Argentinian Narrative 101: The Creation of the Perfect Enemy
Modern narrative is associated with two genres: the short story and the novel. In Argentina, in the first half of the 19th century, there was no narrative, except for a few isolated cases. This late appearance of short stories and novels indicates that the most appropriate way of thinking about Argentinian narrative is outside the genres traditionally associated with it. It could even be affirmed that the best examples of the art of narration in the first Argentine literature are not limited to the short story and the novel, but instead has many other forms. Likewise, the biography, the essay, the political pamphlet, the chronicle, the causerie, the letter, the testimony, and other forms of prose writing coexist with the short story and the novel to give consistency to the narrative, in its proliferating diversity.
These 101 series propose a journey through Argentinian narrative taking into account this formal and generic variety, and working with it, from the founding moment to the present.
The Argentinian Narrative 101 series is divided into five parts:
Argentinian Narrative 101: The Creation of The Perfect Enemy
Argentinian Narrative 101: The Voice of The Gaucho
Argentinian Narrative 101: Gothic And Horror
Argentinian Narrative 101: Horror Meets Police
Argentinian Narrative 101: Violence and Gender Dissidence
The first narrative author in Argentina was called Esteban Echeverría. He wrote El Matadero (translated as The Slaughterhouse) and manages to position Argentinian literature in a way that had not been seen before in the country. It moved away from the romantic customs to approach a fictitious narrative. The issues that were dealt with through his literature were accompanied by the political framework of social discontent, violence, forces of state and religious power as well as class differences. Therefore it is also important to take into account the accompanying political context. His book was written in 1831 and published forty years later, laying the foundations for what would later be known as pure realism. Echeverría took concepts from fiction to create this story, but he positioned it in the dictatorial context that accompanied Argentina.
Brigadier General Don Juan Manuel de Rosas. Carlos Enrique Pellegrini. 1833.
To understand where the narrative in Argentina was born, it is necessary first to know a few things about the history of the country. The governor of that time, 1835, was Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was positioned as the major commander of the federal government forces. His dictatorship was brutal and ended in the year 1852, when his troops were defeated. It is important, then, to understand a little about the unitarians and the federals, the political sides where the population was divided. After Argentina gained its independence, the division between the unitarians and the federals was made. They fought for a way to command the politics of the country. In the book Unitarians and federals, political control and construction of identities in Buenos Aires during the first government of Rosas, the author Jorge Gelman explains the differences between these two political parties:
For the Unitarians, the provinces (what in the United States are known as states, for example) were considered simple internal territorial divisions with little autonomy, because the nation had to predominate over them. Unitarianism arises from independence centralism and what they were looking for was free trade and free navigation of European ships. In principle, it allied with Great Britain and followed Napoleonic France as an example. Supporters of the elite of Buenos Aires, the Argentine metropolis, and some capital cities of the province supported the Unitarians.
The Federals formed the Union of Free Peoples, taking the United States Constitution as an example. They opposed the domination of the central power and the elites of Buenos Aires that restricted the independence of the provinces. They intended to form a republican and federal country, because, taking into account the extension of the territory, as well as the economy and regional politics, they affirmed that this model was better adapted to national characteristics. The thinking of the federals was traditionalist, they defended the customs of the regions (Gelman, 2004, p. 31).
Unitarians and Federals. Unknown. 2018.
Esteban Echeverría was one of the first recognized writers in Argentine history, not only for the quality of his works, but also for his political and social commitment. He combined his work as a poet and writer with active political participation, he wanted to work with Governor Rosas but the little interest shown by him led to the creation of a movement called antirosismo (Anti-Rosas).
El Matadero is part of this Anti-Rosas context. It is a work written, possibly, between 1838 and 1840, during Echeverría's exile in Uruguay; but it was only published in 1871, twenty years after the death of its author. The book is about a slaughterhouse that had no cows due to the Lent, a 40 days fast of meat, traditionally done by the catholics, which led to the hunger of the town. It is part of a society defeated by the Government and by the Church, where there is a shortage of basic needs such as food and a constant increase in violence. A passage from the book that explains this is:
“What a strange thing that there are privileged stomachs and stomachs subject to inviolable laws, and that the Church has the key to the stomachs! [...] Perhaps the day will come when it will be forbidden to breathe in the open air, walk around and even talk with a friend, without permission from the competent authority” (Echeverría, 1871, p. 4).
Slaughterhouse in the states of Plata. Jean Desire Dulin. 1890.
This book was probably not published at the time of its production due to the danger it posed due to the persecution of federal opponents installed by Rosas; but also because it did not conform to the literary standards of the time. Ricardo Piglia in Echeverría and The Place of Fiction in The Argentina in Pieces' points out that "Echeverría did not publish it (...) because it was fiction and fiction had no place in Argentine literature (...) fiction appeared antagonistic to a political use of literature" (Piglia, 1993, p.4).
Likewise, beyond the fact that El Matadero had come to light so many years later, critics agree that it is the most relevant work of the period and that it marks the beginning of modern Argentinian narrative. It is a story whose originality lies in the fact that it falls within the romantic aesthetics of the moment but, at the same time, presents a realistic imprint that makes it go beyond those parameters.
In El Matadero, the federals are the subordinate classes who are defenders and fanatics of Rosas. The book can be defined as a story of customs, since Echeverría managed to present the characters and describe the customs of that marginal class and that is where that originality resides that allows this story to be the beginning of the narrative in the country.
That realism is presented in the description of the characters in the dialogues of the rather illiterate language of the federals, and the academic one of the unitarians. This is where Echeverría creates his perfect enemy: the federals. It is the crudeness with each scene of violence is described that had no place in the literature up to that time. It is the first time that the image of a hero and an anti-hero is seen. From the beginning of the story, the existence of two irreconcilable worlds is raised: that of the Unitarians and that of the Federals. This idea will deepen and will reach its climax with the arrival of the young unitarian at the slaughterhouse. From that moment on, the low, the barbaric, the subaltern culture is associated with the world of the federals that is visibly opposed to the high, to the civilized, to the superior culture to which the unitary belongs. This game between opposites serves, then, to highlight the differences, that is, the distances that exist between these two worlds.
El Matadero. Adolfo Belocq. 1992.
This dichotomy can be seen in the language of the characters: on one hand, the cultured language, and on the other, the popular one. In this regard, Martín Kohan in The Compasses of The Lost: For a Comprehensive Reading of Esteban Echeverría points out that these two opposing worlds "do not touch, and if they touch they do not communicate and if they communicate they do not understand each other" (Kohan, 2006, p. 188). The language used by the unitary is so elevated and respectable that it seems like a foreign language and is opposed to the popular language, marked by brutality and violence, which is presented directly in the work, in all its crudeness, without enrichment on the part of the writer.
El Matadero can be defined as a history of violence: the violence that causes hunger, the violence that unleashes the slaughterhouse, the violence represented in the insensitivity of the people, the violence of mockery and humiliation in front of the unitaries, closing the work, with his death.
All these scenes of violence and brutality take place in a single day and in a single place: the slaughterhouse. And in this environment, in which men and animals coexist daily, human beings end up behaving as such, they end up “animalizing themselves”. The big difference between these two divided worlds is that the federals go beyond the limit, they go from verbal violence to physical violence and although they do not directly kill the unitarian, he ends up dying of rage. Cristina Iglesias points out in The Victims of Culture in El Matadero de Echeverría and its Rewritings that “El Matadero is a story about the violence of bodies that bets on producing with words the effect of violating the reader, in the same way that actions violate the unitary hero ” (Churches, 2004, p. 24).
El Matadero. Adolfo Belocq. 1992.
This scene that ends the story is a consequence of not knowing the limits of the city, of entering its shores and ending up in the enemy territory. This is what happens with the unitarian, that "other" from the popular perspective, who arrives there somewhat distracted and ends up unleashing the fury of the people.
El Matadero is considered by critics of the 20th century as a founding work, as a story that marks the beginning of modern Argentinian narrative. This is due to the fact that it is a fiction that, although it is part of the first period of Argentine romanticism, manages to get out of those parameters by incorporating realistic features, a true novelty for the time.
Esteban Echeverría makes a social and political complaint in this text. From a tone that is sometimes ironic and other times serious and full of drama, he manages to describe the world of that “other”, manages to give it a voice and contrast it with that other cultured world to which, in fact, he belongs. All the situations of violence described and narrated during the work serve as an introduction and contextualization to that last passage in which violence reaches its maximum expression: the unitary dies of rage.
Echeverría, E. (1871). El Matadero. Argentina. Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/file/d/154BfgXrGRzWzFhZYCvOfRMhvu-biXogq/view
Gelman, J. (2004). Unitarios y Federales, Control Político y Construcción de Identidades en Buenos Aires Durante el Primer Gobierno de Rosas. Argentina. Retrieved from http://anuarioiehs.unicen.edu.ar/Files/2004/Unitarios%20y%20federales.%20Control%20pol%C3%ADtico%20y%20construcci%C3%B3n%20de%20identidades%20en%20Buenos%20Aires%20durante%20el%20primer%20gobierno%20de%20Rosas.pdf
Iglesias, C. (2004). Letras y Divisas: Ensayo Sobre Literatura y Rosismo. Buenos Aires. Santiago Arcos Editor.
Kohan, M. (2006). Las Brújulas del Extraviado: Para una Lectura Integral de Esteban Echeverría. Rosario. Beatriz Viterbo Editor.
Piglia, R. (1993). Echeverría y el Lugar de la Ficción: La Argentina en Pedazos. Buenos Aires. La Urraca Editions.
Belocq, A. (1992). El Matadero. [Engraved]. Retrieved from: https://ilustracionargentina.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/015.jpg
Belocq, A. (1992). El Matadero. [Engraved]. Retrieved from: https://ilustracionargentina.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/020.jpg
Dulin, J.D (1890). El Matadero en los Estados del Plata. [Engraved]. Retrieved from: https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/esteban_echeverria/imagen_matadero/imagen/imagen_el_matadero_grabado_matadero_dulin/
Pellegrini, C.E. (1833). Brigadier General Don Juan Manuel de Rosas. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://www.bellasartes.gob.ar/coleccion/obra/5254/
Unknown. (2018). Unitarians and Federals. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://proyungas.org.ar/unitarios-y-federales-dicotomia-historica-y-ambiental/