Kick-starting The Argentina Independent’s ‘Beyond Borges’ series is an author generally accepted as marking the beginning of Argentine literature, and arguably the first writer to play a significant role in its development.
As one of the earliest romantic writers in Latin America, founder and figurehead of the first circle of young Argentine intellectuals, and the author behind the country’s first work of literary prose, poet Esteban Echeverría is a man credited with many literary titles.
His graphic and bloody vignette, ‘El matadero’, is commonly considered a cornerstone of national literature and remains one of the most studied texts in Argentina.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1805, Echeverría spent his early twenties educating himself in Paris where he absorbed the spirit of a flourishing French romantic movement. On his return to Argentina he became one of the first authors to pioneer and adopt romanticism inside Latin America.
While several other Spanish-speaking nations also claim to have had the first romantic poet, some say that when Echeverría published his collections ‘Los consuelos’ and ‘Rimas’ in the mid-1830s, he introduced the movement not only to Latin Americans, but also to the Spanish.
For this reason, his poetry and prose can be seen as marking the beginning of a new style of writing – one which signified Argentina’s literary break from the Spanish and a move away from the artistic currents that had previously flowed from Madrid. Until then, Argentine writers had grown up under independence fervour, but remained limited by a paradoxical Spanish influence that prevented them from developing their own distinct style.
Quoting French poet Victor Hugo by describing romanticism as “liberalism in literature”, Echeverría became one of the first Latin American writers to employ literature as a vehicle for communicating strong political and social opinion.
Although he authored several works, Echeverría’s reputation as a writer rests most securely on ‘El matadero’ and on his long narrative poem ‘La cautiva’, published as the 2,100-line centrepiece of ‘Rimas’ in 1837.
‘El matadero’ was written in the late 1830s but not published until 1871. It came politically-charged and packed a powerful punch against the federalist dictatorship that existed in Argentina at the time. Set inside a Buenos Aires slaughteryard, this short story describes the capture and torture of a passing unitarian by the Mazorca – brutal enforcers of Juan Manuel de Rosas’ federalist regime.
Written as a political allegory, the Mazorca can be seen to represent barbarism and the young protagonist to represent civilisation. Or in a different light, the federalists are presented as butchers and the unitarians as animals.
First published inside the ‘Revista del Río de la Plata’ twenty years after Echeverría’s death and more than thirty years after it was written, the text is widely acclaimed for its realistic presentation of a gruesome period in Argentina’s history.
The poem ‘La cautiva’, translated into English as ‘The captive woman’, marks the first instance of rural Latin America serving as poetic backdrop, and is also listed among the best known romantic works of 19th century Latin American literature.
Featuring the indigenous people of the time as its subjects, the poem was commended for bursting the illusion of harmonious racial relations. Whereas captivity tales had traditionally been told in the first person by the survivor, ‘La cautiva’ uses the third person to narrate the fate of a couple captured by indians at the frontier.
Like ‘El matadero’, the poem is noted for its incorporation of local dialects and regionalisms without the use of italics or quotation marks. It also explores the struggle to position a national identity somewhere between Europe and America – an issue which journalist, essayist, and author Domingo Faustino Sarmiento would later place at the heart of Latin American culture.
The Generation of 1837
Along with many intellectuals of the period, Echeverría sought shelter from the Rosas dictatorship in neighbouring Uruguay, where he lived until his death in 1851. What forced him into exile, however, was not the unpublished manuscript of ‘El matadero’, but his association with the group of Argentine writers and intellectuals known collectively as the ‘Generation of 1837’.
Brought together by a shared passion for aesthetics and freedom, they gathered in the backroom of Marcos Sastre’s bookstore to give readings and engage in intellectual debate.
Within six months, the movement Echeverría had been so fundamental in starting was taken underground. Renamed the ‘Assosciation of May’ and holding onto the spirit of the 1810 revolution, they became Rosas’ most determined opposition with the slogan: “May, Progress, Democracy”.
When his signature on an anti-Rosas petition eventually brought about his exile in 1840, Echeverría moved to Montevideo where he made up part of a far-reaching network of exiled intellectuals in Uruguay, Chile and France. The movement continued to actively oppose the Argentine government whilst simultaneously campaigning for the creation of a national literature that was representative and responsive to social climates.
Echeverría’s popularity among his peers was such that one present day scholar has described him as “a Beatle”, with others suggesting that his esteem exceeded the literary merit of the majority of his work, taking care to make an exception of his brief but impacting novel ‘El matadero’.
As undoubtedly the most popular Argentine intellectual of the first half of the 19th century, Echeverría became a leader of many and an attraction for the rest- paving the way for a change of direction in Argentine literature.