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Saturday, November 17, 2007

THE ARGENTINE GOTHIC

“I have not seen anything pulled down so quick since I was in the Pampas and had a mare that I was fond of go to grass all in a night. One of those big bats that they call vampires had got at her in the night, and, what with his gorge and the vein left open, there wasn’t enough blood in her to let her stand up, and I had to put a bullet through her as she lay” says Quincey Morris, the well traveled American character in Dracula. At the end of the 19th century, when American and British visitors were frequent in Argentina’s flat Pampas, Bram Stoker, the talented and intuitive author of Dracula, couldn’t have found a better reference to vampirism than to evoke a land where blood and horror were and remained a major cultural motif, with fellow countrymen killing each other in cruel and permanent civil wars based on the terror inspired by the different. The founding scene of Argentine culture revolves around blood shed, murder and horror, and the permanent opposition of the always conflicting terms of civilization and barbarity has created in its literature a variety of Gothic: the Argentine Gothic.

After the Independence from Spain in 1816, the Argentine thought started its long cultural journey towards its literary shape. During the 19th century, poems and essays first and novels and short stories later, slowly built the Argentine literary house bringing to the world a whole new set of images and feelings, perceptions and ideas. In the 20th century, Argentina’s literature would be recognized as one of the most relevant in Spanish language. The Gothic movement, in its 18th, 19th and 20th century different versions, had in Argentina its own original expression. The influence of the Enlightenment was present in the first writers post Independence, who were nurtured with its values; Romanticism’s wave took its own local color in the Río de la Plata; and Surrealism made later its own way in the minds of writers who were ready, because of their distance from the great capitals of the world, to recreate the universe according to new laws. Since the beginning, the tension between the local barbarity and the aspiration to civilization created the intense emotional basement for an Argentine Gothic, in which the ghosts always come from the repressed, in an eternally split culture. As María Negroni notes: “Between ideology and crime, the Gothic prefers an epic of the intense which tends to rehabilitate the madness as the negative path, while it claims the unlikely as an antidote against all transcendence.”(Negroni, 21. Tr. DF).

The founding book of Argentine literature, Facundo by Sarmiento, has as a subtitle which tells all: Civilization or Barbarity. This essay, published in 1845, can be also read as a romantic novel on the life of Facundo Quiroga, a popular caudillo or strongman from La Rioja, a province in the Andean region. Sarmiento’s portrays Facundo and the life in the country as the perfect example of barbarity, the contrary of the civilization he promoted first as a writer, and later as a president. The barbaric countryside as opposed to the civilized city crosses the text, and Sarmiento takes pleasure in the accumulation of horror scenes, in which the permanent slaughtering constitutes the ongoing motif, whether it is about the deeds of Facundo, of Rosas, the powerful ruler in Buenos Aires, of his faithful guards, the mazorqueros, or Santo Pérez, another gaucho malo, bad gaucho, according to Sarmiento’s definition, who finally murdered Facundo. In the void of the Pampas, the Gothic castle is, at that mid nineteen century, still absent, and what Sarmiento perceives as barbarians is nothing else than the uninstructed local people, blend of Indians and Spaniards while the ghosts represent the absent civilized Europeans, who have deserted the colonial scene to maybe never come back. Sarmiento, a fervent admirer of the United States, will be later one of the promoters of the European “white” immigration in an effort to mate the barbaric half caste breed. Facundo is the first text to describe the horror for that barbaric half caste which actually is Argentine reality and to express the madness behind that horror: the permanent and unfulfilled longing for an impossible white and “clean” civilization. His colorful romantic style and his passionate attitude make of Sarmiento the double of Facundo: as savage as his character, when Governor of San Juan he will not hesitate to have another caudillo, his enemy, the Chacho Peñaloza, murdered and to have his head stuck on a spear, exhibited in the main square as an example of what enemies had to expect from him. Real life doubled the Gothic narrative, creating one particular effect of the uncanny in Argentine literature and history: how the barbaric repressed returns acted by the representatives of civilization. Facundo starts a lineage in which this particular trait of the Argentine cultural character becomes a preferred object of reflection.

Available contrasts to explore in the Argentine Gothic narratives can be between Indians and the colonial Spaniards; between Indians and criollos (that mix of Indians and Spaniards which gave the gauchos but also the first local elites); between Catholicism and the Masonic or Atheist Enlightenment; between British diplomats and cattle barons; between gauchos and the first porteña (of the port of Buenos Aires) aristocracy; between the porteña oligarchy and the peronists; between the military and the guerrilla. The list of opponents creating mutual fear could be continued till the present. Horror can alternate from the horror for the barbarians -Indians, gauchos, even Catholic Spaniards when seen from an enlightened point of view, peronists or military- to the reverse horror for a civilization perceived as strange, British and not Hispanic or Atheist and not Catholic, Communist or Liberal.


The particular brand of Argentine Gothic has changing ghosts depending on which is the ideology and the social belonging of the writer. Argentine history is a Gothic novel on its own right because of the degree of violent horror, from the massacres of the rebellious gauchos in the 19th century to the political massacres of the 70’s, just thirty years ago, and this horror is present in one way or another in its literature. If Facundo is the Rosetta stone which explains the basic and delivers the clues to understand the local Gothic, there are some outstanding texts which illustrate the horror, referring to different episodes of terror, evoking different ghosts, marking levels of transgression generally related to legitimating murder, and creating that particular passionate excess which characterizes Argentine history, always swinging from one extreme to the other.

Before Facundo, Esteban Echeverría delivered in 1838 his story The Slaughter House where the killing of cattle serves as a metaphor for the killing of opponents to the regime of Rosas. The detailed killing and splicing of a bull is followed by the equally detailed torture and murder of an unitario, the political opponent to the federales, or partisans of Rosas, who nevertheless called the unitarios “savages,” in one of those ironies present since the Argentine beginnings, when the definition of what was right depended on who held the weapon. The populace is represented as a grotesque group of meat addicts and fans of the murderers, while the red of the blood matches the red of Rosas’ federales ’ clothes, in a first image which, as a classic, will nurture the Argentine Gothic till the present. As Katy Wagner says:

What the image of blood loses in unlikelihood, it regains in 'significance of context'. The image of blood appears strikingly at critical points in the story, such as the dramatic death of the Unitarian, dying for his beliefs and instead of submission. Echeverria writes that 'a torrent of blood spurted, bubbling from the young man's mouth and nose, and flowed freely down the table' (Echeverria, 75-6). The development of the Unitarian's anger and spontaneous death marks itself in blood as well, as the 'veins on his neck and forehead jutted out black from his pale skin as if congested with blood' (Echeverria, 75). Here again, the image of blood strengthens the literary motif of the slaughter as it influences most visually many of the critical moments of the text.(Wagner)

One of the great novels of Rosas times, Amalia, by José Marmol, has for the first time an urban aristocratic setting and recreates the oppressive atmosphere in which the opponents to Rosas lived and the dangers and sufferings of their struggle to overthrow him. But Marmol’s affiliation as a Unitarian blinds him to see that Rosas was still a loved and popular dictator, and the Romantic story unfolds once again the tragedy of those who didn’t belong to the vast “barbaric” community. A house with secret rooms, shadows, political persecutions and double faced spies sets the original model for infinite Argentine novels dealing with the same problem of internal exile and alienation in a hostile, frankly aggressive, or directly criminal environment.

After the battle of Caseros in 1852, the reign of Rosas is over. A different breed of estancieros, ranchers, who like to call themselves civilized, is ready to make good businesses with Great Britain and to govern the country under the new laws of progress. It’s the time when estancias, ranchs, are converted in French palaces and Tudor castles which will be the new setting where the old ghosts, now under the form of the losing gauchos and the Indians massacred during the long military march to civilize the Patagonia, will provide new Gothic stories with the same actors changed. Martin Fierro by José Hernandez is the emblematic long poem quoted as the Argentine masterpiece, which relates the gaucho decline’s in what was the wild pampa in the beginnings of Argentine history. The pampa is now converted in the territory of the cattle barons suppliers of meat for the British Empire and in the realm of the military who draft the gauchos against their will to serve in the battle against Indians. Blood has in Martin Fierro the tint of a melancholy loss since all the barbaric seems doomed to be repressed, taking away at the same time genuine parts of Argentine culture. Freedom as it was known by the gaucho and before him, by the Indian, is lost and the horror lies now in the civilization to come. The powerful British Empire and its culture, so different from the Spanish, in the language and religion, become the new threat. From the point of view of the gaucho, the horror speaks English and is not a true Christian. Martin Fierro expresses the supreme transgression: the barbaric speaks by itself, in his own Argentine folk language, and explains its fear, not of a barbaric tyranny as in Echeverría’s Slaughter House, but of civilized tyranny.

These two opposite points of view, one with the urban civilized as a hero, representative of the “true” Argentine culture, and the other one with the barbaric gaucho as the admired paradigm of the Argentine character, will remain active during all the 20th century and can still be seen in the first years of the 21st century. They both describe different fears which will however develop in the same violent direction. The terror one will feel for the other, the need of suppressing who is seen as the enemy and the unwanted part of the nation, and the horror for a bloody past which will inevitably come back to both of them (because the Argentine history is one in which both Cain and Abel are murderers), appear once and again in the texts of the most famous Argentine writers.

At the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century a powerful elite will set the basis of modern Argentina. Well read and fond of good literature, Argentine authors, more oriented to the short story than to the novel, will be very sensitive to the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. There is more in that attraction than the admiration for a good writer: certainly the Gothic traits of their American colleague matched some of the Argentine. The European nostalgia as well as the American barbarism and grotesque, even if giving birth to different images and stories, belonged to both countries. The British influence in the Argentine elites opened them also to that new American Gothic in search of its own roots.

Among the great authors from that period, like Manuel Mujica Lainez, and Jorge Luis Borges who left masterpieces of Gothic literature, we have a myriad of secondary authors, some of them very famous, as Ernesto Sábato, who returned in their novels and short stories to the obsessive theme of the split Argentine personality, half barbaric, half civilized, and with the permanent tension of a repressed violence. From the literary excellence of the charming collection of short stories, Misteriosa Buenos Aires, mysterious Buenos Aires, by Mujica Láinez, with stories like El Hambre, the hunger, in which the Gothic is set in the 16th century at the time of Buenos Aires’ foundation and the barbaric, in the anthropophagic behavior of the Conquistadores, to the monumental work of Jorge Luis Borges, examples abound. In the well known story by Borges The Gospel According to Mark, we have all the elements of the Argentine Gothic in place: the estancia, or ranch, as the local setting; an urban pro British free thinker father who instructs his son with lessons of Spencer; an urban son, Baltasar Espinosa, a medical student, who visits his cousin in his estancia and who will finally become the victim of the Gutres, the local half caste foreman, his son and his daughter. Espinosa will end crucified by the Gutres, in a Gothic renewed symbol of the civilized insulted, tortured and executed by the barbarians, comparing Espinosa to Jesus and the Gutres to Romans, in an audacious twist linking the civilized to Jesus. This type of point of view, where the barbarians are not considered children of God but evil will be repeated in many works, and echoed in as many other works, where the Christ changes sides and becomes the protector of barbarians and the accuser of the civilized. In On Heroes and Tombs, Ernesto Sábato will address this opposition in the mid 20th century, with the ascension of Peronism to power, seen by half the Argentines as the return of the barbarians and by the other half, as the occasion for a more democratic civilization including everyone. As Paul Gray remarks in Sábato’s novel:

Argentine life provides surface chaos. An attempt to overthrow Perón brings bombs raining down on a city plaza; Peronists retaliate by sacking and burning Roman Catholic churches. Beneath all this noise, the novel circles slowly around an internal mystery, announced at the outset: a woman named Alejandra murders a man named Fernando and then sets the scene of the crime on fire, immolating herself. The event draws attention because it involves members of a prominent, though sadly faded, old family. Particularly horrified is a dreamy, morose young man named Martín, who has had a tortured affair with Alejandra. Roughly the first half of the novel tells their story…..With its hints of incest and its portrait of a doomed family hagridden by history, Alejandra's tale is South American gothic at its most feverish. (Gray).

Peronism redefines Argentine life and the urban gothic recreates the old dilemmas: the barbarians are now part of the urban landscape, invading the literary scene. Julio Cortázar, the author of many collections of short stories, among them Bestiario, bestiary, is without any doubt the master of the urban Gothic in stories like Casa Tomada or Las Puertas del Cielo in which the peronist threat creates the new horror, undefined and unexpressed. The new barbarians are the dark workmen, those cabecitas negras, little black heads, who will be the support of Perón and Evita. Horror will have a new twist after Perón is overthrown in 1955, and the corpse of Evita, hidden, mutilated, and traveling later to be hidden again in Italy, will create a new literary motif to express the savage side of the supposedly civilized military. A great Argentine writer, Rodolfo Walsh, will write about the tragic hatred concentrated on Evita in his story, Esa Mujer, that woman, part of the collection Los Oficios Terrestres. Walsh was murdered later by the military, in his condition of a guerilla militant, during what was called the dirty war of the 70’s but which was only a chapter of a history made out of horror and blood, and of ritual sacrifice of despised parts of the nation.

During the 60’s, the films of Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, based on his wife Beatriz Guido’s novels, explored the decadence of the old aristocratic families after the Peronist government opposed them. Films like La Caída, the fall, account for sexual dilemmas in old and quaint urban houses, with innocent heroines and sophisticated pervert stories of a pure Gothic breed. In those same years, a television actor and director, Narciso Ibañez Menta, made a great success on T.V. with his adaptations of stories like The Phantom of the Opera and many Poe’s stories, from The Tell-Tale Heart to The Cask of Amontillado. The city of Buenos Aires would stop and stay quiet as a small provincial town during the emission, showing to which extent the Gothic taste was embedded at that time in the Argentine psyche.

The Gothic trend is well and alive. While older authors like Cristina Bajo explore the more classical shapes of Gothic novels with great success, young authors like Pablo de Santis with his El Calígrafo de Voltaire, in which he returns to the 18th century to explore uncanny questions about writers “switching the Gothic from the Argentine space to the Enlightenment time”(Borrás), have made best sellers and earned important literary awards. Some other new writers join efforts to create horror and fantasy stories, like the authors in the group La Abadía de Carfax, the Carfax Abbey, lead by Marcelo Di Marco, a writer and teacher of writers, who is not scared of returning to Dracula as an inspiration for a new Argentine literature.(Sacerdote).

The Argentine Gothic has a literary story of its own, which joins other American Gothic literatures; the United States American, of course, with Master Poe at the top, and the less known Brazilian, Cuban and Caribbean Gothic, just to mention a few of them. The Argentine Gothic is not a favorite discussion theme among the critics maybe because, as Cristina Bajo says in that typical ingeniousness before a collective reflexion: “We, Argentines, have a Gothic but we cannot see it because we are criollos and not Europeans.”(Zeiger). As long as the old opposition of civilization of barbarity remains in place, the Gothic will be the genre and, above all, the style.

Works Cited
Borges, Jorge Luis. The Gospel According To Mark. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales pp.478-
482. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Borrás, Jordi. "Entrevista a Pablo de Santis." El Broli Argentino. 30 Oct 2007
Cortázar, Julio. Bestiario. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1965.
Echeverría, Esteban. El Matadero. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sopena Argentina, 1962
Gray, Paul. "South American Gothic." Time 17 Aug 1984 .
Hernández, José. Martín Fierro. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Alemar, 1974.
Mármol, José. Amalia. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1966.
Mujica Láinez, Manuel. Obras Completas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1980.
Negroni, María. Museo Negro. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editorial Norma, 1999.
Sabato, Ernesto. Sobre Heroes y Tumbas. 4th. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1965.
Sacerdote, Karina. "La Abadía de Carfax: un nuevo movimiento literario." Revista Axolotl
Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1967.
Wagner, Katy. “The image of slaughter: a literary motif in Echeverria's The Slaughter House”
http//www.haverford.edu/span/spanish/Docs/
wagner240.html
Walsh, Rodolfo. Los Oficios Terrestres. Buenos Aires: Jorge Alvarez Editor, 1965.
Zeiger, Claudio. "El Gótico Escondido." Página 12. 16 May 2004. 30 Oct 2007

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