Carrying The Indy’s Beyond Borges series in to the 20th century is an author who held a supreme sway over Argentine letters during his lifetime.
Often named as one in a trio of innovators to have influenced Latin American literature; journalist, essayist, and poet Leopoldo Lugones was a principle figure in Argentine modernism.
Most known for his collections of short stories, his work is considered foundational in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and he is considered a forerunner to the 20th century Argentine masters of the form.
Early Life and Work
Lugones was born in Villa de María del Río Seco, in the Argentine province of Córdoba in 1874. He began writing by contributing to local newspapers, and in his early twenties cofounded a socialist periodical called ‘El pensamiento libre’.
His literary career unfolded rapidly upon moving to Buenos Aires, where he was welcomed into a circle of the city’s influential socialist writers. He wrote for several provocative and revolutionary socialist journals whilst also writing poetry, initially under the pseudonym of ‘Gil Paz’.
At the time, the movements of modernism and realism were developing simultaneously, and the remnants of romanticism still remained in the work of Argentine poets such as Rafael Obligado and Almafuerte.
Lugones’ earliest poetry collections, ‘Las montañas de oro’ and ‘Los crepúsculos del jardín’, published in 1897 and 1905, immediately secured him a place among the modernistas.
As Argentina’s foremost exponent of one movement, he is also credited with being a precursor of another. ‘Lunario sentimental’, published in 1909, transformed the structure and tone of Spanish language poetry to pave the way for the avant-garde.
His two most praised short story collections succeeded on very different levels. ‘La guerra gaucha’, published in 1905, continued the legacy of gauchesque poetry by romanticising the gaucho in a collection of tales of anonymous heroes from independence war times. ‘Las fuerzas extrañas’, published only one year later, embarked on something very different.
Forward Thinking Science Fiction
With its themes in modern day science rather than historical politics, ‘Las fuerzas extrañas’ is a collection of 12 short stories revolving around paranormal experiences and phenomena.
Included are an apocalyptic vision of the earth before the great flood, the tale of a gardener who tries to invoke the capacity for killing in flowers, the story of a man who discovers his soul to be twinned with a mere monkey, and another´s efforts to teach a monkey to speak.
Whilst ‘La guerra gaucha’ had been hugely retrospective, focusing on events of one hundred years earlier, ‘Las fuerzas extrañas’ incorporated Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and animal emotion into fantastic fiction that was impressively current.
With nearly all of its protagonists being scientists and practitioners of the occult, the book carries an enduring and ultimately pessimistic message that we will always pay a high price for experimenting beyond the realms of human knowledge.
One discovers the elixir of madness whilst trying to liquefy thought and ends up in a mental institution, another succeeds in channelling the energy of sound but destroys his brain in the process, and a third goes blind on revealing the colours of music.
But what ‘Las fuerzas extrañas’ lacked in sense of humour it made up for in a bizarre kind of accuracy. By the publication of the second edition twenty years later, many of the pseudoscientific explanations Lugones had presented were accepted by scientific communities.
Dividing Opinion in Life and Letters
Initially less well received than ‘La guerra gaucha’, whose rich language and epic nature had made it an immediate success, ‘Las fuerzas extrañas’ was later accepted as a pioneering work in Latin American literature.
Although several Argentine authors, including Lugones’ mentor Eduardo Holmberg, had been writing horror fantasy and science fiction before him, the quality of Lugones’ prose was unmatched in Argentine writing at the time.
With five of the 12 stories falling neatly into the genre, he is recognised as an Argentine author who made a foundational contribution to science fiction in its gaslight era.
Lugones’ strict adherence to literary forms inspired a mixed reaction from emerging literary groups.
Argentine writer and respected critic Jorge Luis Borges, initially rejected the merit of Lugones work, but later described the pages of ‘Las fuerzas extrañas’ as among the most accomplished in Hispanic literature, adding “writing well, is for many, writing as Lugones”.
Translated in to English as ‘Strange forces: The fantastic tales of Leopoldo Lugones’, its distinctly florid style earned its author a reputation as a master of the macabre.
As the highest profile author in Argentina, Lugones divided public opinion as much in life as in letters. Described as doctrinaire and precocious among other things, his personality was commonly caricatured in periodicals of the time.
His suicide by whisky and cyanide in 1938, emphasised the excessive nature of his personality, and left him in danger of being talked about as much for his drastically changed ideologies as for his writing.
The author that had begun an anarchist and a zealous socialist ended his days an ardent nationalist and a prominent right wing poet.
But whilst he’d almost certainly sought a political stage, the spheres of literature and politics had been gradually moving apart so that an audience in one no longer guaranteed credibility in the other. Despite maligning his public persona with several controversial speeches, his literary legacy remains unclouded.
Honoured retrospectively by Borges as the greatest of all Argentina’s writers, Lugones is celebrated as an inspirational author of fantastic fiction, and the face of Argentine modernism.