THE SEVEN MADMEN BY ROBERTO ARLT

I have made mention of my poor upbringing, the trying circumstances in which I was raised, in numerous reviews. It’s something that never seems to go away, is always there, creeping around at the back of my mind like some sinister, hungry woodland creature. As I was so miserable, I would regularly fantasise about escape, about far off places, or extravagant reversals of fortune. Each night I would imagine myself on a raft, in the middle of an ocean as bright as neon bar signs, with sleek sharks swimming underneath and around me; I would long to be sent to the bus or train station on some undefined errand, where I would jump on a random train or bus and restart my life in a new place; I would spend hours thinking about being approached by some rich man or woman, who would have inexplicably taken a shine to me and would want to make me their heir. Moreover, I would often do strange and dangerous things, in an effort to breach the surface of my unhappiness, and force my life to move in another direction.

While I would prefer it not to be the case I see some similarities between myself and Remo Augusto Erdosain, the protagonist, and anti-hero, in Roberto Alrt’s cult classic Los Siete Locos. The impoverished Erdosain is a failed inventor and thief, having stolen a significant sum of money [600 pesos, and seven cents!] from the sugar company he works for. At one stage he justifies his actions as being motivated by need, a need created by the small wage he is paid. And this of course makes sense; yet he admits that he didn’t use the money to pay for necessities, such as shoes, that he actually blew it on extravagances.

Erdosain is a self-styled ‘hollow man,’ who, like I once was, is prey to relentless fantasies, such as being accosted by a millionairess who will want to marry him. However, as no milliionairess is forthcoming he has been forced to act himself. In this regard, he claims to have actually stolen from his employer in order to enliven his existence. One gets the impression that Erdosain is someone to whom things happen; his wife leaves him, Barsut beats him, the world consistently canes the back of his knees. His anti-social behaviour is, therefore, one of a man who wants to impose his will on the world, to make it sit up and take notice, rather than passively submit to the vicissitudes of existence. If he steals, if he kills, the world, he believes, will be forced to acknowledge him, and he will, for once, feel alive, feel like someone.

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Arlt’s protagonist is one of literature’s most wretched, self-pitying characters. He is in a near constant state of despair; he is mentally and emotionally unstable. Indeed, he talks about an ‘Anguish Zone,’ in which he spends the vast majority of his time, raking over his feelings and his bizarre thoughts. He is, in all honesty, sometimes exhausting and unpleasant company. He isn’t, however, by any means the most unpleasant character to inhabit the novel, or even the most memorable. The Seven Madmen also includes Ergueta, who believes that Jesus has blessed him with the a formula for winning at roulette; the aforementioned Barsut, a relative of Remo’s wife, who gleefully announces that it would be ‘amazing’ to shoot both of them and then kill himself; The Melancholy Thug, a pimp, who says that if he was told that unless he took one of his girls out of the game she would perish in seven days, would work her for six and let her die on the last. Ah, and then there is The Astrologer.

Much like Vladimir in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, The Astrologer is a shady figure hellbent on social/political chaos. Inspired by the KKK and Mussolini, he wants to create a number of revolutionary cells, with training camps in the mountains; these cells will be funded by brothels. Furthermore, he intends to recruit from the vulnerable, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. Anyone who knows a thing or two about terrorist or fascist organisations will find this stuff familiar. It has always been the case that the dregs of society, the displaced, have found themselves targeted by these groups, because they are easier to radicalise, are more likely to unquestioning swallow the propaganda. The truth is that if you feel worthless, or lost, you can be seduced by something that appears to value you. It is also worth noting what The Astrologer [prophetically] says about dictators, which is that the new breed will come from the industrialists, those in charge of oil etc. We all, unfortunately, are now coming to understand something about the power of those at the forefront of the oil industry, and the abuses they are involved in.

However, for a novel that is often held up as politically prescient, I don’t think revolution etc was Arlt’s real focus, or certainly one could say that this stuff feeds in to his more general concerns about domination and sadism. Early in the narrative Erdosain imagines people being put in cages, being essentially treated like animals. And, yes, one could see a kind of political metaphor about masters and slaves in this, but that could not be said of all of the content. For example, Erdosain is repeatedly humiliated and abused; remember that his wife leaves him for another man, he is beaten by Barsut, etc. Moreover, The Melancholy Thug talks about wanting to take a blind teenager into prostitution; this girl, we’re told, habitually sticks needles in her hands.

“Who is more heartless, a brothel owner or the shareholders of a large company?”

It is important not to overlook the role of religion in all this, and in Latin American society. Throughout the book, Arlt makes reference to Christianity [Ergueta marrying a prostitute, for example, because he thinks that this is what the bible encourages], and specifically a lack of belief in God, which is blamed for the awful state of humanity; indeed, Ergueta at one point says that “if you believed in God you would have been spared your wretched life.” Whether the rejection of God means that anything is permissible is an age-old existential question. Certainly, Arlt, or his characters, appear to think that anything goes in a world without Him. And, for me, in this way we get to the crux of the novel, which is that Argentina in the 1920’s is a Godless hell, populated by prostitutes, swindlers, down and outs, and weirdos. These people have no spiritual guidance, and therefore no reason to morally toe the line, to passively accept their miserable circumstances.

Published in 1929, it is often said of The Seven Madmen that it was the first Latin American novel to deal with poverty and the working class, with low-lifes and the grim reality of their existence; and that it was also the first to be written in colloquial language, in contrast to the prevailing Borgesian formal style. I don’t know if that is true and, to be honest, I don’t much care, because being the first to do something does not, on its own, make a book a worthwhile or enjoyable reading experience. Arlt himself said that he had no style, that he didn’t have time to develop his own voice, but I think that is false. There is certainly an identifiable style here, for better or worse.

“Erdosain himself was trying to puzzle out why there was such a huge void inside him, a void that engulfed his consciousness, leaving him incapable of finding the words to howl out the eternal suffering he felt.”

I must admit that parts of the novel really tested my patience, especially those given over to Erdosain’s anguish. These passages or chapters are not necessarily badly written, although they are incredibly overwrought, and there are one or two memorable lines [for example,”each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next”]. The problem is that they are all more or the less the same, so that once you’ve read one you need not, or will perhaps not want to, read the others, and yet they keep coming! One might also object to the sloppiness, whereby the novel begins in the third person, with no hint that the authorial voice is anything other than impersonal, only to switch to being narrated by an acquaintance of Erdosain’s, someone who has heard his confession. This narrator, after quite some pages have passed, also starts to insert pointless footnotes. In these ways, one might be tempted to call The Seven Madmen an anti-novel, which is certainly an attractive phrase, but unfortunately there is, in reality, no such thing. In any case, although the book is messy, repetitive, and emotionally and psychologically overcooked, there is still something pleasingly grimy and unhinged about it.

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