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The Mad Toyby Roberto Arlt
Sometimes at night I would think of the beauty with which poets made the world shake, and my heart would flood with pain, like a mouth filling with a scream.
Admired by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, Julio Cortázar, and Roberto Bolaño, Argentine novelist, playwright, and journalist Roberto Arlt was a pre-Boom writer who inspired many a South American author (including fellow countryman César Aira). Throughout his stunning collection of essays, Between Parentheses, Bolaño mentions Arlt on a number of occasions:
The second line of descent is more complex. It begins with Roberto Arlt, though it's likely that Arlt is totally innocent of this mess. Let's say, to put it modestly, that Arlt is Jesus Christ, Argentina is Israel, of course, and Buenos Aires is Jerusalem. Arlt is born and lives a rather short life, dying at forty-two, if I'm not mistaken. He's a contemporary of Borges. Borges is born in 1899 and Arlt in 1900. But unlike Borges, Arlt grows up poor, and as an adolescent he goes to work instead of to Geneva. Arlt's most frequently held job was as a reporter, and it's in the light of the newspaper trade that one views many of his virtues, as well as his defects. Arlt is quick, bold, malleable, a born survivor, but he's also an autodidact, though not an autodidact in the sense that Borges was: Arlt's apprenticeship proceeds in disorder and chaos, through the reading of terrible translations, in the gutter rather than the library.
The Mad Toy, Arlt's first novel (published in 1926), is but one of five he wrote during his brief life. Inspired, in part, by his own childhood, Arlt's story is set in 1920s Buenos Aires and tells the tale of a precocious and resourceful teenager as he struggles to escape his urban poverty and limited opportunities. Silvio Drodman Astier, despite his youth, is crafty yet prone to crime, curious yet malcontent. With a cunningness matched perhaps only by his ingenuity, Silvio, an avid reader with a fondness for both Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky (as well as science and mathematics), dreams of a life for himself that may, perhaps, be forever just beyond his reach.
Split into four chapters (with each corresponding roughly to another of Silvio's teenage years), The Mad Toy follows the young narrator from his days as a street thief, to his work as an errand boy in a bookshop, to a brief stay in a military academy, and finally selling paper products on the streets of Buenos Aires — before a nefarious plot will come to mark the rest of his life. Silvio's idealism, tempered by frustrations and abjection, forever leads him on an exploratory quest to not only better himself, but also carve out a meaningful life. Resilient and conscientious (in his own unique way), Silvio's independence is met by myriad disappointments — until he decides what he must inevitably do.
The Mad Toy is quite the novel, and it's of little wonder that Roberto Arlt was held in such high esteem by a veritable who's who of Latin American letters. Arlt's prose is remarkable, vacillating between the urban slang of his young protagonist and his more museful introspections. Silvio's street reality is portrayed adroitly, as is Arlt's snapshot of the Argentine capital. The Mad Toy is a fine work of fiction — one that situates Arlt prominently amongst the other masters of Argentina's rich literary heritage.
The trials of being human! How many sad words did we still keep hidden in our guts!
Recommended by Jeremy, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
The first novel by one of the greatest writers of Latin American literature is a semiautobiographical story reflecting the energy and chaos of early 20th-century Buenos Aires
Feeling the alienation of youth, Silvio Astier's gang tours neighborhoods, inflicting waves of petty crime, stealing from homes and shops until the police are forced to intervene. Drifting then from one career and subsequent crime to another, Silvio's main difficulty is his own intelligence, with which he grapples. Writing in the language of the streets and basing his writings in part on his own experience, with his characters wandering in a modern world, Arlt creates a book that combines realism, humor, and anger with detective story. Although astronomically famous in South America, Roberto Arlt's name is still relatively unknown in Anglophone circles, but the rising wave of appreciation of South American literature is bringing him to the fore.
About the Author
Roberto Arlt (1900-1942) is widely considered to be one of the founders of the modern Argentine novel and has been massively influential on Latin American literature, including the 1960s Boom generation of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Colm Tóibín is an award-winning writer and journalist whose books include Brooklyn, The Master, and The Testament of Mary.
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