Continuing our ‘Beyond Borges’ series is an author who if you don’t know for his contribution to Argentine literature, you may well know for being Argentina’s seventh president, the subject of one of Rodin’s final sculptures, or the face of the fifty pesos note.
Aside from his achievements in areas of education and modernisation, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was also an intellectual, an activist, and a prolific writer whose historical essay ‘Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie’ has been elevated to classical status among works of Latin American literature.
Life and Early Exiles
Born in the landlocked Argentine province of San Juan in 1811, Sarmiento grew to be an unlikely intellectual. By 15 years of age he had already identified himself as a supporter of the Rivadavia government that was dividing unitarian and federalist ideologies.
Prevented from attending school in Buenos Aires by the outbreak of a civil war in the province, he joined the unitarian army to fight against the invasion of Juan ‘Facundo’ Quiroga – the gaucho who would become his obsession and subject.
With Argentina under the rule of federalist dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, Sarmiento fled to Chile in 1831 where he lived the first of three periods of exile, and began exploring an environment of free expression by writing political commentaries.
In an effort to recreate this same environment inside Argentina, he directed his energies into the foundation of an anti-federalist review, ‘El zonda’, but was forced into exile a second time in 1840. It was during this passage to Chile that he wrote out the misquoted French “On ne tue point les idées” – an incident that would become the preface to ‘Facundo’, his most famous work.
The phrase “ideas cannot be killed” translated as a warning to Rosas, but also served to further emphasise the difference Sarmiento perceived between the civilised intellectual who understood French and the uneducated barbarian who could not.
Back in Chile, and bearing a larger than life chip on his shoulder, Sarmiento resumed an extremely active literary career. Through regular contributions to ‘El mercurio’ and articles in his own newspaper ‘El progreso’, he strove to defeat the political ideologies of Rosas from across the Andes.
‘Facundo’ itself was written during this second period of exile, and first appeared in serial form inside ‘El progreso’ in May 1845. Through the impassioned study of real-life figure Juan ‘Facundo’ Quiroga, it launched a strong protest against the federalist dictatorship, painting Facundo’s barbarism as a product of his environment and of the Rosas regime.
Presenting an Argentine national character torn between the dichotomy of civilisation and barbarism, it can be seen as both a critique and a symptom of Argentina’s internal cultural conflicts at the time. In it Sarmiento delivers a written prescription for the modernisation of Latin America, in accordance with his own vision for Argentina’s future under a democratic unitarian government.
Often cited an exemplary precursor to the genre of the Latin American dictator novel, ‘Facundo’ set the bar high. Many consider it crucial reading in understanding not only Argentine history but also Latin American history in general.
What began as a biogaphy of the barbaric gaucho nicknamed “the tiger of the plains”, ended as a combination of biography, autobiography, creative non-fiction, essay and political diatribe which fuelled by Sarmiento’s own fascination with his subject, read as easily as fiction.
As an author Sarmiento wrote diversely and extensively, publishing several autobiographical works including ‘Recuerdos de Provinca’ and ‘Campaña del ejército grande’ – describing his own part in the tri-nation army which finally defeated Rosas in the 1852 ‘Battle of Caseros’.
With Rosas in exile and a programme of national organisation underway, Sarmiento remained in Argentina where he forged a promising political career alongside an ongoing literary one.
Although the majority Latin American literature from the time can be earmarked political in some respect, politics ran as a common thread through almost all of Sarmiento’s work. The appearance of a new edition of ‘Facundo’ at the end of his presidency was considered by some to be a form of political gesturing. The 1874 edition spanned 15 chapters broadly divided in to three sections: the history and geography of Argentina, the barbaric life of the gaucho Juan ‘Facundo’ Quiroga, and several chapters originally left out of the 1845 edition in which Sarmiento outlined his own political visions.
In addition, the much talked about ‘Conflictos y armonias de las razas en América’ is an example of post-presidency writing in which Sarmiento put forward controversial ideas about the effects of racial mixing in Latin America, while continuing to offer the existence of the rural pampas as a reason why Argentina had failed to achieve civilisation.
Ironically, whilst denouncing the barbarism of the Argentine gaucho, Sarmiento simultaneously romanticised him, transforming him into a symbol of national mythology that would soon be at the head Argentine literature. Despite his sometimes controversial opinions, his bold ambition and his renowned egotism, Sarmiento is nowadays reflected upon favourably as a public figure and heralded as the best Argentine writer of the 19th century.