Blighted landscapes, plaintive sights, the mise-en-scène in Roberto Arlt's novel cried out for release from the muck of doom. At the same time they aestheticized the lowlife. What redemptive power could be extracted from destitution but romantic destitution.
As the plaintive strains of a lowlife tango rose from the instruments, all the crooks accompanied it with their rage and misfortunes. The silence was like a many-handed monster that raised a dome of sound over heads drooping on to marble tables. Who knows what their thoughts were! And that huge, terrible dome pierced all their hearts, amplifying the mournful sounds of the guitar and bandoneon until there was something sublime in a whore's suffering, or in the oppressive boredom of prison when the inmate imagines his friends living life to the full on the outside.
The power of the prose derived from the piling of derelict images one after another, the recognition and acceptance of helplessness seeming to be the only recourse for a wasted life to make sense of the wasteland of terrorism and criminality bedeviling the Argentinian landscape.
Faces and foul-smelling gloom confirmed the lowlife atmosphere. Some were long and drawn-out, as if their owners were being strangled, their mouths gaping open, their lips swollen and floppy as sausages. Black men with porcelain eyes and gleaming white teeth between thick blubbery lips were touching up youngsters, grinding their jaws with pleasure; petty crooks and informers who looked like tigers, with sloping foreheads and unwavering gazes.
There's a lot to unpack in the string of metaphors here. To put it mildly, Arlt courted the obscene, even referencing characters from the controversial novels of Xavier de Montepin. The long philosophical speeches and exchanges were characteristically brilliant, offering a window not only into a character's thought processes but into the socioeconomic and political turmoils that created the the novelist's conception of reality. They were also a warning to the present of the dangers of veering into populism, autocracy, and fundamentalism. Through the character of the Astrologer, the novelist had the uncanny way of describing how peddlers of fake news and conspiracy theories can have a powerful grip on the masses.
It just goes to show that the people of this and every generation have an absolute need to believe in something. And if we can get a newspaper to back us, we can perform miracles. There are lots of them desperate for something sensational like this to sell. And we'll supply all these people hungry for marvels with a magnificent god, embellished with stories we can copy from the Bible ...
Or do you reckon that those numbskulls would move an inch if they weren't driven on by magnificent lies? I've given it so much thought! That's why the Astrologer's theory is such a stroke of genius: men only respond to lies. He gives lies the consistency of truth; people who would never have so much as budged to get anything, guys who have become totally cynical and desperate, come to life again in the truth of his lies. [...] With his falsehoods, the Astrologer seems extraordinary to us, but he's no such thing ... or rather, he is, he is ... because he's not after personal gain from his lies; yet he's not, because all he's doing is applying an age-old principle that every swindler and social dreamer has always used. If one day his life story gets written, those who read it with any sense of judgement will say: he was great because the methods he employed to achieve his ideals were those available to any charlatan. And what we see as extraordinary and disturbing is simply the fear of weak, uninspired minds who believe success only comes from complicated and mysterious processes rather than from anything simple. And yet you know as well as I do that the greatest gestures are the simplest, like Columbus and his egg.
The Astrologer's obit was a fitting nail to a life devoted to deceit and misinformation. And the invocation of biblical stories could remind one of the speechifying bloodthirsty Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But really, the closest analog to the Astrologer's brand of anarchism and wayward utopia is probably the mass murderer Thanos of The Avengers fame.
Ending that argument with the anecdotal story of the egg of Columbus was a stroke of genius. But coming from an unreliable writer, that seemed to be a double-edged imagery. In any case, how truth-seekers could be so vulnerable as to latch on to lies they hear from false experts on social media was a spot-on analysis of the new world order.
For all its negative imagery and preponderance of sacrilegious poetry, what The Seven Madmen seemed to be mapping out (satirically or not; farcical or not) was the origin and spread of terrorism and anarchism through the establishment of a secret dangerous society composed of frustrated individuals.
"I don't see any point in repeating what we all know already and have agreed on in individual meetings ... that is, the plan to organise a secret society to be paid for out of both moral and immoral ventures. We are all in agreement on that, aren't we? What do you think (I have a liking for geometry) if we call the groups of our society 'cells'?"
"That's what they're called in Russia," said the Major. "And those in any one cell should not know the members of any other."
Behind the formation of such group, Arlt was hinting at the burning human discontent and demotivation that drove a band of seven madmen to come together and bring havoc to the world. The novel of ideas did not make any direct explanation how these like-minded individuals come to be.
But again, we go back to the blighted landscapes and we see how the hard work and industry of human work force contributed to the built assets of capitalism.
"And yet everything went on as before. The sun shone over the fields: we'd left the meat-packing plants behind, the tallow and soap factories, the glass and iron foundries, the stockyards with cattle sniffing at the posts, the avenues still to be properly surfaced, strewn with rubble and full of ruts. And then beyond Lantis we came on the awful spectacle of Remedios de Escalada, with its ghastly redbrick roundhouses and their blackened openings, where locomotives shunted to and fro under the arches, while in the distance, between the tracks, gangs of poor wretches were shovelling ballast or hauling railway sleepers."
Further on still, in among a straggling vegetation of plane trees choked by soot and petrol fumes, stood a diagonal line of red cottages where the railway company employees lived, with their tiny gardens, shutters grimy from the smoke, paths of cinders and ashes.
There was the beginnings of modern industrial complex, the pinnacle of achievement of humans on earth. That backdrop of furnaces, "cinders and ashes", told us a lot about modern life in Argentina in early 20th century. Perhaps a work arrangement that gave rise to cash economy, widening income gap, and modern inequalities. Perhaps a prelude to truth-seeking and terrorism.
All quotes are from the translation by Nick Caistor (Serpent's Tail, 2015). I'm on page 216 out of 304, excluding the translator and Roberto Bolaño's afterwords.