World Literature

Roberto Arlt

 

BORN: 1900, Buenos Aires, Argentina

DIED: 1942, Buenos Aires, Argentina

NATIONALITY: Argentine

GENRE: Drama, Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Rabid Plaything (1926)

The Seven Madmen (1929)

300 Millions (1932)

Porteno Etchings (1936)

 

Overview

Lauded by critics for exploring innovative themes in his narratives and in the theater, Roberto Arlt was one of the most influential figures in Argentine literature during the first half of the twentieth century. Premised on what he considered a breakdown of the philosophical and religious values of Western civilization, his fiction and dramas concern the plight of individuals contending with ‘‘the inevitably crumbling social edifice,’’ frequently depicting social unrest, urban alienation, deviant behavior, sexual maladjustment, and class hostility. Arlt is also noted for his ‘‘Aguafuertes portenas’’—‘‘etchings’’ of Buenos Aires life: collected essays whose language and tone are still admired by Argentine writers.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

School Dropout Arlt was born on April 2, 1900, in Buenos Aires, Argentina to European immigrants. His father had served in Bismarck’s German army, while his mother was Italian. Neither spoke Spanish particularly well; German was spoken at home. Although Roberto was expelled from school at the age of eight, he read widely and published his first story at fourteen. He left home two years later and worked odd jobs while aspiring to be a writer.

From 1919 to 1920, Arlt served in the Argentine armed forces in Cordoba and attended the Naval School of Mechanics. He spent much of his free time in the taverns, especially the cafe La Punalada, and shady spots of Buenos Aires, making the acquaintance of the seedy patrons who would later populate his writing.

Journalist. Between 1914 and 1916, at the same time he was starting his fiction-writing career, Arlt began writing for newspapers. He interned with writer and journalist Ricardo Guiraldes from 1925 to 1927 and published with Guiraldes’s magazine, Prow. He began his journalistic work as a way to make money and to introduce himself into Argentine literary circles. However, this work turned out to be more than that. His daily columns for El mundo, ‘‘Aquafaertes portenas’’ (‘‘Porteno Etchings’’), appeared from 1928 to 1942 (compiled first in book form in 1936) and earned him nationwide fame. On the day his column appeared each week, El mundo sold twice as many copies as on other days.

The Underside of Argentina. In 1929, Arlt published The Seven Madmen, which was to be his only English-language success and his most notable novel. None of his other works have been translated into English. The Seven Madmen won a municipal award, but the critics read it as a realistic book and criticized it for bad grammar and craftsmanship. The book was meant to be experimental and expressionistic. The Flamethrowers was the sequel novel to The Seven Madmen. Both The Seven Madmen and The Flamethrowers were influenced by Dostoyevsky. Both reveal the underside of Buenos Aires life, with its delinquents, prostitutes, and ruffians. In 1931, Arlt published Love of the Sorcerer, his last novel.

300 Millions. With his major work in fiction behind him, in the 1930s, Arlt turned his attention to playwriting. Arlt’s first play, 300 Millions, premiered on June 17, 1932, in Buenos Aires at the Teatro del Pueblo. In this play, Sofia, a poor maid from Spain, dreams about inheriting 300 million pesos to help her cope with her loneliness and the indifference of the people around her. Finally, she decides to kill herself by throwing herself in front of a tram. As a journalist, Arlt was present at just such a suicide and was so impressed by the story behind it that he had originally decided to write about it in 1927 for the newspaper Critica.

Arlt continued to write throughout the 1930s, but was increasingly exhausted by his hard living. In 1935 he was sent to Spain by El mundo as a correspondent, where he wrote a series of articles featuring his impressions of the country. It was one of the few times in his life that Arlt left Buenos Aires. The political climate in Spain had been increasingly tense since the adoption of a controversial new democratic Constitution in 1931; this tension was made worse in 1933, when democratic elections were at least partially ignored by the president and ruling party, leading to riots and strikes. Soon after Arlt left Spain, the country descended into a bloody civil war. His writings from the assignment were collected in Spanish Etchings (1936). Arlt continued to write for El mundo until he died of a stroke in 1942.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Arlt's famous contemporaries include:

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997): Influential American Beat generation writer whose works, like Arlt's, were condemned because of their strong, vulgar language.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): Innovative German playwright and poet.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969): Vietnamese revolutionary who was president of North Vietnam from 1955 until his death in 1969.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Argentine author of highly imaginative stories who is often credited as one of the earliest practitioners of magical realism.

Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971): Popular Australian poet who brought to traditional Australian poetry the influence of modernists.

Theodor Seuss Geisel (also known as Dr. Seuss) (19041991): American author whose fanciful worlds have entertained readers for decades.

 

Works in Literary Context

Arlt was a largely self-taught, avid reader. He was particularly enamored with Russian authors, like Dostoyevsky, whose work directly influenced at least one of his protagonists. on the other hand, concerned as Arlt was with the real language of the people of Argentina, he felt little need to confine his art to the ‘‘accepted’’ and ‘‘formal’’ language of traditional literature. Indeed, Arlt’s use of so- called ‘‘low’’ or ‘‘vulgar’’ language and foreign languages in his primarily Spanish-language literature was considered revolutionary and influenced innovative Spanish writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, although his language and its impact received little critical recognition during his lifetime.

The Language of Common Culture. Many of Arlt’s contemporary readers admired his linguistic audacity. During the 1920s and 1930s, when academics were calling for purity and uniformity in the Spanish language, Arlt, along with other avant-garde writers, proposed the “derhetoricizing” of what they considered a pompous, florid, and stodgy literary idiom that lacked the resources for innovation and invention. Thus his characters and narrators use colloquialisms common to middle-and lower-class Spanish and the familiar form of‘‘you,’’ voseo, rather than the acceptable literary form of the pronoun; Arlt was the first novelist to use the familiar tense in his work. In ‘‘The Language of the Argentines,’’ translated for the Review from his collection Aguafuertes portenas, Arlt condemned those demanding linguistic purity, criticizing ‘‘the absurdity of trying to straightjacket in a prescriptive grammar the constantly changing, new ideas of a people.’’

Arlt’s writing style was innovative. He was the first novelist to use the language of thieves (lunfardo), the language of Buenos Aireans (portenos), vulgarities, foreign language, Castilian Spanish, scientific language, and lyricism. He broke the literary rules of tradition at every turn and populated his work with the unpleasant and grossly urban. He also cited the new and changing ideas of people as being a reason to reject the censures of “linguistic purity.’’ Arlt assumed that language was ever changing, even living.

Grotesque Characters. As a natural outgrowth of the rough language Arlt used, his characters are often described as grotesque. Just as one example of many, consider The Manufacturer of Phantoms. This play is about an egotistical playwright, Pedro, who, convinced of his superiority, proceeds to murder his wife, since he feels that she interferes with his creativity. He is then pursued and murdered by his own literary creations. The play is influenced by Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The murderer has a ‘‘superman complex’’—essentially, the belief that he is above the law—as does Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov; he is later plagued by his conscience as is the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s novel; and the judge in Arlt’s play represents Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment. (Arlt’s judge pursues Pedro after realizing that he did indeed kill his spouse.)

The literary tradition of the grotesque is particularly evident in this play. The nightmarish characters created by Pedro represent his guilty conscience, which persecutes him despite his attempts to deny its existence. There is a bizarre masquerade in which the distraught protagonist unmasks a beautiful and seductive woman who suddenly is transformed into his dead wife, and then into a series of frightening creatures each time another mask is torn from her face.

 

Works in Critical Context

During his lifetime Arlt was largely ignored by the critics. On the other hand, several of his fellow left-wing writers were able to perceive the talent he possessed in communicating the inner feelings of solitude and helplessness of the antiheroes in his dramas as well as his novels. These antiheroes are similar to Arlt himself and represent many people who are unable to communicate with each other and who live within the boundaries of an indifferent and often hostile society. For other writers and critics, however, Arlt was no more than an imaginative writer who did not follow the rules of good writing.

The Seven Madmen. The Seven Madmen is now considered by both the general public and literary critics to be one of the most important Argentine novels of the twentieth century. In this novel, a group of seven locos (insane people) prepare for a revolution using counterfeit money and the profits from prostitutes working in brothels. ‘‘The reader’s first reaction to [The Seven Madmen] is complete disorientation,’’ David William Foster noted in Currents in the Contemporary Argentine Novel, because ‘‘the controlling consciousness of the novel [is] Erdosain’s muddled perspective on reality.’’ Arlt’s confusing narrative is a deliberate manifestation of Erdosain’s own bewildered involvement with the society, whose members and plotting he does not understand. The Seven Madmen won a municipal award but, upon its release, drew the censure of critics who, failing to appreciate the novel’s experimental and expressionistic tendencies, read it as a realistic book and lambasted its poor grammar, composition, and craftsmanship. ‘‘If anyone ever actually believed that this novel was realistic,’’ Paul Gray wrote in a 1984 issue of Time, ‘‘then life in the Argentine capitol must once have been unimaginably weird.’’

Arlt’s subject matter and style did not fit the traditional aesthetic concept of beauty upheld by established Spanish literary critics and authors, many of whom were still extolling the virtues of cowboys on the vanishing Argentine frontier. Arlt dwelt on the least pleasant aspects of urban life. According to Foster in the Review, his novels depict, with ‘‘appalling fidelity,’’ the horrid conditions in which Argentineans were forced to live. In the prologue to The Flamethrowers, quoted by Lee Dowling in the Review, Arlt answered and indicted his detractors, particularly the wealthy and genteel establishment writers: ‘‘It is said of me that my writing is poor. That may be.... Often I have wanted to compose a novel that would consist of panoramic scenes like Flaubert’s. But today, amid the babble of an inevitably crumbling social edifice, it is impossible to linger over embroidery.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Critics feel it is unnecessarily difficult to read some of Arlt's work, especially The Seven Madmen, because Arlt does not always draw a clean distinction between reality, hallucination, and fantasy. The effect of this approach is generally a submersion of the reader into the psyche of the characters whose worlds the author is exploring. The blurring of the line between fantasy and reality has become more popular in literature since Arlt's death. Here are some more works that use the technique.

Madeleine Is Sleeping (2004), work of fiction by Sarah Shunlien Bynum. This text is often referred to as a novel, but in actuality, it is less a novel and more a series of vignettes— short, powerful stories and images—that may or may not be the dreams of a young girl named Madeleine.

Naked Lunch (1959), a novel by William S. Burroughs. Unlike the other pieces of art mentioned here, this novel is not about the connection between dreams and reality but rather the different states of consciousness experienced by drug users. Written as it was in the 1950s, the forthrightness with which the text explores drug use was quite a scandal.

Eraserhead (1977), a film directed by David Lynch. This film, like Madeleine Is Sleeping, contains a vast number of dream sequences, none of which is immediately distinguishable from the ''waking life'' of the protagonist. The disorienting effect is so strong that some have felt that the film is not really a film at all—in the sense that a film, above all else, tells a story—but an ''experience.''

 

Responses to Literature

1. Flexibility with language is an important part of Arlt’s art. His ability to use the language of the common people and to utilize aspects of the Spanish language in his novels that others had never used before mark his work as exceptional. In order to increase your own flexibility with language, take a passage from one of your textbooks—something that feels a little stuffy, a little boring—and try to rewrite it in more accessible language. Consider not just the language but also the presentation. Would the passage work better as a scene in a play, a song, or a poem? How would it look in blog form?

2. Both Madeleine Is Sleeping and The Seven Madmen are disorienting for the reader because they blur the line between reality and fantasy. Read Madeleine Is Sleeping. Try to determine which vignettes depict ‘‘reality’’ and which depict ‘‘fantasy.’’ Based on these observations, describe the ‘‘real’’ Madeleine. Do the same for the protagonist in The Seven Madmen. How does this process of dissecting these texts affect your impressions of them?

3. Compare the conclusions of The Manufacturer of Phantoms and Crime and Punishment, by which Arlt was influenced. Which do you find more satisfying? Why?

4. Arlt’s characters have been linked to the ‘‘grotesque’’—a tradition in which abnormal- looking characters or filthy characters are described in great detail. The key here is the incredible detail used to describe the characters. After having read some Arlt, take a stab at describing, in great detail, a ‘‘grotesque’’ object.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.

Etchenique, Nira. Roberto Arlt. Buenos Aires: La Mandragora, 1962.

Flint, Jack M. The Prose Works of Roberto Arlt: A Thematic Approach. Durham, U.K.: University of Durham, 1985.

Foster, David William. Currents in the Contemporary Argentine Novel: Arlt, Mallea, Sabato, and Cortazar. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975.

Lindstrom, Naomi. Literary Expressionism in Argentina: The Presentation of Incoherence. Tempe: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1977.

Sole, Carlos A., and Maria Isabel Abreu, eds. Latin American Writers. New York: Scribner’s, 1989.

Periodicals

Foster, David William. Review of The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt. Review: Latin American Literature and Arts (Fall 1982).

Gray, Paul. Review of The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt. Time (August 1984).

Gray, Paul. ‘‘Metatheatre: Roberto Arlt’s Vehicle Toward the Public’s Awareness of an Art Form.’’ Latin American Theatre Review (1990).

Troiano, James J. ‘‘The Grotesque Tradition and the Interplay of Fantasy and Reality in the Plays of Roberto Arlt.’’ Latin American Literary Review (1976).