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Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispnicos

The Aguafuerte of Roberto Arlt: Reprises of an Idiosyncratic Genre Author(s): NAOMI LINDSTROM Source: Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispnicos, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Otoo 1987), pp. 134-140 Published by: Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispnicos Stable URL: . Accessed: 24/09/2011 04:57
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The Aguafuerte of Roberto Arlt: Reprises of an Idiosyncratic Genre

This paper examines efforts to revive and continue the aguafuerte, the journalistic note developed by Roberto Arlt in El Mundo (Buenos Aires) during the 1920s and 1930s. In examining Arlt's influence one must remember that Arlt can only serve in a limited way as a model for later writers. Arlt's idiosyncratic innovations are only indirectly helpful to a new writer seeking a purchase on the techniques of writing.

According to the idea set forth by Richard Ohmann in his "Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style," an author's style is recog nizable because of the frequency of favored grammatical constructions. The identifiability of such influences as Hemingway or the late "con voluted" James confirms that literary heirs imitate the typical syntax of their predecessors in search of the features that make literary utter ances impressive and memorable.1 However, a new writer hoping for such

guidance from Arlt would likely face disappointment. An examination of Arlt's collected aguafuertes shows the difficulty of characterizing the typical Arltian sentence. Sentences vary in length and include those of simple, compound and complex types. Relative clauses are attached un predictably (and often confusingly) to the right or left,or self-embedded. To this panorama of variety Arlt adds extensive borrowings from spe cialized technical jargons or other marked registers of speech. Arlt drew upon the languages of advertising, manufacturing, sports, business and, in an enthusiastic series of aguafuertes, "physical culture." At the same time, he reflected in his language literary readings ranging from the clas sics ofWestern literature to the garish "pulp" novels of the Rocambole series.2 Despite his image as an impetuous, irreflexive writer, Arlt was

well aware

that his specialty was a highly heterogeneous writing.3 In "El idioma de los argentinos," a scarcely disguised justification for his famous idiolect, Arlt metaphorically expressed the ideal of linguistic in novation as "sacar golpes de todos los ?ngulos" and learning one's moves (as in free-style boxing) from any worthwhile model.4 It would be possible to add other elements to the list of Arlt's stylis tic diversities. Suffice it to say that Arlt's syntax, both narrative and sentence-level, may have won him a great deal of his fame and notori ety, but this fact does not mean it shows typically Arltian, and hence


reproducible, regularities. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that the "Arltian" vein in recent writing often fails to show any sophisticated understanding of what made Arlt's writing distinctive. An example of facile Arltianism is the use of the physical settings in which Arlt frequently set his agua

fuertes. Arlt's references to urban folklore, corner bars, the decor of lower-middle-class houses and businesses, public parks and other out door diversions are easy to continue into the present era. Perhaps the easy reproducibility of Arlt's "ambience" writing is the trait that draws would-be heirs to the writing of the aguafuertes, many of which treat scenes to be observed in Buenos Aires. Another trait to an of the aguafuertes that makes them more imitable, or adaptable is of narrative voice in these brief the chron uniformity updated version, icles. Arlt's fictional works lack a reliable central narrator. The agua fuertes, in contrast, have as their most consistent connecting thread a

journalistic persona Arlt developed for this specific purpose. The Arlt of the aguafuertes is a close student of everyday life, little interested in events. He is unusually willing to recognize that to pro monumental duce writing is a form of labor. At the same time, he evokes deep seated laziness that arises in him at the prospect of his work. From these emphatically repeated points follows Arlt's constant openness to stories and topics that will come his way ready-made, sparing him some of the task of production. The strolling observer-narrator of the aguafuertes reappears, half a century later, as the columnist Oberd?n Rocamora (pseudonym-persona has publicly considered his rela of the novelist Jorge As?s). Rocamora tion to the Arlt of the aguafuertes. His first volume of collected journal de Oberd?n Rocamora: ism appeared in 1977 under the title Cuadernos on of label, Rocamora choice his in commenting aguafuertes. However, Arlt's doubt that expresses journalistic experiment can have a sequel. The suggestion is put forward that Arlt's aguafuertes are as much of their time as of their place, and few would be publishable today.5 to retract his claim The next year, these uncertainties led Rocamora to be writing in the aguafuerte genre. The preface to his El Buenos Aires de Oberd?n Rocamora contains this somewhat embarrassed disavowal:
Quien quince lidad, o por por caballo haya le?do aquella edici?n tal vez inicial percibido Puede de que que del ser?a la que rescato, animo, casi de en esta con entrega, tanta faci


-, habr?

ya no me sea producto humildista

a denominarlos adoptar

aguafuertes. tan esa denominaci?n

de una o,

autocr?tica, seguramente, a un subirme

la actitud que no me


considerar que


una manera


notes to the The resemblance of Rocamora's some respects and slight in others. Rocamora subject matter, which may be described as the in the costumbrista treatment he accords it. The sophisticated characters and has a more limited
aguafuertes. For instance, Rocamora shares

aguafuertes is great in is most Arltian in his urban picaresque, and later writer uses more range than the original
interest in arrange


ments that city-dwellers devise for gain. In Rocamora's notes, this con cern is usually embodied in the tale of a "get-rich-quick" scheme. Arlt covers a wider variety of strategies, favoring those whose purpose is to secure leisure. Some of his aguafuertes portray the theme reversed. Ur ban innocents who lack wiles are easily exploited, as in "La muchacha del atado" and "La tragedia del hombre que busca trabajo," on seam

stresses and the unemployed in an uncaring Buenos Aires.7 Arlt here makes a pathetic appeal that today appears sentimental. Perhaps for attends but this reason, and to maintain a sprightlier tone, Rocamora little to the problems of the city's innocents and makes much of viveza

repeats as testimony to the enormous difficulty of securing adequate dwelling space: "Alquileres para seguir en familia." A married couple separates, but the husband's failure to find a new apart ment and the lack of guest rooms in the overcrowded metropolis result in the pair's reunion.8 The appeal of the story, besides its exemplification of a widespread problem, is its elevation from oral tale to quasi-literary narrative. To gain the latter status, the tale requires the embellishing labor of one skilled in written expression. is a practised entertainer as befits the alter Beyond doubt, Rocamora a of author. it is fair to complain ego stylish, best-selling Nonetheless, that his journalistic notes are not textually as complex and innovative as Arlt's aguafuertes. Arlt subtly utilizes the first-person form to call

Rocamora, however, is not Arlt's match in the complexity of his texts. He pursues few of Arlt's eccentric strategies for the organization of an fondness for the aguafuerte. Arltian, to some extent, is Rocamora's found narrative, that is, a story that either comes out of urban folklore ready-made or sounds as if it might have. An example of the found anec dote is one Rocamora

attention to the very conventions of writing that he is using, such as the technique of retardation both lampooned and successfully employed in his "Amor en el Parque Rivadavia."9 Rocamora makes use of some of Arlt's favored strategies, such as the above-described transmutation of an oral folk anecdote into a journalistic narrative whose development is an example of written eloquence. Note, however, that Rocamora makes no point of this transformation, which is really only able to interest readers who happen to think of it.

Arlt used this circumstance to call into question the status of the process involved in moving from overheard or related tale to written out aguafuerte. The result was a text that was self-referential; it did not exclude reference to real-world phenomena, but rather itwas a way of letting readers see the effort involved in producing even the most - a type of work that a slicker writer would seemingly artless of texts a work finished with few clues to its own process of disguise, leaving creation. Arlt

favored such troubling devices as a suggestion that a given aguafuerte was not fully "authored" by himself. He hinted that he was merely the supplier of an item found in the public domain. These self-questioning and often broodingly doubting notes are not part of
Rocamora's repertory.

most Arltian trait. Prior to an examination is worth

To find the complexity lost inmoving from Arlt's notes to Rocamora's a Roberto Arlt," pub one may examine Ricardo Piglia's "Homenaje lished in his 1975 collection Nombre falso.10 This text might loosely be called "ofmixed genre," but, more properly stated, its generic identity is called into doubt. Readers must decide whether the work is a witness bearing essay or an invented narrative. This uncertainty is the text's

of this central question of "Homenaje," it how the touches picaresque remarking lightly Piglia applies work swiftly identifiable as Arlt- influenced. The that make Rocamora's narrator of "Homenaje" describes a poorly-kept bar, three low-life char acters and "un cuarto de techo alto, incre?blemente sucio y desarreglado ... esas pensiones viejas y s?rdidas" (131). However, the [en] una de colorful of people and places receives little emphasis for its rendering
own sake.

Kostia, a legendary friend of Arlt, merits the narrator's close atten tion because the latter needs to confirm the man's identity and assess and behavior match the his reliability. Details of Kostia's appearance the Arlt's contemporaries, settling question of descriptions provided by his identity. At the same time, these items give a portrait of a man, now sunk in decadent eccentricity, but still imagining himself part of in novative literary life. These characteristics prove important to narrator and reader in considering the text's central problem: how to assess the statements made by Kostia and what interpretation to place upon his It is for these pragmatic reasons that the narrator offers such descriptive items as: actions.
Kostia la cara miraba, se detuvo en la jarra para de respirar, cerveza. se cruz? La mujer el pa?uelo de pelo con aire sucio amarillo por la nuca y hundi? lo

y ojos





la pared,



reminiscent of Arlt's many bar, grille, caf? or diner settings. artists and philosophers, Piglia ing Arlt's portraits of manque
Kostia's room:

Recall surveys

Los muebles estaban llenos de libros y papeles, y en la pared hab?a una foto de
Dylan cubierto Thomas, con un pegado sobretodo con chinches. gris de Me solapas recibi? ra?das. tendido (137) en la cama, descalzo,

plot of "Homenaje," with its sudden turns and disclosures, is designed to bring to the fore one of the abstract concepts of writing that determine the character of Arlt's work. This notion is commented on in one of the footnotes to the "Homenaje": The
Arlt identifica siempre la escritura con el crimen, la estafa, la falsificaci?n, el

robo. (136) By the time the story has run through its turns of plot, the following texts have been cast into doubt: Arlt's own notes about a story that he claims to have written; his friend Kostia's various allegations concerning a text that may or may not be that story. The text of the "Homenaje" itself, which consists of the narrator's efforts to explain the entire com

plicated matter, may be an elaborate falsification. In that case, the work belongs not to the essay, though it is structured using the conventions of that genre, but to the short story. In evaluating the question of how well current-day writers continue the aguafuerte, it is important to bear inmind the extreme difficulty of imi tating Arlt's style. The syntactic patterns he uses are not typically of any particular kind; indeed, the lack of favored or characteristic construc tions is one of his distinctions as a deliberately heterogeneous writer. His choices of subject matter, though, are reproducible, along with the notes persona of the narrator as highly observant flaneur. Rocamora's show a skillful revival of these features of the aguafuerte. does not lack the aguafuerte^ "Homenaje" typical settings Piglia's and subject matter, or its customary narrator. In Piglia's case, though, these easily-imitated features are not present for their own sake. The details of urban life, as indeed the "Homenaje" in its entirety, spotlight and pay homage to a fundamental abstract notion behind Arlt's writing.

has undertaken a more ambitious project in re-creating Arlt's questioning stance toward the text, whose reliability and worthiness Arlt was eager to cast into doubt, along with his own right to claim credit as author. By taking up this same practice and encouraging readers to Piglia question and doubt the text, Piglia achieves the self-questioning that

gives rise to the striking complexities University of Texas NOTES
1 Richard Word, "Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Ohmann, Style," 20 (1964), 423-39. See also his "Speech, Action and Style," in Seymour discus Chatman, ed., Literary Style: A Symposium (New York, 1971), 241-54; sion, 255-59. Arlt's drawn extreme much awareness recent of literature attention. and his to it have critical Daniel own writings C. Scroggins to his in relation examines Arlt of edition

of Arlt's


2 Roberto

the literary documentadas Las

13-125. Noe (Buenos Aires, 1981), Jitrik has noted that Arlt belongs both to the raw, demotic tradition in Ar literature and to that of self-consciously see literary fashioned works; gentine

of the aguafuertes commentary en las aguafuertes porte?as," de Roberto Arlt aguafuertes porte?as

in "Las prefatory


de Roberto



rabioso de Roberto 1,2 (1976), juguete Dispositio, 100-33; Arlt)," a la "La primera novela de Roberto Mario Goloboff, Arlt; el asalto 2 (1975), Revista de cr?tica literaria and literatura," latinoamericana, 35-49; Beatriz de la alienaci?n: "Dial?ctica ruptura y l?mites en el discurso Pastor, Gerardo de Roberto and was 3 Recent Roberto

en la historia de la literatura in his Ensayos y "Bipolaridad argentina," de literatura estudios is in Aires, argentina (Buenos 1970), 248. Arlt's writing on commonly seen as a reply to and commentary notions creasingly accepted of literary expression. Jitrik, "Entre el dinero y el ser (lec See, for example, tura de El

de cr?tica literaria 10 (1979) 87-97, Arlt, Revista latinoamericana, alienada Arlt y la rebeli?n Maryland, (Gaithersburg, 1980). criticism on the work of Roberto Arlt tends to stress how aware Arlt

and of his own characteristic of his idiosyncracies of language form of ex to draw attention to the mechanisms of his On Arlt's willingness pression. see Naomi own expressive medium, "La elaboraci?n de un dis Lindstrom, en las Aguafuertes curso contracultural de Arlt," Hispanic porte?as Journal, en Arlt; el texto del ocul and "El discurso 2, 1 (1980, 47-56); 'disparatado' tamiento," gard, are 12 (1984), Escritura, of Arlt's the comments 18-33. contemporary and variability Exceptionally interesting, Eduardo Gonzalez in this re Lanuza.

but persisted standard and acceptable in using his un wilfully Spanish, and unidentifiable See Gonzalez non-standard speech. disturbingly predictable, Arlt (Buenos Roberto Lanuza, Aires, 1971), 29-30. 4 Arlt, "El idioma de los argentinos," in his Aguafuertes Aires, porte?as (Buenos 1958), 155. more 5 Jorge As?s, Cuadernos de Oberdan not numbered. de leer," in his Cuadernos de Oberdan Rocamora: aguafuertes. (Buenos Rocamora Aires, pages Preface, 1977). "Para 6 As?s, leer antes Aires, 1981), 9.

the extreme of Arlt's eccentricity spoken as Noting language, that such a form of expression Lanuza denies well as written, Gonzalez could reflect the real-world Aires speech of any sector of Buenos society; nor possibly could it be simply the result of growing up in an immigrant home. Accord a to master Lanuza's testimony, Arlt has many opportunities ing to Gonzalez


7 Arlt, bajo," 8 Asis, camora, "La muchacha "Alquileres 22?24. para del in his Aguafuertes tra and "La tragedia del hombre que busca 179-82. 50-53, porte?as, de Oberdan Ro in his Cuadernos seguir en familia," atado"

9 Arlt, 29-31. "Amor en el Parque in his Aguafuertes Rivadavia," porte?as, a Roberto 10 Ricardo in his Nombre Arlt," "Homenaje falso Piglia, (Buenos has as its appendix the "Luba." 147-72, Aires, "Homenaje" 1975), 97-146. to Arlt has grown ever more problematic short story whose in the attribution course of the Piglia's essay. Citations from "Homenaje" appear marked with the pagination corresponding to this edition.