El juguete rabioso, 1926
Los siete locos, 1929 (The Seven Madmen, 1984)
Los lanzallamas, 1931
El amor brujo, 1932
El jorobadito, 1933
El criador de gorilas, 1941
Trescientos millones, pr. 1932
El fabricante de fantasmas, pr. 1936
Saverio el cruel, pr. 1936
Aguafuertes porteñas, 1933
Nuevas aguafuertes porteñas, 1953
Entre crotos y sabihondos, 1969
Obras, 1997 (2 volumes)
Roberto Arlt was the antithesis of the genteel dilettantes who dominated Argentine literature in his day. He was forced to abandon his formal education when he was in the third grade, after which he became by turns a dock worker, salesman, laborer, factory worker, and newspaperman. The poverty of tenement life in Buenos Aires was what Arlt knew best. His background made him resolutely unsympathetic to that subject matter favored by upper-class writers–the pleasures of the rich, the glories of the past, and the myths of the vanishing pastoral life–though he knew something of this kind of literature from having served as a secretary in 1925-1927 to one of those writers, the justly acclaimed Ricardo Güiraldes.
Despite having had to leave school, Arlt lost neither the desire to learn nor his passionate interest in science, which his German immigrant parents had encouraged in him. He continued his education through reading, and years later he secured a patent for rubberized hosiery. Arlt fictionalizes the thwarting of his scientific obsessions in several novels. The recasting of youthful interests is also evident in his transformation of the techniques and stock subjects of his favorite childhood authors. In his novels and plays he relies heavily on peril, criminality, and fantasy to create mock-heroic adventures that provide a stark contrast to the pinched lives of the poor.
Models for his characters came from many sources. In addition to reflecting his painful childhood experiences, his writing shows the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings on Christianity and authority and of such literary classics as the works of Fyodor Dostoevski and Maxim Gorky. Beyond that, Arlt also drew on his wide acquaintance among the theosophists, petty thieves, pimps, and anarchists of the Buenos Aires underworld whom he met in La Puñalada, a popular working-class café. Arlt celebrates many of these figures, mostly immigrants and variously assimilated have-nots, in his immensely popular journalistic sketches that were published in El Mundo. For his readers these characters held a fascination similar to the one they felt for that other product of Buenos Aires low life, the tango.
Silvio Astier, the protagonist of Arlt’s first novel, El juguete rabioso (the rabid toy), leads a familiar picaresque existence. Expelled from his home at an early age, he must fend for himself in a world that does not seem to have a place for him. Given a scholarship to a military school for his scientific ability, he is dismissed because the army has no need for intelligence. A job in a second-hand bookstore leads to humiliation and the realization that by continuing he would end up like the derelicts who hang about the shop. In a calculated act of purification he makes a failed attempt to burn the store down. The only path to manhood left open is delinquency. Here at least he can play the hero of his reading. In the end Silvio betrays a friend as the fee for initiation into a society that only accepts traitors. His acceptance gives Silvio the luxury of a new start in the wild south.
During Arlt’s lifetime his reputation rested almost entirely on his work as a journalist. Like El juguete rabioso, the novel The Seven Madmen and its sequel, Los lanzallamas (the flamethrowers), met with little critical or commercial success. However, thanks to the efforts of his daughter, Mirta, who kept his works in print, critics and readers discovered Arlt in the second half of the twentieth century. The Seven Madmen and Los lanzallamas came to be regarded as fully realized masterpieces and as anticipations of the many technical innovations that followed in Latin American fiction.
Remo Erdosain, the protagonist of both novels, and his lunatic companions inhabit a world resembling the one portrayed by Arlt’s contemporaries the German expressionist artist George Grosz and the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. In a society gone askew only gratuitous, demented acts have the power to point to the truth. These characters no longer have respect for the ideals of family, honorable work, and community, which they consider illusions designed to conceal the legalized criminality of the rich and powerful. To defeat this unacknowledged conspiracy, the Astrologer, Erdosain’s mentor, creates a secret organization of certified and borderline psychotics that plans to use the profits from houses of prostitution to finance a revolution. While they dream of apocalypse, these madmen commit unpardonable acts of violence. Erdosain becomes engaged to a child and then, in an unprovoked and apparently unpremeditated act, kills her. The dying question of the victim is: “What have I done to you?” The answer, Arlt implies, is that in a world of shattered illusions and worthless ideals, where not even love is genuine, no act, not even the most despicable, requires an answer, much less a justification.