The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt

I read a lot, and believe me, all the books from Europe are full of the same current of bitterness and despair you speak of in your own life. Just look at the United States. Movie stars have platinum ovary implants; and there are murderers trying to beat the record for the most horrible crime. You’ve been around, you’ve seen it. House after house, different faces but the same hearts. Humanity has lost its ability to celebrate, to feel joy. Mankind is so unhappy it’s even lost God! Even a 300-horsepower engine is only fun when driven by a madman who is likely to smash himself to pieces in a ditch. Man is a sad animal who only rejoices in wonders. Or massacres. Well, in our society we’ll make sure we give them wonders–plagues of Asiatic cholera, myths, the discovery of gold deposits or diamond mines. I’ve seen it when we two talk. You only come alive when some fresh wonder is mentioned. It’s the same with everyone, criminal or saint.

He tried in vain to concentrate on the two projects he considered important: adapting steam engines to electro-magnetics, and the idea of setting up a dog salon where people could get their pets dyed electric blue, their bulldogs bright green, purple grey-hounds, lilac fox-terriers, lapdogs with three-toned photos of sunsets printed across their backs, little pooches with swirls like a Persian rug.

Set in 1920s Argentina, The Seven Madmen opens with the protagonist, Remo Erdosain, having a very, very bad day. An anonymous tip came in to the firm where he works as a collector alerting management to his skimming cash and he is given an ultimatum. Hunting for six hundred pesos to pay back the company, Erdosain reaches out to The Astrologer, a messianic revolutionary, whose friends willingly lends him the cash. Then Erdosain’s wife leaves him, and he is once again driven into the arms of the Astrologer. In the midst of this cadre Erdosain is inducted into the Astrologer’s plot to bring about a utopian society that will simultaneously liberate people and entirely dominate them. Rationalism, they believe, has enslaved people and destroyed their capacity for pleasure. In order to save the souls, society must regress; in order to take over society they need machine guns and chemical weapons.

The plan, such as it is, will be financed state-sanctioned brothels run by a pimp known as the Melancholy Thug until the mining operations under the guidance of the Gold Prospector and industry under Erdosain can get off the ground. However, to start the first brothel, they need start-up cash. As it happens, Erdosain knows that his wife’s cousin Barsut has inherited money and learns that Barsut was the anonymous informant who cost him his job. Revenge and utility go hand in hand as the revolutionaries decide to kidnap Barsut and take his money.

The Seven Madmen is a novel best described as feverish, in the vein of Dostoevsky or Gogol. The prose is hurried and at times barely coherent, as it flits between delusion, vision, dream, and reality. Its central tension is between enlightenment rationality and the human nature that they argue relies on miracles, wonders, and the divine to have purpose and happiness in life.

“There will be two castes in this new society, with a gap between them…or rather, an intellectual void of some thirty centuries between the two. The majority will live carefully kept in the most complete ignorance, surrounded by apocryphal miracles, which are far more interesting than the historical kind, while the minority will be the ones who have access to science and power. That is how happiness will be guaranteed for the majority, because the people of this caste will be in touch with the divine world, which today they are lacking. The minority will administer the herd’s pleasures and miracles, and the golden age, the age in which angels will roam among paths at twilight and gods are seen by moonlight, will come to pass.”

“But that’s a monstrous idea. It could never happen.”

“Why not? Oh, I know it couldn’t happen, but we have to proceed as if it were possible.”

The plotters believe themselves to taking on the noble burden of truth while they take up the mantle of power. They will give everyone else the gift of lies like those spun by the Astrologer that take on the substance of truth.

The Seven Madmen careens toward the start of their revolution, but ends before the plan can get off the ground. On one level this end point is indicative its incompletion, but on another, it offers the novel as precariously balanced between the broad revolution with cosmic importance and Erdosain’s intensely personal vendetta that he veils with delusions of grandeur. The resultant story is a brilliant study of the Buenos Aires slums, the revolutionary passions of 1920s Argentina, and wider movements (i.e. fascism) circulating at the time, but one that threatens to tip into madness.

I loved this book. It is not an uplifting vision of society, but it is in some small ways prophetic.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am finally reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I am enjoying much more than I did when I last tackled this book. It is certainly helpful that I am more familiar with a lot of its literary and philosophical references than I was the last time around.

The Russian Girl – Kingsley Amis

This is a somewhat belated review because I finished the book a little bit ago and was then on the road for a bit more than a week.

Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from the outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes…

As soon as originality became important, the days of artistic merit or excellence were numbered. The question Is it any good? had always been hard to discuss, and only to be settled after a lapse of time and by the judgement of the wider public. This irritated intellectuals, who found it easier and more agreeable to ask Is it new?, together with What does it mean? and Is it art?, questions easy to discuss and never to be settled.

Richard Vaisey is a cantankerous but generally respected professor whose academic work is the study of Russian literature. On the surface, his life is great. He has a good job, but is able to live above his pay because he is married to the wealthy Cordelia who, particularly, allows him to indulge in his taste for sports cars. However, this life is turned upside down when the Russian poet Anna Danilova comes to London asking his help. Her brother is in prison, but in the tumultuous years around 1990 she believes that if she can make a name for herself as a poet in London, a public petition would force the government to release him. She just needs Richard’s help introducing her to people and, importantly, making people see the importance of her poetry. There is just one catch: in Richard’s (and most everyone else’s) opinion, her poetry is an offense against literature.

Of course the wretchedness of the poetry does not stand in the way of Richard falling in love with Anna, which leads to the story tumbling toward a potentially explosive conclusion.

The main choice that Richard has to make is between the two women, his wife and Anna. As mentioned above, he hates Anna’s poetry, but falls in love with her force of personality (which he notices at a poetry reading) and with her for more generic reasons. In contrast, everyone in the story considers Cordelia a monster. Richard’s friends repeatedly ask him why he married her since, in their descriptions, she is beautiful, but selfish and talks with a obnoxious cadence that they like to mimic. They repeatedly ask him whether he married her for the money or for the sex. Cordelia and Anna are conspicuously constructed as opposites, but, while some of Cordelia’s actions are genuinely monstrous, the people around her are mean in their own right.

The Russian Girl is a curious book. Like other Amis novels I have read, including Lucky Jim, there is a familiar hook of one “sane” individual amid a maelstrom of chaos. Similarly, it is liberally sprinkled with observations about the decline of the academy and London society. Some of these are insightful or funny, but some cross into mean-spirited or are so specific about a context I don’t know well enough to connect with. The result is that while I liked passages in the novel, I did not like the overall story to the extent that I had hoped.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I finished Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Patrick O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World while I was traveling. I am also nearly finished with Roberto Arlt’s brilliant The Seven Madmen, a feverish Argentinian story in the vein of Dostoevsky.