(Photo by Greh Fox)
The starting point of Argentine literature can be traced back to the 1800’s when the country began to establish itself and cultural identity was needed. It was during this period that gauchesque literature became popular and “Martin Fierro” (1872) by Jose Hernandez was the most emblematic work to come from it. The epic poem (considered by Borges to be a versed novel) was written in the voice of a poor gaucho who deserts the army in the historical war in Patagonia against the native Indians. The style imitates the Gaucho payadas (ballads) and is a pinnacle of national cultural identity, as it explores some of the local imagery and historical events of the time, and also a general feeling of destituteness, which the immigrant community could identify with.
Another emblematic book that deals with the theme of national identity, political and geographic context and the gaucho lifestyle is “Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie”(1845), written by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento who was president from 1868 – 1874. The book is divided into a description of Argentine geography and history,the life of caudillo Facundo Quiroga and a conclusion of his vision for a Unitarian Argentina. As the title suggests, it deals with the clash of civilization and barbary, each associated with different political ideologies of the time.
Finally, “Don Segundo Sombra”(1926), written by ‘estanciero’ Ricardo Güiraldes, explores the gaucho legend through the eyes of a young farm worker who grows up next to a gaucho he idealizes.
Some years later, Jorge Luis Borges, who was part of the Grupo Martín Fierro that experimented with the vanguard’s uses of language, took up a lot of the imagery and topics from gauchesque literature and included them in famous stories such as “El Sur”, and “El Fin”, both present in one of his most famous books, “Ficciones” (1944). Another of the most renowned literary works by this celebrated author is “El Aleph” (1949), a compilation of stories belonging to the fantasy genre that deal with themes such as time, identity, dreams, myths and the infinite. Borges’s friend, Adolfo Bioy Casares, also explored the fantasy genre receiving great recognition for his sci-fi novel “La Invención de Morel” (1940) about a man who escapes to an Island and then realizes he is submerged in a virtual world invented by Morel. The novel is said to have inspired Alain Resnais’s “Last Year in Marienbad” and the popular TV series “Lost”.
The Boedo Group is generally described as opposing the Grupo Martín Fierro. Although they were also followers of the European vanguards, the Boedo group had a much grittier style, and was less aristocratic. Its most prominent author was Roberto Arlt who really captured the Buenos Aires city energy using a lot of the local jargon in his novels, the most renowned being “El Juguete Rabioso” (1926), about a high school drop out who searches for opportunities to be somebody, and his masterpiece “Los Siete Locos” (1929) which explores existentialist philosophy, anguish and desolation.
The famous “El Túnel” (1948) by Ernesto Sabato, also brings up existentialist themes, and is about an obsessed painter that deals with alienation and incommunication. Sabato’s later novel, “Sobre Heroes y Tumbas” (1961), is his most acclaimed work and is accepted by some as the best Argentine novel of the twentieth century. It explores Argentine identity and politics and makes a unique description of Buenos Aires’s urban landscape.
Contemporary to Sábato is another Argentine literary giant, the well known Julio Cortazar, often associated with Surrealism, and known for his ambiguous stories where time and space blur. His most famous work, “Rayuela” (1963), can be read in different orders; in the customary front to back manner, in a suggested order by the author, or as the reader pleases. The narrative line in this sense is not fixed and implies openness to alternative realities.
Although literature was generally considered to belong to the man’s world there was also a strong feminine influence in modern Argentine literature, especially in the realm of poetry. Some of the most famous names include Alfonsina Storni, Silvina Ocampo and her sister, Victoria Ocampo, who was the founder of Sur magazine where many respected local authors published their works. Further back in time, authors Manuela Gorriti, Juana Manso and Eduarda Mansilla (amongst others), also contributed to the local literary scene.