The third in our ‘Beyond Borges‘ series, the poet, playwright and novelist José Mármol follows hot on the heels of August’s Esteban Echeverría and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, completing a trio of prominent mid-19th century romantics.
Mármol is most known for his semi-autobiographical fiction ‘Amalia’ which, when it was published in its entirety in 1854, constituted the first full-length Argentine novel.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1818, he’d grown up to be a vehement opposer of ruling federalist politician Juan Manuel de Rosas and had abandoned his university studies amidst the flurry of a growing opposition movement.
Mármol fled Argentina in 1840 at the height of Rosas’ regime. He lived in exile in Montevideo alongside several other Argentine authors, including fellow romantic writer Echeverría. Having been arrested a year before for distributing anti-Rosas literature, he claims he wrote his first poetry against the dictator from his prison cell.
Like his contemporaries, Mármol had similar ideas of what could be expressed through literature, and took advantage of the freer climate which existed in Uruguay to write from exile. There he founded several journals – among them ‘La Semana’ – through which he launched scathing attacks on Rosas and earned himself the nickname “the poetic hangman”.
His journalism and poetry took a no-holds-barred approach, as demonstrated in his poem ‘A Rosas, el 25 de Mayo de 1843′, which directly and strongly denounced the Argentine ruler. The poem is noted for its 14 syllable alexandrine lines, a structure which was at that time more commonly associated with the 12 syllable equivalent of the French and English poets.
Although chronologically Echeverría was the forerunner to romanticism in Argentina, the influence of the European romantics was evident not only in Mármol’s poetry but also in his plays ‘El poeta’ and ‘El cruzado’. His celebrated autobiographical poem ‘El peregrino’ for example, spans 12 cantos and draws comparisons with the narrative poetry of leading English romantic Lord Byron, as well as the poetry of some Argentine contemporaries.
Mármol took Echeverría’s same sordid vision of Argentina under Rosas, and expanded and deepened it in the realistic fiction ‘Amalia’ – a tragic tale of two young lovers caught up in the anti-Rosas movement.
The heroine of the story is an indigenous woman living in Buenos Aires, whose life transpires between the polarisation of barbarism and civilisation. She falls for Eduardo while she and her cousin Daniel are sheltering him from military persecution, but before the trio can make their escape, Rosas’ federalist henchmen arrive.
The combined use of costumbrismo alongside romanticism paints a detailed picture of life under a violent dictatorship, resulting in ‘Amalia’ being held up as an early example of social romanticism. Because the novel mixes fictional characters with several living figures, it can also be labelled a historical novel, and along with Sarmiento’s ‘Facundo’ it is considered a precursor to the important genre of ‘dictator novel’ which would later appear in Latin American literature.
Mármol started writing ‘Amalia’ in Uruguay in 1844 and, as Sarmiento had done with ‘Facundo’, began publishing it as a feuilleton inside ‘La semana’ review in 1851. The serials were discontinued following the fall of Rosas in 1852, when Mármol returned to live in Argentina after a period of more than 12 years in exile.
The first edition of ‘Amalia’ as a complete novel appeared in Argentina in 1854 and was immediately adopted as Argentina’s national novel. Although the love story which ran through it accounted for a large portion of its appeal, the book respected certain traits of the serial format and didn’t come together especially well as a single novel.
Mármol’s literary style has since come under fire for borrowing too much from European writers of the time, and for lacking the quality of Sarmiento’s ‘Facundo’ and the authenticity of Echeverría’s ‘El matadero’. Renowned Argentine critic David Viñas observed that his greatest aesthetic achievements came when he wrote about barbarism in crude realistic terms, and when writing about his protagonist Amalia, his writing became too ornamental and rhetorical.
Contemporary reviews occasionally draw comparison with Scottish romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott, and whilst nowadays the novel finds its reader base mostly among students of romantic or 19th-century literature, it enjoyed enormous popularity for over a century in Argentina.
In 1914 the book was adapted for silent film – making ‘Amalia’ not only Argentina’s first full-length novel, but also the first feature-length Argentine film production.
Mármol’s career as an author ended with ‘Amalia’, as though his inspiration to write left along with Rosas, and while a succession of anti-Rosas novels followed in its footsteps, none were as well received as this landmark first novel. Shortly thereafter, he assumed the position of director of Argentina’s National Library, joining the likes of Marcos Sastre, whose bookstore provided the setting of the Generation of 37′s literary salon 20 years earlier, in an impressive line-up of directors considered crucial in the makeup of Argentina’s intellectual and historical fabric.