Tag Archive | "Macedonio Fernandez"

Oliverio Girondo: Advocating the Avant-Garde


Following on from Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentina Independent continues the Beyond Borges series with an author who, if Borges had not existed, would almost certainly have become a more widely known advocate of the Spanish American avant-garde. The Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo was, for many, the best Argentine poet of the 20th century and today remains one of the most treasured.

Portrait of Oliverio Girondo

A Rival for Borges

Born in 1890, both Girondo and his wife, the contemporary poet Norah Lange, mysteriously shifted their dates of birth back one year to 1891.

The son of wealthy parents, he experienced a privileged upbringing and a solid education was secured for him in prestigious schools in England and France. A deal struck between Girondo and his parents meant that even when he returned to Argentina to complete a law degree, he would still be able to return to Europe every year.

Like Borges, he encountered the exponents of the European avant-garde at an impressionable age. Both authors played an active part in introducing the first of the vanguardist movements to settle in Argentina, both became high profile writers competing for the literary crown of Buenos Aires, and both fell in love with the same woman.

The feud which ensued over Borges’ unrequited love for Girondo’s wife has somewhat stolen the spotlight away from Girondo’s writing. But, an irreverent and provocative author, a fierce observer of society, and a demonstrable deep understanding of what it means to be human reveal Girondo as a fit rival for Borges in many respects.

Advocating the Avant-Garde

Besides a brief attempt at theatre in 1915, and a unique narrative effort named ‘Interlunio’ 1937, Girondo remained first and foremost a poet. His three act play, ‘La Madrastra’ was an infectious melodrama, afterwhich he says he “tore papers”, discarding his writing in cities as far flung as Edinburgh, Seville, Bruges and Dakar, before eventually compiling new writings with those he had saved into his first collection of poetry.

Revealing the obvious influence of French writer Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Veinte poemas para ser leidos en el tranvia’ was published in France in 1922; the same year that Borges’ early poetry, ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’, was published in Argentina.

Together, they are regarded as the major initiators of the avant-garde in Argentina, though rather than focusing on Argentine content, Girondo’s work was inspired by a frenzy of foreign cities and more international in its outlook. Having met with rave reviews in France and Spain, it received more critical attention on home soil following the publishing of its second edition.

Girondo's poetry on the cover of Proa Magazine

Back in Buenos Aires, Girondo became heavily involved in the avant-garde magazine ‘Martin Fierro’. Founded by Evar Méndez and named after José Hernández‘s influential gauchesque poem, the magazine brought Girondo into contact not only with Borges, but also with the great philosophical thinker Macedonio Fernandez and the gauchesque novelist Ricardo Güiraldes, with whom he would go on to found Sociedad Editorial Proa.

Méndez later described Girondo as the great animator of the movement, and it was he who had authored the ‘Manifesto de Martin Fierro’, published in the fourth edition of the magazine on 15th May 1924.

As an advocate of the avant-garde, Girondo travelled to the countries of Chile, Peru, Cuba, Mexico and the United States of America, returning to France and then to Spain, where he published his second volume of poetry, ‘Calcomanías’, inside the Madrid editorial ‘Calpe’, in 1925.

The book was well received on both sides of the Atlantic and reviewed by Borges, who described Girondo as “a violent man who looks at something for a time and then suddenly slaps it in the face, crumples it up and holds on to it for safekeeping”.

Regardless, Girondo returned to Argentina with an increased presence. Appearing on radio broadcasts alongside Güiraldes and other exponents of the vanguardist movement, he concentrated his efforts on a major overhaul of Martin Fierro, ensuring the success of the magazine for almost another 25 years.

A Man of Words

Having travelled once again to Paris, Italy, Egypt and the Basque region, Girondo returned to Buenos Aires for the launch of this third book in 1932.

Probably the most talked about of Girondo’s six poetry collections, ‘Espantapájaros’ is both provocative and memorable. Opening with a formal tribute to Apollinaire, the book of around two dozen poems revels in refreshing humour. Launched in Buenos Aires alongside a bizarre and unprecedented publicity campaign, its first edition of 5,000 copies sold out in only 15 days.

Described as so “spectacularly original that even with advanced warning you are still going to be more surprised by it than by anything else you have ever read in your life”, ‘Espantapájaros’ comes packed with expressions of double meaning where innuendo runs rife.

The poem 'Yo No Se Nada' arranged in the shape of a man

In Girondo’s hands, words acquire new and unexpected meanings so that reading him rarely leaves you as you found him, leading to several of his works being labelled untranslatable.

Like Borges, he also moved away from ultraist trends to explore more elaborate metaphoric language. He was increasingly described as a humourist poet and, where his earlier poetry had tended to center on the image, the writing that followed began to reveal a love of linguistic experimentation that bordered on dangerous.

With a title that already hints at its maturity, ‘Persuasíon de los días’, published in 1942, is considered his most important work. Including as many as 54 poems it is also his most extensive, and reveals the playful sarcasm of ‘Espantapájaros’ to have been left far behind.

In a final irreducible gesture, ‘En la masmédula’ was unleashed like a carefully planned whirlwind in 1954. A dark summation of his work and a showcase of revolutionary syntax, it included poems such as ‘La Mezcla’ and ‘Mi Lumía’, a poem that inspired authors such as Julio Cortázar.

Described by his protege, Enrique Molina, as “one of the most daring adventures of modern poetry”, Girondo’s final book of 16 poems left readers and critics so stunned that the publishing house, Losada, chose to extend the volume on two separate occasions. ‘En la masmédula’ was republished once in 1956 with 26 poems, and again in 1963 as a collection of 37.

A lifelong poet and truly revolutionary man of words, Oliverio Girondo renewed and revived Argentine poetry over a period of 40 years. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as well as the Argentine poet Leopoldo Marechal have composed poems in his name, and musicians such as Fito Páez have also dedicated songs to him; a testament not only to his own importance in Argentine writing but also to his lasting influence.

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Jorge Luis Borges: The Face of Argentine Literature


Having begun with the poet Esteban Echeverría and journeyed through such influential authors as José Hernández, Leopoldo Lugones and Roberto Arlt, The Argentina Independent’s Beyond Borges series arrives at its namesake.

Born in the city of Buenos Aires in 1899, poet, short story author, essayist, translator and critic Jorge Luis Borges went on to become not only the most recognisable name, but also the most recognisable face, in Argentine writing.

Widely acknowledged during his lifetime as a master of 20th century literature, a large proportion of local literary pride can be attributed to Borges’ extensive back catalogue. His impact on literature is remarkable, not only in terms of his contribution to Argentine writing but also his far-reaching and profound influence on literature worldwide.

Arguably Argentina’s finest export and commonly held up as a poster boy of its national literature; the relationship between the country and its most famous author seems, in true Borges fashion, to be both reciprocal and eternal.

Jorge Luis Borges, commonly used as a poster boy for national literature

Early Influences

Raised in a middle class family home, Borges grew up surrounded by the dizzying heights of his father’s multi-lingual library. Harbouring literary aspirations of his own, Jorge Guillermo Borges had never succeeded in becoming an author, but his young son seemed destined to become a prolific figure.

With English as his first language, Borges had made an active decision to embark on a literary career from a young age. His translation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ was printed in an Argentine newspaper when he was only nine years old.

In 1914, his family moved from Argentina to Europe and settled in Switzerland until the end of the war. Home-schooled until age 11, this period of stability afforded Borges an opportunity to complete an institutional education. Following his graduation from the College of Geneva in 1918, the family lived in several European countries, spending time in the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Seville and Madrid.

It was in Spain that Borges fell in with ultraism- an avant-garde movement that had grown up in response to the modernism that dominated Spanish poetry. Having already published book reviews for newspapers in Geneva, he became a regular contributor to Spain’s literary press. In 1921, he returned to Buenos Aires, bringing with him the fresh ideas of ultraism.

The Face of Argentine Literature

Borges’ first poetry collection, ‘Fervour de Buenos Aires’, was published only two years after his return to the city, but it was his page presence in local reviews and journals that really launched his literary career in Argentina.

Already established as a central figure in a circle of vanguard authors, Borges became a regular contributor to the avant-garde magazine ‘Martin Fierro’ and a cofounder of several others, including ‘Proa’ and a broadsheet journal named ‘Prism’. Though he would later denounce both the avant-garde and ultraism, his involvement in these publications provided a valuable platform for his work and played an important part in increasing his public profile.

Graphic design inspired by Borges (Courtesy of Gregory Peterson)

Much of the writing collected under the 1936 title ‘Historia universal de la infamia’ had been previously published inside the literary supplement of Crítica, where Borges had assumed an editorial role in 1933.

In addition, several of the short stories contained the 1941 novel ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan’, had also appeared inside Victoria Ocampo’s ‘Sur’ magazine as early as 1931. It was with this collection of stories that Borges arguably invented the concept of a hypertext novel, preceding both Julio Cortázar and Macedonio Fernández.

In his earlier writing he had experimented with using fictional techniques to tell what were essentially true stories and became the first author to create elaborate reviews of imaginary works. This playful approach extended to publishing, where collaborations under pseudonyms and frequent experimentations with literary forgery resulted in occasional false accreditations.

In basing much of his writing in his home city of Buenos Aires, Borges was adopted as a figurehead of criollismo, a Latin American movement that had its counterpart in North America’s regionalism.

But whilst he had built up a huge body of work based on Argentine culture and history, his themes were generally more universal. During the 1930s he began exploring existentialist ideas in line with increasing public interest, but it was following his father’s death and a near fatal accident of his own, that Borges’ imagination grew progressively fertile.

Argentina’s Finest Export

Among Borges’ best-known works are ‘Ficciones’ in 1944 and ‘The Aleph’ in 1949; two short story collections famed for their complex philosophical concepts. Interconnected by themes of infinity and time, dreams, mirrors, labyrinths, and religion, the stories play on a mix of fantasy and reality and are credited with marking the beginnings of magic realism.

Reacting against the realism of 19th century literature, magic realism gained popularity during the 1960s, when Latin American literature experienced a worldwide “boom”. Until this time, Borges remained little known outside Argentina and, although he preceded Cortázar and the other authors of the boom period, he undoubtedly benefitted from the exposure it provided.

Already a public figure in Argentina, Borges was appointed president of the Argentine Society of Writers, professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture and was, for some time, director of the National Library.

Argentina's most famous author continues to inspire international discussion (Photo courtesy of Casa de América)

Receipt of the International Prize in 1961, awarded jointly to Borges and Samuel Beckett, projected him into an international arena and spurred overseas interest in his work for the first time.

His elevated profile enabled him to embark on a prolific lecturing career whereby he lectured extensively on the art of translation. Having himself translated the work of Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling and William Faulkner, his stance was both new and controversial, declaring translations that contradicted or improved the original to be “equally valid”.

A succession of esteemed literary awards honoured Borges’ work both retrospectively and continuously. Having received the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, the Cervantes Prize in 1979, a Balzan Prize in 1980, and a French Legion of Honour awarded only three years before his death, some say he was systematically overlooked for the Nobel Prize in literature. “Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition,” he said. “Since I was born they have not been granting it to me.”

Still, the impact of Jorge Luis Borges on Argentine literature and literature in general cannot be underestimated. Often described as the most important Spanish language writer since Cervantes, he has been credited as an author who renovated Argentine fiction, paving the way for a remarkable generation of Spanish language writers and turning ‘Borges’ into a household name.

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Macedonio Fernández: A Museum of Possible Literatures


One in a collection of under-appreciated Argentine authors known as “los escritores malditos”, the name Macedonio Fernández remains surprisingly unknown outside Argentina.

For many, however, the mention of his unusual first name is enough to conjure up images of an iconoclastic author who was at once Argentina’s first metaphysician, an authentic philosopher, and a legendary mentor for a generation of avant-garde writers, including Jorge Luis Borges.

The Argentina Independent continues its Beyond Borges series with a look at the innovative author and influential thinker who made up one half of the most pivotal friendship in 20th century Argentine writing.

Macedonio Fernández (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Unravelling the Man from the Myth

Born in Buenos Aires in 1874, Macedonio’s life comes coloured with elaborate rumours and exaggerated eccentricities: a deathly fear of tramcars and dogs, a failed attempt to establish a socialist colony in Paraguay, and two assaults on the Argentine presidency through such unorthodox campaign methods as leaving only his first name written inside folded pieces of paper on café tables throughout the city.

As his son, Adolfo de Obieta, once said: “More will always be unknown than known,” but what we do know is that the early part of Macedonio’s life is almost unrecognisable from the perpetual myth that descriptions, such as those penned by Borges himself, have helped to create.

Although he learned to read in French, German, Spanish and English, Macedonio’s primary academic pursuit was law, which he studied alongside Borges’ father before being admitted to the bar in 1889.

Whilst his interests in psychology and philosophy were evident in a thesis entitled ‘Sobre las personas’, he maintained both the lifestyle and appearance of a professional family man until 1920, when the sudden death of his wife caused him to abandon his career and withdraw from public life. Retreating to live in boarding houses, he pored over philosophy and metaphysics in an effort to either understand or deny his loss.

That same year, wrapped up in unconventional ideas and burgeoning idiosyncrasies, he would be waiting on the dock to welcome the Borges’ family on their return from Europe and embarked upon a friendship that continues to be the subject of great debate.

A Museum of Possible Literatures

More of a great thinker than a great writer, Macedonio wrote unconcerned by the notion of publishing. Besides a compendium of speculative philosophy ‘No toda es vigilia la de los ojos abiertos’ in 1928, a collection of humorous writing ‘Papeles de recienvenido’ in 1929, and a brief meta-novel ‘Una novela que comienza’, published in 1941, the majority of his writing has been published posthumously.

His best-known work, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’, was published for the first time 25 years after his death, and despite having been laboured over for a period of 27 years, remains famously open ended.

Cover of 'The museum of Eterna's novel' published by Open Letter Books in 2010

Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.

Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.

Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.

Rejecting the concept of either a beginning or an end, Macedonio’s attempt at redefining the novel challenges in terms of both content and form. Containing as many as 57 prologues to its 20 chapters, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ describes the perfect execution of a novel wrought with paradoxical humour, whilst ironically and deliberately failing to execute it.

Never intended to be easily followed, Macedonio’s artistic intent was to create a fragmented and disjointed narrative that brought about sufficient confusion and frustration to shake the reader from their passive reading tendencies.

Acknowledged today for anticipating many of the ideas that emerged during the famous “boom” in Latin American literature, Macedonio’s novel preceded Julio Cortázar’s ‘Rayuela’ in the construction of an anti-novel. Though it was published several years earlier, ‘Rayuela’ directly honoured Macedonio by featuring him in the novel as the character of Morelli- the literary hero of the book’s protagonists.

An Accidental Icon

Described as someone “who would rather scatter his ideas in conversation than define them on a page”, Macedonio became an important source of inspiration for a generation of avant-garde writers known as the ‘martinfierristas‘.

Making infrequent but invaluable contributions to the group’s all night gatherings, Borges recalled how Macedonio would speak only four or five times a night, but admitted that never had someone who said so little impressed upon anyone so much.

Modest and courteous, and often crediting his thoughts to someone else, Macedonio’s writing, like his thinking, was often only a sketch of an undeveloped idea, thrown out for completion by someone else.

This technique, of leaving things unfinished, heralded in a new phase in experimental writing that led younger generations to regard Macedonio as the most authentic forerunner to the Argentine avant-garde and a prototype of postmodernism.

Jorge Luis Borges: A Product of Macedonio?

Adopted as a mentor by young writers looking to construct literature in direct opposition to the modernism of the previous generation, Macedonio is controversially described as “the man who made Borges”.

Whilst Borges himself acknowledged Macedonio as a mentor as early as 1921, later confessing that a failure to imitate his metaphysical canon would have represented an “incredible negligence”, he later downplayed the extent of Macedonio’s influence, famously denouncing both the avant-garde and ultraism in 1926.

Whether Borges was a product of Macedonio, or whether the relationship was one of more mutual and reciprocal influence, remains undecided, and the relationship that is regarded by some as hugely instrumental continues to be rejected by others as largely coincidental.

Even with both authors calling on a common handful of themes, it’s not possible to determine whether these sprang from Macedonio’s idea bank, and if they did, Borges’ flawless execution of them remains unparalleled, whilst Macedonio’s comes a little rougher around the edges.

However, many readers arrive to Macedonio’s writing having come in search of an author who makes Borges’ appearance more explanatory. And with Borges as Macedonio’s main source of encouragement as a writer, some argue that “Macedonio the literary man” was as much a product of Borges’ invention, as “Borges the metaphysician” was Macedonio’s.

Regardless of who made whom, Macedonio remains an obscure but fondly remembered writer, long admired for his ingenuity and his original approach to literature. His radical aesthetic and heady influence exploded the mould of modernist writing, forever altering the course of Argentine literature.

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