After failing out of primary school and educating himself mainly on the streets of Beunos Aires, Roberto Arlt (1900-1942) would grow to distinguish himself as an important Argentine short story writer, novelist, playwright, and journalist. Equally criticized for his rough use of language and praised for his innovative approach to Spanish, Arlt left his mark on Argentina. Despite dreams of becoming a successful inventor, and his entrance into journalism only to support his creative writing career financially, his Aquafuertes portenas newspaper column (later in book form) would become one of the classics of Argentine literature. In the words of the International Dictionary of Theatre, "Arlt incorporates ideas and techniques to create his own unique literary world of bizarre dream sequences and night marish characters, fueled by a strong social conscience."
Arlt was born Roberto Godofredo Christophersen Arlt on April 2, 1900, to a German immigrant, glass-blower and postcard artist, Karl, and an Italian homemaker, Catalina (maiden name, Iobstraibitzer) in the Flores Barrio (the District of Flowers) in Beunos Aires, Argentina. (There is dispute over Arlt's exact birthday between April 2, 7, and 26). German was the language used in the home, and Arlt's parents, who immigrated in their thirties, never gained full usage of Spanish. Arlt had two sisters and both died from tuberculosis. One died at a very young age, and the other, Lila, died in 1936.
The Arlt family was poor, and Karl Arlt traveled to the provinces for months at a time to work, but never succeeded in improving his family's economic situation. Karl Arlt was a tyrant who abused his children. Arlt attended several schools as a child, but was expelled somewhere between the ages of eight and ten and was discarded as useless. He learned mainly on the streets and in the library, where he passed most of his time. In the library, he read Russian authors Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He published his first short story between the ages of 14 and 16 in Revista Popular and left home in 1916.
He attended the Naval School of Mechanics from 1919 to 1920 and served in the Argentine armed forces in Córdoba during the same period. To make ends meet, Arlt was employed as a book store clerk, an apprentice to a tinsmith, a painter, a mechanic, a vulcanizer, a brick factory manager, a newspaper manager, and a port worker. He never did too well at any of these jobs. He spent much of his free time in the taverns, especially the café La Punalada, and shady spots of Buenos Aires, making acquaintances with the seedy patrons who would later populate his writing.
Between 1914 and 1916, the same time he was starting his fiction writing career, Arlt began writing for newspapers: Ultima Hora, Critica (Critical) (in 1927), and Don Goyo (beginning in 1926). He interned with writer and journalist Ricardo Guiraldes from 1925 to 1927 and published with Guiraldes's magazine, Prow. Much later he wrote for El mundo (The World).
Arlt began his journalistic work as a way to make money and to introduce himself into Argentine literary circles. It turned out to be more than that. His daily columns for El mundo, "Aquafuertes portenas" ("Porteno Etchings"), appeared from 1928 to 1942 (compiled first in book form in 1936) and earned him nation-wide fame. In the column, he shared his opinions about society, economics, and politics. His journalism proved to be his most popular offering to society. On the day his column appeared each week, El mundo sold twice as many copies. In 1935, he was sent to Spain by El mundo as a correspondent, where he wrote his Spanish Etchings. It was one of the few times in his life that Arlt left Beunos Aires. Arlt wrote for El mundo until he died. His articles in Don Goyo have also been published in collections.
Arlt presented his first short story, Jehovah in 1916. He wrote part of his first novel as a column, "Las ciencias ocultas en la ciudad de Buenos Aires" ("The Occult Sciences in the City of Buenos Aires"), when he was 19. He published his first novel, El jugete rabioso (The Rabid Toy), in 1926. El Poder de la Palabra online cited El jugete rabioso as "one of the best Argentine novels… . [With a] flood of autobiographical and picaresque characters, [it] expresses anguish and violence with the rough, most alive linguistic support." El jugete rabioso found little acceptance in critical circles, but was given much attention by the youth of Buenos Aires.
In 1929, Arlt published Los siete locos (The Seven Madmen), which was to be his only English language success and his most notable novel. None of his other works have been translated into English. Los siete locos won a municipal award, but the critics read it as a realistic book and criticized it for bad grammar and craftsmanship. The book was meant to be experimental and expressionistic. Los lanzallamas (The Flame Throwers) was the sequel novel to Los siete locos. Both Los siete locos and Los lanzallamas were influenced by Dostoevsky. Both reveal the underside of Buenos Aires life, with its delinquents, prostitutes, and ruffians. They have been credited with portraying the epitome of the alienated man in modern society. Arlt's first three novels are sometimes considered a trilogy. In 1931, Arlt published El amor brujo (Love of the Sorcerer), his last novel.
Arlt's writing style was innovative. He was the first novelist to use language from lower-and middle-class Spanish, including the language of thieves (lunfardo), the language of Beunos Aires (portenos), vulgarities, foreign language, Castilian Spanish, scientific language, and lyricism. He also regularly wrote using the informal form of "you:" "voseo." He broke the literary rules of tradition at every turn and populated his work with the unpleasant and grossly urban. Arlt was quoted in Contemporary Authors speaking to the stuffy, literary traditions of his time, "Today, amid the babble of an inevitably crumbling social edifice, it is impossible to linger over embroidery." He also cited the new and changing ideas of people as being a reason to reject the censures of "linguistic purity." Arlt assumed that language was ever changing, even living.
He published two short story collections, El jorabadito (The Little Hunchback) in 1933 and El criador de gorilas (The Gorilla Breeder) in 1941. El jorabadito was Arlt's favorite of all his books. El criador de gorilas contained 15 of his short stories. The short stories reinforced Arlt's style, continuing the use of confused chronology, fragmentation, chaos, and "warped personalities" in a downward-spiraling society. After Arlt wrote his fourth novel, he discovered theater, a medium he then dedicated his career to.
Prueba de amor (Test of Love) and El fabricante de fantasmas (The Ghost Manfacturer) were Arlt's first dramatic endeavors. His story Trescientor millones (The Three Hundred Million) was populated with more of Arlt's grotesque characters. It incorporated a theme that would run though his plays, the tension between reality and illusion (also present in Saverio el cruel and El fabricante de fantasmas ). Trescientor millones, Saviero el cruel, and El fabricante de fantasmas were the most significant of his plays. In all three, Arlt is said in International Dictionary of Theatre to: "[present] the fantasy world as bewitching in contrast to dull, prosaic reality. Nevertheless, to enter the realm of the imagination is to lose control and ultimately to encounter madness and death." Some of Arlt's other plays and play collections include Escenas de un grotesco, La isla desierta (The Desert Island), Africa, La fiesta del hierro, El desierto entra en la ciudad, La juerga de los polichinelas, and Un hombre sensible. His plays contain an indebtedness to Dostoevsky and continue portrayal of the grotesque and madness and also continue Arlt's social criticism.
Arlt's work influenced later Spanish writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. His work has met with favor and respect since the 1960s. Contemporary Authors stated, "His books have been enthusiastically accepted by Argentine writers who see in Arlt a proponent of anti-literary and anti-establishment writing." Arlt's short stories, novels, journalism, and plays have been joined and printed in collections by influential publishing houses. In 1984, The Seven Madmen was translated to English.
Arlt's dream was to become distinguished as an inventor, but he continuously met with failure. He formed the ARNA society, an inventing business with Pascual Naccaratti and installed a small chemistry laboratory in Lanús, Argentina. Arlt secured a patent for reinforced rubber, but it failed commercially.
Arlt married Carmen Antinucci in 1923 and they had a daughter, Mirta, that same year. Antinucci secretly suffered from tuberculosis when she married Arlt, and he never quite forgave her for not telling him. The couple stayed in Córdoba because of her health and she died in 1929. Arlt married Elizabeth Shine in 1939. She gave birth to a child soon after his death. Arlt died of a heart attack on July 26, 1942, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Contemporary Authors, The Gale Group, 2000.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, The Gale Group, 1996.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press, 1993.
"Author," http://cervantesvirtual.com/bib_author/Arlt/ (February 10, 2003).
" El Poder de la Palabra, " http://www.epdlp.com/arlt.html (February 10, 2003).
"Roberto Arlt," http://www.jbeilharz.de/autores/arlt.html (February 10, 2003).
"Roberto Godofredo Christophersen Arlt," http://www.literatura.org/index.html (February 10, 2003).