Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Roberto Arlt, "The Seven Madmen".

I've just completed a book by an obscure Argentinian named Roberto Arlt, entitled the Seven Madmen. The story concerns a group of down-and-out eccentrics who plot to form a secret society which will eventually throw the nation into chaos. It was written in the 1920's, as Argentina was coming into its own as a world economic power. Immigrants streamed into the country from all over Europe, for the promise of cheap land on which to make their fortunes. Many of them ended up destitute in the coastal urban gloom of Buenos Aires. This is Arlt's milieu. His writing is choppy, but its depictions of scrappy, insane and desperate characters was diverting. Arlt is said to be a precursor for authors as diverse as William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh and Iceberg Slim- none of which I would list among my favorite authors.

What did particularly fascinate me was this book's strange concoction of half-baked philosophies, and descriptions of a seedy underworld that existed in a foreign place. I know very little about Argentina, then or now, but merely on the merits of it being a document of a specific time and place... I probably wouldn't hesitate to read the follow-up to The Seven Madmen. The Flamethrowers apparently picks up where this one left off... tracing the further adventures of the conspirators who appear in Arlt's world.

It is certainly a ragtag bunch of ne'er-do-wells that inhabits The Seven Madmen. We meet Erdosian, a meek Walter Mitty who dreams of gaining the resources to create his inventions... like custom-colored pets and copper-plated roses. There's the "Melancholy Thug"- a mathematics professor-cum-pimp, with his rough cynicism and intimate knowledge of brothels. The Thug's expected to work out a budget for the construction of a whorehouse, which is optimistically expected to fund the secret society's revolutionary activities. That enterprise is expected to be supplemented by the efforts of the "Gold Prospector", who has fantastic tales of a backcountry stream that flows with the most precious of metals.

When it comes to adding a touch of legitimacy, "The Major" is called upon. He's an Army officer, who claims to be a mere sergeant, but has the inside dope on the type of support that can be rallied among the discontented military forces of the country. Every society needs it's talking head, and "The Astrologer" is the ringleader and master theorist of this plot... his expertise is in lies, and the ability to use them to surround himself with these zany visionaries. He's not beyond combining disparate threads of utopian and dystopian logic, from sources as diverse as Nietschze, Marx, and Mussolini. Finally, the musle of the outfit is provided (in part) by a shady figure named "The Man who Saw the Midwife". His role is a shadowy one, known only to the Astrologer. We do know he has something to do with dispatching enemies.

There are several other peripheral characters adding extra color to the plot, but it is ultimately the story of Erdosain and the torments he encounters as life shits upon him. What mad visions may come when we become at long-last irrevocably disillusioned with life? There seems to be some truth in the implication that hellfire has so much fuel that rages beyond control- so much so that it singes the periphery of our everyday exixtence. Meet the gamblers, whores, pimps, petty thieves, extortionists, cuckolds, and brutish louts that people Arlt's universe.


Anonymous Sebasti├ín Lalaurette said...

Hey! Arlt is not obscure. He is a very well-known (and very good) Argentinian writer. Many people hold his works as an example against the Borgesian paradigm, which is obviously the clear winner in the history of my country's literature.

I am glad you have liked "The seven madmen". That book is still read widely and has had an enormous influence on Argentinian writers. You see, Borges is and will be the dominant paradigm, but the Arltian one is always in a close fight (one of heavy storytelling and deep characters against one of formal perfection and abstract ideas, to summarize brutally), and this is the book that more fully represents Arlt as "the Argentinian Dostoyevsky", as they call him.

Keep up the good work! I am subscribing to your blog.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Melina Borgese said...

Hi there.
I am so glad I have found your post.
I've been looking for an English version of Arlt's novel. I've been wanting to give the book as a present to an English friend who (in spite of having some Spanish knowledge) wouldn't be able to keep up with the original novel.

As an English>Spanish translator, I consider the task of translating Arlt into another language almost utopic. His works are riddled with what we call localisms, which is one of his characteristic features as a writer. I am looking forward to reading the English version in order to see how the translator accomplished this.

However, I was glad to find (from your review) that the description of characters has been very accurate. These strange creatures, these colourful looneybeans, this lodge of beautiful losers...they make up the core of Arltian literature. In the same way that Kafka has created his characters so that the term "kafkian character" could be taken and applied to other authors, Arlt has given birth to these unique characters that we get to tag as "Arltian characters" (or little beasts, as I like to call them).

Thank you very much for your review. It has been of great help.

Happy to know that Arlt is living beyond language or any other limits.

Cheers from Buenos Aires,


5:17 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Thank you, Melina, for taking the time to leave a message. I'm glad as I was able to convey a resonant depiction of the characters.

8:57 AM  

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