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 their next leap.
The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt is a modern Argentinian classic from 1929, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, that tells the story of a disturbed, petty thief called Remo Erdosain, who is fired from his job at the Sugar Company for embezzlement, and, seduced by the ideas of a charismatic political ideologue called The Astrologer, gets involved in a plan to murder his wife’s cousin, Barsut, for money in order to set up a secret society and overthrow the Government. At the same time, Erdosain is also preoccupied with the struggle to determine the dimensions of his soul and find meaning in his life that leads him to roam the streets of Buenos Aires in a constant state of anguish.
“What am I doing with my life?” he would ask himself, trying with that question to shed light on the origins of this anxiety which led him to long for an existence where the next day would not be merely time measured out in a repetition of today, but something different and totally unexpected, like in the plots of North American films, where yesterday’s tramp suddenly becomes today’s secret society boss, and the gold-digging secretary turns out to be a multimillionairess in disguise.
In essence, the book examines the feelings of the dispossessed working-class inhabitants of Buenos Aires against the background of a rapidly changing Argentina. However, it also soon becomes apparent that The Astrologer and his co-conspirators are all disturbed individuals that dream of seizing control of the country in order to exact some kind of revenge for the neglect, humiliation and cruelty that they have been forced to endure all their lives.
Arlt’s vision of Buenos Aires in The Seven Madmen is depressing, and yet also surprisingly hopeful. His characters are thieves, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and, as the title would suggest, madmen, who struggle with poverty, violence, desperation, anxiety, isolation and various delusions. The main character, Remo Erdosain, is a lonely and repressed man, who has been constantly brought down and humiliated by society, and, as a result, he has an overwhelming desire to escape reality and to bring down this society that has pushed him to the margins.
It some ways The Seven Madmen reminded me of some of the Russian classics that I’ve read, so I wasn’t surprised to find out that Arlt was inspired by Dostoevsky’s work. Erdosain’s desire to get back at society and his inner turmoil over the planned murder of Barsut immediately brought to mind Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.
“[…] it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil which affirms man’s presence on earth. I would be the Erdosain who was predicted and feared, defined by the penal code; among the thousands of anonymous Erdosains who infect this world, I would be the other, authentic Erdosain, the one who is and always will be.”
One of the most fascinating characters of the novel is The Astrologer, a cult-like leader, who gives long political and philosophical speeches condemning society and trying to incite a revolution, however, as you read on, it becomes increasingly clear that his speeches resemble the ravings of a madman, and he doesn’t even care which ideology they will use as the basis for their new society.
“I don’t know if our society would be bolshevik or fascist. Sometimes I think the best thing would be to concoct such an unholy mixture that not even God could untangle it. I’m being completely frank with you now. For the moment, what I’m aiming for is a huge undefined mass which could accommodate every possible human aspiration. My plan is to target young bolsheviks, students and intelligent proletarians. We will also welcome all those who have some grandiose scheme for reshaping the universe, all those clerks who dream of becoming millionaires, all the failed inventors – don’t take that personally, Erdosain – all those who have lost their job, whatever it might have been, those who are being taken to court and have no idea where to turn …”
What’s even more interesting is that his co-conspirators seem to be fully aware that their leader is a delusional madman, but they go along with his plan anyway out of sheer boredom and a lack of meaning in their lives.
“(…) d’you think the Astrologer’s scheme will work?” “No.” “Does he know that?” “Yes.” “So why do you go along with him?” “I only go along with him up to a certain point, and then simply because I’m so bored with everything. Life has no meaning, so why not follow whichever way the wind blows?” “So life has no meaning for you?” “Absolutely none. We’re born, we live, we die, but that doesn’t stop the stars spinning round or ants getting on with their work.”
Overall, I think the enjoyment of this book somewhat depends on the reader’s interpretation. Some of the dialogue and certain plot points could be equally described as melodramatic and cliché or ironic and clever, but I think that this ambiguity actually fits well with the mad vision of Buenos Aires portrayed in this novel. The book could also be criticised for its general lack of focus and messy narrative, however, for me, the unusual assortment of characters and their interesting voices made up for the novel’s stylistic imperfections.
The Seven Madmen definitely deserves more recognition and it makes me sad that the sequel (The Flamethrowers), which is often referenced in this book and follows the same characters, is not yet available in English.