Roberto Arlt was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1900. His parents were German immigrants and German was the language spoken at home. They were poor. Long term formal education was pretty much out of the question, so Roberto took to the streets at an early age and learned there and in the library. He read a lot of Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I can see Raskolnikov in his books, and Dostoevsky hovering over them, though Arlt puts less anger and despair on the page. Ezra Pound would have said of Arlt, if he had known him, that he modernized himself.
It was also the case that he made his own way in society with little help, working hard at an early age, writing for newspapers, later joining the military, and then taking odd jobs here and there until his career in journalism started paying some dividends. He truly did come up the hard way and his fantastic short stories, novels and plays reflect that.
Arlt draws some comparisons with Flann O’Brien, when it comes to his newspaper columns. Sometimes called aguafuertes, or etchings, Arlt wrote about all facets of society for El Mundo and quickly became quite popular. Starting in 1928, his columns appeared regularly until his death in 1942.
His second novel, Los Siete Locos (The Seven Madmen) was published in 1929. It was translated into English in 1984. I read it soon after. A brilliant, strange, surreal novel, it had lasting impact on the subsequent Latin American “Boom” and Magic Realism in general. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges cite it as exemplary and foundational for their own development. I think it’s also worth investigating for its protagonist, Erdosain, how he fits into the long line of anti-heroes going back to who knows what. Perhaps Gilgamesh had a cousin, Kindofamesh, who fell in with the wrong crowd and broke with tradition, and tried to invent some new math that would bring harems to the down and out and seedy.
I remember reading Arlt’s The Seven Madmen along with A Brief Life, by Juan Carlos Onetti, and thinking that Brausen (Onetti’s protagonist) was similar to Erdosain in some respects. And then, after rereading Camus’s The Stranger and soon after discovering Michaux’s Plume, thinking that the four characters in those books could make an anti-hero hall of fame. Dostoevsky, again, hovers over all four writers like a hammer.
Literature, like families, would be a bore if every character were happy. It would be like Disneyworld without the protests. Monotonous. Goody goody. Too much sweetness and light. At least that’s what Tolstoy said. Well, about families, anyway. Not in so many words, of course, and I don’t think he ever made it to the Magic Kingdom. But you get the idea. Plus, even Tolstoy needed Dostoevsky to balance him out. Which brings me back again to Roberto Arlt . . .
He transformed his life among the seedy, the destitute, the mad, the bad and the violent . . . into great works of literature. As far as I know, only two of his four novels have been translated. A disgrace. He deserves to be read by a new generation, a new crowd looking for a rebel without a cause, a slayer of plastic people and Mrs. Robinsons, an antidote to the latest attempt to homogenize us all. He deserves to be read.