12 September 2020

On Arlt's broken threads and mixed metaphors


The streetlamps shone feebly, their shafts of woolly light only penetrating the dark of the pavements for a couple of yards, while the rest of the suburb remained invisible. Filled with an immense sorrow, Erdosain walked on as disconsolate as a leper.

He felt as though his soul had finally become detached for ever from any human emotion. His anguish was that of a man who carries a fearful cage inside him, where prowling, blood-stained tigers yawn among a heap of fish bones, their remorseless eyes poised for their next leap.

The mixed metaphors in that passage of Roberto Arlt's were oddly cinematic. The foreboding was almost its own parody. From the walk of a leper, to the fearful cage inside Erdosain, to blood-stained, yawning tigers on a heap of fish bones, you've got to hand it to the man. The noir and hysterics combined to produce a quirky animation of a forlorn man as he walked toward the dilapidated home of the Espilas, a family of misers. 

The first time he had seen them in their new surroundings had been a great shock. The Espila family had moved into a ramshackle three-story building near Chacarita, divided up by corrugated iron sheets. From the outside the tenement looked like a huge ocean liner, with kids swarming all over it as if it were a religious commune.

The "huge ocean liner" tenement where kids swarm all over as if it was "a religious commune" – the mixed descriptions teased out the absurdity of life in the underbelly of Buenos Aires. The hint of humor, however cruel, was suppressed but it bubbled to the surface like the hiss of chemicals mixed in a beaker.

The fog blocked off the road beyond sad patches of light around the oil streetlamps. Suddenly, Luciana grasped Erdosain's arm and whispered to him:

"I care for you so much, I really do."

Erdosain shot her an ironic glance. All his anguish had turned to cruelty. He said: "I know." She went on: "I love you so much that just to please you I've studied how a blast furnace and a Bessemer converter work. D'you want me to explain what the joists are for, or how the cooling process is carried out?"

Erdosain gritted his teeth. He stumbled along the street thinking only that man's existence is absurd, and an inexplicable anger rose in him again, directed against this sweet girl who was clutching his arm.

Erdosain rejected Luciana's feelings even if she did everything – even studied the alchemy of making a copper rose – for him. He could not simply imagine a fuck up trying to woo a fuck up like himself.

In the absurd, fucked up world of The Seven Madmen, characters were mostly unemployed or down on their luck. They wallowed in the poisonous pit lake of desperation and destitution. They fired off monologues as if saying their piece of mind was enough to atone for their sins. But their unedited speeches condemned them further to a life sentence. 

"Now I've reached the end. My life is a disaster … I have to create the foulest messes for myself … to commit sin. Don't look at me. Perhaps … listen: people have forgotten the meaning of the word sin … sin is not simply a mistake … I've come to realise that sin is an act by which a man breaks the slender thread still linking him to God. It means God is denied him for ever. Even if after committing the sin that man's life were purer than the purest saint's, he could never reach God again. And I'm going to break the slender thread that connected me to divine charity. I know it. As from tomorrow, I'll be a monster on the face of this earth … just picture it, a little creature … a foetus … a foetus that was somehow living outside its mother's womb … unable to grow … covered in hair … tiny … with no fingernails … walking among men without being one itself … its fragility horrifying all those around it … and yet there's no force on earth capable of restoring it to the lost womb. That's what's going to happen to me tomorrow. I'll cut myself off from God for ever. I'll be alone on this earth. My soul and me, just the two of us. With infinity in front of us. Alone for ever. Night and day … under a yellow sun. Can you picture it? Infinity growing all the time … a yellow sun up above, and the soul which cut itself off from divine charity wandering alone and blind under that yellow sun."

Erdosain's anguish before committing murder had made him philosophical and voluble. But his self-picturing of a fetus detached from its mother's womb was the summary statement of the negated status of Arlt's lost wanderers. People lost to the womb, cut off from charity and from the source of its life force. 

In Arlt, possession of life is malum prohibitum. Unlinked from God, his characters were walking dead sinners whose mere existence was itself a crime, or a sin. In the bleak, rank world of Arlt's novel, how does one create beauty from the savagery of existence? Remove the last traces of humor and the paradox is suffocating.



  1. Aira wrote a great appreciation of Arlt that I have sadly misplaced somewhere that talked about Arlt as a quasi-German Expressionist from 1920s silent film days if I remember correctly (of course, my memory of that article could be distorted from living in the shadow of Erdosain's Anguish Zone). A paradoxical fellow that Arlt, no?

    1. Google said Aira wrote a 1993 article on Arlt about expressionism and distortion in the 7th issue of Paradoxa. So, Richard, your memory may be serving you well, notwithstanding the frolic in the A Zone. Ha! Now I'm wondering if my constitution can endure more of Remo's fulminations and flamethrowing, in a supposedly cranky translation no less.

    2. The Argentinean Literature of Doom thanks you for that memory jog, Rise! As far as The Flamethrowers goes, you'll have to let me know if/when you're done if you feel that Arlt was super genteel in The Seven Madmen in comparison!!