One in a collection of under-appreciated Argentine authors known as “los escritores malditos”, the name Macedonio Fernández remains surprisingly unknown outside Argentina.
For many, however, the mention of his unusual first name is enough to conjure up images of an iconoclastic author who was at once Argentina’s first metaphysician, an authentic philosopher, and a legendary mentor for a generation of avant-garde writers, including Jorge Luis Borges.
The Argentina Independent continues its Beyond Borges series with a look at the innovative author and influential thinker who made up one half of the most pivotal friendship in 20th century Argentine writing.
Unravelling the Man from the Myth
Born in Buenos Aires in 1874, Macedonio’s life comes coloured with elaborate rumours and exaggerated eccentricities: a deathly fear of tramcars and dogs, a failed attempt to establish a socialist colony in Paraguay, and two assaults on the Argentine presidency through such unorthodox campaign methods as leaving only his first name written inside folded pieces of paper on café tables throughout the city.
As his son, Adolfo de Obieta, once said: “More will always be unknown than known,” but what we do know is that the early part of Macedonio’s life is almost unrecognisable from the perpetual myth that descriptions, such as those penned by Borges himself, have helped to create.
Although he learned to read in French, German, Spanish and English, Macedonio’s primary academic pursuit was law, which he studied alongside Borges’ father before being admitted to the bar in 1889.
Whilst his interests in psychology and philosophy were evident in a thesis entitled ‘Sobre las personas’, he maintained both the lifestyle and appearance of a professional family man until 1920, when the sudden death of his wife caused him to abandon his career and withdraw from public life. Retreating to live in boarding houses, he pored over philosophy and metaphysics in an effort to either understand or deny his loss.
That same year, wrapped up in unconventional ideas and burgeoning idiosyncrasies, he would be waiting on the dock to welcome the Borges’ family on their return from Europe and embarked upon a friendship that continues to be the subject of great debate.
A Museum of Possible Literatures
More of a great thinker than a great writer, Macedonio wrote unconcerned by the notion of publishing. Besides a compendium of speculative philosophy ‘No toda es vigilia la de los ojos abiertos’ in 1928, a collection of humorous writing ‘Papeles de recienvenido’ in 1929, and a brief meta-novel ‘Una novela que comienza’, published in 1941, the majority of his writing has been published posthumously.
His best-known work, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’, was published for the first time 25 years after his death, and despite having been laboured over for a period of 27 years, remains famously open ended.
Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.
Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.
Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.
Rejecting the concept of either a beginning or an end, Macedonio’s attempt at redefining the novel challenges in terms of both content and form. Containing as many as 57 prologues to its 20 chapters, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ describes the perfect execution of a novel wrought with paradoxical humour, whilst ironically and deliberately failing to execute it.
Never intended to be easily followed, Macedonio’s artistic intent was to create a fragmented and disjointed narrative that brought about sufficient confusion and frustration to shake the reader from their passive reading tendencies.
Acknowledged today for anticipating many of the ideas that emerged during the famous “boom” in Latin American literature, Macedonio’s novel preceded Julio Cortázar’s ‘Rayuela’ in the construction of an anti-novel. Though it was published several years earlier, ‘Rayuela’ directly honoured Macedonio by featuring him in the novel as the character of Morelli- the literary hero of the book’s protagonists.
An Accidental Icon
Described as someone “who would rather scatter his ideas in conversation than define them on a page”, Macedonio became an important source of inspiration for a generation of avant-garde writers known as the ‘martinfierristas‘.
Making infrequent but invaluable contributions to the group’s all night gatherings, Borges recalled how Macedonio would speak only four or five times a night, but admitted that never had someone who said so little impressed upon anyone so much.
Modest and courteous, and often crediting his thoughts to someone else, Macedonio’s writing, like his thinking, was often only a sketch of an undeveloped idea, thrown out for completion by someone else.
This technique, of leaving things unfinished, heralded in a new phase in experimental writing that led younger generations to regard Macedonio as the most authentic forerunner to the Argentine avant-garde and a prototype of postmodernism.
Adopted as a mentor by young writers looking to construct literature in direct opposition to the modernism of the previous generation, Macedonio is controversially described as “the man who made Borges”.
Whilst Borges himself acknowledged Macedonio as a mentor as early as 1921, later confessing that a failure to imitate his metaphysical canon would have represented an “incredible negligence”, he later downplayed the extent of Macedonio’s influence, famously denouncing both the avant-garde and ultraism in 1926.
Whether Borges was a product of Macedonio, or whether the relationship was one of more mutual and reciprocal influence, remains undecided, and the relationship that is regarded by some as hugely instrumental continues to be rejected by others as largely coincidental.
Even with both authors calling on a common handful of themes, it’s not possible to determine whether these sprang from Macedonio’s idea bank, and if they did, Borges’ flawless execution of them remains unparalleled, whilst Macedonio’s comes a little rougher around the edges.
However, many readers arrive to Macedonio’s writing having come in search of an author who makes Borges’ appearance more explanatory. And with Borges as Macedonio’s main source of encouragement as a writer, some argue that “Macedonio the literary man” was as much a product of Borges’ invention, as “Borges the metaphysician” was Macedonio’s.
Regardless of who made whom, Macedonio remains an obscure but fondly remembered writer, long admired for his ingenuity and his original approach to literature. His radical aesthetic and heady influence exploded the mould of modernist writing, forever altering the course of Argentine literature.