The Seven Madmen The Flamethrowers, by Roberto Arlt
The one book written in the 20th Century that outdoes Celine's Journey to the End of the Night in suspiring the miasma of World War One and its projections into the future, The two part masterpiece of Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen, The Flamethrowers has remained largely hidden by the inept or corrupted efforts of publishers to make a buck off a translated work in the United States. As Arlt published The Seven Madmen, clearly incomplete, in 1929, and then the rest of the novel, The Flamethrowers in 1931, publishers made do with just the first half until finally a layman named Larry Riley translated The Flamethrowers just so he could read the book.
Readers of Arlt today will recognize all disasters now inevitable in their blightscape, doomed as any Arltonian characters.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SEVEN MADMEN
By Roberto Segrov, autor of the novel The Anatomy of the Abyss
Inventor or Poet
And you will understand that it is not a pleasant thing to walk around
showing people that one vowel and three consonants
can make up a last name.
In El Arco y la lira, Octavio Paz writes about the poetic revelation. There he states the following: the poet tears off the flower and the star disappears. Roberto Arlt reconnects the flower with the earth and the star lights up again. In this sense, Arlt's work is essentially poetic because poetry revolves around what cannot be known, which is precisely the symptom of his characters, their search, and the search of the story itself. Every poet wanders, like an anguished planet in a cosmos thick with mystery. His search is doomed to the wandering as he surrounds meaning, impregnating it with words to try to graze that which obsesses him. Suddenly, the poet finds a vein or fissure through which he can filter his gaze, and he can no longer abandon the journey that will justify each of his actions. The journey will not be easy, it may be over a thin layer of ice covering an enormous ocean of unreason or it may be along an impossible path through a forest of intuition-infected needles. In any case, the poet would prefer to die rather than give up the trip.
Charles Baudelaire, the poet-poet, describes that quest in his poem "The Journey":
Thus the wanderer, kicking the mud,
dreams, nose to the sky, of enchanting paradises;
his haunted eyes discover a Capua
There where a candle only lights up a shack.
Bitter wisdom the journey provides us with!
This monotonous, small, helpless world,
today, yesterday, and tomorrow shows us our image:
an oasis of horror in a desert of tedium.
But the journey can be on the inside, crossing the wide and deep night of interiority. This is the case of Arlt's prose and characters who navigate that prose: they are all hopelessly and placidly lost forever in their interior landscape. But the skin of that loss comes into contact with the world out there, and the result is delirium. Or what society considers delusional. And delirium is a celebration, as Juarroz assures in one of his poems about the poem; it is a gesture, broader than history. And to rewind Juarroz’s verses, Arlt's work, intimately and on its outer edge, reflects hell. But hell is a dramatic way of saying that the poetry imbricated in the prose and peripeteia of his Erdosain, for those who get on the burning train of The Seven Madmen, represents a journey with no possible return.
For the writer, for Arlt, writing is also a descent with no possibility of escape. In his Aguafuertes porteñas, he writes:
Like the player who, when he has lost his money, finds more and plays it again to see if he can recover what he has lost, the one who has committed a perverse act without finding the core of it, will later commit another, to see if in the execution of such he can find the solution. And he sinks deeper...
Through this sinking Arlt teaches us to play and gamble, he teaches us how the act of writing, which is another form of reading, is perverse and inescapable, and is a variation of condemnation. Whoever dedicates, against all sense, to writing, gives himself fully to worlds that arise from within him and that invade the reality of this world with such violence that they subjugate him. The writer puts all his hopes in what he writes and when the game ends, he knows, without a doubt, that he has lost, that what he wanted to crystallize in fiction is far from being that world he has touched for an instant. And yet, the damage is already done; the perverse act, the sin, has been completed, the writer, the gambler has lost everything and must search through a pathetic life for materials in order to return to the table, to see if in that gesture he finds a way to return to those worlds that obsess him, to see if a safe-conduct is extended to him to open a crack to their presence. And with that, he sinks deeper. Writing seen like this is a crime. A crime against good manners and against the limits of society, which is another outrageous fiction; a crime that calls into question the substance of vital fiction. Arlt, thus, problematizes the relationship with God. God who was the standard, the sole reason and the engine of colonization in Latin America. God and sin, or God and the Devil, or The Lamb and the Tiger (Did he who made the Lamb make thee?), that is, piety and sin, modeling dynamics of American societies, embedded in our DNA, they are questioned in the euphoric search of the Astrologer and his desire for a new world order.
At the heart of The Seven Madmen is, then, the triad: God-money-sin or crime. The big problem for the characters, from the beginning of the story, is money. But money is God and the only way to access money is through crime. That is to say that the only way to contemplate the face of God is through sin. Erdosain, in a stellar moment of the story, before a suicidal man, affirms: "Men will go on strike until God makes himself present."
The saying goes: there is nothing worse for a family than having a writer among its ranks. Two things stand out here: the writer's relationship with society and the word "ranks." The writer, by nature, is a dissident, an outlaw, a persona non grata because she puts her finger on the vast and suppurating sore of society. Her nature is to be against everything. For this reason, the fact that the aforementioned saying points to this situation from within the family makes this particularly dramatic: the very coordinates of oppression of the social system cause that individual to rise from its fabrics, relativizing it in the only possible way: confronting a fiction with a fiction, using the word to unsay what was said and say it in another way. The writer's problem, then, is the word and how it can alternately name reality. By setting this mechanism into motion there comes about an undermining of the solidity of peoples’ objective reality.
Of course, it is the poetic word, the kinship between irreconcilable elements that allows the advance of the disintegration of the notions articulated by reason about the social institution. In order to articulate this poetic word, Arlt chooses low-income characters: prostitutes, gamblers, murderers, thieves, tricksters, losers. Beings who await a stroke of luck that could change their destiny and make them visible to someone or something else. They hope for that because there is no other way, or rather, the other way for that life, the one that would allow to see the reverse of the game of conventions issued by reality, is crime. Therefore Arlt, inventor and poet, suggests that writing as a questioning of the established order is a crime. But, as we saw before, this crime can bring the writer closer to divinity, to the possibility of being blinded by the essential creative presence, either because he confronts the liminal creative or because he discovers that it is nothing or just nothing.
Here are some examples of Arlt's poetry in The Seven Madmen:
‘Undoubtedly, in life, faces mean little.’
‘You walk the streets with the yellow sun, which looks like a plague sun.
The rest faded into darkness. Yes, he was a square inch of a man, a square inch of existence prolonging with its sensitive surface the incoherent life of a ghost. The rest had died in him, he had been confused with the placenta of darkness that shielded his atrocious reality.’
‘An invisible sun illuminated the walls forever with the orange color of a storm.’
‘And the only thing that was noticeable was the closing and half-opening of his heart that, like a huge eye, opened its sleepy eyelid to recognize darkness.’
‘Under the eyebrows, elongated towards the temples, his green eyes tempered the hard glaze in a questioning temperature.’
‘I myself am decentered, I am not who I am, and yet I need to do something to be aware of my existence, to affirm it.’
‘A world resplendent in its twilight pulp.’
I wanted, in Anatomy of the Abyss, to pay tribute to Arlt, Erdosain, the Astrologer, the Gold Digger, the Man who saw the midwife, La Coja (because all these beings are as real to me as Arlt himself) through oral language, a paramount aspect of Arlt's work, and through the introduction of characters lost in searches that only bring about destruction. Jorge Tapia, Aura Lawson, Hannah (Hans) Palmer, Andrea Tregaskin, Romeiro Mallki, and Segrov himself are individuals lost forever on searches that can only bring them closer to the abyss, like Arlt's characters, because they are prisoners of the hematophagous machine of States, that is, socioeconomic power. The only possible escape, then, is madness. Here you can see the other element which needed a comment, the word “ranks”. It is understood that society is structurally belligerent, it is a variety of military life, it is the military drowning all of life. This means that social conventions are only accepted by imposition, not conviction. From the game of oppression-emancipation or emancipatory force, the poet, the writer, the creator emerges. He still hasn't finished cleaning the amniotic fluid from his skin and reality already wants to enslave him, rape him, completely empty him, and fill him with another fetid, disgusting, unethical essence.
Arlt, as a good inventor, as a poet, imagines a literary artifact capable of dealing with this unfortunate scenario and ends up flooding that devastated land with storm light. He writes poetry, as Dezsö Kosztolányi affirms, because for him words are more important than life and, like Strindberg, he writes not to be called a poet but to fight; but, above all, to conjure up hope.