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If you were to write an ABC of Argentine literature, you’d expect to find three of the hardest-hitting household names. The Indy continues the Beyond Borges series with the author whose name would surely be the first on most people’s lips.
Nowadays best-known for his novels ‘El juguete rabioso’, ‘Los siete locos’ and ‘Los Lanzallamas’, Roberto Arlt was a novelist, short story author, journalist and playwright who, despite entering literature as something of an underdog, emerged as the first ‘modern’ novelist in Argentina and a source of inspiration to a generation of writers that followed.
A Treasured Columnist
The son of immigrant parents, Arlt was born in Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century and raised in the Buenos Aires’ neighbourhood of Flores. He spoke openly about the difficulties of his upbringing and of the abusive and tyrannical nature of his father, a Prussian glassblower and postcard artist.
Having been expelled from school between the ages of eight and ten, he received minimal formal education from then on, choosing instead to spend his time on the streets of the city that inspired him, or reading the work of the Russian greats Gorky, Dolstoy and Dostoevsky.
His first short story, ‘Jehovah’, was reportedly published before he left home in 1916, but before pursuing writing as his profession. Arlt attended the a naval school of mechanics, and also served in the armed forces, undertaking various forms of employment as a mechanic, a painter, a dockworker, an apprentice to a tinsmith and a brick factory manager, before entering journalism.
Like many Argentine authors before him, he viewed journalism as a means of financially supporting his creative writing, but also as a step up to the arena he wished to enter.
Many years later, he published a column entitled ‘Yo no tengo la culpa’, whereby he spoke of the difficulties he encountered breaking into the country’s literary circles as an immigrant with an expressionless family name of no social standing.
But writing as a columnist proved to be an important aspect of Arlt’s career and an important form of expression for Arlt, who originally wrote part of his first novel, ‘El juguete rabioso’, as a column.
Published in a variety of newspapers including Critica, Don Goyo, and much later in El Mundo, Arlt’s columns, known as ‘Aguafuertes’, were the most popular of his literary offerings during his lifetime and brought him nation-wide recognition as a writer.
The ‘Aguafuertes’ written between 1928 and 1935 for the newspaper El Mundo, are favourably remembered for commenting on the peculiarities and the hypocrisy of life in Buenos Aires at the time. Retrospectively compiled and republished in a book that itself became a classic, they are often reprinted and remain treasured works of national literature.
Writing From Buenos Aires’ Underbelly
In the same year that his friend and contemporary Ricardo Güiraldes published his nostalgic novel ‘Don Segundo Sombra’, Arlt published his first novel ‘El juguete rabioso’ in 1926.
The novel, which narrates the adventures of a character called Silvio in his efforts to become someone, was originally drafted as ‘La vida puerca’ until Güiraldes prompted a rethink by suggesting that Argentine readers were perhaps not yet ready for such a crude title.
Featuring unlikely characters alienated by environments found to be rife with inequality and oppression, his fiction presented a so far unexplored perspective and found a huge audience among the youth.
Reflecting the hardships, as well as the energy and chaos of the time, the novel adopted a darkness of style that hadn’t been seen before, and expressed anguish and scenes of violence in a language that was described as at once “rough” yet the “most alive”.
His 1929 novel, ‘Los siete locos’, and its sequel ‘Los lanzallamas’, which followed in 1931, are collectively considered his masterpiece. Together with ‘El juguete rabioso’ they are occasionally considered a trilogy and whilst it’s true that they each played a part in revealing Buenos Aires’ hidden underbelly, it was ‘Los siete locos’ that earned Arlt the nickname ‘The Porteño Dostoyevsky’, after the Russian existentialist author.
The innovation of Arlt’s work lay not only in his style, but also in his decision to feature the poor, the criminal and the mad as his protagonists – predating the likes of William Burroughs and Irvine Welsh, who have since created equally shocking literature by adopting similar subjects.
Intended to be experimental and impressionistic, his novels introduced a fragmented and confused chronology, adding to the warped atmosphere and sense of chaos present in the storylines.
At once a heady mix of lower and middle-class Spanish, scientific vocabulary, vulgarities and foreign words blended with the dialects of porteños and thieves, Arlt was condemned by some for poor grammar and bad craftsmanship. At the same time, his coarse yet imaginative use of language was commended by others.
In saturating his work with a language that was as grossly urban as his themes, Arlt wrote with deliberate disregard for the rules knowingly observed by other authors. But whilst his unpolished colloquial writing came under fire from some, it was undoubtedly a refreshing move away from the middle-class literature exemplified by the Argentine writers of the same time.
Citing the changing of ideas as a reason to reject literary tradition, he made little effort to ‘linger over embroidery’, presenting a case for language being something that is constantly evolving, as though it were living.
It was this attitude that gained him the respect of a new generation of writers, who saw him as a proponent of anti-establishment anti-literary writing.
Julio Cortázar, author of the Argentine ‘anti-novel’ and the big name to have emerged from the Latin American literature boom of the 1960s regarded Arlt as a master, whilst award-winning writer Ricardo Piglia and ‘mass novelist’ César Aira have also cited him as particularly influential.
A Theatrical Legacy
With the exception of a fourth novel, ‘El amor brujo’, and two short story collections, Arlt moved his writing almost exclusively into a new medium from 1930 onwards.
Of his ten plays, only ‘El fabricante de fantasias’ was released in a commercial theatre, with the remaining nine premiering at independent venues such as Teatro del Pueblo.
‘Trescientos millones’ in 1932, ‘Saverio el cruel’ in 1936 and ‘La isla desierta’ in 1937, make up a trio of plays generally considered the most representative of his theatrical writing.
Commended for the construction of dreamlike sequences and the imagination of nightmarish characters in plays that were fuelled by a social conscience, Arlt is considered a forerunner to the trend of social theatre and the currents of absurdism and existentialism that followed.