‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt – A Maelstrom of Outcasts in Buenos Aires

 

‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt   (1929) – 242 pages                                                Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

 

What words can I use to describe ‘The Seven Madmen’? It is intense, painfully honest, vivid, brutal, grotesque, and insightful as hell. At the same time the novel reflects the energy and chaos and explosive madness in Buenos Aires during the early 20th century.

Among Argentine writers, Roberto Arlt is a legend   His own definition of literature was “a good sock in the jaw”.

Roberto Arlt, born in 1900, was the son of two of the many Prussian immigrants to Buenos Aires. His parents were attracted to Argentina by the promise of land to farm not realizing that all the land was already in the hands of a few owners.  They wound up in the slums of Buenos Aires. Roberto began his career as a journalist writing Buenos Aires Sketches and he wrote the novel ‘The Seven Madmen’ in 1929.

‘The Seven Madmen’ is the story of Reno Erdosain, a small-time swindler and frequent brothel customer. Better than me describing Erdosain, let me give you some quotes about him from the novel.

“He understood that destiny had flung him into that maelstrom of outcasts who stamp life with the foul imprint of every imaginable vice and suffering.”  

“Yes, it’s sad to see other people happy, to see that they don’t understand that you are unhappy and always will be.”

“And yet it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil that affirms man’s presence on earth. “

“And tell them I was a murderer. And yet, as a murderer have loved every kind of beauty, and have fought within myself against all the horrible temptations that have welled up hour after hour from deep with me. I have suffered for what I am, and for all the others as well, d’you understand? For all the others as well.” 

It is for good reason that Roberto Arlt has been called the Dostoyevsky of Argentina.  He tells the truth no matter how hurtful it is to himself.

‘The Seven Madmen’ is also a prescient political novel.  Even though it was written in 1929, it predicts the rise of Fascism.

“We will have a wide variety of perfect lies, each one labelled for a different disease of the mind or soul.”

“It’s all the borderline people who get puffed up with empty phrases…And the first people I am approaching for an answer are these malcontents.  As a goal I offer them a lie which will bring them happiness by inflating their vanity.”

Roberto Arltt

Arlt goes on to describe a Fascist society in more detail.  He males several allusions to Mussolini and Lenin who were already on the scene.

This story is continued in a second novel called ‘The Flamethrowers’ which I would like to read if only it were available in English.

 

Grade:   A

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. There’s striking cover art on both those editions!

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    • HI Lisa,
      I thought I was quite knowledgeable about Latin American literary history being familiar with names such as Machado de Assis and Ciro Alegria, but I hadn’t heard of Roberto Arltt before. He is an interesting figure with his German background.

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      • I’ve read very little from Latin America… and am yet to find an author to love…

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        • If one were interested in getting into South American literature I would probably recommend to start with the granddaddy of them all Machado de Assis who was a Brazilian writer who lived from 1839 to 1908. His ‘Epitaph of a Small Winner’ (also known as ‘The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas’) or ‘Don Casmurro’ would be a good place to start. I could also recommend several more recent writers.

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          • I might look into this properly next year. This year I’ve harvested all my books from Africa on the TBR and I’m going to make a semi-serious effort at reducing the pile. This is because people from African countries are a growing presence in Melbourne, and I want to learn more about their cultures and histories. But next year…

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