of the gaucho (“El fin”, which gives an ending to Martín Fierro, “La intrusa”, perhaps the finest analysis of machismo, “El muerto”, a rewriting of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday set in the wild frontier of Uruguay and Brazil, and “El evangelio según Marcos”, which relocates the crucifixion in the pampas). It also includes the stories of manliness and courage set in the suburbs of Palermo, where Borges lived as a child: the world of the tango and the orillero, where the only men who mattered were the brave, and courage was always proved at knife-point: “Hombre de la esquina rosada”, “Historia de Rosendo Juárez” and a host of others emphasizing an ethics of courage—their focus placed on the pole of barbarity Echeverría and Sarmiento had deplored. The other main line in Borges’ writing, the “civilized” line, derives mostly from his father’s side, particularly from his library full of English books. Because of it Borges was often accused of being foreign or European in his subjects and concerns. Of course he was, and that is why Borges’ work is the summa of Argentine literature: if his roots run deep into our rural 19th century past, the Spanish and criollo culture, his education takes place in the period in which European immigration changed our racial, cultural and linguistic identity for good. Many of his stories dramatize this conflicting sense of identity: in “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva” he gives us the twin stories of a barbarian who changed sides and defended the Roman empire, and of an Englishwoman who turned indian and rejected civilization, and argues that both made basically the same choice; in “El sur” a bookish reader of gauchesca lays dying in a hospital and is given the chance (whether by God or by his own delirium, the story, modeled on James’ The Turn of the Screw, won’t say) of dying in the open air, in an authentic gaucho duel. This duality also helps explain Borges’ fascination with Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Anglo-Saxons are the barbarians of English culture, which for Borges and many of his group epitomized civilization, and through them the opposition of civilization and barbarity is subverted and confused. The ethics of courage in a macho-centric feudal or neo-feudal context equates in a way the worlds of Beowulf and Martín Fierro. (Borges probably learned the trick from one of his favourie novels, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where we are reminded that the most civilized nation on earth, the British, were once the savage Britons who drove the civilized Romans to despair and madness in the swamps and jungles of the Thames.)

In terms of Argentine, or perhaps Latin American literature, Borges is unique for two main reasons. One is linguistic: he is undoubtedly the best writer in the Spanish language after Cervantes and his contemporaries, and with him the norm of Literature in Spanish decidedly shifts from Spain to the Americas. Just as the Irish like Yeats, Joyce and Beckett taught English writers how to write in English; Borges, García Márquez, Cabrera Infante and a host of others have saved Spanish Literature from itself, or as Borges himself would have it, from “the vain symmetries of the Spanish style.”

Borges is also unique in terms of his influence on the mainstream writers of the Western canon. Poe was perhaps the first writer from the Americas to influence and shape European Literature (I am thinking, of course, of Baudelaire and French Symbolism), but Borges is undoubtedly the first writer from a Latin American country to alter the local traditions of strong literatures: he has changed the way North Americans read Hawthorne or Whitman, the way the English read the Anglo-Saxons or Stevenson, the way Italians read Dante or Spaniards read Cervantes. In his famous essay “El escritor argentino y la tradición” he defended not only our right to consider all Western Literature as our own, but predicted we had a greater capacity to change it than its true possesors—as we were, like the Jews and the Irish, both inside and outside this tradition. The prediction was true, of course, at least when applied to Borges himself—a good example of a self-fulfilled prophecy.

So as from the 50s our literature has had to deal with two types of monsters. One was, as in the past, political. Perón, who is elected president in 1945, was seen by the conservative writers of the aristocracy as a second Rosas, and by the progressive or left wing writers as a Fascist; and his followers, mostly inner migrants from the backward rural areas, were seen as the new violent rabble invading the cities. Given this vast coincidence, it is noticeable that anti-peronist literature didn’t produce any memorable pages—the reason probably was that Peronism, its intolerance towards dissenters and high culture excepted, was progressive in terms of economic and social justice. The best example of anti-peronist literature is Borges’ and Bioy Casares’ short story “La fiesta del monstruo”, a rigorous reenactment of Echeverria’s El matadero with the peronist rabble playing the part of the Mazorca and a book-carrying Jewish intellectual that of the young unitario, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the battering of the middle aged reader in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. This story is written in an artificial popular dialect strongly favoured by Borges’ and Bioy Casares’ third mind (I am borrowing the term from William Burroughs and Brion Gysin), also known as Bustos Domecq. A style, incidentally, both of which avoided when writing on their own.

What Borges couldn’t see at the time was that the real danger for Argentine literature, its new monster, didn’t come from politics but from literature itself. And the name of the monster was none other than Jorge Luis Borges. Argentine literature after Borges has been one long and desperate attempt to get away from what Tomás Eloy Martínez has aptly termed, paraphrasing the beginning of Sarmiento’s Facundo, “la sombra terrible de Borges”—Borges’ terrible shadow.

Adolfo Bioy Casares was fingered for doom. Being Borges’ personal friend, writing in collaboration, belonging very much to the same aristocratic milieu, only meant he could never extricate himself from his elder’s crushing influence. One of his best novels, El sueño de los héroes, is an expanded version of Borges’ “El sur”; and his science fiction classic, La invención de Morel, explores the ontological themes of Borges’ fiction such as “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in which Bioy himself is, incidentally, a character) and others. The measure of this melancholy fate can be gauged in the many interviews in which Bioy was always questioned more on Borges than on himself.

Luckier was Julio Cortázar. Writing at a time when Borges was still unpopular and little understood, shifting to the French language and Literature as models (Borges’ language and literature, needless to say, are modeled on the English), embracing the avant-garde with the same zest Borges had rejected it, inaugurating a lifelong voluntary exile, and eventually deepening his left-wing sympathies as Borges aired his right-wing ones, he managed to put some distance between himself and his monstrous predecessor. Cortazar’s short stories became popular while Borges’ were still considered difficult or abstruse—and reading Cortázar helped train the common reader in the skills necessary for reading Borges. Cortázar became famous worldwide for his novel Rayuela, where all the devices of the French literary avant-garde, from Surrealism to Oulipo, seem to converge, but it is already clear that he will be remembered for his short stories, which envelop us in a sense of undefined uncanniness as no other in the language. Cortázar also had a natual genius for writing from the perspective of children—a trick Borges never mastered: all his children sound middle-aged.

Ernesto Sábato, the only surviving great figure of the generation of Cortázar and Bioy, has a mixed reputation. Revered as “the master” by the common reader and official culture (presidents, wether local or visiting, for some reason love to be photographed with him), he does not awaken the same enthusiasm among literary critics—specially academic. Of his meager production of three novels, Sobre héroes y tumbas is undoubtedly the best, and a great favourite with teenagers. Will Sábato remain a star in the canon of Argentine literature? Only time will tell. But if we consider his influence on the actual writing of other writers coming after him—his prospects don’t seem too good. Perhaps Sábato’s main drawback is that he saw himself not as a disciple but as a rival of Borges. In this novel he has a character dismiss Borges’ “philosophical” stories—has him say for example that “La biblioteca de Babel” results from confusing the notions of indefiniteness and infinity, and suggests that the best of Borges can be found in his poems on the streets and parks of Buenos Aires. All of this is fatal. A post-borgesian Argentine writer cannot choose to ignore Borges; one must grapple with him, doing one’s best, knowing one will lose. Underestimating Borges offers the easiest shortcut into literary weakness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.