We continue The Indy’s Beyond Borges series with Ricardo Güiraldes, author of one of the two most important regional novels to have emerged from Latin America during the 20th century.
In his epic ‘Don Segundo Sombra’, Güiraldes transformed the cultural heritage of the Argentine gaucho into an enduring national myth, resulting in the celebration of his novel as an instant classic and the elegy of a bygone era.
Himself resembling an escaped character from a fin de siècle novel, Güiraldes led a lifestyle that was simultaneously decadent and bohemian.
The son of a wealthy member of the Argentine oligarchy, he was born in the rural town of San Antonio de Areco in 1886. His family moved to Paris when he was only one year old, and settled in an upscale neighbourhood near the Rue Saint-Claude.
With French and German as his first and second languages, and Castellao as his third, the family returned to Argentina in 1890 where he began his education.
In Argentina, his time was divided between Buenos Aires and his father’s estancia, La Porteña, in San Antonio de Areco. It was there that he came across the men who would lend free rein to his writing. His father’s employee, Segundo Ramírez, was to be Güiraldes’ teacher in the practical matters of rural life but also provided the inspiration for at least one of his short stories, as well as the basis for the eponymous character in the novel that would establish his fame.
Having studied architecture before switching to law in 1905, Güiraldes completed neither and instead sailed for France, where in the company of artists, musicians and writers, he developed an interest in ethics and metaphysics that would lead his writing beyond traditional themes to more universal ideas of religion and philosophy.
Spiritually restless, but satiated by recent overseas travel in Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Egypt, Russia, Japan, and Germany, it was in Paris, in the workshop of Argentine sculptor Alberto Lagos, that Güiraldes decided to dedicate himself to writing.
As at home in the salons of Paris as on the estancias of San Antonio de Areco, Güiraldes would return to again and again to the French capital, eventually dying there in 1927.
Following his return to Buenos Aires and his marriage to porteña Adelina del Carril in 1913, Güiraldes published his first book of short stories and a book of poetry together in 1915.
‘Cuentos de muerte y de sangre’ and ‘El cencerro de cristal’ were both overlooked by critics, but ‘Raucho’, written and published two years later, was more a sketch of what would follow in ‘Don Segundo Sombra’.
Its protagonist, a man who leaves the Argentine countryside for Paris but returns an educated and cultured individual, drew a likeness with Güiraldes himself, and later reappeared in the closing chapters of ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ as the well-travelled teacher and companion of the book’s narrator.
A second novel, originally published in a literary review as ‘Un idilio de estación’ in 1818, was later republished in book form. Dedicated to one of his sisters, ‘Rosaura’ told the story of a blossoming romance between a woman of society and a well-travelled, handsome stranger passing through Lobos train station, who promises to open her eyes to a world beyond the limited scope of rural Argentina.
Indeed, almost all of Güiraldes’ literature concerns itself with the difficulty of settling upon a national identity that could blend the traditions of the past with the ideals for the future.
Conveying the collective concerns of many Argentines at the turn of the 20th century, his writing sought to recover the lost identities of his readers, and ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ in particular, met the demand for a rose tinted perspective on a past that many Argentines did not know but were eager to accept.
The Creation of an Instant Classic
Güiraldes’ ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ is a classic coming of age tale that follows an inexperienced and orphaned young gaucho as he becomes a man under the care of an older and accomplished mentor, Don Segundo.
The first ten chapters had been written in Paris as early as 1920, but it was not completed until 1926 when a wave of Argentine immigration had led to a resurgence of interest in the gaucho. Unlike the social and political interest that had accompanied the genre the first time around, the renewed interest stemmed more from nostalgia and a need for understanding.
Written when gaucho culture had already perished, the novel was less a reflection of national spirit – as gauchesque literature had typically been – and more a lament for something lost.
Güiraldes’ gaucho entered literature already an emblem of the past, and is often held up as the image of a true gaucho.
Having journeyed in Argentine writing from the uncivilised barbarian put forward by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, through Bartolomé Hidalgo’s courageous and patriotic war hero, Estanislao del Campo’s backward and uncultured laughing stock and José Hernández’s persecuted citizen-turned-criminal; Güiraldes’ stylised portrayal helped cement a positive and prevailing image of the Argentine gaucho.
But whilst the novel marked a return to the themes of the gauchesque and was in keeping with the genre in that it assumed the voice of a gaucho narrator, ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ made little attempt to imitate the same local vocabulary or dialect found in earlier examples of gaucho literature.
In employing the polished techniques of European writers in a work that was at once European in flair and Argentine in nature, Güiraldes essentially refined the Latin American novel.
Reaching a new generation and a new audience, ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ was heralded an instant classic.
As the first novel to receive such immediate acclaim and the last important writing to emerge on the gaucho theme, it gained more critical attention during the 20th century than perhaps any other work of Argentine writing.
Retaining its relevance and its following several generations on, ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ remains one of the most-treasured texts in Argentine writing, and is still considered the masterpiece of all literature pertaining to the Argentine gaucho.