Giuliano Vivaldi's Commentary on Roberto Arlt

In a few extraordinary sequences in The Diaries of Emilio Renzi Ricardo Piglia speculates on what are the decisive books of one’s life. He then suggests that How I Read One of My Books could be the title of his autobiography. The decisive books of one’s life are those in which one can “clearly remember the setting and the moment” in which they were read and where the book “only has an intimate quality in memory if I see myself reading it”. For me Arlt’s The Seven Madmen and The Flamethrowers are more inseparable from my own life than nearly any other books I could name. I first came across Arlt in Trieste in the autumn of 1991. What drew my attention to Arlt was an article by the film critic Goffredo Fofi accompanied by a comic strip adaptation of a chapter from The Flamethrowers entitled "The Agony of the Melancholic Ruffian." Arlt was already a legendary figure for me before I started ‘reading’ Arlt in the summer of 1993. Meanwhile I’d quizzed almost every Argentinian I met about Arlt. Their replies all fitted with Juan Carlos Onetti’s statement that people had three reactions to Arlt: they saw him either as mad, a genius or a son of a bitch. Onetti averred that Arlt was probably all three whereas Roberto Bolaño famously suggested, modestly, that Arlt’s real protoype was Jesus Christ. Though the rest of what he says about Arlt is rarely reported: that Arlt was Argentina’s Russian (a character from a Dostoyevsky novel) whereas Borges was its Englishman (a character from a novel by Chesterton, Stevenson or Shaw).
Reading Arlt in Trieste (the city of Arlt’s mother, Ekatherine Lobstraibitzer and a city with an extraordinary literary history of its own) in the early nineties and discovering Spanish through this strange, heady novel makes it extraordinarily hard to talk dispassionately about it*1. For me in a way all roads lead to, from and via Arlt (not mentioning the obvious Dostoyevskian Arlt, I could list many of my interests as being directly related to the world of Arlt including for me what are obvious Pasolinian parallels in Arlt and a strange Arltian detour into the Soviet cultural experience)**2. In short, discussing Arlt becomes a way of talking about everything. Just as Andre Tudesq once tried to convince Albert Londres to come to Trieste to observe the beginning of the sea (a tale told in Londres’s extraordinary The Road to Buenos Ayres so contemporaneous with Arlt’s Seven Madmen), I would grab anyone I could and get them to read Arlt’s two major novels just so they can observe the very first description of that ineffable and cauchemarish present in which we live. As Tudesq’s gurgling eddy in the port of Trieste signified something monumental, so Arlt, that “dyslexic, guttural stutterer” who “looks at everything with crossed eyes, obliquely” (the description is once again Piglia’s), signified The Beginning of this contemporary world which ninety years later is finally becoming fully apparent in all its abject gross absurdity (maybe Ilya Ehrenburg was in on the secret too but that’s another story).
River Boat Books have done everyone an immense service in printing the two books at the same time. For one can not really talk about two novels  - they are most definitely a continuum, two parts of one work. The two translators –firstly, Naomi Lindstrom whose translation of The Seven Madmen was originally published back in 1984 by Godine publishers and hence the one person most responsible for bringing Arlt to the attention of English language readers (Serpent’s Tail published a second translation by Nick Caistor in the late nineties but River Boat Books to my mind were right to publish Lindstrom’s earlier translation: in Lindstrom’s version one hears the unpolished voice of Arlt). And then Larry Riley’s. Again, it seems that Riley is the perfect translator for Arlt - not a longstanding academic and Latin American literature specialist or professional literary translator (they’d be endlessly correcting and betraying Arlt) but one who could recreate the true spirit of Arltian writing “winning with the sweat of ink and grinding of teeth”.

Smirking and spitting eunuchs will surely miss the greatness of Arlt at the very first apparent ‘infelicity’, not noticing that Arlt was one of the greatest chroniclers of not only his present (the chaos of 1920s Buenos Aires) but also of ours. Our world is as much Arltian (the Astrologer figure is as perfect a picture of the present day grotesque nature of power and the powerful) as it is Kafkaesque or Orwellian. To neglect Arlt is to fail to look our present reality fully in the face - reading Arlt is a perfect way both to discover one of the most surprising novels of the twentieth century and to study the archaeology and the trajectory leading up to the present moment.
*1 After a year of quizzing porteños about Arlt I finally paid a visit to Rome’s National Library and photocopied the entire novel translated into Italian (which had then been long out of print) and along with a copy of the novel in the original Spanish and a Spanish-English dictionary – tried to transcribe the book into English first over three months in a poky little room in Trieste’s Via Rossetti and then corrected my transcripted adaptation in equally insalubrious quarters in Barcelona. My appallingly translated copy was then lost (I still cringe at the translation howler that I made in line one of the novel) and fortunately now readers have the opportunity of reading both sections of one of the most extraordinary novels of the twentieth century.
**2 Rereading the Lindstrom introduction in the 1984 volume, I read that Arlt “in his column praised a number of Socialist realist writers, both Soviet and Argentine’ and can’t help recalling a vague proverb or other about it being just one move from the Pampas to the Steppe.
Giuliano Vivaldi is a translator, writer and blogger on film, cultural history and philosophy. He has written on various aspects of Russian and Soviet film and is preparing a volume on Boris Barnet (to be published by Cygnnet). He has translated subtitles for dozens of films and curated film retrospectives and events linked to the figure of Pier Paolo Pasolini. As well as writing on critical Russian philosophy emerging in the late Soviet period, he has translated texts by the dissident Soviet Marxist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. You will find Mr. Vivaldi on the internet at