The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt
a review by Matthew Spencer
Now might be a good time to talk about Roberto Arlt. New York Review of Books recently published a translation of the Argentine’s second novel, The Seven Madmen, giving present-day students of the confidence game a rich source for comparative historical analysis.
Bamboozle an entire nation: that’s the mission Remo Erdosain (cuckold, small-time embezzler) sets for himself. The scheme proceeds by its own tortured logic. First, Erdosain must kidnap his wife’s cousin, Gregorio Barsut, and extort his life savings from him. Then, with the money as a seed investment, Erdosain will found a secret society under the direction of a man named The Astrologer, his patron and confidant.
Like many of the novel’s characters, The Astrologer simply appears in the narrative, with no other introduction than an epithet. His relationship to Erdosain is obscure. He lives at a weekend ranch on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, meeting with fellow charlatans and reactionaries. He occasionally does an astrological chart. For whom? That goes unsaid. Arlt’s characters do what they do without any apparent motivation but the will to power.
As Julio Cortázar points out in his introduction, the parallels between the author and his creation are salient. Born to an immigrant family in the slums of Buenos Aires, Arlt lived a life radically removed from mandarin contemporaries like Silvina Ocampo or Jorge Luis Borges. Without critical acclaim, inherited wealth, or a government sinecure, he struggled his whole life to achieve financial stability and the esteem of others.
Failure is palpable from the first sentence: “As soon as he opened the frosted glass door to the manager’s office, Remo Erdosain wanted to turn back; he realised he was a lost man, but it was too late.” Today, someone might use the term “radical vulnerability” to describe the near-constant soul baring that happens in The Seven Madmen. But the world Erdosain lives in has no reward for weakness. It crushes it, without pity. One can reasonably assume this was the case for Arlt as well.
In an early chapter, as Erdosain’s wife is about to leave him for her lover, Erdosain describes how his father instilled a lifelong sense of humiliation in him.
“When I was ten and I had done something wrong, he would say to me: ‘tomorrow I’m going to thrash you.’ That’s what he always said: ‘tomorrow.’ What d’you think of that? Tomorrow…so that night I would sleep awfully, like a sick dog, waking at midnight and staring fitfully at the window to see if it was already day, but when I saw the moon clipping the transom I would force my eyes shut, and tell myself ‘there’s a long time to go yet.’”
The omnipresence of failure seems to be drawn from Arlt’s own life. Finding little success in literary ventures, Arlt sought, like his creation, to make his fortune by patenting different inventions. When he died of a heart attack, at age 42, Arlt was working on a formula for run-free women’s stockings.
The novelist’s life as a part-time crank shows up again and again in The Seven Madmen. Erdosain has a scheme to make money by coating flowers with galvanized metal. He enlists a poor family to manufacture these tchotchkes, fully aware that they will probably lose everything for believing in him. As the novel closes, Erdosain visits them at their shack on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He reacts with disgust at their state—the father Eustaquio is deaf and dying of tuberculosis, the daughter Luciana is in love with the feckless inventor. “I hope they all croak and leave me in peace,” Erdosain says to himself.
None of the conspirators really believes in what they are doing. Yet all are confident that events will play in their favor, perversely upending the famous dictum of Marxist politician and intellectual Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” This shared delusion is the glue that holds Erdosain’s would be revolutionary cell together. Each member believes that he stands to gain more than the man sitting next to him. In the end, little is accomplished except for a kind of collective self-mugging.
Does it need to be said that this novel, written in 1929, presaged a great deal? Only a year later, a coup d’état was staged against the President of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen, ushering in what came to be known as the Infamous Decade: years of violence, corruption, and economic crisis. This is to say nothing of Fascism and the horrors of the Second World War. Now, with almost ninety years of history behind the novel, a reader can see the rise of demagogic movements through its oracular lens. But this is a stupid way to think about Arlt’s work.
The Seven Madmen succeeds precisely because it cannot offer the illusions of moral clarity that hindsight gives us. The narrative is just as constrained as its characters, just as subject to the same impersonal forces. Erdosain is benighted and Arlt forces us to live in the dark with him. Now, when moral righteousness is both the substance and currency of cultural politics, Art’s novel inspires empathy and contempt in equal measure, understanding and rejection, a feat that seems beyond the ken of today’s politically engaged writers.
Matthew Spencer is a writer and visual arts curator based in Seattle, Washington.