Roberto Arlt – Madmen in Revolt. Argentina’s greatest ‘styleless’ visionary writer.


The name of Roberto Arlt still means relatively little to most readers in Anglo-Saxon countries and yet for most Argentinians he belongs up there with Jorge Luis Borges as being the writer who forged the most enduring image of Buenos Aires. Julio Cortazar talks about despising all that has been said about Borges’s Buenos Aires which he called “fantastic, invented” and that while it does exist “it is far from being all that the city is”. For Cortazar, it was Arlt who “perceived things from below for cultural, vital and professional reasons” seeing “a Buenos Aires to live and stroll through, to love and suffer in” unlike Borges’s Buenos Aires of “mythic destinies”, of eternity and metaphysics, Cortazar in his work tried to follow and fulfil “a telluric, sensual and erotic … obedience to Robert Arlt”. Onetti, too, spoke of Arlt understanding like no-one else the city in which he was born, maybe even more than those who wrote the music and lyrics of ‘immortal tangos’. Ernesto Sabato spoke of the “formidable metaphysical and religious tensions of Erdosain’s monologue” and it was Martin Seymour-Smith in his “Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature” who compared Arlt to writers like Malcolm Lowry, Joseph Roph, Dazai Osamu and Hans Fallada as a “true poetemaudit in prose”. He makes further comparison in this sequence after which he laments the bewildering lack of translations of Arlt’s work: “He anticipated Celine in his excited portrayal of the urban nightmare and anticipated Cela and contemporary Latin-American experimentalism …he is versatile mixing naturalism, lyricism, hallucinatory purity and the effective crudeness of the early Gorky into a wholly original mixture whose undoubted nihilism is relieved only by his own vitality, prolificity and insistence on expressing himself at all”. 

Well, Arlt’s masterpiece (The Seven Madmen) was eventually translated- firstly, in 1984 by Naomi Lindstrom and then more recently by Nick Caistor in 1998. I myself had an almost obsessive fascination for this book in the early 1990s that would lead me to attempt my own translation (undoubtedly an extremely flawed translation given my fairly complete ignorance of Spanish at that time). My eccentric but passionately obsessive and rather neurasthenic translation has disappeared somewhere into the hard disk of an abandoned computer. Months writing and rewriting this translation firstly in Trieste’s Via Rossetti and then in some flats on the outskirts of Barcelona had been in vain. Yet Erdosain and his fellow madmen remained in my imagination for years and Arlt would remain a presence. At some point in the near future I’ll abandon my hubris and will sit down to read the two published translations of Arlttrying to give anunjaundiced opinion as to how they manage to recapture the Arltian universe in English. Alas, for English readers the sequel Los Lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers) is still unavailable (one of the true tour de forces of Arlt’s prose can be found here in the chapter entitled ‘The Agony of the Melancholic Ruffian’ which some argue is the finest piece in the whole of the Arltian oeuvre). Arlt was to write other works possibly of less force (including plays for the theatre and collections of short stories) and was also a prolific journalist who produced over 1,500 pieces for the daily ‘El Mundo’ – these ‘aguafuertes’ (as they were called) would appear between1928 and 1933 giving a unique view of both Buenos Aires and Spain where he was sent by the newspaper. His understanding of the earthly, telluric Buenos Aires compared to Borges’s metaphysical and fantastic Buenos Aires means that by neglecting Arlt and privileging only Borges, our view of a city, a country and a culture is suspended in unreality.

In one of my copies of Arlt’s selected works purchased in Barcelona I still remember a very personal portrait of Roberto Arlt by Juan Carlos Onetti. Explaining that he had just been told by a doctor of a serious heart condition (which was soon to kill Arlt), Onetti recounted that from that day on Arlt instead of taking the lift to his floor at the top of a building would walk up many flights of stairs up to his flat. This and similar gestures meant that according to Onetti there were three common descriptions of Roberto Arlt amongst those who knew him: some thought him to be a genius, others thought of him as a madman (just like the characters of his novels) and others would simply state that he was a son of a bitch. Onetti then goes on to state that he was probably all three.

Here below is a translation I made twenty years ago of an article that appeared in an Italian magazine. It was the article that led to my interest in Arlt. At the time I was living with two Argentinians in a flat in Trieste: it was a city of many Argentinians who worked accompanying many of Trieste’s former psychiatric patients through the city. (Trieste would lead the world in experimenting with the closure of all psychiatric asylums and a new type of community therapy under what was seen as the most progressive law in the western world ‘la leggeBassani’. Many in Italy would, henceforth, jokingly refer to the city as ‘la citta’ deimatti’ -the city of the mad as though a certain madness reigned in the city as a whole). However, for me it was the journalist and writer Albert Londres who discovered the link between these two cities– he talks about it in his The Road to Buenos Aires a book indispensable for understanding some of the context of Arlt’s work (and sharing one of the themes of Arlt’s work- the so-called ‘white slave trade’) and published the year before Arlt’s masterpiece:

La Boca: “the mouth”- the mouth of Buenos Ayres. Buenos Ayres is the southernmost of the three great harbours of the world. You must go three kilometres further to get to La Boca. Look at the map: you will see that the women there could not very well descend any lower. You have heard of the end of the world. La Boca is the end of the sea.

Andre’ Tudesq would have it that the sea began at a certain place, and that place was Trieste. On one occasion he kept me for a long time at that Adriatic port, and tried to prove by a series of the most cogent arguments that his statement was in no way fantastic. And at the height of an eddy which he noticed in a small bay, he shouted:

‘There you are, there’s the spring: look at it boiling up’.

If he had not left me, his old friend, at Saigon, and gone away to die, I would have taken him that evening to La Boca: ‘You told me a secret, you revealed to me where the sea began, and I thank you. If the sea begins it must likewise end, and I have found its end. Don’t tell anyone, I don’t want to be robbed of my secret: look, here we are’.

For me, then, discovering the work of Arlt (the writer of the city where the sea ended) in the city where the sea began still seems to have something poignant and fundamental about it. That TriestineArlt that these words of GoffredoFofi and my Argentinian flatmates introduced me to- in that city of another madman and genius and, most probably, son of a bitch (James Joyce) will remain with me for a long time, even if it isn’t my name (and most justifiably so) that comes after the smallprint on a page rarely read saying ‘translated by’. My rather insane, obsessive, neurasthenic love of Roberto Arlt amounts to much more than simply translating his book and then forgetting about it.As Nick Caistor put in his afterword to his translation of ‘The Seven Madmen’ one can only hope that Arlt’s“crazy, disjointed, glorious (work) still has in English the power of a good sock to the jaw- as Arlt himself described the power of literature”(and one might add, Eisenstein described the power of cinema).



Madmen in Revolt by GoffredoFofi.

A historical outlook is of great help in understanding and clarifying the work of Robert Arlt. The radical governments (in particular those of Irigoyen) were enthusiastically backed by the European middle classes having been given a significant role in the social structure of Argentinian society in that period. Even then Argentina meant Buenos Aires, the port city and oversized head of an enormous and almost uninhabited country. The oligarchy didn’t maintain its promises and while, initially, at the turn of the century, it had encouraged, and even imposed, an influx of urban immigration as a counterweight to the dangerous, rebellious and riotous gauchos, it soon became incapable of controlling such an influx unable to sustain politically and economically the weight of internal colonisation that it had dreamt of. It began to idealize the guachos after having defeated them, fearing an anarchic revendication by the immigrants for aspirations and demands denied any realization. The middle classes had become the support and spokesman for political radicalization but the crash of 1929 marked its defeat and the beginning of a long period of frustration and uncertainty.Arlt created his best works in between these two periods and they steeped in the atmosphere of the sense of the fickleness of past enthusiasms and of an air of delusion and dissatisfaction with the interminable present. As both the first and the last of his novels El JugueteRabioso (The Rabid Toy) and El Amor Brujo (Love the Enchanter ) -both filled with autobiographical elements- demonstrate, the characters’ sense of powerlessness is equally Arlt’s own sense of powerlessness. Arlt’s characters find each other bolstered in their attempts to escape, passing from schizophrenia to paranoia in an obligatory route through three stages: frustration, flight and fall.


Yet through them Arlt goes beyond a merely sociological and historicalviewpoint in looking at his own time associating himself with yet another viewpoint. If today his texts are also wonderful initiations into fundamental aspects of Argentinian culture and society, they are also significant, with their zany strangeness, a study in a kind of universal petit-bourgeois pathology. In this one can’t do without Arlt alongside more conventional sociological analyses of Argentinian society (Martin Estrada, Scalabrini Ortiz, GermaniSabelli, Vinas), these writers often, in fact, used Arlt in their analyses. Arlt’s world is also similar to those analysed by Riesman or C Wright Mills and even by Sartre. It is the ever-discontented world of the middle-classes, lacerated between their common destiny with the lower classes and their ambitions to reach the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie which holds it at bay with mere crumbs of its high culture. It is the universe of humiliation, of stupidity, of common sense and wretchedness, of the infinite tedium of everyday life. The characters of Arlt try to escape from all this. Condemned to work and to tedium, with its resultant sexual repression, dull wives, decorum and the Sunday football match- all this becomes absolutely unbearable. Yet how to flee from all this?

The adolescent Silvio Astier, in Arlt’sJuguete after a childhood of friendships with members of the working classes wishes to enter into a military academy but is rejected. Yet the ‘seven madmen’, adults conscious of their status as social outsiders and of the impossibility of entering through moral paths set out by society to avoid economic misery (money for Arlt plays a fundamental role, the weight given it by a society of rigid class distinctions or by capitalist society in general, especially in times of crisis) are intent on other paths which are initially individual and them, throughtheir delirious encounters, become collective. They are those who can be characterized in the Arltian universe with their symbolic names of Edison the inventor, Rocambole the rascal and Nostradamus the magician. Their private flights are merged into a fantastic unreality – so as to escape from the oppressive and imprisoning fly-paper of social and labour conditions – and then they produce their own reality/unreality of a magical solution that is doggedly pursued. (Arlt himself dreamed of becoming successful as an inventor, a field in which his main contribution was the idea of waterproof tights for women)… this all leads to a common project of the seven for a large enterprise dedicated to financing the revolution.

Of course, this project – a phosgene factory or a chain of brothels- is destined to failure. Yet the tragic failure, a hallucinatory crowning of the absurdity of the enterprise, however, has a different meaning with its mark of madness than that of Silvio Astier who sells out the working-class rebel protecting him because he himself is rejected by the bourgeoisie thus betraying his subordinate because he himself is betrayed from on high. Their wretchedness is a more desperate and tragic dejection whose morality remains linked to that of a high and noble project. The seven: the bank clerk and thief Erdosain; the chemist Ergueta who has discovered the secret of roulette boards, the presence of the apocalypse and the law of ecstatic synchronicity; the viscid and chatty dreamer Barsut, the Astrologer, the Melancholic Ruffian, Hipolita and EstaquioEspilo have all a logical project (that of revolution) in their minds that is followed through paths that respond to a logic and a strategy shaped by their incapacity of choosing a path and some allies. The fracas of every high and worthy aspiration is their necessary fate and the consequence of the raving individualism of their revolt.

Arlt’s grandeur consists in his ability to express a certain sociological reality (that of the life of the middle classes like Argentina and elsewhere) with a vigour and in a fashion that harks back to a great tradition, or rather two… the Russian tradition represented by Dostoyevsky and Gogol and the Spanish one of Quevedo and Baroja- and it draws its inspiration from a number of often contradictory sources which create a particular tension in the work of Arlt: the feuilleton and popular literature in general (based on the tango, the key expression of the immigrant’s sense of frustration and disorientation in the city of Buenos Aires). This language runs alongside the polished language used by the more established writers of the ruling classes. The tension between these is unresolved as is the sense of dissatisfaction in Arlt. The construction of a style needs time, as Arlt reminds us in his preface to the Lanzallamas(The Flamethrowers) and adds: “Today, amongst the ruins of a social edifice that is inevitably crumbling one cannot attend to its ornamentations”. Yet the tension exists due to that ambiguous use of the language and the high style of the upper classes all but resolved. It is not by chance that he often adoptsthe use of quotation marks for popular and working-class language precisely in order not to be seen as a popular writer. The sense of revolt andfrustration find their expression in this use of language with a revealing precision.

These tensions and conflicts, as well as the authors’ discontent, are practically resolved in the quickened pace and aggressive nature of the authors’ language and borne out, too, in those flashes of sinister melancholy which lead to a kind of fatal chain which carries each character, one by one, to their deaths in scenes reminiscent of Bunuel’s film Los Olvidados.

The relation between realism and fantasy is so typical as to be almost excessive in recent Latin American literature; in Arlt, however, there is a greater tendency towards realism but a realism transformed by allegorical and obsessional flurries. A sense of madness and magic, inextricably intertwined, belong to background plot and represents both temptation and a constant sense of threat. It is not incidental that there are seven characters. Although one senses a hint of pure fantasy (one certainly finds this in some of his tales and in the ‘Seven’) the key to Arlt’s work belongs elsewhere, his debt is to the novels of Dostoyevsky and the plays of Pirandello. To offer a spring-board to Arlt’s work is the strange logic that his characters follow to extremes, to the limits of the absurd. They are controlled only by a sense of sarcasm which somehow holds at bay the enormous reality of frustration. The excesses of the serial look after the rest. Perhaps it is this very refusal to overstep the line of fantasy, of abstract metaphor or metaphysics, a practice so well matured by other Argentinian writers, it is this refusal to play these games that gives Arlt’s work a less polished and noble feel. Nonetheless, he has a great ability to move us and has the tragic warmth of his visionaries, so exemplary and human.

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

2 responses »

  1. Your September 18, 2012 post about Roberto Arlt was just sent to me. There is much to say. First, my own Arltonian (in this we differ–I see an Arltonian universe rather than Arltian) entrancement also occurred in the early 1990s.
    That leaves out hundreds of pages regarding correspondence and Arlt.
    Second, I am currently writing an introduction for a translation of The Flamethrowers.
    Third, I live in Izola, Slovenia, and teach near the Svevo statue at the Piazza Hortis in Trieste.
    Both the second and third also omit hundreds of pages of information.

    • Hello Rick, this is all very fascinating. I’ve written you a reply to your email. Please check the spam if you don’t get it in your inbox. I’ll be in Trieste from Italy, would be great to talk in person about this. Best wishes, Giuliano

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