Great writers create great characters. Imaginary figures in literature allow us to marvel at humanity. They are the reason why many of us pick up a book in the first place. Fictional characters capture our imaginations, make us feel extremely strong emotions, influence how we behave. We fall in love with characters and often want to embody the words and descriptions on the page. They are the voices inside our heads and represent our own unrealised possibilities. We befriend, follow and converse with them.
Argentine literature is full of interesting characters: attempting to focus on merely five characters from the entire canon of Argentine fiction is a hard task. With this in mind we have tried to pick famous, emblematic creations, all of whom have a profound impact on the reader. Lovers of Manuel Puig, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Cesar Aire, to name but a few, will be disappointed, but please leave your own views below. The fact the list of characters is made up of solely males, is not a reflection of my own sexism, but rather of the male-centric literature that has tended to prevail in this region of the world throughout history.
If you ask an Argentine about important characters in literature, one name tends to spring to mind before any other; Martín Fierro. Argentina’s equivalent to Don Quixote, Fierro is the most famous and iconic fictional figure in the South American country’s canon. The protagonist in the eponymous epic poem written by José Hernández in 1872, Fierro’s character has come to represent the essence of Argentina itself. The 19th Century poem was modestly characterised by the great Jorge Luis Borges as the one truly great work of Argentine literature. Borges’ considers the epic poem as being a versed novel in which Fierro’s character is emblematic of Argentine identity. So successful was the initial work, that Hernández wrote a sequel. The two parts are called the ‘Ida’ and the ‘Vuelta’.
The poems are narrated by Fierro, a poor, pampas-dweller who is illegally drafted to serve in the Conquest of the Desert, a military campaign to exterminate the native Indians. He eventually deserts and becomes a gaucho matrero, the Argentine equivalent of a bandit in the Wild West. He sings payadas, exalting the beauty of the countryside and calling for freedom from injustice. The ‘Ida’ is a tragic lament for the passing of the gaucho life, while the ‘Vuelta’ emphasises the need to include the gaucho in Argentina’s road to modernity.
Hernández’s work addresses the nation-building project in Argentina, highlighting the urban versus rural battle to be prioritised, and Fierro’s character talks us through this process. He sheds light on the gaucho consciousness, an element integral to the national psyche. He is a projection of national and cultural identity, and with his overwhelming sense of destituteness, the immigrant community found him easily identifiable.
Given Fierro’s status as an emblem of Argentine bravery, rebellion, independence and integrity, he is unquestionably the pinnacle character in Argentine literature. Fierro’s is a character who to this day continues to capture people’s imagination: he manages to delight and inspire whilst also provoke sympathy in readers for the plight of the gaucho.
Written in 1963, ‘Rayuela’ (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar is a remarkable novel in terms of its format, but also linguistically and conceptually. Often described as an anti-novel, the work can be read either from front to back as normal, or one can follow the author’s suggested chapter order which jumps around, hence the book’s title.
Set in Buenos Aires and Paris, the book reflects a bohemian Argentina of the 1960s. Horacio Oliveira is the protagonist and primary narrator; a bohemian intellectual and self-professed writer living as an expatriate in the French capital in the mid-20th Century.
Oliveira is a very human character with weaknesses and flaws, but his language and wordplay make him fascinating and very amusing. He and his friends, the other members of “the club”, engage in endless discussion about art, literature, and music, amidst debauched partying. The book reflects the attitudes held by left wing intellectuals forced into exile during this period (Cortázar himself moved to Paris), simultaneously critical of – yet longing for – their motherland.
The story traces Oliveira’s romance with his exotic young lover “La Maga”. Whimsical in nature, La Maga refuses to plan their encounters in advance, preferring instead to run into Horacio by chance by the river or in bookshops. Upon finding each other, they celebrate the random circumstances that brought them together. Eventually, La Maga disappears, and Horacio returns to Argentina. There we are privy to enchanting descriptions of Buenos Aires’ locals as chain-smoking, jazz-listening, passionate conversers.
The novel is deeply moving and Cortázar writes with poetic rhythm, in a variety of languages. The great poet Pablo Neruda famously claimed that “people who do not read Cortázar are doomed” and that “not to read him is a serious invisible disease”. Wise words from a wise man. It is only surprising that Cortázar’s unique work is not more appreciated outside of the Spanish-speaking world.
Jorge Luis Borges’s Pierre Menard is a character who has sent more than one head spinning since his creation. His is a story that encapsulates the intricate and complex genius that weaves its way through Borges’s work and it is for this reason that Menard is included in this list.
‘Pierre Menard, Autor del Quijote’ is a short story which forms part of Borges’s collection ‘Ficciones’, published in 1944. The voice in the book is that of an unnamed narrator who sets out to review the work of his recently deceased friend, a fictional French author named Pierre Menard. The narrator begins by listing Menard’s works, before asserting that his best work was, in fact, the unfinished and unpublished word-for-word recreation of sections of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quijote’.
What ensues is a fascinating explanation of why the narrator believes Menard’s work to be richer than that of Cervantes’ original, asserting that the Frenchman is a genius not a plagiarist. In so doing, Borges brilliantly poses all sorts of questions connected with the problem of how we link a text to its source and the nature of authorship.
Menard initially attempts to become Cervantes and essentially take himself back in time to re-enact the writing of the book. But he soon discards this method as both very difficult and devoid of meaning, instead deciding to write the book as himself, and in so doing arrive at the same end but via a completely different set of circumstances.
As Howard Giskin writes, “Through Menard‟s recreation of Quijote in a different time and place from Cervantes’ original, Borges implies the simple yet disturbing supposition that the meaning of literary works is entirely dependent on the varying historical and social contexts in which they are read.”
I imagine that were we to meet for a drink, Menard would probably sit in the glass drinking a bar whilst making conservatories. An intricately conceived and highly disorientating character, Menard is a fascinating figure who invites endless analysis.
Juan Pablo Castel
“It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne.” This is the shocking confession in the famous opening line of Ernesto Sabato’s novel ‘El Tunel’ (‘The Tunnel’) and immediately sets the tone as to how his protagonist is to be characterised throughout.
Juan Pablo Castel, so named as a reference to his being a Hispanicised version of Jean-Paul Satre, is an unhinged painter from Buenos Aires, placed in prison for the murder mentioned in the opening sentence of the novel. With disconcerting attention to detail, Castel describes to the reader, from his cell, the series of events that led to his arrest.
Castel first sets eyes on Maria at one of his exhibitions, where he becomes convinced that she is the only person who can truly understand his work. He is obsessive and neurotic, and although the reader is aware of the ultimate outcome throughout, Castel’s downward spiral to delusion is nonetheless a harrowing read, as his logic becomes ever more cruel and angry. The protagonist is prone to bouts of depression; he struggles to understand the point of his existence and sometimes verges on schizophrenia. “How many times had that damned split in my consciousness been responsible for the most abominable acts?” But the true genius of Castel’s character lies in the disarming accessibility of his emotional disintergration, due to the simple, conversational tone of his narrative voice.
Renowned for its existential themes, the book famously received emphatic praise from Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, and Graham Greene following its publication in 1948. Sabato provides a dark and at times uncomfortable, psychological portrait of a man who felt both physically and mentally isolated from society. Castel’s haunting, psychotic voice is one that does not leave your head for quite some time.
Roberto Arlt wrote during the 1920s and 30s, and although his work was unheralded during his lifetime, it is now recognised as key to the formation of Argentine modernism. Remo Erdosain is the protagonist brought to life by Arlt’s hurried and frantic prose in his novel ‘Los Siete Locos’ (The Seven Madmen).
Erdosain is an inventor who is best at failure. A hopeless dreamer, the poor protagonist loses both his wife and also his job at a sugar company whom he owes money. What ensues is a story that blurs fantasy and reality, as Erdosain frantically careers from one grim absurdity to the next, on a revenge-seeking mission with the help of his sinister friend ‘The Astrologer’. The story is humorous at times, but above all, has a melancholic poignancy to it. Arlt gives us an insight into the dark and treacherous underworld of Buenos Aires in the 20s and 30s, with crime and whores galore. And even the whores find Erdosain to be a peculiar character.
Arlt once described himself as “a writer that writes with his guts, cranking out books that are like a punch to your jaw,” and the chaotic character of Remo Erdosain certainly appears to support that claim. Through his anguished and desperate protagonist’s failures, Arlt captures the essence of urban Argentina at a time when it was grasping to find its identity. Although Remo is not necessarily likeable, he is unquestionably fascinating.