Argentine Literature and its Monsters (Part 2/2)

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.

See the bottom of the article for a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.

There were no prominent Argentine women writers in the 19th Century, for approximately the same reasons Virginia Woolf gives, in A Room of One’s Own, for their absence in the English 18th. The first generation of Argentine women writers are more or less contemporaries of Borges and belong to the same aristocratic milieu: Victoria Ocampo, the great lady of Argentine letters, was the founder of Sur magazine and an ardent advocate for the constant updating of invigorating foreign influences: as a publishing house Sur was responsible for the first translations of Faulkner’s Light in August, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, and Nabokov’s Lolita. Her sister Silvina, lifelong wife of Bioy Casares, is one of our best short story writers and specially apt in the difficult art of portraying the world view of children—Cortázar’s predecessor and only rival in this respect. In the words of her elder sister, her work is remarkable for “an atmosphere of its own, where the most incongruous and unlikely things are close to each other and walk hand in hand, as in dreams”. Women novelists include the remarkable Sara Gallardo; Beatriz Guido, whose claims to fame lie more in the scripts she wrote for her husband Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, the greatest of Argentine film directors so far (his are the film versions of such classics as Martín Fierro, Los siete locos, Boquitas pintadas and Borges’ “Emma Zunz”) than for her schmaltzy novels; and the angry and opinionated Silvina Bullrich, who unselfishly devoted her life to the heroic task of creating the Argentine best seller. If in the mainstream narrative genres the position of women is somewhat subsidiary, they occupy a very prominent position in poetry—with names such as Alfonsina Storni and Alejandra Pizarnik—in drama—Griselda Gambaro—and in generic narrative such as Science Fiction—Angélica Gorodischer. Argentine women writers have, as a whole, had to deal with a particular monster of their own—the as yet not fully challenged predominance of male writers and a masculine oriented tradition in Argentine mainstream narrative, of which this lecture might be, unfortunately, another example.

A word should be said, at this point, about the Argentine fantastic story tradition, because many foreign readers see it the local tradition as such. It has practically no roots in the 19th Century, which was, as we have seen, on the whole realistic (differing in this from both the U.S. and European traditions), and it is more urban than rural (differing in this from the Magic realism of the 60s which it influenced). Its beginnings can be found in the stories of Leopoldo Lugones (Las fuerzas extrañas) and Horacio Quiroga (Más allá), its culmination most certainly in the period spanning the mid-30s to the mid-60s, which includes the best work of “The Fantastic Four”: Silvina Ocampo, Borges, Bioy Casares and Cortázar. What they all share, perhaps, is the atmosphere of doubt and uncanniness, rather than the portrayal of outright horrors; the feeling of borders being blurred, of incompatible planes of existence merging or coalescing; and a sense of unidentified menace which harks back, in Borges at least, to the world of H. P. Lovecraft. All of these writers are related, through birth or affinity, to the Sur magazine tradition and to the endangered aristocracy, and in a reading like the one I offer, which has a strong local, historical and political bias, it is unavoidable to notice that the core of this thirty-year period is constituted by the Perón decade (1945-1955). Seen in this sense, perhaps the most ‘transparent’ story of the lot is Cortázar’s “Casa tomada”, which can be read both as a story on undefined menace (some ghostly beings slowly and inexorably take over an old family house) and as the indirect and allusive twin brother of Beatriz Guido’s El incendio y las vísperas, which deals very openly with the Peronists’ takeover of a large estancia and their burning of the Jockey Club and its invaluable art collection.

The generation of Borges’ grandchildren (writers born around 1930) include some of our best, many of which would still be alive had it not been for the zeal of the last military government in hunting them down. Three are the great names.

Internationally, the best known is Manuel Puig. His early novels take place in the provincial town of Coronel Vallejos: La traición de Rita Hayworth (written in a succession of Faulknerian interior monologues) and Boquitas pintadas (which masterfully blends a pop sensibility for Hollywood glamour, a pastiche of feminine styles in the manner of the Gerty McDowell chapter of Ulysses, and the portrayal of provincial banality in the manner of Flaubert or Chéjov). The influence of Joyce is strongest in The Buenos Aires Affair, written in a variety of techniques and styles, while the elaboration of the conflict between modern (or class-oriented) radicalism and the posmodern radicalism of gay or feminist culture has seldom, if ever, been as convincingly dramatized as in his masterful El beso de la mujer araña, which in passing also manages to tear to shreds the 70s presumption that the validity of art is based on its progressive political content.

Rodolfo Walsh is best known for Operación masacre, Argentine Literature’s claim to the invention of the non-fiction novel before Capote’s In Cold Blood. This book, written and published clandestinely in times of military dictatorship, deals with the illegal shooting of Perón sympathizers after a botched pro-peronist coup in 1956. Walsh’s fame rests on this and other works of political journalism, on his commitment to revolutionary politics—which led to his assasination by the military in 1977 – and on his superb journalism. But his literary genius is evinced mostly in his short stories, some of which—“Fotos”, “Cartas”, “Nota al pie”, “Esa mujer” are among the most perfectly written and finely crafted in all our literature. “Esa mujer” has been recently voted the best Argentinian short story ever, and while the claim is preposterous for a literature that includes stories like Borges’ “El Aleph” and “El inmortal”, it is the first and so far most succesful treatment of the Eva Perón theme—as is shown by the implicit and explicit homage payed to it by Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita. Walsh was working on his first novel when he was killed—he and its drafts remain disappeared.

Faulkner has been the single greatest influence on the Latin American literary boom of the 60s. Apart from the enormous force of his work, and the fact that he writes about a neo-feudal world much closer to Latin America than to the rest of the U.S., he provides the basic formula for the Latin American boom: the blending of the themes and contents of regional literature (usually traditional and conservative in form) with the styles and devices of the Modernist avant garde (mainly, Joyce). García Márquez, Onetti, Vargas Llosa are unconceivable without this formula, as is Juan José Saer, born near the city of Santa Fe, which he has turned into his literary territory, in the manner of Faulkner’s Yoknapathawpa or Onetti’s Santa María. Saer’s variation on the Faulkner formula was to replace the Modernists of the 20s with the French avant garde of the 50s, mainly Robbe-Grillet’s objectivism. Saer’s best novel, Cicatrices, is written in four long chapters that combine the powerful surge of the faulknerian monologue with the painstaking and neurotic attention to detail of the objectivist description. The result is truly awesome. Saer is not content with describing Santa Fe’s present, and his novel El entenado is set in the early days of the Spanish conquest. It might be, together with Herzog’s movie Aguirre, on of the few contemporary versions to capture the hallucinatory flavour of the conquest of America. Glosa, finally, takes some of Saer’s favourite characters (who recur from work to work) through the hell fires of the last military dictatorship.

Contemporaries or near contemporaries of these three include Haroldo Conti, also murdered by the military juntas, author of Sudeste, the novel that gave the Tigre delta its literary entity. Sudeste is a novel wholly devoted to the minutiae of physical action, in the manner of Hemingways’ “Big Two-hearted river”—the acts of fishing, cooking, mending clothes, rowing and dying. Conti’s foray into the revolutionary magic realism of the 70s, Mascaró, is not as wholly succesful.

Antonio Di Benedetto, who survived imprisonment and torture but died years later of the consequences, wrote the impeccable Zama, set in the days of the Spanish colonization, a novel that can claim its place among the literature of hopeless waiting together with Kafka’s The Castle, Beckett’s Godot, Dino Buzatti’s The Desert of the Tartars and García Márquez El coronel no tiene quien le escriba. The ending, with a wanted criminal forming part of the posse persecuting him, is worthy of Chesterton or Philip K. Dick.

Raúl Damonte, better known as Copi, wrote mostly in French, demented novels that seem quite alien to our tradition—unless we are willing to incorporate, as some have, Witold Gombrowicz into it. Copi’s plays are arguably our best after—or together with—Arlt’s. Copi is also, together with the poet, essayist and short story writer Néstor Perlongher, one of the icons of our gay tradition. Perlongher’s claim to originality in Argentine literature also rests in his incopororation of the Gongorean Neobaroque tropicalism of Lezama Lima, Reinaldo Arenas, and others—before him the influence of the Spanish Baroque on Argentine literature, mainly through Borges, came more from the comparatively ascetic language and conceptual games of Cervantes and Quevedo than from the decorative proliferation of Góngora and his school. Eva Perón reappears in the work of these two writers: her theatrical or Hollywoodesque excess in Copi’s play Eva Perón, her protean capacity for transformation in Perlongher’s “Evita vive”, where she is at once whore, junkie and dead. Gay writers, Eloy Martínez claims, have understood her figure better than anybody in our literature. The trilogy of Argentine eccentrics is completed by Osvaldo Lamborghini. His story “El pibe Barulo” offers a rather perverse twist on the Greek topic of fate: a young boy inexorably doomed to be raped because of his fat ass provides a hilarious and very politically incorrect examination of the homoerotic roots of Argentine machismo, advanced in Gombrowicz’s Transatlantic and developed in Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña. Lamborghini is also quite good at rendering the perspective of children, but he differs from Silvina Ocampo and Cortázar in that all his children are little monsters.

At this stage, having come to the end of this inevitably personal overview, I can expand on our starting point. Argentine literature is not so much haunted by demons as stalked by monsters. Sarmiento’s dichotomy places the menace outside culture and the psyche: in the civilization/barbarity dichotomy, danger for literature comes from without. For us writing is not so much exorcism as combat. It’s not so much one’s own demons that must be cast out, but the demons of others that must be kept at bay.

And thus we reach te close of our talk. I will say nothing of the individual writers of my generation, as you will probably be meeting them yourselves and I don’t want to influence your better judgement. But there is one thing I would like to say about us, taken as a group. If what I said at the beginning is not entirely untrue, then the writers of my age have the greatest challenge to face, as no monsters in Argentine history can compare to those that carried out the greatest campaign of terror this country has ever known. Ricardo Piglia, one of the leading critics and writers of today, argues in his stimulating first novel, Respiración artificial, that we cannot say anything about the world of Auschwitz—a world beyond language. Auschwitz, of course, was his way of naming the last military dictatorship while it was still on, at the time when his novel was written and published. Literature—not to mention its writers – feels impotent before the magnitude of this task. We will do our best, and hopefully what little we can achieve may be taken up and continued by others following in our steps.


Argentine authors and works mentioned in the course of this essay:

  • Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851): La cautiva; “El matadero”
  • José Mármol (1818-1871): Amalia
  • Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888): Facundo: civilización y barbarie; El Chacho, último caudillo de la montonera en los llanos de la Rioja
  • José Hernández (1834-1886): El gaucho Martín Fierro (la ida); La vuelta de Martín Fierro
  • William Henry Hudson (1841-1922): “Marta Riquelme”
  • Ricardo Rojas (1882-1957): Historia de la literatura argentina
  • Leopoldo Lugones (1874-1938): El payador; Las fuerzas extrañas
  • Ricardo Güiraldes (1886-1926): Don Segundo Sombra
  • Horacio Quiroga (1878–1937): “La gallina degollada”; “El almohadón de plumas”; “La miel silvestre”; Cuentos de la selva; Más Allá
  • Roberto Arlt (1900-1942): El juguete rabioso; Los siete locos; Los lanzallamas; Saverio el cruel; Trescientos millones
  • Luisa Valenzuela: Cola de lagartija
  • Leopoldo Marechal (1900-1970): Adán Buenosayres
  • Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva”; “Poema conjetural”; “Nuestro pobre individualismo”; “El indigno”; Evaristo Carriego; “El fin”; “El muerto”; “El evangelio según Marcos”; “Hombre de la esquina rosada”; “Historia de Rosendo Juárez”; “El sur”; “El escritor argentino y la tradición”; “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”; “La biblioteca de Babel”; “El inmortal”; “El Aleph”
  • H. Bustos Domecq (Borges + Bioy Casares): “La fiesta del monstruo”
  • Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969): Trasatlántico
  • Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999): El sueño de los héroes; La invención de Morel
  • Victoria Ocampo (1891-1979)
  • Silvina Ocampo (1906-1994)
  • Sara Gallardo (1931-1988)
  • Beatriz Guido (1924-1988): El incendio y las vísperas
  • Silvina Bullrich (1915-1990)
  • Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938)
  • Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972)
  • Griselda Gambaro (b. 1928)
  • Angélica Gorodischer (b. 1928)
  • Julio Cortázar (1914-1984): Rayuela; “Casa tomada.”
  • Ernesto Sábato (b. 1911): Sobre héroes y tumbas
  • Manuel Puig (1932-1990): La traición de Rita Hayworth; Boquitas pintadas; The Buenos Aires Affair; El beso de la mujer araña
  • Rodolfo Walsh (1927-1977): Operación masacre; “Fotos”; “Cartas”; “Nota al pie”; “Esa mujer”
  • Juan José Saer (1937-2007): Cicatrices; El entenado; Glosa
  • Haroldo Conti (1925-1976?): Sudeste; Mascaró
  • Antonio Di Benedetto (1922-1986): Zama
  • Copi (Raúl Damonte) (1939-1987): Eva Perón
  • Néstor Perlongher (1949-1992): “Evita vive”
  • Osvaldo Lamborghini (1940-1985): “El pibe Barulo”
  • Ricardo Piglia (b. 1940): Respiración artificial

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