Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

It has taken a while for this novel to find its way into English. The Seven Madmen was first published in Argentina in 1929. Its author, Roberto Arlt (1900-42), was a disheveled Buenos Aires journalist who defiantly disregarded the rules of Spanish grammar and the finer sensibilities of critics. They in turn hooted at his work, which included four novels, two collections of stories and eight plays. The author once mordantly mimicked the typical response of his detractors: "Mr. Roberto Arlt keeps on in the same old rut: realism in the worst possible taste."

If anyone ever actually believed that this novel was realistic, then life in the Argentine capital must once have been unimaginably weird. True, the trappings of proletarian fiction are all roughly in place—lowlife taverns, brothels and urban rot: "The setting sun lit up the most revolting inner recesses of the sloping street." But the anti-hero who stumbles through this landscape is a perversely comic invention. Remo Erdosain collects bills for a sugar company and engages in petty embezzlement. He also writhes in noisy anguish at a world that can ignore his true genius. "Didn't they call me crazy," he asks an acquaintance, "because I said they should set up shops to dry-clean and dye dogs and metallize shirt cuffs?" One day, everything gets even worse.
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