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Authors: Roberto Arlt

The Seven Madmen

BOOK: The Seven Madmen
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Roberto Arlt









First English language edition published in
by David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
Dartmouth Street

Boston, Massachusetts

© 1958
by Editorial Losada Translation copyright
by Naomi Lindstrom

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Arlt, Roberto,
The seven madmen.

Translation of: Los siete locos. I. Title.






The Surprise

States of Consciousness

Terror in the Street

A Strange Man


Inventor's Dreams

The Astrologer

The Opinions of the Melancholy Ruffian

The Humiliated Man

Layers of Darkness

A Slap in the Face

"To Be" by Committing a Crime

The Proposal

Up the Tree



and Idiocy

The Black House

The Official Bulletin

The Work of Anguish

The Kidnapping


The Whip

The Astrologer's Speech

The Farce

The Gold Seeker

The Lame Whore

Inside the Cavern

The Espilas

Two Souls

lita's Inner Life

A Crime

A Subconscious Sensation

The Revelation

The Suicide

The Wink





Recent critical reappraisal has brought Roberto Arlt and
The Seven Madmen
out of literary obscurity and has accorded both author and novel an important place in the history of Latin-American fiction. Although when first published in 1929, Arlt seemed no more than an unpolished, realistic writer, in the sixties and seventies he attracted the notice of critics searching for the roots of the wildly inventive fiction coming out of contemporary Latin America. Arlt is now recognized as a long-lost ancestor of the so-called "boom" of imaginative fiction which the American reader associates with such names as Julio Cort
zar, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Arlt was a newspaperman with a style that was often rough, blunt, and defiantly agrammatical. His unpolished mode of expression and the swarm of low-life characters with whom he populated his novel gave his fiction a naturalistic tone. Many of Arlt's contemporaries saw no more in
The Seven Madmen
than a harsh, rough-hewn "proletarian" novel, full of scabrous scenes, crude words, sleazy characters, and unforgivable grammar. Arlt caricatures this type of reader aptly when he imagines how a critic will greet his work after
The Seven Madmen:
"Mr. Roberto Arlt keeps on in the same old rut: realism in the worst possible taste." Arlt himself did much to enhance his image as a "proletarian" author. Disheveled, impulsive, and denunciatory, he looked and acted the part of the angry young man. In his column, he praised a number of socialist realist writers, both Soviet and Argentine. He scorned spelling and proper grammar as elitist, fetishistic concerns, and gave no thought to standardizing his erratic Spanish.

Thoughtful readers, however, found Arlt singularly imaginative, willing to violate the tenets of realism in favor of bold invention. As Adolfo Prieto puts it, "along with his undeniable realistic intentions, Arlt nurtured a predilection for creating forms in which fantasy and real-life experience played a hallucinatory counterpoint." His fusion of the fancifully distorted and the realistically faithful set Arlt's work apart from that of the social realists of his time. But many who were unsure how to evaluate Arlt's blend of the real and the unreal and his rough, deviant mode of expression simply concluded "that Arlt didn't know how to write." Even readers who appreciated Arlt's originality were hard-pressed to understand it. Thus Arlt, who died in 1942, remained a minor, enigmatic, almost freakish figure in Argentine literary history.

Then, in the wake of the explosion of Latin-American literature in the fifties and sixties, a new generation of readers rediscovered Arlt and his eccentric fictional experiments. These new Arlt readers had grown up on Borges, Cort
zar, Garcia Marquez, and other practitioners of "magical realism," a mythic representation of serious human realities. To such readers, the coexistence of the fantastic and the serious was not a shock. What was surprising was to find such a mélange in a novel written so long before the official boom, which brought worldwide fame to the authors of Latin America, exploded. Thus, people immediately began pointing to Arlt as a misunderstood innovator whose work was inspirational to the latter-day magical realists.

In recent years, a number of creative writers and literary critics have proclaimed Arlt's seminal influence. Julio Cort
zar cited Arlt as one of the two great influences on his literary development, along with Borges. Jorge Lafforgue, the influential critic, wrote: "to avoid any possible misunderstanding let me say here and now: Roberto Arlt and Juan Carlos Onetti represent the beginnings of current Argentine-Uruguayan fiction and I could count on the fingers of one hand figures comparable to them in this part of the world." Juan Carlos Onetti, known in this country for
The Shipyard
(1958) and
A Brief Life
(1976), prefaced the Italian translation of
The Seven Madmen
with this tribute: "if any inhabitant of our humble shores managed to achieve literary genius, his name was Roberto Arlt."

Ordinary readers, too, had begun to appreciate Arlt. From 1968 on, Latin-American publishing houses began to reprint not only
The Seven Madmen
but also Arlt's other novels, short stories, newspaper writings, and the dramatic works which occupied his last years. Odd musings and sketches of city life which had only appeared in journalistic form were dug out and published in book form—a sure sign of a writer's canonization. The times had finally caught up with Arlt's dizzying, disconcerting style.

Readers of contemporary Latin-American authors will immediately recognize the realm of uncertainty and ambiguity that is Arlt's fictional world.
The Seven Madmen
is the story of a revolutionary conspiracy, and it is the story of human beings in the greatest anguish. Yet neither the reader nor the hero, Remo Erdosain, knows the exact nature of either the conspiracy or the suffering. The conspiracy appears protean: its cryptic leader, the Astrologer, is capable of waxing enthusiastic over Mussolini and the Ku Klux Klan one minute and advancing Bolshevik or anarchist ideas the next. When questioned too closely about the goals and feasibility of his plot, the Astrologer retreats behind a smokescreen of enigmatic language.

It is equally hard to grasp what exactly ails Arlt's characters. They are tremendously unhappy, but no diagnosis or possible remedy for their sorrow is ever specified. Existential anguish seems at fault when Erdosain broods on his relations with God, his fellows, and destiny, or speaks of crime as a confirmation of selfhood, but shortly afterward, he can be found railing at the capitalist system, bourgeois values, and his alienation as a clerk on a corporate treadmill. Erdosain also exhibits severe psychological disturbances, and the reader is left unsure whether he has entered the realm of existentialism, political protest, or abnormal psychology.

The reader seeking some central reality to hang on to will get no help from the narrator of
The Seven Madmen.
To the increasingly unreal tangle of events which form the plot, he adds a few gnarls of his own. He enjoys adding footnotes to the text which contradict statements he himself has asserted as facts. He withholds the information which the reader needs to make sense of the plot, bombards him with pointless details about the characters' past lives, and claims to possess vast reserves of additional information which he may or may not disclose at a future time. The narrator never reveals his identity or credentials (one may even suspect him of being the Astrologer).

The reader embarking on the treacherous first reading of
The Seven Madmen
will do well to remember what he has learned in reading the fiction of the more recent Latin-American authors. Arlt's readers must give up the expectation that, if they read carefully, they will find out what "really" happened among these madmen. They must not belabor separating what the characters fear, hope, or imagine from what the characters actually do. In
The Seven Madmen
as in other recent Latin-American fiction, apparent chaos generates meaning and comments on real-world conditions. But the novel requires the cooperation of readers willing to examine man and society through a distorted lens.

— Naomi Lindstrom



The Surprise

The moment he opened the door to the manager's office, with its milk-glass panels, Erdosain tried to back out; he could see he was done for, but it was too late.

They were waiting for him: the manager, a man with a pig's head, a true snout and implacability oozing out of his small fish gray pupils; Gualdi, the accountant, small, slight, bland as honey, with eyes that missed nothing; and the assistant manager, the son of the pigheaded man, thirty, good-looking, his hair gone completely white, an air of great cynicism about him, an edge to his voice and the harsh eyes of his progenitor. These three characters, the boss, bending over the payroll, the assistant manager, lolling in an easy chair with one leg dangling over the back, and Mr. Gualdi standing respectfully by the desk, did not return Erdosain's greeting. Only the assistant manager went so far as to raise his head:

"We hear that you're an embezzler, that you've taken six hundred pesos from us."

"And seven cents," added Mr. Gualdi, applying his blotter to the signature on the payroll that his boss had checked off. The latter then looked up from the paper with an abrupt movement of his bull neck. Hands clasped against the front of his jacket, the boss was evidently calculating behind his half-closed lids as he coolly examined Erdosain's gaunt, impassive face.

"Why are you so badly dressed?"

"Because I don't make much as a bill collector."

"What about the money you stole from us?"

"I didn't steal anything. That's a lie."

"All right then, can you square up your accounts?"

"By today at noon, if you want."

BOOK: The Seven Madmen
11.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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