Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

domingo, mayo 18, 2008

Roberto Arlt

Roberto Arlt (1900-1942)

There is no real road map for US readers to search out and discover the gems in the canon of Argentine writing. I wandered from Ricardo Piglia-- I'm not clear how I found him-- via a story in his novel, Assumed Name, Piglia wrote but attributed to Roberto Arlt, slowly to Roberto Arlt. Of course, my local library had never heard of Arlt or his first novel. But no matter, last week my favorite used book dealer,, delivered El juguete rabioso (1926)("Mad Toy" in English). What a treat this is!

The copy I received formerly resided in the Berkeley Public Library. It was taken out 6 times and then, poof! sold off the shelves. I don't know why this happened, but it's a partial explanation of why my local library's never heard of this book. But I digress.
Arlt was born in poverty /snip After being expelled from school at the age of eight, he learned what he could about literature and life on the streets. He worked at various times as a bookstore clerk, an apprentice to a tinsmith, a painter, a mechanic, a vulcanizer, a brick factory manager and a port worker before managing to get a job on a local newspaper. Arlt's talents for polemical journalism quickly revealed themselves, and he was soon writing a controversial daily column for a national newspaper. Given his background it was natural for Arlt to become attracted to left-wing causes, and the vague (but exciting) rumours coming from the Soviet Union led him to take an interest in Marxism.

His first novel, El juguete rabioso /snip was the semi-autobiographical story of Silvio, a school dropout who goes through a series of adventures trying to "be somebody." Narrated by Silvio's older self, the novel reflects the energy and chaos of early-20th-century Buenos Aires. The narrator's literary and sometimes poetic language contrasts sharply with the street-level slang of Mad Toy's many colorful characters.

According to the Notes in this volume (written by the translator, Michele McKay Aynesworth), Jorge Luis Borges in 1929 praised Arlt, "For prose, Roberto Arlt stands out." Julio Cortzar (1914-1984) read Arlt "passionately" in his youth. On re-reading him 40 years later to write an introduction for a book, Cortazar found that his reaction to Arlt hadn't changed, "I find with a surprise that approaches the miraculous [that] Arlt is still the same [great] writer." And Juan Carlos Onetti wrote, "If ever anyone from these shores could be called a literary genius, his name was Roberto Arlt..." Ricardo Piglia calls Arlt "the greatest Argentinian writer of the twentieth century."

I'm not going to spoil this book. That would be extremely unfair. The writing, even in translation, is beyond wonderful. A very brief example (page 122):
And the more the heavenly dome enchanted me, the more sordid were the streets where I did business. I remember...

Those grocery stores, those butcher shops on the edge of town!

In the darkness a sunbeam would highlight the black-red flesh of animals hung on hoods and ropes hear the tin counters. The floor would be covered with sawdust, with the smell of suet in the air and black swarms of flies boiling on pieces of yellow fat, while the impressive butcher sawed away on the bones or hacked at the chops with the back of his knife...and outside... outside was the morning sky, quiet and exquisite, letting the infinite sweetness of spring fall from its bluenesss.

As I walked I was concerned only with the space, smooth as a piece of sky-blue china in its azure bounds, deep as a gulf at the zenith, a prodigious sea, high and still as could be, where my eyes seemed to see islands, seaports, marble cities surrounded by green woods, and ships with flowered masts slipping past sirens' songs toward the fairytale cities of joy.

And so I walked, shivering with delicious violence.
In this small, 1926 book (158 pages), a combination of memoir, pulp fiction, and detective story, Arlt produces gem after gem after gem. I cannot believe this book was written in 1926. I am so very happy to have found it. To me, the book resembles a small box of four exquisite chocolate truffles, something to be savored slowly, something rare, the richness increased by awareness of impermanence.

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