The Astrologer lived in a building set in the middle of some wooded acreage. The house was built low and its red roof was visible a long way off through the foliage. In the clearings in the greenery, among tangled grasses and creepers, black-bottomed insects zoomed around all day through a perpetual mist of weeds and stray stalks. Not far from the house, a millwheel limped along on three paddles around a triangular, rusted iron axis, and ahead a bit, over the stables, hung the blue and red panes of some half-destroyed glass paneling. Behind the mill and the house, past the walls, a green mountain range of eucalyptus verged off into blackness, sending crests like mountain peaks into the sea-blue sky.
Sucking on a honeysuckle, Erdosain walked across the acres to the house. He felt as though he were in the country, very far from the city, and it cheered him to see the house. Although low, it was two-storied, with a decrepit balcony on the second floor and a peeling row of Greek columns at the entrance, marking the end of an unkempt path edged with palm trees.
The red roof tiles slanted downward, their eaves sheltering the transoms and tiny attic windows, and through the luxuriant greenery of the chestnut trees, over the tops of the pomegranate trees spangled with scarlet asterisks, a zinc rooster stood waving its twisted tail in the shifting wind. All around him the garden burst out in wild profusion, as if trying to become a minor forest, and now, in the still afternoon, in the sun that gave the air a nacreous shimmer, the rosebushes poured out their potent
perfume, so piercing that it seemed to fill everything with an atmosphere red and fresh and like a river torrent of water.
“Even if I had a silver boat with golden sails and marble oars, and the ocean were to turn seven splendid colors, and a millionairess were blowing me kisses from the moon, I would still be unhappy…But what’s all this rot? It’s still better to live out here than back there. Here, I could set up a lab.”
A faucet dripped into a barrel. A dog dozed by an old-fashioned gazebo, and when Erdosain called from the foot of the stairs, the gigantic figure of the Astrologer loomed in the door, wrapped in a yellow smock with his hat pulled down over his eyes, shadowing his wide rhomboidal face. Stray wisps of hair wandered across his temples, and his nose, which had been broken at midpoint, skewed remarkably far to the left. Under his beetle brows round pupils darted, and that hard-cheeked face, with furrows grooved deep into its surface, seemed sculpted in lead. How that head must have weighed on its bearer!
“Ah! So it’s you? Come on in. I want you to meet the Melancholy Ruffian.”
Crossing the dark, dank-smelling vestibule, they entered a study with faded greenish wallpaper twisting across the walls. It was, in all truth, a sinister room, its high ceiling furrowed with cobwebs and the narrow window fortified with a gnarled iron grille. When the bluish light fell on the lock of an antique chest, it fragmented into slivers of half-light. Sitting in an armchair covered in worn green velvet was a man in gray, with a jet black shock of wavy hair across his forehead and wearing light-colored spats. The Astrologer’s yellow smock billowed out as he went up to the stranger.
“Erdosain, this is Arturo Haffner.” On another occasion, the embezzler would have said something to the man whom the Astrologer privately called the Melancholy Ruffian, who, after shaking Erdosain’s hand, crossed his legs in the armchair and leaned one bluish cheek on three shiny-nailed fingers. And Erdosain looked again at that nearly round face, with its peaceful slackness, where nothing bespoke the man of action except a mocking, skittery spark in the depths of the eyes and a trick of raising one eyebrow higher than the other while listening to conversation. Erdosain made out on one side, between the jacket and the silk shirt the Ruffian had on, the black butt of a revolver. Undoubtedly, in life, faces mean very little.
Then the Ruffian looked toward a map of the United States, which the Astrologer was facing with a pointer in hand. Standing with his yellow arm across the Caribbean’s sea blue, he exclaimed:
“The Ku Klux Klan had only one hundred fifty thousand followers in Chicago…In Missouri, one hundred thousand followers. They say that in Arkansas there are over two hundred ‘caverns.’ In Little Rock, the Invisible Empire affirms that all the Protestant pastors are part of the Klan. In Texas it holds absolute sway over the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Beaumont. In Binghamton, home of Smith, who was Grand Dragon of the Order, there were seven thousand five hundred initiates, and in Oklahoma they got the legislature to remove Walton, the governor, for trying to stamp them out, so in fact the state was under Klan rule until lately.”
The Astrologer’s yellow smock seemed to be the robe of some Buddhist monk. The Astrologer continued: “Do you know they burned several men alive?”
“Yes,” said the Ruffian. “I read the telegrams.”
Erdosain now began to take a good look at the Melancholy Ruffian. The Astrologer called him that because many years ago the pimp had tried to kill himself. That was a mysterious affair. Overnight, and after years of exploiting prostitutes, Haffner shot a bullet into his chest, right next to his heart. Only the contraction of the organ at the precise moment of the bullet’s entry saved him. Later, he went on with his life just as always, only maybe with a little added glamor from this gesture which made no sense to any of his fellow vultures. The Astrologer went on:
“The Ku Klux Klan collected millions—”
In a fit of despair the Ruffian cut in:
“Yes, and their Dragon—and a dragon is the right word for him!—gets hauled into court for theft.” The Astrologer ignored this outburst. “What in Argentina prevents the formation of a secret sect that could grow just as strong as that one did there? And I’ll speak frankly now. I don’t know if our group will be Bolshevik or Fascist. Sometimes I think the best thing would be to invent some tutti-frutti that would leave everyone guessing. See, I’m being as open about all this as anybody could ask. What I mean to do is make a big something to be the ultimate focus of human yearnings. My plan is to appeal especially to young Bolsheviks, students, and intelligent proletarians. Besides them, we’ll appeal to all the world reformers, clerks who fantasize being millionaires, frustrated inventors—not you, of course, Erdosain—plus anyone who’s been laid off or else had some run-in with the law, people who’re out on the street not knowing where to turn—”
Erdosain remembered what had brought him to the Astrologer’s house, and said: “I have to talk to you—”
“Just a moment…I’ll be with you,” and he resumed his pitch. “The power of our group will come not from member contributions, but from brothels each cell will set up for funding. When I talk about a secret society, I don’t mean the classic setup but some supermodern version, where each member and initiate has an interest and shares earnings, since that’s the only way to really get them involved in the projects which only a few will be very informed about. Anyway, that’s the business side of it. The brothels will fund the growing branches of the society. In the mountains, we’ll build a revolutionary training camp. There, we’ll school new recruits in anarchist tactics, revolutionary propaganda, military hardware, industrial planning, so as soon as they get out of training they can set up a new cell anywhere. Do you see? The secret society will have its training institute, the Revolutionary Institute.”
The clock on the wall struck five. Erdosain saw there was no time to lose, and burst out:
“Forgive my interrupting. I came on serious business. Do you have six hundred pesos?”
The Astrologer put down his pointer and crossed his arms.
“What’s your problem?”
“If I don’t show up with six hundred pesos tomorrow the Sugar Company will send me to jail.”
Both men stared at Erdosain. He had to be in great distress to go blurting out his plea like that. Erdosain went on:
“You have to help me. Over the past few months, I managed to embezzle six hundred pesos. Somebody turned me in with an anonymous letter. If I don’t bring the money in tomorrow, they’ll send me to jail.”
“And how did you come to steal all that money?”
“It just happened, sort of one day at a time.”
The Astrologer fiddled with his beard in dismay.
“But how did it happen?”
Erdosain had to explain all over again. Whenever the retailers got a shipment of goods, they signed a receipt showing they owed whatever the price was. Erdosain, along with the other clerks in his department, got a bunch of those receipts at the end of the month and had thirty days to collect.
The bills which they said they could not collect on just stayed with them until the retailers paid up. And Erdosain went on:
“Just think, the clerk was so lax about it that he never checked back on the bills we said we couldn’t collect on, so if we did collect and pocketed the money, we could just enter it as a regular bill paid and then cover for it using money from a bill we collected on later. See how the coverup worked?”
Erdosain was the vortex of the triangle formed by the three. The Melancholy Ruffian and the Astrologer exchanged glances from time to time. Haffner flicked the ash from his cigarette and then, with one eyebrow cocked, kept examining Erdosain from head to foot. At last he put a strange question to him:
“Did you get pleasure from stealing?”
“But why are you still wearing those wornout shoes?”
“I didn’t make much money.”
“What about all that money you stole, though?”
“It never occurred to me to buy shoes with that money.”
That was the truth. His initial glee at getting away with spending somebody else’s money soon wore out. One day Erdosain noticed he was full of a restless ache that turned sunny skies soot black in a way that only a wretched soul could perceive.
When he found out he already owed four hundred pesos, the shock plunged him into madness. Then he dashed about in a mad frenzy trying to get the money spent. He bought candy, which he never even liked, lunched on crab, tortoise soup, and frogs in restaurants that charge for the privilege of sitting
among the well-dressed, he drank expensive liquors and wines which were wasted on his untrained taste buds, and still he was without the most necessary items for simple comfort, such as underwear, shoes, neckties…
He started giving money to beggars and big tips to waiters who served him, just to be rid of the last bits of that stolen money he carried in his billfold and that might be taken away from him at any moment.
“So you never thought about new shoes?” insisted Haffner.
“Really, now that you make me think about it, it does seem strange, but to tell the truth I never thought those things could be bought with stolen money.”
“So, what did you spend the money on?”
“I gave two hundred pesos to a family of friends, the Espilas, to buy an accumulator and set up a small galvanoplasties lab, for the production of a copper rose, which is—”
“Yes, I know already—”
“Yes, I told him all about it,” said the Astrologer.
“And the other four hundred?”
“I don’t know…I spent them just in a crazy way…”
“And what’s your plan now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you know anyone to help you out?”
“No, no one. I went to a relative of my wife’s, Barsut, ten days ago. He said he couldn’t…”
“So you go to jail?”
“Well, of course…”
The Astrologer turned to the pimp and said:
“You know I need to have a thousand pesos. That’s for setting up my big projects. So all I can give you, Erdosain, is three hundred pesos. Still, my friend, you sure manage to look after your affairs!”
Suddenly Erdosain forgot all about Haffner and burst out:
“It’s unhappiness. You know what I mean? This fucking unhappiness is what pulls you under—”
“How’s that?” interrupted the Ruffian.
“I said, it’s unhappiness. You steal, you do all these crazy things because you’re unhappy. You walk down the streets under a yellow sun, and it looks like a festering plague sun…. Sure. You have to have been down to know. Walking around with five thousand pesos in your pocket, still you’re miserable. And suddenly a little idea blooms: to steal. That night you can’t sleep for joy. The next day you do your accounts, you’re shaking all over but you make it look really good, and so you have to keep on with it—it’s just like your suicide attempt.”
These words made Haffner sit bolt upright in his armchair and grip his knees with clenched fingers. The Astrologer tried to shush Erdosain. It was no use, for he went on in the same vein:
“Yes, just like your suicide attempt. I’ve often pictured it to myself. You were sick of pimping. If you only knew how much I’ve wanted to meet you! I said to myself: that must be one strange pimp. Of course, out of a thousand men like you who deal in women, there’s one who’s like you. You asked me if I got pleasure from stealing. Now, you tell me if you get pleasure—But, what the hell, I’m not here to give explanations, see? What I need is money, not a lot of talk.”
Erdosain had got up, and now he stood clenching his hat brim in his fists. He glared indignantly at the Astrologer, at his hat blocking the view of Kansas on his map, and at the Ruffian, who stuck his hands between belt and pants. Haffner settled back into the armchair covered in green velvet, propped one cheek on his plump hand and with a smirk he said calmly:
“Sit down, here, friend, I’ll give you that six hundred pesos.”
Erdosain pulled his arms up against his sides. Then, not moving, he stared for a time at the Ruffian. The man insisted, and this time emphasized his words more clearly.
“Relax, sit down. I’ll give you that six hundred pesos. What are real men for?”
Erdosain did not know what to say. He was flooded with the same terrible torrent of sadness that had been unleashed in his soul when the pig-headed office boss told him he could go now. So, life was not so bad, after all.
“Let’s do it like this,” said the Astrologer. “I give him three hundred pesos and you give him the other three hundred.”
“No,” said Haffner. “You need the money. I don’t. I have three women bringing it in.” And, turning to Erdosain, he went on: “So see, now, how things have a way of working out? Things okay now?”
He spoke with a smirking calm, with the unshakable cool of a country man who knows that he knows enough about the natural world to cope with any crisis. And it was only then that Erdosain noticed the overpowering rose scent and the tap dripping into the barrel, plunking clearly outside the half-open door. Outside, the roads meandered away, wavy in the afternoon sun, and birds sitting in the pomegranate trees bent the boughs downward in great sagging clusters of scarlet asterisks.
Again a nasty gleam appeared in the Ruffian’s eyes. Cocking one eyebrow, he waited for Erdosain to light up with joy, but, when that didn’t happen, he said:
“Have you been going on like this for long?”
“Yes, quite a while.”
“Do you remember I once told you, even before you had confided in me, that you couldn’t go on living the way you were?” the Astrologer objected.
“Yes, but I didn’t feel like talking about it. I don’t know… things that really confuse you are the ones you won’t talk about even with people you know you can trust.”
“When will you put the money back?”
“Good, then I’ll write you a check right now. You’ll have to cash it tomorrow.”
Haffner turned to the desk. He pulled out his checkbook and wrote the sum firmly, then signed his name.
Erdosain went through a paralyzed moment of utter suspension, as unthinking as someone who is confronted with a dream landscape that stays in his memory later, so that he would swear that sometimes life really operates with an intelligent fatalism.
“Here you go, pal.”
Erdosain took the check, and without reading it folded it twice and put it in his pocket. It was all over in a minute. It was more absurd than anything in a novel, and yet it was a real live person doing it. And he did not know what to say. Just a minute before he was six hundred pesos and seven cents in debt. Now he was no longer in debt, and this miracle had been worked by a single move on the Ruffian’s part. By all standards of logic it should not even have happened, but it went off without a hitch. He wanted to say something. He peered again into the face of that man lounging in the frayed velvet armchair. Now the revolver stood out visibly under the gray fabric of the suit coat, and Haffner, irritated, propped his bluish cheek on three flashy-nailed fingers. He wanted to thank the Ruffian, but no words came to him. The man understood, and, turning to the Astrologer, who had sat down on a stool by the desk, said:
“So then, your society will be very big on obedience?”
“That and industrialism. We need gold if we want to seize men’s minds. So just as there was mysticism in religion and then again with chivalry and knights-errant, what we need is industrial mysticism. Make man see how beautiful it is to head a great foundry, as beautiful as it used to be to discover a continent. My political man, my student, my right hand in the movement will be someone who sets out to win happiness through industry. He will be a revolutionary equipped to speak on fabric processing as well as the demagnetization of steel. That’s why I was so impressed when I met Erdosain. He thought along these exact same lines. You remember how often we talked about how many ideas we shared. The creation of a proud, beautiful, inexorable man who will harness the multitudes and show them a future based on science. How else can we have a social revolution? The leader of today must be a man who knows everything. We will create this prince of wisdom. The society will undertake the fabrication and dissemination of his myth. A Ford or an Edison has a thousand more chances to touch off a revolution than a politician. Do you think future dictatorships will be the military type? No, sir, the military man is nothing compared to an industrialist. The most he can be is the industrialist’s tool. That’s all. Future dictators will be kings of petroleum, steel, wheat. Through our society, we will set the scene for all this. We will familiarize people with our theories. For that purpose, there has to be a thorough study of propaganda techniques. We need to use students, both male and female. Science must be made to seem glamorous, must be made accessible to everybody… ‘
“I’m going now,” said Erdosain.
He was going to say good-bye to Haffner when the man said:
“Wait a minute, listen.”
The Astrologer and the pimp went out for a moment, then came back in, and as he said his good-byes at the door of the house, Erdosain looked back and saw that giant man with his arms raised in farewell.
Excerpt from The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt (from the chapter titled “The Astrologer”), translation of the text by Naomi Lindstrom © 1984. Published by River Boat Books. St. Paul, MN June 26, 2018
Featured image: La Condition Humaine by Rene Magritte
The Seven Madmen and its sequel The Flamethrowers are really a single novel divided into two parts. The story is of a seminal group of madmen in 1920s Buenos Aires intent on blowing up the world. Arlt is writing about the end of humanity, of what it means to be human, and the central character in this Beckettian tragedy is Remo Erdosain, a man obsessed with technology, who struggles with the idea of killing a single man yet is inevitably (and paradoxically) drawn to the idea that technology itself can bring about the destruction of the human race. The Seven Madmen, the first half of a novel, is the set up. As Arlt’s story continues in The Flamethrowers, the reader soon realizes we have entered the abyss, a place of technological terrors where our very sense of morality is abandoned. In one scene, a jaundiced, fully uniformed (gasmasked!) soldier appears to Erdosain at night and they engage in a rather blasé conversation about gasses that reveals Erdosain’s belief in the efficacy of phosgene as a mass-murdering agent. Their conversation, like the rest of the novel, underscores the horrible truth that the abyss we fear is at the very center of the human soul.
These two novels are considered Arlt’s masterpiece, and Arlt is considered the godfather of Latin American fiction. Every Latin American, from Borges to García Márquez to Vargas Llosa to Bolaño, paid Arlt homage. Juan Carlos Onetti said the following: “If ever anyone from these shores could be called a literary genius, his name was Roberto Arlt. […] I am talking about art and of a great and strange artist. […] I am talking about a writer who understood better than anyone else the city in which he was born. More deeply, perhaps, than those who wrote the immortal tangos. I am talking about a novelist who will be famous in time […] and who, unbelievably, is almost unknown in the world today.
Both The Seven Madmen and The Flamethrowers are available at River Boat Books. The Lindstrom translation of The Seven Madmen was first issued by David R. Godine in 1984 and has been reissued along with the only English translation of The Flamethrowers. Some readers who first encountered Arlt in English in 1984 have waited 35 years to finish reading the story.
Roberto Arlt was born 119 years ago. Author of El juguete rabioso (Mad Toy), Los siete locos (Seven Madmen) and Los lanzallamas (Flamethrowers), Arlt is seen as a huge influence to the “Boom” generation–as well as the current crop of Argentine writers spinning tales about Buenos Aires. Arlt was dark and funny. He is known for his “anguished, half insane” characters. Arlt was a columnist and reporter and often wrote about the mundane to the insane of Argentine life at all angles. In 1935 he spent a year in Spain and North Africa and dreamed of the United States. Yet Arlt would die before he could go, in 1942, by a stroke believed to have been caused by his workload. He was only 42.
Naomi Eva Lindstrom (born November 21, 1950 in Chicago) is an American literary critic and translator who has published books and articles on Latin American narrative and poetry and Jewish writing from Latin America. Dr, Lindstrom is the Co-Director of the Gale Collaborative on Jewish Life in the Americas at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies. In 2012 she was awarded the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award at the University of Texas. She was the general organizer of the International Research Conference of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association held June 9–11, 2013 and co-organizer of the Symposium on Jewish Life in the Americas held November 1–2, 2015, both at the University of Texas. Lindstrom is also a literary translator and has been involved in the effort to make the novels of Roberto Arlt (Argentina, 1900-1942) available in English. Her translation of The Seven Madmen was reissued by River Boat Books in 2018.