The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt
Particularly revered by Julio Cortazar, Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen is a peculiar sort of social commentary. The story opens with the weak-willed Remo Erdosain being accused of stealing 600 pesos from his office at a sugar company. He’s surprised to hear of this sum, as he’s been embezzling money for ages to make ends meet, and he sets out to repay the money to keep his larger thefts under wraps. Because he’s poor, Erdosain needs a loan, so he tries to make his case to a small cast of local associates. This all initially reads like an absurd, episodic amalgamation of Cervantes and the life of a modern-day Argentine salaryman, but the introduction of these potential lenders (who are really the “madmen” of the novel’s title) diverts the story into something more theoretical than might be anticipated.
“The depths of despair [give] way to the wildest hopes,” writes the narrator (a “Commentator” who appears in a few scant footnotes). Erdosain, an amateur tinkerer, would later dream of setting up “an electrical laboratory, where he would dedicate himself to the study of beta-rays, the cordless transmission of energy and electro-magnetic currents,” and dream of his face taking “on the pale sheen of marble, while his flashing wizard’s eyes would seduce every young woman on earth.”
He goes to visit “The Astrologer”, who doesn’t give him money but lends instead his vision for the future: a oddly fascist society of obedience and industry, run by a cadre of elite men and funded by a network of whorehouses and gold mines. The malleable Erdosain is enamored with this vision: “There must be some kind of joy that rises above all our misery, I don’t know, something nobler than our ugly human face, our appalling human truth.” “We have to usher in the realm of falsehood, of magnificent lies. To worship someone. Force a way through this forest of stupidity. But how?”
The answer, of course, lies with The Astrologer, and to move towards his dream they decide they need to kidnap and extort startup capital out of Barsut, a wealthy associate. Complicating things, Erdosain’s new circle of colleagues decides Barsut must be murdered once his pockets are emptied. Ever impressionable, this new fate of becoming a murderer eats away at Erdosain with an erosiveness similar to the despair that plagued him at the start of the novel.
These events are all wickedly silly, but once all the “madmen” are introduced and the Barsut plot is laid out, The Seven Madmen begins to drift from its handful of concrete plot points towards a more metaphysical, theoretical realm. Suddenly, chapters that were once plot-driven vignettes unfold instead as memories or hypothetical futures. Like Erdosain, Arlt’s novel is similarly hijacked by sweeping visions that change the book from a story (about characters and conflict) to something more like a manifesto. Arlt loses the plot, and The Seven Madmen begins to corrode.
Erdosain is stuck in a difficult mental state of feeling overwhelmed with uselessness and despair, but debilitatingly consumed by any attempt to become someone else. He only thinks of killing Barsut and suddenly he’s a murderer, wondering how he became such a man. He’s able to imagine himself as any other kind of person, from murderer to millionaire, but he’s still “filled with an overpowering sadness.” Despite seemingly hopeful moments, he “felt as though his soul had finally become detached for ever from any human emotion. His anguish was that of a man who carries a fearful cage inside him, where prowling, blood-stained tigers yawn among a heap of fish bones, their remorseless eyes poised for the next leap.”
Yet still, “Time slipped through his fingers, clasped together in thought.” As these chapters of inner turmoil and anguish stack up, it becomes increasingly difficult to suss out what Arlt is trying to say. Somewhere in The Seven Madmen there was a social satire, elsewhere a political one, but it feels those themes disappeared a hundred pages before the book’s close. Instead, Arlt lands on an underdeveloped, abstract meditation on identity and achieving individuality by overcoming anguish.
“We’re discoverers who have only a vague idea of the direction we’re heading in,” muses the Astrologer in the novel’s final speech. Arlt slyly punctuates his monologue with another footnote from the Commentator, this one alluding to The Flamethrowers, The Seven Madmen’s second volume, where “the story of the characters in this novel will continue.”