by César Aira
An appreciation of Argentinean Literature of Doom great Roberto Arlt penned by fellow Argentinean Literature of Doom great César Aira? Sort of! While I'm not sure what prompted Aira (above, photographer unknown) to take up this possibly spurious exercise in literary criticism, he begins his essay with a definition of the methodologies of expressionism and impressionism which I won't go into here. Arlt, "torturado y pensativo como un alemán" ["pensive and tortured like a German"] (55), is an expressionist, though--the "like a German" line supposedly owing itself to a quote of Goethe's on the nature of the Teutonic temperament. Moving from the general to the specific, Aira then zeroes in on the theme of "la traición' ["treachery, betrayal"] (57) as an example of how Arlt's expressionist tendencies ooze to the surface in his work. Although Aira cheekily calls this "a random but a central" example ["uno cualquiera, pero central"], parenthetically adding that "la elección de ejemplos es una trampa que habría que evitar" ["the choice of examples is a trap that should be avoided"] (!) (57), one wonders why the choice of language is so slippery here given that betrayal and treachery are so foundational to Arlt's fiction. One possible answer: "Cuando uno se pregunta por las intenciones de un artista, es inevitable que se pierda en un laberinto" ["When one wonders about the intentions of an artist, it's inevitable that one get lost in a labyrinth"] (59). And another: slippery language is foundational to Aira's own obra. Whatever one's opinions on Arlt's art, of course, one needn't be a fan of either writer to be amused and/or intrigued by Aira's essayistic antics and conclusions. One of my favorites among the former comes in the paragraph which begins, "Suele decirse 'Arlt, nuestro Flaubert'" ["As the saying goes, 'Arlt, our Flaubert'"]. Although I've actually seen Arlt referred to by Argentines as "our Dostoevsky," I'd be surprised if Aira didn't make up the "our Flaubert" talk altogether. It's a great set-up line, though, insofar as our critic goes on to hammer home the points that 1) "Creo que la aproximación es inepta, y no sólo por el abismo que hay entre un escritor maduro y burgués, y el adolescente visionario que fue Arlt... Yo diría 'nuestro Lautréamont'" ["I believe the approximation is inept and not only because of the gulf that there is between a mature, bourgeois writer and the adolescent visionary that was Arlt... I would say, 'our Lautréamont'"] and 2) "Lo que en la novela europea se hizo a lo largo de quinientos años y mil escritores, en la Argentina lo hizo Arlt solo, en cinco años" ["What in the European novel was done over the course of five hundred years and by one thousand writers was done in Argentina by Arlt alone in five years"] (63, ellipses added). Aira, who hides his cards on the matter of how much he esteems Arlt as a stylist or not, loses his poker face when concluding that Arlt's sense of "lo novelesco" ["the novelesque"] has roots in "el folletín truculento" ["the grisly feuilleton"]--something in opposition to "la novela ideológica, la falsa novela" ["the ideological novel, the fake novel"] as practiced by a more conformist writer like Eduardo Mallea: "Es la diferencia entre el gentleman y el Monstruo" ["It's the difference between the gentleman and the Monster"] (62); when pointing out some of the paradoxes of Arlt's style ("Las novelas de Arlt son historias de la inmovilidad, novelas de las que no se sale, pero al mismo tiempo no se explican sino como novelas de viaje" ["Arlt's novels are stories of immobility, novels in which there's no exit, but at the same time can only be explained in terms of travel novels"]) (63); or when finding unexpected parallels between Arlt's suspension of time and sense of perspective and Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass. "Yo mismo, proponiéndome como ejemplo de la singularidad extenuada del tiempo, trepo a la cinta del continuo y corro tras el Monstruo revestido de la figura irrisoria de la explicación" ["I myself, setting out as an example of the exhausted singularity of time, step onto the treadmill of the continuum and chase after the Monster sheathed in the ridiculous figure of explanation"], Aira writes, purportedly moved by "la introyección feliz de lo imaginario" ["the happy introjection of the imaginary"] and "la recepción del cine mudo de Arlt" ["the reception of Arlt's silent film"] technique, prey to images that dance before his eyes. "Duchamp la llamó Perspectiva, yo la llamo Inspiración. Salgo a buscarlas todos los días, en una rutina inmutable, a la perfecta transparencia de lo habitual, a las calles de mi barrio, que es el de Arlt, Flores, a los cafés de los alrededores de la plaza y la estación, donde voy todas las mañanas a escribir" ["Duchamp called it Perspective, I call it Inspiration. I go out to search for them every day, in an unchanging routine, in the perfect transparency of the habitual, in the streets of my neighborhood, which is the same as Arlt's, Flores, at the cafés surrounding the plaza and the train station where I go every morning to write" (70-71). Yes!
"ARLT," written in 1991 and published in 1993, appears on pp. 55-71 of the Argentinean journal Paradoxa #7. People wanting a full account of all the good stuff I had to leave out from it can find a PDF of the piece here.