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“Roberto Arlt is the greatest Argentine writer of the twentieth century.”—Ricardo Piglia, author of The Absent City and Artificial Respiration
“With a novel such as Mad Toy, brimming with fantasy and romance, yet pulling the rug out from under the protagonist—and the reader—at every turn, it seems clear that Arlt’s purpose is not just to tell a good story. Along the way, he also illustrates the uses of fantasy and humor. Fantasy, transforming the sordid into the beautiful, makes life seem sweeter; humor, exposing the illusions of fantasy, makes wisdom tolerable.”—from the Introduction
At the age of fourteen I was initiated into the thrilling literature of outlaws and bandits by an old Andalusian cobbler whose shoe repair shop stood next to a green-and-white-fronted hardware store in the entryway of an ancient house on Rivadavia Street between the corners of South America and Bolivia.
The colorful title pages of serial novels featuring the adventures of Montbars the Pirate and Wenongo the Mohican decorated the front of that hole-in-the-wall shop. The minute school let out, we boys would head over to admire the prints that hung there in the doorway, faded by the sun.
Sometimes we would venture in to buy half a pack of Barrilete cigarettes, and the man would reluctantly leave his stool to make the sale, grumbling the whole time.
He was stoop-shouldered, gaunt, and bushy-faced, and to top it off, a bit lame, a strange lameness: his foot was round like the hoof of a mule with its heel turned outward.
Every time I saw him, I remembered a proverb my mother liked to repeat: "Beware of those who are marked by God."
The words would begin to flow when he saw me, and while he held a battered half-boot amid the jumble of lasts and scrolls of leather, he would teach me the sour song of failure, sharing the lore of Spain's most famous bandits, or singing the praises of an extravagant customer who tipped him twenty centavos for polishinghis shoes.
Hanging on greedily to the memory, he would grin obscenely, not hard enough to push his cheeks up, but enough to pucker one lip over his tar-black teeth.
The old buzzard took a liking to me, and for some five centavos would let me borrow the cheap serial novels he had acquired via lengthy subscriptions.
Handing me the life story of Diego Corrientes, he would comment in his thick Andalusian accent:
"Thiz kid ... Whadda kid! ... Sweeter'n a rroze, and the mountain guards, they got 'im...."
The cobbler's voice would tremble and grow hoarse:
"Sweeter'n a rroze ... If 'e didn' have awful luck...."
Then he would begin again: "Imagine it, son ... He gave to the poor what 'e took from the rich, he had women on every ranch.... If 'e wuzn't sweeter'n a rroze ..."
There, in that cramped, roof-bound place reeking of glue and leather, his voice triggered a dream of mountains, newly green. Gypsies danced in the gorges.... A whole landscape of voluptuous peaks filled my eyes as he spoke.
"Sweeter'n a rroze ...," and the cripple would vent his sadness with hammer blows to the sole supported on his knees by an iron slab.
Then, shrugging his shoulders as if to shake off an unwelcome thought, he would spit into a corner, sharpening his awl on the stone with quick movements.
After a while he would add with an air of self-importance:
"The sweetest part comes when you reach Dona Inezita and the tavern of Uncle Pezuna, you'll see." And noticing that I was going off with the book, he would raise his voice in warning:
"Careful, son, it costs money." Then turning once more to his chores, he would drop his head, covered to the ears by a mouse-colored cap, poke around in a box with glue-begrimed fingers, and filling his mouth with nails, continue the toc ... toc ... toc ... toc of his hammering.
In numerous installments, I devoured the tales of Jose Maria, Thunderbolt of Andalucia, or the adventures of Don Jaime Longbeard and other picturesque and plausibly authentic rogues featured in the colored prints: ruddy-faced horsemen with black muttonchops, a rainbow-colored cordovan hat covering their little ponytails, and a wide-mouthed blunderbuss lodged in the saddle of their superbly decked-out colts. Usually they were holding out a yellow sack of money, magnanimously offering it to a widow who would be standing at the foot of a green knoll with a baby in her arms.
Then ... I would dream of being a bandit who strangled lustful magistrates; I would right wrongs, protect widows, and be loved by fair maidens....
My comrade-in-arms for the adventures of this first phase was Enrique Irzubeta.
This ne'er-do-well went by the edifying nickname of the Counterfeiter-a great example for beginners in how to establish a reputation and get a head start in the worthy art of gulling the innocent.
The fact that Enrique was only fourteen when he conned the owner of a candy factory is clear evidence that my friend's destiny had already been decided. But the gods are tricky by nature, and it doesn't surprise me a bit to learn as I write my memoirs that Enrique is now a guest in one of those state-run "hotels" for rogues and upstarts.
This is the true story:
A certain factory owner had announced a contest in order to stimulate sales, with prizes going to those who collected a complete set of flags from inside the candy wrappers.
The difficulty lay in finding the flag of Nicaragua, which was relatively scarce.
These absurd contests are, of course, exciting to young boys, who tally the results of their patient research in daily huddles.
Thus Enrique promised his buddies in the neighborhood-some apprentices in a carpenter's shop and the milkman's sons-that he would forge the Nicaraguan flag if someone would bring him a model.
In light of Irzubeta's reputation, response was cautious, but Enrique generously offered hostages-two volumes of M. Guizot's History of France-to guarantee his probity.
And so the bargain was struck there on the street, a dead-end street with green-painted streetlamps at the corners, and long brick walls, and an occasional house. The blue curve of the sky stretched out over thatched fences in the distance, and the monotonous sound of endless sawing, or of cows bellowing in the dairy, only made the little street seem sadder.
Later I learned that Enrique, using India ink and blood, had reproduced the Nicaraguan flag so skillfully that no one could tell the original from the copy.
Days later Irzubeta was sporting a brand-new air gun, which he then sold to a used-clothing salesman on Reconquista Street. This happened in the days when fearless Bonnot and the ever-valiant Valet were terrorizing Paris.
I had already read the forty-some-odd volumes written by Viscount Ponson du Terrail about the admirable Rocambole, adopted son of Mother Fipart, and I dreamed of becoming a bandit of the old school.
Well, one summer day, in the sordid neighborhood grocery store, I finally met Irzubeta.
The hot siesta hour weighed on the streets, and I was sitting on a cask of gaucho tea talking to Hipolito, who took advantage of his father's naps to build bamboo airplanes. Hipolito wanted to be a pilot, but first, he said, he needed to solve the problem of "spontaneous stability." Sometimes he would be wrestling with the thorny question of perpetual motion, and we would mull over possible solutions together.
With his elbows propped on pork-stained newspapers laid out between the cheese bin and the red poles of the cashier's box, Hipolito would be all ears as he listened to my ideas.
"Clock parts make lousy propellers. Use a little 'lectric motor and put some dry cells in the fuselage."
"Like submarines ..."
"What submarines? The only danger is the current could burn up your motor, but the plane'll fly smoother, and it'll be a while 'fore the batteries conk out."
"Hey, what if we hooked up the motor to a wireless telegraph? You should study that invention. Wouldn't it be sweet?"
At that moment Enrique came in.
"Che, Hipolito, Mama says can you spare half a kilo of sugar, pay you later."
"I can't; my old man told me till your bill is paid ..."
Enrique frowned ever so slightly. "I'm surprised at you, Hipolito!"
Hipolito continued in soothing tones, "I wouldn't have any problem, you know that.... It's my old man." And pointing at me, happy to change the subject, he said to Enrique, "Say, you don't know Silvio, do you? He's the one who made the cannon."
Irzubeta's face lit up with respect. "So that was you, huh? Nice work. The boy who cleans the pens at the dairy told me it fired like a Krupp."
While he was talking, I observed him.
He was tall and lean. Shiny black hair curled nobly over his round, bulging forehead, which was covered with freckles. He had eyes the color of tobacco, a bit slanted, and he wore a frayed brown suit altered to fit his body by hands that were not made for tailoring.
He leaned on the edge of the counter, resting his chin on his hand. He seemed to be thinking.
A resounding adventure was that of my cannon, and happy am I to recall it.
From some workers at the light and power plant I bought an iron tube and several pounds of lead to build what I called a culverin or "bombard." I proceeded as follows:
I inserted the iron tube in a hexagonal wooden mold lined with mud. The space between the two inner faces was filled with molten lead. After breaking the outside covering, I smoothed the base with a thick file, fastening the cannon by means of tin braces to a gun carriage made from the thickest boards of a kerosene keg.
My culverin was beautiful. I would load it with two-inch-wide projectiles in burlap bags filled with powder.
Caressing my small monster, I would think to myself, This cannon can kill, this cannon can destroy, and the conviction of having created an obedient and mortal danger drove me wild with joy.
The neighborhood boys examined it with astonishment and saw it as a sign of my intellectual superiority. After that, on our expeditions to steal fruit or seek buried treasure in the no-man's-land that lay beyond the Maldonado Stream in San Jose de Flores, I was in charge.
The day we fired the cannon was glorious. We did the test shot in a clump of retama bushes in a huge empty lot on Avellaneda Street just before you get to San Eduardo. A circle of boys surrounded me while I, faking excitement, loaded the mouth of the culverin. Then, to measure its ballistic power, we aimed it at the zinc water tank attached to the wall of a nearby carpentry shop.
Gripped by emotion, I lit the fuse; a small shadowy flame leapfrogged in the sun, and suddenly a terrible explosion enveloped us in a nauseating cloud of white smoke. For a brief moment we were overcome with wonder: it seemed to us in that instant that we had discovered a new continent, or had been turned into owners of the earth by some strange magic.
All at once someone yelled, "Beat it! The cops!"
There was no time to make a dignified exit. Two policemen, running as fast as they could, were advancing toward us. We hesitated ... and suddenly, making prodigious leaps, we fled, abandoning the "bombard" to the enemy.
Enrique ended the conversation by telling me, "Che, if you need some scientific data, I have a collection of magazines at home called Around the World that I can let you borrow."
From that day to the night of the great danger, our friendship was like that of Orestes and Pylades.
* * *
What a new, picturesque world I discovered at the Irzubetas'!
Unforgettable people! Three males and two females, and the house run by the mother, a salt-and-pepper-colored woman with little fish eyes and a large inquisitive nose, and the grandmother, deaf, bent, and sooty as a charred tree.
With the exception of one absent person, the local police officer, everyone in that small, quiet cave idled in sweet vagrancy, passing in lazy leisure from the novels of Dumas to the comforting sleep of their siestas and the friendly gossip of afternoons.
The house was dark and dank, with a crummy little garden outside the living room. The sunlight only managed to filter through in the morning to a wide patio covered with greenish tiles.
The family's worries would start at the beginning of the month. Then they were busy arguing with creditors, outwitting the "Spanish scum," calming the irate plebes who shouted tactlessly at their front door just because they hadn't paid for goods naively handed over on credit.
The landlord of this cave was a fat Alsatian named Grenuillet. Rheumatic, seventyish, and neurasthenic, he had tried in vain to have the Irzubetas evicted, but they were related to venerable judges and other old-guard members of the conservative party, and hence could not be budged. These good-for-nothing tenants, knowing the landlord's son worked at the Casino, even had the breathtaking gall to send Enrique around for free tickets.
In the end the Alsatian got used to being paid by the Irzubetas whenever it suited them and resigned himself to await a change in politics.
Ah! And what delicious remarks, what Christian reflections could be heard from the congregation of fishwives who would meet in the local butcher shop to pass judgment on their neighbors.
The mother of a hideous girl, talking about one of the Irzubeta boys who had exposed himself to this damsel in a fit of lust, would say to another woman: "Listen to me, Senora, if I ever get my hands on him, he'll be wishing a train had hit him first."
Hipolito's mother, a fat woman with an extremely white face, and always expecting, would say as she took the butcher by the arm, "Take my advice, Don Segundo, don't let them buy on credit, even for laughs. I can't begin to tell you how deep they're into us."
"Don't worry, don't worry," the burly man would growl, brandishing a huge knife as he lanced his way around a lung.
Ah! And were they ever jolly, those Irzubetas. If you don't think so, tell the baker who had the nerve to complain about how behind they were in their payments.
It was his bad luck to be wrangling with one of the daughters at the door when the police inspector happened by and overheard.
This officer, accustomed to resolve all disputes with his boot, and annoyed that the baker was trying to collect what was owed him, tossed him out on his ear. The lesson in manners was not lost, and many preferred not to collect. In short, the life of that family was more full of laughs than a vaudeville farce.
The young ladies, past twenty-six and without a boyfriend in sight, amused themselves with Chateaubriand and languished in the company of Lamartine and Cheburliez. This led them to believe they were part of an intellectual elite, and consequently they referred to poor people as "riffraff."
"Riffraff" they called the grocer who dared to demand payment for his beans; "riffraff" the shopkeeper from whom they had filched a few meters of lace edging; "riffraff," the butcher who raised Cain when he heard them mumble through closed shutters, "We'll pay you next month for sure."
The three brothers, hairy and thin, glorious bums, took frequent sunbaths during the day, and when the sun went down, suited up and went off to conquer hearts among the loose women at the edge of town.
The two old ladies, saintly and surly, would carp incessantly over trifles, or seated in a circle with the daughters in the ancient parlor, would peer through the curtains as they wove their gossip; and since they were descended from an officer who supposedly served in the army of Napoleon, many times in the half-light that idealized their bloodless faces I listened to them spinning imperialist myths, evoking the musty splendors of nobility, while on the solitary sidewalk the lamplighter, his pole crowned by a violet flame, would light the green gas lantern.
As they could not afford a maid, and as no maid would in any case have been able to put up with the roguish vigor of the three hairy fauns and the bad humor of the peevish demoiselles and the whims of the toothy hags, Enrique became the errand boy on whom their crippled economic machine depended. So accustomed was he to ask for things on credit that his shamelessness in that regard was unparalleled: a bronze statue was more likely to blush than his fine face.
To while away the long hours of leisure, Irzubeta would make sketches, his talent and sensitivity only proving once again that there have always been rogues with artistic flair. I went there often, having nothing else to do, and if the worthy old women didn't like it, that was their hard luck.
From this friendship, from our long conversations about thieves and banditry, Enrique and I developed a singular urge to follow in the footsteps of Barabbas and to court immortality as notorious criminals.
Excerpted from Mad toy by Roberto Arlt Excerpted by permission.
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|A Note on the Translation||9|
|Arlt's Dedication to Ricardo Guiraldes||19|
|1||The Band of Thieves||21|
|2||Works and Days||55|
|Appendix. The Neighborhood Poet||153|
Posted July 19, 2010
No text was provided for this review.